Disturbing Charm


4. 1-4 The Charm Begins To Work

"Bescheidenheit ist eine Zier',
Doch weiter kommt man ohne ihr."

Boche Proverbs.

"No woman can get me to call her pretty," enunciated Captain Ross, "until I've seen her walk."

The fiat, delivered in that ice-ax voice of his, cut through the polyglot murmur of the visitors gathered in the shining bare salon, all mirrors and decorations of artificial iris. The voice continued to hold forth.

"Feet first; then figure. That's how it comes with me. Then hair. Fairrrr hairrr. Must be fair-to-golden. A woman who isn't bland"--this is how he pronounced it, but his hearers assumed it to mean blonde--"a woman who isn't bland is only half a woman to me."

This saying was given out on the evening of the day when the Charm had fallen into the hands of Olwen Howel-Jones.

She was sitting there at the time, on a red plush sofa next to her Uncle, at the edge of the group formed by Mrs. Cartwright (who wore a tawny-golden tea-gown and was knitting a khaki sock), Mr. Awdas, the young flying officer who looked so appropriately like an eagle with his bold features and the head that was so narrow in comparison with his wide, wing-like shoulders, and Captain Ross, the one-armed Staff Captain, who was discoursing to them on the subject of Women, of whom (as he had been known to remark) he was the finest judge in Europe.

Olwen's little jet-black head was buried in the current number of "Femina," which she had picked up from the oval, crimson-covered table in front of her, but she was devouring every word of the homily on Women.

That Captain Ross should notice a girl's feet was glad news; her own feet being not merely tiny, but of a gratifying shapeliness. But her heart seemed to sink suddenly down into the slippers that shod them, when she heard the further "demmannd" that Beauty must be fair-haired. Ah, he would never look at her, then!

She never, apparently, looked at him. For, regarding this one man for whom she would have given her eyes, the artless Welsh maiden had learnt Mrs. Cartwright's art of seeing without seeming to do so.

What she seemed to see were those glazed full-page French fashion-plates.

What she did see were every look and turn of the man at two arms-lengths from her, lounging in the red plush chair with its ornate écru mats. What she saw can be seen by each girl in love; "the Heart-wish Incarnate," a glamorous, radiant creature indeed!

And----What was really there?

Let us borrow the eyes of the others, who were not in Love with this Captain Ross, to describe him.

Young Awdas, the flyer, would have told you, "A top-hole fellow. Bucks rather; but you get used to it. Capital chap."

Professor Howel-Jones might have said, mildly, "He has somewhat definite opinions, even for a man of his youth; but we allow that to those youngsters who have endured more in three years than we in three-score."

Mrs. Cartwright, in writing to her sisters at home descriptions of every one staying at Les Pins, had set down:

"Captain Ross. Special Reserve man. Keen soldier. Came over from Canada to join in '14. Arm lost on the Somme. Shell-shock; and gas--that's why he's here for his chest, which is bad again.

"About 30; looks more. Thick-set, dark. Scarlet tabs suit him. Imagine Charles Hawtrey when young and two stone lighter; imagine a handsome black Tom-cat with a woman's mouth, from which issues a strong accent with the eternal 'Is that so--o--oh?' punctuating its speech; well, there you are. Sometimes he seems entirely Canadian; at other moments the complete Scot with every R burring like a cockchafer on a window-pane.

"Right sleeve tucked into pocket. Amazingly quick and clever at doing everything with left hand; getting notes out of case, managing siphon, lighting cigar.

"Eyes, hard brown, watchful as a robin's (I don't think they see anything, but he hates me).

"Would not be good-looking but for the lower half of his face; that mouth really beautiful, tenderly curved and sensitive, and constantly showing an even row of the milkiest teeth in the world.

"Intensely sure of self (to put it kindly).

"Has the look that one recognizes as the trace of women's eyes and lips upon his face, but nothing that counts up to now, I think."

The man thus unknowingly summed up brought out his cigarette-case with that clever left hand of his and proffered it first to the woman who had summed him up and then to Jack Awdas.

This was the tall blonde flyer, who was sitting beside her; a striking young figure. A woman would have noticed first his eyes and the changeful expressions that darted swift as racing planes across their blueness. One was an eager, anticipatory look. "What have you for me?" it demanded of Life. "Will you be wonderful? Shall I be satisfied?" One was a look of joyous mastery. "Love me," it seemed to say to Fate herself. "Give me and tell me all that I ask, for I am impatient Youth, and must be served." One was a look less often seen; it was the "yonderly" look, the glance of those favoured (or cursed) with a glimpse now and then beyond the kindly curtains of the Flesh and of Everyday.... It seemed to question a surprised "What? I can't quite see.... What?... I heard something...."

Needless to say that the youth himself was entirely ignorant that any of these signals could be read. Generally, he was healthily unconscious that there was anything to be signalled.

To the French people in that hotel he was known as Monsieur de l'Audace.

His observer, his squadron, and several enemy airmen could have told you that he deserved the nickname, but no other decoration had been granted to him. In that last ghastly dive from the clouds he had so nearly lost, too, everything that was his; however, health and strength and full power of limb were returning now, and youth, and sleep o' nights, and careless gaiety. Quite often now his laugh rang out; it was still a trifle husky, as was his boyish, nonchalant voice. (One of his many wounds had been in his throat.) "Go on, Ross," he jeered amicably. "Let's have some more of your priceless pointers on the Sex. What was the one you gave me today going along the sea-wall? Oh, yes; 'Never make love to a woman with a pink chin; she's older than she looks.'"

"Why, that's quite true," put in the deep voice of Mrs. Cartwright, mildly. She crossed one long, gold-draped leg over the other, and threw an amused glance through the cigarette-haze at the finest judge of women in Europe. "D'you mind if I put that into a book, Captain Ross?"

"You'd better not put anything I say into any book you write," the Staff Captain advised her, with a short laugh (while Olwen, head still deep in the journal, drank in every syllable of the assured voice). "Your public wouldn't stand for it, Domestica."

"This would not be a 'Domestica' book," returned the writer, with a little tilt of her brown head over her knitting. "This is a little book I'm going to bring out seven years hence, for my own two boys. A sort of manual to help them when they go courting. 'The Guide to the Girl,' I shall call it."

"The title has one very all right sound," laughed Captain Ross. "But if you'll pardon my saying so, Mrs. Cartwright, I guess I could compile that book considerably better than what you could."

"Not you!" declared Mrs. Cartwright. "Most of those manuals are written from the point of view of the man. That's where they fall short. I should make the Girl herself do the advising. I should let her give the 'pointers,' as Mr. Awdas calls them. I should divide them into little chapters: 'Of Proposing,' 'Of Presents,' 'Of In-Laws,' 'Of Caresses'----"

"'Of Caresses,'" took up Captain Ross, with another laugh, "is going to get you banned by the libraries."

"Not it. I," said Mrs. Cartwright, knitting, "shall not treat the subject in--in that way."

"Then that manual of yours isn't going to help your boys a lot," affirmed Captain Ross in his most final tone. "For, see here----"

"Olwen fach," said the Professor, suddenly taking his pipe out of his mouth and looking over the smudged black sheet of "La Patria," "isn't it time for you to go to bed?"

"Uncle!" came indignantly from behind the fashion-plates: "It's only half-past nine!"

A smile went round the little group of the English about that table; the eyes of each turned upon Nineteen who was being treated as Ten years old. She would have kept up the screen of her "Femina," but Mrs. Cartwright, finishing off a row of her knitting, put it aside, and drew nearer to the girl.

"May I look at them with you?" she said, pleasantly, and the two shared the fashion-drawings, while the men watched; Captain Ross, with a curl of the lip and a remark about Women and their fairrrrm conviction that, because clothes are drawn one way in a picture that's the way they'll look when they've gotten them on.

Mrs. Cartwright lifted her head quickly, but it was not to retort to this. She had suddenly seen something (as usual, without looking at it) that surprised her. Then she dropped her head again.

"My dear!" she murmured to Olwen in an amazed little laugh. "Did you ever know such a thing? There! Coming in through the dining-room door, now! You can see her in the mirror, behind those French children playing draughts. It's the Hotel Spinster we were looking at, at lunch today," chattered Mrs. Cartwright in the soft stream that scarcely moved her lips. "The woman I said had never had a man to look at her. Can I believe my eyes? She's got a man with her now!"

"Miss Walsh?" exclaimed Olwen, gazing with all her eyes into the mirror that showed her this group.

Miss Walsh, in a fur coat, had evidently just come in from the Forest; she carried a bough of arbutus, and her cheeks were pink from walking in the clear night air. Close beside her came the man--yes! the male, masculine man who was her companion; the sturdy blue-clad French sergeant who had been at the table d'hôte. Across the intervening groups of people he was seen to be all smiles and gestures, the traditional gallantry of his nation spoke in the very bend of his back as he opened the door, bowed again, clicked his spurred heels. Miss Walsh was holding out her hand; her lips parted, obviously in one of her characteristic "Oh's"--the pink upon her cheeks deepened as she took leave of this cavalier. One could almost hear her struggling French. She looked back again; another bow, another click of the heels from her escort. Then the sergeant marched back down the room, beaming satisfaction painted upon every line of his face, bold, swarthy, and somewhat bull-necked. He was what his own family described as "beau garçon"; a fine figure of a man. He disappeared, through the ante-room, towards that wing of the hotel inhabited by the management; Monsieur Leroux (bald, amiable, the shape of a captive balloon), his three pigtailed daughters of exquisite manners, and his alert wife (who ran everything--including him--in the hotel).

"Heavens!" ejaculated Mrs. Cartwright absently, as she took up her knitting again, "that must have been Madame Leroux's nephew. Her sister's son, the artilleriste. I heard all about him the other day. Gustave Tronchet his name is. Madame told me that he was coming here en perme as her guest, seeing she had no son, and that he loved to eat well and to be bien generally. I suppose she is introducing him----!"

"Some romance!" laughed Captain Ross, jerking his head towards the door through which the fur-clad form of the lonely traveller had disappeared. This was the first remark of his to which Olwen had paid scant attention. As suddenly as if some one had called her, she sprang up. She had dropped a kiss on her Uncle's thistle-down locks, had given her hand to Mrs. Cartwright, had launched a shy glance and a "good night" in the direction of the others, and had darted away, a slim sprite in grey with touches of black, almost before the two young men could rise to their feet.

Mrs. Cartwright was still thinking of the stiletto-eyed French manageress who had introduced her nephew to the occupant of the best room in the hotel.

"What family spirit!" she admired. "What sense of possibilities! What respect for Power--I mean money. What an admirable nation they are.... Will ours ever learn foresight and thrift from theirs?"

"Ours--that is, mine--has family loyalty very strongly too," the Professor joined in. "The Welsh, my dear lady, are as clannish in that way as the French; they'll do anything for 'my nephew.'"

"They've an eye skinned for the dollars as well," volunteered Captain Ross, his robin-like eye twinkling as he took out a cigar. "What's that saying--ah, yes, God made a Welshman, and God made a Jew, but thank God he never made a Welsh Jew!"

The Professor stiffened a little; and Mrs. Cartwright, seeing this, drew the conversation back to the worldly aspects of germinating Romance....

The drift of all these remarks would have been entirely lost upon Olwen even had she stayed to hear them.

For she knew better. She knew that it was not Madame Leroux, the manageress, who was responsible for the coming together of a travelling spinster and of a French soldier on leave. She, Olwen, knew what was responsible for those attentions, that talk, that interested, deferential smile on the part of the man who had attached himself to her new-made friend. Olwen knew what had attracted him where no man had ever been attracted before. Yes! She knew! This was the work of the Charm that she herself had seen hidden away so near to an unsought heart....

This nephew of a French hotel manageress ... of course he wasn't exactly the sort of admirer who belonged in Granges with grounds full of rhododendrons, but he was a man, triumphed Olwen. There'd be others, people that Miss Agatha Walsh could think seriously about; but he was the beginning; He'd shown the success of her experiment. The Charm could work. That letter was not all nonsense! It was all true! And since the Charm had worked for Miss Walsh, it would work for--well, others! Joy, oh joy!

Bursting with joy, in fact, the girl darted out of the salon, scampering upstairs in all haste to overtake Miss Walsh, and to hear more of this.

She hoped to catch her up at her bedroom door, but already Miss Walsh had gone in.

Olwen knocked; was asked, "Who's there?"

"Only me--Olwen!"

"Come in," was the muffled answer. It came from behind a handful of Miss Walsh's hair, quite abundant and almost pretty, now that she had removed the flattening net and taken it all down. The first glance showed Olwen that it was not just "down" for the night. There was a side glass in Miss Walsh's hand; a thick loop of her locks was coiled up at the back, ready for the side "bits" to be drawn across in a simpler fashion than the upholstery of puffs and curls. Yes! She was seeing how she looked with her hair done a different way! Ah, sign of the times, that could spell only one thing: M--A--N!

"I--I only came in to say good night to you," Olwen began (really longing to ply with questions; how--how soon did IT work--what happened----).

Miss Walsh turned a face as transfigured as Olwen's own above her quilted dressing jacket.

She looked ten years younger. She held her head at almost the angle of those who have not been born with the saddle. All fluttered and flushed she was, but delighted; a once bleak landscape that a sun-ray lightens. For it is your lifelong teetotaller who, rescued from Death, perks up at the first sip of restorative. It was the elder Miss Walsh's cloistered companion who was responding to that tonic: masculine attention. She turned a new smile upon Olwen.

"Oh, it's you," she exclaimed, with new notes in her voice. Then she broke into the breathless talk which was to her as new a function as shopping for herself.

"I've been out!" with a wave towards the arbutus-bough on her table. "Oh, it is such a lovely night! Oh! You've no idea how glorious the stars looked, peeping down between the branches of the pines! I've never seen them so wonderful, never. I went for a stroll in the Forest after dinner, do you know----Oh! You saw me come in? Oh, I never saw you. Yes; I--I went with somebody----" she babbled on. "That Monsieur Tronchet, the French soldier. He is a sergeant ... but everybody in the Army is anything just now, aren't they? He showed me the Avenue leading out into the woods.... Was it very extraordinary of me to go out for a walk with him? Oh, I don't think it matters, do you? Everything's so different ... in France. He spoke to me at dinner; I believe I'd taken his place by mistake--then we talked----"

"Ah," came softly from Olwen, standing there listening, listening to her witness for the power of the Charm. It had forced this man to speak; it had drawn him!... "Oh, and he's such a delightful person," Miss Walsh poured out between gasps. "He has been telling me such a lot of the most interesting things about himself and the War! He spoke slowly, when I asked him. I could really understand most of it. He expresses himself so wonderfully! The French all do, I suppose. But he finds the English so sympathetic. Oh, and what do you think? You won't laugh, I know; you're so sweet. I am going to be his marraine. God-mother, that is. They all have them in the French Army, he tells me; somebody who just writes very often and takes an interest. He told me he hadn't any. So I promised. We are to write to each other when he gets back to the front. Oh, and tomorrow--what do you think? He is going to take me across the lagoon in the motor-boat!" breathed Miss Walsh, and her eyes were now those of a child who has been promised a fairy treat. "I don't think any one has ever taken me in a boat before. This is a wonderful place, isn't it? I am so glad I came!--Oh, are you going to bed now? I shall see you tomorrow. I feel as if I knew such a lot of nice people already! Good night!" and her door closed upon a very happy face.

Equally excited, and even happier, little Olwen sped up another flight of stairs to her room. Stars danced in her eyes. It was true! It was all true! she rejoiced. Now----!

Yes; now, Captain Ross, en garde; Stipulate as you choose for the colour of Beauty's hair; swear that no woman is Woman to you except a blonde. One little sooty-haired brunette is now no longer to be cast down by your specifications. Say what you like; she has confidence in what she is going to do.

She burst into her room, snapped on the lights, ran to the drawer, snatched out work-basket, thimble, needle, silk; now the mauve ribbon! Now the packet containing that so potent Charm!

Then down she sat again to work as she had worked that afternoon, but in all certainty instead of doubt. Snip--snip--snip. Three lengths of ribbon, and to each a sachet.

"I'll have to buy yards and yards and yards of this ribbon presently," thought Olwen feverishly as she stitched. "And I'll have to send to that address for all the Charm that they can send me; all that there is in the world!"

She rolled a sheet of note-paper into a little funnel; and through this she filled--ah, so cautiously!--the sachets with the musky, seed-like powder.

She sighed: "What a pity that I've only got enough here for four of us!"