Disturbing Charm

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5. 1-5 Further Plans For The Charm



"Je dirai qu'une femme ne doit jamais écrire....

"Je ne vois qu'une exception; c'est une femme qui fait des livres pour nourrier ou élever sa famille.

"Alors elle doit toujours se retrancher dans l'intérêt d'argent en parlant de ses ouvrages, et dire, par exemple, à un chef d'escadron: 'Votre état vous donne quatre mille francs par an, et moi, avec mes deux traductions de l'anglais, j'ai pu, l'année dernière, consacrer trois mille cinq cents francs de plus à l'éducation de mes deux fils.'"

Stendhal.

Now so far one charm-sachet was accounted for. It was safety-pinned into the high busk of Miss Walsh's almost obsolete corset. The second Olwen now hung about her own neck. Even in sleep she would never be parted from it. Let her absorb its potency every hour of the day or night! Therefore she sewed to the square of mauve satin a piece of pink baby-ribbon, tied it in a bow and slipped it over her head. Her charm!

There were (until she obtained more of that magic stuff) two sachets left.

Over these she pondered, running her needle into the flannel leaf of her needle-book.

"There's one thing to be seen yet," she meditated. "I've seen it work once. It's been a success all right with a woman. The question is--Will it work with a man? I must try."

So the destination of the third sachet was decided. That young and pink-faced subaltern should have it; he who had such blushing struggles with his French and who seemed to have no more friends than had Miss Walsh; he who had told Mrs. Cartwright so frankly that he was an ex-shop assistant, with the joys of travelling first-class (and of living to match) gone to his boyish head. Yes; the disturbing Charm should be applied to help him. She would think out the "how" tomorrow.

But the fourth sachet? To whom should she give that?

Perhaps it was the passing thought of her writer-friend that brought in its train a bright idea.

Mrs. Cartwright! "Why shouldn't I give her the Charm? Why shouldn't she enjoy life a little bit more before she's quite, quite an old woman?" thought the girl. "Of course she's not young; older than Miss Walsh even. And not pretty--well, how could any one be pretty at forty--even though her clothes do seem to fit her, and she does run up and down those sandhills as fast as I can. She's awfully jolly and nice, though; so kind, too! I daresay she'd like to be married again. I daresay she's tired of always writing and writing. Tired of living all by herself when those boys of hers are at school. I daresay she'd like to have somebody nice and sort of settled-down to help her with them. Now if only she could attract somebody! Somebody like that----"

Here a second brilliant idea flashed into that well-willing, impulsive little black head of Olwen's. She uttered it aloud, the name of this "somebody" who might be suitably attracted by Mrs. Cartwright--even at forty.

"Uncle!"

All alone in her room, Olwen clapped her hands over this idea. Swiftly it began to enlarge itself.

"Yes; why not Uncle? The very person! He's old, but then that's all the better; for her. He's just the right age, in fact!"

Professor Howel-Jones was a sturdy seventy; and to Nineteen the gap between forty and seventy, seen vaguely down the perspective of the years, is scarcely noticeable, particularly when it is the man who is seventy--men generally being of themselves younger than women. (Or so we are told.)

"Yes; it must be Uncle. He's such a dear. A widower, too; and I'm sure he ought to have somebody nice to be a comfort to him, always there. Not only me. Besides, I might be----"

She hardly dared yet to finish to herself the thought, "Besides, I might be getting married and leaving him any time now!"

So she pursued her ingenuous scheme. "He ought to have a nice wife. He really ought. And Mrs. Cartwright would be splendid--for him. He does like her. He was talking to her for hours in the Forest the other day about that essay of his on Welsh Flower-names. He calls her 'My dear lady' always. And she likes him; why, only at lunch today she said something about 'that wonderful-looking old Uncle of yours.' She admires him. Now, if she only had enough Charm to attract him," thought Olwen, "so that he would ask her to marry him, I'm sure she'd be only too glad to! I don't suppose any one else has ever asked her to marry again ... but I would so like her for a kind of Auntie," decided the young girl, hastily taking out her needle again and threading it with pink silk.

Another length of narrow ribbon was stitched to one end of the fourth sachet.

It was destined for the neck of Mrs. Cartwright.

At Olwen's age a thing is considered better left undone, than not done at once.

At once she decided to take this gift to her friend.

So, still dressed as she had left the salon, Olwen slipped quickly out of her room and down a sharply-angled corridor, passing as she went the old Frenchman with the red speck in his button-hole and the elder lady in mourning.

Olwen glanced up at the numbers on the doors.

... "22," that was Mr. Awdas's room; she had overheard him telling Madame that he would remember vingt-deux because it was his own age. "23," next to it on the right; that was Mrs. Cartwright's. Olwen hoped that she had not yet gone to bed.

She tapped.

"Entrez!" called Mrs. Cartwright's deep voice, rather absorbed.

Olwen entered, to find the writer apparently ready for bed, but at work.

Her green shaded lamp was alight on the table, where she sat with a pad before her.

Her brown hair hung down in two plaits over a Persian robe of raw white silk, almost seamless, gold-girdled, and with stars and islands worked in gold thread; a relic of her time in the East. Another relic, perhaps, was the mingling of faint discreet scents that hung about the room: sandal-wood, orris, kuss-kuss, and rose.

She looked up; then sprang to her feet as she saw Olwen Howel-Jones, still dressed as she had gone to bed some time before.

"My dear----Anything wrong?"

"No! No, thanks," said Olwen. Then involuntarily and surprised, "Oh, Mrs. Cartwright! how wonderful you look in that dressing-gown! Your arm, when the sleeve fell back, was like a little statue my Uncle's got in Liverpool, copied from the British Museum. A Tanagra, he calls it. You look exactly like that statue, you do really."

"Do I?" returned Mrs. Cartwright, with a passing glance down her own long outlines from the shoulder to the narrow Turkish-slippered foot on the mat. It was no news to her that she possessed, even yet, some lines that sculptors centuries dead would have loved. Like many another plain-faced woman (as she was self-admitted) she had her special vanity. Her own pride of limb was as arrogant as it was secret.

"My boys are going to inherit my absurdly long legs, I think," was all she said, lightly, smiling down into the vivid little face of the girl who had come in, and wondering what had brought her there so late.

Olwen held it out, the Charm dangling at the end of its long ribbons. As she was hastening along the corrider she had wondered what excuse she could bring with it. Now she felt that it was unnecessary display, that invention of the Red Cross Charity Sale which she had palmed off upon poor Miss Walsh. The truth--or a small portion of it--seemed to blurt itself out to Mrs. Cartwright.

"I've got something here that I've made for you," explained Olwen, flushing a little. "It's--it's a luck-charm. Like a touchwood or a swastika, only--only different. There's something in the sachet that will bring you very good luck if you always keep it on where it can't be seen. Don't ask me what it is," she begged, lifting her earnest little face that the elder woman found so touchingly pretty. "And please don't open it. Only always wear it, will you, please?"

"Thank you so much; of course I will. I can do with any good luck that's going just now," smiled Mrs. Cartwright. She slipped the ribbon over her head and tucked the sachet inside the soft folds of her Persian robe. "There! It's like a scapular that the little French children have; I remember seeing a flock of them once, trooping in to bathe off the coast of Normandy, wearing nothing else; their little bodies each marked by the black scapular, were like pink tulips freaked with one dark stripe.... May I take it off when I wash? Good. Now I'll expect it'll bring me luck for finishing the last chapters of my serial."

"Are you going to sit there and write all night?" asked Olwen, with an eye on the half-covered pad.

"Oh dear, no! Just another hour or so, perhaps. I was only recopying a paragraph, and then I found I was in the vein and could go on. But you--you mustn't lose your beauty-sleep," she added, gently smiling at the pretty creature in the doorway. "Good night!"

"Good night!" said Olwen, with a final glance at the edge of that pink ribbon showing above her friend's unconscious neck. She sped away--to dream, as she hoped, of all that Charm might be expected to bring her, but in reality to the dreamless perfect sleep that is Youth's heritage.

The half-gentle, half-amused little smile hovered about Mrs. Cartwright's lips for a moment, then gave way gradually to the look of blank absorption as she bent her brown head over her pad, writing rapidly, filling a page, tearing it off, to add to the pile at her feet, filling another.




It had been a long apprenticeship which she had served to this job of hers, since she had first been left as a young widow, to fend for herself and two babies on the pension which her country judged sufficient for the families of the (Old) Army. Ream after ream she had written on the once so fully discussed subjects: What to do with the Cold Mutton; and, How to Keep a Husband's Affection Warm.

To say that this occupation thrilled her would be overstating the case, but Mrs. Cartwright had preferred it to the thought of letting some other man pay for her board and lodging, some man who was not her Keith. This alternative had been hers more than once (in spite of little Olwen's conjecture that she had never been asked to marry again). She had refused; working on, in her poky "rooms." ... At all events, those cold-mutton articles had put plenty of nourishing beef-gravy into little Keith; and when Reggie had nearly gone out with bronchitis she had settled the doctor's bills with her brightly-written instructions as to always keep a smiling face and a dainty blouse for when Hubby got back from a hard day's work in the office. A fortnight's fresh air at Margate had been supplied to the small convalescent by his Mother's "Chats to Engaged Girls," which discussed "how many and many a foolish damsel brings shipwreck upon her life's happiness by her failure to realize that her fiancé cannot be expected to give up for her sake every hobby, every recreation, every chum that he possesses," etc. etc.

When this sort of journalism became superannuated "Domestica" adapted herself swiftly. Business-like columns on Emigration and Fruit Farming for Women paid for the boys' first reefer-coats. Their school-kits came out of the long serials to which she had at last attained, and which became a never-failing joke with those of her acquaintances who had cultured literary tastes.

"My dear Claudia, I see you've been and gone and done it again, in the 'Morning Mail,'" they had smiled. "Another of your sugary fullertons--I mean 'A thrilling new story, by Miss Claudia Crane! You can begin today!' You don't expect US to, I hope?"

"Oh no," Mrs. Cartwright had said, also smiling.

After all, these literary tastes of her acquaintances were no more "superior" than the thickness of her new woollies that she was then going on to buy for her sons' wear.

Moreover, the woollies were of more use.

(Furthermore, they were harder to come by.)




At the juncture when Mrs. Cartwright enters this story she was able to make any holiday pay for itself twice over; witness her "Wanderings in Western France." It was about this time, too, that she had begun to afford not only the warmest underwear for Keith and Reggie, but the silkiest for herself.

Even yet, she discovered, silk "things" were a joy to her again. So were her perfectly simple suède shoes. All these years she had lived and toiled for Reggie and Keith; she was only just beginning to find herself in this toiler. She was beginning to discover other relics, beside the Eastern embroideries and the scent, of the woman whom she had thought to be left dead beside her merry soldier husband.

Surprising.... Life was still surprising; interesting. Let people take it out of her "fullertons" if it amused them....

She completed the "sugary" paragraph that brought her instalment to the requided "curtain," wrote "To be continued" beneath it, and smoothed the blotting-paper down over the pad with a sigh of relief.

"There!"

She rose, stretching the tall symmetry of herself under the Persian robe, then glanced with raised eye-brows at her watch.

So late? She had not realized the flight of the midnight hours. Everybody else in the hotel would be asleep.

Mrs. Cartwright snapped off the lights. Guided by a thin streak of moonlight on the floor, she stepped to the window, flung first the shutters then the windows open, and stepped out, all shimmering and ghostly, on to her balcony. She stood--accustomed to air about her--looking out on the moon-bathed scene below. The Baissin was a sheet of silver; the belt of sandhills silver-grey. No words can give the whiteness of the Biscay rollers, silent with distance, tossing their columns of foam to the vast and lambent sky. Stars were as pin-points. Reassuringly near, the lighthouse raised its taper finger, on which the light sparkled like a jewel, now white, now red.

Mrs. Cartwright, enjoying all this too much to feel cold, stood watching.

Why did people sleep away the best part of the twenty-four hours? Why scuttle away and hide from Beauty within the ugliness of their own houses? It was only once in months that a woman stood as she was standing at that virgin hour, able to lose herself in the solitude, the freshness and silence and light. She stood, dematerialized, part no longer of a woman's warm and pulsing body, but of the sea and sky themselves.... White, red.... White, red ... the phare light flashed almost in time to the soft breathing, that could be heard, in that perfect stillness of her body. She was outside it.... Ah! What was that?

With a start so violent that it seemed to wrench her, Mrs. Cartwright came to herself again, and to--what Horror was this?

Through that perfect stillness a cry had rung out, sudden as a shot. Close beside her; it came from the right. It was a man's voice crying hoarsely, "Got him!" Then another cry, of agony; a scream....

What was it?