Disturbing Charm


7. 1-7 The Spreading Of The Charm

"When England needs
The sons she breeds,
And there's fighting to be done,
No matter where,
You will find him there,
The Man behind the Gun....
It's Bill, Bill, Billy, Billy, Billy, Billy, Billy Brown,
Of Putney, Piccadilly, Camden Town;
Why! It's Mister----
Bill, Billy Brown----
Of London!"

Fragson's Song.

The following morning brought a small disappointment to that little plotter for the commonweal, Olwen Howel-Jones.

No Mrs. Cartwright at déjeuner;

Olwen (knowing nothing of that vigil of the night before, or of the slumber into which the woman, drained of vitality, had dropped as soon as she returned to her room) imagined her working through luncheon-time.

Too bad! For now it must be postponed, the sight of how that Charm, given to the writer, would affect Professor Howel-Jones. It could not begin at once then, that Darby-and-Joan pairing-off that so suitable match which little Olwen had planned. What a pity! Still it was not put off for long, she cheerfully hoped.

The other wearer of the Charm was also absent from the midday gathering in the salle, but that was all to the good, Olwen had passed Miss Walsh, with her hair done in that new way! speeding off as excitedly as an Early Victorian to her first dance; speeding down to the pier, where the motor-boat awaited her, with Sergeant Tronchet. Madame Leroux had put up a basket of provisions for them, and they were going to make a picnic of their excursion across the lagoon.

Captain Ross came in to lunch with his friend Mr. Awdas, but so late that the two young men crossed the path of Olwen and her Uncle (who had finished their meal early) in the hall. The girl had paused here for a moment to slip into the Red Cross collection-box that hundred-franc note which had been bestowed upon her yesterday by Miss Walsh.

Captain Ross noticed her action.

"You're making a mistake, Miss Howel-Jones," he said banteringly, and smiled as he might have smiled at one of the little pigtailed daughters of the manageress. "That's not the box you put ten centimes into and get two sticks of candy."

Olwen, half in delight that he had spoken to her, half in resentment that it was in the tone he might have used to a child, raised her pointed chin on its white childish neck, looked down under her lids, and demanded, with what she considered great stateliness, "Who wants candy?"

"All little girls, I guess," returned Captain Ross, his robin's eyes twinkling, his perfect teeth flashing in another teasing smile. Olwen, glancing under those dropped lids at this somewhat showy vision of black-and-white-and-brown-and-scarlet-and-khaki, felt that she would die for him.

There was a magic about him, she thought; even if he were dictatorial or teasing, or seemed to think rather a lot of himself--a magic! At the same instant she remembered that, yes! There was a secret magic about her too, now. A magic that had proved itself unmistakably once; a Charm that she herself was wearing. Confidence seemed to rush, in a warming flood, about her heart.

Quite defiantly she tilted her black head, and looking straight over Captain Ross's shoulder, she laughed, for pure joy of her secret.

"You don't know everything about girls!" she told the finest judge of women in Europe.

And before the young Staff-Officer could retort, before he could even open his eyes over the temerity of this chit, this schoolgirl, who had said this thing to him (Him!), those little French boots of hers had skipped away, carrying her upstairs towards the study where she must type out the notes which she had taken down for her Uncle in shorthand that morning. Those boots fitted the chit's ankles like a coat of black paint, he noticed as he looked after her, too amused to be annoyed, of course. The piece of Impertinence----! Awfully neat.... They disappeared, the little twinkling heels. He went on to join Jack Awdas at table.

Olwen, at an angle in the corridor a floor higher, ran into the young femme-de-chambre for that floor, carrying over her arm a khaki tunic.

They stopped to smile and to exchange "bonjours," these two girls much of an age and much of a race, for Marie came from Brittany, and already the Professor and his niece had amused themselves by finding out how many Welsh words the Breton maid could understand; the simple words which were the same in her own tongue.

"I come from cleaning the buttons of the English monsieur, his better tunic," explained Marie, in French, smiling as she held out the khaki coat.

"It is not of Monsieur de l'Audace?" asked Olwen.

"No, Mademoiselle. Of the other English officer, young, young, who does not talk French too well; Lieutenant Brrrrrrown," returned Marie. "Can Mademoiselle tell me what decoration is that he has?" Olwen gave a look at it.

"It is the ribbon of the Military Cross--it's like your Croix de Guerre," she said. "I didn't notice that he'd got that."

"He" was the pink-faced New Army officer of whom Mrs. Cartwright had spoken to her.

She remembered, in a flash, that it was he for whom she had intended that fourth share of the Charm, still in the pocket of the serge dress that she wore. She had not yet made up any plan as to how she was to press the Charm upon him. The plan came to her then and there, as she stood in that corridor.

"Hold Marie," she said, suddenly. "I have a porte-bonheur for this officer." She took out the sachet. "Say nothing to Monsieur," she impressed it upon the little maid, all smiles and delight to be included in a secret. "I am going to hide it in his coat."

And, taking hold of the coat, she slipped the sachet full of the enchanted powder into the slit-like pocket at the waist where men keep tickets.

"There!... Probably Monsieur will not find it; but all the better. It won't matter, even if he does not know it is there."

The Breton maid nodded. "A sachet à preservation then? I know them. We have them also, Mademoiselle. It is to avert all danger from the soldier who is to wear it, is it not?"

"No. Not precisely that," said the young Welsh girl. "It is to bring to him--well, Happiness of the best."

"Love, then. Ah, là là; I doubted myself of that!" declared the young bonne, bursting into ripples of laughter. "I go now to take the coat to Monsieur, who does not suspect. But no, Mademoiselle, I will say nothing to him of this; nothing, nothing, nothing at all!"

Olwen thought, as she went on: "Now Marie probably imagines that I am in love with this dreadfully uninteresting little Mr. Brown, and want to attract him to being in love with me! When I've never spoken to him in my life, or even seen what he's like when he's close to one!"

But that afternoon she both saw and spoke to this Mr. Brown.

They were returning, she and her Uncle, from one of those wanderings which the Professor loved to take out westwards from the hotel. For a couple of miles they had tramped along the hard sands at the foot of the great dunes wherein pine-trees were buried up to their lower boughs; then, leaving the sands, they had scrambled up the sandhills into the pine-forest that bordered them.

Its fragrant aisles stretched for miles bisected by paths, spread with a rich terra-cotta carpet of pine-needles. Already the Professor had slipped his pipe back into his pocket, for the notice "Défense à fumer" appeared again and again tacked up on the trunks of the great pines that made of those miles a perfect factory of turpentine.

With their faces towards home, they caught sight through the pines of a figure that repeated for an instant the effect of the pine-trunks themselves, brown-clad, long-lined, and slender. It stooped at the foot of a tree.

"My dear lady," said the Professor, taking off his hat to the figure, which was that of Mrs. Cartwright, "you look like Daphne, being changed into a pine rather than a laurel."

Mrs. Cartwright laughed as she rose to her feet. She had been putting into position a fallen tin cup, shaped like a flower-pot, and left to catch the resin as it oozed stickily from the trunk. Most of the firs in this part of the forest had a tin blade, that had scored them down, left plunged into the bark.

"Delightful, to be able to turn into any sort of plant, rather than be bored by the wrong man," remarked Mrs. Cartwright lightly, dusting her hands.

"What a pull for those nymphs! Must have made it worth while to live in a world where there was no tea. I am ready for mine, though----"

The three went on homewards together, the Professor walking between Olwen and the writer, who found herself once more admiring his Druidic head and still-active frame. In precisely the same spirit she would have admired some stately, ivy-grown keep that had once echoed to the shouts of archers; she was scarcely the type of woman who becomes an "old man's darling----"

But little Olwen was busily thinking: "Now! I do believe the Charm has begun to work. Didn't Uncle say she was like Daphne?--and doesn't she really look younger today? It's begun; And see how she's smiling at him and talking to him about Anatole France.... But I wish they'd leave off about books and begin about themselves. I wish I could run on and leave them to come home together (but they both walk as fast as I do any day, bother them!). If only we could meet somebody that I could fall behind with, and let Mrs. Cartwright have Uncle all to herself----"

This wish was fulfilled at a turn in the path where there was a clearing in the symmetrically spaced pines. Three paths converged towards a sort of oasis of heather and undergrowth, surrounding a hut of untrimmed pine-branches. Huge blackberry runners, purple and green, flung themselves before the door of it. And there stood, fixedly regarding the place, a boyish figure in khaki with an ultra-floppy cap at a rakish angle on his head.

"Are you thinking of taking that house, Mr. Brown?" Mrs. Cartwright asked him laughingly, as they came up.

Mr. Brown gave quite a jump before he turned and saluted the party.

Up to now they had known this young man as one very fond of his food, always sitting on the back of his neck in the most comfortable chair he could find, eternally smoking cigarettes, and evidently bent on getting his money's worth out of the hotel. But it was a different young man who now turned his pink face and pop-eyes on them. They'd evidently interrupted him in thinking over something; thinking hard.

He echoed Mrs. Cartwright's last words. "Thinking of taking that hut?" he repeated, in a voice that seemed to bring a breath of crowded A B C shops, of Tube-lifts and cheerful workaday London generally into that stately French glade. "Well, d'you know, that's a wheeze. It's a dashed good idea. I was just that moment thinking that something would have to be done!"

"What about?" asked Mrs. Cartwright, as the party halted.

"Why, about everything, the whole blooming thing," returned Mr. Brown, pushing his floppy cap to the back of his head. "This is just about beating me, I give you my word. Look at me, what am I doing here?"

Mrs. Cartwright said: "Evidently you're having a look at your new house?"

He said: "I don't mean here this minute, in this Epping Forest sort of show. I mean here;"--he spread out his hands as if to take in the whole of Western France. "Of course, they told me I'd got to go to pine-woods when they gave me three months, and a cavalry fellow, at Sister Agnes's, told me here was better than Surrey, and gave me the address, and it seemed quite natural to take it and think--Blow the expense. But I wish--I tell you what I wish."

He dropped his voice confidentially.

"I wish this blessed War was over, and me riding in a third-class carriage again!"

Before any one could speak, he went on with his candid and good-humoured grouse.

"I've got to go first, with these colonels and company promotors, and people. The trouble is, I like it. Too dashed well I've got to like it. I never used to think of all these things coming to me when I was serving behind the counter; nor the customers neither, I'll bet. And now nothing but the tip-toppest hotel's good enough for me, and me posted in Cox's 'star' department. R. D., refer to drawer! Got it in my pocket now; show it to you. I could have sworn I'd got the money, you know. Still, here's the cheque--"

He said it with a disarming and engaging honesty, as if the whole story might be read anyhow in his pink, snub-nosed, and ordinary face. Mrs. Cartwright and the Professor found it impossible to help liking him as he stood there, the little Briton who gave no further thought to the tense horrors of Suvla Bay, where he had won his Cross, but who confessed his liking for the best hotels. But as for Olwen, she was watching him anxiously; for his hand had gone to the pocket where she herself had hidden that "porte bonheur." He fumbled. At that moment his finger and thumb must have encountered it....

"No--what's this?--that's not the cheque--must be in my case," he went on, taking the hand out of the pocket. (Olwen breathed again.) "Well, now something's got to be done. They'll wait at the hotel, I daresay, if I don't leave this place altogether. And I like this place." He looked round the empty hut again, as if he half expected to see a Willesden estate agent's name round the corner. "Not half a bad idea of yours, Mrs. C. I might send for some camp-kit; sleep here--do the picnic touch----"

For a few moments they stood, discussing forest regulations and to whom the would-be camper-out must apply. Then, four abreast, they turned to go on, the sea-breeze meeting them.

"Mind the barbed wire," exclaimed Mr. Brown, flipping with his cane at one of those giant brambles. "It's caught your skirt," to Olwen. "Allow me."

He bent down and unfastened the hook-like thorns from her frock. This kept the two behind the Professor and Mrs. Cartwright, whereat the innocent Olwen rejoiced. She could not guess that not only did the Professor seem at least as old to Mrs. Cartwright as he did to his own niece, but that the Professor himself, though he found her a sympathetic listener, could never at any age have wished to make love to this lady. For he was a "type"-lover. To him any woman who was not tiny and black-haired (as Olwen's own mother had been) was only, to quote Captain Ross, "half a woman...."

But they were talking together, easily, interestedly, as they walked ahead through the wood. And even though the subject might only be of Celtic Folk-lore, Olwen felt already that she saw her wish coming to pass before her eyes.

She turned to her other experiment with the Charm.

Mr. Brown had slipped his fingers again into the pocket into which he had first hunted for his dishonoured cheque. And this time he brought out the hidden sachet.

He stared at the small mauve object.

"Now what the dickens is this?" he demanded, genially bewildered. "Don't remember where this came from----"

Olwen, inwardly terrified lest the young man might in his ignorance toss the precious thing into the arbutus bushes, said with outward carelessness, "It looks like a mascot; better not lose it."

"Looks more like the little square bags they used to fasten on to the ladies' covered coathangers in the Haberdashery. With scent inside 'em. I've no use for perfumery----"

Olwen was now sure he meant to throw this gift of the gods away. With a hasty gesture she snatched it out of the young man's hand.

"It is a mascot; I've seen others like them!" she told him, as they came in sight of the hotel. On the piazza Captain Ross was smoking, with his friend, the aviator; Mrs. Cartwright and the Professor had joined them.

Olwen realized that Captain Ross was also staring down on to the pine-bordered road, at herself and young Mr. Brown, who had stopped short, and was still looking at what she held, the treasure that he had discovered in his pocket.

"But how did it get in there?" he demanded.

"Somebody might have slipped it in without your knowing. But anyhow," said Olwen, taking a resolution, "I'm going to slip it back for you now, to bring you luck!" And she did slip it back into the khaki pocket. "There! You know where it's come from this time. You'll keep it there, won't you?"

"Anything to oblige," laughed Mr. Brown, and the two young people walked on to join the party on the piazza, who were waiting for them.

Olwen thought, "It's rather annoying that he's going to leave the hotel, and live in a hut like the Wild Man of the Woods just when I want to watch how the Charm will work with him! But if it does work, that's the main thing, after all."

She added aloud, looking into the pink and puggy face that had outstared Danger and was now staring at Bankruptcy, "Take care of it, won't you? You won't throw it away or let it get lost or anything?"

"Not for all the Eau in Cologne!" Mr. Brown assured her with a mock-flourish as they ran up the piazza steps together.

Those robin-like eyes of Captain Ross were fixed very watchfuly upon this young Mr. Brown as he appeared, laughing and chatting as if he were quite old friends with the Professor's niece. Then the young Staff officer looked from him to her.

For a girl who wasn't bland, she was (he thought again) quite neat....

The chit didn't look at him....

And what (Captain Ross wondered) was that keep-sake that she was handing to that fellow?