8. 1-8 The First Engagement By The Charm
"Artill. 38 ans, célib., sér., demande marraine affect, désinteressée."
La Vie Parisienne.
Astonishment, incredulity, excitement and delight, reigned in the hotel at Les Pins.
One thought only pervaded the place, from the topmost attics inhabited by Marie the Bretonne and the other femmes-de-chambre, down through the other floors to the wide salons and to the shut-off wing that was the domain of the management. One topic alone set all tongues there chattering, in English, French, or Canadian-Scots. One piece of news was now being discussed before any communiqué from any of the fronts.
It was the news about Miss Agatha Walsh and the nephew of "the management," Sergeant Tronchet.
They were engaged to be married.
This was sudden, as everybody commented one after another. This was quick work. For, how long had Miss Walsh been staying at the hotel? Two--three days? And had she ever met this man before? Never?
One moonlight walk in the pine-forest, one expedition by motor-boat across the lagoon, half a dozen conversations at table d'hôte, an encounter at the post office where Miss Walsh had gone to buy picture postcards of the Côte d'Azur, another stroll in the forest, a game of draughts together--this had been all the preparation necessary for a declaration from the bull-necked, swarthy French sergeant to the English lady-all-alone. The deed was done. He had asked her to become his wife. She had accepted him. No; there was no mistake. The pair were going about looking as if they were newly-elected king and queen of the Gironde, and those visitors to whom the engagement had not been announced in French by Sergeant Tronchet, had been told in English by the radiant, tremulous, blissful Miss Walsh herself.
Madame Leroux, all smiles, had confirmed the news herself in each instance. Monsieur Leroux had taken the little tramway into Arcachon to blaze it abroad at his café. The three little pigtailed daughters fluttered about the villas of Les Pins in their red-and-white check frocks, twittering like starlings on the subject of the fiançailles, and spreading the news that Mademoiselle Ouallshe was sending to Paris for presents for each of them, and had said that they were to call her Tante Agathe! The wedding was for soon--for almost immediately!
Excitement rose higher and higher; it might be observed that the delight seemed, if anything, on the French side; the astonishment on that of the English visitors.
Little Mr. Brown turned from his plans for furnishing the woodcutter's hut for himself to open his candid and bulging blue eyes upon this new event in the hotel. He was, as a matter of fact, the first of those who heard the news to refer to a certain element in it.
"I say; look here," was his comment. "That chap's all right, I daresay; but are his people and all that quite class enough for the lady's family? I don't know about foreigners, of course. And of course I don't pretend to be Anybody, myself. But what'll her people at home think? Won't they----Well, socially, I should have thought it would have been considered a bit Rum;"
Mrs. Cartwright told him, quickly and quietly, that this marriage was not complicated, on "the lady's" side, by any people at home, and turned to Olwen to confirm it. Olwen, who was wide-eyed with a mixture of feelings, which she was surprised to find were not all happy ones, agreed that Miss Walsh hadn't any relations.
And presently Mrs. Cartwright was writing to her sisters: "A marriage has been arranged between the French Sergeant and the Hotel Spinster I described to you in my last. I think an excellent plan. She wants marriage, he wants money. Translated into English, it is brutal and horrible. But these clear-eyed French make something so different out of all that.
"She is madly in love with him, for the same reason that Eve fell in love with Adam in that Garden; he's the first man she's ever seen. The gap between their worlds is no wider than the gap between her and the world generally. Up to now (35, my dear!) she's belonged to the Great Unkissed.
"He is proud of his achievement, and, consequently, proud of her. I expect he will make her an admirable husband. They'll live in this country, his people will be her people. He will be affectionate, and genuinely fond of her, as only a Frenchman can be fond of the wife who has brought him money, and at whom he would not have looked, but for her income!"
Olwen, behind that startled gaze of hers, was realizing that she, and she alone, was responsible for this projected marriage and for the way in which it would turn out, whether for good or ill.
She had been the first person in the hotel to whom Miss Walsh had confided the great news. With the tremulous face of a girl, with a girl's faltering delight, the Spinster had called into her room an hour before.
"Oh, Olwen, come here a minute. (I'm going to call you Olwen.) Oh, I must tell you first. You were the first person who spoke to me here," she cried. "Oh, can you believe that it was only last Thursday? You said that it would bring me luck--that Charm you gave me. Oh, my little Olwen, it's brought me all the luck and happiness in the world! That's nonsense--I suppose! Still, I am the happiest person in the world. Kiss me. Pierre is so wonderful! You see what's happened? Oh, yes, you must guess----"
Olwen, hardly believing her ears, still guessed. She left Miss Walsh, her small ears buzzing with the woman's pathetic gush of confidences, her mind a welter of emotions. Perhaps the chief feeling was fright....
It was so powerful, then, that Charm? She had not expected this. Not only the swiftness of the wooing, but a definite engagement!...
And a marriage to be expected shortly.... And to--well, not the sort of person whom Olwen, the disposer of the Charm, had meant to see attracted to the wearer of her amulet. At least, she had not expected to see him accepted----! She had hoped--for what? Well, not the first man who asked Miss Walsh; not the man who--who looked rather like their village policeman at home! and not for it to happen in three days! It was rather frightening. Could one count so little upon the way in which that Charm was going to act? Perhaps after all it was not going to prove the unmitigated blessing of the human race which Olwen had at first seen it.... Oh.... Misgivings thronged upon her. For a moment she felt inclined to wish that she could take the Charm by force, if necessary, from Miss Walsh--undo what she had done. That she could steal the Charm away from Mr. Brown's tunic-pocket. That she could snip the ribbon that tied the Charm round Mrs. Cartwright's long slender neck....
As for the Charm that rose and fell with the gentle curve of Olwen's own breast, where it lay, well, that would be all right. For her, Charm or no Charm, there was no question of attracting the wrong man. For her there was only one man in the world; his right sleeve was tucked into his jacket-pocket, and as he smiled teasingly down at her his teeth were a flash of snow across the brown of his self-confident face. For her the Charm that attracted him could only be a beneficent thing.
But what about those others? she mused, doubtfully, over her typewriter.
In Mrs. Cartwright's case, the Charm was not working as swiftly as in the case of Miss Walsh. She seemed, so far, on the same terms with the Professor that she had always been; as ready to listen to his interpretations of Welsh names--"Olwen," for instance, meaning "White Track," and belonging to a maid of Celtic mythology in whose path daisies were wont to spring up--as interested in his special subjects. As friendly at table d'hôte or in the evenings; yes, as friendly ... but no more so! At their age, Olwen thought, people strolled into Love, perhaps, instead of falling into it, as they did at nineteen.
In her own case, she thought--and she hugged the thought!--the Charm did seem to be working. Not at that perilous speed with which it had served Miss Agatha Walsh; not yet with results which meant these definite and pole-axing announcements! Still ... wasn't it working a little?
Without looking at him, the girl had several times been aware that Captain Ross's dark quick glance had sought her out as soon as she appeared, and that it had followed her as she went out. Several times since the encounter in the hall, when she had told him that he "didn't know everything about girls," he had stopped to talk to her; always to "rag" her with some question or comment. But he had stopped.
Often she thought: "That means nothing! He never could think of me seriously. Why should he?"
Then again she felt that a time must come when he would stop longer, say more.
She waited for that time, outwardly indifferent, just as a branch studded with the brown scentless swellings of mid-winter waits for the spring that shall see them break into sweetest buds. She waited, fixing her bright gaze upon some point beyond her idol's broad shoulder as she answered his greeting with some snippy girlish flippancy, while her heart whispered--ah! what volumes of tenderness. She just waited; biding her time as a girl needs must, whether or not she knows of some secret Charm that backs her power.
She waited ... but now waiting and secret watching, uttered retort and unuttered yearning, were all alike tinged with a new apprehension.
That Charm! What unexpected way of its own was it going to take next?