Disturbing Charm

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9. 1-9 Unforseen Effects Of The Charm



"Does the wood-pecker flit round the young ferash? Does the grass clothe a new-built wall?
Is she under thirty, the woman who holds a boy in her thrall?"

Kipling.

It would have been a shock to little Olwen had she realized what other result of the Charm was manifesting itself already at that moment.

Probably the first, imperceptible manifestations would have been lost upon this quite young girl.

Had she noticed the gravitating towards Mrs. Cartwright's chair of an evening of Captain Ross's friend, the young flyer, had she observed the gradual way in which it was becoming a matter of course that when the writer was not working he was in attendance upon her, had she known of a bouquet of late roses, bought in the Ville d'Hiver and sent by the chambermaid to Room 23, had she heard what boyish confidences about flying, and Work, and Other Fellows, and even Home were being poured into an ear well used to hearing of such things by a tongue not well used to talking to women--well! Even had she known all this, Olwen would have looked upon it much as she looked upon her own impulses when she stooped quickly to pick up a pair of dropped spectacles for the old French lady, the little dark boy's grandmother, or held open the door of the salle for her to pass out. It was merely "manners."

Further, if she had known of that night which Mrs. Cartwright had watched through with him, putting all her own Force between him and the forces of Horror, little Olwen would have thought she saw the whole reason for the young man's attentions to a woman nearly twenty years his senior. It was gratitude. How natural!

Manners, and gratitude....

This is what Olwen would have thought, and what Mrs. Cartwright herself would have said. It is true that the elder woman should have known better. Later, she might have confessed that she did know. At the time.... Well----

There is one subject in the world upon which more barefaced lying goes on than upon any other half a dozen subjects put together: sport included. The discussion of it turns nine men out of ten into what Captain Ross might describe as "a darned fabricator."

Golf and salmon fishing cannot compete with the lying records of Love! Food it cannot be that the golfer and the fisherman cling in their own hearts to the fabrications that they fling abroad.

Whereas, regarding the matter of Love, men (and even women) can actually believe exactly what they wish to believe.

This was not Mrs. Cartwright's habit. She was a woman sincere with herself as a rule. Into the lives of the sincerest of us there trespasses the exception that shows up the fallibility of human rules.

So when she told herself that this growing attraction towards her of the boyish Flying-officer was a normal and delightful friendship, she believed it herself; she insisted on believing that the look in his young eyes as they followed her movements was not the look she had been used to see in the eyes of Captain Keith Cartwright and of a dozen other men; yes, she made herself believe that her own more joyous mood was not the life-giving zest that every woman feels when she is admired, desired--and at no other time.

She deliberately believed it was the glorious autumn weather that made her feel this stimulant in the air, in the sea-bordered forest, in the society of young people; that amusing Captain Ross, little Mr. Brown, the pretty Howel-Jones child, and Mr. Awdas, for instance.

With pleasure she accepted Mr. Awdas's invitation, one afternoon, to walk through the forest with him and down to the oyster-beds, the pride of that part of the country. She thought that Captain Ross was coming too, but it appeared that Captain Ross and the little Brown boy had gone for a walk in the opposite direction, to prospect around that woodcutter's hut.

She and the young flyer set out together, walking lightly and quickly in step; their shadows, flung on the road in front of them, showed a curious likeness that one would not, looking at the pair, have noticed, he so blond, and blue-eyed, and boyish--she whimsical, brown-haired, plain of feature. But the shapes of both, blue silhouettes on the white road, were young and supple, both characteristically small-headed, wide in the shoulder, slim in the flank, and long from hip to knee. Seeing them from their shadows only, one might have guessed a brother and his sister swinging easily along together.

The shadows broke, striping the red bodies of the pines as they entered the forest from the road.

"It's jollier walking further up," said Mrs. Cartwright, taking a path to the left. "We get glimpses of the sea all the way along; this way."

He followed her in silence. He had been in a silent mood all day, she had noticed. She asked him, looking back with a little glance of concern, if he had not been sleeping again.

"Oh yes, I've slept all right--slept like a top," he reassured her from behind. The path was so narrow that they could only walk one abreast through the arbutus bushes. He told her: "I haven't had any bother at all since--that night----"

"Good!" said Mrs. Cartwright heartily, but he had not finished speaking; he was concluding in a low voice, "that night when you were such an angel to me."

"Oh, please don't!" she laughed, looking ahead. "You make me feel like something off a Christmas card of my childhood; it's not a bit like me, believe me." She was not looking at him; she did not know, just now, that his eyes were fastened on the lithe brown length of her as she made her way through the bushes that seemed to catch at her, offering their bouquets of white flowers, their jewels of orange and scarlet, as she passed.

Presently they grew less thickly, the arbutus bushes; they seemed to fall back into the forest.

The two people walking, reached a little rise in the ground, and now a rush of salter air was mingling with the warm pine-scent that hung everywhere about them, and now there was a familiar sapphire gleam through the pine-boughs that showed black and fringed against sea and sky.

"One can't walk for long in this wood without coming upon that glimpse of the sea outside," remarked Mrs. Cartwright, gazing at it, and taking in a deep, enjoying breath. "Sea through pine-needles is so like the blink of very blue eyes fringed by thick black lashes! It reminds me so of a man I was once very much in love with----"

Quick as a shot came the interruption to what she was saying; a hoarse curt "Don't!" over her shoulder; a hand that clutched at her upper arm, and then dropped as soon as it had touched her.

She wheeled, startled. She faced the angry, hurt, and jealous eyes of a man.

Jack Awdas, looking steadily down into her astonished face, repeated in that husky, angry tone; "Don't. Don't do it! Don't talk to me about any man you've loved. I can't bear it. D'you see? You----I----You mustn't."

She said nothing, in the extreme of surprise. He said nothing more either. It is possible that he was as startled as she was by the declaration that had broken from his lips, and whose sound was still ringing in their ears. The boy had not meant to say it. He had not known what he had meant to say; his mind had been, as it were, filled by some luminous and bewildering and concealing mist.

Now a breath had blown aside a corner of that mist: he caught a glimpse of the heights and depths that it had been hiding--for how many hours, how many days? He did not know. Only it seemed to him that since that night of his bad dream, since his eyes had closed upon the sight of that woman watching, lovely with Pity, he had woken up to a new world.

It was full of strangeness and unrest, that world; it was full of sudden thrills. It held impatience to hear her voice, to touch her hand. It held longing and mystery. It held worship of a laugh or gesture from her. It held amazement at oneself; incredulity that one could feel these things. Now, he found, it held also Pain....

This woman had been made part of his life by that vigil shared. He could not bear the thought of her in other men's lives; couldn't bear to think of it, much less to hear of it in words.... It couldn't be. She was his!

They walked on in silence, these two English people from the hotel; each treading a maze of hidden thought as they went. No word of it escaped them for the present. Jack Awdas was the first to speak.

He said, his husky voice once more composed: "You haven't had a look at this place yet, have you?"

"No," replied Mrs. Cartwright, also in the accents of every day. "You know the way, don't you?"

"Yes; Ross and I explored the oyster-beds the first day we came over. Rather interesting. I thought perhaps the place might come in useful to you as--as 'copy.'"

"Oh yes," murmured Mrs. Cartwright, out of the labyrinth of her thoughts....

It would have augured ill for the next chapters of her serial had she depended for "copy" upon what she was to see of that French oyster-park that afternoon. Neither she nor the boy, who was her guide, had anything but a cursory eye, an abstracted mind, to give to that lightsome, airy picture of wide sea and sand, mapped out with stakes and sills and basins, and peopled with busy barefoot women in their picturesque garb of black sunbonnet, print jumper and long scarlet trousers.

Up and down the narrow paths stepped those long slender feet of Mrs. Cartwright, shod in the brown canvas sandalettes of the neighbourhood, with lacings that clipped her to mid-calf like the cothurne ribbons of a dancer. Before her tramped the high leather boots of the Flying-man; crunch--crunch--crunch, over the gravel and chipped shell. But still the paths that each was treading remained those of the secret labyrinth....




She, behind all the light composure of her manner, was more than disturbed. She was touched down to that mingling of inner tears and inner laughter, which was her very self. He cared for her, then, this charming lad, whose heart so far had known only his own people, only that other lad who had been his observer and his chum. He loved her. There could be no mistaking the tone in which he'd blurted out: "Don't talk to me about other men you've loved; I can't bear it!" Yes; he was hers--just as Keith Cartwright had been hers, and young Rolfe, who was killed on the Frontier, and Rex Mannering in Nineteen-oh-one, and the man whose sea-blue regard had laughed through such black fringing lashes, and the others. She ought to have known. Here was this boy.... At twenty-two!... She had seen such affairs.... She had watched, not too sympathetically, the mature woman who receives the attentions of her son's contemporaries. Once she had heard a friend of hers, in all the glory of her twenty-four summer, declare, "It's such an elderly habit, letting youths younger than oneself fetch and carry for one. And oh, Claudia! I don't think you or I will ever have to know the humiliation of loving a boy;" Mrs. Cartwright had lost sight of this friend, who was a year older than herself.

Perhaps the unforseen had happened to her too. Certainly Mrs. Cartwright had never dreamed that this thing would ever happen to herself; to become at her age the object of a lad's first love. It made her feel, at the same time, suddenly old--and suddenly young.

Outwardly unchanged, she let her gaze sweep the flat stretches of sand before her, and then rest upon a parqueuse who waded by, a vivid figure in scarlet and black, carrying a square rope-bottomed oyster-basket.

"Wonderfully picturesque those wide black sunbonnets the women wear," Mrs. Cartwright commented. "Curious to think they're a survival of our occupation of this part of France, all those centuries ago."

"Are they? by Jove," was all that young Awdas replied. "That's interesting."

But for him, too, what he said was as a man talks in his sleep; what he saw about him was less clear than the landscape of a dream. In his heart the boy was awed and exultant. He had told her. It had leapt from his lips, rather. He was conscious of new power within him; something of the feeling that had been his on the morning when he had first gone up on a "solo." Now she knew what he had to say to her--for he would say the rest of it presently. Not yet; not yet....

They pottered about the oyster-park, talking of oyster-culture. They had tea in the town, discussing the various tea-shops of their preference in London and Paris. Then he asked her if she were too tired to walk home and would like to take the little tramway; he knew he ought to ask her that, but he hoped inwardly that she would agree to walk. He breathed again when she protested that she was never tired. They took to the forest-path again, now gilded by the sun's rays, pointing through the pine-trunks; beyond the fringing branches the glimpse of sea and sky had changed from corn-cockle-blue to saffron-yellow. They walked, talking of those other fair woods of France that the War had turned into treeless, blasted wastes, spun over by webs of barbed wire. And then they came to that rise in the ground of the forest where the arbutus bushes seemed to fall back, and whence they had caught the first glimpse of the sea. It was here that he had spoken, on their way out. It was here that, on their way home, silence fell suddenly upon them. As if by tacit consent, they stopped walking. He turned to her.

"No," said Mrs. Cartwright hastily, as if he had said something. "No, no."

"Yes," said Jack Awdas, quietly and steadily, and just as if no time had elapsed between his first hurt "Don't" and this. "I am going to talk to you about it. I must."

"No, no. Please don't," gently and unhappily, from her. "It's better not. There's nothing to be said."

"Oh, isn't there, by Jove!" exclaimed the boy. "There is everything. I must tell you. I----Well, you know now, of course. I do care for you, most tremendously."

Tall woman as she was, he was looking down into her face as he went on quickly, composedly. The intensity of what he felt took from him all shyness.

He said: "I never thought it was in me to care so awfully about anybody. It's all come"--he sketched a gesture with his long arm--"like that! In me! I can't tell you what it's like. When I've heard other fellows talking, I've thought----But I see now it's absolutely true. Only more so. None of them cared as I do. They couldn't. They hadn't met--you."

"Please don't." She pressed her lips together. "I ought not to have let you say as much." She tried to meet his eyes frankly, but that young ardour in them disconcerted her. She looked aside, leant a hand on the hard red bark of the pine nearest to her. "Of course," she concluded (very feebly, as she felt!), "I am so glad you like me, Mr. Awdas.... I hope we shall always be ... great friends...."

"Friends?" echoed the boy. He put back his small head and laughed. "Like you? But I want you to marry me."

She looked at him, at a loss for just the right words.

He persisted, still smiling. "But, of course, you've got to marry me."

Now she gave a little hopeless laugh, glancing about as if to take on to her side the tall old trees, the distant sea, the sunset-clouds. She said, with an attempt to put the conversation on a more natural basis, "You know, you mustn't talk nonsense to me----"

"Why nonsense?" quickly. "This is dead earnest."

She said quietly: "Mr. Awdas, how old are you? Twenty-two, aren't you?"

"Yes; but look here! That's got absolutely nothing to do with this----"

"Everything," said the woman. "You're twenty-two; I am----"

"I don't want to know," he broke in. "You're--you. You've got nothing to do with ages, or age. You're so wonderful. There's nobody in the world like you. I love you," he ended, in a mutter. "I want you to marry me."

There was a lump in Mrs. Cartwright's throat as she said ruefully, "I might be your mother."

He cried out impatiently: "Oh, dash it all! So 'might' Madame Leroux, or anybody else, be my mother! The point is, they don't happen to be. You don't either. You aren't. And you're going to be my wife. Don't you see how I care for you?"

She was struck by the stark simplicity of him. He cared so much, then, that he should not think of its not meaning everything to the person beloved, as well as himself. He was looking down at her not only adoringly, but masterfully. To him this new love was so wonderful that it must needs be omnipotent. Sorry, and touched more deeply that she had dreamed, she sighed as she stood there in the wood and set herself to argue.

She went over them all, the old, the obvious, the stock facts that have proved themselves for centuries, the truths whose lasting light is put out only by the transient fairy glamour of Infatuation.

"You see, this is a passing thing. This happens to almost every young man once in his life. He looks back and laughs at it."

" ... fatal to marry out of one's generation!"

"In a little time you'll know how right I am----"

" ... ten years hence you'd look at me, and see I was an old woman. You'd still be a young man. It would be horrible!"

The boy looked at her and smiled as she spoke, and she knew that the words meant nothing to him, the lips that uttered them were everything.

She said, resignedly, "Let's walk on," and they walked on down the narrow path between the thickening clumps of arbutus; this time he led, his head turned over his shoulder to watch her as she followed.

He began again (without alarm, it seemed): "You won't marry me, then?"

She was a little reassured by the cheerfulness in that husky boyish voice. She had flung cold water, then, to some purpose? He was ready to listen to reason.

"My dear boy, my dear child!" she exclaimed, laughing more naturally. "You weren't born when I'd been living for years and years. I was growing up and married when you were running about that paddock at home in a jersey suit. I'd been round the world when you were going to public school. Marry you? I shouldn't dream for one instant of such a thing. Not for one single instant."

"Just because of ages?" he tossed back over that wide shoulder as they went. "Is that all?"

"Isn't that more than enough?"

"What, just because you've lived in this world more years than I have? Eaten more breakfasts and dinners? Had time to wear out more pairs of shoes?" the boy took up quite gaily. He pushed aside a bush that straggled right across her path, offering his bouquet of white lily-of-the-valley-like flowers, growing on the same bough as the berries of scarlet and orange. Arbutus! She knew she would never see the plant again without being reminded of this hour. To her and to these others here with her it would always mean "that time at Les Pins...."

He broke off a spray, held it towards her. "Look, you're like that," he told her, more softly, and for the first time rather bashfully. "I was thinking so yesterday, in the woods. You may have been grown-up, and--and have known things and all that; that's ripeness and fruit, I suppose.... Yes; but, at the same time, you kept on being ... white flowers, and buds...."

She shook her head, silently refusing the flattery that she knew was meant sincerely.

But she took the spray from his hand, tucked it into her brown coat (tucking in as well an end of Olwen's pink ribbon that had escaped again).

The look of joyous mastery flashed into his eyes. He went on, fondly teasing, "Come to that, I've seen and done more things than you have in all that long, long life you talk so much about. I've been up further, anyway, haven't I?" He tilted his crested head towards the pine-tops. "And you've never crashed down a mile and a half from the clouds; now, have you?"

"Ah----" she said, and checked a little shiver. The sun had set now; it was growing dark under the trees.

"Let's walk faster," said Mrs. Cartwright, hurriedly. "Let's get in. And--we won't talk about all that any more."

He said nothing. His whole heart was filled with the utterly boyish, utterly obstinate Will-to-Get.