THE SWINDLER AND OTHER STORIES
ETHEL M. DELL
Author of the Hundredth Chance, Etc.
Grosset & Dunlap Publishers New York Made in the United States of America
This edition is issued under arrangement with the publishers G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London The Knickerbocker Press, New York
The stories contained in this volume were originally published in the Red Magazine.
The Swindler's Handicap
The Friend who Stood By
The Right Man
A Question of Trust
Where the Heart Is
* * * * *
"When you come to reflect that there are only a few planks between you and the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, it makes you feel sort of pensive."
"I beg your pardon?"
The stranger, smoking his cigarette in the lee of the deck-cabins, turned his head sharply in the direction of the voice. He encountered the wide, unembarrassed gaze of a girl's grey eyes. She had evidently just come up on deck.
"I beg yours," she rejoined composedly. "I thought at first you were some one else."
He shrugged his shoulders, and turned away. Quite obviously he was not disposed to be sociable upon so slender an introduction.
The girl, however, made no move to retreat. She stood thoughtfully tapping on the boards with the point of her shoe.
"Were you playing cards last night down in the saloon?" she asked presently.
"I was looking on."
He threw the words over his shoulder, not troubling to turn.
The girl shivered. The morning air was damp and chill.
"You do a good deal of that, Mr.—Mr.—" She paused suggestively.
But the man would not fill in the blank. He smoked on in silence.
The vessel was rolling somewhat heavily, and the splash of the drifting foam reached them occasionally where they stood. There were no other ladies in sight. Suddenly the clear, American voice broke through the man's barrier of silence.
"I know quite well what you are, you know. You may just as well tell me your name as leave me to find it out for myself."
He looked at her then for the first time, keenly, even critically. His clean-shaven mouth wore a very curious expression.
"My name is West," he said, after a moment.
She nodded briskly.
"Your professional name, I suppose. You are a professional, of course?"
His eyes continued to watch her narrowly. They were blue eyes, piercingly, icily blue.
"Why 'of course,' if one may ask?"
She laughed a light, sweet laugh, inexpressibly gay. Cynthia Mortimer could be charmingly inconsequent when she chose.
"I don't think you are a bit clever, you know," she said. "I knew what you were directly I saw you standing by the gangway watching the people coming on board. You looked really professional then, just as if you didn't care a red cent whether you caught your man or not. I knew you did care though, and I was ready to dance when I knew you hadn't got him. Think you'll track him down on our side?"
West turned his eyes once more upon the heaving, grey water, carelessly flicking the ash from his cigarette.
"I don't think," he said briefly. "I know."
"You—know?" The wide eyes opened wider, but they gathered no information from the unresponsive profile that smoked the cigarette. "You know where Mr. Nat Verney is?" she breathed, almost in a whisper. "You don't say! Then—then you weren't really watching out for him at the gangway?"
He jerked up his head with an enigmatical laugh.
"My methods are not so simple as that," he said.
Cynthia joined quite generously in his laugh, notwithstanding its hard note of ridicule. She had become keenly interested in this man, in spite of—possibly in consequence of—the rebuffs he so unsparingly administered. She was not accustomed to rebuffs, this girl with her delicate, flower-like beauty. They held for her something of the charm of novelty, and abashed her not at all.
"And you really think you'll catch him?" she questioned, a note of honest regret in her voice.
"Don't you want him to be caught?"
He pitched his cigarette overboard and turned to her with less of churlishness in his bearing.
She met his eyes quite frankly.
"I should just love him to get away," she declared, with kindling eyes. "Oh, I know he's a regular sharper, and he's swindled heaps of people—I'm one of them, so I know a little about it. He swindled me out of five hundred dollars, and I can tell you I was mad at first. But now that he is flying from justice, I'm game enough to want him to get away. I suppose my sympathies generally lie with the hare, Mr. West. I'm sorry if it annoys you, but I was created that way."
West was frowning, but he smiled with some cynicism over her last remarks.
"Besides," she continued, "I couldn't help admiring him. He has a regular genius for swindling—that man. You'll agree with me there?"
A sudden heavy roll of the vessel pitched her forward before he could reply. He caught her round the waist, saving her from a headlong fall, and she clung to him, laughing like a child at the mishap.
"I think I'll have to go below," she decided regretfully. "But you've been good to me, and I'm glad I spoke. I've always been somewhat prejudiced against detectives till to-day. My cousin Archie—you saw him in the cardroom last night—vowed you were nothing half so interesting. Why is it, I wonder, that detectives always look like journalists?" She looked at him with eyes of friendly criticism. "You didn't deceive me, you see. But then"—ingenuously—"I'm clever in some ways, much more clever than you'd think. Now you won't cut me next time we meet, will you? Because—perhaps—I'm going to ask you to do something for me."
"What do you want me to do?"
The man's voice was hard, his eyes cold as steel, but his question had in it a shade—just a shade—of something warmer than mere curiosity.
She took him into her confidence without an instant's hesitation.
"My cousin Archie—you may have noticed—you were looking on last night—he's a very careless player, and headstrong too. But he can't afford to lose any, and I don't want him to come to grief. You see, I'm rather fond of him."
The man's brows were drawn down over his eyes. His expression was not encouraging.
"Well," she proceeded, undismayed, "I saw you looking on, and you looked as if you knew a few things. So I thought you'd be a safe person to ask. I can't look after him; and his mother—well, she's worse than useless. But a man—a real strong man like you—is different. If I were to introduce you, couldn't you look after him a bit—just till we get across?"
With much simplicity she made her request, but there was a tinge of anxiety in her eyes. Certainly West, staring steadily forth over the grey waste of tumbling waters, looked sufficiently forbidding.
After several seconds of silence he flung an abrupt question:
"Why don't you ask some one else?"
"There is no one else," she answered.
"No one else?" He made a gesture of impatient incredulity.
"No one that I can trust," she explained.
"And you trust me?"
"Of course I do."
"Why?" Again he looked at her with a piercing scrutiny. His eyes held a savage, almost a threatening expression.
But the girl only laughed, lightly and confidently.
"Why? Oh, just because you are trustworthy, I guess. I can't think of any other reason."
West's look relaxed, became abstracted, and finally fell away from her.
"You appear to be a lady of some discernment," he observed drily.
She proffered her hand impulsively, her eyes dancing.
"My, that's the first pretty thing you've said to me!" she declared flippantly. "I just like you, Mr. West!"
West was feeling for his cigarette case. He gave her his hand without looking at her, as if her approbation did not greatly gratify him. When she was gone he moved away along the wind-swept deck with his collar up to his ears and his head bent to the gale. His conversation with the American girl had not apparently made him feel any more sociably inclined towards his fellow-passengers.
* * * * *
Certainly, as Cynthia had declared, young Archibald Bathurst was an exceedingly reckless player. He lacked the judgment and the cool brain essential to a good cardplayer, with the result that he lost much more often than he won. But notwithstanding this fact he had a passion for cards which no amount of defeat could abate—a passion which he never failed to indulge whenever an opportunity presented itself.
At the very moment when his cousin was making her petition on his behalf to the surly Englishman on deck, he was seated in the saloon with three or four men older than himself, playing and losing, playing and losing, with almost unvarying monotony, yet with a feverish relish that had in it something tragic.
He was only three-and-twenty, and, as he was wont to remark, ill-luck dogged him persistently at every turn. He never blamed himself when rash speculations failed, and he never profited by bitter experience. Simply, he was by nature a spendthrift, high-spirited, impulsive, weak, with little thought for the future and none at all for the past. Wherever he went he was popular. His gaiety and spontaneity won him favour. But no one took him very seriously. No one ever dreamed that his ill-luck was a cause for anything but mirth.
A good deal of money had changed hands when the party separated to dine, but, though young Bathurst was as usual a loser, he displayed no depression. Only, as he sauntered away to his cabin, he flung a laughing challenge to those who remained:
"See if I don't turn the tables presently!"
They laughed with him, pursuing him with chaff till he was out of hearing. The boy was a game youngster, and he knew how to lose. Moreover, it was generally believed that he could afford to pay for his pleasures.
But a man who met him suddenly outside his cabin read something other than indifference upon his flushed face. He only saw him for an instant. The next, Archie had swung past and was gone, a clanging door shutting him from sight.
When the little knot of cardplayers reassembled after dinner their number was augmented. A short, broad-shouldered man, clean-shaven, with piercing blue eyes, had scraped acquaintance with one of them, and had accepted an invitation to join the play. Some surprise was felt among the rest, for this man had till then been disposed to hold aloof from his fellow-passengers, preferring a solitary cigarette to any amusements that might be going forward.
A New York man named Rudd muttered to his neighbour that the fellow might be all right, but he had the eyes of a sharper. The neighbour in response murmured the words "private detective" and Rudd was relieved.
Archie Bathurst was the last to arrive, and dropped into the place he had occupied all the afternoon. It was immediately facing the stranger, whom he favoured with a brief and somewhat disparaging stare before settling down to play.
The game was a pure gamble. They played swiftly, and in silence. West seemed to take but slight interest in the issue, but he won steadily and surely. Young Bathurst, playing feverishly, lost and lost, and lost again. The fortunes of the other four players varied. But always the newcomer won his ventures.
The evening was half over when Archie suddenly and loudly demanded higher stakes, to turn his luck, as he expressed it.
"Double them if you like," said West.
Rudd looked at him with a distrustful eye, and said nothing. The other players were disposed to accede to the boy's vehement request, and after a little discussion the matter was settled to his satisfaction. The game was resumed at higher points.
Some onlookers had drawn round the table scenting excitement. Archie, sitting with his back to the wall, was playing with headlong recklessness. For a while he continued to lose, and then suddenly and most unexpectedly he began to win. A most rash speculation resulted in his favour, and from that moment it seemed that his luck had turned. Once or twice he lost, but these occasions were far outbalanced by several brilliant coups. The tide had turned at last in his favour.
He played as a man possessed, swiftly and feverishly. It seemed that he and West were to divide the honours. For West's luck scarcely varied, and Rudd continued to look at him askance.
For the greater part of an hour young Bathurst won with scarcely a break, till the spectators began to chaff him upon his outrageous success.
"You'd better stop," one man warned him. "She's a fickle jade, you know, Bathurst. Take too much for granted, and she'll desert you."
But Bathurst did not even seem to hear. He played with lowered eyes and twitching mouth, and his hands shook perceptibly. The gambler's lust was upon him.
"He'll go on all night," murmured the onlookers.
But this prophecy was not to be fulfilled.
It was a very small thing that stemmed the racing current of the boy's success—no more than a slight click audible only to a few, and the tinkle of something falling—but in an instant, swift as a thunderbolt, the wings of tragedy swept down upon the little party gathered about the table.
Young Bathurst uttered a queer, half-choked exclamation, and dived downwards. But the man next to him, an Englishman named Norton, dived also, and it was he who, after a moment, righted himself with something shining in his hand which he proceeded grimly to display to the whole assembled company. It was a small, folding mirror—little more than a toy, it looked—with a pin attached to its leathern back.
Deliberately Norton turned it over, examining it in such a way that others might examine it too. Then, having concluded his investigation of this very simple contrivance, he slapped it down upon the table with a gesture of unutterable contempt.
"The secret of success," he observed.
Every one present looked at Archie, who had sunk back in his chair white to the lips. He seemed to be trying to say something, but nothing came of it.
And then, quite calmly, ending a silence more terrible than any tumult of words, another voice made itself heard.
"Even so, Mr. Norton." West bent forward and with the utmost composure possessed himself of the shining thing upon the table. "This is my property. I have been rooking you fellows all the evening."
The avowal was so astounding and made with such complete sang-froid that no one uttered a word. Only every one turned from Archie to stare at the man who thus serenely claimed his own.
He proceeded with unvarying coolness to explain himself.
"It was really done as an experiment," he said. "I am not a card-sharper by profession, as some of you already know. But in the course of certain investigations not connected with the matter I now have in hand, I picked this thing up, and, being something of a specialist in certain forms of cheating, I made up my mind to try my hand at this and prove for myself its extreme simplicity. You see how easy it is to swindle, gentlemen, and the danger to which you expose yourselves. There is no necessity for me to explain the trick further. The instrument speaks for itself. It is merely a matter of dexterity, and keeping it out of sight."
He held it up a second time before his amazed audience, twisted it this way and that, with the air of a conjurer displaying his smartest trick, attached it finally to the lapel of his coat, and rose.
"As a practical demonstration it seems to have acted very well," he remarked. "And no harm done. If you are all satisfied, so am I."
He collected the notes at his elbow with a single careless sweep of the hand, and tossed them into the middle of the table; then, with a brief, collective bow, he turned to go. But Rudd, the first to recover from his amazement, sprang impetuously to his feet. "One moment, sir!" he said.
West stopped at once, a cold glint of humour in his eyes. Without a sign of perturbation he faced round, meeting the American's hostile scrutiny calmly, judicially.
"I wish to say," said Rudd, "on behalf of myself, and—I think I may take it—on behalf of these other gentlemen also, that your action was a most dastardly piece of impertinence, to give it its tamest name. Naturally, we don't expect Court manners from one of your profession, but we do look for ordinary common honesty. But it seems that we look in vain. You have behaved like a mighty fine skunk, sir. And if you don't see that there's any crying need for a very humble apology, you've got about the thickest hide that ever frayed a horsewhip."
Every one was standing by the time this elaborate threat was uttered, and it was quite obvious that Rudd voiced the general opinion. The only one whose face expressed no indignation was Archie Bathurst. He was leaning against the wall, mopping his forehead with a shaking hand.
No one looked at him. All attention was centred upon West, who met it with a calm serenity suggestive of contempt. He showed himself in no hurry to respond to Rudd's indictment, and when he did it was not exclusively to Rudd that he spoke.
"I am sorry," he coolly said, "that you consider yourselves aggrieved by my experiment. I do not myself see in what way I have injured you. However, perhaps you are the best judges of that. If you consider an apology due to you, I am quite ready to apologise."
His glance rested for a second upon Archie, then slowly swept the entire assembly. There was scant humility about him, apologise though he might.
Rudd returned his look with open disgust. But it was Norton who replied to West's calm defence of himself.
"It is Bathurst who is the greatest loser," he said, with a glance at that young man, who was beginning to recover from his agitation. "It was a tom-fool trick to play, but it's done. You won't get another opportunity for your experiments on board this boat. So—if Bathurst is satisfied—I should say the sooner you apologise and clear out the better."
"We will confiscate this, anyway," declared Rudd, plucking the mirror from West's coat.
He flung it down, and ground his heel upon it with venomous intention. West merely shrugged his shoulders.
"I apologise," he said briefly, "singly and collectively, to all concerned in my experiment, especially"—he made a slight pause—"to Mr. Bathurst, whose run of luck I deeply regret to have curtailed. If Mr. Bathurst is satisfied, I will now withdraw."
He paused again, as if to give Bathurst an opportunity to express an opinion. But Archie said nothing whatever. He was staring down upon the table, and did not so much as raise his eyes.
West shrugged his shoulders again, ever so slightly, and swung slowly upon his heel. In a dead silence he walked away down the saloon. No one spoke till he had gone.
* * * * *
A black, moaning night had succeeded the grey, gusty day. The darkness came down upon the sea like a pall, covering the long, heaving swell from sight—a darkness that wrapped close, such a darkness as could be felt—through which the spray drove blindly.
There was small attraction for passengers on deck, and West grimaced to himself as he emerged from the heated cabins. Yet it was not altogether distasteful to him. He was a man to whom a calm atmosphere meant intolerable stagnation. He was essentially born to fight his way in the world.
For a while he paced alone, to and fro, along the deserted deck, his hands behind him, the inevitable cigarette between his lips. But presently he paused and stood still close to the companion by which he had ascended. It was sheltered here, and he leaned against the woodwork by which Cynthia Mortimer had supported herself that morning, and smoked serenely and meditatively.
Minutes passed. There came the sound of hurrying feet upon the stairs behind him, and he moved a little to one side, glancing downwards.
The light at the head of the companion revealed a man ascending, bareheaded, and in evening dress. His face, upturned, gleamed deathly white. It was the face of Archie Bathurst.
West suddenly squared his shoulders and blocked the opening.
"Go and get an overcoat, you young fool!" he said.
Archie gave a great start, stood a second, then, without a word, turned back and disappeared.
West left his sheltered corner and paced forward across the deck. He came to a stand by the rail, gazing outwards into the restless darkness. There seemed to be the hint of a smile in his intent eyes.
A few more minutes drifted away. Then there fell a step behind him; a hand touched his arm.
"Can I speak to you?" Archie asked.
Slowly West turned.
"If you have anything of importance to say," he said.
Archie faced him with a desperate resolution.
"I want to ask you—I want to know—what in thunder you did it for!"
"Eh?" said West. "Did what?"
He almost drawled the words, as if to give the boy time to control his agitation.
Archie stared at him incredulously.
"You must know what I mean."
"Haven't an idea."
There was just a tinge of contempt this time in the words. What an unconscionable bungler the fellow was!
"But you must!" persisted Archie, blundering wildly. "I suppose you knew what you were doing just now when—when——"
"I generally know what I am doing," observed West.
Archie stumbled again, and fell silent, as if he had hurt himself.
"I don't always care to discuss my motives," said West very decidedly.
"But surely—" Archie suddenly pulled up, realising that by this spasmodic method he was making no headway. "Look here, sir," he said, more quietly, "you've done a big thing for me to-night—a dashed fine thing! Heaven only knows what you did it for, but——"
"I have done nothing whatever for you," said West shortly. "You make a mistake."
"But you'll admit——"
"I admit nothing."
He made as if he would turn on his heel, but Archie caught him by the arm.
"I know I'm a cur," he said. And his voice shook a little. "I don't wonder you won't speak to me. But there are some things that can't be left unsaid. I'm going down now, at once, to tell those fellows what actually happened."
"Then you are going to make a big fool of yourself to no purpose," said West.
He stood still, scanning the boy's face with pitiless eyes. Archie writhed impotently.
"I can't stand it!" he said, with vehemence. "I thought I was blackguard enough to let you do it. But—no doubt I'm a fool, as you say—I find I can't."
"You can't help yourself," said West. He planted himself squarely in front of Archie. "Listen to this!" he said. "You know what I am?"
"They say you are a detective," said Archie.
"Exactly. And, as such, I do whatever suits my purpose without explaining why to the rest of the world. If you are fortunate enough to glean a little advantage from what I do, take it, and be quiet about it. Don't hamper me with your acknowledgments. I assure you I have no more concern for your ultimate fate than those fellows below that you've been swindling all the evening. One thing I will say, though, for your express benefit. You will never make a good, even an indifferently good, gambler. And as to card-sharping, you've no talent whatever. Better give it up."
His blue eyes looked straight at Archie with a stare that was openly supercilious, and Archie stood abashed.
"You—you are awfully good," he stammered at length.
West's brief laugh lived in his memory for long after. It held an indescribable sting, almost as if the man resented something. Yet the next moment unexpectedly he held out his hand.
"A matter of opinion," he observed drily. "Good-night! Remember what I have said to you."
"I shall never forget it," Archie said earnestly.
He wrung the extended hand hard, waited an instant, then, as West turned from him with that slight characteristic lift of the shoulders, he moved away and went below.
* * * * *
"I'd just like a little talk with you, Mr. West, if I may." Lightly the audacious voice arrested him, and, as it were, against his will, West stood still.
She was standing behind him in the morning sunshine, her hair blown all about her face, her grey eyes wide and daring, full of an alert friendliness that could not be ignored. She moved forward with her light, free step and stood beside him. West was smoking as usual. His expression was decidedly surly. Cynthia glanced at him once or twice before she spoke.
"You mustn't mind what I'm going to ask you," she said at length gently. "Now, Mr. West, what was it—exactly—that happened in the saloon last night? Surely you'll tell me by myself if I promise—honest Injun—not to tell again."
"Why should I tell you?" said West, in his brief, unfriendly style.
Cynthia was undaunted. "Because you're a gentleman," she said boldly.
He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know what reason I have given you to say so."
"No?" She looked at him with a funny little smile. "Well then, I just feel it in my bones; and nothing you do or leave undone will make me believe the contrary."
"Much obliged to you," said West. His blue eyes were staring straight out over the sea to the long, blue sky-line. He seemed too absorbed in what he saw to pay much attention to the girl beside him.
But she was not to be shaken off. "Mr. West," she began again, breaking in upon his silence, "do you know what they are saying about you to-day?"
"Haven't an idea."
"No," she said. "And I don't suppose you care either. But I care. It matters a lot to me."
"Don't see how," threw in West.
He turned in his abrupt, disconcerting way, and gave her a piercing look. She averted her face instantly, but he had caught her unawares.
"Good heavens!" he said. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing," she returned, with a sort of choked vehemence. "There's nothing the matter with me. Only I'm feeling badly about—about what I asked you to do yesterday. I'd sooner have lost every dollar I have in the world, if I had only known, than—than have you do—what you did."
"Good heavens!" West said again.
He waited a little then, looking down at her as she leaned upon the rail with downcast face. At length, as she did not raise her head, he addressed her for the first time on his own initiative:
She made a slight movement to indicate that she was listening, but she remained gazing down into the green and white of the racing water.
Unconsciously he moved a little nearer to her. "There is no occasion for you to feel badly," he said. "I had my own reasons for what I did. It doesn't much matter what they were. But let me tell you for your comfort that neither socially nor professionally has it done me any harm."
"They are all saying: 'Set a thief to catch a thief,'" she interposed, with something like a sob in her voice.
"They can say what they like."
West's tone expressed the most stoical indifference, but she would not be comforted.
"If only I hadn't—asked you to!" she murmured.
He made his peculiar, shrugging gesture. "What does it matter? Moreover, what you asked of me was something quite apart from this. It had nothing whatever to do with it."
She stood up sharply at that, and faced him with burning eyes. "Oh, don't tell me that lie!" she exclaimed passionately. "I'm not such a child as to be taken in by it. You don't deceive me at all, Mr. West. I know as well as you do—better—that the man who did the swindling last night was not you. And I'm sick—I'm downright sick—whenever I think of it!"
West's expression changed slightly as he looked at her. He seemed to regard her as a doctor regards the patient for whom he contemplates a change of treatment.
"See here," he abruptly said. "You are distressing yourself all to no purpose. If you will promise to keep it secret, I'll tell you the facts of the case."
Cynthia's face changed also. She caught eagerly at the suggestion. "Yes?" she said. "Yes? I promise, of course. And I'm quite trustworthy."
"I believe you are," he said, with a grim smile. "Well, the fact of the matter is this. The man we want is on board this ship, but being only a private detective, I don't possess a warrant for his arrest. Therefore all I can do is to keep him in sight. And I can only do that by throwing him as far as possible off the scent. If he takes me for a card-sharper, all the better. For he's as slippery as an eel, and I have to play him pretty carefully."
He ceased. Cynthia's eyes were growing wider and wider.
"Nat Verney on board this ship?" she gasped.
"Yes. You wanted him to get away, didn't you? But I don't think he will, this time. He will probably be arrested directly we reach New York. But, meantime, I must watch out."
"Oh!" breathed Cynthia. "Then"—with sudden hope dawning in her eyes—"it really was your doing, that trick at the card-table last night?"
West uttered his brief, hard laugh.
"What do you take me for?"
She heaved a great sigh of relief.
"And it wasn't Archie, after all? I'm thankful you told me. I thought—I thought—But it doesn't matter, does it? Tell me, do tell me, Mr. West," drawing very close to him, "which—which is Mr. Nat Verney?"
West seemed to hesitate.
"Oh, do tell me!" she begged. "I know I'm only a woman, but I always keep my word. And it's only two days more to New York."
He looked closely into her eyes and yielded.
"I'm trusting you with my reputation," he said. "It's the stout, red-faced man called Rudd."
"Mr. Rudd?" She started back. "You don't say? That man?" There followed a short pause while she digested the information. Then, as on the previous morning, she suddenly extended her hand. "Well, I hate that man, anyway. And I believe you're really clever. If you like, Mr. West, I'll help you to watch out."
"Thanks!" said West. He took the little hand into a tight grip, still looking straight into her eyes. There was a light in his own that shone like a blue flame. "Thanks!" he said again, as he released it. "You're very good, Miss Mortimer. But you mustn't be seen with me, you know. You've got to remember that I'm a swindler."
The girl laughed aloud. It pleased her to feel that this taciturn man had taken her into his confidence at last. "I shall remember," she said lightly.
And she went away, not only comforted, but gay of heart.
* * * * *
During the remainder of the voyage, West was treated with extreme coolness by every one. It did not seem to abash him in the least. He came and went in the crowd with the utmost sang-froid, always preoccupied, always self-contained. Cynthia observed him from a distance with admiration. The man had taken her fancy. She was keenly interested in his methods, as well as in his decidedly unusual personality. She observed Rudd also, and noted the obvious suspicion with which he regarded West. On the night before their arrival she saw the latter alone for a moment, and whispered to him that Mr. Rudd seemed uneasy. At which information West merely laughed sardonically. He was holding a small parcel, to which, after a moment, he drew her attention.
"I was going to ask you to accept this," he said. "It is nothing very important, but I should like you to have it. Don't open it before to-morrow."
"What is it?" asked Cynthia, in surprise.
He frowned in his abrupt way.
"It doesn't matter; something connected with my profession. I shouldn't give it you, if I didn't know you were to be trusted."
"But—but"—she hesitated a little—"ought I to take it?"
He raised his shoulders.
"I shall give it to the captain for you, if you don't. But I would rather give it to you direct."
In face of this, Cynthia yielded, feeling as if he compelled her.
"But mayn't I open it?"
"No." West's eyes held hers for a second. "Not till to-morrow. And, in case we don't meet again, I'll say good-bye."
"But we shall meet in New York?" she urged, with a sudden sense of loss. "Or perhaps in Boston? My father would really like to meet you."
"Much obliged," said West, with his grim smile. "But I'm not much of a society man. And I don't think I shall find myself in Boston at present."
"Then—then—I sha'n't see you again—ever?" Cynthia's tone was unconsciously tragic. Till that moment she had scarcely realised how curiously strong an attraction this man held for her.
West's expression changed. His emotionless blue eyes became suddenly more blue, and intense with a vital fire. He leaned towards her as one on the verge of vehement speech.
Then abruptly his look went beyond her, and he checked himself.
"Who knows?" he said carelessly. "Good-bye for the present, anyway! It's been a pleasant voyage."
He straightened himself with the words, nodded, and turned aside without so much as touching her hand.
And Cynthia, glancing round with an instinctive feeling of discomfiture, saw Rudd with another man, standing watching them at the end of the passage.
* * * * *
In the dark of early morning they reached New York. Most of the passengers decided to remain on board for breakfast, which was served at an early hour in the midst of a hubbub and turmoil indescribable.
Cynthia, with her aunt and Archie, partook of a hurried meal in the thick of the ever-shifting crowd. She looked in vain for West, her grey eyes searching perpetually.
One friend after another came up to bid them good-bye, stood a little, talking, and presently drifted away. The whole ship from end to end hummed like a hive of bees.
She was glad when at length she was able to escape from the noisy saloon. She had not slept well, and her nerves were on edge. The memory of that interrupted conversation with West, of the confidence unspoken, went with her continually. She had an almost feverish longing to see him once more, even though it were in the heart of the crowd. He had been about to tell her something. Of that she was certain. She had an intense, an almost passionate desire to know what it was. Surely he would not—he could not—go ashore without seeing her again!
She had not intended to open the packet he had given her till she was ashore herself, but a palpitating curiosity tugged ever at her resolution till at length she could resist it no longer. West was nowhere to be seen, and she felt she must know more. It was intolerable to be thus left in the dark. Through the scurrying multitude of departing passengers, she began to make her way back to her cabin. Her progress was of necessity slow, and once in a crowded corner she was stopped altogether.
Two men were talking together close to her. Their backs were towards her, and in the general confusion they did not observe her futile impatience to pass.
"Oh, I knew the fellow was a wrong 'un, all along," were the first words that filtered to the girl's consciousness as she stood. "But I didn't think he was responsible for that card trick, I must say. Young Bathurst looked so abominably hangdog."
It was the Englishman, Norton, who spoke, and the man who stood with him was Rudd. Cynthia realised the near presence of the latter with a sensation of disgust. His drawling tones grated upon her intolerably.
"Waal," he said, "it was just that card trick that opened my eyes—I shouldn't have noticed him, otherwise. I knew that young Bathurst was square. He hasn't the brains to be anything else. And when this chap butted in with his thick-ribbed impudence, I guessed right then that we hadn't got a beginner to deal with. After that I watched for a bit, and there were several little things that made me begin to reflect. So the next evening I got a wireless message off to my partner in New York, and I reckon that did the trick. When we came up alongside this morning, the vultures were all ready for him. I took them to his cabin myself. There was no fuss at all. He saw it was all up, and gave in without a murmur. They were only just in time, though. In another thirty seconds, he would have been off. It was a clever piece of work, I flatter myself, to net Mr. Nat Verney so neatly."
The Englishman began to laugh, but suddenly broke off short as a girl's face, white and quivering, came between them.
"Who is this man?" the high, breathless voice demanded. "Which—which is Mr. Nat Verney?"
Rudd looked down at her through narrowed eyes. He was smiling—a small, bitter smile.
"Waal, Miss Mortimer," he began, "I reckon you have first right to know——"
She turned from him imperiously.
"You tell me," she commanded Norton.
Norton looked genuinely uncomfortable, and, probably in consequence, he answered her with a gruffness that sounded brutal.
"It was West. He has been arrested. His own fault entirely. No one would have suspected him if he hadn't been a fool, and given his own show away."
"He wasn't a fool!" Cynthia flashed back fiercely. "He was my friend!"
"I shouldn't be in too great a hurry to claim that distinction," remarked Rudd. "He's about the best-known rascal in the two hemispheres."
But Cynthia did not wait to hear him. She had slipped past, and was gone.
In her own cabin at last, she bolted the door and tore open that packet connected with his profession which he had given her the night before. It contained a roll of notes to the value of a hundred pounds, wrapped in a sheet of notepaper on which was scrawled a single line: "With apologies from the man who swindled you."
There was no signature of any sort. None was needed! When Cynthia finally left her cabin an hour later, her eyes were bright with that brightness which comes from the shedding of many tears.
* * * * *
The Swindler's Handicap
A SEQUEL TO "THE SWINDLER"
Which I Dedicate to the Friend Who Asked for it.
"Yes, but what's the good of it?" said Cynthia Mortimer gently. "I can never marry you."
"You might be engaged to me for a bit, anyhow," he urged, "and see how you like it."
She made a quaint gesture with her arms, as though she tried to lift some heavy weight.
"I am very sorry," she said, in the same gentle voice. "It's very nice of you to think of it, Lord Babbacombe. But—you see, I'm quite sure I shouldn't like it. So that ends it, doesn't it?"
He stood up to his full height, and regarded her with a faint, rueful smile.
"You're a very obstinate girl, Cynthia," he said.
She leaned back in her chair, looking up at him with clear, grey eyes that met his with absolute freedom.
"I'm not a girl at all, Jack," she said. "I gave up all my pretensions to youth many, many years ago."
He nodded, still faintly smiling.
"You were about nineteen, weren't you?"
"No. I was past twenty-one." A curious note crept into her voice; it sounded as if she were speaking of the dead. "It—was just twelve years ago," she said.
Babbacombe's eyebrows went up.
"What! Are you past thirty? I had no idea."
She laughed at him—a quick, gay laugh.
"Why, it's eight years since I first met you."
"Is it? Great heavens, how the time goes—wasted time, too, Cynthia! We might have been awfully happy together all this time. Well"—with a sharp sigh—"we can't get it back again. But anyhow, we needn't squander any more of it, if only you will be reasonable."
She shook her head; then, with one of those quick impulses that were a part of her charm, she sprang lightly up and gave him both her hands.
"No, Jack," she said. "No—no—no! I'm not reasonable. I'm just a drivelling, idiotic fool. But—but I love my foolishness too well ever to part with it. Ever, did I say? No, even I am not quite so foolish as that. But it's sublime enough to hold me till—till I know for certain whether—whether the thing I call love is real or—or—only—a sham."
There was passion in her voice, and her eyes were suddenly full of tears; but she kept them upturned to his as though she pleaded with him to understand.
He looked down at her very kindly, very steadily, holding her hands closely in his own. There was no hint of chagrin on his clean-shaven face—only the utmost kindness.
"Don't cry!" he said gently. "Tell me about this sublime foolishness of yours—about the thing you call—love. I might help you, perhaps—who knows?—to find out if it is the real thing or not."
Her lips were quivering.
"I've never told a soul," she said. "I—am half afraid."
"Nonsense, dear!" he protested.
"But I am," she persisted. "It's such an absurd romance—this of mine, so absurd that you'll laugh at it, just at first. And then—afterwards—you will—disapprove."
"My dear girl," he said, "you have never entertained the smallest regard for my opinion before. Why begin to-day?"
She laughed a little, turning from him to brush away her tears.
"Sit down," she said, "and—and smoke—those horrid strong cigarettes of yours. I love the smell. Perhaps I'll try and tell you. But—mind, Jack—you're not to look at me. And you're not to say a single word till I've done. Just—smoke, that's all."
She settled herself on the low fender-cushion with her face turned from him to the fire. Lord Babbacombe sat down as she desired, and took out and lighted a cigarette.
As the scent of it reached her she began to speak in the high, American voice he had come to love. There was nothing piercing about it; it was a clear, sweet treble.
"It happened when I was travelling under Aunt Bathurst's wing. You know, it was with her and my cousin Archie that I first did Europe. My! It was a long time ago! I've been round the world four times since then—twice with poor dear Daddy, once with Mrs. Archie, after he died, and the last time—alone. And I didn't like that last time a mite. I was like the man in The Pilgrim's Progress—I took my hump wherever I went. Still, I had to do something. You were big-game shooting. I'd have gone with you if you'd have had me unmarried. But I knew you wouldn't, so I just had to mess around by myself. Oh, but I was tired—I was tired! But I kept saying to myself it was the last journey before—Jack, if you don't smoke your cigarette will go out. Where was I? I'm afraid I'm boring you. You can go to sleep if you like. Well, it was on the voyage back. There was a man on board that every one said was a private detective. It was at the time of the great Nat Verney swindles. You remember, of course? And somehow we all jumped to the conclusion that he was tracking him. I remember seeing him when we first went on board at Liverpool. He was standing by the gangway watching the crowd with the bluest eyes on earth, and I took him for a detective right away. But—for all that—there was something about him—something I kind of liked, that made me feel I wanted to know him. He was avoiding everybody, but I made him talk to me. You know my way."
She paused for a moment, and leaning forward, gazed into the heart of the fire with wide, intent eyes.
The man in the chair behind her smoked on silently with a drawn face.
"He was very horrid to me," she went on, her voice soft and slow as though she were describing something seen in a vision, "the only man who ever was. But I—do you know, I liked him all the more for that? I didn't flirt with him. I didn't try. He wasn't the sort one could flirt with. He was hard—hard as iron, clean-shaven, with an immensely powerful jaw, and eyes that looked clean through you. He was one of those short, broad Englishmen—you know the sort—out of proportion everywhere, but so splendidly strong. He just hated me for making friends with him. It was very funny."
An odd little note of laughter ran through the words—that laughter which is akin to tears.
"But I didn't care for that," she said. "It didn't hurt me in the least. He was too big to give offence to an impudent little minx like me. Besides, I wanted him to help me, and after a bit I told him so. Archie—my cousin, you know; he was only a boy then—was mad on card-playing at that time. And I was real worried about him. I knew he would get into a hole sooner or later, and I begged my surly Englishman to keep an eye on him. Oh, I was a fool! I was a brainless, chattering fool! And I'm not much better now, I often think."
Cynthia's hand went up to her eyes. The vision in the fire was all blurred and indistinct.
Babbacombe was leaning forward, listening intently. The firelight flickered on his face, showing it very grave and still. He did not attempt to speak.
Nevertheless, after a moment, Cynthia made a wavering movement with one hand in his direction.
"I'm not crying, Jack. Don't be silly! I'm sure your cigarette is out."
It was. He pitched it past her into the fire.
"Light another," she pleaded. "I love them so. They are the kind he always smoked. That's nearly the end of the story. You can almost guess the rest. That very night Archie did get into a hole, a bad one, and the only way my friend could lift him out was by getting down into it himself. He saved him, but it was at his own expense; for it made people begin to reflect. And in the end—in the end, when we came into harbour, they came on board, and—and arrested him early in the morning—before I knew. You see, he—he was Nat Verney."
Cynthia's dark head was suddenly bowed upon her hands. She was rocking to and fro in the firelight.
"And it was my fault," she sobbed—"all my fault. If—if he hadn't done that thing for me, no one would have known—no one would have suspected!"
She had broken down completely at last, and the man who heard her wondered, with a deep compassion, how often she had wept, in secret and uncomforted, as she was weeping now.
He bore it till his humanity could endure no longer. And then, very gently, he reached out, touched her, drew her to him, pillowed her head on his shoulder.
"Don't cry, Cynthia," he whispered earnestly. "It's heart-breaking work, dear, and it doesn't help. There! Let me hold you till you feel better. You can't refuse comfort from an old friend like me."
She yielded to him mutely for a little, till her grief had somewhat spent itself. Then, with a little quivering smile, she lifted her head and looked him straight in the face.
"Thank you, Jack," she said. "You—you've done me good. But it's not good for you, is it? I've made you quite damp. You don't think you'll catch cold?"—dabbing at his shoulder with her handkerchief.
He took her hand and stayed it.
"There is nothing in this world," he said gravely "that I would so gladly do as help you, Cynthia. Will you believe this, and treat me from this stand-point only?"
She turned back to the fire, but she left her hand in his.
"My dear," she said, in an odd little choked voice, "it's just like you to say so, and I guess I sha'n't forget it. Well, well! There's my romance in a nutshell. He didn't care a fig for me till just the last. He cared then, but it was too late to come to anything. They shipped him back again you know, and he was sentenced to fifteen years' penal servitude. He's done nearly twelve, and he's coming out next month on ticket-of-leave."
Babbacombe bent his head suddenly upon her hand, and sat tense and silent.
"I know," she said—"I know. It sounds simply monstrous, put into bald words. I sometimes wonder myself if it can possibly be true—if I, Cynthia Mortimer, can really be such a fool. But I can't possibly tell for certain till I see him again. I must see him again somehow. I've waited all these years—all these years."
"And suppose, when you've seen him, you still care?"
She shook her head.
"What then, Jack? I don't know; I don't know."
He pulled himself together, and sat up.
"Do you know where he is?"
"Yes. He is at Barren Hill. He has been there for five years now. My solicitor knows that I take an interest in him. He calls it philanthropy." Cynthia smiled faintly into the fire. "I was one of the people he swindled," she said. "But he paid me back."
She rose and went across the room to a bureau in a corner. She unlocked a drawer, and took something from it. Returning, she laid a packet of notes in Babbacombe's hands.
"I could never part with them," she said. "He gave them to me in a sealed parcel the last time I saw him. It's only a hundred pounds. Yes, that was the message he wrote. Can you read it? 'With apologies from the man who swindled you.' As if I cared for the wretched money!"
Babbacombe frowned over the writing in silence.
"Why don't you say what you think, Jack?" she said. "Why don't you call him a thieving scoundrel and me a poor, romantic fool!"
"I am trying to think how I can help you," he answered quietly. "Have you any plans?"
"No, nothing definite," she said. "It is difficult to know what to do. He knows one thing—that he has a friend who will help him when he comes out. He will be horribly poor, you know, and I'm so rich. But, of course, I would do it anonymously. And he thinks his friend is a man."
Babbacombe pondered with drawn brows.
"Cynthia," he said slowly, at length, "suppose I take this matter into my own hands, suppose I make it possible for you to see this man once more, will you be guided entirely by me? Will you promise me solemnly to take no rash step of any description; in short, to do nothing without consulting me? Will you promise me, Cynthia?"
He spoke very earnestly. The firelight showed her the resolution on his face.
"Of course I will promise you, Jack," she said instantly. "I would trust myself body and soul in your keeping. But what can you do?"
"I might do this," he said. "I might pose as his unknown friend—another philanthropist, Cynthia." He smiled rather grimly. "I might get hold of him when he comes out, give him something to do to keep his head above water. If he has any manhood in him, he won't mind what he takes. And I might—later, if I thought it practicable—I only say 'if,' Cynthia, for after many years of prison life a man isn't always fit company for a lady—I might arrange that you should see him in some absolutely casual fashion. If you consent to this arrangement you must leave that entirely to me."
"But you will hate to do it!" she exclaimed.
He rose. "I will do it for your sake," he said. "I shall not hate it if it makes you see things—as they are."
"Oh, but you are good," she said tremulously—"you are good!"
"I love a good woman," he answered gravely.
And with that he turned and left her alone in the firelight with her romance.
It was early on a dark November day that the prison gate at Barren Hill opened to allow a convict who had just completed twelve years' penal servitude to pass out a free man.
A motor car was drawn up at the side of the kerb as he emerged, and a man in a long overcoat, with another slung on his arm, was pacing up and down.
He wheeled at the closing of the gate, and they stood face to face.
There was a moment's difficult silence; then the man with the motor spoke.
"Mr. West, I think?"
The other looked him up and down in a single comprehensive glance that was like the flash of a sword blade.
"Certainly," he said curtly, "if you prefer it."
He was a short, thick-set man of past forty, with a face so grimly lined as to mask all expression. His eyes alone were vividly alert. They were the bluest eyes that Babbacombe had ever seen.
He accepted the curt acknowledgment with grave courtesy, and made a motion toward the car.
"Will you get in? My name is Babbacombe. I am here to meet you, as no doubt you have been told. You had better wear this"—opening out the coat he carried.
But West remained motionless, facing him on the grey, deserted road. "Before I come with you," he said, in his brief, clipped style, "there is one thing I want to know. Are you patronising me for the sake of philanthropy, or for—some other reason?"
As he uttered the question, he fixed Babbacombe with a stare that was not without insolence.
Babbacombe did not hesitate in his reply. He was not a man to be lightly disconcerted.
"You can put it down to anything you like," he said, "except philanthropy."
West considered a moment.
"Very well, sir," he said finally, his aggressive tone slightly modified. "In that case I will come with you."
He turned about, and thrust his arms into the coat Babbacombe held for him, turned up the collar, and without a backward glance, stepped into the waiting motor.
Babbacombe started the engine, and followed him. In another moment they had glided away into the dripping mist, and the prison was left behind.
Through mile after mile they sped in silence. West sat with his chin buried in his coat, his keen eyes staring straight ahead. Babbacombe, at the wheel, never glanced at him once.
Through villages, through towns, through long stretches of open country they glided, sometimes slackening, but never stopping. The sun broke through at length, revealing a country of hills and woods and silvery running streams. They had been travelling for hours. It was nearly noon.
For the first time since their start Babbacombe spoke.
"I hope I haven't kept you going too long. We are just getting in."
"Don't mind me," said West.
Babbacombe was slackening speed.
"It's a fine hunting country," he observed.
"Whose is it?" asked West.
"Mine, most of it." They were running smoothly down a long avenue of beech trees, with a glimpse of an open gateway at the end.
"It must take some managing," remarked West.
"It does," Babbacombe answered. "It needs a capable man."
They reached the gateway, passing under an arch of stone. Beyond it lay wide stretches of park land. Rabbits scuttled in the sunshine, and under the trees here and there they had glimpses of deer.
"Ever ridden to hounds?" asked Babbacombe.
The man beside him turned with a movement half savage.
"Set me on a good horse," he said, "and I will show you what I can do."
Babbacombe nodded, conscious for the first time of a warmth of sympathy for the man. Whatever his sins, he must have suffered infernally during the past twelve years.
Twelve years! Ye gods! It was half a life-time! It represented the whole of his manhood to Babbacombe. Twelve years ago he had been an undergraduate at Cambridge.
He drove on through the undulating stretches of Farringdean Park, his favourite heritage, trying to realise what effect twelve years in a convict prison would have had upon himself, what his outlook would ultimately have become, and what in actual fact was the outlook and general attitude of the man who had come through this long purgatory.
Sweeping round a rise in the ground, they came into sudden sight of the castle. Ancient and splendid it rose before them, its battlements shining in the sun—a heritage of which any man might be proud.
Babbacombe waited for some word of admiration from his companion. But he waited in vain. West was mute.
"What do you think of it?" he asked at last, determined to wring some meed of appreciation from him, even though he stooped to ask for it.
"What—the house?" said West. "It's uncommonly like a primeval sort of prison, to my idea. I've no doubt it boasts some very superior dungeons."
The sting in the words reached Babbacombe, but without offence. Again, more strongly, he was conscious of that glow of sympathy within him, kindling to a flame of fellowship.
"It boasts better things than that," he said quietly, "as I hope you will allow me to show you."
He was conscious of the piercing gaze of West's eyes, and, after a moment, he deliberately turned his own to meet it.
"And if you find—as you probably soon will—that I make but a poor sort of host," he said, "just remember, will you, that I like my guests to please themselves, and secure your own comfort?"
For a second, West's grim mouth seemed to hesitate on the edge of a smile—a smile that never developed.
"I wonder how soon you will tell me to go to the devil?" he said cynically.
"Oh, I am a better host than that," said Babbacombe, with quiet humour. "If you ever prefer the devil's hospitality to mine, it won't be my fault."
West turned from him with a slight shrug of the shoulders, as if he deemed himself to be dealing with a harmless lunatic, and dropped back into silence.
Silence had become habitual to him, as Babbacombe soon discovered. He could remain silent for hours. Probably he had never been of a very expansive nature, and prison discipline had strengthened an inborn reticence to a reserve of iron. He was not a disconcerting companion, because he was absolutely unobtrusive, but with all the good-will in the world Babbacombe found it well-nigh impossible to treat him with that ease of manner which came to him so spontaneously in his dealings with other men.
Grim, taciturn, cynical, West baffled his every effort to reach the inner man. His silence clothed him like armour, and he never really emerged from it save when a fiendish sense of humour tempted him. This, and this alone, so it seemed to Babbacombe, had any power to draw him out. And the instant he had flung his gibe at the object thereof, he would retreat again into that impenetrable shell of silence. He never once spoke of his past life, never once referred to the future.
He merely accepted Babbacombe's hospitality in absolute silence, without question, without gratitude, smoked his cigarettes eternally, drank his wines without appreciation, rode his horses without comment.
The only point in his favour that Babbacombe, the kindliest of critics, could discover after a fort-night's patient study, was that the animals loved him. He conducted himself like a gentleman, but somehow Babbacombe had expected this much from the moment of their meeting. He sometimes told himself with a wry face that if the fellow had behaved like a beast he would have found him easier to cultivate. At least, he would have had something to work upon, a creature of flesh and blood, instead of this inscrutable statue wrought in iron.
With a sinking heart he recalled Cynthia's description of the man. To a certain extent it still fitted him, but he imagined that those twelve years had had a hardening effect upon him, making rigid that which had always been stubborn, driving the iron deeper and ever deeper into his soul, till only iron remained. Many were the nights he spent pondering over the romance of the woman he loved. What subtle attraction in this hardened sinner had lured her heart away? Was it possible that the fellow had ever cared for her? Had he ever possessed even the rudiments of a heart?
The message he had read in the firelight—the brief line which this man had written—was the only answer he could find to these doubts. It seemed to point to something—some pulsing warmth—which could not have been kindled from nothing. And again the memory of a woman's tears would come upon him, spurring him to fresh effort. Surely the man for whom she was breaking her heart could not be wholly evil, nor yet wholly callous! Somewhere behind those steely blue eyes, there must dwell some answer to the riddle. It might be that Cynthia would find it, though he failed. But he shrank, with an aversion inexpressible, from letting her try, so deeply rooted had his conviction become that her cherished girlish fancy was no more than the misty gold of dreams.
Yet for her sake he persevered—for the sake of those precious tears that had so wrung his heart he would do that which he had set out to do, notwithstanding the utmost discouragement. An insoluble enigma the man might be to him, but he would not for that turn back from the task that he had undertaken. West should have his chance in spite of it.
They were riding together over the crisp turf of the park one frosty morning in November, when Babbacombe turned quietly to his companion, pointing to the chimneys of a house half-hidden by trees, ahead of them.
"I want to go over that place," he said. "It is standing empty, and probably needs repairs."
West received the announcement with a brief nod. He never betrayed interest in anything.
"Shall I hold your animal?" he suggested, as they reached the gate that led into the little garden.
"No. Come in with me, won't you? We can hitch the bridles to the post."
They went in together through a rustling litter of dead leaves. The house was low, and thatched—a picturesque dwelling of no great size.
Babbacombe led the way within, and they went from room to room, he with note-book in hand, jotting down the various details necessary to make the place into a comfortable habitation.
"I daresay you can help me with this if you will," he said presently. "I shall turn some workmen on to it next week. Perhaps you will keep an eye on them for me, decide on the decorations, and so forth. It is my agent's house, you know."
"Where is your agent?" asked West abruptly.
Babbacombe smiled a little. "At the present moment—I have no agent. That is what keeps me so busy. I hope to have one before long."
West strolled to a window and opened it, leaning his arms upon the sill.
He seemed about to relapse into one of his interminable silences when Babbacombe, standing behind him, said quietly, "I am going to offer the post to you."
"To me?" West wheeled suddenly, even with vehemence. "What for?" he demanded sharply.
Babbacombe met his look, still faintly smiling. "For our mutual benefit," he said. "I am convinced that you have ample ability for this sort of work, and if you will accept the post I shall be very pleased."
He stopped at that, determined for once to make the man speak on his own initiative. West was looking straight at him, and there was a curious glitter in his eyes like the sparkle of ice in the sun.
When he spoke at length his speech, though curt, was not so rigorously emotionless as usual.
"Don't you think," he said, "that you have carried this tomfoolery of yours far enough?"
Babbacombe raised one eyebrow. "Meaning?" he questioned.
West enlightened him with most unusual vigour.
"Meaning that tomfoolery of this sort never pays. I know. I've done it myself in my time. If I were you, I should pull up and try some less expensive hobby than that of mending broken men. The pieces are always chipped and never stick, and the chances are that you'll cut your fingers trying to make 'em. No, sir, I won't be your agent! Find a man you can trust, and let me go to the devil!"
The outburst was so unexpected and so forcible that at first Babbacombe stared at the man in amazement. Then, with that spontaneous kindness of heart that made him what he was, he grabbed and held his opportunity.
"My dear fellow," he said, not pausing for a choice of words, "you are talking infernal rot, and I won't listen to you. Do you seriously suppose I should be such a tenfold ass as to offer the management of my estate to a man I couldn't trust?"
"What reason have you for trusting me?" West thrust back. "Unless you think that a dozen years in prison have deprived me of my ancient skill. Would you choose a man who has been a drunkard for your butler? No! Then don't choose a swindler and an ex-convict for your bailiff."
He swung around with the words and shut the window with a bang.
But again Babbacombe took his cue from that inner prompting to which he had trusted all his life. For the first time he liked the man; for the first time, so it seemed to him, he caught a glimpse of the soul into which the iron had been so deeply driven.
"Look here, West," he said, "I am not going to take that sort of refusal from you. We have been together some time now, and it isn't my fault if we don't know each other pretty well. I don't care a hang what you have been. I am only concerned with what you are, and whatever that may be, you are not a weak-kneed fool. You have the power to keep straight if you choose, and you are to choose. Understand? I make you this offer with a perfectly open mind, and you are to consider it in the same way. Would you have said because you had once had a nasty tumble that you would never ride again? Of course you wouldn't. You are not such a fool. Then don't refuse my offer on those grounds, for it's nothing less than contemptible."
"Think so?" said West. He had listened quite impassively to the oration, but as Babbacombe ended, his grim mouth relaxed sardonically. "You seem mighty anxious to spend your money on damaged goods, Lord Babbacombe. It's a tom-fool investment, you know. How many of the honest folk in your service will stick to you when they begin to find out what you've given them?"
"Why should they find out?" asked Babbacombe.
West shrugged his shoulders. "It's a dead certainty that they will."
"If I can take the risk, so can you," said Babbacombe.
"Oh, of course, I used to be rather good at that game. It is called 'sand-throwing' in the profession."
Babbacombe made an impatient movement, and West's hard smile became more pronounced.
"But you are not at all good at it," he continued. "You are almost obtrusively obvious. It is a charm that has its very material drawbacks."
Babbacombe wholly lost patience at that. The man's grim irony was not to be borne.
"Take it or leave it!" he exclaimed. "But if you leave it, in heaven's name let it be for some sounder reason than a faked-up excuse of moral weakness!"
West uttered an abrupt laugh. "You seem to have a somewhat exalted opinion of my morals," he observed. "Well, since you are determined to brave the risk of being let down, I needn't quibble at it any further. I accept."
Babbacombe's attitude changed in an instant. He held out his hand.
"You won't let me down, West," he said, with confidence.
West hesitated for a single instant, then took the proffered hand into a grip of iron. His blue eyes looked hard and straight into Babbacombe's face.
"If I let you down," he said grimly, "I shall be underneath."
It was not till the middle of December that the new bailiff moved into his own quarters, but he had assumed his duties some weeks before that time, and Babbacombe was well satisfied with him. The man's business instincts were unusually keen. He had, moreover, a wonderful eye for details, and very little escaped him. It soon came home to Babbacombe that the management of his estate was in capable hands, and he congratulated himself upon having struck ore where he had least expected to find it. He supervised the whole of West's work for a time, but he soon suffered this vigilance to relax, for the man's shrewdness far surpassed his own. He settled to the work with a certain grim relish, and it was a perpetual marvel to Babbacombe that he mastered it from the outset with such facility.
Keepers and labourers eyed him askance for awhile, but West's imperturbability took effect before very long. They accepted him without enthusiasm, but also without rancour, as a man who could hold his own.
As soon as he was installed in the bailiff's house, Babbacombe left him to his own devices, and departed upon a round of visits. He proposed to entertain a house-party himself towards the end of January. He informed West of this before departing, and was slightly puzzled by a certain humourous gleam that shone in the steely eyes at the news. The matter went speedily from his mind. It was not till long after that he recalled it.
West wrote to him regularly during his absence, curt, businesslike epistles, which always terminated on a grim note of irony: "Your faithful steward, N. V. West." He never varied this joke, and Babbacombe usually noted it with a faint frown. The fellow was not a bad sort, he was convinced, but he would always be more or less of an enigma to him.
He returned to Farringdean in the middle of January with one of his married sisters, whom he had secured to act as hostess to his party. He invited West to dine with them informally on the night of his return.
His sister, Lady Cottesbrook, a gay and garrulous lady some years his senior, received the new agent with considerable condescension. She bestowed scant attention upon him during dinner, and West presented his most impenetrable demeanour in consequence, refusing steadily to avail himself of Babbacombe's courteous efforts to draw him into the conversation.
He would have excused himself later from accompanying his host into the drawing-room, but Babbacombe insisted upon this so stubbornly that finally, with his characteristic lift of the shoulders, he yielded.
As they entered, Lady Cottesbrook raised her glasses, and favoured him with a close scrutiny.
"It's very curious," she said, "but I can't help feeling as if I have seen you somewhere before. You have the look of some one I knew years ago—some one I didn't like—but I can't remember who."
"Just as well, perhaps," said Babbacombe, with a careless laugh, though a faint flush of annoyance rose in his face. "Come over here, West. You can smoke. My sister likes it."
He seated himself at the piano, indicated a chair near him to his guest, and began to play.
West, with his back to the light, sat motionless, listening. Lady Cottesbrook took up a book, and ignored him. There was something unfathomable about her brother's bailiff to which she strongly objected.
An hour later, when he had gone, she spoke of it.
"That man has the eyes of a criminal, Jack. I am sure he isn't trustworthy. He is too brazen. Where in the world did you pick him up?"
To which Babbacombe made composed reply:
"I know all about him, and he is absolutely trustworthy. He was recommended to me by a friend. I am sorry you thought it necessary to be rude to him. There is nothing offensive about him that I can see."
"My dear boy, you see nothing offensive in a great many people whom I positively detest. However, he isn't worth an argument. Only, if you must ask the man to dine, for goodness' sake another time have some one else for me to talk to. I frankly admit that I have no talent for entertaining people of that class. Now tell me the latest about Cynthia Mortimer. Of course, she is one of the chosen guests?"
"She has promised to spend a week here," Babbacombe answered somewhat reluctantly. "I haven't seen her lately. She has been in Paris."
"What has she been doing there? Buying her trousseau?"
"I really don't know." There was a faint inflection of irritation in his voice.
"Doesn't her consenting to come here mean that she will accept you?" questioned Lady Cottesbrook. She never hesitated to ask in plainest terms for anything she wanted.
"No," Babbacombe said heavily. "It does not."
Lady Cottesbrook was silenced. After a little she turned her attention to other matters, to her brother's evident relief.
It was on a still, frosty evening of many stars that Cynthia came to Farringdean Castle. A young moon was low in the sky, and she paused to curtsey to it upon descending from the motor that had borne her thither.
She turned to find Babbacombe beside her.
"I hope it will bring you luck, Cynthia," he said.
She flashed a swift look at him, and gave him both her hands.
"Thank you, old friend," she said softly.
Her eyes were shining like the stars above them. She laughed a little tremulously.
"I couldn't get to the station to meet you," he said. "I wanted to. Come inside. There is no one here whom you don't know."
"Thank you again," she said.
In another moment they were entering the great hall. Before an immense open fireplace a group of people were gathered at tea. There was a general buzz of greeting as Cynthia entered. She was always popular, wherever she went.
She scattered her own greetings broadcast, passing from one to another, greeting each in her high, sweet drawl—a gracious, impulsive woman whom to know was to love.
Babbacombe watched her with a dumb longing. How often he had pictured her as hostess where now she moved as guest! Well, that dream of his was shattered, but the glowing fragments yet burned in his secret heart. All his life long he would remember her as he saw her that night on his own hearth. Her loveliness was like a flower wide open to the sun. He thought her lovelier that night than she had ever been before. When she flitted away at length, he felt as if she took the warmth and brightness of the fireside with her.
There was no agreement between them, but he knew that she would be down early, and hastened his own dressing in consequence. He found her waiting alone in the drawing-room before a regal fire. She wore a splendid star of diamonds in her dark hair. It sparkled in a thousand colours as she turned. Her dress was black, unrelieved by any ornament.
"Cynthia," he said, "you are exquisite!"
The words burst from him almost involuntarily. She put out her hand to him with a gesture half of acknowledgment, half of protest.
"I may be good to look at," she said, with a little whimsical smile. "But—I tell you, Jack—I feel a perfect reptile. It's heads I win, tails you lose; and—I just can't bear it."
There was a catch in the high voice that was almost a sob. Babbacombe took her hand and held it.
"My dear," he said, "it's nothing of the sort. You have done me the very great honour of giving me your full confidence, and I won't have you abusing yourself for it."
She shook her head. "I hate myself—there! And—and I'm frightened too. Jack, if you want me to marry you—you had better ask me now. I won't refuse you."
He looked her closely in the eyes. "No, Cynthia," he said very gravely.
"I am not laughing," she protested.
He smiled a little. "It would be easier for me if you were," he said. "No, we will go through with this since we have begun. And you needn't be scared. He is hardly a ladies' man, according to my judgment, but he is not a bounder. I haven't asked him to meet you to-night. I thought it better not. In fact, I——"
He broke off at the sound of a step behind him. With a start Cynthia turned.
A short, thick-set man in riding-dress was walking up the room.
"I beg your pardon," he said formally, halting a few paces from Babbacombe. "I have been waiting for you in the library for the last hour. I sent you a message, but I conclude it was not delivered. Can I speak to you for a few seconds on a matter of business?"
He spoke with his eyes fixed steadily upon Babbacombe's face, ignoring the woman's presence as if he had not even seen her.
Babbacombe was momentarily disconcerted. He glanced at Cynthia before replying; and instantly, in her quick, gracious way, she came forward with extended hand.
"Why, Mr. West," she said, "don't you know me? I'm Cynthia Mortimer—a very old friend of yours. And I'm very glad to meet you again."
There was a quiver as of laughter in her words. The confidence of her action compelled some species of response. West took the outstretched hand for a single instant; but his eyes, meeting hers, held no recognition.
"I am afraid," he said stonily, "that your memory is better than mine."
It was a check that would have disheartened many women; not so Cynthia Mortimer.
She opened her eyes wide for a second, the next quite openly she laughed at him.
"You are not a bit cleverer than you used to be," she said. "But I rather like you for it all the same. Come, Mr. West, I'm sure you will make an effort when I tell you that I want to be remembered. You once did a big thing for me which I have never forgotten—which I never shall forget."
West was frowning. "You have made a mistake," he said briefly.
She laughed again, softly, audaciously. There was a delicate flush on her face, and her eyes were very bright.
"No, Mr. Nat Verney West," she said, sinking her voice. "I'm a lot cleverer than you think, and I don't make mistakes of that sort."
He shrugged his shoulders, and was silent. She was laughing still.
"Why can't we begin where we left off?" she asked ingenuously. "Back numbers are so dull, and we were long past this stage anyway. Lord Babbacombe," appealing suddenly to her host, "can't you persuade Mr. West to come to the third act? I always prefer to skip the second. And we finished the first long ago."
Babbacombe came to her assistance with his courteous smile. "Miss Mortimer considers herself in your debt, Mr. West," he said. "I think you will hurt her feelings if you try to repudiate her obligation."
"Yes, of course," laughed Cynthia. "It was a mighty big debt, and I have been wondering ever since how to get even with you. Oh, you needn't scowl. That doesn't hurt me at all. Do you know you haven't altered a mite, you funny English bulldog? Come, you know me now?"
"Yes, I know you," West said. "But I think it is a pity that you have renewed your acquaintance with me, and the sooner you drop me again the better." He spoke briefly and very decidedly, and having thus expressed himself he turned to Babbacombe. "I am going to the library. Perhaps you will join me there at your convenience."
With an abrupt bow to Cynthia, he turned to go. But instantly the high voice arrested him.
"Mr. West!" she said again, her voice half-imperious, half-pleading.
Reluctantly he faced round. She was waiting for him with a little smile quivering about her mouth. Her grey eyes met his with perfect composure.
"I want to know," she said, in her softest drawl, "if it is for my sake or your own that you regret this renewal of acquaintance."
"For yours, Miss Mortimer," he answered grimly.
"That's very kind of you," she rejoined. "And why?"
Again he gave that slight lift of the shoulders that she remembered so well.
"You know the proverb about touching pitch?"
"Some people like pitch," said Cynthia.
"Not clean people," threw back West.
"No?" she said. "Well, perhaps not. Anyway, it doesn't apply in this case. So I sha'n't drop you, Mr. West, thank you all the same! Good-night!"
She offered him her hand with a gesture that was nothing short of regal. And he—because he could do no less—took it, gripped it, and went his way.
"Isn't he rude?" murmured Cynthia; and she said it as if rudeness were the highest virtue a man could display.
The early winter dusk was falling upon a world veiled in cold, drifting rain. Away in the distance where the castle stood, many lights had begun to glimmer. It was the cosy hour when sportsmen collect about the fireside with noisy talk of the day's achievements.
The man who strode down the long, dark avenue towards the bailiff's house smiled bitterly to himself as he marked the growing illumination. It was four days since Cynthia Mortimer had extended to him the hand of friendship, and he had not seen her since. He was, in fact, studiously avoiding her, more studiously than he had ever avoided any one in his life before. His daily visits to the castle he now paid early in the morning, before Babbacombe himself was dressed, long before any of the guests were stirring. And his refusal either to dine at the castle or to join the sportsmen during the day was so prompt and so emphatic that Babbacombe had refrained from pressing his invitation.
Not a word had passed between them upon the subject of Cynthia's recognition. West adhered strictly to business during his brief interviews with his chief. The smallest digression on Babbacombe's part he invariably ignored as unworthy of his attention, till even Babbacombe, with all his courtly consideration for others, began to regard him as a mere automaton, and almost to treat him as such.
Had he realised in the faintest degree what West was enduring at that time, his heart must have warmed to the man, despite his repellent exterior. But he had no means of realising.
The rust of twelve bitter years had corroded the bolts of that closed door behind which the swindler hid his lonely soul, and it was not in the power of any man to move them.
So grimly he went his silent way, cynical, as only those can be to whom the best thing in life has been offered too late; proud, also, after his curious, iron-clad fashion, refusing sternly to bear a lance again in that field which had witnessed his dishonour.
He knew very well what those twinkling lights denoted. He could almost hear the clatter round the tea-table, the witless jests of the youngsters, the careless laughter of the women, the trivial, merry nonsense that was weaving another hour of happiness into the golden skein of happy hours. Contemptible, of course! Vanity of vanities! But how infinitely precious is even such vanity as this to those who stand outside!
The rain was beginning to patter through the trees. It would be a wet night. With his collar turned up to his ears, he trudged forward. He cared little for the rain. For twelve long years he had lived an outdoor life.
There were no lights visible in his own abode. The old woman who kept his house was doubtless gossiping with some crony up at the castle.
With his hand on the garden gate, he looked back at its distant, shining front. Then, with a shrug, as if impatient with himself for lingering, he turned to walk up the short, flagged pathway that led to his own door.
At the same instant a cry of pain—a woman's cry—came sharply through the dripping stillness of the trees. He turned back swiftly, banging the gate behind him.
A long slope rose, tree-covered, from the other side of the road. He judged the sound to have come from that direction, and he hurried towards it with swinging strides. Reaching the deep shadow, he paused, peering upwards.
At once a voice he knew called to him, but in such accents of agony that he hardly recognised it.
"Oh, come and help me! I'm here—caught in a trap! I can't move!"
In a moment he was crashing through the undergrowth with the furious recklessness of a wild animal.
"I am coming! Keep still!" he shouted as he went.
He found her crouched in a tiny hollow close to a narrow footpath that ran through the wood. She was on her knees, but she turned a deathly face up to him as he reached her. She was sobbing like a child.
"They are great iron teeth," she gasped, "fastened in my hand. Can you open them?"
"Don't move!" he ordered, as he dropped down beside her.
It was a poacher's trap, fortunately of a species with which he was acquainted. Her hand was fairly gripped between the iron jaws. He wondered with a set face if those cruel teeth had met in her delicate flesh.
She screamed as he forced it open, and fell back shuddering, half-fainting, while he lifted her torn hand and examined it in the failing light.
It was bleeding freely, but not violently, and he saw with relief that the larger veins had escaped. He wrapped his handkerchief round it, and spoke:
"Come!" he said. "My house is close by. It had better be bathed at once."
"Yes," she assented shakily.
"Don't cry!" he said, with blunt kindliness.
"I can't help it," whispered Cynthia.
He helped her to her feet, but she trembled so much that he put his arm about her.
"It's only a stone's throw away," he said.
She went with him without question. She seemed dazed with pain.
Silently he led her down to his dark abode.
"I'm giving you a lot of trouble," she murmured, as they entered.
To which he made gruff reply:
"It's worse for you than for me!"
He put her into an easy chair, lighted a lamp, and departed for a basin of water.
When he returned, she had so far mastered herself as to be able to smile at him through her tears.
"I know I'm a drivelling idiot to cry!" she said, her voice high and tremulous. "But I never felt so sick before!"
"Don't apologise," said West briefly. "I know."
He bathed the injury with the utmost tenderness, while she sat and watched his stern face.
"My!" she said suddenly, with a little, shaky laugh. "You are being very good to me, but why do you frown like that?"
He glanced at her with those piercing eyes of his.
"How did you do it?"
The colour came into her white face.
"I—was trying to spring the trap," she said, eyeing him doubtfully. "I didn't like to think of one of those cute little rabbits getting caught."
"Yes, but how did you manage to get your hand in the way?" said West.
She considered this problem for a little.
"I guess I can't explain that mystery to you," she said, at length. "You see, I'm only a woman, and women often do things that are very foolish."
West's silence seemed to express tacit agreement with this assertion.
"Anyway," she resumed, making a wry face, "it's done. You are not vexed because I made such a fuss?"
There was an odd wistfulness in her tone. West, busy bandaging, did not raise his eyes.
"I don't blame you for that," he said. "It must have hurt you infernally! If you take my advice, you will show it to a doctor."
She screwed her face up a second time.
"To please you, Mr. West?"
"No," he responded curtly. "As a sensible precaution."
"And if I don't happen to be remarkable for sense?" she suggested.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Yes, I know," said Cynthia. "You say that to everything. It's getting rather monotonous. And I'm sure I'm very patient. You'll grant me that, at least?"
He turned his ice-blue eyes upon her.
"I am not good at paying compliments, Miss Mortimer," he said cynically. "Twelve years in prison have rusted all my little accomplishments."