The Swindler's Handicap by Ethel M. Dell
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.