The Swindler's Handicap by Ethel M. Dell
"If he doesn't come for that, he will never come at all."
Over and over Cynthia whispered the words to herself as she lay, with her wide, shining eyes upon the door, waiting. She was a gambler who had staked all on the final throw, and she was watching, weak and ill as she was after long suffering, watching restlessly, persistently, for the result of that last great venture. Surely he would come--surely--surely!
Once she spoke imperiously to the nurse.
"If a gentleman named West calls, I must see him at once, whatever the hour."
The nurse raised no obstacle. Perhaps she realised that it would do more harm than good to thwart her patient's caprice.
And so hour after hour Cynthia lay waiting for the answer to her message, and hour followed hour in slow, uneventful procession, bringing her neither comfort nor repose.
At length the doctor came and offered her morphia, but she refused it, with feverish emphasis.
"No, no, no! I don't want to sleep. I am expecting a friend."
"Won't it do in the morning?" he said persuasively.
Her grey eyes flashed eager inquiry up at him.
"He is here?"
The doctor nodded.
"He has been here some time, but I hoped you would settle down. I want you to sleep."
Sleep! Cynthia almost laughed. How inexplicably foolish were even the cleverest of men!
"I will see him now," she said. "And, please, alone," as the doctor made a sign to the nurse.
He moved away reluctantly, and again she almost laughed at his imbecility.
But a minute later she had forgotten everything in the world save that upon which her eyes rested--a short, broad-shouldered man, clean-shaven, with piercing blue eyes that looked straight at her with something--something in their expression that made the heart within her leap and quiver like the strings of an instrument under a master hand.
He came quietly to the bedside, and stood looking down upon her, not uttering a word.
She stretched up her trembling hand.
"I'm very glad to see you," she said weakly. "You got my message? It--it--I hope it didn't annoy you."
"It didn't," said West.
His voice was curt and strained. His fingers had closed very tightly upon her hand.
"Sit down," murmured Cynthia. "No, don't let go. It helps me some to have you hold my hand. Mr. West, I've got to tell you something--something that will make you really angry. I'm rather frightened, too. It's because I'm sick. You--you must just make allowances."
A light kindled in West's eyes that shone like a blue flame, but still he held himself rigid, inflexible as a figure hewn in granite.
"Pray don't distress yourself, Miss Mortimer," he said stiffly. "Wouldn't it be wiser to wait till you are better before you go any further?"
"I never shall be better," Cynthia rejoined, a tremor of passion in her voice, "I never shall go any further, unless you hear me out to-night."
West frowned a little, but still that strange light shone in his steady eyes.
"I am quite at your service," he said, "either now or at any future time. But if this interview should make you worse----"
"Oh, shucks!" said Cynthia, with a ghostly little smile. "Don't talk through your hat, Mr. West!"
West became silent. He was still holding her hand in a warm, close grasp that never varied.
"Let's get to business," said Cynthia, with an effort to be brisk. "It begins with a confession. You know better than any one how I managed to hurt my hand so badly. But even you don't know everything. Even you never suspected that--that it wasn't an accident at all; that, in fact, I did it on purpose."
She broke off for a moment, avoiding his eyes, but clinging tightly to his hand.
"I did it," she went on breathlessly--"I did it because I heard you in the drive below, and I wanted to attract your attention. I couldn't see you, but I knew it was you. I was just going to spring the trap with my foot, and then--and then I heard you, and I stooped down--it came to me to do it, and I never stopped to think--I stooped down and put my hand in the way. I never thought--I never thought it would hurt so frightfully, or that it could come to this."
She was crying as she ended, crying piteously; while West sat like a stone image, gazing at her.
"Oh, do speak to me!" she sobbed. "Do say something! Do you know what they want to do? But I won't let them--I won't let them! It--it's too dreadful a thing to happen to a woman. I can't bear it. I won't bear it. It will be much easier to die. But you shall know the truth first."
"Cynthia, stop!" It was West's voice at last, but not as she had ever heard it. It came from him hoarse and desperate, as though wrung by the extreme of torture. He had sunk to his knees by the bed. His face was nearer to hers than it had ever been before. "Don't cry!" he begged her huskily. "Don't cry! Why do you tell me this if it hurts you to tell me?"
"Because I want you to know!" gasped Cynthia. "Wait! Let me finish! I wanted--to see--if--if you really cared for me. I thought--if you did--you wouldn't be able to go on pretending. But--but--you managed to--somehow--after all."
She ended, battling with her tears; and West, the strong, the cold, the cynical, bowed his head upon her hand and groaned.
"It was for--your own sake," he muttered brokenly, without looking up.
"I know," whispered back Cynthia. "That was just what made it so impossible to bear. Because, you see, I cared, too."
He was silent, breathing heavily.
Cynthia watched his bent head wistfully, but she did not speak again till she had mastered her own weakness.
"Mr. West," she said softly at length.
He stirred, pressing her hand more tightly to his eyes.
"I am going to tell you now," proceeded Cynthia, "just why I asked you to come to me. I suppose you know all about this trouble of mine--that I shall either die very soon, or else have to carry my arm in a sling for the rest of my life. Now that's where you come in. Would you--would you feel very badly if I died, I wonder?"
He raised his head at that, and she saw his face as she had seen it once long ago--alert, vital, full of the passionate intensity of his love for her.
"You sha'n't die!" he declared fiercely. "Who says you are going to die?"
Cynthia's eyes fell before the sudden fire that blazed at her from his. "Unless I consent to be a cripple all my days," she said, with a curious timidity wholly unlike her usual dainty confidence.
"Of course you will consent," West said, sweeping down her half-offered resistance with sheer, overmastering strength. "You'll face this thing like the brave woman you are. Good heavens! As if there were any choice!"
"There is," Cynthia whispered, looking at him shyly, through lowered lids. "There is a choice. But it rests with you. Mr. West, if you want me to do this thing--if you really want me to, and it's a big thing to do, even for you--I'll do it. There! I'll do it! I'll go on living like a chopped worm for your sake. But--but--you'll have to do something for me in return. Now I wonder if you can guess what I'm hinting at?"
West's face changed. The eagerness went out of it. Something of his habitual grimness of expression returned.
Yet his voice was full of tenderness when he spoke.
"Cynthia," he said very earnestly, "there is nothing on this earth that I will not do for you. But don't ask me to be the means of ruining you socially, of depriving you of all your friends, of degrading you to a position that would break your heart."
A glimmer of amusement flashed across Cynthia's drawn face.
"Oh!" she said, a little quiver in her voice. "You are funny, you men, dull as moles and blind as bats. My dear, there's only one person in this little universe who has the power to break my heart, and it isn't any fault of his that he didn't do it long ago. No, don't speak. There's nothing left for you to say. The petition is dismissed, but not the petitioner; so listen to me instead. I've a sentimental fancy to be able to have 'Mrs. Nat V. West' written on my tombstone in the event of my demise to-morrow. I want you to make arrangements for the same."
The word was almost a cry, but she checked it, her fingers on his lips.
"You great big silly!" she murmured, laughing weakly. "Where's your sense of humour? Can't you see I'm not going to die? But I'm going to be Mrs. Nat V. West all the same. Now, is that quite understood, I wonder? Because I don't want to cry any more--I'm tired."
"You wish to marry me in the morning--before the operation?" West said, speaking almost under his breath.
His face was close to hers. She looked him suddenly straight in the eyes.
"Yes, just that," she told him softly. "I want--dear--I want to go to sleep, holding my husband's hand."