The Swindler's Handicap by Ethel M. Dell
"It's a clear case of desertion," declared Cynthia imperturbably, two months later. "But never mind that now, Jack. How do you like my sling? Isn't it just the cutest thing in creation?"
"You look splendid," Babbacombe said with warmth, but he surveyed her with slightly raised brows notwithstanding.
She nodded brightly in response.
"No, I'm not worrying any, I assure you. You don't believe me, I see. So here's something for you to read that will set your mind at rest."
Babbacombe read, with a slowly clearing face. The note he held was in his agent's handwriting.
"Isn't he quaint?" said Cynthia, with a little gay grimace. "Now do you know what I'm going to do, Jack? I'm going to get a certain good friend of mine to drive me all the way to Farringdean in his motor. It's Sunday, you know, and all the fates conspire to make the trains impossible."
"How soon do you wish to start?" asked Babbacombe.
"Right away!" laughed Cynthia. "And if we don't get run in for exceeding the speed limit, we ought to be there by seven."
It was as a matter of fact barely half-past six when Babbacombe turned the motor in at the great gates of Farringdean Park. A sound of church-bells came through the evening twilight. The trees of the avenue were still bare, but there was a misty suggestion of swelling buds in the saplings. The wind that softly rustled through them seemed to whisper a special secret to each.
"I like those bells," murmured Cynthia. "They make one feel almost holy. Jack, you're not fretting over me?"
"No, dear," said Babbacombe steadily.
She squeezed his arm.
"I'm so glad, for--honest Injun--I'm not worth it. Good-bye, then, dear Jack! Just drive straight away directly you've put me down. I shall find my own way in."
He took her at her word as he always did, and, having deposited her at the gate under the trees that led to his bailiff's abode, he shot swiftly away into the gathering dusk without a single glance behind.
West, entering his home a full hour later, heavy-footed, the inevitable cigarette between his lips, was surprised to discover, on hanging up his cap, a morsel of white pasteboard stuck jauntily into the glass of the hatstand. It seemed to fling him an airy challenge. He stooped to look. A lady's visiting-card! Mrs. Nat V. West!
A deep flush rose suddenly in his weather-beaten face. He seized the card, and crushed it against his lips.
But a few moments later, when he opened his dining-room door, there was no hint of emotion in his bearing. He bore himself with the rigidity of a man who knows he has a battle before him.
The room was aglow with flickering firelight, and out of the glow a high voice came--a cheery, inconsequent voice.
"Oh, here you are at last! Come right in and light the lamp. Did you see my card? Ah, I knew you would be sure to look at yourself directly you came in. There's nobody at home but me. I suppose your old woman's gone to church. I've been waiting for you such a while--twelve years and a bit. Just think of it."
She was standing on the hearth waiting for him, but since he moved but slowly she stepped forward to meet him, her hand impetuously outstretched.
He took it, held it closely, let it go.
"We must talk things over," he said.
"Splendid!" said Cynthia. "Where shall we begin? Never mind the lamp. Let's sit by the fire and be cosy."
He moved forward with her--it was impossible to do otherwise--but there was no yielding in his action. He held himself as straight and stiff as a soldier on parade. He had bitten through his cigarette, and he tossed it into the fire.
"Now sit down!" said Cynthia hospitably. "That chair is for you, and I am going to curl up on the floor at your feet as becomes a dutiful wife."
"Don't, Cynthia!" he said under his breath. But she had her way, nevertheless. There were times when she seemed able to attain this with scarcely an effort.
She seated herself on the hearthrug with her face to the fire.
"Go on," she said, in a tone of gentle encouragement; "I'm listening."
West's eyes stared beyond her into the flames.
"I haven't much to say," he said quietly at length. "Only this. You are acting without counting the cost. There is a price to pay for everything, but the price you will have to pay for this is heavier than you realise. There should be--there can be--no such thing as equality between a woman in your position--a good woman--and a blackguard in mine."
Cynthia made a little gesture of impatience without turning her head.
"Oh, you needn't treat me as if I were on a different plane," she said. "I'm a sinner, too, in my own humble way. It's unreasonable of you to go on like that, unkind as well. I may be only a sprat in your estimation, but even a sprat has its little feelings, its little heartaches, too, I daresay." She broke off with a sigh and a laugh; then, drawing impulsively nearer to him, but still without turning: "Do you remember once, ages and ages ago, you were on the verge of saying something to me, of--telling me something? And we were interrupted. Mr. West, I've been waiting all these years to hear what that something was."
West did not stir an eyelid. His face was stern and hard.
"I forget," he said.
She turned upon him then, raising a finger and pointing straight at him.
"That," she said, with conviction, "is just one of your lies!"
West became silent, still staring fixedly into the fire.
Cynthia drew nearer still. She touched his breast with her outstretched finger.
"Mr. West," she said gravely, "I suppose you'll have to leave off being a blackguard, and take to being an honest man. That's the only solution of the difficulty that I can think of now that you have got a crippled wife to look after."
He gripped her wrist, but still he would not look at her.
"This is madness," he said, grinding out the words through clenched teeth. "You are making a fatal mistake. I am not fit to be your husband. It is not in my power to give you happiness."
She did not shrink from his hold, though it was almost violent. Her eyes were shining like stars.
"That," she said, with quaint assurance, "is just another of your lies."
His hand relaxed slowly till her wrist was free.
"Do you know," he said, still with that iron self-suppression, "that only a few weeks ago I committed forgery?"
"Yes," said Cynthia. "And I know why you did it, too. It wasn't exactly clever, but it was just dear of you all the same."
The swindler's face quivered suddenly, uncontrollably. He tried to laugh--the old harsh laugh--but the sound he uttered was akin to something very different. He leaned forward sharply, and covered his face with his hands.
And in that moment Cynthia knew that the walls of the citadel had fallen at last, so that it lay open for her to enter in.
She knelt up quickly. Her arm slipped round his neck. She drew his head with soft insistence to her breast.
"My own boy, it's over; forget it all. It wasn't meant to handicap you always. We'll have another deal now, please God, and start afresh as partners."
There followed a pause--a silence that had in it something sacred. Then West raised himself, and took her face between his hands. For a moment he looked deep into her eyes, his own alight with a vital fire.
Then, "As lovers, Cynthia," he said, and kissed her on the lips.