The Swindler's Handicap by Ethel M. Dell
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.