The Swindler's Handicap by Ethel M. Dell
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."