The Swindler's Handicap by Ethel M. Dell
It was not till the middle of December that the new bailiff moved into his own quarters, but he had assumed his duties some weeks before that time, and Babbacombe was well satisfied with him. The man's business instincts were unusually keen. He had, moreover, a wonderful eye for details, and very little escaped him. It soon came home to Babbacombe that the management of his estate was in capable hands, and he congratulated himself upon having struck ore where he had least expected to find it. He supervised the whole of West's work for a time, but he soon suffered this vigilance to relax, for the man's shrewdness far surpassed his own. He settled to the work with a certain grim relish, and it was a perpetual marvel to Babbacombe that he mastered it from the outset with such facility.
Keepers and labourers eyed him askance for awhile, but West's imperturbability took effect before very long. They accepted him without enthusiasm, but also without rancour, as a man who could hold his own.
As soon as he was installed in the bailiff's house, Babbacombe left him to his own devices, and departed upon a round of visits. He proposed to entertain a house-party himself towards the end of January. He informed West of this before departing, and was slightly puzzled by a certain humourous gleam that shone in the steely eyes at the news. The matter went speedily from his mind. It was not till long after that he recalled it.
West wrote to him regularly during his absence, curt, businesslike epistles, which always terminated on a grim note of irony: "Your faithful steward, N. V. West." He never varied this joke, and Babbacombe usually noted it with a faint frown. The fellow was not a bad sort, he was convinced, but he would always be more or less of an enigma to him.
He returned to Farringdean in the middle of January with one of his married sisters, whom he had secured to act as hostess to his party. He invited West to dine with them informally on the night of his return.
His sister, Lady Cottesbrook, a gay and garrulous lady some years his senior, received the new agent with considerable condescension. She bestowed scant attention upon him during dinner, and West presented his most impenetrable demeanour in consequence, refusing steadily to avail himself of Babbacombe's courteous efforts to draw him into the conversation.
He would have excused himself later from accompanying his host into the drawing-room, but Babbacombe insisted upon this so stubbornly that finally, with his characteristic lift of the shoulders, he yielded.
As they entered, Lady Cottesbrook raised her glasses, and favoured him with a close scrutiny.
"It's very curious," she said, "but I can't help feeling as if I have seen you somewhere before. You have the look of some one I knew years ago--some one I didn't like--but I can't remember who."
"Just as well, perhaps," said Babbacombe, with a careless laugh, though a faint flush of annoyance rose in his face. "Come over here, West. You can smoke. My sister likes it."
He seated himself at the piano, indicated a chair near him to his guest, and began to play.
West, with his back to the light, sat motionless, listening. Lady Cottesbrook took up a book, and ignored him. There was something unfathomable about her brother's bailiff to which she strongly objected.
An hour later, when he had gone, she spoke of it.
"That man has the eyes of a criminal, Jack. I am sure he isn't trustworthy. He is too brazen. Where in the world did you pick him up?"
To which Babbacombe made composed reply:
"I know all about him, and he is absolutely trustworthy. He was recommended to me by a friend. I am sorry you thought it necessary to be rude to him. There is nothing offensive about him that I can see."
"My dear boy, you see nothing offensive in a great many people whom I positively detest. However, he isn't worth an argument. Only, if you must ask the man to dine, for goodness' sake another time have some one else for me to talk to. I frankly admit that I have no talent for entertaining people of that class. Now tell me the latest about Cynthia Mortimer. Of course, she is one of the chosen guests?"
"She has promised to spend a week here," Babbacombe answered somewhat reluctantly. "I haven't seen her lately. She has been in Paris."
"What has she been doing there? Buying her trousseau?"
"I really don't know." There was a faint inflection of irritation in his voice.
"Doesn't her consenting to come here mean that she will accept you?" questioned Lady Cottesbrook. She never hesitated to ask in plainest terms for anything she wanted.
"No," Babbacombe said heavily. "It does not."
Lady Cottesbrook was silenced. After a little she turned her attention to other matters, to her brother's evident relief.