The Swindler's Handicap by Ethel M. Dell
It was on a still, frosty evening of many stars that Cynthia came to Farringdean Castle. A young moon was low in the sky, and she paused to curtsey to it upon descending from the motor that had borne her thither.
She turned to find Babbacombe beside her.
"I hope it will bring you luck, Cynthia," he said.
She flashed a swift look at him, and gave him both her hands.
"Thank you, old friend," she said softly.
Her eyes were shining like the stars above them. She laughed a little tremulously.
"I couldn't get to the station to meet you," he said. "I wanted to. Come inside. There is no one here whom you don't know."
"Thank you again," she said.
In another moment they were entering the great hall. Before an immense open fireplace a group of people were gathered at tea. There was a general buzz of greeting as Cynthia entered. She was always popular, wherever she went.
She scattered her own greetings broadcast, passing from one to another, greeting each in her high, sweet drawl--a gracious, impulsive woman whom to know was to love.
Babbacombe watched her with a dumb longing. How often he had pictured her as hostess where now she moved as guest! Well, that dream of his was shattered, but the glowing fragments yet burned in his secret heart. All his life long he would remember her as he saw her that night on his own hearth. Her loveliness was like a flower wide open to the sun. He thought her lovelier that night than she had ever been before. When she flitted away at length, he felt as if she took the warmth and brightness of the fireside with her.
There was no agreement between them, but he knew that she would be down early, and hastened his own dressing in consequence. He found her waiting alone in the drawing-room before a regal fire. She wore a splendid star of diamonds in her dark hair. It sparkled in a thousand colours as she turned. Her dress was black, unrelieved by any ornament.
"Cynthia," he said, "you are exquisite!"
The words burst from him almost involuntarily. She put out her hand to him with a gesture half of acknowledgment, half of protest.
"I may be good to look at," she said, with a little whimsical smile. "But--I tell you, Jack--I feel a perfect reptile. It's heads I win, tails you lose; and--I just can't bear it."
There was a catch in the high voice that was almost a sob. Babbacombe took her hand and held it.
"My dear," he said, "it's nothing of the sort. You have done me the very great honour of giving me your full confidence, and I won't have you abusing yourself for it."
She shook her head. "I hate myself--there! And--and I'm frightened too. Jack, if you want me to marry you--you had better ask me now. I won't refuse you."
He looked her closely in the eyes. "No, Cynthia," he said very gravely.
"I am not laughing," she protested.
He smiled a little. "It would be easier for me if you were," he said. "No, we will go through with this since we have begun. And you needn't be scared. He is hardly a ladies' man, according to my judgment, but he is not a bounder. I haven't asked him to meet you to-night. I thought it better not. In fact, I----"
He broke off at the sound of a step behind him. With a start Cynthia turned.
A short, thick-set man in riding-dress was walking up the room.
"I beg your pardon," he said formally, halting a few paces from Babbacombe. "I have been waiting for you in the library for the last hour. I sent you a message, but I conclude it was not delivered. Can I speak to you for a few seconds on a matter of business?"
He spoke with his eyes fixed steadily upon Babbacombe's face, ignoring the woman's presence as if he had not even seen her.
Babbacombe was momentarily disconcerted. He glanced at Cynthia before replying; and instantly, in her quick, gracious way, she came forward with extended hand.
"Why, Mr. West," she said, "don't you know me? I'm Cynthia Mortimer--a very old friend of yours. And I'm very glad to meet you again."
There was a quiver as of laughter in her words. The confidence of her action compelled some species of response. West took the outstretched hand for a single instant; but his eyes, meeting hers, held no recognition.
"I am afraid," he said stonily, "that your memory is better than mine."
It was a check that would have disheartened many women; not so Cynthia Mortimer.
She opened her eyes wide for a second, the next quite openly she laughed at him.
"You are not a bit cleverer than you used to be," she said. "But I rather like you for it all the same. Come, Mr. West, I'm sure you will make an effort when I tell you that I want to be remembered. You once did a big thing for me which I have never forgotten--which I never shall forget."
West was frowning. "You have made a mistake," he said briefly.
She laughed again, softly, audaciously. There was a delicate flush on her face, and her eyes were very bright.
"No, Mr. Nat Verney West," she said, sinking her voice. "I'm a lot cleverer than you think, and I don't make mistakes of that sort."
He shrugged his shoulders, and was silent. She was laughing still.
"Why can't we begin where we left off?" she asked ingenuously. "Back numbers are so dull, and we were long past this stage anyway. Lord Babbacombe," appealing suddenly to her host, "can't you persuade Mr. West to come to the third act? I always prefer to skip the second. And we finished the first long ago."
Babbacombe came to her assistance with his courteous smile. "Miss Mortimer considers herself in your debt, Mr. West," he said. "I think you will hurt her feelings if you try to repudiate her obligation."
"Yes, of course," laughed Cynthia. "It was a mighty big debt, and I have been wondering ever since how to get even with you. Oh, you needn't scowl. That doesn't hurt me at all. Do you know you haven't altered a mite, you funny English bulldog? Come, you know me now?"
"Yes, I know you," West said. "But I think it is a pity that you have renewed your acquaintance with me, and the sooner you drop me again the better." He spoke briefly and very decidedly, and having thus expressed himself he turned to Babbacombe. "I am going to the library. Perhaps you will join me there at your convenience."
With an abrupt bow to Cynthia, he turned to go. But instantly the high voice arrested him.
"Mr. West!" she said again, her voice half-imperious, half-pleading.
Reluctantly he faced round. She was waiting for him with a little smile quivering about her mouth. Her grey eyes met his with perfect composure.
"I want to know," she said, in her softest drawl, "if it is for my sake or your own that you regret this renewal of acquaintance."
"For yours, Miss Mortimer," he answered grimly.
"That's very kind of you," she rejoined. "And why?"
Again he gave that slight lift of the shoulders that she remembered so well.
"You know the proverb about touching pitch?"
"Some people like pitch," said Cynthia.
"Not clean people," threw back West.
"No?" she said. "Well, perhaps not. Anyway, it doesn't apply in this case. So I sha'n't drop you, Mr. West, thank you all the same! Good-night!"
She offered him her hand with a gesture that was nothing short of regal. And he--because he could do no less--took it, gripped it, and went his way.
"Isn't he rude?" murmured Cynthia; and she said it as if rudeness were the highest virtue a man could display.