The Swindler's Handicap by Ethel M. Dell
The early winter dusk was falling upon a world veiled in cold, drifting rain. Away in the distance where the castle stood, many lights had begun to glimmer. It was the cosy hour when sportsmen collect about the fireside with noisy talk of the day's achievements.
The man who strode down the long, dark avenue towards the bailiff's house smiled bitterly to himself as he marked the growing illumination. It was four days since Cynthia Mortimer had extended to him the hand of friendship, and he had not seen her since. He was, in fact, studiously avoiding her, more studiously than he had ever avoided any one in his life before. His daily visits to the castle he now paid early in the morning, before Babbacombe himself was dressed, long before any of the guests were stirring. And his refusal either to dine at the castle or to join the sportsmen during the day was so prompt and so emphatic that Babbacombe had refrained from pressing his invitation.
Not a word had passed between them upon the subject of Cynthia's recognition. West adhered strictly to business during his brief interviews with his chief. The smallest digression on Babbacombe's part he invariably ignored as unworthy of his attention, till even Babbacombe, with all his courtly consideration for others, began to regard him as a mere automaton, and almost to treat him as such.
Had he realised in the faintest degree what West was enduring at that time, his heart must have warmed to the man, despite his repellent exterior. But he had no means of realising.
The rust of twelve bitter years had corroded the bolts of that closed door behind which the swindler hid his lonely soul, and it was not in the power of any man to move them.
So grimly he went his silent way, cynical, as only those can be to whom the best thing in life has been offered too late; proud, also, after his curious, iron-clad fashion, refusing sternly to bear a lance again in that field which had witnessed his dishonour.
He knew very well what those twinkling lights denoted. He could almost hear the clatter round the tea-table, the witless jests of the youngsters, the careless laughter of the women, the trivial, merry nonsense that was weaving another hour of happiness into the golden skein of happy hours. Contemptible, of course! Vanity of vanities! But how infinitely precious is even such vanity as this to those who stand outside!
The rain was beginning to patter through the trees. It would be a wet night. With his collar turned up to his ears, he trudged forward. He cared little for the rain. For twelve long years he had lived an outdoor life.
There were no lights visible in his own abode. The old woman who kept his house was doubtless gossiping with some crony up at the castle.
With his hand on the garden gate, he looked back at its distant, shining front. Then, with a shrug, as if impatient with himself for lingering, he turned to walk up the short, flagged pathway that led to his own door.
At the same instant a cry of pain--a woman's cry--came sharply through the dripping stillness of the trees. He turned back swiftly, banging the gate behind him.
A long slope rose, tree-covered, from the other side of the road. He judged the sound to have come from that direction, and he hurried towards it with swinging strides. Reaching the deep shadow, he paused, peering upwards.
At once a voice he knew called to him, but in such accents of agony that he hardly recognised it.
"Oh, come and help me! I'm here--caught in a trap! I can't move!"
In a moment he was crashing through the undergrowth with the furious recklessness of a wild animal.
"I am coming! Keep still!" he shouted as he went.
He found her crouched in a tiny hollow close to a narrow footpath that ran through the wood. She was on her knees, but she turned a deathly face up to him as he reached her. She was sobbing like a child.
"They are great iron teeth," she gasped, "fastened in my hand. Can you open them?"
"Don't move!" he ordered, as he dropped down beside her.
It was a poacher's trap, fortunately of a species with which he was acquainted. Her hand was fairly gripped between the iron jaws. He wondered with a set face if those cruel teeth had met in her delicate flesh.
She screamed as he forced it open, and fell back shuddering, half-fainting, while he lifted her torn hand and examined it in the failing light.
It was bleeding freely, but not violently, and he saw with relief that the larger veins had escaped. He wrapped his handkerchief round it, and spoke:
"Come!" he said. "My house is close by. It had better be bathed at once."
"Yes," she assented shakily.
"Don't cry!" he said, with blunt kindliness.
"I can't help it," whispered Cynthia.
He helped her to her feet, but she trembled so much that he put his arm about her.
"It's only a stone's throw away," he said.
She went with him without question. She seemed dazed with pain.
Silently he led her down to his dark abode.
"I'm giving you a lot of trouble," she murmured, as they entered.
To which he made gruff reply:
"It's worse for you than for me!"
He put her into an easy chair, lighted a lamp, and departed for a basin of water.
When he returned, she had so far mastered herself as to be able to smile at him through her tears.
"I know I'm a drivelling idiot to cry!" she said, her voice high and tremulous. "But I never felt so sick before!"
"Don't apologise," said West briefly. "I know."
He bathed the injury with the utmost tenderness, while she sat and watched his stern face.
"My!" she said suddenly, with a little, shaky laugh. "You are being very good to me, but why do you frown like that?"
He glanced at her with those piercing eyes of his.
"How did you do it?"
The colour came into her white face.
"I--was trying to spring the trap," she said, eyeing him doubtfully. "I didn't like to think of one of those cute little rabbits getting caught."
"Yes, but how did you manage to get your hand in the way?" said West.
She considered this problem for a little.
"I guess I can't explain that mystery to you," she said, at length. "You see, I'm only a woman, and women often do things that are very foolish."
West's silence seemed to express tacit agreement with this assertion.
"Anyway," she resumed, making a wry face, "it's done. You are not vexed because I made such a fuss?"
There was an odd wistfulness in her tone. West, busy bandaging, did not raise his eyes.
"I don't blame you for that," he said. "It must have hurt you infernally! If you take my advice, you will show it to a doctor."
She screwed her face up a second time.
"To please you, Mr. West?"
"No," he responded curtly. "As a sensible precaution."
"And if I don't happen to be remarkable for sense?" she suggested.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Yes, I know," said Cynthia. "You say that to everything. It's getting rather monotonous. And I'm sure I'm very patient. You'll grant me that, at least?"
He turned his ice-blue eyes upon her.
"I am not good at paying compliments, Miss Mortimer," he said cynically. "Twelve years in prison have rusted all my little accomplishments."
She met his look with a smile, though her lips were quivering still.
"My! What a pity!" she said. "Has your heart got rusty, too?"
"Very," said West shortly.
"Can't you rub it off?" she questioned.
He uttered his ironic laugh.
"There wouldn't be anything left if I did."
"No?" she said whimsically. "Well, give it to me, and let me see what I can do!"
His eyes fell away from her, and the grim line of his jaw hardened perceptibly.
"That would be too hard a job even for you!" he said.
She rose and put out her free hand to him. Her eyes were very soft and womanly. A quaint little smile yet hovered about her lips.
"I guess I'll have a try," she said gently.
He did not touch her hand, nor would he again meet her eyes.
"A hopeless task, I am afraid," he said. "And utterly unprofitable to all concerned. I am not a deserving object for your charity."
She laughed a trifle breathlessly.
"Say, Mr. West, couldn't you put that into words of one syllable? You try, and perhaps then I'll listen to you, and give you my views as well."
But West remained rigorously unresponsive. It was as if he were thinking of other things.
Cynthia uttered a little sigh and turned to go.
"Good-bye, Mr. West!" she said.
He went with her to the door.
"Shall I walk back with you?" he asked formally.
She shook her head.
"No. I'm better now, and it's quite light still beyond the trees. Good-bye, and--thank you!"
"Good-bye!" he said.
He followed her to the gate, opened it for her, and stood there watching till he saw her emerge from the shadow cast by the overarching trees. Then--for he knew that the rest of the journey was no more than a few minutes' easy walk--he turned back into the house, and shut himself in.
Entering the room he had just quitted, he locked the door, and there he remained for a long, long time.