The Swindler's Handicap by Ethel M. Dell
Babbacombe's guests departed upon the following day. Cynthia was among the first to leave. With a flushed face and sparkling eyes she made her farewells, and even Babbacombe, closely as he observed her, detected no hint of strain in her demeanour.
Returning from the station in the afternoon after speeding some of his guests, he dropped into the local bank to change a cheque. The manager, with whom he was intimate, chanced to be present, and led him off to his own room.
"By the way," he said, "we were just going to send you notice of an overdraft. That last big cheque of yours has left you a deficit."
Babbacombe stared at him. He had barely a fortnight before deposited a large sum of money at the bank, and he had not written any large cheque since.
"I don't understand," he said. "What cheque?"
The manager looked at him sharply.
"Why, the cheque for two hundred and fifty pounds, which your agent presented yesterday," he said. "It bore your signature and was dated the previous day. You wrote it, I suppose?"
Babbacombe was still staring blankly, but at the sudden question he pulled himself together.
"Oh, that! Yes, to be sure. Careless of me. I gave him a blank cheque for the Millsand estate expenses some weeks ago. It must have been that."
But though he spoke with a smiling face, his heart had gone suddenly cold with doubt. He knew full well that the expenses of which he spoke had been paid by West long before.
He refused to linger, and went out again after a few commonplaces, feeling as if he had been struck a stunning blow between the eyes.
Driving swiftly back through the park, he recovered somewhat from the shock. There must be--surely there would be!--some explanation.
Reaching West's abode he stopped the motor and descended. West was not in and he decided to wait for him, chafing at the delay.
Standing at the window, he presently saw the man coming up the path. He moved slowly, with a certain heaviness, as though weary.
As he opened the outer door, Babbacombe opened the inner and met him in the hall.
"I dropped in to have a word with you," he said.
West paused momentarily before shutting the door. His face was in shadow.
"I thought so," he said. "I saw the motor."
Babbacombe turned back into the room. He was grappling with the hardest task he had ever had to tackle. West followed him in absolute silence.
With an immense effort, Babbacombe spoke:
"I was at the bank just now. I went to get some cash. I was told that my account was overdrawn. I can't understand it. There seems to have been some mistake."
He paused, but West said nothing whatever. The light was beginning to fail, but his expressionless face was clearly visible. It held neither curiosity nor dismay.
"I was told," Babbacombe said again, "that you cashed a cheque of mine yesterday for two hundred and fifty pounds. Is that so?"
"It is," said West curtly.
"And yet," Babbacombe proceeded, "I understood from you that the Millsand estate business was settled long ago."
"It was," said West.
"Then this cheque--this cheque for two hundred and fifty pounds--where did it come from, West?" There was a note of entreaty in Babbacombe's voice.
West jerked up his head at the sound. It was a gesture openly contemptuous. "Can't you guess?" he said.
Babbacombe stiffened at the callous question. "You refuse to answer me?" he asked.
"That is my answer," said West.
"I am to understand then that you have robbed me--that you have forged my signature to do so--that you--great heavens, man"--Babbacombe's amazement burst forth irresistibly--"it's incredible! Are you mad, I wonder? You can't have done it in your sober senses. You would never have been so outrageously clumsy."
West shrugged his shoulders.
"I am quite sane--only a little out of practice."
His words were like a shower of icy water. Babbacombe contracted instantly.
"You wish me to believe that you did this thing in cold blood--that you deliberately meant to do it?"
"Certainly I meant to do it," said West.
"Why?" said Babbacombe.
Again he gave the non-committal shrug, no more. There was almost a fiendish look in his eyes, as if somewhere in his soul a demon leaped and jeered.
"Tell me why," Babbacombe persisted.
"Why should I tell you?" said West.
Babbacombe hesitated for an instant; then gravely, kindly, he made reply:
"For the sake of the friendship that has been between us. I had not the faintest idea that you were in need of money. Why couldn't you tell me?"
West made a restless movement. For the first time his hard stare shifted from Babbacombe's face.
"Why go into these details?" he questioned harshly. "I warned you at the outset what to expect. I am a swindler to the backbone. The sooner you bundle me back to where I came from, the better. I sha'n't run away this time."
"I shall not prosecute," Babbacombe said.
"You will not!" West blazed into sudden ferocity. He had the look of a wild animal at bay. "You are to prosecute!" he exclaimed violently. "Do you hear? I won't have any more of your damned charity! I'll go down into my own limbo and stay there, without let or hindrance from you or any other man. If you are fool enough to offer me another chance, as you call it, I am not fool enough to take it. The only thing I'll take from you is justice. Understand?"
"You wish me to prosecute?" Babbacombe said.
The words came with passionate force. West stood in almost a threatening attitude. His eyes shone in the gathering dusk like the eyes of a crouching beast--a beast that has been sorely wounded, but that will fight to the last.
The man's whole demeanour puzzled Babbacombe--his total lack of shame or penitence, his savagery of resentment. There was something behind it all--something he could not fathom, that baffled him, however he sought to approach it. In days gone by he had wondered if the fellow had a heart. That wonder was still in his mind. He himself had utterly failed to reach it if it existed. And Cynthia--even Cynthia--had failed. Yet, somehow, vaguely, he had a feeling that neither he nor Cynthia had understood.
"I don't know what to say to you, West," he said at length.
"Why say anything?" said West.
"Because," Babbacombe said slowly, "I don't believe--I can't believe--that simply for the sake of a paltry sum like that you would have risked so much. You could have swindled me in a thousand ways before now, and done it easily, too, with small chance of being found out. But this--this was bound to be discovered sooner or later. You must have known that. Then why, why in heaven's name did you do it? Apart from every other consideration, it was so infernally foolish. It wasn't like you to do a thing like that." He paused, then suddenly clapped an urgent hand upon the swindler's shoulder. "West," he said, "I'll swear that you never played this game with me for your own advantage. Tell the truth, man! Be honest with me in heaven's name! Give me the chance of judging you fairly! It isn't much to ask."
West drew back sharply.
"Why should I be honest with you?" he demanded. "You have never been honest with me from the very outset. I owe you nothing in that line, at all events."
He spoke passionately still, yet not wholly without restraint. He was as a man fighting desperate odds, and guarding some precious possession while he fought. But these words of his were something of a revelation to Babbacombe. He changed his ground to pursue it.
"What do you mean by that?"
"You know very well!" West flung the words from between set teeth, and with them he abruptly turned his back upon Babbacombe, lodging his arms upon the mantelpiece. "I am not going into details on that point or any other. But the fact is there, and you know it. You have never been absolutely straight in your dealings with me. I knew you weren't. I always knew it. But how crooked you were I did not know till lately. If you had been any other man, I believe I should have given you a broken head for your pains. But you are so damnably courteous, as well as such an unutterable fool!" He broke off with a hard laugh and a savage kick at the coals in front of him. "I couldn't see myself doing it," he said, "humbug as you are."
"And so you took this method of making me suffer?" Babbacombe suggested, his voice very quiet and even.
"You may say so if it satisfies you," said West, without turning.
"It does not satisfy me!" There was a note of sternness in the steady rejoinder. "It satisfies me so little that I insist upon an explanation. Turn round and tell me what you mean."
But West stood motionless and silent, as though hewn in granite.
Babbacombe waited with that in his face which very few had ever seen there. At last, as West remained stubborn, he spoke again:
"I suppose you have found out my original reason for giving you a fresh start in life, and you resent my having kept it a secret."
"I resent the reason." West tossed the words over his shoulder as though he uttered them against his will.
"Are you sure even now that you know what that reason was?" Babbacombe asked.
"I am sure of one thing!" West spoke quickly, vehemently, as a man shaken by some inner storm. "Had I been in your place--had the woman I wanted to marry asked me to bring back into her life some worthless scamp to whom she had taken a sentimental fancy when she was scarcely out of the schoolroom, I'd have seen him damned first, and myself too--had I been in your place. I would have refused pointblank, even if it had meant the end of everything."
"I believe you would," Babbacombe said. The sternness had gone out of his voice, and a certain weariness had taken its place. "But you haven't quite hit the truth of the matter. Since you have guessed so much you had better know the whole. I did not do this thing by request. I undertook it voluntarily. If I had not done so, some other means--possibly some less discreet means--would have been employed to gain the same end."
"I see!" West's head was bent. He seemed to be closely examining the marble on which his arms rested. "Well," he said abruptly, "you've told me the truth. I will do the same to you. This business has got to end. I have done my part towards bringing that about. And now you must do yours. You will have to prosecute, whether you like it or not. It is the only way."
"What?" Babbacombe said sharply.
West turned at last. The glare had gone out of his eyes--they were cold and still as an Arctic sky.
"I think we understand one another," he said. "I see you don't like your job. But you'll stick to it, for all that. There must be an end--a painless end if possible, without regrets. She has got to realise that I'm a swindler to the marrow of my bones, that I couldn't turn to and lead a decent, honourable life--even for love of her."
The words fell grimly, but there was no mockery in the steely eyes, no feeling of any sort. They looked full at Babbacombe with unflickering steadiness, that was all.
Babbacombe listened in the silence of a great amazement. Vaguely he had groped after the truth, but he had never even dimly imagined this. It struck him dumb--this sudden glimpse of a man's heart which till that moment had been so strenuously hidden from him.
"My dear fellow," he said at last; "but this is insanity!"
"Perhaps," West returned, unmoved. "They say every man has his mania. This is mine, and it is a very harmless one. It won't hurt you to humour it."
"But--good heavens!--have you thought of her?" Babbacombe exclaimed.
"I am thinking of her only," West answered quietly. "And I am asking you to do the same, both now and after you have married her."
"And send you to perdition to secure her peace of mind? A thousand times--no!" Babbacombe turned, and began to pace the room as though his feelings were too much for him. But very soon he stopped in front of West, and spoke with grave resolution. "Look here," he said, "I think you know that her happiness is more to me than anything else in the world, except my honour. To you it seems to be even more than that. And now listen, for as man to man I tell you the truth. You hold her happiness in the hollow of your hand!"
West's face remained as a mask; his eyes never varied.
"You can change all that," he said.
Babbacombe shook his head.
"I am not even sure that I shall try."
"What then?" said West. "Are you suggesting that the woman you love should marry an ex-convict--a notorious swindler, a blackguard?"
"I think," Babbacombe answered firmly, "that she ought to be allowed to decide that point."
"Allowed to ruin herself without interference," substituted West, sneering faintly. "Well, I don't agree with you, and I shall never give her the opportunity. You won't move me from that if you argue till Doomsday. So, in heaven's name, take what the gods offer, and leave me alone. Marry her. Give her all a good woman ever wants--a happy home, a husband who worships her, and children for her to worship, and you will soon find that I have dropped below the horizon."
He swung round again to the fire, and drove the poker hard into the coals.
"And find another agent as soon as possible," he said; "a respectable one this time, one who won't let you down when you are not looking, who won't call you a fool when you make mistakes--in short, a gentleman. There are plenty of them about. But they are not to be found in the world's rubbish heap. There's nothing but filth and broken crockery there."
He ended with his brief, cynical laugh, and Babbacombe knew that further discussion would be vain. For good or ill the swindler had made his decision, and he realised that no effort of his would alter it. To attempt to do so would be to beat against a stone wall--a struggle in which he might possibly hurt himself, but which would make no difference whatever to the wall.
Reluctantly he abandoned the argument, and prepared to take his departure.
But later, as he drove home, the man's words recurred to him and dwelt long in his memory. Their bitterness seemed to cloak something upon which no eye had ever looked--a regret unspeakable, a passionate repentance that found no place.