The Swindler's Handicap by Ethel M. Dell
"I have just discovered of whom it is that your very unpleasant agent reminds me," observed Lady Cottesbrook at the breakfast-table on the following morning. "It flashed upon me suddenly. He is the very image of that nasty person, Nat Verney, who swindled such a crowd of people a few years ago. I was present at part of his trial, and a more callous, thoroughly insolent creature I never saw. I suppose he is still in prison. I forget exactly what the sentence was, but I know it was a long one. I should think this man must be his twin-brother, Jack. I never saw a more remarkable likeness."
Babbacombe barely glanced up from his letter. "You are always finding that the people you don't like resemble criminals, Ursula," he said, with something less than his usual courtesy. "Did you say you were leaving by the eleven-fifty? I think I shall come with you."
"My dear Jack, how you change! I thought you were going to stay down here for another week."
"I was," he answered. "But I have had a line from Cynthia to tell me that her hand is poisoned from that infernal trap. It may be very serious. It probably is, or she would not have written."
That note of Cynthia's had in fact roused his deepest anxiety. He had fancied all along that she had deliberately made light of the injury. Soon after three o'clock he was in town, and he hastened forthwith to Cynthia's flat in Mayfair.
He found her on a couch in her dainty boudoir, lying alone before the fire. Her eyes shone like stars in her white face as she greeted him.
"It was just dear of you to come so soon," she said. "I kind of thought you would. I'm having a really bad time for once, and I thought you'd like to know."
"Tell me about it," he said, sitting down beside her.
Her left hand lay in his for a few moments, but after a little she softly drew it away. Her right was in a sling.
"There's hardly anything to tell," she said. "Only my arm is bad right up to the shoulder, and the doctor is putting things on the wound so that it sha'n't leave off hurting night or day. I dreamt I was Dante last night. But no, I won't tell you about that. It was too horrible. I've never been really sick before, Jack. It frightens me some. I sent for you because I felt I wanted--a friend to talk to. It was outrageously selfish of me."
"It was the kindest thing you could do," Babbacombe said.
"Ah, but you mustn't misunderstand." A note of wistfulness sounded in the high voice. "You won't misunderstand, will you, Jack? I only want--a friend."
"You needn't be afraid, Cynthia," he said. "I shall never attempt to be anything else to you without your free consent."
"Thank you," she murmured. "I know I'm very mean. But I had such a bad night. I thought that all the devils in hell were jeering at me because I had told you my romance was dead. Oh, Jack! it was a great big lie, and it's come home to roost. I can't get rid of it. It won't die."
He heard the quiver of tears in her confession, and set his teeth.
"My dear," he said, "don't fret about that. I knew it at the bottom of my heart."
She reached out her hand to him again. "I hate myself for treating you like this," she whispered. "But I--I'm lonely, and I can't help it. You--you shouldn't be so kind."
"Ah, child, don't grudge me your friendship," he said. "It is the dearest thing I have."
"It's so hard," wailed Cynthia, "that I can give you so little, when I would so gladly give all if I could."
"You are not to blame yourself for that," he answered steadily. "You loved each other before I ever met you."
"Loved each other!" she said. "Do you really mean that, Jack?"
He hesitated. He had not intended to say so much.
"Jack," she urged piteously, "then you think he really cares?"
"Don't you know it, Cynthia?" he asked, in a low voice.
"My heart knows it," she said brokenly. "But my mind isn't sure. Do you know, Jack, I almost proposed to him because I felt so sure he cared. And he--he just looked beyond me, as if--as if he didn't even hear."
"He thinks he isn't good enough for you," Babbacombe said, with an effort. "I don't think he will ever be persuaded to act otherwise. He seems to consider himself hopelessly handicapped."
"What makes you say that?" whispered Cynthia.
He had not meant to tell her. It was against his will that he did so; but he felt impelled to do it. For her peace of mind it seemed imperative that she should understand.
And so, in a few words, he told her of West's abortive attempt to plunge a second time into the black depths from which he had so recently escaped, of the man's absolutely selfless devotion, of his rigid refusal to suffer even her love for him to move him from this attitude.
Cynthia listened with her bright eyes fixed unswervingly upon Babbacombe's face. She made no comment of any sort when he ended. She only pressed his hand.
He remained with her for some time, and when he got up to go at length, it was with manifest reluctance. He lingered beside her after he had spoken his farewell, as though he still had something to say.
"You will come again soon," said Cynthia.
"To-morrow," he answered. "And--Cynthia, there is just one thing I want to say."
She looked up at him questioningly.
"Only this," he said. "You sent for me because you wanted a friend. I want you from now onward to treat me and to think of me in that light only. As I now see things, I do not think I shall ever be anything more to you than just that. Remember it, won't you, and make use of me in any way that you wish. I will gladly do anything."
The words went straight from his heart to hers. Cynthia's eyes filled with sudden tears. She reached out and clasped his hand very closely.
"Dear Jack," she said softly; "you're just the best friend I have in the world, and I sha'n't forget it--ever."
He called early on the following day, and received the information that she was keeping her bed by the doctor's orders. Later in the day he went again, and found that the doctor was with her. He decided to wait, and paced up and down the drawing-room for nearly an hour. Eventually the doctor came.
Babbacombe knew him slightly, and was not surprised when, at sight of him in the doorway, the doctor turned aside at once, and entered the room.
"Miss Mortimer told me I should probably see you," he said, "and if I did so, she desired me to tell you everything. I am sorry to say that I think very seriously of the injury. I have just been persuading her to go into a private nursing-home. This is no place to be ill in, and I shall have to perform a slight operation to-morrow which will necessitate the use of an anaesthetic."
"An operation!" Babbacombe exclaimed, aghast.
"It is absolutely imperative," the doctor said, "to get at the seat of the poison. I am making every effort to prevent the mischief spreading any further. Should the operation fail, no power on earth will save her hand. It may mean the arm as well."
Babbacombe listened to further explanations, sick at heart.
"When do you propose to move her?" he asked presently.
"At once. I am going now to make arrangements."
"May I go in and see her if she will admit me?"
"I don't advise it to-night. She is excited and overstrung. To-morrow, perhaps, if all goes well. Come round to my house at two o'clock, and I will let you know."
But Babbacombe did not see her the next day, for it was found advisable to keep her absolutely quiet. The doctor was very reticent, but he gathered from his manner that he entertained very grave doubts as to the success of his treatment.
On the day following he telephoned to Babbacombe to meet him at the home in the afternoon.
Babbacombe arrived before the time appointed, and spent half an hour in sick suspense, awaiting the doctor's coming.
The latter entered at last, and greeted him with a serious face.
"I am going to let you see Miss Mortimer," he said. "What I feared from the outset has taken place. The mischief was neglected too long at the beginning. There is nothing for it but amputation of the hand. And it must be performed without delay."
Babbacombe said something inarticulate that resolved itself with an effort into:
"Have you told her?"
"Yes, I have." The doctor's voice was stern. "And she absolutely refuses to consent to it. I have given her till to-morrow morning to make up her mind. After that--" He paused a moment, and looked Babbacombe straight in the face. "After that," he said, with emphasis, "it will be too late."
When Babbacombe entered Cynthia's presence a few minutes later, he walked as a man dazed. He found her lying among pillows, with the sunlight streaming over her, transforming her brown hair into a mass of sparkling gold. The old quick, gracious smile welcomed him as he bent over her. There were deep shadows about her eyes, but they were wonderfully bright. The hand she gave him was as cold as ice, despite the flush upon her cheeks.
"You have been told?" she questioned. "Yes, I see you have. Now, don't preach to me, Jack--dear Jack. It's too shocking to talk about. Can you believe it? I can't. I've always been so clever with my hands. Have you a pencil? I want you to take down a wire for me."
In her bright, imperious way, she dominated him. It was well-nigh impossible to realise that she was dangerously ill.
He sat down beside her with pencil and paper.
"Address it to Mr. West," said Cynthia, her eyes following his fingers. "Yes. And now put just this: 'I am sick, and wanting you. Will you come?--Cynthia.' And write the address. Do you think he'll come, Jack?"
"Let me add 'Urgent,'" he said.
"No, Jack. You are not to. Add nothing. If he doesn't come for that, he will never come at all. And I sha'n't wait for him," she added under her breath.
She seemed impatient for him to depart and despatch the message, but when he took his leave her eyes followed him with a wistful gratitude that sent a thrill to his heart. She had taken him at his word, and had made him her friend in need.