The Swindler's Handicap by Ethel M. Dell

A SEQUEL TO "THE SWINDLER"

Which I Dedicate to the Friend Who Asked for it.

I

"Yes, but what's the good of it?" said Cynthia Mortimer gently. "I can never marry you."

"You might be engaged to me for a bit, anyhow," he urged, "and see how you like it."

She made a quaint gesture with her arms, as though she tried to lift some heavy weight.

"I am very sorry," she said, in the same gentle voice. "It's very nice of you to think of it, Lord Babbacombe. But—you see, I'm quite sure I shouldn't like it. So that ends it, doesn't it?"

He stood up to his full height, and regarded her with a faint, rueful smile.

"You're a very obstinate girl, Cynthia," he said.

She leaned back in her chair, looking up at him with clear, grey eyes that met his with absolute freedom.

"I'm not a girl at all, Jack," she said. "I gave up all my pretensions to youth many, many years ago."

He nodded, still faintly smiling.

"You were about nineteen, weren't you?"

"No. I was past twenty-one." A curious note crept into her voice; it sounded as if she were speaking of the dead. "It—was just twelve years ago," she said.

Babbacombe's eyebrows went up.

"What! Are you past thirty? I had no idea."

She laughed at him—a quick, gay laugh.

"Why, it's eight years since I first met you."

"Is it? Great heavens, how the time goes—wasted time, too, Cynthia! We might have been awfully happy together all this time. Well"—with a sharp sigh—"we can't get it back again. But anyhow, we needn't squander any more of it, if only you will be reasonable."

She shook her head; then, with one of those quick impulses that were a part of her charm, she sprang lightly up and gave him both her hands.

"No, Jack," she said. "No—no—no! I'm not reasonable. I'm just a drivelling, idiotic fool. But—but I love my foolishness too well ever to part with it. Ever, did I say? No, even I am not quite so foolish as that. But it's sublime enough to hold me till—till I know for certain whether—whether the thing I call love is real or—or—only—a sham."

There was passion in her voice, and her eyes were suddenly full of tears; but she kept them upturned to his as though she pleaded with him to understand.

He looked down at her very kindly, very steadily, holding her hands closely in his own. There was no hint of chagrin on his clean-shaven face—only the utmost kindness.

"Don't cry!" he said gently. "Tell me about this sublime foolishness of yours—about the thing you call—love. I might help you, perhaps—who knows?—to find out if it is the real thing or not."

Her lips were quivering.

"I've never told a soul," she said. "I—am half afraid."

"Nonsense, dear!" he protested.

"But I am," she persisted. "It's such an absurd romance—this of mine, so absurd that you'll laugh at it, just at first. And then—afterwards—you will—disapprove."

"My dear girl," he said, "you have never entertained the smallest regard for my opinion before. Why begin to-day?"

She laughed a little, turning from him to brush away her tears.

"Sit down," she said, "and—and smoke—those horrid strong cigarettes of yours. I love the smell. Perhaps I'll try and tell you. But—mind, Jack—you're not to look at me. And you're not to say a single word till I've done. Just—smoke, that's all."

She settled herself on the low fender-cushion with her face turned from him to the fire. Lord Babbacombe sat down as she desired, and took out and lighted a cigarette.

As the scent of it reached her she began to speak in the high, American voice he had come to love. There was nothing piercing about it; it was a clear, sweet treble.

"It happened when I was travelling under Aunt Bathurst's wing. You know, it was with her and my cousin Archie that I first did Europe. My! It was a long time ago! I've been round the world four times since then—twice with poor dear Daddy, once with Mrs. Archie, after he died, and the last time—alone. And I didn't like that last time a mite. I was like the man in The Pilgrim's Progress—I took my hump wherever I went. Still, I had to do something. You were big-game shooting. I'd have gone with you if you'd have had me unmarried. But I knew you wouldn't, so I just had to mess around by myself. Oh, but I was tired—I was tired! But I kept saying to myself it was the last journey before—Jack, if you don't smoke your cigarette will go out. Where was I? I'm afraid I'm boring you. You can go to sleep if you like. Well, it was on the voyage back. There was a man on board that every one said was a private detective. It was at the time of the great Nat Verney swindles. You remember, of course? And somehow we all jumped to the conclusion that he was tracking him. I remember seeing him when we first went on board at Liverpool. He was standing by the gangway watching the crowd with the bluest eyes on earth, and I took him for a detective right away. But—for all that—there was something about him—something I kind of liked, that made me feel I wanted to know him. He was avoiding everybody, but I made him talk to me. You know my way."

She paused for a moment, and leaning forward, gazed into the heart of the fire with wide, intent eyes.

The man in the chair behind her smoked on silently with a drawn face.

"He was very horrid to me," she went on, her voice soft and slow as though she were describing something seen in a vision, "the only man who ever was. But I—do you know, I liked him all the more for that? I didn't flirt with him. I didn't try. He wasn't the sort one could flirt with. He was hard—hard as iron, clean-shaven, with an immensely powerful jaw, and eyes that looked clean through you. He was one of those short, broad Englishmen—you know the sort—out of proportion everywhere, but so splendidly strong. He just hated me for making friends with him. It was very funny."

An odd little note of laughter ran through the words—that laughter which is akin to tears.

"But I didn't care for that," she said. "It didn't hurt me in the least. He was too big to give offence to an impudent little minx like me. Besides, I wanted him to help me, and after a bit I told him so. Archie—my cousin, you know; he was only a boy then—was mad on card-playing at that time. And I was real worried about him. I knew he would get into a hole sooner or later, and I begged my surly Englishman to keep an eye on him. Oh, I was a fool! I was a brainless, chattering fool! And I'm not much better now, I often think."

Cynthia's hand went up to her eyes. The vision in the fire was all blurred and indistinct.

Babbacombe was leaning forward, listening intently. The firelight flickered on his face, showing it very grave and still. He did not attempt to speak.

Nevertheless, after a moment, Cynthia made a wavering movement with one hand in his direction.

"I'm not crying, Jack. Don't be silly! I'm sure your cigarette is out."

It was. He pitched it past her into the fire.

"Light another," she pleaded. "I love them so. They are the kind he always smoked. That's nearly the end of the story. You can almost guess the rest. That very night Archie did get into a hole, a bad one, and the only way my friend could lift him out was by getting down into it himself. He saved him, but it was at his own expense; for it made people begin to reflect. And in the end—in the end, when we came into harbour, they came on board, and—and arrested him early in the morning—before I knew. You see, he—he was Nat Verney."

Cynthia's dark head was suddenly bowed upon her hands. She was rocking to and fro in the firelight.

"And it was my fault," she sobbed—"all my fault. If—if he hadn't done that thing for me, no one would have known—no one would have suspected!"

She had broken down completely at last, and the man who heard her wondered, with a deep compassion, how often she had wept, in secret and uncomforted, as she was weeping now.

He bore it till his humanity could endure no longer. And then, very gently, he reached out, touched her, drew her to him, pillowed her head on his shoulder.

"Don't cry, Cynthia," he whispered earnestly. "It's heart-breaking work, dear, and it doesn't help. There! Let me hold you till you feel better. You can't refuse comfort from an old friend like me."

She yielded to him mutely for a little, till her grief had somewhat spent itself. Then, with a little quivering smile, she lifted her head and looked him straight in the face.

"Thank you, Jack," she said. "You—you've done me good. But it's not good for you, is it? I've made you quite damp. You don't think you'll catch cold?"—dabbing at his shoulder with her handkerchief.

He took her hand and stayed it.

"There is nothing in this world," he said gravely "that I would so gladly do as help you, Cynthia. Will you believe this, and treat me from this stand-point only?"

She turned back to the fire, but she left her hand in his.

"My dear," she said, in an odd little choked voice, "it's just like you to say so, and I guess I sha'n't forget it. Well, well! There's my romance in a nutshell. He didn't care a fig for me till just the last. He cared then, but it was too late to come to anything. They shipped him back again you know, and he was sentenced to fifteen years' penal servitude. He's done nearly twelve, and he's coming out next month on ticket-of-leave."

"Oh, Cynthia!"

Babbacombe bent his head suddenly upon her hand, and sat tense and silent.

"I know," she said—"I know. It sounds simply monstrous, put into bald words. I sometimes wonder myself if it can possibly be true—if I, Cynthia Mortimer, can really be such a fool. But I can't possibly tell for certain till I see him again. I must see him again somehow. I've waited all these years—all these years."

Babbacombe groaned.

"And suppose, when you've seen him, you still care?"

She shook her head.

"What then, Jack? I don't know; I don't know."

He pulled himself together, and sat up.

"Do you know where he is?"

"Yes. He is at Barren Hill. He has been there for five years now. My solicitor knows that I take an interest in him. He calls it philanthropy." Cynthia smiled faintly into the fire. "I was one of the people he swindled," she said. "But he paid me back."

She rose and went across the room to a bureau in a corner. She unlocked a drawer, and took something from it. Returning, she laid a packet of notes in Babbacombe's hands.

"I could never part with them," she said. "He gave them to me in a sealed parcel the last time I saw him. It's only a hundred pounds. Yes, that was the message he wrote. Can you read it? 'With apologies from the man who swindled you.' As if I cared for the wretched money!"

Babbacombe frowned over the writing in silence.

"Why don't you say what you think, Jack?" she said. "Why don't you call him a thieving scoundrel and me a poor, romantic fool!"

"I am trying to think how I can help you," he answered quietly. "Have you any plans?"

"No, nothing definite," she said. "It is difficult to know what to do. He knows one thing—that he has a friend who will help him when he comes out. He will be horribly poor, you know, and I'm so rich. But, of course, I would do it anonymously. And he thinks his friend is a man."

Babbacombe pondered with drawn brows.

"Cynthia," he said slowly, at length, "suppose I take this matter into my own hands, suppose I make it possible for you to see this man once more, will you be guided entirely by me? Will you promise me solemnly to take no rash step of any description; in short, to do nothing without consulting me? Will you promise me, Cynthia?"

He spoke very earnestly. The firelight showed her the resolution on his face.

"Of course I will promise you, Jack," she said instantly. "I would trust myself body and soul in your keeping. But what can you do?"

"I might do this," he said. "I might pose as his unknown friend—another philanthropist, Cynthia." He smiled rather grimly. "I might get hold of him when he comes out, give him something to do to keep his head above water. If he has any manhood in him, he won't mind what he takes. And I might—later, if I thought it practicable—I only say 'if,' Cynthia, for after many years of prison life a man isn't always fit company for a lady—I might arrange that you should see him in some absolutely casual fashion. If you consent to this arrangement you must leave that entirely to me."

"But you will hate to do it!" she exclaimed.

He rose. "I will do it for your sake," he said. "I shall not hate it if it makes you see things—as they are."

"Oh, but you are good," she said tremulously—"you are good!"

"I love a good woman," he answered gravely.

And with that he turned and left her alone in the firelight with her romance.

II

It was early on a dark November day that the prison gate at Barren Hill opened to allow a convict who had just completed twelve years' penal servitude to pass out a free man.

A motor car was drawn up at the side of the kerb as he emerged, and a man in a long overcoat, with another slung on his arm, was pacing up and down.

He wheeled at the closing of the gate, and they stood face to face.

There was a moment's difficult silence; then the man with the motor spoke.

"Mr. West, I think?"

The other looked him up and down in a single comprehensive glance that was like the flash of a sword blade.

"Certainly," he said curtly, "if you prefer it."

He was a short, thick-set man of past forty, with a face so grimly lined as to mask all expression. His eyes alone were vividly alert. They were the bluest eyes that Babbacombe had ever seen.

He accepted the curt acknowledgment with grave courtesy, and made a motion toward the car.

"Will you get in? My name is Babbacombe. I am here to meet you, as no doubt you have been told. You had better wear this"—opening out the coat he carried.

But West remained motionless, facing him on the grey, deserted road. "Before I come with you," he said, in his brief, clipped style, "there is one thing I want to know. Are you patronising me for the sake of philanthropy, or for—some other reason?"

As he uttered the question, he fixed Babbacombe with a stare that was not without insolence.

Babbacombe did not hesitate in his reply. He was not a man to be lightly disconcerted.

"You can put it down to anything you like," he said, "except philanthropy."

West considered a moment.

"Very well, sir," he said finally, his aggressive tone slightly modified. "In that case I will come with you."

He turned about, and thrust his arms into the coat Babbacombe held for him, turned up the collar, and without a backward glance, stepped into the waiting motor.

Babbacombe started the engine, and followed him. In another moment they had glided away into the dripping mist, and the prison was left behind.

Through mile after mile they sped in silence. West sat with his chin buried in his coat, his keen eyes staring straight ahead. Babbacombe, at the wheel, never glanced at him once.

Through villages, through towns, through long stretches of open country they glided, sometimes slackening, but never stopping. The sun broke through at length, revealing a country of hills and woods and silvery running streams. They had been travelling for hours. It was nearly noon.

For the first time since their start Babbacombe spoke.

"I hope I haven't kept you going too long. We are just getting in."

"Don't mind me," said West.

Babbacombe was slackening speed.

"It's a fine hunting country," he observed.

"Whose is it?" asked West.

"Mine, most of it." They were running smoothly down a long avenue of beech trees, with a glimpse of an open gateway at the end.

"It must take some managing," remarked West.

"It does," Babbacombe answered. "It needs a capable man."

They reached the gateway, passing under an arch of stone. Beyond it lay wide stretches of park land. Rabbits scuttled in the sunshine, and under the trees here and there they had glimpses of deer.

"Ever ridden to hounds?" asked Babbacombe.

The man beside him turned with a movement half savage.

"Set me on a good horse," he said, "and I will show you what I can do."

Babbacombe nodded, conscious for the first time of a warmth of sympathy for the man. Whatever his sins, he must have suffered infernally during the past twelve years.

Twelve years! Ye gods! It was half a life-time! It represented the whole of his manhood to Babbacombe. Twelve years ago he had been an undergraduate at Cambridge.

He drove on through the undulating stretches of Farringdean Park, his favourite heritage, trying to realise what effect twelve years in a convict prison would have had upon himself, what his outlook would ultimately have become, and what in actual fact was the outlook and general attitude of the man who had come through this long purgatory.

Sweeping round a rise in the ground, they came into sudden sight of the castle. Ancient and splendid it rose before them, its battlements shining in the sun—a heritage of which any man might be proud.

Babbacombe waited for some word of admiration from his companion. But he waited in vain. West was mute.

"What do you think of it?" he asked at last, determined to wring some meed of appreciation from him, even though he stooped to ask for it.

"What—the house?" said West. "It's uncommonly like a primeval sort of prison, to my idea. I've no doubt it boasts some very superior dungeons."

The sting in the words reached Babbacombe, but without offence. Again, more strongly, he was conscious of that glow of sympathy within him, kindling to a flame of fellowship.

"It boasts better things than that," he said quietly, "as I hope you will allow me to show you."

He was conscious of the piercing gaze of West's eyes, and, after a moment, he deliberately turned his own to meet it.

"And if you find—as you probably soon will—that I make but a poor sort of host," he said, "just remember, will you, that I like my guests to please themselves, and secure your own comfort?"

For a second, West's grim mouth seemed to hesitate on the edge of a smile—a smile that never developed.

"I wonder how soon you will tell me to go to the devil?" he said cynically.

"Oh, I am a better host than that," said Babbacombe, with quiet humour. "If you ever prefer the devil's hospitality to mine, it won't be my fault."

West turned from him with a slight shrug of the shoulders, as if he deemed himself to be dealing with a harmless lunatic, and dropped back into silence.

III

Silence had become habitual to him, as Babbacombe soon discovered. He could remain silent for hours. Probably he had never been of a very expansive nature, and prison discipline had strengthened an inborn reticence to a reserve of iron. He was not a disconcerting companion, because he was absolutely unobtrusive, but with all the good-will in the world Babbacombe found it well-nigh impossible to treat him with that ease of manner which came to him so spontaneously in his dealings with other men.

Grim, taciturn, cynical, West baffled his every effort to reach the inner man. His silence clothed him like armour, and he never really emerged from it save when a fiendish sense of humour tempted him. This, and this alone, so it seemed to Babbacombe, had any power to draw him out. And the instant he had flung his gibe at the object thereof, he would retreat again into that impenetrable shell of silence. He never once spoke of his past life, never once referred to the future.

He merely accepted Babbacombe's hospitality in absolute silence, without question, without gratitude, smoked his cigarettes eternally, drank his wines without appreciation, rode his horses without comment.

The only point in his favour that Babbacombe, the kindliest of critics, could discover after a fort-night's patient study, was that the animals loved him. He conducted himself like a gentleman, but somehow Babbacombe had expected this much from the moment of their meeting. He sometimes told himself with a wry face that if the fellow had behaved like a beast he would have found him easier to cultivate. At least, he would have had something to work upon, a creature of flesh and blood, instead of this inscrutable statue wrought in iron.

With a sinking heart he recalled Cynthia's description of the man. To a certain extent it still fitted him, but he imagined that those twelve years had had a hardening effect upon him, making rigid that which had always been stubborn, driving the iron deeper and ever deeper into his soul, till only iron remained. Many were the nights he spent pondering over the romance of the woman he loved. What subtle attraction in this hardened sinner had lured her heart away? Was it possible that the fellow had ever cared for her? Had he ever possessed even the rudiments of a heart?

The message he had read in the firelight—the brief line which this man had written—was the only answer he could find to these doubts. It seemed to point to something—some pulsing warmth—which could not have been kindled from nothing. And again the memory of a woman's tears would come upon him, spurring him to fresh effort. Surely the man for whom she was breaking her heart could not be wholly evil, nor yet wholly callous! Somewhere behind those steely blue eyes, there must dwell some answer to the riddle. It might be that Cynthia would find it, though he failed. But he shrank, with an aversion inexpressible, from letting her try, so deeply rooted had his conviction become that her cherished girlish fancy was no more than the misty gold of dreams.

Yet for her sake he persevered—for the sake of those precious tears that had so wrung his heart he would do that which he had set out to do, notwithstanding the utmost discouragement. An insoluble enigma the man might be to him, but he would not for that turn back from the task that he had undertaken. West should have his chance in spite of it.

They were riding together over the crisp turf of the park one frosty morning in November, when Babbacombe turned quietly to his companion, pointing to the chimneys of a house half-hidden by trees, ahead of them.

"I want to go over that place," he said. "It is standing empty, and probably needs repairs."

West received the announcement with a brief nod. He never betrayed interest in anything.

"Shall I hold your animal?" he suggested, as they reached the gate that led into the little garden.

"No. Come in with me, won't you? We can hitch the bridles to the post."

They went in together through a rustling litter of dead leaves. The house was low, and thatched—a picturesque dwelling of no great size.

Babbacombe led the way within, and they went from room to room, he with note-book in hand, jotting down the various details necessary to make the place into a comfortable habitation.

"I daresay you can help me with this if you will," he said presently. "I shall turn some workmen on to it next week. Perhaps you will keep an eye on them for me, decide on the decorations, and so forth. It is my agent's house, you know."

"Where is your agent?" asked West abruptly.

Babbacombe smiled a little. "At the present moment—I have no agent. That is what keeps me so busy. I hope to have one before long."

West strolled to a window and opened it, leaning his arms upon the sill.

He seemed about to relapse into one of his interminable silences when Babbacombe, standing behind him, said quietly, "I am going to offer the post to you."

"To me?" West wheeled suddenly, even with vehemence. "What for?" he demanded sharply.

Babbacombe met his look, still faintly smiling. "For our mutual benefit," he said. "I am convinced that you have ample ability for this sort of work, and if you will accept the post I shall be very pleased."

He stopped at that, determined for once to make the man speak on his own initiative. West was looking straight at him, and there was a curious glitter in his eyes like the sparkle of ice in the sun.

When he spoke at length his speech, though curt, was not so rigorously emotionless as usual.

"Don't you think," he said, "that you have carried this tomfoolery of yours far enough?"

Babbacombe raised one eyebrow. "Meaning?" he questioned.

West enlightened him with most unusual vigour.

"Meaning that tomfoolery of this sort never pays. I know. I've done it myself in my time. If I were you, I should pull up and try some less expensive hobby than that of mending broken men. The pieces are always chipped and never stick, and the chances are that you'll cut your fingers trying to make 'em. No, sir, I won't be your agent! Find a man you can trust, and let me go to the devil!"

The outburst was so unexpected and so forcible that at first Babbacombe stared at the man in amazement. Then, with that spontaneous kindness of heart that made him what he was, he grabbed and held his opportunity.

"My dear fellow," he said, not pausing for a choice of words, "you are talking infernal rot, and I won't listen to you. Do you seriously suppose I should be such a tenfold ass as to offer the management of my estate to a man I couldn't trust?"

"What reason have you for trusting me?" West thrust back. "Unless you think that a dozen years in prison have deprived me of my ancient skill. Would you choose a man who has been a drunkard for your butler? No! Then don't choose a swindler and an ex-convict for your bailiff."

He swung around with the words and shut the window with a bang.

But again Babbacombe took his cue from that inner prompting to which he had trusted all his life. For the first time he liked the man; for the first time, so it seemed to him, he caught a glimpse of the soul into which the iron had been so deeply driven.

"Look here, West," he said, "I am not going to take that sort of refusal from you. We have been together some time now, and it isn't my fault if we don't know each other pretty well. I don't care a hang what you have been. I am only concerned with what you are, and whatever that may be, you are not a weak-kneed fool. You have the power to keep straight if you choose, and you are to choose. Understand? I make you this offer with a perfectly open mind, and you are to consider it in the same way. Would you have said because you had once had a nasty tumble that you would never ride again? Of course you wouldn't. You are not such a fool. Then don't refuse my offer on those grounds, for it's nothing less than contemptible."

"Think so?" said West. He had listened quite impassively to the oration, but as Babbacombe ended, his grim mouth relaxed sardonically. "You seem mighty anxious to spend your money on damaged goods, Lord Babbacombe. It's a tom-fool investment, you know. How many of the honest folk in your service will stick to you when they begin to find out what you've given them?"

"Why should they find out?" asked Babbacombe.

West shrugged his shoulders. "It's a dead certainty that they will."

"If I can take the risk, so can you," said Babbacombe.

"Oh, of course, I used to be rather good at that game. It is called 'sand-throwing' in the profession."

Babbacombe made an impatient movement, and West's hard smile became more pronounced.

"But you are not at all good at it," he continued. "You are almost obtrusively obvious. It is a charm that has its very material drawbacks."

Babbacombe wholly lost patience at that. The man's grim irony was not to be borne.

"Take it or leave it!" he exclaimed. "But if you leave it, in heaven's name let it be for some sounder reason than a faked-up excuse of moral weakness!"

West uttered an abrupt laugh. "You seem to have a somewhat exalted opinion of my morals," he observed. "Well, since you are determined to brave the risk of being let down, I needn't quibble at it any further. I accept."

Babbacombe's attitude changed in an instant. He held out his hand.

"You won't let me down, West," he said, with confidence.

West hesitated for a single instant, then took the proffered hand into a grip of iron. His blue eyes looked hard and straight into Babbacombe's face.

"If I let you down," he said grimly, "I shall be underneath."

IV

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.

V

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!"

He paused.

"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.

VI

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.

VII

It was not till she descended to dinner that Cynthia's injured hand was noticed.

She resolutely made light of it to all sympathisers but it was plain to Babbacombe, at least, that it gave her considerable pain.

"Let me send for a doctor," he whispered, as she finally passed his chair.

But she shook her head with a smile.

"No, no. It will be all right in the morning."

But when he saw her in the morning, he knew at once that this prophecy had not been fulfilled. She met his anxious scrutiny with a smile indeed, but her heavy eyes belied it. He knew that she had spent a sleepless night.

"It wasn't my hand that kept me awake," she protested, when he charged her with this.

But Babbacombe was dissatisfied.

"Do see a doctor. I am sure it ought to be properly dressed," he urged. "I'll take you myself in the motor, if you will."

She yielded at length to his persuasion, though plainly against her will, and an hour later they drove off together, leaving the rest of the party to follow the hounds.

At the park gate they overtook West, walking swiftly. He raised his hat as they went by, but did not so much as look at Cynthia.

A sudden silence fell upon her, and it was not till some minutes had passed that she broke it.

"Shall I tell you what kept me awake last night, Jack?" she said then. "I think you have a right to know."

He glanced at her, encountering one of those smiles, half-sad, half-humorous, that he knew so well. "You will do exactly as you please," he said.

"You're generous," she responded. "Well, I'll tell you. I was busy burying my poor foolish little romance."

A deep glow showed suddenly upon Babbacombe's face. He was driving slowly, but he kept his eyes fixed steadily upon the stretch of muddy road ahead.

"Is it dead, then?" he asked, his voice very low.

She made a quaint gesture as of putting something from her.

"Yes, quite; and buried decently without any fuss. The blinds are up again, and I don't want any condolences. I'm going out into the sun, Jack. I'm going to live."

"And what about me?" said Babbacombe.

She turned in her quick way, and laid her hand upon his knee.

"Yes, I've been thinking about you. I am going back to London to-morrow, and the first thing I shall do will be to find you a really good wife."

"Thank you," he said, smiling a little. "But you needn't go to London for that."

"Oh, shucks!" said Cynthia, colouring deeply. "There's more than one woman in the world, Jack."

"Not for me," he said quietly.

She was silent for a space. Then:

"And if that one woman is such a sublime fool, such an ungrateful little beast, as not to be able to—to love you as you deserve to be loved?" she suggested, a slight break in her voice.

He turned his head at that, and looked for an instant straight into her eyes.

"She is still the one woman, dear," he said, very tenderly. "Always remember that."

She shook her head in protest. Her lips were quivering too much for speech.

Babbacombe drove slowly on in silence.

At last the hand upon his knee pressed slightly.

"You can have her if you like, Jack," Cynthia murmured. "She's going mighty cheap."

He freed his hand for a moment to grasp hers.

"I shall follow her to London," he said, "and woo her there."

She smiled at him gratefully and began to speak of other things.

The doctor was out, to her evident relief. Babbacombe wanted to go in search of another, but she would not be persuaded.

"I'm sure it will be all right to-morrow. If not, I shall be in town, and I can go to a doctor there. Please don't make a fuss about it. It's too absurd."

Reluctantly he abandoned the argument, and they followed the hounds in the motor instead.

VIII

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.

"I do!"

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.

IX

"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 anæsthetic."

"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.

X

"If he doesn't come for that, he will never come at all."

Over and over Cynthia whispered the words to herself as she lay, with her wide, shining eyes upon the door, waiting. She was a gambler who had staked all on the final throw, and she was watching, weak and ill as she was after long suffering, watching restlessly, persistently, for the result of that last great venture. Surely he would come—surely—surely!

Once she spoke imperiously to the nurse.

"If a gentleman named West calls, I must see him at once, whatever the hour."

The nurse raised no obstacle. Perhaps she realised that it would do more harm than good to thwart her patient's caprice.

And so hour after hour Cynthia lay waiting for the answer to her message, and hour followed hour in slow, uneventful procession, bringing her neither comfort nor repose.

At length the doctor came and offered her morphia, but she refused it, with feverish emphasis.

"No, no, no! I don't want to sleep. I am expecting a friend."

"Won't it do in the morning?" he said persuasively.

Her grey eyes flashed eager inquiry up at him.

"He is here?"

The doctor nodded.

"He has been here some time, but I hoped you would settle down. I want you to sleep."

Sleep! Cynthia almost laughed. How inexplicably foolish were even the cleverest of men!

"I will see him now," she said. "And, please, alone," as the doctor made a sign to the nurse.

He moved away reluctantly, and again she almost laughed at his imbecility.

But a minute later she had forgotten everything in the world save that upon which her eyes rested—a short, broad-shouldered man, clean-shaven, with piercing blue eyes that looked straight at her with something—something in their expression that made the heart within her leap and quiver like the strings of an instrument under a master hand.

He came quietly to the bedside, and stood looking down upon her, not uttering a word.

She stretched up her trembling hand.

"I'm very glad to see you," she said weakly. "You got my message? It—it—I hope it didn't annoy you."

"It didn't," said West.

His voice was curt and strained. His fingers had closed very tightly upon her hand.

"Sit down," murmured Cynthia. "No, don't let go. It helps me some to have you hold my hand. Mr. West, I've got to tell you something—something that will make you really angry. I'm rather frightened, too. It's because I'm sick. You—you must just make allowances."

A light kindled in West's eyes that shone like a blue flame, but still he held himself rigid, inflexible as a figure hewn in granite.

"Pray don't distress yourself, Miss Mortimer," he said stiffly. "Wouldn't it be wiser to wait till you are better before you go any further?"

"I never shall be better," Cynthia rejoined, a tremor of passion in her voice, "I never shall go any further, unless you hear me out to-night."

West frowned a little, but still that strange light shone in his steady eyes.

"I am quite at your service," he said, "either now or at any future time. But if this interview should make you worse——"

"Oh, shucks!" said Cynthia, with a ghostly little smile. "Don't talk through your hat, Mr. West!"

West became silent. He was still holding her hand in a warm, close grasp that never varied.

"Let's get to business," said Cynthia, with an effort to be brisk. "It begins with a confession. You know better than any one how I managed to hurt my hand so badly. But even you don't know everything. Even you never suspected that—that it wasn't an accident at all; that, in fact, I did it on purpose."

She broke off for a moment, avoiding his eyes, but clinging tightly to his hand.

"I did it," she went on breathlessly—"I did it because I heard you in the drive below, and I wanted to attract your attention. I couldn't see you, but I knew it was you. I was just going to spring the trap with my foot, and then—and then I heard you, and I stooped down—it came to me to do it, and I never stopped to think—I stooped down and put my hand in the way. I never thought—I never thought it would hurt so frightfully, or that it could come to this."

She was crying as she ended, crying piteously; while West sat like a stone image, gazing at her.

"Oh, do speak to me!" she sobbed. "Do say something! Do you know what they want to do? But I won't let them—I won't let them! It—it's too dreadful a thing to happen to a woman. I can't bear it. I won't bear it. It will be much easier to die. But you shall know the truth first."

"Cynthia, stop!" It was West's voice at last, but not as she had ever heard it. It came from him hoarse and desperate, as though wrung by the extreme of torture. He had sunk to his knees by the bed. His face was nearer to hers than it had ever been before. "Don't cry!" he begged her huskily. "Don't cry! Why do you tell me this if it hurts you to tell me?"

"Because I want you to know!" gasped Cynthia. "Wait! Let me finish! I wanted—to see—if—if you really cared for me. I thought—if you did—you wouldn't be able to go on pretending. But—but—you managed to—somehow—after all."

She ended, battling with her tears; and West, the strong, the cold, the cynical, bowed his head upon her hand and groaned.

"It was for—your own sake," he muttered brokenly, without looking up.

"I know," whispered back Cynthia. "That was just what made it so impossible to bear. Because, you see, I cared, too."

He was silent, breathing heavily.

Cynthia watched his bent head wistfully, but she did not speak again till she had mastered her own weakness.

"Mr. West," she said softly at length.

He stirred, pressing her hand more tightly to his eyes.

"I am going to tell you now," proceeded Cynthia, "just why I asked you to come to me. I suppose you know all about this trouble of mine—that I shall either die very soon, or else have to carry my arm in a sling for the rest of my life. Now that's where you come in. Would you—would you feel very badly if I died, I wonder?"

He raised his head at that, and she saw his face as she had seen it once long ago—alert, vital, full of the passionate intensity of his love for her.

"You sha'n't die!" he declared fiercely. "Who says you are going to die?"

Cynthia's eyes fell before the sudden fire that blazed at her from his. "Unless I consent to be a cripple all my days," she said, with a curious timidity wholly unlike her usual dainty confidence.

"Of course you will consent," West said, sweeping down her half-offered resistance with sheer, overmastering strength. "You'll face this thing like the brave woman you are. Good heavens! As if there were any choice!"

"There is," Cynthia whispered, looking at him shyly, through lowered lids. "There is a choice. But it rests with you. Mr. West, if you want me to do this thing—if you really want me to, and it's a big thing to do, even for you—I'll do it. There! I'll do it! I'll go on living like a chopped worm for your sake. But—but—you'll have to do something for me in return. Now I wonder if you can guess what I'm hinting at?"

West's face changed. The eagerness went out of it. Something of his habitual grimness of expression returned.

Yet his voice was full of tenderness when he spoke.

"Cynthia," he said very earnestly, "there is nothing on this earth that I will not do for you. But don't ask me to be the means of ruining you socially, of depriving you of all your friends, of degrading you to a position that would break your heart."

A glimmer of amusement flashed across Cynthia's drawn face.

"Oh!" she said, a little quiver in her voice. "You are funny, you men, dull as moles and blind as bats. My dear, there's only one person in this little universe who has the power to break my heart, and it isn't any fault of his that he didn't do it long ago. No, don't speak. There's nothing left for you to say. The petition is dismissed, but not the petitioner; so listen to me instead. I've a sentimental fancy to be able to have 'Mrs. Nat V. West' written on my tombstone in the event of my demise to-morrow. I want you to make arrangements for the same."

"Cynthia!"

The word was almost a cry, but she checked it, her fingers on his lips.

"You great big silly!" she murmured, laughing weakly. "Where's your sense of humour? Can't you see I'm not going to die? But I'm going to be Mrs. Nat V. West all the same. Now, is that quite understood, I wonder? Because I don't want to cry any more—I'm tired."

"You wish to marry me in the morning—before the operation?" West said, speaking almost under his breath.

His face was close to hers. She looked him suddenly straight in the eyes.

"Yes, just that," she told him softly. "I want—dear—I want to go to sleep, holding my husband's hand."

XI

"It's a clear case of desertion," declared Cynthia imperturbably, two months later. "But never mind that now, Jack. How do you like my sling? Isn't it just the cutest thing in creation?"

"You look splendid," Babbacombe said with warmth, but he surveyed her with slightly raised brows notwithstanding.

She nodded brightly in response.

"No, I'm not worrying any, I assure you. You don't believe me, I see. So here's something for you to read that will set your mind at rest."

Babbacombe read, with a slowly clearing face. The note he held was in his agent's handwriting.

"I am leaving you to-day, for I feel, now you are well again, that you will find it easier in my absence to consider very carefully your position. Your marriage to me was simply an act of impulse. I gave way in the matter because you were in no state to be thwarted. But if, after consideration, you find that that act was a mistake, dictated by weakness, and heaven knows what besides of generosity and pity, something may yet be done to remedy it. It has never been published, and, if you are content to lead a single life, no one who matters need ever know that it took place. I am returning to my work at Farringdean for the present. I am aware that you may find some difficulty in putting your feelings in this matter into words. If so, I shall understand your silence.

Yours,

"N. V. West."

"Isn't he quaint?" said Cynthia, with a little gay grimace. "Now do you know what I'm going to do, Jack? I'm going to get a certain good friend of mine to drive me all the way to Farringdean in his motor. It's Sunday, you know, and all the fates conspire to make the trains impossible."

"How soon do you wish to start?" asked Babbacombe.

"Right away!" laughed Cynthia. "And if we don't get run in for exceeding the speed limit, we ought to be there by seven."

It was as a matter of fact barely half-past six when Babbacombe turned the motor in at the great gates of Farringdean Park. A sound of church-bells came through the evening twilight. The trees of the avenue were still bare, but there was a misty suggestion of swelling buds in the saplings. The wind that softly rustled through them seemed to whisper a special secret to each.

"I like those bells," murmured Cynthia. "They make one feel almost holy. Jack, you're not fretting over me?"

"No, dear," said Babbacombe steadily.

She squeezed his arm.

"I'm so glad, for—honest Injun—I'm not worth it. Good-bye, then, dear Jack! Just drive straight away directly you've put me down. I shall find my own way in."

He took her at her word as he always did, and, having deposited her at the gate under the trees that led to his bailiff's abode, he shot swiftly away into the gathering dusk without a single glance behind.

West, entering his home a full hour later, heavy-footed, the inevitable cigarette between his lips, was surprised to discover, on hanging up his cap, a morsel of white pasteboard stuck jauntily into the glass of the hatstand. It seemed to fling him an airy challenge. He stooped to look. A lady's visiting-card! Mrs. Nat V. West!

A deep flush rose suddenly in his weather-beaten face. He seized the card, and crushed it against his lips.

But a few moments later, when he opened his dining-room door, there was no hint of emotion in his bearing. He bore himself with the rigidity of a man who knows he has a battle before him.

The room was aglow with flickering firelight, and out of the glow a high voice came—a cheery, inconsequent voice.

"Oh, here you are at last! Come right in and light the lamp. Did you see my card? Ah, I knew you would be sure to look at yourself directly you came in. There's nobody at home but me. I suppose your old woman's gone to church. I've been waiting for you such a while—twelve years and a bit. Just think of it."

She was standing on the hearth waiting for him, but since he moved but slowly she stepped forward to meet him, her hand impetuously outstretched.

He took it, held it closely, let it go.

"We must talk things over," he said.

"Splendid!" said Cynthia. "Where shall we begin? Never mind the lamp. Let's sit by the fire and be cosy."

He moved forward with her—it was impossible to do otherwise—but there was no yielding in his action. He held himself as straight and stiff as a soldier on parade. He had bitten through his cigarette, and he tossed it into the fire.

"Now sit down!" said Cynthia hospitably. "That chair is for you, and I am going to curl up on the floor at your feet as becomes a dutiful wife."

"Don't, Cynthia!" he said under his breath. But she had her way, nevertheless. There were times when she seemed able to attain this with scarcely an effort.

She seated herself on the hearthrug with her face to the fire.

"Go on," she said, in a tone of gentle encouragement; "I'm listening."

West's eyes stared beyond her into the flames.

"I haven't much to say," he said quietly at length. "Only this. You are acting without counting the cost. There is a price to pay for everything, but the price you will have to pay for this is heavier than you realise. There should be—there can be—no such thing as equality between a woman in your position—a good woman—and a blackguard in mine."

Cynthia made a little gesture of impatience without turning her head.

"Oh, you needn't treat me as if I were on a different plane," she said. "I'm a sinner, too, in my own humble way. It's unreasonable of you to go on like that, unkind as well. I may be only a sprat in your estimation, but even a sprat has its little feelings, its little heartaches, too, I daresay." She broke off with a sigh and a laugh; then, drawing impulsively nearer to him, but still without turning: "Do you remember once, ages and ages ago, you were on the verge of saying something to me, of—telling me something? And we were interrupted. Mr. West, I've been waiting all these years to hear what that something was."

West did not stir an eyelid. His face was stern and hard.

"I forget," he said.

She turned upon him then, raising a finger and pointing straight at him.

"That," she said, with conviction, "is just one of your lies!"

West became silent, still staring fixedly into the fire.

Cynthia drew nearer still. She touched his breast with her outstretched finger.

"Mr. West," she said gravely, "I suppose you'll have to leave off being a blackguard, and take to being an honest man. That's the only solution of the difficulty that I can think of now that you have got a crippled wife to look after."

He gripped her wrist, but still he would not look at her.

"This is madness," he said, grinding out the words through clenched teeth. "You are making a fatal mistake. I am not fit to be your husband. It is not in my power to give you happiness."

She did not shrink from his hold, though it was almost violent. Her eyes were shining like stars.

"That," she said, with quaint assurance, "is just another of your lies."

His hand relaxed slowly till her wrist was free.

"Do you know," he said, still with that iron self-suppression, "that only a few weeks ago I committed forgery?"

"Yes," said Cynthia. "And I know why you did it, too. It wasn't exactly clever, but it was just dear of you all the same."

The swindler's face quivered suddenly, uncontrollably. He tried to laugh—the old harsh laugh—but the sound he uttered was akin to something very different. He leaned forward sharply, and covered his face with his hands.

And in that moment Cynthia knew that the walls of the citadel had fallen at last, so that it lay open for her to enter in.

She knelt up quickly. Her arm slipped round his neck. She drew his head with soft insistence to her breast.

"My own boy, it's over; forget it all. It wasn't meant to handicap you always. We'll have another deal now, please God, and start afresh as partners."

There followed a pause—a silence that had in it something sacred. Then West raised himself, and took her face between his hands. For a moment he looked deep into her eyes, his own alight with a vital fire.

Then, "As lovers, Cynthia," he said, and kissed her on the lips.