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Chapter 1 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


The times were full of trouble; but Martha Quinn was unperturbed. Hers was a mind that confined itself to the essentials of life: its sustenance and reproduction. Not for her to plague herself with the complexities of existence, with considerations of the Hereafter or disputations upon the various creeds by which its happiness may be ensured—a matter upon which men have always been ready to send one another upon exploring voyages thither—or yet with the political opinions by which a nation is fiercely divided. Not even the preparations for war with Holland, which were agitating men so violently, or the plague-scare based upon reports of several cases in the outskirts of the City, could disturb the serenity of her direct existence. The vices of the Court, which afforded such delectable scandal for the Town, touched her more nearly, as did the circumstance that yellow bird’s-eye hoods were now all the rage with ladies of fashion, and the fact that London was lost in worship of the beauty and talent of Sylvia Farquharson, who was appearing with Mr. Betterton at the Duke’s House in the part of Katherine in Lord Orrery’s “Henry the Fifth.”

Even so, to Martha Quinn, who very competently kept the Paul’s Head, in Paul’s Yard, these things were but the unimportant trifles that garnish the dish of life. It was upon life’s main concerns that she concentrated her attention. In all that regarded meat and drink her learning—as became the hostess of so prosperous a house—was probably unrivalled. It was not merely that she understood the mysteries of bringing to a proper succulence a goose, a turkey, or a pheasant; but a chine of beef roasted in her oven was like no chine of beef at any other ordinary; she could perform miracles with marrow-bones; and she could so dissemble the umbles of venison in a pasty as to render it a dish fit for a prince’s table. Upon these talents was her solid prosperity erected. She possessed, further—as became the mother of six sturdy children of assorted paternity—a discerning eye for a fine figure of a man. I am prepared to believe that in this matter her judgment was no whit inferior to that which enabled her, as she boasted, to determine at a glance the weight and age of a capon.

It was to this fact—although he was very far from suspecting it—that Colonel Holles owed the good fortune of having lodged in luxury for the past month without ever a reckoning asked or so much as a question on the subject of his means. The circumstance may have exercised him. I do not know. But I know that it should have done so. For his exterior—his fine figure apart—was not of the kind that commands credit.

Mrs. Quinn had assigned to his exclusive use a cosy little parlour behind the common room. On the window-seat of this little parlour he now lounged, whilst Mrs. Quinn herself—and the day was long past in which it had been her need or habit with her own plump hands to perform so menial an office—removed from the table the remains of his very solid breakfast.

The lattice, of round, leaded panes of greenish, wrinkled glass, stood open to the sunlit garden and the glory of cherry trees that were belatedly in blossom. From one of these a thrush was pouring forth a Magnificat to the spring. The thrush, like Mrs. Quinn, concentrated his attention upon life’s essentials, and was glad to live. Not so Colonel Holles. He was a man caught and held fast in the web of life’s complexities. It was to be seen in his listless attitude; in the upright deep line of care that graved itself between his brows, in the dreamy wistfulness of his grey eyes, as he lounged there, shabbily clad, one leg along the leather-cushioned window-seat, pulling vacantly at his long clay pipe.

Observing him furtively, with a furtiveness, indeed, that was almost habitual to her, Mrs. Quinn pursued her task, moving between table and sideboard, and hesitated to break in upon his abstraction. She was a woman on the short side of middle height, well hipped and deep of bosom, but not excessively. The phrase “plump as a partridge” might have been invented to describe her. In age she cannot have been much short of forty, and whilst not without a certain homely comeliness, in no judgment but her own could she have been accounted beautiful. Very blue of eye and very ruddy of cheek, she looked the embodiment of health; and this rendered her not unpleasing. But the discerning would have perceived greed in the full mouth with its long upper lip, and sly cunning—Nature’s compensation to low intelligences—in her vivid eyes.

It remains, however, that she was endowed with charms enough of person and of fortune to attract Coleman, the bookseller from the corner of Paul’s Yard, and Appleby, the mercer from Paternoster Row. She might marry either of them when she pleased. But she did not please. Her regard for essentials rendered the knock-knees of Appleby as repulsive to her as the bow-legs of Coleman. Moreover, certain adventitious associations with the great world—to which her assorted offspring bore witness—had begotten in her a fastidiousness of taste that was not to be defiled by the touch of mercers and booksellers. Of late, it is true, the thought of marriage had been engaging her. She realized that the age of adventure touched its end for her, and that the time had come to take a life companion and settle soberly. Yet not on that account would Martha Quinn accept the first comer. She was in a position to choose. Fifteen years of good management, prosperity, and thrift at the Paul’s Head had made her wealthy. When she pleased she could leave Paul’s Yard, acquire a modest demesne in the country, and become one of the ladies of the land, a position for which she felt herself eminently qualified. That which her birth might lack, that in which her birth might have done poor justice to her nature, a husband could supply. Often of late had her cunning blue eyes been narrowed in mental review of this situation. What she required for her purposes was a gentleman born and bred whom fortune had reduced in circumstances and who would, therefore, be modest in the matter of matrimonial ambitions. He must also be a proper man.

Such a man she had found at last in Colonel Holles. From the moment when a month ago he strode into her inn followed by an urchin shouldering his valise and packages, and delivered himself upon his immediate needs, she had recognized him for the husband she sought, and marked him for her own. At a glance she had appraised him; the tall, soldierly figure, broad to the waist, thence spare to the ground; the handsome face, shaven like a Puritan’s, yet set between clusters of gold-brown hair thick as a cavalier’s periwig, the long pear-shaped ruby—a relic, no doubt, of more prosperous days—dangling from his right ear; the long sword upon whose pummel his left hand rested with the easy grace of long habit; the assured poise, the air of command, the pleasant yet authoritative voice. All this she observed with those vivid, narrowing eyes of hers. And she observed, too, the gentleman’s discreditable shabbiness: the frayed condition of his long boots, the drooping, faded feather in his Flemish beaver, the well-rubbed leather jerkin, worn, no doubt, to conceal the threadbare state of the doublet underneath. These very signs which might have prompted another hostess to give our gentleman a guarded welcome urged Mrs. Quinn at once to throw wide her arms to him, metaphorically at present that she might do so literally anon.

At a glance she knew him, then, for the man of her dreams, guided to her door by that Providence to whose beneficence she already owed so much.

He had business in town, he announced—at Court, he added. It might detain him there some little while. He required lodgings perhaps for a week, perhaps for longer. Could she provide them?

She could, indeed, for a week, and at need for longer. Mentally she registered the resolve that it should be for longer; that, if she knew her man and herself at all, it should be for life.

And so at this handsome, down-at-heel gentleman’s disposal she had placed not only the best bedroom above-stairs, but also the little parlour hung in grey linsey-woolsey and gilded leather, which overlooked the garden and which normally she reserved for her own private use; and the Paul’s Head had awakened to such activity at his coming as might have honoured the advent of a peer of the realm. Hostess and drawer and chambermaid had bestirred themselves to anticipate his every wish. The cook had been flung into the street for overgrilling the luscious marrow-bones that had provided his first breakfast, and the chambermaid’s ears had been soundly boxed for omission to pass the warming-pan through the Colonel’s bed to ensure of its being aired. And although it was now a full month since his arrival, and in all that time our gentleman had been lavishly entertained upon the best meat and drink the Paul’s Head could offer, yet in all that time there had been—I repeat—neither mention of a reckoning, nor question of his means to satisfy it.

At first he had protested against the extravagance of the entertainment. But his protests had been laughed aside with good-humoured scorn. His hostess knew a gentleman when she saw one, he was assured, and knew how a gentleman should be entertained. Unsuspicious of the designs upon him, he never dreamed that the heavy debt he was incurring was one of the coils employed by this cunning huntress in which to bind him.

Her housewifely operations being ended at last—after a prolongation which could be carried to no further lengths—she overcame her hesitation to break in upon his thoughts, which must be gloomy, indeed, if his countenance were a proper index. Nothing could have been more tactful than her method, based upon experience of the Colonel’s phenomenal thirst, which, at all times unquenchable, must this morning have been further sharpened by the grilled herrings which had formed a part of his breakfast.

As she addressed him now, she held in her hand the long pewter vessel from which he had taken his morning draught.

“Is there aught ye lack for your comfort, Colonel?”

He stirred, turned his head, to face her, and took the pipestem from between his lips.

“Nothing, I thank you,” he answered, with a gravity that had been growing upon him in the last fortnight, to overcloud the earlier good-humour of his bearing.

“What—nothing?” The buxom siren’s ruddy face was creased in an alluring smile. Aloft now she held the tankard, tilting her still golden head. “Not another draught of October before you go forth?” she coaxed him.

As he looked at her now, he smiled. And it has been left on record by one who knew him well that his smile was irresistible, a smile that could always win him the man or woman upon whom he bestowed it. It had a trick of breaking suddenly upon a face that in repose was wistful, like sunshine breaking suddenly from a grey sky.

“I vow you spoil me,” said he.

She beamed upon him. “Isn’t that the duty of a proper hostess?”

She set the tankard on the laden tray and bore it out with her. When she brought it back replenished, and placed it on a coffin-stool beside him, he had changed his attitude, but not his mood of thoughtfulness. He roused himself to thank her.

She hovered near until he had taken a pull of the brown October.

“Do you go forth this morning?”

“Aye,” he answered, but wearily, as if reduced to hopelessness. “They told me I should find his grace returned to-day. But they have told me the same so often already, that . . .” He sighed, and broke off, leaving his doubts implied. “I sometimes wonder if they but make game of me.”

“Make game of you!” Horror stressed her voice. “When the Duke is your friend!”

“Ah! But that was long ago. And men change . . . amazingly sometimes.” Then he cast off the oppression of his pessimism. “But if there’s to be war, surely there will be commands in which to employ a practised soldier—especially one who has experience of the enemy, experience gained in the enemy’s own service.” It was as if he uttered aloud his thoughts.

She frowned at this. Little by little in the past month she had drawn from him some essential part of his story, and although he had been far from full in his confidences, yet she had gleaned enough to persuade herself that a reason existed why he should never reach this duke upon whom he depended for military employment. And in that she had taken comfort; for, as you surmise, it was no part of her intention that he should go forth to the wars again, and so be lost to her.

“I marvel now,” said she, “that you will be vexing yourself with such matters.”

He looked at her. “A man must live,” he explained.

“But that’s no reason why he should go to the wars and likely die. Hasn’t there been enough o’ that in your life already? At your age a man’s mind should be on other things.”

“At my age?” He laughed a little. “I am but thirty-five.”

She betrayed her surprise. “You look more.”

“Perhaps I have lived more. I have been very busy.”

“Trying to get yourself killed. Don’t it occur to you that the time has come to be thinking o’ something else?”

He gave her a mildly puzzled glance, frowning a little.

“You mean?”

“That it’s time ye thought o’ settling, taking a wife and making a home and a family.”

The tone she adopted was one of commonplace, good-humoured kindliness. But her breathing had quickened a little, and her face had lost some of its high colour in the excitement of thus abruptly coming to grips with her subject.

He stared a moment blankly, then shrugged and laughed.

“Excellent advice,” said he, still laughing on a note of derision that obviously was aimed at himself. “Find me a lady who is well endowed and yet so little fastidious in her tastes that she could make shift with such a husband as I should afford her, and the thing is done.”

“Now there I vow you do yourself injustice.”

“Faith, it’s a trick I’ve learnt from others.”

“You are, when all is said, a very proper man.”

“Aye! But proper for what?”

She pursued her theme without pausing to answer his frivolous question. “And there’s many a woman of substance who needs a man to care for her and guard her—such a man as yourself, Colonel; one who knows his world and commands a worthy place in it.”

“I command that, do I? On my soul you give me news of myself.”

“If ye don’t command it, it is that ye lack the means, perhaps. But the place is yours by right.”

“By what right, good hostess?”

“By the right of your birth and breeding and military rank, which is plain upon you. Sir, why will you be under-valuing yourself? The means that would enable you to take your proper place would be provided by the wife who would be glad to share it with you.”

He shook his head, and laughed again.

“Do you know of such a lady?”

She paused before replying, pursing her full lips, pretending to consider, that thus she might dissemble her hesitation.

There was more in that hesitation than either of them could have come near imagining. Indeed, his whole destiny was in it. Upon such light things do human fates depend that had she now taken the plunge, and offered herself as she intended—instead of some ten days later, as eventually happened—although his answer would have varied nothing from what it ultimately was, yet the whole stream of his life would have been diverted into other channels, and his story might never have been worth telling.

Because her courage failed her at this moment, Destiny pursued the forging of that curious chain of circumstance which it is my task to reveal to you link by link.

“I think,” she said slowly at last, “that I should not be sorely put to it to find her. I . . . I should not have far to seek.”

“It is a flattering conviction. Alas, ma’am, I do not share it.” He was sardonic. He made it clear that he refused to take the matter seriously, that with him it never could be more than a peg for jests. He rose, smiling a little crookedly. “Therefore I’ll still pin my hopes to his grace of Albemarle. They may be desperate; but, faith, they’re none so desperate as hopes of wedlock.” He took up his sword as he spoke, passing the baldric over his head and settling it on his shoulder. Then he reached for his hat, Mrs. Quinn regarding him the while in mingling wistfulness and hesitation.

At last she roused herself, and sighed.

“We shall see; we shall see. Maybe we’ll talk of it again.”

“Not if you love me, delectable matchmaker,” he protested, turning to depart.

Solicitude for his immediate comfort conquered all other considerations in her.

“You’ll not go forth without another draught to . . . to fortify you.”

She had possessed herself again of the empty tankard. He paused and smiled. “I may need fortifying,” he confessed, thinking of all the disappointment that had waited upon his every previous attempt to see the Duke. “You think of everything,” he praised her. “You are not Mrs. Quinn of the Paul’s Head, you are benign Fortune pouring gifts from an inexhaustible cornucopia.”

“La, sir!” she laughed, as she bustled out. It would be wrong to say that she did not understand him; for she perfectly understood that he paid her some high and flowery compliment, which was what she most desired of him as an earnest of better things to follow.

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