Chapter 2 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


Through the noisy bustle of Paul’s Yard the Colonel took his way, his ears deafened by the “What d’ye lack?” of the bawling prentices standing before The Flower of Luce, The White Greyhound, The Green Dragon, The Crown, The Red Bull, and all the other signs that distinguished the shops in that long array, among which the booksellers were predominant. He moved with a certain arrogant, swaggering assurance, despite his shabby finery. His Flemish beaver worn at a damn-me cock, his long sword thrust up behind by the hand that rested upon the pummel, his useless spurs—which a pot-boy at the Paul’s Head had scoured to a silvery brightness—providing martial music to his progress. A certain grimness that invested him made the wayfarers careful not to jostle him. In that throng of busy, peaceful citizens he was like a wolf loping across a field of sheep; and those whom he met made haste to give him the wall, though it should entail thrusting themselves or their fellows into the filth of the kennel.

Below Ludgate, in that evil valley watered by the Fleet Ditch, there were hackney-coaches in plenty, and, considering the distance which he must go and the desirability of coming to his destination cleanly shod, Colonel Holles was momentarily tempted. He resisted, however; and this was an achievement in one who had never sufficiently studied that most essential of the arts of living. He bethought him—and sighed wearily over the reflection—of the alarming lightness of his purse and the alarming heaviness of his score at the Paul’s Head, where he had so culpably lacked the strength of mind to deny himself any of those luxuries with which in the past month he had been lavished, and for which, should Albemarle fail him in the end, he knew not how to pay. This reflection contained an exaggeration of his penury. There was that ruby in his ear, a jewel that being converted into gold should keep a man in ease for the best part of a twelvemonth. For fifteen years and through many a stress of fortune it had hung and glowed there amid his clustering gold-brown hair. Often had hunger itself urged him to sell the thing that he might fill his belly. Yet ever had reluctance conquered him. He attached to that bright gem a sentimental value that had become a superstition. There had grown up in his mind the absolute conviction that this jewel, the gift of an unknown whose life he had arrested on the black threshold of eternity, was a talisman and something more—that, as it had played a part in the fortunes of another, so should it yet play a part in the fortunes of himself and of that other jointly. There abode with him the unconquerable feeling that this ruby was a bond between himself and that unknown, a lodestone that should draw each to the other ultimately across a whole world of obstacles and that the meeting should be mutually fateful.

There were times when, reviewing the thing more soberly, he laughed at his crazy belief. Yet, oddly enough, those were never the times in which dire necessity drove him to contemplate its sale. So surely as he came to consider that, so surely did the old superstition, begotten of and steadily nourished by his fancy, seize upon him to bid him hold his hand and suffer all but death before thus purchasing redemption.

Therefore was it that, as he took his way now up Fleet Hill, he left that jewel out of his calculations in his assessment of his utterly inadequate means.

Westward through the mire of the Strand he moved, with his swinging soldierly stride, and so, by Charing Cross, at last into Whitehall itself. Down this he passed towards the chequered embattled Cockpit Gate that linked one side of the palace with the other.

It was close upon noon, and that curial thoroughfare was more than ordinarily thronged, the war with Holland—now an accomplished fact—being responsible for the anxious, feverish bustle hereabouts. Adown its middle moved a succession of coaches to join the cluster gathered about the Palace Gate and almost blocking the street from one row of bourne posts to the other.

Opposite the Horse Guards the Colonel came to a momentary halt on the skirts of a knot of idlers, standing at gaze to observe the workmen on the palace roof who were engaged in erecting there a weather-vane. A gentleman whom he questioned informed him that this was for the convenience of the Lord High Admiral, the Duke of York, so that his grace might observe from his windows how the wind served the plaguey Dutch fleet which was expected now to leave the Texel at any hour. The Lord Admiral, it was clear, desired to waste no unnecessary time upon the quarter-deck.

Colonel Holles moved on, glancing across at the windows of the banqueting-house, whence, as a lad of twenty, a cornet of horse, some sixteen years ago, he had seen the late King step forth into the sunlight of a crisp January morning to suffer the loss of his head. And perhaps he remembered that his own father, long since dead—and so beyond the reach of any Stuart vengeance—had been one of the signatories of the warrant under which that deed was done.

He passed on, from the sunlight into the shadow of Holbein’s noble gateway, and then, emerging beyond, he turned to his right, past the Duke of Monmouth’s lodging into the courtyard of the Cockpit, where the Duke of Albemarle had his residence. Here his lingering doubt on the score of whether his grace were yet returned to Town was set at rest by the bustle in which he found himself. But there remained another doubt; which was whether his grace, being now returned, would condescend to receive him. Six times in the course of the past four weeks had he vainly sought admission. On three of those occasions he had been shortly answered that his grace was out of Town; on one of them—the last—more circumstantially that his grace was at Portsmouth about the business of the fleet. Twice it was admitted—and he had abundant evidences, as now—that the Duke was at home and receiving; but the Colonel’s shabbiness had aroused the mistrust of the ushers, and they had barred his way to ask him superciliously was he commanded by the Duke. Upon his confession that he was not, they informed him that the Duke was over-busy to receive any but those whom he had commanded, and they bade him come again some other day. He had not imagined that George Monk would be so difficult of access, remembering his homely republican disregard of forms in other days. But being twice repulsed from his threshold in this fashion, he had taken the precaution of writing before presenting himself now, begging his grace to give orders that he should be admitted, unless he no longer held a place in his grace’s memory.

The present visit, therefore, was fateful. A refusal now he must regard as final, in which case he would be left to curse the impulse that had brought him back to England, where it was very likely he would starve.

A doorkeeper with a halbert barred his progress on the threshold. “Your business, sir?”

“Is with His Grace of Albemarle.” The Colonel’s tone was sharp and confident. Thanks to this the next question was less challengingly delivered.

“You are commanded, sir?”

“I have reason to believe I am awaited. His grace is apprised of my coming.”

The doorkeeper looked him over again, and then made way.

He was past the outer guard, and his hopes rose. But at the end of a long gallery a wooden-faced usher confronted him, and the questions recommenced. When Holles announced that he had written to beg an audience—

“Your name, sir?” the usher asked.

“Randal Holles.” He spoke it softly with a certain inward dread, suddenly aware that such a name could be no password in Whitehall, for it had been his father’s name before him—the name of a regicide, and something more.

There was an abundance of foolish, sensational, and mythical stories which the popular imagination had woven about the execution of King Charles I. The execution of a king was a portent, and there never yet was a portent that did not gather other portents to be its satellites. Of these was the groundless story that the official headsman was missing on the day of the execution because he dared not strike off the head of God’s anointed, and that the headsman’s mask had covered the face of one who at the last moment had offered himself to act as his deputy. The identity of this deputy had been fastened upon many more or less well-known men, but most persistently upon Randal Holles, for no better reason than because his stern and outspoken republicanism had been loosely interpreted by the populace as personal rancour towards King Charles. Therefore, and upon no better ground than that of this idle story, the name of Randal Holles bore, in those days of monarchy restored, the brand of a certain infamous notoriety.

It produced, however, no fearful effect upon the usher. Calmly, mechanically repeating it, the fellow consulted a sheet of paper. Then, at last, his manner changed. It became invested by a certain obsequiousness. Clearly he had found the name upon his list. He opened the studded door of which he was the guardian.

“If you will be pleased to enter, sir . . .” he murmured.

Colonel Holles swaggered in, the usher following.

“If you will be pleased to wait, sir . . .” The usher left him, and crossed the room, presumably to communicate his name to yet another usher, a clerkly fellow with a wand, who kept another farther door.

The Colonel disposed himself to wait, sufficiently uplifted to practise great lengths of patience. He found himself in a lofty, sparsely furnished antechamber, one of a dozen or more clients, all of them men of consequence if their dress and carriage were to be taken at surface value.

Some turned to look askance at this down-at-heel intruder; but not for long. There was that in the grey eyes of Colonel Holles when returning such looks as these which could put down the haughtiest stare. He knew his world and its inhabitants too well to be moved by them either to respect or fear. Those were the only two emotions none had the power to arouse in him.

Having met their insolence by looking at them as they might look at pot-boys, he strode across to an empty bench that was ranged against the carved wainscoting, and sat himself down with a clatter.

The noise he made drew the attention of two gentlemen who stood near the bench in conversation. One of these, whose back was towards Holles, glanced round upon him. He was tall, and elderly, with a genial, ruddy countenance. The other, a man of about Holles’s own age, was short and sturdily built with a swarthy face set in a heavy black periwig, dressed with a certain foppish care, and of a manner that blended amiability with a degree of self-sufficiency. He flashed upon Holles a pair of bright blue eyes that were, however, without hostility or disdain, and, although unknown to the Colonel, he slightly inclined his head to him in formal, dignified salutation, almost as if asking leave to resume his voluble conversation within this newcomer’s hearing.

Scraps of that conversation floated presently to the Colonel’s ears.

“. . . and I tell you, Sir George, that his grace is mightily off the hooks at all this delay. That is why he hurried away to Portsmouth, that by his own presence he might order things . . .” The pleasant voice grew inaudible to rise again presently. “The need is all for officers, men trained in war . . .”

The Colonel pricked up his ears at that. But the voice had dropped again, and he could not listen without making it obvious that he did so, until the speaker’s tones soared once more.

“These ardent young gentlemen are well enough, and do themselves great credit by their eagerness, but in war . . .”

Discreetly, to the Colonel’s vexation, the gentleman again lowered his voice. He was inaudibly answered by his companion, and it was some time before Holles heard another word of what passed between them. By then the conversation had veered a point.

“. . . and there the talk was all of the Dutch . . . that the fleet is out.” The sturdy, swarthy gentleman was speaking. “That and these rumours of the plague growing upon us in the Town—from which may God preserve us!—are now almost the only topics.”

“Almost. But not quite,” the elder man broke in, laughing. “There’s something else I’d not have expected you to forget; this Farquharson girl at the Duke’s House.”

“Sir George, I confess the need for your correction. I should not have forgotten. That she shares the public tongue with such topics as the war and the plague best shows the deep impression she has made.”

“Deservedly?” Sir George asked the question as of one who was an authority in such matters.

“Oh, most deservedly, be assured. I was at the Duke’s House two days since, and saw her play Katherine. And mightily pleased I was. I cannot call to mind having seen her equal in the part, or indeed upon the stage at all. And so thinks the Town. For though I came there by two o’clock, yet there was no room in the pit, and I was forced to pay four shillings to go into one of the upper boxes. The whole house was mightily pleased with her, too, and in particular His Grace of Buckingham. He spoke his praises from his box so that all might hear him, and vowed he would not rest until he had writ a play for her, himself.”

“If to write a play for her be the only earnest his grace will afford her of his admiration, then is Miss Farquharson fortunate.”

“Or else unfortunate,” said the sturdy gentleman with a roguish look. “ ’Tis all a question of how the lady views these matters. But let us hope she is virtuous.”

“I never knew you unfriendly to his grace before,” replied Sir George, whereupon both laughed. And then the other, sinking his voice once more to an inaudible pitch, added matter at which Sir George’s laughter grew until it shook him.

They were still laughing, when the door of Albemarle’s room opened to give exit to a slight gentleman with flushed cheeks. Folding a parchment as he went, the gentleman crossed the antechamber, stepping quickly and bestowing nods in his passage, and was gone. As he vanished at one door, the usher with the wand made his appearance at the other.

“His grace will be pleased to receive Mr. Pepys.”

The swarthy, sturdy gentleman cast off the remains of his laughter, and put on a countenance of gravity.

“I come,” he said. “Sir George, you’ll bear me company.” His tone blended invitation and assertion. His tall companion bowed, and together they went off, and passed into the Duke’s room.

Colonel Holles leaned back against the wainscoting, marvelling that with war upon them—to say nothing of the menace of the plague—the Town should be concerned with the affairs of a playhouse wanton; and that here, in the very temple of Bellona, Mr. Pepys of the Navy Office should submerge in such bawdy matters the grave question of the lack of officers and the general unpreparedness to combat either the Dutch or the pestilence.

He was still pondering that curious manifestation of the phenomenon of the human mind, and the odd methods of government which the restored Stuarts had brought back to England, when Mr. Pepys and his companion came forth again, and he heard the voice of the usher calling his own name.

“Mr. Holles!”

Partly because of his abstraction, partly because of the omission of his military title, it was not until the call had been repeated that the Colonel realized that it was addressed to himself and started up.

Those who had stared askance at him on his first coming, stared again now in resentment to see themselves passed over for this out-at-elbow ruffler. There were some sneering laughs and nudges, and one or two angry exclamations. But Holles paid no heed. Fortune at last had opened a door to him. Of this the hope that he had nourished was swollen to a certainty by one of the things he had overheard from the voluble Mr. Pepys. Officers were needed; men of experience in the trade of arms were scarce. Men of his own experience were rare, and Albemarle, who had the dispensing of these gifts, was well acquainted with his worth. That was the reason why he was being given precedence of all these fine gentlemen left in the antechamber to cool their heels a while longer.

Eagerly he went forward.