Chapter 3 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


At a vast writing-table placed in the middle of a lofty, sunny room, whose windows overlooked St. James’s Park, sat George Monk, K.G., Baron Monk of Potheridge, Beauchamp, and Tees, Earl of Torrington and Duke of Albemarle, Master of the Horse, Commander-in-Chief, a member of His Majesty’s Privy Council, and a Gentleman of the Bedchamber.

It was a great deal for a man to be, and yet George Monk—called a trimmer by his enemies and “honest George” by the majority of Englishmen—might conceivably have been more. Had he so willed it, he might have been King of England, whereby it is impossible that he could have served his country worse than by the restoration of the Stuart dynasty, which he preferred to effect.

He was a man of middle height, powerfully built, but inclining now, in his fifty-seventh year, to portliness. He was of a dark complexion, not unhandsome, the strength of his mouth tempered by the gentleness of his short-sighted eyes. His great head, covered by a heavy black periwig, reared itself upon too short a neck from his massive shoulders.

As Holles entered, he looked up, threw down his pen, and rose, but slowly, as if weighted by hesitation or surprise. Surprise was certainly the expression on his face as he stood there observing the other’s swift, eager advance. No word was uttered until no more than the table stood between them, and then it was to the usher that Albemarle addressed himself, shortly, in dismissal.

He followed the man’s withdrawal with his eyes, nor shifted them again to his visitor until the door had closed. Then abruptly concern came to blend with the surprise still abiding in his face, and he held out a hand to the Colonel whom this reception had a little bewildered. Holles bethought him that circumspection had ever been George Monk’s dominant characteristic.

“God save us, Randal! Is it really you?”

“Have ten years wrought such changes that you need to ask?”

“Ten years!” said the Duke slowly, a man bemused. “Ten years!” he said again, and his gentle almost sorrowing eyes scanned his visitor from foot to crown. His grip of the Colonel’s hand tightened a moment. Then abruptly, as if at a loss, or perhaps to dissemble the extent to which he was affected by this meeting, “But sit, man, sit,” he urged, waving him to the armchair set at the table so as to face the Duke’s own.

Holles sat down, hitching his sword-hilt forward, and placing his hat upon the floor. The Duke resumed his seat with the same slowness with which he had lately risen from it, his eyes the while upon his visitor.

“How like your father you are grown!” he said at last.

“That will be something gained, where all else is but a tale of loss.”

“Aye! You bear it writ plain upon you,” the Duke sadly agreed, and again there broke from him that plaintive, “God save us!”

Randal Holles the elder had been Monk’s dearest friend. Both natives of Potheridge in Devon, they had grown to manhood together. And though political opinions then divided them—for Monk was a King’s man in those far-off days, whilst the older Holles had gone to Parliament a republican—yet their friendship had remained undiminished. When Monk at last in ’46 accepted a command from Cromwell in the Irish service, it was the influence of Holles which had procured both the offer and its acceptance. Later, when Holles the younger decided for the trade of arms, it was under the ægis of Monk that he had taken service, and it was due as much to Monk’s friendship as to his own abilities that he had found himself a Captain after Dunbar and a Colonel after Worcester. Had he but chosen to continue under the guidance of his father’s friend, he might to-day have found himself in very different case.

The thought was so uppermost now in the Duke’s mind that he could not repress its utterance.

Holles sighed. “Do I not know it? But . . .” He broke off. “The answer makes a weary story and a long one. By your leave, let us neglect it. Your grace has had my letter. That is plain, since I am here. Therefore you are acquainted with my situation.”

“It grieved me, Randal, more deeply, I think, than anything I can remember. But why did you not write sooner? Why did you come vainly knocking at my door to be turned away by lackeys?”

“I had not realized how inaccessible you are grown.”

The Duke’s glance sharpened. “Do you say that bitterly?”

Holles almost bounded from his seat. “Nay—on my soul! I vow I am incapable of that, however low I may have come. What you have, you have earned. I rejoice in your greatness as must every man who loves you.” With mock cynicism as if to cover up any excessive emotion he might have used, he added: “I must, since it is now my only hope. Shorn of it I might as well cast myself from London Bridge.”

The Duke considered him in silence for a moment.

“We must talk,” he said presently. “There is much to say.” And, in his abrupt fashion, he added the question: “You’ll stay to dine?”

“That is an invitation I’d not refuse even from an enemy.”

His grace tinkled a little silver bell. The usher appeared.

“Who waits in the anteroom?”

Came from the usher a string of names and titles, all of them distinguished, some imposing.

“Say to them with my regrets that I can receive none before I dine. Bid those whose business presses to seek me again this afternoon.”

As the usher removed himself, Holles lay back in his chair and laughed. The Duke frowned inquiry, almost anxiously.

“I am thinking of how they stared upon me, and how they’ll stare next time we meet. Forgive me that I laugh at trifles. It is almost the only luxury I am still able to afford.”

Albemarle nodded gloomily. If he possessed a sense of humour, he very rarely betrayed the fact, which is possibly why Mr. Pepys, who loved a laugh, has written him down a heavy man.

“Tell me now,” he invited, “what is the reason of your coming home?”

“The war. Could I continue in Dutch service, even if the Dutch had made it possible, which they did not? For the last three months it has been impossible for an Englishman to show his face in the streets of The Hague without being subjected to insult. If he were so rash as to resent and punish it, he placed himself at the mercy of the authorities, which were never reluctant to make an example of him. That is one reason. The other is that England is in danger, that she needs the sword of her every son, and in such a pass should be ready to afford me employment. You need officers, I learn—experienced officers . . .”

“That’s true enough, God knows!” Albemarle interrupted him, on a note of bitterness. “My anteroom is thronged with young men of birth who come to me commended by the Duke of This and the Earl of That, and sometimes by His Majesty himself, for whom I am desired to provide commissions that will enable these graceful bawcocks to command their betters . . .” He broke off, perceiving, perhaps, that his feelings were sweeping him beyond the bounds of his usual circumspection. “But, as you say,” he ended presently, “of experienced officers there is a sorry lack. Yet that is not a circumstance upon which you are warranted to build, my friend.”

Holles stared blankly. “How . . .?” he was beginning, when Albemarle resumed, at once explaining his own words and answering the unspoken question.

“If you think that even in this hour of need there is no employment for such men as you in England’s service,” he said gravely, in his slow, deep voice, “you can have no knowledge of what has been happening here whilst you have been abroad. In these past ten years, Randal, I have often thought you might be dead. And I ask myself, all things being as they are, whether as your friend I have cause, real cause, to rejoice at seeing you alive. For life to be worth living must be lived worthily, by which I mean it must signify the performance of the best that is in a man. And how shall you perform your best here in this England?”

“How?” Holles was aghast. “Afford me but the occasion, and I will show you. I have it in me still. I swear it. Test me, and you shall not be disappointed. I’ll do you no discredit.” He had risen in his excitement. He had even paled a little, and he stood now before the Duke, tense, challenging, a faint quiver in the sensitive nostrils of his fine nose.

Albemarle’s phlegm was undisturbed by the vehemence. With a sallow fleshly hand, he waved the Colonel back to his chair.

“I nothing doubt it. I ask no questions of how you have spent the years. I can see for myself that they have been ill-spent, even without the hints of your letter. That does not weigh with me. I know your nature, and it is a nature I would trust. I know your talents, partly from the early promise that you showed, partly from the opinion held of you at one time in Holland. That surprises you, eh? Oh, but I keep myself informed of what is happening in the world. It was Opdam, I think, who reported you ‘vir magna belli peritia.’ ” He paused, and sighed. “God knows I need such men as you, need them urgently; and I would use you thankfully. But . . .”

“But what, sir? In God’s name!”

The heavy, pursed lips parted again, the raised black eyebrows resumed their level. “I cannot do so without exposing you to the very worst of dangers.”

“Dangers?” Holles laughed.

“I see that you do not understand. You do not realize that you bear a name inscribed on a certain roll of vengeance.”

“You mean my father’s?” The Colonel was incredulous.

“Your father’s—aye. It is misfortunate he should have named you after him. But there it is,” the deliberate, ponderous voice continued. “The name of Randal Holles is on the warrant for the execution of the late King. It would have provided a warrant for your father’s own death had he lived long enough. Yourself you have borne arms for the Parliament against our present sovereign. In England it is only by living in the completest obscurity that you’ll be allowed to live at all. And you ask me to give you a command, to expose you prominently to the public gaze—to the royal eye and the royal memory, which in these matters is unfading.”

“But the act of indemnity?” cried Holles, aghast, seeing his high hopes crumbling into ashes.

“Pshaw!” Albemarle’s lip curled a little. “Where have you lived at all that you do not know what has befallen those whom it covered?” He smiled grimly, shaking his great black head. “Never compel from a man a promise he is loath to give. Such promises are never kept, however fast you may bind them in legal bonds. I wrung the promise of that bill from His Majesty whilst he was still a throneless wanderer. Whilst he was at Breda I concerted with him and with Clarendon that there should be four exceptions only from that bill. Yet when, after His Majesty’s restoration, it was prepared, it left to Parliament such exceptions as Parliament should deem proper. I saw the intention. I pleaded; I argued; I urged the royal promise. Finally it was agreed that the exceptions should be increased to seven. Reluctantly I yielded, having no longer the power effectively to oppose a king de facto. Yet when the bill came before the Commons—subservient to the royal promptings—they named twenty exceptions, and the Lords went further by increasing the exceptions to include all who had been concerned in the late king’s trial and sundry others who had not. And that was a bill of indemnity! It was followed by the King’s proclamation demanding the surrender within fourteen days of all those who had been concerned in his father’s death. The matter was represented as a mere formality. Most were wise enough to mistrust it, and leave the country. But a score obeyed, conceiving that they would escape with some light punishment.”

He paused a moment, sinking back into his chair. A little smile twisted the lips of this man who had no sense of humour.

“It was announced that those who had not surrendered were excluded from the Bill of Indemnity, whilst, as for those who having surrendered were to be supposed included in it, a loyal jury found a true bill against them. They were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Major-General Harrison was the first of them to suffer. He was disembowelled over yonder at Charing Cross. Others followed, until the people, nauseated by the spectacle provided daily, began to murmur. Then a halt was called. There was a pause, at the end of which the executioners began again. Nor were those sentenced in that year the only ones. Others were indicted subsequently. Lambert and Vane were not brought to trial until ’62. Nor were they the last. And it may be that we have not reached the end even yet.”

Again he paused, and again his tone changed, shedding its faint note of bitterness.

“I do not say these things—which I say for your ears alone here in private—to censure, or even criticize, the actions of His Majesty. It is not for a subject to question too narrowly the doings of his King, particularly when that King is a son concerned to avenge what he considers, rightly or wrongly, the murder of his father. I tell you all this solely that you may understand how, despite my ardent wish to help you, I dare not for your own sake help you in the way you desire, lest, by bringing you, directly or indirectly, under His Majesty’s notice, I should expose you to that vengeance which is not allowed to slumber. Your name is Randal Holles, and . . .”

“I could change my name,” the Colonel cried, on a sudden inspiration, and waited breathlessly, whilst Albemarle considered.

“There might still be some who knew you in the old days, who would be but too ready to expose the deception.”

“I’ll take the risk of that.” Holles laughed in his eagerness, in his reaction from the hopelessness that had been settling upon him during Albemarle’s lengthy exposition. “I’ve lived on risks.”

The Duke eyed him gravely. “And I?” he asked.


“I should be a party to that deception . . .”

“So much need not transpire. You can trust me not to allow it.”

“But I should be a party none the less.” Albemarle was graver than ever, his accents more deliberate.

Slowly the lines of Holles’s face returned to their habitual grim wistfulness.

“You see?” said the Duke sadly.

But Holles did not wish to see. He shifted restlessly in his chair, swinging at last to lean across the table towards the Duke.

“But surely . . . at such a time . . . in the hour of England’s need . . . with war impending, and experienced officers to seek . . . surely, there would be some justification for . . .”

Again Albemarle shook his head, his face grave and sad.

“There can never be justification for deceit—for falsehood.”

For a long moment they faced each other thus, Holles striving the while to keep the despair from his face. Then slowly the Colonel sank back into his chair. A moment he brooded, his eyes upon the polished floor, then, with a little sigh, a little shrug, a little upward throw of the hands, he reached for the hat that lay on the floor beside him.

“In that case . . .” He paused to swallow something that threatened to mar the steadiness of his voice, “. . . it but remains for me to take my leave . . .”

“No, no.” The Duke leaned across and set a restraining hand upon his visitor’s arm. “We part not thus, Randal.”

Holles looked at him, still inwardly struggling to keep his self-control. He smiled a little, that sad irresistible smile of his. “You, sir, are a man overweighted with affairs; the burden of a state at war is on your shoulders, I . . .”

“None the less you shall stay to dine.”

“To dine?” said Holles, wondering where and when he should dine next, for a disclosure of the state of his affairs must follow upon this failure to improve them, and the luxury of the Paul’s Head could be his no longer.

“To dine, as you were bidden, and to renew acquaintance with her grace.” Albemarle pushed back his chair, and rose. “She will be glad to see you, I know. Come, then. The dinner hour is overpast already.”

Slowly, still hesitating, Holles rose. His main desire was to be out of this, away from Whitehall, alone with his misery. Yet in the end he yielded, nor had occasion thereafter to regret it. Indeed, at the outset her grace’s welcome of him warmed him.

The massive, gaudy, untidy woman stared at him as he was led by Albemarle into her presence. Then, slapping her thighs to mark her amazement, up she bounced, and came rolling towards him.

“As God’s my life, it’s Randal Holles!” she exclaimed. And hoisting herself on tiptoe by a grip of his shoulders she resoundingly kissed his cheek before he guessed her purpose. “It’s lucky for George he’s brought you to excuse his lateness,” she added grimly. “Dinner’s been standing this ten minutes, and cooling do spoil good meat. Come on. You shall tell me at table what good fortune brings you.”

She linked an arm through one of his, and led him away to their frugal board, which Mr. Pepys—who loved the good things of this world—has denounced as laden with dirty dishes and bad meat. It was certainly not ducal, either in appurtenances or service. But then neither was its hostess, nor could any human power have made her so. To the end she was Nan Clarges, the farrier’s daughter and the farrier’s widow, the sempstress who had been Monk’s mistress when he was a prisoner in the Tower some twenty years ago, and whom—in an evil hour, as was generally believed—he had subsequently married, to legitimize their children. She counted few friends in the great world in which her husband had his being, whilst those she may have counted in her former station had long since passed beyond her ken. Therefore did she treasure the more dearly the few—the very few—whom she had honoured with that name. And of these was Randal Holles. Because of his deep regard for Monk, and because of the easy good-nature that was his own, he had in the early days of Monk’s marriage shown a proper regard for Monk’s wife, treating with the deference due to her married station an unfortunate woman who was smarting under the undisguised contempt of the majority of her husband’s friends and associates. She had cherished that deference and courtesy of Holles’s as only a woman in her situation could, and the memory of it was ineffaceably impressed upon her mind.

Clarendon, who detested her as did so many, has damned her in a phrase: “Nihil muliebris præter corpus gerens.” Clarendon did not credit her with a heart, under her gross, untidy female form, a woman’s heart as quick to respond to hate as to affection. Holles could have enlightened him. But, then, they never knew each other.

The trivial, unconsidered good that we may do on our way through life is often a seed from which we may reap richly anon in the hour of our own need.

This Holles was now discovering. She plied him with questions all through her noisy feeding, until she had drawn from him, not only the condition of his fortunes, but the reason of his return to England, the hopes he had nourished, and her own husband’s wrecking of those hopes. It put her in a rage.

“God’s life!” she roared at her ducal lord and master. “You would ha’ turned him like a beggar from the door? Him—Randal!”

His grace, the dauntless, honest George Monk, who all his life had trodden so firmly the path of rectitude, who feared no man, not even excepting the King whom he had made, lowered his proud, grave eyes before this termagant’s angry glance. He was a great soldier, as you know. Single-handed once he had faced a mutinous regiment in Whitehall, and quelled its insubordination by the fearless dominance of his personality. But he went in a dread of his boisterous vulgar duchess that was possibly greater than the dread in which any man had ever gone of him.

“You see, my love, according to my lights . . .” he was beginning uneasily.

“Your lights quotha!” she shrilled in scorn. “Mighty dim lights they be, George, if you can’t see to help a friend by them.”

“I might help him to the gallows,” he expostulated. “Have patience now, and let me explain.”

“I’ll need patience. God knows I shall! Well, man?”

He smiled, gently, as if to show that he used gentleness from disinclination to assert his mastery. As best he could, seeing that he was subjected the while to a running fire of scornful interruptions, he made clear the situation as already he had made it clear to Holles.

“Lord, George!” she said, when he had finished, and her great red face was blank. “You are growing old. You are not the man you was. You, a kingmaker! La!” She withered him with her scorn. “Where are the wits that helped King Charles Stuart back to his own? You wasn’t put off by the first obstacle in they days. What would ye be without me, I ask myself. It needs me to help ye see how ye can help a friend without bringing him under notice of them as might do him a hurt.”

“If you can do that, my dear . . .”

“If I can? I’d ha’ my brains fried for supper if I couldn’t. I would so—damme! For ’tis all they’d be good for. Is there no commands in your bestowing but commands here at home?”

His eyebrows flickered up, as if something in his mind responded to her suggestion.

“Are there no colonies to this realm of England? What of the Indies—East and West? There’s a mort o’ them Indies, I know, whither officers are forever being dispatched. Who’d trouble about Randal’s name or story in one o’ they?”

“Egad! ’Tis an idea!” The Duke looked at Holles, his glance brightening. “What should you say to it, Randal?”

“Is there a post for me out there?” quoth the Colonel eagerly.

“At this very moment, no. But vacancies occur. Men die in those outlandish parts, or weary of the life, or find the climate intolerable and return. There are risks, of course, and . . .”

Holles cut in briskly. “I have said that I have lived on risks. And they’ll be less than those you represent as lying in wait for me here at home. Oh, I’ll take the risks. Right gladly I’ll take the risks. And I’ve little cause to be so wedded to the old world that I’d not exchange it for the new.”

“Why, then, we’ll see. A little patience, and it may be mine to offer you some place abroad.”

“Patience!” said Holles, his jaw fallen again.

“Why, to be sure. After all, such posts do not grow like apples. Keep me informed of where you are lodged, and I will send you word when the occasion offers.”

“And if he doesn’t send word soon do you come and see me again, Randal,” said her grace; “we’ll quicken him. He’s well enough; but he’s growing old, and his wits is sluggish.”

And the great man, whose eye had daunted armies, smiled benignly upon his termagant.