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Chapter 5 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


Colonel Holles took the air in Paul’s Yard, drawn forth partly by the voice of a preacher on the steps of Paul’s, who was attracting a crowd about him, partly by his own restlessness. It was now three days since his visit to the Cockpit, and although he could not reasonably have expected news from Albemarle within so short a time, yet the lack of it was fretting him.

He was moving along the skirts of the crowd that had collected before the preacher, with no intention of pausing, when suddenly a phrase arrested him.

“Repent, I say, while it is time! For behold the wrath of the Lord is upon you. The scourge of pestilence is raised to smite you down.”

Holles looked over the heads of the assembled citizens, and beheld a black crow of a man, cadaverous of face, with sunken eyes that glowed uncannily from the depths of their sockets.

“Repent!” the voice croaked. “Awaken! Behold your peril, and by prayer and reparation set yourselves to avert it whiles yet it may be time. Within the Parish of St. Giles this week lie thirty dead of this dread pestilence, ten in St. Clement’s, and as many in St. Andrew’s, Holborn. These are but warnings. Slowly but surely the plague is creeping upon the city. As Sodom of old was destroyed, so shall this modern Sodom perish, unless you rouse yourselves, and cast out the evil that is amongst you.”

The crowd was in the main irreverently disposed. There was some laughter, and one shrill, persistent voice that derided him. The preacher paused. He seemed to lengthen before them, as he raised his arms to Heaven.

“They laugh! Deriders, scoffers, will you not be warned? Oh, the great, the dreadful God! His vengeance is upon you, and you laugh. Thou hast defiled thy sanctuaries by the multitude of thine iniquities, by the iniquity of thy traffic. Therefore I will bring forth a fire from the midst of thee, and I will burn thee to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee.”

Holles moved on. He had heard odd allusions to this pestilence which was said to be making victims in the outskirts and which it was alleged by some fools was a weapon of warfare wielded by the Dutch—at least, that it was the Dutch who had let it loose in England. But he had paid little heed to the matter, knowing that scaremongers are never lacking. Apparently the citizens of London were of his own way of thinking, if he might judge by the indifferent success attending the hoarse rantings of that preacher of doom.

As he moved on, a man of handsome presence and soldierly bearing, with the dress and air of a gentleman, considered him intently with eyes of startled wonder. As Holles came abreast of him, he suddenly stepped forward, detaching from the crowd, and caught the Colonel by the arm. Holles checked, and turned to find himself gravely regarded by this stranger.

“Either you are Randal Holles, or else the devil in his shape.”

Then Holles knew him—a ghost out of his past, as he was, himself, a ghost out of the past of this other; an old friend, a brother-in-arms of the days of Worcester and Dunbar.

“Tucker!” he cried, “Ned Tucker!” And impulsively, his face alight, he held out his hand.

The other gripped it firmly.

“I must have known you anywhere, Randal, despite the change that time has wrought.”

“It has wrought changes in yourself as well. But you would seem to have prospered!” The Colonel’s face was rejuvenated by a look of almost boyish pleasure.

“Oh, I am well enough,” said Tucker. “And you?”

“As you see.”

The other’s grave dark eyes considered him. There fell a silence, an awkward pause between those two, each of whom desired to ask a hundred questions. At last:

“I last heard of you in Holland,” said Tucker.

“I am but newly home.”

The other’s eyebrows went up, a manifestation of surprise.

“Whatever can have brought you?”

“The war, and the desire to find employment in which I may serve my country.”

“And you’ve found it?” The smile on the dark face suggested a scornful doubt which almost made an answer unnecessary.

“Not yet.”

“It would have moved my wonder if you had. It was a rashness to have returned at all.” He lowered his voice, lest he should be overheard. “The climate of England isn’t healthy at all to old soldiers of the Parliament.”

“Yet you are here, Ned.”

“I?” Again that slow, half-scornful smile lighted the grave, handsome face. He shrugged. He leaned towards Holles, and dropped his voice still further. “My father was not a regicide,” he said quietly. “Therefore, I am comparatively obscure.”

Holles looked at him, the eager pleasure which the meeting had brought him withering in his face. Would men ever keep green the memory of this thing and of the silly tie with which they had garnished it? Must it ever prove an insuperable obstacle to him in Stuart England?

“Nay, nay, never look so glum, man,” Tucker laughed, and he took the Colonel by the arm. “Let us go somewhere where we can talk. We should have a deal to tell each other.”

Holles swung him round.

“Come to the Paul’s Head,” he bade him. “I am lodged there.”

But the other hung back, hesitating a moment. “My own lodging is near at hand in Cheapside,” he said, and they turned about again.

In silence they moved off together. At the corner of Paul’s Yard, Tucker paused, and turned to look across at the doorway of Paul’s and the fanatical preacher who stood there shrilling. His voice floated across to them.

“Oh, the great and the dreadful God!”

Tucker’s face set into grimly sardonic lines. “An eloquent fellow, that,” he said. “He should rouse these silly sheep from their apathy.”

The Colonel stared at him, puzzled. There seemed to be an ulterior meaning to his words. But Tucker, without adding anything further, drew him away and on.

In a handsome room on the first floor of one of the most imposing houses in Cheapside, Tucker waved his guest to the best chair.

“An old friend, just met by chance,” he explained to his housekeeper, who came to wait upon him. “So it will be a bottle of sack . . . of the best!”

When, having brought the wine, the woman had taken herself off and the two sat within closed doors, the Colonel gave his friend the account of himself which the latter craved.

Gravely Tucker heard him through, and grave his face remained when the tale was done. He sighed, and considered the Colonel a moment in silence with sombre eyes.

“So George Monk’s your only hope?” he said, slowly, at last. Then he uttered a short, sharp laugh of infinite scorn. “In your case I think I’d hang myself and have done. It’s less tormenting.”

“What do you mean?”

“You think that Monk will really help you? That he intends to help?”

“Assuredly. He has promised it, and he was my friend—and my father’s friend.”

“Friend!” said the other bitterly. “I never knew a trimmer to be any man’s friend but his own. And if ever a trimmer lived, his name is George Monk—the very prince of trimmers, as his whole life shows. First a King’s man; then something betwixt and between King and Parliament; then a Parliament man, selling his friends of the King’s side. And lastly a King’s man again, in opposition to his late trusting friends of the Parliament. Always choosing the side that is uppermost or that can outbid the other for his services. And look where he stands; Baron of this, Earl of that, Duke of Albemarle, Commander-in-Chief, Master of the Horse, Gentleman of the Bedchamber, and God knows what else. Oh, he has grown fat on trimming.”

“You do him wrong, Ned.” Holles was mildly indignant.

“That is impossible.”

“But you do. You forget that a man may change sides from conviction.”

“Especially when it is to his own profit,” sneered Tucker.

“That is ungenerous, and it is untrue, of course.” The Colonel showed signs of loyal heat. “You are wrong also in your other assumption. He would have given me all the help I needed, but that . . .”

“But that he counted the slight risk—nay; what am I saying?—the slight inconvenience to himself should any questions afterwards be asked. He could have averted in such a case all awkwardness by pleading ignorance to your past . . .”

“He is too honest to do that.”

“Honest! Aye—‘honest George Monk’! Usually misfortune schools a man in worldly wisdom. But you . . .” Tucker smiled between contempt and sadness, leaving the phrase unfinished.

“I have told you that he will help me; that he has promised.”

“And you build upon his promises? Promises! They cost nothing. They are the bribes with which a trimmer puts off the importunate. Monk saw your need, as I see it. You carry the marks of it plainly upon you, in every seam of your threadbare coat. Forgive the allusion, Randal!” He set a conciliatory hand upon his friend’s arm, for the Colonel had reddened resentfully at the words. “I make it to justify myself of what I say.” And he resumed: “Monk’s revenues amount to thirty thousand pounds a year—such are the vails of trimmers. He was your friend, you say; he was your father’s friend, and owed much to your father, as all know. Did he offer you his purse to tide you over present stress, until opportunity permits him to fulfil his promise? Did he?”

“I could not have taken advantage of it if he had.”

“That is not what I ask you. Did he offer it? Of course he did not. Not he. Yet would not a friend have helped you at once and where he could?”

“He did not think of it.”

“A friend would have thought of it. But Monk is no man’s friend.”

“I say again, you are unjust to him. You forget that, after all, he was under no necessity to promise anything.”

“Oh, yes, he was. There was his Duchess, as you’ve told me. Dirty Bess can be importunate, and she commands him. He goes notoriously in terror of her. Yielding to her importunities he promised that which he will avoid fulfilling. I know George Monk, and all his leprous kind, of which this England is full to-day, battening upon her carcase with the foul greed of vultures. I . . .”

He grew conscious that Colonel Holles was staring at him, amazed by his sudden vehemence. He checked abruptly, and laughed.

“I grow hot for nothing at all. Nay, not for nothing—for you, old friend, and against those who put this deception upon you. You should not have come back to England, Randal. But since you’re here, at least do not woo disappointment by nourishing your hopes on empty promises.” He raised his glass to the light, and looked at the Colonel solemnly across the top of it. “I drink to your better fortune, Randal.”

Mechanically, without answering a word, the Colonel drank with him. His heart was turned to lead. The portrait Tucker had so swiftly painted of Monk’s soul was painted obviously with a hostile, bitter brush. Yet the facts of Monk’s life made it plausible. The likeness was undeniable, if distorted. And Holles—rendered pessimistic and despondent by his very condition—saw the likeness and not the distortion.

“If you are right,” he said slowly, his eyes upon the table, “I may as well take your advice, and hang myself.”

“Almost the only thing left for a self-respecting man in England,” said Tucker.

“Or anywhere else, for that matter. But why so bitter about England in particular?”

Tucker shrugged. “You know my sentiments, what they always were. I am no trimmer. I sail a steady course.”

Holles regarded him searchingly. He could not misunderstand the man’s words, still less his tone.

“Is that not . . . Is it not a dangerous course?” he asked. Tucker looked at him with wistful amusement.

“There are considerations an honest man should set above danger.”

“Oh, agreed.”

“There is no honesty save in steadfastness, Randal, and I am, I hope, an honest man.”

“By which you mean that I am not,” said Holles slowly.

Tucker did not contradict him by more than a shrug and a deprecatory smile that was of mere politeness. The Colonel rose, stirred to vehemence by his friend’s manifest opinion of him.

“I am a beggar, Ned; and beggars may not choose. Besides, for ten years now I have been a mercenary, neither more nor less. My sword is for hire. That is the trade by which I live. I do not make governments; I do not plague myself with questions of their worth; I serve them, for gold.”

But Tucker, smiling sadly, slowly shook his head.

“If that were true, you would not be in England now. You came, as you have said, because of the war. Your sword may be for hire; but you still have a country, and the first offer goes to her. Should she refuse it, the next will not go to an enemy of England’s. So why belittle yourself thus? You still have a country, and you love it. There are many here who are ready to love you, though they may not be among those who govern England. You have come back to serve her. Serve her, then. But first ask yourself how best she may be served.”

“What’s that?”

“Sit down, man. Sit, and listen.”

And now, having first sworn the Colonel to secrecy in the name of their old friendship—to which and to the Colonel’s desperate condition, the other trusted in opening his heart.

Tucker delivered himself of what was no less than treason.

He began by inviting the Colonel to consider the state to which misgovernment by a spendthrift, lecherous, vindictive, dishonest king had reduced the country. Beginning with the Bill of Indemnity and its dishonourable evasion, he reviewed act by act the growing tyranny of the last five years since the restoration of King Charles, presenting each in the focus of his own vision, which, if bitterly hostile, was yet accurate enough. He came in the end to deal with the war to which the country was committed; he showed how it had been provoked by recklessness, and how it had been rendered possible by the gross, the criminal neglect of the affairs of that navy which Cromwell had left so formidable. And he dwelt upon the appalling license of the Court with all the fury of the Puritan he was at heart.

“We touch the end at last,” he concluded with fierce conviction. “Whitehall shall be swept clean of this Charles Stuart and his trulls and pimps and minions. They shall be flung on the foul dunghill where they belong, and a commonwealth shall be restored to rule this England in a sane and cleanly fashion, so that honest men may be proud to serve her once again.”

“My God, Ned, you’re surely mad!” Holles was aghast as much at the confidence itself as at the manner of it.

“To risk myself, you mean?” Tucker smiled grimly. “These vampires have torn the bowels out of better men in the same cause, and if we fail, they may have mine and welcome. But we do not fail. Our plans are shrewdly laid and already well advanced. There is one in Holland who directs them—a name I dare not mention to you yet, but a name that is dear to all honest men. Almost it is the hour. Our agents are everywhere abroad, moulding the people’s mind, directing it into a sane channel. Heaven itself has come to our help by sending us this pestilence to strike terror into men’s hearts and make them ask themselves how much the vices by which the rulers defile this land may not have provoked this visitation. That preacher you heard upon the steps of Paul’s is one of our agents, doing the good work, casting the seed in fertile places. And very soon now will come the harvest—such a harvest!”

He paused, and considered his stricken friend with an eye in which glowed something of the light of fanaticism.

“Your sword is idle and you seek employment for it, Randal. Here is a service you may take with honour. It is the service of the old Commonwealth to which in the old days you were stanch, a service aiming at these enemies who would still deny such men as you a place in England. You strike not only for yourself, but for some thousands in like case. And your country will not forget. We need such swords as yours. I offer you at once a cause and a career. Albemarle puts you off with promises of appointments in which the preference over worth is daily granted to the pimpish friends of the loathly creatures about Charles Stuart’s leprous Court. I have opened my heart to you freely and frankly, even at some risk. What have you to say to me?”

Holles rose, his decision taken, his face set. “What I said at first. I am a mercenary. I do not make governments. I serve them. There is no human cause in all the world to-day could move me to enthusiasm.”

“Yet you came home that you might serve England in her need.”

“Because I did not know where else to go.”

“Very well. I accept you at your own valuation, Randal—not that I believe you; but not to confuse the argument. Being here, you find the doors by which you counted upon entering all closed against you, and locked. What are you going to do? You say you are a mercenary; that your concern is but to give a soulless service to the hand that hires you. I present you to a liberal taskmaster; one who will richly reward your service. Since to you all service is alike, let the mercenary answer me.”

He, too, had risen, and held out a hand in appeal. The Colonel looked at him seriously awhile; then he smiled.

“What an advocate was lost in you, Ned!” said he. “You keep to the point—aye; but also you conveniently miss it. A mercenary serves governments in esse; the service of governments in posse is for enthusiasts; and I have had no enthusiasms these ten years and more. Establish your government, and my sword is for your hire, and gladly. But do not ask me to set my head upon the board in this gamble to establish it; for my head is my only remaining possession.”

“If you will not strike a blow for love, will you not strike one for hate: against the Stuart, whose vindictiveness will not allow you to earn your bread?”

“You overstate the case. Though much that you have said of him may be true, I will not yet despair of the help of Albemarle.”

“Why, you blind madman, I tell you—I swear to you—that in a very little while Albemarle will be beyond helping any man, beyond helping even himself.”

Hollies was about to speak, when Tucker threw up a hand to arrest him.

“Do not answer me now. Let what I have said sink home into your wits. Give it thought. We are not pressed for a few days. Ponder my words, and if as the days pass and no further news comes to you from Whitehall—no fulfilment of this airy promise—perhaps you will regard things differently, and come to see where your interest really lies. Remember, then, that we need skilled soldiers as leaders for our movement, and that an assured welcome awaits you. Remember, too—this for the mercenary you represent yourself—that the leaders now will be the leaders still when the task is accomplished, and that theirs will be the abiding rewards. Meanwhile, Randal, the bottle’s not half done. So sit you down again, and let us talk of other matters.”

Going home towards dusk, the thing that most intrigued the Colonel was the dangerous frankness that Tucker had used with him, trusting a man in his desperate case with a secret so weighty upon no more than his pledged word and what Tucker remembered of him in the creditable state from which he had long since fallen. Reflection, however, diminished his wonder. Tucker had divulged no facts whose betrayal could seriously impair the plotters. He had mentioned no names; he had no more than vaguely alluded to a directing mind in Holland, which the Colonel guessed to be Algernon Sidney’s, who was beyond the reach of the Stuart arm. For the rest, what had he told him? That there was a serious movement afoot to overthrow the Stuart dynasty, and restore the Commonwealth. Let Holles carry that tale to the authorities, and what would happen? He could impeach by name no man but Tucker; and all he could say of Tucker was that Tucker had told him these things. Tucker’s word would be as good as Holles’s before a justice. On the score of credit, Holles’s antecedents would be the subject of inquiry, and the revelation of them would result in danger to himself alone.

Tucker had not been as ingenuous and confiding as he had at first supposed. He laughed a little to himself at his own simplicity. Then laughed again as he reviewed the proposal Tucker had made him. He might be desperate, but not desperate enough for that—not yet. He caressed his neck affectionately. He had no mind to feel a rope tightening about it. Nor would he yet despair because of what Tucker, largely for the purposes of his own advocacy, had said of Albemarle. The more he considered it, away from Tucker now, the more persuaded was he of Albemarle’s sincerity and good intentions.

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