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Chapter 8 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


Towards midnight, when all the guests but Etheredge had departed, and the candles lighting the disordered room were guttering in their sconces, the Duke sat alone in council with the younger libertine. He had dismissed his servants; the doors were closed, and they were entirely private.

The Duke unburdened himself, bitterly and passionately. The patience which Etheredge counselled was altogether beyond him, he confessed. More than ever now, when, by the exercise of it, by moving circuitously to his ends, he had so scared the little prude that he was worse off than at the outset.

Etheredge smiled.

“You’re a prodigiously ungrateful fellow. You go clumsily to work and then you blame me for the failure of your endeavours. Had you asked me, I could have told you what must happen with a parcel of fools and sluts who haven’t learnt the art of carrying their wine in decent fashion. Had she arrived at the appointed time, whilst they were still sober, all might have been well. She might have come to share, in part, at least, their intoxication, and so she would have viewed their antics through eyes that wine had rendered tolerant and kindly. As it is, you merely offended her by a disgusting spectacle; and that is very far from anything that I advised.”

“Be that as it may,” said the ill-humoured Duke, “there is a laugh against me that is to be redeemed. I am for directer measures now.”

“Directer measures?” Etheredge’s brows went up. He uttered a musical, scornful little laugh. “Is this your patience?”

“A pox on patience . . .”

“Then she is not for you. Wait a moment, my sweet Bucks. I have no illusions as to what you mean by direct measures. You are probably more sober than I am; but then I am more intelligent than you. Out of my intelligence let me inform your sobriety.”

“Oh, come to the point.”

“I am coming to it. If you mean to carry the girl off, I’ll be reminding you that at law it’s a hanging matter.”

The Duke stared at him in disdainful amazement. Then he uttered a sharp laugh of derision.

“At law? Pray, my good George, what have I to do with the law?”

“By which you mean that you are above it.”

“That is where usually I have found myself.”

“Usually. The times are not usual. The times are monstrous unusual. Rochester, no doubt, thought as you do when he carried off Miss Mallet on Friday night. Yet Rochester is in the Tower in consequence.”

“And you think they’ll hang him?” Buckingham sneered.

“No. They won’t hang him, because the abduction was an unnecessary piece of buffoonery—because he is ready to mend Miss Mallet’s honour by marrying her.”

“Let me perish, George, but you’re more drunk than I thought. Miss Mallet is a person of importance in the world with powerful friends . . .”

“Miss Farquharson, too, has friends. Betterton is her friend, and he wields a deal of influence. You don’t lack for enemies to stir things up against you . . .”

“Oh, but a baggage of the theatre!” Buckingham was incredulously scornful.

“These baggages of the theatre are beloved of the people, and the mood of the people of London at present is not one I should care to ruffle were I Duke of Buckingham. There is a war to excite them, and the menace of the plague to scare them into making examinations of conscience. There are preachers, too, going up and down the Town, proclaiming that this is a visitation of God upon the new Sodom. The people are listening. They are beginning to point to Whitehall as the source of all the offences that have provoked the wrath of Heaven. And they don’t love you, Bucks, any more than they love me. They don’t understand us, and—to be plain—our names, yours and mine and several others, are beginning to stink in their nostrils. Give them such an argument as this against you, and they’ll see the law fulfilled. Never doubt that. The English are an easy-going people on the surface, which has led some fools to their undoing by abusing them. The spot where His Majesty’s father lost his head is within easy view of these windows.

“And so I tell you that the thing which you intend to do, which would be fraught with risks at any time, is certain destruction to you at this present. The very eminence upon which you count for safety would prove your undoing. The fierce light that beats upon a throne beats upon those who are about it. A more obscure man might do this thing with less risk to himself than you would run.”

His grace discarded at last his incredulous scorn, and gave himself up to gloomy thought. Etheredge, leaning back in his chair, watched him, faintly, cynically amused. At length the Duke stirred and raised his handsome eyes to his friend’s face.

“Don’t sit there grinning—damn you!—advise me.”

“To what end, since you won’t follow my advice?”

“Still, let me hear it. What is it?”

“Forget the girl, and look for easier game. You are hardly young enough for such an arduous and tiring hunt as this.”

His grace damned him roundly for a scoffer, and swore that he would not abandon the affair; that, at whatever cost, he would pursue it.

“Why, then, you must begin by effacing the bad impression you have made to-night. That will not be easy; indeed, it is the most difficult step of all. But there are certain things in your favour. For one, you were not, for a wonder, drunk, yourself, when you rose to welcome her. Let us hope that she observed it. Pay her a visit on Monday at the theatre to tender your most humble apologies for the disgraceful conduct of your guests. Had you known them capable of such abandoned behaviour, you would never have bidden her make one of such a company. You will profess yourself glad that she departed instantly; that is what you would, yourself, have advised.”

“But I pursued her. My lackeys sought to stay her coach!”

“Naturally—so that you might make her your apologies, and approve a departure which in the circumstances you must have urged. Damme, Bucks! You have no invention, and you desire to deem yourself a dramatist.”

“You think she will believe me?” His grace was dubious.

“That will depend upon your acting, and you are reputed something of an actor. God knows you played the mountebank once to some purpose. Have you forgotten?”

“No, no. But will it serve, do you think?”

“As a beginning. But you must follow it up. You must reveal yourself in a new character. Hitherto she has known you, first by repute and to-night by experience, a rake. That in itself makes her wary of you. Let her behold you as a hero; say, as a rescuer of beauty in distress—herself in the distressful part. Deliver her from some deadly peril, and thereby earn her gratitude and her wonder at your prowess. Women love a hero. So be heroical, and who knows what good fortune may attend your heroism.

“And the deadly peril?” quoth the Duke gloomily, almost suspecting that his friend was rallying him. “Where shall I find that?”

“If you wait to find it, you may have long to wait. You must, yourself, provide it. A little contriving, a little invention, will soon supply what you lack.”

“Can you propose anything? Can you be more than superiorly vague?”

“I hope so. With a little thought . . .”

“Then, in God’s name, think.”

Etheredge laughed at his host’s vehemence. He brimmed himself a cup of wine, surveyed the rich glow of it in the candlelight and drank it off.

“Inspiration flows. Invention stirs within me. Now listen.” And sitting forward he propounded a plan of campaign with that rascally readiness of wit that was at once his glory and his ruin.

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