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Chapter 9 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


Ned Tucker did not long leave his proposal to Holles unconfirmed. He sought him in the matter again at the Paul’s Head three days later, on the Sunday, and sat long in talk with him in the little parlour, to the profound disquieting of Mrs. Quinn, who had observed from the gentleman’s bearing and apparel that he was a person of consequence.

He found the Colonel a little more malleable to-day, a little less insistent upon serving only governments in esse. The fact was that, as day followed day without word from Albemarle, Holles approached the conclusion that things were indeed as Tucker had represented them. His hopes sank, and his dread of that score of his which was daily mounting at the Paul’s Head added to his despair.

Still, he did not altogether yield to Tucker’s persuasions; but neither did he discourage him when the latter promised to visit him again on the morrow, bringing another old friend of their Parliament days. And on the Monday, true to his promise, Tucker came again, accompanied this time by a gentleman some years his senior, named Rathbone, with whom Colonel Holles recalled some slight acquaintance. This time they came with a very definite proposal, empowered, so they told him, by one whose name they would not yet utter, but which, if uttered, must remove his every doubt.

“For that, Randal, you will accept our word, I know,” said the grave Tucker.

Holles nodded his agreement, and the proposal was disclosed. It offered him a position which in an established government would have been dazzling. It was dazzling even as things were, to one in his desperate case, driven to the need of making a gambler’s throw. If on the one side he probably set his head, at least the stake they offered could hardly have been greater.

And they tempted him further by revelations of how far their preparations were advanced, and how thorough these were.

“Heaven,” said Rathbone, “is on our side. It has sent this plague to stir men to bethink themselves of the rulers they have chosen. Our agents have discovered four cases in the City to-day: one in Wood Street, one in Fenchurch Street, and two in Crooked Lane. The authorities hoped to keep it from the knowledge of the people. But we are seeing to that. At this moment our preachers are proclaiming it, spreading terror that men may be driven by it to the paths of righteousness.”

“When the devil was sick the devil a monk would be,” said Holles. “I understand.”

“Then you should see that all is ready, the mine is laid,” Tucker admonished him. “This is your opportunity, Randal. If you delay now . . .”

A tap at the door interrupted him. Tucker bounded up, propelled by his uneasy conspirator’s conscience. Rathbone, too, glanced round uneasily.

“Why, what’s to startle you?” said the Colonel quietly, smiling to behold their fears. “It is but my good hostess.”

She came in from the common room bearing a letter that had just been brought for Colonel Holles.

He took it, wondering; then, observing the great seal, a little colour crept into his cheeks. He spread the sheet, and read, under the observing eyes of his friends and his hostess, and they were all alike uneasy.

Twice he read that letter before he spoke. The unexpected had happened, and it had happened at the eleventh hour, barely in time to arrest him on the brink of what might well prove a precipice. Thus he saw it now, his vision altering with his fortunes.

“Luck has stood your friend sooner than we could have hoped,” wrote Albemarle. “A military post in the Indies has, as I learn from letters just received, fallen vacant. It is an important command full worthy of your abilities, and there, overseas, you will be safe from all inquisitions. If you will wait upon me here at the Cockpit this afternoon, you shall be further informed.”

He begged his friends to excuse him a moment, took pen, ink, and paper from the sideboard and quickly wrote a few lines in answer.

When Mrs. Quinn had departed to convey that note to the messenger, and the door had closed again, the two uneasy conspirators started up. Questions broke simultaneously from both of them. For answer Holles placed Albemarle’s letter on the table. Tucker snatched it up, and conned it, whilst over his shoulder Rathbone read it, too.

At last Tucker lowered the sheet, and his grave eyes fell again upon Holles.

“And you have answered—what?” he demanded.

“That I will wait upon his grace this afternoon as he requires of me.”

“But to what end?” asked Rathbone. “You can’t mean that you will accept employment from a government that is doomed.”

The Colonel shrugged. “As I have told Tucker from the first, I serve governments; I do not make them.”

“But just now . . .” Tucker was beginning.

“I wavered. It is true. But something else has been flung into the scales.” And he held up Albemarle’s letter.

They argued with him after that; but they argued vainly.

“If I am of value to your government when you shall have established it, you will know where to find me; and you will know from what has happened now that I am trustworthy.”

“But your value to us is now, in the struggle that is coming. And it is for this that we are prepared to reward you richly.”

He was not, however, to be moved. The letter from Albemarle had reached him an hour too soon.

At parting he assured them that their secret was safe with him, and that he would forget all that they had said. Since, still, they had disclosed no vital facts whose betrayal could frustrate their purpose, it was an almost unnecessary assurance.

They stalked out resentfully. But Tucker returned alone a moment later.

“Randal,” he said, “it may be that upon reflection you will come to see the error of linking yourself to a government that cannot endure, to the service of a king against whom the hand of Heaven is already raised. You may come to prefer the greatness that we offer you in the future to this crust that Albemarle throws you at the moment. If you are wise, you will. If so, you know where to find me. Seek me there, and be sure of my welcome as of my friendship.”

They shook hands and parted, and with a sigh and a smile Holles turned to load himself a pipe. He was not, he thought, likely to see Tucker again.

That afternoon he waited upon Albemarle, who gave him particulars of the appointment he had to offer. It was an office of importance, the pay was good, and so that Holles discharged his duties well, which the Duke had no occasion to doubt, there would be even better things in store for him before very long.

“The one thing to efface the past is a term of service now, wheresoever it may be. Hereafter when I commend you for some other place, here at home, perhaps, and I am asked what are your antecedents, I need but point to the stout service you will have done us in the Indies, and men will inquire no further. It is a temporary exile, but you may trust me to see that it endures no longer than is necessary.”

No such advocacy was needed to induce Holles to accept an office that, after all, was of an importance far beyond anything for which he could reasonably have hoped. He said so frankly by way of expressing his deep gratitude.

“In that case, you will seek me again here to-morrow morning. Your commission shall be meanwhile made out.”

The Colonel departed jubilant. At last—at long last—after infinite frowns, Fortune accorded him a smile. And she accorded it in the very nick of time, just as he was touching the very depths of his despair and ready to throw in his lot with a parcel of crazy fanatics who dreamed of another revolution.

So back to the Paul’s Head he came with his soaring spirits, and called for a bottle of the best Canary. Mrs. Quinn read the omens shrewdly.

“Your affairs at Whitehall have prospered, then?” said she between question and assertion.

Holles reclined in an armchair, his legs, from which he had removed his boots, stretched luxuriously upon a stool, his head thrown back, a pipe between his lips.

“Aye. They’ve prospered. Beyond my deserts,” said he, smiling at the ceiling.

“Never that, Colonel. For that’s not possible.” She beamed upon him, proffering the full stoup.

He sat up to take it, and looked at her, smiling.

“No doubt you’re right. But I’ve gone without my deserts so long that I have lost all sense of them.”

“There’s others who haven’t,” said she; and timidly added a question upon the nature of his prosperity.

He paused to drink a quarter of the wine. Then, as he set down the vessel on the table at his elbow, he told her.

Her countenance grew overcast. He was touched to note it, inferring from this manifest regret at his departure that he had made a friend in Mrs. Quinn.

“And when do you go?” she asked him, oddly breathless.

“In a week’s time.”

She considered him, mournfully he thought; and he also thought that she lost some of her bright colour.

“And to the Indies!” she ejaculated slowly. “Lord! Among savages and heathen blacks! Why, you must be crazed to think of it.”

“Beggars may not choose, ma’am. I go where I can find employment. Besides, it is not as bad as you imagine.”

“But where’s the need to go at all, when, as I’ve told you already, such a man as yourself should be thinking of settling down at home and taking a wife?”

She realized that the time had come to deliver battle. It was now or never. And thus she sent out a preliminary skirmishing party.

“Why, look at yourself,” she ran on, before he could answer. “Look at the condition of you.” And she pointed a denunciatory finger at the great hole in the heel of his right stocking. “You should be seeking a woman to take care of you, instead of letting your mind run on soldiering in foreign parts.”

“Excellent advice,” he laughed. “There is one difficulty only. Who takes a wife must keep a wife, and, if I stay in England, I shan’t have enough to keep myself. So I think it’ll be the Indies, after all.”

She came to the table, and leaned upon it, facing him.

“You’re forgetting something. There’s many a woman well endowed, and there’s many a man has taken a wife with a jointure who couldn’t ha’ taken a wife without.”

“You said something of the kind before.” Again he laughed. “You think I should be hunting an heiress. You think I have the figure for the part.”

“I do,” said she, to his astonishment. “You’re a proper man, and you’ve a name and a position to offer. There’s many a wealthy woman of modest birth would be glad of you, as you should be glad of her, since each would bring what the other lacks.”

“Faith! You think of everything. Carry your good offices further than mere advice, Mrs. Quinn. Find me this wealthy and accommodating lady, and I’ll consider the rejection of this Indian office. But you’ll need to make haste, for there’s only a week left.”

It was a laughing challenge, made on the assumption that it would not be taken up, and, as she looked away uncomfortably under his glance, his laughter increased.

“That’s not quite so easy as advising, is it?” he rallied her.

She commanded herself, and looked him squarely in the eyes.

“Oh, yes, it is,” she assured him. “If you was serious I could soon produce the lady—a comely enough woman of about your own age, mistress of thirty thousand pounds and some property, besides.”

That sobered him. He stared at her a moment; the pipe between his fingers.

“And she would marry a vagabond? Odds, my life! What ails her?”

“Naught ails her. If you was serious I’d present her.”

“ ’Sblood! you make me serious. Thirty thousand pounds! Faith, that is serious enough. I could set up as a country squire on that.”

“Then why don’t you?”

Really, she was bewildering, he thought, with her calm assumptions that it was for him to say the word.

“Because there’s no such woman.”

“And if there was?”

“But there isn’t.”

“I tell you there is.”

“Where is she, then?”

Mrs. Quinn moved away from the table, and round to his side of it.

“She is . . . here.”

“Here?” he echoed.

She drew a step or two nearer, so that she was almost beside him.

“Here in this room,” she insisted, softly.

He looked up at her, still uncomprehending. Then, as he observed the shy smile with which she sought to dissemble her agitation, the truth broke upon him at last.

The clay stem of his pipe snapped between his fingers, and he dived after the pieces, glad of any pretext to remove his eyes from her face and give him a moment in which to consider how he should conduct himself in this novel and surprising situation.

When he came up again, his face was flushed, which may have been from the lowering of his head. He wanted to laugh; but he realized that this would be utterly unpardonable. He rose, and set the pieces of the broken pipe on the table. Standing thus, his shoulder to her, he spoke gently, horribly embarrassed.

“I . . . I had no notion of . . . of your meaning . . .” And there he broke down.

But his embarrassment encouraged her. Again she came close.

“And now that you know it, Colonel?” she whispered.

“I . . . I don’t know what to say.”

His mind was beginning to recover its functions. He understood at last why a person of his shabby exterior and obvious neediness should have been given unlimited credit in this house.

“Then say nothing at all, Colonel dear,” she was purring. “Save that you’ll put from you all notion of sailing to the Indies.”

“But . . . but my word is pledged already.” It was a straw at which he clutched, desperately. And it was not a very fortunate one, for it suggested that his pledged word was the only obstacle.

The effect was to bring her closer still. She was almost touching him, as he stood there, still half averted, and she actually leaned against him, and set a hand upon his shoulder as she spoke, coaxingly, persuasively.

“But it was pledged before . . . before you knew of this. His grace will understand. He’ll never hold you to it. You’ve but to explain.”

“I . . . I couldn’t. I couldn’t,” he cried weakly.

“Then I can.”

“You?” He looked at her.

She was pale, but resolute. “Yes, me,” she answered him. “If your pledge is all that holds you, I’ll take coach at once and go to Whitehall. George Monk’ll see me, or if he won’t his Duchess will. I knew her well in the old days, when I was a young girl, and she was a sempstress glad to earn a groat where she could. Nan Clarges’ll never deny herself to an old friend. So if you but say the word, I’ll soon deliver you from this pledge of yours.”

His face lengthened. He looked away again.

“That is not all, Mrs. Quinn,” he said, very gently. “The truth is . . . I am not of a . . . a nature to make a woman happy.”

This she deemed mere coyness, and swept it briskly aside. “I’d take the risk of that.”

“But . . . but . . . you see I’ve lived this roving life of mine so long, that I do not think I could ever settle. Besides, ma’am, what have I to offer?”

“If I am satisfied with my bargain, why take thought for that?”

“I must. The fact is, I am touched, deeply touched. I did not think I had it in me to arouse the affection, or even the regard, of any woman. Even so, ma’am, whilst it moves me, it does not change my purpose. I am not a marrying man.”

“But . . .”

He raised a hand, dominantly, to check her. He had found the correct formula at last, and he meant to keep to it.

“Useless to argue, ma’am. I know my mind. My reasons are as I have said, and so is the fact. I am touched; I am prodigiously touched, and grateful. But there it is.”

His firmness turned her white with mortification. To have offered herself, and to have been refused! To have this beggar turn his shoulder upon her, finding her so little to his taste that not even her thirty thousand pounds could gild her into attractiveness! It was a bitter draught, and it called up bitterness from the depths of her soul. As she considered him now with her vivid blue eyes, her face grew mottled. She was moved to sudden hatred of him. Nothing short of killing him could, she felt, extinguish that tormenting hate.

She felt impelled to break into violent recriminations, yet could find nothing upon which to recriminate. If only she could have thrown it in his face that he had afforded her encouragement, trifled with her affections, lured her on, to put this terrible affront upon her, she might have eased herself of some of the gall within her. But she could charge him with nothing that would bear the form of words.

And so she considered him in silence, her abundant bosom heaving, her eyes growing almost baleful in their glance, whilst he stood awkwardly before her, his gaze averted, staring through the open window, and making no attempt to add anything to what already he had said.

At last on a long indrawn breath she moved.

“I see,” she said quietly. “I am sorry to have . . .”

“Please!” he exclaimed, throwing up his hand again to arrest her, an infinite pity stirring in him.

She walked to the door, moving a little heavily. She opened it, and then paused under the lintel. Over her shoulder she spoke to him again.

“Seeing that things is like this, perhaps you’ll make it convenient to find another lodging not later than to-morrow.”

He inclined his head a little in agreement.

“Naturally . . .” he was beginning, when the door closed after her with a bang and he was left alone.

“Phew!” he breathed, as he sank limply into his chair again. He passed a hand wearily across his brow, and found it moist.

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