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Chapter 11 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


Colonel Holles retraced his steps to the City on foot. A hackney-coach, such as that in which he had driven almost in triumph to the Cockpit, was no longer for him; nor yet could he submit to the expense of going by water now that the unexpected was all that stood between himself and destitution.

And yet the unexpected was not quite all. An alternative existed, though a very desperate one. There was the rebellion in which Tucker had sought fruitlessly hitherto to engage him. The thought of it began to stir in his dejected mind, as leaden-footed he dragged himself towards Temple Bar through the almost stifling heat which was making itself felt in London at the end of that month of May. Temptation urged him now, nourished not only by the circumstance that in rebellion lay his last hope of escaping starvation, but also by hot resentment against an inclement and unjust government that drove able soldiers such as himself into the kennels, whilst befriending the worthless minions who pandered to the profligacy of a worthless prince. Vice, he told himself, was the only passport to service in this England of the restored Stuarts. Tucker and Rathbone were right. At least what they did was justified and hallowed by the country’s need of salvation from the moral leprosy that was fastening upon it, a disease more devastating and deadly than this plague upon which the republicans counted to arouse the nation to a sense of its position.

He counted the cost of failure; but he counted it derisively. His life would be claimed. That was the stake he set upon the board. But, considering that it was the only stake remaining him, why hesitate? What, after all, was this life of his worth that he should be tender of setting it upon a last throw with Fortune? Fortune favours boldness. Perhaps in the past he had not been bold enough.

Deep in his musings he had reached St. Clement Danes, when he was abruptly aroused by a voice, harsh and warningly commanding.

“Keep your distance, sir!”

Checking, he looked round to the right, whence the order came.

He beheld a man with a pike, who stood before a padlocked door that was smeared with a red cross a foot in length, above which also in red was heavily daubed the legend: LORD HAVE MERCY UPON US.

Taken thus by surprise, the Colonel shuddered as at the contact of something unclean and horrible. Hastily he stepped out into the middle of the unpaved street, and, pausing there a moment, glanced up at the closed shutters of the infected house. It was the first that he had seen; for although he had come this way a week ago, when the plague was already active in the neighbourhood, yet it was then confined to Butcher’s Row on the north side of the church and to the mean streets that issued thence. To find it thus upon the main road between the City and Whitehall was to be rendered unpleasantly conscious of its spread. And, as he now pursued his way with instinctively quickened steps, he found his thoughts thrust more closely than ever upon the uses which the revolutionaries could make of this dread pestilence. Much brooding in his disturbed state of mind distorted his mental vision, so that he came presently to adopt the view that this plague was a visitation from Heaven upon a city abandoned to ungodliness. Heaven, it followed, must be on the side of those who laboured to effect a purifying change.

The end of it was that, as he toiled up Ludgate Hill towards Paul’s, his resolve was taken. That evening he would seek Tucker and throw in his lot with the republicans.

Coming into Paul’s Yard, he found a considerable crowd assembled before the western door of the Cathedral. It was composed of people of all degrees: merchants, shopkeepers, prentices, horseboys, scavengers, rogues from the alleys that lay behind the Old ’Change, idlers and sharpers from Paul’s Walk, with a sprinkling of women, of town-gallants, and of soldiers. And there, upon the steps of the portico, stood the magnet that had drawn them in the shape of that black crow of a Jack Presbyter preaching the City’s doom. And his text—recurring like the refrain of a song—was ever the same:

“Ye have defiled your sanctuaries by the multitude of your iniquities, by the iniquity of your traffic.”

And yet, from between the Corinthian pillars which served him for his background, had been swept away the milliners’ shops that had stood there during the Commonwealth.

Whether some thought of this in the minds of his audience rendered his words humorously inapt, or whether it was merely that a spirit of irresponsible ribaldry was infused into the crowd by a crowd of young apprentices, loud derision greeted the preacher’s utterance. Unshaken by the laughter and mocking cries, the prophet of doom presented a fearless and angry front.

“Repent, ye scoffers!” His voice shrilled to dominate their mirthful turbulence. “Bethink you of where ye stand! Yet forty days and London shall be destroyed! The pestilence lays siege unto this city of the ungodly! Like a raging lion doth it stalk round, seeking where it may leap upon you. Yet forty days, and . . .”

An egg flung by the hand of a butcher’s boy smashed full in his face to crop his period short. He staggered and gasped as the glutinous mass of yolk and white crept sluggishly down his beard and dripped thence to spread upon the rusty black of his coat.

“Deriders! Scoffers!” he screamed, and with arms that thrashed the air in imprecation, he looked like a wind-tossed scarecrow. “Your doom is at hand. Your . . .”

A roar of laughter provoked by the spectacle he presented drowned his frenzied voice, and a shower of offensive missiles pelted him from every quarter. The last of these was a living cat, which clawed itself against his breast spitting furiously in its terror.

Overwhelmed, the prophet turned, and fled between the pillars into the shelter of Paul’s itself, pursued by laughter and insult. But scarcely had he disappeared than with uncanny suddenness that laughter sank from a roar to a splutter. To this succeeded a moment of deadly silence. Then the crowd broke, and parted, its members departing at speed in every direction with cries in which horror had taken now the place that was so lately held by mirth.

Colonel Holles, finding himself suddenly alone, and as yet very far from understanding what had taken place to scatter those men and women in such panic, advanced a step or two into the suddenly emptied space before the cathedral steps. There on the roughly cobbled ground he beheld a writhing man, a well-made, vigorous fellow in the very prime of life, whose dress was that of a tradesman of some prosperity. His round hat lay beside him where he had fallen, and he rolled his head from side to side spasmodically, moaning faintly the while. Of his eyes nothing was visible but the whites, showing under the line of his half-closed lids.

As Holles, perceiving here no more than a sick man, continued his advance, a voice from the retreating crowd shouted a warning to him.

“Have a care, sir! Have a care! He may be stricken with the plague.”

The Colonel checked, involuntarily arrested by the horror that the very word inspired. And then he beheld a stoutish, elderly man in a heavy wig, plainly but scrupulously dressed in black, whose round countenance gathered a singularly owlish expression from a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles, walk calmly forward to the stricken citizen. A moment he stood beside him looking down; then he turned to beckon a couple of burly fellows who had the appearance and carried the staves of billmen. From his pocket the sturdy gentleman in black produced a kerchief upon which he sprinkled something from a phial. Holding the former to his nostrils with his left hand, he knelt down beside the sufferer, and quietly set himself to unfasten the man’s doublet.

Observing him, the Colonel admired his quiet courage, and thence took shame at his own fear for his utterly worthless life. Resolutely putting it from him, he went forward to join that little group.

The doctor looked round and up at his approach. But Holles had no eyes at the moment for any but the patient, whose breast the physician had laid bare. One of the billmen was pointing out to the other a purplish tumid patch at the base of the sufferer’s throat. His eyes were round, his face grave, and his voice came hushed and startled.

“See! The tokens!” he said to his companion.

And now the doctor spoke, addressing Holles.

“You would do well not to approach more closely, sir.”

“Is it . . . the plague?” quoth Holles in a quiet voice.

The doctor nodded, pointing to the purple patch. “The tokens are very plain to see,” he said. “I beg, sir, that you will go.” And on that he once more held the handkerchief to his mouth and nostrils, and turned his shoulder upon the Colonel.

Holles withdrew as he was bidden, moving slowly and thoughtfully, stricken by the first sight of the plague at work upon a fellow-creature. As he approached the edges of the crowd, which, keeping its distance, yet stood at gaze as crowds will, he observed that men shrank back from him as if he were himself already tainted.

A single thing beheld impresses us more deeply than twenty such things described to us by others. Hitherto these London citizens had treated lightly this matter of the plague. Not ten minutes ago they had been deriding and pelting one who had preached repentance and warned them of the anger of Heaven launched upon them. And then suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, had come the stroke that laid one of them low, to freeze their derision and fill their hearts with terror by giving them a sight of this thing which hitherto they had but heard reported.

The Colonel stalked on, reflecting that this event in Paul’s Yard had done more proselytizing for the cause of the Commonwealth than a score of advocates could have accomplished. It was very well, he thought. It was a sign. And if anything had been wanting to clinch his decision to throw in his lot with Tucker, this supplied it.

But first to quench the prodigious thirst engendered by his long walk through that sweltering heat, and then on to Cheapside and Tucker to offer his sword to the revolutionaries. Thus he would assure himself of the wherewithal to liquidate his score at the Paul’s Head and take his leave of the amorous Mrs. Quinn, with whom he could not in any case have afforded now to continue to lodge.

As he entered the common room, she turned from a group of citizens with whom she was standing to talk to follow him with her eyes, her lips compressed, as he passed on into his own little parlour, at the back. A moment later she went after him.

He was flinging off his hat, and loosening his doublet to cool himself, and he gave her good-morning airily as if yesterday there had not been an almost tragic scene between them. She found his light-hearted and really tactful manner highly offensive, and she bridled under it.

“What may be your pleasure, Colonel?” she demanded forbiddingly.

“A draught of ale if I deserve your charity,” quoth he. “I am parched as an African desert. Phew! The heat!” And he flung himself down on the window-seat to get what air he could.

She went off in silence, and returned with a tankard, which she placed upon the table before him. Thirstily he set it to his lips, and as its cool refreshment began to soothe his throat, he thanked Heaven that in a world of much evil there was still so good a thing as ale.

Silently she watched him, frowning. As he paused at last in the enjoyment of his draught, she spoke.

“Ye’ll have made your plans to leave my house to-day as we settled it last night?” said she between question and assertion.

He nodded, pursing his lips a little. “I’ll remove myself to the Bird in Hand across the Yard this afternoon,” said he.

“The Bird in Hand!” A slight upward inflection of her voice marked her disdain of that hostelry, which, indeed, was but a poor sort of tavern. “Faith, it will go well with your brave coat. Ah, but that’s no affair of mine. So that ye go, I am content.”

There was something portentous in her utterance. She came forward to the table, and leaned heavily forward upon it. Her expression and attitude were calculated to leave him in no doubt that this woman, who had been so tender to him hitherto, was now his declared enemy. “My house,” she said, “is a reputable house, and I mean to keep it so. I want no traitors here, no gallows’ birds and the like.”

He had been on the point of drinking again. But her words arrested him, the tankard midway to his lips.

“Traitor? Gallows’ bird!” he ejaculated slowly. “I don’t think I take your meaning, mistress. D’ye apply these terms to me? To me?”

“To you, sir.” Her lips came firmly together.

He stared, frowning, a long moment. Then he shrugged and laughed.

“Ye’re mad,” he said with conviction, and finished his ale at a draught.

“No, I’m not mad, nor a fool neither, master rebel. A man’s to be known by the company he keeps. Birds of a feather flock together, as the saying goes. And how should you be other than a traitor that was friends with traitors, that was close with traitors, here in this house of mine, as I have seen and can swear to at need, and would if I wanted to do you a mischief. I’ll spare you that. But you leave my house to-day, or maybe I’ll change my mind about it.”

He crashed the tankard down upon the board, and came to his feet.

“ ’Sdeath, woman! Will you tell me what you mean?” he roared, his anger fanned by uneasiness. “What traitors have I been close with?”

“What traitors, do you say?” She sneered a little. “What of your friend Danvers, that’s being sought at this moment by the men from Bow Street?”

He was instantly relieved. “Danvers?” he echoed. “My friend Danvers? Why, I have no such friend. I never even heard his name before.”

“Indeed!” She was terribly derisive now. “And maybe you’ve never heard the names of his lieutenants neither—of Tucker and of Rathbone, that was in here with you no later than yesterday as I can swear. And what was they doing with you? What had you to do with them? That’s what you can perhaps explain to the satisfaction of the Justices. They’ll want to know how you came to be so close with they two traitors that was arrested this morning, along of a dozen others, for conspiring to bring back the Commonwealth. Oh, a scoundrelly plot—to murder the King, seize the Tower, and burn the City, no less.”

It was like a blow between the eyes. “Arrested!” he gasped, his jaw fallen, his eyes startled. “Tucker and Rathbone arrested, do you say? Woman, you rave!” But in his heart already he knew that she did not. For unless her tale were true how could she have come by her knowledge of their conspiring.

“Do I?” She laughed again, evilly mocking. “Step out into Paul’s Yard, and ask the first man you meet of the arrest made in Cheapside just afore noon, and of the hunt that is going on this minute for Danvers, their leader, and for others who was mixed up in this wicked plot. And I don’t want them to come a-hunting here. I don’t want my house named for a meeting-place of traitors, as you’ve made it, taking advantage of me that haven’t a man to protect me, and all the while deceiving me with your smooth pleasantness. If it wasn’t for that, I’d inform the Justices myself at once. You may be thankful that I want to keep the good name of my house, if I can. And that’s the only reason for my silence. But you’ll go to-day or maybe I’ll think better of it yet.”

She picked up the empty tankard, and reached the door before he could find words in his numbed brain to answer her. On the threshold she paused.

“I’ll bring you your score presently,” she said. “When you’ve settled that, you may pack and quit.” She went out, slamming the door.

The score! It was a small thing compared with that terrible menace of gaol and gallows. It mattered little that—save in intent—he was still completely innocent of any complicity in the rash republican plot which had been discovered. Let him be denounced for association with Tucker and Rathbone, and there would be no mercy for the son of Randal Holles the Regicide. His parentage and antecedents would supply the crowning evidence against him. That was plain to him. And yet the score, whilst a comparatively negligible evil, was the more immediate, and therefore gave him at the moment the greater preoccupation.

He knew that it would be heavy, and he knew that the balance of his resources was utterly inadequate to meet it. Yet unless it were met he could be assured that Mrs. Quinn would show him no mercy; and this fresh trick of Fate’s, in bringing him into association with Tucker on the very eve of that conspirator’s arrest, placed him in the power of Mrs. Quinn to an extent that did not bear considering.

It was, of course, he reflected bitterly, the sort of thing that must be for ever happening to him. And then he addressed his exasperated mind to the discovery of means to pay his debt. Like many another in his case, it but remained for him to realize such effects as he possessed. Cursing his confident extravagance of the morning, he set about it.

And so you behold him presently, arrayed once more in the shabby garments that he had thought to have discarded for ever, emerging from the Paul’s Head carrying a bundle that contained his finery, and making his way back to those shops in Paternoster Row where it had been so lately and so jubilantly acquired.

Here he discovered that there is a world of difference between the treatment offered to a seller and to a buyer. He further discovered that the main value of a suit of clothes would appear to be the mere bloom upon it. Once this has been a little rubbed, the garments become, apparently, next-door to worthless. The fact is that he was a soldier who understood soldiering, and they were traders who understood trade. And the whole art of successful trading, in whatsoever degree, lies in a quick perception of the necessities of others and a bowelless readiness to take advantage of them.

Ten pounds was all that he could raise on gear for which a few hours ago he had paid close upon thirty. Perforce, however ill-humoured, he must sell. He was abusive over the negotiations; at one moment he was almost threatening. But the merchant with whom he made his traffic was not at all disturbed. Insults were nothing to him, so that he made his profit.

Back to the Paul’s Head went Colonel Holles to find his hostess awaiting him with the score. And the sight of the latter turned him almost sick. It was the culminating blow of a day of evil fortune. He studied the items carefully, endeavouring to keep the dismay from his countenance, for Mrs. Quinn was observing him with those hard blue eyes, her lips compressed into a tight, ominous line.

He marvelled at the prodigious amount of Canary and ale that he had consumed during those weeks. Irrelevantly he fell to considering that this very costly thirst of his was the result of a long sojourn in the Netherlands, where the habit of copious drinking is a commonplace. Then he came back to the main consideration, which was that the total exceeded twenty pounds. It was a prodigious sum. He had expected a heavy score; but hardly so heavy a score as this. He conceived that perhaps Mrs. Quinn had included in it the wound to her tender susceptibilities, and he almost wondered whether marriage with her, after all, were not the only remaining refuge, assuming that she would still consider marriage. Short of that, he did not see how he was to pay.

He raised eyes that, despite him, were haggard and betraying from those terrifying figures, and met that baleful glance of the lady who, because she could not be his wife, was now his relentless enemy. Her glance scared him more than her total. He lowered his eyes again to the lesser evil and cleared his throat.

“This is a very heavy bill,” he said.

“It is,” she agreed. “You have drunk heavily and otherwise received good entertainment. I hope you’ll fare as well at the Bird in Hand.”

“Mrs. Quinn, I will be frank. My affairs have gone awry through no fault of my own. His Grace of Albemarle, upon whom I had every reason to depend, has failed me. At the moment I am a man . . . hard-pressed. I am almost without resources.”

“That nowise troubled you whiles you ate and drank of the best my house could offer. Yours is a tale that has been told afore by many a pitiful rogue . . .”

“Mrs. Quinn!” he thundered.

But she went on, undaunted, joying to deal a wound to the pride of this man who had lacerated her own pride so terribly.

“. . . and there’s a way to deal wi’ rogues. You think that, perhaps because I am a woman, I am soft and tender; and so perhaps I am with them as deserves it. But I think I know your sort, Colonel Holles—if so be that you be a colonel. You’re not new to a house like mine; but I’ve never yet been bested by any out-at-elbow ruffler, and I’ll see to it as how you don’t best me now. I’ll say no more, though I could. I could say a deal. But I’ll say only this: if you gives me trouble I’ll ha’ the constable to you, and maybe there’ll be more than a matter of this score to settle then. You know what I mean, my man. You know what I could say an I would. So my advice to you is that you pay your bill without whimperings that won’t move me no more than they’ll move that wooden table.”

Scorched with shame, he stood before her, curbing himself with difficulty, for he could be very violent when provoked, though thanks to an indolent disposition he did not permit himself to be provoked very easily. He suppressed his fury now, realizing that to loose it would be to have it recoil upon him and precipitate his ruin.

“Mrs. Quinn,” he answered as steadily as he could, “I have sold my gear that I might pay my debt to you. Yet even so this debt exceeds the amount of my resources.”

“Sold your gear, have you?” She uttered a laugh that was like a cough. “Sold the fine clothes you’d bought to impose upon them at Whitehall, you mean. But you’ve not sold everything. There’s that jewel a-flaunting in your ear that alone would pay my score twice over.”

He started, and put a hand to the ear-ring—that ruby given to him as a keepsake by the lovely, unknown royalist boy whose life he had saved on the night after Worcester fight some fifteen years ago. The old superstitions that his fancy had woven about it had placed it outside his realizable assets. Even now, in this desperate pass, when reminded of its value, the notion of selling it was repugnant to him. And yet perhaps it was against this very dreadful need, perhaps it was that he might save his neck—for she made it clear to him that nothing less was now at stake—that in all these years he had hugged that jewel against every blow of fortune.

His head drooped. “I had forgot,” he said.

“Forgot?” she echoed in tones that plainly called him a liar and a cheat. “Ah, well, ye’re reminded of it now.”

“I thank you for the reminder. It . . . it shall be sold at once. Your score shall be paid to-day. I . . . I am sorry that, that . . . Oh, no matter.”

He flung out upon the business of finding a Jew who practised the transmutation of jewels into gold.

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