Chapter 12 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


Miss Sylvia Farquharson occupied very pleasant lodgings in Salisbury Court, procured for her upon her accession to fame and some measure of fortune by Betterton, who himself lived in a house opposite. And it was in the doorway of Betterton’s house that she first beheld the lean and wolfish face of Bates.

This happened on that same morning of Colonel Holles’s disappointment at the hands of Albemarle and subsequent tribulations at the hands of Mrs. Quinn.

Miss Farquharson was in need of certain dress materials which, she had been informed, were to be procured at a certain mercer’s in Cheapside. On this errand she came forth in the early afternoon of that day, and entered the sedan-chair that awaited her at her door. As the chairmen took up their burden it was that, looking from the unglazed window on her left across towards the house of her friend Betterton, she beheld that sly, evil face protruded from the shadows of the doorway as if to spy upon her. The sight of it instinctively chilled her a moment, and, again instinctively, she drew back quickly into the depths of the chair. A moment later she was laughing at her own foolish fancies, and upon that dismissed from her mind the memory of that evil-looking watcher.

It took her a full half-hour to reach her mercer’s at the sign of the Silver Angel in Cheapside, for the chairmen moved slowly. It would have been uncharitable to have urged them to go faster in the sweltering heat, and uncharitableness was not in Miss Farquharson’s nature. Also she was not pressed. And so she suffered herself to be borne in leisurely fashion along Paul’s Yard, whilst the preacher of doom on the steps was still haranguing that crowd which, as we know, ended by rising in mockery against him.

When at last her chair was set down at the door of the Silver Angel, she stepped out and passed in upon a business over which no woman hurries.

It may be well that Master Bates—who had come slinking after that chair with three tough bullies following some distance behind him, and another three following at a still greater distance—was something of a judge of feminine nature, and so came to the conclusion that it would perhaps be best part of an hour before Miss Farquharson emerged again. He had dark, wicked little eyes that observed a deal, and very wicked wits that were keenly alert. He had noted the little crowd about the steps of Paul’s, he had heard the burden of the preacher’s message, and those wicked inventive wits of his had perceived here a stage very opportunely set for the nasty little comedy which he was to contrive on His Grace of Buckingham’s behalf. It remained to bring the chief actor—the Duke, himself—at once within reasonable distance of the scene. Provided this could be contrived, all should now flow merrily as a peal of wedding-bells.

Master Bates slipped like a shadow into a porch, produced a pencil and tablets, and set himself laboriously to scrawl three or four lines. He folded his note, as one of the bullies, summoned by an unostentatious signal, joined him there in that doorway.

With the note Bates slipped a crown into the man’s hand.

“This at speed to his grace,” he snapped. “Take a coach, man, and make haste. Haste!”

The fellow was gone in a flash, and Bates, leaning back in the shadow, leisurely filled a pipe and settled down to his vigil. A little lantern-jawed fellow he was, with leathery, shaven cheeks, and long, wispy black hair that hung like seaweed about his face and scraggy neck. He was dressed in rusty black, in almost clerkly fashion, which, together with his singular countenance and his round rather high-crowned hat, gave him an air of fanatical piety.

Miss Farquharson made no haste. An hour passed, and the half of a second, before she came forth at last, followed by the mercer, laden with parcels, which, together with herself, were packed into the chair. The chairmen took up, and, whilst the mercer bowed himself double in obsequious gratitude to the famous actress, they swung along westward by the way they had come.

Providence, it would almost seem, was on the Duke’s side that morning to assist the subtle Bates in the stage-management of the affair. For it was not more than half an hour since the removal of that citizen who had been smitten with the pestilence at the very foot of Paul’s steps when Miss Farquharson’s chair came past the spot, making its way through a fear-ridden crowd fallen into voluble groups to discuss the event.

She became conscious of the sense of dread about her. The grave, stricken faces of the men and women standing there in talk, with occasional loudly uttered lamentations, drew her attention and set her uneasily wondering and speculating upon the reason.

Suddenly dominating all other sounds, a harsh, croaking voice arose somewhere behind but very close to the chair:

“There goes one of those who have drawn the judgment of the Lord upon this unfortunate city!”

She heard the cry repeated with little variation, again and yet again. She saw the groups she was passing cease from their talk, and those whose backs were towards her swing round and stand at gaze until it seemed that every eye of all that motley crowd of citizens was directed upon herself.

Thus it was borne in upon her that it was herself this dreadful pursuing voice behind her was denouncing, and, intimidated for all her stout spirit under the dreadful stare of all those apparently hostile eyes, she shrank back into the depths of the chair, and even dared to draw one of its leather curtains the better to conceal herself.

Again the voice beat upwards, shrilly, fiercely.

“There sits a playhouse wanton in her silks and velvets, while the God-fearing go in rags, and the wrath of Heaven smites us with a sword of pestilence for the sin she brings among us!”

Her chair rocked a little, as if her bearers were being hustled, for in truth some three or four of the scurvier sort, those scourings of the streets who are ever on the watch for fruitful opportunities of turbulence, had joined that raving fanatic who followed her with his denunciations, and were pressing now upon the chair. Miss Farquharson’s fear increased. It requires no great imagination—and she possessed imagination in abundance—to conceive what may happen to one at the hands of a crowd whose passions have been inflamed. With difficulty she commanded herself, repressing the heave of her bosom and the wild impulse to scream out her fear.

But her chairmen, stolid, massive fellows, who held her in the esteem she commanded in all who knew her closely, plodded steadily onward despite this jostling; and, what was more to their credit, they continued to keep their tempers and to affect unconcern. They could not believe that the people would turn upon a popular idol at the bidding of this rusty black crow of a fanatic who came howling at their heels.

But those few rogues who had joined him were being reinforced by others who supported with inarticulate growls of menace the rascal’s denunciations; and these grew fiercer at every moment.

“It is Sylvia Farquharson of the Duke’s Playhouse,” he cried. “A daughter of Belial, a shameless queen. It is for the sins of her kind that the hand of the Lord is heavy upon us. It is for her and those like her that we are suffering and shall suffer until this city is cleansed of its iniquities.”

He was alongside of the chair now, brandishing a short cudgel, and Miss Farquharson’s scared eyes had a glimpse of his malevolent face. To her amazement she recognized it for the face that had peered at her two hours ago from the shadows of Betterton’s house in Salisbury Square.

“You have seen one of yourselves smitten down with the plague under your very eyes,” he was ranting. “And so shall others be smitten to pay for the sin of harlotry with which this city is corrupt.”

Now, for all the fear that was besetting the naturally stout spirit in her frail white body, Miss Farquharson’s wits were not at all impaired. This fanatic—to judge him by the language he used—represented himself as moved to wrath against her by something that had lately happened in Paul’s Yard. His words implied that his denunciation was prompted by that latest sign of Heaven’s indignation at the sins of the City. But since he had been on the watch in Salisbury Court to observe her going forth, and had followed her all the way thence, it was clear that the facts were quite otherwise, and that he acted upon a premeditated design.

And now the knaves who had joined him were hustling the chairmen with greater determination. The chair was tossed alarmingly, and Miss Farquharson flung this way and that within it. Others from amongst the spectators—from amongst those upon whom she had almost been depending for ultimate protection—began to press upon the heels of her more immediate assailants and insults were being flung at her by some of the women in the crowd.

Hemmed about by that hostile mob, the chair came at last perforce to a standstill just opposite the Paul’s Head, on the steps of which Colonel Holles was at that moment standing. He had been in the act of coming forth upon the errand of finding a purchaser for his jewel, when his attention was drawn by the hubbub, and he stood arrested, frowning and observant.

The scene nauseated him. The woman they were persecuting with their insults and menaces might be no better than that dirty fanatic was pronouncing her. But she was a woman and helpless. And apart from this there was in all the world no vice that Holles found more hideous than virtue driven to excess.

Over the heads of the crowd he saw the wildly rocking chair set down at last. Of its occupant he had but a confused glimpse, and in any case the distance at which he stood would hardly have permitted him to make out her face distinctly. But so much wasn’t necessary to conceive her condition, her peril, and the torment of fear she was suffering at the hands of those ignoble persecutors.

Colonel Holles thought he might find pleasant distraction, and at the same time perform a meritorious deed, in slitting the ears of that black fanatic who was whipping up the passions of the mob.

But no sooner had he made up his mind to this, and before he could stir a foot to carry out his intention, assistance came suddenly and vigorously from another quarter. Precisely whence or how it came was not easily determinable. The tall, graceful man in the golden periwig with the long white ostrich plumes in his broad hat, seemed, together with those who followed him, to materialize suddenly upon the spot, so abrupt was his appearance. At a glance his dress proclaimed him some great gentleman. He wore the tiny coat and kilt-like petticoat above his breeches that marked him for a native of Whitehall. The sapphire velvet of their fabric was stiff with gold lace, and at waist and breast and from the cuffs which ended at the elbow bulged forth a marvel of dazzling linen, with a wealth of lace at the throat and a hundred ribbons fluttering at his shoulders and his knees. The flash of jewels rendered his figure still more dazzling: a great brooch of gems secured the clump of ostrich plumes to his broad beaver, and of gems were the buttons on his sleeves and in his priceless necktie.

He had drawn his sword, and with the menace of this and of his voice, combined with his imperiously commanding mien, he clove himself a way through the press to the chair itself. After him, in plain striped liveries with broad fawn hats, came four stalwart lads, obviously lackeys with whips which they appeared nowise timid of employing. Their lashes fell vigorously upon the heads and shoulders of that black fanatic and those rough-looking knaves who more immediately supported his attack upon the chair.

Like an archangel Michael scattering a legion of demons did that gay yet imposing rescuer scatter those unclean assailants of that helpless lady. The bright blade of his sword whirled hither and thither, beating ever a wider ring about the chair, and his voice accompanied it:

“You mangy tykes! You filthy vermin! Stand back there! Back, and give the lady air! Back, or by Heaven I’ll send some of you where you belong.”

They proved themselves as cowardly as they had lately been aggressive, and they skipped nimbly beyond the reach of that darting point of his. His followers fell upon them afterwards with their whips and drove them still farther back, relentlessly, until they were absorbed and lost in the ranks of the crowd of onlookers which in its turn fell back before the continued menace of those impetuous grooms.

The gentleman in blue swung to the chairmen.

“Take up,” he bade them. And they, seeing themselves now delivered from their assailants, and their main anxiety being to remove themselves and their charge from so hostile a neighbourhood whilst they might still enjoy the protection of this demigod, made haste to obey him.

His Grace of Buckingham—for already the people had recognized him, and his name had been uttered with awe in their ranks—stepped ahead, and waved back those who stood before him.

“Away!” he bade them, with the air of a prince speaking to his grooms. “Give room!” He disdained even to use the menace of his sword, which he now carried tucked under his left arm. His voice and mien sufficed, and a lane was opened in that living press through which he advanced with calm assurance, the chairmen hurrying with their burden in his wake.

The lackeys closed in behind the chair and followed to form a rear-guard; but there was scarcely the need, for all attempt to hinder or molest the chair was at an end. Indeed, none troubled to accompany it farther. The people broke up into groups again, or moved away about their business, realizing that here the entertainment was at an end. The fanatic who had led the attack and the knaves who had joined him had vanished suddenly, mysteriously, and completely.

Of the very few spectators whom curiosity or interest still attracted was Holles, and this perhaps chiefly because Miss Farquharson was being carried in the direction in which his own business was taking him.

He came down the steps of the inn, and followed leisurely at some little distance.

They swung steadily along as far as Paternoster Row, where the traffic was slight. Here the Duke halted at last, and turned, and at a sign from him the men set down the chair.

His grace advanced to the window, swept off his broad plumed hat, and bowed until the golden curls of his periwig almost met across his face.

Within the chair, still very pale, but quite composed again by now, sat Miss Farquharson, regarding his grace with a very odd expression, an expression best described as speculative.

“Child,” he exclaimed, a hand upon his heart, a startled look on his handsome face, “I vow that you have taught me the meaning of fear. For I was never frightened in my life until to-day. What imprudence, my dear Sylvia, to show yourself here in the City, when men’s minds are so distempered by war and pestilence that they must be seeking scapegoats wherever they can find them. None may call me devout, yet devout I feel at this moment. From my soul I return thanks to Heaven that by a miracle I chanced to be here to save you from this peril!”

She leaned forward, and her hooded cloak of light silk, having fallen back from head and shoulders, revealed the white lustre of her beauty. She was smiling slightly, a smile that curled her delicate lip and lent something hard and disdainful to eyes that naturally were soft and gentle—long-shaped, rather wistful eyes of a deep colour that was something between blue and green.

“It was a most fortunate chance, your grace,” she said, almost tonelessly.

“Fortunate, indeed!” he fervently agreed with her, and, hat in hand, dabbed his brow with a fine handkerchief.

“Your grace was very opportunely at hand!”

And now there was a world of mocking meaning in her tone. She understood at last, she thought, upon whose behalf that fanatic had spied upon her going forth, afterwards to follow and assail her, thus providing occasion for this very romantic rescue. Having thus shrewdly appraised the situation, the actress in her awoke to play her part in it.

And so she had mocked him with that phrase: “Your grace was very opportunely at hand!”

“I thank God for’t, and so may you, child,” was the quick answer, ignoring the mockery, which had not escaped him.

But Miss Farquharson was none so disposed, it seemed, to the devout thanksgiving he advised.

“Is your grace often east of Temple Bar?” was her next rallying question.

“Are you?” quoth he, possibly for lack of better answer.

“So seldom that the coincidence transcends all that yourself or Mr. Dryden could have invented for one of your plays.”

“Life is marvellously coincident,” the Duke reflected, conceiving obtuseness to be the proper wear for the innocence he pretended. “Coincidence is the salt that rescues existence from insipidity.”

“So? And it was to rescue this that you rescued me; and so that you might have opportunity for rescuing me, no doubt yourself you contrived the danger.”

“I contrived the danger?” He was aghast. He did not at first understand. “I contrived the danger! Child!” It was a cry of mingled pain and indignation, and the indignation at least was not pretended. The contempt of her tone had cut him like a whip. It made him see that he was ridiculous in her eyes, and His Grace of Buckingham liked to be ridiculous as little as another, perhaps less than most. “How can you think it of me?”

“Think it of you?” She was laughing. “Lord! I knew it, sir, the moment I saw you take the stage at the proper cue—at what you would call the dramatic moment. Enter hero, very gallant. Oh, sir, I am none so easily cozened. I was a fool to allow myself to be deceived into fear by those other silly mummers, the first murderer and his myrmidons. It was poorly contrived. Yet it carried the groundlings in Paul’s Yard quite off their feet, and they’ll talk of your brave carriage and mighty mien for a whole day, at least. But you could scarce expect that it should move me as well; since I am in the play, as it were.”

It was said of him, and with truth, that he was the most impudent fellow in England, this lovely, accomplished, foolish son of a man whose face had made his fortune. Yet her raillery now put him out of countenance, and it was only with difficulty that he could master the fury it awoke in him. Yet master it he did, lest he should cut a still sorrier figure.

“I vow . . . I vow you’re monstrously unjust,” he contrived at last to stammer. “You ever have thought the worst of me. It all comes of that cursed supper party and the behaviour of those drunken fools. Yet I have sworn to you that it was through no fault of mine, that my only satisfaction lay in your prompt departure from a scene with which I would not for all the world have offended you. Yet, though I have sworn it, I doubt if you believe me.”

“Does your grace wonder?” she asked him coolly.

He looked at her a moment with brooding, wicked eyes. Then he loosed some little of his anger, but loosed it on a pretence.

“I would to Heaven I had left you to those knaves that persecuted you.”

She laughed outright. “I wonder what turn the comedy would have taken then, had you failed to answer to your cue. Perhaps my persecutors would have been put to the necessity of rescuing me, themselves, lest they should incur your anger. That would have been diverting. Oh, but enough!” She put aside her laughter. “I thank your grace for the entertainment provided; and since it has proved unprofitable I trust your grace will not go to the pains of providing yet another of the same kind. Oh, sir, if you can take shame for anything, take shame for the dullness of your invention.”

She turned from him with almost contemptuous abruptness to command the chairman standing at her side.

“Take up, Nathaniel. Let us on, and quickly, or I shall be late.”

She was obeyed, and thus departed without so much as another glance for the gay Duke of Bucks, who, too crestfallen to attempt to detain her, or to renew his protestations, stood hat in hand, white with anger, gnawing his lip, conscious, above all, that she had plucked from him a mask that left him an object of derision and showed his face to appear the face of a fool.

In the background his lackeys sought with pains to preserve a proper stolidity of countenance, whilst a few passersby paused to stare at that splendid bareheaded figure of a courtliness rarely seen on foot in the streets of the City. Conscious of their regard, investing it with a greater penetration than it could possibly possess, his grace conceived them all to be the mocking witnesses of his discomfiture.

He ground his heel in a sudden spasm of rage, clapped on his hat, and turned to depart, to regain his waiting coach. But suddenly his right arm was seized in a firm grip, and a voice, in which quivered wonder, and something besides, assailed his ears.

“Sir! Sir!”

He swung round, and glared into the shaven, aquiline face and wonder-laden eyes of Colonel Holles, who had come up behind the chair whilst the Duke was in conversation with its occupant, and had gradually crept nearer as if drawn by some irresistible attraction.

Amazed, the Duke looked him over from head to toe. Conceiving in this shabby stranger another witness of his humiliation, his anger, seeking a vent, flamed out.

“What’s this?” he rasped. “Do you presume to touch me, sirrah?”

The Colonel, never flinching as another might have done under a tone that was harsh and arrogant as a blow, before eyes that blazed upon him out of that white face, made answer simply:

“I touched you once before, I think, and you suffered it with a better grace. For then it was to serve you that I touched you.”

“Ha! And it will be to remind me of it that you touch me now,” came our fine gentleman’s quick, contemptuous answer.

Stricken by the brutality of the words, Holles crimsoned slowly under his tan, what time his steady glance returned the Duke’s contempt with interest. Then, without answering, he swung on his heel to depart.

But there was in this something so odd and so deliberately offensive to one accustomed to be treated ever with the deepest courtesy that it was now the Duke who caught him by the arm in a grip of sudden anger, arresting his departure.

“Sir! A moment!”

They were face to face again, and now the arrogance was entirely on the side of Holles. The Duke’s countenance reflected astonishment and some resentment.

“I think,” he said at last, “that you are something wanting in respect.”

“There, at least your discernment is not at fault,” the Colonel answered him.

Deeper grew the Duke’s wonder. “Do you know who I am?” he asked, after another pause.

“I learnt it five minutes since.”

“But I thought you said that you did me a service once.”

“That was many years ago. And I did not know then your name. Your grace has probably forgotten.”

Because of the disdainful tone he took, he commanded the respect and attention of one who was a very master of disdain. Also the Duke’s curiosity was deeply stirred.

“Will you not assist my memory?” he invited, almost gently.

The Colonel laughed a little grimly. Then shaking the Duke’s still detaining grip without ceremony from his arm, he raised his hand, and holding back the light brown curls, revealed his left ear and the long ruby that adorned it.

Buckingham stared an instant, then leaned nearer to obtain a closer view, and he caught his breath in sudden surprise.

“How came you by that jewel?” he asked, his eyes scanning the soldier’s face as he spoke.

And out of his abiding sense of injury the Colonel answered him:

“It was given me after Worcester as a keepsake by an empty fribble whose life I thought worth saving.”

Oddly enough there was no answering resentment from his grace. Perhaps his wonder overwhelmed and stilled at the moment every other emotion.

“So! It was you!” His eyes continued to search that lean countenance. “Aye!” he added after a moment, and it sounded like a sigh. “The man had just such a nose and was of your inches. But in no other respect do you look like the Cromwellian who befriended me that night. You had no ringlets then. Your hair was cropped to a godly length, and . . . But you’re the man. How odd to meet you again thus! How passing odd!” His grace seemed suddenly bemused. “They cannot err!” he muttered, continuing to regard the Colonel from under knitted brows, and his eyes were almost the eyes of a visionary. “I have been expecting you,” he said, and again he used that cryptic phrase: “They cannot err.”

It was Holles’s turn to be surprised, and out of his surprise he spoke: “Your grace has been expecting me?”

“These many years. It was foretold me that we should meet again—aye, and that for a time our lives should run intertwined in their courses.”

“Foretold?” ejaculated Holles. Instantly he bethought him of the superstitions which had made him cling to that jewel through every stress of fortune. “How foretold? By whom?” he asked.

The question seemed to arouse the Duke from the brooding into which he had fallen.

“Sir,” he said, “we cannot stand talking here. And we have not met thus, after all these years, to part again without more.” His manner resumed its normal arrogance. “If you have business, sir, it must wait upon my pleasure. Come!”

He took the Colonel by the arm, whilst over his shoulder he addressed his waiting lackeys in French, commanding two of them to follow.

Holles, unresisting, curious, bewildered, a man walking in a dream, suffered himself to be led whither the other pleased, as a man lets himself drift upon the bosom of the stream of Destiny.