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Chapter 14 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


For three weeks Colonel Holles waited in vain at The Harp in Wood Street for the promised message from His Grace of Buckingham, and his anxieties began to grow at last in a measure as he saw his resources dwindling. For he had practised no husbanding of his comparatively slender funds. He was well-lodged, ate and drank of the best, ruffled it in one or the other of two handsome suits which he had purchased from the second-hand clothiers in Birchin Lane,—considering this more prudent and economical than a return to the shops of Paternoster Row,—and he had even indulged with indifferent fortune a passion for gaming, which was one of his besetting sins.

Hence in the end he found himself fretted by the continued silence of the Duke who had led him into so confident a state of hope. And he had anxieties on another score. There was, he knew, a hue-and-cry set afoot by the vindictive fury of Mrs. Quinn, and it was solely due to the fact that his real whereabouts were unknown to her that he had escaped arrest. He was aware that search for him had been made at the Bird in Hand, whither he had announced to her his intention of removing himself. That the search had been abandoned he dared not assume. At any moment it might result in his discovery and seizure. If it had not hitherto been more vigorously prosecuted, it was, he supposed, because there were other momentous matters to engage the public attention. For these were excited, uneasy days in London.

On the third of the month the people had been startled in the City by the distant boom of guns, which had endured throughout the day to intimate that the Dutch and English fleets were engaged and rather alarmingly close at hand. The engagement, as you know, was somewhere off the coast in the neighbourhood of Harwich, and it ended in heavy loss to the Dutch, who drew off back to the Texel. There were, of course, the usual exaggerations on both sides, and both English and Dutch claimed a complete victory and lighted bonfires. Our affair, however, is not with what was happening in Holland. In London from the 8th June, when first the news came of the complete rout of the Dutch and the destruction of half their ships, until the 20th, which was appointed as a thanksgiving day for that great victory, there were high junketings over the business, junketings which reached their climax at Whitehall on the 16th to welcome back the victorious Duke of York, returning from sea—as Mr. Pepys tells us—all fat and lusty and ruddy from being in the sun.

And well it was—or perhaps not—that there should have been such excitements to keep the mind of the people diverted from the thing happening in their midst, to blind them to the spread of the plague, which, if slow, was nevertheless relentlessly steady, a foe likely to prove less easily engaged and beaten than the Dutch.

After the wild public rejoicings of the 20th, people seemed suddenly to awaken to their peril. It may be that the sense of danger and dismay had its source in Whitehall, which was emptying itself rapidly now. The Court removed itself to the more salubrious air of Salisbury, and throughout the day on the 21st and again on the 22d there was a constant westward stream of coaches and wagons by Charing Cross, laden with people departing from the infected town to seek safety in the country.

That flight struck dismay into the City, whose inhabitants felt themselves in the position of mariners abandoned aboard a ship that is doomed. Something approaching panic ensued as a consequence of the orders promulgated by the Lord Mayor and the measures taken to combat the dread disease. Sir John Lawrence had been constrained to issue stringent regulations, to appoint examiners and searchers, and to take measures for shutting up and isolating infected houses—measures so rigorous that they finally dispelled any remains of the fond illusion that there was immunity within the walls of the City itself.

A wholesale flight followed. Never were horses in such request in London, and never did their hire command such prices, and daily now at Ludgate, Aldgate, over London Bridge, and by every other exit from the City was there that same congestion of departing horsemen, pedestrians, coaches, and carts that had earlier been seen at Charing Cross. A sort of paralysis settled upon London life and the transaction of its business by the rapidly thinning population. In the suburbs it was reported that men were dying like flies at the approach of winter.

Preachers of doom multiplied, and they were no longer mocked or pelted with offal, but listened to in awe. And so reduced in ribaldry were the prentices of London that they even suffered a madman to run naked through the streets about Paul’s with a cresset of live coals upon his head, screaming that the Lord would purge with fire the City of its sins.

But Colonel Holles was much too obsessed by his own affairs to be deeply concerned with the general panic. When at last he heard of the exodus from Whitehall, he bestirred himself to action, from fear lest His Grace of Buckingham—in whom his last hope now rested—should depart with the others. Therefore he ventured to recall himself in a letter to the Duke. For two days he waited in vain for a reply, and then, as despondency was settling upon him, came an added blow to quicken this into utter and absolute despair.

He returned after dusk one evening from an expedition in the course of which he had sold at last that jewel which had now served whatever purpose he had fondly imagined that Fate intended by it, so that its conversion into money was the last use to which it could be put. He had made an atrociously bad bargain, for these were not times—the buyer assured him—in which folk were thinking of adornments. As he reëntered the inn, Banks, the landlord, approached him, and drew him on one side out of sight and earshot of the few who lingered in the common room.

“There’s been two men here seeking you, sir.”

Holles started in eagerness, his mind leaping instantly to the Duke of Buckingham. Observing this, the landlord, grave-faced, shook his head. He was a corpulent, swarthy man of a kindly disposition, and it may be that this wistful guest of his had commanded instinctively his sympathy. He leaned closer, lowering his voice, although there was hardly the need.

“They was messengers from Bow Street,” he said. “They didn’t say so. But I know them. They asked a mort o’ questions. How long you had been in my house, and whence you came and what you did. And they ordered me at parting to say nothing about this to you. But . . .” The landlord shrugged his great shoulders, and curled his lip in contempt of that injunction. His dark eyes were on the Colonel, and he observed the latter’s sudden gravity. Holles was not exercised by any speculations on the score of the business that had brought those minions of justice. His association with Tucker and Rathbone had been disclosed, possibly at the trial of the former, who had just been convicted and sentenced to be hanged and quartered. And he had no single doubt that, if he once came within the talons of the law, his own conviction would follow, despite his innocence.

“I thought, sir,” the landlord was saying, “that I’d warn you. So that if so be you’ve done aught to place yourself outside the law, ye shouldn’t stay for them to take you. I don’t want to see you come to no harm.”

Holles collected himself. “Mister Banks,” he said, “ye’re a good friend, and I thank you. I have done nothing. Of that I can assure you. But appearances may be made to damn me. The unfortunate Mr. Tucker was an old friend of mine . . .”

The landlord’s sigh interrupted him. “Aye, sir, I thought it might be that, from something they let fall. That’s why I take the risk of telling you. In God’s name, sir, be off whiles ye may.”

It took the Colonel a little by surprise. Here for once Fortune was his friend in that the landlord of The Harp was a secret sympathizer with the republicans.

He took the man’s advice, paid his score—which absorbed most of the proceeds of the jewel—and, without so much as waiting to collect what gear he possessed, he set out at once from quarters grown suddenly so very dangerous.

He was not a moment too soon. Even as he stepped into the gloom of the street, two shadowy forms loomed abruptly before him to bar his way, a lantern was suddenly uncovered, and thrust into his face.

“Stand, sir, in the King’s name!” a gruff voice commanded him.

He could not see whether they had weapons in their hands or not, nor did he wait to ascertain. At a blow he sent the lantern flying, at another he felled the man who had advanced it. The arms of the second messenger wound themselves about his body, and the fellow steadied himself to throw him. But before that could happen Holles had knocked the breath out of the man’s body by a jolt of his elbow, and, as the catchpoll’s arms slackened in their grip, he was flung off and violently hurled against the wall. As you conceive, Holles did not stay to verify what damage he had done. He was off like a hare, down the dark street, whilst behind him came shouts and the patter of running feet. The pursuit was not long maintained, and presently the Colonel was able with safety to resume a more leisurely and dignified progress. But fear went with him, driving him ever farther into the depths of the City, and it kept him company throughout the night. He lay in a tavern in the neighbourhood of Aldgate, and reflected grimly upon the choice position in which he found himself. Before dawn he had reached the conclusion that there was but one thing for a sane man in his position to do, and that was to quit this England where he found nothing but bitterness and disappointment. He cursed the ill-conceived patriotism that had brought him home, pronounced love of country a delusion, and fools all those who yielded to it. He would depart at once, and never trouble this evil land of his birth again. Now that the Dutch were back in the Texel and the seas open once more, there need be no difficulty; not even his lack of funds should prove an obstacle. He would ship as one of the hands aboard some vessel bound for France. With this intention he made his way to Wapping betimes next morning.

Vessels there were, and hands were needed, but no master would ship him until he had procured himself a certificate of health. The plague had rendered this precaution necessary, not only for those going abroad, but even for such as desired to go into the country, where no town or village now would receive any man who came from London unless he came provided with a certificate that pronounced him clean.

It was a vexatious complication. But it must be accepted. So the Colonel trudged wearily to the Guildhall, going by sparsely tenanted, darksome city streets, where he saw more than one door marked with a cross and guarded by a watchman who warned all wayfarers to keep their distance. And the wayfarers, of whom he met by no means many, showed themselves eager enough to keep to the middle of the street, giving as wide a berth as possible, not only to those infected dwellings, but also to all persons whom they might chance to meet. Not a few of those whom Holles found abroad were officials whose appointment the pestilence had rendered necessary—examiners, searchers, keepers, and chirurgeons—each and all of them distinguishable at a glance by a red wand borne well displayed as the law prescribed, and all of them shunned as if they were themselves plague-stricken.

It made the Colonel realize the extent of the spread of this infection which was now counting its victims by thousands. The extent of the panic he realized when he came at last to the Guildhall, and found it besieged by coaches, sedan-chairs, and a vast mob on foot. All here were come upon the same errand as himself; to procure the Lord Mayor’s certificate of health that should enable them to escape from this stricken city.

Most of the day he waited in that throng, enduring the stifling heat and the pangs of hunger and of thirst. For the only hawkers moving in the crowd were vendors of preventive medicines and amulets against the plague. Instead of the cry of “Sweet oranges,” which in normal times would have been heard in such a gathering, and which he would now have welcomed, here the only cries were: “Infallible Preservative Against Infection,” “The Royal Antidote,” “Sovereign Cordial Against the Corruption of the Air,” and the like.

He could ill afford to purchase the favour of the ushers and bribe them into according him some precedence. He must wait and take his turn with the humblest there, and, as he had arrived late, his turn did not seem likely to come that day at all.

Towards evening—unlike the more prudent, who determined to remain in their ranks all night, that they might be among the first served next day—he departed empty-handed and disgruntled. Yet within the hour he was to realize that perhaps he had been better served by Fate than he suspected.

In a sparsely tenanted eating-house in Cheapside, where he sought to stay the pangs of thirst and hunger—for he had neither eaten nor drunk since early morning he overheard some scraps of conversation between two citizens at a neighbouring table. They were discussing an arrest that had been made that day, and in the course of this they let fall the words which gave pause to Colonel Holles.

“But how was he taken? How discovered?” one of them asked.

“Why, at the Guildhall, when he sought a certificate of health that should enable him to leave Town. I tell you it’s none so easy to leave London nowadays, as evil-doers are finding when they attempt it. Sooner or later they’ll get Danvers this way. They’re on the watch for him, aye, and for others too.”

Colonel Holles pushed away his platter, his appetite suddenly dead. He was in a trap, it seemed, and it had needed those words overheard by chance to make him realize it. To attempt flight was but to court discovery. True, it might be possible to obtain a certificate of health in a false name. But, on the other hand, it might not. There must be inquisition into a person’s immediate antecedents if only to verify that he was clean of infection, and this inquisition must speedily bring to light any prevarication or assumption of false identity.

And so he was on the horns of a dilemma. If he remained in London, sooner or later he would be run to earth by those who sought him, who would be seeking him more relentlessly than ever now, after his manhandling of those messengers of the law last night. If he attempted to go, he delivered himself up to justice by the very act.

He determined, after much gloomy cogitation, to seek the protection of Albemarle in this desperate pass, and with that intent went forth. He persisted in it until he reached Charing Cross, when a doubt assailed him. He remembered Albemarle’s selfish caution. What if Albemarle should refuse to take the risk of believing his innocence, considering the nature of the alleged offence? He hardly thought that Albemarle would push caution quite so far, especially with the son of his old friend—though it was a friend the Duke must disown in these days. But because he perceived the risk he hesitated, and finally determined that first he would make one last attempt to move the Duke of Buckingham.

Acting upon that impulse, he turned into the courtyard of Wallingford House.

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