Chapter 15 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


His Grace of Buckingham had not accompanied the Court in its flight to Salisbury. His duties, indeed, recalled him to his lord-lieutenancy in York. But he was as deaf to the voice of duty as to that of caution. He was held fast in London, in the thraldom of his passion for Miss Farquharson, and enraged because that passion prospered not at all. It had prospered less than ever since his attempt to play the hero and rescuer of beauty in distress had ended in making him ridiculous in the lady’s eyes.

It was his obsession on the score of Miss Farquharson that was responsible for his neglect of the letter that Holles had written to him. That appeal had reached him at a moment when he was plunged into dismay by the news that Sir John Lawrence’s orders had gone forth that all theatres and other places of assembly should close upon the following Saturday, as a very necessary measure in the Lord Mayor’s campaign against the plague. The Court was no longer present to oppose the order, and it is doubtful if it would have dared still to oppose it in any case. Now the closing of the theatres meant the withdrawal of the players from Town, and with that the end of his grace’s opportunities. Either he must acknowledge defeat, or else act promptly.

One course, one simple and direct course, there was, which he would long ago have taken but for the pusillanimous attention he had paid to Mr. Etheredge’s warning. In a manner the closing of the theatre favoured this course, and removed some of the dangers attending it, dangers which in no case would long have weighed with His Grace of Buckingham, accustomed as he was to flout all laws but those of his own desires.

He took his resolve at last and sent for the subtle Bates, who was the Chaffinch of Wallingford House. He gave him certain commands—whose full purport Master Bates did not completely apprehend—in the matter of a house. That was on the Monday of the week whose Saturday was to see the closing of the theatres. It was the very day on which Holles made his precipitate departure from The Harp.

On Tuesday morning the excellent and resourceful Bates was able to report to his master that he had found precisely such a domicile as his grace required—though why his grace should require it Bates could not even begin to surmise. It was a fairly spacious and excellently equipped dwelling in Knight Ryder Street, lately vacated by a tenant who had removed himself into the country out of dread of the pestilence. The owner was a certain merchant in Fenchurch Street, who would be glad enough to let the place on easy terms, considering how impossible it was just at present to find tenants for houses in the City or its liberties.

Bates had pursued his inquiries with characteristic discretion, as he now assured his grace, without allowing it to transpire on whose behalf he was acting.

His grace laughed outright at the assurance and all that it implied that Bates had taken for granted.

“Ye’re growing a very competent scoundrel in my service.”

Bates bowed, not without a tinge of mockery. “I am glad to merit your grace’s approval,” said he dryly. There was a strain of humorous insolence in the fellow, of which the Duke was disposed to be tolerant; perhaps because nothing else was possible with one so intimately acquainted with his conscience.

“Aye. Ye’re a trustworthy rogue. The house will do admirably, though I should have preferred a less populous district.”

“If things continue as at present, your grace should have no cause for complaint on that score. Soon the City will be the most depopulated spot in England. Already more than half the houses in Knight Ryder Street are empty. I trust your grace is not thinking of residing there.”

“Not . . . not exactly.” His grace was frowning, thoughtfully. “There’s no infection in the street, I hope?”

“Not yet. But there’s an abundant fear of it, as everywhere else in the City. This merchant in Fenchurch Street didn’t trouble to conceal the opinion that I was crazy to be seeking a house in London at such a time.”

“Pooh, pooh!” His grace dismissed the matter of fear contemptuously. “These cits frighten themselves into the plague. It’s opportune enough. It will serve to keep men’s minds off the concerns of their neighbours. I want no spying on me in Knight Ryder Street. To-morrow, Bates, you’ll seek this merchant and engage the house—and ye’re to acquire the tenancy of it in your own name. Ye understand? My name is not to be mentioned. To avoid questions you’ll pay him six months’ rent at once.”

Bates bowed. “Perfectly, your grace.”

His grace leaned back in his great chair, and considered his servant through half-closed, slyly smiling eyes.

“You’ll have guessed, of course, the purpose for which I am acquiring this house.”

“I should never presume to guess any purpose of your grace’s.”

“By which you mean that my purpose baffles you. That is an admission of dullness. You recall the little comedy we played a month ago for the benefit of Miss Farquharson?”

“I have occasion to. My bones are still sore from the cudgelling I got. It was a very realistic piece of acting, on the part of your grace’s cursed French grooms.”

“The lady didn’t think so. At least, it did not convince her. We must do better this time.”

“Yes, your grace.” There was the least dubiety in the rascal’s tone.

“We’ll introduce a more serious note into the comedy. We’ll carry the lady off. That is the purpose for which I require this house.”

“Carry her off?” said Bates, his face grown suddenly very serious.

“That is what I require of you, my good Bates.”

“Of me?” Bates gasped. His face lengthened, and his wolfish mouth fell open. “Of me, your grace?” He made it plain that the prospect scared him.

“To be sure. What’s to gape at?”

“But, your grace. This . . . this is . . . very serious.”

“Bah!” said his grace.

“It . . . it’s a hanging matter.”

“Oh, damn your silliness. A hanging matter! When I’m behind you?”

“That’s what makes it so. They’ll never venture to hang your grace. But they’ll need a scapegoat, if there’s trouble, and they’ll hang your instruments to pacify the rabble’s clamour for justice.”

“Are ye quite mad?”

“I’m not only sane, your grace; I’m shrewd. And if I may presume to advise your grace . . .”

“That would, indeed, be a presumption, you impudent rogue!” The Duke’s voice rose sharply, a heavy frown rumpled his brow. “You forget yourself, I think.”

“I beg your grace’s pardon.” But he went on, none the less. “Your grace, perhaps, is not aware of the extent of the panic in the City over this pestilence. The cry everywhere is that it is a visitation provoked by the sins of the Court. That’s what the canting Nonconformist preachers have put about. And if this thing that your grace contemplates . . .”

“My God!” thundered Buckingham. “But it seems you presume to advise me in spite of all.”

Bates fell silent; but there was obstinacy in every line of him as he stood there facing his master now. More calmly Buckingham continued:

“Listen, Bates. If we are ill served on the one hand by the pestilence, we are very well served on the other. To carry Miss Farquharson off while she is playing at the theatre would be to have a hue-and-cry set up at once that might lead to discovery and unpleasant consequences. But the Lord Mayor has ordered the closing of all theatres on Saturday, and it is on Saturday after the theatre, therefore, that this thing must be done, when Miss Farquharson will no longer be missed and her disappearance give rise to no excitement—particularly at a time when this very fear of the plague is giving people enough to think about.”

“And afterwards, your grace?”


“When the lady makes complaint.”

Buckingham smiled in his knowledge of the world. “Do ladies ever make complaints of this kind—afterwards? Besides, who will believe her tale that she went to this house of mine against her will? She is an actress, remember; not a princess. And I still command some measure of authority in this country.”

But Bates solemnly shook his head. “I doubt if your grace commands enough to save my neck should there be trouble, and trouble there will be. Be sure of that, your grace. There’s too many malcontents abroad, spying the opportunity to make it.”

“But who’s to accuse you?” cried the Duke impatiently.

“The lady herself, if I carry her off for you. Besides, has not your grace said that the house is to be taken in my name? If more were wanted, that would supply it. I am your grace’s very dutiful servant, and God knows I’m not overscrupulous on the score of my service. But . . . not this, your grace. I durstn’t.”

Amazement and scorn were blent on Buckingham’s countenance. He wanted to explode in anger and he wanted to laugh at the same time at the absurdity of finding an obstacle in Bates. His fingers drummed the table what time he reflected. Then he determined to cut the game short by playing trumps.

“How long have you been in my service, Bates?”

“Five years this month, your grace.”

“And you are tired of it, eh?”

“Your grace knows that I am not. I have served you faithfully in all things . . .”

“But you think the time has come when you may pick and choose the things in which you will serve me still. Bates, I think you have been in my service too long.”

“Your grace!”

“I may be mistaken. But I shall require proof before believing it. Fortunately for you, it lies within your power to afford me that proof. I advise you to do so.”

He looked at Bates coldly, and Bates looked back at him in dread. The little rascal fidgeted with his neckcloth, and his lean knuckly hand for a moment caressed his throat. The gesture almost suggested that his thoughts were on the rope which he might be putting about that scraggy neck of his.

“Your grace,” he cried on a note of appeal, “there is no service I will not perform to prove my devotion. Command me to do anything, your grace—anything. But not . . . not this.”

“I am touched, Bates, by your protestations.” His grace was coldly supercilious. “Unfortunately, this is the only service I desire of you at the moment.”

Bates was reduced to despair.

“I can’t, your grace! I can’t!” he cried. “It is a hanging matter, as your grace well knows.”

“For me, Bates, at law—at strict law—I believe it might be,” said the Duke indifferently.

“And since your grace is too high for hanging, it’s me that would have to be your deputy.”

“How you repeat yourself! A tiresome habit. And you but confirm me in my opinions. Yet there might be a hundred pounds or so for you as a douceur . . .”

“It isn’t money, your grace. I wouldn’t do it for a thousand.”

“Then there is no more to be said.” Inwardly Buckingham was very angry. Outwardly he remained icily cold. “You have leave to go, Bates, and I shall not further require your services. If you will apply to Mr. Grove he will pay you what moneys may be due to you.”

A wave of the white jewelled hand dismissed the crestfallen little scoundrel. A moment Bates wavered, hesitating, swayed by his reluctance to accept dismissal. But not even that reluctance could conquer his dread of the consequences, a dread based upon conviction that they could not fail to overtake him. Had it been anything less than a hanging matter he might have risked it. But this was too much. So, realizing that further pleadings or protestations would be wasted upon the cold arrogance of the Duke, he bowed in silence, and in silence removed himself.

If he withdrew in discomfiture, at least he left discomfiture behind him. The Duke’s trump card had failed to win him the game, and he knew not where to find another agent for the enterprise which now obsessed him.

Mr. Etheredge, coming later that day to visit him, found his grace still in a bedgown, pacing the handsome library, restless as a caged beast.

Mr. Etheredge, who well knew the attraction that held the Duke fast in Town, and who had, himself, just completed his preparations for departure, came to make the last of several recent attempts to recall his friend to his senses, and persuade him to leave London for healthier surroundings.

Buckingham laughed at him without mirth.

“You alarm yourself without occasion, George. This pestilence is born of uncleanliness and confines itself to the unclean. Look into the cases that are reported. The outbreaks are all in mean houses in mean streets. The plague practises a nice discrimination, and does not venture to intrude upon persons of quality.”

“Nevertheless, I take my precautions,” said Mr. Etheredge, producing a handkerchief from which a strong perfume of camphor and vinegar diffused itself through the room. “And I am one of those who believe that flight is the best physic. Besides, what is there to do here? The Court is gone; the Town is hot and reeking as an anteroom of hell. In Heaven’s name let us seek a breath of clean, cool, country air.”

“Pish! Ye’re bucolic. Like Dryden ye’ve a pastoral mind. Well, well, be off to your sheep. We shall not miss you here.”

Mr. Etheredge sat down and studied his friend, pursing his lips.

“And all this for a prude who has no notion of being kind! Let me perish, Bucks, but I don’t know you!”

The Duke fetched a sigh. “Sometimes I think I don’t know myself. Gad, George, I believe I am going mad!” He strode away to the window.

“Comfort yourself with the reflection that you won’t have far to go,” said the unsympathetic Mr. Etheredge. “How a man of your years and experience can take the risks and the trouble over a pursuit that . . .”

The Duke swung round to interrupt him sharply.

“Pursuit! That is the cursed word. A pursuit that maddens because it never overtakes.”

“Not a bad line, that—for you,” said Mr. Etheredge. “But in love, remember, ‘they fly that wound, and they pursue that die.’ ”

But Buckingham raved on without heeding the gibe, his voice suddenly thick with passion. “I have the hunter’s instinct, I suppose. The prey that eludes me is the prey that at all costs must be reduced into possession. Can’t you understand?”

“No, thank God! I happen to retain my sanity. Come into the country, man, and recover yours. It’s waiting for you there amid the buttercups.”

“Pshaw!” Buckingham turned from him again with an ill-humoured shrug.

“Is that your answer?”

“It is. Don’t let me detain you.”

Etheredge got up, and went to set a hand upon his arm.

“If you stay, and at such a time, you must have some definite purpose in your mind. What is it?”

“What was in my mind before you came to trouble it, George. To end the matter where I should have begun it.” And he adapted three lines of Suckling’s:

“If of herself she will not love,

Myself shall make her,

The devil take her!”

Etheredge shrugged in despair and disgust.

“Ye’re not only mad, Bucks,” said he. “Ye’re coarse. I warned you once of the dangers of this thing. I’ve no mind to repeat myself. But you’ll give me leave to marvel that you can take satisfaction in . . .”

“Marvel all you please,” the other interrupted him with a touch of anger. “Perhaps, indeed, I am a matter for marvel. I am a man racked, consumed, burnt up by my feelings for this woman who has scorned and spurned and made a mock of me. If I could believe in her virtue, I would go my ways, bending to her stubborn will. But virtue in an actress! It is as likely as snow in hell. She indulges a cruel and perverse zest to torture a man whom she sees perishing of love for her.” He paused a moment, to pursue with even greater fierceness, his face livid with the working of the emotion that possessed him—that curious and fearful merging of love and hatred that is so often born of baffled passion. “I could tear the jade limb from limb with these two hands, and take joy in it. I could so. Or with the same joy I could give my body to the rack for her sweet sake! To such an abject state have her wiles reduced me.”

He swung away, and went to fling himself petulantly into a chair, taking his blond head in his fine jewelled hands.

After that explosion Mr. Etheredge decided that there was nothing to be done with such a man but abandon him to his fate. He said so with engaging candour and took his leave.

His grace made no attempt to detain him, and for some time after his departure sat there alone in that sombre book-lined room, a fool enshrined in wisdom and learning. Gloomily he brooded the matter, more than ever exasperated by the defection of Bates, and the consideration that he was left thereby without a minister to assist him in the execution of his wishes.

He was disturbed at last by the appearance of a footman, who brought the announcement that a Colonel Holles was demanding insistently to see his grace.

Irritated, Buckingham was about to pronounce dismissal.

“Say that . . .” He checked. He remembered the letter received three days ago, and its urgent appeal. That awoke an idea, and set his grace speculating. “Wait!” He moistened his lips and his eyes narrowed in thought. Slowly they lighted from their gloom. Abruptly he rose. “Bring him in,” he said.

Holles came, erect and soldierly of figure, still tolerably dressed, but very haggard now of countenance at the end of that weary day spent between Wapping and the Guildhall with the sense that he was being hunted.

“Your grace will forgive, I trust, my importunities,” he excused himself, faltering a little. “But the truth is that my need, which was very urgent when I wrote, has since grown desperate.”

Buckingham considered him thoughtfully from under his bent brows without directly replying. He dismissed the waiting footman, and offered his visitor a chair. Holles sat down wearily.

His grace remained standing, his thumbs hooked into the girdle of his bedgown.

“I received your letter,” he said in his slow, pleasant voice. “From my silence you may have supposed that you had passed from my mind. That is not so. But you realize, I think, that you are not an easy man to help.”

“Less than ever now,” said Holles grimly.

“What’s that?” There was a sudden unmistakable quickening of the Duke’s glance, almost as if he welcomed the news.

Holles told him without preamble.

“And so your grace perceives,” he ended, “that I am now not only in danger of starving, but of hanging.”

His grace had not moved throughout the rendering of that account. Now at last he stirred. He turned from his visitor, and sauntered slowly away in thought.

“But what an imprudence,” he said at last, “for a man in your position to have had relations, however slight, with these wretched fifth-monarchy dogs! It is to put a halter about your neck.”

“Yet there was no wrong in those relations. Tucker was an old brother-in-arms. Your grace has been a soldier and knows what that means. It is true that he tempted me with proposals. I admit it, since that can no longer hurt him. But those proposals I incontinently refused.”

His grace smiled a little. “Do you imagine that the Justices will believe you when you come to tell them that?”

“Seeing that my name is Randal Holles, and that a vindictive government would be glad of any pretext to stretch the neck of my father’s son, I do not. That is why I describe my state as desperate. I am a man moving in the shadow of the gallows.”

“Sh! Sh!” the Duke reproved him gently. “You must not express yourself in such terms, Colonel. Your very tone savours of disloyalty. And you are unreasonable. If you were really loyal, there was a clear duty which you would not have neglected. When first this proposal was made to you, whatever your friendship for Tucker, you should have gone straight to the Justices and laid information of this plot.”

“Your grace advises something that in my own case you would not have performed. But even had I acted so, how should I have compelled belief? I knew no details of this plot. I was not in a position to prove anything. It would have been my bare word against Tucker’s, and my name alone would have discredited me. My action might have been regarded as an impudent attempt to earn the favour of the powers in being. It might even, in some tortuous legal manner, have been construed against me. Therefore I held my peace.”

“Your assurance is enough for me,” said his grace amiably. “And God knows I perceive your difficulty, and how you have been brought into your present danger. Our first care must be to deliver you from this. You must do at last what should have been done long since. You must go before the Justices, and frankly state the case as you have stated it to me.”

“But your grace yourself has just said that they will not believe me.”

His grace paused in his pacing, and smiled a little slyly.

“They will not believe your unsupported word. But if some person of eminence and authority were to answer for your good faith, they would hardly dare to doubt; the matter would be at an end, and there would be no further question of any impeachment.”

Holles stared, suddenly hopeful, and yet not daring to yield entirely to his hope.

“Your grace does not mean that you . . . that you would do this for me?”

His grace’s smile grew broader, kindlier. “But, of course, my friend. If I am to employ you, as I hope I shall, so much would be a necessary preliminary.”

“Your grace!” Holles bounded to his feet. “How to thank you?”

His grace waved him back again to his chair. “I will show you presently, my friend. There are certain conditions I must impose. There is a certain task I shall require of you.”

“Your grace should know that you have but to name it.”

“Ah!” The Duke paused, and again considered him intently. “You said in your letter that you were ready for any work, for any service.”

“I said so. Yes. I say so again.”

“Ah!” Again that soft, relieved exclamation. Then the Duke paced away to the book-lined wall and back again before continuing. “My friend, your despair comes opportunely to my own. We are desperate both, though in different ways, and it lies within the power of each to serve the other.”

“If I could believe that!”

“You may. The rest depends upon yourself.” He paused a moment, then on a half-humorous note proceeded: “I do not know how much of squeamishness, of what men call honesty, your travels and misfortune may have left you.”

“None that your grace need consider,” said Holles, with some self-derision.

“That is . . . very well. Yet, you may find the task distasteful.”

“I doubt it. God knows I’m not fastidious nowadays. But if I do, I will tell you so.”

“Just so.” The Duke nodded, and then—perhaps because of the hesitation that still beset him to make to Holles the proposal that he had in mind—his manner suddenly hardened. It was almost that of the great gentleman speaking to his lackey. “That is why I warn you. For should you wish to tell me so, you will please to tell me without any unnecessary roaring, without the airs of a Bobadil or a Pistol, or any other of your fire-eating, down-at-heel fraternity. You have but to say ‘No,’ and spare me the vapourings of outraged virtue.”

Holles stared at the man in silence for a moment, utterly dumbfounded by his tone. Then he laughed a little.

“It would surprise me to discover that I’ve any virtue left to outrage.”

“All the better,” snapped the Duke. He drew up a chair, and sat down, facing Holles. He leaned forward. “In your time, no doubt, you will have played many parts, Colonel Holles?”

“Aye—a mort of parts.”

“Have you ever played . . . Sir Pandarus of Troy?”

The Duke keenly watched his visitor’s face for some sign of understanding. But the Colonel’s classical education had been neglected.

“I’ve never heard of him. What manner of part may that be?”

His grace did not directly answer. He took another way to his ends.

“Have you ever heard of Sylvia Farquharson?”

Surprised anew, it was a moment before the Colonel answered him.

“Sylvia Farquharson?” he echoed, musing. “I’ve heard the name. Oh! I have it. That was the lady in the sedan-chair your grace rescued yonder in Paul’s Yard on the day we met. Aye, aye. I heard her named at the time. A baggage of a play actress from the Duke’s House, I think. But what has she to do with us?”

“Something I think—unless the stars are wrong. And the stars are never wrong. They stand immutable and true in a false and fickle world. It is written in them—as I have already told you—that we were to meet again, you and I, and be jointly concerned in a fateful matter with one other. That other, my friend, is this same Sylvia Farquharson.”

He rose, casting off all reserve at last, and his pleasant voice was thickened by the stress of his emotions.

“You behold in me a man exerting vast power for good and ill. There are in life few things, however great, that I desire without being able to command them. Sylvia Farquharson is one of these few things. With affectations of prudery this wanton keeps me on the rack. That is where I require your help.”

He paused. The Colonel stared at him round-eyed. A faint colour stirred in his haggard cheeks. At last he spoke, in a voice that was cold and level.

“Your grace has hardly said enough.”

“Dullard! What more is to be said? Don’t you understand that I mean to make an end of this situation?—to conquer the prudish airs with which this wanton jade repels me?”

“Faith! I think I understand that well enough.” Holles laughed a little. “What I don’t understand is my part in this—a doxy business of this kind. Will not your grace be plain?”

“Plain? Why, man, I want her carried off for me.”

They sat conning each other in silence now, the Colonel’s face utterly blank, so that the Duke looked in vain for some sign of how he might be taking this proposal. At last his lips curled in a rather scornful smile, and his voice drawled with a mildly humorous inflection.

“But in such a matter your grace’s own vast experience should surely serve you better than could I.”

In his eagerness, the Duke took him literally, never heeding the sarcasm.

“My experience will be there to guide you.”

“I see,” said Holles.

“I’ll tell you more precisely how I need you—where you can serve me.”

And Buckingham proceeded to inform him of the well-equipped house in Knight Ryder Street, which he now desired Holles to take in his own name. Having taken it, he was to make the necessary arrangements to carry the girl thither on the evening of Saturday next, after the last performance at the Duke’s House.

“Taking what men you need,” the Duke concluded, “it should be easy to waylay and capture her chair as it is being borne home. We will consider that more closely if the service is one that you are disposed to accept.”

The Colonel’s face was flushed. He felt his gorge rising. At last his anger mastered him, and he heaved himself up to confront the handsome profligate who dared in cold blood to make him this proposal.

“My God!” he growled. “Are you led by your vices like a blind man by his dog?”

The Duke stepped back before the sudden menace of that tone and mien. At once he wrapt himself in a mantle of arrogance.

“I warned you, sir, that I will suffer no heroics; that I will have no man play Bobadil to me. You asked service of me. I have shown you how I can employ you.”

“Service?” echoed Holles, his voice almost choked with anger. “Is this service for a gentleman?”

“Perhaps not. But a man standing in the shadow of the gallows should not be over-fastidious.”

The flush perished in the Colonel’s face; the haunting fear returned to his eyes. The Duke, seeing him thus suddenly stricken by that grim reminder, was moved to sudden laughter.

“It seems you have to realize, Colonel Holles, that there is no music without frets. You resent that I should ask a trifling service of you when in return I am offering to make your fortune. For that is what I am offering. You come as opportunely to my need as to your own. Serve me as I require, and I pledge you my word that I shall not neglect you.”

“But this . . . this . . .” faltered Holles, protesting. “It is a task for bullies, for jackals.”

The Duke shrugged. “Damme! Why trouble to define it?” Then he changed his tone again. “The choice is yours. Fortune makes the offer: gold on the one hand; hemp on the other. I do not press either upon you.”

Holles was torn between fear and honour. In imagination he felt already the rope about his neck; he beheld that wasted life of his finding a fitting consummation on Tyburn at the hands of Derrick. Thus fear impelled him to accept. But the old early notions that had inspired his ambition and had made him strive to keep his honour clean rose up to hold him back. His tortured thoughts evoked an image of Nancy Sylvester, as he had last seen her set in the frame of her casement, and he conceived the shame and horror in that face could she behold him engaged upon so loathly an enterprise—he who had gone forth so proudly to conquer the world for her. Many a time in the past had that image delivered him from the evil to which he was tempted.

“I’ll go my ways, I think,” he said heavily, and half turned as if to depart.

“You know whither it leads?” came the Duke’s warning voice.

“I care not an apple-paring.”

“As you please.”

In silence Holles bowed, and made his way to the door with dragging feet, hope’s last bubble pricked.

And then the Duke’s voice arrested him again.

“Holles, you are a fool.”

“I have long known it. I was a fool when I saved your life, and you pay me as a fool should be paid.”

“You pay yourself. And of your own choice you do so in fool’s coin.”

Seeing him standing arrested there, still hesitating, the Duke approached him. His grace’s need, as you know, was very urgent. It was no overstatement that Holles’s coming had been opportune. Unless he could make of Holles the tool that he required so sorely, where should he find another? It was because of this he decided to use yet some persuasion to conquer a frame of mind that was obviously still balancing. He set a friendly hand upon the Colonel’s shoulder. And Holles, shrinking almost under that touch, could not guess that this Duke, who sought to make a tool of him, was himself the blind tool of Destiny hewing a way to her inscrutable ends.

And whilst the Duke now talked persuasively, tempting him with promises on the one hand and intimidating him with a picture of what must otherwise happen on the other, the Colonel’s own tormented mind was reconsidering.

Were his hands really so clean, his life so blameless, his honour so untarnished, that he must boggle at this vileness, and boggle at it to the extent of allowing them to stretch his neck and disembowel him sooner than perform it? And what was this vileness when all was said? A baggage of the theatre, a trull of an actress, had played upon the Duke that she might make the greater profit out of him in the end. The Duke, wearied of her tricks and wiles, desired to cut the game short. Thus the Duke represented the situation. And what cause had Holles to assume that it was other than a true representation? The girl was an actress and therefore, it followed, wanton. The puritanical contempt of the playhouse and its denizens—heritage of his Commonwealth days—left him no doubt upon that score. If she were a lady of quality, a woman of virtue, the thing would be different. Then, indeed, to be a party to such an act were a wickedness unthinkable, a thing sooner than which he would, indeed, suffer death. But where was the vileness here, since the object itself was vile? Against what, then, really, did this thing offend? Against himself; against his soldier’s dignity. The act required of him was one proper to a hired bully. It was ignoble. But was hanging less ignoble? Was he to let them put a rope about his neck and the brand of the gallows on his name out of tenderness for a baggage of the theatre whom he did not even know?

Buckingham was right. He was a fool. All his life he had been a fool, scrupulous in trifles, negligent in the greater things. And now upon the most trifling scruple of all he would fitly sacrifice his life.

Abruptly he swung round and squarely faced the Duke.

“Your grace,” he said hoarsely, “I am your man.”