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Chapter 18 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


At any other time and in any other place this meeting must have filled him with horror of a different kind. His soul might have been swept by pain and anger to find Nancy Sylvester, whom his imagination had placed high and inaccessible as the very stars, whose memory had acted as a beacon to him, casting a pure white light to guide him through the quagmire of many a vile temptation, reduced to this state of—as he judged it—evil splendour.

Just now, however, the consciousness of his own infamous position blotted out all other thought.

He staggered forward, and fell on his knees before her.

“Nan! Nan!” he cried in a strangled voice, “I did not know. I did not dream . . .”

It was enough to confirm the very worst of the fears that were assailing her, to afford her that explanation of his presence against which she had been desperately struggling in defiance of the overwhelming evidences.

She stood before him, a woman of little more than average height and of an almost sapling grace, yet invested with something proud and regal and aloof that did not desert her even now in this terrible situation at once of peril and of cruellest disillusion.

She was dressed, as it chanced, entirely in white, and all white she stood before him save where the folds of the blue scarf with which she had been muffled still hung about her neck and bosom. No whiter than her oval face was her gown of shimmering ivory satin. About her long-shaped eyes, that could by turns be provocative, mocking, and caressing in their glances, dark stains of suffering were growing manifest, whilst in their blue-green depths there was nothing but stark horror.

She put a delicate, tapering hand to her brow, brushing thence the modish tendrils of her chestnut hair, and twice she attempted to speak before words would come from her stiff lips.

“You did not know!” Pain rendered harsh and rasping the voice whose natural music had seduced whole multitudes, and the sound of it was a sword of sharpness to that kneeling, distracted man. “It is, then, as I thought. You have done this thing at the hiring of another. You are so fallen that you play the hired bully. And you are Randal Holles!”

A groan, a wild gesture of despair were the outward signs of his torment. On his knees he dragged himself nearer, to her very feet.

“Nan, Nan, don’t judge until you have heard, until . . .”

But she interrupted him. His very abjectness was in itself an eloquent admission of the worst.

“Heard? Have you not told me all? You did not know. You did not know that it was I whom you were carrying off. Do you think I cannot guess who is the master-villain that employs you for his jackal? And you did not know it was I—that it was one who loved you once, when you were clean and honest . . .”

“Nan! Nan! O God!”

“But I never loved you as I loathe you now for the foul thing you are become, you that were to conquer the world for me. You did not know that it was I whom you were paid to carry off! And you are so shameless, so lost to honour, that you dare to urge that ignorance as your excuse. Well, you know it now, and I hope you are punished in the knowledge. I hope that, if any lingering sense of shame abides in you, it will scorch your miserable soul to ashes. Get up, man,” she bade him, regally contemptuous, splendidly tragic. “Shall grovelling there mend any of your vileness?”

He came instantly to his feet. Yet it was not, as she supposed, in obedience to her command, so much as out of a sudden awakening to the need for instant action. All the agony that was threatening to burst his soul must be repressed, all that he had to say in expression and perhaps relieving of that agony, must wait.

“What I have done, I can undo,” he said, and, commanding himself under the stress of that urgent necessity, he assumed a sudden firmness. “Shall we stand talking here instead of acting, when every moment of delay increases your danger? Come! As I carried you hither, in defiance of all, so will I carry you hence again at once while yet there is time.”

She recoiled before the hand that he flung out as if to seize her and compel her. There was a sudden fury of anger in her eyes, a fury of scorn on her lips.

“You will carry me hence! You! I am to trust myself to you!”

He never winced under the lash of her contempt, so intent was he upon that one urgent thing.

“Will you stay, then, and trust yourself to Buckingham?” he flung fiercely back at her. “Come, I say,” he commanded, oddly masterful in his overwhelming concern for her.

“With you? Oh, not that! Never with you! Never!”

He beat his hands together in his frenzy of impatience.

“Will you not realize that there is no time to lose? That if you stay here you are lost? Go alone, if you will. Return home at once. But since you must go afoot, and you may presently be pursued, suffer me at least to follow after you, to do what I can to make you safe. Trust me in this . . . for your own sake trust me . . . In God’s name!”

“Trust you?” she echoed, and almost she seemed to laugh. “You? After this?”

“Aye, after this. Because of this. I may be as vile as you are deeming me; not a doubt I am. But I never could have been vile to you. It may not excuse me to protest that I did not know it was against you that I was acting. But it should make you believe that I am ready to defend you now—now that I know. You must believe me! Can you doubt me in such a matter? Unless I meant honestly by you, why should I be urging you to depart? Come!”

This time he caught her by the wrist, and maintained his hold against her faint attempt to liberate herself. He attempted to draw her after him across the room. A moment she hung back, resisting still.

“For God’s sake!” he implored her madly. “At any moment Buckingham may arrive!”

This time she yielded to a spur that earlier her passion had made her disregard. Between such evils there could be no choice. She looked into his livid, gleaming face, distorted by his anguish and anxiety.

“I . . . I can trust you in this? If I trust you . . . you will bear me safely home? You swear it?”

“As God’s my witness!” he sobbed in his impatience.

There was an end to her resistance now. More: she displayed a sudden urgency that matched his own.

“Quick! Quick, then!” she panted.

“Ah!” He drew a deep breath of thankfulness, snatched up hat and cloak from the chair where he tossed them, and drew her across the room by the wrist, of which he still retained his grip.

And then, just as they reached the door, it was thrust open from without, and the tall, graceful figure of the Duke of Buckingham, his curled fair head almost touching the lintel, stood before them, a flush of fevered expectancy on his handsome face. In his right hand he held his heavily feathered hat: his left rested on the pummel of the light dress rapier he was wearing.

The pair recoiled before him, and Holles loosed her wrist upon the swift, instinctive apprehension that here he was like to need his hands for other things.

His grace was all in glittering satin, black and white like a magpie, with jewels in the lace at his throat and a baldric of garter blue across his breast.

A moment he stood there at gaze, with narrowing eyes, puzzled by something odd in their attitudes, and looking from Miss Farquharson’s pale, startled loveliness to the stiff, grim figure of her companion. Then he came slowly forward, leaving the door wide behind him. He bowed low to the lady without speaking; as he came erect again it was to the Colonel that he addressed himself.

“All should be here, I think,” he said, waving a hand towards table and sideboard.

Holles half-turned to follow the gesture, and he stood a moment as if pondering the supper equipment, glad of that moment in which to weigh the situation. Out there, in the hall, somewhere just beyond that open door, would be waiting, he knew, Buckingham’s four French lackeys, who at their master’s bidding would think no more of slitting his throat than of slicing the glazed capon on the sideboard yonder. He had been in many a tighter corner than this in his adventurous life, but never before had there been a woman on his hands to hamper him and at the same time to agonize and numb his wits with anxiety. He thanked Heaven for the prudence which had silenced his impulse to bid Buckingham stand aside when he had first made his appearance. Had he acted upon that, there would very likely have been an end of him by now. And once there was an end of him, Nan would lie entirely at the Duke’s mercy. His life had come suddenly to matter very much. He must go very warily.

The Duke’s voice, sharp with impatience, roused him:

“Well, booby? Will you stand there all night considering?”

Holles turned.

“All is here, under your grace’s hand, I think,” he said quietly.

“Then you may take yourself off.”

Holles bowed submissively. He dared not look at Nan; but he caught the sudden gasp of her breath, and without looking beheld her start, and imagined the renewed horror and wide-eyed scorn in which she regarded this fresh display of cowardice and vileness.

He stalked to the door, the Duke’s eyes following him with odd suspicion, puzzled ever by that something here which he perceived, but whose significance eluded him. Holding the edge of the open door in his hand, Holles half-turned again. He was still playing for time in which to decide upon his course of action.

“Your grace, I take it, will not require me further to-night?”

His grace considered. Beyond the Duke Holles had a glimpse of Nan, standing wide-eyed, livid as death, leaning against the table, her right hand pressed upon her heaving breast as if to control its tumult.

“No,” said his grace slowly, at last, “Yet you had best remain at hand with François and the others.”

“Very well,” said Holles, and turned to go. The key was, he observed, on the outside of the door. He stooped and withdrew it from the lock. “Your grace would perhaps prefer the key on the inside,” he said, with an odious smirk, and, whilst his grace impatiently shrugged his indifference, Holles made the transference.

Having made it, he closed the door swiftly, and he had quietly turned the key in the lock, withdrawn and pocketed it before his grace recovered from his surprise at the eccentricity of his behaviour.

“What’s this?” he demanded sharply, taking a step towards the Colonel, and from Nan there came a faint cry—a sob scarcely more than to announce the reaction caused by sudden understanding and the revival of her hopes from the despair into which she had fallen.

Holles, his shoulders to the door, showed a face that was now grim and set. He cast from him again the hat and cloak which he had been holding.

“It is, your grace, that I desire a word in private with you, safe from the inconvenient intrusion of your lackeys.”

The Duke drew himself up, very stiff and stern, not a little intrigued as you conceive by all this; but quite master of himself. Fear, as I think I have said, was an emotion utterly unknown to him. Had he but been capable of the same self-mastery in other directions he might have been the greatest man in England. He made now no outcry, put no idle questions that must derogate from the dignity with which he felt it incumbent to invest himself.

“Proceed, sir,” he said coldly. “Let us have the explanation of this insolence, that so we may make an end of it.”

“That is soon afforded.” Holles, too, spoke quietly. “This lady, your grace, is a friend of mine, an . . . an old friend. I did not know it until . . . until I had conveyed her hither. Upon discovering it, I would have escorted her hence again, and I was about to do so when your grace arrived. I have now to ask you to pledge me your word of honour that you will do nothing to prevent our peaceful departure—that you will offer no hindrance either in your own person or in that of your servants.”

For a long moment, Buckingham stood considering him without moving from the spot where he stood, midway between Holles and the girl, his shoulder to the latter. Beyond a heightening of the colour about his eyes and cheekbones, he gave no sign of emotion. He even smiled, though not quite pleasantly.

“But how simple,” he said, with a little laugh. “Nothing, indeed, could be of a more engaging simplicity. And how touching is the situation, how romantic. An old friend of yours, you say. And, of course, because of that, the world is to stand still.” Then his voice hardened. “And should I refuse to pledge my word, what does Colonel Holles propose?”

“It will be very bad for your grace,” said Holles.

“Almost, I think, you threaten me!” Buckingham betrayed a faint amazement.

“You may call it that.”

The Duke’s whole manner changed. He plucked off his mask of arrogant languor.

“By God!” he ejaculated, and his voice was rasping as a file. “That is enough of this insolence, my man. You’ll unlock that door at once, and go your ways, or I’ll call my men to beat you to a jelly.”

“It was lest your grace should be tempted to such ungentle measures that I took the precaution to lock the door.” Holles was smooth as velvet. “I will ask your grace to observe that it is a very stout door and that the lock is a very sound one. You may summon your lackeys. But before they can reach you, it is very probable that your grace will be in hell.”

Buckingham laughed, and, even as he laughed he whipped the light rapier from its scabbard, and flung forward in a lunge across the distance which he had measured with his very practised swordsman’s eye.

It was an action swift as lightning and of a deadly precision, shrewdly calculated to take the other by surprise and transfix him before he could make a move to guard himself. But swift as it was, and practised as was the Duke’s skill, he was opposed to one as swift and practised, one who had too often kept his life with his hands not to be schooled in every trick of rough-and-tumble. Holles had seen that calculating look in the Duke’s eyes as they measured the distance between them, and, because he had more than once before seen just such a calculating look in the eyes of other men and knew what followed, he had guessed the Duke’s purpose, and he had been prepared. Even as the duke drew and lunged in one movement, so, in one movement, too, Holles drew and fell on guard to deflect that treacherous lightning-stroke.

Nan’s sudden scream of fear and the clash of the two blades rang out at the same moment. The Colonel’s parry followed on into the enveloping movement of a riposte that whirled his point straight at the Duke’s face on the low level to which this had been brought by the lunge. To avoid it, Buckingham was forced to make a recovery, a retreat as precipitate as the advance had been swift. Erect once more, his grace fell back, his breathing quickened a little, and for a moment the two men stood in silence, their points lowered, measuring each other with their eyes. Then Holles spoke.

“Your grace, this is a game in which the dice are heavily cogged against you,” he said gravely. “Better take the course I first proposed.”

Buckingham uttered a sneering laugh. He had entirely mistaken the other’s meaning.

“Why, you roaring captain, you pitiful Bobadil, do you think to affright me with swords and antics? It is against yourself the dice are loaded. Unlock that door, and get you hence or I’ll carve you into ribbons.”

“Oho! And who’s the roaring captain now? Who the Bobadil? Who the very butcher of a silk button?” cried Holles, stung to anger. He would have added more, perhaps, but the Duke stemmed him.

“Enough talk!” he snapped. “The key, you rogue, or I’ll skewer you where you stand.”

Holles grinned at him. “I little thought when I saved your life that night at Worcester that I should be faced with the need to take it thus.”

“You think to move me with that reminder, do you?” said the Duke, and drove at him.

“Hardly. I’ll move you in another way, you lovelorn ninnyhammer,” Holles snarled back.

And then the blades ground together again, and they were engaged in deadly earnest.

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