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Chapter 19 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


I do not suppose that any two men ever engaged with greater confidence than those. Doubt of the issue was in the mind of neither. Each regarded the other half contemptuously, as a fool rushing upon his doom.

Holles was a man of his hands, trained in the hardest school of all, and although for some months now sword-practice had been a thing neglected by him, yet it never occurred to him that he should find serious opposition in a creature whose proper environment was the Court rather than the camp. The Duke of Buckingham, whilst making no parade of the fact, was possibly the best blade of his day in England. He, too, after all, had known his years of adversity and adventurous vagrancy, years in which he had devoted a deal of study to the sword, for which he was gifted with a natural aptitude. Of great coolness in danger, vigorous and agile of frame, he had a length of reach which would still give him an advantage on those rare occasions where all else was equal. He regarded the present affair merely as a tiresome interruption to be brushed aside as speedily as possible.

Therefore he attacked with vigour, and his very contempt of his opponent made him careless. It was well for him in the first few seconds of that combat that Holles had reflected that to kill the Duke would be much too serious a matter in its ultimate consequences and possibly in its immediate ones. For Buckingham’s lackeys were at hand, and, after disposing of their master, he must still run the gauntlet of those fellows before he could win to freedom with Nancy. His aim, therefore, must be to disarm or disable the Duke, and then, holding him at his mercy, compel from him the pledge to suffer their unmolested departure which the Duke at present refused. Thus it happened that in the first moments of the engagement he neglected the openings which the Duke’s recklessness afforded him, intent instead upon reaching and crippling the Duke’s sword-arm.

Two such attempts, however, each made over the Duke’s guard on a riposte, disclosed to Buckingham not only the intention, but also something of the quality of the swordsman to whom he was opposed, whilst the ease with which the Duke foiled those attempts caused Holles also to correct the assumption upon which he had engaged. The next few seconds fully revealed to each of them the rashness of underrating an antagonist, and as their mutual respect increased they settled down now to fight more closely and cautiously.

In the background in a tall armchair to which she had sunk and in which she now reclined bereft of strength, white with terror, her pulses drumming, her breathing so shortened that she felt as if she must suffocate, sat Nancy Sylvester, the only agonized witness of that encounter of which she was herself the subject. At first the Duke’s back was towards her, whilst, beyond him, Holles faced her, so that she had a full view of his countenance. It was very calm and set, and there was a fixed, unblinking intentness about the grey eyes that never seemed to waver in their steady regard of his opponent’s. She observed the elastic, half-crouching poise of his body, and, in the ease with which his sword was whirled this way and that, she realized the trained skill and vigorous suppleness of his wrist. She began to take courage. She gathered as she watched him some sense of the calm confidence in which he fought, a confidence which gradually communicated itself to her and came to soothe the terror that had been numbing her wits.

Suddenly there was a change of tactics. Buckingham moved swiftly aside, away to his left; it was almost a leap; and as he moved he lunged in the new line he now confronted, a lunge calculated to take Holles in the flank. But Holles shifted his feet with the easy speed of a dancer, and veered to face his opponent in this new line, ready to meet the hard-driven point when it was delivered.

As a result of that breaking of ground, she now had them both in profile, and it was only now, when too late, that she perceived what an opportunity she had missed to strike a blow in her own defence. The thing might have been done, should have been done whilst the Duke was squarely offering her his undefended back. Had she been anything, she told herself, but the numbed, dazed, witless creature that she was, she would have snatched a knife from the table to plant it between his shoulder-blades.

It may have been the sense of some such peril, the fighter’s instinctive dread of an unguarded back, that had driven the Duke to break ground as he had done. He repeated the action again, and yet again, compelling Holles each time to circle so that he might meet the ever-altered line of attack, until in the end the Duke had the door behind him and both Holles and the girl in front.

Meanwhile, the sounds of combat in that locked room—the stamp of shifting feet and the ringing of blades—had drawn the attention of the men in the hall outside. There came a vigorous knocking on the door accompanied by voices. The sound was an enheartening relief to Buckingham, who was finding his opponent much more difficult to dispatch than he had expected. Not only this, but, fearless though he might be, he was growing conscious that the engagement was not without danger to himself. This rascal Holles was of an unusual strength. He raised his voice suddenly:

“À moi! François, Antoine! À moi!”

“Monseigneur!” wailed the voice of François, laden with alarm, from beyond the oak.

“Enfoncez la porte!” Buckingham shouted back.

Came heavy blows upon the door in answer to that command; then silence and a shifting of feet, as the grooms set their straining shoulders to the oak. But the stout timbers withstood such easy methods. The men’s footsteps retreated, and there followed a spell of silence, whose meaning was quite obvious to both combatants. The grooms were gone for implements to break down the door.

That made an end of the Colonel’s hopes of rendering the Duke defenceless, a task whose difficulty he began to perceive that he must find almost insuperable. He settled down, therefore, to fight with grimmer purpose. There was no choice for him now but to kill Buckingham before the grooms won through that door, or all would be lost, indeed. The act would no doubt be followed by his own destruction at the hands either of Buckingham’s followers or of the law; but Nancy, at least, would be delivered from her persecutor. Full now of that purpose, he changed his tactics, and from a defensive which had aimed at wearing down the Duke’s vigour, he suddenly passed to the offensive. Disengage now followed disengage with lightning swiftness, and for some seconds the Duke found the other’s point to be everywhere at once. Hard-pressed, his grace was compelled to give ground. But as he fell back he side-stepped upon reaching the door, not daring now to set his shoulders to it lest, by thus cutting off his own retreat, he should find himself pinned there by the irresistible blade of his opponent. It was the first wavering of his confidence, this instinctive craving for space behind him in which to retreat.

So far Holles had fought on almost academic lines, no more, indeed, being necessary for the purpose he had been setting himself. But now that this purpose was changed, and finding that mere speed and vigour could not drive his point beyond the Duke’s iron guard, he had recourse to more liberal methods. There was a trick—a deadly, never-failing trick—that he had learned years ago from an Italian master, a soldier of fortune who, like himself, had drifted into mercenary service with the Dutch. He would essay it now.

He side-stepped to the left, and lunged on a high line of tierce, his point aimed at the throat of his opponent. The object of this was no more than to make the Duke swing round to parry. The lunge was not intended to go home. It was no more than a feint. Without meeting the opposing blade as it shifted to the threatened line, Holles dropped his point and his body at the same time, until he was supported, at fullest stretch, by his left hand upon the ground. Upward under the Duke’s guard he whirled his point, and the Duke, who had been carried—as Holles had calculated that he would be—a little too far round in the speed required, thus unduly exposing his left flank, found that point coming straight for his heart. He was no more than in time to beat it aside with his left hand, and even so it ripped through the sleeve of his doublet and tore his flesh just above the elbow.

But for that wound there might well have been an end of Holles. For this trick of his was such that it must succeed or else leave him that essays it momentarily at the mercy of his antagonist. That moment presented itself now; but it was gone again before the Duke had mastered the twitch occasioned him by the tearing of his arm. His recovery and downward-driven riposte were swift, but too late by half a heart-beat. Holles was no longer there to be impaled.

They smiled grimly at each other as erect they stood, pausing a second after that mutually near escape of death. Then, as a succession of resounding blows fell upon the door, Holles drove at him again with redoubled fury. From the sound of the blows it would seem that the grooms had got an axe to work, and were bent upon hacking out the lock.

Holles realized that there was no time to lose; Buckingham, that his safety lay in playing for time, and allowing the other’s furious attacks to spend themselves against his defence. Twice again, despite his wound, he used his left hand, from which the blood was dripping freely, to dash aside the other’s blade. Once he did it with impunity. But when he repeated the action, Holles took advantage of it to fling himself suddenly forward inside the Duke’s guard, until they were breast to breast, and with his own left he seized the Duke’s sword-wrist in a grip that paralyzed it. Before, however, he could carry out his intention of shortening his sword, his own wrist was captive in the Duke’s blood-smeared left hand. He sought to force himself free of that grip. But the Duke maintained it with the tenacity born of the desperate knowledge that his life depended on it, that if he loosed his hold there would be an instant end of him.

Thus now in this fierce corps-à-corps they writhed and swayed hither and thither, snarling and panting and tugging, whilst the sound of the blows upon the door announced the splintering of a panel, and Nancy, half-swooning in her chair, followed the nightmare struggles of the two men in wide-eyed but only half-seeing terror.

They crashed across the room to the daybed under the window, and the Duke went down upon it backwards in a sitting posture. But still he retained his grip of the Colonel’s sword-wrist. Holles thrust his knee into the Duke’s stomach to gain greater leverage.

Now at last, with the increased strain that Holles brought to bear, Buckingham’s fingers were beginning to slip. And then under a final blow the door all splintered about, the lock flew open and the grooms flowed into the room to their master’s rescue.

Holles tore his wrist free at the same moment by a last wrench. But it was too late. Casting the Duke’s sword hand from him, he sprang away and round with a tearing sob to face the lackeys. For a second his glittering point held them at bay. Then the blow of a club shivered the blade, and they rushed in upon him. He felled one of them with a blow of the hilt which he still retained, before a club took him across the skull. Under that blow he reeled back against the table, his limbs sagged, and he sank down in a heap, unconscious.

As he lay there one of the grooms, standing over him, swung his club again with the clear intention of beating out his brains. But the Duke arrested the descending blow.

“It is not necessary,” he said. He was white and breathing hard from his exertions and there was a fevered glitter in his eyes. But these signs apart he was master of himself.

“Your arm, monseigneur!” cried François, pointing to the blood that filled his sleeve.

“Bah! A scratch! Presently.” Then he pointed to the prone limp figure of Holles, from whose head the blood was slowly trickling. “Get a rope, François, and truss him up.” François departed on his errand. “You others, carry Antoine out. Then return for Bobadil. I may have a use for him yet.”

They moved to obey him, and picked up their fellow whom Holles had felled before he, himself, went down.

The Duke was not pleased with them at all. A little more and they might have been too late. But to reproach them with it entailed an admission which this proud, vain man was reluctant to make.

They trooped out obediently, and Buckingham, still very pale, but breathing now more composedly, turned to Nancy with a queer little smile on lips that looked less red than usual.

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