Chapter 22 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


For five days, which to Randal Holles were as five years of mortal anguish, she lay suspended between this world and the next. The lightest straw of chance would suffice to tip against her the fearful balance of the scales, the slightest lack of care and watchfulness might result in the snapping of the slender thread by which life was still tethered to her exhausted, fever-wasting frame.

The doctor had succeeded beyond all his hopes in his quest of a nurse-keeper, and he brought her with him to the house in Knight Ryder Street, on the morrow of Nancy’s taking ill—a lean, capable, good-natured, henlike woman of forty. But for all her competency and willingness, had this Mrs. Dallows been alone in charge of the patient, it is long odds that Nancy would quickly have succumbed. For no hired attendant could ever have ministered to her with the self-sacrificing, remorseful devotion of the broken adventurer who loved her. No hired attendant could have brought to the task the strength of will and singleness of purpose that drove the weary, faltering flesh relentlessly along the path of this self-imposed duty.

Not for a moment did Holles suffer himself to relax his vigilance, to pause for a breathing in that grim fight with death. Of sleeping he never so much as thought, whilst the snatches of food and drink that constituted his meals, forced upon him by the nurse-keeper, were taken there at Nancy’s bedside.

Mrs. Dallows remonstrated with him, urging him to take some rest in the hours during which she was herself on duty. It was in vain. Equally vain were the same remonstrances when more authoritatively urged by Dr. Beamish. Holles left them unheeded as he did the physician’s recommendations that he should take some of the ordinary precautions to keep himself immune. The balsam of sulphur which the little doctor left with him to be used as a disinfectant was never touched; the wormwood, masterwort, and zedoary pressed upon him as prophylactics were equally neglected.

“My friend,” the doctor had said to him as early as the second day of her illness, “if you continue thus you will end by killing yourself.”

Holles had smiled as he replied: “If she lives, her life will have been cheaply purchased at the price. If she dies, it will not signify.”

The doctor, ignorant of her true identity, and persuaded ever that the twain were husband and wife, was touched by what he conceived to be an expression of exemplary conjugal devotion. That, however, did not turn him from his endeavours to reason Holles out of this obstinacy.

“But if she should survive and you should perish?” he asked him, whereupon Holles had amazed him by a sudden flash of anger.

“Plague me no more!”

After that Dr. Beamish had left him to follow his own inclinations, reflecting—in accordance with the popular belief, which the doctor fully shared—that after all the man carried in himself the most potent of all prophylactics in the fact that he was without fear of the infection.

But, although Holles neglected all the preventive measures which the doctor had so urgently prescribed for him, he nevertheless smoked a deal, sitting by the window of her chamber, which was kept open day and night to the suffocating heat of that terrible July. And the great fire constantly maintained by the doctor’s orders, this heat notwithstanding, did much to cleanse and purify the air. These things may have helped to keep him safe despite himself, procuring for him a measure of disinfection.

It was entirely as a result of that tireless vigilance of his and of the constant poulticings which he applied, that on the fourth day the swelling in the patient’s armpit, having been brought to a head, began to vent the deadly poison with which her veins were laden.

Beamish was as amazed as he was delighted.

“Sir, sir,” he commended the Colonel on the evening of that fourth day, “your pains are being rewarded. They have wrought a miracle already.”

“You mean that she will live?” cried Holles in fearful hope.

The doctor paused, moderating his satisfaction, afraid of his own optimism.

“So much I cannot promise yet. But the worst is over. With proper care and God’s help I trust that we may save her.”

“Never doubt that the care will be forthcoming. Tell me but what is to do.”

The doctor told him, and the exhausted yet unyielding Holles listened greedily to his instructions, flung off his deadly lassitude, and applied himself diligently to the execution of all exactly as he was bidden.

And meanwhile, as if incubated by that terrific heat, the plague was spreading now through London at a rate that seemed to threaten the City with the utter extermination which the preachers of doom had presaged. It was from Beamish that Holles learnt of that sudden, upward, devastating leap of the pestilential conflagration, of the alarming bill of mortality, and of the fact that the number of victims within the walls amounted in that week alone to nearly a thousand. And, apart from what the doctor told him, there were abundant evidences of the havoc even within the narrow survey possible to him from his prison. From that first-floor window, at which he spent long hours of day and night, he beheld Knight Ryder Street—that once busy thoroughfare—become daily less and less frequented, whilst daily, too, the hum of London’s activity, which might be likened to the very heart-beat of that great city, growing feebler and ever feebler, bore witness to its ebbing life.

There in Knight Ryder Street he could see the closed houses—and there were already three of them within the radius of his view on the opposite side of the street—each with its red cross and an armed watchman day and night before its padlocked door.

Victuals and what else was needed from outside reached them through the agency of their own watchman. Holles, who was still plentifully supplied with funds from what Buckingham had furnished him for this adventure, would lower the necessary money from the window in a basket. By the same means the watchman would send up the purchases he made on behalf of those within, absenting himself when necessary for the purpose, but always leaving the door locked and taking the key with him.

On the comparative and ever ominously increasing stillness of the air came intermittently, to increase the general melancholy, the tolling of bells, ringing out the knell of the departed, and nightly, just after dark and again before peep of day, there came now the clang of another bell infinitely more hideous because of the hideous ideas with which it had become associated, and the stillness of the street would be disturbed by a creak and rumble of wheels, a slow clatter of hooves, and a raucous voice uttering a dreadful summons:

“Bring out your dead!”

Peering down, as he ever did, he could make out the ghastly outline of the dead-cart loom into view as it came slowly rumbling by, attracted thither by those sealed houses, like some carrion-bird in expectation of its prey. Invariably it paused before Holles’s own door, arrested by the sight of the watchman and the red cross dimly revealed by the light of his lantern; and that raucous voice would ring out again, more direct in its summons, sounding now like a demand, revoltingly insolent and cynical.

“Bring out your dead!”

Then, at a word from the watchman, the horrible vehicle would toil slowly on, and Holles with a shudder would fling a glance over his shoulder at the sufferer where she lay fevered and tossing, wondering fearfully whether duty and pitiless necessity would compel him to answer that summons when next it came, and surrender that lovely body to join the abominable load in that hideous cart.

Thus, until the morning of the sixth day, when from daybreak until past eight o’clock he waited in a sudden frenzy of impatience for the coming of Beamish. When at last he arrived, Holles met him at the stair-head.

The Colonel’s face was ghastly, his eyes fevered, and he was trembling with fearful excitement.

“She sleeps—quietly and peacefully,” he informed the doctor, in a whisper, a finger to his lips.

Very softly they entered the chamber now and tiptoed to the bedside, Holles in an agony of hope taking up his position at the foot between the carved bedposts. A glance confirmed the news with which Holles had met the physician. Not only was she in an easy, tranquil slumber, such as she had not known since taking to this bed, but the fever had entirely left her. This the doctor’s practised eye judged at once, even before he moved to take her pulse.

At that touch of his hand upon her wrist, she stirred, sighed, and opened her eyes, sanely and calmly awake at last. She looked up into the wizened, kindly little spectacled face of the doctor, blankly at first, then with a little frown of bewilderment. But he was speaking at the moment, and the words he used helped her groping wits to piece together the puzzle of her surroundings and condition.

“The danger is overpast,” he was saying. “She will recover now, thanks be to God and to your own tireless care of her. It is yourself gives me more concern than she does. Leave her now to the care of Mrs. Dallows, and do you go rest yourself, or I tell you I will not answer for your life.” He had been looking at Holles whilst he spoke. Now he turned to consider her again, and found her conscious glance upon him. “See! She is awake,” he cried.

“The danger is overpast?” Holles echoed, his voice thick and unnatural. “You say the danger is overpast? I am awake, good doctor? I have not by chance fallen asleep at my post and come to dream this thing?”

“You are awake, man, and I repeat the danger is at an end. Now go and rest.”

Wondering to whom it was the doctor spoke, whose was that raucous, weary voice that questioned him, she slowly turned her head, and beheld a gaunt, hollow-eyed ghost of a man, whose pallid, sunken cheeks were overgrown with a course stubble of unshaven beard, standing between the bedposts, clutching at one of them as if for support. Meeting her gaze, he recoiled a step and loosed his hold. Then he swung half-round, a hand to his brow.

“Naught ails me, doctor,” he mumbled, and now she knew who he was and remembered. “I would sooner . . .”

His voice abruptly ceased in mid-period; he reeled, steadied himself for an instant, and then toppled slowly forward and crashed at full length upon the floor. Instantly Mrs. Dallows, with a little outcry of alarm, was on her knees beside him; she turned him over, raised his head, by an effort, and pillowed it in her lap as Dr. Beamish came hastening up. The same thought was in the mind of both nurse and physician.

Nancy sought painfully—for she was very weak—to raise herself, that she might see what was taking place there on the floor, beyond the foot of the bed.

Swiftly the doctor tore open the breast of the Colonel’s doublet; but not even so much was necessary. At once he perceived what had happened. It was as if the assurance that she was out of danger, and so no longer in need of his ministrations, had snapped the reins of will by which Holles had held his lassitude in subjection. Instantly Nature had claimed from him the dues which he had so long withheld.

“He is asleep,” said Dr. Beamish; and he almost chuckled. “That is all. Help me to lift him to that couch, Mrs. Dallows. No need to carry him farther or to do more for him at present. Never fear, you’ll not rouse him—not until the clock has gone round once, at least.”

They laid him there, a pillow under his head, and Beamish returned to his patient’s side. She had sunk back again, but her eyes, looking enormous now in her wasted cheeks, were still upon the figure of Holles where he lay inert as stone, just within the orbit of her vision.

“Sleep?” she questioned the doctor, wonderingly. “Is that sleep?”

Never had she—nor, indeed, have many—seen slumber fell a man as if he had been shot.

“Nothing worse, ma’am. The Colonel has never so much as closed his eyes for a whole week. Nature compassionately has closed them for him. No need to afflict yourself on his behalf. Sleep is all he now requires. So give yourself peace, and beware of making demands upon the little strength that’s left you.”

She looked at him intently. “I have the plague, have I not?”

“Say rather that you had it, ma’am. You have it no longer. It has been cast out of you. It has left you feeble; but that is all that ails you at present. And you are a safe woman now. When you shall have recovered your strength, you may go whither you will without further fear of the infection. The plague will not touch you again. For the great mercy thus vouchsafed you, you may render thanks to God, and, next to God, to your husband.”

She frowned, perplexed.

“My husband?”

“Your husband, ma’am. And a husband in a thousand—nay, in ten thousand. I have seen many a husband lately, and I speak with knowledge—alas! The terror of the pestilence can blot out every other feeling. I have seen it happen time and again. But Colonel Holles is not of those. His is a devotion that makes a hero of him; and, because he has been fearless, he has been spared. Fortune favours the brave, ma’am.”

“But . . . but he is not my husband.”

“Not your husband?” said the doctor, confounded. And he repeated, “Not your husband!” Then, with an affectation of cynicism very alien in reality to the genial, kindly little man, “Gadso!” he ejaculated, “perhaps that explains it. But what is he, then, who has all but given his life for you?”

She hesitated, at a loss how to define their relationship. At last:

“Once he was my friend,” she answered.

“Once?” The physician raised his bushy brows. “And when, pray, did he cease to be your friend—this man who stayed with you in this infected house when he might have fled; this man who has denied himself sleep or rest of any kind in all these days, that he might be ever at hand against your need of him; this man who has wrestled with death for you, and rescued you at the risk of taking the pestilence a thousand times for your sake?”

“Did he do all this?” she asked.

Dr. Beamish entertained her with the details of the heroism and self-sacrifice that Holles had displayed.

When the tale was done, and she lay silent and very thoughtful, the doctor permitted himself a slyly humorous smile.

“He may once have been your friend, as you say,” he concluded, smiling. “But I cannot think that he was ever more your friend than now. God send me such a friend in my own need!”

She made no response, but continued very still and thoughtful for a while, staring up at the carved canopy of this great strange bed, her face a blank mask in which the little doctor sought in vain for a clue to the riddle of the relations of those two. Had he yielded to his inquisitiveness, he would have questioned her. But, other considerations apart, he was restrained by thought for her condition. Nourishment and rest were to be prescribed, and it was not for him, by probing questions, to prove himself perhaps a disturber of the latter.