Table of Content

Chapter 23 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


That evening Dr. Beamish returned, bringing with him, as on the occasion of his first visit, a public examiner. This official came to assure himself formally of the doctor’s assertion that a cure had been effected, so that he might make his report thereupon, to the end that after the lapse of twenty-eight days—provided that in the meanwhile there were no fresh outbreak of pestilence in either of the other inmates—the reopening of the house should be permitted.

Holles, awakening from eleven hours of uninterrupted lethargic sleep, but still heavy with lassitude, stood dully at hand whilst the examiner held his formal inquisition into the conditions of the patient, of Mrs. Dallows, and of Holles himself. As the Colonel stood there, gaunt, pale, unshaven, and dishevelled, Nancy’s eyes considered him very gravely, whilst he himself dared to turn never so much as a single glance in her direction.

When the examiner and the doctor passed at last from the room, Holles dragged himself wearily after them. He followed them below-stairs, and remained there alone after they had taken their departure.

For twenty-eight days he was doomed to imprisonment in this house, and he made his dispositions. That night he slept in a back bedroom on the ground floor. In the morning, having prepared himself breakfast in the kitchen, a matter in which Mrs. Dallows came to his assistance, he went to straighten out the dining-room so that it might serve him for a lodging during the period of incarceration that lay ahead.

He found the room in utter darkness. It had not been entered since the night of Nancy’s coming thither. He groped his way across to the shutters, which he remembered to have closed by request of the examiner after carrying Nancy from the room on that terrible night a week ago. He pulled them open and let in a flood of daylight upon a scene each detail of which reminded him poignantly of the happenings of that night. There lay the chair overturned by Nancy as she retreated before Buckingham. He imagined the circumstances in which it had fallen. There on the polished blocks of the floor, under the table—where it had escaped the eyes of Dr. Beamish—gleamed the blade of his own broken sword, and yonder in a corner, whither it had rolled, the hilt which his nerveless fingers had relinquished when he was struck down. On the floor by the table there was a dull brown patch which he knew to have been made by his own blood, and there were similar stains on the daybed and on the napery of the table, which he guessed to have been made by the blood of Buckingham.

Fallen between the daybed and the window, he found the slender dress rapier which Buckingham had used. The Duke had dropped it there when he rose at the end of their grim struggle, and he had not paused to recover it in his precipitate flight.

For the rest, guttered candles, withered flowers, and rotting fruits encumbered the table, and the lustre of glass and silver was dulled by a film of dust. On the sideboard stood the array of dainty dishes that had been prepared for that infamous intimate supper which had never been consumed, rotting there, and loading the atmosphere of the room with the evil odour of decay, which to Holles was like an exhalation of the ugly memories they held for him.

He flung the windows wide, and spent some time in setting the room to rights, and ridding it of all that refuse.

Thereafter he lay on the daybed smoking and thinking, and very listless. And it was thus, in the days that followed, that most of his hours were spent. If he did not regard himself as actually dead already, at least he regarded himself as one whose life was ended, one to whom death would bring a welcome relieving rest. Vaguely he hoped—he would have prayed, but that he had long since lost the habit of prayer—that the infection which he supposed present in this house might claim him for her victim. Morning and evening, and ever and anon throughout the day, he would open his doublet to finger his breast and explore his armpits in expectancy, eager to discover upon himself the tokens of the plague.

But the irony that had ever pursued him thwarted, now his desire of death as it had thwarted his every desire concerned with life. Living and moving in that house of pestilence, breathing its mephitic atmosphere, he yet remained as immune as if he had been a “safe man.”

For the first three days his existence was one of completest, listless idleness. There were books in the house; but he had no desire to read. He was content to lie there smoking and moping. Each morning Mrs. Dallows reported to him the condition of the patient, which was one of steady improvement, and this was confirmed by the doctor, who paid two visits in the course of those three days. On the second of those occasions he remained some time in talk with Holles, giving him news of the dreadful state of things outside.

Whitehall was empty now of all its courtly tenants with the single exception of the Duke of Albemarle. Honest George Monk had elected to remain undaunted at his post as the representative of his King, to perform in the King’s name—and whilst His Majesty was busy at Salisbury with the amorous pursuit of Miss Frances Stewart—all that which a king himself should be at hand to perform in time of national stress, to mitigate the tribulations of his subjects.

Hopefully Holles inquired of Beamish if he knew aught of Buckingham. Hopefully, that is, because he was expecting to hear that the Duke was laid low by the infection.

“Gone with the rest,” the doctor informed him. “He left Town for the North a week ago, aroused to a sudden sense of his duty as Lord Lieutenant of York by the fact that a French lackey in his household was stricken with the plague. He’ll be safe enough in York, no doubt.”

“A French lackey, eh? Only a lackey!” The Colonel’s face was overspread with disappointment. “The devil watches over his own,” he grumbled. “A wretched lackey pays for the sins of his master. Well, well, I suppose there is a God—somewhere.”

“Have you no cause to know it, sir, and to give thanks?” Beamish reproved him. And Holles turned away without answering, beyond a sigh and a shrug, which but served to increase the doctor’s perplexity over the behaviour of the members of this odd household. That all was very far from well there was abundantly clear.

Acting upon a sudden impulse, Dr. Beamish left the room, and mounted the stairs again—for all that his time was short and his patients many. Dismissing Mrs. Dallows upon some trivial errand to the kitchen, he remained closeted for five minutes with Miss Sylvester. That was the name by which he knew her, the name by which she had chosen to make herself known to both doctor and nurse.

Whether it was as a result of what he said to her in those five minutes, or whether other influences were at work, within an hour of the doctor’s departure, Holles was sought by Mrs. Dallows with a message that Miss Sylvester was risen, and desired to speak with him.

The eyes of that kindly nurse, sharpened by solicitude, saw him turn pale and tremble at the summons. His first impulse was to disregard it. But, before making any reply, he took a turn in that wainscoted sombre room. Then, with a sigh of resignation, he announced that he would go. Mrs. Dallows opened the door, and held it for him to pass out, tactfully refraining from following him.

He was washed and shaven, tolerably dressed, and his long, well-combed, golden-brown hair hung in long, smooth ringlets to the snowy collar which Mrs. Dallows had found time to wash and iron for him. Thus he no longer presented the wild, unkempt appearance that had been his when last Miss Sylvester had seen him. But there was a haggard dejection about the lines of his mouth, a haunting sadness about his eyes that nothing could relieve.

He found Miss Sylvester seated by the open window, where he himself had sat throughout the greater part of those five days and six nights when he had so unceasingly watched over her to beat back hungry death from her pillow. She occupied a great chair set for her there by Mrs. Dallows, a rug about her knees. She was very pale and weak, yet her loveliness seemed to draw added charms from her condition. She wore that gown of ivory white in which she had been carried to this evil house, and her chestnut hair had been dressed with care and was intertwined with a thread of pearls. Her long eyes seemed of a darker, deeper blue than usual, perhaps because of the hollows her illness had left about them. And there were other changes in her that in their sum appeared almost to spiritualize her, so that to Holles she seemed to have recovered something of her lost childhood, of her early youth, and looked less like Sylvia Farquharson, the idolized player, and more like the Nancy Sylvester whom he had known and loved so dearly.

Wistfully she looked up at him as he entered, then away through the open window into the hot sunlight that scorched the almost empty street.

He closed the door, advanced a pace or two, and halted.

“You sent for me,” he said, “else I should not have ventured to intrude.” And he stood now like a groom awaiting orders.

A tinge of colour crept into her cheeks. One of her slender, tapering hands, that in these days had grown almost transparent, plucked nervously at the rug about her knees. Ill at ease as she was, her speech assumed, despite her, a stilted, formal shape.

“I sent for you, sir, that I might acknowledge the great debt in which you have placed me; to thank you for your care of me, for your disregard of your own peril in tending me; in short, sir, for my life, which had been lost without you.”

She looked at him suddenly as she ceased, whereupon he shifted his glance to the sunlight in the open so as to avoid the unbearable gaze of her eyes that were gleaming like wet sapphires.

“You owe me no thanks—no thanks at all,” he said, and his voice was almost gruff. “I but sought to undo the evil I had done.”

“That . . . that was before the plague came to my rescue. In what you did then, you sought at the risk of your life to make me the only possible amend, and to deliver me from the evil man into whose power you had brought me. But the plague, now. It was no fault of yours that I took that. It was already upon me when you brought me hither.”

“No matter for that,” said he. “Reparation was due. I owed it to myself.”

“You did not owe it to yourself to risk your life for me.”

“My life, madam, is no great matter. A life misused, misspent, has no great value. It was the least that I could offer.”

“Perhaps,” she answered gently. “But also it was the most, and, as I have said, far more than you owed.”

“I do not think so. But the matter is not worth contending.”

He did not help her. Persuaded of the scorn that must underline her utterances, however smooth—because conscious that scorn was his only desert—he accepted her words as expressions of a pitying gratitude that offended. He stood before her, overwhelmed by the consciousness of his unworthiness, in a mood of the most abject humility. But unconsciously, without suspecting it, he had empanoplied this humility in pride. His desire, above all, was to withdraw from an interview that could be nothing but a source of pain.

But she detained him, persisting in what he accounted her cruel charity.

“At least the reparation you have made is a very full one.”

“It would comfort me to hear you say it, could I believe you,” he answered grimly, and would have taken his leave of her on that but that she stayed him by her interjection.

“Why should you not believe me? Why should I be other than sincere in my desire to thank you?”

He looked at her at last, and in his eyes she saw some reflection of the pain he was suffering.

“Oh, I believe you sincere in that. You wish to thank me. It is natural, I suppose. You thank me; but you despise me. Your gratitude cannot temper your contempt. It is not possible.”

“Are you so sure?” she asked him gently, and her eyes were very piteous.

“Sure? What else can I be? What else is possible? Do I not loathe and despise myself? Am I so unconscious of my own infamy that I should befool myself into the thought that any part of it can escape you?”

“Don’t!” she said. “Ah, don’t!” But in the sorrow in her face he read no more than the confirmation of the very thing she was feebly attempting to deny.

“Is it worth while to close our eyes to a truth so self-evident?” he cried. “For years I sought you, Nan, a man without a stain upon his name, to find you at last in an hour in which I was so besmirched that I could not bear your eyes upon me. The very act that by a cruel irony of chance brought us together here at last was an act by which I touched the very bottom of the pit of infamy. Then—that dreadful night—you regarded me rightly with loathing. Now you regard me with pity because I am loathsome. Out of that pity, out of your charity, you fling me thanks that are not due, since what I have done was done in mitigation of my offence. What more is there to say? If this house were not locked, and I a prisoner here, I should have gone by now. I should have departed in that blessed moment that Beamish announced your danger at an end, taking care that our paths should never cross again, that I might never again offend you with the sight of my loathsomeness or the necessity to render thanks for benefits received from unclean hands, that you properly despise.”

“You think that sums all up?” she asked him, sadly incredulous. “It does not. It leaves still something to be said—indeed, a deal.”

“Spare it me,” he begged her passionately. “Out of that same charity that bids you thank me, spare me.” Then, more briskly, with a certain finality, he added: “If you have commands for me, madam, I shall be below until this house is reopened, and we can go our separate ways again.”

He bowed formally, and turned away.

“Randal!” she called to him as he reached the door. He paused, his firm resolve beaten down by that pleading utterance of his name. “Randal, won’t you tell me how . . . how you came into . . . into the position in which I found you here? Won’t you tell me that? Won’t you let me know all—all—so that I may judge for myself?”

A moment he stood there, white to the lips and trembling, fighting his pride—that pride which was masquerading in the garment of humility, and so deceived him that he suffered it to prevail.

“Judge me, madam, upon the evidence you possess. It is sufficient to enable you to do me justice. Nothing that went before, no vicissitudes of my vagrant life, can extenuate the thing you know of me. I am a scoundrel, a loathsomeness, an offence, and you know me to be this—you in whose eyes I would ever have appeared as a man of shining honour. Oh, God pity me! Don’t you see? Don’t you see?”

Her eyes were suddenly aswim in tears.

“I see that perhaps you judge yourself too hardly. Let me judge for myself, Randal. Don’t you see that I am aching to forgive? Is my forgiveness nothing to you?”

“It would be all,” he answered her. “But I could never believe in it. Never. You are aching to forgive, you say. Oh, blessed, healing words! But why is this? Because you are grateful to me for the life I have helped to save. That is the true source of your pity for my soul’s deformity, which is urging you to utter this forgiveness. But behind that gratitude and that forgiveness there must ever remain the contempt, the loathing of this deformity of mine. It must be so. I know it, or I know nothing. Because of that . . .” He broke off, leaving the sentence there, completing it with a wry smile and a despairing shrug. But she saw neither. She had averted her eyes again, and she was looking straight before her into the sunlight, across to the black-timbered, yellow houses opposite which were blurred in her sight by tears.

Softly he went out, and closed the door. She heard him go, and suffered him to do so, making no further attempt to stay him, knowing not what to say to combat his desperate convictions.

Heavy-footed he went down the stairs, back to that room where he had his being. And as he went his thoughts confirmed him. They had met at last, those two, only that they might part again. Their ways could never lie together. Overshadowing their joint lives there must ever be the loathly memory of that irrevocable thing he had done. Even if he were not the broken vagrant that he was, even if he had anything to offer in life to the woman of his dreams, his action when he played the jackal for Buckingham must render impossible between them any tenderness that should be sincere and unalloyed.

He was in a mood from which there was no escape. Pride hemmed his soul about with walls of humility and shame, and there was no issue thence save by the door that the plague might open. Yet even the plague refused to stand his friend.

 Table of Content