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Chapter 24 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


The weeks crept on, and August was approaching. Soon now the period of quarantine would be at an end, and the house in Knight Ryder Street reopened to liberate its inmates. Yet the passing of time wrought no change in the mood of Holles. Not once again did he seek to approach Nancy, and not again did she bid him to her presence.

He informed himself constantly of her progress, and learnt with satisfaction that she was fast recovering her strength. But Mrs. Dallows who brought him this daily information was also at pains to let him know at the same time that there was no recovery in spirits to be observed in her charge.

“She is very sad and lonely, poor, sweet lady. It would melt your heart to see her, sir.”

“Aye, aye,” Holles would gloomily make answer to that oft-reiterated report. And that was all.

Mrs. Dallows was not a little afflicted. And affliction in Mrs. Dallows had the effect of heightening her resemblance to a hen. She perceived, of course, that a mystery enshrouded the relations of these two, saw that some obstacle stood between them, holding them apart—to their mutual torment, since obviously they were designed to be lovers; and more than once she sought to force the confidence now of one, now of the other. Her motives, no doubt, were entirely charitable. She was eager to help them, if it were possible, to a better understanding. But her efforts to probe their secret remained unavailing, and she could but sorrow in their sorrow. It was the more grievous and vexatious to her because the deep concern of each for the other was manifest in the questions each set her daily.

Holles kept to his quarters below-stairs, smoking continuously and drinking deeply, too, until he had consumed the little store of wine the house contained. Then not even the nepenthe of the cup remained to assuage his grim despondency, his repeated assertions to himself that his life was lived, that he was a dead man without further business above-ground.

Thus August found them, and from the watchman he heard incredible stories of London’s deepening plight, whilst from the window he nightly beheld the comet in the heavens, that latest portent of menace, the flaming sword of wrath—as the watchman termed it—that was hung above the accursed city, stretching, as it seemed, from Whitehall to the Tower.

They were within three days of the reopening of the house when at last one evening Mrs. Dallows came to him trembling with excitement, and a little out of breath.

“Miss Sylvester, sir, bids me say that she will be obliged if you will step upstairs to see her.”

The message startled him.

“No, no!” he cried out like a man in panic. Then, controlling himself, he took refuge in postponement that would give him time to think: “Say . . . say that if Miss Sylvester will excuse me . . . not this evening. I am tired . . . the heat . . .” he vaguely explained.

The nurse cocked her head on one side and her bright little birdlike eyes considered him wistfully. “If not this evening, when? To-morrow morning?”

“Yes, yes,” he answered eagerly, thinking only of averting the immediate menace. “In the morning. Tell her that I . . . I shall wait upon her then.”

Mrs. Dallows withdrew, leaving him oddly shaken and afraid. It was himself he feared, himself he mistrusted. Where once the boy had worshipped, the man now loved with a love that heaped up and fed the fires of shame in his soul until they threatened to consume him. At his single interview with Nancy he had exposed his mind. He had been strong; but he might not be strong again. The gentleness of purpose of which she had allowed him a glimpse, a gentleness born of her cursed gratitude, might lead him yet to play the coward, to give her the full confidence that she invited, and so move her pity and through pity her full forgiveness. And then if—as might well betide—he should prove so weak as to fling himself at her feet, and pour out the tale of his longings and his love, out of her sense of debt, out of her pity and her gratitude she might take him, this broken derelict of humanity, and so doom herself to be dragged down with him into the kennels where his future lay.

There stood a peril of a wrong far worse than that which already he had done her, and for which in some measure he had perhaps atoned. And because he could not trust himself to come again into her presence preserving the silence that his honour demanded, he suffered tortures now at the thought that to-morrow, willy-nilly, he must see her, since it was her wish, and she was strong enough herself to seek him should he still refuse to go.

He sat, and smoked, and thought, resolved that at all costs that interview must not take place. One way there was to avoid it and definitely to set a term to the menace of it. That was to break out of the sealed house at once without awaiting the expiry of the legal term. It was a desperate way, and it might be attended by gravest consequences to himself. But no other course presented itself, and the consequences mattered nothing, after all.

The thought became a resolve and, having reached it, he gave his mind peace. This, indeed—and not the pains and risks he had taken to save her from the plague—was reparation. Anon, when she came to consider and weigh his action, she would perceive its true significance and purpose, and the perception might at last blot out the contempt of him which perforce must be abiding in her soul however she might seek to overlay it with charity.

A thought seized him, and, growing to purpose, exalted him. He sought pen, ink, and paper, drew a chair to the table, and sat down to act upon his inspiration.

“You have asked,” he wrote, opening abruptly thus, “to know by what steps I descended to the hell of infamy in which you discovered me. And I refrained from answering you lest I should arouse in you a further measure of your blessed, self-deceiving compassion. But now that I am on the point of passing out of your life, now that there is no chance that we should ever meet again, I am moved to tell you all, that thus I may bear away with me the fortifying hope that hereafter you will hold my memory in a pity that shall be free of execration.

“The tale of the ill-fortune that has pursued me begins on a May morning, many years ago, when I rode full of hope and eagerness into Charmouth, a youth of some substance and more pride, whose feet were firmly planted upon an honourable road of life. I went to claim you for my own, to lay my little achievement and the assured promise of my greater ones at your dear feet.”

He wrote on into the fading daylight. He lighted candles, and wrote on with that swift fluency of the man who has a clear tale to tell and the eloquence that comes naturally from a bursting heart.

The candles, faintly stirred by the night breeze that came through the open window, burnt down, and great stalactites of wax were hanging from the sconces; still he wrote without pause. He heard, but did not heed, the changing of the watchman at the door below. Later he heard, but did not heed, the passing of the dead-cart with its accompaniment of clanging bell and raucous summons.

Once only he paused, to procure and light fresh candles, and then wrote on. Not until long after midnight, not until the approach of dawn, did he cease, his task accomplished.

He sat back then in his tall chair, and stared straight before him, a man bemused, considering. Thus awhile. Then from an inner pocket of his doublet he drew a tasselled yellow glove that was slim and long and sorely rubbed and stained with age. He considered it as it lay there across his palm, and bethought him of that dawn many years ago when it had dropped to him from his lady’s casement, and he had set it in his hat, to be worn as a favour. He sighed, and a tear, wrung by the anguish of this renunciation from his hardened, adventurer’s heart, fell on his hand.

Abruptly then he sat forward, and, snatching up the quill again, he scrawled at fierce speed on the foot of the last of the written sheets:

“Here is a glove that you bestowed on me in the long ago. I wore it, as your knight wearing his lady’s favour in the lists of life, proudly by the right of your gift and my unsullied honour. For years it was an amulet to maintain that honour still unsullied against all trials and temptations. Now that it has failed of this purpose through my own cowardice and unworthiness, you may not wish me to retain it longer.”

That manuscript—for it is hardly to be termed a letter—still survives. Its faded characters cover some thirty pages of paper that the centuries have tinted yellow. It has been—as you will surmise—in my possession. It has supplied me with more than the mere elements of this history, which without it could never have been written.

He did not read it through when it was done. There was no time for that. As he had poured it from his heart, so he left it. He folded the sheets together, enclosing the glove within them, wrapped a thread of silk about the package, and on the knot of this he made a disc of wax which he sealed with his thumb. He superscribed the package, quite simply, “To Miss Nancy Sylvester,” and stood it there on the table against the stem of the candle-branch within view of the first person who should enter that room.

Next he drew forth his still well-filled purse, and emptied its contents on to the table. One half he replaced; of the other he made two packets, addressing one to Dr. Beamish and the other to Mrs. Dallows.

Softly then he pushed back his chair, and rose. He tiptoed to the window, and peered down into the shadows where the watchman kept his post, propped in a corner of the padlocked doorway. A sound of snoring came to inform Holles that, as he had reckoned, the fellow slept. Why should he have troubled to weary himself with a strict and wakeful vigilance? Who could be so mad as to wish to incur all the penalties of evasion from a house that was to be opened now in three days’ time?

Holles went back. He took up his hat and cloak. Then, acting upon a sudden thought, he sought his baldric, and to the empty scabbard that was attached to it he fitted the slender dress-rapier that Buckingham had left behind him. The blade was rather loose in that sheath, but he contrived to jam the hilt.

Having passed the baldric over his head and settled it on his shoulder, he blew out the candles, and a moment later he was at the window again.

He scarcely made a sound as he straddled the window-sill; then very gently he let himself down, until he hung at full length, his toes not more than three feet above the kidney stones of the dark, empty, silent street. A moment he hung there, steadying himself, then loosed his hold. He dropped very lightly, and, as he was wearing no spurs, he made practically no noise at all. At once he set off in the direction of Sermon Lane.

The watchman, momentarily disturbed by the movements so near at hand, caught a sound of footsteps retreating quickly up the street, but never dreamed of connecting them with any one from the house he guarded. He settled himself more comfortably in his restful angle, and sank back peacefully into his slumbers.

Nevertheless, the evasion of Holles had not gone as entirely unperceived as he imagined. Slight as had been the noise he made, yet it had reached the window of the room immediately above, and by that window—which was the window of Nancy’s room—sat Nancy driven to that vigil by thoughts that rendered sleep impossible.

Her attention aroused by those furtive sounds below, she had leaned far out from the casement and peered down into the darkness. She had heard the soft thud of feet as Holles dropped to the street, and immediately thereafter the patter of his retreating footsteps. Very faintly she thought she made out at the same time the receding figure of a man, a deeper shadow amid shadows. But however little she may have seen with the eyes of the flesh, she saw all with the eyes of her imagination. She was on the point of crying out, but suddenly checked herself, fearful of rousing the watchman and setting afoot a pursuit which, if successful, might be attended by direst consequences for Holles. And it was only that same dread that lent her strength to repress the instinctive impulse to call him back and arrest that flight of his.

Then she steadied herself. After all, it was possible that she was at fault, that she was the victim of her own imaginings, that her overwrought senses had played a trick upon her. But the doubt was unbearable. She must make sure at once. With trembling, fumbling fingers she kindled a light. Then with a rug wrapped about her over her night-rail, she made her way below. Thus she descended the stairs for the first time, and as she went she blamed herself bitterly—in her conviction that she would find things as she feared—for not having earlier taken this step and gone to seek him who remained so obdurately absent.

When on the following morning an anxious Mrs. Dallows entered the dining-room in fearful quest of her charge, she found her there, at once to her infinite relief and infinite distress. In her night-rail, the rug fallen from her bare shoulders, Nancy sat on the daybed under the open window. She was pale and dry-eyed, but with such pain and misery stamped upon her face that the sight of tears would have been comforting by contrast. Beside her was a candlestick in which the single candle had been burnt to the socket, about her the floor was strewn with the sheets of Holles’s letter, which had slipped from her nerveless fingers.

That letter had accomplished all that Holles could have hoped from it. It had quenched completely and finally any lingering embers of her scorn. It had aroused compassion, and the old love, and finally despair. For by his own act he was deliberately lost to her again. He was gone, irrevocably, as he announced, and by the very manner of his going had made himself an outlaw.

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