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Chapter 25 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


Out of concern for her charge, Mrs. Dallows at once dispatched the watchman for Dr. Beamish, and, when the physician arrived some little while later, she acquainted him with the Colonel’s evasion and the consequent partially stunned condition in which Miss Sylvester appeared to move.

The good doctor, who had come to conceive some measure of affection for those two, rooted, perhaps, in a certain pity which their mysterious, but obviously unhappy, relations aroused in him, went at once in deepest distress to seek Miss Sylvester, who had meanwhile returned to her own room above-stairs. He found her affliction the more distressing to observe by virtue of her unnatural composure.

“This is terrible, my dear,” he said, as he took her hands. “What can have driven that unhappy man to so . . . so unfortunate a course?”

“He must be sought. You will order search to be made for him?” she cried.

He sighed and sorrowfully shook his head: “There is no need for me to order that. My duty compels me to make his evasion known. Search for him will follow; but, should he be found, it may go very hard with him; there are rigorous penalties.”

Thus, unavoidably, Dr. Beamish but added a fresh burden to her already surcharged heart. It reduced her to a state of mind bordering upon distraction. She knew not what to desire. Unless he were sought and found, it followed that she would never see him again, whilst if he were found he would have to reckon with the severity of the law, and she could have no assurance that she would see him even then.

Out of his anxiety to help her, Dr. Beamish invited her confidence. He conceived here a case of stupid, headstrong, human pride against which two hearts were likely to be broken, and, because of that affection which they had come to inspire in him, he would have done all in his power to assist them could he but have obtained an indication of the way. But Miss Sylvester, greatly as it would have eased her sorrow to have confided in him, greatly as she desired to do so, found that no confidence was possible without divulging the thing that Holles had done, the hideous act by which she came to find herself in this house. A sudden sense of loyalty to him made it impossible for her to publish his infamy.

So, rejecting the chance to ease by confidence the burden that she carried, she continued to move, white-faced and listless, under the load of it during the two remaining days of her detention. Nor did the doctor come to her again until that third morning, when he was once more accompanied by the examiner, who presented her and her nurse-keeper each with a certificate of health that permitted their free departure. Holles, she was then informed, had not yet been found; but she knew not whether to rejoice or sorrow in that fact.

Bearers were procured for her, the watchman himself volunteering to act as one of them, and the chair in which she had been carried thither, which had been bestowed in the house itself, was brought forth again at her request, to carry her away.

“But whither are you going?” the doctor questioned her in solicitude.

They were standing in the doorway of the house, she with her light hooded mantle of blue taffetas drawn over her white gown, the chair standing in the sunlight, waiting to receive her.

“Why, home. Back to my own lodging,” she answered simply.

“Home?” he echoed, in amazement. “But . . . but, then . . . this house?”

She looked at him as if puzzled by his astonishment. Then she smiled wanly. “This house is not mine. I was here by . . . by chance when I was taken ill.”

The belated revelation of that unsuspected circumstance filled him with a sudden dread on her behalf. Knowing the changes that had come upon that unfortunate City in the month that was overpast, knowing how many were the abandoned houses that stood open now to the winds of heaven, he feared with reason that hers might be one of these, or, at least, that the odds were all against her finding her home, as she imagined, in the condition in which she had left it.

“Where is your lodging?” he asked her.

She told him, adding that upon arrival there she would determine her future movements. She thought, she ended, that she would seek awhile the peace and quiet of the country. Perhaps she would return to London when this visitation was at an end; perhaps she would not. That was what she said. What she meant was really something very different.

The announcement served to increase his dismay on her behalf. It was easier nowadays to project withdrawal into the country than to accomplish it unless one commanded unusual power and wealth—and all those who commanded these things had long since gone. The wholesale flight from London that had taken place since she was stricken down had been checked at last by two factors. There was no country town or village for many and many a mile that would receive fugitives from London, out of dread of the infection which these might carry. To repel them the inhabitants of rural districts had even had recourse to arms, until, partly because of this and to avoid disturbances and bloodshed, partly as an heroic measure against the spread of the plague throughout England, the Lord Mayor had been constrained to suspend the issue of certificates of health, without which no man could depart from London. Those who still remained in the infected area—where the plague was taking now a weekly toll of thousands of lives—must abandon all hope of quitting it until the pestilence should have subsided.

Considering now her case and weighing what she had told him, Dr. Beamish perceived that her need of him was far from being at an end. Practical and spiritual assistance might be as necessary to her presently as had lately been his physician’s ministrations.

“Come,” he said abruptly, “I will go with you to your lodging, and see you safely bestowed there—that is, if you permit it.”

“Permit it? Oh, my friend!” She held out her hand to him. “Shall I permit you to do me this last kindness? I shall be more grateful than ever I could hope to tell you.”

He smiled through his owlish spectacles, and in silence patted the little hand he held; then he made shift to lead her forward to her chair.

But a duty yet remained her. In the shadows of the hall behind lingered still the kindly Mrs. Dallows, almost tearful at this parting from the sweet charge for whom she had conceived so great a kindness. Miss Sylvester ran back to her.

“Keep this in memory of one who will never forget her debt to you and never cease to think of you fondly.” Into her hand she pressed a clasp of brilliants that she had taken from her bodice—a thing of price far beyond the gold that Holles had left behind in payment for the nurse’s services. Then, as Mrs. Dallows began at one and the same time to thank her and to protest against this excessive munificence, Nancy took the kindly woman in her arms and kissed her. Both were in tears when Nancy turned away and ran out to the waiting sedan.

The bearers—the watchman, and the fellow he had fetched to assist him—took up the chair and swung away towards Paul’s Chains. The little black figure of the doctor strutted beside it, swinging the long red wand that did him the office of a cane, whilst Mrs. Dallows, standing at the door of the house in Knight Ryder Street, watched it out of sight through a blur of tears.

And within the chair Miss Sylvester, too, was giving way at last to tears. They were the first she had shed since she had received the Colonel’s letter, which letter was the only thing she carried away with her from that ill-starred house. Lost thus to consciousness of her surroundings, she took no heed of the emptiness and silence of the streets, and of the general air of furtiveness and desolation that hung about the few wayfarers upon whom they chanced and that marked the very houses they were passing.

Thus at last they came to Salisbury Court and to the house that Nancy had indicated. And here at once Dr. Beamish saw that his worst fears were realized.

Its door hung wide, and the dust lay thick upon the window-panes, two of which were broken. Miss Sylvester, having alighted from her chair, stood looking up, arrested by the unusual aspect of the place, and chilled by a nameless dismay. In awe-stricken wonder, she looked round the court, utterly untenanted, and presenting everywhere the same forsaken aspect. From behind a dusty window of a house across the way, whose door was marked and locked and guarded, an aged yellow face revealed itself, and a pair of eyes that seemed malignant in their furtiveness were watching her. Beyond that ill-omened visage there was in all the court no single sign of life.

“What does it mean?” she asked the doctor.

Sadly he shook his head. “Can you not guess? Here as elsewhere the plague and the fear of the plague have been busy in your absence.” He sighed, and added abruptly: “Let us go in.”

They entered the gloomy vestibule, where dried leaves swept thither by the winds crackled under their feet, and thence they began the ascent of a narrow staircase on the baluster of which there was a mantle of dust. Miss Sylvester called out once or twice as they advanced. But there was no answer to those calls other than the hollow echoes they awoke in that untenanted house.

The three rooms that had composed her home were situated on the first floor, and as they ascended to the landing they saw the three doors standing open. Two of the chambers were shuttered, and, therefore, in darkness; but the drawing-room, which directly faced the stair-head, was all in sunlight, and even before they entered it they had a picture of the devastation wrought there. The furniture was not merely disarranged; it was rudely tumbled, some of it broken, and some was missing altogether. Drawers hung open, as they had been pulled by thieving hands, and that part of their contents which had not been considered worth removing now strewed the floor. A glass cabinet which had stood in one angle lay tumbled forward and shattered into fragments. The secrétaire stood open, its lock broken, its contents rifled, a litter of papers tossed upon and about it. The curtains, torn from their poles—one of which hung broken across a window—had disappeared, as had an Eastern rug that had covered a portion of the floor.

Dr. Beamish and the lady stood in silence just within the doorway for a long moment, contemplating that dreadful havoc. Then Miss Sylvester moved swiftly forward to the secrétaire, in an inner drawer of which she had left a considerable sum of money—representing most of her immediate resources. That inner drawer had been wrenched open; the money was gone.

She turned and looked at Dr. Beamish, her face piteous in its white dismay. She tried to speak, but her lip trembled, and her eyes filled again with tears. To have endured so much, and to come home to this!

The doctor started forward in answer to the pitiful appeal of that glance. He advanced a chair that happened to be whole, and urged her to sit down and rest, as if the rest she needed were merely physical. She obeyed him, and with hands folded in her lap she sat there looking helplessly around upon the wreckage of her home.

“What am I to do? Where am I to turn?” she asked, and almost at once supplied the answer: “I had better go from this accursed place at once. I have an old aunt living in Charmouth. I will return to her.”

She had also, she added, certain moneys in the hands of a banker near Charing Cross. Once she should have withdrawn these there would be nothing to keep her in London. She rose on the announcement as if there and then to act upon it. But the doctor gently restrained her, gently revealed to her the full helplessness of her position which was more overwhelming even than she supposed.

It must be almost certain that the banker she named would temporarily have suspended business and withdrawn himself from a place in which panic and confusion had made an end of commerce for the present. But even if he should still be at his counting-house and able at once to supply her demands, such a journey into the country as she contemplated was almost utterly impossible. True, the accident of her having had the plague had supplied her with a certificate of health, and in view of this no one could hinder her departure. But, considering whence she came, it would be with difficulty that out of London she would find any one to give her shelter; most likely, indeed, that she would be driven back by sheer necessity if not by force before she had gone farther than a day’s journey.

The realization of this unsuspected thing, that she was doomed to imprisonment in this dreadful city which seemed abandoned alike by God and man, inhabited only by the unfortunate and the unclean, a city of dead and dying, drove her almost to the uttermost limits of despair.

For a while she was half stunned and silent. Then speech came from her wild and frantic.

“What then? What then remains? What am I to do? How live? O God, if only I had perished of the plague! I see now . . . I see that the worst wrong Randal Holles ever did me was when he saved my miserable life.”

“Hush, hush! What are you saying, child?” The doctor set a comforting arm about her shoulders. “You are not utterly alone,” he assured her gently. “I am still here, to serve you, my dear, and I am your friend.”

“Forgive me,” she begged him.

He patted her shoulder. “I understand. I understand. It is very hard for you, I know. But you must have courage. While we have health and strength, no ill of life is beyond repair. I am old, my dear; and I know. Let us consider now your case.”

“My friend, it is beyond considerations. Who can help me now?”

“I can, for one; that is my intention.”

“But in what way?”

“Why, in several ways at need. But first I can show you how you may help yourself.”

“Help myself?” She looked up at him, frowning a little in her mystification.

“It is in helping others that we best help ourselves,” he explained. “Who labours but for himself achieves a barren life, is like the unfaithful steward with his talents. Happiness lies in labouring for your neighbour. It is a twofold happiness. For it brings its own reward in the satisfaction of achievement, in the joy of accomplishment; and it brings another in that, bending our thoughts to the needs and afflictions of our fellows, it removes them from the comtemplation of the afflictions that are our own.”

“Yes, yes. But how does it lie in my power now to do this?”

“In several ways, my dear. I will tell you of one. By God’s mercy and the loving heroism of a fellow-creature you have been cured of the plague, and by that cure you have been rendered what is commonly known as a ‘safe woman’—a person immune from infection who may move without fear among those who suffer from the pestilence. Nurse-keepers are very difficult to find, and daily their diminishing numbers grow less equal to the ever-increasing work that this sad visitation provides. Many of them are noble, self-sacrificing women who, without even such guarantees of immunity as you now possess, go heroically among the sufferers, and some of these—alas!—are constantly succumbing.” He paused, peering at her shortsightedly through his spectacles.

She looked up at him in round-eyed amusement.

“And you are suggesting that I . . .” She broke off, a little appalled by the prospect opened out to her.

“You might do it because you conceive it to be a debt you owe to God and your fellow-creatures for your own preservation. Or you might do it so that, in seeking to heal the afflictions of others, you may succeed in healing your own. But, however you did it, it would be a noble act, and would surely not go unrewarded.”

She rose slowly, her brows bent in thought. Then she uttered a little laugh of self-pity. “And unless I do that, what else, indeed, am I to do?” she asked.

“Nay, nay,” he made haste to reassure her. “I do not wish to force you into any course against your will. If the task is repugnant to you—and I can well understand that it might be—do not imagine that I shall on that account forsake you. I will not leave you helpless and alone. Be sure of that.”

She looked at him, and smiled a little.

“It is repugnant, of course,” she confessed frankly. “How should it be otherwise? I have lived soft and self-indulgently from childhood. Therefore, if I do this thing, perhaps it will on that account be more acceptable in the eyes of Heaven. As you say, it is a debt I owe.” She put out a hand and took his arm. “I am ready, my friend, to set about discharging it.”

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