Chapter 26 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


Had you asked Colonel Holles in after-life how he had spent the week that followed immediately upon his escape from the house in Knight Ryder Street, he could have supplied you with only the vaguest and most incomplete of accounts. His memories were a confused jumble, from which only certain facts detached themselves with any degree of sharpness. The ugly truth, which must be told, is that in all that week he was hardly ever entirely sober. The thing began on the very night—or, rather, morning—of his evasion.

Without definite destination, or even aim beyond that of putting as great a distance as possible between himself and Knight Ryder Street, Holles came by way of Carter Lane into Paul’s Yard. There he hung a moment hesitating—for a man may well hesitate when all directions are as one to him; then he struck eastward, down Watling Street, finally plunging into the labyrinth of narrow alleys to the north of it. Here he might have wandered until broad daylight, but that, lost in the heart of that dædal, he was drawn by sounds of revelry to a narrow door, from under which a blade of light was stretched across the cobbles of the street.

It was the oddness of those sounds, as incongruous in this plague-stricken London as if they had issued from the bowels of a sepulchre, that gave him pause. On that mean threshold he stood hesitating, peering up at the sign, which he could just discern to be in the shape of a flagon, whence he must have concluded, had other evidences been lacking, that the place was a tavern. Further he concluded, from his knowledge of the enactment by which all such resorts were to close to custom at nine o’clock, that here a breach of the law was being flagrantly committed.

Attracted, on the one hand, by the thought of the oblivion that might be purchased within, repelled, on the other, by the obviously disreputable character of the place and by a curious sense of the increased scorn he must evoke in Nancy’s mind could she witness his weak surrender to so foul a temptation, he ended by deciding to pass on. But, even as he turned to do so, the door was suddenly pulled open, and across the street was flung a great shaft of yellow light in which he stood revealed. Two drunken roisterers, lurching forth, paused a moment, surprised, at the sight of him, arrested there. Then, with drunken inconsequence, they fell upon him, took him each by an arm, and dragged him, weakly resisting, over the threshold of that unclean den, amid shouts of insensate, hilarious welcome from its inhabitants.

Holles stood there in the glare and stench of a half-dozen fish-oil lamps suspended from the beams of the low, grimy ceiling, blinking like an owl, whilst the taverner, vehemently cursing the fools who had left his door agape, made haste to close it again, shutting out as far as possible sight and sound of this transgression of the recent rigorous laws.

When presently the Colonel’s eyes had grown accustomed to the light, he took stock of his surroundings. He found himself in a motley gathering of evil-looking, raffish men, and no less evil-looking women. In all there may have been some thirty of them huddled there together in that comparatively restricted space. The men were rufflers and foists and worse; the women were trulls of various degrees, with raddled cheeks and glittering eyes. Some were maudlin, some hilarious, and some lay helpless and inert as logs. All of them had been drinking to excess, save, perhaps, some four or five who were gathered about a table apart, snarling over a pack of greasy cards. They were men and women of the underworld, whom circumstances, and the fact that no further certificates of health were being issued, confined to the plague-ridden city; and, in an excess of the habits of debauch that were usual to them, they took this means of cheating for a brief while the terror in which normally they lived and moved in that stronghold of death. It was a gathering typical of many that Asmodeus might have discovered had he troubled on any of those August nights to lift the roofs of London’s houses.

Holles surveyed them with cold disgust, whilst they stared questioningly back at him. They had fallen silent now, all save one who, maudlin, in a corner, persisted in continuing an obscene song with which he had been regaling the company when the Colonel entered.

“Gads my life!” said Holles, at length. “But that I am told the Court has gone to Salisbury, I might suppose myself in Whitehall.”

The double-edged gibe shook them into an explosion of laughter. They acclaimed him for a wit, and proceeded to pronounce him free of their disreputable company, whilst the two topers who had lugged him in from the open dragged him now to one of the tables where room was readily made for him. He yielded to the inevitable. He had a few pieces in his pocket, and he spent one of these on burnt sack before that wild company broke up, and its members crept to their homes, like rats to their burrows, in the pale light of dawn.

Thereafter he hired a bed from the vintner, and slept until close upon noon. Having broken his fast upon a dish of salt herrings, he wandered forth again, errant and aimless. He won through a succession of narrow, unclean alleys into the eastern end of Cheapside, and stood there, aghast to survey the change that the month had wrought. In that thoroughfare, usually the busiest in London, he found emptiness and silence. Where all had been life and bustle, a continual stream of coaches and chairs of wayfarers on foot and on horseback, of merchants and prentices at the shop doors with their incessant cries of “What d’ye lack?” and clamorous invitations to view the wares and bargains that they offered, the street from end to end was now empty of all but some half-dozen stragglers like himself, and one who with averted head was pushing a wheelbarrow whose grim load was covered by a cloak.

Not a coach, not a chair, not a horse in sight, and not a merchant’s voice to be heard; not even a beggar’s whine. Here and there a shop stood open, but where there were no buyers there was no eagerness to sell. Some few houses he beheld close-shuttered and padlocked, each marked with the red cross and guarded by its armed watchman; one or two others he observed to stand open and derelict. Last of all, but perhaps most awe-inspiring, as being the most eloquent witness to the general desolation, he saw that blades of grass were sprouting between the kidney stones with which the street was paved, so that, but for those lines of houses standing so grim and silent on either side, he could never have supposed himself to be standing in a city thoroughfare.

He turned up towards St. Paul’s, his steps echoing in the noontide through the empty street as echo at midnight the steps of some belated reveller.

It were unprofitable further to follow him in those aimless wanderings, in which he spent that day and the days that followed. Once he made an excursion as far as Whitehall, to assure himself that His Grace of Buckingham was, indeed, gone from Town, as Dr. Beamish had informed him. He went spurred by the desire to vent a sense of wrong that came to the surface of his sodden wits like oil to the surface of water. But he found the gates of Wallingford House closed and its windows tight-shuttered, as were by then practically all the windows that overlooked that forsaken courtly thoroughfare.

Albemarle, he learnt from a stray sailor with whom he talked, was still at the Cockpit. True to his character, Honest George Monk remained grimly at his post unmoved by danger; indeed, going freely abroad in utter contempt of it, engrossed in the charitable task of doing whatever a man in his position could do to mitigate the general suffering.

Holles was tempted to seek him. But the temptation was not very strong upon him, and he withstood it. Such a visit would but waste the time of a man who had no time to waste; therefore, Albemarle was hardly likely to give him a welcome.

His nights were invariably spent at the sign of the Flagon in that dismal alley off Watling Street into which merest chance had led him in the first instance. What attraction the place could have held for him he would afterwards have found it difficult to define. There is little doubt that it was just his loneliness that impelled thither his desire for the only society that he knew to be available, a company of human beings in similar case to himself, who sought in the nepenthes of the wine-cup and in riotous debauch a temporary oblivion of their misery and desolation. Low though he might previously have come, neither was this the resort nor were the thieves and harlots by whom it was frequented the associates that he would ordinarily have chosen. Fortune, whose sport he had ever been, had flung him among these human derelicts; and there he continued, since the place afforded him the only thing he craved until death should—as he hoped—bring him final peace.

The end came abruptly. One night—the seventh that he spent in that lewd haunt of recklessness—he drank more deeply even than his deep habit. As a consequence, when, at the host’s bidding, he lurched out into the dark alley, the last of all those roisterers to depart, his wits were drugged to the point of insensibility. He moved like an automaton, on legs that mechanically performed their function. Staggering under him, they bore his swaying body in long lurches down the lane, until he must have looked like some flimsy simulacrum of a man with which the wind made sport.

Without apprehension or care of the direction in which he was moving, he came into Watling Street, crossed it, plunged into a narrow alley on the southern side, and reeled blindly onward until his feet struck an obstacle in their unconscious path. He pitched over it, and fell forward heavily upon his face. Lacking the will and the strength to rise again, he lay where he had fallen, and sank there into a lethargic sleep.

A half-hour passed. It was the half-hour immediately before the dawn. Came a bell tinkling in the distance. Slowly it drew nearer, and a cry repeated at intervals might have been audible and intelligible to Holles had he been conscious. Soon to these were added other sounds: the melancholy creak of an axle that required greasing, and the slow clank and thud of hooves upon the cobbles. Nearer rang the cry upon the silent night:

“Bring out your dead!”

The vehicle halted at the mouth of the alley in which the Colonel lay, and a man advanced, holding a flaming link above his head so as to cast its ruddy glare hither and thither to search the dark corners of that by-way.

This man beheld two bodies stretched upon the ground: the Colonel’s and the one over which the Colonel had stumbled. He shouted something over his shoulder and advanced again. He was followed a moment later by the cart, conducted by his fellow, who walked at the horse’s head, pulling at a short pipe.

Whilst he who held the torch stood there to light the other in his work, his companion stooped and rolled over the first body, then stepped forward, and did the same by Colonel Holles. The Colonel’s countenance was as livid as that of the corpse that had tripped him up, and he scarcely seemed to breathe. They bestowed no more than a glance upon him with the terrible callous indifference that constant habit will bring to almost any task, and then returned to the other.

The man with the link thrust this into a holder attached to the front of the dead-cart. Then the two of them on their knees made an examination of the body, or rather of such garments as were upon it.

“Not much to trouble over here, Larry,” said one.

“Aye,” growled Larry. “They’re sorry enough duds. Come on, Nick. Let’s heave her aboard.”

They rose, took down their hooks, and seizing the body by them they swung it up into the vehicle.

“Fetch the prancer nearer,” said Nick, as he turned and stepped towards Holles. The horse was led forward some few paces, so that the light from the cart now fell more fully upon the Colonel’s long supine figure.

Nick went down on one knee beside him, and uttered a grunt of satisfaction. “This is better.”

His fellow came to peer over his shoulder.

“A gentry-cove, damme!” he swore with horrible satisfaction. Their practised ghoulish fingers went swiftly over Holles, and they chuckled obscenely at sight of the half-dozen gold pieces displayed in Larry’s filthy paw.

“Not much else,” grumbled one after a further inspection.

“There’s his sword—a rich hilt; look, Larry.”

“And there’s a fine pair o’ stampers,” said Larry, who was already busy about the Colonel’s feet. “Lend a hand, Nick.”

They pulled the boots off and made a bundle of them, together with the Colonel’s hat and cloak. This bundle Larry dropped into a basket that hung behind the cart, whilst Nick remained to strip Holles of his doublet. Suddenly he paused.

“He’ll still warm, Larry,” he said querulously.

Larry approached, pulling at his pipe. He growled a lewd oath, expressive of contempt and indifference.

“What odds?” he added cynically. “He’ll be cold enough or ever we comes to Aldgate.” And he laughed as he took the doublet Nick flung to him.

The next moment their filthy hooks were in the garments they had left upon Holles, and they had added him to the terrible load that already half-filled their cart.

They backed the vehicle out of the alley, and then trundled on, going eastward, their destination being the pit at Aldgate. Ever and anon in their slow progress they would halt either at the summons of a watchman or at what they found for themselves. At every halt they made an addition to their load which they bore away for peremptory burial in that Aldgate plague-pit, above which on these hot nights the corpse-candles flickered almost constantly to increase the tale of portents and to scare the credulous into the belief that the place was haunted by the souls of those unfortunates whose bodies lay irreverently tumbled there under the loosely shovelled clay.

They were already approaching their destination, and the first light of dawn, pallid, cold, and colourless as a moonstone, was beginning to dispel the darkness, when, be it from the jolting of the cart, or from the flow of blood where one of those foul hooks had scraped his thigh, or yet from preserving Nature, quickening his wits that he might save himself from suffocation, the Colonel was aroused from his drunken trance.

He awakened, thrusting fiercely for air, and seeking to dislodge a heavy mass that lay across his face. The efforts that at first he made were but feeble, as was to be expected from one in his condition; so that he gained no more than brief respites, in each of which, like a drowning man struggling repeatedly to the surface, he gasped a breath of that foul contamination about him. But finding each effort succeeded by a suffocation that became ever more painful, a sort of terror seized upon him, and pulled his senses out of their drunken torpor. He braced himself and heaved more strenuously, until at length he won clear, so far, at least, as his head was concerned.

He saw the paling stars above and was able at last to breathe freely and without effort. But the burden which he had succeeded in thrusting from his head, now lay across his breast, and the weight of it was troublesome and painful. He put forth a hand, and realizing by the sense of touch that what he grasped was a human arm, he shook it vigorously. Eliciting no response, he began to grow angry.

“Afoot there, ye drunken lob,” he growled in a thick voice. “Get up, I say. Get up! O’s my life! D’ye take me for a bed that you put yourself to sleep across me? Gerrup!” he roared, his anger increasing before that continued lack of response. “Gerrup, or I’ll . . .”

He ceased abruptly, blinking in the glare of light that suddenly struck across his eyes from the flaming head of the torch which had been thrust upwards. The cart had come to a standstill, and above the tall sides of it, rising into his field of vision, came the two horrible figures of the carters, whom the sound of his voice had brought to mount the wheels of the vehicle.

There was something so foul and infernal in those faces, as seen there in the ruddy glare of the torch, that the sight of them brought the Colonel a stage nearer to sobriety. He struggled up into a sitting position, and looked about him, bewildered, uneasy, furiously endeavoring to conjecture where he might be.

In plaintive impatience came the nasal voice of one of those ghouls.

“I told ye the gentry-cove was warm, Larry.”

“Aye! Well? And what now?” quoth the other querulously.

“Why, fling him out, o’ course.”

“Bah! Let him ride. If he’s not stiff yet, he soon will be. What’s the odds?”

“And what o’ the plague examiner, you fool? Won’t he see that it’s just a drunken cove who was sleeping off his booze? And what’ll he say to us? Here! Lend a hand! Let’s get him out.”

But Holles was no longer in need of their assistance. Their words and what he saw of that grim load of which he was a part had made him realize at last his ghastly situation. The sheer horror of it not only sobered him completely; it lent him a more than ordinary strength. He heaved himself clear, and struggled, gasping, to his knees. Thence he gripped the side of the cart, pulled himself to his feet, flung a leg over and leapt down, stumbling as he did so, and sprawling full length upon the ground.

By the time he had gathered himself up, the cart was already trundling on again, and the peals of hoarse, obscene laughter from the carters were ringing hideously through the silent street.

Holles fled from the sound, back by the way that he had been carried, and it was not until he had gone some distance, not until the foul hilarity of the carters and the clatter of the accursed cart itself had faded out of earshot, that he began to grow conscious of his condition. He was without cloak or hat or doublet or boots. The fact that his sword was gone, as well as the little money that still remained him, seemed to him just then to matter rather less. What chiefly troubled him was that he was cold and dizzy. He shivered every now and then as with an ague; his head was a globe of pain and his senses reeled. Yet he was sober, he assured himself. He could think coherently, and he was able to piece together, not only the thing that had happened to him, but the very manner of its happening.

Mechanically he trudged on and on, aimlessly now, a man walking in a nightmare. The light grew. The moonstone light of early dawn took on colour and began to glow as with the fires of the opal; the sky was invaded and suffused by the saffron heralds of the sun.

At last he paused, without knowledge or care of where he was; utterly bereft of strength, he sank presently into the shelter of the doorway of a deserted house, and there fell asleep.

When next he awakened, he was lying in the full glare of a sun that was already high in the heavens. He looked about him, and found himself in surroundings that were utterly strange to him, so that he could form no notion of whither he had strayed.

In mid-street stood a man in a steeple hat dressed in black, leaning upon a red wand and regarding him attentively.

“What ails you?” the man asked him, seeing him awake and conscious.

Disgruntled, Holles glared at him. “The sight of you,” he snapped, and struggled stiffly up. “Naught else.”

Yet, even as he gained his feet, a giddiness assailed him. He steadied himself a moment against the door-post: then reeled and sank down again upon the step that had been his couch. For some few seconds he sat there bemused, marvelling at his condition. Then, acting on a sudden thought, he tore open the breast of his shirt.

“I lied!” he shouted wildly. When next he looked up, he was laughing, a ringing, exultant laugh. “I lied! There is something else. Look!” And he pulled his shirt wider apart, so that the man might see what he had found. And that was the last thing that he remembered.

On his breast the flower of the plague had blossomed while he slept.