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Chapter 27 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


There ensued for Colonel Holles on some plane other than that of mundane life a period of fevered activity, of dread encounters and terrible combats, of continual strife with a relentless opponent dressed in black and white satin who wore the countenance of His Grace of Buckingham and who was ever on the point of slaying him, yet, being unmerciful, never slayed. These combats usually took place in a sombre panelled room by the light of a cluster of candles in a silver branch, and they had for witness a white-clad, white-faced woman with long blue-green eyes and heavy chestnut hair, who laughed in glee and clapped her hands at each fresh turn of the encounter. Sometimes, however, the battle-ground was a cherry orchard, sometimes the humble interior of a yeoman’s cottage in the neighbourhood of Worcester. But the actors were ever the same three.

The fact is that Holles lived in a world of delirium, whence at last he awakened one day to sanity—awakened to die, as he thought, when he had taken stock of his surroundings and realized them by the aid of the memories he assembled of his last waking conscious hours.

He found himself lying on a pallet, near a window, through which he had a glimpse of foliage and of a strip of indigo sky. Directly overhead were the bare rafters of a roof that knew no ceiling. He turned his head on his pillow and looked away to his left, down a long barnlike room in which stood a half-dozen such pallets as his own, and upon each a sufferer like himself. One or two of them lay inert, as if in death; the others tossed and moaned, whilst one, still more violent, was struggling fiercely with his keepers.

It was not a pleasant sight for a man in his condition, so he rolled his head back to its first position, and thus returned to the contemplation of that strip of sky. A great calm settled upon the soul that clung to his fever-wasted body. He understood his situation perfectly. He was stricken with the plague, and he was vouchsafed this interval of consciousness—the consciousness, perhaps, that is the herald of dissolution—in order that he might return thanks to God that at last the sands of his miserable life were run and peace awaited him. The very contemplation of this sufficed to blot out at last the shame that could never in life have left him, the haunting spectre of the loathing he must have inspired in her against whom he had so grossly sinned. He remembered that full confession he had left for her. And it was sweet to reflect, before passing out into the cold shadows, that its perusal, revealing all that had gone to make an utter villain of him, showing how Fate had placed him between the hammer and the anvil, might mitigate the contempt in which inevitably she must have held him.

Tears gathered in his eyes, and rolled down his wasted cheeks. They were tears at once of physical weakness and of thanksgiving, rather than of self-pity.

Steps were softly approaching his bedside. Some one was leaning over him. He turned his head once more and looked up. And then a great fear took possession of him, so that for a moment his heart seemed to contract. Aloud, he explained to himself that apparition.

“I am at my dreams again!” he complained in a whisper.

At his bedside stood a woman, young and comely in the grey homespun, with the white bands and bib and coif that made up the garb of Puritans. Her face was small and pale and oval, her eyes were long, of a colour between blue and green, very wistful now in their expression, and from under the wings of her coif escaped one or two heavy chestnut curls, to lie upon her white neck. A fine cool hand sought his own where it lay upon the coverlet, a voice that was full of soft, sad music answered him.

“Nay, Randal. You are awake at last—thank God!”

And now he saw that those long wistful eyes were aswim in tears.

“Where am I, then?” he asked, in his first real bewilderment since awakening. Almost he began to imagine that he must have dreamt all those things which he had deemed actual memories of a time that had preceded his delirium.

“In the pest-house in Bunhill Fields,” she told him, which only served to increase the confusion in his mind.

“That is . . . I can understand that. I have the plague, I know. I remember being stricken with it. But you? How come you here . . . in a pest-house?”

“There was nowhere else for me to go, after . . . after I left that house in Knight Ryder Street.” And very briefly she explained the circumstances. “So Dr. Beamish brought me here. And here I have been by the blessing of Providence,” she ended, “tending the poor victims of the plague.”

“And you tended me? You?” Incredulous amazement lent strength to his enfeebled voice.

“Did not you tend me?” she answered him.

He made a gesture of repudiation with one of his hands, grown so pale and thin. Then he sighed and smiled contentedly.

“God is very good to me a sinner. As I lay here now all that I craved was that you, knowing the full truth of my villainy, of the temptation by which I fell, should speak a little word of pity and forgiveness to me to . . . to make my dying easier.”

“Your dying? Why do you talk of death?”

“Because it comes, by the mercy of God. To die of the plague is what I most deserve. I sought it and it fled before me. Yet in the end I stumbled upon it by chance. All my life is it thus that things have come to me. That which I desire and pursue eludes me. When I cease the pursuit, it turns and takes me unawares. In all things have I been the sport of Fortune; even in my dying, as it seems.”

She would have interrupted, but he hurried on, deceived by his own weakness.

“Listen a moment yet, lest I go before I have said what is yet to add to the letter that I left for you. I swear, by my last feeble hope of heaven, that I did not know it was you I was to carry off, else I had gone to the hangman before ever I had lent myself to the Duke’s business. You believe me?”

“There is no need for your assurances, Randal. I never doubted that. How could I?”

“How could you? Aye, that is true. You could not. So much, at least, would not have been possible, however I might have fallen.” Then he looked at her with piteous eyes. “I scarce dare hope that you’ll forgive me all . . .”

“But I do, Randal. I do. I have long since forgiven you. I gave you my forgiveness and my gratitude when I knew what you had done for me, how you risked your life in reparation. If I could forgive you then, can I harbour resentment now that I know all? I do forgive—freely, utterly, completely, Randal dear.”

“Say it again,” he implored her.

She said it, weeping quietly.

“Then I am content. What matter all my unrealized dreams of crowned knight-errantry, all my high-flown ambitions? To this must I have come in the end. I was a fool not to have taken the quiet good to which I was born. Then might we have been happy, Nan, and neither of us would have felt the need to seek the hollow triumphs of the world.”

“You talk as if you were to die,” she reproved him through her tears. “But you shall get well again.”

“That surely were a crowning folly when I may die so happily.”

And then the doctor supervened to interrupt them, and to confirm circumstantially her assertion that Holles was now out of danger.

The truth is that, what he had done for her when she was plague-stricken, she had now done for him. By unremitting care of him in the endless hours of his delirium, reckless of how she exhausted herself in the effort, she had brought him safely through the Valley of the Shadow, and already, even as he spoke of dying, deluded by his weakness and the great lassitude that attends exhaustion into believing that already he stood upon the threshold, his recovery was assured.

Within less than a week he was afoot, regaining strength, and pronounced clear of the infection. Yet, before they would suffer him to depart into the world again, he must undergo the period of sequestration that the law prescribed, so as to ensure against his conveying the infection to others. For this he was to be removed from the pest-house to a neighbouring abode of rest and convalescence.

When the hour of departure came, he went to take his leave of Nancy. She awaited him on the lawn under the tall old cedars of Lebanon that graced the garden of this farm which had been converted to the purposes of a hospital. Slimly graceful she stood before him, whilst in a voice, which he laboured to keep steady, he uttered words of an irrevocable farewell.

It was very far from what she had been expecting, as he might have read in the pale dismay that overspread her countenance.

There was a stone seat near at hand there in the shade, and she sank limply down upon this whilst he stood beside her awaiting her dismissal. He was very plainly clad, in garments which she had secretly caused to be procured for him, but which he supposed to be the parting gift of the charitable pest-house authorities.

She controlled herself to ask him steadily:

“What are you going to do? Where shall you go when . . . when the month is past?”

He smiled and shrugged a little. “I have not yet considered fully,” he answered her in actual words, whilst his tone conveyed that he had neither thought nor care of what might follow. Fortune, it might be said, had been kind to him; for Fortune had given him back his life when it was all but lost. But it was the way of Fortune to fool him with gifts when he could no longer profitably use them. “It may be,” he added, answering the round stare of her eyes, “that I shall go to France. There is usually work for a soldier there.”

She lowered her glance, and for a long moment there was silence. Then she spoke again, calmly, almost formally, marshalling the points of an argument that she had well considered.

“You remember that day when we talked, you and I, in that house in Knight Ryder Street, just after my recovery? When I would have thanked you for my life, you rejected my thanks as you rejected the forgiveness that I offered. You rejected it, persuaded that I was moved only by gratitude for the life you had saved; that I sought by that forgiveness to discharge the debt in which you had placed me.”

“It was so,” he said, “and it is so. It cannot be otherwise.”

“Can it not? Are you so very sure?” One upward appealing glance she flashed him as she asked the question.

“As I am sure that out of your sweet charity you deceive yourself,” he answered.

“Do I? Let us say that I did. But if you say that I still do, then you are overlooking something. I am no longer in your debt. I have paid it in another and a fuller way. As you saved my life, so have I since saved yours. I thanked God for the merciful chance to do this, since by doing it I could wipe out this debt that seemed to stand between us. We are quits now, Randal. I no longer owe you anything. I have repaid you; therefore I am no longer under any necessity to be grateful. You cannot deny that.”

“I would not if I could.”

“Then, don’t you see? Without indebtedness between us, no longer under any obligation to you, I have given you my forgiveness freely, frankly, and fully. Your offence, after all, was not really against me . . .”

“It was, it was,” he interrupted fiercely. “It was against you inasmuch as it was against my own honour. It made me unworthy.”

“Even so, you had my complete forgiveness from the moment that I came to know how cruelly you had been driven. Indeed, I think that I forgave you earlier, much earlier. My heart told me—my senses told me when you attempted to rescue me from the Duke of Buckingham—that some such tale of misfortune must lie behind your deed.”

A little flush came to stain the pallor which his illness had left upon his cheeks. He bowed his head.

“I bless you for those words. They will give me courage to face . . . whatever may await me. I shall treasure the memory of them, and of your sweetness always.”

“But still you do not believe me!” she cried out. “Still you think that behind it all there are some dregs of . . . of . . . resentment in my heart!”

“No, no, Nan. I believe you.”

“And yet you will persist in going?”

“What else? You who know all now must see that there is no place for me in England.”

There was a ready answer leaping to her lips. But she could not utter it. At least, not yet. So again she hung her head, and again there fell a pause, in which she was desperately seeking for another line of attack upon his obstinately proud humility. Arguments to reason failing her, she availed herself of an argument to sentiment. She drew from the bodice of her gown a rubbed and faded tasselled glove. She held it out to him, looking up at him, and he saw that her eyes were wet.

“Here is something that belongs to you, at least. Take it, Randal. Take it, since it is all that you will have of me.”

Almost in hesitancy he took that little glove, still warm and fragrant from sweet contact with her, and retained also the hand that proffered it.

“It . . . it shall again be a talisman,” he said softly, “to keep me worthy as . . . as it did not keep me once.” Then he bowed over the hand he held, and pressed it to his lips. “Good-bye, and God guard you ever, Nan.”

He would have disengaged his hand, but she clutched it firmly now.

“Randal!” she cried sharply, desperately driven to woo this man who would not woo her despite her clear invitation. In gentle, sorrowing rebuke she added: “Can you, then, really think of leaving me again?”

His face assumed the pallor of death, and his limbs trembled under him.

“What else is possible?” he asked her miserably.

“That is a question you had best answer for yourself.”

“What answer can I supply?” He looked at her, almost fearfully, with those grey eyes that were normally so steady and could be so hard and arrogant. He moistened his lips before resuming. “Should I allow you to gather up these poor shards of my broken life with the hands of pity?”

“Pity?” she cried in repudiation. Then, shaking her head a little; “And what if it were so?” she asked. “What then? Oh, Randal, if I have pity for you, have you then none for me?”

“Pity for you! I thank God you do not stand in need of pity.”

“Do I not? What else but pitiful can you account my state? I have waited years, with what patience and fortitude I could command, for one to whom I deemed myself to belong, and when at last he arrived, it is only to reject me.”

He laughed at that, but without any trace of mirth.

“Nay, nay,” he said. “I am not so easily deceived by your charitable pretence. Confess that out of your pity you but act a part.”

“I see. You think that, having been an actress once, I must be acting ever. Will you believe me, I wonder, when I swear to you that, in all those years of weary waiting, I withstood every temptation that besets my kind, keeping myself spotless against your coming? Will you believe that? And if you believe it, will you cheat me now?”

“Believe it! O God! If I did not, perhaps I could now yield more easily. The gulf between us would be less wide.”

“There is no gulf between us, Randal. It has been bridged and bridged again.”

He disengaged his hand from her clasp at last. “Oh, why do you try me, Nan?” he cried out, like a man in pain. “God knows you cannot need me. What have I to offer—I that am as bankrupt of fortune as of honour?”

“Do women love men for what they bring?” she asked him. “Is that the lesson a mercenary’s life has taught you? Oh, Randal, you spoke of Chance and how it had directed all your life, and yet it seems you have not learnt to read its signs. A world lay between us in which we were lost to each other. Yet Chance brought us together again, and if the way of it was evil, yet it was the way of Chance. Again we strayed apart. You went from me driven by shame and wounded pride—yes, pride, Randal—intending the separation to be irrevocable. And again we have come together. Will you weary Chance by demanding that it perform this miracle for a third time?”

He looked at her steadily now, a man redeemed, driven back into the hard ways of honour by the scourge of all that had befallen him.

“If I have been Chance’s victim all my life, that is no reason why I should help you to be no better. For you there is the great world, there is your art, there is life and joy when this pestilence shall have spent itself. I have nothing to offer you in exchange for all that. Nothing, Nan. My whole estate is just these poor clothes I stand in. If it were otherwise . . . Oh, but why waste words and torturing thought on what might be. We have to face what is. Good-bye!”

Abruptly he swung on his heel, and left her, so abruptly, indeed, that his departure took her by surprise, found her without a word in which to stay him. As in a dream she watched the tall, spare, soldierly figure swinging away through the trees towards the avenue. Then at last she half rose and a little fluttering cry escaped her.

“Randal! Randal!”

But already he was too far to hear her even if, had he heard, he would have heeded.

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