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Chapter 28 Fortune’s fool by Rafael Sabatini


Jesting Fortune had not yet done with Colonel Holles.

A month later, towards the middle of September, without having seen Nancy again—since that, of course, would have been denied him, as it would have nullified his sequestration from infected persons and surroundings—he found himself at liberty to return to the ordinary haunts of man, supplied with a certificate of health.

He had been considering, in the few days preceding his discharge, whither he should direct his steps once he were made free of the world again, and he had returned to that earlier resolve of his to embark as a hand aboard some vessel bound for France. But a vessel must be found quickly, for Holles was utterly penniless. He possessed, as he had reminded Nancy, nothing but the comparatively cheap garments in which he stood. He might have obtained a few shillings from the pest-house authorities, but his gorge rose at the thought of seeking charity, particularly where it would better become him to bestow it, out of consideration for the benefits received.

So within an hour of his discharge he found himself tramping along the empty streets of the City, bound for distant Wapping. He must go afoot, not only because he lacked the means to go otherwise, but because there were no longer any boats plying for hire at any of the steps along the river, nor any hackney-coaches remaining in the streets. More than ever was London become a city of the dead.

He trudged on, and everywhere now he beheld great fires of sea-coal burning in the streets, a sight that puzzled him at first, until a chance wayfarer informed him that it was done by order of the Lord Mayor and with the approval of His Grace of Albemarle as a means of purifying the tainted air. Yet, although these fires had been burning now for a week, there was no sign yet that they had any such effect as was desired. Indeed, the bill of mortality in that week had been higher than ever before, having risen—as that same wayfarer informed him—to the colossal figure of eight thousand. The marvel was, thought Holles, that any should still be left to die in London.

On through that desolate emptiness he tramped in the noontide heat, which still continued as intense as through the months that were past of that exceptional summer, until he came to the Fleet Ditch. Here it was that he bethought him of The Harp in Wood Street where he had lodged, and of its landlord, the friendly Banks, who at some risk to himself had warned him that the messengers of the law were on his heels. It was his utter destitution that now shaped his destiny. But for that, he might not have remembered that in his precipitate departure from that hostelry he had left some gear behind including a fine suit of clothes. He could have no personal use for such brave raiment now. The homespun in which he stood was better suited far to one who sought work as a hand aboard a ship. But, if he could recover that abandoned gear, it was possible that he might be able to convert it into a modest sum of money to relieve his present necessities. He laughed a little over the notion of Fortune being so kind to him as to permit him to find The Harp still open or Banks alive.

Still, forlorn hope though it might be, forlorn hopes were the only hopes that remained him. So in the direction of Wood Street he now turned his steps.

He found it much as other streets. Not more than one shop in four was standing open, and trade in these was idle and stagnant. Proctor’s famous ordinary at the sign of The Mitre—the most reputed eating-house in London—was closed and shuttered. He regarded this as an evil omen. But he passed on, and came presently to stand before the more modest Harp. He could scarcely believe his eyes when he saw its windows clean and open, its door flung wide.

He crossed the threshold, and turned into the common room on his left. The room was clean-swept, its long deal tables were well scoured; but trade was slack, for the place contained a single occupant, a man in an apron who started up from a wooden armchair in which he had been dozing, with an ejaculation of:

“As God’s my life, a customer!”

Holles stared at him and the man stared back at Holles. It was Banks, the vintner himself. But a Banks whose paunch had shrunk, whose erstwhile ruddy cheeks had lost their glow and fullness.

“Colonel Holles!” he cried. “Or is it your ghost, sir? There’s more ghosts than living men in this stricken city.”

“We are both ghosts, I think, Banks,” the Colonel answered him.

“Maybe, but our gullets ain’t ghostly, praise the Lord! And there’s still some sack left at The Harp. It’s the greatest of all electuaries is sack, as Dr. Hodges has it. Sack with plenty of nutmeg, says he, and avoid sweating. And that’s how I’ve kept myself alive. Shall we have a bottle of the medicine, Colonel?”

“I’d say yes, with all my heart. But—lackaday!—I’ve not the means to pay for the sack.”

“Pay?” The vintner made a lip. “Sit ye down, Colonel.”

Banks fetched the wine, and poured it.

“A plague on the plague, is the toast,” said he, and they drank it. “ ’Slife, Colonel, but I am glad to see you alive. I feared the worst for you. Yet you’ve contrived to keep yourself safe, avoiding not only the plague, but them pestilential fellows that was after you.” Without waiting for a reply, he dropped his voice to add: “Ye’ll have heard how Danvers was took, and how he broke away and won free—good luck to him! But all that is a dream by now, that conspiracy business, and no one bothers much about it. Not even the government. There’s other things to engage them, and not much government left neither. But of yourself now, Colonel?”

“My tale’s soon told. I’ve not fared quite as well as you suppose. I’ve had the plague.”

“The devil you have. And ye’ve won through!” Banks regarded him with a new respect. “Well, ye were born lucky, sir.”

“You give me news,” said the Colonel.

“There isn’t many escapes,” the vintner assured him ruefully. “And you having had the pestilence makes you a safe man. Ye can come and go as ye please without uneasiness.”

“And your sack as an electuary is wasted on me. But if I’m safe I’m also penniless, which is what has brought me here: to see if some gear of mine is still in your possession that I may melt it into shillings.”

“Aye, aye, I have it all safe,” Banks assured him. “A brave suit, with boots and a hat, a baldric, and some other odds and ends. They’re above-stairs, waiting for you when you please. But what may you be thinking of doing, Colonel, if I may make so bold as to ask?”

Holles told him of his notion of sailing as a hand aboard a vessel bound for France.

The vintner pursed his lips and sadly shook his head, regarding his guest the while from under bent brows.

“Why, sir,” he said, “there’s no French shipping and no ships bound for France at Wapping, and mighty few ships of any kind. The plague has put an end to all that. The port of London is as empty as Proctor’s yonder. There’s not a foreign ship’ll put into it, nor an English one go out of it, for she wouldn’t be given harbour anywhere for fear of the infection.”

The Colonel’s face lengthened in dismay. This, he thought, was the last blow of his malignant Fortune.

“I shall have to go to Portsmouth, then,” he announced gloomily. “God knows how I shall get there.”

“Ye never will. For Portsmouth won’t have ye, nor any other town in England neither, coming as ye do from London. I tell you, sir, the country’s all crazed with fear of the plague.”

“But I’ve a certificate of health.”

“Ye’d need to have it backed by a minister of state or ever Portsmouth would let you inside her gates.”

Holles looked at him blankly for a moment, then expressed his bitterness in a laugh.

“In that case I don’t know what remains. Ye don’t need a drawer these days, I suppose?”

The vintner was frowning thoughtfully, considering the first of those two questions.

“Why, ye say ye’re a safe man. Ye’ll not have seen His Grace of Albemarle’s proclamation asking for safe men?”

“Asking for safe men? To what end?”

“Nay, the proclamation don’t say. Ye’ll find that out in Whitehall, maybe. But there’s a service of some kind his grace has to offer to them as is safe. Things being like this with you, now, ye might think it worth while to ask. It might be something for ye, for the present at least.”

“It might,” said Holles. “And, apparently, it’s that or nothing. He’ll be needing scavengers, likely, or drivers for the dead-cart.”

“Nay, nay, it’ll be something better than that,” said Banks, taking him literally.

Holles rose. “Whatever it may be, when a man is faced with starvation he had best realize that pride won’t fill an empty belly.”

“No more it will,” Banks agreed, eyeing the Colonel’s uncouth garments. “But if ye’re thinking of paying a visit to Whitehall ye’d be wise to put on that other suit that’s above-stairs. Ye’ll never get past the lackeys in that livery.”

So you see issuing presently from the sign of The Harp a Colonel Holles very different from the Colonel Holles who had entered it an hour earlier. In a dark blue suit of camlet enlivened by a little gold lace, black Spanish boots, and a black beaver set off by a heavy plume of royal blue, without a sword, it is true, but swinging a long cane, he presented a figure rarely seen just then in London streets. Perhaps because of that his appearance at the Cockpit made the few remaining and more or less idle ushers bestir themselves to announce him.

He waited but a moment in the empty anteroom where three months ago he had overheard Mr. Pepys of the Navy Office proclaiming England’s need of practised soldiers. The usher who went to announce him returned almost at once to conduct him into that pleasant chamber overlooking the park where His Grace of Albemarle acted to-day as deputy for the pleasure-loving libertine prince who had forsaken his stricken capital.

The Duke heaved himself up as the Colonel entered.

“So you’re come at last, Randal!” was his astounding greeting. “On my life, you’ve taken your own time in answering my letter. I concluded long since that the plague had carried you off.”

“Your letter?” said Holles. And he stared blankly at the Duke, as he clasped the proffered hand.

“My letter, yes. You had it? The letter that I sent you nigh upon a month ago to the Paul’s Head?”

“Nay,” said Holles. “I had no letter.”

“But . . .” Albemarle looked almost as if he did not believe him. “The landlady there kept it for you. She said, I think, that you were absent at the time, but would be back in a day or two, and that you should have the letter at once on your return.”

“A month ago, do you say? But it is two months and more since I left the Paul’s Head!”

“What do you tell me? Ah, wait. My messenger shall speak for himself on this.” And he strode away to the bell-rope.

But Holles checked him.

“Nay, nay,” he cried with a wry smile. “There’s not the need. I think I understand. Mrs. Quinn has been riding her malice on a loose rein. Your messenger would, no doubt, announce whence he came, and Mrs. Quinn, fearing that the news might be to my advantage, acted so as to prevent his making further search for me. Evidently the plague has spared that plaguy woman.”

“What’s this?” The Duke’s heavy face empurpled. “Do you charge her with suppressing a communication from an office of state? By Heaven, if she’s still alive I’ll have her gaoled for it.”

“Let be,” said Holles, seizing him by the arm. “Devil take the woman! Tell me of the letter. Ye’ll never mean that you had found employment for me, after all?”

“You seem incredulous, Randal? Did you doubt my zeal for you?”

“Oh, not your zeal. But the possibility of your helping one who was in my case.”

“Aye, aye. But as to that, why, Buckingham improved it when he stood surety for your loyalty before the Justices. I heard of that. And when the chance came, the chance of this Bombay command that already I had earlier intended for you . . .”

“The Bombay command?” Holles began to wonder did he dream. “But I thought that it had been required by Buckingham for a friend of his own.”

“Sir Henry Stanhope, yes. So it had, and Stanhope sailed for the Indies with the commission. But it seems that when he did so he already carried the seeds of the plague within him. For he died of it on the voyage. It was a Providence that he did, poor devil; for he was no more fitted for the command than to be Archbishop of Canterbury. I wrote to you at once asking you to seek me here, and I waited a fortnight to hear from you. As you made no sign, I concluded that either you were stricken with the plague, or no longer desired the office, and I proceeded to appoint another gentleman of promise.”

Holles folded the pinions of his soaring hopes and let himself fall back into his despondency. He uttered a groan.

“But that’s not the end,” Albemarle checked him. “No sooner had I appointed this other than he, too, fell sick of the plague, and died a week ago. I have already found another suitable man—no easy matter in these days—and I had resolved to appoint him to-morrow to the vacant office. But, if ye’re not afraid that the plague is bound up with this commission, it’s at your disposal, and it shall be made out to you at once.”

Holles was gasping for breath. “You . . . you mean that . . . that I am to have the command, after all!” It was incredible. He dared not believe it.

“That is what I have said. The commission is . . .” Albemarle broke off suddenly, and fell back before him. “What ails you man? You’re white as a ghost. Ye’re not ill?” And he lugged out a handkerchief that flung a reek of myrrh and ginger on the air, leaving Holles no single doubt of the thing his grace was fearing. Albemarle imagined that the plague which, as he had said, seemed bound up with this commission, was already besetting the man upon whom he now proposed to bestow it. The humour of it took Holles sharply, and his laugh rang out further to startle the Duke.

“There’s no need for electuaries against me,” he assured his grace. “I am certified in health and carry no infection. I left Bunhill Fields this morning.”

“What?” Albemarle was astounded. “D’ye mean ye’ve had the plague?”

“That is the whole reason of my being here. I am a safe man now. And I came in answer to your proclamation asking for safe men.”

Albemarle continued to stare at him in deepening amazement.

“So that is what brought you?” he said at last, when full understanding came to him.

“But for that I certainly should never have come.”

“Gad!” said Albemarle, and he repeated the ejaculation with a laugh, for he found the situation curious enough to be amusing. “Gad! The ways of Chance!”

“Chance!” echoed Holles, suddenly very sober, realizing how this sudden, unexpected turn of Fortune’s wheel had changed the whole complexion of his life. “Almost it seems that Chance has stood my friend at last, though it has waited until I had touched the very bottom of misfortune. But for your proclamation, and but for Mrs. Quinn, too, I should have been Fortune’s fool again over the matter of this commission. It would have been here waiting for me, and I should never have known. The very malice by which Mrs. Quinn sought to do me disservice has turned to my benefit. For had she told your messenger the truth—that I had vanished and that she had no knowledge of my whereabouts—you would never have traced me just then, and you would never have waited that fortnight. Thus all might have been changed.” He paused, lost in a wonder that Albemarle did not share.

“Maybe, maybe,” said his grace briskly. “But what matters now is that you are here, and that the command is yours if you still wish it. There is not even the fear of the plague to deter you, since you are a safe man now. It is an important office, as I told you, and so that you discharge its duties, as I know you will, it may prove but a stepping-stone to greater things. What do you say?”

“Say?” cried Holles, his cheeks flushed, his grey eyes gleaming. “Why, I give you thanks with all my heart.”

“Then you accept it. Good! For I believe you to be the very man for the office.” Albemarle stepped to his writing-table, selected from among some documents a parchment bearing a heavy seal, sat down, took up a pen, and wrote briskly for a few seconds. He dusted the writing with pounce, and proffered the document. “Here, then, is your commission. How soon can you sail?”

“In a month,” said Holles promptly.

“A month!” Albemarle was taken aback. He frowned. “Why, man, you should be ready in a week.”

“Myself, I could be ready in a day. But I mean to take this new-found tide of fortune at the flood, and . . .”

But Albemarle interrupted him impatiently.

“Don’t you realize, man, the time that has been already lost? For four months now this office has stood vacant.”

“Which means that there’s a very competent lieutenant in charge. Let him continue yet awhile. Once I am there, I’ll speedily make up for lost time. That I can promise you. You see, it may be that I shall have a companion, who cannot possibly be ready in less than a month.”

With an odd, reckless trust in the continuance of Fortune’s favour now, he boldly added: “You have said that I am the very man for the office. The government can wait a month, or you can appoint some one less likely to serve it as efficiently.”

Albemarle smiled at him grimly across the table. “Ye’re very full of surprises to-day, Master Randal. And this one baffles me.”

“Shall I explain it?”

“It would be a condescension.”

Holles poured out his tale, and Albemarle gave him a sympathetic hearing. When he had done, the Duke sighed and turned aside before replying, to examine the pages of a notebook at his elbow.

“Well, well,” he said at length, having consulted an entry. “The English Lass is fitting at Portsmouth for the voyage, and should be ready, I am informed, in two weeks from now. But there are ever delays at present, and it is odds that in no case would she be ready in less than three weeks. I’ll see to it that she is not ready under a month.”

Impetuously the Colonel held out both hands to the Duke.

“What a friend you are!” he cried.

Albemarle wrung them hard. “You’re damnably like your father, God rest him!” said he. Then, almost brusquely: “Away with you, now, and good-luck to you. I’ll not ask you to stay to see her grace at present, since you’re pressed. You shall kiss her hands before you sail. Be off!”

Holles took his leave. At the door he suddenly checked, and, turning, displayed a rueful countenance.

“Although I have the King’s commission in my pocket and hold an important office in his service, I haven’t a shilling in the world,” he said. “Not a shilling.”

Albemarle responded instantly by producing a purse from which he counted twenty pounds. There was no sign of parsimonious reluctance about his offer now.

“As a loan, of course,” said Holles, gathering up the yellow coins.

“No, no,” Albemarle corrected him. “An advance. Take no further thought for it. The Treasury shall refund me the money at once.”

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