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"For all that this book is a story of obvious appeal and romantic melodrama, it contains what most of its genre lacks–a firm moral basis. The characters are well drawn and act like men and women despite their fancy dress."–Literary Review, New York Times, October 6, 1923

Fortune's Fool

Late of Cromwell's army, Col. Holles finds it impossible to obtain a commission with the royalists. At his wit's end for money, daily he becomes more impatient and embittered, until, careless of his reputation, he decides to fling away honor as well, and undertakes for the Duke of Buckingham the abduction of a popular actress. Of what happens thereafter, of a thrilling duel and strange adventures, of Col. Holles's fight for redemption, Sabatini tells in his finest style.

published by The Riverside Press Cambridge, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1923

Dust Jacket copy (included are spoilers...one wonders what they were thinking!): A succession of misfortunes marked the career of Randal Holles. Bearing the same name as his father–a signatory to the death warrant of Charles I–and himself a soldier in Cromwell's army, England is no place for him after the Reformation. Having lost every trace of his beloved Nancy Sylvester, he goes to Holland from whence he returns after a lapse of years, down and out, to find all doors closed and the shadow of the gallows hanging over him. As a last chance of escape he accepts an ignoble commission from the Duke of Buckingham to abduct a famous actress and deliver her into the Duke's hands. The actress turns out to be Nancy. The plague, then raging in London, delivers her from the Duke and gives Randal an opportunity for heroism that reinstates him in Nancy's favor and in his worldly fortunes.

Fortune's Fool is still in copyright.
Reprints are widely available, and reading copies can be found on most used book and auction sites.
The text of Fortune's Fool
is not available online.

Randal Holles is "a man caught and held fast in the web of life's complexities." In common with Peter Blood, whose Odyssey had recently been published when Fortune's Fool appeared in 1923, Holles had enrolled in the Dutch service, attaining the rank of colonel and the approving characterization, "vir magna belli peritia" (a man very skilled in warfare.) However, while good luck fuels much of the action in the earlier tale–recall Sabatini's insistence on the result of the prisoners being brought to trial on 19th of September instead of a day earlier, the "timely interruption" that allows the rebels-convict to escape from Barbados, and so forth–Randal Holles's luck is relentlessly bad. One might well think of him as Peter Blood's negative image.

The setting of Fortune's Fool is London in late spring of 1665, when the threat of war between Holland and England makes life in the low countries difficult for an Englishman and leads Randal to hope that his homeland's need for experienced officers will outweigh the burden of the name he shares with his father, a notorious regicide. The elder Holles is in fact baselessly rumored to have acted as the late king's executioner when the official headsman fled in fear of taking the life of God's anointed.

George Monk, the duke of Albemarle, Randal's own former patron and a friend of his father, soon disabuses Randal of any hope he might have of escaping the new king's vengeance. The duke calculates that Holles's sole chance of employment is a foreign command, but the only one currently open is claimed by a debt-ridden courtier just before Randal arrives to collect his commission.

Other doors that open to Randal are nearly as quickly slammed shut. The husband-hunting landlady of the Paul's Head allows him to run up a tab he cannot hope to pay without finding employment; his too-abrupt rejection of her proposal makes an implacable enemy of Mrs. Quinn.

An old comrade in arms attempts to enlist Randal in a plot to overthrow the monarchy and restore the Commonwealth. Randal at first declines to become involved, then begins to reconsider when Albemarle fails him. Before he can act, the conspiracy is exposed, and Mrs. Quinn, conceiving him to be guilty by association, denounces him. Randal narrowly escapes arrest.

If all of this were not trouble enough, the plague is beginning to spread in the city.

Aside from his sword and the threadbare clothes on his back, Randal's only remaining possessions consist of a woman's glove and a pear-shaped ruby earring. The jewel was the gift of an unknown royalist youth whose life Randal saved at the battle of Worcester, and he has clung to it in times of need out of a sense that they would someday meet again. On the point of selling the ruby at last, Randal discovers this youth in the resplendent, self-indulgent Duke of Buckingham. Not ungrateful, Buckingham makes Randal a free man by attesting to his loyalty before a magistrate, then demands of him a service as dishonorable as it is perilous.

"A tasselled yellow glove that was slim and long and sorely rubbed and stained with age" will figure in the denouement, but I can't say more about the plot without spoiling the surprise.

I believe that if, in the end, Randal Holles seems a poor sort of hero by Sabatini's highest standards, this is largely the result of constraints inherent in the story itself.

Seen first through the eyes of his landlady, Randal presents "a tall, soldierly figure," endowed with all of the usual Sabatinian hallmarks of male beauty. There is "the long sword upon whose pummel his left hand rested with the easy grace of long habit; the assured poise, the air of command," and–last, but not least–a "pleasant yet authoritative voice." Typically for a Sabatini hero, he is never at a loss for words. When Mrs. Quinn first breaks in upon his thoughts to quiz him about his marital status and prospects, he turns her probing questions aside with gentle, self-deprecating humor. Never for an instant does he lose control of the interaction, which he terminates gracefully but firmly when he has had enough of the interrogation.

While Randal would be the first to admit that he has not led a prudent and self-disciplined life, had he prospered, though he may still have had to leave Holland he would have escaped entirely the chain of events that ultimately lead him to his heart's desire. The flaw in Randal's character, indispensable to the workings of this novel, consists of a lack of personal ambition: the need for an outside stimulus to inspire his greatest efforts. He is, in sum, a romantic, and I somehow do not feel that Rafael Sabatini–or his readers–must necessarily consider this a major defect.

Claudia Rex

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