endpaper graphic

Articles & Images
Biography
Bibliography
Acknowledgements
Miscellanea
Site Map
Links
Home

Our web sponsor:
Hidden Knowledge

Rafael Sabatini site logo

Premier Magazine, Mar 1916, pp. 111-140.

The Scourge

by Rafael Sabatini

Chapter I.

The colonel bethought him of George Monk, who, as the result of a supple conscience and a sort of weather-cock facility in adjusting himself to any wind that blew, was now Duke of Albemarle. Between Monk and himself lay that which had made him count upon the duke's favour and protection, and so, upon arriving in England a month ago, he had gone straight to Whitehall in quest of Albemarle. Albemarle had given him a friendly reception, and had offered him an appointment in those Indies which the Queen had lately brought to the English Crown as her marriage portion.

Colonel Holles, being attached to the fleshpots of Europe, and accounting himself too old at forty to exchange them for life among savages—as he conceived the inhabitants of Bombay—begged Albemarle to think of some better employment for him at home.

"At home!" Albemarle had cried. "Ye're surely mad. A man of your past, of your association with the Commonwealth and the regicides! Overseas is the place for you. You'll be safe bestowed there, out of the sight of those who might pry into your antecedents; the pay is high, and—"

"But is there not a Bill of Indemnity?" cried the colonel.

"Why, so there is," said the duke, "and there are those who trusted to it. If you go by way of Fleet Street some of their skulls will grin down at you from Temple Bar. I tell you, man, there is none so high but the King's vengeance will drag him down, none so low but it will pull him up. Will you wait to be disembowelled at Charing Cross?"

"Faith, no!" said the colonel. "I haven't the stomach for it."

"Then you'll accept this post in the Indies. I tell you it is greatly coveted, and the pay is good. Think of it."

"I'll think of it," said the colonel, without enthusiasm.

He had left the great man's presence, and thought of it no more until now, as he sat at the window of the Paul's Head, thinking of it, perforce, at last, under the spur of desperation.

"Oh, the great and the dreadful God!" came the preacher's voice in a scream, meant to arrest his thinning audience.

Startled, Holles flung a curse at him, then lapsed back into his hopeless contemplation of the Indies—to him a land of greasy black women, and evil-smelling, apish men. It revolted him to think of ending his days in such a land and finally quenching there the lofty ambitions of his youth.

Time was when he had seen himself a leader of men riding among the great ones of the world. Time was—some twenty years ago, alas!— when he had boasted that he would bend his steps to such a destiny. His mind swept back to those ardent, happy days when, as a lad of twenty, the pure white flame of adolescent love had fired him to his lofty purpose. He beheld again—with those eyes that seemed to be staring at that mouthing scarecrow on the cathedral steps—the lovely face of Nancy Sylvester, a mere child of sixteen, the little maid who had awakened high ambition in his soul.

He was the son of a prosperous Kentish yeoman, who had farmed some three hundred acres of land in the neighbourhood of Ashford whereof Nancy's father had been the vicar. He had inherited the thews but not the spirit of a farmer; he had ever been a dreamer of dreams, and when he fell in love with Nancy and found his love returned, those dreams of his became insistent in their demand for fulfilment. Because he loved her he had promised to go forth and conquer the world that he might one day return and toss it into her lap as a trifling earnest of his homage.

He sighed, and a little smile fluttered under the beard that masked the hard, resolute mouth. He had been a clean-limbed, clean-minded lad in those far-off days. Clean-limbed he was still—the hardness of his life had kept him so—but as for his clean-mindedness, he had left it in the stews and kennels of the Low Countries, lost it in the quagmire of a soldier's life, through which he had pursued in vain the Jack-o'-Lanthorn of his ambition. And yet, like some sweet flower blossoming upon a dung-hill, there abode with him still the fragrant memory of Nancy Sylvester, whom he had never since beheld.

He had sought her once, ten years ago. He had returned to Ashford as empty-handed as when he went forth, a weary, jaded, embittered man, seeking repose, ready to earn it even at the price of rusticity, since he was satiated with the dyspeptic fare of the great world through which he had hacked his adventurer's way to nothing. But the vicar had been dead six years, and Nancy had gone none could tell him whither. His father, too, had been long dead, and in his stead the colonel's elder brother reigned and reared a family of his own. He had given the wanderer so cold a welcome that it had set him wandering again forthwith. He had gone abroad, and but for the war with Holland and that cursed spark of patriotism he would not be in England now.

Again the voice of the preacher disturbed him.

"Repent!" it cried. "The pestilence lays siege unto this city of the ungodly. Like a raging lion doth it stalk around, seeking where it may leap upon you. Yet forty days, and London shall be destroyed. Yet forty days, and—"

An egg flung by the hand of a butcher's apprentice smashed full in his face and cropped his period short. He staggered and gasped as the glutinous mass of yolk and white crept sluggishly down from his beard to spread upon the rusty black of his coat.

"Deriders! Scoffers!" he screamed, with arms outflung in imprecation. "Your doom is at hand. Your—"

A roar of laughter drowned the rest. At last he drew attention. Passers-by halted in their stride to mock his misfortune and grotesque appearance. Tradesmen came to their doors to bear their share in the mirth at his expense. Apprentices flung out into the street guffawing and bawling ribaldries. Another egg shot past his head, and after it a shower of offensive missiles, including a living cat, which clawed itself against his breast, spitting furiously.

Overwhelmed, the prophet of doom turned and fled precipitately up the steps and into the shelter of St. Paul's.

As he vanished Holles turned from the window, where he had risen to his feet, the better to view the happening. There was an end to his dreams, driven out by the sordid thing he had witnessed. Turning now, he faced realities and his associates, Tucker and Rathbone, still busy with their dice. He stepped to the table, and stood over them, a tall, lean man, whose carriage advertised vigour and activity and something of that swaggering arrogance acquired by all who have rubbed shoulders long and closely with the world.

Tucker looked up at him invitingly.

"Wilt throw a main, Ned?"

"You must be jesting," said he, but without bitterness. "I have thrown my last main, with Fortune for my adversary. Mrs. Bankes gives me to choose between paying what I owe for my lodging in the attic here or finding a bed in the streets, and so I think it will be Albemarle and the Indies, although I'd as soon chew hemlock."

"There is still that jewel in your ear," said Rathbone.

Holles fingered it thoughtfully. It was a long, pear-shaped ruby of considerable value, remarkable for its fire and its size—it was as large as the egg of a thrush—a touch of foppery, you would say, most oddly at variance with the colonel's general appearance. For he was dressed outwardly almost entirely in leather; a leather jerkin, stained and frayed, cased his upright body and concealed all his shabby doublet but the protruding sleeves of wine-coloured, threadbare velvet. Long riding-boots of untanned leather fitted his legs to the thighs— although he did not possess a horse, nor had ridden for weeks—and served to conceal the worn condition of his small clothes. From the plainest of leather baldricks hung the long steel-hilted sword of your adventurer. His hat of grey beaver, frayed at the edges, was adorned by a purple feather, faded, limp, and out of curl. Yet from his left ear hung that precious jewel of a fashion long departed, glowing and twinkling as if to mock the stark severity of all the rest of him.

"I keep it as a last resource," he said.

"The gift of some fat Flemish burgomaster's dame," sniffed Tucker, leering.

"You might suppose it," said the colonel, with a weary smile. "But the truth is that it was given me by a Royalist lad whose life I spared at Worcester."

"A ransom, then?"

"Not even that. I spared him for his beauty—he was a very lovely lad and very young—and he gave me this in memory at parting. I never learnt his name, nor cared what it might be. It was just the youth and beauty of him moved me. Some maid must surely have mourned him had he fallen."

Tucker choked on a deep oath of profane and sardonic merriment.

"'Fore Heaven, Holles, I never dreamt you could be mawkish."

"It was long ago," said Holles, as if in explanation. "Myself I was young then."

"I suppose you were. Though being so no longer does not explain why you should starve whilst carrying a fortune in your ear."

"A fortune!" said Holles. "Body of me! It would pay my debts and keep me in lodgings perhaps for three months, and then I should be in no better case than now. No, no. I am for Whitehall, Albemarle, and his pestilent Indies. Will you walk, Tucker?"

"Have you thought on what I told you yesterday?" said Tucker, lowering his voice to a mutter, and casting an eye about the room to make sure that they continued alone there, and that the door was closed.

"Not I!" was the careless answer. "My trade is a soldier's, not a politician's."

"It is as a soldier that Danvers and Sidney need you. Gad's life, Ned, you can't say you've prospered at the hands of the Monarchy."

"Nor can I say that I prospered at the hands of the Commonwealth which Sidney's crack-brained plottings would restore. What's it all to me?"

He would have said more but that Rathbone cut in suddenly.

"Crack-brained?" he echoed, between anger and contempt of wits that could deem it so. And again: "Crack-brained! Sink me, Holles, you never were anything of a prophet, else you 'ld not have found yourself always on the wrong side. You served the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth foundered. And now, forsooth, you'ld serve the Monarchy, and I tell you the Monarchy is on the point of foundering."

"Ay; you tell me so," said Holles, angering the other further by the sneer.

"And the signs tell you so, if you can read them. But you never could, which is why you lie on straw."

"Whilst you go in velvet and fine linen!" rasped the colonel's sarcasm.

"I shall!" roared Rathbone, smacking the table.

"Not so loud!" Tucker admonished him, and himself swung round on his stool more fully to face Holles.

This Tucker was by much the graver and more sober man of that broken twain whom misfortune had associated with Holles.

"You are wrong to dub Algernon Sidney a crack-brain," he said quietly and impressively. "Here is no rash scheme, no forlorn hope, no desperate adventure. The time has been cunningly chosen, and the instruments carefully picked. From Holland Sidney guides all through Danvers here. First to sow disaffection, and so complete the popular contempt into which the Monarchy has been brought by its lewd ways. And then, when the time is full ripe, to bring the Dutch to complete the King's overthrow and restore the Commonwealth. D'ye think we shall fail? D'ye think we can? D'ye dream by what underground ways we burrow to our ends and undermine this rotting State?" He lowered his voice still further. "You saw and heard that fellow preaching damnation just now from Paul's steps over there. He is our man. We have a dozen such at work within the City."

Holles laughed silently—a curious laugh, characteristic of the man.

"A fine earnest he of your success. You saw how the mob received him."

Tucker came to his feet, and set a hand upon the colonel's shoulder.

"True, the mob is like that. But if the Plague spreads how long will it continue in that mood? And mark me, Holles, spread it will now that summer is here. Already St. Giles', St. Clement Dane's, and St. Andrew's, Holborn, are rotten with it. In St. Giles' alone they buried a hundred cases last week."

"Still the City continues healthy," said Holles.

"Does it?" sneered Rathbone, who watched them, elbows on the greasy table.

"You're mistook, Holles," Tucker answered him. "The pestilence has got within the walls already. It is kept secret. But we are watching, and we know. Four have died of it within the week—one in Wood Street, one in Fenchurch Street, and one in Crooked Lane. Already those who know are showing their uneasiness. Already men are moving out of London. Let this weather continue, and wait a week or two. Then see if the mob will pelt those who preach the doom of the City, the doom of England, those who will tell them that this punishment has been brought upon them by the dissoluteness of the King and his debauched Court. In its terror the people will listen; they will believe; and they will rise, or I know nothing of the soul of a mob in panic."

"That will be the moment, and we shall know how to seize it. Already we are strong—far stronger than anyone dreams. But we need more. We need such as you, Holles—men of experience in the leading of men and the use of arms. High destinies await you in our ranks, and you stand paltering there, and think to sell your services to a Monarchy whose knell is sounding. Go pawn that jewel, man, and wait upon events. I bid you, who am your friend."

Holles stood thoughtful, but unconvinced.

"You do not fear to tell me this?" he asked. "I might turn the knowledge to account."

"As how? What shall you tell? That I have said so much to you? Bah! Our plans are too secret and too well laid to be blown upon so lightly. Do you inform, and it will be your word against mine. And if my word be worth little, faith, yours is worth no more."

"Ay," said Holles coldly. "The word of a broken soldier of fortune carries little weight. They might even suspect me of a fraud to obtain money. And so, since I cannot make my fortune that way either, it must needs be the Indies. I am for Whitehall." And he made shift to go.

"I've talked in vain, then!" said Tucker, with chagrin.

"What will convince you?" growled Rathbone.

Holles checked in his stride, and looked at them over his shoulder.

"Success," he answered. "Set up again this Commonwealth, and I will offer it my sword. My trade is not to overthrow Governments, but to serve the Government in being. With its rights or its wrongs I have no concern. A good-day to you both!" And he went out with a clanking step, erect and arrogant of port, leaving them to curse him for a fool.

In the narrow passage his arrogance met Mrs. Bankes, the landlady of the Paul's Head, a squat, untidy woman, with hard eyes and a hard mouth.

"So you go forth, sir?" she said, her arms akimbo. "And this rent of mine?"

He broke in upon her, losing nothing of his stiffness.

"I go to seek it now," he said. "If you detain me, you delay by just so much the payment due. So give me passage, woman, that your interests may be served."

Mumbling sourly, she fell aside, and he went on and out into the bright sunshine to take his way on foot to Whitehall, since he lacked the means to use horse, coach, or chair. He went moodily, considering what Tucker and Rathbone had told him, and asking himself whether in truth he were not wiser to think more of their scheme. Beyond Temple Bar, as he trod the filth of the Strand opposite St. Clement Dane's, he was aroused from his musings by a voice that called to him:

"Keep your distance, sir!"

Checking, he looked up and to the left whence the order came. He found it to have been uttered by a man with a halbert, who stood before a padlocked door that was smeared with a red cross a foot in length, above which, also in red, was painted the legend: "LORD HAVE MERCY UPON US."

Taken thus by surprise, the colonel shuddered, and stepped out into the middle of the street, and so pursued his way, after a glance at the closed windows of the infected house. It was the first that he had seen; for although he had come this way but a week ago, and the plague had then been active in the neighbourhood, yet it was then confined to Butcher's Row, on the north side of the church, and to the mean streets that issued thence. To find it thus upon the main road between the City and Whitehall was an added reminder of what Tucker had said, and so he found his thoughts thrust more closely than ever upon this matter of the simmering revolution and upon the uses which the revolutionaries could make of this dread pestilence.

And at Whitehall itself he discovered fresh evidences of the growing panic. There was an activity and bustle such as he had not found there on his former visit to Albemarle. And he guessed, before he was told, that it was the bustle of imminent departure.

The Court had taken fright before the spread of the plague, which its own wickedness was already being accused of having attracted, and was on the eve of removing itself beyond its reach.

At first Holles feared that he had come too late. That no doubt the duke, too, would be at his preparations for departure. In this, however, he was mistaken. He was ushered into the presence of Albemarle, and found the great man unmoved either by the plague in the town or by the ferment in the palace. He appeared to survey the one and the other with a characteristic phlegm of mind that sorted well with his slow-moving, fleshy bulk.

When Holles expressed polite fears that he came inopportunely, that he intruded, perhaps, upon the duke's dispositions to accompany the Court, Albemarle reassured him. His Grace was to remain, to represent the king, and hold the reins of Government what time his Majesty took himself to the more salubrious airs of Salisbury, accompanied by his Court, his mistresses, and his lap dogs, human and canine. You are not to suppose that his Grace expressed himself in any such terms. These are no more than the colonel's mental translation of what he said.

Having been invited by the duke to state in what his Grace could have the happiness of serving him, Holles came bluntly to the point.

"It is in the matter of that post in the Indies. I have considered, and, if it please your Grace, I will accept it."

Albemarle's big, swarthy face was darkened by regret.

"If it please me?" said he. "It would have pleased me excellently, as I told you. But you have been over long considering. The office was bestowed but yesterday upon young Stanhope, whose father sought it of me with a recommendation from his Majesty. I am sorry, Holles. I would have served you. But you had left the matter undecided, the office was vacant, and the King's wish—"

He shrugged regretfully, and looked at Holles.

The colonel's heart sank within him like a stone through water. The post scorned until this moment instantly became, now that it was snatched from out his closing grasp, of all things in the world the most desirable. Its loss seemed an emblem of the evil fortune that had ever pursued him, thrusting him lower and lower into the mire of misadventure. It seemed as if life's every door must be barred against him in the very moment that he set his hand upon the latch.

He swallowed his mortification.

"A pity," he said, as coolly as he might. "I've been a fool in the matter. Yet, since my need grows urgent, if your Grace had aught else to offer—"

His Grace pursed his thick lips, and shook his great black head slowly, regretfully.

"At the moment there is nothing—that is, nothing abroad, and, as I have told you, at home I dare offer you nothing for both our sakes. To do so were to draw attention to you, and attention might cost you your head on the score of what is passed. This post in Bombay was greatly coveted, as I told you. Young Stanhope was overjoyed to obtain it. Something else may offer; but in the present confusion, with war impending and the plague spreading here, appointments will be hard to seek for awhile. And I do not think you are wise to tarry in town. But should you do so, and I should hear of aught, I will send you word."

"I have nothing to lose but my life," said Holles, coldly. "And when it is so a man reckons little the loss of that. I would even risk an office at home—"

"But I would not risk the bestowing of it," said the duke. "Myself, I might be called to account. Where are you lodged, that I may send to you, should anything offer?"

"Until they fling me into the street or send me to the stews for debt I am at the Paul's Head in Paul's Yard."

"If I can do aught to alleviate your present stress," said the duke kindly, "there is my own purse. I am desirous above all of proving myself your friend."

But to that offer of money Holles returned an almost curt refusal. It awoke in him a pride long dead. He had taken money from others for questionable services; he had bubbled men at dice and at cards and in other ways. But Albemarle had known him in the days of his eager, honest youth, before the blighting hand of misfortune had made a scoundrel of him, and whatever betide, however fallen he might be, he would that Albemarle should continue to respect him.

The refusal was spontaneous and impulsive—instinctive almost— yet as he dismally retraced his way towards the City, and looked into the blackness of the future, he felt no slightest regret for that proud impulse that had made him reject pecuniary assistance. It was the last flicker of a pride that was near extinction.

Chapter II.

WHATEVER may have been lacking in his moral equipment, Colonel Holles possessed in an extraordinary degree that resilience of temperament which is the first essential of your true adventurer. Suspense he could never bear with any equanimity. Whilst waiting—as he had often waited—to see which way the tide of fortune would turn for him, he was given to impatience and despondency. But when adversity stood to be faced, there was no man could face it better, once the first shock of disappointment were overcome. He had a way of accepting the situation, however desperate, and making the best of it without further repining for the good things missed.

Thus was it now. Though he stumbled out of Whitehall with black despair in his heart, yet before he had reached Temple Bar the cloud had lifted. There remained that revolutionary venture to which Tucker and Rathbone had been committed by Danvers, and to which, in their turn, they sought to commit himself. Since it was now the best— indeed, the only thing—that offered he must take it. Fate had decided the matter, and before Fate's decision he resolutely put aside the distaste he had for the folly of treason to a reigning Government. Having accepted thus the situation, he came to consider it more closely, and even to find it good. After all, Tucker had been right. The way to fortune lay in being a successful revolutionary—as witness the success of that fellow Albemarle whom he had just visited. What George Monk had achieved, Edward Holles could achieve.

By the time he was come to the Fleet, he already saw himself a man of substance and position under the Commonwealth which he should have assisted to restore. He strode briskly up the Hill towards St. Paul's, almost rejoicing that Fate should have taken the matter out of his hands and decided it for him. He confessed himself something of a fool for not having sooner seized the golden opportunity which his friends had offered him. But he would seize it now, and as a beginning there should be an immediate dissipation of his present difficulties. Danvers would no doubt dispose of ample funds, and to win to his side a soldier of Colonel Holles' experience would be willing to advance a sum sufficient to remove his present embarrassment.

In this mood of resolve he came to Paul's Yard, to find a crowd assembled before the door of the Paul's Head tavern. It was composed of people of all degrees, merchants, shopkeepers, 'prentices, horseboys, scavengers, rogues from the alleys that lay behind the Old 'Change, idlers and sharpers from Paul's Walk, with a sprinkling of town gallants and soldiers. And, notwithstanding the efforts of the constable and watchmen summoned by Mrs. Bankes to disperse it, this crowd was steadily swelling and all in a simmer of excitement.

With a premonition of evil in his heart, the colonel stood at gaze a moment, then advanced and questioned a soberly clad City gentleman who tip-toed about the skirts of the gathering. The City gentleman looked him up and down with the evident mistrust with which men of his kind must ever visit a ruffler who looks his trade. Nevertheless, perhaps because he had also the timidity of his kind, and beheld in the man who addressed him one whom it was safer to answer than affront, he gave him the information that he sought.

"They've lighted on a plot to destroy the Government," he said. "A scoundrelly plot to murder the king, seize the Tower and burn the City, no less. Save us! These be villainous times, with the plague all about and treason and sedition in our very midst. They came from the Tower not half an hour since and arrested a couple of the plotters at the Paul's Head here—a knavish-looking pair they was, especially one of them whom they called Tucker. 'Tis said they've carried them to Newgate, so I hope they'll hang them. We want no revolutions and no Commonwealth. The Monarchy may seem to some to have its faults, but there is no Government without faults, and at least we have been prosperous since the glorious restoration of his Majesty—God save him!"

The fellow spoke, of course, from his own point of view. He was a glover and dealer in minor fopperies which did not thrive under republican austerity. Being astride of his hobby, he would have rambled on, descanting upon the open-handedness of courtiers and those who hung about a king, and the stinginess of those who favoured a Commonwealth, but something in the colonel's face gave him pause.

"Why, sir," he cried, "you seem took aback. They'd not be friends of yours, these traitorous fellows?"

He would have recalled the words no sooner were they uttered, terrified by the sudden wrath that seemed to blaze upon him from the ruffler's eyes.

"Friends of mine, d'ye say, you greasy hog?"

The colonel glared a moment, looked as if he would strike the citizen, then swung on his heel and strode briskly away.

Thus had the last door been slammed in his face by Fortune, and his own escape from being caught in it as it closed had been of the narrowest. Indeed, he was by no means sure even now that all was well. He had kept company with those two plotters, and when that was coupled with his antecedents, provided these should become known, it might prove enough to send him to share their fate, which, after all, would be none so great an injustice seeing what his intentions had been. It may be that his consciousness of those intentions magnified his apprehension of the doom that overhung him. He saw Mrs. Bankes demanding payment now by means of a threat more formidable than that of merely turning him out of doors or handing him over to the law for debt. She had greedily eyed that jewel in his ear more than once when insisting that he should pay his growing score. At last, it seemed to him, the hour was come against which he had treasured up that ruby. It was all that had stood between himself and utter destitution, if not, indeed, the very gallows.

Wearily, then, he took his dejected way down Cheapside, looking for a likely shop in which to transmute that ruby into gold. The street, ever a busy one, was more than ordinarily thronged at present, the usual traffic being swelled by the many people of wealth who, taken with panic at the encroachment of the pestilence, were on their way to the Lord Mayor's to obtain the exacted bills of health that should permit them to follow the example of the Court and remove themselves to the country. These, in their coaches and chairs, crowded the issues of almost every street from Wood Street to Ironmonger Lane.

To all this the colonel paid no heed. But one chair he met, coming westwards, was destined to draw his attention, in consequence of a wild-eyed fanatic who followed after it screaming foul denunciation.

"There goes one of those who have drawn the Lord's judgment upon this impious city!" he was shouting; and men were halting to look where he pointed. "There sits a play-house wanton in her silks and velvets while the God-fearing go in rags, and the wrath of Heaven smites us with a sword of pestilence for the sins she brings among us."

Two or three of the scurvy sort, that are ever on the watch for such opportunities, hung now upon the skirts of the fanatic.

"'Tis Sylvia Farquahrson of the Duke's Playhouse, a daughter of Belial," raged her persecutor. "'Tis for the sins of her kind that we are suffering, and shall suffer until the iniquities of this city shall be no more!"

He was alongside now of the chair, and thrusting forward his dirty, malevolent face to catch a glimpse of the woman he tormented. The knaves who had joined him were hustling the chairman, and the affair began to look as if it would have an ugly ending.

The colonel looked on, almost idly, all steeped as he was in the consideration of his own misfortunes, and thus the chair came abreast of him, and he had a glimpse of a woman's white face of a rare loveliness, stamped now with a look of fear.

And then quite suddenly, emerging from the gathering passers-by, seeming almost to materialise on the spot, to come out of nowhere, appeared a tall gallant in a golden periwig and a blue velvet coat that was stiff with gold lace, a man no longer in his first youth, but of an extraordinary beauty of face and elegance of person. Two lackeys in livery followed at his heels, and a murmur ran through the crowd announcing his name.

"His Grace of Buckingham."

Like a bolt from the blue he descended upon the fanatic, swung his gold-headed, beribboned ebony cane, and broke it in two across the zealot's scurvy head, whilst his lackeys drove off the ruffians who had been threatening the chairmen.

Colonel Holles had stopped suddenly at sight of that gallant, and stood now gaping quite foolishly, a man profoundly amazed. People gathered round, and would have closed about the chair to gape and hinder in the aimless, stupid way of crowds. But the gentleman in blue stepped ahead, and waved the stump of cane that he still retained.

"Away! Give room!" he bade them, with the air of a prince speaking to his grooms, and so clove a passage in the gathering press through which the chairmen hurried after him with their burden.

The lackeys acted as a readguard; but none attempted to hinder or molest them, and none troubled to follow save only Colonel Holles. Mechanically he had turned, and, all else forgotten, stepped quickly after the chair, his eyes upon that splendid rescuer of threatened beauty.

Thus they came as far as Paternoster Row, where the traffic was slight. There the fine gentleman halted, and at a sign from him the men set down the chair. He advanced to the window of it, swept off his gold-laced hat, in which a drooping ostrich feather was held by a clasp of brilliants, and bowed until the curls of his peruke almost met across his face.

"I was never frightened in my life until to-day," he said. "What imprudence, Sylvia, to show yourself in the City! None may call me devout, yet I thank Heaven I was there to save you from this peril."

Holles stood by, looking on, none heeding him. He saw the lady in the chair lean forward, noted the white lustre of her beauty, and marvelled at the readiness with which she appeared to have recovered her composure. She was smiling slightly, a smile that curled her delicate lip and lent something hard and scornful to eyes that were naturally soft and gentle.

"Your Grace was very opportunely at hand," was all she said; but there was a world of mocking meaning in her tone.

"I thank God for it and so may you, Sylvia," was the quick answer.

"Is your Grace often east of Temple Bar?"

"Are you?" quoth his Grace, possibly for lack of better answer.

"So seldom that the coincidence transcends all that yourself or Mr. Dryden could have thought of for one of your plays."

"Life is a marvellous coincident," said he, as if determined not to perceive her raillery. "Coincidence is the salt that rescues existence from insipidity."

"So? And it was to rescue that that you rescued me, and that you might rescue me no doubt you yourself contrived the danger."

"Sylvia!" It was a cry of mingled pain and indignation. "Can you think it of me!"

"Think it of you! Lord! I knew it, sir, the moment I saw you take the stage at the proper cue, at what you would call the dramatic moment. Enter hero, very gallant! I was a fool in that I let myself be imposed upon by those other silly mummers, the first murderer and his myrmidons. Oh, sir, it was mightily contrived. It carried the groundlings in Cheapside quite off their feet, and they'll talk of your brave carriage and mighty mien for a whole day at least. But you could scarce expect that it should cozen me, since I am in the play, as it were."

It was said of him that he was the most impudent fellow in England, this lovely, accomplished, foolish son of a man whose face had made his fortune. Yet under the whip of her raillery he stood in a hangdog attitude, utterly out of countenance.

"I vow—I vow you're monstrously unjust," he contrived at last to stammer. "You ever have and ever will think the worst of me."

"Does your Grace wonder?" she asked him coolly.

"I would to Heaven I had left you to those knaves that persecuted you."

"I wonder what turn the comedy would have taken had you failed to answer to your cue?" she mocked him. "Oh, but enough! I thank your grace for the entertainment, but since, as you see, it has proved unprofitable, I hope you will spare yourself the pains of providing another for me. After all, such amusement as it affords me scarce compensates for the trouble to which I am put by your clumsy contrivances. You get a forged message to me to send me into the City on a fool's errand, and yet suppose I could be imposed upon by this paltry third act with its silly rescue of beauty in distress! Oh, sir, if you can take shame for anything, take shame for your invention. It explains the dulness of your plays." She swung briskly to the foremost chairman. "Take up, Simon," she bade him. "Let us on, and quickly, or I shall be late."

She was obeyed and borne away, whilst his Grace stood crestfallen, white with anger, gnawing his lip, conscious that she had made him look a fool. Behind him his lackeys sought with pains to preserve a proper stolidity of countenance. At last he ground his heel in a sudden spasm of rage, and would have turned to follow, but that in that moment a hand touched his arm.

"Sir! Sir!" said a voice.

He swung round and scowled into the bearded, aquiline face of Colonel Holles. Conceiving here another witness of his shame, his anger, seeking a vent, flamed out.

"What now, fellow? Do you dare touch me?" he snapped.

The colonel, never flinching, as another might have done, before that white face and blazing eyes, made answer simply:

"I touched you once before, I think, and you were not wroth, for it was to serve you that I touched you then."

"Ha! And 'twill be to remind me of it that you touch me now?" came our fine gentleman's quick, contemptuous answer.

Holles crimsoned under his tan. His eyes gave back contempt for contempt with something of interest, and without a word he swung on his heel again to depart. But even as he turned, a flash as of red fire smote the gallant's eyes, so that he gasped in sudden amazement, and in his turn caught the other by the arm, in his turn arrested him with the cry of:

"Sir! A moment!" They were face to face again. "How came you by that jewel?"

But out of his deep sense of injury the colonel answered him:

"It was given me after Worcester by a fatuous fool whose life I thought worth saving."

Without resenting the words, the other stared long and searchingly into his face.

"Ay!" he said slowly. "The man had such a nose, and was of your inches; yet otherwise you hardly look the Cromwellian who befriended me that day. You were shaven, then, and wore your hair of a godly length, as they had it. But you are the man. Besides, it was foretold that we should meet again—ay, and that for a season our lives should run intertwined."

"Foretold?" said Holles. "By whom?"

"By whom? By the stars—they are the only prophets, and speak plainly to him who can read them. Have you ever sought that lore?"

"I am a soldier, sir," answered Holles, in a tone that implied his contempt of charlatanry:

"Why, so am I—or have been—which does not prevent me from being also a reader of the heavens, and a writer of verse, and a courtier, and many other things. The man who is one thing only might as well be nothing. To live, my friend, you must sip at many wells of life." There was an indefinable charm in his air and manner which was fastening upon our adventurer even as it had fastened upon him fifteen years ago in that brief hour of their only but fateful meeting. He linked his gorgeously sleeved arm through the colonel's shabby one. "But, sir, we have not met here and thus to part again without more. If you have business, it must wait upon my pleasure." Over his shoulder he addressed his waiting lackeys sharply in French, then drew the colonel on with him back towards Cheapside. Holles, unresisting, curious, conquered by the charm of the duke's personality, allowed himself to be borne whither the other would, as a man drifts upon the stream of Destiny.

"We'll to Proctor's at the Mitre in Wood Street, which is the best house of entertainment hereabouts, and you shall tell me of yourself. There was that baggage, Sylvia," he added, "but she can wait. If I owed you nothing until now, I owe it to you that you can rescue my mind for an hour or so from the tormenting thought of her. You saw how she used me, the little wanton?" He laughed, all anger having left him now. "But I contrived the thing clumsily, as she said, and deserve to be laughed at for my pains. And yet—oh, but a plague on the woman! She shall pay me with interest one of these days for all the trouble she has given me. Well, sir, and what are you now that once were a Commonwealth man?"

"I am nobody's man at present," said the colonel. "I have seen a deal of service since those days, yet they have brought me small prosperity, as you can see."

"Faith, yes! I should not call your air a prosperous one."

"You may call it a desperate one, and so describe it most exactly."

"Is it so bad? Nay, now, but I am grieved. Yet naught but desperation could bring a Commonwealth man to show himself in London these days. What is your name, sir?"

"Holles—Edward Holles, lately a colonel of horse in the Stadtholder's service. And yours, sir?"

The gallant looked at him almost in surprise, surprise that one should live who did not know him.

"I am George Villiers," he said.

"The Duke of Buckingham," said Holles. "I remember now that I heard you named by the crowd. Besides, I might have guessed it from the pursuit in which I found you."

"Pursuit, you say. Oh, excellent word. Pursuit indeed that never overtakes. Yet it shall, Colonel Holles. I swear it shall, no matter what the cost. Meanwhile, sir, you shall tell me how I may serve you. You shall explain to me how Colonel Holles, sometime of the Commonwealth Army, and more lately in the service of the Stadtholder, happens to be endangering his neck in the England of Old Rowley—this king whose memory for injuries is as long as a lawsuit or as a list of his own amorous adventures."

Colonel Holles told him. He told him of the ill-fortune that had attended him and to what it had reduced him; told him of the mistakes he had made by following impulses that were never right; told of the office in Bombay that he had missed and not desired until he had lost it, and in a surge of frankness—feeling it impossible to fear anything from one so debonair, and standing, moreover, so deeply in his debt—spoke of how he had decided to join the plot in which Tucker and his fellows were engaged, and how there again Fortune had thwarted him and yet saved him for once.

All this he told as they took their way up Wood Street, and ended the tale when they were already at table in a private room at the Mitre that his Grace had commanded. And the Duke was airily sympathetic, condoled and jested in a breath, and when finally they parted—the duke being by then in an advanced stage of intoxication— his Grace almost wept as he flung himself upon the colonel's bosom, calling him his deliverer, and swearing that he went at once to engage himself on his behalf, and that he would know no rest until he had sent the colonel upon the high road to fortune.

That done, he went off in a coach that had been summoned for him, his French lackeys trotting beside it, whilst Colonel Holles, with his head in the clouds and a greater swagger than ever in his port, to emphasise the shabby condition of his person, rolled down Wood Street into Cheapside, fingering the jewel in his ear.

It had served its turn at last, in the eleventh hour, and he might sell it now without a pang, to put himself in funds for the next few days, until his Grace of Buckingham should make his fortune for him as he had undertaken. The result of this mental attitude was, of course, that he was villainously swindled, and got but fifteen guineas for a ruby that was worth a hundred. But he cared nothing. What was a handful of guineas more or less to a man who stood upon the very threshold of Fortune's treasure-house?

Chapter III.

WHATEVER the future's uncertainty might hold, you see Colonel Holles with fifteen guineas in his pocket to stand between himself and the utter destitution in which we lately found him. Some five of these he owed to Mrs. Bankes at the Paul's Head, which—the ugly truth must be told—he never paid, leaving her instead in possession of some paltry gear that was hardly worth as many shillings.

I do not wish to make excuses for him, yet neither do I wish to do him any injustice. It is probable that, but for the arrest of Tucker and Rathbone, he would have returned to his old lodging and settled his score now that he possessed the means. But when he came to consider things, he found that he had no reason whatever to trust Mrs. Bankes. A word from her to the justices, and he would go the way of his late associates. Although they could have nothing against him so far as the plot which had led to his friends' arrest was concerned, yet when they came to examine him no doubt they would unearth his connection with the regicides, and, as we know, it would have availed him nothing to have cited the Bill of Indemnity.

Finding himself in this position, I leave you to judge whether he is greatly to be censured for showing himself no more at the Paul's Head, and for persuading himself that Mrs. Bankes would be amply repaid by that worthless gear of his which she could now retain.

Urged partly by the same considerations, and partly by the love of fine clothes, which is as inevitable as the love of toothsome viands and good wine to one who has roamed the world, the colonel took his way to the second-hand clothiers in Birchin Lane, and spent close upon half his worldly possessions upon a brave suit of maroon velvet and a new hat. Next, to complete the transformation in his appearance, so that none whom he might meet should recognise him for the sometime associate of Rathbone and Tucker, he repaired to a barber's shop, where his beard and moustachios were removed and his face restored to its smoothness of other days. He came forth looking ten years younger at least.

If you conceived that he husbanded the balance of his slender possessions, then you do not know his kind at all. Whatever virtues it may practise, economy is not amongst them. Consider, too, that Holles, having passed through a season of enforced Lent, found himself the more sharp-set for the good things of the world, and you will understand that he sought out the choicest ordinaries in the town, and for a week ruffled it with the best and indulged his appetite like a gentleman. In an evil hour he permitted himself to be drawn into gaming—another thing which your adventurer never can withstand—and thanks to his skill, for he was versed in the potentialities of a bale of dice as any rook that lived by them, he won at first, until, meeting his match, he came to be relieved of his last guinea.

Thus you find him at the end of the week very much as he was on the day of his meeting with the Duke of Buckingham, save that he was the richer by a brave suit of velvet. But since a man may as easily starve in that as in a leather hacketon, he was awakened from his fool's dream by the pangs of hunger, and despondency overtook him once again. He had expected to hear from the Duke before this, having apprised him of his change of address. The fact that he had heard nothing increased and magnified his despondency. He was in a state of reaction from his hopes, and those who know into what depths of despair such reaction usually plunges a man will not marvel at the letter that he wrote the duke forthwith.

In it he spoke of himself as a broken, desperate man, ready for any work that should earn him the wherewithal to live until the dawning of better days. He told the duke that his Grace was now his only hope, that he had hesitated between writing this letter and jumping from London Bridge, and that he would most certainly take the latter course should the other now prove fruitless. He remained his Grace's humble, obedient servant to command in any service, be it never so mean.

He scraped together some few pence wherewith to hire a messenger, then tightened his belt, and sat down to wait.

This was at the end of June. The Court had just left for Salisbury, and there was something approaching panic in the City as a consequence of the orders of the Lord Mayor concerning the plague. In the week that was passed it had broken forth here and there, springing perhaps from those four cases Tucker had reported, so that Sir John Lawrence and the aldermen had been constrained to appoint examiners and searchers, and to take measures for isolating infected houses— measures so rigorous that they dispelled at last the fond illusion that there was immunity within the City walls, and made men realise the peril in which they stood.

A wholesale flight followed, and a sort of paralysis settled upon London life and the carrying forward of its business by the rapidly thinning population. In the suburbs it was reported that the plague was raging fiercely, and that men were dying like flies at the approach of winter.

Preachers of doom multiplied, and were no longer laughed to scorn or pelted with offal. They were listened to in awe, and so reduced in ribaldry were the London 'prentices that they even suffered a madman to run naked through the streets with a cresset of live coals upon his head, screaming "Woe!"

But Holles, obsessed by his own misfortunes, gave little heed to the general dismay, and his Grace of Buckingham, obsessed by a misfortune of his own, was quite as negligent of what was happening, may even have conceived himself immune by reason of his station, for so far the plague had used a proper discrimination and confined itself to those of the poorest classes, and in particular to the women and children of these. Be that as it may, the duke had not accompanied the Court in its flight, nor did he hesitate to go abroad as before, with the result that two nights after Holles had written to him he stepped from a chair at the door of the Bird in Hand, in Paternoster Row, where the colonel was now lodged.

"Colonel Holles," he said, when they stood face to face above in the adventurer's room, "your despair comes opportunely to my own. We are desperate both, though in different ways, and each can mend the other's case. Indeed, I think destiny has made us for each other."

And he sat down.

"If your Grace was made for me, I am ready enough to show myself made for your Grace," said Holles.

"I wonder now," murmured the duke, and scanned the other's seared face. "Gad's life," he said, "though I should no longer recognise you for the man I met some days ago, yet I recognise you for the man I met at Worcester. I commend the prudence of the change. But to the business of your letter. You say that you are ready for any service?"

The duke watched him; and Holles noted the straining look, noted the deep shadows under his Grace's eyes, the pallor and hardness that seemed to have crept into that lovely, dissipated face.

"I said so. Yes, I say so again."

The duke seemed relieved. He drew forth a handkerchief and dabbed his lips. A faint smell of camphor and vinegar reached the colonel. It seemed that though his Grace went forth where the plague stalked yet he took the prescribed precautions.

"I know not how much of squeamishness, of what men call honesty, your travels may have left you."

"None that your Grace need consider," said Holles, on a note of self-derision.

Yet his Grace seemed to hesitate.

"Very well," he said at last. "I warn you that the business I am come to propose is fraught with danger."

"We are old friends—danger and I."

"Grave danger," the duke insisted.

"Good! Presumably the reward will be proportionate."

"It shall be as great as my somewhat reduced exchequer will permit."

"Then let us to it, in the name of Heaven."

"Ah, no, not in the name of Heaven, my friend. In the devil's name, if you will, or in the name of George Villiers, which is much the same." He paused again. "Let me warn you that you may find the task distasteful."

"If I do, I shall tell you so."

"Just so," said the duke. "That is why I warn you. For should you tell me so, you will please tell me without roaring, without the airs of a Bobadil or a Pistol or any other of your fire-eating, down-at-heel fraternity. You have but to say 'No' to it, and spare me the stormings of outraged virtue."

"There's no virtue left in me to outrage," Holles assured him.

"You are to remember that I am here at your own invitation to offer you any service. No doubt in your time you have played many parts, Colonel Holles?"

"Ay—a many," said Holles.

"Have you ever played Sir Pandarus of Troy?" the duke inquired; and his narrowing eyes watched the other's face keenly for some sign.

But the colonel was indifferently acquainted with the classics.

"I have never heard of him. What part may that be?"

The duke took another way to his ends.

"Have you ever heard of Sylvia Farquahrson?" he asked.

"A baggage of a play actress at the Duke's Theatre? I heard of her on the day I met your Grace. I saw her, and heard her, too, and admired her liveliness. What has she to do with me?"

"Something, I think, or else the stars are wrong; and the stars cannot lie. It was foretold that we should meet again, you and I, that we should be concerned in a fateful matter with one other. That other is the lovely Sylvia. You behold in me a man distraught, racked, consumed by my feelings for that woman." He came to his feet, and his pleasant voice was momentarily thickened by the stress of his emotions. "Yet she has spurned and scorned me, and made a mock of me until I can endure no more. Yourself, you say, you heard her; ay, and you admired her liveliness, her scorpion's sting of mockery. If it were virtue that prompted her, I should go my ways, bending to her will. But I know it for mere wantonness, for caprice, for woman's infernal subtlety and zest to torture a man whom she sees perishing and wasting for love of her!"

He clenched his hands one in the other, and his face was livid with the deep emotion that possessed him—that curious and fearful unconscious merging of baffled passion into hatred.

"I could tear the jade limb from limb with these two hands, and take joy in it; or, with the same joy, could I give my body to the rack for her sweet sake! To such a state has she reduced me."

He sat down again and took his blond head in his jewelled hands. Holles looked at him with a glance in which scorn and amusement were blending with surprise.

"Is your Grace come to me for advice?" he wondered. "If so, you have come for the one thing I cannot give. I am but indifferently schooled in the ways of the frail sex."

"For advice, you fool!" blazed the duke. "I am come to you for help. I am come to offer you employment."

A faint colour stirred in Holles's cheeks, but his voice came cold and level.

"Your Grace has hardly said enough."

"I mean to make an end of the prudish airs with which this wanton jade repels me!"

And he adapted a line of Suckling's:

"Since of herself she will not love,
Myself shall make her,
The devil take her!"

"I scarce see how I can serve, your Grace," said Holles. "Will you not be plain with me?"

"Plain?" echoed Buckingham. "Why, man, I want her carried off for me!"

Holles conned him in silence a moment, his face blank, so that the duke watched it in vain for some sign of how he might be taking the proposal. At last he smiled somewhat scornfully.

"In such a matter your Grace's own vast experience should surely serve you better than could I."

`The duke dismissed the scarcely perceptible sneer by a wave of his fine hand.

"I'll tell you more precisely how I need you," said he. "I have a house of my own in Knight Ryder Street, lately deserted by its tenant, who has gone into the country out of fear of the pestilence. That house you shall take in your own name at once, and thither shall you convey the jade. That is all I ask of you; the rest you may leave to me. But it needs despatch, for there are rumours that the Duke's Theatre is to be closed, and with that our chance may be lost. Your best opportunity should be some evening after the play, taking what men you need to waylay and capture her chair as it is being borne home. We'll consider that more closely."

"But," said Holles, who desired to understand something that puzzled him, and who was keeping his temper for that purpose, "since the house is already at your Grace's disposal, would it not be fitter if your Grace yourself took the matter in hand? Thus there would be less time lost."

"On my soul, your wits are sluggish!" was the answer. "Why do you suppose I seek to hire you, and promise to pay you handsomely, for a service that, were it as simple as you conceive, and cut-throat could perform for me? Do you not perceive that I desire to use you as a screen? I have no mind to be gaoled, or perhaps hanged, for abduction— which is a hanging matter. It is already blown abroad that I am a dissolute rake, and although in ordinary times I should care little for the rabble's malicious tongue, yet, scared as people are with the plague, and crying out against what they call the vices of the Court, which they say have brought this visitation upon the City, they would be but too ready to make me a victim of their stupid anger. That is why, should any accuse me, I must be able to reply that it is a lie, and prove it by showing that the abduction was the work of another, who bore her to his own house, whither I followed as a rescuer. D'ye see?"

"I see," said Holles, in a voice that shook with unleashed anger, "that your Grace is led by your vices like a blind man by his dog! Will you go by the door or shall I throw you from the window?"

The duke rose quickly, but he was very cool and masterful. Instantly he wrapped himself in a mantle of arrogance, which sharply underlined the difference between their respective stations in life.

"I warned you, sir, that I should suffer no heroics, that I will have no man play Bobadil to me. You asked service of me; I have shown you how I can employ you."

But Holles interrupted in a voice strangled by indignation.

"I claimed repayment of a service that I did you once, the honourable service that one gentleman may do another, and I desired from you repayment in kind, not this insulting proposal that I—"

"Why, you impudent dog," the duke interrupted, in his turn, "for what you did I paid you then, and handsomely! The jewel I gave you in quittance was worth a hundred pounds, payment enough, in faith, for turning your back whilst I made off from your crop-eared friends!"

"Had I known what a mangy cur it was I succoured," was the answer, "I would ha' wrung your neck there and then!"

The duke's pale face turned paler. He looked at Holles in silence, controlling himself, and dabbing his red lips with his scented handkerchief.

"Very well," he said at length. "Your insolence I disregard. I can even understand the stupidity that prompts it. You have yet to realise, my friend, that there is no music without frets. I have offered to make your fortune in return for a trifling service. Since you refuse, there is no more to say. I'll leave you to starve." He took a step or two towards the door, cool and self-possessed, yet very watchful of the other. Then he checked, for, after all, his needs were very urgent, and he knew not where he should find another man as desperate as Holles to do his work. "But as to the starving, indeed, I can reassure you. You are in no danger of it. Edward Holles, who was lately in the ranks of Cromwell's army, in the service of the regicides, need not fear death by starvation."

Holles started at the covert threat.

"You mean, sir?"

"I mean that if that in itself were not enough to hang you, there is the notorious fact that you are in hiding, and that you have made certain changes in your appearance lest you be recognised as the late associate of Tucker and Rathbone, two of the tools of the traitor Danvers. I tell you that Parliament is to attaint by name a number of other conspirators who are still at large, and I promise you that I shall see your name included among them."

Holles felt the icy hand of fear clutching suddenly at his heart; in imagination the rope was already about his neck, and those high ambitions of his were to find their final fulfilment at Derrick's hands on Tyburn. Nevertheless—

"I care not an apple-paring," he growled.

"Be it so." The duke reached the door, there paused again. "You are a fool, Holles."

"I have long known it," answered Holles bitterly; "but I was never so much a fool as when I saved your filthy life. You pay me, I suppose, as a fool should be paid."

"Nay, you pay yourself in fool's coin. I offer you on the one hand—what shall we say now?—a thousand guineas, and in the other a yard of hemp. You choose the hemp, and I ask you, are you not a very fool?"

Holles stood towering and scowling.

"I think," said he, with cold menace, "that I had better do what I should have done at Worcester, and wring your neck now. If they hang me for that, at least they'll hang me for a meritorious deed."

And he advanced upon the duke.

But the duke smiled, entirely unintimidated.

"My grooms are just beyond the door," he said; and threw it open, disclosing them.

Holles checked in his advance, and Buckingham stepped out. From beyond the threshold he looked back over his shoulder.

"To show my gratitude for the service you once did me," he said, "I will give you until this time to-morrow to decide which it shall be— gold or hemp, fortune or Tyburn."

And on that he went, his lackeys following after him.

Holles slammed the door and stood there cursing his Grace of Buckingham and the ingratitude of man, until he realised that in cursing lay no profit. Then, since he had neither food nor the means to buy it, and because he was hungry, he scraped together some little remaining tobacco, and sat down to smoke it and so cheat his stomach.

The pipe brought with it calm reflection, in which he considered this door of salvation that was opened to him as a means of escape, not merely from adversity, as he had hoped, but from the very gallows. Its portals were choked with foulness, but then he had waded already through so much in the course of his adventurous existence that perhaps the duke was right in deeming him a fool to hesitate here. And what, after all, was at issue? It was not as if the lady to be carried off were some tender, virtuous maid of gentle birth and rearing. Was he to set a rope about his neck for the sake of qualms touching an impudent playhouse drab?

Yet, for all that, it still revolted him. His conscience evoked for him the wistful face of Nancy Sylvester—wistful as he conceived that it must look could she know of the thing his mind was balancing. Often in the years that were sped the thought of her had acted as a curb when evil beckoned him. Thus now it seemed as if her spirit were with him to assist him in this battle with temptation. Perhaps because of that he strove to turn his mind to the danger to life with which the thing was fraught. But that, he reflected, was an ordinary risk, and he considered the high scale of the payment commensurate with the peril.

Need we follow his reflections further? The ultimate road they took will be obvious, since you know that necessity drew him forward by the nose, whilst the fear of death whipped him on from behind. You need not marvel that early on the morrow he wrote and despatched the following letter:

"My Lord Duke,—I have considered, and I will do your will, and so I beg that you will command me further. May it please your Grace to give the bearer a shilling for his pains, since I have not so much as a groat myself.—Your Grace's obedient servant, EDWARD HOLLES."

Chapter IV.

THE taking and equipping of that fine house in Knight Ryder Street took most of the days they had at their disposal. The carrying off of Mistress Sylvia Farquahrson was to be attempted immediately after the last performance should have been held at the little theatre in Salisbury Court; earlier was out of the question, since she must at once be missed and the hue-and-cry raised forthwith.

It was, therefore, one evening a week or so after he had engaged himself in this infamous business that Holles landed, at dusk, from a boat at Whitefriars Steps, and, with a word of injunction to the watermen, took his way to Salisbury Court. Hackney-coaches and chairs were becoming scarce in the City in consequence of the plague; moreover, it was not wise to employ them, lest infection might linger in them from their having carried someone stricken with the pestilence. But, apart from these considerations, the river was the better road for such an affair as the colonel had in hand.

Upon reaching the theatre, Holles found the scanty audience that had attended this last performance of "The Lovers' Quarrel" streaming out from under the pillared portico. To avoid being seen, and already informed of the way she must come, he took a turn in Water Lane, preferring to await her and waylay her there. And presently the chair that bore her came swinging into view, dimly outlined in the gathering dusk.

At sight of it, the colonel went running to meet it down the street.

"Back there! Back!" he cried. "You cannot go this way. There's a riot in Fleet Street, and the mob has broken open an infected house that was closed, and they're scattering the plague to the four winds"

It was a loose tale, none too well conceived, but the scoundrelly chairmen, who were in his pay and prepared for this, at once set down their burden, and gave tongue to their counterfeit alarm. The actress leaned forward to demand the reason of this halt. One of the chairmen raised the roof of the chair, whilst another threw back the apron, inviting her to alight, and informing her of what they had been told, adding that they themselves could hear a faint echo of the din.

Whether she feared a trap or not, I do not know; but if she did the behaviour of the man who had checked their progress very effectively disarmed all suspicion. Having issued his warning, he seemed utterly to disregard her, and, continuing his way like one pursued by fear, would have gone past her, but that she herself checked him by a question.

"But which way then?" she asked.

He paused, impatiently as it seemed.

"Which way do you go," he flung at her, breathlessly—"east or west?"

"I go eastward."

"Then do as I do," said he. "Take sculls from Whitefriars to Dorset Steps, and pursue your way thence."

And upon that he went hurrying on with so scant a chivalry that it would have been ludicrous to have suspected him. The chairmen added their counsel to his own, and in a moment she was speeding after him down Water Lane alone; for the fear of the plague was by then a very urgent thing.

As she reached the steps he was on the point of entering a boat, which apparently he had summoned. Seeing her, he stood aside, and now it was that, remembering her persecution at the hands of Buckingham, the fear of a trap assailed her. But he quenched her fears almost as soon as they arose.

"Take you this boat, mistress, if you are in haste, and since you are alone. Another will serve for me, who am going further."

And, without waiting for her reply, he made a trumpet of his hands, and, raising his voice, shouted:

"Sculls!"

A faint hail answered him from the water, followed by the dip of oars.

His indifference to her made him seem a desirable escort, where some escort was to be desired, since it was not well for a woman to be alone at dusk.

"Will not one boat serve us both?" she asked him.

"Why, madam, why—if you will. Why not? And you are alone, which is not wise at all. So be it then."

He stepped after her into the boat, and sat down beside her in the stern. The men pushed out into the tide, which was ebbing strongly at the time, and they were swept eastward.

In a moment almost they were at Dorset Steps, and they had flashed past them before she could protest, which she did sharply.

One of the watermen swore fiercely for answer.

"It is the tide, mistress; the ebb is over strong. Hold her, Tom! Fetch her round. Bend to it, man!"

"I'm a bending, plague on you," growled his companion. "I am a-bending fit to break my back. She'll not be held up in this tide. Let her run, Jack, and we'll make Blackfriars instead!"

But at Blackfriars they fared no better. Tom flung out a boathook as they passed, missed the steps, and they were swept on. Swearing with all a waterman's famed fluency, he dropped the boathook and clutched at his oars to stem their too rapid progress.

And now the lady becoming seriously alarmed, Holles raised his voice, and reassured her by cursing the watermen for a couple of clumsy cobblers who didn't know a keel from a gunwale, swearing that unless they put the lady ashore at the wharves they would have to deal with him. The men played in this comedy the parts he had assigned to them, and answered him whiningly that they did their best, that it was getting plaguey dark, and the tide was stronger than they had ever known it, but that they could be trusted to make the wharves.

And, indeed, this they accomplished with an ease so apparent that it might almost have proved to the lady that their failure to make the steps had been intentional.

"I shall have to trudge back at least a mile, unless I can find a coach," she complained as she stepped ashore, assisted by one of the watermen on one side and the colonel on the other. She was seeking her purse, when the colonel, who had sprung out beside her, flung them some money, and they pushed off. She looked at him.

"Why, how is this?" she asked. "Do you go no farther then?"

"Anon," he answered her. "I could not leave a lady thus. This is your way, madam," and he pointed up Paul's Chains.

But she stood back from him, ignoring the invitation.

"Not so, sir," she replied coldly. "I have been brought far enough out of my way already."

He did not attempt to argue with her, knowing it futile, but for answer caught her up in his stalwart arms, and, before she realised what was happening, she found herself flung across his shoulder. Taken then with sudden terror, she fought and struggled desperately; but he held her firmly, and in such a way that she could do little damage with her nails. Carrying her as if she had been a child, he went quickly up the street. She screamed, of course, incoherently at first, then coherently, calling for help to the few people that were still abroad.

As a consequence, before they had gone far, two sturdy citizens, attended by a link-boy with a torch, attempted to bar the colonel's progress.

"Stand, villain!" cried one of these.

But Holles had foreseen this possibility of interference, and was ready for it.

"She has the plague!" he cried to them. "Keep your distance on your lives. She is out of her mind, poor child. She has the plague!"

If they had any doubt, they did not dare to put it to the test. Her struggles might well be those that usually beset the victims of the dread scourge. So they fell back hastily, and gave him a free passage, as did one or two others presently who would similarly have intervened in response to her wild appeals.

Thus the colonel brought her to the handsome, well-appointed house in Knight Ryder Street, a house of which he was represented as the tenant. As he reached it, the door was opened by a man who had evidently been waiting his arrival. He entered, still carrying his burden, bore it down the narrow passage and into an elegantly furnished, brilliantly-lighted room on the right. There, at last, he flung her down on a cushioned settle under the shuttered windows, and stood to regain his breath and to mop his brow, for the sweat run down him like basting on a capon.

But no sooner had he released her than she was on her feet again. As breathless as himself, white of face, and with eyes ablaze, she stood confronting him.

"Sir," she said, "you shall let me depart at once, or you shall suffer for this villainy. You shall—"

And then she broke off abruptly to stare at him, her parted lips and dilated eyes bearing witness to an amazement so overwhelming that on a sudden it had overridden her anger.

Her voice came hoarse and tense:

"Who are you? What is your name?"

He stared in his turn, checked in the very act of mopping his brow, wondering what it was she saw in him to be moving her so oddly. He was still wondering how he should answer her, what name assume, when she spared his invention further trouble in the matter.

"You are Ned Holles!" she cried. "You! You of all men—and to do this thing!"

And now, where there had been amazement in her eyes, he beheld a growing horror. She staggered back, covering her face for a moment, and in that moment Holles understood. The years rolled back, he saw himself, a lad of eighteen, going out into the world with a lady's glove in his hat, bent upon knight-errantry for that sweet lady's sake, and he saw her—this Sylvia Farquahrson of the Duke's Theatre—as she had been in those long-dead days when her name had been Nancy Sylvester. Those eighteen years had wrought in her appearance a change that utterly disguised her. Where, in this resplendently beautiful woman could he discover the slender little child of sixteen whom he had loved? How could he have dreamt of his little Nancy Sylvester transformed into the magnificent Sylvia Farquahrson, whose name was a byword for gallantry, lavishness, and prodigality, whose fame was as wide-spread and questionably lustrous as that of Moll Davies or Eleanor Gwynne? Small wonder that he had found her to have vanished utterly when he had sought her ten years ago; small wonder that he should never have suspected her real identity until this moment in which she thus revealed herself to him.

He reeled against the table in his amazement and in the horror which the situation brought him.

"Gad!" he groaned aloud.

At another time the discovery might have filled him with horror of another kind. His soul might have been swept by angry scorn to find Nancy Sylvester, whom he had placed as high and inaccessible as the very stars, whose memory had acted as a beacon to him, casting its pure white light to guide him through many a vile temptation, reduced to this state of evil splendour. But just now the consciousness of his own infamy blotted out all else.

He staggered forward and fell on his knees before her.

"Nan! Nan!" he cried, in a strangled voice. "I did not know—I did not dream—"

"You did not know!" Her voice was a very sword of sharpness. "It is as I thought, then. You are so fallen that you play the hired bully. You have done this at the hiring of another—and I can guess that other, the master-villain who employs such jackals. And you did not know that it was I—that it was one who loved you once when you were clean and honest, as deeply as she loathes and execrates you now for the foul thing you are become. You did not know that it was I you were to carry off. And you dare to urge that ignorance as your excuse? I hope you are punished in the knowledge; I hope that, if any lingering sense of shame abides in you, it will now scorch you to the soul. Get up, man!" she bade him, regally contemptuous, splendidly tragic. "Shall grovelling there mend any of your vileness?"

He came instantly to his feet, yet not so much in obedience to her command as to the thought that flashed upon his mind.

"What I have done I can undo," he said. "Shall we stand talking here instead of acting? Come, Nan! As I carried you hither, so will I carry you hence again at once, while there is time. You shall have your fill of upbraiding me when you are safe bestowed."

"You will carry me hence?" she sneered. "Whither will you carry me?"

"Out of this," he answered frenziedly. "Come away, I say! There is no time to lose!"

"And should I trust myself to you?"

"You must! Can you doubt me—can you doubt how I should act by you? Come!"

He caught her by the wrist, and drew her after him across the room. She went, after a glance at his livid, distorted face, reflecting the torture of his soul.

"Quickly—quickly, then!" she had breathed; and she panted now in her eagerness, in her suddenly revived anxiety to be gone from this house.

But as they reached the door it was thrust open from without, and on the threshold, all in white satin, like a bridegroom, with jewels in the lace at his throat, and a baldrick of garter blue across his breast, stood his Grace of Buckingham, eager expectancy upon his handsome face.

"Out of the way, my lord!" roared Holles. "Out of the way! Let us pass."

Taken aback by that harsh address, Buckingham recoiled a pace.

"What now?" he demanded, scowling. "What now, Bobadil, my roaring captain? What antics are these?"

"This lady is in haste to be gone," said Holles shortly. "So give way."

"Save us now! Have you lost your wits? Get you gone yourself, fool! You are no longer needed here."

"Ye're mistook," Holles answered him. "I was never needed more." And he whipped out his sword. "Out of my way, you lovelorn ninnyhammer, before I do you a mischief."

Now, Buckingham was unarmed, but not unattended. Behind him in the passage waited his two French lackeys and another. He stepped aside, summoning them.

"À moi,François, Antoine!" he summoned them; and on the instant three men sprang forward to make a barrier within the doorway.

Nancy was taken with sudden fear, and cried out. But Holles laughed softly, almost glad of being afforded the means of proving to her that he could be something more than a mere hired abductor of women.

"Must I carve a way out for us?" he asked. "Be their blood on your own silly head, my lord."

And he advanced boldly, keeping the lady close and slightly behind him.

"Keep to your clubs, lads," the duke admonished his followers. "We'll have no shedding of blood if we can help it."

They rushed to meet him with the staves they carried, and pressed him so hard that he was forced to give back, for there is no parrying the blows of clubs with a slender rapier. He retreated, seeking an opening in their defences through which he could thrust home and rid himself one by one of his antagonists. Behind them followed the duke, watching and scornful, confident of the issue.

Holles thrust high, at the throat of the foremost of his assailants. But the lad was quick to the parry, and dashed the blade aside so violently that he shivered it against the club of his neighbour, leaving Holles disarmed save for a hilt and a stump of sword. Yet even then the colonel did not yield him. He thrust out his left arm to catch a descending blow, and crashed his hilt full into the face of the lackey who had disarmed him, so that the fellow dropped as if fulminated. But the next moment Holles himself went down under a blow that took him squarely across the head and laid him unconscious at Sylvia's feet, his limbs twitching faintly.

The duke stepped forward.

"Out," he bade them, "and carry Antoine with you. Then return for Bobadil, and make him fast. I'll deal with him later."

As they were obeying him he advanced towards Sylvia, who recoiled at his approach, watching him with eyes of terror, realising that she was utterly and hopelessly in his power.

He bowed very low and gracefully.

"Ah, my Sylvia, you shall forgive me the shifts to which my love has driven me, and this last shift of all with that roaring fool's heroics and what they have led to. Blame not me; blame that cos amoris, your own incomparable loveliness and grace, the very whetstone of love."

"Love!" she answered him, with scorn unutterable of lip and eye, for she was none of your swooning madams, but a woman of a high spirit. "You call this violence love!" She stabbed him with a short, sharp laugh. "Sir, if you do not instantly suffer me to pass and go hence, I swear that you shall hang, though you be duke of twenty Buckinghams."

"Lady, you mistake me. You do as little justice to my wits as you have ever done to my poor person. No charge against me could be heeded in the circumstances. You were forcibly brought hither to his own house by a ruffian named Holles, whom Parliament shall attaint for other crimes. I came to rescue, and I have stayed to comfort you in your natural distress. The facts will prove my story. What shall prove yours?"

She shrugged contemptuously.

"You are a very master of the art of lying. But I promise you it shall not avail you. Let me pass, or it shall be the worse for you. Let me pass, I say!"

Majestically, like the queen of tragedy she was, she flung out an arm in a gesture of command. It loosed the silken scarf that had been wound about her throat, so that this fell away and trailed from her shoulder, revealing the delicate whiteness of her skin.

Buckingham looked at her, craned forward a moment, and then, quite suddenly, she saw his expression change. Into his staring eyes there crept something of incredulity and horror; his jaw fell loose, and the colour perished in his cheeks, leaving them white and haggard. Thus he stood for a long moment, and in that moment Holles stirred where he lay, groaned, thrust back his tumbled hair matted with blood from his cracked head, and, looking up, saw the duke point with a hand that shook at Sylvia's throat.

"Gad!" came the duke's voice, no louder than a whisper. "The tokens!" And he repeated it more loudly with an increasing horror. "The tokens!"

He reeled back in gasping dread as his servants were returning, and faced about.

"Back!" he bade them, in a voice rendered shrill by terror. "Back! Away! She is infected! She has the plague!"

They stood at gaze an instant, their faces blenching; they beheld, as he had done, the tokens stamped upon the white loveliness of her skin; then they turned and fled incontinently, himself following them.

The actress, scarcely realising what had happened, stood there and heard the clatter of their footsteps in the passage and the slamming of the door. Then she looked at herself, and saw the brand of the pestilence upon her. Whether it was the sight of it, or whether from the workings of the fell disease which excitement had hitherto suppressed, she was instantly taken with nausea; the room rocked about her; the ground seemed to heave under her feet. She would have fallen, but that suddenly she felt herself supported. Looking up she beheld the blood-smeared face of Colonel Holles, who had risen to spring to her assistance.

"Do not touch me," she cried. "Did you not hear? I have the plague."

"So I heard," he answered.

"You will take the infection," she warned him.

"'Tis what I most desire," said he; and lifting her as he had lifted her once before that night, he bore her to the settle and laid her there.

He stood above her, his mind half numbed by anguish at seeing her thus, and for a spell she lay there realising her condition and staring up at him wide-eyed.

"Why do you tarry here?" she asked him at length in a dull voice. "You had best depart, and leave me to die. I think I shall die the easier for being rid of your company."

He made as if to answer her, then bowing his head, he passed out of the room in silence. She sat straining her ears, listening to his footsteps in the passage, and finally heard the slamming door announcing to her his departure. Knowing herself alone, a great fear then overtook her. For all the brave words she had used, the thought of dying alone in this empty house filled her with terror, so that it seemed to her that even the company of that dastard would have been better than this horror of loneliness.

She flung herself down upon her face and sobbed aloud until the searing pain in her breast conquered even her self-pity and stretched her writhing in agony as if upon a rack. At last a merciful unconsciousness supervened. From this it would seem that she passed into a sleep, for she was aroused by a sound of steps and voices. The door of her room opened, and through a mist that had gathered before her eyes she saw the tall figure of Colonel Holles enter, followed by two strangers. One of these was a little bird-like man of middle age, the other was young and of a broad frame and a full countenance.

Both were dressed in black and each carried a red wand—as enjoined by the law upon all whose duties took them into infected houses, so that those whom they passed in the streets should be warned thereby to give them a wide berth.

The younger man remained standing by the door, a handkerchief smelling pungently of vinegar held to his nostrils, and his jaws working the while, for he was chewing a stick of snake-root as a further measure of precaution. Meanwhile, his companion—who was evidently a physician—approached the patient, and made a swift and silent examination of her case.

She suffered it in silence, a lethargy overwhelming her too profoundly to admit of much care as to what might betide. He held her wrist for an instant in his bony fingers, the middle one upon her pulse; then he examined the blotches upon her throat, and finally raised one of her arms, and bade the colonel hold a candle whilst he scrutinised the arm-pit.

A grunt escaped him at what he beheld. With his forefinger he tested the consistency of the swelling he discovered there, sending thence sharp, fiery streams of pain through all her body, as it seemed to her.

"It is well," he said, as he straightened himself. "Recovery is possible if suppuration can be induced, and since the swelling has already manifested itself there is a chance. But great care will be necessary."

He spoke to Holles as if to her husband, conceiving him so indeed from the circumstances.

"Nurses are scarce and difficult to find," he continued. "I will send you one as soon as possible. But, meanwhile, all will depend upon yourself."

"I am ready," said Holles dully.

"In any case, the law does not allow you now to leave this house until you can receive a certificate of health—which cannot be for at least a month. Those are Sir John Lawrence's wise provisions for checking the spread of the infection."

"I am aware of them," he answered.

"So much the better then. As I have said, I will send a nurse-keeper as soon as possible. But it is of the first importance that no time should be lost in applying remedies and inducing perspiration. So that, if her life is to be saved, you will get to work at once. I came prepared, and I can leave you all that you will require. You will rub the swelling well with a stimulating ointment which I shall give you, and then apply to it a poultice of mallows, linseed, and palm oil. You will administer a dose of mithridate as an alexipharmic, and some two hours later a posset drink of Canary and spirits of sulphur. Make a fire and heap all available blankets upon her. For to-night, if you do that, you will have done all that can be done. To-morrow I shall return early in the morning, and we shall then consider further measures." He turned to the man standing by the door, who was one of the official examiners. "You have heard, sir?" he asked. The man nodded.

"I have already bidden the constable send a watchman. He should be here by now, and we will see the house locked up when we go forth."

"Very well," said the doctor, and again he addressed the colonel. "I will see her put to bed, then take my leave of you till to-morrow."

That, however, was a service the lady was still able to do herself. When Holles, scorning the doctor's aid, had, single-handed, carried her to the room above, she recovered sufficiently to demand that she should be left to herself; and, despite her obvious weakness, the doctor concurred that she should have her way in the matter.

The effort so exhausted her, and awoke such torturing pains, that when finally she got to bed she lay panting in a state of half unconsciousness.

Placing upon a table all that Holles would require, and repeating his injunctions, the doctor took his leave at last. The colonel accompanied him to the door of the house, which was standing open, whilst, by the light of a lantern held by the watchman, the examiner was completing the inscription "Lord have mercy upon us," under the ominous red cross which he had daubed upon the panels.

Doctor and examiner departed together, leaving the watchman on guard before the door to prevent any unauthorised person from passing in or out. Holles heard the key being turned on the outside, and knew himself a prisoner in that infected house for weeks to come, unless death should set him free meanwhile.

He smiled grimly when he remembered how an hour ago he had shouted that she had the plague to those who would have rescued her from him. How far had he been from conceiving that he spoke the truth! It was almost as if a poetic justice had overtaken him. It was odds that neither she nor he would ever leave that house alive again, and, all things considered, this seemed to him the best possible consummation.

Upon that thought he went to prepare the ingredients the doctor had left him wherewith to combat the disease. Armed with these, he returned presently to her chamber. Lying there in that deep lethargy which, whilst leaving her a full consciousness of all that had occurred about her, seemed to have deprived her of all power of speech or movement, she watched him with her wide, fevered eyes. Anon, under the pain which him ministrations caused her, she sank into unconsciousness, and thence into a raving delirium, which for days thereafter was to alternate with periods of lethargic, exhausted slumber.

Chapter V.

FOR five days she lay as one suspended between this world and the next. The merest straw of chance would suffice to tip the balance, the slightest lack of care and watchfulness to snap the slender thread by which life was still tethered to her wasting, fever-consumed frame.

Had the ordinary nurse-keeper fetched on the morrow by the doctor been alone in charge of her, it is long odds that she would never have survived, for no hired attendant could ever have ministered to her with the self-sacrificing devotion of the broken adventurer who had once loved her. Not for a moment did he suffer himself to relax his vigilance.

Not content merely to take his turn in watching her whilst the nurse rested, he never slept, and was never long absent from her chamber in all the hours of those five days and their attendant nights. To the remonstrances of Mrs. Bates, the nurse—a capable, motherly woman of forty—he was insensible, until once he snarled at her for her solicitude concerning him, whereafter she troubled him with no more of it.

Yet there was more than self-sacrifice in his behaviour. He deliberately sought death. He hoped—indeed, he would have prayed, but that he had long since lost the trick of it—for the infection. Morning and night he would bare his breast and finger his arm-pits in expectancy, eager to find upon himself the tokens that the hand of death had touched and claimed him.

Yet the irony that ever pursued him thwarted now his desire for death, as it had thwarted his every other desire in life. Living and moving in that house of pestilence, breathing its mephitic atmosphere, he yet remained as immune as if he had been a "safe-man," and this notwithstanding that he neglected every precaution prescribed him by the doctor, scorned the use of electuaries, and would arm himself with neither vinegar nor balsam of sulphur against infection.

It is true that he smoked a deal, sitting by the window of her chamber, which was kept open day and night to the suffocating heat of that terrible July. And it is true that the great fire maintained, notwithstanding this, by the doctor's commands, did much to cleanse and purify the air. And these things may have helped to keep him safe despite himself, unconsciously disinfected.

And, meanwhile, as if incubated by that terrific heat, the plague was spreading now through London at a rate that seemed to threaten the city with the utter extermination that the preachers of doom had promised. From the doctor he learned of that sudden pestilential conflagration, of the alarming bill of mortality, and of the fact that the number of victims within the walls amounted in that week to some seven hundred. And he had abundant evidences of it even in his confinement there. From that window by which he spent long hours he beheld Knight Ryder Street—that once busy thoroughfare—become day by day more utterly deserted.

He could see the closed houses—and there were six of them within his view on the opposite side of the street—each with its red cross, and an armed watchman day and night before its padlocked door.

Victuals and what else was needed from outside reached them through the watchman. To him Holles would lower money in a basket. (He was well supplied with money still, the remains of the funds he had received from Buckingham.) And by the same means would the watchman send up what was required. Nightly was he distributed soon after dark, and again just before peep of day, by the hideous clang of a bell— hideous because association of ideas had so made it to him—and the creak of wheels and a raucous voice that awoke the stillness with its dreadful summons:

"Bring out your dead!"

Peering down, he would see the dark outline of the ghastly dead-cart loom into view as it came slowly down the street. Invariably it paused before his own door, arrested by the cross upon it, and the bell would clang and the summons rise:

"Bring out your dead!"

Then, at a word from the watchman on guard below, the grim vehicle would move slowly on, and Holles, with a shudder, would fling a glance at the sufferer where she lay, wondering fearfully whether he would be ready to answer that summons when next it came.

On the morning of the sixth day the doctor found the fever much abated, and the patient in an unusually easy tranquil slumber, from which she awakened to full consciousness at the touch of his hand upon her wrist.

She was helped to a realisation of her surroundings by the words the doctor was uttering:

"The danger is overpast. She will recover, thanks to your tireless care of her, and it is yourself gives me more thought now than does she. Leave her now to the care of Mrs. Bates, and do you go rest yourself, man, or I'll not answer for your life. See, she is waking."

Her eyes sought Holles, where he stood at the foot of the carved bed, and she beheld a gaunt, hollow-eyed ghost with pallid, sunken cheeks frammed in a coarse stubble of unshaven beard. Meeting her conscious gaze, he moved aside and staggered to a chair.

"Naught ails me, doctor," he answered; but already his voice came thick, and his words were almost indistinct. "I would sooner—"

He was suddenly fast asleep. It was as if the assurance that she was out of danger had snapped the reins of will by which he had held his lassitude in subjection. Instantly nature had claimed from him the dues he had long withheld.

She looked at the doctor.

" I have the plague, have I not?" she asked him.

"Say, rather, that you had it, madam," he answered her; "and give thanks to God and your husband that you are recovered."

"My husband?" she inquired.

"Indeed, yes—and a husband in a thousand. I have seen many husbands of late, and speak with knowledge. I have seen terror of the pestilence blot out all else in them. But Colonel Holles is not of these."

"He is not my husband, sir."

"Not your husband? Gadso! Perhaps that explains it. What is he, then, who has all but given his life for you?"

She hesitated a moment how to define him.

"Once he was my friend," she said.

"Once?" quoth the physician, raising his brows. "And when, pray, did he cease to be your friend—this man who stayed with you in this infected house when he might have fled, who has denied himself sleep or rest of any kind in all these days that he might be ever at hand against your need of him, who has risked taking the pestilence a thousand times for your sake?"

"Did he do all this?" she asked.

The doctor explained precisely the extent of the colonel's self-sacrifice.

"He may once have been your friend, as you say," he concluded, smiling, "but I cannot think that he was ever more your friend than now."

She lay very thoughtful and silent for a time, staring at the ceiling, her face an expressionless mask in which the inquisitive little doctor sought in vain for a clue to the riddle of the relations of these two. Had he obeyed this inquisitiveness he would have questioned her, but professional instincts restrained him. Nourishment and rest were to be prescribed, and he saw to the former before he departed, out of sheer charitableness, not only to her but to Holles, whose sleep he could not bring himself to disturb.

When he returned that evening he was again accompanied by a public examiner, who came to assure himself that the danger of infection being now overpast, the re-opening of the house could be permitted after the prescribed lapse of thirty days.

Holles, who had slept uninterruptedly until their advent, awakened, and stood dully at hand whilst the examiner assured himself that all was as the doctor stated. When they left the room he went with them, and he remained below after they had gone, and so continued, grim and lonely, until three days later, when the nurse came to tell him that Miss Farquahrson was risen, and desired to speak with him.

He turned pale and trembled at the summons. Then he braced himself and went.

He found her seated by the open window, where he himself had sat throughout the greater part of those five days and nights when he had watched over her and fought back hungry death from her pillow. She was very pale and weak, yet her loveliness seemed to draw added charms from her condition.

She had been dressed with care in a gown of grey and purple— the same that she had worn on the night when he had carried her off— and her chestnut hair was intertwined with a thread of pearls. Her eyes seemed of a darker, deeper blue than usual, perhaps because of the deep brown stains her illness had left about them. She seemed oddly changed, too, so spiritualised that she appeared to have recovered something of her early youth, so that she looked less like Sylvia Farquahrson, the idolised player, and more like the Nancy Sylvester that Holles had known in the old days.

He stood mutely before her, like a lackey awaiting his orders, whereupon a tinge of colour crept into her cheeks.

"I have sent for you, sir, that I might thank you for your care of me, for your disregard of your own peril in tending me; in short, sir, for my life, which had been lost without you."

He avoided the gaze of her eyes, that were like wet sapphires.

"You owe me no thanks," he said, and his voice was almost gruff. "I but sought to undo the evil I had done."

"Nay, now, the plague—it was no fault of yours that I took it. I had it when you brought me hither"

"No matter for that," he said. "Reparation was due. I owed it to myself."

"You did not owe it to yourself to risk your life for me."

"I think I did, but the matter is not worth contending."

He did not help her. Yet she persisted.

"At least the reparation was a very full one," she said quietly.

"It would comfort me to hear you say it, could I believe you," he answered grimly. "If you have commands for me, madam, I shall be below until the house is re-opened, and we can go our ways."

And upon this he bowed and left her.

He was in a mood from which there was no issue. Shame hemmed his soul about like prison walls, and he saw no way out save through the door that death might open; yet death obdurately refused. And so the weeks passed, and from Mrs. Bates he heard of the progress of Miss Farquahrson, and of how she was daily gathering strength. Yet never once did he go to visit her, and not again did she summon him to her presence. He kept to his quarters below-stairs, smoking continually, and drinking deeply, too, until he had consumed the little store of wine the house contained.

Thus August found them, and from the watchman he heard incredible stories of the city's plight, and from the window he nightly beheld the comet in the heavens, the flaming sword of wrath—as the watchman termed it—that was hung above the accursed city, from Whitehall to the Tower.

They were within three days of the re-opening of the house, when one evening Mrs. Bates brought him word that Miss Farquahrson desired to see him in the morning. He received the message, and dismissed the woman with an incoherent sound that conveyed neither assent nor dissent; then he sat down to smoke and think. And the more he thought the more his terror of that interview increased. It was himself he feared, himself he mistrusted. Where once the boy had worshipped, the man now loved with a love that was consuming him, a love that heaped up and fed the fires of shame within his soul.

In her eyes he could never be but the vilest of men, for he had done by her the vilest thing a man may do. And yet there was her cursed gratitude for the life which he had saved. And that very gratitude was based upon a misapprehension which made a cheat of him. She could not know that it was his desire to take the infection and perish that had made him so assiduous, so seemingly reckless of consequences to himself. She deemed his behaviour a noble reparation, and so, should he speak of his love, should he fling himself at her feet and pour out the tale of his longings, out of her sense of debt she might take him—this broken derelict of humanity, and so doom herself to be dragged down with him into the kennels that awaited him. And, because he could not trust himself to come again into her presence preserving the silence that his honour demanded, he suffered torture now at the thought that to-morrow, willy-nilly, he must behold her, since such was her desire.

One way out there was, a desperate one. Yet, since no alternative offered, he resolved that he must take it, and take it he did. Towards midnight he gently opened the window and peered down. The night watchman, who had come on duty two hours ago, had propped himself in a corner of the doorway, and the sound of his snores informed the colonel that he slept, no doubt assured that no evasion was to be feared from a house that in three days more would be thrown open.

Holles fetched hat and cloak, then straddled the window-sill, and let himself gently down until he hung full length, his feet but a yard or so above the street. He dropped almost without a sound, and set off at once in the direction of Paul's Chains.

The watchman, momentarily aroused, heard his retreating footsteps, but never conceiving them to concern him, settled himself more comfortably in his restful angle, and slept soundly until, towards dawn, the rumble of the dead-cart and the clang of the bell awoke him.

Meanwhile, Colonel Holles, with no other aim than to place as wide a distance as possible between himself and the house in Knight Ryder Street that sheltered Miss Farquahrson, came by way of Carter Lane into Paul's Yard. He hesitated here a moment , then struck eastward down Watling Street, plunged into a labyrinth of narrow alleys to the north of it, and might have walked all night, but that, lost in the heart of this dædalus, he was drawn by sounds of revelry to a narrow door. From under this door a blade of light was stretched across the cobbles of the street. He stood hesitating on the threshold, peering up at the sign, which he could faintly make out to be a flagon, so that he conjectured the place to be a tavern. In the end he might have passed on, but that, whilst he hesitated, the door opened suddenly, and a couple of drunken roysterers lurching out, discovered him, and dragged him into the glare within with loud cries of insensate hilarity.

Holles suffered them to do their will with him, whilst the taverner made haste to close the door, and shut out of sight and sound the fact that he was breaking the rigorous laws lately enacted against such assemblies.

The colonel looked about the unclean den into which he had strayed, and found himself in a motley gathering of debauchees. They were men whom circumstances, and the fact that no further certificates of health were issued, confined to the plague-ridden City, and they took this means of drowning the terror in which they lived and moved in this stronghold of death. Holles joined them. He had a few guineas 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 holes, in the pale light of dawn.

Thereafter he hired a bed from the vintner, and slept until close upon noon, when he rose, broke his fast on a dish of salt herrings, and went forth again on his aimless way. He won through a succession of narrow alleys into the eastern end of Cheapside, and stood there aghast to survey the change that a month had wrought. That thoroughfare, usually the busiest in London, was now almost deserted.

Where all had been life and bustle, a hurrying of busy men, and a continual stream of chairs and coaches, all was now silent and empty of life. Not a single chair or carriage was to be seen abroad, and but an odd straggler on foot tenanted the length of that empty street. And these few whom he met wore, he noticed, a furtive, watchful air, and kept to the middle of the street as they walked, drawing off still further when they passed him or another. But few of the shops remained open, whilst almost every other house was close shuttered, its door padlocked, marked with the red cross, and guarded by its armed watchman. Last of all, he noticed that blades of grass were sprouting between the kidney stones with which the street was paved, so that, but for the houses, looking so grim and silent on either side, he must have supposed himself in some suburban lane.

He turned up towards St. Paul's, his steps echoing in the empty street as if he had been some reveller who took his midnight way towards home. He turned into Paternoster Row, as silent and deserted as Cheapside, and made his way towards his old lodging at the sign of the Bird in Hand, which at least he found still clear of the infection.

Although the house's trade was all but completely paralysed, yet he was given but an indifferent and suspicious welcome to his old quarters, where for the present he determined to abide. What the future would bring he could not surmise. He would have left the City, but that his going was impossible now that certificates of health were being withheld. Moreover, he could not in the circumstances have submitted himself to questions as to his antecedents without finding himself sequestered and flung into gaol for having committed what then was accounted the most serious offence against the law, in escaping from an infected house before the authorities had reopened it.

And, meanwhile, in that house in Knight Ryder Street, his evasion had been discovered and published abroad. When word of it was borne to Miss Farquahrson, she received it without spoken comment. But her white face announced how it affected her; she sat a while, as Mrs. Bates afterwards related, as if she had been stunned, and thereafter moved like a woman in a dream until, two days later, when she was presented with a certificate of health by the examiner, and informed that she was at liberty to depart.

A chair was fetched for her, and she was carried home, there to make the discovery that her servants had fled after plundering her handsome house.

She sat amid the dust and disorder of her once elegant boudoir, and her sense of desolation reached its climax.

Chapter VI.

HAD you asked Colonel Holles in after life how he had spent the week that followed his escape from the house in Knight Ryder Street there was little he could have told you, for the ugly truth of the matter is that in those days he was never sober. His memories were all obscured and befogged. Odd events that he could recall he recalled but dimly, like objects seen through a mist. Of these was the faint recollection of an excursion in quest of his Grace of Buckingham, to vent a sense of wrong that came to the surface of his sodden wits like oil to the surface of water. He remembered vaguely setting out with intent to cut his Grace's windpipe into pieces—to use his actual expression; but of how the excursion ended he had no recollection whatever beyond a sense of disappointment.

He slumbered throughout most of those days, and waking towards evening, with a mind which sleep had partly sobered, he would roll out, and be seen no more until the following dawn. Those nights were invariably spent at the sign of the Flagon in that dismal alley off Watling Street whither chance had led him in the first instance. What attraction the place held for him he could scarcely have defined, but there is no doubt that he was drawn by the company of men in similar case to himself—men who sought the nepenthes of the wine-cup, forgetfulness of their misery and desolation in riotous debauch. Low though he might previously have come, neither was it the resort nor were its patrons the associates that he would ordinarily have chosen. Fortune, whose sport he had ever been, had flung him thither; and thither he continued, since he could find there the only thing he sought until death should bring him final peace.

The end came abruptly. One night—the seventh that he spent in this fashion—he drank more deeply even than his deep habit, so that when, at the host's command, he lurched out into the dark alley, the last of the roysterers to depart, his wits were drugged to the point of utter unconsciousness. His limbs moved mechanically, staggering under him, and 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. Knowing nothing of whither he went, he came into Watling Street, crossed it, plunged into a narrow alley on the southern side, and reeled on until his feet struck an obstacle in their unconscious path. He fell forward on his face, and, lacking the energy to rise, lay there, and so sank into a lethargic sleep.

Came a bell tinkling in the distance. Its sound grew nearer and louder, and was accompanied by the fall of hoofs and the groan of wheels. Presently was heard the cry on the silent night:

"Bring out your dead!"

The vehicle halted at the mouth of the alley where the colonel lay. A man stood there, holding a flaming link above his head, casting its ruddy glare hither and thither, searching the dark corners of that by-way. He beheld two bodies stretched upon the ground—the colonel's and the one over which he had tripped. He called to a companion, and the cart was brought nearer by one who walked at the horse's head, pulling at a short clay pipe.

Whilst the first of these ghoulish fellows held the light, the other rolled the body over, then stepped on, and did the same by Colonel Holles. The colonel's countenance was as livid as that of the corpse that had tripped him, and he scarcely seemed to breathe. They bestowed no more than a glance upon him, then turned 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 took down their hooks, seized the body, and swung it up into the vehicle. Coming next to Holles, they pulled off his boots and his doublet, then took his hat and cloak, made a bundle of the lot, and dropped them into a basket attached behind the cart.

"He's still warm, Nick," said he of the pipe.

"He'll be cold enough 'or ever we come to Aldgate," answered the other; and the next moment their hooks were in such garments as they had left him, and they had added him to the ghastly load that already half-filled the cart.

They trundled on, going eastward, pausing ever and anon as they went, either at the call of a watchman or at what they found for themselves, and ever and anon adding to the grim load which they bore away to peremptory burial in the plague pit.

They had all but reached Aldgate, when the colonel was aroused, his wits quickened by Nature to rescue him from suffocation. He awakened, thrusting fiercely for air at a heavy mass that lay across his face. At first his efforts were the feeble ones to be expected of his condition, so that he gained but short respites, in each of which, like a drowning man who keeps coming to the surface, he gasped a breath of the contamination about him. But finding each effort succeeded by a suffocation that became more painful, a sort of terror gained upon him and pulled his senses out of their drunken torpor. He heaved more strenuously, and at last won clear, so far as his head was concerned. He saw the paling stars above, and was able to breathe freely, but the burden he had thrust from his head now lay across his breast, and the weight of it was troublesome. He put forth a hand, and realising that what he grasped was a human arm, he shook it vigorously.

"Afoo' there, ye drunken lob!" he growled in a thick voice. "Afoo', I say! D'ye take me forrer couch, to pu' yourself to bed across me? O's my life," he continued more angrily, getting no response "Gerrup! Gerrup! Or I'll—"

He stopped, blinking up at the glare of light that suddenly struck across his eyes, and beheld the two horrible figures of the carters, who had mounted the wheels of the vehicle, summoned by the sound of his voice. There was something so foul and infernal in their faces as seen in the ruddy glare of the torch that he made an effort more completely to arouse his senses. He struggled up into a sitting posture and looked about him, endeavouring to conjecture where he was.

"I told ye he was warm, Nick," said the voice of one of those ghouls.

"Ay, ye did so," was the answer. "An' what's to be done with him now? Best take him along. If he's not dead already he soon will be."

"And what of the examiner, fool? Turn him out. He's but a drunken cove that was sleeping off his wine. Lend a hand."

But there was not the need. Whether it was their words, or what he saw about him, that helped him to realise his situation, the colonel had struggled first to a sitting posture and then to his knees. Loathing and horror completely sobered him. He gripped the sides of the cart, flung a leg over, and leapt down, stumbling as he reached ground and falling his full length.

By the time he had gathered himself up the cart was moving on again, and the peals of hoarse laughter of the carters seemed to fill the silent street. Holles fled from the sound, back the way he had come, but not knowing where he was, and feeling, moreover, 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 it was to find himself in the full glare of a hot sun already high in the heavens. In mid-street stood a man dressed in black, leaning upon a red wand, and regarding him attentively.

"What ails you?" the man asked him, seeing him awake.

"The sight of you," growled the colonel, rising.

Yet on the movement a giddiness assailed him; he reeled and sank back to the step that had been his couch. Acting on a sudden thought, he tore open his shirt. On his breast the flower of the plague had blossomed while he slept.

"I lied," he said. "Look!"

And he laughed as he displayed almost with pride those dark red blotches to the man in black. And that was the last thing that he remembered.

There ensued for him a period of fevered activity, of dread encounters, and terrible combats, of continual strife with an opponent dressed in 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. He 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 realised them by the aid of his last waking memory.

He lay on a pallet near a window, through which he caught a glimpse of foliage and a strip of indigo sky. Overhead were the bare rafters of a roof that knew no ceiling; down the long room on his left were stretched a dozen such pallets as his own, and upon each a sufferer like himself, some lying still as if in death, others moaning and struggling with their keepers. He turned from them to contemplate that strip of sky, and from his heart he thanked God that at last the sands of his miserable life were running swiftly out, that peace awaited him. In that peace at last would be blotted out the shame that haunted him even now in these first moments of returning consciousness, the spectre of the contempt and loathing which he must have inspired in her against whom he had so grossly sinned. Yet it would have been sweet before he passed out into the cold shadows to tell her all that had gone to making such an utter villain of him. It might perhaps have mitigated that contempt of hers did she know how Fate had placed him between the hammer and the anvil. Tears gathered in his eyes and rolled down his wasted cheeks.

Steps approached his bedside. Someone was leaning over him. He looked up, and a great fear possessed him, so that his heart seemed to contract. Then, aloud, he explained to himself that apparition.

"I am at my dreams again," he complained softly.

"Nay, Ned; you are awake at last," said Nancy.

And now he saw that she, too, was weeping.

"Where am I, then?" he asked.

"In the pest-house in Bunhill Fields," she told him.

"And how come you here?"

"I was here before you. Being desolate, I offered myself as nurse-keeper, and the authorities sent me hither to tend the victims of the plague."

"And you tended me—you?"

"Did not you tend me?" she asked him. "Did you not stay to do so, and risk infection, when you might have fled and so been safe? Dr. Dymock told me of it all."

He made a gesture with one of his hands, grown so white and thin.

"Pish! That was the meanest measure of reparation, as I told you!" He sighed. "God is very good to me, a sinner. As I lie here now, all that I craved was that you might know the full truth of my villainy, of my temptation, and my fall; and no sooner do I wish it than you are come—that by confession I may die the easier."

"Why talk of death?" she asked him.

"Because it comes, and I shall make it welcome. 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. It was ever thus with me. In all things have I been the sport of Chance, even in my dying, as it seems. But I have a deal to tell you, and I am weak. If I delay perhaps I shall go before the tale is told. Listen, then!"

And, lying there while she continued to bend over him, he told her all. The evil choice that Buckingham had offered him, his desperate condition, and the utter hopelessness that had led to his succumbing.

"I am dying," he ended, "and I would not seek your forgiveness by a falsehood. I desire not to make the thing I did appear less vile. But I swear by my last feeble hope of heaven, if a heaven indeed there be, that I knew not that it was you I was to carry off, else I had gone to the hangman 'fore ever I had lent myself to the duke's business."

"You told me that before," she said; "and, indeed, I never doubted it. How could I?"

"How could you? Easily, all things considered," he answered grimly. Then he looked at her with piteous eyes. "I scarce dare hope that you'll forgive me all."

"But I do, Ned. I have forgiven you all long since, even without knowing what you have now told me. I forgave you when I learnt what you had done, how you risked your life for me."

"Say it again," he implored her.

She said it, weeping.

"Then I am happy. What matter all my unrealised dreams of crowned knight-errantry, what matter all my high-flown ambitions! To this must I have come in the end. I was a fool not to have taken the good to which I was born. Then might we have been happy, Nan, and neither of us would have sought the empty triumphs of the world."

"You shall get well again," she assured him through her tears.

"That surely were a crowning folly when I may die so happily," he answered.

But he did not die. What he had done for her, she had now done for him. By unremitting care of him in the endless hours of his delirium she had brought him safely through the Valley of the Shadow, and already, even as he spoke of dying, deluded by his weakness into believing that he stood upon the threshold, his recovery was assured.

Within a few days he was afoot again, and pronounced clear of the infection. Yet, before they would suffer him to depart, he must undergo the prescribed period of sequestration. He went to take his leave of Nancy under the elms of the garden of the farm that had been converted into a pest-house.

Slimly graceful stood she before him, and regarded him with white-faced, wide-eyed dismay.

"Can you then think of leaving me again?" she asked him, driven herself to woo this man who would not woo her.

He turned pale as herself, and trembled where he stood, growing conscious too that he made but an ungainly figure in the garments with which the public charity had supplied him.

"What else is there?" he asked her hoarsely.

"That is a question you had best answer for yourself."

He looked at her, and then away. He moistened his lips and stifled a curse.

"I see, I see!" he said. "You would gather up the shreds of this shattered life of mine with the hands of pity?"

"If that were my pleasure, should it not be your law?" she asked him.

"Your pleasure? Ha! Your pity, I said."

"Why, then you said wrong. Must I ask you to marry me, Ned, before you will catch my meaning? Or do you think that, having been a play-actress once, I am so fallen that—"

"Stop!" he bade her almost angrily. Then, looking at her. "Why do you try me, Nan?" he said. "You cannot need me. What have I to offer?"

"Do women love men for what they bring?" she asked him. "Is that the lesson your mercenary life has taught you? Oh, Ned, 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, and as irrevocably again we have come together. Will you weary Chance by demanding that it should perform this miracle for the third time?"

He looked at her steadily, a man redeemed, driven back into the paths of honour by the scourge of all that had befallen him. Then he took her hand, and, bending low over it, he bore it to his lips.

"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 naught to offer you in exchange for all that. And so, God keep you ever, Nan."

And upon that, abruptly, he left her, nor heeded the little fluttering cry of "Ned! Ned!" that followed after him.

But Chance had not done with him yet. When a month later, without seeing her again—since that, of course, would have been denied him, as it would have nullified his sequestration from infected persons and surroundings—he went forth free to go where he pleased, he remembered the debt that still lay unsettled between Buckingham and himself.

It was not mere revenge that drove him. It was the hideous thought that what his Grace had attempted once he might attempt again, and perhaps with better fortune. The colonel looked upon him as a peril to be removed from Nancy's path. With this intent he took his way to Whitehall on that day of September.

There he was informed that his Grace had left town some weeks ago, having gone to join the Court at Salisbury, and that in all probability he would now be found at Oxford, whither the King's Majesty had transferred himself. He was turning away, determining that he must find the means to get him to Oxford, when, as he came down the steps of the palace, he was brought face to face with a huge, dark man who had just alighted from a coach.

The man checked and stared at sight of him, and the colonel put off his plain, unfeathered hat in greeting to his sometime friend the Duke of Albemarle.

"Why, Ned Holles, as I live!" cried his Grace. "Where the plague have you been?"

"With the plague mostly," answered Holles.

His Grace stared.

"You're certified in health, I hope?" said he, on a note of anxiety.

"I am. I carry no infection."

"Then you never had my letter?" said the duke. "Or are you come in answer to it now?"

"What letter?" quoth the colonel.

"Come in, man." The duke linked his arm through the colonel's and led him within again. "I wrote to tell you that Stanhope had taken the plague and died. You'll remember 'twas Stanhope had the office that you sought. So the office was yours again for the asking. That was a month ago, I waited a week, and hearing nothing from you, I appointed another gentleman of promise. He was to have sailed for Bombay yesterday. But he, too, took the plague, and died three days ago. So the office is vacant again, and if you still have a mind for the Indies, you may go fill it. I begin to think it fortunate that ye've had the plague, and so cannot die of it, as all seemed doomed upon whom I bestowed the appointment. Will you go?"

Holles could scarcely command his eagerness to answer becomingly.

"Good!" said the duke. "The office is a good one, my friend, and may carry you high if you use your opportunities. How soon can you sail?"

"In a month's time," said Holles promptly.

"A month!" cried Albemarle. "Nay, you'll need to sail sooner. Time enough has been wasted already."

"Yet a month it must be. I may have a companion who cannot be ready before then, and I am resolved that, sooner than go alone, I'll stay where I am."

He explained himself, and won the duke's sympathy in the end. With this, and the parchment bearing the signature of the Secretary of State conferring upon him that distant post, and a heavy purse advanced him by the Treasury for his outfit, the colonel took coach at once and went straight back to Bunhill Fields and the pest-house.

On the way thither a great fear took him lest he should no longer find her there. But this fear was instantly set at rest by the elderly matron who received him.

Miss Sylvester, she informed him—for Nancy had resumed her old name when she offered herself to tend the victims of the plague— was taking her noontide hour of rest. She led him to the garden where he had parted from Nancy a month ago, and pointed her out to him where she sat under the elms, then left him to go forward alone.

The turf deadened his steps, she was unconscious of his approach until he stood over her where she sat, all lost in thought. She looked up as his shadow fell beside her, and at sight of him uttered a little cry, and grew very white.

"Chance," he said, "has performed her third and greatest miracle—the one you said was not to be looked for. At last I have something to offer you, Nan, in exchange for all that you will resign in taking me. It is not much, but such as it is I offer it."

And he tossed his parchment into her lap.

She looked at the white cylinder, and then at him, and a little smile crept about the corners of her mouth and trembled there. Into her mind there came a memory of the big boast of conquest for her sake with which he had set out in the long ago.

"Is this the world you promised me, Ned?" she asked him

"As much of it as I can contrive to get," he answered.

"Then it will be enough for me," she said; and rising, held out the parchment, still unfolded.

"But you haven't looked," he protested.

"What need is there? Since it is your kingdom, I will share it whatever else it may be."

He met the glance of her eyes that were now aglow.

"It is situate in the Indies—in Bombay," said he with indifference.

She considered.

"I ever had a thirst for travel," she said deliberately," but its whereabouts matters very little."

He felt that it was due to her that he should explain how he came by it, and to that explanation he proceeded. Before he had quite done, she was suddenly in tears.

"Why? Why? What now?" he cried in dismay. "Does your heart misgive you."

"Oh, Ned," she cried, "I weep for gladness that what I had ceased to hope for has come to pass. Do you not see that I need comforting for the month of hopeless anguish I have spent?"

"My dear!" he cried; and gave her forthwith the comfort she invited.


This story appears on The Life and Work of Rafael Sabatini web site.
Return to Uncollected Works