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Fortune's Fool by Rafael Sabatini
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London 1665 is no place for Randal Holles, a former soldier in Cromwell’s army, now that the monarchy has been restored and the exploits of the Republicans are being condemned in the highest degree. Holles, desperate for an escape from his hopeless situation and almost certain execution, sees no option but to accept the Duke of Wellington’s rather dubious commission - to abduct a famous actress and bring her before him. However, as events take an unexpected turn, Holles is presented with the opportunity to be reinstated to his former glory.

365 pages with a reading time of ~5.75 hours (91476 words), and first published in 1923. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, .

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The times were full of trouble; but Martha Quinn was unperturbed. Hers was a mind that confined itself to the essentials of life: its sustenance and reproduction. Not for her to plague herself with the complexities of existence, with considerations of the Hereafter or disputations upon the various creeds by which its happiness may be ensured—a matter upon which men have always been ready to send one another upon exploring voyages thither—or yet with the political opinions by which a nation is fiercely divided. Not even the preparations for war with Holland, which were agitating men so violently, or the plague-scare based upon reports of several cases in the outskirts of the City, could disturb the serenity of her direct existence. The vices of the Court, which afforded such delectable scandal for the Town, touched her more nearly, as did the circumstance that yellow bird’s-eye hoods were now all the rage with ladies of fashion, and the fact that London was lost in worship of the beauty and talent of Sylvia Farquharson, who was appearing with Mr. Betterton at the Duke’s House in the part of Katherine in Lord Orrery’s “Henry the Fifth.”

Even so, to Martha Quinn, who very competently kept the Paul’s Head, in Paul’s Yard, these things were but the unimportant trifles that garnish the dish of life. It was upon life’s main concerns that she concentrated her attention. In all that regarded meat and drink her learning—as became the hostess of so prosperous a house—was probably unrivalled. It was not merely that she understood the mysteries of bringing to a proper succulence a goose, a turkey, or a pheasant; but a chine of beef roasted in her oven was like no chine of beef at any other ordinary; she could perform miracles with marrow-bones; and she could so dissemble the umbles of venison in a pasty as to render it a dish fit for a prince’s table. Upon these talents was her solid prosperity erected. She possessed, further—as became the mother of six sturdy children of assorted paternity—a discerning eye for a fine figure of a man. I am prepared to believe that in this matter her judgment was no whit inferior to that which enabled her, as she boasted, to determine at a glance the weight and age of a capon.

It was to this fact—although he was very far from suspecting it—that Colonel Holles owed the good fortune of having lodged in luxury for the past month without ever a reckoning asked or so much as a question on the subject of his means. The circumstance may have exercised him. I do not know. But I know that it should have done so. For his exterior—his fine figure apart—was not of the kind that commands credit.

Mrs. Quinn had assigned to his exclusive use a cosy little parlour behind the common room. On the window-seat of this little parlour he now lounged, whilst Mrs. Quinn herself—and the day was long past in which it had been her need or habit with her own plump hands to perform so menial an office—removed from the table the remains of his very solid breakfast.

The lattice, of round, leaded panes of greenish, wrinkled glass, stood open to the sunlit garden and the glory of cherry trees that were belatedly in blossom. From one of these a thrush was pouring forth a Magnificat to the spring. The thrush, like Mrs. Quinn, concentrated his attention upon life’s essentials, and was glad to live. Not so Colonel Holles. He was a man caught and held fast in the web of life’s complexities. It was to be seen in his listless attitude; in the upright deep line of care that graved itself between his brows, in the dreamy wistfulness of his grey eyes, as he lounged there, shabbily clad, one leg along the leather-cushioned window-seat, pulling vacantly at his long clay pipe.

Observing him furtively, with a furtiveness, indeed, that was almost habitual to her, Mrs. Quinn pursued her task, moving between table and sideboard, and hesitated to break in upon his abstraction. She was a woman on the short side of middle height, well hipped and deep of bosom, but not excessively. The phrase “plump as a partridge” might have been invented to describe her. In age she cannot have been much short of forty, and whilst not without a certain homely comeliness, in no judgment but her own could she have been accounted beautiful. Very blue of eye and very ruddy of cheek, she looked the embodiment of health; and this rendered her not unpleasing. But the discerning would have perceived greed in the full mouth with its long upper lip, and sly cunning—Nature’s compensation to low intelligences—in her vivid eyes.