Miss Dorothy Gish
whose characterisation and portrayal of
"Pretty, Witty Nelly"
will give delight to thousands throughout the world
Very little is known about Nell Gwyn though her popularity is hardly rivalled by that of any other heroine of English history.
A few facts, a collection of anecdotes, mostly dubious, several portraits, many of which are also dubious, some doubtful personal relics—and that is all we really have of Nell Gwyn.
The whole information we possess about her would go into a few pages and these would seem of trivial import beneath any serious chronicle of the times or manners; indeed, an attempt to write weightily of indiscreet, charming Nelly must result in a prodigious amount of padding before the dignity of a volume is achieved, and then the spirit of the delicious actress is likely to be overlaid by the doings of her contemporaries.
In the following pages, what history and tradition tell us of Nell Gwyn has been told as a decorative romance, where no liberty has been taken with what we know or believe to be the truth. Fancy has been allowed to enlarge upon it, and, though the narrative must be taken as fiction, it contains no fictitious characters, nor do those which appear there, say or do anything that does not tally with what they are known to have said or to have done.
As the romance concerns only Eleanor Gwyn who never meddled with great affairs, these are left out of this picture of the reign of Charles II, which is only sought to provide a background for the figure of the heroine.
None of the details, however, outrage history or defy probability.
History has shut her heavy books
On Nelly and her glittering looks,
"But gossip, though seldom to a woman kind,"
Has oft, and sweetly, brought me to your mind;
And many a merry quip has she to tell
Of Drury Lane and Orange Nell,
With wit and rags and Chaney fruit to sell,
Or sparkling on the boards as Saucy Florimel
In the bright Court's radiant press
I was the sweetest naughtiness
Who joyed to dance, to sing, to tease,
But meddled with no deeper things than these.
Unlettered wench in gold brocade,
Laughter wher'ere I went I made,
Gay through the unthinking hours I played,
And the Dark King my smile obeyed.
Death stole my love and ended all my pleasure,
Meekly I sought the earth that hid my treasure,
And left behind this slight and humble Tale,
Yet with oblivion may these claims prevail,
None to my pity sued in vain,
To no creature caused I grief or pain.
I loved once and could not love again.
Have patience with poor Nell of Drury Lane.
"Vous plaisez à tout le monde
Et tout le monde vous plait."
—Le Brun Écouchard.
"How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candle light?
Yes, and back again."
The scent of violets was poignant in Whitehall gardens, and loose rain clouds were blown up the river from the sea; it was high tide, the flats were covered and ripples rocked across the Palace stairs; a moist, airy day in early April, with presage of a warm tempest gathering lightly over London and wild torrents of sweet rain.
Two of the Duchess of York's gentlewomen hastened through the gentle spring gloom; their arms were interclasped, and their satin skirts, one blue, one violet, dragged against the box hedges as they hurried; their foolish laughter that was yet pleasant with youth and gaiety broke their whispered talk; both were fair and painted, languishing and roguish, both allowed silk hoods to slip back showing dimpled shoulders, both lifted flowing petticoats to show pretty feet in brocade shoes.
As they neared the noble medley of the Palace, the clock chimed from the cupola that rose against the vaporous sky, and a gallant, coming from a postern door, jostled his haste into theirs when the three, laughing, impeded each other.
The gallant wore a vizard; his figure was comely, his bearing bold, and Eleanor Needham snuggled her chin to her shoulder with an inviting laugh. She ever lay as easy to the touch of coquetry as the ripe peach to a fall; and was Mary Bagot more austere? Nay, she, too, was a shameless jigg.
The stranger admired them sufficiently to detain them a little on the narrow path; Mrs. Needham was pale, like pearl and silver, with notable gold hair, smooth banded, and a face now most rosily flushed.
Nor was she yet a stale charmer, nor spoiled, for she had been but three weeks at Whitehall.
"What is your haste?" asked the gentleman, and Eleanor Needham could see his eyes, Italian dark, looking at her through the holes in the mask.
"I think it will rain!" giggled Mrs. Bagot, but Eleanor Needham said:
"We looked over the wall at the river and a waterman said bold words to us, and two sparks blew kisses at us!"
"Well, that did not displease thee," answered the mask with graceful familiarity. "Since when were kisses and you at variance?" and he took her, with a practised gesture, by the shoulder and brought his face next to hers; the maid of honour shrieked prettily and ran, Mrs. Bagot beside her; a rustle of satin breaking the box hedges, brushing the violets.
The gallant looked after them, but with a mocking interest; nor did they fail to look back as they feigned to fumble with the latch at the postern.
The gentleman lifted his vizard.
A shudder of excitement shook the two ladies at this compliment being put on them, for he who gazed was one of the most considerable of the Princes of the time and a man that every woman had a mind to for a lover, if but in the way of modesty and innocency.
"It is my lord Monmouth," they whispered together with foolish laughter. "Are his ways never to be mended?"
And they slipped through the postern with what effect of backward glances they might decently achieve.
My lord had several times before observed Eleanor Needham, and with an approval that was too lazy to go further than a light fancy, but now the lovely girl seemed to him sweetly desirable, for he had lately fallen out with a dark, impetuous and sharp-tongued tormentress.
Yet he was too indolent to follow Mrs. Needham or indeed any other woman, and gave her but the tribute of his dark glance before he went his way across the gardens, adjusting the mask that saved his clear brown complexion from the wind; he went to a little outside stair which led to a turret room where His Majesty and Prince Rupert had their laboratory, which was ever crowded by an odd company of Empirics, Charlatans and Chemists in whom His Majesty found great amusement.
My Lord Monmouth understood nothing of all this, yet came here when he would find the King well humoured and accessible, and so passed in through the low door, into the room dim with fumes and confused with globes, retorts, and queer instruments.
Stately and gracious my lord looked, not the least like the wild, weak rakehell that he was, and the warm beauty of his face was a pleasure to the beholder, as many, men and women, had found to their betrayal.
Mrs. Needham and Mrs. Bagot, those two forward jiggs, had not failed to peep through the crack of the postern and watch his magnificent lordship; seeing him go up to the King's tower, they went on their way with a pout and a shrug.
"Is it likely," asked Mrs. Bagot with malice, "that his roving grace has two glances for such as us?"
"Are those on whom his glance does rest any different?" replied Mrs. Needham in a lisping way she had. "Are we not as janty as the rest, of as yielding a humour, of as nice a wit?"
"Ay, and as well painted with red and white," giggled Mrs. Bagot, "but here's a point to our jest," added the simpering girl, "if you will put on these rough kirbles and slip into Drury Lane with a basket of China oranges—among the wild gallants and roystering citizens—"
"Will I not?"
"This afternoon, then, they do the 'Mad Lover' at the King's house, with new players, and the King goes, with Monmouth—"
They leant together in the dark corridors embracing each other to stifle their excited laughter.
"'Twill be rare to present my lord with a dozen oranges—and stand no haggling for the price!"
"And bid him present them to the fairest mask there! I'll warrant you he'll note us better there than here. Is it not the orange wenches who have their choice of our lovers?"
"I can be as pert a damsel as any of them—give me leave!"
They slipped into Mrs. Needham's room; Her Highness, the Italian Duchess, was sick and had no need of them, nor indeed of any but a little moppet she had brought with her from Modena, who excelled with the mandoline.
And these cunning girls were clever at evading the jaded eye of the Mother of the Maids.
Mrs. Needham pulled out two dimity gowns coaxed out of the tailor yesterday; they were her idea of the dress of the orange wenches of whom she had heard tell, but never seen, for maids of honour went not to the play.
They laced themselves into the red bodices and blue skirts, pulled on the muslin caps, woollen stockings and latchet shoes, and giggled at their frolic when they saw their pretty reflections in the dim mirror with the red tortoiseshell frame.
Mrs. Bagot had sent out for oranges earlier in the day, and the gorgeous fruit came tumbling out of the wardrobe as they hung up their bright gowns, and rolled over the dark, gleaming floor.
Mistress Needham pulled down the most decent, sober cloak she could find, while Mrs. Bagot picked up the golden fruit, keeping her glance on the door.
The frolic was as dangerous as it was tempting; neither had any mind to be packed back to country homes; but both had a great mind to coquette with my lord Monmouth over a basket of oranges in the pit of the Play house, and to observe for themselves what this gay scene was like.
"Oh, Lud, how my heart beats!" giggled Eleanor Needham, as she patched her chin with a black, swan-shaped patch.
The wilful girls had pulled a knot of violets from the King's gardens as they ran out of the quiet back way, avoiding the gentries, and the perfume of the dewy flowers went with them on their silly journey.
It was warm and London was drowned in pearly air; the steeple of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields seemed to catch in the vague low clouds, the raucous voices of the crowds were softened by the tenderness of the spring breeze.
The maids of honour picked their way over the planks flung down across the worst puddles of the unpaved street, and wished for the clepines that kept the citizen women out of the mud.
Their timidity attracted attention; people turned, gaped, laughed; a hag begged too boldly, a man flung admiration in terms too coarse even for the vanity of Eleanor Needham.
The edge of excitement had gone from their adventure.
"Shall we go back, Mary?" whispered Mrs. Needham. "I never knew the ways were so foul—"
They were not used to London, the tangled hedgerows at home, fragrant with a medley of delicious weeds, were so different to these dark streets; but Mary was not for returning; she even ventured on asking a sober-seeming woman the way to the King's theatre; the directions sent them into a maze of dun alleys rank with garbage, where the filth flowed in a central channel between the crazy houses and there were no posts to keep the foot passengers from the carts and horses.
"We should have had chairs," whispered Mrs. Needham, but, indeed, they had not known how to hire them, or how to engage one of the rude springless wagons that plied the streets.
"We escape attention," replied Mrs. Bagot. "Our cloaks are so sombre, and consider the frolic when we arrive at the theatre, dear heart!"
They squeezed each other's hands and hastened on; each was thinking of my Lord Monmouth who had barred their way in the garden and looked after them, actually honouring them with a second of his attention.
And each dwelt with rapture on the fact that my lord was the King's son, and the King's beloved, more adorned with honours than any man in England. It would be very beautiful to be courted by my lord, to be wooed with jewels, with roses, with smiles and sighs by the handsomest and greatest man at Court.
Yet the baseness of the streets was ill glazed over by the radiance of the spring air, and the mischievous hearts of the escaped ladies beat with unpleasant quickness when they at length found themselves in the more evil end of Drury Lane, where they were frightened by the narrow courts and dark abodes with broken windows.
Of the Strand or Covent Garden end of this street they had already some acquaintance, having been there to visit the ladies of the household of my Lord Anglesey, who had a fair mansion, and having glimpsed the region in driving past Montague House; but this squalid succession of low inns, stable yards and decayed houses alarmed and disgusted them; they kept their drooping violets at their nostrils and walked uneasily along the foul way.
They caught a glimpse of an object already too familiar to them, the Maypole in the Strand, rising high above the timber fronted houses and gable ends. The great pompous crown and vane and the sumptuous coat of arms above' this Maypole glittered in a stray gleam of sunshine as the girls looked up; a sunset glory for a second flushed the airy clouds and set the Royal Insignia gleaming bravely; their hearts beat quicker, they laughed.
"'Tis the Play house," said Mrs. Needham, and she nodded to a fair portico with pillars and a rabble about them, and two men setting the holders for torches above the pasted play bills.
There was a shop beyond, from the projecting gables hung a large wooden glove; there was a tavern opposite, and from this dangled a gaudy board with the rude painting of Hippo-griffin in scarlet and green.
About the steps of this tavern were loungers with dark clays full of Virginia tobacco, and the girls shrank together again and tried to conceal themselves in the crowd.
A row of real orange wenches had already taken up their station, one either side of the door, and several to wander about and tease the passers-by; they carried their flat baskets under their arms, held on their hips, and shouted lustily, abuse, pleasantries and snatches of ballads of the day, some of which were already familiar enough to the maids of honour.
Marshalling them all was Orange Moll, the dame and ruler of the orange wenches, and seeing her heavy figure with the coarse purple face approach, the two ladies hid their baskets of fruit beneath their cloaks lest they should be called upon to give an account of themselves.
"Lud," whispered Mrs. Needham, "this is like to be a poor frolic—shall we ever pass for one of these hussies? Why they are in rags, ill-washed and foul—"
Indeed, the neat, clean, if rough and homely garb that had seemed such a good disguise in Whitehall, looked ridiculous enough here.
The orange wenches were in rags or the plainest of leather bodices and linen aprons, greasy, torn and begrimed; their heads were uncovered, showing tangled locks bare of ribbons and innocent of comb; many wore neither shoes nor stockings, but carelessly walked the mud and garbage, the litter of orange peel, old play bills, and sooty flakes from torches, while those whose feet were covered, could boast nothing but broken shoes and tattered hose.
And these Hebes of the Play house, these Dryads of the Lane, moved up and down with an assured air, mingling laughter with curses that sounded odd on fresh young lips, and bandying rough jests and even sharp quarrels with the tavern loungers and the link boys who idled round the trim porticoes of the theatre.
"Come forward," urged Mrs. Bagot, "it is a pity to lose the jest when we have come so far—"
And being at heart an impudent and reckless piece, she moved up to the Play house door and established herself inside the portico with an air; Mrs. Needham, giggling, hung somewhat behind.
One orange girl was already in possession of this coveted post, where the gallants might be waylaid and followed with golden fruit thrust into their faces; she was one of the most ragged and dishevelled of these gutter flowers, but young and round, golden with a head of close curls that overflowed on to the prettiest of necks and shoulders that was ever concealed by a torn and dismal shawl.
She sat on the doorstep arranging her fruit with some care in her basket, putting the oranges in rows against the deep green leaves, and seemed too absorbed in this to take any notice of her company, though now and then she deigned a word to her companion, a mongrel dog with a bitten ear and ragged hide that crouched by the basket the little girl (she was small in stature and very young) held on her knee.
As the two maids of honour crept to the other side of the door, the orange wench looked up at them, wrinkled her face with an expression of contempt, and returned to her task.
The two ladies, despising such an antagonist, now boldly exposed their wares, while their bright eyes peered between the pillars of the portico; for the gallants were beginning to arrive and Sedan chairs were being brought cautiously over the puddles and cobbles.
But soon Orange Moll came raging to the Play house entrance.
Away shrank the ladies fearing a penetration of their disguise, and a stinging rebuke by the harridan who advanced in a threatening attitude with shaken fist and out-thrust jaw.
But the cause of the dame's attitude was not either of the disguised beauties, but the busy little slattern who sat by the neat portico of the Play house.
"Mrs. Nelly! Mrs. Nelly!" cried Orange Moll. "Is it the first time I have had to warn you, eh? A-sitting in the front! And you the worst slut of the pack, Mrs. Nelly."
The little creature thus addressed did not answer, but rose good-humouredly enough and whistled the mongrel out of the way.
"Your stand is at the back, my girl," added the beldame, a little mollified by this obedience. "There is face enough allowed and smiled on, without you a-take more on it—get you up and out o' the way 'fore the gallants or spruce citizens see you."
The orange girl smiled and looked at the two ladies behind Orange Moll.
"Do you want Court beauties to cry 'Chaney Oranges' in the pit?" she asked slyly; her London accent became her prettily and her voice was warm and rich.
"She has discovered us," whispered Mrs. Needham angrily.
"Faith and it was not difficult," replied Mistress Bagot, who now saw the absurdity of their disguise.
At this juncture the attention of Orange Moll was mercifully diverted by the arrival of a Sedan chair escorted by two town sparks, and as she rushed up to clamorously thrust her fruit on these and call to order the other wenches who were making too free with the crowd, the sham orange vendors escaped her notice.
But they had occasion to draw back haughtily, for she who had been called Mrs. Nelly sidled up to them and peered impudently into their faces.
"Who have ye come here to meet, my dears?" she asked maliciously. "Who is to buy your China ware? Sixpence a piece and a kiss included?"
"We came to see the show," faltered Mrs.
"A grand show," smiled Mrs. Nelly, "inside and out the Play house—but trade grows scant and Moll won't see you a ogling of her customers, my dears, unless ye content yourselves with the cut-purses and ballad-singers yonder." And she waved her hand, with a good-natured air, towards the gathering group of rascals beneath the sign of "The Peacock."
"Cut-purses and ballad-singers!" echoed Mrs. Needham in nervous terror. "We had no thought of such company—"
"And cut-throats too, very likely," grinned Mrs. Nelly, "so be off with you, my darlings—and leave the Lane to those who must get their living in the Lane, there's good moppets, my dears."
This was delivered in a manner so kindly and simple that the ladies could scarcely feel any offence, though never had they before been addressed by a creature so beggarly and rude clad.
Mrs. Needham even felt her spirits rise in an atmosphere so kindly.
"It were poor spirited to leave a jest unfinished," she declared with something of her court simper. "Say nothing further, wench, of our disguise, and you shall have the price of our wares—"
"Think you that if I keep mum, that will mean you go not noticed?" answered Mrs. Nelly; then, seeing that several chairs were coming up to the theatre door, she caught up her fruit and tripped off to join her companions, who offered the oranges with beguiling clamour to each new-comer.
The runaway maids were now thoroughly emboldened, and excited besides by the press of gay people, the lights (for the flambeaux outside the theatre were being lit), the rise and fall of laughing voices, and the lively strains of one of Mr. Purcell's jigs that came from the open doors of the theatre.
"Come," said they, each encouraging the other, "let us prove if we are so easily discovered."
And they stepped from the portico into the street, boldly enough, displaying a well-turned wrist each, as they offered the oranges in delicate white hands. Nor could the vanity of Mrs. Needham be content with this, but she must toss back her hood and show her frail fairness, her beauties of rose, pearl, and gold in the ruddy torch light.
Admiration this display received, but not that the wilful Miss desired; some of the rough idlers greeted her with jeering courtesies that brought the warm colour quick enough to outvie her rouge.
She found her way crossed by an ill-favoured swaggerer, who audaciously took hold of her wrist and thrust his great nose into the orange she held, declaring it mouldy, and desiring the pick of her basket.
"Let me pass!" cried the lady, deeply outraged and frightened. "I have no oranges to sell to you!"
"Have you not?" grinned her tormentor. "What of your kisses? Are they any fresher than your fruit?"
And so the wretch, with a leer, was clutching hold of the maid of honour, while a vile companion of his made little ado to snatch off the hood of Mrs. Bagot.
The crowd gave little attention to orange girls so nice, save that the baser sort jeered and flouted, and the door-keeper of the Play house roughly bade Orange Moll keep order among her sluts.
Nor was that dame slow to response, but, waving lusty arms, screamed to her girls to clear the way for the gentle folk.
Hustled thus back into the obscurity of the outer fringe of the crowd and almost pushed into the arms of their uncouth persecutors, the silly maids could do no better than let their baskets and oranges fall and use, as best they might, their feeble hands in defence of their charms and trinkets.
For Mrs. Needham had been stupid enough to leave a crochet of pearls on her bosom and studs in her ears, and she was like, during this mishandling, to have lost both.
But the young wench who had been turned from the door of the Play house as not fit to adorn such a situation now boldly cast her ragged person before the harassed gentlewomen; their persecutors appeared to be well known to Mrs. Nelly, for she cried out on them by name and with a withering accent of scorn, even snapping her tiny fingers in the great jowl of the most offensive.
The men replied with equal animosity, but their attention was for a second distracted from their victims, who shrank as far as they could into the press behind Mrs. Nelly.
The wordy warfare continued for a second with the hot vehemence of the streets, then when the rascals would have slung the orange girl out of the way, she deftly sprang back a pace and began pelting them with the scattered fruit from the fallen baskets of the maids of honour.
She was both swift and adroit, and the well-aimed missiles kept both the fellows at bay; as the fruit broke on their faces in a rapid succession of blows they even fell back though cursing dolefully, and the crowd were quick to take sides against them and enjoy their discomfiture.
Mrs. Nelly appeared to enjoy the battle which was but one of many she had had to wage in the haunts of Drury Lane, though certainly the first undertaken in defence of two ladies of quality.
"Clear the way! Look who comes!" Mrs. Nelly looked over her shoulder; Mrs. Needham screamed:
"O, if we are seen in this rig!"
"Run!" cried the orange wench, "run!"
She flung herself before them to mask their going; there was an uneasier movement in the crowd which swayed back, hushed, and in part crept away.
Mrs. Nelly found herself alone on the space before the theatre facing a party of gentlemen who had sauntered up.
Mrs. Nelly, standing among the fallen oranges, flushed with her wordy warfare, dishevelled too, all asparkle as it were, in her rags, hesitated, like a surprised bird, not knowing where to fly, and a little delayed by impudent curiosity, by a rather gallant impertinence.
And the glittering train of gentlemen, brought to a standstill by this tumult, surveyed the cause of it with ironic smiles.
The foremost of these gentlemen was the King himself.
Mrs. Nelly knew him at once, and felt a certain pleasure in gazing at him thus full.
Many a peep she had had at him from pit or portico or from the obscure corner where Orange Moll had driven this most ragged of her handmaidens, but never so face to face.
Now she could gaze at him to the full, for he remained motionless, gazing at her with a quizzical look, and the faint laughter of the nobles behind him was stilled by his silence.
Mrs. Nelly suddenly stooped, picked up one of the fallen oranges, wiped it on her skirt, and offered it to His Majesty; it would be difficult to say how pretty she was, mighty pretty, roguish pretty, with her uptilted nose and her wide mouth and her riot of yellow curls and her humble look of frightened mischief.
"What is this medley?" asked the King in a harsh voice that sounded weary, "a riot before the Play house?"
"Will Your Majesty buy an orange?" murmured Mrs. Nelly.
"One that has been in the gutter, eh?"
"Sir, it is none the less sweet for that"—she ventured a smile—"and I would be glad of the sixpence." Her mouth drooped. "I have lost all my wares in the battle."
"Give her sixpence, Jack," said the King gravely to the gentleman behind him; he took the orange as he spoke and walked on to the Play house.
Mrs. Nelly found her basket and picked up the oranges to fill it, the while, however, looking over her shoulder at His Majesty who walked so slowly and so gravely away.
A very personable man was His Majesty and in every way remarkable in any company and any place.
Not only was he tall, above the heads of any companions, but well made, and of a most stately carriage and of a most curious Italianate swarthiness with harsh features, and eyes as dark as night, fine melancholy eyes, double fringed by black lashes.
To-day he wore stiff brocades of purple and silver, the rich blue ribbon of the Garter, and carried a cane from which hung golden ribbons; as he reached the pillars of the Play house portico, he turned slowly and looked again, unsmiling, at Mrs. Nelly, and Mrs. Nelly, unsmiling, looked up at him, from the mud where she was picking up her fruit.
When he had gone into the theatre the orange girl gave a sigh of relief, and then catching Orange Moll's severe and angry eye on her, slipped into the crowd with her solitary sixpence.
She would rather relinquish the hope of further gain than provoke the beldame by the sight of her mud and tatters, and with her peculiar lightness that no rags or broken shoes could impede, she darted off into the mazy alleys of the Lane which were to her so familiar.
Down one of the vilest of these courts called the Coal Yard, Mrs. Nelly ran, and pushing open a battered door, found herself in a dark and dirty room where an old woman was setting a rush light on the table.
Squalid and shamelessly poor as the wretched room was, it did not lack some homely comfort; a scant but sturdy fire of sea coal burnt on the open hearth, a pot hung above, a settle was drawn close; on a shelf and in the window place were a few cracked dishes and bright jugs of slip and blue spot ware. A rag protected this same window from both curiosity and the draught, and a curtain of no better appearance screened two truckle beds in an alcove.
The smile of Mrs. Nelly lit this poor place with a more cheerful light than the beams of the poor rush light, as she put her basket of golden fruit on the table.
"Back so soon?" commented the old woman in a tone of good-natured surprise and rebuke. "And all your oranges unsold, my dear?"
"I've sixpence," replied the girl gaily, "a Royal sixpence, but I've been in a brawl and they'll never see me into the pit with so much dirt on me—"
Mrs. Gwyn did not trouble to inquire into the nature of this brawl.
"No need to go back to the Play house to-night, Nelly," she replied. "I've a good supper—they gave me a fine platter of broken meats at 'The White Horse' to-day."
Mrs. Nelly went over to the pot and snuffed the odour that came hence with approval; her mother helped in the kitchen of a humble tavern for her food and a few white pieces, and it was a lucky day when she was given the additional largesse of sufficient scraps to make a savoury mess.
"Lord," said Nelly, forgetting the mud splashes on her face and indeed all the evening adventure, "it has a goodly smell—there is real meat there, Mother—indeed the smells from the doors of 'The Peacock' are no better."
Mrs. Gwyn listened with pride to this praise of her cooking, adjusted the rush in the oil (for, though the fair radiance of the spring evening held without, it was dark enough in the Coal Yard) and brought down some of her chipped crockery.
"I should like to have supper at 'The Peacock,'" she remarked, "they say that 'tis fit for the King—"
"And it is as likely that you would sup with the King as at 'The Peacock,'" grinned Nelly. "All the brave gentle folk go there, ruffling and swaggering—Lord!" she suddenly looked down at her feet, "I had better be bare foot than in there!"
"Put your sixpence to your savings," said Mrs. Gwyn, ladling out the stew. "Surely you've nearly enough to buy shoes now."
The girl patted the worn and greasy wallet that hung at her waist.
"Ah, but I'll have a pair of fine shoes, Mother, and a pair of good hose, warm and neat—and I'll never touch the money till I've enough to buy 'em, never fear."
"Your fine feet," replied Mrs. Gwyn, "will go ill with your ragged skirts—now who is that at the door? Did you ever know me cook a toothsome supper but that it didn't attract some of the neighbours?"
The door was pushed quietly ajar and two lean and pallid faces looked into the room.
"'Tis Dickon and Tom!" cried Mrs. Nelly heartily. "And both hungry, I'll warrant you!"
"Come in," added Mrs. Gwyn, "and share the pot—there's a drop of ale in the cask yet, and two lights after that's burnt through—"
The two old men, shamefaced and yet pleased, hurried in, eager for the fire and the food; the twilight April air was sharp for those so ill clad, and neither had earned any money to-night at putting planks across the puddles, calling chairs, hailing watermen or any of the other miserable expedients by which they contrived their wretched existence.
Mrs. Gwyn welcomed them warmly, with real delight in being able to offer hospitality and give pleasure, and Nelly between mouthfuls of the savoury stew promised them a gigue.
"Gigues are all the fashion," said she. "Every night in the Play house you may see one—they say that a good gigue will save a bad play, and Lord, there be plenty that want saving!"
She kicked off her tattered shoes and danced a gigue on the slate floor, by the light of the rush to the audience of the two old men.
Surely neither the Duke's nor the King's Play house could have offered a prettier spectacle for any man's diversion than this that was offered to this poor audience in this poor place.
Mrs. Nelly danced on the slate floor, by the rush light, to the music of her own singing, as fleetly as any maid on the sedgy banks where Pan pursued Syrinx into the shape of the sad green reeds.
Well she knew the steps of the new French dances and well adapted them to her own mischievous grace.
It was more than little Nelly Gwyn dancing to three wretched denizens of the Lane, it was Youth and Gaiety and Loveliness, sweetly, with a soft compassion, soothing the pains of Age and Sorrow and Want.
And who was Mrs. Nelly?
Her world was one that asked no such questions; to the Lane she was Mrs. Nelly, still half a child, who was always ragged, often hungry, but always kind and always gay, the daughter of a woman who washed the dishes in a tavern, and of Heaven knew what obscure man, who at any rate was dead now and troubled no one.
And Nelly had been born in the Coal Yard and grown up in the Lane and sold oranges in the pit of the Play house since she was fourteen.
And what of Nelly's audience?
They, too, were driftage of the Lane, driftage of London, Mrs. Gwyn with her shrewd, haggard face, down at heel, sharp tongued, jolly Dickon with a patch over his eye and given to queer sicknesses contracted in foreign seas, who had once helped fight the Dutch in great battles over the North Seas where the proud, beautiful ships battered each other over the tumbling waves, and Tom, who had been in Tangiers with Colonel Kirke and been cast off with a wooden leg which he now stumped cheerfully in time to the gigue danced by little Nelly.
Tom could remember Worcester where he had beaten the drums for the King, but he was not as old as his grey hairs, fallen face and shaking limbs proclaimed; hardship, illness and hunger had wrought this havoc on the poor soldier more fiercely than the years.
They sat round the little fire and the little pot and drank their small beer with relish, and nodded and smiled at the dancing and thought of other days of bravery, of flags and cannonading, of high seas and the fights on the red slippery decks when the grappling irons gripped foe to foe.
The quivering rush light cast their hunched monstrous shadows behind them, leaping darker on the dark wall, and the rollicking shade of the dancing girl leaped all over the wretched room.
She stopped suddenly, a little out of breath, and seized on a manchet of bread.
"It is no more than that the King applauds every night," she said with her mouth full, "and danced no better."
"Nor by a prettier wench, I'll swear," said Dickon loyally. "Why will you not try to be a player, Nelly?
"She's impudence enough," grinned Mrs. Gwyn, scraping the pot, "and a light enough pair of heels—"
"And a saucy enough tongue," chuckled Tom, "and a bright enough pair of eyes—"
Nelly kissed her hand in turn to all of them.
"An' if I had a pair of shoes to go in I might go and beg for a part," she answered merrily.
"And as it is," put in her mother, "you'd best be getting back to the Play house and see if you can sell any more fruit to-night instead of idling here."
Mrs. Nelly pulled a wry face.
"I dare not go."
"Dare not?" Mrs. Gwyn stood with the spoon suspended half-way to her lips. "Well, well, I did not know that you were afeared of anything."
"I'm afeared of old Moll's clouts o' the ear," confessed Nelly. "She will have it that I'm too sluttish for the Pit and then just now I was brawling—"
"In a good cause, Nell, in a good cause, no doubt," said Tom stubbornly.
"In a fools' cause," smiled Nelly. "There were two fools, rather, and I must needs help them from being put to a confusion, and in the middle who should come up, God help us, but His Majesty!
"His Majesty!" cried all three.
"And not the first time I have seen him," nodded Nell, "but the first time that he has seen me, dear soul, and what should he do but ask what this brawling mean? And what should I do, poor wretch, but offer him an orange and get sixpence for it!"
"And no check or threat for being in the road and brawling?" asked Mrs. Gwyn anxiously.
Nelly slowly shook her head.
"He looked at me—he looked back at me. But he was not angry."
"Then back to the Play house," said Mrs. Gwyn briskly, "and sell him some more oranges."
"Of the King?"
"No—of Orange Moll—"
"I'll come with you," said Dickon quickly. "I'll put the beldame in her place."
Mrs. Nelly had found an old rag and was vigorously rubbing her face.
"Stay by the fire, poor Dick," she replied, "I'll creep back and see if the Play be over—"
"'Tis early yet," put in Mrs. Gwyn.
"Well, I can wait in the portico a little and maybe I'll sell a few oranges when the quality come out, despite Orange Moll—"
She ran her little fingers like a comb through her curls, picked up her basket, pulled on her broken shoes and ran out; she was indeed so much a child of the streets that she cared not to remain long between any four walls nor in any one place.
And, as well, she was a very moth to the lights of the Play house, and loved to be near there and jostle in the crowd about the doors or in the pit.
The last silver golden light of the day was nearly quenched; the loose clouds had gathered more closely over the town and the light wind that had been driving them inland had ceased.
Nelly, running as quickly as she dared through the dark and the dirt and the rough ways, held out her hand and felt a spot of rain.
And at that she hastened the more, for the Play house was a roofless affair and a heavy shower of rain would send actors and audience packing in a hurry.
Nelly was heartily sorry for this threat of rain, for if a storm came there would be an end to any hope of selling more oranges.
She was rather breathless as she again reached the porticoes of Drury Lane Play house which now showed brightly through the purple twilight with smoky splendour of trailing torch light and the steady yellow refulgence of the inner lamps.
Here on the alert Nelly looked cautiously round, ready to hold her own with hard words and even buffets if need be; her fingers closed round one of her favourite missiles, an orange, ready to cast it at her former assailants should they be lurking in the shadows.
But there was no one there; it was no earthly foe that sent Nelly scampering to shelter, but a sudden mighty fall of rain, a violent drench from the heavy heavens.
Nelly cowered under the portico, for the pearly spears of the rain driven between the pillars slashed bitterly at her ill-clad limbs.
There was a rush from the theatre, a shouting for chairs, a scramble of link men, a giggling of link boys, then the way was cleared a little and the King came out, walking slowly and looking about him through the rain-slashed light.
The King looked through the torch light and the rain at Mrs. Nelly.
He had thought the play as dull as a sermon and the actresses, even by candle gleam, not pretty, and though he had been so little while a King, he found it a business more inclined to the wearisome than the cheerful.
He lingered and looked at the orange girl who was neither dull nor plain, and smiled at the thought of his years of exile, when it had not seemed strange to mix freely with the people, and even to find amusement in the free wit of wenches like Mrs. Nelly.
And she, encouraged by his look, said, with childish impudence:
"Did Your Majesty enjoy the orange?"
Charles, who liked ease and freedom from all, and in particular from women, answered:
"I have it for a keepsake," and he showed her his long cane, on the top of which the orange was stuck like a knob.
Nelly smiled slyly, with a quick eye roving for Orange Moll, who was not as kind as His Majesty; when she smiled like this, her lively eyes wrinkled up and disappeared, and her round soft face was charmingly dimpled.
"I hear," continued Charles, amused, "that you were brawling to protect two silly flyaways from Whitehall—you were quick, Mistress, but not so quick as Jack yonder, who saw the two ladies in the press—"
"I helped, sir," said Nelly instantly, "two fools against two knaves—but I know not who they were, nor where they came from—"
"A loyal heart," replied Charles, "a generous heart. If I were a poet—and I think I am poor enough to be one—I would write you some verses. As it is, how can I reward you?"
"I'd dearly love, sir," said Nelly, grinning, "a shelter from the rain—and a drink of spiced beer at 'The Peacock' yonder." And she jerked her thumb towards the door of the fashionable inn whose doors she had never dared approach nearer than the lowest step.
"It were no ill thing to get out of the rain," answered the King dryly. "Gentlemen, those who have chairs or coaches are dismissed; those who prefer to see this lady drink her spiced beer—"
Most of them followed him; they had often been his companions in similar adventures, in the Netherlands and in France, and a jest, a diversion was more to them than what other men called the serious matters of life. None of them were unknown figures in taverns of the better sort, and the King was as familiar as any of them with the mazy streets and cosy inns of London.
The orange girl slipped in with the fine gentlemen; as she went into the pompous door she turned to make a grimace at Orange Moll, who was sheltering under the portico with a rabble of her wenches and link boys.
The King flung himself into the great chair with arms by the fire that burnt in the parlour; those who were already in the room rose respectfully, but Charles cried out, with some impatience, that no one was to disturb himself, and ordered wine and beer, cakes and fruit.
Nelly, as if overcome by sudden shyness, went to the fire, twisting her hands in her ragged apron and warming them at the pleasant glow of the flames which turned her short, untidy curls into a halo of living gold.
The King watched her reflectively.
He and the companions who lounged behind his chair had been very near to the present plight of Nelly Gwyn, in patched clothes, penniless, without hope, glad to creep into the warmth of an inn fire and beg for a warm drink; cold, hunger, poverty, humiliation, actual peril and danger had been their lot for all their youth; they had been hunted, despised, flaunted, insulted, betrayed, ignored. Something of the aftermath of this long bitterness coloured the King's smile as he gazed at this impudent child of the streets; from such as these he had received more fellowship, more kindness, more sympathy than from any of the great ones who fawned on him now and whom he delighted, with cynic humour, to, in his turn, humiliate and set down.
The two men who were his closest companions and who now stood behind him were in like case, both Rochester and Buckingham were men spoiled by long misfortune and sudden splendour; corrupt, careless, witty, false, indifferent to all but the pleasure and distraction of the moment they were fit companions for the indolent, idle and cynic King.
Both had been handsome men, but my Lord Buckingham's florid good looks were now marred by the excesses of a wanton life, and the finer features of my Lord Rochester were sharpened and blanched by fatigue and ill-health, though his lip curled sardonically and his keen eyes flashed brightly.
The fourth of the party was the darling of the King and Court, he who had been a nameless boy, then Jimmy Crofts, a pretty, spoiled page, and was now Duke of Monmouth and a great Prince, the acknowledged son of His Majesty. His warm beauty was not yet disfigured by sloth or vice, for he was but a youth, and of great, if over-opulent and plebeian, comeliness; yet he lacked both the sparkle of Rochester and the humour of Buckingham; there was something foolish in his laughter and something vacant in his silence, yet it was clear that the King, sardonic as he might be towards the human affections, had here his own, and regarded this spoilt youth with the eye of weakness and love.
Mrs. Nelly turned about and eyed this fine company.
The drawer brought in the wine and Naples cakes; Nelly looked at this display with more interest than she had given to the gentlemen.
"Change your spiced mull for a glass of Alicante," said the King lazily.
But Nelly shook her head; she preferred the drink she knew; clutching at the tankard, she drank off the beer, then snatched at the cakes which were delicacies she had never tasted before.
"'Tis a wild thing," commented Rochester, "but pretty—"
"A nymph—not of the glades, but of Drury Lane," smiled Charles.
And Buckingham quoted maliciously:
"Old Rowley liked to chase a lass
Beneath the spreading oaks."
perhaps, sire, a tavern roof would take the place of the oak?"
"No need of a chase, I think," simpered Monmouth.
"Wench," said the King, leaning forward, "will you be an orange girl all your days?"
"Nay, I would be an actress, sire. I can do the French gigue."
She broke into a few steps, her mouth full of cake, her hands on her hips, graceful despite her atrocious shoes.
"An actress!" smiled the King. "That is a short life too, lasting but as long as your youth—"
"I would not live longer," said the orange girl with a certain passion. "Nay, with the first wrinkle I would slip out of the world. Lord! to be old!"
And she danced again her gay dance, gleaming in her tatters.
"Come home, King Cophetua," whispered Rochester.
The King half sighed, half smiled, and rose; his glance fell on the landlord waiting obsequiously; he put his hand in his pocket and drew it out.
"Hast any money, Jack?"
"Why, sir," replied Rochester, "not above a shilling or two."
He turned to Buckingham, who shook his head, and to Monmouth, who, with his tinkling laugh, held up an empty silk purse.
The King shrugged.
The situation was not without humour and a curious flavour in view of those old days when such embarrassments had been common and acute enough.
"Maybe," he said lazily, "our credit, Jack, will even stretch to a few cakes and ale."
But Nelly had heard; she broke into her mischievous laugh and pulled out her greasy wallet.
"I never was in so poor a company," she declared, "fine lords, these—well, let poor Nelly pay for your entertainment," and she put a handful of silver mostly in small pieces on the table among the glasses and plates.
The King laughed outright; it was not the first time the hard-earned pence of the poor had paid for his food and drink; this little girl from the gutter was typical of many who had softened his days of wandering and defeat.
"What is your name?" he asked.
"Nelly, sir, Nelly Gwyn."
"And who are you, Nelly?"
She laughed now; they laughed together.
"Lord, sir, I don't know. I'm just poor Nelly of the Coal Yard—"
"And my hostess," smiled the King, "and my creditor—will you trust me, little Nelly?"
She looked at him seriously.
"I think I'll trust you, sir."
His companions giggled among themselves and the King's thick lip lifted in a half-sneer.
"Come, master drawer, take up your money—this lady pays for all."
Nell watched, without blenching, her hoard counted away; two bits that were returned to her she flung to the drawer.
"I've had worth for my money," she declared. "Royal Company!"
"A valiant spirit," commented the King, who had often braved thus on empty pockets. "Truly that treasure took some time to amass at the rate of thy trade, Nelly."
"It was to buy me shoes," returned she, "a pair of brave shoes—none of your clepines—but something comely like my lady trips from the chair to the Play house—"
And across the inn parlour floor she made a mockery of the walk of a fashionable lady through the mud of the streets.
"'Tis as good an actress as any of them," said Monmouth idly. "Canst thou sing, good girl? A roundelay or catch?"
"Or a lullaby to sing thee to sleep, little Prince?" mocked Nelly, "or a fair song, such as we sing o' evenings in our Coal Yard?"
"Give us," said the King, "one of those." Nelly folded her hands and instantly began to troll, in a sweet, pearly voice that rippled with innocent laughter:
"Do you know Elsie Marley?
The Wile who sells Barley?
She won't get up to serve her swine,
And NOW do you know Elsie Marley?"
Nelly beat out a dance with her tiny feet in the broken shoes.
"Elsie Marley is grown so fine,
She won't get up to serve her swine,
But lies in bed till eight or nine
And surely now she takes her time."
The dance went quicker to the refrain:
"Do you know Elsie Marley?
The Wile who sells Barley?
She won't get up to serve her swine,
So NOW do you know Elsie Marley?"
The King and his companions clapped heartily.
"D'Urfey would like that," said the King, laughing.
"Now will Your Majesty sing?" asked Nelly, flushed and lovely, gathering her patched kerchief round her shapely shoulders which had been displayed in the riotous flings of the dance.
A few flowers stood on the table, and the King, with a mock-heroic gesture, snatched one, an early rosebud, tight folded, hard, of a purple red.
He held it out to Nelly:
"Go, lovely rose,
Tell her who wastes her time and me
That now she knows
When I compare her to thee
How sweet and fair
She seems to me."
Nelly seemed abashed, she hung back and looked on the floor.
"The rose is for you, Nell," said the King.
"Oh, Cophetua!" murmured Rochester again.
Nelly took the rose, then with a spontaneous, generous gesture seized and kissed the strong, dark hand that held it, while her eyes darkened with intense feeling.
"A loyal subject?" smiled Buckingham.
"A loyal subject, sir," said Nell.
She put the tight, chill rosebud in her bosom.
The King turned to the door; the tempest of rain and wind was over, and the air very sweet and pure, as it will be after a storm on a night in late spring.
When Rochester opened the door, this pure, fresh air rushed into the close, savoury warmth of the tavern and stirred the ringlets on the white and candid forehead of Nell Gwyn as she gazed after the King, her pouting lips drooping a little, her grey eyes wide open.
The gentlemen clattered down the steps and so away.
Now that she was alone Nelly looked cautiously round, with the instinct of the hunted and threatened child of the streets who is used to being chased and abused.
She was sure that now her protectors had gone she would be instantly turned out by the very drawer who had just taken her two odd silver bits as largesse for himself.
But for the moment there was no one about.
Nelly, trained by adversity to make the most of every opportunity, snatched at the remnants of the Naples biscuits and thrust then into her now denuded wallet.
Then with the same furtive swiftness of gesture she drained the heel-taps of all the glasses, then tripped off, singing merrily below her breath:
"Do you know Elsie Marley?
The Wife who sells Barley?
She won't get up to serve her swine,
And NOW do you know Elsie Marley?"
The night was delicious.
Nelly paused at the foot of the tavern steps and wrinkled up her nose; the sky seemed drenched in fragrance and hung, like a dark blue flower bell, over the narrow streets.
A pale moon floated languidly, showing by a beamy light the great jolly crown, the King's Lion, the Queen's Unicorn and the Stewart shield above the theatre portico, with the Leopards of England and the Lilies of France quartered with the Harp and the Lion in his double bordure.
This did not mean much to Nelly; she preferred the great crown and weather-vane that glittered above the Maypole in the Strand; there was something bright and tangible that dominated the whole town, and made her think of the King.
It did not surprise her that the King had been kind; she had seen him familiar with so many people, and she had all the assurance of the street-bred urchin that nothing can overawe.
Sure-footed she made her way through the dark alleys, thinking shrewdly over her adventure and munching the Naples biscuits she had hidden in the bosom of her dress.
She wandered round some haunts of her own, divided her purloined sweets with a dirty child on a doorstep, disposed of the remains of her damaged stock, after a sharp wrangle, to a fruit woman in Seven Dials who kept a stall for the poorer sort; then, with a certain daintiness like a cat prowling through garbage, she picked her way back to the Coal Yard.
When she pushed open the fallen door of her wretched room she saw her mother hard asleep by the spent ashes.
And on the table, among the dirty beer mugs, stood a pair of silver slippers.
"Wake up, my loving dear!" shouted Nelly, shaking her mother by the shoulders. "What are these, eh?"
And she pointed to the silver slippers that gleamed with a genteel and pallid splendour in the beams of the dying rush light.
"A mistake," said Mrs. Gwyn, waking up and yawning. "A proper fool came here asking questions till he had every brat in the Yard at his heels. 'Was this the Coal Yard?' and 'Where was Maddam Gwyn?' and such mincing fripperies, so he must find his way here at last and leave these, with hosen to match—'in payment of a debt,' he said with an air of quality, though he was but a lackey."
Nell fingered the shoes thoughtfully.
"There is a mummer at the Play house called Mrs. Quin," continued her mother, rousing herself to endeavour to blow up the dead fire. "Likely enough it is for her, from some sickly gallant, but why should he think that she lives here?"
Unheeding of this, Nell held the slippers up.
"Lord!" she cried, "he thought I had big feet!"
Mrs. Gwyn looked at her curiously. "Are they for you?"
"Yes. For me, Mother Gwyn, and from the King!"
Mrs. Gwyn broke into rude laughter.
"For you? A mawmet like you! From the King!"
"I paid for his wine, good man," grinned Nell. "He had my savings which should have gone for a brave pair of shoes—and he has discharged his debt like an honest gentleman—see, brocade, silver and inches too large!"
Mrs. Gwyn came to the table and inspected the shoes.
"A pretty footwear for the Coal Yard or the Lane," she mocked; "a nice shoe to skip the gutter in, or pick your way through the mud." She looked at her daughter shrewdly. "Maybe, since His Majesty has made your feet so fine, he'll give you a chair to go to and fro the Play house in!"
"Here's some cakes," said Nelly, "I got from 'The Peacock.'" She thrust them into her mother's dirty hand. "They've enough sugar in them to give you an ache in every tooth."
"Went into 'The Peacock,' did you?" asked Mrs. Gwyn, impressed. "Well, there was Moll Davis used to sell oranges and she's a player now, surely."
"I'll be a player too," said Nelly. "There's nothing to that—'tis but painting your face and being impudent to the gentles."
Mrs. Gwyn, munching the biscuits with a critical flavouring of her tongue, replied dubiously:
"I never thought you well favoured enough to take the eye of the gentlemen, Nelly, whether you're selling oranges in the Pit or rollicking on the boards—"
"Others might," replied Nelly good-humouredly. "The King had a look at me and did not seem frighted."
"Who was with him?"
"Three lords who always go in his company—one was his son, whom you must call Prince now, though there are those who talk of him as a nameless brat a while since!"
She paused and added mischievously:
"His mother was Mrs. Barlow who scoured linen—Lord! I might come to roll in my own coach and be mother to a Duke."
Mrs. Gwyn laughed in genuine appreciation of this jest.
"And see his genteel air," added Nelly, "all mincing and simpering and nose cocked in the air, the lace on him and the French silk, flourished with gold, and his 'good wench' here and 'good wench' there, and his nostrils pinched to keep out the smell o' the streets!"
"Well," conceded Mrs. Gwyn, "the King is his father—'tis Royal blood—"
"I've heard other tales," said Nell wickedly. "I've heard that the King's part in him begins with the money he spends on the pretty piece—but be that as it may, it was a brat who did not know his letters running about alleys abroad—and see my lord now!"
Mrs. Gwyn glanced at the slippers.
"There are chances nowadays," she remarked reflectively, "with a good, kindly, easy man on the throne, and taxes light so that the gentry have money for their fun and their pleasures—oh, it's a good time, girl, after the pinching days we've had with old Noll and his crew—but," she added dubiously, "I never thought of you doing more than marry the candle snuffer at the Play house if he should chance to see you with a clean smock and face o' Sunday."
"I'll marry no one so queasy," said Nell. "He who don't like me greasy shan't have me nice."
Mrs. Gwyn shook her head.
"You're over set up by a pair of tawdry shoes," she said. "The King has a roving eye and a fickle fancy—"
"He'll see I'm made a Player," replied Nelly. "I ask no more."
"The King forgets," remarked Mrs. Gwyn. "He's right noble in promises."
Nelly knew too well her monarch's reputation; she had heard and seen something of the decayed gentry, the ruined fortunes, the lingering hopes, the bankrupt citizens, the penniless adventurers who filled London and pestered the purlieus of the Court in the endeavour to awaken the gratitude and conscience of Charles.
At this thought the face of the lighthearted girl darkened.
"There's Dickon and Tom," continued Mrs. Gwyn without bitterness, but rather as one pointing out a plain fact. "They've served the King well, and they're cast off to beg when they're no more use—and hundreds of others like 'em; it's the way of the world, Nelly, and nothing to be said against it that I can see. You can't expect a King to think of a beggar's feelings, or waste his Royal time remembering his promises or his Royal money paying his debts."
Nelly looked at the pretty, useless shoes, and sighed.
"It is odd," she said, "that of all the hussies that make their fortunes there's not one to remember those who haven't, ain't it? If I had money of my own I'd be a kind friend and a good pay-mistress."
"Well," admitted Mrs. Gwyn, "you've always been a good-hearted wench, but that isn't always the kind that gets the chances."
Nelly sighed again.
"Well," added Mrs. Gwyn, "the rush light is going out and the room getting cold—come to bed, child, and take care you don't turn your head with dreams—"
And Mrs. Gwyn, too full of the good-natured cynicism of her class to be much impressed by anything, and only partially believing the tale of the King's notice of Nelly, and secretly half convinced that the gift of the shoes was a mistake and Nelly's tale an invention, threw herself as she stood on her truckle bed and pulled over her all the old, greasy clothes with which it was piled.
But Nelly remained seated on the table.
The rush light went out.
The moon rose so that the silver light crept through the wretched window and touched the silver shoes on the cracked and blackened table.
The pure light touched Nelly too, and transformed her into something tender and wistful.
She fingered the shoe with delicate tenderness like a child with a new and amazing toy.
The dingy squalor of the road was transmuted now into dusky pools of magic shadow; the wonder of the moon transfigured the scene into the likeness of fairyland.
Nelly slipped from the table, kicked off her broken shoes and put on the silver slippers.
Then she began to dance, softly, silently, silver shoes in the silver patch of moonshine.
For days the King had been shut up in his laboratory with Prince Rupert of the Palatinate; Thomas Chiffinch of the back stairs had yawned in idleness, John Dryden had drowsed over his verses, and Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine, had sulked in her rooms.
And the other lords, ladies, pages, scullions, chamber-women and cooks had amused themselves as usual in the rambling rooms, galleries and gardens of the great palace by the great river.
There was heavy talk abroad of war and even treason, and of the insolence of the Dutch who could do no right because they were traders, and of how King Louis had said to their Ambassador at Versailles, "Take care, Monsieur, the floor is slippery," which was meant of more than the polished boards.
Some of the younger men rejoiced at the thought of a war, thinking with joy of the great galleons beating down the green and purple seas, as in the days when the half-moon of the Armada advanced on the Devon coasts, but their elders were mum, and the wisest, most honourable man at the Court, my lord Chancellor Clarendon, looked both serious and unhappy.
It was said that he was too honest for Whitehall, and that even though his daughter was married to His Highness the Duke of York, it would not take many months to see him a ruined, nay, a banished man.
But the King, it seemed, cared nothing of any of this talk and gossip; one Exili, an Italian, had come to London and performed many strange experiments for His Majesty, so that the smells and fumes thereof crept down the stairs and gave silly pages and giggling misses cause to speak of the devil and his angels.
The Duke of York had at this time a pious fit, and spent much time in the Romanist Chapel with the prim dark Queen and the Spanish ladies whose farthingales had caused so much laughter in the Court.
So idleness hung like a cloud over the Court, and only the wild rakes like my lord Monmouth, who, though such a youth, had lately been married to a Scotch heiress with a swinging fortune, and Rochester and Buckingham, went rioting abroad on the sweet nights and brawled in taverns and beat the watch, and maltreated honest citizens, and came back reeling drunk, as the lampoon had it, "daubed with lace and blood."
Lady Castlemaine sulked; she was the worst of the bad women who take no thought of anything but to please the eye of Vice and Folly.
She was of an imperious and brilliant grace and still in the first pride of youth, but her manner was vulgar, her voice hard, her glance cold, her sneer bitter and ready, her malice alert and deadly.
Roger Palmer, her husband, was a mean fribble who spent his worthless time in sleeveless errands to paltry Courts, and she pretended allegiance to the King who cast half the treasures of the Exchequer into her satin lap. But Charles Stewart was no more than the chief of her lovers; her infidelities flaunted.
The King laughed and left her for weeks together.
For this she had her revenge, yet now she was uneasy under her insolence, for she feared a check to her extravagance.
That was the only fear this woman ever had, that her money might fail, and well she knew with what scorn and anger my lord Clarendon viewed her demands on the Treasury and what furious words he used to the King's yawns on the matter.
Now Mr. Bowman was singing to her, accompanying himself on the French lute, but she liked not this music and bade the singer desist, threatening to throw her lap dog at his head.
"This is but French trash," said she pettishly, "patched up for London to catch the mode."
She reclined on a day bed of purple satin beside a heavy gilt dressing-table scattered with pots, vases and boxes of gold, silver and crystal.
Behind her a tapestry showing the story of Dido and Eneas in inky green and indigo blue set off her rich, warm brown fairness.
Stools of massive silver or gilt wood in a florid design, fine silk Persian tapestries, scarlet and blue, grass green and orange parrots in ebony rings, apes with silver collars and negro pages with tinsel turbans and huge plumes crowded the beautiful apartment which smelt of roses, of ambergris, of orange-flower water and orris root.
Beside Lady Castlemaine's day bed was a basket of spaniel dogs and through her strong, plump, white fingers she pulled a gorgeous string of pearls. In a closet behind, seen between brocade curtains, two women were sewing ermine on the bodice of a white dress.
Mr. Bowman, the singer, asked if he should begone.
"Ay, begone," said my lady coldly, "unless you have some talk of the Court."
"What should I know that you do not hear, Madam?"
She lifted her smooth shoulders.
"What do they say of the King? Why is he always shut up with those vile charlatans?"
Mr. Bowman permitted himself a smile—since the lady was not looking.
"They say—as they do of other things—that it is His Majesty's pleasure, Madam."
"And Lord Clarendon? No one tells you that he is ever with the King? Come," added the lady imperiously, "everyone knows you to be a notable gossip who collects what others miss—"
"I have not heard that His Majesty ever goes to the Council."
Lady Castlemaine mocked his caution.
"Have you heard anything? Do you know anything save the dull nonsense of your songs?"
With this her fair hand smacked one of the monkeys that was tugging at her couch.
"I hear," said Mr. Bowman resignedly, "that the new Play in the Lane is due to-morrow."
"And what of that? 'Tis nothing but Mr. Dryden's 'Indian Queen,' an old stale thing dished up again; for my part I should not trouble to go—"
"There is a new actress in it," remarked Mr. Bowman slyly.
"Lord, is that a wonder?"
"Madam, this is something of a wonder, for the new player till a few months ago sold oranges to the Groundlings, being thought too sluttish to serve the gentry in the boxes."
Lady Castlemaine looked contemptuous.
"She has her lovers!"
"They say—no. It is but a child of fifteen or so, an impudent piece."
"Some man has spoken for her."
"They say—the King."
The lady's eyes flashed fire; she swung into a sitting posture on the couch.
"When could the King have seen her?" she demanded sharply.
Mr. Bowman grimaced and shook his head.
"One hears stories; one night at the Play house she attracted his attention, by pure impertinence, and begged to be made one of His Majesty's Players."
"I'll not believe it—I should have heard of it," replied Lady Castlemaine violently.
"Well," said Mr. Bowman, sidling towards the door, "it's certain that Nelly Gwyn—so they call her—will play Cydaria in 'The Indian Queen,' and it's said the name is in her honour as she claims to have been born in Hereford where they make the cyder."
She leaped up with a movement so quick that Mr. Bowman retreated, holding himself close to the door, but not without narrowed eyes for the beauty of the angry creature.
Her swelling skirts of tawny silk, in and out of which slipped golden light and wine-coloured shade, flew apart on to a transparent petticoat of green gauze sewn with little lucent moons through which her pearl-coloured limbs showed like lilies drowned in clear freshets of summer fountains.
And her shoulders, rising sumptuously out of her falling corsage stiff with gold and emeralds, had the texture and seduction of an exotic flower.
"Surely you need not trouble yourself with a strolling player," said Mr. Bowman with servile insolence, "though Mr. Dryden speaks well of her," he could not forbear adding with malice.
"John Dryden is a fool," replied the Lady Castlemaine, "he shall go from Court for this."
Mr. Bowman glanced at the diamond garter glittering through the gauze beneath her knee, then at her feet, so splendidly shod in gold.
And then to her face, so delicately painted and patched, her hair in such luscious curls of auburn brown.
He knew the King to be fickle, but he did not think much of the chances of any other woman snatching him wholly from this beautiful termagant.
"Go, sir," she commanded with a frown that drew her lovely brows together, "you weary me."
Mr. Bowman went.
Lady Castlemaine clapped her hands and sent the page running for her chamber woman.
When this damsel came, her mistress bade her bring the great mirror from her bed-chamber and set it on the chair with arms before her; also to open wide the casements, for the summer night was hot, and as the girl hesitated which of these services to perform first her mistress slapped her face soundly, bringing the tears to her eyes and the cruel red to her cheek where the superb wicked fingers had struck.
Even with the window set wide there was a mellow stillness in the rich apartment, for the air was heavy over London; no star lit the sombre purple of the night and now and then a quiver of lightning danced across the river, showing the houses in Whitefriars and Lambeth.
Lady Castlemaine walked up and down; her brooding vitality seemed for ever surging up and held down since she was strongly moved and had nothing on which to vent her passion.
She had been very sure of the King; since his first coming to England she had enjoyed her bad eminence, despite Lord Clarendon, despite the royal marriage, despite the Queen and the murmurs of the decent godly people of the land—despite, too, her own insolent infidelities.
The King had looked elsewhere, but not for long, and so far, the most dangerous rivals to Barbara Palmer had been the laboratories, the dogs and the Duke of Monmouth.
Yet ever lightly does a wanton woman hold her empire, and even the imperial pride of Madam Castlemaine could not blind her to the danger of her position. Any moment—a fresh face—and she might have to trapse the corridors of Whitehall clamouring for a pension, like Lucy Barlow, the bold brown wench who was Monmouth's mother.
And even if the King was not ungenerous, even if other gallants might be eager to console her, the arrogance and greed of this woman could not endure to consider a possible banishment from the source of all riches and honours.
She meant to be a Duchess, she meant her sons to be Dukes, she meant to have "garters worth a copyhold" and necklaces worth a country's rent as long as King Charles was able to supply such toys for any woman's pleasure.
When the mirror came and was finally well adjusted between the arms of the puce velvet chair, with a negro boy either side to steady it, she looked into those dark depths with a cruel intensity.
She mistrusted even her own youth; she stared at her own beauty fiercely as if fearing some betrayal.
But her reflection bloomed from the dark background of the mirror like a lily from a midnight pool, without flaw or shadow; her lovely limbs showed through the dim greenish veil of the gauze as perfect as those of a nymph rising through pure dark water.
Her whole image gleamed of an almost translucent fairness in contrast to the sombre depths of the mirror, the half tones of the red in the frame, and the ebony faces and dusky gold turbans of the two little pages.
She sighed with a certain angry relief; then drew those flame-coloured petticoats about her as the door opened behind her; and closed.
She stood uncertain, biting her lip to keep back haughty invective; wondering if she should keep it back or no.
The admiration in the King's dusky eyes mollified her smouldering anger.
She smiled, half reluctantly.
The heavy satin petticoat slipped from her loosened fingers and revealed the green gauze.
She sank indolently on the day bed and the King lifted the mirror out of the chair and took that place himself; he checked the pages who would have helped him, for though so morally indolent, so unthinking and careless, he did not like idleness nor sloth.
His strong hands liked to be doing things; he took part in all action near him; if he was on a boat he must be steering.
Lady Castlemaine sent the pages flying; a flashing look was sufficient; they had early found it wise to learn to interpret her glances.
"You have been long away "; her drowsy smile was not loving.
Charles picked up a fold of the green gauzes that clouded the contour of her knees.
"A fair hue for Venus," he said, "sea green, eh?"
"Water green." She was watching him keenly.
"Nay, sea green. I love the sea." His smile was as ingenuous as hers was false.
"'Love still has something of the sea,
From which His mother rose.'
You know that pretty conceit?"
"You are too fond of poetry," she answered coldly. "What is this new Play at Drury Lane?"
He looked disinterested; he continued to handle the fold of green gauze.
"I do not know. Ask Mr. Dryden. Have I not been conducting some marvellous experiments with that knave Exili? I tell you, Alinda" (which was his name for her, he misliking the sound of Barbara), "we came as near to raising the Devil as I do when I ask my good Commons for money."
She bent nearer, with seductive lips smiling into a kiss.
"There is a new actress in this Play, her part is called Cydaria."
"Who is she?" asked the King indolently; for his mind was with his retorts, his furnaces and his crucibles.
"You don't know? Lord! that lightning came into the room!"
With pretty fright she shuddered against his shoulder, but as quickly drew off, cheating him of his lazy kiss.
Wide and dark London showed through the open window behind them; so still was the air that the candles in the silver circle above them burnt steadily with tapering heart-shaped flames.
"The actress?" Lady Castlemaine took up the King's question. "Why, she is some poor, low, common scurvy creature."
"Why do we talk of her?" asked Charles easily and absently.
"'Tis a wonder she has the part."
"Who gave it her?"
Lady Castlemaine allowed her lids to droop sleepily over her flashing eyes and lifted the green gauze to idly admire her scintillating garter.
She was satisfied that the King had forgotten the orange girl.
As, indeed, he had.
They were charming flowers, the most charming, sweet- smelling picotees! Picotees with pinked edges like a lady's frills, raspberry pink on a petal of creamy white and smelling of luscious spiced summer, an odour which filled the tiring room at Drury Lane.
They lay on the top of the spinet of Charles Hart, whereon was a hunting scene with apple-green curling trees and chestnut hounds and huntsmen with comely coats flourished in gold.
Charles Hart played elegantly from the long sepia notes on the bone-coloured paper book.
He was a personable young actor of the company of the King's Players, and with an easy willingness that had in it more than good nature he was training the new player, Mrs. Nelly, for whom the new part of Cydaria had been written in the Play of "The Indian Queen," which was to be mounted with much magnificence, newly clothed and newly-painted scenery.
Now whatever gossip there might be in Whitehall, and whatever jealousy in the suspicious bosom of Lady Castlemaine, it was not owing to the King that Mrs. Nelly had had her promotion from selling oranges in the Pit to the boards.
King Charles had not spoken to Thomas Killigrew, who controlled the King's theatre, about the orange girl, but one Robert Dungan, who was a young man of good family who never failed to attend the plays at either the Duke's House in Lincolns Inn Fields where M. D'Arenant's players performed, or the King's House where Nelly sold her fruit.
And he had seen Mrs. Nelly, her gigues on the cobbles, her fine shape and her feet—her tiny feet—and heard the wit with which she kept her admirers at a good-humoured distance, and had spoken of her to Mr. Killigrew, and Mr. Killigrew had looked at her as she laughed in the Pit, and here she was, rehearsing Cydaria, under the kind direction of Mr. Hart.
"Oh, Lord," she said, "I'll never sing true, or speak straight!" She snatched the book from the spinet. "Why did they want to give me a great part of tragedy because I can dance a gigue?"
"Believe me," sighed Mr. Hart, "you will be all the pleasure of the Play—we have long lacked an excellent freshness such as yours."
Nelly sighed too.
"What are my merits, Sir Flatterer?"
He glanced down at the edge of her saffron-coloured petticoats.
"Is it nothing to have the least feet of any woman in England?"
Nelly also looked down at the shoes which had been the King's gift.
"It is said," she remarked pensively, "that His Majesty goes nightly to the Duke's theatre to hear Moll Davis sing."
"Not nightly," said Mr. Hart, "but often enough. She has a new song that has taken mightily—"
His fingers went over the keys daintily.
"Sing it, Mrs. Nelly. I'll warrant you can perform it as bravely as Moll Davis."
"What are the words?" asked she, putting back a stray curl from her merry eyes.
"My lodging is on the cold, cold ground,
And very hard is my fare—
But that which grieves most
Is the unkindness of my dear."
"Lord," said Nelly, "that is rank nonsense. Think you if I had a dear I would let him be unkind?"
"He would never want to be," replied Mr. Hart. "Ah, Mrs. Nelly, you'll have your choice!"
Nelly pursed up her lips with a quizzical look.
"I've seen many gallants coming and going in the Lane. None of them any lover of mine."
"You're young yet, Mrs. Nelly. A May tide, good sooth! This melody is mighty pretty.
"'I'll crown thee with a garland of straw,
And I'll marry thee with a rush ring;
My frozen hopes shall thaw then,
And merrily we will sing—'"
"I've had enough of rushes and straw," said Nelly, "rush lights and straw beds—I'll have no rustic lover, no pining shepherd for Nelly!"
She pulled out her skirts with a loving gesture.
"Lord! How mighty fine it is to feel silk about one! Do I not carry it well, Mr. Hart?"
"I have given you some lessons," said he wistfully.
"I'm grateful," said Nelly. "Yours shall be the merit if I queen it well upon the board—"
He looked at her tenderly and rising from his gold-fringed stool before the spinet took her hand.
"I'm half in love with thee myself, Mrs. Nelly."
"Why half?" asked she pensively.
"Well then, wholly—"
"Alack what remedy!" she replied, quoting the song he had been singing. "For I love no man yet."
Suddenly serious, she approached him so that the multitude of her curls touched his handsome face.
"And look you, Mr. Hart, if you are a friend o' mine, keep the other hussies in their places. Your green room is no place for poor Nelly. Your Mrs. Marshall, your Mrs. Knip, and your Mrs. Cory do grievously insult and annoy her telling her of her mean obscurity and her street breeding."
"Upon what provocation?" asked Mr. Hart, careless what she said as long as she kept so near to him.
"None. I am the most good-natured soul alive. Lord! is it my fault that I was bred in the Coal Yard and sold oranges to gentlemen? I can be as nice as any of them."
"It is jealous, Nelly, they are because you are so mighty pretty. And now give me a kiss for saying that."
"'Tis not worth so much, Mr. Hart," replied Nelly calmly. "I have been offered more than that for a kiss—and refused it."
"Do you refuse me, Nelly?"
He leant across the spinet, all brown and gold, like the painting of the hunting scene, with tawny eyes and neat, smooth curls and a brave dress laced like a nobleman's Court attire.
Nell laughed at him merrily; she became her silks better than she became her rags; soap and water had revealed the plump whiteness of her lovely neck and shoulders and a brush and comb had burnished those thick, short curls into a look of lively sunshine.
"I'll see who else offers," said she mischievously. "It were folly to take the first offer."
"Why take a lover at all, since you are so cold and coy?"
"Do you think I can keep virtuous on the fee you pay for ranting tragedy queens?" asked Nelly demurely. "Why, it is bare enough to keep my mother and her friends in strong waters and myself in soap balls! Lord! I was better off with sixpence a piece oranges to sell and no finery to pay for!"
"Stint Madam Gwyn of her strong waters," said Mr. Hart, wooing her with ardent eyes.
"Nay, for they are to drink my health in—the Coal Yard wishes me success and shall I not pay for their potations!"
"You'll pay for my patience with a kiss, Mrs. Nelly—"
"The lesson is over," replied she, and as he came towards her she picked up the picotees in round white arms and tossed them into his face.
And scampered off down the corridors of Drury Lane Theatre.
Mr. Hart ran after her; the door closed on their flight.
The room remained lonely; a beam of sweet summer sunshine fell on the open spinet, the tossed-away book and the scattered picotees with the cream-white petals and the raspberry-pink edges.
Mrs. Nelly appeared as "Cydaria" and the poor inhabitants of the Coal Yard applauded from the mean seats at the back of the Pit.
But strutting in a tinsel robe was not to the taste or the manner of Mrs. Nelly, and her paste-board crown weighed heavily on brows that had always been free to the sun and wind.
She was pretty in the rich candle-light, though tiny compared to the other players, and her voice had a sweet accent, and some stopped amid their gossip and their ogling of each other to stare and even to applaud.
But the King's box was empty; he was either at the other rival House, applauding Moll Davis, or he was in Whitehall with Lady Castlemaine. In either case, he had forgotten poor Nelly and the pence that had paid for the cakes and ale and the silver slippers.
"Oh, Lord!" sighed Nelly, and her playing took on a doleful tinge as befitted a tragedy.
When it was over Mr. Dryden came to applaud her privately and to talk of another part he would write for her. Comedy this time, he said, for he was sure that Mrs. Nelly was a comedian.
With Mr. Dryden there came to the tiring room a young nobleman of great elegance and presence who very much impressed Mrs. Nelly.
She had been something shouldered into the background by the other women and sat on a table in a careless undress with her gilt crown still on her wanton curls; she was eating a tart, and thinking rather mournfully of the forgetfulness of King Charles.
But now and then she looked at the young nobleman who was talking to Mrs. Knip, and thought how shabby and mean he made poor Charles Hart appear, for all this latter was tricked out to look just like such a fine gentleman as this was. And sometimes she saw this stranger look at her, gravely and with a considering eye.
Mr. Hart, still in buskins and wreath, came up to her offering a flagon of ale, and when he would not go, but stayed there, refusing to leave her to her thoughts, Nelly punished him by asking who the brave young nobleman was.
Mr. Hart looked gloomy, but replied with a negligent air that the gentleman was Lord Buckhurst, and surely Nelly had seen him before?
"I may have seen him," replied she, "but I never knew his name."
And she brushed the pastry crumbs from her lips and lap.
She noted that my lord Buckhurst, whom she knew by repute as one of the most famous of the men of fashion, as a brave soldier and as a writer of pretty verse, was kind in his manner to the actors, treating them not indeed as his equals, but not as the underlings and lackeys they seemed to be considered by the other fine gentlemen who came into the tiring room to applaud the actresses and jest with the actors.
And Mrs. Nelly noting this, as has been said, liked him for it; and yet perversely she also noted that he made Charles Hart, handsome as he was, look but a gaudy show.
She yawned, stretched and jumped off the table.
And as she made to leave the room, absurdly trailing her tawdry finery and with her gilt paper crown perched ridiculously on the gold curls, Lord Buckhurst made way for her and held open the door.
"My lord," said she, "I, who have no breeding, am grateful to you for yours—'tis pleasant not to be scorned for a merry tongue and a painted face."
And looking at him as she spoke she thought how fine he was, with a face both gentle and strong, but with those fickle eyes she had seen in too many men of her acquaintance.
"Welcome to the boards, sweet Nell," he replied with the softest of smiles, "and may fair luck attend your venture."
"I was not over-clapped to-night," she answered wistfully, "save by some good friends of mine in the meaner seats—but Lord! 'twas a heavy part!"
"But Lord! it was, Nelly!" he smiled. "Mr. Dryden tells me he will write you a Comedy—"
"Will you come to see me play in it, my lord?"
"That I will, Nelly, and write you a paper o' verses on it, too."
"I cannot read, good sir."
"Then I will sing them to you, Nelly."
She looked at him with her touching, half wistful suspicion, learnt from the life of the streets.
She was not quite sure that he was not making a jest of her; but she chanced to see Mr. Hart's scowling face, and that comforted her on this matter.
Yet her kind heart was sorry, too, for the discomfiture of the poor actor.
"Well, good night." She tossed her head and went out, running upstairs to her own little room, where she rubbed off her grease paint and slipped out of her cumbrous robes.
Nelly had now some decent lodgings, though nothing very noteworthy, in the better part of Drury Lane, and from there she went to and fro on her pattens through the dirt of the Lane to play in the King's Play house.
But the King never chanced to come there the nights that she was playing, and indeed both the theatres were more empty than usual because the weather was hot and there was much sickness about, people even falling in the streets in a strange manner.
The orange girls said that the handsome Charles Hart was greatly enamoured of Mrs. Nelly, and the Court gossips said that Lord Buckhurst was courting Mrs. Nelly at the King's as His Majesty was courting Mrs. Moll at the Duke's—but who can answer for rumour where a little obscure actress is concerned, or tell the true from the false in the story for poor Mrs. Nelly?
A woman has a right to her secrets, even if she be but a poor player.
Yet none would have said that Nelly had any secrets, so candid was she in her easy merriment, and Charles Hart, so wan and glum, did not seem a successful lover.
And as for the gossip of the orange girls, 'tis well known that they were envious and greatly resented the advancement of Nelly, and what wonder that their tongues fell to malice and uncharitableness and spite?
While as for the Court gossip, all knew what that was worth; and Nelly's name was not often mentioned there, people being too occupied in talking of Mrs. Moll Davis and how she had danced a gigue in the theatre in the Cockpit, and how the Queen had got up and walked away in the middle of it—and without being missed, poor woman!
July found Nelly crying because the theatre was to close.
The Court kept close in Whitehall and all persons of quality were following their example; there was so much illness abroad that it seemed like a return of the Great Plague before the Great Fire two years before; and with the great heat and the bad news from abroad and the war going against us it was an ill time for all, even for Nelly with her laughter and her gigues.
And all we know of this part of the business is that my lord Buckhurst, finding the air of town stifling, did come to the Lane in a comely coach and four.
And stopped precisely at the door of Mrs. Nelly's lodging.
Whereat she, much moped, put her head out of the window and was mighty pleased to see him, and said so unstintingly.
"Sweet Nelly," said my lord, as kind and pleasant as you please, "will you come to Epsom Wells for an airing?"
"'This foolish world will never be mended,'" quoted Nelly from one of her plays, and she drew in her head, packed her hair trunk and came down, with Mrs. Gwyn.
And they all got into the coach with Tutty, the mongrel dog, and drove at a spanking rate to Epsom Wells.
It was a great summer for roses, with the strong sun and cool showers at night, and the country seemed to invade the town so that the flowers in the gardens appeared to overflow and hid the houses and the very bricks appeared to blossom into creeping blooms, honeysuckle, golden rose and saffron, roses again, close packed red and white and other such toys of August tide.
Mrs. Nelly and my lord Buckhurst kept Merry House at Epsom Wells which, if not as fashionable as Tunbridge Wells, was more so than Lamb's Conduit or Tottenham, which resorts were frequented by the meaner kind of superb citizens, who also disported themselves at Islington or Hogsden.
It had a free and pleasant air and an amusing crowd trudged or rode the ways from London to Tooting, from Tooting to Epsom, which much diverted Mistress Nelly.
Lest the censorious or the gossiping or the unkind should think it too much of a licence that she lived thus with my lord Buckhurst, it should be chronicled that she had a Duenna in Mrs. Gwyn, who stayed with her in much affection and concord and helped to spend my lord's lavish money.
They put up at a house next door to "The King's Head" inn, a little way out of the town, on the way to the Wells where the spruce citizens drank the waters, so that their windows opened on hedges full of dog roses and fields of buttercups and cuckoo pint.
Mrs. Nelly had been brought up to detest the citizens and to make fun of the Lord Mayor, for were not these all of a sober and puritanical caste, and had they not done their best to repress and ruin the players and drive out of the city the orange girls!
And was there not now much shaking of heads and sour looks and turning back to stare and whisper when Mrs. Nelly visited Mawse's Garden or Clay Hill in a laced smock and scarlet silk boots?
Ah, the comfit makers and haberdashers of London had no good word for poor Nelly tripping over the flowery meadows, or leaning bare shouldered from her window to pick a rose that swayed against the pane.
Sir Charles Sedley came to Epsom and stayed with my lord Buckhurst, and some of the finest wit in England sparkled round the dark table with the flagons and glasses and the sumptuous heaped bowls of flowers that Nelly brought in, stripped lilies, gilly flowers and gay stocks, and such ripe peaches and pears plucked from a sun-hot wall.
Nelly was learning many things; she was quick and my lord Buckhurst was an apt master.
She would mimic a great lady on occasion now, and learnt to eat and drink daintily, and to speak without so many of the rough words of the Coal Yard, though she could curse prettily still and 'twas not likely she would be cured of this.
She could not read nor write nor learn a note of music, nor did her teacher essay such tasks as teaching her these arts, unnecessary too, he thought, in a charming woman.
"Your eyes," he said, "are too pretty to be spoilt by print."
But Nelly could sing, freshly, with an ardour that set her plump white throat quivering, and she could dance, so that you would swear that her little feet were the sweetest things in the world.
She was always kind and good-humoured and gay, with no malice even for those who despised and insulted her, but only pleasant fun.
There were many more beautiful women than Mrs. Nelly at Epsom Wells that summer, but none so dear and loving in looks and little confident ways.
The threepenny post brought a letter that Nelly could not read, of course, and which she was afraid to show to my lord Buckhurst, for she guessed it to be from Mr. Charles Hart.
So she took it, with some trouble, to the linen draper's, where was an old woman who had smiled at her when she went to make her purchases.
And this dame could read, with time and some fatigue.
A pretty picture you might have seen that summer day, with Nelly in her white dress and straw hat, sitting at the counter with an anxious look on her blooming face, while the old woman spelt out the letter which was itself something ill written.
And surely it was a love-letter and from Mr. Charles Hart, the handsome actor from Drury Lane, complaining of Mrs. Nelly's absence and "perfidy" as he was pleased to call her conduct.
"That," said she sorrowfully, "is a word he has gotten out of one of his ranting plays, but it has nothing to do with me. Yet I am sorry because I learnt much from him and he learnt nothing but pain from me."
"Did you love him and leave him for another, mistress?" asked the linen draper's wife thoughtfully.
"No," said Nelly candidly, "he was never a lover of mine, and though I am but a poor player, there is no man can say of me that I betrayed his affection."
"Well," replied the linen draper's wife, who had much knowledge of life, "if you be but one of the misses of the town, still I think you have an honest face. And there is more to your letter, though the characters be cursed crabbed—"
"Well," said Nelly, "if it be to the same purpose, read it not, good mother, but fetch me two ells of fine Holland for the making of smocks."
"It is a piece of news he gives you," replied the old woman, with her long nose close to the letter. He says:
"Mrs. Moll Davis has rooms in Suffolk Gardens and a ring worth seven hundred pounds in exchange for that of rush of which she sang. I saw her in a box above the King and Lady Castlemaine the other day (the Court being now come to Town and the theatre open, false wench) and the King looking up and smiling. And Lady Castlemaine looked up once to see who it was, and her eyes were flashing like fire."
Nelly looked pensive and sighed.
"There be goings on to read," said the old woman, handing back the letter. "But the Wells are full and trade is good, and that is all a sober creature need trouble about."
Nelly bought her Holland linen and wandered away down the hot streets, where every window was full of flowers, and down between the houses were the parterres gaudy with blooms, and so into the open fields that lay washed in sunshine beneath a sky of lazy azure.
And Nelly sat down on the grass, by a little stream, her silk skirts about her like a fallen flower themselves, and skilfully made boats of poor Mr. Hart's letter and set them sailing down the stream.
Here Lord Buckhurst found her, and casting himself, with elegant grace, on the grass beside her, read over some verses he had made in her honour.
To which Nelly scarce listened, so that my lord was provoked into repeating one of his conceits several times.
"All hearts fall a leaping where ever she comes,
And beat day and night like my lord Craven's drums."
"Who is my lord Craven?" asked Nelly absently.
"Why, silly, he is Colonel of the King's Guards."
Nelly cast her boat, with its poor burden of torn words of love, on to the stream.
"Why so grave, chuck? It is sweet here."
"Sweet enough," said Mrs. Nelly, "but I wish I were at the Lane again."
And then my lord looked grave too, as if he scorned himself.
"Why, perhaps it were better we were all in Town—I hear there has been a great defeat at sea by the Dutch."
They talked of the burning of London as they might have talked of the burning of Troy Town—it seemed as old a story.
And they laughed about the burning of the ships at Chatham as they might have laughed at the blaze of fireworks in a festival sky.
Yet before the vulgar some show must be preserved, some man punished to atone for the national disgraces.
And who was there who made so perfect a scapegoat as my lord Clarendon? For, not only was the King weary of his grave reproachful face and sober ways and his tales and memories of the Great Rebellion, but, as has been said, my lady Castlemaine detested him for his censorious looks and his attempted check on her wanton extravagances; all the courtiers, now my noble lords of Worcester and Southampton were lately dead, were of her mind and rejoiced to see one so dull and virtuous removed from their midst.
For the times were gay and wanton as a French galliard and Honour and Worth alike out of place.
King Charles had chased a white moth, pale as the ghost of England's fame, when the great cannon of Tromp had bellowed down the Thames, chased the silly fribble down the lovely galleries of Whitehall—and who had wept then but the great Earl of Clarendon?
"Send him away," said Lady Castlemaine, broodingly sulky.
The King owed her something, for Moll Davis had bared her hand to show a monstrous ring for all the world to see—flashed the jewels in my lady's eyes, and laughed her sweet silly laugh with maddening mockery.
And, for an easy man, what more trouble than a jealous woman?
It were easier and more pleasant for the King to dismiss the virtuous Lord Clarendon, than vex his imperious favourite; too often had His Majesty found how smooth is the way of dishonour for an indolent man.
On a blue, hard day, Lady Castlemaine went, in a flashing coach of glass and gilt, to Bartholomew Fair, which was much to her taste.
Clear, bright, small clouds were piled above the medley of London, and the narrow ways were drenched in sunshine.
Lady Castlemaine took off her vizard to look at the neat merry crowds and if any glanced at her with hate or curses she smiled with a mocking insolence.
Yet it was but few who miscalled her, this false woman being so beautiful to the eye that she was justified of herself.
Jacob Hall was to do his rope dancing to-day and there were many from the Court to see that and to admire the odd beasts, the dancers and the drolls exhibited in the Fair.
And the Countess of Castlemaine, coming as far as she could in her coach, went at last into the press of base people on foot with her way kept for her by certain gentlemen, pages and footmen.
As it was hot, so hot, she shook a plume of green feathers to create a little air, and green feathers waved on her huge black hair and danced on her fair cheek and neck.
She could not come near the rope dancer for the dirt, but a likely young spark by the booth came forward and ordered planks to be put down and she smiled lazily and asked someone what his name was.
And it was Charles Hart of the King's Play house.
"Tit for tat," said the Countess and called him up with airy grace and smiled on him most lavishly, so that the courtiers behind, tittered, thinking of Moll Davis.
Side by side the Countess and the actor watched the rope dancer, whose shapely figure in scarlet was cleanly outlined against that hard blue sky, high above the booths and tents, the bright ragged flags, the golden dust, the noise and brilliance of the Fair.
"'Tis dangerous, he will fall," said the Countess without pity.
"'Tis someone else will fall to-day," whispered one behind her, thinking of the Lord Chancellor.
Charles Hart answered with one of those seductive glances he had so long practised on the boards in the parts of young lovers.
"Do we not all walk ropes to our peril?" he said, "at least all of us who do not meanly remain crawling in the mire and are trampled under foot."
"'Tis a matter of skill," she admitted with a smile flung to his smile.
Jacob Hall walked over their heads, high on the fine taut rope that stretched from one pole to another; so blue was the sky, so scarlet the silk figure and so golden the dust of the Fair.
The mountebank safely reached the farther pole, detached from it a bouquet of paper flowers, and skilfully turning, tossed them at Lady Castlemaine's feet. She did not give this offering a glance but turned away with an indolent air.
"So he did not fall after all," she complained.
"Will you not," beguiled Mr. Hart, "come and see the odd beasts?"
They were kept in heavy painted cages carved with fantastic figures.
"Tell me," said the Countess, "is not that actress, Mrs. Nelly, returned to town?"
"Indeed, Madam, she has returned and is at her old parts, as Panthea and Mirida and Samira—but with little applause."
"Is she not my lord Buckhurst's miss?"
"Madam, he is her great admirer, as I was, but I believe now hates her, as I do, for she is most fickle and shuts us both out of the tiring-rooms and makes sport of us—so she is very poor, and you may see again holes in her stockings and rents in her petticoats."
"'Tis a fool," commented the Countess; she looked languidly between the bars of the cages. "Lord, what odd animals! And pray what may their names be, Mr. Hart?"
"Madam," said the actor, "you have here cameleopards, hippogriffins, basilics, cockatrices, unicorns, yales, salamanders—and honest men."
"Add to your rarities chaste women, Mr. Hart," said one of the lounging retinue impudently.
The actor bowed and replied:
"What does not exist is not catalogued under rarities, sir."
"Your wit is sharp for a swordless man," said the Countess indolently, "but vagabonds were ever allowed a full licence."
Their glances met, insolence measuring insolence, then both laughed, liking each other.
"Show me," she said, "these odd beasts, Mr. Hart."
They sauntered on between the booths, tents and cages; gaudy dwarfs hurried to and fro and monkeys in turbans gibbered from the shoulders of melancholy exiled negroes; from the foul depths of the cages tawny eyes glittered and tasselled tails lashed; a pair of sequined ponies kicked at a staple and a painted child in rags danced on a huge ball of rubbed gold.
Sinister music rose dolefully from cracked pipes, and raucous beats came from tarnished drums.
In a tent were actors and actresses all unready, dressing themselves in tawdry tatters of mock royalty while they ate mutton pies and drank small beer.
There was an odour of coarse food, of stables, of wild animals, of dust, of summer, of the city.
Everything was strident, hard, crude, wanton.
The Countess of Castlemaine now lolled on Mr. Hart's arm and let him whisper jests in her ear.
Presently came a confidant of hers from
Whitehall and gave her the news for which she had waited and which made her give her cruel, greedy smile.
The King had taken the Great Seal from Lord Clarendon—the virtuous statesman was disgraced and exiled.
Nelly was playing her old parts but to a more scanty audience; the weather was still hot, and though Mrs. Gwyn and her loyal friends of the Coal Yard contrived to make a show in the Pit when Nelly acted, the better seats were often empty.
The orange girls said that Nelly had been left by my lord Buckhurst, who made a jest of her, and that Charles Hart hated her and would give her no help in her parts, for some of which, as the heavy tragedy queens, she got no admiration, though even her rivals agreed that she was a delicious comedian.
Nelly said nothing, but sometimes "Heigho!" when Mr. Hart began to boast of his friendship with the Countess of Castlemaine which had begun on the day she had met him at the Fair and looked at the tumblers and mountebanks and odd beasts with him; the day that she had heard that the Great Seal had been taken from my Lord Chancellor.
And now there was no honest face at Whitehall Palace and no prudent voice and no censorious look, but all went merrily as a dance.
And who was there to care that no one knew how or when or where the piper was to be paid?
Nelly was now poor enough; she could barely afford the lodgings she had near Mr. Lacy, the actor who had taught her to dance, and if she shone bravely in tinsel and satin on the boards she went poorly enough up and down the Lane.
For Nelly was too open-handed with her money, it slipped through her pretty fingers into the hands of her old friends, and what Mrs. Gwyn did not drink, Tom and Dickon and their compeers ate.
It was said that Mr. Killigrew would have raised her wage but for the malice of Charles Hart.
But of this Nelly never complained; it was said of her that she could be loyal even to her enemies.
Sir Charles Sedley often came to see her in the tiring-room and jested with her about the Epsom Wells days and asked her, often and teasingly, why she had fallen out with my lord Buckhurst.
And Nelly would only shake her head good-humouredly and laugh and point to the holes in her stockings, and say, that with all her admirers she could not come at the price of a new part.
Sir Charles Sedley made verses on her, as my lord Buckhurst had done in his time:
"Tho' alas, I always find
Nothing can her fancy fix,
Yet the moment she is kind,
I forgive her all her tricks."
"Kind!" laughed Nelly. "I've never been less than kind to any man, woman, or dog—"
She was dressed as the mad, gallant Florimel, in "Secret Love," that evening, a caricature of a man of fashion, brocade, satin, long curls, laces and sword; and, strutting up and down the green-room, she began to recite her part, with the very motion and carriage of a spark.
"If clothes and a bonne mien will take 'm I shall do't—save you, Monsieur Florimel! Faith, methinks you are a very jaunty fellow, poudrè et adjustè as well as the best of 'em. I can manage the little comb—set my hat, shake my gesture, toss about my empty noddle, walk with a courant slur, and at every step feck down my head—if I should be mistaken for some courtier, now, pray, where's the difference?"
Sir Charles laughed.
"Will you play that before the King to-morrow, Nelly?"
The actress stopped in her mimicry.
"Does the King come to the Lane tomorrow then?"
"So he says."
"He has been at the Duke's House so much that we never thought to see him here again," said Nelly.
"He is tired of the singing of Moll Davis, though his page, Desmond Humphrey, has taught her many new songs—"
"How easily the King tires," said Nelly, gravely pulling at her absurd little gilt sword. "Should not your verses have been for him—
"'Tho' alas, I always find—
Nothing can his fancy fix'"—
She quoted in a forlorn and mournful tone.
"'Yet the moment he is kind
I forgive him all his tricks.'
Well, I wouldn't," declared Nelly. "Let any man, King or commoner, play tricks on me."
She rattled her toy weapon in its case.
"But to-morrow," she added, "it will not be Florimel, but 'Flora's Figarys' and I take the part of Flora in a gauze undress stuck with flowers."
Her face dimpled under the paint and in the shade of the monstrous periwig.
"I have a pair of shoes, too, silver shoes, that I shall wear—perhaps the King will notice them."
"Why should the King notice your shoes, Nelly?"
She smiled thoughtfully, remembering a certain present sent to the Coal Yard by a royal messenger.
But all she said was:
"Why shouldn't he?"
"Because," replied Sir Charles with that gallantry that so well became him, "your feet are so small as almost to escape admiration."
"But anyone could see them in these shoes," answered the incorrigible Nelly, "they are so much too large."
And she ran on to the stage, her cue being come.
The next night the theatre was full enough since it was known that the King would be there, and since a new Play was to be given, with fine effects and new scenes.
And, some time before the performance began, one Mr. Samuel Pepys, of the Admiralty, coming in with Mrs. Knip, was brought up into the tiring-room of the women where they were dressing round a fire, it being the first week in October now and cold.
Nelly stood apart, neglected by them all, despised for the lowness of her birth and her ill-success with two lovers or would-be lovers.
And Mrs. Knip told Mr. Pepys, in a whisper that was loud enough, that Nelly and her mother had once pushed an oyster and cockle barrow up and down the Lane, before Nelly was old enough to sell oranges, and how there were those who remembered it and came now to banter her at the theatre.
Mr. Pepys looked at Nelly, who sat in a corner, all unready, with a lapful of fruit, apples and grapes, and swung her little feet and looked at her silver shoes.
Mr. Pepys had seen her before, but only on the stage and painted, so looking at her, he thought to himself, "She is very pretty, prettier than I thought," and so went up to her and asked her if she liked her part.
Nelly answered good-humouredly, and gave him some of her fruit.
"I take a great content in it," said she, smiling. "You see, my clothes are very poor, but on the stage by candlelight they will make a show."
So she stood up and shook out her dress of pale gauze with cotton flowers scattered over it and, by the help of a cracked mirror, stuck some green leaves in her hair.
"I am glad that the King comes to us at last," she said, "for the other house has been carrying away all the people."
She talked a little so to Mr. Pepys while she made herself ready, and pretty indeed she looked in her tinsel finery which somehow her youth invested with an air of green fields, of innocence and vernal freshness, so that her tawdry leaves and blooms seemed to blossom with some magic fragrance.
She ran on to the stage into the candlelight and there was the King, lounging in his box and looking indifferently at the stage.
He saw Nelly and she saw him; they gazed at each other as two people gazing through masks—she flicked back the gauze skirts to show her silver shoes.
Laughed, and the Play began.
The King called for Nelly when the Play was over.
She came with a humble cloak over her stage gown and the paint hastily wiped from her face; she appeared pale, tired and wistful.
Charles, leaning back in the box, looked at her from head to foot, but kindly. He had none with him but my lord Rochester and my lord Monmouth, and these, emboldened by the endless licence of the King, tittered in the shadows of the box at the little actress.
"Do you remember me?" asked Charles as if he toyed with the words.
"It is not I, sir, who have the poor memory," replied Nelly faintly, for she felt her heart beat thickly; shut up in the little box with these men, two of whom were laughing at her, and the third of whom might be mocking her, her gallant impudence failed her for once.
"Ah," smiled the King, "you have learnt something since I saw you last—the mode, the manner, the speech; who taught you, little Nelly?"
She answered simply:
"Mr. Charles Hart, my lord Buckhurst and Mr. Lacy."
At this the two lewd lords laughed openly, nor did the King rebuke them; but Nelly drew her cloak closer round her bare shoulders.
"There is no call to gibe," she said, with a return of her usual spirit. "They were none of my lovers, though kind enough."
The King replied gently:
"Then you are hard to please, Nelly. Lord Buckhurst is a fine gentleman, and your actors are handsome, ranting lovers."
"Maybe I'm hard to please, sir," replied the actress, "but I know how to go without what I cannot get."
"Do you, Nelly? Methinks that is a great virtue."
But the King's quiet words were lost in a burst of wild and foolish laughter from Lord Monmouth.
"Teach me some of your wisdom, pretty child," he cried, insolently clutching at her cloak.
She turned to him with a movement of resolute withdrawal.
"No one could teach wisdom to you, my lord—your way is too soft—and, I think, your head."
"She has hit thee there, Jimmy, palpably—ask her if her way be not soft, too."
Nelly turned to the King with a certain wistful eagerness.
"I'll answer you, not him, sire. The way is not so soft for women of the stage—consider it. While our poor beauty lasts we lie at the choice and the mercy of the gallants of the town—when our youth is gone, and that's by twenty-five, in your account, we may sell oranges or cry cockles, and which of our old lovers will buy from us to relieve us?"
The enchanting voice was low and sad; the three men sat silent in the embrowned shadows of the box.
"To-day your pleasure, your bouffon—to-morrow—!"
She delicately pinched out the candle that still burned in the sconce before the box.
"I was brought up to starve," smiled Nelly, "and no doubt I'll starve again when my face has faded. Well, what does Florimel say: I am resolved to grow fat and look young till forty, then slip out of the world with the first wrinkle and the reputation of twenty-five.'"
She laughed; the slender sound went tinkling round the empty theatre.
The two ribald lords laughed too, but without spirit.
"Forty," muttered Rochester, rising. "You bring a skeleton into the company, mistress. If I live to be forty I'll die penitent."
"And I drunk," added Monmouth, quoting one of the catch verses of the day:
"'Good store of claret supplies everything,
And he who is drunk is as great as a King.'
Even King Death, I dare swear—Death, that's a pretty word—"
He opened the door of the box, letting a stream of candle light from the window in over his golden laces and florid face, while Rochester caught his arm and dragged him away, laughing, laughing.
King Charles had risen.
"Good night, Nelly. Am I to leave you alone in the empty theatre?"
"Sir, I shall go home; I have lodgings in the better end of the Lane now."
"Paid for by my lord Buckhurst?" asked he lazily.
"Paid for by myself," replied Nelly frankly. "Lord! Will you also, sir, be one of those who fasten lovers on me?"
The King peered at her through the dusk; she looked, in the empty theatre, and her grey cloak, with her pale face, like the ghost of pleasure.
"I am sending my lord Buckhurst to France," he said humorously.
"It will be no grief to me, sir," came the sweet, tired voice.
"What would be a grief to you, Nelly?" he asked curiously.
The actress was silent.
"Come—I want to know the answer, Nelly."
"Well—if Your Majesty—"
"Nay, old Rowley in the Play houses, surely."
"Then, if old Rowley had forgotten me—quite—it would have been a grief to me."
"But old Rowley, like the lazy, dull and wicked rogue he is (as anyone will tell you), did forget."
"You sent me the shoes, sir?" cried Nell in sudden pain.
That note in her voice made him pause to relish what it meant.
"I sent you the shoes," he answered at length, "but I was in your debt as well—you paid for the supper, Nell—my shoes must be a gift—"
"I'll have no money," interrupted the actress in a fright. "Oh, sir, do not talk of money—"
"I have no need to, others talk of it enough to me—but, Nelly, what can I give you then?"
He saw that she shook her head.
"Good night. And again, good night."
In that moment King Charles felt a regret for something, he did not know what, that he had missed.
"This is a dull place now the lights are out," he cried with a certain violence.
"They do not know that Your Majesty is here—"
"Come out to supper, Nelly; to-night I have money in my pocket if not in my treasury."
"What use is my company to you?" asked Nelly wistfully out of the dusk. "You have buffoons enough about you."
"I have not enough kind hearts about me," replied the King dryly, "though no doubt as many as I deserve."
"Ah," sighed Nelly, "if we had what we deserve!"
"Could you so pity me? My—worthlessness?" asked the King with a light bitterness that masked a yearning and a hope. "Rowley is a scandalous old fellow, you know, Nelly."
"So they all say." Her laughter shook a little.
"I don't care. Who is poor Nelly to care?"
"You don't hate me then?"
He suddenly took hold of her and kissed her quickly.
"We're two vagabonds together, Nelly; let us try to make each other laugh."
She kissed him as he had never been kissed before, for her kisses were not the kisses of either greed or passion.
But kisses of love—poor, wild, untaught kisses of love.
"Love was an easy Monarch's only care,
Seldom at Council, never at a war."
Mrs. Nelly stood at the door of her lodging in Drury Lane and watched the milkmaids go by on May Day.
She wore a delicate smock, and her curls, blowing loose in the sweet air, gave her a gay and innocent look; she laughed at the milkmaids as they came by singing, with their pails wreathed with garlands of wildings plucked from the fields near Westminster.
Nelly was now a great actress, much applauded by the town, and soon she was to leave these rooms in the Cock and Rye Tavern and take a sumptuous house in Pall Mall, the gardens of which ran down to those of the King's Palace of St. James.
By came the milkmaids singing, the fresh milk swinging to and fro in the bright pails, the wreaths and posies giving whiffs of perfume in the delicious air, and the girls' faces comely with laughter.
"Lord!" said Nelly, "but it is pleasant to be alive!"
She kissed her hands to the milkmaids and laughed them out of sight as they tripped towards the Maypole in the Strand. How brightly the Great Crown glittered to-day above the city! how proudly the Royal Arms twinkled in the dainty breeze that sighed over the roof tops!
Nelly took a few steps of a gigue for sheer joy in life—in love—in everything. She ran upstairs to her low-ceilinged room and looked in the mirror which now reflected a woman's face. Nelly was grown up now, finely kept, finely fed, plump and rosy and silken clad, the King's dear, the King's darling, and faithful to the King for many a year now.
That evening Nelly went to Whitehall; she was admitted by Mr. Chiffins, the page of the back stairs, and ran up, cloaked and hooded, to the King's apartments; this was the only manner in which poor Nelly ever saw Whitehall save when she acted in the theatre in the Cockpit; nor did she know or care much about the politics, intrigues and mysteries of the Court, nor what occupied my lords Buckingham and Arlington, Lauderdale and Ashley, these gentlemen seemingly being the rulers of England now, nor how often the King and the Duke of Monmouth quarrelled and made it up, nor what plots there were at home or wars abroad.
A French lady was now high in favour, one Louise de Querouaille, who had come over with Madame D'Orleans, His Majesty's sister, and was now installed sumptuously in Whitehall, but more, people said, as the King of France's ambassador than the King of England's love, though he had made her Duchess of Portsmouth, to the great rage of the Protestant people; but Nelly troubled her merry head very little about these things, and never sulked or stormed as did that waning beauty, Lady Castlemaine, now, poor wretch, made Duchess of Cleveland, but what concern was that to her, when the King had made a song on her (and had it sung, too), which began:
"Poor Alinda's growing old,
Her beauty charms no more!"
So Nelly this May Day ran into the King's rooms, and there was the King in the apartment next his bedchamber making merry as he would when the humour was on him; he lounged in a chair, with his peruke on the knob of it, and his own dark locks untidy on his forehead; beside him a litter of spaniels curled in a heap of satin cushions, and before him stood three fiddlers and Desmond Humphrey, the page he had sent to France to be taught singing.
The great window was open on the moon and the river, silver light, black shadows, the tinkling splash of the fountains and the scent of hawthorn and violets.
The fiddlers played and sang:
"Fiddle, fiddle dee, said the fiddler,
Fiddle, fiddle dee, said he,
There's none so rare,
As can compare,
With the sons of harmony.
Old Rowley was a merry old soul,
A merry old soul was he,
He called for his pipe,
He called for his bowl,
He called for his fiddlers three!"
King Charles clapped his hands, then stretched them out to Nelly.
She could at once see that he was gloomy beneath his cynic merriment, and her hand clasped his in warm understanding.
"You're tired, gloomy too. And May Day!" Nelly sighed.
"I'm tired, yes," said the King, fondling her fingers. "Jimmy is up to his pranks again. 'Little Sincerity' uses him as his stalking horse, Nelly; the poor boy's a fool and yet I love him."
Nelly knew that he talked of Monmouth and Lord Ashley, for he and the Duke of York called this brilliant, restless, perilous man by the bitter canting name of "Little Sincerity."
Nelly sighed again; what did she know of these things?
She looked with grief at the King's heavy-lined, sallow face; she handed him his pipe which had gone out, filled it for him with the strong Virginian and stirred the bowl of punch that stood on the table by his lazy hand.
A page of the bed-chamber snuffed the candles.
"Curse ambition," said the King sullenly. "Why must Ashley stir up strife? The boy is well enough if left alone."
"Surely he has no cause to grumble," answered Nelly, "he is choked with honours—"
"Too many," replied the King dryly, "too many, Nelly—'Jesuram waxed fat and then he kicked'—isn't that in the Bible? I've heard it o' Sundays. I took Jimmy from the gutter."
"As you took me," said Nelly quietly.
Charles smiled tenderly.
"You won't plot to get the throne, Nelly."
"Does the Duke of Monmouth attempt that?" she asked startled.
"Aye. You have not heard? Everyone talks of it—a secret wedding, I was married to Lucy Walters—a certificate in a Black Box. Lord, Lord! And Ashley works on this to get my brother set aside."
Nelly looked thoughtful; ignorant as she was of great affairs and careless of Court intrigue, the importance of what the King said impressed her shrewd, quick mind.
"Lord Ashley is clever," she remarked, "and the Duke of York unpopular—Popish, dull, arrogant and mean!"
"Poor James. No one will set me on my travels again to make him King."
"And the Duke of Monmouth is loved by the people," added Nelly. "He takes the eye."
"What would you say, sweetheart?" smiled Charles.
"That this affair is serious," said Nelly with a grave frown and her finger to her lips.
The King burst out laughing at her pompous, grave air; it was as if one of his spaniels had sat up and begun to talk statecraft. But at her next question he did not laugh.
"I suppose it is not true? I have seen a Black Box in your cabinet, sir."
"Odsfish!" said Charles. "Nelly has seen a Black Box?"
He turned from her to the singing boy, Desmond Humphrey.
"Sing that song by Shirley," he added abruptly.
The boy took a tasselled lute from the window seat and sang, in his pure, wistful voice:
"The glories of our Blood and State
Are Shadows, not Substantial things;
There is no armour against Fate,
Death lays his icy hands on Kings."
Charles laid the pipe beside the bowl; his head was sunk on his chest, his heavy brows were lowered; Nelly, crouching by the spaniels on the cushions, looked at him anxiously.
The boy tuned the lute; a few notes of jangled sweetness disturbed the springtide silence of the night.
"Sing on," murmured Charles without looking up. "Sing on—"
But the door was flung open rudely and the Duke of Monmouth came in; he wore a glittering tinsel robe and a fantastic crown of gilt paper.
The King looked round at his son without speaking.
The breeze from the open door fluttered the candle flames and stirred in crabs in the blue bowl of punch.
Monmouth laughed foolishly.
"This is my dress for the Masque," he said. "I hope, sir, it pleases you."
The door blew to behind him and he came forward into the room.
Beneath the gaudy robe of pink tissue he wore his own pale velvets powdered with silver, a baldric embroidered with gleaming thread and a sword hilt bright with brilliants.
In his heavy lace cravat was a brooch of rubies; he trailed his mountebank's robe and laughed again.
He was flushed with wine and excited beyond the excitement of wine.
Charles smiled slowly.
"A crown hardly suits you, Jimmy," he said quietly.
"I think," replied Monmouth, "it is well enough."
He gazed at himself in the mirror that hung behind the King.
His bold brown face, wide with blunt features, that had so little a look of the King save in the lustrous dark Italianate eyes, glowing now with animation and pleasure, was beautiful enough between the long, rich, glossy curls that were his especial pride.
And the high pointed crown of gold paper did not ill set off his exotic handsomeness; he looked a prince out of a fairy tale.
Charles looked at him with less than his usual doting fondness.
"Have a care, James," he said, "lest I weary of your ballet dancing—and your other tricks."
Monmouth glanced insolently at Nell.
"You, too, have your pleasures, sir," he replied instantly.
"And pay for them, and yours also," said Charles wearily. "Go your ways, James, with your ballet dances—but leave 'Little Sincerity' alone."
The page of the back stairs had ushered away the singing boy and the fiddler through an inner door.
But Nelly remained, seated silently on the cushions with the spaniels.
"Lord Ashley is my friend," replied Monmouth recklessly.
"Your friend?" sneered Charles. "Take care you be not his stalking horse."
"Your Majesty dislikes my well-wishers," retorted Monmouth. "And always did."
The King laughed in bitter amusement.
"And you league with my ill-wishers, eh? How many disloyal plots have you not lent your aid to?"
Monmouth was checked a little at this; he absently took off his paper crown and set it by the punch bowl.
"I like you better so," said the King, rising. "Keep away from even dreams of crowns—from shadows of crowns, from paper crowns, James."
He walked slowly and heavily up and down the lovely dark room.
From the pile of cushions Nelly watched him with tender anxious eyes.
Monmouth looked both timid and sullen, startled and obstinate.
"I have my party, sir. I have my party." Excited by his own assertion, by promises and exhortations that still rang in his ears, he added:
"By Heaven, I have a stronger party than the Duke of York—"
The King was by the window; he looked out lazily on to the gardens and river darkling silver beneath the moon.
"Go and learn your dance with Eleanor Needham," he said wearily, "and let other affairs alone. I had my singing boy, my fiddlers and little Nelly here to make me gay—and now you come to put me into a melancholy—"
"You ever treat me as a popinjay," replied Monmouth angrily.
Charles shrugged his broad shoulders.
Nelly's pretty voice broke the pause.
"My lord Duke," she said, "is not life sweet enough for you without you must think of these dull, sad and horrid matters?"
Monmouth, without answering, turned his back on her; Nelly laughed good-humouredly.
"I am but one of the King's buffoons," she added, "and the least even of those—but, good sir, it is May time, and a festival at Court, and you are the darling of so many—Lord! is it worth while to think of anything else?"
Her voice was so insinuating and fascinating that Monmouth turned to look down at her; his weak, facile nature responded too readily to the last word spoken, the last argument used by anyone.
And too easily did his disposition lend itself to pleasure and idleness and thoughtlessness.
When he was away from his tempters he soon forgot their advice; he had come to his father now from Lord Ashley's presence, but now the effect of that nobleman's advice was waning.
He smiled into Nelly's pretty face.
"You would all make me a senseless puppet," he said.
Nelly stretched out her hand for the paper crown.
"You don't need this silly toy," she said. "I' faith, it becomes you not."
She tore it across.
"Leave such tinsel," she added, "to poor players like Nelly—"
The King, turning from the window-seat, watched them intently.
"You would make me a Court buffoon too," said Monmouth weakly.
Nelly shrugged her pretty, plump shoulders.
"Lord, is it not better to be a buffoon than a wise man? What is more dull than your endless plots, your serious intrigues, your high and mighty politics?"
At her grimace Monmouth laughed.
"Leave Lord Ashley alone," said the King lazily. "If he has a mind to the Tower there is no need for you to accompany him, Jimmy—"
"Tower Hill!" echoed the young man, angry and startled.
"Lord Ashley," continued Charles as if he had not been interrupted, "is the greatest rogue in the three kingdoms—I told him so, civilly, and he replied—'Of a subject, maybe I am, sire.' A good answer, Jimmy. True enough."
Charles, though still lounging in the window-seat, turned full towards him.
"But I'm not quite rogue enough, my son, to put you before my brother. James is England's heir. Get about your toys and baubles—"
The dismissal was so abrupt, so definite and even so menacing, that Monmouth turned and went out with the stricken look of a weak, impudent creature suddenly hurt.
"If I were King," said Nelly, "I would not so be plagued—"
"Call in the fiddlers," answered Charles indifferently. "Let us finish our music."
Nelly shook her curly head.
"There's trouble coming—plots? What is it all?"
"I can't be troubled to find out," said the King, yawning. "What's the odds?"
But Nelly was still frowning, anxious.
"Why don't you set down my lord Ashley? It seems that he makes all the mischief."
"Some of it," agreed the King; he sauntered over to Nelly and began to play with the crabs in the blue punch bowl, making them buffet each other like ships at sea. "Some of it, Nelly."
"Well, why not put him in the Tower, as you threatened, sir?"
Charles broke into a harsh laugh.
"I'll do better than that, Nelly; I'll give him an Earldom and make him Lord Chancellor!"
He clapped his hands and to the page of the bed-chamber said:
"Bring in the fiddlers—and Nelly, I want to see that new French gigue—"
Mrs. Nelly was the most charming naughtiness in London. So King Charles thought; he might write verses on "Poor Alinda" and notice that Her Grace of Portsmouth was growing fat, and christen her "Fubbs," but he never made a jest on Nelly.
That summer he gave her two houses, one at Windsor, Burford House, and one in Pall Mall.
Of which last Nelly, receiving only a leasehold, said:
"Since all my services to the Crown have been free, I'll take nothing but a freehold."
And a freehold she had, the only one so near the Palace; and at Windsor she went riding with the King, far, far down the glades, into the deep forests, as if there were no Politics, no Wars in the world.
Nelly had left the stage now; she only acted for the King. Sometimes she still dressed up as Florimel and strutted on the stage in the Cockpit, and sometimes she put on the big hat with which she had caricatured Nokes at the Duke's playhouse when he made sport of the Frenchmen, and sometimes she sang her songs and danced her gigues.
But only for the King's amusement.
Save for the King, Nelly was alone now; Mrs. Gwyn was dead and there had been some ill-natured verse on this event by the lordlings and poetasters that did not love Nelly. 'Twas said the good dame had fallen into a ditch when dazed with strong waters and so been drowned.
Be this as it is (and 'tis well known that malice ever attends success), Nelly gave her mother a brave funeral and a handsome tomb in the Church of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, with no lack of velvet and candles, hymns and prayers.
And there were plenty of real tears from the inhabitants of the Coal Yard and the alleys of Drury Lane, for Nelly was openhanded as ever, and the Church supper was followed by a generous funeral feast when grief was washed away by good ale and wine.
Nelly rode in her coach now, as you may suppose, and was mobbed in it too, as you may have supposed also.
For there were not wanting sober, honest, quiet folk who greatly misliked the doings of the Court, and many staunch Protestants who hated the French and the Papists.
But to do Nelly justice it must be said that her coach had been mistaken for that of Her Grace of Portsmouth, and that the insults hurled after the equipage were intended for the Frenchwoman, not for poor Nelly.
And she, when she heard them shouting about the Pope of Rome and such weighty matters, which were quite beyond her understanding, stuck her pretty head out of the window and, smiling agreeably, said:
"Pray, good people, be civil; I am the Protestant hussy."
For Nelly never pretended to be other than she was; she answered Lady Castlemaine roundly once when that vixen sneered at her:
"I am what I was brought up to be, good madam," she said. "I pushed a fish-barrow and sold oranges in the Pit before I was fourteen, and now I'm but one man's lover—but you, who are such a fine lady, should take shame to be what you are, and put a rope dancer and an actor beside a King."
Nelly had a silver bed now in her Pall Mall house; it stood in a room lined with mirrors. Nelly had a pearl necklace for which she had given nearly five thousand pounds.
She had bought it from Mrs. Hughes, who had it from Prince Rupert; it was once round the neck of his mother, the Winter Queen of Bohemia, Elizabeth Stewart, and was beautiful as a Royal trifle should be.
Nelly would sit up in the silver bed in her night-shift and silk bed-gown wearing these pearls, and look round the room.
And in each of the many mirrors she would see herself again.
So many Nellys, so many silver beds, so many pearl necklaces!
So many smiling lips and bright eyes!
There was a Masque at Court and Nelly was to sing; a mischievous song had been written on Her Grace of Portsmouth, who was supposed to have looked with favour on a young Frenchman in the suite of King Louis's ambassador, aided by the Duke of Buckingham, who had just then quarrelled with the King (as he so often did).
The young Frenchman had been called back to his Christian Majesty, and there was nothing left of the storm in a teacup but the song which naughty Mrs. Nelly sang in the Cockpit after the battle of the Hobby Horses and the pas de trois of Miss Needham, Miss Bagot and His Grace of Monmouth.
The King was melancholy that evening, angry with the Duchess of Portsmouth, badly in want of money, weary of the sour face of his brother, tired of plot and counter-plot.
For days, though it was the perfection of lovely autumn weather, he had not taken his usual long walks, nor played tennis, nor made any chemical experiments; indeed, he had neglected all his usual activities and yawned away the days with his fiddlers and his cards.
Now Nelly, in a white satin dress, stood behind the candles on the stage and began to sing; Mr. Charles Hart played the spinet and Mr. Bowman sang the Chorus:
"A Frenchman would a-wooing go,
Heigho, said Rowley!
Whether his master would let him or no,
With a Rowley, Powly, gammon and spinach,
Heigho, said Anthony Rowley."
The King looked up.
"And on the way he met with a lord,
Heigho, said Rowley!
So nice with his hat, so spruce with his sword,
With a Rowley, Powly, gammon and spinach,
Heigho, said Anthony Rowley.
"Pray, my lord, will you come with me,
Heigho, said Rowley
Kind Mrs. Fubbs for to see,
With a Rowley, Powly, gammon and spinach,
Heigho, said Anthony Rowley.
"When they came to the door of grand Whitehall,
Heigho, said Rowley!
They gave a loud knock and they gave a loud call
With a Rowley, Powly, gammon and spinach,
Heigho, said Anthony Rowley.
"Pray, Mrs. Fubbs, are you within?
Heigho, said Rowley!
Mais oui, Messieurs, don't make such a din,
With a Rowley, Powly, gammon and spinach,
Heigho, said Anthony Rowley.
"Pray, Mrs. Fubbs, will you give us some beer?
Heigho, said Rowley!
For Frenchie and I are fond of good cheer,
With a Rowley, Powly, gammon and spinach,
Heigho, said Anthony Rowley.
"Pray, my lord, will you give us a song?
Heigho, said Rowley!
But let it be something that's not very long
With a Rowley, Powly, gammon and spinach,
Heigho, said Anthony Rowley.
"Indeed, Madame, my throat is raw,
Heigho, said Rowley!
A cold has made my voice like a saw
With a Rowley, Powly, gammon and spinach,
Heigho, said Anthony Rowley.
"Since you have caught cold, Mrs. Fubbs she said,
Heigho, said Rowley!
I'll sing you a ballade I have just made
With a Rowley, Powly, gammon and spinach,
Heigho, said Anthony Rowley.
"But while they were all merry-making,
Heigho, said Rowley!
The King and his dogs came tumbling in
With a Rowley, Powly, gammon and spinach,
Heigho, said Anthony Rowley.
"The King he swore by his George and his Crown,
Heigho, said Rowley!
That my lord should pack and leave the town
With a Rowley, Powly, gammon
and spinach, Heigho, said Anthony Rowley.
"This put Monsieur in a terrible fright,
Heigho, said Rowley!
He took up his hat and wished them good night,
With a Rowley, Powly, gammon and spinach,
Heigho, said Anthony Rowley.
"His Master heard of Monsieur's pranks,
Heigho, said Rowley!
And called him home without any thanks
With a Rowley, Powly, gammon and spinach,
Heigho, said Anthony Rowley.
"So there an end of a game on the sly,
Heigho, said Rowley!
If you can't succeed, better not try
With a Rowley, Powly, gammon and spinach,
Heigho, said Anthony Rowley."
This was the song that Mrs. Nelly sang in the Cockpit theatre, and the King laughed as if he had never known what melancholy was; and when she had finished and all were grinning and tittering, giggling and guff awing, the Hobby Horses rushed on again and did vigorous battle with coloured bladders.
Monmouth in a Roman helmet over his flowing curls, above which streamed immense rosy plumes, was laughing with the rest, when Lord Shaftesbury (which was the new name for my lord Ashley) touched him on the shoulder and, smiling, said in his ear:
"Wouldn't you rather be King of England than a ballet dancer?"
King Charles was fishing, which was a sport he greatly loved, holding it next in his favour after chemistry (if that may be termed a sport) and before archery and tennis, which both were favourite diversions of his, and on equal terms with his love of clocks, of sauntering, of feeding his ducks in the Mall, and of telling amusing stories to Killigrew, Rochester, Sedley, Etherege and Buckingham.
It was a magnificent day in late autumn; here and there a last gold leaf accentuated the splendid traceries of the stripped boughs against a sky of pale, greyish gold; the air was cold but sweetly clear and lately washed by long rains.
Charles, Monmouth and Shaftesbury fished in one of the great ponds at Hampton Court, and standing by the edge of another sheet of water hard by was Nelly Gwyn feeding swans, to whom she cast morsels of bread from the manchets she held in the rosy lap of her skirts.
Now and then Nelly called out to the King and the King called out to Nelly, and their warm laughter travelled across the sheets of still, still silver water and floated away in a dying fall across the mist-pearled sward, the sombre melancholy avenues that opened on nebulous autumn vistas, the red turrets of the Palace, where the faint melancholy flush of sunlight warmly lingered.
Nelly had come from London in a gilt coach to feed the swans—in a gilt coach with painted panels and a lining of gold-coloured velvet; Nelly was rose-colour herself—light rose, dark rose, pale rose and a great white muff in the misty autumn light.
Monmouth stood with his back to her; he did not like Nelly, was petulant and jealous when he saw her; he, too, carried a muff, as was now the "mode," and a looking-glass flashed in his cocked hat. "Little Sincerity," now Lord Shaftesbury, was high in favour with the King, and they jested together of ungodly matters as they fished.
Lord Shaftesbury was the best companion in the world, a great gentleman of noble tastes and a grand presence, despite his slight stature and his haggard look of ill-health, for he had been a sick man ever since he fell from his horse at Breda, where he had gone to welcome His Majesty back from exile.
An ash-hued cloak my lord wore, laced with gold, and scarlet ribbons in his cravat; there was a smile on his clever face as he cast out his long line into the pale stillness of the pond.
"I think you fish for more than pike," said Charles, who admired the ability of this brilliant, restless man who had climbed so high and kept his pinnacle so securely.
"Sire, I fish for what I may find," replied Shaftesbury with his fine smile.
"Without scruple?" Charles glanced at Monmouth. He answered himself. "Aye, you have no scruple, you King fishers of the Court! You ungodly, irreligious men!"
"Sire, I have my religion."
"And what is that, my lord?"
"Sire, all sensible men have the same religion—"
"And what, my lord, is that?"
"Sire, sensible men never tell."
"You'll not perish by indiscretion," he remarked.
Now it was Shaftesbury who glanced at Monmouth.
"Not by my own, sire," he replied.
"Oh, you two plot against me, no doubt! Well, go your ways, but never let me hear of it, that's all I ask; never let me be plagued with your tricks—"
Monmouth looked uneasy, anxious and melancholy; he glanced round for some diversion, and saw rosy Nelly, all in rose colour with the flock of white swans sailing close to her feet, in pure white grace and delicate haughtiness waiting for their largess.
"Look," cried Monmouth loudly, "Mrs. Nelly receives a billet!"
Charles looked round sharply, and there was rosy Nelly, with her flock of lovely pensioners, taking a note from a page.
"'Heigho! said Rowley!'" smiled Charles. "What is that, Nelly?"
"Something clumsy," jeered Monmouth. "Thy lovers are daring, Mrs. Nelly!"
The page ran away. Nelly stared at the note; she could not read.
She thought of Lord Buckhurst, of Charles Hart, of many other malicious men; she flushed as rosy as her habit.
"Lord," she said in confusion, "it is nothing but nonsense!"
She was thrusting it into her muff when Monmouth dropped his rod and ran deftly over to her; his rapid movement scattered the indignant swans, who ruffled the water in their flight. Monmouth tried to snatch the note.
"Here's for you, Prince Perkin!" cried Nelly, screwed up the note and tossed it among the angry swans.
Monmouth laughed triumphantly.
"A guilty conscience, Madame—sire, you should look after your ladies from the theatre."
Charles had strolled behind the two of them, leaving Shaftesbury alone with his fishing.
"Whom was it from, Nelly?" he asked quietly, his dark hand on her shoulder.
"You know that I cannot read," she answered quickly.
"Perhaps," replied the King dryly, "it is lucky that I can."
He flung his line out among the swans where the paper floated like another bird, but deformed, grotesque, dwarfed.
Nelly faced him, not without dignity.
"It were kinder, sire, to let it go," she said.
"Nay, Nelly," he replied gently, "it were kinder to know if old Rowley's ugly phiz has a rival—"
Nelly stood mute; Monmouth laughed and Shaftesbury strolled round from the fishpond.
The King's line descended among the swans, the King's hook caught in the screw of paper; they all smiled save Nelly when it was brought ashore.
Charles glanced kindly, yet with the cynicism of one always deceived, at her downcast face that seemed to be quivering into tears.
He unhooked and unfolded the paper; he glanced at the signature.
"Who is Dickon?" he asked.
Now it was Nelly who flushed into a smile.
"Why, a poor old man I know, but he cannot write—"
"He has sent this," said Charles slowly. "Another fellow has written it."
He read the letter, and his dark, heavy face grew sombre, bitter and sneering.
He looked up sharply at Monmouth.
"Do you plot against the Crown, you foolish boy?" he asked grimly. "Still, still after so many warnings?"
Shaftesbury, alert, at ease, gripped Monmouth's arm to prevent him answering.
"More plots, sire?" he asked lightly. "How fashionable they have become!"
But Charles had seen that nervous hand on Monmouth's arm; he still looked at his son.
"Plots against my throne, against my life, aye?"
"No, no!" cried Monmouth desperately, "never that!"
"No? No?" sneered Charles. "You have never heard of the Rye House?"
Monmouth blenched piteously and opened his pale lips, but Shaftesbury took the word.
"Will Your Majesty take notice of the first fool's scrawl that malice sends? This is good evidence, surely!"
"My lord," replied Charles sternly, "I do not take my evidence from this bit of paper, but from my lord's face—"
He pointed to Monmouth, who fell on his knees before his father, crying out meaningless protestations.
"In your face," repeated the King cruelly. "Prince Perkin—indeed you are no better. Come, Nelly—"
He turned away with the frightened Nelly by his side. Shaftesbury fiercely pulled Monmouth to his feet.
The swans, with lazy greed, came idly sailing back to see if there were any more plums.
What did poor Nelly know of all these plots? It was not her fault that the Court was in a ferment, and the country in a turmoil, through that letter thrown into the fish-pond.
A few misspelt, ill-written words.
But sufficient to make my lord Monmouth, poor Prince Perkin, betray himself, and set the King on the scent of the plot that came to be known, in those days, as the Rye House Plot.
Dickon, Nelly's friend of the Coal Yard, knew a scullion in the house of one Rumbold of Rye House, on the Newmarket Road, and he had come to some dull inklings of meetings there, of talk, of treason and murder, and spoken of it fearfully when he came to lose his place and return to London, so that old Dickon, thinking vaguely of little Nelly and some possible peril to she who had always been kind to him, had got this note written in which was a clumsy hint of danger to the King from the Rye House.
And he had left it at her house in Pall Mall with her woman, who had forgotten it till the day Nelly was going to Hampton Court, and then she had given it to the page who went with her, who had forgotten it too till the middle of the morning, when he had brought it to her by the fishpond.
"Lord!" thought Nelly remorsefully, "I have forgotten the Coal Yard and my good friends there of late; had I seen them this might have been averted without this broil."
The whole plot lay bare now; arrests were made every day.
A plot to dethrone the King!
A plot to kill the King!
"Poor Prince Perkin was never in that," said Nelly warmly. "He is foolish, but never wicked, sir."
"Perhaps," replied Charles, "now that 'Little Sincerity' is out of the way, Jimmie will behave himself."
For his indulgence towards Monmouth was immense and, though Shaftesbury was in the Tower, the King's son remained at Court, to the hot displeasure of the Duke of York, who had been banished to Scotland for the sake of peace, but who was now back again clamouring for his rights, with, it should be said, all reason and justice on his side.
Charles, busy now with experiments on the property of mercury, endeavoured to placate the Duke's exceeding anger at the continued presence of Monmouth at Whitehall.
"'Tis pity, pity, James, you take things so seriously; an easy mind makes an easy manner, and an easy manner for popularity—"
"I have never troubled about that," replied James haughtily.
Charles agreed warmly.
"And that makes it so awkward for me," he said wearily; "that is why I have to keep you out of the way—if only you would make yourself a little more likeable."
"If only you would pack off that impertinent fob," replied the Duke grimly.
"The people love him."
"And so do you, sire," sneered James, "even when you find him leagued with your murderers."
"Never that," said Charles, "never that—cannot you see that the fond wretch is the mere stalking-horse for men like Little Sincerity '?"
"I can see that he thinks himself legitimate heir to the Throne," answered the Duke bitterly, "and talks of a marriage certificate in a Black Box."
"Well," said the King, who wanted to get back to his laboratory, "it would be damned unpleasant for you, James, if I had married the pretty Lucy, wouldn't it? And pretty she was, the bold piece," he added reflectively; "a good deal prettier than the girl you married in a hurry, James."
"Do you mean to say," demanded James furiously, "that there is a Black Box?"
"There is," replied Charles coolly, "and here is the key."
He drew a little key on a silk ribbon from under the folds of his guipure lace cravat, and glanced reflectively at an oyster-wood cabinet that stood on an ormolu stand against the wall.
"There is a Black Box?" asked James stupidly.
Charles rose and delicately opened the doors of the oyster-wood cabinet.
Inside stood a large ebony box, heavily clamped with steel.
"The Black Box," said Charles thoughtfully, "about which we have all thought so much."
James gazed in black horror; he had nothing to say.
Charles locked the cabinet.
He put his finger on his lips.
"Sh!" he whispered. "This, James, is between ourselves. You keep your temper and I'll keep my secret."
James glanced at him in dark wrath; a serious, dull man himself, he never could tell when his brother was fooling or no.
He answered with gloomy dignity:
"The Rye House affair would have been a fine chance for you to rid yourself of a traitor, the Duke of Monmouth."
"Well," replied Charles, who was heartily tired of the argument, "some people might think it a fine chance to get rid of you—the Papists are being arrested everywhere, and you are tactless enough to be a Papist, James."
Without another word the Duke of York left the King's room.
Charles sighed with relief.
There was something more, however, than weariness and idleness in that yawn, something of sorrow, of contempt—for himself.
And he spoke aloud though alone, as people will in a state of nervous tension.
"The boy meant no harm, no harm; the boy meant no harm."
And there was the boy at the door clamouring to come in.
Charles heard the beloved voice, and with his own hands admitted his son.
Monmouth came into the room heavily; his beautiful face was sombre, his handsome eyes were reddened; he had failed to stand by his friends, he had even betrayed them; he was no great gentleman to suffer misfortune, he was only poor Prince Perkin.
But charming and lovable in his distress, his pain.
He spoke feebly for his friends and supporters being arrested all over the country; he spoke shudderingly, in a kind of panic, of Tower Hill—the scaffold.
"It is not my fault," he kept saying; "I did not know what I was doing—I was led away—"
Charles looked with infinite pity at this child of his own wild, bitter, unfortunate youth.
Monmouth was leaning forward, his agitated hands clasped behind the cascade of his heavy lace ruffles, his face half hidden by his rich, smooth curls.
"Jimmie," said the King with kind gravity, "leave well alone—the country is prosperous and I contrive to do what I like; we are all going very peacefully our own way to Heaven—"
Monmouth, without looking up, said:
"But there is a Black Box?"
And Charles answered him as he had answered James:
"Yes. And I have the key."
Monmouth looked up sharply, instantly flushed with hope and ambition.
"I have done for you," added Charles sombrely, "all that a King can do."
"All a King can do!" echoed Monmouth dully, "to make a man a useless fribble."
Charles smiled gloomily.
"You have two Dukedoms, you are Master of the Horse, Lord Great Chamberlain, High Admiral of Scotland, Member of the Privy Council, Knight of the Garter—is this nothing for little Jimmie Crofts who used to run hungry through the gutters of Rotterdam?"
Monmouth laughed weakly and rose with a feeble gesture of his hand, letting it fall to his side.
"It is not much for your eldest son, sire."
Charles was suddenly angry.
"Aye! This popinjay who feeds out of my hand plans to stick a knife into my ribs!"
With bent head, Monmouth went out.
Sir Stephen Fox suggested to His Majesty that his Palace at Chelsea would be graciously used as an asylum for old soldiers, and His Majesty answered that he had no money.
"Besides," he added, "I wanted some of that ground for Nelly—to build Nelly a new house by the river—"
Sir Stephen looked over the brim of his hat at the King, and said nothing at all.
It was amazing how easily money was found for the women—and how there never was any for anyone else.
Lord Shaftesbury had been as difficult as the former Lord Chancellor, Clarendon, in passing grants for Lady Cleveland and Lady Portsmouth, but somehow these ladies contrived to spend more than it seemed possible that anyone could spend; but Nelly did not cost much, and what came her way she dispersed quickly enough in charity.
This suggestion of Sir Stephen Fox came to the ears of Nelly, and she quickly took shame to herself.
"Lord, what do I want with more houses?" she said sadly.
She took her chair and went to the Coal Yard; Dickon and Tom were very old now and lived together in a couple of old rooms that Nelly paid for; very old and smoking their pipes and warming their bones at a handful of fire, and caring nothing for Plots, and Intrigues, and Courts.
Nelly sat down on a three-legged stool, and her pretty blue velvet dress fell in rich folds on the slate floor; fine French lace fell from her bodice, and she wore the famous Rupert pearls, a fair sheen on her round neck.
She looked wistfully at her old friends, elbow on knee, hand on chin.
She had that sudden sense of the passing of time that will assail the most thoughtless and gay—time rushing away, never to be checked or recalled, bearing with it youth, pleasure, life itself.
So old, the faithful old men who had applauded her barefoot gigues, her poor mother dead—and she herself in blue velvet.
"Why did you trouble, old Dickon," she asked wistfully, "to warn me of the Plot? Do you love the King so much?"
"Nay," mumbled the old man; "the King forgets—it was for you."
"The King forgets," said Tom, his fallen face twisted into a smile. "Well, well, it is natural enough."
Nelly was silent; she had heard the King say that he would never waste his money paying his debts; she fingered the Stewart's pearls round her neck; she thought of her houses, her plate, her Silver Bed, her coach, her dresses; she was ashamed.
Everything suddenly seemed wrong to gay, thoughtless, reckless Nelly.
"I will dance you a gigue," she cried, "like I used to in the old days!"
Dickon had his fiddle still, but his fingers quivered overmuch on the bow, the music came halting and broken; and Nelly could not dance on the slates, in her brocade shoes, in her blue velvet skirts.
She took a few steps and then sat down on the stool again.
Tears were in her eyes.
"I have forgotten how to dance," she said sadly. "I have forgotten how to dance."
The old man put down the old violin and nodded away into dreams.
They both seemed to be asleep.
Nelly put her bead purse on the table and crept away.
"Charity," she said to herself mournfully. "Charity is easy—easy."
She was carried in her chair to Whitehall, and entered by the privy door; Nelly was now a Woman of the Queen's Chamber, and came often to Whitehall.
The King was with his dogs and old Bowman and D'Urfey, who tried over an air His Majesty had written.
Charles sat at the spinet and picked out the melody; it reminded Nelly of the sad little dance tune in the Coal Yard that had failed to her faltering steps.
"Come in, Nelly," cried Charles gladly, as Mr. Chiffins opened the door and the little figure in blue velvet hesitated on the threshold. "Come and listen to my song—
'I pass all my hours in a shady old grove—'"
Nelly came in and kissed the royal dark hand on the ivory keys.
"A sad Nelly!" cried the King. "Now, child, I have enough of sadness from others."
Nelly went and sat by the fire; the sea coal snapped into violet flames that lit the folds of the blue velvet gown.
"Try the tune, D'Urfey," said the King, rising; he came over to Nelly and she noticed how much grey there was in his hair, for he was without his peruke.
She shuddered over the lovely flames.
"Sir," she said low while the smooth melody flowed from D'Urfey's able fingers, "I do not want that house at Chelsea—and did I hear a plan for a Hospital there for broken soldiers?"
"Sir Stephen Fox spoke of it," replied Charles idly, "but I do not think that it can be done."
"Why?" asked Nelly.
"I have the plans in my pocket, as I think," he replied indifferently, drawing a paper from under his embroidered pocket flap. "Sir Stephen plagued me with it mightily—" He turned away. "That is how it goes, D'Urfey—pretty enough, eh?"
And he hummed the tune over in his deep, charming voice.
Nelly drew the plan from the King's idle hand and looked at it by the firelight.
For it was growing dusk and the candles were not yet lit.
She could not understand the drawing at all.
"It looks small," she said, frowning. Charles laughed.
"How large would you have it, Nelly?"
"As large as pity, sire."
Mr. Bowman was singing the King's song while D'Urfey played the melody.
"I pass all my hours in a shady old grove,
But I live not the day when I see not my love.
I survey every walk now my Phillis is gone,
And sigh when I think we were there all alone.
O then 'tis I think that no joys are above
The Pleasures of Love."
Charles was smiling at Nelly puzzling over the plan of the proposed Hospital at Chelsea which Sir Stephen Fox had left with him, not hopefully.
"I know these people," she remarked at length, "they are friends of mine, and you must make the building larger, sire."
She rose, frowning, with a pretty, serious face, and looked round for something with which to demonstrate her scheme; but poor Nelly could neither write nor draw.
She took her cambric handkerchief from her bosom and tore it into strips, then arranged these on the dark glossy surface of the shining table, in imitation of the plan she had taken from the King.
"As large as that, Nelly?"
"And where does your house come, Nelly; there'll be no room for that in all Chelsea Reaches if we have so monstrous a Hospital."
Nelly was busy arranging her strips of cambric so as to cover a larger and larger space.
Tom D'Urfey and Mr. Bowman left their music to come and see.
"A garden," said Nelly, "there must be a fair garden where the old men can grow flowers and sit in the sun."
"Aye," replied Charles dryly, "and who is to pay for these pleasures, sweet Nell?"
Nelly looked at him thoughtfully.
"It always seemed to me, sire, that you had enough money for pleasures."
"My own," said the King, lifting his heavy brows, "my own pleasures and the pleasures of those I love."
"Call these," cried Nelly swiftly, "my pleasures—and assume that you love me a little, sire."
She looked wistfully down at her plan outlined with the strips of cambric; her back was towards the three men, her blue velvet skirts, her deep lace collar, the clasp of her pearl necklace, the cluster of her bright curls.
"You shall have your Hospital," said Charles, kissing the back of her neck. "Promises," he added to D'Urfey, "cost nothing."
King Charles was angry as only an easy-minded man can be when forced into violent action; for His Majesty, though he loved to employ his hands and his wits on his own amusements and interests, loathed to be disturbed by Public Affairs or Foreign Politics, though he was able enough in the management of both, having contrived to make himself a despotic Monarch, even while the memory of his father was fresh in the minds of men, and to give the country an air of gay, if shallow prosperity.
To say nothing of the fact that he had contrived to do without the services of a Parliament, which was easier than packing the benches or bribing the members.
But all this pleasant management had been disturbed by the ambition of Lord Shaftesbury and the folly of his Grace of Monmouth, which had cost much noble blood and, great lamentations and misery, as you may read in the history books.
But that which struck the King, as if in punishment for his carelessness of the sufferings of others, was the behaviour of the Duke of Monmouth, who, after being pardoned once, had broken out again and recklessly plunged into further plots with Lord Shaftesbury the moment that "Little Sincerity" was released from the Tower.
For this time his guilt was clear enough.
He aimed at the Crown, and even, maybe, at the King's life.
For nothing less had Lord Shaftesbury been aiming for years; the exclusion of the Duke of York as a Papist and the putting of Lucy Walters's son on the Throne of England.
And this was, at best, a crazy plot, though brilliantly conceived and executed, for there were no lack of true Protestant heirs to the English Honours and notably one who watched from The Hague, silently, but not carelessly.
Now the matter had been blown upon and had become too crying a scandal to be overlooked.
Shaftesbury fled to Holland, which country he had planned to destroy. "Carthago non est delenda, my lord," a Dutchman said to him, and he found asylum in the house of an Englishman on the "Gelder kay" in Amsterdam.
His Grace of Monmouth hung round Whitehall, a forlorn figure at which men looked askance, and waited in vain for an Audience of the King.
For the first time since he had come to Whitehall, nearly twenty years ago, his Royal father would not see him.
Nelly, who took little heed of such matters, heard this tale which was in the mouth of everyone and, indeed, shook the Kingdom.
In the King's furthest antechamber she met the Duke of Monmouth, a miserable figure, bowed with his shame and his repentance.
For, despite his brave bearing, gay beauty and athletic form, my lord was tumbled into despair as quickly as any sick girl and was as soon frantically repentant of any resolute step.
For now that Shaftesbury had fled and several of the other conspirators were arrested he felt himself without prop or support and abandoned to the blackness of despair.
Nor did he disdain to catch at Nelly's hand as she went past and beseech her to plead for him; Nelly paused and looked at him sadly, for few women could have regarded without compassion one so engaging, so in trouble, and so splendid, even in his downfall.
"Poor Prince Perkin," said Nelly kindly, "I fear you have been very wrong, very base and ungrateful—"
"If only the King would see me," muttered Monmouth.
Nelly made a grimace.
"I have never asked him for any favours," she said. "I've had no relations to promote or causes to serve—maybe I could ask this now."
And as she spoke, in her heart she despised him for asking such a favour of such as she was.
The King was alone and not (the page said) to be disturbed, but Nelly, with her usual reckless indiscretion, ventured in, leaving Monmouth behind the door, which she shut quickly for fear the King should see him.
Charles sat at his heavy ormolu desk, which was all heaped with papers among which the ink dishes, sand boxes and seals stood awry.
He looked gloomy and bitter, his face livid under the jet black of his peruke and above the cerise and silver of his gorgeous coat, but he received Nelly kindly.
As she came to his side she glanced at the papers which lay under his hand; she knew such documents now by sight though she had still not learned her letters.
Warrants for arrest.
"These are ugly things, sire," she said in a low voice. "Has there not been enough blood shed of late?"
"Blood enough, Nell," answered Charles with a sombre smile, "but the master offender escapes."
Nelly thought of that gorgeous broken figure beyond the door, waiting so breathlessly for her intercession; she did not know what to say, her wit failed her and she stared at the warrant under the King's hand, wishing she could read the name on it, nor did the King wait for any comment from her; he struck his swarthy hand down furiously on the paper.
"Absalom!" he muttered. "Absalom!"
"Who was Absalom?" asked Nelly timidly.
"A King's son, Nelly, who plotted against the King, ungrateful, treacherous, false—I will ask Mr. Dryden to make me a poem on that," he added savagely. "Absalom—and Ahithophel, the man who made him his stalking horse—that's 'Little Sincerity,' isn't it, Nelly!"
"That's over," said Nelly quickly. "Shaftesbury's gone—fled—"
"To rot in exile!" cried Charles furiously. "The cursed traitor—to so use my son—my son." He caught himself up and added roughly: "Give me the pen, Nelly," for she had taken up the quill and held it, as if carelessly, away from him; she looked at him with troubled eyes and asked:
"What do you want this quill for, sire?"
"To send a friend of 'Little Sincerity's' to Tower Hill—" replied Charles grimly.
"To the block?" asked Nell fearfully, "the scaffold and the axe?"
"There is," said the King, "no other end for traitors. Give me the pen."
For answer Nell held the quill behind her back.
"Bah!" cried Charles. "I have another."
He pulled out a drawer in the desk and, taking out another pen, began to sharpen it with quick strokes of his pocket knife.
"O, Lord!" exclaimed Nelly, frightened by the ferocious look on his swarthy face which was so well formed to express a melancholy and bitter gloom. "You'll never think to sign away your son's life?"
"May I not hold that as lightly as he holds mine?" answered the King. "And I said nothing of his life—"
"His liberty then—do not take his liberty, sire—for your own sake."
But the King set the pen to the paper.
"Absalom! Absalom!" he sneered and began to trace his large signature.
Nelly glanced at the "Charles R" forming under his heavy hand.
Then ran to the door.
And opened it on the pallid splendour of his Grace of Monmouth.
Nelly stepped aside and left father and son facing each other, on one side wrath, on the other despair, and the signed warrant on the table between them.
Monmouth made a graceful and passionate movement as if to throw himself at his father's feet.
But he had done this too often.
The King checked him with a stern gesture and he remained hesitant, reluctant, wretched in the full lustre of his beauty and his rich habiliments.
The King played with the warrant and with dark and gloomy thoughts. In the life of such a man there could not fail to be such moments, almost of despair, when the taste of ashes was arid in his mouth and the weight of dust heavy in his hand.
Then he looked at Monmouth, his lip curled sardonically, and he sneered grimly at himself.
"What a poor fool am I," he mocked, "to think you will ever be different, ever anything but a vessel for the ambitions of better men—"
"I was misled," murmured Monmouth piteously. "I can give Your Majesty the names of the villains who cajoled me—"
"I said better men!" interrupted the King angrily. "Do you think that I want their names from you? Can you be loyal to no one?"
Monmouth drooped his head.
"I am what I am," he muttered.
"And what I made you," added the King bitterly. "We reap what we sow—and I have reaped—you."
He gazed at this weak, dissolute, charming creature, so amiable and so worthless, so spoilt and so false—true heir to his own wild, reckless, unhappy youth, true son of an exiled pauper King and a common light o' love.
Mrs. Nelly crept softly forward, so lightly in her velvet shoes on the soft carpet, and drew the warrant from in front of Charles.
"I can tear this up, at least?" she said timidly.
Charles shrugged his heavy shoulders.
"Tear it up, Nelly." He looked again at his son, his mood fallen now to solemn melancholy. "Aye, Jimmie, I'll keep your head on your shoulders despite yourself—but look out for it when I am gone."
Nelly tore the warrant into as small pieces as her fingers could manage, and Monmouth instantly revived now that the moment of danger was past; his volatile nature was quick to recover from any depression and he was used to reckoning on the leniency of the King, the lavish kindness of the King, the King's generous love.
His beautiful eyes turned covertly to the red lacquer cabinet in which he had seen the Black Box.
The King noticed the glance and it sufficed to turn his mood into one of cynic merriment.
He threw his head back with a roar of laughter.
"Still nosing after the Black Box, Jimmie?" he asked. "Ods fish, but you have a notable impertinence."
Monmouth, encouraged, laughed too.
And so did Nelly, she could see the humour of that glance of the incorrigible pretender.
"Aye, it's still there, the Black Box," added the King, with grim humour, "and the key safe in my pocket. My noble brother would also like a look inside, Jimmie."
"Your Majesty puts me on the rack," protested Monmouth, who had now regained his usual confident petulance. "This tale of the Black Box is well noised abroad and should be contradicted or confirmed—"
"And if I choose to do neither?" replied the King. "Do you want my jests, Jimmie, as well as my crown and my life?"
"'Tis no jest to me," replied Monmouth peevishly.
"Nor to 'Little Sincerity,'" remarked the King dryly. "For his curiosity about that Black Box my lord is in hiding in the Netherlands—and there you must follow him—"
"Oh, no, no!" cried Monmouth in alarm and amaze, "not exile!"
"Did you think," asked the King dryly, "that you could stay to flaunt it here when better men, better men, I say, have to go to the block for your folly?"
As Monmouth made a movement of appeal the King struck his hand down violently on the table.
"You'll take the next packet to Holland—your cousins at The Hague will receive you."
"I loathe The Hague, and my cousins," replied Monmouth wilfully and peevishly.
"That or the Tower," snapped Charles, and Nelly, who well knew when the King could be no further moved, came from the background to touch the petulant young man on the arm.
"Go quietly, I beseech you, sir."
And even Monmouth was warned by the note in her voice, by the look in the King's brooding eyes.
"I go," he said, yielding with that grace he knew so well how to employ, "to await Your Majesty's pardon and recall."
And he went on one knee and kissed the King's hand.
At this moment the door was opened brusquely and his Highness the Duke of York entered, a gloomy figure in watered black silk but very stately and imposing.
He saluted the King coldly, ignored Nelly, and gave Monmouth a glance of furious hate and contempt.
His glance travelled slowly to the gleaming front of the coral red Chinese lacquer cabinet.
And Charles laughed again, in vast amusement.
"Never frown so, brother," he said. "Poor Jimmie is exiled to The Hague."
The Duke of York looked sharply at Monmouth.
"There to remain, sire?"
"Till I recall him."
"And that," said James bitterly, "will be only a few weeks, sire? And meanwhile, my son-in-law, the Stadtholder, will receive secret letters to give him all honours, eh?"
"You read me," replied Charles indifferently, "with your usual wit, brother."
James turned on his heel with intense irritation.
"And meanwhile, sire, will you dispose of this crazy legend of the Black Box?"
"Why legend?" The King rose and walked up and down. "There is such a Box—you and Jimmie," he added maliciously, "have both seen it."
"I have not seen it opened," replied the Duke of York sternly.
"Nor has Jimmie," smiled the King, playing with the key.
"Sire," demanded the Duke of York, in a dignified fashion, "will you put an end to this buffoonery?"
"Why worry, brother?" replied Charles lazily. "Jimmie is banished to Holland, does not that content you?"
"No, sir," replied his Highness instantly. "Lord Shaftesbury is also in Holland, plots can be hatched as easily there as here."
And he gave Monmouth another glance full of contempt.
Charles stood in front of his chair on which was the Arms of England, the Leopards, the Lilies, the Lion and the Harp, surmounted by a heavy Crown.
"We can leave that to our nephew of Orange," he remarked. "He too has some interest in this Crown of England, brother, and the pretenders to it—look after him, brother, instead of poor Jimmie who'll never sit on a throne, nay, nor will you for long, brother, but our friend at The Hague will be in the saddle when we are all gone—"
He turned to Nelly.
"Come, Nelly, have in the fiddlers; this is enough of business for to-day."
At this, Monmouth bowed and withdrew, but the Duke of York lingered.
Charles pocketed the key he held and nodded towards the Black Box.
"As for the Black Box, James," he added pleasantly, "when I am dead you can open it—"
Something had gone from the Court with the exile of his Grace of Monmouth; Lord Rochester was dead and had come to his end piously, and the winter was as severe as in the dread year 1666, nearly twenty years ago; Lord Shaftesbury had died miserably in Amsterdam and Mr. Dryden had written upon him a biting and unjust satire which he called, at the King's request, "Absalom and Achitophel."
All these were heavy and dreary matters, and the ascendancy of his Highness of York and his Italian Duchess, which meant the ascendancy of priests and foreigners, did not add to the gaiety of Whitehall.
It must be said that his Highness had had a sad life between the intrigues of Shaftesbury, the pretensions of Monmouth, the popular hatred of his religion and the dominion held over him by his own Jesuit confessor, so that it was no wonder that even now, when he had in a manner triumphed over his enemies, he should be still gloomy and soured, his natural disposition being none of the happiest, and his misfortunes having long ago outweighed his good spirits.
King Charles, under severe pressure, had gone before the Privy Council and sworn that he had never been married to any woman but the Queen, and this, though it established a certain order in the realm and quashed the late turmoil of conspiracies, yet gave a gloom to the country and Court with the knowledge that the next King would be a Papist with sombre tastes, disliked and unyielding.
"Lord!" sighed Nelly, "times change!"
This winter she would be thirty-five; she remembered the line in "Secret Love" that she had spoken as Florimel—"to slip out of the world with the first wrinkle"; her gorgeous mirrors showed her no wrinkles yet, "but soon, Nelly, soon" she warned herself.
The King still loved her; amid all the wantonness, all the intrigue, all the "hou haha" of the Court, the King still loved Nelly.
The Duchess of Cleveland was ten years older than Nelly, already haggard, but imperiously handsome still, with flashes of gorgeous beauty yet, by candle light, and all her honours remaining to her, though for years she had had little influence with the King.
And the Duchess of Portsmouth, with her blonde, baby face and sharp wit, still kept her post, which was more that of Ambassador from His Most Christian Majesty than mistress to His Britannic Majesty, and with the money drawn from two treasuries, those of England and France, she held high state in the apartments furnished by plunderings from those of the Queen, cursed by the English people and blessed by the King of France and the Church of Rome.
On a fine, pale day that winter the King had a fancy to go on his Dutch yacht which lay in the Thames; this Royal barque had been given him by Their High Mightinesses the States General when he left the Netherlands to wear the Crown of England, and the sumptuous tapestries still hung in the cabins and the adorned sails swelled to the winter breeze.
The pleasant gardens and stately houses of nobles, gentlemen and merchants lay charmingly behind diaphanous, mauvish veils of mist at Watford and Deptford and the masts of the crowded shipping showed through the light fogs on the Essex flats.
A collation was served aboard the yacht, to be followed by a concert of music and some antics by the King's drolls; everyone wore furs of sable, or ermine, of miniver or fox, and the men as well as the women carried large muffs.
The Duchess of Portsmouth ("Mrs. Fubbs" when Charles was in a mocking mood, and "Fleur de Luce" when he felt gallant) was of the company, and truly this last night suited her well, for she was French of the French and cared for nothing but France and the service of France, which was the chief cause of the dislike of the English people, for they sensed well enough that she was a foreigner and the tool of foreigners, with no love for the country in which she passed her sumptuous life. Naturally this lady was all for the party of James, Duke of York, a Papist, as against that of the Duke of Monmouth, the Protestant Pretender.
And now, when she saw the King's glance turn wistfully down the river as if he would gaze through the fogs of the North Sea to where his son was exiled, she took occasion to remind the King of the folly of clemency.
She even hinted to His Majesty that the King of France would not tolerate any further pretensions on the part of the Duke of Monmouth, this stalking-horse of the Protestant party.
The King darkened at the mention of this beloved name which he had not heard since the exile of Monmouth.
"Is not my brother satisfied that he must set you on to me?" he asked sombrely.
"I do not speak," said "Fleur de Luce" with pretty pride, "for the Duke of York, but for the King of France."
"We know that, my darling 'Fubbs,'" replied Charles, "leave poor Jimmie alone; now that Shaftesbury's gone he'll mend his manners—"
"Sire," said the lady shrewdly, "people like my lord never lack evil counsellors."
The King seemed struck with this; his brow lowered as if he foresaw an evil fate for his eldest son.
"Fleur de Luce" followed up her advantage.
"There is great offence taken by many at the honours given to my lord at The Hague, it is not believed that the Prince of Orange would go so far with your authority—"
Charles laughed sourly.
"Whatever the Prince of Orange does will be wise and prudent; leave it at that, pretty 'Fubbs.'"
He turned down into the cabin where the air was warm with the smell of rich meats, of hot sweetmeats and mulled wine.
Some singing boys stood in the gilt gallery at the end of the cabin and sang D'Urfey's song:
"Joy to Great Casar,
Long life, love and pleasure.
'Tis a health that divine is,
Fill the bowl high as mine is.
Let none fear a fever,
But take it off thus, boys:
Let the King live for ever!"
The King sat down to his meat, and Killigrew, noticing that he seemed gloomy, suggested that Mrs. Nelly should sing.
For he had never yet known the wild, indiscreet and merry Nelly fail to raise His Majesty from his melancholies and glooms which had grown on him of late through the exile of the Duke of Monmouth and Charles's own health, which was wont to be so excellent but of late had been something infirm.
"I know no new songs," said Nelly, glowing in yellow taffetas and the Stewart pearls, "but I'll sing you an old one."
She took her stand under the gilt gallery of singing boys, and sang to the company seated round the board:
"We are three brethren come from Spain
All in French Garlands.
We are come to court your daughter Jane,
And adieu to you, my darlings.
"My daughter Jane she is too young,
All in French Garlands,
She cannot bide your flattering tongue,
And adieu to you, my darlings.
"Be she young or be she old,
All in French Garlands,
For a bride she must be sold,
And adieu to you, my darlings.
"A bride, a bride she shall not be,
All in French Garlands.
Till she go through the world with me,
And adieu to you, my darlings.
"Then fare ye well, my lady gay,
All in French Garlands,
We'll come again another day,
And adieu to you, my darlings."
The fiddlers played the melody for Nell, who sang with mimic gestures and steps of a gay dance and pretty grimaces, so that the King was well pleased and "Fleur de Luce" could by no means bring him to serious matters again.
It was cold. So cold that even the harbours on the English and Dutch coasts were blocked with ice, the Thames was frozen over and a fair held on it daily. Above the dark imprisoned waters fires burned, oxen were roasted, booths erected and a thousand drolleries grimaced from bank to bank; it was a strange thing for those who had been used to crossing London by the one crowded bridge, or the service of watermen, to find they could cross as they wished. Alsatia mingled with the Strand and Southwark with Westminster.
In front of the sombre and stately facade of Somerset House a row of gaudy stalls flared candles and lanterns into the winter light; dwarfs, giants, fire-eaters and rope dancers performed their antics in the murk of the winter afternoons.
Jacob Hall was no longer there to catch the breath of the ladies with his perilous tricks, and Lady Cleveland no longer had the spirit to run abroad seeking gallants, but there were other acrobats and other Court ladies as there always will be such things, and they were not the less gay because Jacob Hall was dead and Lady Castlemaine getting old.
Nelly came to the Fair, for she loved such things and of late there had been a certain sadness on her spirits uncommon enough with her; the King had not been well this winter, his active life of walking, fishing, riding, tennis had been exchanged for much sitting in his closet or his laboratory and for moods of melancholy from which even the quips of Killigrew and the sallies of Nelly could not rouse him save for a moment or so.
"He pines for the Duke of Monmouth," thought Nelly wistfully; she had her own son now; a Duke also and acknowledged by the King, who made fair progress in his studies with Mr. Otway as his tutor. Lady Cleveland and my lady Portsmouth had their young Dukes whom the King loved well enough.
But none of these were to him what the Duke of Monmouth had been, what the Duke of Monmouth no doubt still was.
"I'll bring him back," said Nelly to herself, "I'll bring him back, despite the Duke of York and 'Mrs. Fubbs' and the rest of them."
Yet these good offices had so far been unsuccessful; the King would not hear the name of his Grace of Monmouth, and the party of the Duke of York, of "Fleur de Luce" and the French interest seemed altogether in the ascendant.
So Nelly, to forget all these things, came to the Fair on the ice.
Bright coloured banderoles hung against the dun-coloured sky and, as night fell, there were fireworks.
Nelly was in a countrywoman's skirt of crimson quilted cloth and a hood and muff of common red fur; she thought, whimsically, of the first time she had met the King—through the adventure of the silly maids, of honour; poor fools, both had now left the Court, one for the vaults of a lonely country church, where the jealous rage of a husband had consigned her, one for an exile in Brussels, where she waited miserably for a word from Monmouth who had loved her and left her and was now deep in a passionate affair with Lady Henrietta Wentworth.
Nelly bought lollipops at the Fair and carried them in a bag of pink paper with silver stars.
The old soldier and sailor were dead. Nelly had buried them at her expense in St. Martins-in-the-Fields; Chelsea Hospital languished for want of funds; Charles could give nothing but good intentions to anything.
Nelly sucked her sugar plums, sauntered among the booths, watched the fireworks, and thought of these things.
Groups of chattering maidens gathered round the fortune tellers who sat at the doors of gaudy tents huddled in tawdry rags against the ferocious cold. Somerset House, Whitehall, Lambeth, the Palaces, the Parliament House, the mansions either side the frozen river had a white, bleached look against a sky iron-dark and hard.
Not a breath stirred the bitter air.
The Royal Standards in the distance and the flags of the Fair alike hung limp to the staffs.
Nelly felt at home with these people merrymaking on the ice; she understood their language, their looks, their gestures.
She had been able to play at the great lady very well, but she had always belonged to the People.
Now she found familiar faces, men and women who had been boys and girls with her twenty years ago in the Lane and the Coal Yard—watermen, oyster-women, link-men and ballad-mongers.
These greeted her kindly, having no spite nor malice for her good fortune, but treating this as a piece of luck in which they rejoiced.
And Nelly opened her purse to them, and when that was empty gave them promises which none of them doubted would be redeemed.
The fun became fast; people danced on raised platforms above the ice and sang to the horns, fiddles and drums of Punch and the drolls.
A few flakes of snow, sad, reluctant, began to fall.
Hot ale and spiced wine was drunk freely.
Punch was handed round in bowls with crabs and toast bobbing on the rich surface.
The King's health was drunk again and again.
The incessant song came from the gingerbread stall:
"Giddy girls, noisy boys,
Come and buy my painted toys,
Medals made of ginger-bread,
And penny horses, white and red."
The snow began to fall faster.
No one took any notice of this.
Nelly, with her old friends in a ring round her, began to dance and sing as in the old days in the Coal Yard, prettily, gaily, merrily.
A hunchback rang a chime of bells, a dwarf sawed at a fiddle, a Merry Andrew beat a drum while they all sang together above the lively noises of the Fair.
"Merry go the bells
And merry do they ring,
Merry was myself
And merry did I sing,
They took hands and danced round in a circle, Nelly in the middle, out of breath with singing and laughing.
The snow increased with a quickening whirl, the soiled ice was coated with pure white, the Palaces were faint behind the hurrying flake.
Warm with wine, dancing and good clothes the merrymakers took no notice of the snow.
Nelly shook the flakes off her petticoats; comfits, lollipops, gilt paper and ginger-bread were trodden under foot.
"Merry have we met
And merry have we been,
Merry let us part,
And merry meet again—"
The snowstorm hastened with soft violence.
The Fair on the ice and the drolls were blotted out in a swirl of white flakes.
The snow was over, but the ice remained glittering under the sun, and it was still cold, so cold that pens and fingers seemed to freeze together as the laborious writers indited their political letters from England to Holland, from Holland to France, from France to the Empire and so back again in a circle of intrigue.
Cold, so cold that the pale sunshine could scarcely melt the icicles at Whitehall that hung from the grandiose Inigo Jones cornices, nor melt the frost pattern on the windows.
Day and night a fire of sea coal burnt in the King's apartments, where the multitude of spaniels remained huddled in their baskets.
The retorts and queer glass globes cracked in the King's laboratory, but there was no one to see this, for the King had lost interest in his experiments and these chill rooms were locked away.
On Sunday, which was the second of February and the birthday of Mrs. Nelly, the cold and the sun were alike shut out of Whitehall.
The close air of the lonely galleries was full of perfume, of the scent of wine, sweetmeats and flowers, for there was no lack of garlands and wreaths of blossoms grown under glass, and grapes, figs and peaches piled in silver salvers.
There were French chorister boys in the Musicians' gallery, singing love songs, and groups of men and women sat at the basset tables round piles of gold which chinked pleasantly as it fell from hand to table, or from one hand to another.
The King sat with all his ladies about him.
But the Queen was at her prayers, poor woman, away from this dissolute profanity which mocked at the Lord's Day.
Here was "Fleur de Luce," Louise, Duchess of Portsmouth, with her soft face and pale ringlets and slipping gown of pearl-coloured satin caught by flashing gems on her round, white shoulders.
And here was another Duchess, she of Cleveland, watching bracelets of diamonds twinkle down her fair arm, with rosy plumes in her rich hair and long tassels of gold at her waist, and a face tragic with the last loveliness of brilliant, waning beauty.
Here also was another creature, more dazzling than either of these, Hortense de Mancini, Duchesse de Mazarin, a charming adventuress who had inherited all the fabulously great wealth of her uncle, the Cardinal Mazarin, together with his name and a husband of his selecting, which last turning out to be no better than a lunatic, the fair lady had abandoned home, country and fortune and was running about Europe, like her sister, the Connetable Colonna, causing admiration, scandal and amusement by her charms, her adventures and her wit.
She had some claim on King Charles, for in the days of his exile he had asked her hand from her uncle and been refused, so little did the cautious Italian believe in the chances of Charles Stewart's return to the Honours of England.
Nor had the errant beauty failed to remind the King of the past, and now she enjoyed a pretty pension and sat in the galleries of Whitehall, the most brilliant of the lovely women there, Southern dark and yet golden fair in her carnation with eyes that had inspired reams of verse and prose.
She sat at the King's feet and played on a little painted guitar, her long jet black curls fell on to her peerless shoulders and her superb eyes were heavy with languorous love; on the wide folds of her green brocade skirts curled two brown spaniels asleep.
From the upper gallery hung ebony and ivory rings from which fluttered macaws and parrots spreading long wings of crimson, turquoise and grass green, while beneath them sat black pages in white liveries and silver plumes in violet turbans who hushed the birds when their screams were discordant with perfumed sweetmeats, jellied oranges and sugared nuts.
The King was at his ease in a great chair with arms; he wore the Garter and a suit of tawny velvet that twinked in the soft light in all the paste buttons and sparkling embroidery.
Sometimes he caressed the exquisite hand of the Duchess of Portsmouth and sometimes he fondled the lustrous curls of the Duchesse de Mazarin.
And sometimes he yawned.
For the air was heavy and it was near six o'clock in the morning.
Tom Killigrew was behind the Royal chair, but he had no more stories to tell; he listened drowsily to the voluptuous song of the boys and the dreamy whisper of the violins.
Every half-hour servants entered and replenished the candles in the girandoles and sconces and wiped up the soft warm wax that had dripped on to the polished floor, the velvet cushions and the sumptuous tapestries glittering with gold and silver thread.
Mrs. Nelly was asleep under the gallery in a cushioned chair; she could not dance another "gigue" or sing another song; the chains of pearls and diamonds that had been her birthday gifts were twisted round her arms.
She had amused the King that evening and he had promised to make her Countess of Greenwich.
"To-morrow, Nell, to-morrow."
The King looked round for her; no one amused him like she did; he was cloyed by the singing, the beauty of the women, the luscious warmth of the air.
"Tom, go and find Nelly—"
Killigrew looked round.
"Sire, the poor fool is asleep, under the gallery."
"Let her sleep then—is it so late?"
"Sire, nearly six o'clock."
"Ugh, an ugly hour—on a winter day; bid them keep the curtains closed, I hate a dark dawn."
He looked round at the three ladies.
"Mesdames—let us to bed a little." And yawned again.
Despite the King's command, Killigrew had wakened Nelly.
She sat up, drowsed and confused; the gallery seemed to float before her gold and colour a wisp of brilliant light; she heard the singing, the voices, the chink of gold.
The gift jewels slipped from her arm to the floor.
The King rose.
The music was hushed.
Charles called for Mr. Bowman, and asked for the last song, Shirley's Ode.
Mr. Bowman began to sing:
"Death lays his icy hand on Kings,
There is no armour against Fate."
"That dismal song," said Nelly; she rubbed her eyes and ran over to Charles, who was leaning on the back of his chair, listening.
"Lord, sir, that is a sad song—"
The King smiled to see her sleepy face.
"Run home, Nell, it is past the dawn—"
And Mrs. Nelly said, as the King had said:
"An ugly hour o' a winter's day."
"Look, Nelly, you've dropped your presents all about the floor—"
"And you, sire, have not given me that I wanted most—"
"What you wanted most, Nelly?"
"A pardon, a recall for the Duke of Monmouth."
The King looked at her kindly.
"To-morrow, Nelly, to-morrow."
He kissed her and left the gallery with Lord Aylesbury, who was then his gentleman of the bed-chamber, and Tom Killigrew.
The courtiers pocketed their gold, the ladies gathered up their trains, pages picked up cushions and lap-dogs.
The drowsy musicians put away their violins, the little negroes fell asleep on the cushions beside the ebony and ivory rings of the macaws and parrots who ruffled their radiant feathers and closed their glittering eyes.
The servants were too tired to see to the girandoles and lustres, and now that the King had gone, the candles dripped and flared out in their sockets, and between the heavy folds of the velvet curtains appeared a hard ray of icy daylight; there was nothing near the King's chair but a knot of silver ribbons fallen from a lady's dress.
The King was jesting with Tom Killigrew in his chamber; he was sleepy and said he would not be roused till late, twelve o'clock Or so.
He was in good spirits, for he meant to recall the Duke of Monmouth.
The letter was already written and only required his secret black seal.
"It shall go," he thought, "next post day." And he hoped that the weather and the wind might be fair so that there would be no delay in the post packet to Holland.
The ante-chamber was full of clocks and dogs; a great fire burned and the curtains were closely drawn.
Aylesbury and a page lay down to sleep, but could not do so for the chiming of the clocks and the restlessness of the dogs, things that they did not usually notice, but which vexed to-night because they were over fatigued.
And Lord Aylesbury lamented this taste of the King that would have this number of clocks in his room.
At last my lord fell asleep despite the dogs, the clocks and the fire.
He listened to hear if the King was astir and wanted anything.
But there was silence in His Majesty's bed-chamber.
The clocks had hardly struck nine, each after the other, in their own fashion, a medley of sweet, still chimes, than my lord was roused by someone drawing the curtains and letting in a wash of faint daylight.
He looked up quickly.
It was the King, in his bed-gown and without his periwig.
"Aylesbury," said His Majesty, "I had a mind to get up, after all."
My lord rose and called the page.
The King sat by the fire in the antechamber while the usual preparations were made for his toilet.
The gentleman of the bed-chamber was not surprised at the King rising after so little sleep, for His Majesty was of so active and vigorous a turn that he commonly took little sleep, even after a long debauch, and was always full of activity even after the most exhausting labours or pleasures.
He took up the girandole of candles that he had kept, according to his wont, burning by his bed, and which were now about an inch above the socket, and took up the extinguisher to put out these flames which looked garish in the common daylight.
But the flames went out suddenly, though there seemed not a breath of air in the close chamber.
Aylesbury gave an ejaculation of amazement and the King looked round.
"Sire, the candles went out in my hand without a breath of air—or so it seemed." Charles smiled.
"Ah, so it seemed, Aylesbury—that 'so it seemed' is the qualification of all our mysteries—and their explanation."
He picked up one of his dogs that licked his hands with frantic pleasure.
He began to talk of what he would do that day, to Killigrew, his confidant, his jester who now came in, as always, to attend his toilet.
"I'll seal that letter to poor Jimmie and have it ready for post day; there's Nelly's patent, too—little Nelly must be a Countess at last."
"She has deserved it," said Killigrew, "this many a year."
"And there is Winchester Palace," added the King, fondling the dog. "That goes something quicker—thank God that this time fortnight I shall have a lead roof to my dwelling!"
For he had of late been much vexed by the slow progress of his new Palace at Winchester, having taken a distaste to that at Newmarket after the discovery of the Rye House Plot, when he was to have been assassinated on the Newmarket Road.
The barber came and the King sat, as was his wont, facing the window so that the grey light was full on his face as he was shaved.
Lord Aylesbury brought his shirt and coat, his stockings and shoes, and waited behind his chair while the page replenished the fire; for the King had none of the pomp and ceremony of his cousin across the water at his rising up and lying down, as if indeed he was the Sun with all Olympia in attendance on his movements.
When he was shaved he spoke of a book that had just been printed.
"'Choice Ayres,'" he said, "it is called, and there is therein my old song which D'Urfey set to music and Bowman used to sing, though 'tis years since he did so. Tom, he shall sing it again, shall he not?"
With this the King, without waiting for his clothes, but still in his silk bed-gown, turned into his cabinet and closed the door behind him sharply.
"He has gone," said Killigrew, "to get Choice Ayres.' It is strange what pride a great King will take in a little song."
As they waited round the fire it seemed to them that the King was a long time absent.
And Lord Aylesbury was for tapping on the door of the cabinet when the King appeared. He had no book in his hand and looked, the gentlemen thought, strangely.
As he made no mention of the book, neither did they, but proceeded quietly with the toilet.
For there seemed a certain overcast on His Majesty's spirits, and though they blamed the winter light for this, both thought that he looked something pale.
When he was fully dressed he stood with his back to the fire, as one thinking, and took no notice of the dogs that fawned about his feet.
"I have much pressing business," he said at last, and repeated gravely, even sadly: "Much pressing business, which methinks has been left rather late."
His voice sounded thick.
And now there could be no doubt as to his pallor.
"Will your Majesty," said Aylesbury, "take a cordial?"
The King did not answer, but gave him a fixed look.
Then suddenly a terrible darkness, the very blush of death came over his features, and he fell back in the arms of Tom Killigrew.
The two amazed gentlemen placed him in a chair and loosened his cravat; he was breathing heavily and there was a twitching convulsion in his face.
Aylesbury suggested the instant sending for a doctor, but Killigrew, more practised in Court intrigue, would not give an alarm if it could be helped.
He knew what instant issues would be roused by a mere hint of the King's illness.
"His Majesty will instantly recover," he said, "and there is no need to set everyone agog."
The King, indeed, did open his eyes and groaned.
But his colour was better and he sat up.
"Pressing business," he muttered, looking at Killigrew as if he did not know him, "pressing business—"
He pushed them both aside and rose.
"I'll exile you both," he added, "and that will be an end of the business—I'll exile you both."
"His mind wanders," whispered Lord Aylesbury anxiously.
"I have never known this in him before," answered Killigrew, "but surely the fit will pass."
"A lead roof to my dwelling," said the King thickly. "'Choice Ayres'—what was that?"
"We should call a doctor," urged the gentleman of the bed-chamber again.
Killigrew ventured to take the King by the arm.
"Sire," he said, "this is Tom who speaks, Tom Killigrew. Will not Your Majesty be pleased to lie down?"
Charles stared at him.
"Much to do," he said, "and so little time—very little time."
He lurched and again fell heavily into the arms of the two men.
The ghastly darkness again overspread his face.
He became insensible.
This time they sent the page running for the doctor.
Neither the Duchess of Cleveland nor Mrs. Nelly had left Whitehall that bitter winter morning; though they had not, like the Duchess of Portsmouth, apartments in the Palace, they often slept with the maids of honour, each in the chamber of her particular friend, after those long nights of revelry.
So when, at ten o'clock of the morning of the third of February the news of the King's illness was noised abroad, both these women were in the Palace.
The Duchess of Cleveland took alarm at once; the Duke of York detested her, and she had been insolent enough to him; she ran down Whitehall stairs to return to her opulent house in Pall Mall and make provisions for the future.
Not only was she frightened of being in the power of the Duke of York and of the Italian Duchess who had ever pursued her with the scorn of a virtuous woman, but she was terrified of the very thought of illness, sickened by the shadow of suffering or pain, the gloom of sickness.
So she hastened from Whitehall as if she was pursued by a spectre.
On the stairs she met Mrs. Nelly ascending them.
These two women had not spoken to each other for some time, though they had so often met in company.
But now the Duchess, looking old and haggard in the horrid cold light, without paint or adornment, stopped and spoke to Mrs. Nelly.
"What are you going up there for? The moment that they know you are here you will be turned away."
Nelly looked at her miserably.
"He's ill—I must see him."
The Duchess laughed bitterly.
"Even 'Baby face,' his darling 'Fubbs,' who ran to the room, was sent away—the Duke of York is her friend, but he did not allow her to stay."
"I'll creep in somehow," said Nelly desperately. "And you, won't you stay?" she added timidly. "He might want to see you, you know."
The Duchess looked at her contemptuously.
"You are only a fool after all," she answered and hurried away into the shadows of the long corridors.
Nelly hastened to the King's ante-chamber; surely one of her friends would be there, Tom Killigrew, or one of the pages, Mr. Bowman, or one of the fiddlers, someone who would let her in, to see for herself if the King was really ill. No, she did not believe that he was really ill, but he was shut away, and a horrid dread cramped her heart.
No one took any notice of her; several people who had laughed with her the night before now passed her without a look.
She was not, even admitted to the antechamber, which was full of bishops, doctors and lords-in-waiting.
When she saw Lord Aylesbury coming out and ventured to ask him for news he sternly bade her begone to her own house; it was a scandal, he said, that she should linger about the corridors and no one but Her Majesty would be admitted to the King's bed-chamber.
Nelly burst into tears and hid her face in her hands, but at this moment Mr. Bowman came by and from him she got more kindness.
He had been called in to sing to the King, who seemed, however, drowsy and not to hear; he was in bed now and had been bled and doctored; the Duke of York hardly left the chamber and seemed deeply distressed.
"He loves the King," cried Nelly impetuously, "surely he will let me in—"
Mr. Bowman shook his head; he told her what the Duchess of Cleveland had already told her.
"Even the Duchess of Portsmouth has been sent away; she is shut in her apartments with her Jesuits."
He looked compassionately at Nelly's pallid face.
"Best creep away, Nelly—I think, for us poor players, the curtain is down—"
"No," said Nelly obstinately, "I'll stay; there may presently be a chance."
She had put her cloak on over her finery of the night before and for hours she remained unnoticed in the outer crowd.
First it was said that the King was better and had risen.
The Queen visited him twice, but each time fainted and had to be carried out, which weakness amazed the watching Nelly.
Then, towards evening, the Duke of York left the chamber; his dark figure, sombre, austere, passed silently through the anxious press.
It was instantly whispered that he was going to give orders to secure the ports, the capital and the garrison towns to make all provisions for the security of the Kingdom.
It was certainly true that despite his grief he had been very practical in all his orders and arrangements, even remembering to ask his brother to sign a consignment of the farming out of the Excise to him which had caused Charles a cynical smile in the midst of his anguish; but Charles sympathised with such measures and had quite enjoyed playing this last trick on his people.
A number of the great ones had followed the Duke and after a further wait Nelly found an opportunity to creep up to the great halberdier who guarded the door.
She had had very little to eat all day, only what compassionate Bowman had brought her while she kept her vigil in the crowd, and she was ravaged by fatigue and sorrow; her soft pretty face, meant for merriment, was hardly recognisable, but her reckless, indiscreet, audacious spirit was not quelled.
She drew yesterday's birthday gifts from the bosom of her dress.
"There—if you'll let me pass," she whispered.
The man glanced round; for a moment no one was looking; he marched away, back again, snatched the jewels as he passed. And turned away again.
Nelly opened the door and crept into the familiar ante-chamber.
There were the clocks, the dogs, the hearth where they had brewed punch, the chairs where they had sat to listen to the fiddlers.
The doctors were away on a consultation, only the page drowsed by the fire.
The short day was over and the candles lit again.
Nelly flitted past, a shadow among the shadows, and so into the King's bed-chamber. This room was dark, save for a tawny glow from the still fire, and the glow of a circle of wax lights.
Aylesbury and Killigrew were by the fire; seated near the door was Doctor Arris in gown and skull cap.
The plumes and curtains of the King's bed showed dark against the darkness.
The doctor rose with a stern gesture of dismissal, but an urbane voice from the bed said:
"Let poor Nelly come to me."
She ran, she fell on her knees by the bedside and at sight of him she fell a-crying so that she could not speak.
He had been bled, blistered and dosed until life had become a torment to him; his head had been shaved and hot irons applied to it, so that he was bandaged to his eyes; his arms too were swathed in linen where he had been bled again and again, and on his face, heavy with pain, still lay that dark colour of death; yet he had not lost his composure, his courtesy, or even his gaiety.
"Don't cry, Nelly," he whispered, "smile—I want to see some smiles again—what was that song of yours—'French Garlands—all in French Garlands'—a pretty song, Nelly."
She rose gallantly; she tried a step of a gigue, a line of a song; the King endeavoured to rise up, to smile, and fell back unconscious.
The three men sprang up; while the doctor hung over the King, Aylesbury and Killigrew escorted Nelly to the door where the halberdier marched up and down with a blank face and her gems in his pocket.
"I am sorry," said the King, "to be so unconscionable a time a-dying."
He smiled at James and added:
"I forgive every one, including my creditors."
It was the dawn of the sixth of February and there was no hope for the life of King Charles.
Queer things had happened since he had been taken ill; it was already whispered in the ante-chambers that His Majesty would die in the arms of the Church of Rome.
Certain it was that the death chamber had been cleared by order of the Duke—and to what purpose if not to admit a Popish confessor?
All that had belonged to King Charles was in the dust.
Only Nelly remained, humbly waiting as near as they would allow her to the Royal bed-chamber.
The King remembered her through his pain.
"Don't," he whispered to James, "let poor Nelly starve."
And the Duke of York, through his tears, promised.
"The key of the Black Box," added the dying man, "is in the drawer of the red lacquer cabinet—do what you will with it, the Black Box and the contents thereof."
James shuddered at this heavy charge on his conscience; he thought of a marriage certificate, of Monmouth.
"I should like," said the King, "to see the day once more."
James rose and himself drew the curtains, a grey but tender light fell into the chamber and over the bed; the King made a movement as if to reach it, and died in the arms of Killigrew who hastened to raise him up.
James opened the Black Box; he could no longer resist doing this, though he had been King but a few hours and both his splendour and his grief lay heavy on him; he shivered and sweated with terror at the thought that he might find inside the marriage papers of Lucy Walters and Charles Stewart.
He turned the key with cold fingers; the Black Box was very large and heavy; he lifted the lid and peered fearfully within.
It was full of rouleaux of gold.
The savings from the French pension, the late King's secret hoard.
James flung the pieces to right and left to see if a paper was concealed beneath.
Nothing but gold.
James seemed to hear his brother's cynical, urbane laugh.
"Let Fame that never yet spoke well of woman
Give out I was a strolling jade, and common,
Yet have I been to him, since the first hour,
As constant as the needle to the flower."
—Broadside on Nell Gwyn, 1682.
On a warm day Mrs. Nelly sat at her bureau looking over her bills. Old bills, but a great many of them unpaid and mostly for a large amount. She turned them over and brought them to a little table by the open window.
A bill for a French chariot with a great cipher for the silver bedstead, for great looking-glasses, for side boxes at the Duke's theatre, for cleansing and burnishing a warming pan; for the hire of sedan chairs, for white satin petticoats and white and red satin bed-gowns; for kilderkins of strong ale and ordinary ale and firkins of light, for alms to poor men and women, for oats and beans and China oranges, for a "fine landskip fan," for scarlet satin shoes covered with silver lace, and a pair of satin shoes laced over with gold for Master Charles (now his Grace of St. Albans), bills for cordial juleps with pearls for old Madam Gwyn, bills for chair hire, for a gold hour glass, silver bottles and ebony stands.
Nelly turned over these bills, so few of which were paid, and gazed out of the window into the warm afternoon.
Charles Hart was dead, so was Lacy, the actor who had taught her to dance; Nelly, though still young, had lost nearly all her old friends.
Who ever visited her now save sometimes Mr. Bowman?
Nelly was outlawed for debt; since the death of the King her creditors had been pressing, and what resource had Nelly who had refused offers of love and marriage and lived like a widow in her house in Pall Mall?
She had sold the pearl necklace once bought from Peg and Ruperta Hughes; she had boiled down her plate and the famous silver bed, and still there were these bills to be paid. And nothing much in Nelly's stripped house that could be sold to pay them with.
All the rich furniture, the sumptuous tapestries, the pictures, brocades and fine appointments were gone.
The cupboards were empty of the brocade and satin robes, the laced chemises and embroidered nightgowns in which Nelly had delighted.
She was herself now dressed in a habit of scoured silk as plain as ever she wore when she had first tried to live on her fees as an actress in the King's theatre in Drury Lane.
Nelly, with a sigh, folded up her bills and her household accounts.
She had not felt well since the King died; something had ended for Nelly with the life of Charles Stewart.
She was patient and sweet-tempered with all about her, but listless, and had little interest in the days and complained much of pains in her head.
Her affairs were in great confusion, nor was her son, though he enjoyed the title of Duke of St. Albans, provided for; Otway, his tutor, had lately died in extreme poverty without Nelly being able to help him, and the Duchess of Cleveland (to whom he had dedicated his noble play "Venice Preserved ") not being willing to do so, though she had secured goodly plunder from the Whitehall days.
But wild, indiscreet and reckless Nelly had never been able to save or in any way to think of the future.
And now she sat stripped and despoiled and besieged by tradespeople.
It might easily be that she would be arrested for debt and cast into that loathsome prison of the Fleet from which she had by her gentle kindness rescued so many.
The breeze from across the King's gardens came in softly at Nell Gwyn's window; she thought that she would go out into the country and see the haymaking.
It was useless to sit and sigh and that was never Nelly's way.
She put on her plain camlet cloak and hood and was leaving the house when she met Tom Killigrew on the step.
The last of the King's jesters had lost his place now and saw no more of Whitehall.
Nelly greeted him kindly.
"I was going into the country, to Kensington," she said, "to breathe a purer air and escape sad memories."
"I'll come too," replied Killigrew, "the summer days remind me that my blood begins to run cold. I see, but do not feel the sun."
"I have no fee for a chair or a coach," said Nelly. "I am outlawed for debt, Tom."
"But all your plate, Nelly?"
"That is melted and spent, and indeed, they charged so much for the boiling of it, that there was little left."
"It goes to my heart," said Killigrew.
Nelly smiled and slipped her arm under his as they walked along the Mall.
"Never let it," she replied. "My life is over, good Tom. I feel a mortal languor on me. I think I shall die soon. But I would like my son to be provided for, the poor wretch has nothing but an empty title."
"Does the King know of your state?" asked Killigrew.
Nelly shook her head.
"Why should he think of me? He has his own troubles, poor man."
"Troubles indeed," sighed Killigrew. "You heard that the Duke of Monmouth is landed in Dorset?"
"I heard something, but hoped it was a mere tale."
"It is true enough. His Grace landed at a place called Lyme Regis with a handful of men—"
"The kind of folly he would commit," interrupted Nelly compassionately.
"Aye, but he roused the whole county, you know the King is not over loved, and this Papistry makes a good stick to beat him with—'tis the Protestant Duke and the Protestant King—King Monmouth, if you please."
"Lord, Lord," said Nelly, "nothing could save poor Prince Perkin—'tis a dismal story, Tom, and touches me as if it were my own son, for I know how the King loved him."
She always said thus "the King," for there was but one King for her, King Charles.
"Maybe he will succeed," remarked Killigrew. "He is greatly feared at Whitehall."
"Only by those who do not know him," replied Nelly sadly. "Poor Prince Perkin will never make a King—and let us talk of it no more, Tom."
They walked by the scattered houses into the lanes where the last wild roses still gemmed the fragrant hedgerow, and buttercup, parsley, ragged robin and charlock filled the ditches.
The air was so sweet, the sky so limpid, the song and fluttering forms of the birds about their path so pretty that the poor old jester felt a return of his ancient spirits.
"Why do you not return to the boards, Nelly?" he asked. "You are young and comely yet, and might again take the town as Flora, Florimel, or Almahide—"
"No one goes to the theatre now," Nelly reminded him. "What does James care for the play? And if it were otherwise and fame and wealth awaited me there, I could not do it—"
"Ghosts!" exclaimed Killigrew.
"Ghosts," said Nelly. "Nay, let me be, I'll fade out of life, as the play said, with the first wrinkle."
"That's a long time off yet, Nelly," said Killigrew, gallantly.
But Mrs. Nelly shook her head and said that she had found many, and grey hairs, too.
They came to a hay field, and tired from their walk, leant on a five-bar gate and gazed at the gay and simple scene.
The last load of hay was being carted, the heavy wagon laboured over the shaven grass, the sleek horses showed glassy in the golden sun.
Women and girls went over the field picking up the dropped swathes of hay; many had stuck wild flowers in their hair, or in their cotton bodices.
Some children lay asleep in the warm shadow of the fragrant hedgerow.
The sky was piled with fleecy white clouds so delicate that they did not impede the delicious sunshine.
They were smiling, laughing or singing, and there seemed no care or burden or grief existing in the hayfield, though there must have been all of these in the lives of the haymakers.
It seemed to Killigrew like one of those pastorals they used to play in the Cockpit at Whitehall.
"How happy they are," he sighed.
But Nelly did not sigh.
"They have their day," she answered, "and we have had ours."
As time went on King James did pay Mrs. Nelly's debts and settled a pension on her, together with Bestwood Park in Nottingham, on the borders of Sherwood Forest, which was one of the coveted appurtenances of the Crown.
So His Majesty redeemed his word to his dying brother and did not "let poor Nelly starve."
But in another matter which would have stood nearer to King Charles's heart, James showed no mercy.
The Duke of Monmouth was defeated at the battle of Sedgemoor.
Mrs. Nelly, though ill in health, went to St. Martin's-in-the-Fields to pray for poor Prince Perkin.
She remembered him so gay and beautiful, so radiant and impertinent, and her tender heart winced to think of him as a fugitive with a price on his head.
"He meant no wrong," she kept saying to herself, "and Charles loved him so."
She prayed near the graves of her mother and her old friends; Nelly had prayed much of late; Dr. Tenison, the Vicar of St. Martin's, was her good friend and gave her advice in the dispensation of her charities, for Nelly kept little of her fortune for her own use.
It was chill and dark in the old church; urns, hour glasses and skulls in grey stone were glimpsed through the dun shadow; the worn paving stones were dark with the names of the dead.
Mrs. Nelly, kneeling in the shade of a pillar, bowed her head on her hands and thought of the life that had ended so suddenly on the 6th of February, 1685.
King Charles was lapped in lead now, like King Pandion in the old play, and laid away in the Stewart vault at Westminster. His pall was already dusty, and moth and dirt disfigured the wax image that lay in the Garter robes above his grave.
Nelly had seen the rust in the gilt threads of the embroidered star and noted the yellowing of the lace.
So soon; quickly treads decay on the heels of Death, swiftly comes rust and dust in the trail of Oblivion; the tombs of the forgotten dead have soon a charnel-house air.
Nelly felt so tired, tired and confused.
Dr. Tenison had told her that she was a great sinner and had urged on her a sincere repentance.
Nelly was eager to repent, but could not separate her sin from all the pleasure she had had in life.
It all seemed so difficult.
How was she, brought up in the gutter, in rags, pushing an oyster barrow down the Lane or selling oranges at the door of the theatre, to know the meaning of Honour and Virtue?
She had thought that it was Honourable to pay your debts and be kind, and Virtuous to be faithful where your loyalty was pledged.
But Dr. Tenison said that this was not so. He told Nelly that she had led a scandalous life.
So Nelly began to go to prayers and sit much in the old church and to think of God.
Yet always confused and bewildered.
One day she had said:
"It seems to me, sir, that all your teaching is in books—so how was I to come at goodness who could never read?"
Whereat the clergyman told her that she had indeed lacked proper instruction in her youth, but that she might make amends for it now, by a sincere repentance.
"I do repent," replied Nelly stoutly, "of all I ever did wrong, but I cannot repent of having loved the King."
As she knelt now in the chill church she thought of these things again.
How lovely and pleasant they had been, those days that Dr. Tenison said were so wicked!
Yes, even that far off summer at Epsom Wells with Lord Buckhurst and Sir Charles Sedley—how delicious the sun, the roses, the fields, the songs and laughter!
And wrong, the good man said, wrong.
Nelly, having no other instruction, had followed the promptings of her heart; she had been kind, faithful and gay, generous and loyal according to her nature, and brought up to be what the broadsides called "a strolling jade," she had, in unconscious humility, never pretended to be anything else.
Now she must learn how wicked it all was, and how scandalous her life had been.
As she knelt in her pain and weariness she thought of the Duke of Monmouth's life and how like it was to her own.
Had he any chance of being other than he was, this poor Pretender?
"Lord," prayed Nelly earnestly, "soften the heart of King James towards the Duke of Monmouth, for he, like I, is a miserable sinner who knows no better."
She rose and came slowly out of the church; she was failing in her body as in her spirit, with a cough and fainting fits and a desperate thinness in her person.
Her chair was waiting for her; when she reached home, Joe, her porter, told her that Mr. Bowman was above and she heard this with pleasure.
The singer was the one true friend she had left from the old days.
Nelly's rooms were very plainly furnished now; the ancient luxury had gone.
Her means were not great, for most of her revenue went to the maintenance of her son and she gave much away.
So she found Mr. Bowman in a plain room that had little besides the spinet and the chairs and a cane-bottomed day bed where Nelly would rest.
Nor was there any silver, nor pictures save only a portrait of the dark face of King Charles above the fire-place.
Bowman brought ill news.
The Duke of Monmouth had been captured and was being brought to London.
"Alas, my poor prayers!" said Nelly sadly. "How was he found, and where?"
"In a ditch," replied Bowman, going to the spinet, "in a peasant's smock, with his beard grown three days—they say that they would not have known him save for the George in his pocket."
The tears welled up into Nelly's eyes.
"What will they do with him?" she whispered compassionately.
"It is the block for certain," replied Bowman. "He can expect no less."
"Play me some music," said Nelly. "Sing me something for I am much cast down by this."
"What should I sing," answered Bowman quietly, "but the late King's favourite song:
"'The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things.
There is no armour against Fate.
Death lays his icy hands on Kings—'"
"His icy hand," repeated Nelly with a shudder. "Methought that I felt it on my heart then."
Then she laughed wildly and added:
"Play some gay melody, good Bowman, so that we may forget."
He shook his head.
"I am no enchanter with power to make you forget, Mrs. Nelly."
"Still, a cheerful measure, a gigue, a gavotte—what do they say—scherzo! Scherzo!"
Mr. Bowman turned over the sheets of music on the spinet.
His hands trembled a little; he was no longer a young man; he could not trust his voice to sing clearly, or his hands to play freshly, sharply as he had sung and played in the old days at Whitehall.
"Play something," insisted Nelly desperately. "Have you the 'Choice Ayres'?—there were some merry songs within."
Mr. Bowman sat bent over the spinet.
"I am in no mood for a merry song," he murmured.
"But I must have something gay or I die of melancholy," shivered Nelly. "I am sad and cold."
Mr. Bowman began to play—a Court air, a gavotte—a "scherzo" movement from a sonata.
"Quicker!" cried Nelly. "Quicker! faster!"
She clapped her hands together, she beat her feet, her famous tiny feet, on the floor; she rose, laughing.
"I wonder if I could dance—just once more, a gigue, Bowman, a gigue!"
She began to dance; Mr. Bowman turned and looked at her in a compassionate dismay. She had sunk on the chair again and was weeping in an hysteric passion.
"That it should end like this! the King dead, Prince Perkin to die, and I—lonely and growing old!"
Mr. Bowman ceased playing.
King Charles had been dead nearly two years, and it was a year since the Duke of Monmouth had suffered, by the implacable rage of King James, on Tower Hill.
Nelly was taking out her old dresses from a hair trunk and laid them out in the firelight which played with the languid rays of the autumn sunshine in the bed-chamber surrounded with mirrors.
Those mirrors, lining the walls, that had so often reflected a gay, laughing Nelly.
A Nelly in the silver bed, a Nelly with the Stewart pearls, a Nelly in a laced chemise, and which now reflected none of these things, but a sad, sick woman turning over her ancient gowns.
Here was the dress she had worn as Florimel, the ruffling gallant, the fastidious fop, a play on the man of fashion of the moment that had taken the town—here it was, with the silver shoulder knots tarnished and the lace rusty—the dress of Flora, in "Flora's Figarys," crumpled gauze now, with half the flowers of silk and velvet gone with which it had been scattered, and here the Moorish dress that she had worn as "Almahide—by Kings adored "—the dress that had seen her first visit to Whitehall, black satin this, with great collar and cuffs and lace, and lastly the satin bed-gown in which Sir Peter Lely had painted her—and under all, perfumed with musk, a pair of silver shoes.
Nelly sat in a low chair with these shoes on her lap.
She fell a-dreaming.
In this dream she saw a little ragged girl dancing in the moonlight that fell through an unglazed window in a wretohed room in the Coal Yard.
Dancing in a pair of silver shoes sent to her by a King.
Nelly looked up and saw her reflection a dozen times in the mirrors round the walls, saw again and again a sad faced woman holding a pair of tarnished shoes, with faded dresses scattered about her, all lit by a medley of late faint sunshine and sinking fire-rays.
Nelly was frightened.
She rose and in a feeble voice called her woman, Hannah Grace.
"Put away these things and shut up this room," she said. "I will lie in another chamber."
Hannah Grace folded the things away into the hair trunk and made preparations to shut up the mirror lined chamber; she thought this a suitable enough proceeding, for a multitude of mirrors were well for a fresh young beauty, but ill for a dying woman.
Lately every one said that Mrs. Nelly was dying, though no one gave a name to her sickness.
Nelly went slowly into her parlour which was closely curtained against the November chill, and there sat Dr. Tenison and Dr. Christian Harrell, who was now Nelly's physician, and greatly cried up as the best doctor in Westminster.
With these two sat Mr. Bowman; they were drinking a dish of tea that had been made for them by Hannah Grace, and sitting comfortably in the full firelight—which fell pleasantly on the white and puce-coloured hearth-tiles (which Nelly had had sent her from Holland) and the dark, rich room with the polished tapestry-covered furniture.
As Nelly came in she called for lights, and Joe, her porter, came and lit a girandole of wax candles and set it in front of a great mirror; Mr. Field's fine wax lights, such as were used in Whitehall.
Nelly crept to her chair with arms, by the fire; she asked Mr. Bowman to sing, but Dr. Tenison begged that the song should be nothing profane, for his visits had often disturbed Mr. Bowman singing some light Court or love ditty and Nelly listening was lost in a deep reverie.
"Pray," said Nelly, "let him sing what pleases me, for I think I shall die."
At which Dr. Harrell smiled and shook his head; he knew that Mrs. Nelly was in a languishing state of health, but he did not think that she was dying.
He had even told her that there was little the matter with her body; it was only her mind that pined and fretted, and he had suggested that she took advantage of some of the offers of marriage that had been made her, notably that by Sir John Germain, and begin life anew.
Dr. Harrell was a jovial man; he liked to hear stories of King Charles from Nelly or from Bowman, who was so constantly at her house, and nothing pleased him better than when Nelly went over one of her old parts or Bowman sang one of his old songs, or either of them told him some gay tale of Whitehall in the last reign.
"You're not dying, Mrs. Nelly," said he now stoutly; "and, despite our learned friend here, I do prescribe a gay song for you—"
Dr. Tenison smiled; he was a mild and moderate man and wore his piety with an inoffensive air.
"What shall I sing?" asked Bowman, going towards the spinet, "'French Garlands'? You always like that, Nelly."
"No," she said quickly, "not that, dear Bowman—sing—'King Charles.'"
Bowman looked at her; she was pale and wasted, a silk hood tied under her chin hid the brightness of her hair; her dark dress showed out the fragility of the slack hands lying on her lap.
Bowman thought it a queer thing to sing the health of a dead King, yet did it with feeling, for he too had loved King Charles; he began to sing the song that had welcomed home old Rowley; Nelly and Dr. Harrell took up the catch.
"Here's a health unto His Majesty, with a fa, la, la,
Confusion to his enemies, with a fa, la, la,
And he that will not pledge his health,
I wish him neither wit nor wealth,
Nor yet a rope to hang himself.
With a fa, la, la,
With a fa, la, la,
There was a silence in the room that seemed both sudden and long; it appeared as if the shadows deepened into a chilly gloom.
Mr. Bowman shuddered and went to draw the curtains closer.
Nelly sat very still; at last Dr. Tenison, with an effort to break a silence that seemed to be so heavy, turned to her and asked if she would be in church next Sunday?
"Yes," said Nelly, "I shall be there."
Then she suddenly sparkled into animation and leaned forward.
"I remember the first time I was to appear before the King—I was so frightened. I hoped he would not notice me, yet feared he might, for I dreaded that I should do my part ill—"
She put her finger to her lip and smiled in so peculiar a manner that Dr. Harrell forbode comment or Dr. Tenison rebuke.
"I remember that I stood before a mirror to judge my face and gestures—as it might be thus."
She rose and stood before the mirror behind the ring of candles.
She gazed at herself intently.
"Aye, I saw a gay face then, sirs."
"Never regret that," said Dr. Tenison gently, looking with compassion at her haggard reflection.
"Not regret gaiety?" asked Nelly, glancing over her shoulder. "Why, sir, it is the loveliest thing in the world—what were those lines—'to slip out of the world with the first wrinkle'—"
She turned about and made a little movement and gesture as if about to dance.
She tried to laugh, to make a comic grimace; Mr. Bowman sprang forward to catch her as she staggered towards him.
"King Charles!" she whispered.
And died in Mr. Bowman's arms.
The Sunday that Nelly had promised to come to church she was brought there in her coffin and the bells of St. Martin's tolled for Florimel, for Almahide, for Flora.
The snow fell thickly on the plumed hearse, on the long black cloaks and creepers of the mourners.
The chief of them was the young Duke of St. Albans, whose swarthy face was so like the dark countenance of King Charles.
There were few passers-by on this wintry day; the fields about the old church were marshy from long rain and filmed with ice; the buildings of Whitehall Palace showed grey and heavy against a grey and heavy sky.
The trees in the Royal Gardens and along the Mall were bare now of even the last leaf.
Those who were abroad shivered and hastened on their way.
Times were dark and troubled; strange news came across the North Seas; men feared or hoped for changes according to their nature.
In all this stir, confusion and struggle there were few who had time to think of Mrs. Nelly who had been nothing in the reign of King James.
And most of her old companions of pleasure were dead or away; strange how soon gay companions can be dispersed by death and distance.
The bells of St. Martin's tolled across the winter landscape as the dark procession wound into the ancient church.
There were many poor, obscure people who mourned for Nelly, who followed her into the dun interior of the church where Dr. Tenison preached a funeral sermon extolling the sincere repentance, the charity and piety of the deceased. It was a bold thing for such a man as Dr. Tenison to praise such a woman as Nell Gwyn.
And he perhaps had some sense of this and the sneers of the prudish that would follow, for after he had spoken of the kindness, tenderness and penitence of poor Nelly, he turned about, and glancing compassionately at the little coffin which lay in front of the altar, he said in a moved voice:
"It may seem strange that I should extol before you, in this place, a poor woman, a deep sinner such as this was, and there I would remind you of what a great man once said of such a creature.
"And this was Sir Thomas More who spoke thus of one, Jane Shore, who in her time was a King's darling and lived amid the delights of a Court, and this is what Sir Thomas More said of her—this Mistress Jane Shore.
I doubt not that some shall think this woman too slight a thing to be written of and set among the remembrances of great matters, but meseemth the chance worthy to be remembered—for where the King took displeasure she would mitigate and appease his mind; where men were out of favour she would bring them into his grace; for many that had highly offended she would bring pardon; of great forfeitures she got men remission; and, finally, in many weighty suits she stood more in great stead.
"All this," added good Dr. Tenison, "might be said with justice of Mrs. Ellen Gwyn, who had not the advantages of education which Mrs. Shore had received, who came of a good station in life, for Mrs. Ellen came from the very dregs of the town, was, in her youth, surrounded by vice and dissolute company and never heard of better things.
"Yet this little creature, of so mean an origin that she could not write her name, shone with an amiable lustre amid the corruptions and profanities of a Court, the scandal of her position and the enervation of luxury and pleasure—and this lustre she added to her generosity, her kindness and her womanly tenderness."
Mr. Bowman, sitting sadly at the back of the church, was moved by this address. And yet he smiled wistfully.
What, after all, did such as Thomas Tenison know of such as Nelly Gwyn? What did he know of the Court of whose corruptions he spoke so feelingly?
Even here in the forbidding dark of the church, with the tolling bell still echoing in his ears, a charnel odour in his nostrils, urns, skulls and hour-glasses all about him, looming from the threatening shadows, even with the black pall that covered all the earth now knew of poor Nelly in front of him, Mr. Bowman could smile at worthy Dr. Tenison.
Bowman was growing old himself, his sweet voice was fading, but he had his memories of those things that Dr. Tenison had never known.
Sweet music and dancing, windows open on the summer air, the play, the feast, the masque, the ball, the Mall, the archery fields, the river, Old Rowley in the midst of all, ah, the gay, warm, intimate life, so rich, so sparkling, so brief!
And Nelly who had taken it all as it came, without thought of virtue or vice (she who had never been taught the difference between the two) as she had taken the end, loss, loneliness and death—taken it all with a smile, with kindness, with sweetness—this wild, yet gentle songstress that had so adorned the gilding of her pretty cage and died so quietly soon after the hand that fed her was still, was she a subject for the moralisings of Thomas Tenison?
The mourners moved out into the bleak day from which the dreary light was beginning to recede.
The snow was falling faster and the bells of St. Martin's still tolled for Flora, for Florimel, for Almahide.
"Sing heigh, sing ho, the carrion crow!"
muttered Bowman, "who gets us all in the end!"
Nelly had remembered St. Martin's, the church of that Patron of the Poor; she had left money to distressed debtors of that parish, to those ill or disabled by poverty; she had also left a legacy to those who differed from her in faith.
"Protestant Nelly," to show her tolerance of spirit, had left fifty pounds to be divided among two poor Roman Catholics of the parish.
In her lifetime she had given money to the bell-ringers of St. Martin's, asking them to sometimes ring a cheerful chime to her memory, and she had willed to the church a decent pulpit cloth and cushion; touching evidences of her love for the church and parish where she had lived in her poverty, her fame, and her splendour, for most of Nelly's short life had been spent within the sound of the bells of St. Martin's.
Mr. Bowman did not go back with the others to taste of the funeral meats; he could not face Nelly's house without Nelly.
He walked back to his lodgings in Drury Lane and wondered what had really become of Nelly, snatched away so suddenly.
The snow lay blank upon the gables, upon the signs and window ledges; the town was fast being blotted out by the storm and the twilight.
Bowman went along the Strand where the cosy lights were beginning to twinkle in the windows.
When he came to the end of Drury Lane by the Maypole he was astonished to see that this was broken.
A passer-by seeing his amazement told him that the pole had snapped some hours ago, perhaps with the weight of snow on the vane.
On the ground lay The Crown, The Arms, The C.R. Cipher, fast being covered by the hurrying snow, all the heavy honours which Nelly had so often watched glitter above the gables.
Bowman looked at them a second then went to his lodgings.
"Sans me plaindre ou
Je vais où va toute chose
Où va la feuille du rose
Et la feuille de laurier."
—A. V. Arnauld.