The Illustrations Shown in this Edition are Reproductions of Scenes from the Photo-Play of "Mistress Nell," Produced and Copyrighted by the Famous Players Film Company, Adolf Zukor, President, to whom the Publishers Desire to Express their Thanks and Appreciation for Permission to use the Pictures.
A MERRY TALE OF A MERRY TIME
(T'wixt Fact and Fancy)
GEORGE C. HAZELTON, Jr.
Author of the Play
"Let not poor Nelly starve."
ILLUSTRATED WITH SCENES FROM THE PHOTO-PLAY
PRODUCED AND COPYRIGHTED BY THE FAMOUS PLAYERS FILM COMPANY, ADOLPH ZUKOR, PRESIDENT.
GROSSET & DUNLAP
Copyright, 1901, by Charles Scribner's Sons
All rights reserved
It is the vogue to dramatize successful novels. The author of the present Nell Gwyn story has pursued the contrary course. His "merry" play of the same name was written and produced before he undertook to compose this tale, suggested by the same historic sources.
A word of tribute is gratefully given to the comedienne, Miss Crosman, whose courage and exquisite art introduced the "Mistress Nell" of the play to the public.
CHAPTER I 1
"And once Nell Gwyn, a frail young sprite, Looked kindly when I met her; I shook my head perhaps—but quite Forgot to quite forget her."
CHAPTER II 10
It's near your cue, Mistress Nell!
CHAPTER III 41
He took them from Castlemaine's hand yo throw to you.
CHAPTER IV 62
Flowers and Music feed naught but Love.
CHAPTER V 87
It was never treason to steal a King's kisses.
CHAPTER VI 101
Softly on tiptoe; Here Nell doth lie.
CHAPTER VII 111
Come down! Come up!
CHAPTER VIII 126
"And the man that is drunk is as great as a king."
CHAPTER IX 142
CHAPTER X 168
Arrest him yourself!
CHAPTER XI 182
In the field, men; at court, women!
CHAPTER XII 195
Beau Adair is my name.
CHAPTER XIII 232
For the glory of England?
CHAPTER XIV 240
He loves me! He loves me!
CHAPTER XV 259
I come, my love; I come.
CHAPTER XVI 276
Ods-pitikins, my own reflection!
CHAPTER XVII 290
The day will be so happy; for I've seen you at the dawn.
A MERRY TALE OF A MERRY TIME
"And once Nell Gwyn, a frail young sprite, Look'd kindly when I met her; I shook my head perhaps—but quite Forgot to quite forget her."
It was a merry time in merry old England; for King Charles II. was on the throne.
Not that the wines were better or the ladies fairer in his day, but the renaissance of carelessness and good-living had set in. True Roundheads again sought quiet abodes in which to worship in their gray and sombre way. Cromwell, their uncrowned king, was dead; and there was no place for his followers at court or in tavern. Even the austere and Catholic smile of brother James of York, one day to be the ruler of the land, could not cast a gloom over the assemblies at Whitehall. There were those to laugh merrily at the King's wit, and at the players' wit. There were those in abundance to enjoy to-day—to-day only,—to drink to the glorious joys of to-day, with no care for the morrow.
It was, indeed, merry old England; for, when the King has no cares, and assumes no cares, the people likewise have no cares. The state may be rent, the court a nest of intrigue, King and Parliament at odds, the treasury bankrupt: but what care they; for the King cares not. Is not the day prosperous? Are not the taverns in remotest London filled with roistering spirits who drink and sing to their hearts' content of their deeds in the wars just done? Can they not steal when hungry and demand when dry?
Aye, the worldly ones are cavaliers now—for a cavalier is King—e'en though the sword once followed Cromwell and the gay cloak and the big flying plume do not quite hide the not-yet-discarded cuirass of an Ironside.
Cockpits and theatres! It is the Restoration! The maypole is up again at Maypole Lane, and the milk-maids bedecked with garlands dance to the tunes of the fiddle. Boys no longer serve for heroines at the play, as was the misfortune in Shakespeare's day. The air is full of hilarity and joy.
Let us too for a little hour forget responsibility and fall in with the spirit of the times; while we tipple and toast, and vainly boast: "The King! Long live the King!"
Old Drury Lane was alive as the sun was setting, on the day of our visit to London Town, with loungers and loafers; busy-bodies and hawkers; traffickers of sweets and other petty wares; swaggering soldiers, roistering by, stopping forsooth to throw kisses to inviting eyes at the windows above.
As we turn into Little Russell Street from the Lane, passing many chairs richly made, awaiting their fair occupants, we come upon the main entrance to the King's House. Not an imposing or spacious structure to be sure, it nevertheless was suited to the managerial purposes of the day, which were, as now, to spend as little and get as much as may be. The pit was barely protected from the weather by a glazed cupola; so that the audience could not always hear the sweetest song to a finish without a drenching, or dwell upon the shapeliness of the prettiest ankle, that revealed itself in the dance by means of candles set on cressets, which in those days sadly served the purposes of foot-lights.
It was Dryden's night. His play was on—"The Conquest of Granada." The best of London were there; for a first night then was as attractive as a first night now. In the balcony were draped boxes, in which lovely gowns were seen—lovely hair and lovely gems; but the fair faces were often masked.
The King sat listless in the royal box, watching the people and the play or passing pretty compliments with the fair favourites by his side, diverted, perchance, by the ill-begotten quarrel of some fellow with a saucy orange-wench over the cost of her golden wares. The true gallants preferred being robbed to haggling—for the shame of it.
A knowing one in the crowd was heard to say: "'Tis Castlemaine to the King's left."
"No, 'tis Madame Carwell; curse her," snarled a more vulgar companion.
"Madame Querouaille, knave, Duchess of Portsmouth," irritably exclaimed a handsome gallant, himself stumbling somewhat over the French name, though making a bold play for it, as he passed toward his box, pushing the fellow aside. He added a moment later, but so that no one heard: "Portsmouth is far from here."
It was the Duke of Buckingham—the great Duke of Buckingham, in the pit of the King's House! Truly, we see strange things in these strange times! Indeed, William Penn himself did not hesitate to gossip with the orange-wenches, unless Pepys lied—and Pepys never lied.
"What said he?" asked a stander-by, a butcher, who, with apron on and sleeves to elbow, had hastily left his stall at one of the afternoon and still stood with mouth agape and fingers widespread waiting for the play. Before, however, his sooty companion could answer, they were jostled far apart.
The crowd struggled for places in eager expectation, amid banter none too virtuous, whistlings and jostlings. The time for the play had arrived. "Nell! Nell! Nell!" was on every lip.
And who was "Nell"?
From amidst the players, lords and coxcombs crowded on the stage stepped forth Nell Gwyn—the prettiest rogue in merry England.
A cheer went up from every throat; for the little vixen who stood before them had long reigned in the hearts of Drury Lane and the habitues of the King's House.
Yea, all eyes were upon the pretty, witty Nell; the one-time orange-girl; now queen of the theatre, and the idol of the Lane. Her curls were flowing and her big eyes dancing beneath a huge hat—more, indeed, a canopy than a hat—so large that the audience screamed with delight at the incongruity of it and the pretty face beneath.
This pace in foolery had been set at the Duke's House, but Nell out-did them, with her broad-brimmed hat as large as a cart-wheel and her quaint waist-belt; for was not her hat larger by half than that at the rival house and her waist-belt quainter?
As she came forward to speak the prologue, her laugh too was merrier and more roguish:
"This jest was first of the other house's making, And, five times tried, has never fail'd of taking;
* * * * *
This is that hat, whose very sight did win ye To laugh and clap as though the devil were in ye,
* * * * *
I'll write a play, says one, for I have got A broad-brimm'd hat, and waist-belt, towards a plot. Says the other, I have one more large than that, Thus they out-write each other with a hat! The brims still grew with every play they writ; And grew so large, they cover'd all the wit. Hat was the play; 't was language, wit, and tale: Like them that find meat, drink, and cloth in ale."
The King leaned well out over the box-rail, his dark eyes intent upon Nell's face.
A fair hand, however, was placed impatiently upon his shoulder and drew him gently back. "Lest you fall, my liege."
"Thanks, Castlemaine," he replied, kindly but knowingly. "You are always thoughtful."
The play went on. The actors came and went. Hart appeared in Oriental robes as Almanzor—a dress which mayhap had served its purposes for Othello, and mayhap had not; for cast-off court-dresses, without regard to fitness, were the players' favourite costumes in those days, the richness more than the style mattering.
With mighty force, he read from the centre of the stage, with elocution true and syllable precise, Dryden's ponderous lines. The King nodded approvingly to the poet. The poet glowed with pride at the patronage of the King. The old-time audience were enchanted. Dryden sat with a triumphant smile as he dwelt upon his poetic lines and heard the cherished syllables receive rounds of applause from the Londoners.
Was it the thought, dear Dryden; or was it Nell's pretty ways that bewitched the most of it? Nell's laugh still echoes in the world; but where are your plays, dear Dryden?
It's near your cue, Mistress Nell!
The greenroom of the King's House was scarcely a prepossessing place or inviting. A door led to the stage; another to the street. On the remaining doors might have been deciphered from the Old English of a scene-artist's daub "Mistress Gwyn" and "Mr. Hart." These doors led respectively to the tiring-room of the sweet sprite who had but now set the pit wild with a hat over a sparkling eye and to that of the actor-manager of the House. A rough table, a few chairs, a mirror which had evidently seen better days in some grand mansion and a large throne-chair which might equally well have satisfied the royalty of Macbeth or Christopher Sly—its royalty, forsooth, being in its size, for thus only could it lord-it over its mates—stood in the corner. Old armour hung upon the wall, grim in the light of candles fixed in braziers. Rushes were strewn about the floor.
Ah! Pepys, Pepys, was it here that you recalled "specially kissing of Nell"? Mayhap; for we read in your book: "I kissed her, and so did my wife, and a mighty pretty soul she is." Be that as it may, however, you must have found Nell's lips very agreeable; for a great wit has suggested that it was well that Mrs. Pepys was present on the occasion.
On great play-nights, however, this most unroyal room assumed the proportions of royalty. Gallants and even lords sought entrance here and elbowed their way about; and none dared say them nay. They forced a way even upon the stage during the play, though not so commonly as before the Restoration, yet still too much; and the players played as best they could, and where best they could. Billets-doux passed, sweet words were said,—all in this dilapidated, unpretentious, candle-lighted room.
At the moment of which we speak, the greenroom was deserted save for a lad of twelve or fourteen years, who stood before the mirror, posing to his personal satisfaction and occasionally delivering bits from "Hamlet." He was none other than "Dick," the call-boy of the King's House.
The lad struck a final attitude, his brow clouded. He assumed what seemed to him the proper pose for the royal Dane. His meditations and his pose, however, were broken in upon by the sudden entrance of Manager Hart, flushed and in an unusual state of excitement.
"Where is my dagger, Dick?" he exclaimed, pacing the room.
The boy came to himself but slowly.
"What are you doing? Get my dagger, boy," wildly reiterated the irate manager. "Don't you see there will be a stage-wait?" He cast an anxious glance in the direction of the door which led to the stage.
"Where did you leave it, sir?" asked the lad, finally realizing that it would be wise not to trifle at such a time.
"Never mind where I left it. Get it, get it; do you hear! Nell's on the stage already." Hart rushed to the door and looked off in an increasing state of excitement.
"Why, you've got your dagger on, sir," hesitatingly suggested the lad, as he caught the gleam of a small scimiter among the folds of Almanzor's tunic.
Hart's face flushed.
"Devil take you, boy," he exclaimed; "you are too stupid ever to make an actor!"
With this speech, the manager strode out of the greenroom toward the stage.
Poor Dick sank back in an attitude of resignation. "How long, O Rome, must I endure this bondage?" he said, sadly.
He again observed his boyish figure in the mirror, and the pretty face brightened as he realized that there might still be hope in life, despite Manager Hart's assertion that he would never be able to act. His features slowly sank into a set expression of tremendous gloom, such as he thought should characterize his conception of himself as Hamlet when in days to come the mantles of Burbage and of Betterton should be his and Manager Hart must bow to him. He stood transfixed before the glass in a day-dream, forgetful of his ills. His pretty lips moved, and one close by might have heard again, "To be or not to be" in well-modulated phrase.
"Ah, boy; here!"
It was a richly dressed gallant, in old-rose with royal orders, who had entered the room quietly but authoritatively from the street—the same lordly personage we observed in the pit. His manner was that of one accustomed to be obeyed and quickly too. The lad knew him and bowed low.
"Tell Mistress Nell, Buckingham would speak with her. Lively, lad; lively," he said.
"She is on the stage, my lord," replied Dick, respectfully.
"Gad, I thought otherwise and stepped about from my box. Here; put these flowers in her tiring-room."
The boy took the beautiful bouquet of white roses. "Yes, my lord," he replied, and turned to do the bidding.
"Flowers strewn in ladies' ways oft' lead to princely favours," muttered his lordship, thoughtfully, as he removed his gloves and vainly adjusted his hat and sword. "Portsmouth at Dover told me that."
It was apparent from his face that much passed before his mind, in that little second, of days when, at Dover Castle not long since, he had been a part—and no small part—of the intrigue well planned by Louis of France, and well executed by the Duchess of Orleans assisted by the fair Louise, now Duchess of Portsmouth, in which his own purse and power had waxed mightily. Whatever his lordship thought, however, it was gone like the panorama before a drowning brain.
He stopped the lad as he was entering Nell's tiring-room, with an exclamation. The boy returned.
"You gave Mistress Nell my note bidding her to supper?" he asked, questioningly.
"I did, my lord," answered Dick.
"'Sheart, a madrigal worthy of Bacchus! She smiled delightedly?" continued his lordship, in a jocular mood.
"No, my lord; quite serious."
His lordship's face changed slightly. "Read it eagerly?" he ventured, where he might have commanded, further to draw out the lad.
"Yes, my lord," added Dick, respectfully, "after a time." The boy's lids dropped to avoid revealing his amused recollection of the incident; and his lordship's quick eye noted it.
"Good!" he exclaimed, with an assumed triumphant air. "She folded it carefully and placed it in her bosom next her heart?"
"She threw it on the floor, my lord!" meekly answered Dick, hiding his face in the flowers to avoid revealing disrespect.
"My billet-doux upon the floor!" angrily exclaimed his lordship. "Plague on't, she said something, made some answer, boy?" The diplomat was growing earnest despite himself, as diplomats often do in the cause of women.
"She said your dinners made amends for your company, my lord," he said, meekly.
Buckingham's eyes snapped; but he was too clever to reveal his feelings further to a call-boy, whom he dismissed with a wave of the hand. He then swaggered to the table and complacently exclaimed: "The rogue! Nelly, Nelly, your lips shall pay tribute for that. Rosy impudence! Buckingham's dinners make amends for his company? Minx!" He threw himself into a chair, filled with deep reflections of supper and wine, wit and beauty, rather than state-craft.
Thus lost in selfish reflection, he did not observe, or, if he did, cared not for, the frail figure and sweet face of one who cautiously tiptoed into the greenroom. It was Orange Moll, whose sad countenance and tattered garments betokened a sadder story. Her place was in the pit, with her back to the stage, vending her oranges to artisans, girls with vizards or foolish gallants. She had no right behind the scenes.
"I am 'most afraid to enter here without Nell," she thought, faint-heartedly, as she glanced about the room and her eyes fell upon the great Lord Buckingham.
"Oranges? Will you have my oranges? Only sixpence, my lord," she ventured at length, then hesitatingly advanced and offered her wares; but his lordship's thoughts were far away.
"What shall we have for supper?" was his sole concern. "I think Nelly would like spiced tongue." Instantly his hands and eyes were raised in mock invocation of the intervention of the Powers that Be, and so suddenly that Moll drew back. "Ye Gods," he exclaimed aloud, "she has enough of that already! Ah, the vintage of——"
It was more habit than courage which brought to Moll's, trembling lips the familiar orange-cry, which again interrupted him: "Oranges; only sixpence. Here is one picked for you, my lord."
Buckingham's eyes flashed with anger; he was not wont to have his way, much less his pleasure, disturbed by the lowly. "Oh, hang you, you disturb me. I am thinking; don't you perceive I am thinking? Begone!"
"Only sixpence, my lord; I have not sold one to-night," pleaded the girl, sadly.
His lordship rose irritably. "I have no pauper's pence," he exclaimed. "Out of my way! Ragbag!" He pushed the girl roughly aside and crossed the room.
At the same instant, there was confusion at the stage-door, the climax of which was the re-entrance of Hart into the greenroom.
"How can a man play when he trembles for his life lest he step upon a lord?" cried the angry manager. "They should be horsewhipped off the stage, and"—his eyes falling upon Buckingham—"out of the greenroom."
"Ah, Hart," began his lordship, with a patronizing air, "why is Nelly so long? I desire to see her."
Hart's lips trembled, but he controlled his passion. "Indeed? His Majesty and the good folk in front would doubtless gladly await your interview with Mistress Eleanor Gwyn. Shall I announce your will, my lord, unto his Majesty and stop the play?"
"You grow ironical, friend Hart," replied his lordship.
"Not so," said the actor, bowing low; "I am your lordship's most obedient servant."
Buckingham's lip curled and his eyes revealed that he would have said more, but the room was meantime filling with players from the stage, some exchanging compliments, some strutting before the glass, and he would not so degrade his dignity before them. Dick, foil in hand even in the manager's room, was testing the steel's strength to his utmost, in boyish fashion.
This confusion lent Moll courage, and forth came again the cry: "Oranges? Will you have my oranges? Only sixpence, sir."
She boldly offered her wares to Almanzor, but started and paled when the hero turned and revealed Manager Hart.
"What are you doing here, you little imp? Back to the pit, where you belong." The manager's voice was full of meaning.
"Nell told me I might come here, sir," said the girl, faintly excusing herself.
Hart's temper got the better of him. To admit before all that Nell ruled the theatre was an affront to his managerial dignity which he could not brook.
"Oh, Nell did, did she?" he almost shrieked, as he angrily paced the room like some caged beast, gesticulating wildly.
The actors gathered in groups and looked askant.
"Gadso," he continued, "who is manager, I should like to know! Nell would introduce her whole trade here if she could. Every orange-peddler in London will set up a stand in the greenroom at the King's, next we know. Out with you! This is a temple of art, not a marketplace. Out with you!"
He seized Moll roughly in his anger and almost hurled her out at the door. He would have done so, indeed, had not Nell entered at this moment from the stage. Her eye caught the situation at a glance.
"Oh, blood, Iago, blood!" she exclaimed, mock-heroically, then burst into the merriest laugh that one could care to hear. "How now, a tragedy in the greenroom! What lamb is being sacrificed?"
Hart stood confused; the players whispered in expectation; and an amused smile played upon the features of my Lord Buckingham at the manager's discomfiture. Finally Hart found his tongue.
"An old comrade of yours at orange-vending before you lost the art of acting," he suggested, with a glance at Moll.
"By association with you, Jack?" replied the witch of the theatre in a way which bespoke more answers that wisdom best not bring forth.
Nell's whole heart went out to the subject of the controversy. Poor little tattered Orange Moll! She was carried back in an instant to her own bitter life and bitter struggles when an orange-girl. Throwing an arm about the child, she kissed away the tears with, "What is the matter, dear Moll?"
"They are all mocking me, and sent me back to the pit," replied the girl, hysterically.
"Shame on you all," said Nell; and the eyes that were so full of comedy revealed tragic fire.
"Fy, fy," pleaded Hart; "I'll be charitable to-morrow, Nell, after this strain is off—but a first night—"
"You need charity yourself?" suggested Nell; and she burst into a merry laugh, in which many joined.
Buckingham instantly took up the gauntlet for a bold play, for a coup d'etat in flattery. "Pshaw!" he cried, waving aside the players in a princely fashion. "When Nell plays, we have no time to munch oranges. Let the wench bawl in the street."
Poor Moll's tears flowed again with each harsh word. Nell was not so easily affected.
"Odso, my lord! It is a pity your lordship is not a player. Then the orange-trade would flourish," she said.
Buckingham bowed, amused and curious. "Say you so, i' faith! Pray, why, mad minx?"
"Your lordship would make such a good mark for the peel," retorted Nell, tossing a bit of orange-peel in his face, to the infinite delight of Hart and his fellow-players.
"Devil!" angrily exclaimed his lordship as he realized the insult. "I would kill a man for this; a woman, I can only love." His hand left his sword-hilt; and he bowed low to the vixen of the theatre, picked from the floor the bit of peel which had fallen, kissed it, tossed it over his shoulder and turned away.
Nell was not done, however; her revenge was incomplete. "There! dry your eyes, Moll," she exclaimed. "Give me your basket, child. You shall be avenged still further."
The greenroom had now filled from the stage and the tiring-rooms; and all gathered gleefully about to see what next the impish Nell would do, for avenged she would be they all knew, though the course of her vengeance none could guess.
The manager, catching at the probable outcome when Nell seized from Moll's trembling arm the basket heaped with golden fruit, gave the first warning: "Great Heavens! Flee for your lives! I'faith, here comes the veteran robber at such traffic."
There was a sudden rush for the stage, but Nell cried: "Guard the door, Moll; don't let a rascal out. I'll do the rest."
It was not Moll's strength, however, which kept the greenroom filled, but expectation of Nell. All gathered about with the suspense of a drama; for Nell herself was a whole play as she stood in the centre of that little group of lords and players, dressed for Almahyde, Dryden's heroine, with a basket of oranges on her dimpled arm. What a pretty picture she was too—prettier here even than on the stage! The nearer, the prettier! A band of roses, one end of which formed a garland falling to the floor, circled and bound in her curls. What a figure in her Oriental garb, hiding and revealing. Indeed, the greenroom seemed bewitched by her cry: "Oranges, will you have my oranges?"
She lifted the basket high and offered the fruit in her enchanting old-time way, a way which had won for her the place of first actress in England. Could it not now dispose of Moll's wares and make the child happy? Almahyde's royal train was caught up most unroyally, revealing two dainty ankles; and she laughed and danced and disposed of her wares all in a breath. Listen and love:
Sweet as love-lips, dearest mine, Picked by Spanish maids divine, Black-eyed beauties, who, like Eve, With golden fruit their loves deceive! Buy oranges; buy oranges!
Close your eyes, when these you taste; Think your arm about her waist: Thus with sixpence may you win Happiness unstained with sin. Buy oranges; buy oranges!
As the luscious fruit you sip, You will wager 'tis her lip; Nothing sweeter since the rise Of wickedness in Paradise. Buy oranges; buy oranges!
There were cries of "Brava!" "Another jig!" and "Hurrah for Nelly!" It was one of those bits of acting behind the scenes which are so rare and exquisite and which the audience never see.
"Marry, gallants, deny me after that, if you dare"; and Nell's little foot came down firmly in the last step of a triumphant jig, indicating a determination that Moll's oranges should be sold and quickly too.
"Last act! All ready for the last act," rang out in Dick's familiar voice from the stage-door as she ended. It was well some one thought of the play and of the audience in waiting.
Many of the players hastily departed to take up their cues; but not so Nell. Her eyes were upon the lordly Buckingham, who was endeavouring to effect a crafty exit.
"Not so fast, my lord," she said as she caught his handsome cloak and drew him back into the room. "I want you with me." She looked coyly into his lordship's face as though he were the one man in all the world she loved, and her curls and cheek almost nestled against his rich cloak. "A dozen, did you say? What a heart you have, my lord. A bountiful heart!"
Buckingham was dazed; his eyes sought Nell, then looked aghast at the oranges she would force upon him. The impudence of it!
"A dozen!" he exclaimed in awe. "'Slife, Nelly; what would I do with a dozen oranges?"
"Pay for them, in sooth," promptly replied the vixen. "I never give a lord credit."
The player-folk gathered closer to watch the scene; for there was evidently more fun brewing, and that too at the expense of a very royal gentleman.
"A player talk of credit!" replied his lordship, quite ironically, as he straightened up proudly for a wit-encounter. "What would become of the mummers, if the lords did not fill their empty pockets?" he said, crushingly.
"What would become of the lords, if the players' brains did not try to fill their empty skulls with wits?" quickly retorted Nell.
"If you were a man, sweet Nelly, I should answer: 'The lords first had fools at court; then supplanted them with players!'"
"And, being a woman, I do answer," replied the irrepressible Nell, "'—and played the fools themselves, my lord!'"
The players tried to smother their feelings; but the retort was too apt, and the greenroom rang with laughter.
Buckingham turned fiercely upon them; but their faces were instantly mummified.
"Gad, I would sooner face the Dutch fleet, Nelly. Up go my hands, fair robber," he said. He had decided to succumb for the present. In his finger-tips glistened a golden guinea.
Nell eyed the coin dubiously.
"Nay, keep this and your wares too," added his lordship, in hope of peace, as he placed it in her hand.
"Do you think me a beggar?" replied Nell, indignantly. "Take your possessions, every one—every orange." She filled his hands and arms to overflowing with her golden wares.
His lordship winced, but stood subdued.
"What am I to do with them?" he asked, falteringly.
"Eat them; eat them," promptly and forcefully retorted the quondam orange-vender.
"All?" asked his lordship.
"All!" replied her ladyship.
"Damme, I cannot hold a dozen," he exclaimed, aghast.
"A chair! A chair!" cried Nell. "Would your lordship stand at the feast of gold?"
Before Buckingham had time to reflect upon the outrage to his dignity, Nell forced him into a chair, to the great glee of the by-standers, especially of Manager Hart, who chuckled to an actor by his side: "She'll pluck his fine feathers; curse his arrogance."
"Your knees together, my lord! What, have they never united in prayer?" gleefully laughed Nell as she further humbled his lordship by forcing his knees together to form a lap upon which to pile more oranges.
Buckingham did not relish the scene; but he was clever enough to humour the vixen, both from fear of her tongue and from hope of favours as well as words from her rosy lips.
"They'll unite to hold thee, wench," he suggested, with a sickly laugh, as he observed his knees well laden with oranges. "I trow not," retorted Nell; "they can scarce hold their own. There!" and she roguishly capped the pyramid which burdened his lordship's knees with the largest in her basket.
"I'll barter these back for my change, sweet Nell," he pleaded.
"What change?" quickly cried the merry imp of Satan.
"I gave you a golden guinea," answered his lordship, woefully.
"I gave you a golden dozen, my lord!" replied Nell, gleefully.
"Oranges, who will have my oranges?"
She was done with Buckingham and had turned about for other prey.
Hart could not allow the opportunity to escape without a shot at his hated lordship.
"Fleeced," he whispered grimly over his lordship's shoulder, with a merry chuckle.
Buckingham rose angrily.
"A plague on the wench and her dealings," he said. His oranges rolled far and wide over the floor of the greenroom.
"You should be proud, my lord, to be robbed by so fair a hand," continued Hart, consolingly. "'Tis an honour, I assure you; we all envy you."
Buckingham did not relish the consolation.
"'Tis an old saw, Master Hart," he replied: "'He laughs best who laughs last.'"
As he spoke, Nell's orange-cry rang out again above the confusion and the fun. She was still at it. Moll was finding vengeance and money, indeed, though she dwelt upon her accumulating possessions through eyelashes dim with tears.
"It's near your cue, Mistress Nell," cried out the watchful Dick at the stage-door.
"Six oranges left; see me sell them, Moll," cried the unheeding vender.
"It's near your cue, Mistress Nell!" again shouted the call-boy, in anxious tones.
"Marry, my cue will await my coming, pretty one," laughed Nell.
The boy was not so sure of that. "Oh, don't be late, Mistress Nell," he pleaded. "I'll buy the oranges rather than have you make a stage-wait."
"Dear heart," replied Nell, touched by the lad's solicitude. "Keep your pennies, Dick, and you and I will have a lark with them some fine day. Six oranges, left; going—going—" She sprang into the throne-chair, placed one of the smallest feet in England impudently on one of its arms and proceeded to vend her remaining wares from on high, to the huge satisfaction of her admirers.
The situation was growing serious. Nell was not to be trifled with. The actors stood breathless. Hart grew wild as he realized the difficulty and the fact that she was uncontrollable. King and Parliament, he well knew, could not move her from her whimsical purpose, much less the manager of the King's.
"What are you doing, Nell?" he pleaded, wildly. "You will ruin the first night. His Majesty in front, too! Dryden will never forgive us if 'Granada' goes wrong through our fault."
"Heyday! What care I for 'Granada'?" and Nell swung the basket of oranges high in air and calmly awaited bids. "Not a step on the stage till the basket is empty."
It was Buckingham's turn now. "Here's music for our manager," he chuckled. "Our deepest sympathy, friend Hart."
This was more than Hart could bear. The manager of the King's House was forced into profanity. "Damn your sympathy," exclaimed he; and few would criticise him for it. He apologized as quickly, however, and turned to Nell. "There goes your scene, Nell. I'll buy your oranges, when you come off," he continued to plead, in desperation, scarcely less fearful of offending her than of offending the great Lord Buckingham.
"Now or never," calmly replied the vender from her chair-top.
"The devil take the women," muttered Hart, frantically, as he rushed headlong into his tiring-room.
"Marry, Heaven defend," laughed Nell; "for he's got the men already." She sprang lightly from the chair to the floor.
Hart was back on the instant, well out of breath but purse in hand.
"Here, here," he exclaimed. "Never mind the oranges, wench. The audience will be waiting."
"Faith and troth, and is not Nell worth waiting for?" she cried, her eyes shining radiantly. Indeed, the audience would have gladly waited, could they have but seen her pretty, winsome way! "These are yours—all—all!" she continued, as she gleefully emptied the basket of its remaining fruit over Prince Almanzor's head.
Hart protested vainly.
Then rushing back to Moll, Nell threw both arms about the girl triumphantly. "There, Moll," she said, "is your basket and all the trophies"; and she gave Moll the basket with the glittering coins jangling in it.
"Your cue—your cue is spoken, Mistress Nell," shrieked Dick from the stage-door.
Nell heeded not. Her eyes happening upon an orange which had fallen near the throne-chair, she caught it up eagerly and hurled it at Manager Hart.
"Forsooth, here's another orange, Master Manager."
He succeeded in catching it despite his excitement.
"Your cue—your cue—Mistress Nell!" came from every throat as one.
Nell tossed back her head indifferently. "Let them wait; let them wait," she said, defiantly.
The stage-beauty crossed leisurely to the glass and carelessly arranged her drapery and the band of roses encircling her hair.
Then the hoyden was gone. In an instant, Nell was transformed into the princess, Almahyde. The room had been filled with breathless suspense; but what seemed to the players an endless period of time was but a minute. Nell turned to the manager, and with all the suavity of a princess of tragedy kissed her hand tantalizingly to him and said: "Now, Jack, I'll teach you how to act."
She passed out, and, in a moment, rounds of applause from the amphitheatre filled the room. She was right; the audience would wait for her.
A moment later, the greenroom was deserted except for Manager Hart and Lord Buckingham. Hart had thrown the call-boy almost bodily through the door that led to the stage, thus venting his anger upon the unoffending lad, who had been unfortunate enough to happen in his way ill betimes. He now stood vainly contemplating himself before the glass and awaiting his cue. Buckingham leaned upon a chair-top, uncertain as to his course.
"Damme! She shall rue this work," he muttered at length. "A man might as well make love to a wind-mill. I forgot to tell her how her gown becomes her. That is a careless thing to forget." The reflection forthwith determined his course. "Nelly, Nelly, Nelly," he called as he quickly crossed the room after the departed Nell, "you are divine to-night. Your gown is simply—"
The manager's voice stayed him at the stage-door. "My lord, come back; my lord—"
Buckingham's hand had gone so far, indeed, as to push open the door. He stood entranced as he looked out upon the object of his adoration upon the stage. "Perfection!" he exclaimed. "Your eyes—"
"My lord, my lord, you forget—"
Buckingham turned indignantly at the voice which dared to interrupt him in the midst of his rhapsody.
"You forget—your oranges, my lord," mildly suggested Hart, as he pointed to the fruit scattered upon the floor.
Buckingham's face crimsoned. "Plague on't! They are sour, Master Hart." With a glance of contempt, he turned on his heel and left the room.
A triumphant smile played upon the manager's face. He felt that he had annoyed his lordship without his intention being apparent. "A good exit, on my honour," he muttered, as he stood contemplating the door through which Buckingham had passed; "but, by Heaven, he shall better it unless he takes his eyes from Nell. Great men believe themselves resistless with the fair; more often, the fair are resistless with great men."
He took a final look at himself in the glass, adjusted his scimiter; and, well satisfied with himself and the conceit of his epigram unheard save by himself, he also departed, to take up his cue.
He took them from Castlemaine's hand to throw to you.
The greenroom seemed like some old forest rent by a storm. Its furniture, which was none too regular at best, either in carving or arrangement, had the irregularity which comes only with a tempest, human or divine. The table, it is true, still stood on its four oaken legs; but even it was well awry. The chairs were scattered here and there, some resting upon their backs. To add to all this, oranges in confusion were strewn broadcast upon the floor.
A storm in fact had visited the greenroom. The storm was Nell.
In the midst of the confusion, a jolly old face peeped cautiously in at the door which led to the street. At the sound of Manager Hart's thunderous tones coming from the stage, however, it as promptly disappeared, only to return when the apparent danger ceased. It was a rare old figure and a rare old dress and a rare old man. Yet, not an old man either. His face was red; for he was a tavern spirit, well known and well beloved,—a lover of good ale! Across his back hung a riddle which too had the appearance of being the worse for wear, if fiddles can ever be said to be the worse for wear.
The intruder took off his dilapidated hat, hugged his fiddle closely under his arm and looked about the room, more cautiously than respectfully.
"Oons, here is a scattering of props; a warfare of the orange-wenches!" he exclaimed. "A wise head comes into battle after the last shot is fired."
He proceeded forthwith to fill his pockets, of which there seemed to be an abundance of infinite depth, with oranges. This done, he calmly made a hole in the next orange which came to his hand and began to suck it loudly and persistently, boy-fashion, meanwhile smacking his lips. His face was one wreath of unctuous smiles. "There is but one way to eat an orange," he chuckled; "that's through a hole."
At this moment, Hart's voice was heard again upon the stage, and the new-comer to the greenroom liked to have dropped his orange. "Odsbud, that's one of Master Hart's love-tones," he thought. "I must see Nell before he sees me, or it will be farewell Strings." He hastened to Nell's tiring-room and rapped lightly on the door. "Mistress Nell! Mistress Nell!" he called.
The door opened, but it was not Nell. Her maid pointed toward the stage. Strings—for Strings was his name, or at least none knew him by a better—accordingly hobbled across the room—for the wars too had left their mark on him—and peeped off in the direction indicated.
"Gad," he exclaimed, gleefully clapping his hands, "there she goes on the stage as a Moorish princess."
There was a storm of applause without.
"Bravo, Nelly, bravo!" he continued. "She's caught the lads in the pit. They worship Nell out there." The old fellow straightened up as if he felt a personal pride in the audience for evincing such good taste.
"Oons! Jack Hart struts about like a young game-cock at his first fight," he observed. He broke into an infectious laugh, which would have been a fine basso for Nell's laugh.
From the manager, his eye turned toward the place which he himself had once occupied among the musicians. He began to dance up and down with both feet, his knees well bent, boy-fashion, and to clap his hands wildly. "Look ye, little Tompkins got my old place with the fiddle. Whack, de-doodle-de-do! Whack, de-doodle, de-doodle-de-do!" he cried, giving grotesque imitations to his own great glee of his successor as leader of the orchestra.
Then, shaking his head, confident of his own superiority with the bow, he turned back into the greenroom and, with his mouth half full of orange, uttered the droll dictum: "It will take more than catgut and horse-hair to make you a fiddler, Tommy, my boy."
Thus Strings stood blandly sucking his orange with personal satisfaction in the centre of the room, when Dick entered from the stage. The call-boy paused as if he could not believe his eyes. He looked and looked again.
"Heigh-ho!" he exclaimed at last, and then rushed across the room to greet the old fiddler. "Why, Strings, I thought we would never see you again; how fares it with you?"
Strings placed the orange which he had been eating and which he knew full well was none of his own well behind him; and, assuming an unconcerned and serious air, he replied: "Odd! A little the worse for wear, Dickey, me and the old fiddle, but still smiling with the world." There was a bit of a twinkle in his eye as he spoke.
Dick, ever mindful of the welfare and appearance of the theatre, unhooked from the wall a huge shield, which mayhap had served some favourite knight of yore, and, using it as a tray, proceeded to gather the scattered fruit.
"Have an orange?" he inquired of Strings, who still stood in a reflective mood in the centre of the room, as he rested in his labours by him.
"How; do they belong to you?" demanded Strings.
"Oh, no," admitted Dick, "but—"
The fiddler instantly assumed an air of injured innocence.
"How dare you," he cried, "offer me what don't belong to you?" He turned upon the boy almost ferociously at the bare thought. "Honesty is the best policy," he continued, seriously. "I have tried both, lad"; and, in his eagerness to impress upon the boy the seriousness of taking that which does not belong to you, he gestured inadvertently with the hand which till now had held the stolen orange well behind him.
Dick's eye fell upon it, and so did Strings's. There was a moment's awkwardness, and then both burst into a peal of joyous laughter.
"Oh, well, egad,—I will join you, Dick," said Strings, with more patronage still than apology. He seated himself upon the table and began anew to suck his orange in philosophic fashion.
"But, mind you, lad; never again offer that which is not your own, for there you are twice cursed," he discoursed pompously. "You make him who receives guilty of your larceny. Oons, my old wound." He winced from pain. "He becomes an accomplice in your crime. So says the King's law. Hush, lad, I am devouring the evidence of your guilt."
The boy by this time had placed the shield of oranges in the corner of the room and had returned to listen to Strings's discourse. "You speak with the learning of a solicitor," he said, as he looked respectfully into the old fiddler's face.
Strings met the glance with due dignity.
"Marry, I've often been in the presence of a judge," he replied, with great solemnity. His face reflected the ups and downs in his career as he made the confession.
"Is that where you have been, Strings, all these long days?" asked Dick, innocently.
"Heaven forbid!" exclaimed Strings, with sadly retrospective countenance. "Travelling, lad—contemplating the world, from the King's highways. Take note, my boy,—a prosperous man! I came into the world without a rag that I could call my own, and now I have an abundance. Saith the philosopher: Some men are born to rags, some achieve rags and some have rags thrust upon them."
"I wish you were back with us, Strings," said the boy, sympathetically, as he put a hand upon Strings's broad shoulder and looked admiringly up into his face.
"I wish so myself," replied the fiddler. "Thrice a day, I grow lonesome here." A weather-beaten hand indicated the spot where good dinners should be.
"They haven't all forgot you, Strings," continued his companion, consolingly.
"Right, lad!" said Strings, musingly, as he lifted the old viol close against his cheek and tenderly picked it. "The old fiddle is true to me yet, though there is but one string left to its dear old neck." There was a sob in his voice as he spoke. "I tell you, a fiddle's human, Dick! It laughs at my jokes alone now; it weeps at my sorrows." He sighed deeply and the tears glistened in his eyes. "The fiddle is the only friend left me and the little ones at home now, my lad."
"—And Dick!" the boy suggested, somewhat hurt. He too was weeping. "It's a shame; that's what it is!" he broke out, indignantly. "Tompkins can't play the music like you used to, Strings."
"Oons!" exclaimed the fiddler, the humour in his nature bubbling again to the surface. "It's only now and then the Lord has time to make a fiddler, Dickey, my boy."
As he spoke, the greenroom shook with the rounds of applause from the pit and galleries without.
"Hurrah!" he shouted, following Dick to the stage-door—his own sorrows melting before the sunshine of his joy at the success of his favourite. "Nell has caught them with the epilogue." He danced gleefully about, entering heartily into the applause and totally forgetful of the fact that he was on dangerous ground.
Dick was more watchful. "Manager Hart's coming!" he exclaimed in startled voice, fearful for the welfare of his friend.
Strings collapsed. "Oh, Lord, let me be gone," he said, as he remembered the bitter quarrel he had had with the manager of the King's House, which ended in the employment of Tompkins. He did not yearn for another interview; for Hart had forbidden him the theatre on pain of whipping.
"Where can you hide?" whispered Dick, woefully, as the manager's voice indicated that he was approaching the greenroom, and that too in far from the best of humour.
"Behind Richard's throne-chair! It has held sinners before now," added the fiddler as he glided well out of sight.
Dick was more cautious. In a twinkling, he was out of the door which led to the street.
The greenroom walls looked grim in the sputtering candle-light, but they had naught to say.
The door from the stage opened, and in came Nell. There was something sadly beautiful and pathetic in her face. She had enjoyed but now one of the grandest triumphs known to the theatre, and yet she seemed oblivious to the applause and bravas, to the lights and to the royalty.
A large bouquet of flowers was in her arms—a bouquet of red roses. Her lips touched them reverently. Her eyes, however, were far away in a dream of the past.
"From the hand of the King of England!" she mused softly to herself. "The King? How like his face to the youthful cavalier, who weary and worn reined in his steed a summer's day, now long ago, and took a gourd of water from my hand. Could he have been the King? Pooh, pooh! I dream again."
She turned away, as from herself, with a heart-heavy laugh. The manager entered from the stage.
"See, Jack, my flowers," she said, again in an ecstasy of happiness. "Are they not exquisite?"
"He took them from Castlemaine's hand to throw to you," snarled Hart, jealously.
"The sweeter, then!" and Nell broke into a tantalizing laugh. "Mayhap he was teaching the player-king to do likewise, Jack," she added, roguishly, as she arranged the flowers in a vase.
"I am in no mood for wit-thrusts," replied Hart as he fretfully paced the room. "You played that scene like an icicle."
"In sooth, your acting froze me," slyly retorted Nell, kindly but pointedly. She took the sweetest roses from the bunch, kissed them and arranged them in her bosom.
This did not improve Hart's temper.
Strings seized the opportunity to escape from his hiding-place to the stage.
"I say, you completely ruined my work," said Hart. "The audience were rightly displeased."
"With you, perhaps," suggested Nell. "I did not observe the feeling."
Hart could no longer control himself. "You vilely read those glorious lines:
"See how the gazing People crowd the Place; All gaping to be fill'd with my Disgrace. That Shout, like the hoarse Peals of Vultures rings, When, over fighting Fields they beat their wings."
"And how should I read them, dear master?" she asked demurely of her vainglorious preceptor.
"Like I read them, in sooth," replied he, well convinced that his reading could not be bettered.
"Like you read them, in sooth," replied Nell, meekly. She took the floor and repeated the lines with the precise action and trick of voice which Hart had used. Every "r" was well trilled; "gaping" was pronounced with an anaconda-look, as though she were about to swallow the theatre, audience and all; and, as she spoke the line, "When, over fighting Fields they beat their wings," she raised her arms and shoulders in imitation of some barn-yard fowl vainly essaying flight and swept across the room, the picture of grace in ungracefulness.
"'Tis monstrous!" exclaimed Hart, bitterly, as he realized the travesty. "You cannot act and never could. I was a fool to engage you."
Nell was back by the vase, toying with the flowers. "London applauds my acting," she suggested, indifferently.
"London applauds the face and figure; not the art," replied Hart.
"London is wise; for the art is in the face and figure, Master Jack. You told me so yourself," she added, sharply, pointing her finger at her adversary in quick condemnation. She turned away triumphant.
"I was a fool like the rest," replied Hart, visibly irritated that he could not get the better of the argument.
"Come, don't be angry," said Nell. Her manner had changed; for her heart had made her fearful lest her tongue had been unkind. "Mayhap Almahyde is the last part Nell will ever play." She looked thoughtfully into the bunch of roses. Did she see a prophecy there?
He approached the table where she stood. "Your head is turned by the flowers," he said, bitterly. "An honest motive, no doubt, prompted the royal gift."
Nell turned sharply upon him. Her lips trembled, but one word only came to them—"Jack!"
Hart's eyes fell under the rebuke; for he knew that only anger prompted what he had said. He would have struck another for the same words.
"Pardon, Nell," he said, softly. "My heart rebukes my tongue. I love you!"
Nell stepped back to the mirror, contemplating herself, bedecked as she was with the flowers. In an instant she forgot all, and replied playfully to Hart's confession of love: "Of course, you do. How could you help it? So do others."
"I love you better than the rest," he added, vehemently, "better than my life." He tried to put his arms about her.
Nell, however, was by him like a flash.
"Not so fast, dear sir," she said, coyly; and she tiptoed across the room and ensconced herself high in the throne-chair.
Hart followed and knelt below her, adoring.
"Admit that I can act—a little—just a little—dear Hart, or tell me no more of love." She spoke with the half-amused, half-indifferent air of a beautiful princess to some servant-suitor; and she was, indeed, most lovable as she leaned back in the great throne-chair. She seemed a queen and the theatre her realm. Her beautiful arms shone white in the flickering candle-light. Her sceptre was a rose which the King of England had given her.
Hart stepped back and looked upon the picture. "By heaven, Nell," he cried, "I spoke in anger. You are the most marvellous actress in the world. Nature, art and genius crown your work."
Nell smiled at his vehemence. "I begin to think that you have taste most excellent," she said.
Hart sprang to her side, filled with hope. As the stage-lover he ne'er spoke in tenderer tones. "Sweet Nell, when I found you in the pit, a ragged orange-girl, I saw the sparkle in your eye, the bright intelligence, the magic genius, which artists love. I claimed you for my art, which is the art of arts—for it embraces all. I had the theatre. I gave it you. You captured the Lane—then London. You captured my soul as well, and held it slave."
"Did I do all that, dear Jack?" she asked, wistfully.
"And more," said Hart, rapturously. "You captured my years to come, my hope, ambition, love—all. All centred in your heart and eyes, sweet Nell, from the hour I first beheld you."
Nell's look was far away. "Is love so beautiful?" she murmured softly. Her eye fell upon her sceptre-rose. "Yea, I begin to think it is." She mused a moment, until the silence seemed to awaken her. She looked into Hart's eyes again, sadly but firmly, then spoke as with an effort: "You paint the picture well, dear Jack. Paint on." Her hand waved commandingly.
"I could not paint ill with such a model," said he, his voice full of adoration.
"Well said," she replied; "and by my troth, I have relented like you, dear Jack. I admit you too can act—and marvellously well." She took his trembling hand and descended from the throne. He tried once again to embrace her, but she avoided him as before.
"Is't true?" he asked, eagerly, without observing the hidden meaning in her voice.
"'Tis true, indeed—with proper emphasis and proper art and proper intonation." She crossed the room, Hart following her.
"I scarce can live for joy," he breathed.
Nell leaned back upon the table and looked knowingly and deeply into Hart's eyes. Her voice grew very low, but clear and full of meaning.
"In faith," she said, "I trow and sadly speak but true; for I am sad at times—yea—very sad—when I observe, with all my woman's wiles and arts, I cannot act the hypocrite like men."
"What mean you, darling cynic?" asked he, jocosely.
"Darling!" she cried, repeating the word, with a peculiar look. "To tell two girls within the hour you love each to the death would be in me hypocrisy, I admit, beyond my art; but you men can do such things with conscience clear."
Hart turned away his face. "She's found me out," he thought.
"Nell, I never loved the Spanish dancing-girl. You know I love but you."
"Oh, ho!" laughed Nell. "Then why did you tell her so?—to break her heart or mine?"
The manager stood confused. He scarce knew what to say.
"You are cruel, Nell," he pleaded, fretfully. "You never loved me, never."
"Did I ever say I did?"
Hart shook his head sadly.
"Come, don't pout, Jack. An armistice in this, my friend, for you were my friend in the old days when I needed one, and I love you for that." She placed her hands kindly on the manager's shoulders, then turned and began to arrange anew the gift-flowers in the vase.
"I'll win your life's love, Nell, in spite of you," he said, determinedly.
She turned her honest eyes upon him. "Nay, do not try; believe me, do not try," she said softly.
"Nell, you do not mean—?" His voice faltered.
"You must not love me," she said, firmly; "believe me, you must not."
"I must not love you!" His voice scarcely breathed the words.
"There, there; we are growing sentimental, Jack,—and at our age," she replied. She laughed gaily and started for her tiring-room.
He followed her.
"Sup with me, Nell," he pleaded. "No word of this, I promise you."
"Heyday, I'll see how good you are, Jack," she answered, cordially.
"My second bid to sup to-night," she thought. "Who sets the better feast?"
The tiring-room door was open; and the little candles danced gleefully about the make-up mirror, for even candles seemed happy when Nell came near. The maid stood ready to assist her to a gown and wrap, that she might leave the theatre.
Nell turned. Hart still stood waiting. The spirit of kindness o'er-mastered her.
"Your hand, friend, your hand," she said, taking the manager's hand. "When next you try to win a woman's love, don't throw away her confidence; for you will never get it back again entire."
Hart bowed his head under the rebuke; and she entered her room.
Flowers and Music feed naught but Love.
The manager stood a moment looking through the half-closed door at Nell. There was a strange mingling of contending forces at work in his nature. To be sure, he had trifled with the affections of the Spanish dancing-girl, a new arrival from Madrid and one of the latest attractions of the King's House; but it was his pride, when he discovered that Nell's sharp eyes had found him out, that suffered, not his conscience. Was he not the fascinating actor-manager of the House? Could he prevent the ladies loving him? Must he be accused of not loving Nell, simply because his charms had edified the shapely new-comer? Nell's rebuke had depressed him, but there was a smouldering fire within. "'Slife!" he muttered. "If I do not steal my way into Nell's heart, I'll abandon the rouge-box and till the soil."
As he approached his tiring-room, he bethought him that it would be well first to have an oversight of the theatre. He turned accordingly and pulled open the door that led to the stage.
As he did so, a figure fell into the greenroom, grasping devotedly a violin, lest his fall might injure it. Strings had been biding his time, waiting an opportunity to see Nell, and had fallen asleep behind the door.
"How now, dog!" exclaimed the manager when he saw who the intruder was.
Strings hastened to his feet and hobbled across the room.
"I told you not to set foot here again," shouted Hart, following him virulently.
Strings bowed meekly. "I thought the King's House in need of a player; so I came back, sir," said he.
Hart was instantly beside himself. "Zounds!" he stormed. "I have had enough impudence to contend with to-night. Begone; or up you go for a vagrant."
"I called on Mistress Gwyn, sir," explained Strings.
"Mistress Gwyn does not receive drunkards," fiercely retorted Hart; and he started hastily to the stage-door and called loudly for his force of men to put the fiddler out.
Nell's door was still ajar. She had removed the roses from her hair and dress. She caught at once her name. Indeed, there was little that went on which Nell did not see or hear, even though walls intervened. "Who takes my name in vain?" she called. Her head popped through the opening left by the door, and she scanned the room.
As her eye fell upon the old fiddler, who had often played songs and dances for her in days gone by, a cry of joy came from her lips. She rushed into the greenroom and threw both arms about Strings's neck. "My old comrade, as I live," she cried, dancing about him. "I am joyed to see you, Strings!"
Turning, she saw the manager eying them with fiery glances. She knew the situation and the feeling. "Jack, is it not good to have Strings back?" she asked, sweetly.
Hart's face grew livid with anger. He could see the merry devil dancing in her eye and on her tongue. He knew the hoyden well. "Gad, I will resign management." He turned on his heel, entered his tiring-room and closed the door, none too gently. He feared to tarry longer, lest he might say too much.
Nell broke into a merry laugh; and the fiddler chuckled.
"You desert me these days, Strings," she said, as she leaned against the table and fondly eyed the wayfarer of the tattered garments and convivial spirits.
"I don't love your lackey-in-waiting, Mistress Nell," said he, with a wink in the direction of the departed manager.
"Poor Jack. Never mind him," she said, with a roguish laugh, though with no touch of malice in it, for there was devil without malice in Nell's soul.
As she again sought the eyes of the fiddler, her face grew thoughtful. She spoke—hesitated—and then spoke again, as if the thought gave her pain. "Have you kept your word to me, Strings, and stopped—drinking?" she asked. The last word fell faintly, tremblingly, from her lips—almost inaudibly.
"Mistress Nell, I—I—" Strings's eyes fell quickly.
Nell's arm was lovingly about him in an instant. "There, there; don't tell me, Strings. Try again, and come and see me often." There was a delicacy in her voice and way more beautiful than the finest acting. The words had hurt her more than him. She changed her manner in an instant.
Not so with Strings. The tears were in his eyes. "Mistress Nell, you are so good to me," he said; "and I am such a wretch."
"So you are, Strings," and she laughed merrily.
"I have taught my little ones at home who it is that keeps the wolf from our door," he continued.
"Not a word of that!" she exclaimed, reprovingly. "Poor old fellow!" Her eyes grew big and bright as she reflected on the days she had visited the fiddler's home and on the happiness her gifts had brought his children. For her, giving was better than receiving. The feeling sprang from the fulness of her own joy at seeing those about her happy, and not from the teachings of priests or prelates. Dame Nature was her sole preceptor in this.
"I'll bring the babes another sugar plum to-morrow. I haven't a farthing to-night. Moll ran away with the earnings, and there is no one left to rob," she said.
"Heyday," and she ran lightly to the vase and caught up the flowers. "Take the flowers to the bright eyes, to make them brighter." They would at least add cheerfulness to the room where Strings lived until she could bring something better.
As she looked at the roses, she began to realize how dear they were becoming to herself, for they were the King's gift; and her heart beat quickly and she touched the great red petals lovingly with her lips.
Strings took the flowers awkwardly; and, as he did so, something fell upon the floor. He knelt and picked it up, in his eagerness letting the roses fall.
"A ring among the flowers, Mistress Nell," he cried.
"A ring!" she exclaimed, taking the jewel quickly. Her lips pressed the setting. "Bless his heart! A ring from his finger," she continued half aloud. "Is it not handsome, Strings?" Her eyes sparkled brightly and there was a triumphant smile upon her lips.
The fiddler's face, however, was grave; his eyes were on the floor.
"How many have rings like that, while others starve," he mused, seriously.
Nell held the jewel at arm's length and watched its varying brightness in the candle-light. "We can moralize, now we have the ring," she said, by way of rejoinder, then broke into a ringing laugh at her own way-of-the-world philosophizing. "Bless the giver!" she added, in a mood of rhapsody.
She turned, only again to observe the sad countenance of Strings. "Alack-a-day! Why do you not take the nosegay?" she asked, wonderingly; for she herself was so very happy that she could not see why Strings too should not be so.
"It will not feed my little ones, Mistress Nell," he answered, sadly.
Nell's heart was touched in an instant. "Too true!" she said, sympathetically, falling on her knee and lovingly gathering up the roses. "Flowers and Music feed naught but Love, and often then Love goes hungry—very hungry." Her voice was so sweet and tender that it seemed as though the old viol had caught the notes.
"Last night, Mistress Nell," said Strings, "the old fiddle played its sweetest melody for them, but they cried as if their tiny hearts would break. They were starving, and I had nothing but music for them."
"Starving!" Nell listened to the word as though at first she did not realize its meaning. "What can I send?" she cried, looking about in vain and into her tiring-room.
Her eyes fell suddenly upon the rich jewel upon her finger. "No, no; I cannot think of that," she thought.
Then the word "starving" came back to her again with all its force. "Starving!" Her imagination pictured all its horrors. "Starving" seemed written on every wall and on the ceiling. It pierced her heart and brain. "Yes, I will," she exclaimed, wildly. "Here, Strings, old fellow, take the ring to the babes, to cut their teeth on."
Strings stood aghast. "No, Mistress Nell; it is a present. You must not," he protested.
"There are others where that came from," generously laughed Nell.
"You must not; you are too kind," he continued, firmly.
"Pooh, pooh! I insist," said Nell as she forced the jewel upon him. "It will make a pretty mouthful; and, besides, I do not want my jewels to outshine me."
Strings would have followed her and insisted upon her taking back the beautiful gift, but Nell was gone in an instant and her door closed.
"To cut their teeth on!" he repeated as he placed the jewelled ring wonderingly upon his bow-finger and watched it sparkle and laugh in the light as he pretended to play a tune. "She is always joking like that; Heaven reward her."
He stood lost in the realization of sudden affluence.
Buckingham entered the room from the stage-door. His eyes were full of excitement. "The audience are wild over Nell, simply wild," he exclaimed in his enthusiasm, unconscious of the fact that he had an auditor, who was equally oblivious of his lordship's presence. "Gad," he continued, rapturously, half aloud, half to himself, "when they are stumbling home through London fog, the great comedienne will be playing o'er the love-scenes with Buckingham in a cosy corner of an inn. She will not dare deny my bid to supper, with all her impudence. Un petit souper!" He broke into a laugh. "Tis well Old Rowley was too engaged to look twice at Nelly's eyes," he thought. "His Majesty shall never meet the wench at arm's length, an I can help it."
He observed or rather became aware for the first time that there was another occupant of the room.
"Ah, sirrah," he called, without noting the character of his companion, "inform Mistress Nell, Buckingham is waiting."
Strings looked up. He seemed to have grown a foot in contemplation of his sudden wealth. Indeed, each particular tatter on his back seemed to have assumed an independent air.
"Inform her yourself!" he declared; and his manner might well have become the dress of Buckingham. "Lord Strings is not your lackey this season."
Buckingham gazed at him in astonishment, followed by amusement. "Lord Strings!" he observed. "Lord Rags!"
Strings approached his lordship with a familiar, princely air. "How does that look on my bow-finger, my lord?" and he flourished his hand wearing the ring where Buckingham could well observe it.
His lordship started. "The King's ring!" he would have exclaimed, had not the diplomat in his nature restrained him. "A fine stone!" he said merely. "How came you by it?"
"Nell gave it to me," Strings answered.
Buckingham nearly revealed himself in his astonishment. "Nell!" he muttered; and his face grew black as he wondered if his Majesty had out-generalled him. "Damme," he observed aloud, inspecting the ring closely, "I have taken a fancy to this gem."
"So have I," ejaculated Strings, as he avoided his lordship and strutted across the room.
"I'll give you fifty guineas for it," said Buckingham, following him more eagerly than the driver of a good bargain is wont.
Strings stood nonplussed. "Fifty guineas!" he exclaimed, aghast. This was more money than the fiddler had ever thought existed. "Now?" he asked, wonderingly.
"Now," replied his lordship, who proceeded at once to produce the glittering coins and toss them temptingly before the fiddler's eyes.
"Oons, Nell surely meant me to sell it," he cried as he eagerly seized the gold and fed his eyes upon it. "Odsbud, I always did love yellow." He tossed some of the coins in the air and caught them with the dexterity of a juggler.
Buckingham grew impatient. He desired a delivery. "Give me the ring," he demanded.
Strings looked once more at the glittering gold; and visions of the plenty which it insured to his little home, to say nothing of a flagon or two of good brown ale which could be had by himself and his boon comrades without disparagement to the dinners of the little ones, came before him. If he had ever possessed moral courage, it was gone upon the instant. "Done!" he exclaimed. "Oons, fifty guineas!" and he handed the ring to Buckingham.
The fiddler was still absorbed in his possessions, whispering again and again to the round bits of yellow: "My little bright-eyes will not go to bed hungry to-night!" when Manager Hart entered proudly from his tiring-room, dressed to leave the theatre.
Buckingham nodded significantly. "Not a word of this," he said, indicating the ring, which he had quickly transferred to his own finger, turning the jewel so that it could not be observed.
"'Sdeath, you still here?" said Hart, sharply, as his eyes fell upon the fiddler.
Strings straightened up and puffed with the pomposity and pride of a landed proprietor. He shook his newly acquired possessions until the clinking of the gold was plainly audible to the manager.
"Still here, Master Hart, negotiating. When you are pressed for coin, call on me, Master Hart. I run the Exchequer," he said, patronizingly. It was humorous to see his air of sweeping condescension toward the tall and dignified manager of the theatre who easily overtopped him by a head.
"Gold!" exclaimed Hart, as he observed the glitter of the guineas in the candle-light. His eyes turned quickly and suspiciously upon the lordly Buckingham.
There was nothing, however, in his lordship's face to indicate that he was aware even of the existence of the fiddler or of his gold. He sat by the table, leaning carelessly upon it, his face filled with an expression of supreme satisfaction. He had the attitude of one who was waiting for somebody or something and confidently expected not to be disappointed.
"Sup with me, Hart," continued Strings, with the air of a boon comrade. "Sup with me—venison, capons, and—Epsom water."
"Thank you, I am engaged to supper," replied Hart, contemptuously, brushing his cloak where it had been touched by the fiddler, as if his fingers had contaminated it.
The insult clearly observable in the manager's tone, however, had no effect whatever upon Strings. He tossed his head proudly and said indifferently: "Oh, very well. Strings will sup with Strings. My coach, my coach, I say. Drive me to my bonnie babes!"
He pushed open the door with a lordly air and passed out; and, for some seconds, they heard a mingling of repeated demands for the coach and a strain of music which sounded like "Away dull care; prythee away from me."
Buckingham had observed the fiddler's tilt with the manager and the royal exit of the ragged fellow with much amusement. "A merry wag! Who is that?" he asked, as Strings's voice grew faint in the entry-way.
Hart was strutting actor-fashion before the mirror, arranging his curls to hang gracefully over his forehead and tilting now and again the big plumed hat. "A knave of fortune, it seems," he answered coolly and still suspiciously.
"Family?" asked Buckingham, indifferently.
"Twins, I warrant," replied Hart, in an irritated tone.
Buckingham chuckled softly.
"No wonder he's tattered and gray," he declared, humorously philosophizing upon Hart's reply, though it was evident that Hart himself was too much chafed by the presence of his lordship in the greenroom after the play to know what he really had said.
An ominous coolness now pervaded the atmosphere. Buckingham sat by the table, impatiently tapping the floor with his boot, his eyes growing dark at the delay. Hart still plumed himself before the mirror. His dress was rich; his sword was well balanced, a Damascus blade; his cloak hung gracefully; his big black hat and plumes were jaunty. He had, too, vigour in his step. With it all, however, he was a social outcast, and he felt it, while his companion, whose faults of nature were none the less glaring than his own, was almost the equal of a king.
There was a tap at Nell's door. It was the call-boy, who had slipped unobserved into the room.
"What is it, Dick?" asked Nell, sweetly, as she opened the door slightly to inspect her visitor.
"A message,—very important," whispered Dick, softly, as he passed a note within.
"Thank you," replied the actress; and the door closed again.
Dick was about to depart, when the alert Buckingham, rising hastily from his seat, called him.
"That was Nell's voice?" he asked.
"Yes, my lord. She's dressing," answered Dick. "Good night, Master Hart," he added, as he saw the manager.
Hart, however, was not in a good humour and turned sharply upon him. Dick vanished.
"She will be out shortly, my lord," the manager observed to Buckingham, somewhat coldly. "But it will do you little good," he thought, as he reflected upon his conversation with Nell.
Buckingham leaned lazily over the back of a chair and replied confidently, knowing that his speech would be no balm to the irate manager: "Nell always keeps her engagements religiously with me. We are to sup together to-night, Hart."
"Odso!" retorted the other, drawing himself up to his full height. "You will be disappointed, methinks."
"I trow not," Buckingham observed, with a smile which made Hart wince. "Pepys's wife has him mewed up at home when Nelly plays, and the King is tied to other apron-strings." His lordship chuckled as he bethought him how cleverly he had managed that his Majesty be under the proper influence. "What danger else?" he inquired, cuttingly.
Though the words were mild, the feelings of the two men were at white-heat.
"Your lordship's hours are too valuable to waste," politely suggested the manager. "I happen to know Mistress Gwyn sups with another to-night."
"Another?" sneered his lordship.
"Another!" hotly repeated the actor.
"We shall see, friend Hart," said Buckingham, in a tone no less agreeable, with difficulty restraining his feelings.
He threw himself impatiently into a big arm-chair, which he had swung around angrily, so that its back was to the manager.
The insult was more than Hart could bear. He also seized a chair, and vented his vengeance upon it. Almost hurled from its place, it fell back to back with Buckingham's.
"We shall see, my lord," he said as he likewise angrily took his seat and folded his arms.
It was like "The Schism" of Vibert.
It is difficult to tell what would have been the result, had the place been different. Each knew that Nell was just beyond her door; each hesitated; and each, with bitterness in his heart, held on to himself. They sat like sphinxes.
Suddenly, Nell's door slightly opened. She was dressed to leave the theatre. In her hand she held a note.
"A fair message, on my honour! Worth reading twice or even thrice," she roguishly exclaimed unto her maid as she directed her to hold a candle nearer that she might once again spell out its words. "'To England's idol, the divine Eleanor Gwyn.' A holy apt beginning, by the mass! 'My coach awaits you at the stage-door. We will toast you to-night at Whitehall.'"
Nell's eyes seemed to drink in the words, and it was her heart which said: "Long live his Majesty."
She took the King's roses in her arms; the Duke's roses, she tossed upon the floor.
The manager awoke as from a trance. "You will not believe me," he said to Buckingham, confidently. "Here comes the arbiter of your woes, my lord." He arose quickly.
"It will not be hard, methinks, sir, to decide between a coronet and a player's tinsel crown," observed his princely rival, with a sneer, as he too arose and assumed an attitude of waiting.
"Have a care, my lord. I may forget—" Hart's fingers played upon his sword-hilt.
"Your occupation, sir?" jeered Buckingham.
"Aye; my former occupation of a soldier"; and Hart's sword sprang from its scabbard, with a dexterity that proved that he had not forgotten the trick of war.
Buckingham too would have drawn, but a merry voice stayed him.
"How now, gentlemen?" sprang from Nell's rosy lips, as she came between them, a picture of roguish beauty.
Hart's pose in an instant was that of apology. "Pardon, Nell," he exclaimed, lifting his hat and bowing in courtly fashion. "A small difference of opinion; naught else."
"Between friends," replied Nell, reprovingly.
"By the Gods," cried Buckingham,—and his hat too was in the air and his knee too was bent before the theatre-queen,—"the rewards are worth more than word-combats."
"Pshaw!" said Nell, as she hugged the King's roses tighter in her arms. "True Englishmen fight shoulder to shoulder, not face to face."
"In this case," replied his lordship, with the air of a conqueror, "the booty cannot be amicably distributed."
"Oh, ho!" cried Nell. "Brave generals, quarrelling over the spoils. Pooh! There is no girl worth fighting for—that is, not over one! Buckingham! Jack! For shame! What coquette kindles this hot blood?"
"The fairest maid in England," said Hart, with all the earnestness of conviction, and with all the courtesy of the theatre, which teaches courtesy.
"The dearest girl in all this world," said Buckingham as quickly; for he too must bow if he would win.
"How stupid!" lisped Nell, with a look of baby-innocence. "You must mean me! Who else could answer the description? A quarrel over poor me! This is delicious. I love a fight. Out with your swords and to't like men! To the victor! Come, name the quarrel."
"This player—" began his lordship, hotly. He caught the quick gleam in Nell's eyes and hesitated. "I mean," he substituted, apologetically, "Master Hart—labours under the misapprehension that you sup with him to-night."
"Nell," asserted the manager, defensively, "it is his lordship who suffers from the delusion that the first actress of England sups with him to-night."
"My arm and coach are yours, madame," pleaded his lordship, as he gallantly offered an arm.
"Pardon, my lord; Nell, my arm!" said Hart.
"Heyday!" cried the witch, bewitchingly. "Was ever maid so nobly squired? This is an embarrassment of riches." She looked longingly at the two attending gallants. There was something in her voice that might be mockery or that might be love. Only the devil in her eyes could tell.
"Gentlemen, you tear my heart-strings," she continued. "How can I choose between such loves? To-night, I sup at Whitehall!" and she darted quickly toward the door.
"Whitehall!" the rivals cried, aghast.
"Aye, Whitehall—with the King!"
There was a wild, hilarious laugh, and she was gone.
Buckingham and Hart stood looking into each other's face. They heard the sound of coach-wheels rapidly departing in the street.
It was never treason to steal a King's kisses.
A year and more had flown.
It was one of those glorious moon-lit nights in the early fall when there is a crispness in the air which lends an edge to life.
St. James's Park was particularly beautiful. The giant oaks with their hundreds of years of story written in their rings lifted high their spreading branches, laden with leaves, which shimmered in the light. The historic old park seemed to be made up of patches of day and night. In the open, one might read in the mellow glow of the harvest-moon; in the shade of one of its oaks, a thief might safely hide.
Facing on the park, there stood a house of Elizabethan architecture. Along its wrinkled, ivy-mantled wall ran a terrace-like balustrade, where one might walk and enjoy the night without fear.
The house was well defined by the rays of the moon, which seemed to dance upon it in a halo of mirth; and from the park, below the terrace, came the soft notes of a violin, tenderly picked.
None other than Strings was sitting astride of a low branch of an oak, looking up at a window, like some guardian spirit from the devil-land, singing in his quaintly unctuous way:
"Four and twenty fiddlers all in a row, And there was fiddle-fiddle, and twice fiddle-fiddle."
"How's that for a serenade to Mistress Nell?" he asked himself as he secured a firm footing on the ground and slung his fiddle over his back. "She don't know it's for her, but the old viol and old Strings know." He came to a stand-still and winced. "Oons, my old wound again," he said, with a sharp cry, followed as quickly by a laugh. His eyes still wandered along the balustrade, as eagerly as some young Romeo at the balcony of his Juliet. "I wish she'd walk her terrace to-night," he sighed, "where we could see her—the lovely lady!"
His rhapsody was suddenly broken in upon by the approach of some one down the path. He glided into the shadow of an oak and none too quickly.
From the obscurity of the trees, into the open, a chair was swiftly borne, by the side of which ran a pretty page of tender years, yet well schooled in courtly wisdom. The lovely occupant leaned forward and motioned to the chairmen, who obediently rested and assisted her to alight.
"Retire beneath the shadow of the trees," she whispered. "Have a care; no noise."
The chairmen withdrew quietly, but within convenient distance, to await her bidding.
Strings's heart quite stopped beating. "The Duchess of Portsmouth at Mistress Nell's!" he said, almost aloud in his excitement. "Then the devil must be to pay!" and he slipped well behind the oak-trunk again.
Portsmouth's eyes snapped with French fire as she glanced up at Nell's terrace. Then she turned to the page by her side. "His Majesty came this path before?" she asked, with quick, French accent.
"Yes, your grace," replied the page.
"And up this trellis?"
"Yes, your grace."
"I cannot tell, your grace," replied the lad. "I followed as you bade me; but the King's legs were so long, you see, I lost him."
Portsmouth smiled. "Softly, pretty one," she said. "Watch if he comes and warn me; for we may have passed him."
The lad ran gaily down the path to perform her bidding.
"State-business!" she muttered, as she reflected bitterly upon the King's late excuses to her. "Mon Dieu, does he think me a country wench? I was schooled at Louis's court." Her eyes searched the house from various points of advantage. "A light!" she exclaimed, as a candle burned brightly from a window, like a spark of gold set in the silver of the night. "Would I had an invisible cloak." She tiptoed about a corner of the wall—woman-like, to see if she could see, not Nell, but Charles.
Scarcely had she disappeared when a second figure started up in the moonlight, and a gallant figure, too. It was the Duke of Buckingham. "Not a mouse stirring," he reflected, glancing at the terrace. "Fair minx, you will not long refuse Buckingham's overtures. Come, Nelly, thy King is already half stolen away by Portsmouth of France, and Portsmouth of France is our dear ally in the great cause and shall be more so."
To his astonishment, as he drew nearer, he observed a lady, richly dressed, gliding between himself and the terrace. He rubbed his eyes to see that he was not dreaming. She was there, however, and a pretty armful, too.
"Nell," he chuckled, as he stole up behind her.
Portsmouth meanwhile had learned that the window was too high to allow her to gain a view within the dwelling. She started—observing, more by intuition than by sight, that she was watched—and drew her veil closely about her handsome features.
"Nelly, Nelly," laughed Buckingham, "I have thee, wench. Come, a kiss!—a kiss! Nay, love; it was never treason to steal a King's kisses."
He seized her by the arm and was about to kiss her when she turned and threw back her veil.
"Buckingham!" she said, suavely.
"Portsmouth!" he exclaimed, awestruck.
He gathered himself together, however, in an instant, and added, as if nothing in the world had happened: "An unexpected pleasure, your grace."
"Yes," said she, with a pretty shrug. "I did not know I was so honoured, my lord."
"Or you would not have refused the little kiss?" he asked, suggestively.
"You called me 'Nelly,' my lord. I do not respond to that name."
"Damme, I was never good at names, Louise," said he, with mock-apology, "especially by moonlight."
"Buz, buz!" she answered, with a knowing gesture and a knowing look. Then, pointing toward the terrace, she added: "A pretty nest! A pretty bird within, I warrant. Her name?"
"Ignorance well feigned," he thought. He replied, however, most graciously: "Nell Gwyn."
"Oh, ho! The King's favourite, who has more power, they say, than great statesmen—like my lord."
Her speech was well defined to draw out his lordship; but he was wary.
"Unless my lord is guided by my lady, as formerly," he replied, diplomatically.
A look of suspicion crept into Portsmouth's face: but it was not visible for want of contrast; for all things have a perverted look by the light of the moon.
She had known Buckingham well at Dover. Their interests there had been one in securing privileges from England for her French King. Both had been well rewarded too for their pains. There were no proofs, however, of this; and where his lordship stood to-day, and which cause he would espouse, she did not know. His eyes at Dover had fallen fondly upon her, but men's eyes fall fondly upon many women, and she would not trust too much until she knew more.
"My chairmen have set me down at the wrong door-step," she said, most sweetly. "My lord longs for his kiss. Au revoir!"
She bowed and turned to depart.
Buckingham was alert in an instant. He knew not when the opportunity might come again to deal so happily with Louis's emissary and the place and time of meeting had its advantages.
"Prythee stay, Duchess. I left the merry hunters, returning from Hounslow Heath, all in Portsmouth's interest," he said. "Is this to be my thanks?"
She approached him earnestly. "My lord must explain. I am stupid in fitting English facts to English words."
"Have you forgotten Dover?" he asked, intensely, but subdued in voice, "and my pledges sworn to?—the treaty at the Castle?—the Duchess of Orleans?—the Grand Monarch?"
"Hush!" exclaimed Portsmouth, clutching his arm and looking cautiously about.
"If my services to you there were known," he continued, excitedly, "and to the great cause—the first step in making England pensioner of France and Holland the vassal of Louis—my head would pay the penalty. Can you not trust me still?"
"You are on strange ground to-night," suggested Portsmouth, tossing her head impatiently to indicate the terrace, as she tried to fathom the real man.
"I thought the King might pass this way, and came to see," hastily explained his lordship, observing that she was reflecting upon the incongruity of his friendship for her and of his visit to Madame Gwyn.
"And if he did?" she asked, dubiously, not seeing the connection.
"I have a plan to make his visits less frequent, Louise,—for your sweet sake and mine."
The man was becoming master. He had pleased her, and she was beginning to believe.
"Yes?" she said, in a way which might mean anything, but certainly that she was listening, and intently listening too.
"You have servants you can trust?" he asked.
"I have," she replied as quickly; and she gloried in the thought that some at least were as faithful as Louis's court afforded.
"They must watch Nell's terrace here, night and day," he almost commanded in his eagerness, "who comes out, who goes in and the hour. She may forget her royal lover; and—well—we shall have witnesses in waiting. We owe this kindness—to his Majesty."
Portsmouth shrugged her shoulders impatiently. "Mon Dieu!" she said. "My servants have watched, my lord, already. The despatches would have been signed and Louis's army on the march against the Dutch but for this vulgar player-girl, whom I have never seen. The King forgets all else."
The beautiful Duchess was piqued, indeed, that the English King should be so swayed. She felt that it was a personal disgrace—an insult to her charms and to her culture. She felt that the court knew it and laughed, and she feared that Louis soon would know. Nell Gwyn! How she hated her—scarce less than she loved Louis and her France.
"Be of good cheer," suggested Buckingham, soothingly; and he half embraced her. "My messenger shall await your signal, to carry the news to Louis and his army."
"There is no news," replied she, and turned upon him bitterly. "Charles evades me. Promise after promise to sup with me broken. I expected him to-night. My spies warned me he would not come; that he is hereabouts again. I followed myself to see. I have the papers with me always. If I can but see the King alone, it will not take long to dethrone this up-start queen; wine, sweet words—England's sign-manual."
There was a confident smile on her lips as she reflected upon her personal powers, which had led Louis XIV. of France to entrust a great mission to her. His lordship saw his growing advantage. He would make the most of it.
"In the last event you have the ball!" he suggested, hopefully.
"Aye, and we shall be prepared," she cried. "But Louis is impatient to strike the blow for Empire unhampered by British sympathy for the Dutch, and the ball is—"
"A fortnight off," interrupted Buckingham, with a smile.
"And my messenger should be gone to-night," she continued, irritably. She approached him and whispered cautiously: "I have to-day received another note from Bouillon. Louis relies upon me to win from Charles his consent to the withdrawal of the British troops from Holland. This will insure the fall of Luxembourg—the key to our success. You see, Buckingham, I must not fail. England's debasement shall be won."
There was a whistle down the path.
"Some one comes!" she exclaimed. "My chair!"
The page, who had given the signal, came running to her. Her chairmen too were prompt.
"Join me," she whispered to Buckingham, as he assisted her to her seat within.
"Later, Louise, later," he replied. "I must back to the neighbouring inn, before the huntsmen miss me."
Portsmouth waved to the chairmen, who moved silently away among the trees.
Buckingham stood looking after them, laughing.
"King Charles, a French girl from Louis's court will give me the keys to England's heart and her best honours," he muttered.
He glanced once again quickly at the windows of the house, and then, with altered purpose, swaggered away down a side path. He was well pleased with his thoughts, well pleased with his chance interview with the beautiful Duchess and well pleased with himself. His brain wove and wove moonbeam webs of intrigue as he passed through the light and shadow of the night, wherein he would lend a helping hand to France and secure gold and power for his pains. He had no qualms of conscience; for must not his estates be kept, his dignity maintained? His purpose was clear. He would bring Portsmouth and the King closer together: and what England lost, he would gain—and, therefore, England; for was not he himself a part of England, and a great part?