“Are there no depths to which you would not sink, Rochester?”
The younger man laughed unashamedly. “When my lord and master provides me with excellent wine and even better women, the least I can do is lower the tone.”
Charles smirked, his hands tightening around my waist. “Help yourself, my man, but keep your hands off this one. She’s mine.”
Even after so long, the words still thrilled me to the core, and I twisted around to kiss him.
“How about Miss Gwyn raises the standard with a little recitation? Nothing gloomy; one of your comedies will please us greatly. I hear that Florimel is your speciality, my dear.”
I raised my head. “Did no-one tell you? I’ve retired,” I smiled.
“From what?” The snide voice of the Duchess of Cleveland cut through the drunken smoke that engulfed the rest of us. “Acting, or whoring?”
I disentangled myself from Charles’ embrace and rose to meet her scornful glare. “Both,” I replied pleasantly, “I’ve given up pleasuring men for money.”
She briefly glanced at the king, and raised a supercilious eyebrow. “Doesn’t look like it.”
“I didn’t say I’d given up pleasing myself,” I said coolly, “Lying with the king is not work. Do you find it hard to please him?”
Her lip pulled back from her teeth and she stepped forward; for a moment I thought her about to attack me. Up shot my chin, and I laughed. “Come on, then!”
With a huge effort, she stopped herself from slapping me, and raised herself up to her greatest height. “It is no more than I would have expected from you,” she replied stiffly, “A whore from London’s slums. Always spoiling for a fight.”
“Aye, that’s so,” I admitted, “But at least I am not ashamed of who I am. You don’t even know who you are unless you’re on your back.”
Her eyes flashed dangerously. “Hark at her! Would you hark? I am accused of promiscuity – me – by a London whore.”
Her words had no effect on the court, who were already hanging on every word of our argument. They knew the Duchess to be at least as promiscuous as any whore, probably by experience. It was common enough knowledge that the Duchess took other men to warm her bed when the King was elsewhere.
“’Tis your choice, Barbara,” Charles sighed behind me, “Get out or be civil. I care not which you do, provided your tongue and your face do not offend me a moment longer.”
Her thin lips curved into a cruel smile. “I was under the impression that my tongue was extremely pleasing to you, Your Majesty,” she smirked, the irony that she had just called me a whore completely lost on her.
“Your impressions were wrong,” I snarled, but Charles, half-drunk already, was in no mood for a catty fight.
“Leave us,” he dismissed her with a wave, taking a puff on his pipe and blowing a cool stream of smoke into the air. “Rochester, entertain me.”
Rochester lounged back in his chair, stretching his arms above his head lazily. “We have a pretty, witty King,” he began slowly, “Whose word no man relies on. He never said a foolish thing... nor ever did a wise one.”
The table chuckled at that. Laughing, I turned to the King to see his reaction, and was surprised to see that he had not cracked so much as a smile, his face sullen and brooding. The party settled into an awkward silence, unsure how to react to the King’s sudden change of temper.
Eventually, Charles drained his wine glass and set it down on the table. “That's true,” he said, slowly, “For my words are my own, but my actions are those of my ministers.”
Rochester looked at me urgently, asking without words for me to lift the King’s low spirits. I turned to Charles, raising a suggestive eyebrow, but he sat up as though to leave.
“You are going to bed, my love?”
He nodded, with a distracted kiss as though to say it was not through any fault of mine. “Yes, Nell, ‘tis late. I will see you tomorrow.”
I half rose as he stalked out of the room. “Do you – do you not want me with you?”
He smiled distractedly, and for the first time I noticed tired wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. “No, no, I will not detain you. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, then,” I whispered.
I hissed as a sharp elbow dug into my ribs, and a thin, sour-looking woman that I did not recognise glared down at me. Her lip curled in a sneer as she shuffled herself forward.
Making sure to tread on her toes, I pushed past her, inching my way into the crowd.
In truth, I had never seen the bedchamber this crowded. Priests and servants mingled with the King’s own relatives, his whores slipped between the ministers, each trying to inch themselves closer to the door behind which the King was dying.
I found it astonishingly easy to accept that word, although my heart felt as though it had been torn from my chest. What was the point of denying it, as the ministers were, or wailing about it, like Louise? About four servants surrounded her now as she sank to the floor, breaths coming in shaky gasps, crying out for wine or smelling salts or whatever it was she wanted.
No, God would come to collect the King when He was ready. Just as He would collect me, and every other person crammed into this room.
There was no point being sentimental about it.
In a single second, the chatter ceased. The silence pressed on my ears as I craned by neck forward. In a stroke of inspiration, I grabbed the curtain beside me for balance and pulled myself onto my toes, ignoring the ache. This way, I could see the top of the Duke of York’s head.
The court sank into a bow, but I remained on my toes, able at last to see his face.
“The King is dead,” he said quietly, but in the silence of that room he may as well have shouted.
In a flurry of fabrics, the court sank to its knees. Hurriedly I tried to follow, squishing my leg into the wall painfully as I managed it. “Long live the King,” we all murmured, in response.
King James nodded gravely. “My brother was in good spirits until the last. Though there is much to be done, I beg you will all retire until the morning, to allow us time to rest and grieve.”
With mutters from the court that sounded dangerously close to grumbling, the court rose, bowed low to their new King, and retreated slowly. Ministers loitered close to James, hoping that he would beckon one or another of them closer, but he waved them away, turning his face to the side.
As I pressed myself into the crowd, a voice called me back. “Miss Gwyn. A word, please.”
Startled, I whipped around, to see James holding out his hand to me. A lump hit my throat painfully as I noted how similar he was to the King, my King, my Charles.
I placed my hand in his and allowed him to lead me to the window, not even hearing the hisses of surprise from the court. He turned me around, so that I could not see them, hidden in the bow of the window.
“Nell,” he began, softly, which was enough to send tears into my eyes. I had never seen him act so humanly, and when he did so, he was too like his brother.
“Don’t,” I whispered, trying desperately to hold them back.
He paused, looking at the rain which sighed its way down the panes of the window. The night was black, starless, without even a moon to give us a glimmer of hope. “You loved my brother, didn’t you?”
I turned my face away. That way, he would not see the tear which was making its way down my cheek, and my years on stage had taught me to speak without so much as a wobble in my voice. “They told me I was a fool,” I began slowly, “That he wouldn’t be faithful. That he would never marry me.”
I extended my hand and laid it flat against the cool glass pane. “I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. Because when I was with him, I was the only girl in the world. Yes, sir. I loved him very much.”
I glanced at him and blinked in surprise to see tears running down his face too. He reached for my hand and squeezed it softly.
When Charles had done that, it had sent goosebumps up my spine. Now the gentle action seemed to squeeze my heart, not painfully, but comfortingly, almost an embrace.
“He loved you,” James replied gently, turning me to face him. The room was empty now, but I saw nothing but his face, the so-familiar shape, sketched with new lines and wrinkles, as though the same man had been drawn by another artist. “He said to me, before he died. ‘Let not poor Nelly starve’, he said. Nell, I want you to know... I will honour that wish. I will look after you.”
I licked my lips. “Thank you, Your –” I froze. The word ‘Grace’, which had come so readily to my lips, was now no longer true. ‘Majesty’, I must say, and yet this man was not my Majesty. That was Charles, my King, my man. ‘Your Majesty’ did not refer to this man, it could not, my mind rebelled at the thought. “M-majesty,” I choked out at last, knowing that I should not have stuttered at all.
But as I glanced up at his face, embarrassed by my failing, I knew that the word had been as hard for him to hear as it was for me to say. “Do not thank me. It is my delight to do what my brother, the King, wished.”
I was grateful for his saying that, giving me a few more minutes to relish the memory of my King, before by necessity I must replace it with his face. “What was it like? At the end.”
James smiled. “He looked at me and winked. Then he glanced around all of us, and said ‘My dear gentlemen, I am so sorry to be so long a-dying.’”
I chuckled, picturing the scene. “Oh, that was Charles!” The words slipped out unintended, but meant with every fibre of my heart.
James laughed softly too, and for a moment we stood there together, staring out of the window, perhaps the only two people in the world who had truly loved Charles. It was in that moment, I think, that the mantle of kingship truly fell onto James’ shoulders, that he understood how lonely, how unloved, it was to be a King.
My heart was pounding at the impudence of what I was about to do, but I realised in that moment what the King of England needed was some normality. I pulled him into an embrace, wrapping my arms around him and burying my face in his shoulder, the way Charles liked me to do when he was tired or sad. When he tensed, I pulled away at once, looking nervously from his eyes in case I had offended him.
For a moment his face contorted, and I braced myself for his anger or a slap in the face.
But then he smiled, and I knew in that moment I had done the right thing.