London, September 1666
Four days after the blaze began, consuming half of London and cutting a wide swath from Tower Hill to Fetter Lane, Nell stepped cautiously through the doorway of the tavern into the harsh light of day. For a moment, she lingered on the stone landing that jutted into Lewkenor Lane before stepping down into the tangle of lost souls, prostitutes, piles of garbage, and animal dung, so overpowering that her eyes watered. The canopy of sky remained gray with smoke and obscured the sun. A rash of smaller fires still blazed as the odor of charred wood and burned pitch mixed with the putrid stench of decay. It blew across the city, and would not let go.
The flames had spread as far as Fish Street, and the Thames. The wide, serpentine river, normally dotted with thousands of decorated barges and boats with billowing sails, was still thick with debris and a heavy layer of soot. The ravages of the fire had spared the Cock & Pye, where she rented a garret beneath the eaves, as well as the other timbered and gabled houses around that end of Drury Lane. But the ashes, smuts, and little burned bits of paper still rained down upon the city. They were like feathers, she thought, until they landed, marking everything a desolate gray.
Beneath her feet was a carpet of the same ash, dung, and soot that the wind had carried. Many Londoners, in one devastating evening, and the four days which followed, had lost every worldly good. It seemed unfair that a city should suffer such devastation after the ravaging plague of only a year before. But that was not her problem, then or now. Survival was. She tried not to look at the still smoldering ruins, like a tangle of skeletons against the skyline, as she quickly walked. Still, it was odd to see untouched buildings in the foreground--timber all neatly painted, window boxes still full of geraniums, sitting before a skyline of mangled and charred debris. She lowered her head and kept walking. Life was like that, really, she thought. One simply had to put one's head down and keep going along.
Nell's thick copper hair was stuffed into a drab mobcap, and her gamine body was sheathed in a mud-brown dress with beige mock-sleeves. The tie at her bosom was ages-old leather. As she made her way from the area of close-packed timbered houses and dark, narrow, straw-covered alleys, the frayed hem of her dress licked the muck-drenched cobbles that led her through crooked Wych Street.
She moved on toward Drury Lane until the great King's Theater, a stone-and-brick building, revealed itself like a great giant before her. The theater, with its long sets of windows, columns, and portico, was still pure magnificence. Not even something already called "the Great Fire" had changed that. Under the direction of a woman named Orange Moll, Nell had found a way to avoid the bawdy house and earn a few shillings as an orange girl. Orange Moll stationed her girls outside the theater doors, and in the pit beneath the stage, where the fops and dandies collected. Newest among Moll's girls, Nell was to tempt those with a few extra pence and an eye for a pretty face. Nell thought of the new work and those garishly dressed fops, who lived expensively and behaved outrageously. Allowing pinches on her bottom, and a bit of banter, amid all the pushing, shoving, and shouting, generally garnered her more tips. "I fancy clever girls," Orange Moll liked to say. "The clever ones earn more, so I earn more." Stopping outside the theater, closed now like most everything else, Nell glanced down into the small wicker basket covered with vine leaves on the crook of her arm. Two softening oranges remained, each now sporting a tiny spot of mold. She should have returned them to Moll.
"Orange? Two pence! Orange! Who will buy an orange?" she called out in her sweetest work voice.
She saw her then, a woman huddled inside the dirty alcove between the doors where the tickets were sold. The canopy, protection from the elements, hid her face in shadows. In her arms she held a tiny, dirty-faced child. But she was not a beggar. Nell could see that by the fabric of her soiled gown. Once there had been a world of difference between the two of them. The fire had opened up a doorway between the two worlds and, for this moment, made them very much the same.
"Would you fancy an orange, ma'am? I've got one 'ere I'll not be needin'."
The woman lifted her head. Her face was smudged with soot, as was that of the sleeping child in her lap. "They're gone," she said so flatly and quietly that Nell almost did not hear. "All of them but the wee one. Even my man. All burned to death."
Nell felt her stomach recoil. "God save you, ma'am."
"There's no use to it. 'Tis all gone now."
Nell reached out with an orange. "'Tis a point with the wee one though, ain't there? You've got to think of 'er."
The woman, at last, took the piece of fruit but seemed not to realize, even as she did, what she was meant to do with it. Nell stood lingering for a moment, then heard a man's voice. Startled, she spun around to see four men, two in the crisp periwigs of noblemen, and the other two with their hair closely shorn. Their wigs and waistcoats gave them all away. They were gentlemen of the first order.
"You see? Perfectly unharmed," one of them was saying to another, as they stood gazing up at the theater. "A bit of soot only, but that can be easily enough washed away."
One of the men turned to look at her critically. His periwig was the color of corn, matching a neat mustache and trim beard. His eyes were brilliant blue and clear, but colder than any eyes she had ever seen. "Do run along, girl," he said in a pompous tone. "You've no business here."
"I'll go nowhere, sir."
He tipped his head, surprised. The others turned then to regard her as well.
"I work 'ere."
"You? As what?"
She held up the orange. A flock of blackbirds flew across the sky. "I sell these, sir."
"Is that all you sell?"
"It is, sir."
"Nonsense! You're all for sale, girls like you."
"You are vile."
"You are predictable."
Another of the men intervened. "Enough, George. Back to the business at hand, shall we?"
This man was taller than the other three, and he was one who wore no wig. His close-shorn hair was very dark. He had strong, masculine features, an ebony mustache, and a swarthy complexion that was stained with soot and sweat. His eyes, as they surveyed her, were dark as coal, and oddly intriguing.
"Still have a taste for the low ones, Charles ol' friend?" asked the other man.
"And you have a foul mouth, sir," Nell snapped, interjecting herself again.
The blue-eyed man shot her a glare. "Saucy!"
"Coxcomb!" she called back without thinking.
"Jade!" His voice went deeper, more menacing.
Her body tensed, preparing for a fight. The brothel in which she had grown up fetching wine and linen was a breeding ground for raw violence. But the other men only chuckled. "Well! She got the better of you, it's plain to see!" said a stout, dough-faced man, wearing a black velvet cape and beaver hat.
As they laughed, Nell risked a second glance at the tall man with the mustache. He was handsome, she thought. He smiled for only an instant at the surprising exchange, his cheeks dimpling as he did, yet still she could see that he was different. He wore a rust-colored leather waistcoat and, over it, a long surcoat the color of chocolate. His buff-colored trousers and nut-brown buskins, like his hands, were mud caked and stained with soot. He was a wealthy man, she saw, but one who had somehow tried to help.
"Those oranges are worth sixpence each, Charles. She has clearly pinched them from Orange Moll's supply, and I certainly think the old bird needs to know that she--"
"I ain't pinched a thing!"
"Oh, leave her be," the tall man said, his voice as deep and rich as French wine. "Let's return to our purpose, George. It appears that performances can continue as soon as the players are ready."
"T'would be right insensitive of the king!"
"Girl!" The man called "George" glared at her. His tone was full of condescension. "Merriment helps one to forget the tragedies of our world."
"Aye, for those with money enough."
"And those with a certain gentility. Which certainly does not include the likes of you."
"I may well be low, sir." She crossed her arms. "But what, I wonder, is your excuse?"
"For the rough way you speak to perfect strangers, sir."
Again the group of men chuckled, although this time with a hint of embarrassment. Nell had bested the same man twice.
"What is your name, girl?" asked the tall man, with what seemed to her like appreciation.
When she looked at him, she saw a hint of amusement in his eyes.
"Who are you that wants to know?"
"Listen, girl! Do you have any idea who this--?"
"Be silent!" The tall man cut him off. "That is quite enough, George."
"But, Your M--"
"Enough!" The tall man raised his hand, and his companion was instantly silenced by it. He turned his attention to Nell. There was a hint of a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "You are quite an extraordinary girl."
"In that case, Eleanor Gwynne's the name. But most call me Nell."
"Well, Nell. I believe I rather fancy an orange just now. George, pay Mrs. Gwynne for the orange, and for having to spar with the likes of you."
"'Tis not necessary, sir. And I ain't no one's missus."
"Forgive me, but where I come from a lady is called missus, out of respect. And believe me, Nell," he smiled kindly. "It is quite necessary. There are few around who could go more than a round or two with old George Villiers here. Much less a--"
"Much less a low girl?"
Bested as well, the tall man smiled. "There's nothing in the world low about you."
Nell felt herself smile, too, and her guard fell by a degree. He had a kindness about him.
"Here." The man called George Villiers handed out a coin to her, pomposity and pity in his gesture. Nell took it and, for a moment, held it tightly in her hand. There was cold, hard reassurance in it for her. Enough to buy food, perhaps even a pair of shoes not already worn at the soles. But she simply could not take it.
"I do thank you, sir, all the same, but the lady over there, the one with the babe, she'll be needin' it more."
As the collection of men stood incredulous, Nell walked the few paces back to the woman and her child, and then knelt beside them.
"Here," she softly said, holding out the coin for a moment, then tucking it into the woman's shirt. "I know a place, the Cock & Pye, 'tis very near, where you and your wee one'll find a proper bed, and a bit of peace, to think through what you're meant to do next."
When Nell stood and turned around, she saw that the men were still watching her.
The tall man had murmured the word, though more to himself than to his companions.
"Nothing extraordinary about it. 'Twas only what's right, sir."
He was studying her now. For a moment, neither broke their gaze. Her knees were suddenly weak. She could only imagine the number of well-bred ladies whose heads he had turned with that same stare.
"You are an intriguing girl, Nell Gwynne."
"I'll be takin' that as a compliment, sir."
"It was intended as one. And this coin I wish you to take for yourself. Think of it as any other tip a customer might offer you. I would say you've more than earned it."
The man held out a single shining silver crown to her. Nell thought of declining, but there was no expression of pity or condescension in his offer, as there had been from the other man. She accepted the coin.
"We really must be on our way," said Geaye."
"So we must."
"I'll remember what you said, sir," Nell called out.
"You do that," said the tall man, glancing back as he disappeared into the gathering crowd. Nell moved quickly down the narrow, sunless alley, through soot ground into black mud that came up through the holes in her shoes, until she was back at the Cock & Pye. People seemed always to have money for ale, and a crowd had grown down in the tavern. Four days after a fire that nearly wiped out the city of London, life went on.
Inside the dark tavern, there were low, rough-hewn beams, chipped plaster walls, and mice scurrying across the cold stone floor. Tankards full of foaming ale were lifted by meaty hands as she pulled back the roundtop door, letting a rush of street light inside. Amid laughter and the clink of pewter, the barman called out to her as she moved toward the rickety staircase.
"Your money's owed me long since, Nelly Gwynne! Ye'd best find a way to pay me or I'll toss your arse straight out of 'ere, I will!"
The crowd, most of them drunk, red-faced men in soiled shirts, from the harsh, neighboring streets of Cradle Alley and Paternoster Row, laughed, coughed, and tipped their heads back at the great jest. This was not a neighborhood that housed compassion.
Nell met the barman's gaze squarely. Patrick Gound was simply a businessman. More nights than she could recall he had helped her press her gluttonous, drunken mother up the staircase, toss her into bed, then bring Nell a clean pan as her mother wretched up gin. But it was about survival in these alleyways of London. In that, they understood one another. Amid chuckles, she went to the bar and slapped down her glistening silver coin. "This is all I 'ave in the world, Mr. Gound. I 'ope 'twill be enough 'til the theater opens again and there is work for the lot of us."
"'Twill do 'til Michaelmas, but not a night longer." He leaned forward, lowering his voice. In it, there was a hint of compassion, hidden like a thief behind the warning, "You've got to pay me what ye owe, Nelly girl, or you're out!"
"I'll pay your rent, Nelly," a man called out from the back of the room. "If ye pay me a bit of time."
"I'd rather be paid by the devil 'imself!" she shot back in a deadpan drawl.
Excerpted from The Perfect Royal Mistress by Diane Haeger. Copyright © 2007 by Diane Haeger. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.