Here Lies Our Sovereign Lord
For Vivian Stuart
All through the spring of that year there had been growing tension in the streets of London. It had communicated itself to aged and young alike. The old woman with her tray of herrings on the corner of Cole-yard where it turned off Drury Lane, watched passersby with eagerness as she called: “Good herrings! Come buy my good herrings.” If any paused, she would demand: “Is there news? What news?” The children, ragged, barefoot and filthy, playing in the gutters or trying to earn a coin or two by selling turnips and apples or helping the old woman dispose of her herrings, were alert for news. If any stranger rode by they would run after him, fighting each other for the privilege of holding his horse, demanding with their own brand of Cockney impudence: “What news, sir? Now Old Noll’s departed, what news?”
Every day there were rumors. The observant noticed changes in the London they had known for the last ten years and more—small changes, but nevertheless changes. The brothels had flourished all through the Commonwealth, but discreetly; now, passing through Dog-and-Bitch Lane, it was possible to see the women at the windows, negligent in their dress, beckoning to passersby and calling to them in their harsh London voices to come inside and see what pleasures they might enjoy. Blood-sports were gradually coming back to London once again.
“We are getting back to the good old days,” people said to one another.
On the cobbles outside one of the hovels in Cole-yard, three children sprawled. They were unusually good-looking, and none of them was marked by the pox or any deformity. The two elder children—a girl and a boy—were about twelve years old, the younger, a girl, aged ten; and it was this ten-year-old who was the most attractive of the three. Her bones were small and she was delicately formed; her hair fell in a tangle of matted curls about her shoulders; it was of a bright chestnut color; her hazel eyes were full of mischief; her nose, being small and retroussé, added a look of impudence to her face. For all that she was the youngest and so much smaller than the others, she dominated the group.
Beside the boy lay a torch. As soon as it was dark he would be at work, lighting ladies and gentlemen across the roads. The elder of the two girls was casting anxious glances over her shoulder at the hovel behind her, and the young girl was laughing at the elder because of the latter’s fear.
“She’ll not be out for a while, Rose,” she cried. “She’s got her gin, so what’ll she want with her daughters?”
Rose rubbed her hand along her back reminiscently.
Her young sister jeered. “You should be smarter on your feet, girl. Shame on you! You an active wench, to be caught and pasted by an old woman full of gin!”
The child had leaped up; she found it hard to remain still for any length of time. “Why,” she cried, “when old Ma turned to me with her stick I ran straight in to her … thus … caught her by the petticoat and swung her round till she was so giddy with the turning and the gin that she clutched me for support and begged me stop her from falling, calling me her good girl. And what said I? ‘Now, Ma! Now Ma … You take less of the gin and be more ready with a kiss and a good word for your girls than with the stick. That’s the way to have good and loving daughters.’ She sat flat on the floor to get her breath, and it was not till she was fully recovered that she thought of the stick again. Then ’twas too late to use it, for her anger against me had sped away. That’s the way to treat a drunken sot, Rosy girl, be she who she may.”
As the girl had talked she had changed from the role of drink-sodden old woman to sprightly mischievous child, and each she had performed with an adroitness that set the others laughing.
“Give over, Nelly,” said Rose. “You’ll have us die of laughter.”
“Well, we all have to die one day, whether it be of laughter or gin.”
“But not yet, not yet,” said the boy.
“Mayhap twelve years is a little too young, cousin Will. So I’ll have mercy on you, and you shall not die of laughing yet.”
“Come, sit down and be quiet awhile,” said Rose. “I heard tales in Longacre Street this day. They say the King is coming home.”
“If he comes,” said Will, “I shall be a soldier in his Army.”
“Bah!” said Nell. “A soldier to fight the battles of others? Even a link-boy fights his own.”
“I’d have a grand uniform,” said Will. “A beaver hat with a feather to curl over my shoulder. I’d have a silver chain about my neck, riding boots to the knee, and a red velvet cloak. I’d be a handsome gallant roaming the streets of London.”
Nell cried: “Why not be the King himself, Will?” Will looked crestfallen and she went on kindly: “Well, Will, who knows, mayhap you shall have your beaver hat and feather. Mayhap when the King comes home ’twill be the custom for every link-boy, from Aldgate Pump to Temple Bar, to have his beaver hat and feather.”
“Nelly jokes,” said Rose. “My girl, one day your jokes will land you into trouble.”
“Better be landed in trouble by jokes than felony.”
“You are too smart for your years, Nell.”
There was a clatter of horse’s hoofs as a man came riding by. All three children got to their feet and ran after the man on horseback who was pulling up at a house in Drury Lane.
“Hold your horse, sir?” said Will.
The man leaped down and threw the reins to Will.
Then he looked at the two girls.
“What news, sir?” asked Nell.
“News! What news should such as I have to give to a drab like you?”
Nell dropped a curtsy. “Drabs who would be ladies, and serving men aping their lords all have a right to news, sir.”
“Impudent beggar’s whore!” said the man.
Nell stood poised for flight.
“I am too young for the title, sir. Mayhap if you pass this way a few years later I shall have earned it.”
The man laughed; then feeling in his pocket flung a coin at her. Expertly Nell caught it before it fell to the ground. The man passed on. Will was left holding his horse, while Nell and Rose studied the coin. It was as much as Will would earn for his labor, and Rose remarked on this.
“The tongue is as useful as a pair of hands,” cried Nell.
“What will you do with the money?” asked Rose.
Nell considered. “A pie, a slice of beef mayhap. Mayhap. As yet I have decided on one thing only: It shall not buy gin for Ma.”
As they strolled back to Cole-yard, their mother appeared suddenly at the door of the hovel.
“Rosy! Nelly!” she screeched. “You lazy sluts, where are you? I’ll wallop you till you’re black and blue, you lazy good-for-nothings, both of you. Come here at once … if you want to live another hour. Rosy! Nelly! Was ever a good woman cursed with such sluts?” Suddenly she saw them. “Come here, you two. You, Rosy! You, Nelly! You come here and listen to your own mother.”
“Something has happened to excite her,” said Rose.
“And for once it is not the gin,” added Nell.
They followed Madam Eleanor Gwyn into the dark hovel which was their home.
Their mother sat down panting on a three-legged stool. She was very fat, and the effort of coming to the door and calling them had tired her.
Rose pulled another stool up to her mother’s; Nell spread herself on the floor, her legs and tiny feet swaying above her recumbent body, her vital heart-shaped face supported by her hands.
“There are you two, roaming the streets,” scolded Mrs. Gwyn, “never giving a thought to the good days ahead.”
“We were waiting for you to come out of your gin sleep, Ma,” said Nell.
Mrs. Gwyn half rose as though to cuff the girl, but thought better of it.
“Give over with your teasing, Nell,” she said, “and listen to me. There’s good days coming, and shouldn’t we all share in them?”
“The King’s coming home,” said Rose.
“You two don’t remember the old days,” said Madam Gwyn, lapsing into one of the sentimental moods which often came to her after consuming a certain quantity of gin. Nell found them less tolerable than her other phases, preferring a fighter any day to a maudlin drunkard. But now her keen eyes saw that this mood was a passing one. Her mother was excited. “No, you don’t remember the good old days,” she went on. “You don’t remember the shops in the Royal Exchange, and all the merry girls selling their wares there. You don’t remember seeing the young cavaliers about the streets. There was a sight for you—in their silks and velvets and feathers and swords! There was a life for a girl. When I was your age there was good sport to be had in this old city. Many’s the time I’ve stood at a pillar in St. Paul’s and met a kind and generous gentleman.” She spat. “Kind and generous gentlemen—they went out with the King. They all followed him abroad. But things is different now—or going to be.”
“The King’s coming home!” cried Nell. She was on her feet, waving her arms and bowing. “Welcome, Your Majesty. And what difference are you going to make to two skinny girls and their gin-sodden bawd of a mother?”
“Be silent, Nell, be silent,” warned Rose. “This is not the time.”
“Anytime’s the time for the truth,” said Nell. She eyed her mother cautiously. Madam Gwyn returned her stare. Nell was too saucy by half, Madam Gwyn was thinking; but the girl was too spry to be caught and beaten, and in any case she wanted Nell as an ally now; she herself was the one who had to be careful.
And to think she’s but ten years old, pondered Nell’s mother. Her tongue’s twice that age for all her small body and her child’s face.
Madam Gwyn was filled with self-pity that she, a loving mother, always thinking of her girls, should be so treated by them; with cupidity, in assessing the value of these two girls in her proposed venture; and with admiration for herself because of the livelihood with which she was going to provide them.
“Nelly’s right,” she said placatingly. “It’s always best to have the truth.”
“When the King comes home,” said Rose, “London will change. It’ll be like the old London Ma knew as a girl. And if things change for London, they change for us. But it’s a long time since Noll Cromwell died, and the King is still not home. I can remember, when he died, everybody said, ‘Now the Black Boy will be home.’ But he didn’t come.”
“The Black Boy!” cried Nell. “How black is he? And is he such a boy?”
“It’s his swarthy skin and his way with women. He’s as dark as a blackamoor and always a boy where the girls are concerned,” said Madam Gwyn. She began to laugh. “And Kings set fashions,” she added significantly.
“Let’s wait till he’s here before we line the streets to welcome him,” said Rose.
“No,” said Nell. “Let’s welcome him now. Then if he does not come we’ve had the fun of welcome all the same.”
“Put a stop to those clacking tongues,” said Madam Gwyn, “and listen to me. I’m going to make this place into a nice house for gentlemen … There’s the cellar below, where we’ll put a few chairs and tables, and the gentlemen will come in to take their fill.”
“Their fill … of what?” said Nell sharply.
“Of pleasure,” said Madam Gwyn, “for which they’ll pay right well. I’ll let some of the girls hereabouts come in and help me build up a nice little house, and it’ll all be for the sake of my girls.”
“And a little extra gin,” murmured Nell.
Rose was silent and Nell, who knew her sister well, sensed the alarm in her. Even Nell fell silent. And after a while Madam Gwyn dozed, and Nell and Rose went to the old herring-woman on the corner to help sell some of her wares.
They lay side by side on their pallet. Close to them, on hers, lay their mother. She was fast asleep, but Rose could not sleep; she was afraid; and Nell sensed Rose’s fear.
Nell’s tongue was sharper than Rose’s and Nell was bright enough to know that there were some things about which Rose must be—on account of her two years’ seniority—better informed than herself.
Rose was alarmed at the prospect of the “house” which her mother was planning; and Nell knew that Rose was thinking of the part she would be called upon to play in it. This meant entertaining men. Nell knew something of this. She was so small that she appeared to be younger than she was, but that had not protected her from the attentions of certain men. Her pert face, framed by abundant curls, had not passed unnoticed. On more than one occasion she had been beckoned into quiet places and had gone, hoping to earn a groat or two, for Nell was often hungry and the smell of roasting flesh and hot pies which filled certain streets was at such times very tantalizing; but she had quickly retreated after inflicting kicks and a bite or two, and there had been a great terror within her which she had hidden by her indignant protestations.