From London's slums to its bawdy playhouses, THE DARLING STRUMPET transports the reader to the tumultuous world of seventeenth-century England, charting the meteoric rise of the dazzling Nell Gwynn, who captivates the heart of King Charles II-and becomes one of the century's most famous courtesans.***
Witty and beautiful, Nell was born into poverty but is drawn into the enthralling world of the theater, where her saucy humor and sensuous charm earn her a place in the King's Company. As one of the first actresses in the newly-opened playhouses, she catapults to fame, winning the affection of legions of fans--and the heart of the most powerful man in all of England, the King himself. Surrendering herself to Charles, Nell will be forced to maneuver the ruthless and shifting allegiances of the royal court--and discover a world of decadence and passion she never imagined possible.
Nell's first impression of the King's privy chamber was that it was like a chessboard filled with clocks. The floor was in squares of black and white marble, and a row of timepieces stood along the shining black mantle atop the enormous fireplace. Others dotted tables and shelves, and a tall case clock emitted a steady tock. The vast bed was surmounted by a canopy with great eagles above it, its curtains supported by cherubs that appeared to be in flight toward the elaborately painted ceiling high above. Paintings in heavy gold frames were mounted on the walls. The life-sized portraits of ladies and gentlemen in stiff finery seemed to Nell to look down on her as she passed.
It took Nell a moment to spot the King. He was seated at a writing desk, his back to the door, evidently engrossed in whatever he was studying. Three spaniels lay curled near his feet, and they lifted their heads to regard the visitors.
"Your Majesty," Buckingham began, but as he spoke, the tall clock began to tell the hour with a series of deep bongs. Another clock sounded, and then, as if they had been caught napping and were guiltily snapping to their work, the others chimed in one by one on their own notes and rhythms, creating a cacophonous jangle.
"George." The King stood and came smiling toward them, embraced Buckingham, and turned to Nell as the last of the bells faded to silence, pulling her up from her curtsy.
"Mistress Nelly. May I call you Nelly? I always think of you like that, you know, and calling you anything else would seem amiss."
"Of course, Your Majesty," Nell dimpled at him, pleased beyond measure that he "always" thought of her in any way at all.
"I've just been looking at Wren's plans for some of the new churches – come see." The King led them toward the desk, where a large drawing was unfurled.
"St. Paul's," he said. "Is it not splendid?"
"Magnificent," Buckingham agreed. "But what about some wine?"
Charles laughed. "Of course. Forgive me, Nelly, for being such a poor host. Faith, you grow more beautiful each time I see you."
"If it be so, Your Majesty, then I hope that you shall see me frequently, so that both of us may benefit," Nell laughed.
"And witty as well," Charles said over Nell's head to Buckingham. "Pretty, witty Nell."
Save for the servant who brought in the food and poured the wine, and the dogs, the three of them were alone. Charles and Buckingham were in jovial spirits, and chaffed with each other like the brothers they almost were.
They lingered over wine and sweetmeats, but as the clocks set up their clamor on the hour of ten, Buckingham declared that it was time for him to be gone.
"And you, Nelly?" asked Charles. "Must you run away? Or will you stay to keep me company a little while yet?"
"Gladly, sir," Nell said, "If it will give you pleasure."
Buckingham's footsteps faded, and Nell felt momentarily awkward – what should she do or say? But Charles poured more wine, silently raised his glass to her with a smile, and she felt at ease.
He pulled a morsel of meat from the pullet carcass on the table and held it out to one of his spaniels, who wolfed it down. Nell laughed as the dog licked its chops and cocked its head expectantly, clearly hoping for more. Charles gently pulled one of the dog's ears and scratched it under the chin.
"I had one of these beasts with me in France," he said. "Sometimes I thought he was my only true friend in the world."
"I have never had a dog, Your Majesty, but have often wondered if I had a true friend. He must have been a comfort to you."
Charles leaned forward and brushed a tendril of hair from Nell's cheek, letting his hand trail down her face, her throat, her breast. Nell felt a twinge in her belly – the involuntary contraction of arousal. She had fully expected the king to bed her. She had not expected to desire him as intensely as she suddenly found she did.