I figured I'd better post this, just in case anyone ever finds this blog and/or comes looking for this. Arden's Act is my historical/historical romance--it's right there on the borderline between genres. At the conference, they told us to pitch everything by comparing it to other books or movies, so this is "A Star Is Born meets Ghost against the lush backdrop of England's Restoration-era theatre and court." Please excuse the funky paragraphing--I can't figure out how to get indentation on these posts...
Arden West rapped lightly at the dingy wooden door. The paint underneath the thick coat of grime might once have shone green, but no longer. She blessed the plain black gloves protecting her hands. After asking directions from a fruit seller, she had counted the building fronts on the block before braving the alleyway running behind them. This had to be the back door of the theater in which the Duke’s Company performed.
Dogs barked at Arden from shuttered windows, fishwives shrieked their reeking goods, and horses’ hooves clopped on cobblestones. Even here in the alley, the bustle of London at noontime muffled her knocking in her own ears. So different from the stillness of her mother’s country home. She still refused to think of the house where she grew up as belonging to Mr. Treadwell, her stepfather.
Arden also refused to return. She drew back her hand, doubly determined to knock loudly enough to summon a member of the Duke’s Company. Strong fingers grasped her gloved wrist before her knuckles made contact.
“Come to close the theater, Mistress Puritan?”
Arden whirled to face the man accosting her, only to discover he had two companions. “I am not a Puritan,” she said, trying to keep her voice cool. Her captors did not resemble common thieves, but they might prove far more dangerous. The one who gripped her wrist surely counted himself among the nobility. He sported a costly wig of blond curls, in the style of the King’s dark ones, and wore a frock coat of the finest lime-green silk.
“Even in that drab gray sack, you can see she’s a juicy bit,” commented the other blond man of the trio. He looked as if he had tried to copy the couture of the first, but with less money or credit. “I say we should take turns with her right here in the alley. Teach the little Fanatick to snoop!”
Arden drew a quick, fearful breath. Apparently Treadwell had not exaggerated his lurid tales of what gentlemen and lords did to unchaperoned girls in the wicked city. But nothing could be worse than lecherous old Treadwell himself, could it?
“I don’t usually value your suggestions much, Tommy,” said the rich one, digging his fingers harder into Arden’s forearm at her slight attempt to twist away. “This one, though, is prime. Banging a Puritan up against the back wall of the theater! The irony alone is delicious.”
A strange, high-pitched peal of laughter came from Tommy. “Ah, that’s a good one, Your Grace!”
“You’re looking at it all wrong, though,” his friend said, as he pushed Arden against the wall. She could feel herself trembling now. Should she scream? Would anyone care if she did? Arden had come all the way to London unmolested and without incident, despite changing coaches a few times and staying in two roadside inns alone. Here, though, her luck had apparently run out. She heard people and horses striding past the front of the theater, but apparently none of the Londoners noticed her predicament as anything out of the ordinary. They walked or rode briskly by.
“We won’t be punishing her, Tommy,” her captor continued. “Indeed, we may be giving her such a treat as to cause her immediate conversion from heresy.” He thrust his hips into Arden’s skirts for emphasis.
“Come on, Bucky,” said the third, cutting into another hideous shriek of good humor from Tommy. “She said she wasn’t a Puritan. Maybe she’s an actress.” This man, Arden noticed, dressed almost as finely as “Bucky”—was this the Duke of Buckingham who had her pinned to the theater wall?—but he looked different. He had a darker complexion than fashionable, like the King’s, and instead of wearing a wig like his friends, he tied his straight black hair at the nape of his neck with a dark blue ribbon that matched his velvet frock coat. Like the others, he had probably reached his thirties. More importantly, he met her eyes with his own deep black ones—something neither of the others had found necessary. Her fear made her desperate, but Arden could swear he offered her help with his concentrated gaze.
“Yes, I’m an actress!” she cried, as Buckingham reached for the bottom of her skirts. “Or at least I will be, if I live,” she whispered. She swallowed the sob in her throat. She dared not cry. She focused her attention on the dark one, the kind one, to keep terror at bay.
“So much the better,” said Buckingham. “These new actresses seem used to spreading their legs for all and sundry.” He managed to pull up both her skirts and the thin shift beneath them, and Arden felt the chill air on the skin above her stockings. She'd missed her chance to kick him while his balance had been precarious. Thus also missing her chance to be beaten to death like a dog in the alley for assaulting a Duke. Still, maybe that would be preferable...
“Now, Bucky,” the third interrupted again. “We all know you have the right of rank with her, but let's make a sport of it, shall we?”
The hope he might save her died with a stifled cry in her throat. He wanted to make it a sport!
“What did you have in mind, Courtenay?” Even in addressing his friend, Buckingham's grip on Arden remained tight.
“Let's only one of us have her,” Courtenay replied. “And let it be the one she chooses herself. Then let the winner console the losers by paying their way with any mounts they choose at Mistress Winters'.”
Arden sighed with relief as Buckingham dropped her skirts and they hit the ankles of her sturdy black boots. One still scared her, still horrified her, but she'd surely survive it better than all three. Besides, the one called Courtenay still sought her attention with his dark but kindly gaze.
Tommy cursed his disappointment, but Buckingham said, “Very well, then. Makes no difference to me.” Still holding her to the wall, he asked, “Which one of us do you prefer, girl?”
“A moment, please, Your Grace.” Arden’s voice quavered in her instinctive attempt to gain time. The Duke surely thought his rank and finery would guide her choice. She looked again at his frizzy wig and the shiny silk, but shuddered inwardly. Besides, he held her close enough that she could smell his breath. She didn’t even need to look at Tommy—his laugh had repulsed her more than the other two together. As she swept her gaze upward from Courtenay's expertly-made black boots and the snowy-white boot hose overspilling their cuffs, Arden experienced an odd moment of clarity. His boots did little to hide his strong calves, and the rest of his person appeared equally well-formed. Handsome of face, too, with high cheekbones and a neatly trimmed mustache. If she must be raped . . . well, surely, anyone would be better than Treadwell would have been. As she lowered her eyes back to Courtenay's ruddy lips, however, she saw them move, seemingly mouthing, “Pick me.”
Would he help her, or did he merely wish to slake his urges on a virgin rather than chancing one of the diseased whores he had proposed as consolation prizes? Either way, she made her choice. “That one,” Arden said firmly, pointing to Courtenay.
“Oh, what luck!” Tommy exclaimed giddily, advancing towards her.
“Tommy, you're blind as a bloody bat,” said Buckingham, pushing him away. “The wench chose Courtenay. Her loss,” he added, speaking obviously of himself rather than Tommy. “Do you want me to hold her for you?”
“Rather too Grecian, that, don't you think, Bucky? I should handle her easily alone,” replied Courtenay. He stepped up, and placed a surprisingly gentle hand upon Arden’s shoulder. He waited for Buckingham to release her and back off a few steps. When Arden reflexively shook the pain out of her wrist, he caught it in his free hand, brought it gently to his lips and kissed it through the glove. When he spoke, his voice sounded low and close to her ear. “Good girl,” he said soothingly. “Now, tell me, what are you really—a Puritan or an actress?” The smile at the end of the question dazzled Arden with its warmth.
“An actress. I'm going to try out for the Duke's Company.”
He put a finger to her lips. “They're still listening,” he said softly, nodding in the direction of his companions. “Is that a costume, then?” Arden read amusement in his dark eyes.
“Mmmm—yes,” she told him. As kind as he seemed—so far—she had no desire to explain that her stepfather was indeed a Puritan, her mother had become one, and she herself was supposed to be one as well. The drab gray dress and large, prim white collar Arden wore under her unadorned black cloak typified the only style Treadwell had allowed her.
“Good luck to you, then.”
“I won't need luck,” she replied quickly. “When Sir William Davenant sees the life I can breathe into a part, he will gladly hire me on the spot.”
Courtenay released her suddenly, and laughed louder and longer than she had seen anyone laugh since—well, since her true father had lived and her family had been of the Cavalier party. She thought of taking the opportunity to run away, to dodge between this structure and the next, back to the street. But the other men still stood nearby.
“Courtenay, what in the blue heavens could the wench have said to make you laugh like that?” called Buckingham, petulance still apparent in every syllable.
“Never mind,” Courtenay replied over his shoulder. “I won't be a minute.”
“Terrible thing to say about yourself, Lord Robert!” Tommy shrieked again at his own wit.
Courtenay ignored him. “Actors make the audiences believe,” he explained to Arden in a low voice. “Actresses merely serve as ornaments. No matter,” he said, stifling her protest. “I'm sure you'll do all right. Now, I really must kiss you.”
The fear that had begun to ebb from Arden’s heart rushed back. “Oh!”
“No, no—just a kiss, and then you can go. They'll rib me unmercifully as it is,” Courtenay said ruefully. “If I don't even kiss you . . . . Besides, Tommy usually demonstrates only enough intelligence to move his lips, but he's right about one thing. Even in that drab stuff, you are quite beautiful. Eyes like emeralds.”
Before Arden could register the compliment, he had pulled her close to his hard, lean body and covered her mouth with his own. She stood amazed at the warmth of his lips, the warmth that spread in a pathway straight through the core of her body. So much better than .... Arden shuddered beneath his kiss, whether at remembered revulsion or new pleasure she did not know.
“There, now, not so bad, was it?” Courtenay said, separating from her. “Goodbye, sweet actress. I hope to see you on the stage here soon.” He bowed and walked away to join his fellows, who quickly began guffawing and poking him in the ribs with several rude exclamations. They left the alleyway as a group. Arden stood, breathing slowly and steadily for a moment. When she felt sure she would not faint, she began hammering the theater’s back door with her fists. She pounded until the door opened to her.
Another man stood staring at her, holding the door. Arden pushed past him, panting. “Please shut it again, before they can follow me!”
“Before who can follow you, Mistress? I didn’t see a soul out there but you,” replied her new savior, obeying her.
Arden looked behind her, seeing no more sign of the other men. “Thank God,” she sighed, still shaking.
Half an hour later, Robert Courtenay sat in the garish parlor of Mistress Winters. He supposed she thought her customers wouldn't know themselves in a bawdy house if she hadn't hung the walls in cheap scarlet taffeta. No matter. Considering the pair he'd brought, he wouldn't have to wait here long.
“I know you've already paid for His Grace and that other, but Susie says she'll take you on for half price if you'd like, Lord Robert,” said Winters herself, interrupting his thoughts. The madame, he'd heard, had been a great beauty in the days of the old King. He found the unnatural red of her hair unnerving, however, especially in this room.
“Tell her I thank her for the offer, but not today,” he replied. Susie gave fine sport, but she did not have eyes like emeralds, nor thick tresses of mahogany. Nor a brave heart and wit under pressure. He wondered if the girl from the alley had found the courage to try out for Davenant, wondered if she'd even been allowed to see the manager of the Duke's Company. Perhaps he should check on her progress.
He rose and bowed slightly to Mistress Winters. “Tell my friends I shall see them tomorrow,” he said, leaving the establishment.
“You’ve had quite a fright, haven’t you, Mistress? Come, I’ll find you a chair and bring you a cup of chocolate.” His voice sounded kind, almost motherly, though he looked to Arden only a year or two older than herself, and distinctly male. Perhaps not as male as the man who had just kissed her. . . .
“Oh, I forget my manners,” he said, shouting over the backstage din. “Allow me to introduce myself. Brian Malley at your service.” He gave Arden a short, small bow, showing her more of his thick, wavy brown hair.
“Arden West at yours, sir,” she returned, equally loud. She dropped a quick curtsy. When she rose and looked at him, she found him staring at her with wide hazel eyes under brows so bushy they almost grew together. His sparse facial hair was an oddly lighter shade than the rest. The mustache wiggled when he spoke again, after he’d swept her clothing with his gaze: “Begging your pardon, your being distressed and all, but you haven’t come to make trouble, have you?”
“Don’t judge me by my clothing, Mr. Malley,” Arden replied, starting to regain her breath. “I won’t cause you or anyone else harm, especially if you get me that chocolate you mentioned.”
He offered her his arm, and she took it. His height did not quite match her own. “I hope you won’t mind sitting with me, Mistress West? No one will think anything of it here, you know. And I won’t bother you.” He began guiding her down a long, low hallway.
“So I’ve heard.” They walked closer to what Arden assumed to be actors, actresses, musicians, and costumers. The noise kept rising, so she had to shout almost into his ear. “About no one minding, I mean. I’m told actresses don’t have to take as much care of their reputations as other ladies.”
“You’re an actress?” Malley asked, apparently startled. “Well, I hope you won’t want me to bother you. A lot of them do, you know. Some of them even try to bother me, but I don’t believe in it.”
Somewhat taken aback by his frankness, Arden found it hard not to laugh. He seemed so kind, though, and she did appreciate knowing at least one man at this establishment wouldn’t try to “bother” her. She smiled at him. “Are you an actor then, or a clergyman, Mr. Malley?”
“Neither, Mistress West. I simply don’t believe in ‘bothering’ without love. Though I take a lot of ribbing for it around here.”
The serious look in his eyes made her change the subject. “If you’re not an actor, what do you do here, if you don’t think me too forward for asking?” They had reached the backstage common room, and Malley threaded her unnoticed through gaily costumed, chattering men and women. He stopped her at a small corner table piled with several leather-bound folios, a quill, and a bottle of ink. He pulled a chair from another table and set it opposite the one already there. Gesturing at the table’s contents, he said cheerfully: “Why, I help Sir William Davenant murder Shakespeare. Here, sit down. I’ll go get the chocolate.”
Arden obliged, and wondered what he could possibly mean. All her good manners barely succeeded in keeping her from rifling through one folio of strange, spidery handwriting. She could see, without turning her head at too awkward an angle, that some of the other folios were editions of Shakespeare’s plays.
Shortly Malley returned with two steaming cups. As he placed one before her, Arden repeated, “You murder Shakespeare?”
“Yes,” he said, before blowing gently on the surface of his chocolate. Arden decided she liked his unconcern about manners, and did likewise. “You can’t perform Shakespeare in the original, you know,” Malley continued.
“You can’t be worried about what the Puritans think,” Arden declared, forgetting herself in a strange place conversing with someone she barely knew, in clothes that made her appear one of them. “They can’t abide plays to begin with, so why concern yourself if the Bard is a little bawdy upon occasion?”
“You’ve never been in London before, have you, Mistress West?” Arden shook her head as she braved a sip from her cup. The blowing had worked sufficiently. “The Bard’s not bawdy enough to suit our audiences, yet not stylish enough to suit their taste for high poetry,” Malley continued. “I spice it up, make the language smoother, and put it all in dactylic hexameter and heroic couplets—in short, I rob it of most of its original genius.”
“You know, I’d heard that, but I didn’t believe it. How dare you do such a thing, Mr. Malley?” She asked without the least hostility to her new friend, but rather with wonder. Wonder as if at the courage of someone who’d taken the Lord's name in vain in her stepfather's presence. Her true father, however, had taught Arden reverence for the Bard.
“Gets me a living, and it’s far more pleasant than slaving as a shop clerk,” Malley replied. “But I’m working on my own play, too, Mistress West. And when it’s done, Willy’ll no longer spin in his grave on my account.”
“Good for you!” Arden finished her last gulp of chocolate and decided she felt much better—quite recovered from her encounter with that bold gentleman. Courtenay. First name Robert? she wondered, before she could stop herself from remembering the warmth of his mouth upon her own.
“Well, if I am to be an actress, I suppose I should start loosening my morals now,” Arden began again. “Don’t worry,” she added quickly, seeing Malley’s eyes widen. “I only meant to encourage you in the informality of using my Christian name, Mr. Malley. Please call me Arden.”
“My pleasure, Mis—um—Arden,” he replied. “Though, if you’ll pardon my saying so, it doesn’t sound like a very Christian name at all. There’s no one named Arden in the Bible. But it is lovely. And please call me Brian,” he added.
“Brian, I’m surprised you don’t recognize my name. Perhaps you’ve murdered him too well—it’s the Bard’s, you know. My father named me for the forest in As You Like It.”
“And the one in France?”
“I suppose, but he mostly had Shakespeare in mind.”
Brian smiled, and nodded politely. He seemed at a loss for what to say next, so Arden took the initiative. “Brian, thank you so much for the chocolate, and for helping me calm myself with your friendliness. I’m much better, and I think I should see Lord Davenant now. Could you please take me to him?” She rose from the table and looked around the room.
“Well,” said Brian, rising with her, “he usually looks at new people before rehearsal, and we’re at the mid-rehearsal break now. . . . But let’s see. I think we should find you something a little more flattering to wear before you meet him. Millie, come here, please!” He gestured to a small, thin girl with light red hair and freckles, who moved quickly to their table. “Millie, why don’t you see if you can find something in the wardrobe for Mistress West? She wants to audition for Sir William. Arden, this is Millie. She helps the actresses dress for plays.”
“But Sir William’s already looked at people today,” Millie protested.
“Mistress West is my friend. I’ll ask him as a special favor to me.” Arden wondered privately just how much influence a hack Shakespeare-murderer had with the company owner, but Brian’s willingness to help made her smile.
“But he’ll recognize the costume, Brian, and only our girls are supposed to wear them! He might discharge me!”
“I am almost sure Mistress West will be one of our girls. Everything's all right, Millie, and if it isn’t, you can tell him I put you up to it. Now, take her to a quiet corner, and try to get her done by the end of the break. Make sure she looks good.”
Arden took no offense at what Brian implied—she knew he didn’t mean her, but the dreadful, dowdy, Puritan garb. She couldn’t wait to exchange it for a fine gown, even for the duration of an audition.
The transformation Arden saw in the large, framed wall mirror bordered on the remarkable. The costume Millie had chosen for her, a bright yellow silk, made her green eyes bigger and brighter. Like emeralds, he said. Arden thought the squared neckline extremely low. It exposed much more of her breasts than made her comfortable—almost all but the nipples. Better than looking like a Puritan! she told herself. Her black stockings had been replaced by white, and her plain black boots replaced by dainty slippers with heels, covered over in the same yellow silk as her gown. At Brian’s urging, Millie had secured some of the Company’s paste jewelry for her. A strand of glass diamonds hung round her neck, while a few more dangled from her ears. Even though she’d brought some stunning pieces she’d inherited with her to London, she had preferred not to show any wealth in strange surroundings. At any rate, Arden had not been so well attired since her father had been alive—and then she had been a mere child, unaccustomed to the fashions of a young lady. Treadwell would not recognize me, but Papa would. He must have known I’d look like this one day. Her father, who had selected plays for her to read ever since she had learned her letters, would have also understood her becoming an actress. Never mind that it was a brand new calling, and certainly rarely contemplated by a woman of her family background.
Arden smiled when Brian led her to Davenant, even though they caught the Company’s owner in the midst of saying, “She’d better be a good one. I’ve already looked at a horde of chits today at the regular time.”
A little disappointed when Brian did not offer his employer a vigorous reply, Arden nevertheless stood straight and tall before Davenant. She tried not to stare at his false silver nose—the flesh beneath, rumor whispered, ruined by syphilis. She readied herself to launch into Juliet’s final scene when Davenant asked her for a sample of her talents. Instead, he cheerfully commanded: “Show me your legs!”
Memories of Buckingham lifting her skirts chilled her, but Courtenay's words came back to Arden and oddly calmed her— Actresses merely serve as ornaments. Well, if she had to make her beginning that way, so be it. She could convince Davenant and the others of her talent once hired. Cheeks flushing, she obeyed his request.
Fortunately, she knew she had nothing to be ashamed of. The clingy white silk stockings only enhanced the natural shapeliness of her long legs.
Davenant gave Arden a quick nod of approval. “Dance,” he told her.
“But there’s no music!” Arden protested. Not to mention she’d not had any dancing lessons since Treadwell had married her mother. “May I have one of the musicians come over with his instrument?” She gestured to a group of men in the corner whose tuning and practicing did not amount yet to melody but only added to the general din.
“Anyone can dance to music,” replied Davenant. “We separate the girls from the women by seeing who can dance without. Go on, dance.”
For a moment, Arden stood nonplussed. She had no partner. Should she borrow Brian for what she remembered of a stately pavanne? Then she recalled the time her father had returned from aiding the Duke of Ormonde in Ireland. How he had quickly taught her an Irish dance, while his valet, Jack Clark, had played the fiddle. Oh, but Jack could play, too! Loud and furious and full of spirit. Still holding up her skirts, Arden concentrated on the memory of Jack’s music and the steps her father had shown her. She began to dance, prancing and whirling despite the heeled slippers. When the old strains died in her head, Arden gracefully halted, breathing with her effort. The din continued in the background, but Brian, Millie, Davenant, and a tall, dark-eyed man in a powdered wig who had come to stand beside them stayed utterly silent. Then Brian began to clap and whistle, and Davenant, beaming at the other man, asked him: “Well, Betterton, what do you think of her?”
Betterton! Arden had just danced before Thomas Betterton, the premier actor of the London stage! Thank the dear Lord I did not know it ahead of time! she thought.
“She’ll do as a dancer,” agreed the actor.
“Right,” said Davenant, “but what can she do with a piece? Do you have anything prepared that you’d like to recite for us?” he asked Arden.
“Juliet’s death,” she announced.
“Oh, that again,” sighed Davenant.
Arden paused to feel the scene, pushing her awareness of the importance of her audience—and Davenant’s lack of enthusiasm—from her mind. She began to see Friar Laurence before her, began feeling Romeo's agonizing loss in her heart. She waved the priest away with a graceful hand and wailed, “Go, get thee hence, for I will not away!” Arden lowered her gaze purposefully to the floor, seeing the pale corpse of a handsome young man stretched beneath her. In the intensity of her mood, she did not recognize the finely chiseled features of the stranger who had rescued her outside the theater.
“What’s here?” Arden asked softly. “A cup, closed in my true love’s hand? Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.” She bent to take the imagined vessel from the imagined dead hand, turning it upside down before her face.
“O churl! drunk all, and left no friendly drop to help me after?” Arden exclaimed, casting down the cup. She began bending again to the fallen man, kneeling beside the body as she quickly affirmed: “I will kiss thy lips; haply some poison yet doth hang on them, to make me die with a restorative.” She tenderly touched her lips to her vision. “Thy lips are warm,” she said sorrowfully. Then she snapped her head around, looking behind her.
“Yea, noise?” Arden queried. She returned her gaze to the body, searching for something. She found her answer. “O happy dagger!” Arden cried, grabbing the weapon strapped to her beloved’s still form. “This is thy sheath,” she hissed, plunging it above her bosom. “There rust, and let me die,” she breathed, letting her eyes fall shut and collapsing, completely limp on the floor.
“Bravo!” shouted Brian, helping Arden up.
“Oh, yes!” agreed Millie. “You’re ever so good, miss! I could almost see the cup, the dagger, and the poor, dead lover!”
Arden flushed with the praise. She had given one of her best performances, better than the rehearsals alone in her room after Treadwell had gone out and couldn’t possibly hear.
“What do you think?” Davenant asked Betterton again.
“Has to work on her projection. No idea what she’d do with the rhymed couplets, but there’s a certain amount of raw talent. She’ll do for a bit player,” concluded Betterton.
“Hmmm,” considered Davenant. He crossed to Arden, and took a length of her dark hair in his hand. “Particularly if you dye this blond. It’s the style now, you know.”
Arden flushed again, but not with pleasure this time. A certain raw talent! Bit player! Dye my hair blond! But she pushed her pride aside. Far more important she be part of the Duke’s Company. In time she could show them. In time she might be playing opposite Betterton himself. She had almost started to nod her acceptance at Davenant when she heard his voice again.
“Absolutely not, Davenant! You will not have her mar that mahogany beauty merely to make her look like every other false blond on your stage. Give her a part with her real hair— Rayburn’s wench is starting to show too much for decency in the servant’s role, so let this one play it. I’ll be there watching this afternoon, and if you have her blond, Davenant, I’ll give all my patronage to Killigrew and the King’s men.”
As he spoke, Courtenay strode up to stand with Davenant and Betterton. With a start, Arden realized she had projected his face—albeit a bit more mature—onto her Romeo. Except, of course, this man’s face appeared very much alive. His dark eyes again looked at her with frank appreciation. He smiled broadly as well, showing off a set of
fine white teeth.
“Very well,” agreed Davenant. “Lord Robert is not to be questioned in matters of theatrical taste. You may have the part, Mistress ... what did you say her name was, Brian?”
“Arden West,” Arden announced, before Brian could say it for her. She’d done it! She would walk the stage that afternoon!
“All right,” said Davenant. “Brian, give her the lines— you can remember three lines on this notice, can’t you?” Arden nodded enthusiastically. “And give her the cue lines. I’ll go tell May she can rest ‘til the child is born.”
Davenant stalked off, and Brian led Arden backstage, beginning to explain her brief part. She stopped him. “What about that poor girl! I’ve taken her role! I feel horrible— what will she do, Brian?”
“Oh, don’t worry about her. She doesn’t need to act to live—lucky for her, I might add,” said Brian. “If I may say so, you’ll be a definite improvement, small though the part is.”
Arden smiled, and listened as Brian described her role. She had to tell the lead actress that “Lord Nonsuch is here to ... see the new bedchamber.” Then later, when the lady’s husband returned home and inquired as to his wife’s whereabouts, she would say, “She took to her bed, m’lord.” As the cuckold moved to find his wife, she must place herself in front of him and plead, “Don’t go in there, m’lord! From the moans, I think she has nearly died!” Then she would run off stage in a dither. Quite bawdy. Treadwell would be appalled. Arden smiled even wider. A pity he would not be here to see her.
“Well, now that you know what you’re about, I’ll take you back to Millie. You can’t play a servant in that,” said Brian. He paused, eyebrows knitted together even more closely.
“What is it?”
“I don’t want to offend you, Arden.”
“Well, May is a lot shorter than you, and her maid’s costume won’t fit,” began Brian.
“But what you had on before would work, with May’s cap and apron.”
Poor Brian. He didn’t want to hurt her by suggesting her plain, Puritan garb made her look like a servant. But Arden had accepted that truth long ago, after her exclamations on the subject to her stepfather had proved entirely futile. “Good idea,” she said simply.
As Brian led her back to Millie and her own clothes, Arden thought about the other man who helped her get this part. Not only had he saved her virtue, and possibly her life, but he had advanced her career and saved her the trouble of dyeing her hair or getting a blond wig. She supposed she ought to thank him. She paused, and while Brian waited for her, she looked over her shoulder. Davenant and Betterton, she could see, had busied themselves elsewhere, but Robert Courtenay had already vanished.
Courtenay had seen the girl glow when she told Davenant her name, seen the light of triumph come into her emerald eyes. And he had noticed how proudly she stood, straight and tall, and how some of the waves of mahogany beauty were caught by her shoulders before cascading down her back. Millie must not have had time to put it up. For the performance, the dressing wench would stuff most of that wondrous hair under a maid’s cap. Courtenay had also noticed Arden West hadn’t even bothered to thank him for getting her the part. No matter, he thought, as he strode towards his box. She will thank me properly later.
Arden’s debut passed satisfactorily. Not only did she think she'd performed brightly, but the audience gifted her with gales of laughter. She would never forget it! The glow from the chandeliers diffused a golden light over her while pure peals of mirth floated to her from the pit and the boxes. And the friendly applause washing over her when she took her bow at the end—could anything else bring such ecstasy? On stage, she had forgotten all else in concentration on her character—and on being loud enough to be heard, taking Betterton’s words on projection to heart. Waiting off stage, however, Arden thought again of Robert Courtenay. Because of the lighting, she could not tell if he'd sat in one of the boxes where the patrons of quality viewed the play. He had said he would be there, so Arden could only assume he'd seen her, that somewhere in that sea of hearty laughs had floated one belonging to him.
Brian congratulated Arden on her performance as she rid herself of apron and cap and collected her few belongings from Millie. “They loved you! You’ll be a lead actress in no time at all,” he predicted. “And after tomorrow afternoon’s show, we’ll do a second one at the Cockpit for the King.”
“You’re not serious!” Arden exclaimed. Yet even as she spoke, she remembered hearing that both London theater companies often performed at the Whitehall theater known as the Cockpit for King Charles II and his court. Davenant’s company, called the Duke’s Company, had the King’s brother, James, Duke of York, as its official patron. The other company, managed by Thomas Killigrew, had Charles himself as its patron and therefore held the name of King’s Company.
“Oh, this is too much!” Arden protested to Brian. “To act before the King my second night in London! How will I manage without fainting?”
“You’ll manage,” Brian said cheerfully. “All the girls do.” He paused a moment, kind concern on his young face. “I can’t help guessing this is your first night in London. Do you have lodgings yet?”
“Well, no, not exactly,” admitted Arden. “Do you know of any for rent?”
“Sir William lets some of us stay in rooms at his house. Millie, myself, and some of the actresses. I don’t think he’s taken anyone else since May moved out to the grand apartments Lord Rayburn rented for her. You can take her old room,” Brian said. “If you like, I can escort you there and help you get installed. It’s just a few blocks down.”
“That would be wonderful, Brian.” Arden smiled as he gave her his arm and pushed the back doors open with his other. Treadwell would have apoplexy if he could see her. Walking at evening without a chaperone, with a young man she barely knew. Certainly Brian had no indecent intentions. Arden assumed he was somewhat lonely and, much like herself, merely enjoyed talking to someone congenial.
The sky had grown dark during the performance, but a half moon shone, and a few bright stars gleamed. Oil lamps cast their light through the shutters of houses and shops. Arden walked with Brian happily, listening to him as he pointed out the homes of the street’s more interesting residents. The sights and sounds flowed so pleasantly over her that she could almost forget the smells of the city. In time, she told herself, she would quit comparing it to the fresh air of her old country home. Until then, she’d have to buy herself some potpourri to wrap up in a handkerchief. Arden saw many fine ladies with such creations pressed to their noses, getting into carriages beside their husbands or escorts, leaving the theater.
On second thought, even Treadwell could not object to Arden’s being alone with Brian, because she hardly lacked for chaperones after all. She noted several of the theater people walking the same way as she and Brian, not far enough away for anything he said to her to be truly private. But then again, Arden realized, Treadwell would consider all of them—herself included now—damned to Hell for taking part in such lewd and frivolous entertainment. Even if Treadwell found her now, he’d never want her back. He’d never want to sully her with his own private form of sin. Arden’s heart flew higher after her conclusion, as if even in her heavy black boots she would wander off into the air if she did not carefully place her steps. Perhaps this lightness explained why she laughed so hard at the tale Brian told of Mrs. Davenant’s cat being thrown into one actress’s bath water by another young woman jealous of her part.
She gradually noticed, however, that her laughter blended with the slow clopping of a team of horses, very close. She turned her gaze to the street. A dark coach of hunter’s green with gilt trim, pulled by two fine bays, kept exact pace with her and Brian. She drew in her breath sharply with her first thought. Treadwell! He had followed her after all, and would force her home, bad reputation and all!
“What’s the matter, Arden?” Brian’s bushy eyebrows knitted in concern.
“It’s nothing.” She had almost as quickly realized Treadwell would never buy—or even rent—a coach like that. “I thought for a moment that coach might belong to someone I knew. I wonder why it’s so slow, rolling right with us?”
“It does belong to someone you know—well, somewhat. It’s Lord Robert’s,” Brian answered. “Is that what you thought?”
“No, I thought my stepfather had found me. I’m glad it’s only Lord Robert.” As Arden spoke the words, however, all of Lord Robert’s previous attentions to her rushed through her mind. Perhaps in some ways he held more danger for her than did Treadwell. A much more pleasurable danger....
Echoing her thoughts, Brian said, “I fear Lord Robert has become interested in you, Arden.” She saw him struggle to wipe the worried look from his countenance. How sweet of him to be so concerned for her!
“Well, he can be very persuasive, and very persistent,” Brian continued, “but at the heart he is no brute and would never force a lady. Of course, to my knowledge, he’s never had to.”
Arden steeled herself against the memory of his kiss and his gentleness outside the theater. She knew he would never force a lady. “Well, he won’t persuade me,” she assured Brian. “My clothes may be Puritan, but I am of the Church of England, and I intend to prove you don’t have to be a raving Dissenter to have virtue. Nor do you have to be a prude and stay at home doing endless needlework. I shall be a great actress and a good woman. But if Lord Robert wishes to call on me with respectful intentions, I shall have no objection. He is handsome, and he seems kind and intelligent,” she admitted.
“I don’t remember Robert Courtenay ever calling on a lady with respectful intentions,” Brian told her.
Dear God! I’ve already fallen half in love with a rake, made him my vision of Romeo! Arden resolved not to fall the rest of the way.
By now they had arrived in front of a large, plain, wooden house of three stories. Brian turned to go up the steps. Simultaneously, the coach stopped in the street. The occupant got out, but made no effort to catch up with Arden and Brian, seeming content to follow them. Brian entered freely, his right as a boarder, and he held the door for Arden as his guest. Courtenay, however, had to use the knocker. Brian passed a serving girl rushing towards the door, and told her: “It’s Lord Robert, Nan. Where’s Mrs. Davenant?”
“In the kitchen,” called Nan.
Brian led Arden to a cozy room warmed by a huge fireplace and filled with the delicious scent of cooking meat. A small, distinguished-looking woman, cradling a new babe in her arms, stood gazing at a large haunch of beef on a spit over the fire.
“I can wait for Nan to come back to turn it,” she said to Brian. Arden smiled at the musicality of her French accent.
“Madame Davenant, this is Arden West,” said Brian. Arden curtsied, and the woman acknowledged her with a nod and a smile. “Your husband just hired her as an actress, and she’s new to London, so I thought she might have May’s old room.”
“Bien,” said Madame. “Go find Bess and have her tidy it up. You may take Mistress West to see the room, so she may determine whether or not it will be satisfactory.”
Brian wanted to lead her upstairs, but Arden knew they would not make it in time. Before she could voice this feeling, however, Nan returned to the kitchen, short of breath. The maid’s thin body trembled with excitement and her gray eyes danced.
“It’s Robert Courtenay, Madame,” the maid said. “He gives his regards, but he doesn’t want to see you. He asks your leave to speak with the new actress in your parlor.”