As Catherine’s chair stopped and the door was opened, her breath came quick, and she felt a thrill through her palms and soles. She sprang easily out onto the swept street and took Charles’s waiting arm. A brief progress under the oyster-gray sky, a refreshing chill and the smell of roasting chestnuts, and then they were inside, through a dim passage to a bright, vast, open space: the newly built Theatre Royal on Drury Lane.
Afternoon light through a dusting of snow on the great glass dome overhead filled the house with a diffuse glow, warmed by hundreds of candles in sconces. Fresh evergreen garlands looped the walls and galleries, perfuming the air with laurel, resin, and rosemary. Musicians played beneath the raised stage, above which towered the fresh-gilded proscenium and red velvet stage curtain. Thousands of brass nailheads glittered like eyes on the green-baize-covered benches in the pit, where the audience sat or milled about—servants, artisans, merchants, and people of quality mixing in cheerful promiscuity. A chattering throng filled the three levels of galleries that ringed the pit nearly to the high ceiling. The first gallery opposite the stage, however, stood empty, waiting for the court.
Catherine held on tightly to Charles’s arm, feeling his warmth all the way through his brocade sleeve and her leather glove. She was distantly aware of Thomas Killigrew greeting them—she must have acknowledged his bow—but her head buzzed as though it were hollow and full of bees.
Charles was magnificent, as ever, in black-and-gold brocade. But today all eyes were not on him, but on his queen, clad in the daring new fashion for ladies brave enough to wear it: a suit of men’s clothes!
She, Mister Hammett, and the invaluable Jenny had designed it: the doublet and breeches made of claret red silk velvet, embroidered with silver thread and pearls; the close-fitted waistcoat of silver-and-gold-flowered brocade; the pearly silk linen hose outlining her legs from just above the knee down to her very pretty embroidered red-heeled shoes. A miniature velvet three-cornered hat nodding with plumes perched on her dark wig, curling locks tumbling down over her shoulders.
Charles’s expression when she showed herself to him before they left Whitehall was a memory she would cherish, for he was not easy to surprise—his jaw had dropped. And then he had looked at her much as he was looking now, with frank and sensual appreciation. She was not so certain of her subjects’ approval. After all, the English were suspicious of Catholics and foreigners, and her illness—her miscarriage of the heir—had kept her out of the public eye for months. In short, she was nervous almost to sickness. But as they swept through the crowd, Catherine saw no frowns on the faces turned to her, no disdain for her clothing or her person, no judgment or suspicion or dislike, but only astonishment, followed by delighted smiles, curtsies, and deep, admiring bows.
Charles led her up the stairs and across the royal box—large as a generous reception chamber, and most charmingly appointed—so that she might acknowledge the crowd come to celebrate the king’s first visit to the newly reopened home of his personal company. It would be at least an hour before the play would begin, Thomas Killigrew had told her when she was planning this event—an hour sacred to the earthly delights of gossip, flirtation, and intrigue.
Saluting the throng of eager faces below, she thought that whatever passed in the royal box was the play, at least until the curtain opened. She murmured so that only Charles could hear, “Tell me again that I am not the most shocking spectacle the world has ever seen?”
Charles looked into her eyes. “Exceedingly shocking, sweeting. Also glorious, radiant, and all things extraordinary, and I will tell you so as many times as you would like to hear it.”
“Oh, do not promise that, for I fear between vanity and doubt I will keep you saying it until long after the play is done and the sweepers are longing for their beds!”
Charles laughed, and Catherine thought there was little in the world she liked better than being the cause of that laughter.
He said, “Nay, if you truly need to be reassured, only look about you. There is not a man in the place who doesn’t admire you, nor a woman neither.”
“I care not what anyone thinks but you.”
“Your luck is in, then. For in all most heartfelt sincerity, Cat,”—his voice lowered, as though he wished to be unheard by any but her—“you quite turn my head. I believe you know how I love a play, but I could wish it over and done, so we were alone in your bedchamber, and I on the point of enjoying the novel pleasure of undressing a man.”
Catherine squeezed his hand, as though in earnest of later touches, and felt his pulse beating against hers. “I must be as bold as my clothes proclaim me, and say . . . and say . . .” Then she shook her head smiling, leaving her blush to speak for her....