It must be said that in everything that was external, except her beauty, she fell short of a fastidious taste. She was intensely ignorant even for that time. She spoke in a broad Cockney dialect. She had lived the life of the Coal Yard, and, like Zola’s Nana, she could never remember the time when she had known the meaning of chastity.
Nell Gwyn was, in fact, a product of the vilest slums of London; and precisely because she was this we must set her down as intrinsically a good woman—one of the truest, frankest, and most right-minded of whom the history of such women has anything to tell. All that external circumstances could do to push her down into the mire was done; yet she was not pushed down, but emerged as one of those rare souls who have in their natures an uncontaminated spring of goodness and honesty. Unlike Barbara Villiers or Lucy Walters or Louise de Keroualle, she was neither a harpy nor a foe to England.
Charles is said first to have met her when he, incognito, with another friend, was making the rounds of the theaters at night. The king spied her glowing, nut-brown face in one of the boxes, and, forgetting his incognito, went up and joined her. She was with her protector of the time, Lord Buckhurst, who, of course, recognized his majesty.
Presently the whole party went out to a neighboring coffee-house, where they drank and ate together. When it came time to pay the reckoning the king found that he had no money, nor had his friend. Lord Buckhurst, therefore, paid the bill, while Mistress Nell jeered at the other two, saying that this was the most poverty-stricken party that she had ever met.
Charles did not lose sight of her. Her frankness and honest manner pleased him. There came a time when she was known to be a mistress of the king, and she bore a son, who was ennobled as the Duke of St. Albans, but who did not live to middle age. Nell Gwyn was much with Charles; and after his tempestuous scenes with Barbara Villiers, and the feeling of dishonor which the Duchess of Portsmouth made him experience, the girl’s good English bluntness was a pleasure far more rare than sentiment.
Somehow, just as the people had come to mistrust “Madam Carwell,” so they came to like Nell Gwyn. She saw enough of Charles, and she liked him well enough, to wish that he might do his duty by his people; and she alone had the boldness to speak out what she thought. One day she found him lolling in an arm-chair and complaining that the people were not satisfied.
“You can very easily satisfy them,” said Nell Gwyn. “Dismiss your women and attend to the proper business of a king.”
Again, her heart was touched at the misfortunes of the old soldiers who had fought for Charles and for his father during the Civil War, and who were now neglected, while the treasury was emptied for French favorites, and while the policy of England itself was bought and sold in France. Many and many a time, when other women of her kind used their lures to get jewels or titles or estates or actual heaps of money, Nell Gwyn besought the king to aid these needy veterans. Because of her efforts Chelsea Hospital was founded. Such money as she had she shared with the poor and with those who had fought for her royal lover.