It all began with Ganymede.
He'd tasted the decadence of blank verse--Marlowe's mighty line, inexorable and thrumming, a strange, martial lullaby--and gorged on it. And when the Cockpit's boy was found dead drunk half an hour before the (admittedly illicit) performance of Dido, Queen of Carthage and John Rhodes' little apprentice in the draper's shop admitted he'd been listening on rehearsals, well, the rest was history.
He received no fewer than twenty jewels for his ear and ten fine brooches, each of which he wore pinned to his hat on subsequent nights, with very little else for costume. The audience was as breathless as Jupiter as little Neddie Kynaston strutted about, flirting like a court coquette with each and every one of them. They would have denied him nothing.
Nor did he deny them, taking callers in the dingy backstage rooms as if he were Good Queen Bess herself. The theatre's managers watched, and wondered if their futures might be brighter than expected.
Ned laughed--a boy's laugh and a whore's at once, the very essence of Ganymede--and agreed to join the company.
They tried him out in the men's roles every now and again, but there was never a woman to match him. His Viola was full of aching sweetness as she prayed for time to lead her to better fortune, while his Portia cast secretive smiles at the audience. He might have played Beatrice, but for the fact that he fainted exquisitely as Hero, drawing a standing ovation from the audience in the middle of the fourth act.
It was the first time too that a liveried footman slipped backstage to deliver a whispered message. There was no transformation that night, only Ned creeping back into Master Rhodes' house at dawn, rouge smudged and wig askew, his eyes revealing nothing of what had passed. His smile was as icy as the Thames in winter. "I am but the sight and semblance of my honour."
Hero fainted just as beautifully that night as she had the last.
On St George's Day in the year of Our Lord 1660, His Majesty Charles Stuart was crowned King of England. In celebration, Ganymede returned to the stage in a different guise.
The Cockpit was full, floor and galleries alike, and rumour had it the King might even attend. Ned's smiles and quips that had once delighted naught but rogues, drunkards, and whoremongers now shone upon the flower of English nobility. The Duke of Buckingham himself, it was told, could not take his eyes from Rosalind-as-Ganymede.
"Jupiter, indeed," Master Rhodes muttered to Thomas Betterton. "It is a different world."
"Aye, and it could be Ned's if he plays his cards well."
Betterton nodded. "I know just the play."
The entire company thought he was mad. Ned was their greatest asset and Betterton would have him silent for the first three acts? That, Betterton tried to tell them, was the point. For a man such as Buckingham, it was best to let him choose how he would be reflected in Ned--the dance of patronage was a delicate one and the patron was always the man.
Indeed, Ned was the only one who trusted him.
He stepped onto the Cockpit's stage as Epicœne, Jonson's silent woman who spoke volumes to the audience through her dark, dangerous eyes and the mask of lady's courtesy. When she was unmasked in the final scene as a conniving boy, it seemed to Betterton--between groans of comic horror--that Ned was looking directly at the box where Buckingham sat. The gauntlet had been thrown.
Betterton watched Ned that night as he sat before his mirror. It had become a ritual before the performance and after. Always the same movements, the same patterns. Everything Ned did was a pattern, poised and calculated to delight; Betterton, in contrast, was a study in authority, in filling spaces that would--God willing--only grow grander with time. It had been bold, what Ned had done to Buckingham; he hoped, not too bold.
"Pretty truths, Tom. Men like Buckingham deal in them."
"Who will you be for him, then?" Betterton asked. It was a conversation they'd had many times. "Have you decided?"
Ned shrugged. His shoulders were white and smooth as any court lady would desire. "Grace my immortal beauty with this boon, And I will spend my time in thy bright arms."
"I had hoped Buckingham would have more imagination."
"Do you doubt my ability to improvise?"
"Never." Betterton smiled. "Letters patent, Ned. You know what we need."
"Never fear, Tom." Ned's smile was a knife-edge. "Ganymede seduced Jove; I need only seduce the Duke of Buckingham."
By summer's end, the King himself had taken charge of their company. Ganymede had seduced Jove after all.