You can do this, Kitty Cobham told herself sternly, as she waited in the wings with the others for their entrance.
If Mrs. Siddons could do it, so can I. And unlike her, there had been no youthful disaster to overcome, no ghosts to exorcise. Just a steady rise through the company, until her feet were poised on, or nearly on, the topmost rung of the ladder.
Juliet in a barn two years ago. Hermia in Cheltenham just after that. And last spring, Lydia Languish, right here at the Lane, in a performance that had been quite well-received.
But Lydia was rather a silly chit. Tonight, she would play a woman of spirit, wit, and passion--in one of the Bard's best. Oh, she could still play the ingenue at twenty-seven--twenty-eight as of tonight, she corrected herself with an inward wince--but, given the choice, who would be Silvia or even Miranda when Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra beckoned?
Or the part she was to play tonight. And the best birthday present she could give to herself was a perfect performance. She only hoped everyone in the cast was on their mettle as well.
The curtains parted, and she moved onstage with the rest, sensing the audience waiting avidly beyond the pit. Languidly, she plied her fan, exchanged amused or excited glances with her three fellow actresses as their parts dictated, and waited for her cue.
It came, not quite thirty lines into the play, as the two gentlemen speaking fell silent--and she lofted her words like tennis balls, pitching them high and clear to the back of the theatre, asking a question that sounded inconsequential but was, in truth, vitally important.
"I pray you, is Signor Mountanto returned from the wars or no?"
A triumph. Exhilarated and exhausted, Kitty sat before the mirror long after the other actresses and the various well-wishers had gone. A few minutes more and she would head back to her lodgings, but for now, it was pleasant just to sit here, basking in the glow of what had been, for the most part, a splendid performance. Examining her face in the glass, Kitty was gratified to see that her happiness made her look quite a bit younger than her years. Not that there was anything wrong with being twenty-eight, she amended hastily. Indeed, she could see herself being twenty-eight for the next several years . . .
A knock brought her attention back to the present. Mrs. Perry, the dresser, glanced inquiringly at Kitty, then--at the younger woman's nod--moved to answer the door.
"Miss Cobham?" A tall man in elegant evening clothes peered into the room. "Forgive the intrusion. I am Lord Covington, and I have a friend here who is most anxious to meet you."
One did not refuse the Quality, Kitty knew. Rising, she turned a dazzling smile upon her visitor. "I should be delighted to make his acquaintance. Do come in, gentlemen!"
Covington entered first, an even more impressive sight at close range . . . and to Kitty's astonishment, a small boy--no older than ten or eleven--followed him into the room.
Pausing before Kitty, he sketched a tentative bow, graceful despite his youth. "Miss Cobham."
A pretty child, she thought indulgently, with hair that gleamed red-gold in the lamplight and blue eyes bright with curiosity.
"Nothing would do for him but that he must come backstage and meet you," Covington explained. "It's his birthday, after all."
"Indeed?" Kitty smiled at the boy. "Why, how wonderful! Today is my birthday, as well. How old are you, young sir?"
"Ten," he replied promptly, eyes lighting up. "And you, ma'am?"
"Archie!" Covington remonstrated.
Kitty threw back her head and laughed heartily. "I am afraid, young sir, that you must never ask any lady that question--not least because she will never answer it! But did you enjoy the play?" she added quickly before the boy, now pink with embarrassment, could bolt.
Embarrassment receded. "Oh, yes--it was wonderful." Blue eyes smiled confidingly into hers. "I'd not seen Shakespeare put on before. My tutor always makes him so boring."
"Ah." Kitty nodded. "Well, Shakespeare is our master playwright--and I think he must be seen to be fully appreciated. Shall you come to the Lane again?"
"Oh, yes, I should like that very much!" He looked almost incandescent at the thought.
"Then I shall look forward to seeing you again, Master Archie." Kitty smiled into the bright face. "It is never too early to become a lover of the theatre."
"No, ma'am." His eyes were still shining.
"I think we are keeping Miss Cobham from her bed, Archie," Covington interposed. "Come, make your farewells now."
Contrite, the boy sketched another bow. "Goodnight, Miss Cobham. It was a pleasure meeting you."
"Likewise, Master Archie." Kitty swept him a curtsy. "And many happy returns!"
"And to you, ma'am," he replied with another brilliant smile.
"Your aunt and sisters are waiting for us in the passage," Covington told the boy. "Why don't you run along and join them?" Then, as Archie moved obediently off, he added in a low voice to Kitty, "Thank you, ma'am, for your kindness. Not everyone would be so courteous to a child."
"Not at all," she replied. "Your--nephew is a delightful young man."
Covington's brief nod told her she had guessed correctly. "My wife and I have not been blessed with children ourselves. But Archie is a good boy, and we are always glad to have him stay with us. You have given him a great gift tonight--no doubt he'll be talking about it for days!"
Kitty smiled. "He's given me one as well--and I shall not forget it. We have both enjoyed some birthday largesse."
"So you have." Eyes twinkling slightly, his lordship bowed to her. "Many happy returns, Miss Cobham."
She curtsied to him in her turn. "Thank you, Lord Covington--and goodnight."