Read A Flower for the Queen: A Historical Novel Online

Authors: Caroline Vermalle,Ryan von Ruben

A Flower for the Queen: A Historical Novel (23 page)

BOOK: A Flower for the Queen: A Historical Novel
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“Mr Willmer!” replied Thunberg cheerily. “What a thoroughly unpleasant surprise.”


“Now, now, Willmer. There’s no need for violence, we are men of science after all,” said Thunberg nonchalantly as he dusted leaves and twigs from his sleeves.

“Science?” scoffed Willmer. “Every time we meet, you seem to have your arse in a bush.”

“Thunberg is right, Mr Willmer. I’m sure that all this can be worked out amicably, if we just discuss things like gentlemen.”

“You must have me confused with someone else,” Willmer replied.

Masson’s forced smile disappeared from his face. Willmer chuckled. “Don’t soil your trousers, Masson. You can talk all you want with Mr Schelling. He’s been expecting you, after you were so kind as to announce your arrival.” Willmer’s henchmen held up one of Masson’s discarded sheets, the lines of the flower only barely legible.

Willmer just smiled a sly grin and waved his guns, motioning for the men to walk. Everyone stopped and stared as they were frogmarched down the slope, along the stream and past the women who were still harvesting the flowers.

“And to think that they say there is no civilised company to be found beyond the eastern frontier.” Schelling beamed with irony as Masson and Thunberg arrived at the camp, their bedraggled state appearing anything but. “I am so pleased that you could join us. I was beginning to think that maybe you wouldn’t come. I think you know Eulaeus, and may I introduce the excellent Chief Chungwa, who has so graciously agreed to help us in our endeavours. It’s amazing how much help a few firearms can buy. It seems that the chief has been unfairly displaced from his winter pasture by a rival tribe to the east, and our much-needed gifts will help him to rebalance the scales of justice.”

“You know perfectly well who those arms will be used against,” said Thunberg.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Doctor. Chief Chungwa is beyond the line of the frontier and as such falls outside of the Company’s prohibition on selling arms to the natives.”

“For now,” retorted Thunberg. “But in the winter, he’ll move back across the frontier. There is no rival tribe — just Trekboers. And you’ll be helping to start a war.”

Schelling just smiled. “Careful, Doctor. Your local knowledge is not as good as you think it is. There is, in fact, another tribe to the east, ruled by Chief Ndlambe. He’s on very good terms with the Trekboers, and between them they have pushed Chungwa off his pastureland. But this pact between Xhosa and Trekboer can’t possibly last, and so I feel it is nothing more than my duty to help bring about what is only inevitable.”

“You’re hoping to start a civil war between the tribes? Of course. What better way to get the Company involved — the Xhosa will be buying and stealing any guns they can get their hands on. With enough guns and enough time, the Governor will be forced to send out a garrison, and then it’s only a matter of time before there’s an all-out war.”

“You call it war, Doctor, I call it progress. Progress is inevitable, and the only question is: can you use it your advantage? With your botanical and pharmaceutical wizardry, I would have thought that you’d be more supportive. Those casualties are sure to need relief from their terrible wounds. There’s likely to be a tidy profit in there somewhere, for a man of vision.”

Thunberg shook his head. “Then I suppose I must be blind, because all I can see is a blood-sucking tick.”

“So you say. But I prefer to look at it as taking advantage of a promising situation.”

Thunberg looked first at Eulaeus, who wouldn’t meet his gaze, and then at the chief, who simply scowled at them as if they were wretched creatures dragged up from some foul-smelling pit. Given the time since their last wash, this was probably not too inaccurate an assessment.

“Did I not tell you, my friend,” continued Schelling as he turned to Masson, his grin widening even further as he savoured his moment of triumph, “that a man does not survive alone in Africa?”

“Do you think we are friends?” asked Masson between clenched teeth.

“Would you prefer that we were enemies?” retorted Schelling, his affected bonhomie suddenly slipping.

Schelling reached across to a green-painted wooden chest and pulled out Masson’s journal. “
Mr Masson’s Botanical Travels in the Fair Cape —
well, Mr Masson, your travels are not over just yet. I am sure that the reward Governor van Plettenberg will heap upon me for handing over an English spy will more than make up for the cost of keeping you alive until we reach the Cape.”

“Before you end my life, Schelling, I would be most grateful if you could at least explain how and why it is that you’ve seen fit to destroy it.”

“Oh, my,” exclaimed Schelling in exaggerated awe. “I do believe that the frontier has inspired you to melodrama! Not at all the quiet and serious young man that I remember, but then again, they do say that the frontier will change a man. Don’t they, Mr Willmer?”

“Still looks like the same
to me, Mr Schelling,” replied Willmer, clearly bored by the proceedings. He turned away and walked over to a nearby wagon, giving final instructions to the driver before sending it off across the plain in the direction of the coast.

“I will tell you one thing: Chief Chungwa has assured me that they know of nowhere else the flower grows other than in this ravine. Of course, that’s only his word, and who knows what that’s worth, but at least you’ll have the consolation of knowing that you were one of the few white men to see the flower in its natural habitat. After today, that will be something that not many will be able to claim.

“Once Mr Forster gets the flower to England, and once the King has expressed his deep and bountiful gratitude, it won’t be long before this flower will be in all the botanical gardens in Europe. Of course, if things change, as no doubt they will, and the Admiralty finally get around to taking over the Cape, then who’s to say that there might not be something in this flower business? Your Burnette has been most impressed by the variety and splendour that’s on display here, and I’m beginning to wonder whether perhaps this wretched country might have something to offer after all. I’m not a botanist or a member of the Royal Society like Mr Forster, but I know a profit when I see one, and that flower is pure gold.”

“Well, guns and flowers are certainly an original combination, I’ll grant you that. Where is the remarkable Mr Burnette, anyway, or have you abandoned him in the wilderness, too?” asked Masson.

Schelling ignored the jibe. “As for you, Doctor Thunberg, I’m sure that the Company will also be grateful to me for bringing you back into their warm embrace. No doubt you’ll finally get your wish to board a ship, although I suspect that the degenerate scum you’ll encounter on Robben Island will be a far cry from what you were hoping to meet in the Orient.”

“I don’t know,” replied Thunberg pointedly. “After travelling all the way back to the Cape with your good self and Mr Willmer, I would have thought that the prospect of a life on Robben Island will seem positively marvellous.”

Schelling’s smile tightened. “Well, I can only say that we’ll do our best to live up to your lofty expectations.”

Schelling turned to Willmer. “Mr Willmer, would you be so kind as to see to it that Mr Masson and Doctor Thunberg are placed somewhere downwind so that we can finish our work here and be on our way.”

Willmer nodded and smiled. “They can go in the back of the second wagon. That way, any attacking lions will have something to chew on before they can get at the flowers. Come on, you two, move it!”

Once the Xhosa had finished loading the second wagon, Masson and Thunberg were tied up and piled into the back, where they had a view up the ravine towards the village and the pool at the base of the cliff. They still had not seen any sign of the woman or Burnette. Willmer marched away, first chuckling to himself and then barking orders to Schelling’s slaves, who began to strike the camp and then loaded up the tents and equipment, including the green trunk that held Masson’s journal, into the third and final wagon.

But the load of equipment must have been more than they counted on, because the third wagon’s axles were soon creaking under the strain, even with some equipment and stores yet to pack.

To Thunberg and Masson’s chagrin, these remaining items were thrown into the back of the second wagon, almost on top of them, leaving them squeezed cramped and amongst the bags and boxes. It would be a very long trip back to the Cape.

Masson wondered how long would it take Schelling to realise, if he hadn’t already done so, that bringing them back to Cape Town dead would be just as good as bringing them back alive, and probably more convenient, given that he wouldn’t have to feed them or put up with Thunberg’s jibes.

As he looked back, he saw that Schelling had handed each of the slaves a burning taper from the campfire and that they were walking down the length of the ravine, setting fire to piles of kindling that had been stacked around the remaining flowers. Xhosa men stood guard with green mimosa branches to beat at any of the fires that threatened to spread to the gardens or pasture.

As Thunberg and Masson watched in horror, one by one, the fires were lit, spreading up the ravine engulfing all of the flowers that had not been harvested. They saw smoke rising from above the cliff, a sure sign that even the first flower that Masson had seen had not escaped Schelling’s torch.

Masson’s heart plunged as he saw the simple yet diabolical logic of Schelling’s plan emerge. If all examples of the plant in its natural environment were destroyed, then he would guarantee himself a monopoly. But what if the flowers didn’t survive the trip to the Cape? What if they couldn’t be propagated outside of their native soil and climate? Sometimes seeds sent to Kew from around the world had never been brought to life and each failed seed was one step closer to losing the flower forever.

He raged at the stupidity and sheer greed of it all. He screamed for them to stop, but his pleas were lost amongst the shouts of the fire-starters, beaters and excited villagers. In the end, he could only watch helplessly as the flames consumed the last of the blue-and-gold stars. Just the day before, Masson had given up any hope of finding the flower, reconciling himself to an empty-handed return to England to face whatever consequences lay in wait for him. But now, watching the fires blaze, he knew that he could not just walk away. He did not yet have a clear plan in his mind, but he knew that the first step was to escape.

He began to manoeuvre his hands so that he could work at the ropes that tied his wrists, rubbing them against the edge of a shovel that had been hastily laid in the back of the wagon by one of the slaves.

Just as he cut his hands free, the wagon jolted forward and they began to move. But something was wrong. Willmer had not given the instruction to move out, and Schelling, still in the midst of marshalling the slaves around the fires, seemed unaware that they were on the move.

The wagon bucked and rolled as it picked up speed across the rough terrain, the driver cracking the whip frenziedly and turning the air blue with curses until the team was at a full trot.

Masson looked back again and saw that Schelling and Willmer had now realised what was happening and were yelling and gesturing wildly at the slaves, who dropped their tapers where they stood before running after the wagon. Great shouts trailed after them, some in Dutch and some in Xhosa, as the slaves set off in chase and the villagers raced to extinguish the flames that were leaping up from where the tapers had been dropped.

Masson untied his ankles, made all the more difficult by the motion of the wagon as it sped across the grassy plain, which had seemed so flat and level, but now proved to be anything but. Then he pulled off the knotted rope around Thunberg’s wrists and then tried to clamber over the luggage in the back of the wagon, towards the front, but was thwarted numerous times by the violent bumps and turns. Convinced that the wagon would capsize at any moment, Masson grit his teeth and clawed his way to the front, all the while screaming at the driver, “Slow down or you’ll kill us all!” But his protestations fell on deaf ears, and he was left with no choice but to try to wrest control from whatever lunatic had taken the reins. He managed to get as far as the canvas flap that separated the driver’s seat from the back of the wagon. As he parted the flap, his eyes fell upon the same woman they had seen earlier at Schelling’s side.

As Masson stood there dumbfounded, she turned and smiled before smacking him square on the jaw with the bone handle of her
, sending him sprawling to the back of the wagon.


“You making friends?” Thunberg shouted over the roar of horses’ hooves and wagon wheels as Masson recovered, holding his jaw and half expecting it to come away in his hand.

They had started the day with one adversary who had made plain his intention to deliver them to a long and painfully drawn-out end, and here they were at the mercy of another who, her obvious charms notwithstanding, seemed hell-bent on driving them all to their deaths. The fact that they were caught in the crossfire of whatever war was raging between the two just made it even more perilous — the only question seemed to be whether they would die at the hands of one of them or in some gruesome accident of fate brought about by the conflict in which they were now immersed up to their necks.

A rifle report sounded, followed by the whizzing of a shot that tore through the canvas just above their heads. Masson looked back to see Willmer astride his horse, about two hundred yards behind, followed closely by a slave riding another horse. The two were galloping at full speed and were making up ground quickly.

The wagon swerved violently and then pitched upwards, throwing them both to the ground and sending some of the boxes of plants tumbling out of the back. When it recovered, however, the ride was smoother, and Masson saw that they had left the grassy plain and were now back on a trail, the horses’ hooves and the wagon’s wheels throwing up plenty of rust-coloured dust at the chasing riders.

BOOK: A Flower for the Queen: A Historical Novel
4.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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