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Authors: Caroline Vermalle,Ryan von Ruben

A Flower for the Queen: A Historical Novel (4 page)

BOOK: A Flower for the Queen: A Historical Novel
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Cook, who now stood slightly behind Banks, had the look of someone who was enjoying a comic play but could not laugh out loud. He was almost two decades older than Banks and was dressed in the uniform of a captain of the Royal Navy.

It might have been Cook who commanded the ship on a circumnavigation of the globe that lasted three-years, but on their triumphant return the previous summer, it was Banks who managed to steer a course through the fickle waters of public opinion and lay claim to the title of hero of the expedition.

Banks had taken with him the eminent botanist Daniel Solander, and together they found and brought back over three thousand plant specimens, most of which had never been formally described. Banks’s success had propelled England to the head of the botanical establishment, greatly increasing the importance of the gardens at Kew as well as adding enormously to the work done there. Although William Aiton was officially the director of the gardens, it was an open secret that Banks had made use of his newly formed friendship with the King to transform Kew from a King’s pleasure garden into a botanical repository. If it hadn’t been for Banks, Masson would very likely still be pruning box hedges rather than helping to catalogue the most diverse botanical collection in the world.

Whilst tall and of the same age, where Masson’s looks were unrefined and rough, Banks was remarkably handsome. Where Masson’s class and upbringing had taught him a reflex for deference, Banks deferred to no one, least of all Lord Sandwich, who stood opposite him. The corpulent First Lord of the Admiralty, who constantly dabbed at his forehead and upper lip with a silk handkerchief, was poured over the numerous technical drawings and plans that lay spread out on the desk between them.

Boulton cleared his throat. “My Lord, Sir Joseph, Captain Cook, may I intro—”

“Ah, Mr Boulton!” interrupted Banks. “Just in time! This must be our man.” Banks squared up from behind the table, addressing Masson directly. “Tell me, sir, do you travel light?”

Masson looked searchingly at Boulton for an answer, but the rotund assistant simply closed his eyes and continued to perspire.

“Well?” repeated Banks. “If you were to go on a rather long and arduous sea voyage, would you pack, you know, sparingly?” A wry smile had creased across Cook’s face, but the old Lord was either deaf or did not deign to react, choosing instead to continue poring over the documents before him.

“I … I suppose I would endeavour to, sir, yes,” answered Masson.

“Splendid!” roared Banks, so loudly that the old Lord next to him flinched.

So, not deaf then, thought Masson.

“Congratulations, the job is yours!” roared Banks before continuing in a voice thick with exaggerated ceremony. “Through this thorough examination, you have officially met the exceedingly taxing criteria for selection as set out by the Admiralty Board.”

The Old Lord had put down his magnifying glass with a pained look as Cook cupped his chin in his hand, visibly struggling to contain his laughter.

“On the basis of your ability to travel with the minimum of luggage,” Banks continued, “and on this basis only, you will now take part in this crucial and monumental voyage of discovery, sailing with Captain Cook to the Cape of Good Hope. You will then, at no small expense to myself, spend a few years in the Dutch colony at Cape Town, exploring wild and as yet unmapped territory. You will identify and collect thousands of plant species never before seen by science, in the process increasing the splendour and importance of our King’s Botanical Garden at Kew. In addition to helping to make us the envy of the world’s scientific community, your work will almost certainly help to secure new revenues for the Crown at a time when they are so clearly needed.”

“Excuse me, sir, but did you say the Cape of Good Hope?” Masson asked when Banks paused for breath, an edge of panic creeping into in his voice.

“That is quite enough, Sir Joseph,” blurted the old Lord, his practised look of annoyance beginning to make way for something much darker.

“Mr Boulton, no doubt,” continued Banks, ignoring both Masson and Lord Sandwich, “will have chosen you for your profound knowledge of the natural sciences, the excellence of your craft as a botanist and your proven record in foreign exploration. Such are the standards upon which I am willing to rest my reputation.” Masson looked to Boulton once again, trying to gain confirmation that this was some kind of practical joke. But all he saw was that Boulton appeared on the verge of fainting.

“For the Admiralty Board, however, all this pales into insignificance in comparison to this most extraordinary of talents, and which, in their vaulted estimation, I have found to be so wanting: the ability to travel light!”

“Really, Sir Joseph,” the old Lord huffed, picking up from where he was cut off. “This is an Admiralty expedition undertaken at considerable expense to the Crown and no small amount of risk. You were always our first choice as leader, particularly given your past success, but we simply cannot afford you. We are prepared to make the necessary modifications to the ship’s layout to allow for a reasonable amount of space for tools, equipment and personnel, but not when it requires the building of an additional upper deck!

“If we are to bring back the world, we cannot bring it back in the carpenter’s storeroom, my Lord. But then I suppose you would need to be a man of science to understand,” Banks replied witheringly.

“A ‘personal orchestra comprising four musicians with room for luggage and instruments’,” Lord Sandwich began to read out loud from one of the documents on the desk. “‘Stowage and provisions for a dozen hunting hounds’?”

He paused, and then flung the paper onto the table. “It does not take a man of science to see that you do not wish to bring back the world so much as to take the world with you!”

“The ship did almost capsize in sea trials, Joseph,” Cook interjected in a kind and patient tone.

“And how many times did we almost capsize in the middle of the ocean on the
?” Banks shot back, sounding proud of the achievement and indignant at the same time.

“Yes, but that was in the middle of a typhoon over one of the deepest oceans on earth, not on a fine summer’s day in a gentle breeze, cruising the Thames at low tide.”

“You know the expedition is plagued with enough problems as it is,” Lord Sandwich continued in a voice that suggested the end of the matter was fast approaching. “Let’s just hope we will be able to leave next month as planned. I am sure that Mr Forster and his son will do a splendid job in your absence.”

Banks gave a last exasperated sigh in defeat as Lord Sandwich remained implacable.

“None the less, in recognition of your service and assistance so far, I am more than happy to provide passage to the Cape for …?” Lord Sandwich’s question hung in mid-air as he regarded Masson for the first time.

“Francis Masson, at your service, my Lord,” Masson replied, still stunned.

“Exactly. Well, I believe my business here is finished, and so I bid you all a good day. Sir Joseph, Captain Cook.” Lord Sandwich picked up his cane and hat and left.

Beaten, Banks walked to the window and waited, leaving the rest of the men to fidget in silence until, at last, Lord Sandwich’s carriage moved out of Crane Court before turning onto Fleet Street, the clattering of horses hooves and the sounds of the coachman’s encouragements clearly audible in the sullen quiet that had befallen the room. From the look on Bank’s face, Masson wondered if he wasn’t willing the carriage to explode and as desperate as Masson was to set the record straight, he judged that this would not be the right moment.

“Mr Boulton,” Banks said at last, redirecting his fury to his portly assistant, “Would you care to enlighten me as to the criteria by which you selected Mr Masson?”

“By elimination, sir.”

“Clearly. But on what
did you eliminate the others?”

“On the basis that they failed to find their way to the interview, sir.” Boulton’s face had turned the same colour as his stock. Banks’s only visible reaction was a single raised eyebrow; Cook could only chuckle and shake his head.

Banks turned and walked over to examine Masson, as if trying to assign him to an appropriate scientific taxonomy. After circling twice, he looked Masson square in the face and asked, “Can you dissect a plant and collect its seeds?”

“If I may speak, sir,” Masson started, before pausing as Boulton coughed urgently. Masson turned to see a look of blind panic on Boulton’s face, and his resolve faltered. When he turned back, he found Banks looking at him expectantly.

“I can, sir.”

“Are you familiar with the methods of Linnaeus?”

“I am, sir.”

“Have you travelled a great deal?”

“Would that be within the British Isles or beyond, sir?”

“Beyond, naturally.”

“Not a great deal, sir. In fact, not at all.”

“Not at all …” Banks repeated, turning from Masson to Bolton, who braced himself for a verbal onslaught.

The room fell silent as Banks took a deep breath and then slowly exhaled.

“Were you really that much more experienced when you stepped aboard the
, Joseph?” asked Cook, interrupting the inquisition.

“No, I suppose not,” said Banks, relenting, as he turned to his friend and smiled at the memory.

“Very well, Mr Masson. It seems that you have had the good fortune to apply for a position that no one else wants, and so, in the absence of any suitable alternative, you will go.”

Boulton sighed with relief and cast his eyes heavenwards in silent gratitude and Simmons, who had positioned himself behind Boulton’s back in order to shield himself from any impending disaster, smiled broadly and gave Masson a sincere thumbs-up.

“But, sir,” Masson protested.

“No, Mr Masson, please do not thank me,” Banks said as he began a search of his office, leafing through the columns of paper and opening and closing drawers before finally finding whatever it was he was after.

“You will have the opportunity to discuss your appointment at length with Mr Boulton, but there is one further matter which is of singular importance.” He walked towards Masson, holding in front of him a creased and stained piece of parchment on which was sketched an outline in pencil which had then been roughly filled in bright watercolours.

“This,” continued Banks, “is something I would very much like for you to find and bring back.”

“A bird, sir?”

“No, not a bird. A flower. Forgive the rough drawing, my draftsman had died by the time we stopped at the Cape, and I was stricken with malaria when I saw it. I was certain that I harvested the seeds and pressed a sample for my herbarium, but when I returned to England, I found that the seeds and sample had mysteriously vanished. All I had left was this sketch.” Banks became distracted as he looked at the drawing in his hand, slipping for a moment into reverie. “Like a lady passing in the night, it is entirely possible that I might even have imagined it.”

Masson was about to seize the moment to call set the record straight, but he was entranced by the crude sketch before him. The exotic beauty of the flower transcended the roughness of the rendering, sucking him in and robbing him of his opportunity to speak out.

“You may keep the drawing, but take care of it as I have no other. I showed it to the King, who was very much taken by it. He made me swear that if it were found again, it would be brought back and named after the Queen. Thinking that I would soon have a chance to go back to the Cape, I gave him my word that I would retrieve it myself. But,” Banks smiled wryly, “it seems that the Admiralty has other ideas, and so it falls to you to make sure that I keep my promise.”

Banks paused to allow the full weight of what he had said to sink in before continuing. “This is about more than mere flattery, Mr Masson. Time is running out. The world may be shrinking, but the world of science lies largely unclaimed, and if we are to take our rightful place at the forefront of discovery, then we must act now. We need twenty expeditions, not just one. But expeditions require ships, men and money. Only the King has the kind of influence that could make that happen, and so we dare not disappoint him. But seeds and pressed specimens will not be enough. You must find that flower and bring it back alive. I cannot take the chance of losing it a second time.”

Masson looked around the room and found that everyone was looking at him expectantly, waiting for his response. The leather handle of the wooden box that he still carried in his left hand had become slippery with sweat, and suddenly it felt very heavy. As he looked from face to face, he knew that he was alone in the knowledge that this was all a colossal mistake. He was not the man they were looking for, and he could not afford to hesitate for another moment.

“Sir,” replied Masson slowly but firmly and with only the slightest tremor in his voice, “I am very appreciative of the confidence you have placed in me, but I am afraid that there has been some kind of misunderstanding.”

Masson heard Boulton gag behind him.

“A misunderstanding?” repeated Banks.

“Yes, sir. You see, I only came here this morning at the instruction of Mr Aiton to deliver this specimen to Mr Solander.” Masson held up the box as if exhibiting a piece of evidence to a jury.

Banks’s look of puzzlement was replaced by one of realisation and then of hard determination as he looked from Masson to the box and then back to Masson again. “I’m sorry, Mr Masson, but I fail to see your point.”

“My point, sir, is that I did not enlist for the expedition. I merely wish to fulfil the instructions that I have been given by Mr Aiton and to return to my duties at Kew.”

The silence that followed was profound. Masson did not dare to look behind him, but he was sure that Boulton and Simmons had ceased breathing. Cook was no longer smiling, turned and walked to one of the far windows, removing himself as a witness to the proceedings.

Banks’s lips tightened into a smile, but his eyes remained murderously cold. “I think you will find, Mr Masson, that your duties have just changed. I am sure that I did not understand that you mean to refuse to complete a task requested by your King?”

BOOK: A Flower for the Queen: A Historical Novel
4.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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