Authors: Caroline Vermalle,Ryan von Ruben
Masson knew then that from the moment he had walked through Banks’s door, any chance of returning to his life at Kew had been lost forever.
“No, sir. Of course not.”
“Very well, then. I look forward to hearing of your progress.”
“Yes, sir. I will do my utmost to ensure that neither you nor the King is disappointed.”
“I would expect nothing less,” Banks said without a smile.
Masson sat alone at the foot of the bed in the spare room of his mother’s cottage and smiled at the irony of Banks’s request. He would be travelling “light” not because he had to, but because he had no other choice.
His luggage, which had brought from his lodgings at Kew, consisted of a single leather valise which he carried on a strap that hung from his shoulder and which had his initials, now flecked and fading, stamped onto the battered cover flap that was fixed by two brass buckles. In it were packed his toiletries, two changes of work clothes and his Sunday-best shirt, waistcoat and breeches. In addition to the clothes he wore, this represented his entire wardrobe and, apart from the new shoes that his mother had given him that morning, which he could feel were already causing his feet to blister, almost every item had been patched or mended.
As all of his tools and botanical materials were to be provided for him, the only other things he packed were his most treasured possessions: a small mahogany box and a jackknife. The box, which contained cakes of watercolour paints, brushes, reed pens and a supply of iron-gall ink, was small and robustly made and, like his clothes, had been repaired countless times.
He always kept the small folding knife close to him, as a constant reminder than for its utilitarian value. His father had given it to him before setting off to join the crew of
a ship belonging to the great British privateer Fortunatus Wright.
Masson recalled with a sense of loss the stories his father had told him as a five-year-old boy of the French ships that he would sink and the treasure that he would bring back as his share.
But his father did not return. He was killed at sea, and instead of treasure, Masson’s only inheritance was to be left fatherless and destitute. He never forgot the hole that opened up in his young heart at the understanding that all the stories he had been told of treasure and adventure were nothing more than a prelude to a deep and debilitating sadness.
He took solace in the things that could be depended upon. He did not seek out friendships, nor did he regret their absence. People, Masson decided, would always let you down when you needed them most. Instead, he found solace in his drawings and plants.
Soon after arriving in Hollingbourne, Masson had been put to work as a garden boy at nearby Leeds Castle. He was serious and, unlike the other lads, did not look for any excuse to be off playing at pirates or soldiers in the forest. He worked well and was later apprenticed to the master gardener himself.
The fields and woods that Masson had traversed every day between the cottage and the castle, six days a week, served as his classroom. His natural curiosity led him to ask questions about the flowers and plants that he saw as well as the earth that succoured them and the insects that helped to propagate them. On the one day a week when he was not working at the Castle, he attended the parish Sunday school, where he learned numbers and Latin.
Although his master was harsh and lazy, he was not stupid, and he was quick to see the benefits of an apprentice to whom he could delegate. Soon Masson was able to read from any of the texts in his master’s library and could identify any plant on the castle grounds and quote its reference. He was sent to nurseries to negotiate for plants and trees, and it was not long before it became clear to everyone that Masson was the apprentice by title only.
Word of the esteem and confidence that was bestowed on the young Masson soon reached his master, and he was not pleased. With Masson’s twenty-first birthday on the horizon, his apprenticeship would be completed, and Masson would be at liberty to strike out on his own. With the skill and knowledge that he had so clearly demonstrated, who knew where a precocious talent like that might lead.
In an act that was cloaked in magnanimous generosity, but in reality was spurred by self-preservation, his master wrote a letter of recommendation to William Aiton, the Director of the Royal Gardens at Kew and a fellow Scotsman, insisting that there was no one better qualified for the position of under-gardener than the young Masson.
Kew was at least a full day’s journey away by stagecoach, and although Masson was reluctant to leave his mother, the salary was decent and included food and lodging, which meant that the bulk of his earnings could be sent home. His master at Leeds Castle also made sure that there was a scarcity of reasonable alternatives and so, with little choice other than to accept the position, Masson left his mother’s house and spent the next nine years working in the King’s gardens.
The work suited him well: his position was assured and his life was neatly mapped out. All he needed to do was work hard and remain on Mr Aiton’s good side and he could look forward to a solid, if unspectacular, career.
And yet, here he was, back in his childhood home, packing up his only possessions, with his life changed beyond all recognition. In less than a month he would set foot on a ship, something he had promised himself he would never do, and embark on an even more preposterous adventure than the one that had killed his father.
A sharp knock at the door snapped Masson back to the present as his mother barged in without waiting for his reply.
“Are you finished, Francis? You mustn’t keep them waiting too long.”
Masson hid the box of drawing tools under his coat before turning and smiling at her. He knew she would not approve of his drawing and would see it as a wasteful distraction. He could almost hear her say, “If not a trade, then what use is it?”
“I’ll be down in a just moment,” he replied.
“This is important, Francis, you won’t disappoint me, will you?”
Without waiting for an answer, she turned and left the door half open before returning downstairs, where Masson could hear the forced tones of polite chatter start up again.
He took a deep breath before closing the lid of the chest containing his collection of botanical books. Of all his possessions, these were the only things of any value and would also fetch his mother a not insignificant sum in the event that something happened to him. At least I won’t be leaving her with nothing, he thought as he fastened the lock and then slid the chest under the bed.
He left the room without looking back and descended the stairs, his feet falling heavily on the oak treads, stopping to check his appearance in the looking glass that hung on the wall in the hallway. Of everything that had happened in the last few weeks, what waited for him behind the parlour door was perhaps the most unexpected and least welcome. But it was also inevitable, and he had already given himself over to accepting the outcome along with everything else.
As he entered, he saw that his mother was seated on a hard-backed chair and that opposite her, waving a fan to cool herself, was Mrs Everidge, the wife of a paper merchant from the nearby town of Maidenhead. Seated next to her, but barely looking up, was her twenty-year-old daughter. Constance was a pleasant-looking girl with chestnut hair and ruddy cheeks. Although a little timid, she had a ready smile and did not have even a trace of guile about her.
“Good afternoon, Mrs Everidge. I am so glad that you could come down to Hollingbourne to see us,” Francis said warmly to the older woman before turning to her daughter and bowing awkwardly. “Hello, Constance.”
Constance raised her eyes to his and smiled before blushing deeply and returning her gaze to the joints between the floorboards.
Having exhausted his opening gambit, Masson started to feel flustered as he rummaged around in his brain for something to say. Luckily, he was rescued by Mrs Everidge. “Your mother has just been telling us about your upcoming voyage,” she said, continuing to fan herself. “It sounds extraordinary! Did they say how long you would be away?”
“It is three months by ship to the Cape, but Francis tells me that he should need no more than a few weeks to complete his work and with a bit of luck and a fair wind, he may even be back by Christmas,” said Mrs Masson, answering for her son and putting on her most convincing smile. “Isn’t that so, Francis?”
Francis knew that her estimate was wildly optimistic and regretted having told her so much, but the truth was that he was happy to let his mother commit on his behalf — if nothing else, it would be yet one more reason to return as swiftly as possible.
“It does seem such a long way to go for such a short time,” replied Mrs Everidge, not waiting for Francis’s reply. “But I suppose it’s not as if you were going to war or anything dangerous, is it, Mr Masson?”
Masson turned to answer but instead felt a tug at his sleeve. “Mr Masson, do you know what Captain Cook and Mr Banks ate when they got stranded after their ship struck a reef and almost sank?” Masson looked down at his inquisitor to find Trudy, Constance’s younger sister. At ten years old, she was the opposite of her sister and did not seem to possess a timid bone in her body.
“Oh, Francis,” said his mother, trying to ignore Trudy, “why don’t you show Mrs Everidge the letter you got from Sir Joseph. Oh! How silly of me, I have it right here.” Mrs Masson got up and retrieved the family Bible from the mantelpiece. Opening its cover with a little too much ceremony, she pulled out the letter. “Signed and sealed by Sir Joseph Banks himself!” said Mrs Masson in a hushed, reverential tone as she handed the document to Mrs Everidge.
“Raw vulture!” whispered Trudy, loudly enough for everyone to hear. “It had been dead for a whole day! Don’t you think that’s ghastly?”
“Such penmanship, don’t you agree, Mrs Everidge?” said Mrs Masson, trying to pull the other woman’s attention away from the little girl, afraid that she would ruin everything.
“Trudy, that’s quite enough,” said Mrs Everidge as she turned her attention back to the document. “Now, let me see.
Three-hundred pounds and five acres of land on your return
. My goodness, who would have thought that there was such money to be had in the business of gardening?”
Mrs Masson was hardly able to hide the look of triumph on her face as she carefully took back the document before folding it and putting it back into the Bible, which she returned to its place on the mantelpiece.
“Constance, are you not happy for Mr Masson?” asked Mrs Everidge.
“Yes. Of course. It’s wonderful,” Constance replied, her gaze not shifting from the floor.
“You know,” said Mrs Masson, “I always knew it. A mother does know these things, after all. Oh, I had my doubts, of course. I mean, how was I to know that there would be anything in flowers and trees. When we had our farm in Scotland, you planted things to eat, not to look at. But now it seems the whole country has gone mad for gardens — the gentry especially. Do you know that they are planting American trees in all the big country estates now? Do you know why? For the colours! Can you imagine! Thousands and thousands of pounds to dig up the grounds and plant trees just so that when it comes to autumn they can ride along through shades of yellow and orange instead of green! And the lengths they will go to just to show off some exotic bloom that wouldn’t survive a minute without those heated green houses. It’s all a perfect waste of good farm land if you ask me, but then no one is asking me, are they?” Mrs Masson paused for breath and looked towards her son. “But if it means that they are willing to pay Francis handsomely to go halfway around the world just so that they can have their fancy, then who are we to question it?”
“Mr Masson,” said Trudy, taking her chance at the lull in conversation and tugging again at Masson’s sleeve. “Do you know what they say the natives eat, that’s even more ghastly than dead vultures?”
Masson looked down at the little girl, her bright blue eyes wide in amazement. “They eat sailors! They put them in a big pot, and—”
“Oh, Trudy, do keep quiet,” said Mrs Everidge wearily.
“For heaven’s sake, stop it!” shouted Constance as if on the verge of tears.“Enough with … those … ridiculous inventions!”
“But it’s true! I swear it’s true, I read about it in Papa’s newspapers!” retorted Trudy, hiding behind Francis’s frock coat.
Mrs Everidge turned back to Mrs Masson to offer an apologetic explanation. “Her father insists on encouraging her to read. I told him that it would only lead to trouble.”
“Francis,” said Mrs Masson, exchanging a knowing look with Constance, “why don’t you take Constance and show her the piece of land that you’ve picked out. Besides, I am sure that there are many things you want to discuss before your departure.”
“Yes, very important things indeed,” repeated Mrs Everidge, giving an equally meaningful look to her daughter.
Masson took Constance’s demurely offered hand and led her out of the house, closing the front door behind them. As they walked down the path running from the cottage towards the road, Constance seemed to grow even more nervous.
“This is all so sudden and unexpected, isn’t it?” asked Constance carefully.
Masson just smiled in reply as they continued to stroll down the path, conscious that their every step was being watched by at least two pairs of eyes from within the house.
“It’s over this way,” Francis said, ushering her gently across the lane that led over the hill to Leeds Castle. “It’s not much to look at now, but I think that with a little work it could turn out quite nicely.”
They walked for a few minutes more, the silence broken only by the crunch of the chalk gravel beneath their shoes, and then stopped beside a large open paddock.
Constance looked up at him, waiting for his next words as he stared out at a large open field of Tor-grass, alive with the flowers of wild orchids, meadow clary, clustered bellflower and field cow-wheat. Slightly further back from the road was a small wood that contained beech, hornbeam, yew, ash and even sweet chestnut trees.