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Authors: Caroline Vermalle,Ryan von Ruben

A Flower for the Queen: A Historical Novel (6 page)

BOOK: A Flower for the Queen: A Historical Novel
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“I was thinking of building a nursery,” he said, breaking the silence at long last. “The green house will go there.,” he pointed to the edge of the field, but Constance’s gaze did not follow, but stayed fixed on his face. “And over there, the saplings: kalmias, rhododendrons and magnolias, shielded from the wind by a copse of box. I still know many of the gardeners from the estates nearby, and I am sure they will come.”

A further silence followed, but this time it was Constance that broke it. “Our friends the Richardsons planted an oak tree when their son was born.”

“An oak tree?” Masson repeated. “I’m not sure if there’s much of a market for oak trees.”

Constance turned away from him to hide the tears that had begun to form. Realising his blunder, Masson tried to make amends. “Of course, an oak tree would be just the thing to give some shade to the front garden of the new cottage.”

“Well, we’re sure to need more room and there’s more than enough land.”

“Oh, Francis,” she said, grabbing onto his arm with both hands. “Do you mean it? Do you really mean it?”

Masson looked back at the house and saw the outlines of the two older women watching from behind the window and even without seeing the looks on their faces, he knew what was expected of him. As he turned his eyes to Constance, he brought his hand up to cover both of hers. “Yes. I do.”

“Then I will wait for you.” Constance sighed with relief as tears of anguish transformed into tears of joy. She buried her head in his chest and then tore herself away and hurried back to the house to break the news to her mother. Masson could imagine the two older women still standing behind the parlour window, congratulating each other on a job well done.

As Masson watched Constance bounce back up the path, barely able to contain her joy with each successive step, he realised that everything was settled for his return to England: prosperity, a wife and, hopefully, a family — all he had to do was make it back alive.

But as Trudy’s innocent questions mingled in his mind with the look in Constance’s eyes when she spoke of the oak tree, Masson’s pulse began to climb and a feeling of dread coursed through his veins.

Hoping that his face had not betrayed his doubts, he turned away from the house and closed his eyes so that he could feel the calming effect of the cool breeze on his face. From the recesses of his memory, he heard his mother pronounce her favourite mantra with such clarity that she could have been shouting it from the doorstep of the cottage: “You won’t disappoint me, will you, Francis?”

After taking a long, deep breath, he tried to relax his neck muscles and forced his mouth into a smile. Then, with slow deliberation, he put one foot in front of the other and, bit-by-bit, managed to build up a decent stride back in the direction of the house.

As he came closer, he could already hear the contented clucking of the women as they gathered around and basked in the good news that they had been hoping, planning and preparing for. As he reached the threshold, Masson stopped and took one last look at the land, and tried to see again the nursery that he had described to Constance. But before his mind could conjure up the vision, he felt Trudy tugging at his hand, and he let himself be pulled into the house and into the heart of their joy.


13, 1772, P

As dawn broke over Plymouth harbour, the cries of ravenous gulls competed with the shouts of impatient sailors and the curses of weary stevedores. The seamen of the
were keen to catch the outgoing tide, but the dockhands had been loading cargo all night, and they weren’t to be rushed.

“Well, Mr Masson,” blurted out Simmons, who had divined Masson’s mood and who himself could not think of a worse fate than spending three months at sea aboard a converted coastal collier crewed by a hundred of the roughest men he had ever set eyes upon, “I am sure your voyage to the Cape will be a great success. We have every confidence in you! Don’t we, sir?”

“It’s not the Cape that will test Mr Masson’s mettle, Simmons, but his return to England as a successful adventurer!” corrected Boulton. He then added a little wearily, “All that fame and fortune can change a man, all right.”

Suddenly, the already noisy dock was plunged into cacophony as a carriage careened at full speed along the dockside, scattering men and cargo in all directions, accompanied by curses that turned the salty air blue. Masson saw the head of Sir Joseph Banks protruding from the side window cursing at the slower moving pedestrians. Catching sight of Masson, he bellowed, “Masson, wait!”

The carriage slowed in front of the three men as the coachman pulled violently on the reins. Banks, not waiting for it to stop completely, fumbled with the door latch before flinging it open, almost knocking Simmons unconscious in the process. Peering inside the open carriage, Masson noted piles of documents scattered around Banks, who looked as if he had just come from the breakfast table — he was still dressed in a blue silk banyan and was wearing stockings and slippers instead of shoes. He looked haggard and annoyed and seemed to be searching for something amongst the piles of papers.

“Things have changed,” he blustered as he motioned for Masson to join him inside the carriage.

As he looked around for somewhere to sit, Masson dared to hope that perhaps Banks was here to deliver the news that he was not to be going after all. But before he could even begin to hope, Simmons slammed the carriage door, sending Masson tumbling into the far corner opposite Banks.

“Lord Sandwich and I were talking last night, Masson,” explained Banks without even looking up. “And you know I think him a man with a supremely scientific mind.”

“Sir?” Masson stammered, remembering only that the two seemed ready to strangle each other when last he had seen them together.

Banks, still searching, motioned for Masson to stand up from his seat, whereupon Banks exclaimed, “Ah ha!” He retrieved a document that Masson had been sitting on and opened it out on his lap. It was a map of the Cape of Good Hope.

“As I was saying, I was talking to Lord Sandwich last night, and we are in full agreement.”

“Yes, sir,” Masson said, waiting for the news that would send him back to his safe and careful life in fragrant bosom of Kew Gardens.

“Here. The Dutch colony is here: Cape Town. Here, about a day’s ride, is False Bay. Can you see?” Banks’s finger stabbed at the jagged outline of a deep bay at the tip of the continent.

“The retrieval of the Queen’s flower is your primary objective, of course, but first I would ask that you take a survey of this area, as soon as you arrive. It should not take you long — a day or two at the most.”

A beat passed as Masson realised that he was not to be dismissed after all. “Very well, sir,” he said, trying to hide the disappointment from his voice.

“False Bay,” repeated Banks, as if to be sure that Masson had understood. “Particularly the area around Muyssenberg and Simon’s Town.
is where you must go and explore right away without delay.

“It is here that there are innumerable species of plants yet to be described, and so you will report to me everything which is useful for the advancement of science. Plant life, of course, but also geography, weather patterns, fauna, hydrology — very important, hydrology, you know, water points, streams, et cetera. And don’t forget to make a note of human habitation, encampments, roads and that sort of thing. Our maps are a bit out of date, and we wouldn’t want to record the location of the Queen’s flower in the wrong place now, would we?”

“No, sir.”

“You will be keeping your own journal, of course,” continued Banks, “But you should make copies of your notes and send them to me personally by letter. It is extremely important that no one else sees their contents, and make sure that the letters are sent using only British ships.”

Boulton’s face appeared at the open window. “Excuse me, sir, but I believe that Captain Cook is keen to depart. He says to tell you that time and tide wait for no man, not even for Sir Joseph Banks.”

Banks nodded with a grin, and Masson got up to leave, pausing at the door. “Do you think that is where the Queen’s flower can be found?”

Receiving no reply, Masson repeated his question. “The flower, sir. Do you think—”

But before he could finish his question, Banks replied with a more than a hint of impatience, “Not a doubt in my mind, Masson. Good luck and travel safely. I look forward to reading your first report. Take the map and take those as well.” Banks gestured to several large volumes entitled
Miller’s Gardener’s Dictionary
, lying on the seat next to him.

“Thank you, sir, but I am sure they would not fit in my luggage.” Banks missed the joke and began to protest, but Masson continued, “Besides, I know them all by heart, sir. These and the previous seven editions.”

Banks’s only reply was a thin, humourless smile as he banged on the roof of the carriage, signalling for the driver to move on.

Masson watched as the carriage trundled off the dock and then turned to say his perfunctory goodbyes to Simmons and Boulton, who had been standing by the open window and had heard every word.

Despite their role in Masson’s predicament, the firmness of both men’s handshakes cheered him: if things didn’t work out, perhaps he might at least have someone in his corner. With the goodbyes over, Masson clambered up the gangplank, then leaned against the gunwale and waved farewell as the ship cast off.

“False Bay?” asked Simmons, still waving. “Isn’t that the part of the coast where the Royal Navy plans to—”

“Indeed,” replied Boulton, “but I am sure that Sir Joseph and Lord Sandwich know what is best. As long as Mr Masson believes he is looking for the Queen’s flower, he should be fine.”

“Of course,” replied Simmons. “Although I can’t help but think we’re sending him straight into the lion’s den, so to speak.”

Without another word, Simmons and Boulton carried on smiling and waving until the
had passed from the safety of the harbour and into the vast expanse of open water, taking Francis Masson with it.


14° L
, -24° L

“Catch that monkey!”

Masson, seated at his desk, looked up from trimming the nib of his reed pen, unsure that he had heard correctly.

rocked gently from side to side, its rigging creaking in time with the gentle groaning of the timbers as it made way from its anchorage at the Cape Verde Islands. Hearing no further shouting from above deck, Masson frowned and crumpled up yet another failed attempt at a letter to Constance. Fixed to one end of the table was a hemp sack that served as a waste-paper basket. Masson tossed the paper towards it, missing the sack and adding to the growing collection of screwed up sheets on the lime-washed floor.

In writing to Constance, he tried to describe the ship’s daily routine, rambling on about the food and reassuring her that it was not as bad as he had feared. He scribbled about the Captain’s obsession with cleanliness and how from hands to gunwales, there was nothing that escaped his inspection. He wrote about his cabin, which had a ceiling so low that he was unable to stand upright, but which had a porthole so that at least he could get fresh air and a glimpse of the sky. He even wrote about the trivial spats between the officers at the dining table and how it was clear that whilst he sat at the Captain’s table, there were definitely those amongst his fellow diners who resented his presence and wondered why he wasn’t messing with the midshipmen or the marines.

He seemed to write endlessly and yet to say nothing at all. By contrast, he had managed to produce a set of drawings and sketches so precise that it was as if his new garden had been planted and already grown to maturity, each tree and shrub carefully drawn and each area of planting carefully measured out. Why, he wondered, was writing to Constance so much more difficult than describing his imaginary garden?

He dipped his reed pen into the bottle of ink one more time and pulled out a fresh page, intent on finding the words that would at least ease the worry that he knew she would be feeling.

Just as Masson finished sealing the letter with wax, there was a knock at his cabin door. He stood up, bumping his head for the hundredth time, and pulled back the latch to find the rotund frame of Mr Reinhold Forster, the ship’s chief scientist, filling the opening.

Forster was travelling with his son Georg, who seemed bright and decent. But the older man compensated for his son’s good nature by being condescending, accusatory and patronising all at the same time, amounting to quite an achievement in unpleasantness that had already earned him the reputation as the least liked person on-board. Compounding his surly personality was a pronounced body odour noticeable even on the decks of the common sailors. Despite Captain Cook’s orders for all aboard to wash regularly with cold water, Forster felt that, as with many of the ship’s regulations, he was exempt. Masson had tried to steer clear of him, but there was no escaping him now.

“Mr Masson.” Forster stood a full foot-and-a-half shorter than Masson with his head tilted back so that he was still able to look down his nose at the taller man opposite. “I was wondering if you could spare a moment?”

Forster did not wait for Masson’s reply before barging into the cabin. It was barely big enough for Masson by himself, let alone a companion with a girth as generous as Forster’s, and so Masson stepped back onto the threshold, with one foot in the cabin and one foot in the midshipmen’s mess, only just saving himself from being crushed but grateful that his nostrils were spared the full force of the smell that was so thick, Masson was surprised it did not colour the air. Forster looked around him, unashamedly inspecting Masson’s belongings, clearly in no hurry to share whatever it was that was on his mind. He examined the drawings of Masson’s garden with academic interest but when his eyes came to rest on the letter, the extinguished wick of the sealing wax still smoking, they lingered longer than was warranted.

BOOK: A Flower for the Queen: A Historical Novel
7.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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