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Authors: Caroline Vermalle,Ryan von Ruben

A Flower for the Queen: A Historical Novel (7 page)

BOOK: A Flower for the Queen: A Historical Novel
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“What seems to be the trouble, Mr Forster?” Masson prompted.

Forster kept his eyes on the letter for a moment longer before looking up at Masson to reply. “Would you mind telling me what it is that you
doing here, Mr Masson? Other, that is, than drawing pictures of gardens and writing letters to young ladies in the English countryside?”

“I’m to collect flowers for the King’s Gardens at Kew,” Masson replied simply, folding his arms across his chest.

A predatory light flickered behind Forster’s beady eyes. “Really? The last that I heard was that Lord Sandwich had changed his mind. He made it very clear to me that neither Sir Joseph nor any of his flunkies should take any part in this expedition, and yet here you are.”

“Well,” Masson replied uneasily, “I cannot speak for Lord Sandwich, but my instructions from Sir Joseph were also very clear — I am to go to False Bay to make a study of the surroundings whilst looking for a particular flower.”

“False Bay, you say?” With a final look around the cabin, Forster seemed to lose interest and pushed his way out of the cabin and back into the officer’s mess, a condescending smile creeping from ear to ear. “That would explain it, I suppose. Well, good luck with your flower and I do apologise for taking up your precious time. I suppose I should have known better than to suspect that a mere under-gardener could be entrusted with anything of real, scientific importance.”

Masson was too relieved to see Forster go to entertain any notion of returning the jibe and was about to close the door when Forster stopped and turned back to face Masson again.

“Just one more thing,” Forster said, as if caught by an afterthought. “I stepped ashore at the Cape Verde Islands to undertake some observations and brought back a rather fabulous specimen that I would very much like to keep in your cabin, just so that it is out of the Captain’s gaze until we reach Cape Town, where I can make arrangements for its onward journey. You could think of it as your own small contribution to the science of the voyage, your important and so very secret work in the Cape notwithstanding, of course.”

Before Masson could utter a word in argument, Forster turned and walked out of the mess. “Excellent. I knew we could count on you.”

As Masson watched him waddle off, he tried to calculate the risk of crossing someone as captious as Forster. Besides, what could possibly be so bad about giving up the space under his bunk for a fossil or some other such ancient artefact? Although why the Captain would object, Masson could not imagine.

The younger Forster arrived moments later looking sheepish and apologetic and clearly expecting Masson to refuse. He was carrying a medium-sized bag, the contents of which were moving a great deal more than any fossil should. “I am sorry, Mr Masson,” he said looking at the floor. “If you would prefer not to be involved, then please just say the word. I am sure I can make other arrangements.”

“Absolute nonsense!” boomed his father as he came up from behind, grabbing the sack before pushing past Masson aside and slinging it, still moving, under Masson’s bed. “Mr Masson knows his duty to science and also knows his place in the order of things, Georg. Of course he will oblige us.”

Forster came out of the cabin closing the door behind him, leaving all three men outside. Almost immediately, an almighty crash sounded from within the cabin, suggesting that whatever had been in the bag had managed to escape and was not pleased.

“What the devil?” began Masson as he moved to open the door.

“Now, now, Mr Masson,” the elder Forster blocked Masson’s path, his head once again tilted back so as to give Masson the full benefit of a view of his nasal cavities. “Don’t be alarmed. As I said, think of this as your little contribution. You wouldn’t want me to give Sir Joseph the impression that you were standing in the way of science, would you?”

A series of bangs and crashes now came from the cabin, and the door began to vibrate as if a heavy object was being slammed against it, causing all three men to retreat slightly. Whatever was in there, displeasure had given way to blind fury.

But it was nothing as compared to the anger exuding from Captain Cook, who burst into the midshipmen’s mess with a number of his junior officers in tow, a look of absolute thunder on his face.

“Mr Foster! I have been given to understand that despite my specific orders to the contrary, you have brought a live specimen onto the ship. Is this correct?”

A very loud thump from the other side of the cabin door, followed by several high-pitched screams, provided the answer.

“Mr Masson, would you please care to explain what is in your cabin?” Cook asked, looking at the cabin door, which continued to be hammered from within and which seemed about to be torn from its hinges.

Masson looked from a nervous and sweating Reinhold Forster to Captain Cook. He was torn between two equally awful fates: having his name rubbished to Sir Joseph Banks, or suffering the notorious temper of the Captain. It didn’t take him long to decide that the present danger far outweighed any future one. “I am not entirely sure, Captain. Mr Forster asked if I would give up some space under my bunk for one of his specimens. I admit that I did not have the opportunity to look at it before—” He gestured towards the cabin as another clatter and series of screams erupted. All eyes turned to Reinhold Forster.

Forster cleared his throat and, with as much condescension as he could muster, replied, “Are we not entitled to collect specimens, Captain?”

Cook’s countenance grew so dark that it appeared to Masson that he might very well explode. With no small effort, he turned to Masson and said in a very slow and measured voice, full of menace, “Mr Masson, as it is your cabin, I would normally hold you and you alone responsible for its contents. However, given the circumstances, I sense that would be unjust.” He gave Forster a withering look. “Mr Forster, please recapture the beast immediately and then bring it up to the foredeck where Lieutenant Clerke will have assembled the entire ship’s crew, so that I may explain a few things.”

As swiftly as he had arrived, Captain Cook turned on his heel and left the three men alone at the door as his lieutenants began shouting instructions.


The assembled group left a clear space in the centre of the deck around the capstan, where Forster and Masson now stood, looking up at Cook who glared down at them from behind the wheel on the quarterdeck. Forster had recaptured the monkey, which was once again in a sack hanging from his hand. In the melee and in an attempt to resist capture, the animal had grabbed hold of Forster’s wig, leaving the scientist scratched and dishevelled, his bald and sweating pate glimmering in the sun.

Cook began his lecture. “Some older men amongst you will remember a time when a ship was lucky to reach port with only half her crew dead or suffering from some dreaded disease. Fortunately, it is now the case that Royal Navy ships lose fewer men to sickness than any other naval fighting force in the world. But decks must be scrubbed, clothes and bodies washed and ruthless discipline applied to all matters pertaining to hygiene.” At this point, Cook pointed to the still-moving sack. “We will be facing dangers enough from the elements without creating unnecessary risks for ourselves, and I expect that once an order is given, it is followed to the letter. If any man doubts my resolve, then I will be happy to demonstrate the point by setting an example here today.” Cook turned his gaze to Forster. “Mr Forster, would you please advise us, from a scientific point of view, what the most suitable course of action should now be to remove any threat of contagion?”

Forster, looking wretched, mumbled an inaudible reply whilst staring at the planks beneath his feet.

“I am afraid I did not catch that, Mr Forster. Could you please repeat it for the benefit of all the men whose lives have been put at risk today?”

“Throw it overboard!” Forster shouted back.

“Mr Masson, would you please do the honours?” Cook asked. Masson turned to Forster and held out his hand for the bag.

“In your own time, Mr Forster,” Cook said, with a look that implied otherwise.

Like a small child relinquishing a stolen sweet, Forster gave up the bag to Masson, who walked to the gunwale railing and, with the entire crew looking on, flung the sack over the side and into the passing waves.

The crew cheered as it hit the water with a muffled splash and as every pair of eyes was watched on, Forster’s wig then floated to the surface, resulting in a further round of guffaws and rough laughter as it tumbled amongst the froth of the ship’s wake. Masson saw Forster steeped over in wretched humiliation and almost felt sorry for him — until he saw that unlike the rest of the crew, who craned to see any last sign of the monkey, Forster’s gaze was fixed on Masson, and carried with it a current of pure and undisguised hatred.


Masson returned to his cabin to repair the damage that had been done. Most of his drawings, as well as the bedclothes and anything else not locked away, had either been soiled with excrement or ripped to pieces. He spent the next few hours battling nausea as he scrubbed out the cabin, but at the end he suspected that the cabin had never been cleaner, even if all the dirt that was once inside now coated him instead.

Plastered in sweat, lime and filth, Masson stood wearily to survey his handiwork before restoring his remaining belongings to their rightful place. But before he could cross the threshold, Captain Cook appeared there with a man Masson had not seen before. The stranger was very young, and Masson could tell from his clothes that he was someone of means. In addition to a brand-new hat and shoes that sported silver buckles, he wore a full suit of clothes that looked made to measure and even a little dandyish. Spotless stockings, faun-coloured breeches with intricate green stitching and a starched shirt and stock made it seem like the newcomer had just come from church. Unlike the rest of the men aboard, he was wearing a navy-blue, buttoned-up waistcoat underneath a heavy overcoat, which Masson thought odd given the sweltering heat outside.

“Mr Masson, this is Mr Burnette, a botanist sent by Sir Joseph to meet us at Cape Verde. Mr Burnette was unaware that Sir Joseph was not sailing with us, but has decided to join us nonetheless. In light of today’s events, I have decided to give him the use of your cabin for the rest of the passage to the Cape. You will take a hammock in the midshipmen’s mess instead.”

Cook turned and left, leaving them to examine each other awkwardly.

“I suppose I should thank you, Mr Masson,” Burnette said, holding out a gloved hand.

“Oh, don’t thank me, Mr Burnette,” muttered Masson as he slung his valise over his shoulder and stormed out. “You can thank that blasted monkey.”


, 21 N
, 1805

The old man paused in his tale and looked around at his mostly rapt audience.

The old lady, her face still partially obscured by the poor light and the shadows cast by her bonnet, was sitting so still with her head drawn down towards her chest that Masson would have thought her asleep were it not for the teacup that she kept raising to her lips to take the smallest of silent sips.

Robert looked up and whispered to his brother, “I hope we get to the lions soon.” But Jack had been surreptitiously scribbling in a small notebook and was too engrossed in his writing to pay attention to Robert’s question.

“I heard it mentioned that you worked at the
, Mr Grant,” the old man said innocently, “and I see that you are taking notes. Do you have a column?”

“No,” Jack replied with a sheepish look that implied he felt caught out. “Not yet. I just write the obituaries,” Jack said too quickly without thinking.

“I see. Well, I am rather flattered that you would think me worthy, but hopefully my time has not come just yet,” the old man said.

“Oh, but you’re not — I mean, I wasn’t –” Jack’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “What I mean to say, Mr Masson, is that at the moment I write obituaries, but I have in mind to write a column. At this formative time in our young nation’s history, I wish to write about the inspiring deeds of great men so that we might also be inspired to great things.”

“That’s a noble wish, certainly.”

“When you mentioned Sir Joseph Banks and Captain Cook, I must confess that I thought that perhaps there might be some material that could get me started — after all, it isn’t every day that you hear firsthand of men such as these. Would you mind if I took notes? Nothing would be published unless you approved, of course.”

The old man glanced around the room at his audience before smiling. “I don’t mind if nobody else does.” He waited some moments for anyone to object, but Robert only squirmed with impatience and the old lady to her teacup, her eyes closed, seemingly oblivious to the conversation.

“Very well, Mr Grant. You may scribble away. I only hope that you do not run out of pencil while waiting for whatever it is that you are looking for.”


“So you’re a botanist?” The words were fired across the table like an accusation. Even though their meaning appeared benign, their speaker and his tone caused the table to fall silent until only the thumping of the waves against their timber cocoon and the scraping of cutlery against china plates could be heard.

In spite of his reprimand, Reinhold Forster had been allowed back to dine at the captain’s table, but he had not spoken a word all evening. In view of his usual combativeness, the other diners had been more than a little relieved, and up to that point the conversation around the table had been easy and light, as the food was excellent, the ship’s stores having just been replenished at Cape Verde.

But now the question hung gloomily over the table, and Burnette, who had thus far made an effort to avoid conversation and attention, was thrust into the centre of both.

BOOK: A Flower for the Queen: A Historical Novel
7.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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