Authors: Caroline Vermalle,Ryan von Ruben
“Yes, I am,” Burnette replied stiffly in a voice seemed younger than even his youthful features suggested. Despite its high-pitched tenor, his reply was unflinching in the face of Forster’s rudeness, brim full of confidence and the clipped vowels and clear annunciation of a member of the gentry.
“Have you any formal qualifications? Have you published? Or did you gain your place in Sir Joseph’s favour simply by riding with the same hounds?” Forster pressed, then before turning to his son and elbowing him. “Georg has travelled with me on all my expeditions since he was ten years old. I would wager that he was discovering new species while you were still sucking on your wet nurse’s teat. Go on, Georg, tell them about the history of Russia that you had published at the age of thirteen.”
The younger Forster cringed at his father’s side. “Please, father, it was only a translation.”
“It is true,” Burnette said, rescuing the younger Forster, who was trying to escape the pitying looks that had descended upon him, “that Sir Joseph and I have ridden in the same hunt together many times, but I learned everything I know from the gardeners who worked on my family’s estate, and from Sir Joseph’s kind tutelage, of course. It’s amazing what you can pick up when you are fortunate enough to be surrounded by men who see knowledge as something to be shared rather than something to be used as a cudgel to browbeat and belittle.”
“Well,” said Forster, casting a sly look at Masson, who was seated next to Burnette and who thus far had managed to remain anonymous. “As our resident gardener, perhaps Mr Masson could continue your tutelage whilst the rest of us get on with the real work of science.”
“I assure you that I need no tutor, Mr Forster,” Burnette snapped. “I have an herbarium of several thousand specimens and have classified hundreds of non-descripts, many of which were part of Sir Joseph’s own collection from the
. But perhaps you would suggest that old age and a comfortable seat in one of the libraries at the Royal Society are more desirable qualifications?”
The diners had hitherto been looking on like spectators at a gladiatorial match, waiting to see how the new arrival would acquit himself against the old hand. They chuckled audibly into their goblets of wine as Forster winced, his horn-shaped eyebrows almost dancing at the effrontery of the slight.
“Gentleman, please,” Captain Cook cut in, ending the sparring match before it escalated further. “We have already lost one good man overboard today, and I won’t have duelling reducing our numbers further.”
The chortles and guffaws of the men were swiftly silenced as they all remembered the fate of the ship’s carpenter, who had fallen overboard earlier that afternoon. Before the ship had been able to come about to pluck him from the water, he had been devoured by the pack of sharks that was a constant companion to the ship and which, till then, had been scavenging off the waste and scraps that were thrown into the sea.
As the pancakes were served for dessert, Burnette apologised to the captain, giving the lack of sea legs as an excuse to retire.
With venom leaking from every pore, Forster did not touch sugared morsels that were placed in front of him and watched as the young botanist departed. Masson was left isolated and alone at his end of the table, and he ate and sipped at his wine, hoping that the meal would end soon and wondering if he would have the strength, as Burnette had shown, to simply walk away.
Reinhold Forster looked around belligerently, before his gaze finally settled on Masson, who bristled under the weight of the older man’s stare, waiting for the words that he was sure would come. Masson busied himself with the pancakes and tried to hide behind his goblet as he took draught of the French wine, thinking that it tasted unnaturally sweet on his palate.
When Forster did open his mouth, he was cut off by a strangled groan that escaped from one of the young mid-shipmen, who then proceeded to be violently ill. But before Masson had time to react, he too was felled by agonising stomach cramps and in the chaos that ensued, almost the entire contingent of the captain’s table fell to retching and writhing.
Those that could ran outside to get above decks so that they could be sick overboard whilst others, like Masson, were simply too stricken to move and fell to the floor, passing in and out of consciousness as sickness took hold of them and throttled them to the brink of endurance.
“Gentleman, place your bids for our next item, this fine set of chisels. As sharp as my wife’s tongue, but fortunately not as well used!”
As Masson lay shivering in his hammock with fever, shouted bids, cheers of triumph and curses of disappointment all jammed his ears. Following the carpenter’s death, the Captain had ordered that all belongings of a non-personal nature should be set aside for auction, with the proceeds forwarded on to the man’s relatives along with his pay.
Whilst most of the others had recovered almost immediately, Masson was alone in enduring the continuing effects of the mysterious affliction that had wreaked such havoc at the captain’s table. His nausea had given way to fits of colic, swollen and ulcerated gums and severe pains in his joints. Despite the best efforts of the ship’s surgeon, which included the application of blisters, tobacco enemas, bleedings and copious amounts of laudanum, Masson’s solitary suffering was almost without respite.
As the ruckus from the auction mixed with his fevered sleep, Masson fell into a delirious nightmare, whereupon he heard a man’s pitiful cries for help. The ship had become utterly deserted and was completely still, and Masson fought against the pain in his belly as he staggered up the stairs to the upper deck, which was devoid of human presence.
Other than the man’s dreadful cries, which had grown louder and more hysterical, the only sounds he heard were the flapping of the ship’s ensign, even though the sails hung slack on their rigging and there was no hint of the wind. Masson stumbled across the empty deck and looked over the railings just in time to see the carpenter being pulled beneath the surface in a thrash of pink foam.
As his head disappeared beneath the waves, Masson heard his dying words above the violent splashing of the sharks’ bodies, “The flower! The flower!”
In his dream, Masson remembered with horror that he had hidden the drawing of the Queen’s flower in his cabin but could not remember if he had retrieved it before Burnette’s arrival.
Sickened at the sight of the carpenter and panicked at the thought of losing the only drawing of the flower, he groped his way back across the deck towards the stairs.
As if from nowhere, the wind began to gale and the ship began to roll from side to side. The sky darkened and huge raindrops pelted down so fast and with such force that Masson was drenched by the time he covered the short distance to the stairs.
Bracing against the pitching and rolling of the ship which now seemed to fight his every move, he managed to make it down past the afterfall. He fell down the last few steps and then dragged himself across the lower deck towards the door of his old cabin and still not a soul was to be seen. With what seemed the last of his strength, he pulled himself upright and, leaning his full weight against the door, pushed into the cabin.
The cabin’s window was open, and the sun burst through a gap in the storm clouds outside, blinding him. At the same time, the ship lurched so suddenly that he lost his balance and fell, slamming his head against the floor.
Unable to get up, Masson simply rolled onto his back. It was all he could do to open his eyes, and even then he was sure that his nightmare had turned to madness. For the apparition that he beheld was impossible: with the sunlight from the window forming a halo around her head, an angel sat on the edge of the bed and looked down at the drawing of the flower that she held in nimble, delicate hands.
Masson tried to shout out, but the words would not form in his swollen mouth; the dry insides of his throat feeling as if they had been glued together. As he struggled, she smiled a kind, sad smile before folding the drawing and placing it in his breast pocket. As darkness closed in once again on Masson, he heard Bank’s words from their first meeting echoing from the fevered depths of his mind:
“Like a lady passing in the night, it is entirely possible that I might even have imagined it.”
“Table Bay!” The shouts resounded around the ship as Masson woke from his slumber, his fever broken.
He closed his eyes and tried to remember the details of his dream, but nothing made any sense. He remembered the drawing of the Queen’s flower and reached for his breast pocket, where he found it, safe and sound.
He had spent almost the entire journey from Cape Verde to Cape Town in the throes of what had been discovered to be acute lead poisoning. The ship’s cook had mistaken a packet of lead powder for flour, pouring its entire contents into the pancake batter. Masson had the misfortune of being served from the top of the pile of pancakes and being the last to be cooked, had received those which contained the greatest amount of the heavy powder, which had settled to the bottom of the mixture. It had been an honest mistake, but the prolonged suffering combined with his confinement below decks had only served to further re-enforce Masson’s resolve to complete his task as quickly as possible so that he could return for home. If he had almost lost his life through the simple carelessness of a ship’s cook, he needed no further proof for his previously held belief that this so-called life of adventure was only for the foolish or the foolhardy.
But stepping out on-deck for the first time in weeks, Masson blanched at the fresh air and the force of the wind on his face. He closed his eyes to absorb the warmth of the sun, and when he opened them again, he was stunned at the beauty of what lay before him.
Table Mountain rose up imperiously to dwarf the town. Flanked on one side by the Devil’s Peak and on the other by the Lion’s Head, the hills reached out like muscular arms to embrace the ship in the safety of Table Bay. The mountain’s fabled flat top was obscured by what the locals called its
, a stratum of cloud that spilled down and over the sandstone cliffs, disintegrating as it tumbled towards the buildings that were nestled at its base.
Next to the fort that dominated the foreshore, a single wharf jutted out into the blue waters. Beyond it lay a small town consisting of an orderly collection of mostly single-storey buildings arranged in a neat grid pattern, a church’s spire punctuating its centre.
But even if the size of the town had been ten times larger, the church transformed from a provincial kirk into a monumental cathedral and the walls of the fort constructed so as to rival those of Europe’s largest castles, it would all still have seemed puny by comparison to the magnificence of the mountain that lay beyond.
Masson marvelled at the neat orderliness of the buildings, so far from their European origins. He hadn’t known what to expect, but he had not thought of a town so at ease with its surroundings that, apart from the modest fort on the foreshore, felt no need for enormous walls, battlements or other defences.
Masson was ripped from his wonder as men mustered around the cannons and fired off the traditional twelve-gun salute in greeting. Moments later, he looked back and saw the smoke rise from the fort’s guns before hearing their reply.
Soon after dropping anchor, the surrounding waters were busy with a multitude of yawls, skiffs and rowboats, ready to receive cargo and passengers for transfer to the wharf. There were also boatloads of traders and their wares, eager to plunder the sailors’ purses before they were emptied in the brothels and ale houses ashore.
The noise was almost deafening as sailors shouted to one another from the rigging and the merchants jockeyed for position in order to be first alongside. As Masson began to fear that they would be overrun, a solemn hush descended on the crowd and almost as one the boats pulled back from the
and allowed a corridor to open up so that a single longboat could make its way to them.
The longboat was pristine in comparison to the ragged crowd through which it passed. It was rowed by Indonesian slaves, each of whom wore white trousers and a pointed, woven hat. A red, white and orange standard, supported from its stern, flapped in the breeze with the VOC emblem of the Dutch East India Company stamped in black on its centre.
Once the boat had been tied up alongside the
, a rope ladder was thrown down to receive the Port Captain and the Company Surgeon, who were there to check for contraband and to make sure that there was no sickness on board that could be spread to the colony. Masson was surprised to see a third man joining the officials, contravening the VOC’s own rules that no one board or leave a newly arrived ship before the inspections were completed.
The man was around Masson’s age, of average height and build, but with an unsightly yellowing scar that passed from his left ear to his chin. Where his companions were both dressed in uniforms of white trousers and dark-blue jackets with gold braiding, he was robed in civilian dress of a quality and style that Masson would have expected to find in one of the wealthier districts of London rather than a colonial backwater. Unlike his two companions, who had the heavy countenances of men about serious work, he gave the appearance of someone on an early morning jaunt.
Captain Cook met him with a stiff formality that contrasted sharply with the other man’s jovial familiarity. When he pulled from his coat a bottle of something and offered it as a gift, Cook seemed to soften slightly, and the two men walked towards the Captain’s quarters, leaving the Port Captain and Company Doctor to complete their inspections.
When the Company officials departed a few minutes later, a signal that all was clear was relayed to the small flotilla, which descended on the ship like a flock of hungry gulls, yelling and shouting their way into the sailors’ pockets.