Authors: Caroline Vermalle,Ryan von Ruben
Directly below Masson was a small rowboat that seemed to have defied all odds to make it out to the ship at all and which Masson doubted very much would be able to make it back, especially given the ragged appearance of the oarsman, who was now looking up at him with a sun-bleached, wrinkled face across which was stretched a toothless, gummy grin. “Turtle blood,
?” Masson must have looked bewildered because the man tried again, his slippery grin never leaving his face as he held up a small pouch. “In case you get bit,
? Very cheap!”
Seeing that Masson still did not understand, the trader made a noise with his tongue against his gums that Masson guessed would have been a hissing sound, had the man still had any teeth. Masson smiled, but shook his head and waved his hand, politely declining the offer to enter into a negotiation for whatever it was that the man had to sell. Sensing a lost cause, the merchant gave up and began haranguing another sailor.
Masson escaped the cacophony on deck and returned below to gather his things before stopping by Burnette’s cabin in the hope of convincing him to share the cost of a launch to the dock, but the botanist had already cleared out.
Although he was unsure of how he would be received, Masson sucked up his courage and went to say farewell to Captain Cook. After greeting the marine that stood guard to the Captain’s state room, Masson knocked smartly on the door and entered when he was bid.
“Ah, Mr Masson,” Cook said as Masson entered the room, “You are to be leaving us. I hope you are feeling fit enough to start your work?” As far as Masson could tell, his concern was genuine, and if Cook held any ill feeling from the business with the monkey, it was well disguised.
Masson nodded his head in the affirmative as the man with the scar who had come aboard with the Port Captain stepped out of the shadows. “What work might that be, Captain, and is there any way that I can be of help?”
Cook made the introductions. “Mr Schelling, this is Mr Francis Masson. He has been sent to the Cape by Sir Joseph to collect flowers for the King’s Gardens at Kew. Mr Schelling is a very good man to know here in the Cape, Masson. ”
The two shook hands and Schelling’s face seemed to light up at the mention of Banks, “Tell me, Mr Masson, are you free this evening?”
“Well, I was hoping to make a start on my work—”
“Excellent!” exclaimed Schelling, not waiting for Masson to finish. “No doubt Sir Joseph selected you for your fine work ethic, but even he, I am sure, would not deny you a small amount of relief after what has no doubt been a long and arduous voyage. The Company is having a little party in honour of Captain Cook’s arrival, and although only VOC employees and free burghers of high standing are to be invited, I would be pleased if you could attend as my personal guest.”
Masson was not sure what to make of the Schelling’s unsolicited generosity, but could see no reason to refuse. “Thank you Mr Schelling, your invitation is much appreciated.”
“Not at all, Mr Masson, not at all. And if there is anything I can do for you while you are here, just ask. Do you have your lodgings arranged?”
“Sir Joseph has only given me a modest allowance, but I am sure I will be able to find something. All I require is a place that is clean and quiet so that I may keep my collections and go about my work.”
Schelling stroked his scar absentmindedly as he looked Masson up and down. “You may find that here in the Cape, even the simple things in life come at a price that is far more than you would expect. It’s the price we pay for living under the protection of the VOC I’m afraid. If it wasn’t for them, who knows what might crawl out of the darkness to devour us? In return, they command a monopoly over everything. Well, almost everything.” Schelling winked knowingly before scribbling an address on a card that he pulled from his waistcoat pocket and then handed it to Masson.
“If you go to this address and say that I sent you, I am sure you will be made to feel welcome.”
Masson made to take the card, but Schelling held it firm, “If you aren’t, please be sure to let me know.” With a crooked smile he released the card which Masson turned over in his hands, noting the expensive weight of it and “John Schelling” printed in large bold black letters. “The card will also gain you entrance to the party. Just show it at the gate to the Company’s Gardens any time after six.”
In the silence that followed, Masson sensed his cue to leave. He thanked the captain and shook Schelling’s limply offered hand before going back up onto the deck of the ship and then boarding one of the waiting launches, already crammed with sailors excited about some long-awaited shore leave.
As the dark-skinned oarsmen pushed off, the sailors began to belt out a bawdy tune. Masson did not join in the singing, but sat down with his valise beside him and his back to the
watching and waiting as the longboat was slowly pulled into the mountain’s embrace.
After asking directions from the customs officer at the wharf, Masson walked through the town square and up the hill towards the mountain, eventually arriving at the edge of town and the address that Schelling had given him.
He checked the card to make sure that he had read it correctly before walking up the small path, bounded on each side by a small, pleasant garden that lead up to the front door of a squat, single storey structure with white painted, lime-washed walls.
Masson climbed the few steps up to the veranda, beneath which sat a comfortable-looking bench with a brass spittoon off to one side. Set back from the road, it was indeed very quiet, and he already began to count his good fortune, silently thanking Schelling for sending him to such a good location.
He pulled on the chord that chimed a small brass bell that was sat above a neat hand-painted sign that read, “
When no one appeared, he took a seat on the bench and waited, fanning himself against the heat of the afternoon sun and hoping that he would be able to get something to eat.
After a time, he heard the hollow sounds of footfalls on a timber floor approaching the front door. Masson could not so much see as feel someone peering out from inside and then almost jumped at the sound of at least three heavy bolts being thrown before the door creaked open. The grizzled and visibly annoyed countenance of a wizened old man in his sixties, dressed in black trousers and white shirt behind an apron, covered in sawdust, and looking at Masson appraisingly.
“Good day,” Masson said jovially. “My name is Francis Masson. I arrived just this morning from England.”
Immediately, the old man retreated behind the threshold, leaving the door open barely wide enough for Masson to see him. “You sick, or have you come for one of your mates?” he asked in thickly accented English. His voice had been sanded down by decades’ worth of cheap tobacco and rough liquor, whilst his light complexion and blonde hair had been bleached to an unhealthy shade of yellow.
“Mates?” Masson asked. “No, I was hoping to get something for myself, ideally today if possible.”
You must be sick. How did you get off the ship without the Company sawbones spotting you, anyway? The last time this sort of thing happened, we lost half the bloody population! Besides, we’re up to our necks at the moment and the soonest we could do you for would be next week, do you think you might be able to hang on until then?”
“Hang on?” asked Masson, who was starting to wonder if something was being lost in translation. “Look, if you don’t have anything, then could you possibly point me in the direction of someone who might?”
“Now hold on, why the rush? It’s not like it’s going to make a difference if it happens today or in a week’s time. What’s a week in the big scheme of things, eh?”
“I don’t understand, perhaps Mr Schelling was mistaken—”
The door opened in a burst of sawdust and the old man shuffled forward onto the
, looking over Masson’s shoulder towards both ends of the street. “Schelling sent you here?” he asked in a whisper.
“Yes,” Masson said, holding out the card. The old man’s rheumy eyes scanned the black letters as his sallow features drained to a pasty white.
“I told him I was in need of some accommodation, and he gave me your address. But if you have no vacancies, then I’m sure I can find something else.”
Masson made as if to turn away but he felt a skeletal hand grab him by the elbow with surprising strength.
. We do indeed have a room that we rent out, but I must say that we don’t get many takers so naturally I assumed you were here to arrange a funeral.”
“A funeral?” Masson asked, incredulous.
“Well, yes. Didn’t you see the sign?” the old man pointed beneath the bell. “
I believe your English word is ‘undertaker’
that’s me. Well, actually, it’s my father, but he’s away in the country making arrangements for the Landdrost at Swellendam, who passed recently, may God have mercy on his soul. Mostly, I just make the caskets. Paul deHout at your service,” he said, shaking Masson’s hand. “If you just follow me, I’ll show you to your room.”
The old man reached down to take Masson’s valise, but Masson, only recently recovered from his brush with an early demise, had no intention of spitting in the eye of fate by taking lodgings beneath an undertaker’s roof. He kept the valise firmly in his grip and tried to think of a subtle way out.
“Shouldn’t we agree on a price first?” asked Masson.
“Price?” asked the old undertaker.
“I wouldn’t want to impose, and as I have only been given a very small allowance, I wouldn’t be able to pay very much at all.”
The old man chuckled and waved his hand as if batting away a fly. “Once we shift the odd coffin or two, the room will serve you very well. Besides, it wouldn’t do to turn away a friend of Mr Schelling. There’ll be no charge for the lodging, and as for your meals, you will find many chop houses in town that will satisfy your needs, whatever your appetites.” The old man winked. “Even Mr Schelling would agree with me there.”
Masson had run out of excuses. “I suppose I owe a debt of gratitude to Mr Schelling.”
The old man looked at Masson with a twinkle in his eye. “You are not alone, young man.”
He closed and bolted the door behind him before leading Masson around to the side of the house. “The privy is out back next to the workshop and the storeroom. This is your room.” The old man took a key from behind his apron and unlocked a hefty door of solid timber planks held together by cast iron straps bolted to the timbers. Through the open doorway Masson saw a small, bare room with a square window set within a wall that was almost two feet thick; it looked out onto a yard at the back of the house. There was a single bed with a feather mattress and a washstand in one corner. There were also half a dozen coffins stacked against the far wall.
“Well, I will let you settle in. Don’t worry about the coffins, they’re being collected later this afternoon. We’ve had a busy couple of days, but that’s what happens when a slave runs amuck and kills an entire household. Took ten men to get him in the end. They’ll probably be stringing him up tomorrow, if you’re interested.”
The coffin-maker spat and then carried on listing out the sequence of events that had brought about the boom in business. “Then, of course, there was that young lady who was walking in the Company Gardens and got bitten by a snake. You’ll want to watch out for those buggers, snake stone or turtle blood would be my suggestion.” Masson remembered the trader from the
and wondered if he would be able to track him down again.
“Of course, then we also lost Mr and Mrs Wouters, who were killed by a pack of hyenas on their way back from church. Mind you, they were a little old so they couldn’t really offer much in the way of resistance, not like that big strapping Viljoen boy who fell down a hippopotamus hole while crossing a river and then caught pneumonia. Struggled for weeks he did—”
“Thank you again, Mr deHout,” said Masson, resigned to the fact that he had no feasible excuse for refusing the accommodation and seeing it as yet more motivation for being done with his business as quickly as possible. “The room will do nicely, but as you can imagine, it has been rather a long voyage and so I thought I might take a rest before exploring the town.”
The undertaker took the hint and handed Masson the key. “Yes, of course. Come and go as you please, the front door is usually bolted on account of the baboons and the occasional criminal hiding out in the woods across the road, but you shouldn’t have any problems as long as you keep your door locked.”
As Masson started to close the door, the old man fired off one last question. “If you don’t mind my asking, Mr Masson, what business brings you to the Cape?”
“Flowers. I am here to collect flowers.”
The old man paused for a moment as he took out his tobacco pouch and began stuffing a wad of the stuff into his clay pipe. “Well, you be careful, Mr Masson. You can take it from me: even the flowers here can kill a man.”
Masson felt the warm afternoon sunshine slowly cool and give way to a frigid breeze that blew off the mountain as he explored that section of the town that lay between his lodgings and the Governor’s house.
The main street was paved and flanked by buildings on both sides with large doors and windows set into façades that were rendered in a bright white lime mortar that began to take on the amber hues of a sun that had long since passed its zenith and which crept towards its setting position behind Signal Hill. The roofs of the houses were mostly flat and made of thatch or reeds rather than tiles — to defend, so Masson had heard, against the violent winter winds that blew in from the southeast.
As Masson approached the main street, he passed over a large canal that brought water from the mountain through the town and down to the wharf, where it was used to refresh the ships’ water supplies. In addition to being paved, the main streets also benefitted from numerous oak trees that, although not large, provided some respite from the scorching rays of the summer sun.