”Contempt for flowers is an offence against God. The lovelier the flower, the greater the offence in despising it. The tulip is the loveliest of all flowers. So whoever despised the tulip offends God immeasurably.”
In 1672 two brothers Cornelius and Johan de Witt (Grand Pensionary/prime minister of Holland) were charged with treason and sentenced to exile. Cornelis had been tortured with the hope that he would confess to plotting with the French king.
He did not.
He had corresponded with the French King, but those letters had been safely deposited with his godson Cornelius van Baerle. This evidence, if obtained, would have insured a frog march to the executioner and a swift separation of their heads from their bodies.
If only they had been so lucky.
The mob, you know those people that we buy our fruit, our clothes, our meat from, who build our cabinetry, customize our clogs, and bake our bread, were unhappy with the verdict of exile. They wanted...blood. With a bit of sinister machination by a rather villainous depiction of William of Orange the mob gets their chance at the very moment the brothers are attempting to comply with their sentencing.
The Mob. Image from the Folio Society edition.
”And everyone wanted to strike a blow with a hammer, a sword or a knife, everyone wanted to have his drop of blood and tear off his scrap of clothing.
When the two bodies were thoroughly beaten, thoroughly dismembered, and thoroughly stripped, the mob dragged them naked and bleeding, to an improvised gibbet, where amateur executioners hung them up by the feet.”
Meanwhile our hero, Cornelius van Baerle, continues to pursue what he loves best, growing tulips. He has a genius for it. He grafts, mulches, and cultivates his bulbs with the same precision as a master violinist moves his bow across the strings. The science of tulips is his to command. When the tulip society offers a 100,000 guilder reward for the first gardener to create an unblemished black tulip Cornelius is elated not for a chance to win the money, but for the challenge of creating the perfect black tulip.
Little does Cornelius know, but he has a nemesis, one too close for comfort. In fact Mynheer Isaac Boxtel lives right next door. He was once a well respected gardener, but since his rich neighbor van Baerle decided to take up the challenge of raising tulips his own gardens have been neglected. He has no time to garden for all of his spare moments are spent with a telescope to his eye watching every movement of his illustrious neighbor. He gnashes his teeth and pulls his hair with every breakthrough that Cornelius achieves with each new specimen of tulip excellence.
Boxtel enraged. Image from the Folio Society edition
”How many times, in the midst of these torments--which no words can convey--had Boxtel not been tempted to leap into the garden by night and ravage the plants, devouring the bulbs with his teeth and even sacrificing the owner himself to his fury if the man should dare to defend his tulips!
But to kill a tulip, in the eyes of a true gardener, is such a ghastly crime (while to kill a man--well, perhaps…)Yet thanks to the progress that van Baerle was making daily in an art that he seemed to be acquiring by instinct, Boxtel was driven to such a paroxysm of rage that he considered throwing sticks and stones into his neighbour’s tulip beds.”
Boxtel becomes the source of much misery for van Baerle for that telescope revealed much more than secrets about tulips.
Cornelius is arrested and evades a similar fate as his uncles when a last second (sword in the air ready to descend) reprieve arrives. His sentence is commuted to life imprisonment. When he was arrested he had time only to grab three offsets of a bulb that he believes will produce the perfect black tulip. As unlikely as it seems, given the dank, despairing environment of prison, he meets an angel in the form of Rosa the daughter of the brutish jailer Gryphus. She becomes his confidant, his reason to continue living, and the protector of his greatest creation.
Rosa and yes that is Boxtel lurking in the shadows. Image from the Folio Society edition.
”As the rail of the staircase creaked under the prisoner’s heavy hand, the girl half opened the small door of a room which she inhabited in the very wall of the staircase. Holding a lamp in her right hand, she at the same time lit up her delightful pink face, framed in splendid locks of thick blonde hair, while with her left hand she drew her white nightdress across her breast.
It was love at first sight. If Boxtel hadn’t in a fit of jealous, depraved behavior perpetrated a plan to destroy his enemy, Cornelius would have never met the love of his life.
“Sometimes one has suffered enough to have the right to never say: I am too happy.”
Now the plot revolves around the fate of three tulip offsets and Boxtel’s nefarious attempts to steal them. Rosa is thrust into the maelstrom of tulip craziness not seen since the crash of the tulip market back in 1637. She loves Cornelius, but can not be certain if his love for her eclipses his love for his tulips. I would love to tell you more, but I don’t want to take any chances of imperiling the enjoyment of discovery each of you will experience when you follow this plot to it’s frenzied conclusion. One danger you will not be able to avoid is the sudden desire to obtain and plant the most dazzling display of tulips that can be concocted from the twisted minds of those brilliant Dutch gardeners. Enjoy!