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Authors: Philippa Gregory

Virgin Earth

BOOK: Virgin Earth
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Tremendous historical novel of the early 1600s, as seen through the eyes of John Tradescant, gardener to the great men of the age. A traveller in a time of discovery, the greatest gardening pioneer of his day, yet a man of humble birth: John Tradescant’s story is a mirror to the extraordinary age in which he lives. As gardener and confidante to Sir Robert Cecil, Tradescant is well placed to observe the social and political changes that are about to sweep through the kingdom. While his master conjures intrigues at Court, Tradescant designs for him the magnificent garden at Hatfield, scouring the known world for ever more wonderful plants: new varieties of fruit and flower, the first horse chestnuts to be cultivated in England, even larches from Russia. Moving to the household of the flamboyant Duke of Buckingham, Tradescant witnesses at first hand the growing division between Parliament and the people; and the most loyal of servants must find a way to become an independent squire.

Earthly Joys


Philippa Gregory

The first book in the Earthly Joys series

Copyright © 1998 by Philippa Gregory

April 1603

The daffodils would be fit for a king. The delicate wild daffodils, their thousand heads bobbing and swaying with the wind, light-petaled, light-stemmed, moving like a field of unripe barley before a summer breeze, scattered across the grass, thicker around the trunks of trees as if they were dewponds of gold. They looked like wildflowers; but they were not. Tradescant had planned them, planted them, nourished them. He looked at them and smiled — as if he were greeting friends.

Sir Robert Cecil strolled up, his uneven tread instantly recognizable in the crunch of the gravel. John turned and pulled off his hat.

“They look well,” his lordship observed. “Yellow as Spanish gold.”

John bowed. The two men were near each other in age — both in their thirties — but the courtier was bent under a humped back and his face was lined by a lifetime of caution at court, and with pain from his twisted body. He was a small man, little more than five feet tall — his enemies called him a dwarf behind his hunched back. In a beauty-conscious, fashion-mad court where appearance was everything and a man was judged by his looks and his performance on the hunting field or battlefield, Robert Cecil had started his life with an impossible disadvantage: crooked, tiny and struggling with pain. Beside him the gardener Tradescant, brown-faced and strong-backed, looked ten years younger. He waited in silence for his master to speak. It was not his place to prolong the conversation.

“Any early vegetables?” his lordship asked. “Asparagus? They say His Majesty loves asparagus.”

“It’s too early, my lord. Even a king new-come to his kingdom cannot hunt deer and eat fruit in the same month. They each have their season. I cannot force peaches for him in spring.”

Sir Robert smiled. “You disappoint me, Tradescant, I had thought you could make strawberries grow in midwinter.”

“With a hothouse, my lord, and a couple of fires, some lanterns and a lad to water and carry, perhaps I could give you Twelfth Night strawberries.” He thought for a moment. “It’s the light,” he said to himself. “I think you would need sunlight to make them ripen. I don’t know that candlelight or even lanterns would be enough.”

Cecil watched him with amusement. Tradescant never failed in the respect he owed his master, but he readily forgot everything but his plants. As now, he could fall silent thinking of a gardening problem, wholly neglecting his lord who stood before him.

A man more conscious of his dignity would have dismissed a servant for less. But Robert Cecil treasured it. Alone of every man in his train, Sir Robert trusted his gardener to tell him the truth. Everyone else told him what they thought he wanted to hear. It was one of the disadvantages of high office and excessive wealth. The only information which was worth having was that given without fear or favor, but all the information a spymaster could buy was worthless. Only John Tradescant, half his mind always on his garden, was too busy to lie.

“I doubt it would be worth your effort,” Sir Robert remarked. “There are seasons for most endeavors.”

John suddenly grinned at him, hearing the parallel between his own work and his master’s. “And your season has come,” he said shrewdly. “Your fruiting.”

They turned together and walked back to the great house, Tradescant a step behind the greatest man in the kingdom, respectfully attentive, but looking from side to side at every pace. There were things that wanted doing in the garden — but then there were always things that wanted doing in the garden. The avenue of pleached limes needed retying before their early summer growth thrust wands of twigs out of control, the kitchen garden needed digging over; and radishes, leeks and onions should be sown into the warming spring soil. The great watercourses which were the wonder of Theobalds Palace needed weeding and cleaning; but he strolled as if he had all the time in the world, one step behind his master, waiting in silence, in case his master wanted to talk.

“I did right,” Sir Robert said half to himself, half to his gardener. “The old queen was dying and she had no heir with as strong a claim as he. Not one fit to rule, that is. She would not hear his name; you had to whisper King James of Scotland if she were anywhere in any of her palaces. But all the reports I had of him were of a man who could hold two kingdoms, and perhaps even weld them together. And he had sons and a daughter — there’d be no more fretting over heirs. And he’s a good Christian, no taint of papistry. They breed strong Protestants in Scotland…”

He paused for a moment and gazed at his great palace set on the high terrace looking toward the River Thames. “I don’t complain,” he said fairly. “I’ve been well repaid for my work. And there’s more to come.” He smiled at his gardener. “I’m to be Baron Cecil of Essenden.”

Tradescant beamed. “I’m glad for you.”

Sir Robert nodded. “A rich reward for a hard task…” He hesitated. “Sometimes I felt disloyal. I wrote him letter after letter, teaching him the way of our country, preparing him to rule. And she never knew. She’d have had me beheaded if she had known! She’d have called it treason — toward the end she called it treason even to mention his name. But he had to be prepared…”

Sir Robert broke off, and John Tradescant watched him with silent sympathy. His master often strolled into the garden to find him. Sometimes they spoke of the grounds, the formal garden, the orchards, the park, of seasonal plantings, or new plans; sometimes Sir Robert spoke at length, indiscreetly, knowing that Tradescant could keep a secret, that he was a man without guile, with solid loyalty. Sir Robert had made Tradescant his own, as effectually as if the gardener had gone down on the loam and sworn an oath of fealty, on the day that he had trusted him with the garden of Theobalds Palace. It had been a massive task for a twenty-four-year-old but Sir Robert had taken the gamble that Tradescant could do it. He was a young man himself, desperate to inherit his father’s position at court, desperate for older and more powerful men to recognize his merit and his skill. He took a risk with Tradescant and then the queen took a risk with him. Now, six years later, both of them had learned their craft — statesmanship and gardening — and Tradescant was Sir Robert’s man through and through.

“She wanted him left ignorant,” Sir Robert said. “She knew what would happen to her court if she named him as heir; they’d have all slipped away from her, slipped away up the Great North Road to Edinburgh, and she’d have died alone, knowing herself to be an old woman, an ugly old woman with no kin, no lovers, no friends. I owed it to her to keep them at her beck and call to the very end. But I owed it to him to teach him as best I could… even at a distance. It was to be his kingdom; he had to learn how to govern it, and there was no one but me to teach him.”

“And he knows now?” John asked, going to the very heart of it.

Sir Robert was alert. “Why d’you ask? Is there gossip that he does not?”

John shook his head. “I’ve heard none,” he said. “But he’s not a lad who has sprung up from nowhere. He must have his own way of doing things. He’s a man grown, and he has his own kingdom. I was wondering if he would take your teaching, especially now that he will have his pick of advice. And it matters…”

He broke off and his master waited for him to finish.

“When you have a lord or a king,” John went on, choosing his words with caution, “you have to be sure that he knows what he’s doing. Because he’s going to be the one who decides what you do.” He stopped, bent and whisked out the little yellow head of a groundsel plant. “Once you’re his man, you’re stuck with him,” he said frankly. “He has to be a man of judgment, because if he gets it wrong then he is ruined; and you with him.”

Cecil waited in case there was more but John looked shyly down into his face. “I beg your pardon,” he said. “I did not mean to suggest that the king did not know what he has to do. I was thinking of us subjects.”

Sir Robert waved away the apology with one gesture of his long-fingered hand. They strolled together up the great avenue through the large formal knot garden toward the front terrace of the palace. It was done in the old style, and John had changed nothing here since his arrival as gardener. It had been laid out by Sir Robert’s father in the bleak elegance of the period. Sharply defined geometric patterns of box hedging enclosed different-colored gravels and stones. The beauty of the garden was best seen if you looked down on it, from the house. Then you could see that it was as complex and lovely as a series of neat diagrams of cropped hedging and stone. John had a private ambition to change the garden after the new fashion — to break up the regular square and rectangular beds and make all the separate beds one long whole, like an embroidered hem or scarf — a twisting pattern that went on and on, serpentined in and about itself. When his master was less absorbed with statecraft John was going to suggest melding the beds one into another.

Once he had persuaded Sir Robert to follow the new fashion for the knot garden he had an ambition to go yet further. He longed to take out the gravel from the enclosed shapes and plant the patterns with herbs, flowers and shrubs. He wanted to see the whole disciplined shape softened and changing every day with foliage and flowers which would bloom and wilt, grow freshly green, and then pale. He had a belief, as yet unexpressed, almost unformed, that there was something dead and hard about a garden of stone paths edged with box-enclosing beds of gravel. Tradescant had a picture in his mind’s eye of plants spilling over the hedges, of the thick green of the box containing wildness, fertility, even color. It was an image that drew on the hedgerow and roadside of the wild country of England and brought that richness into the garden and imposed order upon it.

“I miss her,” Sir Robert admitted.

John was recalled to his real duty — to be his master’s man heart and soul, to love what he loved, to think what he thought, to follow him to death without question if need be. The image of the creamy tossing heads of gypsy lace and moon daisies encased by hawthorn hedging in its first haze of spring green vanished at once.

“She was a great queen,” John volunteered.

Sir Robert’s face lightened. “She was,” he said. “Everything I learned about statecraft, I learned from her. There never was a more cunning player. And she named him at the very end. So she did her duty, in her own way.”

“You named him,” John said dryly. “I heard that it was you that read the proclamation which named him as king while the others were still hopping between him and the other heirs like fleas between sleeping dogs.”

Cecil shot John his swift sly smile. “I have some small influence,” he agreed. The two men reached the steps which led to the first terrace. Sir Robert leaned on John’s sturdy shoulder and John braced himself to take the slight weight.

“He’ll not go wrong while I have the guiding of him,” Sir Robert said thoughtfully. “And neither I nor you will be the losers. It takes a good deal of skill to survive from one reign to the next, Tradescant.”

BOOK: Virgin Earth
4.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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