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Authors: Philippa Gregory

Virgin Earth (66 page)

BOOK: Virgin Earth
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“I didn’t know,” Hester said. “I just thought he was a gardener…”

The gardener smiled at her. “He is a gardener, and an adventurer, and a man who was always there when history was being made,” he said simply. “He’s the greatest man of this age for all that he’s always been someone’s servant. Fifty tulip varieties alone!”

Hester was gazing along the avenue of the horse chestnut saplings. Their buds were green, breaking out of the bud casings which were fat and shiny, wet and brown like molasses.

“When will they bloom?”

The gardener followed her glance. “Not for another few weeks.”

She thought for a moment. “If we cut some branches and took them indoors and kept them warm?”

He nodded. “They might dry up and die. But they might open early.”

“Pot up the tulips then,” she decided, “all of them, every one of his fifty varieties. And anything that is ready to bloom in the rarities room or the orangery. Let’s make his bedroom a little forest; let’s make it a flowery mead, with branches and flowers and plants, everything he loves.”

“To help him get better?” the gardener asked.

Hester turned away. “So that he can say good-bye.”

Tradescant lay propped high on thick pillows to help him to breathe, his nightcap on his head, his hair combed. The fire was burning in the grate and the window was slightly opened. The room was filled with the perfume of a thousand flowers. Over his bed arched boughs of chestnuts, the leaves broken out of the sticky buds. Higher again were beech branches, the buds like dried icicles on the thin twigs, but every plumper bud was splitting and showing the startling sweetmeat-pink and white lining, where the leaves were pushing to come through. In great banks around the side of the room were the tulips, fat and round, showing every color that had ever come out of the Low Countries: the blaze of scarlet, the magnificent stripes and broken colors in red and white and yellow, the shining purity of the Lack tulip, the wonderful spiky profile of the bizarre tulip and the flower that was still John’s joy, the white and scarlet Semper Augustus. There were boughs of roses, their tight buds promising the beauty of their flower if John could stay just another month, or another month after that. There were clumps of bluebells like spilled ink on the carpet, and white and navy violets in pots. There were late daffodils, their little heads nodding, and everywhere threaded through the riot of color and shape was Tradescant’s own lavender, springing fresh green shoots from the pale spines and putting out violet blue spikes.

He lay back on his pillows and looked from one perfect shape to another. The colors were so bright and joyous that he closed his eyes to rest them, and still saw, on the inside of his eyelids, the blazing red of his tulips, the shining yellow of his daffodils, the sky-blue of his lavender.

Hester had left a little pathway from his bed to the door so that she could come and go to him, but the rest of the room was banked with his flowers. He lay like a miser in a gold vault, half-drowned in treasure.

“I have left a letter for you to give to John when he returns,” he said quietly.

She nodded. “You need not worry for me. If he will have me then I will stay, but whatever happens I will be a friend to the children. You can trust me to stand their friend.”

He nodded and closed his eyes for a moment.

“Why did you not name the plants for yourself?” she asked softly. “There are so many. You could have had your name remembered with thanks a dozen times a day in every garden in the country.”

Tradescant smiled. “Because they are not mine to name. I did not make them, like a carpenter makes a newel post. God made them. All I did was find them and bring them into the gardens. They belong to everyone. To everyone who loves to grow them.”

He dozed for a few moments.

In the silence Hester could hear the household going about its business, the noise of the lad sweeping the yard and the continual murmur from the rarities room where visitors came and stayed to study and to marvel. The bright yellow spring sun poured into the room.

“Shall I close the shutters?” Hester asked. “Is it too bright?”

John was looking at the Semper Augustus, with its radiant white petals and the glossy red dappled stripe. “It’s never too bright,” he said.

He lay very still for a while and Hester thought he had gone to sleep. Quietly, she rose from her chair and tiptoed to the door. She looked back at the bed embedded in flowers. Above Tradescant’s sleeping head his chestnut tree was bursting into leaf.

The creak of the wooden door disturbed his sleep. He was awake, looking toward the door; but he did not see Hester. His gaze went a little higher than her head, and his entranced look of delight was that of a man who has seen the love of his life coming, smiling, toward him. He raised himself up, as if he would move lightly forward, like a young man greeting his love. His smile of recognition was unmistakable, his face was filled with joy.

“Ah! You at last!” he said softly.

Hester went quickly to the bed, her skirts brushing the banks of flowers, pollen and perfume swirling like ground mist as she ran to him, but by the time she touched his hand the pulse had stopped and John Tradescant had died in a bed of his flowers, greeting the person he loved most in all the world.

Books by Philippa Gregory

Series
Wideacre
1. Wideacre (1987)
2. The Favoured Child (1989)
3. Meridon (1990)
Earthly Joys
1. Earthly Joys (1998)
2. The Virgin Earth (1998)
Novels
Mrs. Hartley and the Growth Centre (1992)
A Respectable Trade (1992)
The Wisewoman (1992)
Fallen Skies (1993)
Perfectly Correct (1996)
The Little House (1997)
Midlife Mischief (1998)
Zelda's Cut (2000)
The Other Boleyn Girl (2001)
The Queen's Fool (2003)
The Virgin's Lover (2004)
The Constant Princess (2005)
The Boleyn Inheritance (2006)
The Other Queen (2008)
Collections
Bread and Chocolate (2000)
Chapbooks
Princess Florizella (1988)
Florizella and the Wolves (1993)
Florizella and the Giant (2000)

BOOK: Virgin Earth
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