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by Alexandre Dumas
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), known as Alexandre Dumas, père, is one of the most widely read and translated of all French authors. His historical romances have been adapted into at least 100 films, into plays and comic books.
The story of The Black Tulip was said to have been suggested to Dumas by the king of the Netherlands, William III.
For more works by Alexandre Dumas, see The Index
On the 20th of August, 1672, the city of The Hague was crowded in every street with a mob of people, all armed with knives, muskets, or sticks, and all hurrying towards the Buytenhof.
Within that terrible prison was Cornelius de Witt, brother of John de Witt, the ex-Grand Pensionary of Holland.
These brothers De Witt had long served the United Provinces of the Dutch Republic, and the people had grown tired of the Republic, and wanted William, Prince of Orange, for Stadtholder. John de Witt had signed the Act re-establishing the Stadtholderate, but Cornelius had only signed it under the compulsion of an Orange mob that attacked his house at Dordrecht.
This was the first count against the De Witts - their objection to a Stadtholder. The second count was that the De Witts had always done their best to keep at peace with France. They knew that war with France meant ruin to Holland, but the more violent Orangists still believed that such a war would bring honour to the Dutch.
Hence the popular hatred against the De Witts. A miscreant named Tyckelaer fanned the flame against Cornelius by declaring that he had bribed him to assassinate William, the newly-elected Stadtholder.
Cornelius was arrested, brought to trial, and tortured on the rack, but no confession of guilt could be wrung from the innocent, high-souled man. Then the judges acquitted Tyckelaer, deprived Cornelius of all his offices, and passed sentence of banishment. John de Witt had already resigned the office of Grand Pensionary.
On the 20th of August, Cornelius was to leave his prison for exile, and a fierce Orangist populace, incited to violence by the harangues of Tyckelaer, was rushing to the Buytenhof prepared to do murder, and fearful lest the prisoner should escape alive. "To the gaol! To the gaol!" yelled the mob. But outside the prison was a line of cavalry drawn up under the command of Captain Tilly with orders to guard the Buytenhof, and while the populace stood in hesitation, not daring to attack the soldiers, John de Witt had quietly driven up to the prison, and had been admitted by the gaoler.
The shouts and clamour of the people could be heard within the prison as John de Witt, accompanied by Gryphus the gaoler, made his way to his brother's cell.
Cornelius learnt there was no time to be lost, but there was a question of certain correspondence between John de Witt and M. de Louvois of France to be discussed. These letters, entirely creditable though they were to the statesmanship of the Grand Pensionary, would have been accepted as evidence of treason by the maddened Orangists, and Cornelius, instead of burning them, had left them in the keeping of his godson, Van Baerle, a quiet, scholarly young man of Dordrecht, who was utterly unaware of the nature of the packet.
"They will kill us if these papers are found," said John de Witt, and opening the window, they heard the mob shouting, "Death to traitors!"
In spite of fingers and wrists broken by the rack, Cornelius managed to write a note.
DEAR GODSON: Burn the packet I gave you, burn without opening or looking at it, so that you may not know the contents. The secrets it contains bring death. Burn it, and you will have saved both John and Cornelius.
Then a letter was given to Craeke, John de Witt's faithful servant, who at once set off for Dordrecht, and within a few minutes the two brothers were driving away to the city gate. Rosa, the gaoler's daughter, unknown to her father, had opened the postern, and had herself bidden De Witt's coachman drive round to the rear of the prison, and by this means the fury of the mob was, for the moment, evaded.
And now the clamour of the Orangists was at the prison door, for Tilly's horse had withdrawn on an order signed by the deputies in the town hall, and the people were raging to get within the Buytenhof.
The mob burst open the great gate, and yelling, "Death to the traitors! To the gallows with Cornelius de Witt!" poured in, only to find the prisoner had escaped. But the escape was but from the prison, for the city gate was locked when the carriage of the De Witts drove up, locked by order of the deputies of the Town Hall, and a certain young man - who was none other than William, Prince of Orange - held the key.
Before another gate could be reached the mob, streaming from the Buytenhof, had overtaken the carriage, and the De Witts were at its mercy.
The two men, whose lives had been spent in the welfare of their country, were massacred with unspeakable savagery, and their bodies, stripped, and hacked almost beyond recognition, were then strung up on a hastily erected gibbet in the market-place.
When the worst had been done, the young man, who had secretly watched the proceedings from the window of a neighbouring house, returned the key to the gatekeeper.
Then the prince mounted a horse which an equerry held in waiting for him, and galloped off to camp to await the message of the States. He galloped proudly, for the burghers of The Hague had made of the corpses of the De Witts a stepping stone to power for William of Orange.
Doctor Cornelius van Baerle, the godson of Cornelius de Witt, was in his twenty-eighth year, an orphan, but nevertheless, a really happy man. His father had amassed a fortune of 400,000 guilders in trade with the Indies, and an estate brought him in 10,000 guilders a year. He was blessed with the love of a peaceful life with good nerves, ample wealth, and a philosophic mind.
Left alone in the big house at Dordrecht, he steadily resisted all temptations to public life. He took up the study of botany, and then, not knowing what to do with his time and money, decided to go in for one of the most extravagant hobbies of the time - the cultivation of his favourite flower, the tulip. The fame of Mynheer van Baerle's tulips soon spread in the district, and while Cornelius de Witt had roused deadly hatred by sowing the seeds of political passion, Van Baerle with his tulips won general goodwill. Yet, all unknowingly, Van Baerle had made an enemy, an implacable, relentless enemy. This was his neighbour, Isaac Boxtel, who lived next door to him in Dordrecht.
Boxtel, from childhood, had been a passionate tulip-grower. He had even produced a tulip of his own, and the Boxtel had won wide admiration. One day, to his horror, Boxtel discovered that his next-door neighbour, the wealthy Mynheer van Baerle, was also a tulip-grower. In bitter anguish Boxtel foresaw that he had a rival who, with all the resources at his command, might equal and possibly surpass the famous Boxtel creations. He almost choked with envy, and from the moment of his discovery lived under continual fear. The healthy pastime of tulip growing became, under these conditions, a morbid and evil occupation for Boxtel, while Van Baerle, on the other hand, totally unaware of the enmity brewing, threw himself into the business with the keenest zest, taking for his motto the old aphorism, "To despise flowers is to insult God."
So fierce was the envy that seized Boxtel that though he would have shrunk from the infamy of destroying a tulip, he would have killed the man who grew them. His own plants were neglected; it was useless and hopeless to contend against so wealthy a rival. Then Boxtel, fascinated by his evil passion, bought a telescope, and, perched on a ladder, studied Van Baerle's tulip beds and the drying-room, the tulip-grower's sacred place.
One night he lost all moral control, and tying the hind legs of two cats together with a piece of string, he flung the animals into Van Baerle's garden. To Boxtel's bitter mortification the cats, though they made havoc of many precious plants before they broke the string, left the four finest tulips untouched.
Shortly afterwards the Haarlem Tulip Society offered a prize of 100,000 guilders to whomsoever should produce a large black tulip, without spot or blemish. Van Baerle at once thought out the idea of the black tulip. He had already achieved a dark brown one, while Boxtel, who had only managed to produce a light brown one, gave up the quest as impossible, and could do nothing but spy on his neighbour's activities.
One evening in January 1672, Cornelius de Witt came to see his grandson, Cornelius van Baerle, and went with him alone into the sacred drying-room, the laboratory of the tulip-grower. Boxtel, with his telescope, recognised the well-known features of the statesman, and presently he saw him hand his godson a packet, which the latter put carefully away in a cabinet. This packet contained the correspondence of John de Witt and M. de Louvois.
Cornelius drove away, and Boxtel wondered what the packet contained. It could hardly be bulbs; it must be secret papers.
It was not till August, as we know, that Craeke was despatched to Van Baerle with the note bidding him destroy the packet.
Craeke arrived just when Van Baerle was nursing his precious bulbs - the bulbs of the black tulip - and his sudden entrance rudely disturbed the tulip-grower. He had not time to read the note; indeed, he was too much concerned with the welfare of his three particular bulbs to trouble about it, before a magistrate and some soldiers entered to arrest him. Van Baerle wrapped up the bulbs in the note from his godfather, and was sent off under close custody to The Hague. The magistrate carried off the packet from the cabinet.
All this was Boxtel's work. It was he who had reported to the magistrate the visit of De Witt and the placing of the packet in a cabinet. And now, with Van Baerle out of the house as a prisoner, Boxtel in the dead of night broke into his neighbour's house, to secure the priceless bulbs of the black tulip. He had made out where they were growing, and he plunged his hands into the soft soil - only to find nothing. Then the wretched man guessed that the bulbs had gone with the prisoner to The Hague, and decided to go in pursuit. Van Baerle could only keep them while he was alive, and then - they should be his, Isaac Boxtel's.
Van Baerle was placed in the cell occupied by Cornelius de Witt in the Buytenhof. Outside, in the market-place, the bodies of the De Witts were hanging, and Van Baerle read with horror the inscription, "Here hang that great rascal John de Witt and the little rascal Cornelius de Witt, enemies of their country."
Gryphus laughed when the prisoner asked him what it meant, and replied, "That's what happens to those that write secret letters to the enemies of the Prince of Orange."
A terrible despair fell on Van Baerle, but he refused to escape when Rosa, the gaoler's beautiful daughter, suggested it to him. He was brought to trial, and though he denied all knowledge of the correspondence, his goods were confiscated, and he was condemned to death. He bequeathed his three tulip bulbs to Rosa, explained how she must get a certain soil from Dordrecht, and went out calmly to die. On the scaffold Van Baerle was reprieved and sentenced to perpetual imprisonment, for the Prince of Orange shrank from further bloodshed.
One spectator in the crowd was bitterly disappointed. This was Boxtel, who had bribed the headsman to let him have Van Baerle's clothes, believing that he would thus obtain the priceless bulbs.
Van Baerle was sent to the prison of Loewenstein, and in February 1673, when he was thinking his tulips lost for ever, he heard Rosa's voice. Gryphus had applied for the gaolership of Loewenstein, and had been appointed.
Nothing could persuade him that if Van Baerle was not a traitor he was certainly in league with the devil, like all learned men, and he did all he could to mortify and annoy his prisoner. But Rosa would come every night when her father, stupefied by gin, was asleep, and talk to Cornelius through the barred grating of his cell door.
He taught her to read, and together they planned how the tulip bulbs should be brought to flower. One bulb Rosa was to plant, the second Van Baerle would cultivate in his cell with soil placed in an old water jug, and the third was to be kept in reserve.
Once more hope revived in Baerle's mind, but Rosa often suffered vexation because Cornelius thought more of his black tulip than of her.
In the meantime Boxtel, under the assumed name of Jacob Gisels, had made his way to Loewenstein in pursuit of the bulbs, and had ingratiated himself with Gryphus, offering to marry his daughter. Rosa's tulip had to be guarded from Gisels, who was always spying on her movements. She kept it in her room for safety, but Boxtel had a key made, and the day the tulip flowered, and arose a spotless black, he resolved to take it at once, and rush to Haarlem and claim the prize.
The day came. Rosa described to Cornelius the wonderful black tulip, and they drew up a letter to the president of the Horticultural Society at Haarlem, begging him to come and fetch the wonderful flower.
That very night while Cornelius and Rosa rejoiced as lovers - for now even Rosa was convinced of the prisoner's love for her - over the happiness of the flowering tulip, Boxtel crept into her room, and carried off the black tulip to Haarlem.
As for Van Baerle, he was beside himself with the rage of desperation when Rosa told him that the black tulip had been stolen. Rosa, bent on recovering the tulip, and certain in her own mind as to the thief, hastened away from Loewenstein the next day without a word, Gryphus was mad when he learnt his daughter was nowhere to be found, and put down the mysterious disappearance of Jacob Gisels and Rosa to the work of the devil, and was convinced that Van Baerle was the devil's agent.
The third day after the theft Gryphus, armed with a stick and a knife, attacked Cornelius, calling out, "Give me back my daughter." Cornelius got hold of the stick, forced Gryphus to drop the knife, and then proceeded to give the gaoler a thrashing. The noise brought in turnkeys and guards, who speedily carried off the wounded gaoler and arrested Van Baerle. To comfort the prisoner they assured him he would certainly be shot within twelve hours.
Then an officer, an aide-de-camp of the Prince of Orange, entered, escorted Van Baerle to the prison gate, and bade him enter a carriage. Believing himself about to die, he thought sadly of Rosa and of the tulip he was never to see again. The carriage rolled off, and they travelled all that day and night until the journey ended at Haarlem.
Rosa reached Haarlem just four hours after Boxtel's arrival, and she went at once to seek an interview with Mynheer van Systens, the President of the Horticultural Society. Immediate admittance was granted on her mentioning the magic words "black tulip."
"Sir, the black tulip has been stolen from me," said Rosa.
"But I only saw it two hours ago!" replied the president.
"You saw it - where?"
"Why, at your master's! Are you not in the service of Mynheer Isaac Boxtel?"
"I, sir? Certainly not! But this Isaac Boxtel, is he a thin, bald-headed, bow-legged, crook-backed, haggard-looking man?"
"You have described him exactly."
"He is the thief; he stole the black tulip from me."
"Well, go and find Mynheer Boxtel - he is at the White Swan Inn, and settle it with him." And with that the president took up his pen and went on writing, for he was busy over his report.
But Rosa still implored him, and while she was speaking the Prince of Orange entered the building. Rosa told everything, how she had received the bulb from the prisoner at Loewenstein, and how she had first seen the prisoner at The Hague. Then Boxtel was sent for. He was ready with his tale. The girl had plotted with her lover, the state prisoner, Cornelius van Baerle, and had stolen his - Boxtel's - black tulip, which he had unwisely mentioned. However, he had recovered it.
A thought struck Rosa.
"There were three bulbs. What has become of the others?" she asked.
"One failed, the second produced the black tulip, and the third is at home at Dordrecht," said Boxtel uneasily.
"You lie; it is here!" cried Rosa. And she drew from her bosom the third bulb, still wrapped in the same paper Van Baerle had so hastily put round the bulbs on his flight. "Take it, my lord," she said, handing it to the prince. And then, glancing at the paper for the first time, she added, "Oh, my lord, read this!"
William passed the third bulb to the president, and read the paper carefully. It was Cornelius de Witt's letter to his godson, exhorting him to burn the packet without opening it. It was the proof of Van Baerle's innocence and of his ownership of the bulbs.
"Go, Mynheer Boxtel; you shall have justice. And you, Mynheer van Systens, take care of this maiden and of the tulip," said the prince.
That same evening the prince summoned Rosa to the town hall, and talked to her. Rosa did not deny her love for Cornelius.
"But what is the good of loving a man condemned to live and die in prison?" the prince asked.
"I can help him to live and die," came the answer.
The prince sealed a letter, and sent it off to Loewenstein by Colonel van Deken. Then he turned to Rosa, and said, "The day after to-morrow is Sunday, and it will be the festival of the tulip. Take these 500 guilders, and dress yourself in the costume of a Friesland bride, for I want it to be a grand festival for you."
Sunday came, May 15, 1673, and all Haarlem gathered to do honour to the black tulip. Boxtel was in the crowd, feasting his eyes on the sacred flower, which was born aloft in a litter. The procession stopped, and the flower was placed on a pedestal, while the people cheered with wild enthusiasm. At the solemn moment when the Prince of Orange was to acclaim the triumphant owner of the black tulip and present the prize of 100,000 guilders, the coach with the unhappy prisoner Cornelius van Baerle drew up in the market-place.
Cornelius, hearing that the celebration of the black tulip was actually proceeding, besought his guard to let him have one glimpse of the flower; and the petition was granted by the Prince of Orange.
From a distance of six paces Van Baerle gazed at the black tulip, and then he, with the multitude, turned his eyes towards the prince. In dead silence the prince declared the occasion of the festival, the discovery of the wonderful black tulip, and concluded, "Let the owner of the black tulip approach."
Cornelius made an involuntary movement. Boxtel and Rosa rushed forward from the crowd.
The prince turned to Rosa. "This tulip is yours, is it not?" he said.
"Yes, my lord," she answered softly. And general applause came from the crowd.
"This tulip will henceforth bear the name of its producer, and will be called Tulipa nigra Rosa Baerttensis, because Van Baerle is to be the married name of this damsel," the prince announced; and at the same time he took Rosa's hand and placed it within the hand of the prisoner, who had rushed forward at the words he had heard.
Boxtel fell down in a fit, and when they raised him up he was dead.
The procession returned to the town hall, the prince declared Rosa the prizewinner, and informed Cornelius that, having been wrongfully condemned, his property was restored to him. Then he entered his coach, and was driven away.
Cornelius and Rosa departed for Dordrecht, and Van Baerle remained ever faithful to his wife and his tulips.
As for old Gryphus, after being the roughest gaoler of men, he lived to be the fiercest guardian of tulips at Dordrecht.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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