[This wonderful story about Tulipomania, gardening, and misguided passion by our good customer Diane Dees of Covington, Louisiana, was originally published in The Copperfield Review. Learn more about broken tulips such as ‘Zomerschoon’ here.]
Peter van Hausem stared at his ‘Zomerschoon’ as one might examine a rare diamond, or a precious ruby. Its petals were pointed, but the angularity was softened by colors that made Peter think of the bowl of strawberries and rich cream his wife, Anna, sometimes served when she had guests for dinner. And like the red fruit and cream, the colors on his prize tulip merged into one another in a pattern that was startling in its random bravado.
Ever since the flowers started breaking into this haphazard explosion of carmine and milky elegance, Peter’s fortunes, already considerable, had expanded. He took Anna to the finest inns of France, they entertained the mayor of Amsterdam in their home, and covering his wife’s throat was a choker of emeralds that had once belonged to a princess in India.
Peter, who only a few years before, was a clerk in the Office of Records, was the local king of the wind trade. A sailor in his youth, he longed for the thrill of raw survival and power over the elements. With a wife and four children, he could not pursue excitement on the seas, but something in his blood made him come to life when he learned about the fortunes to be made in the new futures market. Anna was a gifted gardener, and she chose to look at Peter’s investments as masculine expressions of aesthetic longing, rather than what they were: his chance to amass wealth and feed his dormant desire for risk-taking.
If ‘Zomerschoon’ was Peter’s public pride and greatest source of income, his private glory was most certainly ‘Lac van Rijn’, with its pointed blood-purple petals that were edged with just the right touch of ivory. He had written to Jan de Heem and Dirck van Delen and invited them to paint ‘Lac van Rijn’. Anna had arranged the flowers in a vase of violet crystal and had placed them on a table in the east side of the house so the morning sun would shoot sparks from the German vase and give the tulips an almost holy appearance, as though they were set in stained glass.
A few weeks before Christmas, in 1636, Peter made 50,000 florins in the course of ten days.
“We have been suddenly blessed by God,” Anna said, though she felt uncomfortable being a wealthy woman, and suggested Peter talk with the Bishop of Amsterdam about giving a large sum of money to the Church.
“The Bishop has already invited me to meet with him,” Peter assured her. “I am willing to add a new steeple to the central Amsterdam church, if he would permit me that honor.”
Anna preferred giving the money to the poor, but she deferred to her husband in such matters. Her real pleasure was in taking care of her family and growing the tulips that were making her husband one of the richest men in the country. Her father had taught her the secrets of coaxing the bulbs into their moment of maximum beauty.
“They long for their home,” he told her, “so you must give them what they long for.”
Anna imagined the tulips, especially the tiny species tulips, crying for the dry summers, balmy nights and mountaintops of the Ottoman Empire. She planted the bulbs on high mounds that the servants built, and collected baskets of scree to help absorb the moisture. Her red, purple and broken-color turbans nodded in the wind from the safety of their makeshift hills. The little ones, Clusiana and Acuminata, spread like benign flames that originated from the fire of an artist’s soul.
Peter was dismayed when he saw his wife in the field with the servants, hauling rocks and digging trenches.
“Your hands, Anna. You will have your portrait painted soon, and your hands are turning into the hands of a milkmaid. Do you have to dig in the ground and carry stones?”
But tending the bulbs was Anna’s greatest pleasure, aside from her children, who sometimes joined her in the small tulip field and learned to do the everyday tasks of gardening. Anna was unconcerned about quantity; one lavishly splashed ‘Zomerschoon’ would bring Peter the value of a wealthy woman’s diamond tiara or a share of her husband’s business. Peter, through Anna, was producing some of the most beautiful tulips in Europe, but he was also speculating with the most reckless of the wind traders. Buying bulbs he had not yet seen, he would then put up the price of Anna’s bulbs, which his own buyers had not yet seen.
By late January of 1637, Anna was seeing less and less of Peter, who regularly traveled across Europe in search of new buyers. Presiding over the feeding, shelter and propagation of the tulip bulbs, Anna sometimes hid a bloom in the potting shed so that she could enjoy it for its own sake. She pondered the mystery of the dappled bulbs which had made her family rich, and she grew anxious about Peter and his colleagues. When Peter worked for the government, Anna had been content, and had felt blessed to have her family around her as she performed the simple tasks of cooking, cleaning and working in her own little garden. Now, it was as though a mysterious disease had overtaken her husband and broken his gentle spirit, driving him to think of nothing but the gathering of riches and the manipulation of an elusive market.
But it was more than that, Anna knew. They had no need of more money. Their house was spacious and beautifully appointed, their children were well-fed and clothed, they were received by the ruling families of Holland. Peter rose early in the morning, and he broke into sweats as he tossed in their bed at night. Anna noticed that he often ignored the children, and he drank too much wine at dinner.
Anna’s father taught her to hybridize the bulbs, and she had formed a small, secret plot of soil far away from the main garden, near a field of lilies. She offered a gift of ecru to a flower of the deepest violet, and what emerged was a tall, flat-petaled cap of gentian-speckled cream that made Anna think of the egg of an exotic bird. Afraid that Peter would find it and dishonor the tulips’ gratitude, she covered the plot with hay, and instructed the servants to stay away from it.
One morning, when she was straightening the belongings in her mahogany chest, Anna noticed her ruby earrings were missing. Peter had bought them when he had visited a jeweler in London, and Anna was afraid to tell him they were lost. She searched the entire house to no avail, and that evening, told Peter the news.
“You will get them back, Anna.”
“How can I, Peter? I’ve looked everywhere. How foolish you must think I am, losing something another woman would watch over and treasure every moment.”
Peter took Anna’s hand, looked her in the eye briefly, then looked down at the rug.
“I took them, Anna. All of the money is tied up. I had to have something for the banker to hold until the end of the week. You will get them back, I promise.”
“Peter, what are you saying?”
“Do not worry, Anna. Give me three or four days. There are men in Amsterdam who are willing to give me the price of ten pairs of your earrings for a pink and violet beauty that is coming my way the day after tomorrow.”
Anna spent the rest of the evening alone in her room, remembering days of her childhood. Days of digging pails of soil for her father, and learning from him to pat the soil gently so the worms would have an easy time on their journeys in and out. She liked to take her children to the garden to show them how the worms tilled the soil, preparing it to release the nutrients that feed the miracles deep inside the souls of her bulbs.
Early the next morning, Anna visited her secret garden of speckled tulips and felt an awe and admiration than she did not feel when she saw the ruby earrings. She picked one and put it in a white porcelain vase on a low table in a corner of her room.
The next day, the emerald choker was gone.
On Friday, Peter told Anna that they had no money. They were ruined, he said. Hearing the desperate pleas of many of Peter’s colleagues, the government in Amsterdam shut down the market.
“You can get your job back, Peter,” Anna told him. “We do not need all of this furniture and jewelry. I can sell it, and sell the paintings. Our life can be peaceful again.”
Peter could not answer his wife. He sat with his face in his hands, ashamed to look at her, afraid to speak. He could not sense her relief, nor understand her acceptance. He had neither the desire nor the courage to ask for his old job at the Office of Records. He was too old to go to sea. He would gather the jewels and the art and would sell them through brokers in other countries, where buyers would not exploit his fear and despair. And he would find a new market, far from the canals of Amsterdam, that was not driven by the whims of rich, idle Dutchmen.
Anna retired to her room, where she knelt by the low table that held the white vase. But the gentian-splashed petals of cream were already spent, and had fallen on the floor, their former beauty already turning to brown.