The Scandalous "Tulip Mania"
The Chosen Man
Book 1 in The Chosen Man Trilogy
Rome 1635. As Flanders braces for another long year of war, a Spanish count presents the Vatican with a means of disrupting the Dutch rebels’ booming economy. His plan is brilliant. They just need the right man to implement it.
Ludovico da Portovenere, charismatic merchant, and wily rogue.
Sailing for Amsterdam, Ludo's voyage is interrupted by a storm, then by a pirate raid.
The storm brings him Marcos, a quick-witted admirer he uses as a spy.
The pirate raid brings him Spanish Alina, who won’t go home.
Each event has significant consequences for Ludo’s plans, and even greater ones for Marcos and Alina.
The Chosen Man spins an engrossing tale about the Dutch scandal 'tulip mania' and how decisions made in high places can have terrible repercussions on innocent lives.
A Reader’s Favorite 5* & HNS recommended read.
The big man wearing black, the chosen man, was standing arms akimbo leaning into the wind. The feather of the wide-brimmed, black leather hat he grasped tightly in his right hand fluttered limply like a dead cockerel.
The young Jesuit priest from England, John Hawthorne, took a deep breath and spoke, but his words were whooshed up into the air and he was left silent. He waited, his heart pounding like the high surf, until the man turned and nodded a greeting. He tried again, but in his rush to communicate spoke in English, “You are bound for Sanlucar, sir? Or do you sail further?”
He was answered in English, which surprised him.
“Both,” said the man in black, turning back to face the sea beyond the prow of the small vessel.
“Look at those waves!”
The man gestured with a wide, open hand as if commanding the sea to rebel. His hair and beard glistened with spray as he braced himself against the screaming wind.
John Hawthorne, caught up in the drama, stared not at the oncoming wall of waves but at the man they called Ludovico da Portovenere and shuddered. Black hair, black cape, a look of mad rapture as the sea churned about them; the very image of a pirate—or the devil himself.
The Genoese merchant rode the next wave with his arms folded across his broad chest and laughed out loud. John tried to speak, but once again the air grabbed his words and tossed them high into the indigo sky. It was no good; he would have to find another opportunity. Clinging to the side of the small ship he began to shuffle away.
“You are what the English call a land-lubber, I see,” shouted the large man, but not unkindly. He moved and placed his hand under the Englishman’s elbow, bracing him firmly as a sheet of water, sharp as ice, showered down upon them.
“It is always rough here. We are too near to the coast. I’d move her out, but it’s not my ship. It’s Venetian. You can’t trust Venetian captains outside lagoons.”
“I was raised among hills and trees, sir, I know nothing of ships, nor am I a good sailor.” John Hawthorne slipped and the big foreigner righted him. “I shall never travel by sea again. I shall never travel again, anywhere, ever.”
As they edged their way towards the tiny starboard cabins, Ludovico da Portovenere kept his hold on the smaller man and chatted on as if they were taking a morning stroll.
“It is a question of upbringing. I was born at sea; my mother likes to tell how a mortal storm threw her into her travail and how I emerged flailing like a swimmer determined to survive and kicked the ship’s surgeon in the eye.”
“It makes a good story.”
“A good true story.”
John Hawthorne was too exhausted to continue talking. When they reached his cabin the man in black helped him open the door then ducked down to follow unbidden into the small, wood-panelled space. He placed his hat on the small table, then removed his vast cape, folded it wet side inward and sidled into the bench seat. It was a tight squeeze.
John stared at the hat. Its feather was long and multi-coloured, and belonged to some exotic bird he could not name.
The Italian merchant followed his gaze. “Tail feather of an Indian cock pheasant,” he said. “Was that what you wanted to ask me?”
“Ask you?” John was flustered, out of breath from the tearing wind and fearful excitement of the storm. “No. I—um....” Endeavouring to regain his breath and conceal his discomfort, John removed his wet coat then reached into a cupboard for two cups. Willing his hands not to tremble, he poured sweet wine from a lidded jug then, keeping his head down to avoid eye-contact, he said, “As the captain mentioned at dinner, my name is John Hawthorne, sailing to Plymouth.”
“And I am Ludovico, travelling on this stage of my voyage to Sanlucar de Barrameda in Spain. But you know that.”
Not wanting to admit the claim, John said nothing and drank from his cup.
The Italian drank from his then said, “You must call me Ludo, the world calls me Ludo.”
“Well, everyone I know from the Levant to Amsterdam. I haven’t crossed the ocean to the New World yet, but I will. Then there will be Americans calling me Ludo.”
“It seems a very familiar appellation—Ludo.”
The Italian looked the English priest in the eye and said, “That comment, sir, tells me all I need to know about you.”
John Hawthorne’s cheeks flamed scarlet, “Oh, I… Shall you be sailing north to Flanders or England after Sanlucar?”
Ludo cocked his head to one side and gave a half-smile. “Holland, not Flanders. I may disembark at Sanlucar, sail up to Seville and sell my wares there. It depends.”
“Your wares? You have a cargo aboard?”
“A few barrels of this and that, some spices. These days I mostly broker sales for others; silk for Florence—that has been left in Livorno; uncut gemstones for various jewellers; some aromatics from India and Cathay. However,” he paused for dramatic effect, “on this voyage—as I think you know—I travel with a very special, very, very special commodity.”
Ludovico da Portovenere shook his head.
“No, Mr Hawthorne, more precious than diamonds or rubies. Tulips.”
Ludovico da Portovenere, who spent his life at sea and acknowledged no place as home except a small house on the rocky pirate stronghold of Portovenere in northern Italy, smiled a wide, cheeky smile. “I bring tulip flower bulbs all the way from Turkey. Isn’t that what you want to discuss?”
John Hawthorne tried to ignore the question: it interfered with his prepared speech. “Turkey! Goodness gracious. You have been in the land of the—” he paused on the verge of uttering the word ‘infidel’, noting the swarthy skin between the raised cup and the dark hair of the foreigner, “—in the land of tulips? How interesting. It was a commission?”
“A commission for personal profit, yes.” Ludo drained his cup and leaned conspiratorially across the table. “I often commission myself you know.” A long, black-lashed lid closed slowly over a sea-green eye.
John Hawthorne was confused. Fearing he was being made fun of he said hastily, “No, forgive my impertinence. I understood the... um... er... the tulip was losing its attraction. Now there are so many of them.”
“Not so many of them. I keep a careful watch on distribution. Apart from those growing in Dutch yards, which obviously I can’t calculate, there are just enough in circulation to make them… But why am I telling you my business strategies? Why is an English priest interested in bulbs coming from the land of the infidel and going to the land of the heretic? Do you plan to start your own enterprise?”
“Heavens above, no! I have no interest in trade.”
“So?” Ludo pushed his empty cup across the small table.
“I am just interested in....” The young priest made a fuss of checking the contents of the jug. “I was told by someone that the high prices meant they would, um... sooner or later lose their value.”
“You were told—interesting. But not yet, and even if they do drop in value, it may only be temporary. It depends on the speculators. The tulip grower, the real connoisseur, always wants to see variations, new colours and new frills on petals; he is still very much interested in buying bulbs, whatever the price.”
“A foolish occupation for a man.” John spoke without thinking.
“Men are mostly foolish. When we are not being foolish we are either asleep or dead.”
“I fear you are right.”
“There are wise men, of course; some of them I’m told live in monasteries. And there are other wise men who—”
“Stay at home and till their lands.”
“And raise broods of children, flocks of sheep, gaggles of geese, and die of hard work having never lived a moment.”
“Hmm.” John pursed his lips and tried to hide his opinion in his cup.
“Forgive me; I did not intend to offend. One doesn’t often meet a priest who is also a Puritan.”
“I don’t dress as a priest. Do I look like one?”
Ludo braced his hands on the table and leaned back, grinning a one-dimpled, cheeky grin. “Mr Hawthorne, you are not a merchant and you are travelling from Ostia; what else would an Englishman be doing in Rome at this time of year, unless you are an antiquarian—you have the look of an antiquarian. However, I believe your desire to speak with me is somehow connected with Rome. I currently trade in tulips in Holland and I’m a merchant from the state of Genoa, which is as Spanish as Madrid these days. So, this must be to do with the Flanders war or England’s return to the ‘one true faith’; I’m fascinated.”
John Hawthorne gulped wine to cover his embarrassment. He was also cross: he had been wrong-footed. His opening statement would have to be adjusted, and he’d spent hours choosing the right words, the appropriate phrasing, correcting the syntax. Slowly, deliberately, he put down his cup, ready to deliver the cardinal’s message, but just as he opened his mouth to speak the cup slid off the polished surface and tipped over the table’s protective rim. The ship gave a stomach-churning lurch and there was an almighty crack.
Ludo da Portovenere grasped the edge of the table. “Hold tight, Mr Hawthorne; I fear we are about to run aground.”
Secret agents, skulduggery, crime and romance . . .
Award-winning member of the British Crime Writers' Association, J.G. Harlond (Jane) writes page-turning historical crime fiction.
Each story is set against a background of real events and combines intrigue, romance, and downright wickedness with a touch of humour.
After travelling widely, (she has lived in or visited most of the locations in her novels) Jane is now settled in Málaga, southern Spain. When she's not writing, she is either looking after her horses or struggling with a demanding garden. Jane and her Spanish husband have a large grown-up family living in various parts of Europe and the USA.