The Black Tulip (Alexandre Dumas, 1850)

Cornelis de Witt is wrongly believed to have conspired with France in their invasion of Holland. He’s arrested, tortured, and sentenced to exile. His brother, John de Witt, comes to take him away. A mob forms outside of the prison incensed that the “villains” are getting away so lightly. They seize the de Witts, murder them, tear them apart, and cannibalize the corpses. Thus ends the historical content, now we enter the fictional material:

Cornelis gave a parcel of documents to his godson, Cornelius van Baerle. The documents contains letters from M. de Louvois, which — in the current political climate — could prove deadly to him. Before his assassination, he writes to his godson to burn the letters without reading them or even opening the parcel.

Cornelius van Baerle has no interest whatever in politics — he’s devoted himself solely to growing tulips, which he’s readily able to do, having been left an enormous fortune by his father. His neighbor, Isaac Boxtel, is also a tulip-fancier, but one of much more limited means. Boxtel’s jealousy becomes all-consuming and he neglects his own flower beds and lets his bulbs die in order to spy on Cornelius and plot his ruin. A prize of 100,000 florins is being offered to whomever successfully breeds a black tulip. Cornelius is hard at work hybridizing various species to create it. Boxtel watches intently through his telescope. Cornelius just has time to divide the black tulip bulb when the soldiers come to arrest him. Boxtel — who informed them of the likely seditious material in Cornelius’s keeping — waits until they’re gone to break in and make a search of the drying room, but Cornelius has taken the three divided bulbs with him wrapped in the only paper at hand: his godfather’s letter, which he hadn’t time to read.

Cornelius is sentenced to life in prison and the jailer’s daughter, Rosa, falls in love with him at first sight. One of the three bulbs is destroyed. The second he gives to Rosa and coaches her how to grow it. The third he also gives her, still wrapped in the letter, to hide somewhere it won’t be found. Boxtel continues to watch as the tulip sprouts and finally blooms, revealing a perfectly black flower. He breaks into Rosa’s room, where she’s growing the plant in a pot, snatches it, and rushes to Haarlem to claim the prize. Rosa arrives just hours later. Possession being nine-tenths of the law, at first Rosa’s claim is dismissed, but then she produces the third bulb and, more interesting, the paper wrapping it, which clears Cornelius of the crime he’s been imprisoned for.

Cornelius is freed and brought to Haarlem for the flower festival. On seeing him, Boxtel’s jealous fury overcomes him and he collapses dead on the pavement. Cornelius and Rosa are awarded the prize and the two marry.

Inscriptions: from the Skowhegan Free Public Library, shelf D89.8. Acquired December 7th, 1921 and last checked out February 14th, 1993.

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