– IN THE ORTO BOTANICO
– IN THE ORTO BOTANICO
The most popular garden to visit in Florence is the Giardino Boboli, the Boboli Gardens, which are entered from the Pitti Palace. For English-speaking tourists, the popularity seems to spring from the relative ease and pleasant associations of the pronunciation of these words, Boboli and Pitti, which sound to their ears like “bubbly” and “pretty” said rapidly, enthusiastically, and with more than a hint of baby-talk – qualities which they believe characterize the Italian language as a whole. The gardens themselves are much less pleasant than their name. They are the product of 18th century severity of design combined with modern miserliness in maintenance, with the result that they are composed mostly of tall hedges, sparse and thin like starving animals. In all the immensity of its lawns and graveled paths, there are no flowers. Moreover, the garden is laid out over a hill, so that when one comes in, there is nothing to do but toil up a promenade to the top, and then go down the other side, coming at last to a small pond from which rises dispirited classical statuary, to whom even the small comfort of a covering of moss has been denied. Then one must walk back up the hill again. When I felt the want of some greenery, then, it was not to the parched and paradoxically crowded Boboli Gardens that I wanted to go; nor did I, after my recent sojourn there, want to return to Fiesole. Instead, I went to the Orto Botanico.
This botanical garden, the whole of which would fit into some back corner of one of those greater compendia of plants in Germany or the new world, had used to be the gardino dei semplici, the garden of simples, for the convent of San Marco, whose monks there grew the ingredients needed for compounding medicines. The University, at a much later period, had taken it over, making it into a botanical garden mainly by the addition of a few low, small greenhouses. One enters from the street into a small office to buy a ticket, and I was waiting here, the bell having rung to announce my arrival, when I first saw the old man who is the subject of this story. He came in from the gardens slowly, still fussing over a watering can which he took some time to put down, clucking about the possibility of its spilling while looking at me out of the corners of his eyes. On a sudden, though, he put it down and beamed at me, “Ah, of course I recognize you! My memory these days – but you’ll excuse me.” He then turned his attention to the tickets, which were one of those complicated systems whereby one is charged a different price based on some combination of age, profession, and nationality. “A resident, of course. No charge,” he said, pulling out a white ticket and ushering me out into the garden. “Enjoy – it has been such a long time since I have seen you.” He and his watering can then quickly disappeared into another path.
I had made no objections; I was, I supposed, as much a resident of Florence than anywhere else. I did not recognize the man, despite his claimed acquaintance. He did not seem to be pretending; it was actually as if he had had to struggle to remember who I was, and was pleased with himself for doing so. I thought that he had perhaps mistaken me for someone else; still, it was strange. Ever since the University had taken over the garden, the role of ticket-taker had been usually played by a sullen student or by Stefano, who will soon come into this story. Perhaps, I thought, this man was merely a professor – one saw them here at times, tending to either their experiments or their tomatoes. I left him to these, then, and wandered along the paths.
The Garden, though small, as I have said, is infinitely more lush and dense than the Boboli Gardens. Here, nothing is ever uprooted, for everything might be some rare transplant or forgotten cross-breed. Not that these are very systematically tended, for, aside from a few favorite or personal specimens, most are left to be cared for by chance; in the palm house, for example, which is hot, cramped, and dark, the plants get their water mostly from the drips of a series of corroded, leaking pipes, while in one corner, a Queen palm has broken through the panes of the roof, and shards of glass still rest among its fronds. This neglect may be more purposeful than it seems, however, since both monks and professors are interested not in the regular – in the unending normality of a row of hedges – but rather seek the promising new. In the plant world, what is new is the result of deformation, whether deliberate or accidental. Deliberate deformations – pruning, grafting, breeding – are the stock work of science, and the results of such actions, though slow to come to fruition, are usually easy to predict, after Gregor Mendel and his neat rows of peas. Much more profitable are the torments which Nature inflicts unaided on her own, for she has more of imagination that do gardeners. She only can create a sole sweet apple tree in a forest of bitter; we can merely propagate it. Hence the undisturbed tangles of the Garden, whose variety and chance might give Nature some materials to her pleasure.
The old man, when I came upon him, was engaged with what seemed to be just one such deformation. No one else was in the Garden, and I had heard him from time to time crooning something to his charge – a common enough attempt at communication between gardeners and plants, though it rarely does any good. He was in the center of the Garden, kneeling before a diminutive tree which stood in a circular bed which seemed to have been recently cleared of all its other inhabitants. The tree was young, reaching up only to waist height, and was composed of a few thin branches; however, like all trees, it knew its business, and had already produced two or three fruits. Unripe still, they looked like small pomegranates or apples of Sodom. One of them was slightly split open, and something inside seemed to darkly sparkle when the old man brushed against the branches while standing up.
“I knew you would come– you never could resist my little investigations,” he said in his somewhat strange dialect of Italian; it seemed archaic, but was easy to understand – even, somehow, more comforting than any other Italian I had heard for a long while. “It has been so long – I hardly recognized you, you know. But we’re both so much very older than we used to be – but somehow just the same, which one hardly expected.”
I was still uncertain how to reply to this insistence, and again I thought that he did not seem mistaken, for he had been examining me carefully ever since I had come into view, and was evidently satisfied that he knew me; he addressed me formally, though, and continued to look sharply at me, as if trying to guess how I would react to something. My reply was delayed, too, by an attempt to frame a response in the same dialect that he used, and of which the words and accent seemed so half-familiar, as if something used in childhood. Before I could speak, though, there was a rustling among a clump of plants nearby, and the old man rushed over to them, putting in his hand and drawing out a trapped mouse.
It was a young grey mouse, and had been caught not by any modern contrivance, but in a hand-made trap – a noose of thin wire. It had run its head into this noose and, in attempting to escape, had almost already strangled itself. The old man brought it back to where I was standing and, kneeling, with assured movements dug out a trowel-full of dirt, pulled the noose on the mouse’s neck tight with a jerk, removed it, dropped the body into the hole, and then neatly covered it up. I suppose that I looked somewhat taken aback, for he smiled up at me, exclaiming, “Just a little bit of refreshment, my dear sir,” then getting up again – perhaps he again touched the tree, for it again seemed to flash and sparkle – he disappeared down the path towards the larger of the greenhouses.
* * *
I came back the next day, but this time my ticket was issued by Stefano, with who I was already acquainted. At some time in the past, most probably before the age of reason, Stefano had shown some aptitude, or at least interest, in plant-life, and by strong admonitory efforts his family had succeeded in making him continue his studies all the way up to entrance in the botany program in the University; unfortunately, though, no efforts of theirs could make him produce the ideas needed to write a thesis for graduation, and so he remained here, employed much as a gardener would be, though, I am sure, with a much lower salary. He was still young and usually cheerful in his lot, except when he received letters from his family – one great-aunt in particular could make him morose for a day or two merely by mentioning some jam-cookies, I think it was, of which he had been fond as a child and for which, she invariably pointed out, he had done nothing to repay her. Today he was excited – he seemed to have caught the cheerfulness of the old man, without his caution. “Have you met Professor Ghini?” he asked me. The name was familiar, and must in any case have belonged to the old man with the tree. “He’s just come,” continued Stefano. “The professor in charge of the Garden is sick, and they came to me and said, ‘Stefano, you’re in charge until he gets better,’ and I thought that that was good, because my family would like it, but bad, because it might be more work, but I shouldn’t have worried, because Professor Ghini came and said that he used to be in charge, a long while ago, and would come back now, while the usual boss is sick. And he went poking around in the garden until he found that little tree in the middle here” - by this time we were walking together into the center of the Garden – “and was so happy, and said that it was just how he’d hoped it would turn out, and then he thought for a little bit, and said that if I helped him, he would let me write about it for my thesis, which would be like discovering a new kind of tree, because I’ve never seen one like it before. I already cleared out everything around it, so that it could get more nourishment.”
Stefano, though not original in his ideas, was thorough in his studies, and to the best of my knowledge, too, this tree was unprecedented. It seemed to be one of those natural deformations the Garden was designed to encourage. It looked much the same as it had the day before, of course; only the fruits were swelling. “How do you help him?” I asked. He replied that Professor Ghini had told him that the tree required nourishment, and that the best form of this was – Stefano hesitated – organic. I mentioned that I had seen Professor Ghini’s disposal of the mouse the day before, and he was relieved of something of his shyness. “He says that the fertilizers aren’t rich enough – that all it needs is a little, well, a little blood. He’s got those funny traps set up all over the Garden, and yesterday I even saw him trying to lure a cat in through the bars from the street with a dead mouse – it ran away, though – tastier pickings in the trash cans around the corner. But Professor Ghini - he’s old-fashioned about fertilization and that sort of thing, but the tree is flourishing, you see, and if I write about it I’ll be able to have such a nice Christmas at home, don’t you think?”
By this time we had returned to the ticket-office; Stefano had acted as if somewhat wary of the tree, but perhaps this was just because he feared to damage it. On his desk was a pile of old books – the sort whose morocco covers are crumbling but, when opened, show spotless pages as symbols both of the quality of paper of the Renaissance and of its pride in publishing works that few, if any, would ever want to read. “Professor Ghini lent me these,” Stefano explained. “He even marked the pages, though I don’t really understand - he said that the tree wasn’t there, but that perhaps there were some things related to it.” It did not seem that he had made much progress in his reading. Nor can he be overmuch blamed; botany is a modern science, after all, no matter how slowly it may seem to move, and each succeeding scholar takes what he considers the grain from his predecessors and leaves the chaff. The studious Stefano needed only to read the latest textbooks to gather almost the whole of what was considered true about plant-life, and so it was not surprising that he could not follow the dead language and science of 15th century botanists in Latin. Here was a mown field indeed, and I wondered what Professor Ghini hoped that he would glean from its stubble.
* * *
The next time I returned, which may have been a week or so later, Stefano’s right hand was bandaged, and he sat at the ticket-desk with a more thoughtful air. Judging from the shifted piles, he was reading the third or forth book given to him by his patron, though there were still many more to follow. When I asked him what had happened to his hand, he hesitated for a moment, and then beckoned for me to follow him out of the door, back onto the street.
“It’s just that, well, Professor Ghini doesn’t really leave the Garden – during the day, I mean, for he must go home at night, after I’m gone,” he began. “And I haven’t quite made up my mind about what’s happened, and so it’s better to talk out here, where he won’t come, because then I wouldn’t insult him – accidentally, of course.”
“I’ve lost a finger, you see.” And he held up his bandages, which I now saw were wrapped too tightly to allow for a full set to be underneath. “A few days ago – there was an accident. Professor Ghini did manage to catch a cat after all – perhaps it had come into the Garden on its own, poor thing – I know that he has bigger nooses set up. And he called for me to come help him. I dug the hole, and he – put the cat in – and I bent down to push in the dirt, and then – I think that he had taken the shovel and was trying to help, but it came down hard on my finger and - it rolled on down on top of the cat.”
“He must have been shocked, because he just kept filling in the hole, as if nothing had happened, but I held on to my hand and ran out of the Garden and around the corner, to San Marco, and a couple of monks helped me from there. The hospital cleaned it up and said that I could come back to work – and so I did – I don’t want Professor Ghini to give the tree to someone else.”
There was something not quite right about this story; something that was supposed to have happened but did not. I could not think of what that would be until Stefano told me himself: “The strangest part is what happened to the finger. What happened to me – that’s straightforward. It isn’t till just a few years ago that anyone would be concerned about the finger, besides that it got a decent burial – and it was in a fine place, and buried already, even though it would have had odd company – a cat and any number of mice, and who knows what beside. But nowadays the doctors ask for whatever bits you’ve disconnected yourself from, in hopes that they can sew it on again. One of the monks asked me where I’d left it, and I told him, and he went to go fetch it while I went to the hospital. The doctors stopped the bleeding and waited for him, but when he came he said that he had dug all around the tree and had only managed to find a lot of bones – of mice, and a cat, and of a human finger. Curious, isn’t it? The doctor said that he must have found part of a dog’s paw or something, but it was impossible to tell, since he hadn’t brought it with him – couldn’t very well sew that back on. Very, very curious.”
I agreed, and we went back into the Garden, he stopping in the office, and I continuing my tour. I ended in its center, by the tree. The area around it had been patted back into place after its disturbances, and nearby lay the shovel, ready at hand. It was indeed flourishing on its curious diet, for I saw that one of its fruits, the one slightly opened before, had enlarged and split almost all the way down its side. It was packed with seeds, like the pomegranate, each with its bit of gleaming flesh around it. One seed had fallen into the dirt below, and there wetly shone. I stooped and picked it up, and immediately, startled, dropped it, for it was hard and heavy; not a seed at all, but a ruby.
* * *
Leaving the stone where I had found it, I went back into the office to find Stefano, for my first thought was that the monk, in digging to find his appendage, had upturned this gem, lost and accidentally buried there who knows how long ago. Professor Ghini was there, though, and I waited until their conversation finished.
“I again make all possible apologies,” he was saying. “Oh, my dear sir, do come in. I was just telling Stefano that I simply lost my head, and besides, that I really had no idea that these kinds of things could be reattached – did you?” This question was addressed to me, and I found that I had to answer that no, I had not known, although I thought to myself that I should have. “Ah, the advancements that we’ve made – in medicine, yes – in botany, we haven’t come so very far at all, I note. Still plenty of discoveries for us to make, Stefano my friend. For instance – but why don’t you find that engraving, Stefano?”
Stefano obediently, though with some difficulty, removed a large folio from his pile and opened it to the frontispiece. This was a portrait of the author who, in the dress of the later 15th century, strolled amidst a curious forest, whose trees bore small bunches of fruits of regular, quite inorganic shape, and around which the artist had drawn expanding lines, as if to indicate that they shone and flashed in the light. Below this scene was inscribed the name of the author: Luca Ghini.
“A member of the same family, I presume,” said Professor Ghini. “For someone who takes such interest in the genealogies of plants, I am remarkably void of concern about my own family tree. A very great botanist, was Luca Ghini, although principally remembered at present for being the first to press plants in order to preserve them as specimens. At least, this is what Stefano was able to dredge up out of his memory – his very well-stocked memory, of course. But if you consult the works of Luca Ghini, you will find that he had many other ingenious ideas, even if he did not put all of them into practice – into widespread practice, let us say. For instance, here” – pointing at the engraving – “the great botanist argues that it is possible to grow trees that will flower forth not into mere fruits or nuts, but into gemstones.”
Stefano was not surprised; it seemed that Professor Ghini had told him this before. In fact, he hardly attended to the conversation, looking instead at the engraving, deep in thought.
“Of course, a ridiculous idea, you would say – but he would have said that it was ridiculous to think that one could sew back on a finger – provided, of course, that the finger could be found in good shape. In any case, I tell you this just to show that there are many more dreams of botanists to be accomplished than are remembered by the contemporary science. And now I must go tend to my little dream – I fear its roots may not have wholly recovered from their disturbance.” With this, he gathered together a trowel and rake and passed out into the Garden.
“Very, very curious,” muttered Stefano, still looking at the engraving. “But you know something about this sort of thing, don’t you?” I admitted to him that I had some knowledge of the early days of the science of botany, and that I even had some familiarity with the book in front of us; I kept to myself, though, the fact that I could not remember when or why I had first read it. “How, then, would anyone think that a plant could grow gems?”
I turned the pages until I came to a picture of a mandrake root, which in shape, to those looking with hopeful eyes, bears some resemblance to the human form. Stefano read the accompanying paragraph in the original Latin, but I will not presume so far upon the reader’s patience:
The mandrake: its root is in the shape of a man. It has most flesh around the fork, and is thus to be given to a man who wants power to get a child.
Stefano did not appear to be enlightened. I explained that, in an age before the subtler matching of chemical to chemical had come before the eyes of man, one needed a different principle to match remedies to ailments. One could, of course, consult the old wives to find what a millennium or two had arrived at, through trial and error, but at a certain point the wish for new solutions had outpaced these slow developments. The new theory held that what appeared like, even if in different realms, must be alike in some manner. Thus the root of the mandrake, which has a fleshy swelling at the point at which its forked divisions look like legs, was applied – in powders, tinctures, and amulets – to men with problems in a similar area.
“Yes, but how does this apply to trees and gems?”
“I mention it merely as an illustration of how an earlier age saw closer links between types of matter that we consider separate. If a root can be so much like a man, why could there not be a tree with fruits so like gemstones that they act, for a man, just like them? Of course, we know of no such trees in nature.”
“Luca Ghini – I’ve read that part of his book – says that we would have to breed them. But he doesn’t say how.”
“Of course not – that would be his secret. Although I do not seem to recall that he ever possessed such a fine garden as this one, in the engraving.”
“Can we, do you think,” slowly began Stefano, “guess how he would have tried?”
In reply, I opened another of his books, a general encyclopedia of the period, and turned to the entry on “the basilisk:”
The basilisk is a serpent with a cock’s crest on its head; it is hatched out of a cock’s egg warmed by a snake.
“So,” said Stefano, “a basilisk, which looks like a cock and a snake, is made from the conjunction of the two.”
“Not a simple conjunction,” I reminded him. “One cannot induce them to court so easily. The relative scarcity of basilisks is explicable only if several difficult conditions are imposed on their creation. It is up to Nature to make a cock lay an egg, even if the basilisk-hunter keeps all the other necessary appurtenances close to hand.”
“That tree out there… well, what, do you think, would be the ingredients of a tree that fruited with gem stones?”
“I would think that one would begin with a tree whose fruits bore some resemblance already to gems.”
“For example,” hesitatingly he said, “a pomegranate’s seeds look something – look something like rubies, don’t they?”
“Yes – but one would hardly expect a pomegranate tree to start producing rubies. There would have to some special condition.”
Professor Ghini came into the room, gleefully crying “First fruits!” He held in his palm a red kernel which gleamed – impossible to tell because of moisture or, so to speak, inner waters. We may have looked at it, and him, with something of questioning countenances, since he ceased his celebrations and, with a shrug, tipped what he held into his mouth. “Not enough to share, I fear,” he explained, and left again. I turned to leave, too, but Stefano stopped me to ask if I could tell him where to find information about gem lore, on rubies in particular. I found that I could, and directed him to a few books.
Before I left, I looked at the frontispiece with the strange forest once again. I found that the engraving bore the arms of the Medici, and indeed, the next page had a dedication to that family, who had evidently been Luca Ghini’s patrons.
I had already gone when I realized what had been troubling me about the encounter with Professor Ghini and his first fruit: I had not seen him swallow. I remembered that people not used to security in their pockets or surroundings are sometimes wont to carry small, precious objects in their mouth, for better preservation.
* * *
I did not return for several days after that. I had other business to attend to, and there was also something about the whole affair that was disturbing. Professor Ghini’s claimed recognition of me, as well as my inexplicable familiarity with Luca Ghini’s book, were puzzling, true, but in my thoughts they assumed a greater importance than I could explain. I was drawn to him and yet repulsed; both are emotions to which I do not wish to give rein, and so I kept away. I returned, in fact, only on the urgent request of Stefano, for I had met him running down the street outside the Garden – he nearly ran into me before he saw me. He then declared that I was better than a monk - from which I gathered that he was once again in search of help after some emergency, though to my first hurried questions he protested that he was unharmed, and urged me towards the Garden’s gate.
As we rushed through the office and down the path to the center, he pointed before us, telling me to look. When the tree came into view, I thought that I saw around its base some shape, blurred and uncertain like a piece of dark mist, but even this had faded by the time we stopped beside it. “Did you see?” cried Stefano, with a gesture of impatience. “That was him!”
It was quite some time before Stefano could give an intelligible account of what had happened. Before that, he spent some time weeping and behaving, in general, much younger than his years – work in a botanical garden, as I reflected, does not greatly inure one to the shocks of life. We had all the time we needed, though, since visitors to the Garden are scarce and undemanding. His final narrative was something as follows; I have not recorded his expressions of guilt, since, as I hope the reader will realize, he had no cause to feel any:
Professor Ghini had kept up both his ebullience and his suspicions after I had departed. He had taken away most of the books that he had lent to Stefano, who was thus prevented from continuing his researches for the moment. Professor Ghini had also kept him away from the tree, saying that he would take care of it for the present, since Stefano was injured; as well, he would not let him see any more of the fruit – Stefano had conjectured that it was not edible, as I had, but Professor Ghini would neither confirm nor deny that he had anything in his possession. Yet, if Professor Ghini would not show the matter at hand, he would talk about its consequences, for he gladly declared that his experiment had succeeded – leaving it to Stefano to guess what the experiment had been – and that at last he would revenge himself upon those who had not believed it possible. He assured Stefano that all the material would soon be available for publication – if only, though…. He was about to go away, talking to himself about how it would be better that it should flower once more, but that he didn’t know where to get the necessary nourishment – here he gave Stefano an appraising look, which, Stefano told me, was not at all pleasant. Stefano asked him who it was that had not believed him. Professor Ghini went out and returned with Luca Ghini’s book, turning to the back where, bound in the same cover, was a short pamphlet. This, by an anonymous contemporary - probably even a colleague – of the botanist’s, went on at tedious length – though all outmoded wit is tedious – about the foolishness of growing gem-stones, and proposed a number of alternatives – perhaps Luca Ghini could attempt a tree that would produce pear tarts instead of mere pears, and so on. Stefano had turned from this in confusion. Professor Ghini had sought to explain that any enemies of the great Luca Ghini were equally enemies of his, but when asked, then, if their projects were the same as their antipathies, bounded out of the office in seeming disgust, refusing to answer.
Shortly afterwards it had been time to leave – the Garden had those delightfully short working hours which I believe that I have explained before. Stefano retired to the library, and spent the next day there as well, sending in a note of excuse. He was trying to find what Luca Ghini and his era thought that a ruby resembled, in order to find out how they might have thought that one could be grown. The answer to the first question was simple, though it took Stefano’s slow Latin and the librarian’s even slower fetching of books all day to discover it: a ruby looks like blood. On the principle of like curing like, medical texts of the time prescribed that bleeding patients be given ruby powder or, at less cost and no doubt equal effectiveness, ruby water, that is, water in which a ruby had been bathed. Professor Ghini’s trick with the mice seemed to be now explained, for it would be fitting to water a blood-like thing with blood. Stefano thought darkly about his finger, but still could not decide if it had been an accident or not – he had perhaps an overly high respect for authority. Besides, he thought, he still had not had an opportunity to inspect the tree closely enough – perhaps it was his imagination, not that of Professor Ghini, that needed to be questioned.
The next day he had returned to work. Professor Ghini still bustled in and out of the office, clucking over watering cans and weeds, and seemed such a substantial and practical personage that Stefano could not question him. He continued to worry, talking half to Stefano and half to himself, about the tree’s nourishment. Late in the morning, Stefano said, after having disappeared into a far corner of the Garden for some time, he ran up to Stefano and asked that he come to the tree, explaining that he had at last caught a large enough animal. They went together there, and Professor Ghini asked Stefano to dig a hole using a trowel; they could not use a shovel (Professor Ghini, evidently out of breath, was leaning on one) for fear of damaging the roots.
Stefano knelt and commenced to dig. Once he looked up and asked where the animal was, and Professor Ghini replied that he would fetch it when it was time. Stefano returned to his task, and was just looking up again to ask whether he had made the hole big enough when he saw Professor Ghini standing over him, holding the shovel by two hands, raised and aimed at Stefano’s neck.
He knew that he would not have time enough to defend himself by scrambling up from his kneeling position; instead, almost without thought, he reached and took hold of the trunk of the tree, bending its youthful slenderness almost to breaking. He was attempting to negotiate, but this opening move was perhaps too dramatic for Professor Ghini, who reacted with a shocked intake of breath. This caused him to choke, as if he had had something in his mouth; in any case, he collapsed onto the ground at the foot of the tree. Much of Stefano’s guilt arouse from the fact that he did not then try to revive Professor Ghini. We might forgive him for not attending overmuch to the needs of someone who had just been attempting to behead him with a shovel in the service of some sort of unholy botany, but Stefano alleged another excuse. Professor Ghini’s body, he said, had somehow begun to fade – to become insubstantial, to disappear. It was at this point that Stefano ran out of the Garden, again in search of the monks of San Marco, but instead encountering me.
This told, we returned to the tree. It was much the same as I last saw it, including even the ruby on the ground at its foot. Stefano insisted that this was the place that Professor Ghini’s head had fallen – it seems that it is harmful to ingest rubies whole, instead of powdered, no matter in what form of existence one may attempt it. In the absence of any more of its preferred nourishment, no more of its fruits had ripened. Stefano cut one open. Inside of a skin like that of the pomegranate were several kernels – much firmer than those of the fruit, but still with a slow rolling movement of inner contents if pressed. They were dry to the touch, yet glistened, and Stefano’s knife could not cut through them.
It was truly a new object for botany, but Stefano, having already lost a finger for it, desired not to keep it alive. On my advice, he dug it up and burned it, all that would burn – what would not, along with the ruby, went into the foundations of a hastily-planned and, I fear, never afterwards further executed, extension to the palm-house, where, encased in concrete, it was improbable that they would come into contact with blood and, thus watered, act as seeds.
Stefano’s unselfishness as to research objects was rewarded. He dug deep to make certain that he had reached all of the plant, and among its deepest roots he found a much-decayed skeleton. It was that of a man, and around what had been its neck was a medal – an award for some distinction of science, inscribed with the name of Luca Ghini. He also found with it a dagger, with a ruby inlaid in its handle. Further time in the library showed that Luca Ghini’s manner of death was unknown, but it was thought that he had committed suicide, for he had disappeared, leaving a note addressed to his fellow botanists claiming that he would prove to them, or their descendants, that his ideas were sound. This, then, was the difficult condition that he hoped would produce rubies – the heart’s blood of a suicide. As with basilisks, the rest of the work must be done by Nature. It had taken quite some time, in this case, for her accidents and deformities to take root; but when they did, Professor Luca Ghini was waiting for them still.
Stefano, wisely leaving out the success of the attempt, on the principle that no one would believe it, wrote his thesis on the discovery of the body and its proof of the high importance of advances in botany in the early Renaissance. The University, in truth as tired of the importunities of his family as he was himself, accepted without a murmur this substitution of history for science, and gave him his degree. I went to see him on his last day at the Garden; he was showing another student the tools and plants, both under the eye of the professor who had recovered from his illness and, of course, knew nothing of his temporary and unofficial replacement. Stefano and I talked in the office after they had done, and I congratulated him on his research, both published and unpublished.
“I have,” said Stefano, “just one thing troubling me. I know that he wanted to grow gems – but why did he choose a ruby-tree, out of all the possible stones?”
I turned to a passage in Professor Luca Ghini’s own book, which still lay on the table, and read, “The ruby is a stone of vengeance.”