Albert Edward Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, King of the United Kingdom and the Dominions and Emperor of India, stared unhappily into the middle distance as an aide brushed a minuscule speck of dust from his left sleeve. He had quite forgotten what the day was to bring—how could a man be expected to remember all those openings and presentations and inspections, each one so like another? He was not in uniform, so it was nothing to do with the navy or the military, which was a pity. He turned to his private secretary, Sir Francis Knollys, who was standing a discreet distance from the royal presence and pretending to be intensely interested in an arrangement of flowers on the table beside him.
“Well, Knollys, what is it to be today?” he asked. “Another ribbon-cutting? A factory opening? By Jove, I sometimes wish I’d never started doing that sort of thing. My mother never entirely approved of it. You would not have seen her opening the Mersey Tunnel, would you?”
Knollys tried, not entirely successfully, to dismiss from his mind the image of Queen Victoria presiding at the opening of a tunnel. He gave a small cough. “Your Majesty will be pleased to hear that today’s sole function is to attend the Royal Horticultural Show, at the Society’s Exhibition Hall in Vincent Square.”
That explained the man’s interest in the flower arrangement. “At least it’s not too far,” sighed the King. “I like flowers well enough, but to be quite honest, Knollys, these experts do rather go on about them in quite mind-numbing detail. One lily looks very like another to me. Except Lillie Langtry, of course. Now there was a rare Lillie indeed.”
Knollys gave a polite smile, then tried to steer the conversation away from the King’s former mistress, about whom the King could—and often did—wax enthusiastic. “It is not a flower show, Your Majesty. This is”—he adjusted his glasses and read from a sheet of paper he held in his hand—“the exhibit of fruits and vegetables, jams and preserves, from all over the country and many points beyond.”
The King was a man of healthy appetites, as his ample girth attested, and his face brightened considerably. “Wonderful! As in past years, there will doubtless be an opportunity to sample some of the items on display.”
“That is entirely probable, sir,” replied Knollys. “Indeed, I believe that royal approval is highly sought after and valued by those who display the fruits of their labour at the show.” He pulled out his pocketwatch. “And now it is time for us to depart, Your Majesty, if you are ready.”
From Buckingham Palace to Vincent Square was indeed a short journey, and soon the royal carriage was pulling up in front of the handsome brick building of the Royal Horticultural Society. A slim, distinguished, white-haired gentleman who was standing under the portico descended the steps to greet the King.
“Ah, Sir Trevor! How are you? And how are the . . .” The King paused, and Knollys stepped forward a pace and whispered in the royal ear. “How are the orchids doing?”
“Very well, Your Majesty, and it is kind of you to ask,” replied Sir Trevor Lawrence, President of the Royal Horticultural Society. “I have recently added some interesting specimens to my collection, and have been very successful with some of my hybridisations.”
“Excellent, excellent,” murmured the King. “I am sure I will have an opportunity to see the results soon.” They made their way indoors, the King acknowledging the bows and curtseys of the onlookers with a regal nod. “But today there is something else on hand, is there not?”
“Indeed, sir; and may I say how honoured we are to have you, as our Patron, take the time to visit us.” Within moments they were in the Exhibition Hall, which was bustling with activity, and alive with the rich colours and scents of fresh produce. “As you can see, we have fruits and vegetables from all over the country, and from many parts of the Dominions as well. South Africa, Australia, Canada. . . .”
“Ah yes, that reminds me.” The King stopped, causing something of a chain reaction as those walking behind him came to a halt. “There are some apples I am particularly keen to sample.”
“We have many different apples here, Your Majesty. If you could tell me what variety they are. . . .”
The King had a poor memory when it came to many things, but food was not one of them. “They are called Grimes Golden apples,” he said, looking pleased with himself. “And they are grown by a Mrs. Smith. A widow. From Canada.”
“Mrs. Smith,” Sir Trevor repeated, frowning. “A common surname.” Catching the King’s look, he added hastily, “But I am sure that we can find them.”
“There cannot be very many Widow Smiths from Canada exhibiting apples here in London,” said the King, and Knollys’s lips twitched in a small smile. The King had a point.
However, the apples in question proved surprisingly elusive. There were apples from a Smith in Devon, others from a Smith in Kent; at one point it seemed that almost everyone exhibiting apples that year was doing so under the name of Smith. When yet another Smith proved to be a false lead, the King sighed.
“How difficult can it be, Sir Trevor, to find these particular apples? They were sent by the Widow Smith, from Spences Bridge in British Columbia. I had the privilege of tasting some of her apples last year, and am anxious to see if the quality of this year’s harvest lives up to that high standard.” He fixed the President with a stern eye. “Find me those apples, Sir Trevor, if you please.”
To be continued