The expedition was arranged for two days hence, Mr. Burbank’s stay in the country being of limited duration. He had requested that they begin their hunt from Edgeley, because the river would provide them with direction, and the woods near the house would be more productive than the evergreen copse around Lincoln House. His request was acceded to, though not without an airy assurance on Mrs. Lincoln’s part of her indifference, which to Beatrice’s ears was tinged with resentment. Thus the party gathered in front of Edgeley House, and that eminent botanist distributed small notebooks around and instructed his pupils as to the importance of noting down where and when specimens were gathered.
Beatrice had schooled herself not to show too much interest or aptitude in the proceedings, lest she should arouse any further suspicion in Mr. Burbank. The lie which she had expected would need to last her only for the fifteen minutes of his visit, was growing ever larger and more regrettable. She wished that she had not told it, but at the same time she still held some hope of resuming their correspondence when Mr. Burbank had returned to the safety of London. There was still this expedition to be got through, however. The interventions of Mrs. Lincoln on behalf of her daughter had unexpectedly become Beatrice’s saviour, and she was bent on supporting them, though she thought it was cruel to encourage Isabella in any tendre she might form towards Mr. Burbank. Having observed him dispassionately, she had reached the conclusion that he was behaving towards Miss Lincoln with nothing more than polite civility, and once or twice she had detected in him an irritation towards the mother which he could not altogether disguise.
“He is handsome, don’t you think?” asked Isabella, walking beside her as they followed the others into the woods. Louisa had fallen in with Clara, their two blonde heads bent close together in animated (and secretive) communication.
Beatrice thought she detected a note of uncertainty in the girl’s voice.
“Yes, very handsome.”
“Mama likes him very much, you know. She says she heard it from Mrs. Bell that he is very well respected in London.”
“Indeed, I believe he is.”
Isabella sighed. “Only, I don’t think I will be half clever enough for him.”
“Am I to understand then, that he has made you an offer?” asked Beatrice, surprised.
“Oh, no! I did not mean to suggest… that is…” she broke off in confusion.
Poor creature, thought Beatrice, she is too young for tact, and too innocent for dissimulation. Though heaven knows her Mother could teach her a thing or two.
“My dear Isabella, do you really think men want clever wives? I can tell you that in my experience the virtues they hold most highly are those of sweetness of disposition and dutifulness, both of which you possess.”
The girl smiled up at her. “Do you really think so?”
“Yes, I do, and I’m sure your Mama would agree.”
“With what would I agree, Miss Debord?” asked Mrs. Lincoln, breaking off her conversation with Mrs. Gray to interrupt theirs.
Isabella blushed and stammered until Beatrice came to her rescue. It was clear that she was terrified of her Mother, and no wonder.
“I was saying, Mrs. Lincoln, that men do not in general want intelligent women for wives.”
Mrs. Lincoln looked as though she might take umbrage, and Beatrice realised that the woman had probably taken the remark as an insult either to her or her daughter. Surely she could not argue that Isabella was particularly bright? It was Mr. Burbank who interposed in the contretemps.
“How right you are, Miss Debord,” he said. “An intelligent woman is the very worst for domestic bliss.”
“Aye, I hope this botanising won’t make my girls mad over books and science,” said Mr. Lincoln, joining them. He had no interest in making up a part of their expedition, but Beatrice had suggested that he might enjoy some fishing on their land, and he had accepted gladly.
She searched Mr. Burbank’s countenance for a trace of levity. She was sure that he had been funning, and she had her proof when he turned to her with a sparkle in his dark blue eyes. She bit her lip on a smile, and dove into the undergrowth in search of some distraction.