Galanthus

The party returned to Edgeley House in high spirits, and with Clara’s blessing and Beatrice’s store of brown paper and board, the parlour was turned into a schoolroom. Mr. Burbank instructed them in the proper form of drying their specimens, and patiently answered all queries regarding long names, which Mrs. Gray, having a fine hand, was enlisted to write out on sheets of paper.

Beatrice worked with the others, watching Mr. Burbank’s demonstration carefully and assisted Belinda and Louisa in her turn. Clara was helping little Jack to press a weed that he had pulled up, but he was more interested in a small insect that was making its way across the table. Beatrice thought ruefully that Mrs. Lincoln would be counting herself lucky that she didn’t have to deal with the mess of so much broken foliage and muddy boots, and the expense of paper and ink. She rescued the beetle from Jack’s clutches and took it outside. She turned to go back in, and ran into Mr. Burbank with considerable force. He helped her regain her balance, and they both apologised.

“I’m afraid our conversation the other night was interrupted by our estimable hostess,” said Mr. Burbank, speaking quietly, “but I assure you, I am still not entirely satisfied on the matter.” He was blocking her way back into the house.
She sighed. “No?”
“No. I’m still intent on meeting the real Allenham, and I have reached a further conjecture which I should like to have verified.”
She gave him an inquiring look which she hoped didn’t reveal the fear growing in the pit of her stomach.
“I believe, Miss Debord, that the reason I have been unable to discover Mr. Allenham’s assistant, is that you are the person I seek.”
She opened her mouth to follow her instinct and flatly deny this accusation.
“Yes, consider your situation before you deny everything,” he said, watching her closely.
She decided that this excuse might be just the thing to deflect his suspicions. “Yes. I have, on occasion, aided Mr. Allenham in his experiments,” she said.
He nodded, and looked smug. “I thought as much. And what was your motive in keeping this intelligence from me?”
“I did not wish to break Mr. Allenham’s confidence.”
“So you will not tell me his true identity? Or why he wishes to remain obscure?”
“That is for him to reveal, Mr. Burbank. For all I know, he may already have done so in the letter he sent you.”
“Ah yes, the letter that will dissolve all mystery. I hope you may be right. I suppose you have not had any news from him since we last spoke?”
“I’m afraid not. But then he was quite ill, so I am not surprised by his silence.”
“Indeed. Might I inquire how you met Mr. Allenham?”
“Oh, mutual acquaintances,” she said lightly. “I really think I must get back inside. Miss Lincoln still needs to sketch the Galanthus before we press it.” She slid past him and into the safety of the crowded parlour, her heart thumping with guilt and regret at once again being forced to dupe Mr. Burbank.

*

Isabella worked at her sketch while everyone else had tea. Beatrice bustled about with an excess of nervous, hospitable energy, doing her best to avoid Mr. Burbank’s gaze. At the end of an hour, they all gathered around to admire Isabella’s handiwork, and Beatrice admitted privately that it was better than anything that Clara had ever been able to produce.
“Now, the Galanthus beata must be packaged with especial delicacy,” said Mr. Burbank. “I think that as its namesake, Miss Debord should be entrusted with the task. No doubt Mr. Allenham has frequently required the same service of you, Miss Debord?”
“Who is this Mr. Allenham?” asked Mrs. Lincoln, eavesdropping on their conversation without the slightest compunction.
“He is … a mutual acquaintance,” said Mr. Burbank, with a sly look at Beatrice.
“It is rather a pity that it must be boxed up and labelled,” said Isabella sadly, as Beatrice pressed the flower between two sheets of paper and then two thick pieces of card.
“You must have courage, Miss Lincoln,” said Mr. Burbank. “It is one little snowdrop to you, but it is the bellwether of a new species for the world of science.”
Isabella smiled and blushed prettily, and Beatrice felt a sharp pang of envy. If she were young and pretty, and had three-thousand-pounds to her name… What was botany to the pleasure of being with a man she loved, and being the mistress of a comfortable home? What was the pride of having a flower named after her, when she would never give her name to a child? At least not to her own child. She had to concentrate on packing the specimen into a box, lest she betray her idiotish emotions. It was absurd, of course. As well as lying, she was now apparently guilty of jealousy.
“All done,” she announced in a falsely-cheerful tone of voice, handing the parcel to Mr. Burbank. “Take good care of her, for I may not be able to find another,” she said, giving the parcel a final tap.
She was unprepared for the serious expression with which he responded to her light banter, and the pause as he took the box from her and looking straight into her eyes, said, “I promise I shall keep her safe and sound.”

< BEGINNING THE LETTER >