The Famous Botanist
The road wound around a final bend and the house appeared before him, just as the innkeeper at the village had described. The façade was rather plain, but the building was of a comfortable size, and as he drew near, he could discern the sounds of children at play. He wondered, belatedly, whether Mr. Allenham had a wife, and wished he had taken more care about his dress. A pencil was tucked behind his ear, and his fingers were already rather dirty from digging up a fern. It was too late to find a stream to wash them, but he wiped them as best as he could on his handkerchief, and then re-arranged his neckcloth, and slung the two baskets – one for specimens, and one for his tools – across his shoulder. That would have to do for Mrs. Allenham, if she was extant. It was strange how little you knew of someone, even after a lengthy correspondence, he mused, walking up the wide gravel path to the house. He had imagined Mr. Allenham as a country recluse, a bachelor of a comfortable age somewhere between forty and sixty, with perhaps an attentive clergyman nephew to aid him in his studies; a gentleman of independent means, and leisurely habits. Still, if there was a Mrs. Allenham, he hoped that she would not deny him a cup of tea, simply on account of his dirty fingernails.
An old servant greeted him at the door. “Good morning, sir, can I help you?”
“Good morning. Yes, I’m here to see Mr. Allenham. Is he in?”
“Mr. Allenham, sir?” The man looked confused, and Henry wondered whether he wasn’t a bit of a slow-top. “I’m sorry, but there’s no Mr. Allenham here. Though there is a gentleman of that name connected with the family, who lives in Kent, to the best of my knowledge. The late Mrs. Debord was an Allenham, you see, sir, so the Mr. Allenham in Kent is their cousin, I believe. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting him, however-”
“But is this not Edgeley House?”
“It is, sir.”
“Then how can Mr. Allenham not live here? Who does live here?”
“Why, that would be Mr. and Mrs. John Debord and their children, and Miss Debord, Mr. Debord’s sister, but I’m sorry to say, sir, that there’s no Mr. Allenham in these parts that I know of.”
As he spoke, a young woman came around the corner of the house, carrying a small child who was crying loudly. She stopped suddenly when she saw them, and her face grew pale. “What is it, what has happened? Oh John, John, I knew it.” Before Henry could say another word, she had begun to sob. The child ceased crying to regard its mother, and Henry and the butler exchanged a look of helplessness.
“He doesn’t bring news of Mr. Debord, m’am,” the servant assured her.
“Madam, please do not agitate yourself. I assure you I bring no ill news of your husband.”
He took out a clean handkerchief and handed it to her. She in turn held out the child to him, and not knowing what else to do, he took it. He had not carried a child in his arms since he was quite small himself, when he had been entrusted for a few minutes with a younger brother who had died shortly thereafter. The young woman wiped her eyes, sniffed and squared her shoulders.
“There now,” he said, smiling at her. What a silly goose she was; extremely pretty, but so very young, and perhaps a touch hysterical – the sort who made a man feel protective, until he realised that it was easier to control a regiment than her strange moods. “They say no news is good news. John is… your husband?” he ventured. “And is he an officer?”
She nodded. “You must excuse my sudden outburst. I live in constant fear of his life.”
“I am sure he would be much gratified,” he said, though he didn’t think Mr. John Debord would at all want his young wife to be making such a scene. He handed the infant back to her.
“The gentleman was looking for a Mr. Allenham, m’am, and I had to inform him that there is no one of that name in the house.”
“Mr. Allenham?” asked Mrs. Debord, busily bouncing the baby in her arms, and arranging its smock, “I wonder whether Miss Debord may know of a Mr. Allenham. After all, she has grown up here. Brandley, will you please tell Miss Debord that there is a Mr…?”
“Burbank,” he supplied, “Henry Burbank.”
Her eyes widened as if in recognition, and he wondered why. Perhaps she had mistaken him for someone else – it seemed very unlikely that this young woman would be in the habit of reading the botanical magazines. And she certainly couldn’t have heard of him from Mr. Allenham, as she appeared to know no more of him than did the servant.
“…that Mr. Burbank is searching for a gentleman named Allenham,” she finished, continuing to fuss with the baby.
“Of course, m’am,” said Brandley, and trotted off into the house.
Henry turned to survey the prospect, and stifled a sigh. No Mr. Allenham, and no tea.