An Unexpected Return

Beatrice was packing away her equipment when she heard the sound of a carriage outside. Someone alighted and a hearty male voice – clearly not the aged Brandley – called out a muffled greeting. For the space of the two steps that took her to the window, and before she could check herself, her heart rose at the thought that it was Mr. Burbank, returned. But the man below was shorter and thicker-set, and only when she saw Clara throw herself into his arms did she realise, through the haze of her confused disappointment, that it was John. She had never imagined that his return could fill her with anything but joy and she felt acutely guilty as she descended the stairs to greet him.

“John! I cannot believe it,” she said, giving her brother as much of an embrace as was possible while he held the two children in his arms.
Clara was holding the baby, tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Bee!” cried John. “I must say you look in fine fettle. I hope you’ve been taking good care of my wife. And the brood.”
“I’ve done my best, brother dear. We’ve all been very worried about you. Are you on furlough?”
“Yes! A whole ten days.”
“Oh John, John. I wish you’d told us you were coming,” said Clara, wiping her eyes. “I would have arranged all your favourite dinners with cook. As it is we only have some leftover mutton. Whatever shall we do?”
“I wanted it to be a surprise. Not a bad one, eh?” he asked little John, bouncing him in his arms and making him squeal with delight.
“Don’t fret, Clara,” said Beatrice, eager for an excuse to leave them together. “I will go talk to Cook.”

With her brother’s return, Beatrice’s botanising was over. Even if it had survived the blow it had received from Mr. Burbank, she didn’t feel equal to the task of subjecting her work to yet another onslaught. She put her herbarium, her apparatus, and the drafts of Mr. Allenham’s articles away in a box, and removed it to the attic. All would have been forgotten, had not Clara fretted so much about keeping secrets from her husband, that Beatrice was obliged to reveal all the details of her sordid deception to John. The result was a dressing-down delivered in the library which reminded her so forcibly of her father, that she was deeply mortified.
After that, the days dragged on, without the crutch of her work. The tedium made her so desperate that even a visit from Mrs. Lincoln and her daughters was a welcome diversion. The mother had evidently not given up hoping that Mr. Burbank might yet pick plain Isabella as a bride, and had cajoled her daughter into sending him specimens, though it had not been more than a week since his visit.
“We have not received a reply yet,” said Isabella, “but no doubt he is very busy.”
“No doubt. I expect his visit set him back on his work,” agreed Beatrice.
“Yes, such an important man. It is an honour that he took an interest in corresponding with Isabella. It would be quite improper for her to write to him, of course, if it were not in the name of science. But as matters stand, I feel she is to be encouraged,” Mrs. Lincoln assured the company.
Beatrice wondered whether Mr. Burbank would ever venture near Banbourne again, after the bitter experience she had caused him to suffer. John’s words came back to her:
“It is the most vulgar deceit I have ever heard, and I’m ashamed that my own sister should have been the root cause of it. It’s a wonder that the man don’t sue, for I’m certain he has a right to. Upon my word, Beatrice, when I took you into my household, I had never imagined that you would be setting such an example to my wife… or to my children!”
“Clara is in no danger of taking up science,” she had argued.
“If you are involved in some scandal then it will reflect badly on all of us,” he had said, keeping his temper with difficulty. He had paced up and down the room for some time before declaring that he would write to Henry Burbank and offer his apologies. “I am responsible, after all. You are under my protection.”
Beatrice had held her tongue, for once. Despite John’s pompous ways, she was glad to accept any scheme that might win her a little forgiveness from Mr. Burbank. Her brother’s letter, however, like Isabella’s, had thus far gone unanswered.
“Have you heard aught of Mr. Burbank, Miss Debord?” asked Mrs. Lincoln, in a tone of jealous curiosity. “Perhaps he wrote to you with information about your discovery?”
“No, I have not,” Beatrice replied, and only just managed to stop herself from adding, “you may rest easy, m’am.”
Perhaps I will take up embroidery, she thought, or piano – one of those accomplishments that I lack. Mrs. Lincoln’s gloating over her inability made her want to practice until she became adept at absolutely everything. What a sordid little life this was. She looked forward to the visits of neighbours she reviled, and then decided to spend more time in impressing them out of sheer spite. How many more days would she spend in such meaningless idleness? She excused herself on the pretext of getting more hot water, and escaped from the drawing room.

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