“Mr. Burbank, will you show us how to gather specimens?” asked Louisa, as soon as he had set foot in the drawing room.
Her Mother added her support. “Oh, a plant-gathering expedition. What a splendid notion! Would you be willing, Mr. Burbank?”
“Please say yes, Mr. Burbank!” urged Louisa. “We can send you things in London, if you only teach us how.”
He smiled. “I should like that very much, Miss Louisa. I have no objection to an expedition, if your Father will allow it. There is nothing pleasanter to me than walking about the country, you know.”
“Please say we may go, Papa. Please?” begged Louisa.
“Well, I can see no harm in gathering flowers,” said Mr. Lincoln, “though mind you don’t go teaching them anything improper. Women have no use for science. In fact, it’s my belief that too much thinking ruins their complexion.”
“Hmm, quite true,” agreed the Doctor.
Having met several wives who helped their husbands with scientific work, and were also in the bloom of health, Henry Burbank held his tongue. His quick mind was amusing itself by devising a methodical study of the complexions of women, when the assembly began to stir and he found that Isabella had been prevailed upon to exhibit her talents on the new harp. He took the opportunity of seating himself next to Miss Debord, and ignored the look of annoyance that Mrs. Lincoln cast in his direction as he began a whispered conversation.
“I had the pleasure of attending a meeting of the Banbourne Botanical Circle the other day, Miss Debord. I was much impressed.”
“Indeed? How condescending of you.” He saw the laughter in her eyes once more and smiled in response. He wasn’t quick to take offence himself, and he liked people with whom he didn’t have to measure his words.
“I had thought myself above pretension, but I am ashamed to recognise that my surprise at the breadth of the members’ knowledge of flora reveals otherwise,” he admitted. “I wrote several pages of notes, and I am planning an article in support of these local gatherings.”
“I would be very interested to read it. I understand their veracity has been cast into doubt recently.”
It seemed to him that Miss Debord was very au courant for a woman living in the country, and who claimed to have no interest in botany.
“Yes, some parties have been using botanical meetings as a cover for political purposes. I am not entirely without sympathy, but I can’t help wishing that they had chosen some other science.”
She chuckled, drawing a sharp look from Mrs. Lincoln. He didn’t want to offend her by implying that she had been untruthful, but he was determined to have an answer, and he might not have such an opportunity again. He was now fairly sure that Allenham was a fictive name, assumed he knew not for what reason. Perhaps his correspondent had no wish to be known as a man of science. Some men were like that, shying away from renown either because of an inherent reticence, or because they feared public errors and being subjected to rebuttal and ridicule. If such was the case, he would assure Mr. Allenham of his support in keeping his identity secret. He simply had to meet the man.
“Miss Debord,” he began, speaking even lower than before. “I do not wish to try your patience by harping on the same subject, but I have made extensive investigations, and have only discovered one other person who has heard of the name of Allenham, and I fear he was only trying to appease me. Furthermore, I have been unable to discover anyone who might have been working as assistant to an invalid botanist. Was my correspondent really so much of a hermit that no one in the vicinity can have heard of him?”
She retained a look of polite interest. “Oh? That is odd, certainly,” she said shortly.
He studied her countenance, willing her to reveal herself.
“I am forced to the conclusion that you are gammoning me, Miss Debord.”
She opened her eyes wide, shamming innocence. His eyes narrowed in response.
“Allenham is not my correspondent’s real name; am I correct?”
She couldn’t hide her surprise at his shrewdness, and he slapped his knee. “I knew it. And you, you led me on a wild goose chase around the country!”
“I had no choice.”
“Well, you can tell Mr. Allenham that he has been outed, and through no fault of yours. You played your part admirably, Miss Debord.”
He was cut short by the vigourous applause of Mrs. Lincoln. The rest of the party joined in belatedly, and when he would have resumed his interrogation, his hostess approached and pressed Miss Debord to play a tune on the pianoforte.
“For I know you do not care for dancing, Miss Debord, but I do think we should show Mr. Burbank a little of our country vivacity. He must not think we sit around in this sober manner all the time.”
“I am sorry to disoblige you, m’am, but you must know that I can barely even play a scale.”
“Well, yes, but I thought perhaps that you had been practicing?”
“Alas, no. I am quite without accomplishment,” she said, carelessly. Mrs. Lincoln looked smug, and he wondered whether she were purposefully trying to put Miss Debord to the blush in his presence. That would certainly be insufferable, and when he caught a lightning-quick look Mrs. Lincoln cast in his direction, as if to assess the effect of Miss Debord’s declaration, his hackles were raised. No matter how charming and homely Miss Lincoln may be, and whether she had a pound or a hundred thousand pounds to her name, he would not willingly court the daughter of such a designing mother.
“Do you really not care for dancing?” he asked Miss Debord.
“It is not so much that I don’t care for it as that I have two left feet,” she said, her eyes twinkling with laughter.
“I don’t think it will matter so much in a country dance,” he said, rising and giving her his hand. “It is hardly a waltz.”
“Oh, no, really, Mr. Burbank, you don’t realise what a mistake you’re making!” she protested.
“It remains to be seen which of us is making a greater mistake,” he said, smiling down at her. She gave Mrs. Lincoln an uncertain look, and took his arm.