Botanical Descriptions

Henry Burbank delayed. It was uncharacteristic of him, but the bulging letter lay unopened on his desk for over a week, and several more missives languished along with it. He spent more time eyeing Miss Debord’s handwriting than he did reading the new publications that had accumulated during his country sojourn. He kept telling himself that there was no point in reading the article; that it would only compound his annoyance with the woman who had tricked him, not with arts as he had feared, but with science. He had been blind not to have noticed it, and that made him feel an even greater fool.
Finally, Gray, who had travelled to London with him on business, noticed the unopened letter and remarked on it.
“Is that from the elusive Allenham?” he asked, picking it up. “O-ho, a hefty epistle. I’ll wager it cost you a pretty penny, but no doubt knowledge of the latest botanical experiments is worth the price of post. By the by, what happened about that snowdrop Miss Debord discovered. Have you had it accepted?”
“Yes, the description will be published in Curtis’s.”
“Ah, excellent. My wife wrote to tell me that John Debord has come home on furlough. She heard it from a neighbour or some such.”
“Is that so? Well, his wife will be pleased. Though I am happy to miss the hysterics of their reunion.”
Gray chuckled. “I only mentioned it because I thought you might visit, and you ought to know that the master of the house is in residence. You’re welcome to stay with us again, of course.”
“Why would I visit again so soon?” he asked, baffled by his friend’s invitation.
“Well, perhaps you’d like to take a copy of the magazine to Miss Debord. Or, call into Lincoln House. Damme, I don’t know.”

After Gray left, he tore open the seal on the letter and read. It was, as he had expected, about the distribution of sap in willow trees, written in what he now knew was Miss Debord’s usual graceful style – concise, but thoroughly explanatory. She had been right. Now that he knew she was a woman, he could not regard the article with the same objectivity as before. But she had been wrong to think that this change would denigrate her work in his eyes. On the contrary, now that he knew she was a woman – a very particular woman – he could consider neither the subject nor the hand that penned it with anything but tenderness and admiration. If he had not been on the verge of proposing to her, perhaps the shock of the discovery would not have been so great, but his self-congratulation on the timeliness of his discovery had begun to sound hollow even to himself.

He pulled out a bundle of letters from his drawer and re-read them, one by one. The words seemed to rearrange themselves on the paper, until the familiar hand became the strong, sweet voice of Miss Debord, chronicling, not the leisurely life of a gentleman of means, as he had supposed, but the lonely and isolated life of a woman who had striven to enrich her own life and that of others by her tireless work, without thought of reward or renown. Mingled with a respect for her industry was his recollection of her ready laughter and her self-deprecatory criticism. While he didn’t consider himself a vain man, Henry Burbank knew himself well enough to admit that he enjoyed his status as a leading man of science. Miss Debord would make an excellent helpmeet for him, he was sure. She would be the perfect assistant – driven by the same passion for knowledge as he, but unenvious of his fame.
“No,” he said out loud, “that won’t do.”
She deserved recognition, and the thought of her working for him did not give him the satisfaction that the thought of making her happy did. Finally, he knew he had to act.


She was sitting in a secluded part of the garden, an embroidery hoop lying on her lap, and one hand listlessly holding a needle. Her eyes were focused far away, and she started when he spoke, standing just behind her.
“I’m afraid, Miss Debord, that to the list of your lacking accomplishments must be added that of needlework,” he said.
She gave him a weak smile which wasn’t reflected in her eyes, and he found, still to his surprise, that it cut him to the quick.
“Mr. Burbank. What an unexpected pleasure,” she said, laying her embroidery aside and smoothing her skirts. “I hope you do not bear ill tidings. We had not expected to see you again.”
He sat down next to her. “I admit that I had no intention of returning, but having considered the matter, and having read your estimable article, I felt that I owed you an apology.”
“You? What can you have to apologise for? You were perfectly right in everything that you said. I have had a week to brood on my behaviour – and I assure you that my brother did not spare his censure – and I have not been able to find any excuse for it. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“You were thinking of your work, of course. I understand what obsession can drive a man – or a woman – to do. My own work has often become such an idée fixe with me, that I have forgotten the importance of all else.”
She shook her head, her face still grave and troubled. He wanted nothing more than to see the laughter return to her eyes.
“I did have an object in coming to visit you,” he said. “I wanted to consult you as to the naming of your new snowdrop. I wondered whether you would be opposed to its being known as Galanthus burbankorum?”
She looked puzzled. “But isn’t that the plural?” she asked.
“Then who is the other Burbank?”
“You, if you will consent to be my wife.”
Her mouth opened on an O of speechless surprise, as he took her hand in his. “I have come to the scientific conclusion, Miss Debord, that I cannot be content until your work is acknowledged along with mine; until we share a common purpose and a common renown, and a common name. Furthermore, it would be heartless to leave you in this unfavourable spot, wilting in the shade of criticism and disapproval. Yes, I have spoken to your Brother. You cannot flourish here, so you must, I hope you will agree, be uprooted.”
“I will not prove a very ornamental species, I fear.”
“Oh, on the contrary. A rare marvel of nature,” he said, kissing her hand. “Beautiful, hardy, and commanding extensive study, care, and… love.”
She laughed. “But hardly green enough to believe such flattery.”


The Female Correspondent
If you enjoyed The Female Correspondent, you may be interested in this article about the real 19th-century botanists who inspired the story.