A Country Ramble
Henry Burbank hadn’t found Mr. Allenham, but the tea had refreshed him, and, he fancied, fortified him against his disappointment. “Camellia, camellia, camellia”, he muttered as he walked, scanning both sides of the path, intent on filling his basket with as many interesting specimens as would fit. He spotted a wide patch of moss-covered rock and took out his glass to inspect it. It was a common enough species, but he decided it would do nicely to line his basket and keep the other specimens moist, so he scraped away at it in sections until the bottom of the basked was covered. It’s strange that the servant doesn’t know of Mr. Allenham when his mistress is evidently on familiar terms with the man, he thought; familiar enough to converse with him and collect his letters. Could it be possible that Miss Debord was prevaricating? She did not seem to him the sort of woman who would do so unless it were demanded of her. She had a steady gaze, and an easy assuredness that did not resort to feminine blushes or simpering or affectation. Nor would she burst into tears at the drop of a pin, he thought, remembering the sister-in-law with uneasiness. Yet he was sure that Miss Debord concealed a sharp intellect that could be employed in deceiving him very prettily if she chose. Why she should choose to do so was a mystery, however.
Near the river he came upon a bank of osiers. As the ground was quite damp, he climbed onto a thick, low branch and sat dangling his legs and watching the river go by. The willow was coming to life, its buds bursting with white cotton. The weather was so warm that he was almost tempted to go for a dip, but he realised that his friend, Mr. Gray, would not be much amused if he arrived in the village sopping wet. He contented himself with watching the water, and observing the plants around him. He forgot, sometimes, in his busy London life, the early pleasure that had driven him to the study of botany. Always running here and there, never resting until I have named and documented every leaf, he thought. Could he no longer enjoy a plant without discovering its innermost secrets? Of course he could! But as he made his resolution, he looked down and noticed that there were several branches missing from the willow tree, branches that had been sawn neatly, not broken. The stumps left on the trunk were of various thicknesses, and the sap had seeped out of the cuts and hardened, as a blood-clot on a suture. Mr. Allenham had been studying the movement of sap in willows, and had previously proposed an experiment in a letter: he would take samples from trees growing in the same area, at various seasons, and compare the amount of sap found in each. He was opposed to the theory of sap circulation in plants, and had convinced Henry of it too. Henry Burbank ran his fingers along the truncated branches, wondering. Of course it could simply have been a cotter collecting switches for weaving, but the missing branches were spaced evenly up the height of the tree, and looking around him at the other trees, he recognised with interest what looked like older cuts that had blackened with age. It would require quite an agile person to climb up to some of the branches, and this reminded him that Mr. Allenham, being an invalid, had frequently mentioned an assistant who helped him with his work. Surely someone in the village would know of this assistant’s existence.
The innkeeper told him unequivocally that no Allenhams had ever lived in or near the village for as long as he could remember, though there was a family of Allmeyers who lived near the mill.
“Are there any other men in the area interested in botany?” Burbank asked the publican.
“Why, that there is, sir, a great many, and I count myself among ‘em. We hold meetings here on Sundays, and we keep an herbarium and a small library, too.”
“On Sundays? Doesn’t your vicar mind?”
“He don’t mind, long as we goes to service first. In fact he joins us some weeks. Most men here, Sunday’s their only day off work.”
“An’ Mr. Brooks lets the men meet here out of the kindness of his own heart, ain’t that right, Mr. Brooks?” teased his wife.
“Well if the men like a pint of ale to clear their head, who’m I to deny ‘em?”
Henry chuckled. Mrs. Brooks leaned towards him conspiratorially. “They gets a pint whether they like it or no,” she said.
The landlord scowled at his wife. “Botany’s a serious business, Betty, and I’m happy to support those who take an interest in it.” He went into a back room and brought out a box full of books and a large bundle of papers.
“Here’s our herbarium, and our little library,” he said proudly.
Henry was impressed at the assiduous work of these men, most of whom were surely labourers.
“Everyone brings in a specimen and it gets passed around and the name repeated along until everyone has learned it. Then Mr. Ruben, who is our secretary, attaches it to a sheet and write its name and places it in the herbarium.”
“Remarkable. A very fine collection indeed!”
“Aye, we have the best herbarium in these parts, and the best library too, thanks to our patrons.”
Henry picked out a book at random. It was a copy of Hudson’s Flora Anglica, and flipping through it he was astonished to read, on the flyleaf, the words: “donated to the Banbourne Botanical Circle by Mr. John H. Debord. 1804.”
“The Debords are your patrons?”
“Aye, sir. That is, the former Mr. Debord, as passed away some years ago. He often gave us books, and sometimes condescended to lead our little meetings.”
“And who leads the meetings now?”
“Well, that would be Mr. Smith, sir,” said the landlord indicating a man sitting near the fire.
“Ah. Would you mind introducing me, Mr. Brooks?”
The landlord obliged. “Mr. Smith, this is Mr…?”
“Mr. Henry Burbank. How d’ye do, Mr. Smith?”
Mr. Smith shook his hand energetically. “Mr. Burbank? Mr. Henry Burbank? What an honour to meet a scholar as distinguished as yourself! Pray, tell me, sir, what brings you to our little village?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say I’m all that distinguished. I am here visiting my friend, Mr. Gray of Douglas Lodge.”
“Ah, Mr. Gray. I do not have the pleasure of being acquainted with the gentleman. But you, sir, I have read your articles with the keenest interest. Minds like yours are not to be met with often. You’ll join our meeting this Sunday? I’m sure our gathering will seem humble to you, accustomed as you are to London society, but we would all be honoured by your presence if you could condescend to join us.”
“I would be delighted, Mr. Smith,” he replied, trying to cut short the man’s sycophancy. “I wished to ask you a question, if I may. Do you know a man by the name of Allenham who lives in these parts? I believe he is an invalid and does not go abroad much, but someone assists him in collecting samples. I thought he or his man may live in the village and attend your meetings. It is essential that I find him.”
“Allenham. Now let me see… The name does sound familiar. I think there may have been an Allenham living nearby.”
“Near the river?”
“Yes, I fancy it must have been!” Mr. Smith drained his ale, and laid the empty tankard down a little dolefully. Henry called to the landlord to bring him another, which Mr. Smith accepted gratefully. He was a small man, with the bearing and character of a law clerk who had missed his chance for promotion.
“Could you give me his direction?”
“Ah, I don’t know as he lives hereabouts anymore, Mr. Burbank.”
“I have reason to believe he does.”
“Then of course you must be right. I do beg your forgiveness for being so unhelpful. I will make inquiries on your behalf, and perhaps when you attend our meeting, you can see for yourself if Mr. Allenham is among those gathered.”
“Yes, that is a good notion. Thank you, Mr. Smith.”
Before Mr. Smith could launch into any more flattery, Mr. Gray arrived.
“Burbank! Sorry I’m late. The farrier took a deuced long time about his work. Well, have you ordered dinner?”
He took leave of Mr. Smith, and he and Gray sat down to await their food.
“Did you get your business finished?” his friend asked. “Find this Allenham?”
“No! I’ve questioned everyone I met. Mr. Smith there has a vague notion there was an Allenham who used to live near the river, and the two ladies I found at Edgeley House claim that he has gone to the sea for his health.”
“Ah, bad luck. Edgeley House. That’s the Debords’ residence ain’t it?”
“Yes, do you know them?”
“I knew their Father, I think. A good family, well-established. I’ve heard Mrs. Debord is rather a pretty thing. I seem to remember that her husband’s in the navy.”
“Just so. I don’t think you would have thought her pretty had you seen her burst into tears at the sight of me, however -“
“Not the first woman to do so, I daresay,” interrupted Gray, and laughed heartily at his own joke.
Henry smiled. “Apparently she thought I bore ill tidings of her husband.”
“What, in that get-up?”
“Yes. Miss Debord was rather more even-tempered, though, and had the civility to offer me tea.”
“Ah, that reminds me, we are invited to dine at the Lincolns’ tomorrow,” said Mr. Gray, and, perceiving the intentness with which the innkeeper’s good wife had been polishing the same glass for the past five minutes, learned closer and spoke in a low voice, “I don’t know much of ‘em, I grant, but this I have heard, that they have three very pretty daughters with three-thousand a-piece, who would be just the thing for an eminent London man.”
Henry lifted an eyebrow.
“Ain’t it time for you to set up your own home, Burbank, and leave those bachelor digs? Proper housekeeping, a child or two, and a wife to keep your bed warm. Doesn’t that sound fine?”
“Very fine, Gray. Perhaps too fine.”
“Nonsense. It’s my secret ambition to see you comfortably settled, and Mrs. Gray’s too.”
Henry sighed. “I shall be sorry to disappoint you, Gray.”
They enjoyed several more pints of ale, and Mr. Gray drove them home in the curricle, hurtling down the dark, narrow lanes at an alarming pace, with branches whipping at their faces. Only the sure-footed horses brought them home without mishap, and Henry Burbank fell gratefully into his bed and was instantly asleep.