The Dinner Party
“Clara, whatever were you thinking, asking Brandley to come looking for me? I have never been in such a fright! And I don’t know what fibs I told to keep my story straight.”
Beatrice had gathered a few early crocuses and primroses as she returned from showing Mr. Burbank the way, and was arranging them into small posies.
“Oh, Bee, don’t be angry with me. It’s just that he was nothing like I imagined. You told me he was aged, but he can’t be much above five and thirty.”
“Yes, I was just as surprised, though I ought to have known better. It’s clear from his letters that he’s a very active man.”
“And quite handsome, didn’t you think? Not fashionable, or neat like John, but…” She trailed off, fiddling with one of the flowers that lay on the table.
“But?” asked Beatrice.
“But still quite eligible.”
“Well, why not? You deal well enough in writing. Neither of you talk anything but plants.”
“I am quite old enough to have no more consideration of marriage, my dear. If Mr. Burbank is on the lookout for a wife, he must look to someone younger and better-endowed than I!”
“But if he only knew that you were the one who wrote all those articles, I’m convinced-”
“No!” interrupted Beatrice vehemently “On no account must he know. Clara, you must promise me that you won’t breathe a word of it to him.”
Clara looked uneasy but acquiesced.
“Never mind, love,” Beatrice continued, “I doubt we shall ever see him again.”
“No, I suppose not,” said Clara. “Who are those for?”
“The Lincolns have invited us to dine with them tomorrow. I thought I would put together some bunches for the girls.”
Clara’s face brightened at the prospect of a dinner party. For her part, Beatrice dreaded the affairs, which were always so alike that she sometimes feared that she had been cast in an unbearably tedious play. Still, she was somewhat mollified by Clara’s pleasure in choosing a gown, and the hurried activity of trimming it which distracted her from her recent morbidity. It had been a year and a half since John had been home, and Beatrice felt his absence as keenly as the young wife. Nevertheless, she doubted very much that he would have approved of her clandestine correspondence, despite the praise that Mr. Burbank unknowingly bestowed upon her experiments. No, he would certainly be quite tiresome on the subject. She sighed, telling herself firmly that there was no point in worrying about that. She would wait until the winter to resume the correspondence, when Mr. Burbank would be very unlikely to leave London on such a long journey, and use ill-health as an excuse for her silence in the meantime. It could not last, however. Mr. Allenham was not long for this world.
Beatrice chose a blue muslin dress that she thought would suffice, though she had probably worn it to the previous party. Clara thought it unnatural that her sister-in-law should so rarely want a new dress, and Beatrice enjoyed exaggerating her dislike of fashion to shock her. She put the children to bed with promises of tidbits from the party if they were good, and waited for Clara to finish her toilet.
“Do you suppose Doctor Lewin will be there, Bee, I particularly wish to ask him about little Henry’s cough.”
“He is every year, though I don’t think you have anything to worry about with Henry. I’m certain it is only because he runs around and gets so hot and then drinks from the cold fountain.”
“I expect you’re right, Bee, but I do think it would be worth consulting him and save ourselves the expense of calling him out.”
Beatrice was glad that her sister was too busy arranging her hair to notice her annoyed expression. Poor Doctor Lewin. Not that she was particularly fond of the man, but it was too bad that ladies would worrit him with their children’s little maladies during a party, sparing themselves an expense while they ruined his evening. Clara may have been enjoying playing the frugal housekeeper, but she had no need of such ridiculous economies; John was not a pinchpenny. Beatrice smothered a sigh as they ascended the carriage. If only John would write. Clara was always so much easier after she’d had a letter. Beatrice made appropriate answers to her sister-in-law’s prattle during the short ride, but her mind was elsewhere. She was remembering the conversation she had had with Mr. Burbank, and reliving it as though he knew her true identity. How pleasant it would have been and how she longed for intelligent conversation.
The Lincolns’ house was larger than Edgeley, but Beatrice always thought that Edgeley’s situation was far pleasanter, for it had a view of the river on one side, and the garden, rolling into the fields beyond, on the other. The view of Lincoln House was impeded by a hill at the back of the building, and a thick copse of evergreens at the front. Beatrice wondered whose idea it had been to place them there, then decided it must have been necessitated as a windbreak. At night, none of these were visible, however, and the windows glowed invitingly. The stairway had been festooned with ivy, and several large china vases in the hallway had been arranged with early spring colour and hothouse flowers. When they entered the drawing room, the loud conversation soon told Beatrice that this was a larger gathering than was customary at Mrs. Lincoln’s dinner parties. The hostess was talking to a man, and when he noticed her looking over his shoulder, he turned.
“Mr. Burbank!” Beatrice exclaimed in surprise. It was not merely the surprise of seeing him at this hundred-times-rehearsed dinner party, but also seeing what a handsome figure he cut in his evening attire. Without the paraphernalia of the plant-collector hanging about his person, the coat accentuated his wide shoulders, his neckcloth was crisp with starch, and his hair nicely combed into place. She would have to inspect his fingernails, she thought, and almost laughed aloud.
“Miss Debord,” he said, coming forward and bowing, first to her, then to Clara.
“So you have met our dear friends, Mr. Burbank,” said Mrs. Lincoln, exaggerating their familiarity. Beatrice noticed the woman’s brief look of disdain as her gown was surveyed. Yes, she had definitely worn this dress before, as she suddenly recalled having elicited the same reaction from Mrs. Lincoln at the last party. Why she should feel pleasure in annoying the woman, Beatrice wasn’t sure, but once again a laugh threatened her composure.
“Yes, I had the good fortune of asking Mrs. and Miss Debord for directions.”
Just then Belinda, the youngest Lincoln girl who was particularly enamoured of Clara, ran up to greet them.
“Oh, Mrs. Debord, I’m so glad you’ve come, I’ve been longing to show you our new harp.” She gave a quick bob to Beatrice, then pulled Clara along with her.
Mrs. Lincoln led them to where Isabella and Doctor Lewin were seated, and Beatrice greeted them. It was clear that Mrs. Lincoln hoped to thrust Isabella in Mr. Burbank’s way, and though Beatrice had little admiration for the mother, her eldest daughter was a quiet, unassuming girl, who, if not vivacious or intelligent, would undoubtedly make a good wife. In fact, that is about all she can make, thought Beatrice, but guiltily squashed the unkind thought. She liked Isabella.
“Miss Debord, how delightful to see you,” said the Doctor, bowing, “I trust you are all well?”
As they exchanged pleasantries, Beatrice suddenly remembered that she had foolishly told Mr. Burbank that Doctor Lewin was attending Mr. Allenham. Seeing Mr. Burbank about to speak, she interjected; “Isabella, did you make those lovely arrangements I saw in the hall? You must challenge Mr. Burbank to supply you with the long names of all the plants.”
“Oh, yes, could you, Mr. Burbank?” Isabella asked obligingly.
“I can certainly try. Are you interested in botany?”
“I know very little of it,” admitted Isabella, “but I would love to learn.”
Mrs. Lincoln beamed. “Yes, Isabella has always been a diligent pupil. You know she learnt French quicker than any of the other girls.”
“I believe Latin is more useful for botany, Mama.”
“Yes, but Mr. Burbank cannot expect you to know Latin. Though I do not doubt your Papa could teach you if you wish to learn.”
“Indeed, if it would allow me to understand Mr. Burbank’s work, I would be very interested,” said Isabella, with an ingenuity that Beatrice would not have credited her with. She was listening to the exchange with an eagerness to see how Mr. Burbank would comport himself. Their correspondence had revealed much about his character, but watching him flirt with a female was quite beyond the scope of any letter.
“There is no especial need to learn Latin, Miss Lincoln. Linnaeus has been translated very tolerably into English by Mr. Withering.” Beatrice could not help raising an eyebrow, which Mr. Burbank unexpectedly noticed. “Though some,” he continued, “Mr. Darwin among them, would prefer a more… faithful translation. Isn’t that so, Miss Debord?”
“I only-” began Beatrice, but was interrupted by Doctor Lewin.
“Is that the Darwin who wrote The Botanic Garden?” he asked. “Not at all the thing for young ladies.”
Her recent sympathy for the Doctor dissipated at these words.
“No, well, perhaps Mrs. Wakefield’s Botany would answer better. What say you, Miss Debord? Does Mr. Allenham have any views on the matter?”
Beatrice could feel her cheeks burning. “I don’t know that he does,” she mumbled, “though I know he favours Jussieu’s classification to Linneaus’”.
Mrs. Lincoln, perceiving that the subject had strayed away from her daughter and into scientific territory, was about to intervene when dinner was announced, and Doctor Lewin led her into the dining room, Mrs. Lincoln pairing Isabella deftly with Mr. Burbank.
At dinner Beatrice was seated between Louisa, the second Lincoln girl, and Mrs. Gray, who, she had come to understand, was the wife of the friend Mr. Burbank was visiting with. As Louisa was engaged in a heated debate with a young Mr. Putnam on her other side, Beatrice was left to converse with Mrs. Gray.
“Have you been long acquainted with Mr. Burbank?” she asked her.
“Oh, he and Mr. Gray were friends long before we were married. I believe they met at Cambridge. In truth, I’m not certain why they’re friends, Miss Debord, for Mr. Gray hasn’t the smallest interest in science, and Mr. Burbank has grown to be such an eminent man in London. They cannot have much in common, and yet I suppose men do not need common topics of discussion so much as we women do.” She smiled, and Beatrice acknowledged that Mrs. Gray had recognised her effort to begin a conversation. “I rather admire that, don’t you? Still, I’m a dreadful gossip, I’m afraid. Now what do you think of our hostess’s attempts to thrust Isabella in Mr. Burbank’s way?” she asked, almost whispering. “Will it stick?”
“I think Isabella would make him a very good wife. Though if Mr. Burbank really is so famous, he could no doubt make an even better match.”
“More money? Yes, you are quite right. He could easily catch himself an heiress, but he won’t exert himself. He is always so busy with his work that I believe he does not attend any social gatherings that are not composed entirely of scientific men, and he has no family who will prevail upon him. Mr. Gray has been trying to convince him for months to visit us, and I want to make it count.”
“What has made you pick up the gauntlet?”
“Boredom, my dear Miss Debord. That plague of all women sequestered in the country.”
Beatrice sighed, and gave Mrs. Gray an understanding smile. “Of course,” she said.