The next morning, he called at Edgeley House early. Too early, if he were to be honest. Even Gray wasn’t up, and he knew that ladies often rose later. He had slept little the night before and had woken up to the light-hearted certainty that he would propose to Miss Debord. After that, he could not delay. Now he stood waiting in the drawing room, prowling aimlessly, picking up objects at random and putting them down again. There was a half-finished letter on the writing desk. He would not ordinarily have pried into anyone’s private business, but he was distracted, and he found that he had taken it up absently. Something about the letter immediately drew his attention, however, and he focused his gaze on it. The content was ordinary enough. “Dear Aunt Margaret,” it began, “I’m sorry it has taken me so long to write, but I have been so very busy. Clara has been extremely fretful about John lately, and she is for ever bursting into tears, or taking fancies. I-” The letter stopped abruptly, as though the writer had been called away.
“Mr. Burbank! What a pleasant surprise,” said Miss Debord’s cheerful voice, as she entered the room.
He was silent for a moment, not looking up at her, his attention riveted on the letter. “A pleasant surprise,” he murmured. “No, no. Not that.”
Miss Debord had stopped in her tracks, the colour draining from her face, and an expression of anxious doubt taking its place.
“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded, shaking the paper at her.
“It is not very gentlemanly of you to read my personal correspondence,” she said, with a defiant tilt to her chin.
“I don’t understand,” he said, starting to pace. “Help me to understand why your handwriting is identical to Mr. Allenham’s.”
“Ah, of course,” she said. He watched her face intently. “It is because he dictates his letters to me. As I have said, he is an invalid, and writing such long letters is a great strain on his energies.”
There was something in her expression that belied her words.
“How is it, Miss Debord, that you are the only person who has ever seen or conversed with this elusive Mr. Allenham? How is it that he appears to have no home, no family and no acquaintances? How is it that he is conveniently away and you cannot give me his address? Why, if he is a naturalist, is he never seen walking abroad? Can you answer any of these questions?”
“Enough!” he snapped. It was all clear to him now, and he continued to pace in agitation, a mixture of anger and great disappointment vying in his breast. “You cannot answer, Miss Debord, because you have been leading me a merry chase. You have made a fool out of me. Did the whole county know? That you are the one who has been writing those articles, and posing as a man?”
She sank into a chair, and when she spoke, her voice was low and vehement. “No, Mr. Burbank, no one knew except Clara, and she only because I could not hide from her how I spent my time. I beg you not to judge me too harshly. It was never my intention to trifle with you. Please believe me when I say that I wished for nothing more ardently than to converse freely with you. Had I known to what lengths I would have to take my lie, I would never have uttered it.”
“But why practice this deception in the first place?” he asked, bitterly. “Why not write to me honestly under your own name?”
“I wanted to be appraised on the merits of my work, not as a mere woman, fit only to send you specimens to add to your herbarium. I wanted to do useful, meaningful work. Surely, Mr. Burbank, you can appreciate that?”
He dismissed this with a wave of his hand. “You could have come clean when I arrived. Why continue to make me into a laughingstock?”
She couldn’t meet his eyes, and spoke hesitantly. “I… I was afraid you would break off the correspondence. ”
“You should have told me from the very beginning. I would have understood.”
“No, you wouldn’t. You don’t understand, even now. Our correspondence was the only really valuable thing in my daily existence. You cannot imagine-” She paused, as if suddenly overcome with emotion, then continued, “you cannot imagine with what eagerness I looked forward to your letters. I wondered constantly what you would think of each experiment I detailed for you, and every word of the articles for which your approbation was the catalyst. I wanted to create something worthy, something that might transcend my… my… futile existence in a corner of the countryside.” She looked at him imploringly, but he refused to be drawn into her argument. He was furious with her, not only for her lies, but because she had brought him to the very brink of loving her and then deceived him so cruelly.
“You should have been truthful,” he said, summoning a cold calm that he did not feel. “I would have seen the merits of your work even had I known you were a woman.”
“No, you would not! You have proved it yourself. Even though all your suspicions must have pointed at me, you still found it impossible to imagine that your learned correspondent might be a female.”
“Yes. But you must chalk that up to my regard for you, my unwillingness to believe you capable of duplicity. I have been well-served for my naiveté.” He gave a mirthless laugh. “And I thought that Mrs. Lincoln was a designing female! What arts she could learn from you; nay, I should say what science! For it is science that has spoiled you.”
“Do not turn your anger against science, Mr. Burbank. I deserve your censure for lying about Mr. Allenham, but you cannot honestly contend that science corrupts women. Nor can you condemn me for being a woman without retracting the praise that you have bestowed on my work.”
“You have risked my reputation with your games. If it should come out that I have been backing a female at all the Royal Society meetings, passing you off as a man of science…”
“No one will know. We will kill Mr. Allenham right now and no one will ever hear of him again.”
“He is already dead to me. Good day, Miss Debord.”