When Brandley announced that there was a Mr. Burbank wishing to see her, Beatrice nearly broke the glass slides she was carrying. They jumped in her hand as though she had been galvanised. How could he be here? He was always too busy to leave London, and to travel this far north! He must have discovered her identity…
“The gentleman was looking for a Mr. Allenham, Miss,” began Brandley, and she breathed a sigh of relief. “I informed him that the only Allenhams connected with the House are from my late mistress’s side of the family and that they live in Kent. I didn’t like to contradict him, and Mrs. Debord said I should come and fetch you and -”
“Where is Mr. Burbank now?”
“Outside, Miss, talking to Mrs. Debord. She took an awful turn when she saw him, she did, crying and weeping, thinking he’d brought news of Master John, that I didn’t know what to do, I’m sure, and the gentleman-”
“Thank you, Brandley, that will be all. Oh, a moment.” She thought quickly. Would it be wise to ask him to have tea? Probably not, and yet she couldn’t pass up this opportunity to meet the man. “Ask Mrs. Debord if she would mind having tea brought into the drawing room instead, please.”
“Very good, Miss,” said Brandley, and went out. Whatever his faults, he was still an excellent servant when he had instructions to carry out.
Beatrice, in contrast to her sister-in-law, was not wont to give voice to her agitation. Anyone who saw her move about the room, taking off her apron, checking her hair in the glass, and washing the green stains off her hands in the washbasin, would not have known that any greater annoyance than an unexpected visitor troubled her. But Beatrice’s mind was in turmoil. She lingered, tidying this and that, and not realising how long she was keeping Mr. Burbank waiting.
She had occasionally wondered what response she might make if he were to invite his correspondent to London to give a speech, or attend a reading, and she had alighted on invalidism as the only logical excuse. There were few concerns pressing enough to keep a man away from accolades, and even fewer, she was certain, that he would admit to. Furthermore, she knew from her experience with her brother that gentlemen had a horror of invalids. The possibility of Mr. Burbank’s appearing on the doorstep without any warning had not, however, ever entered her imagination, and she was not certain whether she was equal to the necessary task of dissimulation. Admitting that she was the author of the letters was impossible. She had planned, one day, simply to kill off Mr. Allenham as the natural result of his invalidism – perhaps even continuing her deception so far as to place an advert in the newspaper, – but the crisis had come upon her too soon. She smoothed her skirts one last time, screwed up her courage and went downstairs.
The man who stood up as she entered was not at all the one she had expected, and she stifled the urge to look around the room for the real Mr. Burbank. She had always imagined her correspondent as being rather old and portly, probably on account of his great reputation and knowledge, but she quickly realised how unfounded her vision had been. His articles were testimony to a man who spent a good deal of his time outdoors, either collecting plants, or presenting his findings at botanical circles and scientific institutions. It should have come as no surprise then, that Mr. Burbank was a tall and lean man of about forty, and that his bearing was of one who was keeping his nervous energy in check. She judged his manner of dress to be slightly behind the fashion and it pleased her to discover that he was not a dandy.
“Mr. Burbank, I apologise for keeping you waiting. Please, do take a seat.”
Beatrice sat down next to her sister-in-law. Clara’s blue eyes looked even larger than usual, her expression a combination of anxiety and curiosity.
“Clara, perhaps you will put little Tom down for his nap and then come and have your tea,” she suggested, and Clara went out obediently.
“Miss Debord, I must apologise for trespassing on your hospitality.”
“Not at all, Mr. Burbank. Am I right in assuming that you are Mr. Henry Burbank, the botanist?”
“Yes,” he said with evident surprise, “I did not think my reputation was quite as widespread as all that.”
“I have heard Mr. Allenham speak of you with great admiration on many an occasion,” she improvised, frightening herself with the ease with which the lie came to her lips. “Sugar?”
He took two. If only she could be entirely open and honest, and enjoy meeting this eminent man whom she had admired from afar for so long. But she knew that she must be on her guard, and speak as little of Mr. Allenham as she could. Perhaps it had been a mistake even to admit to recognising his name. It was always details that gave away a lie. She handed him his cup.
“So you do know Mr. Allenham,” he continued eagerly, “I have been corresponding with him for some time. He is a very amiable and intelligent gentleman, and I have long wished to make his acquaintance, and speak to him tête á tête. As chance would have it, a friend invited me to stay with him in the neighbourhood, and though I’m ashamed to admit it, I accepted more from the hope of meeting Mr. Allenham than from the pleasure of visiting with my friend.” He took a sip of tea and she noticed that there was soil under his fingernails. “But your man informed me that Mr. Allenham does not reside here. Is it true? I do address my letters here, unless there is another Edgeley House in the area?”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you, Mr. Burbank, but Mr. Allenham does not live here. He is an invalid, you see, and quite a recluse so I take his letters for him. His discourse on botany interests me very much.”
“Ah, then he lives in the neighbourhood? You can direct me to his house?”
“He did live nearby, Mr. Burbank, but unfortunately your visit is very ill-timed. I posted a rather large letter on his behalf only yesterday. I suppose you had already arrived. I’m sure he mentioned in it that he was obliged to retire to the seaside upon his doctor’s urging. There has been no improvement in his condition for some time, you see. In fact, I rather think he has been in decline, though of course I would never have admitted that to him.”
“Miss Debord, you grieve me,” said Mr. Burbank, and she was sorry to see that he really did look as though he had suffered a great disappointment. Her heart beat wildly with fear and excitement, making her feel light-headed. For the first time she realised that his words of praise had not been written out of mere courtesy; that his interest was not only botanical, but also personal: he was interested in her. She took a gulp of hot tea, and nearly choked. She was grateful that Clara came back at that moment to distract attention from her.
“The children are all soundly asleep,” she declared happily, “Beatrice, are you all right? Drinking your tea too quickly again? Well, Mr. Burbank, what do you think of our countryside? It is rather fine, is it not? You must grow so weary of people in London.” She sighed. “Though of course it would be nice to have more varied company.”
“I find this part of the country quite charming, Mrs. Debord,” said Mr. Burbank, “I’m sure it is twice as green as the south, even so early in the season. I only wish I could have Mr. Allenham’s guidance in examining the local flora.”
“I was just telling Mr. Burbank that he has unfortunately missed Mr. Allenham by a day. Mr. A. has gone down to the seaside upon Doctor Lewin’s orders, you know, Clara. He has not been looking well recently, and I hope the change of air will do him good.”
“Indeed,” said Clara, vaguely, taking the tea her sister-in-law proffered.
“I see you have been collecting specimens, Mr. Burbank,” said Beatrice, “have you found anything of interest?”
“I did dig up one or two ferns which I am not familiar with. I will have to look them up, I think.”
Beatrice longed to peek inside the baskets, but she felt it would be wiser to feign ignorance and disinterest, and to end their conversation as soon as possible. She had wished for someone with whom to converse on botanical subjects for many years. Even her Father, when he was alive, had treated botany as an educational hobby, and had certainly not encouraged her seriously in its pursuit. He had had no interest in the new discoveries, defending the Linnaean system staunchly to his dying day. Now Beatrice had England’s leading botanist in her drawing room, and she talked of the weather. Nevertheless, it was a small price to pay to keep the correspondence alive.
“I don’t doubt that the south is more advanced, as it is in everything, but I did see some almond blossoms almost in blow when we went out yesterday,” she said.
“That is certainly early. Let me see, what does Moore say?” He thought for a moment, then quoted:
“The dream of a future, happier hour,
That alights on misery’s brow,
Springs out of the silvery almond-flower,
That blooms on a leafless bough.”
After a few more minutes of conversation, Mr. Burbank courteously stood to take his leave, and Beatrice tried not to show her relief.
“Mrs. Debord, Miss Debord, thank you very much for your kindness. I must trouble you only for the direction of Mr. Allenham, if I may, Miss Debord, for I would very much like to write to him about my disappointment in not finding him here, and to wish him a speedy recovery.”
“Oh! Mr. Burbank, I am very sorry to disappoint you again, but I do not have his address. I never thought to ask him for it. I expect he has mentioned it in his letter to you, however. No doubt you will find it upon your return to London.”
Mr. Burbank sighed. “It seems fate is conspiring to keep me away from my correspondent,” he said. “Could you ladies please direct me down the most long-winded route back to the village?”
Beatrice laughed. “Of course, Mr. Burbank, come with me and I will point it out to you.” They went out and she led him around the back of the house, and into the spinney. “This path will take you to the walled garden. You must not mind its state, but turn to your right after you enter it and you will see another gate. A path from there leads through the woods and brings you out by the river. You can follow the river downstream to the village.”
“Thank you, Miss Debord, I’m much obliged,” he said, bowing and offering his hand. She shook it, and as she did so, realised that she would very likely never see him again. He had no reason to visit, and even if she travelled down to London when John returned, what possible pretext could she have for seeing him?
“Goodbye, Mr. Burbank,” she said, then hesitated a moment before adding, “if you should require a local flora to identify your ferns, I believe there are copies of Flora Salopiensis in my Father’s library, and I’m sure Mrs. Debord would have no objection to your consulting them.”
“Thank you, Miss Debord, that is a generous offer indeed. I doubt I shall find anything in my friend’s library, for whatever his faults, botany is not one of them.”
She laughed, and after another bow, he strolled away, walking with long, unhurried strides. She yearned to go with him, to show him her favourite places. He cast a glance over his shoulder, and contemplated her for a moment before waving. She was glad he couldn’t see her blush from that distance. She waved back, and hurried to the house, smiling, despite her earlier thoughts. Perhaps she would begin a study of almond blossoms; they were always foolishly forward.