The Dare and the Doctor
To Dr. Gray—
Thank you very much for the pamphlet you sent on the scrub bushes of the African wilds. I am spurred to adjust my experiments to see if any of our Lincolnshire plants could be pressed to grow their roots that long out of thirst. It must be quite solitary to be a shrubbery in the desert. Have you been to Africa and witnessed them for yourself?
I am afraid not much has shifted in my world since your visit ended a few weeks ago. My father’s gout is much better. Leticia—now Mrs. Turner—has settled into the mill house, and Mrs. Turner—or Helen, as I have been told to call her—is such a frequent guest at Bluestone Manor that Father has given her a room of her very own, for when she plays cribbage with him far too late.
Reading that back, I suppose a great deal has changed. Although it does not feel as if it has. It feels as if things are as they ever were, or ever were meant to be.
Oh, I nearly forgot! Something amazing has happened—the roses have gone to a third full flower this season! Lovely to have fresh blooms so late in the
year. I think I have perfected the manure-to-lime ratio in my fertilizing formula.
Miss Margaret Babcock
To Miss Babcock—
I hate to disappoint you, but I have not been to Africa. The farthest south I have been is the middle of France, and as it was the middle of the war, I was happy to go no further. The pamphlet comes from another academic correspondent of mine who has been to Africa and wrote it to present to the Horticultural Society of London. I attended the lecture and thought you might find it interesting as well.
It is good to hear about your father’s gout—it was a particularly troublesome case and gave me a devil of a time—and that Leticia and Mr. Turner have settled in. John has long been a friend of mine and he deserves his happiness. But I understand what you mean about how while everything has changed, it feels as though nothing has. It is like when you theorize the outcome of an experiment, and you are proven correct. Such as when my brother comes to visit, I can easily theorize he will ask me for money. And I will be proven correct. Something has changed, but the result is exactly as you knew it would be. So really, everything is the same.
That is excellent to hear about the third flowering. The Horticultural Society of London has managed to shift the color of some blooms by what minerals they put into the soil. I wonder if you could do that with your roses.
Dr. Rhys Gray
Dear Dr. Gray—
I feel at times my inquiries are so numerous it is easier to address them in the form of a list.
1. I am not disappointed you have not been to Africa. Rather, I find myself relieved you came back from the war.
2. “Another” academic correspondent? Does that mean I am an academic correspondent too?
3. I was not aware you had a brother.
4. The flowers that you mention that changed color based on their soil could not, I think, have been roses. They sound like hydrangeas. Depending on what food is in the soil, they can be pink or blue or white or some mixture of the above. I have never successfully changed the color of roses.
In other news, I have taken initiative and begun the construction of a new greenhouse! This one an arid environment, as opposed to a damp one. (Yes, I was inspired by the African pamphlet.) I thought to ask Father about it, but then was advised by Leticia and Helen that, as my father tends to question expenditures, I should simply order the construction and tell him about it after.
He has yet to notice.
Miss Margaret Babcock
Dear Miss Margaret—
A list should be answered in kind.
1. Thank you most heartily. I too am glad I came back from war. It relieved me of my desire to travel, and I find myself happier and more at home in my laboratory than anywhere else.
2. Of course we are academic correspondents. You know more about plants than anyone else I know, and I like to know people who like to know things.
3. I have a brother. I actually have three. And three sisters. I’m the second of seven. But the brother in question is Daniel, and I am his elder by almost a decade. For some reason, he thinks that means I am a stodgy bore. I, in turn, think he is heedless and troublesome, but I am assured by my mother and general resemblance that we are indeed related.
Also, I have to admit to a little familial affection. A very little.
4. Yes, hydrangeas! I had completely forgotten the name. To my uneducated eye, they looked fluffy. I equate fluffy with roses. I’m sorry to hear rose color is not as mutable, but if anyone can do it, I imagine it would be you.
Mrs. Turner and Mrs. Turner both give excellent advice. I presume that your father will notice when you have African tumbleweeds growing on the east lawn?
Happy Christmas! Thank you for the gift you sent with your last letter—where on earth did you find an African shrub in England?
Your gift is this stray bit of gossip from Leticia that she and John might be coming to London for a few days in the New Year to sign some papers with the bank—John has the opportunity to buy another mill to add to his growing empire. I know how you hate surprises, so should he turn up in your lab in Greenwich mid-January with a furrowed brow and an intention to disrupt your work, you’ll be prepared.
Did I tell you that Miss Goodhue finally succeeded in talking me into going to the public ball in Claxby? She caught me in a sentimental mood, and she begged me to come along, saying that having a friend there would make her so much more comfortable.
So I went, and had a . . . not overly bad time. I danced with four separate gentlemen.
I was taller than all of them.
Is there a remedy for extremes in height? Slouching? Any shrinking formulas that you men of medicine have been devising?
Until such a time, I think it best if I continue spending my winter trying to graft roses. I make my own fun.
Here is the leading prescription for dealing with issues of height:
—wear the tallest shoes you can find
—reach things on the top shelves for those poor souls who are not blessed with length
In other news, John wrote me himself and said he and Leticia would be down here in a few weeks. We’ll see if he actually tears himself away from his mills to make the journey. He spent so long in London, I wonder that he would ever want to come back. Although it does have its charms—in Greenwich I’m just far enough away to make me wistful for it, which is easily remedied with a few days’ visit.
Although if you were ever to venture south, I would make certain to become wistful for London over the exact dates you would be there. What powers would it take to remove you from your beloved greenhouse?
I admit, as winter has settled over the land, the quiet and the cold make me enjoy the coziness of my laboratory more and more. Holidays and their attendant obligations have passed. This is the time for work, for lectures and letters to write. People even seem to have left off injuring themselves or contracting rare illnesses, thus I have been given the freedom to putter. I too make my own fun.
You might be one of the only people of my acquaintance who knows what I mean.
It’s spring! It’s spring, it’s spring, it’s spring! Things have finally begun to bloom again, and my happiness abounds. Of course, I keep all that inside. It wouldn’t do for anyone to see me smiling—it would no doubt cause paroxysms of shock. But thank goodness the spring has finally come and my work can begin in earnest again.
In your last letter (or was it the one before?—I swear you are so prolific in your communication that I’m receiving two a week now. Not that I’m complaining) you mentioned that your most recent lecture at the maritime hospital was on the benefit of binding a wound in a braided pattern—and I admit, I tried it on the stem of a juniper bush that had sustained injury from overenthusiastic pruning. But the branch in question remained quite healthy! Perhaps next time you can extend your lectures to flora as well as fauna.
If I attempt to graft roses again, I will use your wrapping technique. Right now, however, I am far too excited about my experiments with rose hybridization to dabble in grafting. I hybridized my mother’s China rose with an English variety, and find myself in awe of the results—I’ve included a detailed breakdown of my hybridizing technique and my observed results, so you tell me: dare I hope the resulting shrubs will bloom all summer long?
In other news, it’s been very dull here since Miss Goodhue went to London—I hope you received the rhododendron I sent with her. It’s been dull here in general . . . which is not something I ever thought I would say. Usually, I enjoy the quiet. Plants don’t really thrive on loud noises and chaos, you know. But for some reason, I just feel a little anxious, as if I’ve
been still for so long that I wonder if I can move when I need to. But I know that’s silly. I do things. Things outside of the greenhouse, even. I take tea with Leticia and I go into Helmsley on market days and I’ve been to three public balls this winter (I have yet to dance with a man taller than myself. I’m certain they exist, they just don’t care to dance), but I still feel this strange sense of “what if.”
Perhaps what I need is what you have—the ability to go visit excitement for a few days, and come home to work and silence, content.
I know this is a silly feeling that shall pass. I cannot imagine that I could ever be comfortable out of Helmsley and my greenhouse. But still . . . the strange notion exists.
I cannot tell you how delightful it is to have a friend who understands these things.
As always, yours—
My dear Margaret—
Of course. I’m always here to listen to silly notions and strange feelings. After all, what are friends for?