The Gentleman Botanist

The Gentleman Botanist arrived in town with his cartons and cases, bottles and beakers, samples and sketchbooks, and set about studying and collecting the local flora. The children approached him first with their natural curiosity and innate lack of fear. He quickly engaged them to lead him to new areas to investigate — the first time for a penny, each time after that for promises of more.

Within a day the men would confront him — the mayor or constable, property owners, or whatever leading businessmen felt it was their duty to represent the town’s interests. He spoke to them of the importance of scientific investigation and the necessity that he be given free reign to go and do as he pleased regardless of property lines. He spoke to them as inferiors, as indeed he believed them to be. And without exception they acquiesced.

He stretched a tarpaulin between two trees and slept on a cot under the makeshift shelter. That brought the women out, tut-tutting what a deplorable situation it was to leave a gentleman out in the cold and soon he had offers of a room that would be placed at his disposal. “No,” they would say, “of course it is no trouble at all.” Not that any of them really had any room to spare, but what was a little inconvenience to the family in the service of science and Christian charity?

He weighed his options carefully and gratefully accepted one in particular. The woman was solicitous and pious. The man was solid and slow-witted. And the daughter, of course they had a daughter, was young and fair. Her name was… let’s say it was Virginia.

He set about the business of collecting botanical samples during the day and cataloging them by the fire each night. And one night he suggested, if it wasn’t any trouble and only if she was interested, perhaps Virginia would like to write some of the notes as he studied the samples and dictated. She would? Oh, that was splendid. And within a day or two it became clear she had quite an aptitude for the work and perhaps she could accompany him during the day and help collect the samples too. Besides, she had local knowledge that would supplant that of the children who had grown tired of waiting for the next supply of pennies.

Each day they ranged further afield, trudging over the steepest terrain and inspecting the remotest dales and hollows. It had not been so many years since she had been a girl whose daily activities included climbing rocks and trees. She never complained about the rigors and he began to compliment her frequently. And when they chanced upon a wildflower that she said was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen, he declared that it held but a fraction of the beauty of dear Virginia. He kissed her hand and she blushed, but didn’t draw away. So he embraced her and kissed her face and still she didn’t draw away. Soon he was exploring dales and hollows of a carnal nature.

Thereafter they would set out each morning and collect just enough samples so that they had something to catalog that night and then enjoy intimacies each afternoon until it was time to go home. Then one morning he announced that he would be leaving the next day. No, Virginia could not accompany him. But he could send for her when his expedition was done and he had settled back in his family home. And it would be best that her parents remain ignorant of their liaison for the time being. Of course, when he published his research he would name a species just for her. Perhaps it would be that wildflower she had admired so much? That, he said, was as much up to the scientific community as it was to him. Wait and see. They still had one glorious afternoon to spend together. No tears now. That just won’t do.

The next morning after Virginia’s father had left for work, he packed up and left. Virginia took to her bed and cried. Her mother recognized the tears of an abandoned woman and prayed that he would be far away when father got home, lest he strike out after him with murderous intent. The Gentleman Botanist, it must be plain, was a “gentleman” by virtue of his birth in high society and not by virtue of, well, any virtue he might have possessed.

And when his work was published it was just as well that no copies made their way into any of a dozen or so small towns, each with a Virginia who had been scandalized. And each of those Virginias would have been mortified to learn that he remembered them well, but not for any wildflower. They were immortalized in print as Fissidens adianthoides. Maidenhair moss.


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