The Sisters-in-Law

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THE SISTERS-IN-LAW

“Bee, if you keep this up, you will certainly get caught,” said her sister-in-law. They were walking to the village for the second time that week, because Beatrice had not finished her article until that afternoon, and she was eager to send it as soon as possible. The narrow lane bore traces of the storm of the previous night, but now the spring sunlight danced between the still-bare branches and she pushed back her bonnet to enjoy its warmth on her face.

“Oh, Clara, don't fret. No one suspects a woman of being capable of intelligent thought, and I am happy to have the last laugh for a change. Besides, you know I must have some occupation, or I start bothering the servants by organising the larder, or trimming all the tassels, or trying how long I can stare into the fire without moving.”

Her sister laughed. “Do you really do that? It will give you freckles!” She called to her son, who was running up and down the road in front of them, to leave some of the hedgerow intact.

They walked on in silence for a time, Beatrice thinking about her article on hibernal sap movement in willows. She had spent the past two months in intense study of the plants, making cut after cut in their branches, and wearying everyone with her constant asking after new specimens. Every time anyone went more than ten yards from the house, they were expected to bring back a sample. She wondered how anyone bore with her, really. She had been trying to make Clara laugh, but her description of how she behaved when she was short of work was quite accurate. She had done each of those things, and now that her article was complete, folded into a thick letter in her pocket, she was already feeling the anxiety of its completion, and scanning the lane for a new subject.

Clara broke the silence with “Bee, I don’t understand why you won’t exert yourself a little towards getting a husband. I am sure with your intelligence and focus, you could make it an enjoyable study. Perhaps you could pretend you were writing an article about it. Then you could always be busy running your own house and not have to resort to torturing flora. If only you went into society a little more."

Beatrice sighed. “Ferns and flowers make much more pleasant society,” she said, “I’m afraid I find the silence of plants preferable to the prattle of Putnams.”

Clara obliged her by smiling, but it was not a natural smile. “Now, my dear, what’s wrong?” Beatrice asked, hooking her arm through her sister’s. Clara was nearly eight years her junior, and the fact that she was married and had three children didn’t change Beatrice’s feeling of maternal protectiveness towards her.

“Oh, nothing new, Bee, I am just worrying, as always.”

“About John, love?”

“Yes, of course. I read the list of names in the paper, and Mr. Jenkins’ name was on it. You remember, he came to visit us once when John was on leave. They were friends from boyhood, and in the same regiment.”

“Harold Jenkins? That nice young man? Oh, no!”

“Yes,” she said, her face melting as she gave vent to her tears. The little boy turned around and looked curiously at his Mother. “It’s all right, love,” she assured him, “why don’t you find Aunt Beatrice a flower or something.”

Beatrice gave her a handkerchief but Clara made no effort to restrain her sobs. “What if he is gone, how will we manage?”

“Clara, my dear, John’s name wasn’t on the list, so it don’t signify. I’m sure he will be very cut up about poor Jenkins, but that is how war is. Really, darling, how many times have you grieved for his death already? Most people are mourned only once, you know.”

Clara laughed, though the tears still glinted in her blue eyes. “You are right, Bee, I’m the silliest creature on earth.”

“I think you will have to contend with me for that title,” said Beatrice, rubbing her sister’s arm consolingly. “After all, I’m the one corresponding with an aged botanist for the dubious satisfaction of advancing human knowledge. Not even my own name in the journals, but a fictional man’s!”

Clara laughed again.

“Come love, dry your eyes. You are quite ruining your good looks with all this moping,” said Beatrice, appealing to Clara’s youthful vanity. “What will John think when he returns?”

Her sister-in-law hastened to pat her eyes with the handkerchief and took several steadying breaths. In her heart, Beatrice was just as worried about John as Clara was, and it was this growing anxiety that drove her into a frenzy of experimenting and writing. Clara could not be cajoled into an interest in botany, and although Beatrice tried her best to keep her sister-in-law busy, the traditional feminine occupations of embroidery and sketching were not calculated to divert a troubled mind. Clara had also proved an indifferent botanical artist, for though her sister-in-law was skilled, Beatrice could not convince her of the importance of accuracy in scientific draughtsmanship, and was finally forced - to Clara’s evident relief - to give up the scheme.

The little boy’s excited cry interrupted her dismal thoughts. “Look, Aunty Bee, look what I found!” He ran to her, and much to her astonishment, deposited a small white flower in her palm. It was the first snowdrop of the year.

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