tagRomanceThe Botanists: An Adventure

The Botanists: An Adventure


Author's note: This pre-1890 historical romance tells of actual notable people. All sex involves live humans aged 18+, even the whores AFAIK. The text contains casual racism and sexism and very little explicit human sex; if you object, stop reading. Plant sex is pretty muted too. Stilted speech patterns are intentional. Views expressed are not necessarily the author's. Information may not be totally accurate, but I try. Many thanks to NaokoSmith for suggestions and edits.

Townshend Stith Brandegee & Mary Katharine Layne Curran
had a great honeymoon hike

"That waar a mighty handsome paper on Oenotheras you done read thaar, Miz Curran," he drawled, and grinned sheepishly. That speech sounded absurd atop his native Yankee accent and was hardly how T.S. wished to introduce himself to the illustrious lady. No, he must think of something better.

The slender mustachioed man of medium height and age was no rustic, no matter that his sturdy garb and weathered face marked him as an outdoorsman. Many who need not blush for their intellect lived rough in those pre-modern days. He certainly did not look out of place on the rolling polyglot hills of San Francisco on that warm early spring afternoon in 1886, his fortieth year.

T.S. leaned against a warm brick wall at California and Dupont Streets -- the latter to be renamed for his former commander and gain fame as Grant Avenue in a future era's Chinatown -- and viewed the passing scene. Whites from all corners of Europe, Canada, and the States; Negroes of various dusky tones; Celestials (Chinese) and Japanese; Latinos ranging from dark indios to pale hidalgos; Red Indians; Kanakas (Hawai'ians); the occasional Arab and Hindu; and more. The whole world paraded before his alert grey eyes.

T.S. replayed memories while he waited.

This quiet, calm, mild-mannered son of a Connecticut doctor would dryly summarize his Civil War artillery career as: "General Grant and I took Richmond."

Gunnery was the start. He earned Yale degrees in engineering and botany, and worked as a civil engineer, surveyor, and mapmaker on the frontier, and as an explorer and naturalist for Eastern museums and scholars. He made major botanical discoveries. He was a member of distinguished learned societies. He published significant papers and monographs. He was held in high esteem by colleagues and savants.

And, Townshend Stith Brandegee admitted to himself, he was lonely.

T.S., as he was known to all, was no shy virgin, no blushing violet. He'd had many whores before, during, and long after the war.

Back home were bony Yankee girls driven to the city when sparse family farms failed or bored them silly, and wan women working the lumber camps and sinful seaports.

In war were Union whores, Irish or Dutch or French women barely feigning passion. Or Rebel whores, those lean, hungry hillbillies, and Cajun queens with French tongues, and soft Southern belles wetly spreading urgent, creamy thighs for him. And floozies, and camp followers, and any women desperate to survive.

And even nigger girls. Damn, he remembered that nigger outside Norfolk -- what did she call herself? Ella Speed? The best suck he ever had, and about the best ass, too. He almost had not minded that she stole his money pouch.

He knew Norfolk, Virginia. Folks had called it No-Fuck Vagina for a long, long time. Screw Virginia.

There were whores-a-plenty at stately Yale during his postwar schooling but T.S. was particular. He was a regular thrice-weekly customer at Madame DuBois' fancy house, often enough to qualify for a discount. T.S. was always a frugal Yankee.

The whores in the rough Rocky Mountain town of Cañon City, Colorado, where he took the civic engineer job, were mainly Mexican or half-breed. They were drunks or addicts, not cheap, not very clean, and degenerate. He found it more economical and sanitary to rent an Arapahoe 'wife' to tend to his domestic needs. Other redskin 'wives' served him on his Western expeditions. He always treated them kindly but never encountered them again after a survey's end.

He found an unlimited variety of whores from around the world in horny, bustling San Francisco. Variety was interesting. But maybe he was tiring of unlimited variety. Maybe stability seemed appealing.

[You may wonder about the whores T.S. frequented. Remember, the past is a different world. A scholar in 1850 estimated that two percent of adult women in the United States were paid prostitutes. That number may have reached five percent or more by the end of the century. One in twenty. Make of that what you will; it was reality. Nineteenth-century life was hard. Unmarried women had few options. Work in home or farm as a married or unmarried servant, or factory drudge, or sex slave. What would YOU do to survive?]

A shout interrupted his ruminations.

"Mistah Bran-DEE-jee! Suh!"

Hiram Cole, the Academy's tall freeborn Negro porter, finely dressed in splendid cobalt livery, was hailing T.S. from across the street.

"Mistah Brandegee. The Committee are ready for you now, suh. If you please, suh."

He nodded at the approaching porter, straightened his posture and derby hat, and brushed off his broadcloth coat. His cold cigar stub sank unnoticed in the foul gutter.

T.S. and Hiram dodged careening humans, horses, and wagons to cross the riotous intersection. The door into the Academy's great Museum and Hall awaited them. Hiram ushered the applicant into a smoke-filled upholstered meeting room; the heavy black-oak door swung closed on his departing back.

"Major Brandegee! Welcome! Please make yourself comfortable. Cigar, sir?"

Professor A.J. Foyle chaired the Executive Committee of the California Academy of Sciences, the most prestigious learned society in western America. His chubby, overdressed figure jiggled as he offered one hand to his visitor and gestured with the other to a selection of Cuban smokes.

Bewhiskered committee members offered handshakes and kind words. T.S. noted that Doctor Mary Curran did not sit on the ruling board even though she was the Academy's botany curator and publications director, and a political power within the institution. He was not surprised by her absence. Men directed Earth's serious affairs, of course.

Professor Foyle stood at the head of the massive redwood committee table and lightly hammered an ebony gavel.

"Gentlemen, if you will."

Conversations died away. Committee members took their places along the table sides. T.S. was pointed to a padded chair at the far end of the table from the chairman. All sat. Most smoked Havana cigars.

Professor Foyle tapped the gavel again.

"This meeting is now resumed, et cetera, et cetera. Still taking minutes, Cameron? Excellent. Well, gentlemen, we are here to announce the decision of the Executive Committee in regard to Major Townshend Stith Brandegee's formal application for membership in the California Academy of Sciences. After due consideration, et cetera, et cetera, we are most happy to declare our unanimous approval. Congratulations, sir! Welcome to our fellowship."

More handshakes. More cigars were lit. Alcoholic beverages were poured and consumed. Tales were told, some true. Quite a jovial session, yes indeed.

The group adjourned to a lecture hall; a patient audience awaited. T.S. saw the resplendent Hiram Cole escort elegant Doctor Curran to an isolated front aisle seat. He wondered if she, too, was lonely.

T.S. presented his first paper to the Academy as a member: Distribution of Platyopuntia of family Cactaceae in the Peninsular Ranges and Channel Islands. Dignified applause signaled its rousing success.

Doctor Mary Curran approached T.S. in the hallway after the formal meeting ended.

"Mister Brandegee, that was a very impressive presentation," she smiled.

"Well, Miz Curran, you read an excellent paper yourself earlier, on Oenotheras, in which I have an interest," his calm voice replied. Not quite what he had jokingly rehearsed earlier, but close enough. Too bad he had not concocted anything wittier.

Their formal introduction was exactly that informal.

[TRANSLATIONS: Cactaceae is the cactus family. Platyopuntia is the beavertail or prickly-pear cactus. The Oenotheras are evening primroses.]


"Very impressive, Mister Brandegee, very impressive indeed."

Doctor Mary Katharine Layne Curran, 'Kate' to her close female friends, M.K. to her associates, did not refer only to his scholarship as she surveyed his lean body. She silently admitted that her attraction to him was more than merely intellectual.

She tried to suppress the thought. Her childless eight-year marriage to alcoholic constable Hugh Curran had ended over a decade earlier when he drank himself to death. She was not sure if she would ever be ready for another man.

From farm girl, to schoolmarm, to doctor, to naturalist, only the second female professional botanist in America. And the best. She had accomplished much on her own. How much more did she want and need?

Mary Curran's ambitions had extended far beyond her Tennessee farm infancy or her Western childhood and adolescence. Her family chased the California gold rush dream in 1849. Home to her was a Folsom farm in the Sierra Nevada foothills. She willingly left that for San Francisco and more education; she was only the third woman ever admitted to the University of California medical school.

Most medicines then derived from natural plants. Medical studies included a heavy dose of botany. Even after receiving her M.D. degree, M.K. leaned more towards the botanical than the medical. Plants became her learned obsession.

The slim, pretty woman in a tidy lime-green dress, jacket, and hat, a year younger than T.S., with frosty frizzy grey hair and piercing blue eyes above her high rosy cheeks, felt something shift inside her. Some new obsession?

"Yes, impressive," she muttered, not quite silently.

"Excuse me, Miz Curran?" T.S. captured her with his gaze.

She blushed. "Oh, excuse me, sir, I only..."

She was unaccustomed to being flustered. She pulled herself together.

"Yes, your scrutiny of Oenotheras nicely expands what I found in my own fieldwork," she improvised. "I have not yet concentrated on the lower Californian coastal regions. I mainly explore the deserts. I hope to organize coastal collecting tours. I know we shall have resources available next spring."

She tried to be business-like, scientific, dispassionate -- but passions flamed her eyes and quivered her voice. She could not quell her excitement. Scientific fervor, yes -- and maybe more. She resolutely willed herself to be calm. She almost succeeded.

"Yes, Miz Curran, I have read of your searches. I surmise that we are much alike, ma'am. A few shipwrecks and broken bones do not bother us much. I like that in a woman."

Laugh lines crinkled around his flashing grey eyes. His mellow voice stroked her soul. She blushed again. Oh God, what was happening to her? She was too old for this!

She composed herself.

"Sir, I believe we no longer need such formality. Please call me M.K."

"Certainly, ma'am, I mean M.K. I am known to all as T.S."

Despite those introductions, they habitually addressed each other as sir and ma'am. Some habits are difficult to break.

"Have you a few minutes?" His voice was gentle. His eyes seared her.

She knew they spoke of Academy matters but for the life of her she could not recall them later. Perhaps they were not so important.

M.K. had not had a man in her since the crapulous constable Curran croaked. She did not avoid male company -- many men worked under her direction -- but she was careful to socialize publicly, never privately. Many men had paid court. Not the least of these were colleagues from the Academy in San Francisco and the University across the bay in Berkeley. Some were prominent, even wealthy. But none had stirred her enough to emerge from celibacy. None possessed the chemistry.

Her chemical elements threatened to vaporize under the steady gaze T.S. aimed at her.

That gaze widened a crack in her careful shell. Or, another metaphor: She had walled herself off from emotional life but bricks were working loose and falling out, ker-plunk.

Her rational mind sought explanations. Why did this man affect her so where others failed? He was no self-absorbed scholar, but also no power seeker, no arrogant or desperate social climber. What had he? His reputation and demeanor and character; and yes, his rugged and neat appearance, and those eyes, and... something irrational, damn him!

She blinked and refocused on T.S.

"Ma'am, I have some small funds put by which could help defray the costs of field work. If I may, I would like to invite you to dinner. I believe we have much to discuss. Perhaps we may reach a mutually beneficial agreement on goals and means."

Her pulse jumped. Dinner?

Later generations would call this a first date.

"Er, why yes, sir, I believe we could plan something... appropriate..."

Words failed her. She felt feverish. She felt... wet.

"This evening, then?" He tilted his head. "From where should I escort you?"

"Er, my rooms are just down the block. Yes, at 525 Dupont Street. I shall be happy to... I mean, please call on me at eight-o'clock, yes?" She was flustered again.

He took her hand and nodded over it. A slight squeeze; no kiss. He did not release her hand immediately. She did not withdraw. Their eyes locked for an unknown time. They blinked simultaneously, the spell broken. Their hands reluctantly fell apart.

"Major Brandegee!" a committee member called out. "If I may, sir."

"Until the evening, ma'am." T.S. slowly turned away from M.K.

Doctor Mary Curran's loyal maid Chan Li was astounded by her usually sober mistress's distrait demeanor when she returned home.

"What wrong, Missy? You okay? You sick?" Li felt Mary's forehead. "You hot. You sweaty." She sniffed. "You... you horny!" She giggled into her hand. "You got man? It about time!"

M.K. tried and failed to look stern. She waved her hands.

"Oh, shut up, Li! Draw the bath. And get me a fresh dress. The blue one, yes."

Chan Li giggled again and lit a fire under the water tank. Yes, she would prepare Missy!


T.S. pulled the plush bell cord at dignified 525 Dupont Street and nervously tightened his bow-tied cravat, then loosened it again. Was he getting all wobble-in-the-ass over a woman? No! He was a confident man, a strong man. He was an engineer, dammit! And a scientist. And a gentleman. And... a little intimidated.

He took a deep breath as the mirror-paneled apartment door opened. A trace of jasmine scent wafted out.

"You mista Brandy?" Chan Li asked. "You come in. Missy almost ready for you."

Black-pajama trousers and jacket covered her slight form. He followed her into the airy lace-trimmed parlor.

T.S. never bothered to learn the names of the fashions and styles with which ladies adorned themselves. He knew physical static and dynamic forces, and plant and animal and geological taxonomies, and intricacies of geography and topography -- knew them by heart. They did not change much. But fashion? It was too volatile a subject on which to waste mental effort.

He thus had no words to describe the jittery vision of loveliness that entered the parlor. A blue dress and jacket to match her eyes, tight on her modestly corseted figure, enticingly curvy yet totally proper. Subdued gems at her ears and throat. A pale shining forehead, flushed cheeks, and an unsure smile.

T.S. held his breath. His interior elements responded to chemistry, too.

"Good evening, ma'am," he managed to say.

"Good evening, sir," she blushed.

T.S. had not arrived with empty hands. His left carried his well-worn leather dispatch case stuffed with papers, plans, charts. His right held flowers.

Many men would pay court with a corsage or bouquet of fine cut flowers. T.S. was not most men, and M.K. was not most women. Both were frontier botanists.

And T.S. possessed a romantic wit.

"For you, ma'am," he said, presenting the floral tribute.

Not merely a decorative flower. Rather, two erect herbs in a small clay pot -- gray-green soft-fuzzy foliage; button-sized four-petal copper-yellow blossoms with white stamens; straight stems. Fine examples of a rare variety of modest evening primrose.

"Sir!" M.K. gasped.

She gingerly took the offering. She peered closely at it, almost forgetting T.S. in her fervor. Minutes passed. She started, and looked up at his smiling face.

"This is--"

"This is a new variety, ma'am. They are usually only found in narrow, rocky canyons facing the Salton Sink. I collected these unique outliers on Santa Catalina Island."

He extracted a small plant press from his dispatch case and set it on a tall chessboard table.

"These are my formal samples for the Academy herbarium. I believe we have a type specimen here. You can send one to that tyrant Asa Gray at Harvard. A packet of seeds is in here, too, for the botanic garden."

He gestured at the small potted herbs.

"But I felt compelled to bring them back alive. And I am most happy that I did. Here: Oenothera cardiophylla splendens, the Splendid Heart-Leaved Evening Primrose. A splendid flower for a splendid lady."

M.K. blushed again. Chan Li giggled behind her hand and took the flowerpot and press for safekeeping. She draped a patterned blue silk shawl on her mistress and whispered in her ear.

"You have good evening, Missy. You no need hurry. Everything okay here."

M.K. held the sturdy arm T.S. presented. They strolled the few busy blocks to wide Market Street and the grand Palace Hotel; its elegant Garden Court restaurant was The City's finest eatery.

They chatted about non-trivial matters: academic politics; funding problems; the Harvard hegemony of taxonomy; greedy expedition suppliers and handlers; trials and tribulations encountered in their adventures. Naturalist gossip. They paid little heed to the passing scene except to nimbly dodge drunks, dogs, and wobbly wagons.

They did not need to discuss type specimens, the official exemplars of described species; nor taxonomy, the classifying and naming of species; nor the Salton Sink, that vast below-sea-level desert basin north of the Gulf of California. Both were quite familiar with all that.

The Garden Court, set in a high, broad, glass-covered atrium, was full and boisterous. Besides the string quartet playing in one corner, much of the noise emanated from the premier table where Senator (ex-Governor) Leland Stanford presided over a party of notables. Heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan sat at that table, lustily downing oysters and fresh beer. Gorgeous actress and royal mistress Lily Langtry matched Sullivan oyster-for-oyster but carefully sipped black tea. Samuel Clemens sat beside her. Yes, Mark Twain was back in The City!

Samuel Clemens was drunk. And rambunctious. And inflammatory.

"I haven't trusted anyone since forever," he bellowed, waving a vellum prophylactic in the air. "Ever since that damned chink whore gave me the green clap, I've depended on French Letters!" The patented condom rustling in its wrapper threatened to escape his energetic grasp.

He drank from a glass whose contents were much stronger than beer.

"Damn, at least that Treynor bastard still know how to make'em right. I am ready for some greaser whores now!"

He peered around as if looking for hired talent. He paid no attention to the botanists.

T.S. was reminded -- he made a mental note to replenish his own supply of Reverend Treynor's Miraculous Protectors. Good condoms were hard to find.

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