Lady Mabel’s habits now underwent a change, which proved that her late mode of life, and her morning and evening levees of epaulettes, had been quite as much the result of necessity as of choice. Her father’s house was still much frequented by her gay and dashing comrades. But whenever there was a large company to dinner, or any other cause brought many of the gentlemen to head-quarters, she made a point of having Mrs. Shortridge at hand to countenance and sustain her; and in return she would often mount her horse early and canter into Elvas, followed only by a groom, to shut herself up with Mrs. Shortridge for a whole morning, doubtless in the enjoyment of those confidential feminine chats, for which she had longed so much. On these occasions the representatives of the ruder sex seldom gained admittance, except that L’Isle would now and then drop in for an hour, he being too great a favorite with Mrs. Shortridge to be excluded; and, for a time, he showed no disposition to abuse his special privilege.
It was on one of these occasions that L’Isle discovered that with all his assiduity in acquiring a thorough knowledge of the peculiar and interesting land in which he had now spent more than four years—an assiduity, on the result of which he much prided himself, and which had done him good service in his profession—there was still one important point that he had quite overlooked. He knew absolutely nothing of the botany of this region, nor, indeed, of any other. He made this discovery suddenly on hearing Lady Mabel express the interest she felt in this science, and her hope of finding many opportunities of pursuing it in a country whose Flora was so new to her. He at once began to supply this omission by borrowing from her half a dozen books on the subject. In two or three days he reappeared, armed with a huge bunch of wild flowers and plants, and professed to have mastered the technicalities sufficiently to enter at once on the practical study of the science in the field. Unless he deceived himself, he was an astonishing fast learner. Lady Mabel told him that she had heard that poeta nascitur, and now she believed it from analogy; for he was certainly born a botanist. He rebutted the sarcasm by showing that he had the terms stamen, pistil, calix, corolla, capsule, and a host of others at the tip of his tongue; though possibly, had he been called upon to apply each in its proper place, he would have been like a certain student of geometry we once knew, who, by aid of a good memory alone, could demonstrate all Euclid’s theorems, without understanding one of them, provided the diagrams were small enough to be hidden by his hand, so you could not detect him in pointing to the wrong angle and line.