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Day of the Dandelion An Arthur Hemmings Mystery
By Peter Pringle
Simon & Schuster Copyright © 2007 Peter Pringle
All right reserved.
THE MONASTERY OF ST. THOMAS,
Brunn, Moravia, Winter 1884
The abbot knew he was dying. Since the beginning of December, he had been
unable to summon the strength to take even a few steps in the monastery
garden. Each morning Frau Dupouvec, his housekeeper, wrapped his swollen legs
in thick cotton bandages to stanch the fluids his failing kidneys could no
longer remove. After a slight improvement in the summer, his sight had dimmed
again; now he could read only a few pages without severe eyestrain and,
sometimes, painful headaches. In recent days, the leaden cold of the
Moravian winter had seeped through the stone walls of the prelate's quarters
and seemed to settle most cruelly in his bones, his very being.
The monks at the Monastery of St. Thomas in Brunn were urgently praying for
their beloved abbot's recovery. They could not bear the thought of losing him
and had convinced themselves that he would get better. When ill health had
overtaken him before, he had always rebounded. The crippling backache that
had prevented him from tending his precious seedlings in the monastery garden
had come and gone. The eye ailment had arrived and then disappeared. Moreover,
he seemed far too young to die; he was onlysixty-three. His predecessor, a
frailer sort, had lived to be seventy-five. The abbot himself knew better
than his devoted brothers, however. He knew that he would not survive to see
another summer, perhaps not even another spring.
For several months he had not received visitors, but before Christmas he
told Frau Doupevec and Joseph, his manservant, that he would make an exception
for a young Russian botanist from St. Petersburg named Ivan Ivanovich
Petrovsky. A year earlier, Ivan Ivanovich had written the abbot asking for
permission to quote from his essay Experiments in Plant Hybridization.
The abbot had been surprised and immensely pleased by the request; it was the
only recognition for his breeding work on garden peas he had received from
his peers. At the time, he was too busy with the administrative duties of the
monastery, but now his workload had diminished and he had sent the Russian an
The day of Ivan Ivanovich's visit, in early January 1884, a surprisingly
sunny day, the abbot appeared to have made an astonishing recovery. He was
walking on his own, without the aid of Joseph's arm. He was reading without
eyestrain, the headache had gone, and mercifully, even the fluids had stopped
leaking into the bandages around his legs.
The abbot asked Joseph to light the stove in the Orangery, where he would
receive his visitor. He also wanted to take the Russian on a tour of the
monastery gardens to show him where he had planted his peas, where he had
potted his seedlings, and where he had observed the strange activities of the
bees in his apiary.
Joseph warned his master not to linger outside -- the January sunshine was
deceptive -- but the abbot had rebuked him with uncharacteristic sharpness,
"I am well aware of the meteorological readings, Brother Joseph."
Frau Dupouvec had also protested, "Father Abbot has not even put on walking
boots in five weeks, let alone ventured into the garden," she said sternly.
But the abbot had insisted. Since it was not wet outside, merely cold, he
would wear his felt boots, which would be loose enough for his tender,
When the Russian arrived, promptly at ten o'clock as invited, the abbot was
sitting upright in his favorite, wingbacked chair in the Orangery, facing out
toward the garden. He was dressed, as usual, in his ankle-length black
soutane, and Joseph had managed, after a struggle, to pull on the abbot's
felt boots. For the sake of good relations with Frau Dupouvec, the abbot had
allowed her to place a gray woolen blanket over his lap even though the
Orangery was now warming up nicely with the heat from Joseph's fire.
Ivan Ivanovich was a tall man with curly brown hair, a high forehead, and a
bushy beard. He wore a stiff white collar, a black frock coat, and high
leather boots, the traditional dress of the tsarist professorial class.
Behind the spectacles, clear blue eyes gleamed eagerly.
As the Russian entered the Orangery, the abbot rose to greet him with the
wide familiar smile that Frau Dupouvec had not seen in several months.
"I am so pleased you have come," said the abbot with outstretched hand.
"I am honored to meet you, Father," replied the young Russian, bowing. "Very
From a respectful distance, Joseph and Frau Dupouvec watched as the abbot and
the young Russian engaged immediately in a discussion of the genus
Pisum. From the bright enthusiasm on the abbot's face and his energetic
gesticulations, Joseph recognized each stage of the beautiful pea experiments.
And when the abbot began shrugging his shoulders and raising his hands in
gentle frustration, Joseph understood he was talking about his more recent
encounters in the garden, with a plant that seemed to defy all his theories
about heredity -- the orange hawkweed, or Hieracium.
The abbot was talking heatedly and now loudly enough for Joseph to hear. "I
must admit to you, my dear friend, how greatly I was deceived in this
respect. I cannot resist remarking how striking it is that the hybrids of
Hieracium behaved exactly the opposite to those of Pisum. They
did not vary in shape or color, or in any respect, in the next generation.
They were identical to their parents. Suddenly, I found myself in danger of
having to renounce my experiments completely -- and, therefore, my theory of
Ivan Ivanovich let out a cry of protest. "But no, Father, you must not allow
such oddities to dissuade you from your theory. I, for one, perfectly
understand what you have discovered, and I believe that you have, indeed,
unearthed a provable theory of inheritance. Your valuable work must continue
and be repeated by others, as I am sure it will be."
The abbot adjusted his heavy frame in the chair, shifting his legs just a
fraction, a movement that clearly caused him considerable discomfort. Then he
again addressed his Russian visitor.
"I confess to you, dear friend, that part of my reason for seeing you today,
besides thanking you for your mention of my essay, is my hope that you will
continue my work. There is no one here at the monastery with sufficient
interest, or expertise, to keep the experiments going. In fact, there are
some, I fear, who will seek to destroy my scientific legacy as soon as I am
The abbot paused.
"I have an idea about the strange behavior of Hieracium. Evidently, we
are dealing with an individual phenomenon that is the manifestation of a
different law of nature from the one I have uncovered. It appears that the
seed of Hieracium can be made by the plant without fertilization. I
have found only one other plant that behaves in this way, the common
dandelion, of the genus Taraxacum. Dandelions, like hawkweed, do not
reproduce as males and females normally do. The mother cells can produce the
seed on their own, without fertilization by the pollen. In short, these
plants do not have sex, like other plants."
The abbot paused again, carefully weighing what he was about to say.
"Ivan Ivanovich, my friend, I wish you to do me the honor of accepting my
garden notes and other work that I have so far prepared on this matter. I
would be happy to assist you in transporting these materials to St.
Petersburg. May I ask bluntly, do you accept this assignment?"
The young Russian was stunned. He had not expected any such outcome. He had
wanted simply to pay his respects to this remarkable old man who, as an
amateur gardener, had apparently discovered a fundamental law of nature. For
a long moment he was silent.
Then the abbot asked him again, this time more anxiously and yet still
graciously. "It would make me most happy, I assure you, if you would accept
Ivan Ivanovich quickly pulled himself together. He would accept, of course.
"Father, I am honored that you have considered me worthy of such a task. I
will conduct the necessary experiments with all means at my disposal."
"Good, that is settled then," said the abbot, with obvious relief. "Now I
must tell Joseph to prepare the materials, and we will walk in the garden,
briefly, before lunch."
Excerpted from Day of the Dandelion by Peter Pringle Copyright © 2007 by Peter Pringle. Excerpted by permission.
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