Today's Reading

April 1893 
Rye, New York

Charles was leaving. At long last. Si longtemps, Charles! Abschied, dearest brother! Tot ziens! I loved him fiercely—more than I loved anyone, really— but I was glad to see him go.

Come 11:14 p.m., the rail cars would screech and lurch and he'd wave from the wrought iron caboose railing in his new champagne duster jacket, his fist full of the Bells of Ireland sprigs I'd shove into his hand for good luck. The clouds of his farewell shouts would mingle with thick rail steam in the chilly evening air. By Tuesday he'd be standing 1,300 miles away in the construction shadow of Mr. Flagler's latest lavish hotel, boots sinking into the veritable beach the structure was built upon. Charles would think, of course, that he'd have no problem whatsoever transforming the barrenness into a lush utopia of viburnums and palms and, most importantly, royal poinciana—a scarlet flowering beauty for which the hotel was named. Never mind that the royal poinciana was native to Madagascar and had never been grown in Florida. Charles had achieved enough success cultivating foreign species from Japan and Germany and Italy and Israel with Father that he would believe the task an easy one. We all did.

I hoped he would love Florida. That he'd be so enraptured by the aquamarine sea, the prestige of being Mr. Flagler's premiere landscape man, and the gorgeous fortune hunters—bless them—that he'd stay. Perhaps he'd even find a suitable girl who wouldn't mind the oppressive heat akin to that of a boiler room or the way even the finest silks swallowed the humidity and stuck to her limbs as though they'd been bathed in maple sap. Surely a girl of that fortitude could persevere in her pursuit of Charles despite his obsessive love of plants. Charles and I were afflicted with the same curse—a curse that drove me to celebrate his going and that of my younger brother, Freddie, two years ago when he went to work for Uncle Teddy's friend Mayor Carter Harrison in Chicago.

My brothers had been my greatest supporters and my greatest obstructions. Until Mr. Flagler's offer, I'd thought Charles would succumb to Father's plan to make him successor and never leave. But Charles had been an adventurer from birth, always wanting the opportunity to travel, to make his mark apart from Father's accomplishments.

Mr. Flagler had kept us as the primary gardeners at his Mamaroneck estate for nearly a decade. One day, when Charles was replacing a Countess of Oxford in his rose garden, Mr. Flagler came downstairs from his office, interrupted Charles, and asked him to take his talents to Florida. Before that fateful day only a month ago, I'd considered my life all but lost to the doom of a debutante's marital duty—a practice I found altogether disgusting.

I was no commodity, no acquisition to be considered due to the success of my parents and for the diversification of a gentleman's holdings. Despite my ardent study of horticulture, despite a mastery of it that exceeded both Charles's and Freddie's, Father refused to see me as a viable successor. Instead, he paraded suitable men in and out of our home as though he thought my utopia would be found in a handsome face and pockets as deep as the Mariana Trench. Or perhaps he thought I might be satisfied with love. What he didn't know was that I'd been in love, desperately in love, and had let it go for the only utopia I'd ever seen—the one I'd been looking at my whole life: the nurseries Father started.

I took one last minute to stare at my paradise—at the four rows of glass-paned greenhouses sparkling in the crescent moonlight, at the fields of roses and larkspur and phlox and hyacinth beyond them, at the groves of rare trees and shrubs to my right, at the whitewashed roofs of the barns in the distance beyond the railroad tracks, at the streams of chimney smoke from the gardeners' village.

Just this morning, I'd been elbow-deep in potting soil, cultivating cut-leaf weeping birch seedlings that would one day grow tall and strong and stately. Though life was difficult at times, nature was perpetually hopeful. I'd always taken refuge among the green—some of my earliest memories were of running to my father with fists full of wild roses and dandelions, amazed that they'd sprung up spontaneously. After Mother's death, I'd practically absorbed myself into the plants. The nurseries were my passion and always had been. Soon Father would notice. Soon he would realize that I was his true successor, that I knew our customers—from the Iselins to the Chapmans to the Vanderbilts—like the back of my hand, that there was a reason I had studied his horticulture books from the moment I learned to read.

I turned away from the view and snatched the poem I'd written for Charles off my desk and glanced at the mirror. The gown was ambitious for a farewell fete—a triple skirt of ciel-blue satin edged in silver bead trimming with a corsage of silver embroidered chiffon—but my lady's maid, Agnes, had insisted I look my best. Who knew when I'd see my brother again, she'd said. I supposed that was true.

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