Chapter 2: A Hopeful Beginning

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Sir Benjamin Watts was a formidable man. He had the dimensions of a bear and the restless energy of a caged, great cat. Of course, all of this was known to Charlotte by reputation only, courtesy of Mrs Brand. With her fleshy, reddened cheeks pumping at full speed, Mrs Brand had once spoken avidly of an incident in which Sir Benjamin's collection of butterflies had been spoiled by the overzealous attentions of the upstairs chambermaid. She had accidentally spilt a jar of linseed oil over the timber cabinet in which they were encased while she was polishing it. The oil had seeped through and ruined the preserved remains of the master's prized Antipodean butterflies, brought back from his expedition to the Great South Land.


"What happened then?" Charlotte gulped inquisitively.

"We don't know" replied Mrs Brand, "not a soul has ever seen the poor lass since that tragic day."

"You can't be serious!" Charlotte exclaimed. "Murder? For ruining a few insect carcasses? That's preposterous!"

"Oh yes, is it indeed?" Mrs Brand scowled at her young charge. "Did you not know of the eight people who went off with his lordship on the Excalibur to collect those butterflies, only three came back? Why, his lordship himself nearly died on the voyage. I tell you, that man loves his plants and animal relics from those God forsaken lands and oceans more than he loves his own wife, or his own life for that matter. And thar'd be well advised to take careful note of that lassie, lest you end up the same as what poor Ethel got in this life, God rest her soul." Mrs Brand's broad Yorkshire brogue became more evident Charlotte noticed, the more her ire was up, which seemed most of the time she was with Charlotte actually.


If Mrs Brand's intention had been to scare Charlotte, she had succeeded, though Charlotte could not believe a man of standing and education to be surely capable of murder for such an innocent, though careless, infraction. Charlotte was in no hurry to cross Sir Benjamin's path which was, she reassured herself, unlikely since Sir Benjamin was almost never in residence. His wife, Lady Dorothea, suffered acutely from his long absences, with no children to ease the burden of boredom and stricture imposed upon a married woman of wealth and aristocracy. She was left to the rather poisonous circle of London ladies from the Royal Court who filled her head with gossip and tales of intrigue and sedition.


Charlotte loved the house. The rooms held treasures packed in every corner and crevice, almost bursting at the seams. The house itself was to her like some giant arthropod locust, its exoskeleton housing chamber after chamber of exotic plant or animal species. She liked that word, "arthropod" and "exoskeleton", both of which she had read beneath the display cabinets of his lordship's insect collections in the upper gallery. Well, there was no rule against reading Charlotte thought, and she may as well put to use the only treasures which her father had bequeathed to her - her education and a thirst for learning.


The library was exquisite. It was the largest stable of books she had ever seen. Although night time cleaning after the dinner service and fireplace tending did not finish till 10 pm and she had to be up again at 5 am to relight the chamber fires, she had begged to be able to dust and re-cover some of the oldest books in the library. Mrs Brand clearly believed the poor child out of her mind, but allowed it. No fire was allowed in the library at night, so Charlotte was frozen through most nights; she was willing however to put up with that. She slept upon some cushions under a divan in the corner of the large room and by candlelight, read herself to sleep.


The more Charlotte read about the plants and animals of the strange land Watts and other naturalists had discovered, the greater her thirst for more. She began memorising the names of her favourite plants - like the Rata from a land called New Zealand. This plant was fascinating because it flowered only once every 20 to 25 years. According to the local natives, the breeding cycle of a particular green, flightless parrot depended on the flowering of the Rata. As this happened so infrequently, there were never more than a limited population of this strange and prized parrot. On Sundays, her day off, she found herself sketching from memory some of the pictures of the more complex or colourful plants and animals pictured in the manor library with some charcoal sticks she rolled herself for chalk and dried bark she collected from the estate grounds.

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