Chapter 4: Skirmish

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Dorothea felt as if she stood on the edge of a precipice - a great chasm yawning beneath her feet, ready to embrace her if she but ventured one more step. What was her life? How had she been led to this moment? Did her husband love her at all? What was love? What was his brand of love and did she care for it? If she looked behind her, what could she see? Truthfully, wasn't it just another great yawning chasm of nothingness? No children, no work, no household, no sense of belonging to anything or anyone.

She had married Benjamin because he seemed like a great bulwark of strength and stability in a stormy sea. She needed to belong to someone. She always had. But she had been an only child of rich parents with a nanny who declined to allow attachment with her young charge. She had imagined that in Benjamin, that towering young man with stoic face and commanding presence, she would find her place - in his affection as his wife; in the world as eventually, Lady Watts; and in a family as a mother of a large brood of children. In truth, her marriage was an illusion in that it had produced none of the fruit promised - neither real spousal affection, respect due her position in the household, or children. Two of these lay outside her power to obtain, depending as they did on the sentiment of a man she clearly had no hold over. But she'd be damned if she was going to cede the one rightful possession that DID lay within her power to retain: her position as Lady and Mistress of Lamerton Manor!

The battle lines had been drawn. Her husband would yield her nothing. She had to fight and take it herself by force. War was ugly and unpleasant business, she reminded herself. Difficult decisions had to be made by brave people who could set their faces against the wind and hold. . . . . Charlotte HAD to go. If she could not be dismissed, she would have to be evicted in some other way.

An opportunity presented itself on the following Saturday evening. Lady Watts was to host a dinner party for local neighbours. The idea was that Charlotte would be blamed for the spilling of red wine over an expensive cashmere ladies' jacket. In front of witnesses, Lady Dorothea would decry her servant and dismiss her from service. Benjamin could hardly make a scene by disputing her demonstratively just decision in front of their guests.

Charlotte was always nervous on such occasions. She preferred the quiet solitude of cleaning duties where she could think of the study and sketching in the library, to the chatter and social posturing of the dining salon when a party was in progress. Her maid's outfit was uncomfortably tighter around her bosom, but looser everywhere else. She suspected that whilst she was growing ever more steadily towards womanhood, she was losing weight due to the long hours of tutelage with Monsieur Le Bas after her service in the household was finished. She never had time to eat properly and Monsieur Le Bas never seemed to notice or care, as long as she made progress on the manuscript revisions. Indeed, Monsieur was a man possessed with one passion - the communication of his travels and discoveries about fauna and flora. Nothing and no one else mattered. In this, he had found his soul mate in Sir Benjamin.

Charlotte had just finished replenishing Monsieur's wine glass when Lady Dorothea sailed by in a rather, Charlotte thought, flamboyantly cut for the occasion, cream cashmere jacket. Normally, Lady Dorothea would have reserved such an outfit for a more auspicious occasion, like a ball or the London theatre; not wasted it on a mere dinner party hosted at the manor for neighbours.

"Charlotte, would you get me another glass of red wine please?" Lady Dorothea intoned rather loudly.

"Of course your Ladyship", Charlotte replied. As she tipped the decanter toward Lady Dorothea's glass, the great lady knocked her arm against Charlotte's elbow, causing the latter to spill the burgundy liquid all over the cream cashmere of Lady Dorothea's exquisite jacket.

"You useless child!" Lady Dorothea exploded. "Look what you have done to my outfit!" Quite theatrically, Charlotte later thought, Lady Dorothea rotated her body around in a full circle for the observation of the entire cohort present.

"I am so sorry Lady Dorothea! I don't know what happened, honestly I don't."

"Of course we know what happened you stupid girl! You spilled the wine all over my jacket! Well Charlotte, this is the absolute end. I have had quite enough . . . ."

But before Lady Dorothea could utter a further word, Monsieur Le Bas stepped forward between the two women. Lady Dorothea was rendered, for the moment, speechless. Everything had been going exactly as she had scripted it. What for the love of all that was holy, was this meddlesome Frenchman now doing?

"Madame Watts. Excusez-moi! It is I who deserves your contempt and your retributive justice!"

"What are you talking about Monsieur Le Bas?"

"Oh, my dear, dear lady, it is I who bumped your maid and thus, caused her to spill the wine onto your lovely jacket. It is I, my lady, who deserves your anger. Knowing the gracious and generous woman that you are, I know you would not blame another for the fault which most properly lies with moi. I promise to pay for all costs associated with the repair or replacement of such a beautiful garment. Please Madame, accept my sincerest and most humble apologies?"

The entire room was silent. Lady Dorothea was inwardly seething. She had been thwarted by the oh so cunning and conniving Frenchman. She had underestimated the lengths to which this man would go to keep his little pet where he wanted her. 'Alright', she silently thought to herself, 'you have won this battle gentlemen, but not', she promised herself, 'the war'. There was no saving the moment. She had to capitulate. Le Bas had out-manoeuvred her; she had no other choice.

"Oh my dear Monsieur Le Bas, it is nothing! A trifle! Do not concern yourself at all. Please everyone, replenish your glasses and make your way to the dining room. Sir Benjamin?" Benjamin Watts had been watching the whole scene with a sense of great unease. His wife, he knew, could be unstable at times. But this was altogether a more disturbing level of troublemaking. He quickly recovered his composure and smiling, led his guests toward the dining room.

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