A few minutes earlier, when Hattie led Nellie into the breakfast room, she saw her Uncle Patrick and Aunt Geraldine already seated along with her mother and the two children.
Beside her, the maid in her body looked starkly nervous but Hattie didn’t feel anything of the kind. She felt confident and energised. “Good morning Patrick,” she said, imitating her father’s voice very well. “Ladies.” She nodded to Geraldine and her mother, tickled by the fact that she no longer was one of the ladies. “Why don’t you sit down Harriet,” she said to Nellie, nudging her in the direction of the empty seat on the flank of the table.
“Ah Howard,” said Patrick. “Finally another man to talk to. I was about ready to go back to bed having to listen to this women nattering on.”
Elizabeth and Geraldine made a show of scowling at his remarks but with good humour. Hattie grinned, relishing not only the admittance to the hitherto restricted area of masculine conversation, but the immediate acceptance from her uncle in her new identity as his equal. The youngest daughter was never the most prominent position in a family. It was wonderful to leap up to a higher position of recognition.
She took her father’s seat at the head of the table, keeping an eye on Nellie as she did so. The former maid sat quietly and kept her mouth shut which was probably for the best. As she got settled, Elizabeth, Hattie’s mother, gave her big manly hand a brief squeeze. Again, the new kind of physical contact left her feeling rather uncomfortable but there was nothing to be done about it.
“What… rot have these ladies been wittering on about then Patrick?” she asked with a smirk, loving to play the part she had taken on.
“This awful picnic they have planned,” said Patrick.
“A tedious affair to be certain, replied Hattie with a chuckle.
“Howard, really,” said Elizabeth. “The picnic will be lovely, overlooking the lake at Beggar's Nook. Geraldine and I have planned it to perfection. It will go off seamlessly.”
“I’m sure you’re right… dear,” replied Hattie. “It will be divine, I’m sure. But Patrick’s right. I didn’t come here to bother with such trivialities. Patrick, tell me more about the mine.” Harriet had no real interest in such dull business matters but it was so hilarious to be taken seriously in the guise of her father.
Uncle Patrick launched into a description of the current dealings at Blacklake mine and she nodded, making comment when it seemed appropriate. As she did so she reflected on how perfectly this was all going. Nobody suspected a thing regarding her or Nellie. She had pulled off her plan thus far with complete success. As far as the family knew she really was her father.
Realising that made Hattie relax still further, feeling more comfortable in her manly body and clothes. The combination of her family’s acceptance and what she herself could see and feel suddenly gave her a real sense of identifying with the role she was playing. Instead of seeing herself as a young woman in disguise, she clicked across into seeing herself the way she actually looked – as a middle-aged man; as the owner of this house and ultimate authority. As that realisation came to her a light buzzing came from the base of her skull but she didn’t particularly notice.
Movement caught her eye as a servant appeared in the doorway carrying some breakfast things. Hattie looked at the girl but it took her a moment to recognise her and realise the full significance.
It was the maid, Nellie. Or rather, it was her father, the Earl, trapped in Nellie’s body.
The girl stared at her, no doubt looking for faults in her characterisation, and she stared back at the girl. It was almost impossible to believe that her father really resided inside that slight frame, behind those frightened eyes. She hadn’t known how he would react waking up in the body of a maid, but the perfect occurrence was clearly happening. He was serving breakfast. He was following his orders; doing his duty as a maid. It was just too ideal.
Hattie could see the doubt in this new maid’s eyes. Her father didn’t see an imposter when she looked at her. He was confused because Hattie looked like the real thing. With a smidgeon of a smirk, she decided that what was required now was the reinforcement of that doubt. She wanted her father to question if he had ever been a man; to really feel that his only hope was to live as though he really were just a simple maidservant.
Doing her best to impersonate her father’s exact turn of phrase and demeanour, Hattie’s lifted her voice and imperiously said, “Well don’t just stand there you idiot girl. Serve out the breakfast. I’m famished!”
The girl jumped, almost dropping the plates, and hurried forward to follow the orders. Hattie caught the laughter in her mouth before it could spill out.
“Maid’s aren’t what they used to be,” she said loudly, directing her conversation at the adults. “Look at this silly girl. If she doesn’t buck her ideas up she’ll be out of this house and working the fields – and that’s if she’s lucky!”
Her former father gave her a brief panic-stricken look and hurried to work faster. He didn’t say anything. He was clearly too terrified.
“Well go on then girl,” snapped Hattie, revelling in her role as the Earl. “Bring the rest of the things in. We’re waiting!”
The girl went to the door and glanced back fearfully again, then she bobbed a curtsy and in a perfect Yorkshire said, “Yes m’lord. It won’t be a moment.” Then she disappeared in a flurry of skirt.
Hattie gaped after her then looked at Nellie who returned her gaze with astonishment.
This really was going splendidly. Everything was falling into place. Her father was acting just like a real maid and no one could detect her or Nellie’s true identities. All that was needed now was to complete her dastardly plan and ensure her mother got the comeuppance she deserved. After that she could finally feel that they’d got the judgement they deserved for the awful way they’d treated her.