Woe for the Countess
Countess Elizabeth Neville was growing increasingly infuriated at her nephew Reggie: specifically the way he ate at the breakfast table.
The chubby little six year old was sweet enough and she was sure he was well-meaning, but he simply hadn’t been treated with anywhere near enough discipline in his short life and the results of that were clear. Elizabeth and her husband had brought Ann and Harriet up with severe correction and had done an excellent job as a result. Both daughters were level-headed, happy with their place in the world and kind to others.
Reggie, and to a lesser extent his sister Felicity, were relatively ignorant; always playing noisily and chattering when they ought to keep silent. Perhaps she had forgotten what having small children was like but Elizabeth felt sure that these two cherubs should be better behaved. Reggie, in particular, was irritating because of his lisp, which Elizabeth was sure could be easily eliminated with proper elocution lessons. He spoke with a mouthful of spittle at all times and though the initial impression this gave was of adorable sweetness, it wore thin very quickly.
“Really Reggie,” she said. “Can’t you eat more quietly? I’ve never heard such a racket coming from the mouth of a child before.”
The smartly dressed young boy lowered his head and looked up at her through his fringe, pouting. “Shorry auntie,” he said.
“You can say sorry as often as you like but if you meant it you would be more careful.”
“Listen to Aunt Elizabeth,” said Patrick, frowning heavily at the boy. “I won’t have you embarrassing me, is that clear?”
“Yesh father. I’m shorry.”
Elizabeth shook her head and raised her eyebrows at her husband at the other end of the table. The man who appeared to be Howard had been watching their exchange with interest and he gave her a wink in return, smiling. Elizabeth didn’t notice the undercurrent of mirth in the middle-aged man’s features, nor did she suspect the complicated series of bodily exchanges that had gone on unnoticed around her. She returned to her conversation with Geraldine about their plans for the lunchtime picnic, doing her best to ignore Reggie as he went back to eating noisily, oblivious to the chomping noises coming from his open mouth.
Hattie meanwhile continued to enjoy her conversation with Patrick as soon as her mother’s interjection was forgotten, but she kept her eyes on the little boy, wondering the best way to play her next trick.
She had noticed that her appetite was healthier now she was a man and despite her initial consternation at the size of her breakfast she had devoured it all soundly and felt, if anything, that she could gladly eat more if it were presented to her. It was funny and a surprisingly gratifying experience after a life of pecking daintily at food. With all the talk of the upcoming picnic she was already looking forward to tucking in heartily.
The breakfast started to wind down and the ladies rose as the servants came in to clear the table. Hattie looked out for her father in his new servile role but was disappointed not to see him.
She loitered behind, allowing Uncle Patrick to go ahead talking to his daughter, moving closer to little Reggie. Nellie hung back too, looking unsure of herself.
“Why don’t you go up to your room Harriet,” said Hattie. “You’ll be called when it’s time for the picnic.” She didn’t know what was stranger; talking to herself or hearing the words come in such a good impersonation of her father’s speaking voice.
Nellie looked doubtful but she nodded and left, following her instructions.
The servants cleared the first batch of breakfast items and then Hattie was left alone with Reggie. She took the seat beside the boy and leaned on the table. Reggie looked up at her fearfully and Hattie knew why. The Earl had little patience for small children and she’d witnessed him chastising the boy almost as many times as her mother did. The difference was that the Earl was a terrifying individual, easily capable of throwing his actual physical weight around. Nevertheless, she smiled at the boy, conscious of the curling of her thick moustache around her mouth.
“It must be very annoying for you to be told off so much Reggie,” she said, trying to sound kind.
Reggie didn’t know what to say to that and was extremely intimidated by the entire situation. He said nothing and didn’t even nod.
“A boy like you who does his best to be good deserves more respect, wouldn’t you say?”
Still no response. The six year old looked almost ready to cry.
“I bet you wish you were the one in charge sometimes, eh?” asked Hattie. “Wouldn’t it be grand if you could be the one to tell other people off; even your Aunt Elizabeth. Am I right?” She nodded and gave him a nudge and Reggie managed a little grin at the idea.
“What would you say if I told you I know a way that we could make that happen?” asked Hattie. “A way to temporarily let you get your own back. Would you like that?”
Reggie hesitated then gave a noncommittal shrug of his shoulders.
“I think you would,” said Hattie, “and I’m going to let you in on a secret if you promise not to tell anyone. Do you promise?”
Reggie nodded solemnly.
“Can I trust you young man?” asked Hattie.
“Yesh shir,” replied Reggie.
Hattie smiled, smugly relishing what was to come. “Good boy,” she said. “Then all you have to do is listen very carefully.” She lifted the pendant box out of her pocket and flipped open the lid. “Take this and go through to the drawing room. In a short while I will come in with your Aunt Elizabeth. Until then you mustn’t show anyone else this necklace. Do you understand?”
Reggie pouted a little then nodded. “Yesh.”
“Good boy,” said Hattie. “When I come in with your aunt I will talk to her for a little while and then I will give you a signal. When I give you that signal I would like you to take a certain action. Is that clear?”
The little boy nodded.
“Perfect,” said Hattie. “Now listen carefully...”