Lord Howard Neville pressed himself into an alcove along the back corridor leading from the dining room to the kitchen and tried to slow down his erratic breathing.
He closed his eyes but even doing that couldn’t get his mind off the reality of the female shell he was clothed in, the reedy women’s body with skinny arms and legs; the maid’s uniform he had been forced to wear.
He was really a maid in his own home! He was really only a woman!
The panic of acknowledging that to himself again made his heart rate spike higher, made his breaths shorten, his chest tighten. He knew he should take action; find some way to remedy this; but for the life of him he couldn’t control the fear that coursed through him.
He gave a shrill girlish moan and pressed his thin hands to his soft face, every sensation and sound underscoring the peril he was in and his new identity.
“Oh God,” he muttered. “Oh my dear God.”
The anxiety subsided a little. He opened his eyes. That was better. He focused on the wood panelling across the corridor, using it to focus and still his mind.
He had to find the imposter; that was all. The imposter had to know how this had happened to them.
He pushed himself reluctantly out of his alcove and peered worriedly toward the kitchen, knowing that if he was caught shirking his maid duties that he would be chastised and made to work. He dreaded that chastisement more than anything because each time it happened it reinforced the role and life he was trapped in; made it feel more real. He was terrified that he might never get back and that eventually they would break his will down until he rushed hither and thither following his orders gladly.
He had to get back to being himself; there was nothing else for it!
He followed the corridor into the dining room then passed out into the hall and started hunting round for his doppelganger. There was no sign of the fake Earl anywhere. He tried room after room, listening at the door first, and then started upstairs. He stopped several steps up the grand staircase and hurried back down, crossing to the servants’ stairs. He dare not risk being caught on the main stairs. Only family members were allowed up there and for now he was nothing more than a servant The casual acceptance of that chilled him but he couldn’t deny it. For now he was only a serving girl.
At the door to his rightful bedroom he paused again, listened, and entered. The room was empty, the bed as yet unmade. Howard sighed heavily, his shoulders drooping, then he turned to go and walked right into the butler’s chest. He gasped and staggered back, looking up at the elderly tyrant in fear.
“What do you think you’re doing in here girl?” snapped the butler.
“Uh, sorry sir,” replied Howard. “I didn’t mean nothing by it. I was, er…”
“Stop wittering you stupid girl. I’m already gaining a rather poor impression of you. You had better shape up or you will be out of here, is that clear?”
Howard’s face became stricken with panic. He couldn’t let that happen. “Yes sir. Sorry sir,” he said, his voice lilting into strong Yorkshire. “What would you like me to do?”
“Make the bed and dust round in here,” said Powell. “And hurry up about it. Make yourself scarce if the Earl or Countess appear.”
“Yes sir. Right away sir.”
Powell turned and exited the room and Howard stood staring forlornly after him. He touched his new womanly throat, hating the sound of the woman’s voice that issued from it and all too aware of the common inflexion he had used just then on instinct.
Could it be that he had never really been Howard Neville? Was he somehow mistaken? Magic didn’t exist. In all his years he had never witnessed its effect. The undeniably more plausible alternative was that he had been born Nellie Barrow and always lived her life. For some reason he had lost his mind and now thought himself the Earl.
Could that really be the real truth?
Was he really nothing more than a simple-minded and very confused young maidservant?
Surely not. Surely he remembered far too much of his life as a man for that to be right, but there was sufficient doubt there now, hearing his crass mode of speech, to question it.
His only option was to continue to play along; to do the chores he was allocated and work hard as a servant. Surely in time he would manage to get access to the Earl with no one else present and then convince the imposter, somehow, to swap back. He had to cling to that. Either convince the imposter or find some way himself to reactivate the magical transference.
He couldn’t remain trapped in a servant’s life; in a weak woman’s body; he just couldn’t.