The real Lord Howard Neville was tossed and turned like a tiny boat on a roiling sea, bewildered by the events of his morning and more than afraid that he was losing his mind.
Bad enough that he had woken up a maid and been forced to do chores but now he’d been jostled into the servant’s carriage on the way to the family picnic. The ignominy of becoming a servant was compounded by the intimate crush of the tiny carriage and worse was the wink the new footman gave him, pressed as they were so close together. The young man’s eyes sparkled and Howard shuffled in his seat feeling more ill at ease than he ever had in his life.
Beggar’s Nook was a pretty clearing with a track running to it on the edge of a sparkling pond, surrounded on its other three sides by dense woods. It was a favourite spot for the family to come to for picnics and when Ann and Hattie had been growing up they had visited it often. Seeing the place as the coaches drew up reassured Howard. It gave him a touchstone to grab hold of from his former life, telling him he wasn’t mad. His life as the Earl hadn’t been a dream.
But no sooner had they drawn up than he was being barged and snapped at to get to work, carrying out blankets for the family to sit on and baskets laden with food and crockery. Still with no other choice, Howard did as he was told, looking enviously across at the two family coaches as the Nevilles disembarked.
He saw his brother and sister-in-law first step out with a laughing Felicity and an extremely dour-looking Reggie. Then from the other coach came first Harriet and his wife. Elizabeth seemed odd in her behaviour; rather more excitable and happy than he would have expected, but his attention was immediately drawn off her as the imposter earl climbed down from the carriage.
The faux Earl took a moment to look around, surveying the pond and the trees, the grass and the arrayed coaches and people, and Howard watched him in turn. Then the faux Earl put his hands behind his back and started walking toward where the blankets were being laid out, his hands behind his back.
Howard quailed to see the perfect simulation of his features, posture and stride. It was like he was really looking at himself and again he could only question his own esoteric existence because surely this could be no imposter. Surely that really was Lord Howard Neville he was seeing.
But before he could watch further or reflect he was based in the shoulder blade by the cook who hissed, “Get to work girl. There’s food that wants serving.”
“Yes ma’am; right ye are,” replied Howard automatically and was dismayed to hear the common inflexion issuing from his throat. He hurried to follow his instructions, taking the provisions out to the blankets and laying them out for the family to eat, but his thoughts were whirling again.
Another thought had occurred to him that was almost as grisly as the one that questioned his background and identity, for now he realised that he might not have lived his life thus far as maid and girl, but it seemed that the longer he remained that way, the more like an urchin he would become. He was afraid that he would not find his way back before he really became nothing more than a serving girl, inside and out.
The family took their seats for the picnic and Howard had to go on serving. He busied about, following his snide instructions, stealing glances at the heavyset man who had stolen his life. His face flushed brightly at each order for here, more than any situation he had yet faced, he felt exposed and humiliated before the people he thought of as his equals.
But it was as clear to him now as it had been to his daughter Ann one month before when she was first exposed to her new status as Burt; He wasn’t one of the elite anymore. He was one of the subservient masses. They were all far above him in station. He was only a humble maid.