After dinner, the family retired to the lounge.
Geraldine took Felicity upstairs to bed while Patrick sat reading the paper. The maid, Nellie, still in Hattie’s body, sat primly in the window seat. Hattie stood at the mantelpiece, eyeing the box of cigars her father kept there.
She had always found the things disgusting but she was curious how they would taste now that she was in her father’s own body, with his tongue in her mouth. She was unsure whether to try them or not.
Finding herself acting just like him out in the hall earlier had shaken her somewhat; made her question how confident she was that she could maintain control of the situation. While the fury had overtaken her she had completely lost sight of her female identity. She had purely been the Earl, her father. Reflecting on that now disturbed her… and intrigued her.
It had been uncanny. She could remember it in perfect clarity; almost let herself sink back into the moment if she closed her eyes. As a woman she portrayed a totally different persona around the house and with the servants. Yes, she could be strict; what some might even call mercurial – she could be impish – but in every interaction she was just a girl with a reedy voice; no physical presence at all. And she knew that. She never carried herself with the megalomaniacal bearing of her father because she was all too aware of the limitations of her lower status and physical stature.
It was just so different now. When she was shouting at the maid (her father), she had possessed every superior quality of her father, from his powerful body and commanding voice to, at that moment, the bellicose elements of his personality: confidence (near arrogance), self-belief, disdain for those of lesser rank, pomposity.
She smiled to herself to relive it. It had been a real thrill; and more so that her father had been the victim of it.
He deserved every bit of punishment he got as far as she was concerned; him and her mother.
It wasn’t just recent events that fuelled her enmity, though they had been more than enough to start the fire in her. Blaming her for the trouble he got into regarding Burt’s trial had been totally unfair, but her father had been mistreating Hattie her whole life.
It was because he had wanted her to be born a man – that was why – and when she wasn’t, he had displayed his enmity and disappointment to her whenever he could. All through her childhood he had made snide remarks about her weakness of body and mind. He had told her how powerless she was and always would be. He had lamented the weakness of women compared to the strength of men, in body and character. He had made her feel like a lamentable mistake; a second-class member of the household and a rather pathetic specimen of humankind.
And her mother had never once stood up for her; never taken her side. That had been a greater betrayal. The Earl couldn’t help his misogyny. The Countess shouldn’t have stood by him.
And Ann… Ann was never seen as the lesser specimen. She was the daughter they always wanted; the favourite. She was the perfect example of beauty and womanhood who could do no wrong.
Well damn them all.
The shoe was on the other foot now.
Her smile broadened.
Ann was trapped in the body of a commoner. Her mother was trapped as a little boy. And her father, the Earl was the one who was a weak, pathetic woman now. She, on the other hand, had finally achieved the greatness he might have wished for her. She was the powerful man.
She straightened her waistcoat and jacket; ensured her pocket watch chain hung evenly.
She was the powerful man.
And thinking that made her put her mind back again to her own childhood as a girl. She had already had cause to reconsider some of her views when it came to women and their place in society. She wondered if the perspective she had gained had altered her opinion about her value as a girl. Had her father been right in any way?
It was true she had been a weak and weedy child, more interested in reading that romping about the grounds. She had shown an early interest in pretty clothes and hair and make-up.
Hattie gripped one elbow with her hand and gently stroked her chin with the other, tickling the hair on her upper lip with her forefinger, asking herself, Was my father right to look down on me?
But the answer was no. Definitely not. It had been cruel and vindictive.
And it hadn’t been her fault she was born a girl. She couldn’t help it that she was weak or that she was afraid to cut loose and enjoy the outdoors.
Patrick made a grinding noise and Hattie glanced across at him. He had dozed off, the paper lying open on his broad belly.
Hattie’s eyes flicked over to the young woman in her true body. It had been the first time all day that they had been properly alone.
“How are you enjoying being a member of the upper class my dear?” asked Hattie, surprising herself that she was still using her father’s turn of phrase. There was no one else here to judge her now – she could talk her normal way – but it seemed odd to do so. Her feminine inflexion didn’t feel as though it would fit the form she was wearing.
Nellie squirmed nervously. “I’m… enjoying it.”
“Good. Good,” said Hattie. She opened up the cigar box and rolled one in her fingers. “I’ve been considering when the best time would be to put everyone back in their true forms. My initial plan had been to spend probably two days like this. That would mean would change back tomorrow night.”
“But, er…” Hattie put the cigar in her mouth and lit it. She took two great puffs and then coughed, frowning. “God, it tastes almost as awful as it used to smell when I was a girl. I’m not sure about it at all.” She chuckled. “No, I’m thinking that it’s going so dashed splendidly that it wouldn’t hurt to extend the exchange for one more day. Reggie is supposed to be leaving on Friday. It will all have to be set right by then.” She grinned. “So the good news is you get to enjoy the high life for a little bit longer before you go back to being a maid.”
“Er, thank you m’lord,” said the apparent Lady Harriet. “Uh, I’m sorry. Thank you Father.”
Hattie frowned a little to be addressed like that, especially when it wasn’t necessary. The girl could have called her Lady Harriet. But on the other hand, that would have seemed rather odd too. She certainly wasn’t Lady Harriet at the moment. She was Howard Neville.
She turned her back on Nellie and leaned on the mantelpiece, looking at herself in the mirror above it, and took another deep puff on the cigar. It still tasted awful but she couldn’t deny how much it made her look like she was really the Earl. Women didn’t smoke cigars; only men did.
She smiled at herself, her moustache curling up at the sides, and took another long puff, then blew out the smoke into the mirror, distorting her image.