Lord Howard Neville had always been, to his mind, a fairly perfect specimen of manhood. As the Earl of Griply, a wealthy, titled gentleman, he had possessed all the attributes he could have wished. At fifty seven years of age, this towering well-built man had crafted a life and persona for himself that satisfied every aspiration he had. He was over six feet tall with a proud jutting chin and a stern brow, a thick, silver handlebar moustache and a bald head. With his irascible egocentric character, he dominated every situation he found himself in, perfectly secure in his position and his power, his physicality and, most of all, his masculinity.
But when he opened his eyes from sleep and realised he was still trapped in the cellar of his home, he remembered again how utterly all these qualities had been stripped away.
He wasn’t the lord of the manor anymore. He wasn’t even a man. He was a pitiful wench; a serving girl; the lowly maid-of-all-work. He was still Nellie Barrow.
He raised his skinny arms and hands up where he could see them and moaned. There was almost no light coming from the steep and narrow stair leading up to the house and precious little coming from the tiny windows at the top of the walls at ground level, dirty and obscured as they were by foliage. The arms seemed so weak, so unlike the steely limbs he should have been seeing. The fingers were so tiny.
He felt his body: the thin legs inside the dress (dress!) he had been forced to wear, the round tummy, the oddly shaped breasts. Touching the maid uniform he was trapped in made him want to weep but the idea of that was just as horrifying. He covered his face in his hands and muttered, “Why me? Oh Lor’, why me?”
But even that chilled him further. He could hear the difference in the way he talked now. Even his dialect was being stripped from him. Straight from sleep, without any kind of forethought, his choice of words, the simpering lower class inflexion: they were those of the common maid he had been turned into. Gone were his brash, confident tones and hard well-bred consonants and the weak ignorant sounds stripped him even further of his confidence.
He recalled the terrible events of the previous day: the humiliation of waking up to find himself transformed into the body of one of his own housemaids; being forced to act out the part as though he truly belonged in it despite all his efforts to stand up to the higher servants who were now his “superiors.” And the worst: finally confronting the imposter who had taken his place as the Earl and learning just how complete his doppelganger’s disguise was as he faced the full ire and retribution he would have meted out himself for such impertinence.
He couldn’t believe that this could have happened to him, with still no clue as to how. He couldn’t believe that the fake Earl had been so real. He couldn’t believe the butler, Powell, had made him spend the night down here in the cellar. But more than anything else, he couldn’t believe that he had stayed here, trapped and punished like a snivelling simpleton, even though the door hadn’t been locked. He could have left at any time in the night but he had been too afraid. He had gone on following their terrible ruling out of fear.
Why hadn’t he left in the night? Why hadn’t he gone back to at least his maid’s room in the attic? Why hadn’t he gone up to the first floor and demanded the imposter Earl get out of his bed and give him his life back?
But the answer was obvious.
He was afraid? He wasn’t himself. He wasn’t acting like himself. All that confidence and surety that he could solve any problem for himself had been stripped from him. He wasn’t Lord Howard Neville – not at the moment. He was only Nellie Barrow. And Nellie Barrow couldn’t risk the enmity of the butler, and most certainly not the Earl. Nellie Barrow wouldn’t dare confront anyone, let alone a powerful aristocratic man. Nellie Barrow would be too petrified to go against a direct order to remain in the cellar.
“I’m Nellie Barrow now,” he whimpered forlornly. “I’m Nellie Barrow and there ain’t two ways about it.”
There was a scrape and a rattle from the top of the cellar steps. Howard flinched back into the folds of his maid’s uniform, terribly worried as the door up there opened a crack then pushed open fully. More light spilled down the tatty wooden steps but he couldn’t see who was there. He was terrified it would be the fake Earl but instead the voice of the butler came down, lanced with chill authority.
“Nellie, get yourself up these steps now before I have a mind to lock you down there for good.”
Howard jerked up to his feet and hastened to follow his instructions, rushing up the narrow staircase. Powell stood at the apex glaring down at him and he wilted still further under those merciless eyes.
“Well?” snapped Powell. “What have you got to say for yourself girl?”
Howard stammered. This was the moment when he could stand up for himself; try to explain the truth of this magical exchange or at least attempt to rebuild some of his pride and self confidence. Instead he said, “I’m so sorry Mr Powell. I done wrong. I shouldn’t’a talked to the Earl. I should have done as I was told.”
Powell glared coldly and Howard wilted further.
“I’m so sorry sir. I’m sorry. I should have known my place,” he said, hating himself for saying those things but truly unable to do any different.
“Have you learned your lesson?” asked Powell.
“Yes sir. Certainly. I have,” stammered Howard, eager to please him; to be allowed egress from the cold dankness and be given a chance to remain in Griply Hall long enough to find some way to change back to being himself,
“Then get upstairs and make yourself presentable,” snapped Powell, “and be quick about it. There are chores to be done and the family will be awake soon.”
“Yes sir. Thank you sir,” gushed Howard, rushing past him and heading for the servant’s staircase. “I’m sorry sir. I won’t let you down.”
But inside his throbbing head, Howard knew he had let himself down. He was losing track of everything that made him who he was. If he wasn’t careful he was going to end up living the life of this maid willingly and subserviently.