DISCLAIMER: I do not own, nor do I in any way profit from, the use of characters, setting, suggested plotlines, or ideas drawn from Downton Abbey. Everything belongs to Julian Fellowes.
Chapter 1 The Difficult Conversation
Mrs. Patmore's Perspective
Mrs. Patmore was worried for them. Ten years ago she'd have snorted in derision at the idea of Mr. Carson and Mary Queen of Scots marrying. And few would have disagreed with her. But she'd been the first to see it coming, too, and she wasn't one to let a past impression obstruct a current reality. Indeed, she'd watched the delicate dance unfolding between them with a greater understanding of what was happening than either of them exhibited. If they'd been in their youth, she'd have rolled her eyes and sighed a lot and urged them to get on with it. But at this stage of the game, she had only been able to look on in a sort of fascinated frustration and to hope for the best. Well, she had made a few suggestive remarks to Mrs. Hughes, but that was approaching the matter from the wrong end, as it was he who would have to take the initiative. And she might have thought the Second Coming would arrive first. She was bowled over when he finally did propose. Thank the Lord.
Foolishly she'd thought that that was the hard part. Mr. Carson had asked, Mrs. Hughes had agreed. They could set a date, get to the church, and then...oh, sweet mystery of life! And having to wash his socks.
But somehow after the proposal - and acceptance - things got even more complicated. And then she had somehow gotten dragged into the middle of it. The result was one of the most perplexing conversations of her life, followed by the most uncomfortable conversation of her life, a without-a-doubt, no-competition-even-close, what-she-wouldn't-have-given-to-avoid-that uncomfortable kind of conversation.
And these exchanges left her where she was now, wondering why two people who were so well suited to one another, so well known to each other, and so much in love with each other, should be teetering on the brink of dissolution before they'd ever even gotten together.
This necessitated some meditation on developments thus far.
She'd noticed that Mrs. Hughes had lost the glow that had come upon her on Christmas Eve and lingered well into the New Year. Well, with the usual strains and demands of a busy working life it wasn't reasonable to expect it to continue undiminished. But, no, it was more than that. This was evident when Mrs. Hughes responded with resignation or evasiveness to the conventional questions posed of a prospective bride as to when and where the blessed event might occur. Thus alerted, Mrs. Patmore realized that there was something more to Mrs. Hughes's shift in mien.
It had taken a little coaxing to get it out of her. Mrs. Hughes did not confide easily and when she did finally confess the cause of her malaise, her friend understood her reticence. The redoubtable housekeeper, who was renowned for her unflappable disposition, was nervous about intimate relations with her husband-to-be. Well, fair enough. It was a natural reaction, Mrs. Patmore supposed, although she had never herself been in the happy position of having to worry about it. But before she could offer the conventional assurance - everyone does it and they almost all live to tell the tale - Mrs. Hughes had taken the matter a step further to wonder whether this would even be an aspect of her marriage to Mr. Carson.
The possibility would never have occurred to Mrs. Patmore. Didn't it just...happen? Wasn't it to be expected? It was the natural order of things. Who would question it? These were not, apparently, rhetorical questions after all.
Thinking about it later, Mrs. Patmore guessed that she should not have been so surprised. Mrs. Hughes was a proud woman. She was too proud, really. That was her Scottish blood. (The Mary Queen of Scots epithet was not so far-fetched.) She'd gone on about feeling embarrassed and absurd, and how her age somehow exacerbated this. Mrs. Patmore was puzzled by this. So far as she could tell - and she had no concrete experience to go by, only what her sisters had imparted to her or she had picked up from a lifetime of careful listening - the act itself was fundamentally absurd. And that was part of the fun of it, wasn't it? that intimacy was advanced by the lowering of barriers, a process fueled by the overcoming of embarrassment in the mutual acknowledgment of the folly of human nature? And what on earth did age have to do with it? Why, Mrs. Patmore wondered, would anyone think they or anyone else was past it?
Well, hers was not to wonder why. It was the way Mrs. Hughes felt and it was her friend's desire and duty to help her address the problem. Mrs. Patmore tried, offering up what ameliorating rationalizations she could.
On the sheer madness of being apprehensive at all: "You know each other better than most couples at the start."**
On Mrs. Hughes's fretful description of herself as someone in "late middle age": "Don't say 'late.'"
On physical appeal: "Perhaps you could keep the lights off?"
On the act itself: "There's nothing so terrible about it, so they say. Not that I'd know, of course."
On the quid pro quo of Mrs. Hughes's apprehensions about being seen naked: "Won't he feel the same? No one's clapped eyes on him without his togs in years, except the doctor."
She had expected these remarks to put the matter in perspective. It instead prompted Mrs. Hughes to what Mrs. Patmore considered an outlandish idea - that she and Mr. Carson might marry and then "leave that side of things alone," and live together as brother and sister.
Somehow Mrs. Hughes missed - or ignored - the stunned look on her friend's face. Mrs. Patmore, who had an answer - or at least a pithy quip - for everything, had no response to that. Indeed, she was so taken aback that she was left vulnerable to Mrs. Hughes's sudden initiative that her friend undertake to ascertain the exact nature of Mr. Carson's marital expectations. She left the housekeeper's bedroom muttering, "I've had some commissions in my time, but..."
And then she'd been obliged to take this most awkward of matters to Mr. Carson.
She tried once and failed. Even a dose of Mr. Carson's best sherry, swallowed in one, could not bolster her nerve. But then he sought her out, having himself discerned Mrs. Hughes's disquiet, and they got to it. It was the worse conversation Mrs. Patmore could ever imagine having, both for the subject itself and the person with whom she was having it.
Mr. Carson was a man, the most dignified man she knew. And he would be embarrassed possibly even more than she was, which was saying something. On top of that, Mrs. Patmore was uncomfortable with Mrs. Hughes's views, views that stood at odds with her own understandings of the promise and obligations of marriage. She went ahead with it, she realized, not even so much because Mrs. Hughes had asked her to, but because it was a real problem and she wanted to see it resolved. These two belonged together.
When it came to it, the conversation, though difficult, was the better one. She was embarrassed, but to her surprise he was less embarrassed than concerned. He was confused and she sympathized. Was this not a natural aspect of marriage? What she did not expect was the gravity with which he approached the subject and the dignity of his response.
When she confessed her discomfort, he waved it away. "I'm not embarrassed exactly. I do not believe embarrassment has much of a part to play when something is as important as this."
And when they got to it and she put to him the question of the nature of their marriage, he was more forthright by far than Mrs. Hughes had been.
"Tell her this, Mrs. Patmore. That in my eyes she is beautiful."
"You say she asks if I want a full marriage, and the answer is, yes, I do. I want a real marriage, a true marriage, with everything that that involves."
"I love her, Mrs Patmore. I am happy and tickled and bursting with pride that she would agree to be my wife. And I want us to live as closely as two people can for the time that remains to us on earth."
Oh, my. If ever a man made such a declaration about her, Mrs. Patmore would marry him on the spot and never let him go. She'd known of his love for Mrs. Hughes, seen it for a long time, and been impatient with him about expressing it. But goodness, he was in love with the woman - not the puppy dog or juvenile kind, but deeply, passionately, the 'til-death-do-us-part my-heart-will-break-without-you kind of love. Mrs. Patmore was emotionally moved by his statement.
She left him relieved the conversation was over, impressed by the magnitude of his love, and completely on his side in the matter of the nature of marriage. Really, she hadn't known a man could feel like that about...that side of it. And Mr. Carson of all men. It gives hope to us all, she'd thought.
As much as she'd hesitated to approach Mr. Carson, now she wavered about seeking out Mrs. Hughes once more. The exchanges with both of them had left her more than unsettled and she rather wished she had not become party to it. She wanted to gather her thoughts before they conversed again and she let Mrs. Hughes come to her.
But Mrs. Hughes was, perhaps understandably, on tenterhooks and so approached her at the first opportunity, in the early afternoon lull after lunch was out of the way and the preliminaries for dinner only beginning. Fortunately Daisy was stepping out, on her way to the auction at Mallerton. Mrs. Patmore wondered if Mrs. Hughes had been watching for this.
"So? Did you speak with him?" Daisy had barely cleared the room when Mrs. Hughes came to the point.***
Mrs. Patmore summoned her courage, a different kind of courage, for this conversation. "I did." She looked Mrs. Hughes directly in the eye. "He wants a full marriage," she stated flatly. What was that in Mrs. Hughes's eyes? Fear? Titillation? Satisfaction? Relief? The cook could not tell. "He loves you," she added.
Of course it would have been better if that revelation had come directly from Mr. Carson and she wondered that he had never been so explicit with the woman herself. They might not be standing here now if he had. But in any case Mrs. Hughes had to know from someone. "And it's not the kind of love a man comes out with so that he can have his way with you, either. It's the real thing. And that doesn't come around every day. Sometimes never at all," she finished, with a sigh.
Mrs. Hughes misread Mrs. Patmore's look of resignation. "I'm sorry I put you through that."
"It was difficult, I'll not deny it." Although it had not been quite as bad as she had anticipated, Mrs. Patmore wanted the housekeeper to feel the full weight of the imposition.
Mrs. Hughes took a deep breath. "You think I should accept his terms and set the date."
"Oh, no, no! That's your decision. I can only say it was very moving when he spoke of you."
"He avoided vulgarity then."
Mrs. Patmore was getting the sense that Mrs. Hughes wanted to play this out. Perhaps she sought only reassurance, or perhaps it was in some way a little gratifying to hear at length the details of the man's love. "Vulgarity! Mr. Carson wouldn't be vulgar if you put him on a seaside postcard. I'd like to feel a man could speak of me like that at my age. I would."
Or perhaps there was something else on Mrs. Hughes's mind. "You...do you love him?"
"What?" Mrs. Hughes began to sputter, shocked by the implications of Mrs. Patmore's words.
The cook ignored this effusion of indignation. "You're thinking about this too much. It's not that complicated. You wouldn't want to let your pride get in the way of happiness."
And then she pulled the flour and salt tins toward her and turned her mind to her work. "Now, I must get on." And she would not say another word on the subject.
Mr. Carson's Heart
He was devastated.
Mr. Carson was a man who concerned himself with details. He was conscientious and thorough-going about everything. Naturally, in so momentous a step as marriage, he had bent himself to anticipating problems and resolving them as he found them, all with a view to ensuring that it would run as smoothly as possible.
But this... He hadn't even thought about this. It just...was. Only, apparently it wasn't, at least not for Mrs. Hughes and this meant that he now had to consider it. She had doubts, perhaps didn't even want that kind of a relationship. And this had put him in a position he had never envisaged. He must ask himself why he wanted it. Because he did.
It could be a vulgar thing. He knew this because he had seen a few things in his life, although he never talked about them. Young men, in particular, were given to reducing it to the crudest of terms, although all men were susceptible to that way of thinking. It was the reason he had always been so harsh on the footmen. He himself had led a highly moral life in that regard, though he had not been without temptation if long ago. Since proposing to Mrs. Hughes his mind had turned more and more to this aspect of their relationship and he had spent sleepless hours imagining how it might be between them. And taken pleasure from doing so. Was this a bad thing?
He might once have thought so. In his mind's eye he had gone farther down this road than an unmarried man ought to do. But...the conversation with Mrs. Patmore had, bizarrely, convinced him otherwise. Although he had never articulated it before - to himself or anyone else - what he said to Mrs. Patmore expressed perfectly his understanding: "I want us to live as closely as two people can for the time that remains to us on earth."
He loved Mrs. Hughes ... Elsie ... with heart, mind, body, and soul. He understood now the idea of a full communion between marital partners. It was an almost spiritual thing. All of these components were integral. Were even one of them missing, they would not be properly married, no matter what their legal situation.
When he gave his heart, he gave it completely and he had hoped - believed, even - that she felt the same way. That she might not shattered him. He has rejected a sham marriage because it would be a betrayal of himself, a fundamental dishonesty. He would have it all or he would have nothing. And if that were the case, then he would retire in as dignified a manner as possible and nurse his broken heart - for a second time. And never be caught out this way again.
Mrs. Hughes's Resolve
Mrs. Patmore's words stung her.
What did she mean Do you love him? Of course she loved him!
Then...what was the problem?
She was incensed that Mrs. Patmore should say such a thing. She fretted and fumed over the word for hours after their conversation, irritated with herself for having sought her friend's intervention, for having solicited outside advice if it was going to come down to unfounded allegations.
What's pride got to do with it? she huffed.
And then had to consider it. Perhaps everything. She did not want to look ridiculous. Or absurd. And what was that but pride? And maybe the reality was that it was a ridiculous thing and that absurdity was simply unavoidable. Perhaps it was foolishness by definition.
But it wasn't either. He loves you, Mrs. Patmore had said. And she knew it, too. She had seen it in his deeply expressive eyes. It was there in the careful financial arrangements he had made for them - in the purchase of the house and the terms of his will. And it was on display in the quiet dignity with which he had announced their engagement to the Granthams.**** How could she have doubted?
Oh! But she has hurt him dreadfully with this! She did know his heart, knew that he had opened himself to her in the most trusting of ways. His vulnerability was there in his eyes on Christmas Eve when he had hesitatingly prompted her for an answer. Well? What, exactly, are we celebrating? As if she could ever have rejected him!
But she had rejected him in questioning the nature of their marriage. He would be hurt, so hurt, by this. How could he not hear the conversation with Mrs. Patmore as rejection? She had been so afraid that he would be repulsed by her when he saw her, but she had shown him that she was repulsed by him before they had even gotten to the bedroom.
And all to protect her...pride.
He would not come to her. He had made his views - and the staggering depth of his feelings - explicit to Mrs. Patmore, the medium she chose. She should have talked to him herself.
And now she must.
If You Want Me
It was even harder to find the courage to do it now than it was before. It was challenging enough even to find the opportunity, let alone get the words out. Since his conversation with Mrs. Patmore they had been all politeness to each other, but he had not sought her out last evening for their usual moment together at the end of the day. And in his averted eyes and careful physical distancing she saw the distress she had caused him. Although they needed to talk in order to go forward, it did not seem that he was eager for this to happen and she could hardly blame him. He probably anticipated the worst.
Who knew how long that might have gone on had not the news of an arrest in the matter of Lord Gillingham's valet not come along. Sergeant Willis came straight to the Abbey the moment he had confirmation that the confession made days ago was a valid one and that Anna was cleared of any suspicion. This announcement prompted an unprecedented outburst of joyfulness upstairs and down. The Granthams joined their servants in celebration, Mr. Carson breaking out, with His Lordship's acquiescence, a supply of Veuve Clicquot and Andrew, at Lady Mary's insistence, hauling out the underused gramophone. The servants' hall had not rung with such exultation since Lord Grantham had brought the news of the Armistice.
In the midst of this, Carson managed a word with His Lordship and Her Ladyship about Daisy's shocking behaviour at the auction at Mallerton earlier that day and grudgingly gave in to their remonstrances that she be reprimanded, but not sacked. As this was a matter of official business, he asked Mrs. Hughes to join him in his pantry while he delivered the dressing down Daisy so richly deserved.
Despite the uneasy undercurrents of their own situation, Mrs. Hughes acted, as she so often did, to curb the excesses of his exercise of authority. Where he would have dwelt at length on Daisy's transgression and the necessity for punishment or, at the very least, penance, she cut him short by telling the young woman that she would not be sacked. This, on top of everything else, irked him and he was prepared to return to the servants' hall without further conversation between himself and Mrs. Hughes.
"Right. Well. Shall we rejoin the others?" he said formally.
But fate had given her this opportunity and she seized it. "Before we do...I know that I've been putting you off. And...Mrs. Patmore spoke of your...conversation." As much as she knew they must have it out so that they might get things right between them, she still shuddered at it, for she remained apprehensive about her initial concern - how he would look at her.
He paused and turned partway in her direction, glancing at her furtively, unwilling to face her directly. "I knew she would," he said evenly. "I hope we've not shocked you between us." There was almost a note of sarcasm in his voice. He was still struggling with how this had come to be a problem at all.
"No. I'm not shocked."
"I thought it better to be honest," he went on, "once you'd raised the matter." Once you'd made an issue of something that ought to have been assumed, he thought to himself.
She ignored the cutting edge of his words. He was hurt. She had to keep that in mind. "I agree. Much better."
"I wouldn't want you to think I'd inveigled you into an arrangement which was not what you expected."
Apparently he was going to milk this for every drop of wounded vanity he could. She pushed it aside, almost a little impatiently this time. "I would never think that." When she paused to gather her thoughts, he went on.
"Well, if you've had second thoughts, I think we should let the staff know in the morning. I won't make a big announcement. We'll just tell one or two people and let it come out naturally. There'll be a bit of a nine days wonder, of course. But we'll get over it."
Oh, him! He had shifted from passionate devotion to distant hurt, with no middle ground for negotiation, clarification, or apology. And then he turned to go. She had to act now, casting aside the shreds of her pride to do so.
"You misunderstand me."
He stopped abruptly, his body taut with the tension of the moment, and turned just a little in her direction, waiting.
"I was afraid I'd be a disappointment to you. That I couldn't hope to please you as I am now."
There. She'd said it. And now she had only to await the judgment she'd feared since the dawning awareness of the physical realities of marriage had descended upon her. She looked into his great dark eyes, such vast reservoirs of deep-seated emotion that he had guarded closely for so long and then opened to her. "But if you're sure..."
Now he came right over to her, as though what he had to say required nearness to have effect. "I have never been so sure of anything."
They were the most emotionally potent words she had ever heard, save for that heart-stopping declaration on Christmas Eve: "I do want to be stuck with you."
As then, his words were an appeal that she must answer. And now, as then, there could be only one response, although as was her way, it came in a peculiarly flat and unromantic expression, an almost deliberate antithesis of his emotionally fraught statement. "Well, then, Mr. Carson, if you want me you can have me, to quote Oliver Cromwell, 'warts and all.'"
Months earlier, when he had proposed and she had accepted, they had communicated their intense feelings in muted ways - through soul-exposing gazes and a tightening of her hand on his arm. At the time, nothing else seemed necessary.
It was different this time. The emotional release of this unanticipated and highly wrought episode between them required more than a look and a smile. Mr. Carson knew this intuitively before Mrs. Hughes did and, departing from long-cultivated habits of restraint, he stepped more closely to her still, put his hands to her shoulders, and bent his head to hers. This was no tentative or casual salutation, but a deep and probing statement of passion. It was the kiss he had waited half a century to deliver. Mrs. Hughes clung to him and just tried to keep up. For him it was the sweetest thing he had ever known and he was consumed with a hunger for her that would have frightened him were he not so exhilarated by the great relief that swept over him. He lifted his mouth from hers, drawing his hands up to encompass her head, and then quite deliberately pressed his lips gently to her forehead, calming if not cooling his ardour. And then he was drawing her into his arms.
All anxiety fled from Mrs. Hughes at the first touch of his mouth on hers. In his kiss was all the passion she had seen in his eyes and heard in his words, now made manifest to her in a way she could not deny or doubt. He wanted her in the most fundamental way and it was immensely gratifying to know this. And she revelled in the glory of it. Oh! how she loved him!
They stood together, arms wrapped around each other, oblivious to the music and voices of so many only a few yards away. Never had Mr. Carson cared less about his reputation. In his very incautiousness Mrs. Hughes took great delight, for it was more proof still of the completeness of his love.
And there was still more.
When finally they relaxed and reluctantly moved apart and each saw in the other's glowing countenance all the affirmation either needed, he suddenly caught up her hand.
Mrs. Hughes thought they might make the most of their rare few minutes of undisturbed solitude to solidify what they had achieved here. But Mr. Carson was drawing her to the door. He led her down the passage, his stride bold and she almost stumbling after him so precipitous was his pace. He was still holding her hand when they burst into the servants' hall where several pairs of dancers remained on the floor - Mrs. Patmore and Sergeant Willis, Daisy and Andy, Miss Baxter and Molesley.
"Andrew!" Mr. Carson boomed, "wind that machine up again!"
Startled, Andy abandoned Daisy and hastened to the task.
Mr. Carson did not wait for the music. He spun around and swept Mrs. Hughes into his arms, holding her more closely that ever he had done before, conveying to her and to everyone else the intimacy of their relationship in the proximity of their bodies. He smiled down at her and she returned the favour with a bewitching smile of her own. And they danced.
Mrs. Patmore, who had interrupted her tripping around the hall with Sergeant Willis twice already to mark Daisy's departure and return, now stopped again. She watched as Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes glided across the floor. He was a beautiful dancer and Mrs. Hughes held onto him as though she would never let him go, which was as it should be, in Mrs. Patmore's opinion. They were so fragile, these two, and in need of more management than a houseful of cats. She hoped that now things were straight between them, they would set a date and get on with it, for she knew she wouldn't breathe freely until they had.
* A/N1. This is an eighteen-part exploration tracing the road to marriage taken by Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, covering the period between their engagement and their wedding. It is largely canon, although I have omitted some of the issues dealt with on Downton Abbey and have altered in part or in whole a few other developments.
**A/N2. The italicized portions of the text are largely dialogue drawn directly from, in this case, Downton Abbey, Season 6, Episode 1. Occasionally there is something that I have italicized because it is someone's thoughts, and it is not part of the original. If you're an aficionado of these things, you'll recognize it when you see it.
***A/N3. I have combined two conversations here and adjusted the sequence to suit my narrative. The italicized dialogue is, however, true to the original, even if its order is not.
****A/N4. These events are explored at length in Breaking with Tradition.