A/N This story serves two purposes: it's a little birthday present for evitamockingbird, and it's my contribution for Week 2 of the virtual, unofficial, unauthorized S7 – the fan season where anything goes! Unfortunately, I'm two days late on both counts. Happy belated birthday to evitamockingbird!
The idea for this story came to me when I was studying the Cheerful Charlies handbill from Episode 2 of Season 1. I noticed that it says something about "THE … [blotted out and illegible] … PLEASURE RESORT OF THE SCARBOROUGH, WHITBY, AND BRIDLINGTON DISTRICTS." I take that to mean that the Cheerful Charlies performed in or at least near Scarborough at one point. And many years later, the Carsons honeymooned in Scarborough. I wanted to explore what that might mean. This little story is the result.
I do reject the date on the handbill, however. It says 1897, at which point Charles Carson would have been in his early forties and well established in his career as butler at Downton, according to other bits of information we've gleaned from the show. I find it hard to believe that he left at that point to pursue a career in the theatre and then came back! Without anyone at Downton wondering – or even knowing about it! So I imagine his Cheerful Charlie days were much earlier.
Without further preamble, here we go …
As Charles readied himself in his modest room at the boarding house where he was staying, he let his thoughts wander pleasantly. Life was good. He and Charlie were becoming increasingly popular, drawing a larger crowd and earning more enthusiastic applause each time they performed. The Neal sisters were also enjoying widespread acclaim. Between the Cheerful Charlies and The Lark and The Dove, the house was usually full to overflowing, and patrons could find standing room only on most nights. As the size of the audience had grown, so had Charles's portion of the proceeds, and by now he had a fair amount of spending money in his pocket and a good deal saved, as well. But there was something that – or rather, someone who – made Charles happier than his work or his income or his moderate but growing fame, and that someone was the young girl with whom he was spending an increasing amount of time, both at the theatre and away from it.
Alice Neal, "The Dove," was a lovely young woman, a sweet and gentle soul. Charles had been captivated the first time he saw her. Her sister Emily, "The Lark," was the more flamboyant of the two and commanded more attention from most others, but Charles had found himself drawn to the quiet, earnest mien and understated beauty that Alice exhibited. Alice had developed a similar affinity for Charles, and the couple had passed many happy hours becoming acquainted and forging a friendship, a friendship that was quickly becoming a blossoming romance. When they weren't performing, they talked in the wings of the stage or in the back rooms of the theatre. Before or after their shows, they went for long walks along the beach and through the town. They took meals and tea with each other and attended Sunday services together. But young Charles longed for more; he hoped that soon his life would become entwined forever with Alice's.
As it was Sunday night and they would not be performing that evening, he and Alice had planned an outing. After church services that morning, he had told her he would take her for a nice dinner at one of the local pubs and then for a long stroll along the water, but he had had made no mention of the question he planned to ask her. And that question – and her potential answer to it – both thrilled and terrified him.
After glancing in the small looking glass and declaring himself as ready as he could ever be for his forthcoming endeavor, he left his room and headed downstairs.
Mrs. Thomson, the landlady, called out to him as he descended the stairs. "Will you be joining us for dinner tonight, Mr. Carson?"
"No, Mrs. Thomson, I'm afraid not. I've another engagement this evening. But I shall be sorry to miss your delicious cooking," said Charles politely.
But she dismissed his apology and his flattery. "Oh, that's all right. I can't say I blame you. Naturally, you prefer the company of that pretty, young girl of yours to the company of an old woman and four other men."
"Your company is always charming, Mrs. Thomson, and I should never call you 'old,'" Charles assured her. "And your other boarders are pleasant enough. But you are correct: I do intend to spend the evening with Miss Neal."
"Well, then, you'd better get on. Mustn't keep her waiting."
"Indeed not," he agreed as he opened the front door to let himself out.
"Oh, Mr. Carson," called the kind landlady before he left. "There are some lovely daisies and bluebells in the front garden. I wouldn't miss them if you'd like to take some to your young lady."
Charles smiled. "Why, thank you. That's very kind. As long as you don't mind, I think I will pick some," he told her he before donned his hat and closed the door.
Five minutes later, Charles stood on the front porch of the house where Alice and her sister were staying. He removed his hat and rapped the door knocker against its strike plate. A moment later, Mrs. Williams answered and invited him into the parlor to wait for Alice, who was not quite ready. As he waited for his sweetheart, Charles sat, chatting politely – if impatiently – with the landlady. Soon Alice appeared, and he stood to greet her.
"Hello, Alice. You look very pretty." He smiled and held out a small bunch of flowers. "These are for you."
"Why, thank you, Charles. They're beautiful," said Alice, accepting his offering with a smile of sincere gratitude.
"In all honesty, I can't really take credit for them. Mrs. Thomson allowed me to pick them from her garden."
"Will you wait for me while I take them up to my room?"
Mrs. Williams interjected at this point. "Never mind that. Just give them to me, and I'll take care of them for you. Emily is still up in your room, yes? We'll find a vase and put them in some water, and they'll be waiting for you when you return. Run along, now. Don't keep her out too late, Mr. Carson." Her warning was more a matter of formality than actual concern, for she knew well that Charles had seen Alice back safely and at a respectable hour every time he'd escorted her anywhere.
"Of course not, Mrs. Williams," replied Charles obediently. "I never would."
Charles and Alice enjoyed a pleasant meal at a nearby tavern that Charles chose because it was quieter and calmer than some others … and thus, more suitable for a young lady. After dinner, they ambled companionably towards the seaside and the water's edge. Charles became more and more anxious as they walked, but the warmth of Alice's hand tucked into the crook of his elbow comforted him. When they reached a point where they had a nice view looking out over the water and they were far enough away from others to have some privacy, he stopped and turned towards her. Taking both of her hands in his and looking at her earnestly, he began the most forward plea he'd ever put forth during their shy courtship.
"Alice. My precious girl. I know we haven't known each for very long. A span of a few short months is nothing when I consider all the years I hope to spend with you. I know we're still young, but we can make a go of it. I'll take good care of you – I promise! I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Alice Neal, I love you, and you would make me the happiest man alive if you would agree to be my wife. Will you marry me?"
He waited breathlessly as tears filled her eyes. At first he hoped they were tears of joy, but he soon realized there was no smile on her lips.
"Oh, Charles! I'm so sorry! You see, Charlie Grigg and I … Well, we're getting on so well. We've not been alone together, you understand. There's been no … walking out or … sneaking about. I wouldn't do that to you. We've done nothing more than talk. But he asked if I felt strongly about you or if he might stand a chance. He wants to start courting me, and well, I … I was going to tell you tonight. But now … Oh, you dear thing! You must believe I never meant to hurt you!" Alice finished urgently.
"I see," was all Charles managed to choke out as tears flooded his eyes, his throat constricted painfully, and agony tore through his heart.
Alice tried to console him with soothing words and gentle touches, but her efforts only amplified the pain.
"Well," said Charles once he'd composed himself enough to think and speak. "There's nothing more to say, then. I'll take you back now."
He offered his arm as a matter of courtesy and propriety, and Alice accepted it stiffly. The journey was uncomfortable for Alice and excruciating for Charles. When they reached the front door of Mrs. Williams's boarding house, Alice let go of Charles's arm, turned to face him, and rested a hand on his cheek.
"Charles Carson, you are a good and decent man, and I'm ever so fond of you. But we're not meant for each other. Someday, you'll find your true love. You're going to make some fortunate woman very, very happy. And you're going to love her so much that you'll wonder what you ever saw in me. You don't believe me now, but it's true; and when it happens, you'll know I was right."
Charles couldn't respond, only looked down at his shoes. Alice lifted herself onto her toes and kissed his one wet cheek while she wiped the tears from his other cheek with her thumb and fingertips.
"Goodbye, Charles. You know that I wish you every happiness." And with that, Alice slipped inside the house and out of Charles's life forever.
That night, he packed his belongings. In the morning, following a sleepless night filled with hot tears and stifled sobs, he informed Mrs. Thomson that he was vacating his room. He went to the theatre and gave his notice there, too, effective immediately. He closed his small savings account at the bank and paid his tab at the pub. Once he'd settled all his accounts by paying out the money he owed to others and collecting the money others owed to him, he rushed to the train station, eager to leave town. A short time later, dejected and forlorn, he boarded on a train bound for York, where another train would take him home to Downton. As the train carried him homeward, he wondered how he would ever carry on – or even if he could ever carry on.
Charles lay contentedly with his bride's head on his bare chest, her hair splayed out across his skin, tickling his neck. She slept peacefully in his arms. He himself had not slept at all, so blissful was he on the morning after the day of his marriage. He couldn't conceive any greater happiness. Elsie was his wife. She'd actually married him. The previous morning, they had stood in church and promised themselves to one another forever. Then, the previous night, they had given themselves bodily, each to the other, and had become man and wife in a physical sense, beginning the fulfillment of their marital vows. After the heady rush of excitement from the wedding day and the wedding night had dissipated, a more serene contentment had overtaken Charles, and he was now perfectly pleased simply to watch his wife sleep. Before he could continue his musings further, however, the subject of his thoughts and observation stirred.
"I'm sorry. Did I wake you?" he whispered.
"You think very loudly, my man," she told him.
"Well, I happen to have some very important thoughts!" he said defensively.
"And what important thoughts have occupied my husband this morning?"
"Why, I'm thinking of my wife, of course!"
"Well, then! That is important!" she agreed.
Charles let out a humming sigh and kissed Elsie's head.
"There's something I think I should tell you, love," he said. "Only I feel rather foolish."
"You know you can tell me anything, and I won't think you foolish. I married you. I would never have married a fool," she assured him.
He chuckled at her whimsical logic. "That's true. You're far too clever to have done that."
"Certainly, I am! But what is it that's got you troubled this morning?"
He rushed to clarify her misinterpretation. "Oh, no. Not troubled. Nothing could possibly make me unhappy today. I'm more … relieved, I suppose."
"Relieved?" she wondered. "So something was troubling you, but now it's not?"
"In a way. You see, I must confess something. When you suggested coming to Scarborough for our honeymoon, I agreed far too readily. I must admit that I had other motives besides spending several days with my bride in a lovely town by the sea, though you must believe that going away and being alone with you was always foremost in my mind."
"Of course I believe you. But what other motives did you have?"
"You know that Charlie Grigg and I traveled about and performed in various places," he began. "We spent summers traveling up and down the coast, taking our act to theatres in seaside resorts. Well, we performed here in Scarborough. In fact, it was the last place we performed together, and it was here that we met Alice and her sister."
When he hesitated, she nudged him gently. "Go on."
"Well, this is where Alice left me and where Charlie and I parted ways. It sounds silly now, but I wanted to replace those bitter memories with more pleasant ones. I was following your lead, I suppose. When you put Alice's picture in that frame and gave it to me, you encouraged me not to box everything up and tuck it all away. And it worked. You made me confront the bitterness I was harboring, and when I did, it all melted away. I opened up my heart again. And as soon as I did, you filled it with your love."
"Well, then I should think that coming here was a good idea. Surely, we can make some good memories to replace those bad ones."
"But you see, there's nothing left to replace. Those memories are already gone. They mean nothing to me. When Alice rejected me, I thought her face and her voice would be etched in my memory for all eternity. But now, I can hardly picture her or recall the sound of her voice. And when Charlie and I fell out, I thought that if I ever saw him again, I would wring his neck. But I did see him again, and we made our peace. So there's no resentment or regret or sorrow left to heal."
Elsie favored Charles with her most beautiful smile. "Well, I'm happy for you, Charles. Truly."
"But that's not all. The most important thing I've realized ... is that the past day with you has been the happiest of my life. I was foolish to think that I needed anything but you. Did I really believe that I would be able to think about anything besides how much I love you and how happy I am that you're mine? How could anything else possibly even matter anymore? How little the dismal past means in the face of such a bright future! I have the love of my life here in my arms. What more could I possibly want or need? Elsie Carson, you have married a very great fool!"
"Never!" And she poised herself over him and kissed him firmly. "I married the most wonderful man in the world." Then she settled back into his arms and tucked her head into his neck, under his chin.
"Charles … " she said after a moment. "I have a confession, too."
"Yes. You see, I knew."
"What?" he asked. "I don't understand."
"Remember: I saw the handbill. It said Scarborough. I read your name and Charlie's, and I noticed Alice's and her sister's names, too. It didn't take much to piece it all together, though I couldn't be sure of the details, of course. Why do you think I suggested coming here?"
Charles marveled at Elsie's keen deductive powers and her ability to casually steer him in the direction of her choosing. "I thought perhaps you just enjoyed paddling in the sea with me," he teased.
"I do, you daft man!" she laughed.
"Then why must you always lure me to the seaside under false pretenses? Next time just tell me what you want, you sly woman!"
"Very well. I shall!" She shifted so that she was propped up on her elbow, looking down at her prone husband. "I shall tell you in no uncertain terms what I want right now. I want you, my darling. I want my husband to kiss me and to hold me … to remind me why I fell in love with him … and to make me ever so glad I married him. Is that clear enough for you?"
"Oh, yes. I understand you perfectly, and I shall be more than happy to accommodate your wishes." And he did exactly as requested.
A/N This website is broken – again! If you review – and I really, really hope you do – it won't appear on the website. However, I will get a notification email and be able to read it. I won't be able to reply directly as usual, but I can respond via PM. So if you're kind enough to review but can't see it, don't panic. It's there. I'm hoping the glitch will be fixed soon. This happens every so often, and it's usually fixed within a few days or a week.