A recent news article hinted that Ethel, the new housemaid, may not be very popular below stairs. As I started to imagine reasons why, this was the result.
As always, not mine. But I'd let them have an awful lot more fun!
Ethel, it quickly became apparent, was not going to be anything like Gwen. Anna had shown her around the house her first day before helping her settle into the room they would share. She chatted politely, asking her where she was from and where she had worked before Downton, but didn't get much of a response. Anna didn't fault her for it; some people were just naturally reserved. She hoped that maybe when she felt more settled she might open up. There wasn't too much time to think about it, though. The house was understaffed and there was nothing to do but throw the new girl in, hoping she's swim instead of sinking.
It was little things that started to irritate her. Her eyes flickered that first evening as she watched her clasp Mr. Bates' hand when they were introduced. Was it her imagination or did she linger a little too long? Anna was shocked a few nights later when she caught her staring at him, completely indiscreet, and it came to happen so often she stopped counting the occasions. Ethel had then begun seating herself next to him in the hall when they gathered there informally. Anna had never given it too much thought; the chair beside him had simply always been open in the past, as if it was tacitly reserved for her. She couldn't think of a polite way to get her to move, and she fumed at losing that small bit of intimacy they were allowed.
It escalated from there. Soon she was fawning all over him, peppering him with questions about his experiences in battle, the current conflict, and the recently announced plans to turn the house into a convalescent hospital. She read every book he did, claiming them the instant he returned them to the library. Lately she had begun inventing small tasks she claimed she needed his assistance with. Anna was having more and more trouble containing her disgust.
It finally got to be too much one October afternoon, about four weeks after Ethel arrived. Anna had sat down in the hall with her mending, relieved to finally be off her feet and able to catch her breath. She got a few blissful seconds to herself before she heard noise approaching. She was a little disappointed at the end of her reprieve until she recognized the sound as his familiar half-step. She beamed as Bates entered and he smiled warmly back at her. She thought it odd that she could miss someone who shared the same house she did, but it been so long since they'd had a quiet minute together.
"Alone at last," she said, the words popping out before she could think better of them. Her stomach flopped as his grin widened and his eyes took on that mischievous twinkle she found so intriguing.
He opened his mouth to reply, but before he could say anything they were interrupted.
"Mr. Bates! I've been searching all over for you. There are some linens in the cupboard I can't quite reach."
She couldn't use the stool like everyone else? Anna could barely keep the snide thought in as she tamped down a sneer.
"Can you help? You're so tall, I'm positive you could get them." Ethel laid her hand on his arm to emphasize her point and the last of Anna's forbearance ran out. It was bad enough to have her monopolize his conversation and usurp her place next to him, but to be forced to watch her touch him, when Anna would never dream of doing such a thing in public? It was insupportable. Leaving her work on the table she got up and walked out, heading straight for the kitchen door and into the yard.
John firmly took his arm out from under Ethel's hand and stood, following Anna's path without a backward glance. He was truly bewildered at the situation he found himself in. These days he could barely fathom that one young woman would show any interest in him. Two seemed nearly laughable. Where was this phenomenon when he was free and naïve enough to enjoy it?
He had squirmed under Ethel's increasingly forward overtures for the last month, first certain he was misunderstanding and then not quite sure how to brush her off without making the situation even more awkward. His patience was beginning to wear thin. He considered it bothersome but fairly harmless when she paid him extra attention, but he was not pleased at her inserting herself between him and Anna. They had so little already and he wasn't willing to give up any of it. He could tell she was upset now, and he hoped he'd be able to assure her that he was not a willing participant in whatever the girl was trying to accomplish.
"Anna, wait." He caught up to her where she had eventually stopped, behind the coal shed, well out of view of the house.
"I'm sorry. I just can't stand it anymore!"
"I know. That's not the first time she's taken that kind of liberty. She seems to be a young woman who could use some guidance."
"Must you be so tolerant?"
"I only meant to be friendly at first. She seemed a little homesick and I felt bad for her. It's gotten out of hand now and it's just as uncomfortable for me. I had a word with Mr. Carson this morning. I'm certain he'll have Mrs. Hughes speak to her soon."
She was quiet for a while, but eventually couldn't keep her fears from pouring out. "Was I like that? Is that what I look like to other people?" The idea was so humiliating she could barely give it voice.
"No, Anna, not at all," he reassured. "You've always been a sensible woman and would never have that kind of disregard for propriety." He hesitated a moment before continuing. "More importantly, your attention has never been unwelcome."
Her head snapped up and she met his intense scrutiny, wide-eyed. It was the closest he'd come to directly saying anything in a very long time. A million questions ran though her mind. She must have taken too long in formulating a reply, however, because he turned away and took a deep breath before continuing.
"Have you tried talking to her?"
"I'm not going to fight her for you, Mr. Bates."
"Not even a little?" he asked, with cheek and a boyish grin.
She smiled at him in return. "Well, when I take our uniforms down I always give hers to Betty. I'm not entirely proud of that."
He laughed. Betty was the daughter of Lord Grantham's gamekeeper and was employed as a laundry maid. It could only be his Lordship's respect for her father that kept her on—she was notorious among all the staff. One rarely got items back from her that weren't shrunken, ripped, or missing buttons.
"I simply meant that it might be worth another attempt to get to know her. Maybe if you could develop a rapport you might be able to steer her along a better path. Mrs. Hughes counts on you to keep order with the younger girls and someday you'll be responsible for all of them. It would be good practice to start now."
"You're right, of course. I suppose I have gotten distracted from my responsibilities. It's just all been a bit…personal."
"I've told you before, Anna, I'm not a free man."
"I understand that," she answered, disheartened at the reminder.
"I'm not sure that you do, and I realize it's my fault. I'm trying to resolve my situation, but even if I weren't married my affections are not available to be claimed." He paused to brush back a strand of her hair that had worked itself out of her cap. "I lost my heart two and a half years ago, when a pretty housemaid was kind to me for no other reason than the innate goodness of her character. There will never be a place for anyone else."
Tears threatened. She had always cherished hopes, but had never been entirely confident until then that he was hers. It didn't change anything, not in a practical sense, but she knew things were going to be different between them from now on. She blinked furiously to keep herself under control and when she looked up his gaze was soft and searching.
"Someday you're going to be free of your entanglement, Mr. Bates. And I'm going to be here."
He took her hand, the same way he had last summer, and this time he finished what he started. Her eyes slid shut as he gently pressed his lips to hers. He was so warm, and surprisingly shy. She sighed and relaxed into him, pressing more firmly and bringing her free hand to his shoulder to draw herself close. He made a quiet sound in the back of his throat, something between a hum and moan, and tentatively opened himself to her.
Her tongue had just come to meet his, giving him his first taste, when they heard a cry behind them. They pulled apart to find Ethel had just rounded the corner and was now staring at them, a stricken expression on her face.
Anna took the opportunity to really consider her. Even though she was only six years her junior, she seemed like a child and so lost that Anna began to feel compassion, even protectiveness, stir inside her. She realized that things had gotten off to a terrible start. Ethel might have fancied Mr. Bates a bit at first—Anna could certainly allow that he wasn't difficult to look at—but she recognized that her own annoyed reaction had done nothing but push her at him. With Miss O'Brien being her usual sour, withdrawn self, the rest of the maids established in their own cliques, and the young men gone, Mr. Bates was likely the only one who offered her any cordiality. The poor girl was probably just desperate for a friend and had developed a crush.
She squeezed his hand and released it, whispering "Later." He nodded and stepped back. Anna walked toward Ethel and lightly grasped her shoulders. "We've got a little while before tea. Why don't you and I take a walk? There's a very pretty trail down by the pond." She was relieved when Ethel agreed, and linked her arm with hers, leading her on the way.
She glanced back over her shoulder at Mr. Bates and nearly melted at the love and pride plain on his face as he watched her. She had been foolish to believe an interloper could intrude on them, and she intended to promise him that night, in the best way she could imagine, that she'd never doubt what they shared again.