Mine and frostyblossom's collaboration on our current favourite ship:
"With all due respect, my Lady, are you sure this is a good idea?"
Sybil gave the butler a questioning look. "Why? Don't you think it is?" A brusque sigh was his response to the inquiry, prompting her to frown. "Carson, you must know that repression isn't good for the soul," she informed him gravely.
Carson was sure he didn't know anything of the sort, and instead considered repression in all its forms as essential to maintaining a happy and respectable life.
"Mrs. Hughes is..." he struggled how to frame his argument delicately, "...independently minded." To call the housekeeper flat out draconian would only earn him a double portion of her guaranteed reprisal once the whole sordid mess was over. "She'll not take very kindly to this type of coercion."
Sybil, with all the protection afforded to a daughter of the house, only laughed at Carson's valid concerns. "Is that all you're worried about?" she asked once her giggling fit was over. "Really, Carson, even I wasn't expecting Mrs. Hughes to actually like what we have planned for them," she said matter-of- factly.
Her brow suddenly creased with an unsettling realization. "Now that I think it, I'm not sure Branson
will like it much either." Her reference to the chauffeurs feeling's only caused her resolve to waver for a moment before her eyes hardened and she pressed on with her view. "But the longer these two go without resolution the more and more miserable they'll become. These things will eat away at a person."
"Be that as it may, m'lady," Carson said firmly, "I think in this situation the ends may not be worth the means." He hoped his age and station would lend some credence to his advice, but was dashed when she piped up again, more determined than before.
"Well I absolutely won't change my mind on the subject, and I simply can't do it without your help!"
What could Carson do but sigh again, this time in defeat, and acquiesce to her demands? However much he disapproved of Lady Sybil's plan, he was a butler first and a friend second, and would do as his young mistress commanded.
"As you wish, m'lady."
"Mrs Hughes?" he approached her as she sat with a cup of tea at the servants' hall table in the middle of the afternoon.
She was looking preoccupied, but she smiled at his approach.
"Are you busy?" he inquired.
"No," she drained her teacup, "Not really."
"Then, there is something that needs to be discussed. In my pantry, if it's not too much trouble," he was very careful with his phrasing of the request.
Though it was apparent she found his mysterious tone rather strange, she nevertheless got up and followed him.
"It's important that this matter is resolved," he informed her, "And I don't want to see hide nor hair of you until it has been."
Evidently, given the look on her face as they reached the pantry door, she had been expecting him to be the one who needed to discuss something with her, and the revelation that this was not the case seemed to confuse her further. Everything became outstandingly clear, however, when he opened the door to reveal Mr. Branson sat at the desk- looking quite as confused as she did. She cast a stricken look in his direction.
"No, Charles, you-..."
"Yes," he told her calmly, giving her a little push over the threshold and closing the door firmly behind her.
The last glimpse he caught of her face was one of the utmost mutiny.
"Do you think we ought to lock the door?" came an almost conversational tone from beside him.
He turned to see that Lady Sybil had emerged from around the corner. Obviously, after completing her part in their plan she hadn't seen fit to return upstairs. He stood back a little to contemplate the suggestion.
"It could be an idea," he conceded, "But I fear she might actually strangle him at some point, and if that were to happen I'd feel guilty about not leaving him an escape route."
Lady Sybil laughed.
"So we just leave them to get on with it, then?" she asked.
"That would seem to be the best policy, my Lady."
Left alone in a room with Mr Branson, Elsie wasn't quite sure whether to murder Charles for putting her there, or to murder Branson to remove the reason Charles had done so. In the end, she decided that was the least pressing decision at the moment: should she stand or should she sit opposite
him? After a couple of moments contemplating the chair, she decided on the latter.
He had been staring at the table, avoiding eye contact, but when she sat down he looked up at her and gave her a little smile, which threw her bearings a little before she even got started. She cleared her throat and tried, desperately, to look composed and stern.
"Do you know why they've got us in here?" he asked, his tone polite, far too polite for her liking.
"No," she lied, remembering Charles' face as he had left her in here.
The chauffeur slumped in his chair, evidently at a loss for what to do with himself.
"Though, as we're here," Elsie continued, bearing in mind what had been said about not being seen again until this was all sorted out, "There is something I'd like to speak to you about."
He had arranged his face into an earnest expression of attention, which she was sorely tempted to tell him to remove at once.
"Mr. Branson," she drew herself up to her full- modest- height, "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to stop raising your hat at me."
Not altogether surprisingly, he looked completely perplexed by this obscure remark. The chauffeur's eyebrows were raised- she was going to have to ask him to stop doing that too- requesting an explanation.
"When you raise your hat to me," she began, trying to do so with some fraction of dignity, "Or indeed when you hold doors open for me when I'm a good half way down the corridor, or when you winkat me," she added with particular emphasis, "I find it... well, I find it all rather... attractive, Mr Branson. And I think you should stop it."
Somehow, though she knew she was to blame for quite a large portion, if not all of the situation she found herself in, her tone still managed to sound accusatory. The young man was sitting, staring at the table- probably in utter mortification. Well, she thought, that could not be helped; at a time like
this his blushes were the least of her worries.
"I only winked at you once," was all he finally had to say for himself, some of his trademark indignation returning, "You'd have thought I was pursuing you assiduously!"
She paused for a moment contemplating what he'd said. Then it hit her.
"That rather infers that you are pursuing me, at least on some level, Mr Branson," she pointed out.
Had she not been so confused, frustrated, embarrassed, appalled, she would have noted with some amusement just how priceless the look on his face was.
Not that Branson's thoughts were any less flustered. To say that he was flabbergasted would be putting it mildly. Did Mrs. Hughes really just accuse him of trying to woo her? The horridness of the situation all seemed to trace back to that cursed first day wink. He made a mental note to never again wink at a woman over forty; the consequences had proved much too dire to indulge in
such ocular acrobatics in future.
"I can't deny that I have been trying get back in your good graces," he was finally able to admit, his face struggling to conform its features to something less unnatural. "I'm not sure I would class that as 'pursuing', exactly, but you must know, Mrs. Hughes, how much I love a challenge, and all
your stern looks and reproaches have given me just that!" he explained with animation and pointed gesturing.
He gave a brief pause to collect his breath and thoughts. "The thought that you somehow think the less of me, well," he continued in trepidation, and with an uncharacteristic tremor in his voice, "there's no other way to say it but that it drives me quite mad! And so what can I do but try to pursue, and charm, and flirt, until I can be sure that you think of me as much as I do of you!" he finished with a rather becoming glow in his cheeks.
Mrs. Hughes felt the distinct need to fan herself, and decided that impassioned speeches would have to be added to the growing list of activities Branson was forbidden to perform in her presence. She had a few years of experience on Branson, so while the whole mess might still mystify the poor
lad, the ridiculous picture of their mutual fancies was starting to become crystal clear to her wiser eyes:
What started with a wink had earned a scold, which garnered a hat-raising rather bold, then turned to a blush she hid with a glare, which the chauffeur found he could not well bear, so what could he do but begin to flirt, which she did think attractive (but rather pert), to him she directed another stern look, could he really now concentrate on any old book? And on and on and on it went, how long till Bedlam they'll both be sent?
Her reasoning didn't normally take on such a poetic nature, but the pure absurdity of the affair must have addled her brain far more than she suspected.
"Well, Mr. Branson, it seems we've gotten ourselves into something of a vicious cycle," she concluded.
"Yes," he agreed, rather huffily, though did not supply any clever ideas about how they might possibly get out of it.
They remained very quiet for a few minutes, but, she noted, the pause was nowhere near as awkward as it surely should have been.
"So," Elsie surmised, cursing herself a little as a smile curled its way onto her face, "You do... fancy me, Mr Branson?"
For once, his natural politics let him down. Glowing scarlet, he appeared to try to answer several times but then decided against it.
"I could say the same about you, Mrs Hughes!" he pointed out, at last.
There was absolutely no way she could deny that, she had as good as admitted it.
"That I might find you attractive is nowhere near as improbable as you fancying me," she observed.
Evidently, he agreed with her on that score. He sank into rather an abashed silence.
"Mr. Branson," she eventually said, taking pity on him, "I am willing to go about my business, and never mention this again, provided that you do not try to... provoke me in the future. And you can assiduously pursue Lady Sybil to your heart's content."
That was certainly an improvement, he looked up- impressed by these terms he was being offered.
"It will provide you with a nice distraction," she told him in an attempt at being judicial, though in fact unable to keep the smile out of her voice, "Keep you out of trouble."
She was well aware that not all that long ago she'd been warning him that his pursuit of Lady Sybil would get him into nothing but trouble. The irony of that particular fact wasn't lost on her almost-paramour either. That Mrs. Hughes now considered his pursuit of Sybil as somehow less troublesome that not pursuing her at all, was only slightly less ridiculous than a young, hot-headed chauffeur fancying a severe dragon of a housekeeper (and vice versa).
"So you'll stop lecturing me, and I'll stop flirting with you," he summarized. "I suppose that should work. Of course we'll have to avoid each other whenever possible."
"Of course," she agreed, then dryly added, "Though I should think that would go without saying!"
"No more scolds?" he requested, pointing at her.
"Yes, and no more hat raising." she commanded, giving him a hearty finger wag.
Their satisfaction at the resolution was evidenced by mutual smiles. "Well Mrs. Hughes," he said, "I'll gladly accept such generous terms. It's a deal." He extended his hand out towards her, which she gingerly took, and the two of them shook to their agreement.
"The handshake is nice, but perhaps," Branson couldn't resist adding, "we should seal it with a kiss?"
Mrs. Hughes might have been able to keep her composure if he had ended it at that, but his ensuing wink all but did her in, and the look she gave him could only be described as priceless.
"I think a hand shake will do well enough!"
"So it's all sorted out then?"
"As far as I can tell it is."
"I'm glad," Sybil replied, a sweet smile blossoming on her lips that quickly drained from his mind any residual thoughts of the housekeeper. He leaned forward hoping to sneak a kiss, but was stopped short with a firm palm to his chest. "Now, I want to be sure, Tom, that you're not angry with me. You don't think I overstepped my bounds?"
Branson was more annoyed with her current rebuff than her earlier conniving. "How could I be angry? You only did what you thought was best," he reassured her. "And besides, m'lady, I thought you gave the orders."
She giggled at that. "I suppose I do." She jumped lightly backwards a step, escaping his grasp and just out of arms reach. "I'd be flattered that you like how strong headed I can be," she teased with a
smile, "except I know I'm not the only bossy woman you fancy."
"I may fancy Mrs. Hughes," he said, stepping forward to close the gap between them and taking her in his arms. "But I loveyou."
He leaned forward once again, and this time found nothing blocking his way.
When Charles came across Elsie in her sitting room later that evening she was looking rather shell-shocked. He sat down beside her rather tentatively.
"Forgive me?" he asked, reaching a cautious arm out for her.
He was most relieved when she accepted it.
"Will you forgive me?" she asked, wrapping her own arm around his waist, "I'm sorry, Charles, my acting like a lunatic recently can't have been much fun for you."
He sighed a little.
"Nothing I'm not used to," he informed her dryly, "Though I must admit it was rather disconcerting that there was another man involved this time. Another younger man," he pointed out.
"Don't, I already feel terrible about it," she warned him.
"Silly fool," he mumbled, kissing her head. Then, "I'm just grateful you two didn't get as far as running away together," he joked, "I wouldn't fancy my chances if I had to track you down and fight him for your honour."
She cast an amused eye up at him.
"No," she agreed, "Nor would I."
End. (This time).
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