This is a oneshot written out of pure exasperation with myself. While everyone else is concerning themselves with series two spoilers relating to the plot, the single spoiler that has got me most excited is the fact that Mrs Hughes is wearing what appears to be a new dress. I have no idea what significance, if any, this dress will have in terms of the show as a whole, but here I imagine that it does.
She might have known. The country at war; the house in a state of utter disorganisation; their own personal lives in varying degrees of total upheaval and the staff at Downton Abbey were still distracted by the pettiest of things. It had always been the case; she didn't know what on earth gave her the notion that they might have grown out of it. And usually, it didn't really concern her too much; except that this time the petty thing they were distracted by and her were pretty closely linked. Because she was wearing it.
Well, it was ludicrous. She had needed a new dress anyway, her old one was getting rather past it. Her mistake had apparently been to choose one ever so slightly different from her old one. Alright, the small change in design led to quite a difference to the overall effect, but it was quite insignificant, really, in the grand scheme of things. A German army preparing to take a substantial shot at England was rather more pressing than her exposing a few more inches of her neck, after all. Barely even that. And she had thought it was rather fetching. Still modest, still sensible, not in any way gratuitous, but fetching. She had quite convinced herself that it suited her. It took years off her, the dress maker had said. She wasn't quite sure how to take that.
And here most of the staff were goggling at her as if she were a creature in zoo! Honestly, it was as if they'd supposed she didn't have a neck before now! Half indignant, half intimidated, she didn't know what to do with herself. The worst part was that they'd all seen fit to fall quiet, drawing even more attention upon herself. She felt herself blush furiously. She caught Mr Bates throw her the oddest of looks, then Mr Branson, then William; dear Lord, they were all men! Surely there was something highly improper in that. Thank heavens Mr Carson wasn't here to witness this.
Clearing her throat a little and rest her hand tactfully over her neck, she indicated that they should start eating without Mr Carson. That did something to draw attention away from her but not nearly enough. She didn't know who was more infantile; them for making so much fuss about a dress, or her for letting it bother her. Mortified by the whole situation, she carried on with her dinner, praying that they would stop looking at her. She could have come down to dinner in her nightdress and felt less awkward; at least then she would have understood why they were so surprised.
From then it got worse.
"I see you've started without me."
Mr Carson appeared, looking glum, as if he'd had a particularly trying day.
"Mrs Hughes said we could."
Trust Thomas to drop her in it. She couldn't very well deny it either. Taking his chair at the head of the table, the butler began to throw her a reproachful look but was apparently stopped in his tracks. His eyes wandered quite plainly to the exposed skin at her neck and did not move far from there. Not him as well! She'd have thought that Charles Carson if no one else would behave like a gentleman and let her apparently ridiculous choice of garment go unnoticed. Having cost her quite a sizeable portion of this month's wages, there was no question of being able to avoid wearing the dress. She made a mental note to herself to find a black scarf, quickly.
To make matters worse, he was still watching even as they sat on the settee in his pantry- supposedly discussing the business of the day, but in fact getting very little done. It was driving her to distraction. She'd taken care after dinner was over to check that she didn't have a dirty mark or a smudge of something on her neck, which would explain why everyone was staring at it. But no, clean as a whistle. Finally, she found she could stand it no longer.
"Charles," she interrupted him bluntly, "Would you mind telling me why everyone appears to find my so fascinating this evening?"
By the look on his face, he hadn't exactly be concentrating on the conversation either, and so was completely thrown by her question.
"Sorry?" he asked, frowning, "I don't quite follow."
She was hard pressed not to roll her eyes, but managed to cling on to her temper by the skin of its teeth.
"Everyone, including you, seems to keep staring at me," she pointed out.
"You're wearing a new dress," he told her sheepishly.
"I am well aware of that," she told him, "After all, I put it on. What I can't understand is why none of you seem to have the manners to hide the fact that you find it so hideous."
He was quiet for a few awkward moments; bowing his head to avoid her really quite piercing stare. To her it seemed as if he was trying to formulate the most polite way to tell her something really quite impolite.
"Elsie," he finally managed, seeming to test the use of her first name, "No one thinks it looks awful, at least not to my knowledge. It looks... very nice, Elsie, lovely, in fact. It really does."
She probably had more trouble believing that Charles Carson had just been so forward and presumptuous as to compliment a lady's appearance than she had had comprehending everyone else's absurd behaviour. And that was before she'd even processed that he was talking about her.
"You've gone mad," she told him shakily, "All of you! You mean to tell me that most of the male members of staff were staring at me because... because of..."
Words failed her momentarily. He watched her startled expression nervously.
"You mean to tell me that you were staring at me because you found it, me, attractive?" she could scarcely believe it.
She waited for a very tense moment before he inclined his head. For some bizarre reason it gave her a very pressing urge to laugh.
"You could say that," he managed with dignity.
Finally, that was what did it: she laughed out loud. Perhaps, it dawned on her, her unusual choice of dress had it compensations.
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