Elsie could hardly deny that a few years ago it would have been the epitome of awkwardness to watch the cook cry like this, to be standing here trying to offer her some comfort. They were militant antagonists who were officially on the same side. But recently, the fight over who had control of the store cupboard had not seemed very important; in fact, Elsie had trouble remembering the last time it had been mentioned between them.
His Lordship had gone, but she still held on to Mrs Patmore's had with both of hers, clasping it tightly. If life in service had taught her anything it was the value of a good cry when the time merited it: she said nothing, letting the other woman just sob- knowing that it was for the best- softly soothing her thumb against the back of her hand. It was impossible that Mrs Patmore was the first Aunt of a soldier to wail, utterly distraught, at the death of her nephew- heavens, it must happen every day!- but somehow the sight was still moderately shocking to Elsie to see it like this.
When the cook finally gulped to a halt, she looked rather imploringly up at Elsie almost as if she were ashamed of herself.
"It's alright," Elsie told her, "Any other woman would do exactly the same. Your nephew has died," she almost whispered, wanting to emphasise the magnitude of what had happened so the cook could reconcile herself with her own reaction and trying not to twist the knife at the same time, "It's perfectly natural to cry."
"I can't-..." Mrs Patmore's sobs threatened to renew themselves and Elsie rested a hand gently on her back, "I can't make myself believe it. I-... his Lordship said he-... I can't believe Archie-..."
Elsie waited a moment to see if she offered the information voluntarily. When she did not- simply staring blearily at the floor- Elsie found herself taking a deep breath. It was for the best: Mrs Patmore had to say it, and they both knew it, to spare her own sanity. Even if Elsie had caved into temptation- which she hadn't, this time!- and listened at the door to her conversation with his Lordship, she would have still made the cook tell her herself.
"What was it?" Elsie asked gently, "Why did his Lordship say that was all when he did?"
She felt the hand tighten briefly around hers, sensing the tremendous effort it took for Mrs Patmore to utter the tiny quiet word.
Keeping herself in check, Elsie managed not to take too sharp a breath. Of course she didn't judge the boy for it, she was only too horrified at realising the true strength of the shock the cook had received. There were a few moments' pause.
"His Lordship's right, it is worse than having been shot by a German."
Elsie wrapped her arm around the cook's shoulder and squeezed it tightly.
"Don't say that," she told her firmly, feeling the stirrings of detached anger beginning to rise in her, "Being human is what the army call cowardice. Of course he was scared," she added in a rather hopeless voice.
Mrs Patmore turned her face, bleary with tears, towards Elsie; obviously having heard the snag in her voice.
"You're worried about William?" she asked in a small voice.
Elsie paused for a moment before giving the sharpest nod, then returning quickly to squeeze the cook's hand. She was all too aware of how lucky she was that it wasn't herself sitting distraught in that chair with Mrs Patmore comforting her.
She found Mrs Crawley hovering in the corridor behind the drawing room door with tears streaming down her face when she was taking a tray of empty glasses back down to the servants' hall. It surprised her, not because of the time or setting, but because she would never have had Isobel Crawley down for being disposed to cry, really. She worried that she would embarrass her if she approached to see what was wrong, and hovered uncomfortably, insure what to do until she was noticed by the woman herself.
"I'm sorry, Mrs Hughes, I didn't see you."
Mrs Crawley haphazardly wiped her eyes on her dinner gloves, before facing Elsie, with an unconvincing attempt at a vibrant smile. The words left Elsie's mouth before she'd really considered them.
"Would you like to talk about it?"
She did not miss the minute flash of eagerness in the woman's eyes, before she shook her head politely.
"You're busy," she indicated to the tray in Elsie's hand.
"Glasses can wait," she replied brusquely.
They waited, face to face for a moment, before Mrs Crawley simply turned and led the way into the empty sitting room opposite the drawing room where everyone was assembled. She paused at the door.
"You don't mind?" she checked.
Really, Elsie ought to be getting along with running the house- with Charles in bed it fell to her to do so, after all- but there was a heaviness, a need to talk, conveyed in Mrs Crawley's tone, in her expression that made her shake her head and follow her into the room. She was fairly certain that this woman would never impose herself on the sympathy of another; she probably wouldn't have even considered taking Elsie into her confidence if Elsie hadn't offered first.
"I don't quite know where to start," Isobel conceded, once they were sitting down, "Everything just at the moment seems... it seems a struggle. And I'm not quite sure why."
"You miss your son," Elsie surmised for her, "You worry about him."
"Yes, I do," Isobel sniffed, looking almost relieved that the housekeeper could understand, "I look at the young men in the hospital almost every day, and think how much of a miracle it is that Matthew's still on two feet. Particularly," she trailed off, looking deeply aggrieved, "I suppose you heard about the young man in the hospital this week?"
Elsie nodded a little; she was not quite sure how the whole village seemed to know about the poor young officer who had taken his own life, but everyone seemed to be muttering about it, one way or another. Isobel rested her head on her hand, her expression as she left it one of utter exhaustion. She was quiet for a few more moments. When she spoke again her voice shook at first.
"It's not that I worry Matthew could end up like that," she confessed, her eyes seeming to have softened as she moved on to the latter phrases, "I try not to let that cross my mind. Richard has taken it so very hard. He blames himself, I think, for what happened."
"Dr- … Major Clarkson, sorry."
Elsie pursed her lips, wondering what might be considered impertinent.
"How long have you referred to him as Richard, Mrs Crawley?" she enquired.
Isobel blinked, probably trying to work out what possible significance that could be of.
"Since... oh, since the war began, almost, I think."
Elsie wondered if there was any point in concealing her suspicions at this point, she had probably made them clear enough in her question. This was confirmed a second later, when Isobel's eyes seemed to widen in disbelief, before turning to stare out of the window at the dark night.
"Impossible," she sniffed, but not without a hint of a sad little smile in her voice.
She knew he was getting up tomorrow- to serve breakfast only she had insisted- but she still insisted on taking the small bottle of medicine up to him. It was no exaggeration to say that it was the highlight of her day.
As usual, she did not feel the need to knock; it was hard with a tray, anyway. When she found him, he was apparently asleep, anyway, so there was little risk of him being offended by her continuing to mollycoddle him. Not very offended, anyhow. She set the tray down carefully on his bedside table; really he should have taken it before settling down for the night, but she would leave it here so he could take it when he woke up.
Once she had seen that he was asleep, she deliberately hadn't looked at him; to do so would have surely been unwise. Indeed, she discovered just how unwise it would have been when she allowed herself a fleeting glance over her shoulder at his, seemingly peacefully asleep. She heard herself sigh under her breath.
This week, she had thought that she would loose him, and it had terrified her. It had been all she could do to keep herself in check, turn her back on him, leave him to Lady Sybil, and bark some meaningless commands at the rest of the staff. Otherwise the family would certainly have had to witness her collapsing as well; in terror.
She realised that she was just standing there, watching his sleeping form. It relaxed her, to know that he was safe, to be able to see it for herself, to see him physically there, breathing deeply.
What she did next- considering the implications it could have- she gave remarkably little consideration to. The way he lay to once side of the bed, leaving just enough space for her beside him, seemed to invite it. She bent down and removed her shoes before lying down beside him, having to nuzzle close to his body so that they could both fit on the bed. Where seeing him had provided her comfort, lying beside him excelled it almost beyond all credulity. It was exactly what she needed, exhausted, washed-out, shaky as she felt. The closeness was wonderful and forgiving.
She would stay only a few minutes; or else risk giving him another panic attack when he did wake up. He was so warm. The sound of his breathing whistled through her ears like a song.
When she woke up, she found an arm draped softly around her waist, holding her there.