Madness. Pure and utter madness in response to the Mistletoe Challenge.
"No. Absolutely and unequivocally. No."
"Why not?" Isobel enquired of the butler, throwing an exasperated glance at Elsie at the other side of the servants' hall table, her incredulity showing itself in her voice, "I'm not asking you to join in, only if you'll allow some of the footmen or the girls some time of on Tuesday evening to join us. You'd enjoy it, wouldn't you, Anna?" she asked the housemaid who was passing by on her way to kitchen, "You'd like to come carol singing with us next Tuesday to see if we can raise just a little extra money for the hospital?"
"I don't think I should mind it," Anna replied, "That is if you don't mind, Mrs Hughes?"
"For myself, I haven't any objections," the housekeeper assured her, looking understandably weary.
Once Anna had left, Mrs Hughes received a rather irritated glance from Mr Carson, but was spared any short words that might have followed by Isobel's intervention.
"Why have you got such an objection to the staff going carol singing anyway?" she wanted to know, placing her hands on her hips and apparently scrutinising the butler closely, "As far as I can remember anyway, you haven't actually given any reason."
Getting up out of his chair- with an air of someone who was tired of having to suffer fools- Mr Carson muttered something that sounded suspiciously like "undignified". Isobel looked moderately appalled by this, but Elsie could not have been less surprised. She received another look- of something more like hurt, this time, for having usurped his authority- as he passed them both and made his way towards his pantry. They waited until they heard the door shut before they dared to say anything.
Now that they were both left alone in the servants' hall, Isobel seemed to exhale deeply. Elsie threw her a wry smile.
"You owe me a shilling," she reminded her, "I told you he'd say no, didn't I?"
"What's he got against carol singing?" Isobel wanted to know, "He can't expect me to believe that dignity nonsense, can he? If Lady Violet did it, would it still be undignified then?"
"Don't let him hear you saying that," Elsie cautioned her, "Or I doubt he'll ever speak to you again."
"It's true though, isn't it?" Isobel asked, "Because it's me organising it he automatically turns his nose up at it. The hold that Old Violet seems to have over him really is rather extraordinary."
It would be best overall, Elsie thought, if she decided to ignore that remark. She could not pretend that she did not rather envy the unswerving loyalty he seemed to feel he owed the Dowager Countess, and sometimes found herself wishing he could be half as cooperative with her- his colleague, equal, friend- as he was with Violet Crawley. In spite of this, she did not think his reluctance to help was entirely to do with it being Isobel's idea: he seemed to have an aversion to most things that involved lively singing or dancing.
Instead she gave Isobel her best attempt at a hearty smile.
"You have my support," she told her, "And I dare say you'll have Matthew's and Sybil's too, once you ask them. And of course, Dr Clarkson too."
"Yes," Isobel agreed vaguely, "I suppose your are right about that. I haven't spoken to Dr Clarkson a great deal about it."
"Oh, don't worry about that," Elsie told her, "I'll talk to him about it this evening."
Isobel looked at her friend in puzzlement, waiting for her to elaborate. When she did, it was with the air of someone who had just inadvertently let something slip.
"He's asked me to the Grantham Arms this evening," she informed her, "I assumed you knew."
When Isobel left a few minutes later, she was in very bad spirits indeed.
"And you were sure to tell her that you were meeting me this evening?"
Sitting on the bar stool beside him, Elsie Hughes took a sip of her shandy and gave him a withering sideways glance.
"You, Richard Clarkson," she told him, "Are wicked through and through and I can't think why I'm playing a part in your ghastly little scheme to win over a very dear friend of mine. You are not good enough for her. I feel dreadful that I went along with it- she looked so hurt when I told her- and I would be prepared to bet that now she is very jealous of me indeed, as you no doubt intended. What will you do, I wonder, if she takes it to heart, and murders me in a jealous fit of passion?"
Had this speech come from anyone else, Richard might have taken it badly but he was used to Elsie Hughes scolding him. And after many years of seeing each other occasionally for the odd chat- being the only two Scotspeople in Downton- he was now well used to telling if she was genuinely telling him off or not.
"Why did you go along with it, then?" he asked, barely concealing a grin,"If it offends your principles so very deeply?"
"Because you offered me a free meal, and at Christmastime Mrs Patmore can become... unreliable," she told him bluntly, "And because at the time it seemed that you might have some sort of honourable intention in your deceit, but I'm beginning to doubt that. At the moment you seem to be trying to entice her into envy by 'playing-hard-to-get' as I believe it's called."
"Because you've never tried that..." he remarked under his breath.
There was the sound of a glass being set down on the table with rather too much force. He had forgotten she had the ears of a bat.
"I don't call that very fair," she remarked, looking at him very sternly indeed.
He felt he had to snort at that.
"Does that name Charles Carson ring any bells with you?" he enquired quietly, checking that the landlord was well out of earshot, given his propensity to gossip, "If you'd given that man so much as a hint, he'd have come running years ago."
This was the second remark of the day that she thoroughly wished she could ignore.
"I'm not so sure," she replied, even discounting what had happened earlier that day, "Not all men are as roguish as you are, you know."
"I don't call intending to marry her particularly roguish," he remarked lightly.
That stopped Elsie in her tracks, and for a moment all she could do was stare at him.
"You intend to marry her?" she repeated, stupidly.
"If she'll have me," he replied, "Please don't look so shocked, Elsie."
"I'm not shocked," she closed her mouth abruptly, "Only a little surprised. And," she added after some thought, "Astonished that you're willing to wind up the woman you want to marry so much as to ask me to help make her jealous!"
"Haven't you ever read Jane Eyre, Mrs Hughes?"
She almost could not believe her ears at this point. Dr Clarkson: a romantic! A very odd one, but still!
"Order us some food," she told him, not attempting to disguise the disbelief in her voice, "I think we had best only talk about carol singing for this evening."
Due to the fact that most of her "choir"- as she had rather ambitiously called it- was made up of Downton staff, Isobel managed to secure the servants' hall as a choir room. At first, this had seemed to only aggravate Charles' even further- it had seemed to Elsie a little like rubbing salt on the wounds, but Isobel was right, where else could they all practise comfortably?- but now that the idea was in practice he seemed not to mind so much. She suspected he secretly thought that they were quite good, because, despite the want of a little fine tuning, Elsie had to admit that they produced a far more pleasant sound that she would ever have expected. Pottering around in her sitting room at the end of the day, she found herself humming along to 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' as she shuffled a few papers around and placed them neatly between the pages of the accounts book. There was a knock at the door.
"Come in," she called as the door opened. She knew, then, who it would be when she turned around.
"I was wondering if you'd like some tea," he asked.
He did not need to add that this was by way of making sure they were on good terms after their disagreement from the previous day and her absence from the house yesterday evening. Only her back facing him, she smiled momentarily down at her desk, giving the edges of the accounting book a final press between her fingers, before turning towards him.
"I was considering making some myself," she replied, "And maybe some for the rabble in there when they finish."
She indicated with her head in the direction from which 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' had just started issuing. He gave her a rather exasperated look, but it was a kindly kind of exasperated; silently telling her that he couldn't quite believe what she was like sometimes.
"Well, I don't think Mrs Patmore will be much use where making them some tea is concerned," she reminded him, "The state she was in before she'd fill the kettle with treacle and not notice."
"She's not still on the go, is she?" he asked incredulously.
"No," she told him, "With the help of Daisy, Lily and Miss O'Brien, I managed to confiscate the sherry, and get her up the stairs with minimal destruction to the fabric of the house. She's sleeping it off now."
"Thank goodness for that."
Making their way along to the kitchen, Elsie could not help but smile at Daisy as she passed them. Small as she was, the girl, she had recently discovered, was a valiant fighter when she had to be; when bottles had to be wrestled out of inebriated cooks' hands.
"Goodnight, Mr Carson, Mrs Hughes."
She did not, however, make her way up the stairs once she had passed them, but slipped into the servants' hall- no doubt to join Isobel's choir practice.
"Well, I must say you were right," he admitted, "It does certainly seem to be a popular idea of Mrs Crawley's. That's not to say I altogether approve," he added hastily, seeing the sneaky smile on her face, "But a little Christmas spirit never harmed anyone, I suppose."
"Don't sound so begrudging," she told him, as she filled the largest of the kettles at the sink, "It might do you the world of good too."
"Be careful with that!" he told her, as she tried to lift the large copper kettle full of water over to the stove, "You'll put your back out doing that!"
She was about to protest that she was more than capable of carrying a kettle a few feet across the kitchen, when she felt his hands close around hers, their warmth pressing her fingers against the cold of the handle, taking most of the weight of it from her, and helping her lift it onto the stove. What with the surprise, and the effort of lugging the thing- because it was a little bit heavy, though not so heavy that she couldn't manage- she found that she was quite breathless. She glanced up at him to see if he had noticed, and saw something that she couldn't honestly work out where or not she was happy to.
Mistletoe, directly above his head.
Her eyes lingered just a little bit too long, and he saw it too. They seemed to look at each other in sync. Their eyes met. She bit her lip.
"I don't suppose we can really afford the bad luck," she remarked, her vague coyness sounding particularly hopeless.
Thankfully, he seemed not to notice.
"No," he agreed, in a voice that seemed little more than a low growl.
Their faces were suddenly nearer; she was somehow taller; their lips inches apart; she closed her eyes and-...
"Oh. You're both in here."
Her head snapped around to see Isobel standing in the doorway. She suddenly notice that she was standing at least five feet back from where she'd just been, and realised that she must have jumped there in alarm at their having been discovered. She did not dare look at Charles, it was more than her life was worth.
"Choir practice has finished," she told them, "So you can have your servants' hall back. What were you both doing in here?"
"Nothing," they both replied.
She peered around Charles to see the stove.
"It looks like you were making tea," she pointed out.
"We were," Charles seemed to recover himself a little.
"We were just at a loss for something to do while we were waiting for it to boil," Elsie supplied helpfully, nodding in his direction, but still not daring to meet his eyes properly.
"For you," Charles finished for her, "We thought you might like some after your rehearsal."
The look of confusion melted away from Isobel's face to be replaced by a smile.
"Mr Carson, that's so thoughtful of you," she told him, moving away from the door and round the table to help them, "Thank you. And after all the trouble I caused you yesterday!"
Elsie took an additional step back towards the sink to emphasise the distance between Charles and herself.
"It was no trouble," he was telling Isobel as she pottered around finishing off the tea quite happily.
"No, no. I still say it's extraordinarily kind. I mean, you're not paid to take care of me and my choir, are y-..."
She broke off, staring at the ceiling. Elsie's eyes followed hers, and to her horror, she saw that her best friend and Charles were standing- framed- under the mistletoe together. This was evidently divine judgement on her for making Isobel feel jealous. An eye for an eye.
Both Charles and Isobel were looking just as awkward as she had felt. She wished for a moment to be completely invisible. What was awful was- not knowing what had nearly happened just before she had entered the room, and probably thinking that the man she herself had designs on was assiduously courting Elsie at the Grantham Arms- Isobel had every right to expect a kiss; and even knowing this, Elsie wanted to charge her out of the way.
She found herself hopelessly watching, though, as Charles bent down and placed a quick peck against Isobel's lips.
"Merry Christmas, Mrs Crawley."
"They ought to be back by now!"
Sitting in the chair that Mrs Hughes usually occupied in the servants' hall, Richard watched his friend pace back and forward with some amusement.
"Heavens man, anyone would have thought that it was you who was planning a proposal for when they get back!" he told him.
This remark only caused Charles to pause for a moment before resuming his pacing. It also earned Richard a scowl.
"I notice you're remarkably calm about that," he pointed out, sounding rather irritated by the fact, "You seem very confident that she'll accept you."
"There's no point in worrying that she won't when there is still every chance that she'll say yes," he explained.
If Richard could not work it out for himself, there was obviously no use in Charles pointing out that precisely the reverse was also true. Instead he turned the corner to pace the length of the table as opposed to the width.
"I do hope nothing's happened to them."
"Elsie's a big girl, she can take care of herself."
Richard was thrown another scowl, which he answered with a pointed look of blankness.
"I don't think for a moment that you're wearing the soles of your shoes out from worrying about Isobel."
Charles said nothing to this. The truth was he was reeling. Utterly reeling. He could curse himself at this very moment on several counts. Firstly for allowing this ridiculous carol singing spree to go on in the first place. If anything had happened to any of them, he would feel personally responsible. If anything happened to Elise... he did not like to think how he'd feel then. How he'd feel knowing he'd deliberately held back telling her how he felt about her every day since their almost-kiss under the mistletoe, if she were to not come b-...
His thoughts were mercifully interrupted by the sound of the back door opening and of much bustling and chatter that followed. Rushing into the hall, he felt a draught of cold air coming in through the door behind them.
"It's snowing," Mrs Crawley told him cheerfully, brushing the evidence off her coat."
"Where's Elsie?" he asked mechanically.
"Here I am."
She emerged from behind Anna and Lily removing their coats, her face flushed with the cold, an undeniable brightness in her eyes, as she removed her gloves. Relief rose headily in his throat as he took in her appearance: beautiful but cold.
"We were wondering if it would be alright if we had a small celebration in the servants' hall," Mrs Crawley told him tentatively, "It wouldn't go on too late, and seems a waste to not do anything when everyone is the merry."
"Yes, yes," he agreed, hardly listening, only thinking about Elsie's state; ought he to go and get her a blanket?- he wondered.
There was much excitement as the joyous carol singers followed Mrs Crawley into the servants' hall, where they were greeted- by the sounds of it- by Richard. He took hold of Elsie's hand and pulled her to the side of the corridor, preventing her from being swept into the servants' hall as well.
"Come and get warmed up," he told her quietly, pulling her by the hand into his parlour.
He helped her into the armchair closest to the fire, took off her hat and tucked the rug from the back of the settee around her before asking: "Are you alright? Can I get you anything?"
"Charles," she gave a rather confused little laugh, "I'm alright, really, I'm fine. I've been out in a little bit of snow, not a blizzard."
He was crouching beside the chair, looking up at her. Her smile was still confused as she regarded him, and when he remained crouched beside her, his hand covering hers, betrayed the first indications of worry.
"Charles, what's the matter?" she asked.
He looked fixedly for a moment at the pattern of the armchair.
He felt a cold little hand press hesitantly against his cheek and gently turn his head to face hers. She looked at him very thoroughly as she had done under the mistletoe, and that was his undoing. Her hand beneath his, her eyes boring straight into his own, he later convinced himself that it was all her who had caused him to utter the next sentence.
"I love you, Elsie. I was frightened when you didn't come back because I thought something had happened to you, and I was so cross with you last week about the carol singing, and that you'd think that I still was, and the mistletoe... and I love you," having tried to convey everything at once, he came inelegantly to this abrupt halt. If nothing else, it served to remind him why he was not accustomed to making impassioned speeches.
When he finally dared himself to look up into her eyes, he found that her confusion had by no means abated. Or at least her surprise hadn't. Her hand still beneath his.
"Where's Mr Carson?" Isobel wanted to know, "I could swear that I haven't seen him since we got back, and that must have been a good forty minutes ago."
"I haven't seen Mrs Hughes either," Sybil remarked, surveying the servants' hall, while helping herself to another drink, "Tom, have you seen either Mrs Hughes or Mr Carson?"
Branson answered that he hadn't, before asking Sybil if she'd like to dance, and the two of them moved off together. Leaning back against the large table, Isobel watched them go fondly. Richard looked at her face for a second before saying:
"I must say, for someone so remarkably astute, you do often have trouble seeing what's right in front of your face."
"Oh, I don't know," she replied, "Cora might disapprove of them, but I can't quite bring myself to."
This remark confused him until he noticed that she was still watching the young pair as they moved around the room.
"I don't mean them!" he told her in a tone just sharp enough to bring her down to earth.
"What do you mean then?"
He was very hard-pressed not to roll his eyes at her.
"Charles and Elsie!" he told her in a whisper.
"Charles and Elsie?" she repeated.
"Why do you think he practically jumped at her when she came back through the door?" he wanted to know.
Isobel leant back another notch.
"She never mentioned it. I-... oh, good Lord! No wonder he looked so unwilling to kiss me the other day!"
That certainly brought the doctor up short.
"Kiss you?" he repeated, louder than necessary.
"Shh!" Isobel hissed at him, looking around to make sure no one had taken any notice of his outburst, "It was only under the mistletoe... it wasn't anything at all."
Richard still did not look very happy about this. In fact, he looked nothing short of sulky. Well, if he was not going to listen to reason, she saw no incentive for her to talk it. Dispensing altogether now with good posture, she hunched over, crossing her arms across her chest.
"I don't see why my kissing him should matter to you anyway," she told him, not bothering to not sound bitter, "When you were at the Grantham Arms with Elsie the night before. She told me about it, you know."
He looked at her in horror.
"Oh, Isobel!" he all but exclaimed, jumping up from the table and taking her completely by surprise, "Of course, you know about it! I told her to tell you."
She realised that quite a few people- including Sybil- were watching them now, with no disguised degree of interest.
"Why would you do that?" she asked in a low voice.
"Oh, only because I love you!" he told her, "To make you madly jealous!"
They had moved onto the settee a long time ago now. It was safe to say that he was ensuring that she was nicely warm, and that all clothes that risked being damp were in the process of being removed. Lying above her, kissing her neck, her collar bone, moving down towards her breasts; surely she had fallen out in the snow, died of the cold and gone to heaven.
That is until there was a frantic knocking on the door.
They both sat up, looking suitably dishevelled, unhappy at having been brought back down to earth so suddenly.
Hearing her name being called from the other side, she could hardly ignore it. Rolling her eyes, she turned towards Charles to plant another kiss on his lips before moving his arm gently so she could get up. She tried to unlock the door as quietly as possible.
On the other side was Isobel, looking moderately hysterical. The sounds of the ongoing party issued exuberantly from the background.
"What?" she asked frantically, "What's going on? You haven't let Mrs Patmore back at the drink, have you?"
Isobel shook her head dismissively.
"No, Elsie. She found her own way back, but that's not what I wanted to tell you. Doctor Clarkson has asked me to marry him!"
She looked rather hurt when Elsie did not look at all surprised by this.
"And what did you say?"
"I said yes. Once the shock had died down."
Grinning, at both of their ultimate good fortunes, she embraced her friend. She felt Isobel laugh.
"Happy Christmas, Elsie."
"Happy Christmas, Isobel."
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