Store Cupboard Spies - Chapter 42

The coming days were filled with what could only be described as a mournful tentativeness. Despite the festive season, a quiet depression settled over the rooms and corridors of the estate. The verdict touched everyone, starkly contrasting with the bright lights and ornaments hanging from the towering tree in the grand hall.

No one knew how to address Anna, inadvertently distancing themselves further from the girl who had suddenly found herself alone. Though words failed to come easily, small acts of kindness began to emerge. Daisy's early morning knocks were delivered softer upon doors. Mary's calls became a bit less frequent. Mrs. Patmore tried to gently encourage Anna to keep her strength up by making her favorites all day long.

It all seemed to come so easily to everyone but Elsie.

She found herself at a complete loss, swallowed up by the guilt that came along with delivering incriminating testimony during the trial. Charles did his best to reassure her that there was no alternative and that given time, Anna would come to that understanding, but Elsie's pain, though unexpressed since that fateful day, was palpable.

Anna had gone to the jail one last time to see John. Elsie knew that this would be the hardest day of the girl's life, saying goodbye to the man she had just married and loved more than life itself. She tried to prepare the staff for any fallout that may occur, changing the linen rotas and other responsibilities to give Anna the time she needed if not to heal, then to at least begin the mourning process.

Watching them play with a planchette nearly sent her over the edge, cursing their merriment at such a devastating time until she began to realize that every one of them needed a break from this new grim reality. Far be it from her to begrudge them that, just as long as it was well wrapped up before Anna was due back. Then came the news that Isis had gone missing. "Of all things holy," she groaned as she gathered up coats for Thomas and Charles, sending them out into the night to lead a search party.

"Did you find her," Elsie asked Charles as he reentered her sitting room a full hour later. "No sign I'm afraid," he sighed as he began to shed the thick wool that had covered his formal dinner wear. "You'd think the good Lord would have spared him the loss of his dog at a time like this," she went on, clearly strained by everything falling down around them. "Ours not to reason why," he sensibly replied, striving to be the pillar holding it all together. He knew that none of this was truly about the dog but found himself quite glad of the distraction. He would never wish harm upon the poor creature, but having Elsie's mind taken off the fate of Mr. Bates and in turn Anna for more than a few minutes was most certainly welcome.

Unfortunately it was to be short-lived.

Elsie began to fidget, and it began to leak out. First came the surface concerns of what it would mean for the family socially. He knew that this was her way of reaching out to him. She would not dare speak of Anna any more than she already had; he knew that it hurt her too much to do so. By addressing what would appear to be his main concerns, he knew that she was trying to open communication without letting herself feel.

And fall apart…

He knew to be patient. The cracks would slowly begin to show; he would be there to hold them fast.

"I can't bear to think of it. How will Anna bear it?"

Charles fought to keep concern off his features. Be sensible, matter-of-fact. Anna's the closest thing Elsie will have to a child of her own. You have to be the strong one.

"As the widow of a murderer," he said regretfully. He hated being so pointed and observational, especially when it concerned those he had come to care for. Still, those were the facts and facts would keep emotions at bay.

Sensible. Sensible and strong. The voice of reason. That is my role.

"She'll have to get used to a degree of notoriety, I'm afraid," he continued. The facts, Charles. These are the facts. You do no good hiding the truth of the matter.

"And so will we as the house that shelters her," he finished turning from Elsie's grief-stricken face, only to find Anna suddenly standing in the doorway.

This cannot be happening.

There she stood, white as a sheet. She had just said her final farewells to her husband and was now standing right here in front of him as he vehemently revealed the shame she would bring down upon them all.

It is no wonder they all believe me a cold man whose only concern is propriety.

Anna proceeded to shakily give her notice. Charles's heart hammered away inside his head as he shamefully looked to Elsie. Shock and hurt were firmly etched across her face, and he wondered if she would ever forgive him for being so blunt at the worst possible time.

He gently ushered Anna into the room knowing that Elsie would not give her up without a fight, but was it honestly what would be best for the girl? That he was not entirely convinced of. Family honor aside, how would Anna be treated in a village where everyone knew what her husband had done? Of course they were unconvinced of any wrongdoing on Mr. Bates part, but they had lived and worked alongside the man for years. What of the general bystander? Gossip was never a kind bedfellow. He could only imagine what disrepute would be cast upon the poor girl when talk of murder was to be her constant passenger.

He listened as Anna resolutely issued the same conclusion, choosing sensibility over the emotional ties she had created for herself within the walls of Downton. The girl bravely told of moving on to places where she would be an unknown stranger, places where she could create a new nameless, faceless life. Unfortunately that would mean leaving them all behind.

As much as he knew it would wound Elsie, he had to think of Anna first this time. "She has a point," he said flatly.

"Not one that I accept," Elsie replied steadily. She would dare anyone to spread malicious gossip about Anna Bates without enduring her own would keep Anna from ruin singlehandedly if she had to. She wasn't about to give up on her girl.

"I mean it Mrs. Hughes," Anna bravely replied. "I do."

Elsie could see that she was pale and drawn, but determined. There would be nothing she could say that would change her mind; it was quietly tearing her to shreds. She managed a slight nod, sending Anna off to parts unknown and leaving Charles standing there equally as speechless.

Elsie turned and made her way to the chair behind her desk. She sat down slowly, letting out a long, drawn out breath. There was only one thing she could think to say.

"Please leave."