The Borrowed Key
A/N: The idea was born in a Tumblr post referring to Carson and how he obtained the key to the storeroom from Mrs. Hughes … because they never leave her side. Unless …
Carson took his usual seat at the servants table and waited. On any other day, he would anxiously anticipate the moment Elsie Hughes walked through the door, taking her rightful place to his right, offering him a warm, comforting smile, and perhaps some light conversation while they waited on Mrs. Patmore to bring in the dinner. Tonight, though, was much different and it would certainly prove to be one of the most difficult evenings of his life.
As soon as Charlie Griggs had left Downton, twenty pounds richer but certainly more wretched than Carson had ever imagined, he had returned downstairs to change into his formal attire. His resignation had not been accepted, to his good fortune, and both Anna and Mr. Bates had all but promised to keep his secret. He was certain Lady Sybil and his Lordship would not go about spreading gossip about him, bless the girl and her kind father. Still, he could not and would not take the chance of having the most important person in his life learn of his misdeeds from the mouth of another.
With each piece of formal attire that he put on his body, he felt his shoulders growing heavier and heavier with the burden of it all. His heart already felt like a lead stone which would easily sink to the bottom of the lake should she take the news as poorly as he anticipated. Still, he had no one to blame but himself. His choices had been made and now, looking at himself in the mirror, he realized that his consequences were his alone to bear. He could not fault her, or anyone else, for altering their opinion of him or seeing him in a different light after he confessed his actions to her. He could only hope that, in time, perhaps, she would come to trust him once more, maybe even relent to being his friend should she be so forgiving.
So, here he sat: a bundle of nerves, feeling somewhat unsettled, wishing it was all over yet dreading that very same moment. He still hadn't decided on how best to tell her what he had done. Everything he wanted to say seemed to inadequate, so insincere. The last thing he wanted to do was appear to her as if he were explaining away his actions, trying to somehow justify what he had done. Elsie Hughes did not suffer fools lightly and he had certainly been a fool, in more than one sense of the word.
For the hundredth time that afternoon, he was going through possible ways of starting the discussion and, in turn, telling her everything that had happened when he heard her footsteps in the corridor. His heart began to beat a little faster in his chest, a sudden fear gripping that very same heart and squeezing it until he felt a very real pain in his chest.
Her footsteps were nearer now. She had stopped to speak softly to Daisy just outside the door. He couldn't make out what she was saying, but he could tell by the tone of her voice and the thickening of her accent that it hadn't been anything of concern. Perhaps she was giving her a small amount of praise, something the girl rarely received from anyone, especially Mrs. Patmore. On any other night, he might dare to ask her about that conversation, though he would not be so fortunate this evening. It would hardly be appropriate to pry into her private conversation with Daisy and then moments later to confess to his wrong-doing.
He turned and smiled at her, a weak smile for certain, though it as all he could manage at the moment. His mind was full of things he wanted, no needed, to say to her. There would be time for that after their dinner. He would have to make some attempt to eat a little. It would appear unusual if he declined his dinner. She had teased him on more than one occasion about his hearty appetite, to which he would respond with some witty comment or another to bring a smile to her lovely face.
That thought alone pained him most of all. For all the wrong he had done in recent days, as embarrassed as he had been when his truths were discovered, despite it all, the thought that broke his heart was that very soon he would be the reason she frowned, perhaps even yelled, and most certainly refused to speak to him unless it was absolutely necessary. He felt certain that once she heard of his Cheerful Charlie days and the events of late, she would find it impossible to remain his friend and all of his attempts to hide his past would have been for naught.
"Mr. Carson? Mr. Carson!" She reached out and touched his arm lightly, snapping him from the darkness of his own mind. "Are you quite well? You seem terribly distracted this evening. Mrs. Patmore is ready for you to serve the dinner."
He looked down at her hand touching his arms then back into her concerned face. "Yes, Mrs. Hughes. I do apologize. I was … thinking." And with that, Charles Carson snapped back into his familiar role of butler of Downton Abbey, a man who took great pride in doing everything by the book.
It wasn't until the servants were well engrossed in their evening meal that Charles plucked up the courage to speak softly to Elsie. "Might I have a word with you in your sitting room after dinner? There is a matter which I would like to discuss and I believe it is of the greatest importance, though nothing that would affect the running of the house."
Elsie placed her spoon back in the dish and stared into his eyes, seeing the concern and seriousness of the matter lurking there. "Of course, Mr. Carson. As soon as dinner is over and everyone has resumed the last of their nightly duties, I believe we can have our little chat." She offered him a smile, trying in her own way to offer him some sort of ease from the worry she could see written across every line of his face.
After dinner, Charles waited in his pantry until the sounds of the other servants had died down. If she was going to yell at him, at least he would be assured that no one else would overhear. He started towards his pantry door then glanced back at the carafe of wine and the two glasses which he usually took with him when he visited Mrs. Hughes. Somehow, he didn't think she would appreciate drinking with a liar and a thief. He would rather let the wine spoil than to add another sin to his long list of things he would need to confess to her. He would not ask her to sully her good name by sharing a glass of wine with him this evening.
Elsie had noticed his peculiar behavior all afternoon, though she chose not to draw any attention to it. He had seemed distracted enough without her fussing about and, when the time came, he might feel comfortable enough to share his thoughts with her. When he had finally looked at her at dinner and asked permission to seek her company after the meal, she quickly recognized this as his way of reaching out to her, his way of seeking her company, advice, and whatever else he needed. So, as soon as the dishes were cleared away, she retired to her sitting room under the guise of attending to her work, all the while waiting for that gentle knock that always preceded his heartwarming smile.
And here he stood, on the other side of the door. One knock, a few words of explanation, and he might very well lose the best friend he had ever had, not to mention the one woman in the entire world that had the ability to make his heart race with a simple look or touch, not that she had any way of knowing that last bit. Still, he'd put this off for the entire day. No sense in wasting more time. With that, he raised his hand and knocked gently on her door.
Elsie stood and smoothed down her dress and absent-mindedly touched her hair as she walked to the door. Charles Carson had the rare talent for making her heart flutter and, when he smiled at her or they shared a laugh, her knees would practically go weak. She often chided herself about being a silly schoolgirl over such things, but she could not deny the effect he had on her. With her usual smile, she opened the door and ushered him inside, closing the door firmly behind him.
He sat in the rigid chair at her desk, not feeling comfortable enough to occupy her settee with her. What he had to say was uncomfortable so why should he make himself comfortable in her rooms when he had injured her without her knowledge. She questioned him on his choice of seats, commenting even on how much more comfortable he would be elsewhere, but he declined, suddenly finding his folded hands in his lap the most fascinating thing in the world.
"Mrs. Hughes … I have something I need to share with you, something of which I am not proud nor do I expect you to fully understand. However, I do feel it important to share certain … events … with you before you hear about them from others."
Elsie sat a little straighter, her brow furrowed as she listened to the unusual words falling from Charles Carson's lips. "Mr. Carson, I'm certain that whatever it is, you're exaggerating things. Surely nothing can be as bad as you're making it seem." She paused, hoping to see his lips twitch in a small smile but was not rewarded for her efforts. "Go on, then. Tell me what it is you think is so horrible and we'll put it past us and move on. You hardly ate any of your dinner and you've not been yourself all afternoon. So, why not tell me what it is and we'll fix it, hmm?"
"If only it were that simple and easy. I am afraid I have stolen from you. Well, not stolen exactly, but I took it without permission, though I did bring it back before you even noticed."
"Stolen? What on earth could I possess that you would want enough to steal … er, borrow? I've noticed nothing missing and as I don't have many personal effects either here or in my rooms of value, I hardly see what all the fuss is about."
With a deep breath, Charles looked up and shook his head. It was finally the moment of truth. "The other day, you went into town to post some letters and to see about a few things for the house. I had encouraged you to go, even asking you to check on a few things for me, which you did willingly. I will admit that I trusted no other to those small tasks on my behalf and I am even now, eternally grateful for your assistance. But, you see, while you were away, I entered your sitting room."
"You came in here … while I was away? That's hardly an excuse to lose sleep or miss a meal. Charles Carson, stop beating around the proverbial bush and tell me what it is you think is so horrible. Surely, you don't imagine that I would be angry over you coming into my sitting room while I was off to town?"
"I know where you keep the storeroom key, you see, and I needed to take a few supplies. In fact, Mrs. Hughes, I stole from the cupboard to feed an old acquaintance of mine who'd suddenly turned up in town. He was … he was threatening to expose parts of my past to his Lordship and I was trying to insure his silence with some food and lodging. I had to get you out of the house, you see. You never take the keys with you but Mrs. Patmore doesn't know that, nor will she ever learn of that from me. I've seen where you keep them, in the little compartment in your desk drawer. So, when you were out, I took the liberty of removing the keys from your office, using them to steal the food, then returned them before I made my own way into town to deliver them to Charlie Griggs." There. He'd told her most of it and now all there was left to do was wait to be tossed out of her room on his ear, mostly likely with a lot of yelling, at the very least with a shattered friendship.
Elsie sat stunned and speechless for a long moment, processing everything Charles was telling her before finally speaking. "Forgive me for saying so, Mr. Carson, but as butler of Downton, you have every right to go into every part of this house except one and that is the women's corridor. Since we both know you are above reproach on that subject, all you would have had to do was ask me to borrow the keys. I would have asked for particulars but if you'd simply said it was a personal matter, I would have tried my best not to press you for answers." Here she paused, giving herself time to carefully choose her words. "What bothers me more about you taking the food and borrowing the key isn't the fact that you did those things. I'm more hurt that you felt you couldn't trust me to help you or simply loan you the keys in the first place. Why, Charles, did you feel the need to lie to me, of all people in this house? You took food to help an old friend and from what you said, you put him up in one of the estate cottages. Fair enough, though I'll not try to understand that one. But you felt the need to keep it all hidden from me. I thought you trusted me, thought we were friends, almost equals, yet you deliberately kept it all from me. And why are you telling me all of this now? Surely your conscience didn't start bothering you over some silly keys on a ring."
Charles! She had actually called him Charles and not Mr. Carson. She rarely ever did that. In fact he could count on one hand the number of times she'd used his first name. He sat stunned until her constant, piercing gaze drew him back into his current state of discomfort.
"I was ashamed to reveal certain parts of my past, Elsie. I thought, if you knew of them, knew what I'd done and who I'd once been, you would think less of me, find me lacking and certainly not worth your respect and friendship. I was afraid to come to you, not out of some obligation to keep my deeds hidden, but to keep them hidden from you, for I truly value your opinion of me."
"Charles Carson, you still have my friendship and my respect, and if I may say so, you still have me confused. Why keep any of this hidden from me? There are worse things than helping an old friend who's a bit down on his luck. I should think a man of your standing and kind-heartedness would be more than willing to help an old friend. It's one of the things I admire most about you. Beneath your stern exterior there lurks a very soft heart, filled with love, compassion, and empathy for those he works with and especially his friends."
Charles swallowed hard. It was very difficult to hear those words of praise coming from her when he certainly did not feel he deserved them. It would be so easy to end the conversation here, his confession having been made and she still on speaking terms with him. But, that would be an injustice to her and to their friendship, the trust and respect he'd worked so hard to earn from her.
"There is more to my story, Elsie. I trust you do not mind me calling that. I apologize for taking the liberty without asking."
"Charles … I do not mind at all. We are two adults having a rather serious conversation. It seems silly to stand on pretense and rules now. Please, go on. I'd like to hear the rest of your story and exactly how my keys were needed to unlock this mystery."
Carson cleared his throat and wished for the first time since entering her sitting room that he'd brought that carafe of wine and those glasses. He could use a little fortification about now but perhaps he could use it later to drown his sorrows when she'd kicked him out of her room and essentially out of her private life.
A few more moments later and Charles Carson, butler at Downton Abbey, had revealed his darkest secrets and shared everything of his Cheerful Charlie days with Elsie. She sat, quietly, and listened to him explain his days on the stage, the money Griggs squandered, the realization that he wanted more from life, and his ultimate decision to go into service, thus banishing his days on the stage to the dark recesses of his mind and certainly his past.
Elsie sat and listened intently, her eyes never leaving his. She tried her best to understand everything he was saying, not wishing to ask too many questions since she could already see the unease with which he spoke of his misspent youth. She waited until he was completely finished, his soul offered up like an open book for her to read.
"So, this Griggs fellow … he is the one you used the keys for, the one who blackmailed you into giving him food and lodging, the one who cost you no telling how many sleepless nights filled with worry? He is the one that has driven you to such a state that you would go to such lengths to purchase his silence and all in the sake of preserving your dignity and keeping your past a secret?"
Charles nodded, sure this was the end of his friendship with Elsie. Any second now her Scottish temper would flare and he would be lucky to escape with even a shred of his dignity intact.
"I AM ABSOLUTELY ASHAMED!" She was on her feet in a second, pacing about her sitting room and muttering all sorts of things beneath her breath, things he was sure he did not wish to hear or to ask her to repeat. "I CANNOT BELIEVE HIS LORDSHIP WOULD GIVE THAT … THAT CRETIN ANY SUM OF MONEY!"
"What? Are you … you're not angry at … me?" Carson was quite confused. Her anger seemed to be directed not towards him but at Griggs and his Lordship. In all the scenarios he'd imagined, none had come close to this reaction from her.
Elsie stopped in her pacing and placed her hand on his shoulder, giving it a squeeze and shaking her head. "My dear man, I am not angry at you. I am sorry you felt the need to keep all of this hidden from me, not trusting me enough to help you with the matter, but in time, I am certain I can come to accept it. No, what annoys me more, no, angers is the more appropriate word, is that his Lordship would actually give him any sum of money. The low life was actually blackmailing you, Charles, and he got exactly what he wanted. I can tell you right now, had he come to me, he would have been given more than an earful and a one way ticket to the constables office, where he could then explain his actions."
Charles reached up and placed a shaking hand over her, which still rested on his shoulder. "Thank you, Elsie. That means a lot to me. I was grateful, though, that his Lordship gave him a little money to go with that threat. Otherwise, I'm sure Griggs would have spread the word all about the area of my dalliances in my youth and that might have brought shame on the household. I could not bear that."
"Noble and protective even at the expense of your own reputation, Charles Carson! You are a marvel and a source of great frustration to me sometimes. This man bullied you into going against your conscious, forcing you to "borrow" my key, steal from the house, secretly hide him in a cottage, and then had the audacity to turn up and demand a sum of money from either you or his Lordship and your main concern is for the household!"
She leaned down and quickly kissed his cheek, leaving him more than a little speechless, his hand rising up slowly to touch his cheek where her lips had been only a second before. When his mind focused again, she was seated on the settee, looking at him with a kind smile on her face.
"I take it you're not angry at me. You're not disappointed that you know me or feel I have, in some way, brought shame upon the house and my own name?"
Elsie shook her head and leaned forward, covering his hand with hers and giving it a squeeze. "I, dear man, could not be prouder. You risked your job, your reputation, and I dare say your very soul in order to protect this family that you so dearly love. Yes, I'm sure there was a bit of selfishness in your motives, but who among us doesn't have secrets we'd like to keep buried? None of us could fault you for that, and if it's any consolation, I believe it makes you a stronger person in the eyes of his Lordship. He knows what lengths you'll go to in order that Downton be preserved."
Charles placed his free hand on top of hers and smiled his first genuine smile of the evening. "And what if I were to say that, while I value his Lordship's opinion of me greatly, there was someone else whose opinion of me I value even higher, someone I should not wish to disappoint or hurt in any way. It might have even been her opinion of me that caused me such distress and worry, thinking she might not wish to remain friends after learning of my past."
Elsie lowered her head but looked up at him through her long lashes, giving him a coy smile. "Then I would say she is a lucky lass but she would be even more so should you choose to share your feelings with her, in a more direct manner, the good and the bad, in the future. She might be inclined to say that she feels much the same about your opinion of her." She paused and looked up at him, her eyes locking with his. "But, neither of us will have answers until the gentleman in question is bold enough to say or do something. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say."
He laughed softly and turned over his hand, lacing his fingers through hers as he pulled her to her feet as he, too, stood. "Then, Elsie Hughes, I would like to propose that we amend that particular saying." He daringly drew her closer and gently placed his hands on her waist and stared deeply into her eyes.
"Oh, Charles Carson? And what might that amendment be? You have my undivided attention on the matter at hand." As she said this, she placed her hands on his chest, gently curling her fingers around the lapel of his coat and pulling him a step closer.
He lowered his head to hers, his face so very close she could feel his warm breath on her skin. "Everything ventured …"
Elsie Hughes closed the distance between them and drew him into a fierce kiss. Her lips sought his as she caught him off guard, instantly wrapping her arms around his neck and holding him tightly to her as she deepened the kiss. For years, she had longed to kiss Charles Carson and yet nothing had prepared her for this moment. His lips were incredibly sweet and soft, his scent ever so intoxicating, his warmth seeping through her skin to settle in her very bones. She moaned softly as his arms wound around her waist, guiding her back towards her settee.
Charles could no longer form a coherent sentence, much less formulate a word. But, there was no need for words at the moment. Everything that needed to be said was spoken in a language much older and much sweeter. Feeling the back of his knees hitting the edge of the settee, he sat down, bringing her with him, all the while kissing her with all the passion and longing he'd been holding for decades. When they finally broke apart, she rested her forehead against his and laughed softly.
"I believe the new phrase is: Everything ventured, love gained."
In the morning, Charles and Elsie would wake up to a new world. It was a world in which the Charlie Griggs of the world did not win, love always triumphed, and a borrowed storeroom key proved to be the most important object in the entire world.
If you've made it this far, thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed the story.