Author's Note: I've been anonymously reading and secretly writing fanfiction for a while, but finally worked up the gumption to post this one. It's just a little idea I had a few days ago while I was busy thinking about Downton Abbey every minute of my life.
I think I'm also supposed to say that the continually frustrating, yet intriguing, Julian Fellowes is the owner of all of this and not myself (but if I was Mrs. Hughes would be Mrs. Carson and Isobel would be with Dr. Clarkson and Bates never would have shown up).
Mrs. Hughes didn't keep the key to the men's side because she was particularly worried about her girls taking up with the valets or footmen. Yet still, every night after she'd locked the door to keep the genders separate, she took the key back with her and placed it underneath her pillow. The previous housekeeper was fairly strict about the door being opened. However, that one would leave the key on the wall at night, with the rule (and a pointed stare) that only she could unlock said door. So if they were sneaky enough, the young women were basically free to make their own decisions. The maids were told often about the dangers of letting a footman woo them and the kind of shame they would bring on the house if they were to get into any kind of trouble. The smart ones, like Elsie, were never lured to enter the men's side by just anyone for a quick tumble. There had been one strikingly handsome footman in her youth, in the house before Downton, that she had let kiss her in a bicycle shed once, but she had left that house after the butler had voiced his less than noble intentions for the pretty young housemaid. That's why she was relieved to find that at this house the barrier could only be opened from the women's side. Elsie quickly learned, however, that some of the girls were more than willing to slip through that door if it meant they would move up or get a good reference. There had been much speculation amongst the cattier staff when Elsie became housekeeper that involved her gaining the butler's respect in a bed rather than through her hard work. The maids had been incensed when on her first night she'd taken the key and felt like Mrs. Hughes was just exerting her new found power.
How wrong they had been.
Elsie Hughes kept the key under her pillow at night simply because the man she loved (and God help her she always had) slept on the other side. That man just so happened to be in quite the position of authority and she didn't want him awoken in the middle of the night by a high thinking young girl out to seduce him. She didn't really worry too much about his side of things or what he would do if that were to happen. In fact, she would sometimes chuckle to herself at the thought of Charles Carson batting a young woman out of his bed, if nothing, than for the sake of propriety. But if she was completely, truly, honest she wanted to protect herself from the heartbreak of Charles taking up with one of the beautiful, young women that reminded her of the fact that she wasn't so young anymore. Though Elsie wasn't stupid enough to think that simply making it harder for them to see each other at night would completely prevent Charles from a torrid affair if he so desired one, she took some small comfort in knowing it would be less convenient.
Occasionally, alone, in the dead of night, she would consider how thrilling it would be to draw the key from underneath her head and quietly cross the threshold into the arms and bed of her lover. How she would giggle when he would kiss her and ask what on earth had taken so long. And every time a deep, wistful sigh would escape her lungs. If only he were her lover. If only he ever had been, just once. But Elsie was realistic and more than well aware that Mr. Carson and herself would probably never be more than good friends. Well, perhaps, someday she could convince him to retire with her. Who knew what the future held? Until then, anyway, she would continue to proudly keep the key, along with his honor, safe and sound.