I didn't expect to have this up so quickly but here we are. This story is meant to be the continuation of the story between Charles and Elsie, picking up a little while after the events of Still Waters, which should probably be read first.
We must all suffer from one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.
The knot in his tie was slightly off kilter and that simply would not do, a Butler must always look faultless, must always be faultless, there was no room for error. Even if the family he served could overlook a flaw, Charles Carson could not. He adjusted his tie, satisfied with his appearance now; satisfied that no-one would be able to cast aspersions on how he looked. He welcomed guests into the grandeur of Downton and so in-keeping with the standard of the house he must ensure that his standards were also flawless, he must be beyond reproach.
Stepping away from the mirror he moved out of his pantry and moved towards the bustle of the servant's hall. They stood immediately when he entered and his eyes scanned the table, looking for any flaws in their appearance, they represented the way he ran this house and the family that lived upstairs, he would not let his staff bring words of criticism onto this household, and so every morning he scrutinised them. And every morning his gaze would pause on Elsie Hughes, she was always immaculate of course, he never did pause to find any fault, he simply wanted to look at her without arousing suspicion. She would stare straight ahead as though she did not notice his perusal, her chin tilted upwards with a defiant air. His gaze would linger no more than a few seconds before continuing to observe the rest of the table, instructing corrections wherever needed before taking his seat, the rest of the staff following suit.
As with every other morning, Elsie did not lift her gaze towards the top end of the table, he would occasionally hear her laugh with another member of staff but not once would she spare a glance in his direction. She had not spared a glance in his direction in nine months, not since that night in the gardens. He pulled his thoughts away from her, every morning he would torture himself with that moment of self pity, torture himself with that moment of desperate longing for her, and it meant that for once in his life he'd discovered a routine that he wished he could break.
Raising his tea cup to his mouth he took a large mouthful of the hot liquid and distracted himself with that moment of discomfort as the lining of his throat burned slightly. Keeping his expression neutral he forced himself to turn his attention to Mrs Jones and her questions regarding the night's dinner, letting himself find distraction in the rules and propriety he held close to himself.
She always knew when his eyes were resting on her, every morning without fail since he'd taken over a Butler he would inspect them all and she would feel his gaze almost burning into her skin. Not once did she turn her head, acknowledge that she knew he was looking, although once or twice she'd considering musing her appearance simply to see whether or not he would comment. That was a fool's game though and she did not indulge in such foolish endeavours...well if you omitted her whole romantic entanglement with Charles. Her lips tighten as she scolded herself, it was Mr Carson now and she would do well to remember that. He had chosen his career over her and she simply needed to pick herself up and move on. After all she had never wanted nor planned for a romance so it should really have been quite simple to move on, to forget, and yet it wasn't, even after all these months it was like an aching wound that simply wouldn't heal. Every time she heard his voice, saw that flash of exasperation his eyes it was akin to rubbing salt into a wound and she was right back to where she started.
Her knife clinked against her plate as she halved her toast almost viciously, gaining a concerned frown from Rose. She ignored the look, knew she'd be questioned later, asked if everything was well with her and she knew she'd fix a smile and her face and answer that everything was fine. It was all fine – for the most part – as long as she kept it firmly in her mind that he was the butler, nothing more than that, he could never be more than that now.
So everyday she'd immerse herself in her work, never looking at him, tilting her head away whenever he passed her, his large frame tall and straight, once arm slightly bent behind his back. He would echo the sentiment, never formally addressing her – although she would never give him any cause to find fault with her – his eyes never meeting hers. To the outside world they were the very picture of a dignified Butler and the Head Housemaid, and she knew that as far as he was concerned that image was all that mattered.
"I trust everything is ready downstairs?" Cora asked somewhat anxiously as Elsie brushed back a dark curl and pinned it into place in the elaborate style she'd asked for.
"Of course," she replied easily, "Mr Carson has it all in hand."
Cora's shoulders relaxed and her hand fluttered slightly as she remarked, "Yes of course, it was foolish of me to think otherwise, it's just what with this being the first time we've entertained since Mary was born I want it to go well."
"There's no reason why it won't."
"Certainly not with Carson at the helm, I don't imagine he allows any form of failure downstairs."
"He does like order and routine," Elsie answered, she really did not want to be drawn into a discussion of Charles Carson's merits.
Her Ladyship however seemed determined to discuss the matter. "We're very lucky to have him, you know for a while I honestly believed that he would turn down the position." She gave a small giggle before continuing, "It must have been pregnancy addling my brain, because I was quite convinced that he was going to leave us to get married."
Her fingers faltered and the pins grasped carefully in her hand tumbled to the carpet. "I am sorry my Lady," she offered quickly, dropping to her knees to gather them up quickly, her mind whirring over the younger woman's words.
She twisted in her chair, "It's quite alright, I suppose it was a rather shocking statement."
"It was that," Elsie murmured unthinkingly. She got to her feet and brushed her skirt down quickly with the back of one hand. She shouldn't continue with this conversation, she knew that, knew that the most sensible course of action would be to act as though the words had never been uttered and yet the question slipped from her mouth regardless, "Why did you think that?"
Cora turned to face the mirror again, a thoughtful frown on her face as she noticed the way that the maid's eyes did not lift from her work, most others would have been standing awestruck, waiting for more gossip and yet she seemed determined to look unaffected by this piece of news. She gave a small shrug, careful not to disturb the way Elsie's fingers were twisting and styling her hair. "Just small things at first," she replied carefully, "And then one day I went to ask him a question and while it may have been improper I went up to the servant's corridor to find him, he wasn't there but there was a ring."
Elsie's fingers slipped again, less noticeably this time, more a fumble that could easily have been overlooked. She knew she had to react to that news but she couldn't think, he could not have had a ring, he'd never made any mention...not once had she thought that he was willing to give everything up for her, not unless he'd absolutely had to. "Perhaps he had it for some other reason."
Cora had not overlooked that small fumble, nor could she overlook the expression in her eyes and the sudden pallor of her skin, her frown deepened momentarily, keeping her voice light as she told her, "That is exactly what his Lordship said, but as I said there were other signs, but then there was none of the whisperings that usually accompany these affairs. Like I said it was most likely the pregnancy making me fanciful."
"As he remains here I think you were mistaken about it, My Lady" she replied quietly. After all he had only mentioned marriage to her in the context of doing his duty, and he had been the one to walk away, he had chosen his career over anything they might have shared. Still though her thoughts lingered on it, trying to think why he may have even had it in the first place.
"It would appear so, although at first he seemed rather reluctant to take the job and the story did appear to make sense." She gave a small shrug. "Oh well, no harm done I suppose." She turned her head, admiring her new hairstyle. "This is very well done, Elsie, although I suppose you'll be very glad when my new Lady's Maid starts work."
"I wouldn't say glad exactly," she answered carefully. "I don't mind the extra work, I like to be kept busy."
"Still, it's not fair to you. I've narrowed it down to two candidates and Mrs Jones is to meet with both of them this week, I shall of course sit in on the interviews, it's important to feel comfortable with the person looking after you in such a way."
"It is that."
Cora got to her feet and smoothed down her dress, shooting Elsie a curious look she asked, "Are you well tonight? You've been rather quiet."
Truth be told she was confused, incredibly so but that was no kind of answer so she replied instead, "I'm just tired, that's all, My Lady."
"Perhaps you should get a few hours rest before I need you later tonight, I can clear it with Mrs Jones, I'm sure-"
"It's very kind of you to offer but I think I would prefer just to get on with things," Elsie interrupted. "The dinner tonight will require all hands on deck so to speak and I would hate to leave them short."
Smiling softly, Cora answered, "Of course, that is your choice." She glanced at the clock on her mantle and remarked, "It would appear that I have some spare time before I have to go down to the drawing room, if anyone is looking for me could you inform them that I am in the nursery."
Pausing in the doorway, Cora peered around the door for a brief second, pondering on the reaction of her head housemaid. She gave a small shake of her head, no surely not, she reasoned with herself, she'd merely surprised her with such a statement.
"James, the sleeves of that jacket are far too short, go and take another one out of the cupboards immediately, you are not waiting the table looking like that!" Charles snapped at their newest addition. Henry had made his escape quick sharpish when he realised that the rule of the household was about to change hands, after all a reference from Mr Sinclair would have been much more complimentary than any he would have written for him. It did however leave him working with two rather junior footmen. They were so green it made his head ache at times, but at least this way he could train them to a standard that he was content with.
He turned hurriedly and caught sight of Elsie on the stairs, normally she would not so much as pause in her step, never once had she met his gaze, but tonight was different, she not only paused but stopped moving entirely. Her blue eyes lifted and for the first time in a very long time – and he knew exactly how long to the day – her gaze met his and her mouth opened a fraction as though she wanted to say something to him and then closed again, giving the tiniest shake of her head.
Charles stepped forward, he would give anything to have her address him again, to say anything to him, even if it was mundane, a simple question regarding household affairs would be enough for him. His voice sounded rough to his own ears as he took the decision to push her, he wanted her to speak to him, "Elsie-"
"Mr Carson is this more suitable?" James asked, rounding the corner and holding out his arms and examining how they sat lengthwise.
He turned and examined the new jacket quickly. "Much better, just do up your buttons and go and fetch the drinks tray," he barked out harshly, annoyed at being interrupted, glaring at the back of the young boy's head as he made his way towards the kitchen. Looking back towards the stairs he was disappointed to see that Elsie had already made her escape.