Sorry for the delay, the next chapter should be up in the next few days.
The corridors along the bottom floor were quiet, not silent of course, they would never, could never be that but the conversations were hushed, subdued. Charles rubbed at his aching forehead, remembering how just the morning before the staff had rushed around, talking and laughing loudly. Now they all waited on tenterhooks.
He had not slept, how could when Elsie could very well be dying on the other side of that door, merely a few feet from where he lay. His pen twirled between his fingers, the ink from the nib staining his skin, but for once he neither cared or even noticed. He would have heard if she had taken a turn for the worse he reminded himself. His shoulders straightened, he was the Butler, therefore he knew what went on under this roof and that including any concerns regarding the staff.
His shoulders slumped again, but she was not simply staff, she was...well he was no longer entirely sure what she was to him exactly. He'd spent all of last night thinking, wondering how, if he could put what lay between them right, if it was at all possible, how they could juggle their work and their time alone. Then he wondered if he cared, if he would simply sacrifice all that he had worked for just to have her save and by his side. His answer was stark and immediate, he knew he would not hesitate to leave service if it meant having her.
Charles was pulled from his thoughts by a sharp knock at the door, he frowned slightly, staff very rarely bothered him before their breakfast and whenever they did they certainly never brought good news. His stomach twisted. "Come in," he called, his voice unsteady to his own ears.
Mrs Jones let herself into the room, her grey hair escaping the usually neat confines of her bun, the corners of her eyes creased with tiredness. "I thought it wise to come and update you, Mr Carson, before we face the rabble."
"Of course...how is Elsie?"
The older woman gave a small shrug. "She is no better or no worse, which I suppose is better than expected really. I'll know no more until Dr Clarkson comes to see her this morning. Her fever has yet to break," she sighed sadly. She seemed to shake herself as she looked up and assured him, "Of course the household will not suffer, I shall ensure her duties are split amongst the rest of the staff. It would be much easier of course if her Ladyship had hired herself a maid. Is there any news on that?"
"I believe interviews are to be held sometime next week, no doubt her Ladyship will want to speak to you about it at some point."
"Well today if she's looking for me if I'm not in my office then I'll be tending to Elsie, simply send one of the girls to fetch me."
"I shall," he assured her, even as his mind turned over what she had told him, no worse but no better either. Was that a blessing or a curse he wondered idly.
"Mr Carson, are you feeling quite well?" Mrs Jones asked suddenly.
"Of course," he replied, his eyes snapping up to meet hers. "Why do you ask?"
"Well you normally have more to say of a morning," she remarked dryly. "And you're looking quite pale, I do hope you're not coming down with anything."
"I'm as healthy as an ox," Charles assured the housekeeper briskly. "Simply thinking through the day's tasks, which I should probably be getting on with."
"I'll leave you to it then." She threw him one last speculative glance before leaving the room, leaving him alone with his thoughts once again.
"You've changed your hair," Robert remarked as his wife entered the library, sitting elegantly on the sofa across from him.
"Hmmm," her hand pressed against the back of her head. "I'm afraid it was not by choice, the girl stepping in for Elsie is not competent in some of the latest fashions, I did try to talk her through it but she was getting so flustered that I settled for this."
Robert looked over his paper, scrutinizing her carefully, "It's not too bad, just don't let my mother see it."
Cora shuddered. "No, I most certainly won't be allowing that. Really I'm beginning to wish I hadn't delayed these interviews."
"Bring them forward then," he suggested, his attention going back to the day's news.
She shook her head. "I couldn't possibly, not with Elsie so unwell, Mrs Jones is already pushed to the limit staffing wise, I doubt she'd be able to properly conduct these interviews."
"Any news on the girl?"
"Not that I've heard, I did try to ask Rose but she was already so flustered and when I brought up the subject it just seemed to upset her, I thought it wise to let the subject drop. I believe Dr Clarkson stopped by again this morning though."
"I could ring for Carson, ask him to update us."
"I don't want to bother him."
"Nonsense, if you're concerned then you have a right to know, we do employ her after all," he retorted as he rang the bell.
"I don't want us to look mercenary, as though all I'm concerned with is getting my Lady's maid back," she told him, her voice a quiet hiss now. The staff were all too proficient in coming and going from rooms without her even realizing.
"He won't think that," Robert assured her, his brow wrinkling slightly as he asked, "You're not though, are you?"
"Of course I'm not!" Cora replied sharply, sitting bolt upright. "I like Elsie, I admit that I'd like a maid who'd indulge in gossip a bit more than she does but considering that appears to be her only fault...well I can't really complain."
The door opened with the quietest of creaks, and Cora turned to see the imposing figure of Carson standing in the doorway, one arm tucked neatly behind his back as always. "You rang for me, My Lord."
"I did, yes," Robert confirmed. "Her Ladyship and I heard that Dr Clarkson visited the house this morning and we wondered if there was any news on our head housemaid."
Charles gave a small shake of his head, his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth for a moment before he unglued it enough to reply, "None, I'm afraid. We simply have to wait, although he did remark that it bodes well that she made it through the night."
"Well I suppose that is one thing," Robert remarked.
Cora's head gave a small shake in exasperation at her husband before she asked, "Is there anything we can do, Carson?"
"It's very kind of you to offer Milady, but there's nothing. Nothing any of us can do," he added unthinkingly.
Her eyes narrowed slightly for a moment before she gave a small, encouraging smile, "I'm confident that it shall all work itself out in the end, Carson. How are the rest of the staff? Any sign of the sickness spreading?"
"None, Dr Clarkson thinks that Elsie may have just been extremely unlucky."
"She has seemed rather rundown these last few weeks," Cora admitted. "And I did try to reduce her workload but she simply wouldn't allow it."
That certainly sounded like her, Charles thought to himself, saying aloud, "She is a good worker."
"Yes, so if you or Mrs Jones think she requires anything then you will let us know?"
"Of course, Milady."
"Good," Cora nodded, looking satisfied as she settled back in her chair, although her eyes didn't move from him. He looked tired, she decided and she had never once seen him look so weary. "I'll let you get on now, Carson," she told him, deciding she had kept him long enough. "We just wanted an update."
He gave another of his stiff nods before leaving the room, enabling Cora to turn her attention back to her husband. "Carson seems rather distracted today, don't you think?"
Robert did not even look up as he replied, "Hmmm, well I suppose he has more on his plate than usual. I'm confident he'll cope though."
"Oh I have no doubt of that," she assured him almost dismissively. "I just thought it strange, it almost seemed as though all this might be affecting him."
"I'm sure it is, reminds one of their own mortality when a young and healthy person hovers at death's door."
Cora let out a somewhat irate sigh, at times her husband really could be quite dense.
The hours dragged by, the mood of the staff remaining sombre, dinner an unusually quiet affair that led to yet another sleepless night for Charles, the hour or so of sleep that he did manage to get being disturbed by dark dreams and his waking moments spent reliving the painful memories of that last walk he and Elsie had taken together.
His limbs felt heavy the next day and he knew that he was being needlessly irritable to all those who crossed him. Mrs Jones' seat at the breakfast table was empty and the sight of it combined with the gap in staff where Elsie would normally sit made his chest ache. The other girl, Rose, was also missing and he did not want to ponder on the reason why.
He pushed his spoon disinterestedly around his plate, his porridge slowly cooling and growing heavier. The butter and marmalade on his toast starting to congeal when Rose entered the room, her footsteps quick, her cheeks flushed. He glanced up sharply, rebuking her out of habit, "You're late."
Her smile faded and her head ducked respectfully as she replied quietly, "I'm sorry, Mr Carson, I've just came from seeing, Elsie." Her smile widened once more as she informed the table, "Her fever broke early this morning, she seems much better."
For once Charles let the staff break into uncontrolled chatter, let the relieved laughs of others surround him as he felt almost every bit of tension leave his muscles. Her fever had broken, that meant, surely that meant that she would recover. He could not help but smile as he finally turned his attention for breakfast, deciding that when they went to church on Sunday he'd be sending up an extra prayer of thanks.
Her head felt fuzzy, as though someone had filled it with cotton wool, her throat dry and scratchy. She couldn't remember anything of the last few days, they'd passed with long periods of oblivion interspersed with strange dreams, dreams that she couldn't remember and yet left her feeling vaguely unsettled. Her hands smoothing over the bed sheet unsteadily she asked, "How long was I out?"
Dr Clarkson barely looked up from his notebook, his pen scratching against the paper as he replied, "About forty eight hours, kept us all on our toes." He looked up at her sharply and reminded her, "Not that you're well yet."
"Yes, I know that," she muttered, settling back against her pillow. She felt awful, not as awful as a few nights ago but awful nonetheless.
"You'll be on bed rest for another seven days, I'll change what medicines I've left for you. To be honest the less time you're on one of them the better and you don't need the other one now you're fever's broken."
Elsie let out a cough that wracked her body and caused the doctor to look over at her again before turning his attention to Mrs Jones who was standing quietly by the door as he instructed the older woman, "Some honey and lemon for her throat wouldn't go amiss, and she'll need to start eating again, the sooner the better, build up her strength. Nothing too rich but something that she'll still want to eat."
"I'll instruct Beryl to get her some toast, if she manages that then she can have some broth at lunchtime."
"Good." He turned his attention back to his patient. "Now no rushing around, and you've certainly not to even attempt to work until I review you next week. I'll come back before then of course to check how you're doing and Mrs Jones knows to contact me should she have any concerns about you." He tipped his head at the pair of them. "I'll see myself out, Good day, Mrs Jones."
She graced him with one of her rare smiles. "Thank you, Dr Clarkson, for all your help."
Elsie wanted to lift her head to thank him but she was too exhausted from coughing to even try. She looked over to where Mrs Jones was showing the doctor out regardless of his insistence otherwise, leaving her in blissful solitude.
She closed her eyes, she could remember talking to Charles, him asking her if perhaps they could talk, her vague reply. Was that real or just another dream? Shifting slightly she winced as her joints ached in protest. Oh she was too tired to dwell on this, later she decided, she'd think on it later, seven days in bed would give her plenty of time to do that after all.