This is an alternative development to the servants' ball at the end of season two. Characters aren't mine, though of course, I wish they were.
The Day After The Servants Ball
The reverberations of the dressing gong had sounded throughout the house, sending members of the Grantham family up the stairs to their bedrooms to dress for dinner. Edith had finished with her dress and hair, and was in Mary's room to discuss the latest gossip. Mary gave her sister a wary eye through the mirror in front of her.
"But I didn't see it. I don't believe you."
Edith let her face go slack. "Of course you don't believe me, but I wasn't the only one that saw them." She had been standing in front of the bedroom door and walked over to the bed. She plopped on the edge. "I think it's rather romantic, all those years of working together and never saying anything of it."
"Seems improper to me," said Mary. She inspected one of the black jewels on her beaded necklace, then took a closer look. It was chipped. She made a face. "Now I've got to get this fixed."
"Nothing. My necklace. I'll tell Anna to send it to London." She ducked as she pulled the jewellery off, then dug around a lacquered box in front of her for a replacement. "This simply won't do."
Mary looked at herself in the mirror and sighed. "I don't understand it. They know they're supposed dedicate themselves to the house above anything else. Carson knows that better than anyone."
Edith shrugged. "And? Can't a man follow a life that goes beyond serving you?"
Edith gave her a smug look. "You want him all for yourself do you?"
"No, of course not. It's just odd, that's all. And anyway," she grabbed a long, navy-colored necklace and swung it over her head, then pursed her lips and turned her face. "It's his life. Just because he's a butler doesn't mean can't do what he wants."
Edith detected sarcasm in Mary's voice. "You sound jealous."
Mary turned and glared at her sister, draping her arm across the chair. "He can do what he wants, but there are consequences when servants start fraternising with one another. Anna and Bates are one thing, but this… this is almost sacrilegious. The butler and housekeeper? They're supposed to set the example for the staff. It breaks every rule in the book on domestic loyalty." She got up and walked to the door. "Well, I'm going down."
Edith stood and slouched out of the room behind her sister, wondering if Mary was too rigid in her opinions of the staff. She couldn't help thinking, though, that Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes had indeed crossed a boundary in what they had done.
- CE -
The Night Of The Ball
Charles Carson climbed up the wine cellar stairs, carrying two black bottles in either hand. He pushed through the small wave of exhaustion that greeted him at the top, and finally stepped into the corridor. He squinted. Even the dim light was hard on his eyes after the darkness of the cellar. He shut the door behind him, tucked a bottle under his arm and locked it.
The staff were rushing about more than usual tonight, not out of business, but excitement. It was the night of the servants ball, the one time each year they could engage in some amount of fun in the opulent world upstairs. They drank from the family's glasses, ate from their trays, even sat down on some of the furniture. Carson bristled. He never felt comfortable with any of it, this mixing of the two worlds. It wasn't right. Suppose some of the dust on their uniforms ended up on the chairs? It just meant more cleaning for the maids.
He heard footsteps coming towards him and looked up. It was Mrs. Hughes, wearing a dark dress and pinned-back hair. She looked very normal, very shipshape. He was glad to see that she had not put on any peripherals like jewellery, or paraphernalia of the hair for the ball. He liked to think that part of her disliked the idea of the servants ball as much as he did, though he knew that probably wasn't true. She smiled at him, and he felt a small, familiar warmth inside.
"Ah, Mrs. Hughes," he said, frowning and glancing down at his bottles. "I've chosen a couple of Merlots for tonight. Obviously I don't want to use the family's best wine but these two should be good enough for the staff."
"I'm sure they'll appreciate it," she said, agreeably. Her maids and his footmen would hardly know the difference between a Merlot and a Bordeaux; they were just glad to have a few hours off. Still, she knew how much Carson prided himself in his understanding of wine, and he had indeed made the Downton wine cellar the envy of other households. She wouldn't tease him about it. "Most of the preparations are finished upstairs, and the maids are ready to go up."
"Good," Carson replied. He stood still.
"I suppose you're not looking forward to this again," she said, waiting to meet his eye.
"Not particularly." He shifted his feet and looked down the hallway. "You know I don't like these things."
"Yes I know, but maybe tonight will be different."
"Why should it be?"
"Well, apparently you've chosen some very good Merlots for tonight." She grinned at him, and he couldn't help smiling back at her. Mrs. Hughes wanted him to feel comfortable, confident, and so she pulled at his arm and put her hand through it. "Now, are you ready to escort me up to the ball, Mr. Carson?" she said heightening her Scottish brogue. It took him by surprise, but Carson enjoyed the feeling of her hand on his arm.
"Indeed, Mrs. Hughes," he said, straightening his back and leading her down the corridor. When they got to the end where the other staff were gathered, Elsie Hughes instinctively pulled her hand away in case the others saw.
- CE -
The Day After
The steam-filled kitchen was empty save for Daisy, Mrs. Patmore and a single kitchen maid chopping onions in the corner.
"It were the strangest thing," Daisy said as she kneaded the dough in front of her. "It were just out of nowhere."
"Well I'm sure there's a good explanation," said Mrs. Patmore. She looked around to make sure neither Mr. Carson nor Mrs. Hughes might be walking past, then leaned in to whisper. "You know they've always had a thing for each other."
"They never!" Daisy exclaimed.
Mrs. Patmore pushed out her lips and nodded, sagely. She spun around and wiped her hands on her apron. "Now where did I put that parseley…"
"I can't believe they actually liked each other like that," Daisy told the dough in front of her. "I mean, I know they spend a lot of time together, but, they never said anything that made it sound like they liked each other in that way."
Mrs. Patmore looked back at Daisy and arched her brows. "Do two people need to declare their undying love, out loud, to show that they like each other? No, of course not. It's more subtle than that." She started scanning the countertop beside the sink, muttering to herself. "I'd put it here when I took the butter…"
"I know that. I mean, I know that you don't have to make it obvious. But they just never seemed… that way inclined. If you know what I-"
"Oh you'd be surprised," Mrs. Patmore snorted, looking up at the shelves. "When you work together for that many years, you start to know more about the other person than you do about yourself. Sometimes it doesn't lead to anything. But sometimes you wake up and 'hey presto!'"
Daisy stopped and looked up at her, confusion on her face. "What?"
"Oh there you are you little beggar." Mrs. Patmore grabbed a wilting bunch of green parsley tucked behind one of the chopping boards.
"What do you mean 'hey presto?'"
Mrs. Patmore sighed with exasperation. Why did this girl need everything explained to her? "I mean you wake up and you realise that you actually love the person you've been working with all that time, sort of like…" She looked around, then shook the parsley at Daisy, "Finding something that's gone missing!"
"Oh right," Daisy said. She went back to kneading her dough.
- CE -
The Night Of The Ball
A bouncy rendition of Tales from the Vienna Woods by Johann Strauss Jr. was playing, and the servants and Grantham family were, for the first time in a year, dancing with one another. It was the only time that the staff and their employers got this close physically, but such was the effect of the Waltz or Foxtrot. Dance was the institution that brought their two worlds together. Not every household did it, and many would only hold a servants ball in their downstairs domain. But the Granthams were among the more generous families to offer their hall space upstairs, and their crockery and food and wine.
For all his puffing about tradition, the real reason Carson disliked the servants ball was that he wasn't fond of dancing. Not one bit. He had felt that old tension creeping up on him once the music started, and those first brave individuals had sashayed across the dance floor.
Mrs. Hughes spotted him from across the hall and walked over to stand beside him, surveying the scene from her lower height.
He leaned over to her. "I had a horrible dream last night," he said.
"Oh. What about?"
"Dancing. And stepping on her Ladyship's shoes."
Mrs. Hughes stifled a chuckle and patted his arm. "You'll be fine, Mr. Carson. You always manage."
"Am I?" he asked. In the many years he had been doing this, Carson had never actually trodden on Lady Grantham's feet, but he had come perilously close on a few occasions. Enough to make him break out into a cold sweat each time it was his turn to dance with her. How he hated this sort of thing.
"It's all just a bit of fun," Mrs. Hughes said. "Might as well try and enjoy yourself." She disappeared for a few moments, then came back with two glasses of Merlot, large ones. "Here."
Carson took it, gratefully.
"Cheers," he said.
They clinked their glasses and drank, then surveyed the dance floor again. Mrs. Hughes turned up to the butler, watching him scan the room with a tight-jaw and furrowed brow. He was nervous all right.
She let herself wonder, just for a moment, what it might feel like if he were to dance with her. In all the previous servants' balls they had done at the house, they had never danced together. In a way it was odd that they hadn't, since they worked so closely. But a part of Mrs. Hughes sensed that if the two of them got this close it might be dangerous. It might make them feel something. After all these years. She swirled her wine and took another sip. It was good to stand next to him. It always felt right, proper even. She tried to enjoy the feeling, their rare moment of downtime together, even though it was in the middle of scores of other people.
There was an interlude in the music and the pair saw Lady Grantham part ways from the crowd. She was walking towards Carson.
They both smiled and nodded at her. "I hope you're ready to waltz," Mrs. Hughes said through gritted teeth.