After breakfast had been served, eaten, and cleared, both upstairs and downstairs, Mrs. Hughes headed to her sitting room to look over her household accounts. A few other servants bustled about, but the midmorning lull was the best time of day for her to take on this work. She reached her door and was about to go in when she noticed a piece of paper on the floor near Mr. Carson's pantry. Rubbish lying about on the floor would never do, so without a thought Mrs. Hughes picked it up. It was a letter, and she was surprised to find that it was addressed to her. Only her name was written on the unsealed envelope, in a handwriting very familiar to her. She paused just a moment before pulling out the letter and reading it.
My Dear Elsie,
If you are reading this, there are two things you must know. I love you and I am sorry.
I am very much alive as I write this, with no ill health or expectation of leaving this earth anytime soon. However, I believe Mr. Crawley's death should have taught us all, if we are willing to learn, that life can be cut off suddenly and senselessly and that there is no way for any of us to know when death may come. I intend to tell you myself just what you mean to me, Elsie, but in case something should happen to me before I get the chance, this letter will tell you that you were loved and cherished. It will live in my coat pocket until the day I tell you, and then it will be consigned to the flames. If I die before I tell you, you will read my feelings here.
I remember well when you first came to Downton. It would be romantic to say that I loved you from the first moment I saw you, but it would not be true. I thought you very pretty from the beginning, though not as beautiful as you are to me now, but the rest happened gradually. We worked well together, and we became friends. We had our disagreements, of course, as we still do, but I always knew I could count on you in a crisis, in a professional sense as well as a personal one. Dealing with difficulty and pain makes one stronger, and I think we have grown stronger together. We have seen a lot of joy and sorrow together over the years, and you have become my dearest friend. You have a sharp tongue, but a kind heart, two qualities which somehow combine to soothe and calm me as nothing else could. You soften my sharp corners. Without you, I might be a despot. The entire household owes you thanks for preventing that. I thank you as well.
When you were ill and feared the worst, I feared it with you. Mrs. Patmore told me, Elsie, and you must not blame her, for I freely admit I tricked her into telling me. I did not sleep well at all, the thought of running Downton without you by my side filling me with dread. When Mrs. Patmore came at last and told me that all was well, I suddenly knew my heart. I knew that I loved you, and that I had loved you for years.
I hope I have since communicated some small part of my feelings, with a smile, a glance, or a word. I try to show myself your friend by my actions, although I know at times I fail. Sometimes when I do not know what to say, I resort to sharp words, and you deserve better from me. I hope you will forgive me for those lapses.
Elsie, you know that I prefer to do things properly, but I'm a little at a loss as to how to go about being in love properly. I will find out how it is done, though, and I will find a way to tell you. I will pull this letter from my pocket when I'm alone and read it again and again. It will sit on the table in my room while I sleep and in the morning I will put it back in my coat pocket where it will lie next to my heart as I go about my day. And then one day I will tell you everything, and I will burn the letter, for it will no longer be necessary.
If it is found in my pocket, it means that my mortality has won out over my determination.
I love you, Elsie, my lass. I am sorry I never told you.
Anna came upon Mrs. Hughes just as she finished reading the letter. She was seated on the settee, staring at the paper in her hand, a variety of emotions playing across her face.
"Mrs. Hughes, are you all right?" Anna asked. "Have you...have you had bad news?" she asked, gesturing to the letter.
Mrs. Hughes shook her head to clear it, then smiled at Anna. "Oh no, nothing like that. I'm just a little surprised is all," she said, slipping the letter into her pocket and standing up. "Is there something you needed, Anna?"
"I just had a question about dinner tonight." Anna paused. "Are you sure you're quite all right Mrs. Hughes? You look a bit peaky." More than peaky, she had tears in her eyes, and she trembled a little. On the other hand, she seemed to be biting her lip to keep her smile from growing wider.
"I'm fine, Anna," Mrs. Hughes insisted. "Now what was it you wanted to ask me?"
Anna looked a little doubtful, but Mrs. Hughes listened to her question and they discussed the dinner plans. She left the housekeeper's room feeling less concerned, but quite a bit more curious.
Mrs. Hughes turned back to her room, and her mind returned to her original purpose. She sat down at her desk and opened her account ledger, but the numbers made no sense to her this morning. Such a letter was not to be soon recovered from. Her heart was pounding, she felt breathless, and her insides twisted around, resulting in acute feelings of both pain and pleasure. She knew love, and that this was what it felt like, but now the sensations were heightened by the astonishment of reading his letter.
So he loved her. She had wondered, suspected, doubted, but could never feel sure one way or another for more than a few days at a time. She knew that he cared, of course, that they were truly friends, and that even when they were most at odds she could count on him when it came to the things that mattered most, but she was glad to know the whole truth at last. She felt almost giddy, and she knew it would be a challenge to appear normal until she saw him next. All that was left now was to decide how to proceed, and Mrs. Hughes had a pretty fair idea of what she would do next.
To be continued...
Note: I lifted a line from Jane Austen's Persuasion, from a point where the novel's heroine has just read a letter from a man who has loved her for years: "Such a letter was not to be soon recovered from."