The grey morning light filtered through the windows of the cottage and Mr. Carson opened his eyes and turned to look at his wife, who was still at rest. He rolled onto his side and propped his head up with one hand so he could watch her sleep. He almost couldn't believe it was all real. Everything had happened so quickly and certainly not on his own timetable, but he was glad he had dropped his letter in the passage. He knew that he would have spoken even if she hadn't unexpectedly happened upon the letter - no doubts or fears had lingered in his mind by the time he wrote the letter - but his wish to choose the perfect moment had delayed him. Instead, fate and his Elsie had chosen it for him, and he could hardly imagine a more perfect moment, or a more perfect result. A brief engagement, a quiet wedding with a few friends present, their own home on the Downton estate, and even a little holiday. Until now, Mr. Carson had had difficulty imagining what he might do with himself when he retired. He had always known the day would come, but the prospect had seemed a little gloomy to him. He needed a few hours alone in his pantry here and there to keep from going mad, but he was so accustomed to being always surrounded by noise and people that he expected retirement to be a rather lonely business. As he watched his sleeping wife, however, he knew that things were altered now. Perhaps it wouldn't be so very long before they both left service, to enjoy each other's company without having to worry about dinners and linens and the endless list of other tasks required to keep the great house running smoothly.
Mrs. Carson stirred a little, and Mr. Carson turned his attention back to her. He draped his free arm across her, his hand resting on her hip. "Mmmmm," she sighed contentedly.
"Good morning, Elsie."
"It's Friday, isn't it?" she asked, her eyes still closed.
"Yes, love, our idyll is over for now," he said, kissing her cheek.
Mrs. Carson sighed. "No rest for the wicked."
Mr. Carson had thought he couldn't be any happier than he already was, but surprisingly, returning to work had shown him another source of contentment. As he went about his work, as usual Mrs. Carson crossed his path many times, and just as before she was the neat and efficient housekeeper that kept Downton running smoothly. They chatted as they walked up and down the stairs together and managed difficult situations and staff in their accustomed orderly fashion. Before he knew he loved her, he had loved the way they worked together. He loved how they could communicate across a crowded room with just a glance, a nod, or a slight inclination of the head. He loved how she kept pace with him up and down stairs, through rooms and down hallways, in spite of his significant advantage in height. He even loved her matchless timing when they were having a disagreement, the way she often made sure to get the last word by retorting just as they separated at a doorway or the top of the stairs, rolling her eyes as her heels clicked purposefully away from him. He had treasured the harmony they had, even in disharmony. It was one of the things that had held him back, at first, from confessing his feelings to her. If she had not returned them, he had feared that the wonderful something they shared would be destroyed forever, to be replaced by awkwardness, wariness, or even coldness. He could see now that the affection that had grown between them for so many years had likely been the reason that their professional association had been so warm and congenial. He rejoiced in the knowledge that this special rapport had not changed. Not only could he go on as before, running Downton as it should be run, with her always at his side, but he also had the fresh joy of knowing that he would wake every morning with her beside him, knowing that she would be with him even when he left Downton, and knowing what she looked like under that heavy black dress. He knew things about her that no one else did, and he was sure he would continue to learn. He relished the prospect.
Mrs. Carson could hear the maids giggling and whispering when her back was turned, and she rounded on them with a severe look. "Back to your work, girls," she said firmly. "And I won't have any more of that cheek!" The three maids scattered back to the bedrooms and she strode off in another direction. She had expected a little impertinence from the young ones after Mr. Carson's astonishing behavior at their wedding feast, so their conduct had not surprised her. Another woman might have blushed, but she was made of stern stuff, and had decades of experience managing a large staff. It would take more than a little girlish impudence to disturb her composure. She smiled to herself as she made her way down the hall, recalling all of the things that could make her blush. She knew she would never think of her husband in quite the same way when she saw him in his starched and spotless uniform, now that she knew what it concealed. She bit her lip, almost giggling like the maids she had just finished scolding. She was so thoroughly happy that she couldn't help herself.
Mr. Carson was somewhere in the house, and sooner or later they would meet again. And though his eyes might flick up and down her figure when he saw her, he would speak to her as the professional she was about whatever business might need to be discussed. They might then separate again, or he might follow her up or down a flight of stairs to see to some task on which one needed the other's input. Their professional affinity, which she had come to value so much over the years, had not changed, but at last they had also discovered in each other so much more than that. She now had a husband and lover, but she had not lost her dear friend and colleague.
That night they walked home together, hand-in-hand. It seemed odd to be leaving the big house at night, but Mrs. Carson knew she would become accustomed to it before long. They talked about this and that, much as they used to do at the end of the day in her sitting room or his pantry, and when they reached home Mr. Carson helped his wife out of her coat. As he shed his own coat, she wandered into the parlor and sat down on the settee. Before long her husband followed and came to sit beside her, putting his arm around her shoulders.
"How are you, Elsie?" he asked tenderly.
She looked up at him and smiled. "I'm very happy," she said simply. "And you?"
"I'm very happy, too."
With his free hand, Mr. Carson stroked her cheek. "I don't think I've told you, Elsie, that you're magnificent."
"Magnificent! No, I think I'd remember if you had. But you've paid me plenty of compliments, Charles. You know very well I don't need your constant praise," she said, still smiling.
He ignored her protest. "Nevertheless, I must say it, because it is true. Everything about you is magnificent. The way you walk, the way you talk, the eloquence of every expression of your face. You're not a girl who isn't quite sure who she is or how she should behave; you're a woman full of life and purpose. You are so marvelously..." He paused, searching for the right word.
She chuckled. "I'm so marvelously what?"
He laughed with her. "I don't know. You're just so marvelously you. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, whether you're scolding your maids or managing Mrs. Patmore, or even giving me a dressing-down, you're, well...magnificent."
"Scolding and managing; high praise indeed!"
"Or comforting a young widow." She looked at him questioningly. "I heard what you said to Lady Mary. About us, and about regret. You were very kind to her, Elsie."
"I know you love her, Charles, and for your sake I try to love her as well."
"That means a lot to me, my dear."
"I'll not take back anything I've said about her over the years, but I will admit she's improved a great deal recently, especially since she married."
His lips quirked. "And do you think you'll be improved by marriage, Elsie?"
"Married to you?" she scoffed, smirking. "I should think I'll get worse!" He laughed out loud at that and she slid out of his arms and got up to leave the room. She paused in the doorway and looked over her shoulder at her husband. They exchanged a glance full of meaning; affection, attraction, invitation, challenge. She lifted her eyebrows and dashed out of the room, her husband darting after her. He caught up with her just inside the bedroom door.
Later that night as they lay tangled up together, Mr. Carson's last thought before falling asleep was of a telephone. A telephone which he was now determined would never be installed in his home.
Thank you for going on this journey with me. The writing has been enjoyable, though occasionally frustrating (but that's just how writing is, eh?), and it's been great spending time with these wonderful characters. Most of all, I appreciate your reviews and support. I hope you've enjoyed my little story. I look forward to future adventures in fanfiction.