A story not related to either Still Waters or its sequel but still set long before the series started.
The letter in her pocket felt as though it were a leaden weight, and Elsie could hardly concentrate on the task at hand. She stared at the fire grate she was supposed to be polishing, her cloth hanging slackly in her weak grip, the dusty rug she was to take out and beat later today digging into her knees.
Tears prickled at her eyes and taking a deep breath, she settled back on her haunches in an attempt to settle herself before continuing with her task. She arched her neck, stretching the tired muscles. Her eyes caught sight of the scant family photographs that rested on the top of the ornate mantelpiece and her breath caught on a small sob. The tears she had been so valiantly trying to hold back began to trickle down her cheeks. Elsie shook her head in an attempt to dispel them, what use was crying to anyone?
The door creaked open and she heard the authoritative baritone of Mr Carson, "Elsie, you should be finished in here by now. Lord Grantham is to meet with his Solicitor in here this afternoon, and we can't have the work unfinished."
"No, Mr Carson," she agreed dutifully, her voice shaking somewhat.
"Then get on with it." He stepped closer and gave an irate sigh. "You've barely even started."
"It will be finished," she assured him, after all she had never failed in a task before.
Charles registered the terseness in the head housemaid's voice and glanced down, prepared to reprimand her for it, his words sticking in his throat when he caught sight of a glistening tear track on her cheek. He cleared his throat awkwardly instead. "Would you stand up for a moment please?" He requested.
She should do as he said without question, but despite knowing this, replied, "I should really be getting on, as you've rightly pointed out."
She heard the warning in his voice and so smoothing her hands down her dusty apron, she got awkwardly to her feet, her head bowed, refusing to meet his gaze. Still though he could see her red rimmed eyes and flushed cheeks and she heard him give another sigh. "Is there anything you need?" She asked softly.
He ignored her question, stating instead, "You received a letter this morning, and you have been rather quiet since then." He saw her hand brush over her pocket absent-mindedly. "I assume that the news it contained was not good.
Elsie shook her head, hating herself as yet more traitorous tears escaped. She rubbed at her damp cheeks in irritation, leaving a dark smudge of dirt on her pale skin. "The letter was from my sister, our mother has passed away."
Charles felt his features tighten at her words, unsure as to how best provide any comfort to her. His back straightened. "I shall inform Mrs Jones of your news and we shall arrange for you to travel home for the funeral. In the meantime you must of course take the rest of the day off."
"There wouldn't be much point in that. The letter was delayed, the funeral was yesterday." Her voice dropped to a whisper, "I missed it." She had let down her own family whilst she served another, answered to their every whim in fact.
Reaching into his pocket, Charles pulled out his immaculate white handkerchief and offered it to her. "You cannot blame yourself for the vagrancies of the mail."
She did not take the small offering. "If I had been closer," she lamented quietly, "then perhaps I would have made it."
"Perhaps," he agreed. "But as there is no certainty in that thought, I would try not to think it." He nudged her hand with his, pressing the white linen into her palm. "You have a smudge on your cheek."
Elsie made a sound that was half a humourless laugh and half a choked sob. She glanced up at the rather rigid man in front of her, he was tall and handsome, but so very serious and despite herself she could not help but wonder what would unbend him, what would make him smile. "I couldn't possibly. You'd most likely never get it so clean looking ever again."
"It is replaceable." He reached out and closed her fingers over it. "I insist."
She offered him a watery smile, "Thank you."
Charles nodded, belatedly realising that his hand was still clasping hers. He looked up into her tearstained face as he subtly drew away his touch. While she would not be counted as classically beautiful, she was quite pretty, he thought suddenly, her face striking, her cheekbones high, her eyes wide and her mouth full. There was a shot of attraction through his veins, something he had not felt since Alice, and this time it was even more misguided and inappropriate. He respected Elsie, respected the work ethic she had shown over the last year and he could not fathom why he suddenly felt such a pull towards her. "As I said, you should take the rest of the day off."
She brushed the warm linen distractedly across her cheek, only succeeding in smudging the mark even further as she replied, "I appreciate the thought, Mr Carson, but I would rather work." Her lips pursed as she shook her head. "If I'm not kept busy then all I shall do is think on where I should have been."
He gave a curt, business-like nod. "If you absolutely insist." Unthinkingly he took the handkerchief from her hand and gently wiped away the mark upon her cheek. He heard her sharp inhale of breath and felt his heart almost skip a beat as her curious brown eyes met his. "You missed a spot," he offered, dropping the material back into her hand.
Elsie wetted her lips nervously, suddenly aware of the heat flooding through her veins, she had never felt such a sensation before. "Thank you," she murmured. His touch should have been inappropriate in that it made her blush, but she had no doubt he simply did not want her looking slovenly. After all Mr Carson prided neatness and order above all else, he was extremely proper and she doubted he had ever suffered from an inappropriate thought in his life. Suddenly she had the oddest urge to corrupt him, to show him that his life did not have to be lived through others, to show him passion, excitement – although she knew none of those things herself. She felt her cheeks burn and she offered him back his handkerchief.
He shook his head. "You should keep it. I have more."
Her thumb and forefinger rubbed against the material as she protested, "Oh no, it's too high a quality for me to keep from you."
Charles waved his hand. "I will not hear of it," he replied. "I gave it to you, think of it as a gift."
The words lingered, almost echoing and she saw his jaw tighten as the inappropriateness of his words dawned on him. "Well then thank you," she finally told him. "I should get on."
Grateful that she hasn't mentioned his faux pas, Charles tells her, "I will ask Mrs Jones if she has anyone spare to help you."
"No, I have let myself run late and I am more than capable of catching myself up. The work will be done, Mr Carson, and done well."
Her phrasing is curt, almost dismissive, and with anyone else he would have issued a warning. Yet he had no compulsion to warn her. He could hear the truth in her words, knew that she would finish in time and to her usual standard, she was lined up to be the next housekeeper of Downton after all, one day they would most likely work side by side. So instead of a reprimand he gave a small nod. "As long as it is completed on time, Elsie, we shall say no more of this morning."
"Thank you." She stood still until he turned away, it would be disrespectful for her to turn away and she had cut it fine often enough this morning in regards to her behaviour. He would only give her so much leeway before she faced his rather fearsome wrath. Her eyes lingered on the breadth of his shoulders as he walked out of the room, her lips pursing thoughtfully before she turned back to the task at hand, pouring her grief , anger and frustration into her work. And even if she said so herself it made the results better than ever.