So here we are at the last chapter. I would love to know what you thought of the story as a whole :)
And many thanks to those who have taken the time to review at any point in the story.
Letting out a deep sigh, Cora leaned heavily against the wall at the top of the stairs, one hand resting on her stomach as her breath fell in tired huffs. This pregnancy was starting to take its toll and she was almost constantly tired now, she looked back at the somewhat steep stairs that had led her up here. Gathering her composure once again, Cora waddled down the corridor – it was impossible to move gracefully at eight months pregnant – looking for the appropriate room.
She smiled to herself, stifling a laugh as the image of her mother law's reaction if she saw what she was doing popped into her head. Robert's birthday was quickly approaching and she knew he needed a new razor so she planned to purchase one for him, the problem being that she didn't know where she could get a high quality one, what she did know was that Mr Carson would no doubt hold the answer. So here she was, trying to find him without Robert knowing anything about it, which had led her to wandering the servant's corridor – most likely breaking almost every rule in every etiquette book ever written in the process.
From her previous efforts at sourcing out information she knew that his room was third on the left, exactly mid-way down the male side of the corridor. She knocked hurriedly at the door, checking over her shoulder, she might have the best of intentions but surely it would still be scandalous if she were to be caught up here. Much to her frustration there was no answer, she had spent what felt like the bulk of her day trying to track him down and she was starting to realise just how quickly her staff moved around this house.
Of course she should cut her loses and go look somewhere else but she was hot and tired now and she would absolutely kick herself later if she found out he'd simply not heard her knocking, so she pushed open the door somewhat gingerly. Peering round she let out an irate sigh when she saw that the room was indeed empty, almost on automatic pilot her eyes scanned the room and landed on the small jewellery box that sat on the otherwise spotless dressing table.
Her curiosity piqued she let go of the doorframe and moved towards it, once again checking over her shoulder before picking it up and opening the box carefully, studying the plain wedding band with interest. It would appear that she had been right, Carson did indeed have someone special in his life. She closed the box with a snap and placed it back where she'd found it, Robert wouldn't be happy of course while she was quite frankly surprised. It was not that the man was without his charms but well...he just seemed so straight laced and there was none of the usual whisperings around the village or even just within the household itself. She wondered who it was, what woman could possibly have distracted her husband's upright and staid valet, enticing him into matrimony. Cora shook her head, pregnancy was obviously making her fanciful, turning on her heel she left the room just as she'd found it, she supposed she would just have to try and corner Carson later on this evening – about the present only of course.
Rounding the corner Elsie felt her stomach drop when she saw Henry talking to the newest maid, his hand propped above her head as he leaned into her giggling frame, a smile on his face as he whispered into her ear. Moving forward swiftly she called out, "Rose!"
The girl turned her flushed smile fading slightly at the stern expression she was faced with. "Elsie, Henry and I were just talking."
"I can see that," she replied, trying to keep her tone light as she continued, "But Her Ladyship's room still needs dusted, we don't have time to stand around."
The girl nodded, looking sheepish, "I'm sorry, I'll go and start it now." She smiled at Henry coyly, hinting unsurely, "I suppose we'll just need to finish our conversation later."
"Looks that way," he replied casually, looking nonplussed by the interruption, in fact he looked slightly amused by the disappointment evident in her features. He turned his attention to Elsie the moment that Rose was out of earshot, stating, "Anyone would think that you were jealous."
"Thankfully I have more common sense than to be jealous of your so called charms," she told him, her lips curling in distaste. "I know what you did to Maggie and I will not stand by and let you do that to another girl."
The amused smirk slid from his face, turning into a small sneer, "Maggie knew exactly what she was getting into, she wasn't exactly the sweet and innocent type you know."
"Regardless of what you say, she didn't deserve to be treated the way you did, she thought you cared for her."
He laughed, "I did care for certain parts of her."
Elsie felt her hands curl into frustrated fists at his words, she would not lower herself to smacking that smirk off his face though and instead hissed out through gritted teeth, "Stay away from Rose, she is far too sweet to be tainted by the likes of you."
"I think that Rose is old enough to decide who she wants to pass the time of day with, and I do hope that you're not about to start spreading unsubstantiated rumours about my character."
Tilting her chin defiantly she told him, "I don't deal in rumours or gossip, I have no need to."
His sneer deepened now, twisting his usually handsome face. "Those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, you're not exactly all sunshine and light yourself."
She looked at him, slightly confused by his words, "I don't know what you're talking about, but that doesn't change what I've said."
"You may consider me warned," he drawled, that confident smirk back on his face again. "And I believe that you may want to think on what I've said as well. Till next time Elsie."
Watching him go she felt almost thrown by his last comment, her skin prickling uncomfortably. He could not know about her and Charles, it wasn't possible, they had been so careful, especially the last few weeks. If anything she had taken a step back from him. As her own feelings deepened she wanted to see how he truly felt, when they weren't getting carried away on lust for one another. She shook her head, he couldn't know, he was just trying to get under her skin, that was it, there was nothing more to it than that.
"You wanted to see me, My Lordship," Charles stated, stepping into the study, causing the young Earl to look up from the papers he'd been studying.
"I do." He got to his feet and straightened his jacket. "I wanted to talk to you about your career prospects here at Downton."
He couldn't help but let his forehead crinkle into a frown at those words. "Forgive me, but I don't think I fully understand what you could possibly mean by my career prospects."
"Well as I'm sure you're aware Sinclair is well...getting on a bit now and he has stated his intention to retire once we have welcomed the newest addition to the family. This of course means that we shall require a new butler."
Charles nodded firmly, "Of course, so do you require my assistance in placing an ad?"
"Not quite," Robert replied, a hint of amusement present in his tone now. "Carson, I'd like to offer you the opportunity to step into Sinclair's shoes."
"You're offering me the position as Butler?" Charles echoed unsurely.
"I am, yes. I know that you're considered young for the post but I think that you would do us proud in the role and I'd be delighted for you to accept."
His frown deepened, this was what he had always wanted, the highest position in the household, one of dignity and respect, where image and self control was key and yet he could not help but think instead of his mother's wedding band that he'd had sitting out for a few weeks now. Things had changed between himself and Elsie over the last few weeks, in fact she'd rather pulled back from him recently, she hadn't put her fear into words but they no longer met in the attic and they shared nothing more than a few chaste kisses on their walks and he knew it was a lingering aftermath of the incident with Maggie. He didn't want her to feel that way and he missed what they'd shared in the past, her conversations with him now seemed much more measured as though she was considering her words before speaking and he did not like it.
In fact he'd missed it so much that he'd been thinking of ways in which he could tempt back the old Elsie. Marriage had not been his first thought of course but when his fingers had brushed against the ring box that had been gathering dust in one of his drawers the thought had hit him suddenly. He had never once considered marriage, had thought it not for him, after all he enjoyed his work, enjoyed the splendour of such a house and the order which had to be maintained for it to be run, he could not find that in any other career path, and yet the more he thought on the topic the more he found he liked the idea of being married to her.
It was just such a momentous decision however that he did not want to rush into it without giving the subject due consideration, after all he'd have to find a way to support them both before he made any kind of offer. Of course this was when he thought he was at least a decade away from even being considered for the position of butler, after all thirty five was considered undeniably young for this particular job and it was what he had wanted for himself. He could not help but notice that even in his head he thought of this job in past tense.
Looking up he realised that the young Earl was staring at him in expectation, a frown growing on his face with every passing second that he remained silent. "Forgive me, My Lord I was just surprised by the offer."
The younger man's face cleared and he smiled widely. "Good, so it's settled, I'll inform Mr Sinclair and he can begin a smooth transition, of course you'll have to continue as valet until his retirement but I'll ensure that I have a replacement before you take over the household."
"I beg pardon but I'm not sure whether or not I'll be taking the position," Charles replied unthinkingly.
Robert never thought his valet could shock him, but in this instance he was certainly surprised, in fact he was verging on insulted, "Why would you not take it? If you turn this offer down Carson, it will not be repeated, I can promise you that."
"I understand that, My Lord and I am not turning down such a generous offer I just need time to consider certain things. I certainly do not mean to offend you."
Forcing himself to relax, Robert nodded, "Of course Carson, I think I may have over-reacted slightly, it was just that I rather expected you to accept straight away. By all means take some time, although you must understand that I cannot hold this offer open indefinitely so I must ask you for an answer by the end of the week."
"You shall have it," he promised. That gave him four days to decide, to make the biggest decision of his life, a decision that he now realised her already knew the answer to.
"Whatever you're selling we're not buying," Henry informed the somewhat nervous looking man who was hovering by the courtyard gate. "So you better get going before our Butler catches you here."
The man took off his hat, rubbing at his sandy hair and replying, "I'm not selling anything, I'm here to see someone who works here, Elsie Hughes, perhaps you've heard of her."
His interest piqued, Henry stubbed his cigarette out underneath the sole of his shoe, surveying the man in front of him. He was older than him, not particularly tall but stoutly built without being fat, he was probably somewhere in his thirties. His suit was verging on shabby but had obviously been well made at one point, most likely a few years ago now. Which begged the question why he was looking for the uppity Miss Hughes? After all he was a million miles away from Mr Carson. "She's in the servant's hall, I can ask her to come out if you'd like?"
"If you would," The man smiled at him gratefully, his hat turning nervously in his hands now.
"Shall I tell her who's wanting her?"
"Of course, I'm Joe Burns," he proffered his hand, "nice to meet you."
Henry's grin widened, "And you, I'll just go fetch her, you just wait here."
Her face when she told him who was waiting was worth its weight in gold and pretending to leave them to it, instead he melted into the shadows and listened to the hushed conversation that was taking place.
Elsie wrapped her arms around herself as she looked at Joe in surprise. "What on earth are you doing here?" she asked. "I haven't heard from you in a while and so I thought-"
"That I'd given up," he offered, interrupting her with a wry smile. On seeing her duck her head somewhat guiltily he added, "I suppose I had for a while, but something has happened since then. You remember Ivy McIntyre, well we've been stepping out, nothing improper mind, and she's been dropping hints about what's next for us."
Elsie felt her shoulders relax at that statement and she offered him a small but genuine smile as she replied, "So you've proposed, well-"
"I haven't proposed," he told her, interrupting her again. "Her words made me think and I mean really think about how we would suit and although I think Ivy and I would get along well together I feel that we would still be the better match. Ivy is the postmaster's daughter and I don't think she understands how hard farm life can be."
"Whereas I have firsthand experience," she noted dryly, "not your most romantic line," she informed him.
"I'm a practical man," he replied unapologetically, "And you have always been a practical woman, and while I'm happy to make time for romance I want a wife you will be happy with the lifestyle that I can offer her." He reached for her hand and took it firmly between hers. "Elsie this might not be the best setting for this conversation-"
"I should say not, I'm meant to be working," she reminded him, her tone slightly exasperated, after all she thought she had ended this months ago.
"Then meet me tonight and we can talk properly."
"It's not my night off, and the Dowager Countess is coming here for dinner tonight so I can assure you that I won't be given the time off."
"I could always wait, find a room for the night and-"
"No, don't do that," she told him hurriedly, she didn't want this dragging out.
"Very well, Elsie you know what I'm asking of you. I want you to come back with me and we'll marry, run the farm together and God willing start a family."
Her hand felt awkward in his, not at all like when Charles took hold of it, her tongue darted out and wetted her bottom lip nervously. "Joe, you are a good man but I don't believe that I'm truly cut out to be a farmer's wife, perhaps not any kind of wife. I enjoy my work and I have no intention of leaving Downton. If you care for Ivy then I think that you should make her this offer, as I remember she has a good head on her shoulders so I'm sure she'll fare well on the farm. Believe me Joe, I think you'll find that in the long run you'll thank me for this."
He let her hand drop from his, that amiably smile gone now, the disappointment clear in his steady gaze. "No doubt you're right, but I had still hoped to persuade you...Are you sure about this? Living your life through another family? You won't wake up one day wishing you'd gone another way?"
"Perhaps I shall," she admitted. "But then I'll have no-one to blame but myself for it, don't worry about me, Joe, I'll be fine."
"No doubt you're right," he leaned forward and kissed her cheek. "I hope it all works out for you, Elsie."
"And for you," she replied, her words and smile genuine. She watched as he placed his hat carefully back on his head and turned away from her, shooting her the smallest of smiles and offering her a wave of goodbye as he made his way out of the courtyard, finally leaving her behind him.
Henry shrank away from the doorway he'd been listening at, sure that he could somehow work this latest development to his advantage.
For a while he'd simply planned to somehow out the clandestine relationship she was conducting but Carson was an honourable fool who would just simply marry her and that wasn't enough for him. She made his life uncomfortable and he wanted her miserable for it, uptight bitch that she was.
Propping her swollen ankles up onto yet another cushion, Cora sighed in irritation as she watched Robert grumble into his ledgers once again. "Oh what is it?" She finally snapped in irritation. "You asked me if I'd like to keep you company and I said yes because I didn't think you'd start setting my teeth on edge."
"I'm sorry my dear," he replied, dropping his pen onto the desk and moving to the sofa, shifting the cushions and sitting down, propping her ankles across his thighs instead, rubbing at them absentmindedly. "I offered Carson the position of Butler today."
"Ah," she remarked knowingly, "and he turned you down."
"No, he didn't, so you can wipe off that smug grin, Cora dearest. He told me he needed to think about it, I mean what is there to think on? Most valets would jump at such an offer."
"Perhaps a few months ago he might have done, but I think now he has other, more pressing matters on his mind."
Robert sighed in irritation as he replied, "We've been through this, we have no proof that there is a woman involved in this."
"He has a wedding ring sitting on his dressing room table."
"And just how do you know that?" he asked, his eyebrow arched in her direction.
Cora shifted slightly uncomfortably under her husband's forthright gaze, his birthday was still two days away and she had no desire to ruin her surprise. "I wanted his advice, I simply checked the room, he wasn't there of course but the box was in plain sight."
"And it was open?" he teased her.
She flushed as she defended herself, "Well no, but surely there's no crime in taking an interest in the lives of those who work for us?"
"Of course not, although I believe that we should draw the line at snooping through their personal effects," he chuckled.
"You make it sound as though I'm constantly rifling through their cupboards!"
He laughed again before adding, "You cannot be sure he means to propose."
"Why else would he have a wedding ring?" she asked in exasperation.
"Any number of reasons."
"I cannot think of any right now but that does not mean that there aren't any."
"What I think is that you should start advertising for a new Valet along with a Butler." She gave an irritated sniff and added, "And you may as well place for a Lady's maid while you're at it, Caroline has announced that she wishes to return to America before this Christmas."
Robert frowned as he asked, "Is there no-one in house suitable for the position?"
"I did enquire with Mrs Jones as to moving Elsie, the maid who stands in for Caroline to the position full time but she was against it."
"Why ever would she be against such a move?"
"It would appear that Mrs Jones would like her to be her successor, not for a few years of course when she decides to retire, and she feels that she'd be better placed to take over if she stays as head housekeeper."
"Do I know this girl?"
"You've probably seen her and never realised," Cora laughed, shaking her head. "She's worked here for about seven months now, extremely efficient and on thinking about it she is a good choice for housekeeper." She rolled her eyes as she watched her husband continue to struggle to place the woman. "She's Scottish, dark haired, older than us but definitely under thirty."
His face cleared. "Ah yes, I know who you mean. I've spoken to her a few times. If you want her though then you can still ask her."
"No," Cora shook her head, "as I said now that Mrs Jones has said it I think she's far more suited to that role and Lady's maids are much easier to find than Housekeepers."
He grinned at her. "You very nearly sounded English there."
Sitting at the table in the servant's hall, Henry looked up when he saw Mr Carson enter the room. "Looking for someone?" he asked, as he watched him scan the room.
Charles shot the footman a distasteful look, he didn't trust him as far as he could throw them but he saw no harm in being honest for once. "I had a question to ask Elsie, have you seen her?"
"Not for a while, although I wouldn't worry she's not disappeared with her gentleman caller," he remarked casually, going back to shuffling the deck of cards in his hand.
"Excuse me?" Charles asked, now outright glaring at the younger man, it had been clear for a while that he didn't like Elsie and he sincerely hoped for his own sake that he was not about to start bad mouthing her.
"There was a man looking for her earlier, but she soon sent him flying with a flea in his ear. As I said Mr Carson, nothing improper going on here."
"Good." He turned to leave but Henry's voice stopped him.
"I mean it's as clear as the nose on your face that Elsie Hughes is not about to leave service to settle into a life of mediocrity."
"What do you mean?" he asked, his teeth now gritted in annoyance.
"Just that she's ambitious, I mean you know her as well as I do, do you see her settling for a life in a shop?" Henry snorted. "She wouldn't sully herself."
"I suggest you keep your opinion on other staff members to yourself," Charles told him firmly. "Because I'm not interested."
"My apologies then, Mr Carson," he replied easily, "Just thought it was quite obvious, that's all."
He forced himself not to grin as he watched the older man storm out of the room, he might have given the impression that the words had not stung but Henry had seen the way he'd paled slightly when he said she'd never want marriage, had seen his hand shake as he heard someone else voice a thought that it would appear had been playing on his mind.
Yes, he'd thought about forcing Elsie Hughes out of Downton, but he'd seen the way she and Mr Carson looked at one another and he instinctively knew that losing him would hurt her more.
"You've been very quiet tonight," Elsie remarked as she and Charles walked together.
"Just thinking," he remarked, turning to look at her, she had yet to mention the visitor she'd received yesterday and he couldn't hold back the questions any longer so he stated, "I heard someone came to call on you yesterday."
"Through Henry no doubt," she snorted in annoyance. "But yes, Joe Burns came to see me yesterday."
"The man you were stepping out with before you came here?"
"Yes, he...well I think he was having cold feet about asking another girl to marry him, or he thought that I'd be more useful on the farm, either way he made me another offer of marriage. I was of course going to tell you, it's just a difficult subject to bring up," she sighed.
"Did you turn him down?"
"Of course I did!" Elsie exclaimed in surprise. "Do you really think I'd be out walking with you if I'd decided to marry another man. Nothing happened," she reiterated firmly. "He was gone in less than five minutes, I'm not sure what madness compelled him to even ask again."
"Because you don't want to be a farmer's wife," he stated. Henry's words had played on his mind, he would gladly marry Elsie but only if she wanted him, he would not give up everything for a woman who didn't want him. Perhaps she'd realised he wanted more and was trying to pull away, it would certainly explain why she was reluctant for them to be as close as they once had been. Perhaps it had not been the fear of being abandoned that had bothered her so much after what happened to Maggie but the fear of losing the life she really wanted, one in service.
"No, I don't," she replied honestly. "No more than you'd like to be a farmer."
"Sometimes a sacrifice is worthwhile."
"Yes, sometimes it is but this one wouldn't have been. Marriage should not be taken lightly."
"No, especially not when you have such a promising career ahead of yourself."
She frowned slightly, was he testing her? Wanting to make sure that she would not just marry for the sake of it, just so that she could leave service, as so many young girls before her hand done. Was this him testing how she felt for him? "You have the same in front of you, surely you of all people can understand the reluctance to give that up?"
He nodded, his worst fears confirmed, he was willing to give it all up for her and she would not be extending him the same courtesy. "I do, in fact I have been offered the position of Butler."
Elsie stopped, staring up at him in surprise as she felt a heavy sickness settle in her stomach. "That's quite an honour."
"It is, so naturally I'll be accepting it."
"Naturally," she echoed.
He continued, he had to say this now or he wouldn't say it at all, "And it would of course be inappropriate for a Butler to be romantically entangled with one of the maids."
"Yes...it would be," Elsie answered numbly.
"Then you understand why we must part ways?"
"Yes." She wanted to beg, to plead with him that she loved him and that she was worth more than a role in a household, but her pride wouldn't let her.
"I do still care for you but-"
"Stop," she instructed him, holding her hand up as she spoke, she would break down if he kept speaking, without a doubt she knew she would. "I understand, there is no need for us to continue with this discussion, so if you'll excuse me Mr Carson I'd like to go back to the house, alone."
"Of course," he stepped back from her, letting her make her escape. He tilted his head back to look up at the stars, she was as pragmatic as he'd expected, why would she be upset over the end of something so trivial. He closed his eyes, feeling his own heart break at the loss of her.
Elsie clasped her hand over her mouth as she made sure to keep her step even and calm looking. Her sobs were silent, muffled into her hand and for once she did not fight for self control, she'd often heard that a broken heart could hurt more than a broken limb but up until this exact moment in time she'd never believed that sentiment. She just wished that she still didn't, because the pain was almost crippling her.
Anna and Mr Bates were talking again, their heads bowed close together, shutting out the outside world, Elsie noted as she passed the courtyard, too busy to take the time to stop. Normally she would have out a halt to such a romance, but they were both sensible people and sometimes you could not fight the inevitable.
She allowed herself a bittersweet smile as she remembered another time, all those years ago when another Valet and Housemaid had fallen in love and how it had all ended so painfully. She heard the boom of Mr Carson's voice as he told off William for the having his jacket unbuttoned and her smile changed. Yes the story between the Valet and Housemaid had ended in tears and heartbreak but the one of Charles and Elsie had not ended there.