Beryl stared at Charles, a scowl on her face. “How could you?” she asked, her voice cracking though she tried to scowl.
“I had to.” Charles whispered. “The only reason you know now is because Mrs. Clarkson thought it would be good for Elsie to see you. I’m still not sure it’s a good idea.”
“Why? I just don’t understand. I thought,”
“Just go and see her, Beryl. You’ll understand then.”
Beryl studied her friend and felt her heart lurch in her chest. “Charles, what’s happened?”
Charles shook his head. “Just go and see her, Beryl,” he whispered and moved to stare out the window of his cottage that overlooked the back yard and garden he’d worked so hard to make something of the last three years. He’d unknowingly, or rather, subconsciously, planted all of Elsie’s favorite flowers in the boxes beneath his windows and in the beds he’d dug and created along the fence line. He’d also realized after his vegetables started growing, that he’d planted much of Elsie’s favorites there as well.
He heard Beryl leave and heaved a sigh. He had kept Elsie hidden away at Crawley House since the night he’d brought her back, had stayed there himself to keep people from learning he had returned so that he wouldn’t have to answer any questions.
Now that he had ventured out, it would spread through the village that he had returned and those questions would be hurled at him with lightning speed. Rubbing a hand over his face, he made the decision to go and see the Dowager. He owed her for everything she had done for him, and she would also be a great help in figuring out what to do to stem the flow of gossip about Mrs. Hughes.
He shook his head.
Not Mrs. Hughes.
That brought him back to another topic he needed to discuss with the Dowager.
He somehow had to secure a divorce for Elsie.
If he could do that, he would marry her. If they were married, he could bring her to his home, take care of her, protect her.
He would show her that a husband can be a good man. That a husband can take care of his wife, cherish her, protect her, and love her above all else.
And never, ever, harm her.
“Elsie.” Isobel called as she entered the room, careful not to frighten the woman should she be sleeping. Finding her in the corner, she felt her heart constrict as it always did. Backing out of the room, she turned to Beryl. “Did Mr. Carson explain anything about our Elsie?”
Beryl blinked at that. Our Elsie? “He told me to come and see her, that I would learn for myself why he hadn’t told me before now that he’d found her.”
Isobel bit her lip. “He’s been very protective of her, Mrs. Patmore. She’s spent the last three years,” she shook her head, her voice cracking. “When you go in, you’ll find her in the corner.”
“In the corner?” Beryl’s voice rose then fell quickly. “What the bloody heck is she doing in the corner?”
“That’s where she sleeps. We’ve tried to get her to sleep in the bed, but,” Isobel looked down at her hands. “The man she’s been married to for the last three years didn’t allow her to sleep in a bed. She had to sleep on a pallet in the corner of the room. Mr. Carson and I have made this one as comfortable as we can. Dr. Clarkson even brought a mattress from one of the unused cots at the hospital over to put under all of the blankets and duvets we had piled up.” Reaching out, Isobel rested a hand on Beryl’s arm. “Her jaw was broken, so everything was wired shut to let it heal. She’s lost weight and doesn’t talk much, but maybe she will when she sees you. Just be easy with her.”
Beryl, tears rolling down her cheeks, nodded then turned her attention to fishing her handkerchief out of her handbag. Wiping her eyes and blowing her nose, she took a deep breath then moved around Isobel and went into the bedroom. Swallowing back her gasp, she took a deep breath then laid her handbag down so she could take off her coat and hat, the actions giving her time to get her emotions under control.
“Elsie, lass. It’s Mrs. Patmore.” She huffed. “Beryl. I’ll be Beryl. No need for titles here.” Groaning as she settled herself on the floor, her back against the wardrobe, she reached out and gently rested her hand on Elsie’s. “I’ve missed you. If I’d known I’d be seeing you today, I’d have brought you some shortbread biscuits. Or maybe some chocolate ones. Would you like that?”
Elsie blinked as she turned her hand to clasp Beryl’s. She was safe, she knew this voice, this kind face. Knew that Beryl Patmore would protect her just as Charles Carson had done. “Chocolate,” she whispered.
Beryl grinned and nodded. “I’ll be sure and bring them tomorrow when I come to visit. For now, will you join me on the bed over there,” she hooked her thumb over her shoulder. “I’m too old to be sitting on the floor. If I stay here, I may never get up.”
Elsie shook her head. “Can’t. Mustn’t. Where I belong.”
Reaching out with her free hand, Beryl caressed a strand of hair away from Elsie’s cheek. “No, lass. You belong on the bed. Mrs. Crawley has made it up nice and clean just for you. Only for you. No one else needs it. Mrs. Crawley has her bed, and Mr. Carson has a bed here too. I’ll sit right beside you, I promise.”
Elsie bit her bottom lip and stared at the bed. She’d laid in it, that’s where she always started out, but eventually, she would wind up here in the corner where she belonged. He said so. And she had to do what he told her or she’d be punished.
Beryl watched the fear fill her friend’s eyes. “He can’t hurt you anymore, Lass. I won’t let him. Mrs. Crawley won’t let him. And I know a big, bellowing man that would soon as knock him sprawling as look at him. Charles Carson won’t be letting anyone hurt you. I dare say, Dr. Clarkson won’t be letting anyone hurt you, either. We all love you, Elsie, and we’re going to make sure that we protect you from anything or anyone that can harm you.” Beryl squeezed Elsie’s hand before letting go to push herself up off the floor. “Ooph,” she grunted then smiled down at Elsie as she held out her hand. “Come on then. I’ve a story to tell you.”
Elsie sat up carefully and took Beryl’s hand. Wrapping her free arm around her middle, she stood up and leaned against her friend as they walked the short distance to the bed. Biting her lip, she sat on the edge and scooted back, settling against the pillows.
Beryl toed off her shoes then settled on the bed next to Elsie, her hand reaching out to hold the cold and trembling one of her friend. “There now, this is much better. And look,” she pointed at the window. “You can see outside. See the bird on that tree branch? I’m not sure how the tiny thing is still sitting there with the wind blowing like it is.”
Elsie watched the bird, her eyes transfixed on the way its head dipped against the wind, its feathers ruffling with each gust. “Should be in its nest,” she spoke quietly.
Beryl nodded. “Would be the warmer place.”
“Story.” Elsie reminded Beryl.
“Ah yes. I did say I had a story to tell you, didn’t I?”
Elsie nodded and settled further down onto the pillows. “You did.”
“Well, years ago, when I was no more than eleven, my aunt came to live with us. I was confused at first because she had a husband and a house of her own. Then I heard her crying out one night in her sleep and Ma rushing to her. I learned after that night, that her husband had abused her. Ma didn’t tell me more than that he’d beat her, but when I got older, old enough to fully understand, Auntie told me all of the truth so that I would know to be wary and careful. I was in service by then, and too concerned with proving that I was a good cook, that I could one day be the one bossing people about my own kitchen, to be overly concerned with marriage. I promised her that I would be careful though because I’d seen and heard the hell she went through trying to get her life back.” Beryl looked down at Elsie and reached out to wipe away a tear.
Elsie stared up at her friend, tears blurring her vision. She knew what Beryl was doing, and was grateful for her understanding. Through Beryl’s story, she found the one person she could talk to when she was ready.
“I won’t push you to tell me anything, Lass. I just wanted you to know that I can guess at what you went through, and that I’m sorry. If you want to talk to someone, you know I’m a good listener.”
Elsie nodded and squeezed Beryl’s hand. She and Beryl had fought like cats and dogs over the store cupboard key, but they’d also been allies in other things. Beryl was a friend, more of a sister to Elsie than her own had ever been. Feeling tired, she let her eyes close, her hand holding tightly to Beryl’s.
“Rest. I’ll be right here.” Beryl whispered as she watched Elsie fall asleep. Tears rolled down her cheeks, the emotions she’d been keeping in check finally being released. Her friend had been through hell, a hell that she’d prayed never to see another woman go through again after her aunt. Scrubbing at the tears on her cheeks, she thought about what she’d said to Elsie.
She’d meant it.
If the man that did this so much as blinked in Elsie’s direction, she, Beryl Patmore, would make him regret it.
She hadn’t been wielding pots and pans most of her life for nothing.
She knew just the pan to use to get the message across.
No one was going to hurt Elsie Hughes ever again.