Beryl held Elsie close as she trembled against her, crying and whimpering, “No. No. No,” over and over again.
“Shh, Lass. It’s alright. I’ve got you. Dr. Clarkson is sorry. He was only trying to help. You know that he wouldn’t hurt you.”
Elsie shivered as she burrowed closer to Beryl. “I can’t. Isn’t my place.”
Beryl sighed as she gently rubbed a hand up and down over Elsie’s back. “Lass, you have to talk about it so that you can heal. You can’t bottle it all up. I’ll listen, you know that. He hurt you, Elsie. No man has that right.”
Beryl swallowed down her nasty retort, knowing that what Elsie said was the truth. A husband did have the right to do as he saw fit with what the law saw as his property. “The law is wrong, Elsie. No human has the right to beat and abuse another.”
“Wasn’t submissive. Was supposed to be.” Elsie mumbled.
“I was raised by God fearing parents, Elsie, and my father never beat or did worse to my mother on the premise of submission or her lack of it. That man was wrong, Elsie. You did nothing to deserve,” Beryl’s voice broke. “Mrs. Clarkson told me everything they treated you for when Charles brought you home.”
Elsie sobbed as she turned away from Beryl, curling up on her side. “The pain. I’ve never,” another sob escaped. “I tried to run. I tried.”
Beryl tenderly tugged Elsie back to her and held her close. “Shh, Lass. That’s enough for now.”
“He broke my leg.” Elsie choked out.
Beryl felt bile rise in her throat and swallowed hard to contain it. No wonder her friend had been trapped into a marriage she didn’t want. “He had no right, Lass. No right,” she whispered as she gently rocked Elsie back and forth.
“Story.” Elsie whispered after she’d calmed a bit.
Beryl smiled at the request. Elsie had taken to asking for a story from her friend when she needed to forget her nightmares and memories. “About a young Charlie Carson?”
“Yes, we called him that before he left.”
Elsie wondered briefly if Beryl knew the truth of what Charles had done when he left. “Tell me?”
“Well, he was very tall even then, though he didn’t fill a doorway as he does now. His eyebrows weren’t quite so impressive back then, either.” Beryl felt Elsie’s mouth turn up a bit and knew that she was smiling. She’d hoped that bit would make her friend happy and was glad it had worked. “The young maids were always fawning over Charlie, though he never took notice. You remember the mess with Alfred, Daisy, Ivy, and Jimmy? How the girls were fawning over the two? Well, that’s how the girls were with Charlie. The other footmen were always angry with him because they could never get the attention they wanted from the maids. They also weren’t fond of the fact that he seemed to always be in favor with the Countess. Then a strange thing happened one day. The boys had all decided to play a prank on Charlie to pay him back for the slights they thought he’d caused them. Well, the prank involved an object in his path to make him trip and fall, but it didn’t exactly go as they’d planned. He did indeed trip, but instead of falling, he managed to do a bit of a jig and dance and fumble. I can’t describe it properly, but he had them all in stitches by the time he was through. After that, the other boys started spending time with Charlie and then it was the girls that were put out. He was a heart breaker and didn’t know it. Then he was gone and no one had a clue what happened. When he came back, he wasn’t Charlie anymore. Charles became the first footman and then spent time as young Lord Robert’s valet. When Mr. Inch announced that he was going to retire after the holiday season, he promoted Charles to under-butler and began to train him to take his place. By the time he became butler, I didn’t recognize him anymore.” Beryl felt Elsie’s even breathing and sighed, thankful that her friend had finally felt peaceful enough to sleep.
Looking up when the door slowly opened, she gently eased herself away from Elsie. “Shh, Lass. Sleep,” she whispered when Elsie stirred.
Isobel was shocked when Beryl broke down the minute she stepped out of the room and closed the door behind her. “What is it?” she asked the upset woman.
Beryl fished her handkerchief out of her skirt pocket and wiped her nose, taking a deep breath before speaking. “She told me a bit,” she started then covered her mouth to stop the cry from slipping out. “He broke her leg,” she started again then swallowed to finish. “That’s why she wound up married to him.”
Isobel closed her eyes against the sting of tears that suddenly threatened. “Dear god,” she breathed.
“I need to go back to her. I don’t want her waking up in the bed alone. The state she was in, she’d wind up back in the corner.”
Isobel nodded. “I only came up to tell you that I’m going out. Cousin Violet sent word that she would like to see me. I suspect she’s finally decided to let me know that she knows Elsie is here.”
“We’ll be fine.”
“Mr. Carson will be stopping by at some point.”
“I’ll leave the door open so that I hear his knock just in case you haven’t returned.”
Isobel nodded. “Will Elsie talk to you?”
“I’ll be the only one she does, if she does. Talking to a stranger, especially a man, she won’t. She doesn’t think it’s her place to speak ill of the bastard.” Beryl spit out.
Isobel reached out and squeezed Beryl’s arm. “We’ll get her through this. All of us together. I’m sorry Richard and I upset her. We should have told her that I would have been with her the whole time she was talking to the doctor. We never would have let her be by herself.”
“Deep down, she knows that. She’s just so mixed up and broken.”
Charles sat quietly talking to Beryl as they watched over Elsie sleeping. “He did what? What was he thinking?” he growled.
“Now Charles, easy. Isobel admitted that they should have told Elsie that Isobel would be with her at all times, but you must admit, she does need to talk about what happened. She can’t keep it all inside or she’ll never heal.”
Charles studied his friend. “Beryl, you’ve never,”
“No.” Beryl shook her head. “My aunt, though nothing like Elsie.” Looking back over at her friend curled up in the bed, she felt her eyes watering again. “She told me she tried to run away.” She turned her gaze back to Charles. “He broke her leg. That’s how she wound up married to him.”
Charles’ hands tightened into fists, the same anger he’d felt the day he nearly strangled Connell McNeil boiling through his veins once again. “I should have killed him,” he muttered.
“And what good would that have done our Elsie?”
“She would know she was safe from him ever finding her.”
“And she would be less the man that loves her.” Beryl rested a hand over one of Charles’ fists. “She needs you, Charles. I can listen to her when she talks. I can lay beside her to get her to sleep in the bed instead of on the floor where she thinks she belongs. Dr. Clarkson and Mrs. Clarkson can look after her physically and provide her with a safe place to stay, but none of us can do for her what you can.”
“I don’t know how to fix her,” he whispered, his hands unclenching as he watched Elsie stir. “I don’t know how.”
“Love her like a real man should love a woman. Show her how to be herself again.”
“I don’t know if I,”
“Just love her, Charlie.” Beryl whispered, using the nickname from his youth, hoping to remind him of the fearless, young man he’d once been.
Charles looked at Beryl. It had been years since she’d called him that. Years since he hadn’t flinched at the name. “I’ve never thought of doing any less,” he finally answered just as Elsie’s eyes fluttered open.
Beryl smiled at Elsie as she slowly sat up, wiping sleep from her eyes. “I’ll go make us some tea. A few chocolate biscuits, Elsie?”
Beryl nodded. “If that’s what you want.”
Elsie nodded as she carefully moved off the bed to sit in a nearby chair. Reaching up, she snarled at the mess her hair was in then looked up at Charles through her lashes. “I’m sorry,” she murmured before trying to fix her hair.
Charles shook his head. “No need to apologize, Lass. You’ve been napping. You should see the mess mine gets in when I sleep.” He smiled then winked at her as he reached up to muss his hair. “See, just like this,” he puffed out a breath to try and blow the unruly curl from his forehead.
Looking down at her hands, Elsie smiled slightly. “Charlie,” she whispered, remembering Beryl’s story.
Charles smiled, happy to see the slight upturn of her mouth. “Beryl’s been telling tales again I see.”
“I asked.” Elsie whispered.
“Lass, won’t you look at me? It’s just me. Just your grumpy butler.” Charles’ voice was low and rumbling. “You’ve looked at me a thousand times over the years. You’ve always been the only one to see behind the mask I wore. I haven’t changed, not really. The mask of butler is no longer here, but everything else you always saw is still the same.”
Elsie listened to the low rumble and found it as soothing as she always had. It meant safety and something else she wasn’t ready to acknowledge. She’d spent three years keeping her eyes lowered as she was told to, but now she was being asked to look up, to look someone in the eyes. Beryl was the only one that she even half way looked at. Chewing on her lower lip, she looked up, her eyes locking with Charles’. They were the same shining dark eyes she’d seen so many times before only there was a sadness that had never been present in the past.
Charles kept his gaze steady, smiling softly as he let Elsie study him. “See, just me,” he whispered as best he could.
Beryl watched quietly from the door, tears rolling down her cheeks as she watched Elsie look her fill of Charles. Even though she’d told Charles he could fix Elsie by loving her, deep down she had been afraid they wouldn’t be able to put the pieces of Elsie back together. Seeing this gave her hope.
God bless the return of Charlie Carson.