Chapter 20

“Elsie, lass, I have something I need to tell you.” Charles whispered as he sat beside her on the bench in the garden at Crawley House.

Elsie cocked her head and studied her friend. She knew that tone in his voice, it always precluded news he wasn’t sure she would handle well. “Charlie?”

Holding his hand out, palm up, Charles waited until she’d placed her palm against his before curling his fingers around her tiny hand, so small it seemed to be swallowed up by his paw. “I know we haven’t spoken of your life away, but I learned something today that you need to know.”

Elsie tugged her hand from Charles’, shaking her head. “No, no, Charlie. No. We mustn’t. I nae can,”

It always threw Charles when Elsie would slip in her speech. Swallowing, he gently reached out and rested a hand over hers. “Easy, Lass. Just please listen. Please? Remember? I’m just Charlie.”

Chewing her bottom lip, Elsie looked down at his hand. Such a large hand, much larger than the hands that had beat and abused her, yet she knew without any doubts that this hand would never be used to harm her. This hand had only ever touched her with gentleness and kindness. “What is it, Charlie?”

Charles smiled, not knowing what she’d been thinking, just happy that whatever it was it had led her to letting him talk with her. “I asked the Dowager to help me free you,” he paused and gently patted her hand when he felt it tremble. “Mr. Murray found someone who handles such things and they approached that man, but the answer was no. I didn’t tell you, because Mr. Murray had asked his friend to continue to do what he could to change the answer. In the mean time, Lord Flintshire had also been asked to help as he knows the laws and customs of your home country.” Looking up at Elsie, Charles held her gaze. “Lass,” his voice was as low as he could get it. “What happened that day? Why did he never properly marry you?”

Elsie stared at Charles in confusion. “But, I signed.”

“Not a marriage license, Lass. The minister confessed as much when confronted. What you signed were papers to keep you from getting anything should something happen to,” he growled then cleared his throat. “You were never married, Elsie. He just simply put a ring on your finger and declared you as such. A custom of your country, I’m told.”

Elsie nodded. “Old custom, but yes. It’s considered binding.”

“But not in England, Elsie. And it doesn’t matter now. I received a telegram today from Dr. Shannon. They found that bas,” he stopped to calm himself. “They found the man dead.”

Elsie blinked. Connell was dead? “Dead?”

“Yes, Lass. No more fear. You’re truly free.”

Elsie shook her head. “Alba.”

Charles sighed. “Elsie, they found her in the rain. She’d come to find the man and confront him.”

“You can say his name, Charlie.” Elsie interrupted.

“No, Lass. I can’t. He was a beast that didn’t deserve any bit of human kindness, and that includes me calling him by name.”

“Alba’s dead?” Elsie asked.

“Yes. She fell and hit her head on a rock. But, Elsie, Dr. Shannon said that he suspects she was the one that…well, she loved you in the end.”

Tears rolling down her cheeks, Elsie clasped Charles’ hand to her. “She loved me when we were wee lassies,” she whispered. “We spent summers running through the fields, laughing and chasing butterflies and the kittens that always seemed to live in our barn.”

Charles smiled. “Keep thinking of the good memories, Elsie. Let them be what you remember of your sister.”


“Yes, Lass?”

“I’m free.”

“Yes. Free.”

“I was surprised to receive your summons, Mama.” Robert sat in the Dower House sitting room staring across at his mother, still not sure why she’d wanted to see him.

“I’m sure you were, but there are things we must discuss.”

“What things?”

“I heard about your meeting Carson in the village. Seems it didn’t go well.”

“The man was rude. I’ve never known him to be that way. One would think after three years, he would be over his grudge against me. Not that he has a right to hold a grudge. I thought he understood protecting the family from scandal.”

Violet rolled her eyes at her son. “You took the word of Thomas Barrow, a man that you have wanted to get rid of on numerous occasions. Even in your usual ignorant state about what goes on in your household, you had to have known that Elsie Hughes and Charles Carson were always above reproach. How could you think they would do anything improper? They held hands, Robert. Nothing improper in that.”

“Oh come, Mama. Surely you don’t believe that was all that was going on. Why would Barrow have said otherwise?”

“I didn’t raise you to be a fool.” Violet sighed and shook her head. “Or maybe I did. Your father often was.”

“Don’t besmirch my father’s good name.”

“Don’t speak to me in such a manner, Robert Crawley. Your father was a good man, kind to those in his employ and those that worked his land, but there were times that he was a fool.”

Robert shook his head. “Is this why you’ve summoned me? To call me names and talk ill of my father?”

Violet looked down into her tea. “Do you remember the James family?”

“Father made the man leave and let his wife and children stay until they could find help from her family.”


“What have they to do with this?” Robert frowned.

“Do you remember why your father made the man leave?” Violet asked quietly.

Robert thought for a moment. “He learned that the man was abusing his wife. I still don’t see what this has to do with Carson and his grudge against me over Mrs. Hughes’ leaving.”

“Carson found Miss Hughes.” Violet emphasized the change in title. “Do you know what sort of situation she was in when he found her?”

Robert studied his mother. “Mama, what are you getting at?”

“Do you remember some of the things your father said old man James was doing to his wife? Remember how he told you that a man should never treat a woman that way, especially his wife?”

“Mama? Are you saying that,” Robert started then stopped at the look his mother gave him. “No.”

“Yes. Carson paid her husband money that I gave him then took her from that place and brought her home. She’s been secluded at Crawley House ever since.”

“But Mama, I,”

Violet held up her hand. “No. You’ve never thought of the consequences of your actions. You never should have listened to Thomas Barrow, or at the very least, you should have waited until you were at Downton where you could confront Carson and Hughes together and ask them about the accusations. Instead, you made Edith confront Miss Hughes, and then never even bothered to question Carson. You were a fool, Robert, and a woman has lived in hell for this blessed family’s reputation. We’re all to blame. All of us, but you most of all.”

“So that’s why Carson was so angry.”

“Yes, Robert. He said that he’d let go of his anger toward you, but finding her broken and abused, renewed it. He’s loved her for years, Robert, but his life was serving us. Now he’s doing everything he can to protect and help Elsie Hughes out of his own sense of guilt for not speaking of his feelings sooner.”

“And Isobel? Why would she take her in? Doesn’t Miss Hughes have family?”

“Her sister was a part of the whole sorry mess. Carson brought Miss Hughes to the only people he knew could help. He made them promise not to speak of it and asked me not to.”

“Yet you have.”

“I promised him I would see to it that you left him alone and I saw no other way to do that than to make you see why he was angry.”

Robert nodded. “I’ll not speak to him if we happen upon each other in the village again.” Standing, he started out of the room then looked back at his mother. “I’m sorry, Mama. Will you tell them that?”

“I will, though it will do nothing to fix what’s happened.”

“I know that, but I truly am sorry for being such a fool.”

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