Elsie kept herself hidden as she was told to do, mending the latest tear to her shift as she sat in the worn chair in the back of their living quarters while her husband was tending to the store at the front of the building. She sighed and winced as she pricked her finger.
Looking around, she felt tears well in her eyes as she thought of how she’d wound up in this place, married to a man she didn’t love or even like.
“Elsie? Whatever in the world are you doing here?”
Elsie walked into her sister’s house, hoping that her brother-in-law was around. “I’ve come to stay for a while, if that’s alright,” she answered quietly.
“Elsie Hughes, what have you done?”
“I haven’t done anything!”
“You’ve not left your blessed Downton for more than a week for years, and now you say you’ve come to stay for a while. Out with it.”
Elsie looked down at her shoes. “I’ve been let go.”
That wasn’t what the older woman had been expecting. “Let go? You mean they’ve sacked you? Without reference?”
“Again, what did you do?”
“I,” Elsie started but stopped when she heard her brother-in-law saying her name from behind her.
“Elsie? Hello, Lass.”
Elsie turned and crumbled as her brother-in-law wrapped his arms around her. He’d always cared more for her than her sister. “I’m in trouble, Sean,” she whimpered.
“She’s been sacked.”
“Alba!” Sean hissed at his wife.
“It’s true.” Elsie whispered as she pulled away from her brother-in-law.
“But Elsie, why? They love you.”
“I did something that could have brought scandal on the house.”
“You?” Sean asked, his face showing his clear disbelief.
“I’m going to ask again, Elsie, and I want an answer. What did you do?” Alba asked, her voice stern, her eyes cold.
“I held Mr. Carson’s hand while we were at the beach.” Elsie answered truthfully.
Sean shook his head and frowned. “That’s all?”
“They sacked her, Sean. It can’t be all.”
“We were accused of impropriety by the under-butler. I was asked about it and took the blame. I was the one that offered my hand and led Mr. Carson astray.”
Sean couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing. He knew his sister-in-law well, and knew that she was the most virtuous woman he’d ever met. “I don’t believe you.”
“It’s the truth.” Elsie insisted. “I’ve only come to stay until I can find work. Once I’ve found something, I’ll leave and not be a bother anymore. I’ll help with the chores while I’m here.”
“You most certainly will.” Alba growled. “Well, you know where the spare room is.”
Elsie nodded and moved to where she’d dropped her bags. “Thank you.”
Sean watched his sister-in-law walk away then turned to his wife. “When are you going to stop treating her like that?”
“What reason do I have to stop? She’s considered a fallen woman now, Sean. The shame she’ll bring,” Alba rolled her eyes. “She’s never thought of anyone but herself.”
“That’s not true, Alba, and you know it.”
“I know that she brought shame on our family when she left Joe Burns for a life in service. She’d been promised to him. Her leaving made our parents fools.”
Sean shook his head. “You’ll be the death of me, Alba.”
Elsie was startled out of her remembering by the sudden grip on her arm. “I’m sorry,” she breathed through the pain.
“When I call for you, I expect an answer.”
Elsie closed her eyes at the sting of tears brought on by the slap across her cheek. “Yes, Sir. I’m sorry. What was it you needed?” she asked, her eyes lowered in submission.
“I have to leave for an hour. You’re to dress properly and come out to watch the shop. No talking other than when you’re spoken to. Understood?”
“I’ll deal with you over this disobedience later.”
“Yes, Sir.” Elsie answered, her voice low. She knew what he meant, knew what would happen after he closed up shop for the day. Hurriedly she stood up and made her way to where her shop clothes were kept. Pulling out a dress, she held it up for him to approve. “Will this do, Sir?”
“It will be fine. Don’t forget your corset.”
“Yes, Sir.” Elsie watched her husband turn and leave the room, then rushed about changing into the clothing he kept for her to wear when he allowed her out in public. Which generally meant Sunday mornings for church only to show the people of this small burgh how respectable he’d made the fallen woman he’d taken as his wife.
Of course, the whole of the burgh knew why he’d taken a wife. He’d been forced to. It was take a wife or else.
“You what?” Elsie asked her sister.
“I’ve found a man to marry you and make you respectable again. Rev. Jameson will be here this afternoon so you need to pack your things.”
“Alba, I don’t want to marry. I’ve just come from finding a position that will provide me with a place to stay.”
“And how long will it last when they learn what you’ve done?”
“Exactly. Now go pack.”
Elsie stared at her sister, wondering when she’d turned completely into their mother. Hanging her head, she turned and made her way to her room to pack, making the decision to leave before her sister could pawn her off on the visiting minister.
Except that hadn’t been how things happened. Her sister had lied to her about when the minister would arrive.
Looking herself over in the mirror, she turned and made her way out to the shop. “I’m here. Am I presentable, Sir?” she asked as she stood in front of her husband, waiting for his inspection.
Looking Elsie up and down, Connell nodded. “I’ll return within an hour. Remember what I told you.”
“Yes, Sir. Not to speak unless spoken to.”
Elsie watched the man leave then sighed a breath of relief for the hour of reprieve she’d been granted. Moving to sit on the stool behind the counter, she sat with her hands in her lap, her legs crossed at the ankle, knowing that was how she was expected to sit. She knew that if she slipped in any little thing, she would be caught. It was as though the man had eyes in the back of his head, and since she knew she was already in trouble for not responding to his summons in a timely fashion earlier, she didn’t want to add to the punishment.
“Why, Alba? Why did you lie to me?”
“Elsie, don’t cause a scene. You’ll go with Rev. Jameson. You disgraced yourself, so you are no longer in charge. I’m the elder sister, the head of this family, and I will not allow you to bring shame upon the Hughes name again. We’ve been lucky up until now, but old Mrs. Twillet has become suspicious. You don’t know her, but I do, and I know it won’t be long now until she discovers the real reason you’re here.”
“I can leave on my own if you don’t want me here. I told you that I found a position.”
“And again I ask, what happens when they learn the truth?”
“Alba, they took me without references. That alone isn’t done, but just the fact that I was housekeeper at a big estate was enough to gain me the position.”
“Stop arguing, Elsie. Go and get your things.”
Elsie sighed in defeat and went to her room. Putting on her coat and hat, she picked up her bags and made her way back out to the waiting minister. “I’m ready.”
“Write when you’re settled.”
Elsie glared at her sister. “I’ll write when hell freezes over,” she hissed, one last bit of defiance before marching out, not caring that she’d cursed in front of a man of the clothe and more than likely damned her soul to hell.
“I’m sorry for that, Rev. Jameson. Marrying this man will be good for her. It should put the fear of God back into her.”
Rev. Jameson doffed his hat. “I’ll write to let you know she’s settled and respectable again.”
Elsie remembered the cold, long ride to the train station then the train ride to Scotland. Some nameless burgh, she’d never heard of, was where she now found herself living.
She scoffed at that.
She wasn’t living.
She was existing.
She’d tried to get away after they’d arrived, but a vice like grip on her arm had kept her from getting very far. If she’d been half the damned soul her sister had made her out to be, she would have stomped the minister’s foot and run, but she wasn’t, and didn’t.
And now here she sat, watching the door, waiting for a customer to come into the shop or her husband to return, whichever came first.
She suspected it would be her husband coming back as the shop wasn’t a busy place lately. If only it were. Maybe it would keep her husband from being so, she shook her head before she completed the thought.
Her husband would be the way he was no matter.
She knew what he was doing now.
Out drinking at a pub out of the way where he knew, or thought he knew, no one from this burgh would see him.
He always forgot that they would see him when he came back, smelling of smoke and drink, and staggering about.
And they would hear his shouts.
Hear him yelling and cursing at her.
Calling her names she never dreamed she’d be called.
“Connell, this is Elsie Hughes. I’ve brought her to you for you to take as your wife. She’ll solve all of your problems and keep you from being banished.”
Elsie’s eyes grew wide at that. “What?” she asked.
“Were you being spoken to?” Connell glared at her then looked at the minister. “What sort of woman have you brought me? I won’t have a woman who doesn’t know her place.”
“She is a disgraced housekeeper. You’ll make her respectable again when you marry her. She’ll do as she’s told.”
“I most certainly will not!” Elsie hissed as she grabbed her things and began to walk away, only to be stopped by the yanking of her hair.
“I think I’m going to like this one after all.” Connell sneered. “Well, when do you want to see us?” he asked the minister.
“Give me half an hour and then we’ll get the marriage over with.”
“We’ll be there.”
Elsie squirmed against the death like grip on her arm. “You’re hurting me.”
Connell leaned close, his hot breath against her ear. “I’ll do more than that if you don’t settle down.”
“Let me go.” Elsie fought back, finally jerking her arm free.
“It seems I have some business to attend to. My promised wife needs to learn a few things. We’ll see you in half an hour.”
Rev. Jameson nodded and scurried off to the church, knowing what was going to happen, and not really caring. The woman was a sinner, and sinners must be punished. Who was he to judge?
Elsie saw the minister rushing off out of the corner of her eye just before she rounded a corner. Feeling her hair being grabbed at again, she tried to run faster, but stumbled.
Connell grabbed Elsie’s arm and yanked, keeping her from falling and effectively pinning her to his side. “Now, come with me. If you try to run again, you won’t have legs to run with. Is that understood?”
Elsie swallowed and nodded. The look in the man’s eyes was more terrifying than anything she’d ever seen in a human being before. Even more terrifying than what she’d seen in that dreadful Mr. Green’s eyes.
Elsie sat up straighter as the door opened then slid to the floor to wait for her husband’s commands. She could smell the smoke and drink just as she knew she would.
“Anyone come in?”
“No, Sir.” Elsie answered.
“Fine then. You go and prepare yourself for your punishment while I close up.”
“Yes, Sir.” Lowering her gaze to the floor, Elsie made her way out of the shop, through the storage area, down a long hall to where the bedroom was. Carefully taking off her dress so as not to muss it, she hung it back in the wardrobe then set about taking off the rest of her things, putting them back in their proper places. Going to her corner of the room, she lowered herself onto the pallet that was her bed and waited.
Connell would pick out what she was to wear for her punishment.
The dirty, perverted bastard.