“Charles.” Elsie whispered as they sat in the sitting room after washing up from their dinner. She’d spent the last half hour simply staring into the fire listening to Charles turning the pages in the book he was currently reading.
Charles looked up from his book. “Yes?”
“I’ve been thinking,” she answered as she turned to look at him.
“I think I would like to change my name.”
Charles raised an eyebrow. “Elsie, you know that I don’t require you to do that.”
“I do, and I also know why, but I think it’s time I became Mrs. Carson. I,” she worried her lip as she tried to remain calm and steady. “I think I would like to have a ring.”
“Elsie, what’s brought this on? Has someone said something to you?” Charles asked. “You did seem a bit off after your visit to the village.” He frowned. “Did Mrs. Jones say something?” he finally asked, sure that the battle-axe hadn’t held her tongue.
Elsie looked down at her hands. “She did say something, and Edith, the wonderful lass, came to my rescue, but that wasn’t what brought this about.”
“What did the woman say to you?” Charles asked, ignoring everything but Elsie’s admission.
“It doesn’t matter, Charles.”
“Elsie, it does matter. I’ll not have anyone saying things to you that hurt you, which clearly happened if it took Miss Crawley defending you.”
Elsie sighed as her mind numbly registered that he had actually remembered to refer to Edith as Miss Crawley instead of Lady Edith. “It’s taken care of. The young lady did a rather nice job of telling the old woman off, though I’m sure that she’s been talking about Edith ever since now that I know the story of Marigold.” Staring into the fire again, Elsie sighed, “Charles, where has Charlie gone?” she finally asked.
“I don’t think I understand, Elsie.” Charles gave in answer though he was sure that he did. He knew that he’d slipped back into his old self, but he couldn’t seem to stop it from happening.
“Have I done something wrong to make you be just Charles again? You never,” she fidgeted with a pleat in her skirt. “You never do anything silly to make me laugh anymore.” She looked up at him. “Is it because I don’t wear your ring or have your name?”
“No, Elsie. Is that why you said you thought it was time you became Mrs. Carson and started wearing a ring?”
Elsie sighed, struggling to find the words to explain herself. “Remember when we married, that I said I needed to go ahead with it for me?”
“Wearing your ring and taking your name are things I need to do for me, though I will admit that a small part of it is because of you.”
“Elsie, I don’t require those things. I thought you understood.”
“I do understand, Charles,” her voice cracked and she cleared her throat. “I know that you have done all of this for me to keep from upsetting me or frightening me, but I have to do this. I can’t keep letting you,” she shook her head. “I think I’ll turn in. Today has been tiring,” she explained quietly as she stood up and made her way towards the stairs. She had to get away before she broke down completely in front of him.
“Elsie, no. Don’t do that.” Charles called after her. “I’m sorry. I know I’ve been,” he shook his head. “I’m just sorry. It isn’t anything you’ve done, it’s me. If you want to wear a ring and take my name, I’d be honored.”
Elsie startled awake, a loud clap of thunder rattling the windows causing her to cower where she sat. Getting up, still half asleep, she stumbled toward the corner, then stopped when lightning lit up the room. The brightness had served to wake her fully and she stared down at the pallet. She didn’t want that.
Turning toward the door, she crept out and down the hall to Charles’ bedroom. Standing just inside the door, she watched the lightning illuminate him as he slept, his light snores lost in the rolling thunder. Shivering as memories began to wash over her, she cried out when the thunder boomed again.
Charles was instantly awake, his eyes finding Elsie in a flash of lightning. “Elsie,” he breathed as he sat up and turned to get out of bed, then paused his movements not wanting to startle her. “What is it, Lass?”
“He loved the storms. They excited him. He, he,” she cried out with another clap of thunder, her wild eyes staring at Charles.
“Elsie, come here, Lass.” Charles invited gently as he lifted the blankets and held out his hand. “I’m only going to hold you to warm you and protect you until the storm is over.”
Elsie stared at his hand then looked up at him, rushing to him with a cry as the thunder boomed once more. “Don’t let him hurt me,” she whispered, lost in mingled memories and reality.
“He’s dead, Lass. Remember?” Charles whispered as he held her close and pulled the blankets tighter around her.
“I just want the storm to stop,” she cried as she burrowed into Charles’ embrace, her hand clutching the lapel of his pajama shirt. “Every time it stormed. So many times. It always seemed worse when it stormed. He had a special outfit for me to wear and a special whip that he used,” her voice was quiet as she spoke of her abuse to Charles for the first time. “He would make me scream with the thunder.”
Charles buried his face in Elsie’s hair, anger surging through him as he listened to her recounting her hell. “No more, Lass,” he assured her, his voice barely controlled. “No one will ever hurt you again. I’m going to hold you until the storm is over.” His mind swirled with images of her being hurt, the thoughts making his heart ache and his embrace tighten around Elsie.
“Tell me a story?” she asked, her tears still falling as she shivered with the memories. They were painful, but not like they used to be. Maybe it was because she knew her tormentor was dead. Or maybe it was because of the man currently holding her. Maybe knowing that he would never hurt her, and that he would protect her from anyone that ever tried to hurt her again, helped ease the pain. She was surprised that she wasn’t afraid to be in his bed, but she supposed that her fear of the storm and the memories it invoked was stronger. That and she’d never been afraid of Charles’ touch and they were sitting up not lying down. She calmed further when the rumble of his voice vibrated through her ear as she laid against his chest.
“It was storming the day that changed my life. The storm raging outside had Lady Sybil clinging to my leg. Her parents were cross. The nanny was cross. The older girls were cross. I was simply limited in doing my job by the added weight of the little girl sitting on my foot, her arms and legs wrapped around my leg, but I was helpless against her big eyes staring up at me as she begged me not to make her go.
So, I did my best to walk and do my duty with her tagging along. I had just made up my mind to lift her up into my arms when the storm blew the back door open and a bedraggled figure along with it. Lady Sybil screamed in fright and then the most wonderful sound I’d ever heard, issued forth from the figure I still hadn’t gotten a good look at. “Hush, wee lassie. Tis’ only nature and me, the rather soaked new Housekeeper.” And that was that. The sound of your voice hushed and calmed Lady Sybil and sent a jolt straight to my heart. I was hopelessly lost from then on, though I wouldn’t have admitted it. I don’t think I really recognized it then.
I did know that when it stormed, I always enjoyed it more after that day. After all, it was a storm that brought a fiery Scottish lass into my life.” Charles finished his story and sighed in relief that Elsie had fallen asleep somewhere in the telling of it. He smiled sadly as he thought of how the Crawley girls had always fallen asleep when he’d told them a story, his voice having a sort of hypnotic effect on tired lasses.
His only hope now was that Elsie didn’t wake frightened by being in his bed. His actions the last few weeks had hurt her enough, the last thing he wanted was to do more harm than the good he was trying to do. When the morning came, he would have to ask her again if she was sure of her decision to wear a ring and change her name. If that was truly what she wanted, he’d give her his mother’s ring and inform people she was to be called Mrs. Carson. As for himself, well, he’d have to try harder. He wasn’t really sure what was happening himself.