“It’s a lovely tree, Elsie.” Beryl told her friend as she looked at the decorations.
“I like it better than any tree I’ve ever seen.” Daisy whispered. “Especially the topper.”
“Charlie’s grandfather carved and painted that.”
Beryl’s eyebrows rose as she turned to look at Charles. “Why have I never seen it?”
“Because it’s been in a crate, along with several of those ornaments, since Ma died.”
Beryl nodded in understanding. “Well, I’m glad to see that you’ve brought them out. Charlotte Carson wouldn’t want them all crated up.”
“I’m glad I have someone to share them with now.”
Elsie smiled as she stood up from her chair. “I need to go check the goose.”
“I’ll come along and check on the apple tart.” Beryl chuckled when she heard Charles hum in approval. “I suppose you’ll be expecting me to leave what’s left, hmm?”
Charles shrugged and gave her a sheepish grin. “I wouldn’t say no.”
Daisy shook her head in amazement. “I can’t believe it.”
Elsie looked at the young woman. “Can’t believe what?”
Daisy blushed and looked down at her hands. “It’s like I’ve never met him before,” she whispered.
Charles laughed then winked when Daisy looked up at him. “Because you haven’t met me. You only ever knew the butler persona that I wore to protect myself.”
“Mrs. Patmore doesn’t seem surprised.”
Beryl shook her head. “Of course not. I’ve known him since he was a young man. Long before he was butler.”
Daisy grinned. “Are you why he has such a sweet tooth?”
Elsie laughed when Beryl spluttered. “I never thought of that. Are you, Beryl?”
Beryl threw up her hands. “I might have used sweets to bribe him a time or two, but I’m not responsible for his ridiculous sweet tooth.”
Charles nodded. “She’s right, she’s not. Ma would be the one for that. She was always giving me a biscuit to chew on when I was a babe, and then when I was old enough for proper tea, she always made sure I had a biscuit to go along with. Of course, one became two, then three some times four as I grew older. She’d never let me have more though. Slapped my hand when I’d reach for the fifth.”
Elsie smiled at the soft faraway look on her husband’s face. “That explains why you never eat more than four biscuits.”
Charles shrugged. “Even though I’ve been a full grown man for years now, I suppose there is still a part of me that expects a smack on the hand if I reach for more.”
“Well, I’d best be on about what I was going to do.” Elsie said, hoping to escape before she melted into a puddle of tears at the sweetness of her husband’s memories of his mother.
Beryl followed after mouthing at Daisy to ask for more stories.
“Will you tell me about your ornaments?” she asked shyly, still not sure of this new version of Mr. Carson.
Charles nodded and stood up, walking over to the tree. “Which one would you like to know about first?”
“You didn’t get Daisy and I anything for Christmas, did you? We all agreed, no presents.” Beryl asked as she pulled the tart from the oven and sat it on the back of the stove top to keep it warm.
“We did, and we kept to it.” Elsie assured her friend, thankful to her for the suggestion, a suggestion that she and Charles had also kept for themselves, deciding that the lights and ornaments were enough for this year. “I know why you made the suggestion, and I’m grateful.”
Beryl feigned ignorance. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Elsie rolled her eyes. “You most certainly do, Beryl Patmore.”
Beryl shrugged. “If you say so. Now, how’s that goose coming along?”
“I believe it’s done. Will you help me lift it out? Charlie had to put it in.”
Beryl nodded and grabbed the thick towel she’d used to remove her tart. Bending with Elsie, they easily lifted the pan out and sat it on the stove. “It looks wonderful, Elsie.”
Elsie smiled. “It’s been forever since I’ve cooked a proper Christmas goose.” She pursed her lips as she thought back. “The Christmas before I left home. That’s the last time.”
“Well, as good as our meal smells, you’ve done a good job recalling what to do.”
“Charlie helped stuff the bird.”
Beryl raised an eyebrow at that. “And how did that go?”
Elsie laughed as she moved to check the rest of their meal. “He grimaced and grumbled quite a bit.”
“Something about it being undignified, I’d imagine.” Beryl laughed as she helped Elsie fill the serving dishes and move them to the table.
“Yes, exactly. I heard undignified mumbled several times before he was finished. I told him that I could do it, but he mumbled something and shook his head.”
“Do you have a platter for the goose?”
“We do, but Charlie will have to get it. We’re too,” she shrugged and pointed where the platter was stored.
“We’re not giants.” Beryl supplied, no more inclined to use short as a descriptor than Elsie was.
“You need a stool.”
“Charlie says that he’ll get me one if I just really want one, but that I don’t need it with him always helping in the kitchen. I think he’s afraid I might fall off.”
Beryl chuckled and shook her head. “That’s not it, Elsie. He doesn’t want to get you one because he enjoys helping you. Even if he’s just sitting at the table reading while you do the cooking, he’s there with you.”
Elsie smiled. “I enjoy him helping. Why do you think I’ve not forced the issue? Though I still say that a part of it is that he’s afraid I’ll fall.”
“Might be.” Beryl agreed. “Now. We’d best get Charles and Daisy so we can tuck into this meal before it grows cold.”
Charles couldn’t believe he was doing this, but yet here he was, standing on one foot and juggling five objects. The fact that Elsie had asked him to sing as well, had him rolling his eyes, but he’d do anything to make her smile and laugh. He knew that she’d asked him to sing to see if he could keep his concentration. He’d huffed. Of course he could.
Daisy laughed when Charles tossed the apple her way without missing a beat with the other four objects.
“Now toss it back.” Charles told her.
Daisy blinked in surprise. “Oh but,”
“It’s alright,” he assured her with a smile.
Biting her lip, Daisy concentrated on her aim then tossed the apple back, gasping and giggling when Charles caught it without incident. “Amazing, Mr. Carson! I’ve not seen a juggler ever as good as you!”
“High praise, Charles.” Beryl teased then growled when the apple flew at her head. “Hey!”
Elsie laughed and smirked over at her friend. “I think you shouldn’t tease a man who has his hands full of objects he can aim at you.”
Beryl scowled at Elsie, her twinkling eyes giving her away. “Want it back?” she asked Charles who nodded.
Elsie watched as her husband effortlessly took the apple back into the circle. “Bravo, Charlie!” she clapped, laughing when the apple then the orange landed in her lap, the rest of the objects following until he was done.
“And that is the end of this afternoon’s entertainment.” Charles bowed slightly when his audience clapped.
“Thank you, Charlie. I’m very impressed.”
“Impressive, Charles.” Beryl grinned at him. “Did you ever try juggling trays?”
Charles nodded. “I’ve juggled much larger objects, yes, but I’ve no intention of doing so now. All we have is breakable.”
“As if you’d drop them.” Beryl rolled her eyes at him. “After that display, it explains how you could always balance two heavy trays when you were a footman.”
Charles shrugged. “I’ve always been blessed with perfect balance.”
Elsie stood up and walked around the settee to the small table that sat behind and placed the items from her lap down before picking up the Bible sitting there. Moving back to her place on the settee, she handed the book to Charles. “Read the Christmas story to us,” she whispered.
“Oh yes, please, Mr. Carson.” Daisy nodded her head. “I,”
“What is it?” Beryl asked when the young woman paused.
“It’s just that one of my favorite memories is listening to Mr. Carson read the Christmas story.”
Charles frowned. “Daisy, I never read the Christmas story below stairs.”
“No, but I still heard you.” Daisy whispered. “It was my first Christmas at Downton and I was so very homesick that I’d been hidden in a corner crying, but I’d been summoned to put more coal on a fire, so I wiped my face and hurried upstairs to do my job before anyone caught me. I weren’t much more than Lady Sybil’s age so hearing a story attracted my attention. I paused outside the open door to listen. I was nearly caught by Her Ladyship.”
Charles smiled. “She saw you.”
Daisy’s eyes widened. “But she never had me scolded!”
“She wouldn’t have, Daisy. She probably thought it sweet that you were listening to the story.” Elsie assured.
Charles caressed his fingers over the gold lettering then opened to the passage that held the sacred story. Clearing his throat, he began to read, his voice clear and deep, capturing the ladies’ attention, seeming to make the story come to life.
Elsie sighed as she laid her head on his shoulder. This is what Christmas was supposed to be. This man, these women, were her family – more family than her blood had ever been. For the first time in a very long time, Christmas was special and magical.
Daisy curled up in the chair, her head resting on the side as she sighed in contentment. She’d missed hearing a deep voice reading the Christmas story since Mr. Mason had passed. Hearing it in church wasn’t the same as sitting around the cozy fire, the lights on the tree glowing in the corner.
Beryl wiped at her eyes and nose with her handkerchief as she watched Elsie relaxed and content, settled against Charles’ shoulder. Months ago, she’d been so afraid she’d never see her friend this at ease and happy again. Christmas really was a time for miracles, she supposed. At least in this home it had been.