The house was quiet. More than that, it was peaceful. The family were gone away for the week, and with them some of the servants – Mr Bates was gone, and O'Brien, and Anna, and Branson with the car. They were far away, and so were their problems, and so there was no need to worry.
This Elsie Hughes told herself very firmly, and she was a woman used to being obeyed. And so she forgot all about it, giving her full attention to her inspection of Gwen's work – the quiet was no excuse to let things slide, and Gwen had been spring cleaning all week, as well as keeping the bedrooms ready in case anyone should return home early.
She had worked so hard that Mrs Hughes (she was so rarely called Elsie that she even thought of herself that way) was quite looking forward to telling her that she could take the afternoon off. She had persuaded Mrs Patmore to set Daisy free for a few hours, too, since there were no meals to prepare for upstairs and there was only so much reorganising of cupboards and making of jam that could be done before even Mrs Patmore tired of it.
She imagined the girls might walk into the village, since the weather was so fine. She herself would probably work all day, although she hoped and planned to have a nice quiet evening, with a book. She did like a book, before bed. And perhaps a glass of something with Mr Carson while they put the world to rights.
For now, though, she ran a finger along the banister at the top of the grand staircase, and inspected it. Not a bit of dust. It practically glistened. Gwen was a good girl.
Mrs Hughes leaned on the banister for a moment to look at the sweep of the stairs, the curve that led down to the wide, airy room below. It was richly carpeted and ornamented with little statues and candelabra, ideal for a grand entrance. It was a staircase to walk slowly down in procession while below everyone waited with bated breath for your arrival. It was a staircase to be seen on.
The family walked up and down it a dozen times a day as if it were nothing – down to meals, up to their rooms again, utterly unconscious of the fact that their feet passed over sacred ground. It was like a sort of magic, Mrs Hughes thought. It was only wood and carpet, but for the servants it might as well have been Mount Everest.
The back staircase, the one that the servants used to hurry down to work in the mornings and to climb wearily up to their cosy beds at night, and everything in between, was dark and narrow, with short wooden steps that dimpled in the centre, worn smooth with the passing of feet in sensible shoes. It was swept clean as often as the big staircase, even though nobody saw it but the servants, creeping up through the walls, fetching and carrying all over the house without ever leaving a trace.
She should return to it now, to go downstairs and let Gwen and Daisy know about their good fortune.
Instead she stayed where she was, leaning on the banister. It was a funny world, she thought, in which people could live so close in the same house, be similar in so many ways, and lead such different lives.
For instance, Lady Grantham was only a few years younger than Mrs Hughes. She lived only two floors away from her. The food they ate was prepared in the same place, they saw many of the same things and people as they went about their days. She knew for a fact that Her Ladyship had a fondness for the same boiled sweets that she did from the village shop, and that she sometimes liked to sit on a bench under a tree on the green, the same way Mrs Hughes did on her afternoon off.
Absently, her hand still on the banister, she put her foot on the top stair.
Not to mention the fact that they were both, in their own way, the mothers of the household, even if Mrs Hughes' attempts to make sure the maids got enough sleep and didn't catch cold and behaved sensibly around young men were not in the same league as Lady Grantham's mission to see her daughters comfortably and happily and prudently married off.
She walked down a couple more steps.
It must be strange, she supposed, to marry someone for strategic reasons as though you were playing a card game instead of making a life. At least when you were penniless and had only your virtues to recommend you, you could be sure that you were wanted for yourself, if you were wanted at all.
She walked down the stairs, thinking of Cora's feet on them each morning, in shoes that cost more for a pair than Mrs Hughes had spent on shoes in a lifetime. Shoes for walking on carpets and to and from cars. Shoes for dancing and for sitting on little chairs while other people danced.
She wondered whether it bothered Cora to know that she had only come to this place because of men who had counted up her worth in gold, and in invisible money conjured by bankers and stockbrokers, and found it acceptable. She wondered if she felt like the house was hers, now, because her money had paid for it, or whether it felt more like she belonged to the house.
She wondered how long it had taken for Cora not to feel out of place – a newcomer in an old family home, a woman away from her country. She remembered that Cora had been louder when she had first arrived, her accent broader, her movements more expansive. She was smoothed out now, neat and proper and English.
Upstairs was like that: still, quiet, muffled in a cover of manners. It was unkind, Mrs Hughes supposed, but she always thought of the servants' places as the alive part of the house. Upstairs was where you walked carefully because it was important to be seen to be elegant.
Downstairs it was never quiet. Downstairs you walked carefully for fear of spilling the soup tureen, and if you were elegant it was because you wanted to be, for a little while, and then you could take it off like the costume that it was.
She stepped off the bottom stair of the great, grand staircase, and turned back. Funny, it was just a staircase after all.
She looked up, startled. Mr Carson stood in the hall, looking up quizzically at her. She stopped, feeling the blood rushing to her face. She grinned sheepishly.
'Just seeing what it feels like, Mr Carson,' she said. 'You won't give me away, will you?'
'Of course not,' he said. He paused, raised his eyebrows. 'Your Ladyship.'
She walked briskly to his side, and folded her arms. 'All right,' she said. 'Don't push your luck. I know my place.'
'I would believe that,' he said, 'if you could say it with a straight face.'
She tilted her chin up and ignored him.
'Anyway,' he said, 'I just came to tell Your Ladyship that luncheon is served in the - ahem - downstairs dining room.'
'In that case I'll do you the honour of letting you take me in,' she said, taking his arm. 'What's on the menu today?'
'Stew, a la Patmore ,' he said. 'With some bread to mop it up with, warm from the oven, and a sponge pudding to follow.'
'Ah,' she said. 'A meal fit for a countess.'
'Indeed,' he said. 'Shall we, Your Ladyship?'
'Certainly, Your Lordship,' she said, and they laughed all the way down the stairs and through the door.