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steps forward

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“Oh, now Mr. Carson,” Mrs. Hughes says on the walk back from church. “You’ll not go all taciturn on me, will you?”


“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Mr. Carson says stiffly.


The rain kept on all through the service, but now it’s lightened to more of a timid drizzle, and there are some hints of sunshine peeking out from behind the clouds. Regardless, Mr. Carson holds an umbrella above the pair of them with such steadfastness that you’d think a gale might sweep them up at any moment. Always so careful, Mr. Carson.


“It was a perfectly innocent misunderstanding,” says Mrs. Hughes.


“It was a perfectly presumptuous accusation.”


“Accusation? That’s a bit harsh. Is the idea of being my husband so very terrible?” She does like to tease him, the poor dear. Most of the time she resists very admirably, but this situation is just too good.


“Of course not,” Mr. Carson huffs after a slightly too-long pause. “But to just start prattling to a perfect stranger about her marriage—not that, uhm, such a marriage exists—why, Mrs. Hughes, there is no word for it but ‘presumptuous.’”


For it’s true: one of the villagers has a niece visiting from out of town, a young lady of perhaps twenty who wound up in the pew behind theirs at church. Shuffling out of the pew after the service, Mrs. Hughes dropped her handbag, and Mr. Carson was kind enough to retrieve it for her. The unfortunate young lady thought very well of that, pressing a hand to Mrs. Hughes’s arm and exclaiming, ‘Oh, how lucky you are to have such a husband! I swear, they don’t make them like that anymore. Sometimes I feel there isn’t a single chivalrous lad under forty on the planet. Agh! But you two are lovely, just lovely together.’


The girl swished away after her family members before Mrs. Hughes could correct her, not that it mattered so very much. But Mr. Carson stood frozen with shock at hearing such an unorthodox compliment, and he hasn’t fully recovered since.


In fact, he’s still lamenting it. “What if we had been siblings? Think of that!”


“Oh, I don’t know if we look alike enough to give off that impression,” Mrs. Hughes replies, laughing a little.


Troubled, he muses, “Do you suppose we give off a ... a married impression, then?”


“I suppose it’s like a marriage, in a way, running the household together,” she answers fairly. “We’ve been at it a long while. The pair of us must go together in some peoples’ heads, the way His Lordship and Her Ladyship do.”


Mr. Carson is rather startled at that.


“I thought you were married, when I first started,” pipes up Daisy. It gives Mrs. Hughes a little start; she hadn’t realized the girl was so near. “Not for very long. Just a few days, before I got everything sorted in my head.”


Mr. Carson looks hopelessly caught off-guard. “A butler and a housekeeper needn’t be married, Daisy,” he says sternly.


“No, it wasn’t that,” Daisy says, frowning slightly. “There was just something about the way you both—”


“Daisy!” Mrs. Patmore calls from behind them. “Let them be, silly girl, and get back here. Tonight’s supper still needs planning, and I won’t do it alone.”


Daisy gives them an apologetic look, then scampers back on Mrs. Patmore’s orders.


“It appears we’ve been married this past decade without knowing a thing about it,” Mr. Carson says, frowning.


“Oh, I don’t know,” Mrs. Hughes says. “If marriage were the case, Mr. Carson, I think we would have had some inkling. Don’t you?”


She means it lightly enough, but when she looks at him, it’s to find an expression on his face she hadn’t expected. He looks quite thoughtful. Over the years, they’ve become predictable as clockwork, but ever since that day at the seaside, there have been moments like these, little unusual things. It’s beginning to make her wonder if perhaps, even for them, there are still some steps forward in life.


What a notion that is.


“Mr. Carson,” she says, thankful for a practical distraction, “it’s stopped raining.”


“Ah, yes,” he says vaguely, and sets to work closing the umbrella.


She feels moved to smile, watching him. “Thank you for retrieving my handbag. It means all the more because it came at such a great cost to you.”


“My gallantry is forever at your service, Mrs. Hughes,” he says, offering his arm. “No matter how many obnoxious young ladies are there to misconstrue it.”


“My hero,” Mrs. Hughes extols.


“Let’s not go quite that far,” he says, grimacing at such a display of romance. After a moment, though, he does chuckle. She takes his arm gladly, and together they walk forward into the day's new sunshine.