I am in London, still. Everything is too loud, too bright, voices grate terribly. I tire of my own—it echoes in my head until I cannot abide it anymore— and every conversation is so facile, so glittering. I parrot the same phrases. Emptiness. I miss you terribly, but then I always have.
A letter, written by Matthew Crawley, intended for Mary Crawley. Written at midnight, June 15th, 1919. Never sent, put in the fire and set alight. One letter of many.
Branson, be careful.
A scrap of paper, slipped in his pocket in secret. Seen, caressed, smiled at. Regarded, to a degree.
“Lovely girl, but of course there was that business with the ambassador—P something-or-other.”
“Hell of a way to go, that. Beats mustard gas. They called her the Black Spinster for a while after that, and there was the song. Oh, how did it go? You must remember—‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your-”
A conversation, 10th March 1919, overheard by Matthew Crawley at a Club to which he had been invited. Conversation stopped abruptly. Matthew Crawley, post-brawl (split lip, bruised knuckles, cut above left eyebrow, should have seen the other fellows) sat in his room for four hours, deep in thought.
“I spy with my little eye, something beginning with M.”
“Mud, again, Jenkins?”
“Cor, Sir, you should go into detecting. ‘Olmes had nothing on you. C’mon, your turn.”
“I spy with my little eye, something beginning with B W.”
“Now this is something more complex, see, Jones.”
“Yes, Jenkins. Sergeant Crawley is, after all, a man of learning. This is a three pipe problem, at the very least.”
“Barbed wire, sir?”
Ypres. A rare quiet moment. 1917. Two hours later, Jenkins and Jones would be dead, Matthew badly wounded. He never recovers enough to return.
I am well. The limp is as good as it will get, which was rather a ringing endorsement from the good doctor, considering how bleak and cheerless his outlook generally is. I am doing scraps of work, clerk-work, really. I could walk into a partnership at one of the established law firms—well, limp— (mother, my humour has grown black. Forgive me.) there are so few men of law remaining. I am cautious, though. I earn enough for my rent and food, and I need little else.
Oh, hang it all. I should be honest with you, as I have kept little from you in the past. Downton beckons me, as it has these five years I have been away from it. I make no concrete plans here in London because I hate it here. I am running scared, cowardly. Please tell me you are well and content. Come up to London, I am always glad of a visit, although my rooms are ill-equipped for entertaining. I cannot visit you yet. My heart wavers.
With love, as always,
A letter, sent August 21st, 1919. Read several times, cried over once. Contents outlined to Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, during an afternoon tea that was, as ever, more like a council of war than a visit.
I have imagined seeing you again so many times I have a script. I know that the version I should want is one in which I weep tenderly over your wounds, you are brave and courageous, and tell me you fought your way back to my side, and we are married and have idiotic children and Downton is ours, and everything is wonderful and everyone says the right thing and does the right thing.
I did some nursing during the War. Your mother and I went to the coast, to one of the hospitals. It was a penance, of sorts, for me, although that felt rather ridiculous when I saw how much needed to be done, how useful I could be without becoming a martyr. I helped, and did some good. I had three proposals of marriage in that time, and turned every one down, as nicely as I could. You were at the back of my mind, as ever. The funny thing is I don’t know if I would accept if you asked. If our meeting was brave and patriotic, and you were all stiff upper lip, I would say no. I would run as far as I could, because all that is a lie.
But I love you all the same, Matthew. I love you more than you will ever discover.
A letter, written with no intention of being sent. Hidden by Mary, forgotten, almost
found by Edith. Found by Anna, hidden from Edith. Returned to Mary, who wondered how many more of her secrets Anna will discover, how many things she would conceal from everyone before she had to talk, like the fable of Midas and the ears. How far the reeds would sing.
FATHER. DISREGARD THE NEWS REPORTS. AM UNINJURED, AND SAFE. SYBIL.
Telegram, delivered November 28th, 1919.
There was more unrest in London yesterday, with minor outbreaks of violence, including the breaking of shop windows. Of more concern were the few radical elements of the far left, who attacked with indiscriminate violence, throwing bottles and stones at crowd and police alike. Three were injured by projectiles, and a further ten were trampled by the crowds. Among the injured was Lady Sybil Crawley. Her tireless campaigning for the rights and views of the faction who injured her is a damning indictment of their politics and methods; they are, after all, fully willing to bite the hand that feeds them. Lady Sybil required immediate medical attention. No more is known of her condition.
Newspaper report, The Times, November 29th, 1919. Read with concern, first by Bates, then Carson, then Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham.
SYBIL WITH ME, IN LONDON. INJURED, BUT NOT BADLY. REGARDS, MATTHEW.
Telegram, delivered November 28th, 1919. Dictated by Matthew Crawley, upon reading Sybil’s.
AM COMING TO LONDON. MARY.
Telegram, delivered November 29th, 1919. Read first by Matthew Crawley, then aloud to Sybil, convalescing.
Then, unseen, pressed to Matthew’s lips, then his heart. He puts it on his mantelpiece like a calling card, cluttered as it is with ephemera.
He was battling his way through the crowd when he saw her go down, pulled her out of the mass of people with some difficulty. Pure chance, really, but things seem to be dragging him towards a meeting both longed-for and dreaded. He’s glad he found her, though. Sybil is by no means helpless; she is resilient, resourceful and terribly brave, but has a habit of getting knocked unconscious, which gets in the way of things, rather. Better him finding her than her wandering about London with a head injury. He knows quite a few ex army doctors, and called one of them out to his rooms to look at her. Doctor Tulliver, a gruff surgeon very much of the old school bandaged her wrist and told her a preposterous story about his encounter with an abominable snowman, which she listened to as she drifted in and out of awareness without giving any sign that she was aware it was in any way fictitious or nonsensical. He pronounced her concussed, prescribed strong whisky and bed rest and left with a brisk goodbye, refusing payment, with two telegrams dictated to him in his hand. (Sybil’s was, in Matthew’s opinion, both uninformative and untrue, and brought little comfort to the reader. His informed, at least. Mary’s terrifies him.)
He lights a fire, and lamps, and they eat broth, the only thing he can cook. He refrains from pointing out the danger she was in. She will, no doubt, be subjected to enough of that when she returns home. Home. Downton Abbey. The very name stirs something in his soul, a distant clarion call unlike the harsh call to arms of the War, but more a note on the wind, a beckoning. He has not returned there. First he was injured, then he convalesced, then he went straight to London with the Armistice, and remained there. The idyll he has constructed in his mind’s eye in the mud and death, the fleas and rats and the wire, will have altered, out of kilter. He pinned all his hopes on Downton, his anchor in the Hell of the Front, with the desperation of a sinner seeking redemption. It will have changed. His eyes keep drifting to Mary’s telegram. Sybil catches him, for all his caution, and her eyes are warm with understanding.
“I want to tell you about her. Something bad happened, I know it did, but I don't think it should have. It’s important—my head’s foggy I know, but I know I need to tell you.”
The room is warm, the fire burning merrily. It is sparse, with little sign of his having even lived there. She is pale, with a rather impressive bruise on her temple and a small crease between her eyebrows as she collects her thoughts.
“I would be grateful if you did. We are both impulsive, a too impulsive for each other really. We don’t do enough listening—or we hear it wrong. Words get lost.”
“I’ll tell you as I remember. Important things, little things people don’t usually say. She ran wild around the estates. She had a set of boy’s clothes in the hayloft near an oak tree, and became so fast at changing from trousers to dress, she would be on time for dinner wherever she was hiding. Carson knew, of course, and rang the gong earlier than necessary, when she was outside. I loved to follow her, and she let me—she has this sort of careless kindness. She was hero of all our games, judge jury and executioner. We climbed the highest trees, and she assumed I would keep up, because it never occurred to her that I was smaller or less brave.” She pauses, takes a sip of tea. “I think that’s why she is so...she expects people to be like her, honest and brave, and when they aren’t, she can’t bear it. That’s why Edith is...they have made up, a little, and that business with her and Sir Anthony was sorted out—”
“Well, they’re married now,” she continued, blithely ignoring his question, “but only after some intercepted letters, three dinner parties, a fall from a horse, an automobile accident and a rainstorm.”
“That...isn’t as surprising as it should be.”
“Mary orchestrated the whole thing, but she could just as easily have ruined it all. She can be cruel without thinking. She isn’t easy to love, unless you know about her.”
She drifts off to sleep.
He remains by her side, waking her regularly. He sits in his most uncomfortable chair. He thinks of Mary, somewhere in the swirling chaos of his unquiet mind. Even in the still of the night there is movement, light, sound to drag at him, wear him away like waves on a rock. Sybil herself breathes gently, her face moving, as troubling dreams crease her brow then leave.
He matches his breath to hers as his eyes flick from corner to corner, as gaslamps cast their dim glow and shapes are flung distorted onto the wall and sounds drift up, cars, horses, drunks and trains. He has not looked properly at these rooms, rented for a year but unvisited by maid and unseen by butler. They are— he is— shabby. He, at least, maintains his clothes, but more to keep up an appearance than from fastidiousness. He would run feral if he could, some holy fool in a wild wood, away from everything.
On a whim, he begins to dust, quietly, with a discarded pillowcase. The grate is clear but his mantelpiece is in disarray, coated in dust. In the living room, his desk is worse, covered with unopened mail, statute books, pens and ink. He stops only to check on Sybil, working by dim candlelight, feeling his way around the rooms. The work is not helped by his leg, of course, nor by the cold that has settled into the night and his bones. He feels his mind quieten with simple industry, so different from crabbed writing and dusty laws, traps made from dead words.
He turns from his bookshelves. Sybil, in her nightdress and his dressing gown, stands in the doorway.
“I’m spring cleaning in November.”
"Either too late or very early," she says with a smile. "Let me help."
"Your wrist— oh, hang it. You’ll do as you wish. Just don’t overdo it."
They work quietly, Sybil humming snatches of music-hall tunes and symphonies. They work well, too. They contrive, with no little difficulty and some muffled laughter, to beat the carpets out of the window of his third-floor rooms, unaided by beater. No Crawley woman is afraid of hard work; she is no exception, having surrendered respectability as a suffragist and patriotism in her support of Branson. Cleaning the rooms of an eccentric cousin with shellshock, a limp and a hopelessly conflicted mind is no work at all. She tells him about Mary and he listens avidly, all the while trying not to show quite how much he wants to know about her, everything about her. He learns about her pet mouse, and how she took up ten of the floorboards in her bedroom to find it when it ran away one Christmas. He learns about her governesses, and how her favourite was the strictest one, who had a hairy chin and a lisp, but who taught her maths and science with the same vigour as needlework, and her least favourite was the youngest one, who laughed very prettily but was unkind about one of the maids, which meant she put slugs in her reticule, spent a whole day speaking only in a mixture of Latin, French and frankly shocking language she picked up from the dockyard in London and finally got rid of her by setting fire to her shoes.
The room, by eight in the morning, is brighter, shabby but clean and in good order. They dine on kippers, sitting on the floor in front of the fire. After breakfast, Sybil is sleepy, and sits in his armchair with a large book about the history and impact of the Magna Carta, and a mug of strong coffee by her side. He cannot settle. He wants to see her, and Downton, afraid that his nerve will go. Sybil’s words have made them live and breathe and change, wonderfully imperfect, flawed but in the best ways.
He is out when she arrives, buying cut flowers for the table. His leg aches, and he is soaked to the bone, clutching a sodden bunch of past-their-best, overpriced Marguerites in one hand, cane in the other. The sight of her makes him smile helplessly. He has pictured this scene in so many configurations. And now she is here, in his dingy-but-cleaned flat, both more and less than his sustaining image of her, standing by Sybil who sleeps still, the greyish light through the wet window catching her as she half turns to see him.
Words stick— you make the sound of the shelling go away when I look at you everything pricks at my neck like I’m in danger even when I’m on the street I don’t care about Pamuk and I suppose I should did you know I can tell three seconds before you do when you’re going to laugh I have nightmares that make me scream could you live with that? I want you to because your father is the best man I know and you stand like you’re about to start flying at any second and your eyes are like a hawk’s and you don’t fear anything physical but you hate cages and you terrify me but not as much as loud noises or thunder or the pain in my leg so that’s alright and I love you oh God help me I love you—
She steps forward, and presses a finger to his lips. He's shaking like a leaf, has no idea what to do because there aren't any words left, only jumbled impressions and a deep, jagged joy that threatens to cut open his chest. He hasn’t made a sound, but she silences him, spreads a calm stillness through him. In her arms, he listens to all the things she doesn’t need to say.