"Your problem, Cora," says Violet when the elder two girls have been sent from the tea table for failing again--to behave like proper young ladies, "is that you're too soft. Mary and Edith have no fear at all of reprisal for their behavior."
Cora, cuddling Sybil on her lap, kisses the toddler's soft, sweet-scented dark curls to calm herself. "I believe in parenting through positive reinforcement," she says. "If the girls receive more praise for their good behavior than they do reprimands for the bad--"
"Then they will misbehave with far greater frequency than they behave!"
"--then surely they will want to be good."
Violet halts her upraised teacup midway to her lips, and sniffs. "Tell me, do all American mothers consult Little Women for childrearing advice?"
More kisses, this time bestowed on Sybil's pudgy cheeks and hands, are required to stop Cora from blurting out, in exasperation, that she does, indeed, relate to Marmee's struggle to raise daughters under the watchful eye of her husband's cranky old Aunt March.
She glances over at Robert for help, but he's buried in his newspaper, as per usual when the teatime conversation turns to the subject of how to raise their daughters. With a sigh she hopes isn't too audible, she returns her attention to Violet, whose mouth twitches at the corner in an expression that Cora has learned over the years means the same as, pray, continue--I dare you. When she was a new bride in a new country, she had never dared speak her mind to her fault-finding mother-in-law. But now that she is the mother of three--usually--lovely children, and the wife of a husband who she is convinced adores her despite all those children being girls, her confidence in her ability to express her opinions tactfully has grown.
"I follow the example my own mother set," she says. "She certainly got her desired results when my model behavior secured a proposal from a titled Englishman and I didn't hesitate to accept as everyone wanted me to. And I've lived happily ever after."
The after, of course, meaning after that first year in which she'd cried herself to sleep nearly every night, convinced she'd made the most terrible mistake. And after until Robert woke up to the realization that he'd fallen in love with the American heiress he'd married purely to save his estate. Which he said was in no small part due to his admiration of how Cora had borne up under the abuses of his mother.
"Surely, Cora," says Violet in the voice that used to inspire the tears Cora held back till bedtime, "you realize that--as you Americans like to say--it’s an entirely different ballgame for a mother of three daughters than for a mother of only one?"
"Why should it be? The natural consequences of actions provide children with a sound enough education about wrong-doing for any number of children."
"No, my dear, they do not. Because there are not always natural consequences. Some people get away with murder."
Now this is simply too much. Scarcely choking back laughter of disbelief that her mother-in-law can really be serious, Cora says, "A disruption over cake is hardly a criminal offence!"
"Oh, but it will be. First they flout basic decorum, and the next thing you know they're marching down the middle of high street carrying signs that say Votes for Women. But that's fashionable in America, too, isn't it? Along with sparing the rod and spoiling the child?"
"Do you think I ought to have sent them out to cut their own birch switch and told them to wait for their father in the woodshed?"
"You needn't make it sound so very…frontier."
"We don't train horses or dogs by hitting them," Cora says, pouring herself a fresh cup and replenishing Violet's. "Why would I treat my children with less dignity than I would an animal?"
"Robert," Violet says, "tell your wife that a little old-fashioned discipline never harmed you in any way."
Without looking up from his newspaper, Robert replies, "That's true."
Violet sits up a little straighter in her chair, lips pursing in a smug smirk as she takes a sip of tea.
"But it was applied by my schoolmasters," he goes on, darting a sideways glance at Cora, eyes dancing with a secret smile, "never by you, Mother."
For an instant Violet's mouth hangs open, but she deliberately presses her lips into a thin, pale line and returns to her customary assault on Cora.
"When you finally manage to produce an heir to the estate you saved, I shall enjoy watching how quickly you change your mind about this gentle approach to parenting."
Once such a tweak about her failure to have a son would have upset Cora enough to have her making excuses from the table, but Robert's assurances that he loves his three daughters sufficiently to be pleased to pass Downton on to his cousin Patrick make it possible for her to smile at her primeval mother-in-law and even to press her buttons a bit.
"Did you know Louisa May Alcott also wrote a book called Little Men?"
Looking liable to choke on her cake, Violet replaces her teacup on her saucer with rather a louder clank than suits the occasion. "Well, when your find you've raised a houseful of…suffragettes…don't say I didn't warn you."
"Anna, would you please excuse us for a moment?"
The maid curtseys with a quiet yes, your Ladyship, and, exchanging meaningful glances with Sybil, exits the bedroom. It occurs to Cora for the first time that Sybil had help dressing in that getup, and she wishes Anna hadn't been bound by her station to do whatever her young mistress asked--or, at the very least, that Anna could've found a way to warn Cora before Sybil appeared in the drawing room looking, as Edith had so tactlessly put it, like a harem girl.
"Are you here to lecture me, as well?" Sybil asks, avoiding Cora's eyes reflected in her dressing table mirror as she picks up where Anna left off unpinning her hair. "You're the only one who hasn't."
Surprised at how Mary-like the words are--though, thankfully, without that knife-sharp tone that makes everything Mary says these days so cutting--Cora seats herself on the bench at the foot of Sybil's bed, wondering why her little girls have decided to grow up and find trouble all at once. At least Edith is behaving herself, and Sybil's outlandish choice of outfit pales in comparison to Mary's moral crisis.
"Do I usually lecture you?" Cora asks.
Sybil looks down at the top of her dressing table. "No."
That her daughter is genuinely contrite reassures Cora that her planned course of discussion, the line she always takes in such instances, is the right one.
"I'm not going to say a word about what you wore down to dinner. Your father and grandmother said all that could be said about it."
"They didn't say any of the nice things that could be said about it."
Cora concedes to a small smile which she hopes conveys all she can't say without undermining Robert: that she gasped in surprise because tonight Sybil looked as beautiful as she'd ever seen her, not because of her clothing, but because while wearing it she carried herself with such confidence in her own individual style of femininity, because she was being herself, and pleased to do so. Later, Cora will find a way to say all of that. For now, she must address the error, though it pains her to do so and Sybil to hear it.
"It's not your clothing choice that disappoints me, Sybil. It's your deception. You knew this story wouldn't have a happy ending."
Sybil's shoulders sag with her sigh--such a contrast with her carriage as she'd modeled the outfit. "But I hoped it would." She turns around on her stool. "I'm sorry, Mama."
Cora doesn't doubt for a moment that Sybil has taken her point to heart, and she's relieved to see the characteristic sparkle return to her daughter's eyes.
"But must I put my bloomers in with the missionary donations as Papa says I'm to do?"
"I think the heathen have enough to worry about without us inflicting our bloomers on them."
If only things could be so easily smoothed out with Mary, Cora thinks, and be laid to rest with a shared laugh and a kiss goodnight. No sooner has she thought it than Mary sweeps around the corner just in time to see Cora emerge from Sybil's room.
"Well, well," Mary says, lifting her chin. "I suppose Edith will have to be your favorite, now. She would never dream of doing anything more scandalous than bore everyone to death."
"Mary," Cora begins, but Mary tilts her chin higher and breezes past to her own room, casting a look back over her shoulder that dares her mother to lecture her.
Really, when did Cora do all this scolding Mary and Sybil think she must be chomping at the bit to do? If any of her daughters are deserving of it, Mary is the one, but in this case Cora spoke her daughter's name with no intention of rebuking her. Quite the opposite, in fact. What stopped her was the realization that Mary expected censure, braced herself for it, because months had passed since Cora spoke to her, in private, except to condemn.
Which makes her quite forget the non-condemning thing she had been about to say to Mary. If, indeed, there had been such a word upon her lips at all.
"Goodnight," Mary says, her breath heavy on the word; her shoulders, normally erect enough to please the most exacting deportment tutor, slump with uncharacteristic weariness as she pushes her bedroom door open.
"Mary, wait." Cora lurches toward her.
She doesn't really expect Mary to come back out, but she does, still pale and bearing the marks of undeniable vulnerability and deep inward fatigue--though the sharp angle of one eyebrow indicates she is rallying.
Before Mary can, Cora says, "I want to thank you for not making sport with Sybil tonight. You were a true sister to her, and a true friend, too."
The corners of Mary's lips twitch upward, and her drawn features soften with the ghost of a smile. Aching, Cora steps toward her, opening her arms to her eldest daughter for the first time since that dreadful night last autumn. Before she can reach her, however, Mary's gaze drifts beyond Cora's shoulder, and the sweet smile becomes a smirk, all warmth that had been in her dark eyes gone instantly cold. Cora turns to see Edith standing at the end of the hall, clearly having been privy to the exchange between her mother and sister.
When Cora looks back, Mary is gone.
Turning again to Edith and noting the anger and pain so clearly written on the girl's features, Cora feels a slight twinge of guilt in her breast for having praised one daughter to the other's detriment. She searches for something encouraging to say, only to decide against it. Slighted as Edith may feel, she was in the wrong when she sneered at Sybil and asked whether she was in costume to entertain them with one of Scheherazade's thousand tales. Cora won't scold her, either, however; hearing Mary's correct behavior praised will be quite lecture enough for Edith to make her think twice about playing the parent and humiliating one of her sisters the next time such an opportunity should arise.
She brushes her lips lightly across Edith's cheek and bids her a quiet goodnight.
"You're meant to be resting," Cora says when Sybil bursts into her bedroom before O'Brien can fully quit it.
"I had to know," says Sybil, breathless, leaning back against the door to shut it, practically in O'Brien's face. "Papa hasn't sacked Branson, has he?"
Cora is amused at how her daughter's concern for the chauffeur has trumped her habit of muttering disdain for her nosey--in Sybil's opinion--maid. "I hope you didn't wake up early to pack your bags and make good on your threat to run away."
It is, perhaps, a gentler tack than Robert would take with their youngest, wayward daughter, but the morning finds Cora no more willing to chastise Sybil for her misdeeds than the night before. A night's rest has, blessedly, restored the color to her cheeks for the first time since Matthew brought her home following the accident at Ripon. The cut she sustained on her right temple is no longer visible, but only because a deep purple bruise has darkened around it. Surely if ever there was a case of a person having sense being knocked into her, this must be it.
"Thank God," Sybil murmurs, sighing with relief.
"I think it's Mary who should get most of the credit for saving Branson's job. She stayed up long after all the rest of us went to bed and convinced your father that Branson was only your unwitting co-conspirator."
Cora makes a note to praise Mary for being such a steadfast crusader of justice. She will be a fine and fair mistress of Downton--should she accept Matthew's proposal, and there's no reason in the world why she shouldn't--and Sybil would do well to emulate her approach to mending the world's ills.
"I shall thank her," Sybil says, turning to go, "just as soon as I've apologized to Branson--"
"Your father's sequestered him in the library," Cora says, stopping her. "He may have relented about Branson's position, but he has a great deal to say about his politics."
Sybil's cheeks flush as she draws herself up straight, her eyes flashing as though with blue fire. "Papa may be Branson's employer, but--"
"And I have rather a lot to say about yours," Cora says over her, at once decisive as she realizes that time and introspection have neither cooled Sybil's passion nor changed her mind about her own actions. "Since you're feeling so much better."
"You can say as much as you like about my political views," says Sybil, moving to stand at the foot of Cora's bed. "But I won't change my mind about them."
Cora thinks of Marmee dealing with spirited Jo in Little Women and reins in her own rearing temper.
"I would never try to change your mind about something in which you so passionately believe. It's what makes you my Sybil. Although I'm afraid that one day I'll look at Sybil and not recognize her, because she's deceived me too many times."
Sybil drops her gaze, ashamed. Quietly, she says, "I don't like to, Mama."
Though desperate to impart to her daughter the error of her ways, the very thought of Sybil being so broken by her mother's words cuts Cora so keenly that it's actually a relief when Sybil looks up at her again, defiant, one hand open and gesticulating like an orator on a platform as she speaks.
"But how am I to bring about change if I'm forbidden to participate in the political system?"
Violet's scandalized whisper from all those years ago is so clear in Cora's memory that it might as well be audible: suffragette!
"I think the question is whether the changes you want to make should be made at all, if you have to resort to deception in order to make them." Sybil opens her mouth in retort, but Cora holds up a restraining hand. "How will you convince people to trust that women are responsible citizens who deserve the vote if you behave in an untrustworthy manner?"
She can see this idea taking hold in Sybil's mind, though she fights it, the rebellion in her voice exchanged for skepticism, and just a trace of irony curling at the corners of her full lips.
"You say it as though male politicians are paragons of integrity."
"No, my darling. I'm saying that if women are to stand a chance in this world, we have to be the better men."
Her own words come back to her, later, when she has told Violet of Mary's possible engagement and her "honorable" intention of confessing her romantic entanglement with Mr. Pamuk to her suitor. At once Cora recognizes her hypocrisy in promoting honesty to Sybil in one breath while discouraging it from Mary in the next. She has never been prouder of Mary for finding her moral center again after straying from it, for having the courage to do right when she may benefit more by playing the coward; in Mary's place, Cora is certain she would have complied with her family's wishes at the cost of her own conscience. She couldn't be happier that at heart, her daughters' rebellions--Mary's and Sybil's alike--are rooted in a desire to do good.
Or that they are unlikely to cow before meddling mothers-in-law. If they can curb that assertiveness of will into the appropriate channels, it will serve them well, should they find themselves marrying for reasons other than romantic notions of love. At least they will have their self-respect.
She makes up her mind to go and tell heMary all of this--though clearly she is strong enough to walk the straight and narrow path even without words of affirmation to guide her along the way--when voices echo to her from down the hall. She slows her approach, lightens her steps so that her shoes make no sound on the marble floor, and eavesdrops.
"It's just that in light of all these rumors about Mary," Edith says, her crisp tones almost sharp in the tiled, high-ceilinged foyer, "and now, with Sybil making a spectacle of herself by becoming political, I think it might be better if we all remained in the country this season."
"Oh, Edith," Violet replies, "surely you don't think anyone could believe such things about Mary."
Cora tenses, and even from the distance detects the strain in Violet's tones as she lies to her granddaughter.
"I will grant you that Sybil is a bit of a loose cannon," Violet goes on before Edith can pursue the previous train of thought further, "but this is her first season, and I trust your papa has the situation well in hand." Even if your mother is a pushover, Cora imagines Violet's unspoken thought.
"He didn't fire Branson. Typical upstart Irishman…The ideas he's put into Sybil's head…" The voice is Edith's, but the words and the tone could be Violet's. "Granny, I'm convinced he encouraged her to wear those awful bloomers. Do you know that to this day I have nightmares about her being presented at court dressed as a harem girl?"
"Good gracious!" Violet splutters. "Now there is an image I shall--"
"--certainly never see." Cora decides it's time to reveal herself. She joins them in the foyer, acting as though she has only caught the tail end of their conversation, and smiles at Edith. "Sybil has a new outlook on politics."
"You mean she's cast her vote against votes for women?" says Violet with the same mocking laugh Mary so often gives, though crackling with age. "Thank heavens."
"I mean Sybil has given me total confidence that she'll be a credit to us all when she makes her debut," Cora says. She touches Edith's hand and smiles. "Though I expect she's a little nervous about it all. I'm sure you'll make an effort to put her at ease with advice from your own seasons?"
Edith blinks. "What about Mary?"
"I'm sure Mary would appreciate your support, as well, as she faces these hurtful attacks on her character."
"No, I mean…" Edith sighs. "Oh, never mind."
She excuses herself and starts up the stairs as though she has an urgent task to attend--but something about her manner makes Cora doubt Edith is about to do as she suggested. She doesn't dwell long about what might be going on in Edith's head, however. As Mary once observed, Edith isn't likely ever to be guilty of any greater scandal than boring everyone to death.
It's not until a few days after the garden party that the dust of this new world at war settles enough for Cora to see how her daughters are coping with the news. Unsurprisingly, Sybil takes up with Mrs. Crawley, plotting how the village hospital might assist the Red Cross and learning what would be required of her to train as a nurse. Mary, on the other hand, avoids Matthew's mother at all turns, by which Cora can only conclude that her eldest has not accepted his proposal, after all--though whether because she told Matthew about Mr. Pamuk, or because he has decided to enlist, Cora couldn't say.
Which reminds her: Mary was not the only of her daughters considering marriage prior to England's declaration of war.
And if Edith had become engaged, no news would have made her shrink from having her triumph over Mary.
When Edith announces one night after dinner that she has a headache and will retire early, Cora follows her upstairs, catching up with her just as she is about to enter her room.
"Sir Anthony didn't propose to you at the garden party, after all, did he?" She lays a hand on Edith's shoulder. "I'm so sorry, my darling. What you'd expected to be the happiest day of your life turned out to be one the worst. This horrible news of the war--"
"It wasn't because of the war," Edith says, sharply, not looking at her. "Not that war, anyway."
"My darling, whatever do you mean?"
To her utter astonishment Edith turns around and gives Cora one long look, so full of resentment and reproach that it calls to mind every time she has brushed her middle daughter aside--or worse, overlooked her completely.
Dear Lord, she thinks, what have I done? Or failed to do, in this case. Not so very long ago she had flippantly bemoaned to Robert her fear that Edith would never make a suitable match, and now her own negligence appears to have played no small part in bringing that very thing to pass.
"Or haven't you noticed the war between Mary and me?" Edith flings at her, then steps through the door, slamming it shut in Cora's face.
Leaving her to deal, once and for all, with Mary.
She finds her eldest daughter alone in the library, just sitting, no book in hand, looking for all the world like a prisoner waiting for her judge to pass sentence.
"I don't know what you've done to ruin Edith's hopes," Cora says in low tones only after the door has shut behind her, not to avoid being overheard but because she is too angry to muster any more voice than this. "I don't think I want to know."
She advances further into the room under Mary's unblinking gaze, unable to decide whether the emotion roiling in the pit of her stomach is admiration at Mary for facing this confrontation, or anger at her calm acceptance of this dreadful accusation against her.
"What I do want to know is how you could do this to Edith. For God's sake, Mary, she's your sister! No matter how disappointed you are about your own prospects--"
"My sister?" Mary interjects, standing. "Tell me, Mama: would a sister publicize my shame?"
Cora's legs begin to tremble as they have not since Dr. Clarkson first permitted her to be up and about after her miscarriage. She feels the backs of her calves brush the cushion of the armchair behind her, but she keeps upright.
"What are you saying?"
"It was Edith who started the rumors in London. She wrote to the Turkish ambassador."
"Good God!" Cora's knees buckle, and she finds herself sinking into the chair as she sits, hard. "Mary, are you sure?"
"She told me herself."
"That doesn't justify…" Cora falls silent as a scene from years before plays out in her mind as clearly as a picture show.
"Mama!" Edith's shriek interrupts the teatime conversation. "Mary took my cake!"
"Only because Edith kicked me first!"
"You may both be excused from the tea table until you can behave like proper young ladies," Cora tells them, and her eldest daughters sulkily leave the table.
"Your problem, Cora," says Violet, "is that you're too soft. Mary and Edith have no fear at all of reprisal for their behavior."
That as much is obvious--though Cora cannot bring herself to accept that her method of parenting in love, not condemnation, could be the only factor to have produced a pair of such unloving sisters. But then, she'd been so very wrong about Edith, believing that her compliance and lack of outbursts meant she'd taken her mother's lessons to heart. In actuality, Edith hadn't been the safe daughter at all, and Cora reels with the truth that she'd been so deceived by a mask that hid such malicious schemes. Edith is the one who needed those lessons most of all.
And Cora, herself, would have been well served by swallowing her pride and taking a lesson or two from Violet rather than throwing out three baby girls with the bathwater. Hadn't Violet tried to warn her, all those years ago, about the nature of females? Cora wonders how she could have been so blinded by her own rivalry with her mother-in-law as to miss the glaring competition playing out between her daughters.
"Look at the bright side, Mama," Mary's mocking tones break in to her musing. "You're becoming quite the collector of lost souls."
Cora feels the hot prick of tears at the corners of her eyes as her thoughts turn, unbidden, to her poor, tiny unborn babe. No soft, sweet-scented dark curls to kiss in order to calm herself. Little wonder God had not seen fit to let her keep her fourth child, when she had already failed so miserably with the other three entrusted into her care.
Once her fortune had saved Downton Abbey, but her best efforts can't pull her family out of this ever deepening hole.
As Mary turns her back to leave the room, Cora stretches out a helpless hand toward her. But Mary goes out, oblivious to her mother's feeble attempt to hold on to her.
Cora doesn't know how to reach her anymore…or Edith…She never knew how to reach Edith. Even Sybil seems bent on following a path that will lead her from home, or at least far from the life she's lived here.
Lost, all lost.
More lost to her even than the child she will never know.