She tells him, recklessly, just before he leaves for war. The streets of Downton are mixed with cheers and pale-faced women, and in the midst of the parade she pulls him aside for a word. Checking to see if his commander’s watching, he follows her under an alley archway.
Mary fumbles over the words she needs to keep him here, rejecting every one of them out of hand.
Please don’t go – you need’nt bother – England can manage without you.
Instead, she clutches the package tightly in her hands. “Come home safely, won’t you?” she asks bravely and he smiles kindly, one that reaches his eyes this time. It’s been a while since it has.
“I’ll do my best,” he answers and her mouth takes off without her.
“Downton won’t be the same without you,” she tells him, the glimmer of what was swimming between them. “Mary,” he starts, reaching for her hand as she takes a step closer, feels her skin prickle. The army is still parading and past the trumpets and fanfare Mary hears a high whistle in their direction (Matthew grips her hand tighter).
“You should know,” she rushes before she loses her nerve. “Something happened with Pamuk. I wanted – I wanted you to know.” She cannot meet his eyes but she can feel them on her, and the summer heat weighs like a blanket over her skin. “I could not marry you and not have you know.”
The silence that follows is punctuated only by the shallow rise and fall of his chest in his woolen uniform, her hands still in his. She’s about to pull away (flee, deny, mock, disappear) when he finally speaks.
“May I write you?” he asks and she looks up at him without thinking, without calculating, to see him watching her in earnest. She takes a step closer to him, an answer debating on her lips when a whistle blares (she pushes the package into his hands) and a sergeant interrupts them, yelling at Matthew.
“You may,” she manages to answer before he is marched off, a long glance back in her direction and the press of his palm against hers echoing in the stomp of soldiers’ boots. She steps out of the alley to watch him leave but he is already out of sight.
It takes five weeks for his first letter to arrive. By then Sibyl has already announced her decision to move to London and work as a nurse. Lord Grantham is furious but Cora argues in Sibyl’s favor and she moves to London with Anna. With her departure, Edith and Mary avoid each other in peace as their mother is less fond of the sitting room without Sibyl. She writes often and in detail, and the sisters take turns reading the letters aloud to the family.
The first letter Mary receives is dated from two weeks before and in it, Matthew writes that his unit is shipping out in four days, so by now he is already somewhere in France. She scans the letter in a rush for the name of his camp but he lists none, so she and Isobel continue to search the newspapers for lists of battles, the wounded, the killed.
I miss Downton already, he writes. Your father warned me I would love it one day, but I did not realize how much until I had already left.
As a postscript, he mentions spotting Thomas in London before shipping out, though they did not speak.
She keeps trying to picture him in his soldier’s uniform but she hardly saw it on their last day and he always appears in her memory in a crisp suit, hair loose after walking from the village to Downton.
He doesn’t mention her confidence. When she replies, Mary tells him of the latest squabble between Isobel and Violet and how quiet the village is without half the men, of how Branson has left for London.
We all miss you very much, she dares to write, and sends the letter off with Carson before she can change her mind.
It takes another month before his next letter arrives, battered and dirty. She opens it in a rush and reads it quickly the first time, more slowly the second time and piece by piece every time after that.
We had our first battle three days ago, he writes in the first line, as though he cannot stop himself. War is more awful than any of us knew. The man next to me was shot while loading his rifle. They could do nothing for him. His hand seems to have shaken in the next line and Mary tries to picture the trench from his letter but she cannot place Matthew in it. It took him half the night to die.
The letter seems to skip over time because his hand is much clearer in the next passage (Mary tries to relax, cannot).
The book you gave me is a wonderful distraction. John Locke has always been a favorite of mine.
As a postscript he adds, We are marching to Paris in the morning. I have been promoted to lieutenant.
The next morning, Isobel and Cora read of the battle that took place near the River Marne outside Paris and Isobel cannot read the paper, just hands it white-faced to Mary. The list of the wounded and dead is incomplete but a letter arrives from Matthew the next day.
I am alive, he writes in his shortest letter yet. We are waiting for reinforcements.
Another letter from Sibyl arrives the same day. She writes more about the limited medical supplies they have for the wounded and how few nurses there are to go around than anything else, though the letter spans two pages, and Lord Grantham sighs tiredly as the letter transitions into her visit to a political rally.
For lack of anyone to speak with Mary begins writing to Matthew even before she receives his letters. She updates him on Downton and the new laws being passed, of the progression of the women’s suffrage movement, and reports that the war will be over by Christmas. She hopes he will be home by Christmas but doesn’t go so far to write it.
His next letter is too private to read aloud with Isobel and the family so she tucks it away and pretends not to have received it (takes it out at night before she dims her lamp to sleep, poring over the words).
The war does not end by Christmas.
England needs me, he writes in response to her last letter, insisting he must stay and keep the morale high. He has been promoted again, this time to captain, with so many men dying. Be careful, she had written instead of Come home. There is no way for that now.
Winter delays his letters and one arrives in the first week of March dated from January, after his last letter in February. The trenches, he writes, are worse than the Germans. More wounded are being sent home, and one man who was so sick he could not eat was also discharged.
She cannot picture him in anything other than his soldier’s uniform now and the imagined trenches fill her dreams. Mary takes to sketching, tearing the drawings up as soon as finishes them.
A year after Matthew leaves, Mary proposes she move to London and become a nurse with Sibyl. The look of shock on her parents’ faces is almost enough to end the idea but finally Cora speaks.
“It would be good for Sibyl,” she suggests cautiously.
(There is no talk of new suitors for Mary, warnings that she must marry soon or become an old maid. The letters speak to that.)
Sibyl welcomes her with happy arms, chattering at length about the hospital and how quickly Mary will learn her way. It’s a shock to see Branson, their old chauffeur, in the city as well but Sibyl explains he is volunteering at another hospital. Mary raises an eyebrow at her sister but does not press her further.
The hospital is as hard as Sibyl’s letters described and at night Mary cannot get the sound of dying men from her ears. Instead, she writes to Matthew, this time with real news of her own.
I am glad to hear you are working in London, he replies, though I am surprised Lord and Lady Grantham allowed it.
They each have their own battles now, and the letters document more than solidarity. She has less time to write and no time to sketch, and she arrives at her flat only to crawl into bed until her next shift. It doesn’t get easier but the months pass and she becomes used to the work. Her hands are rougher and her nails are shorter and she does not mind. She wears out one starched gown and dips into her savings to purchase another, feels a strange thrill of satisfaction she writes to Matthew about.
I want the war to be over, she tells him. I want you home. But I do not want to give this up.
His answer comes three weeks later, much faster in London than at Downton, and she can hear his smile in the lines, a conversation from over a year ago coming back to her.
It seems Sibyl is having an effect on your hope for change, he writes. I should like to see it.
Downton itself seems far away, another world full of drapes and chandeliers and rich green trees. Here in London there are stone streets and honking cars and the quiet comfort the nurses struggle to give to dying men. She still worries over every wounded soldier who crosses the hospital’s threshold, discontent until certain it is not Matthew, but the letters are a solace in of themselves. It’s like having a piece of him with her at all times.
Her parents visit for Christmas, as Sibyl and Mary cannot get away from the hospital that long, and Sibyl lets them talk fondly of Edith, who is now married. Cora pulls Mary aside after dinner and asks how Matthew is, drawing a blush to her cheeks she did not think was still possible.
“He is alive,” Mary says and Cora smiles, understanding. “I know what you mean,” she tells her quietly, leads her back to the group. “Your father was at war once.”
Mary had forgotten (looks at her father over dinner and realizes she does not know him as well as she thought). It is hardly a surprise when her parents linger in the city after Christmas, talking of being nearer the goings-on and getting better news of the war.
It is a dreary, rainy April day when Mary receives another letter. When she finally reads it on her break, it stops her by the door where she tore it open, where she leans against the wall and ignores the nurses rushing past her toward new arrivals.
I am escorting a ship of wounded home, it says. I have not changed my mind. If you have an answer to my last question, we should see more of each other. I will be at St. Lucy’s next week.
She does not know when the letter was sent, checking uselessly for a date. She rings St. Lucy’s from the hospital phone when the head nurse is not looking, chokes on her breath when the woman on the other end confirms the news.
The wounded have arrived.
It is still raining that night when she knocks on the hospital door and is admitted, ushered down a long corridor where nurses are tending to their work. Mary is dead on her feet, her hair is not pinned as perfectly as it should be and her hands are sore from the work that day. She does not feel it (not yet).
“He’s in here,” the young nurse tells her, opening an office door and Mary spies him (his shoulders, his arms, his legs, whole, leaning against the window and turning toward the sound of the door).
She gets a brief glimpse of his surprised and happy face before he crosses the short distance, the door falling shut behind him, and kisses her.
(He is warm and solid, the door suddenly at her back. His hands press on her waist and she mimics him, hand at his nape, to pull him closer, suddenly dizzy. In essentials, he has not changed.)
He pulls away suddenly, searching her face, but she keeps him within arm’s length and studies him in return. His shoulders are straighter and he seems to keep his eyes on hers to force something else back, but he is still Matthew.
“I wasn’t sure you’d come,” he says and Mary smiles faintly. “I only just got your letter,” she answers, keeping her voice even, but stepping closer. “Are you hurt at all?”
“I’m only the escort,” he tells her (a ghost crosses his features). “I was given a week’s leave before I return.”
It doesn’t seem like enough time (too much, she frets, she’ll never get that much time off work) and she brushes his shoulders, estimating what to use it for.
“My parents are in town,” she says conversationally and Matthew raises an eyebrow, gauging her. She forgot he did that. “That’s very fortunate,” he agrees as though they are discussing nothing more than the weather. “Should we call on them?”
Her parents are less surprised than they ought to be, Mary thinks, considering the situation. Everyone agrees to a ceremony in London before Matthew leaves again and Sibyl asks Mary if women from her suffragette club can attend (to fill up the church, of course). Mary agrees but reminds Sibyl their father will also be there and to tread carefully.
(Violet gives a firm nod to Mary as she walks down the aisle and Isobel is clearly holding back tears to save face in front of the other woman. It’s worth it in the end when Violet realizes the command to obey has been left out of the vows and her mouth drops open with a quick wit she can’t let herself deliver.)
The hospital gives her three days leave she’ll be making up for a month but Mary doesn’t mind – focuses on the debate Sibyl and Lord Grantham get into over dinner and the look on Matthew’s face as he watches her mediate. If he thinks she’ll mediate without Lord Grantham there, well, everyone walks down the aisle with half the story hidden.
(Three days of leave for Mary, two days after the wedding before Matthew is sent back to France. It’s quiet in the flat without Sibyl there, warm with his hand around her waist, fingers tracing a pattern that makes her curl against him.)
Real life – the war – comes crashing in on them when a courier arrives in the morning with orders for Matthew and Mary is running late for the hospital. She cannot rush out, waits for the courier to leave before tying her frock a little tighter and resting her hands on his shoulders. This time, she tells him exactly what she’s thinking.
“Be careful,” she instructs and his mouth quirks, amused. “And come home. That’s an order.”
Now every letter that comes has to be parsed for careful reading aloud to her family when she visits the townhouse she and Sibyl still insist is not for them. Her grandmother shoots her a knowing look every time Mary pauses, scanning for the next appropriate section before reading again. Fortunately, nobody else seems to notice.
It does not seem the war will ever end, the line of prisoners stretching across the Channel and back to England. Mary knows she is not alone – the nurses are not the only ones talking – and the war seems to be getting worse, not coming to a close.
Sibyl shocks her in the winter of 1915 by confiding in Mary that she and Branson are engaged. Mary just stares at her sister, gape-mouthed before she collects herself, as Sibyl explains the story and asks Mary what she should do.
“Do?” Mary asks, bewildered. “Run away. Elope, before Father finds out and you’re disinherited. No, wait. Earn their permission so they will not cut you off. Oh why, Sibyl, did you choose the Irish socialist?”
But she knows why, should have guessed there were too many suffragette meetings and agrees to introduce the idea to Cora before it gets out of hand. She can only imagine Edith’s smugness at the affair – of all three sisters, she will have been the only one married at Downton. Mary just won’t have it.
Branson, fortunately, is no longer a chauffeur, but is running for Parliament. If he wins, Mary reasons with an aghast Cora, it will not be dishonorable in the slightest. Everyone is getting married, she adds, and Sibyl would be happy. Active and happy.
(The election passes and Branson wins by a narrow margin, joins the call to end the war. Mary doesn’t agree with all his ideas and tells Matthew so, arguing the wrong treaty could render the whole bloody mess pointless. She hesitates and adds, Even still, if we end it sooner, I’d prefer that over any way.)
The boy means well and Mary is sure it’s just the first flush of politics. She hardly knows what she would do if she were in office (she and Sibyl share a look at that comment, pause and then rush to speak of something else).
Mary is working a night shift at the hospital when one of her friends pulls her aside to whisper an urgent message in her ear. A wounded man at St. Lucy’s has Mary listed on his papers as a contact.
She nearly barrels over an old woman hailing a taxi and rushing to apologizes, catches the next one she can. When she gets to St. Lucy’s, the doctor pulls her aside and explains Matthew was shot in his leg and they are trying to remove the bullet, but he could lose the leg.
“Not his leg,” Mary insists, flaring in righteous anger. “You call me over there before you take his leg.”
(They don’t take his leg, but they give him a cane.)
He looks more fatigued than the last time she saw him, blood loss and the pain of surgery written on his face. She sits on his bedside and says nothing, grips his hand with her own.
“I know you told me to be careful,” he says with feigned lightness, “but all’s fair.” His shoulders are trembling with the effort of sitting upright and so Mary shakes her head and pushes him back down, wishing for more anesthetic. “You’re going to regret that under my care,” she quips and gets a smile in return.
Spring of 1917 in London is not quite what it should be but Mary takes Matthew to her favorite park where several rallies have been held. There’s one there today with a man speaking angrily about the rations Parliament is talking of imposing. Matthew’s cane rests at his side, leaning into her as she explains what’s going on.
“That man, he’s here three times a week,” she says, pointing to some others on the podium. “That woman lost her husband a week into the war and she’s been here ever since. She’s talking about cutting our losses and letting France deal with it.”
The war seems very far away in the spring sunshine, impudent flowers growing brightly in the park and a pair of birds chirping above them.
“You seem to fit here,” Matthew tells her, staring out at the crowd. “I suppose Sybil is out there somewhere?”
“Sybil is probably somewhere with Branson,” Mary answers dryly and laughs at his surprise. “I forgot I hadn’t mentioned that. Yes. More wedding bells, but this time back at Downton Abbey. They’re going to do the thing properly.”
“I still miss it,” Matthew replies, looking away from the crowd. “But I think I’d miss this more.”
“You could practice law anywhere,” Mary says quietly, meeting his stare.
“You and Sibyl would do your best work here,” he affirms and smiles, letting the cane slide a little way away. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We haven’t seen Downton Abbey in a while.”
“When the war’s over,” Mary states firmly and feels Matthew take her hand.
“When the war’s over.”