The new chauffeur is a most curious creature, Violet thinks, as he hands her out the motor-car with a quiet 'm'lady.'
A stoic sort, she notes with approval, and in the privacy of her own mind she is quite inclined to admit him a rather handsome sort to boot.
'I knew Marcus's father -- owed the man a kindness,' Robert had explained when the chauffeur's cottage suddenly found itself in possession of a new occupant. 'The poor boy was injured out of the Legion at the Somme, Mama, but he served his regiment proud, just as his father did before him. An American,' he'd added, before she'd had the chance to ask, and she hadn't been surprised in the slightest: her son always had been unaccountably fond of that peculiar breed.
Quite why Robert thinks an American -- once of the French Foreign Legion and with a limp that makes he and Robert's valet a matched pair -- to be suitable chauffeur material, Violet thinks best not to ask. Most likely for the same reasons her son had once thought it wise to employ an Irish revolutionary as his chauffeur.
And where did that get him in the end, Violet thinks -- not without a little relish -- as Carson appears to escort her inside, but furnished with an Irish revolutionary for a son-in-law.
'Ah, there you are, Carson,' she begins, but her words die away when another another, slighter figure emerges from the shadows of the doorway, and her heart twists in her chest.
'Esca,' she says, reaching out.
And here he is, at last: up from Oxford for the summer, the youngest grandson of her dear sister -- Eliza's only grandchild now. It feels like an age since Violet saw him last; in a way, it has been an age -- an age since that time before war and disease and all the endless, endless funerals.
'Great Aunt Violet,' Esca says, and smiles a smile that doesn't quite reach his eyes as he takes her hands in his. 'I heard the motor. They're waiting for you in the drawing room, but I thought I might come and make my hellos first.'
'Well, they can wait a little longer, then,' Violet says, and if her eyes are a trifle damp, then she's sure Carson will know not to have seen anything. 'Let me look at you, my dear boy.'
He's so pale that the shadows under his eyes stand as stark as bruises, his face thin and haggard, and Violet is still shocked, even though she knew he would look so. How could he not, after all? Home from Flanders, home from the field hospital, home from a war that had taken both his older brothers, to find Brigantes House cold and empty and echoing -- his mama and papa, his dear little sister, and half the staff besides, fallen to the Spanish Flu.
'Dear boy.' Violet squeezes his hands. 'For a young man who would make a career of the study of nature, Robert tells me you are spending far too much time indoors.'
Esca ducks his head. 'There are some books in the library concerning a butterfly species local to the area. It's a rather rare specimen and I wanted to finish reading before--'
'Aquila,' Violet interrupts, turning back to the motor.
Aquila stops, the door of the motor-car half-closed, one shining boot still rooted awkwardly on the gravel of the driveway. 'M'lady?' he asks, slowly straightening and almost, Violet notes, managing to hide his wince.
'Do any of the family require your services this afternoon?' she asks, an idea forming in her mind.
'No, m'lady. There's no need of the motor until you're ready to leave.'
'Splendid,' Violet says. 'Then you're to drive Mr MacCunoval to the meadow beyond Ripon Woods and assist him with his butterflying endeavours. Just north of where John Gibson farms -- do you know it? The farm with the green barn and that rather well-endowed bull.'
'Yes, m'lady,' Aquila says, nodding, then reddens. 'The farm that is, m'lady. Not the bull.'
'Really?' Violet asks, more than a little surprised. 'I should have thought him a beast rather hard to miss; he's a most impressive specimen. In any case, a little light walking will do your leg good, I should think, Aquila.' She turns back to Esca. 'As would some time spent in the fresh air do you a great deal of good, my boy.'
'I can go myself, Aunty,' Esca protests. 'It's only a few miles away. I don't need to be driven there.'
'You'll forgive me for saying it, but in your current state I fear you'll blow away in the next strong gust.'
'Great Aunt Violet,' Esca begins.
'No,' Violet says, breaking his grasp and holding up a hand. 'That's quite enough. You shall let an old lady have her way in this, and that is all there is to it. Do we understand each other?'
He wants to argue with her, Violet knows, would have argued with her as a younger man, as a boy -- he is her sister's grandson, after all -- but instead Esca simply huffs a laugh and says, 'How could I say no to you, Aunty?'
'With great difficulty, I think you'll find,' Violet says, patting him on the arm. 'That's settled, then. Carson, shall we?'
'Indeed, m'lady,' Carson intones, offering his arm, and a moment later Downton greets them with a coolness most welcome after so long spent standing in the heat of the day.
Carson pauses to ease the door closed. 'A moment, if you please, m'lady.'
'Quite,' Violet tells him, removing her gloves and taking that moment to enjoy the quiet cool of the hall. Downton is once again as it should be: bathed in shadow and calm, and finally free of the hustle-and-bustle of the hospital days.
From outside the crunch of footsteps on the gravel breaks through the stillness; Violet looks up.
As the great wooden door swings shut under Carson's careful hands, she glimpses Esca and Aquila, caught in the shimmering light of a summer's day, burnished bright and golden.
When Carson escorts her into the drawing room, Violet is quick to note Carlisle's looming presence behind Mary's chair -- does the man ever sit, she wonders -- and a distinct lack of Cousin Matthew. She allows herself one brief sniff as she is settled in her favourite chair by the window and provisioned with a cup of tea and a pastry concoction so frivolous looking that she rather fears it might be French.
Such is her vexation that it takes her a moment before her gaze falls upon the ravages of her eldest granddaughter's once beautiful hair.
'Good god, Mary! What have you done to yourself?'
Mary turns to her, eyes a-roll. 'It's a called a bob-cut and it's all the rage with the flappers, Granny.'
'Well, then,' Violet says, holding up a quelling hand. 'Who am I to argue with those paragons of virtue and good taste?'
'Wherever has Cousin Esca gotten to?' Edith asks, looking to the door.
'I sent him out with Aquila to get some air. Chasing after butterflies or some such.' Violet takes a cautious bite of her pastry Entente Cordiale. Apricot jam, she thinks with dismay. What she wouldn't give for one of Mrs Patmore's good old English scones. Perhaps if she catches Carson's eye…
'With Aquila?' Mary repeats, arching an eyebrow. 'Oh Granny, really! Cousin Esca hasn't left the library for the past week. No doubt he'll have a fainting fit, then Aquila will fall over trying to revive him and we shall be forced to send out a search party before the evening's gone.'
'Mary!' Edith admonishes. Rather, Violet is inclined to think, because Sybil isn't about to do the family admonishing anymore.
'Jealous are we, Edith?' Mary asks. 'I realise Aquila's handsome. But imitating Sybil -- don't you think that a little gauche?'
'Hardly,' Edith says, rolling her eyes, and Violet has to hide her smile behind her teacup when Robert looks up sharply from his newspaper at the mention of handsome chauffeurs. 'It's only, well--Aquila was injured in the War and Cousin Esca's not quite right anymore, is he? In the head, I mean, not after everything that happened. We shouldn't be making fun of them.'
'What other entertainment do we have?' Mary says. 'Life is so frightfully dull these days, don't you find?'
And though her tone is airy, Violet knows her granddaughter well enough to note, with no small amount of concern, the tightness about her eyes.
'Is the thought of your wedding not entertainment enough?' Edith retorts.
'We've had a letter from Sybil,' Cora says suddenly and a tad shrilly, sending Violet a pleading look.
Esca's arrival has put Violet in quite the generous mood, and so she indulges her daughter-in-law -- a habit she finds herself partaking in more often these days, with Cora still looking so frail.
'Have we indeed?' she says, before Mary has time to interject. 'What news from the Emerald Isle?'
'Branson's had one of his articles published on the front page,' Cora says, 'above the fold.’ She pauses, looking at Violet expectantly.
Violet considers the situation for a moment, and then hazards what she finds to be a suitably impressed sort of 'hmm' -- evidently the right response because Cora beams and continues, 'And you won't believe your ears when I tell you Sybil's other news…’
'The suspense may kill me,' Violet informs her.
Cora's face breaks in a rather forced-looking smile. 'Why, Sybil's been made Ward Sister at the hospital!'
'Has she indeed?' Violet takes a sip of tea to wash away the lingering taste of apricots. 'Will wonders never cease?'
She sees Esca next at dinner, sunburnt and quiet. And while, unlike certain ladies of her acquaintance, Violet would never presume to think herself medically inclined, she does observe that perhaps her dear nephew seems a little easier in his skin this evening.
'Did you enjoy your afternoon?' she asks, when Carson and Thomas begin to serve the fish course and she is not longer forced to make polite conversation with Carlisle about the weather.
'I did,' Esca says, smiling a little. 'Surprisingly so.'
'Aren't you glad you listened to me, my boy? Hmm?' Violet says as Thomas sets her plate in front of her. 'Thank you, Thomas. One does not reach such a grand age, my dear boy, without building quite the repository of wisdom. Was Aquila a help to you at all?'
Esca nods, and she rather thinks him lost in thought until he says, 'Invaluable.'
Violet turns her attention to the plate in front of her and takes a cautious bite of…something -- most probably a French something -- suspended in aspic and bathed in an alarmingly cerise sauce.
'Aquila fought in the War, you know. At the Somme, Robert tells me. It's a war-wound, that frightful limp of his.'
'I suspected as much,' Esca says. He gives his own aspic creation a careful poke with his fish knife.
'It doesn't taste quite as alarming as it looks,' Violet reassures him. 'Cora tells me the staff banded together to buy Mrs Patmore a volume on French gastronomy for her birthday. We must hope her fascination merely a passing phase.'
'I had some considerable dealings with the American Divisions,' Esca says, 'but I can't recall our paths ever crossing.'
'Who's that, my dear?'
'Oh, Aquila.' Is that chervil lurking in the sauce? Good god: aspic and chervil in one course. Whatever next, she wonders, curry powder? 'Oh no, I shouldn't think so, my dear. Aquila was of the French Foreign Legion.'
'Ah,' Esca says. He takes a sip of his wine. 'That explains quite a bit, actually. He wasn't particularly talkative, you see.'
'No, he's a surprisingly taciturn fellow,' Violet allows, 'for an American.'
They both look up as Mary's brittle laughter floats across the table. She sits playing with the blunt end of her hair where it brushes her jaw, and valiantly avoiding Cousin Matthew's longing, anguished gaze.
Mr. Shaw was quite right, Violet thinks, as she watches her granddaughter pretend to be content: youth truly is wasted on the young.
Violet leans a little closer to her great-nephew. 'I rather think she imagines herself Joan of Arc,' she tells him, 'shorn of her golden mane and lashed to the stake of Carlisle's intentions.'
Esca snorts into his wineglass.
'Something the matter, Cousin Esca?' Mary asks across the table.
Violet holds up a reassuring hand. 'I believe the wine is a little strong for his tastes, Mary dear.'
Summer passes as summers do.
Esca takes her butterflying one day as a fevered July dwindles into clement August. Aquila drives them to the meadow north of Ripon Woods, and on the way he stops to let Violet confirm that John Gibson's bull remains as he always has been -- a most impressive beast.
Later, she sits in the shade of the ancient oak tree under which she first kissed her dear Patrick -- a lifetime ago now -- and watches the two young men as they trample about the meadow with their nets.
Perhaps, she thinks, it isn't quite proper -- this friendship between Esca and Aquila, this friendship that has grown between a young gentleman and a young man in service -- but how can she grudge it? How can she grudge their odd friendship when it has made them unfurl from their war-ravaged selves as a flower to the sun after a month of gloom. She cannot grudge it, and she is old enough not to have to.
Violet comforts herself with the thought that while Aquila may only be a chauffeur, his father had been some sort of something in the Legion, after all. And she rather fancies she knows of some Aquilas who have considerable land in Tuscany. Horse breeders, if her memory serves her, and their money's as old as the Tuscan hills.
They eat a picnic, the three of them, sitting on a blanket in the shade of the oaks and her girlhood.
And summer passes until the morning she must bid Esca goodbye, as he leaves for the station, leaves Downton for Oxford once again.
'When next I see you, my dear, how many letters will there be after your name?' she asks, reaching up to fix the lie of his lapel.
Esca smiles. 'Quite a few, Aunty. But none that will matter so much as your kind regard.'
'Oh, dear boy.' Violet tuts indulgently. 'You're every bit the flatterer your grandpapa was. I always did wonder quite how he managed to convince my dear sister to abandon her civilised life and move to that pile of his in the wilds of Scotland. Then he turned his flattery upon me, and I was charmed enough to forgot I ever wondered.'
'I should have liked to have known him better,' Esca says quietly. 'He made the house what it is, after all.'
'Speaking of Brigantes,' Violet begins.
'MacDonald runs the estate perfectly well in my absence,' Esca says, his face beginning to shutter.
'But the house--' Violet cannot help but say.
'The house is rented out,' Esca cuts in. 'Some sort of American industrialist, I understand. Terribly rich,' he says, 'and very prompt with his rent.'
'Terribly rich,' Violet repeats. 'Aren't our notable American cousins always so? Do excuse my slandering of your countrymen, Aquila,' she adds, looking over her shoulder.
Aquila tries unsuccessfully to hide his smile. 'Not at all, m'lady.'
Esca gives her a puzzled look. 'Is it slander to call them rich, Aunty?'
Violet leans closer. 'It is when their money is as new as the buds in May, is it not?' she asks, allowing herself a brief chuckle.
'Ah.' Esca huffs a laugh, but she rather thinks he's humouring her.
The summer sun has reached its height in the clear blue sky, and so Violet sighs and says, 'Well then, best be off with you or you'll miss your train. See him onto the train for me, will you, Aquila? I fear one day he'll lose himself in one of his dreadful books and wander onto the tracks. Therefore: onto the train, Aquila -- are we clear?'
Aquila nods, an oddly pensive look shadowing his broad face.
'Splendid.' She reaches up one last time to settle Esca's lapel, despite it sitting perfectly from her earlier ministrations. 'Go, then,' she tells him, 'whilst I can still bear it.'
He does, and later that evening when Aquila drives her home in the motor-car, he says, 'Mr MacCunoval sends his regards, m'lady.'
Violet meets his eyes in the rear-view mirror contraption. 'You saw him onto the train, Aquila?'
'I waited on the platform until the train left, m'lady.'
'Good man,' Violet says. 'That was a job well done indeed.'
Summer soon gives way to the first crisp days of autumn.
Downton is aflutter with the preparations for Mary's impending nuptials; indeed, little else is spoken of, and so Violet stays well away from the marital hustle-and-bustle. As her dear mama always used to advise: 'if one cannot think of anything kind to say, Violet dear, one should say nothing at all.'
Instead, she passes her days paying calls in the village and writing letters, and she potters a little in the garden when the weather holds, much to the thinly-veiled annoyance of Mr Knott the gardener.
Esca writes to her every week, just as he always has. Finally graduated a Doctor of Zoology after the War scuppered his first attempt, and now working as a research fellow for some rather well-regarded professor of Vertebrate Zoology, he sounds happy, if a little wistful, in his letters.
He asks after her health when he writes, after Downton and all her inhabitants, and regales her with stories of the first years fainting like swooning girls during their dissection practicals. He asks after Aquila on occasion, asks how his leg fares, mentions that he writes to Aquila now and then; Violet is only a little surprised to read this. She had rather thought their friendship, forged in the fires of their war-stained memories and pains, may have faded with the turning of summer. She surprises herself to find she is glad it has not.
She sees Aquila, sometimes, running errands for the family in the village. He smiles when he sees her, nods and bids her a good day, but there is something about his countenance that troubles her: grim-faced, favouring his good leg more than he ought.
She pays Dr. Clarkson a visit, and Dr. Clarkson pays Aquila a visit, and not so long after Aquila is sent off down to London to be operated upon by a surgeon specialising in the treatment of festering shrapnel wounds.
A day after Aquila's departure, Violet happens to remember Esca had mentioned in his last letter that he was to visit London for a research seminar, so she sends him a note alerting him to Aquila's hospital stay: perhaps he'd like to pay a visit to the hospital on an afternoon, she suggests. After all, there's nothing so heartening for a patient than the visit of a familiar face to the ward.
Violet is well aware that there is a certain lady of her acquaintance who would accuse her, most hypocritically she finds, of being a busy-body, but not a few weeks later, as Aquila returns to Downton, walking much more easily and smiling far more freely, Violet congratulates herself on a job well done and gloats just the once -- and very subtly, at that.
A week before the wedding, Violet finds that her well of reasonable and plausible excuses for not dining at Downton has run quite dry, and while she's never been one for gaudy displays of public affection, the greeting she receives upon entering the drawing room after more than a few days absence is distinctly underwhelming, for such a solemn looking group she's never seen.
'Whatever's the matter?' she asks, looking about at the collection of grim faces. 'Where's Mary?'
'We've had some rather distressing news,' Cora says. 'Perhaps you had best have a seat.'
Violet folds onto one of Cora's overstuffed armchairs with a lack of grace she hasn't exhibited since last she wore her hair in pigtails.
'Is Sybil quite alright?' she asks, her heart feeling rather queer. 'Good god, is it Esca?'
'Oh, no! It's not Sybil,' Cora says in quite a rush. 'She and Branson -- Tom, I should say -- are fine. As is Esca.'
'Well, then,' Violet says, banging her cane upon the floor, which she feels is a just reaction. 'What has transpired that sends Mary to her room like some swooning heroine from a novel?'
Cora bites her lip. 'Richard Carlisle was found this morning in his office -- quite dead. A heart attack.'
'Oh, thank heavens for that!' Violet says.
'Granny!' Edith admonishes.
'Oh hush, Edith. Such sanctimoniousness really doesn't suit you, dear. Nor does that colour you're wearing, it must be said,' Violet adds, noting the pallid mauve of Edith's gown.
Edith gives an affronted little huff. 'It's all the fashion in Paris.'
'Yes, well,' Violet says, and thinks it best to leave it at that. 'Now, Cousin Matthew,' she begins. 'Where has he gotten to?'
'Here, Cousin Violet,' Matthew says, emerging from somewhere in the shadows to her right. He is such a fellow for lurking in corners, Violet thinks. She really must break him of the habit if he is to be master of Downton.
'Ah, yes. Here is my advice to you, young man: I suggest you wait long enough so as to avoid the appearance of unseemliness, but no longer than that, before you ask for Mary's hand,' Violet says, tapping him on the wrist. 'She's getting on, you see, and I should like to live long enough to see at least one of my great-grandchildren born on this side of the Irish Sea.'
Matthew blinks at her. 'I--I,' he begins.
'No, none of that,' Violet tells him, before he can begin to stutter in earnest. 'And pray, dear Cousin Matthew, why are you still down here among the grieving masses? Do go and comfort the girl in her hour of need. Go!' she says, shooing him towards the door with her cane. 'Must I see to all matters of the heart in this house? Edith, do you have any suitors you wish me to address before we have supper?'
Edith shoots her a dark look. 'No, Granny. No suitors.'
'Tis a blessing she was only engaged to the man,' Violet tells the room. 'In these modern times, there shall be no call for her to go into full mourning. I know Mary's very fond of black, but it does wash her out so. Don't you think, Cora?'
'Quite,' Cora agrees, sounding faintly shocked for some reason or the other. Violet quite gave up on fathoming her daughter-in-law's distinctly American sensibilities long ago.
Robert sets down his newspaper -- one of Carlisle's own, Violet notes, and the headline is suitably grieving. A man's death reported in the paper he owned. Violet supposes that a peculiar sort of irony -- or would, if she held any stock with such modern notions as irony.
'Mama,' Robert says, 'perhaps a little delicacy wouldn't go amiss.'
'Oh, but I am being exceedingly delicate, my dear,' she assures him. 'After all, however much I may wish to, you don't see me hitching up my skirts and dancing a jig, do you?'
An expectant sort of hush falls upon Downton, breathless and hopeful all at once, and huddled under the shadow of mourning. Violet finds it doesn't agree with her in the slightest. From the increasingly grim set of Aquila's mouth, she rather thinks it disagrees with him too.
As the months have passed, Violet has come to understand that Aquila enjoys her company as much as she does his -- stoic and unforthcoming as it is -- and so, while she has never been particularly fond of the motor-car, she now finds occasion to make calls to old acquaintances whom she hasn't called upon in some years. These visits serve only to remind her why those acquaintances have remained acquaintances, not friends, and old ones at that, but she rather enjoys her and Aquila's talks, mediated through the motor-car's little mirror.
'Esca tells me that he has been writing to you,' she says, after they have exhausted the topic of France. Violet thought France a lovely country save for the French; Aquila had respectfully disagreed, and Violet had grudgingly admired his loyalty.
Aquila's shoulders straighten as she speaks, like a soldier on the parade ground, and Violet watches with concern as the back of his neck turns an alarming shade of red.
'Yes, m'lady,' Aquila replies -- somewhat stiffly, Violet is inclined to think. 'He has on occasion, but if you don't think it proper, then I can--'
'Oh, no,' Violet interrupts. 'No, nothing of the sort, my man. It is simply that I have had occasion to flatter myself that the old postmaster in Ripon holds something of a candle for me. My letters and missives do find their way to their destinations decidedly quicker than most, or so I've been informed. No, Aquila, I simply wished to invite you to include your letters with mine when next I send them. I know how terribly unreliable and unaccountably expensive the post can be these days.'
Aquila takes a strange, shuddering sort of breath. 'That's very kind of you, m'lady. Thank you.'
'Nothing of the sort,' Violet tells him, waving his thanks away. Still, when Aquila meets her gaze in the little mirror contraption, his smile crinkles the corners of his eyes, and Violet is more than a little surprised to find herself responding in kind.
The November days are drawing in when Violet first begins to feel the stirrings of motherly intentions and decides a trip to London to visit Rosamund is in order. As no other of the family are so inclined, and as Rosamund's own chauffeur, still rather shell-shocked and prone to leaping for cover whenever the motor-car backfires, has been sent to the seaside for a little holiday, Aquila is drafted in to accompany her to London.
'I have never understood the appeal of a seaside holiday,' Violet tells him as they change trains in Manchester -- awful, dirty place that it is. 'The gulls a-shrieking and the reek of vinegar constantly in one's nose. Give me good old country air, I say. Not that blasted salt-addled kind, hmm?'
'Very sensible, m'lady,' Aquila says, settling the travelling blanket on her lap.
'And really, I would have been quite capable of making this journey unaided. What does it matter that my maid cannot accompany me? Flu, you know. But not the Spanish kind, I assure you. Robert does fuss awfully -- I have my hat-pin, and I ask you, Aquila, what other deterrent does a lady of distinction need?'
'I wouldn't know, m'lady,' Aquila says, 'not being a lady or much of distinction.'
Violet is quite inclined to think that Aquila has just spoken in jest, but his handsome face is as calm and as stoic as ever. She reminds herself never to play gin rummy with the man.
'At any rate, I am descended from a long line of women quite able to defend themselves should the occasion arise,' Violet tells Aquila as he settles himself on his own seat across the compartment from her. 'Did you know that Great Aunt Roberta loaded the guns at Lucknow?'
Aquila doesn't know, but he does looks suitably impressed, and Violet supposes that something: he was a Legionnaire once, after all.
Rosamund is there to greet her when Aquila hands Violet out the taxicab in front of the steps of No. 5 Eaton Square.
'Mama, how wonderful it is to see you again,' she says. 'I do hope the journey didn't exhaust you terribly.'
'Not at all,' Violet reassures her.
A collection of footmen file past to see to the luggage; all of them, Violet notes with reluctant approval, are exceedingly well turned-out and of a height. Rosamund has always kept an exemplary, if somewhat excessive, staff.
'One must face such trials with fortitude, mustn't one? In any case, Aquila kept me company.' She gives her daughter a considering glance. 'You look hale and hearty, my dear girl.'
Rosamund ducks her head demurely -- and rather unbefittingly for a woman of her age and position, Violet is inclined to think -- and says, 'I have you to thank for my strong constitution, Mama.'
'No, why indeed you do not,' Violet protests, giving her cane a good thump as they make their way up the steps. 'Your thanks must be laid at the door of Miss MacDougal, your old governess. You do remember MacDougal, don't you, Rosamund? She always used to say that nothing did the growing body so much good as an early morning plunge in the coldest waters.'
'Yes,' Rosamund says, sounding unaccountably grim. 'I remember Miss MacDougal -- exceedingly well, in fact.'
Robertson the butler awaits them in the foyer, along with a rather sharp-faced girl whom Violet knows not to be Mrs O'Connell the housekeeper and thus assumes to be Rosamund's lady's maid -- a suspicion proved correct when the girl proceeds to divest Violet of her coat and gloves.
Robertson nods a bow when she comes to stand before him. 'Mrs O'Connell wishes me to apologise on her behalf for not being here to greet you, Lady Grantham. Her mother is quite poorly, I'm afraid.'
'Not at all, my dear man,' Violet tells him. 'Pray, do tell Mrs O'Connell I asked after her -- and Mrs O'Connell the elder, also.' She turns to her daughter. 'It occurs to me, Rosamund, that with such an alarming array of maladies encircling this house, perhaps it would be wise of you to invest in some sort of plunge pool to allow for cold water bathing and--'
'We'll take tea in the sitting room, Robertson,' Rosamund cuts in.
'Very good, m'lady.' Robertson says, and aways in what Violet thinks a rather surprisingly spritely fashion for a man of his years.
'And Shore, if you would see to Lady Grantham's things -- she's in the Lavender Room.'
The girl dips a neat curtsey. 'As you wish, m'lady.'
Violet sighs. 'My maid could well have done with a governess like MacDougal, I'll tell you that much, Rosamund. The girl has an attack of the vapours whenever the wind so much as blows southerly.'
'You needn't worry, Mama,' Rosamund says. She tucks Violet's hand into the crook of her arm and walks them to the sitting room. 'I'm sure Shore will prove quite capable of looking after the both of us. She is a most proficient lady's maid, I assure you.'
'Shore, is it? What a peculiar name. And of course you must ensure to prevail of Aquila's services whilst we're here,' Violet tells her daughter as Robertson appears with the tea-tray. She eyes the plate of scones with interest. 'I know you must have been at sixes and sevens with Williams in Llandudno this past month.'
'That's very kind of you, Mama,' Rosamund says. She gestures a slim hand to the cake stand. 'Scone?'
'Oh no, I really mustn't,' Violet says. 'Well, perhaps just a small one…'
Violet is progressing through her second scone of the afternoon when there comes a brisk knock at the door, followed by Aquila, hat in hand.
'Well, this really is most irregular,' Rosamund murmurs, then, louder, 'Can we help you with something that Robertson could not, Aquila?'
'I'm sorry to interrupt, Lady Painswick,' Aquila says, 'but Lady Grantham left this in the cab, and I thought…'
He takes a hesitant step forward, holding out a rather dog-eared envelope.
'It's one of Esca's letters,' Violet says. 'Oh, thank you, Aquila. I would have been most bereft to lose this.'
Aquila nods. 'I'd thought as much, m'lady.'
'Thank you,' she tells him, giving his hand a little reassuring squeeze as she takes the letter from him.
'I'm sorry to have bothered you, m'ladies,' Aquila says, and is gone before Violet has time to ask him to tell Robertson to bring a fresh pot.
'He's a dear boy,' she tells Rosamund. 'Very efficient. One does not find oneself thrown hither and thither whenever the motor-car has occasion to change speed.'
Rosamund takes a dainty sip of her tea. 'A valuable quality in a chauffeur, one feels.'
'Oh yes,' Violet agrees. 'Quite.'
They sit in comfortable silence, listening to ticking of the grandfather clock in the corner and the grumblings of the fire.
Rosamund takes a breath. 'Rather handsome, too, it must be said.'
'Oh, really?' Violet says. 'I can't say I'd much noticed.'
Rosamund's eyebrow twitches only once; Violet chooses to mention it not.
A veritable procession of her old acquaintances find occasion to call upon Violet over the next few days. Thus, she fixes her expression to one of polite disinterest, eats a great number of scones, and allows Rosamund to monopolise Aquila and the motor-car; she knows, after all, how terribly vexing it is to be without proper staff. But when Friday morning arrives, she decides that she has obliged her daughter quite long enough and summons Aquila to the morning room before Rosamund has come down for breakfast.
'You asked for me, m'lady,' Aquila says, settling into parade rest in the middle of the morning room. His bottle-green uniform is as smartly turned-out as a cadet's at his passing out. Soldiering, Violet supposes -- it must a terribly hard habit to shake.
She takes another bite of toast as she considers him: he looks incongruously large and distinctly out of place in the little room -- festooned, as it is, with its pastel upholstery and gold-leaf.
'Toast?' she offers. The marmalade really is rather splendid. She must remember to ask Rosamund for a few jars to take back to Downton.
'No thank you, m'lady,' Aquila says. 'I just ate breakfast.'
'And what did they serve downstairs today, then?'
Violet shudders. 'Dreadful stuff. Would Rome have conquered the known world if their Legions had marched on bellies full of porridge? Hmm? Answer me that, Aquila.'
'I had some marmalade with my porridge, m'lady,' Aquila says, giving a distinctly American sort of shrug. 'It wasn't so bad.'
'Ah, yes -- very wise. Now the reason I called for you, Aquila, is that I rather have it in mind that you and I might take a little trip today, but I'm afraid it will involve quite a bit of driving on your part.'
'That is what I'm paid to do, m'lady.'
'Oh, yes, well quite,' Violet concedes. 'In any case, if we were to set out now, I think we should make our destination by lunchtime.'
A smile tugs at the corners of Aquila's mouth and he takes a step closer to the breakfast table. 'Where does your ladyship wish to go?'
'To Oxford,' Violet tells him, placing her napkin on her plate and rising.
Aquila stills. 'To Oxford?'
'Yes,' Violet says. 'Oxford. It's been far too long since I last saw my dear nephew, and London is a good deal closer to Oxford than Downton will ever be -- a mere stone's throw, one feels, but then I am no expert on such things. Still, what do you say, Aquila -- shall we pay Esca a surprise visit?'
Aquila's face breaks into a smile so honest and unguarded that Violet is reminded suddenly of another soldier's smile: a soldier from so very long ago that Violet hasn't thought of him in a great number of years.
Aquila never does answer her question, but then, she rather thinks she has the grounds to suppose his agreement.
They arrive in Oxford shortly before midday. Violet is a little saddle-sore perhaps, but none other the worse for wear, and between Aquila's arm and her cane, they make good time to Esca's lodgings not far from the Bodleian. Rather unfortunately, he doesn't appear to be in.
'To his college, then, Aquila,' Violet says. 'You had best give me your arm again, if your leg can stand it.'
But Esca is not in his little office overlooking the quad; nor is he in one of the many laboratories they are directed to.
'You're looking for Dr MacCunoval?' asks the bespectacled girl they find in the departmental office.
'We are indeed, young lady,' Violet tells her. 'Do you happen to know where we might find him?'
'Certainly,' the girl says. 'He's taking the first years for their introductory lecture in the anatomy of flight -- in the lecture theatre in the Museum of Natural History, I think. Professor Cartwright has been very poorly, you see,' she adds, grimacing a little.
'Has he indeed? Poor man,' Violet says, not knowing Professor Cartwright from Adam. 'Now, where might we find this museum, my girl?
There follows a ream of directions, which seem to involve a baffling complement of right turns and a daunting number of stairs, but eventually, and after the assistance of a rather obliging porter, they arrive at a smart set of wooden doors in the depths of the museum.
'Well, then,' Violet says, not a little out of breath. 'Shall we?'
When Aquila pushes open the door, Violet's eyes are drawn immediately to Esca. He cuts a small figure behind the podium, down at the front of the room, but somehow he is not dwarfed by the immensity of the space. He stands, conjuring the wonders of a bird in flight to a theatre full of enraptured students, and Violet feels her heart fit to burst with pride.
Esca's gaze slips past them when they first enter the room, but then skitters back almost immediately. His words stumble as his face breaks into a grin that reminds Violet of Esca as a boy: of his pure, unhindered delight when he had found some intriguing specimen in the lake or stumbled upon a fledgling fallen from the nest and in need of nurturing.
A considerable few heads turn to investigate the disturbance and Violet pulls herself up to her full height, rather glad that Aquila is so particularly well turned-out today and that she wore her new hat.
'We find ourselves honoured, ladies and gentlemen,' Esca tells the room. 'I do believe that the Dowager Countess of Grantham has decided to attend our lecture today.'
Violet turns to look at the young man sat to her right, rather dismayed to find she is forced to raise an eyebrow before the lad jumps up from his seat with a startled 'would you like to sit down, ma'am?' Then she looks back to Esca, motioning to the clock hung above the blackboards at the front of the room.
Esca nods, grinning still. 'Now, where was I…' he begins as Violet sits down.
'The furcula, Dr MacCunoval,' a voice tinged Liverpudlian calls.
'Ah, yes. The furcula,' Esca says, his eyes still fixed on the doorway.
They take a stroll by the river, lingering in the sharp winter light until Violet is forced to admit that she can no longer feel her toes. They retire to Esca's little flat -- far too plain and pokey for a man of his means, Violet notes and makes sure to tell him -- where Esca offers to make them cheese on toast as a rather sorry excuse for a late lunch.
'There's a public house a little ways down the road,' Aquila says, hovering uncomfortably in the doorway. 'I can get a meal there.'
'Nonsense,' Violet tells him stoutly. 'Do stop being noble and come in -- you're letting all the warmth out.'
Aquila takes a nervous glance over his shoulder, as if, Violet supposes, he expects to find Rosamund advancing upon him, her copy of Debrett's held aloft as a flaming sword of judgement.
Violet sighs. 'Aquila, I really shan't ask again.'
'Yes, m'lady. Sorry, m'lady.' He takes off his hat and steps through the doorway with only one last backwards glance to the hallway beyond.
'I won't tell my daughter about our little breach of propriety if you won't, Aquila,' she reassures him later, when they are arranged comfortably around the fire: Violet in a rather saggy armchair, Aquila sprawled on the rug, and Esca perched on the chair's equally saggy footstool, toasting bread topped with cheese over the spitting, complaining flames.
'That's very kind of you, m'lady,' Aquila says. He takes a plate piled high with toast from Esca and hands it to her with a smile.
Later still, with her hunger sated and her toes deliciously warmed by the fire, Violet is dismayed to feel her eyelids begin to droop.
'It's real good to see you again, Mr MacCunoval,' she hears Aquila whisper as she teeters at the edge of sleep.
'Marcus,' Esca begins, and his voice sounds oddly thick. 'I--that is…'
If Esca says anything more, then Violet doesn't hear; sleep welcomes her between one breath and the next, and she wakes in the back seat of the Daimler, wrapped snuggly in a travelling blanket.
Aquila's broad shoulders are ahead of her as he drives them back to London through the dusk and the frost.
Esca comes home to Downton not a few weeks later, arriving the first Saturday after the end of the Michaelmas term. He seems happy to be back and spends most of his time outdoors, which Violet finds a reassuring return to form. She isn't, then, particularly surprised when she discovers him absent when the family come down for breakfast.
'Carson,' Mary says, 'would you tell Aquila that I'll need him to take me into Ripon later. Cousin Matthew's due from Manchester this afternoon. I rather thought I might meet him at the station.'
'Very good, m'lady.'
'Carson,' Violet calls, 'wait a moment.'
'M'lady?' Carson quirks an eyebrow.
'Belay Lady Mary's instruction, if you would. She won't be needing the motor-car this afternoon.'
Carson nods. 'Very good, m'lady.'
Mary looks to her in surprise. 'I won't be needing the motor, Granny?'
'Edith will drive you,' Violet says, helping herself to another kipper.
Violet raises an eyebrow at her granddaughter.
Edith sighs. 'I'll drive you, Mary. Don't make a fuss.'
'I don't see why our chauffeur can't drive me,' Mary protests. 'That is what he's employed to do, after all. Papa, do talk some sense into Granny.'
Robert looks up from his newspaper with a sigh. 'May I ask your reasoning for withholding the motor, Mama?
'Esca wants to take a drive up to Cumbria to see some wintering flock of Oyster Geese.'
'I think you mean Barnacle Geese, Mama,' Robert tells her.
'Do I? Well, some sort of shellfish at any rate.'
'I am to be prevented from greeting Cousin Matthew properly,' Mary says, affronted as only a young lover can be, 'so that Cousin Esca may go bird-watching with our chauffeur?'
'You are hardly in the first flush of love, Mary dear,' Violet says. 'Edith can avert her eyes to the joyous reunion.'
'You're jolly right I will,' Edith mutters.
'Cousin Esca is our guest, Mary -- the motor is his. Edith can drive you into Ripon in the old Daimler,' Robert says, and his attention returns once more to his newspaper.
Mary slumps back in her chair with a heartfelt sigh. Really, Violet thinks, girls these days and their awful posture. She blames the new fashion for brassieres: one simply cannot slump whilst wearing a decent boned corset.
'Granny, I don't think you realise how very obviously you're carrying on with your favouritism for dear Cousin Esca.'
Mary's words have quite the opposite effect from the one Violet imagines she intends. Rather than imbuing any degree of grandmotherly guilt in her person, they simply serve to set Violet in mind of a certain moment she'd witnessed yesterday, when she'd wandered down to stable-block to cast an eye over Robert's new Thoroughbred hunter: the two young men stood together in the garage, Esca's hand on Aquila's arm, their heads bent close together in quiet converstaion, quite in their own little world.
'Oh no, Mary, my dear,' she says. 'I do realise, I assure you I do. I just find that I don't particularly care.'
'How goes it at the newspaper, Branson?' Violet asks.
'Granny, you real must call him Tom now,' Sybil admonishes, breaking off her conversation with Esca to do so. 'He is your grandson-in-law, after all.'
'I shall call Branson whatever I jolly well like,' Violet tells her youngest granddaughter, 'and I'm quite sure Branson doesn't mind a jot.'
'Not at all, m'lady,' Branson says, before wincing and adding. 'Lady Grantham, I mean.'
She can see Sybil wishes to argue her point, and Violet is quite prepared to draw pistols, but when Branson lays a hand on Sybil's arm, Sybil shakes her head a little, smiles, and says, 'In any case, the reason we made the journey over for Christmas is that we have some rather important news to tell you all.' She places a hand low on her belly and reaches out to grasp Branson's hand tightly with the other.
'Oh, Sybil dear!' Cora exclaims as Robert lurches to his feet.
'I don't suppose you've thought of names yet,' Violet asks when the hubbub has begun to die way.
'Well, Cora of course, if it's a girl…' Sybil begins, looking towards Branson.
'And we were thinking of Patrick if it's a boy, Lady Grantham,' Branson continues, sounding uncommonly hesitant, 'after my father and your late husband, of course.'
'Most sensible,' Violet says, daring with an arched eyebrow anyone to mention her suddenly damp eyes. 'The names people give their children nowadays -- it does rather boggle one.'
She catches Branson by the arm, later, as they file out towards the dining room.
'Lady Grantham?' he asks, confused.
'I shall continue to call you Branson, Branson, for I am an old woman and rather set in my ways. You, of course, must call me Granny.'
Branson mouth twitches. 'I'll certainly do that…Granny,' he says, not without a little difficulty, and offers her his arm.
He's not such a bad sort, she supposes.
'I saw Strallan when I was over at Richmond,' Robert comments as Carson carves the beef wellington at the sideboard.
'Did you?' Edith asks, rather too quickly. 'How is Sir Anthony? Is he quite well?'
Esca throws Violet a quizzical look. 'An old paramour of Edith's,' Violet tells him in an undertone.
'He's very well,' Robert says. 'He asked after you particularly, Edith.'
'Did he?' Edith says, flushing rather prettily. If only she would cease wearing mauve, Violet thinks. It would make the world of difference to her complexion.
'That's very kind of him, but I shouldn't see why he would,' Edith carries on, biting her lip.
'I've invited him up for Cora's Christmas party on the twenty-second,' Robert says. 'Thought we all might enjoy his company.'
'Enjoy is one word for it,' Mary mutters, just loud enough to be heard.
'Mary,' Sybil admonishes quietly, and there is a moment of contented silence around the table as the world seems to shift into proper place once more.
'Speaking of my Christmas party,' Cora says. 'I've invited a few extra guests of my own. Do you all remember the Sedgewicks?'
'Oh, lord,' Mary says, making no attempt at subtlety this time. 'You haven't, Mama, surely!'
Cora ignores her. 'You've never met the Sedgewick's, have you, Cousin Esca? I think you'll like the Sedgewick's daughter, Mabel. She's always been so fond of animals -- just like you.'
'Horses,' Mary says, shivering a little despite the fire being high. 'Not animals -- horses. And only horses.'
Violet beckons Thomas over. 'Put another log on the fire, would you, please.'
'Very good, m'lady.'
'And she does spend a great deal of time outdoors,' Cora carries on. 'I had thought perhaps you might take Mabel a walk and point out some of our local wildlife while she's here.'
'If you'd like, Cousin Cora,' Esca says, before taking a rather long pull from his wineglass.
'Oh, really, Mama!' Mary says. 'You're not trying to match poor Cousin Esca up with Mabel Sedgewick, are you? That really is too much! I will protect you with a blunt fish knife if I must, Cousin Esca.'
'That's…kind of you, Cousin Mary,' Esca says.
'Mabel's a very nice girl,' Cora says. 'Very practical and level-headed.'
Mary snorts. 'Mabel's an utter pill!'
All heads turn towards Sybil, but the expected admonishment is not forthcoming.
'No, Mary's quite right,' Sybil says. 'I hate to say it, but Mabel is a complete pill.'
'Just make sure you don't have any sugar lumps about your person when you meet her, Cousin Esca,' Mary says. 'You might never be rid of her.'
'I-I don't…' Esca begins.
'I think Mr MacCunoval's glass is a tad dry, Carson,' Violet calls.
After supper, when the ladies have retired to the drawing room and the men to the billiard room, Violet is surprised to find Esca gazing out of a window in one of the draughty corridors in the east wing. He looks up when he hears her footsteps on the flagstones, smiles and holds out a hand.
Violet takes his hand in hers, coming to stand beside him and share the view: beyond the dark shadows of the beech trees, the lights of Ripon twinkle in the distance; nearer still, a few lonely lights burn from the windows of the chauffeur's cottage and the stable-block.
'Whatever has you so lost in thought, my boy?'
'I was thinking about Professor Cartwright,' Esca says.
'The poorly fellow?'
Esca nods. 'The thing is,' he begins, uncharacteristically hesitant. 'Professor Cartwright was due to lead an expedition that the university and the Museum of Natural Sciences in Manaus have been planning for quite some time, but he just isn't well enough, I'm afraid, and the thing is--he's asked me to go in his stead.'
'And where the devil is Manaus?' Violet asks. Then, feeling suspicious, adds, 'It's not in France, is it?'
'No, not France,' Esca says, giving a huff of a laugh. 'Brazil. Right in the heart of the Amazon Rainforest. They call it the City of the Forest, in fact.'
'Do they indeed?' Violet says, aghast. 'But Brazil, Esca--it's so very far away. Surely you won't go?'
'I rather thought I might,' Esca admits. 'It's a wonderful opportunity and I might never have another like it. The diversity of life in the Amazon Basin, well…it just beggars belief.'
Violet takes a calming breath. 'How long would you be away, my dear? Indeed, when would you leave?'
'In the new year, and then I'd stay for a few years, at least, I should think. Most likely longer. The steamers cut the journey time a great deal, but the Amazon is still half a world away and there's rather a lot of it to explore.'
Tragedy has changed her nephew from the effervescent boy Violet remembers to a quiet and careful young man, but she still knows him well enough to recognise the troubled set of his shoulders, the pensive strain to his brow.
'You've made up your mind to go,' she says, 'yet you still seem unsure. That is most unlike you, Esca dear.'
'I know.' Esca runs a hand through his hair, unsettling the pomade. 'And my mind is made up, truly it is. It's only that…'
'Hmm?' Violet prompts.
Esca opens his mouth to speak, then seems to think the better of it and shakes his head instead. 'No, it's--it's not something I can trouble you with, Aunty.'
'My dear, don't you know by now that you can trouble me with anything you wish? Whatever's the matter?'
Esca is silent, but Violet can see the thinking at work behind his eyes, and so she squeezes his hand a little more tightly and turns back to the window to watch the lights of Ripon play like lanterns among the bare branches of the beech trees.
'It does sometimes seem to me,' Esca says at last, 'that even when we should wish it otherwise, this world of ours will never let our hearts rule our heads -- don't you find, Aunty?'
'Quite,' Violet tells him.
'Wherever has Esca disappeared to?' Violet asks as Branson lifts his flask to pour a finger of fine Irish whiskey into her teacup under the cover of the card table.
'I think I heard him telling Sybil he fancied a walk in the gardens,' Branson says, topping up his own teacup. 'But I think he's just avoiding the attentions of Miss Sedgewick.'
Violet takes a sip of her tea. 'Oh, that's a terribly good drop, Branson -- you were quite right. Now, I rather think I might go and track my nephew down before Cora decides to send Miss Sedgewick after him. Would you be so kind as to ensure that Carson doesn't take my cup away?'
She has Thomas fetch her furs and gloves and stops for a moment in the hall to ponder Esca's likely destination. It's then that she spots that one of the side doors has been propped open with a maid's bucket, and when she goes outside to investigate, she finds a trail of footprints leading down the snow covered path to the walled garden.
And that is where Violet discovers Esca, wrapped in his greatcoat, watching a robin flit among the hawthorn bushes with a most pensive look about his face.
'It's not as bad as all that,' Violet reassures him, taking a seat beside him on the stone bench. 'The father's only a baronet, granted, but the mother's of good stock.'
'Miss Sedgewick seems like a very agreeable young woman,' Esca says, favouring her with a rather bleak smile.
Miss Mabel Sedgewick is anything but agreeable, Violet thinks, recalling meeting the girl that morning and of being reminded most startlingly of a pretty little chestnut mare she'd had as a girl. The looks had sat far more comfortably on the horse than on the girl, it must to be said.
'I hear you're very fond of horses,' Violet had offered, at pains to be polite.
'I am quite the equestrian,' Miss Sedgewick had replied, making an attempt at modesty -- Violet gives her that much, at the very least.
Esca sighs and rubs a hand over his face. 'It's just that I have no wish to be married.'
Violet gives him a comforting pat on the arm. 'Young men seldom do. And in any case, you won't have to marry Mabel Sedgewick. Cora's just…lining up the ducks, to put it delicately. You'll have to suffer your way through a few more young ladies of distinction before she's satisfied she's found you a worthy match.'
'No,' Esca says, 'I know that, and it's not--it's not that.' He shakes his head. 'I can't--what I mean to say...'
Violet looks sideways at her nephew, a trifle concerned: Esca is many things but a stammerer he is not. 'What is it that's troubling you so? Spit it out, my dear boy,' she urges him gently.
Esca leans forward, bracing his forearms on his thighs, his head hanging low; he looks so morose that Violet cannot help but reach out and run a hand across his bent back in slow, soothing arcs.
'It's not--it's not for me,' Esca says at last, voice hoarse, as though the words are being torn from his throat. 'Marriage, I mean. It's not for me, Aunty. Not--not at all. Or perhaps it would be better--perhaps it would make more sense if I was to say that it's not for people like me -- not yet, at least. Not ever, perhaps. Do you understand? I can't--' He heaves a breath and straightens, taking her hands in his. 'I just--I hope very much that you can understand, Aunty. I couldn't bear it if you -- you of all people -- didn't.'
Violet looks at her nephew, his beautiful face wretched and torn, and thinks suddenly of a perfect summer's day: of two young men gilded golden in the sunlight after the gloom of an awful, awful war had finally lifted. She thinks of that, and she sees a beginning.
'Brazil, you said?'
Esca blinks at her, bewildered.
'This expedition of yours, it's to Brazil?'
'Yes,' Esca says, 'but, Aunty--'
'What language do they speak in that part of the world?' she cuts in briskly.
'An innumerable number of native languages,' Esca replies, still looking utterly confused, 'but Portuguese for the most part.'
'I see,' Violet says, leaning on her cane and pushing herself to her feet.
'Great Aunt Violet?'
'No, no, don't get up,' Violet tells him. 'I shan't be a moment.'
Perhaps she does take a trifle more than a moment, but the chauffeur's cottage isn't exactly a hop, a skip, and a jump away, and the snow is rather thick. She pauses at the open garage doors to get her breath back, leaning heavily on her cane and thinking that perhaps her exertions have been in vain, until she glimpses a gleaming pair of boots protruding from under one of the motor-cars.
'Aquila, a moment of your time!'
'M'lady Grantham?' comes Aquila's muffled, startled voice. He rolls himself out from under the Daimler. 'Can I help you with something?' he asks, standing. 'Do you need the motor?'
Violet regards him for a moment: strong and hearty looking, weight spread evenly over both feet, his shirtsleeves carefully rolled up, an old scar silvering the turn of his wrist.
'How's your Portuguese, Aquila?'
'Yes, your Portuguese,' Violet says, growing impatient. 'You do speak it, I assume?'
'Yes,' Aquila says, obviously at a loss. 'Yes, I speak it.'
'Quite well,' Aquila hedges.
'How well is quite well? Fluently?'
'Yes,' he admits.
'It is?' Aquila asks, looking just as bewildered as Esca had when she'd left him in the walled garden.
'You were once a soldier,' Violet says, not bothering to answer his question, 'so I'll assume you to be a man of few worldly possessions?'
Aquila draws his eyebrows together, but he still nods uncertainly.
'Good,' Violet says. 'Pack them, if you would, and meet me in the walled garden with your letter of resignation in, shall we say, ten minutes?'
'My letter of resignation?'
Violet sighs. She had rather thought Esca and Aquila to be young men of intelligence, but both were being decidedly slow on the uptake today.
'Well, if my nephew is quite set on this plan of his to explore the Amazon, he'll need someone who can speak the local tongue to accompany him, don't you think?'
'Esca--excuse me, m'lady--Mr MacCunoval is already learning Portuguese. He has plenty of books--'
'One cannot learn a language from a book, Aquila,' Violet interrupts. 'You of all people should know that.'
'But I--I have my position here.'
'Claptrap,' Violet says. 'Stuff and nonsense. Do you want to go with him?'
'I--I can't,' Aquila begins, two spots of colour flaring high on his cheeks. 'It wouldn't be thought proper for me to go with Mr MacCunoval--'
Violet waves him silent. 'Perhaps I should put it another way -- can you bear to be parted from him?'
'No,' Aquila says, quite firmly.
'Then that, my dear boy, is all there is to it.'
'Ten minutes, Aquila!' Violet calls over her shoulder.
'Do you know,' she says, when she is settled again next to Esca on the bench, 'I don't think I've ever told you this, but I almost hitched my wagon to a Legionnaire when I was still a chit of a girl. Would have run away with him too, if dear Eliza hadn't caught me climbing out the old nursery window, carpet-bag in hand.'
Esca's eyes crinkle at the corners. 'I didn't know that, Aunty.'
'Such a dashing young man, my Legionnaire,' she tells him, her mind beginning to wander in the long ago. 'Pasha was his name. He had the most beautiful brown eyes -- like the finest Baltic amber. Oh, don't look at me like that, my dear boy. After all, I was young once, you know.'
Esca's smile widens, easing some of the strain from his face. 'I'm sure you stole a great many hearts.'
'A fair share,' Violet admits. 'But my dear Patrick's was the only one that truly counted.'
Esca's robin comes closer, daring to peck at the frost-hard soil a few feet away. Esca wraps his arm around her shoulders and they sit in silence, watching the little bird flit to and fro.
'Still, what an adventure it would have been,' Violet says, when she judges that ten minutes has near enough passed. 'Pasha and I. The world would have been ours for the taking. One should have at least one great adventure in one's life, don't you think?'
'Are you feeling quite alright, Aunty?' Esca asks, and from the corner of her eye, Violet sees him turning to regard her.
'Being mistress of Downton Abbey was my great adventure,' she tells him. 'Some may think that a rather tame adventure, but I had a splendid time.'
There comes the squeal of the gate, exactly on time. Once a soldier, always a soldier, Violet thinks, as she pulls away from Esca and leans on her cane until her chilled bones allow her to stand more or less upright.
Aquila walks up the path, rid of his uniform, a worn kit-bag slung over his shoulder. 'Ah, here he is.'
Esca stands then, too, eyes wide. 'Marcus,' he says. 'Aunty--what...'
'I expect I shan't be seeing you for quite some time,' Violet says briskly. 'Do name some sort of bird after me, won't you? Nothing drab, but nothing too showy. A parrot, perhaps,' she suggests.
'A parrot,' Esca repeats.
'Yes, or some sort of songbird at the very least. I display no hint of false modesty when I tell you that I can hold a tune frightfully well. Now, Aquila?' She turns to him, holding out her hand.
'M'lady?' He takes her hand in his and, at her expectant look, drops a kiss to the back of it.
'Do look after him,' she tells him, 'or I shall be exceedingly vexed.' She gives his hand a tight squeeze before letting go.
'Yes, m'lady,' Aquila says, a gentle smile spreading across his handsome face.
'Is that your letter of resignation?' she asks, and when he nods: 'Well, give it here, then.'
'I should give it to Lord Grantham myself,' Aquila protests. 'It's the least I can do.'
'Nonsense,' Violet says, taking the letter from his unresisting grasp. 'If you do, then you shall both miss your train.'
'Our train?' Esca asks.
'Well, if you hurry, I should think you'll manage to catch the express to Manchester. I'd rather thought you'd want to leave now, before anyone attempts to convince you to stay. Or am I wrong?'
Esca and Aquila share a look then -- a look Violet recognises as the same manner of unspoken conversation that she and her dear Patrick used to engage in at least once a day, typically to an audience of some servant or the other, until the day he passed.
'No,' Esca says, as Aquila comes to stand at his side, their gloved hands brushing. 'You're not wrong, Aunty.'
'I'll have your things sent down after you,' she tells Esca, and then because she has been rather dismayed to find old age turning her despairingly sentimental, she kisses him on the cheek.
'Go, dear boy,' she whispers in his ear. 'Your great adventure awaits.'
She doesn't wait to see them leave -- her old and battered heart simply cannot bear it -- so she turns on her heel and makes her way back to the house. A missing bucket and a locked door mean it's a convoluted trip involving the servants' quarters, a kitchen maid who curtsies near enough to the floor at the sight of her, and a terribly vexing number of stairs before she finally arrives in the crowded drawing room, not a little out of breath.
Robert stands to let her have his chair at the card table. 'Have you been running the marathon, Mama?'
'Oh, do hush, Robert. You're not too old to feel the back of my hand. Here,' she says, handing him the letter, before gratefully accepting her teacup from Branson.
'What's this?' Robert asks, turning the envelope over in his hands.
'Aquila's letter of resignation.'
'Aquila's letter of resignation,' Violet repeats, louder this time. 'Are you going deaf, Robert? Your father always was a trifle hard of hearing. I've sent Esca off on his expedition to the Amazon and I thought Aquila should make him an useful sort of assistant. The boy's as strong as an ox, despite his leg, and he speaks Portuguese like a native. They speak Portuguese in Brazil -- did you know that?'
Robert doesn't reply -- simply stares at her, open-mouthed.
Mary is the first to break the stunned silence of the drawing room. 'I'm sorry, Granny, I can't quite believe my ears. Did you just say that you've sent our chauffeur -- the crippled Legionnaire -- and our beloved, if slightly addled, cousin on an expedition to the deepest, darkest Amazon?'
'Yes, my dear girl, that's about the sum of it,' Violet says, and takes a sip of tea.