Lover please do not
fall to you knees, it’s not
like I believe in everlasting love
Mary was in the library with Lavinia when Richard entered, fresh from his habitual round of morning phone calls. They had been reading, Mary looking up periodically from a tiresome novel so that she noted the tensing of Lavinia's shoulders at the sound of his voice. She felt the other woman’s nerves tighten, her anxiety almost tangible in the still room – she had been noticeably more reserved in Richard’s presence ever since confessing the circumstances of their acquaintance to Mary. It was as if she feared that he somehow knew; and irrational as she knew such a suspicion to be, Mary could not help but sympathize. She knew the feeling.
"Mary," Richard said, "Miss Swire. You seem positively transfixed, I hope I am not interrupting anything." He raised an eyebrow, gesturing to the book open on Lavinia's knees and the one dangling limply from Mary's hand.
"Don’t be silly, it's only Zola," Mary said, letting hers fall onto the cushion beside her. She stood to let Richard kiss her cheek in greeting - he had been up and at work long before she had made her way down to breakfast. Over his shoulder, she watched Lavinia's nervous eyes flit to them and quickly away again.
"Won't you come and walk with us?" Mary asked her.
"If you'll excuse me, I think I really ought to go and help Isobel. I fear she'll work herself to death if left alone, and Matthew would never forgive me for that."
"I daresay Matthew knows better than anyone how stubborn Cousin Isobel can be," Mary replied with a wry smile, but Lavinia continued to look uneasy.
"I think I can be of use writing letters for some of the men and that sort of thing. It isn’t much, but it may be a comfort to them," Lavinia said, standing up to replace her book carefully on a nearby shelf.
"Very well," Mary replied.
In the hall Richard stood watching as Carson helped Mary into her coat and passed her gloves and hat. Once outside, Mary breathed in the cold air and the smell of wood smoke, squinting up at the grey sky and hoping they would not be caught out should it rain. But she felt positively stifled by the house and its hoard of new inhabitants, and was determined to take advantage of the first dry morning in days. They walked in silence for a few minutes, making for a favored row of chestnuts whose bare branches knit overhead and were just beginning to show the first signs of greenery.
"Well, well," Richard mused as he drew her arm through his, "I should never have guessed that you and Miss Swire would take to one another."
"She doesn't seem at all your type."
"Goodness, am I so predictable? I wasn't aware that I had a type."
Richard only laughed.
"Come now," said Mary, "I would have thought it was obvious to you of all people that I know the value of a rough diamond.”
He met her eyes, a smile playing about the corners of his mouth as though she had intended to pay him a compliment. "I only meant that she is hardly your equal, and that you must find her rather a bore. And here I thought you liked a challenge." Her indignation at his forwardness was eclipsed by a twinge of sympathy for Lavinia.
"You think her unintelligent? Well, I'll admit she's not exactly verbose, but they do say there's a certain wisdom in holding one's tongue. Though I must admit I've never seen it." They both laughed at that. "And it's not as if the neighborhood is overflowing with society. She's hardly as dull as Edith, that ought to count for something."
"My poor darling," he said, smiling so that his dimples deepened, though the endearment was cloaked in his usual veil of sarcasm. "I am sure that once we're married you shall have all the society you could wish for. And London ought to be a deal more diverting than Yorkshire."
"People are either charming or tedious, wherever they are,” Mary recited, turning to walk on. "It may be busier than Yorkshire, but I've seen enough of London to know that the people who are actually worth befriending are few and far between."
"I trust you'll find them out regardless." After a pause he said, "Should I expect to see a great deal of Miss Swire once we are married?"
"Richard, if you mention Miss Swire again I shall think her a rival for your affections and be forced to play the jealous lover. What is this sudden obsession?" She was smiling again, truly amused by his preoccupation with Lavinia, who was very likely the most innocuous companion she had ever had in her life. He was right, though - curiously enough, Mary had come to prefer Lavinia’s company to that of nearly everyone else. Sybil was frantic with work these days - work for which Mary had no natural skill, nor any particular inclination to learn. And Edith was, though less like herself than usual, still resolutely insufferable. Worst of all, Mary could not bear the look her mother had taken to giving her, a cloying mixture of understanding and pity, her eyes darting to Mary whenever the phone rang in the hall or the mail was brought in at breakfast. Her mother's concerns were not unfounded, of course, but Mary would not suffer to be treated as though she, rather than Matthew, was the one in danger of death and dismemberment.
Lavinia was sweet and unassuming, and the look in her gray-green eyes reminded Mary of the way her sisters had used to watch her when they were all three quite young. Edith's gaze had gone steely and sly long ago; it had been over Patrick, as so much between them inevitably was. But Mary had been too caught up in her own affairs - she scoffed at the idea now, for what affairs can a girl of fourteen pretend to have? - to mark the change when it occurred. Sybil, her darling little sister, might still have regarded her in that same rosy light in which it was her charming habit to bathe most everyone. Only it was hard to tell, as Mary could not remember the last time they had shared a single moment alone together, much less a good talk in her room before dinner.
So it was with Lavinia that Mary walked in the grounds or read in the library, or took tea at Crawley House when Cousin Isobel was seeing to the men up at Downton. Lavinia, with her soft, low voice that reminded Mary of the call of some water bird. Mary had told herself at first that she was looking after the other woman just as Matthew had asked, but now she was not entirely sure. Certainly she would not choose to spend her time thus if she did not take some pleasure in it? She was too selfish a creature to do otherwise, of that she was quite sure. Yet when she looked at Lavinia's face (which Granny had once called middling, much like the rest of her) it was not so much comfort as the reverse; she felt a kind of dull ache burrowing about her heart, causing her chest to tighten uncomfortably. It was very like the sensation she had felt when, just a few days after Matthew had gone, she had stood in the little drawing room at Crawley House awaiting Isobel and letting her eyes run hungrily over every detail of the room. A folded blanket thrown over the back of the sofa, a neat little pile of letters on an end table, shelves full of books and a framed photograph of a man that must be Matthew's father. These were Matthew's things, and when she was near them she seemed to be able to think of little else. After seeing Isobel she had stepped outside only to be confronted with the sight of his bicycle stationed around the side of the house as though he might be home at any moment. She’d had to turn away with one hand over her mouth, nursing the deep pang, sweet and sharp in the pit of her stomach; a small part of her had not wanted it to stop.
"Shall we sit?" Richard's voice brought her back to herself. After a moment he said, "I only hope that she is stronger than she looks.”
Mary turned to see that his eyes were fixed on her face, and she fought to keep an expression of idle amusement as he spoke.
"I know Miss Swire’s father, and I can assure you that the girl is loyal to a fault. I imagine she will take it very badly should anything unfortunate happen to Captain Crawley."
The words, cloaked in Richard's cold tones, wound Mary's stomach into a hard knot. The air seemed to grow more abrasive, its fingers creeping in past the collar of her coat to scrabble at her neck. He was watching her intently, his gaze hard and clear as glass.
"Have I upset you, my dear?" Richard reached for her gloved hand, cradling it loosely between both of his.
"By bringing up the all too likely possibility of my cousin's death?" She made to draw her hand away, but Richard's fingers tightened around it.
"Your cousin," he repeated, and the two words were heavy, thick with meaning. They sank into her lungs like a damp, spreading fog that made her breath come shallow. Richard's suspicions were not altogether new to Mary, but his directly speaking of them was. Here he was, the shrewd businessman once more, an edge of danger apparent in his voice like the glint off a blade.
"Yes," she said, lifting her chin. "My cousin, and the heir to my father's estate. Difficult though it may be for a man of your station to understand, my family would be hard pressed to recover from such a loss. I would not expect you to grasp the delicacy of the situation." She looked away haughtily, though the effect was ruined by the fact that he held fast to her hand. She let it rest there limply as though she could not feel his fingers.
"So long as it is a cousin you would mourn and nothing more, I am content to remain ignorant of the intricacies of Captain Crawley's inheritance. I trust you will see that I am educated on that score should it ever bear any import in future."
As she scanned the scene before them - the house and the park sprawling around it, the familiar trees she had climbed in childhood and the darkening sky - she allowed Richard's words, your cousin to sink into her, to bury themselves deep in the part of her he could not see, their tone stinging at the wound like salt. They were a warning, she knew, an undisguised threat he had set before her even as he idly slipped her hand from the kid glove and rubbed a thumb over her bare fingers.
“Do you think,” she ventured in even tones, “that I would court the friendship of a woman whose fiancé I loved? That I would willingly take second place to anyone?” She bit back the words, especially her. A girl like that. They burned bitterly at the back of her throat, made her stomach churn with guilt. She heard Granny’s voice – middling, and willed herself to breathe evenly, to remain composed.
Richard chucked, a low sound deep in his throat. “No,” he said, “of course not.” He lifted her fingers to his lips and met her eyes over their linked hands. When a shiver passed through her he said, "You are cold, my dear. Shall we go inside?” She nodded and, standing, slipped her hand into the crook of his arm once more.
It would not, of course, be only a cousin. It would be a friend, too, a man she had loved. Even thinking the words made her want to flinch away from that truth as from the heat of a flame. She wanted to pull her hand away lest he feel the quickening of her pulse, the heat she knew must be coursing through her. She thought of Lavinia again - Matthew's love, or at least, the woman he had marked out as such. Sometimes when Lavinia linked an arm through hers, her mere proximity made Mary feel as though she might weep.
There was some sort of commotion taking place in the drawing room when they entered. Mary only just had time to register the oddness of Isobel without her apron, not surrounded by cots, when her cousin turned an ashen face to her. Now she saw that her mother was sat with one hand covering her mouth, her eyes impossibly wide and Papa beside her, his expression grim. Sybil’s face was turned away toward the window so that Mary could not make out the set of her features. She heard Edith’s voice first, quavering only a little as she said, “It’s Matthew. Matthew is missing.”
She felt the air escape her in a low, “oh,” a soft whimper. Amidst the faces of her family, Mary found Lavinia’s - colorless and frightfully still, her lips pressed tight together as though her heart was in her mouth.
“Oh, my dear,” Mary whispered, reaching to take the other woman’s hands even as she felt Richard make as if to put an arm about her waist – she did not know if it was meant to comfort or cage her. There was a terrible moment in which she heard Lavinia’s breath catch in her throat, a shudder passing through her, and Mary felt the delicate hands seize within her own. “My dear,” she repeated, all other words seemingly out of reach. The others were occupied in their own grief, Sybil now comforting Isobel, their parents talking together in low murmurs, but Mary felt Richard’s eyes on her back. She stepped close to Lavinia and could not muster the words of reassurance she knew she ought to offer. She could not will them to form in her mouth, could already taste the lies gone sour on her tongue.
It was Edith who suggested that Lavinia ought perhaps to lie down, and Mary who accompanied the trembling girl upstairs, leading her to her own room. For long moments neither of them spoke, Mary with her back to the door and Lavinia perched pale and silent on the edge of the bed. And then the other woman’s eyes shut and her face seemed to bunch as she raised her hands to cover it in a gesture that was so very childlike, so utterly hopeless.
“If he dies,” Lavinia’s voice shuddered from between clenched teeth, “I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t know if I could live without him.”
Mary could not help but remember Richard’s words, the irony of them solidifying like ice in her stomach. It weighed her down, a cloying fatigue that pulled at her so that even standing felt a great effort.
“You must not say such things,” she said with precious little conviction in her voice.
“Why not?” Lavinia half sobbed, swiping ineffectually at her tears with a crumpled handkerchief. “It’s only the truth.”
Head swimming, Mary came to sit on the bench at her dressing table. If Matthew was dead, she wondered, would she fold like Lavinia? Give up any semblance of a life? “We cannot know what has happened. We must not think of that just yet.” She wondered if Lavinia noticed the we but thought not. In her mind there was Richard’s hand on hers, all his promises – we can build something worth having, you and I. Yet, just as always, it seemed, something in her turned of its own accord toward the thought of Matthew. She wondered if it would ever change, this flickering in her like a compass needle’s senseless spinning, then its inevitable stilling, the unmistakable certainty of North. Behind her closed eyes there was nothing but Matthew in his uniform, boarding the train and waving as it carried him off with her little toy dog in hand, her lucky charm and, she hoped, his too.
She was brought back to the present by a little involuntary sob from Lavinia. She was sitting on the bed now, thin shoulders shaking, and much as Mary felt an aversion to the gesture – it seemed so much like something her mother would do and that Mary herself would shrug off in disgust – she went to sit beside the other woman, slipping an arm tentatively about her shoulders. Lavinia relaxed against her, and Mary could not be sure which of them took more comfort from the other.
“Hush,” she said, and the tears seemed to ease a little.
As she took Lavinia’s hand she thought how Matthew must have done the same so many times, his fingers laced with these slender ones, this small, soft palm against his. She gave it a reassuring squeeze and thought, Matthew’s. Lavinia was Matthew’s – perhaps the only thing of his that remained to her.