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.
Thanks so much to everyone who read/commented, I'm so glad you enjoyed the first installment and hope you like this one, too :)
A big thank you to my lovely beta, whose support is simply invaluable.
"We must do all that we possibly can to keep spirits up," her father declared, though his expression was, Mary thought, not altogether congruous with the words that had been his mantra for the past several days.
"I quite agree," Edith added with much more enthusiasm from her place at the piano.
"But is a concert really the thing?" her mother mused. Mary rather agreed that a night of haphazard magic tricks, amateur juggling, and mediocre singing accompanied by Edith's careful prodding of the piano did not seem a convincing remedy for flagging morale – but as it had been set for that evening, she did not see much point to her mother's hesitation.
"The men are looking so forward to it," Edith continued. "We shouldn't let our own personal troubles effect them, not when they've already given so much for the war effort. I think they deserve a little fun."
"Personal troubles? Matthew is missing and you're agonizing over this stupid concert?" Mary regarded her sister with an air of unconcealed disgust; Edith's cheeks flushed a little and she looked away. Hearing her sister refer to Matthew's disappearance – the possibility of his death or imprisonment – as a personal trouble made Mary want to slap her. This was something, as Mary had not struck Edith since they were both very little, having learned early on that words, or better yet silence, were a much surer way of causing her sister pain. But her nerves had been on edge for the past three days, her head full of an undirected rage that spilled all too easily out of her mouth. It was anger at the War Office, who apparently knew approximately nothing about Matthew's whereabouts; anger at her father who felt he could do little else to press the matter; anger at her mother and sisters who seemed to have submitted to the inevitable – even anger at Richard, whose work kept him in London, denying her the most convenient distraction at her disposal. Most of all, and though she knew it was entirely irrational, she felt anger at Matthew. Matthew, who might be dead or dying or shivering in some enemy encampment – a hard knot of fear and something else rose in her throat at the very thought. Although he had denied any such intentions, she could not let go of the suspicion that he had played the hero, been too brave or too stupid. Did he care nothing for the woman – the women – who prayed nightly for his safe return? It made her furious, and she had quite resolved to put him in his place the moment he arrived home.
So rather than allowing herself to snap at innocent bystanders like Anna, who had mistakenly fetched the wrong pair of shoes the previous evening and received a few sharp words she had not deserved, Mary had made it her practice to keep as silent as she could, and as out of the way as possible. And if not for the damned concert, she thought, she would have succeeded.
"Edith is quite right," her father was saying as she dragged her attention back to the scene before her. "This will be a real treat for the men, we must try to make it all go as smoothly as we can."
Even as Mary rolled her eyes at the assembled crowd of men in various stages of wellness, she felt a little flutter of pleasure. The whole thing reminded her of their childhood: her Uncle James at the piano, clumsily plucking out songs the children knew while Mary, Edith and Patrick made up the choir. Mary sang well, Patrick and Edith not at all poorly, and her mother had loved to watch with Sybil on her knee as they all made a spectacle of themselves. Mary had outgrown that pastime once she'd begun proper music lessons; she had loved the art most when she did not understand it, when the simple tune her mother hummed to lull Sybil and the hymns at church had been exquisitely mysterious, with the power to transfix and move her.
Mary let her eyes pass over the seated men until she found Sybil amongst them, a more suitable focal point, she thought. It was not the state of the men that disturbed her – she was well used, by now, to the boys missing hands, those in wheelchairs or who walked with a stick, the bandages that stood out white here and there amongst the crowd. It was the sight of all those uniforms so very like the one Matthew wore; the one he had worn the time nearly two years ago when she had gone to see him off at the station. Surrounded by billowing steam in the early morning light, the world still regaining its color around her, she had fought hard to remember every detail of him, knowing they were all she would have in the coming months.
Sybil gave a little quirk of her lips just then, and Mary came back to herself. She clutched desperately to the rapidly receding memory of childhood and song, and her attention snapped back to Edith waiting at the keys. She began to play and then everything came easily; she knew with a little flash of pride how well they sounded, she and Edith. The song was a popular one, yet she had not expected the others to join in, and the look on Granny's face was nearly enough to make her laugh aloud in front of all these people. At the back of the room she saw that Anna's lips were moving too, a smile about her eyes, and she felt a surge of warmth as her gaze moved along to Carson, straight-backed and dignified yet singing right along with the rest, and then –
Everything stilled – first the song curling back on itself in her throat, then Edith's playing and then the voices of the others trailing off into silence. Her world narrowed to the two men in the doorway, to his body – whole, upright and unbroken – his dear face, the blue of his eyes, so bright and sharp that she felt it like a blade; it cut her to pieces.
Then her father was on his feet, the tone of his voice finally warm and alive as it had not been in days. "My dear boy. My very dear boy."
"Thank God," she breathed, truly meaning it for perhaps the first time in her life.Thank God.
In the moments that came next there was a flurry of noise and excitement such as Mary had rarely seen from her family. They all hovered about Matthew as if he might suddenly be snatched away once again. Mary noted that things seemed to be much the same for William, beaming from within a circle of maid's caps while Carson stood glancing between him and Matthew, apparently very nearly overwhelmed with emotion. Finding that it was quite impossible to continue watching Matthew and Isobel together – both smiling fit to burst, the latter wet-eyed – Mary interested herself in the uncertain hovering of the little kitchen maid at William's elbow. She seemed not to know whether it was altogether appropriate to touch him, though Edith had said something about their being engaged. Mary smiled to herself – what had come over her? This morning she'd barely been able to summon the strength to make conversation at breakfast and now she was grinning like a madwoman at the sight of the kitchen maid and her beau. War did indeed produce extraordinary effects, she thought.
"Hello again." When she turned back to the group, Matthew had stepped closer. He too was smiling, though a little shyly. "Sorry to have cut in like that," he said, ducking his head in apology, "Terribly rude of me."
"Terribly rude indeed," she quipped, and then, softening, "I'm so very glad to see you safe and sound." Strange, how standing face to face with Matthew made her feel suddenly alright, cradled in a moment of perfect calm slipped between the worry and fear she knew were stretched on either side of it.
The night before Matthew was slated to leave, the Crawleys joined them for dinner at the big house. Richard had only just arrived in time to change, and his agitation at his late train and some difficult point of business only increased when Mary informed him of the guest list. They were, thus far, the only two in the drawing room, and she stood with her back to the window, taking in his annoyed expression and not succeeding altogether in keeping the archness out of her voice.
"He is returning to the front tomorrow, I'm not sure why you're surprised."
"Of course," Richard mumbled distractedly. "This house does rather revolve around him, God knows I should be accustomed to it by now."
Before Mary could find an appropriate retort – all the ones that leapt readily to the tip of her tongue were far too cutting to be allowed, even by Granny's standards – Carson announced their guests. Matthew, Lavinia and Isobel entered, and Mary quickly distracted herself with inoffensive talk of the plans for the hospital and the health of Lavinia's father. When the Dowager Countess arrived, Mary thought she had never been so glad to see her grandmother, who quickly drew Richard into a conversation that would likely give both parties ample reason to complain profusely later – most probably to Mary herself.
Everyone was making an obvious effort to be cheerful at dinner, but Mary noted that Richard would not be coaxed completely out of a brooding silence. Only when her father engaged him in a conversation about the state of a rival newspaper did he finally show an interest in the conversation. Mary took the opportunity to turn to Matthew, seated at her other side, with a small smile.
"It's almost like old times, having you up for dinner," she ventured. "You must promise once more to come back safe and sound, and preferably with fewer dramatics than this time, if you please."
"I shall try to stay safe," he said. "Though I don't know that any of us can really be called sound."
She raised an eyebrow, though eager fingers of worry plucked at her stomach. "It must be unthinkable. Is it – how is it?"
"Do you know," he said haltingly, "I can never seem to find the words. It's as if any of the things we say here don't translate, don't – mean enough."
"No," she said, "No, of course. I'm sorry."
"Don't be." His smile returned with surprising ease as he looked at her.
"We all miss you terribly, you know."
"Try not to worry too much," he said, a smile reaching his eyes as he set down his fork. "I'm sure it's the last thing you need, more worry."
"Never mind our troubles at home. Have you still got my lucky charm?" She was finding it more and more difficult to keep her smile appropriately sedate.
"Of course," he replied.
"Then I really will not worry; he's kept you safe thus far."
"Your sole concern need only be the mocking I may have to endure on his account."
"Oh dear," Mary intoned with a little shake of her head. "I do hope you haven't gained a reputation amongst the men."
"It will please you to know that I have kept him well hidden," he said seriously. "But I expect they will find it rather more difficult to respect my authority should they ever find him out." They both laughed at that, Mary feeling positively giddy as she covered her mouth with her hand. She looked up in time to see both Edith and Lavinia watching them from across the table, the latter with an expression of innocent amusement, the former more sharply.
"Mary, may I ask what is so very amusing?" her grandmother inquired from her place down the table. She felt her cheeks flush slightly.
"Cousin Matthew has just been regaling me with tales from the front, Granny."
"Oh really? I should not have thought accounts of the horrors of war would be so very funny. Perhaps all this fund raising has been for naught?"
When Edith spoke up to defend the aforementioned fund raising, Mary had never been so relieved to hear her sister's voice. Only then, turning away from Matthew, did she notice Richard. His jaw was set and when their eyes met, she did not like what she saw – they seemed to read her through from beginning to end; she had the impression that they missed nothing.
When they left the table, rather than follow the men Richard fell in beside Mary. "A word," he said in her ear and she felt his voice go through her, the vibration of it humming in her bones, it seemed.
Richard closed the library door behind them; it was almost completely dark inside, a single lamp illuminating one sofa. Mary stood just outside of its circle of light watching Richard warily where he stood just inside the door. There was a long moment of silence in which she fidgeted with one glove and he stood silent, his lips contorted with displeasure.
"I am not a stupid man Mary, and neither are you a stupid woman. I have been perfectly honest regarding my intentions, and I feel it is only fair that you agree to do the same. I will ask you only once – are you still in love with Matthew?"
She wondered vaguely if anyone had ever been quite so honest with her, and doubted very much that they had. Even alone she had never looked so directly at the truth of it, preferring to keep it hidden, buried somewhere secret and mute, denying the words that would make it unavoidable. In Richard's eyes there was an openness that beckoned to her, though she knew it was fuelled by a terrible, shrinking jealousy.
"I don't know." The words, their glaring bitterness and the flatness in her voice, surprised her more than anything.
"My God, Mary," he breathed the words so that they were almost inaudible, shutting his eyes briefly.
She went on hurriedly, "I suppose you think that makes me very foolish." With an effort, she smiled, "But you needn't worry – it isn't in my nature to try where I know I cannot succeed."
"And what makes you think you won't?"
She raised an eyebrow. "Some men are honorable, Richard; whatever contempt you may have for the institution, there it is."
"So Matthew is too noble to break his engagement to Miss Swire, I see. I only hope I can say the same for you." He took a step toward her, jaw set and hands curled though she knew he would not hit her – she was fairly certain, at any rate. "And what, my dear, would the honorable Mr. Crawley think of you if he knew? He would not take you, such as you are – of that you can be certain."
But you will, Mary thought and felt bile burn at the back of her throat. She remembered the cool acceptance in his eyes as she told him in so many words what she had done, what she was. "Me, throw you over? Leave myself alone and ruined? How should I, when you have made certain that any escape is quite impossible?" She knew that he was perilously close to rage, yet she could not help herself. "Bravo," she mocked, her voice dropping as he took another step toward her, his hand darting out to grasp her arm just above the elbow. "I would have expected nothing less from you."
He was too close now, his voice a fevered whisper. The smell of his pomade turned her stomach. "I helped you, does that mean nothing?"
"Mary?" Sybil stood in the doorway, peering into the dimness, and Mary could not be sure if her sister had heard any part of their conversation. "There you are – they're leaving, won't you come and say goodbye?"
"Yes, of course," Mary said as Richard let go of her and turned, his face composed, to Sybil. She brushed quickly past him toward the door.
"Have you seen Lavinia?" Sybil asked, still peering curiously into the library. Mary heard Richard reply in the negative, but then Matthew was before her donning his coat and her attention became concentrated on smiling – she could not help but think that if this was to be his last memory of her, she would not allow Richard to taint it.
Everyone was crowding around Matthew, even Granny wishing him the best of luck and Sybil forsaking any sense of decorum to hug him tightly. He grasped Mary's hand briefly and gave it one final squeeze – during which she felt that she had never fully appreciated the particular blue of his eyes – before offering his arm to Lavinia, who was waiting rather awkwardly behind Mary. For half a moment, the instant poised between breaths, the four of them were stood there in a tight ring – Matthew and Lavinia with arms linked, Richard stepping up to lay a possessive hand against the small of her back. Something rose in her throat, a thing she could not have explained; when she thought of that moment later it would come back to her somehow whole and perfect as an egg in her cupped palms, and she would remember her chest filling with mingled hope and fear, the sickening twist of regret.
Thanks so much for reading, everyone! I'm a bit nervous about the Lavinia POV in this chapter, so I'd love to hear your thoughts on whether or not it's working. Thanks as always to my fabulous beta ju-dou :)
Lavinia shivered in the morning chill and huddled beneath the umbrella that Isobel had pressed into her hand as they hurried out the door, making them even later than they already were. Lavinia could not blame her desire to buy even just a little more time, to keep her son close just a moment longer. True to the older woman's prediction it had begun to rain, fat droplets pattering on the umbrella and on Matthew's cap as he walked from her to board the train. He waved from the window and his smile immediately gave rise to a lump in her throat; she fought it back, hands clenched hard around the umbrella's carved wooden handle, and smiled back. She stood very still for a time despite Lord Grantham's chauffer waiting in the car – he had been so kind to send the man to take them to the station and here she was wasting his time for no reason. But as she watched the train disappear, she found that she did not want to move from this place, from the exact spot in which Matthew had last seen her. As long as he was there in the train with rain-dampened hair and that half smile on his lips, she wanted to be here – her knees trembling and a strand of hair come loose and clinging to her cheek, the hem of her skirt growing wet from the rain. Once she was gone it would break that fragile connection. It was silly of course, but she had always been superstitious, even as a child; it came of having no mother, being raised by the nanny who had cared for her since birth. Her father had always said so, though his tone had been affectionate.
"Are you ready, Miss?" Lavinia jumped, the umbrella wavering unsteadily as she turned to see the chauffer regarding her with an expression of concern.
"Oh yes, I'm terribly sorry." She followed him to the waiting car where she huddled into the back seat, pressing her numb fingers between her knees for the few minutes between the station and the house.
She found that Isobel had already gone up to the big house, in need of a distraction most like, eager to fill her hands with work and keep Matthew from her thoughts. She imagined Isobel and Sybil changing bandages and making their rounds with the patients' medicines – did it help them to forget? She could go up and offer to write letters for the patients or fetch books from the library, she supposed, but no, going to Downton would mean seeing Mary, and Lavinia was simply not sure she could face that just yet.
Instead she sat in the drawing room with a book to which she paid no attention at all, choosing instead to gaze out the rain-streaked window. This was a spring rain and not a winter one, of that she was sure; it smelt of earth and leaves unfurling, a scent as new to her as the aroma of Lord Grantham's library – paper, leather, the smoke of fine cigars – or the particular scent Mary dabbed behind her ears and in the hollow of her throat.
She ought to be thinking of Matthew – Matthew in the train, every minute farther from her, Matthew pulled irrevocably back to an awful place thick with the smell of death. But the worry that filled her stomach like hunger was for Mary too, and try as she might Lavinia could not help but remember her friend's voice clear as water in the darkened library the night before.
They hadn't known she was there – how could they? She had only wanted to give the family a few moments alone, a quarter of an hour to themselves. Kind as they were and much as she thought they really were fond of her, some days she felt like a child allowed to join the grown ups, a burden to be put up with. Most of all, she felt like an intruder – no matter how vivid the memory of Matthew's assurances that he too had been the outsider once, she could not seem to overcome the notion. So she had slipped quietly into the library just after dinner, moving into the unlit depths of the room and savoring the relief it offered her aching head as she ran her fingertips along the spines of invisible volumes. And there in a secluded corner, blocked from view by shelves and darkness, her footfalls silenced by the carpet, she froze at the sound of the heavy door opening and closing once more. She ought to come forward, ought to clear her throat and make herself known; she rehearsed what she would say – I was only looking for that book I was reading earlier, or, I thought I'd left my gloves in here. It was most likely Carson come in to tidy up, and she imagined his expression on seeing her there, the hushed retelling later for the assembled servants – found her in there all alone, how odd, how very peculiar. What words did they exchange below stairs, behind discreet hands? She did not like to think of it, but she did wonder if they had as much trouble as she did envisioning the day when she would be Countess in Lady Grantham's stead. She did not move from her place behind the shelves. Sir Richard's voice came seeping through the darkness like something spilt; it chilled her quite through, as it always had done. She knew that hard edge pressed close behind his words, had only to close her eyes to call up the memories that even now had the power to make her go weak with anxiety.
In the drawing room at Crawley House Lavinia started from her reverie at the sound of Molesley's footsteps. The valet made his shuffling way through with an armful of Matthew's shirts to be laundered, and only once he was gone again did she realize that she had been gripping the arms of her chair rather too hard. It was nearly luncheon now and she really must go up to the big house and suffer the subdued conversation and the well-meant sympathetic smiles of her future relations. She must sit beside Mary, perhaps talk idly with her in the drawing room afterward, all the while avoiding the memory of that overheard admission of the night before – I don't know. She would carry that with her, never looking at it directly yet incapable of leaving it quite alone; it would draw her doubt like the raised ridge of a scar attracts the finger or the eye.
The meal was, as Lavinia had anticipated, altogether dismal. No one was much disposed to discussion and Lord Grantham seemed in a foul mood, though he hid it behind a newspaper. Lady Grantham tittered over her and asked with wide, regretful eyes how Matthew had got off that morning and whether she was feeling quite alright. Behind the countess, Lavinia caught sight of Mary, who gave a superior roll of her eyes then offered up a small smile of apology. Odd, Lavinia thought, how the woman who was her rival for Matthew's affection could be the one whose sympathy she valued most – from whom sympathy had only ever seemed perfectly true. Mary seemed tired, shadows gathering beneath her eyes and a subdued air about her movements. Lavinia wondered if this was how the other woman showed heartache – rather than in fits of tears and red eyes for days, as she did – and the idea drove away the last of her appetite.
When the others had wandered from the dining room to their various tasks – Cousin Cora fretting vaguely over the hour of the servants' luncheon and the nurses' rounds – Lavinia waited uncomfortably for Mary to bid Richard goodbye so they might walk together. She lingered by the staircase, fiddling absently with the buttons on her coat and the angle of her hat as they exchanged inaudible words in the swath of light falling through the open front door. The scene's resemblance to that of the previous evening was unbearable, and she was immensely grateful that this time she was unable to overhear their conversation. Mary's shoulders were set and her smile stiff; they did not look like lovers, the space between them conspicuously wide and not, Lavinia thought, on account of propriety and Carson, who stood waiting to see off the motor. She watched Mary lower her head at some remark of Richard's – his face had taken on a semblance of concern, his brow furrowed at Mary's indifference. He reached for her hand and Lavinia felt compelled to look away from the calm ease with which he unclasped her fingers and held them for a moment in his own. She remembered a day in St. James' Park, the smell of his cologne as his voice rumbled through her, Loyalty is a quality to be rewarded, Miss Swire, and I am sure you will not disappoint your father, or me. She had wrenched her arm from his as if stung, so violently that a nanny with two small girls in tow looked scandalized and bustled her charges away down the path. He had looked at her appraisingly then, and the sneer that curled his lips made her voice tremble with rage when she said, It is nothing to do with you.
There was the sound of the motor pulling away, and Lavinia turned back to see Mary busily pulling on a pair of dark kid gloves. She looked up and met her eyes across the hall, and Lavinia marveled at the lack of any sign there, any indication of distress or even vexation. They were dark and warm, inviting as Mary said, "Shall we go, then? The weather's turned and I can't stand to stay indoors another moment, can you?" No trace of the cornered animal Lavinia remembered, a panic that had blossomed in her own chest.
Arm in arm they made their way through the park and toward the tree line; since Lavinia arrived they had quickly exhausted most of the nearer walks, and a city upbringing had endowed her with a healthy curiosity about everything to do with the countryside. She loved the walks that threaded their way through the wooded areas of the park, and the wealth of green, growing things she was just learning to identify. Mary was occasionally helpful in this field, pulling a name or a fact from memory like a forgotten handkerchief from the depths of a pocket. She handed them out absently and half smiled at Lavinia's knack for remembering them, reciting them back on a later walk in a tone that suggested a child called to the front of the schoolroom.
The path was damp from the rain that morning and Mary felt the cold of the ground seeping up through the soles of her boots. The new leaves overhead were still slick and bright with droplets; light shivered about them as the clouds fell away. "Mary," her name took the form of a question, braced carefully in Lavinia's voice that quavered only slightly. "Mary, I wonder how you're getting on. With Sir Richard, I mean."
"Oh, as well as can be expected," Mary said as brightly as she could. "He's rather unsophisticated, you know. Of course you know." She gave a complicit smile that was so reassuring that Lavinia found herself returning it, and recollecting in the same moment why it was that Matthew had loved this woman. "But I suppose that's why he's marrying me." When she looked at Mary, all Lavinia saw was a tight-wound knot that did not want to be undone, that clenched like a fist under her inquiring gaze.
"And why are you marrying him?" It felt like the bravest thing she'd ever done, saying the words aloud. She felt her cheeks redden and her pulse flutter. Mary raised an eyebrow but continued to smile.
"You'll think me tactless to say so, but he is inordinately wealthy. And powerful – the ideal husband," Mary laughed. The sound was brittle, empty space spreading behind it. It made Lavinia's heart ache for this woman that had become, in a very short space of time, the closest friend she had. She let her eyes fall shut for the space of a moment, and in the dappled dark she felt Richard's fingers on hers as she passed him the stack of files she had carefully wrapped in brown paper. He chuckled when she flinched away and her mouth went dry, stomach lurching painfully at his closeness. What a good daughter you are – you'll make a faithful wife one day. They were the only words she would never relay to Matthew. When she opened her eyes again Mary had tilted her head back to search for a bird whose song came trickling down to them from overhead. Without wanting to she imagined the thing Richard had used to trap Mary into an engagement that seemed nothing more than a convenient arrangement – she saw his hand tighten about Mary's wrist, a hard ring about the leaping pulse, his curled mouth hot on her white neck. Where had it been, and had Mary submitted to it quietly? She doubted that, but thinking too hard on the particulars brought her perilously close to tears.
When she spoke, her words came out in a rush. "Mary I – I hope you won't think me rude but that isn't what I meant. Only, I was in the library last night after dinner and you came in with Sir Richard. I wanted to leave but I couldn't help overhearing, I should have shown myself but..." She noted with embarrassment that she sounded on the verge of tears – what a child she was, composure falling to pieces when it was not even her place to feel ashamed.
Mary's eyes were fixed on the branches overhead though the bird had stopped its singing, and now she brought up one gloved hand to cover her mouth. She let out a tremulous breath, closed her eyes for a long moment, but still she did not speak. Lavinia noted the distracted flutter of Mary's eyelashes, a kind of movement beneath her skin like the indescribable shifting of light, a change in her expression that was impossible to define.
She knew.Lavinia, whose one fault had only ever been loyalty to her father, an instinct to protect her family. All this time they had been talking and laughing together and innocent Lavinia had surely been thinking only of her falseness – had she been able, all day, to see it pinned to her chest like a scarlet letter? And yet there was a kind of relief in the realization as she let the weight of it settle onto her – at least there was one less person who saw her as she was not, one more who would cease to regard her with that heartbreaking trust she did not deserve. Much as she had craved it from Lavinia, she found that this seemed fairer, this inevitable unveiling of her sins. Lavinia was a friend – the word still struck her as odd, like an imperfect note on a badly tuned piano, perhaps, for when was the last time she'd had a friend? She did not deserve to be lied to.
"I know how he is," she whispered, and it took Mary a moment to realize who she meant. She looked up into pale hazel eyes, a face that had gone white and which wore, to her surprise, an expression of complete understanding. "I know how you must feel, I – "
"Do you?" Mary said, rather too sharply. She had dropped her hand and was regarding her friend directly, no pretense shaping her features. Lavinia felt unable to speak; she shook her head a little, eyes lowered. "No," Mary said, "I don't imagine you do. But...well, thank you for saying so, anyway."
"But I do know that he's ruthless, Mary. What he's capable of. You forget, I knew him before."
Mary let out a breath and looked away. "Yes," she said quietly, "I had forgotten. I'm sorry."
"He uses people to his advantage – "
"Well," Mary cut in before she had the chance to finish, before she could formulate the warning she knew was probably too late. "So do I. It seems we are more evenly matched than we thought."
Lavinia did not know what to say to that. They stood motionless, each woman's gaze fixed inward. Lavinia cleared her throat once more and said, "Is it really worth all this?" She was shocked at her own boldness, but it was as if, once she had begun, the desire to keep speaking her mind was too great to quell.
Mary gave a bitter laugh. "For my family to be allowed to go on as they are? To be able to show my face in public, in respectable society? To have a life, you mean?" Lavinia blushed. "I rather think it is, yes."
She felt a little abashed, but still she could not stop herself from asking, "But, to marry someone you don't love? Someone who would force you…" She did not want to say the rest.
Mary smiled then, a real smile, and the beauty of it made Lavinia's throat constrict; she heard Mary's voice rushing back to her from the night before, from between the books and the darkness, I don't know. Mary said, "We cannot all be so lucky, my dear." They were so close then, as close as they would ever be to an admission, the words themselves hovering in the air about them so that both women felt their presence keenly; Lavinia almost thought she could have reached up to take hold of them, that they would be live and warm in her hands. We cannot both marry the same man – in the end it must be one of us or the other.
I have lost my chance, it is too late, Mary thought. In the end, it cannot be me.