29th February 1916
You will probably be surprised to receive this letter considering the nature of our parting almost two years ago. An extended estrangement, however, is to the advantage of neither of us nor of our mutual family and I hope you will accept the proffered olive branch; there is no need to wage war on two fronts.
You are in all our thoughts and prayers; if you could see the look of relief on Papa's face every time Cousin Isobel brings us news of your continued safety, you would believe it more easily. Nothing could give him or indeed any of us greater pleasure than to see you back at Downton, but please do not think that I mean to influence you. I of all people understand your reasons for staying away.
Matthew, you will wonder why I am choosing today of all days to write to you. It is after all a day that to all intents and purposes does not exist. Moreover, remembrance and anniversary need only be celebrated once every four years if the recollection is painful. It is a day to overturn boundaries and tear apart expectations. Well, you know I've never been much good at doing what I ought to so don't be alarmed, I beg of you, by one more lapse of propriety.
I cannot apologise for what I said or did when we were last together. I did what I believed to be right and only time and separation has taught me that I was wrong. I was wrong though, and if you destroy this letter, please remember that if nothing else. However, to wish to turn back the clock is always foolish so all I can do is look to the future.
Will you marry me, Matthew? Take the question however you wish: as an empty and meaningless apology, some kind of joke on today in very bad taste, or anything else you like. Know only that I am asking because however you feel, I would very much like to marry you.
Should you wish to reply, I can be reached at Aunt Rosamund's in London where I shall be spending an extended visit from next week.
God bless you.
Your affectionate cousin,
It was perhaps appropriate that the day Matthew turned up in Berkeley Square and found his cousin sitting on a bench under a tree reading a rather tedious new book by a lady novelist was the first of April. After all, the whole thing was rather absurd and implausible. A complete joke.
Mary started as if she had seen a ghost, her eyes widening and lips parting. He was leaner than he had been and the handsome army uniform was unfamiliar. For a moment they simply stared at each other in anxiety and a little disbelief. Matthew shifted from one foot to the other.
"May I join you?"
As she gave him silent assent and moved along the bench to make room he continued, "Your aunt said I'd find you here."
She smiled quickly and tremulously but did not reply. Her fingers brushed over the cover of her book with constrained nervousness. He sat down next to her and leaned his elbows on his knees, staring at the ground instead of at her. They continued silently in this way for what seemed like a very long time. Mary hardly breathed, so aware of his presence at her side, their arms not quite touching, the weak spring sun glinting on his hair, and the regular rise and fall of his shoulders.
Suddenly he leaned back and looked straight at her, expression sober and guarded. "Thank you for your letter."
Her eyes widened. "You got it?" she replied, her expression changing rapidly from doubt to hope to pleasure to wariness in the space of a moment. "I thought perhaps I had dreamed it all."
"Then perhaps I dreamed receiving it and we are still dreaming now," he replied rather more gravely than the statement should have allowed.
"Well, it is not so bad so far as dreams go, is it?"
"I've had worse," he replied and a peculiar, haunted expression she had never seen before crossed his face. Mary's fingers twitched to touch him but she held back, just frowning slightly.
"I hope you have not taken up too much of your leave to come and see me specially," she said after another silence.
"No. That is, I was in London anyway."
"Ah." She felt stupidly disappointed.
"Are you all well at Downton? You didn't say in your letter."
She forced a smile and met his eyes. "Yes, very well."
"And you, are you well, Mary?"
"You can see that I am."
He blinked and his gaze flickered over her for a second. "I – yes. I'm glad."
"It should be me asking you that," she commented neutrally, her eyes anxious.
"You don't have to."
"I want to though."
"Yes." He hesitated. "You're asking quite a few questions at the moment, Mary."
She shrugged. "I suppose we must talk about something."
"I've thought a great deal about your letter, you know," he said.
Her eyes darted to his; she could not speak, but looked the question.
"Surely the whole thing doesn't count if the answer isn't given on the same day. Do the effects carry over?"
"I don't know..." She smiled faintly, concealing the desperate fluttering of her heart. "I think we shall have to make it up as we go along. Do you think they do?"
"Suppose for the moment that they do," he continued earnestly, "I'm afraid I don't know what the etiquette is on how to answer."
"It's quite simple, you say either yes or no." She paused, moistened her lips and then added with a dry, flat almost-humour, "Or alternatively you can defer your answer for foolish reasons so long that the proposal is rescinded."
He held her gaze and something in his expression softened. "I wouldn't want to do that."
"I'm glad." For a moment they explored each other's eyes, asking and answering questions that could never be spoken. Then with a little mental shake, she smiled archly and said, "I should point out the penalty for refusal, however."
He raised his eyebrows. "There's a penalty? I'll have to take that into account."
"Yes. If a man should refuse a woman's proposal then he must give her a pair of leather gloves, a rose, one pound – and a kiss."
"Really?" Matthew looked down at his hands and then back at her. "I'm afraid," he said slowly, "that my gloves aren't leather, that roses are out of season and that I only have half a crown on me."
Mary's heart was pounding and her hands clutched and released the novel over and over again. "Then the kiss will just have to count for all four."
His eyes flickered down and back up. "And what's the penalty for accepting?" he asked, his voice sounding lower and more intense, or perhaps it was just her imagination.
She swallowed. "You have to marry me," she intoned, her eyes bright but her tone dead-pan, even as the magical words spoken out loud seemed to cause a frisson to run through them both at the same time.
Matthew chuckled nervously. "It sounds as if the penalties are remarkably similar whatever I say."
"In that case it can't be very difficult to answer."
"Perhaps not..." His eyes narrowed and he prised one of her hands very deliberately off her book and raised it to his lips. He never looked away from her as he pressed a lingering kiss to it and then turned it over and did the same to her palm.
Mary felt her stomach twist and she felt almost faint from longing and the sudden rush of feelings that almost overwhelmed her at having him so close to her after so long. It was an effort not to cry.
"Two kisses; what does that mean then?" Her voice sounded tight but she was proud that it did not waiver.
"It means... it means whatever you want it to mean." His thumb was now caressing her hand. Every nerve in her body seemed focussed on that one tiny spot.
"But I'm asking you," she replied in the same steady, thin tone.
He did not answer for a moment, then stood up very deliberately from the bench. He did not let go of her hand but pulled her up with him.
"I think, dear Mary, it means that we should see more of each other."
As he drew her arm through his and began to walk them slowly in the direction of the park gates, Mary reflected that she would have to be content with that for the time being.