Mary sat on a bench in the formal gardens, a book laid uselessly on her knees, and thought about her engagement to Sir Richard. Unattended, her mind returned always to the same worn topic as Isis returned to a buried bone, only to dig it up and worry the dirt-caked thing with her teeth before burying it again. Mary’s thoughts were as persistent and as fruitless; there was no meat to be had from that bone, only mud.
“Oh, Mary,” Lavinia said.
Mary turned to find Lavinia flushed with some kind of excitement that didn’t look like happiness. “Lavinia, what is it? What’s happened?”
“I can hardly say,” Lavinia said. She sat gracelessly on the bench next to Mary and clutched her hands together. Mary rather thought it was to still their trembling.
“Is someone ill?”
Lavinia gave an unhappy gurgle of a laugh. “I suppose you could say that. After a fashion.”
Mary tested her next words one by one before she spoke them. “Is it Matthew?” But he was better now. He was walking and healthy and successfully wedded to Lavinia, and it couldn’t be Matthew. Mary wouldn’t stand for it.
Lavinia’s expression, wide-eyed and drawn, answered for her.
“Has he relapsed? Or, or fallen? Lavinia, please tell me.”
Lavinia licked her lips. “That specialist’s come up from London, the man your father sent for. You know Matthew’s been unwell recently. Tired for no reason, and his stomach troubles him sometimes.”
“Yes,” Mary said. The doctor claimed it was due to the injury, that Matthew was still recovering. The difficulties with his digestion were ascribed to poisonous gases Matthew had inhaled to during the war, though the exposure had never troubled him before.
“Mary,” Lavinia said, gasping the word. “Mary, we’re expecting a child.”
It took Mary a moment to follow the abrupt change of subject and find a response to match. “My God,” Mary said. “Congratulations. How wonderful for you.” It was sincerely meant; any remorseful pangs she quashed with practiced skill.
“You don’t understand,” Lavinia said. “It isn’t me. I’m not… carrying a child.”
Mary was utterly lost. “Then you’re right, I don’t understand.”
“I’m not pregnant.” Lavinia stumbled over the last word. “I’m not. Matthew is.”
Mary stared. Perhaps Lavinia had gone mad. She’d always struck Mary as a paragon of sweet rationality, but perhaps the true state of Matthew’s health, whatever it was, had broken her. “That’s a very peculiar joke, Lavinia.”
“Yes, isn’t it,” Lavinia said bitterly. Her fair skin was unbecomingly blotched, and her eyes glistened wetly. “Of course I wasn’t there when he examined Matthew, but they called me in afterwards to explain.”
“Surely this specialist meant something different,” Mary ventured. “That Matthew’s symptoms are like pregnancy, perhaps?”
“He was very clear,” Lavinia said. “He said it plainly several times, because I didn’t believe him at first.”
“I can’t imagine why,” said Mary.
The sarcasm earned her a small, pained smile. “He could hear the child’s heartbeat with his instrument - his stethoscope. That’s what made up his mind, it seems.”
Now Mary understood Lavinia’s feelings; panic fluttered softly in her chest. The world she sat in was not the world as she had understood it five minutes ago. “But how can this be? Has Matthew been playing us for fools all along? Because if he has, then his talents are wasted on law; he ought to be starring on the London stage. Or she should, as the case may be.”
Lavinia flushed yet further, color creeping down her neck. She did not look at Mary as she said, “I can assure you, Matthew is fully male.”
“Oh,” Mary said faintly.
It was a foolish suggestion anyway; what Mary saw when she and Sybil cut his bloodied clothes away, his first delirious day back at Downton, had left little to the imagination.
For a few moments she and Lavinia sat quietly in their unquiet thoughts.
“This is so silly,” Lavinia said, petulant. “I don’t understand it in the least.”
“No more do I. I expect we’re in good company there.”
Lavinia nodded. “Or we will be soon. Lord Grantham said he’d speak to the family.” She turned to Mary. “I probably wasn’t to say anything to you, but I had to tell someone. Please, don’t tell Matthew I spoke out of turn.”
“You have my word,” Mary said. “And how is Matthew?”
“He would barely look me in the eye. I think...” Lavinia paused. “I think he’s horribly frightened. And so am I.”
Mary took Lavinia’s hand and squeezed it. “We’ll see it through.”
Mary kept the secret to herself for the next two days. So far as she could tell, Matthew didn’t leave his room, though a comment from Lavinia suggested that that was more out of mortification than ill health. There was little chance to converse, however, as Lavinia rarely left his side.
On the second afternoon after Mary and Lavinia’s first conversation, Lord Grantham called the whole family, Matthew excepted, to the drawing room. Mary took a seat next to Lavinia, and Lavinia smiled wanly.
Once everyone had gathered, Lord Grantham sent Carson away with the instruction that the family not be disturbed. Carson had barely left the room when Lady Violet bustled in, unasked, and sat down on Mary’s other side. She looked at Lord Grantham expectantly.
He blinked at her, but after a moment he shook off his bemusement and turned to address them all. He began, “I’m afraid I have some very strange news.”
His introduction of the topic was similar to Lavinia’s and interrupted by similar exclamations of disbelief. Mary listened for any more information than Lavinia had given, but heard none.
“I don’t see why we should be surprised,” Lady Violet said to Mary in what was probably intended to be a whisper, or at least the pretense of one. “He is a lawyer.”
“Granny,” Mary whispered back, reproving, “I thought you liked Matthew.”
“I do!” she protested. “But we mustn’t forget what he comes from. He’s practically common .”
Beside Mary, Lavinia was shaking. She pressed a hand to her mouth and seemed to be fighting back tears. Mary lifted a hand, intending some useless gesture of comfort, but Lavinia shook her head. “I’m laughing,” she choked. Her voice was sharp with hysteria.
“But what’s going to happen?” Sibyl asked from the other side of the room. “Will Matthew be all right?”
“I think your father is going to tell us, if we’ll give him the chance,” said Mary’s mother. “Won’t you, Robert?”
“Quite,” he said. “Dr. Morris has returned to London to do what research he can and see if there’s any precedent for this... situation. The child must be removed surgically in any case—” That answered a question Mary had not yet summoned the indelicacy to ask. “—but Dr. Morris would prefer to bring in another specialist for that purpose. Also there’s a question of timing. Dr. Morris says Matthew seems to be in reasonably good health, at least for now; he thinks it’s possible the child might be carried to term.”
“Well,” Cora said dryly, “at least we’d have an heir.”
“Oh, God,” Mary said softly. Lavinia turned to her, concerned, but Mary shook her head. “Later,” she whispered.
Other questions were asked. Had Isobel been informed? What were the servants were to be told? Eventually Lord Grantham dismissed them, just in time to dress for dinner. “Would it be possible for me to see Matthew?” Mary asked Lavinia softly. “I need to speak to you both.”
“I don’t know,” Lavinia said, brow furrowing with worry. “He doesn’t want to see anyone.”
“I understand, but it might be terribly important. Or else sheer madness; I’m not even sure which.” Mary fought down a thrill of hysteria.
“All right. I’ll ask him, but I can’t promise.”
A few minutes later, Lavinia came and fetched Mary from her room. They found Matthew seated in a chair at his desk and staring moodily out the window. To Mary’s searching eye, he looked little different. Certainly there was nothing otherworldly about him, nothing to suggest him a specimen of scientific impossibility.
As she approached, he turned and met her eye, and then he dropped his gaze. “Well,” he said. “You’ve come to observe the freak of nature.”
“It’s true, then,” Mary said. Until now, faced with Matthew’s evident bitterness, she hadn’t really believed, had not even realized that she didn’t.
“So they tell me.”
“How are you?” she asked.
His laughter had no humor in it. “Apparently I am perfectly well for a man in my condition.”
“I’m so sorry,” Mary said. “I think perhaps this is my fault.”
“Your fault?” He laughed again, a sound cold enough to freeze. “How the devil could this—” He gestured sharply towards his stomach. “—be your fault?”
Mary glanced about the room and, seeing no objection from Lavinia, sat at the edge of Matthew’s bed. “I’m going to tell you a story,” she said. “You’re welcome to tell me that I’m mad, and I will agree heartily and leave you in peace.”
“It can hardly be the most absurd thing I’ve heard recently,” Matthew said.
“All right.” Mary swallowed to clear her throat. “Last summer, when you first returned to Downton and we weren’t sure you would walk again, we were all horribly worried for you. Dr. Clarkson said you would mend but there were days you looked so...” Frail, she thought, but it was the wrong thing to say just now. “You looked terribly unwell.” She hadn’t been sure she could believe he could ever be better. Even remembering that time less than a year ago caused her throat to close in frightened grief.
“Go on,” Lavinia said, seating herself next to Mary.
“With that, and the house a hospital and the dreadful news of the war still coming in, some evenings I couldn’t bear the confines of walls around me.” They stifled her, as Matthew had looked stifled by his own future. “I would go out at dusk, before dinner, and walk the grounds. You know that pleasant spot down by the pond, with all the vines and creepers.”
Matthew’s smile was the warmest part of him she’d seen that day. “The gardens’ own private wilderness.”
“Yes.” It had been beautiful that night, but unnatural, bewitched; the light of dusk was yellowed and eerie like something from some poem by Coleridge. The strange allure of it had been enough to distract her from her anxiety for a little while before it rose up in her again. “I was sitting on the bench there—” Weeping. “—and suddenly there was w person standing in front of me whom I’d never seen before.”
“What?” Lavinia said. “Like a burglar?”
“Or a poacher?” Matthew asked.
“He seemed to be a man. He was hairy, ill-kempt, hardly dressed – he reminded me of some painting of a satyr.”
“Or a beggar,” Matthew muttered.
“He asked me what I was doing there.” Maiden, why do you weep?
Mary wanted to laugh at Lavinia’s indignation. “And I told him I had a cousin who was ill.”
“What possessed you to speak to him at all?” Matthew said. “The man should have been run off the estate.”
Mary ignored him. “He asked what I wanted done.” There are ways and ways, fair maiden. “I told him that you needed your health and Downton needed its heir.”
“And?” Lavinia said, like a child listening to a fairy tale – an apter simile than Lavinia knew.
“He laughed. He laughed and said that he’d do it.”
“Mary, you can’t mean—” Matthew began.
Mary held back the words that’d marched through her head all through the end of the family conference. I’ll find my ways and means ere dawn, or else my name no more shall be Robin Goodfellow.
“Why didn’t you ever tell anyone about him?” Lavinia asked.
“Because he’d barely spoken the words to me and disappeared before one of the under-gardeners shook me awake.”
“Good grief,” Matthew said. “You were dreaming.”
“I thought so,” said Mary. “The whole thing was like a dream. Matthew’s right, I would never tell family concerns to a stranger, much less one I happened to meet while he trespassed through the garden. I wasn’t in my right mind. After I awoke, I didn’t give it another thought. Not long after that Matthew began walking again, and Dr. Clarkson said he’d suspected it could happen, and there seemed no point in thinking of a silly dream I’d had when I’d fallen asleep in the garden one night and frightened the family half out of their wits.”
“Downton’s heir,” Matthew said hollowly. “You asked for Downton’s heir. Surely you meant me—”
“But you’re suggesting this was some kind of enchanter?” Lavinia said.
“A fairy, perhaps,” Mary said.
“Then he might twist the words however he could,” Lavinia said. “If there were such a person, I mean.”
“Exactly. There it is, then,” Mary said lamely. Suddenly the account seemed sorely lacking a conclusion.
“You’re right,” Matthew said. “That’s madness.”
“Yes.” The whole idea sounded even more foolish spoken aloud than it had in her head. “Well.” She stood and rose to go.
“But so is this,” Matthew said, gesturing to himself again.
“I don’t suppose it matters so very much how it happened,” Mary said.
“Only so we can make bloody certain it doesn’t happen again.”
If it were truly a fairy Mary had spoken to, she could hardly see how knowing it would prevent the person from doing anything he pleased, but she refrained from pointing this out to Matthew.
The next days were tense and unsettled. Isobel arrived. Matthew remained cloistered in his rooms, though Lavinia came out now and again. The servants surely knew some crisis was afoot, but the family was careful not to speak of the situation even to one another except behind securely closed doors. Dr. Morris returned from London and brought another man with him.
The family waited.
Into it all barged Sir Richard on another visit from London. The alterations to Haxby Park were very nearly complete, he said.
When he pressed again for a wedding date, it came as a shock – not because he didn’t ask every time he came, but because in the past two weeks Mary had barely given the question a thought.
“I couldn’t think of leaving the family right now,” she said, “not while Matthew’s health is so uncertain. The family couldn’t possibly put on a wedding.”
Sir Richard had been standing at her side, comfortably intimate for conversation but no more. Now he slapped one hand to the wall, barring her way, and leaned to murmur implacably in her ear. “When Haxby is finished, we will be wed. I will not be put off any longer.”
She could only stare at him blankly. He must have taken it for agreement, because he ungraciously changed the subject.
He returned to town the next day, thank God.
The next day after luncheon, Lavinia caught Mary in the drawing room with a summons from Matthew. She followed Lavinia up the stairs and reflected that he was quite lordly now, as her father had been unable to make him. He was imperious in his discomfort.
When they reached his rooms, he had a damp, pasty look about him that might have been illness or might simply have been a result of too much brooding and too little air.
“Lavinia said you wanted to see me,” Mary said.
“I want to go down to the garden,” Matthew said, with a firmness of purpose all out of proportion to the sentiment.
“All right.” What this had to do with Mary, she had no idea.
“Look at me!” he said.
Mary had been studiously avoiding that very thing, but now she took in the new fleshiness about his face, the purposeful rounding of his stomach. His true ailment would not be blatantly obvious to the uninformed, but to one who was it was unmistakable. “What am I looking at?”
“I need to get down to that garden, the place where you met that... person. And I mustn’t be seen. God knows what the servants would say.”
“You should wait,” she said, surprising herself.
“It was midsummer’s eve, the night I was there.” She’d never seen any need to admit it, even to herself, but it seemed there was need now. “It will be again next week. If you want to... reproduce my experience, you should wait until then.”
He sagged. “Can you think how to arrange it? My getting there?”
He would be the earl someday; it was pleasant to be reminded that she still understood this house better than he. “We’ll manage,” she promised.
Carson listened to her plan with the same twinkle he’d had for all her girlhood schemes. They sneaked Matthew down one of the servant’s stairways, cleared for the purpose, and settled him in the wheelchair, tucked close with blankets. He looked ill enough, and all the spare fabric masked his altered form admirably. Carson himself pushed Matthew across the long lawn – entirely cleared of gardeners and staff, on Carson’s orders – and down to the edge of the copse Mary had fallen asleep in months before.
It could have been any pleasant afternoon excursion: the invalid in his wheelchair, his wife, his attentive cousin. Neither Lavinia nor Mary questioned Matthew’s purpose; when he ordered them to leave him there alone, Mary felt no surprise.
“Come just before dinner,” he told them, “if I haven’t called out by then.”
They ended up strolling the edges of the pond just over the hill, well out of sight but not out of range of a good shout.
“How is he?” Mary ventured. She hadn’t quite dared to ask Matthew himself.
“He feels well enough, I think,” Lavinia said. “Mary, I can speak to you quite in confidence, can’t I?”
“Certainly,” Mary said. It was an extraordinary position, playing confidante to the woman married to the man one had loved, but only at odd moments, like now, did Mary recall the peculiarity.
“I think he feels ashamed,” Lavinia said.
“Of what?” Mary asked. “What possible shame could there be in something in which he’s been given no choice?”
“He doesn’t see it that way.”
“I know what it is to be ashamed of one’s actions,” Mary said. “I can’t see that Matthew would ever have had any reason to learn that.”
Lavinia looked curiously at her, but didn’t ask. Mary felt a sudden, sharp desire to tell her all.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to speak to you about,” Lavinia said, and the moment passed.
“Yes, of course,” Mary said.
“Are you really going to marry Sir Richard?”
Mary felt her expression cool; she saw Lavinia flinch at the sudden distance between them. “That seems to be the plan.” She regretted her tone, but couldn’t seem to do anything to warm it.
“If you did not,” Lavinia said, and paused.
“If he threw me over?” Mary suggested. It was, she thought distantly, only a matter of time.
“If you didn’t marry him,” Lavinia continued valiantly, “if you never married anyone, you know that you would always be welcome with us. Here at Downton, someday, or in town when we’re there.”
“Has Matthew extended his welcome as well?” Mary said, hating the mockery in her own voice. Surely the last thing Matthew could want was his spinster cousin and one-time fiancée hanging about in the background.
“Oh,” Mary said faintly. “I hardly know what to say. Thank you, of course.”
“You deserve better than Sir Richard,” Lavinia said.
Mary laughed. “Hardly.”
Again Lavinia eyed her curiously and said nothing.
To bind them forever in mutual confidence, to unburden herself to an ear that might perhaps remain sympathetic even after the tale was through: the urge was suddenly too great.
“Would you like to hear a story?” Mary began, and then stopped to laugh. “Telling tales seems to be all I do these days.”
“Tell me,” Lavinia said, eyes agleam with an intelligence that Mary doubted the wider world ever caught a glimpse of.
Mary sat them down on a fragment of old wall near the pond, and began in earnest.
Was it cleansing to speak aloud the story Mary had told herself over and over in long sleepless nights of self-recrimination? She couldn’t have said. There was, however, something gratifying in Lavinia’s muffled but audible indignation when Mr. Pamuk came into Mary’s room and invited her to scream, in Lavinia’s gasp when Mary described the unbelievable weight of his warm corpse atop her. As Mary recounted how he was returned to his room, her mother and Anna her co-conspirators, Lavinia made such a peculiar noise that Mary paused.
Lavinia, flushed and shaking, swallowed convulsively several times. Finally, in a squeaking parody of her usual voice, she said, “That’s horrible.” She was then overcome with a gasping, hiccupping fit of giggles.
For a moment Mary was icy with offense, but Lavinia’s ill-contained mirth was too much, and soon Mary was laughing herself breathless over the most terrible night of her life.
“It’s like something you'd see a music hall,” Lavinia said when she could speak again.
“Which is to say, far funnier to tell than to live through,” Mary said.
“It sounds dreadful,” Lavinia said, sobering.
After a pause, Lavinia said, “If you think all that changes my mind about you, you’re wrong.”
How delightfully naïve she is, Mary thought. How ridiculously loyal. Even in Mary’s head, the gentle mockery didn’t ring quite true.
Lavinia tactfully turned the conversation to inconsequentials. They passed the afternoon that way, admiring the birds flitting over the pond, the looming threat of rain on the horizon, and finally, just as dusk fell, they went looking for Matthew.
They found him where they’d left him, head now lolled in sleep. Lavinia laid her hand on his shoulder, and he woke with a start.
His one hollow glance at Mary answered her unspoken question: yes, he’d met the man she’d dreamed of.
“It seems it’s all of a piece, and I’ve no say in the matter,” Matthew told them. “The legs and, and this.” He glanced downward with revulsion. “I’m promised it’s a boy.”
“Well, that’s something, anyway,” Mary said.
“It’s wonderful,” Lavinia said firmly. She gripped Matthew’s hand, her smile wavering but sure. The look he returned to her was too intimate for viewing by third parties; Mary ruthlessly suppressed a pang and went looking for Carson to usher them home.
The party returned to the house less triumphant in their childish scheming than when they’d left. Matthew was stonily silent on the journey up the drive, but Mary fancied that some of the burden of uncertainty had lifted from his shoulders. That was something, too.
The next day Lord Grantham called everyone together again. Lady Violet was formally invited this time. Matthew attended, too, taking a seat as far from the edge of the circle as could be managed and meeting no one’s eye, though he spoke courteously enough to Sybil when she addressed him. Lavinia took his hand at the beginning of the meeting and didn’t let go. He could be heard muttering “Oh, God” at intervals.
The plan, it seemed, was this: announce to the world that Lavinia was expecting a child but suffering badly in the meantime, while Matthew had been struck with the after-effects of poisons from the war and was dangerously ill. No one would be allowed into the couple’s rooms except a handful of the most trusted servants.
In four months or so, as estimated by the second specialist, Downton would welcome the first member of the next Crawley generation into the world.
“What if someone discovers what’s happened?” Sybil said. “I can hardly imagine keeping a secret like this from the servants.”
“And if they know,” Mary’s mother said, “the rest of England won’t be far behind.”
Mary’s father replied, “We can only hope that even if someone should realize the truth, they either won’t believe it or won’t be able to convince others of it.”
“It is hardly the likeliest possible scandal to come to mind,” Lady Violet said.
“Oh, God,” Matthew said again.
Sir Richard came once more. He gave up cajoling entirely; he demanded. Mary couldn’t possibly, she said, not with Matthew so ill. Also Lavinia, she added conscientiously.
“I’ll call it off,” he said. “I’ll print the story I bought, and it will pay me far better than this farce.”
“If you must,” Mary said. She felt vague, distant, as though she were meant to be planning and scheming to some end she couldn’t recall.
He stared. Finally, he said, “So this is it, then.”
She couldn’t marry Matthew, she didn’t want to marry Sir Richard, and the likelihood of attracting some other man she liked any better seemed pitifully small. What difference could it make what Sir Richard said about her now?
“I suppose it is,” she said, and let him go.
“Perhaps I’ll come live with you and Matthew after all,” she told Lavinia that evening.
Lavinia declared that she would be delighted.
I was in love with your husband once, Mary thought. Very probably I still am. But they’d gotten on very well for years now despite those facts, and Mary didn’t voice them.
Mary scanned the papers every morning for weeks. The only mention of her own name was the modest announcement that Lady Mary Crawley would not, in fact, wed Sir Richard Carlisle.
Mary wrote him a reserved but heartfelt note of gratitude. His reply skirted the boundaries of politeness and did not cause her to dislike him any less, but she recognized the thwarted longing in it and was sorry for him.
Mary often visited Matthew and Lavinia in the suite of rooms they had moved to for the duration. Six weeks after the beginning of Matthew’s confinement – in all senses of the word – his true malady was becoming quite obvious. Mary’s first view of him frequently startled her: weary and pale and ever fuller at the middle.
He was painfully self-conscious about his appearance, yet clearly starved for company and distraction. Mary didn’t pretend to understand his legal papers, brought to him from his suspended law practice, but surely they could not occupy a man all the hours he seemed to stare at them. At any rate, he listened to her gossip readily enough: Granny’s most recent proclamations, Sir Anthony Strallan’s renewed interest in Edith, Sybil’s ongoing disinclination to entertain any suitors at all.
“Perhaps she has a suitor in secret,” Matthew idly suggested one day.
Mary laughed as much at Matthew’s new willingness – borne out of desperate boredom – to speculate family scandal with her as at the idea itself, but later she found herself bringing the thought out to consider again.
Another day, Lavinia met her at the door and pulled her past Matthew – asleep in his chair, where he’d been resting more and more the last week or so - to Lavinia’s private room, where she was supposedly enduring her difficult pregnancy. “Save me,” she pleaded. “I’ll go mad if I stay in this house one minute longer.”
“We’ll go walking,” Mary promised rashly.
“I’m meant to be six and a half months pregnant!” Lavinia gestured down at her slender figure. “Also practically on my deathbed.”
“We’ll pretend,” Mary said.
They dressed Lavinia in a dressing gown, added a couple of small pillows judiciously, and seated her in Matthew’s wheelchair, brought by Carson.
“No one’s to see us, you understand,” Mary said. “The gardeners, the staff, they’re all to be kept from the formal garden.”
“Of course, milady,” Carson promised.
Once they were out of doors and confident of their privacy, Lavinia discarded the wheelchair and the pillows and they walked the gardens.
“Matthew will be horribly envious of us,” Lavinia said. “He’s so tired of those rooms. He swears he’ll have them boarded up, when Downton is his. They’re never to be slept in again.”
Once Mary would have bristled at Lavinia’s casual presumption of ownership; now it had become a comfortable thought, Matthew as lord of Downton and Lavinia his lady. Mary vaguely recalled worrying about her when she’d first come to Downton: surely this frightened lamb could not live up to the title Countess of Grantham.
Mary had long ago abandoned that particular concern.
Another day: Mary knocked at the door to what now functioned as Matthew and Lavinia’s sitting room and opened it without waiting for an answer. She found Matthew seated and Lavinia kneeling at his feet, her hands pressed firmly against his gravid stomach.
“I’m sorry,” Mary said, flushing. “Another time.”
She had backed half out of the door when Matthew called, “Wait.”
When he didn’t say anything else, Mary stepped back in and closed the door behind her.
Matthew scanned the ceiling and then muttered, “I gather you saw practically all of me when I was wounded -- bathed me and nursed me and all that. I suppose it’s rather late for an attack of modesty.”
“I’m afraid I don’t...”
“Look,” he said, “you might as well feel it, too.”
Mary looked to Lavinia for direction, and Lavinia nodded, eyes shining.
With half an idea now of what was happening, Mary crossed the room and knelt next to Lavinia. Awkwardly Matthew arranged her hands against himself. Almost immediately she felt a jab of movement, and she laughed at the unexpected sensation.
“That’s my son,” Lavinia said, glowing, triumphant.
“We’re never telling him,” Matthew said with the firmness of long repetition.
“Of course not,” Lavinia said soothingly. She patted his arm.
Mary closed her eyes and waited while the next heir of Downton kicked against her palms.
If Mary were some other woman, she might have tried to steal Matthew away from Lavinia. The thought had occurred to her occasionally in a distant, abstract way that she could never have acted upon. She couldn’t because Matthew was happy with Lavinia and Mary would not endanger that; because Mary was a Crawley and such creeping and grasping was beneath her.
Now she felt for Lavinia something akin to what, in her better moments, she felt for Sybil and Edith, and much stronger. On Matthew’s more petulant days, when he’d taxed his wife to her limit, it was Lavinia Mary took away for a few hours of fresh air and artless conversation.
Stealing Lavinia’s husband was now more impossible than ever. Perhaps she could convince them both to steal her away instead.
Only a handful of servants were allowed into Matthew and Lavinia’s rooms or told anything like the true state of affairs. Anna saw to the general housekeeping and to Lavinia, though since Lavinia rarely ventured out and wasn’t actually ill, Anna’s duties there were few. Bates was assigned to Matthew. Carson and O’Brien served as necessary. Mary gathered that Mrs. Hughes had been told something, out of respect to her station, though she never had reason to come to the rooms herself.
What precisely they’d all been told, Mary wasn’t certain; she and they never spoke of it directly. She suspected they’d been ordered to silence and left to draw their own conclusions.
One night, Anna broke the unspoken taboo. She was helping arrange Mary’s hair, a rare duty nowadays. The house seldom entertained anymore, and when it did, Mary seldom attended.
“Will Mr. Matthew really be all right?” Anna asked.
It had been a bad day, though as much due to Matthew’s foul temper as to the discomfort and uncertainty that caused it.
“I don’t know,” Mary admitted. “I hope so. We’ve reason to believe he will.”
Anna’s next words were spoken softly enough that Mary could have ignored them if she chose. “And the baby as well?”
“And the baby as well,” Mary said.
Anna nodded firmly. “I’m glad.”
There was relief, Mary found, in sharing this strangeness with someone else, someone to whom the outcome didn’t matter quite so deeply.
It was mere days later when Matthew and Lavinia and Mary and Edith were all speaking very cordially that the door opened, unannounced. “I’ll just put these on the table, shall I?” It was Thomas the footman, holding a tea tray.
He stopped short, blinking at them: at Lavinia first, smiling and flushed with some minor excitement and splendidly healthy, and then at Matthew, whose perpetually pale complexion was now white.
O’Brien bustled in behind Thomas. “I’ve told you how many times, it’s not for you to do,” she said. She took the tray from Thomas’s unresisting grasp and set it clattering on the table.
By then Matthew had grasped at the blanket hanging from his chair and was clutching it ineffectually to his chest. Edith, Mary saw, had slid in front of Lavinia.
“For heaven’s sake,” Mary said. “O’Brien, close the door.”
O’Brien did as she was told. She was almost as white as Matthew.
Mary rose, blocking Matthew from view. “Thomas,” Mary said, “has it not been made quite clear that you’re to leave the invalid rooms alone?”
Dazed, Thomas said faintly, “Only trying to help.”
“You could be dismissed for this,” she said.
That earned her a little more of his attention. “I didn’t mean any harm.” His words lacked conviction.
“Then tell me, Thomas, what you think I should advise my father to do.”
He straightened slightly. “I couldn’t say, milady.”
“Should I mention it to my father, do you think? Is this kind of disruption likely to happen again?”
Finally he seemed to find himself. “No, milady.”
“Very good,” she said.
Once he and O’Brien were gone, the others worried aloud what might happen next. Would he ask for money, Edith wondered.
Mary let herself fall back into her chair. “I rather think he’ll try very hard to forget he ever saw anything at all.”
“Oh, God,” Matthew said, and covered his eyes with one hand.
Despite her assurances, Mary rather expected to hear of Thomas demanding payment for his silence. If he ever did, no whisper of it came to her. Anna said he refused to speak of the invalids at all.
There were certain advantages, it seemed, to a situation too fantastic for the eye to believe.
Matthew spent more time sleeping these days, or at least lying in bed grimacing over unvoiced pain. The specialist suggested on one of his now-frequent visits that it was all due to the natural strain of a body producing new life. Matthew was not much comforted, and a tension crept in around Lavinia’s eyes and didn’t leave.
On one of the good days, Matthew was out of bed and in the sitting room frowning over a chess game with Mary. On the far side of the room, Lavinia chatted with Edith. The room was chilled. A fire had been set in the grate, but the coals had been allowed to die down because Matthew complained of overheating.
Of necessity, he’d mostly got over his embarrassment about his appearance; there was no chance of disguising his condition anymore. Now he rubbed as needed to soothe the aches in his back or the activity in his belly. He was doing it now, hand passing in slow, absent circles over his stomach while he thought.
“If you choose your move today, we may finish the game before the year is out,” Mary said.
Matthew scowled at her. Never mind what this pregnancy had done to his health, it had been deadly to his temper. He slumped back in his chair and closed his eyes. “I hate this,” he muttered.
Mary glanced over at Edith and Lavinia, but they’d noticed nothing.
“The future Earl of Grantham provides his own heir personally. What does that make me?” Matthew asked. He opened his eyes and regarded Mary frankly, as if she was the source of all answers. “What kind of man am I?”
“You’re a good man,” Mary said firmly, “acting in extraordinary circumstances.”
“I’m not acting at all!” he said, low and harsh. “I’m just sitting here, as I have been sitting for months. And don’t tell me that it’ll be over soon, because it won’t. For the rest of my life, even if it’s never mentioned again, there will always have been a time when I was this.”
There seemed little answer to that.
“We don’t think any less of you, you know.” Mary didn’t, anyway. Lavinia didn’t; she doubted Edith did, or Sybil. Mary wondered what her father had said to Matthew about the situation.
Matthew shook his head, not even bothering to voice his disbelief.
Granny’s opinion of a person, meanwhile, was impervious to anything so trivial as their scientifically impossible ability to bear children. Mary supposed that Granny’s willingness to regale Matthew with her own experiences in the matter was likely not much comfort to him.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know the words don’t do any good, but I do mean them.”
Matthew chuckled bitterly. “If it weren’t for you, I suppose I’d still be in that bloody chair. There’d be no children by any means, ever.” He looked away and came back with a smile, weak but sincere. “Don’t be sorry.”
“All right,” Mary said.
“I still hate it,” he said.
“No one thinks less of you for that, either.”
The words seemed to ease some small strain in him, and that would have to be enough, she supposed.
The time came, finally. The specialist and his surgeon arrived from London. One of Matthew’s rooms was turned into a private operating theater. He was taken there and put under full anesthesia.
The house waited.
“What if he isn’t all right?” Lavinia whispered to Mary. They sat on the sofa in her and Matthew’s sitting room; across from them huddled Cora and Isobel, heads bent and voice low. Edith sat by herself and fidgeted. “What if it’s all a horrible joke?”
Mary gripped her hand and wasted no breath on platitudes.
It was Sybil who brought them the news of the newborn Crawley. It was a boy, she said. He was fine. Matthew was fine, though not yet awake. The doctor, she assured them, expected a full recovery.
She took Lavinia to see the child and to look in on Matthew, and Mary watched them go.
Hours later, Sybil found Mary in her room. “You’re wanted,” Sybil said, eyes tired but still bright with joy.
Mary found them together: Lavinia seated on Matthew’s bed, Matthew’s head propped up on a pillow. The infant was somewhere else, doubtless watched over by the wet nurse, but his presence here was palpable nonetheless. They were complete now, a family unto themselves.
“Mary,” Lavinia said warmly.
She ventured closer and sat on the chair Lavinia indicated. “How are you?” she asked Matthew.
His smile was thin but genuine, relaxed in a way that Mary hadn’t seen in months.“Tired,” he said. “Sore. Recovering, the doctor says.”
“Good. That’s good. I’m glad.” She was. Finally, Matthew healthy again, Downton with another in the line of succession: it was all she’d asked for, when she’d been foolish enough to ask. All these months of anxious intimacy and shared concern, finished.
She was very happy for both of them.
“Mary,” Lavinia said, “we don’t know how to thank you.”
“Thank me,” she said blankly. “Whatever for?”
“What haven’t we to thank you for?” Lavinia asked. “I don’t know how we’d have survived all this without you, either of us.”
“It’s been my pleasure,” she assured them. “I hardly know what I’ll do with myself, once you’ve gone.” It was more confession than she’d meant to make; she smiled to defuse the truth of it. “The house will seem very empty.”
“Come stay with us,” Lavinia said. “You said you would.”
“Well...” Their faces were earnest with the promise of something she didn’t understand. “I’ll visit, of course, once you’re settled again.”
“That’s right,” said Matthew, with the air of someone having settled something. “A very long visit.”
“Unless you’ve other plans, of course,” said Lavinia carefully.
So she was to be stolen away after all. For how long, to what final result, she couldn’t imagine. The uncertainty didn’t concern her as much as it might.
“No,” Mary said slowly. “No, I don’t suppose I do.”