Nobody could accuse the countess of not doing her duty. Four children, three of them male, provided for the succession of the Crawley line for the next generation, and judicious investment most of it suggested by her had safe-guarded Downton Abbey from suffering the consequences of the economic downturn. When the earl died after a painful illness many years before his time, there was relief in at least some quarters that he could meet his maker with the knowledge of a job well done. This was a thought that occurred to the countess on numerous occasions but did not bring her much comfort.
The funeral was a large society affair as it always was when such a pillar of society passed away. The countess might have preferred something rather more intimate but, as she had discovered, the greater the status one had, the more important it was to maintain a public face. Still, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil abandoned their husbands for those first few weeks to be at her side and look after the children, especially Robert and Elizabeth who were young enough to be confused by it and need particular support.
Dust to dust and ashes to ashes. The mortal remains of Matthew Crawley, seventh Earl of Grantham were laid to rest in the Crawley plot in the churchyard, next to those of his mother and his predecessor the sixth earl and not so very far from those of Lavinia Catherine Swire. Her tombstone was now weather beaten but always had fresh flowers at it – the countess herself was responsible for them.
What was yet another grave to tend? It would not be hard, she thought, staring down at her husband's name freshly etched on the stone. Tears swam in her eyes but she would not give into grief, not here, not in public. Now there was silence – they were waiting – Mary raised her eyes – but they were not waiting for her. At her side stood her eldest son, Viscount Downton as he had been until this day, only seventeen years old, his head bowed and his expression unreadable. The countess unclasped her hands and took one of his and squeezed it. William raised his blue eyes (so like his father's) to his mother's and asked a silent question. She nodded and smiled very faintly.
The eighth Earl of Grantham lifted his head and took a deep breath, before speaking in a clear, strong voice. "Thank you all so much for coming to my father's funeral. I'm sure he would be pleased to see so many of you here today and it means a lot to all of us. There will be a cold buffet lunch back up at the Abbey and I hope many of you will join us there."
The spell was broken and the mourners split off into little, murmuring groups.
"How did I do?" asked William hopefully.
His mother's lips trembled but she managed to smile with pride in her eyes. She cupped his cheek. "Spoken like a true earl and a true Crawley, darling."
He ducked his head. "Well, you know, Mother..." He blinked several times and looked away.
He cleared his throat. "I should see Barrow. I'm afraid we're going to need more sandwiches... So many people... I should..." He escaped quickly.
Lady Grantham hardly had time to turn back around and look for her mother to see if she needed support, before her arm was grabbed by Charles.
"Oh, darling..." She forced another brave expression onto her face but he was not after sympathy, at least not now.
"Mother, there are two people from The Express who want to ask you some questions."
"The Express?" Mary frowned darkly and followed her son's gaze with narrowed eyes over to a point on the path just beyond the rest of the funeral party where they were being closely observed by two women. The older was sensibly dressed in dark tweed and carried a notepad. The younger could not have been any older than Charles himself and wore a gaudy black bow in her bright, fair hair.
"I told them to get lost and how dared they but-"
"Oh, shush you!" interrupted his mother, holding up her hand for silence. Her interest had been noticed by the reporters and Mary had caught the eye of the girl, who stuck her chin up higher in response. "I'll deal with them. Go and find your sister, Charlie."
"Can't you do as I say for once in your life?"
Her voice cracked on the last word and Charles bit his lip and obeyed her. Mary hesitated a moment before walking up the path to meet the two women.
"I don't recall inviting The Express," she said coolly, running her eyes over them with distaste.
"If we only went where we were invited we'd never get any stories, Lady Grantham!" replied the older woman cheerfully. "Susan Jeffries and Caroline Carlisle on behalf of The Express."
She held out her hand but the countess ignored it. She was looking at the girl. "Shouldn't you be in school?"
"On a Saturday, Lady Grantham?" replied Miss Carlisle pertly. "As a future senior partner of Carlisle News it is important for me to be involved in observing the workings of the company at every level."
Mary rolled her eyes. "I won't talk to the child. Send her back to the car, Miss Jeffries."
Miss Carlisle's chin jutted even higher. "I think you'll find I give the orders here, your Ladyship. Susan, we're staying."
The countess opened her mouth and then closed it again, suddenly feeling utterly exhausted about everything. "Get out of my sight, both of you," she said, turning away. "And if The Express prints one word about my husband's funeral don't think I won't sue."
She walked away before she could see how this was received and met her youngest sister coming up the path towards her. She took her arm with relief.
"Who on earth are they? I've never seen them before. Are you -"
"Nobody worth mentioning," replied Mary with a sigh. "Come on, darling. Let's go home."
The story appeared on Monday in The Express. Mary did not even register any surprise to see it there. She only sighed very lightly and continued to butter her muffins. Her family was less resigned.
"You said you'd sue them if they published!" exclaimed Charles, jabbing his finger at the offensive paper. "This is a clear case of breach of promise."
"Oh, Charlie, you make it sound like a broken engagement," sighed his mother wearily.
"Ah, but you didn't have it in writing, did you?" put in Tom Branson more moderately. "Sorry, Mary, but I don't think there's much you can do."
Lady Grantham sighed again and flicked back through the paper to the editorial by Lord Carlisle himself.
… Of course, when considering the society pages this week, balls and presentations seem particularly meaningless when faced by the terrible loss of Matthew Crawley, seventh Earl of Grantham, his death leaving a hole in the West Riding community that will be hard to fill. See page 24 for full coverage of his funeral.
"If only Matthew was here," said the dowager countess. "He'd know how to approach it from a legal point of view."
There was immediate silence.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean-"
"Well, he's not," said Mary crisply. "I shall just have to deal with it myself."
"Do you want me to do anything, Mother?" asked William anxiously from the head of the table.
"Oh, darling, that is sweet of you... No, don't trouble yourself. I can manage. I need a distraction anyway."
Mary spent several days trying to write a suitable letter but for whatever reason found herself quite unable to do it. If she understood how she really felt it might have been easier to compose it. She could not even decide if she was outraged or not. Everyone else assumed she was and she knew she ought to be, only she was just so tired.
"It's a dreadful invasion of privacy!" Sybil had exclaimed over dinner on Wednesday. "I don't understand why you don't just sue them as you said you would. Anyone would think you didn't care."
Mary pressed her eyes closed. Dear Sybil, always meaning well, but age and experience had not changed her essentially black-and-white approach to life. And life was so very much made up of shades of grey. "I care," she murmured with great feeling.
By Friday the atmosphere at home was stifling and unbearable. Why couldn't people just leave her alone? After breakfast, without saying a word to anyone apart from her maid, she drove herself to the village and got the train to London. It was the first breath of freedom she had experienced since the beginning of Matthew's illness so many months previously and she breathed deeply of it.
The offices of The Express were imposing but Mary felt no fear, only a kind of perverse interest, as she ascended their steps after lunch.
"I'd like to see Lord Carlisle," she demanded of the secretary.
"Do you have an appointment, ma'am?"
"No, but he'll see me anyway."
"Sorry, but without an appointment, nobody is-"
Mary flexed her shoulders, every inch the aristocrat. "Kindly inform Lord Carlisle that the Countess of Grantham is here to see him."
The secretary was unimpressed. "Sorry, but rank doesn't impress us here, your Ladyship."
"Very well," she replied and pushed past the desk, "I'll announce myself."
"You can't-" The woman jumped up from her desk, just as the door behind her opened to reveal the newspaper magnate himself. "My lord, I couldn't stop her. She would-"
Mary stopped in her tracks and drew in a breath. The years had been kind to Richard Carlisle, the silver in his hair only adding more distinction to his profile. His grey eyes were as sharp as ever and the corners of his lips twitched up at the sight of her. He did not look surprised.
"Of course you couldn't. Please come in, Lady Grantham. I have been wondering when I would hear from you."
She shot him a suspicious glare before preceding him into his office. Lord Carlisle closed the door behind her with a click. "Sit down, Mary. Drink?"
"No. And take care; you have no right to address me so intimately."
"Old habits die hard. I apologise." He poured himself a brandy and came round to perch on the side of his desk, the added height giving him an advantage over her. "To what do I owe this pleasure?"
"You know perfectly well it isn't a pleasure. I told your stooges not to write about my husband's funeral and they did. For that, I intend to bring legal action against your paper."
He chuckled. "Legal action? You're a better business woman than that, Lady Grantham. Let it slide."
"Why should I? Matthew deserves a better obituary than what your dirty little rag can provide."
"Ah, I see." He tilted his head. "Tell me, Lady Grantham, what did you object to so much? The phrasing of it, the photograph of the graveyard – did it not capture the spirit of the day with proper reverence and-"
"Oh, shut up!" cried Mary suddenly, jumping to her feet, trembling all over, and turned her back on him in an effort to get herself under control. "I don't know why I came."
Lord Carlisle raised one eyebrow. "Evidently not." His voice softened slightly. "I'm truly sorry for any offence given – it really wasn't meant that way – and for your loss."
Mary's shoulders shook. "No," she said, her voice tight and sticking in her throat. "No, you're not. You can have no idea, no idea at all, how I feel, what it is to lose-"
She couldn't go on and, clasping her hand over her mouth, fled the room, pushing past the astonished secretary. Somehow she found her way to one of the large, well-ordered female wash rooms that were on every floor, flung herself into one of the cubicles, and collapsed to the floor in heart-wrenching sobs.
She would not return to London.
She returned to London almost a year later on the invitation of Lord and Lady Brankson to see a play that had got particularly good reviews. It was hard to deny that it was good to get away from Downton, even if just thinking like that felt like a betrayal. Sybil and her family had long returned to Ireland, William was at Cambridge, and the three younger children were at school. It was just her, Mama, and Barrow left behind to run Downton. Mary could not help thinking that, all things considered, they made quite a good team. Matthew would have approved.
The play was a comedy and it was an excellent production and Mary found herself laughing as she had not laughed in months over the slapstick humour. Emerging into the bar at the interval, ahead of her friends, the first thing she saw was Lord Carlisle and his daughter propping up the bar. She would have turned away but she had been seen.
"Lady Grantham," he addressed her with suave courtesy, just as if the last time they had met she had not run out of his office in tears.
"Lord Carlisle," she replied unenthusiastically.
He observed her a second then stepped aside to allow his companion greater prominence. "May I introduce you to my daughter, Caroline?"
"Miss Carlisle and I have already met," replied Mary.
"How do you do? We didn't like each other very much then, but it must have been a trying day for your ladyship, so please think nothing of it," said Caroline, meeting her eyes with a bold, clear gaze.
Mary raised her eyebrows as Richard made a half-hearted attempt to conceal his amusement. "You must be very proud of her, my lord; she has inherited all your charm!"
"I'm so glad you approve of her, Lady Grantham," he replied in the same tone.
Caroline's bright, grey eyes looked between them and then she smiled a frigid, polite smile. "I am sure you have much to talk about together. A pleasure to meet you again, Lady Grantham. Excuse me." She kissed her father on the cheek, deposited her glass on the bar and disappeared into the crowd.
Richard and Mary watched her go before he turned to her. "I've brought her up to be independent."
"So I see."
"She'll have everything when I'm gone. I make sure she learns something new every day. Can I get you a drink?"
Her gaze flickered to his and after a second of hesitation, she accepted. "Thank you. Leaving your great empire to a young woman. Are you sure that's wise?"
"I would have thought you'd approve. No entails to get in the way of the smooth course of true inheritance here, but you wouldn't care about that, would you, with those three strapping boys of yours."
Mary shrugged. Coming to London and seeing the reality of what she read about in the papers – the sandbags, the blacked out windows, the signs to new air-raid shelters – it terrified her.
"I would wish they were all rather younger than they are," she admitted quietly.
"Hmm." Not even Richard Carlisle, placed as he was at the vanguard of international news, could trivialise these fears.
The countess forced her worries away. She looked at him with a desperate kind of smile. "But you have done rather well for yourself! The peerage, The Express, the wireless station, and Miss Carlisle of course. Your wife-"
"I divorced her," he replied bluntly, handing Mary her drink.
"I – I'm sorry." She was not quite sure what the appropriate response was to losing one's spouse through divorce.
"Don't be. She got my money in a settlement which was what she wanted – and I got Caroline, which was what I wanted, so a happy ending for everyone."
All the same, he spoke bitterly and Mary frowned before looking down. "Well, I'm truly sorry that it did not work out."
He only replied by tossing back his drink. "Nothing lasts forever, Lady Grantham."
She stared into her glass, taking in the sharpness of the ice and how it contrasted to the luminous curves of the slice of lemon. She swirled them round gently, replying softly, "No, it doesn't."
"Nor would we wish it to."
Now she looked at him curiously, not sure if she agreed with this or not but before she could reply they were joined by Lord and Lady Brankson. Introductions were made and the conversation became general about the play until the end of the interval. As the party split to return to the auditorium, Lord Brankson took Mary's arm and leaned into her, speaking anxiously.
"Richard Carlisle, after all this time. Mary, I'm surprised at you."
She twisted her head away from him, suddenly feeling a flair of irritation at his well-meaning support. "I'm glad you are. I can't be predictable all my life, can I, Evelyn?"
He shook his head. "My dear, I've never found you predictable. Only – think what Lord Grantham would have said if he saw you talking to that man."
Mary raised her eyebrows and pulled her arm out of his. "Who do you mean? My father, my husband, or my son? None of them are here and even if they were – none would presume to speak on my behalf."
"Mary-" began Lady Brankson imploringly, but her husband stopped her with a hand on her arm.
She entered the auditorium quickly, leaving the others to follow her, ashamed of the way her hands trembled and folding them tightly on her lap where it would not be visible.
The day that Downton Abbey opened its doors to two hundred school children from north London, the countess invited The Express and, in honour of her ladyship's personal connection with the editor, Lord Carlisle himself came to cover the event, bringing his daughter with him.
Behind her, everything was in place for the new arrivals. Spare bedrooms had become dormitories and classrooms and the library was a school hall. Her mother had drawn up the rotas for the extra maids needed to run the school – she was good at that sort of thing – and Mary remained in charge of the teachers. She even thought that she might teach herself if she had time. History or literature, something manageable. Now was the calm before the storm and she stood at the door, gripping the handles of her eldest son's wheelchair as if for dear life.
William tipped his head back. "I wish I could have done more. But-" He gestured uselessly at the where his legs should have been.
"Well, so do I," replied his mother, with practised carelessness. "Which is why you ended up doing all the most boring administrative tasks nobody else wanted. Very good of you, darling. Grandma and I appreciated it so much."
"I thought that's what your game was, Mother! Well played. But if I have to stuff another envelope I really think I'll go distracted."
"Will you, dear? And what exactly will you do about it if I want you to?" she replied without much visible concern.
William shook his head. "I'll stuff you, Mother, that's what I'll do!" He laughed.
The Carlisles arrived next, in advance of the schools. Mary looked over the daughter, not especially pleased to see her again, but unable to help admiring her quiet, smart, grown up appearance in contrast to their last meeting four years ago. She was not the only one taking notice. William's eyes had widened and his jaw dropped a little. At his side, his mother pretended not to notice, ignored the deep pang of recognition and longing that she felt seeing such a look on her son's face, and performed the introductions with her usual grace.
"Takes me back," said Richard, rocking backwards and forwards on his heels as they all stared down the driveway at the buses just appearing round the curve on the horizon. "You're a brave woman, Lady Grantham, doing this all by yourself."
"I don't know what you mean," she replied. "I'm not alone."
William twisted as best he could in his chair. "While my mother and grandmother have naturally been very helpful, Lord Carlisle, I'll have you know that the transformation of Downton into a school for evacuated children is taking place under my orders and in the way I feel is best."
"Lord Grantham, I did not mean to-"
"Lord Grantham, would you say that your injury has been a blessing in disguise, giving you the opportunity to preside over these changes to your home in person rather than from the distance of the army?" interrupted Caroline Carlisle with a rudeness that no longer surprised Mary.
In fact, seeing her son's face close off into a mixture of mulish obstinacy and amazed admiration with no sign of the offence he probably ought to have felt, she experienced a strange sense of relief.
"Actually," replied the earl, "I would much rather have left it to the women to mess up than be stuck in this situation. Not," he added with a quick smile, "that they would have done. But these things happen, you know and we have to make the best of them."
Miss Carlisle stared at him with unflinching and unreadable attention before abruptly starting to write in her notepad. Mary's eyes met Richard's and her lips parted at the amusement she saw in his expression.
"Have I just made an official statement to the press?" continued William cheerfully. "How tremendously exciting!"
"The young Earl of Grantham is excited at the prospect of speaking to the press..." murmured Caroline, maintaining a rigid poker face, but Mary could not help wondering at what was really going on beneath the polished, cold façade.
"Oh, here they come!" interrupted Richard. "You'd better go out and meet them, Mary. Caroline and I will stick in the background for now."
Mary took a deep breath, feeling suddenly nervous, and released the brakes on William's chair. She glanced back at Richard with a slight frown but they were both melting against the wall of the house. There would be time enough to confront him later.
As she wheeled her son out onto the gravel, he hissed up at her. "Mother, she's so... I know you wouldn't approve but I just-"
"Forget it, darling," she replied immediately. "You really don't have a chance."
For a second there was silence. Then William gripped the wheels and started propelling himself forwards without her help. Mary fell back. "Oh don't I!" he muttered.
Mary twisted her head round and met Richard's eyes. For a peculiar moment she felt almost like laughing.
"You brought her on purpose," Lady Grantham accused Lord Carlisle as they stood by the window of the drawing room much later, once all the children had been welcomed and packed off to explore the grounds with their teachers.
He looked at her sideways. "It's a human interest story, Lady Grantham, so I thought it could do with a woman's touch."
Mary sipped her tea and watched the pair on the lawn as the young woman tried to push the wheelchair forwards but wasn't strong enough. She ran round to face the earl and let fly a stream of vitriol at which he appeared to laugh.
"Very touching. You know perfectly well what I mean."
He shrugged, eyes narrowing as his daughter made a second attempt to get the chair to move, struggling with all her might. Then William leaned forwards and did something causing it to leap forwards, leaving her tripping ungracefully behind it.
"He had the brakes on," Mary murmured rather smugly.
"That's hardly playing fair, is it?" retorted Richard.
"No. But then," she remarked, looking directly at him, "she must be used to that."
"Oh, come on, Mary, I may be many things but I am fair in all my dealings, with my daughter as with anyone."
She frowned and began to twist her ring round her finger, an anxious and familiar habit. "That's twice today you've called me by my Christian name. Is my title so hard to remember?"
He kept his eyes on her. "You will always be Mary Crawley to me, especially here."
The countess did not look at him, but kept her eyes fixed on the two figures outside. Miss Carlisle had given up on the chair and was walking beside Lord Grantham at a bit of a trot, as he wheeled himself over the grass to a bench under an old Cedar tree where she could sit down next to him.
"I'm still Mary Crawley, you know," she replied eventually. "That was the beauty of it."
He looked at her a while longer, thoughtfully, before also turning his attention outside. "I'm sorry about your son," he said finally. "Truly sorry. I hadn't realised he was so badly injured."
"Don't be!" she cried quickly. "He's alive, isn't he? And he's happy too, believe it or not."
Richard met her eyes quickly and looked away. "Forgive me, you're right. And as for you, Mary, you're also a survivor. You always were."
"I don't have much choice about that though, do I?"
"Oh, I think you do. It's something I always admired about you."
Mary rolled her eyes but could not conceal a slight flutter of pleasure that she had not felt in a very long time indeed. "Speaking of admiration, Richard? At our age?"
"Do I shock you terribly?"
She laughed turning away from the window and walking across the room to the tea table, knowing perfectly well that he was following her every movement with his eyes.
"You'll have to try much harder than that!"
She stopped still at the sound of his voice behind her, suddenly so much lower. "I intend to."
Mary swallowed, put her cup down and then span round to face him. "You have a daughter, Richard," she said in her most neutral tones.
"Assuming you have a grandson the one thing you cannot offer him is a title, am I right? Yours is only for life."
The corner of his lips turned up. "As usual, Mary, you are correct."
They looked at each other for a long time and then Mary raised and lowered her shoulders in a slow shrug. "You never were quite successful at infiltrating the aristocracy. Such a shame!"
She bit her lip, her eyes dancing at him and he had to laugh even if it was partly at his own expense.
"I've made my will watertight," he continued abruptly.
"Oh?" She walked slowly back over to him and the window.
"Her husband will get none of it on her marriage. Call me selfish if you like, Mary, but my fortune will stay with my own flesh and blood and not go to support someone else's crumbling estates."
She inclined her head. "Quite right too!"
"But Downton's been doing rather well, hasn't it?" he persisted. "Mostly thanks to you, I understand."
Now Mary laughed with dry humour. "How like you to bring up my financial affairs over tea."
"You know perfectly well why I'm interested."
She met his gaze straight on. "I do, and it's none of your business. However," she added, putting up a hand to stop him for interrupting, "I think you will find that while I have no intention of interfering in my children's lives, I may prove to be more supportive of their decisions than perhaps my parents were of mine."
He took a step closer to her. "I believe you, Mary – in every respect apart from your statement of non-interference."
"I have a country estate and two hundred children to look after. When would I have the time?" But she smiled all the same.
Both looked out of the window automatically. Under the tree sat Caroline, clutching her notepad without writing in it and listening with serious, breathless attention to her companion who was leaning over the armrest of the wheelchair towards her, so caught up in what he was telling her that he seemed to have forgotten everything about his uncomfortable situation, who he was or who she was.
Richard looked suddenly at his watch. "It's late. If we're going to catch the train back this evening, we need to be going now."
Mary's eyes flickered from the couple outside to his. "Won't you stay to dinner?"
"Thank you but I need to be back in London early tomorrow."
She shrugged with a light smile at him. "Ah well, no rest for the wicked."
He took her hand and held it between them. "Thank you for your hospitality, Lady Grantham." Glancing round the room he shook his head slightly. "I must say, I never thought I would be within these walls again."
"And I hope," began Mary rather anxiously and swallowed. "I hope that this will not be the last occasion when you will be. You – and Miss Carlisle – are welcome here at any time."
He pressed her hand and raised it to his lips, kissing it very lightly. "I'll remember that, Mary."
She felt uncomfortable, aware that she should not feel how she did feel and pulled away abruptly. "Of course, if there is a single inaccuracy in your exclusive report about today or my house is painted in anything less than glowing colours, I shall take it back immediately!"
He smiled gravely. "I give you my word that it will be as you wish."
She blinked and forced herself to respond cheerfully and lightly. "Well then. I shall have to be content with that." They stared at each other for another long moment before she continued, "Until next time, Lord Carlisle."
He broke from her, moving towards the door. There he paused only long enough to say, "Until next time, Lady Grantham." Then he was gone.