"Have you girls completely taken leave of your senses?" the Earl of Grantham asked his elder two daughters, regarding them with an expression of incredulity that exactly matched his tone. "No, I most certainly will not give you train and boat fare to Ireland!"
Mary and Edith exchanged a look which plainly stated that they had expected just this reaction, and had planned accordingly.
"Fine," said Mary, turning back to her father with a shrug, just as she had mentally rehearsed before they approached him in the library. "Richard has already said that he will be happy to pay our travel expenses."
"Oh, Carlisle's behind this, is he?" Robert flung back, his face reddening. "I would have thought a man who makes his fortune selling the more shocking details of the current Irish political climate would realise a father might not allow his two English daughters to go waltzing off to Dublin because of the expense, but because of the threat to their safety."
"That's precisely why he's offered to escort us," Mary said. That, and Richard wanted to check up on how the former chauffeur was settling into his new career as a journalist for the Irish Telegram--though she thought the better of mentioning this unhelpful angle.
"Yes," Edith added. "Who better to keep us out of trouble than a man who knows exactly where to find it?"
Robert snorted. "If you meant that to set my mind at ease, my dear, you have grossly underestimated my deep and abiding love for my daughters, which seeks to protect them from all forms of danger."
"So deep and abiding," Mary said, arching an eyebrow, "that you've allowed the youngest English daughter to waltz off to Dublin to marry a revolutionary, with a pat on the head and a few pounds in her pocket, along with a sound refusal to attend her wedding?"
With a scowl, Robert turned and opened his desk drawer, and took out a handful of banknotes.
"If I'm completely honest--" Richard's voice crackled over the phone when Mary rang him to finalise the arrangements for their trip to Ireland.
"Are you ever anything but?" she interrupted.
In the brief pause, she imagined his humourless level gaze. "I'm surprised you convinced your father to go along with your scheme so easily."
"Oh? You shouldn't be. After all, I've had you to teach me the art of exploitation."
"And what did you exploit?"
"Why, paternal guilt, of course."
"Brava. Though your father ought to feel something considerably stronger than guilt for refusing to attend his own daughter's wedding."
Though Mary quite agreed, she said, "Yes, seize the moral high ground while you can."
"I shall," Richard replied. "Especially as I exercise quite dubious morality in travelling with a lady to whom I am not yet married."
"Nothing to worry about there, with Edith for a chaperone. She's had a lifetime to practice making a nuisance of herself when it comes to my love life." If only she'd made a nuisance of herself when it came to Kemal Pamuk... "You should have seen her when we went to stop Sybil from eloping. She was quite the maniac behind the wheel."
"You Crawley women have a disturbing fascination with running people over," Richard said. "Which makes me very glad we're to travel by railway."
"Why? Do you plan on doing anything that might give Edith the urge to run you over?"
"Well...you never know if we might be inspired by the love that transcends class and rank and decide to make it a double wedding."
Mary snorted. "I'd be worried about that being a very real possibility if only I weren't quite certain you're looking forward having a society wedding to splash across the society pages of the tabloids even more than I am."
"That's not saying much, considering how little you seem to look forward to our wedding," Richard replied. "And remember, Mary dear, I can splash anything across the society pages of the tabloids."
Even if Mary had wanted to pass the journey from Yorkshire to Dublin in conversation with her fiancé, who seemed to prefer the company of his newspapers anyway, Edith proved a most effective chaperone, indeed, from time to time reading aloud to them from the guidebook she'd found in a bookshop in the village.
"I don't suppose we'll have time to visit Christ Church or St. Patrick's Cathedral?" she asked.
Without looking up from his newspaper, Richard remarked, "You won't be getting enough of church at the wedding itself?"
"Edith can never get enough of churches."
Before Edith could get a word out of her mouth, open in retort, Richard replied, "I'll let you two fight out how to entertain yourselves tonight. I'll be out with the boys from the office for Branson's stag party."
Mary and Edith met each other's eyes across the train car.
"Stag party?" the latter dared to inquire.
"Don't ask," Mary admonished. "I get the feeling it's something incredibly middle-class."
"On the contrary," Richard said, folding up the broadsheet. "You'd be astonished to see what shenanigans aristocratic bridegrooms get up to. It seems a man's last night as a bachelor is the one great equaliser."
"That sounds right up Branson's alley," Mary said. She turned to Richard, and considered him for a moment. "And yours, for that matter. Is the line between Socialist and Capitalist finer than I realised?"
"If you go far enough in either direction, you gradually end up in the same place. I do suspect Branson and I share a few values--apart from our affinity for the Earl of Grantham's brunette daughters."
Out the corner of her eye, Mary saw Edith wince as she pretended to thumb through her Dublin guidebook.
"And Irishmen and Scotsmen have, historically, made a sport of annoying the English ruling elite," Mary said. Chuckling, Richard reached for another newspaper from his pile, but she asked, "So where will you have this stag party."
"The hotel club, perhaps. Or a pub. Dublin has a number."
"So I've heard," Mary said, averting her gaze to the window.
"An Irishman and a Scotsman walked into a pub," Edith mused from behind her book. "It sounds rather like the start of a bad joke, doesn't it?"
"Darlings!" cried Sybil, flinging her arms around each of her sisters in turn the instant they stepped off the train and pressing kisses to their cheeks much as Mary recalled her doing when she was a cherub-cheeked toddler. "I'm so happy you've come. I did a proper Irish jig when I got your letter." Her smile faltered a little as she added, "Did Papa give you too much trouble about it?"
"Not as much as we gave him."
Mary hoped her reply didn't sound too glib; she knew well what it was not to have their father's approval, but she didn't want to mar her sister's joy, for all she rather agreed that Sybil was a fool to choose this.
"No," said Sybil, brightening. "I'm sure not." She leaned around Mary and extended her hand to Richard as he approached, briefcase in hand. "Thank you for coming, too, Sir Richard."
"Just Richard, please--we'll be family in a few weeks."
"Tom's looking forward to speaking with you about the newspaper. He's full of ideas for it."
"I hope he's more full of ideas about his wedding tomorrow."
"He's looking forward to the party, too, of course," said Sybil, laughing. She turned her attention again to her sisters. "Speaking of which, I hope you two have something exciting in mind for my hen night."
Mary looked to Edith, who mirrored her round-eyed expression and gave a slight shrug of her shoulders.
Richard's mouth was suddenly close to Mary's ear as he leaned in to say in tones not low enough to be out of Sybil's hearing, "That would be the female equivalent of a stag night."
Of course it was. Mary rolled her shoulders back as Richard straightened up, chuckling as he strode off to instruct a porter in the collection of their luggage.
"Edith amused herself with a guidebook on the journey over. She thought we might tour a few of the local cathedrals in the hope you might change your mind and become a nun."
"You're too modest, Mary," Edith said, "giving me credit for your ideas. I think it would be much more fun to go to the pub and see how the Irish Socialist and the Scottish Capitalist get on after they've had a pint or two."
"When you told Papa Richard knew where to find trouble," Mary said, crowded with her sisters into a booth in a shadowy corner of The Stag's Head, "I thought you meant he'd keep us out of it, not that we'd follow him into it."
"At least he had the sense to keep well away from the one Branson suggested," Edith said. "The one Michael Collins frequents."
"The Brazen Head," Sybil supplied the name of the public house, no longer so ebullient as when she met them at the train station. "And don't call your future brother-in-law Branson. His name is Tom."
Mary raised her glass of red wine, the ordering of which had made the publican look at her like she was a madwoman. "To fiancés with whom our families aren't on a first name basis."
Giggling, Sybil clinked glasses with her. "I'll drink to that."
"Though to be perfectly fair," said Edith, eying the men to whom her sisters were engaged across the wood panelled dining room, "it would be nothing short of a miracle if either of them knows his own name at this moment."
The soon-to-be Lady Sybil Branson and Lady Mary Carlisle did not disagree, the latter sipping her wine and counting the collection of empty pint cups on the table between Richard and Branson, which represented how far they'd come over the course of the evening.
Two apiece had been enough to bring them off the benign subjects of weddings and work and into the realm of political debate. At first Mary had been rather surprised at how they managed to retain cool heads and make eloquent speeches as the barmaid brought their third round, but by the end of the fourth they had red faces and veins bulging from their foreheads and un-moderated brogues that made it impossible to distinguish what, exactly, they were shouting at each other across the table--though that might also have something to do with a number of words which had not, prior to now, been a part of her vocabulary.
With the fifth round, however, Richard and Branson's argument seemed long forgotten (along with their names) as they staggered around to the same side of the table, linking arms and bellowing out more or less in harmony:
With reason we taste of each heart stirring pleasure,
With reason we drink of the full flowing bowl,
Are jocund and gay, but 'tis all within measure,
For fatal excess will enslave the free soul,
Then come at our bidding to this happy wedding,
No care shall obtrude here, our bliss to annoy,
Come see rural felicity,
Which love and innocence ever enjoy.
"Take note, ladies," said Edith, smirking. "It appears your future husbands have stumbled onto the solution to Britain's internal conflicts."
Sybil cringed, as did Mary when she turned just in time to see Richard swaying on his feet as he hoisted Branson up from what appeared to have been a bit of an altercation with a chair.
"Or perhaps only the furniture."
Though the wedding was set for first thing the following morning, a knock sounded on the hotel room door long before Mary expected to hear one. She tugged on her dressing gown and hastened to answer it, just catching a glimpse of Richard's bloodshot eyes peering out from beneath the brim of his tophat before he thrust a newspaper into her face.
"What's this, Mary?"
She clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a shriek of laughter at the image of her fiancé and Sybil's bridegroom leading the patrons of The Stag's Head in their rousing rendition of "Make Haste to the Wedding," captioned: An Irishman and a Scotsman Walked Into a Pub...
"Well?" he rasped. "Is this some kind of joke?"
Mary shrugged. "You did say you could splash anything across the pages of the tabloids, Richard dear."