“You don’t like my daughter much, do you?” Martha Levinson had little time for English airs and ways. Some of the Aristocrats with whom she found herself socialising were worse than the Vanderbilts, and with not nearly as much money.
The Vanderbilts could at least throw a good party, she thought as she needled the Countess of Crawley with her questions. Tonight’s ball was dry and boring. The same music, the same dances, and the food wasn’t even worth mentioning. The English might have titles, but they sure didn’t know how to have a good time.
When Violet started on what she was sure was a non-committal answer, Martha snorted, letting out a loud laugh that was entirely at odds with how a lady was supposed to behave. She enjoyed that, enjoyed behaving outrageously and watching the reactions of so many stuffy fuddy-duddies. She didn’t need excuses made for her, she never had. It had gotten her in trouble in New York, much to Isidore’s chagrin. Martha did what she wanted, led the pack rather than followed, and the Levinsons had enough money that for the most part it didn’t matter. Society would get over themselves, and next party they’d be back, and so would Cora and Howard.
It had been Isidore’s idea to marry Cora to someone with a title. He’d worked hard to build his fortune, and he wanted the legitimacy that came with being related to the Aristocracy. Martha wasn’t fussed about those kind of things; she simply wanted to see her daughter in good marriage. Love wasn’t the issue; she knew that Isidore had been more attracted to her own money once upon a time and their marriage was fine. How could Cora -- who’d grown up in America with every privilege money could buy -- come to live in a place full of stuffed shirts like England? But she also knew how these things worked and there were some times that arguing with her husband would get her nowhere. The whole journey over to England she’d been asking herself why she’d ever married such a stubborn man.
But she recognised a vulture when she saw one, and had steered her Cora away from them as best she could. Until her fool of a daughter had gone and done it. She’d fallen for a Viscount with a big house and next to no money. At least the Viscount seemed fond of her (even if he was fonder of her fortune). Violet Crawley -- unlike some of the women around this place -- wasn’t a vulture and there were times Martha was sure the Countess couldn’t have cared less about the money.
“The rest of the women here would be ecstatic if my Cora had chosen them. The money that’s coming with her, good God, it’s worth three of your titles. But you don’t like my daughter. I can tell.”
“What isn’t there to like?” The response was dry, at odds withMartha’s exclamations. Violet couldn’t understand what was worth being so excited about. She’d done everything that was required, there was nothing to fault her on. But one never knew with these Americans. Always up in arms about something, it seemed. “A title-hunting, fortune-bearing American. It’s what every Mother dreams of for her only son.”
“Well, from what I hear, that fortune is going to save your derrieres. You might try looking down your nose less. Wouldn’t hurt to be a bit appreciative. Believe me, you should see some of those other ‘title-hunting fortune-hunters’ out there.” Martha’s tone was entirely pleasant and nearly pedestrian. It was as if they were discussing what to have for lunch, not the vast fortune that would come as a dowry if their children married. “Noses on some of those girls like pigs, and faces even a mother would be challenged to love. Loosen up.”
“I assure you, I am quite loose enough already,” Violet insisted, wondering how much longer she must endure this torture for. Wasn’t it enough that the Earl had agreed to Robert marrying the American, must she be expected to socialise with her mother? The daughter had some graces at least, and knew enough to understand that one didn’t mention posteriors at a public gathering. “I didn’t know you were French as well as American.”
Martha hooted in laughter once she got Violet’s obtuse joke. “French. Hardly. Couldn’t stand the place, France. Full of French people. They’re worse than you English.”
“Then it would seem we have something in common.” Violet smiled tightly, wondering what sin she was paying for with this conversation. Surely she had led a better life than this? “In our dislike of the French. Who would have thought?”
“We’re about to have more than that in common.” Martha looked out to the dance floor, where Cora and her beau were finishing a set. Cora had all the training that Martha didn’t, and couldn’t have cared to. Finishing schools that taught lessons in comportment and dancing and how to entertain at a dinner table were preposterous, but Martha suspected they’d hold her daughter in good stead. She’d grown up in Society, but they never watched how a person folded their napkins in New York or Cincinnati! “So you better start getting used to it. Your grandchildren will be half-American from the looks of it. It’s a new world Violet, I’m telling you. Get used to it.”
A new world indeed. Violet stood still as a post, waiting for yet another photograph. Martha had insisted on this, multiple plates being used in one sitting in order to create a colour photograph. Completely unnecessary and a waste of money and time. The thing likely wouldn’t even work, the Countess was sure, having asked the photographer to take a more traditional photo as back up.
“Done. Thank you My Lord, My Lady,” the photographer smiled at them, his assistant boxing the plates up carefully as the assembled group moved and stretched.
“Then as we’re finally finished, might I suggest the bride and groom go greet their guests?” It had taken nearly an hour to get all that was needed, and Violet was very aware of the guests in the reception room. “I’d hate to keep them waiting even longer.”
Robert and Cora were happy to oblige, still basking in the feeling of being freshly wed. That would fade fast enough, Violet knew, and reality would settle in as it should. Ceremonies like this were beautiful and important, but they were rare for a reason.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Violet had to stop from shuddering at that voice. Martha’s accent grated on her nerves, the months leading up to the wedding having been nearly more than she could bear. Cora’s fortune, as the Earl her husband was fond of reminding her, was of great help to Downton. But had Robert needed to marry an American to find the funds to shore up the house? It seemed so vulgar.
What’s done is done, she reminded herself, fixing a smile as she turned to look at the mother of the bride. “That depends on what you’re comparing it to. Better than being savaged by hounds, then yes.”
“Violet, you’re a hoot.” Martha grinned and shook her head, knowing that Violet hadn’t meant that one as a joke but choosing to interpret it that way out of obstinate determination to loosen the other woman up. Hooking her arm through Violet’s, she steered them toward the reception room, plucking a glass of champagne off a waiter’s tray as they walked. “Colour photography is all the rage in New York right now. Very expensive.”
Violet was sure that the other woman kept mentioning money in order to drive her mad. It was yet more proof of the classlessness of the woman, as was the way she insisted on touching as if they were intimate friends. Violet bore it with all the grace she could muster. “So you keep mentioning.”
She took her own glass of champagne, nearly wishing it was something stronger. Driven to drink at only two in the afternoon by an American. Her world had certainly changed and not necessarily for the better. “With the wedding done, you must be eager to get home to Cincinnati. I imagine you’ll be leaving quite soon?”
“Soon enough,” Martha knew that Violet was eager for her to go, and a part of her was tempted to stay because of it. She wasn’t spiteful – not truly – and missed her home. Martha missed people who weren’t shocked every time she exclaimed over something, people who didn’t pay more attention to a gaffe in etiquette than they did the world around them. “Though I considered staying on until after they had their first baby. I can’t imagine it would be more than a year.”
Violet nearly choked on her champagne, both at the idea of Martha being here for that long and for the mention of such things. A quick look around to make sure no one had heard (the detestable Lady Cristerly would adore hearing that sort of comment, and trot the story out for years, she was sure) before finally realising that Martha was – that she had to be – making some sort of jest. Violet rallied, unwilling to be played the fool. “Then you must stay at Downton for the duration. My husband would insist. Now that the season is over there’s really no reason to be in London.”
“Stay here? At Downton?” Martha blanched, Violet smiling triumphantly when she realised her offer had the effect she’d desired. “I couldn’t impose.”
“Oh, no imposition,” Violet was brightening, waving over the abysmal Lady Cristerly. “Come, let me introduce you to some of the neighbours.”
“As much as I’d love that,” Martha was the one who’d rallied now, forcing a smile, “I
hould find my daughter. It is, after all, her day.”
“It is indeed.” Violet nodded at Martha as she swept off, realising belatedly that now she had to entertain Lady Cristerly. Surely it wasn’t too early for something a bit stronger?
“Three years, and it’s a girl.” Martha harrumphed, having started in on her harangue before her bags were even unpacked.
“Mother.” Cora sounded tired as she greeted her mother with a kiss, leading her inside the house. “It is a girl, and we love her and you will too. There’s still plenty of time to have a boy.”
“You’re 24. Not getting any younger.” Her point, mostly, was that the Crawleys needed an heir. “That’s why he married you, isn’t it? For your money and to set up some sort of archaic dynasty of sons?”
“Mother.” Her response was much more terse this time. She was already tired of Martha’s presence and it had only been a minute or two. “Robert needed my fortune, yes, we both knew that. But it isn’t like that now. We’re very happy and we’re sure we will have a boy next time.”
“Next time,” she harrumphed, “try not to take 3 years about it next time. I know these English are stuffy but-“
Cora sighed as they entered the drawing room where her mother-in-law was taking her tea. “Why don’t you two catch up whilst I go fetch the Mary and the Nurse.”
“Good. Go.” She shooed her daughter away, plunking herself down on the settee across from Violet. “I noticed you don’t have an automobile yet. It’s 1892, nearly the new century. You know, we’ve had one for two years in Cincinnati, you should really embrace change.”
“A new baby isn’t change enough for you?” Violet had known Martha would exasperate her, she simply hadn’t expected it to happen so soon. “The carriage works perfectly well, and it is quite respectable and reliable.”
“Respectable and reliable.” Martha nodded her thanks at the boy who brought her a tea – a footmen or some other silly title, she was sure – even if she would have preferred something stronger. “That’s how it always rolls about with you, isn’t it? The world isn’t respectable or reliable and some day this little bubble you’ve built will burst.”
Any response Violet might have made was stopped by the arrival of the Nurse with baby Mary. Martha had no attention for anything else then, and for all of her criticism there was nothing negative she could say once she had Mary in her arms.
Martha cooed and rocked her granddaughter, and even Violet was forced to smile.
“It seems that the English do produce something that’s acceptable to your mother after all,” she said as an aside to Cora, seeing her daughter-in-law in a more favourable light in the presence of both a grandchild and that loud American woman. “I never thought it possible.”
Martha was still entranced by the child, but not so much that she couldn’t keep up on what was being said about her. She glanced up at Violet, a nearly wicked glint in her eye. “This baby is half-American, remember.”
“How could I manage to forget, with you here to remind me?” Violet said dryly, as she returned to her chair, her hope for a peaceable few moments vanished.
“Mother,” Cora warned again, though this time it wasn’t clear which of the women she was talking to.
“We’re fine dear,” they spoke at once, looking at each other in near-embarrassment.
Cora fought hard to hide her smile. The two women were very different on the surface, but beneath it they were ever so similar. Both stubborn, domineering women who for all of their foibles, loved their families. “Of course you are. I’ll just go fetch Robert. I’m sure he wants to say hello.”
“Grandmother,” Edith slipped out of the car that had driven her and Violet from the station, happy to finally be in New York and at their destination. Smiling at Martha waiting on the the steps, she turned and held a hand out to assist Violet only to be waved away (and nearly battered) with a walking stick.
“I may be old, but I can still get out of a car,” Violet insisted, planting her stick and her feet on solid ground. The house was nice enough, she supposed. Modern, like Rosamund’s house in London, and very much not her style. She looked to their hostess, giving her appreciation perfunctorily. “Thank you for having us.”
“My granddaughter comes to New York, of course I would have you.” Her embrace for Edith was enthusiastic, holding her at arm’s length to give her a proper once over. “Look at you. You’ve changed entirely. This journalism you’ve taken up suits you.”
“Thank you.” Edith nearly bubbled with exuberance, her excitement uncontainable. “New York was the home of the women’s suffrage movement in America, and so much has been happening here since the war. I couldn’t say no when the Times suggested a series of articles. It’s rather thrilling actually.”
“Of course it is, dear.” Martha kissed her cheek again before letting go, turning to look at Violet again. “Whereas you haven’t changed a bit. Still wearing black, I see. When will you give up that outdated custom?”
“When they bury me, I imagine,” Violet snapped back. She’d agreed to come on this journey to chaperone Edith, not that her granddaughter truly needed it. But it would be improper for her to make the voyage alone, and Violet had to admit to some morbid curiosity about this America that her daughter-in-law hailed from. As of yet, all of her fears were realised. It was a dreadful place, and staying with Mrs Levinson wasn’t likely to make her change her mind.
“You really haven’t changed.” Martha escorted them up the steps to the townhouse and inside. “I suppose you’ll want to freshen up, but I’ve had the cook prepare a light lunch if you’d like that first.”
“Actually-“ Edith broke in, biting at her lip and looking as if she was going to jump out of her skin. “I was hoping to head to the Times offices after I freshen up? Would you mind terribly? I’m awfully keen to meet them, and I’ll be back for supper.” She turned to Violet, “You don’t mind do you Granny?”
“Of course she doesn’t mind,” Martha answered for the other woman, “it’ll give us time to catch up. Now scoot. Make sure you’re ready to tell us all about it over dinner tonight. I’ve invited a few friends.”
“Of course she has.” Violet resisted a raise of her brows. She couldn’t begrudge Edith that, though the idea of an afternoon spent with Martha after their journey was the last thing she wanted. “Just what I’ve been looking forward to. A catch up.”
“Thank you. It means so much.” Edith kissed them both, following a maid down the hall.
“Well. She certainly has changed enough for both of us,” Martha said once Edith had vanished. “She was never my favourite. Always the most prim and proper. I never thought it would be her who visited, always Mary or Sybil-“
The mention of Sybil cast a pall over things, as it often seemed to. “I was devastated when I heard. I’m so sorry. She was always such a sweet girl.”
“She was,” Violet agreed, trying to think of Sybil’s happy smile and her generous belief in everyone that she met. She should have changed the subject back to Edith, or to the location of her rooms for the duration, but something stopped her. Perhaps the tiredness, perhaps Martha had simply worn her down through her incessant Americanness. “I miss her still. More than I thought possible.”
“I know.” Martha hadn’t known any of her granddaughters extremely well, it came from living so far. Sybil was impossible to not love, while caring for Edith had, frankly, sometimes been a challenge.
“That’s what we bear, isn’t it? Growing old,” it was the first time she’d admitted that aloud, “it’s hard to lose so many friends. Family.”
Violet nodded, coughing to cover her out of place emotion. This wasn’t the time and it was certainly not the place for it. “If I could see my room? I need to have a short rest before lunch.”
Martha fixed her with a look. Just when she thought she’d gotten the other woman to loosen up. It had only taken twenty six years. “Down the hall. The girl will show you.”
She clapped and the maid appeared. “Show Lady Grantham to her room.”
Violet was tired, and had begun to wonder if this trip had been the best of ideas. Nearly having an emotional moment in a front hall. She could barely believe herself. America was a strange place indeed if it had brought her to that.
“It’s all right, you know,” Martha said as Violet retreated down the hall. “We’re old women now, we’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re still the matriarchs of our families in anything but name.”
“Maybe you’re fooling yourself,” the answer floated back to her and Martha smiled. The world might change but Violet Crawley and herself? They never would.