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The Greatest Gift of All

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Christmas Eve, 1923

Lady Edith Crawley, the second born daughter to the Earl and Countess of Grantham, gripped the top rung of the wooden ladder she was perched on tightly as she bent sideways and stretched to place one of her favorite ornaments on the massive Christmas tree. Imported from Germany, the exquisite triangular piece she held in her hands was crafted with metal wire and hand blown mercury glass that was beaded into garland, framing two delicate glass bells that hung in its center in two tiers.

Returning to her original position on the ladder, Edith straightened and eyed the ornament for a long moment as it dangled on the wide branch that was now its home. Though relatively confident she had chosen the perfect spot on the Norwegian fir to showcase the ornament's beauty, she sought the opinion of her brother-in-law, who had so far proved to be quite helpful from his position in the Great Hall, just far back enough to view the entire tree.

"Matthew, what do you think? Should I move it a bit to the right or should I leave it?"

Hearing someone clear their throat behind her, Edith turned her head and was surprised to find her elder sister standing in the space Matthew had occupied.

"I think it looks perfect exactly where it is," Mary responded on behalf of her spouse.

Edith nodded and smiled, "I'm glad you think so…" Then surveying the room quickly, she added, "…but where did Matthew run off to? He was here a few moments ago and seemed to be enjoying his mission in making the final call on the ornament placement."

"I have no doubt that he was, but I have found that he is unable to stay away from what he enjoys the most for more than an hour or so," she offered by way of explanation. Then after a short pause, asked, "How long has he been helping you decorate the tree?"

"About that," Edith replied, with a quizzical look on her face.

"I see …Well then, I suspect he is in the nursery as it is near the time Victoria is put down for her nap. In all likelihood, Matthew has dismissed Nanny Dale and is holding our daughter in his arms, singing her a lullaby at this very moment."

Grinning atop her perch in spite of losing her assistant, Edith declared, "She is blessed to have him…as are you...but you know that already."

Mary nodded, uncharacteristically in full agreement with her sister. Then she excused herself to join her husband and their second child as she, too, could not stay away from the nursery for any extended period of time.

Reaching the first landing on her way to the Gallery and the family bedrooms, she heard Edith enlisting Mrs. Hughes to fill Matthew's vacant spot. Then the sound of his melodious voice filling the stairwell drowned out all others. It halted her ascent as she imagined the scene that she was about to witness, and seeing it clearly in her mind, her eyes became misty.

Doing her best to compose herself, she blinked a few times to ward off the tears that were threatening and took a long deep breath. Her sister's words rang in her ears as she exhaled it and she took the remaining steps with alacrity.

Blessed, indeed.

Reaching her destination, Mary opened the door to the nursery that baby Victoria shared with her older brother George and their cousin Sybbie, her late sister Sybil and Tom Branson's daughter. The room now in full view, she found her imagination had not done the scene she conjured in her mind justice.

Though she had expected to find Matthew singing their daughter to sleep, the sight of him ensconced in the mahogany rocker with Victoria nestled against him nearly did her in. The two-month old had one tiny hand wrapped around her father's index finger, her blue eyes locked with his. Their bonding touched her so deeply, that she stood frozen in the doorway.

It seemed inconceivable that this time last year she had believed him dead and buried and now he sat before her holding their second child. The reality of the situation overwhelmed her, bringing fresh tears to her eyes that she could not forestall this time. As they trickled down her face, she silently berated herself for not having a handkerchief when she needed it most.

Whether it was a draft from the hallway that made its way through the still open door or Mary's sniffling that caught his attention, Matthew stopped serenading Victoria and turned his head toward the entrance to the room. Finding his wife dabbing madly at her glistening face, the joyous expression that was planted on his own turned quickly to alarm and he began to rise from his seat.

Half way out of the chair, he asked anxiously, "Darling, what is wrong?"

Mary motioned for him to sit back down and he complied with her request. However, though he was back in his seat, she could see that his face remained creased with worry.

"I'm absolutely fine, darling," she said with conviction. "It seems my hormones are still a bit out of whack since my pregnancy. That's all. The sight of you singing to the baby just moved me to tears." Then pointing to the rivulets of water streaming down her face, she continued, "But rest assured that they are tears of joy, not sorrow. Now, you must stop worrying before you upset Victoria."

At that, Matthew smiled and reached out his hand to her, an invitation to join him and their daughter as he returned his gaze to Victoria. He noticed quickly that the smile that had graced the baby's face moments earlier was now gone and quickly heeded Mary's admonition.

"All is well, little one," he assured the infant, tapping her button nose with his index finger. "Your Mama has come to sing to you and she has the voice of an angel. You are quite lucky."

Victoria's cherry colored lips rose upward and she blew a tiny bubble with her saliva.

Matthew chuckled and then setting his sights on Mary, who now stood beside him gazing lovingly upon their second child, he added, "As am I."

Victoria slept soundly in the bassinet that had at one time or another held every child born and raised at Downton. Over the years, the color and style of its bedding had varied based on the sex of the baby nestled inside it; the current pale pink and white eyelet lace predominant until Matthew and Mary's son George was born. Then the frilly border was replaced with a plain linen binding and color of the bedding switched to that of the future Earl of Grantham's eyes – both of theirs.

Matthew and Mary stood silently side by side, watching their daughter's chest rise and fall, the proud parents smiling in unison as the baby's heart-shaped mouth sucked on an imaginary nipple.

"How did you get rid of Nanny Dale?" Mary whispered in a tone just loud enough for Matthew to hear.

He ginned mischievously at her before returning his eyes to Victoria and replying, "I tied her up, gagged her, and locked her in the closet."

At that Mary covered her mouth with her right hand to stifle her laugh while poking her husband in the side with her left.

"Seriously, darling….How did you manage to dissuade the nanny from performing her duties this time? "

Matthew hung his head sheepishly, biting his lip in order to quell his own amusement. Then he replied in as serious a tone as he could muster, "I convinced Sybbie and George to harangue her until she would take them down to the kitchen to get a cookie, or perhaps two, from Mrs. Patmore."

Returning his eyes to the baby, he saw Mary glaring at him in his peripheral vision and added, "I assure you that neither of them needed much encouragement to come to my aid. They were both quite eager to assist me."

Mary rolled her eyes, took a deep breath and let it out in a huff. "Victoria needs to bond with her nanny so that when you and I are not available to her, she still will feel at ease," she said in a tone that brooked no argument. "I know that intellectually you are in full agreement with me but have instead chosen to let your emotions rule your behavior. If I didn't know better, I would swear you had an American ancestor somewhere down the line."

Raising his eyebrows in mock horror, Matthew shot back, "Ouch! Knowing your feelings regarding American sentimentality, that stings."

Then looking back into the bassinet at their daughter, who he thought bore an uncanny resemblance to a heavenly cherub, he nodded in Mary's direction.

"I'm sorry, darling. I do know she needs to become accustomed to Nanny Dale, and though it won't be easy for me to curtail my visits to the nursery, I promise to do my best to stop interfering with her."

Seeing a look of resignation and sadness spread over Matthew's face, Mary felt her heart twinge. She hated seeing him this way and quickly moved closer to comfort him, resting her head on his shoulder.

"I'm not suggesting that you stay away often when she is bathed or put down for a nap", she clarified. "Victoria would miss you terribly…and knowing first hand how that feels….," she choked out, remembering how painful it was living without him. "Well, suffice to say I would move heaven and earth to prevent her from that heartache.

She looked up and found him smiling broadly at her and then felt his lips brush the top of her head as he vowed, "You have my word that I will take a step back for Victoria's sake."

He didn't have to say it as Mary already knew he would. Since he had been back at Downton, he had proved to be an outstanding father to George and she knew he would follow suit with their daughter.

She took his hand then and leading him toward the door suggested the two of them might take a short nap, cocking her head and raising one of her eyebrows so that her underlying invitation would be interpreted correctly.

Matthew's mood improved considerably upon hearing her offer, a mischievous smile forming on his lips as he nodded in her direction.

They stopped once they stepped out into the hallway that led to their bedroom, both turning their heads in unison to take one last look at the newest member of the Crawley family and wished her sweet dreams.

Christmas Day, 1923

Having lived at Downton Abbey her entire life, Mary had become accustomed to the exquisite beauty and grandeur that surrounded her on a daily basis; a sight that left many who saw it in awe. Yet even she could not remain unaffected by it at Christmas when Downton was decked out in all its glory.

It was almost as if the décor of the house was planned with that particular holiday in mind as the majority of Downton's furnishings, draperies and carpets bore the traditional red, green and gold hues widely on display that special day.

Lovely garlands graced the banisters leading down from the Gallery to the Great Hall. Poinsettias, Christmas roses, holly and ivy adorned the evergreen boughs that were painstakingly pieced together with large festive bows entwined around the festive creations every few feet.

Vibrant red flowers were displayed throughout the house in vases and magnificent centerpieces alongside poinsettia plants that stood at least three feet tall in their pots. Mistletoe hung in the archway of more than one door, tradition dictating that the lucky (or unlucky as the case may be) pair who found themselves standing beneath it kiss.

As Mary reached the first landing on her way down to the library where the Crawleys would exchange their gifts, she paused to take in the massive tree with all its trimmings. Many hundreds of ornaments in a multitude of shapes, sizes and colors hung in perfect harmony on its wide branches along with strands of silver tinsel that sparkled in the glow of the fairy lights that wound around the entire tree.

There must be thousands of them, she thought as she stood mesmerized by the sight before her, unable to take her eyes off the incandescent roping for a long moment as she found the spirit of Christmas washing over her. Then recalling she was already late for the festivities at hand, she blinked and took the next set of steps down to the main floor.

Not surprisingly, Mary was the last of the family to arrive. Taking in the impatient group that awaited her, she found comfort in her mother's warm welcome.

"You've come just in time, darling," Cora said without a trace of sarcasm. "This one is for you," she added, passing a small box wrapped in festive red and green striped paper to her.

Mary returned her Mama's smile and nodded thanks, instantly recognizing the handwriting on the card as Matthew's. Spotting him standing near the piano chatting with their brother-in-law Tom, she called out to him.

Ordinarily, she would have not have interrupted the two men's conversation, as it warmed her heart to see their camaraderie since Matthew's return. Tom and Matthew had developed a strong friendship, akin to that of brothers since the day he served as best man at their wedding. He took the news of her husband's death hard, especially coming on the heels of losing his own wife, Sybil, her youngest sister, in childbirth less than two years before.

However she felt compelled to interrupt the two men now as she had a special gift she had been itching to give her husband since the moment she picked it up in Ripon the day before and could wait no longer.

Fortunately she didn't have to as Matthew crossed the room quickly upon hearing her voice, a broad smile on his face as he took in her appearance, his eyes filled with admiration.

He greatly appreciated the deep green velvet that hugged her curves, the color contrasting beautifully with his wife's alabaster skin. Her cheeks, still flushed from their recent escapades enhanced the natural beauty of her face.

At Mary's insistence, he had left her in her lady's maid Anna's capable hands 15 minute's earlier to join the family as she was running a bit behind. Having arrived before she did, he had happily born the brunt of the family's displeasure regarding his wife's late arrival, offering each of the Crawleys a mea culpa on Mary's behalf. Even the Dowager Countess's sarcastic rebuke rolled off his skin as he was still basking in the afterglow of his and Mary's lovemaking.

"Thank you for representing us both in my absence," she said, kissing his cheek. "No doubt you got an earful."

Matthew smiled, "Your Papa and Mama didn't make much of a fuss. Tom was grateful that you were late as we had some estate matters to discuss and there wasn't a peep out of Edith. I gather decorating the tree yesterday took the wind out of her sails. I'm not at all certain she will be able to keep her eyes open during the "game" later this evening. She appears quite done in." Then giving the Dowager Countess a quick glance, he added, "The only one who complained was your grandmother and I didn't mind. Our lovely interlude was worth her wrath and more."

"Mary…Mary…here is another one for you," her mother called out, standing next to a table with a pile of neatly wrapped gifts stacked by order of their size. "Come now, darling…you can chat with Matthew later. I'm in dire need of a cup of tea and won't be able to enjoy it until these gifts are distributed."

"In a second, Mama," Mary hissed back. "I would like to open Matthew's gift first."

For the second time, she cursed herself for not having a handkerchief on hand as she opened the golden locket he had given her and found a miniature portrait of George and Victoria side by side.

"Darling, this is perfect. Thank you from the bottom of my heart," she said, kissing his cheek before she asked him to help her with the clasp as she placed it around her neck.

Once done, she turned to face Matthew and looked down at the locket, smiling at the images of their offspring before she closed it shut. Then hearing her mother's whine from across the room, she rolled her eyes and gave his arm a gentle squeeze before calling out, "Coming, Mama."

….

Lifting a crisp white linen square with an Irish lace border from its box, Mary smiled, "Thank you, Edith. Your choice of a gift for me is spot on as I have put off replenishing my supply of handkerchiefs and am in short supply. In fact I was just telling Anna the other day how much I…" Then as the penny dropped, she continued, "...I see I must also thank her for relaying my need to you."

Edith nodded, "I'm glad that I've given you something you will make use of." Then she began tearing the wrapping off the box she held in her own hands.

Tom moved closer to his sister-in-law as she opened his gift, his facial expression a bit apprehensive until he caught sight of her ogling the leather gloves he had chosen for her with glee.

"I find they enhance your grip on the steering wheel greatly," he said standing over Edith's shoulder.

"It still astounds me that you enjoy driving so much," Mary interjected. "However, I give you a great deal of credit for sticking with your lessons until you mastered it…You, too, Tom. You have proven to be an excellent teacher."

Edith and the Crawley's erstwhile chauffeur bowed their heads in thanks, the both of them knowing Mary's compliments were not given lightly. The two then took a walk down memory lane, recounting some of the more humorous experiences they shared with Edith behind the wheel.

The Countess of Grantham continued handing out presents – a hat sporting a peacock feather to her niece Rose, a box of Cuban cigars to her husband, beige silk wrap with a wide black border to her sister-in-law Rosamund and book of Irish fairytales by James Stephens, a prominent author in Ireland, to her son-in-law, Tom. Her husband had searched high and low for it as it was whisked off the shelves quickly, his persistence fueled by the knowledge that Tom would love reading it to Sybbie at bed time.

The Dowager Countess and Isobel were deeply touched upon each receiving a lovely framed portrait of Matthew, Mary and their children. As soon Isobel pulled it from its wrapping, she crossed the room and embraced her son and daughter-in-law, stating that she had the perfect spot to display it in the drawing room at Crawley House.

Finally, the gift distribution came to an end as Cora handed her resurrected son-in-law the last two items on the table, took a seat, and raised the cup of steaming tea she had been longing for to her lips.

The two boxes in Matthew's hands were both rectangular in shape with one much larger than the other and tied together with a wide, red velvet bow. By process of elimination, he knew without looking at the card on top that the presents were from Mary and smiled at her.

She placed her tea cup on the side table to her right and rose from her spot next to her grandmother, making her way to Matthew as he pulled the ribbon loose and laid the long strand on the now empty table.

"I hope you like them," she said, her eyes focused on her husband's hands as he removed the wrapping on her gift, clearly eager for him to get on with it.

Making quick work of unraveling the paper covering the small box, he replied, "I have no doubt I will."

Inside was a pocket camera, labeled as such since it fit perfectly in a man's vest pocket. It was all the rage in Europe since the Eastman Kodak company had exported their latest invention from their headquarters in New York.

"Darling, this is wonderful," Matthew declared, planting a quick kiss on Mary's cheek.

Then peering through the camera and focusing its lens on those huddled around him, he added joyfully, "I look forward to taking an unprecedented number of photographs of the family, especially the children, which I feel certain we will all cherish as they grow."

Knowing that he had began recording daily events in a journal when he was an amnesiac living in London to ensure they were not forgotten, Mary was keenly aware of the value Matthew placed on the preservation of memories. It was what planted the idea in her head of giving him the camera. He would now have a visual journal to look back on.

"I assumed you would be quite prolific in that regard," she replied. Then looking at the larger box he now held, she added, "Hence my second gift."

Matthew smiled at her again as he pulled a leather bound photograph album out of its container, noticing quickly that the cover had "The Crawley Family" emblazoned across it in large gold type.

Deeply touched by Mary's thoughtfulness, he placed the album down and pulled her into his arms. "Your gifts are perfect, darling." he whispered in her ear. "I will treasure them always." He stepped back then and taking both of her hands in his, he added, "As I do you and our children."

At that, the Earl of Grantham cleared his throat while his wife reached for one of the handkerchiefs from the box that lay open nearby and dabbed her eyes with it.

"I think it is safe to say that Mary has won out in choosing a gift that outshines all the rest. Robert announced. "Bravo, my dear."

Hearing her father's proclamation, she turned to him and shot back, "No, Papa. I must disagree. My husband's gift surpasses mine by far."

Seeing all eyes fix on her locket, Mary shook her head back and forth. "No, this is lovely, but it isn't the gift I'm referring to. That one was given to me last New Year's Eve when Matthew returned to Downton and our life together. His resurrection was and always will remain the greatest gift of all."

At her urging, Cora passed Mary's box of handkerchiefs to Edith, who in turn handed it to Matthew's mother. The Dowager Countess nodded, tapping her cane on the floor to indicate she was in full agreement with her granddaughter's proclamation.

"Here…here, you are quite right, Mary." her father cried out. Then he bellowed, "Happy Christmas to you all. I cannot imagine a happier one."

Mary couldn't either as she found herself once again wrapped in her loving husband's arms.

The greatest gift, indeed.

AN: I hope you liked this small glimpse into Matthew and Mary's life together. If so, a review would be greatly appreciated.

I am working on a new, proper (as my friends across the pond would say) multi-chapter story entitled "Passage", which will focus on my favorite Downton couple and their family in the early 1930s. I hope you will follow me so you won't miss it.