Well, she thought with a small pulse of satisfaction, the day had not been a complete disaster.
As she stealthily made her way across the crowded platform with a wailing baby braced tightly to her chest, Mary steeled her mind against any thoughts of guilt or remorse with her decision. They had done it. She and George had spent the entire day in London—alone. She actually smiled softly to herself over the startling feeling of accomplishment that swelled momentarily in her chest before placing a calming kiss on her baby's dark head. It was actually rather quite foolish to feel proud over something so simple, but Mary relished it, awash with relief that she would not have to admit that she had been wrong to her parents.
That would have been mortifying…especially when she had been so insistent that she could do this.
When Mary had startled everyone by announcing her intentions several days ago, she had also thoughtfully and thoroughly explained her reasons for such a decision. Anna was too far along in her pregnancy to accompany them, and Mary could simply not stand the thought of any other servant intruding upon her privacy. On any other day it would have been different. But not this day. Her father had been so adamant at first that it was a simply terrible idea for Mary to even consider taking the baby to the city with no one to assist them—not even Nanny. But her mother had sat in thoughtful silence as the two of them argued the situation, and eventually it was Cora who finally convinced Robert to accept Mary's decision and let the matter rest. Mary had been stunned into silence by her mother's show of support for this London outing, fully expecting that she would have to defy the wishes of both of her parents and even Granny in order to see this through. But Cora seemed to understand the absolute desperation behind Mary's words and stood behind her, firmly supporting her daughter in a crisis once again as she had so very often in Mary's life.
When she cradled Mary in her lap and rocked her in the nursery after her most beloved puppy died and was buried under Mama's favorite rosebush… When young Peter Montgomery had asked Lady Eliza Thornton for the first dance rather than Mary at her own coming out ball… When Mary realized that the entail would truly keep her from any inheritance but also understood just how fiercely her mother had fought for her… When Kamal Pamuk died in her bed… When Mama had been the one to walk into that hospital room to see her new grandson and to tell her daughter the unthinkable…
The unthinkable that was now her reality.
Becoming a mother herself had birthed in Mary a new appreciation for so many things her mother had done for her that she had simply taken for granted. And Mama's support in the London matter had been an unexpected gift that Mary could tell frustrated her father yet bolstered her own feeble courage that she could face this day with some semblance of hope. Perhaps, just perhaps, she might even be able to smile and to enjoy her son for who he was without the sharp pangs of guilt and pain she felt too often when she thought about the day he had been born. Happiness was still far beyond her grasp, but she had to somehow pull herself out of the dark pit of despair and shame in which she had been dwelling for an entire year, for George's sake if not her own. After all, her only child's first birthday should be a joyful occasion. Yet for Mary, the day was forever linked to a pain so blinding that it nearly severed her in half. The same day she welcomed her precious son into the world was the very day the man whose love had given her that child had left it. How could she ever get over this? Was it possible that one day George's birthday would be simply that—his birthday? A day to be celebrated and enjoyed with no thoughts of loss or devastation?
A day when she would not feel as though a part of her was dying all over again?
She prayed that one day it could be so, but for today she had known that she had to be away.
Mary could not remain at the house surrounded by everything that reminded her of him…of them. She could not handle the great party that Mama and Granny were planning for their dearest little boy—NOT today. She did not want to feel everyone's eyes upon her, their unspoken questions thickening the atmosphere of what should be George's day. She did not want to discuss her feelings with anyone, not even Anna or her mother. Mary knew they were concerned about her, and that was an emotion she could simply not tolerate. Today, she needed to breathe fresh air with her son, to walk on streets she had never trod with Matthew, and to be in the blessed company of strangers.
So they had come to London.
The harried porter did his best to keep up with her as she neared her train, and Mary stopped to place a gentle kiss on the cheek of her clearly exhausted son, relishing his warmth pressed up against her. He commenced to chewing on a chubby fist as drool coated his dimpled hand. Mary smiled as she realized George had managed to dampen her shoulder completely, whispering a hushed, "There, there my boy, we shall be home soon."
She knew that home was a comfort for George where he was surrounded by adoration and attention. But Downton was in many ways so hollow for her now—a mere shell of a house where she often found herself dwelling among ghosts and ignoring the living. Perhaps it was not the house but she who was now empty, a body devoid of a spirit. Their souls had become so completely intertwined that Matthew had taken a large portion of her very being with him when he died. Mary had recently begun to wonder if any of those shards of her spirit would ever return. Perhaps they were lost forever. Shaking her head, Mary once more became aware of her surroundings and boarded the train for York, instructing the porter where to set her bags. Once comfortably situated, she quickly retrieved a teething ring—a gift from Isobel—and George's most beloved toy, a rather large Teddy Bear from Grandmama in America, to comfort the wailing boy.
"Are you happy now, my sweet?" she asked the boy whose eyelids were already beginning to droop. Mary smiled indulgently as she stroked her child's cheek, the utter softness of it still astonishing to her. His clear, blue eyes focused on her a moment before a yawn that stretched his entire face into a humorous yet utterly adorable expression overtook him. George contentedly nuzzled in closer to his mother's breast and blissfully fell asleep.
If only it were so easy for me, my precious boy. How I should love to be able to simply sleep and forget.
A tear slid unbidden down her cheek, and Mary let it fall. It seemed quite unnecessary to attempt to hold them back any longer. She was alone now with her son with no one to see her weakness and sorrow, no prying yet concerned eyes to watch her grieve. She finally allowed herself to give into the weight that had been pressing on her chest all day and lowered her face, weeping for the man she still yearned for with every fiber of her being, the one person who had chosen to love her simply for herself. Matthew—her lover, her confidante, her best friend. He should be here with them now, holding his son, cooing over his new tooth and how well he could now pull himself up. How he would have laughed at George today as he mimicked the duck calls at the park, crawling after them with determination and pointing to them with a delighted smile as he gurgled, "Duck! Duck!" And the look on George's face when his mother had let him try his first taste of ice cream would have had his father roaring with laughter.
Oh, Matthew…you have missed so much! He is so like you, but you do not even know him.
Mary pressed her lips together tightly, desperately attempting to muffle the sound of her crying so as to not wake her sleeping son. Her chest heaved as she drew shallow breaths, suddenly realizing that she now needed her handkerchief to keep her tears from falling on George's face. She leaned down so she could retrieve it from her bag, still sobbing in earnest when her privacy was disturbed. The door to her compartment suddenly flew open, and Mary looked up, quickly wiping her tears at the intrusion that was so rudely interrupting her time of solitary grieving.
"Forgive me, ma'am," a man's rich voice exclaimed. "I must have the wrong berth. I did not realize that this compartment was occupied."
Too stunned to move, Mary simply stared at the man, frozen momentarily in shock until she quickly recovered as much dignity as she could muster.
"No, no, it's quite alright," she stammered, embarrassed at being seen in such a state, attempting to dry her tears with her bare hand.
"Here. Take mine," the man offered, quickly withdrawing his handkerchief from his side pocket and placing it in her free hand.
A fresh wave of tears spilled forth as the damn within her finally unleashed. Mary clutched the smooth, cool cloth to her face, despising the fact that she showing weakness to this man she did not even know but completely powerless to stop herself.
"You may keep it, my lady," the stranger offered gallantly, true concern etching his features as he watched the woman before him fall completely apart. "Is there anything I can do for you? Is your husband nearby, perhaps?"
His innocent inquiry triggered an emotional chain reaction within her as something unseen snapped. A sharp, painful jolt seized Mary, and she raised her dark eyes to his.
"My husband is dead," she whispered through her teeth, startling herself with the direct frankness of her answer.
Her eyes widened in shock before her expression finally crumpled. Mary again hid her face in the handkerchief as her voice broke. "Oh, God, he is dead!"
It was then that the stranger seemed to make a decision and stepped into her compartment, closing the door firmly behind him. He sat across from Mary, watching her weep before he leaned forward, supporting himself on his elbows and replying gently, "I am so sorry."
"So am I," Mary breathed, attempting again to gain some control over her emotions but having very little luck in doing so. She began to rock George back and forth although the child showed no signs of waking, trying to choke back the streams of tears that seemed determined to fall.
"May I ask how long ago he died?" he inquired, a trace of hesitation in his voice.
"A year," Mary answered, keeping her eyes fixed upon her son as she tried to regain control of her emotions. "One year ago today."
He stared at the pair in front of him, looking very much to his eyes like a tragic Madonna and child, their exquisite beauty veiled in the dark shades of pain. He noted to himself that her son looked no more than a year old…tragic, indeed.
"You loved him very much," he stated softly, his eyes taking her in with great tenderness.
"More than my own life," she replied, her voice steadying a bit as she dabbed her eyes. She drew a deep breath, releasing it slowly through her lips as she kept her gaze on her son—her lifeline.
"He was a lucky man, then," the stranger stated in a firm but compassionate tone, "to have a wife who loved him so deeply and such a handsome son. Many men never know such happiness."
Mary began to shake her head, closing her eyes and ears to his words, for no matter how kind their intent, she knew their content to be false. Lucky? When had Matthew ever been lucky? And she was to blame for that fact.
"Have I said something wrong?" he asked quietly, unsure of her reaction.
"No," she whispered, not daring to meet his eyes, "but you are wrong. My husband was not lucky, he was cursed." But Mary rethought her statement, finally making eye contact with the man as she corrected herself vehemently. "No, not him…never him…me! I am cursed, and my loved tainted him." Her shoulders began to shake and she pressed her eyes tightly together, forcing her tears to remain where they lingered.
"My lady, you cannot mean that," he replied, his voice taking on a note of disbelief as he stared at her with concern. "Where would you ever get an idea such as this?"
"From him!" Mary cried in return, looking at him in desperation. "He told me once that we were cursed and that we could never be together." A bitter laugh suddenly escaped her as she shook her head again. "Perhaps if I had listened then, if we had taken heed of his words…" she could not finish her sentence, staring down at her child in shame. If she and Matthew had never married, there would be no George, and that was simply unthinkable. But the thought never ceased to torture her, nagging her from sleep and demolishing the few moments of happiness she had managed to snatch for herself this past year. If she had been strong enough to accept Matthew's words and stay away from him, he might still be alive.
She suddenly jolted forward as the train began its departure. It would seem as though the intruder would be here for the duration of the trip to York. A shiver of both panic and relief made its way up her spine at the thought.
"You cannot be serious, my lady," the stranger stated with conviction, knowing he was encroaching unasked into very personal territory, but sensing that the woman across from him needed such an intrusion. He took a cleansing breath before he dared to press forward, somehow understanding that the lady sitting near him could easily go on the defensive if she perceived any sign of danger. "I am certain that your late husband meant no such thing, and he would never want you to torture yourself with his words." He then leaned back and studied her a moment before stating, "Besides, you seem a bit old to believe in curses and the like."
It was a challenge. A small, somewhat hesitant one, yet a challenge nonetheless, and it pulled it from her state of utter misery as it simultaneously lit a small spark of intrigue in her mind. Mary paused and stared at the man, finally taking the time to truly make herself aware of the person with whom she was unexpectedly sharing a berth and such personal information. He was tall—even seated, she could easily tell that—with a well-built frame, thick, dark hair and deep brown eyes. A part of her wanted to tell him to leave her alone, that none of this was any of his concern. But it had been she who had spilled forth her fears and feelings to him that she had been desperately trying to keep hidden from anyone, certain they would either censure or pity her for them if they truly understood. And somehow, it felt good to finally talk to someone…someone she would not have to face on a regular basis across the table or in church. Someone she would most likely never see again. Emboldened by that thought, Mary dried her eyes again with the handkerchief, and took up the invisible gauntlet that he had so delicately lain at her feet.
"I only believe in them because I live them," she replied, her voice much steadier than it had been before, although not yet strong. "My husband spoke those words to me after his fiancé died."
Her free hand betrayed her as it began to shake in her lap, causing her to clutch the poor handkerchief as tightly as possible in order to steady it again.
"And just how does the death of an unfortunate woman make you cursed?" he asked, leaning back in his seat and raising an eyebrow in her direction. "It would seem that she was the one who met with unfortunate circumstances, not you."
Mary looked at him, wondering just how he would respond when she answered boldly, "Because she died not long after seeing her intended kiss me."
Her eyes challenged him briefly to judge her, but her moment of courage failed her as soon as it flourished, and she quickly dropped her gaze back down to the face of her son—the one person whose judgment she did not fear. Everyone else in her life seemed to find her lacking in one way or another.
"Please," he continued, once again leaning forward a bit in attempt to draw her eyes back to him, "help me to understand. You are cursed because your husband loved and desired you more than the woman to whom he was engaged? You are cursed because he loved you, married you, and gave you a son?"
"No, you do not understand!" Mary bit back harshly, her eyes taking on a dangerous gleam as they bored into his. "He was everything that was good and decent in this world! He had such strong principles and convictions, and he was kind to everyone, whether they deserved his goodness or not." She paused, closing her eyes in self-reproach as if she could not bear to see herself as she really was. "He believed I was good, that I was a wonderful woman." He shook his head slightly, not following her logic.
"I do not understand…"
"He was wrong! I am not good! I am not the woman he thought I was," Mary spat, rocking her son back and forth as he squirmed at her brief outburst. "I am selfish and vain. I can be unbearably hard on people, whether they deserve it or not. I fall so short of his beliefs in me. Everyone loved him, but very few people love me!"
A small smile touched his lips as he took her in. "I find that difficult to believe, my lady."
His grin infuriated her. How dare he question her in this matter? He knew nothing of Matthew—of her, for that matter! She was forming her sharp retort just as George let out a small whimper. Mary gently shifted her son to rest upon her shoulder, his limp, warm body nestled so sweetly against her own as she whispered her fingers across his soft hair and pressed her lips to his cheek.
"Even upon such a short acquaintance, I believe it a safe wager that your husband was correct in his judgment of your character simply by observing the way you are with your son," the stranger continued, seemingly unfazed by her flash of anger. "Genuine tenderness with children is not a trait that can be conjured at will."
"And are you an expert on children, then?" she questioned, raising an eyebrow in his direction as she gently patted the baby's back and awaited his reply.
He smiled warmly, revealing a set of quite endearing dimples as he answered, "Hardly, my lady, just an observant bystander."
A stab of paralyzing fear coursed through her veins with blinding speed, her heart sinking and fluttering at the same time. Dear God, she had just noticed him as a man. How dare she! Matthew—her life, her love, her very heart—had been gone just one year. She must truly be a shallow and cold as Edith had always believed, so unworthy to have ever been married to her precious husband. A glimmer of self-disgust crossed her face before she mustered the ability to compose her features, a glimmer that had not gone unnoticed by her unplanned companion.
"You are much too hard on yourself, my lady," he ventured forth, now determined to at least carve a chink in this armor of reproach she had donned for herself. Unsure of why that mattered so much to him, he nudged that thought aside and spoke gently. "We none of us are perfect—we all struggle with some vice or another—and it hardly means that we are all cursed. If perfection were required before we were allowed happiness, I am afraid we would all be quite miserable indeed."
"You really do not understand," she whispered, unwilling to look at him again lest she notice just how brown his eyes truly were. "I was not worthy of his love, but he is the one who paid the price."
Mary turned to stare at the window, although she was completely unaware of the landscape outside her compartment. They sat in silence for a few moments as she winced inwardly at her own words. Had she ever been worthy of Matthew? Why had he loved her the way that he did? Mary was suddenly so very weary, so tired of carrying her unvoiced doubts and guilt alone. The man sitting across from her was a stranger, after all, and not someone who could hold her thoughts against her at a later time. She so needed to voice her shame, to verbalize the invisible yoke that so firmly attached itself to her ever since her mother had entered that hospital room one year ago.
She dared to meet his eyes once more and stated flatly, "It was my fault, you see."
He froze for a moment, his unblinking eyes defying hers to look away from him. "What was your fault?" he queried, somehow realizing that she had just spoken something that she had kept tightly guarded for some time. "His death, you mean?"
Mary closed her eyes and nodded twice in assent, suddenly unable to speak. A solitary tear broke free, tracing a lonely trail down her cheek before dropping on to the Teddy Bear.
"I am sure you are mistaken, my lady," he whispered, daring to lean forward until she looked at him again.
"No," Mary replied, her voice quaking, "I am quite certain." Her body began to shake as grief and shame assailed her simultaneously, forcing her eyes shut against the new onslaught. If only she hadn't told him to go and tell the family…had she simply waited a few minutes more…How could she have been so selfish?
"Hmmm," his rich baritone voice suddenly slicing through her reverie, "I see. So you poisoned him, then?"
Mary could not have been more shocked if her companion had suddenly thrown a pail of cold water upon her. Her eyes flew open as she simply stared at him, suddenly realizing that her mouth has hanging open. She snapped it shut quickly, cleared her throat, and voiced, "Excuse me?"
"Well, you said that you were at fault for his death, and as I have always been told that poison is a woman's weapon of choice, it seemed a logical conclusion."
He returned her stare with a maddeningly logical expression. Was he teasing her? Taunting her grief? Mary's anger flashed hot and certain as she pulled herself as far away from him as she possibly do in the small berth and responded, "How dare you? You know absolutely nothing of my husband, our marriage or our life together. For you to even suggest that I would ever think of harming him is ludicrous, and I am highly affronted that you would even consider making such a statement to a woman you do not even know!"
"Have I insulted you, then?" he asked, his voice still reprehensibly calm. "I do apologize, my lady. So you did not kill your husband?"
"No, of course not!" she shot back in defense, taking a deep breath to calm herself. He looked at her in silence, his expression still a mask of calm.
He finally raised his thick eyebrows at her and queried, "Forgive me, but I seem to remember that you claimed culpability in his death. If you did not kill him, just how is it that you are responsible?"
Mary froze, unable to even rock George back and forth as her heart pounded uncomfortably against her ribs. You should go and tell them, you know…her final moments with Matthew played out in her imagination, forever embedded in her memory. Why had she been so eager to see the rest of the family? If she had only been content to be with Matthew and Matthew alone as they breathed in the wonder of their new son, he would have stayed longer. He would have missed that lorry.
"My lady?" he whispered, true concern now showing on his countenance as he leaned towards her. "I did not mean…"
"I asked him to leave." Mary's voice was barely more than a whisper itself, and she clutched George to her chest even tighter, her gaze fixed upon her shoes. "He had just met our baby…he was so happy…and I asked him to leave to tell my family." Her eyes finally met his, and the pain so clearly etched in her features simply broke his heart. She swallowed, took a deep breath, and continued, "It was a crash, you see. He met a lorry on the way to the house, and…Oh, God!"
A fresh surge of tears assailed her, and the man could stand it no more. He moved across the space separating their seats and sat next to her, daring to put his arm around her shoulders and drawing her face into his shoulder as she wept against him for some time.
"It was not your fault," he finally stated, the timbre of his voice allowing for no argument. Mary drew back to look at him, her red eyes searching his face in earnest.
"But I am the one who asked him to go," she retorted softly. "If I hadn't…"
"If you hadn't, he may well have died by another means," he stated calmly. "Were you driving the lorry or his car?"
"Of course not, but.."
"But nothing," he replied firmly, drawing far enough away from her to look at her directly. "Perhaps he was driving too fast or not paying attention to the road. Perhaps nothing at all could have been done to prevent that accident. But there is one fact that is quite clear, and that is that you have no responsibility in his death."
She simply stared at him, so wanting to believe him yet so fearful of accepting his words. Was it possible that she truly bore no blame? Before she could even begin to grasp the implications of such an idea, he spoke again, his voice full of assurance.
"You must stop blaming yourself, my lady. I am sure that it would be the last thing your husband would have wanted." He boldly drew her closer, allowing her head to once again rest upon his shoulder. "He would want you to move on with your life—to take care of your son and be happy. Any man who loved his wife would want no less for her."
Mary closed her eyes, trying to accept what the man had said. Could he be right? Was she dishonoring Matthew's memory by blaming herself, or was she supposed to carry this shame as her burden to bear? It was all too much…she was unsure of what to think. If she had not asked him…if he had stayed longer….perhaps he would have left on his own accord at the same time… could she have done anything to save him…had she told him just how much she loved him? She closed her eyes, the effort of keeping them open while she pondered such matters suddenly just too much for her. The warmth of his arm and shoulder was so very comforting, and comfort was something she had been craving for months. Her thoughts became quite fuzzy and disjointed with the rocking of the train, drifting in and out of each other as she began to disconnect from her body.
Somehow Mary was swimming in a fog, completely unaware of anything other than the utter contentment that she felt. Without knowing just how she arrived there, she found herself seated on the bench under her favorite tree at Downton. Their tree. Was he here, waiting for her? She was afraid to believe it, but searched for him just the same, although she could inexplicably not move from the bench. She then sensed that a man had quietly sat down beside her—a dark and tall gentleman with a kind smile. His features were blurred—so difficult to discern—and Mary was unsure if she knew him or not. She reached out to touch him, trying desperately to see his face.
The voice was unmistakable, and it warmed every fiber of her being. She looked around, still unable to move but somehow knowing that he was close. The figure beside her leaned in closer, and the features becoming more distinct as the very nearness of him sent shivers throughout her body. His blue eyes smiled at her, that smile that melted her very core, and his hand delicately cupped her cheek. She nearly wept at the sheer beauty of it.
"Mary," he whispered again, his voice a balm to her spirit.
"Matthew," she cried, trying desperately to hold his hand, but unable to grasp it. "I need you, Matthew. I do not know what to do."
He smiled at her again, tilting his head as he had so often done and whispered, "Be happy."
"Matthew…I can't! I do not know how without you." She was losing him…he was fading into the mist surrounding them. "Please, Matthew, tell me what to do!" she begged, reaching out for him once more. How could he leave her when she needed him so much? Did he not know how unbearably difficult life was without him? "Be happy, Mary," he finally answered, his voice in her ear but his face nowhere to be seen.
She jerked awake, realizing with a start that she had been asleep for some time. Feeling her arms empty, Mary turned in a panic searching for George, finding him immediately in the arms of the man seated beside her. George was bouncing contentedly on his leg, playing with the stranger's nose as drool slid down the his chubby chin onto the man's lap.
"I am sorry," he stated, smiling apologetically. "You fell asleep, and I did not want him to fall or for you to be disturbed."
"It's alright," she replied, a smile ghosting across her face for the first time since boarding the train. She held out her arms for her baby, and he flew into them, grinning as he babbled, "Ma-ma, ma-ma." She clutched him to her heart, the nearness of his father still seemingly so real that she felt it in her very skin. The man smiled and moved back into the seat across from her, attempting to wipe the drool off of his pants.
"Now I must apologize," she stated softly, smiling in spite of herself as she offered, "Would you like your handkerchief back?"
"No," he replied, his grin deepening the dimples that Mary had noticed earlier. "I told you to keep it, and I never go back on my word. Besides, he is a delightful child."
"Thank you," she whispered, and somehow they both understood that her gratitude covered a great deal more than handkerchiefs and drool. She closed her eyes once more, wanting in many ways to return to that dream but understanding deeply that she was not meant to do so. Mary then opened her eyes to the small world around her—the world in which she lived.
"I meant it, you know," he continued, once again interrupting her reverie and looking at her in all seriousness. "Grieving is one thing, but blaming yourself needlessly is quite another. You need to stop torturing yourself, my lady, and live your life."
"You sound like my mother," she responded, quirking her eyebrow in his direction. But a small tremor rippled in her abdomen and hastily traveled up her spine at his assertion.
"Then she is a very wise woman," he replied, smiling in earnest. "And I am sure that she has your best interests at heart."
The train began to slow, and Mary looked out the window in surprise.
"Heavens, how long was I asleep?" she asked, turning her astonished eyes back to her companion as she bounced George on her lap.
"Long enough for us to have reached York," he answered, quickly catching the stuffed bear that George had just dropped.
"Is York your final destination?" Mary asked, unsure if she wanted to be separated from him or not. There was something so comforting yet dangerous about his presence. At the moment, she was unsure which she craved more.
"It is for today," he answered, deftly catching the bear a second time before handing it back to George. "I have a favorite aunt who resides there. I am shamefully overdue a visit with her."
"Ah," Mary stated, half-hoping he would introduce himself yet thoroughly enjoying the freedom of anonymity. "It's a game now, you know."
He eyed her quizzically and a bit unnervingly until she continued, "He'll just drop it again."
"It's alright," he smiled, fetching the bear yet again just as Mary had predicted. "Sometimes things of importance need to be repeated frequently."
She looked at him purposely as he gazed back at her, the full meaning of his words hanging between them. The train slowed to a stop, and he asked, "Are you disembarking in York, as well?"
"Yes, but only to transfer trains," she replied, gathering up George as her companion retrieved her bag.
"Please, allow me to see you safely to your next train, then" he cut in, promptly hushing her words of protest before they could even be formed. Mary looked at him again, relishing the peacefulness in her spirit she had not felt in a year. Her time of grieving was not over, but maybe—just maybe—she could mourn her husband without despising herself. She knew that her travelling companion had just done her a great service, although she was not exactly sure how exactly he had engineered such a feat.
"Alright," she consented as he stepped out of the compartment, assisting her and George from the train. He followed her down the platform to the train that would carry her home, placing her bags in her berth.
"So you are travelling on to Rippon, then?" he asked, clearly curious. "Is that your home?"
"No, but its close," she replied, still unsure if she wanted him to know any more details about her or not. It was odd—in some ways, he now knew more about her than anyone else, even her own family members, yet he did not even know her name. And there was a part of her that wanted to know more about him—his name, his home, his family-but it was safer to know nothing. No—it was better this way. She was not yet ready to take any chances.
He stood immobile for a moment, taking her in and seeming to realize exactly what she was thinking. His stare was a bit unnerving, finally causing Mary to drop her eyes. Taking his cue, he took her hand and kissed it briefly.
"I wish you safe travels, my lady," he stated. Mary looked up at him again and noticed with a small measure of alarm that he had not yet released her hand. "Perhaps our paths shall cross again."
"Perhaps they shall," Mary replied, both relieved and slightly disappointed when he let go of her hand and stepped back. She swallowed quickly, her throat suddenly parched as she wondered if they would actually meet another day.
"Well, good-bye, then," he smiled, flashing George a smile as he caught the poor Teddy one last time.
"Good-bye," Mary returned, watching him intently as he turned and walked away from the station, an older man carrying his bags falling in step behind him. She sat back, snuggled her son close as she breathed in his precious scent.
Was it possible to be happy without Matthew? She had been convinced that his death had left her broken and completely beyond repair. Yet some time in the company of a certain stranger had strangely shown her that maybe, just maybe, she could begin to fit the shards of her life back together. Perhaps she could heal, move forward and live her life.
You've lived your life, and I've lived mine.
She squeezed her eyes shut tightly, relishing his memory and craving his presence. But when she dared to open her eyes again knowing that he was not there, she was stunned to feel the first stirrings of hope along with the familiar weight of pain.
"It's going to be alright, Georgie," she whispered to her child, kissing the top of his head as the train began to move towards Downton—towards home. And for the first time in a year, she actually believed it just might be. Well, she thought with a small pulse of satisfaction and gratitude, the day had not been a complete disaster after all.