I miss the sun already.
Of all the seasons I try to avoid England, winter is foremost. There was a time when I loved winter. The fog shrouded everything in mystery, the frost made it shimmer, and the snow was a signal of joy for days to come. Even the bare trees had their beauty, standing against the sky, a sharp contrast of black and silver. Now the leaden clouds are as oppressive as the relations and distant Parliament who all politely smile and wish I didn't exist. My position keeps me somewhat safe from political attack, if only just, but it's hard to feel comfortable here at the best of times. The cold and frost just amplifies the yearning for the sun and relative anonymity of Tangiers.
Fortunately, it is rare for anyone to actually desire my presence in my homeland.
I've hired a car to take me from the train station to Downton Abbey. I can only hope that the clothes I wired to have sent down from Brancaster have arrived before I have. I should have been here days ago, but I had to finish with the final details of poor Adams's death. Then there was a storm that delayed passage from the continent, and now? Now I will have only a few hours to get dressed, meet new relations, and prepare to stand next to Bertie at the altar.
I won't even have time to meet his bride before the ceremony. I can't think ill of her, of course. She's marrying Bertie. She must, therefore, be an angel. I will allow her to be no less.
Poor Bertie. I wish I had thought to contact him, somehow, to let him know that I am here and will, baring further disaster, arrive in time. He's probably in a state by now. Of course, I'm sure he has a backup best man planned in case I don't make it. I only wish I had a backup valet. In all of the fuss I've not had time to see a barber and my hair is long enough to be unruly. Between that and my unseasonable tan, I'm sure to detract from the wedding party.
We won't even mention my tie, although I'm sure Bertie can fix that himself, in a pinch.
Perhaps I should deliberately contrive to be late. I can slip in the back just before the doors close, so I can be a part of the festivities without detracting from them with my outlandish appearance. But no, that will not do. Bertie wants me by his side as he weds, so I will be there. After all, he's one of the few members of my family thar I keep close out of friendship rather than animosity.
Fortunately, I doubt any of our family beyond cousin Mirada will be in attendance. While she may be the enemy I keep closest, she is also the most concerned with appearances. If I can trust her to do nothing else, I can at least trust her not to make a fuss at Bertie's wedding. I should head back to Brancaster at first light tomorrow, if possible, to avoid her afterward. But for today I am safe.
I have never been in Yorkshire before, except passing through. I'm sure many of the lower and middle class would be surprised by this, as they assume the entire aristocracy has intimate acquaintance with each other. Mostly, though, we meet in London and there are still enough of the wealthy families left to make it into your third decade of life without having met your entire generation of nobles. Therefore, while I have certainly heard of the Granthams, I have no idea what to expect from Downton Abbey.
Then, as the car pulls up the drive, I am afforded my first look at the building. It is grand, of course. All such houses are. However, even at that it is a sharp contrast from Brancaster. While I'm certain there is more to it than the immediate view, it is more compact than my own home, less sprawling. There are times when I've been tired or ill and managed to get lost in Brancaster. I suspect getting lost at Downton would take concentrated effort or entirely too much alcohol if you were familiar with the building.
I find it charming.
The differences give Downton an immediate comfort that Brancaster lacks, an intimacy. It is a cottage to my home's manor estate, if that is not too absurd a comparison. I can't help but imagine the family who lives here as more than an aloof governing body, concerned with their own income and laying a moral groundwork for the serfs surrounding them. I imagine them going to the village and knowing people, from clergy to bakers. I imagine them taking a real interest in the countryside around them and their tenants. I imagine this place as an actual home, not simply a richly decorated prison one inherits.
Perhaps I'm being overly sentimental because their daughter is marrying dear Bertie, but I can not help thinking them a very good sort of people.
I am out of the car almost before it comes to a complete stop, leaving my luggage for the footmen to sort out in their time. The gravel crunches a staccato rhythm beneath my feet as I hurry across the drive to ring the bell. It is barely three heartbeats before the door opens to reveal a tall, imposing sort of fellow in livery. He is older and has heavy brows which, combined with his nose, give him the look of a very stern raptor. This, then, would be the butler. Whoever it was he was expecting at the door, it apparently wasn't a tanned, long haired man with a terribly done tie, because he does a visible double take and asks, very politely, but with a touch of disapproval, "May I help you?"
"Peter Pelham," I introduce myself with my best apologetic smile. I feel I have to apologize for my timing and appearance somehow, it might as well be with a smile. "Marquess of Hexham. I believe I'm expected."
"Oh, Lord Hexham, of course!" the man replies, the disapproval giving way to quietly polite surprise. He steps immediately out of the way. "Do come in. His lordship and Mr. Pelham are in the library." He waves over a footman, younger and about the same height, but less imposing. "Andrew! See to Lord Hexham's luggage."
The younger man smiles, bows, and vanishes out the door without so much as batting an eye at my appearance. I am grateful.
"This way, Your Lordship." The butler turns toward the room in question. He seems to have recovered from his shock readily enough.
Inside, Downton is every bit as lush as such a building should be, and this is accentuated by the wedding decorations. Still, I can not shake the homey feeling. Perhaps it is the servants bustling about, even this late in the day. Oh, I suppose the wedding makes for unusual circumstances, but it still makes it feel as if the staff are part of the family. Distant cousins perhaps or, in the case of the butler, a stern uncle. My own servants are more comrades in arms or carefully chosen confidants than family, each selected for their ability and willingness to keep secrets from the world. I trust them, and in my absence I am fond of them, but with the exception of my butler and, before his death, Adams, we are not close.
The library is far from empty, although it is large enough that you could fit several more people and possibly an elephant in before it started getting cramped. Bertie is here, of course, dressed in his best suit and looking politely flustered. Cousin Mirada is seated on a large, plush looking sofa, next to another woman of about the same age who I can only guess is Lady Grantham. In total there are five men and six women in the room, standing or sitting, not including the butler and a tall, somewhat mousy fellow serving tea.
"Lord Hexham, milord," my guide announces, causing all eyes to turn to me.
"Peter!" Before anyone else can comment or criticize, Bertie leaves off his conversation with a slightly taller, dark haired gentleman and comes over to clasp my shoulders tightly. "You made it."
"By the grace of God and nothing more, I assure you," I reply, giving him a hug. I'm certain cousin Mirada will object later, but it's how any other two men would greet and we are cousins, so why shouldn't I? I am, however, very careful not to muss his suit. "Although nothing but the will of God could have kept me away."
Stepping back, Bertie takes in my appearance. "You must be exhausted from all of that traveling." He frowns, "And what on earth happened to your tie?"
Confronted with my very able cousin who has undoubtedly been tying his own ties since he was old enough to dress himself, I can't help but feel sheepish. "I tried to do it myself, I'm afraid. It's a miracle I didn't strangle myself. Really, I would not wish having one's valet die in the middle of a foreign country on anyone."
Another person might laugh at me. Fortunately Bertie is the soul of kindness and only gives me a sympathetic look. "I got your wire about poor Adams. I believe Carson has asked one of the footmen to serve as valet for you?" He turns and gives a questioning look to the butler.
"I have indeed," Carson replies with a crisp nod of the head which serves as a bow.
"With that hair a lady's maid might serve better," cousin Mirada observes, eying me critically from her seat. Apparently she has been silent too long.
I suppress a sigh. Yes, my hair is uncomfortably long, but it doesn't yet rival any of the women in the room, and given that one of the younger women is wearing her hair in a very modern bob, that is saying quite a bit.
"Mother," Bertie reprimands her.
"It will be no problem at all, I'm sure," one of the older gentleman assures, as he crosses to offer me his hand. "Lord Hexham, I'm Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. Welcome to Downton." He has an easy, pleasant manner about him which fits exactly with my expectations of the family and I can't help but smile as I shake his hand.
"Thank you, Lord Grantham. It is a pleasure to be here."
"Well then, we have about three hours before we need to be at the church," Bertie smiles, checking his watch and gesturing me toward the rest of the group. "That should leave just enough time for introductions before you need to change."
The reception is held in the hall, being the largest, most open space. It is still so crowded that it brings to mind the market place in Tangiers. There's more room to move, admittedly, and certainly less noise, particularly where the sound of goats is concerned, but it is the closest to the excited bustle as England will likely ever see.
My new relatives circulate among their guests, greeting each one as an old and dear friend.
They are almost exactly as I'd imagined they would be: Lord Grantham, the aging yet capable leader, as comfortable now ruling from an arm chair as a board room; Lady Grantham, with her skin as white as snow, her hair as black as night, and her lips painted something a bit more dignified than the red of blood, an older and wiser Snow White serenely ruling over her kingdom; Lady Violet, the matriarch, the last remaining vestige of the old guard; Mrs. Grey (not Lady Merton, thank you), the matriarch's lieutenant - trusted, but not quite of the same level, even if she's married to a lord; Tom Branson, the handsome, earnest country cousin among country cousins; and Lady Rose, the debutante, rising into her glory in a flurry of smiles and golden curls.
The Talbots are the only real surprise; Lady Mary, with her pleasant-but-guarded smiles, heir to the dowager, I suspect, and Henry, dashingly handsome, but as grounded and sensible as Bertie. They seem an oddly mismatched pair if ever there was one, and I find myself watching them when I’m not watching Bertie and Edith.
Edith, Lady Edith, nearest and dearest of my new cousins. She is every bit the angel I imagined, standing next to Bertie, hand on his arm and smiling beatifically at everyone who comes past to offer congratulations. Her hair makes a sunlit halo of curls around her face, her dress a glittering robe. Bertie could not have found a lovelier woman if he'd tried, I am sure.
We've yet to actually be introduced.
The entire assembly is eager to congratulate the newlyweds, although in the manner of the English aristocracy they don't do anything so impudent as push forward. They wait patiently, drifting in politely smiling eddies, waiting for the current of people to draw them close enough to step forward and offer a smile and a shake of the hand or kiss on the cheek.
I am almost there, I can be patient.
There are servants among the guests. Not the servants of Downton, the footmen circulating with trays of food for offer, but other servants, invited as nothing more than wedding guests. I have met both the dowager Countess's butler and lady's maid, and a young woman who apparently worked here before leaving to be secretary before the war. The town doctor is here as well, along with several of the tenants. I can't help but smile as cousin Mirada finds herself talking to one of the farmers. While she might speak to such people in the village or passing on the road, to share her moral wisdom if nothing else, I doubt she's used to meeting them on terms such as this.
With the Crawlys as family, I suspect she will have to get used to such things. I can not pretend to be sad.
The human tide finally washes me within range of Bertie and Edith, allowing me to break out and offer my congratulations. For the second time today, I embrace my cousin. "Edith," he turns, making the official introductions. "This is my cousin Peter."
"Of course." Edith's smile is as warm up close as from a distance. I suspect in a few months Bertie himself will be tanned from the warmth of that smile. There is no formal, distant hand shake. She embraces me as she has every other member of the family and kisses my cheek, and I am more than happy to return the gesture. "Bertie has told me so much about you, I feel like we've already met."
"I wish we had," I reply as we release each other and step back to a respectable distance. "But now there is all the time in the world to get to know one another, and I look forward to the opportunity." It is time for congratulations, and though it's impossible, I try to meet both of their gazes at once. I do a tolerable job, I suppose. "I am truly happy for both of you. No life is perfect, but I am certain that together you will build a life and a love that is as close to perfect as God allows. May the storms of marriage serve only to water your love, so that it grows stronger and more beautiful after they pass, and may you be surrounded only by people who cherish you."
Bertie looks a bit awkward with sentiment, but none-the-less smiles and thanks me, and I can tell that he means it. Edith, on the other hand, looks deeply touched and perhaps a little awestruck. I can't imagine why. Mine can't be the first speech they've received. "Thank you, Peter. That was beautiful."
"Well, if I read that in the paper, I'll at least know what pseudonym he writes under," an older, rather impressed voice to my right says. I turn, somewhat startled. I've been so focused on the newlyweds that I've forgotten the rest of the room entirely. Despite being one of the first people to congratulate her granddaughter, the Dowager has drifted back within ear shot, along with Bertie's mother.
Cousin Mirada does not seem half so taken with my efforts. "Don't encourage him," she scolds.
Her reprimand earns her one of the haughtiest, most disapproving looks I've seen in my life, as if she were some ill mannered urchin who had just suggested sea bathing in one's skivvies. "I will encourage whomever I please," the Dowager replies, before turning, giving me a nod, and sweeping off into the crowd, as much as someone with a walking stick can sweep. Cousin Mirada looks quite put out and, with a glare in my direction, takes herself off to talk to someone else.
Edith looks deeply amused. "Well, you have Granny's approval."
It's time for me to step aside, to let someone else have their turn, but I can't quite. Not yet. "I know we'd discussed in our letters your coming to live with me at Brancaster," I reply, still looking after the Dowager. "But could I possibly come and live here at Downton instead? Your family seems so much more pleasant than mine, excepting Bertie and a couple of others, of course."
"Oh no," Edith shakes her head, her eyebrows knitting in apology although her smile doesn't fade. "I'm afraid Mary and I would kill each other. But there will certainly be reason to visit."
"That I look forward to," I assure her. Then, with a final bow, I let myself be carried off back into the crowd, leaving them to the next well wisher.
My next goal is the wine table. With only two footmen, there is no way to deliver wine to everyone who might wish it, so they've set up a table neatly lined with glasses of champagne. While champagne is not my favorite wine, I confess to being quite fond of the bubbles. I am also, after several hours worth of festivities, rather thirsty.
The table is manned, as one would expect, by Carson. He stands watch over everything with that expression like a disapproving hawk which seems to be part of every butler’s repertoire. Carson pulls it off particularly well, thanks to the somewhat large nose and bushy eyebrows that make it seem like he’s scowling, even when he isn’t. He says no word as I approach the table, simply looks up at me from where he’s refilling the glasses, silently asking if I need assistance.
I smile at him as I help myself to a glass and he gives me a nod in return, those bushy eyebrows raising slightly to make him look a bit less intimidating. As I take my first sip, Lord Grantham also approaches for a glass. “Lord Hexham,” he greets me, beaming like any man whose daughter has just been married. “What do you think of the champagne?”
“As good a vintage as I’ve ever tasted,” I assure him. It is not undo flattery. If the champagne is an example of the man’s wine cellar, then dinner here will never disappoint, for surely there must be a perfect match for every course. I watch Carson fill more glasses and marvel at the amount being put out. I am glad, for the sake of my own wine cellar, that when I eventually break down and get married, my in-laws will be expected to supply the drinks. “It’s hard to believe, really, that the vineyards survived the war.”
Lord Grantham made a general noise of agreement, then added, “There are days it’s hard to believe anything survived, and yet here we are, alive and well.”
“And thriving.” I look to Bertie and Edith once more and feel that in this moment, anything might be possible. It’s not that I’m unaware of the financial difficulties facing families like mine and Lord Grantham’s, or the number who have completely thrown in the towel all ready. But bad times come and bad times go, for the rich as well as the poor, although to many eyes we might fair better. We’ve weathered change before and, just now, I can not feel that there is anything too terrible lurking in the future. I only see my cousin happily settled, with hopes of being a father. That’s all that matters. I turn a smile to my host and raise my glass. “To the future.”
“To the future.”
I am just about to drink my toast when there’s a peel of laughter from directly behind me and something small, but surprisingly heavy, collides with the back of my legs, jarring me terribly and splashing the contents of my glass into my face and down my front. Just my luck. “Sybbie!” a male voice scolds from behind me, “Be careful!” Meanwhile Lord Grantham and Carson both look shocked and horrified for a moment before the butler hurries forward with a handkerchief to help dry me off.
Mr. Branson steps into my line of sight, carrying his daughter who looks perilously close to crying. “I’m terribly sorry, Lord Hexham.”
I am certain that a crying child will do more to dampen the spirits of the festivities than my spilt wine and am therefore eager to avoid it. I take Carson’s handkerchief and dab at my suit front, offering the Irishman a reassuring smile. “It’s quite all right,” I promise. “No real harm done, after all. Are you hurt, Sybbie?”
The little girl shakes her head, then adds, “Sorry. Didn’t mean it,” and goes back to looking as if she might cry.
“I didn’t think you had. Really, accidents happen, and this is far from the worst thing to happen to me this month.” That, at least, is the simple truth. Compared to the loss of Adams, a bit of champagne in the face is a triviality. “So don’t worry about it, hm? Give us a smile.” I smile myself, trying to encourage her to follow my example. It earns me a shy little ghost of a smile.
“Thank you for your understanding, your Lordship,” her father gives me his own wry grin, then looks at her. “Come on, Sybbie. I think we should go to the nursery for a bit, so you can play a bit more freely.”
“I want to see Aunt Edith throw the flowers!” she protests.
“That’s not for a long time yet. We can come back for that part.” Father and daughter make their way off through the throng, leaving me shaking my head. As exciting as such a party is for the adults, it must be dreadfully dull for an energetic little girl.
“Here, we’ll fetch Molsley to help you get changed.” Lord Grantham finally comes unfrozen, turns, and gestures to Carson who looks ready to immediately set out in search of the footman, wherever he might be in the surrounding throng. I stop him.
“There’s no need for that, Lord Grantham,” I say, trying to sound more confident in my dressing abilities than I am. In reality I’ve had so much trouble managing traveling clothes, the idea of formal wear is daunting indeed. Still, I hate to make a fuss, especially when it will leave the party short handed. “Your footmen are busy, and I am perfectly capable of dressing myself.” It’s then that I start patting the wine off of my tie and realize that’s been stained. It will have to be replaced.
From the expression on Lord Grantham’s face, either my confidence has visibly slipped, or he remembers my tie from earlier in the day. Still, rather than make a scene, he glances at Carson, who is still hovering, then back at me. “Are you certain?”
“Quite certain,” I smile, but then I look at my tie and my bravado falters. “Hm, well, mostly certain at any rate. Perhaps I could borrow someone else’s valet, just for the tie.”
"I could help," a calm, pleasant voice from behind me interrupts the conversation.
Carson looks sharply over my shoulder, apparently shocked, or perhaps affronted. Lord Grantham simply looks surprised, as if someone has said 'yes' to an unpleasant task when he expected a 'no'.
Curious, armed with only their reactions, I turn to see the speaker.
I have long been aware that I fall in love too easily, but the first sight is so striking that I can't help it.
He is beautiful.
He's a little bit taller than I, although not too broad, and I think younger, although it's difficult to place his age exactly. He is all contrast. It's as if someone took the English winter of my youth and fashioned a man from it. His skin stands out pale against the crisp black of his suit and hair, like a glimpse of snow against the trees. It's his eyes that hold my attention the most, though, even paler than his complexion and silver as the sky on a frosty morning.
Despite the gaiety around him, he stands primly at attention. His expression is mild and polite in the face of Mr. Carson's astonishment. It's impossible to read anything in that face, even the desire to be useful.
He is everything that is English, everything that makes me want to flee back to the fairy tale of Tangiers, yet all I can think is that, yes, I want him as my valet while I am here.
I want to talk to him, to know him.
I want to thaw those icy eyes, to see if there is a spring waiting behind that winter.
"Mr. Barrow, you are here as a guest," Carson's protest breaks the moment. It's impossible to tell if he is appalled by the idea of a guest acting as a servant or the idea of this man in particular leaving his assigned role for the night, but his objection is quite strenuous. "Besides, you are a butler now."
"Mr. Molsley's a teacher, but he's acting as a footman," Mr. Barrow replies, his voice still level, pleasant, and imminently reasonable. "And, if what I hear is right, a valet. It's no disgrace for a butler to act as valet, especially not these days, and I have the training. Why shouldn't I help this gentleman?" His eyes flicker toward me, meeting my own for half a heart beat before darting away and fixing themselves quite deliberately on Carson.
If anything, the butler looks less pleased than ever.
Lord Grantham seems oblivious to his butler's agitation, or perhaps he's simply ignoring it. I can't tell. Either way, he smiles and, with a very satisfied air, proclaims, "Well, that's certainly a kind offer. Thank you, Barrow."
"Always glad to be of service, milord," Mr. Barrow replies with a sharp, neat bow, a private smile, and another glance in my direction that makes me painfully aware of how warm the room is.
"I assume you don't mind, Lord Hexham?" Lord Grantham asks the question as an afterthought, apparently just now remembering that I have a stake in this decision. "Barrow was a member of this house for fifteen years and has served as my personal valet. I can promise he's up to the task. Of course, since you're familiar with Molsley, I understand if you'd rather stay with him and Barrow can help serve."
"Oh, that's quite alright, Lord Grantham," I reply, probably too quickly. There is a small shift to Mr. Barrow’s expression at the mention of serving that I can’t quite decipher, but I choose to read it as disappointment. It’s certainly nice to think he’d prefer dressing me to serving wine. "With this many people, Mr. Molsley could be lost for hours, while Mr. Barrow is here and willing. We'll see if he thinks he's up to the job after he sees my trunks," I joke, disguising my smile as simple good humor. "I'm afraid I'm as good at packing as I am at ties."
"Then it's settled," Lord Grantham nods firmly, still smiling, and taking another sip from his own glass of champagne. The motion seems to remind Carson that he's neglecting his duties and with a small start he steps back to the table and begins refilling glasses with as much haste as dignity can manage.
As casually as I can, praying that my heart won't beat loudly enough to alert the entire room, I turn to face my new valet. I find I can’t trust my voice without a sip of champagne first (fortunately there is still a small amount in my glass), so he beats me to the first word.
"Shall I meet you at your room then, your Lordship?" he asks, all cool politeness, although his eyes are now locked on my face. I try not to read too much into it, to not see things that might not be there, but it's difficult.
"Yes, please," I smile and nod my head, squelching the urge to bow. He is the one who should be bowing to me, and yet he exudes such an air of confidence I can't help the impulse. "I'm in the..." I stop and frown, trying to remember what name my particular room was given. I don't draw a blank so much as I draw a series of them. "Actually, I don't know which room I'm in, come to think of it. I'm certain I was told, but everything was so hurried this afternoon, I've forgotten."
Mr. Barrow doesn't seem the least bit put off by this. "I can find out from the housekeeper," he assures me. "We’ll get you fixed up and back to enjoying yourself in no time." With a smile and a very professional bow he's gone, slipping back into the swirling crowd, leaving me stranded and searching for glimpses of him.