With no guests or pressing business to attend to, the Crawleys enjoyed a quiet family dinner at home.
"Please tell Cook that dinner was excellent as always." Violet Crawley looked toward the butler who was standing sentinel near the sideboard and delicately touched a napkin to the corner of her mouth. "Shall we go through?"
A young footman sprang forward to pull back her chair and she rose with an expectant look at her husband and children.
"You and Rosamund should go through now, my dear." Patrick Crawley, the Sixth Earl of Grantham and his son dutifully stood as the ladies rose from the table. "I have a few matters to discuss with Robert, first."
"Ohhh, whatever did you do, brother?" Rosamund’s eyes widened dramatically as she rounded the table to playfully drop a kiss atop her father’s balding head after he dropped back into his chair. "Do not be too harsh with him, Papa. No matter how naughty he may have been."
"Go along now, Little Miss," the Earl smirked at his daughter and gave her smooth cheek a tender pat. "Do not be stirring up trouble."
"‘Trouble’ is her middle name," Robert groused with a conspiratorial smile aimed at his mother. "Am I not right, Mama?"
"Quite so, my dear." Violet gestured regally toward her wayward daughter. "Come along now, Trouble. Your Papa and brother will join us soon."
The women exited the room and Patrick nodded gratefully as the under butler placed a decanter of brandy and two heavy crystal tumblers onto the table.
"Thank you, Carson. That will be all."
He gestured to his son to pour them each a drink and rose to retrieve a humidor from behind a cabinet door in the ornate server standing along one wall of the family dining room. Lifting the lid, he offered one to his son before stretching across the table to light his cigar from the flame dancing atop the wick of one of the candles.
"Brandy and cigars," Robert noted as he lit his own. The two men puffed away in silent, mutual pleasure for a few moments. "What is the occasion?" the younger man finally asked.
"You will be twenty-three upon your next birthday," the Earl noted. "I thought it time to discuss expanding your role and responsibilities to the estate."
Robert nodded and grinned around the cigar clamped between his teeth. "You know I am eager to serve in whatever capacity Downton requires of me."
"It pleases me to hear you say that." His father took a sip from his glass, letting the expensive brandy roll over his tongue. "I have been thinking on this for quite a while now," he said, studying the glowing tip of his cigar. "And I believe that it is beyond time you begin to seriously look for a wife."
Robert coughed, choking on a sip of brandy.
"Pardon?" He coughed again, desperately trying to clear his throat. "Marry? Who... that is... What?"
"You are my heir," his father patiently reminded him. "It is your duty to Downton to marry and produce an heir of your own."
"But... now?" Robert stabbed his cigar out into an ornate crystal bowl near his elbow. "Why now? As you say, I am not yet twenty-three. You were much older than I am now when you and Mama married."
"Times are different," his father said with an arch look. "Come now, boy. You are a fine looking young man and quite popular with the ladies. I have seen them vying for your attention at the balls and house parties we attend. Surely you have given it some consideration."
"Papa." Robert’s fingers tightened around the tumbler. "There is someone I care for very much... but we cannot marry yet."
"Good God, my boy! She’s not still a school girl, is she?" Patrick grinned around the cigar clamped between his teeth.
"Father," Robert scowled. "Do not be ridiculous."
"There would be no need for ‘ridiculous’ guesses on my part if you would simply tell me the girl’s name," Patrick pointed out in a reasonable tone.
Robert set his jaw stubbornly and stared beyond his father’s shoulder at the ornately patterned silk wall covering as if seeing it for the first time.
"Robert." Patrick impatiently flicked off the glowing ash from the tip of his cigar. "You are not master of Downton yet." An underlying thread of steel crept into the older man’s voice. "Surely you are not laboring under the delusion that you can present the future countess of Grantham to your mother and me as a fait accompli."
"No, Father," Robert sighed. "But it is not the time yet. The situation is... complicated."
"What complications?" Patrick demanded irritably. "I assume she comes from a good family; that she is a lady of good birth and breeding?"
Robert nodded, still staring miserably into the distance.
"She is of age and is not promised to another?"
At this, Robert visibly flinched.
"So, the young lady in question is engaged to another," Patrick probed cautiously, watching as his son kneaded the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger.
"It is not optimal," the Earl said slowly, "but engagements can be broken."
Visibly distraught, Robert slowly shook his head back and forth. "Father... I – it is not so simple a matter as that."
"In what way? Has... has the young lady already given herself to her intended?" Patrick’s voice sharpened. "Has she given herself to you?"
His son’s sudden fascination with the embroidery of the tablecloth was all the answer Patrick needed. He rubbed his hand over his jaw, a familiar sign to his son of his quiet agitation and a heavy silence fell over the room.
"Is she with child?" Patrick quietly asked after a long moment.
"Then speak with her of breaking her engagement. There will be some embarrassment, of course, and you will have to wait a decent time before you can take up with one another, but..."
"There is no engagement to break, Father!" Robert exploded and then pressed a closed fist against his mouth as if he could call back the words.
"Then..." His brow furrowed in confusion, Patrick tried to make sense of what his son was – and was not saying. A sudden, awful thought occurred to him and he covered his face with one hand. "She is already married." Though muffled by his fingers, the words were heavy with accusation and disappointment.
"Yes," Robert whispered miserably. "She is married."
"Who is she?"
Robert stubbornly shook his head from side-to-side and refused to meet his father’s sharp gaze.
"Who. Is. She?"
Robert flinched as his father’s hand crashed against the table, knocking over one crystal glass and spilling a small river of brandy across the embroidered silk cloth.
"Son, you will look at me," Patrick growled and a small spark of pride stirred beneath the anger as Robert raised a defiant gaze to meet his father’s. "You can tell me yourself, but if you do not, please believe me when I say that I will use every resource at my disposal to discover the lady’s identity."
"I... Father," Robert lifted his own glass and took a bracing gulp of the remaining brandy. "I want you to know that I never sought to... that is we never expected –" He stared at the empty glass, mindlessly watching the rainbow of light playing over the heavily cut crystal as he rolled it back and forth between his hands. "But Kate and I... we could not help –"
"Kate?" Patrick sharply interrupted his son’s murmured musings. "Kate..." He wracked his brain for a face to match the name and then sat upright in his chair, body all but vibrating with tension.
"Kate," he repeated, eyes locked on his son’s face and the growing look of horror as the younger man realized that he had allowed his love’s name to slip from between his lips.
"Surely you do not mean the Lady Katherine. Wife of Lord Fitzsimmons."
Miserably, Robert nodded his head in affirmation.
"You have been dallying with the wife of our closest neighbor?" Patrick’s voice was a low growl of incredulity. "What in the name of all that is holy are you thinking, my boy? What is it that you think can come of this affair? You cannot marry her!"
His voice began to rise and he pressed the tips of his fingers against his mouth lest the entire household become aware.
"She is already married," he finished more quietly, his words devastating in their obviousness.
"To an old man," Robert parried.
"Lord Geoffrey is but ten years my senior," Patrick pointed out with a narrow-eyed look.
"And in poor health as you well know," his son countered. Now that his secret was out, he found his fear abating and he sat taller in his chair, prepared to argue his cause.
"And what, pray, is your plan, Robert?" The Earl pressed his palms together near his mouth and studied his son over the tips of his fingers. "Do you intend simply to await Lord Geoffrey’s death like a ghoul? I do not recall the man ever having wronged you in any way. Indeed, I have always known him to be an exceedingly kind and gracious man."
Robert’s cheeks flushed and he closed his eyes against his father’s censure.
"Father, it is not like that. I –"
"Lord Fitzsimmons may not be in the best of health, son, but I do not see him going to the Lord any time soon."
"We are willing to wait."
"And all the while you make of him a cuckold." Patrick plowed on without mercy, ignoring the high flush of embarrassment and indignation on his son’s cheeks. "And what if the Lady Katherine were to become with child?"
"She will not."
"There is only one foolproof method to prevent a child," his father pointed out icily. "And it would seem neither you, nor the lady appear to be inclined toward abstinence."
"It is not for you to worry about, Father."
"But I do worry. I must worry. I cannot allow my son – my heir – to bring shame on the Grantham name because he could not keep his hands off another man’s wife," the Earl bit out. "Or do you think Lord Geoffrey will not notice if his wife is unexpectedly with child? And beyond even that horrifying circumstance, do believe you can buck the entail and make your illegitimate child your heir?"
"There will be no child," Robert snarled under the weight of the relentless hammering of his father’s words. "Kate cannot – that is she is... She cannot."
The air whooshed out of Patrick’s lungs and he sagged back against his chair, suddenly feeling a decade older than his fifty-seven years.
"How do you know?"
"She was ill as a child," Robert said quietly. "More than one doctor has told her that she is... that she cannot... that she will never be a mother."
"And so her father arranged for her to marry an older man, a widower with two grown sons of his own, so that she would be cared for," Patrick concluded.
"Robert." Tired incredulity replaced the anger in his voice. "Is it truly your intention to bring a woman of no financial means and who cannot give you an heir into this house as your wife?"
"Father... would you have me give up the woman I love?"
"When she belongs to another? Yes. When she cannot provide you and Downton with heirs? Yes."
"I love Katherine! Father, those other things do not mean anything to me!" he cried recklessly.
"Well, my boy, you better begin to care about those things. You know your duty to this estate. The duty you and I and our forebears have long held to Downton. To this house. To this land. To the staff we employ and the tenants who work the fields and to the village and its people – every one of whom rely on the continuity of this family to keep it going from generation to generation."
"Father, you said it yourself, times are different from when you and Mother wed."
"It is your sacred duty to wed an heiress who can give you a son and whose fortune will help to ensure that the estate survives for your child to inherit. You have known this all of your life."
"Kate is not a woman without means. Her marriage settlement was generous –"
"But the Fitzsimmons estate and fortune go to Lord Geoffrey’s eldest son."
"– and Rosamund’s sons can inherit Downton."
"You know very well that the entail does not pass through the female line, Robert."
"Then I will spend whatever amount it takes to smash the entail! I do not care, Father. I love her and I mean to marry her!"
"Robert!" Patrick’s voice whipped out like a lash, subduing his son’s passionate outburst. "If we do not act quickly, there will not be a Downton nor a need to break the entail."
"What nonsense are you speaking, Father?"
"As you know, the estate’s income has been falling for the last few years, but this last year, our revenue is down by a full twelve percent."
"That cannot be!" Robert exclaimed.
"It is true. America is flooding the market with grain from their vast heartland and we cannot match their production or their price. For months now, I have spoken at length with Mr. Jarvis and our solicitors and we are all in agreement. We can tighten our belts, economize where we can, but we are in danger of losing Downton if we do not have a substantial infusion of cash. Quickly."
Robert buried his face in his hands in disbelief.
"My boy, I love you," Patrick said gruffly. "I want you to be happy. If it were only one thing or another, I would move heaven and earth to try to find a way forward for you. But even if your lady’s fortune were enough to save the estate – which it is not – you still need a legitimate heir or it is all for naught." He laid his hand on his son’s shoulder and squeezed gently.
"In any case we do not have the luxury of time. Downton is at serious risk." He shifted in his seat and leaned closer to his son, his voice low and pleading. "We could move into the manor house and, of course, we would keep Grantham House in London. It would be vastly different, but as you know the house and the grounds are lovely and we could make do there. But Downton and all the land would have to be sold. I do not know if there is anyone in England with wealth enough to purchase it whole and so it would have to be divided up into parcels and sold. The house itself would likely be leveled but worse than anything would be the impact upon the tenants and the staff who make their living here."
Robert’s hands fell from his face and he looked at his father with eyes that were red-rimmed and glistened with unshed tears.
"I would spare you this if I could, my son."
"I know, Father." Robert nodded and roughly ran one knuckle beneath his eye. His father was right. He had a duty to Downton above all things and he knew he could never find his own personal happiness at the expense of the estate.
"The Season will begin in two months. Go to London. Find an heiress. A pretty girl whom you will not mind seeing across the dining room table night after night. After all, as your mother would say, ‘marriage is a long business’ so if you cannot be with the woman you love, then find a woman you will not mind being with."
"Yes, Father," Robert choked.
"And, I do not say this lightly or without thought or sensitivity, but perhaps someday – after the estate is secure and you have children of your own – you and your lady might – discretely, of course – find one another again..."
(Next chapter: Cora)
Additional notes: I've got the first three or four chapters written – and have roughed out an outline for the rest of the story both on paper and in my head. I've no idea how many chapters it will entail, nor will I hazard a guess as I'm always, always wrong.
There are differing accounts online of when Robert and Cora wed, how old they were at the time of their marriage and nothing I can find that indicates how long they courted or the length of their engagement before they walked down the aisle. So I'm claiming writer's privilege here.