April 21st, 1934
Matthew Crawley, heir presumptive to Robert Crawley, the 7th Earl of Grantham, Viscount Downton, paused for a moment after entering the dining room and smiled upon finding it awash with sunlight. It enriched the color and texture of all it encompassed, bringing a warm glow to the pale, peach colored walls and illuminating the dark, lustrous wood grain of the wainscoting and furniture.
The sight before his eyes was heartily welcomed as April had thus far been damp, dreary and depressing. The foul weather had not only soured his mood but caused his back to ache, a consequence of the injury he had sustained to it in the Battle of Amiens 16 years earlier.
He never complained about the pain or the event that led to his having a lifelong bruise on his spine, even jesting on more than one occasion that he owed his uncanny knack for predicting the weather to his service to King and Country.
Truth be told, he was grateful for the aches and spasms, though that was not something he admitted to anyone but himself as he feared he would be labeled a masochist. He wasn't, of course, as he derived no pleasure from his pain, only gratitude that he could feel it, since there had been a period in his life when he felt nothing at all below his waist.
That experience left an indelible mark on him in more ways than one, making the discomfort that plagued him on rainy days a mere drop in the bucket compared to the agony he suffered when he had believed himself paralyzed for life.
Still, the sight of the golden rays flowing through the tall windows went a long way in buoying his spirits as well as easing any soreness that lingered in is back, and so it was with a bounce in his step that he bid his father-in-law a 'good morning' as he passed him on the way to the sideboard to get breakfast.
Raising the covers off the gleaming silver serving dishes that held today's offerings, he found the savory aroma of the food combined with the scent of freshly cut flowers in a nearby vase intoxicating and took in a long, deep breath. Then, he set to work in earnest in filling his plate.
His mission accomplished, Matthew settled into the mahogany shield back chair to the right of the Earl, the seat he customarily filled at the breakfast table. Robert smiled broadly at him and as he returned it, he discretely took in his appearance. It pleased him to find he looked both well and rested, seemingly fully recovered from his recent bout of illness.
He noticed, too, that the head of the Crawley family was taking steps to ensure that his good health would continue as the food on his plate was clearly his physician's choice, not his.
Then he turned his attention to his own meal, unfurling a precisely folded, crisp linen napkin and placing it on his lap before he lifted a highly polished fork from the table and put it to good use, lightening the load on his plate with gusto.
The current and future Earl ate their breakfast in amiable silence, the quiet in the room broken only by the chirping of wrens and robins in song and the caw of a blackbird in the distance.
As their meal and nature's serenade continued, their ancestors looked down upon them, each brought to life in an oil portrait by one famed artist or another during the 17th & 18th century. The painting of the 1st Earl of Grantham by Gainsborough hung salon style along with the others that formed a border around the piece de resistance that dominated the room, van Dyk's 1635 portrait of King Charles I on horseback.
Matthew's eyes were drawn to the grandiose representation of the renowned royal whenever he entered the room, which was no surprise considering it filled one-third of the wall. He had always wondered if its placement had been intentional as it formed a fitting backdrop for the Earl of Grantham, who sat directly beneath it at every meal.
At the moment, said Earl was grimacing at the one his physician had prescribed as he pushed his still half-filled plate into the center of the table. The offensive food out of his way, he donned his spectacles and began sifting through the short stack of newspapers that were delivered each day. His choice made, he then buried his head in the London Herald, strategically maneuvering the tabloid from two hands to one with aplomb in order to take a sip of his tea or a bite of toast.
His father-in-law's lack of attention did not bother Matthew at all since he knew it was not rooted in disinterest in his well being or any ill will toward him. The two of them had long reached the point in their relationship where they could share a room in silence without either feeling uncomfortable. The period of privacy they afforded each another now was part of their morning routine, one that they rarely deviated from as it suited them both quite nicely.
A quarter of an hour later, the distinct clinking sound of cup meeting saucer alerted him that Robert had come up for air, and having emptied his own plate of the eggs, beans, tomatoes and mushrooms that originally filled it, he raised his head to address him. However, he could only manage a glimpse of the Earl as he retreated back behind the paper that obscured his face.
He smiled as he watched Robert juggle the broadsheet, cup of tea and slice of toast; finding his agility quite impressive at age 68. Then he stifled a belch and reached for the teapot in order to refill his cup.
While carefully scanning each page in order to weed out the articles of interest to him, the Earl discovered that Rudyard Kipling had been awarded the Gotherburg Prize for Poetry. Knowing Matthew's fondness for the author, he folded the paper and placed it aside in order to share the news with him.
Noting that his son in law's plate was empty and having first hand knowledge of how hearty Matthew's appetite was, he raised the cover from the serving dish that held their toast and finding a good portion remained, offered it to him.
"Have a slice before it gets cold, Matthew," he said, breaking the silence in the room.
"Thank you, Robert, but I couldn't eat another bite," he replied, waving his hand in front of the offering in protest. Then patting his stomach, he added "I fear Mary will divorce me if my waistline expands any further."
"Nonsense," Robert disagreed. "Mary wouldn't throw you over because you gained an extra pound or two… or for any other reason that I can think of for that matter, and you very well know it."
Matthew did, too, and that brought a smile to his face. There was no doubt in his mind that his wife loved him unconditionally as he did her in spite of their respective flaws. They just did not dwell on them, choosing instead to focus on the finer qualities that each possessed. It made for a happy marriage.
He and Robert spent the next ten minutes in casual conversation discussing Kipling's achievement, the improved weather and a few estate matters that both agreed did not require immediate attention.
Then, as their pleasant exchange wound down, the heir presumptive reached for the newspaper that lay folded to his right and opened it, his eyes widening immediately as he caught sight of the cover page of the Daily Mail.
"What the devil?" he bellowed, taking in what was purported to be a photograph of the Loch Ness monster beneath the bold headline.
Robert stretched as far as he could without leaving his seat in order to see what had caused Matthew's outburst, and taking in what appeared to be a prehistoric creature's head rising out of the water, his face contorted into a mirror image of his son-in-law's.
Well I never….," the Earl began and ended, shaking his head back and forth with incredulity.
"Apparently someone has," Matthew quipped, positioning the paper between them so that they could both read the article.
It stated that Doctor Robert Kenneth Wilson, a prominent London physician and surgeon had taken the photograph and attested to its authenticity, providing conclusive proof that the Loch Ness monster, considered Scottish folklore by most, did in fact exist.
He and Robert stared at the image, the latter removing his spectacles and cleaning them with an unused napkin before returning them to the bridge of his nose and further inspection of the shocking photograph. Though a bit grainy, he had to admit that it did appear to be that of a gigantic creature's long neck and flat head rising above the waters of the Loch Ness.
While their eyes were glued to the paper, neither heard Tom Branson, the Earl's son-in-law by his late daughter, Sybil, come into the room. Positioning himself behind his in-laws to see what held their rapt attention, he caught sight of the headline and photograph and let out a long whistle, startling Matthew so badly that he tossed the tabloid into the air. It landed with a thump, nearly toppling his teacup as its pages spread haphazardly across the table.
The two Crawley men then turned in unison with their eyes narrowed, but their displeasure went unnoticed by the Irishman, who was now looming over Matthew's shoulder with his own fixed on the headline and what lie beneath it.
"You scared me half to death, Tom," Matthew admonished. "Why didn't you make yourself known?"
Again, his rebuke did not hit home as his brother-in-law ignored him, his eyes narrowing into slits as he squinted in an attempt to read the small print from where he stood. Finding he could not manage it, his face contorted into a grimace.
His sense of humor coming into play, Matthew found the sight of the broadsheet strewn about the dining table, his father-in-law's rolling eyes and the expression on Tom's face comical and burst into laughter. Robert soon followed suit, and the sound of their combined mirth finally got the estate manager's attention.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to catch you off guard," Tom offered by way of apology. "In my defense, however, I did make myself known. I wished you each a 'good morning' when I came in but you were too embroiled in Nessie's discovery to hear me."
"Nessie's discovery?" the Earl bellowed. "Come now, Tom. You cannot possibly believe there is a monster living in the depths of Loch Ness."
Seeing the obstinate look on his brother-in-law's face made it clear that is exactly what he believed and Matthew thought it important that he set him straight. After all, as the estate manager, Tom's opinion would not only be taken into account by the Crawley's tenants but whomever he had business dealings with on Downton's behalf. He did not want him to be the source of ridicule should he share his feelings regarding the matter at hand with anyone outside of the family.
"I fear I must agree with Robert, Tom," he said as gently as he could in order to spare his feelings. "This has got to be some kind of a hoax…albeit a well-executed one. Creatures such as this one haven't roamed the earth for millions of years. You must know that."
Tom shot back, "That's rich coming from a man who was pronounced dead and then turned up on our doorstep," before he reached over and took a slice of toast from the serving plate. Waving it about in an animated fashion, he added, "If your resurrection has taught me anything, it is that nothing is impossible."
Matthew sighed, "The difference is I was never dead, Tom. My heart stopped beating for a very short while, but then came back on line, so to speak."
Tom glared at him, making it clear that both his kid glove approach and argument had failed. In frustration, he turned to his father-in-law for support and found him nodding his head in agreement.
Now eyeing both of his in-laws with displeasure, Tom took a large bite out of his toast and dug in his heels, countering, "I'll have you both know that there have been sightings of the Loch Ness monster as far back as 560 A.D. and they have become more and more frequent in the last hundred years. Why, just last July a man and his wife reported that they saw the creature cross the road in front of their car…and they described it as having a large body, long, wavy, narrow neck and no limbs…just like it was in the paper today. Then in November, someone named Hugh Gray…I'm pretty sure that is his name…came up with a photograph of the monster that he took near Foyers…but, unfortunately, that one was too blurry to publish."
At that, Tom took a deep breath, as he had rattled off his evidence at such rapid speed, that he needed air.
Matthew felt winded, himself, on Tom's behalf and filled his own lungs while catching sight of Robert pouring himself a cup of tea in his peripheral vision, no doubt to fortify himself for what might come next. This proved to be a wise decision on his part as he heard his brother-in-law piping up again.
Barely able to contain his excitement, Tom pointed to the broadsheet and cried out, "This….this is the evidence that the world has been waiting for – especially my brother, Kieran who has been a believer all along despite the naysayers."
Matthew found he felt a bit weary then, quite similar to the way he had many years earlier when he and Mary had argued over his accepting an inheritance that he did not feel he deserved. Their opposing views resulted in his then fiancé and him so at odds that their wedding was at risk of being canceled.
Though this disagreement with Tom was small potatoes compared to the brouhaha that resulted when he tried to get Mary to see his point, he was reminded that that it was an exercise in futility whenever you tried to change someone's mind regarding something of importance to them. He also acknowledged how much he hated confrontation, especially with those he loved. That realization enabled him to drop the argument altogether, and admitting defeat, he reached for the teapot.
Noting Matthew's resignation and clearly thinking it wise, Robert turned to Tom and grumbled, "If you are going to join us for breakfast, would you kindly fill your plate at the sideboard and take a seat. I can see the pile of crumbs that have fallen from your toast onto Matthew's shoulder from here."
You can?" he shrieked, maneuvering his head to the side in order to ascertain if his father-in-law's statement was made in jest and then scowling when he found it was not.
Looking abashed, Tom took up his napkin and began brushing away the offending crumbs.
"Get a plate, Tom, and sit down," Matthew pleaded, pulling the napkin from his hand and sweeping away any vestige that remained on his suit jacket.
The erstwhile chauffeur, who over the passage of time had not only become a valued addition in the management of the estate but a much loved member of the Crawley family, smiled broadly before popping the last bit of toast into his mouth and heading for the sideboard with alacrity.
After swallowing a hefty mouthful of eggs, Tom looked around the table, and as if seeing the empty chairs for the first time, asked, "Where are Mary and Sybbie? Aren't they usually down to breakfast by now? So is Victoria for that matter."
Matthew's eyes widened with surprise as Tom's question sunk in as it made no sense to him that he would ask such a thing. Noting Robert's raised eyebrows, he could tell that he felt the same way. Still, he responded nonchalantly that Mary and Cora as well as their own daughters had been down to breakfast hours earlier in order to catch the first train to London, where they would join their sister-in- law Edith, his future bride, Catherine, and her sister, Lilian, in order to have their dresses fitted.
As Tom now gaped at him as if he were the Loch Ness Monster, Matthew pondered the series of events that had led to his meeting his intended, and quickly arrived at the conclusion that his brother-in-laws upcoming nuptials was all down to him.
After all, if he had not had an automobile accident the day George was born and wound up in the London Hospital with amnesia, he would never have met Lilian Pomeroy, the nurse who had cared for him there. Taking it a step further, the friendship he had forged with her during that time extended to the Crawley family once he regained his memory and had returned to Downton. That friendship prompted Mary to invite Lilian's younger sister, Catherine Moore, who had recently relocated to London with her young son from Ireland, to George's birthday party, and it was at that auspicious event that Tom and Catherine met and became smitten with one another.
He smiled, finding that he was quite pleased with the role he played in Tom and Catherine's second chance at love before remembering how obtuse his brother-in-law was behaving at the moment.
"The girls have spoken of little else all week…," he said with exasperation, noting Tom still in a fog. "…and I can't believe Catherine hasn't mentioned it to you. That certainly would be something a fiancé would share with her betrothed."
Tom's mouth hung open for a long moment as he digested the information Matthew had provided before replying, "Well, I have been a bit preoccupied with this and that, but now that you mention it, I do recall Catherine saying something about a dress fitting… but I was under the impression that wasn't until next month. Even then, I wondered why she, or any of the others for that matter, would be having their dresses altered so soon. The wedding isn't until September. It seems to me that there is plenty of time for that sort of thing."
Matthew chortled, "You say that because you are a man, Tom. The fairer sex sees things very differently than we do. In fact, it has been my experience that when it comes to a wedding, it is best not to question anything that they do in preparing for it as they get a bit testy."
"Testy is putting it mildly, Robert exclaimed. "Cora nearly bit my head off when I asked her what would happen if she gained weight after her dress was fitted, which I thought quite a logical question."
Imagining his mother-in-law's face at hearing it, Matthew laughed once more, this time being joined by Tom, who clearly was enjoying the same mental image he was.
"You are lucky that she is speaking to you at all, Robert," Matthew said with a playful glint in his eye. Whenever Mary's weight has become a topic of conversation, which I might add I steer clear of religiously but she has brought up from time to time, I assure her that she doesn't look any different than she did the day we were married. I find that response keeps the peace," he smiled, mentally patting himself on the back. Then giving it more thought, he added. "In fact, I think the only time I found I could not use that line was the first few months after Victoria was born. You may both recall that she was quite a large baby and Mary had difficulty in returning to her original weight, having gained so much during the pregnancy. She was determined to do so, however, and sacrificed many of the foods she loved until she got her figure back, which I can happily say she did and has kept since."
His thoughts drifted then to that lovely figure, an image of Mary's full breasts, narrow waist and shapely legs forming in his mind so vividly that it caused him to blush, and he prayed it wasn't so obvious that Robert would pick up on it, leading him to surmise why he had suddenly gone red in the face.
He needn't have worried, though, as when he turned to his father-in-law, he found his eyes were focused on Tom and filled with compassion.
Following Robert's gaze, Matthew saw that although he was nodding his head in agreement, Tom appeared crestfallen, his shoulders slumped, head lowered and fork hanging in mid air as he looked at the food on his plate as though it were poison.
He's thinking of Sybil, again, he thought, having witnessed the expression on Tom's face many times over the years. It was understandable considering the 14th anniversary of her death was near as well as his upcoming wedding. He thought the latter must be bittersweet for Tom as he knew that Sybil would remain forever in his heart, even though he had pledged it to another.
"Tom, do you have time to go over some numbers with me after breakfast?" he asked in an effort to pull him out of his thoughts. "I know how much you hate that sort of thing but I really do need a pair of fresh eyes and Robert has business in the Village this morning."
For a brief moment, he saw confusion register on his father-in-law's face and raised his eyebrows high in his direction to get him on board.
Then the penny dropped and the Earl said, "Yes, I do," with as much conviction as he could muster while lying through his teeth. "In fact, I had better get a move on or I will be late," he added to bolster the deception and rose from his seat.
At that, Tom raised his head and found the two men he loved as much as if they shared the same blood with mournful expressions on their faces.
Managing a weak smile, he placed his fork down, pushed his plate away and replied, "Yes, Matthew, I'd be happy to go over whatever numbers you want me to, although I suspect you have done so three times already …and I suppose if Robert must go into the Village to keep up your ruse, he won't mind much considering it is such a lovely day. No doubt the fresh air will do him good."
Appearing guilty as charged, both men fumbled for a denial while Tom watched them squirm, the sight lightening his mood with each second that passed until his inherent good humor returned.
Taking pity on them, he cried out, "You are both terrible liars…but you are also two of the finest men I have ever known and I am grateful beyond measure for what you've done for me. God only knows how I would have managed all these years without her if not for your support."
At that, Matthew swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat and blinked in an effort to forestall his now stinging eyes from spilling over. Tom was the brother he had often wished for as a child growing up in Manchester when he tossed a ball in the air or set up his toy soldiers for battle. Regarding him as such, he found it hard to get his emotions under control, and though he wanted very much to respond to his kind words, he found he couldn't; not just yet.
Fortunately, the now uncomfortable silence in the room was broken by his father-in-law, who found his voice, even though it was a bit raspy.
"Tom, it is I who must thank you for the comfort you have provided me and Cora in raising Sybbie under our roof. Having her here has kept a piece of Sybil alive for us and eased our grief immeasurably." He paused then and cleared his throat before continuing, "I am grateful that you are a part of our family, Son, and extremely proud of you. There isn't an estate manager between here and London who has worked as hard as you have in order that Downton prosper, especially after we lost Matthew. I'm sure he won't mind if I speak for both of us in letting you know how pleased we are to learn that something we may have said or done has lightened your load in some way. It should be made clear, too, that our support is unending should you need it."
"Hear, hear," Matthew cried out, tapping the table with his hand.
At that, the three men smiled at one another in silence, any further words unnecessary as what they felt was clear in their eyes – respect, admiration, gratitude and above all, love.
The memory of the first time he had felt this camaraderie between them came to the forefront of his mind then, providing him with a clear vision of the final play of one of the annual cricket matches between the House and Village. His mother's future husband and Crawley family physician, Richard Clarkson, had given the ball quite a ride in Tom's vicinity and he made the catch, denying the Village the win they had been certain of. Neither he, Robert or Tom could contain their excitement and they had rushed into the center of the field, grasping hold of each other's shoulder and forming a tight circle that he saw now had remained in place from that moment on.
Matthew knew that Robert had come to regard him as a son even before he had married his eldest daughter. He also was aware that it took his father-in-law a substantially longer period of time to think of Tom as such. That victorious moment on the cricket field laid the groundwork for the two of them to bond, but it wasn't until he was presumed dead and Tom took on his responsibilities as well as his own that the Earl began to regard him as a true member of the family.
His father in law had not exaggerated in his praise for Tom. He had not only worked tirelessly in implementing the plan he had laid out to secure Downton's future, but shared his knowledge and the expertise he had gained since his appointment as estate manager with Mary, who desperately needed his guidance once the letter he had drawn bequeathing his half of the estate to her upon his death was uncovered.
He couldn't imagine how his wife would have managed without Tom when in the midst of grieving his loss, she found herself not only responsible for safeguarding their son George's interest as the heir presumptive to the Earl of Grantham but her own as well.
Tom had proven invaluable to him, too, since his return in 1923 as the overhaul of Downton proved to be a monumental undertaking, made even more difficult once the Great Depression hit in 1929.
Many of the farms that Downton had taken over had been sorely neglected during the war, beset with dilapidated structures and tracts of land already reverting back to wilderness. New drainage schemes had to be implemented as many of the existing drains were no longer viable. Water meadows that were intentionally flooded by diverting water through a network of sluices and ditches in order to fertilize them had been abandoned in many instances, resulting in poor crop yields, if any.
There were endless hours of work tending to overgrown bushes, sagging roofs, rotting thatch, unpainted gates, and an ever increasing population of rabbits that decimated the crops that did grow. Adding to their woes was the substantial amount of money needed to purchase the machinery that would be needed to modernize Downton: tractors, plows, grain drills, corn planters and mechanical cultivators that could be driven through closely spaced rows. The mechanized equipment required trained men that could operate it, who at the time were not in abundance and, therefore, came at a high cost.
Then there were the ever rising taxes to contend with: land tax, income tax, and the dreaded death tax. They had gratefully escaped the latter when he was discovered alive but there was no help for it when Robert passed on.
At their peak, taxes rose to 30% of their income, almost a death blow to an estate trying to keep its head above water. Yet that was needed in order for the government to be able to provide the million citizens that were unemployed with food, shelter and health care.
There were times when the obstacles that Downton faced seemed insurmountable to him, but Matthew never gave up hope that the agricultural industry would make a comeback, and thankfully it did in 1931 when Britain abandoned its long standing commitment to free trade, placing tariffs on a number of products such as wheat, soft fruit and potatoes. That, combined with agricultural subsidies and the abandonment of the gold standard, led to British exports becoming more competitive on world markets, which in turn led to profit.
In retrospect, it had taken ingenuity, dedication, resolve and a healthy injection of capital from the Earl's sale of the della Francesca to keep his plan and Downton alive. Thankfully, with Tom at his side each step of the way and Robert's support, the vision he had laid out for Mr. Jarvis and his father-in-law more than a decade ago did come to fruition.
Downton no longer relied on anyone's inheritance to remain solvent and Tom Branson played a huge role in making it so, a fact Matthew felt certain was not lost on the Earl.
Tom and Sybil's daughter brought the two men closer, too. As Sybbie grew, so did the relationship between her father and grandfather, nurtured by their abiding love and concern for her. Now nearly 14 years after the youngest Crawley daughter's agonizing death before their eyes as a result of childbirth, the men who loved her the most while she lived were as much family as if they had been born into it, no doubt making Sybil smile down upon them from heaven.
"Excuse me my Lord, a special delivery packet has arrived for Mr. Crawley," broke through Matthew's musings as the head butler, Thomas Barrow, planted himself between him and the Earl.
Robert nodded his head and the somber faced servant handed him a large envelope that had been stamped numerous times from what appeared to be varying locations.
Taking in Thomas's appearance in the brightly lit room, he could not help but notice his once dark black hair was spattered with grey, now nearly white at the temples. It led to his wondering how old he was and he quickly made a rough calculation based on what he perceived to be the then footman's age when they shared tea in a fox hole nearly 16 years earlier and arriving at 41.
It still surprised him that Thomas held the lofty position of head butler, considering how many times he had been on the verge of being sacked in the last two decades.
He vividly recalled the time when then head butler, Charles Carson had discovered that Barrow had been stealing wine from the cellar. Though he initially blamed John Bates, Robert's valet, of the wrongdoing, the truth was eventually uncovered, proving the footman to be a liar as well as a thief. That peccadillo resulted in Thomas offering his resignation before formerly getting sacked as he had enlisted in what he thought would be a safe position in the army working with the family physician turned Major Clarkson when the Great War began.
Barrow's next close call came when the war ended along with his overseeing the rehabilitation of wounded soldiers who were recuperating at Downton. His military service over, Thomas decided to go into the black market and had provided Mrs. Patmore with a sampling of his merchandise to secure her as a customer. No fool, the cook tasted the products he had supplied her and quickly discovered they were not what they were purported to be, leading to both her and Thomas concluding they had been had.
Once more, Barrow was asked to leave Downton, but having no where to go and no means of support, he pleaded for more time. Then the Spanish flu rescued him from his fate as tragedy befell Downton and he took advantage of the situation by proving himself invaluable while many of the servants were unable to perform their duties.
Last but not least, Thomas was accused of making a sexual advance to another footman, Jimmy Kent. Unbeknownst to either of the two men, but later discovered by John Bates, Miss O'Brien, Cora's lady's maid, had orchestrated that fiasco. That detail prompted the valet to feel sympathy for the accused and the Earl to consider sending him packing a third time. However, Thomas was rescued by Bates, whose honor led him to bring his employer up to speed on what had transpired and urge him to keep the footman on in spite of his personal animosity for the man.
Now, taking the envelope form the butler's hand, it occurred to him that Thomas Barrow was quite like the proverbial cat with 9 lives. That brought a smile to his face as well as gratitude that since Mr. Carson had retired due to his becoming afflicted with "the palsy", the cat had kept his nose clean.
Matthew did not envy Robert the position of having to a terminate any servant, no matter the cause, and knowing that duty would fall on his shoulders once he became Earl of Grantham, he knew he would find it difficult to let go of Thomas should he give him reason as he had such a long history at Downton, albeit a blemished one.
In spite of his past mistakes, both he and Robert had found Barrow's performance exemplary since he stepped into Carson's shoes, though he never could quite fill them. No one could, really. Charles Carson was irreplaceable to all those who knew him.
"We'll be out of here in a few minutes, Mr. Barrow," Robert said. Then giving his statement a second thought, he turned to him and Tom and smiled, "That is if you two have had your fill."
Seeing the two of them nodding their heads in unison, the Earl directed the butler, "Very well, then. You can have one of the maids come in to clear the room."
No sooner had Mr. Barrow passed through the threshold of the door, than the packet he held in his hand became the center of attention. Tom was straining his eyes again, this time to decipher the return address on the envelope that was obscured by his thumb and Robert doing his best to avert his eyes, having learned at an early age that it was rude to invade another person's privacy.
He found that, Tom, however, had no such reservation as he bounded out of his chair and stood once more over his shoulder, thankfully without any food in his hands this time, in an effort to get a better look.
"It's from Martha Levinson," he said, putting and end to the suspense. "Mailed from her Newport address." he added with a bewildered expression on his face as he met Robert's eyes.
The Earl sighed, "What the devil is that woman up to now?"
Wondering the same thing, he replied, "Well, there is only one way to find out," and tore the top flap of the envelope open, emptying its contents out onto a clear spot on the dining table.
A smaller envelope addressed to Mr. Matthew Crawley; a second to Lady Mary Crawley; and a third unaddressed but containing a written instruction on its face that it should only be opened by Matthew and Mary Crawley after they had read their individual letters and were together in a private setting now lay before them.
Matthew blinked, finding himself momentarily at a loss for words as he assessed the situation at hand. Then he turned to Robert, who clearly was piqued by his mother-in-law's mysterious correspondence.
"Well…," Tom said, cutting to the chase. "Are you going to open the letter that is addressed to you or just sit there and let all our imaginations run wild?"
"Tom…!" Robert bellowed. "Perhaps Matthew might want some privacy to read his letter. We should leave him to it."
"No….no, I actually do not," he declared. "I can't remember the last time I've spoken to Martha and don't recall every receiving correspondence from her. Please stay…both of you. I may need your support."
The Earl nodded his head while a wide grin spread over Tom's face, making it clear he found the bit of drama Mrs. Levinson had brought to Downton that morning amusing.
Taking a deep breath and exhaling it, Matthew reached for one of the unused knives that lay within his reach and sliced through the envelope that was addressed to him. Then he began reading the missive out loud.
If you have gotten this far, I have no doubt you are not only perplexed as to why I have written to you and Mary but are quite curious as to the contents of the third envelope that contains implicit and likely intriguing instructions.
Mary has told me how much you enjoy a good mystery and I believe this one will put that keen mind of yours through its paces until my granddaughter returns from London.
Raising his eyes from the letter, Matthew said, "Well, she must have spoken to Cora or Mary recently or wouldn't know about that. I wonder if either of them knows any more than we do."
Tom rolled his eyes, "I'd say the odds are good considering we know nothing. Keep reading."
Returning to the letter, he muttered, "Right. Now where was I?" before he began scanning the page with his index finger in order to find where he had left off and continuing.
I feel it only fair to caution you, however, that even someone with your superior intellect will not be able to deduce what is in store for you and my eldest granddaughter. Trust me on this one.
Set your mind at ease, however, that there is no ominous reason for my reaching out to you and Mary in this manner. In fact, I think you both will both be quite pleased when you learn what I have in mind as I've come up with a doozy of a plan this time.
Now, I suggest you deposit these letters on that fancy heirloom desk that you and Robert like so much in the Library and get on with your day. All will be revealed soon enough.
In closing, please give my love to Cora and let her know that I am sorry that her sciatica is acting up again.
P.S. Since Robert is no doubt peering over your shoulder, I must share that I have read that losing one's temper is detrimental to the well-being of anyone that has an ulcer as it tends to aggravate it. I hope he will keep that in mind once the cat is out of the bag.
At that, Matthew folded the letter and placed in back in the envelope before turning to his companions and sighing, "Well, that's that."
"That's what?" Tom said, shaking his head in confusion. "Do you have a clue what this is about?"
"It is about my mother-in-law insinuating herself into our lives once more in order to amuse herself," Robert spat. "Either that or she is becoming feeble minded in her old age. No matter which, I am sorry she has set her sights on you and Mary, Matthew," he added, looking grim.
He did his best to ease his father-in- law's mind, reminding him that he and Mary were made of stern stuff and too smart to be drawn into one of Martha's schemes, whatever she had in mind.
That seemed to calm the Earl as well as Tom, who no longer seemed to find the situation amusing as he had earlier, perhaps owing to Mrs. Levinson's foreboding words regarding Robert's ulcer.
At that, a comely woman with red hair beneath her maid's cap popped her head through the door to check to see if the room was empty, causing all three men to make haste in order that she may clean the mess they had made.
Matthew rose from his seat and turned, his eyes drawn by a ray of sun to the portrait of the First Earl, who appeared to be smiling down at him. He blinked before quickly deducing that what he saw was an optical illusion, a result of the light hitting the painting at a certain angle. Either that or he had reached the point where spectacles were in order. Even so, he returned the Earl's smile before motioning to his brother-in-law to take the lead.
Following behind him, he decided he would have him take a gander at the books. Though the estate manager's assumption had been correct regarding his having done so already, it would make him happy to see Tom's reaction upon discovering the profit they had made the month before.
As for the mystery laid at his feet by Martha Levinson, it would wait until Mary returned from London as was requested. Although he was quite curious as to what his wife's American grandmother had in store for them, he resolved to do his best to not dwell on it.
Then the three men who were brought together by fate to ensure Downton stand the test of time walked out into the sunlight to face whatever challenges the new day had in store for them, together.
AN: This story is going to be a "doozy" as Martha Levinson would say that will take Matthew and Mary on quite an adventure as well as some changes (both welcome and not) for the Crawleys and those in their sphere. I hope you will stay with it.
I enjoy weaving historical facts into my stories In this one, the newspaper articles reporting Kipling's award and the Loch Ness sighting, including the photograph were printed The agricultural details and taxes mentioned also accurate for this period in time. There will be ,any more facts intertwined with fiction throughout
As is always the case, I give Julian Fellowes credit for the characters and world he created and the rest to my imagination and history.
Finally, a review goes a long way in motivating any fan fiction writer in getting on with it!