It was a terrible thing, to feel embarrassed and disappointed in your children.
Cora Crawley sat quiet and rather humiliated in her library, fingers twisting at the hem of her silk chiffon dress. Though the day had started off so gloriously, with Bertie Pelham and Henry Talbot both taking breakfast, it had ended in utter shambles. Edith had fled to London, her future up in flames due to Mary’s meddling. Even worse, a lifelong servant had attempted suicide right under their very noses. To keep from having to dwell on Mary’s awful actions, Cora instead found herself thinking of the attics where Dr. Clarkson was currently attending to one Thomas Barrow. She could not help but feel terribly guilty, wondering why on earth she had not noticed that Barrow was drifting lower and lower into despair. Next to her, quietly mulling over a cup of cooling tea, was her husband Robert.
He seemed to be in quite the same predicament.
“How could this have happened?” Cora wondered aloud. Robert shook his head, mystified. “How did it get so bad without our knowing?”
“I can’t say,” Robert replied. He sat his tea aside, clearly not in the mood for a cup. Cora pulled her knees back a bit, twisting her body so that she might look plaintively into her husband’s eyes. In that moment he seemed a little older, the gray shining through in his hair and the bags deep beneath his brown eyes.
“I always knew that Barrow’s life was hard, how could it not be? Still…” Robert shook his head again.
Of course, Cora hadn’t really been talking about Barrow. She’d been talking about Mary and Edith.
“I was referring to Edith and Mary hating one another,” Cora explained, “But yes, I agree with you about Barrow. Dr. Clarkson is with him now?”
“Yes,” Robert said. He stood up, taking his teacup and placing it carefully upon the buffet table normally commandeered by Carson. “I want him kept out of the hospital.”
“Do you think it will work?” Cora asked. In her lifetime, it had been rare that the subject of suicide had come up. If she thought about it for a moment, she could recall one of her father’s friend’s wife having attempted to end her life in 1873. Cora had been quite small then and had only found out about the event in hindsight. But now that she really considered the story, she’d never learned what had happened to the poor woman. She doubted that the ending had been pleasant.
“I don’t know. It depends upon what Dr. Clarkson finds I suppose…” Robert paused. A terrible silence overtook them both, only to be broken by Robert whispering. “What are we going to do about Mary and Edith?”
Cora bowed her head, shamed as a mother. Was this a reflection on her own actions? In raising her children, had she unwittingly shown them that it was normal to be vindictive and hateful? That it was acceptable to be so cruel to a family member?
“I don’t know,” Cora admitted. “It always burns me when my children…”
But she had to pause. The term ‘children’ was a loaded one for her. It brought to mind two terrible gaps within her heart. Two babies she’d had to say goodbye to far too early.
“… When things go wrong.” Her voice was choked on emotion.
Robert was nothing if not a caring husband. He came to her side and took her shoulders in hand. With his touch, he poured into her all the love and caring he possessed. She reached up to touch his fingers, gathering strength in the embrace.
“We will get through this Cora,” Robert said. “We will endure. Our family is strong.”
Was it? Cora was unsure now a days. She thought of Mary, a spine made of steel and a heart of ice. She’d seen Mary bleed, seen her scream for God to kill her when Matthew had been taken too early. But invariably thoughts of Mary always turned to thoughts of another.
She thought of Edith, spineless and exhausted, a heart so worn from being hurt that it seemed impossible that she could be able to love again. But love she did, bruised arms open to embrace her fatherless daughter and the man she adored. All of it was ripped from her, ripped until the fringes of her soul were tattered like the sheets of a worn sailboat. To know that Mary, so steely and cold, had done damage to Edith when she was already on her knees… it pained Cora deeply.
That was not the woman she knew Mary to be.
That was not the woman Matthew had married.
A sudden knock at the library door revealed Carson, who was ashen in lieu of the afternoons upsets. Despite his pallid demeanor, he kept calm and spoke with grace to his masters.
“Carson,” Robert took comfort in the sight of his most trusted man.
“M’lord, Dr. Clarkson wishes to speak with you. He says it’s urgent.”
Cora’s stomach flipped at the thought of Barrow dying in their house. Though her servants were hardly kin or important people, Cora still felt terrible when one of them passed. In particular, poor William Mason had been taken from them far too soon.
“Send him in at once,” Robert commanded. Carson turned away, gesturing for someone outside the door; Dr. Clarkson strode in looking quite perturbed. Cora felt obliged to rise from her seat, joining her husband’s side.
“How is he?” Robert asked. “Spare me no sympathy, if it’s bad I want to know.”
“Sleeping,” Dr. Clarkson replied. “I’ve managed to stitch him up. Ms. Baxter found him in time, though I confess a few more minutes and we would be having a rather different conversation.”
“Thank god,” Cora murmured. At least there would be hope for Barrow to recover.
Still, Dr. Clarkson seemed uneasy in their presence, as if there was still more bad news to relay.
“Is there more?” Cora asked, hoping the good doctor would speak up. Surely if Barrow was sleeping, they were past the danger point?
“…Well…” Dr. Clarkson paused, rubbing at the back of his neck as if embarrassed. “I-“
He became apologetic. “Frankly, I don’t know how to tell you this. When I was tending to Barrow, I noticed something and… I think it would be best if you see it as well.”
Robert was taken aback.
Without much else to go on, for it seemed that poor Dr. Clarkson had lost his nerve to relay the full truth, the pair of them set about following after Dr. Clarkson and Carson up the servant’s stairs. It was bizarre, to step from the comfortable and calm world she knew into the world of her servants. Certain things always managed to stick out to her as she wandered up the stairs: how tight the passage was, scuff marks on the walls, the creaking of rotting wood underfoot. Was it just her, or were the passageways terribly hot? As they reached the attics, it was almost sweltering at Cora dabbed at her brow uncomfortably. Compared to the rooms she dwelled in, these were nothing more than broom cupboards. Barrow, as underbutler, resided at the end of the hall near Carson himself. His nametag was beginning to peel in the heat, horse glue coming away in lieu of the sweltering summer.
“Is it right for us to disturb him like this?” Cora whispered. She felt as if she were at the bedside of a dying man.
“I assure you, Lady Grantham, I put him under with a cocktail of drugs,” Dr. Clarkson said. Carson had his hand on the doorknob, though he refrained from opening it just yet. “He’ll be emotionally distressed when he wakes, not to mention ill, so I thought it best.”
“I quite agree,” Robert whispered. He was elbow to elbow with Cora; there was very little room to mingle in the attic hall. Carson hovered just over Robert’s shoulder fretfully.
“…Lady Grantham…” Dr. Clarkson paused, his demeanor changing to a stony disposition in light speaking about a patient. “I suggest you prepare yourself.”
Cora knew what it was to observe horrid things. She said nothing but pursed her lips and gave Carson a short sharp nod.
Carson opened the door to Barrow’s room, revealing a dismal sight.
It was not that Cora had been entirely naïve to the difficulties of servitude. She had understood implicitly before Carson had opened the door that Barrow’s room would be bare to all but minimum essentials, likely without photographs or trinkets of personality. It was not the cracked walls nor the rotting wood beneath which disturbed her. It was not the cramped bed, the moth-eaten red curtains, or the bedside table bare of anything save a lamp. It was instead the creature curled up upon the bed, so spindly legged and thin that it looked a bit like a bug sticking out from beneath a thin quilt coverlet.
Barrow did not look entirely human in that moment, with gaunt sunken in eyes and cheekbones that could slice through gruyere. The blueish tint to his lips, the way that his skin appeared waxen and stretched, the stiff posture of his limbs… all of it seemed to suggest that Barrow was in fact dead. Yet even so, the tiniest huff of breath could be heard in the silence. Thick white gauze wrapped around his bony wrists was tinged pink at the center, infallible proof that Barrow was in fact alive.
Conscious, however? That was another story.
“My god,” Cora shuddered, withdrawing a little so that she could shrink into Robert’s shadow. There was a terrible sympathy in Robert’s normally warm brown eyes; Cora watched as Robert took the slightest step forward, chin tilted up as if hoping to see Barrow’s face better without getting too close. Cora found herself wanting to have more quilts put on Barrow’s bed, or a vase of flowers at his bedside, or something. Something to show that someone cared, even if they were nothing more than an employer.
“Poor devil,” Robert shook his head.
Dr. Clarkson sidled around Barrow’s bed, coming to stand at his left side so that he might bend over and pluck up Barrow’s arm from the bed. Cradling the limb carefully with both hands, Dr. Clarkson paused as he checked for a pulse at Barrow’s wrist.
“Weak, but stable,” Dr. Clarkson deduced. “I doubt he’ll wake until tomorrow. He has to replenish the blood he’s lost.”
“Really, Dr. Clarkson, if we can avoid all that talk,” Robert murmured. His Victorian sensibilities so despised anything to do with medical maladies. As a woman, however, Cora was no stranger to blood.
Carson gently shut the door to the hall, careful to make as little noise as possible lest attention be roused. Cora caught his eye and noted that he seemed just as shamed as Robert.
Why? Cora wondered, What, of all men, have you done to Barrow?
“This is what I wanted to show you,” Dr. Clarkson said, cupping the underside of Barrow’s left forearm with one hand to point at it with another. Cora leaned in, only to pause as Dr. Clarkson held up a hand. What was concerning him so?
“I confess, I didn’t know how to tell you. Even now, I still don’t know how to tell you-“Dr. Clarkson paused, biting his tongue. The good doctor was robbed of adequate words to explain the situation, which only served to make Cora feel more and more confused. Why should Dr. Clarkson have to explain anything? Why should it be so disturbing to Cora and Robert of all people? Naturally, Cora felt for Barrow and wished him well in life, but if he was in too terrible a way then what more could be done? Did she really come across so frail to other men?
“Tell me what?” Cora asked, hoping for a little more clarification.
Dr. Clarkson caught her gaze and held it. Cora was disturbed to find something dire and dark in his eyes. Something that pleaded for her to take him seriously. She watched with care as Dr. Clarkson slowly turned Thomas’ forearm around to show-
A tiny noise fluttered past her lips, something akin to a whimper capped off before an enemy could hear. Cora sucked in a breath, only distantly aware that her head was buzzing from lack of oxygen.
There, on Barrow’s left forearm, was the mark.
So ingrained was it into Cora’s memory, so dark and so broken a moment in time, that she could not forget a single detail even if she tried. Inexplicably, she heard an infant’s wailing chorus in her mind. Heard the doctors calling out to her in praise as they lifted up not one but two babies so heavily intertwined that she’d momentarily feared they were deformed.
All that had remained of their unnatural connection had been a mark upon their arm, where each baby had been tightly wound around the other. A little dark red birth mark shaped bizarrely enough like a skull if one squinted and tilted their head.
Each baby had borne the same mark upon their arm, in the exact same spot. Twins down to the very last hair upon their dark heads.
“What-“the word fell from Robert’s lips without care, a disturbed expression upon his face. He even took a step back, as if Dr. Clarkson had brandished a snake at him. But Cora did not step back. Instead, she stepped forward, reaching out blindly with both hands to grasp at Barrow’s abused flesh. The scarring, the clear evident sign of a burn! The way that the edges were dulled soft white, and how it was in a perfectly round shape-! All of it was exactly as Cora remembered. All of it, rushing back at her as a thousand memories compounded upon her until she could not help but collapse upon Barrow’s bed.
Her only son. Her precious boy— how he’d been burned by a hideous maid with a molten silver coin—how he’d been taken from her in the dead of night, his tiny arm still wrapped in healing clothes to ward off infection!
“Oh my-“ Cora blurted out the words without realizing them, her fingers running again and again over Barrow’s burn mark. “Oh my g-“
“Now, Lady Grantham-“ Dr. Clarkson began, seemingly to become panicked at the realization that he’d brought upon such chaos. “Before you upset yourself—”
But Cora’s heart was pounding, her head racing-! She knew this burn mark like the back of her hand, knew it because she’d spent so many a night kissing it and re-wrapping it in fresh clothes. Her son had been burned just the same, had been taken from her in the dead of night. If Barrow had the mark, in the exact same spot and in the exact same shape, then surely that meant-?
Cora could suddenly not draw enough breath into her body. She sagged forward, clutching at her throat as if hoping to tear it open with her own fingers and gain more oxygen.
Both Robert and Carson were at her side, each supporting her as Dr. Clarkson immediately felt for her pulse.
But she did not want these men to touch her. She did not want to be swept away in a tide of Victorian values and womanly concerns. Her mind, heart, and soul were in unison, screaming for her to pay attention to this burn mark and what it must inevitably mean!
“The mark!” Cora blathered, grabbing tight onto Barrow’s arm with both hands. He felt so cold, so terribly still. Why wouldn’t he wake and speak to her? Why was he so limp in her grip? “He has the mark! It’s the mark- the very same mark-!”
“We don’t know that!” Robert took her chin in hand, forcing her to look at him over Barrow’s arm. She tried to squirm away, tried to look back, but Robert wouldn’t let her. “Cora, we don’t know any of that! It could be anything, a burn from any number of things that just so happens to look like-“
“I know that mark!” Cora was indignant. She would not be told she was growing hysterical over nothing. Not now when after thirty years she was almost certain that her son…
Cora paused, growing listless as she was swept up in the memory of holding her newborn son.
It had been just the pair of them, with Robert holding Mary by the fireside. Cora had been a mother only a few hours, yet she’d been so in love with her son that she’d felt ageless. Weightless.
His tiny thatch of dark brown hair, almost black in the light. His little red lips, ever so often parting so that the tiniest squeak could filter out. He’d grabbed at her finger and held tight, determined never to be parted from her.
Renewed in her determination, Cora pushed both Carson and Robert off in order to get closer to Barrow. She held his arm defensively to her chest, determined to be listen to.
“I know it’s him! It’s him, Robert!” Cora cried out.
“Cora, listen to me-!” Robert was starting to get angry. The loss of their son was an old wound, a sore wound, and one that he never discussed. To have it pushed upon so unexpectedly, so directly, had caused Robert’s anger to spike.
“You’re being hysterical!” He tried to say. “You’re jumping to conclusions!”
“I’m not jumping to anything!” She said, though her head was still buzzing and her pulse racing. “I’m not getting hysterical. This is my b-“But Cora could not even say it, too emotional to get the word out without weeping. She turned, looking to Barrow, and found his face unnervingly similar to Mary’s in that moment.
His dark brown hair.
His red lips.
The sharp curve of his chin and cheekbones.
“It’s my…” She reached out, her heart bleating in pain and love, hoping to touch Barrow’s face. But even as she tried, she paused, a sudden terrible memory sweeping her up in its steely clutches.
The memory of holding her newborn son.
Of loving him, needing him, and losing him.
But where she had grieved, Robert had raged. He’d searched the entire countryside of England, demanding answers where none could give. For three long, painful years, he’d fought and pushed until like a great locomotive he’d come to a shuddering stop. There’d been nothing left for him to give, nor more fight left to plunder, and so now where Cora felt wounded and raw Robert only felt an aching quiet.
He took her in his arms, strong, but unempathetic.
“Cora, come, you’ve forgotten yourself,” Robert demanded.
It was difficult, even now, for Cora to remember just how different English sensibilities were to American mannerisms. It was improper in England for an upper-class lady to show emotion.
“Look at the mark, Robert!” She gripped tight at his arms, pulling at his flesh in the vain hope that his understanding might come along with. “Look at the burn, look at the way it’s shaped! Where it is on his arm! It’s the mark; I know it is-!”
Cora wanted to see it again, wanted to look at it up close without men pulling upon her. She let go of Robert and sat upon the edge of Barrow’s bed once more to take up his arm in her own. The more that she stared at his burn mark, the more that she observed the fluttering pale edges and the rosy center, the more she felt wholly convinced that she was staring at her son’s burn. That she was looking upon the face of her grown son, who’d somehow been hiding in plain sight for nearly thirty years as her servant.
It was mad. It was bordering on imbecilic, and yet…?
The more Cora thought about it, the more she considered Barrow—Thomas’—mannerisms and how he approached the world, the more she could not help but think of Mary. Mary, who’d always been rather cold and calculating, a strong line against her more emotional siblings. In her dreams, Cora had always imagined that her darling boy would have been rather emotional too, but in hindsight she realized this was folly. Mary and… and…
James, she thought irritably. I must have the courage to say his name, even if only to myself.
James would be just like Mary. As her twin, James would be just as cold and snappish. This wasn’t to say that there wouldn’t be warmth within him, just as there was warmth within Mary. But it would be hidden, something precious and rare to be shared only with those that he loved best.
“…James…” Cora whispered, squeezing Barrow’s pale, limp hand.
Robert bristled, as if she’d slapped him.
He reached out, taking her shoulder in hand; Cora jerked away from him. She did not want to be touched. To be taken away from her son.
“James… can you hear me?” Cora called out to him. Still, Barrow—Thomas — (or was it James, now?) did not wake.
“Cora, this is poppycock,” Robert tried to pull her away again.
“James, open your eyes!” Cora begged. In that moment, as Barrow—Th—James lay asleep upon his bed, Cora saw him like a figure in a fairy tale. He would hear his mother’s voice and wake. He would open his eyes, and this terrible nightmare that she’d been living for thirty years would come to an end. Her son, her baby, would be returned.
But Robert had had enough.
“Cora listen to yourself!” Robert pulled her forcibly from the bed, though she struggled to stay at James’ side. In her unwillingness to let go, she accidentally tugged at James’ wrists.
At once, the bandages turned from soft pink to dark red. Cora gasped, panicking as she saw blood at her fingertips.
At once, Dr. Clarkson sprang into action. Though his movements were fluid, there was a jerking urgency to the way that he pulled his traveling kit back out and withdrew a pair of medical shears. Robert pulled Cora close to his chest, giving Dr. Clarkson room as he tended to James’…
… To Barrow’s wounds.
And suddenly Cora realized just how foolish she’d been in that moment. Just how utterly stupid she’d been to call out to her son who was no doubt long dead. To speak to Barrow of all people as if he was J—
But just like before, Cora could not even so much as think the name of her son without grief building up inside of her. It was all too raw, too fresh, too humiliating to bear.
Unable to restrain her, she bit out, “At least I lost Sybil quickly.”
She pulled away from Robert, unable to keep her misery to herself as she began to weep. She suddenly felt very small, as if she were a child compared to the other men in the room. She wanted to hide, in that moment. To run so far away that no one would be able to find her or know her face.
“Cora!” Robert called out after her. She did not have the emotional strength to answer him.