"Lady Mary Crawley."
It's nearly automatic, the way he stands for her. It's been nearly a year since they've clapped eyes on one another, since he'd even been in England. After Molesley shut the door behind her, they are left in an uncomfortable silent, just the three of them. Matthew, Mary, and his mother.
The war has changed all of them, it seems. With the 'home by Christmas' promise long since abandoned, it seemed keeping up pretences mattered less and less, even amongst the aristocracy. Mary's hair, while neat, was braided in a simple plait down her back, a large, woollen cardigan her only protection against the still-crisp spring air. Despite nearly a year having passed, she looked so much younger than before.
"How did you even know I was here?" he blurts.
"Matthew!" Isobel chides, standing herself. "We're merely surprised, Mary. We weren't aware you were coming. We're so pleased to see you."
"Not very pleased, I'm sure," she replies, her fists floating up from her sides before she drops them again. She can't even look them in the eye. "I hope you'll forgive me for dropping by announced, only I know if I'd telephoned ahead you would have made yourself scarce."
Matthew clears his throat. He hasn't even had a chance to change out of uniform, yet, he's only just arrived home. The war is...the war is so much worse than he ever could have predicted. He doesn't regret enlisting, but he loathes the naive mindset of wishing to get away from Downton. As if the war would be a reprieve from awkwardness with the Crawleys. What a fool he had been. "I wouldn't have-"
"There's no need to pretend," she cuts in. "It's not as though you hadn't a good reason. I just...need to speak with you. I know you're only here for a few days and are here to visit your mother. I won't use up too much of your time."
"I don't think-"
"I might check to see how Mrs. Bird is doing with dinner preparations," Isobel says quickly, and it's all he do not to rush out the door ahead of her. The whole world seemed to conspire to push them together. "Mary, Dear, always a pleasure."
The door snapping shut is the only noise that follows for some time, beyond the tick of the clock behind her. He waits, he owes her no words after all, but it all seems to stretch on endlessly and it isn't long before it's suddenly too much to bear.
"Look, if you have something to say-"
"I do," she insists, then falls silent again, her gaze dropping to the floor once more. Time passes. "I owe you an explanation, Matthew, I'm just trying to work up the nerve. I've written to you. So many times. And once I'm done I lose my nerve and throw the letters into the fireplace. You must believe me."
A thousand cruel words run through his mind at once, far faster than he could hope to say them. He wants to sneer at her, remark in surprise that she could write so prolifically and yet could not have spared him a simple 'yes' or 'no' before the war.
"If it could be sent in a letter it's a wonder why you took the trouble of having someone report my presence and then come all the way out here yourself," is all he can manage.
"I'm not a good enough liar, Matthew, as I've said before. I needed you to know I am in earnest when I tell you what I'm about to say."
The ticking clock seems to echo off of the walls of the house. Sound carries.
"Perhaps we should go for a walk."
For a lady whose upbringing included the art of keeping up conversation even with the dullest of companions, Mary remained suspiciously silent. They'd nearly lapped the grounds before she even opened her mouth to speak, though it was likely sensing his frustration and annoyance that prompted her.
"I feel that I owe you an explanation. I know things can never go back to the way they were between us, but I...well, it's a terrible burden, keeping it all in."
Matthew huffs. "I don't feel any explanation is necessary. With another Crawley on the way you were unsure about me, and then when I was once again the heir you had suddenly made up your mind."
"It isn't as simple as that."
"So you keep saying," he snaps, burying his hands into the pockets of his overcoat in a rather ungentlemanly fashion. "Any explanation worth its salt would have been a welcome change to the silence you inflicted on me."
"I knew you would despise me if I told you," she gulps. "I couldn't bear it. Granny, Aunt Rosamund, Mama...I had all of these voices pushing me to answer and I was drowning in a sea of it all."
"They all know this 'explanation?'" he asks sharply. "Do they despise you?"
"They're dreadfully disappointed in me. Please, Matthew," she says shakily, stopping short. She looks as though she might speak, but instead wraps her arms around herself. It's meant to look like she's crossing her arms, he thinks, but instead she seems to cling to herself. "Please. This isn't some sorry attempt to win you back. Now would you just shut up before I lose the nerve, I beg you."
He knows her well enough to be sure that a crack in Mary's cool composure, however slight, meant a torrent of emotions were happening beneath the surface. "Alright."
She works her jaw again before finding the words. "Long before you proposed, before we were even remotely serious about one another...we had a guest. That stayed at Downton. Evelyn Napier, do you remember?"
He racks his brain. "The man that brought the Turkish diplomat, the one who died?"
Mary nods, looking pinched and pale. "Yes, that's the one. Kemal Pamuk. His heart gave out in the middle of the night."
"Right," Matthew replies, watching her. "I remember. Go on."
She pauses again. "Well, he was found in his bed the next morning. But he didn't...he didn't die there."
The floodgates open. She tells him the whole affair, from him slipping unseen into her bedroom in the midst of night, seducing her, crying out on top of her and collapsing. She tells him of the weight of him, of her having to squirm her way out from underneath his corpse, of pacing the floor in a panic. Of waking Anna, waking Cousin Cora, of dragging his lifeless body back into his bedroom as the sun rose before returning to her own, shattered and empty. Of retching and shaking on the floor beside her bed, emptying the contents of her stomach into the bowl, and then dressing and having to join the party downstairs.
It was his turn to be silent. The picture she has painted is so vivid, so visceral he can almost feel the suffocating panic clawing at his throat. Oh, God.
"Please," she croaks. "Say something. Even if it's only good-bye."
He might have laughed, if he could make any sound at all. The air seems to be taken from his lungs. Whatever he expected, it wasn't this. "Did you love him?" he finally manages, eyes fixated on the grounds before him.
"You mustn't try to-"
"-because if it was love-"
"How could it be love? I didn't know him!"
"Then why would you-"
"-it was lust, Matthew!" she cries in exasperation. "Or a...a need for excitement or something in him that I...I...oh, God, what difference does it make now?"
He grapples for words yet again. Their whole relationship seemed to be a power struggle, who could out-wit or out-smart the other. Who could gain the upper hand. Now they were both cut off at the knees, just trying to keep their wits at all.
"And this...this played in a part in your refusal of me?"
"Honestly, Matthew," she cries, trying to pass it off as a derisive laugh despite the tears in her eyes. "I was the Tess of the d'Ubervilles to your Angel Clare. I had fallen. I was impure!"
"Don't joke," he commands, finally turning to face her. "Don't make it...little. Not when I'm trying to understand."
She gulps in air. The tip of her nose has turned red and she's pulled the sleeves of her woollen cardigan over her knuckles. She looks so terribly small. "Thank you for that," she says at last. "The fact of the matter is that I either hid from you the truth about my virtue and prayed that if you ever found out you wouldn't despise me for my deception, or confess the whole thing beforehand and risk you retracting your proposal with disgust. I couldn't bear it."
"It didn't seem to dampen your enthusiasm when I was once again the heir and you wanted me again."
She exhales, hands clasping at her own arms so tightly her fingertips have turned white. "I never thought I could be happy again, after Pamuk. I was ruined in every conceivable way. I felt that I was...cursed. I didn't know it was possible to feel such despair. And then you were there, you wanted me, and I...found myself falling in love with you. And you proposed, Matthew, and I...I was on the verge of so much happiness, I was about to have everything I ever wanted, but Pamuk was still hanging above me like Damocles' sword, ready to drop at any moment. And then Mama was pregnant and once again I was no longer on solid ground. It just felt like whatever chance I had was already slipping away."
"I wasn't solid ground?" he asks, "or was it my fortune that wasn't certain enough for you?"
"It was my life," she chokes out. "What was I to do if I married you and you discovered the truth? What if you turned your back on me? You'd have every right. At least if my shame was known to the world, at home I could still be Lady Mary Crawley of Downton Abbey. I know how to be that, however disgraced. But to be the wife of a solicitor in a strange city, without friends, without my family, with my husband disgusted by my deception? It was too much to even think about. I may play the part of the solitary creature but I couldn't stand it. It wasn't snobbishness that made me shy away from you, it was cowardice. If losing you was inevitable, I could at least be the harlot in my own home. Have some comfort and security."
He can barely stand the sight of her. His whole body feels as if it might burst. "And after? After the baby-"
"After Mama lost the baby and you were once again the heir I...felt less like I was standing in quicksand. Like I might once again have some comfort in my inevitable misery, as well perhaps a few happy years before you hated me. Please. However much you despise me for my promiscuity, please believe that my reluctance to accept you was because I was trying to avoid playing with your feelings. Had I cared any less for you it would have been far easier to give you an answer. I would never-"
To his horror, she brings her hands up to her face, hiding her eyes as she begins to quietly weep.
"M...Matthew, I was in agony!"
He can stand it no more. He reaches for her, pulling her in by her elbow and clasping her to his chest as she sobs. His own eyes sting as he clings to her, resting his cheek against her hair. She has always been so composed, so cool and collected even under the greatest pressure. To have her come apart in his arms was alarming. If she truly was acting, Matthew thinks, she would never let herself be seen in this state.
"You were wrong," he murmurs finally, hands sliding down trace the edge of her jaw. "About one thing, at least."
She sniffles, wiping her eyes with the edge of her sleeve. "Only one? And what is that?"
"I never would...I never could despise you."
They find a bench, somehow, set back against the trees. Public enough that they don't feel the weight of being entirely alone, but out of the way to have some privacy. Mary's tears had since died out, though she sat beside him in silence, her feet tucked up under her, her head resting on his shoulder.
"Perhaps it wasn't fair to you," she says at last. "To tell you all of this before you go back to the front. I don't expect anything from you, I do hope you know that. I just couldn't bear the thought of you out there somewhere, thinking the worst of me. I don't know why I preferred you thinking me unvirtuous to thinking me a money-hungry snob, it seems so foolish now."
"Do you regret telling me?" he asks her, resting his hand over top of her own.
"No," she confesses. "Not if it at least means we can part having cleared the air. I do hope you can at least entertain the thought of us being friends. Surely if an upper-class man refuses unvirtuous friends he'd have no friends at all."
He laughs at that. At least her bravado has begun to return. "I must confess, I wish you would have told me before."
"Whether you believed me or thought I was a liar, the fact remains that I am made different by it. Once I told you the truth you would never see me the same way again. I wanted to remain the woman you thought I was for as long as I could keep the charade. But for fear of doing the wrong thing I did nothing at all, and that turned out to be just as wrong as saying it outright."
"I've never known you to be so delicate with your words," he replies.
"On the contrary, whether I insult or flatter, I usually select my words carefully. Only this time I cared deeply about what your reaction would be. What the world would think of me, if it all got out. I wish desperately to be more like Sybil, she really doesn't care what people think. I'm afraid I do."
"You shouldn't," he assures. "I know I've never truly dealt much with the society gossips, but surely you cannot plan on living your whole life as a shadow on the chance that they might catch wind of what happened."
Mary sighs, straightening up in her seat and turning to face him. "But they did, Matthew. Rumours were already swirling. It didn't feel like some distant gossip at the time, my ruin felt...inevitable. It was like I was tied to the tracks and it was only a matter of time before I was hit."
"Well, with the war on, they've far more important things to talk about, I'll wager."
"They certainly do," Mary agreed. "But it was too late for us at any rate. The only way to redeem myself to you in any way was to condemn myself to be a harlot in your eyes, that's the terrible irony of it all."
"Do you think me so harsh a critic?" he asks, shaking his head. "Or worse yet, so utterly virtuous that I have any right to cast judgement?"
"Everyone else has. What kind of relationship could I hope for with you now? To have the late Mr. Pamuk resurrected with every argument?"
"I don't believe that to be the case."
Mary meets his gaze, and his heart stutters. "You mean you've forgiven me?"
"No. I haven't forgiven you." He doesn't wait long enough for her downcast look to linger. "I haven't forgiven you because I don't believe you need my forgiveness. I could rail and curse at you for not telling me sooner, but I cannot honestly say in good faith what my reaction would have been. But now...very little about the world makes sense to me now. The war has changed everything. A soldier certainly knows what it means to feel hopeless, to long for comfort and pleasure wherever he can find it."
"I'm not a soldier," she says, her hand straying to clutch at his arm.
"You're not a soldier," he agrees. "But you are human. And if a world of rule and order and morality has led us to this...unspeakable war..."
When he trails off, Mary squeezes his arm to draw his attention once again. "Is it unthinkable?" she asks. "What you've gone through? You must think me a silly fool for carrying on about reputation and gossip when you are surrounded by so much fear and death."
"I don't think you a fool," he assures, resting his hand over hers. "I merely find it...displacing. I spend all of my time at the front longing for the comforts of home. And then when I am home I find myself guilty for having them."
"For having them when there's still a war going on," she agrees. "I think I must feel something similar. We just go on with our lives as though men aren't out there dying every day. Who cares if a footman brings out the white wine glasses while we're serving red, how could any of it matter? I went down to the servant's hall the other morning seeking Mrs. Patmore and saw William ironing the paper. It made me want to scream."
"Precisely," he huffs, feeling as though her hand on his arm is the only thing keeping him tethered as the memories of the war swirl. "I know I was critical of this lifestyle when I first arrived, and I don't mean to offend. But after laying in the mud and eating nothing but tinned stew and falling asleep to the sounds of gunfire..."
"Matthew," she breathes, laying her head against his shoulder, still clutching his sleeve. "I'm sorry."
"You've nothing to be sorry for," he replies. He means it.
His mother makes inquiries when he returns to the house, but when he doesn't readily share she doesn't pry. He's grateful. Mary's words had torn him apart once again, but he felt somewhat healed by them. And then, of course, the inevitable guilt follows from feeling relief that her motivations were not as cold and calculating as he had once thought.
He doesn't see her again, and she doesn't seek him out. He's somewhat relieved to be left alone to process the storm of new information he had received, but when the car pulls away from Crawley House and he's faced with going back to the war, he realizes that he may have missed a chance to say good-bye, one last time. He debates asking the driver to turn back, to say his farewells at the main house, but in his indecision says nothing. Perhaps it was better to end with this closure than to risk opening up more wounds. Or rouse them all out of bed at this hour just to leave again a few minutes later.
But when he arrives at the train station and sees her on the platform, he feels nothing but relief.
She looks more like the Mary of old than she had the other day, primly dressed in a red day coat and matching hat, her hair neatly tucked beneath the brim. Instead of a pinched look, she smiles warmly at him, and approaches with a bounce in her step. Perhaps her words had done some healing on more than just him.
"Don't worry," she soothes. "I'm not here to cause any awkwardness."
"You must have been up before the servants!"
"They were rather surprised to see me," she agreed. "But I wanted to give you this." With another soft smile, she reached into her handbag, producing a small, felted dog, worn from care and love. "It's my lucky charm. I've had it always. So you must...promise to bring it back without a scratch."
He rubs his gloved thumb over its floppy ear. He meets her gaze, taking her in. She'd been through her own kind of hell, that much was clear. "Won't you need it?"
"Not as much as you. Just...come back. Safe and sound." She releases a shaky breath. "I'm terribly sorry. If I've...caused you any distress-"
"Of course not. You send me off to war a happy man. I can't express how very glad I am that we made up when we had the chance." He watches as she colours and ducks her head. "I mean it."
"Could I write to you?" she blurts, and then, hurrying to cover her folly, "I know nothing I can say can make it any easier for you, but I would so like to hear from you. When you have the time. The whole family must think me a fool, loitering about whenever anyone receives a letter with your handwriting on the envelope. So...would you be offended if I wrote?"
"I would be offended if you didn't," he says lightly, though the humour is forced. It's all so formal, so polite, and none of it what he really wanted to say. "Mary," he says at last, though he feels his nerve failing. He busies himself by tucking the little plush dog into his pocket. "Would you...would you promise to look after my mother? If something should happen."
"Nothing will happen," she promises him.
"It won't," she says firmly. "But of course I will."
He nods stiffly. "I suppose I should-"
"Yes. I'm so sorry for keeping you waiting. Good-bye, then." She pauses, just a moment, before darting forward to press a kiss against his cheek. The feel of her lips, the scent of her hair, it's enough to make his knees shake. As she pulls away, he grabs her elbow to stop her. Their eyes meet for just a moment, and then they're kissing, his case and her handbag dropped onto the station floor. He feels her hands take fistfuls of his lapels, and he'd be damned if anyone could pull him away now. The train could leave him behind, for all he cared.
They break apart at last, heads bent together, breathless. "I love you, Matthew," she says finally. "I have. For so long."
"Since you walked in on me telling my mother that your father would try to pawn off his daughters on me?"
She laughs tearily. "Perhaps not that long ago. But it worked, didn't it?"
"Despite both of our derision."
"But what about our past, Matthew? Lord knows we carry more luggage than the porters at King's Cross. My hesitancy to accept you, and Mr. Pamuk..."
"I understand it, now. The war has wiped out my pride and fear and stubbornness. Mary, I can't promise you much, certainly not a long life with me. I can't promise that I'll even live to see you again, but for the time I have left, be it forty minutes or forty years, I want to live it together. As much as we can."
"Matthew, I can't...I need you to be sure. I can't bear to have you take me there again if you might change your mind," she pleads, hands still clutching the lapels of his jacket.
"I won't. I am sure," he vows. "I know it isn't fair, to ask you to tie yourself to a man who is never around, to a man who might die any second..."
"I am already tied to you, Matthew Crawley," she promises. "I couldn't be unbound, even if I wanted to. I know you may not trust it yet, but I am yours, if you want me."
"I do," Matthew breathes, gathering her in for an embrace, lifting her feet right off of the pavement as she throws her arms around his neck. "I do trust you, I do want you. I know we'll have to wait. Maybe even until the war's end, but-"
"I'll wait forever."
The whistle blows, a last-call for passengers to board. The thought of leaving her now, after this...
"God, yes. Even if you renounced Downton and moved back to Manchester, yes. I would be terribly upset with you and probably never speak to you again, but I would still marry you." The dry joke is lessened by her grin.
"What a quiet life we would lead. And if your mother has another child and I'm again forced out?"
"Then I could hardly blame you. In such a case, only ten, fifteen years at most before I spoke to you again."
He laughs, kissing her again, and again, before reluctantly picking up his luggage and tearing himself away. He finds the nearest seat that he can and she follows him, reaching up to grasp his hand through the open window. The whistle blows once more, and then the train lurches into motion. He feels as though his heart might burst.
She walks along the pavement beside him, her steps increasing as the train picks up speed.
"Oh God, Mary, please. Don't change your mind."
"Don't change your mind," she repeats back to him, and then he forges ahead, leaving her behind on the platform with her hand outstretched after him.