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Consolation Prize, Chapter Three

Title: Consolation Prize
Fandom: Downton Abbey
Author: Silvestria
Rating: 12/PG-13
Summary: Following yet another misunderstanding with Matthew, Mary is sent abroad with her grandmother in search of culture, self-knowledge and a not too picky Italian. Back home, Matthew tries to move on, and Sybil comes into her own. AU epic starting after ep 5.
Genre: Drama/Romance

Many thanks to OrangeShipper for her insights into Mary's character.

Read Chapter Two here!


Chapter Three: The Great Scheme


Over the last year Mary had become adept at dealing with unpleasant surprises. From Patrick's death to the news that her father did not intend to fight the entail, she had grown used to keeping her calm in the face of great personal disappointment. At least while the servants were present anyway; on her own, it was quite different.

After she left her bedroom, she sank against the wall in the corridor, a blank buzzing in her ears. She was being sent away. Never mind where or why or when, the inference was clear as was the motivation behind the secrecy. She felt the insult before she could rationally understand it.

She did not have long to react, however, for Sybil followed her out immediately. She touched her sister lightly on the arm.

“You didn't know, did you?”

Mary turned to look accusingly at her. “Did you know?”

“No, of course I didn't. How could I have done if you didn't? But even if it is a surprise, surely it's a good one? It will be such a wonderful opportunity!”

“Don't be naïve, Sybil,” retorted Mary scornfully. “It's not an opportunity, it's a punishment.”

Sybil opened her mouth to reply and then shut it again. Mary pushed herself off the wall. “I have to see Mama.”

“Now? She'll be all ready to go to dinner.”

“Dinner can wait. Will you cover for me, darling?”

She sighed. “Of course, Mary.”

With one significant glance at her sister, Mary disappeared down the corridor and presently knocked on her mother's door.

Lady Grantham called, “Come in!” and Mary pushed the door open and just stood there. She did not know what to say or even how to introduce the topic in question. Resentment seemed to choke her.

The countess, however, took one look at her daughter's face and dismissed her maid with a rueful smile that only irritated Mary further. It seemed too knowing: a private joke at her expense. Once O'Brien had gone, Mary sat down quietly on her mother's bed and folded her hands on her lap, physically swallowing down her feelings.

Cora turned away from her dressing table and pursed her lips. “Before you explain to me what the matter is, just tell me this: are we going to be dreadfully late for dinner?”

Mary had absolutely no response to this frivolous remark. Her mother's hand went automatically to her hairbrush and she began to fiddle with it.

“Mary, whatever you -”

“I know about Italy, Mama.”

The countess' hand stilled and she briefly opened her eyes wide in understanding. “Ah.”

This one word and its knowing inflection freed Mary's tongue.

“Ah? Is that all you have to say about it? When were you planning to tell me? When my clothes were all packed away or maybe when I noticed I was on a boat? Or perhaps you thought I would mistake the Rialto for the Market Square in Ripon! Really, Mama, you must think I'm very stupid.”

“No, my darling, I don't think that at all. But I do think that you are often inclined to see the negative before the positive and so -”

“And so you decided to plan the whole thing behind my back and tell the servants before you told me!”

“I'm sorry you found out this way, Mary, truly I am, but if you knew just how much trouble your father and I have gone to to -”

“Papa! He knows about this too?”

“Of course, Mary, what did you think? It was his idea really.”

Mary digested this in silence, not really surprised that her father should have concocted another plan specially aimed at making a mockery out of her life, then asked, “Who else is in on this scheme then, or is it just you and Papa, oh, and all the servants?”

“Well, your grandmother is heavily involved of course -”

“Granny too! I suppose she would be. What does she have to say about it then?”

“Quite a lot actually, considering she is going to be accompanying you.”

“What!” Mary stared in open mouthed astonishment. “This must be a joke!”

“Not at all,” replied Cora, trying not to sigh in exasperation. “If you will only let me talk uninterrupted for a moment I shall explain the whole matter to you and you can give your opinion on it. Perhaps you will even be pleasantly surprised.”

Mary doubted this very much and moreover could not see the point in even having an opinion since what she thought would not make any difference to the pre-determined outcome. She said grudgingly, “Very well; explain it to me.”

“Your grandmother has recollected a very dear school friend, Lady Eastwick, who lives in Italy, and is minded to pay her a visit this winter.”

Mary raised her eyebrows. “Granny at school – now that's a disturbing concept! I've never heard of Lady Eastwick.”

“No more have I,” replied Cora, hiding her smile, “but your grandmother moves in mysterious ways so I am no longer surprised by anything she says or does. Anyway, as I was saying, she has taken it into her head to go to Italy and see this Lady Eastwick and she would like you to accompany her.”

“I highly doubt that this was how the idea came about, Mama. You cannot surely think I would really want to spend a winter staying with a pair of exiled octogenarians- why not just call it a cottage and Mrs. Norris and have done with it?”

The countess had not read her Jane Austen recently enough to pick up on the reference but she understood the meaning easily enough.

“Don't be difficult, Mary; it's a genuine offer, and Granny doesn't intend to spend the whole time with Lady Eastwick anyway. Most of the time you would be staying in the main cities and mixing with society there as well as seeing all the principal sights. How should you like that?”

Mary was determined not to like it at all. There was little point in making a tremendous fuss and then not keeping it up. Anyway, she had been spoiling for a fight for weeks now.

“The point is not whether I would like it or not. The point is that you have decided this for me without my consent. What if I don't want to go? What if I refuse to go? Will you stop your plans?”

“If you simply refuse to go then everyone will think you are a silly and ungrateful girl, and they would be right. If, however, you really do not want to go and you have a good reason for it other than being contrary – no, do not interrupt me, Mary – then we would naturally try to cancel your ticket.”

“There, you see! You have already bought my ticket. How can I make you understand, Mama?”

“I do understand, darling, really, I do!”

“No, no, you don't, you can't! You don't know what it's been like for me!”

Cora had the impression that she soon would and resigned herself to not eating for a while yet. Perhaps she ought to consider ordering up some sandwiches.

“A daughter can only ever be second best and I have been trying to make up for that initial disappointment since my birth. Don't try to deny it, Mama; I know how the world works as well as you.” She stood up, hugged her arms round herself and began pacing. “Patrick was to be my redemption, wasn't he? I didn't mind much - I liked Patrick. Not as much as I should have done but I didn't know that till later. Then Patrick died. Never mind, perhaps now the entail could be broken, but of course it could not. Even this is not the end of the world, however, because I could always marry the new heir. What was that then: the third best way of disposing of me? I had lost count by then. But it would never have been my choice – it would have been Matthew's, and the only power I would have had would have been of refusal. Hasn't the world advanced at all over the last few centuries?” This last statement burst out of her, as she whirled round to face her mother directly. “Why must I settle for being the runner up in every competition I am entered for?”

“Mary, who on earth do you think you're competing against? You're not being entered into any competitions and there are no prizes.”

“No?” she retorted, her voice hard. “What is this about then? I thought I managed to eliminate myself when I took a lover, yet here we are again. Mary must marry! Mary cannot marry! Mary must go to Italy to find a husband because she will not find one in England! Did Evelyn Napier prompt this? Because he would have given up on me anyway at some point, just as every other man who ever expressed interest in me did. Or was it my behaviour towards Matthew that sealed my fate? Mama, you don't know what happened that afternoon so perhaps you should ascertain the truth before you blame me for it all! Matthew's no saint whatever Papa thinks.”

Cora started to feel a headache developing and she pressed her fingers to her temple. She was not up to unpicking everything Mary seemed to be trying to say here, at least not before she had eaten. It was the tone and incoherency of the rant that most disturbed her. She realised that she had very little idea what was going on in her eldest daughter's head. She thought back to the conversation they had had only a few weeks previously and in the light of this, was more worried than before. Mary had called herself a 'lost soul'. Now she was talking about 'redemption' and 'fate' and using other loaded vocabulary. All things in consideration, the countess found herself becoming rather anxious about her daughter's choice of reading material and its possible influence on her state of mind.

As these thoughts occurred to her, Mary sighed and walked to the window, as the fight left her, evaporating quickly as it so often did. She was really not very good at sustaining an argument once the initial impetus had passed.

The countess chose her words carefully. “Mary, everybody knows what it's like to feel powerless sometimes, women especially. You are not alone in feeling this. Do you think that I was ecstatic when I had to marry your father, a foreigner whom I didn't love?”

Mary turned her head towards her mother and frowned, her hand restlessly fiddling with the pendant at her throat. “And yet you are consigning me to exactly that!”

“I was very lucky with your father and the chances are that you would be at least content with your husband, if you were willing to give somebody the chance.”

“Content! I don't think there is a more depressing word in the English language! The idea of it makes me nauseous.”

Cora's irritation had been tempered with genuine sympathy until now, but annoyance was quickly overtaking. “Mary, please! Will you just listen to me? You are beginning to sound ridiculous. If you wish to be taken seriously, then you had better stop these absurd comments.”

Mary glowered but said nothing, which was something at least.

“You have been putting words into my mouth all evening, and I have to put you right now. I have never once said that you are being sent to Italy to get a husband.”

Mary scoffed. “Why else would I be sent there? Not even three weeks ago you were throwing me at Sir Anthony Strallan. I find it hard to believe that your priorities have changed since then.”

“They haven't, and I am sure if you were to find someone suitable whom you thought you could marry while you were out there, your father and I would be very pleased. However, not everything is to do with marrying you off - I mean it. You're an intelligent young lady, Mary, when you choose to be, and I know how much you enjoy reading literature and looking at paintings and that kind of thing. If anyone here would be able to appreciate a trip to Italy of all places, it should be you. Go abroad, my dear, and see something of the world; that'll make it worthwhile whether you come back with a husband or not.”

She was being disingenuous. Cora did truly believe that Mary would benefit from travel in many ways, but her main hopes were more selfish. She suspected that spending time abroad would give her daughter a better understanding of the world and her own character and that this in turn might help her to finally become ready to marry.

Mary closed her eyes. Her automatic desire to be contrary and resist this officious assumption of her interest warred with a genuine spark of curiosity about the scheme. She did not want her mother to be right, and she did not want to be manipulated into behaving as her parents thought best, but an inner voice that she was not yet ready to listen to suggested that the trip might well be everything her mother said it would be.

“Just think about it, Mary. Promise me that.” Cora knew when to push her advantage, and stood up before her daughter could say anything else to make the situation more complicated than it already was. She really did want her dinner.

Mary nodded once and turned back towards the window, deep in thought. Her mother briefly squeezed her arm affectionately and then left her there and went down to dinner, thinking it probably best not to insist she accompanied her, and making a note to order some food to be sent up to her room later.

Read Chapter Four here!
Tags: consolation prize, downton abbey, fanfiction, historical
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