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Consolation Prize, Chapter Five

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

Read Chapter Four here!

Chapter Five: The Food of Love


And what of Matthew? Apart from seeing her across the chapel on Sundays (when she bothered to come), he had not seen his cousin Mary since the day she had laughed at romance, and called him unlovable. Of course, this should not have affected him very greatly for, though he was prepared to admit he was fascinated by her, he certainly was not prepared to consider the idea that he might actually love her. Nevertheless, it bothered him, and he resented her deeply for it, both for the words themselves and for his reaction to them.

On the rare occasions he did see her, he avoided her. He was cool and reserved and in turn so was she. Sometimes he would glance at her in church but she was always looking away, bored and haughty in expression. Was this what she was really like then? Matthew was confused. He had seen her convulse with laughter, had watched her lean forwards to share a joke specially aimed at him, had bandied words with her and knew her to be intelligent and articulate, more so than any other woman he knew (and most men too). Yet all that wit and humour that he had believed her capable of seemed to be going to waste in her childish manipulations. The laughter, the flirting that he had foolishly wanted to believe in was no more than a game to her and he did not see what he had done to deserve it. Perhaps she simply was that cold and artificial. It was an opinion he tried hard to sustain over the weeks following their last meeting and her behaviour did nothing to shake it. He never noticed when she was looking at him.

There was little surprise in the trip to Italy either. He knew her frustration with her life, and her current, inexplicable desire to be through with him. That she should seek to change her situation was natural and he could not imagine a better place for her to go than to Italy. He could see her there very easily, a diamond among European diamonds. She would shimmer and sparkle around the canals of Venice and fountains and squares of Rome, her beauty and mystery putting all other foreigners to shame. That she would be courted and admired he had no doubt, as he had no doubt that part of the reason for her journey was to find a husband, since he had proved such a disappointment in that sphere. Either she would make an excellent wife for one of the many English noblemen who resided abroad or, if she were brave, an Italian noble. These were all bitter fantasies though he tried to pretend that his delight in her travels was altruistic and genuine. Moreover, she would like the warmer climate, he thought, and the variety in society found there, and he had thought she would appreciate the culture as well. He was not so sure now, when it was so hard to tell what was an act and what was not.

All in all, he knew she was lost to him whether she married in Italy or not, and he was glad he had realised his error before... before it would have been more difficult to detach himself. Really, he thought as he raised his newspaper and pretended not to listen to his mother's gossip from the great house, it was a very good thing he was not in love with her.

Notwithstanding his resolve not to interest himself in his cousin's affairs, Matthew nevertheless found himself one day after work getting down his father's old atlas from the top shelf and, after looking up the location of the mine in South Africa with which his current case was concerned, turning to Europe and tracing the route that Mary would travel. Down to Paris... then across the Alps... (He flipped the page over.) Venice, then Florence, Rome and finally Naples. Where would they spend the longest? Where precisely was Lord and Lady Eastwick's villa? He shut the atlas and sighed with irritation. It was none of his business.

Perhaps it was lucky that he never knew that at that very moment in Lord Grantham's library, Mary and Sybil were looking in a very similar atlas and tracing the same route.

Before he knew it, August and the heat of the flower show were only memories and the day of departure had come. Matthew and Isobel had been invited to dinner the night before. Refusal was impossible, though Matthew found himself dragging his heels getting ready and walking up the drive more slowly than usual.

“Do you think it will really make a difference?” he asked his mother as they walked. “Their going, I mean.”

She glanced over at him. “I expect Lady Grantham's absence will make a great difference at the hospital. Finally a chance to implement some much needed changes!”

Matthew grinned at her but did not pursue the subject. She had not answered the question he had wanted to ask.

In the drawing room they were met by the rest of the family and Matthew's eyes were drawn instantly to Mary, however much he wished they were not. She was wearing her red dress again. It instantly brought back memories of the last time he had seen her in it, when Sir Anthony had been there. At least he had not been invited that evening, which was something. Why was she wearing it? It made her seem too exotic, too beautiful, too tempting. Matthew resented her all the more and was cool in his greeting.

Lady Grantham had obviously put some thought into the seating plan because Matthew found himself near the foot of the table between his hostess and Sybil. Mary, on the other hand, was on the other side of the table next to her father. In many ways it was a good arrangement, but it made it only too easy to watch her. He turned determinedly towards Sybil instead, who was in high spirits that evening, and managed to sustain a conversation with her for the duration of the first course without looking at her sister once. However, she was watching him.

At a lull in the conversation as the plates were being cleared away, Lord Grantham said, “I bumped into Murgatroyd today. He wished you both safe journey.”

“Not Alan Murgatroyd, our member?” exclaimed the dowager. “He ought to be dead!”

“Really, Mother, he's the same age as you!”

“I don't believe it for a moment. He's at least ten years my senior!” She sniffed, unimpressed, and Mary hid a smile behind her napkin.

“Was he in good health?” asked Lady Grantham from the bottom of the table. “I haven't seen him in the village for so long.”

“Well, not really,” her husband was forced to admit. “I thought he looked rather unsteady. Poor man. He really should not have stood again at the last election.”

“Why did he then?” asked Sybil. “What's the use of a politician who is too old to do his job? Do you know, I cannot think of a single thing he has ever done for us!”

“I suppose nobody stood against him,” suggested Isobel. “I think it's terribly sad how much apathy there is towards politics nowadays.”

Sybil looked at her speculatively but did not immediately reply.

“Well, we're due for an election next year,” said her father, “so we'll see if anyone stands against him then.”

“If he survives the winter,” added the dowager ominously.

“You could stand, Matthew!” exclaimed Sybil suddenly, turning eagerly towards him.

“Me?” he stuttered, unwilling to be drawn into the main conversation, and uncomfortably aware of Mary's dark eyes observing him.

“Yes, of course. I think you'd make a wonderful MP because you would actually do things, and it would be very good practice for when you inherit and take up your seat in the Lords.” She frowned at him. “You are going to take up your seat, aren't you?”

Matthew was not at all sure he would make a good member of either house and thought his cousin had a rather more optimistic notion of his capacity for action than he did. It was not a career move that had ever occurred to him, not when he was perfectly happy in his own profession.

He set down his knife and fork heavily by his plate and tried to answer in a reasonable way as the whole table was listening to his reply. “Sitting in parliament, in either house, is a great responsibility, and not one that I would ever undertake lightly.” He nodded towards the earl. “And in one case in particular, I very much hope I will not be called upon to do so for a long time yet!”

There were general smiles at this diplomatic answer and Matthew felt able to continue eating, until Mary spoke up for the first time. She said with a light laugh and a teasing look down the table at him, “Well, you must be surely in the minority in thinking that!”

There was a sudden stillness round the table at this.

“Mary!” cried her mother, aghast.

She clutched her knife and fork more tightly and the smile faltered. She swallowed. “I was speaking generically, Mama, of the general feelings of heirs towards their inheritance, not of anybody here, and certainly not of cousin Matthew.”

“I am glad you do not think me so devoid of all proper feeling!” Matthew bit out before he could help himself.

Across the table, Mary locked her gaze onto his. “No,” she replied equally cuttingly, “not devoid of all feeling!”

Matthew found himself gripping his cutlery as much as she was. He had no idea what on earth he had done to cause her to look at him with so much scorn – by right he ought to have been the angrier. So he had not said that he loved her? Well, he didn't, and she had had no right to ask if he did! Giving her a final glare, he looked back down at his plate and the roast chicken and potatoes that no longer looked very appetising.

The silence following this exchange continued uninterrupted for several more moments. Matthew regretted his outburst, but not enough to apologise if she was not going to first.

Eventually, when it had become almost unbearable, though very little time had actually passed, Sybil broke the silence, by saying with forced cheerfulness, “I received a letter from Vivian Beresford today! You'll never guess her news!”

Everybody seemed to visibly wilt in relief as the tension diffused. Knives once more clinked against forks and glasses once more were raised.

“And what is dear Vivian's news?” asked the countess with far more interest than she would normally have expressed in such a situation.

“Her cousin, Grace, is going to Girton College, Cambridge in October to read English literature! I think she is so lucky.”

“Oh, very well done to her!” exclaimed Isobel in relief at the change of subject, before turning to Edith to enquire who these people were. Matthew murmured his agreement.

As Edith explained that Vivian's father, Lord Mounteroy, was a distant friend of the family's, the earl and countess exchanged glances down the table.

“Grace does not have the kind of opportunities you have, dear,” said Cora in a conciliatory tone. “One presumes that she will not have a season.”

I do not have the kind of opportunities Grace has,” shot back Sybil immediately. “She went to Cheltenham Ladies College! If I had had that kind of education I might have been going to Cambridge or Oxford as well.”

“And what would you have done with a degree in English literature, Sybil?” asked Mary with a studied air of neutrality. “Nobody ever wanted to marry a girl because she had read clever books.”

“I wouldn't study English-” began Sybil at the same time as Isobel said, “Not everything needs to be about marriage. I am very much in favour of women attending university, whatever they do with their knowledge afterwards.”

The dowager countess, who had been restraining herself with difficulty up to this point, now muttered audibly, “Why does that not surprise me?” Then she turned to Sybil and addressed her reprovingly, “Mary is quite right. You have received an excellent and fitting education from your governess. I really cannot see how you would be improved by five years at Cheltenham and three surrounded by undergraduates, most of whom have the most deplorable morals!”

“Excellent and fitting for what exactly? We never actually do music, we have never been to France, and I hate embroidery!” she finished triumphantly as more than one other member of the family sighed in resignation as the conversation again descended into unpalatable territory.

Matthew wondered if this dinner would ever end. He was inclined to sympathize more with Sybil's point of view than with her grandmother's, but after what had happened the last time he had spoken, he was not inclined to say anything further.

“Well, at least Mary will be able to justify those Italian lessons now,” commented Edith.

Matthew looked up immediately and hated himself for it.

“You learned Italian? That should serve you well now,” said Isobel.

“Only a little,” replied Mary.

Her cousin was forced to turn to her other side as Edith continued, “We had to get a master in specially, Signor Rossetti. Mary insisted on it. She wanted to read, what was it, Mary?”

Mary drew in a breath, before replying, “The Decameron.” She immediately looked down and speared a piece of potato to cover her irritation with the direction the conversation had taken.

“I don't believe you ever did read it though! You just had a crush on Signor Ro-”

Matthew felt terribly sorry for his mother, sitting inbetween the two sisters, as Mary opened her mouth to angrily deny the charge and the countess was forced to weigh in with, “That's enough, Edith! Signor Rossetti had many valuable qualities, and was an excellent teacher.” She frowned. “Did you read any of it in the end, my dear? I always thought it looked very complicated. I forget what it was about.”

“Of course I read it,” replied Mary scornfully. “It's about the effects of the bubonic plague.”

“Goodness, child, and while we're still eating!” The dowager scoffed.

Even as her grandmother was speaking, Matthew had somehow managed to meet Mary's eyes across the table again. “You didn't get very far!” he challenged her quietly but distinctly, breaking his decision to remain silent only minutes after making it. As far as he could remember from having read the poem once at university in English, the plague had only been the catalyst to get the characters together, giving them an opportunity to tell their more salacious stories.

Mary did not retort as he expected her to but swallowed and willed him insistently with her eyes not to say anything else. This was better than out-and-out hostility and he did not look away, hoping for something more from her – regret, acknowledgement, explanation even. What he got was perhaps some of that, but nothing explicit.

She looked away first. Lord Grantham, desperately trying to take charge of a situation that would have been farcical had anybody felt inclined to laugh, spoke firmly. “You mentioned music earlier, Sybil, and it occurs to me now just how long it is you or your sisters have played anything for us. In fact, I do not believe our cousins have ever heard you. Perhaps after dinner we might have a little concert.”

“That would be lovely!” cried Isobel desperately, adding more forcefully, “Wouldn't it, Matthew?”

He tore his eyes away from Mary and grinned more widely than necessary at Lord Grantham. “Absolutely. Delightful.”

The earl looked pleased at the success of his distraction. “Yes. Carson, we'll have tea in the music room this evening, I think. Mary, Sybil, I'm sure you have something you could entertain us with that won't be too taxing. It doesn't need to be anything long.”

“I don't sing,” replied Mary instantly and dismissively.

“I don't mind singing something if you like!” said Sybil. “What's the point of learning if we never perform? Mary, will you accompany me?”

Mary frowned and looked as if she would like to refuse, but she only said, “Of course, darling, if you wish.”

“What about you, Edith?” asked Isobel pleasantly as the atmosphere returned to normal. “Do you play as well?”

“I used to,” she replied, “but Mary was better than me.”

And so the conversation was killed again, and it need hardly be said that they got through dessert as quickly as possible and without a great deal of enjoyment.

Once the ladies had retired, Matthew was alone with the earl. These dinners where there were no other men present always worried him, as he was never quite sure what topics Lord Grantham would choose to introduce. He was never more anxious than this evening, as he could think of several subjects related to this final dinner before Mary's departure that he would much rather not have to discuss.

Fortunately his cousin seemed to take pity on him, saying ruefully, “I think it's best if we don't keep them waiting too long tonight!” and then asking after Matthew's work.

Matthew told him about the trade union disputes he was dealing with in the local branch of a South-African mining company in relative detail, happy to be on a neutral subject and one about which he felt confident, until he realised the earl had probably only asked out of politeness and was not terribly interested.

As they left the dining room and he found himself ushered towards a smaller drawing room, which he had only been in a couple of times before, Robert suddenly stopped and said, “Thank you.”

He turned in surprise. “For what?”

The earl clapped a hand on his shoulder before continuing across the hall. “However distasteful they find it, I think some members of my family would rather believe my daughter had been reading about the plague than a Medieval Ars Amatoria.”

Matthew met his eyes and understood. “And you, sir?” he could not help asking curiously. “Didn't it bother you?”

Robert only paused right outside the music room door. “Mary always signed out the books she was reading and I always hoped that if she found anything that disturbed her she would come to me or Cora. If she had concealed her reading... that would have bothered me.”

Matthew was not sure whether to admire his trust or find it naïve, and they went into the room.

The situation seemed a little more friendly than it had been during dinner. Cora, Violet and Isobel were talking quietly together and at the grand piano Edith and Sybil were looking over music. Seated alone at the instrument was Mary, head lowered, intent on the chords she was softly playing. The music rambled at will, the harmony constantly shifting as Mary played seemingly at random, always moving but never resolving, however many times it seemed to teeter on the edge of the desired cadence. Matthew had not been in the room two minutes before he felt more tense and wound-up than he had been all evening.

“Well, girls, have you decided what you're going to sing?” asked Cora, as she handed her husband and Matthew their tea.

Mary stopped improvising to Matthew's relief and looked up as Sybil came round beside her and spread out some sheets of music in front of her. Matthew was sitting close enough to hear her ask, “Are you sure you won't sing the second verse?” Mary frowned and shook her head, whispering back, “No, you sing it.”

Matthew had very little musical background nor any particular interest in music in the ordinary way, but he had to admit he was curious to see his cousins perform, though he wished it had more to do with pleasure at hearing Sybil sing than at looking at Mary sitting at the piano, the bracketed lamps catching the gold of her necklace and the brocade on her red dress, as well as giving her pale skin an almost burnished glow.

Sybil came round to stand at the side of the instrument, and clasped her hands in front of her, her face shining with pride at showing off her talents and enjoying being the centre of attention. “I'm going to sing you a song from The Mikado. I hope you enjoy it!”

“Lovely!” smiled Isobel.

Sybil glanced back at Mary and nodded at her. She played a brief introduction before settling into a pattern of gentle, repeated chords, over which floated Sybil's melody.

The sun whose rays are all ablaze with ever living glory,” she began, “Does not deny his majesty, he scorns to tell a story!

She had a sweet, light, and tuneful voice. It was not particularly powerful perhaps, but perfectly adequate for an intimate drawing room setting and was very pleasant to listen to.

He don't exclaim, "I blush for shame, so kindly be indulgent." But, fierce and bold, in fiery gold, he glories all effulgent!

Matthew found that he was effortlessly drawn to watching Sybil sing, all confidence and charm, as her voice soared up to the high notes: “I mean to rule the earth, as he the sky. We really know our worth, the sun and I!” At that moment, he could easily believe she intended to put what she sang into practice, even as she half laughed at the end of the verse when she ran out of breath a little too soon.

As Mary played the connecting bar between verses, Matthew looked back at her, finding it rather strange to see her so much in the background of the scene. He continued to watch her though, knowing that she was concentrating on the music and did not observe him, as Sybil sang the moon's verse. (“She borrows light that, through the night, mankind may all acclaim her!”)

At the end, there was a little pause before everybody clapped. When his mother praised Sybil's performance and asked if she'd sing something else, Matthew found himself agreeing. She met his eye and blushed, pleased. “Well, if you like! What do you want to hear?”

Matthew was really not au fait with what was popular at the time. “What about a folksong?” he suggested rather lamely.

Fortunately, this seemed a good suggestion. Sybil beamed. “I know just the thing!”

She darted back round the piano and murmured something to Mary that Matthew did not catch, but Mary seemed to agree for Sybil returned to the front with a grin and her sister started playing a jaunty, familiar waltz tune, inserting a few Scotch snaps into the rhythm, an indulgent smile ghosting over her face as she played.

My Bonnie lies over the ocean, my Bonnie lies over the sea. My Bonnie lies over the ocean, Oh bring back my Bonnie to me!” Sybil sang with infectious enthusiasm that the rest of the company could not help catching as well, for they were only too glad to put the awkwardness of the dinner behind them. As she launched into the chorus, she gestured with her hands that the rest were to join in. Matthew heard his mother sing along next to him as well as cousin Cora and covered his mouth with his hand to stop his amusement showing.

At the second verse, Sybil lowered her voice dramatically and sang very quietly and seriously in contrast: “Last night as I lay on my pillow, last night as I lay on my bed, last night as I lay on my pillow, I dreamed that my Bonnie was dead.

Matthew shivered somehow and when she started this chorus, nobody else joined in.

Sybil might have sung the second verse in a different mood purely for the drama of it, but by the end of the second chorus something had shifted in the atmosphere of the room, and as she started the final verse, she was still serious and the song seemed to become less jolly and more nostalgic, more yearning.

Oh blow ye the winds over the ocean, oh blow ye the winds over the sea! Oh blow ye the winds over the ocean, and bring back my Bonnie to me!

Matthew found a strange pressure fall on his heart accompanied by a cold feeling, almost as if the very winds of the song had blown through the room with the music. He looked away from Sybil as she launched into the final chorus and his eyes fell on Mary again. For the first time he allowed himself to realise that he would miss her. Whatever their relationship might have become, when he thought of Downton, he thought of her, and the idea of coming to the Abbey and not seeing her was almost inconceivable. Edith and Sybil seemed so very bland in comparison.

Bring back, bring back, oh bring back my Bonnie to me, to me! Bring back, bring back, oh bring back my Bonnie to me!

As Sybil sang, Matthew became aware of another voice mingled with hers, and knew it to be Mary's. Softer and quieter than her sister's, he would have missed it if he had not been looking at her and seen her lips move very slightly in time with the words. He stared at her, unconsciously leaning forwards in his seat, his tea forgotten on the table beside him. At that moment, she looked up, straight at him, and he met her gaze full on. Her voice faltered and she stopped, her lips parted on the vowel she had been singing, though her hands completed the simple accompaniment automatically. After the music died away, they continued to look at each other and he thought her expression softened towards him, as he knew his had done towards her. It was impossible to remain angry at her long, not when she was looking at him in that way and his heart was beating so loudly it seemed impossible nobody else should hear it. Nevertheless, even as the mood and their gaze were broken by the applause he felt sadness at the recollection of their previous meetings pour over him. He could not believe she was being insincere now, but had she been then? And what kind of fool was he, he thought bitterly, to continue to care?

“I never realised,” Sybil was saying as she sat down and rewarded herself with a large gulp of tea, “what a tragically romantic song that is! A pair of lovers separated by an ocean... I hope I never have to experience such a parting.”

“You are very unlikely to, my dear,” said Isobel with a quick, worried glance at her son, and a reassuring smile for the performer, “if you sing that well to your suitors in London!”

“You're wrong anyway, Sybil,” said Mary, and Matthew was surprised at how cool and normal her voice sounded. “It's about Bonnie Prince Charlie. Your romantic ballad is nothing more than a Jacobite hymn.”

“Well,” replied her sister. “I don't mind that. I have a lot of sympathy for the Jacobites!”

“Here we go again!” muttered her grandmother.

At this point, Isobel took pity on the whole party and declared that they must be off. They did not wish to keep their cousins up too late, especially if the dowager countess and Mary had an early start in the morning.

Though they were pressed to stay, the entreaties had little enthusiasm. Matthew made his goodbyes as quickly as possible, wished the two travellers the best of luck, and ducked out into the hallway, having avoided saying anything personal to Mary or meeting her eyes again.

His escape did not last, however. Isobel had been retained by Lady Grantham to discuss a recipe exchange and before she emerged, Mary slipped out of the room and followed him into the hall.

“You didn't say goodbye.”

He turned round and saw her standing in the gloom almost hidden under the great staircase, twisting her hands in front of her.

“I did,” he replied uncomfortably. “I wished you and your grandmother a very pleasant time abroad.”

She took a few steps closer to him and looked up with a smile that tried to be brighter than it was. “Come, cousin, don't let us part as enemies.”

“Enemies!” cried Matthew, not looking at her. “Certainly not! Nothing could be further from what I want!”

“Then give me your hand and let's be friends!”

She held out one slim, gloved hand and he was unable to help looking at her. Her tone was teasing but her eyes serious and anxious. He swallowed, his glance flickering down to her hand and back up to her eyes, and he clasped it in his, much as he had done several months before in the library. He had not held her hand since, and he wondered afterwards if he ought to have done then. What right did she have to demand anything of him?

Not knowing precisely what motivated him to do it, Matthew found himself saying with a small smile, “I heard you before, you know.”

She looked puzzled. “Heard me?”

“Singing.”

“Oh, I wasn't singing!”

Her quick denial made him smile even more. “Well, I heard you anyway.”

He dropped her hand as the rest of the family came out of the music room, feeling strangely pleased at having redressed the balance of power between them even a little.

As the Crawleys waved them off in the car from the steps, Matthew looked once through the back window. He fancied Mary was watching the departing car with particular intensity and wondered if she could be as affected by their parting as he was. Probably not, he thought with a renewed stab of bitterness: she would have all the distractions of new people, places and experiences to look forward to, whereas all he could anticipate was another winter at Downton and the memory of what was gone.

A/N: For recordings of the two songs in this chapter. The first song: a good recording here. The second: gives the tune but not performed at all as it is in the chapter. Hope you're all enjoying the story!

Read Chapter Six here!
Tags: consolation prize, downton abbey, fanfiction, historical, matthew/mary, romance
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