Fandom: Downton Abbey
Summary: Sometimes the only way to say something is not to say it. Surrounded by war on all sides, Matthew and Mary try to make sense of their relationship with a little help from Dickens and Austen. Vague S02 spoilers.
Written for eolivet for her birthday. Contains spoilers for Great Expectations and Emma.
The library is dark when she pushes open the door and closes it softly behind her. Only one area is illuminated: an electric light on a tall stand provides a golden glow surrounding an armchair. Someone is sitting in it reading. She can hear his slow, deep breaths and the crisp rustle of the pages but the chair is facing away from the door and he is not aware of her yet, though she is aware of him. She would know those long legs, stretched out before the fire, anywhere.
Her hand is still on the doorknob. She still has time to retreat back into the bright, anaesthetized hallway. Back to Sir Richard, who wants answers; answers he's bound to get since he has more on her now than she has on him and unless Lavinia stops being so coy and coughs up what she knows (if she knows anything at all and the whole thing isn't some silly ruse to make herself more interesting and useful to the family) that is unlikely to change. She draws a deep, silent breath and wills away the panic. When had her life become this desperate game of deception and subterfuge? She had used to be good at this sort of thing, when Edith was her only antagonist.
Yes, she is hiding, she admits it, or trying to hide. Hiding in Downton's inner sanctum, the one room Papa would not give over to the hospital. “Of course the soldiers can use the library,” he had said, “but they follow my rules, as my daughters and my staff do alike.”
But Matthew has penetrated here too now and she is not sure that in fleeing from one man she has not found herself stuck with another she would rather avoid. Her hand is still on the doorknob and she has not yet decided what to do, when he shifts in the armchair, peers round it, sees her standing across the room in the undefined gloom, identifies her immediately and looks glad to see her.
“Hello, Mary!” he says. “I thought I wouldn't get a chance to see you at all. I think you've been hiding from me this week!”
He chides her gently as she comes further into the room, closer to the pool of light that surrounds him.
“Not from you, Matthew,” she replies with a little sigh.
It is not quite true, however, for she has been avoiding him. Those first few visits when he was so happy or thought he was it had been hard to see him, but she suspects that it is even harder now things are more complicated. It would be so easy to take him into her confidence now, tell him everything he does not already know and which he will soon discover from less kind sources than herself (if only she were not so afraid!), and enlist him in the second war, that great, undercover battle she is waging on the home front with Carson and Lavinia and Mama as her allies; so easy to destroy his last illusions of innocence and make things far more difficult than they already are.
She stands in front of him and they look at each other. Matthew seems well and rested and ready to return to the fray. His mother must be pleased by his good health, she thinks with a touch of bitterness.
“What are you doing here?” she asks suddenly. “Don't you have better things to do on your last night?”
The mockery is unintentional; it slips out too naturally, but she means it all the same.
He looks rueful, less pleased than he was a moment ago. He glances down at the leather-bound volume on his lap.
“I want to finish this book. I can't take it away with me tomorrow, not your father's copy.”
He is staring up at her like a schoolboy at his mistress, unsure whether he is in trouble or not but determined to be truculent about it anyway. Maybe he is hiding too.
“What are you reading?” She continues the interrogation, not moving. Books are neutral, safe, unambiguous things to discuss, or they should be.
“Great Expectations. I've read it before, of course, but I don't want to leave it unfinished. It would be wrong; I'd wonder about it too much, you see, and, out there, we don't want any distractions.”
“Naturally.” They both look away and the silence is thick. She does not want to think about out there. She swallows and asks, “Are you nearly done with it?”
He looks embarrassed, lips pressed tightly together. “Not really. Pip has only just found out Estella is engaged.”
“Goodness me, barely half way through!” Her surprise is genuine as are the raised eyebrows and the little step to the side, neither forwards nor backwards. “Do you plan to stay the night then, Matthew?”
He shakes his head, smiles a little. “I might just skip to the end. Once I know there's a happy ending, I shall sleep better! Mary, are you just going to stand there? You're making me nervous.”
She blushes, looks behind her for a chair and perches opposite him, her hands folded in her lap. She resists the urge to twist them together. They have not been alone with each other the whole time he has been on leave. It is so terribly awkward.
What to say? She returns to the book for inspiration. “If you have already read it then you know the ending. There is no need to worry about that, surely, unless your memory is very bad indeed.”
“My memory is quite adequate to recall that Great Expectations has two endings and I never know which I am going to get when I pick up a copy of the novel.”
She smiles, her polite smile for distinguished company. She can do this. “How very intriguing! Do tell! I was not aware Dickens was writing one of those “choose your own adventure” books.”
He closes the volume with his finger marking the place and returns her smile, though less brilliantly. Her levity is not helping matters. “In the first ending Estella marries someone else after her husband dies. Pip never marries. In the second ending, they marry each other. Eventually, that is. The reader must assume it for it's not in the text explicitly.”
She tilts her head to one side. “I don't remember that. I thought they got married as a matter of course. Pip and Estella, like Romeo and Juliet, Jane and Rochester. It's inconceivable they don't.”
Matthew shrugs. “Not to Dickens. He thought such an ending too convenient, too neat a tying up of loose ends.”
“Isn't that what marriage is? A neat way to end a story.” She speaks more bitterly than she ought to and looks away at the fire. Her hands give up the struggle and one breaks free of their clasp to play with her pendant. It's only a simple cross nowadays. (She's not sure she believes in God, but it's nice to have something to hold onto whatever the symbolism.)
“I don't think it needs to be,” says Matthew after a long pause. “And perhaps Dickens came round to that conclusion himself eventually. If Pip had inherited Estella's fortune, if Miss Havisham had been his guardian, if Estella had been meant for him all along, perhaps that would have been too neat. But he was wrong about all that, so in the end the only thing that connected him to her was his love.”
“His love was not enough to stop her from marrying another, was it?”
“Estella was rather too headstrong about that, for she knew Drummle's character.”
“Perhaps she thought she was doing the right thing,” suggests Mary, still looking at the fire. “Pip's love terrified her. She believed herself incapable of returning it. Far better to join herself to a man as cold and heartless as herself.”
“Estella was never heartless,” he replies gently. “I think that is clear from the endings, both of them, but she was never taught to love the way Pip was. She was not brought up to it.”
“You haven't read this far this time, but she regretted it, you know. When she knew his character and compared him to Pip. By then it was too late, of course.”
“Lucky that he died afterwards and left her free,” says Matthew drily, “but better that she had not married him in the first place.”
She looks at him then. His eyes seem bluer then ever, a deeper, bottomless shade; his face is half golden light, half intense shadow. Their gazes meet and something inside of her twists with regret or longing or a bit of both. She looks down again at the patterning of the rug.
“I always found the part you have reached by far the most affecting of the novel,” she continues presently, her voice quieter than it was. Somehow the silence has deepened too. “It was a great blow to Pip, to learn of Estella's engagement in that way. He was not expecting it. He thought he still had a chance, you see.”
His voice is deeper too. “Yes. That was hard of her, but he had to know.”
“Oh, yes, he had to know,” she agrees. “He needed to come to terms with his loss.”
“I suppose she did not know what a mistake she was making at the time and perhaps, looking back, she might have broken it to him more considerately.”
“I wonder,” says Mary, feeling heat rise inexplicably in her cheeks, “whether she would have gone ahead with it if she had heard Pip's declaration of love first and understood how strongly he truly felt about her.”
Matthew shifts in his chair. “I think she regretted it from that moment but saw no way of extricating herself. Her pride was too involved.”
“It would indeed have caused a great scandal to break the engagement, even if she were not so proud.”
“I don't think she would have cared about the scandal, only the feelings of the others involved.”
She looks at him, her cheeks still pink – but he cannot see that in the darkness, thank goodness – and her legs tremble from the intense way he is looking at her. Her hand falls again from her throat and her fingers start to twist uncontrollably together on her lap, rucking her dress as they catch on the material.
“We must be reading different books then because that is not at all how I remember the characters! Fie upon you, Matthew: you are a poor literary analyst!”
“Am I?” He leans forward; their chairs are too close; she forces herself not to lean back. “But perhaps you are right. I have never been good at reading characters.”
“Sometimes,” she replies, forcing her tone to be indifferent, “characters are not easy to read.”
A little frown is on his face and his lips twitch. “You know, some people enjoy the challenge!”
Her lips part in surprise. She doesn't know how to deal with him any more. His hand reaches out, touches hers on her lap for a split second, sending a warm spark through her too-cold fingers, and she jumps up as if burned, pulling both arms out of reach. She does not look at him but walks straight to the window. It is even colder there without the warmth of the fire and she can feel the frost through the glass. She wraps her arms round herself and shivers.
“I have been re-reading Emma this week!” she blurts out, as the first thing that comes into her head.
There is a pause before she hears him turn in the chair and again before he replies. A pause in which he can regret his words and his little gesture of betrayal. A pause in which she holds her breath, wondering what he is thinking, as she places her hand flat against the window pane and sees condensation build up like a spider's web around it.
“Why Emma?” he asks eventually and the question seems unexpected.
She is honestly not sure why she had picked it of all others as her new novel the day before Matthew had returned home. It had just jumped off the shelf at her and she has been enjoying the re-read.
She shrugs. “It makes a pleasant change from what I was reading before – Thomas Hardy, would you believe it!”
“I suppose Hardy is not calculated to lift the spirits,” he replies cautiously.
She looks at him briefly and inscrutably over her shoulder. “Precisely. Emma is... well, I dare say it sounds a foolish reason for reading a book at this time above all others, but all the little affairs of Highbury – Miss Bates and the Eltons and Jane Fairfax's piano and poor, unfortunate Harriet Smith – they seem terribly far away from life as it is now.”
He chuckles sympathetically. “I suppose it does have that advantage. Here we all are fighting for our lives against the Germans but you can trust Jane Austen that in Highbury nothing more important is going on except trying to solve the mystery of Frank Churchill's new haircut.”
“How very trivial it is! All of it!” cries Mary to the frosted pain of glass and she means every word. Or the opposite of every word, because these petty village intrigues and the affairs of the heart are not trivial at all, not really, not to the people living them.
Outside all is dark and she can barely see the outline of the Lebanon cedar on the lawn, massive and hulking, a darker shadow among dark shadows. He is silent. Mary rests her head against the window frame and closes her eyes. Tomorrow Matthew will leave for France again and all she can think about is how to avoid Sir Richard Carlisle for as long as possible, and what on earth Lavinia knows.
Then Matthew speaks, his tone suspiciously measured and contemplative. “I share Mr. Knightley's low opinion of Frank Churchill. The man was playing a dangerous game and considering how much he loved Emma, it must have hurt him a great deal to see her being used and manipulated by such a scoundrel. A very great deal, I should think.”
She opens her eyes wide but remains in the same position. “He needn't have worried himself,” she says as lightly as possible. “Emma's heart wasn't touched by Frank, whatever she thought she felt initially.”
“He toyed with her feelings.”
“I find myself feeling rather more sympathy towards Frank Churchill on this reading of the novel. His situation was perfectly intolerable!”
“Was it? It was entirely of his own making.”
Her fingers rasp on the bottom of the window and she straightens again. “He could not help being in love with someone he felt himself unable to marry! Do you – do you not think that he is somewhat to be pitied? You forget, he tried to tell Emma. Circumstances did not let him make the confession he wanted to and Emma misunderstood him entirely. That was not his fault.”
“He could have tried harder to explain himself.” Matthew's voice is unnecessarily harsh. It grates on her ears.
“Of course he could have tried harder, but he was only human!” She closes her eyes briefly again. After a little pause, she adds more softly, “He was truly sorry afterwards if she got the wrong impression of him. I am sure that was genuine.”
“Then I suppose, as Mr. Knightley grudgingly admits, he must be forgiven.” His voice is a little more gentle.
“If Jane forgives him then that is all that matters in the end.”
There is another silence during which a log falls softly from the fire, shooting up a few sparks as it thuds onto the grate. A floorboard creaks and when Matthew speaks again, his tone smoother and deeper, she realises that he has stood up and come to stand right behind her. She clutches at the wood of the window sill.
“Do you suppose, Mary, that there was ever anything in Emma's belief that Mr. Knightley was in love with Jane Fairfax? It's something I've wondered lately and I – I would very much like to hear your opinion.”
He is standing very close behind her and were she to look up at the glass, she would see his silhouette reflected just behind hers. She stares downward instead, but it does not stop her feeling his warm breath on her neck. She tries to give his question an appropriate amount of thought.
“I think,” she says finally and very calmly, “that Jane would probably have been very happy with him, happier than she would have been with Frank. Their temperaments are similar and they are both good, deserving people. In comparison Emma seems a very poor match for him.”
“Mary...” His voice is half exasperated, half teasing and very close to her ear. Suddenly he is leaning on the window frame as well, his arms braced on either side of her. She can barely breathe. “This is very disappointing. Is that your final opinion?”
“Objectively speaking, Matthew-” she begins with a firm attempt at the selflessness that she has acquired over the past three years or tried to acquire.
He cuts over her. “Don't tell me you or anyone would really prefer the novel to end with Jane Fairfax becoming Mrs. Knightley!”
She turns swiftly to face him, her eyes flashing. (Well, she'd never been any good at objectivity or selflessness anyway.) “Of course I wouldn't! How could you think that? It could only ever have been Emma and-”
She had not realised how close he was when she turned, with his hands still on the window frame trapping them together. The light behind him creates a golden halo round his golden hair. His face is obscured but it doesn't matter for her breath catches and before she can finish the sentence he has kissed her. They do not waste time with gentle preliminaries. This kiss is filled with all the desperation of hopelessness and three years of absence and restraint. He presses her against the cold glass and she first shrinks back and then moulds herself to him as the warmer of the two, one hand tracing his cheek, the other sliding automatically into his beautiful, silken hair. He groans into her mouth and his arms wrap round her waist pulling her closer and their hearts pound together out of mingled desire and fear. Their lips part, their eyes meet and they kiss again, harder than before, lips and tongues and teeth meshing and scraping together in a duel of painful ecstasy.
All her senses are alert and her nerves sharpened so, not withstanding the passion that is clouding her brain, when she hears the door open, her reaction is swift. She pushes him away so he stumbles and is smoothing her dress down with trembling fingers even as a triangle of light is appearing in the doorway and Lavinia's soft voice floats across the room.
“Mary?” she calls. She sounds rather fed up and Mary cannot blame her for that. She even feels a bit guilty.
They are still in shadow. Matthew is staring at her with wild eyes and his chest is heaving as he recovers. In the glimmer of the one lamp she can see the gleam of moisture on his lips. He starts rapidly smoothing his hair down as she steps forward and prays her voice is even.
“I'm here, Lavinia! What is it?”
“It's only that – oh, Matthew! There you are, darling! Your mother has been looking for you. She wants to know if you're ready to go home.”
Mary turns but somehow Matthew has managed to appear from another corner of the room. He strides quickly over to his fiancée and does not look at Mary.
“Yes, I'm quite ready. Thank you for coming to get me. I'm sorry I've been so long.”
He sounds breathless, more so than usual. Mary wonders if Lavinia can tell and if she can if she suspects the cause.
“Well, never mind that now,” she soothes. “I didn't realise Mary was here too.” She glances quickly from one to the other but her expression is perfectly calm and unsuspecting.
“We were both reading,” Mary explains since Matthew does not seem inclined to say anything.
Lavinia laughs her pretty little laugh. “Well, I can't imagine what else you'd be doing in a library!”
Matthew laughs with her. “No, quite so! What else indeed!”
Mary considers that he sounds on the verge of hysteria, or whatever the masculine equivalent is. Surely that should be her role in all this? But his loss of control is giving her strength. He should leave before he exposes himself too much, she thinks with strange detachment. Concealment is second nature to her now and she is a better actress than she was. War brings out the most unexpected qualities in people.
She comes forward into the room. “I wouldn't want to keep you any longer from your mother, Matthew,” she says with gentle determination. “I'll see you in the morning before you leave.”
He meets her eye for the first time now and his mouth is slightly open, much as it was when she first saw him all those years ago but infinitely changed. His hand is on the doorknob and he appears not to know what to do. “Well, yes, I suppose, yes. Until then,” he eventually manages to get out.
She smiles at them both. “Goodnight, Lavinia. Do take care walking back to the village.”
She is just a little bit more patronising than she was before. Pity mingles with triumph because when Matthew kisses Lavinia goodnight later that evening (as she resigned herself months before that he must) he will still have the taste of her on his lips. And in the end that is a pretty terrible state of affairs for them all.
Matthew is already out of the door, for Lavinia has almost pushed him out (in the gentlest, most unobtrusive way possible, of course) but she turns back and meets Mary's eye.
“Oh, Mary, I almost forgot what I was going to say before. Sir Richard is looking for you. He's in the drawing room upstairs.”
Mary blinks, the reminder hitting her like a punch to the gut, but she recovers quickly, happy at least to know which room to avoid. “Thank you. Did you say where I was?”
Something wise and enigmatic passes across Lavinia's countenance and for a moment Mary understands her perfectly and knows she is understood in turn, however many secrets they may each still carry. Then Lavinia laughs. “I couldn't very well tell him what I didn't know, could I? Goodnight, Mary.”
They are gone and the door is closed. Mary is in the dark again and now she allows herself to collapse weakly into the chair recently vacated by Matthew. She closes her eyes, touches her still tingling lips with one finger and breathes in deeply, as if the air might somehow retain a trace of him. She imagines it does and feels tears rise to the surface. She doesn't want to cry though; it would serve no purpose.
After a few moments of steadying her breathing and swallowing down her misery she opens her eyes again and they fall on the book Matthew has left behind unfinished. It is face down on the arm of the chair, open at the middle of the story. She picks it up idly, caressing the soft pages with her fingers, imagining his fingers where hers are now, as she flicks straight to the end. She reads the last paragraph.
I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.
As she finishes reading, she sighs lightly and looks up, her gaze resting on the flickering golden flames of the fire as they jump and twist and move in a continuous, never-ending, always changing game of light and heat. Tomorrow when he comes to say goodbye, she decides, she will tell him which ending he will have to look forward to on his next leave. She carefully puts the bookmark into the place he has reached. After all, half the story remains untold.