Fandom: Downton Abbey
Rating: PG-13/T (for now)
Summary: It is two months since the events of episode 8 when the reappearance of a forgotten talisman in Matthew's sock drawer sets off a chain reaction which might be enough to break a cycle of destructive behaviour. Eventual catharsis.
Read Chapter One here!
Part Two: On the Steps of the Folly
He tried not to think about her as a general principle. It was difficult; difficult to love someone so absolutely and yet not be able to even think about her, let alone look at her, without feeling the deepest guilt and self-loathing. He could not process what his mother had told him, or rather he did not want to. To add guilt towards Mary to his guilt towards Lavinia; was there to be no end to it? There was nothing he could do; he had treated both of them terribly and there was nothing he could do to change that. The only thing he could perhaps have done would have been to marry Mary in the first place and never have engaged himself to Lavinia, but how could he have done? He had not known, oh, he had not known.
Matthew was walking as fast as he could through the village, the taps of his cane hardly keeping up with the pace he was setting himself. The heat was even more oppressive outside than it had been in his bedroom and he was breathless before he had even passed the church, his head turned purposefully away from the graveyard. He did not need to look to be reminded.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Crawley!” said someone as they passed him and Matthew almost jumped out of his skin. It was only Mrs. Midwinter from the post-office, perennially good natured, and he quickly doffed his hat and managed a smile, but only just. This was intolerable; he had no idea where he was going but he did not want company. Especially cheerful company.
A little way past the churchyard was a kissing gate that led directly into the Downton parkland. He pushed it open, heard it clang behind him with satisfying finality and started to stride out across the long, summer grass. The ground was uneven and forced him to slow down, but perhaps more than the physical difficulties of speeding across the field, the green of the grass and trees and quiet of the countryside calmed him slightly. Slowing his pace, he shrugged out of his heavy black jacket, draped it over his arm, and rolled his shoulders in freedom.
Damned mourning. Couldn't there be a version for hot days that was not black? Then he kicked himself for blaming his clothes, that outer symbol of his grief for Lavinia, for his discomfort. If he was uncomfortable then he deserved it all. If the clothes were a penance then that was the price that must be paid. He took a sideways swipe with his cane and beheaded an entire host of dandelions, scattering their fluffy seeds into the air.
The sheer number of deaths in the war had changed mourning customs for ever. Nevertheless, Matthew still stubbornly clung to ritual and was determined to see out six months of full mourning for his fiancée as a compromise. His mother was already into half-mourning and up at the big house they had long abandoned it all together. Lavinia had been no relation of theirs after all and, as Cousin Violet had drily pointed out, “Mary can hardly get married in black!”
Provocatively, Matthew did not see why not; she had always looked beautiful in black.
He continued to trudge through the park without any real idea of where he was going. He was only glad that Downton was such a big estate. The chances of meeting anyone so far from the house were very slim and the physical exercise was good for him. What was it Doctor Clarkson said? That he ought to keep moving, though avoid anything too strenuous? Oh, he wished he could keep moving! Removing his jacket was not enough; he tugged at his collar and loosened the black tie, swallowing several times as if he really could breathe better now.
Some time later, he emerged from a clump of trees to see the house directly before him in the distance. Immediately on his left on a rise in the ground was the heavy, majestic stone structure that was Downton's eighteenth century folly, a gift of love from the infatuated sixth Viscount to his wife, the only remnant of the neo-classical vision of the period, long after the old house had been replaced by the current building. Mary had sometimes wheeled him near it along the circular path through the grounds, but it had been a long time since he had walked right up to it. In summer, its base was attacked by flowers: poppies, forcing remembrance, and wild roses too, red as the poppies.
He thought he would pause in its shade for a while, out of the ever oppressive heat and glare for a while. Sit and rest his legs and perhaps, in view of the Abbey itself, he might be able to think clearly for once.
His plans for peace and consideration were thwarted, however. As he stepped round the corner of the folly, he saw the drape of a dark skirt over its side. Someone was sitting there, leaning against a pillar, a woman, and Matthew stopped in its tracks, his heart pounding. With all the certainty of the cursed, he knew it was Mary, and when she slipped her legs over the side and bent down to pluck something from the grass, his guess was confirmed.
He was still and silent, there was nothing to give him away, but with a matching instinct, she raised her head, and looked directly at him. Her lips parted, her face a cold mask of surprise and Matthew felt his chest and throat close up again in panic.
For several moments they simply stared at each other, Matthew leaning heavily on his cane and clutching the handle more tightly than was necessary, Mary still partly bent forwards, frozen. He was not sure the last time they had been alone together. No, that was a lie; how could he ever forget it?
It was Mary who moved first. She sat up straight, twirling a tiny flower in her fingers, which she had picked when she had bent down, and she looked away from him to stare at the flower before she said in a strained tone, “Hello, Matthew.”
He flexed his free hand by his side. Everything was tense. “Hello.”
She continued to stare at the flower. Then her fingers, ungloved, moved and pulled some invisible thing away from it which she flung from her, repeating the process several times. Matthew's gaze remained fixed on her fingers.
Finally she spoke again, dismissively, casually, as if there was nothing at all of interest to them being here together for the first time. “According to the last daisy, he loves me not, so I'm trying again.”
Matthew managed to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth enough to say, merely for the sake of saying something, “Who?”
Now she glanced at him, a frigid, repressed glance. “I suppose there's no reason why you would remember my approaching wedding.”
No reason why he would remember her wedding...
“It would be very remiss of me if I forgot it,” he replied coldly.
“Yes, well,” she said, as she continued to pull petals off the daisy, “that wouldn't be like you at all.”
He clutched his cane even harder. His legs were locked in place. They were hurting terribly but he was quite unable to move. “That's unfair, Mary.”
She shrugged slightly. “Is it?”
He heard her continue under her breath, her whispers sing-song, “He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me...”
Her calmness was dreadful. It seemed mocking, preposterous even, in the light of what he knew about her. How could she sit there turning her upcoming marriage into a child's game while he was standing only a few feet away? Was she insensible, after everything he had believed her to feel? He didn't want her to feel it, of course, he wanted her to be happy, but the idea that she truly was indifferent now was more painful than he cared to admit.
He wanted clarification. He wanted to hear from her own lips confirmation of what his mother had told him. He didn't want to, of course, not really; nothing would be more mortifying. Yet so masochistic had he become that the desire to hear his own worst fears (or were they worst hopes?) confirmed seemed a perverse pleasure. Yet to speak directly of such a thing was quite impossible.
“How's Sybil?” he bit out, after a few moments in which his jaw worked silently as he watched her destroy the flower.
“Sybil?” she answered, only glancing at him momentarily, her voice registering no surprise at his unexpected choice of topic. “Very well, I think. We had a letter yesterday. They're back in Dublin from the country. She says Ireland is beautiful.”
“I'm glad for her.” Matthew found himself momentarily distracted.
Mary shrugged. “She'll get over it soon enough. They're still living with her mother-in-law and I dare say she'll be longing for home by the end of the week!”
A flash of anger passed through him unexpectedly at her casual cynicism. Was nothing sacred to her?
“At least she'll have her work.”
“If she finds anything. It turns out they're not as keen to hire English aristocrats as nurses as you might think.” She shot him a bright and completely false smile. “Isn't it extraordinary?”
“Very extraordinary indeed.”
His hand was itching to – to do something. To prevent it from acting on some mad impulse, he shoved it into his pocket, where it came into contact with the toy dog he had grabbed earlier. He gritted his teeth as his fingers closed tightly round it.
“She likes nursing very much, doesn't she, Sybil?”
“She certainly seems to,” Mary agreed without much interest.
“It's a strange interest for someone like her.”
Her hand stilled on the flower for a moment and she looked up at him, puzzlement breaking briefly through the mask. “She's been doing it for three years and now you question it!”
“I'm not questioning it, Mary, I'm only-” He swallowed. “She must have been at the hospital when we- when I-”
The frown deepened. “Naturally.”
“It must have been difficult for her.”
She turned her head away. “Not really. She's a professional and able to emotionally detach herself. They have training for that, you know. But of course you do; your mother is a nurse too.”
“Then I suppose,” he continued with a little more energy, “I am lucky to have been cared for by such professionals. I would hate to have caused any unnecessary distress.”
“No,” Mary replied sarcastically, “I am sure she felt no unnecessary distress.”
“Well, I'm sorry!” snapped Matthew petulantly, losing patience, feeling irrationally angry that her responses were so guarded and uncommunicative, not that, if he stopped to consider the matter, he was giving her any encouragement. The sun was beating down on his back and he hobbled uncomfortably forwards under the portico and dropped his jacket and hat to the floor, flexing his arm in relief.
Mary shifted round so she was facing him, leaning against her pillar again as she shot back, “Oh, yes, you're so, so sorry! I remember, you said.” She dropped her eyes down to the flower and she plucked several more petals all at once before throwing the whole thing away.
Matthew sucked in a breath as he stared at her in astonishment. Was she really going to bring that up? Here? Now? Surely that whole day should be consigned to the memory as something never to be referred to again after their last terrible interview? The thought of everything he had said and done then filled him only with pain and for her to throw it in his face-
He ignored the way she could not meet his eyes, the way her fingers trembled, the way the façade was breaking. He depended on her coolness to steady him as much as he resented it, and he refused to follow her lead into that discussion. He forced down his own rising frustration and stared down at her sitting, as it were, at his feet. She seemed smaller now.
He nodded stiffly down. “You didn't finish your game.”
She raised her eyes to meet his, her expression clear and pale. “Does it matter? With only two outcomes, I'm hardly left in suspense.”
Matthew's left hand clenched round the handle of his cane and his right round the toy dog in his pocket. “Those two outcomes make a world of difference.”
Her eyebrows darted up. “Do they? Love affecting marriage? I didn't think you believed in that connection any more!”
Her callous words caused a wave of anger to wash through him with such force he physically trembled. She had to be doing it on purpose, saying such hurtful things. His guilt was boundless over Lavinia, over her, but he had thought she agreed with him. She was marrying Richard Carlisle in a matter of weeks and glad to do so! What right had she, an engaged woman, to taunt him in this way? Hadn't he suffered enough?
“I never stopped believing in that, whatever you'd like to think.” It was an effort to get out the words.
“No?” For a moment there was a flicker of something across her face, a rustle of her clothes as she shifted, some movement within her. Then she looked away again. “My mistake then.”
“Your mistake?” he spluttered incoherently. He blinked in amazement though he hardly knew any more what he was amazed at or even what in particular he was objecting to, only that she made him angry. Angry and hurt and confused and, ultimately, desperately sad. “Your mistake? I should rather think it is!”
She drew back at his vehemence, her hands retreating to the ground at her sides as if she were trying to push herself even further back against the pillar. Even as she retreated, however, she attacked him in response, the mask cracking further, though she tried to keep her tone even and there was still something in her expression that was closer to sympathy than hate.
“There's no need to get upset about it. After what you've been through, I wouldn't be surprised if you changed your tune.”
He opened and closed his mouth several times. What he had been through? Good God...
“Yes,” he said, his voice trembling with suppressed passion. “Yes, I have changed my tune.”
Before he knew what he was doing he had flung the little toy dog at her with so much force that it bounced slightly on the stone floor where it landed a few inches from her feet.
She gasped out loud and even he was shocked at his own sudden violence. Then she had grabbed the toy in one hand, her fingers curling protectively round it, and was scrambling to her feet to face him. She was breathing rapidly and he felt a frisson of alarm run through him at her expression. It was not one he had ever seen on her before. It looked a lot like desperation, or perhaps even fear.
“I had grown accustomed,” she replied in a low, shaking voice – he wondered how he could have thought her calm, “to our not being friends any more, but I didn't expect you to add insult to injury!”
He took a step forward, leaning his weight heavily on his cane. “When,” he asked, forcing his tone to be measured, “did I insult you, Mary?”
She took a step back and hit the pillar again, trapped. Her eyes darted across his face. “I think claiming I was responsible for Lavinia's death counts as something of an insult, don't you?”
He gaped at her and held out his hand in appeal. “Mary, I-” He couldn't continue. She had to know he hadn't meant her on her own, he'd meant them, their relationship, their foolish actions, more particularly his in kissing her. God, she was only saying it because she meant something else. He was sure of it; she had to be.
“You insulted both of us saying that. Lavinia-”
“Oh, for God's sake!” He did not want to hear her talk about Lavinia now, not in this voice she had that sounded reasonable, even sympathetic, but was cutting and hard and – and truthful. “I wish you would stop playing games!”
Now she blinked at him, warier than ever and twisted her head away. “Oh, Matthew, if you think I've been playing games, then you have no idea-”
“I do!” he cried, interrupting her. “I know,” he added more quietly and more intensely.
Her mouth fell slightly open as she sucked in a breath and he realised he had given away more than he wanted to. For a few moments they stared at each other. She was unreadable, always unreadable, though he tried so hard, his gaze searching hers. Anyway, why did it matter? Only, if he was going to reveal himself in any way, then he would appreciate some reaction. All she was giving him was wide, limpid eyes, caution and – and a little bit of curiosity too. He hated that. There was nothing that she could – that she should be curious about.
“Then you know,” she continued, her eyes never leaving his face, “that Lavinia died of the Spanish 'flu-”
He looked away abruptly, realising as he did so just how close he had managed to come to her. As his eyes looked down they automatically hit the dark grey of her skirt, almost brushing against his legs.
“Please don't,” he muttered.
She ignored him. “And not because of anything she saw... or we did.”
His throat was tight all over again. “How can you say that?” he bit out, still not looking at her. “She couldn't bear to live without me and after she saw us toge-”
“Oh, don't be so bloody selfish, Matthew!”
His eyes snapped up to hers in surprise. He had never heard her swear before. He had not thought her capable of it. Then again, she had wanted to cut her hair, her glorious hair, so how well did he really know her?
Her lips parted and her eyes widened. “Sorry.” She ducked her head away, blushing slightly. “I didn't mean-”
His hand caught her wrist as if to keep her in place. He could feel the pulse jump under his fingers.
“No. No, I think you meant exactly that,” he replied, wondering at her and at him. “You think I'm selfish.”
“I think you should listen to what you're saying.” She was pressing herself so far back against the pillar that the agitation of her breast was even more obvious as she breathed.
“I can't help being aware,” Matthew found himself saying thickly, the phrases coming in short bursts, “that Cousin Cora recovered, that Carson recovered, everyone except for Lavinia recovered. She died, and you know why she died, Mary?”
“Because she had a more severe strain of the illness.”
She pulled her wrist towards herself, but he didn't let go. “Because she gave up. I broke her heart. Considering that, how do you think-”
She shook her head in a quick, jerky movement. “No woman ever died of a broken heart. They continue to beat, you see, whatever happens.”
Matthew felt his own heart pound. There was enough consciousness in her tone to make him pause, and his mother's words rang in his ear. Had he ever considered her feelings? His hand tightened round her wrist and he swallowed.
“Not everyone,” he said in a low voice, “has your strength of character, Mary.”
“I'm glad,” she replied and her voice broke, her face suddenly crumpling away from him almost onto his shoulder. “I wouldn't wish that on-”
He couldn't bear it. “God, Mary...”
Letting go of his cane which fell to the ground with a clunk and rolled off the steps onto the grass to be forgotten, his arm went round her waist and he pulled her unresistingly to him. She sighed gently, her breath tickling his ear. She was warm in his arms and her heart beat was strong and rapid against his. It was the closest he had been to another human being since – since he had last held her.
For several moments she simply stood there, passive against him, and then she loosened her wrist from his clasp and gently ran her hand up his arm to his shoulder, letting it rest there lightly. They were suspended there, not looking at each other, not quite together but no longer apart.
There was nobody else he wanted to hold, nobody in the world – there never would be, and it was quite impossible. Lavinia's dying words, as with all dying words, had proclaimed their doom and made it impossible to act. He pulled back regretfully to look at her, unable, just yet to drop his arm and release her.
“I'm sorry, my dear,” he said blinking at her. He felt as if he were seeing her again after a very long time; the unpleasant peakiness of her complexion, even in summer, the way her lips were drawn together in something between pain and determination, the bright, unshed tears glimmering in her dark eyes... “We can't. I wish we could, but it wouldn't be right. We're-”
“Cursed,” she finished for him, and those tight lips curved up into something that was almost a smile. The hand on his shoulder came up to cup his cheek and for a moment he felt perfectly light-headed.
“Mary...” he tried to warn her, but she was really smiling now, however tremulously.
“Have you never read a fairy tale, Matthew? There's no story I've ever come across that ends with the curse.”
Then, before he could even imagine what she meant, she closed the gap between them and kissed him.
Read Chapter Three here!