silvestria (silvestria) wrote,
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silvestria

Consolation Prize, Chapter Fourteen

Title: Consolation Prize
Fandom: Downton Abbey
Author: Silvestria
Rating: 12/PG-13
Summary: AU S01 epic set after the flower show. Following an explosive argument with Matthew, Violet takes Mary abroad for adventures of discovery and romance in Europe while back at home Sybil finds herself torn between two men and her independence.
Genre: Drama/Romance

Read Chapter Thirteen here!

Chapter Fourteen: The Greener Grass


For the party in Rome, the morning after Sybil and Matthew became engaged started just like any other day. By the end of the week they would proceed to Naples and while it would naturally be blasphemy to suggest that it was possible to grow tired of the Eternal City, Mary at least felt ready to move on. Count Sciarpa had left for his castle the previous week, bidding them only a temporary farewell and, without him as a guide, Mary was forced to rely on her Baedeker to show her round the sites which was altogether far less entertaining. She had, however, become used to the Bowens. After all, human nature can adapt to anything and though they were not clever, Mary recognized that they were decent people. Still, without Count Sciarpa there to roll her eyes at over Hettie's head, she had to draw on considerable reserves of patience not to treat her to the kind of cutting sarcasm she knew would in fact be undeserved.

Mrs. Bowen had received a letter from one of her sisters in England and was deeply involved in reading it over breakfast. She looked up suddenly to say, “You are the Crawleys of Downton Abbey, aren't you?”

“Are there any others?” retorted the dowager countess as if the idea was inconceivable.

Mary couldn't resist. “There are the Hampshire Crawleys, I believe, but-”

“But we are most certainly not related to them!”

“Quite.”

“What's wrong with them?” queried Hettie.

Mary's lip twitched. “Oh heavens, they're just not our kind of people, you know.”

Hettie didn't know, of course, and in fact there was nothing much wrong with them at all as far as Mary was aware – in fact, she had never met a single member of that family and neither she imagined had her grandmother.

Lady Grantham was observing Mrs. Bowen with slightly narrowed eyes. “Why do you ask?”

“No reason really. I just told Agatha - my sister, you know - in my last letter who we had met out here and she was wondering if you were the Crawleys of Downton Abbey. Are you sure you don't know her – Mrs. Arnold Maitland? She seems to know of you at least. Arnold works in the home office.”

“I thought it was the department of state or whatever you call it in England,” said Hettie.

“Well, you may be right after all,” replied her mother.

“No,” interrupted the dowager firmly, “I am quite sure we are not acquainted.”

“If he works at the foreign office he may know the Honourable Mr. Napier, who is a friend of mine,” said Mary. “Perhaps he has mentioned us.”

“Oh, very likely, very likely. Agatha knows everybody so it doesn't much signify in what context she heard the name.”

Mary found the conversation suddenly rather tedious. She stared down at the half eaten croissant on her plate and realised she did not want to finish it. She forced herself to look up and say indifferently, “What does it matter anyway whether we are the Downton Crawleys or not?”

“I'm sure it doesn't-” replied Mrs. Bowen at the same time as Violet said, “It matters, my dear, that we are not taken to be the Hampshire Crawleys. That is all.”

“- only I said how nice it was to meet you and find another pair travelling through Italy like us and she can't help being curious. You know, it's a shame your sisters didn't accompany you. You girls get along so well and there's that nice little maid of yours, Lady Mary, but the more the merrier I always say!”

The more the merrier? Perhaps if Sybil were of the party. Mary expected that Sybil might get along better with Hettie than she did herself when they met in the spring in London and it would have been nice to have her sister with her in Italy, all things considered, but Edith would only have been a drag.

She shrugged and replied, “I'm not sure you'd say that if my sisters were here. Anyway,” she continued more stridently, “if I am here to be married off like the desperate case I am, then I want as little competition as possible.”

“Mary, really!” exclaimed her grandmother in displeasure, though she needn't have said anything for her to regret her words. She couldn't think what had made her say them. The Bowens were not family, however superficially intimate they had recently become, and she knew what kind of behaviour was expected of her. She gripped her butter knife as if her life depended on it even though she had no intention of eating any more.

Hettie was more friendly than the dowager countess. “Lady Mary, you're not a desperate case!” she cried. “What would make you say that? You must see that Count Sciarpa is wildly in love with you, anyone can tell, and you can go and be a countess in a castle in the middle of the sea; what could be more romantic? I'm sure if we weren't friends I'd be awfully jealous.”

Mary forced a smile. “You're very sweet,” she said absently, “Oh, Hettie, you should know by now that I rarely mean what I say – you really shouldn't take me seriously.”

The prospect of marrying Count Sciarpa and living in a romantic castle in the Mediterranean sea should make her feel happier than it did. That he would ask her, she was tolerably sure, or at least as sure as anyone could be in the circumstances, considering he had kissed her hand when they had parted and had expressed a great desire to introduce her to his sister and welcome her to the Castello del'Isola when they came to Naples. Mary knew men, and this was a man who was interested. But was she?

She knew she ought to be and that he was really her last chance. Overlooking the fact that he was a foreigner and therefore would always be looked down upon by her relations, he was incredibly eligible: rich, attractive (for a short man), cultured, and intelligent. If it came down to a choice between him and Anthony Strallan, there would be no contest. In fact, his foreignness was a significant part of his appeal. As an Englishman, he would have been faintly ridiculous and not half so interesting. Mary liked to think that if she married him there would be a few sniffs of disapproval back home and that taking him to Downton to meet her family would have a humorous side to it. What Papa would say to this fancy, little man being introduced as her husband she had no idea but quite enjoyed imagining it.

Yet these reflections, however amusing, never lasted long and afterwards she felt despondent. Italy was lonely, not because Mary was afraid of her own company – quite the reverse, but because outside of her very small circle she really did know nobody. Her Italian was good enough to speak to servants and make basic conversation but she struggled to express herself in any more complex situation which was extremely frustrating. Reading newspapers and books was a similar challenge. It all meant that she felt a unsurpassable cultural barrier. Perhaps in time she could feel at home abroad, but as it was, while she could enjoy the idea of staying in a castle and meeting Sciarpa's sister in the short term, she could never imagine herself as its mistress, as a hostess, as an Italian contessa in the way that she could see her future as the mistress of a similar estate in England. Something was holding her back from accepting this future, some desire to put it off and avoid it or some feeling that perhaps Count Sciarpa needn't be her last chance after all.

The conversation at breakfast stopped her from painting her life back in England in too rosy colours, however. England meant the tedium found in so much of society, although perhaps if her Italian improved she would discover that it was no different here; it might only sound more sophisticated because she did not understand it. England also meant gossip and never being able to get away from her past. So long as there was Evelyn Napier and the foreign office and rumours about her virtue she would never be able to be easy. Even coming as far as Italy, it seemed there was no escape from being reminded of it. How far, she wondered, would she have to run to be free from what she had done?

Mary was beginning to feel uneasily aware of her future. The approaching trip to Naples would determine whether she would be remaining in Italy for the rest of her life or whether she would be once again returning to England single, a matrimonial failure. If she had managed to pretend for most of the trip that she really was travelling for the improvement of her mind and the appreciation of culture, these increasingly frequent references to Sciarpa and her situation from her grandmother and the Bowens, however innocuous in themselves, could not fail to remind her of the real purpose of her journey. The only reason she was here was because she had quarrelled with Matthew and dismissed Sir Anthony; this was her exile, her punishment, and her chance to atone by making a successful marriage away from home and the machinations of her relatives. As the last stop on their tour approached, Mary felt a strange sense of fatality, of an approaching point of climax that would decide her destiny for ever.

In the meantime, however, there was breakfast to be finished and the day to be planned. Hettie and her mother wanted to buy presents for their friends back in the States and they left soon after they had finished eating. Mary returned to her room to await marching orders from her grandmother. They had nothing planned and after an exhausting trip to the ruins of Ostia the previous day, she suspected that they would accomplish little more than a gentle passeggiata before dinner. A quiet day would mean more time for reflection which was to be avoided and she considered whether she might not go out later with Gwen, whatever the dowager countess chose to do.

In the mean time, she sat at her desk and contemplated writing letters. She gave up quickly. Who was there to write to apart from her parents to whom she had nothing to say or Sybil to whom she had written recently and not yet had a reply? In fact, the other day when she had seen the famous statue of Laocoon and his sons being attacked by sea-serpents, she had thought of Matthew and her silly comparison of him to a sea-monster when they had first met. She had wanted to send him a postcard of the statue with a wry comment about it being a good likeness, but she had resisted the impulse. Who knew whether he would appreciate levity from her when their truce on the eve of her departure had been so fragile and they had had no contact since. Who knew what he thought of her now.

Abandoning the idea of letters, she picked up her latest novel but had only read a paragraph before Violet entered the room with a serious expression and the clear intention of having a conversation.

What she had to say was soon said. The fact of the matter was that she was getting old. No, she was not quite on her deathbed, but the period of intense travel, intense sightseeing, and a different diet had taken more of a toll on her than she had expected or even imagined that it would.

Mary could not be surprised. More and more frequently her grandmother had rested while Mary, Hettie, Mrs. Bowen, sometimes Gwen and Count Sciarpa had gone out. When she had accompanied them, she had been slower and more reliant on her stick, though she never drew attention to it. All the same, concerned as she was, Mary's first response and first question was what this would mean for her and for their trip.

The dowager countess had made up her mind about her own movements at least. She was going to return directly to Lady Eastwick's villa, a few weeks earlier than planned. Telegrams had been sent backwards and forwards and it was all already arranged. As for what Mary did, it seemed she had a choice. Either she could accompany her grandmother back to Florence or she could continue to Naples under the protection of Mrs. Bowen.

“Chaperoned by that woman?” exclaimed Mary in horror. “Impossible!”

Violet cleared her throat and fixed her with a gimlet-eyed glare. “Mrs. Bowen was kind enough to volunteer to take you.”

Mary pressed her eyes closed and sighed. “I'm sure she was, but really! It's all very well having dinner with her, but to be under her protection... I can't believe you'd agree to it, Granny.”

“I did. We both thought that it would be very unfortunate for you to miss the opportunity to visit Naples and see Count Sciarpa's castle to which you have been invited and-”

“Oh, that!” interrupted Mary wearily.

“Yes, that. You have an opportunity here and you'd be a very foolish girl to let it slip simply because you think Mrs. Bowen is vulgar. If you come back to the villa straight away it will all have been for naught and you might as well have spent the winter with my sister-in-law in Brighton, as your father so intelligently suggested. You must seize your advantage; the count won't wait around for you, that's for sure.”

Mary blinked at her escape. A winter with Great-Aunt Elizabeth; had that really been the alternative? Good Lord, anything was preferable. But moving on from that, there was little to approve of in what her grandmother had said next.

“Naturally I wouldn't expect him to wait but what makes you think he wouldn't come to Florence again?” Her pride was stung.

“Humph, I don't think so. In real life, my dear, Mohammed prefers to exert himself as little as possible and leave all the effort to the mountain.”

Mary did not know if this was true or not. She had never had much problem getting men to do things for her, everything apart from proposing marriage, that was. On the other hand, there was something rather depressingly unromantic about acknowledging that a man would not even get a train from one city to another to pursue the woman he appeared to want to marry. The St. George of the painting in Venice rescuing the princess from the dragon would not have thought twice about it.

It was Mary's choice, however, to continue or to return. Although an extra couple of weeks added onto their stay with the Eastwicks was insignificant considering they were going to stay with them until the spring, it still seemed like a big deal. Two more weeks spent in the country in wintertime where there was nobody of her own age to talk to was contrasted with enduring being Mrs. Bowen's charge in order to explore another city, see the ruins of Pompeii and, of course, visit the castle on the island.

In the end, there really was no contest.

*


Many hundreds of miles away at Downton Abbey, Lord Grantham and his two daughters were also having breakfast. An good night's sleep had increased Sybil's equanimity somewhat and before Anna left her to go to Edith, she had pressed Gwen's letter into her hands and made her promise to post it immediately. No going back now, she thought, straightening her back and leaving the safety of her bedroom, and she imagined the letter winging itself way across the channel, over the Alps and through the hotel window to her friend.

There was a new source of nerves about this morning, however, that only increased as breakfast wore on. Matthew was going to come and ask her father's permission. How would she behave towards him? How would he behave towards her? What would her father say? Oh, she was sure he would be pleased; how could he not be when it would be ensuring that the estate stayed in the family. Still, she had natural modesty at the thought of discussing her marriage with her parents and yet, soon, she would be. Her anxiety, however, made her peevish and fretful with herself. She was not used to feeling unsure about anything.

They were still eating and Robert was shaking his head over the international politics page of the Saturday paper when Carson came in to say that Mr. Crawley had arrived and wanted to see his Lordship.

As Robert looked up with a frown, Sybil looked down at her plate, her heart beating fast.

“Yes, of course,” replied the earl. “I'll see him in the library. Do you think he'll want some coffee? He's very early considering all we're going to do today is look at drainage plans for the cottages.”

“I wouldn't put it past Matthew to be enthusiastic about drainage,” remarked Edith as her father left the room, carrying his cup in one hand and the paper in the other.

“There's nothing wrong with that,” Sybil retorted and began buttering a muffin with unusual energy. “Somebody has to be.”

Her sister stared at her. “I'm sure, but Matthew needn't be.”

But Matthew did need to be because if he wasn't then how would the workers know what should be done? She drank a large sip of coffee and burned her tongue. Now Matthew would be greeting her father. Now he would be apologising for interrupting breakfast. Now her father would be offering him something to eat...

She heaved a sigh. “Oh, Edith, you don't understand!”

“Understand what? Honestly, Sybil, sometimes I think you confuse being an earl with being a property developer or something like that.”

Now he would be explaining that he hadn't come early because of the cottages but because he had something specific to say. Now her father would look curious and ask him what. Did he have any idea? Could he have seen some change in Matthew's behaviour towards her? Lord, she hadn't seen anything! Had there been any change?

“A property developer?” She splashed milk into her cup and a little splattered onto the saucer and table cloth.

“I don't know. It's just that you seem to think that Matthew is doing something great and noble compared to what other landowners do by repairing some run down cottages but really he's no different from the rest of them.”

Now he had told her father. Now her father was shaking his hand. They were both smiling. Now he was saying it was all he had ever wanted. Now -

The door opened and she dropped her butter knife on the floor in nervous shock.

“Goodness, Sybil, you're all fingers and thumbs today!” said Edith curiously. “Whatever's the matter? I think it has something to do with Matthew coming early. I think there's something you're not telling us.”

It was Carson. “Lady Sybil, Lord Grantham wishes to see you in the library.”

It was done! She stood up immediately, ignoring Edith, and walked very quickly across the room, past Carson and through to the library. Her father and Matthew were both standing when she came in. The earl was near his desk, facing away from her. Matthew had his hands clasped behind his back, was bouncing a little on the balls of his feet and it was his eyes she caught first. He gave her a closed-lipped smiled, his eyebrows raising as he did so. It was more hopeful and nervous than reassuring and warm, but it was a smile all the same and she returned it tentatively.

“Hello,” she said. This was Matthew, her fiancé. Should she cross over to him? she wondered. Perhaps she had better wait to hear what her father said first.

“Ah, Sybil.” He turned round and must have seen how unsure she appeared because he smiled. “Come here, darling.” He held out his hand and, relieved though wondering at the same time why she should be when he could have no possible objection, she went to him.

He took hold of her arms and looked her up and down very gravely and very fondly. “Cousin Matthew tells me you have agreed to marry him.”

Sybil glanced across at Matthew, closer now, who smiled more widely. It gave her confidence to meet her father's eye and nod. “Yes, I have.”

“Well.” He looked at her some more. “I can't say his declaration took me completely by surprise, though I didn't expect him to ask you so soon.”

“Cousin Robert, I-” began Matthew but Robert waved him quiet.

“Are you pleased? Did you give your consent?” burst out of her. She could no longer keep quiet.

Her father looked at her for a long time and then pressed his lips to her forehead before standing back and releasing her. He sighed. “Yes, I did. How could I not? It is the answer to all our prayers.”

All of the worry that she had not realised she had been feeling was released and she sagged with relief. “Oh, Papa!” She flung her arms round him and kissed his cheek.

“My dear girl,” he murmured, his arms embracing her back for a moment, “my very dear girl.” Over her shoulder he met Matthew's gaze and looked at him very seriously. Matthew in turn nodded his head in understanding and acceptance of the charge laid upon him.

Father and daughter drew apart and Robert resigned her hand, with a pointed look, to Matthew. Sybil felt more comfortable now. Odd, but comfortable, and she smiled warmly up at him as she went to stand by his side, loosely holding his hand. Lord Grantham sat down at his desk and moved his chair unnecessarily, giving them a little moment to themselves before turning back.

“Now, Sybil, I have given my consent to Matthew, but before I give it to you, I want to hear what you have to say.”

“Me?” she repeated blankly.

“I want to hear from your lips, darling, not just Matthew's that this is what you want.”

Matthew squeezed her hand and she felt a sudden appreciation for his silent support. “It is what I want,” she said firmly, “and I shan't change my mind about it either.”

Her father looked between them for a few moments and then nodded. “In that case I give you my consent too. However, I give it on one condition, a condition I should say that Matthew has already accepted.”

“What is it?” She frowned between them but Matthew squeezed her hand again and did not seem overly troubled.

“Simply this: that there is no talk of a wedding until after your season, and that until then the engagement is known only within the close family.”

“But, I don't-” she began protesting instinctively.

“You know,” said Matthew calmly, “I think your father's right.”

“You do?”

“What he means is that you're very young-”

“I'm seventeen!”

“That is quite young, Sybil, you have to admit it. You're very young and while we know that you're not going to change your mind, your father wants you to have a proper London season just like any other girl without having to worry about showing me any preference or behaving in a certain kind of way.”

The more he spoke the more stubborn and resistant Sybil felt herself becoming. “What if I want to show you preference?”

His lips twitched into a grin. “Well, nobody's stopping you doing that either. I confess, I'm glad you say so. It would be somewhat galling to be stood up by one's own fiancée.”

She grinned back, a little breathlessly. “I don't really understand why this is necessary, but if this is the one condition then I suppose I'd better accept!”

“Good!” said her father. “In that case, I suggest we get Cora and Edith in and tell them the news.”

He went to ring the bell, saying as he did so, “Oh, and you'd better write to Mama and Mary, Sybil; they should know too.”

She thought of the letter already posted to Gwen but only nodded. “I'll do so tonight.”

“Good. And Matthew, considering the occasion, I think the drains can wait for now, unless you're particularly keen to do them today.”

Matthew looked up quickly. “Oh no. No, I'm not particularly keen. Thank you, I appreciate that.” He had been frowning at the floor, momentarily distracted for some reason.


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