silvestria (silvestria) wrote,
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silvestria

University Challenge, Chapter Eight

Title: University Challenge
Fandom: Downton Abbey
Author: Silvestria
Rating: PG-13/T
Summary: Modern university AU. Mary is an Oxbridge reject with a past, Anna and John are in the friendship zone, Sybil has a secret life at the weekends, Matthew and Lavinia are stuck in a rut, and Downton is owned by the National Trust. Drama and hijinks naturally ensue.
Genre: Romance/Friendship

Read Chapter Seven here!

Chapter Eight


Mary ended up placing second in the show jumping. Matthew was extremely impressed, for he found the mere idea of jumping over those massive fences on horseback a scary enough prospect without doing it at speed and, as far as he could tell, flawlessly. When he said this to Mary afterwards, however, she merely shrugged it off and said she supposed it was good enough but she could have done better.

“Coming second isn't winning, is it?” she finished with airy unconcern. “But I suppose we all have to get used to failure at some point!”

Matthew watched her head for the stables, rosette in one hand, Diamond's reins in the other, his mouth slightly open. It seemed an excessive reaction.

“Perfectionist,” said Isobel at his side and he snapped out of his reverie to look at her curiously. She turned away. “Takes one to know one.”

They spent the rest of the day wandering around the parts of the fair they hadn't yet seen. There was ferret racing (bad smelly), a set of Edwardian reenactors demonstrating how to make a perfect Apple Charlotte (good smelly), a childrens' bouncy castle (noisy) and many craft stalls. By the time the stall holders were packing up it was almost time for supper and Isobel thought she had better move the car from the main car park to a private car park Sybil had told them about earlier.

The back of the house was as imposing as the front though Matthew was not sure what else he had expected. Unlike the front, however, which was completely dark now all the visitors had left for the day, lights glowed in some of the windows. Matthew stared up at them wondering which room was Mary's and how odd it must be to call somewhere like this home, while his sister adjusted her make-up in the car mirror.

“They're probably going to expect us to dress up and I'm just in my jeans!” she muttered, squinting as she applied mascara.

Matthew shrugged. He also felt out of place and unprepared, secretly wishing for a suit or dinner jacket or even his old Oxford gown (it seemed appropriate) but there was very little he could do about it. “Well, do you have a ball dress in the boot?”

“Of course I don't.”

“Well, there you go. Ready?”

“As I'll ever be.” She snapped her make-up bag shut and gave him a reassuring smile.

The door to the living quarters was normal sized in the great stone wall. Again, Matthew was surprised, though he did not know why. A drawbridge over a moat seemed more suitable, if implausible. Isobel rang the bell and a few moments later the door was opened by a tall, solid man of about fifty.

“Mr. Crawley, Ms Crawley?” he asked in a deep, cultured voice.

“It's Dr. Crawley actually. Pleased to meet you,” replied Isobel holding out her hand. “Are you Mary and Sybil's father?”

For a moment the man looked surprised then he gravely shook Isobel's hand once though Matthew could tell his sister had already got it wrong.

“I am Charles Carson, Lord Grantham's butler. Please follow me.”

Butler? Matthew and Isobel exchanged similar looks of incredulity and nervousness as soon as his back was turned before following him down a narrow, stone hallway. Once inside it was, in fact, relatively normal; that is to say, it felt like a home. The walls had children's drawings on them, a pile of boots and riding crops were left by the door and there was a delicious smell wafting through a partly open door on the left with a radio playing 60s pop music. At the end of the corridor was a hall with stairs, plainer than the grand staircase in the public part of the house, but still shiny and clearly at least a hundred years old. A door on the far side of the hall opened and Mary appeared. She had changed out of her riding things and Matthew was extraordinarily grateful to the fact that while she still appeared elegant and well-dressed the clothes themselves were casual.

“Come in then and meet the family!” she cried with a smile.

“Thanks,” replied Matthew, grinned in what he hoped was reassurance at his sister and followed her into a pleasant sitting room. French windows opened onto a private garden, a real fire roared in the grate and the furniture was a mix of solid but shabby old arm chairs and tables with a very modern leather sofa and hi-fi system. Before they could take it in properly however, their attention was demanded by a golden labrador which bounded up to them, tail wagging furiously. Isobel bent to pat him.

“What's his name?” asked Matthew, remembering all the dog pictures he had seen earlier.

“This is Plato,” said a voice from the fireplace and both newcomers looked up to see the only person who could possibly be the earl. “Don't mind him, he loves new people.”

He walked forwards and held out his hand to Matthew, who shook it. Only an earl, he reminded himself. He had sat next to world famous academics at dinners and been introduced to minor royalty and top level politicians at Oxford – a family dinner with an earl and his family should be nothing in comparison.

“Lovely to meet you, Matthew,” said the earl. “And you, Dr. Crawley-”

“Please call me Isobel!” she responded with a nervous laugh, one hand still patting the dog.

“In that case,” replied the earl genially, “you must call me Robert. And may I introduce you to my mother, Violet?”

He stepped aside to reveal a formidable looking elderly lady sitting upright in the most comfortable armchair.

“Hello,” said Matthew. “Pleased to meet you.”

She inclined her head and he happened to catch Mary's eye. She looked faintly amused.

“Hello, Violet,” said Isobel with a smile from his side.

“That's Lady Grantham to you, Miss Crawley!”

Isobel opened and shut her mouth and then retorted, “Actually, it's Dr. Crawley!”

Lady Grantham raised her eyebrows. “Oh, I see. Are you a real doctor or only a philosophical one?”

“I'm a doctor; I work in a hospital!”

“Oh, you work! Of course you do.” She looked Isobel up and down and Matthew felt ashamed of their informal dress and the mud on the bottom of their trousers from walking around in the fields during the day. “No wonder you're not married.”

“Mother...”

“I am-”

“Why don't you both sit down and stop me from eating all the crisps?” cried Sybil suddenly from where she was curled up on the leather sofa with a cat and a bowl of crisps on her lap.

Matthew tugged on his sister's hand, knowing perfectly well how she might react if left to herself and they both sat down on the sofa.

“This is Ludwig,” said Sybil, stroking the cat and smiling. “Don't mind Granny, please,” she added in a low tone. “She doesn't live in the right century but she's great really. Have a crisp – they're sweet chilli flavour.”

Both of them took a handful and nibbled gratefully.

“Well!” said Robert, the only one now standing, after Mary had sat down quietly as well. “Sherry, everyone? Isobel? I have Bristol Cream or Manzanilla.”

“Really, whichever you recommend, thanks,” replied Isobel rather desperately. Distinguishing between varieties of sherry had never been part of her upbringing.

“Well, I shall have Bristol Cream if that's alright,” said Matthew quickly, grateful for five years of formal halls, and trying desperately to remember which way the port got passed in case it came up later.

“Then I'll have that too.”

“Excellent.”

To Matthew's surprise he did not move but Charles Carson who had been unobtrusively standing by the door – so unobtrusively he had not even noticed him – crossed to a drinks cabinet and began pouring, handing them all their drinks with a short bow.

Robert finally sat down opposite his mother. “Well...” he said, leaning back with a complacent smile as this was all a very everyday occurrence. “Cora, my wife, is just putting the final touches to dinner but I'm sure she'll be in soon. Girls, where's Edith?”

Sybil shrugged but Mary replied sardonically, “She's discovered Pottermore. I'm sure she'll be down soon.”

“What,” asked Lady Grantham in terms of deep confusion, “is a pottermore?”

“Don't bother, Granny,” replied Mary. “It's the stupidest thing-”

“Basically,” interrupted Sybil, “it's this website linked to the Harry Potter books where you can pretend you're a student and go to Hogwarts and get house points and things. It's really cool – I'm a Gryffindor!”

Her grandmother raised her eyebrows. “I can't pretend I understood a single word of that sentence, Sybil. All this time spent on the computer... It can't be good for you. In my day you would be preparing to come out into society and find a husband!”

“Yes, but the world's moved on a bit since then,” replied Sybil, rolling her eyes.

“Moved on? I'd like to know how all this fiddling with your – your mobile telephone and drawing diagrams of rivers or whatever it is you spend all your time doing at school is going to help you when you are grown up.”

“For goodness sake, there's more to geography than drawing rivers, Granny. We learn all about other cultures like Bangladesh and how we can-”

“I suppose at least we should be grateful that Mary at least is studying a suitably feminine subject which shouldn't damage her chances too much.”

“Damage her chances for what?” burst out Matthew, who felt very much as if he had stepped through the looking glass.

“For making a good marriage, of course. What else would I mean, young man? Men don't like clever girls.”

He snapped his mouth shut, not wanting to be impolite and gawk. “Well, I, er, I don't, that is-” he blustered, before daring a look at Mary. Her lips were pursed and she was staring fixedly at the fire, mechanically fondling Plato's ears who had rested his head on her lap.

Fortunately before the atmosphere could become too surreal, the door opened again and Mary's mother came in, wearing an apron.

“Everything's almost ready. Sybil darling, could you come and help me bring things through? Is everyone here?”

Matthew did a double take. He had not expected Mary's mother to be American but she very definitely was. More than that, she was a breath of modern maternity in this peculiar, out-of-time place, though in some ways that only made it more incongruous.

Both Mary and Sybil stood up, the cat leaping from her lap just in time and going to rub against Matthew's legs.

“Here's Matthew, a friend from university, and his sister, Isobel, Mummy,” said Mary.

Her mother crossed the room with a bright smile and held out her hand. “Cora Crawley, pleased to meet you both. It's always wonderful to meet the friends of my children.”

This time there were no faux pas over the introductions. Matthew wondered in passing whether she knew about Sybil's secret boyfriend yet who worked in a garage and didn't have any A Levels, let alone had been pleased to meet him.

Presently they all went through to an old, wood panelled dining room across the hall.

“This used to be the music room,” explained Mary in a low voice. “Through that door is the big library that you will have seen this morning.”

Matthew tried to take it in but he was distracted by hearing Violet say rather unnecessarily loudly, “Are these people meant to be related to us? Is that what they're doing here?”

He did not catch Robert's reply.

Edith, still slouching in her University of Exeter hoodie joined them in the dining room but did not say much. Cora placed a massive, delicious smelling shepherd's pie on the table along with buttered carrots and broccoli.

“I hope none of you are vegetarians!” she said brightly as she stood back to let the butler do the serving.

Matthew thought suddenly of Lavinia and a wave of guilt washed over him. He really ought to phone her after supper... But what could he say? That he was at Downton Abbey eating shepherd's pie with Mary Crawley and her insane aristocratic relatives? Somehow he felt that would not go down well though he really wasn't doing anything wrong so there was no good reason to feel bad about it...

He was so caught up in his thoughts that he was the last to sit down, and quickly bowed his head while the earl said grace, a ritual that was clearly for the benefit of the older generation more than the younger.

“You really should have borrowed Sharon for tonight, Cora,” said Violet, “for a meal of this size.”

“Oh, but you know I like cooking when I have the time, and shepherd's pie is so easy,” replied her daughter-in-law. “Everyone got what they need?”

Everyone nodded silently, their mouths too full to reply.

“Who's Sharon?” asked Isobel when she had swallowed, adding with a light laugh, “Your cook?”

The dowager countess fixed her with a piercing stare. “Yes, she is. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, you have a cook!” retorted Isobel and took a sip of wine, raising her eyebrows in much the same way that her declaration of being a doctor had been treated earlier. “Of course you do.”

Matthew fell a great desire to disappear under the table.

“So, you have the same last name as us,” said Cora brightly. “Perhaps we are distant cousins.”

“Imagine that!” muttered Violet.

Isobel glanced at Matthew and frowned. “I think we'd know if we were related to the aristocracy. Crawley is a pretty common name, isn't it?”

He shrugged. “Yeah, but dad... I mean, would we really?” The rest of the table was staring at them so Matthew cleared his throat and continued. “Our dad died when I was only a baby and, well, mum didn't talk about his family much, even before...”

He trailed off and swallowed. Talking family history had definitely not been something he had intended doing. An uncomfortable silence fell and once again he found his eyes drifting to Mary. She was looking at him closely with an expression of – not sympathy precisely, but of interest. He looked away quickly, feeling suddenly warm, and returned his attention to the food.

“Do you also study English with Mary, Matthew?” asked Robert politely to fill the silence.

“No,” he replied, glad to be back on a neutral subject. “I'm doing a law conversion course actually.”

“Ah, you intend to become a lawyer? Excellent.” He smiled.

“Yes, all being well.”

“Mary, you should consider law!” said her mother suddenly. “You'd be quite good at it.”

She seemed to sag in her seat. “I don't think so, Mummy.”

“Well, I wish you'd consider something. I keep emailing you the details of internships but I don't believe you read them; and if you want anything for the summer you really need to be applying now. I've got so many contacts in the City and I wish you'd let me use them!”

“Go into business? I'd sooner die!” she exclaimed passionately and then ate a large mouthful of mashed potato.

“Can't you stop pestering the poor child?” interrupted her grandmother. “Mary is a girl after my own heart and is just looking for the right man. She doesn't need to work and certainly not in your line of trade, Cora!”

This was utterly disastrous, Matthew thought. Cora looked as if she badly wanted to respond but was doing her best to hold her tongue, the earl seemed embarrassed, Mary was glowering at her plate, Edith looked bored, Sybil pained, and neither he nor Isobel knew how to take anything that was said.

“Well, Matthew,” continued the earl with desperate courtesy, “your undergraduate degree was in-?”

“Classics,” he replied, “but not at St Andrews. I was at Oxford five years before coming to Scotland.”

Robert brightened immediately even as Edith huffed audibly. “An Oxford man? Well, that will always go down well here. We're an Oxford family after all. Which college were you at?”

“Corpus Christi. It was small but very friendly. I liked it.”

“Ah, Corpus! I was at Christ Church myself, just over the wall from you.”

Matthew raised his eyebrows. He suppose it was fitting that the earl of Grantham would have gone to the largest, richest, most pretentious college of them all in the shadow of whose cathedral the little people of Corpus like him and Lavinia went about their daily business.

“I was at Christ Church, my father was before me and his father too,” Robert continued wistfully, “so you could say there's a family connection.”

“And Mary would have gone too if she hadn't flunked her interviews,” said Edith, speaking for the first time.

All eyes now turned to Mary and it was Matthew's turn to feel sorry for her. He had not known she had applied to Oxford and now she was clenching her knife and fork, looking as if she wanted to stab somebody. She forced herself to look up and say lightly, “Oh, don't worry, it's no big deal; it's only Oxford, what does it matter?”

Matthew blinked and licked his lips. “I'm – I'm really sorry you were unsuccessful, Mary. I didn't know.”

She raised her eyes to his, looking at him bleakly for a second and then nodding her head almost imperceptibly in acknowledgement. Matthew felt, not for the first time that evening, a complete fool. He hoped he would have a chance to talk to her later on.

“It was three years ago, darling,” pleaded her mother. “Isn't it time to move on? You like St Andrews, don't you?”

Mary shot her a cold glare as Edith continued as if nothing had happened, “I think Mary just has a hard time recognising Oxford's new admissions process. Apparently you actually have to be clever to get a place these days.”

“Thank you, Edith,” said Robert heavily. “That was a helpful contribution to the conversation. Poor Mary was just unlucky.”

“This is absolutely delicious!” cried Isobel.

“I'm so glad you like it,” replied Cora with equal determination. “It's really very easy and we use meat from the estate which does give it a special flavour... Would anyone like seconds?”

The flurry of refilling plates smoothed over the unpleasant atmosphere but Matthew kept one eye on Mary who looked far more uncomfortable and unhappy than he had ever seen her. She was always so self-possessed in St Andrews, every inch the stereotypical aristocrat, but here surrounded by her family where she should be most at home, she seemed embarrassed and reserved. Perhaps it was simply that the conversation had not gone her way. Or maybe she was ashamed of him. That was an unpleasant thought but, he considered, just how good friends were they? They hardly knew each other! On the other hand, she had been the one to invite him to dinner. But these reflections were futile.

Suddenly she spoke, looking up, and addressing him and Isobel. “Do you have everything you need for tonight? I would imagine you don't.”

Brother and sister exchanged glances. Isobel replied for them, “Well, no we don't actually. We weren't intending to spend the night away, you see.”

“Carson, what spares do we have?” asked the earl, turning in his seat.

“Just towels, my lord, but I can get spare nightclothes and toiletries within the next hour.”

Mary twisted her head in frustration. “Oh, don't you bother, Carson. I'll go. The 24 hour Tesco at Ripon will do, won't it?”

“Mary-” began her mother.

Matthew shook his head firmly. “Really, it's entirely unnecessary! I feel terrible about putting you out so much.”

“Unnecessary?” retorted Mary. “Do you sleep naked then?” Her lips twitched and while Matthew swallowed, blushing, he at least felt glad that he seemed to have been the unintentional means of cheering her up.

“Uh-” he stammered. “Well-”

“Honestly, it's no trouble. I want some air anyway.” She put her napkin down on the table and stood up.

“I'll come with you!” exclaimed Sybil, jumped up as well. “Can I drive?”

“Oh, really...” she sighed. “Alright, you can come with me though I'm not sure about the driving. We won't be long.”

“Mary, this is very good of you,” said Isobel quickly before they could leave the room.

She flashed her the first proper smile of the evening before leaving the room followed by her sister. It was only when the door had closed behind them, the whole scene having taken place so quickly that they were gone before the rest of the party could get their heads round it, Matthew realised he really had been abandoned to the wolves.

Read Chapter Nine here!
Tags: downton abbey, fanfiction, university challenge
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