Author: Captain Evermind PM
What lies beneath the surface of a betrayal? For Matthew, Richard, Lavinia and Mary, betrayal can be read in the turn of a shoulder, the crack of a rifle, or the touch of a fingertip against glass, as the line dividing love and hatred begins to blur.Rated: Fiction M - English - Tragedy/Romance - Matthew C. & Mary C. - Words: 10,776 - Reviews: 23 - Favs: 28 - Follows: 10 - Updated: 08-27-12 - Published: 07-24-12 - id: 8356019
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Author's Note: Hi all. Looks like I'm back to Downton again. The style's a bit different from my usual, so I'd be interested in any comments/criticism. I realise it seems a trifle overwrought, but they are all so very young, at least in the beginning! This fic owes a considerable amount, both in style and structure to two of the best fics I've ever read on this site: 'Rule Number One', by Epigone, and Blue Yeti's phenomenal 'Aquarium'. Neither is from this fandom, but I nonetheless urge you to check them out if you have any appreciation at all for good writing! Both can be found in my favourites list. Cheers for reading. - Ev.
Three figures, standing by a graveside. The air is heavy; thick, slow cumulus clouds roil in the white and sullen sky. The grave yawns widely, damp moss and frosted earth. The coffin gleams, mahogany-bright in the smothering gloom.
Two figures, standing by a graveside. Words, cast like missiles; accusation and despair. The silence rattles like artillery. The third figure stands apart, watching the air condense in droplets on the meshed branches of a budding chestnut tree.
One figure, standing by a graveside. Richard Carlisle replaces his black top hat as they turn away, and her words ring loud in the silence. In the stalking shadows beneath the surface of his memory keys click, guns blaze, notes sound, hooves thud against turf, and I want you to, says Mary, her face bloodless: capitulation and despair. He tastes the victory upon his tongue. (I want you to. I want you. I want...)
Come further back. Back to a time of typewriters and pounding hooves and notes played in black and white, the tearing of hearts scored for quartet and guns...
It is April, 1916. The night air of London moves around and over him, and Lieutenant Matthew Crawley moves from salon to glittering salon, adrift in a scarcely-remembered world of titles and evening gowns, silk gloves and rustling fans. He feels the sweat prickling beneath his mess jacket; the balled mud of the Somme chafes in the lining of his boots, and he is sure that he can feel the lice crawling beneath his stiff white collar. He starts wildly at the sensation of a hand upon his arm; his eyes roll, and he stares mutely at the society courtesan who flutters at his elbow. He drinks, and champagne bubbles burst sharp and effervescent against his tongue, so that he must stifle the urge to spit.
He has not been back to Downton in two years. He takes his leave when it is granted to him, and he spends it in stubborn dissidence in London or Manchester or Paris. He drifts, unanchored, unforgiving, in a world which is still foreign to him – more foreign, now, than the thick, dark loam of France, with which he is as intimate as he has ever been with anything. He has felt its chill stealing through the walls of the dug-out, has tasted it, dark and metallic many nights against his tongue. He has buried men in it, and seen them resurrected and buried again in the course of a week, a day, a single blast. He has lain upon it, crawled inside it and beneath it and through it, as if the very earth could save him from death.
He does not think of Mary. Or he does so only in the brief, unguarded moments between sleep and waking, when he holds the image of her, incandescent, like a talisman in his mind. But that is hardly all, says his shadow-voice, prickling at his conscience, ever-wary lest he be guilty of casting too fine a light over his memories of her: he does not forget the moments when he wakes, ignoble and terrified, from the clutches of some dream, his sheets stained with semen, and his face with tears.
The guests swirl about him, swept by hidden currents which he does not feel; he moves with them, but apart from them, blind lassitude drawing him onwards like a tide.
There, where Miss Lavinia Swire, twenty years old, and trembling still on the sharp edge of childhood, sits straight-backed at the grand piano in the drawing room of her father's house, and plays as she has been taught. Precise and schooled, wistful, well-mannered, her slim fingers move across the keys as the black notes in the songbook fall away. And if occasionally her fingers stumble, moving swiftly from sharp to natural or reaching to span a difficult chord... well, it is still sweet (she is still sweet) , and no one mentions it.
And there, behind the walls, where rats crawl between the ribs of the house like the rats of the Somme; behind the potted ferns, and the swish of silk, and between the coiled springs and the muffled hammers of the piano, he hears it: the slow ticking of the grandfather clock – the countdown to the breaking of a heart.
Lavinia Swire inclines her pretty head, offering her father's guests a glimpse of a pale, pixie-featured face; pink-rose lips curve in a smile, and baby-soft lashes the colour of straw are lowered demurely over green-glass eyes.
And Matthew Crawley, watching, thinks that this is the sort of girl that he should love.
In his darkened office on the other side of London, Sir Richard Carlisle stands alone before the blacked-out windows, watching through the ragged, half-inch gap as flares glow over a darkened city, its bustle and commerce silenced, great arteries of light and traffic cut off, spilling darkness like ichor in their wake. And as the whine of air-raid sirens tears the night and the bombs shatter like hailstones across the city, Richard Carlisle lifts his glass and raises an ironic toast to old Berlin. In the wake of the bombs, the flames blossom, chrysanthemum bursts of red and gold.
He turns his back on the burning city. He takes sombre, measured paces across the darkened office and seats himself behind the formidable oak desk. Pulling the typewriter towards him, he feeds in a careful sheet of paper. The office is dark, but his sightless hands find the keys easily – impervious, exact.
Typewritter keys click smoothly beneath clever, compelling hands, and London Bombed!, he writes. Piccadilly Circus in flames. Casualty figures number in _ He leaves a deliberate space. The details can be filled in later.
He lifts his glass again with a steady hand, taking a carefully measured sip. He replaces it on the desk and returns his hands to the typewriter, his expression composed, his movements coolly urbane. The whiskey tastes like ashes in his mouth.
Their courtship is brief, easy, unaffected. Lavinia sees him several consecutive nights at dinners and parties – perhaps not quite so fashionable as those he might otherwise have attended, but pleasant enough affairs, restrained and comfortable, as befitting a nation at war. The evening before his return to the front, Matthew dines with her father, and the thing is settled, in the end, with surprising ease.
They walk in Hyde Park the morning before his departure. The housekeeper of the hostel where Matthew stays on leave has provided him with a brown paper package containing curled, dry sandwiches, and he tosses small pieces at the ducks and pigeons as they walk, which makes Lavinia smile.
"Who is your favourite person in the world?" she asks him, playing a private game of twenty questions, in which the object is to discover the nature of the man beside her.
"My cousin Mary, I suppose," he tells her, though he seems unsure quite what makes him say it. Lavinia cocks her head on one side, considering him.
"And your least favourite?"
"Still Mary, I'm afraid."
She laughs at that, and his eyes twinkle in a way she has not seen before, though the obvious question goes unasked and unanswered.
They sit on a bench beside a lake. The water is clear and brown like warm, weak tea, thick with decaying leaves, and the fountain is broken: a chubby cupid, its chipped features barely discernable, tilting an amphora from which a miserable trickle of water runs. A black stain dribbles from the lip of the amphora over the infant's rounded belly and down between the tarnished bronze legs. The paint is flaking on the bench where they sit, and the frame is wrought iron, shoddily made.
When Matthew asks for her hand, she gives a tiny squeak of surprise, and covers her smile with a lace-gloved hand. When he kisses her, a strange bashfulness overtakes them both. Their noses bump awkwardly, and she pulls away, laughing and shy. He laughs with her, and their eyes meet as they smile, because they are young, and uncomplicated, and in love.
In the heavy, red-dark shadows of her bedroom, Mary Crawley turns, restless, in a troubled sleep; the expensive gown with the French lace hem clings to her sweat-dampened skin, and the bed is wide and empty.
She takes the news of his engagement with as much equanimity as she can muster. She meets him, face to face, under the watchful eyes of the county, and retains both her smile and her composure as he takes her hand. At times she surprises a peculiar look on his face, as if he were half of a mind to ask her something, but his glances are deflected with smiles as sweet and as brittle as spun-sugar. She is kind to the younger girl, even enjoying, superficially, her gentle manners and nervous chatter.
They walk together in the rose garden the morning after the concert. Matthew is closeted with Robert in the library, and Mary, for reasons unknown even to herself, has taken pity on this frail, inoffensive young girl left abandoned to the Dowager Countess's thinly veiled barbs. Perhaps it is merely curiosity, perhaps a more selfish motive. Perhaps she wants Matthew to feel indebted to her, or simply to test the limits of his new resolve.
The ground is wet, and the grass is that bright, saturated, tree-frog green that only occurs after rain. Mud flecks the hem of Lavinia's modest lavender-lace dress; she holds out a thin hand, offering smiles and gratitude and sisterly fondness; and every beat of Mary's heart is like the sum and reckoning of jealousy.
With Matthew, she falls easily into friendship – she is surprised how simply. His eyes are warm, his hands are gentle, and they share still that intimate private language of glance and inflection that once they knew.
After he is gone, she at last takes her mother's advice. She takes pen in hand, and composes a carefully-worded letter to Sir Richard Carlisle.
From the high bay windows in the library, it is possible to see the nearest corner of the large hay meadow, and the green, semi-wooded strip that lies between the sweeping lawn and the row of quivering aspens that line the road to the service entrance. In this narrow no-man's land that separates the serving from the served, riders circle one another in a complex and ever-changing arabesque. A brisk wind chases them, the pale sun crystallises in the storm-bleached sky, and red leaves swirl like strange shoals of fish. Hooves thud against turf, and wildness and danger lie like leaves upon the wind.
"I suppose that none of you will care to jump," says Mary, ever disdainful. The colour is high in her cheeks, and her mouth is mirthless red.
"On the contrary, cousin. I have been counting on it." Matthew Crawley's eyes glint, hard and fell.
And Richard, enraged and outmanoeuvred, struggling with a grey gelding too restive for so unschooled and inelegant a rider, finds one more reason to curse a grimy Edinburgh upbringing of coal smoke and greying laundry and fish for tea on Fridays.
Diamond turns in a smooth arc toward the oxer, his strides short and choppy. He tosses his head, catching at the bit; his eyes roll, and foam flecks his neck as he plunges, fighting his rider for mastery. The gleaming body twitches, aiming to break away left, but Mary checks him easily. With consummate skill, she turns the black horse, pressing him onward, forcing his strides to lengthen, his rhythm to steady as he approaches the fence.
Mary rides well, Richard knows, but (and it infuriates him to see it) Crawley is very nearly the match of her. The mare he rides is deep-chested, with a fine head and a coat like burnished mahogany (a colour which, had Richard been born to a world of title and privilege, he might have known as blood-bay). She is clean-limbed, massive, with powerful haunches and a gleam of copper in the muscular line of her neck. A froth of sweat, like a tide-line, foams about her chest and girth, and the foam is stained dark by the colour that bleeds from the leather of Crawley's boots.
Abandoned (so easily) by their erstwhile partners, Richard is disgusted to finds himself accompanying Miss Swire. She rides a dainty dark mare, and if she clutches at the pommel of the saddle more tightly than is perhaps strictly necessary, at least she looks serene, sitting side-saddle with her leather gloves, and her skirts carefully arranged. For a moment, Richard considers her, wondering what takes place behind the tranquil, pretty face. Can you not see? He wants to scream at her. Are you really so innocent that you fail to understand?
Mary leads over the first two fences, but by the third they are running neck and neck. Dark and bright, foaming with exertion, the horses race one another; their tails lash about their hocks and flanks, streaming behind them as they turn into the wind. Together, the two horses swing toward the final fence. The right-hand turn favours the mare; she twists neatly, polished hooves cutting deep into the turf, but Diamond's strides are longer, and the black horse edges to the fore. At the last possible moment, Mary gives Diamond his head, urging him forward with whip and legs and voice. Her lower leg contracts against the warm belly, and the horse lifts beneath her. He lands fighting, quickening, his hooves pounding the turf, and Mary's face is wild, rapturous; she leans into him, and lets him run, and her eyes are dark with lust and rage and exultation.
At first, he does not understand how the line can possibly have shifted. He lies half on his side, his head and shoulders sheltered, at least for the moment, by an embankment of charred and loosely-piled earth. He hears voices speaking in German, regrets – not for the first time – his limited education in the Teutonic languages. He turns his head to where William Mason crouches awkwardly in the shadow of a blasted tree stump. The whites of his eyes gleam behind the visor of his gas mask, luminous in the suffocating, greenish gloom.
He does not know how long they have been here. The moon is only partially obscured, and there is light enough to make out the scratched face of his watch, illumined by the misty spectre-light of the flares, but the counting of hours has ceased to hold any meaning; he knows that they crouched for at least six in the shelter of a bomb crater, sharing the foetid space with the smiling corpse of a German soldier; but he was an infinitely better companion than his living counterparts, so they had stayed put, breathing in the smell of carbide and razed flesh, longing for one of the scrawny, army-issue cigarettes with their taste of tar and rain and coal smoke. When the bombardment had moved on, they had crawled for a long time; crawled, elbow-deep in the mire, searching for some dug-out hole into which to creep, some shelter, some break in the line. And then had come the gas, soft and insidious, catching slick and metallic in the back of the throat as they fumbled with their masks. So now they lie prone, drawing shallow breaths suffused with the taint of carbon dioxide. The rush of exhaled breath is loud in their ears, and it seems to Matthew that he hears the pulsing of his own blood.
He thinks of death, and of black-edged telegrams winging their slow way to Lavinia, to his mother, to Downton. He thinks of death, and of the unanswered letter folded carefully beneath his pillow. It is early days yet, but I know that you will be happy for me... It will mean a big adjustment, I suppose, but I do like him, in spite (or perhaps because?) of his rather vulgar manners... Please be safe. I know that Lavinia could not bear it if anything should happen to you... Your affectionate cousin...
He has lost her, he realises – his bright, mercurial, inconstant Mary. Did you think that she would wait? His shadow-voice mocks him. You gave up her love when you held it ransom to your pride, and were fool enough to think that you had won by the exchange.
He can taste the change in the wind before he feels it. There is no gratitude, only relief, as he tears off the clumsy mask, disregarding regulations, and draws great, shuddering gulps of the corrupt and chlorine-tasting air. He catches William's eye, wordlessly signalling another move. Again, they crawl, and the thick, dark loam of France hides them from the sight of the world.
For only the third time in her adult life, Mary Crawley prays. Oh, she has knelt in church, has repeated the words of the intercessions, but privately, she has long-since dispensed with God. She discarded Him quite simply and painlessly at the age of twelve, and has never since felt the compunction to believe. She feels ridiculous and child-like, kneeling in her white gown, with her clasped hands propped against the edge of the counterpane. She wonders if this is how adults are supposed to pray, and it seems absurd. Does her father kneel like this, his eyes screwed shut, clad in striped, little-boy pyjamas? Does Carson? Does Granny?
She has no idea of how to address a deity. The prayers that she learnt as a child are glib and saccharine – a guilty attempt to explicate the inexplicable in the face of an agnostic and mercenary world. If I should die before I wake...
She has no words of devotion or obeisance, so she settles for blank honesty, and cannot help but think of how Matthew would laugh if he could hear her. They have argued theology many times to their mutual enjoyment, his easy faith offset by his intellectual curiosity, her scepticism by the desire for narrative satisfaction, for some great, overarching theme. For Matthew, faith is simple, logical, uncomplicated; he makes no demands of his god. But Mary is like the doubting Thomas of the gospel, needing to see, to touch, to prove and to disprove and to pass judgement. Behold... reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing... This is my body, broken for thee.
In the stubborn shadows the wood creaks, the old stone breathes, and indolent rats scuffle behind the skirting boards. The curtains stir in the stillness of the night, smothering, wine-dark, in this place of concealment and failing hope. Mary's mouth is dry; her hands are damp with fear, leaving smudged fingerprints on the creased surface of the photograph. There is a presence in the weighted silence: a presence that is not a god.
For the third time in her life, Mary Crawley prays. She tries to pray for forgiveness; she seeks God in the stifling, red-blood gloom, but Matthew is all that she can find.
And when the concert is over at last, when the exclamations and congratulations and the handshakes have faded; when at last Edith has gone up to bed, and the shuffling of the soldiers in the next room has stilled, Matthew finds himself alone in the small library with the one person who he has thought of more than any other.
She stands by the window, with her hand upon the sash of the curtains, and he moves towards her without conscious thought. The air is heavy, poised, and he sways like a compass needle towards its north.
"Matthew," she says, and her voice catches, like the bolt of a rifle failing to slide home.
He watches his hands tremble, curling and uncurling, the blue veins twitching and jumping beneath his skin. He is not aware of moving; he is aware only that she is in his arms. All of the terror and anguish and suppressed desperation of those three days have risen inside him, clamouring for release, and he is terrified, shaking, utterly unmanned. His face is buried in her hair, and the smell of it is like cedar and sandalwood – not sweet, but crisp and clean and cold. He draws shamed, shuddering breaths, willing himself to regain control, but his treacherous hands clutch at her, and he realises suddenly that he is sobbing, pouring out all of the anguish and loneliness of the front: the thunder of mortars and the stench of earth, and the acrid taste of carbide and weak tea – everything that he has loved, and everything that he has lost. And she is sobbing with him, and her hands, like his, are trembling as they grasp at him – at his shoulders, his neck, his hair. Fiercely, instinctively, he lowers his face, butting his head into the curve of her neck, nuzzling like a half-blind cub at the pulse that beats in the hidden hollow of her throat. Unthinkingly, intuitively, his mouth finds hers. Velvet softness envelops him; mouth slips against trembling mouth, and he tastes salt as she answers his frantic, stumbling kisses with her own.
Beyond the window pane, the wind howls, tumbling leaves and twigs and acorns against the glass. Stripped from the oaks and beeches, the leaves are parched and lined as cracked leather; dashed precipitously against the glass of the windows, they tear and crumble into dust; leaves and twigs and tumbling acorns hurled headlong through the wild, wintry night, all of them powerless against the tempest. Matthew trembles, hearing in the rising wind the shriek of mortars, the rattle of artillery in the tumbling leaves. He trembles and splinters and breaks apart in her arms, and Mary can only cling to him, his only anchor against the storm.
Slowly, gradually, their breathing calms. With a great effort, Matthew draws himself upright; pressing his eyes shut, he breathes in the scent of her hair. The edge of his jaw rests against her temple, and he soothes the rise and fall of her shoulders with shaking hands. Slowly, gradually, their trembling stills, and they draw back from each other with wide, wondering eyes.
Somehow, they both know, the game has changed.
He stares as if he has never seen her before. Her eyes are dark and unfathomable as an abyss; he reaches for the flame.
And now, when he kisses her, it is slow, forceful, deliberate. It is a conscious decision. He is an intelligent man, and he knows the stakes. He knows how this must end. And still, he reaches for her. Somewhere inside himself, between the pulsing of a heart and the catching of a breath, in that moment between sleep and waking, in the pounding of hooves and the clamour of guns, he has known this. If he is to die – (and he knows death now, has seen it in the staring faces of boys, and the thought of it terrifies and exhilarates in equal measure) – if he is to die, then there is nothing, nothing in the world that he cares for, save this.
Hesitation is gone. Strong hands circle delicate rib-cage, and he lifts her bodily, pressing her backwards into the alcove of the high bay window; one of her shoes slips, falling with a clatter to the floor. Their eyes are drawn downwards, and his palm closes about the narrow, stockinged foot. And then a hand is on her knee, and she gasps as he pushes it sideways; he takes a single step, and he stands between her parted legs, his hand finding the hem of her stocking beneath her skirt. The edge of his thumb brushes against the skin of her thigh, smooth, and unendurably soft. The touch of it nearly undoes him, and his fingers stumble over the unfamiliar fastenings. He sinks to his knees before her as he slips the silk stocking loose from its garter. His mouth follows his fingertips: a trail of feather-soft kisses that shadow his hands as he slides the stocking from her thigh, over her knee, and down the exquisite curve of her calf. His mouth grazes her ankle, his fingertips scrawling unreadable hieroglyphs across the inner curve of her bare, white foot.
The second stocking follows the first, and now slim white hands fumble with the buttons of his jacket. She gives a tiny hiss of frustration as she realises the complexities of his Sam Browne belt, and his tunic is discarded in an impatient rush. And then there are soft, sure hands beneath his shirt; a shudder runs through him, and where she touches, he ignites, a firebrand flaring deep within his belly.
Unhesitatingly, he reaches for the buttons of her blouse; pushing the thin sleeves backwards, her neck and shoulders are exposed; her breasts swell above the lacing of her corset, and her body is tiny, artificially rigid in the hands that encircle her waist.
His shirt and tie are cast aside. Hands dance like quicksilver across his torso. Heat spirals through him, his vision trembles, and he presses his mouth to hers with crushing intensity. Her hands flare across his hipbones, tugging him closer, and he cannot think, cannot remember with clarity a single event leading to this moment; he only exists – a whirlwind of sensation, and terror, and ecstasy.
As his hands find the lacings of her corset, Mary lifts her head, and suddenly, strangely, their eyes meet. There is something in Mary's eyes that strikes him uneasily – fatalism, and abandon, and something like grief. And in that glance, Matthew realises, innocence is gone. He can no longer blame the war, or this night, or the desperate heat of the moment. If he has been thinking at all, he has thought of them like a single impulse in two bodies, but suddenly it strikes home to him that this is not the case. They are individual, they are not at liberty, and they are culpable.
Matthew falters, and his hands slip against lace and whalebone. The wind slams into the casement with a report like a gunshot, howling in the space between the walls. Barefooted, brazen in her skirt and corset, Mary is as motionless as a creature cast in amber, and they stare at one another, aghast, frozen in their vulgar, adulterous tableau.
"Matthew," she says, desperately. And then again: "Matthew."
Stumbling, half-aware, he steps backwards; he staggers, and crumples heavily onto the window-seat beside her.
"Jesus." he whispers, his breath coming shallow and terrified. "Jesus Christ..."
They are shaking; he can see her in the periphery of his vision, her breast rising and falling with near-hysteric rapidity. Balling his hand into a fist, he presses it trembling against his eyes, drawing slow, shuddering breaths. Mary exhales shiveringly: a tiny, incoherent noise. With unsteady limbs, Matthew reaches for her. He pulls her shoulder clumsily into his chest, pressing broken kisses against her hair in a desperate attempt to avert any contemplation of their almost-adultery. And even as he does so, he feels the warm skin pressed against his own, and the echo of lust turns sickeningly in his gut. He gazes down at his bare white torso; his skin is stippled, slicked with icy sweat, and his chest and stomach heave with every breath. Beneath the navel, the bulge in his trousers is still prominent, and a damp stain sprawls across the thick wool.
Mary's heart-beat has slowed; her skin is cold beneath his calming hand. The breath leaves him in a shaky rush.
He says the first thing that comes into his head.
"Lord, what fools these mortals be."
She watches Mary and Matthew. They stand together in a corner of the drawing room, removed from the centre of things. She cannot hear their conversation, but she watches the way their bodies move; tilt and curve, action and reaction, attuned, but never quite touching. Fair head inclined towards dark, pale hands flickering towards bronze. Matthew stoops to murmur something, and Mary's head tilts to hear him; a dimple, a smile. Lavinia watches as Mary rolls the stem of her wineglass between slim white fingers; every fingertip leaves a trace, blurred prints upon the cool glass; and her dress is the colour of her lips, and her lips are the colour of wine. Lavinia does not understand it, but Mary fascinates her; she feels her mouth quirk upwards when Mary smiles, and she blushes when Mary turns towards her with arched brows and cynical eyes. At times, it is almost comical: two couples placed opposite one another at the dinner table, and three pairs of eyes meet, sky and steel and green-grey, all of them watching Mary. In the art of fascination, she knows, Mary is in a league all her own.
Tilt and curve, flicker and sway. She watches both lover and loved. She cannot understand them. They seem to communicate in a language all their own, a language for which she has no code, no point of reference. Oh, they are careful; they rarely touch, and when they do, they never meet each other's eyes. No, it is a lesser language in which they speak – one in which a fate can be read in the tremble of a lip, the turn of a shoulder, the touch of a fingertip against glass. Their conversation is laden with weight, the source of which she cannot divine, so that references to sea monsters or Shakespeare or raspberry meringue elicit a mocking laughter that she cannot comprehend. She is reminded, once again, of all that they have been, and all that they have shared, and she feels herself a child in the face of their shared history.
Momentarily, Lavinia turns her head to consider Richard. He sits beside her, with curled lip and savage eyes, and like her, he watches. His long legs are stretched out before him, crossed at the ankle; his left foot beats a staccato rhythm suspended in the air, invasive as the clacking keys of his typewriters. Lavinia fears Sir Richard Carlisle. She cannot bring herself to like the man, even for Mary's sake, but she feels an empathy for him, of a sort. She feels pity for him, because he cannot feel it for himself, because fate has singled him out to be her counterpart, because they are snared together, while the world watches, in something larger than themselves.
Matthew makes a sweeping gesture with his free hand; it hovers in the air; Mary's own hand flickers towards it in a brief, hastily aborted movement. Lavinia hears, in the brittle silence that encloses them, the impotent hiss of Richard's breath. She feels, rather than hears, the catch in time, as his impatiently beating foot slips softly to the floor.
"If he would only admit it," she murmurs, half to herself, watching Matthew's profile as he turns, Adonis-like, aureoled in the glow of the chandeliers. "If he would only admit it to himself, then we all four might have a chance."
Unwilling, her eyes are drawn again to Richard. With uncertainty that is a kind of desperation, she searches the downturned mouth, the harsh, clenched lines of his face, the sardonic, shuttered eyes. Richard says nothing. If it were any man but Richard Carlisle, Lavinia might interpret in the careful silence a remote flicker of human pain.
Matthew and Mary have noticed nothing.
And there, beneath the rich, cunningly-patterned carpet, behind the tapestries and the thick-draped velvet of the curtains, below and above the warm, yellow light of the chandeliers, she hears it: the slow, mocking, metronome-strokes of the grandfather clock, the fractured seconds building in implacable time to the crescendo of their own private tragedy.
The Dowager Countess is watching her with bright, sharp eyes. Lavinia folds her thin hands in her lap, and suddenly, for some incomprehensible reason, she feels like crying.
He does not know what he hopes to achieve. Carson tells him, when he calls, that Lady Mary is down at the hospital. God knows, he does not want to see Crawley. It is the last thing on earth that he wishes for. But some perverse sickness draws him, daring him to see what till now he has only feared.
He stands, half-concealed, in the doorway of the hospital ward, and watches his fiancée's thin hands move with possessive tenderness over the body of the other man. Absorbed, ingenuous, her hands move, and her face is eloquent with grief.
Captain Crawley lies on his side, with his back turned against the rest of the ward: whether awake or asleep, Richard is unsure. His body is bent at the waist, and again at the knees, curled in upon itself in an attitude of defence. He is naked to the waist, and his back is a broad, pale wedge, ridged with a lattice-work of scars. The body is a strange, unsettling amalgamation of solicitor and soldier: new, hard muscle shifting sluggishly beneath the remnants of thick, soft flesh; ribs and spine protruding beneath the creamy, child-smooth skin. Mary sits on the edge of the bed behind him, her hands tracing the white lines of old scars, soothing the angry red of the new with some salve or antiseptic. The muscles shift and rearrange themselves beneath her fingertips, so that a shiver seems to run across the pale body in their wake.
Below the waist, there is no movement at all, not even the slow twitch of muscles beneath the powder-blue, invalid pyjamas.
If Richard is surprised by anything, it is the savageness of his guilt. He has tried to distance himself from it: from the war, and from the sickening public appetite for saccharine, not-too-bloodstained heroism. On an intellectual level, he recognises that it is not his fight: even in 1914 he was only barely young enough to be eligible for conscription, and he has aged since then. Even in 1914 it was only sense to keep the recruiting office at arm's distance. He cares little for politics, for whether those who dwell in marble halls far above him choose to name themselves socialist or communist, fascist or revolutionary. He cares nothing for this farcical, undignified international wrangling except insofar as it influences him directly. And yet...
He remembers a crisp, blue-spring morning in London: an oily residue lingering in puddles on the pavement outside his office; the smell of the petrol leaking from an overturned ambulance; dark sigils scrawled by the smoke of an air-raid etched against the clear, rain-washed sky. He remembers the chance encounter with a handsome, hazel-eyed woman of his acquaintance, the frail, contemptuous white feather pressed sneeringly into his palm.
With narrowed eyes, his stomach clenching with the unfamiliar sensation of guilt, Richard watches his fallen rival. He has heard the words spoken in whispers, never for his ears. Crippled... Paralysed... Impotent...
Matthew shifts slightly, and Mary bends her head, as if in the hope of hearing him speak. He has been awake the whole time, Richard realises. And he cannot understand how the man can lie so cold and insensible, when Mary's hands dance with such sensuous dexterity over the broken skin, when if she were touching him like that...
To his sick shame, Richard realises that his prick is twitching against the fabric of his trousers, the pulse beating heavy in his groin; and he does not know if it is Mary's hands that have done it; or the bared expanse of pale, unfamiliar skin; or even the wound itself – the horrific mass of blasted flesh crouched, dark and malignant, in the lower curve of Matthew Crawley's spine.
And as he turns hastily away, Richard hears once again the low voice of the hazel-eyed beauty.
Afterwards, he talks to her. He threatens her with ruin if she should fail him, and in her eyes, he sees the slow withdrawal, the coolness, the calculation. He knows at once that he has over-stepped; the blow is fatal, and it cannot be retracted. He is playing for stakes which he cannot afford to lose, and of his own words she has crafted a snare with which to entangle him. That's not who we are. No, he has failed there. He read her wrong. He read diffidence, and resentment, and cool, calculating power, but he has failed to recognise that she is a creature of passion too. He has failed to understand the sensuality, the need that he himself cannot reveal without forcing his own hand. And now it is too late. That's not who we are.
She plays this game better than he.
He watches, as she twists her arm from his grip. She inclines her head coldly as she steps away. He watches her, as she sweeps down the broad marble staircase of Haxby, her dark coiffure scarcely ruffled, and there is not a single mark upon her of his hands.
In the end, he realises, he has made himself the architect of his own destruction.
They sit at right angles to one another across the table; Robert has been called urgently to the telephone. The glass of port is cool beneath Matthew's fingertips, but his mind is filled with rage, hot and bright.
"Am I right in thinking, Mr Carlisle," he asks (slowly, deliberately, so that there can be no mistake), "that you asked Anna to give you reports of Lady Mary's activities?"
Carlisle's head tilts as he appraises him.
"And if I did?" he asks, softly, insouciantly. "I fail to see what concern it is of yours. You are her cousin, Mr Crawley, not her knight in shining armour."
Matthew's jaw tightens, and his knuckles bunch against the arms of his wheelchair as he feels once again the desperate weight of his own inadequacy. (Impotence: that brutal, accurate word.)
"Not a knight, certainly," he acknowledges, inclining his head, his voice expressing a lightness that he does not feel. "But rather more than just a cousin, I think we can both agree. I am fortunate enough to be able to claim a long friendship with the future Mrs Carlisle." He speaks calmly, but the threat is there, and Carlisle is a fool if he fails to recognise it.
"If you have been informed of my request to the maid," says Richard, slowly, "then you will know that I wished only to learn more of Lady Mary's preferences and habits. I consider it my duty to ensure that our married life is as happy as possible."
"Then why not ask Lady Mary herself?" Matthew returns, coolly. "She would not object, I am sure. Although if, as you say, you wish only to learn more of her, then perhaps I may be of assistance. I assure you, I know all her favourites. Her favourite flowers are bluebells, for instance. Her favourite colour is red, and her favourite food is blackberry tart, although I happen to know that she has a secret fondness for aniseed balls. Stop me if I am boring you..."
"No, I had no need for such commonplace detail, as I am sure you must be aware." Richard's voice is as polished and as brittle as cut-glass.
"Ah, then it was her activities that chiefly interested you?" Matthew queries, pressing his advantage. "Out of concern for her welfare, no doubt. Well, I may provide a report there to your satisfaction also, I think. For the last few months it has been her habit to rise early, and walk briefly in the grounds with her father and Isis before breakfast. Following this, she generally assists my mother and Lady Edith with rehabilitation activities for the men until two or so, and then spends her afternoons in such leisure as she is still able to enjoy: riding, chiefly. She has been several times to Ripon on business for her father, once to tea with cousin Violet, and otherwise is generally to be found assisting Lady Sybil at the hospital, or engaged in charitable exercises throughout the county. As for her evenings, I believe that unless otherwise detained, she has spent the hours from approximately four till six in my company – excepting those times when you travelled to Haxby, of course. None of them dangerous activities, I would have thought."
He inclines his head, tipping his glass in a show of deference, though the exhilaration is surging, slippery and incandescent beneath his skin, and he can feel the rage, the adrenaline pulsing through his veins in a way that he has not felt it since France.
Richard Carlisle eyes him, and Matthew knows that he is wondering how much he can afford to gamble, weighing his adversary anew – for a wheelchair alone is not enough to convince Sir Richard of Matthew's defeat. Richard knows, better than anyone, that the wounded game is the most dangerous. It is almost enough to make him laugh – that for all the platitudes and the condolences, the grim handshakes and the empty words, it is only Richard who is able to see him still as a man, as a threat. Matthew almost wants to thank him.
And when Richard speaks, he is wry, trenchant, cutting straight to the heart of the matter.
"Is this it Crawley? Is it 'gloves off' at last?"
And Matthew wants to laugh, as the anger bubbles and ferments inside of him and his lungs are ravaged as though with chlorine gas. Oh, he understands how Mary can love this man. He is so glib, so bold, so antiestablishment, unconcerned and unaffected by the mores of others. Richard has a remarkable talent for bringing out the worst in people, for allowing them to revel, if only briefly, in the hot, blistering, righteousness that is engendered of pure and unadultered rage.
And now it is Matthew whose voice is cool and smooth, Matthew who masks his true intent beneath a thin veneer of civility. He has learnt much from this man, and he has learnt how to make threats.
"Sir Richard," he says, fixing the older man with his eyes. "You seem to be labouring under the misapprehension that I desire to prevent Lady Mary from marrying. Is that the case?" He does not give Carlisle a chance to speak, but rides over him with carefully-constructed indifference: "It is true that there are certain grounds for your jealousy – I freely admit that I once wished to make Lady Mary my wife. But that, if you will forgive me, was four years and countless lives ago."
His heart is beating in his throat, but he will do this thing; he will do it, because he must.
"No –" he continues, "my desire is to see my cousin married to a good man; a man who cares not only for her beauty or her position, but who knows her and loves her. Have I made myself clear?"
Levelly, he meets Sir Richard's gaze. His fists are clenched again upon the arms of his wheelchair, and for a tiny instant, he feels the absurdity of it – a crippled man, a broken man, a nonentity, threatening violence against a whole. Richard's grey eyes contract, hawk-like, and Matthew reads the sentiment there before it is spoken: Bravo, Mr Crawley.
It is Richard who breaks the eye contact, turning to lift the crystal decanter beside his glass; he pours a careful measure and proffers the wine to Matthew with a faint tilt of his head. A tiny, irreverent smile plays softly with the corners of his mouth.
"I can assure you, Crawley, that in that case our aims are entirely mutual."
Their eyes meet, in what is almost a smile. But Matthew is unwilling to let go; still righteous, still angry, bull-like and dominant in his tenacity. He lowers his head, fixing Sir Richard once again with his steeliest gaze:
"I warned you once before, Sir Richard, that if you mistreated her in any way, you would have me to answer to. I do sincerely hope that I will not be forced to make good on that promise."
She waits until Lavinia is comfortable, watching Jane and Isobel help the younger girl undress. She is no longer shocked by her own fascination with human bodies; if Richard has helped her with nothing else, he has helped her to understand carnality, both its ardour and its fatalism. But still, she cannot rid herself of her debutant self-absorption, her lingering younger self. She cannot prevent herself from scrutinising, evaluating, making comparison: Lavinia's skin, translucent as fine china, beneath a zodiac of pale freckles; Lavinia's waist, tiny as a dancer's above the milk-white curve of her belly. Lavinia's bones are neater, more compact and fragile-seeming than Mary's own; her breasts are smaller, rounder, the nipples pale and anaemic-looking, where Mary's are dusky-rose. As if drawing up a ledger, Mary balances each item severally, breaking their bodies down, deconstructing, so that the two women reflected in the mirror cease to be merely the sum of their own parts. Mary's waist is longer, more fashionably flared at the hip-bones: point to Mary. Mary is taller, her figure statuesque rather than dainty: point to Lavinia.
Mary stares at her mirror-self, seeing only a person composed of fragments: flawless, cream-smooth skin; arched neck; jutting collarbones. Her mouth is fuller than Lavinia's, her features stronger, her hair sleeker and more shining...
No, there is no doubt about it: Mary is the more beautiful woman. Yet somehow, this knowledge fails to satisfy her. Peripherally, she watches as Jane draws one of Mary's nightgowns over Lavinia's head, but it is her own eyes in the mirror which now hold her attention. And behind her mirror-eyes she feels herself like a creature composed of glass, of a thousand tiny shards, painstakingly assembled, the fractures invisible beneath the skin, yet there, and present, and insurmountable.
When Lavinia is resting comfortably against the pillows, her pale, winter-sun lashes flat and still against flushed cheeks, Mary leaves. She backs slowly from the dim, burgundy shadows, and as quietly as she dares, she pulls the door to behind her.
Far more than is usual, Mary is aware of her own body. The set of her shoulders is rigid, her spine deliberately, exactingly straight; she feels the back of her heel chafed by the rim of her shoe, a rebellious wisp of hair curling against her neck; her hands feel awkward, alien, not her own. Noiselessly, conscious of every breath and the tensing of every muscle, she flits on wary cat-feet through the hushed and whispering corridors.
The drawing room, when she reaches it, is empty, the long-abandoned fire burning low. She does not know how long she sits in the closeted silence, aware only of the stifled voice of the grandfather clock on the edge of hearing, ticking in slow counterpoint to the beating of her heart. She presses her palms together in her lap until the circulation falters and her fingertips show yellow and sickly above the cracked red of her knuckles; but still, she can feel them trembling.
She does not know what is in her heart. She knows only that she wants something that she cannot have, wants it with a fierce, aching jealousy that is beyond conscience or loyalty. He will be married in two days. Unreasonable, unjustifiable, the fear rises in her chest. With a clarity that she has never known before, Mary recognises that she stands upon a tipping point, that this – this – is perhaps her final chance. The last chance for either of them. And strangely, it is of Richard that she thinks – of Richard, who takes what he wants, and damns himself along with the consequences.
And as she steps swiftly down the sweeping staircases of her ancestral home, Mary Crawley knows beyond all doubt that jealousy is a greater force than reason.
She finds Matthew standing by the gramophone in the great hall. He holds out his hand for the last time.
Lavinia wakes in Mary's bedroom. The walls are deep, rich red and the shadows lie heavily. The personal effects are few: a bookcase, a box of jewellery, an embroidered robe. There is the mirror into which Mary looks, seeing her dark eyes reflected back; this is the bed in which Mary sleeps (and what does Mary dream?); that is the window from which Mary watches the world. And once again, Lavinia feels like an actor in a play, wearing the costumes, inhabiting the stage, taking on the scenes of another woman's life.
An ache pounds high in her temples. Her throat rasps, and her mouth is dry; but the room is oppressively quiet, and Lavinia is tired of mimicry. She wants to go home.
Dressing again is difficult with no maid to help her. Her limbs tremble, thin and strengthless, and she is cold, even in this close, red-darkness. She pulls a shawl over her crumpled gown, drawing it tight about her chest and neck. On shaky feet, Lavinia descends the many staircases, finding her way through rooms and corridors and the dark, imposing galleries. Around her, the great house is silent, all of the life and energy drawn off as if into some vital centre. But still, the house breathes; wood creaks, and the echoes scurry about the vaulted stone. And once again, behind it all, she hears the solemn, ponderous strokes of the grandfather clock – slow, weighted with time, like the clock in her father's study on the night when Matthew Crawley first saw her, straight-backed and shy, with her hands flickering between ebony and ivory.
She comes to the long gallery above the great hall which was so recently the officers' dining room. She knows they are there before she sees them, because although they speak only quietly, their voices echo hazily about the empty hall. Matthew is toying with the gramophone, and their conversation is trite, facile, inconsequential. Only their bodies betray them. Tilt and curve, flicker and sway. Bodies that incline toward one another, though their eyes are turned away.
Matthew holds out his hand, and Lavinia feels a momentary pang for his beauty, his gallantry. She has not danced with him since the spring of 1917. As Mary moves into his arms, she sees him smile, and his eyes are bluer than the sky.
"Can you manage without your stick?" Mary asks him, and his voice is low and truthful in reply.
"You are my stick."
And Lavinia knows that it is true enough. She has tried to take on that role for herself, has tried to be the person on whom he leans, but the tie that binds Matthew to Mary is unbreakable (by him; by her; by any of them).
They deserve this, she thinks, watching them. They deserve this one night of honesty, of affirmation, before the wedding which will so change everything. But even as she thinks this, she sees Matthew's hand tighten over the small of Mary's back, and she wonders whether the wedding that she so desires will ultimately prove anything but a game for fools.
Then Mary speaks, and her voice is light:
"We were a show that flopped."
And Lavinia, feeling now like an intruder, an onlooker to her own betrayal, feels her heart race, for at last, at last, they have come to the crux of the thing – the thing she has wondered at since first she came to Downton, and saw in Matthew for the first time a thing that she could not understand. And when at last he speaks, it is the affirmation of everything that she has thought, everything that she has feared, for the whisper that is torn from him is as guttural and as jagged as glass; and she watches in awe as the man that she knows crumples and splinters before her eyes.
"Oh God, Mary," he says (and his voice is shattered earth and tortured sky and agony, all in one). "I am so, so sorry. You know how sorry I am."
And their eyes are closed, and their heads bowed; their bodies still move, dream-like, in the steps of the dance, but their minds are gone from it, and they dance to a music that only they can hear.
And still, Lavinia hesitates. She wants more, needs surety in this if in nothing else, because she does not, cannot understand. What more must he do to show you that he is in love with her?, her thought screams. You were wrong. About him, about them. You will never understand. But still, she watches, because still, she cannot tear herself away. And she watches, too, because she cannot bear for them to stop and face her, cannot bear to see her own look of shock and betrayal reflected back at her. She watches them because they are beautiful together, as fine, as graceful, and as far above her as the dancers at long-ago balls when she was still a girl in a white party dress, peeking through the nursery doorway.
Matthew is speaking again, and it takes a moment before Lavinia can grasp his meaning, so entranced is she by the spectacle of betrayal.
"Cousin Violet came to see me the other day... she told me to marry you." And Lavinia is amazed at the calmness of his tone. They talk quietly, unremarkably, as if continuing a conversation begun long before, while Lavinia's mind is still a whirl of understanding, and her breath is loud and strange in her own ears.
"Classic Granny," says Mary, coolly, and Lavinia thinks Classic Mary, for the older woman's voice is wry and calm, as if they spoke of something mild and inconsequential. Her heart thunders in her chest and her temples throb with the ache of knowing; and for a moment, Lavinia is uncertain which of them she loves more.
At last (and it seems like a very age to Lavinia), Mary asks the question that she needs answered:
"What did you say?"
"I told her that I could not accept Lavinia's sacrifice of her life, her children, her future... and then throw her over the minute I was well again."
And Lavinia feels the relief break over her, for it doesn't matter to her that she is his second choice; she wants only to know that he cares for her even a fraction of how she cares for him, to know that he will honour his word, will marry her, will love her...
But Matthew is pleading as he turns his eyes on Mary, and his words are a chasm in which they will drown:
"I couldn't, could I?"
And in that heart-stopping moment, she realises her mistake. She has learnt long ago with these two to watch the movement of their mouths and eyes, and pay no attention to the things their voices say.
Matthew and Mary have stopped dancing.
The record spins impotently on the gramophone, the needle scratching like the evidence of guilt as the table turns around, and around...
He hears their conversation as if from a great distance. Neither of them bothers to keep their voices low. Or perhaps, he thinks, they are still so oblivious of him that they forget his very presence. They are insensible, indelible, and he can leave no mark upon them.
We are cursed, you and I.
This is the end.
If there's anything I can do...
...because of that kiss...
So, the man has kissed her. He cannot find it in himself to be surprised. He has known now for a long time that he is playing a losing game. But he is Richard Carlisle, and failure does not come easily to him; the sharpness of loss is still strange, still alien. Beyond all reason, beyond all expectation, he finds that he is disappointed in Crawley. He had counted upon the man's nobility. In a strange way, he realises, he had admired the man – admired his tenacity, his strength of opinion, his integrity. Qualities, all, that Richard values. They are more alike than Matthew realises, he knows. Matthew reminds him of something he scarcely remembers – some bright, intangible, inconquerable self.
And now, at the last, Saint Matthew is proved fallible. A week ago, Richard might have found that cause for celebration.
He watches as Mary's gloved hand finds the elbow of Matthew's coat, her fingers knotting themselves unconsciously in the thick fabric; as if by doing so she can anchor him unto herself; as if she will never let him go. Their eyes meet (brave, impassioned, despairing), and Richard has to look away. They are both so young.
Unwilling, his eyes are drawn to the gaping earth, the polished mahogany.
They were all so young.
He stands facing the row of straggling beeches that line the edge of the cemetery. He stands apart, watching the dew bead against peeling silver skin. His hand trembles with an unaccustomed hesitancy, and lichen crumbles, damp and gritty beneath his fingertips.
What lies beneath the surface of a betrayal? How do you break apart the moments, sifting the portents from the chaff until you see them in isolation? – A tumbling leaf, a wine glass, a bruise, a prayer; a headline, a squeal of tyres, a bullet jammed in the breach (There. Was that it? Was that the moment?). Many nights now, Mary has lain awake, deconstructing the machine cog by cog to leave the disparate parts spinning idle, finding perfection in fragments, until love approaches hatred approaches love again from the other side.
The damp earth had rattled against the wood as Reverend Travers cast his feeble handful of soil into the open grave. There had been nothing priestly in the act – nothing of light, or transcendence, or grace. There had been nothing of the person Lavinia was.
"On Mount Zion the Lord shall remove the pall of sorrow hanging over all nations. He will destroy death forever..."
Or maybe the lesson is that betrayal is not an act, but a process: a letter delivers a gunshot, and a typewriter kindles an inferno. A corpse leads to dark earth, and earth to salvation. Adultery is spawned by an amateur concert, and an open wound gives birth to jealousy. A freckled, milk-white shoulder engenders a footstep that creates a heartbeat that leads to the spinning of a gramophone...
With a great effort, Mary had forced herself to focus on the silver plaque on the face of the coffin. The cast earth had spattered against the polished wood, like the mud on the hem of Lavinia's dress on the day they walked beneath the arbours in the rose garden.
"Deliver us from the bitter pain of eternal death. Lord, you know the secrets of our hearts..."
Mud, on a pale, lavender-lace gown. The stem of a wineglass turned beneath fingers, thin and smooth and cool. Fingerprints upon an edge-worn photograph; a breath; a prayer. A windowsill in a darkened library, mouth against trembling mouth, and hieroglyphs traced over the curve of a thin, pale foot.
Lord, you know the secrets of our hearts...
Once, long ago, there was a soldier. There was a soldier, and there was a war, and a town called Amiens. Once, there was a piano, and notes played in black and white.
Guns blaze, notes fall: action and reaction.
Without conscious thought, the fingers of her right hand twist and knot in the black wool of his coat sleeve. She feels its coarseness beneath her fingertips – fingertips that seem somehow disconnected from herself, a mechanism only, outside of her control; and for a moment, she struggles to understand why it is that even now she cannot let him go.
Disconnected, indeterminate, her eyes search Matthew's face. He looks older than she remembers him; sober and resolute, but blurred slightly around the edges, as if the man she looks to find is no longer quite the match of the man that she sees. There are strands of grey about his temples that she does not recall, lines, like creased parchment, about his eyes. His face is stiller than she remembers it, for he has learned to govern himself at last: to mask and to deflect and to turn away.
She remembers an abashed and open-mouthed young lawyer from Manchester, blushing like a disobedient schoolboy, his heart written in his eyes for all to see. She remembers the vehement face of jilted, middle-class lover, ashamed and furious, desperate to read the world in black and white.
Mechanically, Matthew's head turns in her direction, and the blue of his eyes seems muted somehow, closed off behind the shutters of his grief. The words that they have spoken lie gravid upon the air, grown gross and heavy with blame. The words that they have spoken, never to be retracted. The accusation ossifies and grows brittle about them, and she knows (by the beginnings of a crease above his temples; by the tightness of his mouth; by the shallow flicker of his pulse beneath the stippled skin of his throat) that he is thinking the same:
We are cursed, you and I.
Of course it's the end. How could it not be?
And as Richard moves to join them, a strange and unfamiliar longing overtakes her. She wants to be held, to be comforted, to relinquish, if only for a moment, the terrible, destructive weight of adulthood.
Is it ever possible to isolate, in the sharded aggregate of history, one singular, definitive, Judas-kiss of betrayal? Is it the moment when his eyes meet yours in the darkness, or the moment when your gut twists in fear and the servants are awakened by the shrilling of the telephone? Is it when you kiss him goodbye on the platform beside the train, and the gleaming engine belches smoke that crawls into your lungs like tar? Does it happen when you bathe his wounds, when you push his wheelchair beside the lake, when a shoe slips from your foot to clatter on the floor of the library, when his name lodges like a bullet in the space between your ribs?
"Can I walk you back to the house?" asks Richard, softly. He offers his arm (decent, solicitous), and somehow, in that instant, her choice is made clear to her: the man she loves, or the man with whom she can stand; the man she would die for, or the man who can teach her to survive.
She turns, blindly. Keys click, guns blaze, a clock ticks against the silence, and for a moment, like Richard, like Matthew, she sees the world in monochrome.
And a branch crashes suddenly against a windowpane; a teacup slips through fumbling, ice-cold fingers; leaves dance redly in a capricious wind as horses gallop against the green grass of Downton.
"Of course you can," she whispers, choking.
"I want you to."