The last night of Matthew's leave was spent at Crawley House. They'd begged off dinner with the rest of the family, opting instead for a quiet evening in the sitting room with a fire crackling in the hearth. Dinner had been a time for animated conversation, but afterwards, by mutual silent agreement, the three of them had settled down to read, Isobel with her letters, Mary with a novel, and Matthew with a small stack of recent newspapers brought in by Molesley. Isobel's feet were nearest the fire by virtue of her having chosen the chair closest to the hearth; Mary would have liked to sit in that chair, but she'd draped herself with a throw and was content on the sofa. Matthew, however, sat at the opposite end of the sofa and seemed to think the room too warm, for he had removed his tunic and boots.
Mary had to admit that she didn't mind his relaxation of propriety in the least, for she kept stealing glances at him. She found that she liked watching the way his shirt moved—or rather, the way his muscles under his shirt moved—each time he turned the pages. Eventually, he glanced back at her, his brow furrowed in slight concern, but she just quirked her lips and let her eyes drift slowly down his torso. When she raised them to meet his again, he gave her a smug grin and then repaid the compliment with a lingering gaze of his own, finishing it with an appreciative hum when his eyes were somewhere in the vicinity of her bottom.
"Something of interest in the papers?" Isobel asked, glancing up at them. Mary's eyes quickly met Matthew's and she suppressed a giggle and forced her gaze back down to her book. Given the angle of Isobel's chair compared to their own seats, the bulk of their exchange had been hidden by the upraised newspaper Matthew was holding.
Matthew shuffled the papers, unnecessarily straightening them out. "No, not particularly," he replied. "The Cabinet ordered the evacuation of Anzac and Suvla. What an awful mess."
"How bad is it, really?" Mary asked.
Matthew frowned. "Gallipoli's been our most comprehensive defeat so far." His frown deepened. "We don't often get the latest news at the front; I suppose they want to keep us focused on our own theatre. But it's difficult not to wonder what else they're hiding from us and whether they'd have the wits to pull us out soon enough if the tide were to turn against us."
Isobel had put down her letters and taken off her glasses. "That savours of bitterness, Matthew."
He sighed and lowered the newspaper, folding it and laying it atop the pile.
"I suppose it does," he said, and fell silent.
Mary looked at him a moment, then saw that Isobel was frowning at him, and decided that he didn't need his wife to be staring accusingly at him, too. This bitterness wasn't like him, she thought, but she couldn't be sure. How well did she know him, really? She frowned down at her book. Something had been bothering him these past three days. She'd noticed the way he lapsed into frowning silence when left to his own devices. This was their last evening together; if she wished to discover what was wrong, she must try tonight. She didn't know if he would welcome her prying. He hadn't before. With so little time left to them, she resolved to let the matter drop if he chose not to speak. She would simply be grateful for his presence. Whatever it was could not be allowed to mar their few remaining hours together. But she still had to try, if only to see if she could offer him some comfort…
She looked up, realising that he had not responded to Isobel's silent question. Isobel had gone back to her letters and Matthew now sat with one arm draped on the armrest beside the newspapers, but he did not reach for another to read. Instead, he was frowning and staring at the fire crackling quietly in front of him. Mary suppressed a shiver at the faraway look in his eyes. What was he seeing? What dreams haunted him? In both of the previous two nights, he'd shuddered in his sleep, once throwing his arm over his face and curling away from her into a foetal position. The suddenness of the motion had woken her out of a sound sleep as his elbow had grazed her cheek. His muscles had been knotted and his body tense, although he hadn't made a sound. She'd rubbed his back and murmured senseless comforts until she'd felt him relax into proper sleep again, and she'd never asked him about it afterwards.
His hand rested between them now on the sofa. She touched it—and he jerked. She immediately pulled her hand away as if from a hot poker and he glanced at her, drew in a breath, and gave her a weak smile.
"What's wrong?" she asked, mindful that Isobel was watching them.
"Nothing. Nothing's wrong," he said, and his hand found hers. He gave it a squeeze and pressed his lips together in a more reassuring smile. "You just startled me, darling, that's all."
When his gaze drifted away again, Mary exchanged a look with Isobel. Mary was slightly relieved to see her own concern reflected in his mother's eyes. Perhaps Mary did know her husband well enough to see that something wasn't entirely right. She looked at the fire. What was right, these days? The war was changing everything. She could only hope that it didn't change him…too much. She dreaded losing the lovely man she knew to a distant, bitter stranger, hardened by who knew what horrors.
That was a bit melodramatic, really, but there was so much she didn't understand, was not permitted to understand. She wanted to trust his judgement in this, but it still stung to be excluded from what now constituted his daily life. She had no desire to go to war, of course, but she wished so terribly much that he was not being forced to endure it, either. She wished that he hadn't chosen to go—but there was no point in revisiting that argument. His sense of integrity had compelled him to become a soldier. She had married him knowing that he had strong moral principles and although she loved him dearly, the current situation was an unfortunate consequence of accepting him as he was.
"What's on your mind?" he asked, a half-smile on his face. The look in his eyes was raw: he seemed almost desperate for a reason to smile. She blinked back a sudden pricking in her eyes and smiled gently at him.
"Just thinking about you," she said.
His eyebrows rose and then his expression softened into a genuine smile. After a moment, he yawned, raised his elbows, and stretched back, and she could hear the soft popping of his spine.
"Well, I'm knackered," he said.
"You've an early day tomorrow," Isobel said, looking up from her letters. "Mrs Bird promised to have a full breakfast ready for you."
Matthew smiled and sat forward. "Bless her," he murmured. "She could just leave out some coffee and porridge for me to warm. That would be luxury enough."
"She wouldn't hear of it," Isobel said with a smile.
Matthew chuckled. "I don't suppose Molesley will let me escape unmolested, either."
"Matthew!" Mary said, glancing back at the open sitting room door. If the valet should hear him…
Matthew smiled. "Don't worry. I told him to take the rest of the evening for himself." He glanced at Mary. "He knows how much I appreciate his efforts." Matthew sighed. "I just don't like rousing the entire house unnecessarily."
"Seeing you off is hardly unnecessary, darling," Mary said, looking back down at her book. "Your visit is the highlight of our winter."
"What about Christmas?" Matthew smirked. "That only comes round once a year and involves the Son of God."
"Who at the moment is disembodied and thus accessible year-round," Mary replied dryly. "You're the one we don't get enough time with."
Matthew glanced between them, smiling. "I ought to be crying 'heresy!' or some such thing, but really I'm just grateful."
"As you should be," Isobel said, returning to her letters. "Don't begrudge us our affection."
Matthew shook his head, then stood up and gathered his tunic and shoes. He walked around Mary, drawing his hand across her shoulder as he moved past the back of the sofa. She twisted to look up at him and he smiled.
"I'm done in as well," she said, setting the book aside and pulling off the throw. "I think I'll join you."
"Good night, Mother," Matthew said. Isobel looked up at them with a wide smile.
"Good night, both of you," she said. "Thank you for a lovely evening."
They murmured similar thanks and then left the room. Anna stepped out of the kitchen when they started up the stairs.
"Will you be requiring me this evening, my lady?" she asked. Mary glanced at Matthew and then turned to smile at Anna.
"No, Anna, you've the evening to yourself."
The maid smiled at this. "Very good, my lady. Have a good night."
"And you," Mary said.
"Good night, Anna," Matthew said.
"Good night, sir."
They heard a knocking on the back door and Anna's eyes widened. She turned her head quickly towards the sound and Mary raised her eyebrows.
"Who would be calling at such a late hour, and at the back door?" she asked with a frown.
Anna quickly shot them a nervous smile and hurried out of sight. They both bent to listen. A man's low tones entered the kitchen, following by Anna's murmuring.
"Is that Bates?" Mary muttered.
"I think so," Matthew replied, grinning. "Let's leave them to it."
Mary glanced at him with a smile. "You don't mind?"
"Why would I?" Matthew shrugged. "It's no business of mine."
They resumed climbing the stairs.
"You don't take Papa's position that the maids shouldn't have followers?" Mary asked.
"She's young. Why shouldn't she be allowed to have a suitor just because she's in service?"
"Why, Matthew, you're a romantic."
Matthew chuckled as he opened the door to his dressing room and strode through. "If you haven't figured that out before now, I'll have to redouble my efforts to convince you."
Mary laughed and followed him inside, rather looking forward to watching him undress. She pushed the door closed behind herself and watched as he set down the tunic and boots.
"I hope you won't be disappointed, darling," Matthew said, loosening his tie until he could tug it off.
"Why would I be?" she asked.
"I know it's our last night together and I do want you, but really I'd rather just hold you. I'm just so tired."
She nodded, half-expecting such a response from him. They had certainly made the best of their few days together. In addition to taking a late breakfast this morning after their activities the night before, in the afternoon Mary had found Matthew sorting through a drawer of his underthings. One wry comment had led to a witty retort and they'd soon found themselves engaging in a rather energetic midday romp, interspersed with hushed giggles as they besought each other not to draw the attention of the rest of the household. By the time they were quite finished, they'd ended up making inventive use of most of his dressing room. She was certain she would never be able to see this room in quite the same way as she had before, and she smiled as her eyes glanced over the furniture, remembering the particular uses that each piece had been put to.
"I'm not disappointed," she said, tugging off her shoes and then her stockings. "I would very much enjoy just being held by you."
Matthew smiled. "Good, because I've been meaning to talk with you. Somehow, we never seem to get that far when we're alone together."
Mary drifted closer to him, a wicked smile growing on her face. "I can't imagine why, darling."
Matthew laughed and stopped working through the buttons of his shirt so that he could lift his hands in mock surrender. "Mercy, please! I'm still worn out from this afternoon."
She reached up to finish his buttons for him.
"I'm not being too demanding, am I?" she asked.
"Oh, God, no!" he said with a grin. "Demand away! It does wonders for my ego, you know."
She smiled and rose up on her toes to press a kiss to his lips, sinking against him with a sigh when his arms came around her.
"As well it should," she murmured, and he chuckled against her skin. "You have nothing to be insecure about."
"Oh, I know that," he smirked.
"You're incorrigible," she said, rolling her eyes.
"And you love me for it."
She laughed softly and sank back down to the soles of her feet, giving his backside a fond pat. "Your virtue is safe with me this evening, darling."
"Always," he answered. He lifted his hands to her shoulders and kissed her forehead before releasing her. She stepped back and let him continue undressing without interruption, standing beside the wardrobe as she watched him.
"So what did you want to discuss?" she asked.
He glanced aside, then back to her. "Why did you move out of the big house?"
She gave a mirthless laugh. "You don't ease into these things, do you?"
"I don't see the point. Would the question really be any easier to answer if I drew it out?"
"Would you believe me if I told you I was desperately eager to move in with your mother?"
Matthew gave her a look.
"It's partly true," Mary prevaricated.
Matthew intensified his look.
She gave in to her urge to smile as she looked away. "Yes, she can be a bit bossy—" Mary said, and Matthew chuckled, "—but she's also free with her praise. It's refreshing, actually."
"I'm delighted that you seem to enjoy each other's company," he said. "She's very fond of you, you know."
"Really?" Mary smiled.
"Yes. It comes through in her letters. I think your being here has lifted her spirits a great deal."
Mary frowned. "I hadn't realised she was struggling." Then Mary thought back to when Isobel had invited her for dinner and how she had seemed to want to dine with Mary rather often. At the time, Mary had merely thought that her mother-in-law was being hospitable, but had Isobel actually been terribly lonely?
"She hides it well; she keeps busy," Matthew said.
Mary nodded, considering Isobel in this light.
"What's the real reason you left?" he asked, taking pyjamas out of a drawer.
Mary sighed and turned away, then wandered over to the wash table where she idly picked up an item or two before setting them down again. Matthew continued to dress behind her in silence. She knew his eyes were on her. She turned back around.
"I've come to the unfortunate realisation that the only person at Downton Abbey who really notices me anymore is Carson," Mary said, and then, after a pause, "and Sybil."
Matthew frowned. "Surely it can't be that bad."
Mary picked up Matthew's styptic pencil and rolled it between her fingers. "I'm no longer of interest," she said.
"What do you mean?"
"Mama always paid me more attention than Edith or Sybil," Mary said. "I took that for granted, thinking myself more important, or more…oh, I don't know!" She set down the pencil forcefully and paced to the window. "Mama put more of her time into finding me a husband than she did Edith or Sybil, because I was fast becoming an old maid."
Matthew snorted. "Hardly. You're— How old are you?"
"My mother didn't marry my father until she was twenty-seven."
"The rules are more restrictive for my kind of people," Mary said, looking away again. Her eyes drifted out the window, caught by how the light from inside the house put the stonework into sharp relief. The back garden of Crawley House was small, but well-kept. Molesley's handiwork, inherited from his father, Mary suspected. Although there wasn't much to show for it in winter, the shrubs were well-trimmed.
"Still, twenty-four is quite young," Matthew said.
Mary turned on him. "What do you know of it?" she demanded. "You're a man. You could have taken your first wife at fifty and no one would have complained."
"Mother would have," Matthew said with a grin, then sobered at her expression. "I'm sorry. Go on."
Mary looked back out the window with a shrug. "Mama must turn her attention to where it is needed most, and at the moment that is Edward."
"And Edith, I suppose," Matthew said, his voice quiet.
She looked up when Matthew crossed the small space to lay his discarded clothing over a chair beside his bag, which was already mostly packed. Mary quickly looked back out the window. Three days—barely three days—was no time at all. Would she ever see him again? She didn't want to spend their last few hours together talking about her own troubles.
"You've been very quiet these last few days," Mary said. "Don't think I haven't noticed."
Matthew smirked, setting down the last of his items of clothing. "I wouldn't have thought 'quiet' was the word you would choose, given how vocal I recall being at times."
Mary chuckled. "You can be rather expressive, yes. But I find that I like it a great deal." Her eyes caught his and she suppressed a smile. "A very great deal."
He grinned, coming up to her and kissing her. "Good," he said, pulling away, his grin softening. His eyes flickered to her hair and then back down to her face. "And don't think I'm done with you yet," he said. "This change of subject is only temporary."
Mary scowled at him as he turned away and he gave her a gently reproving look. She took the opportunity to let her hand run along his backside and he hummed and smiled over his shoulder as he moved across the room to the wash table.
She sighed. "I'll see you," she said, crossing to the door. She picked up her shoes and stockings. He nodded and reached for his toothbrush as she stepped out into the hall.
When he entered their bedroom a few minutes later, after she'd finished her nightly ablutions and laid out a warm, high-necked nightgown, she rose from the bed, drew off her dressing gown, and presented her back to him. He loosened her corset with practised hands and kissed the back of her neck as he finished, and she smiled and gave a sigh of relief and pleasure. He went back around the bed and climbed under the covers, watching her strip down quickly, shivering, and pull the nightgown over her head. When she pushed her head out, she saw that he was watching her with a small smile playing on his lips. She looked down and smiled, finished pulling the garment on, put out the light, and then climbed in eagerly beside him.
He hissed and drew away. "Your feet are freezing!"
"Shut up and warm me, then," she said, clinging closer and purposely running her icy toes up his calf.
He sighed and complied.
"You're going to miss this, admit it," she said.
He chuckled and sighed. "Uncle."
She acquiesced and pulled her toes away with a smile, then apologised with a brief kiss. They settled together and his hand fell into a drifting rhythm along her back. She sighed and closed her eyes.
"Was feeling neglected the only reason you left?" Matthew asked.
Mary frowned without opening her eyes. "Do we really have to talk about this?"
"No," he said. "We don't have to. But I would like to."
She sighed. "Why? How can my being a selfish fool possibly be interesting?"
"Oh, Mary," he said, tightening his embrace for a moment and pressing a kiss to her forehead. "You're not a selfish fool."
She fought the way that the corners of her mouth pulled down. "I feel like one."
She resisted the sudden, unexpected urge to cry but his comfort undid her and hot tears spilled out of her eyes. Her breath drew in sharply as a sob shook her, and she turned her face into his shirt.
He held her in silence, continuing to rub her back, until she regained her composure and drew away, pushing herself up. He took the opportunity to twist away from her and reached for the handkerchief on his bedside table. She accepted it from him with a watery smile and dried her face, then held it out.
He eyed it. "Are you sure you won't be needing that?"
She gave a soft laugh and lay back down again, the kerchief still in hand. She burrowed against his warm—and now damp—chest.
"Mary, you must not let how anyone else sees you become how you see yourself," he said. "Just because you have been told all your life that you're not good enough does not make it true." His arm around her loosened and he encouraged her to pull back until he had a firm grip on her shoulder. He fixed her in a direct gaze. "You are one of the most intelligent women I have ever met. I am convinced that you can do whatever you set your mind to."
She looked down and nodded, but he pushed her chin up until their eyes met again.
"You don't believe me," he said.
She frowned and drew her face away from his hand. "I am intelligent, for a woman," she said. "I know that."
"No," he said, pushing himself up on to his elbow and rolling to face her. "Not 'for a woman'. I misspoke. You are one of the most intelligent people it has ever been my privilege to know, and I thank God every day that you agreed to be my wife."
"Oh, Matthew!" she cupped his cheek and pressed in for a kiss. She drew away with a sigh. "If only more men thought like you."
He smiled. "Someday, they will. The war is changing many things." He frowned. "We just need to survive it first."
"Shhh," she said, drawing him back down beside her. They lay, facing one another, as she ran a hand over his temple, stroked his hair, tried to memorise his features. He closed his eyes.
"Feeling unworthy wasn't the only reason I wanted to leave home," she said.
He opened his eyes. "What else was it?"
She looked down and frowned. Her hand in his hair stilled and she let it drop to the mattress. He picked it up and held it to his chest, drawing her eyes back to him, and she gave him a sad smile.
"Do you ever worry about becoming a father?"
He considered this and after a moment, he said, "No."
He shrugged. "What is there to worry about?"
"Why are you worried?" he asked gently.
She shook her head, still frowning. His hand stroked her neck, her shoulder, her arm, coaxing her back to him.
"Sybil is such a natural," she said finally. "Even Edith is good at it, shockingly."
"You are horrid when you want to be," Matthew said.
"I know," Mary smirked. "But you love me, don't you?"
"Madly," he said with a grin, and she met him for a brief kiss. She settled down beside him again. He was quiet and then he said, "Davis's wife just had their third, a son. He told me he was terrified before the birth of their first child, but he soon realised there was nothing to be afraid of. The real challenge was being deprived of sleep."
"Yes, well, that's what nannies are for."
He chuckled. "So I take it that you're not vastly excited by the prospect of living with an infant?"
"Something like that," she said. "And as I no longer have Diamond as a recourse…"
He pressed his lips together and nodded. Then he met her eyes and smiled.
"You don't need to worry," he said. "You'll know what to do when the time comes."
"That's what everyone says."
They regarded each other for a long moment in silence.
"So what's been bothering you?" she asked.
He frowned and rolled on to his back, rested his hands on his stomach.
"Is it returning to the front?"
"I don't relish the prospect, but…no."
She waited. He stared at the ceiling.
"It's not my place to speak," he finally said.
"And when has that ever stopped you before?" she asked.
He gave a short laugh. "You know me too well."
"Good. Now out with it."
He sighed again.
"I'm worried about Downton."
"Downton?" she repeated. "Whatever for?"
He drew in a deep breath, let it out. "I'm concerned about Robert's investment strategy. I don't think it's sound."
She waved a hand. "Papa knows what he's doing. He's been the Earl for nearly a quarter-century."
"Normally, I would agree with you, but after what I heard—" his frown deepened. He turned to look at her. "Mary, he's investing the whole of the Estate's liquid assets in a single company!"
Mary rose up on one elbow and frowned down at him. "That can't be right. You must have misheard."
Matthew shook his head. "I only wish I had."
She looked away, puzzled. "But isn't it unwise to put all your eggs in one basket?"
"Absolutely!" Matthew said, making an annoyed gesture. "Murray tried to talk him out of it, but Robert was insistent."
Mary looked at him. "But why?"
Matthew's expression was derisive. "Too many details to manage otherwise."
Mary frowned. "That doesn't sound like Papa."
"Doesn't it?" Matthew asked. "I think it does."
"Why are you so set against him?" she asked, becoming angry.
Matthew's eyes widened and he held out his hands, placating her. "I'm not, Mary. I'm just worried. Your father does have a history of glossing over the details. I've seen him do it repeatedly with the cottages. He loses interest when the conversation becomes too embroiled in the particulars. He often left me to sort out the details with Jarvis." Matthew frowned. "That usually didn't go over very well. Without Robert's backing, it created more work for me to convince Jarvis and the foremen. They are reluctant to act without his explicit approval."
"As they should be," she returned quickly.
"Not when the idea is a good one," Matthew answered, clearly annoyed. He covered his eyes. "God, please, not you, too."
"He's not a lazy man," she said.
"I'm not saying he is," Matthew said quickly, drawing his hands away from his face. "I'm just saying that he prefers to look at the big picture. And he's very good at doing that, absolutely. A man in his position needs to have that skill. But he also needs to be willing to get down into the details. How else can he be certain that everything's in hand?"
"Papa believes in trusting his people," Mary said slowly.
Matthew nodded. "That's all very well," he said. "Admirable, even. But it does not excuse sloppiness."
She frowned and laid down on her back beside him, her thoughts in turmoil. Although Matthew was familiar with her father in a way that she had never been permitted to be, she could not shake the sense that she recognised something in Matthew's assessment. She'd seen her father deferring to Carson on numerous occasions and had thought it a sign of both his respect for Carson's judgement and his kindness to his servants, qualities that she strove to imitate. As she had never seen any negative repercussions of this approach, she had never had reason to doubt her father's wisdom before.
She did not like being asked to consider him in this new light.
She could easily be angry with her father for her own reasons, but to hear him being criticised by anyone outside the immediate family, even Matthew, raised her hackles. She frowned and stared at the ceiling.
She felt Matthew's hand run along her arm.
"I'm sorry, darling," he said. "I hadn't planned on telling you because I didn't want to upset you, but since you asked me directly…"
She nodded, still silent.
He shrugged beside her. "I only came into the tail end of the conversation. Perhaps it's nothing. Perhaps he knows something I don't about the Grand Trunk Railway. Perhaps it might all work out and pay off handsomely."
She turned to look at him. "But you don't think that's likely."
"I don't know. That's the point. No one does, not really."
She nodded and looked away again. "And if this investment goes badly…"
"…everything could be lost," he finished.
She rolled on to her side, facing away from him, and realised she still had the damp kerchief in her hand. She put it on her bedside table and then made herself comfortable on her pillow. After a long moment, she heard him sigh and start to turn away from her and she looked back over her shoulder. She did not want to spend this, their final night together on his leave, at odds with him.
"I'm not angry with you," she said, and patted the mattress directly behind her. "Please?"
His face lit up and he obeyed her so quickly that she giggled.
"What?" he asked, his arm sliding around her waist as he fit himself against her.
She felt a prodding behind her head and she lifted it in annoyed confusion, then realised he was just finding a comfortable way to slide his other arm underneath her head. She felt him settle and she smiled as she sank back against his warmth and firmness, closing her eyes. He sighed and his breath ran across her neck.
"Just you," she said.
"I amuse you?"
"Mmm," she said, moving her bottom slowly against his hips. "Amongst other things."
He laughed. "You're insatiable."
"You're not complaining."
"Absolutely not," he rumbled, pressing warm lips behind her ear. Then he relaxed back. "But I am still tired."
She made a disappointed sound and he chuckled.
"All right," he said. "Once more in the morning. But I can't delay. You must rouse me by half-past or I'll miss the train."
"Agreed," she said with a grin, and turned her head to kiss him. "I'll hold you to that."
"If you don't, I will," he said, grinning back.
And she settled down again, closing her eyes and humming her contentment.
"I trust you saw Matthew off properly this morning?" Violet asked, smiling at Mary over tea and biscuits. "We didn't see much of either of you these past few days."
"Why, Granny," Mary said, setting down her teacup. "You'll need your smelling-salts if we are to continue this line of conversation."
Violet glanced briefly at Mary's waist. "I'm just glad to see you happy," she said, nodding in a self-satisfied way. "Both of you."
Mary smirked. "Yes, you made a brilliant match."
Violet just raised her eyebrows. "More tea?"
"So," Violet said, lifting the teapot and beginning to pour for Mary. "What brings you here? I'm not objecting, mind you, but you never darken my doorstep without good reason."
"Am I really so mercenary?" Mary asked.
"Yes," Violet answered, pouring herself another cup. She set down the teapot. "It's one of your best qualities."
Mary shook her head as she picked up her teacup and saucer. She took a sip while looking out the window. "I'm afraid Matthew doesn't share your values."
"Of course he doesn't. These men of the moral high ground never do. But you and I both know that sometimes one must do distasteful things. We do not always have the luxuries that men have."
Mary met her eyes and nodded.
"What is the matter?" Violet asked.
Mary sighed and frowned. "It might be nothing; I'm not sure."
"But you are concerned. Is something amiss with Matthew? He seemed very distracted during Thursday dinner."
"No, not at all."
Violet relaxed and smiled. "I'm glad to hear it."
"It's about Papa," Mary said. "I extracted it from Matthew last night. He was rather reluctant to speak of it."
"Robert?" Violet asked. "What could possibly be amiss with your father that would have Matthew concerned? Did Robert confess something to him?"
"Not exactly," Mary said. "It was more that Papa didn't prevent Matthew from hearing it."
"Oh, do stop talking in riddles," Violet said, sitting forward now.
"Very well," Mary said, and set down her teacup and saucer. "Papa has invested—how did Matthew put it?—all of the Estate's liquid assets in a single enterprise."
Violet's eyebrows shot up. "All of your mother's fortune?"
"I assume that her money is included, yes."
Violet frowned. "This is not good."
"I can see why it would have Matthew concerned." Violet looked at Mary, narrowing her eyes. "How certain was he of this business?"
"He apparently heard Papa instructing Murray to do it, over Murray's objections."
"Oh, Robert," Violet muttered, looking away.
"You don't seem surprised," Mary observed.
Violet looked at her. "Something must be done."
"I agree," Mary said. "But what? Matthew is no longer here. I cannot confront Papa directly, and Mama has never shown the slightest interest in the running of the Estate."
"You've spoken to her?"
"No, but I don't expect that she would ever oppose Papa on a matter of business. I can hear her now, dismissing Matthew's concerns, saying that she trusts Papa and as Matthew is no longer the heir, he cannot possibly speak to such matters."
Violet looked at her. "I think you underestimate your mother."
Mary's eyebrows rose. "It was not so long ago that you could not bear to be in the same room with her above an hour," she said.
Violet smoothed her dress and looked towards the window. "Yes, well, we have had a fruitful partnership of late, and I have been greatly relieved that she has not turned out like your Grandmamma."
Mary lifted her teacup to her lips and hid a smirk.
Violet looked at her. "Tell your mother what you know. She is more than capable of handling your father."
Mary nodded. "I'll consider it."
"Don't wait too long," Violet cautioned, picking up a chocolate biscuit. "The opportunity for reinvestment might be limited."
Mary frowned and looked out the window as Violet formulated a plan of her own.
"I assume your grandmother sent you to me," Cora said as she walked beside Mary on the garden path. They were making their way repeatedly around the inside of the enclosing hedges while Norris stood beside Edward in the middle, preventing him from putting dirty remnants of ice and pebbles and mud and leaves and sticks in his mouth, and instead plying him with small treats from Mrs Patmore each time he began to cry, after the nanny had once again thwarted his attempts to eat his surroundings. The expression on Mary's face as she looked on made Cora smile to herself. Cora was confident that Mary would make a fine mother one day…as long as she had someone there to help with the less savoury aspects of the role.
"Yes," Mary replied, looking away from the spectacle that Edward had presented yet again. "Why does he keep doing that?"
"He's a baby, Mary," Cora said. "All babies do that at this age. You did. In fact, you managed to eat far worse things and I was beside myself with worry. But nothing came of it. Don't mind him. Norris will take good care of him."
Mary frowned but said nothing.
"I'll speak to your father," Cora said.
"Please don't mention Matthew. Approaching Papa isn't his idea; it's mine. I don't want there to be any bad blood between them."
"I won't, I promise."
"And don't delay any longer than absolutely necessary," Mary said.
"That is my affair," Cora said. "And I warn you, he will probably not inform me if he makes any changes, nor do I expect him to. Nothing may come of this."
"Or you might save our family from ruin," Mary said.
"That seems rather dramatic," Cora said.
"It is that serious, Mama, I hope you can see that."
"Of course I can see that," Cora said, frowning. "I just find it difficult to believe that your father would make such an unwise decision."
"So do I," Mary said. "For all we know, Matthew may have been wrong."
"But he's a lawyer," Cora said. "I doubt he misunderstood any part of that conversation with Murray. I am so relieved that Matthew is the Trustee now! If your father goes through with his plan…"
"Has he written to his old regiment?" Mary asked.
"Yes," Cora sighed.
Mary frowned. "Why are all men so eager to go to war?"
Cora stopped and turned to watch Edward toddle amongst the brown flowerbeds. "I wish I knew. Perhaps if we women did know why, we might have a chance of stopping these conflicts before they began."
Mary gave a bitter laugh. "I doubt it. I suspect our attempts would only drive them even further into it."
Cora chuckled. "You may be right."
"I know," Robert said, "that's why I agreed to make Matthew the Trustee." He shifted and pulled the covers over himself, getting comfortable. "Although I doubt anything will ever come of it."
"And I'm grateful," Cora said. "It gives me great peace of mind to know that a close member of the family, a man whom you trained, would be able to take care of us until Edward is of age. But that's what worries me: how can we be sure that all of this will still be here for Edward to inherit?"
"I've made arrangements," Robert said. "It's already been taken care of."
"But with so much uncertainty…and the war…I'm afraid, Robert. So many families whose seats seemed secure have lost them."
"Yes, to riotous living and dissolution," Robert said, his tone derisive. "No one can accuse me of exercising such poor judgement."
"Of course not," Cora said, cuddling closer to him and resting a hand on his shoulder. "That's not what I'm saying at all. I'm only saying that our situation is not unique. We could be in just as precarious a position as the Earl of Essex, for example, and not know until it's too late."
"George? What of him? I haven't heard that anything is amiss with him." Robert frowned. "Although now that you mention it, I haven't seen him at the club for some time…"
"Oh, it hasn't been made official yet, of course, but his health has been declining and according to your mother, the family has been in poor financial straits for a while. They were misled in certain large investments. It's generally expected that they'll sell up Cassiobury Park within a few years. Although with the uncertainty of the war, it could be much sooner."
"My mother," Robert said, frowning. "How does she know all this?"
"Oh, you know her," Cora shrugged. "I would be surprised if there were anything going on amongst the nobility that she doesn't know about."
Robert gave a short laugh. "Touché. But I hardly think their situation bears any resemblance to our own."
"It may bear more than you think," Cora said wisely.
"How do you mean?"
"His wife is an American heiress whose money, by all accounts, saved the family seat. For a time, at least. It appears that it may not have been enough."
Robert digested this.
Cora did not smile, although she very much wanted to. Her mother-in-law's network of spies had been very useful indeed.
Robert reached up and ran a hand into Cora's hair, pressing a warm kiss to her forehead. His hand drifted down to rub her shoulder.
"Don't fret, my darling. I've everything well in hand."
She smiled adoringly at him. "I trust you, my love."
"Good," he said. "I won't let you down. Downton Abbey will still be standing strong for our grandchildren to inherit. You'll see."
She kissed him and he held her close for a long moment before twisting away to put out the light.
"Good night," she murmured, as he settled down beside her.
He smiled at her in the darkness. "Good night, my darling."
George Murray sat reviewing a document that had been delivered by one of his clerks a few minutes earlier. He grunted and struck out a sentence, scribbling an annoyed note in the margin. Such a financial instrument would never be acceptable to the Duke of Beaufort! What had Marshall been thinking—?
Mrs Winstead rapped on the door.
"Enter," George called, running his pen through another line of text.
"Lord Grantham wishes to speak with you, sir," she said.
He looked up with a frown. "Lord Grantham?"
"He's on the line," she said, nodding towards the telephone on his desk.
George closed the portfolio with a snap and set it down on his desk, quickly capping the pen. "Did he say what it was about?"
"No," she answered. "Only that it is an urgent matter."
"Thank you, Mrs Winstead," he said, reaching for the telephone as she went out. She drew the door closed behind herself. He pulled the telephone nearer and put the receiver to his ear. "George Murray speaking. How may I be of service, Lord Grantham?"
"Murray. I'm glad I've caught you. It's rather urgent."
"I've nothing pressing this morning; I'm at your disposal."
"Excellent, excellent. Listen, have you put in the order for the Grand Trunk shares yet?"
George looked at the folder that still lay on the corner of his desk and smiled slightly, then schooled his features. "Not yet, my lord. Our office is still in the process of drawing up the paperwork for you to sign. It took some time to acquire all the necessary information from the Canadians."
Lord Grantham made a distinct sound of relief. "I've decided to take your advice, Murray," he said.
George raised his eyebrows. Best not to comment on that, for fear of jeopardising the earl's change in perspective. "What advice are you referring to, my lord?"
"I'd like to put only half of the Estate's assets into the Grand Trunk. Have you heard of any other lucrative ventures?"
George raised his eyebrows. "I hear of schemes every day. Would you like me to investigate several and present you with some possibilities?"
"Yes," Lord Grantham said. "Perhaps something a bit lower-risk for one of the remaining quarters, and something with medium risk for the last quarter?"
George smiled. "A wise strategy, my lord. I will look into it personally."
"Excellent. Thank you. Shall we say two weeks from today?"
"I'll expect you then," George said evenly. "I will of course keep you informed if anything arises in the meantime."
"Very good. Thank you, Murray. Good day to you."
"Good day, my lord."
George set the receiver on its hook and sat back, regarding the telephone with a small smile. He was burning with curiosity about what could have prompted such a change in the earl's plans. George had heard no news about the Grand Trunk Railway and still thought it a poor investment, albeit one with a slight chance of becoming lucrative if the company's Board came through on its promises. Still, something must have influenced Lord Grantham.
George returned the telephone to its usual spot on his desk, then pushed his chair back and stood up, still smiling, and strode across to the door. Lieutenant Crawley was the most likely culprit. George had not thought him capable of exerting such influence over the earl, especially now that he was no longer the heir presumptive, but perhaps George had underestimated the young lawyer. He would do well to keep an eye on Matthew Crawley; he might yet turn out to be an asset.
He pulled open the door and looked out. "Call Marshall and James in," he said. "And pull the latest circular from Barclays, along with the dossiers on treasury bills and exchequer bonds. I want to be ready to move on this as quickly as possible." Before Lord Grantham has the opportunity to change his mind again. "And put Lord Grantham down in my diary for the eleventh."
"Yes, sir," Mrs Winstead said. "Good news?"
George gave her a tight smile. "Better than we had before."
She nodded and rose from her desk as he turned back to his own. He let himself smile once more before sitting down and reaching for the Beaufort proposal, the sight of which drove the smile quickly from his face. There were a great many decisions to oversee and several hours still to go before he could break for lunch.