Duneagle Castle, 6 December 1920
Mary and Matthew sat in a tense silence, both looking out the car windows nearest them, although neither was paying close attention to the surrounding landscape. Matthew frowned; Mary had assumed a bored expression, although the sharp light in her eyes belied her disinterest.
The car bumped over the frozen ground, jostling the baby basket that rested on the seat between them, and Charlie roused with a cry of protest, opening his eyes. Both parents immediately softened their postures as they turned to him.
"Shh, my darling," Mary said, reaching into the basket to lift him out. Mewling, Charlie jerked his arms and legs, dislodging his blanket. Mary loosened the folds of cloth while cradling his head.
"Do you want—?" Matthew gestured towards the bag at their feet.
"Yes, please," Mary answered, her tone clipped as Charlie set to wailing. With a sigh, Matthew bent down and rummaged in the bag until he drew out a small glass bottle, half-filled with milk. Holding it between his knees, he fished a rubber teat out of the bag and deftly fitted it into a hollow cap, then unscrewed the cap on the bottle and quickly screwed the teat on in its place. Making sure the seal was firm, he handed the bottle across to Mary. It took her a few moments to get Charlie's attention, and he whimpered a bit when he realised it was the rubber teat, but eventually he quieted and began to gulp the milk. Both parents relaxed slightly.
"I'm sorry, my lady," the chauffeur said, glancing back at them in the rear-view mirror. "The road is a bit rough in this patch."
"It's quite all right," Mary replied. She glanced at Matthew, who met her gaze briefly before dropping his eyes to Charlie. She looked back out the window with a sigh.
Dusk was falling as the caravan of motorcars pulled on to the long driveway that led up to Duneagle. The nearby firs and hedges remained a dark green, but further afield, bare trees stood on the frost-covered grounds, starkly outlined against a sunset of brilliant reds and blues.
"Even in winter, Scotland is breathtaking," Matthew murmured.
"It is beautiful," Mary agreed, handing the bottle back to Matthew to stow in the bag. "But it's rather disconcerting to find it growing dark so early in the afternoon." Charlie gave a cry of protest and squirmed when the car rounded a bend and the long, thin rays of sunlight hit his eyes, so she shifted him into the shadow of her arms, and returned to watching the castle rise up before them.
The tyres crunched on the gravel drive as the chauffeur slowed the car and pulled to a stop. Mary tugged Charlie's woollen cap down over his ears and made sure his blanket was wrapped securely round him as Matthew gathered up the bag of baby things and Mary's handbag before climbing out. He went to the car behind to see to Nanny Hollis and George, as Bates looked after Anna and their things. Accepting the chauffeur's hand, Mary stepped out, holding a faintly-squirming Charlie against her chest. Sybil, emerging from the car ahead, gave Mary a quick smile before turning to join Rosamund as they went up the steps into the castle.
Rose stood at the top of the steps, her blonde hair neatly pinned back and her cheeks pink with the snap of cold in the air. Her breath rose up in white wisps as she grinned down at them all. "Welcome!" she exclaimed, rushing down a step to link her arm with Sybil's. "I'm so glad you've come!"
Mary followed them up into the house, where Shrimpie and Susan stood just inside the doorway, Shrimpie clad in kilt and sporran.
"Come in quickly, come in," Susan commanded, hurrying everyone inside. After giving Mary's handbag to Anna, Matthew entered with Nanny and George before him. The butler pushed the door closed with a solid bang, shutting out the cold air, and began collecting everyone's coats and hats.
"Rosamund," Shrimpie said with a smile, stepping forward to exchange a cheek kiss with her. "It's been too long."
"We're so glad we could entice you up this far north, particularly at this time of year," Susan agreed.
"I'm delighted to be here," Rosamund replied, smiling at them both. "It will be quite nice to spend the Christmas season with family, instead of just hosting parties alone in London."
"You're always welcome at Downton, you know," Mary observed with a smirk.
"Oh, I know, but I do rather enjoy my parties," Rosamund said, her eyes glittering in warning and amusement.
Rose stepped up to stand beside her father and fixed Matthew with a cheery look. "Hello!" she said in a purposely-bright tone. "Daddy, this is Matthew. Defender of the downtrodden. Including me." She watched him closely as she smiled at him.
Matthew chuckled, his gaze quickly sliding from her to Shrimpie. "I don't know why I've earned that," he replied, reaching out to shake the older man's hand.
"I'm pleased to finally meet you," Shrimpie answered. "I'm sorry I couldn't get away for your wedding."
"It was perfectly understandable, given the circumstances," Matthew replied.
"Robert has told me so much about you."
"Good things, I hope," Matthew said.
"Always." Shrimpie's eyes twinkled.
Relaxing, Rose turned away. "Oh, there are so many things I want to tell you!" she said to Sybil and Mary, nearly bouncing in her excitement.
"I'm sure they're all quite worn out from their journey," Susan said sharply. "We must let them get settled in their rooms." She looked at Mary. "Let me show you to the nursery."
"Thank you," Mary answered, smiling back in genuine relief as she followed Lady Flintshire towards the stairs. Glancing over her shoulder, Mary saw Nanny carrying George, who was staring at everything with wide eyes. As they passed through the armoury hall, Mary glanced up at the familiar displays of old hunting rifles, spears, maces, and axes, memoirs of a more violent age. The weapons seemed incongruous with the otherwise richly-decorated surroundings.
"It's all just as I remember it," Rosamund mused, looking up as she followed along with Anna close behind. "It's good to see everything so well cared for."
"I'm afraid it's been many years since the nursery has seen any use, however," Susan said to Mary. "I've had it cleaned and aired out and stocked with a few items."
"That's very good of you. Thank you," Mary said, glancing back at Nanny. "But I think we've brought everything we'll need."
"Well," Susan replied, with a slight bite in her tone, "since you'll be here for three weeks, it can't hurt to be prepared."
"That's very wise," Mary agreed. She exchanged a pointed glance with Rosamund, then turned back to smile at Susan.
"I'm organizing a Christmas Market!" Rose said to Sybil, where they still stood in the entranceway. "Daddy said he hadn't been to one since he was a boy and I think he'll love it. I've spoken to Mrs MacKenzie, the cook, and everyone agrees we should do it."
"That will be a great deal of work, won't it?" Sybil asked.
"Well, yes, but we've got weeks to make the decorations and organize the food," Rose answered, her face alight. "We can start a new Christmas tradition, and invite everyone!"
"Don't you already host everyone for Christmas dinner?"
"Yes," Rose said, linking her arm with Sybil's. "But this will be a day-long party, with sleigh rides and skating and a crafts market, and all the village invited, not just the tenants..."
Shrimpie shook his head fondly as he watched the two young women walk away. "How was your trip?" he asked, turning to Matthew.
"Good, much as expected. Charlie did well, but George fussed a bit on the train. Thank you, once again, for having us."
"We're happy to do it," Shrimpie said. "I must confess, the Christmas season here is rather dreary these days, with James and Margaret and their children down at Newtonmore. Annabel and William wanted to visit them this year." Shrimpie shrugged. "I can hardly blame them. It's a bit warmer down in Wales."
"If you don't mind my asking, how did you come by an estate in the Highlands, if the Newtonmore title is Welsh?" Matthew asked, striding beside Shrimpie as they went into the library.
"My mother was the Marchioness of Flintshire," Shrimpie replied. "The title is one of the few that can pass through the female line."
"Ah." Matthew nodded.
Shrimpie went over to the side-table and lifted a bottle. "Whisky? There's a good distillery outside the village, near the seaside."
Matthew smiled. "I'll try it. Thank you."
Shrimpie poured them both a dram and the two men settled into the high-backed armchairs beside the open fire.
"Is Mr Branson settled?" Shrimpie asked quietly.
Matthew nodded. "He's taken a room at an inn at Gretna Green."
"I'm sorry I couldn't invite him up with you all, but I'm afraid Susan wouldn't have been amenable to it and I'd rather not raise her interest as to why I'd ask. She sees having a houseful of family relations to attend to already trying enough."
"That's quite all right," Matthew said. "With Sybil here and plenty of witnesses to attest to it, there's no real need. You've been far more generous than we had any right to expect."
"Nonsense." Shrimpie shook his head. "I can't tell you how glad we are. We weren't able to host everyone in September. I hadn't expected we could get away this year, and I might have to go back down to London for a few days, but an extended Christmas holiday with family is just the thing." He smiled, lifting his tumbler to his lips, and Matthew did the same.
"How goes it in the Foreign Office now?" Matthew asked, when he finished savouring a taste of the whisky.
Shrimpie groaned and looked heavenward a moment. "I assume you've been reading the papers," he said, and Matthew nodded. "Eastern Europe is in shambles. The refugee problem is only worsening, and with the Brest-Litovsk Treaty now abrogated, everyone is jostling for position. Each month, it seems some ethnic group or other is declaring themselves to be a new state or trying to join a neighbouring country. Dozens of borders are in dispute, and although Russia is still in turmoil, they're rattling their sabres in every direction. And the Versailles Treaty is no panacea, either. Germany is scrambling to pay its debts and going mad in the process. Chamberlain is predicting terrible inflation. The Weimar Republic's flailings are setting the whole Continent on edge, not to mention worsening our own problems at home. And don't even get me started on the Middle East, and the situations developing in India and Nigeria." He sighed, then sagged a bit. "It's a constant string of headaches, basically."
"The colonies' troops fought alongside our own," Matthew said, frowning in thought as he watched the flames dance and flicker through the dark amber liquid in his tumbler. "They want to be treated with equal respect."
Shrimpie nodded. "That's about the shape of it." He sighed. "The business of running an empire is far less romantic than it sounds."
Matthew chuckled, but the frown quickly returned to his face.
"Enough of my complaints." Shrimpie gestured with his drink. "How is business coming along for you? Robert mentioned something about you expanding?"
"Yes," Matthew answered, looking up. "Surprisingly enough, given the climate, we're still getting more work than we can meet, so we're setting up a new firm."
"Growing beyond what your current employer wants to handle, I take it?"
"Something like that." Matthew crossed his legs. "We'd like to be more nimble in our payment structures. Mary's had rather a good idea about how to accommodate smaller clients, and if we want to take them on, we'll need to be willing to shoulder more of the risk."
"Where are you with everything?"
"Still in the early stages. We've got the office set up and we've met a client or two there, but I'm still completing my obligations with Murray, Frobisher, and Curran. I haven't been able to dedicate my full energies to the new venture yet." Matthew smiled. "I expect, once the New Year comes round, we'll be entering the brave new world of hiring staff."
"Ah," Shrimpie nodded. "And managing them."
"Exactly. The first priority is to find a suitable office manager, to free us up to do the main work." Matthew gave a self-deprecating smirk. "I'm afraid neither Tom nor I have very developed administrative skills."
"Well..." Shrimpie smiled and settled comfortably back in his armchair. "...good luck with that."
"We could take a day trip to Edinburgh and do some Christmas shopping," Rosamund suggested. "Not tomorrow, of course, but perhaps a bit later in the week?"
"Oh, what a good idea!" Rose put in with a smile, glancing round at the group of women who had settled in the drawing room after dinner. "There are so many supplies we'll need to buy for the Market and a trip to Edinburgh will help immensely."
Susan flattened her lips and glared at Rose before addressing the other women. "It will mean rising before dawn to catch the train, if you don't want to spend more time travelling than actually enjoying yourselves."
"We could always take a room—" Rose began.
"No," Susan snapped. "You are not spending the night in the city."
Rose's face creased into a shocked frown.
"I'm afraid I can't leave Charlie for an overnight trip," Mary said in a placating tone, her gaze moving between mother and daughter as she put on a polite smile.
"Why not?" Susan asked, focusing on Mary with a frown. "You've brought your nanny along."
Mary pursed her lips and looked down. "I've chosen to nurse him, as I did with George." Mary's lips pulled up in a smirk as she met Susan's disapproving gaze. "It does wonders for one's figure, you know."
Susan gave a short, closed-mouth laugh and her eyes drifted derisively to Rose. "Perhaps that's what I should have done." Then Susan put on a smile. "Annabel is expecting again."
"Oh, how many grandchildren do you and Shrimpie have now?" Rosamund asked.
"With this one, it will be five," Susan answered.
"You must love to have them visit," Sybil said with a smile.
Susan glanced away, smoothing her gown. "Well, at least they never stay for long." She looked at Mary. "Robert and Cora must be pleased to have so many grandchildren. Tell me, how is your sister Edith? I haven't seen her since before the war."
"Edith is well," Mary replied. "She just had her third child, Peter. I'm told he's a ginger."
"Oh." Susan frowned. "You've haven't seen him yet?"
"I'm afraid not," Mary said. "I haven't been back to Yorkshire since she gave birth."
"Great-Aunt Violet said Edith married a man twice her age," Rose said. "What's he like?"
"He's very kind, a good listener," Sybil answered. "The sort of person who will remember some small project you mentioned months ago and ask you how it's coming along." She smiled. "He makes you feel as though your opinion matters."
Mary shot Sybil an incredulous look, but Sybil shrugged it off.
"But isn't he terribly old?" Rose pressed.
"What's wrong with being old?" Rosamund asked Rose, the older woman's eyes glittering with humour.
"Oh...nothing," Rose answered quickly, giving Rosamund a nervous smile. "Only, for a husband, it seems quite..." Rosamund raised her eyebrows, waiting, and Rose stammered, "...boring?"
"Oh, do be quiet," Susan snapped. "You're only making a fool of yourself."
Rose looked down at her hands with wide eyes, her jaw working.
"I prefer 'experienced'," Rosamund said gently, and Rose lifted her head. "Just consider how much better it would be to be with a mature man, and not a mere, fumbling boy." She raised her eyebrows and Rose blinked, absorbing this, before looking back down as a flush crept up her neck.
"Well, there is a downside to marrying a much older man," Mary said.
"Mary!" Sybil hissed, leaning closer with a frown.
"What?" Mary asked, not lowering her voice or changing her posture in the least. "Anthony's health is declining. I should hate to think that Edith might become a young widow." Despite her words, Mary's tone did not sound particularly sympathetic.
"That would be tragic," Susan agreed. "But at least she would be free to marry again."
"Mummy!" Rose said, looking up sharply with a frown.
"I'm only speaking the truth," Susan replied. "There's no need to look at me like that."
Rose glared at her and looked away, then brightened as Matthew and Shrimpie entered the room.
"What's the uncomfortable truth in the room?" Matthew asked with a smile, taking his seat in the empty place beside Sybil. "Nothing too shocking, I hope."
"It's probably best not to ask," Shrimpie said dryly, wandering over to stand beside the mantelpiece.
"We were just discussing Edith and Anthony," Mary said. "How his health is declining."
Matthew nodded, a slight frown creasing his forehead. "It's very unfortunate," he agreed. "He's a good man."
Sybil gave Mary a triumphant look; Mary only smirked.
"They sent their regrets," Susan said with a nod. "As did Robert and Cora. Although of course it's perfectly understandable: it is Advent, after all. There are traditions to keep and obligations to uphold. We understand that, don't we?" Susan directed this last to Shrimpie, who only frowned and shifted his stance.
"I like to think we can start new traditions," Rose put in, a renewed smile on her face. "Don't you agree, Daddy?"
"I do...within reason," he said, his gaze shifting uncomfortably between her and Susan.
When Mary and Rosamund began discussing their favourite Downton Christmas traditions, Sybil leaned towards Matthew and spoke in a low tone. "Convenient, isn't it?"
"Why Mama and Papa cannot attend," she replied, a distinctly bitter note in her tone.
Matthew's eyes flickered round the room before returning to her in warning, and he lowered his voice. "You could hardly expect anything different, surely."
He glanced away from Sybil and saw that Rose, who sat on his other side, was watching their conversation with a slight frown of curiosity on her face. Matthew smiled.
"I noticed that you have a gramophone in the ballroom," he said, relaxing and letting his smile widen as his gaze flickered across to the sharp-eyed Susan, who was clearly taking no interest in the Downton reminisces. "Do you enjoy music?"
"It's Rose's," Susan replied. "Ghastly thing."
"I do," Rose answered, ignoring her mother. "Ooh! Shall we have some dancing?" Rose made as if to bounce up from the sofa, but her mother shot her a quelling look.
"Don't be ridiculous," Susan said. "It's only their first evening here after a long and tiring journey. No one wants to dance."
Rose looked crestfallen, but Matthew only leaned towards her with a smile and murmured, "Another night, perhaps?"
Rose nodded and tried to smile, but it seemed more of a flinch as she avoided her mother's glare.
"Tell me more of this Christmas Market you're planning," Matthew said.
Rose relaxed slightly and glanced back at Shrimpie. "It was Daddy's idea, really. He'd been to one in Frankfurt when he was a boy, and he thought it might be a nice way to liven up the dark afternoons here." Rose grinned. "He was the one who suggested that we make a skating rink on the loch's edge and have sleigh rides between the castle and the rink! I think we can set up a tent there and serve hot mulled wine to the skaters." Shrimpie smiled at her and she straightened, confident and smiling as she turned back to Matthew.
"That sounds wonderful," Matthew agreed.
"Sleigh rides will be impractical if we haven't any snow," Susan observed.
"We shall organize wagon rides, then, shan't we?" Rose replied, too sweetly.
Susan shifted in her chair, displaying her displeasure as the conversation continued on unabated.
When the party broke up, Sybil, Rose, and Rosamund went upstairs first, with Mary and Matthew following behind. He moved to rest his hand on the small of Mary's back, but at her cold glance, he dropped it again with a frown.
"How can you support her in this?" Susan hissed behind them.
Matthew and Mary both stiffened, but neither turned to look back at Susan; their eyes only met in embarrassed discomfort as they mounted the stairs. The conversation between Shrimpie and Susan was obviously meant to be private, but the sounds echoed clearly across the hall.
There was only stony silence from Shrimpie, and then Susan hissed, "We both know why we shouldn't be doing this!"
"Why won't you just let us enjoy a happy time while we can?" Shrimpie snapped.
Susan heaved a sigh, and then only one set of footsteps—hers—clicked across the marble floor of the hall.
Mary and Matthew shared a frowning glance as they continued up the stairs.
"I'm only saying that you should have consulted me first." Matthew shrugged out of his dressing gown and tossed it over the back of a nearby armchair before climbing into bed.
Mary sighed, walking to the bed as she finished massaging cream into her hands. She pulled back the covers and climbed in beside him. "If I waited to speak with you about every little conversation that I want to begin, we'd never make any progress."
He glared at her. "I'm not asking you to get my permission for every conversation," he replied. "But you cannot offer our services to new clients before we're ready to provide them!"
She shimmied down under the covers and pulled them up to her chin. "I didn't offer your services. I only suggested that Mr Hardwicke speak to you."
"Yes, by implying that I could see him immediately, when of course you know Tom and I aren't going to be able to see anyone for weeks."
"I implied nothing of the sort!"
Matthew huffed as he laid down and tugged the covers up to his waist. "Then why did Hardwicke show up demanding that we see him?"
"He's desperate, perhaps?"
Matthew growled under his breath. "That's an understatement."
Mary turned on to her side, facing him. "Why are you objecting, Matthew? I would think you'd be happy that I'm sending business your way."
"I am," he sighed, and thumped his hands on the covers in frustration. He looked at her. "Thank you."
"But all of this—this—" He cut himself off, looking away.
He frowned, his jaw working. "I saw you with Charles Blake, too."
She raised her eyebrows and glared at Matthew, waiting.
"You were..." He gestured helplessly and jutted his chin in accusation.
He grit his teeth. "Flirting."
She pushed herself up on one elbow. "I was just being friendly, darling, you know that. It's merely how my kind of people do business."
"That doesn't mean I have to like it."
She narrowed her eyes. "Just what are you accusing me of?"
His nostrils flared, but he didn't answer.
Mary laid back down with an angry huff. "Neither you nor Tom have many connections in the upper echelons of Society, where most of your clients keep company. If you want to attract new business in this economy, you'll need to make concessions. You need to stop thinking of me as your possession and start thinking of me as an asset."
Matthew sighed, then rolled towards her. She didn't look at him.
"I don't think of you as my possession," he said quietly. "But...I can't help disliking the way other men often look at you."
She arched an eyebrow. "They have always looked at me that way," she replied. And they always will, if I have anything to say about it.
"True," he conceded, "but it bothers me when you invite them to."
She held his gaze a moment. "I am who I am, darling. I can turn a man's head if I wish, and I will use that skill, and all others at my disposal, to support you in your ambitions."
His brows drew down and he appeared to be struggling to swallow a reply. "No," he finally answered. "The ends do not justify the means."
Giving him a small smile, Mary reached out and ran her fingers up into his hair. "I will always be in your bed, darling, and none other."
"I know that," he said, and his hand found her hip. He sighed. "I trust you."
"Then let me do what I can to help you."
He lifted his eyes to hers. "Just be careful, Mary, please. You know better than most what a 'harmless' bit of flirting can lead to."
She dropped her gaze and frowned down at the bedclothes between them, swallowing.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I promised myself I'd never resurrect him. God, I'm so sorry."
"No," she whispered. "You're right."
He moved his hand up from her hip to stroke her hair, and shifted closer until he was resting his forehead against hers. "You are very skilled in society," he murmured. "Thank you for bringing more business our way. You're right: every bit helps."
Mary smirked, lifting her eyes to his. "Especially if you want to continue growing our family."
Matthew chuckled. "Someday," he said. "Not yet."
"No," she agreed, as he pulled her close for a kiss. When they parted, she smiled in apology. "You can kiss me, darling, but that's it. The day's travelling has tired me out."
Disappointment was clear in his features, but he nodded.
"Keep me warm?" she asked, and he smiled.
And they settled together, eventually relaxing into sleep.
"Ah, Matthew, thank you for joining me," Shrimpie said, looking up from his desk in the library the next morning. He had several ledgers spread out before him, and as his eyes returned to them, he frowned.
"Of course," Matthew replied. He wandered closer and pushed his hands into his pockets. "McCree said you wanted to speak with me?"
"Only if you haven't any other plans this morning."
"No." Matthew gestured with one hand. "Mary wanted to spend our first day here just resting."
Shrimpie nodded. "I was hoping to discuss business with you, but if you'd prefer to rest as well..."
Matthew smiled and shrugged. "No, I don't mind. Shall I?" He pointed at a nearby armchair and Shrimpie nodded, so Matthew made himself comfortable. "What's this about?"
"Whenever we're at our club, Robert talks of the modernisations that you and Mr Branson have been helping him with. Robert is quite taken with your ideas, you know."
"Really?" Matthew raised his eyebrows. "That's news to me."
Shrimpie chuckled. "Well, change isn't easy for anyone."
Matthew nodded, smiling.
"Least of all me." Shrimpie's amusement faded and he glanced round the room with a sad air. "There isn't any hope left for this place," he began, "but there might yet be hope for Newtonmore. It's a much smaller estate."
"Is it so bad here?" Matthew asked, sitting forward and interlacing his fingers. "Most landowners we've worked with have resources that they just haven't considered, or sources of waste that could be pruned down."
"That's not the case here, I'm afraid," Shrimpie replied with a shake of his head. "This estate was never self-sufficient even at the height of its glory, and I'm afraid I've just sat on my hands as the money drained away." He gestured towards the door. "You might have noticed that we're not running with a full staff."
Matthew nodded. "How much longer do you think you can hold out?"
"Another two or three years, perhaps?" Shrimpie said. "But enough of that. I won't be Laird of Duneagle for much longer. James has been overseeing Newtonmore since before the war, and he's been prodding me to consider making changes there. He's got ideas and the gumption to see them through, but I must confess, I'm much more a diplomat than a farmer."
"So what do you propose?"
"Come down to Newtonmore in the early spring," Shrimpie answered. "You can bring your family along, if you wish."
Matthew smiled. "Thank you, that's very kind. I won't presume to challenge your assessment of this place, but would you like to discuss it?"
"I don't suppose it could hurt," Shrimpie said, then grinned. "And it will give us an excuse to escape this houseful of women."
Matthew chuckled and nodded.
"There's a good pub in the village," Shrimpie continued, settling back in his chair. "A comfortable spot to warm your feet on a dark afternoon."
"It sounds perfect." Matthew grinned, then shot Shrimpie a sidelong glance. "Would you like to meet Mr Branson before you hire him? If you invited him here, we could take him round with us."
Shrimpie's eyes narrowed. "You trust him, I take it?"
Matthew lifted his chin. "He'll not take advantage of the situation, if that's what you mean."
"Robert did not object to my hosting you all, and the reason for it," Shrimpie said, "but I have no desire to betray his trust."
"Nor I," Matthew agreed. "Since Lady Flintshire is not eager to expand the party, perhaps Tom would only join us a day or two before the Christmas Market?"
Shrimpie smiled grimly and nodded. "I think that might do."
Two weeks later
"Oh, another rock. Thank you, darling." Mary smiled down as George toddled away, bundled in his fur-lined cap and thick coat, searching for more pebbles to bring back to his parents. "He's lost his mitten again. Matthew, would you—?"
Matthew nodded and bent down to pick up the discarded item. "George, come to Daddy, please..."
"So do you think you'll continue offering legal services, too?"
Matthew finished tugging on one mitten just as George shook off the other and proceeded to step on it in pursuit of a frozen acorn. With a sigh, Matthew picked up the dropped mitten and tried to clean it off while George proffered his acorn and waved it happily in Matthew's face.
"No, Georgie boy, that's an acorn." Matthew chuckled, finished tugging on the second mitten, and straightened up. "Yes, it seems wise to offer all that we can. I don't expect the assessment business will be booming indefinitely."
"You'll need to hire a law clerk, then."
"No, a legal secretary will do," he corrected. "Clerks generally only serve judges." He smiled at Mary. "You're a very skilled legal secretary, you know."
Mary smiled, then turned back towards the castle with a slight frown. "Charlie will be rousing soon. I should go in to nurse him."
Nodding, Matthew scooped up George, accepted an acorn cap and an ice-encrusted twig from him, then surreptitiously tossed them away behind him as he joined Mary. They walked back across the bridge towards the nearest side-entrance into the vast castle.
"So would the legal secretary manage the office?" Mary asked.
"For an office as small as ours, she might," Matthew answered. "But if we add another employee or two to help with the assessments, we'll need a proper office manager."
Mary nodded, lost in thought as they crossed over the threshold into the private entrance hall. The butler came over to accept their winter things.
"I hope you had a pleasant walk, my lady, sir," he said, politely distant.
"We did," Matthew replied, as Mary helped him extract George from his coat.
"Lunch will be served in forty-five minutes."
"Thank you, McCree," Mary replied. "We'll be up in the nursery if anyone asks."
"Very good, my lady."
When they reached the nursery, they found Rose holding a wailing Charlie and Sybil looking on, unconcerned, as Nanny Hollis disposed of a soiled nappy.
"He just woke up," Rose said, jiggling him gently as she paced back and forth. "Shhh, little dear, Mummy's come."
Mary took her customary seat in the rocking chair and accepted the nursing blanket and a pillow from Nanny Hollis, then reached up to receive Charlie when Rose brought him over. With practiced ease, Mary soon had Charlie nursing contentedly under the blanket.
"Come, George, let's read a book before your lunch," Matthew said, looking away from watching Mary with a contented smile. Sybil sat down on the child-sized bed across from the bookshelf, relaxing back against the wall as Rose went over to join Matthew and George on the floor.
"Which one today?" Rose asked, starting to riffle through the slim volumes on the shelf. "Katie Crackernuts! Oh, I haven't read this one in ages!"
"Very well," Matthew said with a chuckle. "Be my guest."
"It's about dancing!" Rose said in a stage-whisper to George, who had lost interest in the bookshelf and was walking towards the toybox, arms outstretched. "I know you love dancing!"
"Especially to Pack Up Your Troubles," Sybil observed with a giggle. "He jigs about in the most adorable little circles."
"Good, that's settled, then," Rose declared. "We'll have dancing after dinner tonight, and I don't care what anyone says." She nodded as she settled in to read, opening the first page of the book. "'Once upon a time, there was a king and a queen...'"
"Oh, Daddy, please stick up for me!" Rose exclaimed, trembling with anger as she stood in her mother's bedroom, looking between her parents with a pleading expression.
"Don't you dare take her side in this!" Susan snapped at Shrimpie. "You've done enough damage already."
"But Mummy, it's the fashion now!"
"Then it is a mad fashion." Susan turned on Shrimpie with a snarl. "How could you let her dress like that? What kind of father are you?!" She flung her arm out at Rose. "I told you she looks like a slut, and after this evening's performance, now we can all see that she dances like one, too!"
Rose burst into tears and fled from the room, as the sound of her mother's shrill voice continued behind her. Thankfully, there were no servants about in the darkened hallway, and Rose hurried to the place where she had always hidden from her mother since childhood: a small, curtained alcove off the gallery. It was a barely a nook, probably not meant to be used for anything, the curtain only hung to cover up a regrettably awkward joint in the architecture, but it was her refuge.
Rose slipped into the space; it felt much more cramped than she remembered, but she could still fit if she pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them tightly. From her vantage point, hidden in the dark corner, she could look down over the ballroom, see the many glass windows, and find some peace in the quiet space, alone. She'd snuck to this spot once or twice with Annabel when they were very young, to watch the Ghillies' Ball after they were supposed to be in bed, but their parents had held balls so infrequently that Rose was far more accustomed to the quiet, echoing darkness when she hid here.
The lights were low, but they still glowed on the far side of the ballroom, and there was a shuffling noise, of paper being crinkled and drawn across a surface. Rose frowned, craning her head to see the source of the sound.
Matthew stood before the gramophone, his back to her, still dressed in his tails, and he seemed to be putting a record on the turntable. A moment later, the familiar, cheerful strains of Any Old Night began to play, and Rose smiled as she watched Matthew sway slightly in time with the music. She closed her eyes and let her head rest back against the wall; it was a curious quirk of the architecture, but if she put her head in just the right spot, the music echoed up as clearly as if she were standing right beside the gramophone.
The singer on the record began the expected words, but a moment later, a pleasant alto voice joined it in a harmony, and Rose's eyes flew open in surprise.
—Why should I care?
Round the world let them race;
My own opinion is this!
And then a light tenor joined the woman's alto voice over the sound of the recording:
Any old night is a wonderful night
If you're there with a wonderful girl
Whether you stroll in romantic moonlight
Or in a ballroom you whirl
I've seen the glad nights, the mad nights
The dry nights, the wet
But there are some nights I never forget
Any old night is a wonderful night
If you're there with a wonderful girl
There was a warmth and a mutual ease in the duet, but then the new singers' voices devolved into soft giggles and a light moan, and Rose flushed. Feeling a Peeping Tom but unable to resist, she peered round the stone railing to see Mary and Matthew dancing alone in the ballroom below. They were parting as though they had just kissed, and Rose watched them with wide eyes.
They were so beautiful together. They moved as one, relaxed but perfectly in time. Each of their faces, when they turned and she could see their expressions, was transformed. She could point to nothing specific that had changed, but it seemed as though whatever mien they normally wore in company was dropped when they thought themselves alone. The change was far more pronounced in Mary than in Matthew, however, and Rose's mouth dropped open a little to see it. Mary's smile was free and genuine, even girlish, without a trace of her usual superciliousness or polite formality. Rose had long wished she were half as elegant as Mary always seemed to be, but in this moment, Rose wished for something entirely different: to be able to smile as freely as Mary did now, content and joyful and at peace with the man she loved. Rose sniffed and smiled as she wiped the old tears from her cheeks.
The song drew to a close and the dancers parted, Matthew going to stop the turntable and return the record to its sleeve. Mary wandered behind more slowly, following him to the table, and her hand drifted to his back when she reached him.
"Did Charlie go down easily?" Matthew asked.
"I assume so," Mary replied. "When I left, Nanny had things well in hand."
Matthew linked his fingers with hers and they walked to one of the floor-to-ceiling windows. She leaned back against him as he wrapped his arms around her from behind, and they stood quietly together, looking out.
"I've been thinking," Matthew said. "Would you like to be our office manager?"
Mary smiled and turned her head towards him. "I thought you would never ask."
"I didn't want to assume it," he replied. "I already ask so much of you. You manage our family, the house, the staff..."
"Anna and Bates practically manage themselves," Mary said, returning her gaze to the window. "I have no concerns about our household with them in charge."
"And Ethel's coming along quite nicely," Matthew agreed.
"Call her 'Mrs Parks', darling," Mary chided gently. "Well, it helps that she has a reason to succeed. That was an inspired idea you had, hiring her."
"You needn't sound so surprised. I do occasionally have good ideas."
"Mmm." Mary's cheeks pulled up in a smile and she swayed slightly, sliding against him, and he moved with her. When they stilled again, Mary said, "To own the truth, I'm relieved you asked. I haven't Mrs Bryant's sweet nature. I don't think I could bear to fill my days with merely organizing new parish fundraising schemes."
"Why not? It's what your mother does, if perhaps on a larger scale."
"I don't know if you've noticed," Mary answered dryly, "but I'm not my mother."
"No." Matthew laughed softly.
"Do you think Tom will approve?"
There was a smile in Matthew's tone. "I should hope so. It was his idea, after all."
Mary chuckled. "What time does he arrive tomorrow?"
"Ten o'clock. I've arranged things with Shrimpie's agent: he'll meet us for lunch at the pub in the village."
"So Sybil and I are just to trail along, taking photographs with your Brownie whilst you and Tom talk shop with the agent? That sounds enthralling."
Matthew chuckled. "It won't take long, I promise. We'll spend perhaps an hour after lunch with him. He's got some Newtonmore papers somewhere in his office, Shrimpie says. Once we've got those in hand, we'll have the rest of the afternoon free to wander the glen."
"I know I ought to disapprove of Sybil and Tom spending so much time together directly before their wedding, but I suppose there's nothing for it."
Rose gasped, then covered her mouth.
"No, there isn't," Matthew said. "And we shouldn't look for a reason to keep them apart. They haven't seen each other for nearly three weeks."
"All the more cause to be careful, if they are anything like we were in the week before our wedding."
Matthew chuckled and gave a low hum as he lowered his head to kiss the side of her neck. Rose drew back, swallowing. She wasn't unfamiliar with such attentions from a man, and she had certainly seen her share of couples hiding in dark recesses at clubs in London, but it didn't seem right to continue watching Mary and Matthew in this moment.
There was a sigh behind her and she jumped, twisting in surprise.
It was her father, holding aside the curtain. His gaze shifted from the scene below to look down at where Rose sat at his feet. She opened her mouth to speak, but he beckoned for her to be silent and come out of the nook, so she unfolded herself and stepped quietly out into the darkened hallway. He began to walk towards her bedroom, and she fell into step beside him. They strode in silence past her mother's bedroom.
When they had stopped outside Rose's bedroom door, she spoke quietly. "Were you and Mummy ever like that?"
Her father's face was lined with sorrow and regret, and her heart clenched as he looked down with a shake of his head.
"Do you think..." Rose frowned, trying to form the right words. Matthew had seemed so bland when she'd first met him; friendly, but otherwise rather dull. Then, at the Blue Dragon, he'd been such a stick-in-the-mud, as disapproving and controlling as her mother, although he'd turned out to be surprisingly more merciful. But as she'd gotten to know him better these past two weeks, she'd found that she rather liked his gentle sense of humour and his unassuming ways. When she thought of it now, she realised that he reminded her of her father, but with one notable difference: with Mary, Matthew became a lover, displaying all the affection, confidence, and intimacy of a man happily in love. It was no wonder that Rose hadn't felt a spark at their first meeting. Matthew wasn't like most men of her acquaintance. He reserved this part of himself for Mary alone.
And that, Rose realised, was exactly as it should be.
"Do I think what?" her father asked, recalling her from her thoughts.
"I know it didn't work out for you and Mummy," Rose said slowly, "but do you think I might be loved like that some day?"
Tears rose in her father's eyes, and he gently took her hand. "I truly hope so, my dearest one."
Rose set her jaw. "I don't care how eligible some chap may be. I'm not going to be bullied."
Her father chuckled, but there was pride in his eyes. "Fighting talk."
"I mean it. I am only going to marry if I am totally, absolutely in love."
Her father closed his eyes a moment before he looked down at her again with a smile. "Of course."
"When I find him, will you promise to be on my side? Promise you won't try to force me into a 'suitable' marriage like you were forced?"
Her father frowned. "You're not even officially out. You needn't worry yet."
"But will you promise?"
He fixed her in a serious look. "In other words, you're asking for a blank check."
She nodded, lifting her chin. "Yes. That's just what I want."
He sighed. "Oh, my dearest one." He squeezed her hand. "We will cross that bridge when we come to it. But on the subject of marriage, I have no right to give advice, let alone orders."
Rose tried to smile, but it wouldn't come. Finally, she just hugged him.
"Good night, Daddy. I love you."
"I love you, too."
Smiling, Matthew met Tom in the entranceway late the next morning, as McCree carried off Tom's bags, coat, and hat.
"Mary and Sybil will be down soon," Matthew said. "I don't mean to rush you, but we're to meet the agent in a half-hour."
"That's all right," Tom replied. "I could do with a bit of action."
"Were you driven mad with the boredom?" Matthew asked.
"No, not at all. Just with the anticipation." Tom grinned. "But I made good use of the time."
"Lord Flintshire is in the library," Matthew explained, heading off in that direction, and Tom joined him. "What did you do with all the time?"
"Yes. It was surprisingly refreshing, actually," Tom said. "On some days, I just wandered and thought. On others, I slept in past breakfast." Matthew chuckled as Tom went on. "I can't remember when I last took the time to just...stop."
"I know what you mean," Matthew said. "This is the longest holiday I've taken since before the war." He smiled as they approached the library. "Spending time with Mary and the boys, discussing business and politics with Lord Flintshire, reading, going for a walk or two by myself; I feel as though I've had time for a proper rest. I find that I'm rather looking forward to starting up the firm."
"It's been a good preparation for the future," Tom agreed, and the two men shared a smile as they walked into the library.
24 December 1920
Another wagon appeared over the rise, filled with laughing families, everyone's faces bright from the cold, and Sybil smiled as she watched their bobbing heads. A pair of girls from the village arrived at the sweets tent, giggling and chattering, and Sybil gave them small bags to fill with roast chestnuts, gingerbread cookies, and candied, toasted almonds, then pointed them towards the waffle table in the tent next to hers. Looking back up, she smiled. Dusk was falling, but the Christmas Market did not seem to be winding down. The colourful, glowing fairy lights that festooned every stall kept the gaiety alive, and the whole village and most of the servants remained out and about, enjoying the Christmas ornaments, food, and crafts.
A bagpiper wandered past in partial regalia, a warm muff, and plaid woollen trousers. He finished droning his last notes and lifted his head from the pipe with a friendly smile.
"Would you like a drink?" she asked, selecting a mug. When he nodded, she filled the mug with hot mulled wine and then, glancing up first for his approval, poured in a splash of brandy.
"Aye, lass, that's just the thing," he said, when she offered him the mug. He accepted it from her with a flash of his teeth, drained it, and grinned as he handed it back. He was a tall, young, well-built fellow, a ginger, with sharp blue eyes and a dusting of stubble on his chin. She gave him a friendly grin.
The piper's eyes shifted to her left and she followed his gaze, seeing just then that Tom had appeared at her elbow. With a polite smile and a nod to them both, the piper moved on.
"I think we're running low on roast chestnuts," Sybil said, glancing over the table as she tidied things up.
"Well, then," Tom answered, "let's go fetch some more."
She looked at him and saw the glint of amusement in his eyes. The fire-pit where the chestnuts were being roasted was on the other side of the castle. With a quick glance round, she spotted a young woman sitting just inside the back of the waffle tent, knitting.
"Hattie, would you watch my table for a few minutes?"
"Of course, my lady." The young woman finished a stitch, then rolled up her needles and wool and left them in a bag by her feet.
"Thank you," Sybil said with a smile, before hurrying off beside Tom.
"Shall we go inside or go round?" Tom asked.
He grinned and they made for the bridge that led into the castle's main side-entrance. It was relatively quiet indoors; everyone was enjoying the revelries outdoors, as Lady Flintshire had insisted the party remain outside as much as possible.
Tom made a sudden turn and Sybil frowned.
"But the door out to the fire-pit is down that way—" she began, but at his look, she cut herself off and hurried after him with a grin. He chose a door seemingly at random and looked in, then quickly stepped inside the room and pulled her in after him. The moment the door closed behind them, she pressed him back against it and kissed him, her soft moan mingling with his.
"Three days..." she murmured, her eyes still closed. "It feels an eternity."
Tom chuckled against her lips and kissed her once more before straightening up.
"I'm sorry we won't be doing it properly, with you in a white dress and me in a morning suit, standing in a church," he said.
"We will be doing it properly, in the sight of God and man," Sybil replied. "The clothes and the building don't matter as much as our words and actions."
He smiled, and Sybil raised her hands to cup his cheeks, drawing him down for another kiss.
There was a quiet click across the room; Sybil gasped and pulled back.
It was Rose, crossing towards the windows, having just come in through the other door.
They were in the library, Sybil realised belatedly. There were two doors into this room.
"You really ought to be more careful," Rose said with a nod towards the people milling about on the lawn just outside. There was a twinkle in her eyes as she drew the curtains. "Someone is bound to notice."
Rose finished drawing the second window's curtains, then turned to look at Sybil and Tom. "Is it true? You'll be marrying on Monday?"
Sybil glanced at Tom, swallowed, and looked back at Rose with a slight frown. "Yes. How did you know?"
Rose shrugged and smiled. "You needn't worry, your secret isn't out. I confess to spying on Mary and Matthew once—unintentionally." Rose drew closer, frowning in curiosity. "So is this what you meant when you said that you wouldn't permit the medical school to dictate all the terms?"
"Yes," Sybil said. "But we must keep the marriage a secret."
"Does Cousin Robert approve?" Rose's eyes shifted to Tom's.
"Tacitly," he replied.
"Does Daddy know?"
"Yes," Sybil answered. "The reason we're staying at Duneagle is because I needed to demonstrate three weeks' residency in Scotland before we could marry here without the banns. Mary and Matthew and Aunt Rosamund came along to make my disappearance less noteworthy."
Rose's eyes widened in understanding and then she grinned. "I'd wondered why Daddy was so willing to support my case at Cousin Rosamund's dinner, after all he'd said about being chained to his desk because of his work..." Rose laughed. "I'm so glad you stayed here! I only wish I could attend your wedding!"
Tom and Sybil smiled, but Sybil shook her head. "We don't want anyone wondering why you'd leave to return home with us."
"No, of course, I know that," Rose said. "Well, we will have dancing this evening to celebrate!" Rose looked at Tom. "No one will bat an eyelid if you ask her to dance then, will they?"
"No one at all." He grinned.
"Then that's settled," Rose announced, clasping her hands in happiness before gesturing back the way she had come. "But I must insist that you rejoin the Market, or someone will notice you're missing. You're lucky I was the one who spotted you hurrying off alone together. You wouldn't want Mummy to find you."
"No," Sybil agreed, and with a backwards glance of apology to Tom, who squeezed her fingers with a regretful smile, the three of them returned to the festivities.
27 December 1920
"Well, my lady, I'm not quite sure—" Bates began, eyeing the large, unexpected package that the Duneagle footman carried. The poor young man's face was turning red from the effort.
"Oh, please, just find a spot to strap it on, won't you?" Rose begged.
"What's this?" Matthew asked, striding down the gravel path towards the cars.
Rose's face lit up and she hurried to meet him, keeping her voice low as she neared Matthew. "It's a wedding gift for Tom and Sybil."
Matthew's eyes widened and then his brows drew down in a confused frown.
"Never mind how I know," she whispered hurriedly. "But I want to wish them well. Keep it for them, would you? It's too large for them to conveniently bring along to Ireland."
Recovering quickly, he nodded and glanced past her. "Just put it on the back, Bates." Matthew turned, looking in the cars to ensure everyone was settled. "Are we ready to go?"
"We will be as soon as I find a place for this," Bates replied.
"Good-bye," Rose said, as the chauffeur opened the door for Matthew to climb in beside Mary. "Thank you for defending the downtrodden yet again."
Matthew chuckled. "I've noticed that you like to do the same. You presided over the Christmas Market with grace and generosity."
"Of course," she replied. "Otherwise, all this wealth seems a waste, don't you think?"
"I couldn't agree more," he answered with a warm smile. "Many wishes to you and your family for a happy new year."
She nodded and grinned, bending to wave to Mary and baby Charlie inside the car. Then, stepping back as Matthew climbed inside, she watched and waved as the three cars drove off.
"This is the inn," Tom said, gesturing towards the front door. "They'll be expecting us. I've arranged for a luncheon afterwards."
"We'll need a room for the children," Mary said to Matthew, as Nanny Hollis came up beside her carrying George. "George and Charlie will need to go down for a nap during lunch."
"I've arranged for that, too," Tom replied. "I've taken two rooms on the first floor."
Mary looked at him in some surprise, raising her eyebrows in approval.
"What?" He smirked at her. "I did have nearly three weeks to plan this all out."
Pursing her lips in a smile, she strode past him and led the way inside.
"Oh good, you've arrived," she said, when she stepped into the entranceway, and Tom frowned. His mouth dropped open when he realised that Lady Edith and Sir Anthony were standing in the foyer. "Did you bring it?"
"Of course I did," Edith answered. "I wasn't going to forget it."
Tom blinked as his eyes adjusted to the darkness inside the inn and a flash of movement behind Edith caught his eye.
"Kieran?" Tom asked, staring as his older brother stepped out, holding on to his hat. Kieran had grown a moustache since the last time Tom had seen him. It made him look older.
"But—how did you—?"
"I wrote to him," Matthew answered cheerfully, stepping inside and gesturing for everyone else to come in out of the cold. The innkeeper hurried over to close the door, and soon everyone was plunged into the dim yellow lamplight.
"But how did you—?"
"When we stopped to visit your mother in Dublin last year on our way up to Ulster, she mentioned that Kieran lives in Liverpool, so I asked for his address," Matthew answered. "You'll see everyone else in your family next week, so we thought you'd like to see him today."
Tom blinked. Kieran approached and grasped his hand, clapping him in a quick hug. "Congratulations. I meant to say that. Where's the lucky lady?"
Tom looked over and gestured for Sybil. She came quickly to his side, smiling at Kieran.
"So you're the toff, eh?"
"Kieran..." Tom began, but his brother only gave Sybil a cheeky grin.
"Pleased to meet you, my lady," he said, giving the address an ironic quirk of his lips. "I hope you know you're too good for him."
"It's quite the reverse, I assure you," she replied, holding out her hand. Kieran looked a bit taken aback, but he quickly accepted her hand and shook it.
"We haven't much time to prepare," Mary said, stepping up and giving Kieran a quick, disinterested glance. She looked at Sybil. "You'll need to come with us."
"Why?" Sybil asked. "I'm ready to go to the blacksmith's now."
"No, you're not," Edith said, and a smile grew on her face as she glanced back towards Anthony. He stood beside a table, and on it sat a long, white box. Sybil gasped and pressed her fingers to her lips.
Smiling, Anthony lifted the top off the long box, tugging it as he slipped his good hand deftly round the cover, and then he stood back to reveal a wedding gown. Sybil drifted closer in disbelief and Tom followed, fighting tears as he watched her glowing face.
The creamy silk glinted in the lamplight, and the cut, although lovely and sure to be flattering on her, was simple. The gown was not encrusted with pearls, but rather lightly accented with lace. Sybil's eyes filled with tears.
"It's beautiful," she whispered. "Who did this?"
"Mary and Aunt Rosamund," Edith replied, glancing past Sybil and meeting the two women's eyes. "They are the fashion fiends, after all."
"And a good thing," Mary said. "Otherwise you'd be getting married in your day clothes."
"I'm going to be terribly under-dressed," Tom murmured.
"You certainly will not," Lady Rosamund said, coming forward with Mr Bates at her elbow. "You can't imagine I'd allow my niece to marry a man who looked as though he'd just walked in off the street, could you?"
Tom stared as Mr Bates brandished a morning suit and, realising his mouth hung open, Tom closed it.
"You'll find there are certain advantages to having me do your laundry, sir," Mr Bates said, his eyes—and Anna's beside him—glittering with amusement.
Tom smirked at him. At Tom's own request, Mr Bates usually didn't address him as "sir", except when they were in public together.
"Very well," Tom said, and grinned as he met Sybil's bright, smiling gaze. "Let's get married."
Downton Abbey, 14 January 1921
(Two weeks later)
Elsie Hughes patted her hair as she glanced in the small mirror that hung on her office wall. With a brisk movement, she opened the office door and strode out. Mr Bates was approaching, carrying a pair of men's shoes, and Mrs Hughes broke into a smile. His face crinkled up into a matching one.
"Good evening, Mrs Hughes. You're looking very smart."
Mrs Hughes gave a slight, dismissive toss of her head, although her smile remained. "I can't tell you how lovely it is to have you and Anna back at Downton, even if it's only for one evening."
"Wightstead is a very good situation," he answered, pausing outside the shoeshine room, "but I won't deny we've missed you all."
Mrs Hughes took half a step closer and lowered her voice. "I don't mean to pry, but I didn't want to say anything to Anna without being quite sure: is she expecting?"
The smile on Mr Bates's face grew even wider and he chuckled. "Yes."
Mrs Hughes straightened up. "Wonderful! Then I shall congratulate her at the first opportunity." Mr Bates nodded, still grinning. With a lighthearted step, she continued down the hall.
"Why can't Alfred do it?" Thomas asked in an annoyed tone, from where he stood just inside Mr Carson's office. "I've still got the silver to set out."
"Because Alfred isn't the first footman," Mr Carson replied. "He is attending to other duties."
Fuming, Thomas stepped out with barely a glance at Mrs Hughes. As his crisp footsteps echoed and faded, she stepped into the butler's pantry and pushed the door closed with a quiet click. Mr Carson looked up from the bottle of red wine that he was carefully decanting, and his face relaxed.
"He's been with the house for nearly ten years," Mrs Hughes observed, "and he hasn't been promoted past footman."
"I know that," Mr Carson answered, sighing heavily. He set down the bottle of wine and arched an eyebrow. "His record isn't entirely unspotted."
Mrs Hughes frowned. "But that was years ago. He's done nothing so objectionable since, and he does know the business of this house."
"But what do you propose we promote him to? Mr Molesley, surprisingly, has done a first-rate job as His Lordship's valet, and I'm not going anywhere."
Mrs Hughes looked to the side in a commiserating fashion. "There's always under-butler."
"It would be silly to have a house with two butlers and one footman, especially as His Lordship won't want to hire another footman, not with the new cost-saving measures he's been implementing."
"I don't have a solution," Mrs Hughes said crisply, turning towards the door. "But the alternatives are either to endure more of Thomas's discontent, or send him off with a good reference that makes it clear he wasn't sacked. Plenty of households are lowering their staffing levels these days."
Mr Carson frowned and sighed. "I'm not saying I much like his discontent, either, but I don't want to send him away. We need a third man, and he knows the business of this house, as you say."
"Then take it up with His Lordship."
Sitting forward to resume decanting the wine, Mr Carson nodded. "You may be right."
Mrs Hughes smiled and pulled open the door.
"That's a very nice smock," Mr Carson said, and Elsie blinked in surprise, her gaze shooting to his. She glanced down at herself, then relaxed and smiled.
"Thank you. I do hope you're not planning to attend in that." She nodded at his usual butler's costume.
"I'll change when I've finished my duties," he intoned. With a smirk, she strode out, leaving him behind to smile to himself.
When Charles Carson finished decanting the wine, he went up to the great hall to make sure all the preparations were complete. All the furniture had been moved out of the space, and chairs were set up for the musicians who would be arriving soon. Across the room, small tables and chairs were arrayed for those who wished to eat or break from the dancing. Several long tables stood along that wall, and the drinks were already laid out on one. The kitchen staff and hall boys would be up to set out all the food in a half-hour. Satisfied, Mr Carson went down the corridor and ascended the stairs to the family wing.
Most of the family members were in their rooms with their body servants, preparing for the evening, so Mr Carson strode down to the nursery and looked in, a smile tugging at his lips as he took in the scene.
"Hullo, Carson," Edward said, looking very smart in his black bowtie and dinner jacket. "No, Georgie! Not like that."
"It's all right, Master Edward," his governess corrected gently. "Master George can hold it like that if he wants to."
"Good evening, Mr Carson," Nanny Hollis said with a smile. She stood folding a pile of clean nappies on the changing table. "He's just gone down."
Mr Carson walked over to the crib and looked at the babies inside. Charlie's arms and legs shifted in contented little jerks as he stared up at the butler with bright eyes. Beside him, little Peter lay fast asleep.
"Hello, Master Charlie," Mr Carson murmured. "Are you being a good little chap?"
"Very good," Nanny answered. "He drank half a bottle of milk just now!"
Mr Carson grinned. "You keep that up, Master Charlie, and you'll grow big and strong."
"Just like me!" Edward agreed.
"Dwar!" George echoed.
Chuckling, Mr Carson nodded to the nanny and the governess as he went out to change.
At first, Edward and Sylvia danced awkwardly together in the middle of the floor at the Servants' Ball, both very focused on their feet. The adults who danced round them smiled down fondly as they swung past. But after the initial song, the children paired off with various adults and family members and were soon giggling and grinning. Harry danced once with his mother, Edith, and then very carefully asked Daisy, the smallest adult present, if she would do him the honour. He took the job rather more seriously than Edward and Sylvia, but even he was soon smiling as Daisy made him laugh.
Molesley and Violet were doing a cautious waltz when Isobel and Thomas went by, managing a slightly more energetic one. Matthew took his obligatory annual turns with Mrs Patmore and O'Brien, none of them looking particularly enthusiastic about the activity, while Mary and Carson smiled and made easy conversation as they danced. Robert and Mrs Hughes stepped in precise form, speaking of inconsequentialities as though they were discussing business, and they drifted past the small band of musicians in the corner of the room. Alfred, the newest footman, towered over Cora, who made friendly conversation and inquired about his family, while he answered in nervous monosyllables and did his utmost not to step on Her Ladyship's feet.
Eventually, family members paired off with one another and servants did the same, and most of the forced awkwardness faded, although a few brave souls continued crossing the divide and laughing together. Anthony sat out most of the dancing, except for taking one turn each with Edith and then with Sylvia, whom he carried in his good arm and spun round, making her giggle as her light brown curls flew about. The presence of the children was both amusing and challenging, as the adults did their best to avoid suddenly colliding with them. The only person who seemed to object to having them underfoot was Rosamund's guest, a rather stiff, middle-aged gentleman named Sir Richard Carlisle, but he soon busied himself in animated conversation with Matthew about the opportunities for redevelopment in light of the decline of the great estates, and only then did he seem to relax and actually enjoy himself.
"Honestly," Violet muttered, as Robert turned her about the floor. "Where does Rosamund find these people?"
Robert shot Matthew and Sir Richard—and Mary, who had just then sidled up to Sir Richard with a shark-like smile—a discomfited frown. "I don't know, but I'm glad Matthew and Mary are willing to entertain him. The man sets my teeth on edge."
Violet pursed her lips in agreement as they moved on.
Several people stood watching on the outskirts of the dance floor.
"It's just not the same without Lady Sybil," Thomas commented, earning a sharp warning look from Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes, and also from Mr and Mrs Bates, who stood beside them. "What?" Thomas shrugged. "I like Lady Sybil. She was always kind to me and made me laugh as we danced." He looked wistful a moment. "I made sure to dance with her every year."
"So did Mr Branson," Mr Bates observed with a wry smirk.
Thomas scowled and Mr Carson curled his lip, which made Mrs Hughes roll her eyes.
"Come along," she announced, touching Mr Carson's sleeve. "I have no wish to waste this evening on pointless disagreements."
Mr Carson's brows drew down in surprised confusion and she gave him an exasperated look.
"Well, the evening is running along, and we haven't yet taken a turn," she observed.
"Mrs Hughes," Mr Carson uttered, half in shock. "Are you asking me to dance?"
"Well, one of us had to get the ball rolling."
Mr Carson looked properly flustered at the breach in protocol, but as Mrs Hughes raised her eyebrows, he collected himself and offered her his arm. "Would you do me the honour of dancing the next with me, Mrs Hughes?"
"If you insist," she answered, pursing her lips in suppressed amusement as she placed her hand in the crook of his elbow. Any remnant of disapproval on Mr Carson's face quickly faded, however, as the previous song drew to a close and he led her out on to the floor.
Thomas looked as though he might gag, but his ruminations were suddenly interrupted by three shouting children who clustered before him, tugging on his sleeves and jacket.
"Make us fly! Make us fly!" Edward demanded.
"Me first!" Harry said.
"No, me!" a bouncing Sylvia exclaimed.
Thomas waggled his finger over them as if deciding who was the most worthy, then suddenly swooped down and scooped up Sylvia, who shrieked in delight as he spun and swung her about, winding his way along the edge of the dance floor with the two boys happily in tow.
John and Anna Bates, now left alone, stood watching, half-surprised and half-amused at this uncharacteristic display, and then they chuckled together.
Robert approached them, his colour high and his breathing slightly up, holding two glasses of punch. At his offer, they quickly accepted the drinks.
"Thank you, my lord," Bates said.
"I meant to say congratulations." Robert grinned, glancing between them. "Lady Mary just confirmed the news. I'm so delighted for you!"
"Thank you, my lord," Anna replied, ducking her head slightly as she grinned back.
"So have you had enough of Wightstead yet?" Robert asked. "Are you ready to come back?"
Bates and Anna exchanged a smile.
"I regret to say, my lord," Bates answered slowly, raising one eyebrow, "that we are quite happy at Wightstead."
"Oh, well." Robert grinned, although it seemed a bit forced. "There's always next year."
"Very true," Bates returned, although a matching light of understanding glittered in his eyes.
"And don't forget," Anna put in cheerfully. "We'll be back for a whole month in the summer."
"I look forward to it," Robert agreed with a warm smile. "You'll take care of yourselves, won't you?"
At their nods, he drifted off to greet Mrs Patmore and congratulate her on the excellent spread.
"I just think you could eventually lower the finder's fee that you offer Murray," Mary said, taking her seat beside Matthew on the sofa, nearer the fireplace. The muffled sounds of the Servants' Ball continued on outside the library doors, but inside the room, the fire crackled in the hearth, the orange and yellow flames sending flickering light over the burgundy hues in the furniture and walls. "After all, we won't be wholly dependent upon him for clients, not if Evelyn and Charles also begin sending people our way."
"Oh, there you two are," Robert said, as he walked in. "I've just seen Mama and Cousin Isobel off." He came over and sank down on to the sofa opposite them with a tired, but satisfied, smile. "Were you just discussing Mr Napier?"
"Yes, Papa," Mary replied. "He and his boss, a Mr Charles Blake, are business associates of ours."
Robert smiled. "I forget, you're practically a full partner in Matthew and Tom's firm now, aren't you?"
"What's this 'practically'?" Mary arched an eyebrow.
Beside her, Matthew smirked, settling back against the sofa as he crossed his legs. "Oh—I meant to thank you," he said to Robert. "Shrimpie told me that you've been putting in a good word for us at your club."
Robert glanced away with a dismissive gesture. "It's nothing. Everyone talks of their estates, and since most seem to be struggling, mentioning your innovations here is the natural next step."
"Still, thank you," Matthew replied. "We've been receiving a pretty regular stream of enquiries."
Robert nodded, his eyes drifting towards the fireplace again. "I'm glad to hear it." He gave them a tight smile. "Downton wouldn't be in such a hopeful state of play if it weren't for you." Robert's eyes met Mary's. "If it weren't for you both. If you hadn't prompted me to approach him..." Robert shook his head.
Mary looked down at Matthew's knees with a slight frown. "It was such a dark time," she murmured. "I didn't know what else to do." Her fingers drifted to where his hand rested on his thigh, and he grasped them, pressing his lips together.
Looking up, Matthew smiled. "Let us take comfort in the knowledge that God has brought good out of it."
"Amen to that," Robert answered, then twisted to glance back as Cora entered the room.
"Edward is finally asleep," she announced, crossing to where Robert sat. She glanced at Mary and Matthew with a smile. "I don't mean to be rude, but I'm beat." Looking at Robert, she asked, "Are you coming up?"
"Yes." He exhaled a long sigh and pushed to his feet, giving everyone a tired smile. "It's been a long—but very good—day."
"I didn't ask earlier, but I should have." Cora paused, folding her hands and turning to Mary and Matthew. "How was the wedding? Was it lovely?"
Matthew smiled and Mary nodded.
"Everything was done properly and in order," Mary replied, then gave her father a kind of triumphant smile. "And Sybil was glowing."
Robert's smile was tight.
"When will they be back?" Cora asked.
"We expected them home today, actually," Matthew answered. "Mrs Parks is there to see to them."
Cora smiled. "How is Ethel doing?"
"Very well," Mary said. "It's such a relief to finally have a good cook! She needs to expand her repertoire, of course, but that will come in time."
"Yes, it will." Cora nodded. "Well, good night. Thank you for coming all the way out just for the Servants' Ball."
"I would never have missed it," Mary replied.
With a soft chuckle, Robert nodded to them and escorted his wife from the room. The music and the sounds of unabated dancing briefly echoed through the library, then cut off as the door swung closed.
"There'll be a few thick heads in the morning," Matthew observed.
"No doubt they think it's worth it."
"Mmm." Matthew hummed and touched her cheek, drawing her towards him for a soft kiss. When they parted, he put his arm around her and she settled against him, resting her forehead on his neck and her hand on his chest.
"I've been thinking," Mary murmured.
"We're asking quite a lot of Bates and Anna and Mrs Parks when we expect them to keep Sybil and Tom's secret."
"I don't think any of them have a reason to betray it."
"No, it's not that," Mary answered. "But keeping a secret, particularly one this important...it requires effort and care. In this case, we're asking them to hide the truth for many years."
"So what are you thinking?"
"I think we should give them all a belated Christmas bonus, and make a yearly tradition of it."
"But let's not say it's for Tom and Sybil's sake. I shouldn't like word to get back to them."
"No, of course not."
"Then I agree."
Watching the fire, they sighed contentedly in unison and then chuckled, and Mary drew back with a sly smile. "Tomorrow might be the last morning in a long while when we can take a late breakfast..."
Matthew's eyes twinkled as a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "What do you suggest?"
She smirked and started to turn away. "Well, if I must spell it out, then never mind."
Grinning, he sat up and took his time kissing her until she started to giggle softly.
"Come," he said as he broke away, and, taking her hand, he drew her up from the sofa and she followed him willingly, a bright smile lighting up her face.
...and with this, we have reached the end of Part III: AMBITION. Thanks for sticking with the story for this long! It will conclude with the final novel, PART IV: CHANGE.
Warning: Chapter 40 will not be published for some time. It's going to take a while. Thanks to all you kind readers/reviewers, for continuing to show interest! :)
I am grateful to Jean, Rap541, Naniee, alliluna, New Hogfan, and Apollo888 for their invaluable input and excellent corrections on this chapter. Many thanks also to my husband and daughter, who try my patience and make me laugh, sometimes at the same time, and to God, for even all the days when I don't get a chance to write.
Several people made suggestions that I incorporated into this chapter: Jill Cohen inspired the idea of Edward's involvement in the Servants' Ball. Klarinette49 made sure I didn't overlook the Carson/Charlie scene. It was ScarletCourt's idea that while they were in Ireland for work, Tom and Matthew visited the Branson family, because it wouldn't have been easy for Tom to visit in previous years. ScarletCourt also suggested the bonus for the servants who kept Tom and Sybil's secret.
I drew on the following sources while writing this chapter:
Lang, Andrew (1890). Kate Crackernuts. In J. Jacobs (Ed.), English Fairy Tales (pp. 207-211). New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. (Original work published 1889.)
"Any Old Night", music by Jerome Kern and Otto Motzan; lyrics by Schuyler Greene and Harry B. Smith, 1915.
Cumulative acknowledgements for the whole epic...
Many thanks go to my excellent beta readers, Jean, Apollo888, tbborrell, Jamie, Lala Kate, La Donna Ingenua, Rap541, alliluna, lilyrowan1, Naniee, Patricia, New Hogfan, Josh, patsan, and brianna-xox for their generosity in donating so much of their time, and for helping me to improve my writing in significant ways.
I'm grateful to all the reviewers who have made suggestions, asked insightful questions, and inspired so many details: Audrey C, CanuckGirl2, darkblueyank, AngelQueen, golden12, judyl1, eyeon, ScarletCourt, theMatthewReview, Downton lover, Atomix330, Jill Cohen, and several anonymous Guests.
Additionally, these folks have assisted me in various ways, from research help to foreign-language translation: Silvestria, OrangeShipper, Mercury Gray, rebeccathehistorian, Dave, Klarinette49, Linda, Liz, WilliamRev, Moonraker, Magnumbellum, James A Pratt III, and my chiropractor, Dr. Christopher Hauck, of Chiropractic Solutions in Framingham, MA, USA.
Enormous thanks also, of course, to Julian Fellowes, and the whole cast and crew of Downton Abbey. I happily owe them a debt that I can never repay. Thanks to the Lord, for doing all the real storytelling and for teaching me to write by faith, and to my lovely husband, for supporting my passions and engaging with me on the finer points of storytelling and how to maintain a healthy writing/life balance.
Thanks for reading! I always welcome feedback, especially critiques and suggestions for improvement.