A/N-This is a story that I have been writing in my head for months. Patsan's MM celebration day prompted me to write it down. This chapter is rated T but I imagine that things will end up M! Thank you for reading!
The Center of My Heart
Matthew paused at the door to the library and allowed himself—how long? a moment, a minute, two?—to look at Mary and feel everything. Feel everything before he made himself push those feelings down, down to that place he kept them, so he could look at her as my Cousin Mary, my friend Mary, my dear friend Mary. Really, now, my best friend Mary, they had become so in tune with each other.
How long had he been doing this—looking at the woman he loved for an instant, and then making himself see only his cousin and friend? He had tried so hard to forget her when he left in 1914, but had only succeeded in turning the wrenching pain into a dull ache. The war didn't help—when he wasn't terrified in battle, he often found himself daydreaming about her. Then, on leave, he had met Lavinia, and it was wonderful to replace that ache with something so happy that it had to be love.
In fact, he had been so elated, he was ready be the heir again, to return to Downton with his fiancée, wanting both to show her their future home and to show her off, if truth be told. He had survived loving Mary, and two years in the trenches and, you see, I have a life and a love that has nothing to do with Downton! But that first time back, when he turned and saw Mary, his mistake hit him like one of the bullets that had so far missed its target in the war. He had thought he had left a dream for the real world, but in that moment, everything shifted and it was clear that the dream was the idea that he could ever stop loving Lady Mary Crawley. He was looking at the love of his life and, even though Mary didn't love him, he would always love her in a way he could never love Lavinia. He didn't know how he got through the evening.
And so that was when it started, giving himself a moment to feel everything—Mary, my love, my true love, my only love—and then pushing it down. It was how he coped, it became a habit and it wasn't one he wanted to break now. In fact, in the days since Mary had returned from London and announced she had ended her engagement to Richard Carlisle, Matthew had been allowing himself longer looks at his love before he made himself see his friend.
The flames of the library fire were still burning brightly, and the gold titles of the books in the arc of the fire's light glimmered in the dark room. He watched in the doorway as Mary, illuminated in profile by a lamp and the fire, sorted through the records stacked next to the Victrola, a Christmas gift to the family from Cora's mother. They had accumulated quite a selection of music in just a few weeks, thanks mostly to Sybil. The Victrola had been moved from room to room but finally found a home in the library, because Robert had discovered that, while he dozed at concerts, he loved listening to classical music while working or reading.
Mary, however, selected a show tune, and Matthew realized with a pang that it was from a musical that he and Lavinia had seen in London when he was on leave shortly after they had become engaged. Lavinia! It didn't seem possible that someone so vibrant could have died so quickly, but the influenza outbreak had perversely favored the young and strong. Their time together now seemed a lifetime ago.
He sighed and continued to watch Mary, who had begun to move barely perceptibly to the music, the claret-red of her gown made even richer by the warm light from the fire. Her request that he come to the library, so she could explain more about her decision to end her engagement and go to America, had surprised him, although he had sensed for days that there was something she needed to tell him but didn't know how.
No one, however, was really surprised that the engagement was over and everyone was relieved, Matthew at the head of that list. Mary had looked increasingly unhappy over the last months whenever Richard visited, so much so that Matthew felt compelled to tell her that she didn't have to marry him, that as long as he was alive, she would have a home at Downton. The Christmas holidays had been strained with Sir Richard now part of the family. The dismal thought of spending every holiday with him was on everyone's mind, and actually everyone's face, whenever he protested the various family traditions. He couldn't understand why the family served itself on Christmas Day and New Year's Eve; he was ostentatiously bored with charades, rolling his eyes at Mary's flailing gestures when it was her turn at "the game." He had protested so strenuously the custom of the family dancing with the staff at the Servants' Ball, insisting he couldn't possibly, that Matthew found himself fantasizing punching him in his self-satisfied, pompous face. In the end, however, he did dance and, while not enthusiastic, was appropriately pleasant. Richard saw the years ahead as well.
But something had happened between Richard and Mary; she had become quiet and withdrawn after he went back to London shortly after the Servants' Ball. Matthew would often see her bundled up and walking alone for long periods of time, and while she always found time to talk to him, it was not their usual easy conversation, and he could tell her mind was occupied elsewhere.
Richard had some kind of important event three weeks after the New Year, and he had wanted her to attend with him. She had decided to go a few days early, staying with Aunt Rosamund. The night before she left, after dinner, he asked about her plans for London. She started to answer, but then interrupted herself.
"You must know that, no matter what happens, that I am …that I never. . ." but here she broke off, and looked away. Her eyes glistened, and she pressed her lips together
"Mary, I don't understand. What's going to happen? Is there any way I can help you?"
"Just continue to be my friend."
Well, that had distressed him no end, but before he could respond, she shook her head and smiled, squeezed his arm, and went to talk to his mother. He knew that she knew he would never follow her to question her further. Then she moved on quickly to kiss her granny and her parents good night and left the room, and that was that. He didn't sleep well at all.
He had met her in the entrance hall as she was leaving early the next morning.
"I know I've never told you that I carry this still," he said, as he brought the worn talisman out of his pocket and handed it to her. Her mouth trembled as she took the little stuffed dog. "I don't know what you are facing, but I always felt you were with me when I had him, and now you can know I'm with you. He brought me. . ." He was smiling but his voice choked and he stopped, remembering their good-bye at the train. He had been sure, so very sure, he wouldn't be coming back.
"Thank you," she whispered, dabbing her eyes with the back of her gloved hand, while Matthew looked away so she wouldn't see that his eyes were brimming. He couldn't send her off like this.
"Now look, it's just a loan, mind you, I want him back," he said with his warmest smile and a wink. He wasn't joking, they both knew, and they had laughed together.
She had returned five days later. Matthew didn't see her until dinner that night, and when she announced that she had ended her engagement, he was so relieved, he almost laughed out loud. Robert looked as if he would levitate, he was so happy. He loathed Sir Richard and had found it increasingly hard to fathom how Mary could marry him. Her grandmother looked at her steadily and said, "Well done, my dear." Matthew watched Cora. He had never been sure how she felt about Richard. Her smile at the news was immediate and quite genuine, but Matthew noticed how Mary and her mother found each other's eyes instantly. Cora inclined her head slightly and looked at her with deep love and concern, he thought; Mary looked back with what? Was it resignation? And then she took a sip of wine and looked away.
After dinner, Mary came over to him. The strain of the last days was evident in the circles under her eyes, but she smiled and was more relaxed than he could remember seeing her since Christmas.
"I'm sure you're exhausted, it can't have been easy," Matthew said, looking at her with concern.
"I am very tired, but very glad to have it done. It's been on my mind for a long time. It was as if I was stuck and couldn't move. Now I have, and I'm ready for my life to go on." She paused, smiled and cocked her head.
"About our mutual friend," she began. He looked at her quizzically and then chuckled in understanding.
"I was going to give him back to you tonight, but if it's all right, I'll keep him a bit longer."
"Of course, keep him as long as you need. Did he bring you luck?"
Mary considered a moment. "I don't know if it was luck, exactly, but he brought me strength, and that was what I needed."
In the few days since her return, she had seemed lighter, smiling and chatting more, but still Matthew could tell something was preying on her mind. And then, tonight at dinner, she had announced that she was going to America! Rather, that she had written her grandmother about coming for an extended stay, which was really the same thing. Clearly, Robert and Cora knew of the plan and approved. Of course—there would be the inevitable gossip and publicity once news of the broken engagement got out and they wanted to spare Mary. Isobel pronounced it a splendid idea, and her granny had sniffed about the colonies but said that she deserved a breath of fresh air after enduring that man all these months, and she supposed Europe was just not far enough away. Sybil was full of suggestions of things to do and see, but Edith was quite subdued. Matthew just looked at Mary, trying to take it all in, trying to smile.
When he and Robert rejoined the ladies, Mary came up to him.
"Do you really have to go to America?" he asked looking into her eyes with a gentle smile. "Will the gossip be so bad? People do break engagements, after all."
Mary considered a moment and then looked at him. "Richard is very, very angry. He has a lot of power with his newspapers and he knows how to use it." She paused and continued, "There are some things I need to tell you that will explain why I should go. I don't mean to be mysterious, but I can't do it here. After everyone has gone to bed, come to the library, and I'll tell you then." Once again, Mary excused herself early.
And that left Matthew in a kind of agony, for although he had sensed for some time that she wanted to tell him something, this seemed much more serious than anything he might have imagined. He managed to keep up his end of conversations without looking distracted or distressed, but he had no idea whatever what he was saying. And of course, tonight, everyone's going to bed seemed to take forever. Isobel and Violet went home shortly after Mary left, but Sybil would decide to go on and on about the Irish Question, yet again. She had for some reason become obsessed with it and loved nothing more than to bait Robert and argue with him, argue circles around him, really, Matthew had to admit with admiration. Where she was getting her information, he didn't know, but she knew what she was talking about.
But finally, finally, he was free to go to the library. His habit had failed him tonight, though. He had been looking at his love and not his friend for much longer than a moment. God, she was so beautiful, he almost couldn't bear it. Mary, my love, my true love, my only love. The beginning of a 17th century poem, memorized for recitation long ago, came back to him yet again:
Dear, when I did from you remove,
I left my joy, but not my love;
That never can depart.
It neither higher can ascend,
Nor lower bend.
Fixed in the center of my heart,
As in his place,
And lodged so, how can it change,
Or you grow strange?
What if he had told her that when he came back in 1916? Well, he hadn't, had he? He sighed and made himself push the feelings down, so that he could see only his friend, his dear friend, his best friend. He straightened his shoulders and wheeled his chair towards her.