Thank you to all my readers, to everyone who has followed and favorited my story. And to those who have reviewed, I can't begin to express what your support means.
All righty, then!
Posture erect; chin up; shoulders back; broad chest covered by a white short-sleeved jersey shirt; muscled arms. All good above the waist. But below. The legs descending from the navy-blue training shorts were no longer sticks, no, but they hardly matched the body above: thin, weak, only a hint of musculature, propped up with leather straps and metal bars and heavy shoes. He couldn't help thinking of Teddy's picture book: you could flip the top and bottom halves to create ridiculous people. How they had laughed themselves silly at the results.
Matthew kept frowning at his image in the full-length mirror, his hands clenching the bars in reaction. Of course, he saw his legs every day; he knew what they looked like—at least, he had thought he did. But looking down at them was so different from seeing them like this, so exposed to scrutiny. He knew his legs were still far from what they had been when he was injured, but this . . . he hadn't expected this . . .
"Mr. Crawley?" Connelly tried again.
"Yes," he replied tightly. Is this how he looked to Mary? He couldn't drag his eyes from the mirror. But that was the point wasn't it?
He was in "Versailles," as everyone called the small room with large windows off the main physio room. Hardly a hall of mirrors, it held three sets of bars, each with a full-length mirror propped up at either end, six in all. But one mirror was one too many when you weren't prepared to see yourself. He was grateful that, at the moment, at least, he was the only patient in the room.
He had been exceedingly gratified at Coates's assessment on his return from Downton after Edith's wedding: Excellent, Mr. Crawley, excellent. You've not simply maintained, you've progressed. And managing without the braces! I couldn't be more pleased.
But Matthew knew that his muscles, especially in his lower legs, were still quite weak, and it had been no surprise that in the ten days he'd been back, his physio had largely consisted of him being attached to the various devices used to strengthen his legs. So, he pedaled the bicycle chair, the setting every day changed to give more resistance; his feet were strapped to stirrups attached by lines and pulleys to weights that he struggled to raise and lower; a padded bar attached gears was fitted over his ankles, and he managed to lift it up with ever increasing weights added. All things he had done before, but there was a new intensity to it.
And so here he was. It was very good news. You didn't go to Versailles unless you were learning how to walk, not just heave yourself, or just manage to move one leg and then the other. The mirror, the training shorts exposing his braced legs—he needed to see what he was doing, so he could know what to do. Matthew exhaled. Get a grip, Crawley. He found Connelly's eyes in the mirror, and nodded. "Sorry. I'm ready."
"All right, then. We're here to work on your gait, that is, how you are moving your legs as you take a step. So. Please take a step, and as you do, watch yourself in the mirror." Connelly gave him an encouraging nod, smiling.
Matthew nodded in return. Still frowning, he lifted his right leg and set his foot down.
"Good. Go on, then. Keep looking in the mirror."
Matthew lifted his left leg and set his foot down.
"All right. Again, with your right leg. And this time, watch your right hip."
Matthew took another step. He shook his head, puzzled.
Matthew moved his left leg, watching his hip. "I'm lifting from my hip," he frowned. "Then I move my leg by throwing my weight forward using my upper body." He could see how wrong it looked.
"Yes, exactly! And that was fine to get you started, it was, and some patients, well, it's all they'll ever be able to do. But not you, sir. We're going to work to change that now. You want your hip to move sideways, not up, and to be using your thigh muscles," he reached down, his fingers defining the muscles, "here, and here, to move your legs forward."
Matthew shook his head. "Why didn't you stop me at the first? I've got to unlearn a bad habit now."
"No, no, sir, not a bad habit at all. Your thigh muscles weren't strong enough to do the work; they are now. And every step you've taken helped to get them stronger. We're not going to keep anyone from moving, however they can, as soon as they can." Connelly clapped Matthew on the back, "I wish everyone had your determination. Managing to stand before you even got here," he chuckled.
Matthew's mouth tugged up. "All right, show me what I have to do."
Connelly set the palm his right hand on top of the bone of Matthew's right hip and placed the other hand behind his thigh. "Take a step. I'm not going to let you lift your hip." He pressed down on the hip, his other hand pressing gently on the back of his thigh, as Matthew with a grunt moved his leg and took a step. "There you go!"
Matthew looked down in frustration. "I barely moved my leg."
"But you did move it." He switched his hands to Matthew's left hip and thigh. "Now the left."
After a few more steps, Connelly simply placed his hands on Matthew's hips as a reminder not to lift his legs using them. Slowly, Matthew straining with each step, watching himself in the mirror, they made their way down the bars. Baby steps. When they reached the end, Matthew's head dropped, and he breathed heavily. Connelly took the towel from around his own neck and mopped Matthew's face. It had taken perhaps three times as long as it would have if he'd just moved one leg after the other in his accustomed way.
Matthew looked up at the mirror and held Connelly's eyes. "It's like I'm starting over."
"It feels that way now, sir, but I assure you, it's quite the opposite."
Matthew was silent, lost in thought. He looked at Connelly in the mirror. "There was . . ." He licked his lips. "I don't know how to express it." He shook his head. "I had to concentrate very hard the whole way . . . but by the end . . . as hard as it was . . . it felt . . . right? Does that make any sense?"
Connelly's face lit up. "There you go! Your muscles are remembering what to do."
Matthew looked at his legs in the mirror. "Connelly, will I ever be rid of these things?"
Connelly smiled and nodded, patting his back, "That's why you're in Versailles, sir."
Matthew nodded, starting to turn himself. "Right. Let's go again."
My darling Mary,
I'm writing this in bed, thoroughly worn out—but for such a good reason, I had to write you tonight. I've been promoted to "Versailles," what we call the room where patients go to work when they are strong enough to try to learn to walk properly. And Mary, I'm finally, finally feeling a memory of walking—my leg muscles are, I mean. I couldn't help but think of my conversation with Teddy, that first time in the park. He said it was silly that I had to learn to walk again, that I had already learned when I was little, and I said that my legs had forgotten what to do, and so I had to learn again. Today, for the first time, I could truly feel my muscles "learning again" in a way they haven't before. It was so hard at first, and I felt like I was having to start over, but I could tell such a difference by the end of the session, and I can't wait to get back to it tomorrow.
I guess I should explain why the room is called "Versailles." It's much smaller than the main physio room, but it's got a wall of windows that make the room feel quite light and airy. There are three sets of bars, with a full-length mirror at each end, so we can see ourselves moving. And to that end, they put us in training shorts, rather than our regulation khakis, in order to see our legs as we move. And I must admit, being able to watch myself as I took each step did help, but it was quite a shock to see how scrawny my legs still are, and how puny the muscles. I know, I know—compared to what they looked like when I arrived here, there's been a vast improvement, but I'm afraid my vanity suffered as I stared at myself "exposed" in such a stark fashion, for the first time. But by the time Connelly insisted I quit for the day, I had stopped being bothered by it, and Connelly assures me that this work will build the muscles up.
I had a lovely visit in the park yesterday with Jack, Alice and the children. Alice is glad for the cooler weather. She is feeling very housebound now, so was happy for the outing, although I wonder how many more times she will feel like making the effort. Everyone sends their love to Aunt Mary.
Your latest letter arrived today, and thank you for continuing to regale me with highlights of your grandmama's return visit! I must admit to laughing aloud at your description of her organizing that dinner party into an indoor "picnic" for twenty when the oven failed—I can just imagine Granny's face throughout, especially being serenaded with "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and having her hand kissed by Martha! (Can the oven be repaired, or is it time to face getting a new one?) And what of the mystery of your father's disappearing shirts? That is so very odd-you must keep me posted!-and, yes, I imagine he did feel like a bootlegger in his black tie!
Your updates on the estate are very gratifying—Langdon has really proven to be a good fit all around. I'm especially pleased that he continues to respect your partnership with your father, while developing such a good working relationship with him.
The best news, though, was that you are continuing to feel better, my darling. You can't know what a lift that gives me, especially since I can't be with you. And tonight, as I do every night and throughout every day, I pray for your health and our child's, and I will fall asleep remembering feeling the movement of the life you carry, my beloved Mary.
I love you and miss you so much and am always
Your letter arrived just now and oh, my darling, how happy I am to read of your promotion to "Versailles"—perfect name—and what that means for your progress! You have worked so long and so hard, and I wish I could be with you to hold you, to kiss you, to celebrate this moment. So you must know that in my mind, right now, I'm giving you the biggest hug, and I'm kissing you again, and again, and again. And again!
My darling, I understand why seeing yourself in the mirror that way was such a shock, but I can't agree with your description of your legs as "scrawny" or "puny," and won't stand for anyone saying that—even you! No, you see, I also remember your legs as they were when you arrived at the clinic, and I know what they look like now. Thin perhaps, but strong, my darling. And getting stronger!
I guess our biggest news is that Grandmama is cutting her visit short, and you'll never guess why: she's going to Ireland at the end of the week to see Sybil! Her curiosity about "Sybil's chauffeur," as she calls Tom, was just too much. She's going to stay with a friend who has an estate in County Wicklow, which is about an hour outside of Dublin. I also think that she wonders if this might be her last visit across the ocean (although I just can't believe that, her joie de vivre puts us all to shame), and so wants to be sure to see Sybil. I'm trying to picture what Tom's family will make of her, although Sybil has written that the Irish are quite fond of Americans in comparison to us English. Grandmama will return to Liverpool the day before the voyage home, so Papa's headache will soon abate, and Granny can stop huffing and rolling her eyes!
I had a very good check up with Dr. Clarkson yesterday, he's quite pleased with the weight I've gained, and I continue to feel so very well, darling! So well, in fact, that just a bit ago, I drank a cup of tea—yes, I did! It's sitting fine, and oh my, it was the nectar of the gods! So you see, dearest, I'm really and truly so much better. And baby's been kicking up a storm—he's missing his daddy, I'm quite sure! As is baby's mother. Every time my hand feels him kick, I feel your hand on my belly, and I see the look of joy on your face.
Oh, my darling husband, how I long to feel your arms around me, to kiss you, and to feel so much more. I find myself daydreaming about you constantly, remembering every moment of your last visit home. But knowing how every day you're getting stronger sustains me, my love, as I await our next reunion.
I love you so very much.
Matthew read Mary's letter one last time, folded it carefully, started to open the drawer to his bedside table, then changed his mind and tucked it under his pillow. His was the last bedside lamp on in the ward, although he saw that Manning was still awake, staring at the ceiling. He'd no sooner extinguished his light, than Manning turned to him.
"Crawley, can I ask you something," he whispered.
Matthew got himself onto his side. "Yes, of course," he whispered back.
Manning looked over his shoulder to make sure their fellow ward mates were asleep, then turned back. "Did you know when you were finally, you know, going to be able to . . . to, you know . . ." He sighed.
Matthew couldn't help smiling. Coates had been allowing Manning to go home to his brother's—to his wife—every other weekend, and he had just returned from his second visit tonight. Yes, he did know what his friend was talking about. But before he could answer, Peter continued:
"Because you see, I've been doing what you said, not worrying about me, just being so happy at pleasing her, and it's wonderful, and we're now able . . . I mean I'm very, very close, but I still can't quite. . . arrgh." He fell back against his pillows exhaling. It was awkward, being friends with each others' wives.
Matthew smiled sympathetically. "Finish, you mean?"
Manning made a noise of assent.
Matthew shook his head. "No, I didn't know it was going to happen until just before it did."
Manning nodded, then looked up at the ceiling. "It's bliss," his voice scraped, "it's bliss, just to be inside her."
Matthew lay back and closed his eyes, remembering. I want to be inside you, he had groaned, as she moved her hips against him. Then be inside me, she had whispered. I can't finish, I know I can't, he had protested. Her tongue had tickled his ear, making him shiver. You can still be inside me. He had dared try, and found that, dear God, yes, he could be inside her. And, no, he hadn't been able to finish, but she had. Bliss.
"Isn't it though," Matthew said softly
"Well, what do you think?" Mary turned from appraising herself in the full-length mirror.
"Lovely, m'lady," Anna nodded, smiling enthusiastically, as Mary modeled the cornflower-blue silk dress with matching velvet trim, one of several dresses, blouses, skirts and jackets just completed by Atèlier Lorraine in York to fit her expanding figure. "It's so clever how they've hidden the elastic with that belt."
Mary turned back to the mirror. "Mmm, yes, isn't it." It really was a luscious dress, and she hardly looked pregnant in it, right now, at least. She gave a decisive nod. "All right, I'll wear the red blouse, skirt, and jacket on the train, so don't pack that." She smiled at her image. "But this one . . ." This blue wasn't a color she wore often, and she had been surprised at how it set off her dark hair and eyes, and rosy cheeks. She held out her arm for Anna to unbutton the cuffs. "This one I'll wear the first time I visit the clinic."
Yes, she was going to London. She hadn't been sick or felt nauseated in more than a fortnight. Oh, she found she still had an aversion to certain foods—no spinach dish of any kind, please—but her appetite had returned with gusto, and, although she didn't drink it on an empty stomach, blessed tea was no longer her enemy. The thought of returning to London had already come to her, but when she read the article in the paper earlier in the week, she had gone immediately to see Isobel, and then Dr. Clarkson.
"Good morning, Lady Mary," Dr. Clarkson welcomed her, his smile not belying his surprise, having seen her just the week before. He ushered her into his office, indicating a chair. He seated himself behind his desk and eyed her with concern. "What brings you here today? I hope the nausea hasn't returned."
"No, not at all! Everything's fine. I'm feeling very well, eating everything on my plate and more, and the baby's kicking."
Clarkson smiled, relaxing perceptibly. "Very good. Then . . .?"
"Dr. Clarkson, I want to go to London to visit my husband."
The doctor's smile was immediately replaced by a frown. "Now, Lady Mary—."
"Now, Dr. Clarkson," Mary interrupted. "The reason you gave for my not returning to London was that I might find myself in a cycle of vomiting that could send me to hospital again. I am clearly past that worry."
"Perhaps, although it is possible for the vomiting to return."
"Well, if that's the case—although I'm quite sure it won't, I'm done with it, I can tell—all the more reason for me to go when I'm feeling so well."
"Need I remind you of the danger of contracting influenza when pregnant?"
"Ah, I thought you would bring that up." Mary opened her pocket book, withdrawing an article she had clipped from the morning paper and handed it across the desk.
"It says that cases of the Spanish flu dropped to almost nothing months ago." She raised an eyebrow. "Which I imagine you knew."
Clarkson's cheeks reddened a bit. "Perhaps, or perhaps as some think, it mutated into a much milder form. There will be new strains of influenza, Lady Mary—."
"This article says that they don't expect the new season of influenza to start until late in the year. This is only the last week of September!"
"—and there are other communicable diseases, none of which a pregnant woman would want to contract," he finished, holding her eyes.
"I could get sick here!"
"Yes, but it's much more unlikely than in the crowded conditions of London."
Mary's eyes filled. "Dr. Clarkson, please. I have no idea when my husband will be released to visit again. I just want to see him, while I can still travel."
Clarkson's face softened a bit. But he eyed her skeptically, as he sat back in his chair, "And what does Mr. Crawley say about this proposal?"
Mary pressed her lips together and swallowed. "I haven't spoken to him about it." She raised her chin. "And I'm not going to. He'd try to talk me out of it, and then when he saw that I wouldn't change my mind, he'd just worry." She paused, then added. "I did talk to his mother about it."
Clarkson looked up at the ceiling. "Why does that not surprise me?"
Isobel had read the article through, then looked up smiling. "I think it's a perfect time for you to go. I've been wanting to go myself, but between the refugee center here and working with the women's center in York, I just haven't been able to arrange it. Yes, I think you should go. But you must stay away from crowds."
"Oh, yes, no parties, no shopping. Well," she added laughing, "maybe a little shopping. But really, all I want is to see Matthew."
"And I assume she approves?"
"Yes, as long as I avoid crowds, which I will."
"Does it matter, then, what I say?" he asked in resignation.
"Yes," Mary nodded. "It does. I am going to go, but I'd like to be able to reassure Matthew that I have your approval, as well as his mother's." She leaned forward. "Really, Dr. Clarkson, if I hadn't been so sick, you know I would have returned to London for a visit long before now, and I don't think you would have opposed it."
Clarkson drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. "I just like to keep my patients as safe as possible. And you're not just any patient."
"I know," Mary acknowledged, then held her breath.
The doctor sighed, then gave a quick nod. "All right. Be back by your next examination."
"I will! I promise!" Mary smiled, elated. Then she added softly, "If it's not, too much trouble, could I listen to the heartbeat again?"
Clarkson took his stethoscope out of his pocket. "Of course," he smiled.
So, she was going to London! And she would be good—no parties, no restaurants or theatres, maybe a little shopping, but only in exclusive places where there were very few customers. Her mother would accompany her and Anna. They were leaving tomorrow, Saturday, so that her first visit would be Sunday, when visiting hours lasted all afternoon. She couldn't stop picturing the look on his face seeing her in the visitors' room. Yes, he'd be worried at first, but his fears would be assuaged knowing that she had Clarkson's and Isobel's blessing, and that Cora was with her. She was sure of it. And then, and then she would tell him about the heartbeat. And she would ask one of the doctors at the clinic, Coates, she hoped, to let him hear it. She played that scene in her head over and over. How he would listen intently, then suddenly look up at her, his eyes so soft, so blue, his joyous smile—
"There you go, m'lady." Having unbuttoned the dress, Anna helped her out of it.
Mary stood in her slip and chemise, looking pensively at the new clothing draped over chairs and laid out on the bed, trying to decide which pieces to take to London. Finally, she shrugged and laughed. "I can't decide! Pack everything except that skirt and blouse. I'll wear them today, and you can add them before we leave tomorrow."
"Very good, m'lady," Anna smiled and held up the blouse, as Mary slid her arms into the sleeves, buttoning it, then held out the skirt for her to step into. Anna raised the skirt, tying it above her belly, then adjusted the blouse. "And you still haven't told Mr. Matthew you're coming?"
"No," Mary shook her head, turning to look in the mirror again. She smoothed the blouse, then brought her hand to her stomach, smiling at the kick. "He'd just fuss and worry. No, it's better just to—." She stopped at a knock on the door.
Anna went to answer. It was Carson. Anna held the door open, and the butler stepped in.
"Lady Mary, Mr. Crawley is on the telephone."
"What! What's wrong?"
Carson held up a hand. "He asked me to fetch you personally, so that I could assure you that he says he is absolutely fine."
"Then why is he calling at ten in the morning, when he should be in physio?" she asked, hurrying from the room, not waiting for an answer.
Anna raised her eyebrows and looked at Carson, who shook his head. "He didn't say."
Mary walked quickly across the great hall, and grabbed the phone and held the receiver to her ear. "Matthew? What's wrong?"
"Darling! You're panting. Did you run to the phone?"
"Didn't Carson tell you I'm fine? I told him—."
"Yes, yes, yes, but you wouldn't be calling now if it wasn't some kind of emergency."
"Please, darling, take some slow breaths. You're making me quite worried." When he heard her breathing calm, he went on, "All right. Listen to me again. I'm fine. But we have a situation here at the clinic I need to tell you about. You see, there's a very bad gastroenteritis—severe vomiting and diarrhea with a high fever— going around London, and it's hit very hard in Kensington. One of the fellows here got it, and has had to be taken to hospital. They've traced it back to his brother who visited earlier in the week—he's quite ill himself."
"I'm so sorry. But no one else is ill?"
"No. Not yet, at any rate."
"Then why are you calling?"
"Well, the thing is, you're going to be getting a letter—it's going out today—explaining that the doctors are putting the clinic under a quarantine. We can't go out, and no one except staff can come in, in fact, much of the staff is sleeping here to lessen the risk. And even though it doesn't affect us, darling, I didn't want you to get the letter without hearing from me first."
Mary closed her eyes and squeezed the telephone, then stamped her foot. It just could not be true.
She pressed her lips together, then exhaled slowly. "I'm so glad you called. You're not feeling the least bit ill?"
"No, darling. I'm hale and hearty."
Mary blinked back tears. "I know you'll miss Jack's visits, and going to the park with the family." Matthew was silent for so long that now it was Mary's turn to ask, "Matthew?"
It was still a moment before he spoke. "Darling, there's a queue of chaps here, waiting to telephone their families. I'll call you back tonight after dinner, and we can talk longer."
"Yes, all right. I love you, dearest."
Mary carefully hung up the receiver, then stamped her foot again as she cried out in frustration. It just could not be true. It could not be true. A tear leaked out, and she brushed it angrily away, then took several deep breaths. Well, at least she had found out before she'd gone to London. And really, this was just a delay, wasn't it. Yes, just a delay. The quarantine wouldn't last forever. She'd go after her next examination. Surely the quarantine would be lifted by then. She sighed heavily, and went to tell Anna to stop packing.
Mary knew Matthew would be done with dinner at around half past six, so she waited in the library for his call. She played back their conversation in her head as she idly turned the pages in The Lady. She couldn't put her finger on it, but she felt sure now he had been holding something back, that he wasn't calling just so they could talk. When the phone rang, she jumped up and answered while Carson was still approaching.
"Mr. Matthew Crawley calling for Lady Mary Crawley," Miss Jordan announced.
"I'll connect you."
Then after a pause, "Hello?"
"Yes, darling, hello!."
"Mary! You must have sprinted to beat Carson to the phone!"
She laughed. It was so good hearing his voice again so soon. "I was waiting in the library. I knew when you'd be done with dinner."
"Yes. And it's quiet now, and we can have a proper conversation." He fell silent, and Mary realized that his silence during the first call was how she knew there was something more he needed to tell. Something he didn't want to tell her."
"What is it? What haven't you told me?"
She could hear him sigh. "You know me so well, don't you, dearest? It's Jack and Alice. Mrs. Patton, Alice's mother, called me last night. They've both come down with this gastroenteritis and—."
"Not the children?"
"No, not yet, anyway. It seems to strike adults, or if children get it, it's a much milder form." He paused again. "Jack came down with it first, and Alice . . . Mary, Alice was taken to hospital yesterday."
"Oh, my God, no! And how is she? And the baby?"
"She was dangerously dehydrated, but they've stabilized her, and they think the baby is fine, at least for the moment, but the vomiting and diarrhea haven't abated, and her fever is still very high."
"Will this affect her carrying the baby to term?" Alice was due at the end of October, a month away.
Matthew was silent again. "They don't know, Mary," he finally answered.
"Oh, Matthew," she whispered.
"Jack is still very ill and beside himself with worry, Alice's mother says. He insisted on going with her, got up from bed and fainted."
For a moment, Mary couldn't speak as she tried to take it all in. "And Teddy and Charlotte?"
"Teddy is trying to be a little soldier and comfort Charlotte, who clings to her grandmother's skirt and cries for Mummy."
Mary leaned her head against the wall, stifling a sob.
"I know, darling, I know. And I just feel so helpless that I can't be there for them." They were both silent, then Matthew continued, "Thank God, Mary, that you are safe in York. If anything happened to you or the baby—." He broke off, his voice ragged.
And Mary knew then that she would not be going to London. It was just not worth the risk. She fumbled in her pocket for her handkerchief and blotted the tears that had started to fall.
"Yes," she managed, "you mustn't worry about me and the baby. And Matthew, I have some very good news to share."
"Then tell me, darling! We could use some cheering up!"
"Well, I told you that I had an excellent check up last week, but there's something I was waiting to tell you . . ." She brushed a tear away. "I was waiting to tell you until the next time we spoke. Darling," she choked out, "I heard the heartbeat."
"Oh, Mary, oh my love—."
I was so sorry you were out on the estate with Langdon and your father when I called earlier today to give you the happy news about Alice, but am so glad you continue feeling so well! I had a nice chat with your mother.
Jack has called again—this morning he only had time to say that Alice would be coming home—with more details. Once his fever broke, and he could get out of bed without falling over, he pretty much camped out at the hospital. Although she was greatly improved, the doctors had wanted to keep her longer due to the pregnancy, but it upset her so to be away from the children, that Jack and Dr. Patton (it doesn't hurt to have a doctor in the family!) convinced them that it would do more harm than good. She's home now and getting stronger by the hour, Jack reports. You can imagine the children's reaction at getting Mummy back!
We're on the second week of the quarantine, and I can say that we're all going rather stir crazy, even those of us with no place to go. And, although I might not be expecting company, I like sitting in the Visitor's Room to read and write, just to be around other people, and often join in a conversation or two. I do so feel for Peter. His weekend visits home are stopped for now, of course. But no one else has taken ill, and that's the main thing.
The one thing we are allowed to do is to continue to go out to the park to practice walking, there being no close contact with anyone under the circumstances. I've been going out with Connelly early in the morning, right after breakfast. Being out in the fresh air makes such a difference!
Darling, I was hoping to be allowed to come visit as soon as the quarantine is lifted, which we are hoping will be at the end of the week, but Coates feels this is a critical time for my therapy, happily because I'm making such daily progress. Every time I travel, I lose a bit on both ends of the trip, I'm so worn out from traveling, as well as being on my own while I'm home, rather than having formal physio. So, I'm afraid, for now, the word is "stay put and keep working." But, always, always, Mary, you know I will come if for any reason you need me. And I haven't stopped asking!
My afternoon session is about to begin, so I'll close now. I miss you so much, Mary, I long to be with you, to hear the heartbeat of our child. I'm getting better, darling, every day, and every step I take brings me closer to coming home.
I love you so much,
Your letter just arrived with the wonderful news about Alice! I'm so relieved, they have all been on my mind and in my prayers these past days. And now I pray that she continues to regain her strength so that her childbirth goes well.
I'm so glad to know that you have continued going to the park during this wretched quarantine, and that your physio is going so well. I can imagine how bleak it is at the visiting hour for all of you.
And darling, I miss you more than I can say, but you must promise—promise—not to try to plead your way home for a visit until Coates thinks you're ready. I couldn't bear the thought that your visiting put you behind or held you back in anyway. And I do promise, that if I truly needed you home, I would tell you. But I'm fine, baby's fine—we long for you, but know you're where you should be.
I'm feeling so well, that I can hardly believe how sick I was not that long ago, some days not even leaving my bedroom. So, whenever the weather is fair, I take walks around the park, and often go to our bench to read. As you say, being out in the fresh air does make such a difference, especially after being cooped up for so long.
The dinner gong has sounded, so I'd best close and start dressing. Edith and Anthony returned from their honeymoon yesterday, and they, your mother, and Granny are coming to dinner tonight. They stopped by for tea yesterday afternoon, on their way to Loxley, and I think you will see a change in them when next you are home. They are now so clearly secure in their love, that it's given them both a confidence—with each other and towards the world—and Granny, that includes you!—that wasn't there before. It was truly wonderful to see.
My beloved husband, I ache to be with you, but I can wait, knowing that you're getting stronger every day!
Matthew and Connelly walked slowly down the drive of the park. He felt Connelly tighten his grip on the padded belt around his waist as he negotiated the slight incline, placing his sticks carefully before taking a step. He didn't like wearing the belt in public, and he didn't think he needed it, but he knew it was required; at least there weren't many "civilians" out and about before eight in the morning. He loved starting his day this way, and on days when the weather was foul, and he had to wait or couldn't go at all, he found himself feeling out of sorts.
They stopped at the foot of the drive to let a car pass, then continued across the street, following the semi-circular drive that led to the clinic's front door. It had been a good session: for the first time, he had made it around the park on the gravel path without stopping to rest, and though he felt the effort, he wasn't worn out at all.
They entered the clinic vestibule. "All right, sir, well done!" Connelly clapped Matthew on the shoulder, then removed the belt. "I know you want to be rid of this," he laughed.
"You're right about that," Matthew grinned, as they moved on into the clinic reception area.
"Get off your feet for twenty minutes, then we'll start you—." He broke off as Dr. Coates came out of his office. His face lit up when he saw Matthew.
"Mr. Crawley! Out for your morning constitutional, I see! How'd he do?" he asked Connelly.
"Very well, indeed, sir. Around the park in one go. Didn't stop once."
"Splendid! How do you feel now, Mr. Crawley?"
"I'll be glad to sit for a bit, but otherwise, fine. It does me good to be out."
Coates nodded, smiling. "And how are you faring with these new sticks? Keeping your balance, feeling secure?"
"I am, yes. Every day it gets easier."
Coates's smile broadened. "Excellent. Mr. Crawley, I was going to send for you later. Since you're here now, why don't you take your rest by sitting in my office. There's something I'd like to talk to you about."
Daisy led the way into the small library. When she realized she was alone in the room, she turned, retracing her steps to the entrance hall, and looked into the saloon. Sure enough, there she was, standing in the middle of the carpet, her arms full with ash bin, cleaning tools and sheet, slowly turning as she gawked at the great room. Daisy remembered doing the same thing on her first day.
But that was no excuse. "Come on! I don't have all day. Mrs. Patmore's counting on me to help with the chocolate mousse."
For Daisy had finally been promoted to Mrs. Patmore's proper assistant, and a girl from a Loxley farm, Tillie Wilson, had been hired as the new scullery maid. She had started that morning in the kitchen, but this was the first chance Daisy had had to begin her instruction on cleaning the fireplaces, all of which Daisy had cleaned herself earlier, save this one.
Tillie came into the small library, and Daisy indicated the hearth. "All right. Set the things down and spread the sheet.
Tillie set the pail down with a clang and dropped the tools with a clatter. She started to struggle with the sheet.
"Not like that!" Daisy shook her head in exasperation. She would have to continue doing the bedroom fires herself for quite some time to come, she could see that! In fact, she despaired that this bumpkin could ever learn to creep into a room without knocking something over and waking the sleeping inhabitants. She rolled the tools up in the sheet, then picked them and the bin up and handed them back. "Try it again. Place the bin. Lay the tools and sheet down, then unroll the sheet."
This time she did better. She followed Daisy's directions, but, irritatingly, her attention continued to wander, and she didn't seem really to care about what kind of job she did. When they were finally finished with the cleaning, Tillie stood up first and started looking around the room.
"Here, you've got to pick up after yourself!" Daisy remonstrated sharply.
Tillie continued to peruse the room. "Just give me a minute to look around. It's all so grand, it don't seem real."
"You'll know it's real if Lord Grantham comes in and wants to use this room, and we're in his way."
Tillie eyed several family photos on a side table, pointing to Mary and Matthew's wedding photograph. "Is that the heir? He's so handsome." She eyed the portrait critically—Mathew and Mary from the waist up, facing each other, smiling happily, the vignetting of the photograph having erased Matthew's wheelchair and Mary's chair, making it seem that they were standing rather than sitting—and shook her head. "But he don't look like a cripple. Me mum said he was crippled." The sound of a motor car coming up the drive distracted her, and she moved to the window as the car pulled up in front of the entrance.
"Don't talk like that!" Daisy began indignantly. "Mr. Matthew—."
"Daisy." Anna stood in the doorway. "Why are you doing the fireplace now?"
"Mrs. Hughes said I could. I'm training Tillie on the cleaning. Or at least I'm trying to." And she began to complain under her breath to Anna.
Tillie watched as a chauffeur got out of the large black car and opened the passenger door. She watched as a very handsome blond man set his feet on the ground, then held the side of the car, and the top of the open door and pulled himself up. Tillie looked back at the picture, then shook her head. "No, he don't look crippled." But she frowned as she took in the chair strapped to the back of the car. "But why does he have a chair, then? It don't make sense."
Anna and Daisy went to the window.
"It's Mr. Matthew!" Daisy cried, as Carson, followed by Robert, and then Cora, appeared. "Were we expecting him?"
Anna shook her head. "No, we weren't." She brought her hand to her mouth. "Oh, Daisy. Look! Look at his feet!" By this time Bates and Mrs. Hughes had come out, and Anna hurried to join them.
Daisy and Tillie watched as he shook hands with Robert and kissed Cora's cheek. They all spoke and laughed, and then Anna pointed toward the park, and he smiled, then reached back into the car and took out two canes, leaning on them heavily, Robert clapping him on the back, Cora giving him another kiss, and now Daisy put her hand to her mouth and shook her head.
"Oh, I guess he is a cripple, after all," Tillie observed.
"Will you shut up, you silly goose, you just don't understand!" Daisy cried, as she watched Mr. Matthew slowly walk toward the Lebanon cedar.
Mary loved Trollope, but today she just could not keep her eyes open as she read. Baby had woken her up early with his kicking (yes, she was more sure than ever it was a boy), and she hadn't been able to fall back asleep. She had tried lying down after lunch, but sleep hadn't come. So she took advantage of the fine day—it had rained so much lately—then settled on their bench, to finish the last chapters of Barchester Towers, but her head drooped and the book dropped to the ground. She struggled to pick it up—really, she was finding it harder and harder to bend down with each passing day—then marked her place and set the book next to her.
A thrumming of kicks made her smile. Are you telling me to read Daddy's letter again? She withdrew Matthew's latest from her pocket, once more reading happily about his most recent visit with Jack, who reported that Alice was quite recovered and impatient for the baby to come-it could be any day now. She read again how much he loved going to the park; how his stride was getting stronger by the day; how much he missed her, and loved her, and remembered feeling the baby move, and thanked God every day for his life, and hers, and for the life of the miracle she carried.
Mary sighed, slipping the letter into her book, trying to remember that it was only miles that separated them, and not forever. She cradled her belly, waiting for the next foot to push, leaned her head back, closed her eyes, and breathed deeply the pungent autumn air. The day was unusually warm for late-October, but still crisp, and she wore the red suit she had planned to travel to London in. She was quite drowsy, and even when she heard the motor of a car coming up the drive, she couldn't bring herself to open her eyes. She'd much rather keep them closed and daydream about Matthew.
It was only when she heard the crunch of gravel that she roused herself and looked up. She blinked and shook her head in disbelief, because surely this was still a daydream. He couldn't be here, could he? And then she began to cry, because it was all too real, he was really, truly here, walking, walking down the path, and then the grass, using canes not crutches.
Mary stood and held out her arms until Matthew, his eyes bright, his smile broad, made his way to her, step by step. He braced himself with one stick, his other arm coming around her, and pressed kisses to the top of her head, and she sobbed against him, holding him tightly, as if afraid she might lose him.
Finally, they moved to the bench and sat. Matthew took his handkerchief and dried her tears, then she took it and blew her nose. And then she started crying again.
"Oh darling, come here." He folded her in his arms and rocked her. "I wanted to surprise you, not upset you."
"I'm not upset. I'm just so happy," she choked out. "And I was daydreaming about you, and suddenly you were there." She sat up, wiped her eyes, and blew her nose again. "It doesn't seem real."
Matthew kissed her tenderly. "I'm really here."
She shook her head looking down, then up at him. "And no braces? No crutches?"
"I haven't thrown them, or the chair, away yet," he smiled. "But more and more, I'm doing well without them."
"But why didn't you let us know you were coming? How long can you stay?" she asked, hoping for two weeks but bracing herself for less.
Matthew took her hands, smiling. "I'm not going back, darling."
Mary stared at him. "What? What do you mean?"
"Yesterday, Coates called me into his office. He knows how hard it's been on us to be apart. He has a colleague, a Dr. Yardley, at the Royal York Hospital, who has started a much smaller version of the same kind of clinic as Coates, although it's not residential. Coates was quite impressed with it when he visited last month, and was especially impressed with the physiotherapists. He says if they ever want to move to London, he'd hire them on in a minute. Anyway, he was consulting at Royal York on a patient of Dr. Yardley's today, and proposed yesterday that I go with him to meet and be examined by Yardley. I didn't tell you any of this, because Coates's plans are always changing depending on what's happening at the clinic, and it wasn't until I was on the six o'clock train this morning, that I was sure I was coming. It was quite a whirlwind."
A whirlwind getting him ready, a whirlwind of good-byes and good wishes from the fellows. It was very hard, unexpectedly feeling as he did parting from his men when he'd go on leave during the war, as if he were abandoning them. And he found himself quite emotional accepting Connelly's and Winter's congratulations: "Thank you" isn't enough; you've given me a life I thought impossible.
Saying good-bye to Manning, of course, was the hardest of all. They had stayed up late into the night talking, and then Peter had gotten up early, and swung himself on his sticks to see him to the door. Crawley, you bastard, I'm happy for you, but God, I am going to miss your sorry self. Take care, Matthew. They shook hands, then pulled each other into an embrace. It won't be long for you, Peter, you're getting stronger every day.
And then Tommy set his valise in his chair and pushed it to the car. They shook hands heartily. What did I tell you, sir, when you first arrived? 'Your time will come,' and here it is! Best of luck to you, sir! Matthew felt his throat get tight. Tommy, I couldn't have gotten here without you. Thank you for everything.
He kissed her hands. "The long and the short of it is, I've been doing so well, that I've been discharged as a residential patient. Dr. Yardley will take me on in a consulting capacity. I like him very much, and he's very thoughtful—that's his car and driver that brought me here. So, I'll go to York twice weekly for physio, and once a week, a physiotherapist will come here. And I'm still Coates's patient, so I'll need to go back to London every six weeks or so at first, then every few months, as a day patient. Which is all wonderful news, you see, because it means," and here Matthew lifted a stick, "this isn't the end of what walking looks like for me."
"Oh, Matthew, such wonderful news." Mary reached up, cradling his face, shaking her head, smiling, laughing, crying. "And really, truly? You're home?"
His hands covered hers, and he kissed her forehead, then held her eyes. "Really, truly, my darling, really, truly. I'm home."
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