Five years ago today, I published the first chapter of this story. I am so grateful that you stuck with it and me. I am so grateful that Center still finds new readers. I continue to feel overwhelmed and humbled by the response to the story. Thank you, thank you all from the center of MY heart.
Note: Those of you who have read my Christmas story, All Through the Christmas Night, will see that I have included part of it here. That's because I had originally intended to write it for the epilogue, because I had hoped to have finished the story and put the epilogue up at Christmas. When I realized I couldn't get George born until after the New Year, I decided to expand the scene and it put it up for Christmas. But I really wanted it in the epilogue, so here it is.
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?
Those are earth's properties and base.
Each where, as the bodies divine,
Heaven's lights and you to me will shine.
Herbert of Cherbury c. 1608
"Brow breaker, eye blinker, nose . . . nose . . ." Matthew looked up at Mary, his finger poised above almost-five-month-old George's nose, raising his brows. "Nose?"
Mary laughed. "Nose dropper."
Matthew rolled his eyes in exasperation with himself and started again with the nursery game his parents had played with him, and which Isobel had recently taught Mary, and then she him:
"Brow breaker," and he tapped George's forehead. "Eye blinker, nose dropper, mouth eater, chin chopper," tapping each mentioned feature in turn, finally tickling him under his chin: "Gilly, gilly, gilly!" George giggled happily, then began babbling, or "speaking French," as Mary and Matthew called it—such a change from the cooing of just a month ago.
After playing the game two more times, Matthew settled George on his lap and began another game—also one from his childhood—that Paul Phillips had incorporated into his therapy:
"This is the way the ladies ride,
Tree, tree, tree,
Tree, tree, tree."
Matthew pushed up and down on his toes, barely raising his legs, but tightening his leg muscles, giving George, who smiled happily, a sedate ride.
"This is the way the ladies ride,
Tree, tree, tree!"
Then, he began to push up and down on his toes as high as he could:
"This is the way the gentlemen ride,
George began to laugh.
"This is the way the gentlemen ride,
Now Matthew pushed up and down, raising each leg independently, giving George a rather wild, bumpy ride.
"And this is the way the farmers ride,
This is the way the farmers ride,
Hobbledy, hobbledy, hoy-dee-hoy!" With the final "hoy," Matthew lifted George off his lap, holding him high. George erupted in peals of laughter and, when seated again, began waving his arms until the game began anew.
"All right now," Mary warned, after the third go.
Matthew made a sad face, but he began barely to push up and down on his toes again, saying quietly, in a sing-song, "Tree, tree, tree. Tree, tree, tree." It wasn't long before George's eyes grew heavy.
"There you go, Mummy," Matthew smiled, as Mary unbuttoned the bottom of her blouse, then rose, coming over to the settee, taking George from Matthew's outstretched arms. She sat down in the rocking chair, lifted her blouse and sat back, as George immediately began rooting, then latched on. She raised an eyebrow. "Can you imagine what would happen if you played that game after he nursed?"
"I can, and that's why we play it before," he replied, chuckling.
A few minutes later, she switched sides, then looked up. "It won't be long. He doesn't nurse much now before he falls asleep at nap time." It seemed every day brought a change.
Matthew loved watching her nurse George, loved watching the look on her face, as she watched George nurse. She was right—it wasn't long before he could see George relax, his head falling back.
And he had been right—she was a wonderful mother, a natural mother, so attuned to George and his changing needs, so often with George in the nursery.
Mary tugged down her blouse but continued to rock the sleeping George. "So," she smiled up at Matthew, "you haven't said how your session with Mr. Phillips went this morning.
"Very well. Watch this." Matthew cast his eyes around, then took a book off the end table next to the settee and set it down on the floor. He stood up, raising his brows and inclined his head. "I'm going to show off."
He held onto the arm of the settee, bent down and picked up the book, then straightened, holding it up in triumph.
His mouth pulled up in a lop-sided grin. "I'm pretty close to not needing to hold onto anything. Not quite yet."
Her eyes filled. "It's marvelous."
Mary held George out to Matthew, who took him whilst she rebuttoned her blouse. He gazed down at George. He still couldn't quite believe it: he was standing and holding his son. How he had imagined, dreamed, prayed that one day he could do this, and now he could! Then he held George out to Mary, so that they could walk together to deliver him to the nursery, as was their custom when the baby had fallen asleep when they were together with him.
Mary smiled and shook her head. "You carry him. You're ready."
He was two months behind where he would have been if he hadn't slipped on black ice on the front step one morning in early April on his way to work. Strict bedrest for a week, due to a concussion; confined to his chair for another due to dizziness. Then, slowly, carefully allowed up, but only with crutches, at first only when Phillips was with him. Gradually, he had graduated to using his sticks. It had been massively frustrating. Then, when after a month, Yardley and Coates, who had come himself to York to evaluate him, had approved him to resume his regime, he had had to rebuild his muscles and strength that had weakened due to the restricted activity, Phillips had been coming four days a week to work with him. A hard slog
But he had regained what had been lost, making steady progress, walking more and farther without sticks, his gait growing daily stronger and steadier. And he had carried the swaddled "baby" Phillips had fashioned out of a sack of beans several times, first with his stick, then without. But still. Carrying George?
He stared, his mouth open. He shook his head. "I don't think I'm ready to try that. I-."
"I do," Mary interrupted, nodding decisively.
"I . . ." He reached for his stick.
"No. You don't need it. You've been walking to the nursery for the past three weeks without it."
"I might lose my balance. I might—."
Mary shook her head. "You won't. You've been very steady. And look what you just did! You bent down without losing your balance, without wobbling at all!" She held out George, smiling. "I'll be with you, anyway."
Matthew took George, cradling him against his shoulder. He exhaled slowly. "Would you . . . would you hold your hand on my back?"
"Of course," she smiled.
Mary opened the door to the corridor, and they started out, her hand barely touching his back, although he felt it as if it were holding him up. It was only about twenty feet, twenty feet that he had traversed many times now without a stick—he had gone farther, even— although it felt very much longer to Matthew. But they arrived safely at the door to the nursery. Mary knocked, then opened it.
Nurse Wallace rose from the rocking chair where she'd been sitting, mending one of George's nightgowns. She said nothing as they entered, but she smiled in surprised delight at the sight of Matthew carrying George over to his cot, then lowering him down.
Mary and Matthew stood a moment, watching their sleeping child, then smiled and nodded at Nurse Wallace as they left.
Outside the nursery, Matthew collapsed against the wall.
"You see," Mary smiled, "I told you, you didn't need your stick!"
Matthew shook his head, then pulled her into an embrace. "You are my stick," he said huskily. "You always have been, and you always will be."
Matthew smiled as the car pulled up in front of the Abbey, Carson and Alfred waiting to greet him. After nearly a week in London, it was very good to be home.
"Welcome home, sir." Carson offered, as Trent opened his door, and Matthew stood. "I hope your travels went smoothly."
"Yes, all went well." Matthew reached back into the car, retrieving his stick and brief case. He hardly used the stick now, but he still often carried it as a precaution against those times when his back would suddenly spasm. And then, too, this was the first time he had gone to London alone—Mary hadn't come with him, and since he planned to stay with Jack and Alice, he'd told Bates that he'd manage on his own. Mary, of course, fretted, but he'd been fine and not needed the stick once.
Alfred took his suitcase from Trent, then opened the door to the entrance hall, and they preceded him in.
"I believe Lady Mary is upstairs," Carson informed him. "Lady Grantham is at a meeting at the hospital, and Lord Grantham is out with Mr. Branson."
Mr. Branson, who was now the estate agent. Sybil and Tom had stayed on until Mairaed, named after Tom's mother, but soon called "Sybbie" because she looked just like Sybil, was born in August of 1920. Even though Robert—Robert!—had tried to persuade them to continue to live at Downton, they had moved to London. Tom wrote freelance for the Irish Independent and for The Universe, the weekly newspaper for Catholics in England, and Sybil, inspired by helping to deliver George, had trained as a midwife, working part-time. They had eked out a living with some help from Robert, who periodically sent money. It's not for you or Tom, it's for my granddaughter, Robert had retorted, when she had tried to refuse, and Sybil had decided she wasn't too proud to take it, now that they had a child to feed.
But a year ago, Langdon, who had seen the estate through the changes and to a strong financial footing, had dropped dead of a heart attack. It was a blow, and not just to the management of the estate—Langdon was a good man, and everyone, the house and the tenants, mourned his passing. Matthew, Mary, Robert, and Murray had tried to find a replacement quickly, but the two candidates everyone had agreed were the best fit couldn't come for several months. That's when they had appealed to—really begged—Tom: would he consider coming back as the estate agent?
He and Sybil had debated it back and forth, and finally agreed: yes, they would come, but only if they could live in the estate agent's house, once Mrs. Langdon had been given sufficient time to vacate and move in with her daughter. Robert had objected at first—of course, they should live at the Abbey! But Mary, Matthew, and Cora had gotten him to see sense—Sybil and Tom needed their independence.
And so far, it was working very well. Tom loved being out on the land, something he had never pictured for himself, and he managed still to write for various publications, advocating for Ireland. And Sybil was quite happy being the eccentric daughter of the Earl, who worked as a midwife, although she had stopped temporarily, now that she was in the eighth month of her second pregnancy.
As they crossed the saloon, Bates came through the baize door
"Good to have you back, sir." Bates nodded with a small smile, taking Matthew's stick and briefcase in one hand, his own stick gripped in his other. "The trip was successful?"
"Very. But it's always good to be home." Bates and Matthew followed Alfred up the stairs, both men taking the steps at a slower pace than the footman.
Mary and Matthew had waited to move their rooms and nursery upstairs until after Catherine was born, waiting to see how Mary's second pregnancy progressed. And it had been as Clarkson had predicted—this was just how she carried a child. She had begun having contractions at about the same time as with George. She, of course, didn't climb the stairs and did rest every day. Clarkson hadn't done an internal exam until her eighth month, not wanting to "stir things up," as he had put it, but monitored her closely. And sure enough, just like the first time, she was two centimeters dilated at eight months, and five when she went into labor the day before her due date. So, after she had recovered from Catherine's birth, they had moved their rooms upstairs (after adding a shower to their bathroom) and moved the children and Nurse Wallace into the old nursery suite. But they kept their sitting room, still wanting their own retreat, and kept Mary's bedroom and Matthew's dressing room furnished, just in case Matthew's back troubled him and made the stairs too much, and so that Mary would have a place to lie down, if they had more children. Sometimes the children played in the downstairs nursery, and, of course, Matthew kept his therapy room, using the weights and equipment several times a week.
And so, with Mary's third pregnancy, she had come down the stairs very slowly in the mornings and hadn't climbed back up until she went to bed, resting every afternoon and changing for dinner every evening in their downstairs bedroom, the contractions and her dilation following the same pattern as George and Catherine. Robert—Robbie—had been born two days after his due date.
Matthew entered their bedroom, his face breaking into a broad smile at the sight of Mary in the rocking chair nursing almost-three-month-old Robbie.
"Darling!" Mary exclaimed, as he crossed the room.
He took her outstretched hand, leaning down to press a tender kiss to her lips, then caressed Robbie's head. "How's the little man?"
"The colic seems to be subsiding, thank goodness." Robbie was their first child to have had much problem with colic. Fortunately, Wally showed them the trick of holding him face down on one's lap, the baby's stomach pressed against a thigh. It worked like a charm, and once he fell asleep like that, he could be moved to his cot.
Matthew removed his jacket, setting it on her dressing table bench, and loosened his collar and tie. "Let me go wash up." He kissed the top of her head, then went to their bathroom, washing his face and hands, then combing his hair. Before going back to their bedroom, he stopped by his dressing room, where Bates was unpacking his suitcase. As expected, he had set aside various parcels—gifts for the children and Mary. Matthew selected one of Mary's, then entered their bedroom.
Mary had Robbie across her lap, one hand rubbing circles on his back, while the other was captive, as his small hand clutched her index finger. Her eyes lit up at the parcel wrapped in brown paper that Matthew carried. "You found it!" she exclaimed.
"I did indeed!"
It was the latest Agatha Christie mystery novel, just published, The Murder on the Links. She had discovered that if she read a mystery, she didn't mind getting up for the night nursings—in fact, she looked forward to it, always wanting to find out 'what happened next.' She had read all of Father Brown, some Sherlock Holmes, and then discovered the first two Christies. "I can't wait to start it, although I don't know what I'm going to do when I'm done, and there are no more to read. I guess I'll go back to Holmes when I finish it," she added with a sigh.
Matthew suppressed a smile. He had second book for her, Whose Body?, the début novel of another woman, Dorothy Sayers. It's a corker, sir! the clerk at the bookshop had enthused. He'd wait to surprise her with it until after she had finished the Christie. He sat down on the bed and started to unlace his shoes.
There was a knock at the door, and Allyn entered with a cup of tea for Mary.
"Here you are m'lady."
Bates and Anna had married in October of 1920 and, as Robert had promised, moved into one of the cottages, continuing to work as valet and lady's maid to Matthew and Mary. Anna, after a miscarriage, had given birth to Johnny in January of 1922. She had continued with Mary until her seventh month, and then Doreen Allyn had been hired in her place. Mary had missed Anna desperately, but she liked Allyn very much, and they had quickly developed a very congenial and trusting relationship.
And her relationship with Anna had evolved into a different sort of friendship than they had had when Anna was in service. Mary visited her frequently, often bringing George and Catherine to play with Johnny—they were mothers together now.
Allyn set the cup down on the table next to the rocker. "Welcome, home, sir," she smiled, "May I bring you some tea?"
"I'm fine at the moment, thank you."
"Very good," Allyn, nodded, then turned to Mary. "Anything else, m'lady?"
"Not at the moment," Mary smiled.
Allyn nodded again, and withdrew.
Mary raised a brow. "How's your back?"
"Not too bad, really, but I do need to lie down a bit."
He stretched out on the bed. Mary decided Robbie was well asleep, so she carefully lifted him up to her shoulder, then rose. She handed Matthew a receiving blanket, which he spread across his chest, then gently set Robbie down. He wiggled a bit as he settled, but now Matthew rubbed circles on his back and breathed deeply, the rise and fall of his chest soothing the baby. And holding his Robbie like this, as it had with George and Catherine, soothed Matthew, and he felt the strain of traveling fall away.
Mary lay down next to him. "So. Tell me all about your trip. The symposium went well?"
"It went very well. I wish you could have been there. It was very well attended. Coates's lecture and presentation, I was told by several doctors, was the highlight."
It had been a symposium on the medical treatment and long-term rehabilitation of seriously wounded soldiers, doctors from various specialties presenting their most interesting cases. Coates had been invited to present on spinal injury, and he hadn't hesitated to choose Matthew as his case. When he had asked Matthew's permission, which Matthew had readily given, Coates had invited him to attend the session.
"Coates described my injury, what he knew about my treatment at the front and how I was transported back to Downton; that I presented completely paralyzed from the waist down; then the diagnosis, or rather misdiagnosis, due to the unusual course of spinal shock and the misunderstanding of 'the doctor treating the patient' (Mary snorted) of the sensations, which should have indicated that the spine hadn't been transected; finally, his examination and diagnosis that recovery of some function might be possible. And then, before he began to describe his treatment and my rehabilitation, he had me join him on the stage." Matthew exhaled a small laugh at the memory of the murmurs of surprise, then the sustained and loud applause. "I'm afraid I caused rather a sensation."
"I'm sure you did," Mary smiled, kissing his cheek.
"Coates knows how to keep the attention of an audience. Anyway, he continued describing my case, and I sat off to the side on the stage, but then I joined him again for the question period. The doctors were quite impressed that I've been able to ride a bicycle again! It's all going to be written up and published, so you'll be able to read it."
"I can't wait," she said softly.
"Really, it was a most gratifying experience. And if it can help the doctors in their treatment of other patients . . ." He shook his head. "And even more gratifying," he continued, "was visiting the clinic and seeing how the Foundation continues to help."
They had started the Reginald, Catherine, and Lavinia Swire Foundation in 1920, with the goal of helping patients with limited funds to be able to come to the clinic and to live with better accommodations at home, once they left.
The clinic was still dedicated to treating veterans, but those injured in the war, and who had been able to regain the use of their legs, had done so long ago; now the patients like Matthew and Peter were veterans with spinal injuries due to accidents in civilian life. And of course, the clinic worked with patients at any level of recovery, whether from a war or civilian injury, to gain—or regain—and maintain strength and stamina. Coates examined him once a year, but whenever Matthew was in London, he would visit the clinic, both to consult with Coates about Foundation business and to visit with the patients.
"I went with Jack to visit patients at the clinic twice, and Peter once. Peter, Lizzie, and the baby left for a visit to her parents in Surrey two days after I arrived, but I did get to eat dinner with them. They send their love."
"And baby Irene?"
"Oh, Mary, she's adorable, such blue eyes, and they are so besotted with her, it's wonderful to see."
Peter and Lizzie had just about given up on having children, when, the previous year, Lizzie discovered she was pregnant. Irene was a month older than Robbie.
"I'm so happy for them," Mary said softly, her hand reaching to caress Robbie's cheek.
"She's only four months old, but you can tell she's going to look just like Lizzie, mark my words."
"I can't wait to meet her. And how are Jack and Alice, and the children?"
"All are well and wishing Aunt Mary could have come with me."
"Haven't Jack and Alice told them they're all coming here in two weeks?"
Matthew laughed. "They had decided to wait to tell them until I got there. Pandemonium ensued."
He continued to relate various moments about his visit. "Teddy is enjoying his first summer vacation. He's such an enthusiastic student, too. Wanted to show me how he could read, write and do sums." Jack and Alice were having him attend a day school for the time being, not wanting to send him away so young—Matthew and Mary intended to do the same when it was George's time. "And goodness, Charlotte has grown so, even since I saw them all on my last trip back in May. And James is such a cheerful little chap."
"It will be so lovely to have them for a good, long visit," Mary smiled.
"Yes, it will be grand. Oh—Jack has a new glass eye! It's even more natural looking than the first. Really, they did a brilliant job of matching the color." Then Matthew snorted. "He says he can't wait to show it to Carson!"
They both shook with laughter, trying not to awaken Robbie. Then Mary said quietly, "Alice wrote that Jack hasn't had a night terror in quite some time—what does Jack say?"
Matthew nodded, "Yes, not for some time." He paused, then shrugged, "He's like me—the dreams are there most nights, but they aren't usually as vivid as they once were." He wouldn't tell her that he had had one of his worst nightmares in months two nights ago.
They were both silent for a moment, then Mary said softly. "I'm glad you came home today."
He looked at her, frowning slightly. "What do you mean? I was always coming home today. Why—" He stopped, as he took in the sadness of her smile, the haunted look in her eyes. "Oh, my love, of course, I came home today." He reached out, finding her hand and brought her fingers to his lips, then twined his fingers with hers. "I'd never not be with you tomorrow."
Because tomorrow was August 8th, the five-year anniversary of the day he was wounded. And they had had to be apart the first anniversary, him in the clinic, and Mary pregnant and morning sick with George at Downton. It had been so hard on them both, they were each so worried about the other. But Matthew knew it would always be harder for Mary, and so he had called her:
"Matthew? Is everything all right?" Mary clutched the receiver.
"Yes, darling! Everything's fine. I told Carson to be sure to tell you that, when he went to get you."
"He did, he did. It's just . . ." She started to choke up. "It's just, I've been thinking of you all day long today, my darling. . . and remembering that day, and what came after." The memories had come flooding back: getting the news; the awful waiting; seeing him brought in, reading the tag, cutting off his clothes, the awful wound. All of it so real again. And she had been cold, so cold, and at just the same moment as when it had first happened, a year before. Why? It was just another day, and yet it wasn't.
"I knew you would be, dearest, and that's why I'm calling. So you could hear me and know, I'm all right. And I think it's harder for you, so I needed to hear you, too, and know you're all right."
Mary exhaled heavily. "I am now. And you? Be honest."
"Besides worrying about you, I've had my moments today, of course. Mostly thinking of William. But really and truly, I'm fine."
"How can you think about what happened to you and be fine?" she sniffed, wiping her eyes.
"Because," he said softly, "a year later, I have your love, which gave me back my life and sustains me every day."
Every year, it got easier, but every year Mary still felt cold.
"Of course, I came home today," he repeated.
"I know, I know," she sighed. "But things can happen. I'm just so glad you're home." Her arm came around him and Robbie, and they dozed for a bit. Then Mary roused herself.
"I should put Robbie down and check on the children. If they're awake, they'll want to see Daddy."
Matthew smiled as she carefully lifted Robbie off his chest, then he sat up and started putting his shoes on. Just as he stood up, the door opened.
"Daddy!" George, followed by Mary, ran into the room, and his father's his outstretched arms. Matthew picked up him, tossed him in the air, then spun him around—just as his father had always done with him.
"Georgie! I've missed you!" Matthew smiled, continuing to hold him.
"Catherine is still asleep, but seemed to be stirring," Mary smiled.
"How's your back, Daddy?"
"It's pretty good."
"Cowboy George?" George asked hopefully.
"Yep, pardner! But a short ride, OK?"
Mary rolled her eyes. He shouldn't be doing this after traveling, but she knew it was pointless to object.
"OK, pardner!" George answered.
George, with Matthew's help, clambered onto his back, his arms around his father's neck, Matthew holding him under his thighs. And then Matthew began to snort and lunge, a bucking bronco for the cowboy. It wasn't a long ride—Matthew's back couldn't take it after the train. But George understood, happily sliding down when the ride stopped. He was only three and a half, but he understood that his father had to be careful.
There was a knock, then Wally entered carrying Catherine, who held out her arms to Matthew. "Daddy, daddy, daddy!"
Matthew took her, giving the two-year-old a toss and a swing. "How's my Cathy girl?" Matthew smiled, tapping her nose.
Catherine held his face with her two dimpled hands. "Read Peter?"
Matthew grinned, as Wally held out the small book.
"All right, then," he said, taking The Tale of Peter Rabbit from the nurse, who withdrew as he sat down with Catherine in the rocking chair. He held out an arm, helping George up. Mary, in the meantime, unwrapped the Christie, lay down on the bed and dove in—she couldn't wait until she was nursing Robbie that night.
After reading Peter twice, George hopped off Matthew's lap. "Daddy, can we go for a ramble? Please?"
"Me, too," Catherine nodded, decisively, her dark eyes holding his, and her chestnut curls bobbing.
As much as Cathy had Matthew wrapped around her little finger, he knew it wouldn't be the "ramble" George was anticipating if his two-year old sister came along.
But before he could say anything, Mary interposed, "Cathy, Aunt Sybil and Sybbie are coming over for tea," she looked at the clock, "why, they should be here any time now."
Now Catherine slid down Matthew's lap. "Sybbie!" she cried. She adored her older cousin.
The family made their way downstairs, just as Sybil and Sybbie entered the saloon.
"Matthew!" Sybil exclaimed, kissing his cheek. "Welcome home! I can't wait to hear about your trip and the symposium."
"Come on, Daddy," George insisted, tugging his hand.
"I'm afraid it will have to wait," Matthew laughed, as George pulled him toward the door.
"That's all right—everyone's coming to dinner tonight to welcome you home—us, Edith and Anthony, your mother and Granny," Sybil smiled.
"Yes, Granny—so white tie." Mary noted.
Matthew sighed. He had so enjoyed not dressing for dinner while he was at Jack and Alice's. But he smiled at the thought of seeing everyone. "Good."
"Daddy!" George tugged.
"All right, Georgie—lead on!"
Daddy, why do my stones just plop in the water?
Well, it takes practice, George. Here, let's do it together. I'll hold the stone, and you put your hand on mine. That's right. You see, it's all in the wrist.
Oooh, Daddy! Two skips! Let's do it again!
All right, ready? Here we go!
Three skips! We need more stones, Daddy.
Yes, we do—look, there's a good one!
Christmas Night, 1927
It was very hard not to look up, once the giggling, and whispering, and shushing began: Stop, Robbie, they'll hear you. It wasn't me, it was Catherine. It was not me, shhh! Shh! Shh!
Most years, their children were joined by cousins—Edith and Sybil heartily endorsing the continuation of the custom the sisters had begun— but this year the Strallens hadn't spent the night—baby Edward was colicky—and the Bransons were spending Christmas in Ireland. So, it was just George, Catherine, and Robbie who had sneaked past Wally to take a last look at the tree—baby Evaline, at just under a year, was still too young.
Matthew and Mary, their lips pressed tight, fought the urge to laugh out loud. His arms came around her, cradling her belly. She leaned back against his shoulder, and he pressed a kiss to her temple. "How are you feeling, my love?"
"Very tired, but not sick at all." She had been less and less nauseated with each pregnancy, and this time, at just past three months, she was hardly ever sick, just queasy. "And I think I'm over the worst of it."
"I'm so glad, darling.
They moved slowly around the tree, as if inspecting the ornaments, until they reached a spot where they could be sure they'd be able to shoot up a glance at the gallery without the children realizing. They quickly looked up. Four sets of eyes stared through the balustrade railings. Four?
"Mama! Dadda!" A chorus of shushing followed.
"Good Lord, they've brought Evaline!" Mary hissed to Matthew.
"Those scamps! We'd better head up, then."
They kissed tenderly, as always triggering gasps and giggles, followed by the tumult of running back to the nursery as their parents started for the stairs.
Matthew's gait was a bit slow and stiff, as it often was at the end of a long day. He winced as they started to climb.
Mary frowned. "How's your back?"
Mary rolled her eyes.
"I'll take some aspirin."
"And use a hot water bottle."
"And use a hot water bottle."
"You've got to learn to say 'no' to being a bucking bronco for your cowboys and cowgirl."
Never. Matthew just smiled.
They reached the top of the stairs and turned down the gallery, stopping short at the sight of Evaline, who was still sitting happily at the railing.
"Oh, for goodness sake!" Mary exclaimed, as they hurried over.
"Mama! Dadda!" She clapped her hands, then started to crawl to them.
"Evie!" Matthew cooed, as he bent down and scooped her up. He tapped her nose. "Did you get left behind?" She began to pat his face, babbling contentedly.
Catherine and George burst from the family wing, freezing, their eyes saucers, as they took in their parents and baby sister.
Matthew inclined his head, an eyebrow shooting up. "So, you lot just discovered you had left the baby?" he asked sternly, trying not to laugh.
Catherine turned and ran back to the nursery, her chestnut plaits flying behind her.
"I'm sorry, Daddy," George whispered.
"Really, George," Mary stated somberly, "you shouldn't have gotten her up in the first place. Why you'll be eight next month! You should know better." She could hardly keep a straight face at her son's doleful expression; if she had looked at Matthew, she would have burst out laughing.
"But, Mummy, she wanted to come."
Now Mary raised a brow. "After you woke her up?" Evie could sleep through an earthquake.
George chewed his lip, then nodded.
Mary shook her head. "You must promise not do that again, if you ever have another baby brother or sister." (They hadn't told the children yet.) "Or a baby cousin," she added.
"I promise," he said solemnly, his blue eyes wide.
"All right, then, time for bed."
They entered the night nursery, and Robbie and Catherine quickly pulled the covers over their heads. George climbed into bed, and Mary tucked him in, then lowered herself next to him, stifling a yawn. Matthew sat down in the rocking chair with Evie, who, although still awake, had become very quiet, her eyes heavy.
"I'm very sorry George forgot Evie," Catherine whispered under the covers.
George pushed up on one arm. "Cathy, you forgot her, too!"
Catherine pulled the covers down. "You're the oldest."
"You're almost six and a half!" he retorted, mimicking his mother.
"Hush," Mary admonished, with a nod toward Wally's door. "You were co-conspirators."
Robbie struggled out from under his covers, his brown eyes serious, his sandy hair disheveled. "Was I one?"
Mary considered. "You're four and a half, so only a little bit."
"What's it mean?" Catherine asked.
Mary raised a brow. "It means you plotted together."
"But what does 'plotted together' mean?" she frowned.
"It means it's both our faults," George stated triumphantly.
"But it was Robbie's idea to wake Evie!" Catherine blurted out.
Mary looked at Robbie, who nodded silently. She shook her finger. "Well, then you are a co-conspirator." She looked from George, to Catherine, to Robbie, and back to George. "So, all of you, here's the rule: anyone joining this party has to be at least a year old and walking. Is that clear?" Three heads nodded in unison. "All right, then. Now be quiet, so Evie will fall asleep, and your father and I can go to bed."
Matthew, rocking Evie, began to hum softly, then sing, just above a whisper, the lullaby that was also a Christmas carol, just as his father had sung to him:
Sleep my child and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping
Hill and vale in slumber steeping,
I my loving vigil keeping
All through the night.
Angels watching ever round thee,
All through the night,
In thy slumbers close surround thee,
All through the night.
They will of all fears disarm thee,
No forebodings should alarm thee,
They will let no peril harm thee
All through the night.
After singing it through a second time, all four sets of eyes had closed. Matthew rose, kissed Evaline's forehead, then laid her down in her cot, as Mary adjusted the covers of the other children, and then they stood together, prolonging their Christmas a moment longer, finally, with a last loving look, turning to leave.
Wally, in her robe, with a shawl around her shoulders, her hair in a plait down her back, was standing in the doorway to her room, and Mary and Matthew felt somehow that they were five years old again. Wally inclined her head, then lead the way out the door to the hallway of the suite.
"Wally, have you been awake all this time?" Matthew asked.
"Of course, I have. What kind of nurse do you take me for? M'lady, sir, I feel I must say that I know my instructions are to leave them be when they have their Christmas escapade, but look what happened! Miss Evaline is much too young! And they left her there!"
"Yes, yes, we have made it very clear to all of them that they—" Mary began. "Oh, I guess you heard all that," she sighed.
"Yes, I did, and it's a good thing, too, because I would have had to insist, otherwise, and—." Wally stopped her lecture, and began to laugh, shaking her head, her grey-green eyes twinkling merrily. "You should have seen their faces when they ran back in and realized no one had Miss Evaline. I was about to go for her myself, when Master George and Miss Catherine turned and bolted back."
Matthew's brows rose. "You were watching?"
"What kind of nurse do you take me for?" Wally repeated. "I always watch."
"Well, you should have seen their faces when they came back and saw us with Evie," Matthew grinned, and they all laughed.
"Thank you for putting up with their escapade, as you call it," Mary smiled.
"Thank you both for letting me take care of your children," Wally said softly.
"Thank you for taking care of them," Matthew replied fervently. "I don't know where we'd be without you."
"Happy Christmas, m'lady, sir," she smiled and, with a nod, opened the door.
"Happy Christmas," they whispered, then watched her check each child before they left.
Christmas Night, 1928
The nursery was quite crowded with Strallen (Gerald, Flora, and Edward) and Branson (Sybbie and Michael) cousins in extra cots and beds.
George peeked into Wally's room, where she was pretending to sleep. "All right, you lot," George whispered. "Don't make a sound." They began to tiptoe silently past Wally's door. It really was remarkable how quiet they could be when they wanted to.
Sybbie brought up the rear with George, who was helping the now-old-enough Edward out of his cot. The now-old-enough Evie took Eddie's hand, and they toddled off.
"What about Joseph?" Sybbie whispered. "I'll hold him."
Too young, George mouthed, shaking his head. He looked down at his sleeping six-month-old brother. "Next year, Joe," he whispered, then hurried to join the others.
I loved you first: but afterwards your love
Outsoaring mine, sang such a loftier song
As drowned the friendly cooings of my dove.
Which owes the other most? my love was long,
And yours one moment seemed to wax more strong;
I loved and guessed at you, you construed me
And loved me for what might or might not be –
Nay, weights and measures do us both a wrong.
For verily love knows not 'mine' or 'thine;'
With separate 'I' and 'thou' free love has done,
For one is both and both are one in love:
Rich love knows nought of 'thine that is not mine;'
Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
Both of us, of the love which makes us one.
Christina Rossetti, 1881
January 23, 1970, Grantham House
Matthew set his stick aside, leaned down, and squinted at the dial on the phonograph. Rather, the "stereo," as they had been informed, when the children insisted on replacing their old record player with the latest equipment as a Christmas present. (They knew what a "stereo" was, for pity's sake, but why couldn't they call it a phonograph?) It was lovely, of course, the sound quality outstanding, and Matthew considered himself forward-looking. Bring on the latest technology!
But. The damned dials were so hard to read! Their old cabinet had the knobs all in the front, clearly labeled. But this very Danish and very modern console was a different configuration entirely— with the slender dials in a recess, accessed by sliding a glass panel (Everything is kept dust free! Joe had enthused, as he had set it up for his parents), and the dials were ordered in a row front to back, the speed dial furthest away and beyond the light of the closest lamp, making the elegant numbers indicating the turntable speed impossible to read.
"Mary!" He called, over his shoulder. "Bring a torch, would you? Bottom-left drawer of my desk."
He heard Mary open a drawer, then shuffle some papers.
"Did you find it?"
"Hang on . . . yes, all right, I'm coming. You really need to get that drawer sorted," she observed.
"I need to get all the drawers in that desk sorted, but in the meantime, I need to be able to set the speed of this contraption."
She stood next to him, set her stick aside, and lit the torch, aiming it at the dial. They both bent down, two silver heads together, then Matthew squinted again, pushing his glasses up on his forehead. "Dammit," he muttered. "Sorry, darling. Can you read the numbers?"
Now she squinted, adjusting her glasses. "No. But, the last record we played was that new stereo Vivaldi Evie brought us last week (Wait until you hear the difference when it's a stereo recording! she had promised—and she had been right), which means it's set at 33⅓, so if you click it once, that's 45, and then again, it's 78."
"Why didn't I think of that?" he muttered, then fiddled with the dial, clicking it twice.
Matthew straightened up, grinning. He gave her locket, worn daily now, a gentle tug. "What do I always say? My wife's a genius."
Mary rolled her eyes, but in a pleased sort of way, and handed him the record.
He removed it from it's tattered paper sleeve, slid aside the glass that covered turntable, placed the well-worn disc, then turned the first dial, and the record began spinning. He flipped the needle from diamond to the sapphire one that the old 78 records required, lifted the arm, setting the needle down carefully. And then Lord Grantham turned to his wife, holding out his arms. "Happy Anniversary, Mrs. Crawley."
"Happy Anniversary, Mr. Crawley," Lady Grantham smiled, taking his hand.
They had been married March 12, 1919, but they always considered January 23, 1919 their true anniversary—that night in the library that had begun with a confession and ended with a proposal. The night when everything had seemed impossible, until anything was possible. The night when they, at last, had found their silver lining.
Tonight, they were in a different library. The Grantham House library was impressive, certainly, but not the magnificent one at Downton, with its arches and columns and leaded windows and, of course, the bookcases standing from the floor almost to the ceiling, filled with books bound in leather and stamped in gold, a room that spoke for the family, and its noble heritage. But it had been fifteen years since Mary and Matthew, with everyone's approval, had turned Downton over to the National Trust. In the end, it wasn't a hard decision; it had been time to let go.
Last year, their fiftieth, the children had thrown Mary and Matthew a splendid celebration, with all the children, grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and family, and so many, many friends in attendance. This year, it would be quieter, but no less important. Perhaps more important. Every day together was a gift. Every day.
Matthew drew Mary closer, his eyes closed, her head resting on his shoulder. "I told you," he murmured huskily, as they swayed to the music, "fifty years wouldn't be enough. And, you see, it wasn't."
She lifted her head smiling. "You were right, darling. And look at us now."
He smiled back, shaking his head. "Look at us now." His breathing began to hitch, and he brought her hand to his chest, covering it with his own. "Oh, my love, you are the center of my heart."
Mary held his eyes, her own glistening. "And you are mine, my darling," she choked, her arms coming round him, as he embraced her, pulling her to him so their hearts beat together. "'For one is both and both are one in love.' I love you."
He kissed the crown of her head. "So much."
They held each other until the music stopped, and the needle began to tick. Then Matthew lifted the arm, set it down, and they began to dance again.
Yes, fifty years wasn't long enough for them, and as far as I'm concerned, they celebrated many more anniversaries! (BTW-I noted at the beginning of Chapter 5 that, in this AU, Matthew was born in 1888, Mary in 1892, because that's how I had always pictured their ages when I first watched DA, so here they're 81 and 77-they haven't had their 1970 birthdays yet-so yes, many more anniversaries!)
And here we are at long, long last. HOWEVER, I still have things to write about these two in this universe. Anything that I write going forward in "Center-verse," whether a missing moment from a chapter, or a "future moment" after George's birth, I'm going to begin the title with A Center Story, as I did with the two Christmas stories, Silent Night/Lonely Night (missing moment from Chapters 1 and 2), and All Through the Christmas Night. The stories will be published individually, so follow me as an author if you want to be notified when they go up.
Thank you for reading, for your support, your encouragement. Your reviews have lifted me up and carried me through every chapter and every word.
PS-I got through the night nursings of my children by reading mystery stories-I highly recommend it!