Antler Ring Toss
Ten year old Mary Crawley put up a poor fight against her winning opponent: the sheer oppressive force of utter boredom.
She sat in Lord Grantham's library, trying and failing to read a book her father had suggested as the ideal source for learning European history. Words she couldn't understand, names she cared less about, and dates she couldn't remember all began to blur together in her vision as her eyes drooped. Mary tilted forward in her chair. Suddenly she caught herself and jerked her head. She blew a sigh and decided to give up. She shut the big book on her lap. Her hand flew to her mouth in time to cover a big, unlady-like yawn.
She preferred a romance novel over dry old history, anyway. Next time she'd consult her mother instead of her father on good books to read.
"Is that book too hard for you? You look tired."
Mary shot an irritated look at her younger sister Edith, who sat not too far away and near a large window.
"The book has nothing to do with it. I might be coming down with a cold like Sybil."
Edith responded to her sister's excuse with a shrug and returned to her view of the scenery.
Their youngest sister Sybil was sick in bed, fortunately nothing too serious, but a runny nose and a persistent cough was enough to keep her away from Mary and Edith's company. Lord Robert and Lady Cora were most likely checking up on her at this time.
Edith saw nothing interesting happening outside, so she turned her gaze back inside. Naturally her eyes wandered to the peculiar objects perched on one of the tables.
A pair of helmets, each adorned by a wide crown of antlers, intrigued the girl. Cora had brought the helmets back from her visit to America. They were gifts from Mr. Levinson, though whether the penchant for collecting such trinkets came from his strange habit in particular, or just a strange habit of Americans in general, Edith wasn't sure. She also wasn't sure to think of the helmets as being majestic or ridiculous, or perhaps a bit of both. Her mother probably left them here in the library because she didn't know what to do with them.
"What do you think they're for?" Edith wondered aloud.
"Hmm?" Mary followed the direction of her sister's gaze. "Oh, those."
"What do you think they're for?" Edith asked again. "War, maybe?"
"Don't be stupid. You'd be killed in less than a second wearing that." Mary's brow furrowed as she scrutinized them further, though she pretended to look disinterested. "They're probably for decorations on a wall, or for a game."
Edith didn't like being called stupid, but the latter possibility suggested by her sister aroused her curiosity. "What kind of game can you play with those?"
"I don't know. Stop asking me questions."
Edith's gaze trailed up the antlers and settled on the tips of the sharp tines. Suddenly they reminded her of the sticks on the ground, the ones she saw once when some children in the village played ring toss.
"I think these helmets are for an American way of playing ring toss." A grin spread on her face as she considered it. "Yes, that's it. That must be what those are for, Mary."
The older girl was about to remind Edith once again of her stupidity, but thought better of it as she stared at the helmets with renewed interest. Like Edith, she had seen some children play ring toss but never played it herself. Still, a young lady of the manor could wonder. Mary finally replied, "I can't believe I'm saying this, but you might actually be right."
The idea of a game thrilled Edith. She turned to Mary and asked brightly, "Do you want to play?"
"Why would I want to do that?" Mary replied with a scoff. "We're young ladies. We shouldn't be playing games, much less games wearing those silly things."
"Fine, then go back to reading your book."
Mary cringed at the thought of feigning scholarly interest in a book that bored her to death. Finally she said, "On second thought, I'd like to do something else for a change."
Edith was just about to touch the helmets when Carson the butler entered the library. Edith quickly pulled her hand back. She folded her hands behind her back and gave him a meek grin.
Carson seemed to think nothing of it as he looked between Mary and Edith. "His Lordship sent me to watch over you two. Is there anything you need?"
He couldn't have come at a better time, both of the girls thought. Mary was well aware that she had always been a favorite of Carson's. Displaying a shrewdness beyond her age, she took that to her advantage when she aimed a sweet smile at the butler and said, "Mr. Carson, would you be so kind to fetch us some hoops or rings?"
The first thing that crossed his face was skepticism, and he looked as if to ask whatever for. Instead he dipped his head and replied, "Very well, Lady Mary."
Edith wanted to jump up and down with glee. It wasn't very often she successfully coerced her older sister into doing something with her.
As soon as Carson stepped out, Edith grabbed the helmet off the table. It was too big for her head, of course. She perched it on her head to keep it from falling over her eyes, giggling as it dipped to obscure her vision.
Mary didn't move from her chair. "Give the other one to me," she ordered.
"Go get it yourself."
Of course Edith wouldn't listen. Mary made sure to shoot a pointed glare at her sister as she was forced to detach from the chair. She walked across the room to get the second helmet. Mary frowned as she tried to fit it on her head. Edith spared a glance at her older sister and burst out laughing.
"You look ridiculous."
"Well, so do you."
Mary took comfort in the fact that at least both of them looked silly together. Even as the girls tugged at the chin straps to the tightest fit, their heads were still too small to properly occupy the space the helmets seemed to demand. Mary and Edith had to act like they didn't have necks, so that the weight perched precariously above them wouldn't tip over.
They stiffened upon the sound of the door cracking open. Carson had returned with the rings as promised. He stopped in mid-stride and stared at the girls with mixed confusion and surprise.
"Please, Mr. Carson, don't tell Papa," Mary said. "We just want to pass the time by playing a game."
Swayed by the girl's plea, the butler sighed. "Very well, though I can't guarantee how His Lordship will deal with this if he ever finds out."
He distributed the rings evenly between the girls and stepped back to merge with the backdrop, as expected of a servant. After a full minute of fierce disagreement on a suitable distance, both sisters finally agreed to four adult armlengths being fair game. The two made an unusual sight, the bulky helmets and sweeping antlers contrasting with their dresses and nice shoes. They started the game taking turns with dainty, haphazard tosses.
Carson fought back a cringe as Mary, fed up with not tossing high enough, made her next ring sail too high. It made a spectacular arc across the room and a loud smack against the wall behind Edith. From then on she was more careful, though her tosses often fell pitifully short once again. Edith proved to be better at the game, much to her older sister's dismay. Mary's heart sunk when Edith's face beamed. Apparently she had landed yet another one.
"A third ring? You can't be this good."
Edith looked smug. "Maybe I am. You just don't want to admit it."
Mary scowled and crossed her arms. "You're cheating. You take a little step every time you make a toss."
"No, I'm not."
"Yes, you are."
"You're acting like a sore loser because I'm winning."
It didn't take Mary much to snap. She held one ring aloft and ran after Edith with a vengeance. Edith took off like an arrow loosed from the bow, skirts flying and hands clutched to the sides of her helmet. She narrowly avoided running into the corners of tables as she tried to elude her older sister.
"You're the one not playing fair!" Edith half insisted and half screamed.
Mary persisted with ferocious tenacity, determined to land a ring for once.
Carson fought to keep his composure when the girls rounded a corner and raced past him. He was forced to raise his voice over their footfalls. "Lady Mary, Lady Edith, stop this at once. You two musn't make a mess in your father's library-"
"Get back here, Edith!"
"Not a chance! Not until you play fair."
The butler's warnings went unheard as they kept running around the room in what turned into a frantic, chaotic game of tag. Mary and Edith seemed to be evenly matched in speed, neither faster nor slower than the other. If physicists ever wanted a visualization of cyclical infinity, Carson could simply let them see it for themselves in Lord Robert's library of Downton Abbey.
All good things must come to an end, however. That end came in the form of Lord Robert and Lady Cora's unexpected arrival. On their part, what greeted their sight was far from expected. No sooner had Cora opened her mouth wide, she covered it to hide a smile. Robert still looked quite confused.
Upon seeing and hearing the shock from their father, they froze.
"Girls, what's the meaning of this?"
For a few seconds neither of them had the courage to speak up. Finally Mary took the initiative. "Edith and I are playing a game, Papa."
"Yes, that much is quite clear."
Carson kept a knitted brow and a stiff upper lip, both of which belied the fact he bit down hard on the inside of his cheeks to keep from cracking a grin.
Robert raised an eyebrow as he turned to the butler. "Carson, were you aware and present when this was taking place?"
"I was, milord."
"I see...then I take it that under your vigilant watch, I should be relieved to find that I only have my girls rather than stags capering in my library."
Robert finally directed his gaze away from the stoic butler to settle on his meek daughters. He held it with mild reproval. "Mary, Edith, this is hardly proper behavior for young ladies. You know that."
"We do, Papa. We're very sorry."
Mary and Edith kept their eyes on the rug, their forlorn expressions almost dwarfed by the ridiculous antlers towering from their heads. Cora was tempted to laugh if it weren't for her daughters looking so guilty.
The sternness on Robert's face softened. "I hope you know that I'm not angry with you two. I was surprised, that's all." He raised his eyebrows, and a gleam of amusement betrayed the dark seriousness in his eyes. "I don't recall ring toss including tag as well."
Mary and Edith said nothing.
"Regardless, I reckon that you're quite tired after your little romp."
The girls managed small nods, only to regret the move as their helmets tipped forward and their hands flew up to catch them before they fell.
Robert gestured with a quick curl of his fingers. "Give them to me; I'll take care of them."
Mary and Edith obeyed and handed the helmets over to their father without a word.
"Carson, please escort my daughters back to their bedrooms."
"Of course, milord."
Mary and Edith ducked their heads as they left the library, but not before exchanging tight-lipped smiles.
"I demand a rematch," Mary hissed.
An amused Carson followed after them, shutting the door behind him.
Still holding the helmets in his hands, Robert let a chuckle escape him and he shook his head. "I expect this from Edith, but from Mary too?"
Cora didn't fail to notice the book left sitting on the chair in her eldest daughter's place. "It's not like her to forget things. Maybe she found something better to do."
"Yes, perhaps you're right." After placing the helmets back on the table, Robert picked up the book and returned it to its rightful place among his shelves.
"The fault is all mine, darling," Cora said with a small smile. Her fingers brushed over the antlers. "I didn't know what to do with these, but having them out here practically left them open for invitation."
"I hardly blame you, my dear. You did the right thing to accept your father's gift when he insisted."
"I couldn't say no."
The rings still laid scattered throughout Robert's library, and he sighed as he went about picking up after his daughters. His gaze wandered to Mary's helmet, which still held the three rings Edith managed to score on one of the tines.
"Seems like a challenging game," he mused. "Edith seems to be skilled."
Cora's voice, though always polite and hushed, was tinged with an uncanny slyness. "I wonder who she takes after in that regard."
That took Robert by surprise. "Do I hear a challenge, Lady Cora?"
"You heard right, Lord Robert. Unless if such a game is beneath you, of course."
"Certainly not. I like a good challenge." He couldn't stop the smirk that crossed his face. For a moment he wondered whatever possessed him to make him do this. Perhaps, like his daughters minutes before him, he was curious and bored. Being the gentleman he was, Robert helped Cora strap on the helmet before donning on his own. Somehow, and amazingly, Cora still managed to look somewhat elegant despite the bulky crown that adorned her.
Since the helmets properly fit their heads, neither of them ran into the problem their daughters had when Robert bowed and Cora curtsied.
"Ladies first," Robert said with a sweeping gesture.
"Thank you, dear."
Loath to inflict any sort of damage in his library, Robert tried not to toss too far and the rings often fell short. Cora turned out to have a good aim and land at least one ring on each tine.
Mary and Edith were halfway to their bedrooms when they heard peals of laughter from the library. Curiosity overwhelmed them and they turned round. They crept on tiptoes and peeked through the door. Their mouths dropped open. Neither of them expected their parents, the dignified Lord Robert and Lady Cora, to indulge in a little game of antler ring toss. They dissolved into a fit of giggles, which gave them away to the startled adults. Pride and determination to win compelled Robert and Cora to continue their game.
Cora won by leaps and bounds.