Late Spring, 1945
"How could you be so stupid, Matty?" Matthew "Matty" Crawley Jr. flinched as his seventeen year old sister Violet dragged him through the great hall of Downton Abbey. She spun him around as they reached the door to the library. "You look like a trashy little evacuee street thug! You know better than to get into fights, especially now! Mama and Eleanor are so upset and you're going to make it worse, you stupid little accident! Papa will be livid!"
"Lady Violet!" Matthew looked up in surprise at Barrow, the butler's harsh tone. The silver haired man stormed down the hallway, his fair skin flushed with anger. "You will lower your voice, milady. Your mother has only just now left young Mrs. Eleanor's side to get some much needed rest. I will not have you wake her over some childish, is that understood?"
A surprise, Matthew thought. Barrow rarely had a harsh word for any of them. He was their defender when they were naughty, suggesting milder punishments than those their parents wanted, and he always was kind in correcting the children. Matthew wasn't fool enough to think he was one of Barrow's favorites, that was Violet who reminded Barrow of her great grandmother and namesake. And George, of course, George the firstborn.
George who was to be buried the next day, with his young wife Eleanor and their two little daughters looking on. George had been Barrow's favorite. When the news had come, Barrow had wept in the pantry until Uncle Tom had hugged him and gotten him to drink a hefty glass of scotch. The older man still looked shocked and devastated Matthew quailed as Barrow looked him over, clearly finding him lacking. "What trouble have you gotten into, Master Matthew?"
"I got in a fight. In the park, with a boy." Matthew hung his head. He knew he was in trouble, regardless of the situation. His father had no patience for fighting.
"You're so stupid," Violet hissed. "Papa will be so angry! I wish you were never born!"
Matthew almost shivered in fright. It wasn't the first time he'd heard that from Violet. It seemed like he'd always known her resentment at losing her place as the youngest when he'd been born ten years earlier. He was an accident, an extra unneeded boy, an unexpected late child for his parents with brothers and sisters all much older. George had been sixteen, Reg and Will fourteen, Charlotte thirteen, and Violet just seven but quite put out to not be the youngest anymore. Then the door to the library opened. His father stepped out, frowning darkly at both of them. Uncle Tom followed. They both looked stern. Stern and sad.
"Violet," the Earl intoned, taking off his reading glasses as he spoke, "let me decided whether I will be so angry. And lower your voice. Barrow is right. Your mother and Eleanor don't need to be disturbed." He turned his stern gaze to Matthew. "Why did you get into a fight, Matty?"
And suddenly he didn't want to explain what happened, but he knew his father wouldn't accept that. "I got in a fight with Joseph Emerson."
"With everything happening, he got into a fight," Violet hissed. She spun around to face their father, her dark eyes flashing. "You told us both to check on the florist order and while I was doing that, he picked a fight with Joseph."
"I didn't pick the fight," Matthew protested, his own anger rising. "He said something nasty about George! And Papa! He said George and Will and Reg were dead because they were nancy boy poofs and so was Papa and that..." His voice trailed off as everyone, even Violet, blanched at his words.
He hadn't even gotten to the worst part.
Violet lowered her gaze, looking chagrinned. "He didn't mention that part, Papa…"
"And I am sure you didn't bother to give him any opportunity to explain as you dragged him back here," Papa said, his voice tired but stern. "Violet, you're going to university in the fall, and you already have a giant strike against you in becoming a lawyer, because it's a man's job and you're a woman. Don't give the naysayers ammunition by flying off the handle at the smallest of things. Learn to seek the truth of things before you take it to the penalty phase. You have a temper and you will need to control it if you want to be a lawyer. Don't disappoint me like this again. Now go upstairs and see if Eleanor or your mother need anything."
Matthew was surprised that Violet simply nodded and then ran up the stairs. But then, he dreaded hearing his father say he was disappointed. "I'm sorry, Papa. I should have known better."
His father looked down at him and sighed. "Well, you don't look too terrible. I assume you won?" Matthew nodded. Papa gave Uncle Tom a tired, knowing look. "Matty and I need to have a talk. It bloody well figures I have to do this today. And an Emerson again. Remind me what I did to them?"
"You refused to defend Stephen Emerson when he was arrested for theft because you knew he was guilty and when his brother tried to jump you, you thrashed that brother on the street in front of the pub and noted how pathetic it was that he couldn't even win a fight against a man with a crippled hand." Uncle Tom smirked at Papa. "Don't worry. Paula and I can manage for a bit, and Barrow has everything tip top." Uncle Tom hesitated. "You know Mary will understand."
"And I need to check on the work in the cemetery," Papa said. "Matty fetch my walking stick. You and I need to have a little talk. About a number of things."
It wasn't hard to keep step with his father as they walked to the small cemetery that was bustling with activity. Papa didn't quite limp, not like old Mr. Bates who ran the village inn but on longer walks he tired easily. An old injury, his mother had said when he asked once, and had shushed him about it. I'm going to get it, Matthew thought as his father pleasantly greeted the cemetery workers who were finishing up the preparations for the funeral the next day. It was George's funeral, and it still hurt because the war was almost over and George had been due to come home. Don't cry, he warned himself. If you cry you'll make Papa even more angry. It wasn't that crying was forbidden, Papa and Mama both had said it was what people did when someone died. He had cried at Will's funeral, and Reg's, and Reg's had been worse because of the empty casket. Will, Reg, and George had all volunteered, and so had Lottie although she had just driven trucks so that a man could be spared for the front. Even Papa had resumed his military career, ending the war as a colonel, helping train soldiers at his old regimental headquarters. He couldn't fight of course, and was far too old to go, but insisted he couldn't let the burden fall squarely on his children. Reg and Will were both pleased as punch to be trained as fighter pilots, laughing and joking that poor George would have to wave at them from his tank, but then Will died flying sorties over London and then six months later Reg's plane went down in the Channel. Mama had wept bitter tears for months and refused to let him out of her sight. Papa, George, Lottie, Grandmama Cora and Uncle Tom had been worried about her, he could remember overhearing them talk but slowly she had been able to step back from her grief. He wondered if it was easier for her with George because Eleanor and George's daughters little Isobel and baby Anne Marie were there. George had come back from his initial training with Eleanor in tow, a pretty girl from London who had volunteered like Lottie. In three years of marriage, they'd had two little girls. If there had been a boy, then he wouldn't have to be earl.
His father led him away from the area where the workers were digging. "Matty," he said, his tone oddly jovial, "What do you want to be when you step out into the world?"
Matthew sighed. He knew the conversation was coming. "I have to be the Earl, I know, Papa." He was just ten years old and the burden was never supposed to fall to him, not with three older brothers.
His father stopped, and looked at him, a slight smile on his face. "Oh Matty, it's not the chore it looks like, although I remember all too well feeling that way." He took a seat on one of the stone benches and gestured for Matthew to join him. "Looking at these many gravestones, I am struck by how you are a very young boy to have such an old father."
"You're not that old, Papa," Matthew said worriedly. His father didn't look his age, Mama often remarked on how handsome he was with the little bit of gray that colored his blond hair, but some of his friends had grandfathers as old as his father.
"Well, I was much older than you when I first found out I had to be the Earl. You're handling far better than I did. I was twenty seven and I whined like a little boy to your Grandma Izzy until she was quite short with me. And the circumstances were much less trying." Papa's bad hand gripped his cane reflectively. "But that's not what I asked you. Lottie is planning to be a nurse, Violet wants to read for law. What would you like to do?"
"I want to write books like you, Papa. Or maybe newspaper articles like Aunt Edith and her friends. Or both, like Mr. Hemmingway, and travel and have adventures." It was a well cherished dream, and he hoped Papa wouldn't laugh.
Papa smiled. "Well, that sounds exciting, certainly. And if you really want to write, both Aunt Edith and I can help you, but my point is that being the Earl doesn't mean you have to give that plan up. I was a lawyer, and a soldier, a writer, and now I'm in the House of Lords." His voice shook just a little. "George was planning to go to the seminary… Said he didn't think he could be anything else after what he'd seen…. And that's neither here nor there now. My point is that all this is for you is a change, not an end and that you will be a lot of things in this life." Papa gave him a knowing look. "Did you know I once worked as a footman?"
"A footman?" It puzzled Matthew because the footmen they hired for parties were usually young village men. With the war, hardly anyone had servants. More odd, his father was hardly suited with his bad hand.
"Everyone in this world has secrets, Matty. I wouldn't have planned having this talk, about my secrets, on this day, but the time has come. It always comes." His father looked at him, and Matthew realized his mother was right. While Reg and Will had been blond as little boys, their hair had darkened and their eyes had been more hazel than blue. He, and George and Lottie, favored their father. "When Joseph said I was a nancy boy poof… What else did he say?"
Matthew blushed. "It was something you and Mama would say I shouldn't say."
"He said I was a cock sucker, didn't he?" Papa pressed. After a moment, Matthew nodded, feeling his face grow red. "Did he say who I did this to?"
"Someone named Philip. And Jacob. And… Mr. Barrow. That you like it." Matthew looked at him worriedly. "I couldn't let him lie like that."
"And that is where it becomes a tricky business." Then his father laughed. "It's best to never tell lies unless you have to, Matty. You can avoid the truth sometimes, but a lie will always be caught out. I never did that to Mr. Barrow, and I never liked it, your brothers were brave men who died far too young, they weren't nancy boys or poofs and they never performed that act. So you're not in trouble for besting that nasty little brat. But you see the truth I am avoiding, don't you? You're clever like your mother."
Matthew nodded. "You said you never did that to Mr. Barrow but… you didn't say anything about the other two." Which was ugly because it meant Joseph Emerson wasn't lying.
"I'm afraid you'll have to grow up a great deal in the next hour, because I promised myself that once the story reared its ugly head, that I would tell each of you the truth, Because I love and respect you all far too much to let someone else tell you. So know that your brothers and sisters have sat here before, usually after a fight. Tell me, Matty," and he stretched out his bad hand, showing how three of his fingers stayed curled, "has anyone told you how I hurt my hand? How I got the scar over my ear?"
Matthew shook his head. He'd been curious but the few times he'd asked, no one really answered, and he figured it was something from the war, since everyone said Papa had been badly wounded. "I thought the war because everyone avoids it. No one will say."
His father sighed again. "And it's easier to avoid it because you're so much younger than the others. It wasn't the war. I was in a terrible car accident. It was the day George was born. Your mother was told I was dead." He laughed suddenly. "There's a lovely tombstone hidden away somewhere nearby, waiting to be reused since we already spent the money. There was a funeral, Matty. A large one, I'm told. Your mother spent a year grieving me, thinking I was gone."
"Where were you?" Matthew asked, suddenly interested, despite the grim tone.
"I was lost, so lost that even now it seems like a miracle that I am sitting here.
She wiped her eyes as Matthew stepped into the bedroom. "I'm sorry," she said simply. "This is a nightmare of horrors and I've left you to fend for everything."
Matthew shook his head. "You haven't left me with everything. I know you're spent all day consoling Eleanor and convincing her that she could go on."
"I told her she could stay here," Mary said quickly. "She was worried her family in Essex might have difficulty supporting a young widow with two little girls. I know Mr. Adamson owns the inn he runs, and they do well enough but that will fall to the older brother Robbie and his wife."
"Of course she can stay here," Matthew said as he took a seat next to Mary on the bed. He took her hand. "Eleanor can stay as long as she wants, and she can raise our granddaughters here. That doesn't even need to be said. And everything is ready for tomorrow. Daisy and her two daughters have prepared enough food for everyone who comes to pay their respects. Andy and Harris have the tables set and the rooms prepared for guests." Guests who were coming to pay their respects at the funeral of his eldest son and it was a bitter pill to swallow. Be strong, he reminded himself, Mary is trying very hard but you must be strong for her. If his heart felt broken to pieces, it had to be ten times worse for her.
At the same time, he also had to warn her. "I talked with Matty today."
"My poor little boy. You mustn't take him to task if he cries tomorrow." She rubbed her eyes again. "He must feel the weight of the world crushing down on him."
Matthew let himself smile. He had to admit, he was feeling more than a small amount of pride over how his youngest child had born some ugly news. "He was quite stoic about it. Sad, of course, and worried. It relived him, I think, to find out I thought he was as capable as George." It suddenly filled him with sadness. "He's going to miss George the most I think. It was always George who played with him, who took him for hikes and adventures. Do you know he wants to be writer? And an adventurer like Hemmingway. Such a clever chap he is. I need to spend more time with him." He took her hand and gripped it firmly. "He got in a fight today, and you mustn't be angry about the bruises on his face." He hesitated just a little. "It was over Philip. One of the Emerson boys decided this was a lovely time to raise the topic. As it is I had to warn poor Barrow that this time his name came up."
She gripped his hand firmly and pulled him into her arms. "I'm so sorry. Of all the days for you to have to… talk about this."
"No," he said carefully, "we aren't doing that. There's never a good time. I'm glad it's done, it's finally over. And for all I thought Matty was too much like me and not enough like you, he asked to see the scars on my back. None of the others did, not even George. Then he said he wished you'd gotten both sides of Philip's face with that bottle of bourbon. That boy might be my spitting image, but he's a storm braver like his mother if I ever saw one. He'll have questions for both of us, I think, but I told him to wait until things are more settled. He's very worried about you, that tomorrow will remind you of that time, and he wants to be beside you tomorrow at the service. He also thinks if he is to be the next Earl, that we should start calling him Matthew and not Matty." He smiled, despite the awfulness of the day, at the face Mary made. "He's ten, Mary. More than old enough to not like being little Matty. I assure you I didn't allow it past my sixth birthday, and he has made you exempt from this new rule for now but I suspect you might find him a tough master when he becomes the earl."
He meant to joke, but it hit her wrong. She hugged him tightly. "Don't talk that way. Not now, not ever. The only reason I bore that time was George, and now he's gone, and poor Will and Reg gone before they could even marry. I don't know what I'd do if I lost you."
"Well, there's no reason to fear," although he did worry how she'd fare if he succumbed to the same heart trouble his own father had. Ironically he had already outlived his father by five years and felt fit enough. "And if the worst happened, you're not alone. You have Matthew Jr, and Violet and Charlotte to watch over. They all still need their mother, even if Lottie and Violet both are determined to vex you by being so determined to work."
"Carson would be so appalled, my little ladies wanting to be nurses and lawyers." Mary sighed. "But it's a good thing. The world isn't the same and I think it's good they want to be more than ladies waiting for a husband. I sometimes wonder, if I'd had their opportunities… You and John Beesely both said I'd have made an excellent lawyer. I'm glad Violet has the chance to try." She leaned in to him, her body suddenly shuddering. "I'm not sure I can bear tomorrow."
He kissed her softly. "I will be there to hold you up, and we will bear it together. I love you so very much." As he held her, he knew they would get through the next terrible day together.
Author's note - This was so much fun to write and I want to thank everyone who gave reviews, comments etc. Special thanks to Apollo888 for the awesome betaing! I know this ending is a wee bit of a downer but I wanted to be accurate as to how ww2 played out. If you have questions or if there's a scene that didn't happen that you'd like to see, let me know. I am not against playing in this 'verse again.