Mother had warned him, Matthew reminded himself as his nose curled in disgust.
"If you want to work at any type of hospital you'll have to get used to the stench of rotting flesh." Isobel had meant to be brutal with her only child.
He had known. Thought he was prepared. He had told her what he wanted to do. What he was determined to do.
And then, in her own inimitable way, Isobel Turnbull Crawley had tried her best to shock him out of it. She described in detail the types of injuries she treated in South Africa in 1900. Enteric fever with its severe abdominal pains, diarrhea, vomiting and rose-colored skin rashes. Or enteritis. Blackwater fever and other forms of malaria. Pneumonia. Influenza. She knew of at least four fellow nurses who had died while serving alongside her at Hillside camp, Bulawayo.
"Frances died almost immediately." Isobel's tone was hard. "Conditions were barbaric. Soldiers without water or proper medicines. Locals treated even worse. Ten to twelve sick or dying men dumped from ox wagons with no orderlies to help. We'd be obliged to take off some of our own clothing to make pillows for the sick men. Sister Marianne would then go outside under the blazing sun to cook."
She turned to her son who sat quiet, angrily thrumming his fingers on the mahogany table. Matthew's eyelids had narrowed and his eyeballs turned away from her. He had set his jaw in that stubborn, mulish fashion she had known since his boyhood.
"If you think this war is any better, think again. Just because it's closer to home doesn't mean conditions will be favorable. Doctors never get proper training or enough equipment. Nurses will be overworked. Conditions miserable. This fighting…" And she crumpled the newspapers that printed the casualty lists loudly so as to capture her son's attention. "Is like no other. They're not telling the whole truth you can be certain. And given your own situation…"
At that Matthew cut her off. "I know what you're trying to do." He had said, spitting out the words sarcastically. "But it won't work. My mind's made up. I have to do something."
What he had not told her was that just yesterday he had received a white feather while walking in the town. He had felt a jostling and a pull on his coat followed by the sound of giggling and retreating feet.
Some local girl knocking into him he expected. He walked on and thought nothing of it until he arrived at the pub where he met up with Samuel Lewis his friend from Cambridge who had gone home during the long vac like he had. They were about to start Michaelmas term and Sam came to Manchester to help Matthew pack up his books for the train trip back to Caius College.
Matthew was older, he had by necessity taken longer to finish his studies than the others. But Sam was a good bloke. A real friend.
Matthew knew where Sam would sit at the Red Lion. He always liked the window seat so he could "keep an eye on the scenery" as he called watching the local girls walk by. Matthew felt for the seat back and sat down, placing the cane carefully next to the table. "Did you order my usual?" He asked, his hand on the table searching for the pint of ale.
Sam said nothing.
Matthew gripped the glass and took a long pull. "What is it?" He felt a sharp tug on his coat pocket.
Startled, Matthew asked again. "What's going on?"
He heard Sam give a long, heavy sigh. Then he said, "You had a white feather in your pocket, old man. I expect someone was trying to shame you. It's been going on for months. Since the war started."
His friend paused, trying to be sympathetic Sam added, "She couldn't have had any idea." He assumed it was a young woman. It usually was. Mrs. Humphrey Ward had assembled it seemed an army of her own in silk pastels and corsets to fan out across England to parties and charity gatherings embarrassing young men with the open presentation of the feather and the sarcastic remark, "here's a gift for a brave soldier."
Matthew's shoulders slumped. He knew about it of course. Young women encouraged by organizations like the Order of the White Feather to humiliate young men not in khaki to join up and go to France.
His mouth pursed in frustration. There really was nothing he could do.
He didn't even know it had happened. He was completely and utterly useless.
Sam then threw him for a loop by saying, "See here. I won't be returning to Cambridge with you."
Matthew's gaze turned blankly towards his friend. His tone was utterly flabbergasted. "What?"
"Joined up don't you know." Sam confessed. "Well Pater was in the last show and wanted me to join his regiment. Everyone knows conscription is going to have to start with the war going on longer than expected. So I wanted to get in before. Bad form to have to wait to be drafted and all. Bit too much for the old man."
"Of course." Matthew's hand covered his face. He was miserable. Good thing his father was long dead. Would he have felt the same when it was clear Matthew's blindness would keep him out of any war? Would he have been relieved? Or just a bit disgraced?
"When do you leave?" He finally asked.
"I catch the train to the Staff College in Surrey Thursday next. Just in time to get back and pack up the old kit bag." But then his voice faultered and Sam's bluster gave out. He really had no choice from his authoritarian father. He'd never be allowed to embarrass the family name.
"I see." Matthew's monotone answer. He then got up in haste, shoving his chair back. He didn't want to stay any longer. Hear any more stories about training to fight. Shipping out. Going to the lines in France.
None of which he had any chance of experiencing.
"Won't keep you then." He stuck out his hand for Sam to take. "Good luck." The two friends shook hands.
"Same to you."
Matthew huffed in disgust, "I won't need it. I'm not going anywhere." He left the pub grabbing his cane and feeling for any obstacles in his way between the chair and the door.
Same left him alone. He knew Matthew always wanted to find his own way without anyone's help.
Matthew walked with a fierce, independent step back home seething in self-hatred. The girl had been right. He deserved that white feather. He wasn't a Conscie or a coward. He had a legitimate reason to be excused from military service. But he was emasculated. He was unable to fight.
He was blind. By a freakish benign tumour since the age of 13 he had lost his vision as it pressed on his optic nerve.
But not be a functioning member of society.
His mother had rejoiced, having just lost her husband the previous year.
Matthew had been inconsolable after the verdict from the medical specialist in Harley Street. His future plans to take the bar at an abrupt end. No life of his own. No one would want him. His father's death had hit him hard. But he had recovered. Had become the man of the family. And now all that was in jeopardy. They'd have to live off of the small inheritance his father had left Isobel.
He'd be nothing but a burden to her. To everyone.
The intolerableness of living like that sped his drive to finish his education. With the help of the Incorporated National Lending Library for the Blind he was able to read the majority of the required texts to finish an English Literature degree. He had learned Braille quickly, his tutors impressed with his skill. By 18 he had won a scholarship to Gonville & Caius and with the help of the Library, friends who would read to him books that were not available in Braille, and the hiring of a typist to type his papers while he dictated the contents he managed to make his way into academia.
But by 25 he was still there. He had finished his undergraduate degree, but had stayed on for wont of anything else to do to complete a Masters in English. He was slowed down by the time it took him to read and absorb the material and finish the requisite papers and exams. He knew he was most probably there as a charity anymore. He found it completely ironic that in researching a history of his own college he discovered that the founder, one John Caius, had demanded that the college admit no scholar who was "deformed, dumb, blind, lame, maimed, mutilated, or a Welshman."
At least he wasn't Welsh, Matthew had bitterly muttered to himself upon that discovery.
When the war started in August 1914 most of the college had joined up. He was left with the no-hopers.
Completely at sea as to what to do he plodded on. Hoping at the very least to eke out a living as a tutor to snotty nosed toffs whose parents paid him to teach their brats Latin and the works of Shakespeare.
But that just wasn't good enough anymore.
The talk with Sam, the white feather, his own disgust. He had to do something.
Finishing the walk back to the house he shared with his mother, Matthew's mind was made up. He couldn't just pretend the world was the same. That he could just muddle along and do nothing.
He made some calls and by the time he had researched what he intended to pursue, his mind was fully engaged and made up.
That's when his mother tried to persuade him with gruesome stories of the Boer War that he would be well advised to stay with his academic pursuits.
Matthew listened in sullen silence to his mother's lengthy descriptions of disease and death. And then lashed out, "Mother you can't keep me clinging to your apron strings any longer. I'm my own man. I can do what I want."
And Isobel knew the truth of that. "Very well. You'll find out for yourself soon enough." Her clipped tone belied her anxiety.
"You have it all wrong as well." Matthew's jaw clenched again. "Those types of conditions are at the aide stations and London General. I won't be dealing with front line wounds. This place is for rehabilitation."
Isobel was silent.
"At least say you're proud that I'm trying to find my own way in this war." His thrumming got louder against the table. "I just can't sit around any longer."
"How do you know this place will even take you?" Isobel fingered the brochure from St. Dunstan's Hostel for Blinded Soldiers and Sailors. "How did you find out about it?"
"I got talking to a chap in the park the other day. Said his son was there after a Boche tear gas attack at Neuve Chapelle. I telephoned the matron and asked her to send you that information. She said that while it would be unusual, I'd be given a chance." Matthew sat up straighter in the chair. "She sounded ragged and run off her feet. As if they could use all the help they could get. Even the help of a useless blind man."
The caustic self-loathing epithet tripped off Matthew's tongue far too easily his mother realised. When had he become so cynical? She only remembered her bright boy, always bringing home classics prizes from school. His blue eyes shining as he ran into his father's surgery to bring him the good news.
And then the worst had happened. No…she corrected herself not the worst. Matthew's blindness on the heels of her husband's death had tested Isobel's mettle. But they had made it through. He was alive. He was healthy. But his mind had grown dark. The scathing self-hatred had begun. She had hoped the scholarship to Caius would ease his troubled soul, but it had been but a distraction. And a constant reminder that he could not truly pursue any career of his choice.
The war had exacerbated his sense of helplessness. Friends joining up. The constant talk of war and doing your duty for King and Country.
His moods had grown even more dark and sullen. He kept up his studies because there was nothing else to do.
Isobel sensed his growing discontent with his life. And he was right. He was his own man. He would have to make his own way. Even if her heart broke at the thought of the stresses he'd endure alone in London.
"What would matron want you to do?"
"I'd probably train as some kind of orderly." Matthew put his hand out, palm facing out as a means of stopping his mother. "And I know you think it will be too much."
She did. But said nothing.
Matthew suddenly grinned, his sightless eyes piercing blue, sparkled for once. "I'll just have to prove you wrong."
Isobel knew defeat when it faced her. "See you do just that." She stood up to give her son an embrace. "I'll go and pack your things."
"Thank you, Mother." Matthew's arms enfolded around her. "I'll telephone the Master of Caius to tell him I won't be returning."
She stopped in the doorway. "Oh I almost forgot. We received an invitation to lunch from the Grantham's."
Matthew's eyebrows rose. "Really? What do they want with us poorer relations." He was always mocking their distant connections to the aristocratic Crawleys.
"Cora, Lady Grantham, is hosting some kind of charity event for their local hospital in Downton Village. She would like our presence for the luncheon on Saturday the 9th of October." She checked the card left on the fireplace mantle.
"But that's just a week after I start at St. Dunstan's." Matthew protested. "I'll barely get there before I have to leave."
"I know. Can't be helped." Isobel replaced the card back on the mantle. "I would like you to accompany me. We are family after all."
"When they deign to remember our existence at all. The last time we even heard from them was after Father died and they send a condolence card." Matthew snorted derisively. "You do see that it's just a lunch. Never have the middle class relations in for dinner." He made a sarcastic tsk tsk sound with his lips. "And this is supposed to be a war to bring us all together."
"Don't go on like that when we arrive at the Abbey. It is what they expect you know. That we won't know how to behave. So if you don't mind I would rather not confirm their expectations."
Matthew rolled his eyes, a habit from when he could see. "I have to be myself."
"Yes well try to control the worst of your contempt." Isobel replied coolly. "It is for charity."
Matthew nodded his head in agreement.
"The three daughters will be there." Isobel added. "Maybe you'll be able to acquaint yourself of them."
Matthew's retort stung hard, "I doubt I'll be on Lord Grantham's list of eligible suitors. They'll hardly be pushing one of them at me." He stood up and reached for his cane, "Come and meet the blind relation?"
He sat back down and stared out the window, a fuzzy prism of light and shade greeting his eyes. No one would ever want their daughter to marry him.
After a week of hard work and little sleep Matthew arrived back in Manchester to accompany his mother to Downton Abbey.
St. Dunstan's challenged his every sense. Even though the soldiers were released from hospital many still had festering eye wounds that needed treatment. Blowfly maggots were used to debride deep wounds. And some of the soldiers would have to be sent back to London General for more treatments. Smells of disinfectants and alcohol were common as was sodium hypochlorate and boric acid. The smells threatened to overwhelm him. Especially along side the noises. Soldiers screaming or shouting or laughing while playing some of the games the doctors encouraged to regain their strength. Nurses bustled down the halls, he felt jostled and disoriented as sometimes his cane got in their way.
But he was determined to help. He learned how to make beds with hospital corners. To throw the soiled sheets into the laundry chute.
Matthew read Dickens and Carroll to the soldiers who asked. He admitted to one he could not read the letter the soldier held out from his sweetheart. When asked why, Matthew admitted he was blind.
"Blind yourself?" The Scotsman had said, "talk about the blind leading the blind. How did you cop it?"
"I… I wasn't wounded." Matthew hated this part. "I've been blind since the age of 13."
"Oh." The fusilier pulled his letter back to his chest. "No use in talking to you about the show then is it?" And he turned away.
Matthew sighed and got on with taking off the sheets from the next bed. Was he ever to find his place in the world?
At least he felt he was finally doing something useful for the war effort. He had to wear the hospital uniform of a blue single breasted jacked with white lining, blue trousers, white shirt, and red tie to show that he was not a shirker or a conscientious objector but an invalid.
Not wounded exactly. And not a real soldier.
The flannelette itched and was too big for him. It had no pockets and he generally hated it.
But at least it kept away the White Feather girls.
Once in Manchester he did change back into his favorite linen suit. He'd wear it to Downton that afternoon for the charity luncheon on the grounds of the Abbey.
His mother knew better than to help him out the door or to the waiting taxi that would take them to the train station. A car would meet them there curtesy of Lord Grantham.
It was a pleasant train ride. The crisp October air filled his lungs. Matthew wanted to make the most of a trip to the countryside and take a long walk to be alone with his thoughts after so much noise in the city. He had learned not to trip and fall as he left the gravel walks and ventured off the beaten path. But he seldom walked too far and after a time of solitude he found his way back.
This visit, however, would have no such time alone. He could hear the sounds of chatting women and children playing as soon as the chauffeur opened the door of the Rolls Royce.
"I don't need help, thank you." He probably said far too petulantly to the driver who had put a hand on his shoulder.
Matthew stepped gingerly down the step and onto the gravel drive. He held out his hand to help his mother. She reached out and gripped it.
"I believe we're expected over there." Isobel espied some of the distant relations under a tent, seated on some of the outdoor furniture formerly used for summer garden parties but now put to use for this charitable war fund raiser. A small violin ensemble played in the distance.
"Hardly know there's a war on…" Matthew chided sardonically. "How frightful of it to ruin such a lovely day."
"Behave yourself." Isobel countered. "I know for a fact Robert's nephew or second cousin or something…" She faultered on the family connection, "is serving in France. He's heir to Downton and engaged to the eldest daughter."
That sobered Matthew. His work at St. Dunstan's had begun to include talking to the parents of wounded soldiers about what they could expect after the loved one's injuries healed.
As they approached the family, Matthew could hear muttered undertones of protest. "Mama do I have to sit with him. He's blind. Would I have to help him with his knife and fork?" A slow titter of nervous laughter followed.
"Mary." He could her an older woman scold back, "he's our guest."
"What would Patrick say?" Mary tried to wheedle out of it again. "We are engaged and sitting with another man just isn't done."
"Since when do you even remember you're engaged. You're forever saying no one else knows about it outside the family."
The woman had to be Lady Grantham, Matthew inferred. And the other voice the put upon eldest daughter Lady Mary Crawley.
"Very well." He could hear the huff of resignation in her aggrieved tone. "I'll do it as a patriotic act of charity. But that is all."
Another voice entered the conversation. "You just want to go over and meet Lt. Commander Foyle who looks so dashing in that Royal Navy uniform."
"Don't be vulgar."
That haughty tone again struck Matthew's ears. He stiffened with indignation. This would be the family he'd be stuck with in conversation the whole of the afternoon?
He turned to his mother. "I believe I can assure you Mother that Lady Mary Crawley and I will never be friends."
And at that very moment Mary approached. "Hello, I do hope I'm not interrupting."
Isobel was placing Matthew's hand on the edge of a chair so that it would be easier for him to take a seat.
He jumped back up at Mary's voice. He did not want to appear at all a helpless invalid. This snobbish and selfish woman would not be allowed to play the martyr at his expense.
But then her scent of freesia, roses, and orchids caught his nostrils. A drowsy, perfect sensation that worked on his nerves. He was suddenly alive as never before.
Matthew quickly doffed his hat. He'd show her he was a true gentleman. Then he reached out his hand in greeting.
She clasped it gently with her gloved hand. A frisson of electricity sprung unwanted through her body.
Mary looked again at the young man before her. My goodness she thought. He was handsome, to be sure. His blindness did not detract from his good looks. His blonde hair was well groomed. His suit perfect for the occasion. His eyes were mesmerizing despite the blank stare that greeted her.
It both unnerved and excited her.
Mary made every effort to shrug off those unbidden thoughts.
"Would you like some tea?" She asked perfunctorily instead. Attempting a diplomatic tone she heard her father employ with members of the middle classes.
He released her hand.
Matthew swallowed hard. His mouth went slack. Never in the course of his life since he went blind did he ache so much to see again. To see this woman. To match scent to voice. Touch to sight. As if sight would somehow explain the dichotomy of her earlier dismissive way of behaving towards him and the overpowering sensation of beauty he felt from inside her.
Who was this Lady Mary Crawley after all?
Ok…so here it is…me writing something new. It is going to be a kind of mix of Downton Abbey and The Ticket. If you've seen that movie you'll know it's a deep meditation on temptation. A blind man regains sight and loses his soul. I'm going to use WWI as a backdrop instead and see how Matthew deals with the sudden answer to an unasked prayer. I'm not exactly sure if people want to read this… please tell me so. I really want to read your reviews and opinions on whether I should continue this. I've come to end of most of my other stories and this idea intrigues me.
Rated M for war and language and sexual relations to come.