Matthew sat down in one of the armchairs next to the hearth. He heard Pearce stab pieces wood with a cast iron poker. The wood popping and crackling, a welcome burst of heat met his cheek.
Pearce spoke as he worked. "I won't take too much of your time. It's not a story I like to tell. I'm very sorry about lying. It didn't come easy, if that's anything. I've had trouble finding work since being discharged in 1930 by Cammell Laird where I was an electrician working on the passenger coaches and Underground cars. Not enough contracts, they said. Nothing they could do, economic times and all. But my wife was sick with the cancer and we were barely making it as it was, her unable to work. I didn't have a pension from the war, not being what they'd call wounded." Pearce abruptly stopped.
Matthew heard the bitter tone. Physically intact, but he suspected Pearce suffered from shell shock like Lang.
Pearce took up the thread of the story again. "We took in some boarders to help with the bills. Our lease was in the red. The missus didn't want to but I thought it was best. Turned out the worst decision I could have made."
Matthew interrupted, "I understand if this is difficult. I don't want to make anything worse for you..."
"No. Good to tell it, I think. I'm not proud of what happened. But I'd do the same again."
Matthew heard another angry snap from the fire as Peace stabbed it again but he stayed silent, letting Pearce tell his history in his own time.
"One of the people we let the back room too… a dock worker named Harry Brown. He thought he could do anything he wanted because he was a bull of a man. Kept putting off paying his rent. Flirting with Ruth though she asked him not to. He …he wouldn't let no keep him away. I came back one day after looking for work to find him trying to …to grope my wife. She was weak, couldn't fight him off. I… I did it for her. I grabbed his shoulder and pushed him away from her. He was drunk but that didn't stop him from twisting around and trying to break my neck. I… I kicked him in the groin, he let go but then he started in again. I got in one good punch and he … fell back against the side of the table. Hit his head. There was blood everywhere. He died later at the hospital…." His voice trailed off.
Silence met Matthew's ears. Pearce's accounting was both tragic and not unfamiliar. He'd been at St. Dunstan's and the Hall long enough to hear other veteran's stories of life after the war not being the 'home fit for heroes' the politicians like to boast.
"The police took me in for questioning. No one else was there to back up my story but my wife who the investigators said was possibly lying to hide an affair. It also didn't help that I had one or two barnies with the police before. A bar fight that got out of hand. My temper does sometimes get the better of me. After the war… " He threw himself down in the other chair. "In the end the judge accepted it wasn't deliberate murder but I got two years for voluntary manslaughter. Served just over a year in Walton Gaol before being released on good behaviour. My wife died while I was inside."
Pearce told his story in a monotone. This struck Matthew as illuminating to the man's character. He was past feeling emotions anymore. The pain had gone too deep.
"Been moving around ever since getting work where I could. Mr. Sanderling needed someone who could handle electric and telephone work. I unwisely thought I could prove myself first and then tell him about my prison record. But I didn't expect a friend of Brown's to show up."
Matthew felt enormous pity for Pearce, but he knew better than to say it. Like so many veterans of the past war, he was a lost soul people wanted to either ignore or blame for all of society's ills.
"I didn't intend to deceive anyone. Especially young George."
"I know that now. Thank you for telling me the truth." Matthew rose from the armchair. "Would you go with me and tell Sanderling as well. I don't guarantee anything, of course. But I'd like him to hear your case.
"I don't want charity. Even if it is Christmas."
"Sanderling's a fair man and deserves the whole story. He'll weigh all the relevant factors. We can take it from there."
Pearce agreed on those terms and the two men left the room and returned to the front office.
Christmas Eve 1933
"It's here! It's here!" Sybbie's excited voice echoed in the saloon.
"How big is it?" Sebastian came tearing down the red staircase.
"Oh I don't know…" Sybbie stretched out her arms as far as they could go. "Gigantic."
Two footmen and a couple estate workers carefully guided the large fir tree into the saloon, righted it in the large pot with wood stakes used to support and water the tree, and finally stood back to see if it would stay in place.
"Hurrah!" The children clapped. "Who's going to put on the lights?" Sebastian asked. "I can help."
"Are all the ornaments ready?" Elinor walked quickly in from the music room. "I want to put on the glass Father Christmas ornament Great Granny Violet gave me last year."
"Daddy's bringing the holly and berry chains we made last night to wrap around the tree." Neve kept poking her head towards the front door to see if her father had arrived yet.
Sybil, Mary, and Edith stood nearby watching the children get more and more excited by the moment. Edith said, "I know Coates and Mrs. Nicholson had the ornaments brought down from the attic."
"Goodie!" Marie clapped her hands. "I love all the colored ones," and she made a picture in the air of the spherical German kugels that came in vibrant colours of red, yellow, blue, and green.
"You must be very careful," Edith reminded her daughter. "Some of them are quite old and fragile."
"I will Mummy." Marie skipped over to where Elinor and Sebastian patiently stood, waiting for the boxes to be opened.
Sybil leaned over to Mary. "I remember dropping one of the Victorian glass acorns in trying to reach up to bough just beyond my grasp. It shattered all over the floor. Carson went beet red but maintained his air of dignity as he calmly instructed it to be cleaned up immediately."
"Dear Carson. He was flustered by nothing. Mama received a card from them the other day wishing everyone a Happy Christmas. He and Mrs. Hughes…I mean Mrs. Carson are visiting Mrs. Patmore at her establishment in Haughton-le-Skerne for the holidays."
"Where are Jack and George?" Sybil counted the heads of all the children and realized the two eldest boys were missing.
Mary answered. "They've gone to the Hall. Tom and Matthew are with them. With the help of some of the tenants, the Hall residents are putting together a sleigh ride for the children decorated with ribbons, laurel, paper chains, and holly. Joseph and Sam are organizing a caroling as well for later this evening. Matthew asked Papa if they could sing outside Downton and then take the road through the Village. Father Christmas will ride along and hand out sweets to the children."
"Who's playing that role?"
Mary shrugged. "It's a surprise. Matthew's sworn to secrecy. He's arriving back later in time to dress for dinner. I'm about to go up to the nursery to get William. I promised him he could help put on some of the ornaments if I held him up."
"I'll join you. Albert should be awake from his nap." Edith stepped towards the staircase.
Sybil walked over to join her daughters in placing some wooden toy ornaments on the tree. She handed a soft, cotton batting filled apple ornament to Neve. Hard to break, perfect for little hands.
Cora joined them, after finishing lunch with Robert who returned to the library to finish reading his newspaper. She watched as the new generation of children unwrapped the precious decorations, some of which she had collected on her honeymoon trip in Germany in the late 19th century. She missed hearing Violet's contributions to the tree trimmings, usually in the form of careful instructions on exactly where the ornaments should be placed. "No, not there," she'd have said. "Up two branches to the right where it can catch the light."
Her own mother was ailing as well. Cora hoped to visit in the coming year.
The chattering of the children, so happy and joyful, filled her heart with the warmth of the season.
Mary descended the staircase, little William rubbing his eyes after his own nap. She stood next to her mother. "Happy Christmas, Mama."
"Happy Christmas, my darling." Cora kissed her grandson's cheek and gently took him from Mary's arms so she could help him place some of her very favorite ornaments on the tree.
Mary fitted the pear-shaped ruby and diamond lever back drop earring into her left lobe. The set had been an early Christmas gift from Matthew. She wanted to wear them to the family dinner on Christmas Eve.
"They're beautiful, mi'lady." Anna put the finishing touches on Lady Mary's coiffure. "They complement your dress to perfection."
"Thank you, Anna." Mary said. "Has the rest of the family arrived?"
"Lady Sybil and Mr. Branson are downstairs with Miss Branson. Helen is continuing to help Florence out in the nursery with the younger children."
"I know Lady Sybil appreciates all the help your sister is giving in addition to her duties as their housekeeper. But you both will be taking the rest of the week off, correct? That was part of our holiday gift."
Anna smiled. "Yes, mi'lady. We're going to see the new Gracie Fields movie at the Odeon."
Mary also knew that Anna was spending time with one of the new school teachers at the local grammar school, a Mr. Frederick Gordon. Mary was glad Anna finally found someone. It had been so long since Mr. Bates death.
Just then Matthew gently rapped on the door leading to his dressing chamber.
Anna nodded at Mary, knowing the signal was one Mr. Crawley gave when he wanted to have some private time with his wife. She left the room to finish up some of her other duties.
"Come in, darling." Mary turned her head towards the door.
Matthew turned the knob and walked inside their bedroom. He placed his cane by the chair alongside her dressing stand and reached out his hand. She took it and placed it against her cheek.
He knew exactly where to place his kiss. He felt for her earlobe. "Ah the new earrings. Do you like them?"
"Exquisite." Matthew's kiss tickled delightfully.
"George is dressing as well. Sorry for being a bit late. He wanted to show off his handiwork on the sleigh. You'll be very impressed later tonight when the residents make their way here."
Mary still wasn't sure she wanted her son spending so much time among the workmen at the Hall especially as now Sebastian wanted to join him. But after having spoken with George at length, she understood just as Matthew did how important it was for him to have the opportunity to see life from other perspectives. Neither wanted their children to be pampered and protected as the world was changing at such a pace.
"How's Mr. Pearce's probation going?"
"Another six months and Sanderling's agreed to review his permanent employment." Matthew had been pleased Trevor had decided to reconsider his decision to outright sack Pearce once his story was verified by Liverpool police and court records.
Mary reached out to take her husband's hand. "I know you're glad about that."
Matthew sat down in his usual chair beside her table.
"Oh," Mary just remembered the telephone call from earlier in the day. "Rose and Atticus cannot make the New Year's shoot. It seems her father's new wife wants them all at Duneagle."
"I see. Maybe we'll take a trip to Scotland in the spring before they go back to New York. I know Elinor wants to see Victoria again."
Mary nodded, taking one last look in the mirror. "Shall we?"
He stood up and reached out for his cane. "I do hope it's just us tonight."
"Yes. Papa wanted to invite Colonel Britt but Mama prevailed on a private family Christmas eve."
"Perfect." He took her extended arm and they made their move downstairs to the drawing room to greet the rest of the family.
After dinner Matthew mysteriously disappeared. Coates informed Lady Mary that he was recalled back to Downton Hall.
Mary would normally be put out by his putting the Hall above family, instead just nodded. She knew what Matthew was up to and couldn't wait to see the children's reactions.
Coates also said Lord Grantham, Mr. Branson, and Lord Hexham left with Mr. Crawley.
Her eyes narrowed. "What?" Now that was a surprise.
As the women gathered in the drawing room, the conversation turned to the missing men.
"What are they up to?" Sybil asked. "Tom said nothing on the walk over here."
"I knew Bertie was hiding something," Edith laughed. "He kept asking to make sure the children wouldn't be put to bed so early this evening."
They turned to Mary.
"Don't look at me. I knew Matthew was a part of the evening's activities at the Hall, but that's it. What's Papa doing?"
Cora could but shrug. Isobel as well had no idea. She turned to her husband, "do you know?"
Lord Merton gave an enigmatic smile. "I have an inkling, yes. They asked me to join them earlier but my arthritis won't allow it. I am, however, sworn, to secrecy."
Very soon the answer came in the form of jingle bells being heard outside. A "whoa!" call out and the start of a carol met their ears. "God rest ye merry, gentlemen. Let nothing you dismay…"
Sybil started to giggle, the little girl who loved all things Christmas coming out. "Let's go get the children!"
Elinor, Jack, and George were already ahead of them, leading the younger ones down the stairs.
"Mummy Mummy!" Neve reached up for her mother to take her into her arms. "Is it Father Christmas? Is it really?"
Albert walked over to the chimney. "There's a fire. How can he get down?" But he checked his stocking just in case.
"He's not eaten the mince pies yet," Marie noted.
Elinor, who believed herself above such childish beliefs, but went along for the younger one's sake, said, "It's too early for Father Christmas. There's a horse outside. I heard it. Let's go see."
"Not before you put on something warm," Cora said just as Coates, Mrs. Nicholson, Anna, and Helen arrived with jacket, mittens, and hats.
"I thought you were going to the pictures," Mary observed to Anna.
"We put it off until tomorrow." Anna grinned, helping William on with his mittens. He was jumping from one foot to the other. "May we go now?"
"Stand still, Wills," Mary replied, trying to get his coat through one arm.
"It's snowing!" Elinor looked through the front window. "Come on everyone!"
Coates opened the door and they all walked outside to see a large sleigh pulled by two of the large draft horses used on the estate, decorated with all sorts of holly, ribbons, yew leaves, and coloured paper chains. Robert sat at the front, holding the horses' reins. He had on a top hat with a sprig of holly inside the ribbon.
"Happy Christmas!" Robert called out the all the children.
Tom and Bertie got out of the sleigh and started to hand out small ribbon candies to the children as they continued to sing along with the carolers from Downton Hall who formed a tight group trailing behind the sleigh which had guided their path towards the Abbey.
Just then a man with a flowing white beard, wearing a red sleeved gown and hood trimmed in white fur arrived with a sack behind his back.
Marie gave a shriek of glee even as she clasped even harder to her mother's chest. William and Neve moved in for a closer look.
"I think I've gotten letters from some children," the man said in a jolly, booming voice. He knelt down and peered over his glasses. "Were they from you?" He could hear the crunch of snow under their feet as they approached.
"Oh yes," Neve said, excitedly. "Are you really Father Christmas?"
Sebastian took a bolder step forward and looked very closely at the bearded man. "It's Daddy! It's Daddy!"
Tom and Bertie moved closer to Matthew to help him stand up. The sack was taking away his center of balance.
"Daddy!" William threw himself into his father's arms. "This is the best Christmas present. May I ride in the sleigh with Grandfather?"
Matthew tried to protest, but the jig was up. He hugged his son as Tom carefully reached out and took the sack from Matthew's other arm. "Of course you can."
Bertie took the seven-year-old from Matthew's arm and lifted him onto the seat beside Robert.
Mary approached her husband. "How very clandestine indeed."
He grinned, holding down his faux beard to speak. "We're going to go into the Village and over to the canteen. Mrs. Mason has the cakes, cookies, and hot buttered rum or cocoa packed in hampers. Stan and some of the other sighted men from the Hall are going to follow us in a lorry."
"She's in on it as well?" Mary laughed. The former assistant cook Daisy Robinson had married footman William Mason and took on the responsibilities of full time cook when Mrs. Patmore retired. "You have been busy."
"I didn't want to lose the surprise for the children when we showed up outside. I could hear their peals of excitement." Matthew loved hearing the cries from the children. "Tom and Bertie were on hand to help me. Robert joined at the last minute, not wanting to be left out of the fun."
"It's wonderful. I don't think they'll forget this Christmas." Mary gave her husband's very red, cold lips a kiss. "And neither will I…Father Christmas."
They embraced and then Mary helped Matthew return to the group of carolers from the Hall. Sam had started them on "Once in Royal David's City" as they continued on their way into Downton Village. The children were nestled together on the sleigh, bundled with blankets to keep out the night's chill.
They all joined in
Once in royal David's city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for His bed…
Christmas day ended with the family gathered in the drawing room by a roaring fire.
Matthew had spent some of the day with Joseph at the Hall where his friend had revealed that he and his father's gift was an extension to the Hall that would double the size of the recreation facility and fill it with mats, barbells, dumbbells, and rowing machines.
"Healthy body, healthy mind," Joseph said as they spoke outside the Hall. Joseph was to return to London that day with Sam for a dinner with Sam's parents who had finally come around to accepting their son's life was his own to lead.
"I'm stunned, Joseph. Thank you so much."
"You've achieved amazing things here Matthew. I can hardly remember the callow young man I met almost seventeen years ago who didn't know what he wanted from life."
The two men shook hands.
Matthew walked back down the gravel path to his home. Home to his wife, his children. He loved them all so much. He'd not change a single thing about his life now.
The gifts had been exchanged that morning for the family. Elinor had, at first been disappointed, but then realized after opening a gift a new bridle, she would get her horse after all. Matthew had reluctantly given in to beloved daughter's wish. Sweetbriar would be delivered on Boxing Day to the Downton stables. The younger children opened up their toys with glee. George loved his collection of popular detective mysteries and gothic tales of horror. He also got a welcome surprise from Jack who told him that he'd be starting at Rugby next term as his mother realized that Eton was too far away from the family. Matthew and Edith had spoke earlier in the day to confirm the arrangement would satisfy both boy's issues of loneliness and isolation. Together they could rely on the other.
After a Christmas dinner of roast turkey, vegetables, and cranberry sauce the children took the ends of the Christmas crackers and pulled them with a loud 'bang' open to find small hats and toys inside.
Walking through to the drawing room, Matthew stopped Mary in the hallway.
"I think this is the spot," he said.
"Spot for what?"
"This…" and his mouth found his wife's soft lips in a tender kiss. "We are under the mistletoe after all."
Mary, her eyes fluttering from the intensity of the kiss, looked up and smiled. "How did you know it was there?"
Matthew kissed her again. "I just knew…" then he laughed and admitted "I had Lang place it there so I knew where to kiss you."
"How clever darling…" Mary melted into her husband's embrace. "Happy Christmas."
They finished off the evening, the children already with their head's nodding with sleep with a reading from A Christmas Carol, as acted out by Matthew, who had already read the story for the BBC the week before, with help from William providing the sweet voice of Tiny Tim…
"And so, as Tiny Tim observed…" Matthew started.
"God bless Us, Every One!"
Happy Christmas to all