All intellectual property belongs to Julian Fellowes and the other brilliant creators of "Gosford Park."
'Mary, do help me out of here, will you?'
It was a rainy March day in London, and Lady Trentham was fumbling with an umbrella in the open door of the motor coach. The tyres of the vehicles passing on the street sent sprays of muddy water up from the pavement, and Mary Maceachran was drenched all the quicker by one of these unwelcome fountains as she clambered out of the front of the car, clutching her hat to her head in the rain.
'One would think that, after almost two years of being in my service, you'd have gotten the hang of the timing,' muttered Lady Trentham as Mary gently took the umbrella and opened it. 'Why I haven't bothered finding a new maid is beyond me...'
Mary smiled as her employer slid out of the back seat of the motor car and grabbed the maid by the arm to keep from falling. She still was a bit slow on the details, but even Lady Trentham would have to admit that she had made remarkable improvements since her first year as a lady's maid. She was far from being a perfect servant – anticipation was not, and likely would never be, her strongest suit – but she knew she was better than competent. And while Lady Trentham complained about her constantly in sotto voce soliloquies, Mary knew that she wouldn't be sacked any time soon; not only was she now a better-than-adequate servant, but she could tell that Lady Trentham liked her for her sincerity and her discretion, and her willingness to relate bits of gossip from the servants' quarters for the lady's enjoyment. Besides, when it came to salary, she was still dirt cheap.
'My goodness, Sylvia certainly has done well for herself!' exclaimed Lady Trentham, blinking up at the stately white Pembridge Square townhouse under the gray sky. 'Just like her, of course – her husband not yet a year and a half dead in the ground, and she's already gone and bought a fashionable residence in Kensington.'
Mary nodded politely and followed Lady Trentham up the steps of the house, holding the old woman's elbow to support her.
'I must say, I'm actually rather shocked she hasn't invited me before now,' continued Lady Trentham, puffing a bit as she ascended the steps. 'But I suppose she's been a bit busy, what with selling Gosford Park and wrapping up matters with the police, and then that whole dreadful business with Isobel... disgraceful.'
'Well, my lady, Miss Isobel had had a trying time of things,' said Mary cautiously, 'what with her father's death, and then her childhood home being sold.'
'Yes, and with all of that hullabaloo going on, the very last thing she needed to do was run away.' Lady Trentham sniffed haughtily as they paused at the door. 'Still, as long as she doesn't mar the family name too much before she returns, I suppose we shall just have to accept things as they are.'
Just before Lady Trentham thought to suggest it, Mary rapped on the door and stood back, waiting for Jennings to open it. Instead, when the latch was slid back with a clack and the door swung open, she found herself face to face with Robert Parks.
'Oh!' cried Mary in surprise, feeling a curious rush flow over her – fear and excitement mixed together at the sight of the dashing would-be murderer.
'Hello,' he said gently, an equally surprised but very pleased expression flitting across his face.
'Well, pray don't just stand there in the door frame; it's rather wet out here!' snapped Lady Trentham, elbowing her way inside. 'Sylvia? Sylvia, are you in?'
'I didn't know you'd be here,' said Mary shyly as Robert joined her under the umbrella and the two descended the stairs to fetch Lady Trentham's trunk. 'I thought Her Ladyship said that Lady Sylvia and Lady Louisa hadn't spoken since...'
'They haven't,' replied Robert with a grunt as he tugged the trunk out of the boot of the motor coach and tipped his hat to the driver. 'Nor have they seen each other at all. Lady Stockbridge was dead-set against this gathering from the moment the invitation arrived, but Lord Stockbridge had business in London and so decided they were going to come anyway.'
'Then they've made up?'
'The sisters?' Robert let out a brief laugh. 'My god, no. Lady Louisa is still furious that Lady Sylvia didn't shed a tear when her husband died, and went riding the next morning instead. By the way, someone forgot to unlock the gate down to the area, and I haven't had time to go tell them to unlock it; we'll have to go through the house to get downstairs.'
Mary nodded and followed Robert back towards the front door of the house.
'And Lady Sylvia?'
'Furious with Lady Louisa for treating Sir William's death with "a display worthy of an Italian opera." ' Robert smirked slightly at the follies of England's upper-class.
'It's a shame.'
'It's not, really. Lady Louisa has to be a bit happier, now that no-one else can have the man she always wanted; Lady Sylvia's almost certainly happier without Sir William around to pounce on all the maids in sight.' Robert nearly slipped on the steps, but Mary seized his arm with the hand that did not hold the umbrella, and steadied him. 'Thanks. By the way, I assume you've heard about your friend from Gosford Park?'
'Elsie?' Mary smiled. 'Of course I did! Isn't it exciting?'
'Certainly a step up from sneaking about in dark corners with Sir William. You been to see it?'
Mary shook her head. 'Have you?'
'Not yet.' Robert glanced at Mary. 'Care to go tonight, if we can?'
Mary shook out the umbrella and closed it slowly. 'Really?'
'I think we could convince Jennings and Mrs Wilson to find suitable replacements for a few hours.' Robert shrugged. 'It'd be worth a go.'
A shiver had gone up Mary's spine at the mention of Mrs Wilson; presumably, if Lady Sylvia and Lady Louisa hadn't seen each other in the year since Sir William's death, then Robert hadn't seen Mrs Wilson either.
'Have you talked to either of them yet?'
'Not yet,' repeated Robert, holding the door open for her. 'I only just brought in Lord Stockbridge's things; that's why I was at the door in the first place. I don't know if the servants are even expecting us, but I'm sure they'll find somewhere to put us. Can you manage the trunk?'
'Yes, of course.' Mary took Lady Trentham's trunk from Robert so he could collect Lord Stockbridge's items; their hands brushed momentarily as the trunk was handed over. 'Thank you, Mr Parks.'
'It's Robert,' he insisted. 'And can I call you Mary?'
Mary looked at him earnestly. 'Unless you want to worry about pronouncing "Maceachran," yes.'
Lady Sylvia was resplendent in her new environs, dressed in day clothes far more flattering than her former riding wear (she had given up trousers and horses alike quite readily for the chance to become a proper London socialite).
'Aunt Constance, it's wonderful to see you,' she exclaimed, a curl of cigarette smoke escaping from her lips as she embraced Lady Trentham in the parlour. 'I'm so glad that at least you and Louisa could make it.'
'Yes, yes,' replied Lady Trentham with disinterest, folding herself into a chair. 'But dear Lavinia won't be here?'
'Unfortunately not.' Lady Sylvia too collapsed onto a chair with a practiced carelessness. 'Anthony and Freddie have entered into some ridiculous business over in Sudan – selling shoes, or something of that nature – and heaven knows how, but it's apparently flourishing. They're constantly running off to Africa to deal with business matters, and Lavinia fawns after Anthony so slavishly now that she always insists on going with him.'
'Really.' Lady Trentham scowled slightly. 'I don't remember them being that close at all before.'
'For some reason, ever since – you know, that week – they've been thick as thieves together, absolutely inseparable.' Lady Sylvia took another drag on her cigarette. 'That Mabel, though, she follows Freddie to make sure he doesn't get up to anything in her absence. Wouldn't put it past him, especially with a shabby wife like he's got.'
'Presumably by now, he's been able to get her at least one more dress, though,' said Lady Trentham wryly, and the two women snorted with laughter behind their hands.
'What a week that was!' exclaimed Lady Trentham through her residual chuckles. 'I suppose it might be a blessing that only I and Louisa and Raymond could make it this weekend, though. At least we won't have to worry about any American pretenders this time... nor phone calls back to Los Angeles every three seconds, for that matter.'
'Yes,' sighed Lady Sylvia, and for a moment she looked a bit wistful. 'But of course I'll have some neighbours and friends over for dinner, liven things up a bit.'
'Indeed.' Lady Trentham did not look entirely approving. Lady Sylvia raised a manicured eyebrow.
'Well, you can't expect me to wander about this house by myself night and day, can you, Aunt Constance?' she cried. 'Not with William dead, and Isobel run off to God-knows-where. I moved to London to meet some new people, you know, and I've been quite good at it.'
'So I'd imagine,' quipped Lady Trentham dryly. 'Where is Louisa? She certainly is taking her time with getting prepared.'
'She only got here a few moments before you,' Lady Sylvia explained. 'And she arrived without a lady's maid. Apparently, her latest one quit a few days ago, without warning – well, I suppose with Louisa's fits of emotion, it must be terribly difficult to stay sane around her. They're getting rather desperate, you know; she hasn't been able to maintain a single lady's maid for more than four months since Bill died.'
'Well, what is she going to do about it?'
'God only knows. If only money were enough incentive to keep a lady's maid around these days.'
'Hm. Well, I suppose Louisa can use one of your maids, at least while she's here,' said Lady Trentham with a shrug.
At that moment, a laugh emanated from the hallway, and both heads turned as Mary and Robert walked by the door, deep in conversation and clearly quite oblivious to anything but one another.
'I say, isn't that Raymond's man?' said Lady Sylvia with some interest.
'I dare say it was,' grumbled Lady Trentham.
'Well, then, Aunt Constance,' said Lady Sylvia briskly, snubbing out her cigarette in an ashtray near her elbow, 'perhaps you should consider letting your maid take care of Louisa for the weekend. For all we know, the arrangement may become permanent.'
As at Gosford Park – and, indeed, at all of the houses in England that respected the tenets of 'gracious living' – the servants' quarters in the Kensington townhouse were upstairs in the garret just below the roof, whilst all of the cooking and washing was carried out below stairs; a rickety set of wooden steps at the back of the house discreetly connected these two levels so that the servants could manoeuvre up and down without disturbing their employers. Mary went first in the ground floor corridor, descending the stairs to the kitchen with care so that she did not scrape up Lady Trentham's leather trunk against the unforgiving walls. Mrs Croft and her girls were already hard at work preparing dinner, and Mary was shocked to see that the irascible cook was handling the presence of the commanding Mrs Wilson in the kitchen with good grace.
'I haven't seen Dorothy, you might want to check her room,' Mrs Croft was grumbling with far less ire than Mary remembered, as she chopped carrots for a stew.
'Or Jennings's room,' sniggered one of the kitchen girls quietly, until a sharp glare from Mrs Wilson shut her up quickly.
'Well, if you do see her, Mrs Croft, please let me know immediately, as soon enough, the guests...' Mrs Wilson paused as she noticed Mary, and turned back to Mrs Croft. 'Excuse me, as this very instant, the guests are arriving. Miss Trentham, how have you been?' she concluded, turning back towards Mary.
'Very well, thank you, Mrs Wilson,' replied Mary with a nod of acknowledgement.
'Second floor, first bedroom on the left; and you'll be all the way on the fourth floor, sharing with Dorothy,' Mrs Wilson directed, flipping through a stack of papers. Mary became aware that Mrs Croft had stopped chopping, and she saw when she glanced up that the cook was staring in amazement at Robert, who nodded with some bemusement.
'And as for you...' Mrs Wilson began, looking up and halting mid-sentence as she noticed Robert. 'Oh! Mr Stockbridge...' She glanced down quickly, as if motivated to consult her list again, although Mary suspected otherwise. 'I'm afraid we weren't expecting you.'
'I'm afraid we weren't expecting to be here ourselves,' replied Robert, setting down his trunk and pulling off his hat. 'My apologies, Mrs Wilson. I hope you'll be able to manage...'
'Yes, yes, of course,' responded Mrs Wilson distractedly. 'I'm sure we'll find somewhere, we only have to house Lady Trentham and as many local guests who wish to stay the night, after all. If you'll excuse me...' Without another look in their direction, Mrs Wilson strode from the kitchens.
Robert and Mary looked at each other, he with amusement, she with barely-concealed worry.
'Well, it seems that the meticulous Mrs Wilson isn't at her best when caught off her guard,' he joked.
'Leave her be, Mr Parks,' said Mrs Croft quietly as she resumed her chopping. 'Just give her a few moments to sort things out in her head.'
Robert raised his eyebrows at Mary, and the two turned around to go deposit Lady Trentham's things in her assigned room.
'Do you think she's too off her balance to approve our going to the film?' Robert muttered as they emerged back into the first floor corridor.
Mary shook her head. 'I'll go ask her later, after she's gotten things sorted out,' she said.
'There's Jennings,' said Robert as the manservant appeared from up the front staircase. 'I'll find you later.'
Mary nodded and continued up the back stairwell with Lady Trentham's trunk as Robert accosted Jennings and, with minimal preliminary niceties, made ready to bargain for a few hours off.
Mrs Croft knew she would find her sister seated on her bed, staring down at a list of rooms and servants as she was.
'It all depends on whether or not the Willoughbys decide to stay the night after all, rather than riding the extra half hour back home,' she fretted as Mrs Croft closed the door behind her. 'The Crawfords will almost certainly end up staying – they always do – and then the Morgenthaus...'
She broke off, her hands shaking slightly as she placed the list down next to her, not looking at Mrs Croft as she sat down on the bed.
'Ah, well,' Mrs Wilson sighed. 'Anticipation can only help a person plan so far in advance, I suppose.'
'Are you going to talk to him?' asked Mrs Croft bluntly and without preamble.
Mrs Wilson looked down at her hands.
'No,' she said softly.
'No?' repeated Mrs Croft incredulously, raising her eyebrows. 'For pity's sake, Jane, you've been given a second chance! Don't waste it this time!'
'A second chance for what?' snapped Mrs Wilson, rising from the bed and going to stand by the dingy window, with her back towards her sister. 'To let him see that his mother dedicated her life to the man who made her give up her child? No, better to let him think she died all those years ago, and died a free woman. He would be ashamed to see me for what I am.' She smiled bitterly. 'The perfect servant. The one who decided to keep her servitude and give him up, rather than the other way around.'
'Jane.' Mrs Croft pushed herself to her feet and seized Mrs Wilson by the shoulders. 'He won't care. He deserves to know the truth.' When Mrs Wilson did not respond, Mrs Croft continued in an increasingly vitriolic whisper. 'Do you know what I'd give to have one more day with my boy, just one? And here you have the chance to be with yours for the rest of a lifetime, to see him get married and grow old, to play with your grandchildren, to know that things have turned out all right even when you didn't expect them to. Don't you know what I would give for that?'
Mrs Wilson tore herself from her sister's grasp with a sob.
'I can't,' she cried in a muffled voice, and rushed from the room. Mrs Croft tossed her hat to the floor angrily, her entire lanky frame shaking; then, after a few calming breaths, she collected herself and her hat, and slowly descended the creaking back steps down to the kitchens.
Mary seemed to have a knack for getting lost in unfamiliar houses. She was fairly certain she was somewhere on the second floor – or was it the third? – but she couldn't seem to find a room that would accommodate Lady Trentham in the manner that Her Ladyship would surely expect. A grandfather clock chimed behind her, and as she turned to look at it, she walked straight into Mrs Wilson coming round a corner.
'Oh! I'm sorry, Mrs Wilson,' she said.
'No trouble, Miss Trentham,' sniffed Mrs Wilson, almost as though she had just been crying. 'Are you lost?'
'I'm afraid so,' said Mary sheepishly.
'Well, you'd better come with me, then,' said Mrs Wilson, brushing past Mary, who followed quickly.
'It seems like there are so few people here,' Mary observed. 'Did Lady Sylvia get rid of some of her servants?'
'Yes. There was no point in keeping so many; this house, as you can see, is considerably smaller than Gosford Park, and now there is only one inhabitant who needs constant service, rather than three.' Mrs Wilson was struck by a moment of nostalgia as she remembered some of the old familiar faces who had been dismissed – George, Probert, of course Elsie. She hoped they'd all landed on their feet somewhere or another. 'But the guests tonight will bring more servants, I dare say; and, if not, I think we'll be able to manage. They never need much personal attention during these dinner events, not until it's time to go to bed.'
Mary let a moment or two pass in silence.
'I was wondering, Mrs Wilson,' she said finally, 'if I might have an hour or two off tonight.'
'And why is that, Miss Trentham?'
'Well, as you said, the guests won't need much personal attention until they turn in for the night, which likely won't be until midnight or so. And Robert... Mr Stockbridge, that is, invited me to go see the Charlie Chan movie that Mr Weissman produced – you know, Mr Denton and Elsie are starring in it together.'
'Are they?' said Mrs Wilson, who had stopped for a moment on the staircase at the mention of Mr Stockbridge's name.
'Yes. And much of it was modeled on... you know, that night.'
'Hm.' Mrs Wilson glanced back at Mary over her shoulder, then continued along the next corridor. 'Well, I suppose we'll find someone to cover for the both of you. Most likely, neither Lady Trentham nor Lord Stockbridge will notice you've gone at all. You know how to get to the theatre?'
'I couldn't say, but Mr Stockbridge grew up in London, he knows the Tube well enough.'
'Just be careful, both of you, and be sure you're back before eleven, that's when the guests should start needing attention again.' Mrs Wilson stopped before an elegant bedroom suite. 'Lady Trentham's.' She paused. 'You'll be glad to know we've plenty of homemade marmalade this time. I made sure of it when I heard you would be here.'
'Thank you, Mrs Wilson,' smiled Mary as the housekeeper departed quickly down the corridor.
By half past ten that night, Robert and Mary were already back from the film and emerging from the Notting Hill Gate Tube station, arm in arm.
'I still can't believe it was Elsie!' Mary exclaimed with a laugh. 'Miss Elsa Buchanan, it said her name was, in the credits, all formal like that.'
'And that Denton, too. Changed his name, you'll have noticed – I suppose they all change their names in Hollywood, though. Not that I'd put it past him that his name never was Denton in the first place.'
'Well, still, it was all good fun.' The rain had long since stopped, but Mary still snuggled closer to Robert to avoid the chill. 'Thank you for inviting me.'
'It was my pleasure.' Robert grinned. 'If you should thank anyone, it's Mrs Wilson for giving you the evening off.'
'Yes.' Mary thought of Mrs Wilson, with her obedient manner and perhaps a bottle of poison up her sleeve, and shivered.
'Are you all right?' asked Robert kindly.
Mary shook her head slowly.
'I kept on thinking,' she said in a low voice, 'throughout the movie, about Sir William's death, and...'
She shuddered. Robert stopped walking and took her gently by the hands.
'Are you afraid of me, Mary?'
Mary stared at him with watery eyes.
'Well, no, but...'
'I swear to you, here and now,' Robert said sincerely, 'that, aside from him, I would never harm another creature on God's earth.' He laughed. 'I don't even like shooting, however much Lord Stockbridge does!'
'But, you stabbed him, Robert!' said Mary, her voice cracking with tears.
'Didn't make any difference, the bastard was already dead.'
'You still meant to do it, though.' Mary bit her lower lip. 'If he hadn't been dead already, you'd have killed him.'
'But I didn't.' There was a tone of finality in Robert's voice that made Mary stop crying. 'I didn't, and I'm glad I didn't. There now, you see? I'm not a murderer, the police can't arrest me, and so help me, I'll never hurt so much as a fly from now on. Does that make you feel better?'
Mary sniffed. 'A bit, yes.'
'Good.' Robert's hands moved slowly up Mary's arms to her shoulders, and he brushed lightly at a tear with his fingers. 'I don't think I could bear it if you hated me.'
And before Mary knew it, they were kissing each other, not in the privacy of the servants' quarters at Gosford Park, but out under a streetlamp on a Kensington street whose wet pavement gleamed silver in the lamplight.
'Mary,' Robert murmured, staring into her eyes, 'I think...'
'I know,' she whispered. 'But it's foolish of us. Do these things ever work out?'
Robert shrugged. 'Who knows? Lady Louisa needs a new lady's maid. Things might work out yet. And even if they don't, we don't need to remain servants forever, we could find other jobs.' He took her hands again. 'I promise you, I'm not like my father was. I won't even attempt to put you in any sort of position that might compromise your job with Lady Trentham. I... I don't think I could bear it if you ended up like my mother.'
Mary kissed him again softly on the cheek, and then looked down at the ground.
'Robert,' she said quietly, 'there's something I think you should know.'
Inside, Mary gave Robert's hand a quick squeeze before she darted upstairs to put Lady Trentham's things in order.
'Ah, Mary,' exclaimed Lady Trentham, entering the room with her usual air of self-importance only seconds after Mary finished unpacking. 'What an evening it's been! Sylvia and Louisa wouldn't even look at each other all through dinner, even with Sylvia insisting on flirting with Raymond in the most absurd manner. And then, after dinner, while everyone else was milling about and playing cards and the like, the two of them – Sylvia and Louisa, I mean – went into the library and obviously had a dreadful row, because shortly after, Louisa came storming out of the library in tears, and no amount of rebukes or eye-rolling from Raymond could keep her from leaving the party.'
'Do you know what the fight was about?' asked Mary, carefully removing Lady Trentham's jewellery.
'Oh, probably William, that's all they've ever fought about, is William,' replied Lady Trentham disinterestedly before turning around in her chair with a much more serious expression. 'Now, Mary, I want you to answer me truthfully.'
'Of course, my lady.'
'My niece Louisa – Lady Stockbridge, to you – is looking for a new lady's maid, and I have a hunch that she's going to be asking you if you want the position before the weekend is out.'
'Me?' asked Mary, dropping an earring on the floor in her amazement.
'Pick that up, Mary; yes, you.' Lady Trentham sniffed. 'Sylvia thinks that Louisa has the means of luring you away from me, in the form of that valet of Raymond's. But you don't like him all that much, do you?'
'My lady...' Mary flushed pink and quickly turned to put the jewelry in the armoire and fetch Lady Trentham's dressing gown.
'Yes, I feared as much,' sighed Lady Trentham somewhat petulantly. 'And you would really leave me all by myself in my lonely manor, with no-one but the butler and the gardeners to talk to?'
'I can't rightly say, my lady,' said Mary cautiously as she handed over the dressing gown. 'Besides, Lady Louisa hasn't even made me an offer yet. I don't think it's possible for me to know what I'd say until she does.'
Lady Trentham sighed again, rather melodramatically.
'Oh, well, let me know when she does, so I can go write up an advertisement for a new lady's maid. That will be all for tonight, Mary – I'll call you if I need you.'
'Yes, my lady,' said Mary obediently, allowing herself a real smile as soon as she had left the room.
Mrs Wilson sat at the small table in her room, double-checking the supply lists for the past month by the light of a small lamp, when a knock sounded on her door.
'Yes?' she said without looking up, assuming it would be Dorothy with some problem or another.
The door creaked open, and into the room stepped Robert Parks, who closed the door behind him carefully and stared at Mrs Wilson in an almost unnerving manner.
'I'm sorry to bother you at this hour of the night, Mrs Parks,' he said softly.
'Mr Stockbridge.' Mrs Wilson's mouth had gone dry, but she tried to resume her work in as normal a manner as possible. 'I trust Jennings informed you where your...' She froze, staring at her list. 'I'm sorry, what did you say?'
'I believe that is your name,' said Robert, sitting down in the chair opposite her and folding his hands on the table.
'It was,' she replied softly, 'a long time ago.' She glanced quickly up at Robert, but found that she couldn't meet his gaze for long. 'Who told you?'
'Mary. She told me everything. Is it true?'
Mrs Wilson breathed out slowly and collected the lists into a neat pile.
'You've not given me much to confirm or deny.'
'You're my mother? And he made you give me up so you could keep your job, and told you I'd go to a family who wanted me?'
Mrs Wilson nodded mutely.
'Jesus.' Robert leaned back in his chair and stared moodily off into space. 'The lying bastard.'
Half a smile twitched on Mrs Wilson's lips, then disappeared.
'And you killed him, too.' Robert looked back at Mrs Wilson, whose attention still seemed focused on the table. 'You poisoned him, so I couldn't be blamed for his death. Why...?'
'Isn't that what any mother would do for her son?' said Mrs Wilson in a tight voice, rising to put away the supply lists.
'But you couldn't even be sure it was me!'
'I knew it was.'
'That photograph.' Mrs Wilson turned, a slightly wistful smile playing across her features. 'I still can't believe that survived all these years.'
Robert pulled the photograph from an inner pocket of his coat and slid it across the table to her.
'It was in my file. At the orphanage,' he explained as Mrs Wilson examined her twenty-year-old face. 'They told me you were dead.'
'Well, they weren't far off the mark,' she sighed, sitting down and sliding the photograph back to Robert. She still could not meet his eyes. 'Can you ever forgive me?'
'For what? For believing his lies?'
'For giving you up in the first place.' Mrs Wilson's face contorted and she could no longer control her sobs, although she tried to conceal them with her hands. 'It was without a doubt the biggest mistake of my life.'
'Oh,' said Robert huskily, moving hastily around the table and gently pulling Mrs Wilson's hands away from her face. 'No, of course I don't blame you. I... I just always wanted to know who you were, and what you were like.'
'I hope I don't disappoint you too much,' Mrs Wilson managed to say apologetically, swallowing another shuddering sob.
'No, not at all,' Robert said with absolute candor. 'But weren't you ever going to tell me?'
Mrs Wilson steadied her breathing.
'I was afraid you'd hate me for everything.' Robert shook his head, but she pressed on. 'Besides, what good would it do for you to know? It's not like time can ever be recovered...'
And Mrs Wilson thought of those long thirty years, and how every now and then, she would think about her boy and how old he would be (if he were still alive) and what he might be doing at eight years old – learning to ride a horse for the first time, perhaps; or twelve – sitting in a classroom with his primer before him on the desk, bored to death; or twenty – courting some charming young lady. Such lovely fantasies they'd been... until she came to Gosford Park and learned the truth about where her son had gone.
'No,' agreed Robert, kneeling down a bit so that his face was level with hers, 'but there's time enough to become well-acquainted now. I know I was distant at Gosford Park, but I'm not really like that, it was more because...'
'Yes.' Mrs Wilson nodded shakily.
'Not to mention, you were watching me like a hawk. I thought you knew what I was up to.'
And now Mrs Wilson remembered that week at Gosford Park, and how she had cherished and stowed away in minute detail each memory of every encounter with Robert, the way a lover stashes away love letters to review in secret. She could see why he might have been intimidated by her then, why he'd kept his distance.
'I did know,' she said.
'Yes, of course you did,' laughed Robert quietly. 'You don't miss much.'
Mrs Wilson gently pulled one of her hands from where Robert held them, and haltingly reached out to touch his cheek. He didn't flinch, and she drew in a shuddering breath.
'But I have, I've missed so much,' she whispered, tears filling her eyes again, and the next moment she had seized Robert in her arms and was crying into his shoulder, holding him as though she would never let go. 'Oh, my boy...'
Robert returned her embrace, trying and failing to keep back his own tears. The two clung to each other for a long moment, reunited and yet somehow still terribly lost.
'Does anyone besides Mary know?' Robert asked softly.
'Just Mrs Croft.' Mrs Wilson sat back to look at Robert and sniffed. 'My sister. She won't tell; we've kept each other's secrets all our lives. But I think Mary must be the only other one.' She smiled grimly. 'I dare say Scotland Yard would have arrested me a long time ago if they had put all the pieces together themselves.'
'You needn't worry; the case is officially closed by now.' Robert frowned. 'Something about some toxic cleaning substance getting into one of the tumblers while the crystal and silver were being cleaned, and a highwayman of sorts breaking in and stabbing him as he was writhing from the poison.'
'I'm not surprised,' said Mrs Wilson with a slight smirk. 'That inspector was the most incompetent man I've ever seen.'
'Well, at least you'll be safe now.'
'That was never my main concern.'
A brief pause as Mrs Wilson looked back down at her hands.
'Can I ask you something?' Robert paused. 'Why did you stay with him? After he had betrayed you like that?'
Mrs Wilson sighed and leaned back in her chair, clasping her hands before her on the table top. Robert stood and reseated himself in the chair across the table, never looking away from her.
'When he was young, Sir William was handsome and almost unbelievably charismatic. That was how he charmed all the factory girls in the first place, of course. My sister and I were some of his first workers; his workplace policies weren't solidly formed until after the first year, when the evidence of his mismanagement could no longer be ignored. Anyway, Lizzie's son was born first – he died a few years later, poor thing – and mine only a few months later, and since she'd already been sacked, I decided I'd have to stay on, to support our parents. And, having made that choice, it became a habit of sorts, staying on with him.' Mrs Wilson smiled grimly. 'He trusted me. He had no real reason, but he did, and I let him. Ended up being the death of him, of course.'
'So it wasn't love then.'
'Hardly,' said Mrs Wilson with a bleak laugh. 'And I suppose I always did entertain a fantasy that you'd come back one day, even when I didn't know if you were even alive.'
'Well, here I am.'
Mrs Wilson smiled falteringly as she reached one hand across the table and laid it on Robert's.
'Here you are,' she repeated softly.
Both looked away for an instant.
'But, of course, no-one can know,' Mrs Wilson said finally, withdrawing her hand. 'You'll remain Mr Stockbridge, and I'll remain Mrs Wilson, and we'll interact on perfectly cordial terms.'
'Of course,' said Robert with a slight grin. 'I'll come visit you, though, so long as it's not too obvious.'
'Well, I imagine the Stockbridges must have occasion to send a servant into London now and again.' Mrs Wilson eyed her grown son. 'And what are you going to do about that Mary, Lady Trentham's maid?'
Robert raised his eyebrows. 'It's that obvious?'
'I could remind you that I don't miss much, but yes, it is, Mr Stockbridge. Have you thought about trying to get her positioned as Lady Stockbridge's maid?'
'Something of that nature.' Robert shrugged. 'If worse comes to worse, I could always seek employment outside of valeting.'
Mrs Wilson nodded.
'She's a good girl, that one. Sharp, too. Notices a lot, but keeps her mouth closed, unless she needs confirmation on some matter of importance.'
'Another Mrs Wilson in the making, then?' joked Robert.
'On the contrary,' Mrs Wilson smiled, 'another Mrs Parks.'
Robert looked down in embarrassment and shrugged.
'Good luck to you both,' said Mrs Wilson softly, rising from her chair. 'You'd best go now, Mr Stockbridge, it's late.'
'Please,' said the valet, likewise standing and looking fondly down upon his mother as he did so, 'call me Robert in private, will you.'
'Yes, well, then, good night, Robert,' said Mrs Wilson, trying to sound business-like and failing. She took a step forward to open the door for him, but he stopped her.
'Good night, Mum,' he said quietly, giving her a quick kiss on the forehead before opening the door for himself and exiting with a gentle click of the lock behind him.
Mrs Wilson stood alone in the dim light of the table lamp, trembling from emotions too complex to enumerate. Comforted by the solitude, she closed her eyes and allowed tears to course down her face, until she finally felt composed once more. Only then did she notice that Robert had left the old photograph on the table, and at first she wondered if she should call after him; but then she took it up and carefully laid it in the drawer of her bed stand. Perhaps Robert didn't feel he needed the photograph any more, now that it no longer held within it all he'd ever know about his mother... and if he did still want it, he'd know where to come looking for it from now on.
She smiled to herself, and turned off the lamp.