Matthew and Lady Mary Crawley were married a little more than a week later by special license in the Anglican church in Florence. It was a plain, short service though it lacked none of the essentials of the ritual. The bride wore an ivory evening gown only worn once to a ball in Rome with a veil that had previously belonged to Lady Eastwick. Lord Eastwick gave her away and she was attended only by her maid, Miss Dawson, and her friend, Miss Bowen. Mr. Molesley acted as best man and the ceremony was witnessed by the only family member present, the dowager Countess of Grantham, as well as Mrs. Bowen, Lady Eastwick, the church wardens, and several curious bystanders who drifted into the church to take refuge from the cold. As for the ring, it was no family heirloom, but a plain band of gold purchased two days before from a shop on the Ponte Vecchio with the financial assistance of Lady Grantham.
After the ceremony was over, the wedding party including the chaplain drove out into the countryside to the Eastwicks' villa where a feast had been prepared for them and a number of the hosts' friends and neighbours. The bride and groom were not at all acquainted with any of these people but they added to the party atmosphere and all brought best wishes and token presents for the dear granddaughter of their dear friend's dear friend and her new husband. News travelled slowly in the countryside. Local musicians had been persuaded to come and in fact did turn up eventually, three hours after they were expected, refusing to play until they had had their dinner too. As the December night fell early in the afternoon those who were up to it after the banquet took to the floor following the example of the happy couple and did the best they could to the accompaniment of a surprisingly competent trio of violin, mandolin and accordion.
Escaping the heat and noise of the room for a moment, Mary was drawn to the French windows and stepped out onto the terrace. In the summer these doors would be left open and the company would spill out, to gaze over the green hills, the cypresses, the vines. Now however all was dark save the white glow of a hard frost. Pulling her white, fur stole more tightly round her and suppressing a shiver, she leaned on the wooden rail and watched her breath cloud in front of her in the crisp, cold air.
A footstep sounded behind and she turned quickly. It was her grandmother, leaning more heavily on her stick than she had been known to previously.
"I thought you were Matthew for a moment," Mary said with a soft smile as Violet joined her at the rail.
"I'm sorry to be such a disappointment, my dear. Your husband, I'm afraid, is engaged inside in analysis of that avalanche of a cream cake-"
"A delicious avalanche, you have to admit!"
"Yes, yes, certainly in small doses... At any rate, I thought I would take the opportunity of catching you alone."
Their eyes met. "I'm glad you did," replied Mary quietly and she did not just mean coming outside that evening.
The dowager stepped closer and covered her granddaughter's hand with her own, squeezing it.
"You surely didn't imagine I would have abandoned you to the ravages of the gutter press, especially a foreign one."
"Well, I'm very glad you didn't."
"More people than you might think, my dear, blot their copy book at some point or another. Your only misfortune was being caught."
Mary smiled faintly, wondering idly whether her grandmother was speaking from personal experience and if so of what. Then she decided it did not matter in the slightest what had happened in the past.
"Your father is a great fool not to realise it," continued Violet, "and my only regret is that I won't be there when he receives my letter on the subject." She chuckled suddenly to herself.
"You'll make me feel almost sorry for Papa at this rate!" cried Mary, surprised at the intense longing and strange sadness she felt thinking about him.
"Never mind, dear, he will come around eventually. Anyway, you have done the best thing possible in getting married. Nothing smudges out those little errors quite so successfully as a good marriage. If you had not arrived engaged I would have done my utmost to see that you became so immediately."
Mary laughed ruefully. "Oh, Granny, I did not marry Matthew to salvage my reputation."
"Well, I dare say your motives are your own and do you credit."
Both smiled and looked away. Presently Violet cleared her throat.
"My dear," she began, "in the absence of your mother I feel I – hem – I should offer you some advice."
Mary frowned. "What kind of advice?"
The dowager countess pursed her lips. "Believe me, it is many years since I have spoken of these things but it occurs to me many things might be improved if we talked about them more..." She cleared her throat again. "Today, Mary, is your wedding and tonight is-"
She was interrupted by a burst of embarrassed mirth, quickly stopped by a dainty, gloved hand. "I'm sorry, Granny, only you really needn't bother with this!"
"Needn't I? So you know exactly what to expect?" Mary fell silent, her heart beginning to beat faster, her thoughts transported to a different country and a different year. Her grandmother continued in a softer tone, "Forgive me, but I thought you might want some reassurance. You see, it is not every woman whose first lover perishes in flagrante."
She held her gaze until Mary was forced to look down, vulnerable and embarrassed. Faced with her grandmother's wisdom and openness, it was almost pleasant to feel so young and ignorant again.
Violet waited for her point to sink in before she spoke again. "All I will say is that you've got the worst of it over already which gives you an advantage over most brides. I dare say Matthew doesn't know what he's doing but if you trust each other you will probably find the conclusion an improvement on last time."
She squeezed her arm affectionately while Mary opened and shut her mouth, her cheeks crimson. To think of hearing her grandmother speak of such things! She was caught between nervousness and an outgrown modesty that she had not thought she could feel any more and an ache of love and deep sorrow for the family of her childhood so strong it nearly choked her; for in every beginning, even one so happy as a wedding, there was found an ending as well.
She forced herself to reply lightly. "Is that – is that all?"
"Really, I think you can work the rest out for yourselves!"
With this parting shot, she nodded pointedly. She pressed her hand another time before walking slowly back towards the door. Mary watched her go inside and shivered again, suddenly very glad to be alone for a moment. She was very happy, tremendously happy, and she longed for him though he was only one room away; that man she suddenly felt she knew hardly at all, to whom she'd pledged her love and her life only several hours previously, yet – was it allowed to be a little sad and a little afraid as well?
The room allocated to the bridal couple faced towards the city. Mary, standing in her nightgown at the window, could see gleaming pinpricks of light in the surrounding blackness that marked Florence in the distance. She hesitated over closing the shutters and blocking out the view when a soft knock at the door was followed by Matthew's entrance in pyjamas and dressing gown from the adjoining room. She turned quickly, heart pounding, and clasped her hands tightly in front of her. They stared at each other across the room in silence and then she risked a tentative, tremulous smile which he returned.
"I was going to close the shutters," said Mary, gesturing behind her, "but I'm not sure I want to."
"Leave them open then," replied Matthew, crossing the room to her. His voice was as low, warm and reassuring as the fire that roared in the massive grate. Mary smiled more sweetly at him. He stopped in front of her and after a momentous hesitation placed his hands on her arms and peered into her eyes.
"Did you enjoy today?" he asked her softly. After all, they had not had a moment alone together since the ceremony apart from the car journey from the church to the villa and that had been a strange, awkward, broken, happy, nonsensical, silent sort of conversation.
"Yes." She broke off, not quite sure why she was hesitating.
"I suppose," continued Matthew after a moment, "it can't have been the wedding you'd dreamed of."
She shook her head, turning away towards the window again. "No, it wasn't. It wasn't at all." Glancing up at him, she touched his cheek and pulled him towards her. "But it was better. Sometimes the unexpected is a good thing."
He laughed shakily. "I suppose I'm glad of that at least!"
Sliding his hands down, he wrapped his arms gently round her waist, breathless at how close he finally was to her. She leaned back and melted against his chest, silently daring him to hold her even more tightly.
"Let me tell you how I dreamed my wedding would be," Mary said suddenly.
Matthew blinked. "Are you sure that's wise, my darling?"
He could feel her smile in her next words. "Yes. I want to tell you."
"Alright then." He pressed a kiss to her soft cheek. "Tell me about your dream wedding!"
"It was in the church in the village of course," she began in a quiet, pensive tone, taking her time over it. "It was packed with everyone I'd ever met in all my life but those people who could not fit inside the church were lining the streets of the Downton to throw rice after my carriage. There was bunting strung up on the green and it was a holiday for the entire county."
"The entire county?" murmured Matthew and pressed a kiss to her ear.
"The entire county - not just the West Riding. My dress was the source of much internal debate, as I'm sure you can imagine. It changed, you see. It was naturally very different in 1910 to what it had been in 1905 and afterwards there were pictures of it in every fashion magazine both sides of the Atlantic for six months at least."
"At least!" He brushed a few strands of dark hair from the back of her neck.
"Edith and Sybil were bridesmaids of course. To be quite frank, I didn't want Edith to be a bridesmaid but it seemed terribly unfair not to have her. Besides, it was my wedding day and-"
"You could afford to be magnanimous," finished Matthew, nodding his head.
"Exactly. Well, the party afterwards was the greatest Downton had ever seen. Oh! I forgot – everyone cried during the ceremony and the ring had four real diamonds in it. Four or five, I forget which. More than Edith had at any rate – she only had three, you see. Anyway, the party... Papa had hired a professional orchestra from London and there was dancing outside under a marquee until the small hours, because the weather was perfect and warm."
"It sounds rather exhausting," said her husband into her hair.
"I think it must have been!" Suddenly she covered his arms with hers and he shivered at the touch of her fingers on his bare wrists. "But, oh Matthew, don't you see what was missing in all this?"
He pressed a lingering kiss to the back of her neck. He thought he did but he wanted her to say it so he only replied, "I don't know. It seems you covered every eventuality very thoroughly."
She knew he knew and her shoulders shook against his chest. "Every eventuality except for who I was to marry. My husband had no face and no name even during the ceremony itself, though you can be certain that he had a title."
"He'd have to have," Matthew dared to joke, pulling her even closer, "to afford the five diamonds and the honeymoon in New York."
"However did you know about New York?" Mary cried in amusement before sobering again. "But you see what I mean, don't you? I dreamed so much about the wedding, I forgot all about the marriage."
"And now, darling?"
She turned in his arms, resting her hands lightly on his chest and looking up at him, her eyes luminous with love.
"It was a beautiful day, truly, but oh dearest, I think it's time to stop dreaming, don't you?"
His lips parted and he could only nod. His hands trembled as he raised them to frame her face. Brushing his fingers against her cheeks he became aware of a light dusting of freckles, tiny, beloved imperfections. His eyes flickered over her face as she smiled up at him, breathless in her anticipation, before he finally closed the gap between them and kissed her.
The outcome of Lord Grantham's plan to disinherit his eldest daughter is something that will never be known. Before he could come to a final decision on the subject, she married and her fortune passed to her husband. The importance of this to Matthew and Mary cannot be underestimated considering they had no other source of income once Matthew had been sacked from Harville & Carter for walking out of the office without so much as taking leave of absence.
They spent Christmas and New Year with the Eastwicks and the Bowens and despite the lack of goose and games of charades probably had a better time than the heavily reduced party at Downton did. Robert, Cora, Isobel, Rosamund and Sybil was not a combination that led itself to jollity in the circumstances, especially when Matthew's letter announcing his imminent marriage arrived on New Year's Eve and the earl refused to raise a toast to his daughter and new son-in-law at midnight.
Not wanting to trespass on Lord and Lady Eastwick's hospitality any longer than necessary, January saw the party break up. The Bowens continued their European tour, moving on to Greece and the younger Crawleys took an apartment in Florence for several weeks. They did not stay anywhere long, but instead moved about the country, going exactly where and doing exactly what they wanted. They saw the cathedral at Milan, attended the Carnevale at Venice, as well as other places, some of which Mary had already seen; others were new to them both.
By the middle of March, however, even the sweetest of exiles was becoming tiresome and both wanted to go home. The political situation in Europe was becoming more and more of a worry, Mary's dowry was only finite, and they missed their mothers terribly. Moreover, Matthew was mindful of his wife's condition and wished them both to be established in their native country before many more months had passed and travelling became more difficult.
They sprang into action immediately. A return to Downton in the circumstances remained impossible but Matthew had contacts in London through his work and managed to find a place in the firm of Rowling, Gardner & Swire who dealt with property law. In the meantime, Mary wrote in confidence to her aunt who had taken their side through the whole affair, though they were not convinced she was not more interested in fighting with her brother than in supporting them. Putting all their affairs into Rosamund's hands, she charged her with finding them somewhere to live and making it presentable.
So it was that on a bright spring morning in April, Matthew and Mary parted fondly at King's Cross Station with the dowager countess who had made the return journey with them, greeted Aunt Rosamund, and directed the porters to take their luggage to an unfamiliar address not far from the British Museum.
It was an elegant terraced house on a quiet square, smaller than Crawley House and rented, but it was their very own and it was going to be home. It had three bedrooms and was just the right size to be managed by one maid and a manservant, along with the cook Rosamund had hired. The front room was on the cramped size but it didn't feel it, for it was light and prettily decorated, especially when there were fresh flowers on the table in the window. The house also had a little garden at the back, no more than a couple of flower beds and room for a pair of chairs. Much to Mary's surprise she discovered as the days got longer and the sun shone more brightly that there was a kind of gentle pleasure in planting and watering and watching the development of her seedlings.
She was very often alone at the beginning while Matthew was at work for she was a persona non grata among her old circle, but soon after their return she made the acquaintance of the only daughter of Matthew's boss. Lavinia Swire was a quiet, sweet girl of about Sybil's age. She was not an exciting companion but she did not care about Mary's past and even seemed to admire her, a pleasant and much needed boost. She also seemed far more knowledgeable about needle work and babies than her new friend was and was already combining the two interests by sewing a beautiful sampler in preparation for the autumn.
One afternoon in early summer when Mary was alone, the front door bell rang and Molesley entered the parlour to admit Lady Rosamund and -
"Well, Mary, I've brought you a visitor you might like," said her aunt smugly without any preamble and stepped aside to allow Sybil to enter the room.
Mary jumped up in delighted amazement and within a single moment the sisters were in each other's arms, clutching each other tightly.
"Why ever didn't you write and tell me you were coming to town?" cried Mary, leading her to the sofa, not letting go of her hand.
"It was a last minute decision really, to find a dress for my ball as there's absolutely nothing worth having in Ripon and well, I suppose I did want to surprise you a little too," replied Sybil with a grin. She glanced down. "You look – well."
Mary laughed. "Do you really think so? So do you. And – are you, darling?"
"Oh, I'm always well!"
Hands clasped tightly in the other's, they now took the opportunity to study each other more closely. Rosamund meanwhile gestured to Molesley and ordered tea.
"But are you happy?" insisted Mary after a moment. "You've had a horrid time of it this winter, I'm afraid."
Sybil tilted her head to one side and gave this real thought. Then she smiled. "Yes. Yes, I believe I am. It's not always very pleasant at home and I do miss you and Edith terribly but I've been spending most of my time at the hospital so I have plenty to occupy me."
"Yes, so I heard. How very kind it was of Isobel to take you under her wing like that." Mary squeezed her hand. "How do you like nursing?"
"Oh no no, I don't do any actual nursing- can you imagine Papa ever consenting to that?- but Dr. Clarkson lets me observes some of the minor surgeries and I keep records of the supplies and help out with paperwork." She shrugged. "Someone has to do it and I'm happy to do whatever's needed. It's enough for the moment anyway."
Mary smiled almost painfully at her little sister who was no longer quite so little. "But no more plans to go to university? Matthew told me all about that."
Sybil forced a laugh. "Not this year. That is," she continued earnestly, "I haven't given up on it but I really don't have the experience or knowledge to apply yet. I would like to go – in fact I think all women who can should – but there's no reason at all why I can't apply in 1915 just as well as this year, when I am better prepared."
"None at all," replied Mary approvingly. "And in the meantime?"
"In the meantime I'm going to enjoy my season!" She sat up and looked a bit more important. "And you and Matthew are going to come to my ball, aren't you?"
A shadow crossed Mary's face. "Oh, darling, I'm not sure..." She glanced over at her aunt, but received no help from that quarter.
"You promised! When we were children, you promised me you would be there when I made my debut. Mary, I don't care what everyone says, you shouldn't be ashamed of anything and honestly, you'll never make up with Papa if you never go anywhere! You know Cousin Isobel is determined you have the baby back home with us and I-"
Mary was saved having to negotiate this delicate issue by the arrival of tea. On seeing Sybil, Gwen almost dropped the tray, only saved by Sybil's quick action in leaping up to grab the sugar bowl.
"Steady there, Gwen!"
"I'm sorry – I'm sorry, my lady!" cried Gwen, her cheeks flaming with colour. She managed to put the tray down and immediately had her hands taken by Sybil.
"Oh, it is good to see you again!" she cried enthusiastically. "Though I have to admit I'm sorry to see you still in service. You didn't find any rich Americans needing secretaries then?"
"I'm afraid not, my lady."
"There's no need to sound quite so sorry about it!" said Mary drily, her lips pursed to hide her amusement.
"I'm sorry, my lady, I don't-"
Her mistress rolled her eyes, dismissing the apology, and turned her attention to the tea tray. "Milk, Aunt Rosamund?"
"So tell me all the news from Downton. How's Anna? I've missed her so much," asked Gwen, taking advantage of Mary's distraction.
"She's alright. Mooning over Bates though she thinks none of us notice. He's a good man," observed her friend, "but he's not handsome."
"No..." replied Gwen and then met Sybil's eyes. She chewed her lip before daring to ask, "And what of Mr. Branson? You wrote that he resigned back in December." She had written a good deal more than that but it was impossible to speak of that then.
Before Sybil could reply, Mary interrupted, "Oh yes, what on earth was all that about? I can't imagine what could possess him to give up a steady job at the drop of a hat. Did you ever find out what happened to him, darling? Here, do sit down and take your tea."
"He got a job with a newspaper. In Derby. At least," she added, swallowing, "that's what Anna says anyway."
Mary pulled an incredulous face. "Journalism! Well, good for him, I suppose. Pratte is the new chauffeur, isn't he?"
"Yes, but he-"
Suddenly Mary heard the familiar and welcome sound of a key in the front lock. Her face burst into a radiant smile.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, cutting across her sister. "Matthew's home." She nodded at Gwen. "We'll need another cup; Mr. Crawley will be joining us for tea."
A/N: And it's a wrap!
I honestly don't know how I feel about this. Relieved? Definitely. Sad? I don't know. Proud? I ought to... Mostly I just feel, well, I don't know. Maybe it'll sink it tomorrow! It's been part of my life for so long now, over a year, and like all children I'm ready to let it go at the appropriate moment, but that doesn't mean I won't miss it. Still, I can guarantee some one-shot sequels every now and then. I've already written some of them - so do look out for them if you miss this universe. I know some things have been left up in the air. The one-shot sequels may give my version of what happens in the future, but I really, truly believe that once the story is finished your interpretation of what happens beyond the text here is just as valid as mine. So if you wish something different to happen, well, no need to pay any attention to me! :)
I don't know how to thank you for your support, encouragement, reviews, favourites, tweets, LJ and tumblr comments over the past year more than I already have done. Being able to share this story with so many people and get the kind of feedback I've received is the kind of thing fanfic authors dream of. I owe so much to you, because I now want to go on to write something original and try to get it published one day, and I'm not sure I'd have that self-belief without your comments here. I very much hope that if you have read all 100,000 words of this story, even if you haven't commented before, you will take a moment to do so now - it means such a tremendous amount to me.
I feel as if I should have something profound and intelligent to say to finish with. Oh well! Time for bed.