A/N: Hello again, everyone! Contrary to all appearances, this story has not been abandoned. I'm sorry for the slow update; this chapter was actually drafted months ago, but my muse really disliked it and ran off, so I'm finally just posting it as is. If there is anyone still reading, I can assure you that I am determined to finish.
Many, many thanks to everyone who has read, reviewed, favorited, or voted for this story. You have all been far too kind, but please do know that your faith, support and lovely words have meant so much to me. This really is both a very talented and a very supportive fandom and I'm so grateful to be a part of it.
Special thanks go out to OrangeShipper and frostyblossom for their awesome betaing skills and to silverduck and Lady Grantham for listening to me babble about the plot. And of course to all the lovely friends I've made through the Downton Forums! :)
This story was fully planned back in March, before most of the s2 spoilers, so it is very definitely AU. Some of the new s2 characters will be appearing, but in a different form. Also, some of our main characters (such as Mary) are still their post-s1 selves.
Without further ado…
Lord Grantham wisely chose to delay his announcement until after dinner, when the family was gathered in the drawing room with the knives out of reach and the servants dismissed to their evening meal. With a drink at hand, he needed only to wait for a lull in the debate over Sybil's proposal that they form a knitting circle to support the war effort.
"We could gather together to knit scarves and socks for the soldiers," Sybil explained.
Edith was unimpressed. "Why would they want something knitted by you? Besides, none of us even know how to knit."
"Certainly not," Violet said, looking horrified at the very thought. "We embroider, we do not knit. No lady knows how to knit."
Edith glowed slightly at her grandmother's agreement, but Sybil was not yet defeated. "We could learn," she said. "I'm sure we could easily find someone to teach us. Why, Cousin Isobel knits!"
Violet smiled smugly. "That is my point precisely."
The awkward pause gave Robert his opportunity. "Speaking of our cousins, Matthew came to see me today. He had an important decision to share with me."
"Is he planning to remain at Downton?" Cora asked hopefully, with a quick glance at Mary.
"Not entirely. In light of our country's recent declaration of war, he is no longer planning to remove to Manchester. But," he added quickly, before the others could express their pleasure, "he has also decided to enlist in the army."
There was a moment of silence. All the ladies stared at him in surprise before the room erupted in a cacophony of exclamations.
Lord Grantham allowed the ladies a moment to express their dismay before he held up a hand for silence. "You should know he does so with my full support." Best to get that information out quickly.
"Of course you would support another noble fool," Rosamund, quick as always, said derisively.
"And I was just beginning to think the boy was sensible. He would be so selfish as to go fight in a war," said Violet.
"His poor mother," Cora sighed, her thoughts having immediately gone to her own unborn son. "I wonder what she thinks of his plan."
"That woman probably supports his plan. Of course she would never bother to consider the estate."
Sybil rose to their cousins' defense. "But we should support him! I think Matthew is very brave and Cousin Isobel has every right to be proud of him."
"Are you sure he's being brave? I rather suspect he's simply trying to get away from someone here," Edith said, glancing at her older sister with no attempt at subtlety. "He must be pretty desperate if he's running off to war."
"Edith!" Cora exclaimed, appalled. When had her daughter become so spiteful?
"But she's right," Violet interjected. "Had Mary taken my advice, she would be able to prevent him going and we wouldn't have this crisis over the estate."
"That's enough," Lord Grantham said. He looked over at Mary to see how she bore the remarks, but her expression was blank, as if she had not heeded the conversation. He turned back to his mother with a challenging look. "Mama, I don't know why you are so concerned when you never wanted Matthew to inherit in the first place."
Violet stiffened at the slight rebuke contained in her son's words. "I may not share your joy that our family's title and property must go to a distant, middle-class relation, Robert," she ground out, "but better the devil we know than the devil we don't."
Robert shook his head, disappointed she still considered their cousins outsiders even after all this time. "I think what Matthew is doing is very noble. We all have a duty to fight for our country and as members of our station, we especially must take the lead." Glancing over at Cora, he steeled himself for the dismay his next words were sure to bring. "Actually, I too plan to offer my services, to serve in whatever capacity I may."
An even more appalled silence followed this pronouncement. Perhaps it was inappropriate, but Robert found himself rather amused that he had managed the seemingly impossible feat of rendering the women in his family speechless twice in one night, though seeing Rosamund and Violet were rapidly recovering their powers of speech though, he suddenly tired of the conversation.
He spoke to forestall their comments. "I am decided in this. Any comments you make will not change my mind. If we have no other subjects to discuss, I suggest we take an early night for I am sure we all have much to consider."
Cora still looked a bit dazed, but she was recovered enough to respond. "I think that's for the best, Robert. Sybil darling, would you please ring for Carson?"
The haunting melody drew her like a moth to the flame. Cora had been walking the halls restlessly for the past half hour, trying to find something to occupy her, to soothe her conflicted, tangled, jagged emotions before they overwhelmed the dam and flooded out in a display unbefitting a lady. And now the soft piano notes called her like a siren's song, guiding her to another melancholic soul. Rosamund was visiting her mother, Sybil was in Ripon buying yarn – the announcements of the previous evening having hardened her resolve – and Edith had been told to accompany Sybil, so that left only Mary to sit at the piano and express herself with music in a way she never could with words.
Mary was in the drawing room, the sun glinting off her hair as her pale fingers gently stroked the keys, pouring her soul into her song. Cora leaned against the doorway and studied her daughter, marveling at how young Mary still was and how unprepared for the harsh realities of the coming war. For a moment Cora felt a fierce anger towards the Austrian archduke for getting himself assassinated and interrupting the calm rhythm of their lives.
As the last notes faded, Mary buried her face in her hands and Cora felt a new wave of sympathy towards her daughter. Mary was always so cool and composed, hesitant to show her heart even around her family. Perhaps it was time for a talk with her daughter, to listen to what was troubling her and to offer a mother's compassion and support.
"That was lovely, darling. I haven't heard you play in months," Cora began.
Mary spun around on the bench, startled by her mother's presence. "No," she agreed, "I suppose I haven't felt much interest in playing recently."
"You should play more, though perhaps something more cheerful than Satie," Cora suggested. She went to sit on a plush armchair and indicated for Mary to join her.
"I'm sorry, Mama. I only seem drawn to melancholic pieces these days," Mary admitted as she settled opposite.
Cora gave her a sad smile of sympathy. "We all seem to be rather despondent lately, with the uncertainty of this war hanging over our heads." She paused to see if Mary would take the opening, but her daughter merely looked at her, so she tried a more direct approach. "I'm glad to get you alone today. How are you feeling, my darling? You were so quiet last night during the announcement."
Mary lifted one shoulder in a lazy approximation of a shrug. "I suppose I am much the same as always. It's not as if my feelings have any bearing on matters anyway. It seems our fate as women, to sit at home and wait while men go off to fight in wars."
"Oh, Mary. You know this has always been the way of the world and it does you no good to resent it."
"But don't you find it the least bit absurd that men take the decisions and go off into the world and all the while we must quietly tend the hearth?"
"You don't have to simply wait quietly at home. You could help Sybil form her knitting circle or contribute to another charitable endeavor."
Mary scoffed. "And what would be the point? Charity is just another method to keep us conveniently occupied. Arranging flowers, choosing a guest list, selecting the menu, it's the usual list of insignificant tasks they delegate to us women, except now in the name of raising a small token for some romanticized cause."
"The causes aren't insignificant, Mary, and if you choose, you could become a force for good in the county." Seeing the wicked sparkle in her daughter's eyes and not interested in hearing whatever witticism it foretold, Cora changed the subject before Mary could reply. "I know you hate feeling confined, darling. Perhaps we've spent too much time at Downton these past few years. Would you like a trip to the continent once this war is over?"
Deprived of the opportunity for a caustic comment, Mary retreated to her usual state of superior indifference. "I'm not a child to be distracted with bonbons, Mama, and the situation isn't so dire that you need to banish me to the continent. Besides, it's not being confined I hate most." At her mother's disbelieving look, Mary added, "What really angers me is this sense that our opinions don't matter. Sometimes I think we are simply the property of our men, whether our father or our husband."
"I hardly consider myself your father's property, " Cora retorted, unable to stop herself. "And I would thank you not to compare me to his cows and horses."
"The comparison may be unflattering, but you can't deny we are equally trapped."
"Trapped? Whatever do you mean?"
"Women of our class are all confined to a waiting room and we're brought up to think marriage is our means of escape. But what better life awaits a wife? Wives are just stuck in the same dreary cycle of choosing clothes, paying calls, and doing the season, only now they must also serve as a prop for their husbands."
"Oh Mary," Cora sighed, "Marriage is not a trap. Just look at your parents. Your father has made me very happy all these years."
"You might be happy because you married well and have a large house to run. But if you hadn't married Papa but some insignificant man with no estate instead, would you be so satisfied? Could you be happy in a small home with few servants and nothing to do and no social status? Could you be happy simply waiting for your husband to come home each day?"
Cora regarded her daughter in fond exasperation and wondered, not for the first time, how she and Robert had managed to produce such a cynical, contrary child. Hoping to lighten the atmosphere, she remarked with a small laugh, "Goodness, I never realized you had turned reformer like Sybil. Are you advocating for equality for women now as well?"
"There's no need to worry, I haven't. I admire Sybil's zeal for reform, but I can't see the point. Women have appealed for equality for over a decade now and what have they to show for their efforts? Besides, suffrage would do little to improve things. The same shriveled old fools will remain in power, just now with the convenient gloss of women's votes to justify their high-handed ways."
"I think I won't tell your father that you called him a 'shriveled old fool,'" Cora said wryly. This conversation had derailed completely, she noted, to the point where she could no longer remember her purpose in speaking to her daughter.
"Well, he hardly qualifies anyway since he refuses to involve himself in politics." Mary stood up to pace restlessly, unable to contain her emotions. "All he ever cares about is Downton, Downton, Downton. Perhaps if he didn't have such a limited, provincial perspective, he wouldn't have objected to me receiving the estate."
"But it's true! And then we wouldn't have had new cousins coming in to interfere and ruin everything!"
A long silence followed this pronouncement, Mary unable to speak from her horror at the feelings she had just revealed and Cora uncertain what to say.
"Well," Cora eventually ventured, "I think we finally arrive at the heart of the matter. All this talk of decisions and marriage and equality, it all leads back Matthew, does it not? You're afraid for him, aren't you?"
Mary seemed to wilt a bit at her mother's gentle observation. She turned away, unable to face the pity she expected. "I'm terrified," she confessed, her voice so soft, Cora had to lean forward to catch the words. "I wish our cousins had never arrived to complicate our lives."
Cora came up behind her daughter and laid a gentle hand on her arm, but the younger woman shrugged her off and walked away. "Mary…it's only natural to be afraid. I felt the same way when your father went off to fight in South Africa those many years ago," she admitted to her daughter's back.
They were both quiet a moment, Mary's harsh breathing the only sound in the room.
Cora approached her daughter again, and this time when she reached out, Mary flinched, but didn't pull away. "I understand, my darling. I've thanked God every day since the garden party that your father is too old to enlist again."
"But you are still afraid for Papa?" Mary asked, turning around to face her mother, desperation edging her voice as her hand came up to grasp Cora's tightly.
Cora sighed. "I am and I can't help it. As I've been reminded all too well recently, in life there are no certainties. But despite that, when you love someone, you must give them the freedom to go and do what they must." And sometimes, even when you keep them close, you still fail to keep them safe, she thought bitterly but did not say.
"Has Papa told you what he hopes to do for the army?"
"Not yet. He says whatever he does, he'll be safely behind our lines, but I can't shake images of him riding boldly into battle and getting injured."
Mary looked anguished. "But at least you know you did not drive Papa away," she said. "Granny is right, Matthew's going and the potential ruin for our family…it's all my fault."
"You must not think of the estate," Cora said, guiding her daughter to a nearby sofa and gently settling them down. "Even if the worst were to come to pass, we will all manage. Our settlements are generous enough for that at least. And you and Matthew still may reconcile."
A mixture of resignation and stubbornness played their way across Mary's face. "We won't. I've hurt him too deeply. Do you know, at the garden party, he told me he'd been living in a dream and it was time now to return to real life? Mama, the dream is over for both of us. All I can do now is pray he stays safe. I have no right to any more."
"Mary…you don't stop caring for someone simply because you want to. Heavens knows I tried with your father all those years ago. Matthew may be hurt and confused and angry, but it's never too late if you love him. Talk to him, darling."
"When? And about what? We spoke when he came yesterday and all we ended up doing was arguing. I just…can't, not anymore."
Cora reached for her embroidery, trailing her fingers over the delicate threads as she carefully weighed her next words. "Mary, my darling, I know we have all been pushing you towards Matthew. You think we do it for the estate, which I won't deny, but that is not all the reason. As a Countess, I hope you marry title and wealth; as a mother, I hope you marry for love." She looked up to capture Mary's eyes with her own, beseeching her daughter to believe her. "I know you doubt me, but to truly love someone is a gift, Mary, one you have never experienced and one I some days fear you never will."
Setting aside the embroidery, Cora reached out a hand to Mary, who took it silently. "Darling, I encouraged you towards Matthew because you were more honest and happy with him than you have ever been with anyone else. I don't know if you will ever love him fully, but you need to give him some hope and a reason to come back if you want to have that chance. You both need time, Mary, and you won't have it unless he thinks you care for him."
Mary opened her mouth, but Cora stopped her with a squeeze of her hand. "Think about it, my darling," she said gently and left her daughter to her thoughts.
That night, Mary dreamed about racing her horse across the fields at Downton with a golden-haired man who was not quite Matthew Crawley.
"Carson said you asked for me?" Sybil said in confusion three days later, coming into the hall where Matthew was standing.
"I was hoping you would accompany me for a walk," Matthew replied.
Sybil eyed him, still perplexed, but agreed. "Certainly. Just give me a moment to add a hat." She turned and disappeared upstairs.
Shortly afterwards, the cousins found themselves strolling across the lush Downton lawn, chatting politely about the weather. Sybil wondered why Matthew had sought her out – surely he wasn't simply looking for exercise – but he seemed reluctant to bring up the subject, so she resigned herself to being patient.
"I presume your father has told you that I intend to join the army?" Matthew eventually asked, having finally run out of commentary about the temperature, wind, and rain.
"Yes, and I think you're terribly noble and brave," Sybil replied with sincere admiration.
"I'm not sure many share your opinion," Matthew said wryly. "Your sister Mary probably thinks I am a fool who has not considered the risks."
"Oh no, I'm sure Mary considers you no such thing!"
He raised a doubtful eyebrow. "No? Well, I suppose you know her better than I do."
There was a long pause and then Matthew visibly steeled himself before speaking again. "Has your father also mentioned his intentions?"
"Yes, he said he would also try to serve his country. Oh Matthew, I think it is wonderful you will both be involved. We must all do our part for the war effort."
"Yes, we must all do our part." Matthew stopped walking abruptly and turned to face her. "Sybil, will you marry me?"
A/N: My sister told me it's bad form to end on a cliffhanger, but a girl's got to have some fun! But don't worry, next chapter is mostly written and there should only be one other cliffhanger in the whole story, so I'm not making a habit of this.
Random historical fact: In 1914, only men 30 and under were allowed to enlist to fight for the UK in WWI. Sadly that age limit did not last for long.
Next chapter: Sybil gives her answer, Matthew discusses entails (I love entails!) and Mary says goodbye…