A/N: Written for the amazing Lady Grantham as a very belated bday gift. Didn't really turn out as planned, but my muse has a mind of her own. Many thanks to the lovely frostyblossom for the wonderful beta.
To give credit where due: title borrowed from the Mamma Mia song; one line about Mary as well as Sybil's vignette inspired by short stories by Irène Némirovsky; characters are of course from Downton Abbey.
Slipping Through My Fingers
Her fingers crush the delicate stem of the wineglass, ever tighter, until she wonders why it doesn't shatter beneath the pressure of her hand. For a vague moment Cora wishes it would. She imagines delicate fragments of glass and streams of blood red wine pooling at her feet and wonders if it would ease the odd melancholy in her heart.
Across the room, Mary is smiling brightly and playing perfectly the role of blushing bride. Cora watched her walk down the aisle that morning, radiant upon her father's arm. She was officially given away today, but like every mother, Cora knows she lost her daughter little by little, in quiet moments throughout their lives.
So she clings tighter again, clings desperately, to the glass within her hand, as if clinging to this delicate creation will allow her to hold on just a little longer to those treasures which have already streamed away.
Mary's first kiss was the gardener's son.
"Jamie and I are going to get married!" Mary proudly announces to her mother as they sip tea on the lawn one sun-drenched fall afternoon.
"Is that so?" Cora asks, torn between amusement and concern. Amusement wins out as she regards her daughter and pictures the little girl as a bride – in pigtails, with a mud-stained skirt and falling down stockings – meeting her groom who is still a full head shorter. At seven years old, Mary is quite a handful, eschewing traditional girls' games in favor of climbing trees and fighting dragons. Cora knows she needs to reign in her high-spirited daughter and yet she hasn't the heart to do it.
Mary nods seriously while carefully selecting a little chocolate cake. "Yes and we're going to live in the big red mushroom at the end of the rainbow that Carson told me about. Carson's so smart." She tilts her head and adds with her typical careless kindness, "I'll let you come visit sometime, Mama. Jamie wouldn't mind. He says he loves me."
"Love?" Cora is taken aback.
Mary smiles proudly. "Yes! He kissed me and said he loved me and we're getting married forever and ever. And I love him too, so much better than Edith."
Cora pours more tea and does not reply.
Three days later, Jamie's father transfers to the Strallen estate and Mary's governess sets her a tight schedule of piano, embroidery, and French. Violet visits more often, bringing stories of happy debutantes who married well and silly girls who rued the day they defied their families. Cora imparts lessons on sweet gestures, dimples, and conversation starters.
They never speak of love.
At seventeen, Mary has become the perfect debutante – proud, regal, charming, cold. She attracts suitors by the dozen and boasts to her family of this Earl's son or that Duke's nephew being in her thrall. She speaks often of clothing and fortunes and dances.
She never confides what she feels.
And then Mary creeps into Cora's room one evening, a slight blush softening her cold face and momentarily restoring to her the wild, shy gracefulness of youth, to confess that maybe she has fallen in love. And as Cora reaches out to squeeze her daughter's hand, she wonders what other moments like this she allowed to drift away.
Edith had a passion for music.
For many years she practices steadily, spending hour after hour upon the piano bench. What she lacks in natural talent, she makes up for with dedication. Mary hints that Edith has a liking for their music master, but Edith shrugs her off.
Edith is fourteen and going through that awkward age and she feels it strongly. Mary is already beautiful – porcelain skin with perfect flushes of color, expressive eyes, coy smile – and Edith sees how the boys look at her sister and don't look at her. Antipathy builds between them, but they hide it behind a sisterly façade.
"Lovely, my darlings," Cora compliments her older daughters on a rare afternoon of truce, when they join forces to give her a private concert. "Mary, you should play for our guests tomorrow evening. I'm sure Lady Alton's son will be charmed by your playing." She pauses, considering. "Perhaps you can also join us for dinner and keep Lord Edward entertained." Edith waits for Mama to invite her as well, but the countess kisses her daughters and leaves the room.
Two days later, Mary is full of stories of her charm and Edith puts her music sheets away. And soon plans for court presentations and debuts speed up and memories of Edith's music fade, inky black notes dissolving into the evening sky.
Cora is as surprised as anyone when Sir Anthony pays court to her middle daughter, but she never says a word, just organizes musical soirees and encourages Edith to attend concerts with their neighbor. And when her daughter debates Rossini versus Bellini and her eyes light up with a translucent beauty, Cora wonders what other interests of her daughter she allowed to flow away.
Sybil always loved the dark.
One evening before dinner, Cora wanders to the nursery, savoring a quiet moment with her daughters. Gentle breathing greets her in the outer room, Mary serene and spread-eagle, Edith clutching her blanket and curled into a ball. She runs a cool hand over their foreheads, stroking a soft cheek here, straightening a silky sheet there, all the little joys of motherhood a countess so rarely is allowed.
Soft whispers tickle her ears, floating from the inner room where little Sybil, three years old, is tucked into bed. Though half-asleep, she is still busy confiding her wishes and dreams to the stuffed animals and the friendly shadows of her room. Cora steps closer and the whispering stops.
"Already," Cora sighs. "Already she is keeping secrets."
Seventeen years later, Cora overhears her daughter whispering in the dark again and now the shadow beside her has taken on a distinct shape. She walks away, doesn't interrupt, afraid of what she would discover if she did.
But still she knows and still she realizes this daughter cannot be caged much longer. So though she mourns, she acquiesces quickly when her daughter asks to travel to America, ostensibly to visit her relatives. Cora packs her off with another sigh and is unsurprised four months later when Sybil extends her stay so she can study at an American university.
And when she hears their former chauffeur is sailing for America, Cora thinks about the daughter who learned to keep secrets early and wonders what else she let slip past her.
It's raining lightly now, with just enough haze that the trees in the distance are hardly visible. The lights in the driveway bathe her daughter in their golden glow as Mary, fingers tightly entwined with her husband's, pauses briefly before the car to raise one hand in a distracted goodbye.
The car slips into the dark embrace of the night and she turns back to the warmth of her house, so full and yet so empty, waiting for a new generation of childish dreams and giggles to fill its halls. When they come, Cora hopes she has prepared her daughters well, given them the strength to hold on tight and the courage to open their fingers to let go.
Thanks for reading!