A/N: Welcome to part 2 of Storm in a Teacup, prequel to "Castle AU", which is quite possibly our favourite thing in its epicness! Not forgetting "Basket AU", which seemed a perfectly alternative follow-on to the end of this. This chapter goes a long way to set up what it'll be leading to... Spoilers! ;)
Also here, we must very gratefully credit Silverduck, who joined this original RPG thread as a wonderful Isobel, making an appearance!
We do hope you enjoy it!
Part Two: Tea for Three
With a sigh, Isobel put her pen down and let her gaze drift to the window. The garden was looking as resplendent as ever, and the early evening sunlight was spilling into the sitting room. The cheerful sight did nothing to help ease the troubles in her mind, though.
She usually enjoyed writing to her friends in Manchester, but today her thoughts were somewhat preoccupied. If she were perfectly honest, she'd say she was bored and feeling rather restless. The commotion and subsequent delight of the flower show had started to wane and she found herself with nothing to do. The hospital had been so quiet this morning she had barely been there an hour! She hated being idle and had hoped writing to her dear friends back in Manchester would give her something pleasant to do. Yet as she started to write, a despondent mood had crept up on her. Apart from the flower show and her victory, she found herself struggling with what to write about.
It was at times like this she missed the company and activity of living in a thriving city. In her old life, she had plenty of activities to keep her busy all day, many friends to visit and exciting places to see. Here, she'd found it very difficult to make friends; not quite one of the villagers, and not quite one of the grand family.
She let out a sigh and then shook her head slightly, it would not do to let these melancholy thoughts drag her down. This was her new life and she had been determined to make the best of it. It certainly had its highlights and, as Isobel remembered the surprised delight on everyone's faces, especially the two Mr Mosesley's, when the winner of the best bloom had been announced, she felt her mood brighten and a smile spread across her lips.
She glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece and was actually quite surprised at the time. Matthew would be home soon and the thought cheered her further. She hated to admit how much she looked forward to her son coming home and his bright intelligent company, though that had been somewhat lacking lately. Her smile turned into a frown as she remembered his behaviour since the dinner party and the flower show. He'd been somewhat down in the mouth and Isobel's hinting questions had failed to enlighten her on the matter. She had a distinct feeling it had something to do with Cousin Mary though, as she had noticed him behaving cooler to her on their last meeting.
It was just as thoughts of her son were filling her mind that she distantly heard the front door open.
Matthew laid his hat and coat on the table in the hallway. At the sound of the door, Molesley appeared at the end of the corridor.
"Ah, Molesley, good afternoon!" Matthew smiled at him.
Molesly nodded to his master, as he took Lady Mary's hat, coat and basket. Matthew felt the need to explain. "Lady Mary will be joining us for some tea, would you kindly bring some in? I'm assuming my mother is home?"
"Of course, Mr Crawley," Molesley dipped his head respectfully. "And yes, Mrs Crawley is in the sitting room, I believe."
"Ah, excellent. Thank you." Matthew nodded his appreciation before opening the door to the sitting room. "Mother, good afteroon!"
Mary continued to hang back in the hall, leaving Matthew to be master in his own home. When Molesley approached, she smiled politely at him, wondering at how at home Matthew seemed with him now. It was surely not so long ago that he had been complaining about the very idea of a valet. How far he had come! she thought with approval, watching his back as he entered the room. She would have to make sure to tease him about it later - if he did not seem likely to take offence at it, which was rather doubtful these days.
Out of habit, Matthew immediately crossed to his mother and kissed her fondly on the cheek.
"Hello, dear," she answered.
Suddenly, Matthew remembered Mary's presence, and whirled round to her. At once he felt strangely awkward, looking nervously for a moment between her and his mother.
"I hope you don't mind, but I bumped into Cousin Mary on my way home. I've asked Molesley to send in some tea for us all, I hope that doesn't disturb what you were doing?"
Isobel hadn't seen Mary at first; she had stayed lingering in the doorway as Matthew came forward towards her, quite blocking her view.
When he suddenly became a little nervous, though, Isobel looked at him enquiringly. As he whirled around to the door, she noticed Mary standing there, looking just a tad uncomfortable.
To say Isobel was surprised to see Mary entering with her son was quite an understatement. Yet as her son spoke and explained Mary's reasons for coming, her surprise grew even further. Her son had asked Mary to come for tea? That, at the best of times, was quite a shock; it was always Isobel who pressed any of the family to stay when they visited, but considering how things seemed to stand between her son and Mary at the moment, it was quite beyond belief.
Sensing both Matthew's growing awkwardness and Mary's, Isobel quickly swallowed her surprise and took on her dutiful role of hostess. She hoped none of them had noticed her gaping!
She turned towards her son first and answered his question, "No, of course I don't mind. I have just been writing some letters, which is of no importance. I have been thinking only recently it was time for some tea."
Then, she walked towards Mary and gave her a bright, welcoming smile. "Hello Cousin Mary. It is nice to see you and you are, of course, always welcome here. How are your family?"
There was something rather intrusive in watching a man kiss his mother in greeting and Mary felt very much an intruder in the domestic scene, particularly considering how nervous Matthew himself looked when he explained the situation.
Curiously enough, her cousin's awkwardness served to remind her of her own position. She was Lady Mary Crawley and she hung around in nobody's doorway!
Crossing to meet cousin Isobel in the middle of the room, she returned her smile with an engaging one of her own. "How do you do, cousin Isobel? I do apologise for my intrusion on your tea time. I do hope you are well, unimportant letters aside! We are all doing very well up at the house, thank you."
She glanced sideways at Matthew, wondering if he was regretting inviting her. His mother had certainly seemed surprised enough, though Mary supposed she could understand that. It was a first, after all.
As they all stood in the middle of the room, Matthew's feeling of awkwardness increased. He was sure his mother probably wondered what on earth he was doing by inviting Mary in; not that she would object, of course, but she would certainly be wondering at his reasons for doing so! He glanced at her, then looked back at Mary, smiling politely.
"Please, Cousin Mary, I've quite forgotten my manners." He gestured to one of the richly upholstered chairs. "Please make yourself comfortable, I'm sure Molesley won't be long with the tea!" He desperately hopedthat Molesley would not be long with the tea, as it would provide a welcome distraction; something to concentrate on, at least.
He waited for Mary and his mother to sit down, before hesitantly taking a seat himself. Now that they were here, he had no idea what he and Mary had been talking about just outside, and no idea of what to say to her now. Eventually, instead, he turned to his mother. He knew that she was never short for something to say.
"Have you been up to the hospital today, Mother? The weather is quite beautiful outside, I hope that you've been out to enjoy it?"
Though he addressed his mother, his eyes flicked across to Mary, hoping that she was not regretting coming in. He tried to smile encouragingly at her, before his mother caught his attention with her reply.
There was a definite feeling of awkwardness in the room and Isobel had been racking her brains for something to say. It wasn't like her to be short of words, but her surprise upon seeing Mary, and the uncomfortable way her son was acting, had quite silenced her.
As she sat down, she couldn't fail to notice the looks her son gave Mary and, despite her son's explanation, she was still wondering what had brought Mary here. It was difficult to work out just how things stood between them and Isobel found herself quite unable to continue the conversation without knowing this.
She was very grateful when Matthew turned to her and asked her about the hospital, it loosened her tongue and she was then able to start chatting away quite merrily.
She looked at her son as she began speaking, but then turned to Mary and smiled as she continued.
"Yes, thank you dear, I was able to visit the hospital this morning. It was very quiet though; there are currently very few patients at the hospital. My help was only needed for a little while so I came home early and made a start on my letters." She let out a slight sigh as she remembered her rather boring afternoon, but then she shook of the melancholy memory and continued, her voice more cheerful, "But then in a hospital, little work is very much a blessing!" She gave Mary and Matthew a warm smile, hoping they shared in her small joke, before continuing.
"I do believe the wonderful August weather we've been having has rather helped keep sickness at bay. It does make such a nice change to enjoy a warm, summer's afternoon, don't you agree, Cousin Mary? I hope you have had chance to enjoy the sunshine today."
Mary sat, feeling no less awkward than before. However outwardly nice cousin Isobel and Matthew were being, she still felt she was intruding in a mother-son ritual to which she had no place. It was rather a shame in some ways. She did not really have anything like that with her family, or if there was anything, Edith spoiled it. She had no sense of propriety.
So she sat quietly in her chair with an expression of interest on her face that was frozen in place by propriety, though the more cousin Isobel spoke about the hospital, the more it was indicative of genuine interest.
She nodded with sympathy, murmuring agreement. "Of course."
Then, she answered, "Indeed I have." She glanced very briefly at Matthew, remembering that awkward moment of their meeting outside Mrs. Barnet's. "Apart from my walk to the village, I was able to sit outside this morning. It is very nice indeed not to be cooped up inside all day!"
"As I have been, you mean!" Matthew interjected with a smile. As his mother and Mary had chatted about the hospital, he had switched rapidly between glancing nervously between them and studying intently an interesting pattern on the carpet. Then, seeing an opportunity in Mary's relief at not being cooped up inside all day, he leapt on the chance to lighten the atmosphere.
"You make me quite envious, Mary, at having the liberty to enjoy the sunshine!" Having found his voice suddenly, he swiftly continued in fear of returning to awkwardness. He looked between the two women as he spoke, his eyes beginning to sparkle a little. "You're quite right, it is little pleasure to be cooped up inside all day. I'm afraid my office is very stuffy. Sometimes I wish I could take all my work outside, though I fear my clients would think me quite unprofessional!"
He looked at Mary then, unsure once more of what exactly was going on in his heart. He did not want to care that she enjoyed her time spent in his house, he did not want to care that she would wish to spend more time with him, he did not want to care that she should not regret coming in.
"Still," he continued, his eyes fixing on Mary, a flicker of deeper meaning crossing them. "It did allow for a most pleasant journey home this afternoon."
Mary kept her gaze half on Matthew as he spoke, though she sat up straight and looked mostly straight ahead. Her eyes alone darted towards him. The idea of her cousin taking his work outside and sitting on the grass outside the church in Ripon (perhaps - that would be a pleasant place to work) with his clients was an appealing one, and her lips twitched, as she imagined a sudden gust of wind catching the papers and poor Matthew having to chase them all over the place. She bit her lip and looked down. There was something attractive about the idea - and how she'd laugh if she'd be there! Which, obviously, she would not.
Then as he finished speaking, she turned quickly and met his eye, as she realised what he meant. Her eyes widened in almost panic and she frowned slightly. The moment was over in a second and Mary hoped that it had not been obvious to Isobel. She really could not think what was going on - the awkwardness was insufferable! She should not have come in.
Clearing her throat slightly, she replied with a polished smile and only a hint of doubt in her eyes, "I am sure you will have many such pleasant journeys during the summer, as long as the weather remains good."
Isobel sat and watched the exchange between her son and Lady Mary with vivid interest. If it wasn't for the awkwardness and tension between them, she might have been tempted to smile. As it was, she was growing rather concerned for them both.
For a fleeting moment, the air between them cleared as Matthew began talking about his work. Then, Matthew's last comment seemed to strike a chord with Mary and Isobel couldn't help but notice the sudden uncomfortable air and looks that passed between them once more.
She had a very definite feeling that they were both dancing around the tension between them, trying to hide whatever lay beneath, but not quite succeeding. She wondered once more just what had happened between them and made a mental note to try harder to find out from Matthew. She wondered if something had been said at the dinner party or the flower show, by either one or the other, that had caused offence.
She was rather concerned that the conversation between them all didn't become stilted and that Mary felt comfortable in their home, not only because she was a guest, but because Isobel considered her a friend to their family now. She wondered if she should make another comment about the weather, a safe topic in any society, but decided to remain silent. Perhaps if Mary and Matthew were allowed more time to talk, it might help clear the air between them. Either way, Molesley couldn't be too much longer with the tea.
At Mary's reply, Matthew blinked in surprise, catching the fleeting glance that she sent him. Had she understood his meaning? Was it a shadow of the same meaning he caught in her response, or would that be too much to hope for?
Trying not to be too obvious, he smiled brightly, looking first at his mother and then back at Mary, his head lowering a little as his eyes flashed with deeper meaning.
"I sincerely hope then that this fine weather continues, and that I shall be able to enjoy such pleasant journeys as long as it lasts." His voice came out a little deeper than he intended, and he quickly cleared his throat and looked at the floor, attempting to make his statement more general. "Indeed I think we should all be making the most of the weather while we are able!"
When Molesley entered with a tray of tea, Matthew was immensely relieved. He raised his eyebrows appreciatively.
"Ah, thank you Molesley. Cakes as well? I see Mrs Bird has decided to spoil us today!" He shifted forwards in his seat slightly. "Mary, what would you like?"
If Mary had not been aware of any subconscious meaning in her words, she was quite unable to avoid understanding Matthew, not when his tone of voice changed so strangely and significantly and he looked at her so meaningfully.
The polite smile fell slowly from her face as she met his eyes in consternation and she was quite unable to reply. Had she meant what he thought she had meant? Would she welcome more chance meetings as the one they had had that afternoon? It had been dreadfully awkward, but it need not have been... She really could not say for sure what she felt.
It was lucky that Molesley entered at that moment. Mary swallowed a sudden lump in her throat and looked away, her fingers relaxing the grip they had on her dress in her lap.
She glanced between Matthew and Isobel, feeling guilty at her behaviour towards her hostess. Then she looked back at Matthew as he asked her what she wanted.
"Tea, please," she replied. Then, feeling ungrateful for not being more forthcoming when Mrs. Bird had gone to an effort, added, "And one of those strawberry tarts, if you please!"
Including both Isobel and Molesley she said, "These look absolutely delicious!" She smiled rather desperately.
Isobel had to admit she'd never been quite so relieved as when Molesley brought in the tea. The conversation was becoming more stilted than a dinner party at the great house when they'd first arrived and it was making them all very uncomfortable. She didn't want any guests in her house to think themselves unwelcome and certainly not Cousin Mary, who was far more than a guest to them now. Yet she herself had been struggling for something to say and the interruption of tea was just the ice breaker they all needed. Even though it didn't exactly bring the conversation flowing freely, drinking tea at least occupied them all and the chinking of the china cups on saucers at least helped dispel the dreadful silence that had engulfed the room. Besides, drinking tea always made everything better.
As Mary took her tea and one of Mrs Bird's tarts, Matthew's eyes flicked to his mother. He felt suddenly uncomfortable, exposed under her watchful eye, and fearful that he had revealed himself a fraction too much.
Clearing his throat nervously, he distracted himself by taking some tea. He looked up at Mary's slight praise, anxious that she should like what was offered in his house. He raised a weak, nervous smile.
"Quite so! Mrs Bird has been with us many years and has yet to disappoint!" He sent a quick glance in Molesley's direction, not wanting him to feel that his briefer service warranted any less appreciation.
Having settled the teacup in his hand, he looked between his mother and Mary. Both being quite occupied in delicately sipping their tea, he wished desperately that he didn't feel quite so awkward with Mary here. They had just begun to settle into an easy conversation outside, but sitting here in his living room, the atmosphere felt tense.
But what was causing it to be so? It was not that he didn't want her to be there, he was quite sure of that. He depressingly reflected that it might just be that he did sowant her to be there, and was far too concerned that she was feeling the same awkwardness he was. He sighed gently in frustration at himself, at all of it.
Unable to bear the silence any more, broken only by the polite clink of china teacups, he cleared his throat. He thought he had hit upon a topic that would be of interest to them all, and not so dreadfully mundane or forced as the weather.
"Actually, Mother, I chanced upon Cousin Mary today visiting Mrs Barnet in the village." His eyes slid to Mary and he raised a half smile, trying to speak light-heartedly. "I had no idea you could be so charitable!" Before thinking about how she might take his comment, he continued, addressing his mother. He knew she often partook of charitable events in the village, and thought the name may ring a bell. "I think it's a very noble sentiment to do what we can for the needier folk of the estate. Are you familiar with Mrs Barnet at all, Mother? I wondered if you might be."
Mary sipped her tea slowly, alternating it with cutting up the strawberry tart into small pieces and taking dainty bites. It was very good, though she really was not particularly hungry. The tea was very refreshing, however, after all the walking she had done that day. She occasionally glanced at cousin Isobel over the rim of her tea cup and smiled, thinking it probably best that the conversation lagged, since whenever one of them spoke the atmosphere only thickened.
She was proved spectacularly right a moment later when Matthew brought up her afternoon's visit in a blasé fashion. She almost choked on her tea and put the cup down rather more heavily than she had intended to, staring at him in annoyance and disbelief, her mouth slightly open. The reaction only lasted a second, then she squeezed her eyes shut a moment and sighed at the inevitability of more frustration.
No idea she could be so charitable!What impudence! To assume that he knew what she was about from one visit - to assume that she had not been charitable in the first place! (Was this his real, low opinion of her?) To make a joke out of her private business to his mother! She was rendered speechless with indignation and acute discomfort.
When her son started speaking, Isobel was anxious to listen and turned her attention to him immediately, hoping this would be the conversation breaker they all needed. His words surprised her though and she found herself looking enquiringly at Mary. It took her a few moments to picture the proud and often haughty Lady Mary visiting the poor people in the village. The thought made her smile though and her admiration for their cousin grew immensely.
She was just about to answer Matthew's question and praise Mary for her charitable work, when she noticed her reaction. Mary seemed not only incredibly surprised that Matthew had mentioned it, but rather annoyed and perhaps embarrassed. Whilst Isobel knew there certainly was no need to be ashamed about such kind work as helping those less fortunate, is seemed to be rather a difficult subject for Mary. She decided that glowing exultations of delight at Mary's work were probably not the best way forward and neither was a conversation on the merits of charitable work and helping those less fortunate.
Deciding to stick to a safer conversation for now, she simply gave Mary a warm smile to show how delighted she was at the news and then turned her attention back to her son.
"Yes, I do know of Mrs Barnet, but I'm afraid I do not know her very well. She is very rarely ill, so thankfully we have not yet seen her at the hospital. From what I have heard, she is quite independent and usually prefers to muddle through by herself. Of course, we do try to help with what we can, but one does have to be careful with charity work, it can be quite a difficult subject for some."
She thought it best to change the conversation then and asked her son, "Speaking of the village, is it this weekend you will be visiting the cottages again?"
As soon as Matthew had finished speaking, his words somehow caught up with him. His eyes drifted closed for a second in a grimace of annoyance at himself. He tentatively glanced to Mary, and his face dropped as he observed her understandably hardened expression.
He turned his attention desperately to his mother, in an attempt to somehow forget that Mary was sitting opposite him, probably fuming. He knew. He knew that she did not reveal herself easily, and had seemed uncomfortable that he had 'caught' her in an act of kindness. Why on earth had he thought it sensible to abuse her good nature in the form of a joke? A joke he called it, for he had certainly not meant it seriously! It was true that she had not often shown an inclination towards charitable instincts, but he certainly had never thought of her as uncharitable, and was distressed that she might now think he did!
Feeling intensely uncomfortable, and unable to face Mary for the moment, he fixed upon his mother's enquiry about the cottages. He hoped this time that he could say something without causing offence, though he feared he had already stepped too far.
"Yes, it is! They're coming along rather nicely, I must say." He raised a weak smile, tentatively glancing towards Mary. "I think your father is also pleased with the progress on them; he's coming to have a look as well." He lowered his eyes to the floor, somewhat ashamed to be praising his own initiatives when he had so unthinkingly made fun of Mary's. "I am pleased to have made some vaguely useful contribution to the estate, at any rate, insignificant though it may be."
Mary was too wrapped up in her own feelings of insult and offended pride to pay much attention to what cousin Isobel was saying about Mrs. Barnet, or Matthew's reaction to her.
When they began talking about the cottages, however, she looked up and frowned again, feeling another stab of irritation. It was not long ago that Matthew had asked her if she wanted to look at them. He had not repeated the invitation, obviously, considering what had then passed between them. But she had been looking forward to it. Looking forward to seeing progress on the estate or looking forward to spending time with him? asked a treacherous voice, to which she had always refused to listen.
At any rate, it hurt more than she cared to admit to hear that the visit to the cottages was going ahead, and it was her father who would accompany him. Well, of course! Papa was so proud of Matthew, so grateful to him, so sure he would be right! Did they think nobody else cared about the estate? Had she not grown up expecting to be its mistress one day? Oh, she cared alright.
She was unable to respond to his hopeful look in her direction with any warmth, and merely nodded coolly, before replying a second later with, "I'm sure Papa would never consider any contribution of yours insignificant."
It came out even colder than she had intended it, and she took another sip of tea, retreating, confused and emotional, behind a wall of icy haughtiness.
Matthew drew in a sharp breath, his face falling slightly at her cold response. He quickly took a sip of tea himself to shield his affected attitude from both the women. He was racking his brains to think what could have offended Mary so now, and was terrified to say anything more and risk inciting her further.
"It would please me if he did not." Meeting her gaze levelly, his voice sounded low and strained.
He looked at her carefully. What had been behind her biting words? He felt a pang of guilt as he recalled her obvious frustrations with their situation. Any reminder of his small, but successful (so far, at least) venture on the estate would probably not be welcomed. Of course it would not; and why should it?
Though... She had not seemed quite so opposed to his project at dinner the previous week. Almost keen, in fact. A brief flash of frustration passed through him. What had he done to warrant such changeable attitudes from her? He knew that he had been foolish and unthinking in bringing up her visit to Mrs Barnet, and joking so thoughtlessly of it, but thoughtless was all it had been. He had not meant it cruelly, and did not think it wholly fair that he should be punished such now for his attempted contributions to Downton. Did she not want the best for it? Would she be more satisfied if he failed miserably to meet his duties?
His expression softened a mere fraction, though there was still a bite of aggravation behind his words. "I have been doing my best to live up to the life I have been granted; it has not been easy. If your father is indeed able to appreciate any small contribution I can make, then I may be reassured that I might not fail Downton completely when it becomes my duty. I take my responsibility to it seriously, you know."
In a more rational and calm mood, Mary might have found something to admire in cousin Matthew's dedication to Downton and his efforts to fit in as future earl. At this moment, however, after all that had passed between them that day and before, she found everything about his speech deplorable. His tone was condescending and his attitude insulting.
Duty... responsibility... contribution... Oh, he did take it all very seriously, didn't he! Poor, poor Matthew with his earldom to look forward to! How hard he was trying!
Mary felt her heart begin to beat faster with cold anger but it was not until she realised that her tea cup was trembling on its saucer that she became aware how desperately she needed to leave. It was suffering under feelings like this that she and Edith had their worst fights.
Unable to reply to Matthew's speech in any way and deploring the expression in his eyes that made her want to - want to - she did not know what it made her want to do, she managed to fix a ghastly smile on her face as she turned to cousin Isobel and put down her cup on the table next to her half eaten tart. "Please forgive me, Cousin, but I have taken up far too much of your valuable time. You must excuse me, I'm afraid I really must be getting home."
She stood up and, without waiting for any reply (for she simply could not stay in the room a moment longer), added, "Please don't bother summoning Molesley. I'm perfectly capable of seeing myself out."
She glared with very repressed fury at Matthew as if he was guilty of something as shockingly inappropriate as disturbing Molesley and swept from the room and the house.
Once outside, she was forced to lean against the door and close her eyes for a second to try to contain her trembling. Her reaction alarmed and terrified her. The extent of her animosity towards Matthew and his stupid, hopeful face and the way it hit her with a flood of hot anger whenever she saw it (and she saw his face even with her eyes pressed shut) astounded her. She had not imagined he could hold such dreadful power over her to cause such a response, though she was unable at present to analyse what precisely it was that had tipped her over the brink.
Pressing her fist to her mouth to stop a sob of anger escaping her (anger that, if she was honest, was more directed at herself than at him), she almost fled down the path, only realising as she reached the gate that she had left her hat, coat and basket in the house.
No matter. A servant could fetch them later. She had no intention of returning!
Isobel had hoped that her change of conversation to something so mundane as cottage renovations would help to clear the air between them. The fact that it did quite the opposite was a great astonishment to her and it left her quite speechless. She was unable to think of anything else to say to diffuse the increasing tension and she was also completely unable to speak when Mary suddenly jumped up and left.
Whilst Mary's words on leaving were perfectly cordial, there was no mistaking the anger and frustration in her manner and her obvious desire to leave as quickly as possible. The reasons behind it, however, remained a mystery and Isobel stared at the doorway in bewilderment for several moments after Mary had left it. It was only after the surprise had diminished enough that Isobel was able to think clearly and realise she'd been quite rude in her treatment of their guest. Even a hurried exit such as Mary's deserved some sort of goodbye from the host.
Still, Isobel surmised, it wasn't really her that had upset Mary so, and so it wouldn't really help if it was she who tried to make amends now. Instead she looked towards her son with more of a reproachful look then she intended. Without having a clue precisely what had happened between them before, it was impossible to know just how any offence had been taken. Clearly though, offence had been taken and Isobel was pretty sure it had nothing to do with Mrs Bird's baking skills. She hoped her son had manners enough at least to work out what he should do, but when he just remained staring at the doorway like a simpleton, Isobel let out a silent sigh of frustration.
"Well?" She said to Matthew, gesturing towards the doorway, hoping the annoyance and reprehension in her voice would spring him into the correct course action.
Matthew could do nothing but simply stare in aggravated shock at his cousin's departure. Mary. Lady Mary, so haughty, so icy in her superiority. As she declared her intention to leave and swept furiously out, throwing him a withering glare as she did so, he remained frozen in place, bristling with anger.
Her hostility and her departure, with not a word of a goodbye to him, angered him. What right did she have to treat him such? She seemed angry that he had witnessed her dispensing charity; well, he had hardly planned to! She seemed angry that he had brought it up; how was he to know that she should take offence at that? Her old resentment of his position seemed back in full force; well, he had not asked for it! Why should he be punished by her for doing the best that he could? To be looked at with such contempt in his own home!
And so he stared after her, transfixed. In truth, he was quite stunned that a simple invitation to tea could have turned out to be so disastrous. Why were they incapable of any normal social interaction? She, and his reaction to her, frustrated him immensely. Why was he so agitated and affected by it all?
He turned sharply at his mother's entreaty. Why should he be the one to apologise? He had more of a mind to rebuke her for leaving so rudely! Though he was simmering with frustration, he depressingly realised that he was reluctant to leave things with her so terribly. The thought of her having left, angry with him, instigated a strange yearning in his chest, to right things with her. This only made him even more furious, at himself as much as her.
"Alright…" he sighed, turning and hurrying out. He saw her things by the door; she must have left them in her haste. A stab of something - hate? passion? frustration? - shot through him at the sight of them. He immediately and irrationally wanted them out of his house. Grabbing them roughly, he pushed open the door.
"Mary!" he fairly shouted as he stepped out, then stopped suddenly, his eyes casting around. There was no sign of her. Had she been so very desperate to rid herself from his company? He let out a forceful sigh, barging the swinging door open with his shoulder before throwing her things unceremoniously back onto the small table. He stood, glaring at them uselessly for a moment, before returning to the sitting room, glowering darkly.
"She'd already left." He sat heavily back down in his chair, fixing his eyes angrily upon his teacup in a desperate but futile attempt to clear his mind of her.
Isobel was most surprised by her son's attitude, he seemed positively seething with rage! How could a simple event like afternoon tea produce such a response? Perhaps it had not been the best idea for him to go after Mary, not in that state, so when he stormed back in just a few minutes later and announced he couldn't find her, Isobel felt somewhat relieved. Though considering how long he'd been gone for, Matthew obviously hadn't tried very hard to catch up with her. When he sat down, his fury was all but emanating from him and she was almost surprised the poor china tea cup didn't crack under the weight of his withering gaze.
Isobel sighed. Whatever had happened between Mary and her son, it was clear it upset and angered him deeply. She knew well enough Matthew could stay in these dark moods for days, brooding and moping, seeping the happiness out of the house. It had long been Isobel's experience that the best thing to do was to face these childhood tempers head on. Though Matthew never reacted well to her prying, if it would save a few days of him sulking about the house like a stroppy adolescent, it was worth the risk!
She sat up straight and fixed him with her best determined, resolute gaze, something she'd gotten better at since meeting the Dowager Countess, and said irritably, "Are you going to tell me what on earth is going on, or are you going to sit there sulking all day, Matthew!"
Matthew's head whipped round, his glare with it, at his mother's probing, irritating question.
"Mother, I am not a child!"
He glared for a moment longer, before it struck him that, actually, he was behaving rather like one. Realising that his mother probably didn't quite deserve the full force of his angry gaze, he took a deep breath, his body suddenly seeming to slump, losing its agitated tension. His expression softened and he sank back into his chair, his eyes lowering despondently to the ground.
"I don't know," he sighed, before looking up at her. He looked perplexed and a little sad, the fight having gone out of him. "Your guess is as good as mine, I assure you!" He pursed his lips, eyes dropping to the floor again as he shook his head.
"I wish I could enlighten you; we had really quite a pleasant conversation, considering, before we came in," he sighed in frustration. "I wish she wouldn't take offence so easily at everything I say!"
Isobel had all been ready for a battle with her son, so when he despondently sagged in the chair, she was quite taken aback. It wasn't like Matthew to give up the fight so easily, so something must really be wrong this time. She watched him for a few moments more, trying to gauge just what was going on. His explanation shed no light whatsoever, but that didn't surprise Isobel. What did surprise Isobel was how honest he was being with her; he wasn't trying to avoid the issue like he had a habit of doing. Instead he just looked as confused about it all as she was, and also incredibly sad and weary and still somewhat frustrated.
Isobel was about to say something then, to question him more on his behaviour, but she soon thought the better off it. She doubted any prying now would do any good; he was too lost in his own thoughts and trying to work all out himself. Still, at least the temper had left him.
She smiled instead and said lightly, "Well, you mustn't let Mrs Bird's cakes go to waste; she may not make them again in future. I think I'd better hurry up and get my letters finished. Mrs Giles hasn't heard from me for over a week, she'll be thinking we're quite cut off up here in Downton!"
With that, she got up and walked over to her writing desk, sitting down and doing her best to scribble away. Her thoughts were not very conducive to writing, but at least it was a distraction for them both. She was leaving Matthew free to his own thoughts and she was still here if and when he felt able to talk.
Matthew flashed a grateful smile at his mother for allowing the matter to drop. He certainly felt in no mood to discuss or probe whatever had happened between he and Mary.
What on earth hadhappened? He held a hand to his forehead wearily, his mind puzzling over it all. A deep sigh left his lips as he wondered how on earth simply inviting her in for tea could have gone so terribly wrong.
Why had she become so uncomfortable? For uncomfortable she very clearly had been! But then, he supposed, he had felt so too. Outside, perhaps, they were on neutral ground, on an equal footing. Maybe they needed that; certainly he did, being so uncertain of himself, of her and of their relationship. Not that it could be called a relationship.
He frowned, dropping his hand to clench it agitatedly in his lap. He still felt a small bubble of resentment at her manner of leaving, though he reluctantly supposed that the faults in their prior conversation had been his as much as hers, even if unwittingly so.
But why, why did he careso much? That was what bothered him the most. He was utterly loath to admit it, but a tiny voice nagged in the back of his mind that he cared so much what she thought of him precisely because he cared too much about her. And the total lack of control over his own feelings which that afforded him terrified and frustrated him.
He stood up sharply, pacing a few strides to calm himself down. This was no good at all, he thought. If he could not maintain any control over his own feelings and the reactions they produced in him, how could he possibly control anything at all? Once more he felt his life slipping before him, on a path entirely beyond his own choosing, and a panicky desperation began to creep through his veins. He had been so determined; how had he let his resolve to remain indifferent slide so easily? He pursed his lips, determining that he simply must try harder.
"You're quite right, Mother," he said eventually, his voice sounding tense and strained with the effort of resuming normality. "It would be a dreadful shame to let these fine cakes go to waste." He snatched one of the tarts up, and glared at it as it only served to remind him once more of Mary. He sighed, throwing a weary smile to his mother. "Now if you'll excuse me, I shan't distract you from your letters anymore; I have some documents I need to prepare for work tomorrow."
Biting into the tart with entirely more force than was quite necessary, he turned and left the room, desperately trying to think of anything but her.
A/N: And there you have it! Things are nicely warmed up. Thank you for reading, we'd enormously appreciate any thoughts/comments! Keep an eye out for the sequels! :)