A/N: Argh my emotions are running wild, this is it, the final chapter! This has been such a wonderful learning experience for me and I am just so very happy that so many of you have enjoyed it too. Thank you to every last one of you. I want to dedicate this final chapter to my betas, Ariadne and jadeandlilac who are both supremely talented in their own right and have given me all the benefits of their expertise, experience and opinions. I love you girls, thank you from the bottom of my heart! Without further ado.
Remember me when I am gone away, gone far away into the silent land.
I think that this moment will never pass. She leans over in the chair with her face next to yours on the pillow, her hand resting on your still chest. Her back is shaking and she is sobbing and I sit there, numb and unmoving, I do not know what to do. I feel as if I cannot take another breath, as if you took all the air from my lungs with you. You do not seem real, waxen and perfect as if life has never filled your face, as if pain has never crossed your brow, as if tears have never fallen down your cheeks. As if you have never smiled, never laughed, as if you were never ours. My eyes are full and I feel every muscle and joint in my body rigidly tense and it is a physical pain, a splitting, screaming agony. It will never pass. It has grown dark around us and I feel myself leaning over a precipice. My mind closes in and grief seeps into every turgid vein, every fraction of my being. I gasp, a shallow breath, before trying to inhale more deeply into a body that seems to be drowning.
"Mary," I whisper and I reach out, my hand resting on her trembling shoulder blade. "Mary," I repeat and my voice breaks.
She does not move so I lean down beside her, my arm around her back, my lips against her cheek so I am inhaling each sob from her mouth. Your pajama shirt is wet and I let my fingers close around the material, as if I could pull you back. I watch you in my memories and they are as distant as you seem to be now, flesh and bones remain and all that is beautiful is gone.
You are on the bench, your head inclined backwards to look up into the branches of the tree above you, your fingers fiddling with the hem of your short trousers. It has been raining, the grass shines with moisture and I have caught you in a moment of quiet contemplation. I do not go to you. I watch, a little way back on the path; you would see me if you looked but you don't. Truly the most beautiful child. It seemed unreal to me then that you were mine, that you existed because of one pure moment of passion with a woman I have always loved. You represented our love, all of its truth and none of its pain. If during the innocent times I sat with her on that bench I had already known, if I had known that we would have you and then lose you, would I have changed that moment of unbridled desire? No. I know I would not. It is the one thing that although I have tried, I cannot regret.
I do not know how we will let you go, how we can possibly go on.
Time must pass and the rhythm of the ward continues, the distant sounds I barely register as the Matron and a young nurse appear from around the screens. Night falls and they want to prepare you. The girl's lips twitch and her hands run up and down the sides of her apron as the older woman takes charge gently, calmly, through years of practice negotiating with the bereaved.
"Darling…" I start, my fingers trembling around her shoulders.
"No." She chokes and presses her face beneath your jaw. "No I can't."
"Oh, you must," and my voice splinters. "We must."
I ease her away and I see your face as she moves back and falls into my chest. Peace everlasting for the quiet dead. Mary cries against me, her hands grasping desperately at my shirt.
"You can come back tomorrow and see him in the chapel of rest," the Matron says, laying a light hand on my shoulder.
I nod and Mary turns back to you, bending down and kissing your cheek, her lips breaking into a cry that is nearly a scream and my own heart strains and rips inside my chest. She grips my hand as she withdraws and I too kiss your cheek, it is cold and I glimpse the purple stain spreading down the back of your neck and across your shoulders. Somehow we leave and I support her as her legs buckle at every step. The hotel room we left mere hours ago bellows its normality at us, mocking, as she falls onto the bed. I stand near the door uselessly, and when I glance to the writing desk I see the pair of pajamas that your grandmother sent for you neatly folded. I grab them hastily and the act of doing so seems to urge me violently from my stupor. It is as if everything has fallen and I am buried, unable to breath and crushed beneath the weight of mortar.
I lock the bathroom door behind me and turn on the shower. The water rushes and strains jerkily and I rip off my clothes as if they are burning me. I stand underneath the scalding heat of the water and it burns my skin and that feels right. I clench my teeth and sink to the floor, digging my fingernails into my knees until I draw blood. The blistering torrent beats relentlessly down on my back and neck like nails and I reach outside the shower, taking your pajama jacket and stuffing it close to my mouth as I scream.
Teddy ran his fingers over the extravagantly wrapped presents arranged on the table in front of him, excited anticipation fizzing in his stomach. A generalized hush fell and after a great deal of muttering the dining room was plunged into darkness. Either side of him his small cousins emitted squeals of glee as a footman walked from the servery, his face illuminated by the glow of six candles atop a mountainous chocolate cake. A rousing chorus of 'Happy Birthday' burst into force and Teddy looked around the table at the beaming faces surrounding him before fixing his eyes to his mother's as the cake was laid before him, her perfectly pitched voice audible above all others.
"Hip hip hooray!" Robert cheered as everyone else joined in. "And one for luck!"
"Blow 'em out!" Louisa yelled, standing up on the chair, her party dress dangerously close to the lit cake.
Teddy put out an arm to ward her off before screwing up his eyes and making a wish. I wish for Papa to be here. He opened his eyes and took a deep breath before blowing out the wavering flames with due gusto. More applause.
"Maybe your wish is going to be granted," Louisa's father said with a wink, indicating the mountain of presents on the table. "What do you think?"
Teddy looked back at him stonily for a moment before Mary handed him the knife to cut the first slice of cake.
"You don't need to tell anyone your wish, Teddy," Sybil said kindly, kissing the top of his head and lifting Louisa down from her teetering position looming over the candles.
After the children had devoured their slices of cake, hands were hastily wiped and all eyes turned to Teddy again as he began to tear the paper from countless toys and books, an obligatory 'thank you very much' leaving his lips each time without prompting. He read every label dutifully and smiled attentively at the present giver as he admired whatever they had bought him.
"What's that?" Louisa asked, her gaze alighting on a present that had been too large to place on the table. "What is it, 'eddy?" She repeated, patting his arm and pointing.
Teddy glanced at his mother.
"It's for you, open it." She smiled stiffly.
Teddy got down from the table uncertainly; whatever it was it was very large and he cautiously turned over the label to read what was written there. Dear Teddy, Happy Birthday, All my love, Papa. He could feel everyone watching him and a slightly uncomfortable lull had fallen on the room. The silence was duly broken by Louisa who seized a piece of the paper and began to rip; her little sister tottered unsteadily away from Sybil's skirts in order to join in. The back of Teddy's neck prickled and with his head bent, he helped them until the irregularly shaped gift was revealed beneath the wrappings in all its glory. It was a handsome pedal car, a seat for the driver in the front and room for two small cousins in the back. Louisa and Isabella gamely clambered in with shrieks of delight, clapping their hands and waiting expectantly for their driver. Teddy stood very still, one hand resting on the little windscreen at the front. He could feel the unpleasant threat of tears stinging his eyes and his cheeks reddened.
Mary reached out to take his shoulder but he shrugged her off and in the next moment broke into a run and fled the room, pulling the party hat from his head and throwing it down by the door. His feet beat on the floor and pounded on the stone slabs as he tore down the servants' stairs, tripping on the last one and landing on his knees at the bottom with a small stifled cry. The servants' hall was empty and with tears now streaming down his cheeks Teddy sloped down the corridor and peered into the butler's pantry. His face crumpled when the butler looked up from his desk, Carson's expression turning from delight to alarm as he got up quickly and came over to where the boy stood in the doorway.
"Master Teddy, what on earth is the matter?" He asked kindly, leading him to the chair and sitting him down on it.
"I am just so sad," Teddy replied, a fresh sob brimming in his voice.
"Sad? Now that is no way to feel on your birthday," the butler replied, handing him his handkerchief. "Was Mrs Patmore's cake not to your liking?"
"It was very nice," Teddy nodded, "but Papa bought me a present, and I don't want a present." He took a deep breath, his hands clenched together in his lap. "I just want him to come back!"
"Ah, I see." Carson nodded, pulling up another chair and sitting down opposite him.
"I wished it, but I got the car and that is not the same at all," he shook his head miserably.
"No it isn't," Carson agreed.
Teddy ran his finger along the beveled edge of the desk.
"I must have been very bad," he said quietly, his eyes following the individual lines that ran into a knot of wood on the table leg. "For God to take Papa."
"You are not bad," Carson said firmly. "God takes the ones we love and there is no reason for it."
His confidant's eyes rested gently on Teddy's crumpled brow and he wanted so much to believe the butler, believe that all of this was not somehow his fault and yet everything was so muddled. He wanted to remember the last expression on his father's face but he couldn't. He recalled Richard wiping mud from his cheek and then nothing, only an eerie emptiness, a stretching hole and the motionless jeweled breast of the pheasant. Teddy looked down at the gift tag that was still in his hand and he let the tears roll with a satisfactory slowness down his cheeks. He thought of his family upstairs and how it almost seemed like his father had never existed, that he had been rubbed out, all remnants dusted away under the table, not to be mentioned again. How could he have a party if Papa could not come?
"You will be missed upstairs," Carson said gently.
"I don't much feel like playing musical statues with Louisa and Isabella. They cheat." He replied, with a small smile of sufferance.
"Then you must teach them how to play by the rules," Carson paused, eyeing the little boy who was so like his mother. "There will always be people here for you to turn to Master Teddy, do not ever think you are alone."
Mary arranged Teddy's gifts for display in the library, placing the numerous birthday cards on the side table and mantelpiece. She could hear Louisa and Isabella cavorting loudly in the great hall, an occasional thud caused by a collision with a wall or piece of furniture as their father struggled to maintain order. She would wait a little longer before going to find Teddy; undoubtedly he was with Carson, the man in whose company she had often sought refuge as a child. She was aching and exhausted, and her heart broke when she recalled the expression on Teddy's face as he had laid eyes on the present, the gift from beyond the grave. She had considered not giving it to him or at the very least removing the label but she could not and she was caught unawares by a glittering, slightly surreal memory of Richard.
The car had been delivered from Harrods the week before the shooting party, Richard having been unable to resist the opportunity to buy it at once despite it being months until Teddy's birthday. He smiled widely at her as with the help of Ridley and one of the footmen he carried it upstairs to deposit it in a bedroom under a blanket. This was a Richard she had seen in flashes and glimpses over the years, benevolent and generous, so very eager to please. She could not wipe that image from her mind.
"The girls are enjoying that car."
Mary turned and gave her father a tired smile as he watched her face anxiously.
"I'm not even sure Teddy will want to play with it," she sighed.
"He is a resilient child," Robert said, beckoning for her to sit down beside him as he took a seat on the sofa. "And he is very dearly loved."
Mary nodded, her throat tight as her father took her hand in his.
"I have not been the best father," he continued.
"Papa," Mary said, clasping his hand tighter.
Robert patted her hand to quiet her protest and looked away for a moment.
"I always thought I would be able to protect you but I was wrong. I look at you and I see years of pain that I have either not noticed or ignored."
He wished to say so much more but he could not and he ducked his head to hide the emotion in his eyes.
"Oh, Papa," Mary said and her lip trembled.
"I hope I can now be a better grandfather."
Mary fell into his arms and Robert held onto her tightly as she buried her face in his neck. His darling daughter. He kissed her cheek as they parted and she recalled the gentle assurance of his words the day she married Richard, that blackest of days.
"You must trust me, my dear," he said, smoothing her fingers with his thumb. "To always guard Teddy's interests."
Mary used her finger to catch the tear that slid down her cheek. If only you knew, Papa. She let the moment last, allowed herself to believe for a second that if her father knew the truth he would forgive her. That he would not recoil in horror at the lies that had unconsciously infiltrated every thread of their lives for so long. She composed herself and found herself smiling in a manner she hoped made her seem comforted by his words.
Robert for his part wished he could see past her mask, that he could say, I know, and hope some of the weight would fall away from her shoulders. Yet he could not, he dared not, for how would it end, how would their lives continue with such a hole ripped into their family? Robert gave Mary's hand a final squeeze as she got up, leaving the room in search of Teddy, a last sad smile over her shoulder. Robert had barely had time to catch his breath before the door opened once more and his mother appeared, a look of mild annoyance around her pursed lips as she glanced back with a quick exhale of breath into the sounds of chaos and girlish screams.
"Those girls are positively wild," she breathed with an air of transferred exhaustion. "I do not know how dear Sybil bears the noise."
"They are full of life," Robert agreed, standing as his mother took a seat.
"And that car! I fear for the antiques."
"They are having fun with it," he replied, rubbing his brow.
"Yes, well at least someone is. Poor Teddy," Violet replied, shaking her head slightly. "I must say you do not look full of the joys of spring either, Robert. Are you unwell?"
"I am tired, Mama. Extremely tired."
"We have had quite a time that is certainly true. I cannot say I relish the thought of visiting Rosamund this season, she tells me that we continue to be the talk of London." Violet raised her eyebrows as if the sound of gossip had already reached her ears. "I'm afraid we have become notorious." She paused for a moment, her fingers kneading the top of the cane.
"Don't make light of it, Mama." Robert sighed wearily.
"I am not," she replied with indignation. "I was certainly never fond of Richard but I feel ghastly for Teddy, to lose ones father at such a young age is frightful."
"Teddy has certainly not had much luck in that department," came the muttered reply.
Violet caught his eye sharply, fixing him and trapping him under a bright all seeing gaze. Her head inclined to one side as she watched her son with an air of careful calculation. Silence settled around them for a moment.
"Perhaps there is still something to be done about that," Violet said, each word perfectly pitched and weighted with meaning.
"I think it is rather too late," Robert replied carefully, anger once more rising unexpectedly in his stomach.
"I see," his mother responded and Robert thought that she did see, she saw very clearly. "And the estate?"
"Birkenhead is introducing reforms, I suspect they will come into force in the next year, it is possible the entail could be broken if Matthew and Lavinia do not have a son." He pressed his fingers to his brow as a headache swelled and expanded there.
"Well then, all is not lost."
"Isn't it?" He got up, his cheeks flushed with the sense of impending illness. "I'm sorry, Mama, I do feel rather ill. I'm going upstairs."
Of course he should have suspected that if anyone knew it would be his omniscient mother and yet he could not speak about it with her, he could not voice the feelings that rushed and thundered through his mind. Robert sat down heavily on the bed in his dressing room and thought of how easy it was for life to twist and diverge, to veer inescapably from a path that had once seemed so sound.
Mary turned the page of the book, her lips pressed against Teddy's soft hair as she launched into a reasonable approximation of a train conductors voice, which went unappreciated as he began to doze against her. She kicked off her shoes and tucked her feet up on the sofa, repositioning Teddy beside her and tucking herself in around him, the book forgotten on the floor. Her nose touched the warm, soft nape of his neck and Mary breathed in the smell of soap and the irresistible musky scent that was so unique to Teddy. Exhaustion pressed down over her and a pleasant feeling of lightheadedness cushioned her mind; her limbs became heavy and she felt herself sinking away with Teddy enveloped in her arms.
It was in this position that Matthew found them as he was shown through by Carson, the scent of the rainstorm still clinging to his clothes. Teddy had turned inwards so his face was buried against Mary's chest and he was snoring softly, his mouth ajar and his soft lips lax. Carson raised a somewhat curious eyebrow as he left Matthew standing in the middle of the room, watching them sleep, his face pale and his own mouth slightly open. Matthew could feel his heart pounding and he considered leaving them and going in search of Robert, but found he could not face that prospect. He laid down the small present his mother had wrapped by the armchair and sat down, his elbows resting on his knees; for a moment he considered lowering his face into his hands. It was only the threat of being discovered there in such a position of bleak surrender that prevented him from doing so. He felt an intruder, he was an intruder and he was a coward.
Matthew realized then and afterwards, that Mary feared the finger on the trigger had been his, that he had shot Richard. He had been possessed by a madness that was true and on two occasions that weekend he had been but a hairs breadth from crossing a threshold from which he could never return. He could have killed Richard all too easily, and yet he had withstood the detective's somewhat lazy interrogation with the calm detachment of a blameless man. But night after night, frantic dreams had sought to convince him that even the act of thinking it had cast him so far out into the water that he would never reach Mary again.
He longed to reach out and sweep away the silky chestnut hair that had fallen across Teddy's brow or to press his lips to Mary's cheek. He longed to do those things so much that his hands twitched and ached with all their unfulfilled intentions. He had threatened to kill Richard and then he was dead; he had frightened her with a darkness she didn't know he possessed.
He turned and blanched slightly at the sight of the Dowager Countess eyeing him from the doorway.
"We didn't think you were coming," she said in a stage whisper, her eyes flickering to Mary and Teddy as she made her way to a chair, waving him down as he made to stand.
"No, well I suppose I am rather late, the party seems to be over."
"I find a children's party is often best arrived at once it is over," Violet replied but with a hint of undeniable fondness as Teddy snuffled in his sleep. "I'm sure we can find you a piece of cake that hasn't been mauled by Isabella."
"No, no thank you, that's quite alright," Matthew glanced at the present by his feet self consciously, and in doing so drew Violet's attention to it. "It's just a little something for Teddy," he explained. "From all of us."
"I see," Violet said archly, tapping her cane on the floor involuntarily. "From all of you. Are Cousin Isobel and Lavinia here?"
"No, Lavinia has been unwell, I left her in Mother's capable hands."
"Ah, what a fate," Violet replied, allowing a small thin smile to alight on her lips.
"I hope things are settling down here," Matthew said, his voice ringing with a falsity that Violet did not hesitate to acknowledge.
"I think things could be a good deal more settled."
Matthew withered slightly under her imperious expression.
"I do not know what can be done Cousin Violet," he replied, the emotion straining in his voice as he willed Mary to stir and end this conversation. "I have gone wrong at every turn."
"And now you may not break free, the bonds of marriage being such as they are, I quite see," she shook her head both agreeing with her own statement and despising it. "But there is a future and for that child that future must be here, at Downton, and you must ensure that is so."
Matthew nodded, choked.
"I wonder if the manner of Richard's passing makes a move in any desirable direction impossible," she said the words with a strain at her neck as if she could barely consider their meaning. "I think I know you a little better than that but then there is always some madness in love, and when we are mad the things we do are unthinkable, and often unforgivable."
I didn't do it, the words almost tripped from Matthew's lips but as he moved to speak, Teddy let out a little cry and Mary stirred, cradling the child to her breast. She blinked up first at Matthew and then her grandmother, startled as she pushed herself to a sitting position, Teddy yawning noisily against her.
"Well, I shall leave Teddy to receive his present," Violet said, giving Matthew a look that suggested both collusion and despairing acceptance.
"Do you normally have conversations whilst other people sleep in the same room?" Mary asked, straightening her blouse and skirt as Teddy rubbed his eyes and blinked at Matthew with an air of sleepy confusion.
"Did you bring me a present?" He asked. "Thank you ever so much!"
Matthew handed over the gift and watched as Teddy opened it, unable to acknowledge Mary's cool expression.
"Oh this is ever so nice!" Teddy beamed, the hair on the left side of his head comically on end. "It's a yo-yo, Mama! That boy James has one you know."
Mary nodded and smiled as Teddy inexpertly let the string wind out in an ever increasing line from the toy until it dropped uselessly to the ground.
"I'll get the hang of it," he said self effacingly.
"I'm sure you will." Matthew replied.
"I'm going to go show it to Grandpapa."
"I think Grandpapa is resting, Teddy." Mary said, brushing the creases from the back of his shirt.
"Oh, well Carson then."
They both watched as he skipped from the room, the toy clasped in his hand, a quick bright glance back over his shoulder at them. All the light in the room seemed to flee with Teddy and Mary rose to follow him.
"Mary," Matthew's voice was hoarse but firm as he grasped her hand.
"No, Matthew. I can't." She shook her head slightly, her eyebrows knitted, her eyes meeting his only briefly.
Mary tried to shake him off but he held fast.
"Let me go, Matthew!"
"I can't," he replied and his expression was so penetrating as he looked at her that she could not help but return his gaze.
"You must," she wrenched her hand away. "Go to your wife." And the words pierced her heart.
It fell upon them both simultaneously, the sickening sense that they had been here before. The memory seemed to fill the space between them.
"Matthew," I say, my hand rests over his and I shake it slightly as the taxi pulls into Connaught Square.
"Mm," he stirs and I recognize the awful transference between the dream and reality on his strained features.
This house became my sanctuary, my escape, and the recollections of Richard seemed to slip away into the ether with the consistency of gossamer; sweeping and touching but barely registering as time moved on and the fabric frayed. This was the home you returned to each holiday from Harrow, settling into our easy companionable routine, your laugh and buoyant charm filling each room. Inevitably we would travel to Downton but in London I always felt that our easy love flowed without the cruel interruptions of unuttered secrets. It feels strange to have Matthew here, to see him step over the threshold, his eyes roving and absorbing the details of this life he had no part in. I take his hand to assure him that he is welcome, that he has a key to this piece of the past, to this element of you.
I lead him up the sweeping staircase and down the corridor. We stop outside your room for a moment and my hand pauses on the doorknob as I steel myself against what I am to face. I open the door but I am unprepared and I raise my hand quickly to my mouth to contain a cry. Matthew's hand is ready at my back and he supports me there before we step inside. I stand in front of the handsome bookcase, my shaking fingers tracing along the spines of well loved childhood tales, passing over the assortment of knick knacks; toy soldiers, cars, trains, before I alight on a smooth round object, a yo-yo. I do not pick it up and I know Matthew has seen it. It is his turn to cover his mouth and something like panic shades his eyes, the intensity of his grief in that moment unbearable. I move towards him but he backs away and I let him leave the room before he begins to cry.
I move slowly around the room as if in a trance and I feel like you are here, at every age, a little memento peaking out at me at intervals to cast me back to a happy time. I open the trunk at the foot of the bed and remove the christening shawl that is lying on top, savoring the feel of the fabric between my fingers and breathing in a sweet smell that somehow remains after all this time. Your school hat is here, your first pair of shoes, certificates and reports, but my eyes do not focus. I cannot look too closely as if each item holds the whisper of a future lost.
Your funeral will take place at Downton tomorrow. I will be composed, I will be brave, but here in this room with you surrounding me, I am permitted the peace to fall apart. I sit down on the floor, the shawl around my shoulders and your hat in my lap and I cry. I cry for you as if each sob could fill the emptiness that pushes its way into my heart.
Mary falls asleep as soon as we retire to bed at the Dower House and I am glad because I do not think I am able to speak, the slightest inflection in her voice sending me into a spiral of emotion I can barely conceal. I see every flinch, every twitch of pain around her mouth, the way her eyes shine constantly with tears that are yet to be shed. I can say nothing although I know there must be a way to express something more than the hold of her hand can convey. I cannot bear to think of tomorrow.
I spoke to Lavinia on the telephone before we left London – I am so sorry about Teddy – and the tremble in her voice caused my own chest to tighten. I heard that kind naïve girl who loved me far more than I deserved and I accepted the genuine sorrow she felt on my behalf. She has consulted a lawyer and will direct all correspondence through my solicitor. When I speak to Lansdale at the house he tells me Her Ladyship has left and is staying with an aunt in Kent – She said she will miss the place M'Lord – and I will miss the easy simplicity with which I felt she moved through life, absorbing and shouldering every sorrow until it became too much to bear. Like you she had known the truth for longer than I could ever have imagined and it had trickled down to darken that once clear heart.
There is no pretense, every mask has fallen away and a bedroom is ready and prepared for Mary and I to share. Your grandmother seems as if she cannot remember what propriety is, she moves like a ghost, your aunts pale and constant at her side. I am vaguely aware that other members of the family are staying at the Abbey and I have no concept of how much they know or what they think of my staying here. I have moved far from being interested in how anything appears to others. I do not sleep, I lie on my back, my eyes examining the shadows on the ceiling and I realize this is the first time your mother and I have shared a bed for the night. I cannot imagine ever sleeping apart from her again. I lie there as the light shifts and changes around the room, alighting on unfamiliar objects and shapes. Outside bird song begins, shrill in its insistence as dawn spreads across the bed. How can the sun rise on this day?
I cannot go. I realize that when Mary emerges on the landing after dressing, bathed in black lace, her face white but steady. I feel as if she knows what I am going to say.
"I'm sorry. I am so sorry, but I… I can't."
A coward until the end but I feel if I walk into that church I will lose all sense of my self, I will scream and cry. I will disgrace your memory, I do not deserve to stand beside your mother and say goodbye to you. She does not reply and her eyes flicker for a moment over my face, agony stretching the skin across her cheekbones. She nods before turning away. I watch her descend the stairs, my hand gripping the top of the banister until pain courses through my palm.
"Where is Matthew?" I hear Sybil say.
"He isn't coming." Mary replies and I imagine her linking arms with her sisters.
I listen to their hushed voices and finally the door shuts behind them and I sink to the floor at the top of the stairs, the top hat hanging limply in my hands between my knees. I grit my teeth in an attempt to contain a violent impulse but it does not work and I burst to my feet, throwing the hat down and drawing my foot back to kick the wall. A sensation shoots up my leg, but it is not pain, I feel nothing. It does not help and my hands shake with a powerless rage, a black dog wrestling upon my back that I cannot throw off. I cannot shed it and it rips and tears down my spine unrelentingly. The house seems to shrink away around me in its silence, judging me, eyes closed to this wild rage. Nothing will impinge on this insurmountable grief. I push my way blindly back into the bedroom, searching, rifling through drawers and wardrobes, desperate for something; what I do not know. Something of you to calm me just for a moment. I knock over a forgotten clutch bag on the dressing table and from it slips something that I recognize immediately.
Teddy, October, 1918.
You look at me from that photograph, your eyes capturing mine as soon as I turn it over. I raise my fist to my lips; my teeth sinking into my knuckles as I pick it up and I know where I must be. You were returned to me, we were reunited and for that at least I must be thankful. I have been woefully absent at almost every essential moment but there was only one place I ever belonged; with you and with Mary and this is my last opportunity to do what is right. This time, forever.
We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
I sit between Sybil and my mother and I feel strangely distant, yet this has none of the reassuring falsity of a nightmare, no creeping comfort or promise of a fresh day beyond the veil. The vicar speaks and I hear him, I see the coffin and my head tells me you are inside it. My heart is barely beating. There is murmur through the congregation which I do not notice until Sybil takes my hand and grips it tightly, turning to look over her shoulder as Matthew walks down the aisle. I breathe. I breathe a deep true breath and after seats are quickly exchanged he sinks down beside me and takes my hand in his.
Thou hast set our misdeeds before thee: and our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
Your father's eyes do not leave mine, and I hold on tighter to the threads of my composure. Finally we turn back to face the altar but our fingers remain entwined.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.
The photograph is held carefully in Matthew's other hand and a nauseous despair surges through me as I look quickly away from it.
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
A hush settles and the vicar draws breath.
"I will now ask if there is anyone who wishes to speak."
With a last press Matthew's hand leaves mine and I watch numbly as he steps up to the lectern. He looks briefly at those assembled before his eyes settle on mine.
"I cannot express in my own words how I feel today, so I will rely on those of a more eloquent man," his lips are a pale thin line but I do not see his hands tremble as he rests them on the platform in front of him. "Say not the struggle naught availeth…
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.
If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars;
It may be, in yon smoke conceal'd,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!
But westward, look, the land is bright!
I fear I may break then and his eyes turn back to mine, the words on his next breath flow through me and everything and everyone else drifts away unprotesting.
"Teddy was a very young man but an impossibly fine one. A far greater man than I, and a better son than I deserved."
A barely contained intake of breath seems to pass through the silence like a wave. I close my eyes. The secret shatters, it breaks and is reduced to minute fragments on the stone beneath our feet. I am released and a small piece of shadow falls away.
Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother, Theodore, here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.
We remain in the graveyard in each others arms long after the swath of mourners has drifted away, the ground open and gaping beside us.
I kiss Louisa's cheek and she smiles back at me bravely. I smooth a strand of hair from her face and she so reminds me of Sybil the night of her debutante ball. The night Matthew and I danced as if we would always be so happy.
"Oh Aunt Mary," Louisa whispers. "I wish Teddy were here to dance."
"So do I, darling," I reply, "and you must think of him tonight and dance in spite of his absence, as he would have wished you to."
Louisa is summoned away by Sybil for a final briefing and I sink down at the dressing table. I think of this time last year when you led Isabella in a hysterical fox trot around the drawing room of Grantham House, practicing your steps for the upcoming evening of dancing, Louisa whooping from the sidelines. I smile a little as in my minds eye I see your grinning, handsome face, all the intelligence and the promise. I cast myself back to recall one particular evening during that last London season and grief creeps its way into my chest, dampening each breath.
You had taken a young and impossibly pretty debutante around the dance floor, you were elegant and courteous and my heart swelled with pride as I feigned interest in the conversations of the regal chaperones around me. A voice caught my ear and I inclined my head slightly in an effort to listen – It is a shame Theodore Carlisle is so very handsome; it almost makes one forget who his father was – I turned, in as slow and poised a manner as I could muster and directed my gaze at the two women behind me – you know nothing of my son, or his father. They were silenced, as was everyone else in the immediate vicinity and I turned back to watch you. I could not bear for any aspersion to be cast on you and I felt ashamed that at my own debutante ball such a comment might have passed my lips all too easily. A man should be judged as he is, as he presents himself and not as he appears in the stud books. It still embarrasses me to think of my behavior toward Matthew, my snobbery, my denial of what I saw at the heart of him; and in turn my motives for encouraging Richard. The women's conversation quickly resumed with a renewed fervor but I did not trouble myself to attempt to listen. They did not know Richard and neither, I now realize, did I.
I know your father; the torturous snaking doubt that had so constricted me after Richard's death did not grow but it lurked on the edge of my mind and it cultivated my distance from him; from all I knew of him. They fell between us: Richard, your grandfather, the curse is upon us, and it was as if there was something inherently broken in Matthew and I, something that would not be forgiven. It was not you, you were not broken, you remained that perfect, combined piece of us both. All of the good in our hearts, all of the light in our sky.
You would have had a home at Downton. Your father has spent years since the new laws were passed secretly unwrapping and severing the entail in order to make you his heir. It will never be, but your fortune will save the estate as my mother's did over half a century ago and it will leave Matthew free to bequeath it to whomever he chooses.
Louisa looks breathtaking and she is surrounded by suitors. I see the little glances and occasional shadows that move across her face and when she looks to me I give her a reassuring smile. He is here with us. I sit straight backed in one of the chairs around the wall of the ballroom, each muscle stiff and my heart beating slowly. I miss you so very much, a weight across my shoulders that feels as though it will never lift, as though it will exist for always and grow as much a part of me as you were. There is perhaps something comforting in this.
"Lady Mary, would you care to dance?"
Matthew is standing in front of me and for a moment we are twenty-six years in the past, and I am still considering his proposal of marriage; delaying through an innate sense of shame that in the present seems obsolete. I take his hand and he draws me up into a hold that is a little closer than is proper. His face is very close to mine and for a moment his skin brushes my cheek.
I look into his clear blue eyes and I see you there as our fingers interweave and I sense stares settle upon us. I feel it but the room may as well be empty. We dance and something of the beginning starts to blossom back through our touch. Perhaps it is never too late.