Disclaimer: The characters described herein are the property of Julian Fellowes and ITV. No copyright infringement is intended.
Timeline: Post-S2. Based on the idea that the Christmas Special would end on New Year's Eve.
Acknowledgments: To my wonderful fellow fangirl sister for her bottomless well of enthusiasm about this story! And to my dear husband, a fellow DA fan - who came up with the initial concept when we were speculating about the Christmas Special a while ago. I loved it so much that he encouraged me to write it.
A/N: This is only my second multi-chapter fic ever, and the first one I've ever posted in increments, so I'm a little (a lot) nervous! Thank you to this wonderful fandom for the support and inspiration!
So Much Once Was Thine
The letter had been vague, brief – had made the request, but offered no explanation. It had taken most of his strength to write it, propped up against pillows, a tray balanced on his lap that doubled as a writing desk, the pen shaking slightly in his hand as he wrote it out. When the nurse had heard he had a letter to compose, she'd offered to write it for him – but he'd insisted. It was too important, he'd said – too important to leave to someone else.
When the letter had been dispatched for delivery, he'd turned to the nurse. "We shall be expecting company this afternoon," he informed her. "I must dress for the occasion."
As expected, the nurse raised a dozen strenuous objections, pointing out how it would tire him so, especially after writing that letter, and suggesting putting off the visit for another day. She even fetched Dr. Clarkson to see if she could talk some sense into her patient. But he was adamant, and in the end, even the doctor was forced to concede.
He saw the nurse talking with Clarkson – no doubt trying to argue her case, but he knew Clarkson understood, even without him having to give a reason. That Crawley stubbornness was a familial trait – one that served him well now, even despite knowing he'd have to face it in equal amounts later.
Ultimately, it was out of her hands, and she had to concede. It would be a two-person task, so she and the new valet (had a name, of course he did…could never remember – nice chap…served in the war…he'd insisted on that) had set about the task of making him presentable for company.
When at last, the task was complete, he was dressed and sitting up in a chair (propped up with cushions against his back, hidden from view to any entering the room). While it had been the most activity he'd seen in a while, he did not feel as tired as he had lately. Indeed, it had been rather invigorating. He'd never known in all his years that getting dressed could have that effect.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity of waiting, the door finally opened.
"Cousin Robert, I…got your letter. You said you wished to see me?"
For a moment, Robert studied the man with a critical eye. He remembered the first time Matthew had come to Downton – his posture unsure, uneasy of this new role, which had been unceremoniously thrust upon him. He remembered the first time Matthew had returned from the war – standing like a soldier, proud and a bit taller, and brimming with an outward confidence that he was sure belied whatever was happening at the front that he'd left behind. He remembered the first time Matthew stood again – his legs the only thing unsteady about him then, his confidence brimming once again with restored hope for the future.
Today, and indeed on the rare occasions he'd seen Matthew these days (when cousin Isobel managed to get him to accompany her to dinner), Matthew seemed to have shrunk into himself. He walked not with uncertainty, nor pain – Robert thankfully noticed that Matthew was learning to manage without the cane – but as if he was being crushed from within. The spark seemed to have quite gone out of him.
Of course, Robert didn't have to guess at the cause. It had been a rather trying time for the whole family this past year. Until recently, he had thought they'd been extraordinarily fortunate. Though the life of an innocent young woman and whatever future she might've had with Matthew had seemingly been the price for his family's health was not lost on him…
He suddenly realized Matthew was still standing in the doorway – that familiar uncertainty etched across his face. "Yes, do come in, Matthew," Robert replied, indicating a chair that had been placed across from him.
Matthew sat down, but appeared to be glancing around warily, his hands now rubbing together in his lap.
"I apologize for the informal nature of this meeting. I hope you know I don't generally entertain guests in my dressing room," Robert remarked, hoping he'd correctly guessed the reason for Matthew's apparent discomfort.
"It's…quite alright, of course." Matthew made a feeble attempt to smile, though it did little to hide the fact that his eyes kept flitting around the room – appearing not to want to stare at any aspect of it for too long and looking as if he'd gladly vacate the premises immediately at the first opportunity.
Robert attempted to ease the mood with a change in topic. "I hope you're quite recovered from Christmas. It was…so good to have you with us once again."
At the mention of Christmas, he could see Matthew's face soften slightly. It had been his first time at the house for Christmas in…must've been six years. The last time had been before the war – when everything had seemed so different, so hopeful... When the chance that Matthew might indeed be a permanent fixture in their Christmas traditions had still seemed within reach.
He supposed it might've been a foolish hope, but he thought that perhaps…just perhaps he'd noticed Matthew and his eldest daughter exchanging a few furtive glances throughout the festivities. Nothing too obvious, of course, and never for any period of time. Mary had not exactly had the easiest of years either, what with that horrible business during Bates' trial, followed in short order by that bastard Carlisle throwing her over after the news had broken. Still, considering all that might've happened to the family, Robert thought having their name splashed in the papers somehow seemed less important, all things considered.
That had been a couple months ago, anyway – but on Christmas, he rather thought there was no denying both Mary and Matthew had been in slightly better spirits than he'd seen in either of them for a while.
"Quite so, yes. It was a…" Matthew's musings seemed to be interrupted by another thought, and he shut his mouth, swallowing noticeably and glanced away. "A lovely day. Thank you."
Robert realized his abrupt change in mood, as well as his careful choice of words. Indeed, it had been a lovely day for all of them…
That is, until the family had gone to church that evening.
After that, Matthew's mood had understandably dimmed, that spark, that light of hope that Christmas had seemed to reignite within him quite gone out, as he'd quietly told the family to go on ahead without him after services were over, and cast his eye in the direction of the cemetery.
Everyone had nodded in solidarity, of course, but Robert could not miss Mary twisting her gloved hands together – gripping her own wrists, and hurrying ahead of all of them, before slowing her pace and pretending she'd been walking with the group from the start.
He glanced at Matthew, whose thoughts seemed so very far away – and Robert's brow furrowed. They'd all known Christmas might be a difficult time for Matthew, considering. But he'd also known that he'd seen Matthew's mood improve throughout the course of the day. He'd seemed to almost enjoy spending time with the family, until going to church had reminded him of Miss Swire, and the unfortunate circumstances of her passing. The last thing Robert had wished to do was cause Matthew to backslide into what until recently had seemed to be a perpetual state of melancholy.
Leaning forward, he placed a brief, comforting hand on Matthew's arm. "How are you these days, Matthew? You know we've all..." he emphasized the last word, "been wondering how you've been getting on. We see you so infrequently, it seems."
Matthew's reaction was as automatic as it was predictable. "That's…very kind of you, cousin Robert, but I'm fine. Back on my own two feet again, as you can see," he attempted to joke. "Everything is…back to normal, as they say." His words were upbeat, but his tone was decidedly flat, and he seemed to be avoiding Robert's eyes as he spoke, which did not exactly strengthen his argument. He then quickly added, "Is this because I haven't been by to discuss the estate? I know I should've done so earlier, but I've just been…rather busy. Is that why you wanted to see me?"
At the mention of the estate, Robert couldn't help but smile. Somehow, the mention of it – the fact that Matthew had thought about the estate, was still thinking about it – seemed to be some sort of omen. "Not exactly," Robert replied. "I need to tell you something, Matthew – and I need you not to speak a word of it to anyone."
"Of course." Matthew's calm tone contradicted the questioning expression in his eyes, but he said no more.
Robert shifted his position slightly, feeling the strain of the cushions on his lower back. "I know you haven't been by the house since Christmas, but given the circumstances of our meeting…" he gesticulated around the dressing room where he'd seen Matthew trying not to look too carefully earlier, "you can probably tell I've been a bit under the weather. My daughters are all aware of this, as is Cora, of course – and your mother is, as well."
Matthew gave him a cautious nod, as if not quite sure he wanted to know where this was going. "I…don't understand…"
"The truth is…I'm dying, Matthew."
He saw Matthew lean back in his chair, eyes widening, short, sharp exhales of breath escaping his lips as if someone had knocked the wind from him. "What…?" he started, sounding helplessly lost. "But…it can't be…at, at Christmas, you looked…"
"Yes, well…appearances can be deceiving." Robert gave Matthew a significant look. "My father once said that you know when it's your time, and to be perfectly honest, I've known something hasn't been right for quite a while. I haven't felt much like myself recently." He thought of his actions…his faults and failures of the past year, and for a moment, felt a silent bond with the younger man seated across from him – both of them silently drowning in guilt and grief.
"But I…"Matthew started again, then seemed unsure how to finish. "Have you gotten a diagnosis…I mean, is this just a general feeling or…" He seemed to be trying to remain calm, but his tone had taken on a tinge of desperation.
"No, though I do wish that were the case. No, Dr. Clarkson confirmed what I'd suspected. It's my heart, I'm afraid – nothing to be done. It's…well, it's only a matter of time now."
Matthew looked as if he was searching for something – anything – to hold onto, turning over all the words in his head. Indeed, Robert could practically hear him thinking. Then something almost akin to defiance suddenly flashed in Matthew's eyes as he asserted, "Well, you can't take Dr. Clarkson's word for it, surely— you must— A, a second opinion would certainly provide a bit more…perspective."
Robert chuckled softly to himself at Matthew's determination – always thinking, always looking ahead. "I'm afraid I'm a few steps ahead of you, my good fellow. We had it confirmed by a doctor in London." He quickly clarified, "Cora knows, of course. But apart from my wife, you're the only one I've told – other than Clarkson and the nurse, obviously."
"But that was—that was only one other doctor – can't you—"
With Matthew refusing to cede his point, Robert was forced to interject. "Matthew…there's nothing to be done," he reiterated, quietly but firmly. "The doctor says my heart is so weak, it's very unlikely I'll last a fortnight." Despite having accepted his fate, it still felt slightly odd to say the words aloud, as if he was describing the fate of some other unfortunate chap as opposed to himself. But the more he was forced to repeat them, the more they began to sink in. Dr. Clarkson had assured him it was all part of the process.
"A…fortnight?" Matthew's voice was very small now, almost like a little boy. Then just as quickly, he was back to arguing, "I—I don't understand—they can't know, they can't possibly know." Then suddenly, it was as if something else occurred to him. "You said…I'm the only one you've told, apart from cousin Cora. So…nobody else…" The last two words were spoken barely above a whisper.
"No – and there's no need to alarm them, for now," Robert answered, firmly – feeling that familiar surge of protectiveness over his daughters that arose whenever he felt their well being threatened in any manner. "They know I've not been feeling well. The rest will come in time."
"But, with all due respect, – if it is a fortnight, as you claim, shouldn't they ought to—"
"I've made my decision - thank you, Matthew," Robert declared, his authority slightly diminished by the hoarse sound of his voice.
Matthew did not speak, but did not exactly look chastened either - failing to hide his still evident upset. "So…instead you tell me. Why?" His brow furrowed, his eyes flickering briefly with a dull recognition. "Please tell me it's nothing to do with the estate."
A ghost of a smile passed over Robert's lips, shaking his head as he spoke. "The estate? No, the estate will be in good hands – there's nothing more I can impart to you about that." He paused before adding, "But there is...another reason."
Matthew looked as if he was bracing himself for more unwanted news. Robert knew what to expect – that old Crawley stubbornness, he thought, and considered himself relatively well prepared to fight for what he was about to say. Although now that the moment was here, he seemed almost unsure of how exactly he should proceed.
He must've been silent for quite a while, for it appeared Matthew was growing impatient. "Cousin Robert – whatever it is, please just tell me."
The longer he went without speaking, the more uneasy Matthew was becoming, and Robert could feel the situation slipping out of his control. So, without thinking, he just said what was on his mind: "Regrets."
That did get Matthew's attention – his head snapping towards Robert suddenly. "What do you mean?" he asked, in a hesitantly accusatory tone.
"I don't want to leave this world with regrets," Robert commented, more calmly than he expected. Somehow voicing these thoughts felt a bit more therapeutic than perhaps it should have. "There are things I want to do before I go, things I don't want to leave unfinished." He smiled at the idea. "I want to go outside and throw the ball to Isis, and watch her run about the lawn one last time. I want to take a walk with my wife on the grounds of our home while I still have strength to do so." Shaking his head to himself, he turned his gaze towards Matthew. "But I think what I want most is to see my daughters happy."
Now he knew Matthew was shifting further in his seat, refusing to look at him – with only the notion that he couldn't exactly get up and walk out the only thing keeping him in his chair. Robert pressed on, placing a hand over one of Matthew's hands clenching at the arm of his chair. "My dear boy…" he began, his voice clouding with emotion. "I know you care deeply for my Mary. And I know she cares deeply for you."
"I…" Matthew merely offered him a wounded look, as if someone else speaking of whatever feelings he might possess for Mary was almost too painful to hear. "Cousin Robert…" he attempted to protest, but said no more.
"It's very rare that a father could ever possibly hope to see his daughter settled with a man he thinks of as less like a suitor, and more like a son…" Robert's voice broke on the last word, and at this, Matthew shook his bowed head, emotion shimmering silently in his eyes.
Robert knew there'd been some kind of falling out between Matthew and Mary, shortly after Lavinia's death, and the two of them had been avoiding each other ever since. But still, he thought…there was something he'd seen between them at Christmas – something that made him believe that not all hope should be lost. That this divide that had seemed to exist between them – however wide and painful – also just might be temporary.
Despite Cora's protests to the contrary, Mary had refused any and all offers of even the most creative potential matches – and whenever she was pressed, had cheerfully insisted that someone had to look after them in their old age, and she was more than adequate to the task. In some ways, he'd wondered if she was as broken and damaged on the inside as Matthew had appeared on the outside.
He knew it might take time. But there had been a good deal of time that had passed already, and if what was happening to him, and what had almost happened to Cora and Carson and indeed what had happened to the unfortunate Miss Swire had proven, it was that time was something no one could afford to squander. Taking a deep breath, he decided to continue – no matter what else happened. It was not as if he had much to lose now.
Clasping Matthew's hand briefly, he then sat back in his chair. Matthew remained silent, despite the warring emotions on his face that said everything he could not. When at last Matthew had raised his head, Robert finally allowed himself to speak of the only reason he'd written the letter in the first place.
"You see, I'm not going to be around for much longer, Matthew. But before I go…I would so love to see your wedding."