A/N: To say I've been humbled, honored and flattered by your reviews would a drastic understatement. And being mentioned on Tumblr? Seriously, I was blown away.
I'm simply in awe of your kind words, and cannot tell you how much I've appreciated them! Thank you so very much for all your comments – I put my heart and soul into this story and have received it back tenfold.
Special thanks to the best sister ever for being the most fabulous beta, for holding my hand through chapter 6, for her undying enthusiasm and simply unceasing support.
And to my husband for his truly brilliant idea.
When he awakened that morning, it felt like the happiest day of his life.
The first thing Robert did upon opening his eyes was to close them again in prayer – so utterly thankful that he'd managed to see this day. To see his eldest daughter married, and his youngest daughter return home – to see his family both reunited and growing.
Indeed, he'd never been so grateful to see a year ending. That a new decade was about to begin was almost irrelevant – all that mattered was that the sorrow and anguish of this past year would forever be consigned to the past. It was time to move on, and he quite simply could not think of a better day on which to do it.
If there was anything that could better close out the last year, the last decade, it was this day.
He glanced across the empty bed. No doubt Cora had likely roused O'Brien in the middle of the night – if she'd even slept at all. His wife had seemed pleasantly occupied yesterday. It was wonderful to see her regain her sense of purpose – the perfect hostess once more – as she'd been before the war…as she was always meant to be, he thought.
A familiar face at the door interrupted his musings. "Good morning, Papa," Edith greeted him, carrying his breakfast tray and the morning's papers.
Robert had seen a good deal of his middle daughter, who'd taken over the job of bringing up his meals and newspapers and escorting Dr. Clarkson in and out of the room. When Robert had protested that a maid should be handling these duties, Edith had reminded him how she'd managed an entire convalescent home during the war, so surely she could handle a single patient.
"Good morning, Edith," he replied, glancing at the tray. Truthfully, he wasn't that hungry, but he couldn't tell if that could be put down to nerves or a mere lack of appetite. "How is your mother this morning?"
Edith gave him a knowing look. "As well as can be expected, I suppose. Dr. Clarkson's just arrived, but I told him you were taking breakfast. He's waiting downstairs," she commented, as she poured the tea.
"Why must he intrude upon today, of all days? He can check me over when the ceremony is done," Robert grumbled.
"Papa, he was invited to the wedding," Edith reminded him, handing him the cup and saucer. It shook in his hand, and she immediately removed the saucer to the tray with a practiced efficiency.
He sipped the tea cautiously, before asking, "And how are your sisters?"
The question produced a small smile, and a slight roll of the eyes. "Sybil got in safe and sound. Mary is…strangely calm. Funny, you'd think she got married every day," she shrugged – sounding almost affectionate.
Mary had stopped in briefly yesterday – ostensibly to let him know when Sybil's train would be arriving, but it soon became clear that she had very strong feelings about how her youngest sister should learn of his condition. Sybil was not to be deceived, nor apparently was she to be told straightaway. Even though she was an independent married woman, Mary was still so protective of her.
His girls were all grown up now, he thought with a smile.
"And…how are you, Edith?" Robert asked her, suddenly.
She looked shocked for an instant – her clinical mask slipping a bit. As she seemed to lack her older sister's years of steeling her emotions, he could see her blinking rapidly, tears threatening the corners of her eyes.
"Oh…you know me, Papa…" she murmured – before practically rushing to the door. "I'm just going to go check on…" Trailing off, she hurried out of the room.
Robert bowed his head, and sipped some more of his tea. In that moment, Edith reminded him of his own sister. In fact, he'd written to Rosamund of his condition the previous day. He found she always took news better when she at least had some time to digest it, and this would save him from having to inform her during the festivities.
At that point, he'd realized he'd not yet had a chance to arrange for the license or speak with the vicar, but was quickly informed that his mother had contacted Reverend Travis, as well as handled all the necessary paperwork. He found this development utterly unsurprising knowing all of Mama's hardened armor protected a particularly soft heart. Rather like her eldest grandchild, he mused.
The door opened again, startling him from his reverie, as his nurse, Nelly, and his new valet (what the devil was the man's name) entered the room.
After several attempts, it became clear Robert's legs were no longer strong enough to support his weight without leaning considerably on someone else – so he was forced to sit on the bed while his valet and Nelly attended to him. The Earl of Grantham, being dressed like a doll, he thought. Robert was quite certain his Papa had had the good sense to die before the man had been forced to endure such humiliation.
Of course that was also the precise moment that the familiar, unwelcome face of Dr. Clarkson appeared in the doorway.
"How are we today, your Lordship?" Clarkson asked in that tone that told Robert he was not going to like anything the man had to say to him that morning.
"Don't start with me, Clarkson," he snapped, drawing in a breath. "Let's get one thing perfectly clear – I will be accompanying my daughter down the aisle, and if you try to stop me, I'll have you dismissed— no, I'll have my mother dismiss you," he finished, trying to sound as threatening as possible in his weakened state.
Robert then took a breath, adding in what he hoped was a more conciliatory tone: "Just…tell me what to do. Whatever it is, I'll do it. But let me see my daughter married."
Clarkson glanced at Nelly with what appeared to be a knowing look. She gave him a questioning shrug, to which he nodded and the nurse suddenly left the room.
All Robert was able to do now was sit and wait.
The first time he saw his daughter in her wedding dress, he was looking down at her from above.
Mary was standing so calmly – looking so regal, so glamorous, as if she was perfectly content to simply wait there forever.
However, he knew she wouldn't be able to ignore the cacophony for long, as Clarkson and Nelly, along with his new valet, had escorted (almost dragged) Robert from his room and helped him down the stairs, after Edith, Cora and Sybil had gone on ahead. Mary had started to come up to assist, but had luckily been shouted back down by the rest of the family, and thankfully, she'd decided to listen.
Eventually, the procession reached Mary – who was clasping the back of a familiar, but unwelcome contraption. Robert truly thought they'd seen the last of it after what had happened to Matthew, but sure enough, he was now being seated in Matthew's old wheelchair.
"Thank you, Mama," he heard Mary murmur. "I'll take it from here."
"But your dress—" Cora protested.
"Will be perfectly fine. It is but a brief walk."
Robert couldn't help but chuckle to himself. A brief walk. If his daughter's journey had been anything, it'd been quite the opposite.
Mary must've heard him, or sensed his thoughts, for she seemed to lean over a bit behind him. "Don't you start," she teased, sounding fond.
Robert grinned. "Well, cousin Matthew first set foot in this house over there, so…" He indicated the distance from the hall to the library with his hand. "A brief walk indeed."
He glanced at Edith and Sybil standing together outside the library. Sybil kept giving him furtive smiles over her shoulder, though her brow was creased with worry. Always sunny, his Sybil – but in a different way than Mary was. His youngest daughter had a natural brightness about her – one that shone through, even when she was upset.
"Are you still quite certain I should not have spoken to Sybil beforehand?" he asked Mary, concernedly.
"Papa, she's a nurse," was all Mary said in response.
Then suddenly, the lilting sounds of what sounded like some kind of string ensemble wafted from the library, echoing pleasantly throughout the hall.
Robert was momentarily stunned. "How on earth did your grandmother manage that in two days?"
"Actually, that was cousin Isobel," remarked Mary, as they started to travel across the room. "She paid a visit to Matthew's former regiment, who'd hired them for the benefit concert. Given all he…went through…" Her voice grew softer – sounding almost another lifetime away, "…they were understandably quite accommodating."
He and Mary had reached the library, and he peered through the open doors at his remaining daughters processing into the same room where they'd played on the floor as children. Fair-haired Edith and dark-haired Sybil – those little girls now grown into such lovely women.
He could feel Mary's hand alight briefly on his arm, and his fingers closed around those of his eldest girl – gripping her hand as if for support. It was then that he noticed her ring.
"That's a lovely heirloom you've got there - I don't recognize it."
She was silent for a moment, before practically whispering, "It— it's not from our side of the family."
With a quiet "Oh," he gave her hand a final squeeze. "Always been his own man, God bless him," he murmured, in quiet admiration.
As he was wheeled around to the beginning of the makeshift aisle, he felt his daughter lean over by his ear and simply say, "Thank you, Papa."
Swallowing heavily, he sat up as straight as he could – determined to look at least somewhat dignified in this ridiculous contraption. There were several stifled gasps as he and Mary started down the aisle, but Robert told himself it was all due to how beautiful his daughter looked – especially if the subtle, sweet adoration written across Matthew's face was any indication.
Ironically, Robert's eyes fell upon his own desk – slightly hidden behind a tall arrangement of flowers – and he remembered Mary standing before him in this very room, looking sorry, but not that sad, about the untimely demise of their poor cousin Patrick more than seven years ago.
Robert bowed his head in remembrance…and a sad kind of gratitude. For however much a kind fellow Patrick had been, he was quite certain his cousin would've never been gazing at his daughter with such open affection as Matthew was at this very moment.
The chair came to a halt, and Robert reached for Mary's hand again – holding it tightly for one more second before he released her, gave her willingly to the only man in the world who loved her just as much as he did.
It was a brief ceremony – stripped down to the essential bits of the service. He glanced over at Cora, who was watching her little girl so intently, he doubted if she even noticed the tears painting her own cheeks. Robert remembered his wife as a bride – standing in the same position as her daughter, as they'd recited those same vows all those years ago – and he reached over and touched her hand. Their eyes locked, and somehow, he knew his dear Cora was sharing the same memory.
As he watched Matthew place the ring on Mary's finger, Robert's eyes then shifted to Sybil – her own gold band hidden beneath her gloves. He regretted that he did not get to see the moment when she'd turned from his little girl to a journalist's wife. He wondered if she was thinking of her husband – stuck in Ireland for his job, as Cora had mentioned. Robert wished he could've had one more chance to speak with Tom Branson, to let him know all was truly well, and he was glad his daughter was so cared for.
When the vicar made the pronouncement of Mary and Matthew's newly married status, Robert glanced at Edith. He pondered what man would look into her eyes one day, as she took him as her husband. He hoped whoever he was Edith would favor him with that lovely smile of hers. They all saw her smile so rarely, but Robert knew when she did, she was just as capable of lighting up a room as either of her two sisters.
He was brought back to the present as the vicar stepped back slightly – seeing Mary haltingly lean her forehead against Matthew's, her eyes squeezing shut – Matthew's hand coming up in a light caress of her cheek. Robert then saw his daughter's lips move, whispering something briefly to her new husband – and Matthew's eyes closed in kind, giving little doubt as to the words.
Then they turned, arm in hand and started back down the aisle. His attention was drawn away from the beaming pair with their shining eyes when Cora took his hand. "Oh, Robert," she murmured through her tears. "I still can't believe it…"
After a moment, she rose – taking hold of his chair, and they followed Edith and Sybil back up the aisle. As he surveyed the variety of family, guests and servants still chatting amongst themselves, he noted, with some amusement, his mother, flanked by both cousin Isobel and his sister, Rosamund. All three women ranged from slightly teary to actively trying to stifle her tears with a handkerchief.
Turning away from them, his attention was suddenly directed to a corner of the room near the entrance:
Mary and Matthew, their arms gingerly around each other, sharing the first kiss of their marriage.
In an effort to give them some privacy, Robert glanced back at his own wife. "Believe it, my dear," was all he said.
It was getting late.
One rather inconvenient part of this New Year's Eve wedding was that it made for a quite a long day – as after the wedding luncheon, most of the family was staying for the more formal dinner that evening.
Indeed, Robert felt as if he'd spoken to practically everyone he'd ever met – all coming over to him, making him feel a bit like a cornered animal unable to escape.
As a result, he felt rather more like an observer when compared to the rest of his family. Cora was the epitome of a perfect hostess – greeting each guest with expert warmth and politeness. It appeared Edith had been managing the servants – taking on her Mama's role in that regard so Cora could do more visiting. Sybil had been all smiles, but it was obvious the trip had taken quite a toll on her. He would speak to her alone before the night was through, he promised himself. Before the year was through.
Only once had he seen his own mother – who'd seated herself in a remote corner of the room, but seemed to make a special trip just to speak with him:
"Well, that was far better than your wedding, wouldn't you say?"
He couldn't help but smile at the familiar refrain he'd heard for more than 20 years. "I suppose I should take that as a compliment."
His mother leaned on her cane a moment before declaring, "Really, I don't know why we bother waiting months on end for these things. There's nothing about a wedding that can't be managed in just a few days…" He could see her eyes drifting to the happy pair currently accepting congratulations from his sister.
"Why, Mama – surely, you're not saying the old ways are outdated! Next you'll be talking of women being allowed to inherit…"
For a moment, his mother was silent. Then her expression shifted slightly – still staring at her granddaughter. "If they manage to have all girls…I'll push the bill through Parliament myself," she promised, with a steely look of determination.
Robert found himself momentarily lost in quiet contemplation. He'd never see his grandchildren, but they would have their great grandmother - as well as their grandmother, no doubt - as their champions. Two Dowager Countesses – fighting for the next generation of Crawley women. It was truly a comforting thought.
His mother then muttered some excuse about some dreadful relation that was coming this way, and excused herself. This was more the Mama he knew – equally hard and soft, and his lips turned upwards as he watched her leave.
Once she'd left, he noticed someone standing behind her – hanging back, waiting patiently. Robert looked up and his smile grew infinitely warmer.
"Have a seat, my boy." He gestured to the empty chair next to him, which Matthew seemed to gratefully accept. Only Matthew understood all too well the severity of being confined to this contraption, which was clearly evident in his expression.
For a moment, Matthew looked down at his hands, seemingly unable to speak. "Sir, I…" Then he raised his eyes with a new confidence. "I just wanted to say…thank you. For…well, for everything."
Robert smiled at his words, seizing upon their most obvious interpretation. "No need to thank me, Matthew – my daughter has always had a mind of her own. I may have liked you first, but she chose you – make no mistake about that."
Matthew bowed his head, a seemingly knowing, but grateful smile crossing his lips. Then he paused - glancing in the direction of Robert's mother. "I'm sorry that I never had the chance to meet cousin Violet's husband," he said, suddenly. "I'm sure he must've been a good man."
"He was," Robert replied.
"I can only imagine…" Matthew trailed off, now swallowing noticeably, "…how very difficult it was…to fill his shoes."
Nodding, Robert stared at Matthew, intently. "I didn't think I was ready," he confessed. "But he'd taught me all that he could. The rest I…simply had to learn for myself. It wasn't easy, but I managed. I think that's all any of us can do."
"…Quite right." Matthew nodded in response – his eyes closing briefly then suddenly opening as all at once he stood up.
"I keep telling you, that's quite unnecessary." Mary commented – appearing dismissive, though Robert recognized the hint of warmth in her tone.
"Better get used to it, my dear," Matthew remarked, with what seemed to be teasing fondness. "We all have our parts to play." His hand alighted briefly on her back, before he appeared to remember he was in company and dropped it to his side.
The hint of an ironic smile hovered on Robert's lips. "Speaking of parts to play, what on earth are you two still doing here?" At the panicked, slightly embarrassed looks from the young pair, he quickly added, "Well, you've done nothing but visit! I believe it's high time you shared a dance."
The two exchanged a glance that seemed a mix of anticipation and anxiety, but it was Mary who broke the silence. "Not just yet." She then seated herself in the chair Matthew had vacated, smoothing out her skirts as she did so. With a brief nod, Matthew located a chair of his own and seated himself beside her.
Both of them were giving him such curious stares, he felt compelled to at least attempt to ease the tension. "Well, now…both of you? To what do I owe this honor?"
"Perhaps you should first listen to what we have to say," Mary cautioned, lightly.
He could see Matthew sneak a look at her, before clearing his throat. "We wanted to tell you that after today…we plan on making daily visits to the house."
Robert suddenly realized why they wished to apparently deprive themselves of any kind of honeymoon period, and began to shake his head in preemptive objection. "No…"
"Papa, please—" protested Mary.
He held up his hand, as if the gesture alone could communicate what meager authority he had left. "I'll not have the two of you starting off your marriage in such a way," he declared, almost sorrowfully. "Someone can send word when…"
Matthew spoke up: "Sir, with all due respect…God willing, Mary and I will have many more years to travel together."
"You must understand how important this is…to us both." Mary now reached for Matthew's hand and clasped it in her own, as if to indicate they were united in this decision.
Robert glanced back at them – both exuding that old Crawley stubbornness. It was the first thing he'd observed from their interactions all those years ago that made him think they might be well-suited for one another. Little did he realize that together, when working toward a common goal…they made quite the imposing team. The county would be in good hands, he mused.
Quietly, he gave in to a version of their demands: "…I will allow for brief visits," he assented. "And I do mean brief."
With a nod, Matthew responded, "Of course," agreeing to the terms almost immediately.
Mary, however, didn't back down so easily: "We'll see."
Then her expression softened – as she rose from her seat and took Robert's hand. Leaning over, she gave him a gentle kiss on the cheek and whispered the same sweet words of affection he was sure he'd seen her impart to Matthew earlier.
"I love you, my dear Mary," he replied, squeezing her hand a final time before looking up at her husband. "And you, Matthew," he added – and Matthew dipped his head in humbled acknowledgment. Finally, he gazed at the two of them together and murmured, "Be well."
Then, before either could respond, he quickly added, "Now please, go share a dance – you just got married, for heaven's sake!"
Again, Robert saw them exchange those anxious, anticipatory glances. "I suppose we have waited long enough…" Mary stated, though her eyes were on Matthew as she spoke.
"Quite long enough," Matthew agreed, his hand once again resting lightly on her back. They turned and left the table in what seemed to be their own world – as happy a pair of newlyweds as Robert had ever seen.
As Robert watched them go, he suddenly felt another familiar hand on his shoulder, and he reached up to grasp his wife's fingers in his own. Together, they saw Matthew escort Mary to a quiet corner of the hall, where the two of them began to dance together.
Watching them filled him with a joy he could barely express – and he was once again overcome with an unutterable thankfulness for this day. Gazing up at Cora, he attempted to add to the day's accomplishments: "Would you care to accompany me for a walk on the grounds, my dearest one?"
Though he couldn't see it, he could sense her brow furrowing. "Outside?" she asked. "Robert, it's almost dark, and you're…hardly in a position to…"
He chuckled to himself for failing to guess that she'd not exactly be charmed by the idea of leaving her daughter's wedding, especially for what seemed such a silly reason. "Cora, let me put it another way – I am going to take a walk outside, and I would very much like you to join me."
There was silence for a moment…then she sighed. "Let me just speak to Edith, and I'll get Carson to fetch our coats."
Cora then began to push Robert's wheelchair across the hall, past his youngest daughter chatting animatedly with his younger sister, past his mother who was clearly trying to make his son-in-law's mother see reason about something or other, past his middle daughter who appeared to be giving his housekeeper some kind of order.
Indeed, it appeared his entire family was getting on just fine without him, and the thought gave Robert more peace than he'd had in a while.
He then glanced once more at his eldest daughter and his son-in-law. Mary's cheek was now practically touching Matthew's, and Matthew was holding Mary what would've been considered scandalously close were they not married. They appeared to merely be swaying– their feet occasionally lifting in place to mimic some kind of dance steps. Their eyes were shut, and they were both smiling.
The future Earl and Countess of Grantham, together and happy. At last, all was finally well.
Robert watched them until Cora had wheeled the chair out of the hall and to the door.
She stopped to allow Carson to help him on with his coat, but he shrugged off the man's attempts, as he shakily planted his feet on the ground.
"Robert…what…" Cora trailed off, sounding almost taken aback.
He waved off any assistance, grasping the arms of the chair and rising shakily. Putting one hand against the wall to steady himself, he climbed the stairs with trembling steps, reaching the doorway.
"I know that we'll need that…contraption for our walk, but…" he conceded, holding out his arm, "…might I escort you over the threshold of our home, Lady Grantham?"
She looked 20 years younger in that moment, her cheeks flushing slightly, her smile so vivid and bright, he wanted to store it in his memory forever. "Lord Grantham…it would be my pleasure," she replied, sounding slightly teary as she looped her arm delicately through his.
Suddenly, there was the sound of barking behind them, and he felt Isis at his heels – tail wagging. Always ready for a walk.
As Carson stood at the entrance, Robert stepped through the doors of his home with his wife - their dog happily running out ahead. The stirrings of celebration continued - gradually growing fainter, as the sun began to set on the last night of the decade.
It's Cupid's Fears or Frostie Cares
that makes thy Sprits decay:
Or it's an Object of more worth
hath stoln my Heart away?
Or some desert makes thee neglect
her, so much once was thine.
That thou canst never once reflect
on Old long syne
on Old long syne my Jo
on Old long syne;
That thou canst never once reflect
Old long syne.
-Old Long Syne, James Watson (1711)