As it happened, Matthew Crawley's prediction of 'a few thick heads' was not far off the mark. In the servants' hall that next morning, a low level of bleariness permeated breakfast. The elation from the staff, knowing that Mr. Bates was not to be hanged, had not yet worn off in the face of strong drink. The atmosphere was muted, and everyone drank their coffee in near silence, shivering at the January chill that fought its way through the cracks of the doors and windowpanes.
"Thomas," said Mr. Carson, taking in the whole of his bedraggled domain with a nod. "I'll need your help at luncheon today."
The former footman did not take to this news with the grace he might've exhibited had the conversation taken place upstairs, in the presence of a member of the family.
"What for? Aren't I meant to be His Lordship's valet, now?"
"In a trial capacity, you will be, yes," the butler said, not bothering to hide his disapproval of that particular situation. "But not yet. And we're having at least Mr. Crawley for lunch today, and possibly his mother as well, if the car can make it, and I want you on hand to guarantee everything's a success."
"The Crawleys are coming for lunch?" Mrs. Hughes interjected. "Since when? This is the first I've heard of it."
"They were a late addition—I've been apologized to for the short notice." He didn't add that he'd gotten a note about the change from Lady Mary, not Her Ladyship as he was used to, but he'd been mulling the fact over ever since.
"I suppose it's just as well," sighed Mrs. Hughes, her mind already having turned to the extra attention that would have to be afforded to the family's midday meal. "And they're hardly the most difficult guests in the world."
Mrs. Patmore would probably be more difficult than either Mr. Matthew or his mother when she learned there were two more mouths to feed.
"Mr. Crawley, back so soon?" remarked Ms. O'Brien, tone laced with her special brand of peevish curiosity. "Did anyone even see him leave last night?"
Thomas leaned back in his chair thoughtfully. The only thing missing from the picture was a cigarette—though he knew perfectly well how to blow smoke without one.
"That's the third time in three days he's popped up here. He hasn't been this keen to hang around the Abbey since before the War, has he? Wonder what that's about…"
"What do you mean, Thomas?" asked Daisy. Anna shot him a look of warning—one that he pointedly ignored.
The upstairs lot always did take the servants for granted, even the Crawleys, and Thomas would not soon forget the exchange he had overheard when he had shown the heir apparent and his mother into the hall two nights previous. "I wish you'd take my advice, and fight for her. But I know you won't." He wondered if Mrs. Crawley had even thought about his presence when she spoke those words. Of course, he could have little doubt of what they meant—that a certain portentous event was perhaps not so far out of the Dowager Countess' reach as they had believed it was.
Of course, he was already thinking of how to turn it around for his own advantage. He wouldn't be him if he didn't.
"Just that, for him to traipse here in all that snow…well. Seems odd." Had he a cigarette, Thomas would've stubbed it out on the last word. He would've managed to turn the action into something elegant, or at least decently sinister.
He did have standards.
"I'll thank you for keeping your idle gossip to yourself," snapped Mrs. Hughes, putting to an end any further discussion on the matter. Mr. Carson was, quite against his will, torn between avid disapproval and curiosity.
"Of course, Mrs. Hughes," he replied, smooth and sanguine, before adding casually, "I was only going to remark that it seemed funny, with Sir Richard only being sent packing yesterday morning."
Everyone's heads spun in unison back to Mrs. Hughes, as they would for a tennis volley. Before the housekeeper got the chance to scold him for his impertinence, Lord Grantham's dressing bell rang—and they were all thankfully spared (or perhaps pulled away) from one of the many small battles that peppered their lives below stairs. O'Brien's eyes met Thomas's, and wordlessly beckoned him to the back hallway at lunch for further speculation.
Later, when Carson met Mrs. Hughes on a stairwell and had a free moment, he could not help but bring the matter up again. Charles Carson had never made any secret of his interest in one particular running thread of the house, and the implication was difficult to ignore...
"Do you think there's…" He felt like a fool but pressed on, regardless. "Anything more to this luncheon with the Crawleys?"
"Beyond unnecessary work you'll make for yourself, you mean?" He hesitated, and the housekeeper realized with a little jolt where his thoughts tended. "Oh, you don't think—you mustn't take anything Thomas says to heart, Mr. Carson. You know he's only pulling your leg."
"I know, Mrs. Hughes." The old butler could not stop the bubble of hope from swelling in his chest, even when she spoke so sensibly. He thought of last night, when Mr. Matthew had asked Lady Mary for a waltz. His eyes had followed them around the room. Was he being sentimental, optimistic, when he had thought he recognized the look in the young man's eyes? "I know."
She gave him a consoling pat on the arm.
"Best to let it lie."
There was work to be done—there always was. Everyone expected the family to rise later than usual. With the ball the night before there seemed little chance for anything of note to occur beyond a leisurely and commonplace lunch with the heir and his mother. There was nothing unusual about that, Carson reminded himself, nor was it his job to speculate about any unusual happenings in this house. He was not, after all, Thomas.
His mind drifted back to the night before as he polished the candelabras only brought out at New Year, soon to be put back in the cupboard again. It seemed treacherous territory for a man whose greatest fear was discovering plating where there ought to be solid silver, but even he would tread dangerous mental roads from time to time.
The sight of them dancing had appealed to his sensibilities, to everything he respected and had worked for and towards for his entire life at Downton. Though young people didn't believe it anymore, there was a justness, a rightness, in the words noblesse oblige. Whatever their many faults, whatever the aristocracy touched seemed to turn into something more than what it was. A young and priggish lawyer from Manchester was no different.
In short, when Matthew Crawley danced with Lady Mary, he actually looked like the future Earl of Grantham.
Carson sighed and polished the candlestick again, daring not to dream and failing. The mundane and the disappointing were possible, even at Downton, he supposed, as he reverently placed the silver treasure back in its proper place. Everything in Downton Abbey had its proper place.
He couldn't help it if he believed that Lady Mary's was beside Matthew Crawley.
Because the world needs more post-Christmas Special reveal fic. No idea how far I'm going to go with this one, only knowing that we will be starting Series 3 (THE READ THROUGH FOR THE FIRST EPISODE IS TODAY) a few months later means that we won't get these glorious moments, so I have to put in my own take.