August 28, 2012

Downton Abbey

Matthew stood at his bedroom window and sipped his tea. A footman, he would have to learn their names, had brought up a tray with some sandwiches and a small pot of tea. He was thankful Mary had suggested it. He could not believe these people did not eat dinner until eight. Most nights in the trenches he was asleep by eight, up by four mind you, but still asleep at eight. Behind him Bates, the Earl's valet, was unpacking his suitcase. He could imagine Bates tsking to himself as he saw the paltry condition, of his gear. Well you did battle with what you had, not what you wished you had.

"Sir, I will be back in thirty minutes to help you get prepared for dinner."

"Thank you Bates. Could you please point the way to the nursery."

"Certainly sir" and Bates took him out in the corridor and pointed the way.

After Bates left Matthew sat on the edge of the bed and let out a deep breath. He felt as if he had been holding it for the past four hours. He and Bert had agreed that the best tactic would be audacity, always audacity, and he had tried to keep Lady Mary off balance. But it was like grabbing a tigress by the tail, if he ever let go she was going to cut him to shreds.

And there was Patricia, his twin, what a little sweetheart. She had changed everything, he had had three options going in and now he had only one. Well no plan survived contact with enemy. He got up. He supposed Patricia's bedtime was before dinner so he had better go and wish her a goodnight.

-0-

The door to the nursery was slightly ajar. He could hear bath sounds and Patricia giggling so he pushed in. Patricia was sitting in a tub, laughing and splashing, while Mary tried to bathe her. Beth was standing by bemused. Mary was soaked from the waist up.

"Do you always barge in on a lady in her bath?" Mary said with a smile.

"Whenever I can" Matthew grinned back at her.

Patricia, hearing Matthew, turned to him and held out her arms to him. He laughed and shook his head "Not yet darling. Are you done?"

"Yes she is"

Matthew took a towel from Beth, draped it over his left shoulder and picked up Patricia. Mary came with another towel and patted her back dry. In doing so Mary's face came very close to Matthew's face. There was a stillness between them. Even Patricia was still for a moment. Their faces started moving together and then with a start each remembered Beth was still there. They drew away. Knowing Beth could not see his face Matthew blew a kiss at Mary. She coloured and scowled at him.

"I think Patricia is dry enough" he said "Isn't it time you dressed her?" Mary gave her head a little shake no. He handed her to Mary. In a whisper he said "You can do it, just remember what I did:"

Both he and Beth watched as Mary, taking only a few wrong turns, managed to get Patricia diapered and dressed, ready for bed.

"Do you want to tell her her bedtime storey?" Mary asked.

"No, I'll just listen"

Mary took Patricia and sat in the rocker by the crib. Matthew sat in the easy chair by the fireplace. Beth took away the tub to dump the water. She knew Patricia would be safe with Captain Crawley there.

"Once upon a time ..." Mary began in a soft soothing voice.

"Matthew, Matthew wake up"

Someone was shaking his arm. "Did I fall asleep?"

"Before Patricia."

"For very long?"

"No, just a few minutes. How much sleep have you had in the last two days?"

"I've spent more time eating than sleeping"

"I would have let you sleep longer but Beth is coming back and they have sounded the gong"

"The what?"

"They ring a small gong to let you know it is time to get dressed for dinner"

Matthew got up, yawned and stretched. Just like Grannie's cat Mary thought.

Just then Beth came back in the room.

"I will see you downstairs" Matthew said to Mary, he nodded at Beth and then he left to get girded for the next battle.

-0-

Matthew was the first one downstairs. He did not like the fit of his formal uniform, although, as he had explained to Bates, it was not really his. It belonged to the regimental officers' mess. He, like most of the regiment's current junior officers, had been promoted from the ranks and none of them had brought formal wear with them. As the original junior officers, who had brought formal wear, were killed off, their formal wear was acquired by the mess and used by officers who did not have any as the need arose. And the original owner of the formal wear Matthew was presently wearing had been a little thicker then Matthew. He felt as if he swimming in it.

Matthew was still the only one downstairs when the Dowager Countess arrived. So as it happened Carson was the one who introduced him to Cousin Violet as she insisted he call her. He felt that she could not have been more gracious to him.

"I imagine you are finding this all very overwhelming."

"Very much so"

"Well follow my lead, Cousin Matthew, and we will get through this together"

Just then Robert, Cora and Edith came down together.

"I see you have met mother already" Robert said. "So we just missing Sybil and Mary. That is odd, Mary is usually the first one down"

"She will be right down" they turned towards the staircase.

Sybil stood there. She had been good looking in her nurse's uniform but in her evening gown she was beautiful. That's one lucky chauffeur Matthew thought.

And then Mary appeared on the stairs. She was radiant in her red evening gown, a beautiful smile on her face as she descended the staircase. Matthew was in awe but the others were stunned. Unlike Matthew, who did not know any better, the others were used to seeing a frowning Mary dressed in a severe black gown. Some of them could not remember ever seeing her like this, not even at her wedding. Individually they all concluded that Matthew was the proximate cause but how exactly?

Mary walked up to Matthew, took his left arm and said to her father "I am sorry for being late, shall we go in?".

All Robert could do was shake his head in wonder, offer his arm to Cora and lead them into dinner.

At his place at the dining table Matthew was confronted with a formidable array of silverware but it did not pose much of a problem. As the meal progressed, Cousin Violet made an elaborate show of using the appropriate piece and Matthew just followed her lead.

Over dessert Sybil asked "Were you really a cowboy?"

Matthew looked at Sybil. She smiled backed at him. He was about to answer when Robert interjected.

"Really we are not here to interrogate Cousin Matthew ..."

Before Robert could say anything further Matthew held up his hand. "With all due respect Cousin Robert, I would welcome any and all questions from the ladies. If the six of them are to get to know me they must ask questions.."

"Six?" asked Edith.

"Patricia will have questions as well" answered Matthew. Then he continued "I will have questions for you ladies as well so I would propose some ground rules. Any of you can ask any question you wish of me and I will endeavour to answer with the fullest candour. But" and he held up his finger "I can ask the same question of you. It doesn't matter if just one of you asks the question, I can ask that same question of all of you. And you must answer with full candour. You can share my answers amongst yourselves, I will keep your answers in confidence. And if you want to think carefully before giving an answer you can adjourn giving it sine die".

"What if someone does not want to play this game?" asked Mary.

"You are not in the game until you ask a question; you can quit the game at anytime by refusing to answer one of my questions. But once you're out of the game you cannot join back in. Fair enough?"

They all nodded in agreement.

"One last thing before we start. There are safe questions and dangerous one. A safe one is one in which my answer provides you with information but discloses nothing if I ask the same of you. An example is Cousin Sybil asking whether I really was a cowboy. It serves no purpose for me to even to ask the same of you, although.." he looked at Cora "I understand that Cousin Cora is an American so maybe.."

"I never was a cowboy" Cora smiled and they laughed.

"So there you are. Now a dangerous question would be what my worst fault is. If one of you asks that then I can ask the same of each of you who are in the game." He smiled at them "Shall we start?"

Everyone looked at their dessert plates.

"What is your worst fault?"

Their heads snapped up. They looked at Violet, who had asked the question, and then at Matthew.

He nodded at Violet. Game on. "My worst fault, and I am embarrassed to admit it, is my terrible temper. I try to control it but sometimes it gets the best of me. All I can say in mitigation is that it does not last long and then I am appropriately apologetic." He looked at them.

"We call it thunder and lightning" said Violet.

"Like a summer thunder storm" said Cora.

"A lot of shouting..." said Mary.

"Waving of arms.." said Edith.

"And then the sun comes out again." said Sybil.

Robert looked abashed.

"Every Crawley man I have ever known has had the same fault" declared Violet "and we have all learned to live with it. Just try not to break anything".

"Hear, hear,"

"I will do my best" promised Matthew "Now I can ask the same question but only of Cousin Violet. I can't any of you others because none of you have asked a question since the game started." He paused and then asked "Cousin Violet what is your worst fault?"

They all looked at her.

"Well I do not think I have any faults.."

"Should I then put down exceedingly proud?" replied Matthew and they all laughed.

"On that note I would ask the ladies to adjourn to the drawing room" said Robert.

-0-

Once they were settled in the drawing room the ladies all looked at Mary. Trying to deflect their attention she said "We should have Grannie ask all our questions. That way we never have to disclose anything about ourselves."

Sybil agreed "That is an excellent idea. Do ask him if he ever was a cowboy"

"If I am to be the Grand Inquisitor you had each better give me a list of questions. Nothing too scandalous mind you. I have kept my past misdeeds well buried and I do not intend to disclose them at this late date. But before I start questioning Matthew I have a question to ask of Mary" Violet looked hard at Mary. "When I last saw you, you were deep and dark in mourning, but now all of a sudden you are bright and vivacious. What has happened to you and what does Matthew have to do with it?"

"Yes Mary" Cora joined in "Do tell what happened during the three hours that it took you and Matthew.."

"and Patricia"

"Yes Patricia too, to walk the twenty minute walk from the Station to here?"

"Well" Mary paused, not knowing where to start "We stopped at the hospital to get Matthew's wound dressed."

"His wound?"

Sybil answered "He has a bullet wound on his right side just below his ribs. That is why he is here, he is on convalescent leave. Speaking of which, he really should get more rest if the wound is to heal properly." She looked around to make sure everyone understood. "Mama, could you please make Papa understands that, otherwise he will run Matthew ragged." Cora agreed to do so. "Matthew needs to have the dressing changed every day so he will walk with me to the hospital each morning so it can be done. He should be back here in plenty of time to breakfast with you."

Mary thought she was home free but Sybil grinned at her "When the three of them arrived at the hospital they already looked like a family. Do tell us Mary, what happened between the station and the hospital?"

Perhaps hurrying through the narrative was the best course Mary thought. "We met at the station. I told Matthew to get in the car..."

Violet held up her hand "You mean you asked, requested to Matthew get in the car?"

"No I commanded him"

"So stubbornness, the second worst trait of a Crawley man, reared its head."

"Yes, he said he was going to walk so I said Patricia and I would walk with him"

"Then you went shopping" said Cora, remembering the packages.

"Yes, he was hungry, he had not eaten much while he was travelling. So he picked up some things at the bakery and the shop and we went and had a little picnic by the millpond. Then we went to the hospital. Afterwards we made our way here."

Violet was not buying it. "That is all very nice. For a travelogue. We would like to know what changed things for you."

"I do not know. It is not like he swept me off my feet. He was rude, stubborn, obstinate. He just did what he wanted to do and assumed I would follow. And I did. I think it was when he changed Patricia. It was like I awoke from a long sleep and found myself contently married." She held up her hands "I am sorry but there is no great romance. We seem to have skipped all of that"

"So did he propose?" asked Cora.

"No, not at all. I am not even sure he knows. I am sorry" She gave her sisters a fierce look. "But I mean to have him if he will have me."

"But you do not love him" stated Edith.

"Love is for girls. Poor widows with young children marry for more prosaic reasons."

"How cynical" spat Edith.

"No, practical" replied Mary.

"Back up a minute. Do not let all this talk of love distract you." commanded Violet. "What do you mean 'when he changed Patricia'?".

"She had messed herself and he changed her nappie. And from what I can tell he did a very good job. He seems to know more about taking care of babies than I do." Mary glared at her mother, then softened her expression. "I think Patricia picked him. At the station, as soon as she saw him she put her arms out to him and he took her. I thinks she wants a papa."

Mary was quiet and they all looked at her. After a pause Cora patted her hand. "One last question, there was a package. What was in it?"

"I think it is a birthday present for Patricia. I told him it is Patricia's birthday tomorrow and he said they were twins. I think it is also his birthday. That's one more question you can ask him Grannie"

"Ask me what?" asked Matthew. The men had joined the ladies in the drawing room. Matthew looked at Violet. "You had a question?"

"Yes, when is your birthday?"

"Tomorrow"

"And how old will you be?"

"Thirty" Matthew answered and then he gave Violet a big grin. "And how..."

She cocked her head at him

".. are you this evening?" Matthew finished.

"Fine thank you. I admire a young man who knows when to quit while he is ahead. Now tell me, were you ever a cowboy?"

"Yes and no" Matthew held his hand up. "I do not to mean to be disingenuous. I was a cowboy as you probably envisage the role. I rode a horse on the high plains herding cattle, although in my case it was mostly horses, as I worked on my grandfather's, my mother's father's, horse ranch. But I would not have been considered to have been a cowboy by those who made cowboying their lives. No more than Carson would consider a footman who serves a drink on a tray to be a butler" Matthew was not sure the ladies understood the distinction he was trying to make but he did see Carson give him a little nod.

He waited for another question.

It also came from Violet. "are you married?'

"No"

She continued "Are you engaged?"

"No"

"Have you ever been engaged?"

"No"

"Do you anticipate being engaged?"

"One can always hope"

"Have you ever been in a relationship where at least one party anticipated a proposal but nothing came of it?"

The rest all looked at Violet and then at Matthew.

"Yes".

"Will you elaborate?"

"There was a girl back home, Lavinia Swire, She wrote me until just before the start of the Somme. In her last letter she said she had met someone new. That she was moving on. That she hoped we could be friends. She wished me all the best and that she hoped that I would find someone new."

The others all anticipated that would be an end to that but then Matthew asked a question of Violet. "Were you ever in a relationship where one party anticipated a proposal but nothing came of it?"

"Yes"

The others held their collective breaths but Matthew did not ask Violet to elaborate. Instead he said "You see how dangerous a line of questioning can become"

It was Sybil who broke the tension "Matthew really needs to rest".

At this there was general agreement and the party broke up.