Disclaimer: I own none of the characters mentioned in my story.
"Lady Edith, milady." Stimson was holding his hand over the phone receiver. "She wishes to know if you will join her bridge party today."
"Tell her I'm not here, Stimson." Her sister's temperament had not improved over the years and Mary, Dowager Countess of Grantham, could think of nothing she would enjoy less than an afternoon with Lady Edith and her coven.
"Very good, milady." Stimson derived a great deal of pleasure from keeping Lady Edith at bay. He was probably trying out some elaborate excuse on her now. As it happened, the Dowager already had an appointment to keep.
"I'll be off on my walk now." She didn't have to tell Stimson where she was going. It was always the same, through the village to the graveyard. On to Downton Abbey if she felt up to it and the weather smiled on her, back home if not. Today was an unusually hot and sunny spring day, as sunny as the day of her wedding had been more than fifty years ago.
"Will you walk as far as Downton today, milady? I see that Lady Isabel is home." Stimson knew all the family's comings and goings.
"Yes, I think I will. She's here with her beau, the Ashinghurst boy." Or did they call them boyfriends now? She let Stimson help her on with her coat and took her gloves and walking-stick.
More than fifty years. The village had changed over time, of course, but not unrecognisably. The graveyard seemed not to have changed at all. She stopped at each headstone in turn.
Robert, Earl of Grantham. Cora, Countess of Grantham. Grannie. Carson. William Mason, who had saved her husband's life. Lavinia Catherine Swire. Reginald Swire. The memory of Lavinia was like a sachet whose fragrance had faded away, until only a whisper of scent remained.
John Bates. Anna Bates. The ground was still raw where it had been displaced for Anna's coffin. Anna, her dear friend. How empty the evenings were now. She and Anna had formed the habit of spending them together, sharing a simple supper of scrambled eggs or cheese on toast, sipping a glass of sherry as they watched television, laughing and exclaiming in mock horror over modern mores. Two elderly widows, life-long friends keeping each other company, even if one did call the other "milady". She had given up trying to break Anna of the habit. In the end, what did it matter?
Matthew Crawley, aged 6 days.
That cold winter, the bitterest she could remember. She had wept night after night in Matthew's arms, thinking of her baby alone in the frozen ground.
Flt Lt Thomas Crawley, aged 21 yrs.
Light-hearted Tommy, their oldest child, shot down somewhere over Germany. She had had to be the storm-braver then. Tommy's death had hurt Matthew so deeply that she thought he would never recover. But when she would find him sitting staring blindly into nothing, she would sit down quietly beside him and he would always make his way back to her.
Matthew, Earl of Grantham.
She rested on the bench opposite the headstone, letting the sun warm her. Oh, darling. We both know that I'm just marking time until I can be with you again. Is it so wrong to want to join you now? They would be sad but they don't need me. And I miss you so.
Tommy and Robbie had gone to war but only Robbie had come home. He had picked up the reins of his life, finishing his studies and taking a job in the City. And then one weekend he had asked her to invite the Hon. Verena Mallis to Downton. Mary remembered that night at dinner, wearing her cool smile like armour while Verena's avid eyes had calculated the worth of their every possession, trying not to meet her husband's piercing blue gaze, knowing that if she did she would see her own fears confirmed in his eyes. This is the wrong girl.
Beautiful Verena, loveliest debutante of her season, her blonde hair and creamy shoulders gleaming in the candlelight. Robbie had not taken his eyes off her. Verena had come from a good family but as Grannie might have said, "A good family gone rotten." The Mallis estate was gone, the money was gone and Mallis himself was gone, living in Tuscany with his mistress, while Sylvia Mallis divided her time between affairs with increasingly louche men and taking "rest cures" in an expensive sanitarium for alcoholics.
Well, Verena had won an eldest son only to find that it was one thing to marry the heir to an estate and another to become the estate's chatelaine. And yet another thing to live on her husband's salary and an allowance from the estate, an allowance that became more straitened with each new tax bill. She had tried to keep up with a set which required that its members have money. The men gambled for high stakes, the women competed over jewels and couture, they holidayed in Gstaad and the French Riviera and the Caribbean islands. She had become frantic. Mary had never forgotten one night, lying in bed clutching Matthew's hand, listening to Verena scream at Robbie from their room down the hall, "Do you not understand that I can't wear that rag one more time? Everyone in London has seen it!" "That rag" had been a gown from the House of Dior.
Verena would look at the Van Dyck that papa had loved so much and would say sweetly "Isn't it rather a shame to hide it away up here in Yorkshire, when it could be hanging in a museum giving pleasure to millions?" She had learned about death duties and would chatter away about how they should make provision for Matthew's death, while Mary and Matthew and Robbie sat silent. The worst time of all had been when Matthew had called them into the library to talk about creating a family trust. It would mean keeping Downton safe for the future, but only at the cost of re-investing every source of revenue back into the estate. Verena had been incredulous at first, then had shrieked at them in fury. Robbie had inherited her own features and colouring and it was not until Mary saw him and Matthew that night, both looking as though they were being bludgeoned, that she realised how much her son resembled his father.
The end of the marriage had been surprisingly civilised. Robbie had told her much later that Verena had said, smiling, "You do see, don't you? I have to get out now while I still have my looks." And get out she had, marrying William Westerby whose firm's bread and pastries were sold in every grocery store in the country and who had enough money to buy his own Caribbean island. Robbie had become a ghost, drifting between his City office and his London flat while she and Matthew had taken charge of their grandchildren. Verena had been glad to shrug off the responsibility. "Downton is so much better for them," she had said with her constant, meaningless smile. "Healthy country air."
Despite their worries about Robbie and the future of the estate, bringing up the children had been a new lease of joy. She had been the firm disciplinarian but Matthew had been the sun around which they orbited. When they were home on school holidays, he had not been able to start out for a walk around the grounds or take the car down to the village without their cries of "Wait for us, Granddad!" as they ran to get their coats.
And then one day Robbie had arrived at Downton, looking more animated than he had since the divorce, and had introduced them to Carol. "She has all sorts of plans for making Downton a working proposition," he had said, and indeed she had. Carol worked in what she called "PR", an occupation that was new to them. Her ideas, Robbie said, would bring a new lease of life to the estate.
Carol, the Rt. Hon. Countess of Grantham. To Edith and her cronies, an afternoon of bridge was wasted unless they could enjoy the pleasure of ripping Carol to shreds. How utterly naff she was, they tittered, enjoying their command of the new slang. Carol had named her children Adrian and Alison, she said "handbag" and "serviette" instead of "pocketbook" and "napkin", she came from the sort of people who had to buy their own furniture. "Buy it on hire-purchase," Edith had snickered. Gone were the days when an American heiress or the son of a doctor were considered beneath the family's standards. Carol's father had managed a garage.
Edith could never understand that what Mary and Matthew had felt towards Carol was gratitude. Carol loved Robbie and she loved Downton and she had rescued them both. No longer in the valley of despair, Robbie had been bursting with plans and ideas. It was Carol, though, who had been clever enough to steer them away from the theme parks and menageries with which other stately homeowners had cluttered their grounds. She had understood that the attraction of Downton Abbey lay in preserving its austere beauty and dignity, not destroying it. Making the estate the location for the television series "Lady of the Manor" was her first coup. It had run for years. From that start Downton had provided the background for the filming of an Austen novel, a Waugh short story, an Agatha Christie mystery. The estate had become so recognisable that a critic had said in his review that "Downton Abbey gives its usual solid performance in a supporting role."
Of course, the TV programs and films brought coach parties in the summer months, with the inevitable parking lot, tea-room and gift shop, but they had kept these outside the gates. What did it matter that the Van Dyck was sequestered behind a velvet rope for a few months in the year while the family dined in the morning room? The Van Dyck was still at Downton and so were they.
But she had never felt close to Carol. Carol was always gracious but there was a barrier between them. Perhaps she had tried too hard at first to help Carol to fit into her new role. Say "drawing-room", not "lounge". Don't put lit candles on the luncheon table. Matthew had told her gently to put a sock in it. "Your perfection is rather daunting, darling. Carol can never be you. She has to find her own way." And Carol had, by simply being herself. The press had played up the Cinderella angle, much to Robbie's amusement, and the public loved it.
As for Carol's children, they were darlings but they were so young, always darting past her on some busy errand of their own. And Verena's children were happy in London where their step-father's money opened more doors for them these days than their father's name. Matt was already engaged while India and Izzie floated from boyfriend to boyfriend, taking none of them seriously. She saw their pretty faces in the pages of Tatler and Harpers & Queen more often than at Downton.
At least she would see Izzie this weekend, with her latest young man, the Hon. Nicholas Ashinghurst. The ways of the world had not changed for younger sons of peers. They still had to find their own way and Nicky Ashinghurst had succeeded, becoming a fashionable photographer who was as glamorous as his subjects. She looked forward to meeting him. She had danced with his grandfather at her coming-out ball.
Heavens, she sounded like Grannie. She remembered how Grannie had had her finger in every pie at Downton. But Grannie had been able to wield her influence because the society they moved in still played by her rules. She had had the power to salvage what remained of Mary's reputation, smooth over Sybil's marriage to the chauffeur and find a husband for Edith. The world was changing so quickly now that whatever hard-won wisdom Mary had acquired seemed to have little relevance any more.
She waved and smiled at a neighbour who was walking through the graveyard. She had liked to joke with Anna that she was semi-retired. She was still asked to open the village fete or give out the prizes at the flower show but she no longer accepted very often. She was sure that the villagers would much rather have a film star, or an actress from one of the television serials. Not that she wasn't a celebrity of sorts herself. The bright young people on Carol's and Robbie's staff had wanted to make her a character in the Downton "cast", her name on expensive picture books (ghost-written of course) about gardening and flower arranging, her face on postcards and china. She had laughingly refused. There was rather a glut of Dowager Duchesses and Countesses in stately-home gift shops these days. But she occasionally agreed to an interview with one of the posher Sunday papers. Their profiles all followed the same theme: her ageless beauty (what rubbish), her timeless elegance (classic clothes always came back in style if you kept them long enough), her cool enigmatic smile. It was Matthew who had called that smile her armour.
And now here she was, alone. Her two dearest friends in all the world, who had seen past her armour and into her heart, to whom she could confide anything and be loved and understood, had gone on ahead. What was the point of staying here?
She rose to her feet, standing straight and slim, and opened the gate to the village street as a car cruised to a stop beside her. It was one of the bright young things on the estate staff, Sarah was it? or Suzy?, explaining that she was on her way to Downton and could she offer Mary a lift? Mary wasn't surprised. Stimson had no doubt phoned to Downton as soon as she left for her walk and a search party had been sent out when she had lingered at the graveyard too long. She tactfully pretended that she had no inkling of this and listened to Sarah-Suzy chatter about Nicky Ashinghurst. He was at the estate to shoot a fashion editorial for a glossy magazine, Mary didn't catch which one. So exciting ...
The forecourt when they arrived was cluttered with the by-now familiar paraphernalia of vans and lights and cables snaking everywhere. Impossibly slender girls looked incongruous in ballgowns and hair curlers. In front of the group were her granddaughter Izzie and a young man.
Izzie saw Mary and ran to help her out of the car. "Gran," she said excitedly, "how marvellous! I can't wait to show you off to Nicky. He thinks you're utterly fabulous." Izzie looked prettier than ever, dark hair in a feathery pixie cut, giant sunglasses hiding her cerulean blue eyes. Her grandfather's eyes. She turned from Mary to the young man, as though she could not bear to spend a minute away from his side. Why, she's in love, Mary thought.
At her call, the young man turned to them and Mary understood her granddaughter's infatuation. Nicky Ashinghurst was tall, knife-thin and handsome, long dark hair curling over his forehead and collar, with a casually arrogant demeanour. Sexy, that was what the young people called it. He came forward smiling and as Izzie introduced him he took off his own sunglasses. Mary felt her smile freeze on her face.
She had looked into black eyes like those before. At once shallow and unfathomable, they were the eyes of a predator who cared for nothing but the satisfaction of his own ego. She could not be mistaken. Someone with eyes like these had almost ruined her life.
She glanced at Izzie, adoring and oblivious, while Nicky smoothly flattered her. He had seen her in the Sunday rags, none of these silly girls possessed her sort of style anymore, she must agree to pose for him.
She let him talk. She was needed here. She gripped her walking stick tightly, stood even straighter and donned her smile like armour.