A/N: Hello to one and all! Thank you so much for all your responses to the previous chapter - I know it had been a long time, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate you sticking with me. I wasn't expecting to write another chapter so soon, but I just felt pressed with the need to write this today, and out it popped!
Thank you so much to EOlivet for her tireless support and polish, and really to all of you reading and supporting me - thank you!
Chapter Twenty One
Panic swelled in Matthew's chest as he dashed up the stairs, dropping his briefcase and hat on the floor as he went. He heard Molesley's timid voice calling him back from down the hall, but he ignored it.
"Mary?" he called out, praying that she wasn't alone and cursing himself for not having been here. "Mary!"
Before he could reach the bedroom door, his heart thudding loudly in his chest covering the silence following the sound of her cry, it opened and his mother stepped quickly out.
"Ah! Matthew, you're back," she smiled too brightly, wringing her hands together. She'd closed the door behind her, blocking without subtlety Matthew's anxious search.
"Mother – what's happening? I heard Mary –" He swallowed. "Is she alright? Is Clarkson–"
"Doctor Clarkson is with her, and she's perfectly alright. Come on, let's go downstairs and–"
"But she sounded in pain, I–" His eyes widened as another, weaker, cry rang from beyond the door. He tried to reach past Isobel for the handle, but her hand closed tightly over his. "Oh God, I need to see her–"
He stiffened at his mother's sharpness, turning wary eyes to her. She softened. "Mary is in labour, and I'm afraid there's nothing you can do. She will be in pain, but she will be alright, Matthew – you must trust that. She, and the baby. Now, come on."
Watching the slow, but reluctant acceptance flicker in her son's eyes, she gently prised his hand away from the door. Dimly, he could hear the doctor's voice, and Mary's, and he swallowed back the helpless pain that shortened his breath.
"Can I at least… say something to her?" Tears brimmed in his eyes. Mary was giving birth… It was happening… He was terrified, utterly terrified, but God, how he loved her all the more.
Isobel thought for a moment, then slowly nodded, holding a hand up to wait as she opened the door just enough to look through it, shielding what lay within from his view. Matthew's fingers curled and clenched by his sides as he shifted restlessly on the spot.
"He's here," he heard his mother say. "He just wants to say–"
"Matthew? Don't come in–" Mary's voice sounded, breathless and weak. Matthew moved at once to the door, his head and his hands resting upon it though he made no move to enter.
"I'm here, darling. How do you feel?" It was a stupid question, he knew, but he needed her strength, her reassurance… None of this seemed real, having haunted his dreams for weeks and months.
"Don't ask!" he heard her laugh, then cough, then gasp in pain, as Clarkson encouraged her gently.
Matthew grimaced. "Mary if there's anything–"
"There isn't, darling. Please–" Her voice tightened in pain, again, her jaw clenching with effort that made Matthew shudder, even though he could only imagine it. "Please, just go away. It won't be long – at least – I hope it won't be long!"
Her dry chuckle made him smile, and though every fibre of his being argued against him, the strain in her voice was palpable and he knew he must leave her in the capable hands of Clarkson and his mother. If it was what she wanted. Trembling, he nodded, though she could not see.
"Alright, darling. I'll be downstairs. Mary, I… love you," he finished quietly, not even sure whether or not she'd heard him.
"I know, I–" She gasped, a whimper of pain escaping her lips.
Clarkson's stern warning of, "Lady Mary… I think it's time we–" But Matthew heard no more, as Isobel shut the door firmly.
Matthew looked to her with wild, distressed eyes, but she shook her head and grasped his arm.
"Downstairs," she ordered him, and steered him away herself. He put up no resistance, only wincing every time he heard the low, pained groans from upstairs. Feeling numb and weak with fear himself, he allowed Isobel to seat him, heard her order Molesley to bring him some tea even as she poured him something stronger, and tried to reign in his spiralling thoughts. It was now, and their baby was coming into the world – Mary was bearing it into the world – and they couldn't hide from it any longer, in only a short time it would be here and undeniable and… he didn't know that he could face it, even as every fraction of his heart ached to see his wife and child.
Isobel was on her way out, back upstairs to help, when he called softly to her.
"Why didn't anyone tell me?"
"What?" She turned back to him, to his pale, questioning eyes. Oh, she knew perfectly well what.
Matthew swallowed, his nails digging into the chair arm.
"Why didn't anyone tell me. I was at work, you all knew that, and yet no-one sent word."
"Well, we thought…" She faltered, unwilling to tell him the truth. How could she? "We knew you'd only worry, and would feel helpless sitting here unable to help. There was no need to draw it out for you, too, dear. You're here now, as we knew you would be, and that's what's important. Now, I must go."
She waited until he'd nodded, and then left to retreat back upstairs, leaving Matthew to stare in sullen anxiety at the cup of tea shoved into his hand.
Of course it was a lie. Well, perhaps it hadn't been a lie, but he knew it wasn't the whole truth.
Mary didn't want him there. She was afraid of… the outcome, and his response to it. And how could he blame her, when he was growing more terrified with each passing minute himself? She did not want him there to see, in case he did not like what he saw.
It doesn't matter, he told himself. It doesn't matter, it doesn't matter. He sighed, and sipped his tea, and coughed as his throat closed and he struggled to swallow it. Mary matters, the baby matters – our baby – our baby.
He stared into the gentle rippling on the surface of his tea, realising absently that his hands were trembling. He raised his eyes heavenwards, then closed them, brows pinching together in distress as he heard the sounds of her pain and her labour. It occurred to him how painfully thin these walls must be, and then – God, can Mother hear us so easily? – and then a fundamental, fearful misery began to crush him, as he felt himself sink helplessly under it.
Mary was in pain, and he loved her, and he was desperately afraid, and there was nothing he could do.
His feet paced, his fingers drummed, his forehead creased, all his muscles tired and aching and knotted as if in sympathy of Mary's strain. The waiting, his helplessness, frustrated him dreadfully, and he barked at Molesley when the poor man offered to bring in more tea. It took his every effort to not run back upstairs, and even in rash moments when he wanted to, his limbs seemed frozen in place by fear.
And then, at last, silence fell… A greater silence than that between Mary's loudening cries, a breathless silence of anticipation, a silence more still, though the very air seemed to tremble.
Matthew stared upwards, holding his breath.
Another cry pierced the air, a loud, high-pitched wail that rose and ebbed.
Matthew sank weakly into a chair, his head falling into his clammy hands as a dry sob shuddered from his chest. Our baby, he thought, and a cautious flicker of happiness brought the faintest smile to his lips.
And he waited… and waited, for someone to come and tell him that it was over, that he could see them, that all was well. And then he would know, they would know, and… God, he wasn't sure he wanted to know. Sweat prickled at his brow as he taunted himself, and still, he waited. He began to pace again.
Upstairs, Mary stared blankly ahead of her, barely listening to Clarkson's pleased assurances of her baby's health. A healthy girl, she was told, and she smiled faintly. Papa would be disappointed but in Mary's eyes the news couldn't be better. It was a thought she'd kept to herself, appalled by it in the secrecy of her mind, but she wouldn't have been able to bear doubting their heir, if their child had been a boy. Clarkson knew nothing of the matter of course, and so when he asked brightly if Mary would like to see her daughter, he couldn't know how Mary's heart balked at the prospect.
Isobel held the baby, ready to give to her, as Clarkson smiled and followed the maid to another room to clean up. All Mary could see was a bundle of lace shawl, a tiny hand peeping over the top of it, and all she felt was sick, and conflicted. Isobel's expression was unreadable, but Mary wouldn't have noticed it anyway.
"She is beautiful, Mary," the older woman said quietly.
Mary swallowed. "Is she… I mean, can you…"
"You must see for yourself, dear."
Isobel came towards her, and Mary couldn't back away, as her heart pounded deafeningly and she shut her eyes, too afraid to open them and see the tiny, squirming baby that was suddenly in her arms. Too afraid to be faced with the truth that she – no, they – would have to live with.
She felt Isobel's hand on her shoulder, and took a deep breath as she slowly opened her eyes.
There was her daughter. And a feeling, quite unexpected, of insurmountable love and protection exploded into her chest. This was her daughter, and she would love her, and protect her, no matter what their future brought. Tiny, tiny fingers clasped around her own, and tears stung her dry eyes.
She took a slow inventory. The fluff of hair was dark, the features delicate, the skin pale. Mary drew a trembling breath.
"I can't see her eyes," she murmured, and stroked at her baby's cheek.
"Give her a little time," Isobel said softly.
Mary nodded. She couldn't tell… She couldn't tell. She stared at her baby, and she couldn't tell. She'd somehow imagined that the moment she saw her baby, she'd know without doubt whether it was born of Matthew or the Turk, but… she didn't. She couldn't. And for all the love and the strength of attachment she immediately felt for the child in her arms, the doubt left a strange hollow in her chest.
Matthew, she thought. She stared at her baby, her daughter, her most precious gift, and thought Matthew. Matthew who'd married her, Matthew who loved her, Matthew who'd saved her, Matthew… Tears filled her eyes, and slipped down her cheeks. She so desperately wanted him to be happy, and was so afraid that he wouldn't be. How could she expect him to be, when she hardly knew if she was herself?
The baby coughed, and stirred in her arms. Mary watched in fascination as tiny eyes blinked open for the first time. Mary peered intently, her heat beating fast with curiosity, telling herself that it was just to be sure, she already loved her little daughter more than anything she'd known. But she had to be sure…
Dark… blue. Mary swallowed, wiping barely falling tears from her cheeks. Her baby's eyes were a dark, murky blue. Undeniably beautiful... but were they Matthew's blue, or just the blue of any newborn baby, that would later fade to brown? She looked to Isobel pleadingly.
"Isobel, I don't… I don't know," she whispered. "How can I not know?"
Her mother-in-law rubbed her shoulder in comfort, before rising to potter around the room, tidying and hiding the evidence of birth.
"Do you need to know?" she asked, matter-of-factly. "I know that she's yours, and that she's a beautiful little thing. Does the other thing really matter? Isn't it better this way?"
"I know it shouldn't matter…" Mary sighed, and lowered her head to press a kiss to her baby's forehead. Oh, no matter what else, she loved her. Nothing could change that. "But I can't help… being very afraid – I can't help wishing that–"
There was a gentle knock on the door, and Clarkson looked cautiously in. After one last perfunctory check to make sure that everything with Mary and the baby was fine and well, he packed his things back into his medical case to leave.
"I'll see myself out," he assured them kindly. "Would you like me to send Mr. Crawley up on my way? Poor chap will be going spare by now," he smiled.
"No!" Mary said reflexively, her eyes wide. "Just – another minute or so, but – please, tell him everything's alright."
Clarkson looked surprised, but nodded. He quite understood a woman needing time after giving birth, and despite his sympathy for the surely anxious Mr. Crawley, he wasn't about to argue with his wife just now.
"Alright, as you wish. I'll stop by again in the morning, to make sure everything's as it should be, but at this moment I can't imagine why that wouldn't be the case. Congratulations again, Lady Mary – and well done!"
"Thank you, doctor," she smiled wanly, grateful of his understanding. Despite his protestations, Isobel went to show him out, knowing privately that Matthew wouldn't be held off easily once Clarkson had left passing his seal of health on Mary and the baby.
She was right.
"I don't understand," Matthew spluttered, his pent-up worry manifesting now in frustration. "If she's – if they're – alright, then–"
"You must give her time, Matthew!" Isobel rounded just as fiercely on him. "She's just given birth, it isn't easy you know!"
"God, I – know, Mother, you don't need to play that card."
"Then try to be a little more understanding of it," she admonished him, her own voice softening as she saw him withdraw. He slumped back into a chair with a heavy sigh, and Isobel sat gently beside him.
"Can you tell me anything?" he asked after a while, sounding a little more at peace. "I don't mean – I mean, if it's a boy or a girl, or – well, anything at all?"
Isobel smiled. "I don't think that's my place to tell, my dear."
She clasped his hand, and Matthew nodded slowly. His lips pursed, then parted as if to speak, before closing again.
His head lowered. "It's… not, is it."
"What?" Isobel turned sharply to him, worried by his miserable resignation. "Matthew, what do you mean?"
He turned to her, smiling sadly. "I mean… that's why Mary doesn't want me to see, yet, isn't it. Because she's afraid I'll be disappointed. If it weren't the case then–"
"Please, dear, don't think like that."
"Then tell me otherwise!" he snapped bitterly. The silence hung thickly between them, until the agitated stiffness of his limbs eased. "It doesn't matter, I just… wish that Mary would believe me. I just want everything to be alright."
He drew a shaky breath. It didn't matter. He wanted to see his wife, and their baby, because he loved them – both of them – and that was it.
Slowly, Isobel said, "I won't tell you otherwise because it isn't my place. Whether it's clear or not, isn't for me to tell you. So, off you go."
"But, I thought…"
"Oh, that doesn't matter. Go, but – carefully, dear. Mary hardly knows what she's feeling at the moment, it's quite normal." She patted his hand encouragingly, and smiled as he rose to unsteady feet.
Mary was still cradling her child, gazing in fearful wonder at the perfect little eyelashes, fingers and toes that peeped above the shawl, smiling as the little nose wrinkled at the strange new air around it. Together, just the two of them, they were happy… and oh, how she hoped, prayed, that Matthew would be… but if he wasn't… she wanted to preserve and protect this moment. She was terrified that it would shatter, and she wouldn't know how to bear it.
A soft tap on the door startled her, and she unconsciously hugged her baby closer to her chest.
"Mary? Doctor… Clarkson said that you were quite well, and… the baby," his voice came quietly through. She could almost feel him against the door, and she stiffened, afraid. "How do you feel?" he asked. "I know you don't want me to come in, and I imagine I know why, but… darling, I just wanted to hear that you're alright."
Mary squeezed her eyes shut against her tears, that burst to the surface with affection for him. The baby stirred at the sound of this unfamiliar voice, though she didn't seem discomfited. It almost made Mary smile.
"Please don't come in yet," she gasped, terrified that his so very dear words would be bitten back in helpless disgust as he saw the baby that he still couldn't know was his own. "But we're both alright, Matthew. Thank you."
He was silent a moment, and she imagined him nodding to himself.
"Do we have a son, or a daughter?" he asked at last, and Mary's heart fluttered all the more at his natural thought of we, even now.
"A little girl," she answered him quietly, smiling down at the little girl in question who grasped her finger, and suckled it against her rosebud lips. Her little girl.
"Oh, Mary… how marvellous," Matthew said breathlessly, and beyond the door he smiled. He leaned against it, hands pressing to the cool, impassable wood as if it would bring him closer to them. "Please… could I see you both?"
Mary's thumb stroked restlessly against the softness of her baby's cheek, finding it soothed her own rapid, shallow breathing.
"Aren't you afraid?"
"I'm dreadfully afraid," Matthew laughed, as it was all he could seem to do if he weren't to break down. "But I know that I love you, and that I very much want to meet our child," he added. Our child. That had to be the truth, it was the only truth that mattered.
"Oh, Matthew… I do love you, but I'm–"
"Darling," he interrupted. "I'm only growing more scared the longer you put me off, because there's only one reason I can think you would be. But it doesn't matter, I…" A loud sigh escaped him, and Mary's heart clenched.
"I'm afraid I look rather a state," she said tightly, trying to stay light-hearted while she could, still. "I wouldn't blame you being scared of that!"
Matthew laughed, heartening her. "I'm not, and I don't believe you anyway. Please, Mary, may I come in?"
His palm was against the door, imploring her, and she ached to see him. The love in his eyes that she knew so well, that she could hear in his voice… and it struck her again. How he asked… Matthew always asked. And she knew, without the slightest doubt, that he would stay beyond that door and come no further until she granted him entry. The memories of what seemed so long ago now flooded her mind, of what had brought them to this, and the first realisations of how she had loved him blossomed again in her heart. As if able to read her thoughts, the baby's little hands grasped out eagerly, stretching towards the new sound at the door, and Mary smiled tearfully at the thought that her darling daughter knew and wanted to meet her Papa. For that was what Matthew was.
She nodded, barely able to speak, before remembering that Matthew could not see.
"Yes, alright," she breathed.
Her heart raced with fear as she heard the door open, fixing her eyes on the precious face of her baby. She couldn't look at Matthew, couldn't bear his face as he looked, and puzzled, and worked out the same conclusion she'd come to… that they didn't know. They couldn't know. How had they thought they could know, from such a tiny baby? She stiffened as the bed dipped beside her, and she felt the warmth of his body beside hers, as still she looked at her daughter, fascinated by the dark eyes that peered widely up at the new face above her.
She saw Matthew's hand, his finger outstretched to touch the tiny hand that reached up, stroking softly as tinier fingers curled around his. She held her breath.
"She looks just like you," Matthew sighed at last. "She's exquisite, darling. Absolutely exquisite… just like you."
Happiness spread through him, and a peace, quite unlike anything he'd known before. He could hardly believe it, but the question of her fatherhood had… disappeared. The moment that Matthew saw her, so tiny and vulnerable, innocent, perfect, in Mary's arms… he could see nothing else. Just her, the both of them, his wife and their daughter, both perfect to him. No other thoughts could even enter his head, as he smiled wondrously down at them both.
Mary could hardly believe it. Her whole body sagged in relief, her head nestling naturally back into the crook of his shoulder as her tears welled again.
"Oh, darling… I can't believe she's here." She felt as though this was a dream; it was too perfect, it must be, the pain only a dim memory now… and for a moment she panicked, anticipating the moment of waking. But Matthew's arm was around her shoulders, warm and real and comforting, and the sight of his hand covering hers, holding their child, was too vivid to be a dream.
Matthew chuckled lightly. "I'm so pleased she is. I'm so pleased, Mary… can I kiss you?" She looked up at him for the first time, and his face was nothing but happy earnestness, his eyes shining with unshed tears as his voice trembled with emotion. "'Cause I need to… very much."
All she could do was nod, barely that, and fight back tears as his lips came softly to hers, and they kissed, slowly and sweetly. They parted as the baby squirmed in their arms, a little cry murmuring past her lips as if seeking their attention.
Matthew tickled at her soft, perfectly smooth skin through the swathes of cotton shawl, completely enraptured.
"Well hello, my dearest little one!" he breathed happily. "Mary, I can't believe how beautiful she is, or – how happy I am, or – darling, that she's ours. It's too much to believe."
"I know," Mary hummed, nestling closer against him. Oh, she'd been so afraid of losing him, that he would draw away from her… and instead, she felt his closeness like never before, and her fears seemed only a distant nightmare. He was with her, and real, and… he loved her. No, he loved them. "She really is ours, isn't she?"
"Perfectly and completely ours, darling."
Matthew smiled down at his family, feeling utterly content, and luckier than he felt he deserved to be after the way he'd treated Mary when they'd married, and how he'd resented the child he hadn't even known. Mary was healthy, and their baby was beautiful and so like her, and… he was relieved. Relieved that they were here, and happy, and… all together. He, and Mary, and their baby.
A/N: Thank you so much for reading! :) Now, I've marked the fic as complete here, because... truly, it's the end of the story. I'd always envisaged a little closure after this chapter/scene, but as I wrote it, I felt like... it's wrapped itself up. However - if there would be interest for it, I'm open to the idea of an epilogue! I'd quite like to add an epilogue, but I just felt that here is where the story in its heart ends. So please, let me know - if people would like an epilogue as a little more, to wrap things up, I'll certainly see what I can do!
For those of you who've stuck through with this story, thank you SO much. I know it's been a bumpy ride at times, but your support and comments has mean the world to me, and I hope very much that you've enjoyed it! As to Baby Crawley - I hope you won't mind me leaving it ambiguous, for now. It was always my intention, though of course I know in my head - but I like to think that as she grows up, things would become more apparent perhaps, but it would be beside the point as she is, in every way that would matter, Matthew's daughter - and he loves her as such, whether he's sure of her heritage or not - as far as Matthew's concerned, she is his daughter, and that's all that matters to me. :)
Thank you once more!