A/N: Happy Monday!
I have been promising to write an ATiL spin-off/one-shot for AGES... and so here it is! I was finally kicked into action by a Tumblr prompt for "Mary/Matthew family portrait" - and this happened.
Thanks to EOlivet for making sure it's not TOO random, and I very much hope you enjoyed it - I've MISSED this little family so much! :D
For context, this fic begins a month or so before ATiL's epilogue (November 1920), and closes at Christmas of the same year. Mabel is 5, Catherine 3, and Bobby just about a year old.
The Very Picture of an Earl
"So you see," Violet shuffled imperiously in her chair in the Abbey's drawing room, "you needn't worry about a thing – I shall see to it. Heaven knows you've enough to think of at the moment, but I do think it would be fitting. So you may leave it to me."
"It's very kind of you Granny –"
"Really, Cousin Violet, you needn't –"
"No – no, I insist." She would not accept any argument from either Mary or her husband, who sat facing her on the plush, peach settee. Little Bobby was asleep in his mother's arms, while Catherine was curled into the corner of the settee with a picture book.
"I think it – sounds quite fun to me!" Mabel declared, jumping up and hanging over the back of Violet's chair until she was swiftly told to get down again. "Nice for Bobby's birthday. S'nice of you, Granny!"
Violet smiled triumphantly. "There, there's a girl who can show some appreciation. Now, I won't keep you any longer – yes, goodbye Mabel, my dear." She graciously accepted Mabel's kiss to her papery cheek before rising labouredly to her feet. Matthew and Mary did the same.
"Well, thank you," Mary said quietly as she bid her indomitable grandmother goodbye. Matthew picked Catherine up (she was getting rather big now, but still felt like only a feather in her father's arms) to send her off with a kiss as well, and smiled tightly as Carson showed her out.
"I think it's a perfectly stupid idea," he muttered as soon as the door had shut, pressing a kiss to Catherine's dark hair with a sigh. Setting her down gently, he suggested quietly but firmly that it was about time she and Mabel went up to the nursery for their tea, and scrubbed a hand wearily through his hair after they'd both kissed him and Mary and bundled out of the door.
It still held such a sense of excitement for them, to be here, he thought sadly. If only he could feel it too, instead of the crushing weight of responsibility.
"It isn't stupid at all," Mary said quietly, passing a restlessly sleepy Bobby into his arms, hoping his son might settle his own mood a little. "It's quite proper, actually. I'm sure the portraits of all the other Earls here haven't escaped your notice, and you must know that the majority of them were painted to mark their accession to the Earldom. So really –"
"But it's so soon," Matthew protested, pacing up and down and gently rocking his son against his shoulder. It was only a matter of weeks since they'd lost Robert and Matthew had become Earl of Grantham in his place, with Mary his Countess, their daughters both Ladies, and their son (absurdly titled, in Matthew's opinion) Lord Downton.
There was so much to think about, so much to arrange, so much to do – a family portrait for Cousin Violet's pleasure was the last thing he felt he had time for. He argued irritably, "I've enough pressing on my mind already without –"
"Which is why Granny is arranging it herself – it's very good of her, you know – so it's no extra burden on us." Mary sank back onto the settee, watching her husband's restless posture with worried affection, seeing him gradually relax to a halt, rubbing his hand warmly over Bobby's little back when he gurgled sleepily. "And considering the circumstances I think it's actually rather nice to associate it with the happier occasion of Bobby's first birthday, so –"
"Well I can think of far more ways I'd rather spend our son's first birthday than sitting for hours for a – bloody –" (he muttered the curse under his breath as quietly as he could) "– portrait!"
Mary pushed herself to her feet, clasped her hands soothingly together and took a breath before walking to where Matthew stood by the window, staring darkly out across the grounds that were now all theirs. Her throat was tight with conflicting emotion – she missed her father, so terribly, was so proud of Matthew for how well he'd taken the mantle of responsibility, was so overwhelmed at having finally succeeded to the role she'd always felt meant for yet it came at such a terrible cost… They were all being terribly sensitive at the moment. And she couldn't begrudge her grandmother's conciliatory efforts, imagined she needed them for her own composure, to occupy her mind and life with something after the loss of her son. Mary's heart stabbed painfully, and she felt an enormous wave of gratitude for her interfering grandmother who only wanted to support them in what way she could. She knew this task, the burden of it, so well now – and as Mary did her best to support Matthew in spite of her own grief, she appreciated the steadfastness of Violet more than she could express. If only Matthew could see how kindly it was meant.
Reaching Matthew, she traced her hands over his tense, rigid back and shoulders before slipping her arms around him, around their little boy as well, resting her cheek against his shoulder. With a gentle sigh, she smiled.
"Really, darling, it's easy. It's not for very long, not all at once, and you can always think of – more pleasant things to make the time pass…" she murmured in placation, pressing her lips in a warm kiss to his neck.
Matthew's expression softened immediately.
"But Papa," Mabel hissed through teeth clenched into a smile, "I'm bored!"
"Shhh Bel…" Catherine whispered beside her, turning to frown at her elder sister who nudged her gently in the ribs to face the artist again. "Oh," she breathed, her forehead creasing into a little frown of concentration. She felt her mother's hand touch her shoulder gently, and she smiled again because of it. Sandwiched between Mama's knees and Mabel, she wasn't very comfortable, but it was important she knew and they were to have birthday cake after, so… she would try her best.
"Hush, both of you," Mary chided them softly, trying not to let irritation creep into her tone.
"Lady Grantham, could you – yes, thank you –" the smarmy young artist reminded her again to not let Bobby wriggle about too much. For goodness' sake, the boy was only a year old and had been sitting (not very still) in her lap for an hour now! She smiled tightly, and flexed her shoulders as much as she could. Where Granny had found this fellow, she didn't know.
Matthew stood behind and slightly to the side of where his wife was perched, with his arm around her shoulders (his thumb rubbing softly as he felt her tension) and Mabel in front of him, his fingertips resting on her shoulder, too. His gentle smile was wearing thin, now, already. Why the chap couldn't take a photograph and work from that, he didn't know. But apparently, this way was proper. Proper be damned, he thought. Breathing deeply, he tried to clear his mind of all other weight and worries – today was for Bobby, today was for them, today was not for sadness and responsibility and everything else that had overwhelmed his thoughts in the recent weeks. Today he must forget all that. Now, he must.
More pleasant thoughts, he told himself, feeling his muscles ache stiffly from immobility (How darling Kit was managing to stand so well and so quietly, he didn't know). More pleasant thoughts… Their children. Mary. Mary… His smile relaxed a little more naturally as he thought of that morning, her warm body in his arms, her skin against his…
A little frustrated whimper suddenly sounded from Catherine. Mary shushed her, so did Mabel.
"Not much longer, darling." Mary's tone was tight and tired.
"But Mama –"
"I need the – the potty though!" the little girl whined plaintively.
"Oh, for goodness' sake!" Mary exclaimed in frustration. She was sure she'd been able to stand for far longer than this as a girl, honestly! She pursed her lips fiercely at the artist, who was looking less than amused. "You'll simply have to excuse her for a minute, I'm afraid. Perhaps we all need a moment to breathe."
The young man sighed in resignation and nodded. "I suppose we'd better, then, if you insist."
Mary couldn't care less what he thought. "Off you go then, darling – Bel, take her," she softly gave them permission.
"Thank you Mama," Bel groaned in release as she took Catherine's hand and led her off, the smaller girl experimentally shaking out her legs before toddling after her sister. As if Bobby sensed the sudden relaxation of the atmosphere he wailed loudly, and wriggled fiercely in Mary's arms until she was forced to put him down to tire himself out a little more.
"Really," she muttered, stretching her arms and then bracing her hands on her knees. "I don't see why they're unable to simply –"
"Shh, my darling," Matthew murmured with a tired, affectionate smile, stooping to lift Bobby into a warm and settling embrace before returning his free arm to his wife's shoulders, rubbing soothingly across her back. "It's easy, remember… Pleasanter thoughts…"
Christmas Day, 1920
"You pretty, Bel," Kit waved a finger at the larger-than-life image of her sister on the family portrait that stood unveiled in front of them. "And Mama."
"Thank you, darling," Mary smiled proudly. "And so do you – you look very pretty."
Mabel giggled. "So does Bobby, I think."
Matthew stood slightly behind them, his arms folded. The painting was large but the house seemed so large around it, so large and empty, not even the almost two-storey Christmas tree able to make the space seem any less for their little family, now that they were resident here and not only visiting for Christmas. The portrait hung proudly above the grand mantelpiece, and they surveyed it curiously along with Violet and Isobel.
"Well," he murmured fondly. "Mama is pretty, my girls are both pretty, even Bobby looks pretty – so what about me, hmm?"
"Now, Matthew," Violet pursed her lips. "Have a care for a little modesty!" Isobel, who held Bobby's hand as he stood on wobbly little legs beside her (he was more interested in Isis who was bounding playfully between their legs than the painting), laughed as well.
Matthew chuckled as his wife came to stand beside him, resting her cheek on his shoulder as her hands tucked fondly around his arm.
"You are quite pretty you know, darling," she smiled. The portrait brought out his features startlingly well; his striking handsomeness and well-set shoulders, an inherent strength shining through and yet touched by that soft air of gentleness that was somehow apparent in his very expression.
He pursed his lips affectionately. "You know I was joking."
"Not at all," Isobel looked up brightly at her boy, thinking of his smooth cheeks, bright eyes and soft, thick hair; qualities which still shone in him despite the strains and hardship of recent years. "You always were a pretty boy, Matthew. We can quite see where Bobby gets it from."
Mabel giggled helplessly, hugging her arms around her father's legs as Kit continued to stare, enthralled, up at the painting (it was like looking in a mirror, almost!).
Mary patted his arm. "There, darling, you're not left out." Her eyes sparkled and she leaned up to whisper in his ear, an assurance of his handsomeness and the desire it blossomed in her…
From a little way back, Violet watched them, a slight smile gracing her lips. She thought of Matthew, the terribly priggish and self-opinionated young lawyer who'd been pushed in to this house so long ago now. Then she looked up at the portrait, of the Earl and his family, who seemed to fill this large and grand house so well. To see them made it all easier to bear, somehow – and though this Christmas might well have been subdued, under the cloud of mourning that still hung over it, as she looked around her… she saw there was a broad smile on each of their faces, every one, as they stood and laughed over the (really very well done, she thought) portrait.
And she was really quite satisfied with that.
A/N: Thanks ever so much for reading! :) Feedback is always enormously appreciated and means the world to me - thank you!