Hello! I know it's been a while, but this has possibly been the trickiest chapter to write. This is, sadly, the last chapter of this particular tale. I could have carried it on, but it was really quite difficult to write without Matthew there. *Sniffs*
Thank you, as ever, for all of your incredible support, I really do appreciate it.
So for the final time…enjoy!
8th May 1917
"…and I realise now that I probably should have waited to introduce you, so I hope that you'll forgive me, because Catherine and I would like it very much if you could come to the wedding. There's no hurry to answer though. Please look after yourself.
Mary sighed as she folded the letter back up. A wedding. Quite possibly the last thing that she wanted to attend. She shook her head and closed her eyes, ridding herself of the vaguely unkind thought that had formed in her mind. Her fingers tapped restlessly against the bench. Their bench. Except that it wasn't – couldn't ever be – their bench anymore. She felt the prickle of tears in her eyes and took a deep breath, and another. She couldn't – wouldn't – cry again.
"Excuse me, milady." She looked up, startled, pulled from her reverie by a young man in khaki, his arm bandaged.
"William, sorry, Corporal Mason, how are you?" She straightened and smiled briefly at the man as he shuffled nervously in front of her.
"I'm…alright, thank you, milady. I'm sorry to disturb you but I was wondering if I might speak to you for a moment." Mary's eyes widened before she nodded and indicated for him to sit down. They sat in silence, awkward yet strangely comforting, listening to the soft rustle of the leaves and the birds soaring above them, before William eventually spoke.
"I was wondering…if I might give you something, milady."
"Oh? You don't…have to…"
"No, it was… It was something of Captain Crawley's." Mary's breath hitched at the name and she turned her head sharply to look at William who was pulling something out of the sling on his bad arm, her trembling fingers clutching at her skirt. "It fell out of his pocket at the hospital, and I thought…you'd want it." It was then that he pulled out the object and held it out to Mary, who could not hide her gasp of surprise or ignore the stinging in her eyes. Tentatively, she reached out and took it from him, her fingers curling round it uncertainly.
"Thank you." William smiled sadly and nodded as Mary spoke before looking away and staring off into the distance once more, his mind elsewhere.
"I did…try to save him, milady."
"I'm sure you did-" But William carried on, not hearing Mary's words, his own eyes glazing with tears, the pain in his arm a sharp reminder of what had happened – memories of slipping on the mud as something hit his shoulder, of half-carrying half-dragging Captain Crawley back to the safety of the trenches, of refusing to listen to the medics and officers and doctors as they tried to get him to leave the room at the hospital, assaulted him, fresh and raw in his mind.
"He was at my side and then…he wasn't. I turned and he'd fallen, so I went back. I tried to get 'im back to the trenches as quick as I could, and they wanted me to leave 'im, but I couldn't, and then Mrs Crawley… " William stopped then, as if realising what he'd said and who to, and ducked his head, his face ashen. "I'm sorry milady. I didn't think."
"No, it's…it's quite alright." Mary gripped the toy dog, almost crushing it, as she was flooded with memories and unwelcome thoughts, frowning for a moment before realising and offering William a small smile. "He liked you a great deal William, and I know that…he would have been grateful."
William nodded as he stood, "I'd better go; me dad'll be wondering. I am sorry milady. I liked Captain Crawley, we all did."
Mary swallowed as a lump rose in her throat, blinking away the fresh tears as she turned the toy over in her hands, the soft worn material familiar against her fingertips, before she looked up and met the kind gaze with a warm smile.
"Thank you William, for…everything."
22nd May 1917
"Mrs Crawley is just in the sitting room milady, I'll take you through."
"Thank you Molesley," Mary smiled at the butler as he took her coat and followed him through the house.
"Mary, how are you?" Isobel stood and greeted her with a kiss on the cheek, before resuming her seat, looking carefully at the younger woman as she sat down – not as pale, eyes brighter, better than she had been a few days ago.
"I'm alright, thank you. How are you?" Before she could answer, Molesley entered with the tea, leaving with a polite nod when Isobel said they'd manage.
"Oh, fine. I've had a letter from my cousin, Mrs Thompson, in Bath. She's asked if I want to go and work at the hospital down there. She thinks… She thinks it might be a good idea to…get away from here for a little while." Isobel's smile faltered then and Mary instinctively reached for the other woman's hand and gently clasped it as Isobel blinked away the tears that had filled her eyes with a smile and a deep breath.
"Well, I think it's a marvellous idea. Have you accepted?"
"I'm glad you think so, and yes; I'll be leaving in a week. But I wanted to see you today Mary, because I want to ask if you'd perhaps consider coming with me. Of course you don't have to, but it might do you some good to…get away as well."
Mary straightened, surprised, and reached for her tea.
"It's very kind of you, and your cousin, but I…don't know if I could." But even as she said it, she began to wonder. Getting away. Leaving. There would be no cemetery to visit. Nowhere that would remind her of anything or anyone. And she couldn't decide if that was a comforting thought or not.
"I understand, but you don't have to decide now my dear, and it's an open invitation, so if you did change your mind, you'd only have to write. Please just consider it, at least, before dismissing it completely."
"I promise I'll think about it."
Isobel smiled broadly, and though pain still filled her eyes, Mary thought the older woman looked better than she had for several weeks, and they finished their tea in companionable silence.
It was a little over a month later when Mary wrote to Isobel and asked if the invitation was still open, which of course it was. She helped Anna to pack her things and a few days later, she boarded the early morning train with a smile and a wave at her mother and sisters, filled with a strange mix of hopeful optimism that she hadn't experienced for quite some time, and an uneasy ache at all that she would be leaving.
Though it was nowhere near as grand as Downton, or even Grantham House in London, the Thompson's house in Bath was pleasant and comfortable, and with a ladies maid whose skill for hair-styling almost rivalled that of Anna's. Mary found that the days passed quickly once she was settled and had established something of a routine. After breakfast, she would go out for a walk, exploring the parks and streets of the unfamiliar city, or she'd write to her sisters, to her mother, her aunt, even to Evelyn, pushing away thoughts of the person that she really wanted to write to.
Mary had been in Bath for almost six weeks when Isobel suggested that perhaps she would like to volunteer at one of the schools, and so she did. It kept her busy, kept her mind occupied, as she introduced the children to tales of the Greeks, to the Gods and heroes and monsters of old, to Shakespeare, and Dickens, and Carroll, ignoring the sharp pain in her chest whenever she came across something that reminded her of her other life, of him. She found that as well as being a distraction, she was actually starting to enjoy herself. Matthew was never mentioned, but he was never far from her thoughts. She couldn't forget him even if she'd wanted to.
Summer drew to a close, and with it came a society wedding in London; the wedding of a dear friend. Accompanied by her aunt and still dressed in black, the ring on a delicate chain around her neck, Mary held her head high and smiled broadly, politely, as she talked to the bride and groom and refused to acknowledge the curious glances as she moved around the room, and the thoughts about another wedding that threatened to intrude. Autumn arrived, bringing with it colder weather and rich reds and yellows. Mary still helped at the school, though less often as autumn faded and winter was suddenly upon them. By the time that December had arrived and the snow was thick on the ground, both Mary and Isobel were ready to go home.
26th December 1917
Mary shifted in bed, unable to rest, knowing that she should, even though her thoughts were moving too fast for her to make sense of them and clear them from her mind. A knock on the door startled her and she sat up and smoothed the blankets around her, grateful for the distraction, nodding at the nurse in the corner.
"Come in!" She smiled as her mother entered, carrying a tray of tea and toast.
"How are you feeling my dear?" Cora placed the tray on the bedside table and perched on the edge of the bed, her hands resting in her lap as she watched her daughter take the baby from the nurse, who then left them with a smile and a nod.
"Alright. Tired." Cora nodded and smiled sympathetically as she looked at the young woman on the bed; her heart contracting as she took in the gentle smile and unguarded expression of adoration that was gracing her daughter's features as she gazed in wonder at the small baby in her arms, remembering how she had held each of her three girls in the same way, with that same sense of awe, and quite unable to stop herself, she reached and gently stroked her grandchild's cheek.
"Beautiful," Cora murmured, looking up and meeting Mary's teary smile with one of her own, before leaning in to kiss her eldest child on the forehead. "Now, my dear, there's someone who'd like to see you both, if you wouldn't mind, if you're not too tired."
"No, I don't mind." Mary looked at her mother as she stood and opened the door, indicating for the visitor to enter.
"Carson!" The butler bobbed his head as Cora left them. "Do sit down, please."
"Are you sure milady? I know it's been something of a long day for you."
"I absolutely insist." She smiled broadly as he sat on the chair at her side. "Would you like to hold him?"
Carson's eyes widened in surprise as Mary held out the bundle of blankets to him, nodding as he took them, holding and cradling the child carefully against his chest, her hand reaching out to the blankets, unable to bear being parted from her son even for a moment.
"I know you're probably disappointed in me Carson; it's not quite how things should be, I know." He raised his eyebrows as she looked at him, her free hand clutching at her own blankets.
"Never milady. And in this case, nothing is as it should be." They both looked at the sleeping child for a moment, taking in the fluffy dark hair and the rosebud mouth. "He looks like Captain Crawley, if you don't mind me saying." She shook her head, feeling fresh tears form as the butler handed the baby back to his mother. "A long time ago, in a room down the hall from here, I held another dark-haired baby. She was a treasure, and she grew into a very fine lady." Carson smiled as Mary's eyes widened and she let out a soft laugh.
"Do you want to know what he's called?" She met Carson's gaze and he nodded once. "Charles Matthew. You see Carson; it's not just a butler that has their favourites." The tears fell then and she quickly wiped them away with a smile, suddenly overwhelmed by the emotions that were flooding through her as the baby stirred against her.
"Oh… Milady, thank you," Carson smiled and inhaled sharply and blinked, but Mary had seen the glisten of tears in his eyes, and she knew that she had made the right decision, even as she wiped her own eyes again and pressed a soft kiss to the baby's head. They sat in silence for a moment, the crackling of the fire the only sound that filled the room.
"Are you happy milady?" Carson spoke after several minutes of observing mother and baby, a conversation from years ago springing to his mind.
"I think…I'm as happy as I can be Carson, does that count?" She looked up and tilted her head thoughtfully.
"Only if you mean it milady."
"Then it counts." He nodded and stood.
"I'll leave you to get your rest. He's a bonnie lad. Captain Crawley would be very proud milady."
"Thank you Carson."
They both smiled and Mary swallowed as the butler left, fighting against the tears once more. She looked at her child again, for it felt like it had been a while since she had, and kissed his head, shifting and settling him properly against her chest.
"I wish your Papa could be here to meet you," she murmured, watching in fascination as the baby's eyelids fluttered in sleep, and with that she had an idea. She would write a letter. Carefully, so as not to disturb the baby, she leaned across to her bedside cabinet and reached for the writing things that she kept there. Slowly, she wrote out the date and paused before writing the name. It had been so long since she had written to him and yet his name flowed from the pen as if she had never stopped writing to him, and her heart ached, but this… This had to be done.
How strange it is to write that. It's been so long dearest… Too long. And it's not because I haven't wanted to. It has been almost eight months since you left me, and I can't say that I've quite forgiven you just yet. You see, you left me and you broke a promise, and I know it couldn't be helped, but then you had to go and leave me a letter as well, the words of which are burnt into my mind. I can't forget them, which means I can't forget you, and it hurts. I don't want to forget you; I just want it to feel easier to remember.
Today is Boxing Day. We should have been married this morning. I should have worn a dress more beautiful than anything you have seen before. There should have been a horse-drawn carriage to take me to the church, to you. You should have been there in your mess kit – you always looked so handsome in that – and we should have been married. Then tomorrow we should have been travelling to Scotland for a week, for our honeymoon. Lots of things should have happened, and none of them did, and I don't think I can tell you how sad I am that they didn't. Couldn't. I know it's not your fault, darling, but if I can't tell you any of this then who can I tell?
Today, instead of getting married, I gave birth to your – our – son. It seems that perhaps we should have been more careful that day in April, but I certainly can't regret it now. I'm glad, at least, that I got to know you properly, and that we knew what happiness was before you left.
Our son was born at half-past ten this morning (after being in labour for almost twelve hours. I'm sure you probably wouldn't have wanted to know that, but there it is), weighing just six pounds. According to Clarkson, that's a good healthy weight even though he was a bit early. Honestly, he felt much heavier when I was carrying him. Isobel said he looks just like you did when you were born. She's pleased, I think. Lord knows what I would have done without her support when I first found out. Papa was furious, but he seems to have accepted it now, especially because I have borne him a grandson.
18th June 1917
Cora's hand gripped her daughter's, flinching as the volume of her husband's voice increased, stepping forwards slightly as if she might shield Mary from his tirade.
"You stupid girl. Have you any idea what you've done? What this means for you, and for the rest of the family? I'll have to send you away this time. As if we haven't faced enough scandal recently."
"No Cora. Mary is a child, and as such will be treated as one. Stupid, foolish girl." They all stood silently for a moment, the air thick around them.
"I don't want to hear it Mary. You are going to America this time, and there will be no arguments."
"Will you listen to me, please?" Mary raised her own voice and wrenched her hand from Cora's, stepping towards her father as white hot fury burnt through her.
"Why should I when you have done nothing but bring shame on this family? I overlooked your indiscretion with the late Mr Pamuk, but this… This I cannot ignore."
"Papa, please! Yes it was foolish and thoughtless, but I am not solely at fault. Why should Matthew escape blame just because he's dead?" As soon as the words were out, she brought her hand to her mouth, eyes wide in shock, as if she couldn't believe that she'd said it. For the first time since that fateful day in April, she had said his name, said the one thing that she refused to let into her thoughts. Her eyes filled with tears and she shook her head, her voice barely a whisper. "I am sorry Papa."
I wish that you could be here, my darling, to meet your son. As I write this, he's asleep in my arms. It's not very easy to write, but I can't quite bring myself to ring for the nurse just yet! To tell you the truth Matthew, I'm scared. I don't know how to be a mother. I never even thought that I wanted to be one, and it would be different if you were here, and I know I mustn't dwell and wish for things that can't be changed. I can't remember what it was like when Edith was born, and even when Sybil was born, I was still too young to understand properly. Sybil wants to help though, and so does Mama, and Isobel, so I think I'll find my way eventually.
You should know that I'm going to tell him every day about his Papa, and what a good man you were, how kind and generous and clever you were. How brave and honest, and handsome. You would have been a wonderful father to our beautiful boy, I'm sure of it. The money you left me is going to be put into a trust for him, and then whatever happens…his future will be secure, because at the moment, I don't know what will happen. Papa is getting Murray to look into whether Charles could inherit, but if not, I might take him to America and stay with Grandmama, but we'll see.
Oh, I called him Charles after someone very dear to me. I'm sure you wouldn't mind. Charles Matthew Crawley. Everyone seems pleased with that, but even if they weren't, I wouldn't change it. I wouldn't change any of it. Well, I'd like to stop crying! I can't seem to help it, but apparently that's perfectly normal.
My darling, I miss you, more than I ever thought was possible, and it's so strange that you're not around and that you will never read this. Do you know that it has only been two years since the Servant's Ball? It seems far longer and yet like no time at all has passed.
You told me to be happy, and at first I didn't think I ever could be again, but I was trying. It's not easy, but I think now…I could be. Not truly happy, but close enough. Dearest Matthew, I will love you until the last breath leaves my body, and I'm sure you felt the same about me. And now…I'll say goodbye, properly, if only because your son is hungry!
All my love. Always,
She wiped her eyes again and carefully folded the letter, tucking it under her pillow and unfastening the front of her nightgown just as the nurse came back in with a small smile, watching closely and nodding in encouragement as the new mother shifted the baby against her breast.
Mary might not have Matthew, but she would always have a part of him, and that was enough to be happy. And as she looked down at the bundle of blankets in her arms, at the face of her son as he fed, his tiny hands curled into fists, her heart filled with more love than she had thought was possible, she knew that it was the truth.
A/n: Well. There we go. I had two possible endings in mind, and this was the one that I thought would work best in the end. And I know after chapter 12, there were calls for her to have a baby, but it was already in the original plan, and obviously I didn't want to say anything! Also, and this a random note, but Lewis Carroll's real name is Charles. :)
Thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart, for every single review/favourite/alert/message/kind word, and to everyone that has stuck with it until the end. I know it wasn't easy, and I have cried just as much as I've written it, but all of your support has been overwhelming and amazing, and I really don't think I can thank you all enough.
Special thanks to Willa Dedalus, for many enthusiastic conversations about headcanons and background stories. To peachdreamsandperseus for her wonderful legal insights (even if I didn't use them in the end). Finally, to smndolphin and Orangeshipper, who have known from the start how it was going to turn out, who have listened to me go on and on when I've tried to talk myself out of writing it, and whose friendship and support I could not have done without. They have held my hand, they have always listened and helped me figure things out, and if it wasn't for either of them, this story would not be what it is now, so ladies, thank you both. You're both darlings and I love you.
Nothing left to say, just…thank you all again. I can't tell you just how much it means to me, and how sad I am now that this is over!