a bonewhite light...
She sheds the Chinese silk and sits heavily on the edge of the bed. "Mamma wouldn't leave her," she says as she lets herself find the pillow, curling into herself as her feet scissor into the sheets.
"Can you blame her?" he whispers, and she feels the bed shake.
"No." She doesn't want to, but the silence requires her to look at her husband.
"A senseless waste," he mutters. "The young lost to.. " He begins to sob. "Senseless, Mary, all of it."
Something goes quite cold in her as she thinks of another death, a flicker of latent... jealousy had never been the right word. Inadequacy? Her mind begins to play with words, his voice far away.
"William," he says. "God damn it, William. Loyal, a... Henson was barely more than a boy, Mary, and he just bled while I watched. I couldn't do anything. Mathers.. there were only bits of him left but his.." He sucks in a shuddering breath. "I'm sorry, Mary, I'm sorry."
She feels nothing.
"Johnston. Oh, God. Johnston, he got stuck in the mud and they just... we had to run and he was sport for them, Mary, they just shot and shot, and he looked at me, Mary and I couldn't stop it. I'm blubbing, I'm sorry, I know it's your sister, tonight it's your sister, not... "
He keeps babbling, name after name, Ramsey, Lewis, Aiden, Wells, and each name only increases her irritation. I have to stop him, she thinks, and it was like before, what will work? Cool cloth? Soft words? She kisses him instead on the mouth to stop the tumble of words, and she feels something.
They both do.
She climbs atop him, on her knees, her hands on his cheeks as she keeps kissing him, grinding against him, letting only that drive her, nothing else. He tugs at her hem, the cotton sliding up her thighs as she tears apart his pyjama shirt, a button snapping as she shoves it over his shoulders. He sits up as he pulls the gown over her head, and just for a moment their eyes meet and they know what this is and what it isn't.
It doesn't matter.
He pushes her, crawls over her as she frees him, his face in her breasts, and he bites and licks in ways he had never imagined in barely four months of marriage, and even as the need grows in her, it is still her mind thinking don't speak, don't break it, don't say a word, just... He pushes her legs apart, his mouth tracing the line between, his tongue finding what only his fingers had known before and she stops the shriek with her own hand, lost now, words gone until he stops and she looks down to see him not look at her as he pushes inside her in one jerking motion, her legs flung aside as he kneels and holds her hips. She cannot reach any part of him and so she holds on to cotton and feathers, cold cloth instead of the familiar heated skin, and she turns her head so she cannot see him.
They fight each other for minutes, racing to an end, and she beats him there, her body arching off the bed as she throws back her head, writhing as if..
He feels it, thinks it, sees it, and yet it is too late for him to stop and he falls atop her with a stuttering cry and is still.
The pleasure cannot break their surfaces, cannot be shared, and they separate slowly, faces averted, and she curls on her side again, away from him. Even in this, death, death, death, oh God. Sleep comes quickly in that stupor of grief and satiated lust, and for the first time since their marriage, he is not touching her.
A cry, unfamiliar and wrenching, spears through her in the grey light of dawn, and she awakens with him against her back, his face in her hair and his hand cradling her belly. They have never slept like this. The cry comes again, and she remembers the night, remembers why she aches, why it feels as if there is a hole in her chest, a piece of her gone, lost only hours before. The cry grows insistent and that ache of loss Sybil becomes a fierce need she has only known once before, and she slips out of bed, pulls on the cotton and silk and pads down the hallway on bare feet, toward that cry, up a set of stairs, and then into the night nursery, too dark, Sybil hates dark. Mary, I'm scared. She lifts the screaming bundle in her arms. "Darling girl," she croons, and it must be the warmth, or her voice, but the sobs grow softer. It dawns on her the baby has no name, nameless and motherless, and she holds her tight. The nurse from the night before comes in and Mary wheels on her. "Don't leave her alone," she hisses. "Don't ever leave her."
Her red-eyed and silent mother follows with another woman, younger even than Sybil. It is somehow wrong, Mary thinks, to see Sybil's child greedily attach to this stranger, and her mother must think it as well, her hand absently pressing on her own breast. Mary suddenly thinks mine will know mine, and her crossed arms cover her own as she walks back to her room. She strips, feeling nothing as she crawls back into bed, his bed, their bed, and he finds her again even in his sleep, back to front, and it both sets her teeth on edge and sends her to sleep.
The next night, tears have not yet fallen, and he knows he has done wrong. No maid undresses her, the idea of physical contact sickening at first, and yet in that cold moment when he suggests his dressing room, she feels quite the opposite, and again to make him stop talking, she meets him mouth to mouth, and this time she does not let him up, does not ever let him take control, and it is not short months of marriage that tells him what to do, but seven long years of knowing her. He thinks as she sucks at his neck that it is ridiculous he ever doubted her, ever thought she might not love him as he loved her, and his epiphany comes as he does, that one cannot ever know for certain, and one can only trust, and he does as her body throbs and draws him in.
They bury Sybil, and Matthew realizes some things are unforgivable as Cora and Robert do not touch, do not look, do not speak. There is agony in Dr. Clarkson's face, and Isobel's, and Mary thinks she must go see her, must sit with her more. Edith is broken and Mary holds her up, and Matthew stands ready to do the same for Tom, who stands stiffly in that churchyard not his own and watches the box disappear into the ground, watches cold dirt enclose her, watches her become trapped again in the place she did not want to stay. Wood, earth, stone will all keep her forever at Downton, and it is this that breaks him, a lone wail bursting from him as dirt strikes the lid. It is Mary who takes his arm as they leave, and Tom thinks of her stopping their elopement, of her coming to Dublin for the wedding, of her acceptance of her sister's joy without question, and of her being the first to call him Tom. She thinks of his face when the priest pronounced them married, and his face when he looks upon his daughter.
She does not understand why there is always so much food, nor why everyone is always so happy to eat it, unless it is in some way to honor those who cannot anymore. Her jaw aches, and she has nodded to all the people at least once, accepted condolences for what feels like hours and so she finds herself upstairs again, the baby pink-cheeked and sleepy and she holds her as the milky blue eyes droop and close. She knows Matthew is watching, and yet she will not look up. This is her time, the baby's time, and she wonders if Tom and Sybil had decided on a girl's name.
She will never speak of the boy's name Sybil whispered to her only days ago.
Days blur. Mary begins to think men have no sense of proportion, no idea of what battles to pick. The Great War proved that, and yet in this house her father thinks to fight the christening of baby Sybil Sybil, darling as a Catholic, and to fight Matthew's attempts at management, as if the status quo will make everything all right again when it will not be. There is too much black in the house, and Isobel's is a respite of calm and light, where Mary takes tea and finds Isobel's talks of her work a welcome distraction. Anna tells her Doctor Clarkson calls often at Isobel's and Mary is glad to know.
Edith is in London. Mary has ordered her own subscription to The Sketch and she is proud of Edith's newfound cleverness and wonders wryly how clever Edith's letter to the Turkish ambassador must have been. She misses her, and so does Granny, because the two of them cannot fight the cold at the dinner table alone. They speak of banal things, and the men remain silent, and eventually the mute agony of Mamma turns into an empty chair. She takes breakfast and dinner in her room, and Mary knows she takes tea in the day nursery now, baby Sybil her only companion. Mary also knows now what kind of babies they were, her mother's soft voice recalling Sybil's happy disposition, Edith's clingy nature, and her own reluctance to sleep. "You were always watching and waiting," Cora whispers as the baby sleeps. "You didn't want to cuddle or play."
Nights change when the baby finally sleeps and there is no cry to draw Mary away. He has never left her bed, never offered to do so again. Sex is exhausting and impersonal, but the alternative is a night spent staring at walls and ceilings in silence, when sleep does not come. Sex is a drug and they are dependent upon it to be able to find a temporary peace, and they will awaken with his body curved protectively around her, his hand in that same place and for a few moments she will forget why she feels like this. Granny says she should feel better soon, but she only feels worse.
Matthew engages Tom in his fights for modernisation, and again she questions why everyone thinks women are incapable of significant contributions to politics and finance and the world in general when three grown men argue about tenant farmers as a motherless child sleeps upstairs. She thinks the baby knows her now, a gummy smile reserved for her and not the nurse, and it is like Sybil's smile. Her head is like Tom's, her eyes still blue, and her lips are her mother's and Mamma kisses the baby as she kissed her girls, a finger touched first to her own lips and then to the baby's. Tom works, supervising a new racing garage in Ripon, but he does not speak of it, and Mary remembers she has not asked Matthew about his work. She attempts to at dinner, and it is a welcome moment of distraction until her father's disparaging remark about mercenary litigators, and the table collapses again into silence, and not even Edith's skillful attempts to change the subject can rescue them. Port is not poured, cigars are untouched, and she does not remember when they last went into the drawing room. Papa thinks she is against him, and she cannot convince him there are no sides. She pities her father for his intransigence, knowing it has cost him his child and his wife, and she fears, because she must be honest with herself, that if he does not get hold of himself soon, he will lose his eldest and his champion. She is sick that night at the thought and sick again in the morning.
Mary did not know Tom could sing. She stands with her mother outside the night nursery, her mother's tears flowing as easily as her smiles and laughter do with the baby, and Mary wishes she felt more than she did. He sings sweetly to baby Sybil, in a language they do not know, and they know they can do no more than her father can that night. He is devoted, the baby blameless in his eyes for the loss, but it is not for this alone that Mary kisses him on the cheek as he leaves the nursery. He is friend and brother now, not for her sister's sake, nor the baby's, but for his own.
Matthew is working himself to the bone, and she notices with a pang that he has begun to draw away from her. He reads deep into the night, and she tries to stay awake, but he slips in now after she has dropped off, and she only sometimes will awaken as he slides under the covers. She knows he knows when she is awake, but now he does not touch her and breaths are held for no reason at all, and they only find each other in sleep. She has never felt so low. Isobel's bright eyes miss nothing, and she coaxes information out over sweet tea and toast, and yet even then it does not seem to sink in. For two nights she cannot stay awake for him, and it is not until the third, after a dinner she could not stomach, that he comes in early and sits on her bed.
"You didn't eat," he says.
"I'm pregnant," she replies.
A thousand things race through that room unspoken.
"I can't be," she says, her fingers picking at the blanket. "I can't be. Sybil's not here. Sybil's supposed to be here. I can't. Matthew, I can't." Her lips move, she cannot say the words, she doesn't know what they are, but it's Sybil's face she sees, and suddenly she remembers. "Sybil promised she'd tell me what I'm supposed to do now."
He sees something he hasn't seen in months, whatever bound the tears to her eyes now gone, the glass broken, and she cries, gulping, pitiful sobs that shake his heart, and he cries with her in fear and joy and relief that she is here, that she has returned, that in all of it they had never really left each other. She falls asleep in his arms, and he wonders if he has known all along as his hand falls in its now-familiar place.
They wait to say something, and when they do, it is not announced, but shared, first mothers, then sister and father, then brother. Tom, whose eyes fill with tears, tells him it's a grand thing, but says no more. Fear is a justified thing in that house. She does not resent being wrapped in cotton wool, and for that he is grateful as the months pass and her quick walk becomes slow and measured. There are things to talk of now that hurt less, and her mother is at the dinner table again without explanation. It is light, but there is a cloud ahead, and every morning she knows she is one day closer to it, until that cold spring morning when she awakens in pain.
No one tells him not to worry as the screams rend the air. She has none of the symptoms of her sister, but a hundred other things could go wrong, and he is grateful that Clarkson makes no promises. His mother is with her, and her own, and Tom sits with him on the stairs. They do not stand in the library to wait, they do not follow traditions of before. He wants to hear the moment, wants to know, and Cousin Violet orders a chair to sit near them on the landing below and lets Sybil play with her jet beads. There are not sides, as Mary insists, but it seems that change is winning in that moment as Robert joins them to wait. Sybil learns "hand" and "arm" as she goes from her great-grandmother to her grandfather, and she makes Matthew's face bend into a smile with fat fingers poking at his cheeks. He thinks of Sybil drawing him out at dinner so long ago, determined to be kind. Her daughter watches him with sharp eyes that make him think of Mary and he hopes their child will be like Mary, brave and tireless, and he prays as he has never prayed before as Mary's cries grow louder, closer together, and then there is silence, broken within seconds by a high wail that makes Cousin Violet smile in relief.
She is alone when they finally let him go in, propped on pillows and still glistening with sweat. "I want a bath," she says menacingly, although her eyes smile as she tilts the small bundle so he can see his son. He will not leave her side, and she watches them both fall asleep, father and son alike before succumbing herself. She awakens in the witching time of night, as she hears her son stir, and the nurse beams as she slowly gets out of bed on her own to walk to the chair and settles in before he is placed back in her arms. She thinks of Sybil again, but it is not that agony anymore, only all that came before it, including that smile she knows is on her own face as she feels the weight of her child in her arms. He nurses, and she learns his skin, his swirls of soft, dark hair like her own, his fingers which are already long like Matthew's, and his eyes, which are paler now than baby Sybil's ever were, very nearly already the colour of his father's. And then Matthew sits on that small footstool, still half-asleep and smiling and she laughs because she can.
She knows that it is not mended, but it is better when her family stands around the bed the next morning, as if to confirm their nightmares were untrue, and baby Sybil kisses her cousin gently, and learns the name "William."