No doubt they'll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they're "longing to go out again,"-
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk,
They'll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,-
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they'll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter'd all their pride ...
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.
Siegfried Sassoon, written at Craiglockhart in October 1917.
11th November 1920
The bells of the church rang loud and clear through the quiet village, the cold November air still around them as the seconds ticked on slowly, heads bowed in silent prayer, in silent thanks, in remembrance.
Life. Duty. Death.
The service ended but the silence lingered, people speaking in low whispers and murmurs, afraid to break solemnity of the occasion with idle chatter.
Meaningless, all of it. What was talk of the weather when they were remembering the fallen?
One by one the villagers dispersed, giving their thanks and regards to Lord Grantham who had led the service, shaking hands with tearful wives and mothers and sisters who nodded politely at Matthew, stood at Robert's side. He was there. He had lived. He understood their forced, tense smiles. He excused himself and crossed to the memorial stone, only erected that summer and bearing the name of everyone from the area that had died.
Matthew searched until he found the right name, staring at it until he became aware of a presence at his side and turned, expecting to see Mary, smiling faintly when he saw that it was Thomas and Alfred, a silent understanding passing between them. Thomas' hand flexed unconsciously at his side and the Matthew and Alfred straightened as they lost themselves to their memories.
Mud. Pain. Blood. Shouts and screams as bullets found their target. The relentless crack of canons, constant, always there even in silence.
"Matthew?" They all turned, finding Mary behind them, the rest of the family already gone from sight. "We're heading back now." Matthew blinked and licked his lips, looking round as if waking from a trance, realising that he wasn't in a sodden field in France, but in the village, safe, and stepped towards to his wife.
"I'm…I'm going to stay for a while longer. Is that alright?" She met his gaze and saw the pain that filled his expression, and knew that that night would be one of nightmares, like the one before it had been. She smiled and reached for his hand, squeezing it gently.
"Of course. I'll see you back at home." She turned to Thomas and Alfred, now a respectful distance away. "I'll tell Mr Carson and his Lordship that you're with Mr Crawley. I'm sure they won't mind."
"Thank you milady," they both replied nodding as she slowly walked away.
The three men turned back to the small monument, suddenly overwhelmed with guilt, relief, anger…everything. Thomas let out a shuddering breath, watching as it curled into a puff of white in front of him. How long they stayed there, they didn't know, but everyone else had long since returned to their homes.
"Well chaps, I don't know about you, but I could do with a drink." Thomas and Alfred turned to Matthew as he spoke, but his eyes were still fixed in front of him. "Come on, we'll go to the pub."
"But what about Mr Carson?" Alfred's eyes widened in panic.
"Don't worry about that, he can hardly say anything if you're with me. He won't mind." The two servants nodded slowly and they started walking towards the pub.
The atmosphere inside was as solemn as it had been outside, and the proprietor nodded in greeting as the three men entered. Matthew approached the bar but was stopped by a hand on his arm.
"Let me, Mr Crawley." He looked in surprise at Alfred's quiet insistence and smiled gratefully as he and Thomas sat down. Alfred sat down a few minutes later, handing both each a small glass of whiskey, staring at the amber liquid in his own glass.
"Do you ever feel guilty that we're here and they're not?" Alfred spoke after a moment.
"Sometimes. When I think of William…" Matthew trailed off and took a sip of his drink, wincing as it hit the back of his throat. Thomas nodded in agreement, quickly swallowing some of his own drink.
"Who's William?" Alfred glanced between the other two as they shared a look.
"He was a footman at the house, and then he was Mr Crawley's batman."
"He…he threw himself in front of me, but it was afterwards…at the house…when he…when he died." Matthew swallowed the lump in his throat and blinked back the tears that had filled his eyes, the pain in his back now a sharp stabbing sensation as he remembered. It had been two years. They lapsed into silence once more.
"I feel guilty. How come we lived and they didn't?" The youngest man spoke a little louder than he intended to, still unable to understand how, or why, any of it had happened.
"You don't want to be thinking like that. It happened, we lived and we have to remember those that didn't. And we're better off than some of them." Thomas flexed his fingers once more, the leather of his glove almost like a second skin to him. Alfred and Matthew nodded, both remembering similar conversations with other people.
"Well, to William then," Matthew smiled weakly and lifted his glass. "To all of them."
Alfred and Thomas raised their glasses to Matthew's, and in that moment they were not a footman, under-butler and future earl. They were not separated by their class or position, but united by memory. They weren't anything other than soldiers. Soldiers that lived.
A/n: Today is Remembrance Day and this just popped into my head. I know it seems perhaps a little odd to tie such an important event to a piece of fiction, but…well, we all have ways of dealing with these things.
Thank you so much for reading; I'm always grateful to hear your thoughts.