Lady Edith Crawley knocked lightly at her sister's door. When she received no reply, she quietly opened it and stepped inside the room to find Mary in a chair by the window staring absently out into the grounds.
"Mary?" she said cheerfully. "Mind if I come in?"
Mary slowly turned her head, but didn't move another muscle. "As you are already in, I find that question superfluous."
Edith ignored the remark and moved closer to Mary. "Mama says Granny is coming to dinner tonight. And Isobel. Finally. It's the first invitation she's accepted since…since the accident."
"You mean since Matthew died," said Mary. "You don't have to sugar coat it for me. You've never spared my feelings before. And as you know, I am very well acquainted with unpleasant events. At least this time I didn't have to hide the body."
Edith winced. She'd hoped they had grown up and beyond their mutually catty past. But then, she'd voiced that hope when they'd lost Sybil, and things had since warmed only slightly, and partly because Matthew had treated Michael Gregson well in Scotland. "Mary, please. We're sisters. I want to help, if you'll let me."
"Help?" said Mary skeptically. "Aren't you the capable one. Lucky you, with Sybil gone and my life all but over, you finally get to be the fortunate one."
"Don't talk like that." Edith stiffened. "I don't deserve it. I've had my share of bad luck or have you forgotten that I was left at the altar in full view of everyone I know? Sybil married, and you had your wedding to your Prince Charming. I honestly don't know if I'll ever have that. And I'm ever so sorry about Matthew. Truly I am. I liked him very much."
"Was there anything else?"
Edith sighed. "No," she surrendered. "Just a message from Mama that she'd like you to come down and greet Granny and Isobel before dinner if you're up to it."
"And show off the heir apparent?"
"They're his grandmothers. I'm sure they'd like to see him. And you."
A few hours later, Edith met her grandmother as she arrived for dinner. "Mama and Papa are still dressing. They'll be down shortly."
Violet took her granddaughter's arm and pulled her aside. "Tell me, how is Mary?"
Edith sighed. "Much the same, I'm afraid. It's been weeks, but she just stays cooped up in her room. She said her life was over."
"At her age? Nonsense." The older woman thought of all she had lived and witnessed since she was Mary's age; marriages, births, deaths, wars and the crowning of a king. "Plenty of life left. She just needs a reason to live it."
"I know," agreed Edith. "I think maybe she needs something to do."
"Yes," insisted Edith. "Something to care about again. A purpose." She hesitated, but continued. "I know Papa thinks it's a silly thing or that it will eventually go terribly wrong, and maybe it will, but it's helped me to have my work at the magazine. Just knowing someone is expecting you or waiting to hear from you, or simply appreciates what you can offer; it gave me a reason to get out of bed again. To get off this estate and go to London once in a while instead of sitting like Rapunzel in my tower. Maybe Mary needs something like that."
Soon after, Mary sat stiffly in a rigid armchair beside the sofa in the drawing room. Summoned to greet her grandmother and mother-in-law, who had arrived early for dinner just so they could visit with the newest baby Crawley. Her parents were still dressing, so Mary was left to play hostess, a macabre sight in her widow's garb.
Trying to look anywhere but at her still grieving granddaughter and cousin, Violet glanced around, silently recalled sitting in this same room years back, her husband beside her, as Cora and Robert proudly showed off their daughters in turn. She tapped down a bubble of remorse as she remembered the increasing disappointment she shared with her own Lord Grantham at the birth of each beautiful, healthy Crawley daughter. If Robert felt disappointed, he never spoke of it, and he gallantly defended Cora when his mother tried to assign blame to his American wife. There will be more children, Mama. We will have a son. And if we don't, so be it. Violet had blanched at the thought of Downton shifting to the line of cousin James. She'd never liked him. And as if to torment her, James's marriage had quickly produced a son. Now, he was gone, and with him young Patrick, heirs in line taken as abruptly as their darling Sybil, who had been perhaps the most disappointing birth of all. Another girl.
So here sat Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, having outlived yet another member of the younger generations, wizened by age, knowing never to take life, or death, or birth for granted again. Of course, her change of philosophy was made that much easier knowing her son's line remained more or less intact, and his grandson would be Earl of Grantham.
Beside her, cousin Isobel was pale and drawn, another ghostly apparition looking far older in her black and grief than her years should allow. She held her grandson, cradling him carefully in practiced arms.
"He's quite a winsome boy," said Violet, with what could almost be described as cheer. Leaning over her cousin, perfectly content to admire the newest Crawley from afar.
"Yes." Mary's flat response lacked emotion, as if her grandmother had commented on the weather.
Isobel's eyes turned wistful, but never left the infant. "He reminds me so much of Matthew. You know, when he was a newborn—"
"Sorry." Mary suddenly stood, rubbing her temples. "I'm afraid I have a bit of headache. I'll get the nurse to take him up." She excused herself and headed for the staircase.
"That came on suddenly." Isobel watched her go.
"Suddenly," said Violet sadly, "seems to be the timeframe for everything around here lately. But, I suppose, she can be forgiven under the circumstances."
"Forgiven, certainly," said Isobel. "I was thinking more along the lines of being helped."
Violet raised her eyebrows in confusion and gestured around her. "She has all the help she needs right here. Her family, servants, and a nurse for the baby. And Tom has been a comfort—"
"Does she spend much time with him?" asked Isobel. "The baby, I mean. She hardly looked his way all the time she was here."
"I couldn't say." It was a lie. Violet had noticed Mary's withdrawal from her son, and from the entire family. Everyone had. But the protective dowager was not of a mind to share such details yet, even with Isobel. Especially with Isobel. "She's had a shock," said Violet. "She isn't quite herself yet. I fear no one is." That was true enough, anyway.
The baby fussed and Isobel deftly hoisted him to her shoulder and patted his back. "There, there," she said in a soothing voice. "Your father always liked when I patted him this way." Noticing Violet intently watching her, she made her cousin an offer. "Would you like to have a go?"
"Me?" Violet recoiled. "Heaven's no. I wouldn't trust myself. It's been quite a long while."
Isobel thought for a moment, but couldn't come up with a single time she had seen cousin Violet handle young Sybil, other than for a photograph at the infant's christening. She'd questioned the dowager's maternal involvement before, but had somehow never quite imagined the level of her older cousin's inexperience and insecurity with babies. Her thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the nurse, who had come for baby George. Placing a tender kiss on his forehead, Isobel reluctantly gave him up.
She dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief.
Violet, searching for something—anything-else to talk about, said, "I think it's time for Mary to take a role in running the estate."
Isobel looked up. "Really? Do you think that's wise?"
"There is still quite a bit to be settled with the taxes and accounts," said Violet, "but it's only right that she have a say in estate matters now."
Now that Matthew is gone. She knew Mary would inherit, but the unspoken words cut Isobel to the heart. "And how does Robert feel about that?"
Violet hated seeing her son so burdened with responsibility and mourning. Again. It seemed a never-ending cycle, and much as she resisted, age and modern times were slowly sapping her own wealth of resources to assist him. Still, though this one might well be her last hurrah, she was determined to see it through. "I'm not sure Robert knows how he feels about anything right now," she said, "but he will accept her."
"He didn't accept Matthew," said Isobel. "At least, not right away."
"Not this again. He brought Matthew here. He wanted him to stand as heir."
Isobel nodded. "A step behind and to the left. But when Matthew wanted a say in matters of the estate, Robert—"
"Robert was raised to run Downton," Violet's sharp voice cut her off. "They may have both made mistakes on the business end, but my husband made quite sure Robert's whole life would be devoted to the management of this estate, as his father had done for him. But he also made it very clear that Robert was to wait his turn. When one prepares a lifetime for a life tenure position such as a peer title, I expect it is difficult to share it. I think there is a very good reason there is only one sitting earl at a time."
"And only one sitting countess?" Isobel couldn't resist a small jab, but her heart wasn't in it. "I suppose that explains your taking up residence in the Dower House?"
Violet simply waved her off. "A ship cannot have two captains."
Isobel wasn't quite sure whether Violet was referring to she and Robert as captains of Downton, or she and Cora as captains of the household. Either way, it didn't matter. "Robert nearly sank his ship." Isobel didn't really know why she continued to target Robert; after all, he had been kinder to her over the years than either Violet or Cora had.
"My grandfather was a naval officer," said Violet with a wry smile. "He used to say all a foundering vessel needed to steady itself was the right ballast in the right places. In stormy seas, Robert had finally settled on Matthew and Tom. And now it seems Tom will need a new ally to keep Robert balanced. Mary has an interest and will need a purpose."
"Isn't her purpose to be a mother?" Isobel's own face suddenly flushed as she was revisited by the realization that she had just lost her own purpose in life. She was no longer a mother.
Violet bristled again. "Mary knows she will be holding Downton only until the young master succeeds Robert—"
"That's just it," said Isobel, desperate for something to focus on. "Doesn't it worry you that she speaks of the child only as heir?"
"But he is the heir."
"First and foremost, he is her son."
Violet shifted on her chair. "I am quite sure Mary is aware of the child's parentage. She is his mother. I doubt any woman could forget that fact."
"Really?" asked Isobel. "And when Robert was born, how did you see him? As your beautiful son, or as heir to the Downton dynasty?"
"Both, of course," said Violet, "but don't worry, we visited the cupboard we kept him in and admired him once a day until the happy day his father died and we let him out to become Earl of Grantham. I'm only sorry I won't be around to relive it when they bury him in favor of George." Even the dowager pulled up short, knowing from painful recent experience that there was no guarantee that children outlive their parents.
"I'm sorry." Sharing Violet's silent realization, Isobel relented. "I wouldn't wish that on anyone."
Violet continued, but without sarcasm. "You may not approve of life in a titled family, but the reality remains that succession is the key product in the marriages of each generation in line. I was delighted to have produced two healthy children. I did not care for either of my children any more or less than the other. We valued our children, just as we all valued Mary, Edith and Sybil. They were all equally prepared for the life they would eventually have."
"Valued. Prepared. Do you hear yourself? You could be speaking about servants or gardeners, or even the family dog—not children. George is a baby. My son's baby. I would hope that he is more than valued. And aren't you worried about Mary?"
The women ended their conversation abruptly as the dinner was announced and the voices of Robert, Cora, Edith and Tom were heard in the saloon, but Violet would have the last word.
"Just because an emotion isn't hung like a banner from the family flagpole," she said, "doesn't mean it isn't there."
Dinner was a mostly subdued affair, with polite conversation about the weather, little Sybil and other safe topics, but the diners all pointedly ignored the rather large elephant in the room: the two glaringly empty chairs that should have been filled by Mary and Matthew.
After everyone else had retired for the evening, Robert poured two drinks in the library. He handed one to Cora. "Well, that was painful."
Cora sipped. "Poor Isobel. She looked terrible. So drawn and pale. I suppose we should consider it a victory that she was here at all."
"And tonight was another defeat on the Mary front?"
Cora nodded, and took their glasses and set both down. "One project at a time, darling. I'll try to speak to her again tomorrow, but I'm afraid a dinner invitation and some company just won't cure what ails Mary." She kissed him on the cheek. "I hope she just needs more time. I'll speak to Dr. Clarkson, about Mary and Isobel. Maybe he has some ideas that will help."
Robert swallowed his comment on that subject and offered his wife his arm to lead her upstairs for the night.
Isobel greeted her visitor just after lunch. If she were honest, the deathly quiet of her house was getting to her. Her servants tiptoed around her, and after the initial flurry of people paying respects, her visitors dwindled, along with her invitations. Of course, that could be partly due to her continued refusals. Cora came fairly regularly, sometimes with Robert, and had phoned her up to check on her or extend invitations to dinner, Tom had stopped on a few occasions, and even Violet had paid calls, but it was hard for the normally gregarious Isobel to consider any of them welcome, and somehow the house seemed more empty and silent after they left.
Requesting tea for two, she led him to her sitting room and Dr. Clarkson set his bag on the floor and sat in an armchair. They exchanged pleasantries and the conversation petered out. After an awkward pause, Clarkson pressed on.
"Now, how are you?" he asked.
"Are you asking as my physician or as my friend?"
The doctor shrugged. "Whichever will get me an answer."
"All right," Isobel relented. "I'm fine."
The doctor frowned. "An honest answer."
Isobel sighed. "I am as fine as a mother can be after she's just lost her only child." She smirked and stubbornly set her chin at him. "There now, are you happy?"
He shook his head helplessly at her. "I wish there was more I could do to help, but maybe we can go for a drive, or I can give you something to help you sleep—"
"You don't have to drug me," she snapped. "I know all too well what grief does to the mind and body. I learned firsthand after I lost my husband."
Clarkson withdrew, if only emotionally.
"Then, I had Matthew to buck me up. I had to keep going, I had to be strong for him, so he didn't worry too much about me. And now," she continued, trying to sound matter-of-fact. "I've lost him. I've lost my son. I am alone."
"You're not alone," said the doctor, careful not to offer too much. "You have your family and your grandson."
"Do I?" she asked. "He's one of them now. They'll see to it. With Matthew gone, I'll be pushed aside, you'll see. Invited for the odd birthday or holiday supper like some eccentric maiden aunt."
"I'm sure you're wrong," said Clarkson, knowing that it was Cora's concern that precipitated his visit to Isobel. "I've always found Lady Grantham to be gracious and sincere, and Lord Grantham may be a bit old fashioned, but that also makes him fiercely loyal to the people around him. I doubt they'd cut you off."
Realizing she sounded a bit churlish, she tried to change the subject, if only slightly. "Besides, the one you should really be worrying about is Mary."
He'd seen Mary recently, and had his own concerns, echoed by her family, but in the interest of patient confidentiality he played dumb. "Lady Mary? Why?"
"I think Mary is showing signs of post-partum depression. She sees no one. She speaks to no one, and when she does she's like a sleepwalker. She barely leaves her room."
The doctor raised an amused eyebrow at Isobel's confident diagnosis. Always at her best when she had a corner to fight, he was pleased to see at least a flash of spirit. "Well, I'm sure you know that's not unusual for any new mother," said Clarkson. "Especially under the circumstances. I've checked on her regularly and physically she's completely recovered from childbirth, but Lady Mary is processing a very potent cocktail of hormones and emotions these last weeks. Many new mothers feel depressed, even after births that are relatively uneventful."
"True," said Isobel, "but she seems to be growing completely disconnected from her child. She hardly touches him."
Dr. Clarkson nodded knowingly, but wondered if Isobel saw warning signs in her own recent behavior. "Again, that is not terribly unusual, especially in aristocratic households such as Downton, where children are often raised by an army of nurses and nannies. I'll admit that Lady Grantham was a bit more hands-on than most of her titled contemporaries, but all the Crawley sisters were raised with that privilege and let's face it, Lady Mary may be the least maternal Crawley of all."
Isobel gave a snort of mild disgust. "It's hard to imagine anyone less maternal than the dowager. She and Mary are two peas in a pod. All they care about is tradition and succession. Downton this and Downton that."
"Oh, I don't know," said the doctor. "Money and servants aside, it can't always be easy living the way they do, so tied to the past it strangles the future. I envy that life sometimes, but I'm not sure I'd want it. But you and I've been around the Crawleys enough to know there are strong ties there. Most of the time anyway. They're more reserved and private than most, but I won't judge them. They are basically a normal family; well, as normal as they can be anyhow."
He was struck by how many moments of joy and sadness he had been privy to within the imposing stone walls of Downton. He'd treated the earl's daughters from sniffles to womanhood, had pronounced the former lord's death, confirmed Lady Grantham's surprise fourth pregnancy and the devastating miscarriage that followed. Then there was poor Lavinia Swire. And Matthew's war injury. But that seemed a lifetime ago. Matthew Crawley's lifetime.
"In hospital, Lady Mary seemed thrilled with motherhood," he said. "You saw it yourself." He struggled not to say before the accident or mention that the new mother's elation had been short-lived. "She will find her way." He made another attempt to redirect Isobel's attention and soften her stance on the Crawleys. "And you may be surprised to know that even the dowager has surprised me at times."
Clarkson also remembered the senior Lady Grantham's efforts to ensure comfortable final days for the wounded young footman William Mason, and her insistence that the doctor himself join forces with her in an attempt to mend the rift caused by the death of Lady Sybil in her son's marriage. Though they'd never spoken of it again, Dr. Clarkson had observed the return to normalcy in the lord and lady's relationship, undoubtedly a result of the dowager's successful meddling.
Isobel sipped at her tea. "She is completely out of touch. Do you know that she thinks the way to snap Mary out of her widow's grief is to set her to work at Matthew's job on the estate?"
He processed the evidence before him quickly, and matched it with what he had learned from Lady Grantham that morning. Knowing he could say no more aloud without violating the confidence of the family, he gave Isobel a mournful smile-and a bit of a challenge. Having come to know Isobel Crawley even casually, the doctor realized his first, best prescription for her was not to be found in his black bag. "I suspect that beneath her hard exterior, the dowager is actually quite caring and wise. Though the message at times may be delivered in a rather blunt and heavy-handed manner, she is a woman of action and her instincts about her family are frequently on target."
"Yes," mused Isobel, nibbling at a biscuit and at the bait.
"Well, I should be off." The doctor stood and grabbed his hat and bag. "I'll check in on Lady Mary again soon. I promise. Of course," he stated, trying to sound as if he were thinking on the fly, "if what you say is true; if she really is as withdrawn and depressed as you say, I'm sure the Dowager Countess will bring her 'round. She is a force of nature and she's well-intentioned, 'tis only a shame that she lacks tact in delicate situations."
"Yes," said Isobel, following him to the door, thinking out loud as she walked. "But this business needs a velvet glove. Mary is in mourning. She's fragile and broken. She may be a Crawley, but simply telling her to snap out of it for tradition's sake won't do. She'll need someone who understands what she is going through, emotionally as well as physically."
She paused, and like every good fisherman, the good doctor waited until his opponent to make the next move. She did, taking the hook, line and sinker.
"Yes," she said. "I'll call 'round myself tomorrow. I'll see Lady Grantham first at the Dower House. Perhaps if we all join forces, we can make a difference in the lives of Mary and George before it is too late."
Smiling, Dr. Clarkson tipped his hat and departed, content in the knowledge that at least one Crawley patient had taken her medicine and was on the road to recovery.