Author's Notes: Thank you to maricejayo, AdieAngel, LadyMaryOwnsYou, Guest, Guest, Vashti, jwadleigh, Maria, jamar, Musiclover 09, and RhythmAndTime for taking the time to read and review. I greatly appreciate the interest in my work. Please note that this chapter takes place a year before the events of the first chapter.
Disclaimer: The show doesn't belong to me.
A Ghost In The Fog
Chapter Two: Alone
By Duckie Nicks
Loose strands of hair bit into the soft flesh of her cheek, turning the normally pale skin into a lattice of cream and pink. The wind was particularly fierce today, the weather bitter to an extent that it seemed better suited to a Charles Dickens work than a child's christening. But neither the cold air nor her personal comfort or even the future Earl of Grantham's baptism had stopped Mary from riding. It was too important to her. In the six months since her husband's death, she had found solace only in the horses and the escape they could provide. Instead of seeking refuge with people, she clung to the hobby as fiercely as she was holding onto the leather reins in her hand.
Of course, those around her tried to console. Everywhere, there seemed to be an acquaintance or friend willing to offer ineffectual words that left Mary in the position of pretending that their platitudes meant something to her. No matter their intentions, she was the one left to comfort them with a portrayal of grief they felt comfortable witnessing.
There was no avoiding those moments either, try as she might. Pity was everywhere, and she had no means to put a stop to it. It would have been impolite to speak the truth, far more embarrassing to do so, so she did what was required. She made others feel better.
Throughout these many months, Mary had come to find the burden to be unbearable. Riding, and its requirement to leave the world of man behind, had become the easiest way to avoid those conversations… at least for a while. Returning to Downton and the well of conflict that created in her was always inevitable. But for a brief hour or longer, Mary could divert her attention away from her loss and the expectations of her that came with it.
She had to redirect her focus when riding. Even if she'd wanted to consider other matters, she didn't have the option to for very long. The tamest of horses could throw her if she weren't careful enough, and in order to control herself, Mary preferred the creatures that had yet to yield themselves completely to anyone's hands.
There was something punishing about it – taking the animal least likely to grant her control and force the beast with tight reins and an eager whip to gallop as harshly as it could go. The black mare beneath her was beginning to sweat, the moisture slowly beginning to seep into the jodhpurs' fabric where Mary's legs met the horse. It felt like success.
She had no intention of riding it into lameness; there was never an intention to hurt. In those moments however, when woman and animal sped as fast as they could away from Downton, the pain was always apparent. The horse would whiny at the sudden demand, and Mary would only think, as dangerous and unwanted as the thought was, if this was what it had been like for Matthew. The method of movement was different, but had the wind she felt now been the same he had felt when driving away from the hospital? Had the stark beauty of Downton amongst the hills and trees taken him aback?
She always forced the questions out of her mind, leaning down so that the horse could go faster. As she had told herself soon after Matthew's death, there was no point in wondering. The answers would be of no consequence.
Her husband was dead. There was nothing to be learned that would make any difference to her – not when he was gone and she was left behind to raise their son alone. What could be said after that to console her? What could be revealed that would help her understand why this had happened to her? Again, there was nothing that could do that, and when that was the case, Mary chose to ride and get lost in the motions of the sport.
For that reason, turning around was the hardest part. It had always been so, but today the decision to return seemed agonizing. At all times, she was aware now that Downton would never be hers; she would never be its countess. The estate would go to her son and his wife. Mary would never be anything more than an inhabitant, as important as a second footman and half as useful. She hadn't become a nurse like Sybil, hadn't fallen into a writing career like Edith. Mary had clung to and fought for a future at Downton. Now she was tied to it inextricably.
It was no longer a happy entanglement.
The impending christening seemed to underline that fact for Mary. Her son would be blessed, as she had been cursed. He would never have to fight to inherit the estate. The law would give it to him, whether he loved Downton Abbey as much as she did or not. He would never know his father, but George would also never know the pain of losing Matthew either. Mary didn't need the baptism to see the luck bestowed upon her child.
She certainly didn't need to see a reminder of it either. Yet she knew she had no choice. To refuse to be seen at her son's christening was not an option. She was not so far gone as to not see how she had to behave. But she took her time returning the horse to the stables, and she was even slower to return to the house.
Of course, the latter might not have been intentional. Keeping the horse under her control had been draining, the cold air leaving her stiff. Even if she'd wanted to rush, she couldn't. Her body wouldn't let her.
As she ambled up the main path, Mary found it hard to want to move faster though. From the short distance, she could see a man who looked like Mr. Molesley leaving with a basket in his hands. It couldn't have been him. He had left Downton Abbey after Matthew had died for….
Mary didn't remember where he had gone actually. She had been told, but at the time, grief had left her thoughtless. If he had returned, she found it mildly interesting but hardly suspicious.
Still when she finally reached the entrance, she asked Carson, who was standing uncomfortably in the doorway, "Was that Mr. Molesley?"
Carson hesitated to answer as though he wasn't sure he should say. Mary supposed his reaction was understandable. Perhaps he thought she wouldn't take seeing her husband's footman well.
"It's all right, Carson," she said when he didn't offered her any explanation. "I've seen him. If you are anticipating an emotional reaction, you can be assured that I am stronger than I seem."
He smiled paternally. "My Lady, if I may say so, it is perfectly clear that you are not wanting in strength or dignity."
"Thank you. Why was Mr. Molesley here?"
"Oh, he was in the village," he said in a manner that seemed awkward, as if he weren't sure that were the truth. "He paid us a visit. Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes, I'm afraid, have insisted he take a few of the hors d'oeuvres for this evening. I would have stopped him myself, but –"
"I hardly think that will be an issue. I'm sure there will be plenty of food for the dinner. You needn't worry."
He nodded his head. "For you I will not. But, if I may say so, if you don't hurry upstairs now, you will be late and –"
"I promise you I won't be late," she told him reassuringly. "I have no desire to miss this occasion. Anna knows how to work quickly."
As she walked away, she had a passing feeling that she wasn't the only one who was lying.
The baby squirmed in her arms unhappily. His christening gown was probably uncomfortable, the layers making him warm in the already overly heated room thanks to a fire that had been lit early in the morning. Mary knew, however, that his unhappiness was the result of being held by her.
She could not say definitively that she didn't love him. Having never had a child before, Mary wasn't sure what it was supposed to be like, how it was supposed to feel. When she looked at George, she didn't feel consumed by love for him as she had with his father, but then… romantic love was different. If she felt empty when holding George, perhaps that was all right. She wished him no harm; she cared for him after all. Maybe that was the appropriate response to have.
It didn't feel that way. A voice inside her whispered that, when she'd first held her son, there had been something more, something that had been lost. Yet it was obvious that loss had occurred. If the situation had been different immediately following childbirth, it was because Matthew had been there. He had watched her with their son, and she could see now that it wasn't so much George that had made her feel cherished and complete but rather the gaze of her husband, proud and so deeply in love with her. If something had changed, it was because she had only the possibility of Matthew's specter lingering over her, watching her from beyond.
Them, she corrected, watching them. George's loss was one she had trouble acknowledging. She understood, however, that remembrance would be expected of her. She had to accept that. Holding George now, Mary tried to remind herself that her husband's version of her would include warmth towards their son. He would have demanded more than what she had given their child. But even knowing that, she found she had nothing to offer the boy, no real sympathy.
George would be fine, truth be told. Whether she was a good mother or not, he would be loved. All around her were people who seemed to be more affectionate with her son – nanny of course, her father, her mother, even Edith. He was not left wanting and certainly not of want from her. His loud wail was a testament to just how little he liked her.
Trying to suppress her frustration, Mary rocked him in her arms. That just made him cry more.
"That won't work," Edith said knowingly as she entered the nursery. "When he cries like that, he needs –"
"I'm sorry. I must have forgotten that we hired you to be the nanny between writing columns and entertaining the thought of becoming your employer's –"
"Someone should pay attention to him."
"The him referring to my son or your –"
"Your son," Edith said with disgust. "I'm not sure why you're opposed to him having someone who gives him affection."
"I don't know either. Perhaps you could enlighten me on how it feels to be ignored and unloved. Maybe I would learn something."
Edith frowned but mustered up the courage to explain, "He's wet."
"Of course he is." The words could have sounded as though Mary had come to the conclusion that her son needed a nappy change. She hoped that was the message imparted in her response. In truth though, she hadn't deduced the problem. Edith had had to tell her, and if Mary had agreed, it was only on the instinct that her child's habit of being untimely was to be anticipated.
It was cruel to think. His early birth was her fault, not his. If she hadn't insisted on visiting the Highlands, if she hadn't danced, if she had accepted her limitations, she wouldn't have gone into labor. He would have been born when due, and Matthew would not have been driving the day he had died.
She had killed him, not George.
Yet she held him responsible anyway, at least partly, because if he had never existed….
But he did exist.
He was here, and therefore Matthew was gone. Nothing would change that.
"I'll go get Nanny," Edith said with a hint of judgment, thankfully interrupting the dark turn Mary's thoughts had taken.
Mary shook her head. "I'll do it."
"No," their mother interrupted, announcing her presence as she came into the room. "We don't have time for you to change if you get dirty, and your father doesn't want to be late. Edith, go find Nanny." When Edith had left, Cora turned her attention to Mary. "Be nicer to your sister. She's trying to help."
Placing George back in his crib so he wouldn't soil her, Mary had no inclination to be kind. "She's trying to be his mother."
"That's not true. She loves her nephew, and you should appreciate that her, I'm afraid to admit, inevitable choices will more than likely exclude her from ever having children."
"It's not my responsibility to help dear Edith experience a family by vicariously living through my life."
The answer was expected, as Cora bore the brunt of this never-ending battle with considerable poise. "I suppose it was idealistic of me to think that you might get along, having both lost someone you loved deeply."
Mary wasn't sure how to respond. Tongue licking her lips, she said slowly, "If you mean Sybil –"
"I mean Matthew. Sir Anthony."
"Then I am afraid you are mistaken, Mother. I cannot imagine there are many commonalities for us to share. Though I am sure you would enjoy your daughters commiserating, I lost my husband. One would have to be married in order to lose a husband, would they not?"
There was no time for admonishment. Mary knew precisely what her mother would say, but Edith pushing the door to the nursery open further promptly ended the conversation.
Obviously she had heard the conversation. Speaking over George's whining had made the exchange impossible to miss.
Pink-faced, Edith said, "Nanny will be here in a moment. She was just helping Tom with Sybbie."
As if on cue, Nanny swept into the room and began changing George. Cora looked to Mary as though a simple gaze would initiate an apology. No amount of eye contact could elicit the words from her though. As close as all the tragedy in their lives should have made them, Mary had never felt particularly fond of Edith.
They were sisters in name only.
She feared she would have the same relationship with her son.
It seemed inevitable however. When everyone had finally finished getting ready and climbed into the cars, Mary was eager to hand her son off to someone else, anyone else. Over the last six months, she had learned to no longer pause when getting into the car. Her first thoughts were no longer detailed fantasies of her husband's death. Only the dread and discomfort lingered these days.
She would never let it show. There would be no emotional outbursts to elicit pity. She simply preferred to be quiet, detached from the ride until it was finished.
George ended up in her father's arms on the way to the church. Mary tried not to acknowledge the symmetry of that relationship – a son for the man who had never had one, a father figure for the boy who would never have one. But it was impossible to ignore the cooing coming from George and the doting words her father uttered in response. The rush of the wind over the car couldn't compete with that, and she had no choice but to angle her body and look out the window for a distraction.
Instantly she thought of Matthew, about how this should have been different. Their son was being baptized; she had a son. It should have a joyous day, made more so, because they'd had trouble first conceiving. She should have wanted to be here, a cheek resting on her husband's shoulder while he played with their baby in his lap. She should have been happy to have a child, shouldn't have even had to question whether or not she loved him. Interactions with George shouldn't have felt calculated, been coupled with the constant worry that she wasn't being a proper mother in everyone else's eyes.
In the distance, Mary thought she saw, in the trees whizzing by, a blonde man standing there, watching the car drive past. A quick flutter in her stomach suggested hope, but rationally, Mary knew that she wasn't seeing what she believed to be there. Even as she strained to get a better look, she knew it wasn't real.
She didn't have to blink to know that it was a trick of the eye, a mirage brought on by grief, but she did anyway. When she opened her eyes, she knew once more the pang of loneliness and regretted being left with so little. Again, she recognized that Matthew was truly gone and with him, the love she had once been capable of giving to others. Knowing that though, she couldn't help but think that he should have been here, that her life shouldn't have turned out this way.
Everything should have been so different.
Sleep had never come easily. The uncertainty of her future had left her planning and preparing for the worst in her youth, which seemed long ago now. Her marriage to Matthew had been brief, as had the time since his death, but it didn't feel that way. Every day with him had been full of happiness, things she'd never experienced before. It hadn't been an eternity, but there had been moments where it had felt like it, where every tiny aspect of an event, every little second had been so precious to her. With him gone, days passed slowly for different reasons. Whatever peace Matthew had once provided had disappeared with him, and her inability to sleep was worse now than ever. Tonight was no exception.
Painfully awake, she sat at her vanity and re-braided her hair. There was no need to, admittedly. Her marital bed was empty. Without anyone to make love to her, to accidentally loosen the ribbon around the end of the braid, there was no reason for a single hair to be out of place. And there wasn't. She looked exactly as she had when Anna had left her. There was little else, however, for Mary to do.
Nanny would take care of the baby. If Mary left a light on to read or spent the night pacing, someone would see or hear surely. Inevitably that information would reach her father or the staff, and she would be scrutinized for an indefinite period of time under the guise of concern. Of all the changes Matthew's death had wrought, being made a spectacle was the one she enjoyed nearly the least and wished to avoid the most.
In truth though, this wasn't terrible. It was too dark to see, but her eyes recognized her form instinctively in the mirror. Her fingers deftly folded and tucked strands of hair without thought or effort. That alone made it a worthwhile use of her time, because finally, when all alone, she didn't have to consider how her actions might be interpreted. There were no prying eyes, no judgments to be wary of. As much as she loved her family, she felt safer when they were asleep.
Still, she had to fight the urge to leave. Something inside of her would never allow her to go permanently; she no longer loved Downton Abbey like she once had, but she couldn't quite see herself anywhere else (she had always lacked the imagination and daring to create a world for herself other than the one she'd been provided with). Yet her feet tingled with the need to move. Even in the darkness of night, her gaze found itself trained on a spot of the lawn through the window. Even now, when she was completely alone, she wanted to escape.
She considered how challenging it would be to get dressed and slip out of her room unnoticed. Perhaps she could manage that, but she would have more difficulty reaching the stables without calling attention to herself. And then of course there was the problem of what she would do if she were to get to the horses. Again, she would never leave permanently. At most, she would ride until exhaustion necessitated sleeping. She wasn't sure that was a feasible course of action however.
Her attention narrowing itself on the sky, she could see through the windowpane that the moon was small tonight. Without that light, it would be impossible to tell where she was directing the horse. Wanting to leave did not include the desire to be hurt.
She didn't understand why that was. Her life had no purpose now. Her husband had given that to her – not just because she had become someone's wife, but because through him, she had received everything she'd always wanted. But what did she have now? A son who favored everyone but her? A home that she would never run, never master?
She had pity.
In losing her husband, she had regained the respect rumors of Mr. Pamuk had cost her. As a widow, she was remade innocent. The tarnish wiped away, she still felt cursed, and it made her question what she was holding on to.
Why did she care about getting hurt? What would it matter, really?
Mary sighed and forced herself to abandon the bleak thoughts that plagued her. She would not continue down that road. Whatever was holding her back, it was enough that she could never act on the dark urges she possessed. She was stuck.
Moving to sit in front of the window, she rested her head against the cool glass. Scouring the lawn for something she couldn't see, she waited for a sign that something good would come from all this misery.
She wasn't sure if she was awake or dreaming. Her mouth and eyes were dry, her throat scratchy. A chill ran through her spine as she sat up. A hand rubbed her throbbing forehead, which ached and was cool to the touch. Had she fallen asleep against the window, or was she still sleeping? She was too uncomfortable for this to be anything but real, but the world around her confused her, felt different. It didn't seem like she was awake.
It was still dark outside, misting. She thought, if she had woken up at all, that she'd been asleep long enough for it to be day once more. Her bed was tantalizing on the other side of the room, but she couldn't move. She was compelled to stay where she was as though an invisible hand forced her to remain seated in the chair she'd pulled over.
Her eyes fluttered shut once more, but a voice whispered for them to open. For reasons unknown to her, Mary listened.
Instantly through the rain droplets that clung to the window's glass, she saw something. She didn't know how to describe it. A shadow, perhaps, but then it could not have been that, as the night would only cloak a dark figure lurking in front of Downton Abbey. Movement then? She didn't like that description either. There was nothing moving.
She blinked again to clear her vision. When she looked out the window again though, there was nothing to see.
Yet something was there.
Even as she wanted to believe it was a trick of the imagination, Mary was convinced otherwise. Something had found its way to Downton.
Without thinking, she got up and reached for her dressing gown. Before the idea could even fully form in her head, she was wrenching the bedroom door open; she would find out what it was.
Apprehension and exhilaration accompanied each step. Shoes would have been practical, but curiosity overruled prudence, and once she had started down the steps, there was no turning back. She had seen something. No. Rather, she had felt something. She needed to know what it was.
Her feet hurried down the steps, eyes trained on the doorknob with a heated sense of urgency. There was no consideration for how she looked or who might see her. She didn't think about what might be on the other side of the door, what or who might be outside at this time of night.
She simply rushed towards the door, not even looking through the windows to see if she could see someone, and pulled it open.
There was no one there though. Her eyes searched the grounds for a sign of someone, something.
But there was nothing.
She stepped out into the soft rain and was again met with nothing.
She wanted to say she didn't know what she'd expected, but Mary understood in a moment of clarity that could only mean she was awake: she'd hoped for Matthew. She'd hoped that, against all odds, her husband had survived. She'd fooled herself, somehow, into believing that he would be there, that if she looked for him, he would come. But as the last six months had proven, that wasn't going to happen.
Matthew was dead.
She was alone.
To be continued