Thanks to Silverduck for editing!
"This is the hard part. When I discovered the answer I debated whether I should relay it, but in the end I feel you ought to know."
The tables had been set, the orchestra assembled, and the coming out ball of Lady Sybil Crawley had begun.
The Honorable Evelyn Napier, son and heir of Viscount Brankson, entered the ballroom with his soon to be bride, her delicate hand perched on his arm. Lady Clara Ridgewood, though rather impoverished, was quite beautiful, and had a fine laugh and a clever sense of humor that Evelyn found altogether enchanting. But what he thought most appealing about the young lady beside him, was her sincerity in her attachment to himself, which, until now, he had found sadly lacking in the swarm of elegant and eligible ladies of his acquaintance. Evelyn never considered himself a vain man, but he would have preferred that he and his intended felt some amount of genuine and mutual affection. At least at the start.
The scene before him was enough to overwhelm the senses. The music, the lights, the decorations; all flowed before his vision in a spectacle meant to delight and awe the beholder. The Crawley's had apparently spared no expense for their darling youngest, and as Evelyn watched that debutante flit excitedly around the ballroom, he could see that she was quite happy to enjoy the extravagance lavished on her behalf.
While Lady Sybil was radiant and basked in this new attention, Evelyn's eyes scanned the crowd for another, more familiar face. Amidst the swirling dancers and busy footman, he at last saw his friend, Lady Mary Crawley, from across the ballroom, and inclined his head towards Clara.
"Over there, darling. There she is. Lady Mary," he said, pointing her out.
"Ah, the famous Lady Mary. Well she is just as beautiful as you described her. Now mind yourself, Evelyn, and don't give yourself a heartache, for my sake."
"Nonsense! Mary and I are old friends," he replied, not quite keeping the smile off his face. "Shall we greet her? She doesn't seem too engaged, and I would have you meet her."
Evelyn led Clara through the crowd towards where Lady Mary stood, chatting in her affable yet indifferent way to some young miss who hadn't had either the beauty or dowry to secure a partner for the set. Lady Mary felt somewhat conflicted when she saw Evelyn, who was escorting a fashionable but as yet unknown lady, coming towards her. Although she was rather grateful that she had an opportunity to eschew the tedious conversation of Miss Castleman, there were echoes of scandalous rumors that reverberated inside her mind, and a bitter curiosity at whether their whispered source was approaching her now. Despite these troubled thoughts, Mary was able to bring her current conversation to an abrupt but polite close while seamlessly greeting the pair that came forward.
"Mr. Napier, how delightful to see you!" she said, with what she thought a fair amount of restraint for the reproaches that longed to drip from her tongue. "I don't believe I've met your friend?"
Evelyn was unsurprised to see the wariness in Mary's eyes. Ignoring her steely gaze, he answered her. "I believe not. Lady Mary, may I introduce to you my fiancé, Lady Clara Ridgewood?"
Her hard countenance refused to soften even while she congratulated him, and as Mary exchanged pleasantries with his beloved, her voice contained a sharp edge that Evelyn was unused to hearing in his long friendship with her. Of course he had heard the rumors circulating about her supposed indiscretion with the late Mr. Pamuk, and knew that his very presence must be a trial. But Mary's cold demeanor had only given him a partial answer to the question that had caused him to seek her out this night, and so he would push her still further.
"You're sister looks remarkably well, and I can see this entire affair has been managed quite wonderfully." He paused briefly before continuing. "It seems so long since we last met, and I'm very happy to see you under much more...cheerful circumstances than when we were last together."
Lady Mary had smiled at the mention of her sister, but it had quickly vanished at the allusion to his last visit to Downton, so many months ago. "I am always happy to see you. Your right about Sybil, she is practically glowing-"
"I hope your family has completely recovered from that unfortunate incidence. I know it gave all of you quite a shock," Evelyn cut in. Mary's lips still smiled, but her gaze was like steel.
"Indeed! I believe we are. It has been some months, you know, and time is often the best medicine." The note of finality in her voice made it clear that this was intended to be the end of that topic, and turning away from Evelyn she addressed his fiancé. "Lady Clara, you were telling me about your plans for the-"
"It was an entirely shocking business!" He interrupted once again. "Poor Kemal. He was a good man, and a good friend. I still think of him often."
To this Lady Mary gave no reply.
"I wish you could have known him better. He had many merits, and given the chance, I think you would have grown as fond of him as I had."
"Forgive me Mr. Napier, Lady Clara, but I see Edith over there and I've been trying to catch a word with her all evening." Lady Mary said abruptly. She departed, making a hasty retreat towards her sister who stood across the room. Evelyn could not mistake the anger that simmered beneath the polite farewell. He sensed the rage barely held in check at her parting words, and the look she gave him when she made her exit conveyed its message clearly: accusation.
Evelyn now had his answer. Mary did blame him.
The rumors that were casting such a pall on her virtue and life, and she considered him their ultimate source? The thought pained him, and he longed to go after her, and explain himself.
Whether or not Evelyn believed the rumors he couldn't say. He well remembered Mary's stricken features as she stood on the staircase the morning after Kemal's death, the flow of tears that she was unable to hide as he spoke, and her hasty retreat up the steps as she sought to conceal her sorrow. In spite of these recollections, above all things Evelyn considered himself a gentleman, and would cease to dwell on the matter whenever he felt his mind taking an ungracious bent where Lady Mary's virtue was concerned. Clara, it seemed, was not born as gracious as he.
"Did you see how she scurried off when you pried her about Mr. Pamuk," she all but cackled after Mary had left them. "Really Evelyn, I've never known you to be so cruel."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean. It was entirely natural for me to ask after her family after such a ghastly event."
"Come now, dear, we all know the rumors," she said, as her lips pursed into an unflattering smirk. One gloved hand came lightly to her mouth to smother her laugh. "I can only imagine what Lucy Winfield will have to say about this! She's been going on endlessly about the Great Lady Mary's fall from grace. I can hardly wait to drop this bit of interesting news into Lucy's ear-"
"You'll do no such thing! I can't stand such tiresome gossips, and I'd never thought you to be one of them," Evelyn curtly interrupted, suddenly very irritated.
The look Clara gave him at this rebuke unsettled him. He didn't like to dwell on the recent unpleasant turn of their relationship, but he couldn't deny that he had begun to notice certain flaws in her character, and, sometimes, a subtle affectation where he was concerned. The look was soon gone, replaced again by her easy and charming smile. Evelyn pushed the troubling thoughts away, his eyes following Lady Mary weaving through the crowd towards her sister. There were pressing issues at hand in his mind right now, and his more personal affairs would have to wait.
He considered the middle child of the Crawley family, and frowned as she made some remark or other that irked her elder sister, if the sudden sour look on Mary's face was anything to go by. He had never cared much for Lady Edith, and while his mind played over the events of the previous day, he realized just how much his former dislike of her had truly hit the mark.
Evelyn's shoes clicked loudly down the corridor of the Turkish embassy as he quickly made his way towards the Ambassador's door. The rumors themselves had been troubling enough, but to learn that he was considered the source of them was beyond anything. Evelyn held the virtues of integrity and honor very dearly in his heart, and the idea that he could besmirch the name of his good friend so grievously, he felt as much of a stain on his own character as the rumors were on Lady Mary's.
Breathlessly, he knocked firmly on the closed door, and a moment later heard a familiar voice beckoning him inside. He hurriedly entered and took a seat in an open chair.
"Mr. Napier! I wasn't expecting you," the Ambassador said, a mild look of surprise on his dark face.
Evelyn paused a moment to compose himself. "I'm sorry for intruding so suddenly, really I am, but I have just heard something…" Evelyn stopped, unsure of how to proceed.
"About Lady Mary Crawley and Mr. Pamuk?" the Ambassador supplied, a touch too coyly for Evelyn's tastes, as he leaned forward in his chair.
"Yes, indeed! How did you…?"
"I think, Mr. Napier, it would behoove my station to know such a piece of information about one of my own, especially considering the…circumstances…of Kemal's death." The last part was said with only the barest hint of a smirk, but it was the knowing look directed at Evelyn that brought his patience to an end.
"I don't believe I understand your meaning, sir." Evelyn bit out, controlled anger evident in his voice. A look of disapproval flashed across the Ambassador's face. Evelyn remembered himself, and continued in a calmer frame.
"I have heard rumors around London, of such a nature that must shock any person with decency. I have also heard it said that I am the source of these rumors. I know this to be untrue, and have sought this audience with you in order to see if you can shed any light on the matter."
The Ambassador seemed to hesitate, silently contemplating what he should do next. At last he opened a drawer at his desk, rifled through a few papers, and presented Evelyn with a letter. Evelyn's eyes widened as he took in the contents of the missive. He thought his eyes must be deceiving him, for what he saw in that brief note was too startling, too impossible to be believed. What the letter itself had to convey was disturbing enough, but it was the signature at the end that all but did him in.
"It is from Lady Edith," was all he could manage to say. The Ambassador looked keenly at the obviously rattled young man, and abruptly rose from his chair. He walked to a nearby cabinet as he replied.
"Yes. And now you have the full of it. I received that letter from Lady Edith Crawley nearly one year ago." He stopped his explanation for a moment as he retrieved a bottle and two small glasses from the cupboard. Pouring them each a drink, he continued. "So you see, the rumors of Lady Mary's indiscretion are actually fact, and the news of it has come from this very office. You can make that information public, if you prefer, to remove any suspicion of gossip from yourself." The Ambassador sat down again and handed Evelyn a glass. "Take this. You look like you need it."
Evelyn gladly received the proffered drink, and was grateful for the succor it provided. His nerves had been badly shaken, and he was unsure what to do or say next. Kemal's death had been a blow, and he was sorry for it. But he had not known Kemal very well, and while he mourned for his lost friend, the pain he felt now on Lady Mary's behalf eclipsed any sad feelings for the late Turk's demise. If the letter was true, and he still could not fully bring himself to believe it, then Kemal was not the man that he had thought him to be, and certainly not one to be long agonized over.
He was happy with Clara, of this he was mostly sure. But his heart went out to his dear friend, and the ache that now resided in that fragile organ as he pondered her predicament made it impossible for him to continue to deny this inescapable fact:
He still cared very deeply for Lady Mary Crawley.
"Evelyn, are you there? You seem lost in another world."
Clara's voice brought him back to the present, to the glimmering ballroom and lively music. To a world of deception and cruelty that was belied by the refinement and elegance of this place, of this evening. Polished conversation, graceful dancing, beautiful gowns, but all Evelyn could see was hatred in every handshake, and hypocrisy in every smile.
"I'm perfectly fine, my dear," came his proper and insincere reply. Lady Mary was talking with Mr. Crawley, unaware of the danger she was in. Not knowing that she was but an arms length away from her betrayer.
He watched Mary flirt and laugh with her cousin. He had heard of their cautious and careful romance, and how things were all but settled between them now. She looked happy with him, happier than he had ever known her. Lady Edith stood somewhat off to the side of the couple, watching them with a prowling and unkind gaze. Mary may not know it. Matthew may not know it. But Evelyn knew the truth. There was a viper in their midst. She had already struck at them once, bent on poisoning them and all they held dear. Would she do it again?
In the Amabassador's office, Evelyn had been unsure of what to do, but now he knew. He had to tell Lady Mary about the letter and what her sister had done. He must expose the viper, before it had a chance to do any more harm.