Authors Note – This is the first in a collection of stories that follow Matthew from May 1919 through the Christmas Special episode ending in 1920. I really wanted to explore how he got from his April angst and anger with Mary at Lavinia's graveside to his CS proposal. That eight month gap has always intrigued me and I felt it was a void I wanted to try and explore and explain. There will be a total of nine stories – eight for the month's in-between (May-December) and an epilogue as well.
The story is dedicated to my dear friend R. Grace, who helped me every step of the way, hence how this collection of stories - "First Steps" came to be. So, Thank you R. Grace! It was quite an emotional journey and not just for Matthew! So – I humbly offer the first chapter in Matthew's journey, a first step back towards Mary – and so we start with a little moment plucked from May 1919.
First Steps – May
The ornamental knocker on the front door of Crawley House was rapped twice in quick succession, followed by a knock on the front door.
Matthew wanted to be alone. He did not want anybody to enter Crawley House, nor did he have any wish to leave. The insistent knock, however, forced him to contemplate the effort it would take to leave the sitting room and retire to his bedroom where he would not be disturbed.
But he just couldn't find the energy; he couldn't be bothered. He didn't wish to see anyone; neither did he wish to move. So he simply crossed his legs and continued to read.
There was another knock. He wondered in frustration why Moseley was not answering the door. Then he remembered it was Sunday - Mosley's day off.
Feeling around the arm of his chair, Matthew reached for his stick, and ejected his stiff body from the chair. He could feel his temper begin to boil at the interruption. If he was going to have to answer the door, he needed at least some idea of who he was going to have to face.
He approached the partially-open window, pulled the curtain aside, and very discreetly peered out to see his cousin, Robert, rapping on the door. Robert's hand rose as if to knock again, and Matthew let the curtain fall back into place. The older man's undeservedly warm words still echoed in his head.
"Just tell me what you want me to do, and I'll do it."
If only it were that simple. If only Robert could offer him a solution. But Robert was not H.G. Wells, and he could not build him a time machine. Matthew knew he would never measure up to the Earl, and it burned his tortured soul to think of how tender his cousin had been to him since... He couldn't even think her name let alone say it.
"Since Lavinia's death," he finally forced his mind to form the hateful words. He couldn't think of anything but her, yet he dared not dwell on her name.
Matthew knew he was a lost cause. He felt as though Harry Houdini's shackles were on him every minute of the day, and he could not escape. It would be best for everyone if he was simply left alone, in isolation, at Crawley House.
A moment later, Matthew heard his Mother approach and greet Robert at the front door. Their cheerful greeting soon turned into more somber whispering.
"No doubt, about me," he thought bitterly.
Robert extended an offer for them both to join him for church, which Isobel declined, saying she had pledged her help in the local Victory garden, and Matthew wanted solitude.
"How is Matthew?" Robert asked his pitying words completely clear to Matthew's ears.
He pulled the curtain open again to watch them as they spoke about him. He felt numb. He should feel something about the discussion they were about to have, since he was the primary topic, but he didn't. Annoyance? Apathy? Melancholy? No, he was stagnant and felt nothing. His mother's kind eyes and gentle affection were all he could bear, and Robert, it seemed, was determined to jump on the bandwagon of unwanted sympathy.
Matthew knew he could accept his Mother's regard because, despite the disappointment she would surely feel were she to learn what a cad her son truly was, she would still find the grace to overcome it in time. She was that way about all people, and he knew she would eventually recover. But Robert...
No. There was no escape, no return. If Robert knew, there would be nothing left to cling to. His friend and mentor would know the man he was forced to leave everything to as his heir was an utter disgrace.
To Matthew's surprise, his mother only shook her head in response to Robert's question. She didn't say a word, but her sad eyes and fading smile said enough. Then she truly surprised him by changing the topic of their conversation, asking,
"Has Mary set a date for her wedding yet? I hope she won't feel she has to postpone for long."
A sudden gust of wind caused the shutters to clatter against the outside wall, and Matthew missed the first part of Robert's response. What he was able to hear made him feel hollow, invisible and empty.
"Mary did cry when she last mentioned her wedding. It caused a bit of a stir really, so unlike her to lose her composure at the dinner table."
"Well, yes. Lavinia was her friend too," he heard his mother respond.
Matthew leaned into the wall until his head knocked against it. He had once asked Mary to look out for his mother and for Lavinia, expecting that he would be the first to be removed from the world. If a life was to be cut short, it should have been his own, yet here he was. He had brought Lavinia into his world, and she had been destroyed by his thoughtless actions. Mary had even looked after her better than he had ever done. He knew that much because Lavinia had thought so highly of her. Mary was a better person than he was. He remembered Lavinia saying to him once,
"I wish Mary was my sister. I've never had a sister, after all, and she has all the right qualities for it. Don't you think?"
Matthew suddenly saw, in his mind's eye, the girl he had first met in London, with her timid little laugh and her always-affectionate eyes on him. He had entered the room at the drinks party the Officer's club had sponsored, and noticed her right away. She was sitting at a table near the orchestra, swatting at a fly as it buzzed around her, yet somehow appearing, to him, like a beauty from the cinema - a Hollywood vixen with her gorgeous ginger hair and delicate features. He had watched her for only a moment before deciding that he wanted to dance with her.
As he introduced himself, he had felt a bewildering feeling of freedom, and then hope had burst forth inside his heart. She had giggled charmingly when he asked her if she wanted to dance. Impatient, he had already started pulling her into his arms when she thanked him and shyly accepted.
Lavinia was not a very good dancer. She stepped out of turn several times, but he was happy to take the lead, to be in control with a beautiful woman in his arms, so he didn't mind. Afterwards, they had talked for hours. She nonchalantly chatted with him, discussing all her favorite places in the city that had always been her home. When they had exhausted all talk of London, Matthew had taken his turn and told her about his childhood in Manchester. She said she had been there once. As she fondly recalled feeding ducks at a beautiful reservoir there, a sensation akin to the striking of a match shot through Matthew's body, illuminating the moment.
He no longer felt vulnerable when speaking about his hometown. He felt proud. He had grown up near Heaton Park, which boasted the largest reservoir, making it a favored spot for tourists. They jokingly speculated over the possibility that their paths had crossed before, imaging the scenario over a quiet laugh. Matthew remembered thinking that, someday, he would like to go back to Heaton Park with her on his arm. After witnessing so much heartache, worry, and destruction in France, having this woman then before him - talking and laughing with him, accepting him - he had felt that his future was as golden as her beautiful hair.
When they were finally forced to part, she thanked him again for the dance.
"You saved me," she said, her gentle face softening into an adorably shy expression as she clarified, "from that fly!"
Matthew recalled the blissful feeling of that laugh above all the laughs they had shared in their short time together. It had been so innocent. He had escaped everything else, all the other nagging worries and doubts of his life, and been free of constraint for those few hours.
Before departing, she had introduced him to her father, who had been discreetly watching them from across the room. Matthew had liked Reginald Swire almost instantly, and they had immediately arranged a luncheon to discuss legal matters together when it was discovered that they shared an occupation. To his delight, Lavinia was also invited to join them.
For the first time, perhaps in his adult life, Matthew felt as though the effortless existence he had always desired was within his reach. All he had ever wanted was to love a woman the same way his father had loved his mother. It had always been that simple, until he was tripped up by his feelings for Cousin Mary. Matthew never would have guessed this kind of easy relationship would bloom on such short acquaintance, but he had soon felt that Lavinia and her father had become a surrogate family to him.
After their luncheon, he had known that someday he would propose to Lavinia. He had admitted as much to her father, who had shaken his hand and clapped him on the back. They had formed an almost instant camaraderie.
Mr. Swire didn't treat him like a son, but like a business partner. Matthew supposed that was part of the reason he found their relationship a bit of a relief. He had already labored far too long under the expectations of being a long-lost son to Robert. He didn't need another father figure. Matthew had always wanted to govern his own life - to be independent. Even his own father had seen that when he had first expressed his desire to study the law rather than medicine. His relationship with Robert had always been different. Matthew was petrified of disappointing him, more so than any other man of his acquaintance. After he had proved such a harassing lark to Robert's daughter and completely sullied their friendship, he had found it regrettably difficult to continue much correspondence with the Earl.
Returning to the present, Matthew found he had completely lost track of his mother and Robert's conversation. He had been in his own little world - a world made entirely of bricks that had collapsed around him due to his lack of care for their construction. He was a poor stone mason when it came to life-altering decisions.
"What else is going on in the village?" Isobel asked Robert cheerfully.
"Well, I am no great advocate of it, nor do I quite understand its mass appeal, but there is a traveling circus to appear next week."
"Oh, good heavens! That's wonderful!" Isobel exclaimed. "Matthew loved the circus as a boy!" she continued. "Oh, it might be just the thing to get some fresh air into his lungs and cheer him up. He is spending far too much time inside nursing his own sadness." For a moment she paused before continuing, her tone soft and poignant. "Just like when his father died. My poor boy takes life's jolts rather hard," she concluded.
"Indeed," Robert said. "I thought as much, although he never has spoken to me about it."
"Me either," Isobel responded sympathetically, "but I'm his mother, and I know it to be true."
"Well, I could get us all tickets to the circus, if you think that would help him. I will do anything you suggest that might lift his spirits. Anything at all," Robert said his tone lugubrious.
"That's extremely kind," Isobel said warmly, then added, "I'll ask him, thank you."
Robert glanced down at his watch.
"Well, I can no longer detain myself from my obligation. I must join Cora and the girls at church." He tipped his hat to Isobel. "I hope we will see both of you soon at the Abbey for dinner. Tell Matthew I particularly miss his company."
Robert's tone stabbed violently at Matthew's heart, breaking parts of him he didn't know could still feel. He was hurting people he cared about, it seemed, without even trying. It was not how he wanted to be. It was not how he was raised to be, either. Matthew couldn't help but feel a fresh current of disappointment rush through him. It made his head ache and his stomach churn. He was simply morally bankrupt, and there was nothing to be done about it. He would just have to accept that he was like a pencil without an eraser; there was nothing he could alter or change about the past.
"Perhaps with your medical knowledge," Robert turned back after taking a few steps away from the house, "you could try to convince him it's detrimental to my health to drink brandy alone after dinner."
His earlier somber tone was now freckled with optimism and hope. Matthew watched from behind the curtain as his mother and his father figure shared a knowing smile. He was beginning to feel rather like the Wizard of Oz himself, hiding behind his self-made barrier. That made perfect sense, as he, too, was a liar and a phony.
"I will," Isobel answered promptly. "Thank you for the invitation and for checking on Matthew. My best wishes to Cora and the girls, too."
Several minutes later, Matthew was so lost in his own thoughts that he flinched when he felt a soft touch on his shoulder.
It was his mother.
"How much did you hear?" she asked him sternly. Her brisk, accusatory tone made him feel better than he had in days. It was ironically liberating. He could handle blame; he could handle scorn and her questions about his behavior. He was ready to face the firing squad.
"Enough," he said, shrugging off her hand and moving away from the window. His fist gripped his stick tightly as he moved, squeezing the cane is if it could absorb his tension.
His Mother completely surprised him with her next question. Her tone was entirely altered.
"Well then," she asked gently, "would you like to go to the circus?"
Her seemingly-inane question gave him more pause than, perhaps, it should have. What would he like? Matthew knew his dependence on his Mother had always been rather odd, something he had been teased about as a child. He didn't know if he could continue this charade. He wasn't strong enough to fight back against her. Matthew closed his eyes and tried to take a deep breath, knowing she was scrutinizing him. What he had wanted was for everything to be simple, and he had failed to make it so.
Maybe he would fit right in under the circus big top. The ringmaster would make his stick disappear, if not his guilt, and he already knew he could relate to the tightrope walker.
Matthew didn't know how to react to his Mother's compassion. It left him stupefied. He didn't know what to say to anything anymore. When he opened his eyes and looked at his mother, he ached to tell her all his troubles, but he couldn't, he wouldn't, do anything to make her lose faith in him. He would have to bear it alone.
Matthew found himself unable to speak, despite his best efforts, as he continued to return his mother's expectant gaze. She must have understood, somehow. She always understood him. That was part of the problem now. He was hiding his secret from her, from the world. He always would be.
"Think about it, dearest," Isobel said, stepping towards him gracefully. "I am late for the Victory Garden planting, so I will see you later." She kissed him lightly on the cheek, and departed without another word.
"The circus - the greatest show on earth," Matthew muttered to himself.
He did not see how visiting the circus would fix anything, but at least it distracted him from other thoughts, even if the reprieve was only temporary. Choreographed acts of chaos happened every day in his own life. Clowns, acrobats, trained animals, trapeze acts, musicians, jugglers, unicyclists, and other stunt-oriented artists need not even try when he was around. He should pull his bicycle out and join the act.
Despite everything, the ache for such simple comfort did seem to stimulate some kind of yearning in him. He would think about it... perhaps.
Matthew suddenly felt fatigued and eagerly made his way back the few steps to his chair to sit down again. Taking the weight off his feet, however, did little to unburden his heart or his mind. He held his stick in his hands for a moment, simply staring at it, lost in thought. Frustrated with his inner musings, he tried to shake them off, and hooked his stick on the arm of his chair. He missed his mark, and the heavy piece of wood clattered noisily to the floor, the echo a reminder of his solitude, of being all alone with his thoughts, and, of course, his failure at everything he attempted. Biting his lip in exasperation, Matthew picked up his book and continued attempting to read, but it was no use. Not even Shakespeare could comfort him or disrupt his inner musings. He saw only the exuberant expression on Lavinia's face, the tears falling from her cerulean eyes, as she cried, "yes, of course yes!"
She hadn't even waited to let him finish his proposal before she spoke. There was no delay in her answer, only impatience and complete acceptance. She had made him the happiest man alive.
Overcome by a sudden burst of self-righteous anger, Matthew threw his book forcefully across the room. It landed, with a rustle of pages, spine down on the sofa. Another pointless act on his part, something else he loved destroyed.
The second time he proposed, Lavinia's reaction was the same. She had consistently been there for him. She loved first, and she loved last. Even as he held her hand as she slipped away, tired of fighting, he felt her love for him, so infinitely tender –and always focused on his happiness first. He remembered her weak touch, just as soothing as it had been the day they met... and then she was gone.
His felt his eyes shamefully brimming with long-repressed tears, and squeezed them shut. All the anger melted away, and only pain remained inside him. He turned his head and opened his eyes to find himself staring into a miniature framed portrait of his father's face. It was the final straw, and he wept. He had never gotten the chance to say goodbye to his father. His death had also been so sudden. Even after so many years, the pain of that missed moment was still so fresh. The worlds of his grief began to mix and collide, finally overwhelming him.
"I'm sorry," was all he could say, over and over, between wracking sobs.
He was sorry. For his father. For Lavinia.
It was all he had left to offer, his tears an apology to those that he had lost. And so Matthew finally allowed himself to cry.