Matthew's transformation is all but complete. This is the final glimpse into his journey since April 1919 and his first true step towards his future with Mary. Welcome to January 1920. Many thanks to R. Grace, who convinced me to tack on this epilogue to the First Steps series.
"Go to your bosom: Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know." - Shakespeare
"I'm not implying there is anything wrong with you, darling. I'm only saying you've been out in the cold late at night, and you've been fighting," Isobel said with a wink before forcing the notion on her son once again. "Shoo now, go take a hot bath!"
So a short while later, Matthew found himself reclined in the tub, the steam rising around him. While his body gave in to the warm water and he felt himself dutifully relaxing, his mind had not chosen to participate and was still moving at full force. How could he be expected to be calm when his whole life was on the brink of change? When a second chance might occur sometime in the future? When new possibilities were suddenly a reality?
Matthew remembered the way his professors at Oxford had tapped on the chalkboard, starting with one conclusion and moving on to the next, step by step. It was a perfect analogy for how his mind was cycling through recent events. Events that had occurred only a few hours ago. Events that changed everything. Mary had broken with Sir Richard. The mere notion caused his lower body to react under the water. He could feel himself harden just at the thought of Mary.
MARY, his mind seemed to scream. Matthew closed his eyes and tried not to think intimate thoughts. But avoiding intimate thoughts when it came to Mary was almost impossible. She had always seemed to touch him, body and soul, and he had always bathed, so to speak, in her presence. Suddenly, Matthew found himself wishing she was there, in Crawley House, in his… no, he must not take it that far. Mary was free; that was the important thing. She has won her victory; she could now make her own choices.
Matthew pulled the plunger on the tub and stepped out. The water swirling down the drain seemed to mock him. He kept seeing his dilemma and new circumstances everywhere he looked. But he must not be impulsive like before. He must control himself. The draining water seemed an analogy of wasted years, all the time he could have been with Mary so long ago. All the events, circumstances, and people that had come between them. So many lives woven together, then torn apart. But Richard would be a part of them no longer. And with this, Matthew thought, perhaps Lavinia should be released as well. Maybe it was time.
He pulled his dressing gown on and walked barefoot into his bedroom to change into his pajamas. As he pulled the trousers over his groin, he thought of Lavinia. He tried to picture her as he had once, when his love for her had caused him to propose. He thought of her kind eyes and sweet, innocent smile. But as he touched himself and thought of her, Matthew felt no intimacy for her, not in that way. His experiment was complete. He sighed and continued to dress. He knew that only Mary produced such deep, penetrating feelings in him that shook him even now. Even when they were miles apart, just the thought of her caused him physical arousal. He had punished himself for so long, a little further discomfort was no great hardship.
Once he was dressed, he decided to head back downstairs. It was late, but he knew he would never be able to sleep after such an eventful night - the last night Sir Richard would be spending at Downton Abbey. Matthew had to smile at that. Although he was not particularly pleased with himself for resorting to violence like a common criminal, he was not unhappy he had tangled with the man. Matthew looked down at his hand which bore a small bruise from the impact of landing on Sir Richard's jaw. His smile grew wider. Yes, he had enjoyed that. He couldn't help remembering the way cousin Violet had not accepted his apology about the vase.
"I've hated it for half a century."
Her words in his head reminded him of when she had pushed into his bedroom to speak to him. Crawley women were always pushing in on him, he thought fondly. Cousin Violet had told him marriage was a long business. The vase was a symbol of time; he couldn't help but make the connection. A part of him wished this bruise would stay with him forever, instead of the one on his spine. But he was done with quid pro quo imaginary bargains; it was silly to waste his time on such notions. He would think no more of things outside of his control and focus on what he could have, instead, in the future.
When the rest of the family had entered the fray and patted him on the back, he had been most uncomfortable. He couldn't help feeling, once again, as if he was their prized ornament who acted out to get their attention. And his motivations had hardly been pure; he hadn't fought for Mary after all. He had fought because the man's words made his actions so obvious, made him feel oblique to the light of the two women he loved the most, that he had been oblivious to either of them suffering. That was why he had punched the scoundrel. Well, that was why he justified punching the man, because he'd wanted to do it before Sir Richard had even spoken.
So, when Robert had proposed a toast to him at the dinner table, a flutter of his anxiety had arisen anew. Is this what it would be like from now on? He would play the role of false hero? But his Mother had jumped in, as was her habit, and amended the toast to include Mary. So, in the euphoria of the moment, they had all raised their glasses and toasted "to Matthew and Mary." Cousin Violet's eyes had perked up at the rather bold wording as she looked across the table at him. The wine had been flowing liberally for some time by then, so Matthew supposed nobody really thought too much about the slip of the tongue, so to speak. But then it had occurred to him that, no doubt, Cousin Violet would be plotting with his mother next. Then Matthew stopped in mid-step halfway down the staircase. Maybe she had been plotting with her already? Violet had approached him; why not his mother? Matthew sighed at that conclusion and chuckled. Anything was possible, after all.
As Matthew had expected, when he reached the bottom of the staircase and poked his head into the sitting room, his Mother was still up. She had changed too and was in her nighttime attire. He entered the sitting room where she was reading and joined her on the settee. She set her book down on the side table and patted his knee fondly.
"Matthew," she began her tone sounding playful, "when I said you should fight for Mary, I did not mean for you to take me quite so literally, though it does please me that you listen to my advice."
He had to laugh at that. He had not laughed or smiled so much in ages, he was sorely out of practice. It was all a jest indeed. He felt he had to explain himself before she let him have it.
"Yes, Mother, I'm afraid I did act rather rashly. I know I shouldn't have gotten involved, to bring violence into such a great house."
Isobel looked at her boy, taking in everything he said, and studied him. She had meant to pretend to be affronted. She wasn't serious, and yet still he seemed to fix the blame on himself. It was time to have another chat with her son.
"Dear, you are always so hard on yourself for following your impulses. Well, what does your heart tell you now? I think you can trust what you are feeling. No need to throw around anymore excuses."
Matthew looked at his mother. She had always been so calm and wise - a pillar of strength for him. He was enormously grateful for her advice, for the kick in the right direction. For so many months, he had tried to hide his thoughts and emotions from her, and it had cost him next to everything he had. He couldn't stand it anymore; he needed to tell her everything that was now on his mind.
"I do have a plan," Matthew spoke, his voice quiet. He reached into his dressing gown pocket and removed a small velvet bag. He held it out for her to take. Isobel took the offered bag and the first thing her eyes noticed was the monogram on the front. Two sets of initials, MC and MC, with a mobius strip, the symbol for infinity. Isobel looked at her boy and found she wasn't the only one with watering eyes. She pulled out a small box and opened it to find a simple ring inside. Isobel held it up to the light delicately. It was a gold band curved at the front into the shape of a mobius, a continuous closed surface with only one side, a loop that has no boundaries. The gold mobius shape of the ring was impeccably beautiful. Isobel appreciated how the ring had no rocks or stones in it to sparkle. The ring's beauty was in the fine gold craftsmanship and the sentiment behind the contentiously symbol.
She watched her darling son's eyes staring at the ring she held. Sometimes when she looked at him, she could only see the little boy he had once been, but not in this moment. No, now when she looked at him, she could see only the fine man he had become.
Isobel waited patiently for Matthew to speak first. She didn't want her thoughts to interrupt his, knowing how hard this must be for him. And she was a little regretful of herself as well. She had not always supported his choices; she had been angry at Mary for the way she perceived she had slighted her beloved only child. Isobel only hoped she could now make appends to bring them together so her boy could be happy and whole again. He was so much like his father. Dear Reginald, she thought, you would be so proud of our boy.
"I bought it in 1914," Matthew said quietly, his voice finally having found its stride.
His hands were unable to keep from reaching for the ring, and Isobel handed it over gently, placing it in his palm.
"I remember I was wandering around Sloane Square in London on my own, and I saw this beautiful ring in the window of a small jeweler's shop. Sybil's ball was later that night. I bought the ring on impulse, Mother."
"It is very beautiful," Isobel said fondly. "And very unique. You chose well."
"But I never had the courage to give it to her," he said, his voice choked up.
"Perhaps if I had…" he didn't finish the thought. But Isobel knew it wasn't necessary. She understood enough now about what had happened then.
Although the memory stung, he wondered if it wasn't time to resurrect the ring and try again.
"It still reminds me of her." He struggled to keep his composure. Tearing his eyes from the ring, and ventured a glance at his mother, who was smiling at him. Matthew released a breath he didn't even know he had been holding.
"But, is it good enough for her? It's so simple. I would hate to have her think she's not worth even one beautiful stone. For her to think I can't afford…"
"Matthew," Isobel interrupted, her voice rich with affection. That's quite enough of that, she wanted to say. But she kept her tone steady instead; she wouldn't allow him to use his regrets as a shield from the future anymore.
"Does this ring symbolize everything you want with Mary? If so, give it to her, my boy. I think you can trust yourself to know when the time is right."
Matthew looked at the ring again; it did mean everything he wanted with and for Mary. Infinity. Yes, he wanted Mary for that long. His earlier unease about the ring seemed to disappear. They were not the people they were in 1914, yet this ring still held true to his feelings now as it did then. Matthew had never thought of offering this ring to Lavinia. He carefully placed it back in the box and tucked it back in the velvet pouch, then dropped it into his dressing gown pocket.
"So, you've made a decision?" Isobel asked, patting his knee affectionately again.
"Yes, I believe I have," Matthew answered, putting his hand over hers.
"Then you are doing the right thing, for you, and for Mary." Isobel looked at her son, the grown man sitting next to her, her heart bursting at the sight of him.
"I'm so very proud of you," she said, her strong voice wavering only in small increments. "And I hope you know that your father would be very proud too, very proud indeed."
Matthew smiled, and, with his free hand, retrieved a handkerchief from his dressing gown pocket to offer her. He had to practically shake it at her before she stubbornly accepted it.
He felt his own eyes start to water as they sat together. "I do know that," he said. "Thank you, mother." His voice stronger and more confident.
And Matthew finally felt relaxed.
Authors Note: Yeah! Matthew and Mary live happily ever after - to infinity and beyond! A picture of what the ring looks like is available on my tumblr account – wdedalus – check it out!