Just a dramatic piece I wrote, dedicated to Vee because she brings out the Carson and Mary fics in me, with thanks to Sam for wonderful, foul-mouthed support.
Mary swept through the hallways, tray steady in her hands, dressed in greys, and hair tucked back neatly. It was mid-afternoon, and the house buzzed quietly with activity, for there were things to prepare, and plans to be made. There was chatter, and radio noise throughout the rooms, and it almost felt the golden days of the estate, when staff and family were intact.
She rapped gently on the bedroom door she arrived at, balancing the tray of tea as she pushed into the room.
"I'm a bit late, but everything's still warm," She said, her tone polished, although the situation was informal. "There hasn't been this much excitement here for a long time."
Mary settled the tray across his legs, observing him as she took a seat in a chair beside the bed. It was familiar from the Spanish flu scare, Mary sitting at his side, but it was different this time – so much was different. She tried not to look especially worried as she glanced over, even if his pallor had worsened, and his breathing was loud. It was all to be expected, of course – For the fact Carson was dying.
"I never thought I'd live so long to see another war end." His baritone voice was weaker, and hoarse, but unmistakable. It held age and illness, as did the rest of him, but it was still the most familiar thing around.
"Well I did," Mary said and aged Carson the butler's crumpled face turned in a smile. "We've both grown old with the horrors of this one, haven't we?"
"Tut, tut, milady, you're as youthful as ever." He was resting comfortably in a spare room, one that he did not spend his life in at Downton. It was a grand room; he had overseen the cleaning and preparation of it many times, and now within it he would spend his last days.
"Two world wars we've seen, Carson, I don't think anyone, even the young, are youthful after that." Mary said, assuredly, sipping her tea, although his remained untouched on the tray.
"You worry for Captain Crawley's lost youth." Carson observed, correctly, and with ease. Indeed, the butler, the captain at the helm of Downton's downstairs, had always been astute, just at times clouded with judgment from the old ways, but he only grew wiser still as the years pressed in.
"I do, but, oh, don't call him that. Once he's home, he will be George again," Mary tapped her teacup against the saucer, a nervous habit if she were the type to have nervous habits, and she inhaled deeply, eyebrows rising. "Besides, Captain Crawley will always mean someone else to me."
"This I know," Carson nearly chuckled, a shaky hand raising his tea to sip.
In that moment they each thought of a long dead man who came to Downton in 1912, and went to war in 1914, but left for good in 1921. A red mess kit, a long traveling coat, how eager and overwhelmed he looked in a hat perched too high on his head, ears endearingly poking out. The times they worried for his well-being, the hardship those years brought, Mary at a train station in a velvet hat…
"This I know." He repeated in a whisper, a bookend to their reflection on the long lost Crawley, and all of the years and darkness they had seen weighed heavy for a long, quiet moment.
Mary was sure that Carson could remember the details as well as she, for it was not his memory failing, just his body. The vessel was tired, but the mind was alight, and she enjoyed this time with him for that. He was the same in conversation, just not in movement.
"Both your Captain Crawley's though, weren't they?" Carson bolstered her, just like he might have in the old days, over some heartache or indecision. He had always been by her side.
"Both mine, yes, hmm," Mary smiled, sentimental, her nose prickling with emotion. "Lucky me."
Both hers and they had never known each other, not as they should have. What a strange thing, at times. These two men she loved so deeply, knew better than anyone else, and they had only met once, father and son, separated by a schism she could do nothing to mend.
"Lucky them." Carson smiled, too.
These days it could sneak up on her, sentimentality, as the war wound down, and good news began to outweigh the bad. It seemed a time to reflect on one's life, the end of a war, the survival through it – Especially with all of atrocities the world had seen, the unimaginable violence and suffrage…Mary's skin crawled with gooseflesh when she would think about it, millions of people dead, genocide, and she ached with all of the loss there was, just beyond her reach. It put into perspective their own tragedies, for a dead husband twenty years ago seemed so small a loss compared to the war numbers, but it was never small in the grand scheme of Mary.
"I think I've finished," Carson set the rattling cup down, settling back against the pillows, chest heaving as he closed his eyes. Even the smallest movement took a lot out of him, energy sapped, lethargic and weary with the task of breathing alone. What a change it was, that Lady Mary herself removed the tray off to the side, folded his napkin up off his person, tended to him as best as she could. "I do still enjoy tea time."
"That can only mean you've got some life left in you." Mary said, setting her own cup on the tray, fisting the cloth napkin in her hand, though, to preoccupy her somehow.
The last years of this war had been an exercise in reservation and preoccupation. She did not let it overwhelm her (not often, at least), nor her other children, for she could not live if she spent every waking minute sick with worry for the only Crawley boy remaining. She had been productive and determined all of the years her eldest had been gone, fighting, a traveling soldier, the only son of Downton ever bore to Mary and Matthew Crawley.
Mary saw to it that life went on, and help was offered, good deeds done, and the fallen remembered. The estate persevered, the family remained close, yes, it was all she could ask, all she could do to make sure there was a home for them all, and a home for George to come back to.
So much had changed, the world seemed to spin another way, but she remained, the same strong values, the same fierce generosity that had helped many. Lady Mary met middle age much the way you would expect her to – gracefully, and boldly, with a husband and family. She had remarried, mothered daughters that carried no Crawley name, whilst at the same time she carried on the Crawley legacy and success better than any Earl had before.
All of that, all of those years, all of those children, all of those uncertainties, and now Carson laid dying, heart failure set in, body congested with fluid as the end approached. He had lived, though, and remained – Unlike too many, unlike dear Sybil, beloved Matthew, and Crawley heirs even before them. He was old, and grey, wrinkled and rugged, age had weathered him, time decayed his bones. His spine curved, posture slumped, his mouth downturned, his presence not as tall or large as it once was. Yes, he was old, he was frail, but so he should be, as many of the others should have been.
How refreshing it was to see someone live as long as they could, live as long as they should. Mary grew weary with young deaths, with people she loved cut down in their prime, so as hard as it was, as difficult and upsetting, to see Carson losing the battle…she was glad he was here. If nothing else, being a member of the Crawley family had taught her to value a long life, a natural death.
There were times, as Mary herself aged, and her dark chestnut locks bloomed with coarse greys, her dark brown eyes cradled by deep crow's feet, that she wished to see Sybil this old, or Matthew. They were preserved perfectly in her mind, young and beautiful, untouched by time, and she longed to know Matthew as an older man, if he would have lost his hair, or went completely grey, wore cardigan sweaters over his suits once he was a grandfather. She felt so far away from them both as the years changed her, and they would be the same, always, forever as they were when they died.
But Carson was at her side when Matthew Crawley died, and he was there for her reemergence into life after his death. He was around for her second wedding, and for the birth of her daughters, the success of the estate. Even George, off to war, Carson had lived so long to see – and so too had he lived so long for his return. What a man he was, what a support, and strength – Mary tried to think of this, instead of the man that should have seen his son off to war, should have held her hand, rather than the dark-haired one who took his place.
But her second husband did well, loved her as fully as her heart would allow, and she had wanted for nothing (or, very little, nothing possible, at least) in the life they shared together. She was fulfilled, more or less. And she loved him, loved that he was a part of her life, and future.
It filled Mary's heart, it lightened her burdens, to remember the good, to feel the luck that did lurk in some places – George's safety, the health of her other children, the clearance from duty of her second husband in this war…her own longevity, and Downton's. Her parents, her nieces, and nephews, the family had grown, had pulled through.
"I see you as you always were, you know. Strong, proper, and commanding. That's how you'll be to me." Mary comforted, pensively.
"I must be thankful for that, then, because age has certainly intruded upon much of me. Do you know how I see you, milady? I don't intend to, but even as decades have gone on…it is the first image I'll recollect."
"Do tell, Carson," And she clenched the napkin tighter between her hands, her cheeks taut with a smile, but her eyes swimming with nostalgia and haunts that ached like war wounds of her own.
"His Lordship and I standing at the staircase, when you emerged…just dazzling in white, springtime in the air, a smile upon your face, happier than I'd ever known you, and you said,-"
"Will I do, Carson?" Mary said in much the tone she had used then, a lifetime ago, bright and proud.
"Very nicely, milady," Carson rumbled warmly back, just like the downstairs Papa he was, wheezing some but smiling through it. "You're still that way to me."
"I can't be angry about that," Mary sighed, though a part of her wished she had ever beamed like that over her second husband, had felt love burn like that for a second time…but that was a lightning strike in her life, never to be found again, not quite the same. "That you remember me at my happiest with him. It's only natural, I sometimes think."
"I know you like this one," Carson promised, and Mary very nearly laughed. "I don't doubt your feelings or life with him. It's been two decades,"
"However," Mary interjected softly, on her own accord, knowing how near Matthew lingered, how ever-present that former life was. Yes, she loved this man, her second chance at life, however…oh, however…her first choice…her first love…
"However, indeed." Carson sighed, so Mary did, too, and it was an easy companionship, the butler and the Lady.
"Would you like a radio brought in, maybe?" Mary asked, suddenly, looking around the room that was dressed in light colours, faint sunlight streaming in, the weather a limbo between seasons, Carson in limbo between life and death.
What an oddly cheerful room to die in, she thought. If it was her, she would like it dressed in reds, like the blood that would soon lie cold in her veins, but it was Carson, and he was content. She was more morbid at times than any of them.
"I don't think so, milady," His voice was tired, a rasp more than a boom, and he would sleep through the rest of the afternoon, in all likelihood. Mrs. Hughes would be up to take Mary's place beside his bed, and speaking of constants, well, they all had constants and Mrs. Hughes had been Carson's…they had both been the estates.
"I'd just like some peace." Carson spoke again, and Mary felt that deep in her, knew those words in her heart, soul, and bones. It scorched through her, stunned her, even, how that was what she wanted for Carson, too, and for herself – for all of them. Peace, yes, they'd all like some peace.
"I think we can arrange that. You deserve it." Mary went to the curtains and pulled them to, casting shadows throughout the room.
She came back to the bed, and grasped Carson's hand as he closed his eyes, breathing deeply, relaxing. Mary breathed deeply, too, feeling her heart leap with nerves as she waited for him to inhale again. She was on edge, waiting for George to arrive, arranging his homecoming, but also waiting for this, for Carson to go. It was a paradox of times, a joyous celebration, an anxious worrying, Mary caught in the middle, uncertain if she wished she could rewind or fast forward through time.
Some days it felt like no time had gone by at all, that Carson would be okay tomorrow, back downstairs and ordering the wines, fretting and perfecting. She could recall with ease her childhood at Downton, her time spent below stairs learning from the old butler, the support he offered through everything, all of the heartache she had known, her involvement in the estate management. It was quite strange to feel so the same, to know herself as well as ever, but to look in the mirror and see a mother, a woman gone fifty years old, a Mary Crawley who was no longer Mary Crawley by name, at all. It was a cruel, blessed thing, time, and she would always wish for more of it for all of her loved ones, for Carson there in bed, for her dead husband, for her current husband, oh…
"Rest well, Carson." Mary said and he gripped her fingertips tucked into his palm, and found his voice again.
"Let Captain Crawley – Master George, rather – know how pleased I am he made it back safely,"
"He'll come see you tomorrow once he's here,"
"Yes, even so, give him my blessings. And you too, Lady Mary," Their eyes met, and Mary's shone with tears, stubbornly unshed, for all that was swirling inside of her should have knocked her off her feet. "Such a job well done for you."
Nothing would be the same if not for him, and Mary pressed her mouth together, her forehead lined with a sad frown, a refusal to fall apart.
"What a life it's been, Carson." Her voice soaked in appreciation for this man who had practically raised her.
Mary collected the tray, a tremble threatening to overtake her if she lingered too long, if she was consumed by all of the echoes and glimpses of the past that slept round every corner of the old damned house. She didn't know what would come next, didn't know if Carson's imminent death would mean another round of them – her parents next perhaps, Isobel, who knows…
But as she descended the stairs the sun flared to life from behind a cloud, illuminating the day for the first time in weeks, and the tapestry was bathed in rich colour, the chandelier glimmering fancifully, Downton was well, and in one piece, so too was her son. Her life had been filled with more blessings than curses, and she would not miss out on the rest of it now, would not cower under the dark cloud of loss that followed her for so many years. What a beautiful house, beautiful grounds, a beautiful life.
They had thrived as a family, and would continue to do so, even as Carson was dead before the next morning's light. Mary would even find comfort in the fact that some day she would be buried among such quality company, and until then there was life, and George Crawley to greet at the train station.