Part the Third

Bella was amused when Granny took her idea of a Widow’s Club to heart with a few tweaks.  The next morning, when Nanny brought Nerissa in for morning tea, Granny appeared in dark grays and mauve, and next came the decidedly married Countess of Grantham.

Looking between them in amusement, Bella teased, “I think, Granny, you have confused the meaning of ‘widow.’  Our dear Lord Grantham is very much with us.”

The Countess blushed at this and picked up her tea, leaving her mother-in-law to explain.

“With the birth of your daughter,” Granny explained, “the title goes to a cousin—”

“Matthew Crawley, yes,” Bella agreed, looking at the Countess.

“While I was happy for Cousin Patrick’s son and heir to inherit my money,” the Countess began, confusing Bella enough so that she shot a glance at Granny, who motioned for her to wait, “now I’m not so sure.”

“Your money?” Bella asked.

The Countess took a deep breath.  “My dowry.  It’s entailed to the estate but I—”

“We—” Granny cut in.

“We,” the Countess amended, “believe that the entail can be broken.”

Bella blinked, aware a little of hereditary theory, and she looked at the Dowager Countess for further explanation.

Granny looked quite pleased.  “Mary is the natural heir as the eldest child where there is no son and no likely substitute with your husband leaving no heir.”

At this, Bella was clearly surprised and her expression must have shown it.  Reaching for her tea, she was grateful when her two companions allowed her time to process the information.

After a long moment, Granny added, “Your considerable contribution would be released to your own care and we are certain Mary would release a property to you to lease at a modest sum, as cousin and as—”

“—co conspirator,” the Countess added with a drawl and a genuine smile behind her teacup.

Breathing out of her nose, Bella asked the obvious question, “Does Lord Grantham know?”

“He knows our decided opinions,” Granny told her.  “He knows nothing of our approaching you.”

The Countess took a moment, suddenly somber.  “I know he and Mary have spoken on the subject.  He hurt her deeply although only a few words passed between them.  It’s been rushed, this business between Nerissa’s birth and his summoning of Matthew Crawley.  His disappointment has blinded him.”

Bella took another sip of tea.  “I do not believe he’s seen Nessa outside of her Christening—and even then I don’t know if he looked at her as I was not in attendance.”  That particular morning she had taken a horrible chill and Dr. Clarkson had set her to bed and she had released her beautiful baby girl only with promises that Nerissa would be returned immediately after the service.  “I would not change her, only that my husband cannot now give the estate a son.”

Granny reached out a wrinkled hand and placed it over Bella’s in comfort.  “Then we have your support.”

Smiling mirthlessly, “For all my love for traditional mourning—and I don’t think I shall come out of it this April or even the following April, Granny—you’ll find me the modern woman in this.”

“It’s not that Mr. Matthew Crawley’s attentions are premature?” Granny teased, a smirk on her lips.

“Oh,” Bella murmured, withdrawing and holding her warm cup between her cold fingers, “that certainly helps.”  She sighed and took a deep sip of her tea, allowing the steam to waft up into her nasal passages.

“The cold should have left you, Isabella,” the Countess murmured worriedly.  “It’s been nearly a year.”

“I don’t think it ever will,” Bella admitted, remembering days in her preteen years in Arizona, sunbathing, and not even the warmth of the memories touched the coldness in her skin.  She wondered if this was how vampires felt, with their ice cold touch, or if she was plagued to always be touched by frost in one form or another.  “There are certain—horrors—that never leave you—” 

When she closed her eyes she no longer saw the forest where Edward left her alone to freeze in the cold Washington air… instead she saw the dead, bloated faces of the dead in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Countess looked kindly at her, but offered no other comfort, for which Bella was grateful.

The three women, the three matriarchs, sat together and drank their tea.  When Nanny came to fetch the baby, who was looking about with bright blue eyes, Bella left the other two women to their plotting for her morning constitutional.  She breathed in the fresh air of Yorkshire and imagined Patrick walking beside her, her imagination so fierce that she could almost feel his hand at her elbow.

Mary was in the nursery two days later when Bella came in to say goodnight before going down to dinner.  She was so startled, she stood in the doorway.  Her husband’s intended, sensing her perhaps, looked up.

Bella was once again struck by how alike they looked.  Their hair was the same inky black.  Their eyes the same dark brown that reflected the midnight sky.  Their skin pale and delicate.  Their features beautiful and soft.  Their figures were slim and tall.  They could be sisters and could probably be taken for such. 

However, Mary was dressed in half mourning of pale lilacs and black gloves, pearls around her neck, her hair twisted in the latest of French fashions.  Bella was once again in a simple black dress, black gloves of brocade meant more for warmth than for fashion.  Wolf skins from Russia (a gift from Granny) around her shoulders.  She had felt particularly cold that evening, so her hair had been simply braided and then twisted at the base of her neck for warmth.  Her husband’s signet ring hung around her neck. 

Mary was the picture of fashionable half-mourning.  Bella looked like a witch draped in grief.  They couldn’t be more different in that respect.

“Miss Nessa looks like her father,” Mary complimented, a hesitant smile on her face.

Bella immediately relaxed.  “Yes. I think so.”

Stepping away from the crib, Mary opened her intended conversation, now pleasantries were done: “Mama said you will help me.—even though now she says I should marry Cousin Matthew.”

“Helping is the right thing to do,” Bella told her simply.  “And I’ll get our money back.”  She gave a hesitant smile now.  “A small cottage somewhere for the two of us.  We won’t be guests.”  She emphasized the last word subtly to show what was truly important to her.

Understanding, Mary nodded.  “Of course.  I’m certain it’s what Cousin Patrick would have wanted.”

Not knowing why, Bella admitted, “He promised to show me the New York stock exchange.”

This visibly shocked Mary.  “For heaven’s sake, why?”  Pulling up her glove, she added, “Men are so peculiar sometimes.”

Not answering the first query—that Patrick knew she gambled to get her ticket on the Titanic and the stock exchange was one large gamble—she gave a half shrug, “We were still learning each other.  I still wonder a great deal about him.”  She smiled as she looked down at her daughter who was sucking on her fist in her sleep.  “Then I look at Nessa and I realize that I have all the answers in my little girl.”

Mary came up behind her to look down at Nerissa again.  “You are indeed blessed,” she murmured.

After a long moment, the two women turned to each other.  It was Mary who offered her hand in friendship, and Bella accepted it after a moment’s hesitancy.  Nerissa, who had awakened, gurgled, and she stood witness to her mother and her father’s cousin making friends—a friendship that would define the family for decades to come.

“I suppose you are hunting people,” Mr. Matthew Crawley asked Mary, but his eyes were on Bella who was still wrapped up in her wolfskin and barely touching her food.

Mary glanced at her, and she realized she was supposed to answer her part.  “Fishing people.  We lived out on the Pacific Ocean, and it was mostly fishing.  Mary, though, I imagine you hunt.”  She turned it quite prettily back to her husband’s cousin and gave her a small smile before selecting a couple of grapes from the fruit tray that was being offered to her.

“Yes, we all hunt,” Mary answered.  “Except Billy Skelton.”

“Perhaps he fishes,” Matthew Crawley offered, turning the conversation back to Bella.

Her eyes turned to her new frenemy (as that was the only proper term for Lady Mary Crawley) and then again toward the new heir.  “It’s not proper fishing in Yorkshire,” she told him, with a tip of her head toward Grantham, “if the Earl would forgive me.  You need Pacific Ocean rapids.”

“Did you fish?” he asked, leaning forward and ignoring his own proffered fruit.

She paused and looked at him a long moment.  “No,” she answered carefully.  “I did go cliff diving before my engagement to Mr. Crawley, however—quite regularly.”  At the silence around the table, she admitted, “I fear I’ve lost my taste for it.”

Less than a moment later, Mary seemed to jerk out of her stupor and added to Bella’s revelation, “Isabella, that reminds me of a legend I was reading in that book of Greek Legends you leant me just last week.”  (Bella had lent her no such book and her incredulity must have registered on her features.). “The one where you found Nerissa’s name?” Mary added.

“Indeed,” Bella agreed, for lack of anything else to add.  “How do you find it?”

“I was struck by the legend of Andromeda.”  The two women—almost identical in feature—looked into mirroring dark eyes.  Then Mary turned back to Matthew Crawley.  “Do you know it?”

Matthew Crawley looked between the two of them, perhaps wondering if they had exchanged places.  “Remind me.”

“Andromeda was a princess—whose father’s land was being ravaged by plague.  Her father, the king, believed the only way to save the land was to chain her, naked, to a seaside cliff—”  She tipped her head to Bella, to tie together the stories.

“My, my,” Granny cut in, “we’ll need our smelling salts.”

“No one jumps from cliffs naked,” Bella promised her, thinking of the wolves who had done just that.  “Andromeda was a very special case.”

“The thought of you diving into the Pacific—and then—” Granny shivered and took a sip of her wine. 

The shade of her husband’s face surfaced in front of her mind, and she murmured, “It is ironic.”  She took a breath, “but Andromeda was saved from her sea monster as I was saved from the ocean.”

Mary smiled at her from across the table.  “Yes, by Perseus, the son of a god.  Quite the surprise.”

“I think,” Mrs. Crawley began, “that your cousin is trying to tell you, Mrs. Patrick Crawley, that you should have named your daughter ‘Andromeda’,”—clearly he was misreading the conversation, either accidentally or on purpose.

“My child will never know the water as I have,” Bella answered purposefully, choosing to accept the turn of the conversation, “and I named her for the water, which rocked her to sleep before her birth.”  She caught the Countess’s eye and tilted her head toward where they would withdraw.

The Countess nodded imperceptibly, smiled at the room and asked, “Ladies, shall we?”

Bella didn’t linger, as she never did.  She squeezed Granny’s hand and then slipped away to the nursery to check on her daughter before withdrawing to her room for the evening.

She looked at herself long and hard and then wrote a note.  It was a triangle of three names, Mary, Isabella, and Sybil.  The three had the same coloring, the same eyes, the same similar features.  Sybil wasn’t out, but she was sweet, and it would keep the title in the family.

Mary did not care for Matthew, Matthew seemed to have a preference for Bella, and Bella did not care to remarry at this point in time.  She was more interested in breaking the entail than in marriage prospects.  She had never believed in marriage, not after seeing the mess of it her parents had made, but now she found herself in a different place, a different time.  She would not wish to remain alone forever… unless this chill eventually killed her when the Titanic somehow hadn’t managed it.

Still, those were thoughts for later.

She drifted off to sleep, draped in flannels and furs, her fire stoked high, curtains drawn on the windows and on her four-poster bed.  Anyone else would have been sweating with fever.  Bella was shivering as she dreamt of Patrick sinking beneath the waves.

The Countess—after discovering that Mary was in correspondence with E.N.—invited the Honourable Evelyn Napier and his charge, an attaché to the Turkish Embassy, to Downton Abbey for the hunt.

Most mornings now Bella was joined by one of the ladies of the Crawley family for morning coffee in what she called her “boudoir.”  This morning it happened to be Mary.

“You like the idea of him,” she checked, taking a sip of her tea and glancing out the window at the summer grass.

Mary didn’t answer at first but when Bella looked up, she saw the truth on Mary’s face.

“We can’t seem to get anywhere with the entail.  No lawyer will touch it.  We need Matthew to marry into the family.  You do not wish to do the honors.”  She waited, but Mary just rolled her eyes.

“So, we need to make you not an option.”

Mary took a quick sip of her tea.  “Ah.  You want me happily married to give Matthew the idea to marry Sibyl who has my hair and kinder eyes.”

“Yes,” Bella agreed.

“He’ll get the idea to marry you.”

Bella set down her cup completely.  “I wear black, dress in furs, and shiver all the time.  My only subject of conversation is my dead husband.  I am a widow, through and through,” she told her.  “I’ll talk more about Patrick if necessary and his perfection over the next few weeks if you wish me to.”

At this, Mary laughed with her shoulders, but shook her head.

Bella smirked.  “Eyes on the prize.  Ignore the ‘funny little foreigner’ he’s bringing and smile at our Mr. Napier until he is half in love with you by the time he returns to London.”

Mary nodded in agreement.  “I would prefer to be a Countess.”

“Or a Duchess,” Bella reminded, referencing the Duke of Cowborough who had visited when she was in her confinement and whom she had never seen.  “But a Viscountess—”

“But a Viscountess,” Mary agreed.  “You will see us off.  If I have to ride out with a Johnny Foreigner.”

“Then at least a foreigner can see you off,” Bella agreed, already dreading it.  For good form, she gulped the rest of her tea—more than half a cup—and then allowed Mary to pour her another.

In the end, Johnny Foreigner was not toothy and did not have a strange grin.  When Bella saw them off, she pinched Mary just above the knee through her riding clothes to remind her not to be so obvious in her attempt not to be so obvious.  Mr. Napier was plain and English while Mr. Pamuk was handsome and exotic—but he could not give Mary respectability, an English title, or an escape from a father who would not fight for her.

Three hours later, Mr. Pamuk came back windswept and scowling, costume perfect.  By contrast, Mary and Mr. Napier returned smiling and covered in mud.

“What happened?” Bella asked in astonishment as she approached her cousin and her suitor.

Mr. Napier, who had not met her in the commotion leading up to the hunt did a double take when he took in her features.  “Forgive me,” he began.  “You must be one of Lady Mary’s sisters.”

Mary waved him off.  “A common misconception,” she told him.  “Mrs. Patrick Crawley, my cousin’s widow.  This is Mr. Evelyn Napier.”  (He made to offer his hand, but it was covered in mud, so she declined it.  They smiled at each other apologetically before she looked again at Mary.). “Well, we lost the fox, and Mr. Napier thought he caught sight—”

“—I was incorrect—” he apologized.

Laughing, Mary concluded.  “It led us on a merry chase, but no one was harmed.  We just need warm baths.”

Bella looked between them and tried to fight a smile at how obviously happy they were with their present situation.  “I shan’t keep you,” she murmured, although she did follow Mary up to her room, and accepted the shawls that her maid, Agnes, brought as Lady Mary’s bath was being filled.  She happily sat and listened to talk of Evelyn Napier and how he improved on closer acquaintance than just literary correspondence.

“He seems dull at first,” Mary told her, washing mud from her hair, “and perhaps he is.  But dull can be so useful because he listens to everything I say.  He’s also exceedingly well read and has some very interesting opinions.”

“Well read does not necessarily mean dull,” Bella told her as she averted her eyes.  “A man might prefer books to action—but he does like the hunt.”  She shrugged.  “That’s action, of a sort.”

Mary allowed Anna (her lady’s maid) to pour water over her head and then leaned back in pure decadence.  “Matthew Crawley doesn’t hunt.  I can’t imagine marrying a man who doesn’t hunt.  What is Granny thinking!”

Sighing, Bella reasoned: “She and your mother are trying to find a solution to a problem.  I’ve proposed an alternate solution.”

“Where is Matthew Crawley today?” Mary asked, sitting up slightly in the tub.

Bella offered a half-shrug.  “I think Edith is showing him the local churches.  I don’t see him as the sort to like architecture.”

Her answer was met with silence until, all at once, Mary erupted into a series of giggles.  Bella looked over to see her hunched over in her bath, her hair pouring over her shoulders which were quaking with laughter.  “She’s courting him with Yorkshire church architecture?” she huffed between giggles.

“So it would appear.”  Bella threw her a smile.

“Then again,” Mary mused, sobering slightly, “Sybil might kill him with her radical ideas of women’s suffrage.”

At this, Bella looked up.  “I didn’t know she was interested.”

“A little,” Mary admitted.

Bella’s eyebrows furrowed.  “He might like that.  I think she will have better luck twisting her ankle when he’s on hand to catch her—”  She thought of her own clumsiness and smiled at the thought of Patrick catching her the first time he asked her on the dance floor.  “Men like that sort of thing.”

Mary looked over at her from her cooling bath.  “Is that how you fell in love with Patrick?”

Startled by the question, Bella realized, “Perhaps.  It happened so quickly, I never analyzed it.”  There had been something about his blue eyes that first afternoon, how they would look into hers and try to hold her gaze—as if he believed that if she looked away, a piece of him would be lost with her good opinion. 

She heard Mary move in the water, clearly ready to get out.

“I’ll leave you to it.”  Bella stood, clutching the shawls to her, and made to leave the room.  “See you downstairs!” she called over her shoulder, and she was gone the next moment.

Bella made straight to the nursery and kissed the head of her baby goodnight.

It was after she had retired and was drifting off to sleep that there was a knock on her door.  “Yes?” she called out, not really wanting to move.

A moment later and the door opened to reveal Mary in her dressing gown, holding a candle.

Immediately, Bella sat up and she looked at her husband’s cousin in confusion.

Mary came over to the bed and asked, “Might I ask that I tell you tomorrow and ask that I might sleep here tonight?”

“As long as your toes aren’t cold,” Bella bargained, and Mary laughed, picking up the hem of her dressing gown and angling the candle to show that she was wearing thick socks despite the warm weather. 

Bella nodded in satisfaction and pulled the covers back to let Mary crawl in between them.

Mary blew the candle out.

“I have nightmares,” Bella whispered as she closed her eyes.

“Of Patrick?” Mary asked hesitantly.

“Of all of it,” Bella responded.  “The iceberg, the emergency bell, the confusion, the waters.  The separation and knowing he would die, and that I wouldn’t.”

Hesitantly, a hand came up and fingers brushed against Bella’s temple.  “I can’t imagine the pain of that.”

“Neither could I,” Bella half-admitted, “until it happened.”

The cousins fell into silence for several long minutes until Mary was the one to break it: “Mr. Pamuk kissed me and asked permission to come to my room.”

It took several long moments for Bella to process the words and then, immediately, she had crawled over Mary to get to the door.  In the darkness she found a chair and pushed it up against the door as there were no locks on the family bedchambers.  “Sorry,” she apologized, certain she should say something due to her sudden panic.  “I had a sudden image of an enraged man coming to find you.”

At this, Mary let out what might have been a laugh or equally a sob.

Bella slowly made her way over to the bed and then gently pushed Mary over to the far side, placing herself between the barricaded door and her cousin.  “He can’t get you here,” she promised.

“Why are you so good to me?” Mary asked, her voice clearly choked with unshed tears.

At first Bella didn’t mean to answer, but finally, when she thought Mary was asleep, she whispered: “Because you liked Patrick enough not to marry him.”

Cold fingers sought hers out in the darkness and squeezed.  Bella squeezed back.  Then she promptly opened up a drawer in her bedside table and pulled out a spare pair of gloves and pressed them into Mary’s fingers.  If she was going to seek sanctuary in Bella’s room, she was going to have to dress accordingly.

Of course, Bella was asleep the next morning when Agnes tried to enter with breakfast.  When she finally awoke to Mary crawling over her toward the door, she realized that the pale light meant it was morning and got up to help Mary pull away the wing back chair she had somehow moved on her own in the dark the evening before.

Agnes, fortunately, didn’t ask questions, and came back not five minutes later with Anna, who also didn’t ask any questions either.

Furniture was put to rights, and Bella made ready for the day after breakfast, and met Mary and Mr. Napier out for a walk when she was out with Nessa on her morning constitutional.  She was surprised when Mr. Napier took an interest in the fussing baby, going so far as to pick her up (with her mother’s permission) and rock her right there in the park, singing to her some nonsense song she didn’t recognize.  When she looked over to Mary, the two allies exchanged knowing looks.  This was a man who wouldn’t relegate children to the position of “heirs.”  This was a man who would value any children he would be given.

That afternoon they went out on the hunt again, even though it was Sunday, and that evening Mary made no pretense of crawling into bed with Bella.

“When do they go back?” she murmured, handing over a pair of warm gloves.

“Day after tomorrow,” Mary responded.  “I don’t want to chance it.  There’s something called the Albanian Talks or—something.  Mama is fervent that we do our bit to help… international diplomacy.”  Her voice was caustic as always and she huddled into Bella, either to give or receive warmth, she wasn’t sure.

“This is too much,” Bella argued, moving closer.  “Fearing for your honor is too much, Mary Crawley.”

“If I say something,” Mary whispered, fretting, “what would Evelyn think?  He’d be forced to leave as well?  Or his good manners would dictate that he should.”

Bella huffed.  “You called him ‘Evelyn’,” she noted.

She was certain Mary smiled into the darkness.  “He said that I might.”

The next morning, Mr. Pamuk was found dead in his bed.  If Edith was unusually weepy, Bella assumed it was because Mr. Crawley had insisted that if they ever visit churches again, they should bring his mother, Mrs. Reginald Crawley.  Mary, however, had a look in her eye. 

At least, however, it wasn’t aimed at Bella and her daughter, she supposed in later months.

Published by excentrykemuse

Fanfiction artist and self critic.

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