Part the Fifth
The Honourable Mr. Napier had a job—or, rather, a position, in the foreign office. According to Mary’s last letter, they were so impressed with his handling of the Pamuk situation, that they had offered him a permanent position, and now the couple were permanently in London and she was enduring the vagaries of her first pregnancy.
Of course, she wrote, Edith’s flight to the continent and her absence at our wedding did not go unnoticed. Say you will come down at the earliest possible for a week to cheer me up and tell me everything of life’s goings on at Downton. Yours especially.
Bella put the letter aside and looked at her diary. In the year that had passed since Mary’s marriage, she had gotten stronger, but she still felt the cold on especially cool evenings. It was now May 1914, Nerissa was a hardy 16-month-old baby who was toddling and speaking her first words.
Tomorrow, however, the Countess had asked her to accompany Sybil into Ripon. Matthew Crawley had also pulled her aside to say he thought the Liberal candidate who was speaking was a bit revolutionary, so there might be trouble.
Bella and Sybil made a striking pair the next day when they got in the new motor and Bella thought Branson—the new chauffeur—a little familiar with her husband’s cousin. In the past year she had devoured Grantham’s library on social class and one night she had decided she could either be a social revolutionary and espouse the worldview of the twenty-first century and stick out like a sore thumb, or just accept her position as ward and cousin of the Crawley family. The decision, she had realized, had already been made when she gave her name on the Carpathian in the list of survivors and allowed herself to sail back to England not two weeks after landing in New York. It had even been made before that, when she had accepted Patrick Crawley’s proposal of marriage.
Gone was the Bella Swan who didn’t believe in marriage.
Gone was the Bella Swan who wanted to be a vampire and live forever.
In her place was Isabella Crawley—wife, mother, and survivor in upperclass Yorkshire.
It baffled the mind, but whenever her inclination to remain true to her previous self made itself known, a whiff of the salty sea would haunt her memory, or the trace of cold would assert itself, and Bella would sink back into the ways of this new place and its customs.
“I must confess myself surprised,” Bella murmured, half an hour into their journey, “that Mr. Crawley hasn’t asked for your hand in marriage.” She looked over to her husband’s cousin slyly, the hint of a smile on her lips. “Is there something—that makes you hesitate?”
Sybil looked over, her dark eyes so similar to her eldest sister’s, and she looked a little nervous.
At this, Bella turned fully toward Sybil and told her: “I am not your mother—nor Lady Mary. I have been married, if but a short time. If there are any—questions I might answer—that you are too” (she searched for the word) “hesitant to ask, but that you wish to know—you know where you can find me.” She gave Sybil a smile.
“Tea in your boudoir,” Sybil laughed, naming the tradition. “It was always my sister Mary’s domain.”
“Yes,” Bella agreed. “Lady Mary and I became unlikely friends. That does not mean that my friendship is limited to Lady Mary.”
She nodded. “I’m nineteen next month.”
It was a nonsequitor, but Bella only nodded.
“I told Matthew I’d have an answer for him then.”
Bella let herself smile. “Well, then. If you should like to come to tea tomorrow morning, I shall tell your mother we have private matters to discuss. I’m certain she should understand.” She paused. “Mary found it easier to speak to me before her wedding, as we were about the same age. “It was not meant to be disrespectful to the Countess, and there is much to learn from one’s mother, but we had a similar perspective, both being young ladies of a similar class and age.” She took a deep breath, realizing that well over a year later and her plans were perhaps coming to a fruition.
A Crawley daughter (other than Lady Mary) for the Crawley heir. Yes, it was all wrapping up quite nicely.
Sybil took a deep, centering breath, and a weight seemed to lift off her shoulders. “Mary needed your friendship after Matthew came to live here. She felt she did not have a single friend—with the entail.”
“And I did not have a single friend,” Bella answered truthfully, “as I was an American and my husband was dead.” His blue eyes flitted in her mind’s eye, and she wrapped her unseasonably heavy coat around her closer.
A gloved hand found hers and the two sat silently as they continued on to Ripon.
Bella was never one for political speeches, but she was interested in the final speaker who wished to give women the right to vote. It did turn a bit violent, one man shouting that dogs should be permitted the right to bark in public, and Mrs. Reginald Crawley appeared and ushered them toward their motor.
She disappeared, leaving them with Branson, and the two cousins looked at one another.
“Well, I think he would have my vote, if I should have one,” Bella murmured, clutching her coat to her as a form of protection. “And you, Sybil?”
“Oh, yes, certainly,” she agreed. “I shall have to tell Matthew all about it.”
Bella smiled at the comment, and added, “Perhaps the speeches will be printed in the paper—he can read it tomorrow with his breakfast and you two can have a conversation. Is he a Liberal, do you know, Sybil?”
She nodded. “I believe so, yes. He isn’t so much tied to one party, but chooses a candidate based on individual merits.”
“A wise decision,” Bella commented. “Not every candidate that a party puts up—” (she looked at Sybil to make sure she was using the right turns of phrase) “—is the right candidate for the voter.” She breathed out and sat back, noticing that the chauffeur was listening to them closely. Well, they couldn’t quite have that, could they? Grantham would fire the man, Sybil would feel guilty, and the marriage would go on anyway.
They ended up going round the back as Sybil felt she wasn’t quite put together, and the two went up to the Nursery where, despite the slight chill in the May air, Bella got on the floor and played with blocks with her beautiful girl—whose eyes had retained their perfect blue coloring.
At dinner that evening, Lord Grantham was unhappy that Sybil had been present at the political speeches… and seemed to make a fuss of it, at least at first.
“I was there,” Bella promised, “as chaperone.” Her eyes glinted upward at Grantham, a silent promise to him speak later on the subject, and the Earl fortunately let it drop.
When the ladies withdrew, the two remained in the dining room where he asked, “What is it, Isabella?”
“I needed a moment alone with Lady Sybil,” she told him quite simply, “on her terms. Matthew has asked—and she’s giving him his answer by her birthday.” (Grantham looked delighted but she put up her hand to stay his joy.) “She’s agreed to come to tea in my boudoir as she has questions—of what sort, I don’t know. She’s probably wary because Edith has been acting oddly for a year for no discernably reason and now—with the rumors—”
Grantham sighed and took a seat, pouring himself a brandy. He offered Bella one, but she declined.
“I don’t know how those started.”
Bella did, or at least suspected. Although Mary had torn up her first letter, that needn’t mean there hadn’t been a second at some point.
“Let’s let Sybil come to tea and see what she has to say. We may have her married by the end of summer,” Bella murmured, accepting a glass of champagne, which Grantham got up and poured for her.
“And you, my dear girl?” he asked, causing her to blush.
Knowing what he meant and choosing not to remain coy, Bella stated, “Sir Anthony Strallan is merely charming.”
Grantham chuckled. “He’s attentive, is what you mean.”
“He hasn’t given any indication—” she began, but he cut her off.
“He asked me for your hand in marriage.”
At this, she looked up at him, completely startled.
By this point, he had lit a cigar, and took a long breath of it before exhaling. “This was about a month and a half ago, before he had to go on that brief trip of his.”
“He’s due back next week,” Bella murmured distractedly. Then, looking up at him, she asked (simply out of curiosity), “What did you say?”
“I said if he thought he could make you happy and if he believed he could be a good father to Nerissa, then he had my blessing.—You’re an independent woman. He doesn’t need my ‘permission’ for anything, Isabella.”
Bella let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. Taking a sip of Champagne, she put it down and thought for a long moment. “I—” she began and then licked her lips, suddenly realizing that they were uncommonly dry. “I grew up without a father.”
At this, she suddenly had Lord Grantham’s undivided attention.
She wasn’t sure why she was confessing this, but somehow the words were tumbling out of her mouth. “I loved my mother, but I was the responsible one. I—ran the household from a very young age.” Trying to put it into words, she paused again. She couldn’t very well say that her mother was scatterbrained and she paid all the bills, put food on the table, and her mother said she was ‘born middle aged,’ although that was all true. No, she had to use the language of 1914 Yorkshire. “I never had a childhood, a coming out, a debut. There wasn’t time. I was too busy.” Taking another sip, she then carefully admitted, “I do not want that for my daughter.”
Grantham looked at her steadily, with eyes so like Patrick’s and yet not quite the same. “You, my dear Isabella, would never do that to your daughter. I would not allow that to happen. Sybil—as the next Countess of Grantham—would not permit that to happen.”
“Perhaps not,” Bella agreed with a slight laugh. “Still, I should like my daughter to have a father she can love and trust and rely upon.” Her dark eyes, large with sudden unshed tears, looked upon her guardian. “Do you believe that that could be Sir Anthony?”
Sobering suddenly—as if the moment weren’t serious enough—Lord Grantham held her gaze and told her, “Yes. He’s a good man. I honestly believe that he would be a good father to Nerissa.”
She nodded again and took a deep breath. Finishing her Champagne, she murmured, “Mary wishes me to come to London, but I fear I shall have to put her off.”
“Perhaps,” Grantham suggested, a hint of teasing in his tone, “when you go to buy your trousseau.”
Bella smiled. “I shan’t wear white,” she warned.
“Widows wear silver or gray, I understand,” Lord Grantham told her. “I’m certain you will be most elegant.” His eyes sparkled at her. “Shall we join the ladies?”
“I’m coming out in June,” Sybil murmured as she came into the Boudoir and sat down across from Bella and accepting her cup.
Bella didn’t say anything, waiting for her to state the problem, although she suspecting she saw it.
“Should I look about first?”
Taking a deep breath and thinking how she should put it, Bella said: “I was traveling when I should have ‘come out’ and then got on the Titanic. I met Patrick before my first season—and he was not what I expected.” She smoothed out her skirts and lost herself in the memory of him teaching her how to dance privately the second afternoon on board so that he would have the privilege of dancing with her in public that evening. A smile flitted to herself. “I don’t regret it.” Her eyes flashed up to her cousin. “Only you can answer the question—would you regret it or should you?”
Sybil seemed startled. Her mouth made a little “oh” shape and Bella had her answer.
“You can think of an abbreviated season as one large ‘engagement’ party,” she suggested. She took a biscuit. “You’ll be presented as an engaged young woman and a future countess. Think of that.” She took a bite.
Sybil nodded and gave Bella a genuine smile.
No one was remotely surprised when the couple announced their engagement at dinner the day after next.
Bella got a note with her breakfast the following morning saying that Sir Anthony was calling before luncheon with his new motor—and a smile spread across her face at the thought. She had Agnes dress her up warm and she demanded that Nanny allow Nerissa be present in the drawing room to greet their guest.
“How marvelous you look, Miss Nessa!” Sir Anthony exclaimed upon seeing her, before even greeting Lady Grantham. He swung the little girl in his arms and tickled her stomach until she was laughing and then made the proper hellos to Lady Grantham, Lady Edith, and Bella, whose eyes he held for several moments too long.
“What a wonderful surprise,” he complimented her when Nanny took Nerissa away, taking Bella’s hand and kissing it (a compliment given only to her). “I have missed you both so.” His eyes showed that he meant it.
She wondered—not for the first time—why he and his wife had never had children. He was so wonderful with Nessa, so sweet, always greeting her and playing with her for a few moments. He was, quite simply, a marvel of a man.
They had all sat down, when she asked, “How was Austria-Hungary, Sir Anthony?”
“Tense,” he told her. “There’s a man there—Adolf Hitler. Not the pleasantest of fellows, but I’m back here now, in your delightful presence.” He smiled at her, and she gave him a smile back. Their smiles weren’t lovelorn, but they were certainly genuine. “But, I understand there are congratulations to be had to the family.” He turned back to the Countess. “Lady Sybil and Mr. Matthew Crawley?” He raised his brow in easy expectancy, and he was not disappointed.
“Yes,” the Countess agreed with a smile. “We thought a wedding in the Autumn. Give our Sybil a season so she can dance and feel admired.”
“Quite right,” he declared at the Countess’s small speech. “Every young woman should feel admired for a season, if she has the chance,” he agreed easily, sitting back in his seat. “In that vein, I’ve come to give Mrs. Crawley a morning out!” He smiled jovially. “I have a new motor, looking for destinations. You might have to wrap up, Mrs. Crawley, but I can promise a pleasant morning and Cook has packed a picnic. What say you, my dear Mrs. Crawley?” His blue eyes were hopeful and Bella had no intention of dashing those hopes.
“If you do not mind my winter fur coat,” she bargained good naturedly. She’d already told Agnes to get it out for her and it was out in the hall. “I did get your kind note.”
He smiled at her, the smile reaching his lovely blue eyes. “We have an accord!” he stood and she stood with him. Looking to the Countess, he promised, “I’ll have her back by teatime, and certainly in time to dress for dinner.”
Edith was the last to stand, a little awkward, and the two left with the Countess telling them to enjoy themselves.
Bella was quickly bundled up and then settled in the front of the motor, a blanket tucked up around her as they drove South to a picnic spot.
When they arrived, she allowed him to help her out and took a breath to take in the lovely spring air and helped him lay out the picnic.
“I know a little of Herr Hitler,” Bella admitted as he opened warmed beer for her to drink. “Have you met the man?”
“Yes,” he admitted, a little surprised by her interest. “Funny little man. He wants an empire and yet—” Here he paused, but she looked at him expectantly, “He’s convinced he has the soul of a lovelorn poet.”
This caused Bella to smile disdainfully. “The two seem to be at odds with each other.” The man would also bring Europe to its feet—in more than twenty years.
“He’s not a threat,” Sir Anthony promised. “He doesn’t have his empire. He has no one to listen to him and he fancies himself a painter.”
Bella remembered this from her study of history in high school. “Can he paint?” she asked, suddenly curious.
At this, Sir Anthony laughed. “No!”
“Dear me,” Bella sighed, thinking if only he could, disaster could be averted by the time war broke out for a second time (not that it had quite yet broken out for the first). “I fear Herr Hitler and I have a similar problem. Neither of us can paint.” She turned the conversation deftly away from politics.
“But surely, my dear Mrs. Crawley, you have other talents.”
He laid out the finger sandwiches for them.
“Surely, Sir Anthony,” she stated boldly, “you know my name is ‘Isabella’. Someone must have mentioned it in your hearing.”
A small, private smile played on his lips. “Are you giving me leave to use your Christian name, Mrs. Crawley?”
She picked up a cucumber sandwich and took a delicate bite, chewing carefully and then swallowing. “I thought I had.”
He nodded, waiting for her to finish her sandwich. “Then I would wish to always be ‘Anthony’ to you, Isabella.” He paused, choosing his words. “I’m assuming Lord Grantham told you my intentions.”
She looked up at him, seeing no reason for artifice. “He did.”
“I am not a young man.”
“No,” she agreed, breathing out.
“Maud,” he continued, “that is, the late Lady Strallan, was a good woman. You have quite eclipsed her in my mind, however. I am not unaware that Mr. Crawley will always be first in your affections.” He smiled, although this was now self-deprecating.
She reached out and placed her hand gently on his. “I should like for my daughter to call you her father.” Her words were quiet, but genuinely spoken.
His eyes looked up at her hopefully. “Maud was not able to have children.” The sadness in his voice was veiled but still palpable if one were to listen to it.
She took in a deep breath, knowing that her decision was already made. “I should not mind more children,” she told him, “as long as Nerissa is treated no differently.”
Now, Sir Anthony truly smiled. “I should like nothing better.” He took her hand that was laid on his, still gloved, and lifted it to his lips to kiss. “Would you marry me, Isabella Crawley?”
Her eyes softened as she looked at his expectant gaze. “I should be quite glad to, Anthony.” She squeezed his fingers through her gloves. “I understand I might wear gray or silver. I do not—I’m not certain I shall come out of mourning. It does not seem right. The Titanic—was the death of my childhood, and not just the death of a husband.”
He nodded, understanding the meaning behind the words. “I would not love you so much if your sense of honor were any less pronounced, my dear.”
Their eyes held for several seconds longer before she broke it, smiling all the time, and took another sip of warm beer, before going back to the finger sandwiches that his cook had prepared for them.
She knew there would be a great deal of planning. Bella had yet to visit Loxley House, where Sir Anthony had lived alone for the past few years. She would have to find the Nursery and have it done over to her exact specifications, never mind the rooms meant of the Lady of the House.
A smile twisted to the side of her mouth and he looked at her, head cocked to the side in question.
“Sorry,” she apologized. “I’ve never.” She ducked her head again. Then she took a breath to settle herself and looked him directly in the eye, allowing herself a full smile. “I’ve never had my own establishment before.”
“Oh my darling,” he sighed in delight. “We shall arrange a tour of Loxley House with the Countess of Grantham in the next day or so. You shall not be disappointed.” He reached forward and kissed her hand again and then—as if moved by passion—he reached forward and kissed her on the forehead lingeringly, skin to skin.
In the end, it was a perfect early afternoon.
They picked up their picnic just after two o’clock, and he settled her back in the motor. If she snuggled into his side on the way back toward Ripon, neither of them said anything, but Lord Grantham was found upon their arrival, hands were shaken, and Sir Anthony was invited to dinner.
An announcement was sent to the Times to be placed in the Sunday paper, and when Bella lay in bed, wide awake that night, she realized she was strangely happy with how her life had turned out at the age of 21 in 1914 Yorkshire.
She almost forgot that someone named Archduke Franz Ferdinand would be assassinated in a few short months.
The bi-election results came in and Sybil asked Bella to accompany her. “Don’t they believe it will get out of hand?” Bella asked distractedly, as she went over a list of everything she wanted to check at Loxley House the next day.
“A little rough and tumble,” Sybil admitted.
Bella looked up, shocked. Looking at her watch, she saw that Mr. Crawley would already be at work in Ripon. “We need a male escort if it’s to turn violent.—or we can wait in the car while we send someone in.”
Sybil looked like she was about to object, but Bella held her with a stare.
“Do you want to be in a riot? We’ll ask the chauffer if he feels comfortable going in.”
In the end, the chauffer said he would do it. Of course, he was staring at the engaged Lady Sybil Crawley when he said it, but at least he was willing.
In the end, he came out with a black eye and their candidate lost—of all things—and Sybil and Bella had to defend Branson’s place.
“It was my idea,” Bella told Grantham. “I was chaperone, but I did not want to go in, so I sent in the chauffer. He seemed like a capable young man. He came out a little worse for wear, but I thought a job well done by him!” She nodded her head and tried to look convincing.
Grantham looked at her for guidance and seemed to find what he was looking for in her gaze. “Fine. He will be compensated, but God help Matthew and your political leanings when you’re married!” This was said firmly to Sybil.
That was one way of putting it!
Loxley House was a beautiful property and Bella delighted looking in every nook and cranny. She was quite startled to find a portrait she recognized in the Drawing Room. It was small and Bella didn’t realize at first why she was so compelled to look at it until—yes, she had seen the face before.
“Ah, yes,” the Housekeeper informed her. “That was Mary Alice Brandon, aunt to the Master.”
Bella’s eyes widened as she realized she was looking at Alice Cullen in human form and she fought to keep her breathing even.
“Sad story. The poor girl was always poorly, always in and out of institutions, but the master did love her so. She would sing to him when he was little. He keeps her portrait here, but if Mistress would care to move it—”
“No,” Bella disagreed, cutting in, and then took a deep breath. “If she was important to Sir Anthony, then she will remain in pride of place.”
The Housekeeper stood a little straight and when Bella looked over to her, she saw a new glimmer of respect in the woman’s eyes. She had just passed the first of many small tests.
Looking back at the portrait, Bella thought it was uncanny. Who would think she would find the portrait of a Cullen here, of all places?