Part the Seventh
Downton Abbey had been a convalescent hospital for months, and the war had raged in Europe for years. Bella had been a pillar of strength for her children—Nerissa, now a girl of six, and Charles a boy of three. She knew most women in her position would have a governess, but there would be time for that later. She had a competent Nanny and she could teach Nerissa what she needed to know and Charles was coming along well with his numbers and letters. What they needed was normalcy and family—not a cold upper lip as was undoubtedly the English way.
She had seen her husband less than six times since he had been sent abroad but had regular letters from him from his postings in North Africa.
Damn, but she had no idea what happened in North Africa other than that Ingrid Bergman fell in love there. He sent the children back stories of sheiks and princesses, and her poems of sand and love.
You would not recognize me, he wrote in one missive in 1917. My hair is bleached nearly white from the sun and I’ve grown so thin from their dreadful idea of cooking, you wouldn’t allow me in your bed, even just to sleep, when I finally return home to England.
Bella quickly wrote back that she didn’t care if he grew a beard, he would always be welcome in their bed, and she couldn’t wait to be curled in his arms.
Then Cousin Matthew went missing in the badlands of France and time seemed to stand still.
Sybil came to tea in her boudoir with the children most days after that. Bella was rarely without her children. She saw little point in separating herself if it was only the three of them and the servants. Charlie was a bit mischievous, but he smiled toothily for any visitors she might have, and Nerissa believed herself destined to marry a prince or a duke one day—and acted the part accordingly.
“You are so terribly blessed,” Sybil told her in confidence, sighing. “Mary, I believe, has given up hope at last.” After that first miscarriage, there had been no signs of even a second conception. It was worrying, and without modern medicine, difficult to diagnose properly.
“Hmm,” Bella hummed, thinking of her ally, who had undergone a procedure before the war to rectify any problem that might have prevented her from conceiving after the initial loss. There had been months of pain and agony afterward, the procedure having been too experimental, and she had been most certainly left barren afterward. “There could be more to life than children, though I would not know what it is.” She looked over at Nerissa and Charles and smiled softly to herself.
“They are darlings. And their eyes—”
“Yes,” Bella agreed, taking a sip of her tea, and glad that her children were now talking among themselves. Nessa knew she was a Crawley, but liked to think of herself as a Strallan, and her eyes were almost the exact shade of blue of her brother’s, confirming herself as a Strallan in her child’s mind. The children were different in every other conceivable way. Where Nessa had dark hair and pale skin, Charles had blond curls and peach tones to his cheeks. He was also stockier, much like his father, Sir Anthony.
Sybil’s dark eyes rested on the children for a long moment. “I thought I was blessed—that I was given a reprieve—to not be alone and…” her voice hitched. “But now I see I was incorrect.”
“Oh, Sybil,” Bella breathed, setting down her cup and reaching over to take the younger girl’s hand.
When Sybil looked up, Bella could see the unshed tears in her eyes. “I was so stupid. I thought we’d win the war quickly, he’d come home to me, and we’d have the rest of our lives.”
“You will,” Bella lied, trying not to think of Anthony in some hot desert, his skin burnt and hair bleached beyond recognition. “You will see Matthew again. They will find him and bring him home to you.”
Lifting her chin to stop from crying, Sybil did not answer verbally.
The two cousins, however, sat together, holding hands. The happy chatter of children washed over the two women as they each thought of their husband, each lost in different ways, each far from their homes and those who loved them.
Sybil left long after politeness said that she should, but she came again the next day and the next and the next after that, until the day a note came instead saying that Captain Matthew Crawley had been found and was coming to Downton to recover.
Bella looked at the note and turned it over, before secreting it up her sleeve and smiling at her two beautiful children, their blue eyes looking back at her. “How should you like it,” she asked them sweetly, “if in a day or two we should visit Cousin Sybil’s husband?”
“The soldier?” Nessa asked, holding out her plate for a cake, which Bella gave her without any more prompting.
“I’m going to be a soldier,” Charles stated importantly, and Bella smiled at him fondly, not correcting the idea, as he might very well be in the Second World War.
“Then, Charles,” she decided, “you’ll have something to talk about.—And, yes, Nerissa. He’s a soldier.”
“He was lost,” she mused. “Did they find him?”
“Yes,” she agreed. “He’s not awake yet, but you are cousins. I know he’d like to see you and ask how your studies are coming along when he’s feeling better.” She sat back in her chair and took a sip of her tea. “And I know, Charlie, he’d love to tell you about soldiering. You already are so big and strong, just like your Papa.” She winked at him—knowing that in a life, far away from here, decades forward in time, she never would even think of winking at a child and joking about war.
Edward wouldn’t have—no. She stopped that line of thinking. Edward was a vampire, young, bloodthirsty, and soon-to-be created—and in America. They had never met. She was not Bella Swan but Isabella Marie, Lady Strallan, and she was not only contented with her life, but blissfully happy.
She smiled at her children.
“We shall go this afternoon to see him, but we must be quiet and respectful to all the soldiers who are recovering.”
Nessa looked at her mother. “Shall I make him a poesy from our garden? If he is—not yet awake?” she asked carefully.
“Yes, darling,” she decided. “That would be incredibly thoughtful.”
After luncheon, she watched Nerissa go into the gardens with one of the maids (Charles asked not to go as it was a lady’s prerogative, not that he could say the word quite yet) and made a lovely poesy for their cousin.
Downton, at Sybil’s directive, had been turned into a convalescent hospital after the tragic death of a young Lieutenant Edward Courtenay. It now housed well over two dozen beds and when they arrived it was Edith who welcomed them.
“You’re here to see Cousin Matthew,” she realized before greeting the children. “Oh, what lovely flowers.” It didn’t seem like she completely meant it, and unfortunately Nessa would be able to tell. She had a sixth sense about that sort of thing.
They were led into the hall and then into the conservatory, and over to a sectioned off bed where Cousin Matthew was lying unconscious, clearly the worse for wear. Charles took a step back and Bella grasped his shoulder reassuringly.
“Thank you, Edith,” Bella dismissed, not wanting her son’s distress to be witnessed by anyone else.
As soon as Edith was gone, Bella knelt beside her son and grasped him to her so that he could cry into her shoulder. “Your Papa is strong, and he is safe in Africa,” she told him firmly as he held the boy to her. “Africa is nothing like the horrors of France—where this happened.” It took a long moment, but Charles pulled back and his blue eyes, so like Anthony’s, looked into hers. Seeing no lie, the boy nodded, and she stood up again.
Nessa had been waiting patiently.
Bella smiled at her. “Why don’t you give our cousin the flowers, darling. You can put them beside his bed.”
Hesitantly, Nessa approached and put them beside the bed and whispered, “We’ll come back, Cousin Matthew.”
A second later, she was standing beside her mother and brother, and then the three left, little more that they could do.
Bella was grateful a letter came from her husband not three days later and she showed it immediately to her children to prove that he was alive and well.
“Christmas?” Charles stated happily. “He’s home for Christmas?”
“That’s what he said,” Nessa sighed, a little exasperated with her brother. “I might have a new dress?” she begged.
“I will do up an old one,” Bella promised, knowing that material was dear, but thinking that Sybil might lend one of her old dresses for nice material a young girl might like. “Or, perhaps, I might have a trick up my sleeve!”
“Mama! Mama!” Nessa cried happily, throwing herself in Bella’s arms, and Bella laughed happily. “Papa will be home and a new dress!”
Soon, Charles had thrown himself into the hug, and Bella laughed fully in joy, knowing that she wouldn’t give up moments like these except, perhaps, for an end to the war… but the end was in sight—if they could just hold on a little bit longer.
The second time they went, Charles gave the poesy to a resting Matthew Crawley who, it turned out, was awake—he was just unusually still. “Do I know you?” he asked Charles, with a sardonic lift to his brow.
Charles gasped and ran back to Bella, who caught him.
It was Nessa who squared her shoulders and walked forward, looking him up or down. “I suppose you look like a Crawley,” she stated. “My mother is a Crawley.”
He looked at her for a long moment and then over her shoulder at Bella, a small smile twisting his lips. “Ah, Lady Strallan. Forgive me for frightening your children.—I’ve lost all sense of humor.”
She came forward, coaxing a reluctant Charles, and offered him a small smile. “No one informed us you were awake, Captain.”
He waved her off. “I’ve scared them all into leaving me alone.”
“Not Sybil, I hope,” she murmured.
“No,” he answered, darkly. “Never Sybil.”
Bella wasn’t entirely certain what was behind that statement, but she decided not to press. Instead, she reintroduced her children, whom she was certain Matthew Crawley had at least seen on leave. “You remember Nerissa,” she stated, “and young Master Charles.”
“Ah, yes,” he answered carefully, taking them both in. “Miss Crawley.” He lay there, but complimented, “as beautiful as your mother.” Then his eyes slipped to Charles who was trying to put a brave face on it. “Master Charles. As strapping as Sir Anthony, surely. How old are you?”
“Three,” he answered as bravely as he could manage.
“Already?” Matthew asked in mock surprise. “I hadn’t realized.” Then he looked over to Bella who was standing there, as regal as a queen, in her dark mourning clothes and furs. “I see you haven’t changed, Lady Strallan.”
“Little has changed, at Downton,” she told him. “Except your mother went to France to be ‘of use’ to someone.”
He sighed and let his eyes return to the ceiling. “It’s better that way. I wouldn’t want her to see me this way.” He closed his eyes. “I don’t want to be seen by anyone this way.”
Taking that as the dismissal it was, Bella nonetheless said, “We shall bring you flowers again, though, next week. Crawley to Crawley.”
He opened his eyes and his blue eyes caught hers, reminding her of Patrick’s gaze for the briefest of moments. “Crawley to Crawley,” he agreed, wryly.
It was three days later that Bella brought the children over to play with young Viscount Downton and got Cora alone, walking in the garden. “He has his sense of humor at least,” she commented, “even if he says he hasn’t.”
At this Cora seemed genuinely surprised. “Not with Sybil.”
Bella looked at her. “Really?”
“He won’t let her touch him, even as a nurse. They say he’ll never walk again—that he’ll never—” She pressed her lips closed and took a deep breath. “There will never be children.”
The words washed over Bella and she realized she had recognized the pain in Matthew Crawley’s eyes. It was the pain she had seen in Esme Cullen’s. “He can’t have children,” she whispered, a deep laced sadness rushing through her.
The two cousins continued to walk down the garden path, greeting convalescing soldiers as they went, neither commenting on the shared revelation until they were once again alone.
“They say,” Cora began, “there is joy to be had in marriage without children.”
Bella looked at her askance. “Neither of us believes that.”
“No,” Cora agreed. “Neither of us believes that for a moment.”
The two women once again fell into silence.
“Mary will have to find that happiness,” Bella noted.
“So, too, shall Sybil.” Her mother seemed grossly unhappy at uttering the words.
Neither mentioned Edith. There was no point. It was 1917. Although Edith was twenty-five and technically not an Old Maid, her future was set at this point. The war would not be over for another year—at which point she would have celebrated her twenty-seventh birthday. There would be too few men, and younger and younger girls to dance with them.
Bella mused if life might have been different if she had not boarded the Titanic, if she had not married Patrick Crawley, if she had not come to Downton… but then she reasoned that perhaps it had been set in the stars and it had been meant to happen.
She had, after all, had that dream just before her eighteenth birthday where she had celebrated her hundredth birthday instead. Was that not providential? Had she, in fact, been dreaming of her future, and just unaware of it?
If only she had known that it was a dream of contentment, of happiness, of love…
“She is lucky,” Bella breathed before she realized it. “Forgetting that I found Sir Anthony, I lost Patrick. I would have given anything to pull him from those waters, to have him bound to a wheelchair for even a day of life together… They will find their way back to one another.”
Cora looked at her, pondering, and then linked arms with the younger woman. “Perhaps you can speak with Matthew. You mentioned he found his sense of humor with you. Perhaps you can mention what a blessing Sybil will find his life, limited though it may be.”
She looked at her cousin thoughtfully. “Is he being male and brooding silently?”
“He’s brooding,” Cora agreed, a small twist of humor to the side of her mouth. “He’s not completely silent.”
Bella laughed at this and then bit her lip to stop the sound. “Perhaps, right now, Sybil reminds him of everything he’s lost. I’m just a friendly Crawley.”
“You, my dear,” Cora reminded her, “haven’t been a Crawley for several years.”
“I married a Crawley,” Bella argued. “I’m the mother of a Crawley. Need I remind you how much I look like a Crawley?” At this, her lips quirked into a smile.
Cora, now, laughed. “No. I’m sure Lord Grantham would have happily claimed you as one of his daughters when you married Cousin Patrick, so we could keep the title in the family.”
“Well,” Bella mused, “it was unnecessary. I gave birth to a girl, and you have your long-awaited heir.”
“That I have,” Cora agreed, the corners of her eyes crinkling in happiness.
Two days after that, armed with nothing but the flowers that Nerissa had chosen (the children themselves with Young Patrick), Bella went to visit Captain Matthew Crawley. “Ah,” he greeted sardonically. “You’re the one they’re sending.”
She didn’t bother smiling. “I’m the one the Crawley family has sent as Ambassador,” she agreed, setting the flowers in a little vase that was waiting for them. “Nerissa wondered if you would prefer purple, Captain. Her father likes purples when he’s feeling a little down. She thought it might be the same for you.”
“You, Lady Strallan, have been blessed with a thinking, intelligent daughter,” he complimented, a twist to his mouth. “I shall never even have a stupid one.”
Not one to lie or tell false truths, she agreed, “So it would seem.” She sat down, “Patrick Crawley was not my first love.”
He looked at her, startled, and she took her hands out of her muff. “I haven’t spoken about Edward Cullen since the day I agreed to marry Patrick. I saw no reason to,” she told him quite plainly. “He was as dead to me as Patrick.” Literally, as it would seem, as he was a vampire in North America, probably off in the Olympic Crescent or Alaska. “Lady Mary was Patrick’s confession—Edward Cullen was mine, though there had never been even an informal engagement on my part. Edward, however, had a hereditary illness that made him incapable of children. I had already faced the question you and Sybil are facing now. I had not found it an obstacle. I, at the stupidly ignorant age of 15—” (here, she lied for the sake of her story) “—found that this obstacle, and many others, were nothing. I was wrong, about the other obstacles. But I do not believe I was wrong about this particular obstacle to our eventual union.”
He made to speak, the stupid man, but she reached forward and shook her head firmly. “I would have traded Nerissa in those watery depths when she was a mere idea for a single moment longer in the arms of my Patrick. I know that Sybil feels the same way about you.”
“She cannot be in my arms.”
“Are they not working?” Bella scoffed. “You men. You think too well off your prowess to not believe that a bit of gentleness and kindness and affection is enough for us women, who seek little else.” She gave him a pointed look. “I’m sure your fingers work just as well as other parts of your body do not, Matthew Crawley, or were your hands cut off?”
The meek Bella Swan who had been left on the forest floor in a shivering ball of tears never would have spoken so directly to anyone, let alone a man she knew only through family connection, but this was not Bella Swan. This was a woman reborn when she had flown to Italy to save Edward Cullen, a spoilt child she no longer loved. This was a woman captured and experimented on by the Volturi—a woman thrown back into time and who survived the sinking of the Titanic. This was a woman widowed, a woman left behind in war. A woman who was forced to raise her two children without a husband, and a woman who no longer had blood in her veins but the ice of the Atlantic Ocean. This was Isabella Marie, Lady Strallan.
Matthew Crawley was looking at her in shock. “Lady Strallan,” he whispered in desperation.
“Do we have an understanding?” she asked him, and he nodded. “You should, of course, mourn your loss, but your wife should be your strength. You’re a lucky bastard, if ever I saw one. You still have your legs, useless though they are. Most don’t get to say that. You have a young, pretty wife who believes in you.—Buck up!” She smiled a little to take the sting out of the words.
She didn’t stay much longer but instead went in search of the children, finding them in the Nursery, the Viscount a young child of barely four, the same dark hair as Ladies Mary and Sybil, the same dark eyes. His slight form was dwarfed beside that of Charles and even the slim but older Nerissa. She waved at the children in greeting and went to go find the Countess.
She was in the drawing room with Lady Edith and the two Crawley ladies rose to greet their cousin.
“I have done my best,” Bella opened, kissing both of Cora’s cheeks and then nodding to Lady Edith who was reading a book of poetry by the looks of it. “He’s a bit sore around the edges, but he knows he’s lucky to be alive and to have a devoted wife.”
“Good,” Edith remarked. “I wouldn’t mind having such a husband. Or any husband.” She looked so helpless saying it.
Bella knew she had never really had much of a chance on the marriage mart, and Mary had gone and ruined any small chance she had by spreading the albeit true rumor about Kemal Pamuk. Sometimes she wondered what he saw in her. They didn’t seem to have ever spoken in public—what brought them together in private?
She didn’t acknowledge Lady Edith’s statement and turned to the Countess. “It was as you said—he just needed someone removed from the situation to remind him of the situation.”
Cora smiled in relief and reached for Bella’s hand, which she gave. “Thank you, dear friend. I will trust in your medicine, and hopefully all well be well in a fortnight.”
“I suspect,” Bella mused, “all will be well when he gets out of Downton’s Convalescent Hospital and back to Crawley House—once Moseley—Moseley, right?” she checked, “sets it up on the main floor for him. I imagine he’ll feel the invalid if they make to carry him up and downstairs each day.”
Cora smiled widely. “You hated that chair Lord Grantham tried to bring in for you after Nessa’s birth.”
“Exactly,” Bella remembered. “That horrible great thing made me feel like an invalid—not a new mother.” It had been a great big chair that Bella could recline in, more of a bed than a chaise, and she had instantly hated it. She had never known where it had come from, and certainly never knew where it had gone. She didn’t doubt it was in a back room somewhere and that she might happen upon it one day.
Edith turned a page of her book.
“When he’s better, we’ll have a special dinner. When is Sir Anthony home? On leave?”
Bella smiled over at the Countess. “Christmas. He has a little over a week for us. I want him home for Christmas Day, however.”
Cora nodded reassuringly. “Is he here for New Year’s?” Her voice was tentative already guessing the answer.
She shook her head. “He has to be back on his way to Cairo,” she answered. She set her hands in her lap, desperately trying to remember if the First World War (or “the Great War” as they called it here) ended in 1918 or 1919. She thought it was 1918. And it was summer of 1917 now, so there was only about a year left of this hell to live thought… then the roaring twenties, then the Great Depression, then another war… She had to blink back tears and Cora looked at her kindly, thinking she was pondering only the absence of her husband.
Bella offered a small smile.
“He says his skin is quite brown with sun and his hair quite white for the same reason.”
Cora laughed a little at the mental image she must have conjured for herself. “I look forward to seeing it.”
Nodding, Bella wondered, “I was hoping to ask Sybil or Edith if there’s a bright frock that is past saving they might let me have? Nessa wants something new and lovely and happy for when she sees her father and I know I can just cut away the seams and make something entirely knew with proper material?” She looked from Cora and then to Edith, even though she hadn’t thought of her until this moment.
“I have something in a lovely shade of pink from before the war,” Edith offered, “not quite coral. I think that should suit Nerissa’s complexion. Shall I have Anna get it? It’s a bit worn, and I was going to give it to the poor. Nessa is a better cause, surely.”
“Thank you,” Bella told her thankfully and truthfully. “It will make her so terribly happy to have something new that is cheerful—for Christmas.” (Edith stood to ring the bell.) “With the extra material I’ll be able to ensure that if she grows, the dress grows with her.”
She didn’t see the note that Edith slipped in with the dress until nearly a fortnight later.—and by then it was too late to do anything but wonder if she would have done anything at all.