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Patience Is A Virtue

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Patience is a Virtue

"Absolutely not!" The Earl of Grantham spoke with all the authority and dignity of his station in life and position in the family. It was the sort of tone which brooked no refusal. Mary would have argued and stormed, Edith perhaps fled in tears. His youngest daughter, however, knew that her father's 'absolutely not' could – would - turn in time to 'very well, if you must', as it had on many occasions previously.

And so Sybil waited.

*

"She wants to do what?" The Dowager Countess's eyebrows raised as high as was quite proper (which was considerably higher than she would have permitted in anyone else without reckoning it an unseemly indulgence in 'dramatics'). "All that business over votes for women was bad enough, but now she actually wants to head off to the front line, wielding a bayonet, I suppose."

"London's hardly the front line," Lady Cora pointed out, reasonably. "And there are no bayonets involved. She just wants to help, in the war effort. We can hardly refuse her that, not now. It wouldn't be very patriotic, after all." But Lady Violet sniffed.

"I don't see why she shouldn't be involved in a manner more befitting her sex. Couldn't she knit socks for soldiers instead? Now there's a sensible pursuit for a young lady."

"I think it's admirable that she wants to get involved with nursing," Isobel interjected. "I used to help out in the hospital, you know, when my husband was alive."

"Ah but there's the difference, you see," Lady Violet seized on the point which wouldn't require her to disagree outright and shatter the fragile peace which had sprung up between the two of them in recent months, "You had a husband. Sybil does not, and if she insists on gadding about London playing at nurses then she is hardly likely to acquire one." She sniffed deliberately. "Such a pretty girl, too. It will be a shame if she ends an old maid like her sisters."

"Come, mama, that's hardly..." Lord Robert began, but he was drowned out by his wife's incredulous cry,

"Old maids! Really!"

"Well," Lady Violet shrugged and settled back further into her chair. "Mary's not eighteen any more, you know, and headstrong. And what with that business..." She caught Cora's eye and cut off. "Yes, well, she could have had Matthew, you know, and she wouldn't make her mind up to it. And as for Edith... poor girl, she's not overly blessed with personal charms, and now with whatever she's done to fright off Sir Anthony Strallan, I doubt she'll get many more offers. And now Sybil! Well. No, Robert, you must forbid her from any such endeavour."

"I have already forbidden it," Lord Robert reminded her, beginning to feel as though he were quite outnumbered by the female population in his own house, and that if all households were like this it hardly mattered if women got the vote, since they seemed to have the running of everything else.

*

"But what on earth is this VD exactly?" Mary wrinkled her nose, disposed to be disapproving, as she sat on the edge of her sister's bed, already dressed, while Anna put the finishing touches to Sybil's hair at the dressing table.

"VAD," Sybil corrected. "Voluntary Aid Detatchment. Helping in hospitals with the wounded. I can't see why father won't allow it. I feel so useless just sitting here sewing when so many have gone to fight. People we know, like Matthew." Sybil looked carefully through the mirror at her sister to see the effect of that name. The corner of Mary's mouth twitched and the fingers on one hand curled into her palm but she made no other acknowledgement. Sybil thought, too, of Tom Branson, who had let her drive the car more than once, out of sight of the Abbey, before he'd joined up, but thought better of offending her sister's firmly held aristocratic sensibilities by mentioning him in the same breath as the heir of Downton. Anna stepped back, finished and Sybil smiled. "Thank you, Anna, it looks lovely. Besides," she continued turning to Mary, "If Lady Cynthia Asquith can join, I don't see why I shouldn't."

"Lady Cynthia?" Mary raised one eyebrow. "Well, make sure you drop that one over dinner, I can't wait to see the look on Grandmother's face." Sybil rose and took her sister's arm.

*

Dinner was a more muted affair than it had been wont to be before the war. For all that the latest family matter had been discussed variously behind closed doors, even Lady Violet lacked the stomach for a heated exchange over the stewed pork. Perhaps it was that they had to be served by a maid instead of two footmen. Mary tried her best to tease her grandmother into an argument, but having no-one to argue with soon turned sullen. Edith started off sullen and quickly became morose. Sybil held her tongue, knowing it would profit her nothing to push the matter, something her eldest sister had yet to learn.

Lord Robert excused himself soon after dinner and retired to his library. Sybil's eyes followed her father, noted the thoughtful crease in his brow. And waited.

 

*

The atmosphere below stairs was just as subdued. With one footmen and the chauffeur having left for active service, and Gwen for her new job as a secretary, their numbers had dwindled. (There was the boy from the village, too young to fight, an inadequate replacement for Thomas in Carson's eyes just as much as in Lady Violet's, although he hadn't yet developed a habit of stealing wine from the cellar). Anna found that she missed Thomas, to her surprise. Thomas would survive, by fair means or foul she had no doubt. He was a queer sort – in that way, too, although she knew enough to know that that didn't make a man any less of a good man, not necessarily – but he was sly, and mean. She'd not liked him overmuch, none of them had, she thought, save Daisy and O'Brien (and she'd been quiet since he'd left – or was it since Lady Cora's unfortunate accident?). Still, she found she missed him around the table all the same. It was too quiet, the young healthy men gone off to be shot at and those too old or unfit for service tense with something that was not quite envy, not quite guilt. Anna risked a glance at Bates, embarrassed in case he should guess the train of her thought. She didn't want to pity him, knew how much he'd hate that. She let her eyes wander over to the girl to his left, Gwen's replacement.

Gwen, she missed most of all. It would be churlish not to be happy for her, since she'd been so excited at leaving for her new job, full of praise for Lady Sybil's generosity in helping her secure the position, bubbling over with plans for the future and promises to write them and say how she was getting on in her new life. Anna had been surprised but pleased to find that Gwen kept her promise, missives arriving every week at first, addressed to her but shared with the other servants – and with Lady Sybil, too, who had been so delighted by the correspondence that Anna hadn't the heart to question whether the letters were really meant for her ladyship's eyes, even had she dared to do so.

**

A week later, Lord Robert announced his intention to remove to London, he had business in town to attend to. His wife, still convalescing, and eldest daughter were to remain at Downton, the two younger would accompany him; his sister would provide an adequate chaperone for the duration of their stay. As for servants, Carson would stay behind to manage the estate, the three of them would manage quite well with Bates and Anna to attend them, plus whatever help they could hire in town.

It was possible that he did have business, possible that he was restless, in want of sensible masculine company. But most of the residents of Downton, above and below stairs, were privately of the opinion that Lady Sybil had got her own way in the end, as always.

 

*

Lady Cora supervised her daughters' packing, frowning a little at the contrast between Sybil's 'sensible' trousered outfits and the frilled frippery Edith insisted on taking, although it wouldn't suit her. Cora had long since given up trying to influence her daughters' sense of fashion, and knew Edith would only take it to heart if she pointed out that pink was not her colour. Edith took a lot of things to heart, poor girl, and yet in some ways she had the most resilience of the three of them.

"It's hardly the time, dear," was what she restricted herself to in the way of comment as she saw a particularly unsuitable ostrich-feather hair clasp disappear into Edith's valise. "The war," she murmured. Edith nodded, but lifted her chin with that determination that would be either her saving grace or her downfall, time had yet to tell.

"Of course, mama, I just thought... I thought that if perhaps we were invited to a dinner, or... or..."

It clicked, then. Edith viewed this trip as an opportunity. Perhaps, even...

"You know, I believe Sir Anthony Strallan is in town," Lady Cora remarked casually. Edith's nose crinkled as though she wasn't quite sure whether to blush or cry. Mary glanced over, then, and Edith's face darkened. "I'm not sure what business he was there on – something to do with the Home Office, I think your father said."

"Perhaps," Mary said archly, "He went to avoid certain... unwanted attentions."

"Mary!" Her mother rebuked her. Edith stamped her foot, peevishly.

"Well Matthew went to France to avoid you," she snapped back, with not even an attempt at subtlety. At this Mary grew pale and left the room.

"Edith, dear," her mother remonstrated, before following her eldest daughter out with a rustle of skirts. Edith stared after them, red-faced.

"That was too much, Edith," Sybil said, looking up from the book on modern nursing Aunt Isobel had loaned her.

"She..." Edith began, but tailed off, as if in silent agreement with her younger sister's pronouncement. Sybil sighed. She was used to playing peace-maker between her sisters, but lately there seemed something between them beyond her power to repair.

"I only wish you'd tell me what it is Mary has done to so vex you, or you her. It seems you can hardly stand to be in the same room together these days."

"I... it is nothing. Nothing for you to trouble yourself about," Edith said, shaking her head. "You're..." The words 'young' and 'innocent' did not pass her lips but were implied in her glance. Sybil drew herself up.

"I'm nineteen," she said, with all the dignity of someone declaring themselves ninety, thrice-married and ruler of an Empire. Nineteen and had done more than Edith had, that much also went unspoken. Edith recognised her sister as someone quite formidable, or who would be. Something of their grandmother in her. But Edith herself had never wanted to do things, to make anything of herself beyond a decent match and a comfortable home. It was Mary turning down chances with a sneer that she herself would have leapt at that irked her, just as much as the whole scandalous business with Pamuk. What right did she have to refuse eligible matches, to torment decent men as she did? But Edith felt she would be at a loss to explain any of this to Sybil. "We just rub each other up the wrong way, that's all," was all she said on the matter.

"Well, never mind," Sybil said, not satisfied but knowing when to back off. "We'll be in London soon, you'll be well away from Mary and I shall be nursing."

 

*

It hardly took Anna long to pack her own things, her uniform, her mother's bible and two Sunday outfits, in case she should be given some time to herself while they were there. She rather hoped she would; her employers were generally generous with time allowed to their servants, but then again there would be a lot to do with such a small staff. The thought of who exactly would be comprising the small staff sent a thrill of excitement and apprehension through her. To be spending so much time in the close company of Bates... they would be practically running the household together. Anna shook herself. She was a sensible girl, not some green country lass with romantic notions. She liked John Bates. He was a good man. He was a married man. She knew well what could not come of her feelings for him, even were he to return them. And she thought he did. He was an honourable man. He'd never try to take advantage of her feelings for him. No matter how much you wish he would, whispered a traitorous part of her mind, and she felt her cheeks go hot. Perhaps fortuitously, the bell rang at that moment and she pulled herself together to go to attend their ladyships.

 

**

Dear Anna,

Thank you for your letter. I hope you and all at Downton are well. You may remember last I wrote there was some talk of the company's services being needed in London for the war effort. I have now found out that we are to remove there – the entire company! - for a time. I have been promised a room in a repsectable boarding house while we are there. Apparently it is indispensible to have a secretary, we will rent an office for the duration of our stay. I do hope we will be able to meet while you are down in London too. I must be brief as I have packing to do, but I will write you again soon with my address in London, or at the least the address of the company's London offices.

Yours,

Gwendolen Dawson

"Is that from Gwen?" Anna started a little at the voice in the doorway, but got gracefully to her feet and curtseyed.

"I'm sorry your Ladyship, I..."

"Nonsense, Anna, I should have rung, really, instead of intruding. I ony wanted a bit of ribbon taking off my dark blue gown... may I see?" Sybil held the gown out in one hand and reached for the offered letter with the other. "How delightful, Gwen in London at the same time! We must arrange a reunion. I've longed to see how she's getting on now." Lady Sybil smiled her usual infectious smile as she handed the letter back.

"You wanted the ribbon taking off, my lady?" Anna queried, finding she had no response to her ladyship's plans for a reunion. Lady Sybil was kind and generous, she'd been a good friend to Gwen, she took an interest in the servants' affairs generally, more than either of her sisters, but still, Anna did not always know quite what to make of her.

"Yes, I don't want it to look too... well, fine, you know. I want to be taken seriously, you see, as though I'm not afraid of a bit of hard work." Anna bobbed her head and set to work as soon as Lady Sybil left, not wanting to point out the obvious problem that Lady Sybil had, in fact, never done a day's hard work in her life.

**

The removal of part of the household to London went off with much false cheer, embracing and good wishes. If there were daggers in the eyes of two of the young ladies of the house even as they smiled coolly at one another, no-one remarked on it. It was too cold a day for Lady Violet to venture out to bid her farewells, but she had made the most of the opportunity of sitting by the fire the preceding evening to offer her advice to her granddaughters. She could hardly tell them not to lose their virtues as their elder sister had, but made up for this by roundly admonishing them for things they had absolutely no intention of doing, as well as the things they had. Edith nodded seriously under the weight of her ladyship's expectations about her conduct and her assertion that she would do well to return engaged at the least if not positively married off. Sybil smiled behind her hand, privately reciting the medical terminology she had studied from Aunt Isobel's book whenever she felt bored by the conversation (which was not infrequently).

Bates was to ride direct with the luggage, while Anna was to accompany the young ladies in case they should require her services during the long journey south. There had been no leave-taking between them, since they would see each other again in two days and yet still she seemed to feel the pressure of his hand as he had helped her into the carriage. Anna pinched her thumbs to calm her nerves and wondered how she should come to be behaving so much like a giddy schoolgirl and not a sensible woman. She hardly heard what Lady Edith and Lady Sybil were talking about until Sybil squeezed her hand and said,

"I do hope we will see Gwen when we are in town, wouldn't that be delightful?" Anna wondered at first whether Sybil's interest in Gwen was merely politeness but there was no denying the obvious enthusiasm in her expression. Anna was pleased to see her more animated; Lady Sybil had seemed so pale and unhappy just a couple of months ago, around the time Branson the chauffeur had left. Perhaps this London trip would do her some good if no-one else. Anna smiled and said,

"I hope so, my lady."

 

***

"Well, Sybil, my dear, how did it go?" The Earl looked up from his newspaper with a smile to humour his youngest daughter; a smile which slipped when he saw the whiteness of her expression. There had been three days of 'settling in' before he'd given his permission that morning for Sybil to attend the VAD offices at St. Thomas's. It had been a formality, nothing more, it had been inevitable since he'd announced their removal there that Sybil would go. And so she had gone, in the plain blue gown with no ribbon.

"It... very well, father," Sybil replied, sinking into a chair as her father motioned her to sit. He frowned.

"You don't look very well, if I may say so."

"I am only a little tired. I am not accustomed to hospital work, after all."

"No, and if you or I listened to your grandmother, you never should become so. Well, well, if you're quite sure...."

"I'm quite sure, father," Sybil lifted her chin so that the words meant more I am quite determined.

"Well then, you had better go and change for dinner, then," was all he said, but with it he have tacit approval for her continued employment as a VAD.

 

*

"Miss you look dreadfully pale," Anna remarked as she buttoned Sybil's green gown. "You're sure you're not sickening, or..."

"Oh Anna," Sybil turned and clasped her maid's hands, "It was quite dreadful, really..." She paused, then carried on. "I couldn't exactly tell father or Edith..." Sybil dropped Anna's hands and shook her head, as if missing the presence of someone she could tell. Who that might be, Anna didn't like to venture a guess. Her elder sister, perhaps, or her mother. Gwen. Tom Branson, even, although it seemed almost improper to speculate on her mistress's relations with other servants.

"You know you can rely on my discretion, my lady," Anna said. Sybil looked at her almost reproachfully.

"I know that, Anna, only... there was so much blood! I didn't think there could be so much. I saw a man's leg...." She stopped abruptly, changing tack. "I'm not some fainting, dainty lady, though that's what some of them there seemed to think." She sniffed, and Anna had a sudden understanding of how hard it must have been, disdainful matrons used to blood and guts and hard graft turning their noses up at this slip of a girl with her elongated vowels and her soft hands. Lady Sybil would have to work harder, perhaps, than some of the other volunteers to earn even a grudging approval.

"I'm sure you can do it, your ladyship."

"Yes," Sybil's voice was all steel behind the softness, "I'm sure I can. Thank you Anna." And this last was not the genuine girlish thanks Anna had heard before but more of a regal dismissal.

*

"How's Lady Sybil working out at the hospital, then?" Bates asked later that night, as the servants sat down to their dinner. Anna felt already that they were to be very much thrown together, by dint of not knowing the other servants, as it would be with any of the other servants from Downton. But with Bates – with John, as she found she'd begun to think of him - it was different. The easy companionship they'd enjoyed at first having given way to a buzz of potential, of danger, almost.

"I think they gave her a hard time," she said honestly, "On account of her being who she is. But she'll not give up."

"Aye, she'll not give up, not Lady Sybil. She's not the type for giving up. As long as she picks the right course..." He stopped, before his speculation on her ladyship could be deemed disrespectful.

The right course. Of course, that was what everyone should pick, Anna thought to herself. But it was so very hard to always know what was the right course. There were times when duty to oneself, duty to one's employers, duty to the morals and precepts of the church were at odds with one another. She thought back to that night when Lady Mary had asked for her help in... that delicate matter. Not that there'd been anything delicate about what they'd done. She'd said nothing of it. Duty done. But had it been the right thing, in every sense?

She reached for the water pitcher at the same time as John and their hands brushed. She was too pre-occupied with stifling her own sharp intake of breath to know how he reacted. As soon as it was reasonable to do so, she excused herself and went to her small, draughty room to await the bell to tell her Lady Sybil or Lady Edith needed assistance.

It wasn't fair, she wanted to shout. John Bates was everything she could want, everything it was right for her to want, a decent, honest, kind man. And yet it was not right to want him either. It wasn't fair.

**

The disapproval from her superiors and fellow volunteers at the hospital began gradually to lessen as Sybil set about her menial tasks without complaint. The sight of the patients sent back from the front, those who had lost limbs, particularly, continued to affect her. That was something she didn't think she could ever get used to. There was a young man, blinded. He had sandy hair and a crooked smile. He reminded her of Tom Branson. Sybil felt sick to her stomach at the thought of him ending up somewhere like this, all his revolutionary ideals fractured by a mortar, choked on mustard gas. She excused herself, ignoring the 'I told you so' look of the sister in charge and strode out, gulping in mouthfuls of fresh air.

"If that's the worst you've seen yet you've been lucky," said a voice behind her. Sybil turned to see a mannish looking young woman lighting up a cigarette.

"It's not," Sybil said, the indignation she'd hoped to convey swallowed by the thickness in her throat. "It's just he reminded me of someone, that's all."

"A sweetheart?"

"Of course not! He was our chauffeur."

"Oh, la-di-dah," whistled the newcomer and Sybil felt embarrassed by her title and background, not for the first time since she'd arrived in London. Frustrated, too, for Tom Branson had been more than a chauffeur, he'd been... a friend. She didn't know how to convey that, though, without confirming the original suspicion of a sweetheart. She'd been fond of him, yes, but she was fond of Gwen, too. "I'm Georgie, by the way," the woman held out a hand. Sybil shook it, at first feeling a little confused, this was nothing like the way her parents and grandmother and aunts had always told her introductions should go. She knew nothing about this Georgie's background or rank or even her last name. And then, with a sudden smile, she realised that, actually, she preferred it that way. That was what she'd been arguing for for so long, after all, wasn't it, a world where rank and gender weren't the barriers they so often seemed.

"Sybil," she returned.

 

*

By the end of the first week in London, Anna had received a letter from Gwen with the address of her boarding house. She hardly liked to bother Lady Sybil, who always seemed so tired from her work at the hospital, so Anna applied to Lady Edith for permission to walk out on Sunday afternoon and call on a friend.

"I don't see why not," Edith said, seeming flattered to be approached. She was, after all, mistress of the household, in a way. "I'm sure papa wouldn't object."

Gwen's landlady was a formidable creature who would have given Lady Violet a run for her money in severity, despite the difference in their social standings. Having ascertained that Anna was neither a man, nor a beggar nor an evangelist, she sniffed her grudging approval of her calling. Gwen rolled her eyes at Anna behind her landlady's back and promptly suggested they go out to take tea.

"Look at us, all dressed up in our Sunday best taking tea," Gwen said with a smile. "Last time we saw each other we were both housemaids back at Downton." She frowned. "I didn't mean..."

"Oh, I know." Anna reassured her.

"I'm not ashamed of having been a housemaid. It was just never for me."

"You don't miss it?"

"Sometimes," Gwen admitted. "Sometimes I miss the company. But I like being more... independent. It's hard work, and you still get people talking down to you and everything, but it's good. I'm happy."

"I'm glad," Anna smiled.

"It's wrong to say it, I know, but what with the war and everything, there's more jobs for women like us. When there's not enough men to do it they'll have to let us take on the work. It's more than just secretaries. There's girls work in factories, and even driving. There's these VADs who drive ambulances..."

"VADs? Like Lady Sybil."

"Lady Sybil drives ambulances? Well, I can't say I'm surprised, she was always talking about women being able to do all the things men can. Well, not everything, obviously, I mean..." Gwen flustered, a little tongue-tied.

"I'm not sure she drives ambulances. Not at the moment, anyway. Besides, it's hardly a step up for her, is it? It's different for the likes of us. She doesn't need a job, just an eligible husband."

"Maybe she doesn't want one."

"What makes you say that?"

"Oh, just something she said once. I'm sure she meant nothing by it. But..." Gwen hesitated. "Does she have anyone? A sweetheart, or a... a suitor or whatever rich folks call it?" Anna found herself once again thinking of Tom Branson but shook her head to herself, foolish to imagine such a connection. Besides, he'd hardly qualify as a suitor either way. And she had to admit that there was no-one else who's name she'd heard connected with Lady Sybil's in any serious way. Young men who'd admired her in the season before the war, dance partners, flirtations but nothing that Lady Sybil seemed to take seriously, not in the way she took her politics and her volunteering seriously. Anna wondered if Lady Sybil wouldn't rather be chained to a railing like some of these suffragettes than tied down in matrimony.

"No," she admitted to Gwen, "I can't say as she has. Lady Edith, now..." And Anna relayed all the gossip about Lady Edith's attempts to secure a fiance, things she wasn't able to put into letters which might be read. Gwen listened with growing amusement.

**

Lord Robert had been to call on Sir Anthony Strallan, had invited him to dine, but the invitation had not as yet been taken up. Edith thought she might expire from the sheer frustration of the situation. Sir Anthony had seemed her best bet so far and she had been fond of him. She could fall easily, given the slightest encouragement. And yet she was not so far gone as to think he was irreplaceable in her affections. She knew her sisters thought her impressionable and over-emotional, but she had a practical side which determined to secure a match by whatever means necessary. The trouble was, there were so few eligible men. Volunteering by the upper classes was by no means as widespread as among the lower, but still many a landed gentleman had donned khaki and taken up arms. Edith was practical enough to consider younger sons of Earls and Counts whose elder brothers might leave for France and never return. But there were so many fewer social engagements in which to meet even potentially eligible younger sons.

Edith sighed as she saw her sister from an upper window, returning from the hospital. She liked Sybil; there was none of the rivalry and bitterness between them that there was between her and Mary. But she couldn't help but envy her. Not her work at the hospital – the very thought of being steeped in blood and bandages made her want to gag – but the sense of purpose, the potential she so clearly carried.

There was a knock at the door.

"Enter," Edith called without looking round. From the corner of her eye she saw Anna bob a curtsey.

"If you please, your father asked that you be informed that company is expected for dinner. Sir Toby Walters." Edith couldn't remember whether Sir Toby was old or young, ugly or good looking. Still, she was not one to let even the ghost of an opportunity pass her by.

"Thank you," Edith inclined her head. "I think I'll wear my pink silk this evening."

 

*

"News from Downton," Bates said as Anna entered the kitchen that evening. "William's gone and joined up." There was a faint tinge of disapproval in his voice.

"Oh." Anna found that she was sad where she knew she ought to be proud of him. William was a decent lad, a little green. But it gave her a pang to think of him in the trenches. It was hard to imagine him surviving, somehow. "Why now, I wonder?"

"I know," Bates's expression darkened. "He's been getting white feathers."

"Oh no. Who would..." She found her mind leaping straight away to Thomas and O'Brien. A couple of months in London hadn't really broadened the horizons of her world, it seemed. Even though Thomas was who knew where, a medic now, she supposed, and the spite had long since gone out of O'Brien, as far as Anna could tell. "I hope he'll be alright," she said, and felt it was hopelessly inadequate, for William and the hundreds, thousands of other young men like him.

"It's not right," Bates said, shaking his head. "He's a good lad. He's not a coward. I've no doubt he was afraid but a man'd be a fool not to be." Anna saw the shadow of past pains and fears cross his face and almost wanted to ask him about his own war experiences. She had the feeling his scars ran deeper than just his limp. She knew that he if anyone would know about being brave and stoic while others accused him of cowardice and deception. It was just one of the things she loved him for. Anna's breath caught in her throat as she realised what she had just thought. She loved him. It wasn't something that needed further examination, by now it was simply fact. She found too, with this talk of William, that she was suddenly, selfishly glad of his injuries, that he wouldn't be going there into to the mud and the fighting and the hardship. She felt her eyes misting over. It was wrong to be glad, it was wrong, but...

"Anna, are you alright?" Bates reached across the table and took one of her hands in his own. She lifted her gaze to his, not sure how or even whether to put her thoughts into words.

"I..."

The door swung open, admitting the kitchen maid. Bates pulled his hand away and Anna dropped her eyes to her lap.

**

Sybil found herself learning more than she ever thought possible from her fellow volunteers at the hospital. The work ethic and the ambition of some of the girls impressed her. After a mistrustful beginning – whether it was simply because she was new, or because she had introduced herself to start with as Lady Sybil, she wasn't sure, perhaps a combination of the two – she had begun to become included more in conversations, trusted with more important tasks.

She struck up a friendship of sorts with Georgie, who promised to introduce her to some of her friends in London, women involved in political campaigns, suffragettes. As 'Georgie' turned out to, in fact, be more properly addressed as Lady Georgina, Lord Robert had no compunctions about allowing her to attend dinner. With their Aunt busy and Edith too ill (in actual fact, too uninterested, since she learned it was to be attended by only women, and those women interested in discussing politics), Sybil went unchaperoned. She had even suggested that she drive herself, if the loan of ther Aunt's chauffeur was too difficult to arrange (she still hoped to be allowed to drive ambulances as some of the other VADs did), but at this her father had drawn the line firmly. Sybil knew she got her way with most things, in the end, but she knew also when to concede the less importanrt details, to allow her parents at least the illusion of authority.

For Sybil, who had been disposed to think of herself as forward-thinking and radical, the evening was somewhat of a shock. Her pretty blue trouser-suit looked positively feminine and dressy compared to the attire of some of the attendees. There were women with close-cropped hair and mannish suits, smoking, who Sybil had taken for men, at first. She found herself accosted by one who demanded to know which of the Pankhursts she stood with – was she for or against the ceasefire? Sybil blinked, not understanding, thinking perhaps there had been a ceasefire called in France, and how could anyone be against that, but was fortunately rescued by Georgie who pointed out that Sybil was a VAD. The woman nodded and turned away. Most suffragettes, Georgie explained, leading Sybil to another corner of the room, believed there should be a sort of ceasefire in the struggle for women's rights now that England was at war, that they could show rather than tell what women were capable of by filling the gaps left by the men in hospitals and factories. There were some, though, like Sylvia Pankhurst, who thought the struggle should continue.

Georgie introduced her to a rather wild looking young woman known simply as 'Betty', who wore shirtsleeves and a waistcoat.

"Charmed," she said as Sybil was presented, and lifted Sybil's hand to her lips. Sybil, blushing slightly, wasn't sure what to do; the protocol of this particular soiree seemed to bear little resemblance to that which her mother and grandmother had drilled into her before her 'coming out'. Sybil reminded herself she did not want to be like her mother and grandmother anyway, so smiled prettily and said, 'pleased to meet you'. Betty looked her up and down in a way she did not quite like, for all it did not seem in the least disapproving. Sybil had seen young men look at her that way at balls. She supposed at first that perhaps Betty was simply admiring her outfit, but then she noticed a fair-haired girl, no older than she was, slip her arm almost possessively through Betty's, and Betty's attention moved on, distracted perhaps by the cut of this girl's gown, instead (it had, after all, an exceedingly low neckline). The fair haired girl was introduced as an actress. Her greeting to Sybil was not quite as warm as Betty's had been. Betty slipped an arm around the actress's waist and Sybil felt her cheeks grow flushed, for no reason that she could quite put her finger on and she was glad of the glass of wine which was pressed into her hand.

Two glasses later and she was beginning to feel less glad of it. She had met some fascinating people and had some interesting conversations, but was tiring and beginning to feel a little out of her depth. She had the distinct feeling that her family would not approve and was relieved she had not had to bring Edith after all; her sister would surely have been bored. Edith had never seemed to get on very well with other women, not others her own age, anyway, while the majority of the women here seemed to prefer the company of their own sex; there were several derogatory jokes about men made within Sybil's hearing. And there was something, too, about the way that Betty had her arm about her companion, like a man might put his arm around his sweetheart.

She left early, pleading need of rest before her shift at the hospital the next morning. She was glad in the end to slip out into the fresh air after the heady mix of smoke and perfume in Georgie's drawing room.

When she closed her eyes that night she found herself thinking inexplicably of Gwen.

 

**

"Anna, are you busy this afternoon? Only I've a tear in my grey skirt and... Oh, but father lets you have every other Sunday afternoon, I forgot..."

"It's no matter, my lady. I can do it this evening and have it ready for you by tomorrow."

"Thank you, Anna," Sybil smiled. "Where are you off to this afternoon, then? Do you have an admirer?" Anna couldn't help the slight colour which came to her cheeks but she kept her voice steady as she replied, "I'm meeting Gwen." Seconds later, she felt she'd rather be teased about an admirer. Lady Sybil's face crumpled in a mixture of delight, envy and reproach.

"Gwen? Oh Anna, you've been meeting her all these weeks and never told me! And you knew how I longed to see her. Is she well?"

"Very well, my lady."

"I've the most wonderful plan – what if I were to go meet her today in your place? What a surprise she'd have, don't you think it a delightful joke?"

"I... if you wish, my lady." Anna hesitated. The grin slipped from Lady Sybil's face.

"But no, then I'd be depriving you of your friend." Anna had been thinking that, but the forlorn look on Lady Sybil's face changed her mind.

"But... perhaps I've been depriving you of a friend, my lady," she said brightly. "I've other friends I could meet this afternoon." The grateful look on her ladyship's face told Anna she'd done the right thing.

*

"Not meeting Gwen this afternoon, then?" Bates was polishing boots when Anna walked into the kitchen after dinner had been cleared away.

"No, Lady Sybil wanted to meet her instead, to surprise her."

"That's not right," Bates said, shaking his head, "She's no right interfering in your afternoon."

"It's fine J- Mr Bates. Lady Sybil takes an interest in Gwen, she has as much right to see her as I do."

"I'm not so sure," Bates said. "What I mean is, I don't know how much good this attachment will do Gwen."

"Lady Sybil's always been good to Gwen," Anna defended her. "She helped her get that job as a secretary."

"Patronage and friendship aren't the same thing at all. She may be glad of the one, but if she's a smart girl she'll not confuse it for the other." Anna wondered whether by 'she' he meant Gwen or Lady Sybil. "So," Bates continued, not looking up from his boots, "You've no-one to meet this afternoon?" His tone was casual but his shoulders tensed.

"No," Anna replied, "I might just go for a walk in the park by myself."

"Would you... uh, would you object to some company? Only his Lordship's given me a couple of hours free this afternoon as well." He didn't meet her eyes. She smiled.

"I'd love some company."

*

"Sorry I'm late, Anna, my hat wouldn't behave itself and then my landlady stopped me and quizzed me about which church I'd been to this morning and... oh my good grief. I mean, Lady Sybil, I..."

Sybil couldn't help laughing at the expression of embarrassed confusion on Gwen's face as she stepped into the street.

"Hello, Gwen."

"Your ladyship." Gwen's entire frame tensed and Sybil was sorry to see it. "Is anything wrong with Anna, is she...?"

"No, no, she's quite well, she... she had another engagement and I wanted to come in her place, to surprise you. But now I'm afraid I've frightened you."

"Not me, miss," Gwen drew herself up straight.

"I hope not. I rather thought we were getting to be friends, before you left. I hoped we were, anyway."

"I... yes, of course." Gwen's features seemed torn between suspicion and hope.

"Come on, then, Anna said you like to drink tea."

"Yes miss."

"And cake?"

"Yes miss."

"Gwen?"

"Yes miss?"

"You needn't call me miss, you know."

"Sorry my lady, I wasn't..."

"I mean you can call me Sybil, and I'll call you Gwen and we'll go and drink tea like any two young women who are acquainted with one another. How does that sound?"

"Grand, miss," Gwen said, and Sybil laughed.

**

Sir Toby hadn't dined again. Edith didn't mind so much; he had been fifty if he was a day and a little deaf. The lack of balls and parties and dinners, however, was proving trying. Oh she knew it was all because of the blasted war, but still, people had to have some entertainment, didn't they? People had to meet other people, still. Her father dined out, but only to drink port and talk about the progress on the continent with other old men. At least, she supposed her father was old. The snatched conversations on the subject of conscription she had overheard seemed to suggest that the age limits might be expanded. And her father had previous experiences of military command, after all. She was proud to have a father with a distinguished military service, but didn't like the thought of him having to go out and prove his fighting credentials all over again.

Sybil, too, went out, to her work at the hospital, to parties with queer, fashionably bohemian people. Edith fancied she knew rather more about what sort of people Sybil was associating with than their father. She could tell him, she supposed, about the women dressed in man's clothes, the activists, the actresses, all thrown in together with no regard for class or propriety. Could tell him, too, what she'd heard from Anna about Sybil visiting their old housemaid; in some disreputable corner of the capital, she supposed. Just where did housemaids live when they weren't housemaids anymore? Edith didn't know. She could tell their father; perhaps if it had been Mary she would have done, but she was not so bored and jaded as to want to spoil Sybil's fun. After all, it was not as if she was out meeting men at these parties for suffragettes, however much that word might scandalise their grandmother.

As weeks stretched into months, their London jaunt no kind of success for her, Edith began to long for home.

*

"Oh miss Sybil, I can't possibly take all these!" Gwen protested as Sybil dumped an armful of material onto her lap.

"Whyever not? I know some of them need mending, but I'm sure you can manage that. I remember you used to work wonders with your needle. That time you fixed up my gown when I ripped it on the way down to dinner – why, your fingers moved so fast they flew!" Sybil's tone rang with genuine admiration. Gwen couldn't help but blush a little.

"That's not what I meant, though, these are too fine." Gwen eyed the gowns with a gleam of longing, despite her protestations, and Sybil remained firm.

"They're quite serviceable for a secretary, I made sure of it. I'm not some silly lady casting off her silks to her lady's maid without a thought for where she could wear them."

"What about this one, though!" Gwen held up a green silk trimmed with lace. "My landlady will be thinking I've robbed Harrods' store!"

"That one's Edith's. Oh don't look at me like that, she looks perfectly hideous in it, she'll never miss it. It'll just suit you, though, bring out your eyes." Sybil smiled at her. "Try it on."

Sybil was right, it did bring out her eyes. Gwen flushed, as much for the finery as the admiring look Sybil gave her.

"Perfect!" Sybil exclaimed. "You can wear it tonight."

"Tonight?" Gwen's brow creased in confusion.

 

*

Sybil had been so caught up with what a wonderful idea it would be to bring Gwen to Georgie's, to drink champagne and be admired by her friends for her beauty and ambition that she had hardly stopped to think that it might not be a success after all. Gwen was tense beside her, uncomfortable in these unfamiliar surroundings and Sybil found herself suddenly remembering how she hadn't liked it, the first time she'd come, being stared at or quizzed on subjects she barely understood. The slightly coltish look she'd always admired in Gwen had turned into a look of almost miserable discomfort, as though the green silk itched her neck and the wine disagreed with her. She sipped nervously at it, clutching her glass as if for security, curtseyed and stammered whenever she was introduced to anyone. Betty was there, with a different girl on her arm to the actress she'd been with when Sybil had first met her. She made a couple of comments which caused Sybil to blush and Gwen to look terrified and ready to bolt. Sybil slipped an arm about her waist in what was intended for a comforting gesture, but Gwen froze. As soon as Betty and her companion moved away, Gwen disentangled herself, tugged instead on Sybil's arm.

"Can we go now? Please? I don't... don't feel well."

"Of course," Sybil said, feeling somewhat mortified. "I'll call for the car."

They didn't say a word to each other on the way home.

**

It grew late one Sunday as Anna and Bates walked through Hyde Park; they didn't talk much, comfortable in each other's company without unnecessary conversation or afraid to talk about anything that might change the tentative nature of their current relationship. The leaves, beginning to turn, drifted down from the trees in the light breeze. The corner of the park they found themselves in was all but deserted. They didn't walk fast, not with Bates' limp, but suddenly Anna noticed they'd gone farther than they had before.

"We should be heading back. It's late."

"Anna-" She stopped at the unexpected solicitation in his voice, tilting her head towards his. "You know I care for you a great deal."

"Yes," she whispered, not trusting herself to say more.

"I can't offer you all you deserve, you know that. I'm sure you could have many better offers."

"I'm sure there are no better men," she replied.

He kissed her, then.

 

Then walked home arm in arm. In the park they could have been anyone, just two people in love, without pasts, without duties, wilthout obligations except to one another. Closer to home, though, the tension began to creep back in. Things were far from settled between them. For all that they were all but playing butler and housekeeper here in London, it wasn't something that could last, back at Downton. It wasn't something that could happen for them, not with things as they were. Bates walked her to her room.

"May I?" he asked, before kissing her again, ever the gentleman in the true sense of the word, if not by the strictures of society. She kissed back, it seemed the most natural thing in the world and she soon realised how difficult it would be to retain their chaste relationship when they both desired a nearer connection. She found herself wondering whether it was worth the potential scandal, the shame. Yes her mind supplied and it was that, that very abandon in her own nature that frightened her, and she tore from his arms and into her room, slamming the door shut behind her.

**

"Lady Sybil!" Gwen turned pale as Sybil walked coolly into the office and approached her desk. "You shouldn't be here, you know. I'm not alloowed personal visitors. I'll get the sack."

"You won't, if they bother you about it, I'll simply explain..."

"You can't just come in and fix everything just because you're a lady, what... what about when you're not here?" Her gaze dropped, then and she bit her lip, as if wishing the last bit unsaid.

"Gwen," Sybil's voice was soft but her face was sad, "I didn't mean to... I only came to apologise for last night. I should never have taken you there."

"No," Gwen looked up at her, then, a spark in her eyes. "You shouldn't. I... I thought we were friends, that all this, you helping me get this job, that you believed in me. But was I ever more than a project for you? A doll to dress in your cast offs, to parade around in front of your friends."

"Gwen, it wasn't like that, I promise you."

"I thought you liked me."

"I do like you. It was all for liking you, Gwen, don't you see? Please, let me make up with you. I'll take you for tea."

"I can't be bought." Gwen's eyes blazed with passion, although her voice was kept low.

"I would never..." Sybil stopped. "I'm sorry." Just as with her father, she knew when to stop pushing. Just as with her father, she hoped patience would be rewarded, in the end.

**

Anna had avoided Bates's gaze since the Sunday before, avoiding the man himself would have been impossible at such close quarters. She could feel his eyes on her, though, questioning. It was Wednesday before he made any attempt to speak to her.

"Anna." She pretended not to hear him. It was petty, and beneath her, but she couldn't bring herself to answer him. Didn't trust herself. "Anna, please," He grabbed her sleeve, not hard, but she startled and he drew back. "I'm sorry. Please, if I offended you last Sunday. If you want nothing more to do with me, I'd rather you just said..."

"It's not..." she blurted out, before she could get her words straight. "You didn't offend me. You don't offend me, please don't think that."

"Then what -"

"I just... I don't know, I can't..."

"Will you walk out with me again this Sunday?"

"I'm meeting Gwen. She wrote to me." She felt the crumpled note in her pocket, glad of the truth of the excuse. Bates nodded sadly and her heart twisted in her chest.

"It's not... Please, I just need time." He nodded again, eyes clearing.

"You take as long as you need. I'll wait."

 

**

Edith had quite make her mind up to ask her father for permission to return to Downton. It wasn't selfish, not really. She wasn't asking anything of her father or sister, after all, they were at liberty to remain here in London for as long as they liked. Her hand wavered, poised as it was to knock at the door of her father's study. She thought of Mary's teasing and her grandmother's questioning and her resolve weakened. She thought of another week in the greyness of London with the screeching of ambulances and lack of society and knocked.

"Ah, Edith, my dear, come in," her father said, somewhat genially. "Edith, this is Dr. Atwood. Atwood, my daughter Edith." She curtseyed lightly to the man who rose immediately from his chair and bowed to her.

"A pleasure, Lady Edith."

"You'll stay for dinner, Atwood?" Lord Robert enquired casually. Dr. Atwood's eyes didn't leave Edith.

"I'd love to."

"Excellent. Was there something particular you wanted, Edith, dear?"

"No, father, I only came to ask what you wanted for dinner."

"Oh anything, anything. Tell Anna to have cook make enough for our guest."

"Yes father," she smiled, Downton forgotten as she wondered whether she should look out her pink gown or her green for dinner.

 

**

 

"Can I ask ye something?" Gwen blurted out, reverting to the accent she'd grown up with, her practised 'polite' secretary voice quite forgotten.

"Of course you can, Gwen," Anna said kindly, trying to put her more at ease. "You know that."

"It's just... how do you know when someone's being nice to you just out of kindness, or whether it's just because they want something... or, well, whether they have a more than friendly interest, if you get my drift."

"Well, if they're asking for anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, they're not doing it out of kindness." Anna took a sip of tea before she continued, as she thought back to when she'd gone digging up John Bates's past. "But sometimes... well, sometimes it could be both, couldn't it? They could still be a kind person but they could be doing things because they... well, maybe really liked you, in more than a friendly way. There's no shame in that, if it's all proper." Gwen flushed a little.

"But what if it... ain't quite proper? Not in that way, I mean, but... what if the person weren't the proper sort of person to be having them kind of feelings for?" Gwen chewed on her lip, embarrassed. Anna looked at her for a long moment. Clearly whatever advances this 'not quite proper' person had made, they weren't entirely unwelcome. Anna had only to consider her own situation with John to know that she had no right to judge, even if she had been the sort to do so, which she was not.

"Nothing ever works out quite the way we plan," Anna told her. "Sometimes I think that... well, everything's so short. So fragile. This war... who knows. Maybe... maybe we need to all do our best to find happiness where we can. As long as we're not doing wrong by anyone else." Gwen nodded, still unsure. "Thank you Gwen," Anna said at last and Gwen looked up, a question in her eyes.

"What for?"

"I think you've just helped me make my mind up about something."

Anna smiled.