April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
(T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land")
The flowers find their bloom in Belgrave Square, the purpling lilacs frosting the newly green garden. Sybil plucks a blossom from a bush and places it into the buttonhole of Branson's coat. He smiles until his eyes shut, the laugh lines bowing up to heaven. "I look quite the dandy now, don't you think?" he says.
"All the ladies will swoon," she says.
"And the housemaids. Don't forget them."
Sybil makes a face and says, "Don't start. You jolly well know I've seen Ethel making eyes at you. She thinks I don't notice the servants, but I do."
"You noticed me," he says, gently, and she tips her face up to look at his eyes, so blue and bright, and all she wishes for now is to stand on the tips of her toes and lean into him.
It is strange, but the war has afforded them freedoms they would not have otherwise. Kissing her chauffeur in a public square, however, is not one of them. Instead she takes his hand and slides it against hers until they are palm to palm, a holy palmer's kiss.
"We should get back to your aunt's house," he says at last, disappointment darkening his tone. They've crossed through the park three times and the sky is turning an April gray.
"Yes," she agrees reluctantly as he pulls open the umbrella to cover them both. She insists on this—because it means that he will stay dry; he will stay close
Sybil's been a year in London now, away from Downton, firmly nested in her Aunt Rosamund's house in Eaton Square. Her days are spent at the Red Cross helping with the war effort a life fulfilled with bandages and poultices. Though her parents objected to her original plan when she presented it, they were convinced of the scheme when she suggested it would be an opportunity for her to meet a suitable man. With both her sisters still at home, sniping and unmarried, it did the trick.
As Branson pulls them into the covered driveway to park the car, Sybil thinks her parents would never expected that she had already found that suitable man, and that he was at Downton all this time.
Branson calls her "Milady" out of habit when he offers to help her out of the car, but it is her name—Sybil-that he says into her mouth when she pulls him toward her into a kiss.
Mr. Sanderson, the butler, has a letter for Branson when they enter the house, but Sybil is disheveled and distracted and takes it to be her own. She turns to Branson when Sanderson leaves the room and beams at him. His lips are red and swollen with kisses, and she thinks fiercely that this is love, and if he does not know how she feels yet, he will soon.
"I believe that is for me, Lady Sybil," he says, mock serious, trying to snatch it away.
Sybil swats at his hand, laughing, but the sound dies on her lips when she sees the stamp on the envelope, the words "Imperial War Department" in black, the ink now running down the cream paper from the rain on her glove. War affords some freedoms, but some freedoms it takes away.
If anyone sees them now, she doesn't care. She steps into the circle of his arms and thinks that he is too young-that they are too young-and that it must be impossible for someone with so much life to step out the door and disappear. But boats leave England's shores every day, and young men vanish in Flanders, in France.
The lilac bloom is crushed between them, purple petals fragrant and flat. It is forgotten until she steps back, and when she does, it falls into her hands, like a memory pressed in a book.