Yes, a heart will always go one step too far.
Come the morning and the four corners I see
what the moral of the back story could be;
come with me, go places.
As with all of Sybil’s most passionate moments, she had gotten herself in over her head almost before she even decided to dip a toe in the water.
“Come on,” Branson said, his voice a whisper in the dark. His bare hand reached out and grasped hers, tugging her along the muddy path. It was well after midnight, and they were taking a secluded route through the lightless woods to an area village where Branson was quite sure they could catch a train without being recognized. They were planning to get the first train to Liverpool.
They were running away.
The more reasonable part of Sybil had never truly thought she would do it, not even as Branson proved himself more determined than hot-headed, staying at Downton to wait for her in spite of her repeated deferrals of his affections.
It wasn’t that she didn’t care for him, although it had taken her some time to realise just how deeply she did. Rather, it was that she couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing and abandoning her family, of doing something so rash and selfish, something that could slice a rift between them so deep that it might never be bridged.
What surprised Sybil most was how easy her family made it, in the end.
It all came to an ugly head one evening in late winter, in the months following the Armistice. The Abbey had only just closed as a convalescent home, and the family was quite relieved to have their home back.
“Of course the real question is,” Granny said, as Carson refilled her goblet of wine, “now that this ghastly war is over and things are getting back to normal, when will our dear Sybil start receiving offers?”
Neither of Sybil’s parents said anything. They all knew that many of the men to whom Sybil had been introduced in her first season had been killed during the war, or were convalescing somewhere from their wounds. Doubtless Granny was aware of that, but such an inconvenience of mathematics would not be seen as an insurmountable obstacle to her.
Seeing no one had anything to say to this, Sybil cleared her throat delicately. “I’m rather too occupied with the hospital to be concerned with such things just yet, Granny.”
“Just yet!” Granny repeated, her eyebrows raised. “Don’t be foolish, my girl! Why, you are not a blushing rose of eighteen anymore. There is no time to waste; just look at your poor sisters.”
Mary and Edith, engaged to an officer and a newspaperman, respectively, both paused in their eating and stared at their grandmother, as though unsure how vocal they ought to be in their outrage.
“Now, I don’t think there is any great hurry, given the peculiar circumstances,” Papa said, intervening on his daughters’ collective behalf. “I’m sure Sybil is merely doing her duty, assisting with the last strings of the war as they’re tied up, so to speak. Isn’t that right, Sybil?”
“Well, yes and no,” Sybil replied. “Much of what we’re dealing with at the moment has to do with the aftermath of the war and the closure of Downton as a convalescent home, of course. But even when the war has truly ended for us and the last soldier has been sent home, there will be plenty of work to do at the village hospital. Dr. Clarkson is always in need of help.”
No one said a word, and Sybil became aware that every person at the table was staring at her in something resembling astonishment.
“Darling, you can’t be serious,” said Mary.
“Perhaps we ought to discuss this at another time,” Mama said pointedly, giving Sybil a look which seemed to imply that she had done something wrong. It reminded her of the looks she used to get as a little girl when she’d use the wrong fork, or when she asked “why?” one too many times.
“But why?” Sybil asked. “It’s a perfectly polite topic of conversation. Granny asked in a roundabout way what my plans are, and I’ve told you that I plan to stay on at the hospital as long as Dr. Clarkson has need of me.”
“Sybil,” Mama said, in the sort of patient tone one reserves for naughty children, “while we all think it very good of you to have taken on nursing during wartime, I think you can agree that the time has come for you to set it aside.”
“No, I don’t agree,” Sybil replied. “Nursing is going to be my career.”
When Sybil recalled it later, it would seem almost comical. She might as well have announced that she was planning to become a travelling trapeze artist for the way they all looked at her.
“No,” said Papa, shaking his head. “No, I think that’s quite out of the question, and that’s all we’ll have about it this evening.”
Sybil stared at her father in bewilderment, but before she could respond, her mother spoke.
“Edith dear,” asked Mama, “have you had a moment to write to Captain Smiley about his next visit?”
Edith’s face lit up at the mention of her fiancé, and everyone was only too happy to move on to a more cheerful topic of conversation.
Everyone but Sybil, naturally.
Sybil tried to discuss the matter with her parents over the following days, all in the hope that they might see her view and come around to it. But nothing worked. Every time she broached the subject to either one of them, they were quick to find some other matter to speak of, or some pressing duty to take them away.
It was infuriating. But to Sybil it was also heartbreaking. She had spent over two years as a nurse, working hard to learn and do all she could, becoming a valued member of Dr. Clarkson’s staff. Now that the war was over, she was being treated once more like a wayward little girl. With each careless wave of Mama’s hand and every clearing of Papa’s throat as he pushed his nose deeper into his newspaper, it became clearer to Sybil that they planned to simply wait her out. They hoped she would grow weary of the fight and quietly accept the inevitable.
At times Sybil wondered whether any of her family truly knew her character at all.
Whether they accepted it or not, she would not go meekly into the life of their choosing. Sybil thought that stubborn resistance would be enough, but one grey morning in March, during breakfast, she realised that a much more drastic course of action would be necessary.
The family was eating quietly, each absorbed in their muddled early morning thoughts, when Carson brought the mail. There was a letter for Mary from Sir Richard, and a letter each for her parents.
“Cora, dear,” Papa said as he read his letter, “it seems as though the Earl of Harrington will be passing through the area the week after next, and he’s bringing his nephew, Jonathan Hales. We’ll be able to accommodate them, I hope?”
“Of course,” Mama replied, delighted. She turned and smiled at Sybil. “You remember Jonathan Hales, don’t you, dear? We were introduced to him the last time we were in town. I believe he was engaged, but I’ve heard that the arrangement fell through. How sad. Perhaps you will be able to cheer him up during his visit.” She paused, her eyebrows raised significantly.
“I’m scheduled to work quite a few shifts in the next fortnight, so I’m not certain that I’ll be around much,” Sybil replied before picking up her cup and taking a sip of hot, strong tea.
A reply which was perfectly reasonable to Sybil had once again silenced a table full of people. She could feel her mother’s and her sisters’ eyes on her.
“Surely you can take some time to play host to an old friend,” Mama said. “Dr. Clarkson can’t possibly expect you to work all the time, can he?”
“I don’t work all the time; I work as much as the other nurses do,” Sybil replied. “And I would hardly call a fellow I met perhaps twice in London several years ago an ‘old friend.’”
“Well, we’re sure to cross paths with him during the upcoming season, and I think it would be nice if you two were reintroduced before that time,” Mama said.
“I rather thought the traditional season had gone out of vogue,” Mary said lightly, raising her eyebrows at Sybil in a helpless expression. It was a type of support, Sybil supposed, and she favoured her sister with a tight smile.
“It was interrupted during the war, perhaps, but it has not been abandoned altogether,” Cora replied. “How unthinkable! We’ll be going up to London in April this year.”
“I won’t be,” Sybil replied. “I can’t simply be absent from work for months at a time and come back expecting my place to still be there. It wouldn’t be fair to Dr. Clarkson, or to the other nurses.”
“Robert,” said Mama, looking down the table. All traces of congeniality had disappeared from her face, and Sybil realised with a shock that her mother was furious.
Papa cleared his throat, setting aside his newspaper. “Your mother is quite right, Sybil. It would be terribly rude of you to absent yourself from the Earl and Mr. Hales’s visit in such a way. As for town, there is no question about it. We will all be going up to London in April. That is all there is to it.”
“I will happily come down on the train to enjoy town when I’m able,” Sybil replied. “But I’m spending the season at Downton so I can continue at the hospital. I’ll likely stay with the other nurses, in fact, so that the staff needn’t bother with me.”
“Do not be absurd!” Papa snapped, his face reddening. “Sybil, I think you will agree that your mother and I have been more than accommodating insofar as you helping with the war effort. But there is a time for healthy youthful rebellion, and then there is a time to grow up and accept one’s duties. You have reached the time of the latter. Enough is enough, Sybil.”
“But I didn’t become a nurse just for the war!” Sybil replied, her voice rising with her outrage. “I didn’t struggle through my training, through learning to sew wounds and remove limbs and hold a soldier’s hand as he died only to abandon the entire thing the minute the war is over! I don’t know how to make my ambition any clearer to you, to any of you – I am going to be a nurse. That is all there is to it!”
“How dare you speak to your own father this way?” Papa asked. “How dare you be so ungrateful? We have taken great pains to have Earl Harrington bring his nephew here, all for your benefit!”
“What do you mean?” Sybil asked.
“Sybil,” said Mama in a careful, measured tone, “surely you understand that many men of your age have been killed. There aren’t many appropriate bachelors left, and you are not getting any younger. We must act quickly to assure you a good match. Surely you must see this.”
Sybil looked from Mama to Papa, and then back at her sisters, both of whom were looking down at their plates. They would not look at her; clearly they had known.
Betrayal and humiliation surged inside her as a sour taste settled in the back of her throat. Bitterly she realised how her sisters must have felt in the past, to have their prospects in this life laid so cruelly bare. She supposed she was fortunate to have avoided it for so long.
Sybil pushed her chair back from the table and stood. “Please excuse me,” she muttered. “All of a sudden I don’t much feel like eating.”
If her family spoke or tried to entreat her to stay, Sybil did not hear them. She left the breakfast room and ran across the hallway and up the stairs, not stopping until she was at her chamber door. She threw it open and slammed it behind her, collapsing back against it.
“Begging your pardon, my lady.”
Sybil stood up straight. She had forgotten that Anna was making up the rooms. The maid was frozen with Sybil’s eiderdown nearly straightened, a concerned expression creasing her brow.
“I’m so sorry to interrupt you,” Sybil said. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Are you quite all right, my lady?” asked Anna, coming around the bed. She stood in the middle of the room, looking worriedly at Sybil.
“No,” Sybil replied. Her voice broke. “No, I don’t think I’m all right at all.”
Sybil buried her face in her hands and began to cry. The last time she could recall crying was her first night at nursing school, after Branson dropped her off and proposed to her. She had cried out of loneliness and fear, out of homesickness, and out of heartbreak for the things that could not be.
As Anna gently placed an arm over Sybil’s shoulders and whispered softly some benign words of comfort, Sybil wept for all of the same reasons as she had before.
Branson was bent over working on the engine of Papa’s Renault when she wandered out into the yard later that same afternoon. He had lately stopped declaring his love and loyalty to her, instead settling for visiting with her when she passed by the garage, discussing politics and the changes in the world, as they used to. When she told him what her parents had said, he didn’t look up from his work.
“Hm,” he said. “Suppose it was bound to happen, sooner or later.”
“How can you say that?” Sybil sputtered, still angry from her confrontation with her parents. “Surely you don’t agree with them?”
“Of course not,” Branson replied, straightening up enough to look at her. “But are you surprised, milady? Did you think they would let you carry on with this forever? What’s acceptable in wartime isn’t acceptable always.”
“I... Why, yes, I suppose I am surprised,” Sybil said, suddenly feeling foolish as well as angry. “I thought perhaps they would see how important my work is to me. I thought their minds would change. But nothing’s changed, Branson. They still expect me to make a good match and settle down in a manor someplace, with my own household to manage.”
“Reckon they thought you’d get it all out of your system and want to do just that, settle down. I take it that’s not what you want?”
“It’s not as though I don’t want to get married,” Sybil said delicately, aware that this was likely a rather unfair conversation to have with him. “It’s just that if I am to marry, I want it to be for love, not for a society match, and I want my husband to respect my autonomy, my dreams!”
Branson leaned a hip against the motorcar and reached for a nearby rag which he used to wipe the oil and grime from his hands. He didn’t look at Sybil, instead frowning down at the ground.
“I know what it is you’re thinking,” Sybil said.
“You’d have to be pretty thick not to,” Branson replied frankly. “And one thing you’re not is thick. You know how I feel about you and what I want. There’s no sense in my repeating it to you. All that matters to me is whether you love me, and until you sort that out, neither of us is going anywhere.”
He turned and shut the bonnet of the motorcar with a decisive bang.
“I have to go get cleaned up so I can fetch the Dowager Countess,” he said, and turned to head for the chauffeur’s cottage beyond the garage. He paused and looked back at her. “I’m sorry your family has disappointed you. I know they love you in their way. Only I wish they could see what I see when I look at you.”
Branson walked off into the dark cottage, disappearing from view, and Sybil stood in the yard staring at the motorcar.
All at once there was significantly less doubt in her mind as to what she ought to do.
The doctor looked up from the tidy stack of papers on his desk, and favoured Sybil with a faint smile. Dr. Clarkson was brusque and at times unbending in his adherence to rules and order, but during her time working with him, Sybil had found him to be a kind and honourable man, and she had grown to admire him for all that he did for their patients. For his part he had often complimented the quality of her work, and she suspected he had grown rather fond of her.
“What can I do for you, Nurse Crawley?”
“I was wondering if I might have a word with you,” she asked.
“Certainly,” he replied. “Come right in.”
Sybil entered his office and closed the door behind her, standing before him with her hands clasped.
“Dr. Clarkson, I wondered if I might ask you for a letter of reference,” she said bluntly.
Dr. Clarkson frowned. “I hope this is not your way of telling me that you are planning to leave the hospital.”
“No, it isn’t. Although I must tell you that my family has become eager to see me settled down.”
Dr. Clarkson looked at her for a moment, and then sighed. “No, I don’t suppose you’ll be permitted to continue on much longer, now that the war is over.”
“No, I won’t. Of course I’ll continue on as long as I’m able. But the reason I’ve asked for a letter of reference is just...” she paused. “You see, nursing has meant a great deal to me. More than almost any other thing in my life. So the thought of having to give it up pains me. But if I must, I thought perhaps it might be a comfort to have with me your recommendation, as though I were going on to another post. I suppose you’ll think me terribly silly.”
“On the contrary,” Dr. Clarkson replied, smiling. “It would make me only too pleased to put down in writing what a diligent, thorough nurse you have been, and that your eagerness to learn and to help both patients and your fellow staff has made you a credit to this establishment and a blessing for the soldiers who have found themselves here.”
“Thank you,” Sybil said softly, her throat tight. “That would mean a great deal to me.”
“Truly it has been my pleasure.” Dr. Clarkson sighed again. “I must say the thought of being without you fills me with regret. You will have to give us plenty of notice as to when you’ll be leaving, when it does happen, so that we might give you a proper send-off.”
“See that you do. I’ll have that letter for you tomorrow,” Dr. Clarkson said. He picked up his pen and carried on with the work he’d been doing when Sybil interrupted.
“Thank you,” Sybil repeated, turning away. She opened the door and slipped out of his office. She paused a moment in the empty corridor, listening to the sounds of the patients and the nurses in the nearby wards echoing down the halls.
Thank you for everything, she thought.
Dr. Clarkson was true to his promise. Two days later, Sybil returned home from her shift at the hospital with a letter tucked safely inside her coat. She stowed it in a vanity drawer in her bed chamber, and did not speak a word of it to anyone. Not even Anna when she came up to help Sybil dress for dinner.
It pained Sybil to know that she would now have to be secretive and careful from now on. Terribly careful. But she had done it before when it mattered, and she would do it now.
“Fortune favours the bold,” she said to herself before adjusting her gown and walking out to meet her sisters in the corridor, an unassuming smile on her face.
After a long evening of conversation about the weather, and the tangled web of politics emerging in the aftermath of the war, and gossip about various acquaintances, everyone retired to their chambers. When Anna came in to help Sybil undress, she tilted her head, their reflections regarding one another in Sybil’s vanity mirror.
“Are you all right this evening, my lady?” Anna asked.
“Oh yes,” Sybil replied. “Much better than I was the other day. It all seems so silly now. Thank you, Anna.”
Anna watched her for a moment longer, and then nodded. “Glad to hear it, my lady.”
When Anna had gone, Sybil sat up reading for some time, until the sounds of her family and the servants in the house died down, and all fell quiet. She stood and put on her shoes and her coat over her night dress. She stopped at her door, listening closely, until she was sure that everyone had gone to bed. She fetched the letter from her vanity and stole out of the room, hurrying along the dark hallway and down the back staircase. She did not encounter a single person as she exited through an ill-used garden entrance, and was soon walking across the yard to the garage.
A light was glowing through the windows of the low brick building, and it warmed her heart to see it.
The door was ajar, and as she approached, Sybil could hear the sound of humming, although it was not a tune she recognized. She stopped just short of the doorway and listened as Branson finished his song, abruptly switching to low, off-key singing.
“She is handsome, she is pretty, she is the belle of Belfast city; she is courting, one-two-three; please won’t you tell me, who is she?”
Sybil winced. What was said about the Irish being a musical people was obviously not universally true, for Branson appeared to be entirely tone deaf.
She stepped into the doorway and found Branson sitting on a wooden box, cleaning an array of tools laid out in neat rows on a piece of canvas at his feet.
“What are you doing up so late?” she asked.
Branson jumped, dropping the wrench in his hand to the floor with a noisy clatter.
“Good God Almighty,” he said. “You scared the living daylights out of me, milady.”
“I’m sorry,” Sybil smiled. “I wasn’t certain whether you would still be awake so late, but I wanted to wait until everyone in the house was asleep.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” Branson said, standing and wiping his hands off on a rag. He leaned against the wooden workbench behind him, crossing his arms over his chest. “What can I do for you? It seems very late for a drive to Ripon.”
Sybil pulled the letter from her coat and stepped forward, holding it out to him.
“What’s this?” he asked, taking it from her. He read it quickly, a crease forming between his brows. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“It’s a letter of reference from Dr. Clarkson,” she replied.
“So it is, and a very fine one at that. But why have you brought it to me?”
“Well,” Sybil said, her voice faltering even as her gaze on him did not waver, “I thought it might be enough to find me a place as a nurse elsewhere.”
“Elsewhere?” he echoed. “Are you going someplace?”
“I think so,” she replied. “I would like to go someplace else. I don’t know where. To be honest, I don’t think I much care, so long as it’s away from here, and as long as I can work.”
Branson had gone very still, staring at her with a bewildered expression on his face. “Do you mean -”
“Would you ever forbid me from working or pursuing my interests and ambitions on account of my being a woman?”
He continued to stare at her, and then swallowed. “No, I wouldn’t,” he said hoarsely.
Sybil nodded. “And would you expect me to be content for the whole of my life only with being a wife and a mother, with making you happy and being your helpmeet?”
“I wouldn’t,” he replied.
“Well,” Sybil said, raising her eyebrows. “In that case, where would you like to go? You’ve put some thought into this, I imagine, so you must have some ideas as to where we might go.”
“Don’t torment me,” Branson replied, setting the letter down on the workbench behind him. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“I am,” she replied. “Will you go with me now, or have I missed my opportunity? Must I go alone?”
The expression on Branson’s face was indescribable. He seemed caught at some strange crossroads of joy and disbelief and agony. Then his face broke into a wide grin, and he grabbed her to him, hugging her close.
“It’s been so long since we even talked about it, I had started to think that perhaps – well, I reckon it doesn’t matter now,” he said hurriedly, his words tripping over one another in their rush to have themselves heard. He pulled back to look at her.
“Are you sure?” Branson asked, holding her upper arms in his hands. “Only you must be very sure. Once we go, there’ll be no turning back, milady. Running away with the chauffeur isn’t something even a reputation as sterling as yours is likely to recover from.”
“I’m sure,” Sybil replied. “I wasn’t before, but I am now. I have no other choice.”
Branson eyed her for a long moment, and then abruptly dropped his hands from her and turned away. He muttered something under his breath that sounded like a curse, and then kicked the wooden box he had been sitting on.
“Branson!” Sybil cried, surprised.
“You should go,” Branson said in a weary tone of voice, without turning back to look at her. “You should go back to the house before you’re missed.”
“I don’t understand,” Sybil replied. “I’ve told you that I want to run away with you, and now you want me to go back to the house?”
“That’s the trouble, milady,” Branson said. “You don’t want to run away with me, you just want to run away.”
Sybil stared at him, understanding with a sickening turn of her stomach where she had gone wrong. She blinked hard as tears burned at her eyes.
“I see,” Sybil replied, taking a deep breath to steady herself. “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you. That has never been my intention, you must know. Only it is not so easy for all of us to know the whole contents of our hearts as it is for you, Branson. I envy you that. You must be far less confused than I am.” She turned to go. “I’ll leave you now. I’m sorry.”
Branson sighed harshly and grabbed hold of her sleeve, stopping her. “Wait, don’t go.”
Sybil stopped. His hand slipped down to hold hers, and his eyes were so tender as he looked at her that she almost could not bear it. His love for her was so real it seemed like a palpable thing hovering in the air between them. Her eyes dropped to his lips, and suddenly she felt brave enough to follow the path her heart had been pulling her down for a very long time.
She took a step towards him and, knitting her fingers with his, kissed him.
Branson inhaled sharply through his nose, and his hands came up to cradle her jaw and rest against her neck. One hand slid down her shoulders to press against her back, holding her close to him. Sybil wrapped her arms around his neck and held him also, and sighed as something warm and sweet began to open in the centre of her chest.
It felt rather like hope, like things might not be as dire as she feared.
Branson broke the kiss, one hand still cupping her cheek. “I wonder if I’m dreaming,” he said.
“You’re not dreaming,” Sybil replied, shaking her head. She smiled. “I want to go. I’m ready to go.”
Branson smiled, and caught both of her hands in his.
“In that case,” he said, pulling her in the direction of his rooms at the back of the garage, “we’d best make ourselves a plan.”