"You do think I'm doing the right thing, don't you, Anna?" Lady Mary asked suddenly, staring blank, unsure, at her own face in the gilt-edged mirror; a face with rather too many lines for her liking. The toll taken by five years of keeping up appearances, she'd remarked to her maidservant once before, although she knew they would have come anyway, possibly in greater number; time being no respecter of rank or beauty.
Anna didn't answer right away, which was just one of the ways in which she was completely invaluable to Mary. A lesser servant, a lesser friend would have given an immediate, casual 'yes of course' which would mean nothing of the sort. Mary watched in the mirror as Anna's hands paused where they had been scraping Mary's hair up away from the nape of her neck. There was a moment of quiet and then she looked up, her eyes meeting her mistress's frankly in the mirror.
"I think you should take every chance to do what would make you happy, my lady," she said at last. Her fingers brushed against Mary's collarbone as she pulled one strand of hair loose, ready for curling. Nothing so deliberate as a caress, it never was, but the touch as well as the words was comforting, and Mary felt a flood of gratitude well up in her chest. Mary covered Anna's hand with her own, holding it there against her neck for the briefest of moments.
"Thank you, Anna," she said sincerely. "I really don't know what I would do without you."
In the mirror, she saw Anna's cheeks pink just a little at the praise, the acknowledgement. They were rare, these honest moments between them. It was not in Mary's nature to forget easily that she was a lady and Anna her maid, nor was it in her nature to admit to weakness or indecision, and she certainly could never do so with anyone less than perfectly loyal and discreet, as Anna had proven herself time and time again to be. And yet it was more than mere discretion. If Mary had felt for one second that Anna would laugh at her or scorn her, even silently, she would never have let her in. But she knew, somehow, that Anna never would. Hers was the sort of undying loyalty that went beyond that of a paid subordinate. Beyond that even of Mr. Carter, whose longstanding affection for Mary was well-known.
Mary blinked and shook herself a little. This something, just out of reach, was something she never allowed her thoughts to dwell on, too much.
"This infernal hair," she sighed, frowning as Anna set the tongs to it. "You know in Paris the women bob their hair? Mother thinks it frightful, of course, but I begin to see the attraction. How do you think it would suit me?" Mary tilted her head from one side to the other, cupping her hands at the level of her jawline to try the effect.
"I think you've the face for it, my lady." And the guts to carry it off, she did not add, but Mary could read her thoughts like a well-thumbed and familiar book. Privately, she agreed. She was Lady Mary Carlisle, and she would do as she damn well pleased. And if it upset Richard – well, all the better.
"I think I'll leave it until we get there," Mary decided. "Fresh start and all that."
"That might be best, my lady." Anna pinned an errant strand into place. Mary saw her jaw twitch, just a little. "I'd be out of a job, then, I'm afraid."
"Don't be ridiculous. As if I could ever do without you." Mary took up her own lipstick, as Anna affixed a black feather to the ribbon she was winding around her hair. "Well. That'll do, I suppose. Wish me luck, papa's going to hit the roof."
She'd long since dispensed with using formal titles when it was just the two of them. A needless affectation with someone who saw you in your underclothes, she'd always thought. Only it wasn't that, exactly, because with anyone other than Anna she'd likely be more formal; the woman who did for her when Anna was off was never admitted into her confidences, and if she spoke of her family at all, then, it was always 'the Countess of Grantham' and never 'my mother'. But with Anna, she felt easy in giving voice to her thoughts as she had them, not taking the trouble to cloak and disguise them in the language of polite society. With Anna, Mary knew she could dispense with the many complicated mind games that characterised her interactions with the majority of her acquaintances, her husband and even her sisters. It was an odd thing to admit to, perhaps, feeling more at ease with one's maidservant than one's own sisters, but Mary had long since ceased to think of it as an oddity; it simply was.
"Good luck, my lady." Anna gave her a reassuring smile as she wrapped Mary's cloak around her shoulders, her hands warm where they brushed against her bare arms. Mary wished she could take that smile with her, wrapped up in her pocket for warmth.
"You're going where?"
"Really, papa, New York is hardly the wilds of Africa." Mary sat back on the chaise-longue, the black silk of her skirts rustling against the green satin stripe. She wasn't afraid of her parents' reaction. They couldn't exactly forbid her; she was a married woman after all and had been of age for some time in any case. And it would be rather hypocritical of her mother, at any rate, to object to her destination.
"But Mary, dear!" More of a remonstrance than an actual objection. Mary turned her eyes to her mother; she was rather fragile and pale of late. That gave Mary a pang of uncertainty, the thought that her mother's health might deteriorate in her absence. But no, she had been ill a while, and not getting sicker. Besides, she could be back to visit, whenever she chose. Independence. That was the point of this whole exercise, was it not?
"Mother, it's quite fine. It's fashionable these days, you know. And with your family connections, I'll hardly want for society."
"And what of Sir Richard?" Her mother's look, then, was knowing. Mary didn't falter, although caught a little unawares, her invalid mother more knowledgeable than she'd expected. She wondered, briefly, what exactly her mother's sources were – rumour, Aunt Rosamund, Edith, or merely her own guilty expression. It gave Mary a jolt every now and then to remember that her own shrewd nature was something inherited, not learned.
"What of him?" Mary shrugged and looked her parents in the eye in turn. "He's not coming, if that's what you're wondering. And he's hardly in a position to object. The pre-nuptial agreement secures my own fortune, however we choose to live."
"Oh Mary." Her mother's disappointment stung, a little. Because her parents really did want her to be happy, and there was no use in hiding the fact that her marriage was a failure. Oh, they wouldn't divorce. Not yet, at any rate. And no-one could say they hadn't tried. Marriage, in Mary's opinion, was always a contract. Both parties wanted something out of it. The only difference was that she and Sir Richard had been quite honest about it. And that neither of them had wanted or expected love.
It had become apparent after three years that no heir would be forthcoming from their union; confirmed by two of the best doctors in Harley Street. Richard had been angry, disappointed. Mary, if truth be told, had been relieved. She was more than happy to leave the childbearing to newly-married Edith, who Anna informed her was obviously in the first bloom of expectant motherhood, although she had yet to make an official announcement to her family.
Anna, too, seemed resigned to a life of childlessness, with her husband sent down for life. Mary thought she divined the true reason behind their hasty marriage when Anna had broken down not three weeks after. The memory of Anna's crumpled face and the unusual comfort she herself had offered, her arms about her maid's shoulders. The way Anna had picked herself up again, after, drying her tears and setting her chin against her disappointment, with a Well, that's that then, reminding Mary that the upper classes didn't have a monopoly on the stiff upper lip.
Taking a leaf out of her maid's book, Mary lifted her chin and gave her parents the confident, bright smile that no-one but Anna had ever yet seen through.
"Really, mother. A new start. I'm looking forward to it."
Mary had had every intention of spending the entirety of the voyage in her state rooms, only venturing out for meals, but soon found herself in need of air, the rough passage not agreeing with her. Anna accompanied her onto the deck without a word, carefully tucking the green cashmere shawl around her lady's shoulders.
Mary managed to light a cigarette despite the weather, uncaring of any disapproving looks she might attract, smoking on deck like a sailor. Not that many first class passengers had ventured out at this hour, anyway. She leaned on the balustrades blowing smoke into the wind, sneaking a sidelong glance at her maid, who stood gazing inscrutably into the deep crashing grey of the Atlantic.
"I love the sea," Anna said, inhaling deeply, "The smell of it. Don't you, my lady?"
"Salt and fish?" Mary teased with a quirk of her lips, but she had to admit there was something appealing about it, all the same, the tang of freshness, of possibility.
Mary allowed herself to wonder, for a moment, just what would possess someone to give up everything and everyone they knew, to follow their mistress into a new life in the new world. To wonder what there could be there for Anna, what she might hope for.
Anna looked up, then, and Mary found herself momentarily caught by eyes as deep and fathomless as the ocean.
Americans, Mary discovered, were both delightfully awed by the idea of aristocracy and entirely ignorant of the nuances and intricacies of hierarchy. This allowed her to become an object of fascination in New York society despite her mildly scandalous separation from her husband, while retaining her own cherished sense of superiority.
The fast set took Mary to its bosom with alacrity. Capable of being as arch and as pretty as the best of them – or the worst of them, which really amounted to the same thing – there was never any doubt she would be a success with the illicit gin parties as well as the more sedate dinners of the 'old money'. Mary laughed in private at that, because really, all American money was new money. To the old, it was enough to possess a title; to the young, all that was needed to be a success was to have as much fun as possible – or to appear to.
It took two weeks before Mary sat down, looked Anna in the eye quite decisively and declared her intention of bobbing her hair.
"Are you sure?" Anna asked, but their was a sparkle of amusement in her eyes.
"Yes, yes. Quite sure. Chop the lot off."
There was something liberating about seeing the chunks of dark hair falling all around. Mary supposed that this was how Sybil felt when she wore her trousers or Edith when she drove - something Mary still hadn't quite gotten around to trying for herself. Anna's fingers were swift and nimble, sure and gentle as she pulled, pinned, snipped and straightened, shaping Mary's hair into a sleek bob worthy of Louise Brooks herself.
Anna fussed with Mary's bangs, still not satisfied, but Mary shook her head, laying one hand gently on Anna's arm.
"It's perfect, Anna," Mary told her, warmly, and Anna flushed under the praise. Her cheekbones were highlighted by the blush, giving Mary an idea. "You should cut yours, too," she murmured, barely conscious of making the decision to make this suggestion out loud. "It'd suit you, certainly."
"Me?" Anna snorted, but didn't pull her arm away. "I hardly think so, my lady."
"Yes," Mary told her, releasing her, at last. "And a feather, and a string of pearls, perhaps."
"I'm a housemaid, not a... a flapper," Anna said, and there was a note of pride in her voice, a quiet sense of dignity at her position. When Anna said it, she made it sound as though being a housemaid was everything to aspire to and being a bright young thing of New York society with a short skirt, a cigarette and the cosmopolitan standard of virtue that implied, nothing at all.
"Sometimes, Anna, you make me ashamed of myself," Mary sighed, meaning it.
"You've nothing to be ashamed of, my lady," Anna replied, that fierce look in her eyes she had sometimes, beneath that calm and unflappable exterior. "Not ever."
And Mary let herself believe her, when she spoke like this. After all, Anna was the one person who knew all her worst secrets, all her weaknesses and private foibles. And really, if Anna, with her goodness and quiet strength could see a worth in her somewhere underneath it all, the gloss and the lies and the slightly grimy sheen of society, then Mary had no doubt it must be there.
The New Yorker staff club was always a whirl of gaiety, wit and above all, alcohol. She had connections with any number of newpaper people, of course, from Sir Richard's line of work, and was invited to any number of newspaper parties. Exchausted by chatter with some quite brilliant people, Mary found herself reclining on a sofa, blinking through the fog of cigarette smoke and jazz music.
She looked up when she felt the sofa dip under the weight of another person and stifled a sigh as an arm slid across the back of the seat.
"How you doing?"
It was one of the New Yorker reporters. No family, no money to speak of, but rakish John Gilbert good looks and a persistent sort of charm, which of course was how he made his living at the newspaper. He flirted with everyone, but had certainly and unashamedly been trying to charm her into bed practically since she'd set foot in the country.
"Fine, thank you," she replied, clipped, dismissive.
She could take a lover, of course. Sir Richard, on another continent, would never know. She had no doubt he had his own affairs, and had done throughout their marriage. There was no danger of her being caught out and getting knocked up, as they said. The doctors had been quite adamant there was no possibility of that. She had to admit it was a temptation.
"Come on, baby, don't be like that." His breath was hot with gin and she winced a little, although she'd had more than her fair share that evening.
If she were to have a dalliance, it wouldn't be with a newspaper man, or a lush, she knew better than that at least.
Mary left the party early, which was to say before dawn. The house was quiet when she arrived home and for a moment she felt forlorn. Not that she would have expected or even wanted Anna to wait up for her, but she felt oddly that she would have liked someone to share this quiet part of the night with. Perhaps that was the pink gin talking.
No matter, she sighed to herself as she retired to her room. She could manage to undress herself, after all. Easier without all the pins in her hair.
Absorbed with unfixing the clasp of her bracelet, Mary nearly didn't hear the soft footsteps behind her.
Anna stood, barefoot and dressed in her nightclothes, her long blonde hair tied in a loose plait. Mary preferred her like this, she thought, than with her hair scraped back, pinned into her starchy uniform. She turned and smiled, just intoxicated enough not to bother to hide that she was happy to see her.
"Anna! Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you. I can mange to do for myself for tonight."
"It's no bother, really," Anna insisted, crossing the floor towards her, deft hands encircling Mary's wrist and slipping the bracelet free. "I wasn't sure... whether to expect you back."
Mary felt suddenly very tired. Had Anna anticipated the possibility of her indulging in an affair? Would she approve, or disapprove? She found she wasn't quite comfortable with either possibility. Just thinking about it gave her a headache.
"I didn't feel like staying later. It was all very gay, of course." Mary paused, giving Anna an assessing look, but her expression gave nothing away. She wondered, now, in the soft glow of the lamplight, what Anna would think of these parties. Did she sit, like Cinderella, longing to go to the ball, or did she think them a silly affectation of the rich? Mary tried imagining Anna there, lounging on a sofa, being flirted with by some aspiring Valentino, a string of pearls and a feather. She reached out almost unconsciously and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her maidservant's ear. Anna gave her a quizzical look and Mary shook her head.
"Ignore me, Anna, I've had too much to drink. Too much gaiety can be a little tiresome." Mary let Anna coax her to her feet and help her out of her dress. It was only once she was dressed in her shift sat on the end of her bed, that she reached out again, pulling Anna down to sit beside her. Anna made no complaint when Mary laid her head against Anna's shoulder, even being so bold as to pet a little at her newly bobbed hair. Mary didn't know how long they sat like that, neither one of them moving, but eventually Anna rose with a hoarse, "Good night, my lady."
Sybil came to stay in March and that was when everything changed.
"Un generation perdue is what they're calling it. Us, I suppose," Sybil said, sipping her drink. "All those lives lost in the war. Who they could have been."
"Traditional class structures breaking down," Mary added, with a significant look at her younger sister. Sybil merely raised an eyebrow and flicked her gaze to where Anna stood in the corner, mixing drinks.
"Easier for our generation than our parents," Sybil shrugged. And yes, hadn't it all come so much easier for Sybil. She never had cared about money, or society, or opinion in the way that Mary had. It was only now, here, that Mary found the importance of those things starting to fade. Now that she was wondering whether she had missed her chance, in some way. At youth, at happiness, at... well, anything. So preoccupied with the appearance of not giving a damn that she hadn't realised just how hidebound she really was. Sybil, of course, had always been just the opposite. So passionate, wilful. She cared a great deal for others and very little for what others thought, in a way that Mary could only ever pretend to.
"It's terribly sad," Mary said, with what must have been just enough upper-class ennui to raise Sybil's hackles.
"It is sad. The war was awful. But I don't think it's all bad, what's come out of it. There's been real progress, real change. For women, especially. We're not lost at all. This is our time." Sybil looked over at Anna again. "Anna, won't you join us?"
"Me, my lady?"
"Oh please," Sybil waved a dismissive hand, "I'm a just the wife of a penniless writer. It's ridiculous, us sitting here debating the emancipation of women and class struggle while you're stood there, waiting on us." Sybil patted the chair next to her invitingly. "Come, sit. I want to hear what you have to say."
"I don't know." Anna's eyes flickered to Mary, who felt a flush of shame. It came easily to Sybil, of course, this breaching of the barriers. Friends with the servants, marrying the chauffeur. How was she supposed to know that Mary kept those walls up because she needed them to be there. Because without them she feared she might lose her head entirely.
"Don't be silly," Mary said, although she was painfully aware that Anna was being nothing of the sort.
"I'll fix you a drink," Sybil offered, but Mary wouldn't let her have this as well.
"No, let me." She rose, with a rustle of silk, pouring a glass and handing it to Anna with a little less grace than she'd have liked. They sat, and talked, like equals, about those left behind in Downton, about the war, the fashions in France and New York, the prohibition. Sybil talked about her husband and his writing, her views on censorship, Mademoiselle de Maupin and the recent obscenity trial. They discussed poetry, Anna expressing a fondness for e.e. cummings, Sybil for Eliot.
As the evening wore on, Mary felt her cheeks heat with the slow and certain knowledge that equality once acknowledged was – like desire -- not something that could be later denied or undone.
Mary found herself frowning, outside of the guest room which was Sybil's for the duration of her visit, at the sound of giggling which was coming from within. She gave a perfunctory knock and then strode in, stopping short at the sight of her sister buttoning her maid into one of her own gowns. Mary had to swallow down an unexpected swell of foolish jealousy.
"Mary," Sybil greeted her brightly, stepping back with a swish of her trousers. "Almost done. I had to sneak in and borrow one of your dresses as I didn't think any of mine would quite do. But what do you think? Doesn't she look a picture?"
Anna, a little flushed with something almost like hope as she looked at Mary, did indeed look more lovely than Mary trusted herself to have the words to express. She found herself stumbling over her compliment as she blushed herself and mumbled an apology, Sybil's knowing look burning into her back as she excused herself.
There was something charged in the air that evening, the same sense of possibility that Mary had last felt on the deck of the boat which had brought them here. She felt giddy with it. Sybil had made some kind of Parisian cocktail with cherries in. Mary barely tasted it, too transfixed with the way Anna looked in her simple knee-length black dress, twirling the cherry stem nervously in her fingers before sucking the fruit into her mouth.
Sybil talked about some friends of hers in Paris, a struggling artist - Gui something or other - who was living openly with another man as a homosexual in Monmartre. Mary half wanted to take her aside and tell her she was being hopelessly unsubtle, but that would mean admitting to something she really wasn't sure she was able to admit to just yet.
In the end it was Sybil who took Mary aside, just before retiring to her room.
"She won't wait forever, you know," Sybil murmured as she kissed her sister on the cheek and climbed the stairs.
Mary and Anna stayed downstairs a half hour longer, before Mary tossed back the remains of her drink and announced her intention of going to bed. She felt her cheeks flush as Anna followed her without a word. She almost dismissed her; it seemed ridiculous for Anna to serve her as her maid when they had been drinking and talking as friends. But she didn't want her to go.
Mary felt her cheeks heating as Anna undressed her. Somehow that simple act seemed, now, imbued with meaning. Anna didn't look her in the eye. Mary thought of her sister's words, and of something Anna had said, once, about taking every chance to do what would make her happy.
Hoping that it was, perhaps, not only her own happiness at stake and fortified by the furtive measures of gin which had found their way into Sybil's cherry cocktails, Mary at last found the courage to catch hold of Anna's hand once again, to drop a soft kiss to the smooth skin on the inside of her wrist and to ask her to stay.
"My lady --"
"Mary. Just Mary. Please."
"I don't --"
"You know, Anna, half the time I'm not even sure who I am. I think I've always been only half real, half fiction. With a splash of scandal for good measure." She turned Anna's hands over in her own, tracing the palms with her fingertips. "But when I'm with you, I think it's the better half. The more real. I want you to call me by my name. I want to be who I am when I'm with you."
Anna didn't answer right away, but brought Mary's hands to her mouth and pressed her lips tenderly to them.
"My lady. Mary. You must know that I always am yours, in any way that..." She stopped, looking down, a faint blush staining her cheeks. Swallowing, she continued, "In any way that you want me."
Mary hesitated. The hardest part was crossed already, in a way, in the admission of this something more that had long been between them. It was a frightening thing, almost, for Mary to admit reliance on anyone, Anna must know that. The next step was, in a way, something more familiar. To fit her lips to hers, warm and wet and willing was so easy, so right, that she couldn't understand how it could have taken this many years, this many miles travelled before it could be accomplished.
And here, they were travelling further into the unknown, winding into one another, breathing, drowning. Mary gasped and shifted, losing and finding herself all at once in the arms of this wonderful woman with her patience and fortitude, beauty and strength and fragility, who loved her and knew her like no other. Mary knew with absolute conviction that she didn't deserve her, but would endeavour to do so.
She could admit, now, that she had always longed for those cool, long fingers on her skin, lingering longer than they had ever dared when they had undressed her as merely her servant, pinching, stroking, pushing into her, opening, unravelling. She savoured the awed look in Anna's eyes as she took the chance to undress her in return, revelled in the slip of material over skin as she unbuttoned her blouse with fumbling fingers and buried her face in the warm skin beneath.
She tasted like the sea.