Sybil wakes to the sound of stove lids clattering and the smell of toasted bread. Though it’s not a sound that was ever a part of her childhood, with rooms so far from servants’ areas, it’s all at once comforting and homey. She smiles and pulls herself to a sitting position. Who knew sleeping on a sofa could be so comfortable? Maybe it was sleeping alone that made it so nice.
“Oh, I’m sorry, my lady. Did I wake you? I was trying to be quiet.”
“Nonsense, Gwen. This is your home, and I mustn’t sleep the entire morning away.”
“As you like, my lady. I’ve made you a cup of tea and some toast. I’m sorry we haven’t anything finer to eat.”
Sybil accepts the breakfast offering from Gwen but frowns into the cup.
“Gwen, you must stop calling me my lady. And you shouldn’t be waiting on me. I’m perfectly capable of making my own tea and toast. In fact, I should be making it for you.”
“Oh, don’t be silly, my—Sybil.” Gwen ducks her head and curtsies out of habit. She may no longer be in service, but the habits of a lifetime are hard to break.
“I’m not being silly,” Sybil says. “In fact, I insist. You’ve been so kind as to let me stay with you that I must make myself as useful to you as possible. After my interview at the hospital today I will make us both dinner.”
“If you insist, my—Sybil,” Gwen says, ducking her head again. She knows from experience that it’s of little use to go against Sybil once she’s settled on something.
If Gwen has her doubts about Sybil—her ability to cook or her reason for being there—she doesn’t let them show. Sybil was always so kind to Gwen. Helping her in her hour of need is the least Gwen can do.
She had been surprised to open her door the previous evening and find Sybil there, bag in hand, dried tears on her cheeks. Sybil had simply asked to stay and Gwen could not have refused her. Gwen had taken Sybil’s bag and told her she could stay as long as she liked.
So it’s with some curiosity that she watches Sybil over a surprisingly delicious dinner that evening. All traces of tears are gone, replaced with rosy cheeks and Sybil’s unconquerable smile. Gwen cannot find traces of bruises on Sybil’s face, but she knows from far too many friends how easy they can be to hide. What else could make a newly-married woman run from her husband? And why hadn’t Sybil returned to Downton?
“I hope you don’t think it’s forward of me to ask,” Gwen begins once she’s finally gathered to the courage. “I didn’t want to say anything last night—you looked so sad—but…”
“You mustn’t ask me why I’m here,” Sybil says, smile gone all at once. “Please don’t ask.”
Sybil looks so lost that Gwen has to suppress the urge to take her into her arms and comfort her. Sybil so rarely looks anything other than confident.
“Why not return to Downton?” Gwen asks, attempting to find answers to her questions without directly asking them.
“I don’t think I belong there anymore. I don’t think I belong anywhere.”
“How can you say that? It’s your home.”
Sybil closes her eyes and shakes her head. “Please, Gwen. Please stop. I won’t stay long, I promise. Only please don’t ask why.”
“You can stay as long as you like,” Gwen says, “And I won’t ask another question. If there’s no where else you belong, you belong here, with me.”
“That’s very kind. It will only be a few days. Just until I can figure out what comes next. The interview today went well. I think I might have a job.”
Sybil looks so very uncertain that Gwen doesn’t dare press further—about Branson, about Ireland, about anything. She only wants Sybil to feel happy and safe. It doesn’t take much. She changes the conversation, asking about the hospital, and watches as Sybil once again blooms like a rose.
A few days very quickly evolves into a few weeks. Sybil finds employment as a nurse at the local hospital, but things are so cozy in Gwen’s flat that she never mentions leaving. The longer she stays, the more Gwen finds she doesn’t want Sybil to leave. It’s nice sharing a space again. Living in a flat on one’s own can be so lonely.
Gwen’s flat is small, with only two rooms, and Sybil sleeps on the sofa. On more than one occasion Gwen suggests that Sybil might be more comfortable if she slept in Gwen’s bed and Gwen on the sofa. After a life of luxury, she doesn’t think Sybil is used to discomfort. But, each time Sybil laughs and says “Don’t be ridiculous,” and the matter is dropped.
Letters arrive from Branson with alarming regularity, first filled with pleading for Sybil to return, and later with vague threats along the you’re my wife and love, honor and obey lines. Sybil reads each one and then tucks it away without a word of explanation. She never cries, and she never seems moved to return. Gwen keeps her promise and never asks a question.
It’s several months before Lord Grantham arrives, stately and proud in Gwen’s doorway. She’s flustered as she shows him in, cursing herself for not keeping the place tidier. She fixes him tea and does her best not to rattle the cups. Really, she does her best not to show how nervous she is.
“Now, now, Gwen,” Robert says. “You mustn’t let me unnerve you. I have it on good authority that Sybil is staying with you, and I must speak with her. I don’t wish to disturb you at all, so I’ll just sit quietly until she arrives.”
“Yes, m’lord,” Gwen says. She’s all too happy to duck out of the room, into her tiny bedroom, where she begins furiously cleaning. She can’t imagine that Lord Grantham might come into her bedroom, but you never can be sure.
The sound of the door opening draws Gwen’s attention, but she stays hidden in her room, listening.
“Oh bother,” Sybil hisses when she sees her father.
“Oh bother indeed,” Robert says, rising to his feet. His footsteps sound across Gwen’s bare wooden floor as he approaches Sybil. “When were you going to clue your mother and I in to your situation? You know Branson had to write us. I think he tried to keep your secret for some time, but then your mother started going on about visiting and he wanted to save us the trouble. You’ve been here in London for nearly three months without a word?”
“I’m sorry,” Sybil says, and the regret in her voice sounds real. “I wanted to visit—to call or to write at least. But I didn’t know what to say. I made such a fuss about marrying Tom and then...”
“And then what?” Robert asks quickly. “Did he hurt you? Was he cruel? Did he harm you in any way?”
“No, no!” Sybil says. Gwen sighs with relief, because she’s been holding those same questions inside for far too long. “Nothing like that. He was kind and wonderful and everything a good husband should be. But I wasn’t. I just don’t think I’m meant to be a man’s wife.”
“What does that even mean?” Robert asks, but then he quickly adds, “Oh, never mind. I can’t say I’m surprised. I was worried something like this might happen. If you’re set on not staying married to him, it will be fine by me. We’ll have to make up a story, of course, and your grandmother will be shocked to no end, but I think it will work. Do you have much here? Pack your things and we’ll stay at a hotel tonight. It’s far too late to take the train to Downton now.”
“I’m not going back to Downton.” Sybil’s voice is so strong, so calm, and Gwen marvels at her strength. Gwen turns into a cowering mouse in front of Lord Grantham, but Sybil isn’t afraid of anyone. If she has an idea, a principle, or a desire, she sees it through with no fear. Gwen wishes she could be a bit more like that.
“What does that mean?” Robert says.
“I’m going to stay here. In London. I’m happy here and... this is the life I was looking for. I have a job at the hospital and I’m making my own way for once. This is where I belong.”
“You belong at home.”
“Papa, you know I don’t.”
“And where will you stay? Here? Impose on Gwen’s kindness longer?”
Gwen perks up at her name and before Sybil can reply she’s called out from her room, “Sybil can stay as long as she likes. M’lord.”
Sybil’s gentle laugh warms Gwen all over, making her think she did the right thing.
“Thank you, Gwen,” Sybil calls.
As Sybil and Robert continue their talk, Gwen sits back on her bed and smiles. She really does think Sybil could stay as long as she likes. Over the past few weeks it’s almost as if they’ve become friends. Sybil claims they were friends before that, but Gwen never felt comfortable enough. Gwen was a second-class citizen next to Sybil. But now, here, it’s like they’re equals, and Gwen genuinely enjoys spending time with Sybil.
After her father has left Sybil stands in the main room, working up the courage to go speak to Gwen. Perhaps she would have been best returning to Downton Abbey with her father, but it isn’t what she wanted. When she’d run off to Ireland with Tom, she’d known it wasn’t right. She wanted to escape, but not with him. Now she feels much more certain she’s found the life she was looking for.
“Thank you,” she says when she goes to stand in Gwen’s doorway. Gwen is sitting on her bed reading, and looks up in surprise.
“Thank you for taking me into your home without question,” Sybil continues. “And for being my friend and supporting me.”
“It’s the same as you’d do for me, Sybil,” Gwen says. It comes easier now, calling her Sybil instead of my lady.
“You’re right,” Sybil says. She takes a few steps across the room to sit on the edge of Gwen’s bed. It’s a small room and a small bed, so Gwen can feel her warmth, see the rise and fall of her chest as she breathes. Maybe they will never be equal truly, because Sybil is walking, talking grace and beautify embodied. She’s the most beautiful thing Gwen has ever seen.
“I’d do anything for you,” Sybil says. “So I want to tell you why I came here now.”
“You don’t have to. Unless… unless you’d like to.”
“I would,” Sybil says. She takes a deep breath and then grabs Gwen’s hand and squeezes it. She doesn’t look at her face.
“It’s quite simple really. When I was in Ireland with Tom I realized that that sort of relationship—a husband and a wife—was not what I was meant to have in my life.” She takes a breath and bites her bottom lip. “Bother, this is so difficult to say.”
Gwen squeezes Sybil’s hand for encouragement. To say you can tell me anything.
“I thought… It occurred to me then. And before,” Sybil says in a rush, becoming breathless as her cheeks pink. “It occurred to me before too. That you were what I wanted.”
“I don’t understand,” Gwen says. She’s not really sure what that means. Sybil didn’t want to be a man’s wife because she wanted to be Gwen’s friend?
Sybil shakes her head. “I don’t know how to explain it.” And then a moment later her lips are pressed against Gwen’s. Gwen freezes; her hand latches tighter Sybil’s, but she’s otherwise unsure how to react. Then, bit by bit, moment by moment, she relaxes. Sybil’s lips are soft and full, a little chapped in the middle, and Gwen finds she likes the way they feel pressed against her mouth. As she relaxes she leans forward, closer to Sybil’s warm, soft body. Sybil’s lips curve upward as she smiles and Gwen responds to the change in shape by parting her own lips and sucking that plump bottom lip into her mouth.
A moment later Gwen comes to her senses and realizes what is happening. With a tiny gasp she pulls back, eyes wide with surprise as she claps a hand over her mouth.
“I’m so sorry so sorry, my lady,” she stutters. What had just happened? What had she done?
“Gwen,” Sybil says. The hand that had been clasped with Gwen’s moves up to stroke the side of Gwen’s face, and without thought or meaning Gwen turns into it, wanting more of that touch on her skin. Wanting to feel more of Sybil against her.
“Dear, sweet Gwen,” Sybil continues. “What I was trying to tell you—trying to show you—was that you were the one I wanted. You are the one I want. If you’ll have me?”
“If I’ll have you?” Gwen asks. Her heart is pounding and her skin is tingling with heat. All she wants at this moment, she realizes, is for Sybil to stop talking and kiss her again. She wants Sybil to never stop kissing her.
Sybil blushes and looks down, biting her lower lip. Gwen is overcome by a desire to be the one that bites it. It’s all she can do to keep from doing so right now.
“Please don’t make me say it, Gwen,” Sybil says. She laughs. “I suppose… What I’m asking is…” She looks at Gwen and her eyes glint, the touch of mischief Gwen’s seen a hundred times before. “Could I sleep with you tonight?”
Gwen can only nod as she moves forward to kiss Sybil again.