There is a story from their childhood that Papa likes to share, one that elicits nothing but mirth and applause at each retelling. He had been sitting at his desk, attending to correspondence of the utmost importance when Mary had burst in through the doors, barely taking a moment to catch her breath before solemnly announcing that she had, in fact, finally taught her younger sister to read. Little Edith, ever obedient, had proceeded to offer a thrilling rendition of the duckling’s perilous journey home. (The fact that she had been holding her favorite book upside down did not deter Mary from boasting of their accomplishments in the slightest.)
From that day on, Edith was content to spend her evenings curled up in a chair, poring over well-worn pages in her father's study as he settled into the peaceful rhythm of his own reading. It was only when she was half-asleep that Papa dared to pry the books from her grasp. “You, my dear, are meant for great things, but perhaps they can wait until tomorrow. Now it is time for bed.” (He meant it then, he really did, even giving her a kiss to prove it.)
On Christmas day, Edith wakes to find a beautiful writing box waiting for her. "You must treasure this, my dear, for it has a lot of history," Granny explains. "Your Great-Aunt Roberta used it to write daily of her adventures."
Mary runs to show off her latest necklace and Sybil twirls around with her new doll, but Edith sits there quietly, searching for all the compartments that she will use to hold her secrets. (Granny says every young lady should have at least one, after all.)
Mama draws her into her lap, leaning down to whisper in her ear. "I told Granny that your governess always sings high praises of your writing." (It is the truth: Edith is the best pupil of the three, as Mary bored too easily and Sybil was still at the age where she was much too excited about everything to be quite good at anything.)
One day, Edith will write of rumors that she will regret. And later still, she will write words that others cannot forget. But for now, Edith will use her precious box to collect her thoughts, to pen notes to Papa and Mama and Granny and friends, and to immortalize the escapades of her favorite woodland creatures.
Edith does not think of Sir Anthony Strallan often, nor of John, but Patrick lingers, a ghost that haunts her, a memory that will not fade. (She had loved him once, more than she should, more than her sister ever could.) There is hope, of course -- confusion and anger and sadness most of all -- when P. Gordon arrives, only to leave nothing but a piece of paper in his place.
Edith has long reaped what she has sown, but sitting outside all alone with only questions to comfort her, there are times she wonders what else she must do to start anew. Mary finds her in the garden, gives her a good shake to bring her back to reason. “Edith,” she says, “if it was really Cousin Patrick, you would have been reason enough to stay.” Mary takes her hand and Edith finds that she doesn’t want to let go.
It is Sybil and Tom's -- funny how that sounds, Edith thinks, when she's known him for so very long as Branson -- second visit to Downton when her sister asks for a word. Edith worries of course, wondering if her younger sister has found life to be just what everyone else had always warned her about. "What is it, Sybil? Is something the matter? You know I will drive there in an instant if--"
"No, it's nothing like that," Sybil laughs, shaking her head. "Tom told me about the letter."
Edith panics for a moment, wonders if her face betrays her fear of being found out. (She and Mary had agreed, after all, that it would do Sybil no good to know of the parts either had played in the scandal.) "The letter?"
"Yes, have you forgotten already? It was the one you brought to him at the Grantham Arms the morning after we told the family of our intention to marry." (It is then that Edith remembers the contents clearly, her anxiousness when writing the words: “If you truly love my sister, please, please wait.”)
"Oh. Well, what about it?"
Sybil smiles, embraces her with a force Edith never knew (or perhaps forgotten) she had. "He said he knew as soon as he opened it that you would be supportive. You wrote, 'Dear Tom,' like any sister should."
(It had been a tremendous gamble, but with Sybil here, safe and sound and happy, Edith would have been lying if she had said she was not glad that it had worked.)
She leaves for a short holiday in Paris with Granny but ends up staying on the continent, spending her days traveling and writing and living. Edith perfects her French and practices her Spanish, and when she’s looking for a laugh, makes her best attempt at an impression of an American accent. She meets people, finding them interesting and coming to learn that they in turn find her to be the same.
The letters home are fairly frequent and the phone calls less so, but Edith finds it best to keep her worlds apart. (That doesn't mean to say she can't move back and forth between them, smooth the edges or rough them up as she needs.) So it takes her by surprise when she looks up from her half-finished meal to find a long-forgotten man from her past. He is silent, intently studying her as though she is some rare creature he’d once hunted in the thick of the woods, but she has no qualms about staring right back.
"You're different," he finally says.
"War changes people," she replies.
He smiles wistfully before nodding in agreement. "Those words are enough. I appreciate your brevity, Lady Edith."
"Please," she whispers, though she has nothing to fear from being overheard, "it's just Edith now."
Evelyn Napier does not wait for her permission to leave or stay, simply takes the seat beside her, downing the rest of her coffee in one large gulp. He sputters immediately after and she rushes to offer him a glass of water, waiting for his coughs to subside. "God awful drink isn't it?” he manages in between sips, “I'd much prefer tea any day. But when in Rome...”
She doesn’t even try to cover her laugh, knows that this moment is something of a new beginning, and she is not in the slightest bit opposed.