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Gilding the Lily: Snippets and Drabbles

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Cakes for the War Effort // prompt: first impressions // Daisy, Sybil

Of the three, Lady Sybil was the one who frightened Daisy the least.

Lady Mary had always scared her. She seemed cold, almost cruel though you couldn't say so in Carson's hearing, and Anna too would defend her mistress to the end. She supposed Anna knew best but even so, every morning when Daisy slipped into Lady Mary's room to build the fire she held her breath as long as she could, terrified all the while that she might turn to see those cold eyes fixed on her. It hadn't happened yet, but somehow she never could shake the suspicion that it might, someday.

Lady Edith had been kind to her the one time, but only because she'd wanted to hear what Daisy knew about that poor Mr. Pamuk, (even now that name made her uneasy) and as the older girl put a comforting arm about her shoulders Daisy had caught a glimpse of the greed in her eyes. Lady Edith was a tricky one – Mrs. Patmore had said so once, and after that day in her room, Daisy could wholeheartedly agree.

But Lady Sybil was nice, everyone knew that. She was the type to ask after your mother (though she never had after Daisy's, and a good thing too because Daisy didn't think Mrs. Hughes would approve of the kitchen maid telling her whole sad life story to a daughter of the house.) It was Lady Sybil who helped Gwen when she'd wanted to leave, and now it was Lady Sybil who wanted to go off and become a nurse. Daisy thought that was an awfully nice thing to want to do, even if she did wonder how a highborn lady would ever bear up under a real workload.

So when Lady Sybil came down to the kitchen for her first lesson in cooking, Daisy just smiled – maybe a little shyly because she'd exchanged barely two words together with most of the family, let alone taught one of them to bake a cake.

"But we haven't been properly introduced," Lady Sybil said. "It's Daisy, isn't it?" she asked, though it was clear from her smile that she knew it was. "I'm ever so grateful for your help, Daisy," she went on brightly. "You must know such a lot, and I'm sure you think me quite foolish!"

Daisy opened her mouth to deny it – though, truth be told, she was rather more surprised at Lady Sybil's assertion that she knew "such a lot," which was certainly not something Mrs. Patmore had ever accused her of. But Lady Sybil cut her off before she could speak.

"Oh, it's alright, really! I know I am. I feel as though I haven't learned a single really useful thing in my life. I don't suppose even the prettiest curtsey will do much for the war effort!"

Her laugh was warm and genuine – it was odd to think that the daughter of an Earl could have a laugh just as real – and just as infectious – as Gwen's or Anna's or anyone else's. But even as she thought it, Daisy found herself grinning at Lady Sybil, then laughing right along with her.


Almost Unwelcome // prompt: house guests // Mary/Matthew, Mary/Richard

Mary kept the back of Matthew's head in sight. She let her eyes flit surreptitiously back to it periodically, tracking its movements, noting its enthusiastic approval of the grand staircase, the towering tree in the hall. From where he was locked in reluctant conversation with Granny, Richard's eyes were similarly trained on her own back – she felt them quite clearly and it made her stand stiffly, shoulders tensed. How she wished that Matthew cared a little less about pleasing her father – if he'd had enough sense to decline their invitation, they might all have spent a more agreeable Christmas.

At a break in her mother's chatter, Mary looked up to find blue eyes fixed on her; anxiety plucked at her stomach, but his gaze seemed to bathe her in warmth, softening the practiced set of her features. But of course, it could only be the champagne that made her feel so very lightheaded.

"I see that Mr. Crawley approves of the décor." Richard's voice dripped with familiar bitterness, his fingers resting with controlled ease on her elbow.

"I'm rather tired of looking at it. Shall we step outside for a breath of air?" It was easy to talk gaily, to slip her hand into the crook of Richard's arm with those blue eyes out of sight. As they stepped into the fresh snow covering the courtyard and the noise of the party fell away, it took almost no effort to glance approvingly over the quiet grounds and silvered trees. The night air slid over her, cold and quelling.

"Well?" A half-smile crept toward his eyes as he looked at her. They were the blue-grey of winter, of morning. It was easy to turn up her face to his kiss; she felt a small fraction of her heart curl inward as if in shame.


A New Beginning // prompt: new beginnings // Rosamund/Marmaduke

He kissed her much too soon, impertinent man, directly on the mouth in the drawing room of her father's London house. She was twenty two and had been kissed before – first inexpertly by a Viscount's younger son in a tepid conservatory, then rather better by a man who stood to inherit a large estate and the title of Duke. They were both what her little brother would, in a rare show of wit, have called dull dogs. But Marmaduke was a different sort of man; she could tell by the way he watched her, sharp gaze trained on her carefully arranged features.

"You kiss rather well for an Earl's maiden daughter," he said almost disinterestedly.

"I have seen four seasons." Rosamund let the retort take on a careless tone, crossing to the window seat and smoothing her skirts with feigned nonchalance.

"Should you care to see a fifth?"

Rosamund could not decide if his half smile was charming or offensive. "You know there's nothing I like better than a turn around the ballroom with an insufferable bore stepping on my toes and regaling me with an account of his last great hunt."

"Would you marry me, then? You'll forgive me for not kneeling – I wouldn't want to bore you with all that nonsense."

Her heart did not jump or skip a beat as hearts in books are wont to do; she only turned to look him in the face, her own expression guarded. She thought of his money, how it would pay for a house that was hers alone – not her father's, not Robert's – and of the circles in which he moved, circles from which the Crawleys and their familiars were very definitely absent.

A new beginning, she thought. A new life altogether. "Yes," she said, "I believe I will."

Chapter Text

Edith

They all say, when the war is over, and when the boys come home, and when we have the house to ourselves again. You think, these boys are home – boys with scars and pieces missing, all familiarity stripped away by fire and shrapnel. You think that for them, the war will never be over. You do not want it to be, either. When it is and they are gone the house will close around you like a fist and you will have no companion but yourself, no sympathetic face but your own in the mirror. It is a very little thing to make them comfortable, to bring them books and cigarettes and post letters to the girls they've loved. It's not much, but it is something.


Carson

You tell yourself daily – more than daily, at least three times a day, and that may be a conservative estimate – that once the war is over things will be as they were. This is what keeps you going. You weren't made for all this catching up and making due, nor for running what has become a circus rather than a household. Well, you weren't made for the stage either, but you did your best regardless and will again. We all do what we must, your father used to say, and you see the proud tilt of his chin even as he shepherded his children from the house that had been his and into a rented room, unbearably small, not quite a home. Just like the first time, you will grin and bear it.


Daisy

For you the war doesn't change much – you light the fires and scour the pots till your hands are cracked, and when you fall asleep you almost never dream. Mrs. Patmore would say it's because you're none too bright, but really it's just being tired to the bone. William would want you to dream of him, so when he asks, you lie and say that of course you do – you dream of him all smart in his uniform, coming home to his father and his farm one day very soon. He says, Home to you, Daisy. And you don't want him hurt or killed, God forbid – you shut your eyes tight and think a prayer so fast the words blur and it's nothing but an inarticulate plea that maybe nobody hears – because he's your friend after all and a good boy, too. But when you wake in the grey before dawn your heart is full, heavy not with love but shame. You hope that today isn't the day he comes walking back to you with that lovesick face that turns your stomach and makes you want to run.


Isobel

When the war is over, perhaps you will breathe easy again. You fill the days with work and bustle and your hands with bandages – some new and white, others caked with blood and the dirt of another country. They all remind you of Matthew, every wound and every boy that cries for his mother or does not, depending on how bad the pain is. You would never tell a soul, of course, because it simply isn't like you to dwell, to wallow. It isn't like you to dredge up the past either, but somehow you cannot help thinking how like his father he is, how very like himself as a child with that furrowed, serious brow whenever he sensed weakness in you. It breaks your heart every time, so you smile and pat his arm, and exhale only once he is out of sight.

Chapter Text

Three Funerals Cora Crawley Never Attended


I (That of her favorite cousin Elizabeth, dead at nineteen.)

The telegram is what wakes her and as the maid apologizes again for disturbing milady, Cora turns to see that Robert is already gone. Her eyes are still clouded with sleep and she blinks several times before understanding settles in with an impossible weight.

She had spent the night before at Haxby Park feeling positively radiant – Robert had told her she was at least a dozen times – and light as a feather as he swept her easily about the crowded ballroom. And hadn't she thought, as the younger Russell boy gave her a roguish wink from across the room, how Beth would love this place? Half asleep on the drive home she had imagined Beth married and settled down on a nearby estate – their children would play together on the lawn just as they two had done as girls. She remembered cherry trees in bloom and the sharp breeze off the sea, Beth's smaller hand in hers as they hid behind a curtain of willow branches.

"Only a cousin?" she hears her mother-in-law murmur that evening as they go through to dinner. "One would have thought it was a sister, at the least." She runs her fingers repeatedly over the delicate handle of her fork, and yet she cannot convince herself that anything in this room is real.

She wants nothing more than to be there in the familiar white church, to see Beth lowered into the turned earth whose smell she can remember exactly. At least then she could be sure, could know for certain that Beth will not burst giggling from behind the garden wall or the great oak desk in her father's library. Sunday comes and goes and Cora's life does not change – in her mind, Beth's laughter seems very near, as alive as ever.


II (That of the unborn son she would have called Robert, after his father.)

She must be still and calm, and she must not trouble herself or try to get up, and no, she cannot see him. Dr. Clarkson will not allow it. She means to insist but finds that she cannot do anything more than weep. Her mother-in-law says, in the closest thing to honest kindness Cora has ever known from her lips, "I must agree, my dear. I am sorry."

Her daughters come next. First her darling Sybil – the girl's face is an agonizing reminder of the infant she now knows to be the last of her children. When Mary sits on the edge of the bed, Cora wonders if her oldest girl remembers the secrets she whispered in her small, pink ear throughout the first months of her life. In their better moments, she has always attributed their mutual understanding to those one-sided conversations, the confessions she would make to no one else. Edith takes her hands, guarded and uncertain as ever; she was the easiest birth and the most difficult daughter – not to chivy and coax into place, but simply to understand.

They are not a comfort to her, and she would like to tell Dr. Clarkson that these are not the children she wishes to see. She intends to say, where is my son, but her lips will not shape the last words. She screams, and only O'Brien stays – not to comfort her (she is too clever to fight a losing battle), only not to leave her alone. Better O'Brien than anyone else. Somehow the other woman seems quite as miserable as she is herself, and she does not show that look of suspicious worry when Cora asks whether there will be a funeral. She shakes her head and Cora, though she grinds her teeth and shuts her eyes, is not surprised, not really. Doubtless they think it is better to pretend it never happened.


III (Her own, seen through the haze of a fever dream.)

She was born during a summer storm and she will die on a calm evening after the stretching twilight fades to black. It will be fitting, a rather obvious metaphor for the arc of her life – a youth more wild than was quite proper, then a gentle smoothing-out as of a fine garment as she grew into wife, mother, Countess last of all.

Her mother would tell her not to be silly, but her mother is not here. And when has she ever taken those words to heart? So as the fever bears down like a pair of heavy hands that seem to press the air from her lungs, she allows herself to imagine what will happen next. She can see a steady stream of black-clad bodies, the faces indistinguishable. She will be buried in all manner of finery – Edith will choose the gown and Mary the jewels; Sybil will remind them that their mother will not need these things where she is going. Her mother-in-law will see to the flower arrangements – Cora wonders if she will feel some small satisfaction, or at least a little flash of irony. Cora would want her to. It will be nice, she thinks, to be laid to rest so close to home. She would not wish to be anywhere else.

She is conscious then of O'Brien mopping her forehead with a cool flannel. Long moments pass in which there is a kind of clearing, the fever thinning like fog. She understands from the calming timbre of the maid's voice that it is dawn, that this is not the day she will die. The grave she has dug herself refills and time stretches before her as it had used to do when she was a child, whole and waiting only for her.

Chapter Text

Under the Mistletoe / prompt: first kiss / Edith/Patrick, Sybil, Mary

Edith loved Christmas, but it would never do to let on. While Mary's critical eye was focused on the garlands adorning the balustrade (hung only that morning by the housemaids as the footmen dragged in the great fir tree), she allowed herself a long, jealous glance at Sybil. Her little sister was busily rooting about in the froth of festively wrapped gifts beneath the tree – an acceptable indulgence for a child of six, but certainly not a young lady of nine.

The library door gave a low groan on its hinges and a thin form slipped out into the hall. Patrick, still in his traveling clothes, caught her eye and feigned an exaggerated cough – their fathers were enjoying cigars and port within. At the sight of him Sybil squealed and clapped her hands, and Mary turned pointedly back to her examination of the new décor.

Patrick sat down on the bottom stair, where Sybil and Edith came to join him. From her place a little way up the staircase Mary called down, "Look!" and Edith's stomach fluttered uncomfortably when she followed Mary's gaze to the small sprig of greenery affixed to the balustrade directly above their heads.

"Mistletoe!" Sybil cried, happily turning up her face to Patrick, who kissed her readily on her comically puckered lips. With a giggle she said quite matter-of-factly, "Edith next!"

It happened in the blink of an eye – warmth and closeness, the dry brush of his lips and Sybil's shrill, immediate insistence that now it was Mary's turn. Edith's cheeks burned and she could not make her fingers grasp the railing behind her properly. Mary retorted that superstition was for children, and met her sister's eyes over Patrick's head. Edith knew at once that she had let on far more than she'd intended.


Shapes in the Clouds / prompt: impossible achievements / Gwen, Sybil (Sybil/Gwen if you squint)

When she'd first come to Downton she'd found the house very near unmanageable. A labyrinth of rooms and corridors that all looked the same, and where you could hardly hear a person coming for the carpeting—Lily had startled her once so badly that she shrieked and dropped a neatly folded stack of Lady Edith's summer clothes. But she'd got the hang of it eventually, learned to flit about as quick as any of them who'd been there longer, silent as a little ghost.

The typewriter had been a great mystery, too, and it had taken her much longer to find order in that chaos of shining keys and intricate machinery. She started with two fingers plucking out the necessary letters like a nervous hen pecking corn, but of course the book said that wasn't the right way at all. It was months before she could do it without looking at her hands, but by then it was almost like she didn't have to think. Her fingers knew the placement of the alphabet, had learned to churn out words the way she thought girls might learn to dance—like the music spoke through their bodies without a conscious thought ever having to pass through their heads.

Even after that, she had never truly thought she'd find a job. The idea of it was hazy and far off like a shape in the clouds, something that was only there if you looked just right, and maybe not even then. But she'd done it, or rather Lady Sybil had, and some days when she used her own key to let herself into the office, switched on the light and sat down at her desk where the typewriter was ready and waiting, she could hardly believe what her life had become. She marveled regularly at her own luck.

But when, in her best dress that she'd made after using her own wages to buy the material, she stepped into the tea room that was by far the nicest in Ripon, she felt that this was the most impossible, the most difficult of anything she'd ever done. She fidgeted with the brim of her new hat, shifting from foot to foot as she glanced nervously about. It seemed incredible that she should be allowed to dine here, amongst people who might once have employed her to make up their beds and discreetly tidy their rooms once they'd left them.

"Gwen!" Lady Sybil appeared, beaming and waving a gloved hand enthusiastically so that Gwen blushed with a mixture of pleasure and anxiety. People looked up from their tea to eye them with interest.

"My Lady—" Gwen began tentatively.

"Oh please, Gwen! Sybil will do just fine." Lady Sybil slipped an arm through hers and led them through the maze of little white tables to one of their own, where tea was already laid.

They sat, and after delicately choosing an egg sandwich from the stand Lady Sybil said, "Go on Gwen, I've come to hear all about your new job and I can't imagine that I ever shall if you keep silent the whole time!" She sipped her tea and fixed her eyes on Gwen, who gave a small laugh, then quickly focused on her own cup where swirls of unstirred milk still lingered. She smiled shyly and cleared her throat. Once it would've seemed quite ridiculous that anyone like Lady Sybil could take an interest in her life, but Gwen found that, under her friend's warm gaze, it began not to seem so impossible after all.


Never / prompt: better late than never / Sarah O'Brien, Cora Crawley

The first boy who'd kissed her had almost immediately been pelted with small stones, chased to the edge of the kitchen garden, and hoisted unceremoniously over the wall by her two eldest brothers. They told him not to so much as look at their little sister again, and Sarah couldn't say she honestly minded. She hadn't felt much of anything besides his teeth bumping awkwardly against the corner of her mouth, but then she was only eleven—much too young for love, Jamie said as he and Archie escorted her back inside.

By the time she was fourteen both Jamie and Archie were gone off to work and Peter, though he was her favorite brother, wasn't any good at looking out for her. When she came home in a temper because the butcher's boy had refused to hand over her mother's order without a kiss as payment, Peter only asked, "Do you love him?" He was twelve and a hopeless daydreamer, and Sarah said of course not, which was why she'd put her knee between the idiot's legs, taken the wrapped up lamb for the stew, and on top of it all had kept the money that was meant to pay for it.

On Sundays Archie came home from his job bringing another of the farm hands along, and Sarah treated the boy like yet another brother. When Archie confessed he'd hoped she might take to the boy, whose name was Freddy, Sarah laughed before she realized he'd been serious. It wasn't long after that she'd gone to train as a lady's maid; it didn't seem she'd ever fall in love, and if that was the case, it was surely better to avoid marriage at all costs.

But of course, it would happen when she was least expecting it, when she'd thought all chance of love was long gone. Sarah was not one for sentimentality, but all the same she knew that Lady Grantham was the most beautiful person she'd ever seen. She remembered the moment it happened: sitting at her dressing table, her mistress had reached up to give her hand a squeeze and, meeting her eyes in the mirror, had said, "O'Brien," with all the sweetness of an endearment. "You are so good to me."

She imagined that if she ever told Peter he would say, "Better late than never," but Sarah was not so sure about that. She spent a great deal of her time these days trying to convince herself that "never" would have been preferable.