There comes a time in your life when you have to turn the page, write another book or simply close it. - Shannon L. Alder
Wednesday, June 4
Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham, Viscount Downton, paced the narrow confines of his dressing room, to which he had been banished since announcing his refusal to attend his daughter’s wedding.
“It is simply too much!”, he muttered. “How can they expect me to take part in this travesty! What on earth is wrong with them? Have they forgotten who they are?” Up and back, up and back. Eventually he accepted that the pacing was not helping, and threw himself in disgust on the narrow bed that was to be his sleeping arrangement for the foreseeable future.
It was bad enough, he thought, that his youngest daughter, his jewel, had moved away. That the place to which she had moved was Ireland, that miserable blemish on the empire, was a knife in his gut. That the reason Sybil had gone to Ireland was that she was going to marry … he choked on the thought … the family’s chauffeur, was beyond comprehension.
Sybil. She had always been different from her sisters - argumentative, challenging, difficult. Kind, compassionate, loving, completely adorable. Champion of the weak and downtrodden. Papa’s girl.
Five year old Sybil had been the one to sneak a frog from the pond into her room and wrap it in a blanket because “ he looked cold, Papa!” Ten year old Sybil had come home from a visit to Lord Merton’s in disgrace because she had punched Larry Grey in the nose when “he said girls are stupid, Papa!” And seventeen year old Sybil had stolen the horse cart to take one of the housemaids to a job interview, coming home covered in mud and completely unrepentant. “I think Gwen has a real chance to be a secretary, Papa!”
He sighed. Should anyone really be surprised that she had become friends with the Irish chauffeur and then fallen in love with him? Branson was just the sort she would seek out - rebellious, political, opinionated. Like her. God! He loathed the man with every fiber of his being.
The new chauffeur had seemed such a bright spark after poor old Taylor. Humble, respectful, the lad’s awe of the books in Robert’s library had touched him and kindled his pride in the ownership of so much knowledge. Branson’s unvarnished gratitude at being offered the right to take books out of that library had stoked the earl’s self-esteem, made him feel magnanimous and benevolent. Codswallop! How foolish he felt now. He had been had.
“What are your interests?” he had asked sincerely.
“History and politics, mainly,”, was the polite response. Hah! He had welcomed a revolutionary into his home, into his family, and he’d never seen the cudgel coming until it had whacked him right in the head. If he had, he’d have run the hooligan out the back door before he ever set foot in Robert’s prize Renault…or eyes on his precious daughter.
And the rest of the family! They were a band of traitors, that lot. Mary had known about the growing romance between her baby sister and the chauffeur, and had said nothing! If Mary knew, it was safe to say that Edith knew too, although Mary might just keep her knowledge to herself to spite her sister. Those two had never got on. But Sybil!
She had summoned Branson into the drawing room before dinner, and there he had stood, in his ill-fitting, poor quality suit, glaring arrogantly at the assembly as if he had every right to be there. His daughter had announced, clearly and proudly, that she and that — servant —- had fallen in love and were going to Dublin. Just like that. And all his roaring … he had no idea what he had yelled, but no matter; she wasn’t listening.
Cora had at least had the decency to look horrified, begging her daughter not to live with the man without benefit of clergy, but once Sybil had explained that they had a plan, that she would live with his mother until the banns were read and they were properly married, Cora had folded up like an accordion and given up the fight.
It really wasn’t Cora’s fault, he admitted to himself. Although no one knew it at the time, she had been coming down with Spanish flu and really couldn’t be faulted for not being truly present in the moment. And that was another thing. Robert was certain that Cora’s illness had been exacerbated by this dreadful announcement, that it had sapped her strength and nearly killed her. Another sin to hold against the Irishman!
But when Cora had recovered, she had watched her daughter smile at Branson, and that was it for her. Her baby was happy. It wasn’t what she would have chosen for Sybil, she explained patiently, but anyone could see how happy he made their daughter, and maybe they had simply overlooked who she really was. Besides, Robert had given them his blessing, and Sybil expected them at her wedding. So they were going.
All right, yes, he had given them his blessing, had even shaken Branson’s hand. But that had been after he’d tried to talk Sybil out of her mad plan, and then tried to buy the chauffeur off. He was so sure that his checkbook would do the trick; the man was poor, for heaven’s sake, and Irish, and he obviously saw a gold mine in the earl’s daughter. Robert wondered exactly how long he had been planning this farce. He’d been driving them all around for six years, plenty of time to choose his target and insinuate himself.
But no; that upstart had had the effrontery to act wronged by Robert’s more than generous offer, to be offended that he would even suggest such a thing! The man had to know that there was no way he would be able to take care of Sybil on a journalist’s pay - no way he could give her what she deserved. It had to be sheer stubbornness that kept him from accepting that check and running happily back to Ireland.
Or…love. Reluctantly, Robert admitted to himself that Branson might actually love Sybil. It would be hard not to, really; everyone loved Sybil. They certainly seemed to care for each other, and if they hadn’t been from such different backgrounds, society might have recognized kindred spirits in the two.
But they were from different backgrounds - different worlds, and those worlds were never supposed to meet. He was a servant, she a lady. She would see reason after a few weeks of poverty; the game would cease being fun, the adventure would be over and she would come running back to her rightful place. He would be waiting. And he promised himself that he would try very, very hard to avoid saying “I told you so,” although it certainly wouldn’t be easy.
He knew he was in the right; they were all deluded. They would see what he saw, eventually, and meanwhile he saw no reason to degrade himself by pretending to accept this ridiculous folly. He would turn the page on this ludicrous episode—close the book and move on with his life. Sybil was well and truly gone.
He pounded his pillow. No! She had broken his heart, and he was not going to that damned wedding!
Thursday, June 5
Sybil tossed and turned on the tiny cot in the room she was sharing with Tom’s sisters Kathleen and Maire. The cot would have fit four times into her four poster bed back home—actually the entire room would have fit— and it sagged in the middle. Goose quills poked out of the pillow, stabbing her every time she turned her head. Every noise in the crowded house was magnified by the thin walls and creaky floorboards, and the residual smells of bacon and potatoes seeped into her nostrils. It was as far from her previous life as a sparrow from a peacock…and she had never been happier.
It was not the bed that was keeping Sybil awake. In two weeks she would be a married woman. Mrs. Branson. She lay staring at the ceiling, savoring the name. Sybil Branson. Mrs. Tom Branson. Her lips curved upward, imagining her married self scurrying around their tiny flat, dusting and cleaning, cooking—well, maybe not cooking; her imagination didn’t extend that far. She’d have to work on the cooking. She wondered if Tom could cook.
Nurse Branson. Ahh. That one filled her with a warm sense of pride. She conjured a vision of herself appearing for work at a Dublin hospital, ready to save lives. She saw the happy Irish faces around her, thrilled to have the services of a posh English volunteer nurse with two months of training, and snorted. Now that took some imagination!
So far, her efforts to obtain work had hit a wall built of prejudice and distrust, a barricade against those who sounded like her, those who still held Ireland in a grip of iron. She had been unable to get beyond the interview stage at any hospital; as soon as she opened her mouth eyes narrowed, the shutters came down and they stopped listening. Some were polite, others barely civil. None of them were interested in hiring someone so…English.
Sybil’s reception by Tom’s family had been mixed. His mother had looked her up and down, had noted her exhaustion and her youth, and then looked beyond and through, sensing her determination and her love for the man…yes, her son was a man now…who stood beside her, his arm wrapped protectively around her waist and his eyes shining with happiness.
Claire Branson still thought them foolish, was afraid that this aristocrat was a goldfish in a shark tank and would swim off home as soon as things got rough, but there was something about Tom’s girl that she hadn’t expected, some core of strength that had her hoping she was wrong.
Tom had two brothers and three sisters. Bernadette, the eldest and the closest to Tom in age at thirty, was married to Daniel Ryan, a quiet, serious man five years her senior. She was the proud mother of three year old Connor and little Fiona, the youngest of the clan at six months. A fair-minded woman, Bernadette was reserving judgement on this union out of love for her brother, but somehow Sybil still felt she that was failing some sort of test.
Kathleen, Tom’s youngest sister, had welcomed Sybil as if she had known her forever. It was not in her nature to dissemble; she found her almost sister-in-law exotic and beautiful and exciting. Tom was her favorite brother. He could do no wrong in her eyes, and when he had left home at twenty-one it had been the tragedy of her ten year old life. Everything about Tom was wonderful to Kathleen, and that just naturally extended to include Sybil.
In the three weeks since she had been here, twenty-two year old Patrick had fallen a bit in love with his brother’s fiancée, not surprising as it was he who most resembled Tom in personality. As he was currently out of work himself, it was Patrick who had volunteered to escort Sybil on her so far fruitless job search, he who comforted her after each rejection. Sybil loved him already. Everyone—especially the neighborhood girls—loved Patrick, with his blond hair, dancing blue eyes, and easy manner, and he loved them all back unselfishly.
She was grateful for the support and encouragement of Patrick and Kathleen, because Tom’s sister Maire was most assuredly not a member of camp Sybil. She rarely made eye contact and had not spoken more than six words to her future sister-in-law. Those six words had been “Hello, Lady Sybil” and “Goodbye, Lady Sybil”, uttered with disdain and more than a touch of contempt. Sybil was determined to win Maire over, but so far she had met with abject failure in that venture. At twenty-one, Maire was a confirmed nationalist—and it wasn’t the nation that Sybil had come from, so she was, at least for now, the enemy.
Sybil had yet to meet Michael, four years Tom’s junior. No one spoke much about Michael; when she had asked about him at dinner all conversation had stopped for a moment, and then she was told, “he doesn’t come home much”. Tom had shaken his head imperceptibly at her as if to signal that Michael was a taboo subject. When she had questioned him later all he had said was that his brother was bitter and angry, and that he would come around when he was ready.
How different the Bransons were from her family! Everything they thought was voiced, nothing held back. Dinners were vociferous affairs, with several conversations going on at once and arguments erupting over such things as the food at Murphy’s pub around the corner, the vile behavior of the local constabulary, and Patrick’s dating life. Apparently this last was quite healthy, a revolving door of wide-eyed young women who did not seem at all concerned about his lack of money.
Maire and Tom argued politics incessantly. She felt that he was selling out by not writing more impassioned articles supporting home rule; he reminded her that he was a socialist, not a revolutionary, and that the republic would only be realized if cooler heads prevailed. It did not help if Ireland continued to be at war with herself, he pressed, at which sentiment his sister snorted in disgust. The love was there, however, beneath the exasperation, and even Sybil could see it—sometimes.
She giggled as she lay in her tiny cot, visualizing her own family at the Bransons’ dinner table. Downton dinners were quiet affairs, always polite on the surface even if the layers beneath might roil with intrigue. If they were here, Mary would roll her eyes at the noise, Edith would probably pout, feeling left out as usual, Mama would pretend to listen to everybody while contributing little, and Papa…
Papa would be horrified. He would say nothing demeaning, he was too well-bred for that, but he would sit bolt upright, oozing disapproval from every pore. He would not sneer, at least not conspicuously, but the sneer would be there under his polite facade, and apparent to all.
Papa would not even try to fit in, because he had no desire to get to know these people who were so alien to his way of life. He had fought this marriage from the moment they had announced their intention, and Sybil could not envision a world in which that would ever change.
But she held fast to the memory of the blessing her father had bestowed on their union before they had left Downton. He had hugged her, had shaken Tom’s hand. Surely that was a sign that he was beginning to accept her choice! Once he came to know Tom, really know him, he would see what she saw.
Sybil knew that her father loved her to distraction; she was confident that whatever misgivings he might have, her papa would never miss walking his youngest daughter down the aisle. Secure in that comforting thought, the future Mrs. Branson drifted off to sleep.