"Good afternoon, Sergeant Willis," Robert smiled at the rather unimposing, grey haired man who had just been shown into the library. "What can I do for you today? I hope nothing is amiss." It was not a light hope. The day so far had been lovely, particularly for mid-January in Yorkshire, and Robert sincerely did not want it spoiled by the news that one of his servants was being arrested. Again.
The expression on the Sergeant's face was not promising. "I'm afraid there is, Lord Grantham," was not at all the opening Robert had hoped for, but no less than he could have expected. "I understand you have a Mr. Thomas Barrow in your employment?"
That took Robert by surprise, although it didn't do a thing to calm his nerves. With Carson's hands getting worse by the day, the last thing he needed was to lose the man's replacement. "Technically," Robert replied, trying to anticipate what was coming. Alfred couldn't have decided to bring up the kissing incident again, could he? Or James? As far as he knew, no one had heard from either of them in ages, and neither had seemed so petty. O'Brien, perhaps? "He's been working at a house out in Driffield, but he's scheduled to return to Downton as butler in a couple of days."
"I see." Pressing his lips into a thin line, Sergeant Willis walked over and handed Robert and envelope. "Well, I will leave it up to you, of course, but you might want to rethink his position. The London police have been looking for him, or more, for you, in relation to a bit of unpleasantness."
"What sort of unpleasantness?" Robert asked, opening the envelope and pulling out the papers inside. They were unassuming and reminded Robert of a hotel register or the sort that might be used to check people in at a hospital. He could see nothing criminal about them in the least and wondered what on earth Thomas had done to attract the attention of the London police. Especially since the police seemed to be looking for him rather than Thomas.
"Those papers were seized by the London police when they shut down a fraudulent medical operation. They're patient records," the Sergeant explained. "Given that the nature of the operation was to correct certain deviant behavior, desires, if you will, in men, the London police found it prudent to contact the employers of the patients and let them know."
In short, Robert translated, to see as many of the men who had fallen for the scheme sacked as they could manage. He kept his thoughts on the matter to himself and asked, "I don't suppose there are any details about what the procedure involved?" There were dates on the paper. If Robert wasn't mistaken, they weren't long before Thomas had started looking like death warmed over for a month. It would certainly explain a lot.
The Sergeant cleared his throat delicately. "I didn't ask for particulars. I do know they ferreted the place out and shut them down when someone died from it. Heart failure, I think. And there was some suspicion that a couple of deaths in the same time period were related. Infection, mostly." He paused, then added, "I checked the files at the York police station and Mr. Barrow has had a complaint registered-"
"That was a mistake," Robert cut him off. "He was working here at the time and the man who called in had mistaken what he saw."
"Are you certain, Your Lordship?" the Sergeant asked, clearly startled by being cut off.
"Quite certain." Robert had no more difficulty lying about it now than he had been at the time of the actual incident. He owed Sergeant Willis a great deal, but he didn't owe him the life of one of his staff, even that one.
At a complete loss, Sergeant Willis simply floundered for a moment before almost visibly shrugging the matter off. "At any rate, it did seem right to notify you."
"Yes, thank you for that, Sergeant Willis," Robert replied with much more of his usual grace. "I will take the whole matter under advisement. Have a good day."
With a smart salute, the Sergeant took himself out of the library, leaving the Lord of Downton to his thoughts. Turning to the window, Robert looked out over the lawn, still thick with frost. He had thought the most disturbing thing anyone could tell him about Thomas Barrow was that he'd cut his wrists the previous summer. Now as he crossed his arms, papers still in hand, and frowned out at the winter day, he got the sinking feeling he'd been wrong.
What had Thomas done to himself?
Robert held the papers at his side as if they were simply a private letter that he happened to be holding and knocked on the door to the butler's pantry. He opened it without waiting for an answer and found Carson and Thomas sitting on opposite sides of the desk. An eye blink later, Carson was pushing his way to his feet, Thomas already standing at attention. The younger man was wearing his livery and a polite smile.
"Hello, Barrow," Robert greeted, holding out his hand. "It's good to have you back."
"It's good to be back, m'lord," Thomas replied, grasping the proffered hand respectfully. His tone was smooth and professional, but was less detached than Robert was used to. He wondered if maybe he shouldn't leave off talking to him about Sergeant Willis's visit for a day or two. But no, better to get the unpleasant things out of the way and leave the new butler to settle in.
"I was wondering if I could have a word with you, before you and Carson get too far into things?" The question was aimed at Carson as much as Thomas, who Robert supposed he really should start thinking of as Barrow. Somehow, though, having spent fifteen years of his life watching the man grow up, he could call him Barrow to his face, but he couldn't stop thinking of him as Thomas. He wasn't certain why. Perhaps it was because he was so close to Mary's age.
"Of course, my lord," Carson replied. After a couple of seconds he must have realized that Robert was waiting for something, because he added, "Oh, in private?"
"Yes, in private."
"Of course, my lord." With another bow, Carson showed himself out of the room.
Robert turned his full attention to Thomas and tried to decide how to come at the subject that needed addressing. The younger man was watching him with no more display of emotion than a porcelain doll, which was ideal in a servant, but could have decided disadvantages as well. Robert found himself wondering exactly how much Thomas had managed to hide behind that mask all of these years, and who had been hurt the most by it. "Have you had a chance to settle in a bit?" he finally asked, by way of starting the conversation. "At least get your things to your room and unpack?"
"Yes, m'lord," was the prompt reply. A good butler, he didn't offer any more information than had been asked for.
"That's good. And have you seen the children yet?"
"Not yet, m'lord." A tremor of warmth worked its way through Thomas's voice at the mention of the children.
"Well, we'll have to see that happens sooner, rather than later. They've quite missed you. First, thought," Robert held out the papers for Thomas to take. He sincerely hoped that he'd made it clear enough the man wasn't about to be sacked to forestall immediate panic with the rest of the conversation. "Sergeant Willis brought me these a couple of days ago. They're from London. Do you recognize them?"
Although the polite smile didn't budge, there was a bit of hesitation as Thomas took the papers, and as he looked at them, his face lost all colour. There was no disguising the sudden strain in his voice as he replied, "I do, m'lord."
Robert nodded. "Sergeant Willis told me what the aim of the procedure was, but wasn't able to give me many details about what the exactly it entailed. How much it cost. That sort of thing. I realize it's a very personal subject, but would you mind telling me?"
The smile finally wilted from Thomas's face and for a moment it seemed like he might actually refuse. Robert wouldn't have blamed him, really. Even as an employer, he was asking a lot. "Cost a hundred pounds," the younger man finally replied, his voice soft. He kept his eyes on the paper as he spoke. "The initial treatment was done in London. Three rounds of electro therapy over the course of a week and starting the medication. After that, pills and injections to further the treatment." He finally glanced at Robert's face, but only for a second before lowering his eyes to about the level of the older man's tie. "They promised it would make me normal."
"I'm well aware of that, Barrow, but a hundred pounds?" Robert half asked, half demanded, completely taken aback. He'd known it would have been expensive, of course, but that was more than he'd dreamed. "Nearly two years salary? And how was shocking you in the arm or wherever it was supposed to change anything?"
It took a couple of tries, but Thomas, now turning his head and bowing it so that he was looking firmly at the floor and nowhere near Robert, despite his otherwise perfect posture, finally managed to eke out, "It wasn't the arm, m'lord. Or the leg."
"I don't see how it matters where-" Robert started. Then the question combined with the point of the treatment and Thomas's current behavior to give him a very clear idea of what the younger man meant. For a moment he simply stared, horrified, willing Thomas to look at him and tell him he clearly had things wrong. When that didn't happen, all he could manage was, "Good God, Barrow."
"I'm sorry, m'lord." While his voice was stronger and steadier than it had been a minute ago, Thomas still sounded as ill as Robert felt. "I know my duties suffered during that time and I inconvenienced others. It was very irresponsible of me."
"Hang all of that!" Robert thundered. That brought Thomas's eyes back up to him, wide and panicked. He took a step backward, knocking into Carson's desk. The motion made Robert aware of his volume and tone. He remembered Bates saying that certain servants had been known to eaves drop outside the butler's pantry, and while there might have been poetic justice in someone overhearing the current discussion, Robert was not feeling poetic. He was feeling appalled and nauseous and could not believe that the man who had given two years salary to someone who had tortured him was apologizing for his resultant failing performance. "You could have died. Do you realize that? According to Sergeant Willis, the police only caught these people because someone died of heart failure. Too much electricity, I dare say. And others are suspected to have died of infection afterwards." Infection and who knew what else. How many employers had, at some point in the past year had a servant come down stairs and tell them that their butler or footman or valet had killed himself? "Do you even know what was in those pills they had you taking?"
"Saline," Thomas replied, recovered from his earlier fright but still, Robert thought, in a bit of shock. At least his voice and manner had finally started to return to their usual crisp, sterile politeness. "At least, that's what Doctor Clarkson said. Safe enough, but they didn't bother to sanitize it."
At least he'd had the sense to go to the doctor. Of course, he wouldn't have gone to the police. That would have just landed him in prison. "And that's why you were so ill? Not because of the...original treatment?"
Thomas nodded. "Low grade fever, the doctor said." He paused, then added, "And my side was abscessing."
Robert couldn't wrap his mind around it. He'd been a solider, been ready and willing to die for his country, but there had been a point to that. Even if he'd lost both legs, there would have been a point. This, though? He met Thomas's pale, quietly scared eyes. "Nothing is worth doing that to yourself, Thomas. Nothing."
The younger man hesitated, then asked, his voice once again low and soft, but this time coaxing, as if asking Robert to understand, "Not even her Ladyship, m'lord?"
Hesitantly, as if afraid Robert might yell at him again, Thomas took a breath and tried again. "Her Ladyship. If doing...that...was the only way for the two of you to be together, would it be worth it?"
Robert didn't have an answer to that. He knew, of course, what the question meant, at least on the face of it. He tried to understand. But he hadn't loved Cora when they'd been married. It had been entirely about prestige and money and making his parents happy. Everyone had wanted it so adamantly and for such unfeeling reasons, he couldn't imagine being told not to go through with it. And now, after over thirty years of marriage, he couldn't imagine someone taking her away. Not unless that "someone" was death. And so he looked at Thomas who was sort of smiling again, although whether out of hope or training was anyone's guess, and had absolutely no idea what to tell him. "Are you at least well now?" he finally asked, keeping his own voice low and calm. "There haven't been any lingering effects?"
"No, m'lord. At least not as I'd notice."
"That's good," Robert sighed. The whole conversation had left him feeling rung out. "That's something, at any rate. And I assume I can rest assured you'll never fall for anything like that again?"
Thomas actually managed to look politely offended at that. "I like to think I don't repeat my mistakes, m'lord."
Robert thought about that and nodded, "You don't. Which is part of why I want you as the butler here." He said the words as firmly as he could manage. He didn't want there to be any doubt that their conversation hadn't changed anything. That thought lead to another and he frowned. "You do know that it never bothered me, don't you? Your being...that way?"
Thomas's jaw fell slightly open and he blinked a couple of times, answering the question even before he managed to stammer out, "That is...kind of you to say. M'lord."
Of course he wouldn't have known. It wasn't as if they'd ever sat down and talked about it before, was it? It wasn't the sort of thing one talked about, even with the man who was helping you into your trousers. "And I mean it." That said, Robert turned and opened the door to the pantry, sticking his head out into the hall. Carson was standing a respectful distance off and Robert wondered if he'd moved that far away before or after the yelling. "Alright, Carson," he called. "You can have him back now." He waited until Carson had made it back to the pantry before apologizing for being so long.
"It's alright, of course, my lord," Carson assured him, then looked hesitantly between Robert and Thomas. "Are there any problems?"
"No," Robert smiled, making sure to include Thomas in the gesture. "None. Although, do make sure Barrow gets some time today to go up and say hello to the children. They won't forgive any of us if he doesn't do that."
"Yes, my lord."
With that said, Robert turned for the stairway leading back to the upstairs and the bottle of fine brandy that was calling to him.
"Are you well, my lord?" Bates asked as he helped Robert out of his jacket. "You're awfully quiet tonight."
Robert managed a brief flicker of a smile. "Yes, quite, thank you Bates. I simply have a lot on my mind." He knew the other man wouldn't pry. It was one of the things he liked about him, that he would listen if you needed him to, but otherwise kept his council. In truth, he was still feeling slightly ill. He'd not eaten well at luncheon and had foregone tea all together. By dinner time he'd been hungry enough to eat, but being an engaging had been a bit beyond him. All in all, he was glad his mother hadn't been able to make it. He certainly hadn't been up to her.
"How did Barrow's first day back go?" he asked, loosening his tie himself. He had, of course, seen the younger man at several points during the day. In the library. At supper. Already starting to take over the duties of butler from Carson. Each time he had studiously-but-politely avoided Robert's eyes. Robert couldn't blame him, really, although he hoped it didn't keep on too long.
"Well enough, from what I can tell," Mr. Bates replied, hanging the jacket up and returning to start in on the waist coat. "Although according to Andrew, it sounds like we about lost him for good in the nursery. Master George and Miss Sibby didn't want to give him back."
Robert chuckled at that. He could easily imagine his grandchildren demanding piggy back rides and tea parties for the rest of the year to make up for the few months they'd gone without their "Mr. Barrow". They'd have to be careful not to let Thomas spoil them too much. "That's good. And downstairs meals? Everything was friendly there?"
For a brief moment, Mr. Bates examined his employer's reflection in the mirror. Finally he answered, "Yes, my lord. He seems to be on his best behavior."
Somehow those words weren't as reassuring as they should be. "And everyone else?" Robert pressed. "Was the rest of the staff on their best behavior as well?"
"Of course, my lord," Bates replied with a confused frown. "Did you doubt we would be?"
"I've been doubting a lot of things today, Bates, most of all my own judgment." The earlier conversation with had eaten at him all day. He kept dredging up old memories and reexamining them, wondering if somehow there had been something going on he'd been completely unaware of. He generally had the dreadful feeling there had, but he could never begin to figure out what. He kept thinking of Cora and of Mary and Edith and Sybil, of over thirty years of happiness, interrupted by a war or two. He still couldn't imagine what it would be like to be told he couldn't have that, but the more he thought, the closer he felt he came, and the more disgusted he felt. With himself. With his country. He'd told Thomas that it hadn't bothered him, the way the younger man was, but he certainly hadn't bothered himself about it, had he? He felt guilty, but damned if he knew what to do about it. "I want him to succeed, Bates," he finally said, after he'd worked his way out of both his waist coat and shirt. "I never thought I'd say this, but Thomas Barrow has been loyal to Downton. And it's high time for Downton to be loyal to Thomas Barrow."