“I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you—especially when you are near to me, as now;
it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous Channel, and two hundred miles or so of land, come broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapped; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly.”
—Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
All three of the Crawley girls have soulmarks.
Her governess says this is atypical. Sybil doesn’t think so. After all, in Plato’s Symposium, it says that humans were created with four arms, four legs, and two faces, and when the gods split them apart, fearing their power, every person on the planet had their other half to search for. Every person, not just most people. Everyone is supposed to have a soulmark. Even Granny, though she doesn’t dare imagine what sort of person might be bonded to Granny.
She asks once, when she’s supposed to be reciting poetry, about whether or not they should disbelieve Plato on this point. Her governess (Fräulein Kelder, a dowdy old harridan who would have taken vows, if not for far more earthly concerns) crosses herself and says that she ought not to be reading ancient pagan philosophers on silly commoner customs when she should be repairing her atrocious French grammar instead.
That stings, even though she doesn’t wish it to. She wants to be like Mary, who always knows exactly what to say to make the people who try to hurt her like her instead. It’s only when she’s older that she realises that Mary knows how to just the opposite, too: she knows just how to hurt those who want to love her, and she grieves for the sister that always seemed to know just what she was doing.
A different governess tells her that not everyone has a soulmate. “Or at least, it appears that way,” she says. “The truth is their soulmate hasn’t yet been born. That, or their bond died before they were old enough to know they’d lost something in the first place. People can love without soulmarks, Lady Sybil, marry without them and have children without them. They just…may feel a bit different, because of it.”
Mary doesn’t scare this one off for another six months, by which time Sybil has extracted all knowledge of soulmarks and bonds from her, and a few books about soul science besides. Sybil’s not quite certain why, but she’s fascinated by the idea of soulmarks. Not her own, necessarily—she’s frightened of meeting her bond, in a way, terrified and excited all at once, so that some nights she can’t sleep for the wanting and the fear of it—but just marks in general. Sybil wants to understand things, to make sense of them, and if they’re wrong, she wants to fix them. All the governesses say it’s really not how a lady ought to behave, asking all these questions when she should be listening instead. They’re wrong about that. Sybil listens to things. She just wants to learn them, too.
She’s fifteen when she finally works out what Fräulein Kelder meant, when she said that she and Mary and Edith are different. “It would have been better,” Granny says one afternoon after tea, when she thinks Sybil isn’t listening, “if none of the girls were born with those wretched marks. It’s common enough for at least one in a family to not have one. Or if they do, for the partner to be too old, or too young, or too poor, or too foreign.” Granny shudders a bit, and then steels herself. “Barbaric, inefficient, plebian things. Only pray that they don’t bind with someone…difficult, my dear.”
“Like I was difficult?” says Mama. Sybil can hear the razor in her voice. Granny laughs.
“On the contrary, you were a stroke of extraordinary luck. Our sort of people rarely make bonds as well as marriages. You know that.”
Mama laughs a little. “Do you know, Robert says he knew that I would be his bond from the first moment we met? Which is ludicrous, because the first moment we met, it was because I’d spilled wine on the leg of his trousers.”
This is clearly too private for Granny, who simply sniffs and says “Well, quite,” like someone in a novel. Mama sighs.
“Perhaps it would have been better for the girls if they were born without marks, but what’s done is done. We will cross that bridge when we come to it, as they say.”
“If we come to it,” says Granny. “Remember that until it happens, it is very much an if.”
“That’s what I thought,” says Mama, “until I realised Robert was right.”
At the sound of that, Sybil rather fancies that the mark on her chest stings a little, but when she inspects it in the water closet later, it looks just the same as always—an eight-spoked wheel, strong lines and empty spaces. It nestles between her breasts like some sort of X-marks-the-spot on a pirate map. Someone else has this mark, somewhere.
Sybil reaches out, and touches its reflection in the mirror. It’s not proper, and her ears go hot at the thought of it, but she imagines that she’s reaching out to her bond, to the boy who shares this mark. The glass is cold against her fingertips. Somewhere someone matches her, and she fancies that he’s doing this too, studying her the way she’s studying him even though they’ve never seen each other’s faces. Someone she doesn’t know. Someone who could be anyone. Someone who her parents could hate, someone who might be across the world. Someone she might never even meet.
Well, that’s that, then. There’s romanticism, and then there’s blind hope, and she’s not one to subscribe to the latter. If she meets her soulmate, she will meet her soulmate, and if she doesn’t, she won’t. There’s no point in worrying about it until she comes to the crossroads. She meets the gaze of her reflection in the mirror, and then fixes her blouse and goes out to meet Edith in the library. She has to practice French with someone, and it only makes sense that it would be Edith. After all, Mary flourishes in everything, but she would much rather spend time on horseback than with her nose in a book.
It’s very rare for someone to reveal their soulmark to anyone other than their bond. But they’re sisters. They help each other dress (when they’re not old enough to know better, anyway), lounge in bedrooms in nightgowns, match jewelry, fix corsets. Besides, from the time that all three of them were old enough to understand what a soulmark meant, they’ve been comparing notes. It would be impossible for Sybil not to know her sisters’ marks as well as she knows her own.
Every person has a different place and a different motif for their marks. Edith’s is hidden away at the small of her back, a circle of stars about the same length across as her palm. They’re dark, more like shadows than stars, but there are twelve of them, twelve tiny stars that make her think of carved obsidian beads. Sybil thinks it’s beautiful. She thinks there’s some meaning in that Edith can’t ever see her own soulmark, unless she peers in a mirror. Blindness, she thinks, and writes it in the little notebook where she keeps notes on politics, history, language. Blindness to herself, and what she wants, perhaps. Blindness to others. Hidden depths. Dying stars. She crosses the last line out rather viciously one morning after Edith and Mary argue, and then writes it in again a few days later.
Mary’s mark is even more difficult for someone to lay eyes on, but it’s easy for Mary herself. It’s tucked on the inside of her thigh, halfway between her knee and her—well, her place. (She learns the term womanhood, later, from one of the women at her embroidery-turned-suffragette meetings, but this seems insufficient, somehow. She doesn’t think the whole of her identity as a woman is wrapped up inside the physicality of her sex, in her capacity for motherhood. But this is not something she points out to her friends at the embroidery group, because she doesn’t want to spark a philosophical discussion in the middle of politics.) The mark is a soft blue, something between robin’s egg and night-black, a curving crescent with points like knives. She can’t fit the romance of a crescent moon with the sharp brilliance that is Mary, but the bite is the same. In her notebook, she lists confusion, illusion, imagination, love. She adds apprehension and conflict after she finds a book called The Symbolism of Soulmarks in her father’s library, and goes over meanings for any assortment of symbols. There are moons in that book, but never crescents like Mary’s. The sharp edges suit her.
She knows that her parents have matched soulmarks, changed by the bond, but she’s never seen them. Neither her father nor her mother have ever offered to show it to her, and she has never asked. It’s the height of rudeness, she thinks. It’s their finished bond, not hers. Besides, something in her flinches away from the idea. Unfinished marks are one thing. A completed bondmark—that’s something else entirely.
She leaves a page for herself at the back of her notebook. It’s empty for a long time, all the way until the Count, upon which she writes only a moving wheel which crushes everything beneath its own progression before tearing it out and throwing it in the fire.
The day the Titanic telegram arrives, Edith catches Sybil by the arm and drags her into an empty bedroom. “I need to know,” she says, fumbling with the collar of her dress. Sybil tries to help her, her fingers catching on hooks and eyes. “I need to know if my mark is gone. I need to know.”
She doesn’t say that Edith would have known, if she and Patrick were soulmates. She would have felt it when her bond died, the way all bonds feel it, even if they haven’t married, even if they haven’t spoken. Even if they’ve never laid eyes on each other. And Edith and Patrick, they’d known each other for years. Edith would know. But she doesn’t say anything about that. Instead, she helps Edith peel away her dress, unlace her stays. Sybil tugs up the cloth beneath the corset and sets her fingers to the skin there, just below the circle of black stars. They’re still there, all twelve, encircling vertebrae and skin, and she doesn’t dare touch them. She meets Edith’s eyes in the mirror. Her sister’s been crying. Her lids are swollen, her eyelashes slick with tears.
“Well?” she says, and her voice cracks.
Sybil starts tugging aimlessly at the corset where it’s shifted.
“Tell me,” Edith begs, and Sybil hooks her arms around her sister’s neck, squeezing as tight as she dares.
“It’s still there,” she says, and Edith’s face crumples in the mirror before she hides it away in her hands. Sybil pets her hair, because there’s nothing else she can do. Patrick is gone, and he wasn’t Edith’s bond, and none of that can ever be changed.
Cousin Matthew is a nice person, she decides. Handsome, in a faded sort of way. Not that he’s washed out or anything, but his eyes are so pale that it sucks the colour from the rest of him, even though his hair is quite blonde and his skin goes quite red if he walks too fast during the summertime. It’s something that doesn’t quite make sense anywhere outside her own head, so she doesn’t mention his odd sort of fading to anyone, but it doesn’t keep her from thinking it. It does make it harder for her to remember he’s in a room, sometimes. He’s always so quiet, she’ll often forget he’s there entirely.
She doesn’t care a jot for his soulmark. She knows Edith does, at least for the first few weeks after his move from Manchester. Edith, who still cries in the middle of the night and pretends no one hears her; Edith, who loved Patrick so much, and still does, and yet never, ever wants to be second best.
(If someone had asked Sybil to choose between her sisters before the War, she would have chosen Edith. Edith seems so much more fragile in a way that Mary does not. So even though she’s seventeen and really ought to behave better, be more grown-up and let her sister handle it alone, she’ll still knock on Edith’s door in the middle of the night and hold her as she cries, because not even Mama seems to do it.
There’s something strange in that, that Mama spends so much more time with Mary and with Sybil than with the daughter that needs her most. She hates Cora for it, even if she won’t acknowledge it. There’s a burning of it beneath her sternum, under her soulmark, that hisses like resentment.)
Edith wants so desperately to be loved, to be somebody’s first in the world, and she’s not yet managed it. It’s why she cares so much about soulmarks, about Patrick’s first, and then about Cousin Matthew’s. She even tries to get Anna to interrogate Molesley—at least, until Mama catches her and demands that she stop. “It’s not couth,” says Mama. “Honestly, don’t be so desperate, darling. To see you is to love you, you know.”
“Are you talking to Mary?” Edith asks, viciously sweet. “She’s in the other room, you know.”
Her mother looks like she’s been struck. Her lips part. Sybil promptly changes the subject to the latest book she’s been reading, a political treatise by a German gentleman named Marx. Mama sighs the way she always does when Sybil admits to reading politics or history or anything other than novels, and asks how her new pillowcase project is doing instead. Edith falls into a bitter silence, her eyes fixed on the fists in her lap.
Sometimes Sybil feels as though she’s constantly defusing bombs laid down by the rest of her family. Maybe that could be her title, eventually. Lady Sybil Crawley, Deflector of Explosive Emotional Projectiles.
Mary’s not so anxious as Edith, doesn’t need others in the same way, and so of course she doesn’t like Cousin Matthew much at all. Of course, Mary doesn’t like anybody she’s told to like, so that’s to be expected. Cousin Matthew likes Mary quite a lot, though. It’s obvious, and it’s why Edith eventually stops asking about Cousin Matthew’s soulmark. “She gets everything,” Edith tells Sybil one night before dinner, one which Cousin Isobel and Cousin Matthew are bound to attend. “She always gets everything. It’s not fair.”
“She doesn’t get everything,” Sybil says. “She doesn’t get the entailment, and that’s all she really wants. She wouldn’t want anything else, if she could just get to keep Downton.” She holds her copy of George Eliot’s Middlemarch closer to her chest. “And why shouldn’t she get Downton? It’s horrible to give it away to someone else when Mary loves this place so much. More than me or you or Patrick ever did, and more than Cousin Matthew does, that’s certain. The entailment is what isn’t fair, not to anyone, and I don’t understand why Papa won’t change it.”
“You’re no help,” says Edith, and flounces off to wander the gardens. Sybil goes back to the library to reread Jane Eyre, and then decides to leave her own copy of it in Edith’s bedroom. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained indeed.
Mary’s soulmark is changing, and the only person who knows is Anna.
Well, that’s not quite correct. The only people who know are Anna, Mary, and Sybil, but Sybil only knows by accident, and neither Mary nor Anna know that she has a clue about it at all.
It’s an accident, and she’ll swear to that in court. Truly it is. She wants to ask Mary’s opinion on a new novel she found lying around the library, something called Tess of the d’Ubervilles, because it’s really quite different from what she was expecting and she knows Mary’s read it. She’s lifting her hand to knock on the door when she hears Mary curse. Mary never curses, so it’s enough to freeze her in place with her hand suspended, like a marionette.
“It’s fading,” says Mary desperately. Mary sounds as close to tears as Sybil has ever heard her, and it makes her heart turn over in her chest. “Anna, it’s fading.”
Fading? Sybil tightens her grip on Tess. Mary wouldn’t be one to care if her clothes faded, so it could only mean—
“Could it be—” Anna stops, suddenly. “Could it be, milady, that—that whoever-it-was has—”
She can’t seem to say it. Mary says it for her. “No one has died, Anna. If they had, it would be gone, not—not changing. Not like this.”
“Forgive me, milady, but—how long has it been like this?” Anna stops. “Only—only when mine changed, I—I noticed it because it…stung, a little. Like when you touch a hot pan with no cloth.”
Anna has a bond? Sybil leans hard on the wall beside Mary’s door. Of course Anna has a bond, you ninny. Anna’s lovely. If anyone deserves a bond, it’s Anna.
“I don’t know.” Mary’s voice breaks. “I don’t—I don’t check it. I don’t—they’re so nonsensical, soulmarks. What’s the point, truly?”
That, Sybil thinks, is Granny speaking, Granny and Aunt Rosamund who has long since decided that soulmates aren’t worth her time, but she keeps her mouth shut.
“Maybe a few weeks,” says Mary after a moment. “Maybe more. The saddle has been pinching me lately, so—so I haven’t noticed. And like I said, I don’t look at it.” She scoffs. “I should have noticed. Look at it, it’s—it’s gone silver. I should have seen.”
There’s a long breath of silence. Then Anna clears her throat, just once. “Who do you think it is, milady?”
“You know exactly who, Anna.” There’s a splash, as if Mary’s dropped something into her wash basin. “Who else can it be but that—no, don’t look at me like that. I won’t say it. Maybe if I don’t speak it aloud, it won’t be true.”
“I see, milady.”
“Mama will go mad if she hears of it. Think of it, think of how neat everything is. How it wraps everything up. Like one of those fairy tales. Bonded and bound by duty besides.” Mary sighs. “All I want is to be free to make my own choice, Anna, and now even my own mark is against me.”
“It might not be so mad, milady,” Anna says. “Mr. Crawley is a good sort of gentleman, so I’ve heard. I’ve seen worse bindings.”
“But—Anna, I can’t be his bond. I can’t.” Her voice hardens. “I won’t.”
“As you say, milady,” says Anna, and Sybil turns and walks quickly away.
The papers are going mad for the suffragettes, and Sybil starts snitching her father’s copies of the Times and The Yorkshire Observer in order to clip out articles for her notebook.
She’s not quite certain what starts it in particular. When she tries to root out the source of it, she comes back to Jane Eyre and Mary in turns, the pair of them twisting together like some literary monster. She ought not to owe so much of her own development to a book written decades before she was born, but she does. She owes it to Jane Eyre, with her vivid claims of humanity, and she owes it to her sister, wishing for what ought to be hers, but what she cannot ever have.
She takes out a subscription to Votes for Women, which she asks Carson to hide inside fashion magazines in order to keep her father from learning about it. She starts wearing purple, white, and green, in all combinations. For a while, nobody seems to notice, but really it doesn’t matter. It feels as though her mind is on fire, like she’s found a reason for all of it. This is what she’s meant to do. All of the books she’s read, the ones her governesses said she had no business looking at, they can help her here. Even if there’s no other way to use them, all of that work will now at last mean something.
Eventually, she bullies Taylor into driving her to Ripon. She’s not out in Society, not yet, not for another year, but there’s no harm in her traveling to Ripon for a few hours, so long as she makes something up. She claims to go book hunting or dress shopping, and she does do those things, truly—she wouldn’t be able to keep up her cover, otherwise—but for an least an hour each time she runs away from Taylor to stand at City Hall, watching the women with their sashes and their banners. It takes her six weeks to pluck up enough courage to go up to them and shake their hands, but when she does, she is surrounded. One of them pins a small photograph of Emmeline Pankhurst on her collar. Another presses a half-dozen pamphlets into her hands.
“Read our stories,” she says. Her name is Alice, Sybil learns later, Alice like in the Lewis Carroll novel, but she’s nothing like the Alice of the stories: she’s short and curvy without her corset, with pitch black hair, Asiatic eyes, and a scar shaped like a teardrop on the curve of her right cheekbone. “There’s so much the newspapers won’t tell you, Sybil. Explore it for yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you how to think or what to do. We are our own minds.”
Sybil—she’s just Sybil to these women, because she didn’t offer her title, didn’t offer her surname—glows, and under her collar, her wheel warms to the touch.
Something strange about Sybil Crawley’s soulmark: it tingles.
That’s not quite right. It doesn’t tingle. Sometimes, for no reason, it will grow warm, or cold. It doesn’t move, and it never burns, not like Anna described, but it does have a certain sort of presence. She scours her father’s library for the thousandth time on a sunny day in February when it goes from unnoticeable to such a vivid flare of heat that it feels like a little sun has taken root inside her skin. But no matter how many times it flickers, it never changes.
She asks Mary only once if something like that happens with hers, but Mary just blinks at her as if she’s mad, and so she learns never to talk about it again.
The embroidery group begins quite by accident. Sybil would like to take credit for it, but it’s Alice, really. Most of their best schemes come back to Alice eventually.
Alice is a governess. “Not a very good one,” she says one morning, as Sybil comes to join Alice and the other women in front of City Hall. “I’m too clever to be the best sort of governess, because I know I can always do better. But I was good at it, truly. I’m good with children, and I like teaching.” She cocks her head to the side. “Is that what you are, Sybil? Only you speak so nicely, you have to be in some big house.”
“Oh, I don’t work. But I’d like nothing more than to be a governess, sometimes,” says Sybil. She bites her lip. “Seeing as my parents will never let me go to university. But—but is it truly as bad as it is in Agnes Grey?”
Alice throws back her head and laughs. Sybil envies Alice, most of the time. Alice never has any qualms about doing anything she sets her mind to. She works part time as a secretary at a doctor’s office, and on her days off she stands in front of City Hall, waiting for the vote that may give women the vote. She speaks like a true Yorkshire girl and uses longer words than Papa or Mary or even Cousin Matthew, and every moment of her day she seems to be doing something extraordinary. Sybil thinks of her own sedentary existence, the constant watching and waiting of it, and wishes for something different. “Oh, my dear. There are good children and bad children, and there’s naught to be done about it but be patient with them. No, I liked it because it proved to me that girls think just as well as boys do, and better. You can’t be really intelligent and not see the sense in suffrage.”
Sybil nods. But then she frowns. “There are a lot of intelligent gentlemen in Parliament, aren’t there?”
“Ah, there’s intelligence and then there’s the appearance of it, my darling innocent.” Alice pats her soothingly. “And our own party notwithstanding, a great many of the Parliament men are old fools. No, we’ll have a fight ahead of us. Emmeline Pankhurst knows it, and so do the other women in London, the ones who are chaining themselves to Downing Street. Do you know, there was a law passed this year, we call it the Cat-and-Mouse law—suffragettes who go on hunger strikes in prison, in order to be upgraded to political prisoners—”
“It’s what we are,” says an older woman with flyaway hair; Sybil doesn’t know her name.
Alice nods. “The prisons used to force-feed hunger strikers. It happened to me, only once, but there have been women who have been in nine or ten times, and strike every moment of it. They pry your jaw open and stick a tube down your throat, to funnel muck right into your stomach.” Her eyes darken. “Sometimes they get it wrong, and stick the tube into your lungs instead.”
Sybil’s guts turn over. “But then—”
“The girl in the cell beside me drowned,” says Alice. “I wanted to be a doctor after that. Women don’t get women doctors, you know. It’s always men, and I thought—who knows a woman’s body better than a woman? So that’s what I’ll do. None of the schools I’ve tried have taken me, yet, but I’m stubborn. I know what I want, and they can’t stop me.”
There’s a low hum of approval from the protestors around them. Sybil folds her hands into her skirt and wonders if the world has just rocked itself under her feet.
“Anyway, the Cat-and-Mouse law allows for hunger strikers to be released until they’re healthy enough to stand again, and then they’re re-arrested. They’re not even giving us the dignity of recognising our politics. They’re calling us trouble-makers and rabble-rousers, because it’s easier to hear than realising that our entire system is flawed.” Alice shakes her hair back out of her face. “And the worst part of it is that there are many women who read the papers, who could be our sisters-in-arms, and they hear what the male journalists and the male politicians and the male police have to say about us, and so they think we’re trouble-makers and rabble-rousers too. If there was a way for us to talk to them, without the banners and the sashes and the pins, maybe then they’d understand.”
The woman with the flyaway hair scoffs. “Alice, darling, you know better than that. There’s naught to be done about these women in their sitting rooms and their kitchens and their gardens. Those that’ll fight, will fight. Those that’ll hide, will hide.”
“But it’s not fair to those women if they’re left behind like that,” bursts out Sybil. She thinks of Gwen, who wants and wants so desperately what suffrage can give her, but she doesn’t comprehend it, because to her, being a secretary means higher pay, not better visibility for women in high-paying jobs. “We have to at least try.”
“Good girl, Sybil,” says Alice, and pats her again. Sybil feels rather like Pharaoh in that moment, petted and praised like she’s done something wonderful when all she’s done is think. “Maybe if we can organise a—a stereotypically feminine group, something we can hide, we can invite the women who don’t know anything about us and—and talk to them. In order for this to succeed, every woman in every village in England has to participate. There’s no way we’ll be heard otherwise.”
They all fall silent for a moment.
“Poetry,” says the woman with flyaway hair.
“What about a theatre club?” asks Martha Baker, a girl who wants to work at Downton. Maybe, once Gwen has been selected as a secretary, Sybil can get her there.
“Knitting,” says Sybil. When Alice makes a face, she huffs. “My grandmother loves knitting.” Her American grandmother, not Granny. She rather thinks Granny would die before touching a pair of knitting needles.
“Not knitting,” says Alice. “Embroidery. It’s pretty and delicate and we wield sharp needles, too.” She grins, baring all her teeth. It’s a wonder her lips don’t meet in the back of her head. “I think Emmeline Pankhurst would approve.”
“Or Christabel,” says Martha.
“We can slip them speeches by Lenin,” says the woman with flyaway hair. Her name is Aveline St. Clair, Sybil remembers suddenly. She works in the post office and has three grandchildren. “Or the Communist Manifesto.”
“Or What is Property?” says a girl named Sophie. Sophie’s German—well, her parents are German—and her full name is Sophia Magdalena Eicher, but everyone calls her Sophie because she sounds just as English as the rest of them. She’s an anarchist. “Or Lucifer, the Lightbearer. I have an American cousin, he sent me every issue.”
“Walden!” says Martha.
“You all keep speaking,” says Alice, “and all I’m hearing is American jabber.”
They all laugh.
“Maybe Wollstonecraft,” says Sybil. “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Or The Origin of the Family, by Engels. Or Suffragette, even.”
“Heavy stuff, for housewives,” says Alice. “But I’m for it. Not until we get them to embroider in purple and green, though.” Her eyes twinkle. “On a white background, of course.”
Later, after the other women have packed their things to go, Sybil hesitates. She has to leave, in order to make it back to Downton by dinner, but her tongue feels a bit swollen in her mouth. Alice lifts her eyebrows.
“Something the matter, Sybil?”
“It’s just—” Sybil bites her lip. “I was thinking about marks and bonds today. Actually, I’ve been thinking about them for years. But I was rereading Plato, and it really made me think about what it means, that we all have marks.”
“Your library,” says Alice, and shakes her head. “What I wouldn’t give to see where you get your hands on these books.”
“I’ll take you one day, if you promise not to tell,” says Sybil, and once Alice has solemnly promised, she continues. “I was thinking about marks, and how in the beginning, the gods split us apart—two halves of one whole make a soulmark. Doesn’t that mean that women have just as much right to love and desire as men do? We’re each half of a whole, no matter who your bond is. If women weren’t supposed to want love, and desire, and happiness in life, would we have soulmarks at all?”
Alice pinches her lower lip between her fingers. It’s something she does when she’s thinking. “You’re presenting that as if Plato is infallible,” she says after a long moment. “Which clearly, he’s not. And no one knows where the marks come from, truly. The Christians say that the marks come from the scar, where Eve was created from Adam’s rib. Same with the Jews and the Mohammedans. There’s an Oriental religion, from Japan, that thinks that soulmarks are the kisses of gods and spirits. Every culture has a different story for it, just like every culture has a different tale of the creation of the world.”
“No, I know.” Sybil pulls on her gloves. “It’s just—we all have them, don’t we? Men and women. And if women were lesser, the way they say we are, we wouldn’t have them at all. Would we?”
Alice thinks for a long time. Then she hooks her arm through Sybil’s. “I think,” she says, “you may have hit upon something there, Sybil.”
So maybe all of the good ideas don’t trace back to Alice after all.
She knows the exact day when her mark changes, because it’s the same day she gets her first real socialist pamphlet, and the first day she truly can comprehend what her grandmother meant by difficult.
The new chauffeur, the Irishman, he says, “Will you have your own way, do you think?” and the skin of her sternum gives such a tremendous twist that Sybil actually gasps aloud and puts a hand to it. At the same moment, the automobile jerks, swaying from side to side as Branson’s hands tense on the wheel. She can see it happen, the wrenching, and from this angle she can see his jaw tense and his face go white. Their eyes meet in the rear-view mirror, and his are wide, the pupils blown like bullet holes. There’s no hiding it now. Slowly, he eases off the gas, and sets the car in park at the side of the road. His gloved fingers touch a spot on his chest, mirroring her without a word.
“You,” she says, and her voice is breathless and quiet. They are alone, there is no one to say a word but her, and his eyes are burning in his face.
“You,” he repeats, and then he waits. She thinks she should be horrified. She should be horrified, truly. Her soulmate, her bond, the half she’s supposed to be searching for, he’s an Irish chauffeur that her father is already worried about and whose name her mother barely knows. Sybil bites her lip, and then tugs off her gloves. Her palms are too sweaty to bear them any longer. Her fingers shake. She should be horrified and frightened and affronted and all of the rest, but all she can think is we know. There’s no turning back from it if they both know.
Poor and foreign, she thinks, in a far-distant part of herself that is still capable of thinking. Granny will be so displeased.
“Well,” he says, when the quiet has stretched so long it starts to fray. “Shall we continue on to the dressmaker’s, milady?”
His voice is carefully clipped. He can’t seem to meet her eyes anymore. Sybil chews at her lip. It would be easier, she thinks, if they pretend this hasn’t happened. If they fake it. If she acts as though there’s nothing here, as though her mark hasn’t changed, because she knows it has. She can feel little pinpricks of difference in her skin, and when she touches the spot, the cloth of her dress rubs against some new raw place that means all of this is real. Then she looks at his face again, at the way it’s shut down, and the spark of pain in her skin turns to an odd, warm sort of glow.
“No,” she says. “I know a place we can go.”
Branson meets her eyes in the mirror again, and puts the car back into gear.
She’s heard of the Café du Chat from Alice and the other women who run the Ripon branch of the WSPU. Mostly it’s coffee and some tea, tucked deep in the nest of back alleys that is Ripon. Nobody knows her real name here, and even with the cut of her clothes and the price of her hat, there are a great many governesses and lady’s maids in here who have their own castoffs. She’s only grateful she wore something a little less ostentatious than Mary or Edith would pick. Branson has no way to disguise his chauffeur’s uniform, but he takes off his hat and gloves and stows them in the boot of the car. Alice is holding court at the back of the café when they enter, and she waves at Sybil once before going back to her lecture. Branson looks around, and his eyebrows lift.
“How did you come to know of this place, milady?”
It breaks from her like glass. “Please don’t. Not here. Not—don’t call me that, please.”
Branson turns to look at her, and his mouth tightens again. “Forgive me, milady,” he says, but his voice is lower this time, at least. “But I ought to, or I’ll be sacked.”
“Do you really think I’m going to tell my father about this?” she hisses, and then she hates herself when she sees how he twitches. “No, that’s not—”
“Two, yeah?” says a waitress that bursts from nowhere, and Sybil jumps. The woman has curly hair and a black eye, and there’s a braid of purple, green, and white pinned to the lapel of her dress. Branson clears his throat.
“Somewhere quiet, if possible,” he says after a moment. The woman gives him a top-to-toe look—after all, there aren’t many men in here—and sniffs.
“Not much available in the way of that, but we’ll see. Follow me, please.”
Sybil folds her hands into her skirt. She never put her gloves back on. Not that it matters. Nobody will care in here.
The table that the waitress finds is on the opposite corner of the room from Alice and her little band of agitators. The wall protrudes a little there, creating a block for the roars of sound that come from the suffragettes, and it hides them from the broad expanse of the windows, where anyone could walk by and see her. Branson goes to pull her chair out, and then stops when she does it for herself, raising her eyebrows at him in an automatic question.
His mouth flickers up into a smile. It vanishes just as quickly, and she’s not sure if it’s the appearance of it or the sudden absence that makes her belly drop through the floor. “Forgive me, milady. I ought to have known better.”
“Here? Most certainly.” She glances at the waitress. The woman’s staring at her now, with enormous eyes, and it makes her wonder how many people are going to hear about Milady Sybil before the day is out. “Coffee, please. With cream.”
“We’ve scones, too,” says the waitress, still watching her as if her blue blood is going to leap out of her body and do a jig in the middle of the table. “With clotted cream.”
She is terribly sick and terribly empty, all at once. “Those as well, please.”
The waitress nods. “’n you?”
Branson looks up, his hands resting on the table like dancing spiders. “Coffee,” he says, and in a flurry of skirts, the suffragette waitress is gone. Sybil smooths the line of her skirt over her thighs. She can feel Branson’s eyes on her, and it’s making her skin prickle.
“I didn’t mean it the way it came out,” she says. “What I said about my father. I meant—I meant I don’t want to get you in trouble.”
“I’ll be in trouble like as not, milady.” He touches his fingers to his chest again, where his mark matches hers, she’s certain of it. “When he learns of this, I’ll be gone. There’s no question as to that.”
He doesn’t have to learn of it, she almost blurts, but Sybil holds her tongue just in time. What now, Sybil? What now?
“It’s not the first time, y’know,” Branson says eventually. “The family I used to work for, in Dublin, they had a maiden aunt they never spoke of. She shared a mark with a housemaid.”
“It’s not as uncommon as you may think, milady.”
“I know that,” flares Sybil, and flushes red. “That is—I’ve met—I mean—some of my friends—”
His eyebrows arch. “Truly?”
“I attend an embroidery group of suffragettes, Branson,” she says. “Do you truly think I would be ignorant of such things?”
Branson looks down at the table again, but she rather thinks he’s smiling. Sybil tucks an errant strand of hair behind her ear, wishing she could peel off her hat. She thinks of her mother and Granny. “The maid was dismissed, I suppose.”
“Yes, she was. But the aunt followed her. Her name was Lucille, I think. No one heard a thing from either of them, after.”
Sybil can’t help it. She laughs, a bit hysterical. “You can’t mean to suggest that we elope.”
Colour flares high in his cheeks. “Not in the least. I know how your kind feels about marks.”
Her hackles rise. “What do you mean, my kind?”
“Aristocrats. Nobles.” He waves a hand. “The upper classes. You’ve been told to think that the marks don’t mean anything, and so to you, they don’t.”
“You don’t know me at all,” she snaps. “You don’t know a thing about me, or what I think. You have no idea what I know about marks, or what I think of them.”
“The circumstance isn’t coming down to marks in general. It’s coming down to your mark, milady. If you’re going to turn your back on it, I’d appreciate it if you let me know now, so I can go back to my life.”
She jerks as if slapped, and stares at the sliver of window she can see from her chair. It’s starting to rain outside. At least the weather is listening.
“I don’t know what I want to do,” she says, very slowly. “To be entirely honest, I never thought I would actually meet you. Or if I did, I wouldn’t…I wouldn’t put it together. There have been bonds who pass each other every day for a year and never realise that they’re marked. Not a lot of people react as…um. Obviously.”
Branson’s quiet for a minute. “I’ll bet you didn’t expect to be bonded to a chauffeur, either.”
She flushes hot. “That has nothing to do with it.”
“No. It doesn’t.”
She glares at him until the coffee arrives. Sybil adds too much sugar to hers, until it’s so sweet that her mouth puckers, but the scones are fresh and buttery. Branson adds one sugar cube to his coffee and stirs it three times before setting his spoon aside, and she wonders why she’s watching his hands. She’s never seen a chauffeur without his gloves, she supposes. He has nice hands, square palms with long fingers. They’re different from hers, or from her father’s. Sybil looks down into her coffee cup before he notices.
“I don’t—know if any of the staff know this.” Sybil wraps her hands tight around her mug, not looking up from the lip. “My parents are bonded. It’s rare, and—and a lot of their friends would think it was plebian. Unsophisticated,” she says, and her stomach twists. “I’ve often wondered why people like me think of marks as something to be hated, when—when everyone else thinks they’re special. Things to be revered.”
Branson leans back in his chair. “Perhaps because with the marks, it’s obvious that everyone is intended for someone,” he says. “How can you lot make your marriages of convenience if you know for certain that there’s someone out there, waiting to meet you? The bank accounts of the aristocracy wouldn’t be able to handle it. The whole institution would crash down around its ears.”
“Around my ears, you mean,” she says. “After all, that’s what I am, truly. An aristocrat.”
“Well, yes,” says Branson baldly. “And I’ll not lie, I never considered that my bond would be as posh as you.” He hesitates. “But you’re not like the rest of them up at the big house. You hear stories, below stairs.”
“Stories?” Sybil blinks. “What sort of stories?”
“There’s a housemaid who thinks you walk on water, and it didn’t take much thought to put together why.” He drums his fingers on the tabletop. “And from the look of this place, you’re risking your position in order to fight for equal rights. Or is this a farce, another charity project for a bored socialite with nothing else to do other than play with the little people?”
She bites back her temper and her hurt, and takes a large gulp of coffee. “You’re very forward.”
“I’m bred for it,” says Branson. “Are you going to answer the question?”
“If it was a farce,” she says, “I wouldn’t have ever brought you here, would I? Considering how determined you are to tar us all with the same brush, I wouldn’t dare give you the ammunition.”
Branson thinks about this, and then nods once.
“Besides, I don’t want these women to know who I am. I want them to take me on face value, instead of—of treating me like I’m special just because I’m the daughter of the Earl of Grantham. Not that you’d understand that,” Sybil adds, gulping at her coffee. “You’ve never once had to be anyone other than who everyone else thinks you are, have you?”
“There’s an argument for all in service doing just that, milady.”
She opens her mouth, and then closes it again. “I’m so stupid. Of course you’re right. I’m sorry. I should have realised.” Sybil breaks a bit of scone off the whole and looks at it. “I just never—”
“Never thought about it?”
“Never considered it in that way before,” she corrects. “There’s a difference between the two.”
Branson hums, and turns his coffee mug in his hands.
“What do you think we should do?” He jerks his head up to look at her. Sybil forces herself to meet his eyes. “It’s not just me that’s in trouble here, considering all of it. You said yourself you didn’t think I’d be—what was the word you used?”
“You didn’t think I’d be so posh, you said. What is it you want to do?”
Branson takes a few of the sugar cubes and starts building a tower on the plate the waitress brought him for the scones. Then he knocks it down. “I dunno, to be honest. I didn’t think you’d ask.”
Sybil blinks at him, shocked. “Why wouldn’t I ask? It’s just as much your business as it is mine.”
“It’s our matter, not theirs. Yours and mine. We get to decide. My parents—” Her throat closes, and she swallows hard. “My parents have nothing to do with it.”
Branson opens his mouth to respond, but then there’s a yelp from the door. It’s Sophie, the anarchist. She’s only a bit of a thing, with cascading blonde curls and eyes that are so blue they’re almost purple. She’s like Gwen, Sybil thinks, but a Gwen that’s more assured of herself, a Gwen who has snatched what she wanted and is running with it to the end of the line. “Sybil! What on earth are you doing here today? I thought you’d be over at City Hall!”
“Something came up,” says Sybil, and across the table Branson stands and dips his head. “Sophie, this is Mr. Branson, a…a friend. Branson, this is Sophie Eicher. She works the protests with me.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever met any of Sybil’s friends before,” says Sophie, and sticks her hand out for Branson to shake it. He doesn’t hesitate at all. “You know how often she’s in purple and green and you still dare to be friends with her? That’s quite courageous.”
“You show the greatest courage when you fight for the right thing,” says Branson. “I’ve no shame in admitting that.”
“Well, I think that’s lovely,” says Sophie, and then turns to Sybil. “Will you both come join Alice and me? She’ll be done presenting in a few minutes, and then we were going to meet up for an impromptu hobnob.”
“No, I ought to stay here. I have to go back home in an hour, and if I get caught up I’ll be here until sunset.”
“That’s for sure,” says Sophie, and flicks them a two-fingered salute. “Lovely to meet you, Mr. Branson. See you soon, Sybil!”
In a whirlwind of skirts, she’s gone. Branson waits until she’s out of sight before he sits down again. Her train of thought is broken. Sybil stares at the grain of the table, and then at her skirt, not sure what to say. After what feels like an age, Branson clears his throat.
“They really don’t know, do they?”
“Who you are.”
“Certainly not.” Sybil wipes her forefinger along the lip of her cup. “I never thought to tell them. I didn’t want them to think that I was just—looking for something to do. I wanted to work at something, and I believe in the cause. That’s all that matters, isn’t it?”
For an instant, she thinks she see his face soften. When she looks up, though, his expression is the same: cool and flat, quietly considering. He sets his thumb against his lower lip. She takes the scone off the plate, and starts to dissect it, a pinch at a time until there’s a pile of crumbs sitting beside it on the porcelain.
“You were serious in wanting to know what I think. Weren’t you?”
Sybil jumps, and a few flecks of scone spill into her lap. “Of course I was.”
“What if I said I want to try and go through with it?”
She jerks her head up, and stares at him. Branson searches her face, his lips pressed together hard enough to turn them white, and inexplicably, she flushes. He’s quite attractive, she realises for the first time. Broad shoulders, good jaw. His eyes are lovely. Sybil swallows.
“I was brought up to think that being soulmates means something,” he says simply. “I’d like to try it, if we can.”
On her sternum, the wheel starts to warm.
“Why?” She fidgets with the scone between her fingers. “I didn’t think you’d—I mean, you don’t—you thought I was making it up, before—”
“Then why did you—”
“I wanted to see what you’d do.” He studies her. “Gwen’s right. You are different from the rest of them. Kinder, cannier. You care about things. That’s why I want to try, because there’s much worse things you can be than compassionate and intelligent. Do you?”
She turns red again, all the way up her throat to her scalp. She’s been called any number of things since she was little—she’s been sweet Sybil since she was nine, like Edith is quiet Edith and Mary is brilliant Mary—but no one’s ever called her intelligent before. She’s feeling too much, all at once, and she feels like she might rupture through her skin because of it. Sybil clears her throat.
“I don’t know.” She goes back to shredding her scone. The back of her neck is very hot. “I do think what I said before is true—it’s our business, not theirs—but I mean, they are my family. And this is only the first time we’ve spoken, truly, and besides, I’m not even eighteen—”
“Not—” His eyes bulge. “God above, how old are you?”
“Seventeen. I’m eighteen in November. On the fifth,” she adds, for some stupid, idiotic reason.
“Only seventeen.” Branson rubs a hand over his face. “God.”
“I’m not a baby!”
“I didn’t say that, milady, only—only you look much older than seventeen. Only seventeen,” he says again, and then something else under his breath that sounds like a prayer. She doesn’t recognise the language.
“How old did you think I was?”
“I don’t know. Twenty, twenty-two. But seventeen—”
“I don’t see why it’s such a problem how old I am.”
“It’s only—you’re younger than I expected, milady. That’s all.”
“Well, that’s not my fault, is it?” Then: “How old are you?”
He rub a hand over his face. “Twenty-seven.”
There is nothing she can really say to this. “Oh.” Then she remembers. “Wait, you would have known when I was born, wouldn’t you? If you’re that much older than me?”
Branson colours again, and coughs. His mouth’s twitching, as if he’s trying not to laugh. “You’re right. I should’ve. Forgive me?”
Sybil smiles into her coffee cup. “Perhaps.”
Branson stares at the tabletop for a minute. Then he lifts his eyes to her face, with an expression that she can’t puzzle out. He seems to have made some decision, but whatever it is, she has no idea. “Would you try, though? If you could. Do you want this?”
She can’t tell if her brain is completely empty, or if it’s spilling over with too many thoughts. The look on his face is making her insides quiver, as if they want to bolt out of her body and run off down the street. “I—” She licks her lips, tries again. “I only—I want—” She knuckles her eyes, smearing her makeup. “God, there are so many words in my head and I can’t get them out!”
The wheel on her chest turns warm enough to sting, and she lets out a shaking breath, touching it with her fingertips. She feels like she’s going to cry. Everything’s a knot, a Gordian knot, and she can’t unweave it, it’s too complicated and she can’t breathe—
“You don’t have to answer now, if you don’t want.” Branson fidgets in his chair. “Take as much time as you need.”
She laughs. It’s wet, but it’s a laugh, and she can’t help but smile at him after. “Thank you. It’s just—why must things that seem so simple be made so difficult?”
“So that the difficult things can be made simple, I suppose,” says Branson.
She wants to touch him, then. Perhaps it’s wrong, but she does. She sorts words out in her head instead.
“I don’t think you’re unworthy,” she says. “Not because of—because of any of it. Because of any of the reasons my father would think so. Soulmates are two halves of one person, that’s what Plato says. I could no more look down on you than look down on myself.” Sybil thinks of Mary, of Cousin Matthew and Mary’s silvering mark, and tears more of her scone apart. “But I don’t—I don’t know you at all, Branson. And you don’t know me, and before—before we decide anything, I want to know. I want to learn. About everything, not just this.” She touches her mark. “About—about suffrage, and politics, and history, and science. I want to know how things work. I want to learn about the world. It sounds so selfish, but I want more than what I have. I want to go to school, Branson,” she says, and it comes so easily, this secret wish that she’s never voiced to anyone else, not even to herself. After all, if she’d said it, she’d want it, the way she wants it now, and in her fragile world of gold and silk there’s no way she should be wanting anything. “I want to go to university. I don’t want to just—I want to know more than French and how to curtsy properly. I want women to have equal rights and I want Gwen to succeed as a secretary, and I want to learn how soul bonds work and I want—” to learn you, she nearly says, but then she bites her tongue. “I want everything, and I can’t explain it, but—but I can’t leap into something I don’t understand. Not like this.” She looks at him desperately. “Does that make any sense at all?”
Branson meets her eyes. She feels caught, like a butterfly to a corkboard. Then he reaches into the pocket of his coat, and draws out a packet of folded papers. He spreads them on the table in front of her. Sybil blinks twice.
“What are these?”
“I was going to give you these in the car,” says Branson. He draws his hands back as she reaches out for the papers. “I’m a socialist. I heard you saying something about women’s rights, to Her Ladyship—” he gestures at the café around them “—so when I saw these pamphlets by Sylvia Pankhurst, I wondered if you might like to see them.” The colour comes back into his cheeks, and he stares out the window as he says, “Wanted to talk to you, I suppose, and it was as good an excuse as any.”
If she’s honest, she decides then. Something under her sternum curls up like a cat, and settles, and it’s decided without her ever having a moment to think on it. But sometimes Sybil is more like Mary than she would ever like to admit. I don’t know him, she tells herself. I don’t know him at all. I can’t love someone I don’t even know. Still, she gathers the flyers up carefully, like butterfly wings. She can’t speak for a moment. “Thank you,” she says. “Thank you for these. Some of the women—I’ve read a little Lenin, and a little Trotsky, but I didn’t understand it. These will help.”
His eyes sharpen, and she thinks he might smile for a second or two. He frowns instead. “As for learning, milady, everyone ought to be able to learn all they set their mind to. So, yes. You make sense. All of it, it made sense to me.”
You make sense, he said. Her heart squeezes. Nobody’s ever said that to her, either. “There’s no way my father will let me, though.” She clings to the pamphlets. “Not to any of the places I wish to go. And—and there aren’t really any colleges for women, even at Oxford.”
“Trinity in Dublin has taken women for the past seven years, if you can stomach Ireland,” says Branson, a bit archly. “And there are universities in America that’ll be sure to take you. All women’s colleges. There’s always a chance. If it’s what you want, milady, then you ought to go.” His jaw tightens again. “I’ll drive you there myself, need be. Just tell me when.”
She does cry, then. Only for a moment, a tear or two trickling down her cheeks, but Branson goes sheet white and says, “Milady?” so worriedly that she has to laugh.
“You’ll drive me to America,” Sybil chokes, and starts giggling. She can’t help it. “You’ll drive me across the Atlantic, Branson? Truly?”
For the first time since they’ve sat down, Branson relaxes. He lounges back into his chair, his back not quite so straight, his eyes not quite so frosty, and he grins at her. It’s a real smile, this time, and it makes her laughter catch a little. He doesn’t notice.
“I specialise in operating over-water vehicles, milady,” he says. “Never fear.”
Sybil looks down at the flyers again, at red ink and black meeting times. Then she swallows hard. “You can call me by my name, you know,” she says, before she can stop herself. “I think it would be all right. And—and I’d like very much to know yours.”
“If you’d rather not, it’s fine.” Her ears go red, and her throat stings. “I know—I know it’ll only be a problem, especially if it’s a habit, with Downton and my father and—”
“Sybil,” he says, and it knocks the breath out of her. She reaches forward without thinking, and touches the back of his hand with her fingertips. She can feel tendons and bone there, and the touch makes her mark sting. Real, she thinks. This is real. She jerks her hand away. “You’ve not said no. I’ll be fine with that, for now.”
No. She hasn’t told him no, has she? Sybil swallows, and nods once.
Branson clears his throat. “Tom. My name’s Tom.”
“Tom,” she repeats. Branson shifts in his chair. He licks his lips.
“Sybil,” he says, after a pause so long she could capture it on paper. The wheel goes even warmer, flaring up to a coal in her skin. “I’ll wait. As long as you need for you to understand, I’ll wait. We’re bonds, after all. We’re meant. Now or later, it turns out the same in the end.”
Sybil blinks at him, and then struggles not to laugh. “Confident, aren’t you?”
“’course,” says Tom, and that smirking smile returns. “And I’m patient, besides. Socialists have to be. We can’t overthrow the social order otherwise.”
She sputters, just a little. “Did you just compare me to a social order?”
Branson thinks about it. “Well, the good parts of one. Though admittedly, an antiquated social order.”
“Brute,” she says without thinking. He waggles his eyebrows.
“I’ll lend you the manifesto.”
She pelts a bit of broken scone at him.
It should be odd, having Branson as her bond. But it’s not, really. It’s just different.
She wonders if Mary and Matthew have begun their binding yet. She thinks not. The level of every bond is different, but she’s sure she’ll know the instant that the empathy starts. Cousin Matthew can’t hide a single thing he feels, not on his face or in his hands, and if he were feeling what Mary feels... So no, Mary’s stubbornness has stopped it.
Even if Plato is wrong, and humans weren’t created with four arms and two faces, she thinks that someone has to be right about bonded being two halves of one being. It’s the only way to explain how she can feel Branson. If she closes her eyes at the right time, when her mark thrums hot and her heartbeat swells, it feels as though she’s curled up inside his skin. It’s so odd. She keeps telling herself she’ll stop doing it, but somehow she never quite does, and she’s ashamed of it and delights in it all at once.
Sometimes, foreign feelings ripple over her without warning. Strong ones, mostly. Surprise, anger, happiness, wonder. (Wonder comes most often when she convinces him to teach her to drive. She wouldn’t have dared, before, but now she knows, the knowledge of it thrums through her, Tom Branson is her soulmate, and she knows that he would never refuse her this.) He can feel her, and she knows it, because sometimes she’ll look at him in the rear view mirror of the car when she’s out with Mary or Edith or Mama, and she’ll see her joy or frustration or sorrow reflected in him, like a fractured mirror. It’s terrifying. She’s never had someone be able to read her so clearly before, and it frightens the living daylights out of her.
Her mark has changed. The spoke for each cardinal direction bears a fleck of a rune, now, and in the centre is a line of flickering dashes that she can’t make heads nor tails of. Anna’s noticed, and she sucked in a breath when she did, but otherwise she’s managed to keep it quiet, that Sybil’s mark is different. It might be difficult, once her season begins, but for now, she’s safe.
Sybil Crawley doesn’t often leave Downton Abbey, which means Sybil Crawley doesn’t often get a chance to see her bond. It stings inside her, a constant tug like a knotted string under her sternum. Some nights she just aches all over, as if she’s fallen off her horse. If she stays awake long enough, after all the servants have gone to bed, she can almost feel him there. If she closes her eyes, she can hear his heartbeat. It’s probably just her imagination, but it helps.
She shouldn’t be thinking like this. There are rules, she tells herself in the morning; rules and propriety and all those regulations that are laid into the marrow of Granny’s bones. He’s her bond, but she’s not in love with him, or at least she doesn’t think she is (can you be in love with someone after barely knowing them for more than a few months?) and so imagining him in bed with her is outrageous.
And then she can’t sleep again, and if she rolls over just so, and tilts her head in one specific way, she can hear him breathing. Then, of course, all her righteousness deflates.
There’s only one way, really, the ache stops, and that’s if she sees him. He drives her to and from Alice’s embroidery meetings—at least, the ones she can make without it appearing suspicious. In June, after the death of Emily Davison, Sybil starts to bring Gwen, whose eyes grow round as tennis balls to hear these city girls calling Sybil Sybbie and Sybil darling and rich girl could you please. It’s even harder for Gwen to copy them, though she tries her hardest.
On days when Gwen can come to the meetings, they leave at two o’clock, and return by five; Sybil calls him Branson and he calls her milady, and they both chatter with Gwen but not really with each other. Branson sits in the car waiting for them to be done, reading books he’s borrowed from Papa’s library and making notes in a small leather book he keeps in his right pocket. On the ride back, Gwen effuses about the group, about the pamphlets that Sybil or Alice or Aveline have slipped her. Then they all part, and go their separate ways. Branson retreats to the chauffeur’s cottage until he’s needed again. Gwen hurries upstairs to change clothes and return to her duties. Sybil goes to the library, and settles in for the long haul with books on every subject. She’s been trying to get Cousin Matthew to teach her about the entailment, but as of yet with no success. Alice thinks that her application to university might go better if she can at least demonstrate that she knows the definition of imperiocentrism.
On days when Gwen can’t come (and these days are more often than not) they leave at eleven. Once they’re out of sight of Downton, Branson pulls over, and Sybil clambers into the driver’s seat. She’s Sybil then, not milady (though when he’s being contrary she’s a melding of the two, which irks her) and she calls him Tom though she really oughtn’t. There’s nowhere safe enough for them to stop and walk —after all, every farm in the area knows her father’s face, her cousin’s, hers, and they know that a Crawley lady really oughtn’t be speaking so familiarly with a man in a chauffeur’s uniform—so instead she just drives until she reaches an empty side road, and then she parks.
It’s nothing scandalous. Not truly. He doesn’t touch her. She doesn’t try. There’s a line that they can’t cross. There’s no way to truly cement the bond without a wedding night—not that wedding truly needs to happen, beforehand, she thinks, flushing red—but bonds are funny things. If she can sense this much of him without ever even touching him, really, without a single kiss, then she won’t chance trying it and tying them even closer. They can’t risk someone finding out, neither of them, and so she sits on one side of the driver’s seat and he takes the other, and they talk.
She doesn’t understand how soulmarks work, or why people are bonds of others, but she understands Tom Branson. He’s the pauses in her trains of thought. He’s the only person she knows who just lets her speak. She has so many things she wants to say, and Branson listens. Even if they weren’t bonded, even if he wasn’t her mark, she’d like him just for that, she thinks. He talks with her and asks her questions like her thoughts matter, like her opinions are worth something. It’s not as if she doesn’t get that from other people; she’s not ignored like Edith, even if she isn’t made the centre of attention like Mary, but at the same time, people don’t actually actively listen to her, either. Nobody at home wants to hear about the movement, or the Labour party, or the Cat-and-Mouse law. Nobody at home wants to talk about the injustices of the Empire with her. But Branson does, and it’s not like her father would think at all. He’s not trying to get her to come ‘round to his way of thinking, he’s not trying to make her a socialist or join a revolutionary group, he just talks, and even when they disagree it’s not a bad thing at all. They talk, and it matters, and she can’t explain why.
They share books, too. There’s a surprising number he hasn’t read, ones she loves, and so they’re on more common ground than she would suppose. She likes giving him poets to read, because of how grumpy he gets. He loans her the few books he brought with him from Dublin—Sullivan’s History of Ireland, Chernyshevsky’s What Shall We Do?, Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. They’re books that her father would never let her sign out, or doesn’t own in the first place. Mostly the latter. Papa has his literary loves, and they’re mostly poetry and economics. He has more history than politics, but most of the biggest books in his library are histories of Downton. If she really wants a particular volume, she has to go down to Ripon or Thirsk and buy it herself—which, of course—means driving. Which means Branson.
Sybil asks that a bookshelf be set up in her room so that she has an excuse to go down to the bookshop more often.
The notes Branson takes when he’s waiting for her, or the rest of her family—they’re for her, and it makes her fingers tingle to watch him do it. They’re things he wants to say to her. It means she really has to work to fight his arguments, because he has so much longer to think out all the flaws and refute them, so much more time than she has to pick them free. She gives him a copy of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and then after that North & South and Middlemarch. She starts loaning him her Votes for Women magazines after she’s done, too, because he asks. Once, she catches him reading Jane Eyre, and she’s not imagining the soft smile he wears as he turns the page.
She accumulates tidbits like crumbs. He has one brother, six uncles, and seventeen cousins, most of which live in Bray or Dublin. He speaks Gaelic, and he’s promised to teach her eventually. He has a first in politics from Trinity in Dublin, but no one would hire him when he put that on his applications, so now he leaves it off. The first time he heard of socialism, he was twelve years old and passing a protest by the Gaelic League. He used to write articles sometimes for a socialist magazine, but he’s stopped since coming to Downton.
She should worry more about the age difference, she thinks. Papa and Mama are only two years apart, not ten and a bit. It should unsettle her, that her soulmate isn’t a boy, but a man a decade older than her. It does, sometimes. But there’s nothing she can do about it, and so she decides to set it aside in favor of other cares.
Alice is the only one she tells about any of it. She wants to tell Edith, desperately—Edith or Mary or even Mama—but she knows they won’t understand. Edith will hate her for it. Edith, who wants so badly to be a bond; Edith, who wants to be loved by someone other than her family, because even her family seems to be lacking in that nowadays—Edith will loath her. It breaks her heart to think it, but she knows her sister better than anyone, better than Mama even, and so she knows it’s true.
Mary…Mary knows her bond, and refuses to say it, because he’s a middle-class lawyer who’s been given the only thing she’s ever wanted. Mary wouldn’t understand a chauffeur, no matter how intelligent he is. And God forbid Mama ever hear of it, because Mama can never not tell Papa anything, it seems, and he would know in an instant and then Tom would be sent down.
So she stays quiet, aside from Alice, who had seen them come into the Café du Chat, had seen Sybil crying, and put one and one together to make two before they had even left. She pulls Sybil aside at the next embroidery meeting, and asks, quietly, if everything’s all right. It all tumbles out of her then, every scrap of it, and Alice makes soft sounds under her breath and gives her a handkerchief to wipe her eyes with, ignoring the odd looks from Aveline and Martha and Sophie the anarchist.
“You can’t tell,” says Sybil, and grips Alice by the wrists hard enough to bruise. “Please, please don’t tell. He’ll get into such terrible trouble, both of us will, and I don’t—I don’t want the others to know who I am, Alice, please—”
“Shh.” Alice strokes her hair. “You’re not the only one with things to hide in this gaggle, Sybil. I won’t tell them, I promise you.”
Alice doesn’t lie. The next time Sybil comes to the embroidery circle, she’s given a glorious ribbing about why on earth she didn’t mention she was a secretary in a law firm, because that could result in some wonderful dividends, she really must bring one of her lawyer friends around so he can explain the whole of the Cat-and-Mouse Law to them, and could she please pass the emerald thread? It’s a mistruth that she can live with, because it explains her accent, and why she seems to know so much about aristocrats—after all, both her employer (maybe she can ask Matthew for help?) and her driver friend work for the Crawley family—and how she’s writing a reference for Gwen. It also explains how she might have met a chauffeur, if the lawyer she works for has a Crawley client. It’s neat and simple, and sometimes she wonders if it might not have been better for it to have been real.
Then, of course, she goes home. She has dinner with her family. She thinks of their expressions, if they ever hear of who Tom really is. Mary will mock her. Edith won’t understand, and neither will Mama. Papa will never speak to her again, if he learns of it. And Granny…who knows with Granny.
She hates herself for being such a coward, but then again, she doesn’t have a clue what else she’s supposed to do otherwise.
Summer is a slow and viscous thing, passing like honey through a sieve. She finagles a little (well, if one can define finagling as asking with big eyes and the promise of new suffragette pamphlets) and manages to get Tom to drive her and Gwen to the interview, which results in an enjoyable few hours while waiting for Gwen to wrap up. Molesley’s father wins the flower show, and for once she starts to wonder if Granny might have a bit more feeling for what Granny herself calls the “common folk” than Sybil ever anticipated. The Season begins, and Papa, Mama, Mary, and Edith all head off for London. Sybil is the only Crawley at Downton Abbey
One morning in July, Mary knocks on her door in riding kit, her hat twisted tight between her hands. Sybil (who has been up all night reading, again, her fresh notebook beside her book as she scribes notes for Tom) tugs her dressing gown tight around her chest and blinks at her eldest sister. “Mary? Is something the matter?”
“I saw your light,” says Mary. Her eyes flicker down the hall to the window, and the sun just barely peeping over the horizon. “I wondered if something was wrong.”
Sybil shakes her head. “I was reading. Are you going riding?”
“I wanted to set out early.” Mary steps back, away from the door. She’s come back a week or two before the rest this year, so she can attend Granny’s birthday party. (The others would have come back, but Granny’s having far too much fun pestering Cousin Isobel without Papa here to referee, so she just claimed Mary for herself instead of all the rest.) Mary looks worn—there are circles under her eyes that she’d never show if she was anywhere other than home, and even then, she’d never let Mama or Papa or Granny see it. “I’ll leave you to your book, then.”
Sybil glances back over her shoulder, at Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and then decides. “Can you wait a bit? Only I’d like to come with you, if it’s not too much trouble.”
Mary blinks. Then she relaxes, all the tension going out of her shoulders at once, and smiles. With a jolt, Sybil realises that she hasn’t seen her sister smile in weeks. Months, really. Not since the death of Mr. Pamuk, easily. It lights her face up, making the hollows under her cheekbones and the bruises under her eyes fade like old shadows. “We shan’t wake Anna. I’ll help you change, then, shall I?”
Sybil squeezes her hand tight over her sternum, where her mark has changed, but then she steps aside and lets Mary come in without a word.
If Mary sees that her mark is different, she says nothing. She helps Sybil into her corset (loosened, because it’s hell on horseback in whalebone) and scoffs a little when Sybil tugs out a blouse and her divided skirt instead of her riding gown. Still, there’s a smile tugging at her lips as they leave the house and head over to the stables, where one of the grooms has Mary’s Diamond saddled, but not another. The sun’s almost halfway over the horizon before Sybil’s Margaret is finally tacked up and ready for use, and Sybil strokes her mare’s nose before mounting up. Mary, in a skirt, needs help settling, so Sybil has to wait by the gate for a minute or two before her older sister urges Diamond to a trot to catch up.
They head west at a loping canter. Sybil wonders if Mary realises that they’re heading for Crawley House. It’s Mary, she reasons. Of course Mary will realise that, will notice. She never does anything without thinking through every angle. As they come closer to Crawley House, Mary pulls Diamond back, slower and slower, until Diamond’s at a walk and Mary’s staring off into space instead of watching the earth between the horse’s ears.
Sybil prods Margaret in the ribs, and reins her in close to Mary. “Not a gallop, then.”
“Hm?” Mary shrugs. “Sorry. I find that I’m…not quite myself, this morning.”
Sybil bites her lip, and waits. If it hadn’t been obvious before, that something’s the matter with Mary, it is now. Mary never walks when she could gallop. A few minutes pass in awkward silence before Sybil finally works up the courage to speak. “I haven’t had a chance to ask. How was London?”
Mary startles. Her hands tighten on Diamond’s reins. Then she puts on a smile that can only be called sunny, which is horrifying in and of itself—Mary is never sunny. “Oh, it was brilliant, Sybil darling. Smashing, just like always.”
Sybil chews her lip. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you use the words brilliant and smashing together in months. Or ever.”
“Nonsense. I say things like that.”
“Only if you’re mocking boys who don’t know any better.”
Mary snorts, and covers her mouth and nose delicately with one gloved hand. “Well, I suppose I’ll have to admit that much.”
“I’ll have to make a mark in my journal,” says Sybil lightly. “Dear Diary: Today Mary finally lowered herself to using common slang. There may be hope for her yet.”
“Oh, shut up, Sybil.” Mary’s smiling, though, and there’s a little glow in Sybil’s heart that makes her smile back. “Oh, that’s right—everyone was so busy for Granny’s birthday, I forgot to ask. How are things here, truly? One picks up a…well, I suppose the term is a mood, from the servants’ hall, but I can’t get Anna to tell me a thing.”
“Well enough, I suppose.” Sybil picks at the weave of her split skirt. “Granny and Cousin Isobel are still fighting about the hospital, but that’s normal enough. Gwen said something about Thomas being terrible, and Anna being sad, but she won’t admit to anything else. They like their secrets as well as we do, Mary.”
“Oh, don’t start on class rights right now, please, Sybil.” They’re coming to the top of the hill, and the sunrise is so bright and blinding it makes Sybil’s eyes water. “I don’t think I have the energy.”
“It’s not about class rights, it’s just about humanity,” says Sybil. “You’d not ask a Society friend about a mood like that, would you?”
Mary blinks. “Well, no, but—”
“Then why would you want an answer from any of the staff?” Sybil brushes a strand of hair back out of her face, back up under her hat. “They’re as human as we are, Mary. They have their secrets. Let them be.”
Mary falls silent, looking pensive. They crest the top of the hill, and down below they can see Crawley House. There’s a lantern light in one of the upstairs rooms, probably Matthew getting ready to go to the office. Mary is very careful not to look at it, turning Diamond away towards the north, and Sybil follows her. Back at the house, the servants will be starting their day’s work. Sybil hasn’t quite thought of it, before, that Gwen and Anna and the rest get up so early to make sure that everyone at Downton is settled and happy. Even when it’s just Sybil, Carson would never dream of starting an instant later than sunrise. She folds her hands onto Margaret’s withers, and runs her fingers through the grey’s mane.
“Mary, are you quite sure you’re all right?” Mary turns her head to stare at her, her lips parting, and Sybil fumbles her train of thought. “Only—only I heard Mama and Granny talking before you all left for London, about secrets, and you look so sad lately, and I was wondering if—if something had happened…”
She trails off. Mary has such an odd look on her face—hope and terror all at once—that it makes her wish she could seize the words out of the past and stuff them back into her mouth, never say them at all. Mary pulls Diamond to a halt as soon as they pass out of sight of Crawley House, and shifts a little in her sidesaddle.
“You’ve been going to meetings in Ripon,” she says. “Haven’t you?”
Sybil turns red. It’s not a light, fluffy pink like Mary gets in her cheeks when she’s embarrassed or happy, or even Edith’s slow crimson—she’s just red, all over, all at once, a horrid dull colour like a fresh-boiled lobster. “Um.”
“It’s no use hiding it, Taylor told me before he went to manage that tea shop of his.” Mary strokes Diamond’s neck. “He was quite worried about you, you know. But I told him no harm would come of it, and it hasn’t. I haven’t mentioned it to anyone, in case you’re wondering. Not even Mama, because you know how she gets. Everything she learns, she just has to tell Papa.”
“They’re bonded,” says Sybil. “I hardly think she can avoid it.”
“Yes, well.” Mary wrinkles her nose. “I couldn’t bear to let anyone into my head. The effects of a bond sound...singularly unpalatable.” Still, she bites her lip until the skin there goes white. “You’ve read about bonds, haven’t you? Is it all-encompassing, the…the mental connection?”
“The empathic telepathy, you mean?” says Sybil, and Mary winces at such science. “It depends on the depth of the bond and the level of emotion involved, I suppose. You don’t have to tell your bond everything. I’ve read stories of people keeping secrets from their bonds for years, and them never being any the wiser. Your bond can only see as much of you as you let them.”
Mary’s hands loosen on her reins. “I see.”
They’re quiet for a moment.
“Why do you ask about Ripon?” Sybil says eventually, fighting the urge to turn and look back at Downton. “If it was supposed to be a deflection, it wasn’t a very good one. Bad form, Mary.”
“Shut up.” Mary pushes her lightly in the arm. “I only—I wanted to—” She draws a breath. “I heard a story, in London, about a woman who—well, gave up her virtue to a very unsuitable lover, and I was wondering what your suffragette friends would have thought of it.”
Sybil nearly swallows her tongue. She does choke a little, enough that Mary turns to her with a raised eyebrow to ask if she needed to stop and rest, but Sybil waves her hand and stares at Margaret’s flicking ears. Mary, asking about virtue? Virtue lost to a lover?
Kemal Pamuk. Lord, she thinks, dizzily, I really am blind, aren’t I?
Her mark warms a little. There’s a vague sense of worry in the back of her head. She ducks her head and touches the mark under the guise of rubbing her throat, and after a moment, Tom vanishes. (It’s becoming a problem, the fact that it’s harder and harder for her to think of him as Branson. She can’t slip. She won’t.) Mary doesn’t notice, thankfully; she’s looking at a nearby tree as if it holds all the secrets of the universe.
“It…depends.” Her palms are sweating inside her gloves. “We all think it’s a dreadful double standards that men can take as many lovers as they like before marriage, while women are banned from it. Even after marriage, men get to take mistresses, but women caught with lovers are called all sorts of terrible things. Have you noticed?”
Mary’s forehead puckers. “Well, yes, but—but that’s what it says in the Bible, isn’t it? Adultery’s a sin.”
“Since when have you ever taken the Bible seriously?” Sybil lifts one shoulder in a shrug. “Besides, the Bible contradicts itself so frequently it might as well be used for dish paper.”
“Oh, goodness. Have you become an atheist, now, as well as a suffragette?”
She honestly hasn’t thought about it. “Do you know, I’m not sure. I believe in God, I think, but the Church is something else altogether.” Sybil stares off at the trees too. “But that’s not the point. It doesn’t come up in discussion in political meetings—we want the vote, first, before anything, and we can only truly focus on one thing at a time at the moment—but there’s discussion. Women want as much as men do, and there’s nothing wrong in it—at least, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. If there were, then we’d not be born able to love.”
Mary scoffs. “This wasn’t love. At least, that’s what I’ve heard,” she adds, too hurriedly, and she’s truly a mess, isn’t she, because since when has Mary been this sloppy?
Sybil urges her horse forward, and pulls to a halt in front of Mary, so Diamond can’t go one step further. “Women can want, too,” she says, and that wretched colour is back in her cheeks again. Her voice is shaking. She doesn’t care. “We’re allowed to want. We’re human, Mary. It’s in our very natures, no matter what the Church says, or the King, or Granny for that matter.” There’s a funny sputtering noise from Mary, but she ignores it. “If I were to meet this woman, the one you talk about, the one who took a lover—I would want to shake her hand. Because why shouldn’t she have what she want? Equality is coming, Mary. The world is changing, and people like—like that woman, they’re helping us move towards it, whether they know it or not.”
“But—” Mary bites her lip. “Her virtue, Sybil, doesn’t that—”
“What is virtue, anyway? If it’s something so proper and dear, why don’t men hold to it?” She squeezes the reins. “Whatever virtue is, I don’t think it has anything to do with—with whether or not you take a lover. Not at all.”
Mary turns. The whole of her profile is illuminated by the sun, darkening her edges and sharpening her shadows, until her face is a curve of darkness in the sunrise. She’s quiet for so long that Sybil wonders if she actually heard anything at all. Then Mary tilts her head back, taking off her hat. “You might be the only person in the world who thinks that, Sybbie.”
Sybil makes a face. “Lord, don’t call me that. You call a baby ‘Sybbie,’ or an idiot. Not me.”
“But you’ll always be a baby, my dear. Even when you’re old and grey and have ten children—or not, considering your opinion of men nowadays—you’ll always be baby Sybbie.”
Sybil brushes Mary’s hand off her cheek where she’s trying to pinch. “I don’t think all men are awful. It’s just that most of them are—misguided, I suppose.”
“You suppose,” says Mary, but there’s something lighter in her now. “How do you tell the difference between the two?”
“Papa’s not bad,” says Sybil stoutly. “He’s quite good, actually. He’s just not very forward-thinking.” She hesitates. “I don’t think Cousin Matthew’s bad either. I’ve never asked him about his politics, but he doesn’t seem the sort to want to keep women in the Dark Ages.” He fancies you, after all, Mary. “I don’t know about Sir Anthony. He doesn’t talk to me, much, so I’m not sure what he thinks of the movement.”
“He’s after Edith,” says Mary, and urges Diamond forward. Sybil scoots out of the way, and then they’re walking again, away from Crawley House, and away from Downton. “I think that’s enough of an indicator to stay far away.”
“Why do you and Edith hate each other so much?” Sybil weaves her fingers into Margaret’s mane, steadying herself. “It never used to be this way when we were younger.”
“Oh, yes, it was, darling, you were just too little to really notice it.”
“That’s not an answer.”
Mary considers. She rolls her eyes, but she considers. “For the same reason cats and dogs are wretched friends, I suppose. I can’t stand how eager to please she is, and she loathes how little I seem to care about it all. At the core of it, we’re made of different things, she and I. It would be impossible for us to get along even in the best of times.”
“As different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”
She gets a blink from Mary for that one. “I didn’t know you’d read Wuthering Heights.”
“I’ve been reading a great deal, lately. All the quotes are mixing into an awful jumble in my head. I can’t help it, sometimes.” Sybil sighs. “I wish you’d at least try, Mary. She’s so terribly lonely, and we are sisters, all of us.”
“I’ll try, when she demonstrates that she is actually in possession of a brain that she’s capable of using properly.” She wrenches Diamond around. “Come on, I’ll race you ‘round the woods. If we hurry, we can make it back to Downton before Granny shows up for breakfast.”
Mary wins—of course Mary wins, Margaret is too fat and Mary too competitive for any other result—and she’s waiting for Sybil when she and Margaret finally puff their way into the courtyard. William’s waiting for them, to remind them that Granny has invited Cousins Isobel and Matthew to dinner, and they shall arrive at eight o’clock. Sybil makes a face—Granny’s only inviting Cousin Isobel to have someone to argue with, after all—and then darts a quick look at Mary. There’s no trace of worry, there, not a hint of hesitation. She wonders if Mary always lies this well, or if everything really, truly is better between Mary and Cousin Matthew. Somehow, she doubts the latter.
“Sybil,” says Mary, and holds out one hand. Sybil looks at it, and then up at Mary. She thinks Mary’s going to shake her hand, but instead, Mary just draws her close to tuck her arm through Sybil’s. It’s as much of a clue as she’s going to get, though. Sybil gulps hard, because for some reason her throat hurts and her eyes are burning, and she can’t quite make them stop. “You really ought to introduce me to these suffragette friends of yours. If you’re so fond of them, they must be worth at least an introduction.”
“No, too dangerous. If I left it to you and them, the world would be matriarchal again before you could say sesquipedalian, and I don’t think most of the world is ready for that eventuality.”
Mary is giggling about that for so long that Granny snaps at her for making the breakfast table insufferable. Sybil grins at her lap.
It is, of course, true. If anyone could rule the world without breaking a sweat, it would be Alice Forsythe and Lady Mary Crawley. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all.
Brilliant news! I’ve been accepted to the London School of Medicine for Women. I’ll be away for three years before my clinic training, but it’s happened! I can barely keep my hands from trembling long enough to write, but of course I had to tell you first. After all, you’re the only other woman I know who longs so desperately for university. I of course expect that when you get accepted to all the schools you apply to, I be the one you write first. After Your Particular Friend, of course. (Capitalization intentional. YPF?)
Have you never thought of applying yourself? I know that you have little experience with medicine and science, but it is most certainly an education, and I confess I had a dream the other night of the pair of us running a women’s clinic in Whitechapel or Spitalfields, I can’t recall which. You’ll think me frightfully forward in saying so, but it would be a grand idea, don’t you think? A women’s clinic in London, run by a pair of suffragettes—what an opportunity for the women of the city! And for us, obviously.
I suppose I could have waited to tell you until the next time you come to the meetings, but I needed to tell someone, and I can never quite tell when you’ll be able to come down. Will you be in Ripon next Saturday? Bring YPF, if you can, and Gwen if she’s willing. It’s always nice to have new faces, and besides—Aveline’s heard he’s a socialist as well as a republican, and she wants to pick his brain. (Hopefully not in an Egyptian sense, of course, but as it’s Aveline, I will make no promises. I will, however, be sure to keep her hooked needles out of her reach until he’s long gone.)
You can always write me at this address, at least until I go away for my first term in September. Think of it—in three years and a bit I’ll be able to sign my name as Doctor Alice Forsythe. Isn’t it a scandal! My housekeeper is horrified and I have to say, that’s rather invigorating. She’s quite the old harridan; thinks that I ought to be better served by getting married. Marriage, I ask you. What sort of man would dare to cross me? Not to mention—what sort of man would I ever be willing to accept? You know I can’t stand the thought of being with a person who cannot dare to argue with me, so it’s best to just throw the notion of marriage away entirely. There’s nothing I can have in that which cannot be discovered elsewhere, in one way or another.
Things have been going well with us in Ripon, at least in terms of the marches. We held a memorial for Miss Davison last week, and I wish you could have attended. All of us in white with purple trim, black armbands and heavy eyes. She was a fool, rushing out onto the track like that, but she is a victim of our fight as much as those who died in prison, and she must be cast as such.
I confess that her death has been making things difficult in Ripon, though—at least, in regards to peace. You know as well as I do how things are going in London and the other big cities—the WSPU has grown even more unsettled than it was before, what with all the splits and the excommunications, and Miss Sylvia Pankhurst is not helping. You know as well as any of us how it was received when Mary Leigh threw that hatchet last year. I wonder sometimes if we would not be better served through more peaceful forms of protest. I know I shall be lynched for saying it—women are angry, and we’ve a right to be so, considering all these centuries!—but every act of violence makes the opposition even more intractable. Acts of sabotage and peaceful protest, I feel, are in all honesty safer, for us and for them. How can we be seen as logical, rational, and worthy beings if violence casts us in a light which is both unsavory and unreasonable? I would love to know your thoughts. I know I sound disloyal, saying these things, but I cannot believe that violence is our best course of action. I will not believe it. I have seen what violence does to a people, and trust me when I say that that is not what we want for English suffrage.
Tell me how things are coming along with you, will you? Even if it’s only frills and fripperies, as you said, it’s still heartening to hear that life goes on outside the fight. I feel quite consumed by it all most days, and knowledge of other things is like a beacon of light in the dark. And if you can, we’re having a protest in front of City Hall on 26 August in favor of the Labour Party proposition for suffrage. The vote won’t be until next year, but we must get ourselves out there, you know. Labour’s not perfect, but it’s certainly far better along than the rest!
Alice Forsythe, Physician of the Future
I don’t think words can express how happy I am for you. Brilliantly done! I can’t wait to see you in a white coat like Dr. Clarkson, tending to patients in their beds. In fact, now that I think of it, I can’t imagine you any other way. What do you plan to specialise in? Women’s medicine, obviously, but what branch? There are terribly many, after all. (My Particular Friend—I blush to read or write the phrase, but it serves me to be cautious in case this somehow goes astray—sends his good wishes and best of luck in London. He’s not sure if he’ll be able to attend the meeting this Saturday—if Carson finds out, he’ll lose his head as well as his job—but perhaps I can convince him to go in disguise, with a hat pulled low over his eyes. Suffrage theatre! Or perhaps socialist?) (Gwen, unfortunately, cannot. She has another interview. Let’s hope this one goes better.)
It’ll be nice to have someone in London that I know and like when I come up for the Season next spring. I’m dreading it awfully. You’ll let me visit you at your boardinghouse, won’t you? I can’t help but think that something’s wrong with it all, the Season and the upper classes and how muffled we all are. Yes, that’s the best word for it—we are muffled, we are strangled in our silks and satins, yoked to the bit and set to walking by the reins and bridles of what is right and what is done. I am coming to loathe it more than words can say, but how can I explain that to my parents? It is all they know, and more than that, it is all they wish to know.
MPF thinks that it would all be better if the entirety of Britain becomes a socialist state, and I wonder sometimes if I do not agree with him, if only because it brings everyone to equal ground. In a nation such as ours, though, with the nobility so intransigent, and servility so mistakenly honoured, how can it be implemented without blood? I’m afraid I cannot see my way out of that conundrum. No matter how I wish for equality, I cannot and will not stand for the loss of innocent lives, even if those lives are aristo ones. If a revolution comes, I’m sad and scared to think that that is just what will happen. You are right to think that violence is not the way to achieve awareness or social change—sabotage which puts out phones, or protests which fill streets, yes, but not violence. There are so many who are so trapped that they are too desperate for anything else, however.
In regards to your thoughts, I haven’t ever considered becoming a physician. I suppose I should have, before now, but I haven’t. I don’t know if I have the temperament for it—I like science, and all the rest of it, but even with my head for numbers I don’t know if I’d be the best at bedside manner. I get nervous with people I don’t know, you know that. It took me six weeks to join the embroidery group, after all, and the whole of those six weeks I spent staring at you from a distance and wondering if I was brave enough to say hello! (Don’t tell Martha, she’ll laugh at me for the rest of our lives.) But perhaps, when I turn twenty-one and my father can’t stop me, I will apply. After all, all they can say is no. (I doubt very much I’ll be accepted into every school I apply to, dearest, but thank you for your faith all the same. I have three years of hard work before I can even consider it. I don’t have to ask Papa to know that he won’t send me to school—I’ve had governesses to educate me as a Proper Society Lady, and more than that isn’t in the cards without a good deal of acting the trickster. I’m going to have to do it myself.)
I’m afraid I can’t offer much of a shining light—things are awkward here, as they always are. Romance is in the air in the servants’ hall, but for unspecified reasons is being denied. I dare not ask why—despite everything, I’m not quite close enough friends with anyone to ask. Besides, I feel that Anna may begin to cry if I push too hard. My sisters are at each other like wildcats. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. I can only imagine it was worse in London. I don’t know what they’ve argued about—Mary and Edith rarely argue about anything more than superficialities—but it’s worse than it’s ever been before. I fear I may go mad if I have to stop them scratching each other’s eyes out one more time.
Speaking of—I’ve invited Mary out to tea with me at the Café du Chat. Would you meet us there on Friday at three o’clock? I think getting her out of the house and giving her something to do would be beneficial to the prevention of sororicide, and she’s not as shallow as she prefers to present herself to strangers; she might become a real asset. I would bring Edith, but I fear I might offend her more than make her think. Maybe I’ll chivvy her along to something quieter, like the embroidery circle. (Though not this week, of course, considering Aveline’s request of MPF.) Next month, maybe? I have to introduce them both to the idea that to the embroidery circle and the café, I am not Lady Sybil Crawley, but rather, Sybil Crawford, secretary.
I have given your request a great deal of thought, and here is what I say. When we speak of rationality, there is a fine line we tread between reasonable presentation and feeding further into the stereotype of a patient, passive female. Rage is well suited to our cause if it can be directed, as difficult as that is and sounds. Perhaps a new project must be offered to the women in the embroidery group, to take their minds off of shattering windows and dismantling telephone lines. An awareness campaign of abused women, perhaps? Or of single mothers with illegitimate offspring. I know there are more than a few in Ripon, especially past North Street. It would allow for us to further present on the inequalities between the male sex and the female while additionally presenting us in a good light—saving the children no one else does. It sounds terribly heartless of me to put it that way, but it’s a thought. (Though, potential issue: women and children and the home.)
I must away. I will see you Friday, if you are able.
Sybil Crawley, Head Spymaster of the Ripon Embroidery Circle
“Do you think I’m making the wrong choice?”
Tom twists his head out from under the motor. Sybil’s wringing her hands, pacing back and forth. She can’t keep still. She’s never been able to keep still when she’s nervous, and now it’s worse than ever, for reasons she can’t quite explain. The garage is surprisingly cool, considering how disgusting it’s been for the past week. August at Downton is always quite unbearable, but she’s heard the heat’s even worse in London. She’s dreading next July when she’ll be crushed into a ballroom, dancing in this awful weather.
“The wrong choice about what?” he asks, and gets to his feet. He’s taken off his chauffeur’s jacket, and his sleeves are rolled up to his elbows, exposing the lines of his arms. Sybil keeps her eyes away before he can feel the sudden jolt of—something. It lances through her like an arrow, or a lightning bolt. Whatever it is, it’s making her palms sweat again, and so it is singularly not helpful.
“About Mary.” She bites her lip. “I thought at first that bringing her to Ripon would—would help her, somehow, and help her see that she’s not…that there’s more to her than just being a lady in Society, but what if she hates it? What if she thinks something’s—that something’s wrong with it, that I oughtn’t be doing it at all?”
Tom takes the cloth off the bonnet of the car, wiping the grease off his hands. “Would it change anything, if she did?”
“Of course not. I’m not that easy to dissuade.” She folds her arms tight over her belly, wishing she’d brought a wrap to cover her bare shoulders. Goose pimples prickle over her skin. “But she is my eldest sister, and I want—I want her to like it. I want her to approve.”
“Nothing wrong with that.” He sets the cloth aside—there’s still oil streaking up the inside of his wrist, she sees—and leans back against the Renault. “Are you so anxious she’ll disapprove?”
“Oh, I don’t know what Mary’s doing with herself, anymore. Approval or disapproval, she’s made it all a hurricane.” The oil keeps drawing her eyes. What on earth is wrong with her, tonight? “I suppose—I suppose it comes from the rumors.”
“The rumors about the Turkish diplomat, you mean?”
Sybil nearly buries her face in her hands. “Does everyone know?”
“Most below stairs. I think we knew before you did, milady,” says Tom, not unkindly. “To be honest, I thought it wouldn’t bother you, considering.”
“Of course it doesn’t bother me. Why would it bother me? I think it’s grand that Mary took a lover, that she took what she wanted and won’t apologise for it. But that’s the thing—she is apologising for it, she feels terrible about it, she thinks it was an awful mistake and that it makes her…lesser, somehow. And with everything that’s happening with Cousin Matthew—”
Sybil shuts her mouth. Tom cocks his head, and waits.
“I—” She has to stop biting her lip. It splits so terribly often anyway, there’s no need for her to make it worse. “There’s something I haven’t told you, about my sister and Cousin Matthew. Well, I haven’t told—anyone, actually. It’s not my secret to tell, really, but I think I’ll explode if I keep it quiet any longer. And it’s not—it’s not bad, exactly, it’s just—”
“Hey.” Tom steps away from the Renault, closer to her. She can feel the air moving around him. She thinks she’s hallucinating the warmth that flushes her to her fingertips, but you never know with soulmarks. Sybil squeezes her arms tight enough to leave bruises. “It’s all right, milady. You don’t have to tell me, if you don’t want to.”
“Of course I want to. I tell you everything.”
Tom blinks. Then a smile spreads across his face, slow and warm. “You do?”
She wants to touch him. Sybil digs her fingernails into her own flesh, but it doesn’t help in the slightest. “Of course I do,” she says, almost in a whisper. “You—you mean a great deal to me, you know. And not just because of the obvious.”
His eyes light up and the smile grows wider. Sybil takes a shaking breath and meets his eyes, not willing to look away. Joy—his joy, she realises—makes her limbs feel like clouds. But that’s all he does, because the garage door is open and anyone could walk in, and even if neither of them care about that, he’s sworn to wait and she’s still not sure. And so she closes her eyes for a moment, clinging to the joy of it and embedding it into her brain until she can’t ever forget it, before she opens her eyes and steps back.
“Mary and Matthew are bonds,” she says. Tom sits down heavily on the bonnet again. “Mary knows. I don’t know if Cousin Matthew does, but Mary knows, and she’s—she’s so angry, and so frightened by the rumors even if she won’t admit it, she won’t tell him. But he loves her, T—Branson. I know she loves him, even if she doesn’t. I’ve never seen Mary act this way with anyone but Matthew, and I think—I think that’s a big enough clue, don’t you?
He scruffs a hand over his jaw. “Who else knows?”
“You, me. Anna. Mary. That’s it.”
“Not even Mr. Crawley? Or Lord or Lady Grantham?”
“Do you really think that Mary would inform Cousin Matthew about this when she’s spent so long trying to make herself hate him?” He grimaces in agreement with this. “Besides, if she told Mama or Papa, they’d be ecstatic. In a way I can understand why she’s keeping it quiet—she’s not one to be pushed into anything, Mary, and she decided right at the outset she didn’t want Matthew. And you know how she hates changing her mind.”
“That’s true enough.”
Sybil bites down hard on her thumbnail, thinking.
“What is it?” asks Tom.
“Nothing. I just—” She pulls her hand away from her mouth before she breaks the nail. “I just had a thought that maybe—maybe if Mary won’t change her mind herself, we could help her change it. You know. For her own good.”
“Persuade her to accept him, you mean.” The corner of his mouth hitches up. “I doubt very much she’ll accept any sort of advice from me, milady.”
“That’s why you take Cousin Matthew,” says Sybil. “He’s very egalitarian, don’t worry.”
“Why doesn’t that reassure me?”
“Oh, don’t be such a stick. I can handle Mary. At least, I think I can handle Mary.” I hope I can handle Mary. “I’ll get Anna to help me. I know Anna has a good opinion of Matthew, and she certainly wants to see Mary happy. They’re friends, in an odd sort of fashion. And Alice—I don’t have to tell her the truth of it, just bring up soulmarks in her hearing. Alice always has opinions.”
“Miss Forsythe is a formidable young woman, milady.”
“If you call her Miss Forsythe to her face she’ll probably punch you in the jaw. I wouldn’t recommend it.” He smiles, and ducks his head again. She likes making him smile, she realises. He only ever really does it when he’s around her. The thought of that makes her guts jolt.
“I’d be pleased to help, milady,” says Tom, and Sybil flushes beet red as she realises what she’s just done.
“Oh, God, I’m so sorry,” she says. “I’m ordering you, aren’t I? Would you like to take Matthew? Or take part in it at all?”
She knocks herself in the forehead with her first two knuckles. “I’m—I shouldn’t have said it like that. I’m such a fool, I’ve been trying to stop—”
“Obviously you don’t have to do a thing you don’t want to do—”
“Sybil,” he says, and reaches out. His palm rests warm on her waist. Sybil sucks in a breath, and goes absolutely still, searching his eyes. Tom’s fingers press just slightly into the cloth of her gown, and she sees him swallow. He didn’t mean to do that. They’d agreed through silence that this sort of thing couldn’t happen, Tom had promised, but all she wants is to step into him, into the warmth of him and the smell of motor oil and male skin, and breathe. It’s the first time he’s ever touched her, aside from helping her out of the back of the car when there are other people there to see, and she can feel it all the way down to her bones. She swallows too, and his eyes dip to her throat and then slide to her mouth before he meets her gaze again.
“It’s all right,” he says, and then pulls his hand away. She knows for certain that he feels the bereavement and the want that lances through her at that moment, because his lips part and his pupils blow wide. But he shoves his hands into his pockets rather than touch her again, because he promised. “I don’t mind. Besides,” he adds, “I’ve a notion that even if you weren’t a lady, you’d still be ordering us all about. I don’t take it personally, milady.”
“You’re probably right,” she says, through numb lips. She sways forward, and she hears him draw in a sharp breath. Inside, there’s such a churn of emotions that she can’t even begin to puzzle them out. Want, certainly. Fear. She’s frightened and she doesn’t know why. Curiosity. Curiouser and curioser, said Alice. She can taste his breath on her lips.
Outside, she hears footsteps on the gravel. Sybil leans back, and steps out of reach just as Mrs. Hughes comes around the door. Mrs. Hughes blinks.
“Lady Sybil,” she says. “What on earth are you doing out here?”
“She forgot her gloves,” says Tom, and through some miracle he produces a pair of her gloves out of the back of the Renault that she cannot even remember losing. She can feel how it sticks in his throat, the lie, but he lies anyway, and she could kiss him for it, she really could. She flushes at the thought, and has to duck her head to keep Mrs. Hughes from noticing. “I’ll be at the front at two o’clock tomorrow, milady, as you requested.”
She stares at him blankly for the moment. Mary. The Café du Chat. “Yes. Yes, of course.” She glances back at Mrs. Hughes, and then reaches out. Her fingertips scuff his palm as she takes the gloves from him, and heat flushes her skin around the soulmark. “Thank you, Branson.”
When she curls into bed that night, she gathers her pillow up and presses it hard against her stomach, twining it between her legs. The gloves that were in the back of the Renault smell of him, and so she tugs them on and sets her hands by her cheek. She closes her eyes, lets her mind relax, and when she draws a breath, she can hear him breathing out. He knows she’s there. She knows it. He’s there, and she can almost hear his heartbeat, and that’s enough.
She really should be more concerned with how well Mary and Alice get along.
Should be. But isn’t, really.
The day Sybil Crawley turns eighteen, she has two parties.
The first is with her family. Granny’s there, of course—there aren’t many days when Granny isn’t at Downton, but this is Sybil’s eighteenth, so it’s special—and Matthew and Cousin Isobel, along with some of Sybil’s friends from around the county that she hasn’t seen in years. She’s begged Mary not to pick a fight with Edith tonight, and Mary seems to be keeping to it, for once. Edith is on the other side of the room, chatting with Anthony Strallan. She laughs politely at the Society jokes of the girls she used to like and wonders what’s changed: her, or them?
Her, she decides. When one changes enough, one can never go back, after all.
She dances with all the boys from surrounding estates (except for Colin Craven, who is quite happy to sit in the corner with his cousin and be gloriously facetious), and when they flirt with her she smiles politely and fights the urge to dump her punch over their heads. Mary gives her a book on soulmarks she’s never even seen, one published only this year, and winks conspiratorially. Edith gives her a book of piano music. Mama hands her a jewelry box made of worn velvet, which has a mother-of-pearl pin that her grandmother wore in New York. Papa and Granny tell her that their gift will arrive the night she’s introduced to Society, and she’ll have to wait. There’s an assortment of other small things—novels, bits of gloss—and she thanks everyone politely. (She hugs Mary later when they’re out of sight, and Edith, too, because they’re the only two who gave her things that she’ll ever actually use.) Then she claims a headache, changes her clothes, and waits on the end of her bed, fidgeting with her gloves.
Gwen knocks on her door shyly at about eleven o’clock, dressed in a dark coat with her hair tucked under a hat. Sybil heaves on a jacket that covers her to the knees and creeps out of her room. They stumble down through the servants’ hall, giggling, arms hooked together, and out to the barn where the Rolls and the Renault are locked up for the night.
Alice lets them in. She’s snuck down from London for the weekend, just for this, and Sybil can’t help an excited little skip at the sight of her. She looks darker in this light, and Sybil can’t tell if it’s the electrics or the makeup. They wander into the back room, which has been cleared out for the evening, and they all sit on the floor. She’s wedged between Tom and Alice, and her calf is burning where it brushes against his hip.
Alice gives her a copy of The Suffragette by Sylvia Pankhurst and a book called Gray’s Anatomy, which she’s inscribed with Hope to see this creased to hell in a few years’ time! Gwen had to have spent most of her wages for the little necklace that she gives Sybil, a silver chain with an arrow charm dangling from it. Sybil tries to scold her for using so much money on her, but Gwen just shakes her head with glowing eyes and says, “To remember the bull’s eye, even when you start losing hope,” which makes Sybil cry and hug her alternately as she fumbles the necklace on.
Tom gives her three things. The first is a book wrapped in newspaper, a first edition copy of Jane Eyre. She starts yipping as soon as she opens it, which makes his ears turn red. He stares hard at the opposite wall. “I found it second hand, milady, so don’t get too excited—”
“I’ll be as excited as I like!” Sybil leans over, and kisses his cheek. “It’s lovely, Branson, thank you!”
Branson turns red and peeks at her out of the corner of his eye. It strikes her all at once, what she’s just done, and she swallows hard and looks down at the book again. It doesn’t help, much. He’s inscribed it with a sonnet, and signed the inscription YPF. Later, when she’s alone, she traces the words with her fingertips and blushes all she likes.
“Come on,” says Alice, and gets to her feet. “I want to dance. Gwen will sing and Tom can keep a beat. You will, won’t you?”
Gwen colours. “I mean—I don’t—”
“Up!” says Alice, and yanks Sybil to her feet, setting the book out of reach. By the end of the romp around the back room, Sybil’s laughing too hard to keep her balance, and her cheeks are so red she might have never blushed in the first place.
The party starts late and goes later. Sybil’s barely been asleep for an hour when Anna draws her curtains back, and she drinks coffee instead of tea at breakfast, but she doesn’t regret any of it. She’s never really had friends before. The sense of it is intoxicating.
She gets Tom’s second gift as they drive down to Ripon. Waiting for her in the driver’s seat is an engineer’s manual of the Renault, which, she is told, she will be learning how to repair. “You can’t drive a car and not know how it works,” he says, and she about flings her arms around his neck in glee before remembering that that’s crossing a line. She presses the manual to her chest and beams at him instead.
“It’s not a birthday gift,” he warns. “It’ll be hard, dirty work. But if you want, I can teach you.”
Sybil’s smiling so wide her cheeks hurt. “I like hard work. You know that.”
The third gift is much simpler than all of that, yet, somehow, it’s the one that complicates everything. In an alley behind the Café du Chat, after they’ve parked and she’s collected her bag to go, Branson asks her to wait. “I’ve something to return,” he says, and she blinks at him.
“I haven’t left my gloves behind in the back again, have I?”
“No, nothing like that.” He fidgets a little with the tips of his gloves. “Can I?”
“Well, of course, but—”
She realises suddenly, as he shifts closer, that she’s sitting in the car with him, in the front seat with the windshield clear, where anyone could see. His knee brushes hers, and it’s a shock to all her senses. Tom hesitates, licks his lips, and then he leans forward and touches his mouth to her cheekbone. Sybil goes stiff as stone, her hands tight against her sides, and just about swallows her tongue, but she doesn’t pull away. He wouldn’t have dared do it if not for what she’s done, if not for the secret party and the night in the garage, and they both know it. Something’s shifted between them, and she doesn’t want to turn her back on it.
Tom pulls away, tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, and smiles.
“Happy belated birthday, Sybil.” His voice is so low it nearly rumbles, and she shivers at the sound of it. “May you have many more.”
“Only if you promise to do that every year,” she says, before she can hold her tongue. Tom takes a sharp breath.
“Don’t tempt me.”
She smiles, shaky, and then clambers out of the car and slams the door behind her. Sybil tugs her gloves straight, and hides around the corner until her heart stops pounding and her cheeks lose all their colour before going in to join Alice and the others.
She also pays a waitress to send out a sandwich for him, along with a note that says: Who says temptation must always be painful?
She signs it YPF.
“Can I ask you something?”
Sybil looks up from The Suffragette, and adds a bit of sugar to her coffee. Gwen’s fussing over her gloves, something she only does when she’s nervous. She looks quite smart in her neat hat and fresh green frock, the material an early Christmas present from Sybil (there’ll be another from the whole family on Christmas Day, but Sybil wanted to give her something all on her own, and the look on Gwen’s face when she’d opened the tissue paper had been worth every measure she’d taken to keep the gift a secret). In fact, she looks very different from Gwen the maid, who lurks in corners and bobs her head whenever she sees anyone coming. It’s very refreshing. “What is it, Gwen?”
Gwen dips her head a little, and then catches herself. “Sorry, milady,” she says. Then she curses. “Oh, blast. Not milady. Um. Sybil.” She gulps air, and Sybil starts to worry she’ll give herself hiccoughs. “It’s not my place to ask, but—but I’m worried all the same, and so I thought I had better ask.”
Sybil closes her book. “What on earth’s made you so worried, Gwen? It’s not something with Anna and Bates again, is it?” She collects her coffee cup. “Thomas hasn’t found out about the interviews, has he?”
“Oh, Lord, no. None of that.” Gwen tugs anxiously at her gloves. Then, flushing prettily red, she blurts: “Are you and Mr. Branson walking out together?”
Sybil chokes on her coffee. Gwen signals for a glass of water as Sybil hacks, her eyes burning and her nose running. It’s only once the waitress has come and gone that she finally settles again, rubbing at her throat.
“What—” She gulps at the water, and sets it down again. “Why do you think that?”
“If I’m wrong, milady—Sybil, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked. Only—”
Gwen chews on her lip until it’s close to splitting. “Only the two of you seem—seem so friendly, mi—Sybil, and you go down to the garages so often—”
“He’s teaching me to fix the Renault, you know that—”
“And most days you come out to Ripon you’re gone for hours at a time—”
“I have meetings—”
Gwen falls abruptly silent, and bites her lip again. Sybil frowns. “And?”
“He—” She takes a shuddering breath, and lets it out. “He…seems quite taken with you, milady. He doesn’t talk to any of the staff the way he does to you. And—you truly haven’t noticed, mi—Sybil?”
“He watches you,” Gwen says in a whisper. “It—If you’re in the same room, he can’t not look at you. Even if he’s talking to someone else. It’s only that he lives out in the chauffeur’s cottage, instead of with the rest of it, that’s kept anybody but me from noticin’. If it weren’t for that, everyone below stairs would know. He’s very—very fond of you, milady—”
More than fond, Sybil thinks, remembering the touch of his lips to her cheek, the slow smile when they’d talked in the garage.
“—and—and I didn’t know if you…well, knew.” Gwen peers up at Sybil through her eyelashes. “Did you know?”
She ought to be panicking. She’s not. Sybil takes a tentative sip of coffee. When she doesn’t choke again, she takes another, and then breaks a bit off one of the biscuits that were brought to the table in place of scones. She can’t quite feel her heartbeat anymore. “If all that’s true, why is it you think that we’d be walking out together? He’s—” Her tongue swells, but she forces herself to say it anyway. “He’s the chauffeur, after all.”
“You wouldn’t think of any of us like that,” says Gwen simply, and folds her hands in her lap. “Besides, you watch him too, milady. I’ve seen you do it. And—and you treat him different from the rest of us, too. Like he’s important.”
Sybil takes a sugar cube from the bowl on the table, sets it on her saucer, and crushes it beneath her spoon.
“I’m sorry, milady,” says Gwen. “I shouldn’t have brought it up—”
“No,” says Sybil, and Gwen blinks. “No, you’re right. I do treat him differently. But no, Gwen. We’re not walking out together.” She looks up from the sugar, meets Gwen’s eyes. “We can’t, after all. Can we?”
Gwen hesitates. Then she reaches out and takes the hand Sybil’s left on the table, squeezing it lightly. Sybil squeezes back, and wonders at the sudden, silly ache that seems to have sprung up in her chest, for equally sudden, silly realizations that should have hit home long ago.
She and Branson are not walking out. She and Branson are employer and staff. She and Branson cannot come together in any form without Sybil losing the entirety of her family. She and Branson are impossible.
But the most terrible thing about it is that she’s starting not to care.
“You’ve been avoiding me.”
Sybil jumps, and whacks her knees on the underside of the work table, swearing under her breath. It’s Christmas Eve, and she’s escaped the party up at Downton in favor of picking over the old engine that Tom’s had on this table for as long as she can remember. She probably shouldn’t be wearing a gown to do it, but she’s at least covered up with an old coat of Papa’s that was supposed to be chucked out for charity. Her fingers are black with grease and muck, but she’s almost worked out how to put it all back together again, if she takes it apart, so she regards it as nails well broken.
Or she did, anyway.
It must be snowing outside. There’s a dusting of white in Tom’s hair and on the shoulders of his coat as he slips into the garage, leaving the door open just enough to let light and sound spill onto the floor. Sure enough, there’s a flurry spiraling through the night air. Sybil wipes her hands clean on a spare bit of cloth she found on the table and turns on the bench, setting her back to the table.
“Don’t lie and say you’re not,” Tom snaps, before she can even open her mouth. Sybil presses her lips tight together.
“I wasn’t going to.”
“Then you’ll admit it?” He takes off his hat, hangs it on the peg near the door. “That you’ve been avoiding me since November?”
“I don’t lie, Tom.”
“No, of course not.” He yanks off his coat. “You just run away.”
Sybil blushes hotly, and stares at the floor for a moment. She licks her lips. “I don’t want to argue right now, Tom. I came here to say I’m sorry for it. It was very craven to do it, especially without—without explaining why.”
She can feel his temper surge against her mind, temper and the strange gnawing hurt that’s been tugging away at her for weeks now. “What was I supposed to think? We’ve barely exchanged three words since—since the last trip down to Ripon.” Tom tugs off his gloves, one finger at a time. “Can—will you just tell me one thing, milady? Was it because I kissed you? Because if it was that—”
Sybil digs her nails deep into the wood bench. “Tom!”
She shoots up off the bench. “No, of course not! Not—not entirely, exactly—”
“Then why would you pretend I don’t exist, for weeks, not even write—”
“Because I finally realised how enormous this all actually is!” She clenches her fists by her sides. “You said you’d wait for me, Tom, you swore you’d wait until I was ready—”
“If you don’t remember, you kissed me, first, milady—”
“I did, and I’m not sorry for that, but please, think, just for a moment what it would mean if things went any further!”
He flushes red. “So we’re finally talking about this? Not ignoring it, or sweeping it under the rug, we’re finally talking about what it would mean if we were actually bonded?”
“Not just that, but—”
“Would it truly be so bad? Not the act of it, but the knowledge, the truth of it, Sybil. We’re meant, didn’t I say it all those months ago? You know what that means! You’ve been learning about it since you were a child—”
“Don’t twist words in my mouth, Tom! That’s not what this is about!”
“I know you love me,” Tom says, and colour flares into her cheeks. “I know you love me, I can feel it every time you look at me, so why do you keep hiding from this? Isn’t that all that matters? Isn’t that what you said? What the others think doesn’t matter. It’s our bond, Sybil. Ours.”
She pinches the bridge of her nose in an effort not to cry. “I know that, but—Tom, they’re my family. This is my world. I can’t just—”
“Of course you can!” His eyes are very bright. She can’t tell if it’s from tears, or anger. Perhaps both. “How would you be shaming them by loving me? You’ve said yourself that they’re hopelessly outdated, that they don’t understand—they would be the ones turning away from you, Sybil, not the other way around, because you would be doing nothing wrong—”
“They’re still my family! You can’t ask me to choose between you and them!”
“Can’t I? When it’s clear that they don’t give a damn about the real you? You all smile and smile and pretend everything’s well when inside you’re going mad! You hate your world, you’ve said so a thousand times!”
“It doesn’t change the fact that it’s all I know!”
“I know you, Sybil.” Tom reaches out, physically, mentally, and though she brushes off his hand she can’t turn away his hope. “Half the reason you come here is to escape that house. You want so much more than what they can give you. I know I’m not—I can make you happy, Sybil. I know I can. You only ever really smile when you’re here. Am I misunderstanding that, somehow?”
Sybil closes her eyes, tears trickling down her cheeks.
“Learn a new world,” he says, and this time when he touches her elbow, she doesn’t flinch back. She can feel his emotions boiling under his skin, even if she can’t quite work them all out. He’s standing close enough that they’re floating in the air between them like steam. “Please. Come and learn a new world with me. We’ll get away from here, as far away as possible. Anywhere you want to go. Ireland, France, America. Somewhere you can go to university, learn the way you want to without your family shunning you for it. Please, Sybil, I don’t know if—”
Tom jerks, but it’s too late. Matthew is standing in the doorway, his eyebrows nestled in his hairline. He stares at them, and they stare at him; the silence stretches thin enough to snap. Tom hasn’t let go of her elbow, and wonders if it’s because it’s Matthew. Then, finally, Matthew clears his throat. “Sorry to interrupt, but they’re looking for you up at the main house. I volunteered to search outside.”
“Oh.” Her heart feels like it could burst through her chest. Sybil clears her throat. “Right. I’ll—I’ll meet you in a moment, shall I?”
Matthew nods. He looks at Tom, and then he steps away from the gap in the garage doors, out of sight. Tom finally releases her elbow, his hand falling to his side.
“You’ll go back in, then,” he says.
“I have to, don’t I?” She unbuttons the stolen coat, drapes it over the bench. “If I don’t it won’t just be Matthew to come out looking for me.”
“Would that be so bad?”
“Just—” She holds her breath, lets it out. “You promised you’d wait, Tom. Just—please, just a little bit longer. I need to wrap my head around it. Please.”
Tom chews the inside of his cheek. Then he nods, once. “I swore you’ll have as much time as you need. I’ll not go back on it now.”
Sybil nods, and starts to turn away, but he reaches out and catches her wrist.
“You can’t have it both ways,” he tells her. “We can’t keep going on like this, not if you’re still unsure. I can’t bear it, Sybil. Friends or bonds, but not both.”
Sybil looks down at his hand on her wrist. She’s dwarfed by it, his fingers curling all the way around without any trouble at all. Tom squeezes once, and then lets go. Her exhale trembles in the winter air. Then she reaches out and sets her hand to his cheek, running her thumb along the line of his cheekbone. Tom goes quite still, searching her eyes. Shakily, Sybil smiles.
“Happy Christmas, Tom. I’ll be back tomorrow. I promise.”
“Happy Christmas, Sybil,” he says, and when she steps back, he lets her slip away without a word.
“I’m sorry,” Matthew says, once they’re out of earshot of the garage. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“It’s probably better that you did.” Sybil sighs. “It’s—it doesn’t matter. Don’t worry.”
It must have been snowing for a good long while before she noticed, because there’s at least six inches on the ground. Sybil lifts the hem of her dress and picks her way over it, wishing she was wearing sensible boots, or at least trousers like Matthew. She’s not, though, so her ankles are aching from the cold within a minute.
“Can I—” Matthew pauses. “Never mind. It’s probably not any of my business. Besides, it’s a silly question.”
Sybil huffs. “What?”
“Are you all right?”
She gives him a flat look.
Matthew cocks a brow. “I told you it was a silly question.”
They walk for a few dozen yards. On a good day, the walk from Downton to the garage is only about five minutes, seven if she dawdles, but Sybil’s dragging her feet in spite of the cold. Matthew matches her pace without speaking, leaning his head back to look at the clouds. It’s snowing quite heavily now, enough that it’s blurring the house like an impressionist painting. Sybil shivers.
“It feels like I’m on a tightrope, Matthew.” She rubs her arms, and before she can stop him Matthew’s peeled off his dinner jacket and draped it over her shoulders. It smells a little bit like cinnamon and a little bit like the pine from the Christmas tree in the main hall, with a bit of soap and just—Matthew, underneath, and for some reason it’s comforting. Sybil slides her arms through the sleeves and squeezes it closed. “Like I’m on the edge of something that could be amazing, but only if I walk in one particular direction, along one particular path. If I turn too far to one side or another, I’ll go off balance, and if I do I don’t know where I’ll fall, or who I’ll take with me.”
Matthew’s breath fogs in front of his face, but he says nothing. He just nods, watching her.
“But—but I don’t think that path is right, anymore. I don’t think it ever was right, but if I—if I step off the rope, where does that leave me?” She dabs at her eyes with the tips of her gloves. “I’m sorry. That doesn’t make sense at all, does it?”
“It does,” Matthew says quietly. He considers for a moment, and then sets a hand to the small of her back. “Let’s go look at the garden, shall we?”
To be completely honest, there’s barely anything to see in the garden. Not this time of year. The truly ugly little Cupid statue Grandmama sent across the Atlantic is capped with fresh snow. Sybil leaves the path and steps up onto one of the low walls that surrounds the rose courtyard, holding her hands out to balance. It’s something she hasn’t done since she was very little, but she doesn’t care if anyone sees. Besides, Matthew’s not the sort to mind.
“It makes sense to feel that way, you know.” Matthew tugs a leaf, and snow falls onto his shoulder with a splat. “That’s how I feel when people talk about me taking over Downton.”
Sybil glances at him out of the corner of her eye. Matthew stares at the Cupid statue with his forehead creased, as if he can’t quite work out what he’s actually looking at. She’s never thought that Matthew would be anything other than overjoyed to discover that he was the heir to a place like Downton, even though she knows he didn’t ever really want it. She should have worked it out. He’s said it often enough.
“I’m sorry,” she says again, and jumps off the end of the wall. “That was really awful of me, wasn’t it?”
“No, of course it isn’t.” Matthew sticks his hands in his pockets. “None of this is your fault. You don’t have to apologise for it.”
“Maybe not the entailment, but—but some of it is my fault, I’m afraid.” Her eyes burn. “Why does who I am keep me from—from doing what I like and loving who I want? What’s wrong with—with being political? Or caring about someone who’s good and kind and intelligent? Is there anything wrong with that?”
“I don’t think so, but then again, I grew up in Manchester. Very industrial town, that. Lots of politics and lots of odd couples.”
Sybil laughs a little, and wipes at her eyes again. Matthew’s lips quirk up, and then settle again. He blinks snow out of his eyelashes. “If it helps, I think you’re very brave, doing what you’re doing.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re being yourself,” says Matthew. “In the face of people who, even though they love you, would really rather not see it. That takes a special kind of courage, I think.”
“It takes a special kind of courage to leave your whole life behind and join the aristocracy too,” says Sybil, and this time Matthew laughs.
“So we’re both brave, then.”
“That sounds right.”
Matthew scuffs his good shoe along the cobblestone path. “You and Branson, then?”
“I won’t insult either of us by pretending I don’t know what you mean.” Sybil heaves a sigh. “I don’t know. We’re—we’re bonds, you know.” It’s freeing to say it. Truth, at last. “And I care about him, very much. But every time I think of—anything beyond what it is now, I feel like I’m on that tightrope again, and I’m paralyzed. He says it’s simple, and in so many ways it is, really, but I’m a wretched coward. He’s—he doesn’t understand that by telling the truth, I’ll lose—I’ll lose all of it, not just the bits I hate but the parts I love, too. Papa would never speak to me again—”
“You know him, Matthew, would he ever accept me wanting to marry Tom when—when all Papa sees him as is a driver? Not only that, but an Irish driver. No, Papa would hate me. Mary would think I’m mad, Edith would never look me in the eye. Granny—I don’t know about Granny, she’s so contrary about the oddest things, but she wouldn’t approve. The only person I can think would even try to understand it is Mama, and she and Papa are so close, you know how close they are. Do you really think they’d ever forgive me for saying blast it all and marrying Tom?”
“I would,” Matthew says. “I think it’s brilliant, if I’m allowed to have an opinion on such things.”
“Of course you are. You’re my cousin, sort of, and Tom likes you. And besides, out of all of them up at the house, you’re the only one who came out to look for me, aren’t you?” Sybil kicks a bit of snow off the path. “I just don’t understand where it all comes from, the sense that certain kinds of people are better than others. They’re not, but nobody else will listen.”
“To be fair, feudalism didn’t end all that long ago, you know. Not in the grand scheme of things.”
“Ugh,” says Sybil, disgusted. “Don’t let’s bring that up.”
“Can I ask you something?” Matthew blows a bit of snow off of the head of the Cupid, and grimaces at the sight of the cherubic face. “Is it that you’re frightened of losing everyone here at Downton, or is it that you’re actually frightened of—well, acknowledging the bond with Branson? It is irreversible, once cast, and—”
“No.” She doesn’t even have to think. “No, it’s not that at all. I’m not scared of Tom. I don’t think I could ever be scared of him, really. I’m—I’m frightened of what being with him represents. The loss that will come with it. It’s my family that scares me, not him.”
“What they’ll think of you?”
“I don’t care about the rest of the world, if I could only have Mama and Papa understand that—that this is what I want.” She blinks, and then says it again. “I want them to know that this is what I want. What I—I really want, and that just because it’s different from what they want for me doesn’t make it wrong or illegal or horrid. Tom thinks it’s the house that’s keeping me here, you know, the house and the clothes and Society and all the rest of it, but I really don’t care about any of that. I don’t see the point in it, when there’s so much else in the world. I just—is it wrong, to not want to part with my family on bad terms?”
Matthew shakes his head. Sybil, who has built up a head of steam she couldn’t have imagined back in the garage, continues. “Besides, I don’t know how to do anything, beyond this. How can I leave and turn my back on everything without even having a plan? I’m not about to just—just sit at home and have him fix everything up just because he knows how to do things. I’m not good at being helpless.”
“Then learn something.” She turns to stare at him. Matthew shrugs. “Think about what you’d like to do, and ask your father for help doing it. You don’t have to tell him why. Tell him you’re bored, tell him you want to get away from Downton for a while. Tell him anything, really. But go and learn something. You have some time before the Season starts to get it done, and when you come back you’ll have a marketable skill that won’t leave you feeling so—” His lips twitch. “—well, helpless.”
Sybil’s lips part. She swallows. Then she swallows again, and turns to stare at hedge rows. Yes, why can’t she learn something? Why hasn’t she thought of this? It seems to have been staring her in the face the whole time.
“So that difficult things can be made simple,” she says.
“Nothing.” Sybil rubs her arms. “What could I even do?”
“There’s any number of things, really. More and more jobs are opening up to women all the time.” He grimaces again. “Don’t call it a job to Cousin Robert’s face, though.”
“Well, nursing,” says Matthew, son of Isobel Crawley. “You can’t work in a shop, Cousin Robert and Cousin Violent would both have a fit, but you could learn how to be a typist. You know a bit about engines, you were saying—I doubt that there are many automobile repair places who would take women, but it’s definitely something that’s good to know. You could even work for the WSPU, couldn’t you? Aren’t there paying positions in that?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it. Everyone I know is a volunteer, but there must be jobs for it somewhere, mustn’t there?” She thinks of Alice in London, her term winding down. “If you learn nursing, can you go to medical school, later?”
“I don’t see why not. Actually, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be an asset, to know at least the basics before going into school properly.” He eyes her. “You want to be a doctor?”
“I want to help people. Doctors do that.”
“Papa would never agree,” she blurts, and then sets her fingertips to her lips. “Not to nursing.”
Matthew’s mouth thins. “I’ll talk to him,” he says. “Give me a few days.”
“No, you don’t have to—”
“I’d like to. We’re cousins, aren’t we? Besides, out of all of them it would be the most convenient. You could work with Doctor Clarkson, and you’d be under your grandmother’s supervision. And Mother’s. You could just say it’s another form of volunteering, but by the time you get through with the programme, you’ll have a certificate and you’d be hirable. It’s not something that people can just—take back from you.”
In spite of everything, something kindles in her chest. It might be hope.
“I hope you’ll choose nursing,” says Matthew. “Mother will want to teach you everything. She’ll be thrilled when you tell her about it.”
Sybil bites down on her thumbnail, and is quiet for a moment. Then, when Matthew tilts his head in a question, she lifts her head and smiles.
“I think I will,” she says. Something pops in her chest, and starts fizzing like champagne. She bounces on the balls of her feet. “I’ll do it. You’ll talk to him?”
“I’ll talk to him.”
“And you won’t tell?”
“I won’t tell.”
Sybil goes up on tiptoe and kisses his cheek. “You’re brilliant. Thank you, Matthew. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Matthew flushes a little. “It’s no trouble, truly—”
“You have no idea how untrue that is.” She hooks her arm through his. “Now you must tell me all your problems, so I can solve them for you.”
“I doubt very much that’s possible, where—” Matthew pauses. “Where your sister is concerned.”
“Which one?” asks Sybil, deliberately casual. She ignores how Matthew flushes a shade of red beyond what should be possible by just walking in the snow.
“Mary. Not that I dislike Edith, but she’s not quite—” He stops, suddenly. “There are any number of words popping into my head, but none of them are polite in the slightest.”
“Don’t worry. I know Edith, remember? You don’t have to say any of them.” Matthew snorts. She squeezes his elbow. “So, Mary, then.”
Matthew bites his lip. Then, all at once, he says, “I shouldn’t—I don’t know how to talk to her, Sybil. We get on well together and—and she’s brilliant and strong-minded and all of the rest of it, but sometimes I feel as if we’re speaking two different languages and I don’t know how to bridge the gap.”
“Well, then,” says Sybil. “I shall teach you. Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him who first cries ‘Hold!’”
“Hear, hear,” says Matthew fervently, and she laughs and bumps his shoulder as they wander into the garden.
She’ll owe Matthew Crawley for the rest of her life, because whatever he says to Papa, it convinces him that perhaps his youngest daughter volunteering as a nurse isn’t the worst thing to ever happen in the history of the world.
The drive to York is a long one, nearly three hours, and Sybil remains quiet. Tom hasn’t said a thing since he handed her into the car, and they drove away from Downton. There’s something leaden hanging in her stomach, and she can’t tell if it’s her own despair, or his. They don’t speak a word.
When she gets out of the car at the training hospital, removes her bags from the boot and sets them on the gravel, Tom gets out to stand beside her.
“Two months,” he says.
“Two months. Maybe three. I’ll be back by April at the latest.”
He nods, and tugs his hat low over his eyes.
“Will you not wish me luck?” Sybil asks, hating the desperation that curdles in her throat. Tom lifts his head and studies her, tugging at his gloves as if he’s trying to peel away his own skin.
“Of course I wish you luck.” There’s a swell of affection from him that melts her bones. “You’re making your way in the world, milady. I wish you all the luck in the universe.”
They look at each other.
“I ought to get back,” Tom says. Sybil clutches her bag close against her chest. “There’s a matron waiting for you at the door.”
When Sybil looks over her shoulder, a dowdy-looking woman in a nurse’s uniform is staring at them, tapping her toes. Her lungs hurt. Sybil glances back at Tom, who meets her eyes. Then, slowly, he offers his hand.
Sybil licks her lips. Then she sets her fingers in his. Branson lifts her hand, and kisses her knuckles through the thin lace of her gloves. His lips are dry, but she can feel the warmth behind them against her skin, and oh, God. He releases it without hesitation, tips his cap, and goes to crank the engine. It’s only once he’s turned the engine over that she catches up with him.
“I’ll write,” she says. “I—I promise I’ll write.”
Tom clambers into the driver’s seat, and shuts the door.
“I’ll look forward to it, milady.”
She watches the Renault until it’s out of sight before lifting her hand, and pressing it to her lips.
I’ve settled in to my new room here at the training hospital. My class is one of the smallest since the inception of the school, according to Nurse Moore. She was very unsettled when I told her my name. Apparently she thought that my enrollment was a joke, can you believe it? (Of course you can. Why am I asking you?) They haven’t had the daughter of an earl here, ever, and I feel rather pleased to be pioneering something, even if it’s all tangled up in horrifically archaic class dynamics. I’m still struggling to get the other girls to not call me Lady Sybil. One of my roommates, a girl named Agnes, is so terrified to speak to me that she turns white every time I open my mouth. Am I really so intimidating?
What to tell you about this place? You’ve seen the outside, but the interior is all pine floors and white walls with powder blue trim. The nurses (both matrons and trainees) live on the fourth floor of the west wing. There are four trainees to each room, and since there are sixteen for this course, that means we take up four rooms. We’re sorted alphabetically from the back of the room forward, and since I’m Crawley, and not Duran, Howard, or Peterson, I get the bed closest to the window. At night, you can see York in the distance, like stars fallen to earth. (Of course, you can’t see the actual stars nearly so well. Why is that, I wonder?) I have enclosed a sketch, though it is very poor, and you are quite free to laugh at me for it. I cannot draw at all, and I don’t know why I try. At least I had one or two cooking lessons before coming here, to make up for my lack of drawing talent; we often fend for ourselves where food is concerned, if our shifts run late. I made my first real meal yesterday, even if it was only onion soup. I’m quite proud, to be honest.
Our days are very strictly scheduled. At dawn every day we rise to clean bedpans and change sheets. I must confess that I was quite overpowered by the smell on the first day, but now, a week in, I am far more used to it. Then, once that is done, we have our morning classes with one of the nurses or doctors here. We learn about anatomy and physiology, about medicines and their effects upon the body. We examine cadavers and real, living bodies to see how the human form can repair itself, or how it cannot. In the afternoon, we split into groups to study in different wards of the hospital before returning to our rooms to study. Once a week I have a night shift, and tonight I am assigned to paediatrics, and the children there are so dear. So many of them are ill, though, and there is one, a baby we call Jane, who does not seem to be able to make it through the night. She was abandoned here on the steps on New Year’s Day, the ward matron tells me. She is so wasted, and so quiet, that one can barely tell she breathes. I write to you while sitting by her bassinet, and sometimes I pause to reach out and touch her palm with my fingertips. If anything, she can at least leave this world knowing that one single solitary person, at least, cared for her in the end.
When I was a child, my governesses told me that studying soulmarks was a waste of my time. Did you know—there’s a whole science around soulmates and soulmarks? It’s called animology—after all, the Greek ‘psyche’ was already taken up by the study of the mind, and so Dr. McGarry, the father of the science (an Irishman from Cork! He pioneered it back in the sixties) borrowed the Latin instead. (He’s very mysterious; I can’t find a photograph of him anywhere. But then again, it was the sixties.) According to the book I’m reading, the sort of soulbond we have is thermo-tactilely based—we feel the ups and downs of the other within our own mark, as if these emotions were ours, through different variations of temperature within the mark itself. (Other bonds are purely related to the mind, with no physical sensations at all; there are some which are a combination of the two, and none of this, of course, affects the completed link, only how certain pairs translate it into their own minds.) Unfortunately as a nurse I cannot officially specialise in anything, but Nurse Pratchett has already commented on how knowledgeable I am about soulmarks, so I hope she will keep that in mind.
Mama would be ever so shocked to know even a molecule of what I’m learning, but of course I can’t tell her. She would bring me back in an instant, and I find that despite my homesickness, I don’t wish to come home to them. Not yet, anyway. I can feel my mind opening further with each passing day, and even though it hurts—looking at Jane, I can say honestly that on occasion it hurts more than I can bear—I endure it with the knowledge that I am becoming a whole person, a whole mind. Cogito ergo sum. I will grieve, and I will grow wiser from it, if I can. It is only the blood that continues to disturb me, truly. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at it without knowing that someone is in pain, and since I know so little beyond cleaning and observing, what can I do but stand helplessly by and watch?
I did not mean to hurt you so badly, Tom. It means little enough now that I’ve done it, but I mean it all the same. I am so sorry. I wish I could turn back time and not do what I did—that I could have been braver and told you the truth to your face, that the strength of what I feel for you frightens me down to my very soul, the thing that brought us together in the first place—but I didn’t, and now here we are. We haven’t spoken much since Christmas, have we? A few words here and there. It seems so flat compared to what we had before.
You were right to tell me that I cannot have it both ways. I can’t flirt with you in private and ignore you in public; I can’t want to be closer to you and then turn my back when you reciprocate. It’s not fair to you, or to me for that matter, and I wish so desperately that I were not so dreadfully faint-hearted. I want to shout it loud and clear to everyone—that you are my bond, that you are part of me as I am part of you, and damn anyone who says otherwise—and I would to the world at large, but when I think of announcing it to my family something paralyzes me. I do not doubt you, or my feelings for you, but rather I doubt myself. Am I as strong as you think I am? Or will I crumble in the face of the lion? I cannot know these things until I have tested it—my own strength, I mean—and I feel that this course will be the proving ground for that.
The sense of you strikes me at the oddest times—when I’m reading the copy of Gray’s Anatomy that Alice gave me, or listening to a lecture on fevers and colds, or practicing stitches, I can feel you as if you’re sitting beside me. I don’t know if you ever felt the same things I did, when we were closer—the network of the bond, the rises and falls of your moods—but they seemed to regulate the day. They’re no less strong now that we’re hours apart—if anything, it’s stronger, now that we’ve kilometers between us—and every time they shift it still takes my breath away. I wonder what you’re doing, who you’re talking to or what you thinking that makes you so happy, or so frustrated, or any of it. I wonder if it’s the same for you, or if you’ve blocked yourself off from me, somehow. I’ve heard it can be done, and I would understand why if you chose to. But this is an example of le bien qui fait mal, I feel—I will wait, if you would like me to.
I can’t promise when I will be ready. I will be, someday, and that someday will be sooner than either of us think. But I cannot give you an exact date upon which you may fix your hopes. All I can say is that in a week, or a month, or a year, I will be ready—for the bond, and for you. I hope you will still wait for me, when all I have done is waver until now. As I write this, I think back on what you said—that we’re meant, the pair of us—and for the first time I do not fear it.
I hope you will write back to me.
I should burn this.
All my love
I thank you and bless you for not burning the letter you sent me, for I keep it close to me throughout the day. Who did you find to write the address on the envelope? It saved me questions this morning in the servants’ hall. When I told them it was from my bond, there was an enormous kerfuffle as to your name, but I have kept silent, as you wish me to. After all, it is no one’s business but ours, is it?
Before I begin anything else, I’ll inform you of the news. In the face of all you’re learning at the hospital, life at Downton seems fairly staid. Below stairs is much the same as usual: catty does not even begin to describe the power games going on in that house. I’m blessed not to have to live in servants’ quarters with the rest of them, for I feel if I were trapped in the same house as Thomas Barrow and Sarah O’Brien every minute of the day, I’d go mad eventually. As you’re not here, I’d go mad even faster.
(As for the question of intimidation, I think it would be wiser to keep silent.)
Spied M & LM walking out together today. Down to the hospital, presumably, on some errand for the DC and Mrs. C, but from what I could tell, they had their heads together about something. Before you ask, I had a chance to talk to M about bonds a few weeks ago, and whatever I said sent him deep into thought. For the life of me I cannot remember what it could have been, but M is determined, so lay on, say I. LM has been in a better mood, as well, though that may be because of her newfound membership in the Ripon Embroidery Circle. (!!)
In other news, Sir AS has been coming around more often lately. LM has given up her game with LE, and leaves S to E’s clutches. There are whispers of a scandal around LM’s skirts, but no proof. LE and HL drove down to Ripon today and came across your friends in the WSPU (minus Alice-not-Miss-Forsythe, of course). Words were exchanged, but not nasty ones. I’ll leave it at that, so you have a reason to respond to this letter. Well, aside from this: would you be able to send me the title of the book on animology? I’ll not hex your chances at going into the field, but if you could study animology, would you like to?
Your sketch is better than what I could have done, and so, in my eyes, is perfect. I’m keeping it in the Renault manual you’ve left behind. Maybe in a few months you’ll have a better opinion on your ability to draw landscapes.
I am sorry to hear about baby Jane, and hope she has made a miraculous recovery, though the likelihood of that is slim. There are not many people—men or women—that I know who could bear to be beside a dying babe in her last hours. In spite of everything you believe, you are one of the best and strongest people I have ever known, and I am honoured to know you, Sybil Cora Crawley. I’ll never not be.
I’ve thought on your letter for most of the past three days, and begun this part any number of times, only to chuck paper in the fire in a way you’d snap at. I can nearly hear you saying “But it’s so wasteful!” and going to pluck the papers out of the coals. (You would. I’ve seen you do it before, milady, don’t try to deny it.) The first and simplest matter is whether or not I’ve blocked you from my mind. You claim le bien qui fait mal, but I’ll not lie and say it hurts me to feel you. What would hurt would be to block you off at all. You’re as much a part of me as my lungs, and I’d not be well served in slicing them away, either. I’d sooner lose my mind and sign myself up for the noose than cut you out of my head and heart, and you must never, ever think otherwise.
As to the rest: I won’t say it didn’t sting, and I’m not ashamed to admit that the weeks we didn’t speak were the worst in my life, but you must not and will not take the full share of blame in this. My mother said to me once that I have a grip like a terrier’s with a skull fit to break stone, and I’m sorry to say that she may be right. I am in the wrong as much as you, and I’ll not hear otherwise. I promised you, swore to you that I would wait as long as you need, but when you needed time, I pushed hard, far beyond what was comfortable for you, and then I grew angry with you when you bolted. It was a misinterpretation and gross supposition on my part, and for that I will always, always be sorry. I can’t say I understand what makes you hesitate, when all you’ve left behind you is a world you no longer belong to, but as much as I don’t understand it, it was your world for so many years. As much as I would wish for you to give it all up in a day, human minds and human hearts don’t work like that. I’ll wait, for forever if need be, because God knows it’s enough to know that you’ll come to me when you’re ready.
I enclose a hello from Gwen. She claims not to be worried, but her face is all pinched every day you’re away. I know the feeling. Rest assured that every time you feel a bolt of happiness from me, it is related to you, somehow.
You are my sympathy—my better self—my good angel—[…] I think you good, gifted, lovely: a fervent, a solemn passion is conceived in my heart; it leans to you, draws you to my centre and spring of life, wrap my existence around you, and kindling in pure, powerful flame, fuses you and me into one.
Who are you casting as Jane Eyre, here? If we’re going off of social status, oughtn’t I be Rochester? Though I’m not sure of that at all; I don’t have a wife in the attic, or a husband for that matter, and I would never dress up as a gypsy. I’m much too straightforward for that. After all, “you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me—for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you: which I do not at all anticipate.” Earth seems far more interesting than heaven, if God and His angels are as the Bible describes.
I find I like your mother a great deal more the more I hear about her. A terrier’s disposition and a skull to crush rocks, indeed. I wonder why I speak to you at all, with such a personality. At least your temper is even! (All of it is true, both positive and negative. You mustn’t deny it; it only makes you look bad.) I wish very much to meet her, eventually, when we come around to it. I think I’ll like her even more in person. I can only hope she’ll like me.
E at a WSPU meeting! Hell would freeze over were such a thing to ever occur. You must tell me everything, immediately, you snide hoarder. And M attending the Ripon Circle? I only pray Alice doesn’t return to Ripon before I do, for if she does we may find the embroidery circle flinging bricks through windows and cutting MPs in the punch line. My eldest sister always did have a way of heightening the stakes.
As for Sir S, M will rage if E gets engaged before she does. I confess that I’m not sad to be missing that.
Jane died two hours after I posted the letter to you. I cried when I read what you said. I cannot imagine why you think so much of me, when all I’ve done is waver like a child.
I’ve added another bad sketch, considering your effusive praise of the last. It is a portrait of Doris Peterson, one of my roommates. I really ought to have burned it. She reminds me of Gwen—and speaking of, how is Gwen’s search? I don’t know if I ought to write her, if it will offend her, but I would like to, very much.
I stitched my first wound yesterday. It was only a two-inch cut on a man’s arm, very simple, but I did it, and I wasn’t sick, my hand didn’t shake, and Nurse Pratchett complimented me on my even stitches afterwards. Maybe all of Mama’s sewing lessons were worth more than just a few happy hours with the WSPU Embroidery Circle.
You’ll think me terribly shallow to be nattering on about things like this, but I’m afraid I must, because my heart is too full to speak otherwise. I can’t think what to say. You mean so much to me, so much more than I can ever explain, and so I cloak it in social fripperies because the depth of it is impossible to express. I hope that when you read this, you will remember what I am feeling right now, every moment of giddy joy, because it is because of you.
I miss you, I miss you, I miss you. I wish you were here with me.
All my love,
PS—I dare not hope. I never was fainthearted before; but I cannot believe such a creature cares for me.
From Jane Eyre to North & South; am I meant to pick out a pattern?
Lady M and M have had a spat. I don’t know what about, but he’s gloomy and she’s furious and there’s nothing the rest of us can do about it. I feel like I ought to be offering him a drink, just to get the hangdog look off his face. Not that I haven’t been guilty of that myself, before. Besides: I would hate to fulfill a stereotype.
Lady E had heard of your association with the group, and wanted to know them better, she said. HL didn’t notice, or if she did she said nothing, and the circle didn’t spit at her, so I suppose in a way it went well. I confess that there’s a certain kind of masochistic delight in seeing Lady M take command of the Ripon circle in Alice’s absence. It’s rather terrifying, but it makes you wonder all the same. Lady M has hidden depths, it seems.
No words on the news of Lady E getting engaged. Then again, we are never the first to know.
You ought to send me sketches of all the people you meet there. That way I can fix them in my mind’s eye, and when you say you speak to this one or that one I can have an image of it in my head, and in a way I will be there with you.
Gwen’s job hunt is not doing as well as it may. She has had two interviews since you left near a month ago, and each time she has been rejected. She is feeling very low; a letter from you might buck her up. (You never answered the question: who addresses your envelopes? What kind of subterfuge are you playing with, Lady Crawley?) Speaking of letter writing, I have included my mother’s address in Dublin, though I fear that putting you two together may end in my untimely demise.
Sybil, you would never quail in the face of the lion. You are one, yourself. You are strong, and brave, and the most loyal creature I’ve ever laid eyes upon. It would be their loss to turn away from you, not yours to be turned away from. If they cannot recognise you for who you are, then why attribute them so much power over you? You are yours, and yours alone. People cannot hurt you if you do not let them.
I feel you every moment of every day. You are the one fixed point in a word which is changing irrevocably for the better, and you are making it that way. I miss you.
Remember: all that matters now is how we feel. The rest of it is just detail.
This made me think of you:
As she swam, she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited, in which to lose herself.
She can barely remember the Count.
Mary comes with her, she knows that much. Mary and Alice have spent too much time together, and Mary Crawley has always wanted to stand somewhere that history was made.
There’s an image of Alice shoving papers into her hands, of men shouting at the speaking platform.
Tom, standing beside her, his adrenalin buzzing through her veins like champagne.
Mary, tugged away from her. Matthew, looking down at her with worry in his face.
She thinks she remembers hearing someone say “Oh God no, please no” before she slipped away into the silence.
The last thing her head needs is a shouting match with her father, but it’s looking like she’ll have to have one anyway.
“What on earth were you thinking?” Papa’s pacing back and forth at the end of her bed. Mama keeps dabbing at her head, as if she can heal the mark just by staring at it and cooing. Edith’s in the window seat, watching, as always. Mary and Matthew stand by the open door, one on either side of the frame, but by the way they keep glancing at each other they might as well be holding hands. Sybil closes her eyes at the stab of pain when Papa passes in front of the light again. “Going to a thing like that—you could have been killed!”
“But I wasn’t,” Sybil says, which is a miscalculation, she’ll admit it. Papa makes a noise like a boiling kettle.
“It was only a protest, Papa,” says Mary. “We’ve been to them before.”
“Did I not expressly forbid it?” Papa steams. “Did I not tell you, last week, that you would not be putting the reputation of this family in jeopardy with your—your pamphlets and your marching orders—”
“I’m a grown woman, I can make my own decisions!”
“Yes, and clearly if they were the right ones they wouldn’t have cracked your skull!”
Matthew clears his throat. “Perhaps—perhaps I should go.”
“No, Matthew, stay, please,” says Mary. “Only you were there as well, and what you saw may be valuable. When Papa’s in a temper, any amount of logic, no matter how little, is crucial.”
“Well, if you’re asking for logic, you might not want me,” says Matthew, “but I’ll stay all the same, if Cousin Sybil wishes it.”
“Cousin Sybil wishes,” says Sybil, and jerks away when Mama touches the sore spot on her head. “It’s fine, Mama. Isobel took care of it.”
“You’ll have a terrible bruise. Oh, darling, I can’t bear to think of you in a riot—”
Mary scoffs. “For God’s sake, Mama. It wasn’t a riot. It was aiming to be one, but it wasn’t when we were there, and it wasn’t when we left.”
“I blame Branson for this,” Papa fumes. Sybil digs her nails into her bedpost. “He’s been encouraging you to take the dangers like this. He’s not to stay here any longer, not one minute longer, not if I can help it—”
“If you throw him out because of this, you might as well do the same to me.”
Papa scoffs. “Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Sybil.”
“It was my idea!” She wants to throw a pillow at him, throw anything, but she still can’t get up without feeling faint. “All of it, it was my idea, I lied to him and he didn’t know! Matthew—” she turns to him, and Matthew blanches white but stands strong anyway “—you saw, didn’t you, he was trying to get me out, we lied to him and he was trying to keep both of us safe—”
“He was, Papa,” says Mary, and next to her Matthew nods.
“He knew nothing about it, Robert,” says Matthew. “It wouldn’t be fair to do this to him when he had nothing to do with it in the first place, especially when he was the one to get Sybil out of there—”
“That’s the trouble, you see, because he does have something to do with it.” Papa is puce. She’s never seen him this angry before, not ever, and it would scare her if she weren’t so furious she could scream. “This would never have happened if I’d not been stupid enough to hire him in the first place. An Irish republican, what was I thinking?”
Mary looks at her, panicked. “Papa—”
“Don’t try to convince me otherwise, Mary, it’s true and we all know it—”
“It’s not!” Sybil stands, and then nearly falls down again. Mary surges up and seizes her by the elbows to keep her steady. “Ask Alice, ask anyone, I’ve been going there for months and months, it’s not Branson’s fault, none of it is—”
He doesn’t seem to hear her. “I could handle this when it was simple things, when it was just the magazines and all that Marx, but you cannot and will not put yourself in danger and put this family in danger of humiliation in this way any longer, Sybil! It has to stop, all of it has to stop, and that includes Branson!”
“You can’t do that!” Her voice cracks, it’s so high. “You can’t do that!”
“Robert.” Matthew fidgets a little. “Perhaps we ought to discuss this tomorrow?”
“Stay out of this, Matthew,” says Papa. Mary presses her lips together so hard that they vanish.
“He’s right, Papa, we’ve all been awake and worrying for far too long to be rational about anything—”
“Don’t butt into this, Mary—”
“No,” says Mama. Papa goes abruptly silent. “Sybil needs rest. We will talk about this in the morning.” If ever, her eyes say, and Sybil almost wilts into the bed. “We’ll be going now, darling. Anna will be on standby if you need anything.”
They file out of her room. She waits until their footsteps fade, and then crawls into bed to wait for midnight.
All the lights in Downton are out when she sneaks down the back stairs. She’s still in her clothes from the Count, and there’s blood speckled on the right shoulder of her blouse. It’s dark in the moonlight, like splashes of shadow. She wakes no one, skipping over the creaky steps and cutting through the garden before making her way around the house to the car garage.
There’s one lamp on, spilling yellow light out onto the gravel. Sybil takes a breath and lets it out, feeling dizzy (her head is rolling as if she’s standing on a ship) and then pushes the door open. “Tom?” she hisses, and steps inside, shutting the garage door behind her again. “Tom, are you there?”
The terror that rolls over her when he catches sight of her isn’t hers. It hits her like a fist in the gut, and Sybil has to clutch at the door handle to keep herself from falling. In a second he has her elbows in his hands, propping her upright like always, and when she looks up at him relief drives into her harder than the fear. She clenches her fingers into the fabric of his shirt.
“It’s all right,” she says. She can feel the warmth of his chest under her palms, and it’s making the hair stand on the back of her neck. “It’s all right. I’m all right.”
“You foolish, foolish girl,” he snarls, and then rages off in something that sounds nothing like English. His hands are whisper gentle on her elbows. “Y’could’ve died, d’you understand me? You could’ve died!”
Her brain feels like it’s wading through mud. “But I didn’t, Branson.”
“But you could have!” He squeezes her shoulders. When did his hands move? “God knows I won’t make you stop, Sybil, you’ve as much right to it as any of us, but Christ, don’t ever let yourself be caught off-guard like that again.”
Sybil blinks, slowly. “I thought you would be angry with me.”
Tom makes a noise that’s almost a scream. “Of course I’m angry with you! You lied to me, you told me you wouldn’t go back there and you did, and—” He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath through his nose. His fingers dig into her shoulders. “But you’re a grown bloody woman and you’re bloody-minded besides, and there’s no point in stayin’ angry about things we can’t change. And I’m proud of you for going, even if you nearly killed yourself doing it.”
Every organ she has turns over, then. The cat that settled so long ago curls up even tighter, and it’s not a cat now, but a star, a little sun blazing heat through her mark. For what feels like an eternity, she can’t do anything more than just look at him. You, she wants to say, like that moment in the car, like their first visit to the Café du Chat. It’s you, it’s always been you and it always will be, why have I been so frightened of the bond when all it is, is you?
“I thought that was the whole point of politics,” she says instead, half-blind with the loss of fear, and Tom’s lips press tight together for a moment. Can he feel it, she wonders, the sudden rush of joy and affection and trust and love? After all, how could she not love someone who instead of chastising her for chasing her dreams, congratulates her for them? How could she not want someone who loves her enough to let her go even when he’s scared to death she’ll not come back? “To change things that make us angry.”
“Of course it is.” He scuffs a hand through his hair, mussing it. “And I’m not saying you shouldn’t have been there, because of course you should’ve, it’s your fight as much as it is Alice’s and the rest, but for God’s sake, Sybil, you could have died. You could have died and I wouldn’t have been able to stop it, and all I want is for you to be more careful. That’s all.”
“Everyone was there, Tom!” Now she’s shouting. Why is she shouting, when every bit of her is dishrag-limp with relief that she’s alive she’s alive thank God and Christ she’s alive and he’s mine of course he is why wouldn’t he be he’s Tom— “I wasn’t about to leave any of them, not Alice or Aveline or Martha or Sophie or any of them! I’ve no right to do any less than them when this vote is everything we’ve been working for!”
“You’re trying to argue with me and you’ll not find me disagreeing with anything you’ve said.” He rubs his hands over his face, and sits down hard on the end of the Renault. She barely keeps her balance. Sybil watches him until he looks at her again, until he meets her eyes. “Just please promise me that you will never lie to me about something like this again. That you’ll tell me. At least that way, next time, you know you’ll not be alone if something goes wrong like it did today.”
The moment hangs in the air, taut. Then Sybil takes two steps forward, cups his jaw in one hand, and presses her mouth to his.
For a terrifying moment, he’s blank. She can’t feel anything from him, not surprise or joy or any of it, just a surge of shock that makes her want to run. Then he sucks a great breath of air in through his nose and he lifts his hands to her waist and oh, God, the heady want of it is making her legs weak. Sybil steps forward in between his knees, her fingers tangling in his hair, and she slants her mouth against his, again, and again, and again. She doesn’t know how to kiss, but he doesn’t seem to care. He traces the knobs of her spine up and up and up, the press of a thumbnail in the small of her back making her tug at his hair and pull a groan from both of them, and God, God—
“Does this mean a yes?” he asks, barely breathing, and she laughs against his mouth.
“Of course it’s a yes, what else would it be?”
“Sorry, I just—” He can’t seem to stop touching her. His hands ghost over her shoulders, down her back, around her waist, careful not to hit her bruises. “Some nights I thought I’d never hear it.”
“Well, you’re hearing it now, and I’m not about to take it back.” She can’t stop smiling, it seems. “I want you as my bond, Tom Branson. I love you now and I’ll love you as long as you’ll have me, and I don’t care what my family will think. I don’t care what will happen. I want to be with you. Always.”
He stands, and suddenly she’s gathered so close she can’t tell where she ends and he begins. She digs her fingernails into his shoulders and sets her mouth to his, open and wet. She wants to learn him until every part of her mouth, tongue and teeth and all, taste of him; until she knows the construction of his mouth by heart. She wants to crawl inside him and live there, and she can feel the same wish thrumming in him, in the tenuous link that burning solidly into the scraps they called souls. Her blood’s pounding. She can’t make it stop. Want, want, want. She’s eighteen and she wants everything, and now that everything is narrowed to a single solid point, the feel of his shoulders beneath her hands, the flick of his tongue against hers. She wants.
“Sybil,” he says, breathing it against her lips. His heartbeat is shaky. “Christ, love—”
She scrapes her teeth along his lower lip, because she can’t not. “Don’t you dare stop.”
Tom groans, and it vibrates through her ribcage. His hands come up into her hair, which is still loose around her shoulders, and his fingers twist, just a little, and she keens into his mouth. She should be embarrassed, she thinks dazedly, because it’s such a plaintive little noise, but she’s not, not at all. She doesn’t care.
She’s not sure whose idea it is, hers or his, but somehow they’re in the Renault. Tom’s lying back, kissing her like he can’t get enough, like he’s been waiting decades for this instead of just a year, and Sybil leans over him and kisses him back. His hands are in her hair, it’s falling out of its pins, and the scoop neck of her dress means that when he cups the back of her neck she can feel his palm against the top of her spine and it burns there so hot she’s afraid it will leave a mark. The car smells of petrol and leather seats, and Tom smells of the stiff canvas of his uniform and the grease on his fingers and the soap he uses on his skin. She wants to bottle it all up and keep it beside her always like a perfume, the spring night and the car and Tom Branson lying back under her hands, mouth seeking hers without fuss or shame, scorching her through her corset like a branding iron. Every touch marks her. Mine. Mine. Mine. When she touches her mouth to his jaw, he tilts his head back, exposing his throat, and she can see his pulse there. It’s buzzing like a hummingbird, and so she has to touch it with her tongue and feel his heartbeat, nip it with her teeth to leave her own mark. Mine, she thinks. Mine.
She’s just brushed her lips over the dip between his collarbones when Tom seizes her shoulders. “Sybil, stop,” he says, panting against her hair. “Sybil, we can’t, not here—”
Sybil makes a noise deep in her throat. Normally she’d agree with him, but it feels like she’s caught in a fever; her brain is muzzy and all there is is Tom, and she doesn’t care about any of it. Not anymore.
“I know you don’t care,” says Tom aloud, and she realises she must have broadcasted it all, loud and clear, and grins to herself “—but Sybil—”
“If you say something about virtue and Society I swear to God I’ll scratch you—”
Tom laughs. His hands come up to her face, and he kisses the corner of her mouth, her nose, the fleck of a scar in her eyebrow from a fall at six years old. Then he leans back just enough to look her in the face. It’s dark inside the car, and his pupils have gone so wide that she can barely make out the colour of his eyes, just the thinnest ring of blue surrounding black. “Might be the Catholic in me,” he says, “but I’d much rather our first time be in a marriage bed.”
Sybil blushes red. Then she thinks about it, the way his hands felt on her ribs and what it would feel like when there was no cloth there between them, his palms against her skin, and she blushes redder. She doesn’t look away, though. She stares at him for a long moment, and Tom stares back.
“You want to marry me,” she says then, and her breathing catches at the thought. Tom swears again. She’s made a mess of him, her friend, her bond. She loves it.
“Of course I want to marry you, you ridiculous creature. I want to marry you. I want to have children with you. I want to change the world with you. I want to be there when you vote for the first time. I want to be there when you graduate from university and finally learn how to parallel park—” she goes to pinch him, but he catches her wrist and kisses her fingertips instead. “I want all of that with you, Sybil. I always have.”
“Because I’m your bond,” she says slowly. Tom presses his mouth to the centre of her palm, and then shakes his head.
“Because you’re Sybil Crawley,” he says, “and because I love you.”
She decides in an instant. She’s breathless with it. “Then marry me.”
He blinks. Then he grins. “Aren’t I supposed to be the one proposing?”
“It’s a new century,” she says. “I think I can propose to you if I like.”
“Don’t tell my mother, she’ll have a right fit.”
She digs her fingers into his ribs. “I can’t do it legally, not until I’m twenty-one. But will you marry me?” She licks her lips. “Could you stand to be the husband of an aristocrat?”
He lifts his hands. Tom sets his palms to her cheeks, brushing his thumb over the soft skin under her eye. He searches her face. “I’ll be your husband,” he says. “And I’ll wait as long as is necessary. I’d be honoured to.”
When she kisses him again, she’s smiling too much to hold it steady.
When she slinks back to her room in the wee hours of the morning, her lips swollen and her hair mussed and all of her aglow, Mary’s waiting for her.
“Where in God’s name have you been?” she snaps, as Sybil shuts the door behind her and pulls off her coat. “You’ve been gone for hours.”
“I wanted fresh air,” she says. “That’s all.”
“Don’t lie to me, Sybil.”
“I’m not lying! I wanted a walk! So I took one. It’s not like I’m in any danger around Downton.”
“You’ve already managed to knock yourself unconscious once today, I’d not be surprised if you slipped on a cobblestone and brained yourself again!” Mary exhales sharply, and loosens her hands out of fists. For the first time, Mary actually looks at her, and her lips part. “Oh my God. Sybil.”
“You look debauched.”
“Do I?” says Sybil, and hangs her coat in the wardrobe.
“Don’t play with me, Sybil,” Mary warns. “Either you’ve been kissing the north wind, or you were lying to me, and you know I hate it when people lie to me.”
Sybil unbuttons her shirt, and tosses it onto the bed. “Hand me my nightgown, will you?”
“You’ve not answered my question.”
“Because it’s not any of your business.” She flicks her fingers, and in spite of herself, it seems, Mary collects her nightgown from the back of the chair and hands it over. “Where’s Anna?’
“I sent her to bed, since you were out so late. And how is it not my business? You’re my sister, and there are only so many men you could be meeting at this time of night when we live in the middle of nowhere—”
“And like I said, it’s not your business who I see and where I go, Mary. I know that you’re worried about me, but you don’t have to be. I can take care of myself.” She turns. “Help me with my corset, will you?”
Mary stands quite still for a second or two. Then she sighs, gustily, and picks at the bow at the base of Sybil’s back. As soon as the corset loosens, Sybil takes a great gulp of air that makes her ribs ache and her lungs sing, and smiles a little. There’s a warm buzz in her sternum where her mark is humming, and she doesn’t care if they’ve changed it, she doesn’t care, because she’s not frightened of it anymore.
I love him, she thinks. I love him. That’s enough.
“You’re right,” Mary says, as Sybil steps out of her skirt and starts to shimmy out of her corset. “It’s not any of my business, is it?”
“No. But you’re forgiven for asking.” The knowledge of it is thrumming in her like a drumbeat, pressing at her lips, trying to force its way out. “Nothing happened, truly. You don’t have to worry.”
“Shouldn’t I?” Sybil holds her hands out for the nightgown, and Mary gives it to her. “Considering everything else that’s happened today—”
“I’m fine, Mary. You all need to stop worrying. I swear, you’d think I’d cracked my skull open and put myself into a medical coma while simultaneously having an affair with Drake the farmer the way you’re carrying on—”
“It’s not Drake, is it?”
“God, no. He’s married. And I don’t like him all that much. He flirts too much with too many women for a man with a wife.” She yanks the nightgown over her head. “And it’s not any of the other farmers, either, before you get your hackles up.”
Sybil combs her hair back out of her face with her fingers, waiting for another snide remark, but Mary’s suddenly, startlingly silent. When she turns, Mary’s staring at her. She’s turned ghost white, lips parted and eyes wide, and her eyes are fixed on the collar of Sybil’s nightgown.
“Sybil,” she says. “Your mark.”
Her mood pops like a soap bubble. Sybil seizes the slit collar, which stretches down just far enough for Mary to see the top curve of her soulmark, and squeezes it closed. It’s too late, though. It’s been seen, and there’s no going back.
“Your mark’s changed,” says Mary. Sybil’s hand flutters at her throat, and then she forces it back down to her side again. She meets Mary’s eyes.
“So has yours.”
Mary flinches. She actually flinches, like a little girl caught with her hand in a cookie jar, and presses her legs tight together. She looks like she wants to carve the mark out of her skin. Sybil lets out a deep breath, and then climbs up into her bed, patting the comforter beside her. Mary creeps towards her like a wild thing, her eyes flicking towards the door, but eventually she sits beside her, and Sybil parts her collar just enough for Mary to see it.
Mary’s fingers flicker in the air close to Sybil’s mark, as if she’s tracing it without touching it. Then she pulls back. “It’s Ogham,” she says, her voice cracking over the words. “That’s Ogham.”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“Ancient Druidic script.” Mary’s hands settle in her lap again, and she peeks at Sybil through her eyelashes, almost wonderingly. “I didn’t think I’d ever find a mark beautiful, Sybil, but yours is. I like it ever so much.”
Sybil searches her face. Then she covers her mark up again, and smiles a little. Mary leans back against the headboard, crossing her legs at the ankle. “How did you know my mark had—”
“No one told me if that’s what you mean. Only—I heard you talking with Anna, once.”
“Mary.” Sybil draws her legs up onto the bed, crossing her legs and grasping her ankles. “Would it really be so bad, if you were marked by—”
“Don’t say his name!”
She chews her lip. “By a country solicitor? He’s a good man, Mary, and he loves you. He’s not doing it for Downton, he’s doing it because he thinks you walk on water, for whatever reason.”
Mary laughs. It’s a broken little sound. “I can’t imagine why. I’m damaged goods, you know. No man should want me in this condition.”
“Firstly, I think you severely underestimate the level of attachment in this case,” says Sybil. “And secondly, I’ve told you, virtue doesn’t have a thingto do with whether or not you’re broken. You’re stronger for it, Mary, not lesser. I think that this solicitor would actually appreciate you telling him, in all honesty. And if he does take umbrage to it, then I’llhave words with him.”
“No, you won’t,” says Mary. “Or I’ll have to hit you.”
“Then I’ll be bruised and sad but I’ll still have had words with him, because if he thinks any of that makes you lesser, then he’s being ridiculous and deserves a good smack.”
Mary’s teary-eyed, but she laughs anyway, and takes Sybil’s hand. Sybil squeezes back, and rests her head on her sister’s shoulder. She smells of cinnamon soap from her bath, and her hair is still faintly scented by the French perfume she was wearing at dinner, something dark and shadowy that weaves around them like a trance. Mary sighs, and pets at Sybil’s hair, tugging her fingers through it to get the tangles out. “Sometimes I think I’m the one that deserves a smack,” she says, her voice low. “For how I’ve acted, all these months.”
“I think it’s understandable.” Sybil closes her eyes, luxuriating in the touch. “The entailment is outdated and unfair, and you’re right to be furious about it. Though taking it out on Matthew was a bit callous, I’ll admit that much—”
“A bit spoiled and stupid, you mean—”
“That too.” Mary scoffs, but she doesn’t stop stroking Sybil’s hair. “But I know you love him, Mary. Don’t huff about it. You do, and I know he adores you. He wouldn’t tolerate you nearly so well otherwise.”
“What a horrid thing to say!” cries Mary, laughing. “I’ll leave if you’re going to go on like that—”
Sybil grips her sister by the hand and tugs her back against the headboard. It’s only once they’ve settled again, Sybil’s head on Mary’s shoulder, that Mary sighs. “I do love him,” she says. “I don’t know how it’s happened, but I do, and I can’t make myself stop.”
“Then tell him!” Sybil lifts her head. “Tell him you care about him, and that your mark’s been changing. I’m sure he’ll be over the moon.”
“It’s not so simple as that—”
“Of course it is. You love him, he loves you. The rest of it is detail.” She flushes a little when she realises what she’s said, but then she soldiers on. “Besides, what are you going to do if he starts thinking you don’t care for him at all? What if he falls out of love with you? What if he never learns about the mark? What will that do to you, Mary? What will that do to both of you? You’d be shattered into a thousand pieces, I know you would.”
“I like to think that I’m not so intrinsically bound up in this—this antiquated notion of romance that I would be able to survive Matthew Crawley rejecting me, Sybil.”
“But it’s not antiquated. Soulmarks are real, Mary, and even if they weren’t, it doesn’t stop you loving him.” She nudges Mary in the hip. “If you want me to slip him some pamphlets about women and desire before you tell him about Mr. Pamuk—”
“Oh, God,” says Mary, sounding genuinely revolted. “No, I can handle that particular discussion all on my own, thank you very much.”
“Budge over,” says Mary, and pushes at Sybil’s shoulder. “You can’t go to bed with your hair down. It’ll be all tangles in the morning.”
After Mary’s brushed Sybil’s hair out with a real comb, and braided it from the crown of her head, Sybil thinks she’ll leave. But she doesn’t; she goes down to the library, and comes back with a book she’s been reading before settling in the armchair by Sybil’s window. “I hope you don’t mind,” says Mary, “but I—I find that I don’t want to be alone tonight. I’ll stay over here—”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, don’t sleep in the chair.” Sybil cuddles up under the covers. “Just sleep in the bed. It’s not like we haven’t done it before.”
“Mary. Get in the bed.”
Mary gets in the bed. Her feet are freezing, and Sybil yelps when they accidentally scuff against her ankle, but then it’s settled. Mary reads her book. Sybil turns her head away from the candle, closing her eyes and listening to Mary breathe. It’s so odd, having someone in her bed. She used to sneak into Mary’s room all the time, or Edith’s, but that was before she turned ten. She hasn’t shared a room with someone in nearly a decade.
It’s nearly four in the morning when Mary finally closes her book, blows out the candle, and scoots down deeper into the blankets. Sybil rolls over. In the shaft of moonlight spilling in through the window, Mary looks ethereal, her skin silver in the dark.
“It’s Branson, isn’t it,” Mary whispers, and all of Sybil’s organs fall down through the bed into the centre of the earth to be incinerated. She makes herself smile.
“The Ogham.” Mary folds the pillow under her head. “It’s Irish. The script of Irish druids. Matthew showed it to me, once, when Branson first came. And—I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but he was…very upset, when you fell.”
Sybil says nothing.
“God,” says Mary, with an air of dawning comprehension. “It all makes sense now. That’s why—”
“I’d never let anyone make me do anything, Mary,” says Sybil sharply. “The suffrage and the politics and all my books, that was coming even before—”
“That’s not what I was going to say,” Mary snaps, and then closes her eyes for a moment. “I was going to say that’s why you know how to drive now, and so much about engines. Isn’t that the reason?”
Sybil picks at the seam of her nightgown. “Sort of. Yes. I did ask him to teach me. How to drive, anyway. You can’t know how to drive a car without knowing how to fix it, you’ll get yourself into awful trouble if there’s ever an accident.”
“We’re not talking about the car, Sybil, we’re talking about your future.” Mary licks her lips. “God, what are you going to do?”
“He’s my bond,” says Sybil, because this explains everything. “I’m not twenty-one, and we can’t do anything, really, until then. We’d need Papa’s permission, and he’s certain not to give it. We’ve talked about it, and once I’m old enough to marry without Papa’s say-so, we will. Even if we have to elope to do it.” She considers. “I suppose we could elope now, but he’s my bond, Mary. I’d really rather not have to skulk off into the night to marry my soulmate.”
“But Sybil—” Mary looks stricken. “A chauffeur.”
Sybil glares at her. “But Mary,” she says, sneering. “A person. My bond. Who is a person.”
“If you’re going to talk like that, you can go,” Sybil snaps. “He’s a person, a very intelligent, very capable man named Tom Branson. You can say his name, you know. It’s not a crime.”
“Fine. I’m sorry. I just—God, Sybil. The chauffeur. You’re certain you’re not mistaken?”
Mary bites her lip. “You haven’t—you’re not already—”
“Of course not.” Sybil frowns. “Should I ask you the same thing about Matthew? How do you know you’re not mistaken?”
“I just—” Her eyebrows snap together. “I just know. That’s all.”
“Well, it’s the same with me. I just know. I don’t need to justify myself at all beyond that.”
They’re silent for a minute or two. Then Mary rolls onto her back, and rubs at her eyes. “God, Granny will have a heart attack.”
Sybil deflates. “That’s why I haven’t said anything. I don’t—I don’t want to hurt any of you. But I love him, Mary. What’s the point of everything I’m fighting for, equal rights for women and all of it, if I can’t love and marry who I like?”
Her sister huffs, which means she knows Sybil has a point. Mary never likes to respond to people who have bested her in an argument, not unless she’s filleting them with words, and since she’s currently lying in Sybil’s bed in Sybil’s room and confiding in Sybil, Mary can’t afford to fillet her. There’s a certain amount of heady power in the knowledge of that.
Sybil tucks her hands under the pillow. “Honestly, I’m more worried about Papa. And Aunt Rosamund. Think what she’ll say about it.”
“I can well imagine.” Mary sighs. “What about Mama?”
“Mama’s American. And her father was poor, at the beginning. She’ll understand.”
In a very unladylike manner, Mary snorts.
“No matter what Tom and I are doing, we have at least two more years before we can manage any of it.” Sybil sighs. “You and Matthew are different.”
“I don’t want to talk about this, Sybil—”
“No, listen to me.” She takes Mary’s hand again, squeezes it tight between both of hers. “You have a chance, Mary, a real chance to marry someone you love that everyone around you accepts. You can marry your bond, and love him, and know it wasn’t an accident.”
“Sybil—” Mary’s voice cracks. “Sybil, please—”
“Carve a bit of Downton out for yourself. You can do it. I know you can.” She kisses the back of Mary’s hand, and holds on. “Don’t give up on future happiness because of past hurts. You have to promise me.”
Mary looks at her, her eyes overbright, nose red from keeping back the tears.
“Promise me you’ll be happy, Mary,” Sybil says quietly. “Promise me you’ll say yes to him, when he asks, and that you’ll be happy. Then at least one of us can manage it.”
Tears dribble over Mary’s cheeks, but she nods once. She doesn’t seem to trust herself to speak. Sybil cuddles up to her older sister, slinging her arm over Mary’s waist and setting her head under Mary’s chin like she used to when they were little, and Mary wraps her arms around Sybil so tight that she nearly crushes the breath out of Sybil’s lungs. Her hair grows damp where Mary’s chin is digging into it.
“You won’t tell anyone about Tom, will you?” Sybil squeezes her eyes shut. “Please don’t tell anyone, not yet. We want to tell everyone together, but—it has to stay a secret. Not that we’re doing very well with that,” she adds under her breath, and Mary tenses in her arms.
“Who else knows?”
“Alice. Gwen, but she’d never tell. Some of the other women at the embroidery meetings might suspect, but they’ve never asked me about it.” Sybil bites her lip. “Matthew knows.”
Mary sits up so quickly that she nearly falls off the bed. “Matthew—”
“He figured it out,” says Sybil. “He just saw me and Tom talking and he figured it out. He’s keeping it secret, too. He and Tom are friends. Please don’t be angry.”
“I’m not angry, I’m just—shocked.” Mary settles back into the pillows again, and sighs, resting her chin on top of Sybil’s head again. Sybil can hear her heartbeat thrumming under her nightgown. “I can’t believe that you’ve bonded with the chauffeur.”
“Person,” Sybil says again. “I’ve bonded with a person.”
“Yes, yes.” She strokes Sybil’s hair again. “Rest, dear. We’ll talk more tomorrow.”
“I promise not to tell anyone. Now, sleep.”
“Mm,” says Sybil, and fades into the mattress.
They fall asleep like that, and if Anna gives them an odd look for finding them in the same position the next morning, well, it was worth it to get that promise out of Mary.
Four days later, the Crawleys are hosting their annual garden party, and Sybil has to cake makeup onto her face to hide the bruise. She really wouldn’t mind showing it off—it looks quite splendid, a real example of its breed—but Mama goes white at the thought of it, and so she layers on powders and blush until her head looks the same on one side as it does on the other. It makes her skin itch, and she has to fight the urge to scrape it all off with her fingernails.
Somehow, nobody’s yet heard of Sybil and Mary Crawley standing up at the Count. She supposes the rest of the riot is what’s to thank for that. (It did turn into a riot. Aveline’s in jail for beating a policeman over the head with her parasol.) Papa and Granny finally present Sybil with the birthday present they promised, a gorgeous evening gown meant solely for use during her presentation to Their Majesties. It looks like it’s been spun out of confectioners’ sugar, a bright shining white that heightens her colouring rather than bleaches it, and if it weren’t for something so facile, she would adore it. She smiles at both of them, and kisses their cheeks, and thanks them for it, but when Mama tries to draw her into discussion about what might look well with it, she declines to comment. Out of the corner of her eye she can see Tom talking with other chauffeurs in the driveway, some of them smoking, some not. It looks altogether more hospitable than the quiet judgment of the garden party.
Papa’s hired a string quartet for the occasion, and when the band strikes up, Matthew (who has been murmuring to Mary in a low voice for hours now) parts from her sister, comes to Sybil, and holds out one hand.
“May I have the honour, Lady Sybil?”
Sybil glances up at him, and then tucks her hand into his. They’re the first to spin out onto the small stone courtyard that they’ve gathered around. Within seconds, Papa and Mama are on the floor too, Edith with Sir Anthony Strallan (which is odd, because doesn’t he hate dancing?) and Mary with one of the lordling fops from a few properties over. Matthew grimaces at the sight of it.
“She’ll not forgive you for not dancing the first with her,” says Sybil, deeply amused. “That’s Russell Mann; she’s hated him since we were children.”
“Considering it was her idea that I take you to the floor, she’ll have to learn to live with it.” Cinnamon tickles at her nose. Mary’s matched him, Sybil realises suddenly. Matthew’s not the sort to learn a lover’s scent and copy it in public, but Mary—Mary, who delights in creating subtle psychological connections between people—Mary most certainly would. She smirks to herself, peering at her sister over Matthew’s shoulder and winking, before looking back up at him again.
“Now, why on earth would she make you do that?”
“I’m to spy on you, I believe.”
Sybil hisses under her breath. “Mary.”
“She’s quite worried about you, you know. I understand you told her the truth?” He’s utterly relaxed as they sweep to the side, letting Mama and Papa spin ‘round behind them. “About our mutual friend?”
“I don’t care whether I am a Minx or a Sphinx,” says Sybil, “but yes, I did. Or—well, I slipped up, and Mary put things together, because she’s brilliant and does things like that. I wish she wasn’t so attentive to detail all the time, it makes keeping secrets very tiring.”
Matthew laughs. “I’ll say. Though she’s very good at keeping secrets herself.”
“She told you, then?”
Matthew’s eyes sharpen. He frowns at her. “About the rumors and their origins?”
His hand loosens on her waist. “That’s a relief. I don’t think I could handle another secret of that magnitude.” Matthew frowns. “How on earth did you hear about it?”
“She told me. Well, in an odd, roundabout way couched in metaphor and philosophy, but she told me.” Sybil flicks her skirt out, fighting to keep smiling when her heart is pounding in her throat. “You don’t hate her for it, do you? She was so frightened that you’d loathe her.”
“Of course I don’t loathe her. I think—” He hesitates. “I think it’s her life and she ought to do with it as she likes, because she wouldn’t be the woman I know today without—without what happened.”
She has to fight off the urge to fling her arms around his neck and squish him to death. “You’re a good man, Matthew Crawley.”
His eyes twinkle. “I am, rather.”
“Don’t be priggish, or I’ll have to toss you out.” She squeezes his shoulder affectionately. “She wasn’t on at you about convincing me it was all in my head, was she? Our mutual friend.”
“She was, a bit, but then she changed her mind. She’s been very thoughtful and quiet about it for at least a day, which means she’s ruminating.”
“Terrifying. Should I pack my bags?”
“What are you going to do, anyway?” They fall quiet for a moment as they spin by Granny’s chair. “I could convince your father about the nursing, but to be absolutely honest I don’t want to get involved in something like this. It’s not my place, not yet. I will if you’d like me to, though.”
“And you oughtn’t, really. It’s my matter, and his. Thank you, though, you’re a darling for offering. No, we’ve—we’ve not really decided. Until I’m twenty-one there’s not much we can do. Beyond Gretna Green, but that just…seems so dishonest, in a way.” She shakes her hair back, and the thoughts out of her head. “Besides, he’s my bond. I see no reason why I can’t marry him openly, and spite all Society in the bargain.”
“Well done,” says Matthew, and she glows a bit. “How is nursing going? Mama tells me that your first few weeks at the hospital have been rather triumphant?”
“Nothing of the sort. I do my job, that’s all. Papa’s horrified every time I go by him in uniform, but you and Mama have him pinned between you; he can’t do a thing about it. It’s all rather fascinating, really, the science of it. I’d be quite happy to study it all my life.”
“Yes, Br—Tom said,” says Matthew, as they pass by Edith and Anthony Strallan. It’s so odd to hear his name on someone else’s lips. “He talks about you quite incessantly, you know.”
“Don’t look so excited, you’ll have people come up to ask what on earth I said to you.” She schools her face into something more appropriate, but there’s still a grin tugging at her mouth that she can’t quite shake off. “Well, when you’re a famous doctor, and he’s the new prime minister of Ireland—or whatever it is he wants to be, I’m not quite sure to be honest—be sure to invite me to the wedding, won’t you?”
“As long as you’re certain to do the same, when you and Mary finally get married,” says Sybil archly, and Matthew scowls.
“Don’t you start going on at me, too. Mother’s been at it from dawn ‘til dusk—”
“Well, she ought to be, considering how the pair of you look at each other—”
“It is my business, you know.”
“Yes, but it’s like a radio show; we’re all waiting quite desperately for the next installment. Think of it! A show called Downton Abbey—who would want to listen to what we get up to?” Matthew actually pouts, and Sybil has to bite her tongue to keep from giggling. “Would it be terribly forward of me to ask for a projected timeline? Just so I know when to handle my—my matter.”
“A timeline of the next three years? I may be a bit of a stickler for schedules, but I haven’t planned quite that far ahead.”
She pinches his arm as the music stops, covering it by stepping out of reach again. “Don’t be pert, Cousin Matthew, it’s really quite horrifically unattractive.”
“God, you sound like Mary, sometimes,” Matthew says, rolling his shoulder, but they both clap politely, and Sybil takes it like the compliment it was intended to be. She takes his arm as they walk out of the gazebo, and he leans down. “Any other secrets you have to tell me before I hand you over to the wolves?”
“Oh, no. No, if she’s told you about—about what happened, and about the mark, there’s nothing left to say.”
Matthew stops dead. Sybil walks two steps further before realising he’s not keeping pace with her, and she turns. Her heart drops into her belly. Matthew’s eyes are wide, his lips parted. “Mark?” he says, with the air of a man who’s just been struck over the head. “What mark?”
“Oh no.” Sybil tugs away from him. “No, you didn’t hear anything. I didn’t say that.”
“Sybil, what mark?” He reaches forward, takes her by the elbows. He looks ready to shake her. “You must tell me what you mean, what did you mean?”
“Her mark, her soulmark, it—it changed—” Sybil says, but that’s all she can get out before Matthew is off, darting through the crowd so quickly all she can do is make out the shine of his hair, like a new penny in the sunlight. Then he’s gone, and she covers her mouth with one hand. “Oh, God.”
“Is something the matter, Lady Sybil?” says Sir Anthony Strallan, who crops up out of nowhere with no Edith on his arm. His soulmark is silvered with age and with death, clear as day on the back of his wrist. Sybil gulps twice, and when Tom reaches for her in the back of her head, she imagines grasping his hand and holding on tight.
“No, I’m fine. I’m perfectly all right.” She smiles at him, dazzlingly. “How are you?”
“I—I’m well, thank you very much for asking. Only I wonder—would you be willing to dance the next with me?”
“Really? But what about—”
“Lady Edith has been claimed, and as you were dancing so prettily before, I thought you might give me a few tips. I’m afraid I’m out of practice.”
“Oh, no.” She sets a hand to her stomach, lets out a long breath, and then smiles again. “No, that’s all right. We’ll have you fixed up for Edith, shall we?”
Sir Anthony is not nearly so good a dancer as Matthew, and he’s—she hates herself for saying this, because Edith likes him so much, but he’s truly rather dull. She knows about farming, of course, but he talks about it incessantly. Because he’s nervous, she thinks, and she pities him for it. Being shy is never something to be blamed for. She’s not the best partner either, to be honest. She’s imagining Matthew and Mary, Mary hating her, Matthew never coming back, all of it broken, because of her—it makes her want to be sick.
Still, she does daydream a bit. Tom would never be the sort to dance at a thing like this, but she imagines it anyway, and when they whirl around she catches him watching her in the distance. Heat tingles in her fingertips. She wishes he could see the image she has in her head, her in her gown, him in his uniform, dancing without shame or worry. It stings with how badly she wants it.
The second dance ends. Sybil stands up with Russell Mann (because she can’t avoid it) and then with her father (because she can’t find Matthew or Mary anywhere, and it’s better than chewing her nails off). Then she sits next to Granny and Cousin Isobel for an hour, because no one can scare off overeager boys like Violet and Isobel Crawley. Matthew doesn’t reappear on the dance floor, and by the time she sits down, Mary, too, is nowhere to be seen.
“What on earth has crawled into your gown, my dear?” asks Granny. “Is this a popular new dance of some kind?”
Sybil stops wriggling like a worm on a hook, and smiles at her grandmother. “No, it’s nothing. Just—news is coming, I think, that’s all.”
“You girls and your secrets. Girls your age oughtn’t be allowed to have secrets. It makes you extraordinarily irritating.”
She leans forward, and kisses Violet on the cheek. “I only keep secrets to make things more exciting for you, Granny.”
“What sort of secret?” asks Isobel.
“The sort that’s not mine, and so I can’t be expected to tell,” says Sybil primly. Isobel makes a face.
“Not even for nursely solidarity?”
“Not even for that, Cousin Isobel.”
“Which of course makes it the best sort of secret,” says Granny. “You must tell us.”
“Everyone!” Around them, the guests begin to fall silent. The string quartet fades. Papa is standing in the centre of the courtyard, arms raised. “Thank you all for coming. I’ve just been instructed that I have an important announcement to make.”
Sybil lifts a shaking hand to her cheek.
“It is my distinct pleasure to inform you that my eldest daughter, the Lady Mary Crawley, is now engaged to be married—” Papa, always with a love for the dramatic, pauses, and behind him, Mary and Matthew emerge from the crowd, hands tangled. “—to Mr. Matthew Crawley.”
Isobel sags. Sybil’s out of her chair before she realises it, and as everyone around begins to clap, she surges forward to Matthew and Mary, who welcome her coming with arms tight around her. They take her into their arms like this is all because of her, and not because of them. Cinnamon washes over her. Matthew grasps her around the shoulders, Mary around the waist, and they are a tangle of limbs and joy in the middle of the garden as people clamor in the background.
“I’m so happy for both of you.” She kisses Mary’s cheek, and then Matthew’s. Matthew is lit up from inside with a sort of light she’s never seen in him before; his eyes are wet. Then she looks at Mary again, because Mary is crying and smiling, and she reaches out to Sybil with both hands.
“You said yes,” says Sybil. Mary touches Sybil’s cheek, and then draws her forward into a hard hug, her lavalier digging into Sybil’s ribs from the force of it.
“I said yes,” she said.
“You told him?”
“I told him.”
“I told you he wouldn’t care,” Sybil says, smiling stupidly. Mary turns so her voice is a ghost in Sybil’s ear.
“I know. You were right.” Tears dampen Sybil’s hair. “We’ll be having words later, my darling, about your inability to hold your tongue.”
“Don’t mind her,” says Matthew, still looking as if he’s been knocked over the head, but in the best possible way. “I wouldn’t have dared for months more, otherwise.”
Sybil pulls back, and then Mary is whisked away from her. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Edith staring off into the distance, Anthony Strallan by her side. They’re not speaking. Violet and Isobel are buzzing with excitement, Granny tapping her walking stick hard against the grass, Cousin Isobel fanning her face too quickly for propriety to compensate. Mama is crying and leaning against Papa’s shoulder.
She turns, and Tom Branson is standing on the edge of the party, smiling at her.
Nobody’s looking. She can’t help it. I love you, she mouths, and a prickling, expansive warmth fills her from the soles of her feet to her scalp.
I love you, he mouths back. She hugs herself, staring at him for as long as she can, filling up on the sight of him, before she has to turn around and join her family in their congratulations.
The party disperses within an hour. Champagne is drunk, and poured again, and Mary and Matthew lead the way back into Downton Abbey with their arms tangled together. Granny demands that they settle in the sitting room (“the only proper thing in this sort of circumstance”) and they drink to the couple, to Downton, to the couple again. Matthew raises his glass to Mary, she lifts hers to Matthew, and all of a sudden Sybil is on her third glass of champagne and starting to feel an odd sort of buzzing in her limbs. Her head hurts barely at all, she’s standing by the fireside and watching some of her favorite people in the world become indescribably, incomparably happy, she has a plan, or half of one: she can’t breathe for happiness.
Which of course is why it ends.
“Of course you’ll be married at Downton, there’s no question of it. Mary would hang me if I ever suggested otherwise. Now that that’s taken care of—” Papa swirls the wine in his glass. “It’s not in the vein of things, I’m afraid, but I must say it before I forget. I’m dismissing the chauffeur.”
Her mood drops like a stone.
“Papa, you can’t be serious,” says Mary.
“I’m completely serious. The man may have been lied to, but the fact remains that he put not one, but two of my daughters in danger with his negligence. He’s a good driver and we’ll be sorry to lose him, but—”
“Why are you bringing this up now, and not earlier?” Mama looks perturbed, her lower lip pushing out a little. “I would have thought the proper time to dismiss him would have been the day after the Count, rather than steal Mary and Matthew’s thunder.”
“Matthew asked me to hold off on the matter until the engagement was announced—”
Mary makes a noise like a squashed cat. “You knew about the engagement?”
“I told him I was going to ask,” Matthew says, and squeezes Mary’s hand. “As one does.”
“As one does, and as Matthew requested, I yielded. But this will be an end to the matter. Branson will have one last night in service, to celebrate with the rest of us, and then he will be going. And that,” Papa says, “will be the end of it.”
Sybil drops her champagne flute. It spills all down the front of her skirt, all over her shoes, and the glass shatters on the stone of the fireplace, skittering every which way. Her veins are frozen inside her. Her heart isn’t working. No. He can’t take him away. They’re all staring at her, and Mary’s at her side all of a sudden, her hand on Sybil’s elbow, asking what’s wrong, but Mary knows what’s wrong, doesn’t she? They can’t have him. Mama looks from Papa to Sybil and back again, her eyes wide. Matthew is on her other side, holding her up in case she faints. Sybil could smack him. Sybil never faints. I won’t let them have him. In her head, she feels Tom, and she reaches out with her mind to wrap round him, strangle-tight. He’s on his way, she thinks, and this is it, this is it and they’re not prepared, they’re not prepared at all but there’s no way to cover this up, not really, and oh, God—
“I’ll not give him up,” she says, her voice echoing too-loudly in the hollows of the sitting room. Papa’s eyebrows snap together.
“Sybil, what are you talking about? What do you mean?”
Her mouth is terribly dry. Champagne drips from her skirt onto the tops of her feet. “I meant what I said, Papa. I will not give him up.”
“Sybil,” says Mama. “Darling, you’re tired. Perhaps you should go upstairs to bed?”
“I’m not tired, Mama. And I’m not going to faint, I’m perfectly fine.”
Matthew takes his hand away from her elbow, but he stands behind her shoulder anyway, and for that she could kiss him, she really could, because even if he said he would rather not get involved, it’s nice to know that Matthew Crawley is truly in her corner. Underneath the buzzing in her head, she can feel Tom getting closer.
“I honestly don’t see how you’d be the one giving him up,” says Papa, his eyebrows drawing tight together. “It’s not as if he’s your personal valet—”
“It’s not like that at all!”
“Sybil,” says Mary through gritted teeth. “Maybe we could discuss this at another time.”
“No, we can’t.” She clutches at Mary’s hand. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to ruin it, I’m ruining your day, your lovely, lovely day—”
Mary looks stricken. “Sybil, no—”
“—but I have to say it, because this is unjust! Can’t you see how it’s unjust?”
“Of course I can, darling, but—”
Granny taps her stick against the carpet. “Sybil, what on earth is the matter with you?”
“You can’t fire him for doing what I asked him to do! You can’t fire him for trying to help me!”
“That’s true enough, Papa, he didn’t know where we were going—”
“No, Mary, that’s not the point. The point is that he betrayed my trust—”
“How?” Sybil cries. “How did he betray your trust? By carrying me out of a riot? By trying to keep Mary and me out of danger? Branson has done nothing wrong!”
“Sybil, you’re being unreasonable.” Papa sets his glass of champagne glass on the fireplace mantel. “No matter how—how fond you may be of this driver, you can be settled in knowing we’ll give him a good reference as he goes. I’m not so brutal as all that—”
“You don’t understand!” Sybil wants to shout at him, to wring his neck, to shake him. Panic makes her heart pound low and fast, like a hummingbird’s wings. Tom is clamoring in the back of her head. He’s like a great ringing gong, sending vibrations all the way down to her toes. She can almost taste his heartbeat. Sybil digs her fingernails into her elbows. “That’s not what this is to me, not at all!”
“You can’t just expect me to—”
“Sybil,” says Mary, in her Future Countess voice. “Sit. Down.”
Sybil’s a younger sister. She sits. Mary whirls on their father—“You too, Papa”—and Papa sinks down into the nearest chair, looking as if he’s been stabbed in the back at the order. You should know better, she thinks, glaring at him. Mary orders everybody. It’s not as though you’re any different.
“That’s better,” says Granny. “Now, Sybil. You will explain yourself.”
“I think she’s explained quite enough, Granny.” Edith tosses her hair back. “She doesn’t want the chauffeur to be dismissed, because she doesn’t want to feel like it’s her and Mary’s fault for a man losing his livelihood. It’s all very childish, if you ask me. He can always find a new job—”
“It’s not their fault!” says Papa, exasperated, while at the same time Sybil nearly shoots off the sofa and slaps Edith across the face. Matthew’s hand lands hard on her shoulder, and keeps her in her seat.
Granny holds up a hand, and they all fall silent.
“That’s not it at all, is it?” Granny says, and her eyes are piercing, as if they’re digging right down into Sybil’s body and peeling her soul out of it. “That’s not what she said, no—no, she said, you’ll not take him from me. From me, she said. As if—as if there were a sense of belonging that ought not to be there.”
Mama goes white around the lips. Matthew has not let go of her shoulder.
Tom is coming, she thinks.
“Now,” says Granny. “There are only two reasons I can think of to explain something like this. The first is there is some sort of…childish attachment between the two of you—”
Papa opens his mouth.
“Be quiet, Robert,” says Granny, without even looking around. Edith is watching them all, her eyes flicking between them with an avid sort of eagerness that makes Sybil sick to see. “If this is the case, and I hope it isn’t, this means that it must be severed, immediately. The world may be changing, Sybil, but it will never change fast enough for the youngest daughter of an earl to run away with a chauffeur.”
She can taste blood in her mouth. Sybil straightens, puts her shoulders back, and looks at her grandmother. It’s worse than she imagined, she thinks, and yet not nearly as bad at all. Panic flutters in her throat, but it’s not hers, it’s Tom’s. She wonders if her calmness is unnerving him.
“The second,” says Granny, and this time real worry comes into her face, “is that there is some sort of—deeper malaise which we must eradicate. The only way we can know is if Sybil tells us herself.”
As one, they all turn to look at her. All of them but Matthew and Mary, who have been looking at her since the beginning, who have been watching her to see what she’ll do. Sybil swallows, and lifts her head, meeting Granny’s eyes first, then Papa’s, then her mother’s. Matthew’s hand slips off her shoulder. Her mark is tingling.
“Sybil,” Mary blurts. “No.”
“I don’t have any shame in it, Mary,” says Sybil, and Mama sinks deep into the couch. “Why do you want to stop me?”
“Because this isn’t the way, darling, think it through, be more prepared, you can’t just—”
“I’m not ashamed,” Sybil snaps. “Not of any of it!”
“Ashamed of what?” asks Edith.
“Ashamed of who, more like,” says Mary, and Sybil wrenches her hand out of Mary’s grip.
Papa’s turning puce. “Mary, for God’s sake stop skipping about the matter and—”
“It’s my matter,” says Sybil, “and I don’t care, Mary, you don’t understand it but I don’t care—”
“Well you should—”
She hears footsteps in the hall. Sybil moves before she knows she makes the choice, ducks past her father, and darts to the door just in time for it to open. Tom is flushed, his hair askew, his uniform coat unbuttoned. His hat and gloves are nowhere to be seen. He doesn’t look at anyone else, only at her, and Sybil takes one of his hands and weaves their fingers together.
“You’re all right?” Tom asks. He would touch her cheek, if they were alone. She raises his hand to her lips, and kisses the knuckles.
“I’m all right. Well, now, anyway.”
“Well,” says Granny. “That settles that question.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Edith says. “I don’t understand it at all.”
“Doesn’t it?” Sybil asks, deliberately light. Her fingers are trembling. Tom tightens his grip on her hand. “I should think it’s rather obvious.”
Papa, ominously, is saying nothing at all.
“Tom Branson is my soul mate,” says Sybil, and her words seem to echo all through her. It’s the first time she’s ever said it aloud, all of it, from start to finish. “I love him, and he loves me, and once I turn twenty-one, we’re going to marry.”
“The plot thickens,” murmurs Granny.
Mama turns to Mary, who is watching them with her hand at her mouth. “Mary, you—you knew about this?”
“We both knew about it,” says Matthew, and Papa flinches as if he’s been shot, tilting ‘round to stare at his future son-in-law. “I found out by accident. It’s all true, Robert, every word of it.”
“I’m sorry to say it now, when it’s—it’s taking the spotlight away from Matthew and Mary, but yes, it is true.” Sybil swallows. “We wanted to find another time to tell you, but that’s in the past. You know, now, and there’s no changing it. And you can try all you like, Papa, but you’re not changing my mind, either.”
Papa explodes. “The devil that I’m not!”
“Robert,” says Mama.
“Stay out of it, Cora!”
Mama flinches back, some emotion flickering across her face too fast for Sybil to catch. Papa doesn’t notice. “Know your own mind? Sybil, you’re eighteen, you don’t know your own mind well enough to decide—”
“I’d rather you give your daughter the credit of having a brain that she’s capable of using,” Tom snaps, and she squeezes his hands so tight that her bones creak.
“You,” Papa says, and his voice rasps at the edges. “You get out of my house.”
“You’ll not throw him out,” Sybil snarls. “Not while I’m here.”
“The hell that I won’t. You are the cause of this. I had doubts at the start, and I see here that I’ve been proven right. Here you’ve been, bowing and scraping and doffing your cap while all the while seducing my youngest daughter out from underneath my nose—”
“I never scraped—”
“You will end this juvenile folly, Sybil, and he will leave, and that will be the end of it.”
Someone must have rung the bell. he door opens. Carson pauses on the threshold, his eyes flickering between Tom (who goes stiff), Papa (who doesn't seem to notice) and Sybil (who doesn't look at him long). He clears his throat, and puts his hands behind his back. Then he sees that Sybil and Tom are holding hands, and his nostrils flare. "Did you have need of me, milord?"
Papa jerks. His eyes focus. "Excellent. Excellent timing. Yes. Carson, you will see this—man out.”
“Certainly, sir,” says Carson, with a sort of grim satisfaction. Matthew stands up.
“I’ll take him.”
“No!” Sybil darts forward, puts herself between Matthew and Tom. “No, you can’t!”
“Sybil,” Matthew hisses. He glances over his shoulder, and then lowers his voice down past a whisper, so that she can barely hear him. “Think, Sybil. Screaming won’t resolve this. Fall back. Plan.”
Sybil stares at him. She feels wild—her hair is hanging down around her face, her eyes sting with the effort of keeping back the tears, her whole body is shaking. Tom’s hand seems to be the only thing tethering her to earth. She screws up her face in an effort to keep from crying, turns, and sets her face in the crook of Tom’s neck, breathing in once, breathing out. Then she goes up on tiptoe and kisses him. She leans into him and kisses him with everything she has, and even as behind her the room erupts into chaos, Tom cups her face in his hands and kisses her back. It’s over before it even seems to have begun.
“I love you,” she says, as Matthew grabs Tom’s arm, hustles him out of the room. “Always.”
“Always,” he says, and then the door is slammed shut. She can still feel him, fury and terror, and she wants to fall to her knees, but she stands up tall instead. Sybil gulps air. She wipes at her eyes, and her nose. Everyone is staring at her. She stares back.
Carson looks as though someone’s broken a priceless vase in front of his face, and ground it into dust.
“Carson, get Gwen in here now, please,” says Mary in a low voice, and Carson bobs his head and marches out the door as if he has a rod stuck along his spine. Sybil stands there, chest heaving. She crosses her arms over her belly. As soon as the door to the study is shut, Papa snaps.
“Are you absolutely mad?” He looks ready to tear out his own hair as he marches towards her, closer and closer, and Sybil leans away from him out of instinct. She has never seen him so angry. “Have you been taken in so completely that you can no longer understand reason?”
“I understand reason,” Sybil says. Her voice shakes. “Much better than you can, apparently.”
“This man has seduced you, Sybil, and I will not let you ruin your life to throw yourself away in a marriage that will be ended before the year is out—”
She whips her hand back to slap him, but he catches her wrist. Edith lets out a little scream. They stand there, staring at each other. Then Papa lets her go, and Sybil folds her hand tight against her chest. “What do you want to say to me, Papa?” she asks. “If I’m mad, then commit me. Throw me into a sanatorium, lock me away until I’m twenty-one, it won’t change my mind. Because I know I’m right. You’ve no right to keep us apart, not when we’re bonded.”
"Nonsense," says Granny. "He has every right."
“Think about this, Sybil, please.” Mama stands, shakily, and for the first time Sybil feels like she’s going to be sick. “You can never be happy, not with him—”
“You seem to think that I can’t be happy unless I stay here for the rest of my life, going to parties and—and watching you shoot animals out of the sky, but that’s not true!” The tears spill over. She dashes them away. “It might not be your idea of happiness, but it’s mine. I’m happy with him no matter what you think, I’d be happy with him no matter where we go or what we become, and you can’t change that. Why can’t you just accept that? What makes it so difficult to understand”
“The discussion is over.” Papa clenches his hands into fists. “I can’t hear this. I won’t.”
“I’m warning you, Papa.” She clenches her hands into fists. “If you do this to us, I will never speak to you again. I swear it, on my life. You’re not stopping it. Not with this.”
“You’re eighteen and a fool,” says Papa, “and you’ll be rational again in the morning. Rest assured that when we go to London, he won’t be coming with us. Gwen, you’ll be staying in Lady Sybil’s room from now on. You’ll make certain she doesn’t leave in the middle of the night.”
Gwen opens her mouth, and then shuts it again. “Yes, sir.”
Papa gives her one last tortured look, and then storms out of the sitting room. Sybil watches as the rest of them file out, one by one. Isobel looks back as she does it, but she goes. Mary is the last, and instead of leaving, she comes to Sybil, and kisses her cheek once.
“I’m in your court,” she says. “I don’t agree with it, but you helped me when no one else did, and so I’m in your court. For that, if nothing else.”
Sybil makes herself smile. Mary smiles back, and then goes out the same door Tom and Matthew did. Finally, it is only Gwen, Gwen who will never tell on her, Gwen who is looking at her as if she’s going to cry.
“Milady?” she says.
Sybil seizes the nearest vase, flings it against the wall, and watches it shatter before breaking down into wretched tears.
It seems counterintuitive that things should happen so quickly after that. All of it has been so slow up until this point, but now it seems as if she blinks and the whole world has transformed.
Sybil doesn’t cry forever. The next morning, when Anna has come in to take over the watch, Gwen walks out with a letter to Alice Forsythe and a note for Tom Branson folded like a secret in the pocket of her apron. Two days after that, Tom is in London. Because Sybil begs her, and because Alice is their friend, both of them, Alice meets him at the station. Papa hears that Tom’s left the village, and tells her grimly that her Irishman has shown his true colours. Sybil turns her face away from him, and leaves the room.
The Crawleys go to court. Sybil is presented to the royal family, and she earns the moniker Ice Princess for the look on her face. Mary and Matthew’s engagement is announced, officially; they will wed on August first.
Gwen is brought with them to London—to make sure Sybil doesn’t run away, nominally—and the first night they’re in town, a letter arrives for her from Alice Forsythe. There is another, smaller envelope inside it, one marked simply Lady Sybil, and signed YPF.
In June, Sybil writes an application to the London School of Medicine for Women. She is accepted at the interview. She tells Alice and Gwen, and swears them both to secrecy.
She sees Tom twice. The first time, she goes out on an errand with Gwen, and instead meets him in a café that Alice knows, one that the women at the School of Medicine use. He holds her hand on the tabletop, and she brings her chair around to lean her head into his shoulder, not caring who sees. They plan.
The second time, they bundle each other into a doorway, and kiss so desperately that she feels she will fall apart at the seams.
A week before the Crawleys return to Downton, Tom takes a train back to Ripon, and engages a temporary room in a pub. He lists his occupation as journalist, and signs under the name Donnelly. It is three blocks from the Café du Chat.
The Crawleys settle back into Downton on 31 June, and aside from her shifts at Dr. Clarkson’s hospital, Sybil is kept on house arrest. She keeps working at Dr. Clarkson’s simply because neither Cousin Isobel nor Granny will be prevailed upon to kick her out.
The July air makes her dresses stick to her back as Sybil informs her father that she has been offered a position at medical school. It is the first time she has said a word to him outside of Society platitudes since March. He says they will discuss it once Mary is married. She returns to stony silence, sells a necklace, and submits the deposit for attendance behind his back.
Gwen uses the last of her savings, and co-signs a flat in Ripon with Alice Forsythe, offering Anna Smith as her character reference.
Mary asks Sybil to stand up with her at Mary and Matthew’s wedding in August. Sybil accepts.
On the same day, Cora Crawley announces that she is pregnant.
“You’re certain this is what you want to do,” Mary says. She folds her legs up into the armchair, and watches as Sybil sorts through the last of her clothes, tossing most of it away, setting one good dress in her suitcase. She’s taking the jewelry with her, most of it wrapped up and settled in a bag that she’ll be adding to her purse. She’s keeping three pieces—the arrow necklace Gwen gave her, a pair of earrings, and the mother-of-pearl pin that Mama gave her for her birthday—but nothing else. “You’re certain I can’t change your mind.”
“You can no more change my mind than you can change my height,” Sybil snaps, and closes the suitcase. She stows it under the bed. “We tried to do it the right way, Mary. We tried. Papa dismissed us, utterly. I’m through with trying to be honourable when he doesn’t even pretend to care.”
“He cares, Sybil, truly he does.” Mary sighs. “He just—he thinks you’re throwing your life away, and in all honesty, you—”
“You don’t understand.” Sybil turns to her. “I don’t care about this life. I’ve been in it, Society, court, and I hated it. It’s all—all so superficial and horrid. None of it actually matters.”
“You say that now, but—”
“What do I have to say to get you to understand? I don’t want this life. I don’t want it. Maybe I never wanted it. Nothing you can ever say will change my mind, Mary, because nothing I ever say about Matthew could ever make you regret loving him. Tom is my bond, Mary. He’s part of my soul. You can’t make me turn my back on that.”
Mary opens her mouth, but whatever she’s going to say, it’s lost forever when Gwen opens the door. Gwen’s still flushed with excitement with the prospect of becoming a secretary, and Sybil can’t help but smile to see her. At least one of them is getting her dreams without having to act like an underhanded snake.
“Her Ladyship is wondering where you are, Lady Mary.” Gwen’s eyes dart to the skirt around Sybil’s bed, but then she smiles again. “She’s waiting for you in your room, to help you with the dress.”
“Thank you, Gwen, we’ll be right there,” says Mary. Gwen bobs her head, and shuts the door quietly behind her. Sybil prods her suitcase back under the bed, and glances over at Mary.
“You’ll not tell them until I’m well away?”
“No, of course not.” Mary tosses her head. Her earrings shimmer against her neck. She’s fiddling with her engagement ring, which means she’s telling the truth. “What do I know to tell them? That you’ve gone, that I knew you were going but said nothing—like Papa will ever forgive me for that. Still, Matthew would scalp me if I tried. And you would never speak to me again. Besides, I think it’s been made quite clear that this isn’t going to simply blow over, and I’m ever the pragmatist.”
“As you always have been. Besides.” Sybil drops down onto the bed. “We’ll not be leaving until after your wedding. You’ll be on the honeymoon, and Papa wouldn’t dare question you during that.”
“Of course not.” Mary rests her chin on her hands, rocking her head just so to the side. “But I will miss you when you go, my dear. Desperately.”
Sybil smiles, and goes to buss Mary’s cheek. “Come on, then. We’d—” Her throat closes. “We had better go and join Mama.”
Downton has been turned into a garden for Mary’s wedding. The smell of the flowers is overpowering as they set Mary’s hair, and help her into her gown. Matthew has already gone down to the church, and all that remains is the ceremony, the reception, and the wedding night before Mary and Matthew are off to the south of France. Sybil’s hands are steady as she helps her sister into her dress, and then goes to change into her own. Gwen has already removed the suitcase from underneath her bed. It will be waiting for her in Ripon, she knows. She folds her acceptance letter to the School of Medicine, and settles it in her purse.
Edith is the first of them into the church. As she’s standing up with Mary, Sybil just marches to the front, to the altar, and turns to look at the crowd. There’s her mother, smiling with red eyes. She’s still so weak from the miscarriage, her hands visibly trembling in her lap. The self-loathing hits her suddenly, bitter as venom, as she looks at her mother and wonders if she’ll ever see her again. But no—it’s not her who will cut all ties, is it?
Then she hates herself again. It’s her sister’s wedding, it’s Mary’s wedding, her wedding and her final binding, and she can’t stop thinking about herself even for that.
She can’t decide if Edith looks horribly jealous or horribly sad or horribly happy or all three, and it unsettles her. Sybil catches Matthew’s eye as Grandmama sidles into the pew, and she drops him a wink. He grins into his collar. The space next to him is empty. It means she’ll have to dance with her father at the reception, because there’s no best man. It can’t be helped, she supposes.
She can see her father and Mary at the back of the church. Papa is bursting at the seams with pride, with relief, and it’s no wonder. Matthew and Mary married, the inheritance confirmed, and bonded in the process. The best outcome from all angles. It’s Mary that she watches, though. Mary looks ephemeral, a fairy touching earth for the first time. Joy gleams out of her like moonlight. She catches Sybil watching, and smiles. Sybil smiles back, and then schools her face to politeness as the music begins.
The ceremony’s faded in her memory, like silk through water. She can remember Mary’s expression when Matthew slid the ring onto her finger; the timber of the bishop’s voice. There’s a vivid image of Granny sniffling into a handkerchief, which is the first time any of them have seen Granny come close to tears. They leave the church. There’s the flash of a camera, Edith’s arm around her waist, Sybil resting her head on Mary’s shoulder. Mary’s fingers dig into her hip. Then they’re in Downton, and the whole place is a crowd, laughing and toasting and talking of things Sybil can’t quite hear. She escapes after a while, and sits at a table with Grandmama. Her American grandmother smells of expensive perfume and foxfur, and her hair is too red for it to be anything other than horrifically unnatural.
“Your sister’s beautiful,” she says. “Like a queen.”
“She’s happy,” says Sybil simply. Grandmama turns, and gives her a sharp side-eye, but says nothing. She clasps Sybil’s hand instead, and Sybil squeezes. She has no doubt that Mama has written to Grandmama about everything that’s happened, but Grandmama has said nothing about it, and for that she’ll always be grateful.
At the reception, Edith dances almost exclusively with Anthony Strallan, and Granny’s mouth purses so tight you’d think she was eating a whole sour lemon. Sybil dances until her feet hurt, ignoring the looks Martha Levinson keeps giving her. She helps host the reception, laughs with Granny, kisses Mary’s cheek and Matthew’s, congratulates Cousin Isobel. She even smiles at her father for the first time in months, and he nearly drops his glass. Twice she sees Gwen skim through the back of the room, and each time she touches the arrow necklace nestled in the hollow of her throat. Tom is a fluttering in her heart, a comforting weight in her gut.
At eleven, she claims a migraine, begs not to be disturbed until the wedding breakfast, and goes upstairs to her room, where Gwen is waiting. She’s dressed in the deep green fabric that Sybil gave her months ago, and a soft black hat.
“There’s no turning back now, if you do come,” Sybil warns.
“I gave my notice two weeks ago, milady,” says Gwen ruefully. “When I heard from the telephone company. I’ve a job, in Ripon. But I can help you, first,” she adds, stout as always, and Sybil puts her arms around Gwen and hugs her close for a long moment before going to change.
They go down the servant’s stairs. There’s no one paying attention in that part of the house—the footmen are all upstairs serving, Mrs. Patmore and Daisy the maid are in the kitchen, and when Sybil ducks low and follows Gwen out the back door, no one calls her name. The night air is crisp and beautiful as they duck past the stables, into the garage which no longer smells of Tom. When they shut the door, there’s a flare from a gas lamp.
He’s here. His hat is pulled low over his eyes (socialist theatre, she thinks), and there’s an Irish tweed coat on over his plain white shirt. Sybil flies at him, and he catches her, his hands broad on her waist and his mouth hot against hers. Gwen turns politely away as Sybil kisses him, once, twice, and then pulls back. “They’re all still at the party,” she says. “I asked no one to disturb me until at least ten tomorrow, and Mary will keep them off me until after she and Matthew have gone. Do you want to drive?”
“It’s your father’s car,” says Tom, and gives her the keys. “I think there’s some kind of poetic justice in that.”
“We’re giving it back, you know.”
“I know. Doesn’t mean you can’t use it now.”
Gwen cranks the engine. The party is too far away for anyone to hear it catch, but Gwen still shuts the car door gingerly, as if it’ll go off like a gunshot. Sybil’s suitcase is in the backseat. Tom sits beside her, leg braced against hers. He takes off his hat, and his eyes glow when he looks at her.
“Ready?” Sybil asks, and folds her sweaty hands over the wheel.
“Ready, milady,” says Gwen, and holds on to her hat.
“Ready,” says Tom. He touches her knee with two fingers. “Always.”
Sybil puts the car into drive.
Dripping water hollows out stone,
not through force but through persistence.