Chapter 1: I-X
Dr. Clarkson would be furious, but Thomas didn’t care. After carrying more stretchers than he had imagined could exist in all Yorkshire, his back was screaming. He needed a rest, even if only for a moment.
He leaned against the outside wall of the hospital and took a slow drag from his cigarette, then looked out into the mist. Home. In France, he’d thought he’d never see it again. After surviving that hellhole, even if the price had been a good bit of his left hand, he now beheld anything familiar with a tinge of affection. Even Lady Sybil Crawley.
Thomas had heard from O’Brien’s letters that Lady Sybil had gone off to train to be a nurse, but other than raising eyebrow, he hadn’t given it much thought. Of any of the three sisters, she would undoubtedly be the one most likely to do her bit for the war in ways more substantial than fundraising concerts or rolling bandages, but still, there were limits even to his rather substantial imagination.
When he’d transferred to the cottage hospital, now packed to the gills with the maimed and dying, he hadn’t expected her there. He certainly hadn’t expected her to last.
Thomas had never spent much time with the youngest Crawley sister aside from occasionally waiting at table. Still, he knew she lacked the shrewish temperament of Lady Edith or the utter self-involvement of Lady Mary. Maids gossiped, and he listened to everything anyone said out of habit, remembering that a single stray word could someday be to his advantage. Lady Sybil, in his opinion, was probably kind-hearted and more than a little naïve. He could find a way to use that. Even she must have secrets. Now, he had the opportunity to observe her closely, and that could prove profitable.
Lady Sybil at least knew what she was about in the hospital. He’d spent enough time in them now, both as a patient and as a worker, to be able to spot a mildly interested gentlelady who was likely to swoon away at the first sign of blood. A few other daughters of the elite had tried their hand at being the newest version of Florence Nightingale, and they had all abandoned their posts within a week. Even he admitted the wards could be nightmarish, and he couldn’t blame them for wanting to escape. Lady Sybil proved to be the exception.
It took a lot to impress him, but Lady Sybil managed it on a bad day in his second week. Wounded had poured in, cases so horrific even he’d felt ill more than once. But she’d unflinchingly carried out the doctors’ orders.
At one point as she was carrying a tottering pile of bedpans, a soldier had convulsed, accidentally knocking her down, and she’d spilled the mess all over. She’d grimaced, but checked on the man and apologized, blaming own clumsiness. She’d cleaned it up herself rather than having the overworked staff do it, then continued with her work.
He wasn’t sure at first if she remembered him. He’d worked at the Abbey for many years, but it wasn’t unusual for the family not to recognize a name or a face who’d been there far longer than Thomas had. Sometimes he wondered if they’d notice if half the house went missing. They took it all for granted. Still, he knew he was handsomer than average, and that had been to his benefit more than once, and in the case of the Duke of Crowborough, he’d nearly made it into a small fortune. Damn the man for burning those letters.
There was little time for idle chitchat on the wards, and when a spare moment did appear, Lady Sybil usually spent it with the other nurses. They were working class girls, born worlds away from her sphere of experience, but they took to her. It wasn’t sycophantic folderol either. He could tell they actually liked her from how they spoke to her. It helped that she was also a very good nurse.
Still, he had no idea if she knew who he was until the evening a voice at his elbow whispered, “Sergeant Barrow, do you have a spare cigarette?”
He’d been more than a little startled. He’d taken his usual evening break outside and was smoking, thinking, and breathing air untainted by the scent of death for a few minutes and had let his guard down enough that he hadn’t even heard her approach.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you,” she said quickly and turned to go.
“No, that’s quite alright,” he said quickly, patting his pockets. “I do have one here, Lady Sybil.”
“It’s just Nurse Crawley here,” she said, smiling as she took the cigarette and lit it from a match in her apron pocket.
“Thank you,” she said, taking a practiced draw from it that showed she wasn’t new to smoking. She looked left and right, then added, “I’d appreciate it if you kept my tobacco habit quiet. Papa would go into fits. I wouldn’t have asked, but it’s been a very long day.”
“Two shifts, wasn’t it? Back to back?” he asked.
She nodded and slumped against the wall, looking remarkably human. She remained silent, a trait he appreciated, smoking the cigarette nearly to its tip, then stubbing it out on the ground.
“Thank you again, Corporal,” she said, disappearing inside once again.
Thomas had avoided promising to keep her secret, as O’Brien would undoubtedly have noted. Nurse Crawley, as she preferred to be called, did not repeat the request again, but only because she appeared to have her own stash of cigarettes, several of which he’d caught her smoking on his own breaks. She’d given him a rather conspiratorially grin and put her finger to her lips a few times, and he’d smiled back pleasantly enough, but aside from the fact that the daughter of the earl was smoking, he’d picked up only one other clue that he could use against her.
Chapter 2: XI-XX
It was nothing she had said. Her thoughts betrayed her by her countenance, though. He’d glimpsed an expression on her face as he watched her smoke, her features lit dimly by the cigarette, and her gaze invariably went towards the Abbey in the distance.
She hated it.
It was a shock when he was finally able to decrypt her frown, but he would have bet his last penny that she loathed the idea of returning there each night. Perhaps that was why she took so many extra shifts.
“Pardon, Nurse Crawley, but is there anything amiss?” he finally asked her.
She’d looked over at him, the unspoken rule of their perpetual silence having been broken, and he saw that she looked tired, not tired in the way that the noble folk did, but tired to the bone like a kitchen maid.
“There’s a war on, Corporal,” she said wearily. “Boys are dying on the other side of this door. Of course something’s amiss.”
“Yes,” he admitted, “but when we’re out here, it’s to leave that part behind, isn’t it?”
“I suppose so,” she said, rolling the cigarette slowly between her fingers.
“Then what trouble’s followed you outside tonight?” he asked.
“Am I that transparent?” she said.
“Not really,” he said hastily, then changed tactics. “I’m sure his lordship wouldn’t wish you to be unhappy. If the hospital has become too much for you—“
“No!” she said so quickly he was able to confirm his suspicions. “It’s not that.”
“Good,” he said, grinding out the butt of his own cigarette. “You’re a valuable nurse.”
“Am I?” she asked, and the lack of any pretense in the vulnerable question almost pained him.
“Yes, you are,” he said firmly, not only to win her trust, but also because it was the truth.
“Has someone been saying otherwise?” he asked a few moments later when she remained silent.
“No,” she said. “I’m just not used to being of much use at anything that’s actually important.”
It was a strange thing for an earl’s daughter to say. Thomas had long ago realized that most of the uppity-ups thought that they were doing something important solely by breathing while the lower classes could all but save the world and still be thought little more than nuisances.
“I think the lads in there would agree with me,” he said, nodding towards the ward.
“I hope so.”
He wasn’t sure when the main focus of his cigarette breaks stopped being gathering potentially damaging information about the Crawley family. He wasn’t stupid enough to let any golden opportunities slip by, but it was pleasant not to be hated by someone other than O’Brien. He didn’t trust the lady’s maid, and their relationship was based on mutual benefit and a shared interest in finding fault with everyone else. They were not actually friends, only potential allies.
Having a friend was a new experience, and in spite of himself, Thomas Barrow was starting to enjoy it for its own sake.
Nurse Crawley was a hard worker, driven in a way familiar to Thomas. She was trying to prove something. One evening as they stood outside in the quiet of eventide, letting the smoke drift off on the wind, he thought he might as well ask.
“Why did you decide on nursing?” he said.
“Why shouldn’t I?” she responded, her voice neutral.
“Because it’s hell on the other side of that door, you’re an earl’s daughter, and you don’t have to be here,” he said.
“No, but women don’t have many choices,” she said. “I wanted to make at least one.”
He dreaded the day she would find out his secret. It would change things between them; it always did whenever someone realized he wasn’t like everyone else. He didn’t think he was likely to be able to keep Nurse Crawley in the dark much longer. For one thing, she had far more brains than he’d credited any of the Crawleys of possessing. For another, he was surrounded day in and day out by handsome young men. He was bound to slip at some point, by word or deed, and then she’d know.
He suddenly hated the thought of smoking alone.
“I’ll just be gone a moment to get the capsules the doctor ordered,” he heard Nurse Crawley say in the gentle voice that was her hallmark. “If you need anything, Corporal Barrow will take care of you.”
She caught his eye then gestured for him to follow her into the hallway.
“The lieutenant is currently blind. Mustard gas, poor devil,” she said quietly. “He’s very low just now. Would you keep an eye on him?”
“Of course, Nurse Crawley,” he said, then went back into the ward.
One look at him and Thomas knew Edward Courtenay would be his downfall.
Keeping an eye on Lieutenant Courtenay was made immeasurably easier because of his blindness. Thomas wasn’t sure what drew him so strongly to the man. The bandages around his eyes were far from attractive, but there was something that pulled at him.
From a young age Thomas had carefully schooled his expression, not letting his guard down for fear of being beaten to a pulp or outright rejected, and it was hard to say which hurt worse.
When no one else was around, though, Lieutenant Courtenay would be none the wiser if he let his feelings show on his face.
“Does the lieutenant remind you of someone?” Nurse Crawley asked him the following week.
“Not especially,” he said, cursing himself for not being careful. “Why?”
“The way you were studying his face the other day, it was as if you were thinking of something that was making you sad,” she said, exhaling a lungful of smoke onto the breeze.
“Well, it’s a sad situation he’s in,” Thomas said. “Whoever invented mustard gas should rot in hell. Excuse my language, milady.”
“How many times must I tell you, it’s Nurse Crawley here,” she said, then frowned. “Also, I agree with you.”
Chapter 3: XXI-XXX
For notes, see first chapter.
He wasn’t sure how much she had guessed. With her upbringing, it was possible that she had no idea men like himself existed. But she wasn’t stupid.
She also wasn’t vindictive, something he couldn’t say about her sisters. He felt an odd pity that she had one sister who was so witlessly cruel that her beauty was the only thing saving her from spinsterhood, another who would stab her own kin in the back and laugh for joy as the knife slipped, a father who was convinced time would work better in reverse, and a mother who was, well, American.
Edward (in his mind at least, he could call the man by his first name) confided to him about his desire to farm, his envious brother Jack, and his fear that he would never see again.
And maybe, just possibly, there had been something in that moment beyond simple companionship.
Thomas wasn’t stupid enough to think of perfect happiness, but the smallest bit of hope was there. Granted, it was heavily laced with caution and a good dose of fatalism. Nothing had ever turned out right for him yet, but there was nothing that said that couldn’t change, was there?
“I’m concerned about Lieutenant Courtenay.”
It wasn’t something Thomas was used to doing, asking for help. If it were for himself, he’d never do it, but Edward wasn’t well, and it wasn’t just physical. The body, he’d found, could mend in time or find ways to adapt, but mental wounds often went undiagnosed and could be just as debilitating. It had taken him a good hour to work up his nerve to speak to Lady— no, Nurse Crawley about it.
“Yes, so am I,” she said, glancing towards the hospital as their cigarettes were both nearly forgotten in their fingers.
“Has he any family?” she asked. “I know he’s sent letters, but he’s had no visitors.”
“There’s a brother and father,” he said, “but I don’t know as they’re the supportive type. The opposite, in fact, from what he’s said.”
“That’s foul,” Nurse Crawley said, rubbing out her cigarette with her shoe against the gravel as though it were the offending party.
You’d know, he thought. Then again, perhaps she wouldn’t. If Lady Mary or Lady Edith were ill, there was no doubt that their little sister would take care of them regardless of anything they might say or do.
She looked at him intently.
“We could be his family here,” she suggested. “It’s our duty, in a way. I’ve read a bit on physical recovery for the blind, some techniques to make life more independent for them. Would you be willing to help?”
The word was out a shade too quickly.
“Then we shall,” she said, but there was a pause, and he knew the moment had come. “Corporal, is there some reason the Lieutenant elicits such concern?”
“I care about all the wounded,” he said.
“You’re an excellent worker,” she said, “but that’s not what I mean.”
Nurse Crawley regarded him silently, her eyes a shade deep than usual.
“I’m not entirely naïve,” she said. “I’ve heard bits of servants’ gossip when they thought I wasn’t listening, just as I’m sure your lot listen to mine. I don’t give credence to idle stories, though, until I have something to confirm it.”
“A wise course of action, and one I follow myself,” he said. “Ears open, mouth shut and all that.”
He waited for some sign of the usual disgust, but she just looked out at the gathering mist.
“I’d say it’s no one else’s business,” she said.
And that was all. She never brought it up again, and if she noticed his enthusiasm for Lieutenant Courtenay was more than friendship, which she undoubtedly did, she only smiled and politely refrained from saying a word, the very soul of discretion.
It was a unique reaction, but one of the most comfortable ones he’d got.
Nurse Crawley lent him reading materials on the newest innovations in treating the blind and incorporating basic skills like walking and Braille into their convalescence. He’d never been much for books, but he studied these closely, soaking in as much knowledge as he could.
Corporal Barrow knew the fear of looking ridiculous. He’d been the butt of many a joke, both as a child and an adult, and the only one who didn’t seem to find it funny was himself. Lieutenant Courtenay’s initial refusal to work with the cane was, he knew, exactly the same fear. He was going to stumble, fall, look like a bloody fool sometimes, all while fumbling through a darkness that was there only for him.
“The only ones there will be me and Nurse Crawley,” he assured him. “We’ll even keep away from windows.”
Slowly, they gained his trust.
It wasn’t easy going. Edward handled the cane with disgust.
“There’s nothing that says your eyesight won’t return in time,” Nurse Crawley said softly. “This isn’t a surrender. It’s only a different form of battle.”
The lieutenant snorted, but he gripped the cane more firmly.
“The ground is in front of you is quite smooth, no obstacles,” Thomas said. “Just try standing from the wheelchair and use the cane like we talked about.”
“Back and forth,” Nurse Crawley said. “Slow at first, but you’ll soon get the hang of it.”
After a deep breath, he grasped Thomas’s hand and stood.
Thomas knew he was handsome. He was perfectly aware a wide of variety of kitchen maids who had not been disabused of their incorrect assessment of him, Daisy included, were completely smitten with him. More than a handful of men had been as well. He used his looks as a weapon, and it was a very effective one.
It was therefore very strange for him to be drawn to a man who couldn’t see him at all, at least not in the traditional way.
“What do you look like, Corporal Barrow?” Edward asked curiously one day. “I can’t picture you.”
Chapter 4: XXXI-XL
For notes, please see the first chapter.
“Black hair, grey eyes,” he said.
“Would you mind…,” Lieutenant Courtenay began, but his voice stopped.
“Mind what?” Thomas asked.
“Might I touch your face?” he said, sounding embarrassed. “It would give me a bit of help so I wouldn’t feel like I’m talking to a disembodied voice.”
“All right then,” he said, a little awkwardly himself, but no one was about just then.
Thomas took the lieutenant’s hands and lifted them to his face, then let go, hoping he wasn’t about to be poked in the eye. Edward was very careful, though, moving his hands slowly over Thomas’s features.
Thomas’s breath caught as the lieutenant’s hands felt the contours of his chin, the planes of his cheeks, the curve of his nose, the path of his eyebrows, then gently explored the shape of his mouth.
“Did that help?” Thomas asked, speaking before he’d taken his fingers away and managing to catch the tip of one between his lips in a way that could have been entirely accidental but hadn’t been.
“Yes,” Edward. “I think I know you a bit better now.
A quiet cough startled them both, but Thomas whipped his head around only to see Nurse Crawley there.
Thomas knew what it looked like, though he wasn’t certain if things were really moving in the direction he wanted them to or if he was seeing something that wasn’t there. Judging by the blush creeping up the lieutenant’s face, though, there was reason to hope.
“It’s three o’clock,” Nurse Crawley said. “Time for practice. I’ve laid out a good number of obstacles for you.”
“I’d no idea it was nearly time,” Edward said. “I apologize.”
“No cause at all,” she said, but she was looking at Thomas when she smiled, not the slightest trace of disgust on her face.
In a few weeks, the lieutenant progressed from being bedridden to using his cane to tap a path before him, able to judge dips and rises in his path and avoid objects, large and small. The next stage was to navigate safely around people or things that moved. To Thomas’s delight, he saw that Edward was beginning to smile more. It was a good smile.
“I feel I can do well with the two of you here,” he said.
“You haven’t really needed either of us for a while now,” Nurse Crawley said. “You’re doing splendidly on your own, Lieutenant.”
Thomas knew that wasn’t what Edward had meant. The isolation of his injury and the maddening silence of his family were both taking a different toll on him. He needed support more than anything else. He needed to not feel alone in the dark. For now, at least he was stumbling through it less.
Unfortunately, his progress was very good, and Dr. Clarkson took note of it. Edward’s bed was needed by other men, men who were still bleeding and broken, and the hospital was too full as it was. He couldn’t see Edward was broken in a different way.
Thomas knew the moment he opened his mouth and said the word “Sir” that Dr. Clarkson had no interest in anything he might say on the subject of Lieutenant Courtenay’s removal from the Downton hospital. The look in his eye alone was enough to make Thomas know that not only had he no right to an opinion, but by having the impertinence to even form one, he had succeeded only in infuriating the doctor. He should keep his mouth shut.
But he couldn’t. He knew that Farley Hall wasn’t the right plan for him. There had to be another way.
Thomas found himself before Dr. Clarkson for disciplinary reasons. He’d known men like him before, and he loathed them. While they sniffed at the archaic power of the nobility, whatever tiny bit of authority they were given over anyone lower went straight to their heads, and they listened to nobody but themselves. But Thomas didn’t give a good damn if the doctor tore into him and made him look like a powerless fool to bloat his own stupid ego. Edward was all that mattered, and the doctor had to be made to see he was wrong to send him away.
He tried. He’d have groveled if it would have made a difference, but the fury in the doctor’s eyes was irrational and, therefore, inarguable with. A horrible thought suddenly slammed into Thomas’s mind. Was it possible Clarkson suspected there was something between Thomas and Courtenay and this was some twisted punishment? If so, then this was all Thomas’s fault. He wasn’t even certain if Edward had any feelings at all for him.
At that moment, an angel appeared in the form of Nurse Crawley, slamming the door open with a vengeance, every inch the daughter of the Earl of Grantham.
“I thought you might like to know what I think,” Nurse Crawley said, her usually soft voice tinged with imperious anger.
It was a desperate ploy, and one Thomas knew she hated. While she was at the hospital, she tried to forget the Abbey and her place there. She’d made her own way here, earning the respect of the wounded and the other working staff alike, never once calling on her influence for special treatment. But she was using it now, and if the power of the Crawleys could save Edward, for the first time Thomas was glad of it.
It didn’t work. Dr. Clarkson listened to no one, even throwing Lady Sybil’s social class in her face, stupidly arguing this wasn’t a Mayfair ballroom so she had no more right to a dissenting opinion than Thomas. She was equally powerless.
At that moment, Thomas hated Clarkson so viciously that he knew he could be capable of murder. Whatever his reasons were, they were wrong.
However, as he and Nurse Crawley were rudely sent from his office, ears ringing with the order to tell Lieutenant Courtenay to pack his things for Farley Hall, he was grateful bone-deep for her friendship.
Chapter 5: XLI-L
For notes, please see the first chapter.
Edward’s reaction disturbed Thomas. He thanked them for trying to change Dr. Clarkson’s mind, but his voice was hollow. Thomas had heard that tone back in the trenches when a soldier had seen one too many friends blown to bits. Inevitably, that man would be dead as well in a day or two, though the question whether the bullet had found him on its own or with encouragement was better unasked. It made his blood freeze in fear.
“I’m going to find another way,” he whispered quietly in the lieutenant’s ear. “There’s always another way if you look hard enough.”
“The man is an arrogant prig,” Nurse Crawley said, smoking her cigarette with a vicarious disdain that Thomas was sure she had inherited from her grandmother, the only other Crawley he liked.
“Such language,” he said, giving her a sidelong look, but his heart wasn’t in teasing her. He was too busy planning.
“You don’t think the lieutenant would do something rash, do you?” she said to Thomas. “I’m not on duty tonight. I’d stay anyway, but I think Dr. Clarkson might throw me out for good if I try to override him again.”
“Leave it to me,” he said.
It would be tonight. He’d look a right fool if he were wrong, but every instinct told him Edward was like him. The moment Thomas was off duty, he strode to the train station and bought two tickets leaving at 11:30 that night for Bristol. From there, he hoped his savings could buy them passage on a steamship for America. He’d send a letter to Nurse Crawley once they got there. The less she knew, the less she could be accused of before a disciplinary board.
He left the ticket office filled with a joy he had rarely felt before.
Thomas had packed his relatively few belongings into a duffel bag and watched the clock tick. Edward was already packed, but there had been no time to tell him the plan. At 11:00, the night nurse would come on duty and do a quick check of the patients. As soon as she was gone, he would gently shake the lieutenant awake, grab his suitcase, pick their way through the sleeping soldiers, and leave by the back door for the train station. No one would be wiser until morning. He gripped the bag’s handle tightly, waiting.
The scream ripped him apart.
He didn’t need to be told what had happened, and since Nurse Crawley wasn’t there, no one sought him out to let him know. He wasn’t well liked here. He never was.
He learned about the razor from the talk in the staff area: that poor Lieutenant Courtenay had slashed his wrists, and wasn’t it dreadful what war did to the men and wasn’t it horrid that it went on and on and the stress of the battlefield and a thousand other useless platitudes from people who barely knew the man.
But it wasn’t the war that had done this.
His hatred for Clarkson was like a coal burning his throat, but Thomas knew it wasn’t even really the doctor that had killed him. It was the horrible phantom of living forever alone in the dark, stumbling, friendless and different. But he wouldn’t have been alone. Thomas had been coming for him. Why the bloody hell couldn’t he have held on for just one more hour?
Thomas told the head nurse on the floor he was ill and went back to his bed. The duffle bag was still there, waiting, and it was the sight of it that undid him.
Thomas wept alone, but he mourned with Nurse Crawley. She had broken any number of rules, including the ones of propriety, and sat quietly beside him in the deserted staff quarters. He wasn’t sure when she’d taken hold of his hand, but he didn’t mind the company.
“I’m so sorry, Thomas,” she finally said. “I know what he meant to you.”
“Do you really?” he asked, and if he’d had the energy, he would have been angry at her presumption.
“You’re not the only person ever to fall in love with someone society says is an unnatural match,” she said.
He blinked in surprise, as much at her casual but frank acceptance of what would usually have made a young lady of her stature run shrieking to mama as for her revelation.
“And who might that be, then?” he asked, and he shuddered in spite of himself at how pleased O’Brien would be.
Nurse Crawley bit her lip and looked at the blank wall in front of them as though it held the answers to the universe if she only stared hard enough.
“I suppose that’s only fair,” she finally said, “though even he doesn’t know yet. It’s Tom Branson.”
The Earl of Grantham’s youngest daughter fancied the chauffeur. If he’d been writing a bloody romance novel it couldn’t have been more perfect, and she’d told him of her own free will, without him having to blackmail or lurk in shadows or read other people’s letters. It was a perfect victory.
But his insides ached from hidden weeping, and he felt as hollow as an empty piecrust, and just as liable to break to bits.
He only nodded in reply, not condemning, not condoning.
“I need a cigarette,” he said and abruptly left the room.
She didn’t follow. Clever girl.
The Courtenay family sent someone to collect their son’s casket. It wasn’t the first time one of the young men at the hospital had left it that way, but the overwhelming majority were escorted home by weeping mothers, sweethearts, sisters, or wives with stoic yet broken fathers or brothers standing beside them. Families who did not usually lacked the money to travel so far. Thomas knew that wasn’t the case for the Courtenays.
Edward’s corpse may have traveled home alone, but two unseen tickets in the breast pocket of his uniform were a testament that someone would always remember him.
Chapter 6: Chapters LI-LX
For notes, please see chapter one.
Clarkson never admitted his mistake, claiming only that he had no other choice, so Nurse Crawley did the nearly impossible. Downton Abbey was turned into a facility for the recuperation of wounded soldiers, insuring that no one would ever be turned away again. It was like her to see a problem and refuse to be defeated, even if it meant returning to the world she disliked so much.
Thomas would enjoy working in the old house again, particularly since the staff would now have to answer to him. Mr. Carson’s expression alone would be worth having his hand blown off.
“But what did you learn that’s of use?” O’Brien said as they stood outside the servants’ entrance and smoked.
He missed the hospital suddenly, not for the smell of death, and not for the ghost of Edward, but for the simple pleasure of a cigarette with Nurse Crawley instead of this shrew.
He considered. He’d learned that Lady Sybil was in love with the chauffeur, who on top of everything else was Irish and a Catholic into the bargain. That was the sort of delicious ammunition that could topple the whole house in the wrong hands.
“Not a damn thing.”
They rarely had the opportunity to speak now, but when they did, Nurse Crawley was as kind and polite as ever. They remained friends despite class or custom. She kept his secret, and he kept hers.
And when Lance Corporal Barrow heard anyone in the house other than her own blood family call her Lady Sybil, he corrected them at once. Carson thought he was trying to puff himself up and degrade the family, but it was the highest compliment Thomas could pay her. Nurse Crawley was the kindest person he knew, and she deserved the name she had chosen.
The war ended, and the men went home. Thomas knew it wouldn’t be long before Nurse Crawley would slip away with Branson, and sure enough, she eventually disappeared with him to Ireland. He was glad that at least one of them had found happiness.
She wasn’t disowned, though, visiting along with her husband for Lady Edith’s wedding (and yes, even Thomas pitied the middle daughter for that disaster). They’d spoken only briefly once in a corridor.
“My congratulations,” he’d said, giving a pointed glance at her expanding waistline.
She had blushed but laughed, obviously happy.
It was their last conversation.
When she had turned up at Downton again, reuniting with her wayward husband, Thomas had been relieved. What Branson (he refused to call him anything else in his mind) had been doing leaving his pregnant wife alone in Ireland he couldn’t tell, but it looked dodgy.
Word slowly filtered through the household staff that the pair of them were staying, that in fact they couldn’t return to Ireland even if they had wanted to. The child would be born at the Abbey. Thomas wasn’t certain how pleased she would feel about any of that. It undoubtedly wasn’t what she’d planned.
His Lordship’s chosen doctor was a fusty, self-satisfied specialist with a long résumé of literally well-born noble babies, but he was also an idiot. Everyone below stairs agreed on that, even Thomas, though he admitted to extremely limited experience on anything dealing with that aspect of the feminine gender. But Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes exchanged significant looks, and Thomas put some value on their sense and none on the earl’s. He worried.
As much as he hated Dr. Clarkson and thought him an inept fool, at least he was a fool they knew. Thomas was glad he was there.
Something went wrong with the birth. Even floors below, he could hear the shouting between the two doctors, her Ladyship’s pleading, his Lordship’s blustering, Branson’s maddening confusion.
But the baby came, a healthy little girl, and for once Thomas and the rest of the staff were united in their relief. Everyone rejoiced, and all was well for a few short hours.
Then the bell had rung in the middle of the night, and Carson choked out news Thomas didn’t want to believe.
Lady Sybil was dead.
The words bit into him.
He wept for the first time since Edward’s death.
Thomas blamed Branson for making her flee for her life over water and land, alone and in a delicate condition. His ridiculous politics meant more to him than his wife and child.
He blamed Dr. Clarkson for not making that idiot of a snobbish physician see sooner that she was dying. This was the second person Thomas had lost under the doctor’s care, and he wouldn’t forget it.
But in his darkest moments, Thomas wondered if going to his Lordship with the news of his daughter’s dalliance with a chauffeur long ago would have saved her life. He blamed himself.
The child lived. Though it was her birth that had most brought about her mother’s death, he never cast blame on the tiny girl who now bore her name. He saw bits of her in the baby: the shape of her eyes, her complexion. There was a strange comfort in that. Part of her was still there.
That did not mean he forgave Branson, who could lord it over all of them now, or Dr. Clarkson, that doddering nitwit.
He never really forgave himself either, though he knew Sybil had chosen her life and would have
taken no other path.
Thomas was not a sentimental man. Any member of the household now would agree he was mean-spirited, self-serving, heartless, and incapable of basic human decency or kindness. Perhaps not Anna, he supposed, but she was the sort who wouldn’t speak ill of anyone. However, in general, they loathed him, and the feeling was mutual.
On certain nights, though, he couldn’t sleep.
On those nights a keen-eyed observer would have noticed a small red light above Sybil Branson’s grave in the churchyard, and in the morning, a cigarette could be found snuffed out beside her tombstone.
He hated to smoke alone.