Fandom: Downton Abbey
Summary: AU S01 epic set after the flower show. Following an explosive argument with Matthew, Violet takes Mary abroad for adventures of discovery and romance in Europe while back at home Sybil finds herself torn between two men and her independence.
Read Chapter Fourteen here!
It was surprising how quickly things returned to normal after the engagement, yet the feeling of strangeness never quite left Sybil. The rest of the family took the news with almost offensive calmness and lack of excitement. Her mother pulled an extraordinary face and said she'd never heard the like, then followed it up it quickly with a kiss and an expression of happiness, before agreeing that keeping it within the family was very sensible. Edith's reaction was even more unanticipated. Sybil had expected her to be happy for her – they had always been good friends – but she had immediately become distant and even made some snide comments about her being a dark horse and made out that her interest in socialism and women's rights was all pretend. Sybil was offended, perhaps more than she should have been if she had not felt in a small part of herself that the criticism was justified. Still, it was upsetting to see her relationship with her sister sink so fast.
“You just want to step into Mary's shoes,” complained Edith bitterly. “Lord it over us all now she's out of the way.”
“No!” cried Sybil. “No. That – that's not at all what it's about.” She was unprepared for these attacks and did not know how to respond to them.
“I suppose you imagine it's a romantic match. Do you really think Cousin Matthew is love with you? Honestly, dear, I gave you more credit.”
She retreated into her room before Sybil could think of a reply, with the satisfied air of one who had won a round against an inferior opponent.
She did not know what to make of it. Matthew had proposed to her, had said such lovely things to her, she had accepted, he had kissed her. It was romantic and what business was it of Edith's anyway? She hoped she came round to it soon though; it was bad enough listening to her sniping with Mary without suddenly becoming a target herself.
Then she overheard a snippet of a conversation between her parents when the library door had been left ajar.
“What about Mary?” her mother was saying.
It was her father's exasperated reply that made Sybil pause to listen. “Oh, now you care what happens to Mary after shipping her off to Italy and practically engineering this! It's a bit late to worry about her now, isn't it?”
“It doesn't need to be, Robert... We could bring her home. It's not unreasonable with your mother unwell. Forget that mysterious Italian count!”
“But she's happy. That's what she said.”
Cora sighed. “I hope she is, truly I do.”
Sybil shook her head in confusion and quickly moved away. She was not the kind of girl who eavesdropped, especially on things that made no sense. She hoped Mary was happy too for it bothered her to think that she might not be, something that had never occurred to her might be the case. Still, it was too early to expect a reply from Italy, either from Gwen or from Mary.
“It's almost as if they're saying they approve but they don't,” she said in an undertone to Matthew in the library after dinner a couple of nights later. Carson was observing them and since the servants hadn't been informed, Sybil felt constantly on edge, feeling as if she was doing something wrong by talking to the man she was going to marry. “They smile and say 'congratulations' but they don't mean it because it's not what they planned. But that's our sort of people for you. I hate it, you know, creeping around with a secret, as if we were doing something shameful!”
For a moment Matthew had looked oddly wistful, staring fixedly at one of windows with its looped back red curtains, then he turned quickly back to her with a reassuring smile. “I think it's alright to find it strange. It's a big change after all, but they're just trying to protect you.”
“I don't need protecting, Matthew!” she scoffed. “I'm quite old enough to know my own mind. It's just... they seem to care more about this house party they're planning than about us.”
The house party was the countess' idea after Robert had decided not to go to London for the Russian Embassy dinner. Invite all the important people for a weekend just after the dinner and they would surely pass on the relevant gossip without them needing to have been in attendance.
Matthew and Sybil fell silent to listen to the discussion between her parents.
“...And we can have your sister and the Flintshires as well,” suggested Cora.
“Susan and Rosamund in the same room? Are you sure that's wise? And with Mama away too!”
“Yes, she will be sorry to miss the drama, but honestly, darling, these embassy officials are all so tedious – at least your relations will bring some interest to the event.”
“Thank you, my dear. I'm sure Susan would love to know you think of her as the after dinner entertainment.”
“I don't think it would do her any harm if she did know!” returned Cora with a bit of a smirk.
Sybil sighed and muttered to Matthew, “If they really wanted an interesting party, we could announce our engagement.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “Your father is right. Wait till your season; aren't you having a ball? That would be a good time to announce it.”
She brightened. The ball would be an excellent time. Still, it was so far off; she was not sure she could stand all the creeping around for so many more months. She could not really tell Matthew how desperately she missed Gwen or how upset Edith's inexplicable sudden snideness made her feel. She wanted to tell someone, and have some friend she could confide in. She wanted to tell Branson in particular, especially after all the encouragement he had given her. Why, if it hadn't been for him she probably would never have even thought of marrying Matthew!
“Yes,” she said eventually, concealing her feelings behind a smile that for once was an effort. “Let's do it then. In the meantime, you'll have to remain my only ally a little longer.”
He smiled affectionately back at her. “I'll always be your ally, my dear.”
Secret as the engagement was, Sybil almost immediately began to notice a change in her mother's attitude towards her. Subtly, her importance was growing. Her opinion was asked, she was involved more, she was promoted. “What do you think, Sybil?” and “Why don't you run and ask Mrs. Hughes about it, Sybil?” If it weren't for Edith's despondency and jealousy and not being able to talk about it to anyone she would have been able to be very happy with this arrangement. She liked having things to do and being in training to be a countess had the allure of novelty.
One day almost a week after the engagement was formed, Lady Grantham requested her to accompany her into Ripon on some errands. Sybil agreed gladly, for she had not been further than Crawley House for some time. It would also be the first time she would see Branson since her engagement. As she got into the car, she caught his eye and smiled particularly meaningfully. How frustrating it was! For he simply smiled back, a little unsure. How happy he would be, she thought, to know that she was going to marry Matthew and become Countess of Grantham and use her influence for good and give her pin money to the suffragettes and all the things he would approve of and they had discussed.
In that moment she made up her mind that he would know. Never mind what her parents said – it was her affair and she would tell him if she wanted to. She sat down next to her mother with a feeling of greater firmness and agency than she had felt all week. Once they had got out into the open country and her mother had stopped going on about the account she was settling at the milliner's, Sybil turned to her and stated confidently that she wanted a new dress.
The countess stared at her. “But, darling, it's Edith's turn next and you will be getting all sorts of new things from London in the spring before your season. What do you want a new dress for right now?”
“What about for the house party?”
“I really don't think anyone from the embassy will mind if you're wearing last year's fashion.”
Sybil glanced forwards. Branson's head was up and his eye on the mirror. He was listening. Her lips pressed into a determined smile. “I suppose they're not that important. What about an engagement present then, Mama?”
“Oh, Sybil-” Cora began in a pleading tone but broke off as the car swung violently to one side and both of them were forced to clutch onto the door handles for balance.
“Branson!” she exclaimed as he narrowly avoided the ditch and swerved back onto the road. “What's going on?”
“Sorry, your ladyship,” he replied, his tone strained. “Fox on the road.”
Sybil found her heart was beating fast from the shock of the sudden movement. “Did you miss it?” she asked anxiously, leaning forwards a little.
There was a fraction of hesitation before he replied, “Yes. It's gone anyway.”
She leaned back on her seat and her mother relaxed her grip on the handle. “Well, Branson, I'm glad there's been no bloodshed today, but do keep your eyes on the road in future.”
“Yes, your ladyship,” he replied respectfully, but his eyes in the mirror were on Sybil and they lingered a moment too long. She was suddenly filled with the cold feeling that somehow, for some reason, she had made a terrible mistake.
By the time they had reached Ripon she was in a state of almost unbearable nervous tension from her desperation to talk to Branson and explain herself though why this was important was something of a mystery. It did not help that her mother was clearly displeased with her. The inevitable lecture would not come till they were back home but the way she had put her foot down about the new dress (not that Sybil really cared) could not have been more pointed. When they reached the milliner's Cora indicated that she was to follow, which was after all the point of the excursion, but Sybil stayed mutinously in her seat.
“I don't think I'll come after all.”
The countess was too annoyed to bother arguing and with a shrug she left her there. Sybil did not care. There were more important things than her mother thinking she was being childish. As soon as she was safely in the shop, she sat right on the edge of her seat and addressed him in a low but commanding voice.
“Branson!” He turned half way round, far enough for her to know that she had his attention. “There wasn't any fox, was there?”
Now he turned as far as he could and just looked at her for a moment. She stared back anxiously, chewing her lip. She shouldn't have said anything, or not like that... Maybe her parents had been right about keeping it secret. And yet she was frustrated because she did not understand what she had done that was so terrible except that she felt it very strongly.
“You're engaged then,” he said eventually. “I suppose you want me to say 'congratulations'.”
“Thank you... You're not meant to know about it though, so don't talk about it, please.”
“Why would I want to?”
“I don't know but just please don't!” she cried, uncomfortably aware of being flustered and defensive. “Aren't you even a little bit happy for me?” Then before he could reply, continued, “Aren't you going to ask me who it is I'm engaged to?”
For a moment she thought she saw a look of scorn cross his face but she had to be mistaken because the chauffeur had no right to look scornfully at her.
“Come on, there isn't much to choose from round here, is there, my lady? And I don't think William would've been able to keep it to himself.”
“William?” She stared at him. “Mr. Crawley!”
“You're really not happy, are you?” she said curiously. “I thought you would be. In a way it was your idea. I can do everything now, everything I wanted-”
“My idea!” he exclaimed, lowering his eyes a moment. He shook his head, seeming almost amused. “Do you love him, Lady Sybil?”
Her cheeks flushed and her lips parted at how abrupt the question was.
“Because if you really do then I'll try to be happy for you.”
She shook her head in denial and broke eye contact with him. There was something overly intense about the way he was looking at her and it made her shift uncomfortably.
“I don't think that's any of your business,” she muttered.
Now that she was embarrassed he seemed to have recovered some of his usual energy and he retorted with spirit, “I'm sorry, my lady, but you've made it my business now. So do you love him?”
Sybil frowned and opened and shut her mouth. She did not know what to say. Branson had just given up and made a kind of scoffing sigh of resignation when she burst out with the only answer she felt able to give him, “Of course I do! Why else would I marry him? Honestly, Branson, I don't know why you're being so strange about this. I thought we were friends.”
Now the intense look was back and her eyes were drawn back to his without being able to stop it. They were just as blue as Matthew's, she noted, but more brilliant in some way. More powerful. They blazed with something that – Good God, they were just eyes. What was wrong with her?
“Friends, you and I?” he cried and would have continued if the milliner's door had not opened and Cora had not emerged. Sybil looked abruptly away feeling heat flush across her face and slid back on the car seat, wrapping her arms round herself. She felt odd.
Branson immediately got out to open the door for the countess, which he did with an even more rigidly blank expression than usual. Sybil couldn't look at him; she did not understand.
Lady Grantham arranged her skirts as she sat down and Branson slammed the door and returned to his side of the vehicle. She glanced across at her daughter, huddled even more resentfully in the corner and suppressed a sigh.
“I think we'd better go home, Branson, and let's try to stay on the road this time.”
He nodded sharply. “Yes, your ladyship.”
Sybil said nothing.
It was the last day in Rome and it was time for the parting of the ways. At midday the dowager countess would board a train to return to Florence and the restful company of Lord and Lady Eastwick in the Tuscan countryside. About half an hour later, Mary, Gwen and the Bowens would board a different train going in the opposite direction, bound for the south of Italy. Gwen had been up late packing for her two mistresses and she rose early to pack for herself. She was already dressed and putting the finishing touches to her suitcase when the hotel cameriera knocked on her door to deliver a letter that had arrived with the first post.
Gwen recognized Lady Sybil's handwriting and smiled. She loved receiving these letters, hearing news of the family back at home, and picking up as best she could the tangential references to the servants downstairs – Anna, William, Mr. Branson, Daisy, Lily and all the others. Lady Sybil did not write much about the new maid, Ethel, and Gwen was pleased about that. She might not want to return to being a housemaid when the trip to Italy was over, but that did not mean she wanted to know how much everyone loved her replacement. Finally, and most importantly, it brought her close to Sybil and with every letter she was once again overwhelmed to be the recipient of her friend's regard and confidence in her.
She eagerly tore open the envelope and let her eyes dart over the first few lines of Sybil's sloping handwriting which always looked as if the thoughts in her head were spilling out too fast to be committed to paper in the normal fashion. After only a few sentences, however, she was forced to sit down on her bed as the air was knocked out of her in astonishment.
Lady Sybil was engaged to be married.
In those first few moments of reaction, Gwen knew that she ought to be happy for her friend when all she felt was a strange kind of desolation. Shaking off her treacherous feelings, she forced herself to read on.
Never had Sybil written such a letter, such an outpouring, to her. Her letters were always warm and friendly but this was spontaneity and trust such as she had not seen before. Every hope and joy and anxiety was there. What it had felt like to be kissed for the first time, whether she would make a good wife, whether she was doing the right thing... It was all there in Sybil's letter. Gwen's hands trembled as she read. She did not deserve this intimacy, to be the recipient of such deep and confidential details, and on a strange level she resented it. She was used to being Lady Sybil's inferior in terms of social position, beauty, intelligence, gentleness, and, well, in every other respect too, but here was something else to add to the list. She had never been kissed or proposed to; she could only imagine these things. With this engagement, her friend was starting on a journey where she could not follow. Sybil would have love and companionship and a position and a future and suddenly in that moment Gwen felt very aware that she had none of these things and no prospect of getting them either. Once Lady Mary's trip was over, whether it ended in her return to Downton or her marriage, Gwen would need a job and she would be doing it alone, and her friendship with Lady Sybil for one thing would be at an end. She had known it would happen one day of course but this outpouring of feeling, of things happening on Sybil's end only made it more real.
She held the letter delicately between fingers and stared into space. This sudden sadness was unmerited and selfish, she knew it was. She felt glad for Lady Sybil, really she did, and an engagement should always be a celebration even if the bride seemed unsure about so many things. (That was natural too, wasn't it?) What exciting news! How wonderful a wedding would be at Downton! What a nice gentleman Mr. Crawley was! How happy Lady Mary must be to hear of it!
Right on cue, the bell rang. Gwen jumped up, smoothed down her dress as if the action could straighten her out on the inside as well as on the outside, and prepared to put on a happy face. As was only appropriate anyway.
Lady Mary was already almost dressed when she reached her room. Gwen merely had to tighten her corset and help her into a dress suitable for a day's hard travelling before she followed her to her dressing table to do her hair.
“Are you looking forward to pastures new then?” her ladyship asked, briefly meeting her eyes in the mirror.
She nodded. “I think so, my lady. It's always exciting to go somewhere new. Are you?”
She gave a light shrug, her lips twisting. “I suppose so; I'll miss Granny. It will be easier for you though; only having me to deal with!”
Gwen was not quite sure how to respond to that so she only smiled in what she hoped was a suitably winning way. There was a melancholy, she noticed, that sometimes fell over her mistress. A kind of – of not sadness really, but resignation. Gwen did not know what to make of it. She had always thought of Lady Mary as the cold one, the brittle and harsh one, but over the few weeks she had been with her, she had not seen that. She was not friendly as her sister was, of course, but sometimes she said things, things that seemed almost foolishly frank and open, assuming they were true. Moreover, she was always good to her. If the Crawleys bought cake, then Gwen always had a piece when they returned to the hotel; if she was acting as companion or chaperone on a visit without Lady Grantham then Mary always seemed to know what she was interested in and slowed to accommodate her without even having to ask her. The difference in their respective positions never disappeared but Gwen felt that if one had to have a mistress then Lady Mary was probably the kind one wanted to have. But what she could have to be resigned or melancholy about, she could not imagine. In her eyes, Lady Mary had everything.
She finished combing through her beautiful, chestnut hair and reached down to pick up a clip, saying as she did so, “You must be pleased about Lady Sybil's news.”
Lady Mary raised her eyes in the mirror. “Oh? I dare say I am.”
“I mean – you have heard...?” Gwen stammered. It had not occurred to her that she could possibly have received word of the engagement before the family had, that Sybil's thoughts should have turned to her before her sister.
Her ladyship frowned into the mirror. “What should I have heard?” She raised her eyebrows. “And how have you?”
Gwen felt herself blushing; she had put her foot in it. Well, there was no help for it now. “About Lady Sybil's engagement to Mr. Crawley. I'm sorry, my lady, I thought you'd know.”
Her mistress' hand froze suspended in mid-air over the jewellery box. For a moment her face was a mask of blank astonishment and then she blinked and picked up an earring. “Lady Sybil and Mr. Crawley? Is this a joke, Gwen? Because if so it's in rather bad taste.”
“N-no.” She swallowed. “I had a letter from Anna. I think it's true, for Anna knows all about it.” The lie felt cumbersome on her tongue.
“Well, if Anna knows then it must be true,” observed Lady Mary. There was a kind of bleakness in her tone. “It only seems so improbable, but I suppose it isn't when you think about it.”
“No,” replied Gwen, putting a last few hairs into place and standing back to observe her handiwork.
Lady Mary clipped on first one earring and then the other before smiling brilliantly into the mirror. “How marvellous! Who would have thought of Sybil doing so well before she has even been presented. I suppose they must have sent our letters directly to Naples and I'll have the official report to read tonight. Papa must be so happy.” She turned suddenly on the stool. “You know, Gwen, I can manage from here. You must have so much to do before we leave.”
Gwen blinked and dropped the obligatory curtsey. “As you wish, my lady. I'll see you after breakfast.”
Her mistress smiled. “Indeed.” Just was she was on the point of leaving the room, Lady Mary added, turning again, “Thank you. Thank you for telling me. It's not your fault I didn't know beforehand.”
Gwen hesitated. There was something in her voice that did not sound quite right, but it was none of her business, and she stepped out of the room and closed the door behind herself, glad to return to her own solitude and her own loneliness.
Once the door had closed behind Gwen, Mary crumpled at the dressing table, her hands covering her face though she shed no tears. There was, after all, no cause for weeping. Blinding clarity should not be a cause of sorrow. And in the second following Gwen's casual announcement, Mary had experienced one of those rare flashes of blinding clarity that could even be termed an epiphany.
With a sharpness that felt like the quick stab of a knife blade she had become suddenly aware of one simple fact: that she loved, desperately and irretrievably loved, Matthew. Then with a wrenching twist of the blade she realised another: that she would never, ever have him.
The feelings should not have surprised her for they were not new. They did anyway. Only at the point when they could no longer hold any meaning or lead to anything, was she able to acknowledge them. How typical.
Mary did not know what to face up to first. The depth of her feelings for Matthew stunned her. She was able to recognize now that her anger at him before she had left England had been at his perceived abandonment of her and not because she truly disliked him. For a while she had thought he had liked her, more than liked her even, and she had relished his attention, had enjoyed their flirtation without having ever suspected (or been willing to suspect) how deeply her own heart was engaged. But first he had walked away from her at the dinner party without hearing her own side of the story and later, when she had straight up given him an opportunity to say he loved her, he had made no reply. How foolishly, how unbearably foolishly she had behaved! For now she saw everything clearly.
He had never meant anything by her – of course he hadn't, he'd been against a marriage between them from the start, as much as she had – and it had always been Sybil. Now that she forced herself to think of it, she could see the signs. That last night before her departure when Sybil had been singing, had not Matthew been watching her with admiration? Had he not encouraged her to sing again? And more than that, had he not always supported her in her eccentric political and social aspirations? Oh, it made so much sense! Dear Matthew, who would have a job in defiance of everything and darling Sybil, always trying to improve others' lives – they were perfect for each other. Mary's imagination leapt to the future. What a liberal pair they would make, what a devoted Earl and Countess they would one day be, how carefully they would look after the estate and everyone on it, how perfectly they would bring Downton into the twentieth century and breathe new life into it. Her breathing came more rapidly and only now did she feel a prickle behind her eyelids.
She could feel no anger. Perhaps it would have been better if she could have done so that her misery could have been released in some more productive way, but how could she blame her sister for falling in love with Matthew when it was so easily done? And how could she blame him for recognizing the very real worth of her youngest sister? Sybil had always been a better person than she was and she deserved every happiness. She even deserved him. And Matthew... how could she finish that thought? He deserved everything he wanted and more.
She forced herself to sit up and examine her reflection, dabbing uselessly at the corner of her eyes, just in case. Life went on, it had to. And yet everything she thought of, everything she remembered or looked upon was now tinged with her new self-knowledge. She realised now with a sick jolt that she had missed Matthew without knowing it for the entire trip. She had missed him dancing in Venice. She had missed him tilting her head as a joke at the famous tower in Pisa so that it appeared straight. She had missed him looking at innumerable busts of Greek poets in Rome.
She hardly knew him, she realised, not really. Not as she now understood she wished to. What did he think of the Romans? Would he have enjoyed Tosca? With a painful smile she remembered how much more interested he had been in church architecture than in his hopeful guide when Edith had been stupidly making a play for him when he had first arrived. That being so, she could only imagine how much he would love to visit the ancient cathedral on the island of Torcello, or wander around the Baroque excesses of Saint Peter's in the Vatican. She wanted him to do these things, she wanted to see his face as he experienced them, she wanted to know what he thought of them and whether he might share her responses. She and Matthew did not always agree, in fact they rarely did, but, she thought with a pang, their disagreements were always interesting and always intelligent. What she would give to have an argument with him over the meaning of some silly ancient relic, if only to have him there!
It was all futile. Matthew would never come to Italy and see these things or if he did, she would not be there to share them with him. He would, however, always be in her life – as her brother. Now she did gasp and press her hand to her mouth. She couldn't – There were some things she could endure and knew she would have to endure, but the prospect of going home, of seeing them together, of living her life feeling as she did and always having the reminder of what she couldn't have was more than she could bear. And to see their happiness – It was impossible.
In that moment she knew exactly what it was she had to do.
In the mean time, she lowered her hand and picked up her perfume bottle, gave herself the customary two sprays on either side of her neck and once on her wrist before rubbing them together. She put the cap back on, picked up her bag and stood up. For a moment she simply stood there in the middle of the room, feeling the world settle into place around her once more, albeit a little off-kilter. Then she went down to breakfast.
Read Chapter Sixteen here!