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 Fifteen here!
“That won't last,” said the dowager countess flatly when Mary calmly broke the news of Matthew and Sybil's engagement over breakfast. “Sybil's far too young to know her mind about anything important, let alone marriage. That,” she added, “is why girls have seasons and chaperones: to make sure that someone knows what they're doing because the young people themselves never do.”
Mary sipped her hot, bitter coffee. “I think they're very well suited.”
“For organising a cake sale at church in aid of the less fortunate, perhaps,” her grandmother replied with a sniff. “Marriage? Well, I shan't be putting any of my lira on them.”
Mary shook her head and concealed a sad smile. She would miss her grandmother terribly when they parted later that morning. Especially as Miss Bowen's reaction was to sigh in delight and say, “How romantic!” and ask if Mary would be a bridesmaid.
This was not something she really wanted to think about. “It's a possibility,” she replied cautiously. “It depends if we have returned from Italy in time.”
Violet coughed slightly. “Gracious, Mary, I am sure they will wait that long! I for one have no intention of missing the weddings of any of my granddaughters. Unless you think there might be a reason for haste? Now that I really cannot believe.”
Mary shook her head, flushing. “Of course not,” she murmured and gave up speaking for a moment. No amount of coffee and rolls could fill the hollow inside her, a hollow she suspected she would carry with her from now on.
The parting between them at Rome central station was not as affecting as it might have been if Mary had not been trying so hard to stifle her emotions. She did not want to expose herself to anything that might make her stoicism harder to maintain. Still, it was difficult because there was something in her grandmother's parting embrace that seemed particularly fond, almost as if she understood everything Mary couldn't say, and for a moment they clung together. With Violet returning to Tuscany, Mary felt terribly alone. She would never be able to confide in Hettie Bowen or her mother; they would never understand her.
Alone was what she always would be now, she reflected as she watched the Italian countryside fly past the train with unseeing eyes. She had lost Matthew before she had even had him, she took that for granted, but she had also lost her favourite sister in the process. Much as she loved Sybil, much as she knew instinctively that she would support her as Matthew's wife and the future Countess of Grantham, any possibility of future confidences and of a truly open relationship between them was now an impossibility thanks to what Mary could never tell her. And to be sure, speaking of it to anyone else was equally out of the question. There was nobody.
Sybil's engagement also put her own future in jeopardy even as it secured the unbroken Crawley line at Downton. She was quite sure that Matthew would be far too kind to force her, her mother and Edith from the house on her father's death in the event that she was still unmarried but it was not a risk she wanted to run. The idea of being dependent on Matthew and Sybil's charity was deeply unpalatable. She could not allow it.
No, she needed to marry and as soon as possible. Since she would not be marrying for love it really did not signify whether she liked her husband much; this would make it much easier. She considered with a little wonder that as she had never anticipated romantic love being part of her life, she should not now regret the lack of it, but she was beginning to feel that she was not quite so self-knowledgeable as she had liked to think herself. Was this a general error in her understanding of herself or did this weakness she felt only apply to Matthew? If he had not become engaged to Sybil would she have ever felt this tight ache in her heart as if her very soul was weeping? Would she have gone through life not knowing what it felt like and would she have been happy in her ignorance? She did not know, and it was too late to wish things were different.
Hettie pulled her out of her reverie, forcing her to take notice of her surroundings. To their left, the countryside was getting wilder and wilder as they went further south down the boot of the country. The Apennines rose out of the plains, bare and craggy, ancient ruined castles and fortresses and breathtaking hill-top towns and villages clinging to their sides.
“It's just like one of those gorgeous landscapes we looked at in Florence,” sighed Hettie. “Or the illustrations of an old novel. Do you think bandits live up in the mountains?” She turned to Mary eagerly. “Isn't Naples meant to be run by criminals? Do you think it will be dangerous?”
“Not the parts we're going to,” said Mrs. Bowen firmly. “Stick close with me, girls, and nothing bad will happen.”
Mary rolled her eyes. “If we are captured by the Mafia then we can always beat them off with our umbrellas,” she reassured them and across from her she saw Gwen stifle a smile.
It was hard to be scared by Naples' reputation when she knew they were staying in the finest hotel in the most modern part of the city and that they would only follow the most traditional of tourist routes. There could be no risk in visiting Pompeii, the various old palaces and churches in the centre of the city and the quaint, coastal villages just to the south. Moreover, Count Sciarpa had frequently reassured them that his home city was really no more dangerous than any other place and that he would take care of them and provide expert guidance all the same.
Count Sciarpa. By the time she had reached the breakfast room she had decided to marry him. She believed he meant to ask her, for everything in his pointed attention towards her and his evident enjoyment of her company proclaimed it, and when he did she would say yes. She was able to accept her decision with equanimity and by the time the train was passing through the shabby, crowded outskirts of Naples she was even able to find things to anticipate about it.
She would still be a countess and would live in a castle. Moreover, she really did love Italy and felt able to say that some of her happiest experiences of recent years had been on this trip. She did not believe that she would ever be able to become truly Italian herself but there was something exciting about the prospect of living such an independent and different life in this strange, beautiful country. Furthermore, as Contessa Sciarpa she would be able to reinvent herself and there was a distinct appeal in that. Nobody here knew her past or her family or could judge her based on anything except the persona she chose to present to the world; that would be even easier without her grandmother present. Then as for the man himself... he was educated and interesting and Mary believed she could learn a great deal from him and that they could enjoy many years of visiting art galleries and attending operas. Women had married for less and she thought that perhaps one day she might even be able to care for him in a lukewarm, friendly sort of way.
By the time they arrived in Naples, Mary had recovered sufficiently from the shock of Gwen's news to be interested in her surroundings. As far as distractions went, indeed, Naples performed excellently. Despite the darkness of a winter evening and a light rain shower that made the pavements gleam in the lights from the still-open shops, the city glittered with fascination. It was noisier than Rome, busier, smellier, shabbier and somehow even more brilliantly alive. The culture felt subtly different too, the people spoke a more heavily accented Italian, and the traffic as the taxi took them to them to their hotel was hair-raising. Shouting pedestrians and cyclists wove indiscriminately among the hooting cars and old fashioned horse-drawn carriages, all moving at almost impossible speed. Mary had to admit she was glad her grandmother had not joined them; it would probably have given her a heart attack.
Their hotel was in the most spacious and modern part of the city, as promised, and provided an oasis of calm away from the madness. Mary's room was palatially large with elegant gold and white fittings and a marble floor. Large windows looked out over the bay with Vesuvius hulking in the distance and she would enjoy the view over the sea, sparkling in cold sunshine, in the morning. For now, the heavy red curtains were pulled tightly closed.
As soon as they had all disappeared to their own rooms and Gwen had finished unpacking, Mary flung herself down on her bed, feeling grimy and travel worn, and homesickness abruptly hit her hard, much as it had in Venice. She resisted it now, however, for she distrusted her memories. Was she homesick for home or did she simply long for Matthew? Had it been Matthew she had truly been missing in Venice? She suspected now it had been. Everything she associated with home returned to him: Downton, England, her family, the cedar tree in the grounds, afternoon tea, the hospital, a warm fire in the library, the hall in the village, the music room, riding Diamond, dancing, everything... What kind of relationship had they even had before she had left England? They had flirted and they had disagreed but sometimes... sometimes there had been something else. When she thought of him, she thought of him coming to see her the day after Pamuk had died, or the way he had clasped her hand so firmly and warmly in the library when he could not break the entail, or the way he had looked at her the night before her departure: he had heard her sing even when she had barely heard herself.
And yet she had been mistaken. He did not love her and he was going to marry Sybil. Tears welled up now for the first time and she buried her head in her hands before turning over and sobbing bitterly into the soft, unfamiliar pillow, one lone figure sprawled on an immense, snowy bed. What she would have given in that moment for her mother or father or Carson or even her grandmother! Of course none were forthcoming and she had no intention of showing weakness before Mrs. Bowen. She would simply have to get used to being alone.
Despite the tears and bleakness of the previous night, Mary woke well-rested to a beautiful winter's day the following morning. A weight might still rest over her heart never to be removed but that was no reason not to make the best of sunshine in the bay of Naples. Hettie was in high spirits and after breakfast the three of them set out to explore the shops in the Galleria Umberto. Consumerism clearly came before culture when Mrs. Bowen was in charge and Mary did not mind the aimless wandering very much in the end for it was a beautiful, airy building, with a troupe of musicians playing lively folk music in the centre of it. She realised that she was taking in the city with the eyes of a future resident, approving of the fashions on display in the shops, calculating the distance from one street to another and so on all through the day.
They met the count himself for hot chocolate in one of Naples' most distinguished cafes that afternoon. Mary allowed herself to be a little warmer towards him than she had been up till then even though she felt no particular emotion beyond resignation at seeing him. The small frisson she had felt sometimes in his company was now muffled by the novelty and impossibility of the discovery of her feelings for Matthew. Fortunately, if she had any skills at all, it was how to be appealing to men, and she took note of Hettie's open admiration of her with grim satisfaction. The girl could do with a few lessons in that area. Artlessness and naivety would only go so far and she was no Isabel Archer.
The meeting concluded with an invitation to them all to pay a visit to Castle Sciarpa on the island of Proschia in two days time where the Count's sister, Donna Alessandra, would be happy to show them around. Mary considered that day a moment of vital importance in deciding her destiny. She did not suppose she would change her mind about marrying Sciarpa if she hated his home and his sister, but that did not mean she could not hope that she liked them both.
The boat ride from Naples harbour lasted about forty-five minutes. Despite the blue sky and sunshine it was bitterly cold and the sea was choppy. Mrs. Bowen suffered a little but neither Mary nor Hettie were sea-sick and they eagerly awaited the first glimpse of the island and the castle, which sat on a rocky outcrop connected to the mainland by a causeway. Eventually Proschia swam into view, rising out of the sea. It was a small island with a trio of low, wooded hills in the middle. The village nestled round the curve of the harbour and a long street ran from the centre of the town above the beach and round to the castle. The far side of the island was mainly uninhabited. Sciarpa was awaiting them in front of a row of pretty, brightly coloured houses with Donna Alessandra, a tall and grave aristocratic woman whose only similarity to her brother was in her dark complexion. She was muffled up modestly in a high-necked black gown and wore a cross as a pendant. Mary wondered if she had remained unmarried for religious reasons.
Donna Alessandra spoke very poor English and so she confined her conversation, such as it was since she was very reserved, to Mary who could understand Italian. The count charmed the Bowens and translated as necessary but they were still somewhat excluded.
They walked through the town, past palm trees swaying in the wind and glossy lemon trees peeping over the high walls of private gardens, out across the causeway, and through the heavy gates that the count explained were always left open.
“It is a gesture of good will towards the villagers,” he explained with a good-humoured smile, “now that Proschia is peaceful and it is unlikely that the castle will be attacked.”
The castle itself was more of a complex than a single edifice. A cobbled road wound uphill past artisans' cottages to the main building which was constructed in the old medieval Aragonese style with rounded arches, airy walk-ways and odd, Moorish towers and domes. It was a far cry from the ruined castles of northern England with which Mary was familiar.
Inside, Donna Alessandra gave them the tour, explaining the history of the rooms quietly and simply. Mary found herself more intrigued by the woman than by the castle itself. She could appreciate reserve but she fancied there was wariness and coldness towards her as well, though no outright hostility. Perhaps she disapproved of her brother's attentions. Perhaps she simply did not relish the prospect of being replaced as mistress of the castle by a stranger, and a foreigner at that. Mary could understand that so she accorded her a courtesy she might not have thought necessary a few days previously.
As for the castle itself, it was not a terribly homely place. Ancient to a fault, it contained many fine if shabby tapestries and carpets. Its current owners had modernised the principal apartments but much of the sprawling, old building had been neglected. Some ancestor had been a collector though and the place was stuffed with Greek and Roman antiquities, probably of great value. Mary realised with a little shock that whereas such a display in an English house would have required a great deal of effort in terms of transportation, here the statues and pottery had probably been gathered from the sides of the roads.
The entrance hall beyond the inner gate (not kept unlocked) contained a very fine mosaic depicting the abduction of Proserpina and the courtyard was home to several identical busts of Antinous. The parlour overlooking the bay back towards Naples, where they retreated after the tour to drink local limoncello and eat biscuits, contained a life-size statue of the emperor Augustus, his hand pointing towards the ceiling with characteristic authority, and the rest of the castle contained a similar jumble of objects.
By the end of the visit, Mary was as much Donna Alessandra's friend as she felt she could be on a first meeting. Her cautious politeness and knowledge of the history of the area made her a refreshing change from Hettie at any rate. Despite her coolness of manner, an invitation to spend some days at the castle at a convenient time was nevertheless forthcoming from her, supported heavily by Sciarpa. Indeed Mary suspected that the invitation was from him and that his sister was only his mouthpiece for propriety's sake. This was gratifying for it showed a continued, strong interest in her. It was issued to Mary alone and therefore she accepted it without reference to Mrs. Bowen. She might be her chaperone, but Mary had no intentions of deferring to her in matters that concerned her own life. The sooner she brought the count to a definite proposal the better.
Back at Downton plans proceeded apace for Cora's dinner for the guests of the Russian embassy party. Invitations had been sent and accepted, the prospect of having both Lady Rosamund and Lady Flintshire in the same room was addressed by a clever seating plan, and Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes debated a suitable menu at length.
The countess tried to involve Sybil in her arrangements but found her daughter bored and resistant. This was not what Sybil had wanted. She had no interest in fancy dinner parties and all the tedious minutiae of planning them. That was not what being mistress of Downton was about! She wanted to help people and use her position to improve the lives of the less fortunate, not to debate the wisdom of serving fois gras to Sir Albert Torrington considering his heart condition. All of this... it was such a waste of time and nobody seemed to understand it, even Matthew who just shrugged with a smile and said that it couldn't hurt to throw a really good dinner every now and then. Sybil had to walk away from him then because the last thing she wanted was to argue with dear Matthew.
Despite being surrounded by her family, she had rarely felt so lonely. If only Gwen were there to rant to! Or even Mary. Her sister would disagree with her but Mary's stubbornness only made Sybil stick to her own opinions with either greater justification. She wrote about it to Gwen and put the letter in the post even though she had not yet received a reply from her to her last; perhaps they had left Rome before the news about her engagement had arrived.
Then there was Branson. She had not had an opportunity to talk to him since they had been interrupted in Ripon and she felt that they had unfinished business. He would agree with her about what was really important about her role as future countess, she knew, if only he did not seem so moody and angry whenever she happened to see him. She felt terribly guilty about offending him in some way and then she felt resentful that he should be making her feel guilty when she hadn't done anything. She spent far more time worrying about him than she had any right to.
Finally two days before the big dinner, her opportunity came. She had spent the afternoon with Cousin Isobel helping her to take a stock check of supplies at the hospital, a pleasant and welcome interlude of actually being useful, and when it was time for her to return to Downton, the pouring rain made walking an impossibility. Isobel ordered the car and within half an hour, Branson was driving her back through the cold darkness in a tense and stony silence, made only more obvious by the noisy drumming of the raindrops on the roof.
Sybil twisted her hands anxiously in her lap until she could bear it no longer and burst out with, “My God, Branson, you know how to bear a grudge, don't you? I still don't know what I've done to offend you so much! I wish you'd tell me so I could explain myself.”
He did not even look at her. “Offend me, my lady? I'm not offended.”
She tossed her head in irritation. “Of course you are! You won't talk to me, you won't meet my eye – you won't even look at me. What have I done?”
He did not reply but she fancied she could see the outlines of his face settle stubbornly in the mirror.
“I can only assume,” she continued, “that you are angry about my engagement to Matthew, and that bothers me.”
“It bothers you, does it?”
“Yes!” she cried, sitting so far forwards on her seat that she was obliged to clasp the back of Branson's seat to steady her balance. “It bothers me. It bothers me because... because I miss our conversations and now we never talk about anything, let alone anything important.”
Because he was her only friend at the moment. Because he understood and supported the things she wanted to do. Because she did miss his friendship terribly.
He was silent for what seemed like hours. Sybil was about to give up in miserable disgust when he replied, “Alright, you want to talk about important things. What important things would your ladyship like to talk about then?”
“You're mocking me!” she shot back immediately, hurt and surprised.
“Well, maybe I am.” He stopped the car abruptly
“Why?” Her fingers gripped the leather back of his seat harder. “What have I ever done that deserves that? Branson, I want to know! And why did you stop the car?”
He turned round and met her eyes with his piercing blue ones that made her almost physically cower back. “Because we're back. Shall I open the door for your ladyship?”
Sybil turned abruptly to look out of the windows. In the dark, she had not even noticed them draw up to the house. She shook her head with a frown and waved him forwards. “No. No, I'm not going to leave this here, not this time. You can drive round to the yard and I'll go in through the back when we're finished.”
“As you wish,” he replied sullenly and released the hand brake rather violently.
“Well?” she insisted as the car moved off again round the side of the house. “You were going to tell me what I've done that's so terrible. Go on, I'm listening.”
“What you've done?” He lowered his head and chuckled suddenly. “Let me see... you talk about this great friendship we apparently have in which you give me orders and I call you 'my lady'. I don't call my friends my lady!”
“Then call me Sybil when we're alone!” she exclaimed. “If that's all there is-”
“Can't you just leave it alone?”
Sybil felt anger course through her and welcomed it. It was pleasant to feel something stronger than listlessness and frustration. “No, I can't. And what's more-” Something occurred to her. “What's your name then? Your Christian name, I mean.”
He hesitated a second, then, “Tom.”
“Tom.” She rolled it round her mouth, getting used to the sound of it, and smiled suddenly. “It suits you, Tom Branson. Alright, I'll call you Tom and you can call me Sybil and we'll be equal.”
Again he braked the car far harder than was necessary. “I don't think there'll be room to open the door on your side in the garage,” he said in a strained tone. “You'd better get out here.”
She blinked, shocked into silence by his sudden and flagrant breach of etiquette. She did not care, of course she didn't, but he probably should... She grasped the door handle, pushed it open and stepped into the cold, damp night, slamming it behind her. Wrapping her arms around herself she ran after the car into the shelter of the garage, jumping over a puddle as she went.
She was waiting for him breathlessly while he parked and opened the front door for him, grinning, before he could reach for it himself. “See? I can open the door for you too sometimes. I'm not afraid, Tom.”
He stared up at her as if he was torn between laughter and something else she could not identify and her smile faltered again.
He got out of the car and without looking away from her he pulled off his driving gloves, put them deliberately on a shelf and picked up a rag with which he wiped his hands. Sybil's gaze followed his movements as best she could in the half light of the garage with a kind of strange fascination.
“So you think this makes us equal, do you?” he said eventually, flinging the rag away and shoving his hands in his pockets. “Calling each other by our Christian names and telling me how you're going to double the wages of all your servants and give them a two month summer holiday every year when you're Countess of Grantham... it doesn't work like that, Sybil. We're not equals.”
“You're mocking me again,” she replied seriously. “I want to be. Do you know how hard it is for me at the moment without my sister and with-”
“Damn it!” he exclaimed making a sudden movement and she froze into silence. He closed his eyes a moment. “Damn it,” he repeated more quietly, “but it's never hard for you! You're the daughter of the Earl of Grantham and you're engaged to his heir and you never act as if you were anything but that with your dresses and your dinner parties and your charity for the poor. It's insulting to pretend you consider yourself my equal. I'm your father's servant!”
“You said yourself you wouldn't always be a chauffeur,” she replied, standing her ground though she was starting to tremble, from the cold most likely.
“Fine! I won't always be a chauffeur, and when I'm not and when you're willing to stop being a fine lady, then we can talk about equality!”
He was getting worked up again, however much he was trying to swallow down all the things he had no right to say, and had taken a step towards her. Her feet refused to move but she swayed backwards, her eyes flickering over his face, trying to understand him.
“You approved of that!” she said. “It's what you wanted – for me to use my position for good. Are you saying that you were wrong?”
He pulled his hands out of his pockets and pushed them down at his sides, fists clenched. “Yes, I was wrong, Sybil! It happens. Why on earth did you listen to me in the first place?”
She opened and shut her mouth in confusion. “Why- why? Because – I mean that isn't why I - Why is it so important to you anyway?”
He passed one hand over his face and shook his head. “You can be a bloody dense woman sometimes, can't you?”
Her jaw dropped. “I beg your pardon?”
“I beg your pardon! My God, Sybil, I – I'm in love with you. Hopelessly in love with you.”
For a moment the world seemed to shift on its axis and a rush of embarrassed warmth swept through her body just at his words alone, her cheeks flaring with colour. Her heart pounded and it almost seemed as if she could feel the blood rushing through her veins. In love with you. Hopelessly in love with you. In love. Love. Those words she had spent so long desperately trying to understand repeated themselves like a caress through Sybil's mind and without any conscious decision to do so she took a step forward and touched his cheek with her fingers, meeting his eyes and feeling another unexpected wave of heat pass through her as she did so.
“Not hopelessly,” she whispered. “Never hopelessly.”
Something flashed across his face, a look of desperation or joy or release, she couldn't tell, and then his arms were around her waist, he had pulled her flush against him and was kissing her, his lips moving firmly and purposefully over hers. For a moment she flailed and then she clutched at his shoulders with both her hands, afraid her legs might give out from under her. Her head span and all she was aware of was the soft yet demanding feel of his lips and the way his arms encompassed her, moving restlessly over her back, exploring her. She did not know what to do, for nothing could have prepared her for this – and then suddenly she did and she was kissing him back with all the passion and ferocity she had not known existed in her. She wound her arms round his neck and pulled his head down to hers as one of her hands slid into his hair, gripping tightly. In response he only pulled her closer and somehow, impossibly, the kiss deepened and became even more intense and there were his lips – and her tongue – and his mouth – and her teeth – and she could not breathe and it was all too much and she was gasping for air and so was he and they stared at each other, breathing hard in the aftermath.
Her lips remained parted and her eyes roamed over his face. In love with you. Still the words repeated themselves. He was in love with her. And kissed her and... goodness, was that a kiss? And if it was then what...? All he was doing was staring at her with a look that made her feel... she did not know, and Sybil had no idea what to do. What should she say? What happened now? God, Matthew! Her heart was pounding too hard and she felt almost sick from nerves or worry or guilt or something more powerful and wonderful than all the rest.
She did not know what to do, for in a moment her life and everything she had thought she understood had been overturned, so she did the only thing possible. She broke from him with something that was almost a sob, her hand over her mouth, and dashed from the garage into the rain, splashing through the puddles unheeding. Sybil, who prided herself on her courage, on being a pioneer, on confronting the truth of things, was running away.
Read Chapter Seventeen here!