silvestria (silvestria) wrote,
silvestria
silvestria

Consolation Prize, Chapter Seventeen

Title: Consolation Prize
Fandom: Downton Abbey
Author: Silvestria
Rating: 12/PG-13
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.
Genre: Drama/Romance

Read Chapter Sixteen here!

Chapter Seventeen: A Future Worth Having


Sybil ran from the garage, through the yard, into the house through the servants' quarters, past a surprised Anna carrying a basket of linen, out of the green door and straight up to her room. Her heart pounded so hard she felt it would burst out of her chest, her lips tingled pleasantly and her mind was a complete fog.

She slammed the door of her bedroom behind her and dropped her wet coat on the floor in one movement before flinging herself onto her bed and lying on her back staring at the canopy as she caught her breath, remaining still for the first time. After a moment in which the only movement was the rise and fall of breast, she raised one trembling hand and touched her lips and smiled. Then she laughed and hugged herself and bounced restlessly before flopping back again.

She felt warm and excited and changed and unsure about everything in the most wonderful way possible. Who could have thought that a single kiss could effect such a change in her? When Matthew had kissed her – but no, she did not want to think about him. Not just yet. It was not just the act of the kiss, however, but everything else as well. It was Branson – Tom, she thought with a broader smile – and he was in love with her. Nobody had ever been in love with her before, not even her own fiancé, and she had never thought it mattered so very much. Now it seemed as if nothing else in the world mattered; not politics, not friendship, not her family, not her personal aspirations. All of these were lost in the joy of being beloved, of feeling strong arms around her and the fire of passion. And as for her own feelings...

All the questions she had been so confused about were now answered without any effort. It was all so terribly simple in the end; for she loved him in return and the world was luminous with the miracle of it.

However, all good things come to an end and after half an hour or so of reliving the scene in the garage with most of the argument edited out and the kiss itself embellished, some amount of reality had to intrude into Sybil's mind. As Tom had so correctly pointed out, she was Lady Sybil Crawley and he was a chauffeur. While she did not think that these had any real value, they were nevertheless obstacles to their love. And then there was Matthew.

In a way, Matthew was the easiest issue to deal with. Whatever became of her and Tom, she could not marry him now in good faith. It had been acceptable to accept him when she thought she might have been in love with him but now that she knew she wasn't, the thing was impossible, unfair, dishonest. In the midst of her excitement, she could not even feel particularly guilty about it. After all, how could Matthew possibly be in love with her? He had kissed her on the lips only once and it had had all the intensity of – she had to laugh again. Poor Matthew! Perhaps he, like her, had no idea of the force of passion and thought that what they had was true. If that was the case, then it was up to her to undeceive him.

As for the rest... This was more difficult and her heart beat hard for she knew automatically that whatever resulted from the decisions of this hour would determine the rest of her life. Had she been putting it off all this time? While she had thought she was moving forwards and being terribly firm about everything, it occurred to her that she had been more of a coward than she had believed. Marriage to Matthew would mean that she would stay at Downton forever and that was not what she wanted. What she wanted, what she truly wanted was...

She sat up straight on her bed, her head swimming. She loved Tom; Tom loved her. That was all there was to it, all there should be to it. When two people loved each other desperately, when kisses were of fire and heat, then nothing should part them: not class, not inevitable parental disapproval, not money, nothing. And yet, what she was considering was a change in her life of a magnitude she had never even dreamed of. Give up everything for love: could she do it?

Suddenly, Sybil remembered that book Mary had been reading before leaving, Middlemarch. She had last thought of it the night she had become engaged to Matthew and had dismissed the heroine's decision to give up her inheritance to marry the man she loved; such things did not happen in real life, she had reflected with comforting blindness. Yet here she was, faced with just such a decision. She stood up, smoothed her dress, and then left her room and walked to her sister's. She felt strangely as if every step she took brought her closer to a point of no return and her throat felt tight with incipient decisiveness. Why it should be in Mary's room, she was not sure, but so it was. She opened the door and was hit by a musty smell. The curtains were closed, so she turned on the bedside lamp to disturb as little as possible and climbed onto the bed. Sitting cross-legged with her skirts spread around her, she found from the neat pile on the table the appropriate book. She flicked to the very final chapter, her fingers trembling.

There was a great deal about two people called Fred and Mary about whom she had no interest, a doctor who died when still in his prime after marrying the wrong woman (it was so very important to marry the right one!), the fate of his wife who appeared to thrive despite being selfish and vain, and then came the fate of Dorothea. Sybil took a deep breath, associating, she knew not why, her own fate, with that of a character in a book she had not even read. Still, a decision had to be made somehow.

She never repented, for she had the kind of strong love that comes along but rarely, her husband did well in his profession and she was able to be useful. Though separated from her family at first, the parents eventually came round and accepted them into the family, and children followed, as they inevitably would. Indeed it was Dorothea's son who came to inherit her father's estate in the end. This was all rather beautiful. Only one sentence gave her cause for worry, that people said it was a shame that such a great woman became so subsumed into the life of her husband through marriage. Was that what marriage meant, Sybil reflected, struck with the thought for the first time. Would her own self cease to exist when she changed her name? She was rather fond of her own self and her own ideas. Yet when her husband was such a one as Branson, who agreed with her in all the important matters of principle, when she loved him so much, would that be such a terrible thing? If she was absorbed into him, would not he be equally absorbed into her? It was only a momentary hitch in her reasoning, a hitch that she could ignore for the simple reason that she wanted to.

Slowly she replaced the book on the table and stood up from the bed, feeling unsteady and drained. The world had changed and so had her place within it. She would be brave and strong and daring. With a smile of the purest joy, Sybil walked to the door of Mary's room and her future. It was time that she became a heroine in the story of her life.

*


Matthew had spent most of the morning staring out of the window of his office and pretending to do filing. After the big South African diamonds case which had occupied the entire firm for several months had been finally concluded the previous week, everything had been extremely quiet. He almost wished that complications had arisen and he had had to be sent abroad to investigate further. A break wouldn't be unwelcome... December in England was drab and wet and grey and there wasn't even a speck of snow on the horizon to give the place a bit of Christmas cheer; Matthew's spirits reflected the weather.

He was about to take his lunch break half an hour early for lack of anything better to do when his secretary poked his head round the door and announced that a Lady Sybil Crawley was there to see him. Matthew started up in surprise as she brushed past the clerk into the room.

“Sybil!” he exclaimed. “I didn't expect to see you here. Come in, how are you? Won't you sit down?”

She laughed and ignored his offer, coming to stand right by his desk in front of him. Matthew looked her over and felt that something was indescribably different about her. There was a glow to her, or a purpose, or a confidence – or a something. Whatever it was, it made Matthew feel on edge. She was smiling at him in such a knowing way, and then she looked away around his office.

“I haven't been in here for so long,” she murmured, “not since that day we ate bread and cheese. Do you remember?”

“Of course I do.”

“I liked you so much that day, you know.”

Matthew thought this was a rather strange thing to say and frowned slightly. “Well, I'm glad to hear it, dear.”

She met his eyes again, hesitated and then took a step forwards round his desk. “Kiss me, Matthew,” she said firmly, still wearing that strange smile.

He blinked and opened his mouth. “I-”

“Don't you want to?” She laid her palm on his chest.

“It's not that but...” His eyes drifted over to the door of his office. “I don't think this is the best place. Sybil, I'm very glad to see you but why are you here?”

“Oh, Matthew... If you won't kiss me then I'll have to do it for you!”

Before he could respond or object or even anticipate her, her hand had cupped his cheek and she stood on tip-toes and pressed her lips to his. She slid her hand round the back of his neck and pressed herself against him trying to replicate the fervour she had felt the previous night – but nothing. He was not Tom and already kissing Matthew felt like a betrayal; as for his hesitant and subdued response (at least there was one, she supposed)... well, she clearly was not for him as well.

Eventually she pulled away and let her hands drop. She shuffled backwards and perched on the edge of his desk, her feet swinging with nervous anticipation. “Well, Matthew?”

He closed his mouth. “I, er, well what?”

“Do you like kissing me?” she dared to ask.

He took a step backwards and almost tripped over his chair. “That's a very – very – I mean, that's-”

“Because you haven't kissed me since the day we got engaged so I can only assume you don't enjoy it. I think if we're going to get married then this is something we should discuss.”

Matthew raised a hand as if to stop her. “Good Lord, Sybil, I – I'm sorry! I've been very busy with all the...”

He trailed off as Sybil laughed merrily and stared at her, feeling rather offended and above all confused.

“Matthew, Matthew, I'm surprised you ever win any court cases if this is an example of your eloquence!”

“I don't know what's so funny. You've taken me completely by surprise.” He frowned at her and then softened his tone. “What are you really here for? Is everything alright at Downton?”

“Oh yes.” She looked away and bit her lip. “Yes, everything's alright. Only – Matthew, please look at me seriously and answer this: do you want to marry me, really?”

Matthew felt as if he had fallen down the rabbit hole. He tried to smile reassuringly at her but it was not quite working. “Of course I do,” he blustered. “I asked you!”

She nodded slowly. “I see. Well then, I'm sorry, but...” She took a deep breath. “The problem is that I don't want to marry you.”

For a second he could not breathe. He did not understand. “What?” He sat down heavily.

“I don't want to marry you. I want to break the engagement.”

“Sybil – I -” He was still lost for words. At the same time, however, he became aware of a strange feeling rising up in his heart and dominating every other. It was a lot like relief but that was surely impossible. It would be terrible if that was truly his reaction. “Why?”

She leaned forwards and continued very earnestly, “Because I'm not in love with you, that's why, and I don't think you're in love with me either.”

“Oh, my dear...” Matthew caught her hand, feeling quite unable to say anything else, let alone give her the reassurance he knew he ought to at this moment.

Sybil did not seem to mind and continued without withdrawing her hand. “Perhaps we could have made it work for a while, I don't know, but the fact is that love, romantic love, what that kiss proves we don't have, is important! Are you embarrassed by what I'm saying? I might have been once but I'm not any more. We both deserve the chance to experience it. Perhaps you don't understand me now but one day I'm quite sure you will and then you'll thank me.”

Matthew had not been able to look away as she talked but at her final statement he could not maintain it and his eyes slipped away as he swallowed, terribly conscious that he understood her only too well. She squeezed his hand and he squeezed back with almost trembling intensity. His mind was in complete confusion.

“I've been terribly wrong, you see, Matthew,” she continued and when he looked back up to her there was a kind of luminous beauty about her that he had never seen before that was something between sorrow and profound joy. The kind of expression of which even a great actress giving the performance of her life might have been proud. “I've been wrong about so many things but I've changed and now I know what is right to do.”

“And marrying me is wrong?” he managed to say since he had to say something, however inadequate.

“Yes, it's wrong, and I was stupid never to realise it. We both were.”

Matthew moistened his lips. He had to take control of the conversation somehow but he felt paralysed between what he felt he ought to say and what deep down he wanted.

“Sybil, dear Sybil, I would like to be married to you. I think – I think we could do very well together. I still do.”

She expelled her breath in a rush. “I don't want that, don't you see? I don't want to do very well. Honestly, your argument would make much more sense if you took me in your arms and said you loved me. I want the real deal and so should you!” She gave him a tremulous smile.

A warmth of gratitude and affection washed over Matthew, stronger than anything he had ever felt for her before. He squeezed her hand again and let his eyes wander over her face.

“I'm sorry,” he said eventually, “so very sorry.”

She leaned forward and a few strands of escaping hair brushed against his face as she kissed his cheek. “Friends?” she asked with a sweet smile as she leaned back.

He nodded. “Always.” As she jumped down from his desk he caught hold of her hand as she turned away. She looked at him questioningly. “I do care for you, you know, very much.”

“I know.”

“And if there's ever anything I can do, anything at all, you must just tell me. It's the least I can do.”

She laughed suddenly as she broke from him and walked to the door. “Oh, you don't need to make promises like that; you have no idea what I might ask you!”

He smiled back warmly, allowing some of the tension to leave him. “Why, are you planning anything very extraordinary?”

She raised her eyebrows and grinned widely. “You never know!”

At the door she hesitated. “Well, goodbye, Matthew. I'll have to tell Mama and Papa, you know.”

“Yes. Would you like me to-”

“No, it's alright. I want to do this. I'll see you tomorrow then.”

He stared. “Tomorrow? What's tomorrow?”

“The Russian embassy dinner of course!” she replied, rolling her eyes. “How could you forget?”

They shared a smile and Matthew felt glad that they could, even as this reminder of the real world penetrated into his office and this surreal scene. “Until tomorrow then.”

Within moments she had left the room with a quick, confident step and Matthew released his breath as if he had been holding it all the time. He slumped forwards and put his head into his hands.

What now?

*


Sybil had taken the horse and trap to Ripon so that Tom would not know what she was doing until she had done it; she wanted to surprise him. The journey back to Downton, however, seemed to take forever even as she pushed the horse to go faster. She felt like running or skipping or even flying. She was free! She had not been aware till this moment how much her engagement to Matthew had depressed her. It was not that she did not love him, for she did, only not in the right way to make up for the fact that being the future countess of Grantham was not at all what she had thought it would be. She could not step into her mother's shoes and she did not want to. Perhaps if Matthew had been nothing but a lawyer that anxiety would have been less but, she realised with a rueful smile, if he had been nothing but a lawyer she would not have thought to marry him to exploit his title. And there would still be Tom! Her heart beat more quickly as she thought of seeing him, of what she would say, of kissing him again, of hearing him say he loved her... She had broken from him too quickly the previous night but there would be time now to make it up to him. All the time in the world. She urged the horse faster.

Arriving back at Downton, she left the trap in Lynch's capable hands, and set off straight for the garage where she knew she would find Tom. True to form he was there, doing some tidying it seemed. For a second she paused just outside to admire him. He was so handsome! How had she never realised it before? His arms, the pull of his jacket over his shoulders as he bent down, the way a piece of hair flopped over his face – As she realised the direction her thoughts were taking, she flushed and shook her head quickly before walking purposefully towards him.

“Tom!” she cried, not concealing her smile.

He spun round at the sound of her voice, his expression open but startled. “Sybil! What are you-” He looked around as if worried someone might be spying on them.

“Coming to see you, silly!” She stopped in front of him, her heart bursting with joy and delight to see him again. “Aren't you glad?”

“Of course I am... but I thought...” He still seemed wary though his eyes were very warm as they met hers. She could feel it all through her and she curled her toes in appreciation.

Her smile faded a little and she stepped forward again until she was so close she could take his hands. She looked at him soberly and took a deep breath. “I'm sorry about last night, the running off, I mean. Not the rest of it!” She beamed at him, unable to hold it in. “Never that. I was-” She ducked her head, blushing. “I was overwhelmed and I hadn't realised... I hadn't realised how much I loved you.”

“Oh, Sybil...” he exclaimed softly, almost as if he could not believe it, and for a moment he met her eyes and it was perfect. He pulled his hands out of his pockets and touched her cheek. “Do you really?”

She melted into him.

“Really and truly! I love you, Tom, I love you, and that's all that matters now. I was so blind not to have understood before but then I've been blind about so many things.”

He leaned forwards, his thumb caressing her cheek and the kiss was inevitable even if he did seem strangely hesitant at first. Sybil was expecting it this time and able to appreciate it better. Her eyes fluttered shut instantly and she clasped his shoulders to pull him closer. There was a sweetness and poignancy about it and a lack of urgency that was different from the previous evening which somehow made it even more delicious.

His arm crept to her waist and she could not help a little sigh of delight escaping her. Then he pulled away from her abruptly. Languidly, she opened her eyes to find him staring at her with such intensity that she shivered involuntarily. She could only stare back. Oh, but this was silly! She did not care. She was drunk on love and freedom and on him.

“There's something I have to tell you,” said Tom.

“There's something I have to tell you too,” she replied with a giddy smile.

“You go first.”

“I've broken my engagement! I'm free, absolutely free, and we can be together. That's why I didn't come before; I had to be quite sure of how I felt and then I had to see Matthew – I took the trap to Ripon, you know – and now I'm here and – and what's wrong? I thought you'd be pleased!”

He had stepped away from her as she had been speaking, dropping his hands from her and passing one over his face. He looked the opposite of pleased and Sybil did not understand. She followed him further into the garage.

“Look, Sybil, there's something-”

“And why aren't you wearing your uniform?” she cried, only now noticing his unusual, civilian attire.

He stopped and simply looked at her, shoving his hands back in his pockets. “Since you ask, I handed in my notice this morning, resignation effective immediately. I'm no longer your chauffeur.”

Her lips parted but no sound came out.

“I'm sorry, but what was I supposed to do?” he exclaimed. “I kiss Lord Grantham's daughter and then you run away in tears before I can explain myself and we can discuss it. What else was I meant to do but resign before you could tell your papa and get me fired?”

“Get you fired? Good God, do you really believe I'd do that when I – when I-” The very idea was preposterous.

“How should I know? You said yourself you had no idea how you felt- how was I meant to? You weren't exactly forthcoming, were you?”

“And you couldn't have waited one single day?”

As he shrugged bitterly, she wilted, her sudden anger dissipating as quickly as it had arisen. “But this is good, isn't it?” she suggested tentatively. “You're no longer a chauffeur and I – I'm ready to not be a fine lady any more.”

He frowned. “What are you suggesting?”

Now was really the time for bravery and she rushed at it headlong. “I'll come with you. Tonight if necessary. I would have done anyway, I just wasn't expecting it to be so soon... but I'm ready!”

“Sybil...” his voice was half caress, half remonstrance as he took her hands in his, “you don't know what you're saying.”

“Of course I do! Tom, I love you; haven't you been listening? And last night you told me you loved me. What more is there to it? Now that you're free there's nothing to stop us from running off right now. We could – I don't know – we could go to Italy and join Mary!”

His lips twitched. “Are you proposing marriage to me?”

“Oh!” She bit her lip. “I suppose that's your job really. Sorry.”

“I don't mind you proposing, Sybil; I like it. I like you... but, God, I wish I'd never said anything!”

“Why? If you hadn't we'd never-”

“And what now?” He broke from her once more and began pacing. “I have no job, I don't even know where I'll go. How are we meant to get to Scotland let alone Italy on my final wages? And you- you're only, what? Eighteen, seventeen? Underage anyway.”

“Seventeen, but my birthday's in only a couple of months,” she protested, not seeing what this had to do with anything.

“My God, but you're so young! Don't you understand?”

“I suppose I don't. What of it?”

“I mean that it's impossible, you and me. Not now anyway. What would you do? How would you live?”

“I'd work. I want to. It's sweet that you're trying to protect me, Tom, but it's unnecessary. Everything here – it doesn't matter to me! What matters is you and me and doing our bit. My engagement showed me that. I'm not cut out for a life of dinner parties and dressmakers however much money I could give to women's rights movements. I want what's real.”

“You've no idea what's real so how can you possible want it?” He came back to her, speaking forcefully and almost wildly. “And you sound ridiculous, talking like this!”

She took a step back, gasping in physical hurt as if he had slapped her. She felt a kind of panic welling up and threatening to stifle her. “I sound ridiculous? I sound ridiculous? You love me and you can say that to me?”

“I can't tell you how much I-. If you knew how long I'd watched you and wanted you and dreamed of saying those words to you and held back because I knew it couldn't possibly come to anything... but you have to understand how wrong it would be for me to accept. Your parents would never forgive either of us and I don't think I'd forgive myself either.”

“For what? What should that matter if it's what I want?”

“You think it's what you want now. But what'll you be saying after a year of poverty and drudgery and no contact with your family?”

“Then let me find out and stop telling me what I feel!” she almost shouted out of pure frustration. “Tom, this is our chance to do all the things we've talked about – and together. Are you going to throw away all of that because you think I don't know my own mind? Yes, I was wrong about Matthew but it was one mistake and nobody's hurt by it. Why should that dominate everything? Doesn't everyone make mistakes? And it's true, I don't know about the kind of life you're describing but how am I ever going to learn anything at all like this? Please, I want to make more mistakes; it's only by doing things than anything ever happens. And that – that is right!”

He closed his eyes in pain. “If you were a few years older, if you had even a month's experience of a different kind of life then perhaps I could do it – but I can't. You don't know how much I wish I could.”

“So what now?” A deadly calm was now settling over her, a weight landing on her chest and growing heavier every second. Desperation, it seemed, took other forms than blind panic. “You are going to leave without me.”

He nodded once. “Yes.”

It was all too much as she caught his eye and with a sob that was wrenched from deep within herself Sybil flung herself at him into his arms. His arms went around her immediately and he clutched her to him, burying his face in her neck.

“I won't accept it!” she cried, her voice muffled in his shoulder. “I'll run away and follow you!”

“No, you won't. Darling, don't throw away your life for me. There's so much you can do. You can be wonderful, you know. You have such – such talents and possibilities. I love you... but there are far greater things for you to dedicate your time to than being my wife.”

“And what if that's what I want more than anything else?”

“Then...” She could feel him swallow. “Then there's time for that too. I won't go back to Ireland yet- I'll get a job in England and – who knows what will happen.”

“What will you do?” she asked, raising her head, curious despite herself.

He shrugged. “Journalism maybe, politics if I can get into it. The world's on the brink of change and I want to be right there at the front when it happens. Give me five years,” he added with a twisted smile, “and maybe I'll be the kind of husband even Lord Grantham would approve of!”

“Five years!” she exclaimed. It seemed like a life-time. “Anything could happen.”

“Yes, and the sooner the better in my opinion. What will you do?”

She shook her head blankly. “I don't know. I can't think. There are so many things I thought I-. I don't know. Do you have to leave today?”

“Yes. I'll stay in the inn tonight and move on tomorrow. York, I think, first of all.”

Her hands were smoothing his shoulders obsessively, touching him as much as possible while she still could. “I will see you again, Tom, you know! I'm not going to let you go. I'll – I'll prove everything. And then you'll see!”

His hand brushed her cheek. “I'll be true to you.”

She smiled and almost believed him. Already she felt the pain of parting, of sorrow, of inevitability and somewhere, hidden under more pressing feelings, of anger. They remained some minutes more together but there was very little else to be said and Sybil found that after living off adrenalin for an entire day, she was mentally and physically exhausted to the point of shaking.

Her walk back to the house from the garage was very different to the dash of the previous night. She ascended the stairs slowly, her feet heavy, unable yet to process what had happened. She closed the door of her room behind her and took off her coat and hat carefully, folding them with mechanical neatness and placing them on a chair.

Then she undressed and crawled into bed, shivering, and pulled the covers up high. She felt in shock. Too much had happened in too short a space of time and she had not yet caught up with it. No Matthew and no engagement on the one hand; on the other, no Tom. Love on its own was not enough; the books had been wrong.

No Tom. Now it finally began to sink in and after a few false starts of hardly knowing how to articulate this new kind of painful, heart-broken loss, she eventually wept. She wept for the frustration of every scheme she had ever started, for the impossibility of achieving what she wanted, for the love that was over before it had begun. What was the point of talking about five years? Foolish hope had made her hold onto it as possible but she saw now with clarity that it was nothing but another unrealistic dream, just like all the others. She missed him already and now she resented him too for not taking her with him, for foiling her, for rejecting her. What would she do? How would she live? She pressed her pillow to her face and cried even more bitterly, for the loneliness she had felt previously was nothing to this.

She would never love again, she was quite certain of it, whether she saw Tom or not. She would die a spinster – and that would show them! She was not sure who... or why... or what... But she knew she wanted to show somebody something. If only there was a way of doing it!

Oh, how right Mary had been! There was no hope for women like them. What was the use of pretending otherwise? She was as stifled and confined as anyone else, blocked and mocked at every turn. Mary had understood the uselessness of trying to change anything long before she had. How naïve she had been! How amusing she must have appeared! How hopeless, how silly, how unproductive all her plans seemed to her now. They would all have failed. Get Gwen a job? She was still a maid. Go to university? With what qualifications? Be the Florence Nightingale of countesses? It would never have worked. Marry the man she loved from a different class? Even he thought it impossible! There was nothing left for her. She was out of ideas and out of optimism.

She had played all her cards to win and instead she had lost everything.

Read Chapter Eighteen here!
Tags: consolation prize, downton abbey, fanfiction, historical, romance
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