Two Years Later

HAS no one said those daring
Kind eyes should be more learn'd?
Or warned you how despairing
The moths are when they are burned,
I could have warned you, but you are young,
So we speak a different tongue.

O you will take whatever's offered
And dream that all the world's a friend,
Suffer as your mother suffered,
Be as broken in the end.
But I am old and you are young,
And I speak a barbarous tongue.

W. B. Yeats

He watched her slender form retreat quickly across the servants' yard and silently cursed himself. He should never have let it go that far. His parcel of sins was already too heavy to tote. Only the hall boy had saved him from adding a new one tonight.

His fingers still burned where she had drawn her thumb across them. He had been so careful, so clear that nothing could come of them no matter how much he admired her. He wasn't free. Wasn't fit, either. Not for a girl like her.

He regretted the flash of irritation he had felt earlier in Mr. Carson's pantry. Having arrived at the moment he had been dreading since his arrival at Downton, he was compelled to reveal his disgrace. As he began to speak, he had been interrupted by her assurance that they had never believed him to be a drunkard or a thief.

There was such a thing as too much pluck.

He had snapped "Because you know no different," before he could get a handle on himself. She was so determined to see only the good. She had the unspoiled optimism of someone for whom the world had always turned exactly as expected. Hadn't anyone ever shown her that there was another side?

He supposed he should be happy for her winsome naiveté, grateful that she had known no real despair in her short years. But the grim task ahead of him, and the inevitable loss to follow, had left him able to taste nothing but the bitter.

His sharp words had succeeded in making her shrink back a little, her brow furrowing at this unexpected reaction. It was fitting, he thought. He had hurt her even before revealing the worst. She looked completely crushed by the time he was done.

Even then, she would not be discouraged. She had come to him in the dark, full of worry about him leaving. He had been honest when he had told Mr. Carson he didn't want to go. Honest, but foolish. It didn't matter what he wanted. There was no way he'd be kept on. Even his Lordship's good nature had its limits and his very employment kept him perpetually dancing on that edge. This would surely be enough to tip the balance and make Grantham realize his valet was more bother than he was worth.

He had tried once more to get her to wake up and see him as the lost cause he was. She had dug in and stubbornly refused to believe there was a better man. In that moment he was weak enough to accept the balm she was offering.

Of all the ways he had been punished for his mistakes, Anna was by far the worst. He had been able to bear the shameful loss of his military career, imprisonment, and the humiliations that came with his attempts to find work in the aftermath. Those pains had almost been welcome-justly earned lashes that may someday lead to atonement.

This new hell, being in orbit around her but unable to speak or touch or claim her as his own, gutted him so deeply that sometimes he had to coax himself though minute by minute.

If there could be any redeeming factor to his inevitable dismissal it would be that at least he would be delivered from her. It would have to be easier, he reasoned, not to be faced every day with what he wanted desperately but could not have. He was used to being alone.

It would also spare her. She would be forced to give up her childish attachment to him and free herself to move on to someone suitable. A man who could give her a real future. All he could offer her was disappointment. Or adultery.

It was ironic that leaving was the one thing he could do for her. He may not be able to give her the life she deserved, but he could get out of the way of her finding one for herself. Without him dragging her down she would at least still have a chance. If she was going to be broken, it was not going to be him that did it.

It was the only way he could love her.