Something New and Exciting
Because they're quite possibly my favourite new ship ever...Little musings between Sybil and Branson from the end of episode 6 through to episode 7. Very few spoilers that I can think of.
"Branson, could you help me?"
It's on the tip of his tongue to growl no – Thomas has slunk off for a smoke without so much as a by-your-leave, leaving him to help poor William carry the luggage of the departing Grantham family down to the car. Off to London for God-knows how long. For the most part he's almost relieved. Since the count he's been avoiding censorious eyes from Lord and Lady Grantham, cringing with shame every time Matthew Crawley comes to the house. He's spent roughly twenty hours in total hanging around the servant's quarters hoping to catch word of how she is, three consecutive days pacing up and down the cramped little kitchen of his cottage, and every moment he's awake berating himself for being such an utter fool. And now…well, his arms are filled with trunks – how many dresses do the women of Downton need – and his legs are beginning to cramp, buckle under the weight. He nearly snaps no – until he recognises the voice, sees Lady Sybil peering at him from behind her bedroom door.
Lady Sybil. The one reason he's most decidedly not looking forward to the Grantham family travelling up to London.
"I – what can I do for you, mi'lady?"
Her face is around the door, the rest of her hidden. "I need some help with this frock."
He clears his throat. "That might be Anna or Gwen's department. I only know about cars."
"Oh no, that's not what I meant! I just – well it's awfully vain of me, but I was trying on my ballgown, and Edith and I had this terrible quarrel about my dress for my presentation to their Majesties, and - she mentioned that I bore a distinct resemblance to…well, a to cabbage stump. I believe that was the phrase!" Sybil giggles, presses her fingers to her lips, he can't but help admire how adorable she suddenly looks. "And I'd ask Papa, for a man's opinion you know, but he'd say I look nice no matter what, and I simply can't go to London looking as if I belong on a salad dish!" She blushes, apologetic. "I hope you don't find me terribly silly – "
"Not at all." The idea had never popped into his head – all he can suddenly think about is how endearing she is when she's nervous, and how strange it is that the same young woman who plunged headlong into a political riot at Rippon is panicking over a new frock. "Let's see the damage then."
"Thank-you Branson. I know you're busy, but I do trust you to be honest with me. Well then – " She steps out, gives a twirl. "Tell me the worst."
It's not even the dress – which, despite the fact he knows nothing about ladies' fashion, he has to admit is a nice one – white, and all flowing and draping and decidedly simple. It's the fact that that dress, on her – it's not glamorous, like Lady Mary, or homely like Edith, but simply graceful, in a way her sisters could never achieve. There's nothing showy, no attempts to make her look more fashionable than she already is. She just looks beautiful. Cabbage stumps are most definitely the last thing on his mind.
Alright, so he's been aware that she's pretty before – the day she trooped down to her family wearing those trousers and beaming as if she were something out of A Thousand Arabian Nights without a care in the world. The fire that gets in her eyes whenever she talks about politics, the way she smile at him in the car when they talk. The time he held her in his arms when she was injured at the count, although it probably hadn't been the best time to notice it. But now – well. He can't imagine a more beautiful woman in the whole of London.
He's suddenly very aware that he's dropped one of the trunks on his foot. It hurts quite a bit, now that he notices.
Sybil's looking at him expectantly. Belatedly aware that she probably wants him to say something, not gawk at her like a complete idiot, he blathers something vaguely poetic and charming about her being 'pretty as a picture', watches her eyes light up like stars in utter happiness. Her hand presses briefly against his arm in thanks before she disappears back into her room, leaving him standing outside with a bruised toe, an armful of luggage, furious with himself that he didn't say anything better. 'Pretty as a picture'? What was that? When he should have told her that she was gorgeous, an utter vision, that every man would be watching her, that he'd have to be watching her to make sure none of the fancy London set wouldn't try their luck.
Because he won't. Be there, that was. Some other chauffeur will ferry his Syb – his family back and forth from the balls, someone else is going to watch her talking giddily with excitement, someone else is going to wait outside while she dances the night away with handsome, rich bachelors the whole night through.
He grits his teeth. The end of her debutante season can not come quickly enough.
Don't get her wrong, the London season's utterly thrilling – being presented at court, glittering balls, tea parties, Ascot, polo matches, walks through the parks – she can't imagine ever going without it, can barely imagine going back to life at Downton. But something's missing, something she can't place.
It's not that she's ungrateful. She's enjoying herself immensely, her parents are proud, Granny nearly floats to the ceiling with each new bachelor that approaches. But it simply doesn't feel right. She doesn't enjoy going for long drives as much as she used to. The chauffeur at London's a pleasant enough man, greying, a little portly, with a gruff Yorkshire accent. Sybil's sure he's lovely in his own way. But he's not the same.
One day when it's just her and Thompson driving the car to buy a new hat, they pass a procession, a pair of Suffragettes chaining themselves to buildings. Her eyes widen. By now Branson would be talking nineteen to the dozen, pointing out sights, declaring what brave women they are for sticking with their convictions; they'd be having such a jolly time by now. She leans forward, suddenly hopeful. "Thompson, what do you think about women's rights, the gap between the poor and the aristocracy?"
"Couldn't say, mi'lady. I reckon things should stay as they are, and it'll be a simpler world for the lot of us if they do."
Sybil sinks back into her seat, defeated.
"Another two weeks of London, all glamorous and excitin'." Daisy clutches a dirty dishrag to her heart, does a gentle pirouette. Even Mrs Patmore doesn't have the heart to scold her. "Oh, they must be enjoying themselves so!"
"Well, I don't envy Anna and Miss O'Brien," Gwen laughs. "Imagine all the dressing they'll be doing, off to a different ball each night! And it's Lady Sybil's presentation; she'll be so excited!"
"Imagine all the dances!"
"Imagine all the men she must be meeting!"
It's been going on like this for almost a month now, the female staff giggling and gabbing on and odd as if they had nothing else do to. Sometimes even Mrs Hughes joins in! He grits his teeth, continues flicking through the paper. He's not interested. He's not.
"I got a letter from Anna yesterday saying that Colonel Daulby's eldest son was very taken with her. Can you imagine? And him so handsome!"
He's not interested. He's not – oh, sod it.
Maybe he is. But only because he has a vested interest in Lady Sybil's welfare – after what happened in Rippon he's determined nothing should ever trouble her again. And he knows what the aristocracy's like, all those men weighing up young girls as if they were prize mares, making salacious comments behind brandy glasses and port. He's only sorry he can't be there to look after her.
Gwen glances over, chewing on her fingernail. "It's Lady Sybil's ball tonight, isn't it?"
It is, he's been counting down every day for the last month. Under their eyes he gives a noncommittal shrug. "Don't know. Suppose it must be."
He most certainly is not jealous.
Marcus Daulby asks her to dance at each consecutive ball, his palms damp on her dress, hair shiny with pomade. She supposes it's meant to look smart, neat and tidy – but honestly, what a ghastly smell! It's terribly shallow of her to think it, but there it is. Besides, the way he talks, asks her opinions on housekeeping and rearing children, it's as if he's interviewing her for a post at a factory! He laughs quite loudly when one of the footmen trip over his own feet at Lady Statham's ball, makes rather infuriating comments about those 'damn fool Suffragettes'. But truly, it's the hair pomade that makes her skin crawl.
It's odd – growing up with two sisters she's seen her fair share of bachelors trooping through the doors, most of them rather handsome in their own way. But when she thinks of the type of man she'd like the look of, she can only get the vaguest idea of sparkling eyes and fair hair, a flash of a grin cast over one shoulder, the barest touch as she steps from the car, light as a sigh, the brush of a snowflake. Tall – but, well, not too tall.
Dear friends provide inspiration in the most unlikely ways. That's all she can say.
"Well then, Mister Branson," Carson rumbles as he finishes up breakfast – with O'Brien gone there's no-one to say where he may or may not eat. "Time for you to go to the station."
He's halfway down the hallway before he realises what day it is. What this means.
Then he starts to run down the length of the passageway. It wouldn't do to keep Lord Grantham waiting, not after a long train ride.
"There's Branson at the platform, right on time," Papa comments as the train drags to a halt. "Good to see he's taking his job seriously once again."
"God knows what he's done in our absence," Edith remarks just a little too tartly for Sybil's liking. She sounds rather unpleasant, not that it bares thinking about. "Probably set light to the drapes and knocked down the – Sybil!"
She doesn't quite know what possesses her – the glimpse of that familiar figure all in green through the carriage window and her stomach feels all strange and constricted, and her heart suddenly flips as if she's swallowed a butterfly. It must be the first glimpse of home, for she's a country girl after all, and Branson's a dear, dear sight after all this time. And then she's pushing past her ridiculous sister and hurrying down the passage way, neatly jumping down from the carriage step before a porter can assist her down. She's so unused to stepping down from cars or trains that the sensation feels like she's flying.
Alright, so she trips, just a little, her skirt snagging against the train door. She hears Mama call out, sees Branson dart forward to catch her. His arms feel awfully strong when he sets her down quite neatly on her feet, kind and strong and very there.
Mama and Papa are already beginning to scold before they've even got down themselves, but Branson's chuckling. "You Suffragettes," he grins, "you always need a man to get you out of trouble."
His Irish accent's as lilting as ever. She's forgotten how nice it is.
"Why Branson," Sybil laughs, smiling up at him with the sun on her cheeks and a breeze dancing over them, "don't tell me you're beginning to turn Tory!"
"God, I hope not."
It's the same as it's always been. Suddenly she's so happy to be home.
Impulsively she squeezes his arm, even before he can bow or go to open the door to the car, or do anything silly like that. "It's so very good to see you again."
"Did you enjoy yourself?" he asks as he escorts her to the car the next day. "It's all the maids have been talking about."
"Oh, very much." She claps her hands happily – on another girl the gesture would look affected, she merely appears happy beyond belief. "I had such a lovely time, Branson, you wouldn't believe! The dancing, and the races – and we actually drove right by Parliament! It was so exciting!"
They're paused by the car, without beginning the journey – it's a habit they've picked up, talking for ten minutes or more without even bothering to begin. One time they talked for so long that by the end of the conversation she'd quite forgotten where it was they were going. Ordinarily he'd enjoy it, but now – now as she talks on about how lovely everything was he can't quite bear to listen. It's all she can do, talk about what a wonderful time she had in London, away from Downton, away from him.
It's making him miserable. His emotions – what he's feeling - whatever it is that makes his gut turn somersaults when he sees her, makes him hold her hand for just a bit longer when she steps out of the car – well, it's putting him through hell. He knows quite well that the worst part of his job would be driving Sybil to those balls, seeing her look so beautiful and know it's for every man there but him. He also knows it was even worse not being there at all, letting some other driver steal those moments from him.
Whatever this is – it's decidedly unenjoyable.
As casually as he can manage he clears his throat. "I heard something about one of Colonel Daulby's sons?"
She glances down, suddenly looks everywhere but where he is. "Marcus Daulby, yes."
Hmph. Marcus Daulby. He's never seen the man but he can imagine his type – unpleasantly handsome, rich, charismatic, charming. Bastard. He probably doesn't give her books on politics or drive her through the park.
…Not that he ever would.
"Did you…get on with him?" He somehow manages to force through gritted teeth.
A sudden flare of hot, sour emotion hits him.
They'll probably be engaged before the summer's out. Wonderful. Brilliant. Isn't that just fantastic –
Her bashful laughter suddenly cuts through. "Oh God, Branson, he was awful! He was so patronising, and I swear his hair smelled of animal grease! I haven't been able to talk to anyone about it – Mama's so fond of his mother – but it was simply dreadful!" She pats a hand against his shoulder, almost absent-mindedly. "And he didn't give me a single decent bit of conversation the entire season. Honestly, I wish you'd have come just so I could have someone to talk to!"
Well then. Suddenly he feels a lot better.
Mary still hasn't spoken to Matthew about the Great Matter, nor does she plan to, it seems.
"Really Mary," Edith murmurs, just a little bit smugly. "He'll think you won't want him because of the baby."
"Don't be ridiculous," her eldest sister snaps as Anna begins to dress her hair. "Just because of your precious Sir Anthony doesn't make you an expert on men; far from it in fact. Anyway," her eyes soften as they land on Sybil – they've always been far closer as sisters, "it was Sybil's turn for the spotlight this year, and I dare say she deserves it. Do you have your eye on anyone, dearest?"
She glances up, caught off-guard. It's not that she's absent-minded, she's simply been reading – a book Branson's leant her, the biography of John Stuart Mill. It's his own, dog-eared and pages falling out, all yellowed and tatty. He's even annotated it, a careless scrawl, underlining certain parts and occasionally writing little comments that make her laugh. His name's on the front cover, Thomas Branson, smudged and faded beyond belief.
When she turns to speak to Mary she holds the book up to her chest, if only to hide the subject manner.
He begins to worry that someone else might know the summer's day he waits for the women at Rippon to drive them back home. They're all there, drifting down the road as if they were a flock of swans; Lady Mary, Lady Edith, Lady Cora – the tiniest, most perfect bump beginning to protrude from her dress. They all smile gracefully as he opens the door, it seems he's forgiven for the incident at the count. And Syb – Lady Sybil, he must never forget that, bringing up the rear as usual. When she steps up to mount he presses a hand against the spot between her shoulders, just to steady her. Just a reflex. Her smile is bright, winning, as always.
"Really, I don't see why you're so interested, Mary," Lady Edith says as they begin to rattle down the road. Her voice is somewhat sullen. "How does my friendship with Sir Anthony concern you?"
"Believe me, Edith, nothing that poor old bore does concerns me…"
"Will both of you stop it? This instant!" Lady Cora's looking daggers, the stress of the baby must be getting to her. As he glances up at the rear-view mirror, another force of habit when he's driving the women – alright, driving her – he catches Lady Sybil leaning against the side of the car, cheeks flushed pink with the heat, utterly bored with her sisters' squabbling. She glances up, catches him watching, grins. Her eyes are sparkling.
He can't look back on the road soon enough.
But Lady Mary's not done yet. "Just because I'm a little practical in my thinking while you're carrying on like some little school girl…"
"I most certainly am not! I get on well with Sir Anthony, I'm just not so intent on money and titles as you!"Lady Edith glances around for an ally, skips over Sybil, Lady Cora, who's jaw has begun to set in exasperation, lands on the back of his head. "Well, let's ask a male opinion, shall we? Branson?" (He doesn't think she's ever addressed him by name, or ever addressed him at all for that matter) "What do you think people should marry for: money or love?"
"Really dear, don't get poor Branson involved in your squabbles. You're making him uncomfortable."
"Well, it's a fair question Mama! And besides, we know so little of our servants' lives while they see so much of ours; I'm simply taking an interest." He knows she's trying to be kind, in that odd, desperate little way that Lady Edith has; nonetheless this line of questioning is beginning to make him uncomfortable. "Well, Branson? If you could marry for love, and nothing else, wouldn't you?"
"Oh, leave him alone," Lady Sybil replies sharply from her corner of the car.
In that instant one name, one face shoots into his mind without him even realising how it got there. He pushes it out as swiftly as if it were a red-hot poker.
"I don't know, my lady, I'm sure."
When they return to Downton Abbey he holds his hand out to allow Sybil to step down. Her hand squeezes affectionately against his as they part.
Of course Lady Edith only questions him like that because it's a strike against her sister. Whatever this is – he's sure she has no suspicions.
It would be just his luck, for Lady Edith to understand his own emotions before he did.
He doesn't know what possesses him to do it – the euphoria just sweeps through him, through everyone, and suddenly the three of them have their arms around each other and they're laughing and jumping and good old Gwen's nearly crying with happiness, and his heart's just thudding so painfully, with joy for Gwen's success yes but also because he can't believe how wonderful this young woman is, that she'd push for so hard and so long to help her maid achieve this dream. And all he can do is feel all this emotion sweep through him and they're all standing there under Mrs Hughes' eagle eye and he doesn't quite know what little demon takes hold of him, but suddenly – all he can do is reach out and entangle his fingers with hers.
It's stupid, completely stupid, a spur of the moment thing he should never have done, but it happens, as easy as that. Her hand doesn't pull away – quite the opposite, in fact, she clutches back, and he finds himself thanking God he isn't wearing driving gloves so he can feel her skin against his through her white lace gloves. Finds himself wondering that, if simply touching her warm skin through gloves is enough to start his mind reeling, what must it be like to dance with her as equals, hug, hold, even kiss…
And then Gwen moves off and the spell is broken, he finds himself looking down at their enjoined hands, as if to think: you great fool Tom Branson, whatever are you doing?
Sybil's staring too. Her lips are parted slightly – not that he's looking – and her eyes are widening: her look is quite impossible to discern.
The knowledge of it all hits him like a ton of bricks.
Oh God. She's...I'm...What a hell of a thing to happen.
He's not even sure what he's saying when Mrs Hughes stops him in his tracks. That's probably a good thing.
"It's awful, isn't it?" she murmurs, as the guests begin to leave.
Branson nods grimly, shakes his head. The clouds are beginning to drift over the sun, as if alerted to the news. "They're already saying it'll be over by Christmas, that all Germany needs is one show of force and it'll all be over." He grimaces. "I don't believe it."
Neither, she realises sadly as she moves to stand by him, watching the servants start to dismantle the canopies, does she. Whatever's going to happen, it's going to strike all of them, affect each and every one of them. Sybil suddenly realises she's quite frightened.
Without quite meaning to she leans against him, quite weakened, only needing support for a moment – but Branson wraps an arm around her shoulders, rubs his spare hand against her arm, allows her head to sink against the crook of his neck. Her eyes flit briefly closed. It's a terrible breach of propriety of course, and Mama will go spare if she's seen, but right now she needs someone to support her. His cheek leans comfortingly against the top of her head.
"Do you know, I really feel quite scared, Tom," she mumbles into the thick fabric of his coat.
She feels a ripple of a chuckle going through him.
"What is it?"
"Nothing," he admits, releases her just a little. "It's just, you've never called me Tom before."
That's true. It's never occurred to her before. On the grand scale of things, it somehow seems quite unimportant. "No," she muses, "I suppose I haven't."
He escorts her back to the house without being asked, refuses to leave until she's safely back with her parents. His hand remains pressed against her arm the whole way back.