A/N: Thank you to everyone for your continued support, enthusiasm and wonderful comments on the previous chapter. (Only 15 more reviews to 200 - woooo! Can I do it? Only time can tell!) And thank you especially to OrangeShipper for her beta-ing and support. I apologise for this chapter being late. I was distracted by the wonderfulness of S03 wedding photos; writing EVERYONE IS MISERABLE AND ANGRY AND THINGS GO FROM BAD TO WORSE suddenly seemed rather less relevant to anything than it was before...
Still, I hope you enjoy the chapter. I don't know if anyone was expecting this to happen - nobody's directly predicted it - so I hope it's at least a little surprising. I'm also not sure that this has been done before in quite this way so it may even be original- fancy! (Or not - I've not read every fanfic.)
Things, as I'm sure you're aware, are hotting up. :)
Chapter Eighteen: The Tongue Has Its Desire
Sybil did not go down for dinner that evening, pleading illness. Instead she had Anna bring her a cup of sweet tea and ate half of the jar of biscuits on the fireplace. Her mother found her curled miserably in bed later on, having cried herself to the point of exhaustion, and sat down beside her, stroking her hair. The usual questions followed: was she unwell? Was she hurt? Had she received bad news? Had she quarrelled with Matthew?
Sybil denied all suggestions but on the last question raised her head and met Cora's eyes with an adult bleakness that was quite new. No, she had not quarrelled with Matthew, she explained, but she thought it only right to inform her mother that they had broken off the engagement.
"Oh," she replied. "Oh, I see." For a moment the hand stilled and then the countess heaved a sigh, adapted to the change, and continued to pet her. "Have you told your father?"
"Not yet. I'll tell him tomorrow, I suppose." It was not something she was looking forward to, though she felt adamantly that since it was all her fault that the wedding would not be taking place it should fall to her to break the news.
"Will you let me do it tonight?" said Cora, however. "Tomorrow he'll want to be focussed on the dinner so let's give him a night to sleep on it, shall we?"
Sybil could only shrug her assent. After the countess had ascertained that it was a mutual decision, that her daughter's heart was not broken (if only she knew), that Matthew wasn't to blame, and told her that everything would be alright eventually, she kissed her head and left her to be soothed by sleep.
Lord Grantham did not take the news particularly well. Cora sat anxiously by the fire in the library while he paced up and down and tried to make sense of it.
"I really thought-" he began. "I really thought Matthew was falling for her. Properly that is, not that – that infatuation he had for Mary or we thought he did. They're very young," he consoled himself, "they may get over it. Lovers' tiffs, you know."
"Not really. We were well married before that became an issue, if you'll recall, my dear."
He shook his head affectionately at her but only resumed his pacing. He burst out a few moments later, "And if they don't, what then? Are we to assume he'll decide at some point that it's Edith he wants? No, if not Sybil then I think we must resign ourselves to seeing Downton pass out of our hands."
"I resigned myself to that long ago," replied his wife, holding out her hand to him. "And don't you trust Matthew? He'll probably pick a perfectly nice girl when he does decide to marry."
"I don't believe Matthew knows his own mind. I only wish he did!"
He sat down next to her. "I wanted it to work, that's all."
They were silent for some time before the earl started again on a new tack. "It's lucky we didn't announce it publicly in the end; the last thing we want is people talking; that kind of thing could have made it hard for Sybil in London. I just hope there won't be any awkwardness tomorrow night."
"From Sybil and Matthew? I don't think so. They're not children."
"Sometimes... sometimes I forget that."
Lord Grantham need not have worried; there was no awkwardness from the parted lovers. Sybil had spent the entire day preparing herself for the role she would have to play that evening. Acting did not come naturally to her and she knew it, but she looked on the dinner as a test of a fortitude she felt she needed to pass. Something she was good at was meeting challenges so she threw herself into this one with her usual enthusiasm. It was a good distraction anyway.
At breakfast Robert had lamented the great inconvenience Branson's abrupt departure had caused. A man from the farm who could drive tractors was being employed at short notice to collect the guests from the station.
"But it's really not quite the thing," the earl complained. "There isn't a uniform to fit him and it looks so bad. I don't see why Branson couldn't have waited. Must be the socialist streak in him; I suppose I should have seen it coming."
Sybil clenched her knife and her teeth and opened her eyes very wide to prevent any possibility of tears. None came and she even managed to hold her tongue until the danger passed. She was proud of herself for that. She next endured a conversation with Edith who had been told about the engagement being broken. She was probably trying to be kind, Sybil acknowledged afterwards, but it came over as overly curious and just a bit gleeful. Once again, she responded with silence and clipped answers leaving Edith frustrated and herself restless. An hour's solitary walk around the grounds did nothing to help her feeling of confinement and misery. She walked all the way to the boundary of the estate and looked at the road winding off into the distance; she walked to the lake and stood alone on the shore. In the end they were just a road and a lake and she ended up sitting rigidly on the bench under the cedar tree, hands folded in her lap, back so straight she almost trembled. It was only a couple of months ago that she had sat there with Mary and tried to solve all her problems by means of feminist pamphlets. Her naivety made her wince now. What had her sister thought of her? It was a miracle she had not laughed in her face but of course Mary knew how to control herself. And what of them both? Mary was who knew where on the other side of the channel and she was.. she felt as if she had gone on an equally long journey without having once left home.
It was December and cold. She eventually returned to the house having accomplished nothing except wearing herself out physically. Perhaps she had worn herself into docility. Dressed in her best clothes and glittering with jewellery, she prepared to descend to meet the guests as the charming daughter of the house, a little reserved but no more than a woman should be. Nobody should suspect a thing. One more push, she told herself. She could not think beyond the end of the evening.
Matthew was also quiet. He was perfectly polite, it was impossible for him not to be, but he was also tense and brooding with a frown of which he was never quite able to rid himself, as if he wished he were back at home on his own. Sybil hoped when she saw him that his attitude was not her fault and she felt quite guilty for five whole minutes until he naturally drifted towards her in an effort to avoid making polite conversation with anyone else. He was distracted but not, she felt, upset – at least not with her – and she was forced to conclude with relief that his thoughts were elsewhere. They placed themselves in an out of the way corner until socialising became unavoidable.
It was soon clear, however, that the dinner had greater problems than Sybil and Matthew being out of sorts. From the arrival of the first guests it was clear that something was a little off and it could not even be put down to the Skeltons being eccentric and the Flintshires unpleasant. As the guests assembled in the drawing room before dinner there was a palpable and growing sense of unease though it was not obvious where it was coming from.
Nobody was making an effort to socialise beyond their own little group, conversations were taking place in undertones and quickly hushed if the earl or countess joined them on their rounds about the room. Edith was taking the opportunity to monopolize Sir Anthony, Isobel was making friends with an equally bemused Mrs. Skelton, and Sybil and Matthew felt that since nobody else was making an effort they could be excused.
"Isn't your aunt meant to be here?" asked Matthew after a particularly long silence between them.
Sybil shrugged because she had not been paying attention and didn't care anyway; then she remembered her resolutions and straightened up. "Yes, I think so. She's dreadfully late; we'll have to start without her at this rate. I don't suppose Papa will want to delay any longer, the mingling isn't going terribly well."
"No... who's that important looking trio over there?"
Sybil followed his gaze to three men with medals on their dinner jackets and thick beards. All looked as if their wine was poisoned, the room smelled of something unpleasant and the carpet itself could turn into a boiling sea of writhing snakes at any moment. She leaned closer to him. "The one in the middle is the Russian ambassador himself. The one on the left is another ambassador, I think, I'm not sure of where, and the third gentleman is an advisor."
"Friendly looking people," muttered Matthew in her ear and for a moment they managed to be amused.
Lady Rosamund arrived just as Robert had finally decided to serve dinner anyway. She appeared to be a state of distress or at the very least abstraction.
"I can offer absolutely no explanation, my dear," she told Cora in a hurry as they all went into dinner. "I left London late and so arrived here late as well."
"Never mind that now," replied the countess, "you're here now and I'm very glad you are."
"Yes, and I really must talk to Robert as soon as possible, but I suppose you know all about it."
"All about what?" asked Cora anxiously but they were separated by the seating plan before her sister-in-law could reply.
Sybil found herself between Matthew thankfully and a middle-aged man from the foreign office who introduced himself as Mr. Maitland. He seemed nice enough but not inclined to talk much.
"Your mother's American, I believe," he said to Sybil during a lull in the conversation.
"My wife Agatha's American too." He nodded his head in the direction of a blonde woman further down the table who was talking into a void. Mr. Maitland seemed rather depressed by the whole thing. "So I know what it's like."
Sybil was not sure how to reply to that so she said nothing.
Once the ladies left the table, she found her arm taken by her sister. Their earlier sniping seemed forgotten in solidarity against this peculiar atmosphere.
"Some thing's terribly wrong," Edith began fretfully, as once again the drawing room divided itself up into little, secretive, whispering groups.
"I feel as if they're all judging us but I don't know what we're supposed to have done," replied Sybil.
"Where's Aunt Rosamund, Edith? She's disappeared again."
They scanned the room but didn't see her. Cora approached them a few minutes later and they put the question to her.
"Oh, she had to talk to your father urgently about something. Goodness, girls, I hope Matthew doesn't keep the men in the dining room long. It's all a bit unbearable, isn't it? I'm not sure how we can make things any better though. They seem so determined to be unfriendly!"
"Has Matthew been left in charge then?" asked Edith in surprise.
However, before the countess could reply, there was a sound of door slamming in the hall and a raised voice. As if they had been waiting for this very moment, everybody in the room fell silent. Cora started forwards as the door was flung open. "Robert, what-"
Sybil gasped out loud for she had never seen her father wear such an expression of disgust and rage before. Behind him was Aunt Rosamund looking actually afraid, and milling in the hall were the gentlemen who had also heard the door slam and had left the dining room to see what was going on.
"Out!" he shouted. "All of you, out!"
"Robert, what is the meaning of this?" cried his wife, becoming very angry. "How dare you-"
"No! How dare you?" He pointed his finger round the assembled company and turned to include the men as well. "How dare you abuse my hospitality in this disgraceful way? You come here, you eat my food, you smile at my daughters... I must say you all have some nerve!"
"Robert!" Cora seemed to be standing on tiptoes to make herself taller and give her more authority as she glared at him.
"If you think you can enjoy my house for a moment longer then you are very much mistaken. I want you all to leave and right this instant."
Now Matthew was at his side. "Sir, if I might suggest-"
"You might suggest nothing, Matthew. How dare you try to tell me how to run my own household? Out, all of you, out!" There was a moment of pure silence in which the company remained frozen in shock before the earl roared a final time, "OUT!"
Pandemonium broke out as the guests milled around trying to sort out what was going to happen.
"But where are we going to stay?" wailed Mrs. Maitland in shrill tones above the clamour.
Within minutes the Skeltons and Sir Anthony who lived close enough to be able to return home that evening and had sufficiently large houses had volunteered their hospitality and cars were being ordered to take the guests away.
Meanwhile, the whispers became mutters became audible speech until a wave of words and speculation and gossip and lies and truths broke over the whole company. Sybil and Edith clung to each other in a corner where they were soon joined by Cousin Isobel. She was ashen.
"What's happened? What is it? Why is Papa so angry?" they demanded. "Do you know?"
She looked round the room and seemed reluctant to speak. "I – I heard something about it, yes, but I really think-"
"It's whatever Aunt Rosamund said, isn't it?" cried Sybil eagerly. "I have to find her!"
But she had darted away. She had to do something. Trembling all over with nerves and fear, she felt as if she were on the precipice of something large and terrible, far bigger than herself. She was scared of her father and scared for him. At least she did not have to pretend any more.
If the drawing room had been uncomfortable then the saloon was worse. Servants swarmed everywhere as guests were ushered out, some of them helping, most simply there to enjoy the crisis, whatever it was. Carson was too busy overseeing the arrangements to discipline them. In a corner were Robert, Cora, Rosamund, Matthew and Lady Flintshire, her father's cousin. Sybil approached them automatically and hovered on the edge of the group.
"Well, how was I supposed to know Aunt Violet wasn't going to receive my letter?" Cousin Susan was complaining. "I took her silence as confirmation! And then when I heard they were in Italy, well, what other conclusions was I supposed to draw? Of course it was an exile!"
"You didn't need to blab every single thing you heard on the grapevine to that notorious gossip, Agatha Maitland!" snapped Rosamund.
Susan shrugged. "She was the one who told me in the first place last month."
"How on earth did she-"
"Enough, please!" broke in the countess. "None of this is getting us anywhere."
"What's happened?" interrupted Sybil, putting her hand on Matthew's arm for support. His face was turned away from her but she caught a glimpse of a down-turned mouth and an intense stare into space that was blacker than she could have imagined.
"Sybil, I think you should go to bed," said her mother. "This doesn't concern you."
She shook her head. "No! No, I want to know what's going on." She felt suddenly even more afraid. "You mentioned Granny and Italy – what is it? Tell me! Mama? Matthew?"
There was a silence. Then Lady Flintshire shrugged and replied, "Your sister's been a rather naughty girl, I'm afraid, Sybil."
"Susan, I forbid it!"
"Do be quiet, Rosamund. She'll find out soon enough."
"Find out what exactly?" continued Sybil, clenching her fists in an effort to remain calm.
Her aunt looked at her very seriously and then said calmly, "There is a rumour in London, Sybil, that Kemal Pamuk, the Turkish diplomat-"
"Attaché. And where I come from we don't tend to call them rumours when they're true."
"Whatever he was!" snapped Cora.
"I remember him," replied Sybil, not sure where this was going. "How could I forget?"
"That Mr. Pamuk did not die in his own bed." She paused but Sybil continued to stare at her so she was forced to continue, "That he died in Mary's."
"But what- Oh." Vaguely, she was aware of a movement at her side as Matthew shifted from one foot to the other. "Oh. Oh God."
She felt sick quite suddenly and clamped her hand over her mouth, hardly aware of her mother quickly coming and putting an arm round her shoulders.
"Excuse me," muttered Matthew and slipped away quite unnoticed.
She could not stop thinking, or perhaps she could not start; her mind seemed both frozen and overactive at the same time. Mary and Mr. Pamuk. Mr. Pamuk in Mary's bed. Mary and Mr. Pamuk like – like that. Mr. Pamuk dead. Dead in the middle of - When? How? How had they got him back to his room? Mary must have carried him. Imagine...
"How horrible..." she whispered.
"Yes, it's horrible. Now will you go to bed, Sybil?" said her father. The fight seemed to have gone out of him and he simply sounded incredibly weary.
"No. No, I can't." She found she was breathing more quickly. The images could not stop coming to her now but they were interwoven with her own memory, of kisses and hands and heat and fire – and coldness and despair... She shook her head to try to clear her mind but nothing could remove the ache in her heart as if she were weeping in empathy. "What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," said her father with a sigh. "Getting rid of the guests was the first step. To think we actually entertained the Turkish ambassador under this roof!"
"You must start damage control immediately," said Rosamund quickly. "It's a shame I didn't arrive earlier. Your behaviour tonight will only add fuel to fire."
"It may not be too late to discredit it altogether," suggested Robert with more hope than realism.
Sybil was confused and shook her mother's arm off taking a step away from them towards the stairs. "No. No, that's not what I meant. I meant, what are you going to do about Mary?" The distinction seemed obvious to her but apparently not to anybody else.
"Well, that's what your father means about damage control," said Lady Flintshire eventually, speaking to her slowly as if she was stupid. "Making sure the rumours are contained and that we do everything we can to salvage our reputations before the whole thing gets out of hand."
"But what about Mary's reputation?" She still did not understand why they were not answering her questions.
"Sybil..." began her mother in a warning tone.
This only riled her further and she raised her voice. "Who cares about our reputations, what about Mary's?"
"My dear, by now Mary doesn't have a reputation to salvage," said her aunt gently.
Sybil began to shake as the full horror of it began to come crashing down around her. "No!" she exclaimed taking even more steps backwards. "No, I won't accept that. And – and isn't it ridiculous that you're all talking about her like this and she's not here to give her side of the story? She – she's in Italy!"
"That is the only good part of this, that she is safely out of the way," her father nodded.
"How is that an advantage? Papa, you must see – She's all alone! She's all alone and she's had to bear-" She broke off and swallowed; she could not continue.
"Sybil, please, darling, you're making a scene. There are still people here. You must go to bed now."
She did not care. "No!" she kept repeating more and more loudly as they continued to watch her, dumb and useless. "No, no, no! You have to do something; you have to bring her back!" At some point she had begun to cry without realising it. "You don't understand; she's all alone and how can she bear it? What are you going to do about that then? Don't you care at all? How can she bear it?" Her voice spiralled upwards.
"Sybil," said the countess in her most dangerous voice, "I am ordering you to go to bed right now."
Anna and Miss O'Brien, summoned by their mistress with a few nods, took hold of her and encouraged her firmly, still sobbing and shaking, up the stairs.
"But what about Mary!" she almost screamed over and over again at her insensible and cruel parents below, resisting as best she could, until her tears choked her.
The morning cleared up much of the confusion of the previous night. The rumours, it seemed, had originated in the Turkish embassy itself. Apparently they had conclusive proof of the truth of the gossip in the form of a letter to the ambassador though neither Rosamund nor Susan could shed any light on its provenance. Investigating that would be a priority. Agatha Maitland had heard of the rumours through her husband at the foreign office but had thought nothing of them until she had become aware of the name 'Crawley' being familiar to her both as a connection to her friend Lady Flintshire and because her sister Mrs. Bowen had written to her of meeting with a young lady of that name on her travels in Italy. That the heroine of such a sordid tale should have been sent abroad in disgrace and exile made only too much sense and added substance to the gossip. Susan, who was not troubled to get too involved in it, had done the minimum in writing to her aunt for clarification on the subject and received no reply. Indeed, she could not have done for the letter remained hidden behind the back of the sofa at the dower house where it had been stuffed by the new maid after losing the forwarding address, and Violet had never received it. Having done what she perceived to be her duty and receiving no denial of the allegations, Susan gave herself up to her love of scandal and did nothing else to stop the flow of the rumours. Rosamund had not been aware of just how advanced and wide-spread the gossip was until the night of Russian embassy dinner a week previously. This had brought together, as the repeat dinner at Downton had done, Mrs. Maitland, Lady Flintshire, Lady Rosamund and the Turkish ambassador himself. Stories were inevitably swapped and what had previously been a flicker became an inferno that swiftly rushed through London society.
Such had been the spread of the story. This was distressing enough for Robert to learn but as yet there remained no conclusive proof of its veracity. This had to be provided by his wife who confessed all of her involvement the following morning. To say that the earl took it badly would be a gross understatement. Amidst his disappointment in his daughter and his fear for the reputation of his entire family was added the feeling of betrayal from his wife. They argued long and bitterly, resolving nothing, and the interference of Rosamund and Susan only made things worse. The latter left later that day, having created about as much mischief as it was possible to create.
Lord Grantham shut himself up in his study accepting no company but Pharoah's and occasionally Carson's. Left to their own devices Cora and Rosamund talked incessantly about what was to be done, quite without any power to effect anything. Of Matthew and Isobel there was no sign. They had left the house quietly before Sybil's hysterics and neither had approached the family since. Nobody made any move to include them; after all, this was a very personal crisis and in the end they were only distant cousins.
Everybody considered it a very good thing that Mary was out of the way. Let her stay in Italy as long as possible until it blows over – perhaps for good, was the general consensus. At any rate, her presence and her opinions could not complicate the matter further while her fate was being determined. That she would have to be punished was obvious. To overlook such transgressions, even if Robert had been inclined to do so, would be unacceptable to society. The least Lord Grantham could do was take charge of his family later rather than never.
On the third day Edith dropped her bombshell. It was hard to say why she did it. Perhaps it was guilt and remorse, perhaps it was a plea for attention when she was being ignored even more than usual, perhaps it was simply another piece of terrible judgement. At any rate, she announced after dinner in the drawing room that it had been her who had sent the letter to the Turkish ambassador and started the rumours, and that Mary deserved everything that she had coming to her. Fortunately the only servant in the room at the time was Carson and his loyalty could be depended on, if no-one else's.
Such a blow, on top of the others, was too much to bear and the countess took to her bed with a migraine. Edith's offence was not as severe as Mary's but the earl's fury and disappointment was magnified by having her actually before him and Lady Rosamund immediately whisked her away to London. She would have to be punished too but not in such a way as would draw attention to the fact. Robert decided that the best way to deal with her would be to send her on an extended visit to Great Aunt Elizabeth. A cold winter spent in a boarding house in Brighton in the company of a deaf and bad-tempered spinster of ninety would surely be miserable enough even for a girl who was a confessed sneak and tittle-tattle.
And what of Sybil?
She too was left completely to her own devices and she took advantage of the solitude to reflect. And reflect she did. She was shocked by Mary's story, shocked and upset. The most prevalent emotion that she felt, however, was sympathy. She truly felt for her sister in her absence as she had never felt for anybody in her life before. Until this moment her desires had been selfish. She had not looked beyond what would benefit herself or her narrow and ignorant ideas of what was right. She had never considered that alternative points of view could exist and be valid.
Even her sudden passion for Branson seemed selfish from this elevated point of view. She missed him constantly, his voice or appearance flashing into her mind unexpectedly at all times of the day, but these feelings were muted by a rage of love and sorrow for Mary.
For what, after all, was Mary but a reflection of herself? What mistake had Mary made that she had not made? They had both loved – and lost. They had both known passion – where they should not have done. They both had to live with the understanding and grief their behaviour caused them and nobody else. They had both gone against society's rules, only where Sybil's secret and minor infraction, kissing the chauffeur and proposing an elopement had brought and could bring consequences only to herself, Mary's larger fall from grace would make her a pariah and bring ruin on them all. It seemed terribly unfair for there did not seem to be any real difference between them. She did not deserve it and Sybil could only imagine what she must have felt for over a year, shouldered with the burden of such a secret, what she must feel now as soon as she knew that the truth was out. Yet she could imagine it because for the first time she understood her sister and in doing so she understood herself.
With understanding came determination. It was too late to be happy herself, she knew that, and in other circumstances she might have wept more for the loss of Tom, but she had a cause now that was greater than herself: Mary had to be saved. From the wrath of a father, the neglect of a family, the judgement of society, from all these things Mary had to be saved. She had made mistakes, but didn't everyone? And the idea of punishing her simply to make a point to the population at large was so unpalatable it made Sybil feel physically sick. Charity began at home and she finally realised that saving the world had to begin with saving individuals.
Yet how to do it? She was in one country and Mary was in another. In fact, she was not even sure what she was doing now for there had been no postcards for a while and the last time Gwen had written it had been directly on their arrival in Naples. There had been nothing since. What did it matter anyway? She had no money of her own, she had no agency, she was a woman. While her father tried to save Downton from the comfort of his study and her mother was fed cake on a tray, neither of them speaking to each other, she paced round and round the silent, frosty gardens, penned up and held back by her inability to act. If Tom had stayed perhaps they could have gone together – but no. He had no money either. They would not have got to Gretna Green, he had said, let alone Italy.
Never had the limitations of her life and upbringing been more frustrating, never had they seemed more insurmountable. What a waste it was, she thought angrily, that someone like herself, born to do things and not sit around thinking about them, should be so continually thwarted. The practicalities of life ruined every human and romantic impulse at every stage. All she could do was write three letters a day to Gwen and Mary in Naples telling them what the situation was and begging them simply to come home whatever Papa said, though she did not know if he had even written at all yet.
In her heart of hearts, however, she knew that this exercise was probably of more use to herself in terms of passing the time than to Mary, yet there seemed to be nothing more practical that she could do.
Until one morning, about four days after the dinner, she realised that there was.
A/N: Dun dun DUN! I feel like a puppet master or a chess master now. All (save one rather important one) of the pieces are now in place and I can start pulling together all the strings that have been dangling since Chapter One. But who will be checked and who will be mated? I can't tell you how excited I am! (Aww bless...)
Next chapter: We return, finally, to Italy where you will discover just how much fun Mary has been having in the meantime.
(Quick note - people have asked previously about Edith. I don't hate her, far from it, but this isn't a story about her so no, she's not going to get any more development. I'm sorry for that because I don't like writing 2D characters - and I don't really think she is - but this isn't the place to explore what's going on with her. As for the distinct lack of Matthew recently... yes, he is being rather passive and bitch!faced, isn't he? I had noticed.)