This fic takes place immediately after 2x03, and it came about because I wondered whether Branson realised that Anna found his note, or whether he thought that Sybil had. It's basically pre-emptive fix-fic to an extent, because I'm so scared of what kinds of holes are going to be blown in this ship in the upcoming episodes. Happy thoughts, happy thoughts.
The title of the fic is taken from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot. Although the poem was written around 1911 and first published in 1915, it was also published in the pamphlet Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917, a few months after this episode of Downton Abbey is meant to have taken place. Given the subject matter and era of the poem (and the fact that it's one of my very favourites, let's face it,) I thought it might work.
"And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea."
T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
Prufrock and Other Observations, 1917.
Sybil walked down the drive that led around the back of the house, to the stables and the garage where the motorcar was kept. The gravel crunched beneath her feet, and she glanced over her shoulder at the house, whose windows were going dark one by one as the gloaming deepened.
It was late; their guests had gone and the patients were settled for the night, and the family and staff gone to bed. Clutching the bottle in her hand more tightly, Sybil hastened her steps. She was delivering a remedy to a friend.
That was what she planned to say if she were caught. After all, it was the truth.
Sybil reached the garage and walked around the side. The chauffeur's cottage was a one-room dwelling attached to the back of the garage. The structure had once been a carriage house and tack room before its modern conversion to a motorcar garage.
She blew out a breath of relief when she saw light coming from one of the cottage's windows. He was still awake. She threw back her shoulders as she stopped at the door. Lifting her hand, she rapped twice.
"Go on, Mr. Carson. You can give me another chewing out tomorrow."
Sybil frowned. She raised her hand again, but stopped with it held in mid-air, hesitating. After a beat, she knocked.
"I said go on!"
"Branson," she said, leaning close to the door and hoping her voice would not carry too far, "it's me."
There was the sound of shuffling from within the cottage, and of the door being unlatched. When it opened, Sybil expected to see Branson's good-humoured face subdued by sickness but expressing pleasure at having her for a visitor.
What she got was something else entirely.
"You shouldn't be here," Branson said shortly. He leaned in the doorframe with his arms crossed over his chest. He was still in footman's livery, but just in his shirtsleeves, his tails and gloves discarded. He'd undone the cuffs and left them loose, his forearms exposed. Sybil glanced away.
"I know. It's late and mother would be furious to know I was out of bed at this hour, especially with everything else that's going on. But I've never known you to be sickly, and so I thought I might bring you something to help you feel better."
"Make me feel better? Not bloody likely," he replied.
Sybil stared at him, taken aback by his language. "That's -"
"You might have come to me, you know," he interrupted.
"I'm sorry?" Sybil replied, confused.
"I should have known better than to leave you that note," he continued bitterly. "I ought to have known you'd go to Carson and see me thrown out before you'd see a dinner party spoiled."
Sybil frowned. "I haven't the slightest idea what it is you're angry with me about, or accusing me of, but I must say it sounds as though you're being monstrously unfair. What am I meant to have gone to Mr. Carson about, exactly?"
"Don't play innocent with me," Branson said, shaking his head. "I'm not one of your dandy lords who likes to play silly parlour games."
Sybil could not help herself; she gaped at him. He had been in a temper since receiving his letter, and it only worsened once he found that he was not medically fit for service. She did not understand him in the slightest – one minute a conscientious objector, the next in a strop because he was not being forced to go away and fight. Now he was talking about spoilt dinner parties and notes, and she could not make sense of it. She shook her head.
"I asked Anna why you disappeared from dinner, and she said you were unwell. She said something about stomach trouble, and I thought... Well, I can see I've disturbed you. I'll go."
Sybil turned to leave, but Branson caught her by her elbow. She turned back to look at him.
"Wait," he said. His expression had gone from stormy to confused. "What do you mean, you asked Anna? Didn't you know why?"
"Goodness, no! I saw you come in with the soup, but I was speaking with Cousin Matthew and couldn't catch your eye. When next I looked up, you had gone, and didn't return. I asked after you when Anna came in to help me undress once the guests had gone."
Branson swallowed, his expression wan. "So you didn't get my note, then?"
"Note? What note? Honestly, Branson! We ought to have Dr. Clarkson back to examine you. You aren't making the slightest bit of sense!"
Branson stared at her for a moment, and then tugged on her elbow, which he still held cupped in his hand. "You'd best come inside," he said.
He opened the door the rest of the way and let her pass, closing it behind them both. Sybil glanced around the small room with curiosity. There was a little black stove in one corner, and beside it was an armchair Sybil recognized as being from the old nursery she and her sisters had once occupied. There was a bed in the other corner, and a washstand against the wall. A small table and two wooden chairs filled the middle of the room. A lamp was lit on the table, which was covered with papers and books. One of the chairs bore a load of books as well. The room was cozy and cluttered, but tidy, after a fashion, and warm.
The intimacy of the moment struck her, and Sybil felt uncomfortable. It was one thing to see him during the day, in the motorcar or outside the garage, or in the hallways. Standing inside his private room was another matter altogether. It was not appropriate for her to be here, certainly, but somehow that was not what gave her pause. It was the thought of him sitting at that table, poring over these books, pacing these floors, combing his hair and shaving his face and sleeping in that very bed that made her stop and wonder whether she had any business here.
"Here," Branson said, removing the books from the chair and stacking them on the washstand. "You might as well sit. Would you like a cup of tea?"
"All right," Sybil replied, sitting down in the chair as she kept her eyes on him. He was dreadfully changeable of late, and it put her on tenterhooks. She thought of the Branson who had once celebrated Gwen's success and squeezed her hand in the middle of a garden party on a lovely summer day. That Branson seemed to have gone away. Sybil wondered whether anything of that time could be salvaged, or whether the war will have laid waste to it all, by the end.
Sybil watched as Branson placed a kettle on the stove and fiddled with the draft. "I thought you might be in bed," she said, "not still up and about in your livery."
"I'm not ill," he replied, turning from the stove to glance at her, a troubled frown on his face.
"Oh," she said awkwardly. The thought of scolding him for shirking his duties seemed discomfiting and ludicrous, and so she said nothing.
Branson stood uncertainly for a moment with his back to her, and then he exhaled a ragged sigh and approached the table.
"Do you mind if I sit?" he asked, resting a hand on the back of the other chair.
"Of course not," Sybil replied. "Don't be silly. This is your cottage, after all."
"It's his Lordship's cottage."
"Well, yes, but you live in it, so it's very nearly the same thing."
Branson just looked at her for a moment, and then gave a wry sort of hollow laugh. "It's not the same thing, milady. Not at all."
But he sat across from her all the same, one elbow resting on the edge of the table, his other hand in his lap.
Sybil watched him, troubled by his behaviour. Branson had once been the easiest person on earth to talk to, but now it seemed she could never find the right words to say. She sighed.
"Branson, please. What happened tonight that has you so angry with me? What have I done to upset you?"
"You've not done anything, as it turns out," he said, not looking at her. His voice sounded weary. "You'll think me a fool if I tell you."
"Never," Sybil replied. "We may misunderstand one another or disagree from time to time, but I would never think you a fool."
Branson sighed, and began to speak, pausing only when the kettle shrieked, prompting him to hop up and pour the steaming hot water into the teapot on the table between them. As it steeped, he finished his tale, one so outrageous she hardly knew what to say.
"Oil and – sour milk, Branson?" Sybil sputtered, nearly spilling the tea he passed her. "You couldn't think of a more articulate way to express your beliefs regarding conscription and the Irish Question?"
"What about Miss Davison and the WSPU – 'deeds not words'?" Branson shot back. "That's all right for one liberation movement, but not another? Is that it?"
"We've yet to see whether such tactics will work to the advantage of women's suffrage in the end," Sybil replied carefully. "And I don't think soup tureens full of slop are precisely what the Pankhursts had in mind."
"Don't dodge the question," Branson said. "And don't act as though I'm ridiculous, either."
"I'm sorry," Sybil replied, lifting her shoulders. She stared down at her cooling cup of tea, and found she did not want to drink a drop. "I don't think you're ridiculous at all. But I don't know how to speak to you when you're like this. No matter what I say, it seems to be the wrong thing. Am I relieved that you're not to be sent off to die in a freezing, muddy trench someplace on behalf of a cause in which you don't believe? Of course I am! Am I glad that you'll not be sent to some horrible prison to rot on behalf of a cause in which you do believe? Absolutely; you cannot know how glad I am! And am I delighted that Carson did not report you to my father and send you packing straight away? Yes, Branson, I am. Is that so terrible of me? All of these things would result in my never seeing you again, and I do not think I could bear that on top of everything else."
Branson was silent for a long moment, glowering down at the table. Finally, he cleared his throat and looked up to meet her eyes. "So you do not want to see me go, but you will not have me, either. I'm to be kept here like a pet. You ought to ask his Lordship for a menagerie instead."
"I've told you how I feel about you," Branson interrupted. "Nothing's changed for me, and I won't say another word about it if nothing's changed for you. But you can't treat me as a plaything or a distraction. I'm employed here to drive his Lordship's motorcar at his behest and nothing more. I'm not here to amuse you whenever you tire of playing nurse. With respect, milady, I won't stand for it."
"I think you're being terribly unfair," Sybil replied tightly, wounded. She swallowed against the lump that rose in her throat at his harsh words.
"There's precious little about this predicament that's fair," Branson muttered. He lifted his gaze to meet hers once again, and something in her expression must have affected him, for his bitter look softened. He swore under his breath and drew his chair closer to hers. "Come now, don't cry, milady."
"Am I crying?" Sybil asked.
"You're right there on the verge. I'd hate to say the wrong thing and push you off," he replied, a trace of his old good humour returning to his tone.
"I'm all right," she said, inhaling a shaky breath. She looked at him. "I want Ireland to have independence too, Branson. Not as much as you must, I know, but I still do, whatever you may think of me. Things would be different, if it were up to me."
"I believe it," Branson replied. "I'm sorry if I was short with you; I know you can't know what it's like there. But I'm not sorry for being angry about it, milady."
Sybil tilted her head at him. "I can't know what it's like or what you think and feel about it if you don't talk to me, Branson. Why won't you talk to me like we used to?"
"You must know," he said, his voice rough and his gaze unwavering. "You must know why I've tried to put a distance between us."
Sybil looked down at her hands clasped in her lap. She did know why. But she did not know what to say to him. She could not bear the seriousness in his eyes when he spoke of such things.
Branson cleared his throat. "Here you are, a nurse, a real working woman, helping these poor wounded bastards. You've seen some dreadful things, but you got what you wanted. And now your home is a hospital, your family's life upturned because of this war. Are you still glad to have gone, to have taken all this on?"
Sybil took a deep breath in, and met his inquiring gaze. She knew the question was not as simple as it seemed. "I am, Branson. I'm exactly where I ought to be."
"And did you mean what you said, that you could never go back to your old life?" he asked.
"Yes, I did. I do. Everything has changed, Branson. Myself most of all. How could I ever go back to garden parties and balls and spending my time on nothing more meaningful than trying to make a good match? It's not as though I don't miss peace – of course I do. And I miss happiness and easiness, and leisure." She shook her head tightly. "But no, I could not go back to how things were before, not even if after the war the world goes back and tries to forget that any of this happened. Although I don't see how it could."
"What kind of life do you want for yourself, then?"
"I want a life of work," she replied emphatically. "Meaningful work. I might like to carry on as a nurse in some fashion, perhaps. But my political views remain terribly important to me. More important than ever, I should think – the vote, social reform, and above all else, ensuring that nothing so terrible as this war ever happens again."
"Those are noble goals, milady," Branson said, looking down at his clasped hands.
"Oh, Branson. Sometimes I think you're the one person I can rely upon to understand me. Had I said any of these things to my family, they would be shocked, or amused, or think it merely a passing whim of mine. They don't understand."
Branson looked up, and when his eyes met hers, their expression held a sadness Sybil had not anticipated. "I am very glad to be of service to you, milady."
"You know that's not how I meant it," Sybil replied softly. "Aren't we friends?"
"Yes, I think that we're friends," he said.
"As your friend, I've missed you. The other nurses are quite nice, and my work keeps me busy, but... Yes, I have missed you very badly, Branson."
Branson's eyes searched hers for a moment, and then he leaned forward in his chair, his knees pressing into hers, and kissed her. He pulled back just as abruptly, his expression wary, as though he had said something radical and wanted to know what she thought of it.
Surprised, Sybil stood abruptly. Branson stood also, bursting out with apologies.
"I'm terribly sorry, milady, I oughtn't to have done that without your permission, it was unthinkable of me, I don't know where my head -"
Sybil stepped forward and silenced him by pressing her lips to his. Branson went still for a moment, and then he grasped her elbows in his hands and pulled her close, tilting his head towards hers. The feel of his body so close to hers was heady, and Sybil suddenly sympathized with all of the swooning nonsense she had once scoffed at in novels. She rested her hands on his chest, his starched shirt crisp under her fingertips, his skin warm through the fabric. Sliding her hands up to his shoulders and his neck, she pressed herself against him and felt his arms go round her, his hands spread across her back.
She was struck with gratitude that she had decided to come down to visit him only after Anna had helped her out of her evening wear, including her corset. She smiled.
Branson pulled back, but did not let her go. "What are you smiling about?" he asked softly, his nose bumping against hers.
"I was just thinking that I'm rather glad I'm not wearing a corset," she replied, feeling bold. She felt a blush heat her cheeks, right up to her ears.
Branson exhaled a laugh and leaned his forehead against hers. "I'll second that."
They stood that way for several minutes, holding each other without speaking. Sybil closed her eyes and pressed her face to his chest, inhaling the starch and shaving lotion scent of him. She could feel his heartbeat beneath her cheek.
"Poor old thing," Branson said after a time. "Broken and with a murmur now, besides."
Sybil pulled back to look at him. "Your heart's broken?"
"Yes, milady. Unless your answer to my question has changed, it remains quite broken, I'm afraid."
Sybil released her hold on his neck and took an unsteady step back as misery shoved aside the happy, breathless feeling which had filled her only moments before. Branson's hands released her immediately, falling to his sides.
"Ah," Branson said. "Should have known better than to hope, things being what they are."
Sybil clasped her elbows, hugging her arms around her middle. "I don't know how to make you understand," she said.
"Try," he replied. "Because at the moment I'm as confused as I've ever been."
"Branson, I..." Sybil paused, shaking her head. "I don't want women to merely get the vote and satisfy myself with that. I want to live my politics! Don't you see? I believe that women are as intelligent and as capable as men are, and that our opportunities ought to be the same. I want to live as proof of that; I want to be independent, self-sufficient! Do you understand?"
"I understand your views and I support them," Branson replied vehemently. "But I don't understand how it changes what's between us. Is the trouble that you don't feel for me what I feel for you? Because if it is – that I can understand. But surely you can't think that I would prevent you from having all of these things you want. Surely you can't think that."
"It's perfectly natural for a husband to want to protect his wife, to provide for her and look after her," Sybil replied. "I wouldn't want my beliefs to come between us in that way."
Branson let out a frustrated huff of breath. "You can imagine a world where women vote and hold office and seek employment of every kind, yet you cannot imagine a world where I would want to enter into a marriage with you as equals, as partners? As friends? I said I would devote my every waking moment to your happiness, and that is the truth. But I never said I would lock you up in a little cottage somewhere and keep you to myself! I do not want to trade positions with you, to be your master. I want you to be happy, to be free. Can't you see that your independent spirit is what is finest about you? What I love best?"
Sybil could only stare at him.
"I know I ought not to speak of it again, that I'm a fool, and I will understand if you dismiss me straight away. But what I said to you that afternoon was true, milady. I have struggled for years now, since the moment I met you and first heard you speak your lovely mind. I've tried to convince myself that there's no hope in it, that if you felt anything for me, it was a passing fancy, but nothing has worked. Nothing can stop me from feeling what I feel for you. I love you. I will always love you. And you can say that you feel nothing for me, and I will leave you be and never speak another word to you about it, but I will not believe you. Not really."
Sybil reached out and laid her hand on his forearm. "Of course I do not feel nothing for you, Branson."
"Ah, yes," he said wryly, "You feel flattered. I'd almost forgot."
"I should not have said that you flattered me. It was more than that, of course it was more than that," Sybil said slowly, choosing her words as carefully as she knew how. She hated the thought of him mistaking her yet again. "Only I was so set on going to my training, on leaving home for the first time, that I couldn't think of another thing at all. You took me utterly by surprise."
"It can't have been a complete surprise," Branson replied. "The look on your face... I felt a complete fool. Thought about resigning my post and going elsewhere plenty of times in the weeks that followed, no matter what you said."
"I'm terribly glad you didn't," Sybil said. "I would hate myself if you went away because of something like that, because of me."
"Sybil," he said softly. It was the first time he'd ever said her name that way, without her title in front of it. "Tell me you do not love me and I will stop all of this. I won't bother you anymore; we will never speak of it again. Only end my agony and tell me you do not love me."
"I cannot do that," she replied.
"Sybil," he muttered in a tone as though her name was an oath, a curse. He took a step forward and grabbed her, pulling her into his arms and kissing her. Breathless, she hung her arms around his neck and ran her fingers through the short, neat hairs at the back of his head. She barely noticed that he was walking backwards until he sunk into the armchair by the fire, drawing her into his lap.
Sybil shivered at the impropriety of it all. Ladies' reputations had been damaged beyond repair for far lesser transgressions. But the way his hands buried in her hair and kept her close, the way his breath brushed her cheeks as he sighed, tilting his head to make her dizzier still – all of it made her careless. So careless.
When he finally broke the kiss, they were both panting for breath. His hands dropped to circle her waist, and Sybil relaxed against him, leaning her cheek against the antimacassar on the back of the armchair. Idly, she scratched her nails against the back of his neck, feeling goose bumps rise up under her touch. He leaned back to look at her.
"For the love of God, woman," he said, "what am I to think?" There was no anger in his voice, only exasperation, and Sybil's heart pounded in her chest. He was watching her as she had sometimes caught him doing, and more often suspected him of doing, with such intense fondness in his eyes. She brushed her thumb along his jaw, feeling the roughness of his evening stubble.
"You should think that I love you," she replied. She leaned forward and kissed him once before pulling away.
"That's a far sight better than flattered," he said, tugging her back down to kiss him again. They stayed that way for what might have been hours for all Sybil was keeping track, she perched in his lap and leaning against his chest, their legs tangled together as much as her skirt would allow. She supposed it ought to feel wrong and wicked, but truthfully nothing had ever felt so natural. Lacing her fingers with his was like breathing, like falling gently asleep.
All was silent but for a soft word now and then, and the hiss and pop of the fire in the grate. Such a sense of peace settled over Sybil that it seemed for a moment as though every war and every conflict had passed out of the world altogether.
Such serenity could only ever be temporary, she supposed.
"What are we to do?" Branson asked eventually, his voice very soft as his breath brushed against her ear. Sybil shivered.
"I don't know," she replied.
"You can delay the inevitable for a while," he continued, "but the war won't last forever. Soon they'll have a parade of gentlemen through here for your benefit, and you'll have to marry one of them whether you care to or not. You know it."
"I suppose," Sybil agreed.
"And they'll want you to give up your nursing. Do you think any of the dandies they'll pick out for you will want a nurse for a wife, a crusading suffragette?"
"Branson, please -"
"Call me Tom," he said. "Here, at least, if not out there."
"Tom," she repeated, pushing back the hair that had fallen across his forehead. He watched her in silence, his eyes gentle and serious. "Do they call you Tom at home?"
"At home?" he asked, a frown creasing his forehead. "I suppose, yeah. Although my family all call me Tommy."
"Tommy. It suits you," she said, smiling. "We Crawleys were never much for pet names, as you can well imagine. How many brothers and sisters do you have?"
"There's nine of us altogether. Five boys and four girls."
"Five boys! Your poor mother. I always wanted a brother. Or nicer sisters," Sybil said with a smile. "And where are you in all that? In the middle, that's my guess."
Branson didn't respond right away, instead giving her a searching look. "Why such curiosity all of a sudden?"
Sybil turned away, lifting her one shoulder in a shrug. "It strikes me that I know you quite well, but perhaps not well at all. You know everything there is to know about me."
"Not everything, I reckon," he replied.
"Yes, well, very nearly everything." She paused, looking down at their interlaced fingers. The other day Sybil had overheard Granny remonstrating Mama about the state of her youngest daughter's hands. "Thank heavens for gloves," she had said, "for I do not know of a decent gentleman who would accept a young lady with hands like a charwoman's."
Sybil ran her thumb along his. "It's always good to become better acquainted with the people one cares for. We cannot be certain of tomorrow, can we?"
Branson did not reply, but squeezed her hand. "You're right, I am in the middle. Right in the middle."
"I am. Before me there's Danny, Michael, Anne-Marie, and Patrick, and after me there's Katie, Jimmy, Sarah, and Maggie."
Sybil smiled. "And did you all get on quite well?"
"As well as you can, that many children packed together like sardines. Yes, I reckon we were happy enough."
"Where are they all now? What do they all do with thems -"
"Sybil?" Branson interrupted.
"Come away with me," he said, holding her hands together in his.
Sybil swallowed, staring at him. "What?"
"Come away with me. We'll go to Manchester, or up to London – I don't know. But we'll go somewhere and get married before they can stop us."
"Tom, my father -"
"Your father is not the king, and he is not God, either. There is no law of man or of heaven that forbids it."
"No, but they would be so – that is, I cannot bear to –"
"Bear to what? Disappoint them? I'm sorry to tell you, but I think you've already disappointed them by taking up the cause of suffrage, by following your own mind and your own conscience, by being the independent, spirited woman you are."
Sybil wasn't sure whether she ought to be pleased or offended. "It is not only that," she said.
"What is it, then? You cannot bear the disgrace of marrying someone so common as me?"
"You're not common, and there's no disgrace in it! Or if there is, I don't care about it."
"I am common," Branson insisted. "Common by the standards of most folk, and certainly common compared to the type your parents expect you to marry. There's no sense in pretending – if we ran away together, ours would be a common life. But I would rather live a common life with you than a privileged one with anyone else."
Sybil didn't know what to say. Her chest was flooded with a tight, anxious feeling at the very idea of having to choose. It was so much easier before, when he wasn't making her choose.
"You said you couldn't go back to your life before the war," he continued. "I can live a common life. But can you?"
Sybil thought of her bold words about desiring a life of work, of purpose, and wondered whether they were as true as she believed. She scoffed at the extravagance of dinner parties now, when she was expected at them, but would she miss them once she was shut out from that world? Her world? Would she grow to resent her family for all that they had and she lacked? Would she resent Branson? Would she miss her fine dresses and having everything done for her when it came down to making do for herself, for him, for the rest of their lives?
She looked down at their clasped hands, and was forced to admit, if only to herself, that she did not know.
"If only Mary and Edith were settled," she equivocated, after a long pause. "You see, it's not just my fate and my reputation. If it was, that would be a different matter altogether. But if I run away with you, it could ruin both of my sisters as well, and I could never be that selfish."
"Please," Branson said. "Please, for the love of God be selfish, Sybil. Be selfish for me if not for you. I truly believe that they will forgive you. Perhaps not right away, but with time I know that they would. They will not shut you out of their lives forever, not even for so terrible a transgression as loving me."
Sybil closed her eyes against the sting of tears, and leaned her forehead against his. "It isn't fair," she whispered. "It isn't fair that I should have to choose."
"No," Branson agreed, letting go of her hands to rub the small of her back. "It isn't fair at all."
They fell silent. Sybil leaned into him and wished that they could remain this way forever, that nothing had to change. She could not bear to think of the late hour, of how she must soon let him go and return to the house, sneak up the cold dark stairwell without being seen, and pretend in the morning that none of this had happened.
"You know," Branson said after a spell, "my parents would be quite shocked themselves to find that I've married an English girl, a Protestant, and a real Lady to boot."
Sybil opened her eyes and pulled back to look at him. He was giving her a sly look, and she could tell that he was trying to make her smile. "Is that so?" she asked.
"Why, certainly!" he said. "If you think my ma will be pleased to hear that I've married a posh Yorkshire girl, you've got another thing coming."
Sybil smiled. "Where would we live? In England, or do you want to return to Ireland? Would we live in the country or in the city?"
"I don't know. Wherever we please, I suppose."
"How would we live? What would we do?"
"I don't know that either. But I'm sure we'll -"
"Well, you must know," Sybil replied, feeling her amusement abandon her as quickly as it had taken hold. "I must know. Can't you see how foolish we're being, how hasty? My greatest fear is that such haste would eventually turn us against each other. I cannot bear the thought of you looking at me with resentment, with regret."
"I could never -"
"Of course you could!" Sybil exclaimed. "Don't you see? It happens all the time. People marry one another and live to regret it. They turn bitter and come to hate one another. What if we did run away and tried to make a life for each other, as you imagine, only for the world to come between us? It's already happened, hasn't it? I hate to think it, but perhaps we are too different. Perhaps we do belong in different worlds."
"You might marry someone of your rank and have the same thing happen, Sybil. So might I. None of us knows what the future will bring us. None of us is guaranteed happiness. But we all ought to have the opportunity. And I do know that, whatever may come, I want to live through it by your side, and that I love you, and will always love you."
Branson kissed her again, and Sybil's grip on her reason loosened somewhat. He buried a hand in her hair, sending a couple of hairpins falling to the floor with a metallic ping. After a moment she pulled away, her thumb brushing his jaw.
"You're very persuasive," she said. "You ought to think about pursuing politics."
"There's an endorsement. I'll take it under advisement," Branson said. His hand squeezed her hip, and Sybil felt her heart pound. She thought it ridiculous that simply being close to him could make her feel so silly. "It could be like this between us, always," Branson said softly. "Can't you imagine it, Sybil? The two of us, just like this."
"I can imagine it," she replied, smiling. It was true; she could. It was a childish and rosy-tinted picture she saw in her mind, she supposed, but it felt as real, as possible as anything. She envisioned a cozy flat somewhere. She might be working as a nurse, he as a driver. In their spare moments they would campaign for women's suffrage and organize workers. Every evening they would read the newspaper together and discuss all the exciting changes happening all over the world. She would tease him about the long-winded letters he would write to the editors of newspapers, and he would tease her about her still rudimentary knowledge of cooking and housekeeping.
Theirs would be a life, a meaningful, purpose-filled life. Together.
"Yes," she said, turning to press a kiss to his temple. "Yes, I can imagine it quite well."
They fell silent again, each lost in their thoughts. Sybil wondered what it was that Branson imagined. She wanted to know, but was afraid to ask. Her hope was fragile and delicate enough on its own. The very thought of his precarious dreams filling the space between them was too much. The weight of the question she held cupped in her hands, the decision she must make, was enough.
"It's late," she said, after a time. "I should go. You've nearly been sacked once today, as it is."
"Reckon you're right," Branson replied with a heavy sigh. He loosened his grip on her and they both stood. Sybil walked ahead of him to the door, not wanting to pause and look at him for fear he would draw her back in. She had to be sensible. She had to get back to the house without being seen.
"What's this you brought me?" Branson asked. Nearly at the door, Sybil stopped and turned around to see him standing by the table. He held the bottle of stomach powder she had brought for him in one hand.
"Just a stomach powder," she replied. "Anna told me you were ill."
Branson stared at her in the lamplight for a moment, his clear blue eyes wide. He placed the bottle back on the table and joined her by the door.
"We would take good care of each other," he said. "Don't you think so?"
Sybil swallowed and looked down, unable to meet his eyes. "I cannot give you an answer now, Tom. I need time."
"How much time?"
"I don't know. I need to be certain I'm making the right choice. The right choice for all of us."
His impatience was obvious, but he nodded tightly, crossing his arms over his chest. "It's an important decision, what I'm asking you. I'll wait for as long as you need."
Sybil leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "Thank you. I don't want to hurt anyone, least of all you. I would hate to hurt you by drawing this out, but I must know I'm making the right choice."
"I understand," he replied, a ghost of a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. "Anyhow, how's a fellow supposed to stay angry at someone as lovely and kind as you, milady?"
"You don't have to call me that, Tom. Not here."
"I think I should like to call you that always, even if someday you're my wife and no longer Lady anything." Sybil smiled at him, and he took a step back from her, his expression shadowed with regret. "Go on now. I'll put out the lamp so no one will see you leave."
Branson walked to the table, and the last she saw of him before he plunged the room into darkness was his bright eyes, and his white shirtsleeves.
"Goodnight, Tom," she said to the dark room.
"Goodnight, milady," he replied.
Sybil opened the door and walked out into the cool, damp February night. The difference between the cottage and the walk was markedly unpleasant, and Sybil hugged her arms to her chest as she made her way around the back of the house. She would be able to steal in that way, so long as Carson had not yet locked up. She hoped he hadn't, and she hoped she did not see him or any other person.
Not because she did not want to be caught, or at least not only because of that. She did not want to see anyone because she worried that the tremulous, hopeful feeling fluttering in her chest would be frightened away the moment she was reminded that her hopes, her dreams, and her ambitions paled in importance beside the higher purposes of loyalty, family, and tradition.
Sybil entered the house through the kitchen and, seeing a light coming from Carson's pantry, snuck up the servants' staircase past the grand hall and the dining room, all the way up to the corridor that led to her bed chamber. She found her bedroom door and snuck inside, closing it behind her with an exhalation of relief.
Sybil changed and slipped into bed under the cover of darkness. She closed her eyes, hoping to fall asleep immediately, for she had a childish notion that if Branson – Tom – was lying in his own bed thinking of her this very moment as he too fell asleep, they might meet one another in their dreams.
Smiling, she slept, and dreamed of bloodied bandages and gas-torn lungs, of cold, cavernous ballrooms, and of white feathers. Tom was nowhere to be found.