Tom Branson didn't bother to light the lamp when he came through the door of the cottage that night. He navigated the kitchen table and upholstered chairs in the two front rooms from memory, made his way into the small pocket bedroom and collapsed on the bed. It had been a long day, but the last of the guests had finally been driven home from the garden party. The night summer air was stifling hot, but he couldn't be bothered to take off more than his boots and jacket.
There was much to think about.
England was at war with Germany. That was no surprise to anyone who read the papers. He had borrowed Clausewitz's On War six days previous, in anticipation. He imagined Lord Grantham rummaging around for it tonight and gave a low laugh, thinking of him, irritated, holding a candle over the ledger, only to find the chauffeur had gotten it first.
Robert Crawley wasn't a bad man, he supposed, just a product of his time and class. He appreciated being allowed access to his library, although his Lordship was so magnanimous and amused. An Irish servant who read politics? Next, Pharoah would be taking on the Peloponnesian War! He was also aware his choice of books was being monitored, and he gamely played to his audience. So, while attempting to work through Kant's critique of David Hume, he also did a cursory check-out of The Communist Manifesto. Which he proceeded to throw in a corner for two weeks and then return unopened. Because why reread a book he had adequately tackled in secondary school?
He was morally opposed to materialism, but God did he envy that library! That was the only thing of the mighty Lord Grantham's he coveted.
Perhaps not the only thing.
The war and its questions could wait for another half-hour. Now, alone at last in the dark, he wanted to think about Lady Sybil and specifically what had happened at the party today.
Gwen was on her way to a better station and a better life and she had Lady Sybil to thank for it. That counted for a lot to him, though he suspected she was motivated more by her caring and generous heart than by women's politics. Not that that made it any less admirable. If the world had the heart of Lady Sybil, it shouldn't need any politics.
It started when he whispered the news to her. It had come unexpectedly to him and he had forgotten himself, forgotten he was at work where he had to pretend that some beings were naturally superior to other beings, forgotten that she was his employer's daughter, forgotten how young she was and that she had probably never had a man put his lips to her ear and speak to her in a low voice in confidence.
Her skin, faintly damp from the heat, had shivered when he'd done it.
It occurred to him then that it was entirely possible he was the only man in the world who knew the trace of Lady Sybil Crawley's neck and that her hair smelled of honeysuckle. Though he was certain he was not the only man who wanted, or who had tried to come to possess, that knowledge.
In the excitement of the moment, Gwen had embraced them both and he and Lady Sybil had inadvertently found themselves flush with each other. It was a complete breach of propriety; forbidden physical contact between people of different stations. Forbidden, because it lays bare that there is only one posture that is truly natural for human beings.
He had taken her hand without thinking about it. She looked up at him with a variation of the look she had given Mr. Matthew after the disaster at Ripon. When she looked at Matthew, she looked like she had found a prince in a fairy tale; when she looked at him, she looked like she had found the best parts of a novel she was not supposed to read.
"Be careful my lad- or you'll end up with no job and a broken heart."
Mrs. Hughes may have broken their reverie for the moment, but the match was lit; she had eyes and those eyes had surely seen the look the Lady had given him as she reluctantly walked away. He'd been coy to her warning, but it was probably just as well. He had a mischievous streak that was too bad for his own good- he and Lady Sybil shared that in common, no doubt.
He considered her a friend, truly; that much was confirmed by how he felt when he saw her get injured at the count. And he would have loved it if, had he asked her if she would like to take a walk with him sometime, she had answered as she had the first time they spoke: "Suppose I do..." in the same dare-me way. He would have gladly played that game with her all afternoon- "I don't suppose you'd want me to hold your hand, I don't suppose you'd like me to kiss you now..." - walking along the brook behind the estate as sun burned out.
He'd done all that before, but not since he'd been in England. He found he didn't care much for the women he met here. They were cool and reserved, not like the girls back home, though it often got them into trouble. Lady Sybil, with her bright eyes and buoyant spirit, was the only girl who had captured his imagination since he had arrived in this country. It should not have been a surprise to realize it was because she reminded him of home.
But, it was probably for the better, he thought, crossing his arms behind his head on the pillow.
Lady Sybil was just 17; he was 22, nearly 23, and well beyond his schoolboy days. He had already lived through that phase of life that was upon her: crushes and silly letters, tearful confrontations and inevitable conversations. As his mother had once told him, after a girl who'd shrugged off his advances threw her schoolbag at him when she'd found him in an alleyway a block from girls' high kissing someone else, "A girl at that age changes what she wants from one day to the next and she doesn't know what any of it means anyway."
Would he enjoy stealing kisses with Lady Sybil around the estate? He surely would. But would he like her her hanging around the cottage with tear-stained cheeks, trading all their lively conversations about politics and ambitions for endless exposition about every eyelash flutter exchanged between them and what it means? He had never been interested in that, and Irish girls had far more to do with their time than sit about the parlor and moon over boys. No, that was nothing he wanted to take on, especially when there were so few free hours in the day and so much to read, write, and plan for the future.
His immediate future involved working and saving money. The next-term future involved political activism, travel, maybe even a revolution up close. It might involve a love affair (or a few), all short-lived and easily broken, but definitely not a wife and definitely not a family. What would it be like- tonight, for example? Work all day and come home to crying babies and a wife who only wants to talk about the children and the bills? No, no- that was not a life for him.
And Lady Sybil, bright-eyed or not, was on a very different path. She was interested in politics now, but that would probably fade when she became interested in someone, as romantic affection has the power to animate all that's in its orbit.
That thought made him happy, because it meant Lady Sybil would just evolve to her environment, as all nature's creatures were tasked to do. It was entirely possible that in five years, when he had long since left Downton and she were engaged to some lord, she wouldn't even remember the time she had once held hands with the chauffeur.
He suspected though, as a smile spread across his face, that she was remembering it now, in one of the upstairs rooms of that big, grand house. He allowed himself to wander there for a moment- just a moment- to wonder how she was thinking of him. Then he rolled over on his side and lit the lamp. Time for Clausewitz.
He opened the book and was surprised- shocked- to find the words of a woman on the opening page:
"It will naturally excite surprise that a preface by a female hand should accompany a work on such a subject as the present..
As he read the preface, written by Clausewitz's wife, widowed prematurely, he was struck by the assertion that no one but her could have edited an opus work on military strategy and theory, as no one knew his labor, his mind and his heart better. Struck not that she thought it, but that others concurred.
And without even meaning to think it, a thought crossed his mind:
I must show this to Sybil.