New episode, new part. Before we get into the "nitty-grittiness" of Episode 5, here is a "interlude" between Parts V & VI, where Sybil tries to decide on what to do about Branson's apology letter. And who better to discuss such things than a good friend? I hope you all have a friend like Gwen in your life...not to sound too mushy, but I do feel that a great deal of you out there, my fellow Sybil/Branson fans, are the "Gwen's" in my life, especially when it comes to the love we have for these characters :o) Thank you for reading, and for the comments you leave!

Volume II, Part VI

Summer 1918

Chapter Ninety-Six

Dearest Gwen!

Oh goodness, it fills me with such happiness to know that you will be coming to visit before the summer is over! I just read your letter and you must believe me, I literally began jumping up and down with excitement! Have you told Anna? I'm sure you have. Anyone else? Such as…Branson?

Oh Lord, just…promise me that you won't laugh during your visit if he and I are in the same room with you. No, I still haven't said anything to him…I mean really, what can I say? Honestly, you're as bad as my friend Susan, and she doesn't even know about my feelings! No one does, save you.

Alright, Mary knows.

I know, I know, I thought I was done for too. I didn't tell her! Well, alright, that's not entirely true, I did tell her, but…only because she was on the brink of figuring it out, and I hated being accused of…of…of having an "inappropriate friendship" as my grandmother put it. And no, Granny doesn't know…no one else in the family does, save Mary. But she promises to keep my secret and…well…that's that.

Oh Gwen, this is all really rather complicated to explain; it's best to wait until you're here…which no doubt causes you to despise me right now, and I'm sorry for that, but…honestly, it is very complicated!

So…how are Edward and the children? You will be bringing them with you, won't you? I am dying to meet them! The photograph you sent me at Easter is lovely, but naturally a photo is nothing compared to meeting little Tommy and Annie in person! I'm sorry that you won't be able to stay at Downton; if I had my way, you and your family would be given the finest rooms in the house! But…I know that would probably make you feel a little uncomfortable, and I also know that right now, it's not the most ideal situation because of the convalescent home. Will you stay at the Grantham Arms? If you do, I will speak to Papa about at least covering part of your stay; oh please Gwen, may I? It's the least I can do, and I want to, really, because you deserve to be treated like royalty, and if we can't do that by providing you with a fine room at Downton, then at least let us provide you with something along those lines at the Grantham Arms? At least think about it? Please?

Oh Gwen, there is so much to tell. It's been a very busy summer so far. Do you remember Mrs. Bird? She is Cousin Isobel's cook and housekeeper. I remember that she came to Downton when Mrs. Patmore was in London having her eye surgery. Anyway, Mrs. Bird has set up a soup kitchen at Crawley House! I learned this Mama; apparently for quite some time, Mrs. Patmore and Daisy have been bringing food to help, as well as helping with cooking, preparing, and serving the food too. O'Brien found out about the whole thing, and more or less "tattled" to Mama that Mrs. Patmore was stealing food (I'm sure that piece of news about O'Brien causing trouble is nothing new to you) and so Mama, with O'Brien, went to investigate. Well, I'm happy to say that once they learned the truth…Mama volunteered to help…as well as volunteered O'Brien! Oh Lord, I'm sure that was a funny sight! I wish I had been there to see O'Brien swallow her words. I know, I never had to work with her the way you, Anna, and Branson had to, but…I can't imagine how you put up with her Gwen, I really can't. I know it's not kind of me, but…I have never got on with her, I don't know why, but she has always rubbed me the wrong way. Anyway, Mama told me all about Mrs. Bird's soup kitchen, knowing that I would be interested, which of course I was, and I am happy to say that on a few occasions this summer, I happily volunteered to help with both serving and (yes, if you can believe it) cooking too! Thankfully, no one died from the food I prepared, so I can't be that bad. And I'm glad to have the chance to put those few skills Mrs. Patmore gave me to practice. You never know, Gwen, there may come a time when I need to use them on a more frequent basis!

Well, I um…yes, well.

Things continue to be busy here, at the Convalescent Home. The men keep talking about how the War will soon be over, and the reports I hear, both from Papa and what I am able to gather from the newspapers, seem to point that way too. Of course…this may also mean that the carnage will only get worse. I don't know Gwen; do you think this will be the year? Will 1918 end with the War finally over? Or are we doomed to go into yet another year, hoping and praying that that one will be the last. I honestly don't know what to think anymore.

Alright, this is going to sound horrible of me, but…never has the leaving of a patient filled me with such…satisfaction.

Major Bryant, that officer I once told you about, has finally left! Oh Gwen, honestly, the man…oh, I just…really, he is just one of the most HORRIBLE men, truly! He was the one I mentioned that I was sure causing trouble to one of the housemaids. And that same housemaid is now gone, and I'm sure Major Bryant is behind it. You know, Branson once referred to the officers here as "randy", and while I think that's an unfair statement to make in regards to all of the officers…it's a fitting one to him! I honestly don't know how he managed it, Gwen, meaning Major Bryant; I honestly don't know how he managed to stay here at Downton for as long as he did! But for nearly an entire year he was here, and for what reason? He wasn't that badly hurt, and…oh I don't know why I'm going on and on about it. The man is gone, and I don't care how cruel and unfeeling it makes me sound; the man is gone and I am glad for it. The place is much better without him.

Papa is better spirits now that Bates has returned. It's wonderful, really, seeing Anna so happy again. I know that Bates must wait until his divorce comes through, but I can tell that both he and Anna are eager to be married as soon as possible. Oh Gwen, wouldn't that be wonderful if they can marry while you are visiting? I hope so; I know it probably wouldn't be a fancy, elaborate wedding (I don't think Anna cares about all that so long as she can be with Bates) but…I sometimes imagine it, their wedding I mean. I like to think of you and I as bridesmaids, and Branson could be Bates' best man—

Of course…well…I can't imagine Branson ever agreeing to wear a morning coat, though. No doubt he sees such a thing as a "uniform of the oppressor". Not that I think a man has to wear something like that to a wedding, I mean he wore that very nice suit to yours, and he looked perfectly handsome—

Are you laughing at me, Gwen? I can't blame if you are, even though you should see my face; it's redder than a tomato to be sure.

Alright, I can't hold it back any longer.

Gwen, Branson…he…he…

He proposed to me.

There, I've said it.

Alright, he didn't say the exact words "Sybil, will you marry me?" but…the indication was quite plain!

Did you know? About…about how he felt about me? I confess…I used to wonder, sometimes, if he thought about me the way I thought about him; if he dreamed about me the way I have dreamed…and continue to dream, about him. I…I don't know how long I've felt this way, but…I do believe it's been much longer than when I finally admitted to myself that yes, I…I'm in love with him.

But…the truth is, Gwen…Branson proposed to me, or the exact words were…to run away with him…when I went to York...nearly two years ago.

Are you angry with me? I…I don't blame you if you are. This is a huge secret that I have been carrying for a long time. When I first wrote you about my feelings, I know I made it sound as if I was alone in feeling them, but…no, I'm not. I…I haven't told Branson that I do love him, and…and I haven't said "no" to his proposal…but…but I haven't encouraged him, not…not forthrightly at least.

Oh Gwen, you're probably wondering why I'm telling you all this now. And the reason the spring, he told me he knew. He told me he was aware, or rather, convinced, that I was in love with him, but too afraid to admit it, which…is true. I am, and I am too afraid to admit it, at least…to him. It frightens me to admit to myself! Even now, as I'm writing about this to you, my hand is shaking (I apologize for the sloppy handwriting). But…yes, he told me he was aware, and that he was planning on staying at Downton until I was ready to "run away with him". And what did I say? Oh Gwen, I was a coward and didn't say anything. I didn't say "yes", but at the same time, I didn't say "no".

He wrote me a letter, Gwen. An…an apology, for saying something in the heat of an argument, something that hurt. I believe his apology, I do, and…and it's the most…oh God, Gwen, it…Lord help me, I'm crying…it truly is the most beautiful letter I have ever read. Ten times lovelier than any of those letters you helped the two of us exchange in the past, if that's possible. He restated his feelings, he told me that they haven't changed, that his proposal remains true and that he is willing to wait until I'm ready, no matter how long it takes.

I…I didn't reply. I didn't know what to say! How does one reply to such a letter?

Alright, stupid question. I know what I want to say; but…is what I should say?

You see, when…when I told you about my feelings for Branson—Tom…I asked for advice on how not to feel this way, because…because I believed nothing could come of it. All it would lead to was heartbreak.

I…I'm not completely convinced that it won't lead to that, but…for the first time since I admitted these feelings, I…I find myself wondering…is it possible? Meaning, is it possible for he and I to…have a life together?

I know it sounds mad, and no doubt you think I'm mad for even considering it, but…I am. But I want to be cautious, because I know it will change…everything. Not just the kind of life I will live, but…my relationships with my family and any friends that I have that Mama and Papa approve of (you know, people of my "class", even though I have never cared about any of that). If I make this choice, I know I can never go back…but at the same time, if I don't make it…I may lose something I will regret for the rest of my life. Because even though he told me he would stay at Downton until I'm ready, I…I just don't know if that's true. I mean, as this war winds down, Ireland's fight for freedom will rise up. I know he will want to be a part of that, and I truly don't want to keep him from it. And then I remember what happened between Mary and Matthew; I remember how she kept putting his proposal off, over and over, and then…it was over. I remember how painful that was, I remember how Mary blamed herself, and…and I remembered thinking I didn't want that to ever happen to me, that if I loved a man, I wouldn't make him wait the way she made Matthew wait. But…I'm worse than my sister; my God, Branson has been waiting for two years for an answer from me! But…oh Gwen, am I being foolish in not running to his cottage right now, and telling him that I do love him and want to run away with him? Or would that be foolish? Would it be more foolish to not weigh every consequence, to not make plans for how we will live and what we will do and how to approach our families? I…I don't want to lose my family, Gwen, but at the same time…I fear I will be asked to sacrifice someone I love, and…God, I hate this!

I wish you were here. I need my friend, desperately. Oh, why couldn't it be tomorrow that you were arriving?

Oh forgive me, Gwen; forgive me for…for just…unburdening myself on you with all of this. I know it's not the first time, and you are always so kind and patient with me.

Oh Gwen, did you ever think that you would find yourself offering romantic advice to an earl's daughter? Did you ever imagine that you would be the confident between two such people? Indeed, it does sound like the kind of thing found in novels…but…those always end tragically. And, I…I don't want that to be my ending.

I don't know what I'm asking for; I will gladly accept any advice you can give, but…I suppose what I need is just…the knowledge that a dear friend is aware of the battle going on in my heart. And while I do apologize for dragging you in to the midst of all this…I also thank you for being such a dear, wonderful friend…who listens and doesn't complain. So thank you, Gwen…thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I am so looking forward to your visit this summer. I hope it is sooner rather than later, but of course I know it all depends on other factors, so whenever you are able to visit, know that I will be there at the gate, ready to greet you and embrace you!

Thank you, my friend. For everything, thank you.