Written at Batwings79's instigation and according to her 2012 St. Paddy's Day challenge guidelines. The characters belong to Julian Fellowes.
"I don't think there's any point in being Irish if you don't know that the world is going to break your heart eventually." Daniel Patrick Moynihan
My Heart Beguiled
Chapter 1: The Rest Is Detail
"Come on now. Come on."
Tom knew he'd been at this a good long while - the sweat on his forehead was proof enough of that, wasn't it - but he couldn't stop, not now. He was nearly there; just a bit more, just the right touch, and he'd have her purring like a cat -
With a sigh he straightened up and raised one forearm to his brow, wiping away the perspiration. There was a cloth resting on the workbench, and he took it up to clean the oil from his hands, and as he did so he cast a fond eye on the motorcar. They got on well together, the two of them, as long as he gave her a bit of consideration.
Mind you, he'd never thought to be a chauffeur - and to an English earl to the bargain - and ought to have laughed if anyone had suggested one day he'd find himself dressed in a coverall and cleaning the grime from his fingers. But there he was, and feeling the glow of pride all the while too.
Of course he understood the reason for that well enough: the sure knowledge it was men such as himself who did the work, kept the world moving forward and, in the years to come, would change it.
Yes. Well, there'd be a time for that last bit, but for now there was this matter of making a living. He tossed the soiled cloth aside and set about undoing the coverall and peeling it off his frame - for all the world as though he were emerging from a cocoon.
Or a shroud. The thought was as unbidden as it was unwelcome, and it was only through stubborn will that Tom banished it from his mind. Damn his memory, and all the shadows it cast over his present hopes.
For that matter damn anything that stopped him doing what he needed to do, such as getting the motor ready for the afternoon, when Lady Mary was expecting him to take her into Ripon.
With any luck at all, she'd want one of her sisters to accompany her, and with greater luck, that sister should not be Lady Edith - who might of course drive the both of them herself. No, it must be the youngest of Lord Grantham's daughters, and there was an end of it.
Mind you, it was only a drive, nothing more, and even then Tom wouldn't have Sybil to himself, or the opportunity to speak freely. But any sight of her was better than none at all, and today he could believe himself in luck.
With a lighter heart, he made short work of the half dozen or so things to be done before he took his place behind the wheel. And all the while he was humming a bit of song he remembered from another time, before the war.
Oh! You beautiful doll,
You great big beautiful doll!
Let me put my arms about you,
I could never live without you.
Oh! You beautiful doll,
You great big beautiful doll!
If you ever leave me how my heart will ache –
He'd begun singing it in earnest, and fairly dancing it as well, when he realized he was no longer alone.
So softly she came
That her feet made no din.
She had to have done for him not to have been warned of her approach, for she was standing not two yards from him by the time he caught sight of her.
She was in a white blouse, of a cloth so fine a fairy might have worn it, and a skirt the color of ripe plums – no need anymore for her to go about in that dull grey thing they'd called a nurse's uniform - and she was smiling at him too, whether encouragingly, because she'd been thinking on what he'd told her, or mockingly, having surprised him at just the wrong moment, he could not say. But perhaps the reason didn't matter, as long as she was standing this near and looking so –
"There's something on your face."
"A bit of grease from the motor, perhaps. Oh, no, no, that's not it at all!" said Sybil, as Tom began rubbing at his chin and forehead. "Here, let me help you." She tucked the book she was carrying under one arm and drew out her own pocket handkerchief - white, pure white.
"You'll spoil it," he warned her.
"It doesn't matter," said Lady Sybil as she stroked one or two spots on his face, and Tom didn't know whether to think himself a rare fool, given the state he was in, or the luckiest fellow alive, for she was touching him, however lightly.
"There." She finished her work, and for an instant gave him another smile - with no trace of scorn in it, none that he could see - but it vanished just as quickly, and then the both of them were standing there, Sybil holding the handkerchief as though she'd no notion what to do next.
"Here, let me see to that," said Tom, reaching out one hand.
"No, I'll take it."
He watched as she carefully, almost reverently, folded the handkerchief and placed it in her pocket.
"Veronica's veil now, is it?"
"Nothing. You've been reading," he added, to change the subject.
"No, I always go about carrying a book so people will think I'm clever," said Sybil. "Of course I've been reading!"
Tom grinned. There it was; there was her old spirit. He reached out his hand to her again, and this time she willingly surrendered the handsome little volume.
"Elizabeth Barrett Browning," he read aloud. "Sonnets from the Portuguese. Can't say I've ever read it."
He wished he'd had sense enough to resist the parting comment, soon as he saw the look on Sybil's face.
"Yes. Well, it's a book of verse -"
"I did know that," he said, more sharply than he'd intended.
"Don't take offense. It's only that I believed politics meant a great deal more to you than did poetry."
"Ah, Lady Sybil," said Tom warmly, leaning back against the workbench. "Now what manner of Irishman would I be if I'd no use for poetry? Better men than myself have spent their whole lives at it."
"And women!" she shot back, but with a smile that told him peace was restored.
"And women; I'll grant you that," said Tom. "Like your Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But tell me, do you know Padraic Pearse?"
"I'm afraid I don't," said Sybil, lowering her gaze.
She furrowed her brow, shook her head. "No."
"W.B. Yeats, then."
For a moment Tom fancied he spotted a gleam of recognition in her eye, and just as swiftly the words came to him, words written in those years before the uprising.
"Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet."
There was more, of course, but he couldn't bring himself to say it to her, not yet.
"That's beautiful," she whispered, and at the look on her face Tom silently thanked God for the poet William Butler Yeats, and for a good, sound memory, and for -
"I have never read that, or any Irish verse, really," Sybil went on. "But I should like to someday."
"I'll see what I can find, shall I?"
"If it's no trouble."
"Of course it's not."
With that he made as if to return her book, but she said, "No, take it; I've read them all."
"All right, then."
"I've even learnt one or two by heart," she added, with a little smile. "Just as you -"
"Just as I can remember the Yeats."
"Yes." She perched herself against the workbench, alongside him. "I've always been fond of the sonnets, and so have Mama and my sister Edith.
"Mary has no time for such things, of course, and Papa - well, Papa prefers Robert Browning, as one would expect, though I do not think that fair to Elizabeth Barrett. Browning sought her out, you see, when her fame was greater than his own."
Greater than his own. Was that meant to remind him, then, of who she was, and what he was? He hadn't expected that of Sybil, not when he'd humbled himself before her, and laid his very heart bare -
"...of course I credit his persistence, and her courage," she was saying. Once again she cast her eyes downward, and smiled. "Yes, I say 'courage,' for I think it is always easiest just to go on as one has always done. To do what is expected, I mean..."
Dear God, she was talking of duty, and of obligations, and of convention. Well, convention be damned -
"...they say she was devoted to her own father - to all her family, really. But then one sees that in the verse..."
As she went on speaking, and Tom caught the music of her voice if not the words, he could think of little but that she was standing so near to him, as close as if they'd been alone together in rooms of their own, and yet it seemed she'd come only to tell him -
"...and from there to Italy. It sounds quite romantic now, of course, but it was not without a price, at least for her. Never again would she see..."
Right. Sybil would chatter away at him about long-dead poetesses and their journeys abroad, while he stood there, waiting for her to be done, that he might put on his uniform jacket and cap, and do her elder sister's bidding, and her father's, and -
" - nor count it strange, when I look up, to drop on a new range of walls and floors, another home than this?"
She paused then, and Tom realized she'd been reciting a bit of verse to him as he'd stood there mulling the very bitterest of all his thoughts. And now Sybil was looking at him expectantly, if a bit shyly, and he must speak before the silence grew too much for either of them to bear.
"That's grand," he said finally, and cursed his lack of imagination when the expression in her eyes told him it was the wrong answer, that she'd expected more of him.
"There's more of course," said Sybil. "But I cannot say it, not just now," she added, avoiding Tom's gaze. "I think you will understand, once you've read it for yourself."
Once you've read it for yourself. There was an air of finality in her words. Mrs. Hughes had been right to caution him, then, only it hadn't been his job that was at risk, just his heart, and if Sybil hadn't cost him the one, she'd certainly cost him the other.
But not without a fight. He'd not go quietly, even as she dashed his dreams to pieces with her own hands.
"Yes. Well, I think I've heard enough," he said, holding the out the book of sonnets to her. "I've no need of the rest, not now."
"I know it is not what you might choose for yourself," she said, in a chastened tone. "But still I should very much like for you to read it. Then you might understand -"
"Understand what? The posh words of a dead woman?" At that she flinched, as though he'd raised a hand to her, and he continued in a gentler tone. "You're alive," he whispered, wanting badly to touch her but holding himself back by force of will. "Open your eyes, look about you. That's where you'll find your answers, what it means to live and die for someone. Not in the pages of a book."
"You're worse than Mary. Do you know that?" said Sybil, making no attempt to hide her anger. "You both think you can speak to me as though I were a child, as though I still understood nothing.
"That's not fair, not now. I've seen what war does to men, the price they pay – "
"Don't talk to me of prices," said Tom in a low voice. "Tell me, what's a fair price for facing the firing squad? And no medals, no honors when it's done. No pension for the widow. Even if she was never really a wife."
Again he had gone too far; he could see it in the look she was giving him. Yet he would not take back the words. They were true enough, and the injustice real enough -
"You know that I have no reply to that," Sybil was saying quietly. "And that it was not done in my name. Or in Daisy's or William's, for that matter."
"Of course it was."
"Branson, I did not come here to quarrel with you about the rising -"
"Then what did you come for? So we could recite poetry at each other?"
"I - no. Or maybe yes. Anyway, it does not matter, not now." She wrenched the book of sonnets out of his hand and made as if to leave, then turned round for a parting comment.
"What's the use of fine ideals when the practice of them is so wanting? You talk of such things, but then, when it comes to it, you cannot be bothered to listen. Perhaps you've closed your ears - and your heart."
Then she was gone, and there he stood in his shirtsleeves, and with enough grease still beneath his nails to make him unfit to serve at table like old Carson, or even the greenest of the young footmen.
To be continued...
A/N: The lyrics to "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" are by Seymour Brown.
I was struggling with this story when I listened again to the Cambridge Singers' Lark in the Clear Air, and so had to add a dash of "She Moved Through the Fair," a traditional Irish song.
Branson quotes "He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven" by William Butler Yeats, and Sybil recites a portion of XXXV of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese. In both cases, it's what we don't hear that matters most.