Late February 1915
Anna sat beside Mr. Bates at breakfast. Everyone was chatting away merrily while Mr. Carson flipped through the post. He started distributing the letters to the staff, handing one to Mr. Bates, to Miss O'Brien, and to many of the other servants. Anna was not expecting anything because her mother sent her a letter the previous week, and Anna had yet to respond. Therefore, Anna was quite surprised with Mr. Carson handed her an envelope. Anna recognized the writing as Gwen's and smiled. It had been months since Anna had heard from her old roommate. Anna knew she was as responsible as Gwen was for neglecting the correspondence, but she was glad Gwen wrote again.
Anna opened the envelope and barely got through the first few sentences when she let out an excited squeal.
"My word, Anna, are you alright?" Mrs. Hughes asked. She had spilt her morning tea all over the table.
Anna looked up in embarrassment, realizing everyone was now looking at her.
"I'm so sorry. It's just, Gwen is to be married." Anna explained.
"Well, that is good news, I'd say, but please contain your enthusiasm a little better in the future. You gave me quite a fright." Mrs. Hughes replied.
By this time, Daisy had arrived with a towel and sopped up the spill in front of Mrs. Hughes.
"Gwen's gettin' married? That's so excitin'." Daisy shrieked.
"Exciting? Quite quick if you ask me. Maybe she had to get married." Miss O'Brien snarled.
"Not that quick, she's been gone for half of a year already. And when you love someone, you just know, time is irrelevant." Anna replied. She hated that Miss O'Brien had to put a dark cloud on a happy occasion. Ever since the war was announced, Miss O'Brien had been kinder, or at the very least, less mean. Anna especially noticed the change after Thomas left. Miss O'Brien seemed content on leaving the others alone and on simply caring for her ladyship. She heard no complaints from the lady's maid when Lady Grantham would ring for her or ask for a special request which was quite different from before. Anna had attributed this surprising change to the war and to Thomas's absence.
"Oh, sorry, I didn't know you were an expert in love." Miss O'Brien responded coolly to Anna. Yes, a snide remark, that was more what she expected from Miss O'Brien. Evidently, Miss O'Brien did not have a total change of heart.
"Last time I checked, neither were you Miss O'Brien." Mr. Bates chimed in. Anna was more than able to handle Miss O'Brien's wit, but she smiled as Mr. Bates defended her against the woman. It was nice simply knowing he was looking out for her. Mr. Bates and Anna had become quite a team at fighting fire with fire against Thomas and Miss O'Brien. While neither had the need to look out for each other in the recent months, Anna still appreciated the fact that Mr. Bates defended her.
"Okay, okay. That's more than enough from everyone. Please get started with you day." Mr. Carson told the servants.
Anna placed the letter in the pocket and disembarked for upstairs.
Later that evening, Anna found Mr. Bates alone in the servants a hall. Mr. Bates was set to leave for London in the morning with Lord Grantham and had to mend one of his lordship's military uniforms before he left. Anna set down a pair of Lady Edith's shoes in front of her that were in need of repair as she took her seat next to Mr. Bates. She had the opportunity to finish reading Gwen's letter after tea. She was glad it was only her and Mr. Bates tonight because she wanted to fill him in on the rest of the letter, but more importantly, spend some time with him before he left.
"Don't tell Miss O'Brien, but I was surprised that Gwen is already getting married. His name is Christopher Harris and he worked at the telephone company. She mentioned him a bit before, but she never let on that it was that serious until now. But then again, I haven't heard anything from her since November."
"Maybe she didn't want to get too ahead of herself. Writing it down and telling friends could fill you up with false hope. Aren't women usually supposed to act coy when it comes to a potential suitor?
"Yes, I've never been very good at following those rules, but you should realize that by now."
"And I wouldn't want it any other way. Did she say when the wedding is?"
"That's just it, it's so soon. The wedding will be the beginning of next month. He wanted to enlist soon so they wanted everything settled before he left. I wish I could go, but she's having it back in Scotland so all of her family could attend."
"I bet they would appreciate that with the numbers of siblings she has." Mr. Bates answered. Anna knew Gwen had only shared a little bit of her life with Mr. Bates, but he is the kind of man to remember small details about people. He still surprised her when he would ask about her mother's birthday or if her brother discovered the cause of his rash. There were days he seemed to know what's going on in her life better than she did.
"Gwen will make the most beautiful bride." Anna said as she pictured one of her closest friends in all white.
"Indeed, she will." Mr. Bates said as if he was holding back some additional response.
"I should visit Gwen when she gets back. It's been far too long and I'm sure she'll have pictures so it'll feel like I was there."
This was the first time Anna and Mr. Bates ever discussed a wedding with each other. At first, Anna thought nothing about sharing her excitement with him, but with each response, Mr. Bates seemed more and more tentative.
"Aye," Mr. Bates managed to say, but Anna noticed a distance in his eyes.
They have been friends for over two year now and some days, Anna still had no idea what was going inside his head. He had opened up more recently, which was helping her to slowly put the pieces together. But tonight, Anna felt as if she could read Mr. Bates' mind. With some certainty, Anna sensed Mr. Bates was torturing himself because he cannot offer Anna a wedding or a life as husband and wife. Anna could read the insecurity and pain in his eyes. How could she be so foolish and babble on and on about the wedding? Of course, he would think she would want a wedding with him. And he would hate himself all the more because he couldn't grant her wish.
Anna did not want to admit it herself, but there were times she imagined what it would be like if there was no Vera, if Mr. Bates were free to marry her. She never pictured some grand wedding that the Crawley daughters would expect, but instead, a simple ceremony with those closest to her. Anna's stomach turned even as she pictured herself walking down the aisle with Mr. Bates waiting for her at the altar. Maybe, someday, Mr. Bates will be her husband, but putting too much hope in that scenario could be dangerous. Anna's mother told her never to dwell on the things that you cannot change. She tried her best to focus on the love they share now, not the life they cannot have.
Anna freely talked to Mr. Bates about nearly everything, but she never dared mention her hopes for marriage. She knew the guilt would eat him up. No, even saying something reassuring him that she doesn't need to be married to love him would cause distress. Anna figured the best path forward was to change the subject.
"So was the letter from your mother?" Anna asked.
"Yes, it was. She asked how you were doing and wanted me to pass on her best to you." A bit of happiness returned to Mr. Bates' eyes. He seemed delighted his mother approved of their relationship.
"Oh, you still talk to your mother about me?" Anna felt a bit embarrassed but satisfied. It was nice to know his mother was interested in her and that Mr. Bates talked about her to his mother.
Mr. Bates let out a small laugh, "I was being a bit modest before, she seemed more concerned about your life, than my own."
"Maybe I could write her sometime," Anna offered. Anna had initially sent Mrs. Bates' a simple letter thanking for her hospitality while she was in London. But Anna did not dare continue the correspondence. She already overstepped boundaries by seeking his mother out, and she did not want to continue her impropriety.
"She would love that and so would I." Mr. Bates let out.
"Are you going to see her while you are in London?" Anna tried to sound cheerful to mask her sadness. Anna knew he would only be gone a few days and Mr. Bates has had trips with his lordship in the past. Yet, Anna knew she would miss him.
Anna assumed Mr. Bates would be happy at the prospect of seeing his mother, but she noticed his hunched shoulders.
"Yes, but there's been a change of plans," Mr. Bates said forlornly. "His lordship informed me that we will be gone for longer than a few days."
"How much longer?" Anna asked almost desperately. The idea of a few days bothered her, and she dared to think how long he could be gone.
"He didn't say exactly, but it sounds like weeks, maybe a month. He asked Carson to have the house opened in London. He was talking through some of his meetings. Most are this week or next, but he talked about an engagement he has with Lord Merton in the beginning of the March. I get a sense Lord Grantham wants to feel more involved in the war effort and there will be more opportunities in London."
Anna wasn't sure how to respond. Men have left their wives, fighting countries away and she was upset that he would be gone for a month. And as Anna looked at John, she could tell he wasn't any happier about the prospect. Anna decided that they could either spend the night wallowing in their disappointment or enjoy the time they had together.
"Well, then you better visit your mother tons," Anna said with a smile, trying to lighten the mood.
With that, Anna grabbed her sweater and announced, "I think I am going to go to the courtyard."
She wordlessly expressed that he was to follow. He seemed to get the message as he put his needle and thread down.
The servants' hall had been chilly, but as Anna opened the door, she felt the bite of the wind and almost had second thoughts. But no, he was leaving for a month, so she needed one more memory to get through the separation. She heard Mr. Bates follow behind her with his cane tapping harshly against the stones. She knew the cold air wouldn't be good for his leg, but she hoped she had a small remedy for the pain.
As Anna turned around, she brought her hands up to her mouth and blew into them, trying to return some feeling to her fingers. Mr. Bates was watching her as his breath fogged around him.
"It's freezing out here. Are you trying to get me sick so I won't be able to leave?" Mr. Bates finally asked.
"No, no. It's just, I wanted to give you something before you go, and it couldn't be in the house." Anna walked back towards Mr. Bates, whose arms were already open to receive her.
Anna snuggled up in his warmth, and stood on her tip toes to reach his ear, when she finally breathed "One kiss to take with you."
Mr. Bates lowered to reach her lips and chastely, yet satisfactory kiss her. It had been far too long since the night they had their first kiss.
Mr. Bates brought Anna closer to him. She laid her head on his chest, taking in his scent, realizing how much she would miss him. She heard his heart beating rapidly through the layers of clothes and knew her own heart was racing. Mr. Bates ran his hands up and down Anna's back and arms, clearly trying to keep her warm. But with Mr. Bates strong arms around her, her body felt like it was on fire. Anna looked back up at him longingly and he seemed to get the message. Mr. Bates lightly lifted up her chin, bent down, and kissed her again.
This kiss was more passionate than the first. Anna parted her lips slightly and Mr. Bates' tongue gently entered her mouth. Anna's hands clapsed around his neck as she gently stroke where his hair met skin. Mr. Bates' hands were around her waist, puller her close to him. Anna entwined her own tongue with his and became more adventurous as it explored his mouth. Mr. Bates softly moaned with delight. Time seem to stand still as Mr. Bates filled all of Anna's thoughts. Minutes later, they finally broke apart, yet all they could do was smile.
"It seems I may have to leave more often." Mr. Bates finally said with a cheeky grin.
"You better not or no more secret meetings in the courtyard." Anna responded as she playfully swatted his chest.
Mr. Bates gently kissed Anna's lips once last time and she knew she would never be able to resist him, no matter what threats she made.
"We should get inside before we both catch a cold." Mr. Bates said as he placed his hand on the small of her back to guide her back inside. Anna immediately shivered, not sure if it was from the frigid weather or the intimate contact. Mr. Bates did not remove his hand until he opened the door for her.
Once they were back in the relative warmth of the servants' hall, Mr. Bates sat back down to work on the uniform. Anna grabbed the mended heels, but stayed to watch him work for a minute, engraining his features in her memory. Mr. Bates seemed completely unfazed that she was watching him intently. His nimble fingers continued to stitch perfectly, yet Anna noticed a smile on his lips.
Finally, Anna realized it was time to say goodbye, "I'm going to miss your horribly."
Mr. Bates looked up from his work, "And I will miss you. But maybe if we both keep busy, the time will go by fast. And I promise to write."
Anna smiled weakly, "Goodnight Mr. Bates and goodbye."
Mr. Bates responded "Goodnight, dearest Anna." He mustered Anna's favorite smile, the smile that made even his eyes crinkle. Anna dreaded the thought of a month without seeing that smile.