HERE IT IS! Finally, the first chapter to Love's Continuing Journey! I apologize for the "lateness" of getting this posted (it is still technically Sunday, Sept. 29 where I am) but I will try to get it posted much earlier on Sundays from here on out. But yes, every Sunday for the next few weeks while DA S4 is airing, I will be posting a new chapter, so be on the lookout!
This story, much like "Love's Journey" will also feature chapters that are diary/journal entries, as well as letters, but for those of you who are fans of the POV chapters, you will probably find more of those in this story (hooray?) **ALSO** it should be noted that while this story is beginning with a T rating, it will eventually get bumped up to M (after all, there will be a wedding night and honeymoon! And that baby isn't a product of the stork) ;o) so just be aware of that!
It's still so surreal to finally be writing this after so many months of working and finalizing its predecessor. And if you are new to this story (and the Love's Journey universe) while I wouldn't say it's *necessary* to have read the last two pieces to this saga, there are some things that may not make sense, due to being referenced in that work. But I'll try to keep those references to a minimum-although I still encourage you to consider reading Love's Journey and Love's Journey: Stepping Stones ;o) ANYWAY...thank you again for following, for reading, and for your lovely support during this entire saga! I do hope you enjoy this next step in Sybil and Tom's journey...I think it's going to be interesting!
Love's Continuing Journey
by The Yankee Countess
Volume I, Part I
It was small, certainly. That was her first thought upon entering the room. Small, but cozy. Despite the growing chill outside, the room did feel warm and the blanket on the bed certainly looked comfortable and inviting.
She nibbled her bottom lip as she looked around the room. Its decoration was simple, but no means was it shabby. The wood was dark, giving the room an unusually dark hue, and there was only one lamp to illuminate the small space. But it was enough, Sybil told herself, and certainly enough to provide whatever light she would need if she sat down at the small desk to write a letter back to England, or an entry in her diary, or even to sit up in bed and read. It's just like York, it's no different from the dormitory in York, she kept repeating over and over. Actually, it was different from York, because there she shared a room with someone, whereas here, she was being given a room all to herself, much to her surprise. And it was a great deal cozier than her dormitory, whose stone walls and floors did little to lock out the winter cold that tried to seep through. Yes it was spring right now, but the nights could still get chilly, and truly, she felt perfectly comfortable in this little room.
She continued to explore her new surroundings, taking note of a framed picture that hung over the tiny desk. It was the image of a man, very handsome looking, who had a slight resemblance to Tom. It was also an old picture, or least it looked like it had been taken in the previous century. A relative, no doubt, but which one? An uncle of some sort? Directly across from the hung photograph on the opposite wall, was a small, circular mirror. Sybil moved to have a look at it, taking notice that it would only capture the reflection of her face, based on how small it was. But that was alright, she didn't need a large mirror; she certainly hadn't had anything like that in York! Below the mirror was a tiny table with a basin and pitcher. She lifted the pitcher and took notice that there was no water inside. She would have to ask her hostess if she could fill it before going to bed. Oh gracious, a thought suddenly dawned on her. Did the house have running water? Or would she have to go outside and find a pump? Susan had told her that the her old house, the one she had grown up in didn't have running water, and had said this as a "word of warning", just so that she would be prepared for a somewhat more "primitive" lifestyle.
Not that it matters, she told herself with a firm nod. If I must pump my own water, then I shall. And I'll make sure to do so every evening before it gets dark. In fact I'll pump water into everyone's pitchers! Indeed, she was most eager to win a little favor with the woman who would one day be her mother-in-law.
Near the door of the room was a small wardrobe, a quarter of the size of the one she had back in Downton. But that was alright too, because she hadn't brought many dresses with her, just a few simple ones, as well as her nursing uniform. Her trunks had been brought upstairs by Tom's cousin, Kieran, who had greeted them at the docks when their boat arrived. They were stacked together, one on top of the other in the corner by the wardrobe. She would have to empty them before she could move the trunks…and she would need to move the trunks before she could open the wardrobe. But all of that she could do on her own, no help would be necessary. She was determined to do as much as she could on her own, without having to ask Mrs. Branson or one of Tom's sisters for help. You can do this, you can prove to all of them that you are capable…very, very capable…
Her eyes were drawn back once more to the simple bed, a bed similar to the sort she had slept on in York, as well as the previous evening at Susan's house. It was small mattress, the sort designed for a single person to sleep on. Yes, a large bed to one's self like the sort she had back at Downton was indeed an unnecessary extravagance, she saw that now…or so she told herself. I don't need a large bed, she repeated over and over. This is fine, this is enough, and besides, this is only for a little while. In a few weeks Tom and I will be married and we'll have a larger bed then, a bed big enough for two…
Her cheeks flooded with color at the thought, but a smile spread across her face as she once again recalled the wonderful night she fell asleep beside him at the Grantham Arms. Yes, she was very much looking forward to sharing her bed with Tom. And so until then, a small bed to one's self was perfect. It would make that moment even sweeter, or so she continued to tell herself.
Above the bed Sybil noticed something hanging on the wall. It was so dark it practically blended in with the dark wood of the wall. But upon closer inspection she could make out that it was in fact…a crucifix.
She was momentarily taken aback by the religious decoration, not that she was offended by it, not at all. She believed in God and would certainly label herself a Christian, it was just…different. Even though her family often went to church every Sunday and sat in the Crawley family pew near Mr. Travis' pulpit, there wasn't a great deal of…religious practice…in her life, or the life of her family. They never prayed before a meal, there had been no emphasis on religious education in her upbringing, no points to memorize specific passages of scripture, and certainly no religious decoration of any sort in any of the rooms of her home. All that Sybil really had was a tiny silver cross pendent, which she rarely wore, save for very somber occasions such as Lavinia's funeral.
She wore this pendent now, actually, and her fingers immediately rose to touch it as she gazed at the wooden crucifix on the wall. Clearly Tom's family took religion very seriously, or at least a little more seriously than her own. And she knew they were Catholic; and while Tom had told her a little bit about some of the things that Catholics did when they went to church that differed from her own Anglican upbringing, she found herself wondering if she would stick out like a sore thumb when the time came for her to attend church with them.
Sunday was only three days away. She would want to blend in as much as possible; stand when they stood, kneel when they knelt. Oh gracious, would all the prayers be in Latin? Perhaps she could just move her lips, to make it look like she was speaking? But his family would know, and no doubt they would find that insulting, perhaps thinking she was mocking them. More and more questions were starting to flood her mind and Sybil was starting to suddenly feel overwhelmed by it all. She soon found herself collapsing, somewhat, upon her new bed, gripping the edges of the mattress as she stared off into space, trying to put into order all the things she needed to learn and do now that she was here, now that she was staying with Tom's mother and his siblings. She needed to be useful, she needed to prove to them that she wouldn't be an embarrassment, that she was worthy of marrying their son and brother, that she wanted to become a member of their family; she wanted to become a Branson! She—
Sybil gasped and practically leapt to her feet as she heard a knock on her door. "Come in!" she squeaked, before coughing and trying to regain her composure. Just relax, it's alright, it's alright…
The door creaked open and Sybil held her breath, wondering who it was. It couldn't be Tom; he would make himself known to her. And she had a feeling that Mrs. Branson would do the same as well, and two of Tom's siblings she had yet to meet, so that really only left the younger ones—
Sybil let out a sigh and felt a smile spread across her face as girl's head poked through the opening, the lamplight bouncing off her the lenses of her round spectacles.
"Yes, please come in!" she called out to her visitor. Of all the faces she had met, this had been the friendliest. "It's…Siobhan, yes?"
The girl grinned and nodded her head, before fully stepping into the room and quietly shutting the door behind her. "That's right!" she answered, a warm blush coloring her round cheeks. "And…and is it alright that I just call you…Sybil?"
"Oh yes, of course!" Sybil confirmed, nodding her head and smiling back at Tom's sister. "Please do, in fact I prefer it actually. I'm not 'Lady Sybil' here; I left that title back in England."
Siobhan smiled at this, and Sybil felt more ease wash over her. She liked this girl very much; it hadn't taken her long to see that Siobhan Branson would be her closest ally amongst Tom's family. She understood their wariness of her, and knew she would just need to be patient and hopefully, soon, she would win favor with them. But she was grateful that there was at least one person here who seemed genuinely happy to meet her when she arrived.
"Sybil…" Siobhan repeated, grinning all the more. "That's a beautiful name."
Sybil blushed, and bowed her head bashfully. "Thank you; and so is Siobhan!"
This certainly made Siobhan's already warm smile grow and glow even brighter than before. Yes, having a friend other than Tom would certainly make things easier for her. And unlike Tom, who would be staying with his sister and brother-in-law until they were married, Siobhan, God bless her, was here.
"Tom is still downstairs, talking with Mam," Siobhan volunteered. "Aileen and Moira have gone to bed, though I doubt they're asleep yet."
Sybil nodded her head and chewed on her bottom lip, wondering if perhaps she should go back downstairs, if she was expected. She certainly wanted to say her goodnights to Tom before he departed for his sister's.
But her eyes moved to Siobhan who was standing over Sybil's trunks, worrying her own lip as she gazed down at them. "Would you like some help?" she asked, lifting her eyes and meeting Sybil's.
Sybil suddenly realized what Siobhan was volunteering. "Oh! Oh, no, no, that's alright, I'll take care of it myself," she reassured, though was sure to nod her head in thanks, wanting Siobhan to know that her offer truly was appreciated.
The girl looked a little disappointed, however she quickly covered that up with a smile of her own and a slight shrug of her shoulders, before looking around the room, as if inspecting it. "Do you like it here?" she asked. "This used to be Kathleen's room."
Kathleen; second born after Tom, oldest girl. Same age as Edith. Married a few years ago to a man named Sean…Sean…Sean O…something. Sybil internally groaned that she couldn't remember the full name of Tom's brother-in-law. "Yes, it's very nice, thank you," Sybil was quick to answer, smiling and nodding her head and meaning every word.
Siobhan smiled at this, as if the words were a personal compliment. "Oh good! I am glad; I wanted it to be perfect for you. Ever since we received Tom's telegram earlier in the week, I've been up here scrubbing and polishing and dusting, just trying to make it look lovely."
Sybil felt very humbled by Siobhan's confession. In fact, she felt unworthy of it. How many hours had the girl worked in preparing this space for her arrival? How much time had she set aside from other tasks? She would have to make it up to her, if that were even possible.
"It's perfect," she told the eager, wide-eyed girl, sincerely meaning it. "Thank you so much."
Siobhan beamed even more, and Sybil could see a bit of Tom in the girl's proud grin.
"I sleep just down the hall," she informed her future sister-in-law. "Back to sharing a room with Aileen and Moira again."
Back to sharing a room…? Realization suddenly dawned on Sybil that this room she was currently occupying, that had once belonged to Tom's now married sister, had in truth become Siobhan's after Kathleen moved out. All the color drained from Sybil's face and her eyes widened with horror. "Oh no! Oh goodness, I…I'm so sorry! Please, you didn't have to—"
"Oh I don't mind!" Siobhan insisted, realizing herself why Sybil was suddenly so upset. "No, no, I wasn't saying that to make you feel bad, I swear! And I don't mind sharing a room with my younger sisters, honestly! In fact, it gets rather lonely in here, so…" she was chewing her bottom lip, looking worried that she wasn't making things right, when in truth Siobhan had nothing to explain. She, Sybil, was the stranger, the person who had more or less "invaded" their home and to whom they were being very kind in allowing her to stay until everything was settled and she and Tom could be married. Suddenly that worry about whether or not she would ever be able to repay the Bransons for their kindness and hospitality became even more worrisome. Where would one even begin in repaying such a debt?
"Tom told me you like reading?"
Siobhan looked up at Sybil's question, and the girl didn't have to speak, the answer was clear as day on her face. "Oh I do! I love books, reading is my favorite thing!"
Sybil grinned at this and quickly went to one of her trunks, praying that the item she was seeking was in the top trunk. A sigh of relief escaped her lungs as she realized that yes, Tom's cousin had indeed put the trunk she needed on top. "This is one of my favorites," she explained, taking the book out of her trunk and offering it to Siobhan.
The girl's eyes widened as she looked at the book in Sybil's hands. Once again, Sybil found herself feeling very humbled by the way Siobhan gazed at the book, as if she were holding a fistful of diamonds. "North and South," the girl murmured, reading the title.
Sybil smiled. "By Elizabeth Gaskell; she's one of my favorites," she explained. "Do you know it?"
Siobhan shook her head, but her smile only spread further as she reverently touched the spine of the book.
"I think you'll like it," Sybil murmured, and then gently pushed the book into Siobhan's hands. "In fact, it's yours."
Siobhan's head snapped up and she stared at Sybil as if she had just told her that she had been crowned Queen of England. "W-w-what?"
"The book," Sybil insisted, smiling at the girl. "I want you to have it; as a means of saying 'thank you' for all that you've done."
Siobhan's eyes widened. "B-b-but…but it's YOUR book!"
Sybil shook her head. "Tom has a copy; we don't need two. And I would like for you to have it. Please?"
Siobhan looked back and forth between Sybil's face and the book that was practically in her grasp. Sybil held her breath, wondering if she would have to say something further to convince her future sister-in-law to accept the gift, but finally the girl's eagerness for a new story won out, and she was clutching the book tightly to her chest, beaming so happily as she met Sybil's eyes. "Thank you! Thank you; I will treasure this, always!"
Once again, Sybil felt very humbled by Siobhan's sweet excitement, and opened her mouth to respond, but the sound of the door creaking open, without even a knock of warning, had both women turning to see who it was…and Sybil felt her insides freeze as she met the cold gaze of the woman who would one day be her mother-in-law.
"Siobhan, what are you doing in here?" Mrs. Branson asked, her voice dark and cold and full of what Sybil could only describe as "disappointment".
However, if that was the case, Siobhan seemed completely oblivious to it. "Oh Mam, look at this!" she grinned, holding the book out. "Sybil gave this to me—"
"Lady Sybil," Mrs. Branson corrected.
Sybil stiffened at the bitter tone which the woman had spoken her title. Poor Siobhan looked embarrassed and Sybil couldn't bear the thought, especially after all the kindness Tom's sister had shown her since her arrival. "No, no it's alright, I told her she didn't have to—"
"Beggin' your pardon, milady, but she's my daughter, and she knows better, don't you?" Mrs. Branson harshly asked, her eyes like daggers on the Branson girl. "Now…give Lady Sybil back her book and leave her be."
Sybil stared at the woman and despite the reprimand Mrs. Branson had given her for defending Siobhan and undermining her rules, she rose up again and shook her head in protest. "No, the book is a present from me, as a means to thank her—"
"She'll not have time to read your books, milady," Mrs. Branson interrupted, and there was no mistake that as far as the family matriarch was concerned, the conversation (if one could call it that) was finished.
"Now…" Mrs. Branson turned once more to her daughter. "To bed; let Lady Sybil get some rest. She's had a long journey."
Sybil wanted to say something, felt she should say something; at the very least ask Mrs. Branson to please stop referring to her as Lady Sybil and calling her "milady". However, the truth was, she didn't quite know how to approach the woman, exactly. It was obvious that Tom's mother didn't care for her, even though she had willingly opened up her home to her. But providing someone with a room and bed didn't necessarily mean they were ready to embrace you and call you family. And Sybil couldn't help but wonder if perhaps in Mrs. Branson's eyes, she was waiting to see if this truly was "real", what she and Tom were to each other. Perhaps it was all some sort of test? She didn't want to insult the woman and cause any sort of rift between her and Tom—good God, it had been five years since they had last seen one another! Five years too long, and she refused to be the cause or give either of them cause to turn their backs on each other after such a separation. No…she would simply need to bide her time. This was only the first meeting, after all. Let her "earn" her mother-in-law's favor, prove to her that she loved her son and was earnest in being a good wife to him. And above everything else, she needed to watch her temper.
Siobhan obediently, but reluctantly, placed the book on Sybil's bed, before turning, giving her a small, parting smile, and murmuring a quick goodnight, before slipping out the door her mother was holding open for her.
As soon as her daughter had passed, Mrs. Branson turned her eyes to Sybil, her gaze hard and cold, but also thoughtful, as if she were studying her son's fiancée. "Siobhan has a curious mind," she murmured after a moment. "When we learned that you were coming, she couldn't talk about anything else. Every day this week she's been asking questions about 'Lady Sybil' or talking about how excited she was that you were coming—I'd dare say she was more excited about the possibility of meeting you than her own brother."
Was there bitterness in the woman's voice? Sybil wasn't sure, but she felt her face grow red and her eyes lowered to the ground, feeling somewhat guilty by this revelation. Should she apologize? Was Mrs. Branson expecting an apology?
"I know this is going to sound awful, but she can be a bit of a leech sometimes; attaching herself to someone and clinging to them and unleashing question after question upon them…"
Sybil's eyes widened and her mouth automatically opened to emit a protest. Indeed, that did sound awful! Siobhan was no leech, she was simply, as her mother had said, "curious", and Sybil had no doubt that if she were in the girl's shoes, she would be the same way.
Yet any protest she was going to murmur in Siobhan's defense is silenced by Mrs. Branson as she carries on. "But the truth is, she already has far too much work to do, both here and at her job, so the last thing she needs are…" her eyes fell to the book, "further distractions."
Sybil closed her mouth, but by no means did she lower her head. In fact, she stiffened her spine and straightened her shoulders and met the woman's hard gaze with one of her own. Yes, in many ways Ireland was proving to remind Sybil a great deal of York…and Mrs. Branson was the Irish reincarnation of Nurse Templeton. But that was a good thing, Sybil told herself. Because in the end, she and Nurse Templeton understood each other. And God willing, that would also be true with her and Margaret Branson.
"Well," Sybil responded, putting on a pleasant smile. "Then I am glad I can be here to help wherever it is needed."
She would not be intimidated. Not by her father, her grandmother, or by her mother-in-law. She was not going to give Tom up, and if it became necessary to shout that in Mrs. Branson's face to prove how serious she was about her love for him and her determination to marry him, then so be it.
Mrs. Branson lifted an eyebrow at Sybil's words, but didn't say anything further. Sybil had no doubt that the woman recognized she was being "challenged", in a sense. So instead of speaking and adding more to the challenge, she simply gave a slight bow of her head, and like Siobhan, murmured a soft goodnight, before turning and shutting the door without a backwards glance.
Sybil let out a long, shaky breath and collapsed down upon the bed. This was not exactly how she had hoped Tom's homecoming would go, yet she did tell herself that it could have been worse. Much, much worse…
He was a handsome man, who greeted them at the docks. Very handsome, with a roguish grin that Sybil wondered was a common trait amongst the Branson men. He was tall, with unkempt brown hair and the same striking blue-green eyes that she loved so dearly on Tom. She turned to her fiancée, curiosity in her eyes as to who it was that had come to greet them, and she saw a mix of emotions sweep across his face: surprise, happiness, confusion, and disappointment.
"Kieran…" he murmured, and Sybil turned back to the handsome man who grinned up at the boat, before turning and looking at her, giving her a cheeky wink before giving her a cheeky bow to accompany it.
"Welcome to Dublin, milady," he emphasized, before turning his eyes back to Tom. "And welcome home, Tommy boy."
As soon as the boat was anchored, the gangplank in place, and the gate open to let the passengers disembark, Tom was off and embracing the tall stranger in a few short strides, the two of them laughing and hugging and laughing some more, and Sybil's eyes widened as she heard a strange language being exchanged between the two of them. Irish, she realized. Or was it Gaelic? She would have to ask. Oh gracious, was that the common language spoken here? She thought the Irish spoke English? Or…or did those who supported the Irish Free State protest against Britain by refusing to speak English? Oh Lord, she had so many questions…
"Sybil!" Tom turned and held his hand out to her, and she gladly took it. "This is my cousin, Kieran," he grinned up at the man. "Kieran, this is—"
"I don't think you'll have to tell anyone," his cousin chuckled. "Half the neighborhood knows you're a bringing a girl home—and if they don't know that she's a 'fine, English lady', they'll know the second they see her," he said with a wink, causing Sybil's cheeks to darken. He then proceeded to bow once again, taking her hand in his and bringing to this lips to kiss, his eyes full of mischief as he murmured, "Lady Sybil…"
"Oi, get off," Tom groaned, shoving his cousin away, though it was clear the two of them were simply teasing, and Sybil, despite her initial nervousness, blushed and laughed and said "hello" back.
"Where are your things?" Kieran asked, straightening himself up and eyeing the luggage that the crewmen were pulling off the boat. She stood off to the side while Tom moved to help Kieran with gathering their trunks, but they weren't so far away for her not to overhear a little bit of their conversation.
"I'm glad you're here…it's been a long time," Tom murmured.
Kieran clearly wasn't fooled. "But you were hoping for someone else…"
It wasn't a question.
Kieran sighed and ran his hand along the back of his neck. "They're back at the house, getting things ready," he simply explained.
Tom's family? His mother? His siblings? Who else, really? Oh Lord, she hoped his cousin was joking, that "half the neighborhood" didn't know about her, although they would soon enough, she supposed. After all, his neighbors and his family's neighbors were to be her neighbors, as well. Still, for her first day in Dublin, she was hoping she wouldn't be "put on parade" and have to meet everyone.
"Come on, time to face the music," Kieran teased as he led them away from the docks. Oh Lord, why did he have to make it sound as if they were going off to face the executioner?
She was surprised to see that Tom's cousin had a car. She soon learned that the car belonged to the garage which he and his older brother ran, and that "chauffeuring" was part of the service they sometimes provided. "We can always use a driver if that newspaper job of yours falls through," Kieran teased.
Sybil found herself gripping Tom's hand, and despite the joke, shook her head. "No, Tom's a journalist now," she insisted. "And he's going to be wonderful."
Kieran whistled and gave Tom a smirk. "Maybe I need to go to Yorkshire and find me a girl who speaks that fondly of me?"
"Not possible," Tom muttered, before turning and smiling at her, the look in his eyes thanking her for her faith.
They passed rows upon rows of brown, brick houses. In some ways the city reminded her a little bit of York. Twice, she had the opportunity to travel with a nurse into the more "working class" portions of the city. No, she would hardly call those areas "slums", and the same was true here as well. The streets were a little dirty, but that was true with city streets anywhere, really. Overhead, hanging on long lines between houses were rows of drying laundry. Men and women could be seen walking down the streets, coming home from work, some of them looking tired and weary, while others looked thankful and glad to be returning to a warm hearth and good meal. And children…oh gracious, so many children! Children running up and down the streets, kicking footballs, playfully shoving at one another, chasing each other, laughing everywhere, some of them groaning as they were called to come back inside for supper…
There was one house that they passed and Sybil swore she counted ten children—TEN—going inside. The place didn't look big enough to hold four of them, much less ten! And yet she had come from a house that could comfortably hold this entire street…and which a vast majority of its rooms went unoccupied. Truly, it put things into perspective of what a person really needed.
The car came to a stop and Sybil realized with wide eyes that they had arrived. Tom's house. Or rather, the house of his mother. Margaret Branson…Mrs. Margaret Branson. Her brain suddenly began going over everything Tom had told her, leading up to her arrival.
His mother's name is Margaret. He has six siblings: Kathleen, Frank, Siobhan, Aileen, and…and…
She closed her eyes, concentrating hard.
Moira! Yes, Moira is the youngest. And Kathleen is married to a man called Sean, who Tom went to school with. Kathleen has a home of her own, but all the others live with his mother. Their ages…
She was woken from her trance as she realized Tom was calling to her, his hand holding hers as he stood on the on the ground, having already exited the car and waiting for her to climb out.
"Sorry," she murmured, blushing deeply for her momentary lapse.
He smiled at her, but it was a look of concern. "It's going to be alright, love," he whispered, trying to assure her fears. "I'll be right by your side."
She put on a smile, determined not to reveal how nervous she truly was, and simply nodded her head before climbing down from the car, although she didn't once let go of Tom's hand as they approached the door. Kieran was already standing nearby, their trunks unloaded, and he was lighting a cigarette. "Now or never!" he grinned, before knocking on the door to alert the occupants inside that their long-awaited guests had arrived at last.
As handsome as Mr. Kieran Branson was, Sybil was finding that right now, she did not appreciate the man's humor.
His knuckles had barely left the door when it suddenly flew open and Sybil was startled at the sight of a girl who looked to be between the ages of sixteen or seventeen, staring up at the both of them, her cheeks pink and her eyes wide behind her black-rimmed spectacles. The girl's gaze locked with her own, and the look on her face could only be described as "awe". However, her eyes shifted to Tom, and then a loud gasp escaped her lips before she squealed his name and launched herself at him.
Sybil let go of Tom's hand so that he could catch the girl and return the embrace.
"Good God…Siobhan!?" he laughed, hugging her and then forcing her to step away from him just long enough to get a good look at her. "I…I can't believe it…" he gasped, staring at his sister. "The last time I saw you, you were—"
"Twelve!" the girl giggled, blushing deeply and then looking down at herself. She frowned then, running her hands down her wide waist and hips. "Still plump as a pig, though."
"Beautiful," Tom insisted, his hands trembling as he held her soft, round face. "God, you've…you've grown up so much!"
The girl blushed again and then leaned forward to hug her brother, the gesture so swift that it sent her little white maid's cap, like the sort Mrs. Patmore wore, flying off her head and allowing her bright red-brown curls to tumble down her neck. "And if you think I've grown, wait until you see Aileen and Moira!"
As if on cue, Sybil noticed two younger looking girls emerge from behind Tom's sister, and both shorter than her, and both with dark blonde hair, similar to Tom's.
Tom must have noticed them as well, because Sybil noticed that he froze as he gazed at their young faces, and once again, words spoken in that mysterious language were murmured again as he took in the sight of them.
"Aileen?" he whispered, looking at the older of the two.
The girl, who could only be a few years younger than the sister who had greeted him, gave a small smile. "Welcome home, Tom," she whispered, though unlike Siobhan, she did not launch herself into her brother's arms.
"Oi, come on," Kieran muttered from Sybil's side as he puffed on his cigarette, giving Aileen a look. "That any way to greet your brother?"
Aileen rolled her eyes at Kieran, before turning her attention back to Tom and without further encouragement, stepped forward and offered him a hug. Tom welcomed the embrace, however it wasn't as enthusiastic as the one he had exchanged with his other sister.
"It's alright," he assured, stepping away and giving Aileen a smile. "I know that it's been…it's a been a while, so…" his eyes trailed then to the other girl, the youngest Branson who looked up at him a little nervously. "…So I must seem like a complete stranger, no doubt," he murmured, crouching down until he was at eyelevel with the girl. "Do you…do you remember me, Moira?"
Sybil felt her heart squeeze sympathy for her beloved. Oh Lord, if Siobhan had been twelve when Tom had last seen her, how old had Moira been? She couldn't be more than ten or eleven!
The child, however, didn't seem to shrink from him. Instead, she reached out and gently touched his face, as if studying him and trying to conjure up a memory. A thought suddenly seemed to dawn on her, and she leaned forward and whispered something into his ear. Tom's eyes widened and he looked back at the child. "You remember that?" Moira nodded and grinned at him, eagerly waiting for him to comply with whatever it was she requested.
He glanced up at Sybil and gave her a sheepish grin, before clearing his throat and looking directly at his baby sister.
"Near Banbridge town, in the County Down
One morning in July
Down a boithrin green came a sweet cailin
And she smiled as she passed me by…"
He glanced up at Sybil and gave her a wink, which caused her to blush, both from the gesture, as well as the beautiful tenor of his voice. She still remembered how she had come upon him singing that one time in the garage. Oh yes, she needed to hear Tom Branson sing a great deal more often…
"Oh she looked so sweet from her two bare feet—" he continued singing and earned a giggle from the girl as he his fingers gave her legs a little tickle.
"To the sheen of her nut brown hair;
Such a coaxing elf, sure I shook myself
To be sure I was really there…"
He paused and looked his sister in the eye. "Are you convinced it's me yet? Or do I have to sing the chorus to?"
Moira laughed and finally threw her arms around her brother's broad shoulders, and Tom took a deep breath, clearly trying to hold back the joyful tears that threatened to spill as he hugged the youngest Branson tightly. He kissed her cheek, murmured something to her in that beautiful language of his, and then quickly rose to his feet, straightening himself and taking several deep breaths to calm his emotions, before looking over at his fiancée and reaching out for Sybil's hand. "This is Sybil," he introduced, beaming with such pride as he spoke her name and presented her for the first time to his family.
Siobhan grinned and much to Sybil's surprise, gave a little curtsy. "Pleased to meet you, milady," she greeted.
"Oh! Oh, thank you, but…but please, just call me Sybil," she informed them, smiling nervously at Tom, before looking at the three sisters and holding her hand out, hoping they would shake it. Siobhan did not hesitate, however Sybil noticed that the younger two were looking at her a little warily, especially after she had started speaking.
A sound was heard just over Sybil's shoulder, and she glanced and saw Kieran giving Aileen that look again. The girl took a deep breath and then put on a polite smile, before stepping forward and shaking Sybil's hand, herself. Upon seeing her sister do this, Moira also stepped forward and did the same.
"I'm pleased to meet all of you," Sybil told them, meaning every word and hoping she sounded a bit more confident than she felt right now.
"Where's Mam?" Tom asked, looking anxious at his sisters. "And Frank? Are Kathleen and Sean here?"
The happy smile on Siobhan's face fell at the mention of the missing Branson siblings, but before anything else could be said, a voice spoke from the back of the house, and Sybil peered through the shadows to see the outline of a round woman, her reddish-brown hair swept back into a tight bun, with traces of silver at the temples, and few hard lines around her eyes and the corners of her mouth. Yet despite those lines, the woman still looked very vibrant and beautiful in Sybil's eyes…and very intimidating as well.
"Welcome home, son."
Tom froze again, and Sybil watched as his chest stopped moving, no doubt because in that moment of seeing the woman, who was beyond a doubt his mother, had caused his breath to stop.
"Mam…" he whispered, almost stumbling inside the house.
Mrs. Branson gave him a smile, though she did not make a move towards him. Her eyes moved to Sybil and Sybil swallowed and felt her own breath stop as she met the eyes of the woman who would one day, soon (God willing) be her mother-in-law.
It was a quick assessment. Mrs. Branson looked her up and down, before letting her eyes rest on Sybil's face once more. Then, without another word, she turned on her heel and retreated back into the kitchen. "Take off your coats; supper will be ready soon."
Sybil sighed as she slowly undressed herself and prepared for bed, her mind going over the events of the evening. Their supper had not been what she thought it would be; for some reason she had always imagined the Branson house to be one filled with loud talk and endless laughter, but that night it was a quiet meal, one where Mrs. Branson clearly dominated and controlled the conversation, putting a curb on any questions Siobhan or the younger girls may have had for either Tom or her—especially for her. Kieran didn't stay; he took her trunks upstairs to the room Mrs. Branson had told him had been set aside for her, and then bid them a good night. It was soon learned then that Kathleen and Sean would not be coming this evening, as they were preparing for Tom's stay at their home, and as for his brother Frank, well…Mrs. Branson didn't really know where Frank was.
No, it was not the warm homecoming Tom had been anticipating, although she realized that neither of them had really known what to expect. Yes, his mother was allowing her to stay, but that didn't mean she wanted her there. And it was quite clear, based on the reception she gave Sybil during their supper, as well as just now, that the woman saw her as…"the enemy".
And why not? I am the reason her son didn't come home sooner. I'm the reason his siblings look at him and think him a stranger. I'm an Englishwoman and the daughter of an English earl…the very people suppressing working class families like Tom's, and who are denying Ireland its right to govern itself. Yes, on the surface, she very much appeared to be "the enemy".
…Which was exactly why she needed to prove her wrong. And not just Mrs. Branson, but everyone! Even her own family, still. She would prove to them that an Englishwoman of noble birth could work just as hard as a working class Irishwoman, and take great pride in the land of her husband's birth, and embrace it as her own, as well as support it in its desire to be free. Oh yes, she was determined to show them all.
She slipped under the covers of her new bed and settled herself down; her mind was racing with thoughts on how to begin this new quest of hers, while her body was utterly exhausted from the travel she and Tom had endured in the past day and a half. And as tempting as it was to sit up and write her thoughts down in her diary, or even to try and write a few letters to Susan, Gwen, and her family, she kept the lamp off and remained under the blankets, waiting for sleep to come, which it finally did.
…Of course it only occurred to her just before her mind finally managed to succumb to sleep that she still didn't have water for her pitcher and basin.
I've mentioned this before on my tumblr blog, but just in case there is still any confusion, Kieran Branson in this story is Tom's cousin, not his brother (when I began writing Love's Journey it was before any information about Tom's family was given, so instead of backtracking and throwing in an older brother, I decided to make Kieran a cousin)
Also, the ballad which Tom sings to Moira is a popular love song called "The Star of County Down"