She walks through the front entrance of Downton Abbey, not the back, because, as she walks up the stony drive, suitcase in hand, she sees two uniformed medics carry out a short stack of empty stretchers and load them into an ambulance, leaving the front door to the house open as they motor off. No footman, no Mr. Carson hovering, playing guard of the castle. It seems a new day has reached Downton Abbey, things far different from how she left them.
It's dim and shadowy in the foyer, her eyes struggling to adjust and her shoes silent on the thick red carpeting as she steps inside. It smells the same, that's the first thing she notes – like a church, like candle wax and old stone and old wood and the slight mustiness no amount of cleaning can eliminate.
The second thing that strikes her, hard enough to make her breath catch, is the sight of Tom Crawley directly ahead of her.
He stands alone in the middle of the Great Hall, framed like a picture by the dark foyer and arched doorway between them. He's a portrait of study and concentration, looking down at a ledger and flipping through its pages, a pale light falling on him from the windows high above, bathing him and crowning his winter-darkened hair. His back is half-turned to her and he cuts a fine figure in his dark waistcoat, the cloth stretched across his broad shoulders and strong back, the sleeves of his clean white shirt rolled up knotty arms, and his tailored trousers draping perfectly over his curved backside.
Her pulse is fast and her palms inside her gloves feel clammy. She hasn't seen him in more than three years. She never thought she'd see him again. He's twenty paces from her.
She's drawn forward and stops just inside the threshold of the Great Hall, her heels sounding lightly on the floorboards. It's enough in the silence and he looks up, turning her way. He looks the same, of course: the same expressive, big eyes, the same strong neck, the same handsome face but older now and less boyish, more defined, harder. "Can I help you?" he asks.
She's seized with cold and panic. He doesn't know her. He doesn't want to know her. He's pretending he's never known her.
But then his face stills. His whole being seems to still. The air in the room stills. Time stills. She dare not breathe. Her heart doesn't go still, beating so hard it shakes her body. She stares at him and he stares at her.
Of course he knows her, but a stone settles into her guts as she realizes he didn't know she would be coming here, back to Downton, back into his life. She thought Dr. Clarkson would've told him. She thought...she even thought perhaps Tom Crawley had approved her appointment in his convalescent hospital home. This was a huge mistake.
She suddenly thinks of her beautiful and dead American boy and she's reminded that she's not a girl anymore, she's a professional woman, and that propels her forward. She sticks out her right hand. "Hello, Mr. Crawley."
He watches her hand coming at him like it's a snake, like he won't take it. She's reminded that in this world masters don't shake hands with the servants. She's not a servant. She doesn't lower her hand, waiting. He takes it. She gives him a firm shake, a few quick, confident pumps.
"Nurse Branson," he greets her formerly, letting go. She's not in her uniform, she's in her traveling clothes, but he clearly knows she's still a nurse, anyway. So perhaps...
"Did Dr. Clarkson—"
"I'll take you to him," he says, leaning toward her. But it's only to take the suitcase from her hand and he turns away, walking out of the hall, toward the grand staircase. His strides are long and sound heavy on the bare floor and she hurries to keep up. Only now does she notice the changes in here, the fine furniture gone, the Oriental rug gone. Long folding tables are stacked by the fireplace, and bamboo chairs stacked against the wall.
He sets her case by the stairs, leaving it there. "I'll have someone take it up to your room," he says.
"You'll be in the old governess room."
So he did know she was coming? She's still not sure. "But I've taken a room in the village."
"Get rid of it. The Head Nurse stays here. You're on duty from seven in the morning to seven in the evening, but you're on call at all times, in case there's an emergency," he explains plainly, leading her through the house, not looking back at her. He clears his throat. His voice is a little more conversational when he asks, "Did the car show up in time or did you have to wait long?"
"At the station? There was no car."
He grunts. "There was supposed to be a car for you. So you wouldn't have to walk."
"Thank you, Mr. Crawley," she says, adding, desperate to somehow start bridging the gap of three-plus years, a spectacular misunderstanding, and his evident detachment, "For everything."
He briefly glances back at her. "Nothing to thank me for if the car didn't show."
"All the same."
He says nothing more as he leads her through the rooms, looking for Clarkson, finding him in the music room. Sybil takes it all in quickly –furniture removed, cots lined up, men upon them, some sitting up, some asleep, some bandaged everywhere, others less visibly damaged. There are two nurses here, pouring tea, checking bandages. Nurses under her supervision now, remarkably enough.
Dr. Clarkson gives her a more cordial greeting, smiling and telling her it's good to see her again, that he's looking forward to working with her. "Dr. Clarkson will show you around and fill you in on how everything's done, Nurse Branson," Tom says, all business. "Any questions, direct them to Dr. Clarkson or his Lance Sergeant." He turns, leaving her with Clarkson, but she just catches it as he says, walking away, "Welcome home, Sybil."
She's never been Head Nurse before, and she's somewhat surprised by how busy she is, even in a relatively small convalescent hospital such as this. Her first point of business, with so many men in the house, is to do for her nurses (and some of the maids) what Head Matron at Wimereux did for her – provide protection and lessons on how to use it. It comes with a strong warning that no fraternization will be tolerated between nurses and patients. Or between nurses and anyone else in the house. But she knows that things may (likely could) happen, and to deny it would be naïve and blinkered. Better to be prepared than foolish.
Day to day she runs the hospital not with Dr. Clarkson but with his Lance Corporal – who turns out to be Thomas Barrow, of all people. Clarkson is in and out, shuttling between the house and the village hospital.
And despite unexpectedly living in his house again, even living on the same floor, she seems to always be just outside Tom Crawley's orbit. He is everywhere yet nowhere she is. Gone may be the young man who slept in until lunch, the bored aristocrat with nothing to occupy his time but liquor and sex, but gone, too, is any notion he might fall into her arms when she came back, the past so easily erased like it was with Gwen. She maybe let herself get carried away by the revised portrait Gwen painted of Tom Crawley. The portrait dazzled her.
But the real, living, breathing man she's found here, is he so well-drawn?
She sees him pass by an open door and hears him talking numbers with the family lawyer trailing behind. She sees him through a window, walking around the perimeter of the house, examining it with Mr. Jarvis, the estate manager, Tom pointing up at a section of the eaves that shed shingles in a high wind. She sees him escort his mother down the stairs, both dressed for dinner, Tom resplendent in his dinner jacket and white tie. She finds him suddenly beside her when a patient grabs her bum, Tom's face red as he lays into the man for disrespecting her, for thinking she's only here to serve tea to a bunch of randy officers, for not treating her as a professional – and then just as suddenly Tom disappears again. She sees him come in from outdoors at dusk, wearing coveralls and boots and covered in mud, pulling off thick leather work gloves and shaking snow from his hair, his face ruddy from the cold.
She finds the real, living, breathing man to be even more dazzling.
Before she left London, she hadn't been sure if she ever loved him, used to love him, or perhaps still did. But now she knows.
A musical evening is announced, a program to be performed by the Crawleys and some of their friends, something to entertain the men and to celebrate Matthew Crawley's imminent return home, if only briefly on a short leave.
She looks forward to it for days, eager for a change of pace and for the chance to be near enough to Tom to talk to him for the first time since the day she arrived at Downton. On the evening, she's not silly enough to change into her nice frock for the evening – her uniform will suffice. But she does take a few extra minutes in her bedroom to brush and replait her hair, leaving her white cap off for the night. She puts on just a little rouge, too. She's happy with the effect. She hopes Tom will notice. She hopes he'll be in a friendly mindset, warmed by the return of his brother.
But she ends up arriving last to the Great Hall, diverted by trying to find one last extra wheelchair for a Captain who lost his leg up to the knee due to trench foot. He's been very low but finally, at the last moment, agreed to take in some musical entertainment – a good sign, Sybil figures. And when she finally takes her place, standing at the back, she sees no Matthew Crawley. "He's still in France," Thomas Barrow tells her, standing with her. "His leave got cancelled."
"That's too bad," she murmurs under the high, sweet, somewhat thin, voice of Her Ladyship as she finishes singing "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" at the piano. Now Sybil's eyes are scanning for Tom Crawley, spotting the back of his head in the front row – she knows that neck.
As everyone claps for Lady Grantham, a young lady rises and takes her place at the piano bench. She's pale and delicate-looking, with lovely pink skin, strawberry blonde hair, and a prettily plain, round face. Sybil's never seen her before – she must be a friend of the Crawleys, a neighbor's daughter or someone's niece.
Tom Crawley stands and gives his hand to his mother, escorting her to her chair, but instead of sitting back down, he goes to the piano to stand beside it, giving the strawberry blonde girl a deep smile as he announces, "My fiancée Miss Swire and I have prepared for your listening pleasure 'If You Were the Only Girl in the World'. And while Lavinia has a beautiful voice, you might feel differently about mine, so please feel free to join in and spare me too much humiliation."
There's some polite laughter and piano chords fill the room but Sybil barely hears it – she stopped listening at Tom Crawley's first two words: "My fiancée."
The girl playing the piano. The girl singing with Tom Crawley right now. The girl Tom is smiling at. The girl he called Miss Swire, Lavinia. The girl he called his fiancée. His fiancée. His fiancée. The girl he will marry.
Sybil can't breathe. She can't see anything but the way Tom is looking at the girl before him, like she's-like she's...his fiancée. Her face is on fire. She shouldn't have bothered with the bloody rouge! How stupid! She must look like an idiot wearing her makeup, wearing her uniform but no cap, showing off her hair like it's some crowning glory. What a bloody fool she is, at every bloody turn! She ducks her head, totally humiliated and hiding her scarlet face, hiding the tears swelling in her eyes, cursing herself.
What an idiot. What a ridiculous idiot she is.
She remembers the last time she felt so completely disappointed by Tom Crawley, how she'd run up the stairs and thrown herself on her bed and soaked it with sobs like a petulant child. She made terrible, emotional, prejudice assumptions after that, stupid mistakes.
She's a grown woman now and too damn old to be feeling so foolish. She won't bawl this time. And she won't run away. She has a job to do here. And she was right before when she told Gwen that she and Tom Crawley are nothing to each other anymore. Tom Crawley is nothing to her now.
She sucks up her tears and her snot and lifts her head, hardening her heart.