Yes, I'm alive. So is this story. Enjoy.
"I rather wish we were all staying."
Anna smiled at Bates' words.
He was shining a pair of Robert's shoes while Anna folded laundry in the boot room of Grantham House, which would be closed the following day after a long, eventful season. In a few hours, most of the family would be heading for the train station en route back to Downtown Abbey—all of them but Mary, who'd opted to stay behind for another week or so, with her aunt.
Bates and Anna were completing the last of their tasks before suitcases were to be packed in the motor on the way to the train, or in Mary's case, in the car Rosamund would be sending over.
"Whereas I rather wish I could go back with the rest of you," Anna replied.
"It speaks well of your service to Lady Mary that she'd ask for you to stay behind with her," Bates said.
"I suppose," she said with a sigh, turning her full attention to him now, having finished with the laundry in front of her. "I'm just ready to be home. When you grow up in the country, you have this notion that anywhere else in the world would be much more diverting. London, in particular. Once you're here, though, it really doesn't feel all that different. Even when I came here with Mrs. Patmore for her eye surgery, I felt happy to be of help to her, but I didn't feel the need to explore beyond where I was meant to go. It's just more people. Not more."
"So a quiet life in the village is what you're after?" Bates asked.
"Sounds a bit boring," Anna replied, smiling.
"Sounds a bit like heaven."
Anna's smile faded slightly as the past that seemed to haunt Mr. Bates, the wife he never spoke of, all settled into that tiny room with them, as always seemed to happen when they shared quiet moments like this. Bates looked down, unable to keep Anna's gaze for too long.
A different, better kind of life might have allowed him to stare into her kind eyes for as long as he wanted to, but that was not this life. He knew that Anna was fond of him, and he chastised himself for that fact being true. He had liked her too much to push her away when he should have, as a married man, even if "wife" was the last thing that Bates thought of when he thought of Vera. When he'd first come to Downton Abbey, years ago now, he'd imagined a place where the solitude he sought would be easy to come by. He knew he'd be part of a large staff, of course, but keeping to himself and staying out of the way was something he'd thought he could manage, having done so easily at previous places of employ. He couldn't at Downton, though. There were too many friends—and a couple of eager enemies—for that desire to ultimately prove true.
And there was Anna.
In the rare moments Bates allowed himself to hope, and to imagine things as different from how they were, he pictured himself standing up to Vera, demanding a divorce, and wondering whether Anna would take the little he had to offer. For all that to happen, though, he'd have to stand up to Vera, and every time he had ever tried that in the past, Vera had somehow managed to cut him off at the knees.
Anna watched Bates for several minutes, appreciating how hard it must be to remain as stoic as he tried to remain in moments like this, and wondering whether anyone else saw all that she could see behind his eyes.
"Mr. Bates?" she ventured quietly, breaking the stillness in the room.
Bates looked back up at her, but before Anna could go on, Carson entered.
"There you are, Mr. Bates," he said, in his usual commanding voice. "I just wanted to check to see if everything is ready to load. Miss O'Brien has all her ladyship's cases at the door, and Lady Edith and Lady Sybil's. The motor should come around in a few minutes."
"Yes, Mr. Carson, just finishing up," Bates said standing up.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Carson it was my fault," Anna spoke up. "I kept him with my chatting."
"Nonsense," Bates said. "I know his lordship will want to bathe and change when he arrives, and I wanted to have all of that ready in a separate case, including the shoes. I'll go up now to get everything down."
Carson nodded. "I'll send Christopher to help," he said, referring to one of the young men the family took on as a temporary footman when they were in London.
Carson was about to follow Bates out of the room when Anna's voice stopped him.
"Don't you usually go back to the house before the family, Mr. Carson?"
"Normally, yes," he replied, "but Lady Grantham changed her mind about when she wanted to leave this week, and in any case, Mrs. Hughes will have the house ready. My early departure is more habit than necessity."
"Do you know why her ladyship changed her mind?" Anna asked.
Carson arched his eyebrows, apparently surprised by the question. "Because she can."
Anna held back a smile at Carson's constancy when it came to refusing to question the family. Anna, herself, had not heard any particular reason from Mary, who likewise had not given much in the way of explanation for staying behind. Other years, Anna wouldn't have thought anything of it, but in this case, Anna sensed that something was weighing heavily on Mary. When Edith and Anthony's engagement had been announced, Anna wondered whether it was merely the disappointment of seeing her younger sister get engaged before she did, but she eventually dismissed this notion. As proud as everyone knew Mary could be, Anna understood her better than most.
Mary could have been married by now, if marriage for its own sake had ever been what she was after. Even when she'd agreed to marry Patrick Crawley, there was more behind her motivations. Anna understood these things, just as she knew Mary would not begrudge Edith happiness with a man in whom Mary had never had any interest. Whatever was troubling Mary now—if "troubling" was the word for it, and Anna was not sure it was—was something different. Something Mary couldn't even bring herself to confide in Anna about. That was what worried Anna the most, the fact that Mary had no confidant but herself, because Mary rarely gave herself the best advice.
"Is everything ready for Lady Mary?" Carson asked, taking Anna out of her thoughts.
"Yes," Anna said. "She left for Lady Rosamund's this morning. The motor will be back this afternoon for me."
"Mrs. Hughes will be sure to miss you," Carson said, with a smile.
"And I will miss all of you."
"Even so, I'm glad Lady Mary has you to help her. She deserves some time to enjoy a bit of the London limelight on her own."
Anna smiled, and Carson went on his way. Carson's constancy when it came to Lady Mary was something else that Anna admired in him, and just now, she could hear something in his voice that said the help Anna could offer Mary was not merely that of a woman in charge of dressing her. And that even the self-assured Lady Mary needed to be given room to shine, after having to concede society's attention first to Sybil upon her debut and then Edith upon her engagement.
He would never say such things aloud. Certainly, Carson would never suggest that someone like Mary couldn't manage her life or her heart on her own, but it showed Anna that Carson was more keenly aware of Mary's current emotional state than Anna would have guessed.
Anna knew that there was more to Mary asking her to stay with her than Mary let on. It was true that, on the precipice of the biggest decision of her life, Mary needed a friend more than she needed a lady's maid. Luckily for Mary, Anna was both.
Later that day
Cora had wanted to believe she would feel some relief when she walked into Downtown Abbey again. It was the lingering shred of hope in her that her world wasn't about to turn upside down.
Walking into the house, though, everything became real. She was pregnant.
After a month of illness, poor appetite and exhaustion that she'd only allowed O'Brien to be privy to, it was the only explanation—within Cora's understanding of her own body—that was left. Looking back on her time in London now, it was a wonder that it took her so long to recognize the obvious. But, then again, how could she recognize it? How, in her preoccupation with Sybil's season and the looming fight with Robert over Sybil's desire to marry Tom? How, in her muted excitement for Edith, the daughter that no friend or relation would have guessed would be the first to marriage but who Cora feared would be doomed to become a young widow? How, in her concern for Mary, who couldn't seem to get out of her own way after finally receiving an offer worthy of her from Matthew?
An heir who had endeared himself to the family so thoroughly might no longer be in that position in a matter of months. If, finally, Cora's long-ago wish for a son for her husband came true, Matthew's wise and thoughtful investment in Downtown Abbey would become a debt the Crawleys did not have the wherewithal—financial or emotional—to repay.
"How do you find the house, milady?" Mrs. Hughes asked Cora as they family walked through the front door, the servants all buzzing with activity just outside the house doors.
"Very well, thank you, Mrs. Hughes," Cora replied. "You always take such great care when we are away. If I'm not more effusive now, it's only because the journey was a bit tiring. I'll be going up to rest for a bit."
Mrs. Hughes nodded as Cora moved off, into the entrance hall, with Robert a few feet behind her.
"Will Lady Mary be back soon?" Mrs. Hughes asked him.
"She's staying on with my sister for a couple of weeks," he answered. "Any local news?"
"The main topic here is the murder of the Austrian Archduke," Mrs. Hughes replied.
"Here and everywhere else," Carson said, eager to see the family in before getting himself settled back in downstairs.
"I'm afraid we haven't heard the last of that," Robert said, with a sigh. "I think I'll wash the train off before dinner."
Bates, who'd followed Robert in from the motor, said, "Very good, milord. I can unpack while you're bathing."
"I'll see you up there," Robert said, giving Cora a smile as he passed her on his way up the stairs too absentmindedly to notice that the smile she offered in return did not quite reach her eyes. Cora had stopped just before going up herself to wait for Sybil and Edith, who were a few steps behind their parents as they made their way in. As they, too, approached the stairs, Cora noticed Mrs. Hughes moving off and called out to her.
"Mrs. Hughes, I wonder if I could trouble you for a moment before you go back downstairs."
"Of course, milady," Mrs. Hughes answered.
Noticing that Sybil and Edith had walked past her and were now headed up the stairs, Cora stopped them.
"Yes, mama?" she said, turning back toward Cora. Edith, one step above Sybil on the stairs, stopped as well.
"You were a great success in London, darling," Cora said, proudly. "Well done."
Sybil smiled, unsure how to respond and unsure of what her mother meant by "success," exactly. She'd enjoyed herself well enough, thanks mostly to Imogen, Tom Bellasis, and her sisters, but the season had not managed to charm Sybil away from her current path the way she knew her parents had hoped it would. Still, Sybil could see a sincerity of feeling in her mother's eyes that she wouldn't forget.
Without saying anything, Sybil turned again to go up, eager to freshen up so she could sneak away and go see Tom, whom she knew would be waiting for her at their spot this afternoon. But Edith remained where she stood with a knowing smirk on her face.
"You never say that to me," Edith said to their mother.
"Don't I?" Cora said as she walked up the steps to meet Edith. Taking Edith's hands, Cora said, "You were very helpful, dear. Thank you."
"Yes, now why don't you go upstairs and mind the fact that you are getting married in a few months and will be the center of attention soon enough."
Edith heard Sybil snicker and furrowed her brow in response, but meeting her mother's eyes again and feeling a bit humbled by Cora's words, Edith's expression softened into a smile. "I'm sorry."
"The spotlight feels warm, but its light can also be harsh, darling, remember that."
Squeezing Edith's hands one more time, Cora turned and went back down to where Mrs. Hughes was waiting for her, in the now empty hall, but did not speak until she could hear from their footsteps that Edith and Sybil had made it all the way up the stairs.
"The engagement was the talk of the village, last week, when everyone saw it in the paper," Mrs. Hughes said.
"Yes," Cora replied, "I can hardly believe it myself, but she seems happy, and Sir Anthony is a good man."
"And it'll be in September?"
Cora nodded. "They don't want a long engagement, which is understandable, given Anthony's age, but it doesn't offer much time to prepare, I'm afraid. It'll be all hands on deck for the garden party, which will be held in their honor, and then full steam ahead for a fall wedding."
"Was that what your ladyship wanted to talk about?"
"Oh, no, my request is a bit more immediate, actually. Would you mind having one of the hall boys go fetch Dr. Clarkson?"
Mrs. Hughes' expression changed to one of concern. "I'd be happy to milady. Is someone ill?"
"It's me, Mrs. Hughes."
"No need to worry, it's nothing serious, not even an illness really . . . at least I don't think. Anyway, would you mind?"
"Not at all milady. I'll do it straightaway." Mrs. Hughes headed off, wondering why she and not O'Brien, who'd gone straight upstairs with Cora's cases without a word, was given the task. Mrs. Hughes didn't mind doing it, of course, but a tiny thread of concern tickled at the back of her mind. She hoped that it was as Cora had said, nothing serious.
Cora made her way upstairs, the knots in her stomach not giving way for anything. When she stepped into the bedroom, she saw O'Brien carefully laying out clothes for her to rest in. No sooner had Cora closed the door, O'Brien came over and took her coat and followed her to the vanity, where she'd take Cora's hat off and restyle her hair for the afternoon.
"When did you know, O'Brien?"
The words startled the maid. She saw Cora's eyes looking at her—serious, almost angry—in the reflection of the vanity mirror.
"Pardon me, milady?" O'Brien replied, refocusing on Cora's hair, though she could feel her charge's eyes still on her.
"When did you know?"
"I'm not sure—"
"Just tell me. When did you know?"
O'Brien straightened herself up and met Cora's eyes in the mirror once again, but did not avoid the gaze now, as she had just a moment ago.
So she's figured it out, has she?
The secret that only O'Brien had known had somehow, quietly, become a secret they shared but had not acknowledged aloud. Until now.
"The night of Lady Sybil's ball," O'Brien answered.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Well, I—I couldn't be sure."
"I thought I could trust you."
"I don't understand, milady." O'Brien's face was the picture of stoicism, but Cora's words rattled her. Irked and unable to stop herself, O'Brien said, "What difference does it make?"
"I could have done something about it."
O'Brien's eyes widened. This was the last that she'd expected.
Cora covered her eyes and her shoulders started to shake, angry at herself for entertaining the thought but angrier still at God for doing this to her, for giving her a son—for she felt in her heart even now that the child would be a boy, something for which she had longed for too many years—at the exact time in her life when his arrival would be least welcome.
O'Brien wasn't sure how to respond. The usually unflappable lady's maid, now almost a decade in Cora's service, had seen much in her time at Downton Abbey, but she'd never seen Cora break down like this. Sure only that she should do something, O'Brien gently put her hand on Cora's shoulder. Cora took O'Brien's hand for a second and squeezed it before pushing it off, in seeming annoyance.
"Never mind," Cora said firmly. "Get on with it. Dr. Clarkson will be here soon."
Tom stood up from where he'd been sitting reading in the Crawley House parlor when he saw Isobel come into the room.
"Well, the family's all back safe and sound," Isobel said, sitting down on the sofa across from Tom. "Carson just called to say as much, and to let us know Pratt will be by to take us to the house for dinner."
Tom smiled. "I know it's not a particularly strenuous journey, but you'd think after a day's travel, they'd want to take it easy."
"I suppose, though it's not surprising. Their set lives by their social calendar. I don't think they know of another way to live."
"What did you think of what you saw of it in London?" Tom asked, genuinely curious. Since her return, a couple of weeks before, she hadn't said much beyond telling him that the luncheon Sybil hosted with her friend had been thoroughly entertaining and came off as a great success.
"I enjoyed myself, I must admit, but I wonder whether that's owing to the fact it was Sybil's debut. She's such a nice girl. I was happy to be there for her, and it seemed that things were rather understated to suit her taste, which also suited me."
"So you like Sybil very much, then?" Tom asked quietly.
Isobel turned her head slightly, surprised at what might be behind his question.
"I do, Tom. You know that."
"He looked down. "I do know. It's just . . . well, I like her too—rather, I love her."
Isobel blinked several times in surprise. "You do?"
Tom nodded sheepishly. "I'm comforted by the fact that it surprises you. I thought by this point, it was written all over my face."
"Well, I have noticed that you have a close friendship, but it never occurred to me that it would ever be more than that."
"Because you think it inappropriate?"
"No . . . I suppose I expected you not to want to marry into such a family, given your politics."
"I didn't expect it either to be honest."
Isobel smiled. "So it often is with love. Does she know you feel this way?"
Tom nodded again. "Now that the family's back from London, we plan on speaking with Robert about, um, well, about getting married."
"Is that why you are telling me now?"
"Yes. I know it'll come as a surprise to him, and there may be a fight. I hate to put you in the middle of it, but Robert may not like the idea of a daughter of his marrying someone like me."
"Because you have no money or title, or because you are Irish Catholic?"
Tom chuckled uneasily. "Both?"
"It's rather absurd that such things would be held against you, but perhaps we should expect the best of them."
"That's not what you usually do," Tom said quietly. "You usually expect the worst."
Isobel sighed. "I'm afraid that's a charge I can't deny." She stood, and Tom did the same. "But they know you well. They know your character. I dare say even Violet would never argue against that."
Tom smiled. "When we told them about mam, Robert said he was angry that I assumed the worst of him. He was right, and yet, I can't help but do the same now."
"When it comes to parents and their children, it's hard to predict anything," Isobel said. "And Sybil being rather a free spirit, well . . . my advice to you is not to concern yourself so much with what they will say, but how you and Sybil respond to it. That's all you can control. Responding to stubbornness with the same won't help you in the long run."
Tom couldn't help but laugh. "I'll make sure to say that to Sybil."
"Will you speak to him tonight?"
"No. We thought it best to wait until they are settled back in."
Isobel sighed. "That seems like a good idea. Just . . . be careful, please, my boy."
Tom smiled, as always grateful for her constant concern for him. "I'll try to be." He looked down at the book on his lap for a minute, but unable to find his concentration again, knowing that he was meant to see Sybil soon, he stood. "I was planning on going for a short walk this afternoon, and if I need to get back to go to dinner, it's probably best I leave now."
"Very well," Isobel said, watching Tom proudly as he made his way out of the room.
"Do be careful, my boy," she repeated to herself once she was gone. "Very careful."
Outside, Tom thought about what Isobel said, but what care could he take at this juncture? He was too far gone. But he didn't think on it long as he walked, heading to the place he knew Sybil would be as soon as she could get away. And for now, seeing her again after weeks apart was all that mattered.
"Where are you off to?"
Sybil turned around and saw her father coming out of the library as she got to the bottom of the stairs on her way to the front door. "Nowhere," she replied, "just in search of a bit of fresh air."
"You're glad to be home, I imagine," Robert said, as he made it to where Sybil was standing in the main hall.
"I am," Sybil said with a smile. "But if you're wondering, since the question looks to be on the tip of your tongue, I did enjoy myself this month."
Robert pursed his lips. "No need to patronize me."
Sybil looked down, smiling but somewhat embarrassed. "I'm sorry. I meant it, though."
"I'm glad," Robert replied. "Your mother was hearing about the luncheon you hosted up until this morning. Seems you made quite an impression."
Sybil blushed sightly. She was extremely proud of how well things had gone, not merely because the event had been well attended and a lot of money had been raised, but also because of the connections she had made—one in particular that would change the course of her future even more than Sybil could imagine at this moment. "It went off even better than I thought it would, though Imogen should take most of the credit," Sybil said. "It was her idea."
"Perhaps you can make it an annual event."
"Perhaps." Sybil wanted to say more—to say that though she'd always want to find ways to support other women, it wasn't likely that many more charity luncheons, let alone another season in London, would be part of her future. But they'd just gotten home that day. Sybil was too eager to go see Tom to get into a circular conversation with her father about what she knew about her own future and what he and her mother expected.
Sensing that they'd exhausted the well of this conversation and not wanting to stir the peaceful waters that their relationship had managed to reach, Robert said, "Go on, if you must, but don't be late for dinner."
Sybil smiled, not taking this happy moment with her father for granted, but still eager to see Tom where she knew he was waiting. "I won't be," she said, then turned to go.
Robert watched her as she walked through the hall then turned headed for the entrance. He turned to head up the stairs, only to see Dr. Clarkson making his way down.
"Hello, Doctor," Robert said with surprise. "I didn't know you were here."
"Lady Grantham sent a message."
"Why? She's not ill, is she?"
Dr. Clarkson smiled slightly. "Not ill, exactly."
Robert's heart jumped into his throat, but too many thoughts began ringing in his head for him to be able to determine in that moment if it was out of excitement or dread.
"Would you mind waiting in the library?" he said to Dr. Clarkson. He ran up the stairs and around the gallery to Cora's room and went in without bothering to knock on the door. But as soon as he was in the room, Robert had no words.
O'Brien, who had been fluffing the pillows around Cora, stopped upon his entry and after a look at Cora, who nodded, left husband and wife alone.
"Sit down, Robert," Cora said quietly. Her eyes were slightly red-rimmed, but Robert couldn't tell if whatever tears had fallen had done so out of happiness or the same anxiety he was feeling. He sat down on an armchair just inside the door without taking his eyes off Cora.
"Pregnant?" Robert said the word quietly, as if he didn't quite get its meaning. "I wouldn't have thought it possible at this point."
"You needn't be quite so shocked. I'm not so old as your mother."
"Give me a moment. You haven't been pregnant for 18 years."
"I shouldn't tease. It's not as if I saw it coming."
"I don't understand what we've done differently," Robert said wryly.
"Stop right there. If you want to know more, go down and offer the doctor some whisky."
Robert laughed in spite of himself. "I can't take it in."
Cora watched him carefully. "But you're pleased?"
Robert stood and walked over to the bed, taking Cora's hands. "Of course . . . aren't you? Is that why you've been crying?"
Cora sighed. "I don't know why I cried. I've suspected for a week or so but held it in, trying to convince myself it was my imagination. Coming against the reality of it today, all of the feelings came out, good and bad. I wish I could simply delight in it as I ought to, but . . . well, I suppose I know more than you."
"I don't understand."
"Matthew has asked Mary to marry him."
Robert dropped Cora's hands, in greater shock than he was before. "What?!"
"He asked her while he was in London for Sybil's ball, and she asked me not to tell you."
"Why ever not?"
"Because she wants to make up her own mind."
"And has she?"
Cora shook her head. "If you were wondering why she wanted to stay behind, now you know. Robert, this changes everything."
Robert sighed. "Or it may not."
"It feels different this time. I don't know why I know that, but I do."
"But there's no way of knowing for sure?"
Robert sat down at the edge of the bed. "We've never been good at making boys."
Cora felt her heart tighten and her eyes water again. "James and Patrick died two years ago. Two years! That's how long I've spent worrying about what would become of Mary, and now that she's finally gotten the offer we've been hoping for, the landscape changes again."
"It's the same position she'd be in if this pregnancy had come one year after Sybil, instead of eighteen," Robert said.
"And it's the same position Sybil and Edith are in now."
"It's only Matthew whose life would change," Robert said, with clear regret in his voice.
Cora sat up slightly, and reached for Robert's hand. "How much of his money is in the estate now?"
Robert squeezed Cora's hand, and with his other hand rubbed his eyes, pushing his thumb and forefinger into the bridge of his nose.
"I don't know," he said finally.
"But we can find out, right? Pay him back?"
"We're in this house again because of Matthew," Robert said, looking at Cora again. "Sale this time would be unavoidable. Could you relive the nightmare of leaving? We may have to."
"Or we may not," Cora said. "I say that I'm sure it's a boy, but I don't know any better than you do, to be honest."
Robert leaned in and pulled her into a hug. "I should go talk to Dr. Clarkson."
"What are we going to do?"
Robert stood. "Wait."
"What is Mary going to do?"
"I'm afraid that's a question I've never known the answer to."
The ballroom at Claridge's was always in high demand in June. Even securing it for a luncheon was no small feat. Sybil might have thought the location a bit too ambitious when Imogen suggested it, but Imogen insisted, primarily because her mother did so. Lady Priscilla wasn't entirely thrilled with her daughter's growing political interests, but charity was something that she understood. And if Imogen was going to put herself out there for a cause, she would not do it by half if her mother had anything to say about it.
In the end, filling the room was not so great a challenge as either of the young hostesses initially expected. Once word got out among Lady Priscilla's set that the heiress to the Wilkes fortune and the daughter of the earl of Grantham had something up their sleeve, curiosity mixed—at least in some—with a genuine desire to do good for a good cause led to a rush for seats at the table. And, of course, there was ample interest among the medical students. Once the event came together, some of the guests thought better care should have been taken in drawing up that very seating arrangement, but that was only the older women, who did not realize that Sybil and Imogen "mixed" intentionally.
Both of them offered words of welcome at the start. Imogen spoke first, and Sybil marveled at how easily Imogen commanded the room without even having bothered to prepare remarks. When Sybil's turn came, she felt butterflies in her belly and gripped tightly the small card on which she'd written what she wanted to say, as all eyes in the room turned in her direction. She didn't consider herself an especially social person, one who immediately felt and easily acted as if she belonged in every room she stepped in, like Mary, Imogen and even Tom. But then, Sybil remembered that some of the women in this particular room were also aspiring doctors and that at least among their kindred spirits, she should feel comfortable.
So after a deep breath, she began:"Thank you, Miss Wilkes, and thank you all so very much for joining us today to support the Fund for the Royal Free Hospital's School of Medicine for Women. As Miss Wilkes mentioned, we are here not only to provide much needed support the future doctors of England, but also to support each other as women. Equality is not a fight we may win individually. We can only win it together. Thank you for fighting with us. Speaking specifically to the medical students present, thank you for being here, for your commitment to the field of medicine, and for beating the path many more women will follow. Now, I will turn it over to Mr. Thakeray and Miss Blenkinsop who will tell us about the fashions their models will show us today. We urge all guests to bid, and bid generously to support our worthy cause."
Sybil stepped away from the small podium at which she and Imogen had been standing, and a slender man with pursed lips and a humorless expression took over from her and introduced the first model. Sybil had wondered upon meeting him minutes earlier whether he had the right disposition for this event, but Imogen had insisted that the head of fashion at Selfridge's was the best at his job—and his taste, apparently, was considered sacrosanct.
As Sybil watched the audience, though, she could easily see that her concerns were for naught for Mr. Thakeray and his colleague Miss Blenkinsop held their audience rapt from the start. She and Imogen had agreed to visit every table before sitting down, and once the fashion show was in full swing, they split up and began doing so from opposite sides of the room. About fifteen or so minutes later, Sybil was not halfway through her side of the room, when she saw Imogen walking toward her with another woman in tow. The woman looked older, in her 40s perhaps, and was smartly dressed in a burgundy suit. Imogen's eyes were wild with barely contained excitement.
"Sybil, a moment?"
"Of course," Sybil said, stepping up to them.
"This is Dr. Augusta Wentworth," Imogen said, gesturing to the woman next to her, who immediately extended her hand to Sybil. "She teaches at the college and runs the fund we're supporting—I mentioned that she'd be coming?"
"Oh, yes," Sybil replied, shaking Dr. Wentworth's hand and wondering what it was exactly that had Imogen so worked up. "Thank you so much for coming," Sybil said. "We're thrilled to be supporting your students."
"And we're thrilled to have your support," Dr. Wentworth said. "We're proud and grateful for our patron Lord Goring, naturally, but his endowment has no earmarks for students' financial needs, when those needs exist, and since monies are parceled out according to the very many demands on our institution, the fund for the needier students tends to get the scraps. Those demands are not unimportant, but I often feel that we could be doing so much more to help young ladies who have talent but cannot attend for lack of money or connections."
"We're happy to help," Imogen said.
"Indeed," Sybil added. "Though sorry to hear that you don't have a more regular source of funding."
"My personal opinion," Dr. Wentworth went on, "if I may be perfectly frank with you, my ladies, is that we'd fare far better if his lordship were married. This does tend to be the kind of thing a wife takes up. Mrs. Roger Bellasis has helped us from time to time, but she feels that it is not her place to do more as she's only Lord Goring's sister-in-law, and I do understand that as well. She mentioned that you have struck up a friendship with her son, so I can only hope for our sake that it continues."
"We are ahead of you on that note," Sybil said with a quick look over at Imogen who could not keep herself from blushing ever so slightly at the word "wife," given her attachment to the heir of the man who, as Dr. Wentworth had just pointed out, currently had none.
Despite that, Imogen didn't miss a beat and quickly added, "Dr. Wentworth is also on the board of admission—oh, I see Lady Susan has finally arrived. I better go and say hello lest she be rendered disinclined to open up her purse."
Sybil smiled, watching her friend greet the rich, old woman, understanding that it was this final detail she reveal about Dr. Wentworth's role that had excited Imogen. "Miss Wilkes is a marvel," Sybil said. "This event was her idea. I'm so glad we could be of help."
"Well, I know you have other things to attend to," Dr. Wentworth responded, "I just wanted a chance to say thank you to you both in person. I'd be happy to give you a tour of our offices if you are so inclined, to see where all your help has gone."
Sybil thought for a moment. This was as good an opening as Sybil was going to get.
"Now that you mention that, doctor, I would like that very much . . . for rather selfish reasons."
Dr. Wentworth tilted her head slightly. "Oh?"
Sybil bit her lip and looked down for a moment before raising her head again. "I wouldn't need your funds' support to do it, but I . . . well, it's my goal to attend the medical college myself . . . as a student."
"Oh!" Dr. Wentworth seemed surprised, but not judgmentally so. "Have you submitted your application? We're doing a round of testing this month, and I have the feeling the demand for women doctors is about to increase. We'll need women from all corners, even high society."
"I'm not ready, I'm afraid. I didn't have traditional schooling, so I must do some catching up first. It'll likely be another year, perhaps two."
"Are you working with a tutor?"
"Of sorts. My, um, my old governess is helping me, as is a cousin of mine who worked as a nurse during the Boer wars. Her husband was a doctor in Manchester before he died, years ago, and she worked along side him for much of that time. She's the president of the board of the hospital my family patronizes—it's a small country hospital up north—and she has supported my work there as a volunteer."
"You're a volunteer nurse?"
Sybil chuckled. "That title would be a bit of a stretch, but I'm trying to get my hands dirty, so to speak."
"Well, your ambition is to be admired, Lady Sybil," Dr. Wentworth said. "I wish you the best of luck."
"Thank you." After a beat, Sybil asked, "May I ask what you meant when you said that the demand for women doctors was about to go up?"
"It always does in times of war, when the men must be sent into the trenches. I pray that will not be the case, but there seems to be quite a bit of unrest on the continent. If England is pulled into war again, doctors will be in short supply here at home and nurses will be needed here and at the front. Sad that it takes such calamity for women to have opportunity." Dr. Wentworth paused and regarded Sybil quietly for a long moment. "We hold two rounds of testing for every class, one in early summer and one in the fall. Why don't you put your name on the list for the fall? Even if you don't think you are ready, the truth is that none of us really ever feel ready at the start. By then we may know just how much we need you. Will you do it?"
Sybil didn't hesitate."I will."
Dr. Wentworth smiled. "Good. Call my office—Miss Wilkes has the number—and I'll set up a tour this week. Now, I'll let you get back to it."
Without another word, Dr. Wentworth went back to her table. Sybil could hardly believe what she'd just agreed to. Apply for fall admission less than a year after she'd begun? She was progressing faster than Miss Perry had imagined, but could it really happen so fast?
Sybil arrived by the creek after Tom did and stood several yards behind him, watching him for several minutes before letting him know she was there. He was standing on the edge of the mossy bank, holding his hands behind his back and looking around, obviously enjoying the momentary solitude. Eventually, he turned his head far enough around to catch a glimpse of Sybil out of the corner of his eye. He smiled seeing her and realizing that she'd been there watching him. He turned himself all the way around to face her, but neither one made any move to rush over to the other.
"How long have you been standing there?" Tom asked, taking a step toward her.
"Not long," she replied, taking a step herself.
Tom took another step toward Sybil. "Did you have a pleasant journey back?"
She took another step toward him. "I did."
"And have we drawn this moment out enough already?"
Sybil laughed and skipped the rest of the way into his arms. "Yes," she said, burying her face in his neck. Pulling away, the happy couple looked at each other with bright eyes for a moment before finally giving into their long-awaited kiss.
And kiss they did for several long minutes, after which they both sighed and looked at one another contentedly.
"Golly, I've missed you," Sybil said.
"Me too," Tom replied.
They kissed again one more time before Tom pulled Sybil toward a patch of grass where the sun was shining. Not letting go of his hand, Sybil followed him and sat down, pulling him down next to her so she could lean against his shoulder.
"How was the rest of your season?" he asked, setting his hat down on the grass next to him.
"Fine enough, I suppose," Sybil answered.
"Just fine enough?"
"You'd never hear mama and papa say it, of course, but once you've been to one party among London society, you've been to them all. I spent most of my time with Imogen and Tom Bellasis, which I enjoyed, but there's very little to report back that was very exciting, I'm afraid."
"So you've not changed your mind about . . . "
"What? Giving it all up to marry you?"
Tom chuckled. "Well, have you?"
Sybil let Tom go and crossed her arms in a huff. "How dare you suggest I would even entertain such a notion!"
Tom's chuckle became full laughter, and he put his arm around Sybil to pull her back into him again. "Just making sure. How am I to know what happens at these things?"
Sybil laughed too. Then, lifting her hand to his cheek to pull his face toward hers, she said, "I am surer now than I was even when I said yes. I don't think I had to make it through this month to know that nothing of that life is of any interest to me, but having made it through, I am only too happy to report that giving it all up is hardly a sacrifice."
"Giving up your family would be a sacrifice," Tom said quietly.
"It would, but it's not one they'll ask me to make. I know we've worried about what papa will say, and I know him too well to think it will all be smooth sailing but . . . well, I suppose I can't help but have faith in them."
Tom smiled. He took her hand and kissed its palm before settling back against the grass. Sybil laid herself down against him, feeling calm as she heard his heart beat against her ear.
"I told Aunt Isobel today," he said.
"And what did she say?"
"She has faith in your family too."
Sybil sat up to look into his eyes again. "What about you?"
Tom pushed himself up again too. "Do I have faith in Robert?" he asked, with a cheeky look in his eye.
Sybil smiled. "Him or the family or . . . us."
"Yes, I do," Tom answered, taking a deep breath. "In all of the above."
"But you still seem worried."
"I can't help it, I suppose. Whatever happens with your father and your family will work itself out, whether than means they'll welcome me as son-in-law with open arms or we marry and live by our wits when they don't. But I've wondered in the last few days if our concern over how your parents will react has kept us from seeing a greater concern ahead."
"What would that be?"
Tom sighed. "I don't know. War, perhaps."
Sybil's brow furrowed. "Would you fight if one came?"
"No," Tom responded immediately. "Even if I considered myself an Englishman loyal to the crown and its orders, I don't have the heart for it. Quite literally."
Sybil's alarm grew. "Is something wrong with your heart?!"
Tom chuckled. "No, no—well, there is, but it's nothing life-threatening. When I was young Uncle Reginald discovered that I have a heart murmur. It's just serious enough that I'd be disqualified from the physical rigor of the kind likely to be demanded by the Royal Army." Sybil breathed a sigh of relief, which made Tom smile. "I'd love nothing more than to defy an order to fight if it ever came for me," he added, "but alas, given my condition, they'll likely not want me to begin with."
"A fact I will celebrate, even if you don't," Sybil said. After a beat, she asked, "What is your condition called?"
"A pansystolic murmur caused by a . . . mitral . . . something. I can't remember. I'm sure Aunt Isobel does, if you want me to ask her."
"I do," Sybil said, in a serious tone. "As your future doctor I should know, don't you think?"
Tom nodded. He took Sybil's hand and held it to his chest. "You're its keeper in more ways that one."
Sybil smiled, but the smile faded as she watched Tom look away for a moment, and bite his lip.
"Matthew would fight," he said, quietly. "I'd have to consider that in making any decisions about when to leave Crawley House and where to go when I do. I'd have to reconsider my responsibilities to Aunt Isobel."
Sybil thought for a moment. "Actually, now that you mention it, at the risk of sounding like the ghastly prospect of war is something I'd welcome, it would change things for me as well."
"I met a woman in London—a doctor," Sybil said. "She came to our luncheon and she works with the Royal Free. She said that if and when war comes the demand for women in the fields of health will increase considerably."
"She's likely right."
"She told me that, given that possibility, I should apply to the college in the fall."
Sybil nodded. "I told her that I didn't think I'd be ready, but she said women rarely ever feel ready for the challenges they undertake."
"Whereas men tend to jump in with both feet and ask questions later," Tom said laughing.
"Right," Sybil replied. "It's true that there will only be so much I can teach myself, and that I'll always question whether I know or have done enough to prepare. And even if I don't do all that well on the exam, I'll have the experience of having tried once to help me on the second attempt."
Tom narrowed his eyes playfully. "I seem to remember telling you all these same things, and you not believing me when I said them."
Sybil smiled bashfully. "Yes, but yours is not an unbiased opinion, and her was."
"That's true enough."
"I can hardly believe I agreed when she asked, but she was so encouraging and made applying as soon as possible seem so logical."
Tom kissed Sybil's hand again and looked at her with new admiration in his eyes. "Let it never be said that Sybil Crawley cannot make her own dreams come true."
Sybil grinned, proud of herself and happy to feel the warmth of his pride in her.
After a moment, Tom asked, "So I suppose it's fair to ask whether this changes our plans about when we'll get married."
Sybil thought for a moment, "It will, but honestly, they might have to change anyway. At least, we have to consider the fact that Edith and Anthony want a fall wedding."
"Do we really need to wait for them to be married before we are?"
"I don't know. It's only that I thought the fall would be when we would do it, but Edith is so traditional. I know the ceremony and celebrations and all of that will be very important to her—much more so than it is to me. I just want us to be married—I'd be happy to do it at a registry office, but then in my parents' world that would invite gossip. And I wouldn't want any of that to steal Edith's thunder."
"There's also . . . um, well . . . it's not something we've talked about, but your parents would also expect Mr. Travis to marry you."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean . . . they expect you to marry in the Anglican church."
"Oh . . . oh! I didn't even think of that!"
"You assumed that's what we'd do?" Tom asked, not realizing perhaps until this moment how much he'd been hoping that she'd agree to a Catholic wedding, even if it also hadn't occurred to him to ask the question properly.
"No," Sybil responded quickly, seeing the concern in his eyes. "I suppose I've always understood that marrying in your church would be important—at least, I know it means a lot more to you than marrying in mine does to me. You know that."
Tom sighed in relief. "I do, but I shouldn't have made any assumptions about that. Are you really sure you'd want to be a Catholic?"
"No," she said, answering honestly, "but I am sure I want to be a Branson, and I'll do what it takes."
Tom felt tears prick at the back of his eyes. "Oh, my darling, I do love you so much." He pulled Sybil into yet another kiss. After, leaning his forehead against hers, he said, "Let's just tell them and see what happens."
Sybil nodded, smiling. "Let's go back to the house."
Sybil laughed, as she stood up, with Tom standing up with her. "I don't mean tell them now. Let's just . . . not worry about hiding so much anymore. And it's very possible that papa wants to see you too."
"I don't know about that."
"Well, he'd never admit it, but you never know."
Together, Tom and Sybil walked back to the house, a comfortable closeness settling between them, as if they'd passed an invisible line between youthful ardor and the warm contentment of adulthood—the kind of love that carries you through the madness they were just about to step into.
For as they emerged from the wood, Sybil noticed Dr. Clarkson walking through the gates back in the direction of the village.
And when they stepped through Downton's front door, her still bewildered father greeted them with the reason the doctor had been called to the house.
"Cora is pregnant."