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Halo Effect

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Thomas felt queasy as he led the Turkish gentleman through the darkened house.  What he was doing now was no better than what Mr. Pamuk had threatened to expose him for.   Perhaps even worse.  Carson would surely sack him if he had proof in hand of what he’d always suspected about Thomas—but for this, he might very well murder him. 

Besides that, there was the question of whether Lady Mary was, in fact, expecting the gentleman.  If she were, wouldn’t she have told him herself where her bedroom was?   Lady Mary thought she was tough—and he reckoned she could hold her own against any other gently-reared young lady, if it came to scratching and pulling hair—but would she be able to against a grown man? 

That is, if she weren’t perfectly thrilled by this nocturnal visit, as perhaps she might be. 

Two or three times, as they crept the length of the house, it was on the tip of his tongue to say no, he wouldn’t do this, but each time he talked himself out of it.  At last, he silently pointed to the door in question, then retreated out of any possibility of her seeing him, even if she flung the door open to eject her visitor. 

But he lingered.  If she screamed, he would dash in and rescue her, that was all.  More likely than not, in that case, no one would listen to what Pamuk had to say—though Thomas would have a bit of explaining to do about why he was anywhere near the young ladies’ bedrooms in the middle of the night.  But he could come up with something, by the time anyone got around to thinking of that. 

For what seemed a very long time, there was no sound from within the bedroom, and Thomas was getting ready to slip away, as silently as he’d come, when he heard a gasp, followed by a hissed, “What are you doing?  Get off me!”

He crashed into the door, shoulder first.  Pamuk was lying across the bed, on top of Lady Mary.  Time seemed to freeze for a moment, and then she screamed, “Help!  Someone, please, help!” 

Some distant part of Thomas’s mind registered that her tone was a bit theatrical, but he nevertheless dove toward the pair on the bed, grabbing Mr. Pamuk by the collar of his pyjamas and dragging him off.  Keeping hold of the strangely-unresisting Pamuk with one hand, he grabbed his wrist with the other, and twisted his arm up behind his back, demanding, “What do you think you’re doing?”

Likely, a disinterested observer would find his delivery no more convincing than Lady Mary’s, but she didn’t seem to be paying him much mind, sitting up and clasping her hands in front of her, mouth open in shock.   Nor was Pamuk in any position to notice; he suddenly—abruptly—went limp. 

At that moment, Lord Grantham arrived, followed closely by her ladyship.  “What is going on here?”  Noticing Thomas, he added, “What are you—who is—”

“Papa,” Lady Mary said, her voice trembling.  “Mr. Pamuk, he just burst in here.  Then Thomas came and saved me, and—what have you done to him?”

At that moment, Thomas realized that Pamuk hadn’t simply given up at the sight of his paramour’s—victim’s?—outraged father; he had collapsed.   Thinking quickly, he said, “I think he’s ill, my lady.  I saw him wandering about.  I’m sorry I didn’t catch up to him sooner.”

“Mary, are you quite all right?” Lady Grantham asked sharply, going to her side. 

“Yes,” she said quickly.  “Yes, I am.  He didn’t touch me.”  She gave Thomas a significant look. 

“I was just behind him,” Thomas confirmed. 

From the corridor, he heard doors opening and the other young ladies asking was the matter, and Lord Grantham telling them that everything was well in hand and to go back to bed.  Lady Mary buried her face in her mother’s shoulder and made sounds of distress.  Mr. Pamuk remained in a heap on the floor. 

Lord Grantham came back.  “Is she all right?” he asked her ladyship, quietly. 

She nodded.  “I’ll handle this.  You—”  She gestured towards Pamuk.

“Right,” he said.  To Thomas, “Let’s get him back where he belongs, before we send for Dr. Clarkson.  The fewer who know he was in here, the better.” 

Thomas quite agreed, and took charge of Pamuk’s upper half, while his lordship handled his feet.  They were at the top of the main staircase when Mr. Carson appeared, apparently having sensed somehow that something was amiss.  He was in his dressing gown, a sight Thomas could have done without.  “My lord!  What….”

“Mr. Pamuk’s been taken ill,” he said, handing Pamuk’s feet off to Mr. Carson. 

Pamuk took no notice whatsoever of this.  “Mr. Carson,” Thomas said hesitantly.  He’d helped haul drunks home from the pub before, and this didn’t feel like that.  Not like handling an unconscious body. 

What?” Carson snarled. 

He held his peace until they were at the door to Pamuk’s bedroom.  His lordship opened the door for them. 

“Mr. Carson, only I think he’s dead.”  Humiliatingly, his voice broke on the last word.  If Pamuk was dead, there’d be an investigation, and how would he keep everything from coming out? 

“Don’t be foolish,” Carson snapped.  “Begging your pardon, your lordship.”

Lord Grantham shook his head, and once Thomas and Carson had deposited Mr. Pamuk on the bed, went over and prodded at his face and chest for a moment.  “I’m afraid he may be right.” 

He went on talking, but Thomas couldn’t hear him over the pounding of blood in his ears.  He was shaking uncontrollably, his thoughts racing.  The story coming out was the least of his worries, if the gentleman really had dropped over dead, because he’d died after Thomas had laid hands on him. 

“—fetch Dr. Clarkson,” Carson was saying.  “Thomas, are you listening to me?”

“What?” he said stupidly. 

Carson huffed.  “Pull yourself together.  Even if he is dead, he can’t harm you.”

“Only see me hanged,” Thomas said.   “They’ll think I killed him!  Maybe I did—hit his head, or, I don’t know.  What is it they do to you in Turkey, if you’ve killed someone?”

Keep your voice down,” Carson commanded in a harsh undertone. 

“Sorry,” Thomas whispered.    

“Thomas,” his lordship said.  Then, “Carson, send someone else for the doctor; Thomas has had a shock.   Thomas, I don’t see how you can have killed him—there isn’t a mark on him.  And even if you did, you were protecting my daughter’s virtue.  Nobody’s going to be hanged; I won’t allow it.”

Oh, yes, there was that, wasn’t it?  And if Pamuk was dead, there was nobody to point out that the matter had begun with Thomas doing the precise opposite of safeguarding Lady Mary’s virtue.  “Yes, my lord.  Thank you, my lord.”

“I should be thanking you,” Lord Grantham said.  “But right now, I must be getting back to the ladies.  Carson, look after him.”

Thomas wasn’t sure what his lordship had meant by “look after him,” but he didn’t think it was “interrogate him”; however, that’s precisely what Mr. Carson did, once they were safely behind the green baize door and on their way down to the servants’ hall.  “What was that about Lady Mary?” he demanded.

“Pamuk—Mr. Pamuk—barged into her bedroom.  I went to get him out, and that’s when he collapsed.”

Why did he— never mind.  What was he doing roaming about the house at this hour?  For that matter, why were you?”

“I was trying to sort out why he was,” Thomas explained.  Since he’d already said that, he’d better stick with it.  He went on to embroider the story.  “At first I thought he was after, I don’t know, cigarettes or a drink or something, so I thought I’d catch up with him quietly and point him in the right direction without waking the house, and then I lost sight of him for a moment, and then Lady Mary screamed.”  Carson went stiff at that, and he added quickly, “She’s all right.  I got there before he’d touched her.”

Carson paused on the stairs to glare at him.  “Are you suggesting that he intended to touch her?”

“No, Mr. Carson.  I mean, I don’t know.  My first thought was that he intended something nefarious, but since it seems he was ill, perhaps he was just wandering about in a confused state, and didn’t know where he was.” 

Carson harrumphed.  “Don’t share your speculations on the matter with anyone.”

“No, Mr. Carson.”

Downstairs, Mr. Carson woke a hall-boy to send for Dr. Clarkson, and Thomas smoked a cigarette to settle his nerves, mentally reviewing his story.  It hung together fairly well; the only part that any living person could put the lie to was the amount of time that had passed between Mr. Pamuk’s entering the room and Thomas’s, but Lady Mary was hardly likely to volunteer that information to anyone.  Even if she did, he could say he must have lost sight of Pamuk for longer than he’d thought. 

Though at some point, it would probably occur to them all to wonder why Thomas had been in the bachelor corridor to see the Turkish gentleman wandering around in the first place, when he was supposed to be in bed up in the servants’ quarters.   Wouldn’t it just be a turn-up for the books if they decided he must have been making an illicit nocturnal visit of his own?

If he said that he’d been doing something for Mr. Pamuk—which, after all, he had—that would only invite further questions:  what precisely it had been, had Pamuk given any sign of nefarious intentions, had he seemed ill….no, best to leave him out of it until the moment Thomas spotted him on his mysterious wandering. 

In the end, the best he could come up with was that he was walking around to check that everything was as it should be.  Not a terribly convincing story—that was Mr. Carson’s job, and he wouldn’t thank Thomas for doing it for him—but perhaps he could say he’d forgotten something he was supposed to do, and was going to do it before he got in trouble.  They’d believe that, for certain. 

Except Carson might well ask what it was he’d neglected to do.  Well, perhaps he could say he wasn’t sure; he’d just had a nagging feeling he’d forgotten something.  It was a little thin, but he supposed it would have to do. 

#

“Yes, she’s all right,” Cora said, when Robert returned to their bedroom.  “Very shaken, of course, but before he left Doctor Clarkson gave her something to let her rest.”

“Best thing for her.  And you’re sure the fellow didn’t….”

“I’m sure.”

“Good.”  He paused.  “You said Dr. Clarkson’s left?  I meant to ask him to look in on Thomas while he was here.”

“What happened to Thomas?”

“He had some hysterics of his own, when he realized Pamuk was dead.  Convinced himself he was going to the gallows for murder.”  He huffed.  “I’m not certain he wasn’t playing it up for attention, but even if he was, I suppose he’s entitled to some.  I’d better look in on him myself.”

“Won’t Carson have him in hand?”

“Carson doesn’t approve of him.”  Not that Robert precisely did, either, but if the previous night’s events didn’t prove he was solid, what would?  “I’ll try to see him before church.  Why don’t you give it a miss today?  I’ll see Napier off.”

“Won’t that just invite questions?  I’ll rest after he’s gone.”

“Whatever you think best.”

Robert rang for Bates early, and after deflecting his questions about the previous night’s excitement—“The less said about it, the better”—he made his way to the breakfast room while it was still being set up.  Thomas was present and accounted for, but looked pale and shaken—Robert was quite sure that if it was anyone else, Carson would have sent him to bed.  “Thomas, let me speak to you a moment.”

Silently, Thomas followed him to the small library. 

“I expect you’ve heard that Mr. Pamuk is, indeed, dead.”

“I did, my lord,” he said warily. 

“I explained the true circumstances to Dr. Clarkson, in confidence, but he quite understands that we do not wish to put Lady Mary through an inquest if it can be avoided—which will spare you, as well.  Once he’s made his examination and assured himself that it was a case of natural causes, he’ll make out the certificate as though Mr. Pamuk had died in his sleep.”

“I see, my lord.  That’s quite a relief.”

“A scandal will do none of us any good.  I trust I don’t need to tell you that this matter is not to be spoken of.”

“Of course.”

“And you’re bearing up all right?”

“My lord?”

“You’ve gotten over your fright?”

“Oh.  Yes.  I was a little shaken up; that’s all.” 

Thank goodness he wasn’t indulging in hysterics; it was bad enough when the housemaids did it.  “Why don’t you go and have a rest?”

“Thank you, my lord.  I’ll do that, if you’re sure it’s all right.”

He nodded.  “Send Mr. Carson in on your way up.”

When Carson came in, Robert provided him with a similar summary of Doctor Clarkson’s findings and intentions, and informed him that he’d given Thomas the day off.  “I’m surprised you didn’t think of it.   I can’t imagine he’d slept.”

Carson ignored the implied rebuke and said, “Very good, my lord.  Though I had thought to ask him what, precisely, he was doing in the bachelor corridor at that hour.”

Robert gave him a look.  “Let’s not look that particular gift horse in the mouth.  It turned out to be quite fortunate he was there.”

Carson opened his mouth, then closed it again.  “You know my feelings on the subject, my lord.”

“I do, but now I’m asking you to let it lie.  After last night, we owe him a debt of gratitude.  If he were to do anything obvious, that would be a different matter, but don’t try to catch him out.”

“….As you wish, my lord.”

#

By the time Thomas woke, he was groggy from too much sleep, and had to hurry to make himself presentable if he didn’t want to miss his tea. 

They were already sitting down when he got to the servants’ hall, and as he slipped into his place, Mr. Carson greeted him with a sarcastic, “So nice of you to join us, Thomas.”

“Yes, Mr. Carson.  Someone could have woken me,” he pointed out. 

“How nice of you to give your permission, now it’s too late.”

Stung, Thomas tried to explain, “I slept longer than I meant to, is all.”

“Don’t answer back.” 

He gave up, and ate his tea in silence. 

Afterwards, he escaped out into the courtyard for a smoke, joined a moment later by Miss O’Brien.  “So what was it that had both you and Lady Mary sleeping the day away?”

He’d have liked to tell her of the adventure—the semi-public version of it, at least, emphasizing his heroic role—but given that both his lordship and Mr. Carson had made such a point about it, he supposed he really couldn’t.  “No idea about Lady Mary,” he lied.  “But I was up quite early dealing with the matter of the Turkish gentleman, and they said I could go back to bed.  Wasn’t about to turn that down, was I?”

He’d thought that was a straightforward enough explanation to invite no questions, but O’Brien asked, “Why were you up early?”

“You know I was looking after him.”

“But I thought he died in his sleep.  How would anyone have noticed before it was time for him to get up?”

Damn.  He hadn’t thought of that.  Unable to think of a reason, he finally said, “It was a bit more complicated than that, but his lordship doesn’t want it spoken of.” 

“More complicated how?”  She assumed an expression of shock.  “You weren’t there when it happened?”

“I told you, I’m not supposed to talk about it.”

“What if I ask her ladyship?”

Her tone suggested that Thomas should want to avoid that, but he couldn’t think why.  “What if you do?” 

“I think I will.”

He shrugged.  “As long as it’s she who tells you, and not me, then there’s no harm in us talking about it betwixt ourselves afterward.” 

Only, he realized, he would have to be sure she really knew, before he opened his mouth—in her place, he’d not be above trying to get the story by pretending he already knew it. 

#

Mary was sitting in a chair by her window, paging idly through a book, when Anna tapped at the door and came in.  “I hope you’re feeling better, my lady,” she said.  “I came to ask if you’re going down to dinner.”

Laying the book aside, she said, “I suppose I had better.”  It was getting rather dull, staying in her room by herself all day.  “It’s just the family, isn’t it?  Everyone else has gone?”  She wasn’t sure she wanted to face Evelyn Napier. 

“They have.  Dr. Clarkson took away poor Mr. Pamuk,” Anna added, opening the wardrobe. 

“Just something simple,” Mary said.  “What are the servants saying about all that?”  She was worried about what that footman, Thomas, might have said.  Her memories of the night before were rather jumbled, but she thought he had corroborated her story about Pamuk’s precise position in the room at the time of his arrival.  Surely, having done so, he wouldn’t change his story—would he?

“Only that it’s such a shame, him being so young.”

“Is that all?”

“And so handsome,” Anna admitted.  “But Mr. Carson glowers whenever anyone mentions it, so there hasn’t been much talk, really.  Except for people wondering why he’s so keen to suppress the subject.” 

They must have hushed the whole thing up, Mary realized—not just where in her room he’d been, but that he’d been there at all.  “Anything about how he died?”

Anna gave her a curious look.  “In his sleep, Mr. Carson said.  You don’t think it was anything else, do you, my lady?”

She hesitated.  “Anna, if I tell you something, can you promise not to tell a soul?”  Anna would know if there was anything to worry about, vis-à-vis Thomas keeping his mouth shut. 

But Anna hesitated.  “As long as it’s not something Lord and Lady Grantham ought to know, my lady.”

“They already do.”  She’d stick to the parts they knew.  “The thing is, he burst in here, last night, just as I was about to go to sleep.”

“My lady!  Are you—did he—”

“No, he didn’t have time to do anything.  I cried out, and one of the footmen came right away.”

“Thomas, my lady?” Anna asked.

“Yes.  Why?  Has he said anything?”

“No—and that’s a surprise.  But he was excused from church and from serving at luncheon and tea today, and no one heard why.  We didn’t think he could be ill, as when he is, he makes sure everyone knows it.” 

“The truth is,” or nearly was, in any case, “that Mr. Pamuk had a sort of collapse, just as Thomas started to drag him—away.”  She’d very nearly said “off”; she must be more careful.  “It’s entirely possible he died right then.”

“How awful!” 

“It gave me quite a scare,” Mary admitted, raising her arms so that Anna could put on her corset, and instructing,  “Fasten it on the outer hooks tonight; I’m in no mood to suffer for the sake of beauty.  I hope we can rely on his discretion.”

Anna tsked, fastening the corset.  “He wouldn’t be my first choice, my lady, to keep a secret.  He likes to make himself seem important.  But I expect his lordship will have put the fear of God into him.”  Circling around to her front, Anna added, “Would you like me to say something to him, as well?”

“If you think it’ll help.”  Except what if it was Anna’s raising the subject that prompted him to reveal the part she’d so far managed to keep secret?  “No, I’ll make a point of thanking him, next opportunity I get.  Do you think that’ll be important enough for him?”  If it wasn’t, perhaps she could say something about owing him a favor, in thanks for both his rescue and his discretion—that ought to get the point across, shouldn’t it?

“I expect he’d appreciate that, my lady.”

“Then that’s what I’ll do.”

#

Thomas wished he could be surprised when Anna cornered him while he was changing his jacket after the upstairs dinner.   Everyone knew the young ladies told her things. 

“I hope you’re planning to keep your mouth shut,” she told him.

“About what?” he asked innocently. 

She gave him a withering look.  “You know what.  I’ll put this for you in terms you’ll understand.  Right now, Lady Mary is thankful for what you’ve done—and I imagine Lord and Lady Grantham are, too.  But if I know you, you’ve already thought up half a dozen clever ways to spoil it for yourself.  For your own good, don’t.”

“Spoil it how?”

“I don’t know—by dropping sly remarks and then hinting you’d like a rise in pay, or however it is your mind works.”

As a matter of fact, he hadn’t thought of that, but it didn’t seem a bad idea.  “Maybe I deserve one.  A raise, I mean.”

“They will see right through you, and nobody wants an extortionist in the house,” Anna said firmly.  “If you’re determined to get something out of it, wait until the next time you get in trouble, and I’ll get Lady Mary to put in a good word for you.”

“What makes you think I’m going to get in trouble?”

“Because you always do.”

“Only because Mr. Carson picks on me,” he muttered under his breath, childishly.

“What was that?”

“I said, only because Mr. Carson’s determined to see everything I do in the worst light.”  That was at least a more grown-up way of putting it. 

She sighed.  “I’m not saying he doesn’t, but the best thing for you to do now, is nothing.  D’you think you can manage that?”

“I think I can manage not to stand here and be insulted.”  He brushed past her.  Absolutely bloody typical—all he’d done was save Lady Mary from a fate worse than death, and all anybody could do about it was accuse him of things.  It would serve them all right if he wrote to the papers. 

Except, he realized halfway through smoking an angry cigarette in the courtyard, any scrutiny he invited on the matter could end up revealing the less-than-heroic portion of his role in the matter.  He wasn’t sure how—there was nobody alive to tell—but the way his luck went, Pamuk would return from the grave to accuse him, or something. 

No, Anna was right, if for the wrong reason.  He knew better than to think she cared one bit what was for his good, but in this case, what was good for Lady Mary was good for him, as well. 

#

The next day, shortly after the upstairs breakfast, Thomas was summoned to the small library.  He went up with some trepidation—he figured the best he could hope for was to be accused once again of plotting to slander Lady Mary’s good name all the way to John O’Groats, and this time he’d have to stand there and take it—but once he arrived, he found Lord Grantham talking to Dr. Clarkson, and a stab of real fear cut through his ordinary resentment.  What if they’d brought him up here to tell him he really had killed the Turk?

“—yes, I do think that’s for the best,” his lordship was saying.  “Thomas.”  He beckoned him over.  “Dr. Clarkson’s just delivered his findings, and as you were worried, I asked him to explain it to you.”

Slightly off-balance, Thomas said, “Thank you, my lord.” 

“I’ll leave you to it,” he told Clarkson, and left. 

“Well,” Dr. Clarkson said with a smile, “I’m pleased to say that you definitely did not kill Mr. Pamuk.” 

Did he think it was funny, that Thomas had thought—just for a moment—that he had?  “Yes, sir.  I realized once I’d had time to think about it that there wasn’t much of a chance I had.  What did happen to him?”

“A blood vessel burst, in his brain.”

“Does that just happen, on its own?” Thomas wondered.

“It can—and in this case, apparently did.  Bleeding into the brain is often caused by a blow to the head, but there’s no sign of that.”

“So it just…happened to burst right then?”

“That part is hard to say.  It may have been what you could call a slow leak, in which the blood began gradually to seep out of the blood vessel.  In that event, Mr. Pamuk would have grown increasingly impaired, as the pressure built up in the surrounding tissue.   He may, in that case, have left his bedroom in search of aid, and simply blundered into the family quarters as his confusion mounted.”

That, Thomas thought, was extremely unlikely, since he had been perfectly sensible when Thomas turned up to show him the way.  But he asked, “Could anything have been done, sir?  If I—or anyone—had found him sooner?”

“I’m afraid not,” said Mr. Clarkson.  “We might have been able to make his final moments more comfortable, but that’s all.” 

“I see.”

“And the other possibility is that the blood vessel may have burst quite suddenly, in which case he would have known nothing after that moment, even if his heart may have continued to beat for a few minutes more.  In that case, the immediate cause may have been a moment of stress.”

“What sort of stress?” Thomas wondered. 

 “Physical or emotional—that is, fighting against your grip, or the surprise of being caught—or even the excitement of being, er, where he was—could have contributed to it happening just then.  However, the ultimate cause in such cases—where there isn’t an external injury—is a weakness in the blood vessel itself.  It could just as easily have given out while he was hunting that afternoon, or if he hurried to catch the train the next day.  But it would have happened soon no matter what anyone did or didn’t do.  Do you understand?”

“I do.”  He nodded.  “Thank you, for taking the time to explain it.” 

“Of course.” 

Thomas saw him out, and then headed back downstairs, feeling somewhat better about the world.  Not that he’d really been worried, not anymore, but it was good of his lordship to remember that he had been.  Even if it had only been for a moment. 

He didn’t have long to enjoy the novel pleasure of someone sparing a thought for his feelings.  No sooner did his foot hit the bottom of the stairs than Mr. Carson was interrogating him about what Dr. Clarkson had wanted with him, and not believing the answer when Thomas told him.

“Why would the results of his examination be any of your business?”

“His lordship asked him to tell me,” Thomas said, as patiently as he could.

“Why would he do that?”

“So I would know I hadn’t killed him.  And very kind of him, I thought.”

A series of pained expressions passed over Carson’s face.  “You aren’t still worried about that, are you?”

“Not anymore.” 

He escaped, and was out in the courtyard having a smoke when Miss O’Brien joined him.  “What were you doing following the Turk around the corridors in the middle of the night?” she demanded, without preamble.

“Yes, I am bearing up all right, thank you for asking,” he said pointedly.  Honestly, what good was it having her for a friend if she wasn’t going to treat him any better than anyone else did?

“Only I don’t think it’s occurred to her ladyship to wonder about that, yet, but you might do well to have an answer ready.”

“I do,” Thomas answered.

“What is it?”

In a better mood, Thomas might have told her, but instead retorted, “I imagine if her ladyship ever asks, you can winkle it out of her.”   

“I was only trying to help,” O’Brien said, in an injured tone.  “In case you wanted to rehearse your story.”

“Doesn’t take much rehearsal to tell the truth,” he pointed out. 

“From you, I’d think that would take more rehearsal than anything else.”

Thomas had just enough self-possession to realize that, in the mood she was in, anything he said might well make its way to Mr. Carson.  In lieu of a response, he dropped his cigarette, half-smoked, stamped it out, and strode off. 

A short while later, he was up in the library replacing the decanters—recently refilled by Mr. Carson—when Lady Mary came in.  He was about to slip away, but she said, “Oh, good.  I was hoping to run into you.”

Keeping the entirely-justified wariness out of his tone, he said, “My lady?”

“I just wanted to make sure you know how grateful I am for your intervention, the other night.”

Oh.  “Of course.  I only wish I could have stopped him a bit sooner.” 

“Perhaps then the poor man would still be alive,” she mused.

“Dr. Clarkson thinks not, my lady.” 

“Oh?  What did he say?”

Thomas hesitated. 

“I suppose they think I’m too delicate for any details, but I’d feel better knowing.”

Abruptly, it occurred to him that she might have had the same fear he had—that she’d inadvertently done something to kill Mr. Pamuk.  But she wouldn’t be able to say it, because she’d claimed he never touched her.  “Ah, he said that it was a weakened blood vessel in his brain, which was bound to burst sooner or later.” 

“It would be better for us all if it had been either sooner or later,” Lady Mary said.  “Anywhere but at Downton.”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Still, if it was bound to happen, there’s no reason anyone needs to know where he was or what he was doing at the fated moment.” 

“None at all,” Thomas agreed.  “In fact, Dr. Clarkson suggested it might well have happened some minutes earlier—enough time for him to have realized something was wrong, and left his room to look for help, but he’d have quickly become too confused to know where he was.”  Lady Mary would know as well as he did that that wasn’t what had happened, but surely that was the most convenient explanation for both of them.  

“That does explain rather a lot,” she said.  “I can’t imagine why else he’d have turned up in my room.”

“No, my lady.”

“Well,” she said, with a condescending smile, “You didn’t know at the time that he was at death’s door—and nor did I—so I still appreciate it.  As well as your discretion.  You must let me know if there’s any way I can repay the favor.” 

Did she think him an extortionist, as Anna had said?  “You’re very kind, but I was happy to do it.” 

“I’ll let you get back to your work.”

Finally.   He stood stiffly until she’d gone, then escaped downstairs. 

Chapter Text

Within a few days, everyone seemed to forget about Thomas’s involvement in the Pamuk affair—helped along, no doubt, by Carson’s quelling glares whenever anyone dared allude to the Turkish gentleman’s existence.  Thomas wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed that he was getting no more appreciation for his heroism, or relieved that they were done accusing him of planning to blab about it. 

The only one who continued to try to pry the story out of him was Miss O’Brien, who apparently hadn’t been successful in getting it out of her ladyship.  But he’d held firm, and there was a decided coolness between them as a result.

Then a travelling fair came to the village, and that took up everyone’s conversation.  He’d been one of the first to get to work on convincing Carson to let them go and see it—anything for a change of scenery—but when he spoke to Miss O’Brien about it, she sniffed and said she wasn’t interested in “rustic amusements.”

Thomas was still trying to decide whether he ought to be above it, as well, when William started going around trying to find out if Daisy was going.  He’d noticed a tendency in William to get pink and tongue-tied when Daisy was in earshot, which promised a certain amount of added entertainment value if Daisy was, in fact, going.  Finally, Bates suggested the simple expedient of asking her. 

Thomas felt a stab of jealous outrage.  Not of either of them in particular—William ranked barely above Daisy as an object of erotic interest—but that he could, simply, ask her, in front of everyone, and with Bates’s approval and encouragement to boot. 

The next time Daisy wandered in from the kitchen, William began blushing and stammering.  “So, Daisy, I was wondering…”

It would put William in his place, Thomas thought, if he swooped in and asked Daisy himself, while William was still trying to get the words out.  She fancied the pants off him, and had since she’d come to the house; she’d forget William even existed if Thomas put himself in the picture. 

“There’s the, um, the fair, you know, in the village,” William went on. 

Of course she knew; everyone in the bloody house knew.  

“And a few of us were thinking of going.”

Daisy looked at him with an expression of polite puzzlement.

“It might be a bit fun, you know.  Something a bit different, like.  I mean, it’s several of us going.”

Unable to stand it any longer, Thomas told William, “You’re making a spectacle of yourself.”  And over a bloody kitchen maid. 

While Bates made a disapproving noise, Daisy turned to Thomas, her attention suddenly riveted, so he explained, “What he’s trying to say is that he’d like you to go along, so he can make cow eyes at you and maybe try to get up the gumption to think about holding your hand.”

“Is that true?” she asked William. 

Blushing even harder, William nodded. 

Looking back at Thomas, Daisy asked, “Are you going?”

Bravo, Daisy, Thomas thought.  That’s how you do it.  But he wasn’t about to encourage her out loud; it was irritating enough to have her mooning about silently.  He shrugged idly.  “I might.  I don’t suppose

 there’s anything wrong in William taking you, as long as it’s a mixed group going.”

To William, Daisy said, “I suppose it’s all right, as long as Mrs. Patmore sees in the same way.”

Once they’d gone to find out, Bates said to Thomas, “I’m not sure if he ought to thank you, or punch you in the mouth.”  His tone was almost admiring.

Thomas shrugged again.  “Just putting all of us out of his misery.  Besides, it’s better she sets her cap for someone closer to her own level.”

Bates shook his head.  “And now I am sure.”

Later, after they’d taken the coffee up to the drawing room, Carson summoned Thomas into his pantry.  “I hear that William intends to escort Daisy to the fair—and that you encouraged this.”

Bloody hell.  Saying that Bates had started it wouldn’t help—Carson didn’t like tattle-tales any more than he liked people usurping his authority.  “All I said was that if we were going in a mixed group, I didn’t see any harm.  I hope he didn’t think that meant he didn’t have to ask you.”

Carson looked at him.  “You understand that in a great house, the virtue of the female staff must be above reproach—and so must the conduct of the male staff?”

“Of course.”  It was on the tip of his tongue to point out that he was perfectly capable of dragging William off Daisy if he took it into his head to ravish her behind the coconut shy, but realized just in time that it might be taken as a coarse reference to the earlier incident. 

“Very well,” Carson said.  “As long as you keep watch that they stay with the group, and if Anna or another of the responsible girls is going.”

Thomas wanted to protest being held responsible for William’s wooing—but the mention of Anna suggested a certain parallelism, the head housemaid and first footmen keeping an eye on the younger ones.  Also, he was a little surprised—and pleased—at being considered in the light of a guardian of feminine virtue.  “Certainly, Mr. Carson.”

#

Anna was slipping into her place at the servants’ hall table when Thomas came up behind her, and said lazily, “Mr. Carson wants us to keep an eye on the two lovebirds, if you’re planning on going this evening.”

Across the table, she eyed Mr. Bates.  She’d mentioned the fair to him a few times, hoping he’d say that he was going and they could look around it together, but he’d been noncommittal.  She could hardly be as obvious as Daisy, and ask him point-blank just when another man had mentioned it—even if the man was Thomas. 

Instead, speaking a little more loudly than Thomas had, she said, “Are you asking me to go round the fair with you?”

She wasn’t entirely sure which of them she hoped to fluster, Thomas or Mr. Bates, but either way, it didn’t work—she ought to have known better; feminine wiles never worked out for her.   Mr. Bates remained impassive, while Thomas just answered silkily, “Only if you don’t want to spoil it for the children.”

William glared at Thomas across the table, but Daisy, coming in with the bread, seemed oblivious to the insult.  “Oh, please say you’ll go—Mrs. Patmore will surely let me if you’re going.” 

“Don’t worry,” she told Daisy.  “I’m planning to go.”

After dinner, they all went upstairs to change.  Anna made a point of helping Daisy fix her hair into something a little less dowdy—it would take more time than they had to do anything about her dress, but the poor girl deserved a little glamour in her life. 

“It’s all right that you’re going with Thomas,” she said abruptly, as Anna was putting in hairpins.  “I know he’d never be interested in the likes of me.”

“Well, you’re right about that,” Anna murmured.  More loudly, she continued, “We’re not really going together; I was just teasing.  William’s a lot nicer, anyway.” 

“But Thomas is so elegant,” Daisy said wistfully.

“Beauty is as beauty does, as my mum used to say,” Anna told her.  “And there, you look beautiful.”  She held up the mirror so Daisy could look. 

“I’ll never be beautiful,” Daisy answered, “but me hair does look nice—thank you ever so.”

It had taken the men less time to get changed, and they were sitting at the servants’ hall table when Anna and Daisy went down.  William’s face lit up at the sight of Daisy, transformed from a dowdy kitchen maid into a…slightly less dowdy fair-goer.  Unfortunately, he also remained seated—fidgeting with his cap—while Thomas, sprawled languidly across a chair, got up and stabbed out his cigarette with a flourish.  He was already on the way to the cupboard to fetch Anna’s coat by the time William had managed to find his way to his feet. 

Turning on the charm, Thomas helped her into her coat as if she were one of the ladies upstairs.  After a moment, William got the picture and galumphed off to get Daisy’s. 

Much as Mr. Bates had suggested earlier, it was honestly hard to tell if he thought he was helping, demonstrating to William how to go about walking out with a girl, or showing off to make William look all the plainer and more awkward by comparison. 

It occurred to her that he might not even be sure himself. 

It might, she realized as they walked arm-in-arm down to the village, keeping a few paces back from William and Daisy, even have been a little cruel of her, pretending that she’d thought he was really asking her.  It wasn’t as though he could ask anyone he was really interested in, or walk arm-in-arm with…him. 

He kept up the game when they reached the fair, treating her to a lemonade and solicitously asking what she’d like to see first, when William would have dragged poor Daisy over to look at the bottled freaks whether she wanted to see them or not.  “Let’s walk round and have a look at everything, before we decide what we want to spend our pennies on,” she suggested. 

William had the sense to look to Daisy for approval of this plan, and at her nod, they set off.  The fair didn’t take long to walk round—it wasn’t a large one, consisting mainly of food stalls and games offering prizes that could be bought for less than it cost to play for them.  Daisy’s first choice of an attraction to visit was the menagerie.  The board out front had pictures of all sorts of beasts that could never have fit inside the small tent—a majestic elephant, snarling tiger, fierce gorilla—but none of them argued, and Thomas and William shelled out the price of admission. 

Inside was more or less what Anna had expected: a moth-eaten camel, chewing its cud with a faraway look, two monkeys huddled together in a cage, a number of brightly-colored birds.  But Daisy seemed as enchanted as if they were the marvels the sign had promised, dragging William by the arm from one exhibit to the next and exclaiming at what she saw. 

“I always feel a little sorry for them,” Thomas said as they looked at a sleeping panther, ribs showing through its dull black coat.

She looked up at him, a little surprised.  Who’d have imagined Thomas feeling sorry for anyone, except maybe himself?

“It’s hardly where they belong, is it?” he asked, a little defensively. 

“No,” she said, taking his arm.  “I suppose it isn’t.” 

She suggested the swinging boats next; there was nothing in that to make anyone sad. 

Her sympathy for Thomas waned considerably when they moved along to the games.  William had a go at the try-your-strength, but didn’t get much more than halfway up the tower; Thomas, naturally, made a show of handing William his coat, strutted over, and rang the bell, leaving William clenching his teeth in humiliation. 

It was a bit funny, though, seeing Thomas’s face when, instead of awarding him the cigar he expected as a prize, the stall-keeper presented her with an artificial flower.  She told herself she shouldn’t laugh—it wasn’t likely he’d ever taken a girl to the fair before, was it?—but it served him right for showing off. 

She wondered for a moment if she ought to give the flower to Daisy, who would appreciate it more than she would, but decided it would only add to William’s humiliation, and tucked the stem behind her ear. 

At the coconut shy, she and Daisy had a go as well; with all four of them tossing the wooden balls at once, it wasn’t quite as obvious that Thomas was responsible for their sole success.  He managed not to crow about it, either. 

Sharing out the coconut between them—Anna wrapped a piece of her portion in her clean handkerchief, thinking to share it with Mr. Bates—they munched on it as they watched a juggler. 

She managed not to crow when Thomas, trying for the hat trick of funfair games, tried and failed to find the lady.  William had won that one, by keeping his penny in his pocket.

#

“That were fun, weren’t it?” Daisy said as they turned for home.

“It was,” William said—barely tripping over his tongue at all.  “We should do it again.”

“It’ll be a long time before the fair comes back, won’t it?” she asked.

Thomas opened his mouth to explain that William had been alluding to the pleasure of her company, but subsided—surprising himself—when Anna pressed his arm and whispered, “Don’t.”

He’d been a bit angry and embarrassed—though he thought he’d managed not to show it—when Anna pretended to think he was asking her to go with him.  (At least, he was very nearly almost completely sure that she was pretending.)  He’d started playing the gallant in hopes of embarrassing her right back, but somewhere along the way, he’d started to enjoy himself a bit. 

Just a bit.  There wasn’t anything in it, of course, but there was a certain advantage to the way they’d ended up paired off.  Usually when the servants did anything as a group, he was hanging round the edges without anyone in particular to talk to, unless O’Brien happened to be there. 

And he felt queerly proud of himself, realizing—belatedly, at the try-your-strength stall—that no one watching had any idea that he was only pretending, and took him for a man walking out with a girl.  On balance, he wasn’t sure that he wouldn’t rather have had the cigar, but still, there was something in it.  Probably any number of people had looked at them and thought of their own courting days, admiring the handsome couple. 

“Did you have a nice time?” Anna asked, once they’d walked a bit more.

“I did, rather,” he admitted.  “Don’t tell anyone.”

She huffed.  “You’re more fun to be around if you aren’t trying to pretend you’re above it all.”

He gave her a sardonic look, and said archly, “I am above it all.” 

“No you aren’t,” she said, quite seriously.  “You’re the same as the rest of us.”

If only that were true.  “I’m really not.”

She sighed, seeming about to say something, but chose not to. 

They let themselves in quietly, Thomas locking the door behind them.  When they reached the place where the men and women went their separate ways—and after they’d seen that Daisy and William parted with no funny business—Anna rose up on her toes and quickly, chastely, kissed his cheek. 

She was gone up the women’s staircase before Thomas had quite decided how to react. 

He was still a little bemused, when he’d made his way up to the men’s corridor, and so was taken completely by surprise when Mr. Bates, coming out of the bathroom, loomed up in front of him.  Thomas was startled enough to take a step backwards, so that he was up against the wall. 

Bates pressed in, not quite laying hands on him, but clearly trying to make a point of his greater bulk.  “What do you think you’re playing at?”

“I beg your pardon?” Thomas asked. 

“With Anna.”

Thomas shrugged slightly.  “What’s it to you?” The question was more-or-less genuine; it wasn’t Bates’s place to concern himself with the female staff. 

“She’s a decent woman, and she deserves better than to be toyed with as one of your nasty little schemes.”

Oh, so it’s like that, is it?  Thomas was surprised he hadn’t noticed before.  “I really don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

With that, Bates did lay hands on him, shoving him up against the wall hard enough to thump the back of his head.  “Now listen here, you filthy little rat—”

Before he could say just what it was he wanted Thomas to listen to, William’s door creaked open, and Thomas saw a flutter of movement through the gap.

Realizing they were being watched, Bates released him with another shove,  a muttered, “Just keep your hands off her,” before disappearing into his own room, shutting the door emphatically.

Shaking his head, Thomas pushed off the wall and went into his room.   He was by the window having a calming cigarette when there was a tap at the door.  “What?” he demanded, careful to keep any hint of worry out of his voice.  If Bates was willing to manhandle and threaten him in the corridor, he wasn’t sure what he’d do in the relative privacy of Thomas’s room.

But it was William who came in, wearing his undershirt and a confused expression.  “What were that about?”

Thomas took a slow drag on his cigarette, considering his answer.  If he told William that Bates fancied Anna, the whole house would know by lunchtime.  That might be entertaining, but on balance he thought he’d rather keep it in reserve.  With a casual shrug, he replied, “You’d have to ask him.”

“Should I go get Mr. Carson?”

For a moment, Thomas couldn’t imagine why—until he realized that, if anyone had shoved William up against a wall, Carson would probably do something about it.  “Better not,” he said, flicking ash out the window.  “No harm done, and I doubt Bates likes tale-bearers any more than Carson does.” 

“I guess not,” William agreed, taking a few more steps into the room.  “I thought he seemed so nice.”

“Carson?”

“Mr. Bates.  I hope he doesn’t decide he’s got a quarrel with me.” 

If William were just a little bit cleverer, he’d come to the conclusion that Thomas had had it coming to him—even though, on this particular occasion, he hadn’t.  Thomas thought of several withering ways to point that out—but why spoil having someone take his side for a change?  “I doubt he will.  He seems to like you.”  Everyone does

William turned to go—finally—but then turned back.  “I want to thank you for fixing things with Mr. Carson so Daisy and I could have a proper date.   I’m not sure you did it to be nice, exactly, but it was, just the same.”  He nodded, as if he’d just settled something. 

What the hell was he supposed to do with that?  Taking another drag on his cigarette, he stubbed it out and said, “Go to bed, William.”

William went. 

#

The next morning at breakfast, Bates was pleased to see that Thomas was no longer paying any particular attention to Anna.  He was less pleased to see that, when they were all standing up afterwards, she took his arm and said a private word or two into his ear.   It was all very well to warn Thomas off, but what if Anna had her feelings hurt by his disregard? 

Well, it would have happened sooner or later, whether Bates had said anything to Thomas or not. 

Still, he was in something of a brown study when he went up to dress Lord Grantham; enough so that his lordship noticed, and asked if something was troubling him. 

He shook his head.  “Just a bit of downstairs intrigue, my lord.  Thomas is at the center of it, of course.”

Grantham looked sharply at him.  “What sort of intrigue?”

Bates hesitated over what to say.  “You’ll have heard that a group of the younger staff went to the fair last evening.”

Grantham nodded.  “Carson mentioned it.”

“William asked the kitchen maid—Daisy—to walk with him, particularly.  I suppose Thomas couldn’t stand to see William have a prize that he didn’t, so he asked…one of the housemaids.”

Grantham turned back to the mirror, adjusting his tie.  “He likes to show off.  I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Naturally he wouldn’t, but he didn’t know Anna like Bates did.  He tried again.  “I just don’t like to see him toying with her finer feelings, when he’s…you know.  And he’s so slimy.” 

Now Grantham turned to face him.  “I’m surprised at you,” he said, in a tone of mild reproof.  “You never had a problem with Wolcott and Granby.”  The two men’s romance had been an open secret in their regiment.

In fact, Bates had had a problem with them, at first—but he’d come to see that there was something good and pure in their affection for one another.  “I’m afraid I don’t see that Thomas has much in common with Wolcott and Granby, my lord.  They were both decent and honorable men.”

Grantham opened his mouth, then closed it again.  “Believe it or not, Thomas has shown he can be relied on in a crunch.”  He turned back to the mirror.  “I’m not saying I wasn’t surprised, mind you—but he has.” 

“Very good, my lord,” Bates said.

Returning downstairs, he decided that he’d no choice but to speak to Anna herself.  He hated to broach the sordid matter with her, but if the little creep could pull the wool over Lord Grantham’s eyes, he could fool anyone.  He was glad to find her alone in the boot room, polishing a pair of shoes that must have belonged to one of the young ladies. 

Opening the subject was easy enough.  “How was your evening at the fair?” he asked, taking a pair of Lord Grantham’s shoes from where the boot-boy had left them.

“It was fun,” she said.  “I think Daisy’s coming round to William, a bit.  Oh, and Thomas won us a coconut—I saved you a piece, but I don’t have it with me.”

“That’s very kind.”  He hesitated.  “About Thomas.”

She paused in her polishing and raised her eyebrows.  “Yes?”

“I hope that…that you don’t have serious feelings for him.  Because he won’t be able to return them.  I can’t say why, as it isn’t my secret to tell, but it isn’t any fault in you.”

Anna seemed to be struggling not to smile.  “Is this—hang on.”  She went over and pushed the door nearly closed.  “Is this about him being safe in taxis?”

 “Yes, I believe it is.”  He wasn’t familiar with the expression, but he wasn’t sure what else it could mean.  “You know, then?”

She nodded.  “Mrs. Patmore’s tried to let Daisy in on it, but she won’t take a hint.”

Bates stared at her in surprise.  “How many of the women staff know about, about his….?”

“Quite a few of us.  It doesn’t take long to notice that he only flirts with girls when he wants someone to see him doing it, and he’s not as subtle as he thinks he is when a handsome man comes into view.”  She smiled now.  “It’s kind of you to be concerned, but if I get my heart broken, it won’t be Thomas Barrow who does it.” 

“Good,” Bates said vaguely.  He wanted to add that he didn’t like the idea of her having her heart broken, but he couldn’t say a thing like that.  Not if she meant what he thought she did. 

“And even if there’s nothing in it, there’s something enjoyable about going round the fair on a man’s arm.”

Bates quashed a stab of jealousy, and said lightly, “Even when it’s Thomas?”

“He isn’t always awful.  Quite a bit of the time, but.”  She shrugged.  “As difficult as it is to live with him, it must be even harder to be him.” 

“I hadn’t thought of it quite that way,” Bates admitted.  It was a sign of her pure and generous heart, he thought, that Anna would think of it that way. 

“It isn’t as though he confides in me,” she said.  “Or in anyone, except maybe Miss O’Brien.  But I think of Lady Mary, and how—”  She looked over at the door, making sure that their conversation was still private,  “when she’s at her most awful, it’s usually because she’s just had it rubbed in her face that she can never be his lordship’s heir, just because she’s a woman.  It makes her so angry, and she takes it out on Lady Edith or Mr. Matthew, even though they’ve nothing to do with it.” 

“Lady Mary’s always kind to us,” Bates pointed out, slightly unsettled by the comparison between his lordship’s darling daughter and the odious Thomas—all the more so because he could see why she drew it.  “The servants, I mean.”

“We’re not a threat to her.”  She considered.  “I suppose everyone’s a threat to Thomas.  I’ve heard they can go to prison for it, men like that.” 

There was a hint of a question in her tone, and Bates confirmed, “They can.”  But in his experience, they usually weren’t.  “But mainly if someone turns them in.  He’d have less to fear on that score if he weren’t so spiteful.  We had some like that in our regiment, when I was in the service—we all turned a blind eye because they were decent enough blokes, otherwise.”

“He does make things harder for himself.”  She shook her head, and turned her attention back to the shoe for a moment.  “He’s not all bad, though, and he’s almost seemed to be making an effort lately.”  Giving the shoe a final swipe of the cloth, she smiled up at him and said, “I’d best take these up.”

She left.

Well.  If the two people in the house whose good opinion he most cherished said that Thomas wasn’t as bad as he seemed, he supposed there was nothing for it but to try and find the good they saw in him.   

#

Once they’d cleared the upstairs breakfast, Thomas evaded Carson’s eagle eye and nipped out into the courtyard for a smoke.  O’Brien was there, halfway through a cigarette.  Taking his handkerchief out of his pocket, he handed it to her, saying, “Oh, here.”

“What do I want with this?”

“It’s part of the coconut I won at the fair,” he explained.  He’d meant it as a peace offering. 

“And what do I want with it?” she repeated.

Stung, he retorted, “If you don’t, I’ll have it back.”

He reached for it, but she held it away.  “So you enjoyed it, did you, beauing Anna round the fair?”

“We were only keeping an eye on William and Daisy, as you know.”  He changed the subject.  “Turns out someone does fancy her, though.”

“How exciting,” she said dryly.

“You’ll never guess who.”

“Mr. Bates,” she answered.  “Did you only just figure it out?”

Thomas was reminded of what Anna had said, about him being more fun when he wasn’t trying to be above it all.  Miss O’Brien wasn’t exactly being much fun at the moment.  “It’ll give us all something new to talk about, at least.”

“Are you going to make a play for her, then?  Or are you more scared of him than you are of William?”

He was, but he only said, “She wouldn’t fall for it.”

“I’m surprised even Daisy would, the way you carry on.”

Thomas glanced over at her sharply.  Until that moment, it had just been the exchange of barbs that had become usual for them, since Pamuk, but this was the claws come out and no mistake.   “What do you mean?”

“Only that you’re not as much of a mystery to the fairer sex as you think you are.  Don’t get your petticoats in a knot.”

With that, Thomas would have jabbed directly for one of her most vulnerable spots—if he only knew what they were.  It occurred to him that, while she quite encouraged him to confide in her—at least, she had before—in return, she’d only told him other people’s secrets.   Finally—after a long enough deliberation that she must have known she’d gotten to him—he said, “You could make a play for Bates yourself, if you wanted to spoil it for them.”

She scoffed.  “As though I would.”

“I imagine you’re too old for him, anyway.”

It was a shot in the dark—most women were sensitive about their ages—but he thought he must have scored at least a tap.  She dropped her cigarette and strode off, saying, “I don’t know why I ever bothered with you.”

He wasn’t sure why he’d bothered with her, either.  (Except that he did know; she was the only one who’d give him the time of day.) 

And she’d taken his handkerchief with her, damn it.

#

“Mr. Carson?”  William had deliberated for most of the morning over whether to approach Mr. Carson or not; in the end, it was the way that Mr. Bates glared at Thomas over the lunch table that convinced him he ought.  But now that he’d bearded the dragon in his pantry, he was losing his nerve.  “There’s something I’m not sure if I ought to tell you.  I don’t like to bear tales, only you did say I was to come to you if there was anything concerning about Thomas.”

“Shut the door,” Mr. Carson said. 

William did so. 

“What happened?”

“Last night, after we got back from the fair,” William began, and then hesitated.

“Yes?”

“I’d just gone up to my room, and I heard a bit of a commotion in the corridor.  I looked out, and Mr. Bates had Thomas shoved up against the wall.”

Mr. Carson sat up even straighter, and his eyes widened.  “Mr. Bates did?”

“Yes.  He were threatening him, and calling him all sorts of nasty names.” Warming to his story, William went on, “He took off when he saw me, and Thomas said he were all right—I went and asked him if he wanted me to get you—but the look on his face, it…I’d have been terrified if it were me.”

“On Mr. Bates’s face?”

William nodded.  “It wasn’t like how they butt heads normally.  I can’t really explain it.  He weren’t shouting, or foaming at the mouth or nothing like that, but I just felt….”

“You were…afraid for Thomas?”  Mr. Carson sounded skeptical.

“I was.”  He hesitated, struggling for a way to put it into words.  “I used to look after the horses, on my dad’s farm, you know, and usually when one of them’s upset, he’ll stamp his feet and switch his tail, and you know you had better watch out.  But the really mean ones don’t give you any warning, just a look in their eye when the next thing they’re going to do is hurt you.  And that’s what I thought of, when I saw the look on Mr. Bates’s face.”  He shook his head.  “I might have been wrong, and it were just a scuffle, but….”

“But you don’t think that’s all it was.”

“No, Mr. Carson.  If I did, I wouldn’t have bothered you with it.”

“You were right to tell me, if you found it so worrying.  We can’t have a violent man in the house.  I don’t suppose you have any idea what Thomas may have done to provoke this outburst?”

William shook his head. “I don’t see how he could have done anything—Mr. Bates didn’t go along to the fair.”

“What about earlier?”

Reviewing the events of the day, William shook his head again.  “The only time I remember them talking is when Mr. Bates was encouraging me to speak up to Daisy, and Thomas was teasing me about it.”  Mr. Carson raised an eyebrow at that, and William added, “Just in the way he always does.  And when we were at the fair, he was almost nice.”  For all his showing off, he hadn’t actually come between them.  “For him, at least.” 

Mr. Carson still looked worried, but said, “I’m glad to hear that.”

William was emboldened to continue, “If it was something earlier in the day—something that Thomas did to provoke him, I mean—isn’t that almost worse, than if he just lost his temper in the moment?  It would mean he was lying in wait for him.”

“Hm.”  Mr. Carson shook his head, but not as though he were disagreeing with what William had said.  “Let’s not get ahead of the facts.  Leave the matter to me, and I hope I don’t need to tell you not to gossip about it.”

“No, Mr. Carson,” he agreed. 

“And I believe you are on duty in the hall this afternoon?”

He was, and when he got there, Thomas said, “Where have you been?” in a way that made William regret, for a moment, sticking up for him. 

He mumbled some sort of excuse, knowing better than to say he’d been talking to Mr. Carson—Thomas would want to know why.

“Well, I’ve been covering for you since lunch.”

He spoke as if it had been hours, instead of—at the most—ten minutes, in which it was hard to imagine he had anything more important planned than smoking in the courtyard.  But William just said, “I’m sorry.  But I’m here now.”

“See that you are,” Thomas said, and strutted off.

Chapter Text

Oddly enough, there was no more trouble from Bates after the night of the fair, though Thomas kept a weather eye on him.  That was unfortunate, because he really ought to have had both eyes free to keep on Miss O’Brien.  Part of him hoped for an olive branch from that quarter, but instead she took to ostentatiously avoiding him, even going so far as to abandon her cigarette half-smoked if he went out into the courtyard when she was already there. 

Then, one evening after supper, she drew a line under their friendship for good.  Carson and Mrs. Hughes had just gone out, and Thomas began to light a cigarette, when O’Brien cleared her throat pointedly. 

“What?” Thomas asked her.

“You’re supposed to ask those that outrank you.”

He was—but she’d never pulled rank on him before.  Burning with humiliation, he asked, in the sweetest voice he could muster, “Miss O’Brien, do you mind if I smoke?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do mind.”

Mr. Bates, of all people, made a small sound of disbelief.  Not wanting his pity, or Miss O’Brien’s condescension, he grabbed his cigarettes and stormed outside, vowing to never again give her the opportunity.

Almost as unsettling as O’Brien’s open treachery was that Anna seemed to think that they were friends now.  She made almost as much a point of speaking to him as O’Brien did of avoiding him, but he couldn’t figure out what she wanted. 

Whatever it was, William was apparently in on it, too.   All the work Thomas had put into putting him in his place when he first arrived had gone to naught, as he again took to chattering away as they polished the silver or whatnot, apparently oblivious to the fact that Thomas’s side of these conversations consisted entirely of noncommittal noises and the occasional withering remark. 

Once, when Thomas had cause to point out that all he was doing was exposing his ignorance of the matter at hand, he even retorted, “I know you don’t mean that.”

Adding to the annoyance of it all, he’d managed to get his half-day to coincide one of his oldest friends from London being in the area—the man he valeted for was visiting somewhere nearby.  Thomas wasn’t sure if anything would come of it, but it seemed risky now, with all these people taking an interest in what he was doing.  What’s more, he couldn’t even find an unobserved moment to nick something for them to drink.  In the old days, he could usually count on O’Brien to act as lookout, but it wasn’t as though he could ask Anna

He was beginning to think he’d have to resort to buying it—which, in addition to the expense and drastic drop in quality, would waste a lot of time that could be better used otherwise—when Bates beckoned him into the boot-room, where he was getting Lord Grantham’s hunting things ready to be put away for the season.   “Do you want this?” he asked, holding up a flask and shaking it slightly.

“His lordship’s hunting flask?  I don’t think it’s yours to give away.” 

Bates sighed.  “Not the flask, the contents.  I don’t think he touched it, but I still can’t put it back in the decanter.”

That would solve one of his problems—but why was Bates offering it?  “What did you do to it?”

“Nothing,” he said, in a tone of exasperation.  “I don’t care for it myself, but it might as well not go to waste.”

Still suspicious, Thomas looked into one of the cupboards for something to put it in.  He selected a clear glass medicine bottle, and once he’d poured the brandy in, held it up to the light.  No traces of poorly-dissolved poison, though he wasn’t sure what there’d be to see if Bates had gobbed in it, which was more likely than actual murder. 

Cautiously, he took a taste.

“Does it meet with your approval?” Bates asked snidely.

“It’s not bad,” Thomas allowed. 

“Don’t go drinking it all at once; Mr. Carson’s bound to notice.”

Belatedly, it occurred to him what Bates’s play might be: palm the stuff off on him, then arrange for him to be caught with it.  Well, forewarned was forearmed.  “I’ll save it for my half-day,” he said, and, putting the cap on the bottle, hid it in another of the cupboards, behind the box where they kept the almost-but-not-quite-entirely-worn-out shoelaces.   If it was found—or “found”—there, there was nothing to point back to him. 

He left, Bates sending a pointed “You’re welcome” at his departing back.

#

It was the sight of Thomas coming out of the boot room, looking grim, while Mr. Bates sent him off with a sarcastic “You’re welcome,” that led Carson to decide that he ought to speak to Thomas about the incident in the corridor, if only to put a period under it.  He’d watched that situation closely since the fair, and had seen nothing in particular to trouble him, but Mr. Bates did seem to send a number of sharp remarks Thomas’s way.  It was a great contrast to his pleasant manner with everyone else, and while Thomas could have tried the patience of a saint, the shadow of the scene William had described did lend some of his comments a sinister air. 

So after dinner, when Mr. Bates had gone up to see to his lordship, Carson called Thomas into his pantry.  “Is there anything,” he asked, “that you should like to tell me?”

Thomas drew himself up and assumed an affronted expression.  “I can’t think of anything, no.”

“About Mr. Bates,” Carson clarified.

 “Why?  Did he say I’ve done something?”

“No.”  Carson sighed.  “A concern was expressed, about his conduct.  But if you truly do not know to what I am referring, I shall suppose that the witness misunderstood what was seen.”

Thomas looked blankly puzzled for a moment, then jumped like a startled deer.  “Is this about the brandy?  Because I have no idea why he gave it to me, and as far as I know, it was his to give away.”

It hadn’t been, but Carson only said, “I hope you realize you will now have to tell me all about it.  Do you mean his lordship’s brandy?”  He didn’t see who else’s it could be—or how anyone could even pretend to believe it was Mr. Bates’s to give away. 

“From his hunting flask,” Thomas explained.  “He couldn’t put it back in the decanter, could he?”

“He certainly couldn’t.”  And it was more-or-less acceptable for the valet in that case to finish it off—or give it away, Carson supposed, if he didn’t want it.  Not everyone cared for brandy.   “You didn’t drink it when you were on duty, did you?”

“No, Mr. Carson.  I put it aside for later.”

Carson did not entirely believe him, but as he’d not noticed any signs of drunkenness, there wasn’t much point pursuing the matter.   “Very well.  And there is nothing else concerning Mr. Bates which springs to mind?”

“Nothing.”

 “All right, then.”  He dismissed Thomas with a gesture. 

That ought to have put an end to it—Thomas was not one to keep quiet about a grievance, even one that existed only in his own imagination.  But William, though perhaps a bit sheltered, was not given to flights of fancy, nor was he a liar; Carson was entirely sure that he had seen what he described. 

Perhaps the brandy, about which Thomas had been so concerned, had been the price of his silence on the matter?  If so, it was cheaply bought. 

No, by far the likeliest answer was the one Carson had thought of first:  that Thomas had somehow provoked Mr. Bates into this uncharacteristic act.  An awareness that his own conduct would not bear scrutiny would motivate him to brush the whole matter under the carpet.  And perhaps the brandy had been a sort of peace offering, from Mr. Bates. 

That tied the matter up nicelyCarson would still need to keep a close eye on Thomas—but then, he always did. 

#

Leaving the butler’s pantry, Thomas headed out to the courtyard for a smoke, relieved to find a complete absence of Miss O’Brien.  The last thing he wanted to do right now was face her. 

Not the way things were now, at any rate.  He’d have liked to be able to talk to someone

Because there was really only one reason that Carson would feel the need to call him on the carpet, only to never actually say what he was talking about—wasn’t there?  Somehow—and Thomas could not begin to imagine how, if it wasn’t the matter of the brandy—he had gotten the idea that Thomas and Bates were….

He shuddered inwardly.  No, he couldn’t even think it.

But while he was not-thinking about it, an even more horrifying though occurred to him: what if it was the brandy, and Carson was—he shuddered again—right?  What if he’d been supposed to suggest that they drink it together

Within a moment, reality reasserted itself.  Bates had said that he didn’t like the stuff, and besides, he was resolutely normal.  Thomas was good at reading the signs, and there wasn’t so much as a flicker, from Mr. Bates—not of interest (thank God), or even of oh-there-you-are-yes-me-too. 

Mr. Carson, on the other hand, wouldn’t know the signs if they slapped him in the face.  If he’d only actually said it, Thomas was sure that his reaction would have made it clear how utterly untrue it was, but damned if Thomas could think of a way to communicate that he wouldn’t touch Mr. Bates with a bargepole, without acknowledging that there was a reason anyone might conceivably think he would

It wasn’t until his second cigarette that he realized he didn’t have to communicate it.  There was no need to put Carson off the scent, because there wasn’t a scent to put him off.  He was as thoroughly and completely wrong as Bates himself had been to accuse Thomas of improper intentions towards Anna, and so there was nothing to fear now, any more than there had been then. 

He smoked his way through a third cigarette, pondering the notion of keeping out of trouble by not doing anything wrong.  Pity it wasn’t something he could adopt as a universal policy—not unless he wanted to give up his plans for his half-day, at any rate. 

By that time, he was slightly jittery from too many cigarettes, smoked too quickly, and made his way inside, hoping that Mrs. Patmore had decided to give them something to nibble on, as she sometimes did—it would settle his stomach.    She hadn’t, though, so he had to console himself with a newspaper. 

He’d barely got past the headlines when Gwen broke away from the cluster of housemaids and came to sit by him.  “Davy Small—the gardener?—has asked Madge to the flower show,” she informed him. 

Davy was one of half a dozen under-gardeners, thank you very much, but Thomas just said, “So?”

“So she’d like to go with him, but he can’t join the rest of us.”

Of course he couldn’t; he worked outside

“And Mrs. Hughes would never allow it just the two of them.”

Of course not.  “So?” he repeated.

“But if it was a foursome, like when Daisy and William went to the fair, that might be all right.”

“You’d have to ask her,” he said, keeping his eyes on the newspaper.  Honestly, why was she telling him this?

“Then you’ll do it?”

“Do—”  Abruptly, he realized.  What am I, the bloody palace eunuch?  “Why not get William and Daisy?”

“There’s guests to dinner that night, so Daisy can’t go.  Anyway, I’m not sure they’re senior enough to satisfy Mrs. Hughes.”

She had a point, there.  “Just to be clear, is it you I’m taking, or Anna?”

“Me, if that’s all right.”

That wouldn’t give Bates anything to get in a strop about.  He flicked the newspaper open.  “If Mrs. Hughes approves, and Mr. Carson can spare me that afternoon—it is in the afternoon they’re going?”

She nodded.  “Just after our lunch, and we’d be back before the upstairs tea.”

“Then I suppose I could do it.”  He might enjoy it more than walking down with the whole group.  “But it’s up to you and Madge to talk them into it.”

“Oh, thank you,” she said.  “Madge’ll be so happy.”

She scurried back to the other end of the table, where the girls were whispering and giggling.   

Mr. Bates had been watching the whole thing, and for a moment Thomas wondered if he’d been mistaken—if he was going to be cornered and told off again.  He decided to forestall it, if he could, by asking, “What are you looking at?”

“Nothing.  It’s nice of you—helping Madge and Gwen.”

“So?”  He could be nice if he felt like it. 

Bates shrugged slightly.  “I suppose it beats working.”

Christ.  They normally had some time to themselves around that part of the day, if nothing special was happening in the house—Bates knew that.  “I’m sure I’ll be working all the harder before and after to make up for it.”

“I think most of us are planning to go, at one time or another,” Bates answered.

Thomas nodded.  “Will you ask Anna?”

He said her name loudly enough to make her look over, from the group of girls, smiling a bit.  Bates cleared his throat.  “I imagine I’ll walk down with the main party, whenever that is.”

Anna’s smile grew fixed, as she turned back to the other girls, and Thomas found himself wishing he hadn’t said it.

In fact, it bothered him enough that by the time he had a chance to speak to her the next day—when she sat next to him at tea; she’d been run off her feet most of the day with Gwen ill—he’d thought of a way to make it up to her.  After enquiring after Gwen’s health, he said casually—and quietly enough not to be heard across the table—“If she’s still ill tomorrow, perhaps you and Mr. Bates could take over as chaperones for Madge and what’s-his-name.” 

He could see at once that it didn’t work; she stiffened, and it was a long moment before she answered, “Don’t be silly.  I’ll take her place, but there’s no reason to kick you out of the group.”

“I don’t mind either way.” 

She smiled tightly.  “I don’t need to make a spectacle of myself.”

Thomas hesitated.  “Only he didn’t like it at all when we went to the fair.”

She opened her mouth, then closed it again.  “I don’t want to talk about it with everyone around.”  With that, she turned and said something to Madge, on her other side.    

Thomas had figured it for a brush-off, but when they all got up from the table, she went with him to the courtyard.  He’d have noticed by now if she was a smoker, but he offered her his cigarette case anyway.

“No, thank you,” she said.  “I believe you were trying to be kind, about Mr. Bates.”

“I was, as a matter of fact,” he retorted.

“I know.  But I can’t be seen panting after him when he’s not interested.  A man can be obvious, when he’s interested in a woman, but a woman can’t.”

Not all men could be obvious—but of course she wasn’t to know why he couldn’t be as oblivious to signs of interest more subtle than a brick upside the head.  “He is, though.  Interested.  I can’t imagine why else he’d have been so bothered by it.  The fair.”

She shook her head.  “We talked about that.  He…thought I might take your flirting seriously, that’s all.”

 “But why does he care whether you did or not?”  He took a long drag of his cigarette, and when she did not take the opportunity to reply, answered, “Because he fancies you, that’s why.”

“Thomas….”  Anna sighed.  “A person can be concerned about someone else’s feelings, without fancying them.”  She said it gently, as if the thought might never have occurred to him. 

“Not that concerned.  He gave William a scare, how concerned he was.”

She stiffened.  “Why?  What did he do?”

Damn it.  Somehow, he hadn’t expected that question.  “Nothing.”  Nothing important, anyway, and if he said, it would only sound like he was whinging.  Anna had said that women couldn’t go around being obvious like men could; one of the things men couldn’t do was go crying about it every time a bigger boy pushed them over in the schoolyard. 

And that went double for men like Thomas. 

“He did so much nothing that it scared William?”

“He was just trying to intimidate me, that’s all.” He’d nearly convinced himself that was true, given there’d been not so much as a hint of violence from Bates since.  “But I suppose William doesn’t see much of that sort of thing, up on the farm with the livestock, and he—oh.”

“What?”

He shook his head.  “I just realized something.”  That was what William had gone crying to Mr. Carson about—though why he’d felt the need to dance around the subject, Thomas wasn’t sure.  “Anyway, I only mentioned it because it shows he feels strongly about you.”

“I’m not sure—never mind.”  She shook her head, with a tight smile.  “Thank you for telling me, but I’m not sure it makes any difference.  Whatever he may feel in private, if he won’t acknowledge it, there’s nothing I can do.”

Belatedly, Thomas realized that he’d been working off of the wrong set of assumptions.  If he’d been in Anna’s place, after a tip-off like the one he’d just given her, he’d suppose that the other fellow was too afraid or uncertain to make a move, and that it was up to him to arrange an “accidental” meeting and then make the move himself.  But Anna wasn’t free to make a move—and she was entitled to expect better than a man who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, acknowledge his feelings for her in public.  “I suppose not, when you put it that way.”  He dropped his finished cigarette and ground it out.  “We’d best be getting in, before they all start to worry what we’re up to.”

#

Her chat with Thomas certainly had given her a lot to think about, and Anna reflected on it as she laid out the girls’ clothes for the evening. 

First, it really did seem like he was trying to help.  Why he cared about her friendship with Mr. Bates, she wasn’t sure.  It may have just been his natural inclination for scheming turning in a relatively wholesome direction for a change—and if so, it was a development that should be encouraged.  He and Miss O’Brien had always kept busy plotting the downfall of someone or another; perhaps the experience of the fair had warmed him to the notion of scheming for someone else’s benefit, instead. 

It may even have started earlier, she realized as she laid out Lady Mary’s things, with the satisfaction of having rescued Lady Mary from Mr. Pamuk—or at least of having a secret that reflected well on him, rather than poorly on someone else. 

Either way, she thought, she’d keep an eye out for other opportunities where a little bit of sneakiness could be used in service of something nice.  (She was reminded of one of the Dowager Countess’s maxims, relayed to her by Lady Mary:  that all lady’s maids “lived for intrigue.”  Thomas was not a lady’s maid, of course, but he may have picked up the habit from Miss O’Brien.)

Secondly, she turned over the question of whether he was right that Mr. Bates had feelings for her—warmer ones than his obvious feelings of friendship.  Despite what she’s said about it making no difference—and it couldn’t make any difference, in the way she conducted herself outwardly—the idea that he was interested gave her a warm feeling in her insides. 

Except she couldn’t think about that without confronting the problem of how Thomas had come to believe that Mr. Bates liked her.  She couldn’t allow herself to fall in love with a violent man—she’d seen where that ended, with black eyes and flimsy explanations to the neighbors.  Even if he wouldn’t raise his hand to a woman, there were other ways a man could make his temper known, and besides, they might—that is, any woman married to such a man might—have a son, and what if that son grew up to be as infuriating as Thomas?   

Not, she reminded herself, that she had any business falling in love with John Bates in any case, not when he hadn’t given her a clear sign that he might feel the same. 

But—unlike the question of whether or not he might have feelings for her—the question of a violent temper did make a difference in what she did next: whether she kept up the friendship that was developing between them, or cut it off.   

Not long ago, nothing Thomas Barrow said could have make her think any less of Mr. Bates.  She’d have assumed he was making it up, to be spiteful.  But he did seem different now—and, even more importantly, she didn’t think he had it in him to so convincingly pretend reluctance to tell her what, exactly, Mr. Bates had done.   He wasn’t nearly as subtle as he thought he was, Thomas.  He’d have blurted it out in one over-rehearsed story, with too many details. 

And he wouldn’t have roped in a witness who couldn’t be expected to lie for him.  That was the path forward, she decided.  She’d ask William what he’d seen, and if there really was something in it, she’d…well, she’d cross that bridge when she got to it. 

#

Gwen was back on her feet the next day—and not showing any signs of illness—so the original plan for the flower show was back on.   It was Mrs. Hughes who gave the lecture this time, to both Thomas and Gwen together, about keeping Madge and “that boy” in sight at all times.  “It may be broad daylight, but we don’t know him like we know William.  I’m sure he’s perfectly nice, but he may not realize that the kind of behavior a farm girl can get away with is not acceptable for a maid in this house.” 

Thomas wondered, briefly, what kind of behavior a farm girl could get away with—and why William was so naïve, if farm girls were faster than town ones. 

Once they’d both promised to guard Madge’s virtue with their very lives, Mrs. Hughes released them.   After changing into his off-duty suit, he went out to the courtyard for a smoke while he waited for Gwen and Madge to finish getting ready. 

Unfortunately, Miss O’Brien was already there.  This time, she didn’t cede the ground to him, and instead said, “Look at you,” in her butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth voice.  “All dressed up for Miss Gwen.  You’re getting to be quite the Lothario.”

Thomas lit his cigarette. 

“But it would be the perfect arrangement for you, wouldn’t it?  Double-dating, I think they call it now.”

He took a drag.

“Did you choose the under-gardener, or did Madge?”

He was spared the temptation to reply by the arrival of the under-gardener in question—a beanpole dressed in a dated Sunday-best suit that had clearly been let out several times in the cuffs, and was inches too short in the sleeves. 

Miss O’Brien looked him over, sniffed, and said, “I’ll leave you boys to it.” 

“You must be Gwen’s friend,” the beanpole said.  “Davy Small.” 

He offered his hand to shake, and Thomas took it, noting that he had at least made an effort to get the dirt out from under his fingernails, though he hadn’t entirely succeeded.  “Thomas Barrow.  The girls aren’t quite ready.”

Small found a patch of wall to lean up against, and lit a cigarette of his own.  “They sure do keep you lot on a tight lead, don’t they?”

Thomas nodded.  “The housekeeper just got done reminding us that the character of the staff is a reflection on the family.”

Small made a dismissive sound.  “That’s laying it on a bit thick, isn’t it?”

“You’d better act like you believe it, unless you want to get her sacked,” Thomas warned.  “You and I both know no one in the family could so much as recognize her on sight, but as far as Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes are concerned, she holds the good name of his lordship in her very hands.”

“All right, all right,” Small said resignedly.  “She already told me what an honor it is they agreed to let her be seen wi’ the likes of me.”    

“Good.” 

A few moments later, Madge and Gwen arrived.  Madge’s face lit up when she saw her swain, and she giggled as he kissed her hand in a clumsy imitation of the continental style. 

Thomas offered Gwen his arm in the approved English fashion, and they set off. 

They let the other two walk a little ahead, near enough for close observation, but far enough that they could exchange a private word if they were careful.  Thomas and Gwen talked of the matters that had occupied the household’s attention for the last few days:  Mrs. Patmore’s increasing blindness, and Lady Sybil’s late and muddy return two days before, when Gwen had been ill.

“Everyone was in a right state over it,” Thomas said.  “I heard Mr. Carson had started talking about summoning the police.”

She looked sharply at him.  “Really?”

He nodded.  “She turned up not too long after, though, safe and sound—but covered in mud from head to toe.  I heard the whole story when I was in the drawing room.  Apparently the horse went lame, and then the cart got stuck in the mud, and she slipped trying to free it.” 

“It must have been awful for her,” Gwen observed.

“I don’t know—I think she likes an adventure,” Thomas suggested.

“I suppose it did seem an adventure to her,” Gwen said thoughtfully. 

“Well, sure.  I mean, for people like us, if something like that happened, we’d be worried the whole time about being sacked.  But she knew nothing was going to happen to her.”

“I think she’d try to understand.  If it were explained to her, I mean.”

“She’s the nicest of them,” Thomas agreed. 

“She’s helping me,” Gwen confessed.  “With trying to be a secretary, I mean.   Looking at the advertisements and telling me about places to apply, and…things.”

Thomas hadn’t realized that she’d gone that far, from hoping to be a secretary one day to actually applying for posts—or perhaps she wasn’t, and Lady Sybil just didn’t realize the gulf that yawned between having a dream and making it happen. 

They walked on quietly for a little while, and then he asked, “What is so appealing about being a secretary, anyway?”  She gave him a sharp look, and he added, “I don’t mean there’s anything wrong with not wanting to be in service forever, but why that?”  It didn’t seem like it would be any more interesting than being a housemaid.

“Well, it’s realistic,” she said.  “Or I thought it was, when I started.”  She sighed.   “And at least you’re using your mind, typing letters and solving problems, not just scrubbing and polishing, fetching and carrying all day.” 

She had a point—why did they spend so much time chewing over every little thing that happened in the house, if not to give their minds something to do? 

“And I want to be part of the modern world,” Gwen went on.  “A small part, I understand that, but business is the world of the future, where everything’s changing.”

 Thomas nodded.  “Nothing at Downton would ever change, if Mr. Carson had anything to say about it.”

“Exactly!  And it’s so stifling.  I mean,” she gestured to the couple in front of them, “look at all the trouble we had to go to, just so that Madge and Davy can walk to the village together, in broad daylight!  What do they think is going to happen, I wonder?”

Well, they—meaning Carson and Mrs. Hughes—thought she might fall pregnant and disgrace the house, of course.  But Thomas had to admit, it was difficult to imagine how such a thing could take place at the flower show, with nearly the entire village in attendance.  “It does seem a bit ridiculous.”

Gwen nodded.  “It’s not as if they—”  She abruptly cut off what she’d been about to say, and substituted, “I’m not saying I want to be a secretary so that I can be fast, of course.  I’d live in a boarding-house for working women, and they have rules as well.  But at least you aren’t cooped up with the same people day and night.”

Thomas was a little vague on how things might work in a boarding-house for working women, but suggested, “Two different sets of people, day and night.  I suppose it makes a change.”

“And there are respectable things you can do in the evenings, in town.  Public lecture, and exhibitions, and all sorts.  You go with another woman from the office, or from your boarding-house, and as long as you’re back by a decent hour, it’s your own business where you went.” 

That was more or less how it was on their half-days, though—for the men, at least.  “Have the maids got to account for where they go on their half days?” he asked.  He’d known that they had to take them in pairs. 

“Of course we do.”  She gave him a surprised look, then scoffed.  “I should have realized you lot didn’t.”

“Well, we hear about it if we’re seen doing anything remotely questionable.” 

“We’re not allowed to be in a position to do anything remotely questionable,” Gwen retorted, adding quickly, “Not that I want to.  But I like to think I’d know for myself what’s a decent way to behave.”  Then she turned the tables:  “What about you?  What’s so appealing about being a valet?  Is it that much better than being a footman?”

It’s got to be.  “Well, it’s realistic, like you said.  I mean, if we can all do whatever we like in life, I’ll be a film star and be driven around in a limousine all the time and have a new suit each week, thank you very much.”  In fact, Thomas had never thought about being a film star; his unrealistic youthful ambition had been to play cricket for a living, but he could hardly say that.  “But a valet gets to travel.”  That seemed a little shallow, compared to Gwen’s reasoning for wanting to be a secretary.  “And you’ve got to keep up with all the latest fashions—not that Bates does.”  Honestly, it was a little shameful, living in a house where the valet was as poorly-dressed as that.  “And people tell you things, ask you things—look at how Miss O’Brien has her ladyship’s ear.”  There, that was three reasons; that should be enough.

“You’re interested in clothes, then?”

“What if I am?” he snapped.

“Nothing, only you mentioned it as something you’d like about being a film star or a valet.”

“I suppose I did,” he admitted. 

“Did you ever think about being a tailor?  That’s got more to do with clothes than being a valet, even.”

He hadn’t, as a matter of fact—though it occurred to him now that, even if Dad hadn’t wanted him working in the clock shop, he might have been able to get Thomas an apprenticeship with another craftsman—if he had wanted to do that.  “You’ve got to have a way to get your foot in the door, something like that.”

Gwen sighed.  “It turns out you need that for being a secretary, too.” 

“The typing and shorthand course isn’t enough?”

“It doesn’t seem to be.  The advert said they helped you with finding a place, but all they do is send you a few notices copied out of the London papers.” 

She sounded frustrated, and Thomas couldn’t blame her—he’d been the victim of a misleading advert or two himself.  “Typical.”  

By that time, they were nearing the village.  They had allowed Davy and Madge to get a bit ahead of them—still keeping them in plain view, of course—and the other two quite rightly paused at the crossroads for them to catch up.  Once they had, the talk turned to a stilted four-way conversation about how fine the weather was, and what sorts of flowers each of them liked best.  (Thomas, possessed by a moment’s wild incaution, claimed pansies.  The way Davy Small went on about “the dark-eyed ones” might almost have been a sign, if Thomas hadn’t seen the way he looked at Madge.)

Once they reached the hall, Thomas observed that Davy-the-under-gardener, unlike William, knew enough to hold the door for Madge, and that the girls ought to have the privilege of choosing what they saw first.  He did most of the talking, as they made their way around the exhibits, but as he was a gardener, it was understandable that he’d have the most to say about plants.  It was actually not entirely uninteresting, as he explained the different things that could be done to make various kinds of flowers show their best.  Thomas had always liked hearing people talk about things they actually cared about.

They met up with the rest of them from Downton at Mr. Molesley’s father’s stall, near the end of the path they’d taken through the exhibits.  Davy and Madge sprang apart as if they been caught doing something illicit, and once they’d all greeted one another, he made off with the excuse of asking Molesley Senior how he’d done something or other to do with roses. 

And with that, Thomas’s stock as flower-show-going companion dropped to zero, as Gwen, Madge, and Anna quickly went into a huddle to talk about the date. 

He was standing a little apart from the crowd, talking to no one, when Mrs. Hughes, of all people, came up beside him and said, “So what do we think of Mr. Small?”

Thomas startled, reminded of what O’Brien had said in the courtyard earlier. 

“Is he suitable to keep company with Madge?”

Oh, of course.  That.  “I think so.  I didn’t see anything to his discredit, in any case.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”  She tsk’d.  “When I was a housemaid, of course, we weren’t allowed to keep company with anyone, however suitable.  But times are changing, and we must change with them, or we won’t be able to keep maids longer than it takes to train them.”

“I suppose not,” he agreed.  “Parties of four seems reasonable enough.” 

“An improvement over having them meeting their beaus on the sly,” she agreed.  “As I wouldn’t be surprised if Madge and Davy have done before now—the girls I grew up with certainly would have.”

It was deeply strange to think of Mrs. Hughes slipping out from under a housekeeper’s nose to see a man—though her evening at the fair certainly suggested she was capable of having a private life. 

“Better all round to have things out in the open,” Mrs. Hughes continued.  “All the same, I’m glad we can rely on you to keep an eye on things, and not get carried away.”

For an instant of panic, Thomas wondered what she meant by that, before remembering that he was now a stalwart defender of feminine virtue. 

#

After the flower-show prizes were awarded, they all had to race back to the house, so as to be ready when the family returned.   Anna wasn’t able to walk with Mr. Bates—Lord Grantham would go in to tea as he was, but the girls would need to be helped off with their hats, and she needed to be back in her uniform for that—but as she hurried, the words circled round and round in her head:  I have been married, yes

What did that mean?  Was he a widower?  If so, there was no barrier to them getting to know one another.  Or did he mean he was divorced

And then there was the other secret he’d mentioned.  She could hardly believe it had been anything bad….unless, perhaps, that he was divorced, and it was on grounds of cruelty?  She hadn’t found the right moment yet to ask William what he’d seen Mr. Bates doing to Thomas.

But she was getting too far ahead of herself.  Up in their room, she distracted herself from it all by asking Gwen what she’d thought of Madge’s young man. 

“He was really nice, I thought,” she said.  “He knows a lot about flowers.”

“I suppose he would.   Did you have a nice time, then?  Take your mind off things?”  Earlier on, Gwen had showed her the letter she’d had about her interview.

“I suppose.”  She sighed, pulling her black afternoon dress over her head.  “You’re right about Thomas,” she added, when her head had popped out the top.  “He’s not so bad when there isn’t anyone for him to show off for.”

Anna glanced at her.  “You do know about him, don’t you?”

She nodded, and turned for Anna to do up her buttons at the back.  “I’m not sure I understand it, but.”

“We don’t have to,” Anna reminded her.  “Best not to speculate.” 

As she did up Anna’s buttons, Gwen asked, “What about you?  I saw you were talking with Mr. Bates.”

“We’re just friends,” she answered. 

If she wasn’t wondering about his temper, she might have confessed, right then, that she wanted something more, despite his evasiveness about having “been married.”  But she was, and she hadn’t, and so there was nothing to tell. 

Except later, after dinner—both dinners, upstairs and down—and Thomas asked her a version of the same question, she found herself saying, “He was telling me he’s married, thank you very much.”

“Oh,” Thomas said, looking taken aback.  “That explains it—but are you sure?”

“He said he ‘has been married.’  I’m not sure what that means.”

“I’d say that means he is.  I could find out for sure, if you like,” he offered.

“No,” she said immediately.  “It’s not any business of ours—and don’t go telling everyone.”  Then, after a moment, “How would you find out?”

He shrugged.  “Write to some regimental types I know.  They’re a gossipy lot; someone’ll know.  Or if not, there’s records they can check.”

Briefly, Anna wondered what Thomas was doing knowing “regimental types,” but reminded herself that, as she told Gwen, it was best not to speculate.  

“Shall I?” he asked.

“No, don’t.  Really.”  Honestly, she shouldn’t have said anything about to Thomas to begin with.  Changing the subject, she said, “Gwen said Madge’s friend was nice?”

“I suppose.  She seems to like him.” 

At the other end of the table, Miss O’Brien pushed her chair back with a scrape.  Nipping out to the courtyard for a smoke, Anna was sure.   The instant the hem of her skirt had disappeared from sight, Thomas took out his own cigarettes and lit one, inhaling deeply.

Miss O’Brien, she recalled, had withdrawn her permission for Thomas to smoke in the servants’ hall in her presence—very publicly, too, and never mind that she smoked the filthy things herself.  She’d only done it to be spiteful, of course, but Anna wasn’t sure, in Miss O’Brien’s place, that she’d have let him do it to begin with.  It had to rankle, that Thomas was allowed to smoke indoors while she wasn’t, just because he was a man. 

 “What were you doing—trying to see which one of you would break first?” she asked.

Thomas gave her an admiring look.  “You are sharper than I used to think.”

“It’s the silliest thing I’ve ever seen,” she told him. 

He shrugged.  “I won, didn’t I?”

#

Later that night, Thomas sat up by his candle, writing a letter.  True, Anna had asked him not to try to find out about Mr. Bates’s marriage, but he was sure that she really wanted to know.  As did he, now that the question was raised.

Wouldn’t it be a turn-up for the books, if there was a scandalous divorce in his past?  And if there was, what if he hadn’t disclosed this fact to Mr. Carson, or to his lordship? 

Not, Thomas told himself, that he was hoping to find something to use against Bates.  It was for Anna’s sake—she’d been so nice to him, lately, and really, she deserved to know. 

That was all.

Chapter Text

“Fitzroy,” Thomas called, jumping down off the stile near the bus-stop.  Peter, his friend, had just got off, carrying a basket over one arm and looking around him in confusion.

“There you are,” he said, smiling as he walked over.  Mindful of any unseen eyes, they greeted each other with manly thumps on the shoulder.  “Sandwiches, as requested,” he said, brandishing the basket.  “And a bit more—the cook at the place we’re staying got the idea I was meeting a girl, I think.  Isn’t there so much as a pub around here?”

“There is, but someone from the house would see us,” Thomas answered. 

“Surely you’re allowed to have a drink.”

“Yes, but I’d have to answer questions.  Here, this way.”  He set off down the lane, Peter walking beside him.  “We’d have had to go to York to not be watched every minute, and you’d have a job to do getting back in time to shove what’s-his-name into his evening clothes.”

“But we won’t be watched out here?”

“I know a spot or two.”

It took a bit of walking to get to, though, so Peter had plenty of time to catch him up on all their mutual acquaintances—which was almost everybody Thomas knew; Peter had been the one to show him what there was, in London, when he’d figured out what sort of man he was—as well as tell him of a new club that had opened up, for men like them.  “When did you say you were coming up to London?”

“July,” Thomas answered.  At least, they had better take him, when the family went.  “Think it’ll still be around by then?”  Some places survived for years; others were raided into oblivion within a few weeks of opening.

“You can never tell.  You get a lot of toffs there; that usually helps.  Did you hear about the raid at the Blue Oyster?”

Thomas shook his head.  “Anyone we know get caught?”

“No, but Syl broke his arm jumping out the back window.  Only he wasn’t supposed to be out that night, so he had to go on carrying trays with it until he could stage an accident.”

Thomas winced.  “Ouch.  Couldn’t he have said he fell out of bed?”

“Guess he didn’t think of that.  Anyway, the worst part was, they sacked him anyway.”

“Bastards.”  Thomas didn’t think much of Syl—for one thing, he actually encouraged people to call him “Sylvia,” as if their sort didn’t have enough to deal with—but he wouldn’t wish that on anyone.  “How’d they justify that?”

“Said he’d been being careless all day.”

“Which he had, on account of his arm was broken.”  Thomas shook his head.  “Sometimes I hate the entire world.”

Peter shrugged, and said philosophically, “We knew it was a dangerous life when we signed up for it.”

Thomas couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his voice.  “I don’t know about you, but I didn’t sign up for it.” 

Peter didn’t answer for a moment, then said, “No, I suppose we didn’t.”  Brightening up a bit, he added, “But at least they gave him a good character, and Theo got him a place where he works, so that’s turned out all right.”

“Good for him.”  Thomas wondered if he’d ever be in a position to get somebody a place.  Not if Carson had anything to say about it—he’d doubtless see a recommendation from Thomas as a mark against whoever it was.  “The place is just up here.” 

It was a grassy strip between two fields, with a large tree for shade.  “And nobody’s going to come along to fetch the cows, or whatever it is they do?” Peter asked.

“Do you see any cows?” Thomas asked.  “That one’s wheat,” he indicated one field, “and that one’s oats, and there’s no reason for anyone to do anything to either of them until August, at the earliest.” 

They spread out their jackets on the ground and sat on them to eat the sandwiches.  There was a bottle of lemonade, too, and cakes.  Thomas got out the brandy to go with those, and soon was tasting it on Peter’s tongue. 

He ran his hands through Peter’s hair, tangling his fingers in the curls at the back of his neck.  “Christ,” Peter said, freeing his mouth for a moment.  “I forgot how affectionate you are.”

Stung, Thomas pulled away a fraction.

“No, it’s nice.  It just doesn’t fit with your I-hate-everyone, Ice-Prince routine.” 

“I do hate everyone,” Thomas said sulkily, and kissed him again. 

“Even me?”

“Especially you.”  He let Peter ease him down onto his back, careful to make sure he was lying across both their coats.  Normally, Thomas would have rather had it the other way, but if either of them was to end up with grass stains on his knees, let it be Peter. 

Later, Peter rolled off of him, and they fastened themselves up.  “Suppose we ought to be starting back,” he said, making no move to get up.

Thomas checked his watch.  “We can stay here for a minute.”  He shifted around so that his head was on Peter’s chest.  Did Peter remember, he wondered, that they’d actually lain like this once before?  Thomas almost hoped not—it had been back when they’d worked together, before he’d so much as kissed a bloke, and he’d been upset about being away from home, or something babyish like that.  Peter had let him crawl into bed with him.  The memory was simultaneously comforting and mortifying. 

“You’re such a romantic,” Peter said fondly.  “You ought to have somebody, really.”

Did he have to go and ruin it?  “Well, I can’t.”  He’d tried that, and it never worked—not with Philip, or any of them. 

“I know.”  He twined his fingers with Thomas’s. “You’d be happy, though.  Living in a cottage with somebody nice.”

“I’d be bored to tears,” Thomas said, ignoring the prickling in his eyes.  “And do what for a living, I ask you?”

Peter didn’t answer for a moment, looking up at the canopy of leaves above them.  “You know, I rather think you’d keep house.  I’m not sure what he’d do.”

Thomas sat up.  “I would not.”  What, did Peter think he was a woman?

“Don’t be like that,” Peter said, trying to tug him back down.

“Like what?” Thomas demanded.

“I know, you’re a manlier man than any of us,” Peter said, like he was humoring him. 

“Then what would I be doing keeping house?”

“Forget I said it.”

“No,” Thomas said.  “What would give you an idea like that?”

“I don’t know.  I just…if we lived in a world where you could, I think that’s what you’d do.  It was just a thought I had.  Let’s not fight—please?”

“Okay,” Thomas said.  He didn’t want to fight with Peter—he’d known him longer than anyone, and he didn’t have so many friends he could afford to lose one.  But he still stood up, and put his jacket on.  “We had better be getting back.”

They gathered up the picnic things.  “I really didn’t mean to upset you.”

“You didn’t,” Thomas lied.

“You’re so difficult.”

“Before I was affectionate and romantic.  Which is it?”

“All three.  You want things men like us can’t have, so you insist on pretending that you don’t want anything.  And then you wind up spoiling what we can have.”

Thomas looked away.  Spoiled it, had he?  He hadn’t minded before, but suddenly his essential contrariness made him desperate to un-spoil it.  “Maybe you were right,” he finally said.  “About the cottage.”

Peter gave him a sad smile, and clapped him on the shoulder.  “Maybe.  Come on.” 

They stepped out from under the shelter of the tree, and on the way back, talked of things that didn’t matter.  Thomas filled Peter in on all the Downton gossip—which he didn’t care about, but filled the time. 

When he explained about the new tolerance for mixed foursomes, Peter said, “That could work for you, though.  Find two understanding girls, and you could almost have a real date, in front of God and everybody.”

It didn’t rankle the way it had when O’Brien suggested it, but Thomas still scoffed. “Two understanding girls and an understanding boy?  You don’t want much, do you?”

“It’d be a challenge,” Peter admitted.  “What about when you’re in London?  A stroll through Kew Gardens?”

“In London, I have better things to do with me time.” 

“Well, don’t, then.”

He sounded affronted, and it took Thomas a moment to realize why.  “Wait, were you asking me?”

“Not if you don’t want to.”

Suddenly and abruptly, Thomas understood why Madge thought it worth the folderol it took to go to the flower show with Davy Small, instead of doing the logical thing and “accidentally” meeting him there.  He even understood why William had had so much trouble getting the words out, to Daisy, when it was entirely likely they’d have ended up at the fair in each other’s company even if he hadn’t said anything. 

So this was what it was like, to be asked to walk out with somebody.  Overflowing with excitement, he wanted to tell the next person he saw. 

“What about the girls?  Do you have some in mind?”

“You’d have to supply them.”

And with that, it came crashing down.  “There isn’t anybody.”

“Oh.”  Tentatively, “We could still go.”

They could, but it would just be the usual furtive meeting.  Not a date.  “If it’s just us, we might as well go to that club you were talking about.” 

“I suppose you’re right. Never mind.  It was a stupid idea.”

“No,” Thomas said.  “It wasn’t.” 

Even if they couldn’t go, he’d still been asked.  On a date.  By a man.  That wasn’t nothing. 

#

Finding William alone, left to the task of polishing silver while Thomas had his half day, Anna realized that this was the perfect opportunity to have a word with him about Mr. Bates, and what he had seen the night of the fair.

She wasn’t sure, anymore, whether she really needed to know if Mr. Bates had a temper or not, since he was married. 

Probably. 

But it wasn’t just for her own sake that she wanted to know, was it?  Thomas was getting to be almost—somehow—something like a friend, and while she could certainly have two friends who didn’t like each other very much, she couldn’t have one who had actually attacked the other. 

If Mr. Bates had, which really did seem unlikely.

So she had decided to ask William, after all. 

After asking how he was, and after his mother—who was poorly—she said, “I wanted to ask you about something, actually, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course,” he said, with an easy smile.  “Anything.”

“It’s about Mr. Bates.  And that night we all went to the fair.”

“Oh.”  William wasn’t smiling anymore. 

“Thomas said that Mr. Bates…well, he didn’t really say.  But he let on that something had happened.”

“I’m sorry,” William said, looking like he meant it.  “Only Mr. Carson asked me not to speak of it.”

“Mr. Carson saw it too?”  If he had seen it—whatever it was—and done nothing, then clearly there wasn’t anything to it. 

“No, I told him about it.  I weren’t bearing tales,” he added.  “Mr. Carson said I was to tell him if there was anything to do with Thomas that was worrying, and I was worried.”

Anna had wondered if the men were warned about Thomas, as the women were.  Trust Mr. Carson to do it so delicately that William didn’t understand quite what he was being warned about.   “But something did happen.”

William put down the polishing cloth and rubbed the back of his neck.  “I don’t reckon it were anything, really.  I mean, he were back to his old self the next day.  And Thomas said it was nothing, and Mr. Carson didn’t seem bothered much, except for wanting to know what Thomas did to set him off.  Which I didn’t know.”

“Mr. Carson,” Anna said slowly, “doesn’t like Thomas very much.”

William looked a little startled.  “Well, nor do I, if it comes down to it.  But that doesn’t mean...doesn’t make it right, does it?”

I can hardly say, when I still don’t know what it is.  “I like Mr. Bates,” she said.  “But I should like to know, if he’s…different from how I thought.”  William looked distinctly uncomfortable, but she pressed on.  “Or maybe I’m imagining something worse than what really happened.” 

“Look,” he said, glancing at the door to make sure they weren’t being overheard.  “All he did was shove him up against the wall and say some nasty things.  Which I’ve wanted to do a time or two meself.”

“Haven’t we all?”  But the rest of them hadn’t actually done it. 

“Only I saw—I thought I saw—something in his face I didn’t like.” 

“Something….”  Anna cast about for a word.  “Dangerous?”

William nodded, once.  “But it were just for that moment, and I haven’t seen it since, so I might have imagined it.  Trick of the light.”

“But it worried you enough to tell Mr. Carson about it.”

William nodded again. 

“Thank you,” Anna said.  “You’ve given me a lot to think about.”

He nodded once more.  “Only don’t tell him I told you.  He’ll be furious.”

“Mr. Bates?”

“Thomas.”  He thought a moment.  “But Mr. Bates, either, come to think of it.  Just in case I wasn’t imagining things.”

#

Thomas ended up taking the bus with Peter as far as Thirsk, where he poked around moodily in the shops for a while, trying to recapture the bubbling excitement of having been asked on a date.  By the time he realized it wasn’t going to work, there was no time to do anything else, and he ended up heading back to Downton early, where he could at least enjoy the exceedingly mild pleasure of sitting on his arse in the servants’ hall while the rest of them raced around over the upstairs dinner service. 

“You’re back early,” Anna observed, sitting next to him with a piece of mending. 

“Wasn’t much to do,” Thomas answered, turning the page of the newspaper. 

“Mrs. Bird mentioned she saw you meeting a man off the Thirsk bus.”

Was she implying there was something peculiar about that?  Thank goodness they hadn’t risked the pub.  “Just somebody I know from London,” Thomas said, not looking up from the paper, so as to appear as unconcerned as possible.

“Is he the one you’re always writing to?”  Anna asked.

What business of hers was it if he was?  “I write to a lot of people.” 

 “What’s he like?”

Now he had to look over at her, to see if her face gave any sign of why she was suddenly so interested in how he spent his half-days.   It didn’t.  “He valets for Sir Henry Denham.  Sir Henry’s at a house party over by Thirsk, and he had a few hours free before he had to go back and dress him for dinner.  Is there anything else you’d like to know?”

Anna ignored the question, and the rebuke that it implied.  “It’s nice you got to see each other.”

Was there a hint of something knowing in her tone?  “What’s it to you?”

She scoffed.  “I’m just trying to be friendly.  Take an interest in your life.”

“Why?”

“It’s something civilized people do,” she answered.  “I seem to remember you asking me any number of questions about Mr. Bates.”

Thomas’s blood went cold.  “That’s entirely different.” Before she could answer, he grabbed his cigarettes and fled to the courtyard—even though, since neither Mrs. Hughes nor Miss O’Brien was present, he could have smoked inside.

Anna, however, didn’t take a hint.  He’d barely lit up when she came out, and said gently, “Thomas.”

He glared at her.

“Don’t worry about it.”

“About what?”

She sighed.  “I’m not blind.” 

Bloody buggering fuck.  “I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.” 

“I wasn’t trying to…catch you out, or anything like that.”

Like hell she wasn’t.  There had to be some way he could salvage this, but how?  Think, Thomas, think!   “Whatever is you think you know,” he began, “you’d best keep it to yourself, or I’ll….” He’d what?  He didn’t have anything on her, except for a chaste flirtation with a possibly-divorced man, that everybody else already knew about anyway.  “Or you won’t like it,” he finished lamely. 

Anna looked at him for a moment, her expression unreadable.  Finally, she said, “I don’t know whether to give you a clip ‘round the ear, or feel sorry for you.”

It reminded him oddly of what Peter had said, about him being difficult and all the rest of it.  He tried to say something about her having no reason to do either, but she spoke over him.

“All I’m trying to say is that you needn’t worry about what I think I know.”  More quietly, almost to herself, she added, “And I’m not sure who I could find to tell who doesn’t already know it, either.”

Thomas froze, his cigarette halfway to his lips.  She couldn’t mean that.  Not if what he thought she thought she knew was really what she thought she knew.  If they all knew, he’d have been sacked by now.  Or gaoled.  But what else was there? 

“Possibly Lady Mary,” Anna went on, “but if I was going to tell her, it would have been when we were trying to figure out how to get you to keep your mouth shut about Mr. Pamuk.”

That was it!  He knew he had something, on somebody.  “I could write to the papers,” he said.  “About where he was when he died.”  And for how long, if the first bit wasn’t enough. 

“Or you could shut it and listen to what I’m trying to tell you.”

A curious calm settled over him.  Lady Mary owed him a favor—a bigger one than even Anna knew.  If she couldn’t get Anna to keep her mouth shut, he’d get as much money as he could out of her, and start a new life in Australia.  Or somewhere.  As far away as he could get.  “And what are you trying to tell me?”

She lowered her voice.  “That we all know perfectly well that you’re…not like other men.  And nobody’s planning to expose you.”

He shook his head.  “That isn’t true.”  For once in his life, what he said was exactly what he thought. 

“I’m not sure if absolutely everyone does,” she admitted.  “Daisy has been told, but didn’t understand, and William’s probably the same.”

“Mr. Carson doesn’t know.  Or Mr. Bates.  I’d be sacked by now.”  Mr. Carson suspected; Thomas knew damn well that he suspected, but that wasn’t the same thing as knowing

“Mr. Bates definitely knows; he tried to break the news to me after the fair.  And I think Mr. Carson’s the one tried to tell William.  Only he wouldn’t actually say it, so William didn’t know what he was talking about.”

“I’m sorry; that’s just not possible.”  Why would she be saying this?  To trick him into doing something indiscreet, maybe—as though he’d be so foolish. 

She stared at him for a long moment, then sighed.  “Have it your own way.  Nobody knows anything.”

“There’s nothing to know.”  It was almost a reflex, saying it—they’d gone far beyond the point where he could plausibly pretend he didn’t know what she talking about. 

“Fine,” she said.  “But if there were anything to know, I wouldn’t want to see you sacked, or…or anything, because of it.  And neither would anyone else.”

He scoffed.  If he hadn’t known she was lying before….

“There are plenty of other reasons people might be glad to see the back of you,” she admitted.  “But not that one.  And…not me, I don’t think.  Not anymore.”

With that, she turned and went inside. 

That just showed how little she understood.  Even it was true that if no one wanted him sacked for that—and it wasn’t true; it couldn’t be—they could still use it to get him sacked.  For any of the other reasons she’d mentioned. 

He stayed outside, smoking one cigarette after another, trying to think of some kind of plan, until Daisy banged the door open and called, “Thomas!  Are you planning to eat?”

#

If Anna hadn’t already realized that she’d said the wrong thing to Thomas, she’d have known when he came in to dinner, several minutes late and looking decidedly green around the gills.  Watching her as though she were an anarchist’s bomb that might explode at any moment, he poked listlessly at his food, prompting Daisy to ask, “Is there something wrong with it, then?” when she came in with more gravy.

“It’s fine,” he answered, with a grimace that she supposed was meant to be a smile.

Mrs. Hughes peered down the table at him. “You don’t look well.”

“I’m fine,” he said.  “I may have smoked too fast.”

“Does that make you ill?” Gwen wondered aloud. 

“It can,” Thomas answered.

“Then why do you do it?” she asked.

Anna elbowed her sharply in the side. 

“What?” she whispered.

“Don’t bother him when he’s not feeling well,” Anna whispered back—though she wondered herself.  Smoking in general hardly seemed worth the bother. 

The conversation turned to other things, but Anna continued to keep an eye on Thomas.  He eventually started eating, though not much, and remained uncharacteristically subdued throughout the meal. 

It wasn’t until the pudding that she realized O’Brien was watching him, too.

#

“Fancy a smoke?” O’Brien asked, once they’d all got up from dinner.  She managed to sound for all the world as though it were a perfectly innocent invitation.

Thomas glanced up at her.  “Not particularly.”

“Too bad,” she said, grabbing his arm and hauling him to his feet. 

At that point, following her out to the courtyard seemed easier than not doing it, so he did.  He didn’t light a cigarette, though—he was still feeling a little queasy, and while he knew that the number of cigarettes he’d smoked before dinner wasn’t the only reason, another one wasn’t going to help.  “What do you want?”

“A fag, for one thing—I’m out.” 

Wordlessly, he held out his cigarette case.

She helped herself to several, lit one, and stuck the rest up her sleeve.  “Now.  What does that silly little cow think she has on you?”

“Nothing,” Thomas answered automatically.  He’d have liked to lay the whole thing in front of her, see what she thought—and not too long ago, he’d have done it, without a second thought.   She’d know, if Anna was telling the truth, about all the others knowing.

Except, it occurred to him now, if they did know, she could have told him that at any time.  She could have said Don’t worry about it and nobody’s planning to expose you 

“That’s right,” she said.  “Don’t confirm anything.”

That had been the first thing she’d taught him—right here in this very courtyard, in fact.  She’d hinted around that she knew, and when he’d finally admitted it, gleefully pointed out that he now had to keep on her good side for the rest of his days. 

One thing Thomas could say for himself; he was never the same fool twice. 

“What are you going to do about it?” O’Brien went on.

Other than flee to Australia?  “Nothing,” he repeated.

“What do you have on her?  And don’t tell me ‘nothing.’  You must have learned something useful, now you’re such good pals.”

He shook his head. 

“What about on Bates, then?  Or Lady Mary?”

That was what this was all about.  She’d spotted a sign of weakness, and thought she’d use it to pry out of him what he’d refused to tell her all that time ago, about Pamuk and Lady Mary.  “Are you still on about that?  I’m sorry you can’t stand it that I might know something you don’t, but I’m still not telling you.  I’m in enough trouble as it is, so—just give it a rest, why don’t you?”

She watched him impassively for a moment.  “Are you done?”

“Sod off.”

“Believe it or not,” she said tartly, “I don’t want to see you doing two years at hard labor—even if you are an ungrateful brat.”

And just what was he supposed to be grateful for?  “I’m perfectly aware of the stakes, thank you.”

“D’you think she is?” O’Brien asked shrewdly.

“No,” he admitted.  And that was the problem.  Anna might very well believe what she was saying—that everyone knew and didn’t mind.  It might even be true that she didn’t mind.  But she could still ruin him, perhaps even without meaning to. 

The question was, should he try to impress upon her how thoroughly explosive this matter was, or leave her in blissful ignorance of the strength of the weapon she held?

Was she more likely to destroy him by accident, or on purpose?

#

“Do you suppose the unholy alliance has gotten back together?” Mr. Bates asked the next morning, when Anna found herself in the boot room with him. 

He meant Thomas and Miss O’Brien, of course—in addition to going to the courtyard together the evening before, they’d been strangely polite to each other over breakfast.  “I don’t know,” Anna said, truthfully.  “I’d like to think she decided to mend fences because it was so obvious something was bothering him.”

“But you don’t think it’s likely,” Mr. Bates said.

“No,” she said, inspecting the laces on Lady Edith’s walking shoes.  “But stranger things have happened at sea.” 

“Any idea what is bothering him?” Mr. Bates asked idly.

Anna knew she shouldn’t say.  Thomas didn’t like or trust Mr. Bates, and while she did like him, she’d not trust him either, if she had the sense God gave a goose.  But she answered, “I’m afraid it was something I said.”

“You?” Mr. Bates asked.  “I don’t believe it.”

“I wasn’t trying to be nasty,” she said.  “It’s just…you know he was meeting a man, on his half day.”

“I didn’t,” Mr. Bates answered.  “But go on.”

“So I was asking him about it, and I suppose he thought I was…I’m not sure what he thought.  But it upset him, and I tried to tell him it was all right, but I just made it worse.” 

She realized once she’d said it that she hoped Bates say that Thomas was being ridiculous, and it was only because of his scheming mind that he took it wrong.  But instead, he was looking at her with a serious expression.  “You shouldn’t repeat that.”

“What?”

“I know you didn’t mean any harm,” Mr. Bates added.  “But you shouldn’t repeat it.  Mr. Carson can just about stand his being…like he is, as long as he can pretend he doesn’t know.  But if there’s talk about him meeting men….”  He shrugged.   “Especially if there’s talk among the women.”

Of all the…. “Because we aren’t supposed to know such things even exist, I suppose?”

“Yes.  And because if the women servants know, it’s not that much of a leap to the ladies knowing.”

Oh.  They would, Anna thought, likely be no more distressed by the revelation than the women servants were—but of course Mr. Carson would expect them to nearly die of the shock.  “Mr. Carson would skin him alive.” 

“He’d sack him, for certain.  I wouldn’t put it past him to try having him arrested.”

That was much more serious than skinning him alive—because it could actually happen.  “I don’t see why it has to be such a big secret,” Anna said.  The details were best not thought of, certainly, but everyone could manage to look at a married man and woman and not think about the details—even when the appearance of a child made it evident that details had taken place.   “I mean, I know it’s against the law, but….”  She didn’t know why it was against the law, either.

“That, I couldn’t tell you.”

“I just wanted to be happy for him.  If there was something to be happy for him about, I mean.  For all we know, it was his brother.”

“Does he have a brother?”

Anna shrugged.  “He doesn’t talk about his family much.” 

“There might be an unhappy reason for that,” Mr. Bates said.  “If they know about him.”

Anna didn’t quite understand what he meant, for a moment.  “You mean they’d disown him?  Over that?”

“They might have done.”  He shrugged.  “It happens, in any case.  There were a few like that in our regiment.  One said he’d joined up because he didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

 “That’s awful.”

Mr. Bates shrugged, and concentrated on the shoe he was polishing for a moment.  “In any case, he’s right to keep his private life private.”

“I suppose so.”  She really had put her foot in it.  “Do you think I ought to try one more time, to let him know I didn’t mean anything?”

Bates paused in his polishing.  “I think I’d leave it alone.  Just pretend you never discussed it.”

“That’s probably what he wants,” Anna agreed.  If the problem was that she’d talked about it, it couldn’t be fixed with more talking. 

“Of course, if we did want to see the back of him….”

Anna looked up at him sharply.  “You don’t mean that.”

“No.  No, I don’t.  Lord Grantham likes him—for some reason.”

#

Knowing better than to ask Miss O’Brien’s advice on which way Anna was likely to jump, the best Thomas could come up with to do was to write to some of his regular correspondents to see what they thought—and hope Anna didn’t do anything drastic while he was waiting for the replies.

She didn’t, but the first few answers were less useful than he’d wanted, focusing on what a ghastly shock it must have been to hear a thing like that.  Reg even suggested that it could come in handy to have someone in the house who was in on the secret—how, Thomas couldn’t begin to guess.

Theo seemed just as oblivious of the severity of the situation, saying that he hoped it would “all blow over,” but at least went on to say, “If you do end up needing to make yourself scarce, there might be something I can do—one of our regular footmen is finding the place a bit too colorful now that Syl’s with us.  If he leaves, I’m sure I can get you an interview!  Lady M. doesn’t mind our sort, and she does like the handsome ones, so I think you’d be all right—as long as the reference will bear looking at!”

Thomas wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to work in a house full of screaming queans either, but at least he had a prospect other than destitution and disgrace, if it came down to it.  That, and the knowledge that he could use what he had on Lady Mary to get the reference sorted out, was enough to give him a break from mentally packing his bags for Australia every minute, but he didn’t really start to relax until he got Peter’s reply—the last of the batch, since he’d had to get back to London before he could read Thomas’s.   The letter came in the morning post, and as soon as breakfast was over, he nipped out into the courtyard to read it in private.

“I can see why you’re worked up,” Peter wrote, “but is it as bad as all that?  Think—did she say it as though she were threatening you?  Of course you’d be much happier if no one ever mentioned anything, but she might have only meant to let you know that you didn’t have to hide it from her.”

Oh.  She hadn’t exactly sounded like she was threatening him—Thomas wasn’t thick enough to miss that—but he hadn’t been able to think of any other reason she’d want to bring it up. 

“There are sympathetic souls in the world, you know,” Peter’s letter went on.   “Not as many as we’d like, but some.  Did I ever tell you, once when Lady D. and the children were here, the governess saw—well, never-you-mind what she saw!  But she never breathed a word, and it makes it a lot less ghastly, when we have to go up to Devonshire, having someone I can talk to.”

Maybe that was what Reg had meant, about it coming in handy.  Thomas still didn’t see it, but he read on.

“In any case, I don’t imagine your housemaid can have seen anything—unless you had two social engagements in the same day—and you’re quite right about the difference between ‘suspecting’ and ‘knowing.’  You know the worst can’t happen without specific details, and if it’s just a matter of finding another place, we’ll think of something.”

Thomas didn’t entirely share Peter’s breezy optimism about his prospects after being sacked, but he was right about prison—they couldn’t send you there for wanting to commit acts of gross indecency; they had to be able to suggest you’d actually committed them, with a particular person at a given place and time.  Between them, Anna and Mrs. Bird possessed more of the necessary details than they probably realized—but even if they did realize, not even Thomas was sufficiently convinced of his own importance to think that the police would launch an investigation based on what a housemaid and a cook thought they knew.

Peter concluded, “I know you like to be prepared for the worst, but if no new calamity has transpired since you wrote, I think the best thing to do is wait and see.  If things still look bleak by the time you come down to London, we’ll talk about it then.  The end of the Season isn’t a bad time to be looking for a new situation—and in the meantime, I’ll keep my ears open for anything that might suit you.  Chin up! 

Yours affectionately, PF.”

It was so thoroughly sensible a letter that Thomas couldn’t help but feel a little better.   Throughout the day’s round of fetching and polishing, and carrying things up to the dining room and then back down again, he thought about his reply.  When, at last, he went up to his room at the end of the day, he sat down and wrote,

                Dear Peter,

No new calamities have, as you say, transpired.  It’s possible that I may have overestimated the degree of danger.  Just a bit.  A. seems fairly solid—though I could wish she’d mind her own business!  And not go around frightening people like that. 

I hope I won’t need it, but you’re right about the end of the Season and finding a place.  Theo has written to say there’s a chance of an opening where he works—could I stand to be under the same roof with S.? Let’s hope I don’t have to find out. (Though living in London might be fun.)

Here, Thomas paused in his writing to consider whether to hint that Peter’s presence there was a point in London’s favor.  He decided on,

                We might see more of each other, in that case.  But I suppose I am all right where I am. 

Your governess intrigues me.  What do you find to talk about?  (I won’t ask what she saw!)  As a matter of fact, I used to be friendly with the lady’s maid here, but that went sour. 

Belatedly, it occurred to Thomas that, if his secret really was a secret, O’Brien would have no reason not to have spread it around by now.  Did that mean that Anna was right?  That most of them knew already, and didn’t mind?

The thought was almost unbearable—like he’d been walking around naked all this time without noticing.  She couldn’t be right; that was all. 

We mostly talked about how stupid and awful everyone else in the house is.  I don’t imagine you and your governess talk about that.  I suppose I’m well shot of her, but now who do I tell it to, when I hate everyone?  (Not A.  She likes everyone, possibly even including me.  It’s incredibly annoying.) 

Hope I can see you when I’m in London, even if things aren’t looking too bleak. 

Yours Affectionately, TB.

#

Not saying anything seemed to have been the right course; within a few days, Thomas had stopped looking at Anna as though she were a poisonous reptile, and a few days after that, he was as close to cheerful as he ever got, talking about the upcoming trip to London as they sat in the servants’ hall in the lull between luncheon and tea. 

“The way the timing works out, I should have two half days, while we’re down there, if Mr. Carson doesn’t try to stiff me,” he observed.  “Shall I bring you anything back?”

“It’s not certain yet, but I might actually get to go this time,” Anna told him.   Housemaids usually didn’t, as the London housekeeper had her own staff, but with Lady Sybil coming out, there were three young ladies to dress now, and all their clothes to be seen to. 

“As lady’s maid, you mean?”

“Well, sort of.  Acting lady’s maid.” 

“Have we got to call you Miss Smith, now?” 

He glanced down at the cigarette he was smoking, reminding Anna of the scene Miss O’Brien had made over Thomas’s smoking in her presence.  Anna decided on the spot that it would not be a good idea to make a point of the possibility that she might temporarily outrank him.  “I shouldn’t think so.  If it does happen, it’ll only be for while we’re in London.”  Like when Thomas had been filling in as valet after Mr. Watson left—only he had made something of a point about it.

“I suppose if they did decide they needed another lady’s maid, they’d only bring someone in over your head anyway.  Like they did to me.” 

“It wouldn’t really be the proper way of doing things, for them to have a lady’s maid when they’re unmarried,” Anna pointed out, ignoring the bitterness that underlay Thomas’s remark.  Honestly, he ought to have realized by now that he was far too young to be his lordship’s valet, even leaving everything else aside.  She understood what he was trying to do—give them something in common to talk about—but she never found any good in churning over an old grievance.  “In any case, if I get a trip to London out of it, I should be happy.  What do you recommend I see, if I get a little time to myself?”

Anna knew perfectly well that Thomas relished any opportunity to play the expert, and he went on quite pleasantly—if just a little patronizingly—about various respectable attractions: picture galleries, the gardens at Kew and Kensington, and what Anna supposed must be the tamer sort of music-halls.  “And of course you’ll want to see the big department stores in Oxford street—but if you play your cards right, you don’t have to waste a half-day on that.  Just get one of the ladies to realize they need something and send you for it, and you’re more or less free to make an afternoon of it.”

“Is that what Miss O’Brien does?” Anna asked shrewdly.

“Mm.  She used to drag me along to carry the parcels.”

“Is that a hint?” she asked, daring to tease a little since he was in a good mood.

“I don’t suppose I mind it, if you’re not keen on going by yourself.” 

“Are they really that much better than the ones in York?” Anna wondered.

“Not in terms of anything the likes of us would actually buy, but there’s a lot more to see.  They make a real effort, arranging the goods so that they look nice, and sometimes they have exhibitions.  Japanese clothes, one of them had once—just to look at, but then you could buy things with Japanese designs on.  Fans and mirrors and things like that.   And you can go in the tea-rooms and see what the fashionable ladies are wearing, which you ought to take an interest in if you’re going to be a lady’s maid.”

“Is that all right, for people like us?” Anna wondered.

Thomas nodded.  “They let in all sorts.  Some of the best restaurants and hotels will just about let you in the bar, too, as long as you’re dressed all right and mind your accent—but maybe that’s not a good idea for a woman, now that I think of it.”

“Likely not,” Anna agreed. 

They were still talking about London—he’d circled back round to gardens again—when William came in.  “I’m glad to see you both here, as I’ve something to ask you,” he announced.

Anna put down her mending for a moment, demonstrating that he had her full attention.  Thomas lit a cigarette and glared at him.

“Mrs. Patmore has said that Daisy and I can go on a picnic, if you two will go along to chaperone us.  Will you do it?”

“Of course,” Anna said, touching Thomas’s arm and giving him a pointed look.   “It’ll be difficult to find a day when the house can spare all four of us, though.”

“We were thinking this coming Saturday.  The ladies will be away most of the day, so it’s only his lordship here for luncheon.”

“And who’s going to take it up to him, if we’re both having a picnic?” Thomas asked.  “Mr. Bates can’t.”  He shot Anna a look that was almost apologetic.

“I thought Mr. Carson could do it, the once,” William suggested.

“Chance would be a fine thing,” Thomas huffed. 

“Well, I think it sounds like a good idea,” Anna said, giving Thomas a quelling look.

He sighed.  “I’m not saying I won’t do it if they let us.  Just don’t get your hopes up.  If Carson knows we’ve got a slack day coming, he’ll already have a list as long as your arm of things for us to do.”

“I’ll speak to Mrs. Hughes,” Anna said.  “If she thinks it’s all right, she may have some ideas about how to approach Mr. Carson.” 

“Thank you,” William said, and darted off—presumably, to the kitchen, to tell Daisy the good news.

“You don’t have to be such a wet blanket,” Anna told Thomas, after he had gone.  “It’ll be fun.”

“I didn’t say it wouldn’t be; I said I didn’t think Mr. Carson would allow it.”  He took an angry puff on his cigarette.  “He certainly wouldn’t if it was me asking.”

“You can’t know that,” Anna said.  If he meant a real date, with someone he really fancied, he was right, of course, but they were pretending she didn’t know that.  “Why don’t you try thinking up something for a few of us to do, and see what he says?”

He gave her a skeptical look.  “Like what?”

“I don’t know—something in London, maybe,” she suggested.

He scoffed.  “You fancy a stroll through Kew Gardens?”

“Well, I’m not saying I won’t do it if they let us,” she teased. 

Anna went to speak to Mrs. Hughes, as promised, after dinner that evening.  She thought well of the plan in general, but agreed with Thomas that Mr. Carson was unlikely to welcome the idea of both footmen being out at once.  “Why not ask Mr. Bates to make the fourth in the party?” she suggested, with a bit of a twinkle in her eye.

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Anna said.  Not given what he’d said about being married.

Unlike Thomas, Mrs. Hughes took her word for it, only saying, “Well, if that’s what you think best.  It might make it a little easier for poor William, though.”

“I think he’s gotten used to Thomas’s ways.”  He’d caught on, thanks to a tip from Gwen, that it frustrated Thomas to no end when one of his barbs sailed right over the intended victim’s head—so he’d taken to pretending that nearly all of them did.  “And I think it does Thomas a bit of good, being included in things like that—not that he’d ever admit he’s enjoying himself.”

“Well, his friendship with Miss O’Brien never did him any good—or the rest of us.  I daresay you’re a better influence on him.”  She sighed.  “I suppose you’d like me to talk Mr. Carson into it.”

“Would you?” Anna asked hopefully.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

#

Thomas wished he could be surprised when Carson did, after all, give permission for the picnic—lecturing him and William on the need to work all the harder before and after, of course.  He wrote a long letter to Peter about the injustice of it all, at got back a satisfactorily lengthy reply.  After extended commiseration, Peter went on,

“But after all, it is a few hours’ worth of not working, in the fresh air with people you, er, hate less than some of the others, so try to have a bit of fun with it.”

He wasn’t wrong, Thomas reflected.  And Daisy and Mrs. Patmore were putting in a bit of an effort over the picnic itself, so at least he’d get some decent grub out of it. 

After some updates on a few people in their circle, Peter wrote,

“I hesitate to mention it, and please don’t take it the wrong way, but I just found out that Lady D. is bringing the children when she comes in July—meaning that Lisel, the governess I spoke of, will be here as well.  If you’re still interested in Kew Gardens, that’s half the party right there, and if your housemaid A. is coming to London, then…. (He trailed off meaningfully!)  I won’t blame you at all if you don’t dare—but I expect Lisel and I could be on our best behavior for an afternoon, and manage not to shock her.”

It was a tempting thought, but he wrote back to Peter that no, he didn’t dare, as a matter of fact—“But thank you, I suppose, for thinking about it.” 

Then the picnic was very nearly called off, on account of Lady Sybil’s attendance at a riot following the by-elections, which somehow called into question her fitness to go to the garden party that was to occupy the ladies for most of the day.  Fortunately, by Saturday morning, Lady Sybil had managed to convince her ladyship to allow her to go, with the result that, shortly after the ladies left in the motor from the front door, the picnic-party set off on foot from the back. 

William only required a pointed look from Thomas to figure out that he ought to take the picnic basket, which Daisy was lugging in both hands, and they fell into the accepted double-date formation, the courting couple in front, and Thomas and his fellow chaperone a discreet ten or fifteen paces behind. 

“Don’t spread it around,” Anna said as they walked, “but it turns out there was another bit of excitement came out of Lady Sybil’s adventure.”

“What’s that?” Thomas asked.  He’d already heard that Branson wasn’t being fired—although, to be fair, there was no reason he should have been, not if it hadn’t been his idea to take her there.

“Well, you know Mr. Matthew rescued her.”

Thomas nodded; they all knew that.

“He and Lady Mary talked afterwards, and…he proposed!”

Now that was a surprise.  “She send him packing?”  There hadn’t been announcement, which suggested she had.

“She told him she’d give her answer when they get back from London.”

“In case she gets a better offer while we’re down there?  Clever girl.”  Lady Mary did know how to play the angles—it was one of the few things Thomas liked about her. 

Anna swatted his arm.  “I don’t think it’s that.  She likes him, but she’s not sure about the difference in their backgrounds.”

“He’s going to be Earl of Grantham,” Thomas said.  “Can’t get a better match for her background than that.” 

“In a way, I think it would be easier for her to sort out what she feels, if that weren’t a consideration,” Anna answered. 

“If that weren’t a consideration, she’d have never laid eyes on him,” Thomas pointed out.  “Can you imagine her as the wife of a provincial solicitor?”

“No,” Anna said thoughtfully.  “But I think she’d like to be the sort of person who could—who’d marry for love and not position.”

Thomas was reminded—he couldn’t have said why—of what Peter had said, about the cottage.  He wouldn’t really do that, either, even if it were somehow possible.  He’d be too conscious of how it would look. 

But he might like to be the sort of person who would. 

“I suppose she’s damned if she does or if she doesn’t,” he said after a while.  “Either they’ll say she’s marrying him because he can make her Countess, or that she’s spurning him because he’s a solicitor from Manchester.”

“Yes, exactly,” Anna agreed.  “And she doesn’t have it in her not to care what they say.”

Thomas could understand that, for certain. 

The picnic spot that William and Daisy had chosen was by the ornamental lake, with a view of the folly on the little island in the middle.  Thomas very carefully did not think about how much more picturesque it was than the spot he’d taken Peter.  There was a small chance of one of the gardeners happening by—which was perfectly all right, since they had permission to be here, and there was no chance of any of the quality seeing them.

Daisy and Anna spread out the picnic blanket, while Thomas and William unpacked the basket.  There were two kinds of sandwiches, deviled eggs, a sort of congealed salad, a bottle of lemonade, and iced cakes.  They all admired the food, prompting Daisy to say of the cakes, “I even did the little flowers on top, so they’d be like if it was a real party.”

“And what is this, if not a real party?” Anna asked.  “Are we playing make-believe?”

But Thomas knew what she meant: a party for the upstairs lot.  He caught William’s eye, and picked up the plate of sandwiches, holding it as he would a tray in the dining room.  William caught on, and they took it in turns to offer the various delicacies to the ladies—though the effect was rather spoiled when they sat down again afterwards and helped themselves. 

“What is that?” Daisy asked at one point, indicating the folly, which was done in the style of a Roman ruin.  “Did somebody used to live there, in olden times?”

“It’s just for looking at,” Thomas informed her.  “They were all the rage, a couple of centuries ago.”

“They built a whole building just to look at?” Daisy was incredulous.

“You’re surprised?” Thomas asked.  “How much of what we do is just for the look of it?”

“Not quite as much of what we do,” Anna pointed out, which was fair enough.  “We’re supposed to be the delicate sex, but we work harder than you lot, any day.  Daisy, especially.”

That turned the talk to the vote for women, and Lady Sybil’s interest in the subject.  William, seeing which way the wind was blowing, claimed to be in favor of it, though Daisy said she wouldn’t know the first thing about who to vote for, anyway.

“You wouldn’t be voting, either way,” Thomas said.  “None of us can.”

“Me dad can,” William objected.  “He doesn’t, but he could.  I think.”

“He’s a tenant,” Thomas said.  “You’ve got to be a householder, and if you live in your employer’s house, you aren’t.  They wrote it that way on purpose, so they wouldn’t have servants voting.”

“Not even Mr. Carson?” Daisy asked.

Thomas hesitated over that one—might there be some sort of exception, that he didn’t know about?  But he answered, “No, not even Mr. Carson,” as though he were sure. 

“I wonder if Lady Sybil knows that,” Anna mused.

“Well, if she’s about to find out, don’t let on it came from me.”  It might amuse Lord Grantham to have a Socialist chauffeur, but Thomas doubted he could handle a political footman—even if the extent of Thomas’s political opinions was that he thought he ought to be allowed to have them, if he wanted. 

Once they’d finished eating, they had a stroll around the lake.  William took it into his head to demonstrate his prowess at skipping stones, which left Thomas morally obligated to outdo him, while the girls watched with poorly-disguised amusement.  Fortunately, even though it had been years since he’d bothered with such a thing, the knack of it came back to him quickly enough. 

Satisfied that he’d upheld the honor of the house, when Daisy gingerly decided to have a go, he stepped back and let William do most of the teaching.  By the time she managed it—a mere two skips, but it was enough to make her jump and clap her hands in glee—it was time for them to be heading back.

When they reached the house, preparations for the Return of the Ladies were in full swing, and Carson practically chased them up the stairs with a broom, to get changed back into their livery so they could serve a tea that the ladies would barely touch, having had all they wanted to eat at the garden party. 

Thomas managed to dodge Carson long enough to check the pigeonholes—he hated the thought of his mail lying out where anyone could see it—and found a note from Joey.  For a moment, he couldn’t remember why—Joey wasn’t a particularly reliable correspondent—then he remembered writing to him, ages ago, about Bates’s cryptic comments on marriage.  He stuffed the envelope in his pocket and ran upstairs, one step ahead of Carson’s wrath.

He ought not to take the time to read it, with the state Carson was in, but Thomas was overcome with curiosity, and quick dressing was one of the many and varied skills required for his sort of life.  He paused with his livery shirt half-open to tear open the envelope and scan the contents. 

What he saw made him sit down hard on the edge of his bed, in the grip of conflicting emotions.  This was much, much worse than a divorce.  It read,

                Dear Thomas,

Hope your well, &c.  Sorry it’s taken me a long time to answer your last, but it’s quite a story, and I wanted to be sure I had all of it before I wrote.  To answer your question, yes he is married—but he’s told his particular friends that he’d sooner sleep under a bridge than live again with her as man and wife.  His words!  So I suppose that much of it is all right.  But hold on to your hat!

The rest of it is that he’s a gaol-bird.  Convicted of theft of regimental silver.  No one who knows him believes he did it—in fact, his wife was seen scurrying away with a loaded satchel on the night in question.  But he took the fall for it, and did two years, on the strength of his own confession.  Everyone in the regiment knows about it.

From a certain light, it sounds like a romantic story, but I should step carefully if I were you.  There’s no telling what a man like that might do next, and you don’t want to be in the way next time he decides to fall on his sword.  As far as his general character, he’s said to be a sanctimonious prig, and came back from the war drinking more than is good for him and with a temper, to boot.  The sort that’s always sorry after, but.  And no one’s sure if that’s got something to do with why he went to prison for his nasty wife—no one ever saw a mark on her—but it stands to reason, doesn’t it? 

And besides all that, there’s no sign at all he sees things our way—not even in South Africa, when there wasn’t a woman in sight, not counting natives.  I hope you know what you’re doing, is all I’ll say! 

                                                Yrs., Joey K.

With a story like that, he could get Mr. Bates out of his way for good.  But not a soul would thank him for it, not once they heard the more sympathetic details.  We can’t have a thief in the house, they’d all say, but he isn’t, really.  If only Thomas hadn’t gone and stirred the pot!

He almost wished he hadn’t stirred it, himself.  It was agony, having this sort of dirt on his rival, and knowing that everyone—Anna, in particular—would think him the worst sort of scum if he used it. 

Especially if she was right, that most of them—Bates included—knew something almost as bad about him, and never used it. 

#

“Come outside with me,” Thomas said, dropping into the seat beside Anna at the servants’ hall table the day after their picnic.

“Why?  It’s the first chance I’ve had to sit down since breakfast.”  They’d been giving the library what Mrs. Hughes called “a proper going over,” and it had taken forever—payment for yesterday’s picnic, no doubt. 

“There’s something you had better see.”

He sounded grim enough that she got up on her aching feet and followed him to the courtyard.  Something must have happened, she thought—perhaps something to do with the matter they weren’t to speak of.  Once they were in the courtyard, he handed her a letter, carefully folded to show just one section.  “Read it,” he said, lighting a cigarette as he did so.

Thinking it was about Thomas, she didn’t understand at first when she read, “The rest of it is that he’s a gaol-bird.”  It wasn’t until she got to the part about “everybody in the regiment,” at the end, that the penny dropped.  “This is about Mr. Bates?”  She couldn’t believe it.

Thomas nodded.  “I know you said you didn’t want to know, about his being married, but I did, so I wrote my friend, and—well.  That’s the reply.”

Anna’s thoughts were a whirl.  Mr. Bates, in prison?  It couldn’t be.  “Do you suppose his lordship knows?”

“He can’t possibly.”

She looked again at the letter.  “It says everyone in the regiment—”

“He won’t mean officers.” 

She supposed not—they didn’t usually mean the upstairs lot, when they said everyone.  “It could ruin him, if this gets out.”

“As would I, if other things got out, which you were so lightly speaking of the other day.” 

Thomas’s voice was hard, and she looked up at him in surprise.  Oddly enough—given it was Thomas—she’d assumed he was showing her this as a friend; only now did she consider his motive. 

Her worst fears were confirmed when he said, “So here’s what I want for keeping quiet.”

She braced herself for the blackmail demand. 

“You’ll keep quiet about the other thing—that goes without saying.”

It did, in fact, and had even before he’d shown her this. 

“And while we’re in London, we’re having another double-date,” he informed her. 

Hadn’t she already said she would?  “I’m not going anywhere that’s not respectable,” she warned him.

He gestured dismissively with his cigarette.  “Kew Gardens, or something.  He’s bringing the governess from his place.  Nothing for anyone to look askance at.”

She waited for him to get along to something he couldn’t have just asked, without something to hold over her, but after a long moment in which he didn’t say anything else, she asked, “Is that it?”

He nodded, curtly.

 It was another moment where she didn’t know whether to slap him or pity him.  “First of all,” she said tartly, “that sounds lovely; I accept.  Secondly, I can’t believe your nerve—trying to blackmail me with someone else’s secret?”

He drew himself up.  “You said you didn’t want it getting out.” 

“I said it could ruin him,” she corrected.  “But he must’ve known that when he did it—when he decided to confess—and if it was anything immoral you’d wanted, I’d tell you to whistle for it.”   Mr. Bates wouldn’t want her to suffer for his wife’s crime; she was sure of that—and if she was mistaken in that, she didn’t care what he wanted. 

 Thomas frowned at her and said, “You do understand that you and this other girl are there as protective cover?”

“I gathered.”  She read over the paragraph one more time.  “I don’t know what we ought to do about this.   The part about,” she lowered her voice, “prison is bound to come out, wouldn’t you think?  But the full story reflects rather well on him, when you think about it.”

With a wince, Thomas plucked the letter out of her hand.  After reading it over, he re-folded it so that a different paragraph showed, and handed it back, saying, “Maybe you had better read this part…he got the wrong idea about why I was asking, but it’s not too shocking.”

“From a certain light, it sounds like a romantic story,” it began.  It was immediately clear what “wrong idea” Thomas’s friend had gotten, though it was never quite put into words.  That, Anna supposed, was what he’d meant about it not being “too shocking,” because the things it said about Mr. Bates were shocking indeed. 

She’d had some idea about his temper, of course, but that it was a matter of open speculation whether or not he beat his wife meant that it was worse than she’d thought—or at least, had been worse, at one time.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him take a drink, now I think of it,” she said.

“I’m not sure I have, either.  Maybe he gave it up.”  He shrugged.  “Still, like Joey said, I should step carefully if I were you.”

It was just a little bit touching, that Thomas had someone who cared enough to warn him off a dangerous man—and that he cared enough to pass the warning on to her.  Although he seemed to have gotten a wrong idea, as well.  “He’s married,” she reminded him.  “I’m not going to step at all.”  She handed the letter back.  “I’m not sure we should keep it to ourselves, something this big.  I know you think it’s silly the way Mr. Carson goes on about the honor of the house, but if it were known there was a convicted thief employed here…well, for one thing, anyone who’s ever visited and then misplaced something would suspect forever that it had been stolen here.”   

“You think we should rat him out?” Thomas asked. 

“Not rat him out,” Anna objected. 

“We can keep it to ourselves or we can rat him out.  If there’s another option, I’m not seeing it.”

Put that way, Anna didn’t see one, either—although she thought there was an important difference between relaying a story because it ought to be known, rather than to get someone in trouble.  “Don’t you think there’s a chance his lordship knows?”  If he did, then it wouldn’t be their place to say anything about it. 

Thomas looked skeptical.  “I don’t think it’s likely.”  He shook his head.  “I don’t see how we can find out, either.  If Miss O’Brien could still be relied on, we could get around Carson that way, take it to her ladyship, but….”

“Miss O’Brien could never be relied on,” Anna informed him.  She didn’t know why Thomas had ever thought she could.  “She’d be the worst possible person to tell.”

“No, I see that.”  He tossed the end of his cigarette down and stamped on it.  “Well, if anyone finds out we knew and didn’t say, we can say we thought his lordship must have known.  Mr. Bates being such an honorable man.”

“I’m not worried about that,” Anna said, as they headed inside.  How would anyone find out that they knew?

“More fool you,” Thomas muttered. 

#

Well, that had…not at all gone the way Thomas had expected it to.  He wasn’t sure which was more surprising—that Anna was thinking about spilling Bates’s secret, or how thoroughly unimpressed she’d been with the price he’d planned to exact for his silence.  Saying “Is that it?”, as though being asked to help two deviants go on a date was a perfectly reasonable and commonplace request.

He decided to leave the Bates matter in Anna’s hands—everybody liked her, so no matter what she decided to do, everyone would think it was all right.  The other thing, though, he had to be sure about.  It would take a bit of planning, if it was going to come off, and he wasn’t entirely sure he hadn’t missed something. 

So that evening, as they sat down to dinner, he asked her, as casually as he could manage, “Should I write my friend about that visit to Kew Gardens, then?”

She nodded, giving him a puzzled glance.  “I already said I’d like to go.  I only hope we can find a day we’re all free.”

She didn’t say it particularly quietly, either, leading Mrs. Hughes to ask, “What’s this?”

While the whole point of taking two girls along was that it wouldn’t have to be kept a secret, Thomas hadn’t been planning to announce the thing at dinner, for heaven’s sake.  But now that Mrs. Hughes had asked, there was nothing for it but to say, “Anna and I are hoping to see to Kew Gardens, while we’re in London.”

“With some friends of Thomas’s,” Anna added.

“I’m not sure I like the sound of that,” Mr. Carson intoned. 

Mrs. Hughes glanced over at him, and said, “I’m sure they’re perfectly respectable people,” with just a hint of a question in her tone.

“Of course,” Anna said.  “They’re valet and governess for….”

“The Denhams,” Thomas supplied. 

“Which Denhams?” Carson asked suspiciously.

“The Sir Henry Denhams,” Thomas said. 

“Don’t Lady Denham and the children spend most of their time in the country?” Carson asked.  “What’s the governess doing in London?”

“It happens that Lady Denham, the children, and governess are in London the same time we are,” Thomas explained.  God, was this what it was like for normal people—having your private life picked over at the dinner table, in front of everyone?  If it was, they could just about keep it, as far as he was concerned.  “I don’t actually know the young woman, but Mr. Fitzroy—my friend—has been keen for us to meet.”

“Well, a governess’s character must be above even a hint of reproach,” Mrs. Hughes said, “so I suppose that as long as Lady Denham has no objection, neither do I.”  She gave Carson a pointed look.

He grumbled a bit, and said, “I can’t promise that I’ll be able to spare you on any particular day.  Not until we know how much entertaining we’ll be doing.”

“Of course, Mr. Carson,” Thomas said.  With decent luck, they wouldn’t be doing much entertaining—the young ladies ought to get plenty of invitations to keep them busy—but Carson believed they had to be ready for everything.  And a good thing, too; if he didn’t feel like he needed every available footman, chances were Thomas would never see London again. 

“Well, then,” Carson said.  “We shall see, when the time comes.”

With that, mercifully, the talk turned to other subjects.

#

Mrs. Hughes tapped at the door to Mr. Carson’s pantry, where he was going over the books.  She handed him a cup of tea and took the seat across from his desk—the petitioner’s chair, she’d heard one of the footmen before William calling it.

“You will help them find a day they can go to Kew Gardens, I hope.”

Mr. Carson scoffed, and blew on the tea to cool it.  “He’s not half as clever as he thinks he is.  I know perfectly well what he’s up to.”

“All of the others have been allowed to have their dates,” Mrs. Hughes pointed out.

“And he’s been on more of them than anyone else, if that’s the way he wants to play it.”

Mrs. Hughes gave him a flat look.  “I’ve spoken to Anna about it, and as far as I can tell, the young man is perfectly respectable.”

Mr. Carson gave her a look that mirrored her own.  “I don’t see how that can be.”

“With one glaring exception, perhaps,” she conceded.  “I think it’s rather sweet that he’s gone to the trouble of arranging a chaperone.  He’d not have had to.”

“And I think he just wants to rub our faces in it.”

“You’d rather he went behind our backs?”

“I’d rather not have to think about it at all.  And dragging Anna into the sordid business!”

“They’re going walking in a garden,” Mrs. Hughes pointed out.  As couples had done since Adam and Eve—although perhaps that wasn’t the best comparison to draw.  “How sordid can it be?”

Mr. Carson huffed, and shook his head. 

Chapter Text

In the days leading up to the removal of the household to London, Carson kept Thomas so busy that he barely had a chance to glance at a newspaper.  As a result, the news of the assassination of an Austrian Archduke would have passed him completely by, except for a conversation overheard while he was serving dinner, in which Lord and Lady Grantham attempted to remember whether they had ever dined with anyone who had dined with him. 

It wasn’t until the first night in London, when he was attempting to catch up with his correspondence in the tiny attic room that he was being forced to share with William for the next month, that he received the first hint that this event might ever affect him in any way.  In a letter mostly devoted to the plans for Kew Gardens, Peter wrote,

By the way, Lisel wanted me to make sure that you and A. know that she is Swiss and not German, thank you very much.  She says that everyone on the Continent is looking sideways at Germany now, convinced they’ll use this thing about the Archduke as a pretext for some sort of show of force.  And Sir H. was holding forth the other day about how if they do, we’ll have to take France’s side against them…though how France comes into it is beyond me.  If you understand it better than I do, please explain it to me!

In any case, Joey—who would know—has said that they’re already drawing up plans for mass mobilization.  But perhaps they do that any time there’s even a hint of something happening?

It’ll probably all come to nothing, so I only hope it doesn’t cast a shadow over your time in London. 

Thomas didn’t understand it any better that Peter did; in fact, he understood it quite a bit less.  Stuffing the letter back in the envelope, he said to William, “Do you suppose we’ll end up going to war?”

“What?” William asked, looking baffled. 

“Over this business with the Archduke.”

“Why would we?”

“Never mind.”  Satisfied that he wasn’t the most abysmally ignorant person in the room, Thomas turned his attention to a letter from Theo, which was full of complicated details on which bars were the most interesting on which nights of the week, should he manage to slip away unexpectedly one evening.

He expected he would, but before it could even be thought of, they had the ordeal of a London dinner party to get through—ostensibly, it was in honor of the woman who’d presented Lady Sybil at court earlier in the year, but its real purpose was to announce open season on the Crawley sisters. 

Their London house, like all London houses of its kind, was set up to comfortably accommodate a large dinner—which meant bugger-all space was left over for anything else.  Even the family’s living quarters were a bit cramped—by their standards, anyway—and downstairs was a rabbits’ warren, with everything needing to be carried upstairs through a maze of dark and narrow passages.  It would serve them all right, Thomas had many occasions to reflect, if he broke his neck trying to get to the dining room before a sauce cooled or the ices melted. 

When, at last, the guests had gone and they were slumped over the servants’ hall table catching their breath, William said, “Makes you appreciate how much nicer everything is at home, doesn’t it?”

“Oh, shut up,” Thomas told him. 

The next day, there was all the cleaning-up and putting-away to do, but upstairs, the invitations rolled in as expected, and soon came the blessed night when all the family were out of the house with engagements that would keep them well past midnight.  After an early supper in the servants’ hall, Mr. Carson announced stentoriously that he’d be going along to his club now—he belonged to one, for butlers—and “I trust I can rely upon the two of you to mind the door, and the telephone.”

“Yes, Mr. Carson,” they chorused. 

As soon as he’d been gone long enough there was no chance of him popping back in for an umbrella or something, Thomas said, “Right, then, I’m off.”

“What?” William asked, dumbfounded.  Then, once he’d caught on, “You can’t!  We’re supposed to answer the door.”

“Does it really take two of us?  There’s no sense both of us wasting our evening.”

“Then why do you get to go?”

Because I’m first footman, you little tit.  “Have you got anything better to do?  No?  Didn’t think so.  I have.”  William still looked mulish, so Thomas added, “If you think of something to do, I suppose you could have the next one.”

William sighed.  “I’m not lying for you.”

“If Mr. Carson asks you, point blank, whether I was here all evening, go right ahead and tell him I wasn’t,” Thomas assured him, secure in the knowledge that Carson would not ask. 

“What if he comes back before you do?”

That wasn’t likely, either—Carson didn’t get many chances to let his hair down; he’d make the most of it.  “Tell him I stepped outside a while ago—which is no lie, because I will have done—and I’ll figure the rest of it out later.”  Possibly something about a stray dog he had to return to its home, or a lady deposited on the wrong street by a taxi. 

After galloping all the way to the top of the house and back again to change his livery for his best off-duty suit—and a quick glance at Theo’s letter to confirm where he was going—he was free in the night air, bound for the Criterion bar. 

The place was mainly good for picking up toffs—which Thomas was not in the mood to do, even if he’d had the time—but he’d be pushing his luck to risk anywhere that might be raided, when he wasn’t even supposed to be out.  Fortunately, several of his own set were lined up along the bar, not having picked anyone up yet, and he joined them. 

Peter wasn’t among them—nor Theo, or Michael, or Reg, or a few others he’d have particularly liked to see—but he bore up manfully under the disappointment, and allowed Syl to kiss him on the cheek and call him “darling,” saying only “Hullo, Syl,” in response. 

Once he’d been set up with a drink and introduced to those of the group he didn’t already know, someone floated the suggestion of moving on to somewhere more exciting.  “Can’t,” Thomas said, lighting a cigarette.  “As we speak, I’m minding the door at Grantham House, ready to spring into action should anyone knock on it.”

One of the new fellows—Drew, Thomas thought his name was, or at least that’s the one he’d given—said, “You’d better shift it, if you want to hook one before you’ve got to go back.”

Thomas made a quick scan of the talent on offer before saying, “I don’t fancy it, really.”

 “You’re the one who came up with that game, weren’t you?” asked one of the Daves—there were three of them, all blond, and Thomas could never remember which one was which.  “Having it off with as many as you could of the men the daughters in your house had danced with?”

“It was,” Thomas said.  “But I got tired of it.” 

Syl explained, “Poor Thomas hasn’t quite been the same ever since he was seduced and abandoned by a wicked Duke.”

That wasn’t quite the way that Thomas would have put it, but it wasn’t completely wrong.  “As a matter of fact, he dumped both of us on the same night—first Lady M., then me.” 

“Have you seen Fitz, yet?” the Dave asked.  Some of them called Peter that, because there was another Peter, too.  “He says you’ve got all sorts of plans.”

“Not yet,” Thomas answered. 

“I don’t know what it is you did up there on the moors, or whatever it is, but he is counting the days, Darling,” Syl informed him.  “Counting.  The.  Days.”

“Good,” Thomas said.  “And it’s dales.  Yorkshire’s got dales.”

“Moors, dales, fens—what difference does it make?”

Rather a lot—Thomas wouldn’t be caught dead having an assignation in a fen—but he didn’t argue the point, and changed the subject by asking Syl, “How d’you like working with Theo, anyway?”

That simple question unleashed a flood of anecdotes too lively to be entrusted to the Royal Mail, which carried them through until it was time for Thomas to tear himself away. 

Past time, really—he was in the middle of changing back into his livery when Carson got home.  But that was all right; as far as anyone knew, he might have been visiting the toilet—which not even Mr. Carson could prevent them from doing. 

The next few days were similarly slack.  Carson didn’t go out again, unfortunately, which relegated Thomas to spending his evenings playing cards with William and Bates in the servants’ hall, but he and Anna did manage a trip to Oxford Street, where he played the old hand in showing off the most impressive shops.

#

Anna wasn’t too surprised to find London anything but the easy holiday it was to Thomas.  The family spent most of their time whirling from one social engagement to the next, which left very little for the footmen do to, other than accepting cards during the calling hours, but the more invitations the girls had, the busier Anna was.  They could easily go through six or more changes of clothes, apiece, in a single day, if they had, for instance, a morning’s ride, followed by a luncheon and then a tea, a small dinner, and then crowned it all off with a ball in the evening.  A luncheon and a tea may or may not call for the same dress, depending on the relative status of the hostesses, and a dinner dress could only be worn on to a ball if the dinner was a particularly grand one.  Shopping, musical evenings, and theater parties introduced additional complications. 

One evening, she was dressing them all in the room that Lady Edith and Lady Sybil shared—a source of great strife, and Anna was sometimes hard-pressed not to make it known to them that she was currently sharing a bed with another housemaid, and a third girl in the room with them, all in a space the size of a matchbox, and she was glad to do it because the alternative was rooming with Miss O’Brien—when Lady Mary asked, “Have you gotten to do anything fun while we’re in town, Anna?”

“I’ve had a few nice walks, my lady,” she said, putting in hairpins.  “And I had the chance to look round the big shops, when I was getting your stockings.”

“Is that all?” asked Lady Sybil. 

“Some of us were hoping to get a party to go to Kew Gardens,” she admitted. 

“Kew Gardens?” Lady Mary said.  “I’m not sure that was still fashionable when Granny was a girl.”

“I daresay if it was too fashionable, we wouldn’t be comfortable going there, my lady,” Anna pointed out.  “But in any case, I’m not sure we’ll find the time.” 

“Oh, but you must have a proper day out,” Lady Sybil enthused.  She met Lady Mary’s eyes in the mirror.  “How can we arrange it?”

Lady Mary considered it.  “Any minute now, Mama will start wondering if all this excitement is quite good for our health, and she’ll insist we each spend a day resting.  We must all agree to the same day, and then Anna should be able to slip away.”

Anna wasn’t entirely sure it would work—there was the matter of Thomas and his friends managing to be free on the same day—but she only said, “That would be kind of you, my lady.” 

The three girls set about comparing their social calendars, looking for engagements that they were willing to miss—or, rather, Lady Mary and Lady Sybil chose a day, and then Lady Mary browbeat Lady Edith into agreeing to it, although she said that the play she’d been asked to was one she particularly wanted to see.  Anna felt a little bit sorry for her—but only a little bit, as Lady Edith had had her choice of things to do every day since they’d gotten here. 

 She told Thomas of the arrangement at dinner that evening, and thanks to the efficiency of the London post, by the next evening he had a reply from his friend saying that he and the governess, whose name was Lisel, would manage to be free that day and meet them outside Grantham House after lunch. 

Anna left it to Thomas to arrange his own freedom, and to her surprise, he elected to do it by saying, in the middle of their dinner, “Mr. Carson, as the young ladies have said they won’t be needing Anna on Tuesday, we thought we’d have that visit to Kew Gardens then, if that’s all right with you.”

Mr. Carson clenched his jaw. 

“There’s no one dining, and the ladies won’t be At Home to visitors, so it seems a good time.”

“And was anyone going to ask my opinion of this?” asked Mrs. Tanner, the London housekeeper, fixing Anna with a gimlet eye. 

Anna hesitated.  As acting lady’s maid, she wasn’t really under Mrs. Tanner’s supervision.  Before she could think quite how to say that, Mr. Carson answered, “Mrs. Hughes has already given Anna her permission for this…outing.”  Anna could practically hear his teeth grinding as he said it—but he wouldn’t allow Mrs. Tanner to pull rank on Mrs. Hughes, not even with he disagreed with her.

“They aren’t going alone, are they?” Mrs. Tanner demanded. 

“I am given to understand,” Mr. Carson said with great dignity, “that the rest of the party comprises the valet and governess of Sir Henry Denham’s household.”

Mrs. Tanner attempted to stare Mr. Carson down, but folded, saying, “Very well.  But I will need to see these people, to make certain that they are respectable companions for a maid under my charge.”

Having won the battle, Mr. Carson magnanimously conceded that point to her.  “If you think it best.”

“So we can go, then,” Thomas put in, with just a hint of a question. 

Mr. Carson glowered at him.  “I suppose it’s as good a time as any for your half-day.”

Thomas looked for an instant like he might kick at that—the others had had their dates without using a half-day for it—but wisely decided to take what he was given.  “Thank you, Mr. Carson.”

 When they went up to bed that evening, Anna had to endure rigorous questioning from her roommates, who as London staff were not nearly as familiar with Thomas as the Downton staff were, and were under the impression that she and Thomas were sweethearts.

“No, it’s nothing like that,” she told them.  Thinking back to the story Thomas had spun in the servants’ hall at Downton, she said, “His friend wants to introduce him to the other girl who’s going, the governess.  Mrs. Hughes has been letting us go out in mixed parties of four, lately, so it seemed the best way.”

That led to further question about these mixed parties, and whether or not Mrs. Tanner could ever be persuaded to allow them—which, fortunately, required no further dissembling.

#

It was with some trepidation that Thomas wrote to Peter that they’d now be required to submit to Mrs. Tanner’s inspection before going out.  Peter’s reply indicated that he was unconcerned at the prospect—perhaps because he’d never met Mrs. Tanner—but Thomas didn’t have much time to be relieved about it, because he also said, “By-the-by, I’ve managed to get my hands on a bottle of Champagne, so if you two can wrangle a picnic tea out of your cook, we should do pretty nicely all round."

Thomas usually put himself in charge of drinkables, and left the food up to the other party, precisely because it was a lot easier stealing a bottle of something than talking anything out of Mrs. Trout, the temporary cook Mrs. Tanner had hired when they’d decided that Mrs. Patmore was too blind to accompany the household to London.   At least, not without answering a lot of questions about why he wanted it. 

Granted, on this occasion his plans were no secret—for the most part—but he still quailed at the idea.  He was of the opinion that Anna was better suited for the task, but when he suggested it to her, she shook her head.  “It’s your date—you’re on your own.”

In the end, Mrs. Trout grumbled quite a bit, but on the day of, produced a decent enough basket of sandwiches and biscuits—surprisingly, because she didn’t put nearly as much effort into the servants’ meals as Mrs. Patmore did. 

Changing out of his livery after the upstairs luncheon, Thomas dithered a bit over his choice of suit.  He’d have liked to wear his best one, but they were likely to be sitting on the ground, weren’t they?  In the end, he went with his brown one, and a new tie. 

Despite the dithering, he was still left cooling his heels by the back door, smoking several nervous cigarettes while he waited for Peter and what’s-her-name to show up.  (Thomas knew perfectly well that her name was Lisel.)

 Anna joined him at about the time they were supposed to meet the others.  Glancing down at the pile of cigarette-ends at his feet, she asked, “How long have you been out here?”

“Not long,” Thomas lied. 

Anna huffed slightly, but didn’t argue. 

#

It was all Anna could do not to tease Thomas, about how obviously nervous he was—obvious to anyone who knew him more than a little, anyway.  As if the turning up early weren’t enough of a clue, he kept taking off his hat to check his hair in the window-pane of the back door. 

Thomas’s beau, when he arrived, as not nearly as handsome as Anna would have expected.  She would have thought Thomas would only bother with someone even better-looking than he was, but Peter Fitzroy was fairly ordinary, with sandy-colored hair that curled a bit, and a nose that was a little small, and a mouth a little large, for his face.  But when he caught sight of Thomas, his face lit up, very much as William’s had when he saw Daisy prettied up to go to the fair. 

They greeted each other as “Fitzroy” and “Barrow,” with an enthusiastic, two-handed handshake that went on just a second or two longer than usual, before breaking apart to make introductions. 

Lisel was not the tall, severe blonde that her name and profession had conjured up in Anna’s mind, but a small, plump woman with curly brown hair that threatened at every moment to escape her hairpins.  She quickly agreed to be on first-name terms with Anna, and, clasping Thomas’s hand in both of hers, said, “Peter has told me so much of you, I feel that we’re friends already,” in a vaguely Continental accent.

Mr. Fitzroy greeted her a little more formally, with an ordinary handshake and, “Miss Smith, I’m so glad you could join us.”

They all trooped inside to submit to Mrs. Tanner’s inspection.  Anna would much rather it had been Mrs. Hughes instead, and cringed inwardly when the housekeeper, looking at Lisel, said suspiciously, “You don’t look very much like a Swiss governess, Miss Schrantz.”

Lisel only smiled pleasantly and said, “It is true, we’re a very mixed people in my country.  On my father’s side, we are Swiss-German, and on my maman’s, Swiss-French—with a bit of Italian for flavor.”

“She’s brilliant at languages,” Mr. Fitzroy added. 

Mrs. Tanner had little choice but to accept this explanation, and they set off, Lisel explaining that there was a tram they could catch, not too far away, and taking Thomas’s arm to lead the way. 

Anna followed, on Mr. Fitzroy’s arm.  He seemed a little wary of her, stiffly asking the usual sort of questions, about where she was from and how she liked London.  He finally unbent a little when she gave him the opportunity to talk about Thomas, asking if they had been friends for long.

“Oh, ages—since he was a junior footman at Lady Waterstone’s.” 

He said this as though Anna must have known all about it—though in fact, none of them had the slightest idea what Thomas had done before he’d come to Downton, except that he must have been in service somewhere, to have gotten the job. 

“He had kind of a hard time at first—I mean, you know how he is.  Wanted us all to think he’d been born knowing everything there was to know about running a great house.”

The fondness in his tone was unmistakable, though it sounded to Anna as though he must have been insufferable.  “It’s hard to imagine him younger.  He’s so…self-possessed.”

“Mm,” Fitzroy said, in a tone of agreement.  “You know how almost everybody goes through a stage, growing up, when they look sort of like a moulting ostrich?”

It wasn’t a comparison Anna would have thought of on her own, but she knew at once what he meant.  “Yes?”

“Not Thomas.  One day he was tiny and adorable—”  He used his hand to indicate a height considerably shorter than Thomas’s current one—“and overnight, he looked like that.”  He gestured to indicate current appearance.  “Really unfair.  I was awkward and spotty for years.”

Anna giggled, and Thomas spun around—nearly bowling Lisel over in the process.  “Are you talking about me?” he asked suspiciously.

“What else would we be talking about?” Fitzroy asked.  “I was only telling her how cute you were as a junior footman.”

“I was never cute,” Thomas declared, but he was smiling as he said it. 

“No, of course not,” Fitzroy said innocently.  “I must’ve been thinking of someone else.”

Satisfied, Thomas turned around.  Once he was facing front again, Fitzroy mouthed the words “So cute,” to Anna.  “He was like a really angry kitten.”

Now that, Anna could almost imagine. 

#

When they boarded the tram, Thomas could sit with Peter—it was just a little “fast” for a man and woman to share a seat, so for a party like theirs, the most respectable option was for the men to sit together and the women likewise.  The girls sat behind them, and so, by turning half-sideways to talk to them, and stretching his arm along the back of the seat, Peter managed to come very close to putting his arm around Thomas—and, in fact, by tapping his shoulder as though to emphasize a point, actually did so for a fraction of a second. 

If they were going to get away with sitting like that, though, it had to be apparent to any observer that they and the two girls were together—which meant finding a subject that all four of them could talk about.  Once they’d said all they could think of about the weather, that subject turned out to be the news from Europe. 

“At home,” Lisel said, “the talk has moved on from whether there shall be a war, to whom we ought to side with—France or Germany.”

“How is France involved?” Anna asked.  “I know Germany’s expected to take Austria’s side, and Russia to take Serbia’s, but France seems far enough away not to be bothered.”

Lisel launched into a complicated explanation involving treaties between Serbia and Russia, Russia and France, France and Britain.  Thomas supposed she must be a fairly good governess, because while she was talking about it, he almost felt that he understood it. 

“Wait,” he said, once she’d finished.  “The Serbians are the ones who started it all, by assassinating the Archduke?  But we’re taking their side?”

“Well, one could also say that the Austrians started it by seizing territory which was not theirs, in the Bosnian crisis a few years ago,” Lisel said.  “Or that either of these things might be overcome, if Germany were not so eager for a war—or if Russia were not.” 

“So which is it really?” Anna wondered.

Lisel shrugged.  “All of them?  None of them?  In any case, my Papa is glad that I am in England at this time.  Even if England does join the war, it should be safer here than anywhere on the continent.”

“For you, maybe,” Peter said, with a sigh.  “Sir Henry is already talking about how it’s our duty to enlist, if there is a war.  I gather he thinks doing without a valet and footmen will be his contribution to the struggle.”

“Lord Grantham better not get any ideas like that,” Thomas said.  “I’m not going unless they drag me, kicking and screaming.”

“If you do that, they shove you into the infantry and you’re cannon fodder,” Peter disagreed.  “If you sign up early, you get some choice in where you go.  Eddie says the medical corps isn’t too bad—they work you like a dog, but at least you’re in a safe, clean hospital, and nobody can say you aren’t doing your bit.  I’ll go for that, if it comes to it.” 

He had a point.  “I suppose if you have to go,” Thomas conceded. 

“I don’t much fancy my chances of getting another place with a reference that says I’ve been sacked for refusing to serve king and country,” Peter answered. 

They all thought about that for a moment, until the tram began slowing for their stop.  Lisel said, “It’s a lovely day in the English summer—let’s not spoil it by talking of gloomy things.”

That was fine with Thomas.  Once they had disembarked, Anna suggested the next topic of conversation, asking Lisel, “What made you decide to come to England as a governess?”

“Well,” she said, “I had already taught English and French to little German girls, and English and German to little French girls, so teaching French and German to little English girls seemed the next step, no?”

“D’you mind being so far from home?” Thomas wondered.  He’d hated moving to London, when he’d first gone into service, and he’d hated leaving it when he got the job at Downton. 

“Sometimes,” she said.  “But I have always wanted to travel.  You know how in the silly novels, they say that the heroine’s fortune was in her face?  My fortune is in my brain.   My father, he is a schoolmaster, like in your village schools here, so, not much money, but I had a good education—as good as any boy gets.  Everywhere, the fashionable people want a foreign governess, so I can support myself whereve I go.”

“Lisel has itchy feet,” Peter said, fondly, as they passed through the gates into the garden.  “Never stays in one place too long.”

“I don’t think I’d care for it,” Anna said.  “Being away from everyone and everything you know.”

“It is not for everyone,” Lisel said politely.  “Now, shall we aim for some destination in particular, or simply see where our feet take us?”

Automatically, Thomas turned to Anna for the answer, but she said, “Why don’t you choose?”

Oh, right—this was supposed to be his date.  Though how you decided who did what, when two blokes were on a date, Thomas had no idea—the question had never arisen before in his life.  “Well, uh, the Pagoda’s supposed to be good, isn’t it?”  He’d found a guidebook in the library at Downton, but it was several decades out of date.  “Let’s head for that, and see what else we run into on the way.”

The others agreed to this plan, and they set off.   In the circumstances, the chaperones couldn’t follow at a discreet distance, but since the path was wide and the garden not very busy, Thomas and Peter were able to walk side-by-side, with the girls to either side of them.   They couldn’t hold hands, of course, but they could sort of knock their elbows together once in a while. 

It was, Thomas reflected, going to be the longest time they’d spent together with all their clothes on, since they had been working in the same house.  What had he been thinking?  They couldn’t even hope to find a private corner to kiss, with Anna and Lisel wondering where they’d gone off to.   “When do you need to be back?” he asked Peter.  Maybe they could go somewhere else, after this.

“I have to dress him for dinner, but I can slip out again after,” Peter answered.  “You?”

That sounded promising.  “It’s supposed to be my half-day—unless I get roped into something when I take Anna home.”  He glanced over at her, walking on Peter’s other side.

“I’ll need to dress the young ladies for dinner, as well,” she said.  “And I won’t be slipping out again.”

“I’m to be back for nursery supper,” Lisel added. 

While Anna and Lisel talked about the difficulties of getting away from their respective charges, Peter said, quietly, “So—meet at the Crit., then dancing?”

“Dancing” had to mean the club they had talked about when they’d last met; Peter had said it had a dance floor.  “Sounds good.” 

“—do get out quite a bit, with the children,” Lisel was saying.  “Like that.”  She nodded towards a primly-dressed woman who was reading a guidebook aloud to several bored children.  “Although I have not been here before—Lady Denham does not think it fashionable enough.”

“I don’t suppose it’s much fun,” Thomas observed, looking at the other governess. 

“Well, not if you do it like that,” Lisel agreed.  “But if you let the children choose what they are drawn to, and then find a way they can learn something about it, that is more interesting for all concerned.  For instance, I might ask what they think that is.”  She indicated a large glass house that was just coming into view; Thomas knew from his guidebook that it was called the Palm House; they grew tropical plants in it. 

He said as much, and Lisel said, “That is true, but if you were a child and did not know that, what might you think about it?”

To Thomas’s surprise—and possibly her own—Anna said, “It looks a bit like a giant birdcage.”

It actually did.  The middle part, anyway—there was a sort of dome at the middle, like a birdcage, though the two wings to either side stretched further than they would on an actual birdcage.  Now that she’d mentioned it, Thomas was surprised anyone could look at it and not see that it resembled a birdcage.  “So what?” he asked.  “How are they learning anything from that?”

“Thomas!” Anna scolded. 

“I’m just saying—it’s not like any lesson I ever had in school.”

“Well,” Lisel said, with an expression of mock sternness, “If they are like you, and would prefer a proper lesson to thinking for themselves, I would open my guidebook and say, it is thus-and-so many feet long, and such a number of feet wide, so what is the area?”

Thomas thought about that for a moment.  “Right—birdcage.  You were saying?”

“In teaching the very young child, I might ask how big she thinks a bird would have to be to require a cage so large, and then what such a bird might eat, and where it might live, and things of this kind, and so she would show me what she knows of birds and their habits.”

“She really is good at this,” Peter said, as proudly as if he’d had something to do with it. 

“And then I would ask her older sister—who knows that it is really a house for plants, and thinks the little one silly for saying otherwise—to think about plants and birds.  What needs do they share, that might account for the plant-house being similar to a birdcage?”

The discussion of possible answers to that question took them the rest of the way to the glass-house, where they decided to have a look at the tropical plants inside.  As the name implied, the centerpiece was a collection of palm trees.  They had palms at Downton, so Thomas was not expecting to be particularly impressed, but there was something a little arresting about the enormous heights they grew to, when not being kept in a pot in the front hall.

When Lisel began pointing out some details of a trunk to Anna, who appeared interested, Thomas took advantage of their distraction to wander away with Peter.  “I read somewhere they’re actually a kind of grass,” Thomas said.  It had been in the guide-book, that he read it.  “Not trees at all.”

 “Really?” Peter asked, letting their arms brush against each other.  

“That’s what it said.”  Not that it was in any way important.  “What do people talk about on dates, anyway?”

“I don’t know,” Peter said.  “You’re the one who’s been going on them all this time.”

“Well, not really,” Thomas pointed out. 

“I don’t imagine you talk about anything in particular, really,” Peter suggested.  “You just sort of wander around saying a lot of nonsense and thinking about what you’d do if you were alone together.”

“Oh, good, then I’m doing it right.”

Peter laughed.  “A little bit backwards, maybe.”

And this, Thomas thought, was where they’d be kissing, if they were a normal couple who had just given their chaperones the slip.  Instead, he looked away.  “I wish….”  But he couldn’t even say what he wished.

“I know,” Peter said.  Then, after a moment, “We’d better go back and find them.”

#

It was, Anna thought as she watched Thomas and Peter emerge, sheepishly, from a grove of palm trees, both surprising and not, to see how Thomas was around someone he actually liked.  He was every bit as prickly and sarcastic as normal—even criticizing the way Lisel did her job, for heaven’s sake—but Peter never seemed to take offense, and somehow, that made the awful things Thomas said seem almost affectionate. 

She wondered how things might be different at Downton, if they could manage not to mind when Thomas was being Thomas.

She also wondered if they’d been kissing back there, behind the palm trees.  Probably not.  Thomas wouldn’t do anything so foolish in public, would he? 

They resumed walking through the great greenhouse.  The walkways were narrower than the ones outside, requiring them to go two-by-two instead of four abreast; by unspoken agreement, Anna and Lisel occasionally pretended great interest in one plant or another, allowing Thomas and Peter to go on ahead for a bit.  It wouldn’t seem odd, to anyone who happened to be watching, since everyone knew men had less patience than women, and tended to charge through any sort of exhibition as though the point was to walk past as many objects as possible in the time they had. 

And Lisel did, in fact, have interesting things to say about many of the plants they saw, so it wasn’t much of a hardship.  Anna hadn’t been sure, about socializing with a governess.  Governessing was a respectable occupation for middle-class women—nearly the only one—and while someone like Lady Mary might not see much difference between Lisel and Anna, from where Anna stood, it was nearly as wide a gulf as that between the governess and Lady Mary.   But Lisel for all her education and sophistication, Lisel wasn’t the least bit stuck-up. 

She asked, at one point, how long Lisel had known Mr. Fitzroy, wondering how a governess had come to be friends with a valet. 

“Oh, for two or three years now,” she said.  “Of course, we only see one another when Sir Henry comes to Devonshire, or when Lady Denham brings the children to London, but we write.  He is a very interesting person.”

“And you don’t mind about…?” She gestured towards the pair ahead of them.

“Why should I?  It is very convenient, to enjoy the company of a charming gentleman, without worrying where his hands will go.” 

She had a point, Anna had to admit. 

“I suppose it is the same for the maid as it is for the governess—if a man does something he shouldn’t, it is we who take the blame.”

“It is,” she agreed.  “Fortunately, our butler and housekeeper wouldn’t stand for a man who took liberties.”  Not a member of staff, anyway, and if there was trouble with a male guest, Mrs. Hughes would rearrange the work assignments to keep the object of his attentions below-stairs as much as possible. 

“And what of Mr. Barrow—have you known him long?”

“We’ve worked together for years,” Anna said.  “But we’ve only become friendly recently.  He…isn’t an easy person to get to know.”

“Yes, Peter says this as well,” Lisel said. 

Up ahead of them, Mr. Fitzroy pointed at a plant, and said something Thomas apparently felt was funny.  “He seems very fond of him, though.  Mr. Fitzroy of Thomas, I mean.” 

Lisel nodded.  “He has been since they were boys, I think.”

Suddenly, it struck Anna that Thomas was not play-acting courtship, as he had done with her and Gwen.  He was, in fact, walking out with his sweetheart

This had not precisely been a secret before, but somehow, she had managed not to think of it that way.  In the back of her mind, she supposed, she’d assumed that it was all a matter of him wanting what others had.   Pretending he had a sweetheart because William and Madge and Daisy all had them. 

“Have they been together all this time?” Anna wondered.

“No,” said Lisel, pausing to inspect a tropical flower.  “Thomas is, as you see, very pretty, yes?”

He certainly was.  “And he knows it.”

“Yes.  And you are familiar with the promises that men will make, to a girl who is extremely pretty?”

“I’ve heard things,” Anna allowed.  Every girl entering service was told not to believe a gentleman who said he’d marry you, no matter how convincing he was. 

“Men who are…different, are not so very different, if you understand.  And Peter is not one to make promises that he cannot keep.  So—how can he compete?”

“I think I understand.”  Mostly.  She wasn’t sure what promises the men in question could have made—not marriage, certainly.  But that was probably one the details that it was best not to speculate about.  “But now….”

“Now, perhaps Thomas has, as you say, wised up.”  She gave a very Continental shrug.  “Perhaps.”

#

Thomas was glad enough to finish with the Palm House, even though being out on the path meant having Lisel on his arm again.  It hadn’t seemed too warm in the glasshouse when they’d first gone in, but it had gotten a little stifling over time, and now they were back outside again, the July afternoon felt like a spring morning. 

“What now?” Peter asked brightly.

“I think that’s the Pagoda up there,” Thomas said, pointing.  “Isn’t it?”

Peter glanced around him at Lisel, and she said, “Yes, I think so.”

They turned their steps that way, and in a few moments the path turned to give them an excellent view of it.  “Do you climb up in it?” Anna asked.

Thomas wasn’t sure.  The guidebook had said something about excellent views, and also it being closed for repairs.  Since it had been written before any of them were born, there was really no telling.  “Maybe,” he said.  No one else volunteered a different answer.  “What are they for, anyway?” he asked, glancing at Lisel—if any of them knew, it would be her.  “Real ones, I mean.  In China.”  The guidebook had been very clear that they were Chinese. 

“Ah—some sort of pagan temples, I think,” she said. 

They walked a little bit more.  “Oh, there, look,” Peter said.  “There’s people on one of the balconies, or whatever you call them.  I guess you do climb up in it.”

When they neared the Pagoda, Lisel nodded toward a uniformed man who was standing sentry near it.  “He must work here.  Maybe he’ll know, about what they use them for in China.”

He looked like a policeman to Thomas, and in the circumstances he’d have rather not drawn any attention to themselves, but before he could think of a way to say so, Lisel was steering them over toward the possible policeman, to whom she said, “Excuse me, sir.  Do you work for the gardens?  We had a question.”

“Yes, Miss—Kew Constabulary.  How can I help?”

Thomas concentrated on looking completely normal, and not at all as though he were planning on committing a crime later that evening—or possibly was committing one right now, depending on how you looked at it. 

“We were wondering about Pagodas in China—what they’re used for.”

The man shook his head.  “I’m sorry, miss, I wouldn’t be knowing that.  You might ask in one of the museums.  I do know it was built in 1762, and has 253 steps,” he added hopefully.

“Thank you—that’s very interesting.”

Both Thomas and Peter were very quiet as they walked away from the policeman.  After a moment, Lisel asked, “Is something wrong?”

“It’s just that we usually try to avoid drawing the attention of the police,” Peter said, apologetically. 

“Oh,” Lisel said.  “Yes.  How silly of me.”

“We aren’t doing anything wrong,” Anna said, sharply. 

You’re not,” Thomas muttered. 

“Nor are you,” said Lisel.  “Not really.”

Thomas didn’t argue the point, lest Peter accuse him of spoiling things. 

The views, once they’d gone a few floors up in the Pagoda, did take his mind off things.  Each level had an open terrace, where you could walk the whole way round the building and look down on the gardens below.  After about six or seven levels, the girls said they had had enough of climbing stairs, but that Thomas and Peter should go the rest of the way up if they liked. 

So they did, though Peter was a little out of breath by the time they reached the top level.  “Oh, come on,” Thomas said.  “You must go up more stairs than that waiting at table at a dinner party—I know I do.”

“Not all at once,” Peter pointed out.  “And Sir Henry doesn’t have many dinner parties.”

They had the place nearly to themselves, except for a young couple who were taking advantage of the isolation to get in a bit of kissing.  They sprang apart, the girl smoothing her dress, when they realized they weren’t alone anymore, but Peter just said, “Carry on—don’t mind us,” and they walked around to the other side of the building to give them a little privacy. 

Thomas would have liked to imitate them, but he and Peter had a lot more to fear than a moment of embarrassment if they were caught at it.  Instead, he stuck two cigarettes in his mouth, lit them both, and gave one to Peter. 

“Ta.  D’you suppose we’re meant to smoke up here?”

Thomas shrugged.  “I didn’t see a notice saying we’re not.”  There had been some in the Palm House.  “If someone tells us otherwise, we’ll stop.”  You didn’t get two years at hard labor for smoking where you weren’t allowed to. 

“Well, be careful with the ashes—we don’t want to set this thing on fire.”

“Not when we’re on top of it, no,” Thomas agreed. 

They leaned on the railing, looking out toward the ornamental lake.  Thomas, for reasons he didn’t quite understand, started talking about William and Daisy’s picnic, at Downton’s lake.  He talked about the food, and Daisy mistaking the folly for an actual ruin, and ended with, “And William’s rubbish at skipping stones,” even though he wasn’t. 

When he’d finished, Peter just said, “It’s too bad Daisy wasn’t brought along to London.  So they could have a proper date.”

What that had to do with anything, Thomas had no idea. 

After a while, a group of small boys thundered up the stairs and began racing around the terrace, throwing acorns at the people below, and Peter and Thomas headed back down to where the girls were waiting.   On the way down, they passed the Kew Constable, puffing his way up the stairs. 

When they met up again, Lisel and Anna suggested that it was about time for tea, so they set off looking for a nice spot to have it.  Thomas found himself walking more slowly.  Once they’d had their tea, it would be nearly time to go home.  And then the only real date he was likely to ever have in his life would be over. 

He rejected two picnic spots out of hand, but finally accepted the third—a little grove of trees on a hill overlooking the lake.  The girls started laying out the picnic things, and Thomas took charge of the Champagne.  It was a full bottle, not even touched—Peter had to have nicked it—and when he took off the foil, he folded it neatly and put it in his coat pocket. 

“Oh,” Peter said, as Thomas started prying out the cork.

“What?” Thomas asked.

“I didn’t think about bringing any glasses,” he said.  “We might have to pass the bottle around, like pirates.”

 “Here.” Anna took a handful of tin cups out of the basket.  “Mrs. Trout packed them, for the lemonade.”

Thomas took the cups and began filling them.  “What would Carson say?”  He tsk’d.  “I’m not sure this is much of an improvement over the pirate option.”

“Well, we won’t tell him,” Anna said.

“I don’t know,” Thomas said.  “He might have a heart attack.”

“Then you’d have to hold things together until he recovered,” Peter pointed out.  “That’s really going to cut into your spare time.”

“All right; you’ve convinced me.”

#

It took surprisingly little time for them to finish their picnic tea—Anna supposed they had all worked up quite an appetite, with all the walking. 

“I was going to suggest we feed the crumbs to the ducks next,” Peter said.  “But we don’t seem to have left any.”

“I saw where they were selling ice-cream back the way we came,” Thomas said.  “Anyone fancy an ice-cream?  I’ll go get them.”

They all agreed that was a good idea, and Thomas got up.  Anna had supposed that Peter would go with him—one more chance for them to steal a moment alone—but instead, after a meaningful exchange of glances between Peter and Lisel, she joined him, saying she’d help carry them back.

It would have taken a much slower woman than Anna to miss that there was something Peter wanted to say to her in private, and he didn’t waste any time getting to the point, leaning forward and saying intently,  “You know you’ve got to keep it a secret, don’t you? About Thomas.  Only he was worried, that you didn’t.”

“I know,” she said.  “I only meant to let him know that I didn’t mind, but…well, I must have said it wrong.”

He relaxed back against the grass.  “That’s what I thought.  More likely you said it fine, and he took it wrong.  He does that.”

“Yes,” Anna agreed.  “He does.”

Peter sighed.  “It’s not easy for him, you know.  I mean, it’s not easy for any of us, but he takes things so much to heart.”

Involuntarily, Anna glanced over in the direction that Thomas had gone.  “You’re still talking about Thomas?”

“No, he does,” Peter answered.  “He’s not cut out for our sort of life, not really.”

Anna gave him a skeptical look.  If he meant what she thought he meant, he was surely mistaken.

“No, I mean, he’s an invert; of course he is.  If he could convince himself even for a minute that he wasn’t, he’d be married by now and have half a dozen kids he could spoil the socks off of.  At first I expected him to go that way—a lot of us do—but he’s not that good a liar.”

Now that, Anna could agree with.  “Though it’s not for lack of practice,” she noted.

“No,” he said sadly.  “Not for lack of practice.”

Anna studied him.  “You really like him, don’t you?” 

 “Sometimes I think I love him,” Peter said.  “But I could never be enough for him.  The only way anyone could be, is if they could re-make the world to be a better place, for people like us.  Barring that, he’s better off settling for someone rich enough to pretend it already is.”

“You don’t mean that,” Anna said, thinking of what Lisel had said, about men making promises they couldn’t keep. 

“No,” Peter said.  “They’re no good for him, either.  I think he might even have figured that out—but he’s figured it out several times before.  The trouble is, there’s nothing to be done.  Stolen moments, that’s all we’re ever going to get.”

That, Anna understood suddenly, was why Thomas was so angry all the time, why he couldn’t stand to see other people happy.  “Aren’t there, I don’t know…places, where it’s more accepted?”

“Not really.”  Peter shook his head.  “There are places where it’s not against the law.  But it’s not accepted.  And we’d still have to make a living.  That’s the thing about, you know, the third son of the sixth Viscount of whatever; he can tell him they’ll get a flat in Paris and set up housekeeping and tell anyone who doesn’t like it to sod off—and it sounds almost plausible.  Except they never mean it.”  Peter took out a cigarette.  “D’you mind if I--?”

“Go ahead,” she said.  So that was what they’d promised him—marriage hadn’t been too far off the mark. 

Once Peter had lit it, he added, “He’d want me to make sure you know it’s been years since he’s fallen for anything that obvious.  The last one only promised him a job.”

In fact, Anna suspected Thomas wouldn’t want her to know any of this.  She thought of her half of a romance with Mr. Bates, smothered in its cradle.  He’d never promised her anything—because he was married, and possibly worse—but she’d have rather had that, than a lot of empty promises.  (Not that she was the sort of woman men made empty promises to.)  “Isn’t what you have to offer better than that?  Better than lies?”

“What I have to offer is nothing.”  Thomas, she thought, would have snarled it at her and either stalked off or puffed himself up like an offended cat; Peter said it a little wistfully, with a sad smile. 

“Except how you feel,” Anna pointed out.

“Except that.”  Another sad smile.  “And that, and a bottle of Champagne, makes for a pleasant afternoon.”

#

When Thomas and Lisel came back, carrying two paper cups of ice-cream apiece, Peter was sitting with his knees drawn up, and one arm loosely around them.  He only did that when he was feeling unhappy, Thomas knew.  He glanced sharply at Anna, who was packing the picnic things away, and demanded, “Did you say something to upset Peter?”

“What?” Anna said.

“Don’t be silly.”  Peter got up, taking the ice-creams from Thomas.  “It’s just that you were gone so long that we thought you’d gotten lost.  It was very sad.”

“Was it, now,” Thomas said.

“Yes—you see, the ice-cream would have melted.”  He looked at Anna.  “Which one would you like?  I’ve got chocolate and chocolate, and—”

“They’re all chocolate,” Lisel said, wearily.  “Here.”  She gave Thomas one of hers, and they all sat down.

“They had chocolate and vanilla,” Thomas explained.  “That’s why it took so long, because we had to argue about what we were getting.  Lisel thought we ought to get a vanilla one, in case somebody fancied it, but nobody likes vanilla.”

“I’d have eaten it, if nobody else wanted it,” Lisel said.

Peter said, “Don’t be silly, I’d have eaten it.”

At the same moment as Anna said, “I’d not have minded—”

“But I said,” Thomas continued, “if we do that, then all three of you will offer to take it.”  He looked at Lisel.  “Didn’t I say that?”

“He did say that,” she sighed. 

“This way, we all get to eat it while it’s still cold, instead of arguing over who gets to have the one that nobody really wants,” Thomas finished.  And he’d have probably ended up stuck with it himself, somehow. 

“Ah,” Peter said, taking a bite of his ice-cream.  “You made the right decision, then.  Well done, darling.”

Thomas looked sideways at him.  Peter wasn’t one of those who went around calling other men “darling” all the time, and Thomas hoped he wasn’t about to start.  But he only said, “Thank you.” 

The ice-cream wasn’t quite as good as Mrs. Patmore made, but they were eating it while it was still cold, and didn’t have to run for their lives after snitching it, so Thomas supposed it all evened out. 

After finishing it, they began walking slowly back toward the gates, talking of things like what a lovely day out it had been, and whether they’d have to wait for the tram when they got to the stop.  They didn’t, as it happened, but the tram was more crowded than it had been at mid-day, and they couldn’t find four seats together.  The best they could do was two seats for the girls, and then Peter and Thomas had to stand in the aisle.  It was a bit too noisy for much conversation—and definitely not anything they didn’t want overheard by any number of bored strangers—but the motion did provide plenty of excuses for Thomas and Peter to bump into each other.

At their stop, Peter and Lisel got off the tram and walked them back to Grantham House, even though there was a stop later on that was closer to the Denhams’ house.  They stood awkwardly in the alley for a moment, until Lisel said, “Thank you, Mr. Barrow, for a lovely afternoon,” and Anna said the same to Peter. 

After Anna had stepped inside, Peter said, “Still on for the Crit. later?”

“’Course.”

He followed her in.  Thomas thought to check if he’d gotten anything in the afternoon post, but before he got to the servants’ hall, he ran into Mr. Carson and William in the corridor outside the butler’s pantry, talking intently.  He slowed his steps, wondering what was up, and Mr. Carson said, “Ah.  Since you’re back, Thomas, you won’t mind serving in the dining room tonight.”

Yes he bloody well did.   “I was going back out, as a matter of fact.  Meeting a mate for a pint.  As it’s my half day.”

“It’s all right, Mr. Carson,” William said.  “I’d just as soon keep busy, really.”

Thomas glanced back and forth between them.  “What’s happened?”

“William’s mother has taken a turn for the worse,” Carson intoned. 

Damn it all.  It wasn’t the least bit fair—William’d had three days off the last time his mother was meant to be on her deathbed—but there was no point trying to stand up for yourself when someone else’s dying Mum was involved.  Thomas had learned that one the hard way.  “Right.  What train are you getting?”  Maybe there was some way he could salvage some portion of the evening—offer to help William get his bags to the station or something, and then snatch a half-hour or so afterward. 

“Nothing’s been decided,” William began, but Carson interrupted him.

“You see, William?  Even Thomas thinks you should go.  I’ll speak to her ladyship about it tonight—not that she will object—and you’ll get the first train in the morning.”

 “Yes, Mr. Carson,” William said. 

If he wasn’t leaving until the morning, there really wasn’t any reason Thomas needed to miss out on the rest of his evening.  “In that case….”

Carson sighed.  “William, if you’re sure you’re feeling up to it.”

“I am,” William said.  “I can do me job.”

 “All right, then, Thomas,” Carson said.  “If you insist.”

“Thank you, Mr. Carson,” Thomas said.  Carson withdrew into his pantry, and Thomas continued on his way to the servants’ hall, William dogging his steps—for lack of anything better to do, apparently.  Thomas asked, “Don’t you want to go?  Thought you liked your mum.”

“Of course I like my mum—what kind of question is that?”

Thomas shrugged.  “Never got on with mine.”  It wasn’t entirely true; he had when he’d been very small.  They reached the servants’ hall, and Thomas checked his pigeonhole, which was empty.  “You might as well go, then.  They—” he jerked his head upward, indicting the upstairs lot, “would just as soon servants were built in factories, like motor-cars, but until that day comes, you’re allowed to have a mum.”

“Well,” William said.  “If it won’t make any trouble.”

Fat chance of that.  “Oh, it will.  Not for you, and not for them, but I’m not going to have a minute to myself the rest of the time we’re down here.”

William looked uncomfortable, and for a moment, Thomas almost felt badly for him. 

That was all right, then. 

“Tell you what, though,” he went on.  “Tell Mr. Carson you’ll stay up to lock the door behind me when I get in—you won’t be sleeping much anyway, will you?—and we’ll call it square.”

William chewed that over for a moment.  “All right.” 

He left, and once he’d gone, Bates lowered the newspaper he’d been reading and said, “Really?” in a tone of scornful incredulity.

“Really,” Thomas answered.  It was a perfectly fair deal, when you thought about it—with William gone, there’d be no chance of escaping the house again. 

He went upstairs and pottered around a bit, having a wash and changing into his other suit, but he thought it wise to be out the door well before the upstairs dinner started, and so he arrived at the Criterion bar quite early.  None of his set were there yet; in fact, the place was nearly empty except for the large table where the artsy types congregated—they, the others had told him, were in more or less constant occupation from opening to last orders.

Thomas sat by himself in the usual spot at the bar, taking advantage of the need to buy his own drink to get a whiskey and soda.  Usually, you ended up with either some sort of syrupy modern cocktail, or a pint if the bloke buying it for you didn’t think a working class lad would know how to drink anything else, so it made a nice change—though, paying for it, he was reminded why their lot didn’t buy their own drinks, here.  He’d have to make it last. 

#

“So what’s he like, then?” Mr. Bates asked.  “Thomas’s friend.”  They were sitting at the servants’ hall table, having finished dressing their charges. 

“Nice,” Anna said.  She tried to think of another description.  “Really nice.”

“Wonder what he sees in Thomas, then,” Mr. Bates quipped.

Anna would have agreed with him, if not for the conversation she’d had with Mr. Fitzroy, while Thomas was getting the ice-cream.  “Don’t be nasty.” 

“Sorry,” Mr. Bates said.

She might have gone into more detail about why he shouldn’t, but Miss O’Brien was at the other end of the table, apparently intent on a piece of mending, but almost certainly listening to every word.  “We had a nice day, and the gardens were lovely.  Have you ever been?”

“Years ago,” Mr. Bates said.  “It was a popular place to take a young lady, on a Sunday afternoon—when I was a young man.”

Anna wondered if she was meant to say that he was still young.  He wasn’t old, not really.  But he was married.  “It still is, I’m sure.”  He had probably taken his wife there, when they’d been courting. 

#

“Hullo,” someone said, sitting on the barstool next to Thomas’s.  He was a bloke about Thomas’s age, maybe a few years older, clothes medium-posh, accent several degrees posher.   “I’d expected this place to be a bit more lively,” he added, looking around.

“It’s early,” Thomas said.  Not a regular, then, but knew the reputation of the place. 

“I’m Kit Norridge, by the way,” he said. 

“Thomas.”  And he didn’t know you didn’t give out your last name, in a place like this.  First time out of the gate, or police?  He caught the bartender’s eye, and raised one eyebrow a fraction of an inch.  The bartender shrugged, just as minutely.  He didn’t know, either.

“Can I get you another one of those?” Kit Norridge asked, indicating Thomas’s near-empty glass. 

He’d been drinking it as slowly as he could, but it was still at least half an hour before he could even start looking for Peter.  Probably more like an hour.   And it wasn’t against the law to let a stranger in a bar treat you to a drink.  “I don’t mind, but I’m meeting someone in a bit.”  Even if he hadn’t been, the man wasn’t rich enough or good-looking enough for Thomas to bother with, ordinarily—but, as he’d said, it was early.

 If Kit missed the hint that he wasn’t getting anything more in return for the drink than a bit of conversation, that was his look-out. 

“Two more of those,” Kit told the bartender—who poured this round from a higher shelf than the first, and charged him accordingly.  Once the drinks were in front of them, he raised his and said, “Cheers.”

Thomas did likewise.  Not bad whiskey at all. 

“So what line of work are you in?” Kit asked. 

You didn’t ask that, either.  “I’m a commercial traveler in ladies’ underclothes,” Thomas said, deadpan.

“Oh, that’s—really?”

“No,” Thomas said.   He’d better clear that up right away, in case he was police.  “It’s a joke.  The punch-line is that he sells patent apple-corers or something.”

“Oh—I see.  Transvestitism.   Funny.”  He chuckled nervously.  “I’m a writer—magazines, mostly.  Occasionally newspapers.  Whatever keeps the grocer’s bill paid, really.”

With an accent like that, he wouldn’t be worrying about paying the grocer’s bill—not really.  But sometimes toffs liked to play at earning a living.  If he was one of those, he definitely wasn’t worth bothering with—and a good thing, really, since Thomas would hate to stand up Peter.  “Anything I might have heard of?”

Kit paused, as if considering what sort of publications someone like Thomas might have heard of.  “I’ve had a few things in the Tatler.  That’s probably the most well-known one.  I’m what they call a free-lancer—I don’t write for anyone in particular.”

“Sure, I’ve heard of that.  How’s it work—do you write things and then take them around to different magazines, or do they tell you when they want something written?”

“Little of both, really.  Actually, what usually seems to happen is that I’ll be taking around something I’ve written, and they’ll say, ‘It’s not really what our readers are interested in, but you’re not a bad writer—come back with 500 words on the New Woman, and we’ll see.’  Or the Servant Problem, or Are Motorcars Here To Stay—you know, those things every magazine runs the same article about over and over.”

Thomas did know; he read.  “What kind of things do you like to write, then?”

Kit sighed, taking out his cigarette-case and offering Thomas one.  They lit up.  “I haven’t really found a niche yet.  I like to write things where I’m learning something new, taking my readers someplace they haven’t been before.  But the editors don’t want new.” 

That gave Thomas a moment’s pause.  “You aren’t working on an article about London’s bohemian underbelly, now, are you?”  If he was, Thomas had better extricate himself from this conversation quickly.

Kit looked startled.  “Oh, no, nothing like that.”  His expression turned thoughtful.  “But—well, no, I can’t imagine where I could sell it, can you?”

He didn’t—and even if he could, wouldn’t have said so.  This was all getting a bit too elaborate for a police operation, but still, there was such a thing as common sense.  “No.”

Kit went on to talk about how he’d tried to do something a bit different with one of his Servant Problem articles, going to one of the employment agencies and interviewing maids about why they refused a place, or left it after a short time.  “But of course, nobody wanted to print it.”

He was an interesting chap to talk to, really, and in other circumstances Thomas might have put up with him a while longer, but as the place started to fill up, he couldn’t help looking over at the door every time it opened, to see if it was Peter coming in.

Silly, really.  He’d known Peter for donkey’s years; there wasn’t anything the least bit exciting about him.  Except that they’d gone on a date earlier in the day.  Probably Peter was even expecting that they’d pick up other people—they’d only had it off with each other a couple of times, when there wasn’t much else going.  And the time in Yorkshire, when there’d been nothing else at all going. 

Still, when the first of the lads turned up—one of the Daves—and looked inquiringly at Thomas, asking silently whether he ought to keep out of the way for a bit, Thomas waved him over and, when he made to sit next to Thomas, gestured for him to go down to Kit’s other side, instead. 

“How you doing, Thomas?” the David asked.  He didn’t think it wasn’t the David he’d run into earlier on this trip—one of the others.  Probably.

“Not bad.  Meeting Peter in a bit.”  To Kit, he said, “This is Dave—Dave, Kit.  He’s new.”

Kit offered his hand and said, “Pleased to meet you, Dave.”

“Ned, actually,” said the Dave, shaking his hand. 

Thomas leaned back to peer at him behind Kit’s back.  “Since when?”

“Since always,” said Ned.  “I do look a bit like Short Dave, I suppose.”

He looked a bit like all the Daves, but Thomas didn’t argue the point.  “All right, then.  Ned.”  He was never going to remember that, between now and the next time he made it to London. 

By the time Peter did show up, Kit and Ned were deep in conversation.  That was about what Thomas had wanted to happen, although he wouldn’t have complained if he’d managed to get another drink before handing Kit over. 

Still, it was nice to see Peter, and even nicer when he leaned in and gave Thomas a kiss on the cheek, saying, “I’ve been wanting to do that all day.”

“Ta.  Should we have a drink before we move on?” Thomas suggested.

“All right.” 

Thomas ordered another for himself, too, and paid for both of them. 

“Have you eaten?” Peter asked.  “I haven’t.”

Thomas shook his head.  “There’s bound to be someplace between here and the other place, isn’t there?”  There was no question whatsoever of eating here, not if they weren’t getting someone else to pay for it.  He wasn’t even sure they’d be allowed

“Sure—loads of places.” 

Once they’d started in on their drinks, Thomas said, “Did you know he’s called Ned?”

“Yes,” Peter said, clearly wondering why Thomas was asking.

“I thought he was one of the Daves.”

“Oh, you know what?  He does look an awful lot like Dave the Chauffeur.  Huh.  I wonder how he’s doing?”

“Why, doesn’t he come around anymore?”

“No, he got married and moved to…Manchester?  Liverpool?  One of those places.” 

Really?  “Dave the Chauffeur was the one who had a bit of a thing for me, wasn’t he?” 

“No, that was Short Dave.” 

Thomas wasn’t entirely sure he’d known that Short Dave and Dave the Chauffeur were two different people.  Short Dave was definitely too short to be a footman, so what did he do?  Thomas thought about asking—Peter was good at keeping track of that sort of thing—but decided it wasn’t important, and said instead, “When do you need to be back?”

“Not for ages—he’s got a dinner with Lady D., then he’s going straight to his club.”

Peter had already shared with Thomas that when Sir Henry said he was going to his club after dinner, he meant the flat where he kept an actress, and wouldn’t be back before dawn.  “Good.  Same here—but I probably won’t get away again, the rest of the time we’re here.”  He explained about William’s mum.

“We probably shouldn’t make it too late,” Peter said, once he’d heard about the deal they had struck about William making sure it wasn’t Carson waiting up for him.  “He’s going to need his strength to face it.”

“He won’t sleep anyway,” Thomas answered.  “The last time they thought she was dying, he was up pacing all hours.  And they’ve got us sharing a room here, so I’m not getting a wink of sleep either.  Somebody might as well get something out of it.” 

“I’m sure you’re right,” Peter said.  “But it’s saying things like that, you know, that gives people the idea you’ve no feeling at all.”

Now Peter was starting in on him?  Life really wasn’t fair.  “I don’t see how the two of us sitting in a room the size of a matchbox wearing on each others’ nerves is going to help anything,” Thomas argued.  “And it’s certainly not going to stop his mum dying.”

“No,” Peter said.  “I suppose not.”

“And it was Carson who said he wasn’t leaving until the morning, not me.  I suppose they must expect her to last the night.  He’d have thought of that.  Carson, I mean.  Don’t you think?”  Thomas hadn’t thought of it, until just now.  But he wasn’t in charge of William’s travel plans. 

“I’m sure he did,” Peter agreed, his tone warmer.  “See?  You do have a heart.”

“Nah, I just don’t want them all blaming me if he doesn’t get back in time.” 

“I’m sure they won’t.”  He drained his glass.  “Shall we go and see about dinner, then?”

They ended up in a working-class pub where they got pints and slabs of meat pie for less than they’d paid for drinks at the Criterion.  It wasn’t a bad place—comfortable, and no toffs looking at you like you were a tart on the stroll—and Thomas would have just as soon stayed, except they had to make sure they didn’t touch, or gesture too much.  Thomas had enough of that in his regular life, thanks. 

So they ate quickly and left.  Once they were out on the pavement, Thomas said, “Really, there ought to be places like that for our lot.”

“Which lot do you mean?” Peter asked, adding, “It’s this way.” 

They turned down the narrow side-street Peter had indicated.  “Our lot,” Thomas said again.  “Men like us.”  Peter still didn’t get it.  “Working-class queers,” Thomas said, whispering the last word. 

“Oh,” Peter said.  “What do you mean, ‘like that,’ then?”

“Just a decent place you can get a drink with your mates.  I mean, we go to the Crit. like it’s our local, but as far as the rest of them are concerned, we’re basically the whores down at the end of the bar.  They let us in because the punters would stop coming if they didn’t.” 

“Don’t say that,” Peter scolded.

“I’m not wrong.” 

“You’re not, but….”  He sighed, and shook his head.  “Tell me about this pub we ought to have, then.  For men like us.  What’s it like?”

Thomas hadn’t really thought that far.  “Well, for one thing, it wouldn’t be in a bloody cellar.”  The place they were going would be in a cellar.  They always were.  Unless they were in an attic.  Always crammed into the space left over from something else.   “And you aren’t always going there to find someone to have it off with.  I mean, maybe you are.  But not necessarily.  Maybe just to have a drink and talk to people.  You know.  Like regular blokes go to the pub.  Only you don’t have to…pretend you’re something you’re not.”  They walked on a bit.  “Maybe there’s a dartboard.”  Places for their sort never had a dartboard, and Thomas was good at darts. 

Peter chuckled.  “You’re the only one I know who’d think of a thing like that.”

Thomas glared at him.  “It’d be nice, though.”

“Yeah.”  The look Peter gave him in return was fond.  “It’d be nice.  Down here.”  They turned into an alley-way, and then it was down a flight of grimy stairs, to knock on a cellar door. 

That was a bit of all right—Thomas always hated the part where you had to walk through the brothel or the supper club where the dentists and accountants were dining in tawdry splendor with their mistresses, as though to rub your face in the fact that what you were doing was even worse. 

Peter gave the password, and they were admitted into the cellar.  It was the usual sort of thing—dark and slightly grimy, with low ceilings that kept the smoke right about in your face, but there was a dance floor, and a band of sorts—a three-piece combo playing last year’s rags, with a singer who looked almost female. 

#

“So,” Lady Mary said, as Anna was doing up her dress before dinner.  “How was Kew Gardens?”

“Lovely,” she said.  “We saw the Pagoda and the Palm House, and had Champagne and ice-cream for our tea.”

“Goodness,” said Lady Mary, smoothing the front of her dress and preening in the mirror.  “How cosmopolitan.  Did you go with Bates?”

“No, my lady.  It was Thomas, and some friends of his—a Mr. Fitzroy and a Miss Schrantz.” 

Lady Mary glanced over her shoulder at Anna.  “Thomas?  I thought you didn’t get on with him.”

“He’s grown on me a bit, my lady.”

After a quick glance at her sisters, who didn’t seem to be paying much attention, Lady Mary said delicately, “You know, I’m not sure he’s the marrying kind.”

That answered that question.  “I’m not sure he is, either.  We’re just friends.” 

“Ah.  Good.”  She dipped her head so that Anna could put a necklace on her.  “Bit of a waste, though.  When the handsome ones are that sort.”

Before Anna could decide quite how to reply, Lady Sybil asked, “What sort is that?”

“Never mind, darling,” Lady Mary said.

“I don’t see any reason it would be a waste for a servant to be handsome,” Lady Sybil insisted. 

Anna and Lady Mary exchanged a glance.  “Quite right you are, my lady,” Anna said, picking up Lady Sybil’s dress. 

“Of course,” said Lady Mary.  “I don’t know what I was thinking.  I do apologize.”

#

When the band took a break, Thomas and Peter retired to a table where some of their friends were sitting—Joey and Eddie and a couple of others.  Syl was there too, but had abandoned the table to attempt to talk to the singer, who was mingling with the crowd.  The rest of the band had gone somewhere out of sight—probably normal men, and they were hiding in case someone tried to buy them a drink or something.

It really wasn’t such a bad place, Thomas thought ,as he caught up on recent events with Joey and Eddie, once you got past the tawdry first impression.    It was a mixed crowd as far as class went, but there were enough of their own sort that Thomas and Peter didn’t look too out of place—though they did have to decline a lot of offers from blokes who thought they might be looking for more distinguished company.

And even that was all right, because Peter had declined them, as though there weren’t any question of doing otherwise.  It did mean paying for their own drinks, but at the moment, Thomas didn’t mind overpaying for watered-down cocktails. 

It was getting a bit late, though, and when Joey went off with some chinless bloke in evening dress, Thomas said to Peter, “This place do rooms?”  If they didn’t, they’d have to come up with something else; Thomas wasn’t going from walking out in Kew Gardens to having it off in the gents’ toilets in the same day.  The thought was just too depressing.

“Sort of,” Peter said, which Thomas knew meant some sort of cubicles, providing not exactly privacy, but a bit of help pretending you had it.  “There’s a place round the corner that’ll let us in, but I’m getting a little short on funds.”

“So am I,” Thomas admitted.  The other place would be a tarts’ hotel, and not a whole lot better—or safer—than here.  “We’ll just have to make the best of it, then.”

They finished their drinks, and Peter led the way to the back.  There was a woman minding the gates to paradise, middle aged and common-looking.  She took Peter’s money and said only, “Number eight’s free.  It’s a shilling extra if you don’t clean up after yourselves, and don’t think I won’t check.”

That was actually a good sign; some of these places didn’t appear to have been cleaned since the Flood.  They walked down a row of curtained cubicles, from which emerged various sounds of passion. 

Cubicle number eight was formed of rough plank walls on three sides, with the curtain serving as the fourth.  The walls stopped at least a foot shy of the ceiling, and the curtain covered less than that.  There was a candle in a bracket on the wall, which Thomas lit, a narrow bed with an oilcloth cover—probably for the best, considering how many people would have used it before them—and a grubby wash-stand.

The essentials, then, if nothing else.  He and Peter took off their jackets and ties, sat on the edge of the bed, and kissed—finally.  Soon, it turned into the sort of kissing you couldn’t do in Kew Gardens no matter who you were—languorous necking with open mouths and their bodies pressed against each other—and Thomas forgot all about the squalor of their surroundings. 

Thomas always liked this part—especially when it was with someone he knew—but as it grew more frenetic, he finally had to draw back a bit, keeping one hand on Peter’s chest, and say, “If we’re going to do anything more than rub up against each other, we’d better decide what it is—before we lose the moment.”

“Hm.”  Peter rubbed the back of Thomas’s neck.  “What do you fancy?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”  For actual buggery, Thomas liked considerably more privacy than this, to say nothing of reliable washing-up facilities—though it did seem a shame he’d never managed to do that, with Peter.  Sucking off was about right, for the setting, but Thomas always felt like you were somehow far away from each other, doing that.  Unless you tried the soixante-neuf, which was an awful lot of work, and really sort of like trying to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time.  “Why don’t I just go between your legs?  That one’s nice.”  You could hold on to one another, while you were doing it, but it wasn’t as complicated as the other thing.

“All right.”

So they undressed a bit more, and Peter got up on his knees on the bed, and Thomas got behind him and fucked him slowly, in the space between his thighs, and took him firmly in one hand, with the other on Peter’s hip to steady him, and all the while kissed his neck, his shoulders, and those parts of Peter’s face that he could reach. 

When they’d both finished, more-or-less at the same time, Peter grabbed the grimy towel from the washstand to clean them off, and they settled down for a moment on the narrow bed, shoulder to shoulder.  Thomas lit a cigarette, and they passed it between them, companionably. 

“Do you think you’ll get back to London, before next summer?” Peter asked.

Back to reality, then.  “Doubt it.  Unless they decide to open the house when he comes down to the House of Lords.”  They usually didn’t. 

“Mm.”  Peter passed the cigarette back.  “Here, you take the last drag.”

Thomas did, and flung the dog-end into the washbowl.  Slowly, they put their clothes back in order.  Peter did up Thomas’s tie for him. 

“One more round of drinks before we go?” Thomas suggested, and Peter agreed.

When they got back out to the main room, the band was back on stage, Joey was nowhere to be seen, one of the Daves had joined the group, and Syl was wearing a red evening gown.  Pinned up clumsily in the back where it didn’t fit him, and at least a decade behind the mode, to boot.  “Oh, for pity’s sake,” Thomas said.

Peter swatted him on the shoulder.  “Be nice.  No one’s asking you to wear one.”

They collected their drinks from the bar, and Thomas said, “But the regular people think we’re all like that.  I don’t think we’ll have that kind in my imaginary pub.”

Stopping in his tracks, Peter gave him a reproving look.  “You’re the one always going on about how the regular people out to leave us alone to do what we like—so leave him alone and let him do what he likes, yeah?”

He had a point.  “Oh, all right,” Thomas said.  “I suppose he can come to the imaginary pub.”  And when Peter told Syl how nice he looked, Thomas made a sound of vague agreement. 

“Thank you,” Syl said, preening.  “Miss Cerise let me try it on.”

That must be the singer, and explained the poor fit—she was about twice as wide as Syl.  Well, if Syl wanted to risk getting nicked in somebody else’s evening gown, that was his own look-out, Thomas supposed.

They talked for a bit, until Peter and Thomas had finished their drinks and took their leave.  It was late enough, and dark enough, that they dared link arms for a bit—though they’d have to stop once they were in a neighborhood slightly less disreputable than this.  For the moment, if they saw a bobby, they could always start stumbling as if they were drunk and holding each other up. 

“This really was a perfect day,” Peter said, as they walked.

It wasn’t, and Thomas could have listed all the ways it wasn’t, but decided not to spoil the moment. “Yeah.  T’was nice.  I wish….”  But he didn’t say what he wished, because that would spoil the moment, too.

They walked a little further on, and Peter said suddenly, “Thomas.”

“Yes?”

“You remember how we were talking, earlier, about how Short Dave had a bit of a thing for you?”

“Uh-huh.”  Why was he bringing that up? 

“I always rather did, too.”

Thomas stopped and looked at him.  “Really?”  The idea was so new, so startling, that he couldn’t quite get his head round it.  Perhaps the date ought to have made it a bit obvious, but he’d figured that was just Peter being kind.  He was like that.  He’d been doing kind things for Thomas ever since they met.  Helped him find his way, in Lady Waterstone’s house, introduced him to the places men like them could go, bought him drinks and held his hand every time Thomas got his foolish heart broken.  That was just what Peter—Oh.  “What, all this time?”

“Well, not when you were fourteen,” Peter said.  “I’d have felt like I was robbing the cradle.”

“You’re not even two years older than me.”  That was beside the point, but it was easier to argue about something unimportant than to look head-on at what Peter had just said.

“It seemed like a lot, back then.”  Peter shrugged.  “And then you grew up, and you could have anybody you wanted.”

No I couldn’t.  Thomas lit a cigarette.  “You should have said something.  We could have….”  What, exactly?  Had it off a few more times than they had already; that was about it. 

“That’s why,” said Peter.  They resumed walking.  “And I did think one of those other blokes might make you happy.  Take you away to that flat in Paris, or the Greek island, or…that sort of thing doesn’t really happen, but if it was going to happen to anyone, it would be you.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because you look like a film star, love.  And then, once you get past all the…you-ness, you can be so sweet and hopeful.  I could never understand how anyone could bear to disappoint you.” 

“Pretty easily, as it turns out,” Thomas noted, handing Peter the cigarette. 

“Anyway,” Peter said, “we’re older now, and I was thinking, maybe, once in a while, I could probably manage to get a couple of days off in a row, and come up to Yorkshire to see you.”

His expression was soft, and fond, and hopeful, and for a moment, Thomas didn’t know what to say.  On the face of it, it didn’t sound like he was suggesting anything much.  Except that it wasn’t what people like them did.  You grabbed what you could, when you could grab it, and didn’t bother trying to build a future, because you weren’t going to get one. 

Looked at like that…it was the nearest either of them was ever going to get to a proposal. 

 “That’s it, I’m afraid,” Peter said.  “That’s what I have to offer.  It’s not Paris; it’s not even a cottage.  But….”

But he wasn’t lying.  You should have somebody, Peter had said, that day under the tree in Yorkshire.  Somebody nice.  And there was nobody nicer than Peter.  “I’d like that.”  He said it quietly, but he knew Peter would hear.  “I’d like that a lot.  Won’t be easy, though.”   Peter’d have to stay in York, for one thing, so it would be a project to get time off at the same time he did.  There was no question of smuggling him into Thomas’s room at Downton; the others might be willing to turn a blind eye to his going on a date, but not that.  He couldn’t stay in the village pub, either—a man coming even as often as once a year, for no apparent purpose but to visit a servant at the big house, would cause comment.  So he’d be in York, or at the most Ripon, and that would require Thomas to get a whole afternoon or evening off if they were to so much as have a chance to look at one another. 

“No,” Peter said.  “Won’t be easy.  But what is?”

Not a whole hell of a lot.  With a quick glance up and down the street—no one was watching—he took Peter’s hand.  “All right,” he said.  “Then that’s what we’ll do.”

Peter smiled at him, and squeezed his hand.  “It’ll be good,” he said.  “We’ll write, like always, and…well, maybe one day there will be something more.  You know, Andy was telling me, they’re looking for a new butler at his place, and one of the candidates said he wanted three weeks off, every year, to go on holiday?  Suppose that ever catches on—we could take them together.”

“When we’re both butlers?” Thomas asked.

“Well, if butlers get three weeks, I think valets and first footmen would get at least two, don’t you?”

Thomas didn’t think Carson would go on holiday if Lady Mary personally held a gun to his head and ordered him to do it, and certainly wouldn’t let anyone else do it, either, but said, “Right, stands to reason.” 

#

Bates sat at the table in the servants’ hall, leafing through a magazine and listening to the tick of the old carriage-clock on the mantelpiece, as the night grew later and later.  He’d sent William up to bed hours ago, both because it was the decent thing to do, and because Thomas’s return would be an excellent opportunity to give Thomas a piece of his mind, about keeping William up until all hours while his mother was dying, so he could engage in God-knew-what sort of debauchery. 

By the time the kitchen door opened, admitting a murmur of voices from outside, he’d thought two or three times about just going up to bed himself—being locked out for what little remained of the night would serve Thomas just about right—but had restrained himself, for the dual reasons that Anna wouldn’t like it, and Thomas would certainly blame William for the offense. 

Now, finally, was his moment.  He wasn’t going to lose his temper; not like that other time.  No, he’d just calmly and clearly tell Thomas he was being a thoughtless little shit, and that Bates, for one, was tired of it. 

The door closed again, and Bates waited, but Thomas didn’t appear.  Slowly, carefully, Bates walked as quietly as a man his size could manage down the passage to the kitchen, where there was a window looking out on the alley behind the house.  Somewhere around 1 AM, Bates had switched off the light over the back door, deciding that Thomas didn’t deserve to have a light left on for him, but it was on now, and Thomas was standing by the back steps, with the man from earlier in the day—Fitzroy, or something like that.

Fitzroy said something, and Thomas laughed, ducking his head coquettishly.  The two clasped hands, and Thomas said something that made the other man smile, then put one arm round him and kissed him on the cheek.

Very quietly, Bates went back to his seat in the servants’ hall.

Chapter Text

“All right,” Thomas said, releasing Peter from his embrace, but keeping one hand on his arm.  “I’d really better go in now.”

“You’d better,” Peter agreed.  “We’re both going to be dead on our feet tomorrow.”

“It’s been worth it.  All right.”  He forced himself to let go of Peter’s arm.  “Good night.” 

“Good night.” 

He went inside, closing the door behind him, latching it, and leaning against it for a moment.  Right.  Back to reality.  Now he’d have to face William, and he’d better apologize for being out so late—and absolutely not say the words “dead on our feet.” 

But when he went to the servants’ hall, it was Bates sitting there.  “Oh,” he said.

Bates looked up from a magazine he was reading.  “I sent William up to bed,” he said.

“Oh,” Thomas repeated.  “Good.  I, uh, lost track of time, a little bit.”

“I trust you had a pleasant evening.”

“I did.  Very pleasant.”  For an instant, Thomas was seized by a mad impulse to tell him that he, Thomas, now, basically, more-or-less, had a sweetheart.  Or something like it.  He managed to quash it, and just said, “Well—I’m for bed.”

“Goodnight, Thomas,” said Bates.

Up in their tiny attic room, Thomas was not particularly surprised to find William not asleep, or even in bed, but saying his prayers beside it, his hands folded like a child.  At Thomas’s entrance, he got up, guiltily, as if he’d been caught out at something.  “Don’t mind me,” Thomas said, and set about changing into his pyjamas and brushing his teeth, while William sat on the edge of his bed, staring dully at his hands.

Peter, Thomas thought, would do something.  Something kind.  Rinsing his toothbrush, he said tentatively, “Do you want to talk about her?”

“Wha’?”

“Your mum,” Thomas elaborated. 

To William’s credit, he did not actually say not with you, but it was written pretty clearly on his face.  “No.  Thank you.”

So much for what Peter would do.  Thomas took his valise down from on top of the cupboard, and took out the flask, half-full of very cheap whiskey, that he kept in an inconspicuous side pocket.  “Want a nip of this?”

“What is it?”

“Either whiskey or paint stripper—it’s a little hard to tell.  Might settle your nerves a bit.”

William stared at him for a moment, then hesitantly took the flask, mumbling, “Mum doesn’t like me drinking.”

“Well, suit yourself.” 

William unscrewed the cap and took a healthy swallow, nearly choking on it.  “Good—blimey, that’s foul.”  His eyes watering, he shoved the flask vaguely in Thomas’s direction.

“Yeah—medicinal purposes only, that stuff,” Thomas agreed, hiding it away again.  That was why he still had it; it was too terrible to drink for pleasure, but he figured if he threw it away, there would come a time he wished he had it.  “Better lay down.  You’ve got to give it half a chance to take effect.”

It wasn’t likely that a single swig of whiskey would be enough to knock William out, but Thomas hoped that the power of suggestion might help.  It did get him to lie quietly for a bit—long enough for Thomas to almost, but not quite, fall asleep himself—but then he was up again.  He slipped out of the room, with that excessive care that was more irritating than just going quickly would be, and then when Thomas was starting to drop off again, came back in.

And so it went for what little remained of the night.  It was almost a relief when the sky outside their tiny window started to lighten, and they could give up on the whole business.  They were the first ones down, apart from the kitchen staff and the hallboys, and Mrs. Trout came out of the kitchen to fuss over William, bringing him a boiled egg and telling him how he had to keep his strength up.  “And I’ll have a packet of sandwiches for you to take on the train, so mind you stop by the kitchen for them before you leave.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Trout,” William said dully. 

“Is there any tea?” Thomas asked, as Mrs. Trout turned to go.  He was going to need a lot of it, to get through the day on no sleep. 

“In a minute,” she told him, scoldingly.  “As if I don’t have enough to do….”

Thomas shook his head at her departing back.  “Are they sending the car to take you to the station?” he asked suddenly.

William looked over at him, his expression gormless.  “I don’t think so.  Why would they?”

“If you’ve got to take the Tube, I’ll go with you, if you like.”  The last thing they needed was William turning up an hour after he’d gone, having gotten lost and missed his train. 

“I’m sure I can manage.” 

“It can be a bit tricky, is all, if you aren’t used to it.” 

Miss O’Brien appeared, in a rustle of black bombazine, “What’s a bit tricky?” Her tone was insinuating, as though Thomas might be trying to explain the finer points of buggery at the breakfast table.

“Thomas doesn’t think I can make it to the station on me own,” William reported. 

“I didn’t say that,” Thomas protested.

“No, but you meant it,” William said. 

Thomas tried to defend himself.  “I only meant you haven’t been to London before.”

“That doesn’t mean I’m stupid.”

“What are we arguing about?” asked Anna, from the doorway. 

“Apparently,” Thomas said, “I’ve impugned William’s honor by suggesting he might like a bit of help getting the Tube to the station.”  Honestly, if this is what he got for trying to help, no wonder he didn’t usually bother. 

“Oh.”  Anna slipped into her seat.  “Well, I think that’s very nice of you to offer, Thomas.”

Finally, someone saw it! 

To William, she continued, “I’m sure you could manage it if you had to, but you do have a lot on your mind, and the way they announce the stops, you can barely understand them at the best of times.” 

“Exactly,” Thomas said.  “That’s what I meant.”  More or less. 

“Well then, why didn’t you say—”  William sighed, seeming to deflate as he did so.  “Sorry.  Like Anna said, I’ve got a lot on my mind.  I took it the wrong way.” 

“Grief can make anyone irritable,” said Mrs. Trout, bustling in with a pot of tea.  She set it in front of Thomas, saying, “There you are, your highness.” 

“Thank you.”

#

Midmorning, Anna and Mr. Bates found themselves with the servants’ hall to themselves.  The housemaids and hallboys were turning out the drawing room, and Miss O’Brien had gone with her ladyship and the girls to her London modiste.   Anna wasn’t sure if she was sorry not to have accompanied them, as the girls’ ladies’ maid, but since it would have meant putting up with Miss O’Brien, she supposed it was just as well.  It was luxury enough not to be part of the cleaning-party upstairs.  She did have a basket of mending to do, but at least that was sitting-down work. 

And she could have a bit of a chat with Mr. Bates while she did it.  Which they could do, as friends, whether he was married or not.  After they’d talked a bit about William’s mum, and then a bit more about Kew Gardens, she asked what he planned to do, with his half-day in London.

“Nothing too exciting, I’m afraid,” he said.  “Go and see my mother.  She lives here.”  He was mending a seam in one of his lordship’s coats, and turned it right-way-out to inspect his work.  “That’s if I get a day off.  I imagine Thomas will think he’s too busy to dress him, with William gone.”

“He’ll moan about it, but pay him no mind,” Anna advised.  “Or agree with him that he’s the most put-upon person on the face of the Earth, but he’s got to do it anyway.  That seems to be what his friends do.”

“Mm.  Do you suppose Thomas really cares for him?  The chap from yesterday.”

“I think so, yes.”  Not that he’d said so.  “They’ve known each other a long time.  It’s kind of a sad story, really.”

“How so?”

Thomas would not, Anna realized, want Mr. Bates knowing that he had been led astray—possibly even ruined, if that concept could apply to a man—by a series of upper-class men who were not gentlemen, never mind how touching it was that his childhood sweetheart had pined for him while it was happening.  “Just that they can’t really be together.”

“Ah.”  Mr. Bates began testing the cuff-buttons on the coat.  “That is difficult. When there’s someone you care for deeply, but you’ve nothing decent to offer them.”

His words were heavy with meaning, and Anna concentrated much harder than she would have needed to on folding Lady Edith’s knickers and stowing them back in the mending-basket.  “It is.”  She thought carefully about what she was going to say next.  “I gather,” she said slowly, “that Thomas has done some things, in the past, that some people might look down on him for.  But Mr. Fitzroy knows the whole story, and understands why he did what he did, and loves him all the more for it.”

There.  If Mr. Bates wanted to explain himself, she couldn’t put it any clearer than that. 

“That’s a good thing to have,” Mr. Bates said.  “He should cherish that.”  He put down the coat, and said abruptly, “She won’t give me a divorce.”  There was no need to ask who “she” was.  His wife.  “I went, right after we got down here, and asked her, told her, that I’d pay her, I’d take the blame, whatever she wanted, if she would only set me free.  She refused.”  He shook his head.  “At least Thomas’s situation isn’t his own fault.”

“Why did you marry her in the first place?” Anna wondered. 

Mr. Bates sighed.  “She said she was expecting.  And then, as soon as it was done, she said she’d lost it.  I’ve come to think she was lying all along, but she’d not have been able to trick me that way if I hadn’t…done what I shouldn’t.”  He shook his head.  “She had a hard life, and she wanted someone to take care of her.  I can’t blame her for that.”

Plenty of people had hard lives, and didn’t go tricking honest men into marriage—Daisy, for instance, whose childhood had been like something out of Dickens.  “You can blame her for what came after.”

But Mr. Bates shook his head again.  “I did my best.  I tried to be good to her, to make her happy, but…it was so hard, and after I got back from the war, I just didn’t have the patience for it any longer.”

That letter, from Thomas’s regimental friend, had said that his troubles started after he came back from the war, hadn’t it?  “What did you do?”

“I never hit her,” Mr. Bates said immediately.  “That’s not saying much, but that’s a line I managed not to cross.  I spoke harshly to her, I stormed out of the house and stayed away for days, I…drank my wages, instead of giving them to her for the housekeeping.  I’ve stopped drinking,” he added.  “Since I…since I left.  That’s helped.  It’s easier to hold on to my temper.”

“That’s good,” Anna said.  It was a good sign, both that he hadn’t struck his wife—she believed him, about that—and that he’d done something to mend his ways, other than just wish to be better.  “Some people, I think, shouldn’t drink.  For some it’s all right, but it takes different people differently.” 

“Yes, I think that’s true.  After—a couple of times, after I’d given it up for a while, I tried having just one or two, and…I learned it’s better for me not to.  But.”  He picked up the coat, examining another seam.  “Even without the drinking, I haven’t always managed to control my temper.”

“I’ve heard,” she said, quietly.

Mr. Bates nodded.  “I figured he would have told you.”

“It was William, as a matter of fact,” she said.  “Thomas only mentioned you’d done something that suggested you had strong feelings about me, and that William saw it.”

Mr. Bates looked thoughtful for a moment.  “If that’s what he took away from that—sometimes I really wonder, about his life.”

“So do I.  As you can imagine, I didn’t take it as much of a recommendation.”

“No.  I’ve never…just so you know…I’ve never raised a hand to a woman.  It’s no excuse, but in the Army, and…other places I’ve been…you get used to a rougher way of dealing with things.”

In prison, he meant.  Anna could believe it. 

“It was wrong of me,” Mr. Bates went on.  “Even if he had been…leading you up the garden path, which is what I thought.  It was wrong of me.”

“If he had been, I can fight my own battles, thank you.”

“Yes.  I know.”  He sighed.  “The truth is, he reminds me of her.  Vera.  The sly little comments, the underhandedness, the constant air of superiority and self-pity.   I used to think, or hope, that when she came to expect kindness and joy out of life, her icy exterior would melt and reveal something finer underneath.”  His tone was slightly self-mocking.   “But just because she turned out to be rotten the whole way through, doesn’t mean he is.” 

That would explain why he was so reluctant to give Thomas a chance—nobody wanted to be the same fool twice.  Half-wanting, half-dreading to hear more about Mr. Bates’s disastrous marriage, she resolutely turned the conversation to the safer topic of talking about their colleague.  “I do think he’s improving, a bit.”

“A bit,” Mr. Bates admitted.  “He still gets under my skin, though.  Making William sit up all night waiting for him, while his mother’s dying, and he’s out carousing….”  He shook his head.

“About that.”  Anna hesitated.  “I’m not entirely sure that he didn’t think, in some way, that that was helpful.”

“How?”

“You know William was worried about leaving us all in the lurch, and Thomas especially.  Mr. Carson practically had to order him to go.”

“William is very conscientious, yes.  And don’t tell me Thomas won’t be holding it over his head before Mrs. Mason is cold in the ground.”

“Well, that’s the point.  I think what he was trying to say is that William would have paid off the debt up front, and not to worry about it.”

Mr. Bates’s expression was skeptical.  “Wouldn’t it be a lot simpler not to call it a debt in the first place?  If he really wanted to help.”

“I’m not sure he entirely understands….”  How to put it?  “That the rest of us aren’t keeping score all the time.   I mean, the way he asked for my help with arranging about going to Kew Gardens….”  She shook her head.

“How did he ask?”

“I thought at first I was being blackmailed.  He came up with—it’s not important what he came up with—and then said ‘So here’s what it’ll take to keep me quiet,’ and asked for a perfectly ordinary favor that we’d already done for other people.”

“Well, not exactly,” Mr. Bates pointed out.  “But what did he—I don’t mean to pry, but …I hope he isn’t going to make trouble, about whatever it is.” 

“I don’t think he will.”  She shouldn’t have brought it up, but now they were so close to the subject….  “It was something about someone I care about, who had done something that other people might look down on, if they knew only part of the story.”

 “I see.  But you…think you have the whole story?”

“I have quite a bit of it,” she admitted.  More than she had before this morning, in fact. 

Mr. Bates looked at her levelly.  “And you don’t….”  His voice broke on the final word.

In for a penny, in for a pound.  “Yes, it’s you, and yes, it’s what you’re thinking—unless you’ve got two entirely separate dark secrets.  I know where you’ve been, I know you didn’t do it, and I think you’re an idiot for taking the blame, but I understand why you thought you had to.”

Mr. Bates appeared to deflate, before her eyes.  “I’m sorry.  I—you shouldn’t be burdened with this secret.  If you feel you have to disclose it….”

“It’s not my secret to tell,” Anna said.  “And Thomas will keep his mouth shut, because he thinks he’s got to for you to keep quiet about his dark secret.”  Which half the house knew anyway, but Thomas seemed to be ignoring that part of what she’d said.  “But…I thought that, perhaps, his lordship knew already.”

 “He doesn’t.  It’s no way to repay his kindness, taking me on even though I’m a cripple, but…he doesn’t.”

So Thomas had been right about that.  “Don’t you think, with everything you’ve been through together, he might understand?”

“He might understand, in a sense, but I don’t see how he could keep me on.  I should hand in my resignation.  I shouldn’t have come in the first place, but….”

“If you want my opinion, I think you ought to tell him,” Anna said, before he could get any more melodramatic.  “If Thomas can find out, somebody else can, and it’ll be better coming from you.  If you’re serious about resigning, it makes more sense to tell him, since the worst he can do is sack you.  But that’s just what I think.”  If it were Thomas she were speaking to, she’d likely have to lay out in so many words that she wasn’t telling him to tell his lordship before she did, but Mr. Bates could take a hint. 

“How did Thomas find out?”

“He wrote to a friend of his in the Army, to find out what you meant about ‘having been married.’  He asked me if I wanted him to, I said no, and he did it anyway,” she added.  “I’m not sure what he might have been thinking about doing with the information, but what he did do, was bring it straight to me.”

Mr. Bates nodded.  “I see.  I’d noticed a…distance between us, since just before we came down to London.  You see me differently; of course you do.  I am married, and a convict, and I…shouldn’t be troubling you with my company.” 

“That isn’t why,” she blurted out.  “Not exactly.” 

“Oh?”

“Thomas’s friend also wrote that there are rumors, in the regiment, that you’d…you’d been violent with your wife.  I couldn’t….I could love a divorced man.  I could love a man who’s been to prison for something he didn’t do.  But I couldn’t love a man who beat his wife.  I couldn’t risk it.  I couldn’t allow myself to.”

“Of course,” Mr. Bates murmured. 

And now they were in for a pound, she might as well go the whole guinea.  “And the truth is, I find it very difficult to spend time with you, without falling in love, at least a little.  But, as those rumors are completely untrue….”

“Not completely,” Mr. Bates said quietly.  “I didn’t beat her, but I didn’t treat her well.  But I would never…but that’s beside the point, because I’m not divorced.”

“That’s a thing that could change,” she pointed out.  “Will she really want to stay married forever, to a man who can’t stand her and won’t live with her?”

“She might,” Mr. Bates warned.  “If it’s to her advantage.  Or if she thinks it’s to my disadvantage.”

“Suppose she meets someone else?  It wouldn’t be to her advantage then.”  It could happen.  It was considerably likelier than anything happening so that Thomas and Mr. Fitzroy could be together. 

“True.  Anything is possible.”

“All right, then,” Anna said, with a firm nod.  “And, unless and until, we’ll carry on being very good friends.  Agreed?”

“I’d like that very much,” said Mr. Bates.

#

As Thomas expected, he didn’t have a moment to himself after William had gone.  While the amount of actual work required, when the household wasn’t entertaining and they were out for meals more often than not, wasn’t much of a strain for two footmen, but with no one to switch off jobs with, it wore on him pretty quickly. 

The whole point of a footman was to be seen, adding to the grandeur of the house, while simultaneously not drawing any attention to yourself.  You weren’t doing anything more complicated than opening a door or setting out more toast, but you had to do it at the exact moment it was required, not before or after, and always appear completely unruffled.  That meant that Thomas was spending the greater part of each day on display, waiting for the moments where he would be called upon to do something. 

It started with serving at breakfast—the one meal that they always took at home.  That was mostly a matter of standing by the sideboard like a particularly large vase, but you couldn’t drift off into your own private thoughts, lest you miss someone signaling for more tea, or commit a facial expression. 

Next came the calling hours, from just after the upstairs breakfast was cleared to a bit before tea-time.  At Downton, those times of day were usually when you got to sit in the servants’ hall and catch your breath a bit, unless her ladyship had put out word that she was At Home to callers, which didn’t happen above once a month or so.  London was a different story, with a constant trickle of calling-cards and invitations turning up.

With two footmen, you’d switch off minding the door during that time, so you each got a bit of a break.  Or if Carson sent one of them out on an errand, that at least made a change of scenery, and you could usually manage any small purchases you needed for yourself while you were at it.  With William gone, Carson assigned any errands to Bates or the hall-boys, depending on how much walking and how much money was involved, and Thomas was essentially chained to the front door.  He was allowed to go downstairs to grab a bite of lunch, but even then, he had to jump and run upstairs if anyone rang the bell. 

What made it particularly infuriating was that none of the callers had any expectation whatsoever of so much as setting eyes on the ladies they were presumably calling upon: the whole point was simply to leave their cards on a silver salver that Thomas held out to receive them.  It would have been a great deal less trouble for everyone if they had simply put the cards in the post, but that wasn’t the way it was done. 

Sometimes, they even had their footmen do it, which only added an additional layer of absurdity to the whole thing.   An invitation could correctly be delivered by a footman, but if he was dropping off a calling card, it was necessary to maintain a pretense that the lady paying the call was, at least, nearby—something that had probably been at least a bit more plausible in the days of closed carriages than open motorcars. 

Still, you could usually get half a minute or so of conversation out of those occasions, which was what passed for excitement in the mind-numbing drudgery of hall duty.  Once it was Syl, bringing Lady M.’s card and a vaguely believable story about her being ill and unable to make the call herself.  (Lady M. was healthy as an ox, but old enough to use that excuse, and she wielded it like a sword and buckler.) 

“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you in livery before,” Thomas observed, holding out the salver for Syl to put the cards in.  “It suits you.”  A hell of a lot better than the evening gown, at any rate. 

“Ugh,” Syl said.  He leaned in.  “Have you had a chance to see Peter, since…?”

Thomas shook his head.  That rankled more than anything.  He wasn’t used to thinking much about Peter between their occasional meetings, but now that they had said…what they had said, Thomas found himself full of the same desire to see him that had marked the early stages of his juvenile love-affairs.  But those—even with Phillip—had also held the promise, empty as it turned out to be, of being the beginning of a whole a new life. He’d recklessly skived off and sneaked out at every opportunity, believing—wrongly—that if he were caught and sacked, it would only mean an even earlier beginning to his marvelous future. 

Now, he knew, there was nothing Peter could do for him if he got sacked—indeed, it would only jeopardize the meager plans they’d been able to make.  But he still wanted to see him.

“I don’t imagine I will,” he said.  “Our other footman’s gone—his mother’s dying.  I can’t get away.” 

“Sorry,” Syl said.  He glanced over his shoulder at the chauffeur, waiting in the road.  “Gotta go!”

He darted off, and Thomas sank back into torpor.  If only her ladyship would send him out with some cards to deliver—it would seem like a holiday at the seaside, at this point.

Immediately after the calling hours came tea.  This, in London, was also an occasion for visiting, but this time, the participants in the visit actually saw each other.  The ladies were out for tea as often as they were in, but since it was acceptable for young ladies to go to tea without their mothers, it was a rare day when none of them were home for it—and those that were home usually had guests, who had to be let in the door, announced in the drawing room, and waited on when they got there. 

After tea, the upstairs lot usually had a bit of a rest, to fortify themselves for the evening’s activities.  Thomas, after gulping his own tea, usually spent that time washing and drying the silver and glassware from luncheon.  Normally, whoever wasn’t on duty in the hall would have taken care of it at some point during the afternoon, but now, since he was on his own, it was usually left for him—since he had, after all, been doing essentially nothing all day. 

If the family were all out for dinner, there was a bit of a respite after the washing-up, but if even one of them was dining in, that task rolled straight into laying the table for dinner, and then serving it.  Carson unbent so far as to allow the maids to carry some of the sauces and side-dishes from the kitchen to the servery, but Thomas still had to take them in to the dining room, clear it all away after they were done, and, of course, wash the silver and glassware again. 

At that point, he was about ready to fall over dead, but if they were going out in the evening, someone had to be ready to open the door when they got back, and that was always Thomas

It wasn’t digging coal or anything—a point Bates made more than once—but it did make for long and frustrating days, during which you couldn’t relax but also didn’t accomplish anything whatsoever.   And all the while, Peter was a few streets away, but might as well have been on the moon, for all the good it did him.

Then, as if that wasn’t all enough, on Thursday Carson announced at the servants’ dinner that Mr. Bates was taking his half-day the next day, and Thomas would need to dress his lordship.  It was all he could do not to scream. 

“All you have to do,” Bates said patronizingly, when Thomas confronted him about it on their way up to the attics to sleep, “is get him into his evening dress.  He’ll wear the same clothes on to the theater, I’ll have everything ready, and I’ll be back before he is, to put him to bed.  It’ll take you ten minutes.”

“I know how to do it,” Thomas snapped. 

“Then what are you carrying on about?”

“Because it’s the ten minutes in the day I can sit down and smoke a god-damn cigarette,” Thomas informed him.   “And I’m not carrying on.”

“Yes, you—”  Bates visibly reined himself in.  “Never mind.  You’ve had your half-day, and I’m having mine, whether you like it or not.  Is there anything, within reason, that I might do to make you feel it’s less of an imposition?”

That set Thomas back on his heels a moment.  Of course Bates was going to have his half-day, and even Thomas didn’t really begrudge it to him, even if it meant losing one of the few moments during the day that he could count on no one making any demands of him.  And there wasn’t anything Bates could do about it, not really.  “No,” he said, his voice sounding sullen even to his own ears.  “I don’t suppose there is.”

“Then, you’re just going to have to live with it.”

“Well, I wasn’t planning to slit my wrists over it,” Thomas pointed out, and went to bed. 

But the next day, after lunch, when he was settling in for the afternoon period of standing in the front hall waiting for someone to ring the doorbell, Bates appeared. 

“What?” Thomas asked irritably.

“I’m getting ready to leave, but if you want, I can watch the door for ten minutes while you go and smoke a cigarette.”

Thomas regarded him suspiciously.  “Mr. Carson’s going to wonder why I’m down there.”  The whole point of the time when the upstairs lot were getting dressed, was that there wasn’t anywhere else he was supposed to be, and it was no one’s business what he did. 

“Take it or leave it,” Bates said. 

Well, if he put it like that….  “I’ll take it, thanks.” 

Thomas half-expected that Mr. Carson would be waiting at the bottom of the stairs, to demand to know where he thought he was going, but the coast was clear.  Miss O’Brien was in possession of the servants’ hall—naturally—but it was a decent enough day out, and he found an old vegetable crate to sit on by the back door, and nobody interrupted him.   

He used the time to idly imagine that Peter might happen by.  He’d written to explain the situation with William, and how he wanted to see him but couldn’t slip away, and Peter had responded that he’d look for any excuse to come this direction, and use the alley behind Grantham House when he did.  It wasn’t particularly likely they’d manage to meet up that way, but there was always hope. 

When he got back to the front hall, though, he came out of the door to the servants’ stairs just as Mr. Carson was coming out of the drawing room.  “Thomas,” he said, practically growling with disapproval, “where have you been?”

God damn it.  Absolutely nothing in this life was free, was it?  He opened his mouth to say something about feeling a bit ill, when Bates said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Carson—it’s my fault.  Thomas wasn’t sure when he’d get a break, what with having to dress his lordship tonight, so I said I’d keep an eye on things here for a few minutes if he wanted to have one now.” 

Oh, for God’s sake.  Of all the things for him to say, why did it have to be the truth?  That was just handing Carson an opportunity to spend the rest of the day harping on how lazy Thomas was. 

“I see,” said Carson.  “Thomas is certainly aware—and so should you be—that it is not entirely correct for a valet to answer the door.”

“Yes, Mr. Carson,” they both said. 

“But I suppose, as we are reduced to a single footman at the moment, allowances must be made.  Very well.  But next time, ask me first.”

They both yes-Mr.-Carsonned again, and Bates took off, Carson following him after one more harrumph in Thomas’s direction. 

Honestly, if it wouldn’t get him sacked, he’d cry. 

Several hours later, when they were up in the dressing room, and Thomas would have cheerfully murdered anyone on Earth except Peter for a cigarette, his lordship had the unmitigated gall to ask, “How are you managing, with William away?  I hope it isn’t a nuisance.”

“I’m managing, my lord,” he answered, as calmly as he could, fastening the strap at the back of his waistcoat.  “Sometimes I feel as though I should be two places at once, but I’m managing.”

His lordship looked over his shoulder at him.  Thomas braced himself for a scolding, but his lordship said, “I’ll speak to Carson about making sure you get some time off once we’re back in the country.”

“That’s kind of you, my lord.”  Basically pointless, but kind of him to think of it. 

“I’m sure it’s not as much fun as having time off in London, but Mrs. Mason didn’t choose this time to die just to inconvenience us.”

There was the scolding.  “No, my lord.  I’m sure she didn’t.”

He sighed, and raised his chin for Thomas to tie his tie.  “Has there been any news, about her?”

“Not that I know of, my lord, but if he wrote to one of the others, I might not have heard.” Because he was in the front hall or the dining room every hour God sent. 

“I’m sure it’s dreadful for him, but I have caught myself, a time or two, wondering if she is, in fact, actually going to die this time,” he admitted.  “But that’s dreadfully unworthy of me, so please don’t repeat it.”

“Of course not, my lord.”  Thomas had had that thought himself, much more than a time or two, and it usually took the form of she had better actually die this time.  He was reasonably ashamed of thinking it, but also thought that, if it was him running off to his mother’s deathbed every ten minutes, everyone would be wondering out loud whether he had ever actually had a mother at all.  He finished tying the tie and stepped back.  “None of us can help what we think, can we?”

“I suppose not.”  His lordship held out his arms for his evening coat to be put on.  “If he’s somehow not back in time for the garden party, we’ll get someone temporary.”

Oh, God, the garden party.  Thomas hadn’t even thought about that.  The moment they got back to Downton, they were going to be polishing every tray they had, ironing acres of tablecloths….  There wasn’t any real chance of him getting that time off his lordship had mentioned, at least until it was over, and by that point everyone would have forgotten all about it.  “That would be a help, my lord.”

#

Walking down the stairs to the drawing room with Cora, Robert asked her, “Have you noticed if Thomas might be a little over-worked, with William gone for so long?”

Cora tilted her head to one side.  “I can’t imagine that he is.  O’Brien says he’s complaining up a storm, but there isn’t really that much for him to do.  We aren’t entertaining, after all.”

Robert didn’t put much stock in anything O’Brien said—Bates had told him that, for some reason, she and Thomas were no longer in cahoots—but there was no point having that argument with Cora again.  “Bates mentioned he seems to be feeling a bit of a strain.”

“Well,” Cora said, “I won’t say I told you so.”

Yes, this was precisely the sort of situation in it would be beneficial to have a valet who could fill in as footman.  “You just did,” Robert pointed out. 

They reached the bottom of the stairs.  “Say something to Carson, if you think there’s anything in it,” Cora suggested.  “He’ll know.”

When they entered the drawing room, Carson was there, and the girls weren’t, so Robert did as she said.  Carson drew himself up a little and said, “I shouldn’t think so, my lord.  Has he complained?”

“No,” Robert said.  “He hasn’t.”  Despite Robert practically inviting him to do so—Bates had also suggested that giving Thomas a chance to grumble a little might cheer him up a bit.  Instead, Thomas had said exactly what he ought to have said.  “Keep an eye on the situation, and I think he’s owed a bit of time off, once things return to normal.”

“Very good, my lord.” 

#

After dressing his lordship, Thomas raced back down the stairs.  Carson was looking after them in the drawing room, so there was just enough time to have a cigarette before starting the dinner service—though he had to smoke it so quickly he was a little light-headed going up the stairs with the soup.

Almost immediately after he’d served it, and taken up his post by the sideboard, Lady Sybil said, “Mama, do we have to go back home on Tuesday?”

“Yes, we do,” her ladyship said.  “Because the we have the garden party not long after we get back, and we need to get ready for it.”

“How much getting ready is there to do, really?” Lady Mary asked. 

For her?  Not much, Thomas guessed.  But the rest of them couldn’t leave until the family did, and they had plenty to do. 

“But Imogene’s ball is that night,” Lady Sybil said.  “I hate to miss it—she came to mine—and it’s only one more day.”

More likely two.  They’d have to make an early start in the morning to make it to Yorkshire by a decent hour, and the ball wouldn’t finish until about 3 AM.  

Her ladyship showing no sign of bending, Lady Sybil and Lady Mary turned to his lordship.  Lady Edith gave a little jump, as though kicked under the table by a sister—Thomas had had a sister, once; he knew the signs—and said, “I would very much like to go, too, Papa.”

His lordship, having just taken a sip of wine, set his glass down with a little more force than was strictly necessary.  “We’ll see.”

Judging from the smiles on the girls’ faces, they knew just as well as Thomas did that he couldn’t stand up to his daughters when they all ganged up on him.  He was in for five, maybe even six, more days of drudgery, to be immediately followed by extra drudgery with a change of scenery. 

He swore under his breath the whole way down the stairs for the next course. 

Three more courses later—it was a simple dinner—it was finally over, and they barely went into the drawing room long enough to so much as look at the coffee-tray before heading out to…whatever it was they were doing.  After closing the door behind them, Thomas allowed himself a moment to lean his forehead against the wall. 

“Thomas.”

He jumped.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Carson.  I….”  He couldn’t really think of an excuse.

“Are you ill?”

“No, Mr. Carson.”

“Then, if you feel the need to engage in theatrics, please do it downstairs.” 

He went downstairs.  Supper was cold meat—Mrs. Trout apparently felt it was too hot to do any more cooking—but it still perked him up a bit.  Not quite enough for him to face the rest of the evening with any real enjoyment, but enough that he could manage to avoid anything that Mr. Carson might consider theatrics

He was lingering over his pudding at the servants’ hall table, trying to put off the moment when he’d have to go up to the servery and start washing the silver and glassware—again—when Carson said, “Thomas, if you’re that tired, you may go to bed.”

Now that woke him the rest of the way up.  “What, and not do the washing up?”  He didn’t know why he was asking that; if there was a chance of getting out of the house, he’d do a mountain of washing up in the morning.

“I will supervise the hall boys as they do it,” Carson said. “This once.”

This was unprecedented.  He thought quickly, calculating his chances of getting out the door unseen.  With O’Brien hindering instead of helping, they were about nil.  And he wasn’t about to try going out the attic window again; he’d almost broken his neck the time he’d done it to meet…whoever it had been.  George, Viscount Hargraves, probably.  The only thing for it was to press his luck.  “Can I go get a pint?”

“No,” said Carson.  “If you are not tired, you can work.”

Damn.  Well, there was one more thing he might try….  “What about a walk?  I’ve been cooped up in this house for days, Mr. Carson.  I’d like a bit of fresh air, that’s all.”

Carson looked at him levelly.  “Half an hour, if you go anywhere it would shame this house for your livery to be seen, I will skin you alive, and the silver and glassware will be waiting for you when you get back.”

“Deal.” 

Thomas was out the back door before Carson could change his mind.  He was bound, of course, for Sir Henry’s house, but that wasn’t a place he could disgrace the house by being seen; he was pretty sure Lady Denham had left her card at some point.  It was only when he was actually there that he began to wonder how he was going to get from standing in the back alley to actually seeing Peter

He was still thinking about it when a kitchen maid came out to dump a bucket of scraps into the ash-can.  “What do you want, then?” she demanded.

“Um—I’m a friend of Mr. Fitzroy’s.  I was hoping to see him for a minute, if he’s not busy.”  What the hell; telling the truth had worked out well for him twice in as many days.

“I’ll see,” she said. 

A moment later, Peter came out.  “Oh, God, I was hoping it was you,” he said, rushing up to Thomas and then stopping, carefully, just out of reach.

“It’s me,” Thomas said, suddenly awkward.  “Managed to slip my shackles for a few minutes.”

Peter glanced over at the house.  “Look, I’m really glad to see you, but we better not make a habit of this.”

“I know,” Thomas said quickly.  “And I couldn’t if I wanted to.  We’re leaving soon, and I practically had to beg to be out here now.  I just….”

“I know,” Peter said.  “Here.”  He took out a pack of cigarettes and offered them to Thomas. 

Thomas wished he’d light one for him—they couldn’t kiss, couldn’t touch, but at least that—but of course he couldn’t, not when anyone from the house might see.  “Thanks,” he said, taking one.  There.  Just two normal blokes having a smoke. 

Peter lit his own cigarette, and handed Thomas his silver lighter.  “Keep it,” he said suddenly.

“What?” Thomas asked, pausing with the flame halfway to his cigarette.

“Keep it, and—don’t you dare make fun of me—whenever you have one, it’ll be me lighting it for you.  All right?”

“All right,” Thomas said.  “And I wouldn’t make fun of you.  That might be the most romantic thing anyone’s ever said to me.”  He tried to think of something he had, that he could plausibly give Peter.  He didn’t have a lighter, and he didn’t wear his watch with his livery.  His cigarette case had been a gift from some other lover—he’d tried hard to forget which one, so he could still enjoy using it—which was not in very good taste, but it would have to do.  He took it out of his pocket and gave it to Peter.  “Here—swapsies, but actually, I need the cigarettes back.  These are my last ones, and God knows when I’ll be able to buy more.”

“I’m going to go ahead and consider that the most romantic thing anyone’s ever said to me,” Peter told him.  “But I’m making allowances for you being you.”  Pocketing the case, he took his own cigarettes back out of his pocked and handed Thomas the pack.  “Take these; I’ve got more left than you have.” 

Thomas took them.  “Thanks.”

“I’ve been thinking,” Peter said.

“Thinking what?”

“Christmas.  I never take Boxing Day, and you don’t either, do you?”

Thomas shook his head.  He hadn’t when he and Peter had both worked for Lady Waterstone, and nothing had changed. 

“It would be a good chance for both of us to get a little time off, don’t you think?  We’ll say we’re happy to cover for everyone else on the day itself, but we want another day somewhere around then.”

Thomas thought it over.  “That might work.  There’s usually a couple of days in there, between Christmas and New Years, when not much is happening.”  It was a long way off—five months—but at least it was sooner than next summer.  “Am I coming here, or are you going there?”

“I don’t know yet—sometimes he goes to Devonshire for Christmas.  If we can both get a day and a night, we could meet somewhere in the middle.  Find an hotel that’s not too expensive.”

An entire night with a bedroom all to themselves?   “Good idea,” he said quickly.  “Let’s do that.”  The ones that went home for Boxing Day usually left after the family’s dinner on Christmas Day, and weren’t required to be back until breakfast on the 27th; he might even be able to add a few hours on to that, by taking a different day from everyone else. 

“It’s a date,” Peter said.  He took a drag from his cigarette and added, “Unless we’re at war by then.”

He didn’t seem to be joking.  “Did something else happen?”  Thomas had barely had a chance to look at a newspaper since William had left. 

“Yeah.  Austria just drew a line under Serbia’s feet, and dared them to step across it,” Peter said.  “Technically, they could be at war tomorrow night if Serbia doesn’t knuckle under.”

Tomorrow?”  Bloody hell.  You take your eye off world affairs for a week….

Peter shrugged.  “That was the deadline.  Serbia’s stalling for time, though.  And even if they do, it’ll take a while before we get roped into it.”

“They’ll get it sorted out,” Thomas said, with a confidence he didn’t feel. 

“I hope so.”  Peter tossed down his cigarette and stomped it out. 

Thomas took one last drag from his and did the same, before the dog-end could burn his fingers.  “I better get back.”

Peter nodded.  “Christmas?”

“Christmas,” Thomas agreed.

 They looked at each other for a moment, nodded, and parted. 

Even with the depressing news from Europe, Thomas found that having seen Peter, even so briefly, put a bit of a spring into his step as he returned to Grantham House.  He almost didn’t mind the pile of washing-up that was waiting for him. 

He did, however, mind the way that Mr. Carson took out his pocket watch and checked it, the moment Thomas came in.  Carson knew as well as anyone that he wouldn’t be carrying his own, and it didn’t make any real difference whether he was late or not.

But he must not be, because Carson didn’t have anything to say about it.

#

When Thomas came back from his walk and went up to the servery, Anna changed into her work apron and joined him.  They hadn’t really had a chance to talk, since their day out with Mr. Fitzroy and Lisel—Thomas was barely in the servants’ hall, and when he was, everyone else was, too.  Particularly Miss O’Brien. 

“I’ll dry, if you like,” she offered, picking up a towel. 

Thomas shot her a suspicious glance, but said only, “If you don’t mind.”

She knew better than to expect a thank-you.  Drying a glass, she said, “So?”

“What?”

“Did you see him?” 

“For about a minute.”

“That was what you were after, wasn’t it?” she asked.  Thomas did not, as far as she knew, take much of an interest in walking.

“Shout it so the whole house can hear, why don’t you?” he asked, even though she’d barely been speaking above a whisper.

Ignoring his rudeness, she said, “He seems really nice.”

“Nice enough to put up with me, you mean?”

She ignored that, too.  “I’m happy for you, really.”

“There’s nothing to….”  The denial seemed almost to be some sort of reflex.  He put the glass he was washing back in the water, and leaned back to peer through the half-open door to the kitchen stairs.  “All right, we’re going to try to see a bit more of each other—is that what you wanted to hear?”

If it were anyone else, those words would mean that they were heading towards an engagement.  She wasn’t entirely sure what it meant in Thomas’s case.  “Good.”

Another glance at the door, and he dried off his hands and reached into his pocket.  “Look—he gave me his lighter.”  He held it out for her to look at.

It was a perfectly ordinary patent cigarette lighter, made out of some silvery metal—tin, probably, or aluminum—and slightly scratched.  She supposed he’d get a lot of use out of it, but wondered if the gesture had any particular meaning, for people like him and Mr. Fitzroy. 

Probably.  It wasn’t as though Mr. Fitzroy could give him a lock of his hair.  Or was she meant to exclaim over it like it was an engagement ring?  She settled on saying, “It’s nice!” in an enthusiastic voice.

Thomas seemed satisfied; at any rate, he put it back in his pocket and got back to washing the glasses. 

They washed and dried in something like companionable silence for a bit.  “Mr. Bates and I had a bit of a chat, as well.”  She couldn’t tell anyone else—they didn’t have a proper understanding, just an understanding that, if circumstances changed, they might have an understanding.  But Thomas knew what that was like.

“Oh?” he said.

“Yes, we—he’s trying to get a divorce.  She’s refusing so far, but that could change.”

“All right,” Thomas said slowly. 

Perhaps he didn’t quite understand, yet.  “And if it did, that would change things for us.”

Oh,” Thomas said, in a tone of one enlightened.  “I see.”  He handed her a silver serving spoon.  “What about…the other thing?”

There were at least two “other things” he could be talking about, but she said, “We talked about that, as well.  I told him what I’d heard, and he told me how it all happened.”  Sort of.  As much as she needed to know.

Thomas looked straight at her for a moment.  “If he says that she’s the most awful witch that ever lived, and drove him to beat her, I should run the other way.”

So that was the part of it he meant.  It wasn’t as much of a surprise as it might have been, that he’d realize that Mr. Bates’s treatment of his wife was a larger problem than his prison time.  Most women would understand, and the hints she’d had from Mr. Fitzroy and Lisel suggested that Thomas learnt the same hard lessons about men that so many women did.  “Nothing like that.  He says it never quite got that bad, but he admits there was fault on both sides, and he’s given up drinking.”

It sounded a little thin to her even as she was saying it—though it hadn’t felt that way when she’d been talking to Mr. Bates—and Thomas raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“I really don’t think there’s anything to worry about,” she said.

“Hm.”  Thomas put a handful of forks into the soapy water.  “Have you got a brother?” he asked suddenly.

“No, why?”

“I’m just wondering if it’s going to be me that has to sort it out if you’re wrong,” Thomas explained.

It took Anna a moment to figure out what he was saying—or rather, not saying—and when she did, she wasn’t sure whether to be offended, that he was threatening to beat up Mr. Bates, or touched, that he was willing to stand up for her as a brother would.  She settled on being mostly exasperated, that he couldn’t show his affection like a normal person.  “Perhaps if things go well, there will be a happier occasion for you to stand in for the brother I haven’t got,” she suggested. 

He looked a little startled at that. 

#

The next day brought three announcements, none of them a particular surprise.  First, a telegram came from Mrs. Hughes, saying that William’s mother had died in the night, and the funeral was to be Monday.  Second, Carson told them at the servants’ tea that the household would be moving back to Yorkshire on Thursday, rather than on Tuesday as planned.  Finally, the evening papers said that Austria had cut off diplomatic relations with Serbia, and was mobilizing for war. 

Of the three, Thomas found the second to be the most pressing concern.  The family were dining out that night, so he managed to find time, after seeing them off, to fume about it to Anna. 

“I thought you liked London,” she said, when he paused for breath. 

“I like when I can see more of it than this bloody house,” he corrected her.  “If they’d send William down, after the funeral, it’d be all right, but bet you they won’t.”

“Are you getting to appreciate him a bit more, then?”  Anna asked innocently.

“I never said he didn’t have his uses,” Thomas answered.  “If they want one footman to do the work of two, they’d be better off hiring an octopus.”  Or a valet who could fill in as footman, but he decided not to say that.

“Should I even bother to mention that I’ve been doing the work of three lady’s maids the whole time we’ve been here?”

Thomas hadn’t really thought about it that way before.  “You always do,” he pointed out. 

“They don’t change their clothes nearly as often in the country as they do here.  Nor stay out as late.  If you ought to be an octopus, I should be a centipede.” 

“I wonder if they think Miss O’Brien ought to be helping you,” Thomas mused.  She’d “done” for the girls, with the help of a housemaid, on the previous London seasons, and hadn’t liked it one bit.

“Chance would be a fine thing,” Anna said.  “Her ladyship has sent her over to lend a hand, a few times, when the dresses are particularly complicated.  But somehow, she always manages to arrive just as I’m doing the last one.”

“What a coincidence,” Thomas said. 

Anna laughed.  “We shouldn’t complain too much, though,” she said.  “If they didn’t have work for us to do, they’d have no reason to pay us, and then where would we be?”

Anna could be a real wet blanket sometimes.  But Peter could be like that, too.  Perhaps there was some sort of trade-off, between reliability and wet-blanketiness, when it came to friends. 

The next day, after church, Carson announced that he would see Thomas and Mr. Bates in his pantry.  Thomas couldn’t begin to imagine why—he hadn’t had time to get up to any trouble, much less any trouble involving Bates.  He looked inquiringly at Bates as they went, but got only a shrug in return.

“I have decided,” Carson said, “after much consideration, that I will be returning to Downton on Wednesday morning, to open the house for the family and begin preparations for the garden party.”

Oh.  Now that Thomas thought about it, on previous London visits, the first footman had been sent back the day ahead.  He wasn’t sure whether he was getting the better end of the deal or not, with Carson going instead. 

“It is not ideal,” Carson continued, “but I don’t see any way around it.  William will also be returning on Wednesday, but he is not sufficiently experienced to handle things on his own, and there is no point in sending him down on one train while Thomas goes up on another.  I will, therefore, be relying upon the two of you to oversee the departure.”

Now Thomas wasn’t sure whether to be offended that Carson didn’t trust him to do it on his own, or glad that he wasn’t expected to. 

“His lordship and her ladyship have, very kindly, offered to keep things as simple as possible on the Wednesday.  They will receive no callers, luncheon will be a cold collation served from the sideboard, tea will be as usual, and they will dine with Lady Painswick, and return early in the evening.  During this time, Mr. Bates may answer the door if necessary.”

“Yes, Mr. Carson,” they both said. 

“On Thursday morning, breakfast will be laid at seven-thirty and removed promptly at nine.  Her ladyship has stated that if the young ladies are still lingering over their breakfasts at this point, you may remove the plates from in front of them.  You will not do so.  You may, instead, remind them of the necessity of being at the railway station for the eleven o’clock train, should it be required.”

“Yes, Mr. Carson,” said Thomas. 

“Mr. Bates, you will handle the tickets for both the staff and family, ensure that all staff are on the train in good time, and work with Anna and Miss O’Brien to see that the family have everything they need during the journey.”

“Yes, Mr. Carson,” Bates said.

“Thomas, you will make sure that all of the family and household baggage makes it to the train, and off again.  We’ll do as much of the household packing as we can before I leave, and the heavy baggage will go up with me, but you’ll have to see to the things that they will be using on the last day.”

Typical—Bates looked after the family, while Thomas took care of the bags.  If it were him and William doing the work, it would be the other way round.  “Yes, Mr. Carson.” 

“Do you have any questions about what is expected of you?”

“No, Mr. Carson,” they both said. 

Once they were back in the corridor, with Carson’s door closed behind them, Bates said, “I felt like I was back in the Army for a minute there.”

“He gets like that,” Thomas said.  If Bates filled in as third footman for large parties, he’d know. 

“Well, if you catch me starting to salute, tread on my foot or something.” 

The next few days were, if anything, even worse than the ones before, because every minute that Thomas wasn’t standing in the dining room or the front hall, he was packing away silver, china, glassware, and table linens—or unpacking them again, when Carson decided that he still needed something.  Only the best sets traveled back and forth between Downton Abbey and Grantham House with the family, but the things that were staying in London still had to be carefully stowed away, the silver in treated flannel bags, the china stacked with felt, the crystal in divided crates, and all of it in the precise cupboard or chest where Carson wanted it. 

Meanwhile, the quality of the meals in the servants’ hall—already poor, under Mrs. Trout—declined precipitously, as she tried to “use things up, so it won’t go to waste.”

Throughout it all, Thomas held out hope that Carson might go to his club on Tuesday night, while the family were at the ball—he still wouldn’t be able to get out of the house, not without William here to cover for him, but at least he’d get a break—but on the evening itself, Carson decided his time would be better spent re-packing some glassware that was going up on the train with him, which he had decided might not be wrapped securely enough.

When he escaped to the servants’ hall, everyone was talking about how Austria had declared war on Serbia.

#

“Do you suppose we’ll end up in it?” Anna asked, nodding towards the headline of the newspaper Mr. Bates was reading. 

“I hope not,” said Mr. Bates, gravely. 

“One of Thomas’s friends was saying, last week, that if they did go to war, it was nearly certain we’d be drawn in.”

“Is he in a position to know?” Mr. Bates asked.

“It’s the one who’s a governess,” Anna explained.  “I gather she’s been following things very closely, so she can explain it to the children she teaches—and because she’s Swiss.  She told us about all the treaties and agreements, that lead from Serbia back to us.”  The details had become hopelessly muddled in Anna’s mind, but Lisel had seemed to know what she was talking about.

Mr. Bates nodded.  “If it ends quickly, we might escape it.  But Germany’s spoiling for a fight—it won’t end quickly, if they have anything to say about it.”

“Thomas’s friend’s employer has told him he must enlist, if we go to war.”

“I thought he looked paler than usual, when he saw the news,” Mr. Bates said—meaning Thomas, Anna supposed, since he’d never seen Mr. Fitzroy.  “Poor devil.  Both of them.” 

Indeed—Anna couldn’t imagine how she’d feel if Mr. Bates was going.  She felt a guilty sense of relief that he was lame; there was no chance he’d be called back to the Army. 

“Lord Grantham won’t force anyone to go,” Mr. Bates continued.  “Not after the things we saw in South Africa.  The things we had to do, in South Africa.”

Anna hoped he was right.    

For the rest of the evening, talk centered mostly on the coming war, brothers and sweethearts who might have to go.  It was a shock, when the family came home from the ball, and Anna went up to undress the girls, to hear them talking lightly of gowns and who had danced with whom. 

Lady Mary did seem a bit distracted, though.  She told Anna to start with the others, then sat at the dressing table, toying with her necklace, only occasionally interjecting a scathing comment on some other young lady’s dress or choice of dance partners. 

As Anna was finishing up with Lady Edith, Lady Mary began taking down her own hair.  Anna tried to hurry—Lady Mary might mean to help, but it was more likely she’d end up making things more difficult. 

Just as Anna was on her way over to her, Lady Mary started to take off her necklace. “Oh, drat,” she said, putting it back around her neck.  “My hair’s gotten stuck in the clasp.”

Anna wasn’t sure what she expected, taking her hair down on her own, before Anna’d had a chance to get her jewels off of her, but she only said, “I see, my lady.  Let’s move over nearer the light, so I can see to untangle it.”

“Don’t pull it,” Lady Mary said.  She stepped away from Anna.  “Let’s go to my room, so you can take your time with it, and not keep Edith and Sybil up.”

True, they were both in their nightgowns with their hair braided, but they didn’t look particularly tired; they were still talking eagerly about the ball.  Anna followed Lady Mary across the passage to her bedroom, wondering what was up.

Lady Mary sat at the dressing table, with her back to the light, so Anna could go to work on her necklace.  “This is really tangled in here,” she observed.  “I might have to cut a few strands.”

“Do what you have to do,” Lady Mary said.  “The truth is, I did it on purpose because there’s something I wanted to talk about, without the others hearing.”

She’d suspected as much.  “What is it?”  Anna’s first thought was that it was about the war, but it wasn’t likely, really.  It was probably something to do with a man.   

“You know I told Matthew I’d give him my answer when we got back.”

“Yes, my lady.”  Had she chosen someone else, then?  She hadn’t mentioned anyone special. 

“And I want—I think I want—to accept him, but there’s something…something that I think I need to tell him.  So I thought I’d tell you, partly in hopes that you can talk me out of it—although I don’t think you can—and partly to practice saying it out loud.  I hope you don’t mind.”

What on Earth….?  “If you think I can help, then I don’t mind.”

“It’s about the Turkish gentleman, Mr. Pamuk.”

“Oh, my lady—I don’t see how Mr. Matthew, or anyone, could hold that against you.”

She shook her head, causing the necklace-clasp to pull at her hair.  “There’s a part of it no one else knows.  Except maybe Thomas, but I’m not sure how much he really saw.  He didn’t just stumble into my room and have a stroke.  And he certainly didn’t have a stroke and then stumble into my bedroom.  He kissed me, and I let him.  I kissed him back.  That’s what we were doing, when he had the stroke.”

It still didn’t sound too serious.  Girls of Lady Mary’s class weren’t supposed to kiss men, officially, but most of them did.  Anna suspected it was forbidden mainly so that there would be a rule they could transgress without real consequences.  “I see.  Well, if you only kissed him….”

“But that’s not all.  Not quite.  We were—”  She looked over at the bed.  “We were lying down, and kissing.”

Oh.  “Did he….?”

“No.  I’m not ruined.  But—I’m not sure I could prove I haven’t been.  He put his hand….”

“I see,” said Anna, quickly. 

“No one—no one—knows that part,” Lady Mary added.  “I’d pulled my nightgown back down before Thomas came in, thank heavens.  But he was still…lying on top of me.  Dead, or at least unconscious.”

Mr. Pamuk, she meant, not Thomas, although for an instant Anna had a truly jarring mental picture.  “I think your secret’s safe with Thomas, my lady.  He’s got a secret of his own, as you know.”

“Good,” said Lady Mary.  “But that isn’t the point, really.  Even if he takes it to his grave, I have to tell Matthew—don’t I?  Before I marry him?”

Anna wasn’t sure.  At the very least, she might leave out the bit about the nightgown.  And the hand.  “Well, if you didn’t…you know, actually….”

“But I would have, if he hadn’t died first.”

There were plenty of women who would have, if they’d had the chance—that was why parents and chaperones were so careful not to give them the chance.  “I wouldn’t like to marry someone, with a secret between us,” Anna finally said.  “And I think that, if the shoe were on the other foot, I’d respect the other person more, for owning up when they didn’t have to.”  Hadn’t Bates, and didn’t she love him all the more for that?  “If you love someone, you’re supposed to love them warts and all.  If I found out later that they’d kept something from me, something they felt was important, that would hurt more.  It would hurt even if I didn’t really mind that much about the secret itself, if you know what I mean.”

“I do,” said Lady Mary.  “I know just what you mean.  But.”  She closed her eyes for a moment.  “Suppose he breaks it off with me?  Withdraws his proposal?”

“I suppose if he does, then he’s not the right man for you.”  If there was someone right for Thomas, then there had to be someone right for Lady Mary. 

“But he is the man who will inherit Downton Abbey,” Lady Mary pointed out. 

“That’s true,” said Anna.  “There.”  She got the necklace free.  “But you aren’t marrying the house, my lady.”

“It would be a great deal easier if I were,” she said.  She shook her head, and stood up so Anna could begin undoing her dress.  “I suppose I must tell him.”

“It’s a decision only you can make, my lady.”  She thought of something.  “You didn’t—begging your pardon, but did you ask him to come to your room?”

“No,” she said.  “No.  He just came.”

“I would tell him that, I think.  That you weren’t planning to do something…something you shouldn’t, but you just got caught up in a moment.” 

“Do you suppose it makes a difference?”

“It would to me.”  She brought the dress up over Lady Mary’s head.  “And—if you still want to know what I think…?”

“Of course.  Go on.”

“I shouldn’t make too much of it, if he reacts badly at first.  He may feel differently once it’s had some time to sink in.”  She could easily see Lady Mary storming off and vowing never to speak to him again, if the first thing Mr. Matthew said was a bit insensitive. 

#

“Well, he’s off,” said Bates.  Thomas had not been present at the leave-taking, as the young ladies had come down to breakfast just as Carson was making his final preparations, requiring Thomas to go up to the dining room with fresh toast.  He was now standing in the servery, waiting to see if they’d need anything else.  “Are you ready to steer the great ship—Mr. Barrow?”

That’s right, he was acting butler now, wasn’t he?  If he was being honest—and really, why would he start now?—he was a little nervous.  Mostly because he knew that, if anything went wrong, Carson would hold him to blame, whether it was his fault or not.

“I wouldn’t ask them to call you that,” Bates went on quickly.  “You don’t want to seem like you’re getting ahead of yourself.”

“No, of course not,” Thomas said.  “And I’m sure I’ll manage.”

“What can I do?” Bates asked.  “His lordship’s up and dressed, so I’m at your disposal.”

Thomas hadn’t expected him to volunteer his services so eagerly, and was caught flat-footed for a moment.  What could he do, that didn’t involve carrying things up and down the stairs?  “We’ll be clearing the breakfast in a bit.  Why don’t you stay up here, and keep an ear on the front door, and an eye on the hallboys,” he decided.  “I’ll go down and supervise them at that end, and we’ll just have to hope they don’t find any trouble in between.”  Both of the London hallboys were new to the house and to service; otherwise, after William left, they could have shoved the taller one into livery and had him take up at least a bit of the slack—standing in the front hall when no one was expected, for instance. 

Bates tossed off a mock salute.  

“Do you know what goes down and what doesn’t?” Thomas asked.  The hallboys certainly didn’t; that was why they couldn’t be trusted to clear the breakfast on their own.  That, and a tendency to horseplay.

“Yes, unless anything special is going down to be packed.”

Good point.  “Two of the chafing dishes,” Thomas said.  They’d decided on a mostly-cold breakfast for the next day, with just one hot dish.  “But not until they’ve been washed.”

At that moment, Lady Edith got up from the breakfast table.  The other two had gone a little while before, so Thomas nipped into the dining room and carried back one of the chafing dishes they had just been talking about—the one that contained sausages, if the young ladies hadn’t scoffed them all when he wasn’t looking. 

They had not, and he—after a quick glance at both servery doors—grabbed a fork and speared a sausage.  Their breakfast had been ages ago, and he hadn’t had much of it, with Carson breathing down his neck about various last-minute details.  “Unofficial perk,” he explained, in response to Bates’s inquiring look. 

“I see.”  He eyed the remaining sausages speculatively. 

“If you want one, have it before I send the hallboys up,” Thomas advised. “They’re like a horde of locusts when it comes to leftovers.” 

He had reason to be glad, later, that he’d snatched that sausage, because the servants’ lunch was even more dismal that the recent standard; it was a sort of casserole that appeared to be made up of whatever bits and pieces the cook had scraped out of the corners of the larder. 

Apart from that, the rest of the day wasn’t too bad.  The upstairs luncheon went off without a hitch—you never could tell, with a cold collation from the sideboard, whether it would end up being more trouble than otherwise, with everyone asking if there might be a bit of this or that in the kitchen that could be brought up, but this time they managed to make do with what was on offer. 

By tea time, the upstairs lot had noticed that there was a war on; as Thomas was serving it, Lady Sybil asked her ladyship, “If we go to war, will Papa have to go away again?”

Thomas hadn’t thought of that—but his lordship had been in the Army. 

“I shouldn’t think so,” said her ladyship.  “You won’t remember, but it was terribly nerve-wracking, when he was in South Africa.”

I remember,” said Lady Edith.

His lordship, catching wind of this conversation, said, “If we enter the war, I will do my duty.”

“But surely they wouldn’t send you to fight,” her ladyship said.  “It would be, I don’t know, something in London, or training new recruits.”

“I’ll go where I’m needed.” His lordship’s tone was final, and the ladies asked no further questions—though her ladyship wore a determined expression.

Later, the same question arose at the servants’ dinner—served early, just after the family left for Lady Rosamund’s—and Thomas was pleased to be have the inside scoop.  Carson, doubtless, would have shared no more than his lordship’s stated intention to do his duty, but Thomas related her ladyship’s views on the matter, as well.

“I shouldn’t wonder she doesn’t want him going,” said Mrs. Tanner.  “You never know what may happen, in a war.”

“I quite agree,” said Thomas. 

“Will you go with him, if he goes?” one of the maids asked Bates.  “Since you were with him in South Africa?”

Bates shook his head.  “I’d go if they’d have me, but I don’t think they would, with my leg the way it is.  Even if he’s in an administrative post—and I agree with her ladyship that that’s likely—they’d want his batman to be fit for service.”

Lucky old Anna. 

Shortly after dinner, Mrs. Tanner began herding the housemaids and hallboys up to bed, reminding them all that it would be an early start tomorrow.   Thomas ducked outside for a cigarette.

He’d just lit it when Bates, of all people, joined him. 

What now?  Wordlessly, he offered Bates the pack.

“No, thanks.  Look, we’ve got at least an hour before they come back.  Go and see him.”

Was he that obvious?  “I can’t.”

“I can let them in, if they come back early,” Bates said.  “And I won’t tell Mr. Carson, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

He shook his head.  “I can’t just turn up at the house where he works.  If you think it’s bad for a housemaid to have followers hanging round the back door….”

“Surely you can get away with it once.”

“I already did it once.”  If he’d known he’d have a better opportunity later, he’d not have wasted it, but he had. 

“And you can’t come up with some way round that?”

Like what?  “There’s a place we go sometimes, but it’s not particularly likely he’d be there. He’s a champion at sneaking out, but even he doesn’t manage it every day.”

Bates shrugged.  “Go and look.  You never know.”

 He’d have to change his clothes—even if Carson wouldn’t skin him alive, the Criterion wouldn’t let him in the door in livery.  “You’ll cover for me, if they get back.”

“I will.  If they even notice, I’ll say you were in the middle of some last-minute preparations for tomorrow.”

“All right.”

Thomas galloped up to his attic room at a speed that would probably have qualified him for the Grand National.   As he hurried to the Criterion bar, he reminded himself that—as he’d told Bates—there was no particular reason to think Peter would be there.  He didn’t usually make it there above once a week.   

Still, it was a bit of a blow to get to scan the end of the bar and not see him there.  He hadn’t had time to notice who was there when a vaguely familiar voice said, “Thomas?  It is you.”  It was Kit what’s-his-name, from the other night, and he was at a table with Theo, of all people.  “Join us, if you’re not meeting anyone.”

Thomas glanced question at Theo—it was bad form to cut in on someone else’s pickup, but he hadn’t seen Theo this trip, and if Peter wasn’t here, Thomas would as soon talk to him as anyone.  Theo nodded minutely, and Thomas said, “I will, thanks,” and sat down. 

“You’re not meeting Peter?” Theo asked.

Thomas shook his head.  “I just unexpectedly ended up with a bit of free time.  I was hoping he’d be here, but ….”  He shrugged.  “We leave first thing tomorrow.”

“Hang on,” Theo said.  “Excuse me a moment,” he said to Kit, and dashed off to the bar.

“Damn,” said Kit, watching him go.  “I ought to have asked him to get us another round.  Oh well. I was wondering if I’d see you again.”

“I’m only here for a minute,” Thomas said.  He really didn’t want to get in Theo’s way on this one; Kit seemed nice, and Theo didn’t mind counter-jumpers.  They might be able to make a regular thing of it, if they hit it off.

“Of course.  You must be frightfully busy.”

He said it with a hint of a question—busy doing what?  That wasn’t very good form, either, fishing for personal details—but  if he was here more than once, and Theo thought he was all right, Thomas supposed he didn’t have to keep everything a secret.  “Another footman had to leave—right after the last time we talked, as a matter of fact.  Dying mother.  Can’t really begrudge him, but it meant I couldn’t slip away.”

“But why would your footman leaving mean—oh.”  He looked embarrassed. 

It was clear enough that he hadn’t quite realized Thomas was a servant—was, in fact, one of the tarts at the end of the bar.  That explained why he’d been so chummy, before, and asked Thomas to join him now, even though he’d already picked up Theo.  He wouldn’t have thought Thomas was gentry, of course, but since Kit was playing at being middle-class, he’d be used to palling around with that sort. 

That had happened a time or two before—Thomas tended to keep his  “upstairs” accent on, unless it was clear the bloke fancied a bit of rough and Thomas felt like indulging him.  “Yeah,” he said, deliberately letting a bit of the North into his vowels, to ensure there’d be no further confusion. 

Theo came back.  “Drew’s going to run and see if he can round up Peter.”

If Thomas had thought that was a good idea, he’d have done it himself, but since Drew was already gone, he just said, “Thanks.”

“No, it’s all right,” Theo said.  “One of the housemaids at Drew’s place is sweet on some footman from Peter’s; she sends him over there with billets-doux all the time.”

Thomas had to admit, it was a pretty good cover—if anyone noticed anything, it would be the lovebirds to take the fall.  “Do you have some sort of card file, where you keep track of that sort of thing?”

Theo tapped his temple. “All up here.  You know, I had several names ready for you if Lord and Lady G. decided they wanted a temporary footman.”

“Why don’t I grab us some more drinks,” Kit suggested.  “Yours is whiskey-soda, right, Thomas?”

Thomas nodded.  “Ta.”

Theo raised an eyebrow, behind Kit’s departing back.  He knew as well as anyone that Thomas didn’t normally play up the working-class-lad angle.   

“Apparently he was under the impression I was one of the quality,” Thomas explained. 

“Oh.  You’re the only one of us that happens to,” Theo noted.  “I almost believe that line you used to spout about being the love child of an Italian Count.”

Honestly, tell one fairy-story when you’re sixteen, and you never live it down.  “You don’t know it’s not true,” he retorted.  Theo couldn’t know that, because Thomas didn’t, either.  Not for certain.  Though it was, admittedly, unlikely. 

Kit returned with the drinks.  “What are we talking about?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Thomas said quickly.  “What were you talking about before I showed up?”

“The war,” Kit said.  “I’d like to go report on it—plucky Serbian villagers holding their own against the invading Austro-Hungarians, that sort of thing—but I can’t get an editor to bite.  Either they’ve already got a war correspondent, or they don’t see why they need one.” 

“If we end up joining it, I’m sure they’ll change their tune,” Thomas pointed out.

Kit looked a bit brighter at that.  “True.”

“Speaking of if we join,” Theo added, “you’ll never guess who’s planning to enlist.”

“You mean other than Peter?” Thomas asked, not even trying to keep the bitterness out of his tone. 

Theo swore.  “I’m sorry; I wasn’t thinking.  He should be all right, though—he was saying he’d try for the medical corps?”

“If Sir H. is satisfied with it.”

Kit was looking politely puzzled throughout this exchange, and Theo explained, “Our friend’s employer fancies he’ll contribute to the war effort by making his servants enlist.”

“Really?” said Kit.  “That doesn’t seem entirely cricket.”

“No,” said Thomas.  “It isn’t.” 

“He’s not the only one to have that idea, either,” Theo said.  “But anyway, the one I was talking about, who actually wants to go, is Syl.”

“You’re kidding,” Thomas said.

“I’m not.”

He was right that Thomas would never have guessed. 

They continued talking, mostly about the war, until Peter came in, his face a little flushed from running.  “Thomas,” he said, grabbing one of Thomas’s hands in both of his.  “I can’t stay long.”

“Nor can I,” Thomas told him. 

Saying a quick goodbye to Kit and Theo, they went to the bar, Peter quickly ordering a drink.  “Are you still leaving tomorrow?” he asked.

Thomas nodded. “Bates is keeping an eye on things at the house.”

The Bates?  Long John Silver?”

“He’s not as awful as I thought at first,” Thomas admitted.  “Anna likes him.”

“Good,” Peter said.  “I’m glad that you have friends in the house.  Especially with what’s coming.”

He sounded grave, and Thomas nodded.  “It doesn’t look good, does it?”

“The good news,” Peter said, “is that Sir H. doesn’t mind me going for the medical corps.  He’s going to talk to some people he knows, and he’s sure that, with his recommendation, they’ll have a place for me.”

“That is good,” Thomas admitted.  At least he’d be safe.

“I don’t imagine I’ll enjoy it, but with a bit of luck, I won’t even have to leave England.  I could even be stationed in London.”

“I bet sneaking out’s a lot riskier, though,” Thomas pointed out.

“Probably.”  Peter nodded.  “The bad news—I don’t think it’s in the papers yet—is that Russia and Germany are mobilizing.  Sir H. heard it from somebody in his club; a Colonel Something.”

“That’s not unexpected, is it?” Thomas asked.  Everyone was saying that Germany would side with Austria, Russia with Serbia. 

“No, but it’s fast,” Peter answered.  “It means they’re keen to fight.  Otherwise, they’d hang back and give Austria and Serbia a chance to hash it out on their own.”

“Oh,” Thomas said.

“And it means…if they’re moving that fast, I don’t think much of our chances of not being at war by, say, December.”

Oh.  “Well,” Thomas said bravely, “you get leave, don’t you?”  Half of the letters he got from Joey were about what adventures he’d had on leave, and they’d hardly give it to everyone except the medical corps.  “Whenever you get it, we’ll have Christmas then.”  It might be difficult for him to get away, without everyone else’s Boxing Day as an excuse, but he’d think of something. 

Sooner than either of them would have liked, Peter had to leave—Sir H. was dining at home, and the risk was all too real that he’d decide suddenly to go somewhere afterwards, his club, or the theatre where his actress worked, and require a change of clothes.  Thomas walked him most of the way home, talking of nothing in particular, and parted with a handshake.

When Thomas got back to the house, only Bates, Anna, and O’Brien were still up.  The latter looked up from her knitting to glare at him as he entered the servants’ hall.  “I take it they’re not back yet?” he asked.

“Not yet,” said Anna, with a sigh.

“Fortunately for you,” O’Brien added.

In answer, Thomas leaned back in his chair and very slowly, deliberately, lit a cigarette. 

“I beg your pardon,” O’Brien said, with an expression of injured dignity. 

“I think you’ll find I’m acting butler at the moment, Miss O’Brien,” he pointed out, acidly.

She opened her mouth to say something, closed it again, repeated the procedure two more times, then rummaged in her work-basket for her own cigarettes and, even more slowly and deliberately than he had done, lit one.

Thomas at least managed not to open and close his mouth like a fish while he was deciding how to respond.  Finally, he settled on, “Would anyone else like one?  Anna?”

“No, thank you,” said Anna.  “I only smoke a pipe, myself.  I just think it’s more ladylike.”

Honestly, he ought to have made friends with Anna ages ago. 

#

 

Anna was more relieved than anything to be back in Yorkshire after more than three weeks in London, so the news that she was to return, almost immediately, to accompany Mrs. Patmore to have her eyes seen by a specialist, wasn’t particularly welcome.  She understood that Mrs. Patmore had to have someone with her, and was glad to help—but she’d have been even gladder if someone else had been picked. 

Thomas, of course, didn’t see it that way.  “You?” he said scornfully.  “You barely know your way around London, either.  Why don’t they send me?”

Knowing it was only envy that made him spiteful, Anna held on to her patience and said, “She might need help finding her way round the ladies’ cloakroom in the station, for one thing.” 

“Oh,” Thomas said.

“Or if the hospital sends her unmentionables home to be washed through; you want to do that?”

“All right; I get it,” he said.  “Please, no more about Mrs. Patmore’s unmentionables.”

Anna relented.  “I’m a bit nervous about it, really.  Lady Rosamund is having her driver collect us at the station,  but apart from that, I’ll have to figure it out as I go along.  And they said I’m to stay at Lady Rosamund’s as well.”

“Why not Grantham House?” Thomas wondered. 

“I’m not sure.”  Privately, Anna suspected that Lord Grantham didn’t quite realize that the servants’ quarters weren’t closed up after the Season the way the upstairs was.  Mrs. Tanner and the housemaids and hallboys lived there year-round, so for her to stay there would not require “reopening the house,” as would have to be done if, say, Lady Mary were going.  “I don’t know any of the staff at Lady Rosamund’s, do you?”  She brought a lady’s maid when she came to Downton, of course, but she seemed to have a new one of those every time. 

Thomas shook his head. 

“Well, I hope they’re nice.”  More to the point, she hoped that, if it turned out she needed their help, they didn’t think she was enjoying a carefree holiday—as some people evidently did. 

Still, the next morning, before they left, Thomas shoved a piece of paper into her hand, saying, “Here.”

She unfolded the paper, which bore an address.

“Peter,” he explained.  “Write to him if you’re in a jam—he’ll know what to do.”

“Thank you,” she said, genuinely touched.  “But does he know you’re volunteering his services?” 

“I’ll write to him,” Thomas said.  “But he won’t mind.” 

And, indeed, when the evening post was distributed on Anna’s second night in Lady Rosamund’s servants’ hall, the butler handed her an envelope, with the return address matching the one Thomas had given her. 

Dear Anna, the note read.  Thomas has informed me that I should be happy to help in any way I can while you are in London with your blind cook.  It is entirely within his right to volunteer my services—and always has been—but even if it weren’t, I would be pleased to help you in any way that I can.  Your words to me in Kew Gardens gave me a great deal to think about, and those thoughts, in turn, led to a development that I believe Thomas has already made known to you.  If there is any way I can help, please do not hesitate to write me at once.

In fact, I almost hope that some small matter arises in which I may be of some assistance—though nothing that causes serious inconvenience to you or Mrs. P.—because then I would feel less presumptuous in asking you to keep an eye on Thomas, in the event that I am called away (as it looks more likely every day that I will).  I don’t much like the thought of him being entirely on his own. 

Your friend, P.F.

#

As far as Thomas was concerned, the best part about returning to Downton from London was getting to eat Mrs. Patmore’s cooking, so he was very put out to learn that she was leaving for London herself, almost as soon as the rest of them got back.  Granted, what Mrs. Bird thought was worth feeding them in the servants’ hall was a big step above what Mrs. Trout had stuck in front of them—at least, when Daisy wasn’t sabotaging it—but still, he’d be glad when Mrs. Patmore got back.

He didn’t mind, at first, that Anna was going as well—at least, not except for feeling that, if anyone was going to have a holiday in London with no responsibilities other than getting Mrs. Patmore to and from the hospital, it ought to have been him.

But it didn’t take long for him to change his tune, when he found himself turning, several times a day, to say something to someone who wasn’t there.  He’d found himself doing the same thing when he and O’Brien had stopped being friends, and now, he didn’t even have the consolation of spite.  Although he did have the consolation of knowing she would be back, and also Bates, who seemed to believe that he and Thomas formed the core membership of some sort of “We Miss Anna” society.  Since they had literally nothing in common aside from being friends with Anna, and Bates’s weird and disturbing interest in Thomas’s private life, Thomas tried to keep their chats Anna-focused. 

Anna’s absence was particularly vexing when word leaked out that her ladyship was in a family way, and everyone was speculating about what it would mean for Lady Mary and Mr. Matthew.  Anna would have had the inside scoop, and might even have been persuaded to share it with him, but as it was, he knew nothing more than anyone else, namely, that they had not made a happy announcement.   

Then, one afternoon –the day that Germany declared war on Russia—Mrs. Hughes came into the servants’ hall and told Miss O’Brien that Mr. Carson was ready to see her now. 

That was strange in itself—O’Brien wasn’t under Carson’s supervision, so they shouldn’t have anything private to say to each other—but as she got up from the table, O’Brien smirked at both him and Bates. 

As soon as she had gone, Thomas turned to Bates and said, “She’s—”

“Up to something?”

Thomas nodded.  “Any idea what?”  The only thing he could think of that would involve both of them was Thomas sneaking out on their last night in London, and Bates agreeing to cover for him, but that—while certainly something Carson would disapprove of—was not a serious enough offense to justify tale-bearing, which Carson also did not like.  Maybe if some emergency had arisen while Thomas was out—especially if it was an emergency that came to the attention of any of the family—but nothing had, and while Thomas wouldn’t necessarily have put it past O’Brien to stage one, she couldn’t invent something out of whole cloth, after the fact. 

They were left waiting for what seemed a very, very long time.  Thomas was surprised that there were no glaciers forming, or delegations from upstairs coming to find out what had become of their tea.  Finally, Mrs. Hughes came back and summoned Thomas and Bates. 

After delivering them to Carson’s pantry, Mrs. Hughes left, and shut the door behind her.

“Thomas,” said Carson.  “Can you verify that this is a letter that you received?”

Oh merciful bleeding fuck.  Thomas took it—his hand shaking slightly—from Carson’s hand, and was almost relieved to read, “Sorry it’s taken me a long time to answer your last, but it’s quite a story, and I wanted to be sure I had all of it before I wrote.  To answer your question, yes he is married….”

It wasn’t good, certainly, but if O’Brien had had time for a thorough rummage through his letters, she could have found a lot worse.  “What were you doing going through my things?” he demanded.

“Going through your things?” O’Brien asked, her tone all injured innocence.  “I wouldn’t dream of it.  I found it in the passage, down here.   You must have dropped it.”

He hadn’t dropped it; it hadn’t even been outside the attic since he’d shown it to Anna, weeks ago.  But if he said that, he’d have to admit he’d known its contents for weeks. 

O’Brien continued, “I only glanced at it to see who I should return it to, but the word ‘gaol-bird’ caught my eye, and once I saw what it said, I knew Mr. Carson ought to know immediately.”

“Yes, thank you, Miss O’Brien,” said Carson, not sounding particularly thankful.  “I take it you are familiar with this letter, then, Thomas?”

It was no use trying to deny it now; it was up to Bates to try and defend himself.  He handed the letter to Bates and said, “Yes.”

Carson looked as though he wanted to protest—he’d probably have liked to see what Bates came up with when he didn’t know what he was accused of—but subsided long enough for Bates to read the letter.  Once he’d folded it back up and handed it to Thomas, Carson said, “Very well.  You have seen what it says.  Is it true?”

Bates hesitated for a long moment.  “Yes, sir.  Essentially.  I would like to say, for the record, that I never beat my wife—although Thomas’s correspondent is correct that it was rumored I did—and that I have completely given up drinking.”

“But you were imprisoned for theft?”

“Yes, sir.”

“A theft that your wife, in fact, committed?”

Bates hesitated.  “I confessed under oath to the crime.”

“And you did not feel it necessary to disclose any of this when you came to live and work here?”

“It isn’t that I didn’t consider it necessary.  I just…needed the work.”

Thomas really wished he wasn’t standing here listening to this.  There was a time, not long past, when he’d have given anything to see Bates taken down a peg—and in fact, he still wouldn’t have minded seeing it—but this wasn’t taking him down a peg; this was ruining him. 

“I see,” said Carson.  “And you did not consider that some other line of work might be more appropriate, in your circumstances?”

Bates opened his mouth, closed it again, stiffened his spine, and said, “No, sir.”

Thomas would have trodden on his foot, except he didn’t think Carson would at all amused. 

“I will have to tell his lordship about this,” Carson said. 

“I understand, sir,” said Bates. 

When they were dismissed from Carson’s presence, Thomas immediately headed for the courtyard, gesturing for Bates to follow him. 

He was a little surprised when Bates actually did. 

“I didn’t leave that letter lying around,” he said, lighting a cigarette. 

“I know,” said Bates. 

“She nicked it out of my room.”  He was either going to have to start burning his letters after reading them, or come up with a better way of hiding them. 

“That’s what I figured.” 

“You realize, what’s in that letter doesn’t look a hell of a lot better for me than it does for you,” Thomas pointed out.  In fact, now that he’d had a bit of time to think about it, he saw that if O’Brien wanted to get them both in a single stroke, that particular letter was an expertly chosen weapon.   While Joey’d been careful not to say anything that would prove anything in a court of law, it was fairly obvious what impression he’d gotten, about why Thomas was asking about Bates.  Carson might not have noticed it yet, but he would eventually—and if he didn’t, O’Brien would find some way of bringing it to his attention. 

It would be just typical of his life if he got sacked for supposedly lusting after Bates, of all people. 

“What do you mean?” Bates asked. 

Well, he’d only had a quick look at it, and had been focused on what it said about him.  Thomas handed the letter to him.  “Read it again, and imagine you’re O’Brien and you hate my guts.”

Bates read it again.  “I see,” he said, giving it back.  “But his lordship will know there’s nothing in it.  Like your friend says, I don’t see things that way.  He knows that.”

“That doesn’t matter.  If Carson gets the idea I tried something like that in the house, he won’t care whether I succeeded or not.”

“I can tell him you didn’t actually try anything,” Bates pointed out.

“You think he’s actually going to ask?  That’s precious.”  Thomas stamped out the dog-end of his first cigarette and lit another one.  “It’ll be ‘we both know why you can’t stay, no need to spell it out.’”

Bates thought for a moment.  “All right, his lordship will want to talk to me—he won’t just send Carson to sack me; I’m sure of it.  So when he does, I’ll try to explain.  I won’t mention Anna’s name—and God help you if you do, either—but I’ll say I have reason to believe you were checking up on me on behalf of one of the women.”

Thomas wasn’t sure that would work:  even if his lordship—and Carson—believed that Joey had misunderstood why Thomas was asking about Bates, that would still leave the question of how Joey had come to make such a mistake.  He could almost hear O’Brien saying, It’s not exactly a natural mistake to make, is it?

But he didn’t have any better ideas, so he moved on.   “He doesn’t know, then, about the….”  Thomas made a vague gesture that encompassed stealing, prison, the wife, and so on. 

“No.  Anna told me I ought to own up, but—well, I didn’t.  I knew she was right, but….”

Thomas nodded.  It was one thing to know that it was best to get your story in before you were caught; another to actually pick a moment and tell it.  “How interested is he going to be in what you have to say, after he finds out about it?”

“I don’t know,” said Bates.  “He has some idea, what Vera’s like.  That’s one of the things you do, on campaign.  Talk about the people you left behind.  And he asked about her when I applied—whether it would be a problem, for me to be away from her.  I think I got across that it was the reverse.”  He shook his head.  “I think he’ll hear me out, maybe even sympathize, but I doubt I’ll be working here much longer.”  Bates attempted a smile.  “So if you still want my job….”

Even if he did, Thomas didn’t think much of his chances of getting it.  If what the letter implied didn’t sink him, there was the matter of how long he’d kept it to himself—or, if Bates did have his lordship’s sympathy, Thomas’s being involved in forcing him to sack his old war chum.  Even if his involvement had been as an unwitting pawn.  “At this point, I’ll count myself lucky to hang on to the one I’ve got.”  He tossed down his cigarette, wondering if he ought to light another one.

“Look,” Bates said quickly.  “Tell Anna….”

“Tell her yourself,” Thomas advised.  Bates’s look of indignation made him realize how that sounded, so he explained, “If you are sacked, you might as well go to London as anywhere else, and you know where to find her.  If you don’t want to turn up at Lady Rosamund’s, find out what the visiting hours are at Mrs. Patmore’s hospital, and catch her on her way in or out.” 

Bates nodded.  “You’re right.  I should…I’m not even sure what I want to say to her, but I should say it in person, if I can manage it.”

When they went back in, Carson appeared and took the letter back, saying that his lordship might want to see it.  Thomas wished he’d taken advantage of the intervening time to burn the thing, however belatedly. 

For the rest of the afternoon, they endured O’Brien’s smirking from the other end of the servants’ hall table.  Thomas was a little surprised she didn’t do more than that—taunt him, somehow—but perhaps she was hoping he hadn’t noticed yet, that the trap that snared Bates would get him, too. 

Taking the tea up to the library provided a welcome escape, though Thomas could not help eyeing his lordship as though he were a hungry tiger lurking in the corner of the room.  But if he’d seen the letter yet, or spoken to Carson, he gave no sign of it. 

At last, Carson went up and rang the dressing gong.  For Thomas, it meant a reprieve from O’Brien’s presence, but Bates went off as though he were mounting the gallows.

 Idly, Thomas wondered if he’d willingly go to prison, if it meant keeping Peter out of it.  Maybe, he decided.  But certainly not for, say, Philip, which seemed a better comparison, from what he knew of Bates’s relationship with Mrs. Bates. 

Bates had not yet come down by the time Thomas had to start taking the dinner up, and the first few courses kept him under Carson’s eagle eye, as he made the circuit of kitchen to servery and back again.  The main course provided just enough of a lull that Thomas could poke his head into the servants’ hall, and see Bates sitting there, looking gobsmacked.  He gave Thomas what was probably supposed to be a meaningful nod, but what it meant, Thomas couldn’t guess.

Enlightenment came nearly an hour later, after Carson came down from taking the ladies their coffee in the drawing room.  “Thomas, Mr. Bates, Miss O’Brien, his lordship wants to see you in the dining room.”

They all trooped up, a small parade, with Carson in the lead.  Thomas hung back with Bates, who was—of course—bringing up the rear. 

“It’s all right,” Bates said, in undertone.  “I can’t quite understand it, but it’s all right.”

It was clear, when they got into the dining room, that O’Brien hadn’t heard him—she was busy arranging her features into an expression of beatific innocence—which took some doing.

His lordship, once they were all standing in front of him, said, “I’ve discussed with Bates, what we all learned from this letter, and he has explained the matter to my satisfaction.”

Thomas wished desperately that he could turn to see the expression on O’Brien’s face, but he couldn’t exactly look away while his lordship was talking to him.

“I do not wish for this to become a subject of gossip among the servants,” his lordship continued.  “You are not to share this information with anyone else—is that clear?”

“Yes, my lord,” Thomas said promptly.  Telling Anna couldn’t count, he figured, since he’d done that before his lordship said not to. 

O’Brien—he saw out of the corner of his eye—nodded demurely.  “Of course, my lord.”

For a moment, Thomas thought that would be the end of it, but then she continued, “But—now that I’ve had a chance to get over the shock of learning about Mr. Bates’s past—I can’t help but wonder why Thomas was making enquiries into whether or not Mr. Bates was married.”  She turned to Carson.  “Don’t you think that’s a bit peculiar?”

She was doing this now?  In front of his lordship?  In the dining room?  Granted, it was a strategy that would maximize Thomas’s humiliation, but Carson wouldn’t like it.  As far as Carson was concerned, mentioning Thomas’s sort upstairs might be almost as bad as being that sort to begin with.

“I suppose,” his lordship said slowly, “that he wondered if Bates were married.  Why else would he ask?”  His tone was one of honest puzzlement, and Thomas wondered if Bates had forgotten that he’d promised to explain that part of things.

“I’m sure I couldn’t say, my lord,” O’Brien said, but pressed on.  “And what about the part where he says it sounds a romantic story, but ‘I should step carefully if I were you’?  What sort of advice is that for one man to give another?”

All right, the first one—Thomas would admit—didn’t sound like much without O’Brien’s insinuating tone, but surely his lordship was about to catch on now.

Carson jumped in, “Begging your pardon, my lord, but I believe this…person…was suggesting that it might be unwise for Thomas to become friendly with, as he so colorfully put it, a gaol-bird.  Knowing Mr. Bates as we do, we of course know better, but if I were familiar with only the facts that Thomas’s correspondent includes in the letter, I would likely give similar advice.  In content, if not in tone.”

Carson could not possibly have missed what O’Brien thought was significant about that passage—but if he was playing dumb to his lordship, could Thomas hope that, perhaps, he’d continue the charade once they got downstairs?

His hopes were dashed when O’Brien spoke up again.  “And then there’s the ending, where he says that there’s no sign Mr. Bates ‘sees things our way,’ and then that comment about there being no women in South Africa.”

What had she done—chosen the most insinuating passages and learned them by heart?  Thomas was only glad she’d never had the chance to read the one Philip wrote about his prick. 

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” said his lordship, flatly.  “Unless these phrases have some salacious meaning, which the rest of us are too innocent to comprehend, I cannot imagine why you believe I should be interested in them.”

It wasn’t until O’Brien’s face froze into cold fury that Thomas realized what had just happened.  His lordship knew what she was getting at; of course he did.  But now, trying to make it any plainer would only suggest that she had a dirty mind. 

“Well,” she said.  “I’m sorry, my lord.  I thought that perhaps they did mean something unseemly.  I’m glad to hear I was mistaken.”

“You were,” said his lordship.  “And I should hope I do not have to mention that her ladyship should not be troubled with any of these matters, particularly in her condition.”

“If that’s all, my lord,” said Carson, “we won’t take up any more of your time.”

“Yes,” said his lordship.  “I do believe that is quite all.”

#

When Robert opened the door from his dressing room into his and Cora’s bedroom, he was greeted by a low murmur of voices.  He could only pick out a few words:  “but why,” from Cora, and “don’t like to say,” from O’Brien. 

Then O’Brien noticed his arrival and said, “Will that be all, my lady?”

“Yes, and good night,” Cora told her.

Once O’Brien had gone, Cora turned on the dressing table stool and said, “O’Brien was just dropping the strangest hints about something to do with Thomas and Bates, of all people.”

“Was she,” Robert said grimly.  “I apologize—there was a…concern, but I asked her not to bother you with it.  I’ve already settled it.”

“That explains why she was being so coy,” Cora said, getting up and heading over to their bed.  “But Bates isn’t like that, is he?”

Robert froze in the act of removing his dressing gown.  “Like what?” he asked, a moment too late.

Cora tilted her head and looked at him, her eyebrows raised. 

“How do you know about that?” he asked, finally finding his way out of the dressing gown.

“Robert, my dearest love, a woman with a houseful of nearly-grown daughters does not bring a footman that handsome under her roof without some assurance that it won’t be a problem.”  She shrugged, and slid her legs under the covers.  “I wrote to the lady of the house where he worked before.”

Good God.  “Is he particularly handsome?” Robert wondered.  It seemed the safest part of that statement to wonder about.  He’d always thought Thomas a bit strange-looking, pale as he was. 

Cora gave him the raised eyebrows again.  “Sybil made cow-eyes at him for at least a month and a half, when he first came.  I don’t think he even noticed.”

Robert certainly didn’t want to know anything more about that.  Getting into bed, he changed the subject.  “No, Bates isn’t like that at all.  Did she say he was?”  That would be very strange, considering one of the passages she had insisted on quoting aloud had been about the fact that he wasn’t.

“She didn’t really say much at all,” Cora explained.  “I hope Bates wasn’t too upset, by whatever it was Thomas did.”

“Thomas didn’t do anything,” Robert said.  “Apparently, he’d been asking questions about Bates, to a friend of his in the Army, on behalf of one of the maids.  O’Brien got her hands on the letter somehow, and tried to raise a stink.”

“I’m sure she was just concerned,” Cora said.

I’m sure she dislikes both of them and enjoys making trouble,” Robert countered.  “Which is the last thing you need in the circumstances.”

“I’m pregnant, not ill,” she reminded him.  “But she did make it sound as though there were something about Bates that I ought to know.”

Robert hesitated.  “He had a difficult time, coming back from the war,” he finally said.  “The letter raised some questions; he was able to answer them to my satisfaction.  If she raises the topic again, I would appreciate it if you would remind her of that.”

“All right,” Cora agreed.  “If you’re sure there’s nothing to worry about?”

“The only thing I’m worried about is O’Brien.  She’s on thin ice, as far as I’m concerned.  I specifically told her not to trouble you with this, she said she wouldn’t, and did it anyway.”

Cora frowned slightly.  “I don’t give instructions to your valet,” she pointed out.

That was true, and she hadn’t interfered in Robert’s choice to keep Bates on, beyond making her opinion known.  “It’s your decision,” he conceded.  “But doesn’t it bother you, the way she turned on Thomas?  From being his staunchest champion to undermining him at every turn?”

“I think she had her feelings hurt,” Cora explained, “back when poor Mr. Pamuk died here.  She knew that Thomas knew something she didn’t—and he must not have told her, because she tried for weeks to get it out of me.  I suppose she felt it was disloyal, after she’d—as you said—championed him.”

Robert had wondered, if Thomas had managed to keep that secret from his best chum.  “If he refused to tell her, at the cost of souring the friendship, I’m afraid that reflects much better on him that it does on her.”

“It does,” Cora said, with a sigh. 

“And what troubles me,” he went on, getting back to the point, “is what may happen the next time she has her feelings hurt.”  As far as he knew—as far as Bates had been able to tell him—the only people in the house she had ever really liked were Thomas and Cora herself.   

“I’ll speak to her,” Cora promised. 

“Thank you,” Robert said.  “Blame it on me, if you like—tell her I’m fed up.”

Chapter Text

They were neck-deep in preparations for the garden party when Dr. Clarkson was summoned urgently to the house, and Carson made a solemn announcement that her ladyship was no longer expecting.  Everyone was aghast—a little excessively, Thomas thought, considering they’d barely just found out there was a baby at all, and none of them would have had anything to do with it if it had survived to be  born—but O’Brien seemed to be taking it especially hard. 

Alongside of the wailing and rending of garments over the poor dead baby, there was also a decision to be made: whether to postpone the garden party, or cancel it entirely.  Thomas wasn’t sure which to hope for—postponing would mean a lot of extra work, but canceling it would mean wasting the work they’d already done—but when it was announced that the party would go forward as originally scheduled, he knew that was what he ought to have been hoping didn’t happen, because now they had to work twice as fast to make up for lost time.

Mrs. Patmore and Anna came back just in time for the garden party, the former wearing a pair of smoked-glass spectacles, and the latter taken aback by how much had happened in her absence.  There wasn’t much time to catch up, though, because of how much they all had to do.

Apparently, circulating among the guests at the party was now considered too taxing for her ladyship, so the new plan was to park her on a chaise longue, beneath a canopy, near the center of the action.  It fell to Thomas to set up these accoutrements on the morning of—in the copious spare time he had between putting out the tables and setting them—and O’Brien took what he had no trouble interpreting as sadistic delight in insisting that he reposition the chaise longue, then the canopy, then the chaise again, to ensure that her ladyship would not, at any point, experience the inconvenience of having the sun in her eyes.  Once everything was finally positioned to her satisfaction, she sent him to the house for additional cushions, and then back again for different ones. 

Honestly, it was almost a relief when the guests started arriving and all he had to do was go around with trays of food and drink. 

The one subject on everyone’s lips was war.  Quite a few of the guests, from what Thomas was able to overhear, hadn’t been paying much attention to the international situation before yesterday, when Germany—already at war with Russia—had declared war on France, as well, and immediately invaded Belgium.  The reaction seemed divided between those who sagely stated that they had been saying all along that this was what Germany had in mind, and those who were shocked that a war involving far-off countries, barely remembered from school geography lessons, was now on England’s doorstep. 

One lady seemed to be saying, “We were just in France only last autumn!” every time Thomas walked past her. 

He’d just collected a tray of ices from Daisy when Carson came hurrying across the lawn, with a telegram on a silver salver.  Thomas was still holding the ices—melting quickly in the August heat—when his lordship called for silence, then said, “Because I very much regret to announce that we are at war with Germany.”

He’d known it was coming; of course he had.  But still, he watched numbly as the tray began to tilt in his suddenly nerveless fingers. 

One of the ices slipped over the edge of the tray and fell, as slowly as if it were falling through water.  Daisy, standing to one side of him, yelped as the dish shattered; Anna, on his other side, caught the tray before any more could join it.

Her sharp “Watch it!” called him back to himself.  In any other circumstances, a lapse like the one he’d just made would have drawn Carson’s immediate and wrathful attention, but he was caught up in the family’s shocked reactions, and didn’t notice.  A small and distant part of him realized that he ought to be relieved, but mostly, he didn’t care. 

“What’s the matter with you?” Daisy asked.

“His friend is going,” Anna explained. 

“To the war?” Daisy asked.

“Yes, to the war,” Anna said.  “Thomas, why don’t you….”  She trailed off.

Yes, what could he do?  He felt as if he might shatter at the slightest movement. 

Mrs. Patmore came over and started wittering about the ices.  Thomas thought vaguely about upending the tray over her head.

“No one’s going to want them right now,” Anna pointed out.  “Why doesn’t Thomas take them back up and put them in the icebox until they’re ready to start thinking about eating again?”

Mrs. Patmore agreed, more or less, although for reasons Thomas could not be bothered to understand, the ices had to be put back in the ice-cream freezer.  He’d not have cared, either, except that Daisy was sent with him, to do it, and that meant several more minutes before he’d be in no one’s sight. 

“I’m sorry,” she said when they were about halfway up to the house.  “About your friend.”

“He isn’t going to die,” Thomas snapped.  “He’s going in the medical corps; he’ll be fine.”

#

Anna watched Thomas’s retreating back for a moment, not quite remembering, until she saw Mrs. Hughes approaching, that there were other things she was supposed to be doing.

But Mrs. Hughes, when she arrived, just relayed to Anna that they were waiting a bit to serve any more food or drinks.  “Where’s Thomas going?” she added.

“He’s helping Daisy take the ices up so they don’t melt,” she explained.  But the task was a little beneath a footman—it would have made more sense for her to do it—so she added, “It seemed a good idea to get him out of public view for a minute.”

“Oh?”

“His friend is going,” she explained.  “To the war.”

“The one who wrote that awful letter about Mr. Bates?”

“No—well, I suppose he will, too, but I meant Mr. Fitzroy.  The one we went to Kew Gardens with.”

Oh,” she said again, in a tone of greater understanding.  “I see.  Well, he won’t be the only one with a—” she hesitated for a fraction of a second, “—sweetheart going to the colors.”

“No, I suppose not.”  The only man, though.  “His employer—Mr. Fitzroy’s, I mean—is making all of his menservants go.”

“Can he do that?” Mrs. Hughes wondered.

“I don’t think he can make them, exactly, but he can sack them without a character if they don’t do as they’re told,” Anna explained.  “Mr. Fitzroy decided on joining the medical corps.”

“Oh, that shouldn’t be too bad,” said Mrs. Hughes.  “Do you suppose Thomas will want to go with him?”

Anna hadn’t thought of that.  “Well, when we talked about it on the way to Kew, he said he’d have to be dragged kicking and screaming.”  But that had been before the cigarette lighter, which seemed to mark a change in their relationship.  “He might feel differently now, though.”

“Well, let’s not put the idea in his head,” Mrs. Hughes advised.  “I don’t think military life would suit him.”

#

The next few days’ papers were full of the news that British manhood was turning out in unprecedented numbers to answer the nation’s call.  By the end of the week, they were admitting that, in fact, the nation’s gallantry was overwhelming the Army’s ability to process new recruits, especially given that they were busy getting the soldiers they already had to France and Belgium.  One of the picture-papers had photographs of men doing military drill in their civilian clothes, because the Army didn’t have enough uniforms to go round. 

Foolishly, Thomas began to hope.  Perhaps Sir Henry would decide it wasn’t necessary for him to do without his valet, if so many others were already going.  Or, at least, Peter might be told to come back when things had slowed down a bit. 

He should have known better.  The Friday afternoon post brought a letter from Peter:

                                                                                                                                                5 August, 1914

                Dear Thomas: 

Brace yourself, dearest—things are moving much faster than we would like.  I am about to be in the Army.  (In fact, depending on which post this reaches you, I may already be.)

Sir H. took us all down to the recruiting office first thing after he got out of bed this afternoon.  There was a long queue, but he was not deterred—meaning, he mentioned who he was as many times as it took for us to be jumped to the head of the queue.  Our footmen, who are going to be infantrymen, were told they’d be notified by post where and when to report.

I was told to report Friday morning.   I’m not sure if that’s because the need for medical orderlies is more urgent than for anything else, or simply because there are fewer of us signing up on the first day of the war.  The training camp is near Oxford, so letters shouldn’t take any longer to reach me—or to reach you, from me—than they would in London. 

The man at the recruiting office didn’t know how long I’ll be at the training camp, or where I might be sent after.  He did inform me, in case I had any doubts, that I will go where I’m told, and that I’m in it for the duration of the war. 

It may comfort you to know that Sir H. was nearly as surprised as I was that I am to report so soon—for all his enthusiasm to make the ultimate sacrifice for King and Country (of doing without a valet, I mean—surely there could be no greater!), he was not entirely ready to make it so quickly.  Fortunately, he is not to be left entirely to his own devices just yet, as I am devoting the remaining time until Friday to training one of the footmen in the rudiments of valeting.  (Naturally, there is no better way I might be using my last days of civilian life!)

I’ll write with the address as soon as I get there.  (Assuming there is some time allowed for this purpose—I expect there must be, but don’t fret if it takes a day or two.)  Until then,

                                                                                                                Affectionately yours,

                                                                                                                                P.F.

  He’d taken the letter out to the courtyard to read it, but he must have not done as good a job as he’d thought composing himself, because as soon as he went back into the servants’ hall, Anna asked, “Is something wrong?”

“No,” he said. 

She tilted her head and looked at him flatly, not buying it for a minute, but O’Brien was there too, knitting away like Madame Defarge.  Thomas took the letter back out and glanced over it again—nothing in it for anyone to look sideways at, apart from “brace yourself, dearest,” which might have been a joke, so he handed it to Anna. 

She read it, then said, “Oh, dear.”

“It’s fine,” Thomas said, snatching it back.  “It’s only Oxfordshire.  Nothing’s going to happen there.”

Still, each time Carson distributed the post, he found himself watching like a hawk staring at a mouse.  There was nothing quite so worry-inducing as being told not to fret.  Saturday evening, Carson handed him a letter, but it turned out to only be from Theo, saying that Joey and Eddie had already shipped out—on Friday, in fact—and that Syl was still planning to enlist, and he, Theo, was wondering if he oughtn’t to go with him and make sure he didn’t get himself into trouble. 

How, precisely, Theo was planning to keep Syl from getting into trouble in the middle of a war was a mystery to Thomas, and he wrote back to that effect, but it didn’t really take his mind off things.

Monday, he finally got an envelope with Peter’s familiar handwriting on it.  Inside was only a short note, saying that Peter had arrived safely and was being kept very busy, but he expected to have time to write a proper letter on Sunday. 

Still, it included the address at which letters would reach “Pvt. P. Fitzroy”—you just wrote the name of unit; apparently the Army kept track of where it was—so Thomas poured his nervous energy into writing a reply.  Unfortunately, not knowing how much privacy was available to a newly-minted private in the RAMC, there was a great deal he could not say. 

He could not say, for instance, how infuriating it was that a war had had to happen just when he and Peter had sorted things out.  Nor could he say that, despite everyone’s assurances that the medical corps ought to be safe enough, he had a terrible sense of foreboding about the whole thing.  And he certainly could not describe any of the things he’d do to and with Peter, were they actually in the same place at the same time. 

Instead, he passed along Theo’s news, about Joey and Eddie and Syl, and then, having done nothing of interest himself—he’d already written Peter about O’Brien attempt on him and Bates, back in the time that everyone was already starting to refer to as “prewar”—he was reduced to recounting upstairs gossip.

Did I tell you that Lady M.—the eldest daughter—was supposed to marry Mr. M., Lord G’s heir?  Well, it’s off, now.  She put off giving him her answer—for some reason—and then her mother (Lady G., of course) fell pregnant.  If it had been a boy, Mr. M. would go back to being a solicitor from nowhere, so naturally Lady M. wouldn’t want him in that case.  Then Lady G. lost the baby—no wonder, at her age—but Mr. M. figured that was why Lady M. was stalling, and called it off.  I’m not sure what he was expecting, really—she hated him when he first showed up, and all that’s really changed is that she finally got used to the idea that the law’s not going to magically change just so she can be Countess of Grantham in her own right.  (It must have been a hard adjustment to make, realizing the entire world doesn’t actually revolve around her!)

He also wrote of the alliance that had formed between Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Bird, which had resulted in Mrs. Patmore’s finally wresting the keys to the store cupboard from Mrs. Hughes’s hands, and of William’s eagerness to join the Army—forestalled, at the moment, by his dear old dad, who—reasonably enough—couldn’t quite face the idea of losing his wife and only son in one go. 

None of it was anything Peter would care about, but it was what he could say, so he said it. The letter, when he mailed it, was thick enough to require an extra stamp.

Finally, the promised Sunday letter came:

                                                                                                                                August 9, 1914

                Dear Thomas,

So far, Army life is not too bad—but not much fun, either.  There are about 200 of us who arrived at the same time, but they work us in groups of 50, so I am getting to know the blokes in my group.  I have not encountered any sympathetic souls yet, but most of them seem decent enough. 

They mostly keep us busy with marching, military drill, and PT, which stands for either “physical training” or “physical torture,” depending on who you ask.  When we’re not doing any of that, we’re cleaning our barracks (which is a tent) or getting ready to have our uniforms inspected.  When it comes to the latter, my skills are in high demand—you have no idea how many men there are in the world who don’t know how to cope with a loose button, or even polish a shoe properly, some of them.)

Rumor has it that next week, we may begin learning some first aid, but I’ll believe it when I see it!  Rumors go through the camp like a contagious disease.  (I’d specify which one, but no medical training yet!)  By supper time the first night, we’d all heard that the war was over, and the Hun were fleeing back to Germany with their tails between their legs.  A few of the chaps were disappointed to have it all over before they’d had a chance to do their bit, and more were worried about losing the prospect of steady work, but I think most of us would have been perfectly happy to turn around and go home! 

Quite a few of the others seem to have had the same idea I did, about joining the medical corps to stay out of the way of the enemy!  Many of them are family men, with wives and even children, who are quite keen to do their bit, but wish to avoid combat for obvious reasons.  We’ve also got some who spare no opportunity to talk about how they’d rather be in a fighting unit, but their mothers or sweethearts insisted they do this instead.  And a few pacifists, who were shocked and dismayed to learn that we drill with rifles (although they say we won’t actually be issued any on duty, and no one’s said whether we’ll learn to shoot them—right now we just carry them about, and try to remember what we’re supposed to do when someone shouts “port arms,” etc.).  Then there’s the ones who are hoping to spend as much of the war as possible in the company of pretty nurses.  (No one knows for sure whether the Army hospitals will employ nurses or not, but speculation on the subject is rife!) 

An even greater subject of speculation is where we’ll be sent, once we’re done training.  The men in charge of training us won’t say.  Some of the blokes wonder if they’re keeping it a secret because they’re sending us somewhere we won’t want to go--either to do first aid at the scene of the fighting or (in the case of the keen ones) to some remote colonial outpost untouched by the war, to replace the experienced orderlies while they’re off tending war wounded.   My own theory is that they aren’t telling us what they’re going to do with us, because they don’t actually know yet!   

If I can find a spare minute, I should write to Eddie—if there is anything to know, he’ll know it.  (He’s in France, did you hear?  I suppose it makes sense that they’d need at least some of the medical corps over there.)

One thing they have told us is that we generally get a bit of time to ourselves on Sunday afternoons, for writing letters home and things like that, so you can expect at least a weekly letter!  I’ll write more often if I can manage it. 

Light a cigarette for me.

Affectionately yours,

P.F.

 

Gradually, Thomas got used to inhabiting a world in which Peter was at a military training camp near Oxford.  As promised, he wrote a long, newsy letter each Sunday, and usually some shorter notes in between.   Thomas was determined to write at least as often as Peter did, but struggled to find things to say.  The trouble was, Thomas’s life was staying the same as always, while Peter’s was changing, as he became part of something that, no matter how much Peter told him about it, Thomas couldn’t really understand.

We’ve started practicing maneuvering stretchers, one letter said.  You go in groups of three, one to pretend to be the patient, while the other two carry him.  Playing the patient is a coveted role—even though you get dropped a lot—because you get to lie down for a minute.  I’m working on developing a scoring system, where you lose points for lapses in verisimilitude: for instance, clutching the edge of the stretcher to avoid being dumped off.

When they’d worked together, at Lady Waterstone’s, Peter had always been suggesting games to make their work more interesting.  There’d been a long-running one about collecting the shoes outside family and guest bedrooms without being seen, with bonus-points for near-misses—if someone opened their door, for instance, but you managed to duck into a different doorway before they spotted you.  Or “strangest place you found a wine-glass,” after parties. 

Thomas had never supposed that Peter stopped playing those games after they’d left Lady Waterstone’s—and, in fact, Thomas still sometimes wrote to tell him about it when he found a wine-glass in a particularly odd place—but the idea of new ones that Thomas knew nothing about was a little unsettling, like going into a place you used to live and seeing someone else’s things there.

Still, Thomas would certainly rather be told about the new things in Peter’s life than be in complete ignorance of them.   And Peter always signed off, “Light a cigarette for me.”  Thomas knew what that meant, even if no one else did, and when he couldn’t think of anything in particular to say to Peter, he sent him packs of cigarettes instead. 

#

“Our Henry says it’ll be over soon,” Maud explained knowledgeably one evening at the servants’ dinner.  Maud, a mousy housemaid, had always faded into the background before, but now she had gained a measure of celebrity, thanks to her brother in the Army.  “He and the others are keeping the pressure on in Flanders, while the French sweep east and hit them at home in Germany.  Then we’ll see how they like it!  They’ll be running for home within a week.”

“I’m sure we’d all be glad of a quick end to the war,” said Anna.  As far as she could tell, Maud’s brother Henry had been predicting a German retreat within the week since the moment he’d landed in France—which meant that, by now, he’d been wrong two  or three times. 

As Maud nattered on about Henry’s latest dispatch from the war, Anna glanced over at Thomas, who was playing with his chicken pie more than he was eating it.  He’d been tense and snappish—even by his standards—for the first couple of weeks of the war.   He’d been particularly objectionable when she dared ask how Mr. Fitzroy was faring, barking, “He’s fine—why wouldn’t he be?”, usually followed by an insult on some unrelated matter. But he’d gradually come back to normal, and could now be relied upon for a civil answer on the subject. 

She’d always asked him in private before, though, and it was perhaps a desire to take Maud down a peg that led her to say, next time Maud paused for breath, “Thomas, have you had any war news from Mr. Fitzroy?”

Thomas and Mr. Carson looked at her with nearly-identical scandalized expressions—though she would not have dared point out the comparison to either of them.  Mr. Carson cleared his throat, probably trying to think of a way to object to the question without giving any hint as to the reason it was unacceptable for the dinner table, but Mrs. Hughes beat him to the punch, saying, “Yes, Thomas, I’d been wondering about your friend as well—he’s gone into the medical corps, isn’t he?”

“That’s right,” Thomas said, his tone laden with suspicion. 

“And how is he finding it?” Mrs. Hughes asked patiently.

With a wary glance at Carson, he said, “Well, he’s still in the training camp.  They work them pretty hard, but other than that it’s not too bad.”  When Mr. Carson failed to explode, he added, “He says they get rumors every few days, that the war’s about to end.”  As he concluded that remark, he gave Maud one of his most infuriatingly superior looks. 

Before Maud could reply, Mr. Bates asked, “Have they said yet where he’ll be stationed?”

Thomas shook his head.  “Not yet.  The officers in charge have told them the plan is to ferry the wounded across the Channel as quickly as possible, so they can be cared for in existing hospitals, so we think that means there’s a decent chance he’ll be somewhere in England—but they’ll also need some of them to look after the wounded men on the journey from the battlefields to the ports, and on the boats as they’re making the crossing.”  One of his latest letters had said that there were all sorts of rumors circulating about the possibilities.  “They could put him any of those places.”

 “But he won’t even be near the fighting?” Maud asked, a bit condescendingly. 

“We hope not,” said Thomas, bluntly.  “They post some orderlies with each regiment—another friend of ours is with a regiment in Belgium—but everyone in camp says it makes sense they’d put the experienced men in those jobs.”

Here, he turned a hopeful look in Mr. Bates’s direction; he confirmed, “I should think so.  A Regimental Aid Post deals with all sorts of illnesses and accidents, not just battle wounds, so they’d want men who know their way about it.  A hospital will have more in the way of routine chores that the new men can learn quickly.  Your other friend was already in the medical corps before the start of the war?”

Thomas nodded.  “Been in it for ages.”

Anna wondered if that was the one who wrote the “awful letter” about Mr. Bates.  Well, even if it was, she had better not wish him ill; after all, he’d only reported what was generally said about Mr. Bates, even if it wasn’t very flattering. 

From Mr. Bates’s other side, Miss O’Brien snorted.  “I suppose the medical corps is a good place for that sort of man.”

Thomas drew himself up to say something—something that would get him in trouble, if Anna was any judge—but before he could, Mr. Bates asked, in his deceptively-pleasant tone of voice, “What sort is that?”

Miss O’Brien affected an expression of innocent bewilderment.  “The sort that Thomas would be friends with, I expect.”  She might have gotten away with it, if she had left it at that, but she went on, “I mean, it’s almost like nursing, isn’t it?”  She gave a little titter.

Nobody else laughed.  “I don’t know,” said Mr. Bates, still pleasantly.  “We had a couple in our regiment in South Africa, who I imagine Thomas could have managed to get along with.  Good fighting men.”

“I think,” said Mr. Carson, firmly, “we’ve heard quite as much as we need to on this subject.” 

#

It had done Thomas a bit of good, Mrs. Hughes thought, to talk about his friend—but she was not at all surprised when Mr. Carson raised the subject over their evening glass of sherry.

“I wonder,” he said, a little pompously, “do you really think it suitable to discuss Thomas’s difficulties at the dinner table?”

“The only one who came close to mentioning his difficulties was Miss O’Brien,” she pointed out.  “And I quite agree, she was wrong to do it.”

“You know what I mean,” Mr. Carson replied. 

She did, of course, but while there were many aspects of Thomas’s relationship with Mr. Fitzroy that were best left unmentioned in public, his mere existence was not one of them; nor was his military service.  “Maud and Thomas may be the only ones with friends and relations involved in the war right now, but they won’t be alone for long,” she said.  “Not at the rate men are signing up.”  Mrs. Patmore, she knew, had a nephew waiting to receive his orders to report for training.  “Are we going to forbid everyone from talking about them, or just Thomas?”

“I have no objection to his talking about his relatives,” Mr. Carson said.  “Just not….”  He cast about for an appropriate word.  “Mr. Fitzroy.”

“Well, everyone’s heard of him now,” Mrs. Hughes said.  “If you insist, I won’t ask about him at table again, but what if someone else does?  How shall we explain that he is a forbidden subject?”

“We shall simply say….”  Mr. Carson opened his mouth and closed it again, several times, before finally saying, “The subject should never have been brought up in the first place.  If he had not insisted on flaunting this…association, the problem would not arise.”

Had Thomas, in fact, “flaunted” anything?  As far as she could recall, he’d only ever described the gentleman as a friend; the rest of them had drawn their own conclusions—herself included.  Perhaps that was the way to a solution.  “We don’t know anything about their association, as you put it.”  Not for a fact, at least.  “I daresay even Thomas can have friends without there necessarily being anything….”  Now it was her turn to cast about for a word.  Improper seemed a bit too strong, as did unseemly—even if their assumptions about the nature of the relationship were correct, she wasn’t sure it was improper, exactly.  Not if Mr. Fitzroy was, well, suitable.  She finally settled on, “Anything embarrassing about it.” 

Mr. Carson harrumphed and changed the subject, which Mrs. Hughes supposed was as close as he was going to get to acknowledging her point.  But the question of suitability lingered, and that was why, the next day, she sought Anna out, and invited her to her sitting room.

Anna came, a little nervously—Mrs. Hughes did not only summon the girls to her room when they were in trouble, but it did happen often enough that she could understand Anna’s hesitation.   So she got to the point quickly, saying, once they were sitting down, “I had just realized, between one thing and another, I hadn’t asked your impressions of Thomas’s…friend.”  In fact, it ought to have been Mr. Carson’s job to inquire, but Mrs. Hughes didn’t imagine he’d have the first idea of how to go about determining whether someone’s beau was suitable—whereas, with the maids, the issue arose frequently.  In her role as guardian of the girls’ moral well-being, in place of their mothers, she did not—as some housekeepers did—forbid all “followers,” but she did her best to discourage unsuitable ones.  “I suppose you’d have said something without being asked, if there was anything Mr. Carson or I should know,” she added, to make sure that Anna knew she wasn’t in any trouble.  “Apart from….”

“The obvious,” Anna supplied, nodding.  “He’s very nice, really,” she said.  “Respectably employed, and he has a very nice, gentlemanly manner about him.  They met at their first place—Thomas’s first, at least—and have stayed in touch ever since.”  She hesitated.  “Childhood sweethearts, I suppose you’d almost say.”

It was Mrs. Hughes’s turn to hesitate before she asked, “Are they about the same age, then?”  The question would have been less fraught if she’d been asking anyone but Anna—she wasn’t blind, and knew that she and Mr. Bates sought out each other’s company a bit more often than was strictly usual for a valet and head housemaid—but she had an impression that men of that sort sometimes sought out much younger partners, in a way that might not always be entirely wholesome. 

If it occurred to Anna to apply the question to any relationship other than Thomas’s, she thankfully gave no sign.  “They are.  I think he’s a bit older, but not much—a year or two.  He spoke of helping him learn the ropes, when they were both junior footmen.”

That was all right, then.  She noticed Anna biting her lip, and added, “Is there something else?”

Anna chuckled.  “He wouldn’t like me to repeat it, but he—Mr. Fitzroy—said that Thomas, back then, reminded him of an angry kitten.”

Mrs. Hughes, with much greater experience controlling the display of her emotions than Anna, managed not to laugh out loud herself, but she understood the impulse.  “I can see it,” she agreed.  The grown-up Thomas often put her in mind of an offended cat. 

“They’re actually very sweet together,” Anna continued.  “Mr. Fitzroy mentioned…well, some other particular friends that Thomas has had, who…seemed to have more to offer, on the surface, but were…not the gentlemen they appeared.”

Anna’s words were obviously carefully chosen, and Mrs. Hughes had little trouble comprehending her meaning—that happened often enough with maids, as well.  It was one of the reasons she found it wise to permit the girls a bit of careful socializing with men of their own backgrounds—they were less likely to have their heads turned by false promises if they had a realistic prospect in view, and if a girl was going to leave service, she would much rather it be for marriage and motherhood, rather than in disgrace. 

“So he’s been, well…keeping an eye on him, I suppose,” Anna went on.  “When we spoke about his intentions, he wasn’t sure he had enough to offer, but something changed his mind.”

“Oh?”  Mrs. Hughes had to admit, at least to herself, that she wasn’t entirely sure what range of “intentions” were available to Mr. Fitzroy, since marriage was obviously excluded.

“Thomas said they mean to try to see more of each other,” Anna explained. 

With an ordinary couple, that phrase really had only one meaning: that a proposal was on the horizon.  That could not be what it meant here, but it clearly meant something. “I see.”

 “I’m not entirely sure what that means,” Anna added, “and the war may have changed any plans that they had, but I don’t think it’s right if Thomas can’t talk about him.  Not when they’re so important to each other, and he’s going to be away at the war, and it’s all as respectable as it can be under the circumstances.”

There was a hint of defiance to her tone, and a bit of surprise in her expression when Mrs. Hughes said, “I quite agree.  Certain people will need to be convinced not to hint that there’s anything at all unusual about the friendship, but I’m sure he knows better than to say anything indiscreet.”

“I’m sure he does,” Anna said.  After a moment’s hesitation, she asked, “Are you going to say something to her, then?”

It was no surprise she’d guess who one of the certain people was, but Mrs. Hughes was not about to mention that one of the others was Mr. Carson himself.  “I’ll speak to Miss O’Brien,” she said.  “And perhaps you’ll remind Mr. Bates that, in the event hints are made in spite of my instructions, it’s best if no one rises to the bait.”

#

“So she said she’s going to tell Miss O’Brien not to…draw attention to things,” Anna continued.  She’d emerged from a private conference with Mrs. Hughes, and immediately came out to the courtyard to find Thomas.

“You think she’ll listen?” he asked, flicking ash from his cigarette.  He wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about Anna’s asking after Peter at the dinner table.  On the one hand, it felt horribly risky—not to mention exposing him to O’Brien’s sniping—but on the other, he was growing to hate sitting there like a lump while Maud went on about her stupid brother, and it was bound to grow worse when other people’s brothers and sweethearts and everything started joining up.

“Well, it won’t be our fault if she doesn’t,” Anna answered.

That wasn’t really the point—he was the one breaking the law, whether O’Brien drew attention to it or not—but he decided not to argue. 

A few days went by without a letter from Peter, and Thomas began to worry a bit—surely there’d be some warning, if they’d been sent anywhere, but perhaps he was ill, or had gotten in trouble, or…well, something.  Finally, a long letter came:

                Dear Thomas:

I’m writing this from Guard Duty, which sounds rather grand, but all it means is that you sit up all night in a little shack with another bloke, and every hour one of you trots down to the next shack and tell each other you haven’t seen any Hun yet.  (If we did, I’m not sure what we’d do about it—we have a rifle in our shack, but no ammunition.  I suppose the idea is to get us used to being made to stay up all night from time to time, and then work the next day.) 

If it were you and me, I expect we could manage to have quite a bit of fun on Guard Duty, but the bloke they have me paired up with is a Methodist, and won’t even play cards.  Still, it gives me plenty of time to catch up on my letter-writing! 

Sorry for not writing during the week.  We were sent out “on maneuvers” for three days—another thing which sounds grander than it is!  They marched us off into the countryside for half the day—in circles, I’m fairly sure—and then at the end of it, we pretended to set up a field-dressing station.  One of the fellows smashed his thumb hammering in tent pegs, and another got stung by a bee, which I felt added a bit of verisimilitude to the whole thing.  We were lent a trainee Medical Officer for the occasion—a qualified doctor, you understand, but new to the Army—and he’d been having a great deal of trouble all day with the horse they’d issued him to ride, so I imagine he was relieved to have something to do that he was good at. 

The second day, a group of us were marched some distance off.  At a suitable spot, they told us what injuries we were to pretend we had, and we all arranged ourselves artistically on the grass, and waited for the rest to come with the stretchers and rescue us.  That was fine, except that the spot I chose was near an ants’ nest, and the sergeant wouldn’t let me move to somewhere else, because I was supposed to have a head wound and be unconscious.  (They weren’t the stinging kind, though, so it wasn’t too bad.)

Once we’d been “evacuated” back to the dressing station and been sorted out into categories—walking wounded, stretcher cases, chest cases, and so on—we picnicked on hard biscuit and bully beef, and then after lunch we did it all again, with the wounded from the morning playing the rescuers, and vice-versa. 

The next day, we packed everything back onto the wagons and marched back.   It was all a bit of a lark, except that on the first night, one of the lads—from the East End—got frightened by some kind of weasel near the latrine and woke us all up yelling about being under attack by wild animals.  (And, of course, we are all wondering now whether they have everyone do this bit of make-believe, or if it means they are planning to send us to establish a dressing-station somewhere other than in a meadow in Oxfordshire.  I daresay there are all sorts of reasons some of us might need to know our way around a dressing-station, so I wouldn’t read too much into it.)

As far as parcels, I can’t think of much that I need.  When we are moved somewhere—even in England—our personal kit will be limited to what we can carry on our backs, and I should hate to get a lovely present from you and have to leave it behind.  Things that will be eaten or otherwise used up are probably best—they give us plenty to eat, but it gets fairly monotonous, even when we aren’t on maneuvers.  Stew for dinner, bread and jam for tea, over and over.  There’s a YMCA canteen where we can buy cake and sandwiches and things, but it’s not always open when you’re peckish. Some biscuits or something like that would be nice—but look for the kind that come in a tin; it keeps the damp and the bugs out better than a paper packet, and then you can use it to put aside cake from the canteen. (And keep sending cigarettes, when you can manage it—the canteen sells those, as well, but I much prefer yours.) 

It’s my turn to walk over to the next guard-post, keeping an eagle eye out for Germans on the way, so I had better close. 

Light a cigarette for me. 

Affectionately yours,

P.F.

Immediately after receiving this letter, Thomas went to the village and bought biscuits, choosing the one with the sturdiest tin, and sent it off with two packs of cigarettes to keep it company.   Peter was probably right, that their being sent “on maneuvers” didn’t mean much, but still—it was hard not to worry. 

A few days later, news broke of the rout and retreat at Mons.  Seeing Maud poring over a newspaper, Thomas was tempted to point out to her that “her Henry” had been proved wrong again: the battle was part of the strategy he had described, but the French sweep into Germany had failed, and it was her brother and his mates who had been sent running, not the Hun. 

But at the last moment, he realized that what she was studying so carefully were the casualty lists, and said instead, “You haven’t heard from him, then?”

She looked up at him, sniffling.  “Not yet.”

“I think they…send the telegrams, before they put anything in the paper,” he pointed out. 

She nodded.  “They must.  I’m looking for names of his friends, really.”  She pointed to one.  “He mentioned a Collins, but that’s a common name, isn’t it?”

“Sure,” Thomas agreed. 

The name she was pointing at was “Edmund Collins,” and it occurred to Thomas that he had no idea what Eddie’s surname was, or whether he was an Edward or an Edmund or something else. 

Joey, he thought, was Joseph Kendrick.  “Let me have that next, would you?”

She glanced up at him.  “Your—your bloke’s still in training, isn’t he?”

 He nodded.  “I have other friends,” he pointed out.

“Here,” she said, separating out a section of the paper.  “I’m done with this page.”

The “fighting retreat,” as the papers called it, bled into another battle, in another village, another retreat, and an even longer list of casualties in the newspaper.  When August turned into September, the papers finally had a victory to announce:  the French and the British had stopped their retreat at something called the Marne—Thomas had to consult the encyclopedia to find that it was a river, not another village—and turned the Germans back. 

Victory or not, the preliminary casualty reports were staggering, and were followed by a letter from Peter—unusually long for a mid-week one:

                Dear Thomas,

Don’t worry, I’m still at the training camp…but we’ve seen our first war-wounded.  They’ve set up a hospital in one of the colleges in Oxford, and they took us over to help unload the ambulance train.  From the victory at the Marne, they said.  Or somebody said.

God, Thomas, it was awful.  Hundreds of men, some with limbs blown off, parts of their faces missing, great gaping holes in them…one of my squad mates had a case who looked like there was nothing wrong with him, except he was lying there on the stretcher, barely conscious, moaning and clutching at his stomach.  My mate opened up his tunic—I don’t know why—and his guts spilled out.  (The wounded man’s, not my mate’s.)

Some of them had just a fairly small wound in their leg or arm, but the whole limb had blown up to several times their normal size.  Gas gangrene, they call it.  They had us line those cases up in the corridor outside the operating room—all they can do is amputate, and hope it hasn’t spread into the trunk of the body yet.  The orderlies who rode in the train with the patients say the rate of infection—gas gangrene and other kinds—is a lot higher than in the last war.  No one knows why. 

The wounds are worse, too, but they know why that is: the machine gun.  One gun crew can fire hundreds of bullets in a single minute.  And shrapnel shells, which burst open and spray sharp bits of metal everywhere. 

One of the blokes had a vest-pocked Bible, with a bit of shrapnel nearly the whole way through.  The orderlies said he’d been showing it off, earlier in the trip; talking about how he’d show his grandkids the Bible that saved his life.  But he got another bit of the stuff in the leg, and by the time he got to Oxford, it was infected and he was raving.  I don’t know if they got him into the operating theatre in time.

Some of them died on the train.  You have to take them off, so you can get at the ones behind them, but you don’t say anything, and you wait until you’re out of the train carriage to put a sheet over them—if any of the others are conscious, it’s better if they don’t know. 

That’s not the worst part, Thomas.  Maybe it should be, but the worst part is that a few of the wounded—just a few—had Red Cross armbands on.  Same as the ones we’ve got. 

Damn it, the others are yelling at me to put the light out, so I’ve got to go.  But listen, go and get a picture made, will you?  I’ll explain why when I write on Sunday. 

(And light a cigarette for me—God knows I need it!)

Love,

P.F.

Thomas read the letter three times before he noticed the change in how Peter signed off.  A small, giddy part of him wanted to run and show someone—Anna, he supposed, for lack of anyone better—look, he signed Love.

But he could only enjoy that giddy feeling for a fleeting moment at a time, before it was overwhelmed by the rest of the news in the letter.  He’d known, of course, that in a war, some men would be terribly wounded, and Peter must have known it too, but knowing was different than seeing it first-hand—or even reading it second-hand.  He’d also known that medical corpsmen wouldn’t be immune—who knew if you could even see, in the middle of a battle, whether the soldier opposite had a red cross on or not?  And even if you could, the Hun might not care—probably wouldn’t, if what the papers said was true, about them raping their way through Belgium, bayoneting babies and so on. 

He also knew what the request for a picture meant.  Fortunately, his half-day was coming up, so he put on his best suit and went to a studio in Ripon.  He posed with a cigarette in his lips and Peter’s lighter in his hand, as though he were lighting it—the photographer thought it was an odd choice, but Thomas didn’t care. 

The same day, Maud was all smiles, and showing off—to anyone who’d not run the other way—a field postcard she’d gotten from her brother.  It was a simple card, with phrases printed on it, and instructions to cross out the ones that didn’t apply, and not to write anything besides the date and signature.  Henry had crossed out the bits about being wounded or sick, and left the ones that said “I am quite well” and “Letter follows at first opportunity.” 

There was something brutal, Thomas thought, about the fact that the Army had a form for letting your loved ones know you were still alive. 

That evening—after everyone was thoroughly sick of hearing about Maud’s postcard—Mrs. Hughes asked about Peter.  “They had him unloading wounded,” he said.  “From the Marne.  It was bad.”

“I hope he wasn’t expecting it to be pleasant,” said O’Brien. 

No one answered her.  Gwen asked if he was still in training, so Thomas explained about some of the wounded being sent to Oxford.  “I guess there were more of them than they expected, or something.”  He turned to Bates.  “Bet you’re glad you’re out of it now.  You’re the only one of us doesn’t need to worry about going off to be shot at, since you’ve already been.”

“Thomas!” said Mrs. Hughes, reprovingly. 

“He’s not wrong,” said Bates, “though he might have phrased it better.  Every day, there’s less and less chance of a quick victory, and it’s already worse than ours.  It said in the paper, there was one day last week that the French lost as many men as we did in the entire South African war.” 

“But we haven’t,” William pointed out.  “Lost that many, I mean.”

“We don’t have many fighting yet,” Bates told him.  “Only six divisions.  It’ll get worse when the new armies are ready to go over.” 

“Why do they have so many more than we do?” Anna wondered.

“Because we have a professional army, and they have mandatory service,” Bates explained.  “All of our new volunteers have to be trained before they can go, but most Frenchmen had their training when they turned eighteen, so all they needed to do when the war started was call them up.” 

Suddenly, Madge ran out of the room, with her hands held over her face.  Anna and Mrs. Hughes both started to get up, the latter nodding to Anna and sitting back down again.

Thomas wasn’t sure what had upset her, but whatever it was, he was glad he hadn’t been the one to say it.

The next day, he found out what it was.  He and William had just come down from the servery, after washing the glass and silver from luncheon, when Anna grabbed him by the arm.  “You’re not busy?  Good—come with me.”

Thomas followed her out into the courtyard, where Madge, the housemaid, stood tearfully before a tall, lanky fellow who looked vaguely familiar. 

“All right, Madge,” Anna called out to her, and she and the man began walking toward the drive. 

Thomas and Anna followed, at a discreet distance, and once the other two were out of earshot, Anna explained, “Davy’s joined up.”

That was who it was—Madge’s bloke, Davy Small, who was not small at all.  It seemed years ago, that he and Gwen had chaperoned them at the flower show. 

“He reports for training at the end of the week,” Anna went on, “but he’s leaving first thing in the morning, so he can see his parents first.”

Oh.  He’d be in one of the new armies, then.  One of the ones Bates had all but said would be dying in droves once they went over the Channel.  “I see.”

“I said we’d give them till tea,” Anna added.

“All right, but has somebody told Carson?” Thomas asked.  It was a little early for their afternoon break.

“Mrs. Hughes said it was all right—I’m sure she’ll explain if he’s looking for you.”

If Mrs. Hughes approved, even if Carson didn’t like it, he wouldn’t do much more than huff about it, which Thomas supposed he could stand.  He did know how Madge felt, after all. 

They walked through the village and out the other side.  At one point, Davy and Madge ducked behind a hedge.  Anna glanced over at him, a question on her face.

Thomas pointed to where their feet could be seen, under the hedge.  There was quite a lot you could do with both feet on the ground—at least, he supposed a man and a girl could do most of them—but nothing that would get anyone pregnant. 

They went and sat on a wall opposite, keeping the feet in view.  Thomas smoked a cigarette, and Peter lit it for him, as he had done every time since their second-to-last meeting in London. 

“We shook hands,” he said abruptly.

“Hm?” Anna asked.

“Peter and me.  The last time I saw him.  There wasn’t time to go anywhere.”  Anywhere they could do more than that, but he wouldn’t say that part out loud, not when Madge and Davy were within earshot—though, if they were doing things properly, they wouldn’t be listening. 

After they got back to the house, he gave Madge the address of the photographer’s studio, in Ripon.

When his next Sunday letter from Peter came—a day late—a photograph tumbled out of it, of Peter, grave and handsome in his RAMC uniform.  The letter explained what Thomas had thought it would—though he’d braced himself for worse:

They told us the other day—right after we got back from unloading the train—that they’re setting up some new hospitals in France, and a lot of us will be sent there.  Apparently, it took longer than they planned on to get the wounded back to England—there were a lot of delays, and (I think) more of them than anyone expected.  They think that’s why so many were so badly off, because they weren’t treated as quickly as they ought to have been. 

The new hospitals are to be on the Channel ports, so not very near the fighting, but we were all pretty spooked, especially after what we saw on the ambulance train.  A bunch of us went into Oxford the next day and had our pictures made, for our mothers and sweethearts.  (As you know, I haven’t got a mother.) 

Please do send me one, though—the done thing, here in camp, is to put it in your cigarette case, and keep it near your heart.  (I’ve asked Lisel for one as well, so I’ll have one I can show off.  I wish we could have gotten one when we were all together at Kew—then I could say, that’s my sweetheart and my best mate, and let them draw their own conclusions!)

Before dinner, Thomas sought out Anna—he didn’t want her bringing Peter up today, of all days.  It wasn’t as though he could get away with running out of the room in tears, not like some people. 

“They’re sending him to France,” he said, when he’d found her in the pressing room.

“Mr. Fitzroy?” Anna asked, as if he could mean anyone else.

He nodded.  “He thinks so, anyway.  They told them a lot of them would be.”  He explained about the new hospitals. 

“I suppose that makes sense—to treat them and then ship them to England, instead of the other way around,” Anna said.  “Did he say where the hospitals would be?”

“Channel port cities,” Thomas said, with a shrug.  “Whichever those are.” 

“Let’s see if we can figure it out,” Anna suggested, and they went to the encyclopedia, poring over the small, densely-printed map of France.  Dunkirk, Calais, and Boulogne seemed the most likely prospects, all of which were a reassuring distance from Mons, the Marne, and all of the other bits of French and Belgian geography they were having to learn—though not so far that another retreat, on the scale of the one from Mons, wouldn’t put the fighting closer than Thomas would have liked. 

As soon as they had finished with the encyclopedia, Maud and Marge took it, intently studying the same page that they had.  At dinner, Anna said, “Mr. Carson, I was wondering what you’d think about putting up a map of France and Belgium, here in the servants’ hall.  Those of us who are interested could pay for it together, and get a large one so it’ll be easy to read.”

Carson glowered for a moment, but Mrs. Hughes said, “I think that’s a fine idea, Anna, and I’ll be glad to contribute to the funds.  Perhaps we can put pins in, to show where everyone we know and love is—Maud’s brother, and Mrs. Patmore’s nephew, and everyone else, as they go.”  Here, she glanced pointedly at Thomas and Madge. 

With that endorsement, Carson could hardly say no, and he even pledged a shilling to the kitty. 

Some two weeks later, the morning post brought a long, tube-shaped parcel addressed to Anna, and an envelope for Thomas.  The letter wasn’t from Peter—he could tell that from the handwriting—and it was postmarked from France.

Unfortunately, the bells started ringing just as Carson finished handing out the post.  Normally, Thomas would have found a chance to open his letter anyway, but everyone who’d chipped in for the map was clamoring for a quick look at it before they began the morning’s work, and Carson was quite firm that duty came before opening anyone’s post.

The letter was a heavy weight in the pocket of his livery coat as he stood by the sideboard in the breakfast room.  The family, of course, were perfectly free to open their letters at table—an injustice about which Thomas silently seethed.

The letter couldn’t be from Peter, and couldn’t be about him, Thomas told himself.  Peter was still in England; he’d have said if he wasn’t.  Still, as soon as the last of them had gotten up from the table—Lady Edith, as it happened—he grabbed something that he could plausibly carry into the servery, and once he was there, tore open the envelope. 

William made several trips in from the breakfast room, clearing most of the other things from the table, while Thomas read it.  “Hey,” he said, putting down a clattering heap of silver, “are you going to—what’s wrong?”

Fucking sodding hell.  “I need to—can you—someone’s just died.”  He hadn’t just died; he’d died nearly a month ago, but it had taken this long for the news to reach him. 

William looked at him, wide-eyed.  “That Mr. Fitzroy?”

“No.”  Thank God.  But if it was, would the news reach him any faster?  Would he stand there, with the news burning a hole in his livery coat, while the family chewed toast and sipped tea?  “A friend.  Someone else.”  Eddie.  Eddie, who’d told Peter to go into the medical corps, where they worked you like a dog, but at least you didn’t get shot at. 

Thomas wondered which of the Edwards and Edmunds from that casualty list had been him—Thomas still didn’t know what his surname had been.

“Go on, then,” William said, nodding towards the stairs.  “I’ll deal with this lot.”

“Thanks.”

Thomas went to the courtyard, lit a cigarette, and read the letter again.

                Dear Thomas,

Hope this finds you well, &c.  I’ve heard that if anyone knows how to get hold of P.F. these days, it would be you.  There’s something he ought to know.  He and Eddie being mates, I mean.

Because Eddie’s dead.  He was killed outside XXXXXX.

Here, the place-name had been crossed out thickly, in black ink over Joey’s penciled scrawl.  Men in the war had their letters read and censored by their officers, blacking out anything the Germans might want to know.  That had been one of Maud’s pieces of wisdom, passed on from her Henry. 

They had him gathering up wounded, I guess, in the “fighting retreat.”  Not much of a surprise that the Hun would fire on medics, really.  They say he’ll get a medal, or somebody will.  His sister, I suppose.  He has a sister he writes to.

This was crossed out, in pencil.

He had a sister he wrote to. 

I’m all right, by the way—I’m here in XXXX at the casualty clearing station, that’s how I got the news, from some of Eddie’s other mates.  But I’ve just got a ricked ankle, of all the bloody stupid things.  I slipped whilst we were crossing a stream, so now I get to sit on my arse for a couple of weeks—go figure.  My mates said they’d try not to win the war before I got back, but I don’t think there’s much danger of that.  It’s bloody fucking awful over here.  Not at the CCS, that’s all right, but otherwise.  Whoever invented the machine gun ought to be tied to a post in front of one. 

Anyway, do me a favor and tell Peter the news, if you know where to write to him.  And I wouldn’t say no to a pack of Woodbines, if you have a minute—French cigarettes are shite.

Your friend,

Joey K.

He’d walk down to the village the next chance he got, he decided, and buy those Woodbines.  It felt slightly unfaithful, but cigarettes weren’t kisses, even if he and Peter had decided to pretend they were.

“Thomas?”  It was Mrs. Hughes, who’d just come out the back door. 

“I’m all right,” he said, stuffing the letter in his pocket.  There was nothing in it for the censoring officer to object to—except for those place-names—but there was too much swearing for Mrs. Hughes to see it. 

“William told me,” she said.

He shook his head.  “It’s not Peter.  Just someone else we know.”

But he was crying, and he didn’t know why—it wasn’t Peter, and he didn’t even know Eddie all that well.  He hadn’t become part of their set until after Thomas left London. 

“Oh, dear,” said Mrs. Hughes, putting her arms around him in a motherly embrace. 

“He’s in the medical corps too,” Thomas blurted out, into her shoulder.  “Eddie.  Was in the medical corps.”

“Well, then, of course you’re upset.”

“It was in the retreat,” Thomas said.  “Somewhere near Mons.  One of those little towns.  He’s been dead for ages.” 

In time, he stopped crying.  Mrs. Hughes went inside, and he smoked another cigarette.  Carson saw him come in, but didn’t say anything, about Thomas smoking when he ought to have been helping William with the breakfast things. 

When he went into the servants’ hall, the map was tacked to the wall.  It showed the southern bit of England as well as France and Belgium, and stuck into it were two white-headed drawing pins, one near the Marne River, and one in Oxford.

There was also a black-headed pin, somewhere near Mons. 

#

“I’m just saying,” Madge said.  “If there’s one for what’s-his-name in Oxford, there should be one for Davy.  He works here, after all.”

“He’s training in Yorkshire,” Anna pointed out.  “That part of England isn’t on the map we bought.”

“Well, why not?”

“Because we all know where Yorkshire is,” she said, exasperated.  “I suppose we could stick one in the wall, above the top of the map, if it would make you feel….”

She trailed off, because Thomas had just gotten up—pushing his chair back with a loud scrape.  He went to the map and plucked out the pin that was placed in Oxford, and jabbed it into another spot on the map, a few inches further down.  “Happy now?” he snarled. 

Madge drew back.  “I beg your pardon?”

“Thomas, what happened?” Anna asked.  He’d been sitting there reading a letter, but she’d thought it was the one from yesterday, about his friend who had been killed.  He shoved the letter at her, and she saw at once that she had been mistaken.

                Dear Thomas, it said.

We’ve just got our embarkation orders.  My whole battalion is posted to the 11th General, in Boulogne.  I’m glad they’re sending us all together; I think it’ll be easier that way, don’t you?  Officially, we’re a training battalion, but we’ll be learning on the job, as we help set up the new hospital.  We won’t be eligible to be posted anywhere but a base hospital for at least a couple of months, until we’re considered out of training.

We leave in early October—they haven’t told us the exact date, but the good part is, we get a bit of leave beforehand.  Those of us who haven’t had a weekend pass yet are first in line, so I’ve got Monday to Wednesday of next week—surely we can manage a bit of Christmas in September.  If you can get away, there’s a pub near here where we can stay—it’s not the imaginary pub, but the landlord’s one of our lot; he’ll leave us alone.

The letter was folded at that point, and before she could unfold it, Thomas snatched it back, muttering, “The rest of it’s private.”

To Madge, Anna explained, “Mr. Fitzroy is being sent to France, in less than two weeks.”  To Thomas, she added, “You’ll go and see him, won’t you?  Mr. Carson will understand.”

He scoffed.  “You think so?”  He put the letter back in its envelope and tucked it into his pocket.  “But yes, I’m going.”

#

“No,” said Carson.  “I’m sorry, but it isn’t a good time.  We have the house party coming up; there is simply too much to do.”

“That’s why I said Monday and Tuesday, or Tuesday and Wednesday,” Thomas explained, as patiently as he could manage.  “That still leaves at least two and a half days until the guests come.”

“You simply cannot be away overnight, especially when we have, as you know, guests staying.”

Maybe he should have started off asking for all three days—because he needed two, if he was going to get there and back, and have time to actually see Peter.  “It isn’t that long,” he said.  “If we take my half-day that’s supposed to be tomorrow, and my next one….”

“That’s still only one day,” Carson pointed out.

And the extra time his lordship said I was to have, when I was doing William’s work as well as my own in London,” Thomas finished triumphantly.

“You haven’t already taken that?”

You know I bloody well haven’t!”

“Don’t,” said Mr. Carson, in a tone that brooked no argument, “swear at me.  Now.  The subject is closed.”

“That’s what you think,” Thomas snarled.

“I understand that you are…overwrought.  I suggest that you leave, and bring yourself under control, before you say anything that shall require me to reconsider your place in this house.  Do you understand me?”

Thomas knew that the smart thing to say was “Yes, Mr. Carson.”  Instead, he said, “You’d let me go if we were engaged.  Well, we can’t be, so—”

That is enough,” Carson hissed.  “Get out of my sight, now.”

Belatedly, Thomas obeyed.

#

When Thomas slammed his way out of Mr. Carson’s pantry, everyone in the servants’ hall looked up.  Anna was about to go after him—she assumed he’d be heading for the courtyard, to smoke—but instead he came into the servants’ hall, his face thunderous.  “Outside,” he told her.

In any other circumstances, she’d have told him not to take that tone with her, but now she only said, “I was just coming.”

The moment they were outside, and the door closed behind them, Thomas wheeled on her and said, “I’m calling it in.”

“What?”

Lady Mary,” he said, “owes me a favor.  You said.  Tell her I’m calling it in.  If she doesn’t want the whole bloody world to know that Turk died in her bed, lying on top of her, she’s going to fix this with Carson.”

Oh, Thomas.  He was right, of course, that Mr. Carson had to be got round somehow, but other people in the house would sympathize with him, and could bring some pressure to bear on Mr. Carson—but if he went round threatening people, that sympathy would dry up faster than you could say “knife.” 

Especially if he was threatening Lady Mary. 

But it would be a hard slog explaining that to Thomas at the best of times, let alone the state he was in.  Instead, she said, “His lordship won’t like you involving Lady Mary in something like this.”  She knew he’d think she meant something to do with his being peculiar; that wasn’t the real problem, but it was the one subject where he had the sense not to charge about like a bull in a china shop, and she wasn’t above taking advantage of that, for his own good.

He opened his mouth to argue, but she spoke over him.  “No, listen to me.  He’s the one you need to convince, to override Mr. Carson.”

“Well, she can convince him,” Thomas said.  “I don’t care how she does it.”

“If you threaten her, she will react precisely the same way you would,” she informed him.  “She might do what you want right now, but sooner or later, she will come after you.”

“I don’t care about that, either.”

Obviously.  “Let’s try something else first.  Mr. Bates can talk to his lordship.  He’ll know how to put it to him.”

“Why would he do that?”

Because you’re friends, you absolute idiot.  “He will if I ask him.  Look, let him try, at least—Mr. Fitzroy’s leave isn’t until next week.  If it doesn’t work, we’ll do it your way.”

“Fine,” Thomas said, as if he was the one doing her a favor.  “But he’s got to do it tonight.  I’ve got to have time to write to Peter and tell him when to expect me.  If it’s not settled by tomorrow afternoon, I’ll go to Lady Mary myself.”

A small part of her wondered what that would look like—the collision of two speeding trains, probably.  “I’ll tell him to do it tonight,” she promised.

#

“Is something bothering you, Bates?” Robert asked.  Several times, as Bates had been putting him into his dinner clothes, he’d looked as though he were about to say something, but then hadn’t said it. 

“As a matter of fact, my lord, I’ve got to ask a favor.  For Thomas.”

“Oh?”  He hoped it wasn’t something like that dreadful letter.  He’d barely been able to keep a straight face, listening to O’Brien quoting the most salacious passages. 

“His friend is being sent to France,” Bates explained.  “His particular friend.”

“The one in the medical corps,” Robert said.  He hoped Thomas didn’t expect him to do anything about it—he apparently didn’t have enough pull with the War Department to get himself back on active duty, let alone interfere with the assignment of a complete stranger.

“And Thomas wants to see him before he goes, of course.”

“Of course,” Robert said.  “Well, I suppose he’s getting embarkation leave?”  If he wasn’t, there wasn’t anything Robert could do about that, either. 

“Yes.  Next week.  Thomas has asked for Monday and Tuesday, or Tuesday and Wednesday, so he can travel down to Oxfordshire and see him.”

Was that all? That was easy enough.  “Fine.  He can arrange it with Carson.”

“That’s the thing,” Bates said.  “Mr. Carson has already told him no.  I wouldn’t normally be a party to undermining Mr. Carson’s authority, but….”

“But,” Robert repeated.  “Yes, I know.”  Bates was doubtless reminded of the same incident that he was, from their time in South Africa. 

“And another friend of theirs—also in the medical corps—was killed.  In the retreat from Mons, but Thomas just found out yesterday.  So naturally, he’s….”

“I understand.” 

“Anna says he’s ready to do something foolish, if Mr. Carson can’t be brought round, so we thought it best to put the situation in your hands.”

“Quite right,” Robert said.  “I’ll speak to Carson after dinner.”

Even without Bates’s warning, Robert thought he would have noticed that Thomas was unusually twitchy, at dinner.  He pretended not to notice, and Carson did so as well, but as Thomas brought out the pudding—his hands shaking slightly—Cora asked him what was wrong. 

Thomas drew in a deep breath, and before he could answer, Robert told his wife, “I’ll explain later.”  Cora may have already known about Thomas, but he wasn’t about to broach the subject in front of his daughters.  “He’s had some bad news.”

“Oh,” she said.  “Carson, I’m sure you and William can manage, can’t you?”

“Certainly, my lady,” Carson said, and dismissed Thomas.

A short while later, once the ladies had gone out, and Carson was bringing him his port, Robert said, “Carson, when you’ve finished here, I’ll speak to you in—”  He’d been about to say the small library, but the ladies were in the main library, and there was nothing to stop them popping in to see what he was doing.  “As a matter of fact, it might be best if we spoke in your pantry, now that I think on it.”

“My lord,” Carson said.   “I am at your disposal.”

So they went down, leaving William to clear the rest of the dinner things away.  In the butler’s pantry, Carson saw him seated in front of his desk, and then stood, respectfully, behind it.

“Please, sit down,” Robert said.  “It’s your room.” 

Carson didn’t sit, of course, and Robert felt rather loomed over.

He’d given a great deal of thought to how to broach this subject, and he began, “The Army, you know, grants embarkation leave as a matter of routine, so that the soldiers have the opportunity to make their farewells.  I think that, likewise, we should, as much as we can, extend the same courtesy to…those to whom they wish to make their farewells.”

“In principle, I don’t disagree, my lord,” Carson said, speaking as carefully as Robert had done.  “But I would point out that, while a given soldier only embarks once, a single member of staff may claim any number of friends and relations leaving for the war.  Brothers, fathers, fiancés, certainly.  But we must draw the line somewhere.”

It was a fair point, so Robert nodded.  “I agree.  If the number of requests from any one person becomes excessive, we shall have to reconsider the matter.”

“That seems sensible, my lord,” Carson agreed.

Clearly, Carson wasn’t going to be the one to acknowledge what—who—they were really talking about.  “Thomas, for instance.  I don’t believe he has any family to speak of.”

“Not that I am aware of, my lord.”

“Well, then.  We should certainly make clear that he won’t be given time off for everyone he knows, but I daresay he’s entitled to at least one.”  If what Bates said was correct, this was the one he would choose, if he only got one. 

“My lord,” said Carson, abruptly.  “I beg your pardon for raising such a subject, but are you aware of the…nature, of this connection?”

“I know as much about it as I need to,” Robert said quickly.

Carson cleared his throat.  “As you know, my lord, I am responsible for the moral welfare of the male staff.  I admit, I am not entirely sure how to discharge that duty when it comes to a man with Thomas’s…problem, but I do not believe it right to encourage him in this sort of thing.  I understand that some men cannot help having certain inclinations, and I believe him to be one of them, but the law—and common decency—demands that he do his best to suppress those urges.  Romanticizing them—indulging him as he elevates them to the level of a natural relationship—cannot end well for him.”

Robert sighed.  “Carson…I don’t like to override your authority, when it comes to the staff under you.  But if the worst happens—if this Mr….”

“Fitzroy,” Carson supplied. 

“If Mr. Fitzroy is killed, I will regret not doing so.  I know this for a fact.  And I believe that you will regret it too.”

“My lord?” Carson asked. 

“I’ve been in this position before, you see,” he explained.  “In our regiment in South Africa, we had a couple like that—and I use the word in its precise sense.”

“I see,” Carson said, faintly.

“One of them, a Corporal Wolcott, was bitten by a venomous snake.  He was expected to die, and indeed he did, although it took hours.  His friend, Private Granby, was meant to be on watch that night, but asked to be let off, so he could sit with Wolcott as he died.  Another man—Bates, in fact—had agreed to take over for Granby, but the Sergeant who was in charge of the watch-roster refused to make the change, and said he’d have Granby brought up on charges if he wasn’t at his post.”  He took a deep breath.  “Bates came to me and asked me to sort it out, but I didn’t think it right to countermand an order my sergeant had already given.  It’s not really cricket, you know.  But it was the wrong decision, and to this day, I cannot think of it without shame.”

He’d sat with Wolcott as he died in agony, he and Bates both had, but they hadn’t been the one he wanted.  What he ought to have done, wished he had done, was gone to Granby’s watch-post and personally relieved him.  But he hadn’t thought of that until it was much too late. 

Granby had been killed a few weeks later, in a minor action.  He’d been reckless; no one said it, but they all knew he’d wanted to die.  They’d buried him next to Wolcott.  

“So,” he said, getting up from the low chair where he sat, “I really feel that I must make the right decision now.  I ask you to understand, even if you do not agree.”

 “My lord,” Carson said. 

“Would you like to tell him, or shall I?”  That was another solution he’d thought of later—he could have gone to Sergeant Graves and given him the option of reversing his decision, let him take the credit.  Graves had not been a popular NCO even before that incident, and all of Granby and Wolcott’s friends had hated him afterwards. 

“I think, my lord, that since you feel so strongly about the matter, it might be best if you did so.”

“Very well.  I’ll speak to him in here, if you don’t mind.”

#

He was probably about to be sacked, but Thomas wasn’t sure he cared.  Carson and his lordship had been shut up in Carson’s pantry for what seemed like ages—everyone else was grumbling about when they were going to get their dinner, but Thomas felt like he might be sick. 

“It’ll be all right,” Bates said, not for the first time. 

Thomas shook his head.  Even if he wasn’t sacked—even if Carson didn’t say a word about you know I bloody well haven’t, and that stupid thing Thomas had said about being engaged—Christ, what had he been thinking?—even without all that, it wasn’t going to be all right, because Peter was going to France, where people got killed, thousands in a single day. 

Only he did care, really, if he was sacked or not, because if he was, he’d have to go there too, and he didn’t want to. 

Carson appeared, and everyone jumped to their feet—Thomas, a few seconds later than the rest. 

“Thomas,” he said.  “His lordship will see you.”

Numbly, Thomas followed Carson to his pantry.

“Thomas,” his lordship said.  “Carson and I have spoken, about your request for some time off, to see your friend before he leaves for France.”

Oh, he just bet they had. 

“You understand, of course, that we can’t allow time off every time someone has a friend going to join the war.”

“Yes, my lord,” he said.  “But—”

Carson’s hand clamped down on his shoulder like a vise. 

“But,” his lordship continued, “I don’t think you’ve any family members that you’ll need to see off—is that right?”

“Yes, my lord.  None to speak of.”  He supposed Jamie might have joined up, but it wasn’t as though he’d want Thomas showing up to say goodbye to him, even if Thomas somehow found out about it.  “He hasn’t, either.  My friend.”   In case that made any difference.

His lordship nodded.  “Well, then, you should certainly go.  No one should go off to war without a proper sendoff.”

Apparently, it did make a difference.  Should he have mentioned that part to Carson?  “Thank you, my lord.  I’m grateful, and I’m sure my friend will be too.”

“Of course.  And I hope you’ll give him my best wishes.  Now, it was Monday to Wednesday of next week, wasn’t it?”

He nodded.  “Yes, my lord.  Mr. Carson didn’t like the idea of my being away overnight, and I know it’s an imposition, but with the way the trains are now, I’d have to turn round as soon as I got there, otherwise.” 

“I understand.  I daresay Carson and William can manage, and, Carson, I’m sure Bates will lend a hand, in any way that he can.”

“We will manage, my lord,” Carson said, finally letting up his grip on Carson’s shoulder.

Was he to have all three days, then?  “Yes, my lord.  Thank you.” 

“I suppose you’re the first, among the staff, to have someone important going to France, but you certainly won’t be the last,” his lordship said.

Was that a trap?  “There’s Maud, my lord.  One of the maids.  Her brother’s in the Army, and he went over right at the beginning.”

“Ah.”  His lordship glanced at Carson.  “Was she able to go and see him off?”

“I don’t believe she asked, my lord, although I would have to consult Mrs. Hughes to be certain.”

“Well, let her know she has a day or two coming to her, if he’s sent back on leave or…for any other reason.  And please, inform Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore that I’ve asked that this type of request be granted whenever possible.  I’m sure her ladyship will feel the same.”

“Yes, my lord,” said Carson. 

“Well, then.  I’m sure I’m holding up everyone’s dinner.  Good night.”  

He departed, and for a moment, Thomas and Carson looked at each other.  Finally, Carson sighed.  “Be back at a decent hour on Wednesday.”

“Yes, Mr. Carson.”

“If you aren’t back by the time I lock the doors for the night, you will have to sleep in the yard.”

“Yes, Mr. Carson.”

He seemed about to say something else, but then just shook his head and gestured toward the door.  “Go.  And tell Mrs. Patmore we are sitting down—finally.”

Thomas went back into the servants’ hall feeling substantially less grim that he’d left it. Peter was still going to France—but Thomas was going to see him first, for three days, and he wasn’t being sacked. 

“Well?” Anna asked, as he slipped into the seat beside her.

“He said I could go.”

 “I told you it would work,” she reminded him.

She had.  Now that it was all over, Thomas couldn’t quite believe what had just happened.  He’d discussed his boyfriend with Lord Grantham.  And his lordship had said to give him his best wishes.  To Thomas’s boyfriend. 

Mr. Carson came in, and once they’d all stood up and sat down again, Mrs. Patmore and Daisy started bringing the food out.  Under cover of the general clamor of passing dishes, Thomas leaned across Anna and said to Bates, “What did you say to him?”

Bates shook his head.  “Most of it…didn’t need to be said.”

Whatever the hell that meant. 

Chapter Text

“Here you are, gents—the honeymoon suite,” the publican said grandly, opening the door.

It wasn’t, of course.  By ordinary standards, it wasn’t even much of a room—small, tucked up under the eaves, with a sloping ceiling.  The sole window looked out on the courtyard where the dustbins were kept, and the wallpaper was both eye-wateringly garish and inexpertly hung.

But it had a door that locked, and—most importantly—a double bed, with a clean, if worn, spread, and two pillows.  That alone made it by far the nicest room that Thomas and Peter had ever shared, and the publican, or someone, had made an effort to brighten the place up a bit, with a vase of flowers on the table by the window.

“Perfect,” said Peter.

Once the publican had left, Thomas dropped his valise on the floor and flopped backwards onto the bed.   The train ride had been much longer than it should have been—they kept being shunted onto sidings while troop trains went past—and then he’d been on his feet since Coventry, when a little old farm woman had shoved her way into the already-packed third-class car, laden with parcels.  Thomas had waited in vain for someone else to get up—perhaps the two strapping lads in Kitchener Blues, who were two seats ahead of him—but no one had, and he’d eventually had to give her his own seat. 

She’d thanked him loudly—projecting her voice toward the two strapping lads, if he wasn’t mistaken—and then proceeded to talk his ear off about her boy in the Army for the rest of the journey.  The bundles were his laundry, apparently. 

“Tired?” Peter asked, laying down beside him.

“Not too tired,” Thomas said, rolling over and kissing him thoroughly.  It didn’t seem a good idea to complain about standing on a train for a couple of hours, when Peter’s letters described all-day marches. 

After only a few minutes of the slow, lazy necking that Thomas loved, he moved things along, sitting up and throwing one leg over Peter, to straddle his hips.

“We’re doing this now?” Peter asked, tugging him down for another kiss.  “Not complaining,” he added.  “I just wondered.”

“I reckon if we pace ourselves, we can do this half a dozen times before I have to go back,” Thomas explained, kissing him again.  “Maybe seven or eight, if we wake up early.”  They were going to wake up together.  Twice.  After having slept beside each other all night long.  It was almost too thrilling for words. 

“I see,” Peter said.  “I’m at your disposal.”

After a bit more kissing, Thomas got their pricks out and took them both in one hand—that was a good one, when you were in a hurry.  Not that they were in a hurry, exactly—they’d have time to do all sorts of things—but he wanted to do all the things he liked. 

And all the things Peter like, of course, so before they got too far along, he asked, “This all right?”

“Yeah,” Peter said, gasping.

Maybe they were a little further along than he thought.  Luckily, the sensation of Peter bucking underneath him moved things along a bit for him, too, and his climax followed Peter’s by only the briefest of moments.

“You’re lovely like that,” Peter said, as Thomas was cleaning them up.

“What,” Thomas asked, “sticky?”

“Satisfied.”

“Ah.”

They kissed some more, and Peter said, “I’ll last longer next time.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.  Turns out it’s pretty hard to find a minute for self-abuse when you’re sleeping in a tent with 49 other blokes.”

Thomas hadn’t thought about that.  “Probably a bit worse for the regular blokes, though,” he pointed out.  “I mean—self-abuse is pretty much their only option.”

“The ones with wives get weekend passes sometimes,” Peter said.  “Anyway, I didn’t—I mean, we haven’t talked about whether we’re going to, you know, be true to each other, for the duration.”

“Of course we’re going to be true,” Thomas said.  “But I don’t know that that has anything to do with whether or not we have it off with other people.”   Of course he’d have rather been with Peter than anyone else—but he’d have rather eaten every meal with him, too, and that didn’t mean he was going to starve himself to death. 

But if it was important to Peter that he didn’t, he supposed he wouldn’t.  “I mean, I’m not bothered either way.  Whatever you want.”  He thought of something else.  “Only don’t go doing anything risky—I don’t know what they do to you, in the Army, if they catch you at that sort of thing.”

“It can’t be much worse than what they do everywhere else,” Peter said.  “Considering the stories Eddie and Joey tell—and what that lot get up to in Hyde Park every night of the week.”

Thomas was obscurely relieved to hear Peter referring to the Regimental queers as “that lot.”  Technically, he supposed, Peter was one of that lot, now.  For the duration. 

“But I won’t do anything risky,” Peter went on.  He poked Thomas in the side.  “You, either.  We know what they do to you for it here.”

“All right,” Thomas agreed.

With that decided, they moved on to talking about what to do about dinner.  “They do food here,” Peter said, “but it isn’t much to write home about.   There’s a hotel a few streets over that’s supposed to have a nice dining room.”

“How nice?” Thomas asked.  If it was too nice, the likes of them wouldn’t be let in.

“Medium-nice.  Some of the blokes take their wives there, if they come down for a visit.  Your suit should be all right, and they let you in anywhere in a uniform these days.”

Thomas wondered if Peter had asked the blokes, on purpose, what sort of places they took their wives. 

After a bit more cuddling, they got up and pulled themselves together, then went out.  It was a pretty town, and they decided to stroll for a bit before dinner.  There were plenty of other people doing the same thing—mostly couples, most of the men in uniform.  

“Fitz?  Hey, Fitz,” someone called from across the street. 

Peter turned and looked.  “Hi, Jer.” 

“Come meet my wife,” Jer said, gesturing to the woman beside him.  He was holding a small child.

They crossed the street. 

“Viv, this is Fitzroy, from my section,” Jer said.  “And….”

“My brother, Thomas,” Peter said. 

He supposed it was as good an explanation as any. 

“And this must be Jerry Junior,” Peter added, indicating the child that Jer held.

“He is,” Jer confirmed.  “Can you say hello to DaDa’s friend?”

The child burbled something. 

“Jerry’s written so much about you, I feel like I know you,” Viv said to Peter.  “I’m so glad they’re sending you all together—it makes me feel a bit better about the whole thing.”

“Me, too,” Peter said. 

It wasn’t very funny, but all four of them laughed.  Thomas supposed that Viv had to be feeling the same way he did—churning anxiety, papered over with the need to make this time as happy and normal as possible, just in case.

He supposed that neither of them would have acknowledged it, even if he wasn’t supposed to be Peter’s brother.

“We’re just going to dinner,” Viv said, looking inquiringly at her husband.  “Should we all….?”

Oh, God no.  The last thing Thomas wanted was to waste any of his precious time with Peter making stilted conversation with total strangers.  But he couldn’t say that, could he?

Peter—naturally—knew how to say it.  “Thank you, but I’m sure you and Jer have a lot to say to each other—we won’t intrude.”

Viv looked as relieved as Thomas felt.  “All right, then.  It was good to meet you both!”

They went their separate ways.  “I’ve mentioned Jer, haven’t I?” Peter said, as they continued their walk.

Thomas nodded.  “You had to be friends, because he’s called Jerry and you’re almost called Fritz.”  Peter had explained it in one of his letters. 

“Right,” Peter said.  “Army humor is a little broad, I’ve found.” 

They walked on a bit. 

“You’re my half-brother, by the way,” Peter added.  “Different fathers.”

So they wouldn’t have to pretend Thomas’s surname was Fitzroy, too.  “All right.”

“But I think most of my chums have gone home for their leaves…Jer’s wife moved back in with her mother, for the duration.  I expect she came here, rather than the other way ‘round, so they could have some privacy.”

For pretty much the same thing that he and Peter wanted privacy for, Thomas figured.  “I see.”

At the hotel dining room, when they were looking over the menus, Peter said, “Listen.  About that brother thing….”

Thomas raised an eyebrow.

“I put that on the forms they had us fill out, too.  So they know who to send the telegram to, if…if anything happens that they need to send a telegram about.”

Oh.  “Good,” Thomas said, quickly.  “I was worried about that.  It took so long to hear about Eddie, and….”

“Yeah,” Peter said.  “That’s why I did it.  And, um, I put your name on my Post Office savings account.  Not that there’s much in it, but…well.”

Thomas nodded, feeling a little numb.

“And I wrote to our butler, at Sir H.’s house, that you might call for my things, at the end of the war, if I wasn’t able to.  You don’t have to.  It’s just my clothes, and some books, and things like that.  But he said they’d just hang on to everything until they heard from you.  If….”

If he died.  If Peter was dead, would Thomas want to go to London and collect his trunk?  Would Peter’s collars and shoes and whatever else be precious relics, or unwelcome reminders?  “All right,” he said. 

“That’s all,” Peter said, aiming for a cheerful tone and missing by a mile.  “I just…I mean, more likely than not everything will be all right, but I wanted you to know how I arranged things, just in case.”

“I understand.  Uh, good idea.  Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”

“Right!  That’s what I thought.  Should we get some wine?  I’ll treat—I’ve barely had to buy my own cigarettes the whole time I’ve been here.”

That lightened the mood a bit, and for the rest of dinner, they talked of ordinary things: news they’d heard of their friends, Downton gossip, Peter’s battalion’s preparations for embarkation. 

“Theo and Syl signed up for one of those new Pals Battalions,” Peter said.  “Have you heard about those?”

Thomas nodded.  Men who signed up together—from the same village, or school, or trade—were promised they’d be trained and shipped off together.  “They haven’t got one for our sort, have they?”

“For London servants, they have,” Peter said.  “But no, not otherwise.”

“Too bad,” Thomas said.  “They could call it the London Peculiars.” 

They both laughed a little more than the joke deserved; the waiter was being noticeably generous when he refilled their wine glasses, likely in deference to Peter’s uniform. 

“You might almost be able to talk me into joining up, if it was like that,” Thomas added.  It would almost be like the imaginary pub, except with getting shot at.

“Somebody—this toff I used to know—told me the ancient Greeks had a battalion like that,” Peter informed him.

“Pfft.  Of course they did.”  Everyone knew about the ancient Greeks.

“No, it was called the Sacred Band of…something or other.  The idea was that they’d fight harder, you know.  To protect each other.  They were all couples, and they took vows, like they were married.  ”

“Oh, all right.  Sign me up then.”  The imaginary pub, with being married, might be worth getting shot at for. 

“Well, first we have to move to ancient Greece,” Peter said. 

“Damn.  There’s always a catch.” 

Later, when their meals had arrived, Peter said, “Rumor has it we’re taking our tents with us.  So do me a favor and pray it doesn’t rain Sunday night.”

Thomas nodded, chewing on a particularly tough bit of beef.  “All right.  How come?” he asked, once he had swallowed.

“Rumor also has it that’s our last night,” Peter explained.  “Everyone has to be back by Sunday morning, anyway.  And they say the usual thing is to load up all your gear the day before, and leave first thing in the morning.”

“So, what, you just sleep on the ground?”  Thomas supposed worse things happened in war, but it seemed a bit rough for their last night in England.

“I suppose.”  Peter shrugged.  “It was one of the sergeants who said, but he might have been pulling our legs.” 

“Well, bugger me,” Thomas said.

“If you like,” Peter said, cheekily. 

Later, when they were back in their room above the pub, Peter did. 

Thomas hadn’t done that for a while—not since Philip.  And he hadn’t liked it much, the way that Philip did it, but with Peter it was different; of course it was.  Peter kissed him while he did it, and held him, and called him dearest

Afterwards, Thomas lay with his head on Peter’s chest, they way they had done under the tree in Yorkshire.  This time, they didn’t have to get up and fix their clothes before anyone saw them.  Thomas fell asleep like that, with Peter’s hand slowly rubbing his back.

In the morning, they woke up in each other’s arms, and made love again, and dozed the morning away, waking up just in time for another round. 

“You know they, once we’re over there, the officers look at our letters?”

“Uh-huh,” Thomas said, sleepily.  To censor it; Maud had explained the principle in detail.  “We’ll have to be careful.”

“Yeah,” Peter said, kissing him.  “I mean, there is a way.  I could write how much I miss your delicious lips.”  He interlaced his fingers with Thomas’s.  “Your exquisite hands.”  His free hand slipped under the sheet that covered them.  “Your pert, sculpted bottom.”

“Mm.  What’s that?” Thomas had a feeling he knew.  He hoped they weren’t going to have an argument about it.

“Well, they told us—I mean, they actually said, in so many words—not to worry about it if we wanted to write steamy letters to our sweethearts.  They’re just looking for things like place names, numbers of troops.  They don’t care what else you say.”  He took a deep breath.  “I’d just have to write a girl’s name, at the top.”

Yeah, that was it.  “What name did you have in mind?”

“Theresa.  That way, when I address the envelope, I can write the T-H, and then just a sort of squiggle.”

Thomas tried to imagine opening a letter from Peter and reading “Dear Theresa” at the top.  It would feel like Peter was writing to someone else.  “I’d rather you didn’t,” he said.  “I mean, if you have to, I guess, but…we’re pretty good at saying what we want to say in a way nobody else will notice, right?  I’d rather do it that way.”

“All right,” Peter said.  “It’s just something I thought of.” 

“I mean, if there’s something you really have to say,” Thomas added.  “But not usually.  All right?”

Peter nodded.  “Good idea.  That’s what we’ll do.  And they don’t read our letters coming in, so that part’s no different from how it always is.  If there’s something you have to say, just write it on a separate piece of paper and I’ll not keep it lying around.”  He brought Thomas’s hand up to his lips and kissed it.  “I’ll want to keep your letters, usually.”

 The rest of the day—which had seemed so long and luxurious when Thomas had been thinking about it—sped by.  They took a bus over to the next village, where the camp was, and Peter showed Thomas all of the things he’d mentioned in his letters—including the infamous tent. 

It was, actually, a little better than Thomas had pictured: tall enough to stand up in, with a tin stove at one end, and a wooden floor.  “It has a floor,” he pointed out.

“If it didn’t,” Peter said grimly, “they couldn’t make us polish it every other minute.”

“D’you take the floor with you when you move it?”

“I have no idea,” Peter answered.  “Maybe it comes up in sections?”

There was also the YMCA canteen, where sweets and cigarettes could be bought, and the parade ground, where a new set of recruits who had come in a week or two ago were trying to remember what “port arms” and so forth meant. 

After seeing the camp, they got a picnic tea from a shop, and ate it on the riverbank.  It was a fairly chilly day, for September, but there were a number of other people determinedly trying to enjoy it, having picnics of their own, or poling down the river on the flat boats the toffs called “punts.”  Most of the men were in uniform, and the ones that weren’t looked embarrassed. 

There was also quite a bit of evident confusion over whether or not you were supposed to salute an officer if he was punting past you with his girlfriend, and how long you had to keep doing it if you did, but he didn’t notice. 

All in all, it was something of a relief to get back to “their” pub.  They had a drink in the main bar, then went up to their room, where Peter sucked Thomas off—not one of Thomas’s favorites, but Peter liked doing it. 

“That’s five,” Peter pointed out, once he’d finished.  “I think we’re on-pace for seven or eight.”

After supper and a couple of pints, they managed number six, which was the reverse of what they’d done the night before.  Thomas was even rustier at that side of things, but he tried to do it the way Peter had—tender-like—and it seemed to work out all right.  Afterwards, they cuddled up and shared a cigarette.

Their time together was really almost over now.  Just the night, which they’d spend asleep, and then all the rest of it, they’d be watching the clock.  Thomas wasn’t getting a particularly early train—if he ended up sitting for hours on a siding while troop trains rattled past, and then had to sleep in the yard, so be it—but still, the moment of parting would be looming over them. 

“What,” Thomas asked, as they passed the cigarette between them, “what’s going to happen after the war?  If—I mean, you’ve fixed up everything you can for it goes badly.  But suppose everything goes as it should, and you come home safe and sound.  What do we do then?”  It didn’t seem right, that they would go back to what they had talked about the night after Kew—trying to see each other when they could.  Not after all that had already happened, and all that was to come.  Not when all those other couples they had seen today had something real to look forward to, to hope for. 

“I don’t know, love,” said Peter.  “Maybe—maybe something will be different, somehow.  Maybe we can get that cottage.  Keep house together.”

“Don’t,” said Thomas.  He didn’t want lies.  “What can we really do?”

“All right,” Peter said, and thought for a moment.  “What if we get jobs in the same house?  I’d be a footman again, if I had to.  Or—butler and second man, in a smaller house?  Or maybe I’ll learn to drive, over there, and I can be a chauffeur when I get back.  Chauffeurs get cottages.”

Now that was a real possibility.  “They probably need people to drive ambulances.”

“Yeah,” Peter said.  “I bet they do.”

That was better.  It was something like a plan.  Most of it was out of their hands, whether it could ever come true or not, but it was something to hold on to.  “You’d be good as a chauffeur,” he said, though there was no particular reason he thought so, except that Peter was good in general.  “And I could pop over to your cottage as often as we wanted, now we’re officially brothers.” 

Peter nodded.  “See, the war’s lucky for us in one way, already.  Otherwise, you never get asked to write down on an official piece of paper who your family is.”

Well, there was one time you were.  When you were starting a new one—getting married.  “You ought to be able to,” he said.  “If you don’t have a real one.  You should be able to just say.”  They finished the cigarette, and he reached for a new one.  “Oh, hey, that reminds me.  I accidentally picked up a new sister.”

“How’s that?” Peter asked.

“Well, you know the whole Bates situation, with his wife and how Joey thought he probably beat her?”

Peter nodded.  “But he says he didn’t.”

“Yeah.  And Anna believes him.  So I asked if she had any brothers—you know, in case he needed his arse kicking?  She doesn’t, so I said something about how I guessed I’d have to do it, if he did, and for some reason she thought that meant I saw her as a sister,” Thomas explained. 

Peter laughed, choking a little on cigarette smoke.  “Yeah, I can’t imagine how she made that mistake.”

“Anyway, I couldn’t just tell her she’d got it wrong.  That would be mean.” 

“It would,” Peter agreed, still smiling.  “No, I think that’s good.  It’s not so bad going to France, if I’m not leaving you entirely on your own.”

Thomas hadn’t really thought of it that way.  “Who’s looking out for you, then?” he asked.

“Oh, my chums in the section,” Peter answered.  “Jer and a few others.  I’ll do all right.”

Peter did seem to make friends as easily as Thomas made enemies. 

They fell asleep not long after that, although Thomas didn’t really want to—he wanted to store up every minute of this, of lying next to Peter in the dark, talking and smoking.  Enough of it to last him the whole war. 

They ended up sleeping late the next morning, and so only had time to make love once more.  After that, they took a walk through the town, had a bit of lunch—and then, back to the room to collect their things and make sure they hadn’t left anything the chambermaid would ask questions about. 

Taking one last look around, Thomas felt a sharp pang of loss—like when he’d left home, after his mother died, or when he’d left London for Downton.  For a couple of days, they’d made this place into a sort of home, hadn’t they?  “We should come back here,” he said.  “After the war.”  That was real.  That was something they could just about manage to make happen, as long as Peter wasn’t killed.

“All right,” Peter said.  “It’s a date.”

They kissed one last time, and left. 

The walk to the station was quiet, their arms brushing against one another now and then.  Thomas half-hoped that the train would be delayed—he really didn’t care how late he got back, if it meant he could sit in the station café with Peter. 

But it wasn’t, of course.  The board said it was right on time, and there were plenty of other people already queued up for it. 

He sprang for a second-class ticket—he’d be glad of it, if they did end up sitting on a siding for hours again.  On the platform, Peter embraced him—brothers could do that, just about, if one of them was going off to war—and shook his hand ardently.  “Be all right,” he said.  “Whatever happens, be all right.  Promise.”

“I promise,” Thomas said, and the train whistle blew. 

He got onto the train with seconds to spare, and tumbled into the first compartment he saw, on the platform side of the car, that had an empty place.  The window was already occupied by a young girl in pigtails and school uniform, who was leaning out of it and waving her handkerchief.  Thomas shoved in beside her, and waved too.

When the platform had shrunk into the distance, they pulled themselves back into the compartment.  One of the other occupants—a severe-looking older woman—was looking at them with evident disapproval, but didn’t say anything, so Thomas guessed that she was not in charge of the child.  She also didn’t appear to belong to any of the three businessmen seated opposite.  With a mental shrug, he took the empty seat, between the woman and the girl. 

The girl took out a bag of sweets, and offered him one.  He could just tell that the woman was the sort to say, “Yes, as a matter of fact I do,” if he asked if she minded if he smoked, so he accepted. 

“My brother’s going off to the war,” she informed him, sweet stuffed into one cheek.

“So’s mine,” he said, performing the same maneuver. 

“We have to be very brave.  So that they can be brave too, and not worry about us.”

“You’re right,” said Thomas.  “That’s exactly what we have to do.”

“For as long as it takes,” the girl added. 

“As long as it takes,” he echoed. 

End