Jul. 23rd, 2014

jaimemieux: (To be free)
Combeferre usually liked silences. He appreciated calm, he preferred order - not exclusively, not rabidly, but such was his natural inclination. But here, now, after an evening of silences, he feared he could stand them no longer. Pregnant pauses between empty words at the dinner table, that long stretch of wordless horror when he had made his thoughts known, Sybil’s look in the hall, filled with uncertainty and what Henri feared was regret.

And now this silence at the back of an automobile.

He could not stand it any longer. “Have you worked for the Crowleys for long?” Foolish, foolish small talk. Henri hated himself a bit for it.

Blue eyes met his in the rearview mirror, and the driver arched an eyebrow - with surprise? annoyance? Amusement? His expression was too carefully closed to tell. “I’ve been at Downton for about five years now.”

“Then you know Sybil - pardon, Lady Sybil - well?”

This time, the fellow did not speak for a long second. “As well as a servant can be expected to know his employer’s daughter.”

Henri flushed. Was it his imagination, or did the driver look embarrassed, too? “Yes, of course.” Wearily, he scrubbed a hand through his hair. “I fear I may have done something foolish at dinner.” Le Bon Dieu, why was he still speaking?

Again, the eyes in the mirror had a slightly startled, slightly amused air about them. The driver seemed to consider his options, and against his better judgement asked, “What did you do?”

“Ah.” Henri laughed a little, weakly, almost fearfully. “I may have suggested that if Lord Grantham truly wished to help the war effort, he might ease the crowded hospitals by opening some of his unnecessary rooms to the wounded.”

Combeferre had not know what to expect - disgust, glee, more awkward silence? Perhaps the man would be so offended on his master’s behalf that he would toss him out of the car, forcing Henri to find his way to town in the darkness. Instead, the driver did something quite unexpected: he grinned. “You’re a bold man.”

Combeferre chuckled. “I- I have rarely been called such, I confess.”

“I assume the Dowager Countess did not respond well?”

This time, he almost choked. “No. Not in the least.”

A silence followed, but Combeferre got the distinct impression that some distance between them had been breached - though why, he could not quite say. He was rewarded when finally the man added, “They don’t like change at Downton. It’s the way of their sort, and one can’t blame them for it, I suppose. But…”

“But it makes them difficult?”

“As you say.” The driver smiled.

After another comfortable silence, Combeferre asked. “You are from Ireland, am I correct?”

“I am indeed. And you are French.” He didn’t pause for confirmation. “Do you miss your home?”

Combeferre almost laughed. Which home, he want to ask. Paris, where his friends were, marching bravely to their deaths? His family, farmland, warm Provencal accents? Or Darrow, where he and Sybil were equals, and need not hide their love, and family could never come between them? “More than I can say. Do you?”

“Infinately.” A beat. “But I have found those things that keep me here, even as my country fights for freedom. As you have as well, I presume.”

Combeferre didn’t have time to ask what the man meant, for soon the car had stopped in front of the town’s single small inn. “I believe this is where you are staying, sir?”

He flushed again. “Please, call me Combeferre.”

“Branson.” The man hesitated again, and Combeferre thought he saw some deep struggle dance across his eyes. “It is possible to keep your head down in a place like this, and still do good. Nothing comes easy in the countryside, with so many people set in their ways. But take a bit of care, and you can make your own way here. Live by your conscience.” He paused, turning back around in the cab. “Good luck.”

Henri exhaled a breath. “And you. Thank you.” As he left the car, he found himself equal parts comforted and unsettled. But as he watched the car drive away - back to Downton, back to Sybil - he found himself hopeful that he had found an alley in this strange and confusing place.

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Henri Combeferre

March 2017

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