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The Mysterious Affair At The Breakfast Table

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Phyllis Baxter has three problems with Christmas – and she herself has only caused one of them. This is simply that she has far too much to do, leading up to it, but then again they all do really. There’s a necklace to send for fixing, a dress to remove a stain from for Christmas morning, sewing to be done…

To add to it, Thomas has been acting strange. Not the bad kind of strange, she doesn’t think – when that’s the case he goes sullen, quiet, slinks past everyone like a cat in the hopes that they’ll pay him no mind and just leave him alone. Or on the other end of the scale he’s too forward – offers to help with everything, seems to be everywhere, in a desperate attempt to connect over something, be useful to someone. She knows how to handle either of those things, by now, but this time is completely different.

Thomas seems – chipper, almost. Cheery. There’s a sort of bounce to him – more so than usual, what with the sort of wiggle he does when he’s pleased with himself. She’s quite sure she’s caught him humming to himself, once or twice – he’s even used a couple of fanciful-sounding metaphors he wouldn’t usually use for himself. It takes her a while to piece together what on earth has been going on with him – and the delay is mostly due to the third problem with Christmas.

She’s been getting little gifts throughout the month, left at her place at the table before breakfast.

It’s been an eclectic little mix of things really – a new pen. A souvenir thimble with Scunthorpe on it. A paper bag of mint humbugs. She never sleeps well, always one of the first down, so nobody else has really noticed it yet. A part of her has dared to hope they might be from – but no. It couldn’t be. Mr Molesley isn’t in often enough to be leaving them every day, surely, or so early. Which leaves the problem of who else it could be.

She has half a mind to ask Thomas – if he doesn’t know he can surely find out. But he looks half off in a daydream, some of the time – gazing into the middle distance when sat in the servants’ hall with his cheek propped against his knuckles, pen scritch-scratching idly at the crossword, or fiddling with something small and shiny that he always puts away if people get too near. The mystery goes on.

She sees Mr Molesley, on Sunday, when he isn’t busy at the schoolhouse. She has half a mind to talk to him about the mysterious gifts – she often feels she can talk to him about anything, really, and he won’t think it silly – but something stops her. It’s quite exciting when it all stays mysterious, really – like something in the novels she reads with her cup of tea when she has the time. She’s been interested in Agatha Christie lately and it seems the same kind of thing – although these are mysterious appearances, she supposes, rather than disappearances.

(‘You won’t like that,’ Thomas had said, plucking Poirot Investigates away before she can realise what he’s up to with a neat gesture, a subtle, smooth sweep of a thing befitting of a footman, a valet, a butler. Perhaps for the best – she’d just reached The Jewel Robbery At The Grand Metropolitan.

‘Oh, don’t. Anna lent it to me.’ She craned around in her chair.

‘She doesn’t know your tastes, then…’ He quirked an eyebrow, head cocked slightly to the left, that sure little tuck at the corner of his mouth that he’d always had when knowing he was right about something. As if, once again, by magic – she’d never seen a magician pull a rabbit or dove out of a hat but it had the same clean line to it – he produced a different novel from behind his back. ‘Here. This one’s more your size.’

She looked the cover over. ‘The Secret Adversary.’

He nodded, speaking around the end of his cigarette now. ‘All sorts going on in that one. Bit of a better one, I think.’

She squinted at the cigarette, and then the box in his hand. ‘You’ve changed your cigarettes.’

‘Have I? I don’t think so.’

She furrowed her brow fondly. ‘If you say so. Just make sure Anna gets hers back.’

He nodded, mock-dutifully. ‘Can do, Captain.’

She swatted at his arm as he turned to leave not unlike the kitchen cat, who would wander in for attention only to act as though it had been looking for something entirely unrelated in the same room. Once he’d gone she opened up the book, thinking she had long enough that she might as well start this one now, and found an inscription pencilled in.

‘Dear Thomas, I’d add a proper dedication to this but I think this one’s already been written for us. Yours, R.’

Below it was the book’s printed dedication. ‘To all those who lead monotonous lives in the hope that they experience at second hand the delights and dangers of adventure.’)

That’s her, really, she supposes – going about the day to day, only really willing to experience excitement from a safe distance. It looks like, finally, she does have a mystery all her own – just a considerably smaller one than a dead man found in the parlour, or a stolen painting. She’s quite happy to keep things that way, honestly. Thinking of it like that makes her want to tell Mr Molesley all the more – they’ve talked about the same books many a time and his enthusiasm for them is encouraging, refreshing. She wants to let him in on the mystery, and vows that she’ll give it a week more and then, if it’s gone unsolved, tell him everything.

The next day brings a smooth glass bauble in a deep green colour, carefully nestled in a sheet of tissue paper at the table. The one after brings a smart little pincushion. They’re not only mysterious trinkets – they’re things she likes. This person knows her. She wonders, again, if Mr Molesley knows anything much about it. He must do – nobody else listens so well, or knows her so well, except perhaps…

Thomas.

She knows that his air of distraction lately has not been a tactic to put her off the scent – it’s too uncharacteristic for him to be doing it in any way consciously. But perhaps in between being away with the fairies he’s managed to keep his wits about him enough to have been collaborating, in some way.

Is that linked to the different smoking habits, the dreaminess, the humming, even? She isn’t sure. She goes to his pantry to try and find out, but he’s on the phone, she can hear through the door. Although some of the detectives in the books might stoop to eavesdropping and underhandedness in the name of a greater cause, this one doesn’t have stakes so high as that, and she won’t break his trust over trinkets.

As she’s walking away, though, she does hear a chuckle through the door.

‘Curiouser and curiouser,’ she mouths to herself. It might as well be her motto, for the things that go on in this house.

**

The second-to-last gift is a note. This one is unmistakeably in Mr Molesley’s hand – she knows his writing well enough by now. It asks her to meet him at the start of the path leading to the lake, in the evening of the next day. She means to tell Thomas, beforehand – he’s been her confidant for these things for a while now, and she wants to know if he’s seen Mr Molesley coming and going when these trinkets have been left. However, he disappears for part of the afternoon, on ‘errands’ – at least, that’s what he’s told Mrs Hughes. When he comes back he seems a little shifty, and only says that he’s ‘been to the post office’. If she had less to think about herself she might interrogate him a little more, but she’s busy with her own things and besides that trusts him not to be up to something too dastardly.

The day is spent wondering what’ll happen tomorrow, and she barely feels like sleeping – she’s slow to become excited about things these days, likes to wait and make sure they’re not too good to be true, but in this case she’s too busy enjoying herself.

The next morning three things happen –  she comes down late, going from unable to sleep to falling asleep too deeply in the early morning, Thomas is entirely absent, and there is no gift at the table. Everyone else seems confused by her surprise when she looks at her place setting – she’s successfully been keeping them out of sight by the time anyone else comes in. The head of the table seems too quiet without Thomas, and Mrs Hughes tells her he’s gone to York for some of Christmas day and should be back for the family’s evening festivities.

She nods, fighting back a twinge of concern – as strange as he’s been acting the change has seemed a positive one. Some time is whiled away exchanging presents with the others – Anna, in particular, has got her some more mystery novels now that she’s picked up on what Phyllis likes. As ungrateful as it feels, though, none of it is as exciting as the mystery had been.

The going is slow to get to the path – for once it has snowed properly right before Christmas, as it only seems to when it isn’t entirely convenient, and she has to wear her thicker winter coat. Mr Molesley stands there waiting, fumbling awkwardly with his hands.

‘Sorry about the snow, I hadn’t realised it’d get so – it seems worse up here than the village.’

She laughs softly, shakes her head. ‘It’s alright, I got here just fine.’

‘Didn’t Mr Barrow walk you? He does sometimes, doesn’t he?’

‘He’s out himself, today. Funny how it coincided with my empty table space.’ She tilts her head at him questioningly.

Mr Molesley looks sheepish. ‘Ah. You figured out my go-between system, then.’

‘Well, I knew you couldn’t have found the time to come up so early before classes every day.’

He shakes his head. ‘Or perhaps you’ve learnt too much from those mystery books.’

She smiles. ‘Maybe. I didn’t manage to figure out what tonight was about, though.’

‘Ah, so I have still got the element of surprise.’ His face is animated as he takes her arm and they stroll towards the lake. She giggles and is not as surprised with herself for it as she expected to be.

The gift, it turns out, is a ring.

They skate on the lake first, dark and frozen and glassy as it is, and neither of them are very good at it. She catches him when he falls more than the other way around. When they’ve struggled back to land, he pulls out a handkerchief as if to mop his brow – and there is a ring knotted to it.

‘I really ought to be on one knee,’ he says, ‘but I’m rather sure I’d fall over again.’

She laughs, high-pitched with shock. ‘Or else not be able to get back up.’

‘Cheek,’ he says, but he’s grinning. His eyes have gone all twinkly.

(It’s her turn to give him a Christmas present -  a yes. And then a second – a near-shouted yes. And then a third – a kiss on the cheek – and a fourth – a kiss on the lips. He’s left her a lot of Christmas presents in the last month after all.)

**

Thomas takes one look at her as she comes in the door, flushed and unable to stop smiling and with the ring on her finger, and immediately says ‘s’pose my job as courier is over, then,’ in that false-grumbly tone of his.

She swats lightly at his arm again. ‘Oh, stop it, you. You know you don’t mean it.’ He shrugs airily. ‘I bet you enjoyed all the sneaking around before breakfast time. It keeps you young.’

He raises a brow. ‘You’re older than me.’

‘What, too old to be sneaking out? I didn’t miss that you’ve been up to something of your own.’

He looks caught out. ‘Don’t know what you’re talking about, Miss Baxter.’

She nudges him playfully. ‘I don’t think I’m the only one lucky in love.’

He opens his mouth in denial, before seeming to give up. ‘You noticed then.’

‘You were humming.’

‘I don’t hum.’

‘Well you were. A right soppy song it was, too.’

He sighs.

‘And the book inscription.’

‘…he sent it to me last month in the post.’

And you changed your cigarettes.’

He looks particularly sheepish at this one. ‘John Player and Sons do cigarette cards. He collects the wildfowl ones.’

She rolls her eyes. ‘You’ve gone as soft as I have.’

‘Maybe more. Don’t see me teasing you.’

‘You will soon enough. I’m impressed, really – didn’t think you two would manage to get along enough to keep up the charade.’

He shrugs. ‘Well, it was for a special occasion.’

‘Well, you helped make it that way. Thank you.’ She kisses him on the cheek, out of view of the hall so he won’t get too embarrassed.

He goes a bit pink anyway. ‘You’re very welcome. Shouldn’t have lent you those detective novels, with how quickly you figured us out.’

(She does not mention that he’d been coming back from York at the same time they’d been coming back from the lake. She does not mention seeing him in Mr Ellis’ embrace, being kissed behind a tree, and taking the long way home so as not to disturb them. She does not mention that Mr Molesley had said ‘that’s mighty fine, that. We haven’t always seen eye to eye, me and Mr Barrow, but I can be pleased for him all the same,’ and she had loved him all the more for it. It’s nicer to think Thomas is impressed by her powers of deduction.)

‘You really like him, don’t you?’

He shrugs. ‘It’s his eyes. They go all…’

‘Twinkly?’

‘Yeah.’ He looks at her and his shoulders slump, corner of his mouth a wry smile. ‘We’re as bad as each other, eh?’

‘I’d say so.’