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Roses In Winter

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Joseph peered through the window of the milliner’s shop and tried to gauge the weather. It didn’t look like he’d need his umbrella, although these days that normally just meant it was freezing. At least it was well past noon, so fog and frost weren’t much of a worry. With a sigh, he opened the door to the milliner’s and hurried out, hoping to make it home before his nose froze off. In his hurry, he nearly ran into Daisy, who was headed into the store.

“Oh!” they proclaimed in unison, then broke out laughing at their mutual surprise. “Good day to you, Mr. Molesley,” she said when she managed to stop laughing.

“Good day, Daisy,” Joseph returned the greeting. “What are you doing here?”

“Nothing much. Only me good hat for Sundays got blown into one of the pig pens earlier in the month. I tried to salvage it, but,” she grimaced. Joseph winced. He could well imagine what pig slop, and other things, could do to felt. “So I’ve had to buy another. The good news is that I’d had a bit put by, to buy myself a bit of something nice. I’d just planned on buying a book, not a hat.”

“Well that’s a shame.” He was glad to hear that she was keeping up with her studies, even after passing her exams. “If there’s ever anything of mine you want to borrow, I’d be more than happy to lend it to you. There are even a few more modern texts that I’ve been gifted multiple copies of. I might give you one of those to keep.”

Her face brightened. “Would you?”


“Thank you, Mr. Molesley! That’s incredibly generous.” She glanced at the millinery shop, then gave him a sly look. “Bet I can guess what you’re doing here.”

“Er.” While it wasn’t beyond imagining that Downton’s undercook had heard the thrilling tale of Jenny Green punching David Miller’s front teeth out, he couldn’t imagine why his coming to talk to the little girl’s mother about it should earn that sort of a look. “What?”

“Looking for a birthday present for Miss Baxter?” she guessed, all smiles.

Joseph felt like she’d clubbed him with a cricket bat. “Oh goodness. Is it her birthday? Only she’s never said.” He suddenly felt a fool, not knowing the birthday of the woman he’d secretly…and not so secretly…fancied for years.

Daisy looked puzzled at that. “She didn’t? I’d have thought she would. Anyway, since you didn’t already know, it’s February nineteenth. I know ‘cause I heard her talking to Anna about it while they were doing the mending.”

“Did she happen to mention what she’d like?” Joseph asked, hardly daring to hope it might be something he had easy access to. She didn’t seem like the sort to wish for diamonds, but you could never tell, and if she did…well. A teacher’s salary wasn’t going to buy that!

Unfortunately Daisy just shook her head. “Not anything like that, I’m afraid. She was sorry that her birthday was in winter, because it means there are never any roses blooming. She loves roses.”

“Yes, she has mentioned that,” Joseph muttered, his mind racing. There were flower shops, of course, where you could buy flowers from small conservatories, but there weren’t any in Downton, or Thirsk for that matter. There was a shop recently opened in Ripon, he knew, but he’d not been there and didn’t know what they had on offer. He reviewed his schedule and concluded he didn’t have time to make it in to York before the nineteenth, at least not while the shops were open. There had to be some way… “Ah well,” he smiled. “At least now I know. I’m sure I can come up with something, and since she hasn’t told me herself, it will be even more of a surprise!” He blinked, suddenly realizing he’d basically sworn Daisy to secrecy, will she or no. “Er, that is, if you don’t mind keeping it between us?”

She laughed at him. “Of course I will. And I’ll be sure to let you know, if I hear anything more.”

Good friends, Joseph thought, were worth more than any treasure of gold or jewels. “Thank you, Daisy,” he smiled, touching his hat in parting. “Good day to you.”

“And remember, we’ll have a test on Henry the third on Monday,” Joseph reminded his students as they rushed for the door as fast as they could without earning a scolding. He was always amazed at how well they could rush in a neat and orderly manner. He certainly couldn’t remember doing that, at their age, but then again, he was always the sort to stay behind and help clean the chalkboard while peppering the teacher with additional questions. While his students were all diligent in their studies (with one or two exceptions), no one stayed behind in his class, so he was left to clean his own chalkboard. Of course, the temperature had dropped precipitously a couple of days before, so cleaning up gave him a good excuse to stay inside and given that he didn’t have a Mum at home, waiting with a nice cup of something warm, he made the most of it. Eventually, though, the board was cleaned and all of the desks straightened, their chairs tucked neatly in. He’d even swept, so there was nothing for it, but to pull his cap down around his ears and his coat up around his face and brave the cold.

In autumn, he’d have taken his time with the short walk back to his cottage, unless it was raining. He’d have found the breeze to be invigorating, even if it did threaten to give him frost bite, and would have enjoyed the steady crunch of his feet on the fallen leaves. In late winter, though, the glamour had worn off. The wind cut through his clothes to his bones, and the dead leaves that hadn’t been ground to pulp by now simply looked, well, dead. There was nothing to see except the skeletons of trees and people hurrying along to somewhere else as fast as possible and something strange and white fluttering on the bramble wall along the forest edge.

Joseph pulled up short, frowning, and looked again. There were actually two or three things, thin and white, almost like rags, caught on the thorns. Curiosity outweighing the cold, he walked over and discovered they were paper. Gingerly, he freed one from its prison and examined the printing on it. He found himself reading a conversation between two women and a man on a hill over looking Bath. There was something about something ‘uncommonly dreadful’ which ‘must involve a murder’ to come out of London, and -

“Now, really,” he huffed, reaching for the next piece of paper. “I know some people object to novels, but that’s no need to destroy one!” The cold completely forgotten in the face of indignation, he set about trying to find as many pieces of the poor volume as he could. The next three were quite easy, and revealed the ‘uncommonly dreadful’ thing to be an upcoming work of fiction. By stretching up, he found about five caught in the top of the hedge. About a dozen more were in easily accessible places further down. He finally found the cover a good ten feet from the first page, or half of the cover at any rate. It was not in good shape, with an ink stain spreading over half of it, completely obscuring the title. He bundled the pages together, speculating as he did so, and finally decided the book must have been damaged beyond repair and tossed in a rubbish heap somewhere. An animal or small child could easily have picked it up and used it as a toy, explaining how it had wound up here.

It was the only thing that made sense.

Still, it was a pity. Not that he had anything to do with a book that badly damaged, of course, but paper was paper. If nothing else, a small child could be allowed to practice drawing on it or learn how to make paper decorations, like the paper chains found at fairs or…

He stared at the pages in his hands.

It couldn’t. It couldn’t be that easy.

Could it?

Hardly daring to breathe, he adjusted his course through the gathering dark. Mr. Mason would be the only one at Yew Tree this time of day, of course, but he could take a message. Joseph just hoped Daisy hadn’t taken her half day yet that week, and that she’d be willing to help him.

The sun shone, high and bright in the winter sky, as if the weather had remembered that spring was only a month away. It was still cold enough that Joseph was glad for his good, winter coat, but he felt comfortable stepping out without his umbrella, and his spirit felt light. Well, alright, if he was honest his spirit felt like a swarm of nervous butterflies, but the sensation wasn’t entirely unpleasant. School was out for the day, so he had no commitments. If Miss Baxter wasn’t available when he reached the abbey, he could wait. It wasn’t as if anyone would shoo him out.

(Well, alright, Mr. Barrow might give him looks if he took up space in the servant’s hall, but he wouldn’t say anything as long as he was out of the way, he was sure. And Mrs. Hughes might ask why he was there, but she’d be reasonable with his answer. And Mrs. Patmore….maybe he’d best hope that Mrs. Patmore was busy making dinner.)

He’d been able to talk to Daisy briefly the previous day and show her the fruits of his labor. Her response had been promising, and she was going to try and convince Miss Baxter to do something in the servant’s hall that afternoon, so with luck he wouldn’t have to take up space and risk the wrath of any senior staff. The closer he got to the abbey, the more active the butterflies got until he reached the door and had to stop and steel his nerves, as if he hadn’t walked into the building a million times in the past.

He looked down at the bouquet in his hands and imagined Lady Grantham’s maid, with her large, dark eyes and soft smiles. No, no he had to. If nothing else, Daisy had put too much effort into helping him for him to get cold feet. With a deep breath, he opened the door and walked inside.

Just his luck, the first person he ran into was Mrs. Hughes. “Mr. Molesley,” she smiled at him, clearly surprised. “We weren’t expecting you.”

“Just stopping in for a brief moment, Mrs. Hughes,” he assured her. He glanced down once more at the bouquet and asked, fighting to keep his voice calm, “Is Miss Baxter about?”

Mrs. Hughes looked from him to the present and back, her eyebrows arched, but her smile kind and knowing. “I believe she’s in the servant’s hall doing some mending. Would you like me to fetch her for you?”

Joseph opened his mouth to say no, he’d go in, but then he hesitated and closed it again. He’d planned on going into the servant’s hall, of course, but there was more privacy near the entrance, if only just, and since the housekeeper had offered… “Actually, that would be very kind of you. Thank you.”

“I’ll be right back.” With a parting smile, Mrs. Hughes turned and walked into the servant’s hall.

Before too long Miss Baxter emerged, her expression curious as she stepped into the hall way, then changing to one of those smiles of hers. “Good day, Mr. Molesley,” she greeted, walking up to him with calm familiarity. “What can I do for you?”

“Oh, nothing, really,” Joseph assured her, trying not to fumble over the words. He’d tried to plan out a speech of some sort on his walk up, but he’d not gotten very far and what he had managed was gone from his head. “Only I wanted to come and wish you a happy birthday, and to give you a small token of my esteem.” With a smile that was only a little bit forced, he held out the bouquet.

Her eyes went wide, the smile vanishing briefly in an ‘o’ of surprise, only to return brighter than before. “They’re lovely,” she murmured, taking the bouquet from his hands. “Are they made from a book?”

“Yes,” he replied, then quickly added, “Not a whole book, mind. I found the pages from a ruined volume the other day and since Daisy had just been telling me you wished you could have roses for your birthday, I thought perhaps they could serve a higher purpose.” It had taken him days to get them done. Daisy had come over from Yew Tree farm after hours to show him how to make them, curling the destroyed pages into petals and wrapping them with wire stems until he had a dozen paper roses.

Miss Baxter laughed, then pressed her free hand to her smile, her eyes shining with something that was not quite tears. “Thank you. That’s the sweetest present anyone’s ever given me.”

Joseph decided it would have been worth it to sacrifice a book for that smile. He was glad he hadn’t had to, but it would have been worth it.