And, at last, she heard him, for she came to an abrupt halt upon the hill and turned. She stared at Phineas, eyes wide and surprised, as though it were he and not she whose behaviour might be considered bizarre. He broke off, for though her gaze had met his for a mesmerising instant, and held, she had not spoken so much as a syllable in reply. She had turned her back on him again, and taken a step, and… she was gone, just like that, as though she, too, had stepped through a door. Phineas approached with caution, step by step, until he stood in the very spot the lady had occupied moments before.
There was no sign of her, and no apparent means of exit; the icy slope rose behind him and fell away ahead, empty. Naught remained of her save a set of small, narrow footprints in the snow… and something else. There came a glitter near his right boot, and a blush of soft colour.
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Phineas stooped, and found a rose. It was in full bloom, somehow, defying winter with the same insouciance as its mistress. Its petals were lavenderish, though so thickly crusted with frost that little of the hue still showed. It was only after Phineas had made his belated delivery to the Trents, and retraced his steps home, that he discovered just how unusual the rose was. For, when left safely upon the windowsill in his own small room — a chamber by no means warm, but much milder in temperature than the freezing winter outside — it lost none of its coating of frost.
It glittered on, white and crystalline; and when, wondering, he picked it up again, a faint, sweet fragrance teased his senses. But this surmise he discarded, for when he touched the tip of his tongue to one delicate petal, the frost was icily cold, and the flavour that filled his mouth was not sugar at all.
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He set the rose carefully down and stood a moment in thought, as though a prolonged scrutiny of the mysterious flower might persuade it to surrender its secrets. An Aylir out of Aylfenhame! Despite the delay, Phineas returned in time to save the batch of loaves he had left in the oven. They were a fraction browner on the top than was typically considered ideal, but they were not burned.
They would do. He was mixing up a great bowl of fruit and meat for more pies when his father emerged, at last, from slumber. Phineas was adding spices, his favourite part of the process, for the aromas of nutmeg and cloves and mace filled the room, exotic and warming, and he had already the smells of citrus peel and apples and brandy to enjoy…. If you knew the price of nutmeg, perhaps you would not waste it.
Phineas knew better than to hazard any answer, much less a defence of his conduct. He waited in silence, eyes lowered, as his father made a perfunctory effort to neaten his sleep-disordered hair, straightened his shirt and apron, and went forward to open the shop. Once the kitchen was empty again save only for himself, Phineas quietly stored away the spices and went to work on the pastry.
Samuel Drake had a reputation for a certain glib charm; it was one reason why their little shop had never yet failed.
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The forceful accents of Mrs. Batts followed; as always, Phineas heard every word.
Batts, and a good white loaf — just taken out of the oven with my own hands! Thank you, Mr. Drake from the shop. Phineas did not suppose that he had been promoted to the shop floor on Mrs. More likely, his father had gone after news of the pastry-shop. Was it too much to hope that the report might be mere gossip alone, to be relied upon with as much confidence as the majority of Mrs. Alas, no. A whisker of fear uncurled within, and Phineas shuddered. The Drake family bakery had withstood troubles enough; what would such daunting competition do to their business now?
here Phineas tidied his own hair, donned a cleaner apron, and dusted the flour from his shirt. He tried his best to put the matter out of his mind, for the calls from the shop-floor indicated that he was in for a busy morning. The morning wore away, and the light faded, until by the stroke of four it was dark once again. Phineas lit the lamps in the shop, and turned them low; his father said this made for a cosy, welcoming atmosphere, or at least that was what he said to the customers. But Phineas knew that it had more to do with the price of oil. He was not obliged to remain in the shop all the day through, for those who went out to buy plum-cakes at the dawn of the day went home to enjoy them in the afternoon.
He spent the quieter hours in the back, turning out pies; and, when he grew wearied of that, tending to the little frosted rose. He had brought it into the kitchens with him early in the day, for he loved to look upon it, and it seemed wrong to him to leave so rare and lovely a thing alone and unappreciated upstairs. But it had begun to alter as the hours slipped by. The blush of lavender dimmed, and the glitter faded from its petals.
He thought, fancifully, that perhaps it hated the dull glow and reeking stench of tallow-light as much as he did, but when he carried it into the shop it remained as it was; the purer, cleaner light of the oil-lamps could not restore its lustre.
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It ought to be revived, he thought. He had no means of restoring that odd layer of chill frost, at least not by any lasting method. He did have sugar, however. Phineas remembered, then, another such day at the end of autumn, when his father had been gone from the bakery for three days together. There the little bags had lain ever since, mere cloth scraps tied tightly with string. The shop was empty and the street was quiet; Phineas hastened down into the cellar.
The colour had bled a little through the cloth, and the passage of a few weeks had inevitably faded the tints; his vibrant red had become an insipid pink, and his delicate purple a dull, washed-out grey; the latter he instantly threw away. But the blue, though dimmed, retained brilliance enough to please and he seized it, filled with a happy purpose, and returned to the kitchen. He did not seek to dip every inch of the rose in the sugar, for he had not enough to coat it all over.
The tips only he treated, and when he had finished he carried the rose forward once more to admire it in the lamplight. He was pleased with the effect, for the mix of glittering-blue and dusty lavender now appeared elegant rather than lifeless; perhaps even a little magical, once again. He wondered whether his father would notice the flower upon his eventual return, and half-hoped, half-feared that he might. But when Samuel at last came home, it was after dark upon the following day, and very late; the shop was closed, and all the lamps were out.
He did not greet Phineas, but went in heavy silence into his own bedchamber whereupon he slammed the door, his passage leaving the tiny landing reeking, fleetingly, of stale alcohol. Phineas did not dare ask after the news; not then, and not the following morning when his father awoke, and lumbered down into the kitchen. Samuel barely spoke to his son at all, and took no note of his busy labours; his thoughts were elsewhere, and unpleasant they were, judging from the heavy frown which darkened his brow.
The eve before Christmas dawned, and still the rose lay untouched upon its chilly windowsill. An intriguing puzzle, but Phineas had little time to think of it — or of the lady who had dropped it — for his father had driven him through a host of tasks with unusual urgency. He spent a whole afternoon cutting sprigs of holly and ivy, branches of laurel and hawthorn, and delicate boughs of evergreen; these he dispersed artfully about the bakery-shop until it looked properly festive.
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It took him another two hours in the freezing wind to find a sprig of mistletoe with which to fashion a kissing-bough, and by the time all these preparations were complete he was blue with cold. He had still, then, to stack the windows with sugared cakes — which, unusually, his father had permitted him to decorate as intricately as he chose; to set the wassail-bowl in pride-of-place, with bowls of apples to float in the punch come Christmas Day; to wrap plum-puddings in cloth, and prepare the great basins of water to cook them in.
Samuel Drake surveyed all this with a critical eye late in the evening, and by the light of the flickering lamps. Phineas expected some comment upon his profligacy, as might be usual.
Phineas looked at everything he had done, and wondered. The room bristled with festive greenery; it was packed with sumptuous food, with decorations, with gaieties implied; it had not looked so delightful in years.
There had been both money and merriment, more than enough of both to fit the demands of the season. He merely went into the spice-jars, and took precious nutmegs and cinnamon sticks to add to the array — carefully, leaving them intact, so that they might later be reclaimed for use. He fetched his old, red shirt, the cloth worn but sound, that he had intended to wear through the days of Christmas, and cut it up for ribbons.
Only, there were not enough of them.