Home > The Secret Service of Tea and Treason

The Secret Service of Tea and Treason
Author: India Holton



   extreme expectations—miss dearlove attempts an opinion— not an explosion—a HOLDUP—bixby to the rescue— a professional disagreement—mess


It was the best of dress shops, it was the worst of dress shops. It sold the most beautiful garments, it sold the ugliest scraps, and Miss Primula Tewkes fell in love and despair as she walked amongst its displays. Her maid, Alice Dearlove, followed like a shadow, black-garbed and silent, arms full of hatboxes. Primula declared herself to be in Heaven, but Alice privately wished the lady would go direct the other way.

   “I cannot attend Lady Hessop’s soiree in anything but the most exquisite ensemble,” Primula averred. “The most exquisite!”

   “Yes miss,” Alice said.

   “You wouldn’t want me to be ridiculed for wearing something outmoded, would you, Dearlove? Would you? Well?”

   The lady’s eyes widened. Alice guessed from this that alarm was required at the prospect of the Honorable Miss Tewkes drinking mimosas and making nice conversation while garbed in anything less than a fashion masterpiece. Unfortunately, she felt such little alarm that she did not even blink as she looked at her mistress from behind the load of hatboxes. Her own eyes, dark, cool, remained their normal size. Her countenance was so deadpan it ought to have been given the Last Rites.

   “No miss,” she said, glancing at the glass-paneled door, which offered the only escape from the shop.

   “You are tedious, Dearlove. Tedious! Surely even a lady’s maid has enough imagination to appreciate my dire circumstance?!”

   Alice hesitated, unsure which of yes miss and no miss was required here. No would have been accurate, for although she possessed a sterling imagination for such things as secret libraries, lost libraries, and indeed any type of library possible, she could not imagine what was so dire about not being able to choose a dress.

   On the other hand, yes was also accurate, for even Alice felt obliged to describe herself as tedious. For example, at this very moment all she wanted was to put down the hatboxes, take off her shoes, and lose herself in a really good dictionary.

   “Yes miss?” she hazarded.

   Primula huffed, turning to flip her hand through a rack of frothing pastel dresses. “I am wasting my time here! Wasting it! I don’t know why you even suggested this boutique. We should have gone to Harrods.”

   “Yes miss,” Alice said, blowing a loose strand of fine brown hair from her face. The hatboxes swayed and she swayed with them, only just managing to keep them balanced. She glanced at a clock on the wall, then again at the door, before turning back to Primula. “Perhaps that purple lace dress would—”

   A delicate chime interrupted her as someone entered the shop. Looking around at once, Alice saw only a servant, his expression bored as he held the door ajar despite carrying half a dozen bags. He appeared nondescript—brown-haired, clean-shaven, wearing spectacles and the general masculine uniform of dark suit and bowler hat. Nevertheless, Alice’s heart fluttered inexplicably. Realizing she was staring at him, she began to turn away, but just then he glanced over and their eyes happened to meet. Alice’s face remained impassive; her heart, however, went from fluttering to perfect stillness in, well, a heartbeat.

   Nonsense, she thought. If her cardiac organ had stopped, she would not be standing, nor breathing (to be fair, she did not currently seem to be breathing, but that was beside the point), nor indeed blushing like a schoolgirl just because a handsome man looked in her direction. Alice felt unclear exactly how he had transformed from nondescript to handsome within the space of seconds, but no doubt an encyclopedia could explain it. She’d visit the library this evening and—

   Suddenly masses of frothing pink and yellow swamped her vision. Alice blinked frantically. Either the patisserie across the street had exploded or a fashionable woman was walking in through the doorway.

   “Really, Bixby? This is what you consider a suitable dress shop? We should have just gone to Harrods.”

   “Yes miss,” the man replied without inflection.

   Alice’s vision recovered enough from its shock to recognize the Honorable Miss Dahlia Weekle, Primula’s exact social equal and therefore most bitter rival. At that moment, a cake explosion would have been more welcome.

   “You were right, miss,” she murmured to Primula, nudging her eastward as Miss Weekle veered west toward a glove display. “We should indeed leave this very moment.”

   “Steady on, Dearlove. I am not a sheep to be herded. Why the hurry?”

   “Primula! Darling!”

   Alice winced.

   “Dahlia!” Primula’s dismay was so fleeting, Alice barely saw it. “How unexpected to meet you here! So unexpected!”

   The ladies gripped each others’ shoulders and kissed the air, their lips making a sound like rapiers tapping at the start of a duel.

   “That color is remarkable on you, dear,” Dahlia said.

   “Such a unique hat!” Primula countered.

   The door chimed once more. Alice caught Primula’s arm, the hatboxes swaying perilously, and attempted to tug her away. But it was too late.

   Two men burst into the shop, brandishing pistols. “This is a robbery!” one shouted.

   Primula and Dahlia squealed. The shopkeeper squealed. Alice sighed.

   “Hands in the air!”

   Immediately the ladies obeyed. Alice, pleased for an excuse to set down the hatboxes, placed them on a small table then raised her own hands. Hopefully this business would be over soon and she could go home for a cup of tea and a biscuit.

   “You!” The thief turned to Dahlia’s manservant. “Hands up!”

   “Do as he says, Bixby!” Dahlia wailed.

   Bixby carefully lowered the carry bags. But instead of raising his arms, he folded them together across his chest. “This is highly inconvenient,” he said in a reproving tone. “Miss Weekle has an appointment with her hairdresser in fifteen minutes’ time and it cannot be postponed. Kindly find another store to burgle.”

   The thieves glanced at each other and laughed.

   “Just shoot him, Merv,” one said. “Make sure he never needs no hairdresser again.”

   “A hairdresser,” Bixby corrected.

   Silence slammed down upon the scene, broken only by a sharp click as Merv cocked his pistol.

   Alice frowned. Clearly matters were about to become even more time-consuming. “For heaven’s sake,” she began—

   But it was no use. Without further discussion, Merv shot Bixby.

   A loud twang followed, and across the shop a gilt-framed mirror shattered under the impact of Merv’s bullet. Blinking confusedly, Alice realized that Bixby had removed his bowler hat at remarkable speed and utilized it as an apparently bulletproof shield. The resultant ricochet had cast seven years’ bad luck upon the shop but saved the manservant’s life.

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