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Chapter I

In which our hero discovers the emotional perils of curdled cream

cream

Algernon Blake had little patience for mistakes, and less still for avoidable ones. While on his way to North Devonshire, where he had been called to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one Edward Harvey Locksley, he couldn’t help but think about a particularly egregious slip made that morning by his longtime maid and unacknowledged only friend, Ms. Elizabeth Butler.

Algernon had been reading the newspaper when Ms. Butler arrived with a breakfast tray. She set the spread before him—humming softly, as was her custom—and poured a steaming cup of earl gray tea, as was his favorite. Two lumps of sugar followed, then a measured spoonful of cream. Perhaps it was the nasal-clogging heat of the tea, or the particular brightness of the room, but neither Algernon nor Ms. Butler noticed the unsettling odor and peculiar shade of the cream until the drink was forcefully expelled from Algernon’s lips across the table, newspaper, and Ms. Butler’s otherwise pristine apron. They stared at each other in horror—Ms. Butler realizing why the cat had dismissed his morning saucer, and Algernon angered at having lost his composure, even in the presence of his longtime maid and unacknowledged only friend.

Ms. Butler instantly fell upon the mess, wiping the table with her apron, blotting the paper, and avoiding eye contact with her employer. You see, Elizabeth Butler and Algernon Blake were in love, though neither party was, at that time, aware of the condition. They had long before grown accustomed to the feeling, the way one grows accustomed to the ringing of church bells or the texture of roast chicken, and would remain unrequited in their secret devotion until the incident in North Devonshire was resolved, and Earl Locksley—for he was, in fact, born to an aristocratic family—apprehended for the events that preceded his mysterious disappearance.

Algernon and Ms. Butler’s unspoken feelings had long been tempered by a rigid daily routine that excluded any opportunity for emotional arousal—least of all that greatest of aphrodisiacs, anger. But in her careless haste to bring Algernon his morning tea, Ms. Butler broke the serenity of that tacit denial, and their relationship would never again be quite the same.

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