She followed him to the door where he arranged his hat and cane, ready for departure. Already his demeanour was distant. “With no disrespect, I would prefer to speak to Celeste.”
Lily felt her desperation rise, but she could do nothing but hide her feelings as she waited while he reached into his pocket, perhaps to withdraw a handkerchief though his card case fell to the floor and spilled open in the process.
Lily was quick to reach down first. He’d not wanted to introduce himself beyond his name, but an understanding of how he might help her would be to her benefit if his card named his business.
“McTavish and Sons publishers?” Lily jerked her head up from reading his calling card. “You are the publisher of Manners & Morals?”
“The editor, madam.”
She pressed her lips together. “Your magazine is widely read, sir.”
“Indispensable literature for the servants’ halls, the parlours of the middle classes, and the salons of the aristocracy, I have been reliably informed.” His tone was dry.
“Are you Mr McTavish? Or the son?”
“My father began it as a newspaper that printed religious texts. Fifteen years ago, he expanded it into the magazine it is today.”
“To feed the appetite for self-improvement and chaste entertainment for all levels of society. A weighty moral burden.” She smiled at his clear surprise at her pronouncement, her thoughts running over why he should be interested in Celeste and Lord Carruthers. “You have a nose for scandal, then,” she said. “And a mandate for stamping it out, given the position you hold?”
He sent her a level look. “Vice and immorality are the hallmarks of weakness, and it is up to every individual to harness such dangerous impulses. I publish a mix of improving instruction, and entertainment.” He checked himself. “I am not a prude, madam. But what I provide is wholesome and morally uplifting.”
“And Celeste’s activities could be dangerous to public morality?” she asked.
“That, and more,” he said. He drew in a breath and appeared to consider his words. “I need not reiterate that my seeking information is in the public interest. If it should be revealed that I’ve even come to this house, I promise you that I can cause a great deal more trouble than such a revelation is worth.”
Lily raised an eyebrow. “I hope that was not a threat, Mr McTavish. Besides, what you have said suggests that you’d not mind, one way or another, what would put Madame Chambon and her girls out of business. But pray tell, what do you propose the women who work here should do in order to strive for self-improvement? Other than read your magazine, of course. What other possibilities are there that might entice them to leave their lives of vice and sin?”
“They should find respectable employment, of course.” His tone was full of scorn. “But of course, respectable employment does not pay as well as this.”
“It does not pay sufficiently to keep a roof over a woman’s head or food on the table,” Lily said. “I have learned this only now, for, like you, I grew up in comfortable ignorance of the fact that a milliner working from dawn til dusk earns a pittance insufficient to pay for the barest necessities of life. As for respectable employment, without a glowing reference from some upstanding citizen, these girls can’t even choose to step back into the kind of life you propose—moral rectitude.” She raked her gaze over the fine cut of his coat and his well-made shoes. “It is all very well to proselytise when you have a comfortable buffer against starvation. But I suggest this is not a place where you will find friends spouting your moralising beliefs.”
“There is no excuse for sin other than a deficiency of one’s own moral character,” he said grimly.
“And you have never sinned?”
His nostrils flared. “I was born a sinner, like everyone. But I have never exhibited a weakness of the flesh that brings men here.”
“Men like Lord Carruthers, an upstanding man with a wife and family.” She hesitated. “And women like Celeste who do his bidding.” The knowledge she was trying to dredge up, when for two years she’d been absent from any discussion of world matters, was slowly coming back. “Lord Carruthers holds an important position, and you are looking to shame him in your newspapers and magazines? Reveal, perhaps, the fact that Lord Carruthers has a mistress?” She shook her head, discounting this. “No, printing such sensationalist material would not be well received by your readers. The secrets of what a man does in the privacy of his bedroom are sacrosanct. You can’t print that. But…” She looked up. “The fact that a man holding such an important position has a mistress who is simultaneously sleeping with…with the enemy, could.”
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