Mrs Lucas twirled sedately around and smiled. Entire stylish yet will not look particular do we go dine at the Bishop’s Palace, she said. 'Tis very good of you to make this time for me, for I confide 'tis coming up your busy time o’ year.
Maurice smiled back. How different was this confident lady from the shy lumpish young woman he had first dressed so many years ago. Why, he said, one always likes to see old patrons; most particularly the ones that pay up their bills as promptly as you do.
Why, since we are in the happy position we are, not in the least the proverbial church mice, 'tis only right to pay on the nail. She twirled again. And yet will not be out of place when we go dine with the Marquess.
She sighed a little and said, well, must take this off and have it sent with the other gowns. 'Twill not be appreciated by the antiquarians at this e’en’s gathering.
Indeed, it was rather late of the day by the time she left, the light already fading. Maurice went to the bench by the window where he had laid out samples of various stuffs he had been sent. It was just about light enough for his purposes, and touch was quite as important as sight in determining whether the fabric was of the first quality or not. He was reluctant to light the gas just yet: given the present state of affairs, any little economy seemed prudent.
There was a rapping on the door. Mayhap Mrs Lucas had left something behind? He could not recollect that he was in anticipation of a delivery of anything.
Whatever he had expected, it was not that. A man that looked like a preacher from the Vice Society about to hold forth in a brothel, glaring about the room as if 'twas a den of iniquity rather than a modiste’s establishment. The light through the window was still just enough to reveal that he was very good-looking, even in those spectacles.
Mamzelle Bridgette? he asked.
Yes? (Ten to one this was about a bill that had come to the fellow’s attention. He did not, however, have the air of a married man. A younger sister? A ward?)
You’re Mamzelle Bridgette?
I’m her partner – Maurice Allard. (These days Biddy spent most of the time at Worthing. Which was just as well, because he did not want her bothered about the present trouble could it be helped.) What is your business?
Lady Bexbury sent me.
Lady Bexbury sent you?
His visitor fumbled in a pocket and produced a card. She said you had been having a problem.
It was indeed her card, with a note scribbled upon the reverse: To introduce Mr Alexander MacDonald. He may be able to help you.
Maurice looked up from the card, suppressing a whistle. Alexander MacDonald, that had been the confidential secretary and political advisor to Lord Raxdell until the latter’s untimely death: and, among those of the brotherhood, suspected to have been a good deal more.
And what, he thought, was Mr MacDonald seeing as he scowled across the room? Even in the rapidly dimming light the manifestations of Maurice’s African blood must have been apparent in spite of the relative paleness of his complexion: by this time of day curls were beginning to rebel against the earlier application of pomatum. Effeminacy would be presumed, given his profession, but indeed a deliberate air of effeminacy was a wise choice for a man-modiste, found most exceeding reassuring.
Just because a fellow was of the brotherhood, did not in the least mean that one quite immediate took a notion to him. Maurice had long eschewed those low places of resort where fellows of his kind might have furtive encounters, out of self-preservation as well as more general fastidiousness. He might have sold his services to gentlemen in his younger days, but they were gentlemen and it was at that certain club where all was done discreet and in very good style. And now he was not just a member of the club in good standing, but on the committee, entire respected as a sound useful fellow; and safe.
Alexander MacDonald was by no means the kind of fellow he inclined to. Might have acquired some polish through association with such a model as Lord Raxdell, but given out a Scot of humble origins, though all conceded most immense clever. Well-dressed, but with the air of one that had acquired the habit of going to a good tailor without ever thinking much about what he wore.
After this lengthy pause as they looked at one another like dogs deciding whether to fight or merely give admonitory barks and pass on, MacDonald said, Lady Bexbury told me that you were having some little trouble, that you did not think was anything you might take to the law –
And why did she tell you of it? (The troubles of modistes could only be despised by such a fellow.)
MacDonald shrugged. I have some little aptitude for sounding out puzzles and mysteries. Clo – Lady Bexbury applies her own ingenuity to thinking about the matter, but desired that I would also go look into it. Mayhap you might lay it out for me?
Maurice would not wish to offend Lady Bexbury, even did offending her not also portend repercussions among his family connexions. So he waved MacDonald to one of the other stools, and sat down again himself.
He sighed. He could not suppose that this fellow would take the matter as anything but a frivolous fret, yet 'twas of quite material significance to the continuing good name of the business.
Somebody, he said, is stealing my notions.
Notions? said MacDonald.
Notions, repeated Maurice. My ideas in matters to do with style and fashion. Lately there is another modiste brings out gowns that use various notions that I had – and, he added bitterly – doing them less well than we would. 'Tis extreme deleterious to our business. For ladies come to us for styles that will be original and out of the common way, not somewhat that they have already seen on someone else.
And you do not know who might be conveying these – notions – to her?
He sighed again. Sure I thought we might trust our cutters and seamstresses – well-paid, good conditions – but mayhap one or another has been tempted, 'tis a precarious matter to live by one’s needle – but who else would have the chance to see the designs? And 'twould cause ill-feeling to open the matter among 'em.
And this other modiste?
Madame Francine, she calls herself. But lately set up in Town – says she is from Paris, but is she French, I’m Prince Albert. Most assuredly sees herself as a rival to us.
He raised his eyes from his twisting hands and – o, he thought, that is a difference, looking at a face transfigured, alight with interest and curiosity, a hound upon the trail.
Could you, said MacDonald, just walk me around your premises a little? And say who are likely to come call upon you – I suppose, he added, that it could not be one of your customers?
Patrons, said Maurice, but I confide not, there is no lady would be able to see so much of what we do, only what was in train for her or mayhap a friend or so do they come in company together.
Lady Bexbury informs me, went on MacDonald as they ascended the stairs to the fine large light – when it was daytime – attic workroom, that there is a chamber about this place that ladies may employ for discreet assignations?
Maurice paused and said, ladies in such case usually have their minds on other things than some particular new fashion of cut or trimming; and there is a discreet door, they would not come through anywhere where any work was in hand.
If you could show me the various entrances - for I daresay there is a tradesman’s entrance quite distinct from where your cus - patrons - come in?
So they made a very extensive survey of the premises until MacDonald looked at his watch and said, sure the time had rushed on, he must be away, but would go consider over the matter and look into it, and would Mr Allard have any objection did he open the matter to Mrs Marshall, that he apprehended was a cousin of his?
That was a very apt thought, to consult Tibby, that he had not even thought of himself; but sure Tibby must know a deal of the gossip about fashion and modistes.
Can be no objection whatsoever, he said.
I suppose, MacDonald went on, 'twould look particular did I come about during the working day.
Maurice looked at him and was unable to think of any reason he could give but the real one for MacDonald’s presence. He nodded his head.
I will go think on’t, then, talk to Clo – Lady Bexbury, may come at some contrivance.
They walked down the stairs to the tradesman’s entrance. Pausing on the threshold, Maurice began, awkwardly, Of course, do you find out the matter, I should wish to show grateful –
The hellfire-preacher look came back as if Maurice had made an improper suggestion (and mayhap that had not been so far from his mind, a good deal less far than it should have been). Does it perchance that we may come at what and who lies behind this business, mayhap you could make some contribution to one of Lady Bexbury’s good causes.
Maurice, twitching his shoulders, watched him striding off down the alley, feeling that he would be vastly obliged did he never have to see MacDonald again, but also that if anyone could fathom out the mystery, it was like to be MacDonald. He greatly disliked to be the recipient of favours: he preferred to keep any balance in the matter firmly on his own side. And this did not seem like a matter in which he could readily pay off that debt. He could quite imagine MacDonald’s expression did he offer a coin some fellows found quite irresistible (sure he was no longer a very young fellow but were those still considered he had charms).