The highly macabre event was not spoken of by civilized folk; and yet, the little hamlet of Bridgeport was “a-buzz” with the news. A few towns over a woman of well-known stature had achieved a most unfortunate sentence of “death by electrocution” by way of a new-fangled chair designed to send lethal current throughout. Many felt this method even worse than hanging and pleaded with the governor to show mercy on her soul and to pardon her from death by The Chair. Rumor had it that the governor would be traveling through Bridgeport while reviewing the case and the idea of being linked to such sensationalism, though most adamantly denied it, had everyone worked into an eager lather.
Mr. Harman Michaels finally whitewashed his entry gate, a task The Women’s League had been bothering him about for several months. The mercantile hung festive bunting along the entire perimeter of their wrap-around porch, an extravagance usually saved for more patriotic celebrations. And the church choir was primed with a trio of songs, each carrying God’s opinion of the excitement at hand.
Temperance, though less concerned with the political or religious implications of the situation, still found the details quite intriguing. She had known the woman at the center of the scandal, Martha, briefly in her youth. And although the two had not spoken in quite a while, a result of a small misunderstanding involving an accident with a sleigh, she felt a personal involvement with the case. In fact, Temperance could not recall the exact reason the two stopped talking. She certainly had not intended to strike the other with the sleigh, so there was no reason to hold a grudge. Still, in the years since the accident, they had only seen each other occasionally, while picking up parcels or passing through town. It was true that Martha’s brother remained exceptionally cross about the situation and, for this reason, Temperance thought it best to avoid them both.
So the news of Martha’s plight came as quite a surprise. Temperance knew it must have been an accident. Martha didn’t seem capable of murder. She was a terribly gangly woman, and quite clumsy as evidenced by the mishap with the sleigh all those years ago.
While the idea of entertaining a politician in no way thrilled her (politics is how thieves fail upward, you know), she felt it her duty to speak on behalf of poor Martha. Of course, Temperance’s plan hinged entirely on the governor’s acceptance of her invitation. That is why she made sure to drop the name of Henry Allworthey into her message. Surely all thieves colluded or, at the very least, were bound by a code. It seemed her best chance at luring the man to her. Much to her delight but not to her surprised, her invitation was accepted. The governor and company would indeed stop by for tea.
Upon her guests arrival, Temperance was pleased to find an intriguing addition. Mr. Brown, a scientist credited with the construction of the much talked about “Electric Chair,” was traveling with the governor to lend the benefit of his expertise regarding matters of fitting the chair to a woman’s frame… and he was quite the entertainer! He held Temperance captive as he spoke at great length on new methods of alternating current. While most found electricity a modern vulgarity, she believed it necessary for the advancement of society. It was, after-all, science! And it would benefit households everywhere.
The gentlemen stayed in her company for several hours. Between Mr. Brown’s captivating recitation on the marvels of modernity, and Temperance’s willingness to soak up his sermon, she had barely noticed that, for an extended period of time, the governor was absent. He left for a tour of Prudence’s grand old mansion returning only to inform his company that they really must attend to more pressing matters.
Temperance was, surprisingly, an excellent hostess. She thanked them both for attending tea and welcomed them back at any time. Still giddy with a day full of stimulating conversation, she waved goodbye to the governor’s coach. But, as she headed into the house, she could not escape the sinking feeling that she had forgotten something…. something terribly important.
A few days later the town erupted with shock when it was announced that the woman had indeed been executed.
It was then that Temperance had remembered what she had forgotten. “Poor Martha.”
Temperance moved through the graveyard towards the source of faint illumination settling silently near the two industrious figures. She, a girl not more than twenty, holding a soot-coated hurricane up high. He, a boy, perhaps a year or two older, shoveling dirt wildly over his shoulder in the dimly lit night. The two bickered as only a couple could, she complaining of her arm growing tired from her duty as chief illuminator, he, placating her with promises of riches.
Temperance, intrigued by the scene, could only remain quiet for so long before she broke their focus with a single comment. “Good place to hide the bodies,” she said cheerfully. The two gasped, their faces, drained of color, whipping toward the pale figure. Mouths agape, they stared for but a moment before the girl shrieked. The male, robbed like a grave of his voice, dropped his shovel and shot off into the night like his shoes were on fire. Temperance, greeted the couple’s terror with her own, releasing a mournful shriek into the dead of night before bolting for home like a wraith on All Hallow’s Eve.
The next day, Temperance ventured back to the scene of the horrifying encounter. There, on the ground, was proof that it had not been a figment. A lantern and hat lay in the dirt, abandoned by their owner in a fit of sheer terror. Temperance ‘tsked’ and rescued the items, eying an upset headstone toppled into a pile of disturbed earth. Clearly, their encounter had upset the person formerly at rest at the location. Chills ran down her spine and she made a quick departure.
She was not surprised when later in the week she heard frantic whispers ripple through town about a banshee that was spotted roaming the late evening hours. And though she wished to meet the young girl again to return her things, she certainly had no intention of disturbing any more of the dead. So instead, the items, layered with the grime of honest work, were displayed in the shop window alongside all of her other creations.
Summer was always a disappointment to Temperance. It lacked the romance of the holiday season and the weather was uncomfortably hot. In fact, though her least favorite season was not yet in full swing, her state of mind was such that the days were a blur of dust and irritation…. until the carnival came to town.
The women at church were scratching and clucking like hens in the yard about the carney folk and how they were a bunch of sinners; How Mr. Jackson Burne was made a mark the summer prior by just such a show and ended up stripped of both his wallet AND his dignity. From the liberal use of alcohol to the wanton women, one could be sure to find themselves nothing but trouble at the carnival. And that is why, Temperance thought, it was the most exciting and the most welcome breath of fresh air to come her way since Spring’s first blossoms.
Temperance stalked the circus during set-up. She crept like a wraith through the tents of red and gold, desperate to catch a glimpse of what “The Greatest Show” may hold. And while she saw hints of what was to come, nothing could prepare her for the extravaganza in its entirety. It was like trying to taste the cake with only egg and flour in the bowl.
Evening’s veil shrouded the dusty installment in it’s magic, concealing imperfections and lending brilliant contrast to the show. What was a dirty, faded, sleepy encampment in the light of day came alive at dusk and flourished into the night. The barker’s call beckoned folks, be they reluctant or excited through the tent city like pipers to mice.
And while the electric lights highlighted the spinning merry-go-round, and acrobats gave folks a taste of the wonders hidden just beyond pavilion flaps, not even the jovial tunes of the calliope could disguise the creeping sense of danger that grumbled in the gut of even the most naive souls.
It was as the Sunday hens had said. Sin was in the air. As people rushed past, men desperate to lose their wives in the crowd, children eager to crawl beneath a loose canvas wall perhaps to sneak a peak at the show that mother forbade father to see, Temperance breathed deep. She filled her lungs with the smell of roasting peanuts and drank in the soundscape that some would liken only to their worst dreams.
She did not partake of fairy floss nor did she linger long at the burning footlights of the stage. She merely moved through the circus as it bloomed wildly in the night, captive not to its manipulations, but captivated by its affect on the people of the town.
Temperance reveled in a sight more rare than the bearded lady or the siam twins. She watched as the ladies of the Women’s League, the same ones who rebuked the mere presence of carney trash in their town, gambled away their purses at the wheel of luck. She watched as men stood open-mouthed, hypnotized by exotic dancers dressed in little more than a clutch of lace and sparkle. And she saw the children sent round and round on the giant wheel while mother and father did boring adult things.
A hundred Sundays had not brought with them a fraction of such honesty. She felt her thin lips pressed into a perpetual smile as the scene swirled around her, for while the carney folk put on their masks, the town’s mask slipped away and, for Temperance, that was the greatest show.
Winter was long and Temperance was absolutely grey with a lack of sunlight, not to mention a lack of sister. The longer Prudence was away, the more common it was for Temperance to demonstrate the first part of her name rather than the whole. What was left of the dwindling staff went about their work amidst the sounds of crashing candlesticks and breaking Dresden. Poor Eloise was always the one nominated for damage control. She had become quite good at bobbing and weaving between flying objects in whatever room Temperance had targeted for her latest tantrum and she seemed to have a way with the woman that the others could not begin to understand.
One day, after a particularly horrid outburst, Eloise remained with Temperance for some time, talking to her, trying to calm her temper. She suggested that what Miss Temperance really needed was a friend.
A friend. The mere thought of it made Temperance feel pounds lighter. And so, being a woman of action and never one to wallow in self pity, Temperance began her quest. She spent weeks looking for this friend. She thought, perhaps, she might find a surrogate sister of sorts. But week after week she would eavesdrop on conversations between the ladies in town and every time she listened all she heard was gossip. Always gossip. Not one of them had anything of genuine interest to say. If Temperance was to find a friend among the residents of Bridgeport, they would surely have to be a horse of a different color. They would have to be someone in which she could confide her deepest secrets and would, perhaps, share her love of hats.
She had nearly given up when, one evening, on her way to the cemetery for her usual stroll, she was startled by the sounds of yelling and screaming and the echoey thunder of hooves. Temperance whirled around in an effort to spot what surely was a herd of wild horses but her eyes were met with only one. The horse, black as pitch, raced over the ridge, tail up like a flag, and headed straight for her. At that moment, the strangest thing occurred. Her gaze met that of the wild animal and the connection was instant. The horse threw on the brakes of his own accord about ten paces from Temperance who’s hand was now held out toward it. Snorting and puffing, he came to a stop, his nose meeting Temperance’s flattened palm. Her heart spun.
Finally, Mr. Allegheny, the horse’s frustrated owner caught up to his runaway beast. Through hissing breaths he swore he would turn the animal into shoes. “At least then,” Mr. Allegheny said, “if you run away, you have to take yer passenger with yeh.”
Temperance glared and admonished the man. “Did it ever occurs to you that your yelling ~scared~ the poor thing? I would have thrown you too if you tried yelling at me like that!”
The man looked at the small woman and shook his head. “Madam, this horse is a nuisance. There is not one rider he has not thrown nor a fence he has not jumped. He’s no good to anyone.” But Temperance whole heartedly disagreed. She knew he would be good for her. So she offered to buy the stallion then and there. Seeing the woman’s infatuation with the animal and having heard stories about how crazy Prudence’s spinster sister was, Mr. Allegheny decided to take full advantage of the opportunity asking quite a fat price for the nuisance of a stallion and Temperance did not haggle. For, while the man was off-loading a horse more trouble than its worth, Temperance was finally bringing home a friend.
Prudence had been away much longer than planned and the extended absence was causing quite a temper in her sister. Once the newlyweds settled, letters started arriving regularly which told Temperance of all the happenings in Prudence’s life, of Paris, of her beautiful little shop, of a life that was quite happy and content despite the absence of her sister. The relief of having an address at which to respond to her sister’s letters was short-lived when Temperance realized what it meant. It was clear that a metamorphosis was taking place all those thousands of miles away, a metamorphosis which, Temperance knew was jeopardizing her detailed plans.
Though she spoke of nothing but well-wishes to any and all who inquired, on the inside her anger boiled. She could not understand why the couple was still abroad, especially given the special measures she had taken to insure a timely return. A hat store? A new social circle? What did those things offer that in any way trumped the love of a sister; of family? As far as Temperance was concerned, Prudence was just feeding her snobbery, an offense that would surely be punished by God. And Temperance’s suspicions were confirmed when Prudence began penning her updates in French, a language her spinster sister never could master. The feeling of exclusion only served to deepen Temperance’s bitterness, never mind what it did to her dislike for Henry.
Knowing that self pity was generally restricted to a party of one, Temperance decided that from lemons, one must always try to make lemonade. So, every time a new letter arrived, she channeled her upset into a new creation that was, in a way, a collaboration between she and her sister, for that was the way things should be.
It occurred to her that she could not save Prudence from herself and she most certainly could not save her from the impending punishment that is so often visited upon those who ruefully shirk their blessings. But she could be there to ease the inevitable pain of retribution. She could be the one to nurse Prudence to repentance. She could open her sister’s eyes to where her blessings truly lie! In fact, it was her mission to be the guiding hand that her sister so obviously needed. No measure was too great as long as it was in the name of doing what was best for her wayward sibling.
Now she needed only to figure out a way of bringing her sister back home. She knew it would have to be convincing; something beyond a claim of sickness or catastrophe. Though her sister no longer seemed to value her, she most certainly valued her thief of a husband. Perhaps that was the key? Clearly, the man refused to fall to a well-placed poison. He had a criminal constitution for sure. But if he was as bad as Temperance believed, then he must have made enemies in his dealings! Why didn’t she see it before? How could she have been so complacent! The time for a thorough investigation was upon her. She would pluck this giant thorn from her side and, in doing so, she would bring her sister home.
It had been weeks since Mr. Travis Quellwood, the man responsible for Temperance’s new-found love of hatting and her heart’s singular desire, had been in the store. And since his first visit, much had changed. Prudence’s wardrobe had been selectively pruned. What once was a haberdashery, had bloomed into quite the place for ladies. Henry’s stock was pushed aside, gathering dust since Herman’s (his former employee and suspected thief), hasty departure, and the space that was once filled with men’s finery was brimming with ladies brims.
But while the store had transformed, the clientele had not. In fact, in the absence of a man to sell toppers and the like, Henry’s faithful audience had dwindled.
Though she ached to see him, Temperance had given up hope that the handsome Mr. Quellwood would make another appearance until one cold day. The little bell at the front door rang, and Temperance, who was in the back room deconstructing yet another of her sister’s dresses came scurrying out. Clucking like a barnyard hen about the constant interruptions, her customer service was more likely to scare perspective customers away than it was to welcome them in. But this particular customer was not afraid. He was used to working with the temperamental and flamboyant. They had only met once, but he was already used to the mad hattress’ idiosyncrasies.
With twinkle in eye, and wallet in hand, he took a look at her created collection. Clucking ceased when she realized who it was she was clucking at. For what seemed like an endless moment there was nothing but the ticking of the clock between them.
~Tsk Tsk Tsk~
Temperance’s heart leapt into her chest. She could hear it pounding in her ears. The floor fell away from her feet and she became weak in the knees. Collapse was eminent but she never hit the floor. As she regained awareness, she found herself in the strong arms of Mr. Travis Quellwood, himself. All her months of worry and wait were worth it for they brought her right to that moment.
She swooned for a matter of seconds before lashes fluttered and she clutched her heart which, though still fluttering, had sunk back into her chest.
“I’ve come to see your work, my dear. I can already see that you have been quite busy,” Mr. Quellwood said, easing communication by not letting Temperance speak. He lifted her easily to her feet and was careful upon letting go should she swoon once more.
Temperance, straightened her dress and smoothed her frizzy hair with a flattened palm, nodding in answer to the man’s observation. “I should like to buy one for a ….well….for a very special lady.” His weighted gaze shot right through the tiny, chalk-white, woman who’s voice had yet to return. He smiled and continue looking around. “But it must be ~exquisite~.” He approached Temperance who’s eyes never left him and stopped only inches from her. She inhaled deeply as her nose nearly bumped into the brass button on his vest. He smelled of pipe tobacco and spearmint. Like everything else about him, Temperance found the scent intoxicating.
She could barely bring her eyes to his for fear that she might swoon once more. “What would you suggest for a creature with skin of alabaster…like your’s? Something red, perhaps? The color of love?”
Temperance stumbled backward and pointed across the room to a crimson bonnet trimmed in black, glittering with crystals. Mr. Quellwood followed her direction, his long stride carrying him quickly to the masterpiece. He snatched it up with breathless exclamation and then peered at its creator. “This…this is too pretty to part with,” He said, holding it as if it were made of glass. “But if you would entrust me with the purchase, I am sure you will meet a much deserved reward.”
Temperance nodded dumbly, stumbling to the cash counter. Quellwood met her there and held the bonnet up to her, admiring the contrast between the scarlet fabric and Temperance’s pasty skin. “You are correct! This is perfect for one with skin as fine as yours.”
Now, Temperance couldn’t be sure, but for one brief moment, it felt as though Mr. Travis Quellwood was flirting with her. The thought made her giddy.
As she wrote up his bill of sale, he leaned on the counter, a hint of mirth alight in his eyes. “May I ask, my dear lady, what are you doing on the evening of the fourteenth?” Temperance looked up at him, her mouth falling open with the hope that a voice would come out. In it’s absence, she simply shook her head, a lost look in her eyes. The man smiled as he gently brushed one of her frizzy curls aside. “I should like to see you at a special performance my troupe is putting on. Would you come? Would you come…as my special guest?”
Of all the dreams she could have dreamed she would have never dared to dream this one. It was too bold…too unlikely…and had it never occurred, it would have left her tattered hopes too tattered to repair. But here, it was happening! She wanted to scream, to cry, to run out into the street and yell the news at the top of her lungs! But his presence held her still and silent. Upon his last visit he had stolen her heart and upon this one, he had stolen her voice; a feat never before accomplished. She could only nod, the sloppy bun jiggling back and forth on top of her head.
“Good!,” he exclaimed exchanging the neatly packaged bonnet for the agreed upon price. “I knew you would not dare break my heart. I promise it will be a night you shall never forget!” With that, he doffed his hat and offered her a deep bow as he backed out of the shop disappearing into the busy street.
In the moments after their meeting, as her thoughts fell quiet and the ticking of the clock became apparent once more, Temperance’s voice returned. She gasped a small gasp of shock. “Oh dear,” she said, worrying the cuff of her sleeve. “Oh…dear.” Her heart began to race once more. “What shall I wear? The fourteenth…of February…” Eyes widened as everything he had said came flooding back in bits and pieces. “OH DEAR,” she exclaimed, unable to believe her good fortune. She ran outside stopping in the middle of the street and yelled at the top of her lungs. “I’m going to be his Valentine!!!!”
The marriage between Prudence & Henry was a dizzying whirlwind . The last four months of their honeymoon were filled with constant parties and procuring odd and fascinating goods for Henry’s hats.
Prudence was quite enjoying the new sights and sounds of Europe. Though she was often by herself during the day while Henry met with potential clients and business contacts, she always found various ways of keeping herself entertained.
She was handy with needle and thread and she was a quick study. These qualities along with a knack for detail and an innate ability for turning nothing into a great deal of something had made Prudence into quite the milliner in her own right. Hunting for and assembling odds and ends was always an adventure for her. It was her solace during the lonely days.
She was the pinnacle of fashion wherever they went and Henry was always proud to have her on his arm. Several of the society women had come to him inquiring about his wife’s fantastic chapeaus. Knowing of his esteemed reputation when it came to gentlemen’s toppers, they assumed he was branching out into ladies finery.
Henry was quite pleased with what he saw from Prudence and the commotion it stirred within the upper crust. His brilliant wife had waltzed into what seemed to be a generous market. Priding himself on his keen business mind, he decided it was time to make a rather large investment.
While spending the winter months mostly in Paris, he scoured the city for the perfect opportunity finding it one day in the form of new construction. Heralding itself as a”Grande Shopping Experience,” this new venture was bidding purveyors of fine wares to stake their claim in a triumphant corridor of luxury goods.
No doubt it was a risky venture and a healthy sum of capital need be procured for the proper start. But Henry was convinced that a hat shop in the Ville de Saint Denis would be the perfect Christmas present for Prudence. Paris suited her and he was certain the investment would prove lucrative.
So, on Christmas morning, tucked neatly in the tree, Henry placed the latest of Prudence’s lovely creations with some obvious additions. The pin at the front was replaced with the stamped and jeweled mark of the Ville de Saint Denis. Behind it, resting beneath a velvet ribbon was the advertisement which announced the opening of the Ville. And captured in the ribbon was a shop key adorned with a lovely beaded tassel.
Prudence clutched the hat and stared in shock unable to fully comprehend what it all meant. Stunned silence ensued, the result of a drawn battle between tremendous joy and abject fear.
Though she didn’t know what to think of the shop or the added duties of “business woman” to her existing and most important role as Henry’s wife, she did know one thing. That morning Henry gave Prudence something that none of her other husbands had. He believed in her and saw her as more than a trophy or the keeper of a lovely home.