One day, she looked around and realized that Prudence’ once bountiful wardrobe was now a thinning supply room. Like a magpie in the graveyard, Temperance had plucked and picked every bauble and frill, taken panels of fabric from without and within to adorn her one of a kind creations. Looking upon the threadbare threads only served to mirror the reality of her sister’s lingering absence. And the sadness was almost too much for Temperance to bear. The only styptic for such a wound was creativity. But what does one create with dwindling supplies?
They say necessity is the mother of invention. And Temperance now knew this to be true. For as she was looking around a shop still rife with men’s finery, she realized that she had only scratched the surface of her resources. Prudence was not the only one who had flounced across oceans. Henry was even more to blame for her sister’s extended absence. And so Henry would be the one to offer Temperance his support.
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.”
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.
There was a surplus of miner’s headlamps in the neighboring town of Persecution come Christmas due to an unfortunate but not entirely unexpected mine collapse and M.H. Penniworth, purveyor of fine and overpriced goods, was determined to eliminate them. Convinced that a little rebranding was key, he placed a full page ad in the monthly circular.
Upon viewing the ad Temperance was disgusted. “Oh for heaven’s sake! Using God to sell that hat! That is sacrilege, plain and simple! God wouldn’t wear a hat ugly as that! ‘Stylish,’ indeed!”
Though the execution was poor, the idea seemed sound and Temperance felt a woman could certainly do it better. So, do it better she did.
Rumors spread as merrily as Christmas cheer in the little town of Bridgeport. And, though she did not know it, Temperance was at the center of the largest. It took them a good three weeks to notice, but sometime around Thanksgiving the truly devout became aware that the more eccentric lesser half of the prolific Prudence was missing from her usual pew. She never warranted specific consideration before, but now that she was proving to be the heathen so many people expected she would turn out to be, her’s was the name that was voiced on hushed whispers as the collection plate made the rounds.
As Sundays passed, and the holiest of the good Lord’s days approached, whispers crescendoed. From baritone to soprano, a choir of voices flooded the church doors filling the street with the sound of gossip.
Temperance was not entirely alone in her life as an eccentric. Eloise, the maid, had become quite the trustworthy companion. But even she could not explain the absence of the lady of the house from weekly worship. Every Sunday, Temperance was up bright and early, and out the door dressed in her Sunday best. And every Sunday, she was absent. What was happening between the house and the church? She was determined to find out.
One Sunday morning, Eloise, intent on figuring out the real story behind the gossip, dressed early and hid beneath the fur blanket in Temperance’s usual ride. Minutes seemed like hours as she waited for her mistress to depart. The air was frigid even beneath the heavy pelt so she was quite relieved when she heard the woman’s voice clucking a string of broken thoughts aloud. The sleigh dipped subtly as Temperance hoisted her small frame into the driver’s seat. And, with a crack of the whip, they were off.
Eloise tried her hardest to remain still beneath the blanket but a particularly surprising dip dislodged her cover leaving her quite exposed. She let out a gasp and scrambled trying to capture the hide beneath which she hid only to see it slip further from her grasp. Had she not panicked, Temperance would have never noticed her stowaway, but the hustling coupled with the string of stage-whispered curses drew her attention.
Temperance whirled around nearly dropping the reins. Surprise commanded her vocal chords and she let out a shriek which, while not joyful, was certainly triumphant. It scared her secret passenger half to death. “Stowaway! Castaway! Hijacker! Thief,” she screamed. Luckily the horses were used to Temperance’s outbursts and, knowing her tendency to spook at nothing, remained calm as they dropped from canter to trot and came to a slow halt. Shock filled the air between the two ladies and a brief staring contest ensued.
Upon recognizing her attacker, Temperance was the first to break the silence. “Dear Heavenly Lord above, Eloise WHY?”
Eloise stammered as she tried to produce the explanation she had not had the foresight to prepare. “Sorry, Miss! So sorry! But…I wanted to know where it was you had been off to these past few weeks!”
Temperance glowered at the girl, unable to understand why such a simple question had to be prefaced with such subterfuge. “It has been my experience that simple questions should be simply ~asked~.”
She had a fair point. Eloise felt rather ridiculous for not having tried the simpler tactic first. “I’m sorry miss,” she said again, her voice rich with apology. “But there had been so much speculation when you stopped going to church. I thought….well…I didn’t know what to think!”
Temperance could only offer an exasperated reply to the girl’s attempt to explain. “I will have you know that I have been to church every Sunday of my life!” While this may have been something of an exaggeration, she felt it should be stated in order to prove her point. “One doesn’t wear a hat as grand as this for a simple ride in the country. This, my dear girl, is a ~church~ hat.”
Eloise peered up at the hat. It was indeed a whimsical and stately creation, much more so than any of the others she had seen. “Yes miss. I should have realized.”
“Indeed you should have,” Temperance said, her vexation fading. Temper gave way to amusement and she chuckled at the girl. “Well, I cannot turn back now. You shall have to join me for today.” Though apprehensive, Eloise felt obliged to concede. She retrieved the mantle that had slipped from the sleigh, tucked it over her lap, and settled in for the ride.
Less than twenty minutes later Temperance brought the sleigh to a stop and looked off into the distance. There, on a nearby hill-top, was a small red church. Amber light illuminated the windows and the distant sounds of joyful song, the likes of which was never heard from the church in town, danced across the country side. Dismay was written on Eloise’ face and it was even more evident in her voice. “Miss! We can’t go in there! That’s not ~our~ church!”
Temperance turned to her companion and snorted a brief laugh. “Of course it’s not ~our~ church. It’s ~God’s~ church!” And off to worship, they went.
She wasn’t much to look at; a young woman, slight of frame, posture, quite correct. Her daily costume was serviceable and free of dust. In fact, it was the town’s general opinion that their librarian was free of most anything interesting. But her commitment to her position was notable. The sun never made her acquaintance for she spent the entirety of her day moving like a wraith among the stacks, her arms full of books, her voice never sounding above a whisper. She was the perfect model of loyalty and efficiency save her mild propensity for the occasional bout of absent-mindedness.
That is why it came as such a shock when Earnest Peppermill, afflicted with a question that simply could not wait, discovered her in the back of the stacks engrossed in one of those French novels his mother had worked so hard to ban.
Rumor has it that little Earnest found her crumpled unceremoniously in the corner reading wide-eyed, white knuckles clutching the sinful volume. “Her cheeks were crimson with stirred desires,” Earnest’s mother assured the good women of the town’s Propriety League. And the news was met with gasping breaths and clucking tongues. They had all had their doubts about that girl from the moment she was hired. After-all, no one can be that unremarkable. No one! And now they had their proof. SCANDAL!
Days were long and slow in Henry’s haberdashery. To spite her foe, the always ticking and hatefully taunting clock, Temperance kept busy by searching for ways to bolster business. It wasn’t long before she noticed that, though not a soul was coming in for the odd frill or furbelow, two people had come in the past three weeks to buy something black. It was becoming abundantly clear that death, of all things, was not only big business, but a missed market. Temperance had an inkling she would find many ways in which to master this ever-growing niche, but she knew she had to start somewhere. And what better place to start, then by providing a more specific line of hats!
Her first was quite tame; a brimless sugarloaf in black and silver brocade trimmed with beads from Prudence’s parlor. Atop it sat a clutch of mold plucked right from the grave in which she nestled a small coffin that, upon it’s opening, laughed in the face of death. Or was it taunting the living? She couldn’t decide, but it did have a nice tone to it. Surrounded by a small garden of glittering fern and calla lily, this piece would surely show one’s dedication to their dearly departed, and would look simply fetching at an evening soiree.