Temperance lived the holiday months shrouded in sadness. Letters from her sister had been far and few between and the great Mr. Travis Quellwood, supposed love of her life, had skipped town with his troupe like a thief in the night. Apparently he decided he had had enough of their quaint little town. “My dear,” he waxed one night, “I am a traveler….” Those words echoed in her ears in the months after he left. It occurred to her that no matter how thin she was, she would never fit in a bindle.
While the ticking clock did taunt her in those darkened winter months, the gaiety of her favorite time of year eluding her just as love had, it was the calendar which offered respite. Make no mistake, though the servants were convinced she was a hair’s breath away from a walking corpse, her milky skin seeming almost blue and luminescent in the darkened hallways of the house, by the time the year turned over to begin anew Temperance…was over it.
Unlike the many ghosts of her checkered past, Mr. Quellwood would be relegated directly to the rubbish bin. The more she thought back on his grand demeanor and flowery words, the more it occurred to her that while perhaps she loved, she could never have loved him; for he was but a wraith from the moment he entered her life. A wraith that could only ever suck the breath from those he touched, his grandeur, a facade from behind which he could cower while he fed only on those with the most unique vision. And if Temperance had anything, it was unique vision.
Upon waking on that icy January morning, the sun brightly glinting on the snow, Temperance inhaled deep and strong. And it was in that single breath that she returned to life. Where once her wrath had burned within her, strong enough to sear through gaze alone, she found serenity. Where once she had drifted through the hallways, her curls wild and untamed like a nest of snakes, she now walked with purpose, making lists of the things that would need tending to after her months of brutal retreat. Where once she could not be spoken to, she now could not cease to speak. Temperance was, once again, a force to be reckoned with.
One day, while walking through town, she was stunned by a striking display. The dread of Christmas had barely been put to bed and already the dress makers were flooding their windows with pinks and whites and lace and…hearts. Ever so many hearts. Upon seeing this Temperance expected she would glower. She expected her spinster bitterness to rear its ugly head. But much to her surprise, her reaction was quite different. Instead of scoffing and snorting at the ridiculously feminine finery, she found herself quite intrigued…inspired even.
While Mr. Quellwood had decided that she was not worth trading his bindle for a chest of drawers, somewhere along the way she had decided she very much was. And though this was the first time it had occurred to her in such a conscious manner, the idea had taken root firmly somewhere along the way. Temperance’s spine straightened. Her chest puffed out. Had anyone been looking, they might even have noticed that, in that moment, hair which had only ever been frazzled twists of angry frizz, released a sigh of relief. What once was a wrangled, frantic, mess, was now somehow, just this side of tame.
In that moment, Temperance gathered herself up and took her new found inspiration back to the shop. She had not felt joy for her work in those long, dark, months, but now she knew she could begin again; refreshed, renewed! And she would not be the typical girl who grumbled and wept into her tea as St. Valentine (who Temperance already had her misgivings about) wove his garish heart-shaped web of white lace frills and gay pink furbelows. No. ~Temperance~ would step out on the 14th of February embracing it all. For in embracing the holiday focused so singularly on a couple’s love, Temperance was displaying the love she had found for herself.
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!!!!”