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.”
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.
All Hallows was upon the town of Bridgeport and it was accompanied by grim news of a spike in untimely deaths.
Among them was dear Mr. Ravenhurst, proprietor of the town’s only funeral coach. With the recent rash of demise he had become quite the busy fellow. His wife, Olivia, had even taken up the position of professional mourner. For a small fee she would make sure that one’s deceased would be properly announced to the heavens. Her wailing could be heard clear into the next valley.
She was in rare form for her beloved, Thaddeus’, procession. The fact that she was forced to take over as driver of the hearse did nothing to distract from her mournful wails which were at their zenith that day.
The carriage crept its way to the cemetery followed by a long procession, friends and family ready to see poor Thaddeus off. With every inch of progress Olivia’s lament for her husband grew louder, her vision blurring amidst a fountain of tears. The coach meandered this way and that, the horses grounding themselves more than once on the odd front porch. Were it not for several helpful on-lookers, Thaddeus may very well have tumbled to his final resting place. Traffic on Main was stopped for the better part of three hours.
The day’s shadows grew long and the route to the cemetery grew longer. The once great cavalcade began to crumble. By the time they arrived, the sun dipping low in the sky, the only ones left were Mrs. Ravenhurst, Mr. Ravenhurst, and Temperance, giving it both the distinction of longest and shortest single procession the town had ever seen. As the cemetery hands lowered Mr. Ravenhurst into the ground, and the priest said his prayers, Mrs. Ravenhurst wailed to beat the banshees, using the trailing ends of the tattered ribbon from her hat to blot the streaming tears. Temperance marveled at how very comforting a hat can be in one’s times of woe and her head grew swollen with inspiration as she cemented the little scene in her mind.
Temperance rapped on the large black door, three loud knocks to herald her presence. She had always wondered about the house down the street with its ruby lamps and red shades in the windows. But the day she caught the lovely Exotic disappearing into its confines followed by a string of three well-suited men, she decided that she must investigate.
She straightened her dress and looked both ways before hitching up her corset which had a bad habit of slipping. Of course it was at that moment that the door swung rapid and wide and an imposing figure peered down at the small woman in mid-hitch.
Temperance giggled madly, arms dropping to her sides, the misbehaving underpinnings slipping back into their preferred place. For once, her nervous giggle worked in her favor. It gave her just enough time to ogle the unusual dress of the woman, her investigation free of the silent and gaping mouth that usually accompanied it. The whole outfit was divine but it was, of course, the hat that clinched it.
“My dear,” the woman said, “Rap once. Rap twice. But n’er rap thrice! One might mistake you for an unruly spirit in need of cleansing.”
Temperance shuddered as the woman’s booming voice delivered the message before finding its way to the street where it frolicked as a chorus of wild echoes. Another nervous giggle escaped. Had she been one to plan, she might have thought of a good reason for her visit. But, being herself, she had none, just the wild curiosity of one whose only company was the rueful clock.
“Oh…but I just had a bath this morning,” Temperance insisted, feeling more self-conscious as now she was caught not only in ill-fitting undergarments, but unclean as well.
“Have you come for a reading,” the lady asked.
Though the woman, a leviathan of extravagant taste, blocked the door, Temperance caught a glimpse of the shadowy parlor just in time to see the Exotic scurry in and out of view, one of the three men she had led to the house comically pursuing her.
Temperance paused, struck dumb by curiosity and a hint of dismay before the sound of her own voice caught her off guard: “Oh! A reading! Yes!” Another nervous volley of laughter sputtered forth.
The woman peered down at her, one brow arching at the odd little creature. She wasn’t sure she believed Temperance, but she wasn’t one to turn away a customer, no matter how odd. “Madame Bienvenue,” the woman said, introducing herself as she stepped aside and gestured for Temperance to enter.
Temperance took a reluctant step through the door, her stomach twisting as an unusual smoke teased her nostrils. Her eyes devoured the decor, each room more flamboyant than the next. She had had every intention of finding adventure when Prudence abandoned her in that boring little town and she had a sneaking suspicion that she had finally found it.
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.