The Winslows, whom we met in Haberdashery Part 1, are determined to make it in Hellsgate. How will they fare?
The Winslows set up their hat shop in a tiny building next to the general store. Their space on Freedom Street was small but sufficient and had two small rooms above it in which they lived. A month since their arrival in Hellsgate, they newlyweds prepared to open the doors of their business to the people of the town.
Charles set several of the hats (some quite practical for the working men of New Mexico and some highly ridiculous for fashionable ladies) on wooden dummy heads in front of the store, while Margaret Winslow sat inside and hummed to herself while stitching decorative flowers from fabric scraps.
After an hour, Charles tucked his hands in pockets and whistled. After two hours, he smoked his pipe a bit. After three hours, he sat inside the shop and sulked. When the fourth hour rolled in and no customers had presented themselves, he grumbled that he was going for a walk.
Mrs. Winslow was content to be alone. She had hats to make, ribbon to embroider, and her Bible to read. She could manage the store perfectly well, thank you. She busied herself with the small tasks of decorating some of the many straw hats she’d crafted and dyed the prior week. A flower here, a bit of ribbon there, a pin or a feather to finish it off — she was not a woman with idle hands.
“Pardon me,” a wisp of a voice fell on her ears.
When she looked up, a tall woman stood before her, looking highly out of place in her small shop and, she realized, out of place in a dusty, dirty desert town like Hellsgate. The figure was dressed all in pristine white (not cotton or linen, Mrs. Winslow noted, perhaps a fine chiffon like she had seen on fashionable gowns back east), her flowing gown fluttering in a breeze that did not seem to exist.
The woman wore a fine white scarf to cover her hair and had a sort of veil that obscured her face from just below her eyes. The little skin that did show was almost as pale as the fabric of her dress. The eyes that could be seen were so dark brown that she could have sworn they were black.
“Good day!” she beamed at her first customer.
Strange or no, if this woman wanted to make a purchase, who was Mrs. Winslow to discriminate against the dead or unholy? In this town, that sort of biased attitude could cost you good coin.
“I feel so empty,” the stranger whispered, her veil unmoving.
“I’m afraid we don’t sell any food here, ma’am but I have some lovely hats you might be interested in!”
Mrs. Winslow hopped up to her feet and scurried to a small table where several flower-adorned hats dwelled. She picked out one in pale pink and white and offered it to the woman. With gloved, bird-like hands, the woman took the hat from Mrs. Winslow and simply stared at it.
“Ah, here, allow me to help, if you will.”
With a firm yet gentle grip, she took the hat from the woman in white and, standing upon the tips of her toes, placed it delicately upon the woman’s head. Rushing over to her work table, she retrieved a small, polished looking glass and held it up for the woman.
The woman stared for some time, tilted her head slowly, and breathed, “I wish to go home, I think.”
She did not leave or even move so Mrs. Winslow thought perhaps the woman was only reflecting to herself aloud.
“Perhaps another hat,” she remarked, retrieving the pink one from the woman’s head.
This time she took a natural straw hat with a grand bow of white ribbon on one side. Perhaps the color would interest her customer, Mrs. Winslow thought to herself. It did seem to match her gown, after all.
“Here we are, madam,” she placed this hat atop the woman’s head and held the glass up again.
The woman tilted her head the other way and sighed, “So very cold and empty.”
“Ah, perhaps this was another bad match,” Mrs. Winslow nodded to herself and retrieved the hat from the tall woman. “Let me see if I can’t make something up to suit you. How do you feel about blue? Or green”?
She held up blank straw hats in each color and offered them to the woman, who did not move.
“I long to be warm,” she whispered into the air. Her dress fluttered about her with new vigor, Mrs. Winslow thought.
“Warm, hmm? I’m afraid I haven’t any red hats, madam.”
Eyeing her supplies, something like inspiration struck Mrs. Winslow. She fetched a hat so dark blue it had come out all but black and held it up, studying it from several angles.
“You have some time? I can just make this up for you in a moment.”
The woman exhaled, “I can never go home.”
“Ah, well, then I suppose you are in no hurry. Let me have a go, hmm?”
In a frenzy of creativity, Mrs Winslow’s hands seemed to fly on their own and snatch up details to add to the blank. Flowers of crimson cotton, ribbon of a dark forest green, and bits of green felt. The snipped and stitched and admired and pinned, her fingers a blur before her own eyes.
When she had finished, she stared at what was likely the most beautiful hat she had ever created. With a tiny grunt of effort, Mrs. Winslow stood tall and placed the hat on the woman’s covered head, then stepped back to look at her. The woman was a tall marble pillar with a garden of wild roses growing upon her head. The felt leaves she had cut, the blood red flowers strewn about, and the green ribbon that wove between them and trailed in loops below the brim — all of it came together in a perfect picture of savage loveliness.
“Well?” Mrs. Winslow presented the looking glass to the woman.
She tilted her head left. Then right. Then straightened up again, reaching out to Mrs. Winslow with a white-gloved hand. Mrs. Winslow reached back, palm open to receive whatever the the woman seemed to want to give to her. A sparkling bauble of gold dropped into her hand; a locket. Mrs. Winslow dared not open it but merely took it with a nod.
“I’d say that’s a fair trade, ma’am,” she tucked the necklace into her apron pocket and patted it, “Now do you suppose you are able to go home?”
The woman tilted her head slightly at Mrs. Winslow and whispered, “No. But I am less empty. Less cold. Thank you.”
With another strange breeze, the woman seemed to float from the shop (Mrs. Winslow hadn’t seen her move before, she realized) and move slowly down the dirt road toward Main Street. Perhaps she wanted to show off her new hat?
“Well,” Mrs. Winslow dusted off her apron, “there’s nothing a good hat cannot solve, I always say.”
She patted the pocket containing the strange woman’s necklace once more. She knew that she should never open it no matter what happened. She dreamed of it every night for the rest of her life.