The Hatmaker's Heart

By: Carla Stewart

Chapter 1

The workroom at Oscar Fields Millinery pulsed with the usual chatter, the gentle hiss of steam at periodic intervals, the ever-present adhesive and sizing fumes that hung in the air like gauze. Nell Marchwold bent over the hat block before her and first tacked the flexible buckram into quarters, then eased in each section, coaxing the foundation fabric into shape. She envisioned the magenta velvet that would be the outer covering, the satin piping that would grace the rolled brim, and a rosette stitched at a jaunty angle for a lovely touch. The question was, would Mr. Fields like it?

She bit her lip in concentration. A wave of the hand could reduce two days’ work to nothing. A nod meant the design would be slipped into the work orders on the assembly table and appear on the shelves in the showroom in due time. It wasn’t that her boss was fickle—he knew what he liked—but his moods were hard to predict. Two years as a junior apprentice had taught her that.

Sixth Avenue traffic sounds drifted through the open windows, a nip in the September breeze that had changed overnight. The workroom door opened, bringing a gust of air flushing through the window and Nora Remming standing there, her usual bright face the color of paste.

The workroom clatter came to a halt. No hiss from the steamer. No whispers from Nell’s fellow workers. On the street below, the trolley clanged as Nora slammed the box she carried on the table. Nora’s nostrils pinched as she inhaled; then her cheeks puffed as she let the breath out.

Steiger, the assembly manager, broke the silence. “Nasty mood, Mrs. Remming?”

Nora glared at him. “You don’t know the half of it.”

He folded reedy arms across his protruding belly and raised his snowy brows. “Care to enlighten us?”

“I’ve been sacked, that’s what. Poof! Just like that Oscar fired me.” A collective gasp went up from the workers as the color returned to Nora’s cheeks, and she stormed over to the bin that held her personal belongings—shears, measuring tape, pin cushion—and tossed them in the box. “So much for being a principal designer. ‘Your hats aren’t selling,’ he says. ‘I can no longer afford to carry dead weight.’ Dead weight. That’s what he thinks I am because I have original ideas. Clever new styles.”

Calvin Gold, Nell’s fellow apprentice, sympathetically smiled. “Rats. I thought you were onto something with the crinoline and grosgrain ribbon creation you did. Can’t believe those didn’t sell.”

Nora’s lips drew into a straight line. “They might’ve if Oscar hadn’t put them on the back shelf where the lighting is wretched. You’ve noticed, I’m sure, that he puts his standard line in the window. All he wants is the same old garb in a new color. You ask me, it’s a miracle he’s selling anything at all.”

Nell swallowed hard. “I’m so sorry. We’re going to m-miss you, Nora. What will you do now?”

“Heaven only knows. Guess I’ll have to figure out some way to feed my two boys and pay the light bill.” She hefted the box in her arms and marched out the door.

Steiger said, “Guess we won’t be throwing her a going-away party. Easy come, easy go.”

“Stuff it, Steiger,” Hazel, who had a way with making hat brims do exactly what she wanted and didn’t take any of Steiger’s flack, shot back. “Just goes to show, none of us should get too comfortable.”

Steiger smirked, but didn’t answer. He wasn’t worried about his job. He’d been there since the elder Mr. Fields was alive, and as the senior assemblyman, probably thought his position was free of worry. Nell didn’t have that luxury.

She picked up the sketch of the cloche she intended to show Mr. Fields as a promising new design. Her stomach soured. She was anything but comfortable.

A pall fell on the room, which got heavier when Marcella opened the tin of adhesive, sending more fumes in their midst. Nell concentrated on the hat block before her and sighed in relief when one of the workers turned on the rotary fan to dispel the acrid odor.

“Miss Marchwold!” Harjo Pritchard’s bark split the air.

Nell flinched, noticing the other workers jerk their heads in her direction, no doubt glad it wasn’t them being singled out by Mr. Fields’s secretary.

“Yes, Mr. P-Pritchard?”

“Here you are. Mr. Fields said I would find you in the studio, but I find you in here dillydallying. You keep that up and you’ll be kicked to the curb before you can whistle six bars of ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy.’”

“I wasn’t d-dillydallying. I’m doing a p-prototype for a new d-design.” Nell pointed to the block and lifted her chin “I was experimenting, not d-dillydallying. Besides, I can’t wh-whistle.”

“She can’t talk, either.” The jab came from the middle of the worktable, but when Nell whipped her head in that direction, all heads were down, not even a smirk from the guilty party.

Heat rose in Nell’s neck until she was certain her own face was the same shade of magenta as the felt in the center of the table. She didn’t always stammer…only when rattled. And the entire morning had thrown her off guard.

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