SSA

Hell Hath No Fury

Kathleen Fair

Seventeen-year-old Hazel Ann Mitchell stood behind the counter of her father’s general store and repressed her urge to be rude to the females using the store as a social club, buying nothing while driving away customers. She plastered a smile on her face as the worst offender wiggled her fingers in a parody of a wave. Florrie Slater bragged at how she would only shop at Mitchell’s store in a dire emergency, but almost every day, she walked the three blocks to the store. Once inside she pretended to shop, despaired at the lack of quality goods, and gossiped with those women in town who sought Florrie’s favor. 

Florrie, or Florence as she was now demanding to be called, was the daughter and only child of the richest man in town, Alden Slater. The Slaters renamed the town and controlled it through their ownership of the mill. The Mitchell name might be on the front of the store, but Alden Slater held the mortgage on the building and could call in the loan at any time. 

Everyone in Slaterville accepted that Florrie was her father’s princess, and at twenty-five, she was an aging spinster princess. Anything she wanted, she got. Provoking Florrie resulted in serious consequences. People had lost jobs and even their homes after angering her. No matter how annoying Florrie might be, Hazel would say nothing. Customers avoided the store when Florrie held court making it impossible for Hazel to ignore Florrie. Last week when Florrie was away everyone enjoyed shopping during the morning.

“Oh, this old thing?” Florrie’s shrill voice demanded people pay attention. “I bought it last week, when Daddy took me down to Pittsburgh on the train. I spent the afternoon at Kaufmann’s Department store while he went over to Allegheny to the new baseball field to watch the Pirates. He spent the whole train trip back praising the shortstop, Honus Wagner, and said there was talk of having some sort of baseball championship series between the two leagues this fall. This is one of several dresses I purchased. Kaufmann’s is a truly luxurious store. I got such personal attention.”

A chorus of oohs and ahs came from the six women ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-eight who, for whatever reasons, came to worship Florence. They purchased nothing during this morning ritual but scuttled in at other times to do their shopping. After all, Mitchell’s was the only store in the heart of town and trips to Pittsburgh were rare for most Slaterville residents. Even the stores in Sharon five miles away were a special trip taken at most twice a month.

Mitchell’s General Store had been a fixture in Slaterville for over fifty years and could satisfy most basic shopping needs. Molasses, sugar, and other baking essentials, and expensive spices were stacked on the shelves behind the counter along with glass jars of penny candy and jams and jellies of various types. The coffee grinder perched at one end of the long counter next to the barrel of coffee beans. The peanut butter grinder sat at the other. The wall opposite the long counter stretching from front to back of the brick building held fabric and notions along with pots and pans and other kitchen utensils, soap, and elixirs of various types. Across the back, barrels of flour, dried beans, and dried fruits stood on the floor along with tables where local produce would be for sale in season. 

 Today amid all the merchandise, Florrie twirled slowly, holding her arms out so everyone could see the creamy lace insert detail on the sleeves and the bodice of the moss green dress. It might have been lovely if someone other than Florrie wore it. The large oak tree in the town square had more shape than she did. Even the most expensive corset could not create a feminine form for the lanky Florence. As Grandma Mitchell said, “You can dress a scarecrow in a ball gown made of silk and lace, but it is still a scarecrow.”

“You can’t get this style and workmanship here in Slaterville. Can you imagine poor Miss Dodd doing this quality of work? And even a dressmaker trained in the best fashion house in Paris could not do their best with the fabrics and notions available here at Mitchells.”

One woman standing with Florence gasped, shook her head, and whispered something while pointing toward Hazel.

“Oh, Hazel,” Florence made her way to the counter. “I know you and your father do the best you can, but then again, you must sell to the common people here. If you stocked your store with the goods I desire, well, very few locals could afford them. I come here to encourage others to patronize your business.”

“And we thank you for your kindness, Miss Florence.” Hiding her hands under the counter, Hazel squeezed her left hand with her right reminding herself to be polite. “Is there anything I can get for you today?”

“I can’t think of anything, my dear. The maids and cook take care of the shopping. As tempting as it might be to get some of those peppermint humbugs, it is almost time for me to return home for my luncheon.” Florrie turned back to her waiting admirers holding her skirt away from the tables and barrels scattered around the center of the store as if the contents would contaminate her clothing. 

Hazel’s eyes narrowed as Florrie and the others wandered around the store, touching this, moving that, buying nothing. A sideways glance at the wall clock gave Hazel hope. It was almost half-past eleven. Florrie would start for home soon. The others would follow although one or two might remain and make purchases. They would pass over their coins and avoid looking directly at Hazel as if embarrassed by their participation in this morning ritual. Within ten minutes of Florrie’s departure, various residents from Slaterville would burst into the store eager to pick up needed items. Earlier this morning Farmer Johnson brought in new wheels of his cheese along with sweet corn which was just now ripening. Baskets of fresh beans and peas were also on the back table ready to be prepared for dinner tonight. 

“Oh, Hazel, before I forget.” Hazel stopped rearranging the candy jars and looked over at Florrie. “The church picnic is next month, and you know I, as head of the women’s group, am organizing it. I can count on you and your father to provide a few special raffle items. Perhaps something a little better than what you supplied last year.”

Hazel gritted her teeth and then forced a smile. “For the church, of course. My great-grandfather founded the Methodist Church here and was its first preacher. My family has always supported the church and its mission. Our church is the heart of this town.” 

Hazel’s smile grew more triumphant. The Slater family might be important in the town now, but when the town was founded, the Slaters were dirt poor farmers. It was only thirty years ago, shortly after the Civil War, that the Slaters gained enough money and power to control the town. Who knew a rich vein of coal was under the worthless farm acreage they owned?

A flush of color crossed Florrie’s sallow cheeks. “And you will oversee the children’s games as you and your mother did last year? Or will it be too much for a child such as you?”

Hazel’s mother had always been in charge of the children during the annual end of August church picnic. For the last three years, Hazel helped; each year taking more responsibility as her mother grew weaker. Last year, her mother merely sat in the shade watching. It was her last picnic. Two months later her mother was buried in the graveyard next to Hazel’s great-grandfather. It was her mother’s lingering death that forced Hazel’s father to borrow money from Mr. Slater.

“Yes, I will oversee the children’s games.” Before Hazel could say anything else, the sight of a wagon pulling to a stop outside the store captured her attention. She peered through the bay window not recognizing the horses, the buckboard, or the driver. Florrie and the others also turned and gawked.

The driver secured his horses and leapt from the wagon down to the sidewalk. All eyes inside the store watched as he sauntered up the steps and opened the door. He took two steps into the store letting the wooden door close behind him. With one hand, he removed his straw hat as he surveyed the room. With the other hand, he removed a toothpick from his mouth.

“Ladies.” A rich baritone voice caressed the ears of his listeners.

Hazel put her hands on the counter to prevent herself from falling. The most handsome man she had ever seen had just stepped into her family’s store.

      ***

Henry Bell walked into the general store of this backwoods town and smiled as he spoke. He bowed and then put his straw hat back on his head as he surveyed space. No males in sight, just a store full of women—an especially beautiful auburn-haired young’un behind the counter, but except for the tall, skinny one, all were very attractive. Maybe there were possibilities here he could exploit.

Before he said anything else, the tall, plain woman walked toward him and pointed the index finger of her left hand at him. “What brings you to Slaterville? What are you doing here?”  Her voice shrill and downright unpleasant reminded him of the sound of screeching brakes on a runaway locomotive.

Henry shoved the brim of his hat back so that his hat perched on the back of his head. He considered removing it as a display of politeness. He never expected a warm welcome, but how much truth should he reveal? Very little. He took a quick look at the outstretched hand, saw no wedding ring, and quickly decided calling her ‘ma’am’ might be offensive.

“Well, Miss, I am looking for a place to call home. I admit I have done some travelling in the past. I have been that rolling stone, but I believe the good Lord directed my footsteps, or rather my wagon, to this fine town.” 

Henry had used the ‘good Lord directing footsteps’ routine before. It had been impossible to miss the solid stone church not far from this store. Church life was important in places like this. A slight smile flickered on her face. Good, the line was working. 

He continued, “If I am right, the good Lord will give me a sign and provide me a job. In the meantime, can any of you tell me where I might stable my team?  Is there a good boarding house where I might stay until the Almighty reveals his purpose for bringing me here?”

The left hand with its accusing finger dropped as the right hand was extended. “Let me be the first to welcome you to Slaterville, Mister ah, ah.”

“Bell. Henry Bell. Thank you, miss. Thank you for the warm welcome. Whom do I have the honor of addressing?”

“I am Miss Slater. This is my family’s town.” 

Henry saw the young woman behind the counter roll her eyes, but she remained in place. The other women crowded around him giving him information and advice on stabling and where he might stay—as well as invitations to join them at the Methodist Church, unless he wanted to travel several miles to get to the Presbyterian Church in Sharon, although that minister was extremely long-winded. He escaped as soon as possible, feeling like a bear trying to steal honey from a tree and being swarmed by the bees. This town sure seemed like a source of honey, but he needed to control the bees.

That evening Henry sat on the porch of Mrs. Manning’s boarding house chewing on a toothpick. He wished he had picked up a packet of Mail Pouch tobacco before he escaped that general store, but as Mrs. Manning had already announced she was anti-tobacco and anti-alcohol. The toothpick would have to do. The room was cheap, and she allowed him to stable his team and leave his wagon in her barn for no extra charge. Given the quality and quantity of food she served for dinner, Henry decided he could put up with this fussy old biddy until he figured out what was next. 

For the moment no one would think of looking for him here. Where was he again? Ah, yes, Slaterville, Pennsylvania.

       ***

Florence sat at her marble-topped walnut dressing table and stared at her reflection in the mirror as her maid pulled out hairpins. Mary dropped the pins into the dish designed to hold them and then placed the rat and pompadour frame in the side drawer. Mary began brushing out Florence’s hair, counting each stroke under her breath as Florence once again recounted the events of the morning.  

“He was so handsome, Mary.” Florence smiled at her reflection. “Tall. I had to look up at him. Most men I meet are my height or shorter. And his shoulders… He has the most amazing blue eyes. Did I tell you about the dark curl that fell over his forehead?”

“Fifty-five. Yes, Miss Florence, you mentioned a handsome man had arrived in town.”

“He said his name was Henry Bell. Have you ever heard of any people named Bell in the area? I wonder who his people are.” 

“Sixty-eight, Sixty-nine.”

“I wonder if he will stay here. He said he thought God wanted him to come here. Perhaps I should invite him to join Daddy and me in our pew this Sunday. I wonder where he ended up staying. We gave him several suggestions. Maybe Daddy could give him a job.”

“Eighty-one. The coachman next door told cook the newcomer got a room over with Missus Manning and paid cash for a week in advance. Eighty-six.”

Florence was silent as Mary finished the hundred strokes. The maid cleaned the brush of stray hairs, put them into the hair holder. Those hairs would eventually be added to the rat used to add volume to Florence’s somewhat thin hair.

“Do you want your hair braided as usual, Miss Florence?”

“Of course, Mary. By the way, I read something in the most recent issue of Ladies Home Journal about improving your hair—making it more luxurious, thicker, shinier. Perhaps we could try some of their suggestions?”

“Certainly, Miss Florence. If you give me the article, I will get the supplies we need.”

“We will not buy those items at Mitchell’s. Should we go to Pittsburgh to pick them up? Or perhaps I will send you to Sharon or New Castle to buy them.”

“Whatever you want, Miss Florence. There, I have finished braiding your hair for the night. Is there anything else you need?”

Florence stood and faced Mary. “That is all. Bring me my tea tomorrow at the usual time.”  

Mary headed toward the door but stopped with one hand on the doorknob. “You be careful, Miss Florence. You know nuthin’ about the man other than he is good-lookin’. Remember what happened with that scoundrel you met down in Pittsburgh who was just after your money.” She left the room closing the door softly behind her. 

Florence picked up the oil lamp on the dressing table and took it over to the nightstand. She stood for a moment in the circle of light it cast on the floor, then climbed into bed and considered the events of the morning and the handsome stranger. 

If Henry Bell was staying with Mrs. Manning, it would not take long before the whole town knew his life history. Florence almost mentioned him over dinner tonight to her father but remained silent. Daddy would do anything to make her happy, even employ a newcomer to the town. Yet, Mary was correct to warn her. Florence needed to be cautious. She was the last Slater of Slaterville.

Florence turned down the lamp and slipped under the covers. Would her dreams be filled with dancing vivid blue eyes and a dark curl that fell over a forehead?

After surviving too many winters in New England, Kathleen Fair came to South Carolina and accepted the challenge of writing fiction. She had written for years, but she had been writing straight history—usually the history of people and places in the area where she lived. The Surfside Chapter of SCWA has been invaluable in stretching her ability to write fiction, although she still writes historical fiction.  In June 2019, her first book Princess to Prioress was released.  Hell Hath No Fury will be her second novel. It is an honor to be included in The Petigru Review.