Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Short Story

The Chapeautrix

The June night that Maeve LeNotre arrived in coal country, a pink and blue rococo sky hung in poufs over Pottsville, her new town. Warblers were trilling evening songs. The dark-red factory buildings sat matter of factly next to Mahantongo Street. John O'Hara's ghost lingered at number 606 next to a pale-green fire hydrant called "Darling."

A secret ship had sailed two weeks before from the port of Dublin and brought her straightaway to Pottsville, sailing up the old Schuylkill Coal and Iron Canal. She had the urchin breaker boys carry her portmanteau up the hill to the house she had bought sight unseen with the inheritance from her great-aunt Kathleen.

The Irish woman with a French name struggled up the hill pulling a black hat case on wheels. Only the faintest wisp of moisture on her upper lip gave away her effort.

Maeve LeNotre -- hatter -- modiste -- chapeautrix. In Pottsville she would ply her trade. Her hats were lavish. As heavy and sensuous as leaden eyelids and sable lashes.

Her shop would float on a riverboat reached by gondolas. It would be draped in garnet-crepe de chine and pistachio silk and have giant pineapple motifs planted on either side of the door.

She set up workrooms in her house. Velvets, felts, straws, feathers, ribbons, gauze, netting, clouds of tulle and bits of fur were neatly stockpiled for her use. Through the hot summer days, she stitched and pinned, folded, steamed and trimmed. The bounty of her hats began to multiply. Her fingers pressed lavender-silk roses to a brim. A light burned long and late in her dark-red house with the green trim.

A room was full. Evening hats. A black bonnet with black tulle that hung like fog over its crown. A black-velvet cloche chained with braid. A creation called Nuit de Chine. A black-crepe scarf studded with paste jewels hanging on a tiara of stars.

Garden-party hats. Large floppy brims garnished with the Vicar's roses in tea-time shades of mauve, lilac and apricot.

Pricked by her milliner's needles, Maeve's fingers grew blood red. Her hair fell sullenly from its elegant conch-shaped roll. Out in the narrow yard behind her house, ash from a colliery furnace blast fell and settled on her white-cotton slips hung out to dry.

When at last the hats and the shop were ready, Maeve held an opening fête aboard the riverbarge. She served ale and porter from the brewery up the hill. The town's most prominent social class came to gawk. Even those citizens who had been to Paris had never hoped to see such an edifice of illusion floating on their canal.

On their way home from the Primrose Mine, the breaker boys and miners passed the barge every day. Against the early fall twilight, Maeve placed Venetian lanterns in her shop windows to illuminate her chapeaux. The door boys pressed their dirty noses to the glass. The wide-eyed mule-drivers cursed their empty pockets. The miners wept for their wives at home. The mine boss considered a fine hat for his bride.
Maeve put black powder on her face and stood upon her barge at dusk.
A wave of purple finches massed upon her red-toned head.

The Chapeautrix is copyright by Carol Markel, 1994.
Photographs by Richard Cramer taken on the roof
at 159 Rivington Street, New York City.

À Bientôt!


  1. Deeply moving and yet such a wink! Lovely moment and gorgeous hats. You are truly a gifted writer and artist.

  2. I'm in total agreement with the above comment! The writing is vivid to my minds eye.

  3. I am here in Louisville, the city of hats during
    Derby week.
    Still, your hats command attention. Hats off to you.

  4. Carol

    The photographs of you in fancy hats with buildings blurred in the background and your eyes distant with a far away look are spectacular! Worthy of Vogue or cinematography for a French film.... great model, great photographer!

  5. I am enchanted by your stunning hats and your poetic writing. And the photos taken by Richard. I agree with Dyan in her comments above.

  6. Charming. All of it, charming....

  7. Carol, these photos of you are gorgeous!