The most interesting thing was the talk from the customers. Nobody can buy a hat without gossiping. Sophie sat in her alcove and stitched and heard that the Mayor never would eat green vegetables, and that Wizard Howl’s castle had moved round to the cliffs again, really that man, whisper, whisper, whisper… The voices always dropped low when they talked of Wizard Howl, but Sophie gathered that he had caught a girl down the valley last month. “Bluebeard!” said the whispers, and then became voices again to say that Jane Farrier was a perfect disgrace the way she did her hair. That was one who would never attract even Wizard Howl, let alone a respectable man. Then there would be a fleeting, fearful whisper about the Witch of the Waste. Sophie began to feel that Wizard Howl and the Witch of the Waste should get together.
“They seem to be made for one another. Someone ought to arrange a match,” she remarked to the hat she was trimming at that moment.
But by the end of the month the gossip in the shop was suddenly all about Lettie. Cesari’s, it seemed, was packed with gentlemen from morning to night, each one buying quantities of cakes and demanding to be served by Lettie. She had had ten proposals of marriage, ranging in quality from the Mayor’s son to the lad who swept the streets, and she had refused them all, saying she was too young to make up her mind yet.
“I call that sensible of her,” Sophie said to a bonnet she was pleating silk into.
Fanny was pleased with this news. “I knew she’d be all right!” she said happily. It occurred to Sophie that Fanny was glad Lettie was no longer around.
“Lettie’s bad for custom,” she told the bonnet, pleating away at mushroom-colored silk. “She would make even you look glamorous, you dowdy old thing. Other ladies look at Lettie and despair.”
Sophie talked to hats more and more as weeks went by. There was no one else much to talk to. Fanny was out bargaining, or trying to whip up custom, much of the day, and Bessie was busy serving and telling everyone her wedding plans. Sophie got into the habit of putting each hat on its stand as she finished it, where it sat looking almost like a head without a body, and pausing while she told the hat what the body under it ought to be like. She flattered the hats a bit, because you should flatter customers,
“You have mysterious allure,” she told one that was all veiling with hidden twinkles. To a wide, creamy hat with roses under the brim she said, “You are going to have to marry money!” and to a caterpillar-green straw with a curly green feather she said, “You are young as a spring leaf.” She told pink bonnets they had dimpled charm and smart hats trimmed with velvet that they were witty. She told the mushroom-pleated bonnet, “You have a heart of gold and someone in a high position will see it and fall in love with you.” This was because she was sorry for that particular bonnet. It looked so fussy and plain.
Jane Farrier came into the shop next day and bought it. Her hair did look a little strange, Sophie thought, peeping out of her alcove, as if Jane had wound it round a row of pokers. It seemed a pity she had chosen that bonnet. But everyone seemed to be buying hats and bonnets around then. Maybe it was Fanny’s sales talk or maybe it was spring coming on, but the hat trade was definitely picking up. Fanny began to say, a little guiltily, “I think I shouldn’t have been in such a hurry to get Martha and
Lettie placed out. At this rate we might have managed.”
There was so much custom as April drew on toward May Day that Sophie had to put on a demure gray dress and help in the shop too. But such was the demand that she was hard at trimming hats in between customers, and every evening she took them next door to the house, where she worked by lamplight far into the night in order to have hats to sell the next day. Caterpillar-green hats like the one the Mayor’s wife had were much called for, and so were pink bonnets, Then, the week before May Day, someone came in and asked for one with mushroom pleats like the one Jane Farrier had been wearing when she ran off with the Count of Catterack.
That night, as she sewed, Sophie admitted to herself that her life was rather dull. Instead of talking to the hats, she tried each one on as she finished it and looked in the mirror. This was a mistake. The staid gray dress did not suit Sophie, particularly when her eyes were red-rimmed with sewing, and, since her hair was a reddish straw color, neither did caterpillar green nor pink. The one with mushroom pleats simply made her look dreary. “Like an old maid!” said Sophie. Not that she wanted to race off with counts, like Jane Farrier, or even fancied half the town offering her marriage, like Lettie, But she wanted to do something—she was not sure what—that had a bit more interest to it than simply trimming hats. She thought she would find time next day to go and talk to Lettie.
But she did not go. Either she could not find the time, or she could not find the energy, or it seemed a great distance to Market Square, or she remembered that on her own she was in danger from Wizard Howl—anyway, every day it seemed more difficult to go and see her sister. It was very odd. Sophie had always thought she was nearly as strong-minded as Lettie. Now she was finding that there were some things she could only do when there were no excuses left. “This is absurd!” Sophie said. “
is only two streets away. If I run—” And she swore to herself she would go round to Cesari’s when the hat shop was closed for May Day.
Meanwhile a new piece of gossip came into the shop. The King had quarreled with his own brother, Prince Justin, it was said, and the Prince had gone into exile. Nobody quite knew the reason for the quarrel, but the Prince had actually come through Market Chipping in disguise a couple of months back, and nobody had known. The Count of Catterack had been sent by the King to look for the Prince, when he happened to meet Jane Farrier instead. Sophie listened and felt sad. Interesting things did seem to happen, but always to somebody else. Still, it would be nice to see Lettie.
May Day came. Merrymaking filled the streets from dawn onward. Fanny went out early, but Sophie had a couple of hats to finish first. Sophie sang as she worked. After all, Lettie was working too. Cesari’s was open till midnight on holidays. “I shall buy one of their cream cakes,” Sophie decided, “I haven’t had one for ages.” She watched people crowding past the window in all kinds of bright clothes, people selling souvenirs, people walking on stilts, and felt really excited.
But when she at last put a gray shawl over her gray dress and went out into the street, Sophie did not feel excited. She felt overwhelmed. There were too many people rushing past, laughing and shouting, far too much noise and jostling. Sophie felt as if the past months of sitting and sewing had turned her into an old woman or a semi-invalid. She gathered her shawl round her and crept along close to the houses, trying to avoid being trodden on by people’s best shoes or being jabbed by elbows in trailing silk sleeves. When there came a sudden volley of bangs from overhead somewhere, Sophie thought she was going to faint. She looked up and saw Wizard Howl’s castle right down on the hillside above the town, so near it seemed to be sitting on the chimneys. Blue flames were shooting out of all four of the castle’s turrets, bringing balls of blue fire with them that exploded high in the sky, quite horrendously. Wizard Howl seemed to be offended by May Day. Or maybe he was trying to join in, in his own fashion. Sophie was too terrified to care. She would have gone home, except that she was halfway to Cesari’s by then. So she ran.
“What made me think I wanted life to be interesting?” she asked as she ran. “I’d be far too scared. It comes of being the eldest of three.”
When she reached
, it was worse, if possible. Most of the inns were in the Square. Crowds of young men swaggered beerily to and fro, trailing cloaks and long sleeves and stamping buckled boots they would never have dreamed of wearing on a working day, calling loud remarks and accosting girls. The girls strolled in fine pairs, ready to be accosted. It was perfectly normal for May Day, but Sophie was scared of that too. And when a young man in a fantastical blue-and-silver costume spotted Sophie and decided to accost her as well, Sophie shrank into a shop doorway and tried to hide.
The young man looked at her in surprise. “It’s all right, you little gray mouse,” he said, laughing rather pityingly. “I only want to buy you a drink. Don’t look so scared.”
The pitying look made Sophie utterly ashamed. He was such a dashing specimen too, with a bony, sophisticated face—really quite old, well into his twenties—and elaborate blonde hair. His sleeves trailed longer than any in the Square, all scalloped edges and silver insets. “Oh, no thank you, if you please, sir,” Sophie stammered. “I— I’m on my way to see my sister.”
“Then by all means do so,” laughed this advanced young man. “Who am I to keep a pretty lady from her sister? Would you like me to go with you, since you seem so scared?”
He meant it kindly, which made Sophie more ashamed than ever. “No. No thank you, sir!” she gasped and fled away past him. He wore perfume too. The smell of hyacinths followed her as she ran. What a courtly person! Sophie thought, as she pushed her way between the little tables outside Cesari’s.
The tables were packed. Inside was packed and as noisy as the Square. Sophie located Lettie among the line of assistants at the counter because of the group of evident farmers’ sons leaning their elbows on it to shout remarks to her. Lettie, prettier than ever and perhaps a little thinner, was putting cakes into bags as fast as she could go, giving each bag a deft little twist and looking back under her own elbow with a smile and an answer for each bag she twisted. There was a great deal of laughter. Sophie had to fight her way through to the counter.
Lettie saw her. She looked shaken for a moment. Then her eyes and her smile widened and she shouted, “Sophie!”
“Can I talk to you?” Sophie yelled. “Somewhere,” she shouted, a little helplessly, as a large, well-dressed elbow jostled her back from the counter.
“Just a moment!” Lettie screamed back. She turned to the girl next to her and whispered. The girl nodded, grinned and came to take Lettie’s place.