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"And in conclusion, ladies...and gentlemen..." There was a murmur of amusement in the big auditorium, for there were very few men who attended Temperance O'Neil's lectures. They couldn't stand to hear the truth of what Temperance said, couldn't stand to hear and see what they had done to the American family.
"I say that the fight must continue, that we have not yet begun to make inroads into this problem, but we mustn't give up. We must continue!"
At that Temperance stepped back from the podium and dropped her head so only the wide wheel of her trademark hat could be seen. It was an instant before the women could get to their feet and start applauding. Looking up, Temperance gave them a dazzling smile; then slowly and with humility, she walked off the stage.
"You were wonderful," said Agnes Spinnaker as she put a small hand on Temperance's shoulder. "As always."
"Let's just hope it did some good," Temperance said as she twitched the curtain aside and looked out at the audience again. They were still on their feet, still clapping hard.
"You have to go back out," Agnes said loudly so she could be heard over the noise of the crowd. "You have to say something more. Do you have anything planned?"
"Oh, I have something planned, all right," Temperance said as she began pulling long pins from her hat. "Hold these, will you? I don't want anyone to get hurt."
"What in the world are you going to do?"
"Watch," Temperance said as she pushed aside the curtain, then went back onto the stage. As she stepped up on the little box that held the podium, she waited for the applause to die down; then when the room was quiet, she waited another few seconds. No one sat down, but the three hundred or so women stood in place, their hands ready to start clapping again; for whatever Temperance said, they were ready to applaud.
In the absolute quiet of the auditorium, Temperance looked down at the oak lectern in front of her, as though she were looking at notes and about to read from them.
But then, in one fast movement, she grabbed her big hat and threw it so it sailed high above the heads of the women, twirling, twisting, higher and higher. There wasn't an eye in the room that wasn't on that hat, one of her hats, one of Temperance O'Neil's hats.
The hat came down near the back row, and half a dozen women made a leap for it. Momentarily there was a tussle, with skirts rising above ankles, and buttoned leather shoes waving in the air. Then there was a squeal and a pretty young woman jumped up from the middle of the melee and waved the hat as though it were a flag won on a battlefield.
In the next instant the crowd went wild with excitement, clapping, yelling, stamping feet; there were even some whistles.
Temperance stepped down from the podium, gave a great wave to the excited young woman in the back clutching her newly won hat, then quickly left the stage.
"Oh, Temperance," Agnes said, "that was brilliant. Truly brilliant. I would never have thought of that."
"How many are out there?" Temperance asked as she walked briskly toward her dressing room, nodding toward the backstage door.
"Not too many. At least not as many as last time. After what happened last week, people are a little afraid of being hurt."
Inside her dressing room, Temperance reached down to open a hat box on the floor and grimaced. She knew that her theatrics helped her cause, and heaven knew that she needed all the help she could get, but she didn't like people to be hurt.
"How clever you are to have brought another hat. I guess you planned that gesture at the end."
"Of course," Temperance said. Agnes was a good person and she was useful, but she certainly had no imagination. "Is Willie out there?"
"Oh, yes. You know he'd give his life for you."
"Mmmm. Let's just hope he can get me out of here quickly tonight. My mother's ship arrived today. I haven't seen her in three whole months!"
"I'm sure she'll be very glad to see you. You look wonderful."
As Temperance glanced into the mirror, adjusting the replacement hat on her head, she smiled at Agnes. The newspapers alleged that Temperance surrounded herself with homely women so Temperance would look better by contrast. But when Temperance's mother had read that, she'd smiled and said, "But who wouldn't be plain-faced when next to you, dear?"
At that thought Temperance smiled at herself in the mirror. She had missed her mother so much over these last months. She'd missed having someone there when she got home, someone to listen to her escapades and triumphs. Even if some of the things that Temperance did frightened her mother, Temperance still told her about them anyway. "You're so much like your father, dear," Melanie O'Neil would say in that quiet voice of hers, then give a delicate little shiver.
Temperance's father, the beloved husband of Mellie O'Neil, had died when his daughter was just fourteen years old. But those few years had been long enough to instill in Temperance the fire that she needed to fight for women's rights for all the fifteen years since her father's death.
"How's that?" Temperance asked, turning to look at Agnes. "Am I presentable?"
"Oh, yes," Agnes said, clutching a program from tonight's lecture to her thin bosom. "You look wonderful."
"So do you," Temperance said, then gave Agnes a kiss on the cheek.
Blushing, Agnes looked down at her shoes. She was one of Temperance's "abandoned women," as the newspaper called them. Years ago Agnes had eloped with a handsome young man only to find out that he was already married. He'd abandoned her when he was told that her father had disinherited his daughter because she'd run off without his approval. When Temperance found Agnes, she'd been living out of garbage cans and her skin was covered with sores from poor diet and exposure. As Temperance did with hundreds of women, she had found Agnes a job, in this case, working backstage at the Kirkland Auditorium. As a result, Agnes would have walked across fire for Temperance.
"That's not the hat, is it?" Agnes whispered, looking at the huge hat that Temperance was adjusting on her head. It was black felt, with deep red silk roses all around the brim; magenta netting swirled over the flowers. It was the most beautiful thing that Agnes had ever seen.
"No," Temperance said, smiling, and making a mental note to buy Agnes a hat. "The mayor kept that hat. I think he nailed it to his office wall and throws darts at it."
Agnes's face screwed up into rage. "I'll -- "
"I was making a joke," Temperance said quickly. "I heard he has the hat in a glass box in his house. In a place of honor." With each word she spoke, Agnes's face relaxed.
"He should. Everyone says that your hat got him reelected."
"Perhaps. There! Now it's on." Opening the door of the little dressing room, she went into the hall. "I'll see you again next month," she called as she ran toward the stage exit door.
Sometimes Temperance wished the incident with the mayor and the hat had never happened. Never mind that it had been good for both of them. Still, sometimes she wished she didn't have to spend every minute in public in a hat big enough to use as a wagon wheel.
But, as she'd told her mother, if it helped even one woman out of an intolerable situation, then it was worth it.
And her hats had helped many women. Or at least the recognition of the hats had helped them. It was nearly seven years ago, when Temperance was a mere twenty-two years old, that she had first encountered the mayor of New York and had arrogantly asked him what he was going to do about the Millon tenement. A week before, the four-story structure had collapsed on top of seventeen women and children, killing four of them.
The mayor, tired and frustrated, had taken one look at the flawless skin and dark green eyes of Miss Temperance O'Neil and decided she was one of those rich women who got involved in social issues for as long as it took before some equally rich man asked her to marry him.
In front of half a dozen reporters, the mayor looked at her and said, "If you can find a solution before I do, other than having your daddy pay for it, that is," he added, trying to inject some humor into what had become an inquisition, "I'll..." He hesitated. "I'll eat your hat."
It was obvious that the mayor hadn't expected anyone to pick up on his challenge, and certainly not the lovely young thing he made it to. But he had been surprised. The newspapers had no other worthy story at that moment, so they got the names of the people involved, then flashed the story all over the front page of every newspaper in America.
Temperance, fresh out of her all-female college, wasn't ready for the turmoil that hit her, but she made herself ready. She accepted the challenge.
And the race was on.
The mayor tried to get the people who had put him in office to erect another building to replace the one that had collapsed, but they, laughing, hesitated. They didn't especially like the mayor, but they did like the pictures they were seeing of the beautiful Miss O'Neil.
Later, Temperance openly admitted that she couldn't have done what she did if the mayor hadn't helped, but the City of New York rallied around her and they donated their services. People volunteered their time; stores donated building materials. With the help of gaslight and lanterns, volunteers worked round the clock, all with the result that in twenty-six and a half days, there was a new apartment building standing on the site of the collapsed one.
Some canny advisers had shown the mayor how he could use the entire situation to make himself seem more human, so he showed up for the ribbon cutting wearing a bib and carrying a two-foot-long knife and fork. He posed for half a dozen photos with Temperance's hat, looking as though he were about to eat it.
But the mayor, outwardly smiling but inwardly fuming, thought he was going to have the last laugh because he presented the deed to the building to Miss Temperance O'Neil, saying she was allowed to choose the new tenants and to run the place as she saw fit. Let her see how difficult it was to run a building in a slum area! he thought, smiling at the thought of her coming misery.
But the mayor's gesture was the beginning of Temperance's purpose in life. She filled that building with women who had been abandoned by men, and she came up with ways for them to support themselves and their children. She used her beauty, her newly acquired fame, the money her father had left her -- whatever she had and could use -- to find the women means of support.
By the time Temperance celebrated her twenty-third birthday, she was a celebrity and wherever she went in New York, doors were opened to her. Sometimes the men didn't want to see her, because visits from Miss O'Neil always cost them money, but Temperance had found out that there was always a woman who opened the doors that led to the men with the money -- and women were always willing to help her out.
Now, outside the stage door, Willie was waiting for her, and Temperance gave a sigh. There always seemed to be a Willie in her life, some young man who watched her with big, adoring eyes and begged to be allowed to carry her umbrella. But after a couple of years, maybe only one year, when the young man finally got it through his head that Temperance was not going to marry him, he'd wander off to marry some girl whose father sold dry goods and they'd produce a few children. Just the other day Temperance had heard that the first "Willie" now had children in their third year of school.
Besides Willie, outside the auditorium there were about a dozen little girls, each looking up at their heroine, Temperance O'Neil. A couple of the older girls were wearing hats as big as Temperance's. When they saw her, they squealed and held out the photos of Temperance they had purchased at the five-and-dime, all the proceeds going to fund Temperance's projects.
Plastering a smile on her face, Temperance went down the steps and began to sign autographs and hear how the girls wanted to be just like her when they grew up.
Usually, Temperance enjoyed this time, but tonight she wanted to get home as quickly as possible so she could see her mother. She didn't know why it was, but this time she'd missed her mother more than usual and she was dying to sit down with her, kick off her shoes, and tell her mother all about the last three months.
Willie moved through the girls to stand close to her. "Can you get me out of here?" Temperance whispered. "I want to go home right away."
"Anything," Willie whispered back, and he meant the word. Like Agnes, he would have given his life for Temperance. In fact, just last night he'd purchased an engagement ring for her, and he planned to pop the question on Sunday.
Moments later, Willie had hailed a cab and had shooed the girls away so he could help Temperance into the carriage. Once inside, she leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes.
Mistake. Within seconds, Willie was kissing her hand and making declarations of undying love.
What she wanted to say was, Not tonight, Willie. But she just moved her hand away and asked him to ask the driver to go faster.
Willie had been through this many times, so he knew that if he pushed, he would anger Temperance. And her temper was not something that he wanted to unleash upon himself. After he'd ordered the driver about (and taken out his frustrations on the poor man), he turned back to Temperance and allowed himself a moment to stare at her. She was the most beautiful female he'd ever seen in his life. She had masses of dark auburn hair that she tried to tame, but no amount of pinning and twisting could contain all that hair. Constantly, it escaped from the upswept pouf that she wore under her big hats.
She had eyes the color of the finest quality emeralds, skin like porcelain, lips as red as --
"My mother is to arrive tonight," Temperance said, pulling Willie out of his trance. She had come to hate the puppy-dog way he stared at her. "I haven't seen her in three months."
He loved her voice, especially loved it when she spoke to him alone. "You are a saint," he said, his eyes wide. "You've given up having a family of your own to nurse your poor, weak mother. She is so fortunate to have a daughter like you to take care of her. Does she still mourn your father?"
"Every minute of every day. There will never be another man on earth like my father," Temperance said with feeling as she glanced out the window at the dark streets of New York. How much longer before they got home?
It seemed hours before they reached Greenwich Village and the brownstone that was her home. But it wasn't a home without her mother there, Temperance thought. Without Melanie O'Neil's presence, the house was just a heap of stone.
When the carriage finally pulled up in front of the house and she saw that it was ablaze with light, Temperance broke into a grin. Her mother was home! She had so very much to tell her, so many things to share with her. In the last three months Temperance had accomplished a lot, but she was always thinking of what was left to do. Should she take on that project on the West Side? It was so very far away, all the way across the park. It had been suggested to Temperance that she buy a motorcar and travel about town in that. Should she?
There were many things that Temperance wanted to talk to her mother about. Next week Temperance had six meetings with politicians and the press. And there were four scheduled luncheons with men-who-had-money, men who could possibly be persuaded to fund Temperance's purchase of yet another tenement building.
Truthfully, sometimes Temperance felt so overwhelmed by what her life had become that all she wanted to do was put her head on her mother's lap and cry.
But now her mother was home and Temperance would at last have someone to talk to.
"Good night," Temperance called over her shoulder as she practically leaped from the carriage, not allowing Willie to help her down.
She ran up the steps two at a time and threw open the door to the house.
And standing in the entrance hall under the crystal chandelier was Melanie O'Neil, clasped tightly in the arms of a man. They were kissing.
"Oh, Temperance, dear," Mellie said as she broke away from the man. "I didn't want you find out until I'd had time to explain. We, ah..."
The man -- tall, handsome, gray-haired -- stepped forward, his hand outstretched, lips smiling. "Your mother and I were married in Scotland. I'm your new father. And I'm sure you'll be happy to hear that, day after tomorrow, the three of us are going home to live in the Highlands."
Copyright © 2001 by Deveraux Inc.