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Auraria a novel, p.20
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       Auraria: A Novel, p.20

           Tim Westover
 

  Chapter Twenty

  When the first train crossed Lake Trahlyta, the arriving tourists pressed their noses to the glass, straining for a glimpse of the pure and ancient body of water promised by legend and advertisement. Instead, they saw a prosaic brown lake, and the Queen of the Mountains at the edge of this overgrown cow pond was a disappointment.

  Holtzclaw wondered how much money it would cost to get the tea color out of the water, what kinds of filters and pipes he’d have to build. But before he could formulate a plan, the water solved his troubles for no additional charge. The tea color came from the agitated remains of life in the valley. Soil had been swirled into solution with leaf litter. Ashes from burned homes mixed with rotten traces of bracken and branches, soggy bits of paper, and charred sand. The water broke these remnants down into the smallest possible particles, which settled and sank. Day by day, the lake waters became clearer.

  Then one fine evening, a group of arriving tourists smiled as their train flew over the face of the lake. The water had cleared enough to meet their expectations. Before them, the lake was pure and bright, casting a golden glow onto the Queen of the Mountains. The mirror-like surface reflected the hotel’s two chief towers and its domes, gables, porches, and walks. Nature doubled Holtzclaw’s work: one formal garden bloomed like two; the nine-hole golf course became eighteen; the manicured lawn stretched twice as far.

  Holtzclaw’s usual perch in the Queen of the Mountains was a table in the grand lobby, near the reception desk. The lobby’s ceiling rose five stories, past interior balconies that opened onto loges and mezzanines. Doors opened and closed, discharging visitors and attendants from sleeping chambers, smoking lounges, dining rooms, conservatories, and baths. Overstuffed leather chairs enveloped men with newspapers and children with baubles. Here, Holtzclaw had succeeded best at capturing rhythm and order. Shined shoes, crisp creases, accurate hats, and clean gloves moved and settled and moved again. Quartets of studious-faced guests adhered to the strict rules of preference and faro.

  An employee in the livery of the Queen of the Mountains—gold epaulettes; white coat; a tapering, diagonal blue sash running from right hip to left shoulder—brought him a glass of claret.

  “Thank you,” said Holtzclaw.

  “You’re welcome, James,” replied the employee. Holtzclaw whirled as he recognized the princess’s voice, but she had already vanished. There was no sense in chasing her; she appeared as she willed several times a day. Holtzclaw couldn’t fathom her reasons, but she was not doing any harm to his guests or his staff. And unlike a singing tree or a moon maiden, her presence would not stir up any excitement. Thus, he was inclined to leave her to her game and not incite her by confrontation.

  At first, he had been cheered that she had done nothing to obstruct the building of the hotel. Perhaps she had even hastened it. Clear weather at the Queen of the Mountains had allowed construction to move quickly; rain upriver had brought the lake to full pool ahead of schedule. And the tea color of the water had finally settled out, perhaps because of a deep current at her command.

  And then Holtzclaw grew suspicious of the tranquility. His dam, his mud, his railroad lines, and his dynamite could not have been pleasing to such a spirit. For he and Trahlyta were rivals, were they not? If the princess was not thwarting him, then he must be aligning himself, unwittingly, with her own motives. The particular laws of nature in Auraria granted her a supernatural talent that he could not hope to counter, except with great resource and great expense. To face a worthy opponent would make the triumph of the hotel complete, and Holtzclaw was sure that Trahlyta was worthy—but he was not sure if she was his opponent. Were her employers rivals to his? Were Holtzclaw and Trahlyta both merely functionaries in the sublunary world?

  Perhaps Trahlyta was only toying with him, and when his world and hers were no longer reconciled, she would make good on her threat—to open the mountains and let the waters out. This was a greater reason to keep the local spirits on good terms with the tourists. A riot might awaken the vengeful spirit of the water.

  He turned back to his paper—a three-day-old rumor rag from Charleston. It was merely a prop. His attention turned to a conversation occurring at the reception desk between Abigail and a displeased customer.

  “I am sorry, Mr. Fabricatorian,” said Abigail, “but there is nothing I can do.”

  “Hm! Why, there’s plenty you can do! Look here, in the advertisements, it says, ‘on the shores of a lake that looks as natural and old as the hills.’ Well, that is malarkey!”

  “So you’ve said.”

  “There are fresh mud tracks everywhere. Road beds that lead plumb down into the lake. I’m out on a boat, fishing; I look down, and I am floating above a cornfield. And the dam is a whopper of a thing, as plain as the nose on your face! There is too much new about the place. You should have let it sit longer in the elements if you are going to advertise ‘natural and old as the hills.’”

  “If you feel the advertisements are misleading, I can let you speak to the individuals who prepare our copy,” said Abigail. Holtzclaw could feel her eyes burning on the back of his neck.

  “What good would that do for me now? That’s right, none! What you can do is put in some older trees. Your hills must look old too! You know, vines and moss and caves and such.”

  “I will see if some old forest is available by catalog for overnight shipping,” said Abigail.

  “And the flume coming off that dam and through the gorge is a terrible eyesore. A three-man crew could pull it down in a day and make a much more sublime picture.”

  “The water has to be let out somehow, and in the absence of a river, we have a flume.”

  “Can’t put in a forest! Can’t fix a river! Pah. We are too clever as a people for such excuses.”

  Mr. Fabricatorian strode away from the reception desk, and after he was gone, Abigail approached Holtzclaw’s table. She wore the livery of the hotel, but silver tassels on her epaulettes marked her as high ranking. Abigail sat down backward on a chair, straddling it as if it were a horse. It was not the way Ms. Rathbun would sit, mused Holtzclaw; she would have arranged a perfect faint and wafted into the chair as if she were a feather.

  “Did you write that part about ‘natural and old as the hills’?” asked Abigail.

  “I don’t think I would have written anything quite like that. But I’ll confess to it, if you’d like someone to blame.”

  Abigail flicked Holtzclaw’s newspaper, and he blinked at the sudden sound. “I know how we could please Mr. Fabricatorian and his friends,” she said. “We could relocate the hotel to a cave. What’s more natural than being surrounded by rock? Or we could place the guests’ rooms in the tops of trees, connected by swinging rope bridges.”

  “Please don’t mention it to Shadburn,” said Holtzclaw. “He might think it the grandest idea he’s ever had. Plus, all the best caves are underwater.”

  “At the least, we could consider sprinkling some more age and authenticity here and there, to improve the atmosphere.”

  “Fortunately, we can do that,” said Holtzclaw. “It is cheap too. The only required capital is time.”

  Abigail glanced back at the reception desk, but no one was waiting. She swiveled her head to check for arriving parties. She noted the wrought-iron clock that presided over the south sitting room. And satisfied that nothing required her attention, she continued. “Even considering Mr. Fabricatorian and friends, I can’t say that working here is any worse than working for the ghosts of the Old Rock Falls.”

  “You still have them, too.”

  “Mr. Bad Thing had been out of sorts, but not wrathful. Hulen’s downright pleased. It was kind of you to think of them and give them a place here. It might have been just to win me over, but thank you.”

  Holtzclaw wondered if, after such a buttering, she needed money; if she were going to make some reckless demand; if she were going to harangue him about some delay or failure. But she didn’t. “You’re welcome, Ms. T
hompson,” he said at last.

  Wet thumps squelched against the glass ceiling of the lobby. Holtzclaw leapt up from the table, took an umbrella from a brass can, and went outside with Abigail onto the veranda. A rain of overripe peaches was falling. When they hit the ground or the back of a fleeing tourist, they burst out of their skins.

  “At least it isn’t codfish or swamp slime,” said Abigail.

  “Or rocks,” said Holtzclaw. “The peaches are so soft that they are unlikely to brain anyone.”

  A damp missile streaked at an angle beneath the veranda roof, exploding against the wooden floor into a shower of peach spray. Holtzclaw wiped flecks from his nose and brow.

  A man with fragments of fruit on his hat approached Holtzclaw and jabbed a finger into his breast. “What sort of place are you operating here? If I am to be be-peached, I demand an explanation.”

  “Well, if you demand one, then one shall be provided,” said Holtzclaw. “I can give you several, and you can choose the one that you think the best.” Abigail laughed, and this encouraged Holtzclaw’s imagination. “A shipment of old fruit was left in a railroad car, which was then blown up by an errant piece of dynamite. A cyclone stripped fruit from some forlorn native grove. A peach canning factory lost its roof in a sugar explosion. The fruit trees of the moon maidens have lost their crop to a stiff interplanetary wind.”

  “That’s not good enough, sir,” said the accuser. “I don’t want to be the brunt of your little joke.”

  “The only explanation,” said Abigail, “is that Auraria is the sort of place where peaches fall unbidden from the sky. Holtzclaw should have put that in his advertisements.”

  “Well, I never!” said the accuser. He stomped away across the lawn. Wet peaches splattered around him.

  “Ms. Thompson, we can make something of these peaches, can’t we?” said Holtzclaw. “Perhaps cobbler or ice cream?”

  “They’re perfect for homebrew,” said Abigail.

  Holtzclaw had copper vessels brought in from the general store in Dahlonega, express delivery, and Abigail ran the mash. At supper, the guests were served a peach aperitif in thin, long-stemmed glasses, and there was much good-natured laughter. The confusion of the rain of peaches was converted into an amusing anecdote, capped by a party. A quartet of parlor banjo players plunked through a commemorative song. It was not great art, but it served his purpose. The guests had peaches rain upon them, and yet, they smiled.

  •

  Shadburn’s quarters were on the top floor of the Queen of the Mountains, inside one of the turrets. The main room was a great circle. Panoramic windows afforded a view of the entire lake, all the way from the dam to Sinking Mountain. It was the finest suite in the hotel, decorated in high style and at great expense. Rich red drapes framed every window. The stone was the pick of the local quarries, polished to a mirror shine. Brass and silver winked from every surface. The monogramme hSe, in flowing script, was on every finial, pull, latch, and knob. The greatest names of capitalism would have gladly booked here, but Shadburn had reserved it for himself, an avarice to which Holtzclaw did not feel that Shadburn, the false industrialist, was entitled.

  Yet for all the pride that such quarters should have given him, Shadburn never entertained visitors here. He could have put on a well-received salon, impressed everyone with his splendor. But perhaps Shadburn did not desire this—or did not know that, as a rich man, he should make these kinds of invitations. He did not even let the maids in to dust and primp, and thus the furniture, only a few months old, looked as haggard as a dowager’s sitting room. A stack of plates—the staff dishware, not the dining room china—wobbled in one corner, buttressed by a haphazard pile of twigs and sticks, which had no other discernible purpose in the room. Atop the long walnut sideboard, an assortment of unlabeled bottles and mismatched glasses had left concentric water stains, ruining the finish. Shadburn should have treated his possessions and privileges with more care, thought Holtzclaw.

  “Come in, Holtzclaw,” said Shadburn, sweeping with his hand. “I was just about to … I don’t know. I had nothing to do. I was about to sleep, I suppose.”

  “Well, I will give you the daily report, and you can muse over it, if you like.”

  “Very fine, yes. Proceed.” Shadburn lowered himself into one of the overstuffed leather club chairs. Though he’d had them custom-made, they were not the right size. He had to bend his knees in opposing directions, and that left his elbows with no comfortable place to rest. Holtzclaw chose to stay standing.

  “Anything to drink, Holtzclaw? Claret?” Shadburn jumped up.

  “Nothing at all. I’ve just come from supper.”

  Shadburn returned to his seat, but this time, he perched on the armrest in a half recline. “I’m sorry, Holtzclaw. Please begin your report.”

  “First, I should give the good news. We have had a slight increase in inquiries for the fall season, and I believe that …”

  “I heard about the peaches,” said Shadburn. “That was good work. You kept the matter in check, turned it to little boon.”

  It was hard to be too upset when interrupted by a compliment. “I wish that I didn’t have to keep matters in check. It takes a great deal of money, and I think we are missing an opportunity to attract tourists with our unique location. The tourists might enjoy a little peach rain. They might even enjoy a performance from the singing tree. The publicity would be priceless.”

  “Oh that wouldn’t do, Holtzclaw. I am trying to have a nice, tranquil place. A steady place. Respectable. Enough to pay the bills, keep on running, make sure the dam stays looked after. Spirits have no role in that. Do you think that little princess is doing anything to threaten the dam?”

  “She’s busy delivering claret and telling stories. Nothing destructive. Not even a rainstorm.”

  “Well, that’s good. But keep an eye on her. A creature like that doesn’t share our interests.”

  “Shall I go on with the report?” said Holtzclaw.

  “By all means. But jump to the best part. The most salient fact.”

  Holtzclaw sighed as he skipped over a page of finely wrought figures. “That would be, I suppose, the matter of dam maintenance.”

  “Yes, that’s essential. What’s happening?”

  “There’s too much water in the Terrible Cascade. All of it should be going through the flume.”

  “Do you mean a leak?” said Shadburn. He leapt from his pose and hurried to the windows, as if he could spy the flaw from a mile away.

  “It’s not a leak exactly. More likely, there is some water following from within the dam. Springs underneath the earthworks. We could hardly have avoided building over the top of some natural fountain.”

  “So you think it’s chance that these springs are flowing now?” said Shadburn. “You don’t think that’s the work of the princess?”

  Holtzclaw couldn’t say.

  “Do whatever you must to keep the dam secure,” said Shadburn. “Bolster it with rocks or iron plates.”

  “That will cut into our reserve capital. We should have brought up another strongbox from underground.”

  “Any number of strongboxes would have been one too few.” Shadburn worked his thumb into his chin. “But you have been a bit wasteful with your resources, Holtzclaw. You poured them back out in the water. You put them into that boat out there.” Shadburn waved toward the window. The vessel was tied up at the shore. One and a half funnels rose from the deck, and green lights winked from the prow and stern. “What do you call it?”

  “The Maiden of the Lake,” said Holtzclaw.

  “Queen of the Mountains, Maiden of the Lake. Not so original, Holtzclaw.”

  Holtzclaw crinkled the papers between his fingers. He wanted to tear them up, throw the fragments into the air.

  Shadburn turned from the window. He smiled at Holtzclaw, perhaps seeing the distress in his employee’s face. Shadburn’s features softened. “I’m sorry, I’m in a foul mood. I spoke harshly. I know how dear that
creation is to you. It’s a fragile little thing, like an egg. When do you open for business?” He walked away from the window and held out his hand to pat Holtzclaw upon the shoulder or the head.

  Holtzclaw ducked the outstretched hand. “We should have launched months ago. We would have, if I hadn’t been so dedicated to my role here. I’ve had to leave most of the work to Ms. Rathbun.”

  “I would be happy to assist you, Holtzclaw. Unfinished, that boat is an eyesore on my lake.”

  “Unfinished or finished, the boat is mine,” said Holtzclaw.

 
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