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Auraria a novel, p.22
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       Auraria: A Novel, p.22

           Tim Westover
 

  Chapter Twenty-Two

  After supper, Holtzclaw walked the veranda. He was waiting on new arrivals that were supposed to come by the evening train, but a rock slide had blocked the tracks. The carriages he’d sent for them had not yet returned. To distract himself from baseless speculation, he opened a newspaper and tried to read it beneath the glow of the electric lights. He had barely made it past the ads for the rival hotels when someone cleared her throat and placed the tip of her parasol on the top of Holtzclaw’s newspaper, pulling it down.

  Across the fold, Holtzclaw saw three older women. The central figure was dressed in royal purple; her lieutenants, in lavender. All three wore matching broad-rimmed yellow hats with a green ribbon. On the ribbon was a badge with the letters BWCS.

  “Walk with us, Mr. Holtzclaw,” said the leader.

  Holtzclaw stood as commanded. He and the leader went out in front, with the lieutenants a half step behind. They descended a staircase and then turned four abreast onto the long, continuous series of verandas, porches, and covered walkways. Guests coming in the opposite direction—already at fault for walking counterclockwise on an odd-numbered date—were chased into side passages, down stairs, or into alcoves.

  “Mr. Holtzclaw, you are no doubt aware of our operations,” said the leader.

  “I must plead ignorance, ma’am,” said Holtzclaw, “and please take that only as a sign of my lack of knowledge and not as a slight against your organization.”

  “See, such a polite man,” said the right-hand lieutenant.

  “That is why we must ask him,” said the left-hand lieutenant.

  “Yes, we will ask him after introductions,” said the leader. “We are the ruling council and chief players in the Billing, Wooing, and Cooing Society.” The three women held out their hands and vibrated them up and down in a flutter, like wings on a tiny bird.

  “I am Almeda, the Reader of Mysteries,” said the leader. “This is Vera, the Tender of the Entwined Rose and Briar. This is Luella, the Poetess of the Stirring Heart. We offer healing to the lovesick and wholeness to the heartbroken. We are the active agents in this resort of the passions. Consider us healers. Kindred spirits.”

  They all briefly halted to make reciprocal bows and curtseys before picking up their stride again. A small child, ringed in ribbons, sheltered himself behind a column.

  “If you’ll forgive the impertinence,” said Holtzclaw. “We did not intend for our hotel to be a place of passions. It’s a health spa.”

  “Of course, that is what you will say,” said Almeda, the Reader of Mysteries. “Who would advertise that his hotel is a place where marriages may be made, contracts brokered, partnerships forged? It would sound too mercenary, too boiled in profits. But it is the real reason any of these good people are here. Now tell me, Mr. Holtzclaw, are you a confirmed bachelor?”

  “That question, Ms. Almeda …”

  “In deference to our rank, the appropriate form of address is ‘Your Graciousness,’” said Almeda.

  “As I was saying, even overlooking the indelicacy of that question, I would not be able to answer it. I’m a bachelor, yes, but by confirmed, you mean …”

  “I mean,” said Almeda, “are you confirmed to live out your life as a bachelor because of the peculiar arrangement of your heart and your proclivities, or do you see your bachelorhood, as we do, as a broken state, in need of remedy?”

  “Then I am not a confirmed bachelor,” said Holtzclaw. “But I hardly see why that would matter. Did you have some business to discuss? Are there problems with your rooms? What is it that I can do for you?”

  “It is not what you may do for us but what we may do for you,” said Almeda. “We have two primary roles here at the Queen of the Mountains, as set forth in our founding documents. The first role is the instruction of dance etiquette, and in this we have made great strides. The lines of the quadrille are crisper than at the beginning of the season, and we find that far fewer ladies are offering their hands on the turn with their pinky fingers held aloft, in the Scottish fashion. The second role, and in this we take more pleasure, is in the arrangement of introductions between eligible parties. We have decided that you, Mr. Holtzclaw, will be taken under the wing of the Billing, Wooing, and Cooing Society. We will find you a suitable match.”

  Almeda, Vera, and Luella again flapped their hands as though soaring on a breeze. The eccentricities of these particular visitors were becoming more difficult for Holtzclaw to tolerate.

  “Well, that is a very kind offer,” said Holtzclaw, “but I must decline. I have work to do.”

  “Nowhere in the project is there opportunity for your disagreement,” said Almeda. “Your cooperation is appreciated but not mandatory. Some of our most enjoyable challenges and noted successes have been over the objections of the players.”

  “Do you remember the Marquis and the pork princess?” said Luella.

  “Of course we remember,” said Vera. “How could we forget such a savory reception banquet?”

  “I said it for him,” said Luella, jabbing a thumb toward Holtzclaw. “Because he did not see how bitterly they fought their fate, until that fateful ham shank brought them together.”

  “Then it is agreed,” said Almeda. “We will be making a series of introductions for you. The first will be to a Ms. Abigail Thompson, whom, as you may be aware, holds a position of some authority at this hotel and who, besides, has an estate of her own, obtained by the sale of her property to a land developer and his assistant.”

  “I have worked very closely with Ms. Thompson for months,” said Holtzclaw.

  “Yes, but you have not been introduced,” said Almeda.

  “Perhaps that word does not mean what I think it means,” said Holtzclaw.

  “You need not be concerned with it,” said Almeda. “All will be orchestrated. The second introduction we have planned is to Ms. Elizabeth Rathbun. She is heir to a medical practice here, and her father is a local politician—the mayor, I believe. On a social rank, this match is more favorable. She has a respectable personal capital, as well, according to our sources. She is owner of a floating hotel called the Maiden of the Lake.”

  “I know Ms. Rathbun quite well too,” said Holtzclaw. “I’m her partner in her boat project.”

  The foursome had come to a temporary halt at one of the mineral water stations. An employee ladled mineral water into silver cups for Holtzclaw and the women. They drained the contents while walking and returned their cups to next station on the walk.

  “Yes, you may know her,” said Almeda, “but again, you have not been introduced.”

  “I fail to see the value in your introductions, if you are only presenting me to people with whom I’m already familiar.”

  “Mr. Holtzclaw! How can you be familiar without having been introduced?” said Almeda. Her lieutenants blushed so deeply that the color of their faces clashed with their clothing.

  “Not in an improper sense, of course,” said Holtzclaw. “Until not so long ago, this valley was a less refined place. One could not rely upon the Billing, Wooing, and Cooing Society …”

  The women performed their ritual. They took pride in the delicacy of the winglike motions. No bird could soar on such minute movements.

  “Upon such societies to perform the social niceties needed for conducting commerce,” continued Holtzclaw.

  “Then we will look to your recent guests,” said Almeda, Reader of Mysteries. “Eligible parties that have not yet been tainted by familiarity. Ladies?”

  Vera, the Tender of the Entwined Rose and Briar, placed a pair of reading spectacles on her nose and withdrew papers from her portfolio. Holtzclaw had never seen a portfolio shaped like a parasol before; it was an ingenious and socially acceptable solution. The paper that Vera consulted was labeled with a case file number and bore BWCS letterhead.

  “Emmagreen S.,” said Vera. “An Old World firebrand. She is, and I mean this in the most complimentary and delicate way, a capricious and demanding person
, prone to fits of rage if her will is not obeyed. She arrived a fortnight ago and has changed suites five times.”

  “Oh yes,” said Holtzclaw. “Her.”

  Vera noted this on her paper. “Emmagreen S. also has poisonous blood,” she continued. “Not poisonous to her, naturally—I think it makes her immune to most of the infirmities that afflict the human race. But it is harmful to those who touch her—which would only be necessary after the courtship has been completed and, thus, of little concern to us.”

  “My apologies, but I have a categorical aversion to poisonous people,” said Holtzclaw.

  “There is another candidate,” said Almeda.

  Now Luella withdrew her file. These women carried with them a great deal of paper, Holtzclaw realized. “A wisp of an Oriental aristocrat. Her name is unpronounceable, which complicates introductions. Our intelligence indicates that she will be arriving by train in six days. Her fortune was made in some quintessentially Oriental fashion—tea export or the manufacture of antiquities or some such.”

  “If I may interrupt, Poetess of the Stirring Heart,” said Almeda, the Reader of Mysteries, “I received updated information this morning that suggests she is an … artist. A painter and sculptor of some talent.”

  “As a supplement to her business fortunes?” asked Vera. “Because we have not disqualified ladies who play with watercolors between luncheon and tea.”

  “No, as her sole support. There is no export business. She eats by her art.”

  Luella folded the information paper and tore it twice. She deposited the shreds in the hands of a passing hotel employee.

  “There are more suitable candidates, Holtzclaw,” said Almeda. “Never fear. Why, just last evening, we caught sight of a splendid creature. Very beautiful. A charming laugh. Her bones suggest she may be royalty, though we are not sure from where. The chin is not right for the European rulers; it could mean she’s descended from one of the South Seas kingdoms. She is proving to be somewhat difficult to talk to, as she keeps fleeing from where she is bathing when we approach.”

  “She had a rabbit face,” said Vera. “Pointy ears. Coal-black eyes.”

  “It is our imperfections that make us charming,” said Almeda.

  •

  By the time Holtzclaw rid himself of the meddlesome women, worked his figures, gathered the latest on the dam repairs, and tried to deliver his daily report to Shadburn, who was already asleep, it was midnight. The lobby desk was unstaffed. A small party played faro at a round table; they talked in low voices, as though afraid of disturbing their slumbering compatriots.

  Holtzclaw did not retire to his room but took the steam elevator to a lower floor. The corridor leading to the baths was tiled on all sides with an irregular green and white pattern. Iron gates barred the entrance to changing rooms; Holtzclaw unlocked them. A row of wooden stalls provided a place for guests to doff their formal clothing and put on the bathing costumes provided by the Queen of the Mountains. For men: a one-piece garment that stretched from just above the knee to the shoulder, featuring a blue diagonal stripe. For women: a similar garment that had an optional wrap around the waist to provide modesty around the ankle but still—and here was the delicate matter—expose a measure of skin to the action of the mineral waters. If the swimming attire were too conservative, then the waters could not be absorbed effectively.

  The bathing chamber was dark; Holtzclaw threw the switch. Lights activated in series, down the long chamber. As they warmed up and glowed brighter, their buzzing came into harmony. Holtzclaw had ordered all the bulbs together, and when any burned out, he replaced them all as a set. Bulbs made together all hum in the same key; bulbs mixed and matched from different lots were apt to be sharp or flat. The healing action of the water would be upset by any disharmony. At least, this is what Dr. Rathbun had advised. It was on his recommendation that the Queen of the Mountains provided ewers of mineral water on every flat surface and that employees pulled wheeled barrels over the croquet field. Likewise by Dr. Rathbun’s advice, mineral water was not provided at mealtimes. Then it was alcohol, especially whiskey, to aid digestion, and for children, pickle brine.

  It was not enough to only drink the waters, said Dr. Rathbun, though that was an essential part. Bathing, too, must be performed at appropriate times and in appropriate ways, and in correct combination with the patient’s needs and other mineral waters consumed. Mineral water could be classified into eight varieties: saline, sulfur, white sulfur, chalybeate, epsom, lythia, plyant, and freestone. The Queen of the Mountains had sources of each flowing to its baths, pumped from locations all over the valley, but not every source was pure. For instance, the cold waters from Moss’s spring were rich in epsoms but also held a measure of white sulfur. Patients who needed to consume epsom rarely needed white sulfur, which could cause unwanted imbalances. Thus, they were advised to bathe in chalybeate waters to draw out the excess sulfur. Bathing, in such cases, was not itself therapeutic, but an antidote to side effects of the actual cure.

  Dr. Rathbun diagnosed Holtzclaw’s recurring pain as a common condition to new residents of the valley. The debris of the Lost Creek Valley—its peculiar collection of sediments, minerals, fogs, humidities, and ghosts—collected in the turns of the intestine. Holtzclaw protested that he was not a resident, merely a long-term visitor, but Dr. Rathbun told him that his bowels evidently disagreed. Dr. Rathbun prescribed alternating consumption of saline water, to break up the internal mass, and plyant waters, to charge the intestines with the necessary solvents to prevent further accretions. This was followed by bathing in heated sulfur water, which awakened the ingested ingredients by temperature and smell, for precisely fifteen minutes. Then a cold cascade of freestone water was to be applied instantaneously to rinse away sulfur residue and halt the heating action, so Holtzclaw’s gut would not become overcooked.

  The bathing hall provided eight long pools, large enough for twenty people at once and deep enough for even the tallest bather to submerge himself fully. These were supplemented by two dozen overhead basins, for greater variety in topical application. Water was delivered into these basins by either heated or refrigerated pipes. The bather stood directly underneath the basin and pulled a handle to release the entire contents over himself at once.

  Holtzclaw found the taste of the saline water very unpleasant, and Dr. Rathbun had given him license to mix it with a stabilizing substance. Holtzclaw measured a spoonful of Pharaoh’s Flour into a cup that he then filled with saline water from a tap. He drank the whole in one draught and then entered the steaming sulfur bath. He had to lower himself carefully, by degrees, adjusting to each new level.

  As the water rose above his navel and his stomach, Holtzclaw winced. The pain became sharper, then after a moment he felt it widen, growing less acute as it spread. Then the pain was gone—or nearly gone. Holtzclaw could still feel a faint stripe of discomfort in the usual place. It was a ghost that had not yet been washed away.

  A soft splashing disturbed him from his restorative thoughts.

  “Come in on the pipes?” he said, addressing the presence of the princess. He did not scamper to shelter; his bathing suit was modest enough.

  “No, by the power of my feet,” she said. They were swirling the waters of the lythia bath, next to the sulfur one.

  “I’m surprised to see you here,” said Holtzclaw. “These aren’t your kind of springs.”

  The princess walked the perimeter of the bathing hall. She looked into drains and pipes. She sniffed the waters. “You have made the best of it,” she said. “They are like tiny underground lakes.”

  Holtzclaw turned around so he could watch her; he propped himself against the rim of the bath on his elbows. “Tell me plainly: are we enemies, Princess? Are you trying to destroy the dam?”

  Trahlyta said nothing. She finished her patrol and then sat at the edge of the sulfur bath, beside Holtzclaw. Again he found himself debating from a position of weakness. He strained his neck to look up at the small
, seated princess.

  “Why do you want this dam, James? What purpose does it serve for you?”

  “To rid this valley of gold. Hide it away.”

  “Then we are not enemies.” She stirred the water with her feet. For the first time, Holtzclaw noticed that she had only four toes on each.

  “I mean, those are Shadburn’s reasons,” he said. “I gave you his reasons. I have my own. You’ve seen my work. The Maiden of the Lake.”

  “There’s no such creature, James.”

  “I assure you, there is. Soon enough, she’ll launch with her first guests. She will sail the narrow ocean of her world.”

  “And you’ve always wanted to be the master of a hotel, have you? Captain a steamship that putters around a lake? Why work for dreams that are not your own?”

  The princess rose before Holtzclaw could respond; he did not know what to say. She walked to each other basin in turn. Her soft feet padded against the tile. She lifted a handful of water from each and then let it fall back into the basin. She pulled the handle on an overhead water basin. A cascade tumbled before her and then ran off through a complex network of pipes.

  “They will do,” said the princess. “The usual baths for my employers are presently unavailable. They are flooded with water or tourists. And yet, they need to get clean.”

  “Why do you have employers at all? Why aren’t you free to do as you please?”

  “The natural and supernatural worlds grow into each other. You must remember, you middle -world mortals are all very short-lived. A decade, a century—these are very brief moments of time for terrapins and Trahlytas. Mountains and ghosts live for eons. They become friends.”

  She picked up the tin of Pharaoh’s Flour from where it rested beside Holtzclaw’s cup and smiled as she saw Amenhotep’s laughing face on the label.

  “I like him,” said the princess. “His laugh rings like rain.”

  “How do you know what his laugh sounds like?” said Holtzclaw, climbing out of the hot sulfur bath. His prescribed time had passed.

  “We are old acquaintances,” said the princess.

  “But he’s as tied to the desert as you are to the springs of this valley.”

  “It’s not so simple as that,” said the princess. “We can all visit the moon. We have an exposition there, once every age or so. We build a palace of crystal, and the moon maidens wiggle their noses, and it is a grand time. But cold, so cold. Golden starlight sticks to your skin, and you want a vacation—someplace warm, for a swim.”

  “Are there moon men too, to complement the maidens?” Holtzclaw asked. “Where do they go on their holidays?”

  “They go on hunting parties with the pharaoh Amenhotep III. He leads them across plains of sand so white and blameless that they feel they are walking on clouds. The moon men find strength in his laugh and smiling eyes. But his friendship is only mercenary. He is an employee, James, like you and me.”

  •

  A panic interrupted the afternoon tea hour, echoing through all the stories of the Queen of the Mountains like a thunderclap. A pink-bonneted woman, sitting before cucumber sandwiches, saw a green snake crawl over her shoes. She emitted a long, high-pitched wail that drew every ear, and then she burst into guttural noises like she was drowning in her own tears.

  Flying leaps upset tables and chairs. China fell and shattered. The streak of green flashed across the dining room and vanished below the baseboard. This disappearance did not bring relief. Now the snake was inside the arteries of the Queen of the Mountains. Its vile green head could pop out anywhere—from below a pillow, from the spigot on the washbasin. Huddled masses evacuated to the lawn. What was the terrible creature doing to the food, the water, the alcohol? How would its oozes and essences affect the springs? Would supper be delayed; would the menu be changed?

  Abigail banged at the baseboard with the end of a broom. Holtzclaw fetched her a crowbar to remove the wood paneling. They failed to find the intruder. The Sky Pilot was called to assist. Holtzclaw made sure to parade him past the huddled masses, who gave a heartened cheer. The Sky Pilot was laden with tools and weapons: a bow and stuffed quiver, a long rifle, an unsheathed bush knife. Little boys and girls, their faces screwed up in courage, broke away from the body and joined the Sky Pilot as his irregulars.

  “A green snake is nothing to worry about,” said the Sky Pilot, and his irregulars nodded their assent. He stalked along a long corridor, stopping every ten feet. “What you need to worry about are the hoop snakes. They put their tails in their mouths and roll down the hill toward you, and they’ll clobber you so good!”

  All the irregulars agreed that this snake was far worse than a green snake.

  “That’s nothing compared to the coachwhip snake, though,” said the Sky Pilot, opening each drawer of a high boy. “The coachwhip snake is long and black, just like a carriage driver’s crop. If the coachwhip snake comes for you, it’ll put its tail down your throat so that you can’t scream, and then it thrashes you with its body, like you’re a disobedient horse.”

  The irregulars shivered and squealed with fear and excitement; they rummaged through the linens in the laundry but found no sign of the green snake.

  “There are snakes that have very powerful venom. They have poisons that make you swell up. One of those snakes bit on my walking stick, and it swelled up to the size of tree. I sold it for railroad ties, and they made a mile of track from my walking stick. But then the rains came, and all the poison got washed out, and the railroad ties shrank until they were toothpicks. I got to sell the toothpicks though.”

  Abigail smiled over this story; the irregulars were fascinated.

  “There are stronger venoms too. A snake bit on a watermelon, and when the watermelon broke open, it caused such a flood that the valley has never seen, before or since. It was such a gush of water. This lake is a puddle compared to that watermelon flood. The top of Sinking Mountain was gone under the pink juice. I would have been washed away, but I grabbed on to a black seed, which was as big as a house, and I set up a campfire and a cabin there.”

  “We all had to ride on seeds for weeks,” said Abigail, “and if we wanted to visit our neighbors, we had to swim. We all got covered in sticky juice and some of us got carried away by ants.”

  “The only good thing,” said the Sky Pilot, “was that the valley smelled like August for two whole years.”

  The irregulars drank from the ewers of mineral water, pretending that it was a potent antidote. They administered rituals and poultices to each other. The Sky Pilot turned out comforters and duvets. Pillows were cast aside. He upended a fainting couch and used his knife to slice open a feather bed.

  “The worst snake of them all,” said the Sky Pilot, “is the trance snake. Because it doesn’t matter how brave or strong you are—it will fascinate you to helplessness and tickle you to death. To meet one is to die.”

  This made the irregulars pause. How would they deal with such a threat? Such a creature was not just. It took no notice of merit or talent; might and courage were futile. Death was only luck then. They shook with distress; their balance had been upset.

  The Sky Pilot’s face broke into a wide smile, and he stretched his broad, powerful arms out to his distressed adherents. They curled up close to him, to his smell and his wisdom and his weapons, and they knew that there was no such thing as a trance snake. He had only been testing them. Their fear and doubt had brought them through.

  “Since we can’t find that green snake, who in any case is not at all dangerous,” said the Sky Pilot, “what should we do?”

  “We’ll take the hotel apart!” said one of the irregulars.

  “Burn it with fire!”

  “Set the dynamite!”

  “Freeze the walls and smash them with a hammer!”

  “Turn on all the taps and flood it out!”

  “Electricity!”

  “Falling stars!”

  “All very good ideas,” said the Sky Pilot. “So good that we mu
st try them all. But we can’t! There are people that live here. We can’t blow up Abigail’s house. We can’t wash Holtzclaw’s home down into the valley.”

  The irregulars nodded. This made very good sense to them.

  “So what we will do,” said the Sky Pilot, “is send out a second green snake, who in any case is not at all dangerous. The second snake must be just like the first one, the same kind and the same age and the same temper.”

  “Then wherever the first one went, the second one will go, too,” said one of the irregulars.

  “They’ll fight!” said another.

  “When they fight, they’ll try to eat the other one up!”

  “Who will win?” said the Sky Pilot.

  “They are both alike, both will win and both will lose.”

  “At the same time too!”

  “Each one will start to eat the other, and then they’ll eat each other up, at just the same time!”

  “Gulp, and both are gone!”

  “No more snake!”

  “No more snake,” agreed the Sky Pilot. He took from his belt a brown burlap sack; he untied the top and withdrew a green snake, about ten inches long. The snake tasted the air with its pink tongue and looked up sleepily at the assembled irregulars.

  The Sky Pilot lowered his hand; the snake flashed away, a green streak, and vanished through a narrow fissure beside a water pipe. The irregulars burst into cheers.

 
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