Bent Willows: VII

A tremendous number of steps

by: Saoirse & Eric

PPrivate Baily!” the sergeant bellowed outside, “I will not tolerate your insubordination one moment longer!” Now frantic, she shoved at her voluminous petticoats in a vain attempt to force them into her blue Union trousers. The tent flap tore open and a whirlpool of light carried her away. Falling now helplessly, she screamed into the obsidian darkness below. The infernal glow of a thousand forges flared beneath, as the torrid heat swept aloft the wails of the accursed. Through the chaos and miasma of smoke and swirling skirts, she sensed the craggy edges of the chasm. Somehow in the pandemonium, she understood the walls were formed not of stone, but charred skulls and maniacally grasping arms. As the intensity of the heat gave way to a sudden chilly blast of air, she woke with a start.

“Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am?” The porter’s soft southern speech liberated her from the demented dream.

Dazed, weary, and now slightly relieved, she opened her eyes to the pre-dawn pitch and sought the headwaters of that treacly drawl. She made out the fuzzy outline of a white glove in the near distance; a bit higher, she found a shining pair of eyes and brilliant white smile.

“Wha . . . huh?” she muttered.

back to Chapter VI, to chapter VIII→ ahead! | image Forest of Dean Lodges

Saybrook Junction, ma’am, your stop. Again, beggin’ your pardon.”

Softly, she hemmed into her hand, adjusting her voice to the soft, feminine pitch she was trying to master. “Why thank you.”

She re-fastened her cloak, donned her gloves and hood, and reached behind her ankles to lay hold of her case.

“Yess’um, just this way,” he held aloft the lantern, “and do mind your step ma’am. May I help with your bag?”

“You’re very kind, but I think I can manage,” she replied, delicately tipping a silver coin.

BBracing herself against the steam, smoke, and flurries of snow, she made her way from the tropical confines of the carriage to the arctic blast outside. As she descended to the platform, she imagined herself as Dante with the porter a blackened Virgil leading her from one circle of hell to the next.

With some difficulty finding her bearings in the swirling chaos of locomotive and weather, she made her way carefully towards the gas lamps near the ticket booth. There she spied the tallest and darkest man she’d ever seen. Smartly bundled against the frigid air, he towered above all others on the platform. In his giant gloved hands he held a jagged wooden board, perhaps a piece of busted milk crate, on which the words, “Miss E.G. Baily” had been neatly stencilled.

“Miss Baily, I presume?” His velvety basso-profundo rumbled as he tipped his porter’s cap.

She smiled, still half-mindedly contemplating her place in this semi-Divine Comedy. “Is that you, Charon, here to ferry me ‘cross the river of forgetfulness?”

“No’am!” he replied. Without missing a beat, he added, “I’d much prefer to take on the role of Beatrice guiding you amongst the celestial spheres.”

GGobsmacked she stood, marveling at the man’s learned response.

“But you may call me Venture,” he continued. “May I take your bag?”

Momentarily dropping her inhibitions, she handed the colossal man her case. “Yes please . . . and thank you. Venture, did you say?”

“Yess’um,” he rumbled, “after my granddaddy. Mr. Thomas requested I should personally see to you and ensure your safe transfer to the Griswold. He is one of our finest regular patrons.”

“Very well indeed,” she replied. Thinking to herself: Already this venture is full of pleasant surprises.

image from Horses & History

TThey made their way to the growler, its polished wooden frame harnessed to a chestnut mare busily snorting the snowflakes from her snout. Venture secured his charge against the cold with a warm quilt that precisely matched the oranges and greens of his own livery. Snugly ensconced, she spied the golden carriage clock; its hands read half-past seven. She marveled at the scenery, all barren branches, lonely cemeteries and cozy homes. As dawn finally broke above the horizon, the sun revealed the snow-blanketed glory of the estuary. At twenty minutes past eight, they pulled into the covered carriageway.

“Miss Baily, may I introduce the esteemed proprietor of this fine establishment, Mr. Hezekiah Griswold.“

“Ah, yes! Good morning, and welcome ma’am, to The Griswold Inn!” A ruddy-faced, bespectacled man greeted her from behind the front desk. “Let me come ‘round to shake your hand.”

The gentleman climbed down from his shelf behind the divided desk and disappeared, though she could still hear him humming a pleasant tune. He made his way around to the front with only the sheen of his bald pate visible above the counter. She estimated his stature to be a mere six inches in altitude above that of the doorknobs. While his silvery mane had retreated from above, it grew in rich abundance about his face and chin.

The sprightly man took her hand in both of his own, his eyes twinkling as if glamored by some delightful magic. “We are so pleased to have you in our midst,” he warmly proclaimed.

“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Griswold.”

“My good man Venture here will show you to your rooms,” he responded, gesturing to the grand staircase beyond.

Reaching for her coin purse, she asked, “But shouldn’t I . . .?”

“Oh no, madam,” Griswold interrupted. “Everything has been taken care of. Mr. Thomas requested we take extra special care of you as his guest — and now you are our own. I’m sure you must be peckish and exhausted. I’ll have the kitchen send up some breakfast for you right away. Do you care for coffee or tea?”

“Oh, please don’t go to any trouble . . . ” she started again.

“No trouble at all, madam. Hospitality is our business and, though to the Republic we happily belong, our guests are royalty in our eyes.”

“Tea then. Grey’s if I may . . . please . . . and thank you!”

“Not at all madam. Please let Venture know if your rooms are not to your liking. Oh . . . and just one more thing: a message from Mr. Thomas.” He handed her a small envelope.

image from The Knot Shop (no affiliation with the authors)

Venture escorted her to the third floor, ducking in spots to avoid banging his head on the rafters. Taking a large brass key from his waistcoat, he unlocked the door and placed the woman’s case on the dresser by the door. Handing her the key, he turned and said, “Your breakfast will be right up ma’am. Housekeeping will be by to see about drawing your bath. If you’ll leave your shoes in the hall by the door, we shall have those cleaned and polished for you as well. Inquire at the desk should you need anything at all.”

She reached again for her coin purse but he waved her away.

“As Hezekiah said ma’am, everything has been arranged by Mr. Thomas.”

“Thank you very much . . . um. . . Mis . . .uh . . . Ven . . . err . . . Mister Smith”.Thank you so very much.”

“Venture Smith, ma’am. But please, call me Venture. All of our finest guests do.”

“Then Venture it is!” she smiled and bid him farewell.

She carefully locked the door and, before exploring any further, took out the note.

“Miss Baily” it was addressed in handsome green copperplate.

Inside, a short note:

Turning on her heels, Emma squinted at the low morning sun shining directly into the window. Umber rafters spanned the ceiling absorbing some of its harsh winter light. Her fingertips kissed the blue-striped linen bedclothes as she crossed the room to draw the heavy curtains against the glare.

HHaving banished the world, she took a deep breath, focusing on the coolness of the air. She repeated this pattern until the tension left her back and neck. Presenting the image of a confident woman was a heavy burden to bear; one to which she was not yet accustomed.

Nathan! You were right, faithful brother! she thought to herself. You always believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. I have made it!

A broad smile split her angular face as she considered her travels.Though not exceptional to most, for her the trip was an extraordinary succession of near misses and narrow victories. Slender arms outstretched, she spun thrice in a celebratory circle and fell back upon the bed, her thoughts a whirl.

Amidst the swirl of thoughts, dark clouds began to form. Emma began to panic as shame sprouted raw in her gut and bloomed upon her face. A light sheen of sweat appeared as she raced through memories of her trip. She scrutinized each interaction for evidence of her own failure to appear womanly. She sometimes imagined a tiny, diligent jeweler living in her head, one whose only job was to hold a looking glass up to remembrances and uncover missteps and unwanted inclusions.

image from Grandview Merchantile (no affiliation with the authors)

Had the driver noticed her large hands as he took her case?

Was the porter’s friendly smile really a malicious grin? Did he notice something she wished to conceal?

What had the elderly couple on the bench whispered as she walked by? Had not she abolished her mannish gait with hours of practice?

A sharp knock broke through her fevered thoughts.

“Just a moment please!” she cried, her voice breaking into dread falsetto as she clutched her bosom. Desperate to inspect her countenance before facing anyone anew, she gingerly tugged at the curtain to admit a modicum of light and raced to the mirror.

FFine golden weeds sprouted among the hedgerows of her upper lip and chin. Trembling slightly, her fingertips accused the vexatious hair. She had neither time nor the steady hands to safely wield a blade in that instant. A bit of her sienna hair was out of place; she gathered the strays with a pin, and rushed to answer the door.

Running through her calming routine, she closed her eyes briefly then opened them again and turned the knob. A fair-haired girl waited in the hall, her brow fresh with sweat. The covered dishes on the silver service tray she bore exuded a hearty aroma.

“Begging yer pardon, Missus. I was fixin’ to give another knock so’ins ya’ knew yer breakfast was ready. I hope I didn’ah wake ya’, ma’am.”

“Oh, how wonderful!” Emma proclaimed, tugging the door wide and beckoning the maid. She entered gracefully, setting the tray on the desk with utmost care.

Emma felt a wave of jealousy wash over her in the presence of the handsome lass. Her delicate arms were smooth and unmarred by sharp angles of musculature and bony protrusions. She took in how the bodice of her dress uniform accentuated curves that by Nature she herself had been denied. The maid’s movements were naturally graceful, unrehearsed and flowing; her voice, musical and lilting.

As the maid turned to leave, a filtered glow highlighted her pretty face. It was surrounded by soft curls, featuring full lips and large emerald eyes.

As they exchanged a brief glance, Emma smiled. That look concealed the envy and turmoil of a life spent yearning for a shell more befitting her soul. Given the chance, she would instantly trade places with the maid. Society be damned!

Swallowing her bilious curses, she thanked the pretty maid for her efforts.

With a quick smile and curtsy, the girl vanished into the hall, blissfully ignorant of Emma’s resentment.

Settling into the desk, Emma was anxious to lay into the breakfast bounty. Aching feet, imprisoned within the Bastille of her boots, cried out for attention. She was comforted by the memory of her mother, the same woman whose boots she now wore, part of her final bequest. Unfortunately, mother’s dainty feet were not included the inheritance.

image from The Best Vintage Clothing (no affiliation with authors) | Esther, I believe you dropped your shoes.

Laces loosened, the boots refused to budge “This is no small feat!”she gasped, exasperated. In an instant, she realized the humor in her quip. A gentle quiver of laughter helped dislodge her swollen feet. She realized they could no longer endure the crushing embrace of the boots. Nor could those seams any longer contain the full volume of her healthy feet.

Simply put, there were limits to what she could afford to conceal. The illusion of tiny feet was no bargain measured against the the long-term costs of crippling herself. Consigning the boots to the hallway, she hoped her feet might recover before dinner.

She found the tea perfectly brewed. A poached egg, thinly sliced ham, sourdough toast, and peach preserves further calmed her nerves.

Emma’s curious eyes were drawn to the paintings of ships adorning the stark-white walls. A three-masted clipper, the Cosmos, hung on one side of the window, the schooner America slicing through turbulent waves on the other. Both were exactly level and even in height — a detail soothing to her fastidious mind. These were also perfectly proportioned and aligned with the room’s smart ochre furnishings. Lulled by a sense of ordered security, she finally let go of her anxieties and swallowed the last of breakfast.

Tea alone at home would never compete with breakfast in such a place.

The bed beckoned her rest and her weary body and soul accepted.

AAgentle tapping upon the door roused Emma from her nap. A gap in the curtains revealed the new angle of the sun. She had slept at least a few hours. It had been restful and she was not groggy.

Rising to stretch her arms, she stepped to the door. A quick glance into the mirror confirmed the light hair on her face had not magically retreated; she still needed to shave.

Venture stood in the hallway, a smart pair of boots in his manicured hands. These vaguely resembled her own boots but were unblemished and superbly polished.

“Miss Baily,” he addressed with an obliging nod, “I took the opportunity to deliver these personally and to check with you. I trust you enjoyed your breakfast, and rest?”

“Why yes, Mist . . . I mean, Venture.”

His dazzling smile grew wider.

“Everything is wonderful!” She flashed a coy grin, her eyes cast down in obeisance, “I seem to have devoured everything in a most brutish manner!”

Reassuringly, Venture presented her boots, adding, “Miss Baily, I doubt it possible for you to do anything un-ladylike.

“I don’t even recognize them! Are you sure these are mine?”

“Yes ma’am, I am. And what fine footwear, to be certain. I reckon they have seen plenty of snow, mud, and carriage steps but are hardly the worse for wear.”

She fought the urge to tip him a coin.

“Miss Baily, is there anything else you might require? Perhaps a hot bath? I hate to pressure you but, as our laundry will soon commence with the daily linens, a soak now would allow you sufficient hot water for comfort and leisurely time to yourself before dinner.”

“What luxury! That sounds heavenly,” she replied. “It won’t be too much trouble?”

“Certainly not, ma’am. I believe you will find our experience quite satisfactory, and entertaining to boot. Griswold calls our service ‘The BB: Bath Brigade’ He says the fire-fighting practice guards against any unlikely conflagration.”

With his eyes wide open and titanic hand partially covering his mouth, Venture leaned in slightly. With a conspiratorial whisper, he allowed “Aitch always tracks the time. The staff know a silver bounty awaits all who outperform the previous record.”

She wondered who this “Aitch” person might be.

Image from Wikipedia

“This spot by the bannister, ma’am,” Venture indicated with a grin. A pair of chairs, separated by a small side table, overlooked the lobby. “Please do take a seat; it will only take a few moments.”

As the majordomo descended the stairs, he clapped his enormous hands twice with a flourish! A string-band with a concertina and a big bass drum, all clad in red boots and bearskin caps, formed a line at the side of the lobby. No sooner had Venture disappeared from view, did Griswold’s silvery tenor ring out: “On your marks! Now, go!”

Griswold . . . Hezikah Griswald . . . Hezikiah . . . H = “Aitch”.

Aha! She figured it out!

There was no time to process further her discovery as, no sooner than the command was given did the musicians tear into a hectic Cossack Hopak. Everyone in the lobby stepped in time to the cadence of the big bass drum, its steady boom shaking the rafters and beams.

Three pair of burly men marched around the corner, swearing (nearly imperceptibly) at the enormous iron bathtub they conveyed. Like an ancient sedan chair, they bore it aloft on sturdy poles. From her lofty vantage, she spied a line painted around the inside, two hands-breadth from the top — the ‘full’ mark she presumed.

The men labored furiously in time to the music, heaving the vessel up the stairs, some with arms stretching behind, others red-faced and sweaty holding the tub aloft in front. They gripped the rails with any free hands, unable to see the stairs obscured beneath them. Taken as a whole, the party appeared as a giant iron centipede, its twelve angry legs mounting the grand staircase.

The great iron beast gradually entered her room and settled at the foot of the bed thus confirming her hunch about the slight scuff-marks there. A company of happy servants formed down the hall and out of sight. The brigadiers gingerly ascended the staircase, spread themselves four steps apart, and began to pass buckets filled with steaming water up the line.

One of the tub-bearers stood twixt tub and door emptying water into the bath with nary a splash. As each bucket was emptied, it was tossed out, and carefully dropped to waiting arms in the lobby below.

Emma could not count all the brigadiers and buckets engaged in this choreographed affair. It was such a display of efficiency and order, she could hardly contain her grin and so hid her face in her hands, peeking through her fingers.

When the lead water-bearer hollered out, “We’re full!”, Griswold announced, “Time!”

The flow of buckets reversed as the drum ceased its rhythmic pounding.

A single note from the violin soared high into the air, sustained by the tremolo of the others buzzing beneath. The violinist then gave a most magnificentdouble-stopped cadenza as the pretty maid from earlier entered and sprinkled some powdery substances into the water and lay a fresh stack of towels on the end of the bed. She spread a thick white rug alongside the tub, curtsied and disappeared.

Thus, in astonishingly short time, her bath had been drawn.

She clapped furiously, nodding at each brigadier and musician, calling out “Bravo! Brava!”

In dubbing such a spectacle entertaining, Venture had quite understated the matter.

After the last of the brigade had vanished with buckets in hand, Venture peered in momentarily and flashed his bright smile. She waved back with a thankful, uncovered grin.

TThe air in her room grew noticeably warmer from the steam, Emma dipped a finger in to test the waters; it was nearly scalding. She had never had occasion to take such a hot bath before; this would be a treat — shortly.

First things first! she thought, This face needs pruning! She searched through changes of clothes and toiletries for her rolled handkerchief.

It was tied with a strip of cloth. She unrolled it to reveal her father’s shaving kit. The small mirror, a tin for mixing cream, and the boar’s hair brush were all present — but no razor.

She could not recall having retrieved the razor from the basin the morning of her departure. Panic welled up within her again. She fumbled amongst the clothes in her case imagining it might have slipped free of the roll.

Nothing.

One of the Bucket Brigade had filled the washbasin with steaming water, and for that detail she was grateful. Without a razor, his kindness would be for naught. To feel presentable for dinner, Emma needed to descend to the lobby and discreetly place herself in Venture’s hands.

Quietly she crept in her stockings, peeking left into the hall.

Venture was nowhere in sight.

Finding the lobby ad-Venture-less, she followed the din which led her towards the parlor.

Peering inside, she caught the eye of a mustachioed barkeep.

“Good evening, Madam. Is there anything I can get for you?” he asked, adjusting his crisp white apron.

“Hello. I was looking for Venture?” She hoped her voice did not reveal any desperation. Or worse!

image from Ebay (no affiliation with authors)

“I can locate him for you easily enough, ma’am, but first, may I interest you in a libation?” He gestured to the colorful carafes arrayed beyond.

“That is quite alright, sir. I left my purse upstairs. I’ve a tiny request for Venture . . . if he is available?”

A plump, dandy fellow seated at the end of the bar inspected his drink and, finding it seemingly satisfactory, removed his spectacles. He squinted slightly in her direction, seeming mildly curious to focus his eyes upon her visage.

She shifted about nervously.

The bartender misunderstood her angst.

“The cider is complementary for our guests,” he said, and poured out a tankard of liquid bronze. “Just a moment and I’ll locate Venture for you.” He held out a stool for the lady.

As she situated herself on the padded seat, she noticed the stout fellow still peering at her intently over his drink.

Emma averted her gaze, hoping he might spy something else of interest. The earthy bouquet of cider was most appealing. She took a sip as a distraction and found it tasted as good as it smelt.

“There’s no better man than Venture to help a soul in need,” the portly man pontificated, donning again his spectacles and holding some papers up to the light. His sonorous and measured speech bespoke a man of means and education. “Old Griswold certainly runs a tight ship, no doubt about that. Venture keeps these seas becalmed. Yes ma’am, ’tis always smooth sailing at the Gris!”

RRelaxed now that his attention had shifted to the papers, she risked a closer look. What remained of his thinning gray hair was slicked back into place. He possessed quite possibly the most ample jowls she had ever seen. While she could not gauge his stature seated at the bar, she suspected a sufficiently imposing height. It was entirely possible his equatorial circumference matched or exceeded his altitude. His hands appeared each as half of a Virginia ham.

Sensing her gaze, he peered once again across the top of his papers.

Quickly averting her gaze, she shifted attentions to the tankard of cider. The man was fastidious and handsomely dressed, yet somehow still slightly rumpled. Perhaps this impression arose from his ponderous frame or might it have been the result of a countenance bent on attending to many things simultaneously? She was not sure.

Emma sighed as Venture appeared in the parlor doorway, his dazzling smile captured and held everyone’s attention, including that of the mysterious fat man. She politely excused herself and retreated to the lobby with Venture.

“I apologize for the delay, ma’am, how may I be of service?” he offered, hands outspread.

“Yes, well…” Emma began, attempting to minimize her embarrassment. Bravely, she chose the direct approach. “I may have been a bit scatterbrained in my haste to pack and have need of a razor. It appears I left my own behind in Baltimore…”

Ventures enormous eyes darted first left, then right, then closed entirely as wove his fingers together.

Emma shuffled again nervously.

He opened his eyes again. The thunder of his voice rumbled calmly, “Don’t trouble yourself ma’am. We are not completely ignorant of all feminine mystery.Trust that you are neither the first, nor the fifth in our care with such a request as yours. Nor will you likely be the last.”

He ushered her back to the staircase. “I’ll return momentarily. If you would prefer to return to your room, I shall deliver one myself. I will slip it under your door with a knock, if that would be alright.”

Nodding gratefully, she thanked him again with a smile.

Venture vanished.

SShe luxuriated in the warmest water in which she had ever been immersed, a sponge caressing her smooth skin. The borrowed blade was sharp indeed; she no longer felt any stubble at all. Emerging anew like Boticelli’s Venus, she nuzzled the towel wrapped about her freshly shorn torso and arms.

Emma wiped the foggy mirror, grimacing at the reflection of her day-old stubble. Her roots were darkening.

image from Stirling Soap Co. (no affiliation with authors)

She lathered up, carefully avoiding any nicks and eschewing her own gaze.

Any trace of maleness in the mirror made her uneasy. The stranger in the looking glass stole her composure.

Her face clean and once again her own, she gently smiled at herself.

Confidence restored, she dressed for dinner. Generally partial to the camouflage of sombre shades, Emma opted instead for her mother’s light blue dress. She hoped the gayer shade would further enhance her femininity for the meeting with Mr. Thomas. Beaming, she held the dress up to her reflection.

Shortly thereafter, a poised and sanguine Emma Baily descended the grand staircase of the Gris.

In case you missed it, here’s the previous chapter:

To read from the very beginning:

Juxtaposeur, technical analyst, process engineer, poet wordsmith, INTJ, Anansi, MBTI certified practitioner & team-builder, certifiable fabulist & Uppity Queer™