Sunday, March 7, 2010

Decker #11

The avenue of trees opened onto a broad plantation in a shallow valley, centered in which stood what could have been an old Italian villa. The two-track dirt road was replaced by a double row of rectangular granite slabs, each about one foot by four, laid crosswise and separated by two or three inches of turf.
The villa itself was a calculated disarray of stone and garden, fern recesses and fanning trees. It was set on a small hill that someone had had too much fun terraforming. There was a narrow stream that wound its way all around the hill, sometimes confined in masonry channels, sometimes tumbling over mossy rocks between banks of grass. There were several arched stone bridges crossing it, connecting the cluster of age-encrusted stone buildings that sat at odd angles to each other around the crest of the hill. Stone paths wended their serpentine way through the myriad gardens and sitting areas, low-walled courtyards and pools that filled every nook and cranny of the randomly stepped levels that made up the hill.
One pool, larger than the rest and surrounded by a variety of different-colored willow-like trees, seemed to be Aida's immediate destination. Waddling up the steps onto the stone surround, she flapped her wings, let out a joyous screech, and flopped into the water.
There was a bustle of activity from the largest building, a Dali-esque agglomeration of turrets, eaves, angles and stairs, stained glass and mullions. Several people in servant's garb rushed out of various doors, followed by an almost comically heavy-set older woman in fashion stretch jeans and a frilly purple blouse with ice-green trim. She waddled to the edge of the stone landing outside what may have been the front door of the house and clutched the iron railing, waving while the servants raced toward the pool, hailing Aida joyously.
At first she ignored them, rapt in diving and dabbling in the pool bottom, snacking on snails and duckweed with the relish of reliving old memories. Finally her head popped out of the water and she glanced up at a middle-aged fellow in butler's tails that stood expectantly at the edge of the pool. She quacked with exhilaration and paddled over to him, splashing mischievously with her wings. "Rolfu! Oh, you haven't changed a bit!"
He stepped back from the edge and let Aida flap her way out of the water. "Miss Aida, it is such a pleasure to see you after all these years. I feared you'd-" he was cut off as Aida practically tackled him, wrapping her neck around his and nuzzling his cheek. He allowed her a moment, then gently lifted her head away from his face with both hands. "Miss Aida, I'm certain the Lady would very much like to greet you as well. Feila, Shand, Pueri, Gling and Steve deserve your acknowledgment too! And we must tend to your companions. Go, go to your mother; do not torture her further, Young Miss!"
Aida shared brief adorations with the rest of the servants, then raced up the stairs and engulfed her mother in a fever of greeting. Decker, Degren, and Cletus stood halfway up the stairs to the big pool, wondering what they should do. Their dilemma was solved when Rolfu strolled sedately up to them and offered a slight bow. "Rolfu, at your service. Gentlemen, is there anything we can offer you while the Lady and the Young Miss, er catch up? I'm certain the Lady will wish to entertain you and thank you for accompanying her daughter on her journey home, but in the meantime...?"
Cletus stepped forward, sticking out his hand, eliciting a raised eyebrow from the steadfast butler. "Ah'm Cletus. Mighty tickled t'meet'cha. Ya got whiskey?"
"We'll see what we can do," Rolfu replied, both hands notably tight against his legs. "And you, good sirs?"
Decker wondered if beer was an option, but was afraid to appear as crass as their rustic companion. "Do you have iced tea?"
Degren wanted only water. Rolfu led them to a side door and into a sitting room that echoed the structured chaos of the grounds and bade them wait. "We'll have your refreshments forthwith, and some comestibles to tide you over until dinner. We assume you'll be staying for dinner...?"
Left to their own devices with a tray of various fruits, breads, and cheeses, along with decanters of the requested beverages, the three men discussed their situation.
"It'll be too late to start back for the old hotel tonight," Decker said. "We wouldn't even make it back to the roadhouse before dark."
"I don't mind walking in the dark," Degren offered.
"Out under the sky, ah don't feel comfortable moseyin' anywhere the sun ain't," Cletus said. Decker wondered whether Cletus now intended to make them his permanent traveling companions. Well, he'd been helpful once or twice, if a little coarse and annoying. Nothing he hadn't dealt with back in Arizona. Man, that seemed a long way away now.
Rolfu returned. "Gentlemen, the Lady asks if seven is a convenient time for you to dine."
"That'll be fine," Decker agreed. "What time is it now?"
Rolfu plucked a pocket watch by its fob, flicking it open. "It's a quarter of six. Would you care to er, freshen up in the meantime?" He seemed to be strongly suggesting this, and Decker and Degren were quick to assent, though Cletus was dubious.
"Ain't even been a week since my last ah-bloo-shuns, so I figger I'm plenty fresh."
"Decker looked askance at the dusty miner. "We're dining with a lady this evening, not a bunch of flatulent cowpokes. You're going to have another bath if you know what's good for you."
"If'n ah know whut's good fer me? You threatening me, fuzzy?"
"I'm certain," Rolfu interjected, "the Lady would tolerate you in your, er, unwashed condition, sir, but in the interest of decency and decorum, I'd highly advise at least some perfunctory attention to hygiene. Fiela would be pleased to assist you in your, er, ablutions, and our facilities are quite refined and comfortable..."
"Fiela?" Cletus' ears perked up. "Is Fiela a 'she'?"
"She is, sir."
"Well why din'cha say so? Where's the vacilities?" He gave Decker and Degren a waggle of eyebrows as they were led to private bathrooms.
Dinner was formal, and each man was provided with suitable attire. Aida and her mother entered the dining area after the three were seated. Decker and Degren made to rise as they came in, but the Lady waved them down. "Good sirs, let us share mutual respect by eating together. I need no further honor than that from my daughter's companions and protectors. I am Gudren, now of the House Thure. I am sad to tell you that the man of the House will not be present; he is deceased. No, it's all right. It's been a few years. Aida has told me her impressions of your journey. Perhaps you could fill me in on your own perspectives while we dine?"
Fiela was one of the attendants for dinner. Cletus kept trying to catch her eye, but she devoted all her attention to proper service, much to the amorous miner's dismay.
They told her of their trip, and how they had come to be there in the first place. They learned from her (to Aida's distress) how Aida's sister had lost her life in the sea by the deserted hotel. While Aida was off to the bathroom, she told them how her husband had carried the guilt from that day, until it overcame him and he took his own life. "Please don't mention it to Aida, though. I'm not sure she even accepts that her father is deceased."
She offered them a carriage ride back to the deserted hotel, as soon as they wished to leave. Later, they accepted her hospitality for the night and were shown to separate rooms.

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