The Palace Hotel was the biggest house Big Jim had ever seen. Fancy carriages rolled by him and Big Jim paid no mind to the splashes of mud from them. He walked to the doors of the hotel and looked on the whitest whitewashed walls he had ever seen. The dark clouds were parting and the sun was coming out. He had arrived.
As he walked closer to the doors Big Jim held the reins of his horse wondering where he was going to tie him off. Preston, the doorman, stood like a soldier at his post. He wore an expensive suit and hat and had gloves as white as the hotel. Preston eyeballed Big Jim and waved at him to go away. Big Jim couldn’t make out any gun on Preston and wasn’t impressed with his demeanor. Big Jim held out his horse’s reins for the doorman to look after it. Preston shook his head and drew back his waistcoat to show a pistol in his belt.
Big Jim should have spotted the lump under the coat, but the doorman’s clothes were too distracting. The whole town of rich people was too distracting.
“I’m looking for Tomas McTaggart.” Big Jim asked. His horse was fussing, picking up on his anger.
Preston let his waistcoat drop back over the pistol. He considered the question. “Wait here.” The doorman pointed a few paces away from the doors along the wooden walkway.
Preston went into the hotel while Big Jim shifted to the side of the doors and the steps that led up them. Big Jim felt lit up in front of the white hotel. Everyone walked around this town in their Sunday best, only it wasn’t Sunday. Big Jim wondered why he had decided to approach the place from the front. He could have more easily gone around the back and looked for a hired hand for help. A place this big must have a lot of hired hands.
Preston came back. “There’s no McTaggarts here. There are other hotels. You might try their back entrances. No one going to let you in unless you have a bath and a shave and some clean clothes.”
“I appreciate the advice. But it’s this hotel. I got letters.” Big Jim pulled out letters from his saddle bag. “See? It says Palace Hotel. You can read?”
“I can read.” Preston smiled, coming over to see the letters. He looked up to notice that Big Jim was a head taller now that they both were on the walkway. “Who’s Katherine Foster?”
“My ma. She’s passed on. You see it says Palace Hotel?” Big Jim pointed, and then pulled on the letters to take them back, but the doorman pulled back.
“This says care of. This McTaggart wrote care of.”
“Like a Post Office?”
“Like a Post Office. You see, we have no resident McTaggart. That means he doesn’t live here.”
“I know what a resident is.” Big Jim warned the man.
Preston let go of the letters. “Young man, you have a growl. You want me to go back to the door? I can go back to the door and you can find your own way?”
Big Jim wouldn’t answer so Preston returned to the door.
Big Jim eyeballed Preston for a bit. Then he looked over the letters to his ma a bit. Then he looked at the busy street. A bit of mud splashed up from another carriage. The street was drying a bit now from the sun. Big Jim still didn’t know where to tie his horse.
Finally, he went up to Preston again. “I’m looking for Tomas McTaggart.” He asked, looking down and red faced.
“I’ll inquire at the desk if we get his mail. We get mail for all sorts and who don’t reside here. They want people to think they live here.”
Big Jim peeped through the edges of the frosted glass of the front doors as Preston went to the front desk and asked. Preston held a hand about chest height and then made some twirling motions by his cheeks. He returned to Big Jim outside.
“He’s a little man. Curls his moustache with wax. He is not a resident. He gets his mail and sends parcels from here. Sometimes he uses the office to write his letters. He pays us for that. He has mail waiting for him. They think he’ll be in today. Why do you want him?”
Big Jim took a small tin of medicine tablets from his saddle bag and showed Preston. “These are women’s pills. She bought them from this Tomas McTaggart. My ma was sick and she wrote to him from a newspaper she read. He sent her these. She kept getting sicker. She’s gone now.”
Preston examined the tin box of pills. “Son. Son, listen. She might have been beyond medicine. We’ve had guests the doctors in this town couldn’t save. And they ware some of the best doctors in the country. It might have been your ma’s time.”
Big Jim took the tin back. “I know it’s these pills.” He reached into his saddle bag for more letters and picked through them. “Here. She wrote to him after she was taking them for a while. She knew she was getting sicker. He wrote back and asked for more money and told her to keep taking them. Here. Here, this is what he wrote to her.”
Big Jim was interrupted by an arriving stage coach. A family disembarked and Preston welcomed them to enter. Handlers and luggage followed. When then were all away Big Jim held up a letter to Preston.
“This is what he told her. ’With regard to errors in general, whether falling under the denomination of mental, typographical or accidental, we are conscious of being able to point out a greater number than any critic whatever.’” Big Jim rubbed the sweat from his forehead from the afternoon sun, and braced to read the next part of the letter. “’Men who are acquainted with the innumerable difficulties of attending the execution of a work of such an extensive nature will make proper allowances. To these we appeal, and shall rest satisfied with the judgment they pronounce.’ It's all full of beans. Look, he sent other letters. They’re full of beans, too. And he kept asking her for more money.”
“Do you know what your mother was sick from?”
“Chills? What kind of chills?”
“I don’t know. Chills. I’m not a doc. He said she was suffering from chills.”
“There’s books in the office.”
“As good as. Wait here.”
Big Jim hovered behind his horse. The horse’s coat was shiny and he knew he should find a place to water and feed him and brush him down. “Easy Nip, just a little bit longer.” He patted the horse’s neck.
Preston came back with a thick book. “It’ll be in here.”
“Chills.” Preston handed the book to Big Jim. “This is the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”
Big Jim balanced the large book on his horse’s saddle and opened it.
Encyclopaedia Britannica; OR A DICTIONARY of ARTS and SCIENCES, compiled under a new plan…
“It’s A to C.” Preston explained. “So, turn the pages until you get to the Cs, then keep turning until you get to CH. And you can find what they say.”
“What who says?”
Preston balked, “Doctors, scientists, it’s all the knowledge in the world.” Preston reached across carefully and flipped pages until he got to the Cs and showed Big Jim how to go along the word headings to follow the alphabet.
Preston pulled away his white gloved hand and noticed a smudge on the index finger, but before he could figure out where it came from the hotel doors opened. He stepped up to greet whoever was coming out.
The family had returned and Preston was soon distracted from Big Jim. Preston recommended places for the family to shop in town.
The horse kept shifting making the encyclopaedia hard to read. Big Jim sat down on the wooden walkway and held the encyclopaedia on his lap. He flipped the pages around the Cs, then returned to the first page and started reading, sounding out the words and speaking them under his breath as he read. After a bit he closed the book and got up. He slammed the heavy book on the step behind Preston.
Preston ignored the sound, wishing the family well in their shopping and pocketed some coins for his effort. He scowled at the book being on the steps and picked it up and brushed it off. He returned it to the office inside. That’s when he heard the shots.
Preston rushed to the doors and found the carriages and walkers had parted in front of the hotel and in the muddy street lay a short man with a twirled moustache. Dead. Big Jim was gone.
Later there was a heated meeting with the brothers who own the hotel, and Preston, who barely kept his job. A day later the desk called Preston inside to complain that someone had dirtied the first volume of the encyclopaedia. Preston tried to clean it with some clear alcohol but it only smudged and made it worse. Part of ink on the first page was coming away from the alcohol rubbing. You could only see Enyclo dia Britannc A DICTIONARY of AR CIENCES,…
Preston found another thumb print stained page. He removed his gloves to try to scratch the dirt away with his fingernails. This page held the encyclopaedia’s Preface;
With regard to errors in general, whether falling under the denomination of mental, typographical or accidental, we are conscious of being able to point out a greater number than any critic whatever. Men who are acquainted with the innumerable difficulties of attending the execution of a work of such an extensive nature will make proper allowances. To these we appeal, and shall rest satisfied with the judgment they pronounce. – William Smellie.