The Mysterious Woman
A short story by Manelle Oliphant
The gray day didn’t promise much by way of distraction. Most of the guests of Nuttal’s Inn had left with hopes to travel before the weather. Those that remained had come on the stagecoach or didn’t keep dragons.
Charlie Green and his fellow stablehands had cleaned the remaining animals’ stalls that morning. So after the noon meal, they were left with nothing else to do. Charlie stood in the doorway of the stable and watched the rain as it made the roads unusable. It was doubtful there would be any new visitors today.
He scanned the inn’s upper story hoping for a glimpse of Ann. Sometimes when he worked, he would see her open a window to air a room or empty a chamber pot. Every time he caught a glimpse he would give her a wave and blow a kiss, and she would smile. No such luck today. The constant drizzle made it unlikely the maids would open any windows. Charlie watched even so, lest he catch a glimpse of her.
The sounds of a carriage entering the inn yard made Charlie turn around. After adjusting his hat, he stepped out into the rain to help the newly arrived visitors. He checked his walk when he saw the magnificent carriage.
It was fashioned in the latest style, and painted blue, with a crest on the door and large quarter light windows. Despite muck covered wheels it glided into the courtyard, pulled by two of the most beautiful coach dragons Charlie had ever seen. The pair was well matched. Their muzzles long and angular and their haunches well formed. He smiled. To take care of those beauties would be a delight. He couldn’t wait to admire them up close.
He strode forward to hold the dragons’ heads as the carriage came to a stop. He’d taken care of some beautiful dragons at Nuttal’s. It was the nicest inn on the north road. But these beasts outshone them all. Their lavender gray scales shimmered in the rain. They stood taller than many coach dragons. Their ribs heaved after what must have been a long run but they still pawed at the ground ready to get on the road again. Charlie stroked their necks and whispered calming words. The dragons settled a little.
By now a servant had let down the step and opened the coach’s door. A tall woman stepped down and walked into the inn. Charlie hadn’t seen her face, but he’d caught a glimpse of snuff-colored curls and an expensive travel coat. He wondered who the lady could be, but was soon distracted by the dragons.
He led them to the coach house, unhitched the pair and left the carriage in the charge of the second coachman.
In the stables, he removed their harnesses and other accouterments. He handed these to Jimmy to clean. He then turned his attention to the dragons. Their breathing had quieted, but they were still restless. Charlie grinned, excited to get to work. In size and color, the dragons looked a mirror image. Their small wings, short tails, and long legs marked them as Swiss Coaching Dragons or a tall Cornwall breed. Regardless, they were gorgeous.
Charlie retrieved a claw hook and cleaned the mud from the feet of the first dragon. The animal enjoyed the attention. His skin warmed and dried the mud, so it fell to the ground in clumps. He patted the dragon’s neck. “We’ll soon have you lovelies settled in. Don’t you worry.”
“Excuse me,” said a low melodic voice behind him.
Charlie turned. In the stable’s doorway stood the mysterious guest who had so recently arrived. She still wore her expensive traveling clothes. Her brown curls were styled around a symmetrical face in a manner that gave Charlie the impression he gazed at a goddess in a Greek theatrical. Charlie blinked and bowed to the woman. “How may I help you, uh… my lady?”
The woman nodded. He must have guessed the right title.
“I came to make sure my lavenders were being properly looked after. They require a specific diet. Only chickens or other clean animals, no strays.”
“I’ll make sure they receive only the best. Indeed we don’t use fillers or strays in our meal.” Charlie couldn’t help but give the woman his most charming smile.
She smirked at him, not wholly unaffected by his charms. “I see. Good. And what is your name?”
“Charlie Green, my lady.”
“Thank you, Mr. Green. I leave them in your capable hands.”
Charlie watched as she made her way back to the inn. It was odd that she should come to the stables herself but who was he to question the actions of nobles?
After he’d settled the dragons, Charlie made his way to the servant’s common room to warm up and have an evening meal. Ann, a few of the other maids, the cook, and some footmen stood around the fire talking in hushed tones. Charlie grinned when he saw Ann. She always had that effect on him. He walked over to the group and put his arm around her waist. She glanced at him, smiled, and leaned into his embrace.
“And Mr. Nuttal is about to have a fit. He can’t decide if her money is worth the risk of his reputation. You know how he can be,” the cook was saying.
One of the bellmen snorted. “What is he going to do, tell her there are no rooms available? Send her out into the muck to travel to a new inn? Wouldn’t his reputation suffer more if he did?”
“Aye, we can see that it would, but he doesn’t always think rationally when it comes to disgraced nobility.”
“He did turn out that Mr. Henshaw, remember?” one of the maids, Betsy, added.
Someone cleared their throat. The group turned to see Mrs. Temples, the housekeeper, looking at them with her best scowl. “Enough gossip. Until Mr. Nuttal says otherwise or the lady leaves, we do have a wealthy guest to take care of.”
The group dispersed. Ann gathered up a pile of linen and headed toward the laundry.
Charlie followed her. “What was all that about?”
“Apparently, our new guest is the widow of Lord Nethercott. He died last month in suspicious circumstances. Lady Nethercott inherited his huge fortune. Many in town think she is responsible for the accident that killed him.”
“Really? She doesn’t look like a murderer.”
Ann laughed, “And how would you know Charlie Green? You’ve met a lot of murderers have you?”
Charlie smiled. “Well, she seems to care a lot for her dragons. Came to the stables specifically to talk about their diet.”
“I see. Anyone who cares so much for their livestock can’t be a murderer.”
Charlie smirked. “Well I couldn’t say about a person who cares for their cows or pigs a great deal, but dragons is another story.”
They walked into the laundry and Ann piled the linens she carried into a large basket. “I hear she is also very beautiful. Are you sure she didn’t glamour you?” She didn’t look at Charlie as she said it.
Charlie smiled, took her waist, and turned her around. He loved how she felt delicate but strong under his hands. He looked into her brown eyes. “Even if she could’ve charmed me, it wouldn’t have worked. Someone else has already claimed my heart.” He leaned in and gave her a quick kiss. “I can’t wait until we have enough money to marry, and have our own house.”
Ann sighed. “It could be years yet.”
“I’m willing to wait.” Charlie looked at her, a question in his eyes.
Ann stepped out of his arms and got back to work. “Aye, so am I, but I’m also going to pray for a miracle. Now be gone Mr. Green. I have work to do.”
It turned out the cook was right about Mr. Nuttal. Word came the next morning that Lady Forsyth, one of the principal gentry in the neighborhood, was to hold a house party. She’d directed some of her guests to rest at Nuttal’s on their route to her home. Mr. Nuttal was to make sure there were rooms available for them in two days time. At this news, Mr. Nuttal went into a panic. What would her distinguished guests think if they learned he’d housed Lady Nethercott, a murderer, under his roof?
As a result, Charlie found himself gathered below stairs along with every employee of Nuttal’s Inn for an impromptu staff meeting.
Mr. Nuttal strode in, his shirt stretched to capacity to cover the belly that always hung out below his vest. He always looked red-faced as if he’d run a great distance. However, it was safe to assume he’d never done such a thing in his life. He had a loud voice, made louder when he was in a panic. “I must compliment you all on the admirable work you’ve done these last few days.” His voice boomed over the assembled servants and his face reddened with the effort.
Charlie couldn’t help but stare at the buttons on Nuttal’s vest. He wondered how often they needed to be resown and hoped that he could see one pop off one day.
The large man heaved in a great breath and went on. “In particular you have been most gracious to Lady Nethercott despite her reputation, and I give you my compliments. Now, that being said, I need it to stop.”
A murmur rolled through the assembled servants. Mr. Nuttal held up a sausage-fingered hand and after they quieted, he went on. “A large and distinguished party is expected the day after tomorrow. I insist they never learn that our current guest is, or has been in residence. Whatever you can do to shorten the lady’s stay you must do it. Do you all understand?”
Most of the servants nodded, but there were a few, Charlie among them, who looked uncomfortable.
This didn’t escape Mr. Nuttal. “Let me put it another way. If Mrs. Temples or I find you have been… shall we say… hospitable to the lady upstairs, your job will be forfeit. You’ll be dismissed without references. Now, put your efforts into arranging rooms for our expected guests.” He finished his speech and waved his sausage-fingers at the group to show they could leave.
Charlie filed out of the room with the rest of the servants. He hoped he wouldn’t have any more encounters with Lady Nethercott so he wouldn’t be forced to mistreat her. It seemed his hopes were in vain.
Less than an hour later the lady in question walked into the stables. “Mr. Green, does this establishment have animals to let for an hour or two? My maid and I inquired inside, but we couldn’t get a clear answer from any of the staff there.”
Charlie glanced around. He was the only employee in the stables. “Yes, ma’am. We have one riding dragon, a rather docile mount and getting on in age but still keeps up with our two horses. I can have any of them saddled up for you in ten minutes.”
Lady Nethercott smiled. “It’s been a long time since I’ve ridden horseback. I would appreciate the use of a horse very much. Saddle one for my servant as well. She’ll accompany me today.”
Charlie saddled the two horses, and the women went for their ride. He watched them go; relieved no one had seen him. His savings were meager, but in not too many years he hoped to have enough to set up a house with Ann as his wife. Being dismissed would put an end to those dreams. Even so, he couldn’t bring himself to treat the woman poorly.
The Mysterious Woman
A few hours later Lady Nethercott’s maid returned the horses. Charlie trusted that would be the end of his dealings with the troublesome lady, but she confronted him again that evening. He was heading in for his supper when she waylaid him in the courtyard.
“Mr. Green, I must ask your indulgence for a moment.”
Charlie nodded but didn’t speak. They were visible from any front facing window in the inn as well as the stables.
“You are the only person today to give me a civil word or any help. Am I to understand that Mr. Nuttal desires that I should, as it were, move along?”
Charlie glanced around the yard. A few stablehands worked nearby, and a footman watched from the front window. Charlie knew his response might cost him his job. He scratched the back of his head and grimaced but answered honestly. “Your suspicions are correct. Mr. Nuttal expects some very prominent guests, and he worries about your uh…” He trailed off unsure what else to say.
The woman’s face assumed a blank expression. “I see.” After a pause she continued, “And, what has he done to compel the staff to act so tiresome?”
“He’s threatened our positions.”
Lady Nethercott tilted her head. “Why then, Mr. Green, have you chosen to be civil?”
“Well,” Charlie considered. Why had he chosen to be kind to this stranger when his job was on the line? “My mother always says ‘kindness is never wasted,’ And I… I imagine that a person who would take such care over their dragons couldn’t be as bad as people say.”
Kindness is never wasted.
Lady Nethercott nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Green, for being so forthright. Answer me one more question. Is your job important to you?”
“It’s very important my lady. I hope, eventually that is, Ann and me, well… it is important.”
“I see.” Her head tilted as she acknowledged his answer. Then she turned and walked toward the inn.
Charlie looked around and noticed the onlookers had grown. The stablemaster and two maids had joined the stablehands, and footman from earlier. Ann stood among them. Charlie met her eye. She smiled and dipped her head to say she didn’t fault him for what he’d done.
She met him downstairs and sat with him while he ate. His insides churned. It looked like he wouldn’t have his position long, and then what would he do?
Ann looped her arm through his and laid her head on his shoulder. “I’m glad you were kind to her even if it costs your job. I’ve been avoiding her successfully all day. I felt unable to follow Nuttal’s orders as well. You had the worst luck I suppose.”
Charlie shrugged. “It looks that way. It seemed the whole staff saw our recent exchange. I wouldn’t be surprised if…”
“Mr. Green, come see me in my office if you please.” Mrs. Temples stood over them with a scowl on her face.
Charlie stood and followed the housekeeper’s short, plump form down the hallway. The stablemaster, a tall, muscled man with sandy blond hair and wrinkled skin, waited inside the office.
Mrs. Temples sat at her small wooden desk and waved her hand at the stablemaster.
He cleared his throat. “It has come to Mr. Nuttal’s attention that you have not followed his orders. Not only have you spoken kindly to Lady Nethercott this evening, you also aided her with a request earlier today. Is this true?”
Charlie looked at his boss. He’d enjoyed his work under the watch of the stablemaster and considered him a fair man to work for. But he knew already there wasn’t much hope of keeping his position, especially not if he lied. “Yes, sir. That’s correct.”
The stablemaster sighed. “Mr. Green, you are a great employee. Your care and attention to the animals is unmatched. But, Mr. Nuttal is furious that you didn’t follow his orders. He’s instructed me to dismiss you from your position. I’m sorry.”
Charlie’s stomach did a little flip and plummeted to the ground, but he held his shoulders high and nodded. Until that moment he’d hoped Mr. Nuttal would come to his senses.
Mrs. Temples stood and handed him an envelope. “Here is your last week’s pay. You can remain in your bed until tomorrow morning, at which point you must leave.
Ann stood outside the door when Charlie exited the office. As he walked out, she linked her arm through his and walked toward the common room with him. “What happened? Were you dismissed?”
Charlie only looked at her.
“Nuttal’s a fool.”
They walked outside. Behind the inn Charlie slumped down against the wall. Ann sat next to him and put her hand on his knee.
“I’m so sorry, Ann. I should have done what Nuttal said.”
“We both know you did the right thing. Things will iron out, even if we have to live in a tent like gypsies.”
Charlie didn’t look at Ann. “I don’t see how. No one will hire me without references.”
Ann laid her head on Charlie’s shoulder. “Have a little faith. It’s like you told Lady Nethercott, ‘kindness is never wasted.’”
“It might have been this time.”
When Charlie got up to his bedroom above the stables, he gathered his belongings into his trunk. He’d brought them in the same one five years earlier. The other stable lads watched, grateful they still had their jobs.
After a restless sleep, Charlie woke early. He gathered his things, doing one last check to make sure he had everything, and went downstairs. He deposited his trunk and satchel outside the stable doors, planning to say goodbye to Ann before he left.
He wandered through the stables talking to animals he’d taken care of for five years. He stopped when he came to Lady Nethercott’s magnificent dragons. “It’s your fault I’m in this mess,” he told them.
Letting himself into the first stall, he took out a scale brush and got to work. The dragon enjoyed the attention and leaned toward the spots where the brush rubbed.
Charlie enjoyed this work. The animals were happy and would let his mind relax. “If you hadn’t been so magnificent, I might still have a job today,” he told the dragon. It rumbled. A noise dragons made when they were happy, similar to a cat’s purr. Charlie sighed.
“Mr. Green, I’m glad I found you.”
Startled, Charlie dropped the brush. He turned to see Lady Nethercott, standing in the stables again. She always looked out of place here, like a peacock in a flock of pigeons. Charlie sighed with relief. The stablemaster could’ve had him removed from the premises by force. And, he wasn’t ready to leave until he saw Ann one more time.
He made a quick bow to the lady before he picked up the brush and put it in its place.
She motioned for him to follow her. The pair exited the stables and stood in the light of the rising sun.
“I understand your kindness to me has lost you your position.”
Charlie nodded. Emotions churned his insides. He shouldn’t feel angry with this woman. It wasn’t her fault Nuttal had dismissed him. But, the hopelessness of the situation threatened to manifest as anger, and he didn’t trust himself to speak.
“My late husband kept a large stable. Many fine animals like the ones you’ve met are now mine. The stablemaster, Mr. Adams, was a cruel man, well suited in temperament to my husband and his tastes. I never liked him, or his treatment of the horses and dragons. It’s my opinion that the stablemaster’s cruelty toward our animals caused my husband’s accident.”
Charlie listened to this speech, confused but intrigued. The rumors said Lady Nethercott herself had been responsible for the riding accident that killed her husband.
“I have since dismissed him. He put about horrid rumors about me that you have no doubt heard. They aren’t true.”
Charlie thought for a moment. He found he believed the lady, so he nodded.
“How long have you worked here as a stable hand?”
“Five years my lady, and three before that as a boy at Mr. Hatfield’s farm.”
Lady Nethercott nodded. “That seems enough experience to me. What’s more, I’ve seen for myself the care you take with the animals.”
“I’d like to offer you the position as stablemaster on my estate. I’ll pay you the same wage as our previous man. I’m unsure of the exact amount, but I’m sure it’s more than your current wage. What’s more, there is a small house that belongs to the position where you could live. With your wife, if you have one.” Lady Nethercott arched her brow as she watched for Charlie’s reaction to her words.
“What do you say, Mr. Green?”
“I, well, thank you. I’d be more than happy to take the job. But, uh, forgive me, my lady, won’t there be other men, already in your employ who might be expecting the advancement?”
“Possibly, but I want an outsider. I have no wish to hire someone who will continue in the same way Mr. Adams did. You would have your work cut out for you. I’m confident you can rely on my steward for help when needed. He would be your immediate superior. Are you up to the challenge?”
“Thank you, yes.” He grinned his most dashing, roguish grin at her. It always worked on the ladies.
She smiled back. “Well then, Mr. Green, I suggest you tell the good news to um, Ann, is it? When you’re finished, make my carriage ready. We’ll leave this morning.”
Charlie bowed and ran toward the inn. He burst into the servant’s dining room where much of the staff now ate breakfast. Ann sat on a bench staring at her untouched food. When Charlie came in, they all looked up. Mrs. Temples moved forward.
“Mr. Green, it’s time you were on your way.”
Charlie didn’t look at her. He took Ann’s hand and pulled her out the door. In the same place where they had sat the night before, Charlie took Ann’s hands and spilled out the good news.
“Oh Charlie, that’s wonderful! A job as a stablemaster, and so soon. I’m so happy for you. I wish the lady didn’t live so far from here.”
Charlie stepped closer to Ann. “The thing is, I didn’t tell you the best part.” He put his hands around her waist and pulled her close. “The position comes with a house. A house for us, if you’ll… if you’ll be my wife?”
Ann put her arms around Charlie’s neck. “I already said I would, Charlie Green. That hasn’t changed.”
Charlie grinned. Not his roguish grin but the real one he saved for special occasions. “Let’s consider ourselves engaged then.” He pulled Ann closer and kissed her.
Charle stopped and rested his forehead on hers, “I’ll write once I’m settled, and we can set a date.”
Ann smiled. “Who would have guessed last night that in only a few hours time we’d be so happy?”
After another quick kiss, Charlie said goodbye and ran to ready the dragons for their journey. Ann smiled as she watched him go. Charlie’s mom was right. Kindness is never wasted.
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