The Woman at Stable CottagesbyStarlight©
The cold north wind howled across the “Paradise Valley Airport” as the locals ironically called it. It is in fact a strip of bitumen just about capable of bearing the weight of a light aircraft, and a galvanised iron shed for people awaiting the arrival or departure of the occasional aircraft that does use the strip, to shelter in.
Earlier in the afternoon the wind had changed to the north and was therefore blowing over the snow capped mountains, the foothills of which began about eighteen kilometres to the north of the town of Paradise Valley. By mid-afternoon the temperature had dropped noticeably, especially on the open airstrip. I tugged the collar of my overcoat up round my ears. Damnation, why did I have to be the one to meet the old girl?
“Aden,” old Phineas had said that Monday morning, “would you go out to the airstrip? There’s a plane coming in with a Mrs.White on board. She’s the one who bought Stable Cottages. I’d like you to drive her out to the cottages and just see that she’s settled in all right. God knows why she’s coming in today. There’s no furniture in the places except an old kitchen table and a couple of chairs the last people to rent one of the cottages left behind.”
I vaguely recalled the transaction. Then I had only been working for about three months as a solicitor and accountant for “Phineas Willow, Solicitor and Property Agent,” but had no hand in the transaction. That was Phineas’s area of work.
I had had just completed qualifying as a solicitor and accountant, and was looking for a position when I met Phineas. He had advertised in one of the legal journals for a solicitor (“qualtions in accntncy advntge”) to work in his practice at Paradise Valley.
The advertisement went on, “Plsnt. Twn. pop. approx. 1 thou. Old est. pract. Outstd. op. yng man. Pos. Prtnship.” Then followed the address to be applied to. Phineas did not believe in wasting money on wordy advertisements.
I applied, was interviewed, and got the job. Having said, “Phineas did not believe in wasting money,” I must add that the salary was very liberal. Phineas was a wily old law practitioner, but was also one of those people who saved every cent he could on small things so he could be generous in larger things. As I was to learn when I entered the practice with him, he did work for some of the poorer people in the town for what he called “A peppercorn fee.”
Now, having worked with Phineas for just over twelve months, I stood on the windswept airstrip waiting for the old girl that had to be transported to Stable Cottages. “Be nice to her,” Phineas had admonished, “She looks like she’s well-heeled, and there could be some future business there.”
I heard the buzzing of the aircraft before I saw it, then it appeared. It was single engine plane and as it circled to line up with the landing strip, it was clearly being buffeted by the wind. The pilot trying to steady the aircraft made an attempt to land, but at the last minute it was caught by the wind and tilted over so one wing almost scraped the ground. There was a roar as the engine was revved and the plane climbed to come round for another attempt. This time it made it, but only just.
The pilot taxied towards the shed and I went outside to meet it. It stopped, there was a pause before a door in the side of the plane slid back and steps were lowered. The pilot came down the steps and turned. A woman appeared at the top of the steps and the pilot held out his hand and helped her down.
“Had a bit of a bumpy ride,” he called cheerfully, and went into the aircraft again.
The woman was a surprise. She appeared to be in her late twenties, and why I had the impression I was to meet an older person, I don’t know. It might have been because we had a number of widows living in the town who had come here from Mine City some fifty kilometres from Paradise Valley, and I automatically assumed a woman on her own moving into the area would be a widow in her forties or fifties.
At one time, a piece of machinery had been used in the mine that was so dangerous it was called, “The Widow Maker.” The women whose husbands had been killed by the abomination, used some of the compensation money paid by the mine company, to buy houses in Paradise Valley, firstly, because property tended to be cheaper than in Mine City, and secondly, because Paradise Valley is a very pleasant location.
The woman who stood white faced and shivering at the bottom of the steps was about five feet five inches tall, but at that moment, she looked smaller and rather vulnerable. I stepped forward to her extending my hand; “Mrs.White?” I asked. She nodded. “Aden Barclay of Phineas Willow. I’m to take you to Stable Cottages.”
Her hand was very small and cold in mine and she said, “Thank you, Mr.Barclay. I’ve some luggage to be unloaded.”
The pilot had started unloading suitcases, and as he brought them to the top of the steps, I took them and placed them on the ground. The last item was a canvas bag containing something I could not identify.
The last of the luggage unloaded, the pilot gave a wave and called, “See yer later.” The steps were pulled up, the door closed and after a few seconds the engine roared and the plane prepared to take off. We watched it wobble down the strip and take off for its unenviable wind battering flight back to Mine City from whence it had come.
I said to the woman standing beside me, “If you like to wait in the shed, at least it’s out of the wind, I’ll get the car and pick up your luggage.” She nodded and entered the shed.
I drove the car onto the “airfield” which in fact was no more than an ordinary field, unfenced and with no one to guard the place. Any pilot landing here had no ground control to guide them in. It was a case of, “Enter at your own risk.”
I loaded the luggage, summoned Mrs.White, and we set off for Stable Cottages with the car heater going full blast.
Stable Cottages are about four kilometres outside the town of Paradise Valley. They have a rather strange history.
Back in the nineteenth century, world wool prices had at one stage gone very high. The owner of the sheep station on which the cottages stand had, based on those high wool prices, built a rather grandiose house. Along with this edifice, he had built large stables and two cottages to house stable hands. The cottages were semi-detached; that is, they shared a common “party wall.”
Eventually wool prices slumped and the then owner found the upkeep of the big house and it’s necessary staff, beyond his resources. Most of the staff were dismissed, the big house abandoned, and the owner moved into one of the cottages.
Many years later, after the Second World War, wool prices rocketed upward again. The owner at that time decided that he needed a residence more in keeping with his newly acquired wealth. By that time, the big house was badly decayed, and much of it had been plundered for materials to be used on other constructions around the property. The nouveau riche rural millionaire decided that a new residence was in order. It was built on a hill about two kilometres from the cottages.
The cottages were let out to rent. In the following years many people came and went at the cottages, until finally, the current owner decided to sell them together with the stables, the remains of the old house and four hectares of land. All this had come to a tidy sum of money, hence old Phineas’s idea that the buyer must be well off financially.
There were questions I itched to ask Mrs.White as we drove to the cottages. Most of all, I wanted to ask what she intended to do with the place, but her demeanor did not invite questions. She seemed withdrawn, an isolated figure sitting beside me in the car, but somewhere else in her thoughts.
As we drove through the town, I asked if she needed to buy anything by way of food or other items. She simply replied, “No, thank you.”
She showed no interest in the passing scene as we drove in the gathering dusk, and simply stared straight ahead through the windscreen.
Arriving at the cottages, I asked which of the two she was going to occupy. Without a word, she pointed to one of them, and I opened the door, then gave her the keys to both cottages. Still without a word, she went inside, leaving me to bring in the luggage.
Having got her goods into the passage that ran the length of the cottage and terminating at a back door, I called out to her.
“In the kitchen,” she replied.
I found her contemplating an old wood fired cooking stove. There was an electric cooking stove, but the power and telephone were not due to be connected until the next day.
The place was bitterly cold, so I said, “Better light that wood stove. Warm the place up a bit.”
“Yes,” she replied, “but I don’t know how to. I’ve never had to light a fire in my life.”
“I’ll get it going,” I said, and headed out the back door to see what fuel I could find.
I found the spot where the logs were once stored and there were some still there. “At least enough for a couple of days,” I thought, and began to carry logs into the kitchen and pile them up beside the stove. I found some bark and a few dry sticks, and set about lighting the stove. Of course, the damned thing took and age to get going, but once properly alight and the fire door left open, it did cheer the room up a bit.
It was now almost dark, and of course, as there was no electricity, there was no electric light. Mrs.White had started to drag her luggage from the passage into the kitchen, and I asked her what she was going to do for lighting.
“Candles. Brought some with me,” she replied shortly. With that she opened one of the suitcases and produced the candles, which she then proceeded to light from the flames of the fire. I noticed that the suitcase also contained items of food.
The cottage was the one with the old table and chairs, and surveying these, another thought struck me. “Excuse my asking, Mrs.White, but where are you going to sleep tonight? There’s no bed or blankets here.”
“Camp bed. Brought one with me and some blankets. I’ll sleep in here.”
The canvas bag, the contents of which I had been unable to identify, was now shown to hold the camp bed. Mrs.White pulled the bed out and tried to assemble the bits and pieces, to no avail. I decided to play the Boy Scout, and offered to do it for her. She nodded, and I managed to save my male ego by getting the thing put together in one attempt.
I was reluctant to leave her alone in the bleak and empty cottage, then another thought occurred me; I had brought her to the cottage and she obviously had no transport of her own.
“Mrs.White, you’re four kilometres out of town, how are you going to get around without a car?
“I have one being delivered tomorrow from Mine City.” Then as if to forestall a further question, she went on, “My furniture arrives by road tomorrow as well.”
I was rather impressed that her vehicle was being “delivered” to her. Normally one simply went to the show room to pick it up. To have it delivered indicated something rather special, but I couldn’t think what.
Her manner seemed indicate that no further questions were in order and that it was time for me to leave.
I gave her my card, bade her goodnight, and made to leave.
“I shall call in at your office before the end of the week to settle up with Mr.Willow,” she said. “I may need your services in the future, so we can discuss it then. Thank you for your help, Mr.Barclay.”
We shook hands. The kitchen had now warmed up, and she had removed her coat and stood before me in a light woolen sweater. It was then that I noticed where her rather large breasts pushed against the cloth there were two small stains that looked as if they were spreading. I also noticed a slight sour smell that seemed to emanate from her.
I took my leave, a rather puzzled man.
The following days I felt worried about Mrs.White. It troubled me that she was out there alone, having to tackle the task of getting her house in order, so to speak. I was tempted to go out and see if she was all right, or at least telephone; always assuming her telephone had been connected. I set aside both these thoughts as I recalled her rather distant manner that did not invite interference.
It was in the early afternoon of Thursday of that week when Phineas put his head round the door of my office.
“Got Mrs.White with me. She came to settle up our business, but she wants us to take on other work for her that’s more in your line. Got time to see her?”
I was rather busy, but my inquisitiveness about Mrs.White got the better of me, so I said, “Certainly, bring her in.”
Phineas disappeared to reappear with Mrs.White, leaving her, as he said to me, “In your care.”
I invited her to sit, and for the first time, as we were neither out in the cold or semi-darkness, I was able to observe her more closely. She was very pale with a drained look about her, but behind this, there seemed to lurk considerable beauty.
She had classical features and long dark hair that was tied back to give her a severe appearance. The feature that stood out was her dark eyes. Despite their tired look they had the promise of lustrous depths – eyes that when turned upon you, made it difficult to lie or deceive.
As she was sitting, I could not judge her figure properly, although later, when she rose to leave, I saw a slender figure with disproportionately large breasts. These appeared to hang heavily and looked as if they were a burden to her.
“What can I do for you, Mrs.White?”
“I would like to put my financial affairs into your care, Mr.Barclay. At present I have an accountant in the metropolis, but I want someone nearer at hand. If I arrange to have my records transferred to you, would you be willing to take them over?”
“Of course, Mrs.White. Could you give me some idea of what this would entail?”
“Two main things. I have several investments and of course, the normal general running and domestic accounts. In addition, I shall be starting a business – possibly two businesses – I shall want these together with my taxation looked after. I would appreciate your advice from time to time, as well.”
“I should be happy to help in any way I can. May I ask what sort of businesses you intend to engage in?” I could not imagine what business could be started in Paradise Valley that was not already well catered for.
“A horse riding stable and interior decorating.”
I had to struggle not to laugh and keep a straight face. Apart from the incongruity of two such businesses, I could not imagine the residents of our town storming out to the cottages to ride horses or being in any hurry to have their interiors decorated.
Those eyes of hers must have read my thoughts.
“You don’t think I shall succeed, Mr.Barclay? Perhaps I will surprise you.”
“I sincerely hope so, Mrs.White.”
“Very well, I shall arrange to have my accounts transferred to you as soon as possible.”
“Thank you, Mrs.White.”
“There is one other thing you might be able to help me with. I shall need some female help to start with. I want someone who is good with children. Is there anyone you could recommend?”
“I’m afraid I’m not very conversant with that sort of thing, Mrs.White, but Mr.Willow is very well acquainted with the people of the town, suppose I ask him, and let you know. What age are the children?”
“They are three month old twins. They are with my parents at the moment.” Her hands involuntarily moved towards her breasts. “They’ll be joining me in a fortnight.”
It was then I realised. “She’s breast feeding babies. She must be expressing her milk, that’s why she looks so uncomfortable with her breasts.” This thought only added to the puzzlement I had about this woman. Why had she come to Paradise Valley? And why the cottages?
She rose to leave, so I escorted her to the street, and watched as she got into the vehicle that had been “delivered.”
It was an absolutely top of the arrange four wheel drive. My battered Datsun parked beside it seemed to cringe away from this lordly conveyance. I waved a farewell to her and thought, “My God that must have cost her a packet.”
I spoke with Phineas about a suitable woman to help Mrs.White, and he came up with the name of a fifty five-year-old widow named Mrs.Emily Carter.
“Very good type. Motherly but not the fussing interfering sort, could probably do with the extra money.”
I rang Mrs.White and asked if she would like me to approach Mrs.Carter and arrange for them to meet. She readily agreed to this.
When I met Mrs.Carter, Phineas’s assessment was confirmed. Plump and capable looking, she combined a caring with an “I’ll stand no nonsense” nature. I made the arrangement for the two women to meet and left it at that. Little did I know then what a significant role Mrs.Carter was to play in my life.
Just over a week later, Mrs.White’s records arrived from her city accountant. To say I was surprised would be an understatement. I had realised that Mrs.White had a considerable sum of money tied up in the cottages, stables and land, but beyond that, I had thought that a few thousand dollars would be about all she had. Her records revealed that after all the expenditure on the property, her new vehicle, furniture and other equipment she had investments and readily available money to the tune of a million and half-dollars.
Looking over her investments, I came to the conclusion they were all well placed and returning adequate, if not large, dividends. “Someone’s given her sound advice,” I thought.
I rang her to let her known that I had received her accounts, and got an invitation to pay a visit to the cottages, as she needed some further advice. Our clients usually came to see us at the office, but my curiosity and puzzlement over this woman led me accept the request. It was arranged for the following Saturday afternoon.
Without knowing quite why, I felt a tingle of excitement as I drove up to the cottages.
Mrs.White welcomed me with a handshake and a smile. It would not be true to say that she looked radiant, but her pallor had diminished, and instead of giving the impression I was a necessary nuisance, she actually seemed pleased to see me.
Inviting me into the cottage she said, “The place is still a mess, and will be for some time I think. You’ll understand why shortly.”
On entering it was obvious little had been done to arrange the furniture but from what I could see, most of it was not new, but was clearly very tasteful and, my accountant’s mind coming into play, expensive.
In that way she had, she seemed to read my thoughts. “I bought most of it secondhand – well, a lot of the pieces are antique, I think they’re rather lovely.”
I had to agree, and I could see how excellently the pieces would fit into the cottage. Yes, the woman certainly had excellent taste.
I was conducted into the kitchen that turned out to be the one room in which everything was gleaming and in order.
Although the electricity had been connected on the second day of her arrival, so all the electrical appliances, including the cooking stove, were working, a fire was burning in the old wood fueled cooking stove.
The rickety table and chairs left behind by previous tenants had gone, to be replaced by a large scrubbed white deal table and four cottage dining chairs.
Invited to sit, I was asked whether I would like tea or coffee.
While Mrs.White set about the tea making, she began to explain why she had asked me to visit.
“I’m going to make the two cottages into one. I’d like an archway built in the party wall. I also want a number of other renovations done. I’ll show you after we’ve had our tea. By the way, were their any problems with my accounts?”
Over our cups of tea I asked her a few questions about her investments and which bank she wished to use in the town. That settled and our tea drunk, I was taken on a tour of both cottages.