Still patting myself on the back for having made a definite decision about James, I arrived downstairs feeling ten pounds lighter, as if a live grenade had just been taken out of my knapsack and I could breathe normally again.
The clock in the gallery began striking eleven in its deep sonorous tones as I said hello to Brooks, who was in the midst of setting up in the grand salon. The gas lamps had all already been lit, and the gentle hissing provided a comforting, calming backdrop for what I was sure would be a loud night. Well, I was ready for it!
"Tea's been put on and a few mattresses dragged in," he said. "Just the tables left."
"Excellent! Shall we put on a phonograph record in the meantime? Get the dancing out of the way before the onslaught?"
Brooks threw back his head and laughed. "At my age, I'm sure I'd do myself an injury." Rolling up his shirt-sleeves, he shuffled over to the folded tables, his worn, brown corduroy slippers making a familiar grating sound over the rugs.
For a moment, I missed Father. The sound of slippers on carpet was one I always associated with him. He had never been as carefree as Brooks, but he'd been witty and enjoyed a good joke. And had been quite the dancer in his day, if the letters of condolence I'd received from elderly women friends after his death were to be believed. Life was easier -- and harder -- with him no longer around.
"Wrung anything out of the new man about that episode by the car?" Brooks asked.
I told him what James had said about his 'leg' as we unlocked and lowered the legs of the table and set it upright.
"Ah, I might've guess that, eh? Didn't take into account that anyone would steal a crutch. In jest or seriously, hardly matters to the man himself, does it? "
"No. A topic best avoided while he's here, at any rate. Which won't be very long, actually."
"Oh. So not one for the Hutch?"
"No. Change of plan. Davis will be here only temporarily."
Brooks nodded and began setting up the last table as I brought in the wooden chairs from the corridor.
"Speaking of his crutch. I took the liberty of putting in an order with carpentry for a new pair for him. I thought to myself, Brooks, I thought, how would you like it if you had to hobble about on one old stick what's got all sorts of muck on it? And my answer was, I wouldn't. Not if I could help it. And I'd want two, and I'd want them made proper like, so I would. So I put in an order."
He looked at me with raised eyebrows. "I hope now that was the right thing to do if he'll not be staying?"
I put down the chair I was holding and stared open-mouthed. Why hadn't I thought of that? Of course, James needed new crutches! His shoulder had been damaged by not having a second one after all, the doctor had told me that. Why had that not even crossed my mind? Where was my head?
Somewhere unmentionable, obviously. The faster you get back to London and into Charlotte's capable hands, the better.
I shook my head, attempting to shake out the irritating sense of my own incompetence. "I don't know how. . ."
Brooks paused, put down the chair he was holding and leaned on it. "It's not your fault, love, so don't go feeling as if you've not done your duties to the man. You aren't the one responsible for his situation and you can only do so much."
Brooks shook his head decidedly. "When we were parked at Miss Wynthorpe's, I smashed on my deerstalker and polished my magnifying glass for a good look at our Lt. Davis. And his 'leg'."
"Really? Ah, ha. And what did the great Sherlock Brooks deduce?"
Brooks was over the moon about detective novels and devoured every new Sherlock Holmes story the moment it was published. Agatha thought it dreadfully common to take such a sensationalistic interest in crime, which only encouraged Brooks to indulge in it more, gleefully buying every paperback detective novel he could lay hands on.
"He deduced that Lt. Davis has had more uses for that crutch than just walking. I'd say he's been in his fair share of punch ups, and considering he's still in one piece -- in a manner of speaking -- he must have not come out of 'em too badly. Some of that muck on his stick is old blood stains. If it's his, or the other bloke's. . . ." Brooks shrugged.
I remembered James' cracked finger and his claims about being able to hold his own in a fight.
"And he's done his fair share of walking and climbing. But no actual physical labour. He hasn't been out in the elements for very long, either -- I'm guessing a woman there -- but he has been doing rather poorly and that for much longer."
I felt my stomach lurch to my knees. James and a woman? What was I feeling? Jealousy? Shock? Indignation? I had no idea, the emotions were swirling too quickly.
Leave off, Olivia. That's none of your concern.
"How interesting," I replied, simply to say something. "Walking and climbing?"
"Stairs. Lots of them, I'd think. His boot's scratched up oddly."
Perhaps get yourself a lady friend, won't that be nice? Wasn't that what I'd leveled at him, instantaneously assuming it was impossible? But was it? Did he have a woman? Was that one of the reasons he was so reticent to leave London? But, he hadn't mentioned anyone and he had been so filthy and -
Suddenly, an image opened in my mind causing reality to recede into a soft, background haze and I saw a scene play out as clearly as if it were cast upon a cinema screen: a woman shoving James energetically out of a doorway, throwing his coat at him, waving her arms and screaming at him to shove off and never come back. Neighbors at the windows. Children in ragged clothing pointing. Him hobbling off, shoulders slumped, as the rain streamed down...
Had I horribly misjudged him?
He had been right. I honestly hadn't thought about him for one second in the last five years.
And I hadn't thought about him for one second since chasing him down and demanding he let me take care of him. Even though very little else had been running through my mind but James the whole time.
Selfish. Selfish and impersonal, that's what I'd been. It only struck me now that I really didn't know the first thing about James. And I had made the terrible mistake of assuming I did simply because he was now a disabled ex-Tommy without a roof over his head. One man just like thousands of others in this country. He was right. I was no better than the army when it came to that.
I was ashamed of myself, and the hot flush I felt rising onto my cheeks only confirmed it.
"Now don't go on like that," Brooks said, sliding the last of the chairs around the table. "Stop taking it so hard. You do more than your fair share for these men, that's known far and wide. Let others take a bash at it now and again! No one can expect you to do everything, and neither can you expect it of yourself. I'm sure you'd have got to seeing to his "legs" eventually." He glanced around the salon. "Now, what else needs doing?"
"Any idea when they're planning his lathering for? If they're planning it at all?"
I shouldn't have asked that, but it was out before I could stop myself. Brooks looked back at me and I saw a fleeting look of curiosity followed by concern in his eyes. It occurred to me that I'd never asked about that before. Sherlock Brooks was not a detective to be underestimated.
He shook his head. "But I've warned them."
"He has a damaged finger."
At that moment, loud crash echoed out from the kitchen, followed by a stream of swearing and more clattering that sounded for all the world like an entire mess kitchen's worth of pots and pans being dashed onto the floor tiles.
"Ah!" said Brooks, "That'll be the tea!"
YOU ARE READING
England 1921. For fifty handicapped veterans left without home or job after WW1, the only person standing between them and utter destitution is Olivia Altringham. Lacking sufficient funds and a support network, Olivia has managed to keep her vetera...