24. Coming Inside

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Dinner was a quiet affair as the men who had come in from the fields were more hungry than usual and were looking forward to their evening coffee and an early night. Cutlery scraped on plates, and talk was limited to the barest of necessities.

Brooks happily filled us in on the plot of a Wilkie Collins mystery he was reading to cover the silence, excusing himself before the pudding to get back to it. Agatha and I discussed the weather and a few household concerns. She made no mention of our conversation about Mother or her clear disapproval of my relationship with James and I was grateful to discuss matters of little importance with her. 

During the lulls in conversation between us, of which there were many, my mind returned to the problem of Montgomery and what he must have been going through. He thought someone was after him. Those crazy ideas they have.

Paranoia or reality?  Carter was convinced, but was I? I'd never heard that rumour about the devil in the forest and I felt I was reasonably informed about what the local villages thought of the men. And myself. But then again, I didn't frequent the village public houses nearly as often as Carter. Hopefully, a week or so in the house would calm Montgomery, in any case. Get him around people a little more and out of the threatening environment.  

I wondered if it would be wise to inform the local constabulary about the problem, in case Carter was unable to uncover anything. That had time, certainly, but I was leaning towards bringing in outside help if the problem continued. There were situations we could handle on our own, and situations we couldn't. Which one was this? 

"I spoke to Sykes," McCrory said, as we were returning our dirty crockery to the kitchen. "He said he'll employ Davis with simple tasks in the herb greenhouses for starters. See how he does there, before he recommends deploying him anywhere else." 

"That sounds like a good plan. Thank you."

McCrory tapped two fingers to his forehead as a salute and left. I helped out in the kitchen for a bit, then made my way over into the eastern wing of the house to talk to the men about their new resident.    

The small parlour had been a former sewing room, created by which of my great-grandmothers or great aunts, I didn't know. The feminine floral wallpaper and large windows facing east made it an obvious choice for a commons area for the men who lived on the ground floor of the main house for the sake of convenience, or preference. 

All our basket toads were assembled, Tiller, Rhys-Jones, Fitzroy, Link and Marston, their wheelchairs at chaotic angles to each other. Forbis, Tanner and Wayman were sitting on the long divan attentively waiting for me to speak.

I'd often caught smiles or an odd remark that passed between the Hutch men when those last three were mentioned, and had guessed that they were "Nancies" even if nothing about their appearance or behaviour would have indicated it. Their choice to live apart in the main house was possibly a wise one, considering such interests were highly illegal, and although common enough in the Army, still met with general disgust and condemnation outside of it. I was sure they knew how to look after themselves, having survived what they had, and I'd never heard of anyone at Cloud Hill making serious problems for them.

How they would be treated outside in society at large, that was another matter.

"I've just been informed that there's been some poaching in the forested areas on the estate," I said, standing in the middle of them. "Carter wants Montgomery out of the way while he and his brother deal with the nuisance. I've decided to have Montgomery brought here until the whole mess gets straightened out."

I didn't want to say too much. On the one hand, giving all the details of the situation would cause rumours to fly and possibly fan the flames of animosity towards the locals if the assumptions about the snares were true. On the other hand, a clear lie, no matter how well intended, would soon be discovered as the men talked and compared notes among themselves. And I was still rather unsettled and confused about how to interpret the information myself.

"There's plenty of room for him here, so the most important thing is making him feel welcome. As you may know, he's quite sensitive about the affect his his facial injuries have on people. I'm asking you to try your best to ignore them. If that's possible."

Nods all round.

"I'm also asking you to understand that he hasn't been around people terribly much and might behave a bit oddly. He'll need a nanny for the first few days. Who will volunteer?"

The men looked at each other and finally Link, a Yorkshireman who certainly would have towered over us all had he been on his own legs, raised his hand and agreed to the post.

"Didn't he have an episode the other night, Miss? In the kitchen? All that banging and bellowing? That was him, wasn't it?" Fitzroy asked. 

"It was, yes. That's why I'm asking you all to be particularly mindful with him."

Solemn nods from all corners of the room.

I asked Link to be ready when Montgomery came to the house the next morning, and for the rest of them to organise a bed, linens and whatever else he'd need. Then I said good night and left to have a bath and go to bed. 

I was exhausted and had no idea what the following days had in store for me. I hoped nothing too terrible, but one should never try to out-guess fate.  

My final thought before I drifted off to sleep concerned Charlotte and which dress I should wear next week on our cinema date. 

At least for that question, I had an answer.

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