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Life and Debt

By Virginia Sue Foreman All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Adventure

Prologue

In the churchyard just outside Cambridge, England, the sound of the scraping shovels brought a pall over the magnificent fall day in 1775. As the gravediggers pushed the soil back into the two yawning holes in the earth, sixteen year-old Mike Harrington wrapped his arm tighter around his younger sister, drawing her close to ward off the chill only he felt. He stood a short distance back from the edge with his eyes fixed on the dirt falling into the graves, but not seeing it. The soft thudding sound and the smell of the freshly turned earth drove home the awful truth he had not wanted to believe—both their parents were dead.

Since their parents were well known in the social circuit, several important people had come to the funeral. Their brutal deaths had caused shock and outrage among their friends. Even some of the employees of Gerard Harrington’s mercantile company who came appeared struck with the same foreboding.

During the proceedings at the cemetery, Gerard Harrington’s partner, Jacob Tolabert, stood like a dark harbinger at the back, with a look of superior disdain, clearly not as devastated as the rest of the mourners, while Father John Osborn performed the rites.

Mike heartily wished all morning that he could wake up to find it had all been a nightmare. Yet, the scene had played tediously on. He watched as his own hand reach down to toss a handful of earth onto the two gleaming walnut coffins, while workers lowered the two boxes into the graves, one after the other. Janny did as he did, and then turned desperately to him, weeping pathetically into his shoulder. The minister’s voice droned on and on through the scriptures and words meant to comfort the mourners, but Mike did not hear them. He was numb, lost in his fog of disbelief.

The mourners filed somberly by, each pausing briefly at the graveside to toss in a bit of dirt, or a flower, and to wipe an appropriate tear from the eye. Mike heard himself saying “Thank you” and other similar words to each who offered words of condolence, as they moved quickly on, back to their lives.

Finally, there was only Mike and Janny left standing with Father John. As if bound there, they stood watching the gravediggers working to fill the graves. Then a gentle arm around his shoulder guided Mike away from the graves, towards the waiting carriage.

“Come children, I’ll see you home.” Father John Osborn’s voice was the only sanity left in their suddenly chaotic world. Adulthood stood like a ravenous wolf ready to swallow them whole, and Father John could shield them for only a little while longer. He had made all the arrangements, leaving the children nothing to do but grieve for the few remaining days of their stolen youth.

With a gentle touch, Mike smoothed Janny’s golden curls from her wet cheeks, and then handed her up into the carriage. She looks frail and lost, he thought. She needs her mother. Janny was not yet a woman, and would need guidance in the days and years to come. Mike felt he was a man, after all; he might be able to handle the business well enough, but what about Janny? How would he care for her?

Father John followed Mike into the carriage, and as if sensing Mike’s building resentment, anticipated his question.

“Michael, I don’t know why your parents were taken this way. Only God knows. Nevertheless, there is a reason for it. If you listen to your heart, God may show you some day. But, you must try to resist the bitterness.”

“Why shouldn’t I be bitter?” his voice was full of sarcasm. “Our parents are both dead for no good reason. There was no need for them to die. They gave the highwaymen what they asked for, and they killed them anyway. Why shouldn’t I be bitter over that?”

“Michael— ”

Mike repented immediately. “Father, it’s not fair. I can manage well enough. I may even be able to continue Father’s company. But, Janny … what about her? She’s still just a child, and needs her mother. She needs the security of her family. But, now she has neither.”

“Janny isn’t the only one feeling the loss,” said Father John gently. “You’ve lost them, too.”

“I’ll manage without them,” he said with his head raised, doing his best to look braver than he felt. “I’m a man. But, she can’t … she shouldn’t have to.”

From behind her linen handkerchief, Janny sat listening to them speaking of her as if she was not there—deciding for her what she could, or could not do without.

“I’m just as able to carry on as you are, Mike. I certainly don’t like being an orphan, but we still have each other, and I can manage if you can. We can do it together.”

Mike swallowed the lump that was growing in his throat. Of course, he still had her, and she certainly had him to count on. Yes, they would survive. They would care for each other. She was all the family he had left. He had never realized before, how much he loved his sister. Janny was precocious, and sometimes wiser than her years. He would pull himself out of this stupor—if she had that much determination, he did too.

One day he would find out the reason their parents died. Yes, he would find out, and then he would—what? Mike’s thoughts turned to the things that had led up to this day. He knew who had made Father angry that night, but just feeling resentment for the man and suspecting he had a hand in the death of his parents was very different. If there was a connection, he would find it—and make him pay.

“You and Janny could come and stay with me for a time, until you are more able to handle things,” Father John said as they rolled back into town.

Mike smiled wanly, “Thank you, Father, but Janny’s right. We can make it together, and the sooner we face things, the better.” He saw a worry crease form on the minister’s brow. “We’ll be fine, Father John.”

They rode on in silence, and Mike looked more closely at their friend. When had Father John become so gray? The lines entrenched in his tired face must have been there for a while, but Mike could not remember when they had appeared. This man was about the same age as Gerard Harrington, yet he seemed to have aged years in just a few short days. Or, was it just that Mike had never looked beyond his caring before?

Father John had always been there. He had been like a second father to Mike and his sister for as long as Mike could remember. He had been present throughout their lives, at many birthday and holiday celebrations, as well as numerous everyday events. He comforted them through the loss of pets, and children’s taunts. He had counseled them through decisions of faith and life. Mike mused absently that he had never questioned his presence in their lives, but now he was thankful for it. Now that both their parents were gone, Father John was the only one left who truly cared about them.

“Don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine.” Mike smiled hoping he showed the confidence he did not quite feel.

“Ah, Michael, I suppose you will be at that,” he sighed. “But, remember. If you ever need anything, you can come to me. I’ll always help you in any way I can.”

Only a few months ago Mike had thought himself quite the young man of the world. Cambridge seemed like such a small, cramped place for a young man of the merchant wealth society. He was, after all, nearly a man. What else could there be to learn of the world?

He could only vaguely recall snatches of conversations at the dinner table about the state of England, the rebellious colonists in America, and their effect on Harrington Mercantile. Those things were unimportant to a young man who preferred to fill his time with carefree days spent with his friends. Besides, he had begun to notice the simpering, giggling girls at the dreadful socials his mother insisted he attend, and they seemed much less repulsive to him in the last year.

So, why should he care about the foolishness of the old men at Parliament and King George, who wanted to force the American colonists into submission? Why should he care about crazy old Farmer George? The actions of the King had little to do with him and his life. He had his secure little world in which he, and everyone he cared about, was immortal. Father could worry about all those other things. Perhaps, someday, he would learn of politics and business, but there was no hurry to learn them—there was plenty of time for that.

Faced with running the Mercantile, Mike realized he knew even less of the company business than he did of the world outside his home in Cambridge. Now, the world seemed a huge unknown and frightening place.

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