Life and Debt

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Chapter 14

Standing at the door of number three Charles Street with a small bouquet of flowers in hand, Mike straightened his coat and removed his hat. He lifted the knocker and let it fall. A butler opened the door and admitted him.

“Mr. Harrington to see Miss Clara Martin,” Mike said.

“Yes sir. The family is in the drawing room.” He led Mike into a large ornate room where several people sat, or moved about. “Mr. Harrington,” he announced to the room at large, bowed, and removed from the room.

“Mr. Harrington.” The older man he had seen at the concert stepped forward, extending his hand. “I’m George Martin. My niece told us you would be joining us this evening. Won’t you come in?”

“Yes, thank you.” He glanced around the room to find Clara, but she was not there. “Where is Miss Martin? I brought these for her.” He wagged the little bouquet feebly.

“She will be down shortly. She and my daughter are still primping, I’m afraid. In the meantime, may I introduce you to the rest of the family?” He stepped back, and indicated the rest of the people in the room.

A tall young man stood by the fire, glass in hand glaring at him. “This is my son, Geoffrey. This is Mr. Harrington.”

Mike nodded his head in greeting. “How do you do?” Geoffrey simply continued to glare at him. There was a beautiful young woman seated near him.

“This is Miss Leanne Wallace, Geoffrey’s fiancée.” Mike bowed to her. George turned toward the divan where a handsome older woman sat. “This is my wife, Mary.” Mike bowed to her and received a trace of a smile. George continued to introduce the rest of the guests, until at last Amelia and Clara entered.

Their gowns were light confections of silk and taffeta, which rustled as they walked toward Mike and George. “Ah, my dears, you have managed to join us at last,” said George with a smile. Each woman smiled and simultaneously gave George a peck on the cheek. “I assume you know Mr. Harrington. Our daughter Amelia, and my niece Clara.”

Mike bowed to them and presented the flowers to Clara. “Yes, we met at the concert last week. It is lovely to see you again.”

If the conversation in the drawing room was difficult, dinner was no better. Amelia sat on one side of Mike, and Clara on the other. By whose design, he was not sure, but Mike suspected he knew, and did his best to hide his disappointment. Amelia did her best to monopolize his attention throughout several courses, leaving little time for him to speak with Clara. It was obvious that Clara was as annoyed as he was by this maneuver. Meanwhile, Geoffrey sat opposite them, glowering at Mike throughout the meal, and Leanne pouted, all the while glaring at Geoffrey.

After dinner, they sat in the music room, and listened while Leanne played the piano. Amelia sat on one side of Mike on the divan, and Clara on his other side. Clara sat, hands in her lap, stiff and unwilling to do anything that would provoke Amelia’s anger. Amelia, on the other hand, wiggled, and flirted with Mike openly and aggressively. Frustration began to get the better of him and he knew he would not have a chance to speak to Clara this evening. When he could stand it no longer, Mike excused himself to leave. Having no more than a small moment to talk with Clara, he thought he would have to give up any hope of getting to know her. When he stood to take his leave, Clara followed him into the hall while he took his hat from the butler.

“I must apologize for the family,” she said quietly. “Most of them feel that Amelia has been wronged in some way. I’m afraid they took it out on you. I was afraid that would be the case.”

“I understand. But,” he lowered his voice so only she could hear, “I did enjoy what little time I had to talk with you—and would like to see you again—perhaps, without so many people?”

“Yes,” she said thoughtfully. “I often go for a walk in the park with my maid on Sunday afternoon. Usually, Amelia isn’t interested in coming along.”

“Perhaps I shall see you there,” he said with a smile. He bowed to her, mindful that the others were watching from the music room, and bid her good evening.

Sunday afternoon seemed to come very slowly. But, at last, Mike found himself strolling up and down the walkway in the park. There were many couples strolling along the walk and on the grass, and some were sitting quietly on benches watching the activity, or chatting quietly together. He looked in every direction for Clara, for what felt like hours. Perhaps she had changed her mind, or she could not get away. Disappointment welling inside him, he was on the verge of giving up and returning to his flat in dejection, when he spotted her walking toward him with another young woman. Since he did not recognize the other girl, he assumed she was Clara’s maid. With a bounce in his step he had not expected, he hurried to intercept them.

“Miss Martin! It is nice to see you again.” He tipped his hat to her, and nodded to the maid.

“Mr. Harrington. How nice to see you again. Bridget and I are out for a walk.” She indicated her maid, and blushed.

“Perhaps, I could walk with you?” He offered, and Clara nodded with the slightest hesitancy. They began to stroll slowly, with Bridget walking close behind them. After a short while, it was obvious they would not be able to talk freely with the maid listening to every word. Mike guided them to a bench where they sat down. There was a man walking around with a basket of pastries for sale, and Mike dug into his waistcoat pocket for a coin.

“Bridget, would you like a bun?” Mike offered her the coin.

Bridget’s eyes grew large, and she nodded eagerly. It took no other urging to get her to leave them, and Mike smiled broadly.

“At last!” he whispered to Clara who smiled back.

They spent the next half hour in pleasant conversation, without Bridget listening.

“How long have you been in Edinburgh, Miss Martin?”

“I came a couple weeks ago. I plan to stay until the end of summer. Then Father expects me home again, before the fall season begins.”

“Do you come every year to spend time with your Uncle?”

“No, not every year. It has been three years since I was here last.” She glanced around to see where Bridget had wandered off to, and spotted her seated on a bench nearby, engrossed in her bun. “How long have you been here, Mr. Harrington?”

“I came here seeking work a few years ago.”

“So, you live here now?” she asked, and Mike nodded. “Do you plan to go back to England?”

“I have no plans at present.” She nodded and studied her glove. “Where in England is your home, Miss Martin?”

“My father and I live outside Leicester. We have a bit of property there.”

“That sounds lovely. It is only you and your father?”

“At the moment. My mother passed away several years ago, and my brothers are currently off pursuing their fortunes elsewhere.” She touched her hair and checked her hat. “Is you family still in England?”

“No. My family is all gone. My parents and sister died about eight years ago.”

“I’m so sorry! Was it illness?” She looked at him in sympathy, but his face did not betray his inner thoughts.

“No. Well, my sister died of illness. My parents were killed by a highwayman.”

She gasped and held a gloved hand to her lips. “How dreadful! Did they catch him?”

“Not yet. But one day he will be caught and pay for what he did,” he said with bitterness he had not meant to reveal.

Mike was careful not to tell her too much of his life. And, for some reason he could not imagine, he felt she was doing the same. But, he did not care. She was here, and that was enough.

They continued to meet in the park on Sunday afternoons over the next few weeks. Each time they met, Mike hated to watch her and Bridget walk away from him, back to her Uncle’s house. He wished he could go with her and spend the rest of the evening with her as well. But it was plain, from what Clara said, that Amelia had not forgotten that she had seen him first, and still held the belief that he would come back to call on her.

After yet another beautiful afternoon, it was time to say farewell again. But, Mike had decided he was not going to watch her walk away this time.

“May I escort you back to your Uncle’s house,” he said, touching the brim of his hat.

Clara blushed and seemed a little flustered. “Oh! I don’t know if that would be a good idea.”

“I understand your concern, but I think it is time that we chose to be open about this. I would like to feel I could call on you at home, and not only secretly in the park.”

She bit her lip and looked at Bridget for encouragement. But, she got none. “Well, I suppose it would be all right. But, you must know what may happen. At the very least, Amelia will be distraught.”

When they reached the front gate, Bridget curtseyed and left for the servant’s entrance, with a grin. Clara dropped her eyes to her hands, and Mike drank her in. He took her hand between his, and lifted it, softly pressing his lips to her fingers. To his surprise, and pleasure she did not pull her hand away. He even sensed, that if he had wanted to draw her into an embrace, she might not have resisted. He lifted his eyes to look into her gray eyes.

“May I call you Clara?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“Would you, please, call me Mike?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

“I find I have become very fond of you, Clara.”

“And, I you, Mike.” Her cheeks glowed slightly pink, but she held his eyes with hers.

The moment was shattered, when Geoffrey suddenly came hurtling out of the house, and out the gate, lunging at Mike. Before Mike realized what had happened, Geoffrey landed a punch to his nose, and blood was running down his chin onto his cravat and shirt. Clara squealed, and grabbed Geoffrey’s arm, before he could raise it, and strike again. Mike took a step back, clutching his nose, and hoping Clara’s cousin would not reduce him to a brawl in front of their house.

“Stop! What are you doing?”

“I will not allow this swine to mistreat you as he has my sister!” he spat toward Mike.

With handkerchief clamped to his bleeding nose, Mike recovered his poise. “I have done nothing to your sister, sir.”

“That is not what she says.” He pulled himself up to his full height, in his indignation.

“Then, she is mistaken. I met her only once. I have made no overtures to her, or promises.”

Geoffrey made as if to strike again, but Clara tugged at his arm. “He’s right. He’s done nothing to give Amelia reason to think he has intentions toward her.”

Geoffrey looked at her distraught face, then at Mike. “I only know what Amelia told me.”

“Come now, Geoffrey,” Clara insisted. “You know how she is. She sees suitors in every shadow. If a man tips his hat on the street, she thinks he’s proposed.”

The color was leaving Geoffrey’s face. Mike could see the struggle; he knew she was right, but he still felt he should at least, seem to defend his sister’s honor.

“I am sorry if Miss Martin has misunderstood. But, I have found Clara quite the most charming woman I have ever met, and would call on her often if she will allow it.”

With a look that said, I wish you wouldn’t, Geoffrey turned to her. “She will be impossible, you know.”

Clara nodded. “I know. But, it won’t be long before she is enamored of another man. I think we can put up with her until then.”

Geoffrey sighed, and then extended his hand to Mike. “Sorry, for that,” he said sheepishly, indicating Mike’s bloody handkerchief, still clutched to his nose.

Mike took his hand. “Quite forgotten.”

When he had returned to the house, Clara stepped close to Mike again. “I am so sorry. Are you sure you still want to call at this house of insanity?”

Mike wiped as much of the blood from his face as he could without a mirror. “Nothing could keep me away, if you want to see me.” She smiled, and touched his arm with her gloved hand. She returned to the house, where she could hear the sound of distant wails from upstairs.

When Mike returned home with blood all over his best shirt, and traces of it still spotting his face, Tom found the whole incident amusing.

“Knew it would happen someday. Bound to be some girl who just isn’t taken in by your charm.”

“Very funny. But, it wasn’t Clara who hit me. It was her cousin Geoffrey, Amelia’s brother.” He pulled off the shirt, and went to the basin pouring water into it. He rubbed vigorously at the bloodstain in the shirt. “It was for no good reason. I hadn’t done anything. Amelia told him that she and I had some sort of an understanding. When he saw me with Clara at the gate, he felt obligated to defend his sister.”

“Well, I have never known you to discourage a woman from thinking just that.”

“I thought she might be good for a tumble when I bumped into her at the market that day, but when I saw Clara, I couldn’t think of anyone else.”

“What’s this? Mike Harrington smitten?”

Mike stopped his scrubbing, and grew thoughtful. “I just might be. She isn’t like any of the others I’ve met.”

“At least, until you get under her petticoats,” he said and went to his bed, still chuckling.

Mike finished his scrubbing and wrung the water from the shirt, then hung it on the back of a chair to dry. He could not explain why she was different. He only knew she was. He did not find himself plotting ways to get her to bed, the way he did with other girls. That night, he dreamed of Clara.

Mike’s behavior, during the next week, was the source of much mirth to Tom and Henry. They had never seen Mike lovesick, and they felt it was high time he got a taste of the medicine he had been doling out for so long.

“You know, you better be keeping your mind on business when you’re at work. Your boss won’t thank you for messing up his books for love of a woman,” said Henry, chuckling, one evening.

“I keep my mind on business, thank you very much. I can’t help it if Clara keeps popping into my mind at unexpected moments.”

Mike finally took courage, and wrote a note to Clara, asking if he might come to call on Saturday. He looked for her reply when he came home every evening, and then spent the rest of the evening in distracted silence when it was not there. Finally, her reply came. He held the scented envelope in his hands, as if it might break. He touched it lovingly, thinking how she had touched it. At last, he opened it, and was thrilled to see her agreement in writing.

Saturday afternoon found Mike at the door of the Martin house again. The butler admitted him, and left him waiting in the drawing room. It seemed strange to be here without all the Martins staring at him, accusingly. When Clara entered the room a few minutes later, he found himself as nervous as a schoolboy called to the schoolmaster’s desk. She wore a lacy white dress and straw hat. She crossed the room and stood inches from him beaming into his face.

“I thought today would take forever to get here,” she spoke softly.

“Me too. You look lovely.”

“Thank you. I thought we might join Uncle George in the garden, if you like.” He would have gone anywhere she suggested. It occurred to him that he was behaving very odd by comparison to his usual, confident self.

They went through the house into the back garden. It was lush with flowers and plants. A couple fruit trees were losing the last of their blossoms, covering the ground with white petals. There were garden chairs around a small table, which bore a tray with glasses and a large pitcher of lemonade. George Martin seated in the shade, had a book opened in his lap, and looked as if he might be napping. To Mike’s relief, no one else was there.

“Where is everyone?” Mike asked, as they crossed the lawn to sit at the table.

“Aunt Mary took Amelia to the dressmaker’s for the final fitting of her new dress—her consolation for not winning your heart.” She smiled conspiratorially at him. “Geoffrey and Leanne went for a carriage ride, and will be joining her parents for dinner. We shall be uninterrupted for quite some time.”

George stirred and opened his eyes. Realizing he had been nodding, he straightened himself in his chair, and looked up. “Ah, Mr. Harrington. Good to see you again.” He rose and extended his hand to Mike. Mike noticed that he seemed genuinely to mean his greeting.

“Thank you, sir. It is good to see you again.”

They passed the afternoon quietly, Mike and Clara wishing, that Uncle George would decide to leave them completely alone. But, George seemed to be full of questions and stories he needed to share with them. Then finally, as if reading their thoughts, he rose.

“I believe I shall go back into the house, and see if the ladies are back yet. Perhaps, I can divert them from coming out here, if they are.” He gave Clara a quick, merry wink.

She rose, and pecked him on the cheek. “Thank you, Uncle.”

Mike moved his chair closer to Clara’s. “I thought he would never leave.”

With a giggle, she tapped his arm with her fan. “So did I. Tell me more about you. I know you are English, not Scottish. Where do you come from?”

“In the south. Cambridge.” He could scarcely believe he had told her that. He never told anyone where he was from. There was still the danger that someone would connect his name with that city, and the price on his head.

“Cambridge? That’s not far from Leicester,” she mused. William studied in Cambridge for a while. My brothers no longer live at home. William joined the military.”

“You have a brother in the army?”

“Yes. He’s an officer. As we feared, he was sent to war in the American colonies. There was no way to avoid it. He’s been there for some time now.”

“I’m afraid I haven’t kept up with the politics here, or in the colonies. Things like that don’t seem to have much effect on us here.”

“How long have you lived in Edinburgh? Did you move here because your family died?”

“I suppose, you could say that’s why I’m here.”

“What was your home like? Was it large? Did you live inside the city or outside?”

“I sold the house shortly after they died. There was nothing left for me there. But, to answer your real question, we are not of the gentry. But, we were very comfortable. My father was a very successful merchant, and he and mother were accepted in the social circles.”

“I wasn’t trying to learn your social class, Mike. I don’t care about that.” She looked into his eyes with a look that stabbed him to his soul.

“I haven’t been back there for years. I only had one real friend there, and sadly, I have not kept in touch with him as I should. But, never mind about me. What about you? Tell me about your home and family.”

“As I said, Father and I live alone now. William is in the army, and Charles is living and studying abroad. I doubt he will ever come home to stay, again. He and father quarrel whenever they are in the same room for more than ten minutes. Father loves him, but Charles is too much like him. Neither of them will give an inch. But, I still miss him, especially at Christmas time. He always brightened the house. There were always parties and dinners, presents and singing. He and father seemed to have an unspoken truce at that time.”

Mike smiled at her wistfulness. He felt the same when he thought of those times with his own family. He was surprised to realize that with little effort, he could bare his soul to her, and this disturbed him. He never liked to reveal much about himself, or his past. It mystified him that he should want to do so to this unassuming creature.

As the afternoon wore away, they talked about their homes, but told only as much of themselves as they dared. There were things that neither wanted to share, until such a time as there was no turning back. Mike was in new waters with this woman. He had never felt compelled to see past the conquest with any other. But, with this one, even though he had only known her for so short a time, he could not see his future without her in it. He must know, beyond a doubt, that she felt the same, before he could tell her all there was to tell about Michael Harrington. He must be careful not to tell too much until then. And, perhaps not then.

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