Life and Debt

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Chapter 15

Once Amelia turned her attentions to her next prospect, her pique with Clara evaporated, and even Geoffrey became cordial. Mike called regularly at the Martin house throughout the summer, until it was time for Clara to go back home. As the time approached, she became forlorn, and clung to every meeting as long as possible, and Mike was equally as miserable. He was surprised when he at last admitted to himself that he loved her, and he wished she could stay in Edinburgh. But, she had to go back home to England, and for his own safety and peace of mind, he must stay in Scotland.

On their last Sunday afternoon together, they decided to have a picnic. Mike hired a carriage, and they drove out of the city, and up the hill of Arthur’s Seat. They climbed up among the ruins of Saint Anthony’s Chapel, and chose a spot where they could enjoy the view of Saint Margaret’s Loch, and look down on the city, glowing in the summer sun. Clara spread out their lunch on the blanket, but neither one seemed to have much of an appetite. After they ate, Mike sat looking out over the scenery with his legs drawn up and his arms balanced on his knees, wishing the day could go on forever, and wishing it was all over at the same time.

Clara and Bridget slowly replaced the remains of their lunch back into the basket. Bridget took the hamper back to the carriage and politely stayed out of earshot.

“Mike, this is our last afternoon together. Please, let’s not waste it brooding about things that we can’t change.” Clara knelt beside him, and sat back on her heels, facing him.

“I wish you didn’t have to go back,” he said without looking at her.

“I know. Father has been gracious enough, not to insist I come home sooner. But, he is expecting me home by the end of the month.”

“Have you told him about me?”

“Well, only that I met you and you have called on me.” He did not turn, but continued to look out over the view.

“Why?” He was afraid to hear her answer. Afraid to know that he truly was not worthy of her.

“I suppose, because I wasn’t sure … sure of what to tell him. I mean, I know what I feel, and I think I know what you feel, but beyond that, what is there to tell him?” She studied her hands as she twisted her lace handkerchief in her lap.

He stretched out onto the blanket with his arms behind his head, watching the puffy clouds floating above.

“What do you want to tell him?”

When she continued to look silently at her hands, he sat up and lifted her chin on his finger. She looked into his eyes, and her uncertainty was clear. An impulse took him, and he kissed her tenderly. When he pulled back, there were tears at the corners of her eyes.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.” He dropped his hands, preparing to stand.

“No! You didn’t offend me. I’m glad you kissed me.”

“Then, why the tears?” He raised up on his knees, resting on his heels, and studied her.

“There is so much we don’t know about each other, and I—”

“You’re afraid of my past?” He could hardly keep the sarcasm from his voice.

“Oh, Mike, no!” Her eyes sought his. “No, not yours. Mine. I’m afraid when you know all there is to know about me, it will drive you away.”

Leaning forward, he took her into his arms, and held her close. “Clara, I don’t care about anything but you and me, right here, right now.”

She clung tightly to him. Mike thought he heard her whisper I love you. He nestled his face into her hair.

“I love you, too.” Now, she was weeping in earnest. He was bewildered.

“I don’t understand why you’re crying. I thought you would be happy to hear me tell you.”

“I am,” she sobbed into his shoulder. “But, now I have to leave. Knowing we love each other, it is more than I can bear. When will we see each other again? Can’t you come to England?”

Mike wanted to shout he would go wherever she wanted him to go, but he knew the risk. He was afraid that when she knew all there was to know of him, she would never want to see him again. He sat back and leaned against a rock, still holding her in his arms, and pulling her with him.

“Perhaps it is time for me to tell you the whole story of Michael Harrington.”

“I don’t need to know anything more than that you love me.”

“You may not feel the same, once I have told you everything.”

“Never. Tell me the worst. It won’t change my mind.”

“But, your father may have other ideas.”

It took more courage than he knew he had to tell her of leaving home, and joining his companions. The worst was telling her about his foolish attempt on Jacob Tolabert, and the resulting price on his head. When he was done, he felt oddly relieved.

“Mike, I don’t care what happened in the past. It doesn’t matter to me.”

“But, I have nothing to offer you, Clara. No home, only a meager job, no family.”

“We don’t need any of those things. All we need is each other.” She pressed tighter against him in the crook of his arm.

“That would only last a short time. I can’t give you the fine life you’re used to. I’m constantly afraid of being found. You wouldn’t want to live where I have to live to stay safe. You would tire of that very soon, and want to leave, even if you could bring yourself to go there at all.”

“There’s something you should know about me, before you place a moratorium on us.” He looked down at her, wondering what she could mean while she looked resolutely out over the loch.

“You wouldn’t need to worry about a job, or being recognized.” She twisted to look up at him. “My father is an important man. He has power and influence. You could be safe there.”

“Clara, Leicester isn’t that far from Cambridge. There would come a time when someone would recognize me—”

“Oh, Mike, I want to be with you, and father is our best chance.”

“But, I couldn’t ask your father to keep us, knowing I’m a wanted man.”

“Then, I’ll stay here with you. We can marry, and live where you live now.”

Mike gave a weary sigh. “You don’t understand. I have no money. I live in a flat with two friends. You’d be appalled by the squalor there in Old Town. I couldn’t do that to you.”

“Then, you don’t want to marry me?”

“Of course I do. But, how could I marry you, and expect you to take on the lifestyle I’ve been living these past several years? It would kill you.”

“Would it kill you to take on my lifestyle?” His sad face was his only answer. “Please, Mike, come home with me, and talk to father. If, after that, you feel you can’t stay, then I’ll do whatever you think is best.”

The sun had passed into the west by the time they had exhausted all possibilities of their situation. When they reached the Martin house again, Mike had agreed to go with her to Leicester, and talk with her father. He kissed her cheek on the doorstep, and promised to be packed and ready to leave when it was time for her to leave Edinburgh.

When Mike told his friends, the reception of his news was not what he had hoped.

“Are you daft? What makes you think it’s not a trap?” demanded Henry.

“How could it be a trap? I know Clara. She loves me, and I love her. We want to marry, and this may be the way around my problem.”

“Married!” howled Tom. “You? Do you hear yerself? You, who loves ’em and leaves ’em, faster than the weather changes? What makes you think you even have a chance with a fine lady like Clara Martin?”

“I have more than a chance.”

Henry drained his glass. “Just how do you plan to support her ladyship?”

Mike sighed wishing they were happy for him instead of suspicious.

“I’m going to talk with her father. He has some influence in Leicester, and she says he will be able to help. Perhaps, he can help me find work as well.”

“But, Mike, we’re safe here,” insisted Tom.

“In six years, not one person has recognized me. No one has come asking for me.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Perhaps, they’ve given up the search. There shouldn’t be that much danger in leaving now.”

Their arguing and pleading with him continued until the moment Mike had packed his few belongings, and left to meet Clara in front of her uncle’s house the morning of their departure. The carriage, which had brought her to Edinburgh, was loaded with her trunks and belongings, leaving just enough room inside for the two of them, and Clara’s maid, Bridget. The journey would take several days, depending on the weather.

Mike was not looking forward to stopping at inns along the way. At any one of them, there was a chance someone would remember him from his trip north. But, he hoped that because he was older now, and traveling with a lady, the possibility of recognition would be less.

To his relief, their journey progressed with no problems. At last, they were nearing the end of the trip. As the carriage rolled up the country lane, toward what Clara assured him was the way to her home, Mike began to look around with more interest. The harvest was in progress in some of the fields. There were only a few houses along the miles of open countryside, and those were widely scattered.

The sun was beginning its descent, turning the foliage of the trees and hedges golden and bold green. As they turned a bend in the road, before them stood an enormous stone structure, rising like a small mount out of the rolling hills of the countryside. It was massive and looked like a castle.

“Is that a royal residence? You didn’t say you lived near royalty.”

“No, that is Fenton Hall.”

The sun had turned the stones of the structure to delicious shades of yellow, gold, and bronze, and then the carriage turned into the long drive leading up to it.

“We’re stopping here? Why?”

“Because, it’s the end of our journey. Father is expecting us.” His brows puckered in a question. “This is where I live.”

Mike’s mind raced with confusion and questions. This was not the country squire’s lodge he had expected. Why had she not told him? The westering sun suddenly lit the windows with a fiery light making the whole house look as if it was aflame within. Mike hoped this was not an omen of the reception he was about to receive.

As they continued up the long drive, he marveled at the lush lawns and gardens. The well-tended late summer flowers spilled over beds all along the lane and around the house, and the shrubs and hedges were neatly trimmed.

The house was old limestone, four stories high. It was no less than two hundred years old, with double stairs ascending in opposite directions up to the first story, where the tall glass windows, across the entire width of the rambling portico, flamed in the setting sun. A courtyard lay between the two stairs, where several servants stood at attention waiting for the carriage to roll to a stop on the large smooth flagstones.

A liveried footman handed Clara down from the carriage, and a tall somber butler bowed in greeting to her. Mike followed Bridget from the carriage in stunned silence. The footmen and other male servants were immediately busy, undoing the straps from the luggage, and placing it on the ground beside the carriage. Suddenly, Clara turned and took Mike’s arm.

“Adams, this is Mr. Harrington,” she said to the butler. “He will be staying with us. I wrote to Father. He is expecting him.” The butler bowed, and stepped aside to allow them to pass. Clara stopped and spoke a word to each of the servants who stood waiting, before they climbed the stairs and entered the house.

The grandeur of the interior hall, on top of all the other unexpected things he had just seen, caused Mike’s knees to feel weak. The central hall was cavernous, with polished marble tiled floor, and gleaming mahogany paneled walls. Tapestries and enormous paintings, of what he supposed were ancestors, littered the walls along the hall, and up the wide sweeping, split staircases that ascended from either side of the entryway. Tall vases and busts on columned plinths stood at attention at metered distances all along the length of the space, between huge polished doors. Heavy draperies hung, swaged at the windows that filled the entire wall at either end of the hall, allowing the sinking sun to illuminate the whole hall, so that everything looked gilded. He had not expected anything like this. Nothing Clara had told him prepared him for anything this grand. What was he doing here? Clara should have warned him.

Still stunned in disbelief, Mike followed as Clara led him to a room off the hall. It was filled ceiling to floor with shelves of books, and gleaming wooden furniture. There were wing-backed chairs before the fireplace, and small tables around the room, with candelabra on them. A globe was prominent at one side of the hearth, and a graying man in a very fine linen coat stood by the window, examining a pipe, which had gone out.

“Father! You look wonderful! It’s so good to see you.” She ran to him, giving him a hug and a peck on the cheek.

“And you look very happy, my dear.” He returned her peck, and held her at arm’s length. “We have a lot to talk about, it seems.”

She glowed and nodded. “Father, this is Michael Harrington. Mike, this is my father, Stuart Martin, Lord Fenton.” Mike gave a slight bow, feeling wholly inadequate.

“Mr. Harrington. You had a good journey, I trust?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Father, we’re tired and dusty. We should go to our rooms, and freshen up before dinner. We can talk as much as you want later.”

“Oh, yes, we will, Clary. You go along now, though. Mr. Harrington, Adams will show you to your room. He will see you have everything you require. I look forward to getting to know you later.”

“Thank you for your generosity, sir.”

Clara took his arm with both hands, and led him back into the hall, where Adams, the butler, stood awaiting their bidding. She gave a quiet chuckle at his look of amazement, as he stared open mouthed at all the paintings, furniture and other luxurious trappings which filled the hall.

“Clara, you should have told me your father is a Lord,” he whispered to her, as they climbed the massive staircase behind Adams.

“If I had, would you have come?” she asked, eyeing him with a sidelong glance.

“Probably not,” he admitted.

“That’s why I didn’t tell you. I wanted you to come and meet Father, and get to know him before you passed judgment. And, I know Father will like you, once he’s had time to get to know you. I’m sure he will help us.”

Mike sighed and gave her a weak, worried little smile. “I hope so. But, I don’t see how he can. I’m so far beneath him, and you,” he whispered.

She gave him an encouraging little squeeze on his arm, and then left him standing before a large polished door, and went on to her own rooms.

Overcome by all the opulence, Mike was nearly afraid to touch anything in his room. Silk brocade draped the bed, the chairs were velvet, and a large, ornately carved wardrobe stood on one wall. In another room that opened off the bedchamber was a washstand, with a lavish mirror, and ornate porcelain bowl and ewer, and other furnishings for his private toilet. Steam rose from the pitcher, indicating that the water was fresh and warm.

His lone, shabby valise sat on a low bench at the foot of the bed, and looked rather out of place. Adams opened the bag as if it were of the most regal material, removed his shaving objects, and laid them on the washstand. He then took Mike’s few clothes, and put them in the wardrobe, as if they were made of the richest fabrics. No one had waited on him for several years, and never like this. Never with so much tact and courtesy.

“Will there be anything else, sir?” Adams stood before him, hands at his sides.

“I can’t think of anything. Thank you.”

“Dinner is at eight. The family will meet you in the drawing room beforehand. Will you require a coat?”

Mike looked down at his dusty attire and knew there was not an appropriate change of clothing among his belongings. His face flushed slightly. “Well, yes, if I might borrow one for this evening.”

“Certainly, sir. I will bring it in time for you to dress for dinner. If you need anything before then, just pull the bell rope.” He bowed and exited the room, closing the door softly behind him.

Mike removed his dusty coat and waistcoat, and washed thoroughly. He took special care shaving, and then, after pulling his shoes off, he gingerly lay down on the bed. The journey and the surprise of his new surroundings had left him exhausted, and before he knew it, he was asleep.

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