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Life and Debt

By Virginia Sue Foreman All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Adventure

Chapter 16

Mike awoke with a start. The room was dim, candles glowed, and there was someone in the room with him. He sat up to find Adams hanging a sapphire blue coat on the door of the wardrobe.

“Good evening, sir. Dinner will be in an hour. Miss Clara is waiting for you in the drawing room. May I assist you in dressing?”

“That won’t be necessary. I believe I can manage. Though, I’m not sure I know how to find the drawing room.”

“It is at the bottom of the stairs to the left. Do you require anything else, sir?”

“No, thank you.” Adams bowed and left the room quietly.

Mike got up and found an entire outfit to go with the coat. He stripped off the remainder of his shabby clothes and washed again, more thoroughly this time, before putting on the fine garments. By the time he found his way back down the stairs and to the drawing room, it was nearly eight o’clock.

Clara was sitting on a lush divan, wearing an elegant fashionable gown of pale blue watered silk, and her father was pacing with his hands behind his back. Mike felt like an intruder when he stepped into the warm glow of the lavish room. Stuart paused his pacing, and Clara turned slightly and smiled broadly at him.

“Come in, Mike. Father and I were just talking about all the things that happened while I was away. It seems things have been quiet here. I’ve told him all about Uncle George and Aunt Mary, and Geoffrey and Amelia.”

Mike crossed to her, and took her outstretched hand, bowing and kissing her fingers lightly. She was so beautiful, he could not be angry with her for not telling him about her father and his wealth. He bowed to her father.

“Yes, it would seem there is more to tell of Clary’s summer than of mine. But, she has refused to tell me much more than the health and well-being of our family until you were here.”

But, before they had time to do more than greet, dinner was announced. They went into the most ornate dining room Mike had ever seen. The table was long, and it would easily seat twenty dinner guests on the graceful Duncan-Fife chairs. However, tonight, it was set for only three. Servants dressed in neat black coats and waistcoats brought the courses one after another, and filled the wine glasses with practiced aplomb. When, at last, the meal was finished, and Clara said they would take after dinner drinks in the drawing room, they rose, and left the servants to clear away.

Adams carried a large silver tray with a crystal decanter and three glasses to a table beside the ornately carved and upholstered chair, where Stuart seated himself. Mike sat gingerly on the edge of the divan beside Clara. There was no more delaying what he knew was to be the most uncomfortable conversation he would ever have. From the moment he had come down to dinner, he felt the discomfort. He knew Stuart was examining him closely, and the pronouncement would come next.

“Well, Harrington, no more delay. Tell me what is going on here. Clary wrote me she was bringing you home, and that she thinks she’s in love with you. Beyond that, nothing.”

Mike looked at Clara for encouragement, but she just smiled sweetly at him. His heart pounded uncomfortably and he took a deep breath.

“I’m in love with her as well, sir, and we would like to marry. In spite of all the reasons I gave her for not marrying me, she still says she wants to. We have come to you for your advice and guidance, I suppose.”

Stuart Martin was a tall man, slightly thick around the middle, with more gray hair than dark. His forehead was higher than it used to be, and he did not seem to be accustomed to the worried expression he now wore. He lifted his glass, sipped his sherry, and sighed.

“My advice and guidance would be foolish, without first knowing what I am addressing.” Mike shifted in his seat slightly. “Where did you meet my daughter?”

“We met at a concert in the park, in the spring. My friend and I met Clara and her cousin while there that evening. Since then, we have spent the summer getting to know each other.”

“Uncle George approves of him, Father,” Clara spoke quickly as if to say that was good enough. “We spent a lot of time at their house, and they all love him.”

“That is commendable, but I do not yet know him. I know nothing of him.” He turned his gaze from his daughter to Mike. “Where are you from, Harrington? And, how do you propose to support my daughter?”

“He comes from Cambridge.” Clara spoke quickly again, before Mike could think how to answer. “His father owned a successful mercantile business there.”

“Owned? Does that mean he no longer owns it?”

“My father is dead, sir. His business partner bought out his share of the business after his death.”

“Does that mean you have your own fortune?”

“Father, please, don’t be so bold. Mike’s finances should not be the deciding factor for our marriage.”

“It should if he wishes to marry the daughter of a Lord. How do you propose to live? Have you given any thought to these things?” he said, looking with surprise at his daughter.

“Yes, father, we have. We’ve discussed finances, living arrangements, all of it. I am completely satisfied.” She paused only to take a quick breath before charging on. “I hope you will give Mike a chance, and get to know him before passing any judgment.”

“Fine, fine. I shall give him a chance. But, I hope you understand my position as well, Mr. Harrington.”

“Yes, sir. I do understand.”

“Well, we shall see about that. Clary, would you please leave us for a while? I would like to get to know Mr. Harrington without your constant interrupting.”

With just the slightest pout, Clara rose, and gave Mike a pleading look that expressed her reluctance. He smiled to reassure her, and she left after casting another meaningful pout at her father before pulling the doors closed behind her. Mike was more nervous than the night he had sat in the house, waiting for Jacob Tolabert. Lord Fenton tossed back the rest of his sherry, and set down the glass.

“Enough dancing around the issues. What are you not telling me about yourself Mr. Harrington? If you hope to have any chance at all of marriage to my daughter, you had better tell me the whole truth.”

He was not unkind in his statement, but Mike knew he meant to know all there was to know. As he sat in his chair, elbows resting on the armrests, Stuart made a tent of his fingers, and watched Mike. Mike returned his stare unblinkingly. This was it. There was no way around it anymore. He would have to tell him everything, and hope he did not have him dragged off to the authorities.

“Sir, I have told Clara all there is to tell. She assured me you would be fair, and listen to everything before making up your mind.” He swallowed and looked down at his own hands, which he folded and unfolded before plunging on. “My father was Gerard Harrington. He founded Harrington Dry Goods in Cambridge. It always stood for excellence as long as he lived.”

“I know that company,” Stuart mused. “We used to buy supplies from there, until about seven or eight years ago. The quality and service began to decline severely, but I never knew why.”

“I am sure it did. Father’s business partner had been stealing from the company for years. Father and Mother were killed in a robbery just after I found out. I have suspected for some time that Jacob Tolabert was behind that as well. I tried to carry on the business, but he was undermining me all the way. He bought me out, and gave me only a tenth of its worth. However, before I could get home with the money, one of his men attacked me and took it back. So, I left home that same night, in fear of my life.”

Stuart had been watching Mike with a curious look on his face. “I can certainly understand why you would want to do so. I know of this man. He has a dreadful reputation, but oddly, never seems to run afoul of the law.”

“I only wish my father had known of him, before he allowed him into the business. He might still be running the excellent business he started and—” he faltered slightly.

“Your family might not be gone.” His voice was softer and kinder than it had been.

“Yes.” He sighed. “We were considered quite wealthy by some standards. We lacked nothing. My family was accepted in society.”

“I see. I can tell you were raised well, by the way you comport yourself. I take it you have left that life style now.”

“Yes, I had little choice.” He shrugged. “When I fled, my intention was to go somewhere, and become an apprentice and perhaps learn a trade. I thought if I could work and save my money, I could find a way to reclaim Father’s company.”

“But, you went to Edinburgh instead?”

“Not at first. As I said, I was in bad condition when I left that day. I took shelter in what I thought was an abandoned barn. I thought I might be safe there for the night, and I could recover a bit before going on.”

“Wise decision,” Steward said, pursing his lips and nodding.

“Well, before the night was over, I wasn’t so sure. I woke to the sound of voices. I thought he had sent men to follow me, and finish the job. It turned out that it was some men in just about as bad a way as I was. They patched me up, and allowed me to travel with them. We found work where we could, and doing whatever we could find.”

“And that’s how you found yourself in Scotland?”

“Eventually. Before we went there, I got into a spot of trouble. We had come back to Cambridge in our wanderings, and all the animosity I felt for Tolabert came flooding back. I thought I could frighten him, and make him feel remorse for what he had done to my family.”

“That was foolish,” he agreed and poured himself another glass of sherry.

“Yes, it was. And, I paid for it. Things went badly. He accused me of trying to kill him. I was sentenced to hang.”

“But, you obviously did not hang.” He raised his eyebrows, and looked more intently at Mike.

“No. My friends managed to snatch me away from the gallows at the last moment, and we fled. During the escape, I was shot. Tolabert put out a reward for my capture. As far as I know, it still stands.”

Stuart sat, eyeing Mike and considering what he had said. “You seem to have had your share of trouble.” He stood and offered to refill Mike’s sherry glass.

“If it had not been for a dear friend of my family, I probably would have died then. He managed to secret me into his home and tended my wound. He protected my friends, and helped us get away when I was recovered.” Mike sipped his sherry. “I had asked him to sell the house for me, when I left the first time, so when we came back he gave me the money from the sale of the house. With that, we were able to change our appearance, and managed to get to Scotland without being found out.”

“That was risky. Have you managed to accomplish your original goal then?”

“No. I am afraid, the best I was able to do, was secure employment as a record keeper for a wealthy merchant. I was able to live better than I had been, but never quite as before. I dared not come back to England with a price on my head.”

With that, he looked into Stuart’s face, expecting to see revulsion. Instead, there was a kind and thoughtful expression. Stuart tugged his ear absently.

“You say Clary knows all of this?”

“Yes, sir. I told her everything. I was sure it would change her feelings, but she still insisted we should marry.”

“She is headstrong. Just like her mother.”

“She wanted me to come and see you, before she would accept that it was impossible for us. She thought there might be something you could do, but I don’t see what. And, even if there is, it would be unfair to expect you to do anything, just because she wants to marry me.”

“I must admit, you have given me much to think about. But, before I think any further, I want to know the extent of your relationship with my daughter.” He looked directly into Mike’s eyes.

Mike could feel the blood rising in his cheeks. “I love her, sir, and I would not, in any way, dishonor her. I would do anything she asked of me.”

“Good. I find your honesty refreshing, Harrington. Most men would embellish the facts, or not tell me all the details you have shared. I sense nothing of the kind in you.” Mike was surprised to find no disproval in his voice. “I admit I would rather see my daughter married to a man of honor with no wealth, than a man of wealth with no honor.”

“I thank you, but I see no way you could approve our marriage. I have nothing to offer her.”

“I dare say she feels otherwise. For now, you’ll be safe here in my household. I’ll give things serious consideration. I have an idea I may be able to arrange something that will be satisfactory to all of us.” He rose and extended his hand to Mike. Mike took it cautiously. “Welcome, Mike.”

After several days and much thought, Stuart decided that his future son-in-law was ingenious, capable, and honest. They sat in the study sipping afternoon tea.

“Mike, I want to train you to take over the rigorous duties required to run this estate. That way, I will be able to work less than I’m doing now. I will be able to go off to parliament when I need to, without worrying about things here. And, I hope that, in the not too distant future, there will be grandchildren to spoil. I want as much free time to devote to that task as possible,” Stuart said with a slight grin.

Astonished by this offer, Mike nearly dropped his cup.

“That is generous of you, sir. I hope I’ll be able to meet your expectations.”

Stuart waved his hand dismissively at the suggestion. “It’s nothing, really. You see, neither of my sons seems interested in the running of the estate. Charles only ever wants money—often, freely given, and without question. William seems to have ambitions that lay in another direction at the moment. He joined the army, and went to war in the colonies. Now that the war is ended, he doesn’t seem inclined to return just yet. He says he finds the American colonies more attractive than his home and duties in England. It would be comforting to know, that there is someone at hand, who is capable of handling things, at least until William decides to come home.”

Mike found Stuart to be a most likeable man and grew as fond of him as he was of Clara. And, this generous offer to employ him was nearly overwhelming. Even more astounding was when Stuart had insisted on giving Mike wages.

“I know it would make you feel less dependent on your future father-in-law, to have funds of your own. I would gladly give you whatever you require, but I know you are the kind of man who would chafe at the idea of having to ask for what you need or want. This will give you money to do with as you please without having to account to me for it.”

“Thank you, sir. I don’t know what to say. You are most generous.”

Mike was a willing and apt student. He quickly learned all the details and demands of running the estate. Over the course of several months, he even began to make suggestions for ways to make improvements in the general running of it, and ways to make more profit from the enormous acreage, crops, and livestock.

For nearly a year, Mike worked with Stuart on the estate. Clara planned their wedding, and it would take place at the end of summer. Mike wanted Henry and Tom, Jericho and Catherine, to come for the celebration. He decided to take a large portion of his wages and send to them so they could outfit themselves properly, and have the revenue for the journey as well. He wanted them to feel comfortable in these surroundings, and not look out of place among the expected wealthy guests.

While he sat writing the letter, explaining to them what had happened, and why he was sending the bank draft, another thought pierced his conscience. He had been remiss in his correspondence with Father John. In fact, he had sent very few letters to him over the last few years. And now, it was summer again. He had been here for nearly a year, and not let Father John know. He wrote a very long letter to his friend, filling in all the details of the last several years, and inviting him to the wedding. A little wave of homesickness welled in him. It would be good to see Father John again. He sincerely hoped he would forgive his lack of correspondence, and come to the wedding.

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