Life and Debt

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Chapter 17

After weeks of frenetic activity, all the planning and preparations for the wedding were nearly complete. There had been no word from Mike’s friends, and he was beginning to fear they would not come. Even Father John had not yet responded. Mike had been sure he would come, or at least write back, but after all, he was a Bishop. He was probably too busy for such mundane things.

In the days before the wedding, houseguests began to arrive. There were a considerable number of bedchambers in the manor, and soon every one of them seemed to contain guests. Mike found it challenging to remember names and relationships, as the guests continued to arrive. They all accepted him readily and usually laughed when he occasionally called them by the wrong name.

One day, Mike found a rare moment alone with Clara in the morning room, as she inspected the dinner menu for the following day.

“I don’t think I can stand two more days of this!” he teased, as he pulled her to her feet and held her at arm’s length. Clara grinned at him.

“Oh, dear! You haven’t changed your mind? I should be humiliated before my entire family!” She threw the back of her hand to her forehead as if fainting.

In a gallant gesture, he pulled her into his arms, and gave her an affectionate squeeze. “Well, to save face, I suppose I could possibly endure a bit more.”

“You had better. I would send my great strapping cousins after you, if you tried to leave now. They would show no mercy,” she giggled.

“You may someday wish to call them to take me away, but you will never have to call them to bring me back.”

She grew serious. “I’ll never want to send you away.” Before their lips had barely touched, Adams knocked at the door of the morning room.

“There is a caller to see Mr. Harrington, Miss.”

With a sigh, Mike released his embrace. “Who is it, Adams?”

“He would not say, sir.”

The slightest shadow passed over Mike’s face. Who could be calling for him here? For a moment, fear that someone had found him raised the old panic.

“Very well, where is he?”

“In the library, sir.”

“Thank you.” He turned apologetic eyes to Clara. “I best go see who it is.”

“You’re not worried are you? You know you’re safe here.”

“Of course.”

She walked arm in arm with him down the hall, and to the door of the library.

“I’ll see you later,” she whispered.

Before Clara had barely turned to go, a loud cry from the library stopped her short. As she turned, and flung open the door, she saw Mike hugging, and shaking hands with a Bishop. He was dressed in black, and he had draped his dusty traveling cloak over a chair with his hat. Neither of them seemed to notice her abrupt entrance.

“Mike! Surely this is not the way to greet the Bishop!” With a huge grin, Mike instantly seized her by the hand, and pulled her in close to them.

“Clara, this is Father John!”

“Oh! How wonderful!” she cried. “Welcome! Mike has told me quite a lot about you.”

“Father, this is Clara Martin.”

Father John’s smile was gracious, “Michael did not tell me nearly enough about you, my dear. And, please, call me Father John, as Michael does. I have known him far too long to stand on ceremony.” He reached out, and took her hand, squeezing it as he admired her. A blush was creeping up her neck.

“Well, I’m sure you two have a lot of catching up to do. Mike, why don’t you show Father John to his room so he can freshen up? I’ll send Adams up with a tray of refreshment for you both.”

“Thank you, my dear, you are very kind. I can tell already, Michael has been blessed in his choice of brides.” She smiled sweetly, and left them.

Mike carried Father John’s valise as they walked up the grand stairs, and into his rooms. The suite was as grand as any other in the mansion was. Mike had requested it be ready in case he should come, but had nearly given up hope. When he had placed the bag on the bed, Mike and Father John took seats in the facing chairs by the fireplace. The windows were open, and a mild early fall breeze stirred the long gauzy curtains. Before either could satisfy their joy at seeing each other again, Adams knocked, and entered with a tray, laden with tea, sweet rolls, and fruit. Another servant poured hot water into the ewer, and Adams unpacked the Bishop’s valise for him.

By the time they had eaten, and Father John had begun his second cup of tea, Adams had finished his ministrations, and left them alone. Father John looked hard at Mike, assessing how he had changed since he had last seen him.

“You look much the same as when I last saw you!” the Bishop said. “You are older, and the harshness of your life is written on your face more than before. But, you are still the same little boy I have always known and loved, behind those eyes.”

“A lot has happened since last we met.” Mike nodded thoughtfully to his cup. “I was beginning to think you wouldn’t be able to come.”

“Of course I would come! I would come to you anywhere. Surely you know that by now.”

Mike was touched, and a feeling of warmth spread throughout him. He supposed he had known, but had never really given it much thought.

“I know I’ve been very remiss in writing to you as I should and I’m sorry. It just seemed, things moved along of their own accord, and before I knew it, years had passed—”

“I understand.” Father John held up his hand dismissively. “But, I’ve been kept well informed of how things have been going for you by Jericho. He kept his promise to keep in touch with me concerning you.”

“Jericho? That rascal. He never told me that.” Mike looked at him in surprise, and then studied the contents of his teacup.

“Yes, well, I rather asked him not to. He said he would try to encourage you to write, but barring that, he would write. And, he has.”

“You’ve been a great friend to my family for many years, and I do appreciate that. Though, I’ve never really understood why you’ve been so kind to me since my parents died. But, I am glad you have been.”

Father John studied Mike for a long moment. “You truly don’t know?”

“Well, I know you’re a kind man, and in your work, you must care for a lot of people.”

Father John nodded, set his teacup on the table. He looked at Mike for a few moments as if making up his mind about something, and then stood.

“I have something to give you, Michael. I think it is time you had it.”

He went to his valise and removed a small plain box. It was of worn, dark red leather. He held it out to Mike who took it, and opened it carefully. Inside was a tiny gold ring with small glittering dark gems. Mike studied if for a moment, then recognition dawned on him, and he looked up at Father John, then down at the ring again.

“This was my mother’s. I remember she used to wear it all the time. I must have been about five or six when she stopped wearing it. How did you get it? Was it in the house?”

“No. It was not in the house.” Father John sat back down, and for a moment, Mike thought he would not tell him.

He sighed heavily. “I’ve—I’ve had it for a very long time.”

“You’ve had it? I don’t understand. She gave it to you? Why?”

“Yes, she gave it to me, because, I—” he locked gazes with Mike, “because, I gave it to her, years earlier.”

Mike was confused. This made no sense. “You gave it to her. But, why would you give my mother this ring? Father gave her everything she ever wanted.”

“I gave it to her before she met you father.”

“Before Father?” Mike’s confusion was growing deeper.

“Yes.” He took a deep breath and looked Mike in the eyes. “Sarah and I had planned to be married.”

“Married?” Nothing was making sense. “But, you’re a minister.”

“Yes. But, I was not a minister then. I was a student at university, intent on becoming a school master.”

Mike closed the box quietly and looked at Father John. “I still don’t understand. If you were to marry, why didn’t you?”

“I suppose I should start at the beginning,” he said with another sigh. “Sarah and I met quite by accident. It was a rainy afternoon, and we had both dashed into the same doorway to avoid a sudden downpour at the same instance. After making my apologies for the collision, I could see she was beautiful. I was just a poor student, and she was obviously from a wealthy family. I never dreamed I would ever see her again. But, one of my school friends invited me to come to his home for the holidays. To my delight, the same beautiful young lady I met was also a guest at the same house party. We found ourselves seated together at dinner. The next day she agreed to have tea with me, and we talked the afternoon away. We spent a lot of time together that week. I was thrilled when she agreed to meet me again when we returned to the city. We saw each other as often as we could, and became quite fond of each other. It was more than I had ever imagined possible. For the first time, I started to neglect my studies. She was all I could think about.

“We always met at the same tearoom. It was always crowded, and though she never had a companion with her, we were never alone together. But, that didn’t stop my heart from longing. Then, one afternoon, I had been studying, and had a large pile of books with me. When I stood to leave, I told her I was headed to my room to put the books away. To my amazement, she offered to help me carry the books. We arrived at my meager little room, and found my roommate absent.

“Before I knew what was happening, we were kissing, and …” his voice faltered. Mike sat up straighter in his chair. Father John shrugged his shoulders, and looked into Mike’s puzzled face. “We were in love.” He looked down. “I had little to offer her, but she didn’t care. She wanted to marry me anyway. I had that ring that had been my mother’s. I gave it to her as a pledge of my love. She told me years later, she wore it constantly after that.”

“But, you didn’t marry. What happened?” Mike was stunned, but curious.

Father John spoke from a dream long forgotten, lost in his own reverie. “She went home that day, and was going to tell her family. We were to meet the next day, but she didn’t come. I waited and waited. Several days passed, and still she did not come. No word came. I feared something had happened to her, so I tried to go to her house. I was turned away by the servants, and told she would not see me. I was devastated. I had no idea what had happened to turn her against me. I couldn’t eat—I couldn’t sleep—my studies suffered.

“At last, two weeks later, a letter arrived from her. I was horrified by what I read. Her father had forced her to marry the son of a wealthy merchant. He had arranged everything without even consulting her.”

“I never knew that—but, they always seemed to be so happy together.”

“I believe they were, Michael. Gerard was a good man. He did his best to provide a loving and happy home for her.” He sighed, and rose heavily from his chair. He paced for a moment. “Needless to say, my life lost its meaning. I left university, and sought solace in the Church. I finally decided to become a minister. I felt it would insulate me from ever being hurt like that again. I hadn’t expected to love my work. I know now that God directed me to this path. It was meant to be.

“A few years later, I was given a parish, and was later surprised to learn that your mother and father were part of that parish.” He turned his back to Mike. “It was difficult, but after agonizing in prayer for a few weeks, I decided I could not avoid visiting them. The first meeting was very uncomfortable for me. But, I could see that they had built a happy life together.

“It turned out, she had never told her husband of our affair, and there was no reason to do so. It would only dredge up old feelings and hurts. We went on as if we had never known each other before I came to the parish. As time passed, I became very fond of her family. You and Janny were so precious, and accepted me as part of your lives.” He stopped pacing with his back to Mike.

“Then came a day, when she and I were watching the two of you at play in the garden. Gerard had not yet come home from work, and we sat in the shade, laughing at your antics. I told her how much I adored you both, and she grew quiet. I asked her what was wrong, and she said, ‘I am glad you love Michael so much.’ I thought that was a strange thing for her to say, especially about only one of you. But I waited.

“After a few moments, a tear glistened on her cheek. She said simply, ‘He’s yours.’ I thought I had misunderstood what she had said, but she repeated it again.”

Slowly Father John turned back to look into Mike’s thunderstruck face.

“Yours? You mean, you’re … my …” he began. His mind did not seem able to absorb it. How could this be true? Gerard was his father. His mother would never have done this. She loved his father.

Father John nodded solemnly. “Yes, Michael. It happened that afternoon in my room. I never knew. She married Gerard so quickly after, that no one ever realized you were not Gerard’s.”

“But, why didn’t you ever tell me? Why wait until now?” He was becoming more agitated by the moment.

“The same day she told me, she took the ring off her finger, and gave it back to me. She said she didn’t need it to remind her of what we shared any longer, and that I should give it to you for your bride when the day came. She only asked that I not tell you until then, unless it became necessary.” He sat down again.

“But, Gerard Harrington was my father. I loved him. How could you and mother never tell me? Where does that leave me now?” He leaned forward placing his head in his hands.

“We didn’t want to hurt you, or your father. There was nothing that could be changed by telling you. Gerard loved you very much, and you are still his son in every way that matters.”

“But, you have known all these years that I was your son. All those years, after their death, when I needed someone so much—”

“Michael, I was always there. You know that. How would knowing this have changed anything that had happened?”

This was overwhelming. With all the other things going on just now, it was too much to digest. He had to leave, and be alone for a while to think. But, with the house full of wedding guests, there was no place to be alone. Mike rose, and paced where Father John had paced before, thoughts racing through his head.

It was true Father John had always been there for him. Any time there was a problem, he had been there to help. Why had he never thought it strange that a minister should have such an interest in him? He had always seemed to be part of their lives. In fact, Mike could not remember a time when he had not been around. Looking back, he realized that he had always been a rather chosen child of the parish. None of the other children seemed to have the special access to the good Father he had enjoyed. Perhaps there had been clues after all.

Mike stopped pacing and looked again at Father John. The minister’s shoulders seemed to droop, as he sat there with a look of anguish on the face Mike had always loved.

“I’m so sorry for laying this on your shoulders now, when you should be happily planning your marriage. I don’t want to be the cause of pain and problems for you. I’ll leave in the morning if you wish.”

Mike did not know what to say. He had wanted him here, but now, with this revelation, he was not sure about anything.

“I need to think,” was all he could manage. He left, closing the door quietly behind him.

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