Life and Debt

By Virginia Sue Foreman All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Adventure

Chapter 18

Just before lunch the next day, Mike quietly opened the door of the library, and entered. He needed a strong drink, and was about to pour himself one from the decanter Stuart kept there. He was startled by a rustling sound, and turning quickly he found Clara, rousing from sleep in the large chair by the window. She had obviously been crying. When she realized he was standing there, she jumped up, and glared at him as if not sure whether to run and hug him, or be miffed that he had frightened her.

“Clara, I didn’t realize you were in here. I didn’t mean to startle you.” His voice was just above a whisper. He looked weary and rumpled.

“You apparently didn’t expect to find me at all,” she said with a pretty pout.

He drained the glass, filled it again, and took another sip. With a heavy plop, he sat in the opposite chair and saw a tear slide down her face.

“I was so worried. I feared all sorts of things. Where have you been?”

“I’m sorry you worried,” he sighed. “I went riding.”

“All night?” She knelt beside his chair, searching his face. “When you didn’t come down to breakfast, I went to your room. Then I went to Father John’s room. I thought, perhaps, you and he had spent the night talking. But, he said you were upset with him, and had left yesterday afternoon. I didn’t know what to think.”

“I needed to be alone for a while. There’s nowhere in this entire house, where I can be alone for more than two minutes.” He drained the glass again.

“You should have told me. I wouldn’t have worried.”

Her moist eyes wounded his heart. “I’m sorry I worried you. I promise, I’ll never do it again.” He leaned over the arm of the chair, and stroked her hair. “Father John told me some things yesterday that caught me off guard. I needed to get away, and think things through. I was very confused.”

“Mike, he was packing. He told me you were angry, and wanted him gone.”

“Oh no,” Mike groaned, set his glass on the table beside him, and leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes. “I’ll have to write, and apologize to him. I’m afraid I wasn’t very kind to him when I left. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing at the time.”

“I convinced him to wait until you returned, before leaving.” He stroked her hair again. Even though he did not smile, there was love in his eyes. “Can you tell me what he told you?”

Yes, he thought he should tell Clara. Slowly, he told her all that Father John and told him, but the relief he had hoped for did not come.

“Oh, Mike,” she whispered. “It must have been torture for him. To know, all those years, that you were his son, and not be able to tell you! Not to be able to share with you, the things a father and son share. To have seen you so often, as another man’s child, knowing he could never experience that same relationship with you, must have been awful for him.”

In all his own pain, Mike had not considered Father John’s. He had only felt the sting of deceit, and the lost years, when he wanted his family. Of course, it must have been dreadful for him. Mike realized that he alone had the ability to lift the burden of guilt and remorse his father must feel. He had to restore the friendship he had probably shattered by his behavior yesterday. He leaned and kissed the top of Clara’s head.

“Where is Father Jo—Father?”

“In his room.”

“I’ll go up, and see if I can get him to come down to lunch. It’s time he meets the rest of the family.”

He went to Father John, and found reconciliation easier than he expected. After lunch, they spent the rest of the afternoon talking, as they walked in the gardens, and met the other guests.

That evening, the guests had assembled in the drawing room awaiting the call to dinner, when Mike discovered there were new guests. More names to learn, he thought with a sigh. Clara stood talking to them quietly in one corner, their backs to him. She waved when she saw him enter the room, and he knew he would have to meet them before the meal. When he reached her, and turned to meet the new guests, his face froze in surprise. Before him stood Henry, Tom, Jericho, and Catherine, all dressed, as he had never seen any of them before. He unashamedly threw his arms around each of them, and gave them a warm hug.

After dinner, the gentlemen retired for drinks and cigars, and the ladies for coffee and conversation. But, Mike took all of his friends to the library for a private visit. Henry, Tom, Jericho, Catherine, and Father John toasted Mike’s wedding, and then shared with him all the news from Edinburgh. Although Henry and Tom had been opposed to Mike’s decision to come here, after seeing Fenton Hall, they decided he had made a good decision.

“Henry thought the coach had brought us to the wrong place, when we pulled up out front,” scoffed Tom.

“Yeah, well, you didn’t tell us you was marryin’ bleedin’ royalty, did you?” Henry saluted him with his glass, and continued his perusal of the objects in the library.

“That’s because I’m not. Lord Fenton is of the peerage, but not royalty. And besides, I had no idea myself, until I got here.”

“But, you stayed, even after you saw all this,” Tom lifted his hand to indicate the luxurious room, and then grinned.

“Actually, I was surprised Lord Fenton was willing to allow me to marry his daughter after he learned about my sordid past.”

“You ain’t the only one,” snorted Henry.

Jericho was more curious about practical things. “Just what sort of job did his Lordship give you, then? It must pay well, considering the money you sent us.”

“I’m running the estate for him.”

“What’d you have to threaten him with to get him to do that?” asked Henry his hand poised, holding the decanter above his empty glass.

“Nothing!”

Father John piped in, “Of course not. Michael is quite capable of doing the work, and Lord Fenton told me, he is delighted to have someone he can trust to take over the responsibilities.”

“Actually, I owe most of my ability to the three of you! If I hadn’t met you and worked with you at so many different stables, and other odd jobs, I would not have any idea how to do a lot of this job.”

Hours later, after all topics were exhausted, Jericho reverted to his fatherly role.

“Henry, you’ve had enough of that. That’s at least the second bottle you’ve emptied this evening. We should be off to bed. Tomorrow is a big day.”

“True. True enough,” Henry said with a sloppy grin. He allowed Jericho and Catherine to lead him off to bed, still nursing the remains in the crystal decanter.

Father John also, excused himself to retire, leaving Mike and Tom alone in the library. Mike sat down wearily in a chair, watching Tom in the other.

“Still think I’m crazy for marrying Clara?”

“She’s a remarkable woman. But, I still can’t believe she wants to marry you, knowing your past.” Tom shook his head thoughtfully.

“I find it hard to believe myself. But, I’m very happy she does.”

“Well, I only hope you’re as safe here as you think you are.”

“You don’t need to worry. I’m safe.” Mike smiled. The old anxiety of someone finding him, and dragging him back to hang was no longer haunting him. “This estate is huge, and Lord Fenton’s protection is very strong—even if I chose to leave the estate for a short time—which I would never have to if I didn’t want to.” After only a moment of thought, Mike changed the subject. “What are your plans? Will you and Henry go back north with Jericho? It could be safe for you both to come back to England, since it is just the two of you now.”

“Don’t know for sure. We thought we might look around, and see if there’s any work. It does get awful cold in Scotland in the winter. ’Course, it ain’t all that warm here.” He shrugged his shoulders.

Mike laughed. “Yes. But, you’d be free to come and go as you please, now. Perhaps, I could help you find work. There are factories of all sorts these days. And, some not so far away from here. They are always looking for laborers. With your experience, you could even get work at one of the neighboring estates.”

“Maybe.”

“And, you had better plan to spend Christmas here with us, if you can.” Tom lifted his eyebrow. “I mean it. You shared your fortunes with me for a long time. I want a chance to do the same for you.”

It was very late when they both retired. Things would begin early in the morning. As Mike closed the door of his room, he consoled himself with the fact that when they returned from their wedding trip, most of the houseguests would be gone, and life at Fenton Hall would be much quieter again

After what seemed like only moments, there was a tap at Mike’s door. A tray filled, with steaming tea and scones, preceded Adams into the room. He placed the tray on the table and pulled the drapes wide to let in the full sun. Mike cringed, and pulled the covers over his face.

“Adams, have mercy!” he groaned.

“I’m afraid I have allowed you to sleep much longer than Miss Clara wanted, already, sir.”

“I’m sure she went to bed at a sensible hour.” His head pounded as he sat up, and placed his hands on either side of his temples.

“Trays have been taken to your guests as well, sir. You have time to join them before you must start dressing, if you like.”

“I think I’ll do that.” Adams held up a dressing gown for him to slide his arms in. A momentary wave of nostalgia rushed through him. This robe was similar to the one Gerard had always worn. As he tied the sash, he thought of how happy his parents and Janny would be today, if they were still here.

After eating a scone dripping with honey, and drinking a cup of tea, he went and sat with Tom and Henry while they held their own pounding heads. The strong hot tea was helping some, but it was going to be a while before they felt civil again. A tap on the door brought groans from the trio, and Jericho and Father John entered. They were much too cheerful, and it seemed to the others that they were speaking unusually loud.

“The three of you look like you’ve just been to Hell and back.” Jericho chuckled as they glared at him. “A fine way to start a day of celebration. Looks like I need to go to the kitchen, and see if I can find something that will help perk you up.” He left, chuckling to himself, and soon returned with his own remedy for their hangovers.

Later, after he was dressed, Mike went to Clara’s room, hoping to have a moment alone with her before everything became hectic. Her door stood slightly ajar, and he realized someone was already in her room. He stopped just outside trying to decide if he should knock or leave.

He knew Clara began her day long before the men had risen. She was dressed in all but her gown, and wearing a wrapper, she sat at the small table in her room eating her breakfast.

“Oh Bridget, I don’t know if I can manage even one more guest. There has been a constant stream of people, bustling in and out of this room all morning with good wishes, advice, and small gifts,” she said to her maid.

Deciding it might be best to wait, Mike had turned and was leaving when he saw an elderly woman approaching. When she passed him, he turned and saw her tap on the door. Bridget opened it, and a moment later Stuart’s sister Agatha went in. Fascinated, Mike quietly stepped back and stood listening, beside the open door.

“Hello dear, I hope I’m not disturbing you,” she apologized, as Clara rushed to meet her as she entered.

“You’re welcome anytime, Aunt Agatha! You look beautiful.” She gave her aunt a kiss, and took her arm. “Come sit with me for a while. I think I have to agree with Mike, that there is just too much going on around here. I’m exhausted! I’ll be glad when it’s over.”

“Oh, but you will remember this day the rest of your life, Clary.”

“Oh, I know. It’s just that I’ve been so busy, I haven’t been able to really enjoy any of it so far. Do you have everything you need, Aunt Agatha?”

“Don’t bother about me! I’ve been around here enough to know how to manage on my own. You need to stop worrying about everyone else now, and think about yourself. Adams and Mrs. Harper have everything under control downstairs,” she said as they sat down at the table.

“She is a gem. I don’t know what I would do without her.”

“Have you seen the ballroom? It looks wonderful. There are flowers everywhere, and the buffet table is looking scrumptious already. Cook has outdone herself.”

“I know! How she has managed to prepare all the food for the feast, and keep up with the daily meals I don’t know. Father should give her a holiday when all this is done. I do hope she has enough help down there.”

“Stop!” Aunt Agatha laid her hand over Clara’s and gave it a pat. “Everything is under control. You don’t need to think about another thing, except being beautiful for your wedding.”

Clara sighed, and leaned back in her chair. “I know. It’s just so hard to stop thinking about everything, though. I am so glad you’re here.”

Agatha blushed slightly, and held out a thin velvet box for her to take. “What I really came in here for, was to give you this.”

Clara took the box and carefully opened it. Inside laid a single strand of lustrous, perfectly matched pearls.

“Aunt Agatha!” she breathed, “they’re beautiful.” Gingerly she lifted them on her finger, and held the strand up to the light, where they shone brightly.

“I’m glad you like them. They belonged to your grandmother. She gave them to me on my wedding day. I thought you should have them today. I don’t have a daughter of my own, and I think it is a nice tradition to pass them round the family, don’t you?”

Clara’s eyes threatened to spill tears as she stood, and hugged her Aunt’s neck. I’m so glad you’re here for me today.”

Agatha took the necklace, and fastened it onto Clara’s neck.

“I wish your mother could be here today, but I’m glad I can be here for you.” While her niece sat to admire the pearls in the mirror of her vanity, Agatha stood behind her, resting her hands on her shoulders. “Clary, your father told me all about Mike.”

Clara turned to look up at her, and found no judgment in her eyes. “Everything?”

She nodded. “I hope you know what you’re letting yourself in for.”

“I know very well. I’ve known from the beginning what it meant to fall in love with him. But, I love him in spite of it. He’s a good man, and will do his best for me.”

“I hope so. Have you thought about what will become of you if his past were to catch up with him, though?”

“Yes. We’ve thought of that, and will cross that bridge if we come to it. Mike has overcome a lot of injustice in his life, and he is a better man for it. He’ll succeed, and we’ll be happy.”

Agatha sighed, and squeezed her shoulders. “I pray you’re right, my dear.” The clock on the mantel struck the hour. “Look at the time. We need to get you into that dress. It will be time for you to go down shortly.”

Mike smiled, feeling an even greater love for his bride than he thought possible. With his heart feeling lighter than it had in months, he left to find his friends and make his way downstairs to await the beginning of the day’s events.

In the garden, there were chairs and benches for the guests to sit on during the wedding ceremony. Flowers filled great urns, and draped all around were ribbon festooned garlands. The guests, resplendent in their own finery, sat waiting eagerly for the ceremony to begin. Musicians played quietly in a corner of the garden, under a canopy, to protect them from the afternoon sun. An arbor, covered with ivy and roses, stood in the middle of the garden, and under it stood the local clergyman.

At last, French doors at the back of the house opened, and there stood Stuart with the bride on his arm. She was a vision in her shimmering gown of satin brocade and lace. Her dark tresses were pinned attractively with gem studded combs and tiny flowers. Mike, standing with the minister, thought he had never seen such a lovely sight in all his life.

The day passed in a whirl of activity, and endless people wishing the couple well. Later, the dinner buffet stood, weighed down with a boundless feast, and the bottomless punchbowls kept the guests happy. After dinner, they all danced for hours in the ballroom. The happy couple found it pointless to try to steal a moment together, for even when they were dancing, someone always interrupted for a chance to partner with one or the other.

Finally, late in the evening, to the disappointment of the crowd, the bride and groom took their leave and retired to the marriage chamber. At last, Mike took Clara in his arms and kissed her tenderly. She melted into his embrace, and they clung together in contentment. With a sudden swooping motion, Clara found herself lifted into Mike’s arms, and with complete adoration beaming in their eyes, he carried her to their bed.

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