Life and Debt

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Chapter 19

Stuart had arranged the wedding journey, ensuring their safety and secure lodging as they traveled. A carriage bearing the crest of Fenton Hall was loaded with their belongings early the next morning, and after an early breakfast, the couple climbed in and set off, with the driver and footman riding on the driver’s seat.

With only brief stops to rest the horses and allow everyone to stretch their legs, take care of refreshment or relieve themselves, the carriage continued to roll, until the sky was scarlet and purple with the setting sun. The driver pulled the horses to a stop at the edge of a little village at a small but tidy inn. When the footman handed them down from the carriage, they stood and looked around for a moment while they stretched and wiggled their feet and legs to bring back circulation. They were weary from the long ride and anxious to have their dinner and get some sleep before they had to begin it all over again in the morning.

Except for the light in one window, the place appeared to be deserted. It stood apart from the village, and it seemed that for this night, at least, there were no patrons occupying the tavern room. Mike wondered if Stuart had paid the innkeeper to ensure they would not be disturbed. And, whether it was for their safety, or the privacy of their wedding journey.

The innkeeper appeared in the doorway, beaming at them.

“Welcome! Welcome Mr. and Mrs. Harrington. We’ve been expecting you.”

He cheerfully led them inside, and seated them at a prepared table by the fire. They would obviously be dining alone, for there was no one else in the room. In fact, there was no one else in the entire inn, except for the employees.

A crisp white cloth covered a table, which was set with glasses and dishes Mike recognized as being from Fenton Hall. New candles burned brightly in tall candle stands, which stood like sentinels around the table. Mike wondered if Stuart had sent them ahead, or if he kept them here for his own travels, or if the footman had been extremely quick in getting them off the carriage and into the hands of the innkeeper.

Clara removed her hat and gloves and a pert young girl stepped forward to take them from her. Immediately, the innkeeper brought platters of steaming food to them, along with a bottle of good wine, which looked as if he had hastily dusted it off. The food was plain but delicious, and the wine was surprisingly good. They lingered over their meal, relishing the comfort of the fire and each other. It was pleasant to sit quietly without the rocking, jarring motion of the carriage.

“Father has taken care of everything, down to the last detail, I see,” Clara said in a low whisper, as she leaned close to Mike. “And, I think that bottle of wine came from our own cellar.” She held up her glass and swirled the last swallow of her red wine, watching it with a critical eye.

“It is very good, but not as good as the company tonight.” Mike grinned at her, and finished his glass of wine. After a good meal and wine, he was no longer feeling the aches of the road, but longed for more than sleep.

When at last they finished their meal, the innkeeper led them to the best room the little inn had to offer, though it was tiny and sparsely furnished. A bed, small table and two chairs, along with a very small chest of drawers, which held a pitcher and washbasin, were the only furnishings. However, there was a fire in the grate, and it danced merrily in the darkness. Clean crisp linens and a beautiful quilt were on the bed, and a lit candle stood on the table. One small bag for each of them, brought up from the carriage, was set on the foot of the bed.

“If you require anything else, m’lord, just give a couple pulls on the bell cord. Someone will be right up.”

“Thank you, but I’m sure we’ll be quite content until morning.” The man bowed to them, and pulled the door closed behind him. Mike quietly slipped the lock on the door, and turned to find Clara digging in her bag, removing her night things. As he looked at her, he could hardly believe she had married him. There seemed to be something warm filling his chest as he stepped across the room to her.

“Please, swear to me, there are no relatives hiding under that bed, waiting to see if I can remember their names.” Mike said as he slid his arms around her waist from behind, drawing her close.

“I promise,” she giggled. “The only name you need to remember tonight is mine.” She turned into his embrace, and threw her arms around his neck, kissing him eagerly.

The innkeeper brought breakfast to their room just as the sun had risen above the horizon and began to peek into the little window of the room. A short time later, as they stepped up into the carriage again, the driver told them that they should make their destination by nightfall.

Again, they made only a few brief stops to rest the horses and to take some lunch. Then, as the daylight was beginning to dim with the sinking sun, they turned a curve in the road, and found London sprawled before them. As they neared the city, cottages with tiny gardens seemed huddled more and more closely together, but finally they gave way to much larger buildings. As lamplighters lit streetlights in the more prosperous areas, it seemed that the city began to twinkle in the growing dusk.

They passed through an industrial district into areas where the poorest people were crammed into closely built, rundown structures. Clara held her handkerchief to her nose. The stench of multitudes of people, living crammed together, in ever narrowing streets, was more than she could bear. Mike was surprised to see that even in the growing twilight, there were still vendors hawking fruit, and flower girls crying after them to buy a flower. Yet, even amid the squalor, Mike felt an excitement at being in one of the world’s greatest cities.

Finally, they began to pass large brick or stone-faced houses, built right up against each other. The streets here were cleaner, and there were well-dressed people walking by the light of the flickering streetlamps. The last of the dying day left the sky in a dim golden haze, just as they rolled to a stop before an enormous stone-faced house, flanked on either side by a similar looking dwelling. A wigged footman stood at the door, and he stepped forward, opening the carriage door. The driver dismounted from his box, and began loosening the luggage.

“Mr. Harrington?” said the footman.

Surprised to hear his name, Mike answered, “Yes. You were expecting us?”

“Yes, sir. Lord Fenton wrote, and told us to have the house ready for your arrival this evening. Dinner will be served in an hour. You have time to freshen up.”

“That sounds like heaven,” cried Clara. “I think we’re wearing most of the road. It was so dusty.”

A cheerful young maid in a crisp uniform met them in the entrance hall. She led them up the stairs to their chambers, where hot water waited, and fresh garments for them lay across the bed. Mike could tell Clara was familiar with the house and its customs, but he wondered at the clothes laid out for him.

“How did they know what to have ready for us?”

“I’m sure father wrote, and told them everything they would need to know. Besides, there’s always some guest or other here. He keeps extra things around for anyone who might need them. When he comes to town for business, he doesn’t like to pack a lot of bags.”

The maid followed Clara into a dressing room, where she would help her wash and change. A valet led Mike to another room, where water was waiting for him to do the same.

Seated in the large dining room, dinner was far less intimate than the night before. They sat stiffly while the servants waited on them, and spoke only of inconsequential things. At last, when they were alone in the drawing room with their after dinner coffee, Mike took the opportunity to kiss his new wife.

“I thought they would never leave,” he said with an exaggerated sigh.

“We have the rest of our lives to be alone, if we wish,” Clara said with an affectionate smile, as she looked deeply into his eyes.

Mike settled into a chair by the fire. “I doubt I will ever get used to the idea of all this luxury. You didn’t tell me your father had a house in London.”

She shrugged as she settled on a chair opposite him by the fire. “We used to spend the summers here, for the season. But, since mother died, and my brothers left home, father only comes here when he has business in the city. Mostly, guests visiting the city use it now. And, I believe Charles stays here when he decides to come home from the continent. That way he doesn’t have to come home, and face Father.”

Mike thought he saw a wistful expression flit quickly across her face.

“When’s the last time you saw your brothers?”

“I’m not really sure. It has been a while, though. Perhaps they will come home for Christmas this year. It would be nice for you to meet them.”

She seemed to drift off into a reverie of her own, and Mike supposed it was over her absent brothers. He knew that empty feeling of missing loved ones, and he ached for her. After several minutes of watching her stare into the fire, he decided to break into her thoughts.

“Speaking of Christmas, I should tell you, I invited Tom and Henry to visit for Christmas. I don’t know for sure they will be able to, but I hope I didn’t over step my bounds.”

“Of course not! Our home is your home now. You may invite anyone you wish. Your friends are always welcome.” She seemed to brighten at the idea of guests for the holiday.

Over the next few days, the newlyweds seldom left the house, which was the source of endless delight, and giggling among the maids. But, the curiosity of the great city was on Mike.

“I want to go out, and see the sights. I’ve never been to London before,” he told Clara one morning at breakfast. “You know, I once thought I would come here and see if I could find an apprenticeship or something. That was before Tolabert had me attacked.”

“I think you told me that once. After seeing what you have so far, do you think you would have been successful?”

He shook his head. “No. Most likely, I would have ended up among the squalor we passed through on our way into the city. I would have had no idea how to go about even finding work, much less an apprenticeship.”

That afternoon the carriage stood at the door, and the two of them set off to explore the city. Up and down the city they rode, Clara pointing out the different landmarks, and various points of interest. They passed The Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abby, and the Tower of London. But, the thing that took Mike’s breath was Buckingham Palace. He had thought Fenton Hall was a palace when he first saw it, but after staring in wonder for several minutes at Buckingham, Mike knew he was wrong.

Upon arriving in London, Clara had ordered an entire new wardrobe for Mike, and had it delivered faster than Mike thought humanly possible. His own mother would not have recognized him in these splendid fashionable garments. And, before long, Mike began to feel confident that he would not be recognized by anyone who might remember him as the escaped prisoner. So, when a dinner party invitation arrived for Lord Fenton and his family, Mike did not hesitate to encourage Clara to accept.

“Oh, Mike, obviously Franny Larsdale has driven by the house, and seen that it’s open. She has assumed that Father is in town, and is probably wondering why he hasn’t called on them. I’ll just write a note, and explain that my new husband and I are hiding out here for a while, and we don’t wish to socialize just now. She’ll understand.”

“Why would she expect your father to call?”

“She was one of Mother’s friends. She’s also the most sought after hostess in town. Everyone hopes to get an invitation to one of her parties. It’s the place to get introduced in society here.”

“Why don’t you want to go? You would enjoy seeing your friends, wouldn’t you?”

She cocked her head, and studied him. “You mean you want to go to one of these ghastly things? We never know what she has dreamed up.”

“We can’t hide in a closet for the rest of our lives. Besides, I think it’s time we got out, and mingled with other people. You’re going to be stuck with me for a very long time. There will always be time for us to hide away. And, so far away from Cambridge, I doubt anyone will know me.”

Clara hugged him, and gave him a look that said you poor fool, you have no idea.

As predicted, the evening began stuffy and polite. But, Franny Larsdale was a gregarious and flamboyant woman, who eyed Mike as if there were something peculiar about him. She doted loudly over Clara, and dragging them along, introduced them to everyone in the room. After dinner, she insisted they all participate in a round of parlor games, but eventually the men were able to escape to the study for tobacco and brandy.

They spent the better part of an hour discussing hunting, sports, and even business. Although Mike had never developed the tobacco habit in any of its popular forms, he found it interesting to watch these men practice their habit. Some puffed on elaborate clay pipes, some took a pinch of snuff, and still others produced and puffed away on the latest fashion, a cigar.

Mike listened more than he talked, and yet Franny’s husband, Joseph, managed to corner him during a lull in the conversation.

“Harrington,” he mused. “I knew of some Harrington’s once. It was years ago, now. Used to own a top mercantile company up in Cambridge. You aren’t related are you?” he said as he puffed on his cigar.

Mike hesitated, but decided denying his heritage would be less wise than admitting it. His pulse quickened and he prayed admitting who he was would not result in him being arrested.

“Actually, Gerard Harrington was my father.”

“You don’t say! Well, of course! You’d be their son, Michael!” he said through a little cloud of smoke.

“Yes, but I’m afraid, I’m at a disadvantage. How did you know of my parents?”

“Oh, I don’t, or should say, didn’t. Franny and Sarah were great friends years ago, before Franny’s first husband, Randolph Byron, died. She talks about her, even now. I’ve heard endless tales about the children, and the tragic death of Sarah and Gerard.”

Mike nodded as he sipped his drink. “I was young when Mother and Father died. But, I would think I should remember one of Mother’s close friends.” He puzzled over how he could forget someone like Franny.

“Well, I am afraid that’s something you’ll have to ask her about. I only got the story second hand, and I’m sure she elaborated, and embellished it.” Mike nodded understandingly. “Are you still running the business?”

“Sadly, no. I was so young when Father died I was no match for his partner. He forced me to sell out to him as soon as he could. I imagine Father would be disappointed in me for losing the empire he built.”

“Well,” he said in a dismissive way, “if you were forced out, there’d be nothing you could have done about it. At that age, how could you know the ways to handle a situation like that?”

The conversation was getting a bit too personal, and Mike was relieved when Franny opened the door, and charged in to rout out the deserters. There was more entertaining to be endured before the evening could be officially called finished, and she meant to see her guests enjoyed it, or else.

When at last the evening was winding down, Mike found himself cornered by Franny. The woman frightened him a little.

“I kept thinking you looked familiar, from the moment I saw you. Of course, you look so much like Sarah. And, the moment I heard the name Harrington, I knew who you are.” She babbled on, “Sarah and I were so close. I miss her dreadfully. Tell me, Mike, what became of you after the tragedy?”

“I lost the business to Father’s partner, and after that I traveled for a while. I eventually settled down in Edinburgh, where I met Clara. We were just married.”

“Yes, Clara told me! Congratulations!” she gushed. “You have a special woman here. I knew her mother, and of course, Lord Fenton calls whenever he’s in town. What a wonderful family.”

Mike could contain his curiosity no longer. “Tell me, how is it I don’t remember you, if you and my mother were so close?”

Franny blushed. “Well, Sarah and I knew each other before she married Gerard. We were inseparable at the time. Then, her father arranged for her to marry Gerard. We didn’t visit each other so much after that. I think maybe Gerard didn’t like us being so friendly. Though, she would occasionally meet me for tea in the afternoon while Gerard was at work. Of course, we saw each other at parties. In fact, it was one of my parties they attended the night they were killed. I felt awful when it happened. I always felt as though it was my fault in some way.”

It suddenly clicked in his mind why the name of Byron had seemed vaguely familiar when Joseph had said Franny and Sarah were friends. Mother had liked to go to those parties, and talked about Mrs. Byron often. Father had only gone to them because it pleased her. He never had nice things to say about them.

“No, it was the fault of Father’s business partner, not you.” His voice had an edge to it, but he managed to get it under control again when her gloved hand shot to her mouth in surprise. “You say you were very close before she married Father?”

She studied Mike’s face closely.

“You know.” It was a statement, not a question. Her voice was low, so that the other guests could not hear. Mike nodded slightly. Suddenly, she embraced him in a motherly way. “Oh, you poor thing. When did you find out?”

“Just before the wedding. Father John told me.” Mike lifted Clara’s hand to show Franny Sarah’s ring.

“Oh! Sarah’s ring!” Her face grew sympathetic. “You must believe, your mother loved you very much, and she never meant for you to be hurt by it.” She held his gaze. “She grew to love Gerard, and would have died before allowing him to know. It was only when she felt she couldn’t keep her secret any longer that she told me. I was the only one she confided in. And, I have kept it secret all these years.” In another instant, she turned to Clara. “My dear, you have married a remarkable young man from a wonderful family. I hope that father of yours appreciates him.”

Clara grinned knowingly at Mike. “He does. In fact, he and Mike have great plans for the estate. Father is thrilled to finally have a son interested in keeping the whole thing running as it should.”

“Wonderful! I don’t know how the two of you managed to find each other, but you are perfect for each other, whether you know it or not.”

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