Life and Debt

By Virginia Sue Foreman All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Adventure

Chapter 20

Life at Fenton Hall was peaceful. Mike and Stuart worked hard at restoring, and upgrading the estate, and it was well on the way to being self-sustaining as it had not been for many years. They enlarged herds of cattle, sheep, and horses, and hired people to tend them. There would be milk, butter, cheese, wool, leather, and meat enough for the estate as well as all the workers. They hired men to tend the fields in which they grew crops of grains and alfalfa; and others to tend the vegetable and flower gardens, which they expanded, and they filled hothouses with practical and exotic plants of all descriptions.

They made plans to build a small mill to grind their own grains, and a creamery to handle all the milk products. In another year or two, they would be able sell the excess of all the produce, dairy, and other goods to the neighboring communities, which would bring in a sizeable profit from the surplus of crops and livestock. Stuart began to wonder how he had managed to keep the place going before all of the changes.

As the Christmas season approached, Clara grew excited by the prospect of planning a season like the ones of old. There was to be a Christmas season at Fenton Hall again, the like that had not been seen in many years. Clara shared her plans with Mike at dinner.

“I’ll invite relatives from far and near, and they’ll stay for the entire season. I plan to have outings, hunts, skating, sleighing—I want everyone to have lots to do.”

“It sounds like there will be little time for anything else!” Mike laughed as he ate.

“I want everyone to enjoy the holiday. After all, this is the first time in years we’ve done this.” She was so excited by her plans she could hardly eat her own dinner.

“I’m sure they will find plenty to keep them occupied,” said Stuart. “After all, this is a large estate, and the house is plenty big. But, many of the family are getting on in years, Clary. Not all of them will want to be so active.”

“There are plenty of young people too. I just don’t want them to be bored and wish they hadn’t come,” she said with a little sigh.

“They’ll find it hard to be bored, I’m sure.” Mike said as he thought of the library full of books, and the billiard room, and the many game tables that had appeared in the evenings before the wedding when the guests had begun to arrive.

“True, and as a climax, I plan to have a special feast on Christmas day and a ball in the evening. We’ll invite all the neighbors for that, of course. It’s been years since we’ve had a ball in this old place.”

“It hasn’t been that long since the wedding,” Stuart said. “I rather think that could be called a ball. There certainly were enough people here then.”

“Well, yes, but that was not the same thing.” She waved the thought away as if it was ridiculous.

Mike put his fork down and laid his napkin aside. “Is this the usual way you celebrate the holiday here?”

Clara looked at her plate with a little frown. “Well, not since Mother died. But, we used to have a huge house party of some sort about every year when she was alive.”

Stuart cleared his throat before he spoke. “Yes, well, she did like to entertain.”

With a pang of sorrow for the loss of his own parents, Mike appreciated that Stuart still missed his wife, even though she had been gone for years. He wondered that he had seldom heard him speak of her.

“It must be difficult for you to have all this going on now,” Mike said with a quiet voice.

“Yes, well, I think it’s time to start living again. This place has been quiet far too long. It’s time to fill it with happiness once more.”

As winter began to bring the snow, Clara had boughs of pine platted into garlands and used it to festoon the entire house inside, and had wreaths made for the outside. Little sprigs of mistletoe hung in most every doorway of the public rooms. Mike found a Yule log and had it hewn and laid by in readiness. Clara sent invitations to all the prospective houseguests, and the neighbors received invitations to join them for the Ball.

Although Father John sent regrets, Henry and Tom did come to join the houseguests for the holidays, and the two of them spent many enjoyable hours together with Mike. Henry made it abundantly clear that he would not attend any ball. So, during their time together Mike took it upon himself to coach Tom on the expected behavior at a society event. He even managed to get him to accept and wear new clothing. And, despite his original objections, Tom was beginning to like being at Fenton Hall.

“This is spoiling me for when I have to go back,” Tom said one evening, as he sat lounging in a large wingback chair by the fire in the library.

“Aye,” Henry concurred, “that it is.” He raised his glass, and drained it. “Makes it harder to go back, knowing how the other half lives. And, this fine brandy makes it hard to face the swill I buy back home.”

Mike found a barb of sarcasm in his voice as he answered.

“You know I’m only here by a stroke of luck. And, I haven’t forgotten my friends. If you need anything, I’m glad to help.” It stung to think that his friend envied him for his good fortune in marrying Clara. But, Henry was drunk by this time, and on the verge of falling asleep.

“Don’t pay no attention to him, Mike. He stays drunk most of the time these days,” said Tom from his comfortable chair.

“Why?”

“Just feeling sorry for himself, I expect.” And with that Henry gave a little snore. A short time later, they pulled him up, and carted him off to his bed.

Christmas day came and went, and as the evening of the ball approached, Mike offered to help Tom dress. Henry had opted to spend the evening in his room with another decanter of Stuart’s fine brandy, preferring it to the condescending looks from the ladies, and the raised eyebrows of the gentlemen guests.

“It’s a real treat to be part of the upstairs rather than the downstairs for a change. I never thought I’d like it so much. After seeing the way the family I work for behaves towards their servants, and the way they like to lord it over everyone else, I thought I was better off not being like ’em. But, after being here with you, I see not all of the gentry are like that.” With a wistful look at himself in the mirror, Tom grinned. “If my fellow workers could see me now, they wouldn’t believe it was me,” Tom told Mike as he finished dressing.

“How’s it going with that girl, Mary, who lives downstairs from you?” Mike had not heard him mention her at all this trip, and he remembered he had hardly mentioned her on his last visit.

“She found herself a man who wants to get married. I haven’t seen her for a while now.” He did not seem concerned by it.

“Sorry to hear that. I thought you’d decided she was the one for you.”

“Well, she didn’t fancy me coming down here the last time, and when she learned I was coming back, she decided she wanted someone a bit more stable, as she called it.”

“I guess she didn’t know you very well, then. You’re probably better off without her if that’s how she feels.” Mike turned his head back and forth before the mirror checking his hair and his coat.

“Yeah, just as well,” Tom said as he plopped down into a chair to watch Mike finish preening.

Mike turned to him. “Does that mean you’d be agreeable to staying around here, then?”

Tom shrugged his shoulders and examined his fingers. “I might be. Jericho and Catherine are happy, and Henry…well, Henry don’t even know what’s going on most of the time these days. He stays drunk mostly.”

“He was doing so well. What happened?” Mike asked with concern.

“I suppose it’s everybody moving on, and being happy without him. We were all he had for years. He felt useful when he was in charge, and taking care of all of us. Now that you and Jericho have married, and gotten on with your lives, I think he feels deserted again.”

“Then, maybe you shouldn’t leave him alone.” Mike said. If Henry needed someone to take care of, Tom was the only one left.

“Jericho looks after him pretty close. Makes sure he don’t get drunk and sleep in the street.”

He had given little thought to Henry’s great attachment to the brandy, and other libations when he was visiting. Henry had always liked a good drink, and Mike just thought he was taking advantage of his good fortune when he visited. It had not occurred to him that it was something more. It troubled Mike to think of Henry going back to the way he was when Jericho first found him. There seemed little hope Henry would be able to pull himself out of it this time.

Adams knocked to reminded them that the guests were beginning to arrive, and Mike pushed further thoughts of Henry aside.

Mike found it amusing that Tom found the simpering debutants, and their hawkish mothers, rather frightening. He was cordial, but his aloofness seemed to encourage more than discourage them. He, at last, cornered Mike at the punch bowl. His face was flushed, and he had the look of a hunted fox.

“When you taught me how to dance earlier, you should have told me what to expect. What am I supposed to do with all of those little—” he waved his punch cup towards the dance floor.

Mike grinned. “I remember, several years ago, when an arrogant little boy sent me upstairs to get an education. I’m only happy to return the favor.”

“I got that education years ago with no help from you, thank you very much.”

“Oh, but there are many more types of education than that. Knowing when to drop your drawers is not the only thing a man should know about a woman,” Mike said in a low voice.

“Seems I remember someone cutting a pretty wide swath across Edinburgh, doing just that,” Tom said with a scowl, and took a gulp of punch. “Besides, these silly little twits would faint dead away, if they even suspected what they’re really asking for, with all their foolish behavior.”

Mike nearly choked on his punch, and then chuckled.

“You might be surprised at what many of them do know. But, that is not the point. You need to develop the art of the game. They speak to you, and flash their fans. You speak cordially to them, smile, and flatter them with compliments about their gowns or hair, and so on—”

“That will take all of two seconds.”

“Oh, but there’s more.” Tom rolled his eyes. “If you find one, or more particularly attractive, then you ask her to dance, and you talk while dancing. By then, you can usually tell if you have anything in common, and if you would like to spend more time with her.”

Tom stared at him with sarcastic contempt. Mike sighed, and steered him away from the punch table, and earshot of others gathering there seeking refreshment.

“Didn’t you ever talk with any of the girls you—ah—knew?” Mike asked.

“What is there to talk about when you’re—” he started, in contempt.

“Sh-h-h,” Mike pulled him towards the potted palms.

“—when you’re in bed in the dark?” continued Tom, frustration building. “What a lovely dress, my dear. Who’s your dress maker?” he mocked. Mike covered a snicker, and Tom forged on. “They’d charge double for wasting their time!”

“I know you know other types of women.”

“Yes, I do. But, as I recall, you seldom paid for any.”

“Hush. Clara’s friends will hear,” he said as he craned his neck to see if anyone was listening.

“I thought you confessed everything to her.”

“I did. But, it’s not the sort of thing the whole world needs to hear.”

Tom harrumphed. “I still can’t believe the daughter of a lord would marry you, knowing all you’ve done,” he said as he drained his cup.

“Well, she did. And, she loves me in spite of it.” He again felt the warm sensation in his chest as he thought of how he loved Clara, and how thankful he was she loved him.

Tom sighed, conceding defeat. “I give up.”

“Well, don’t. Perhaps now you can enjoy the party, and allow the girls to do the same. They only want the chance to dance with the most eligible man in the room. Clara told them that you came from an old Scottish family. She, however, did not tell them that you work for them. They view you as a new challenge. You’re fair game, and they’re each determined to be the one to win your affection. Since there are so few bachelors at the party, you’re the most mysterious, so you’re getting the most attention from the young ladies.”

“Fine. I’ll dance. But, I’m not eligible. I’m not interested in any giggling, half-witted, high society—”

“Guard your tongue. You aren’t in the tavern tonight,” Mike warned with a chuckle.

“A thousand pardons m’lord!” With an exaggerated bow, Tom turned to leave, shooting a parting remark over his shoulder. “I’ll play the game for a few hours, but that’s all.”

“Fair enough.”

With the most charming smile he could muster, Tom ventured back into the ballroom. When Mike next caught sight of him, he was dancing with a pretty girl in a frilly green gown, a wooden smile turning up the corners of his mouth.

Clara swooped into Mike’s arms, and pulled him to the dance floor, where a waltz was in progress. “What did you say to Tom? He has the girls eating out of his hand.”

“I just explained the way things are done in society,” he grinned down at her upturned face.

“Well, I’m glad. He was being such a bore. He is fresh blood for the circuit, and I’m sure there are some hopeful hearts out there tonight.”

“He informed me that a couple hours is all he’s willing to endure. I doubt any of them will land him in that short amount of time.”

“I should hope not.”

“I thought that was the goal.”

“For some. But, there would be an awful scandal if anyone got serious with him, and learned who he really is.”

Mike slowed his step slightly, and the couple following them around the dance floor nearly bumped into them. “Oh? And, just who is he?”

“You know what I mean. We’ve passed him off as Scottish society. But, he isn’t. He’s nothing more than—”

“Than what?” he asked suspiciously.

“I was going to say a laborer. Most of these people would consider their daughters ruined, if they were to become involved with a common laborer.”

Mike grew quiet as they finished their dance. “Is that what I did to you?” he asked as they stepped from the dance floor, his face troubled.

Horrified by his reaction, she threw her arms around his neck. “No! You have made my life complete. I love you very much, and wouldn’t change a thing.”

“When you met me, I wasn’t of the same class as these people. But, you and your father were willing to overlook that, and accept me. Why should Tom be any different?”

“But, we did know of you family. They were known in social circles. But Tom, poor soul, doesn’t even know who his parents were. In society, family is everything.”

“Well, since we don’t know for sure, perhaps he is descended from royalty,” Mike lifted his chin slightly and pursed his lips.

She grinned broadly. “True, he could well be. But, let’s don’t fight about it. From what you said, there’s no danger that he is going to find any of these girls interesting, in spite of their drooling all over him.”

Mike squeezed her into a hug, trying to forget the social bigotry in the room. As the evening progressed, the guests became more jovial, largely due to the punch and eggnog, which flowed freely. The hosts watched Tom flirt, and dance with every debutant in the room.

As the guests began to take their leave, Mike realized that he had not seen Tom for some time. He asked Clara to inquire of the flock if they knew where he was. She returned with her face ashen.

“What is it?” he asked in panic.

“We have to find them.”

“Who?”

“Tom. He took Betsy Featherstone off to have a look at something special.”

The color drained from Mike’s face as well. “How long ago?” he groaned.

“Not long. But, Mike, we have to find them. If Betsy’s father finds them, he’ll kill Tom on the spot. You know how he is about his daughter.”

As calmly as they could, they slipped from the ballroom, and then fled down the stairs to Tom’s room. Bursting through the door, they expected to find Tom and Betsy in the throes of passion. But, the room was empty, the bed untouched.

“Thank God for that,” Mike breathed

“Yes. But if they aren’t here, then where are they?” Clara stood wringing her hands as she looked at Mike.

Mike couldn’t think clearly. The house was so large, and there were so many rooms. They could be in any one of them.

“We’ll have to ask the servants to help us. We have to find them before it’s too late,” he said.

“But, wait. Just wait a moment. Let’s think about this. If he were going to try something, where else would he take her?” Clara reasoned.

“Some place quiet. Dark, and secluded,” Mike said slowly, thinking hard of possibilities.

“The gardens are too cold, but,” she thought for a moment, “what about the hothouses?”

“Yes! Let’s go.”

They raced frantically down the back stairs, and through the kitchen, to the astonishment of the busy staff. On they ran, to the drawing room, where they slowed their pace for the benefit of the few guests lingering there in quiet conversation. Then on through the morning room and out to the hothouses they ran, stopping at the door for a moment to look around and listen.

Lit lanterns hung at wide intervals, casting quivering shadows, making ghostly reflections on the inside of the dark glasses. In the quiet, they heard a rustling sound, and muffled voices behind some tall potted plants, which blocked their view. As they quickly approached, they heard words.

“Oh, Tom,” cooed Betsy’s soft voice. “No one has ever done anything like this for me before. This is so exciting.” Clara felt faint, and Mike felt hot with anger for the betrayal of his friend.

“It’s nothing. In the years to come, you’ll remember me as the first man who ever—”

Mike burst suddenly into the light from around the end of a table full of plants.

“Not tonight she won’t—” he began, but stopped short when he realized the two were standing, looking at him quizzically, fully clothed, and holding a dozen red Christmas roses.

Tom knew immediately what Mike had expected to find. His face flushed as deeply with anger as Mike’s did with embarrassment. With effort, he managed to keep his voice steady, and looked coldly at Mike.

“Won’t what?”

Wishing he were anywhere but here, Mike realized the mistrust he had shown in his friend. He could not deny it. But, thankfully, Betsy seemed in blissful ignorance of the thoughts that passed between them. Her blonde curls shimmered in the lamplight as she looked from one to the other. She was then surprised to see her cousin, Clara, stepping into the light behind Mike.

“Sorry, Tom, we were afraid—” he began to apologize for his hasty conclusions.

“I know what you were afraid of,” Tom said in a low threatening voice.

Clara stepped forward and took Betsy’s arm to remove her young cousin from what she was sure would soon be a brawl.

“Betsy! We’ve been looking everywhere for you. Your Father is getting ready to leave.”

“Oh fie! He has a sixth sense about me. Whenever I’m truly enjoying myself, he manages to find a way to drag me off.” She pouted prettily, but the effect was lost on the two men, who stood silently facing each other. “Look Clary,” she held out the bouquet for her inspection. “A bouquet of Christmas roses. Aren’t they beautiful? I have never been given a whole bouquet of roses before, have you?”

In an expressionless tone Tom spoke. “I hope I haven’t done grave damage by giving the flowers without asking first.”

“No, of course not, Tom! It was lovely of you to do this for Betsy.” Clara smiled genuinely, and led her cousin away, leaving the two men to settle their differences.

When the door closed behind the women, Mike again tried to apologize for his lack of trust, and explain their concern.

“I’m truly sorry for bursting in like that. We missed you, and Clara was worried—”

“Worried that I would take advantage of the silly girl?” He drew himself up and crossed his arms over his chest.

“In our defense, you did make it clear earlier, that you preferred more from your women than the games they play at these affairs.” He knew it was no excuse for his lack of trust, but he hoped they could move past it.

“Oh, please,” Tom said, dropping his arms, his hands balled into fists. “I only played your games to please you, and now you panic because I did. I should hope you know me better than to think I’d do anything to cause you and Clara problems like that!”

Mike dropped his eyes, “I do know. All I can say is, I’m sorry. Forgive me?”

Ignoring the hand Mike extended, Tom turned and walked heavily out of the hothouse and straight to his room. Even though Mike was angry, he had tried to apologize for his mistrust. If Tom did not want to accept his apology and forgive him, then he would not beg.

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