Life and Debt

By Virginia Sue Foreman All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Adventure

Chapter 21

When the obvious tension between Mike and Tom had kept them at odds for more than a day, Clara began to fear a permanent rift might develop.

“Mike, you have to talk to Tom. You can’t let this be the end of your friendship. There has to be a way to clear the air, and get him back into the holiday spirit.”

“I tried to talk to him. He doesn’t want to talk to me. And, I won’t beg him to forgive me. He knows why we were concerned.”

“Then, I’ll talk to Tom myself, and try to explain about Betsy and her father. I’ll take full blame, and make it easier for Tom to forgive you without losing face.”

Feeling the sting of guilt for allowing her to feel the need to intercede for him, Mike closed his eyes and turned away. “You don’t have to do that. Just let him stew for a while. He’ll come around, eventually.”

Tom had spent most of his time in his room since the ball. Mike thought of Clara’s plea, and decided he would try once more to reason with him. He was on his way to do just that, when turning the corner, he saw Clara tap on Tom’s door several times before he heard heavy boots coming across the floor. The door opened just enough to show Tom’s unshaven face and rumpled shirt.

“Tom, may I have a word?” she said, looking at him with pleading eyes.

After what seemed minutes, Tom opened the door and admitted her. She left the door open and Mike came closer. He saw her step tentatively into the room, and glance around at the unmade bed, and remains of a food tray. She walked to the chairs before the fireplace and sat down, looking expectantly at Tom until he gave in and joined her.

“Tom, I know how angry you are with Mike, and you have every right to be. But, I want to explain what happened.”

“Don’t bother. I understand what happened. I’m not one of you. So, I’m not to be trusted, especially with one of your women.”

Mike could see the truth of his statement stung her. She had told Mike she did not feel that way, yet at some level, she must have. But, she was truly penitent for it, and wanted to correct the wrong.

“I don’t blame you for thinking that, but I must tell you why we really came looking for you and Betsy. It wasn’t because of you, it was her father. He’s very protective of her, and doesn’t trust anyone. She’s his only daughter, and his darling. He would have killed you, or any man, who so much as looked at her without his approval. I was worried for you. If he had found the two of you away from everyone like that, he would have jumped to conclusions, and you would have been the one who paid for it.” His eyes still accused her of trying to change what he knew to be true. “Please, forgive Mike. I was the one who panicked, not him. It was my fault that we came looking for you like that.”

“Mike sent you up here.” He accused.

“No! Oh, no, Tom. Mike doesn’t know I came. He would never ask me to do this. He’s very hurt that you didn’t accept his apology. I came because I love you both, and want you to stop being angry with each other. You’ve been friends far too long to let something like this end it. I’d hate to be the reason you two are at odds.” She was close to tears.

Tom searched her face long and hard, until the tear finally did slide down her cheek. Mike knew Tom never did understand why women were so fond of weeping. He never knew what to do with them when they did.

“Don’t do that,” his voice softened, and he handed her his handkerchief. “I believe you. Don’t cry. I am too stubborn for my own good sometimes.”

Clara sniffed and dabbed at her eyes. “Will you come down? Will you forgive Mike?” she pleaded.

With a smile threatening to turn up the corners of his mouth he said, “I suppose I have to, since you’ve gone to all this trouble.”

She bounced up, and threw her arms around his neck from behind his chair. “Thank you!” Mike quickly stepped back around the corner as she paused at the door to make another announcement. “We’re having a few extra guests for dinner tonight, and you know one of them.” She grinned broadly and left.

Guests for dinner were always uncomfortable for Mike, and Tom felt it equally so. Clara seated Tom next to a pretty blonde with wide blue eyes. Across the table from Betsy, was her father. But, it did not stop her from chatting, and giggling with Tom throughout the meal, while her father glowered at them from the opposite side of the table. In spite of himself, Tom felt drawn to Betsy.

His resolve not to like one of the society girls seemed to be melting. He knew he was not able to support the illusion that he was of Scottish society for more than the few days he would spend at Fenton Hall. There would be repercussions if he were to become involved with her, and her family found out what he really was, or rather, was not.

But, there was something so sweet and charming about Betsy. She hung on his every word, and seemed to draw conversation from him he had not even suspected was there. After the meal, she did her best to get her father to be friendly toward Tom. But, though he seldom denied his daughter anything she wanted, he was barely able to be cordial to Tom.

Betsy and her parents were staying on for a few days as houseguests. In the week that followed, Tom and Betsy spent nearly every free moment together. Tom and Mike were back to being friendly, but Mike was becoming concerned by the behavior of his friend with Betsy. One afternoon he and Clara stood at a window watching Tom and Betsy walking in the snowy garden.

“They look so happy together,” sighed Clara.

“What have you been up to?” Mike asked, suspicion dripping from his words. “Tom told me he didn’t want to be dragged into our social circles.”

“Oh, Mike, don’t be such a grump. Just look at them. No one could force them to spend so much time together, if they didn’t want to.”

“True, but how much help have they had in getting that time together?”

She turned and beamed up at him as she slipped her arms around his neck.

“Well, maybe I helped a little, at first. But, Betsy told me the night of the ball, how attracted she was to Tom. I can’t remember her ever being so interested in a man before. She has flatly refused every suitor who has come to call for the last three years. Her parents have just about given up.”

“May I remind you of your own words? You were the one who pointed out that Tom was not of her class, remember? What is going to happen when James Featherstone finds out about him?”

“We’ll worry about that, if the time comes. I’m fairly sure I can come up with something. Besides, I can get Father to talk to him. He’ll be able to reason with Uncle James.

Mike shook his head in exasperation. “What am I to do with you?”

She kissed him deliberately. “I’m sure, if you give it a little thought, you could come up with something enjoyable to both of us.”

Mike laughed at the mischief in her voice, and was tempted to carry her off upstairs at once. But, at that moment, Adams opened the door and stepped in.

“Forgive the intrusion, sir, but there has been an accident.”

“What sort of accident?” Mike was alarmed at the stricken look on Adams face.

“It’s your friend, sir. Mr. Henry. The stable boy said he’s fallen from a horse.”

Mike’s heart jumped to his throat and he was already running out of the room when he called out, “Where is he?”

“In the stables, sir,” Adams called after him and Clara, as they ran out the front door.

Upon arrival in the stables, they found a cluster of stable hands, and a few guests standing around the victim. Mike pushed his way through, and found Henry sprawled on the ground. His limbs twisted at odd angles, and his head turned in an unnatural direction, his neck was obviously broken. Tom was on his knees in the mud beside him, apparently in shock, for he simply sat staring, wide eyed, at Henry. Mike felt sickened by the sight of Henry lying there in the mud, and his heart ached for Tom.

“What happened,” Mike demanded quietly of the group at large.

The head stable hand spoke up. “Well, sir, he come in and demanded we saddle up a horse for him. Said he was goin’ ridin’. We tried to tell him that the bridle path was drifted over with snow, and it was too nasty for a ride today. But, he started yellin’ at us, and swearin,’ and tried to saddle one hisself. He smelled strong of whiskey, sir. I think he was blind drunk.”

“Most likely,” Mike said quietly. “How did he fall?”

“He kept fightin’ us, swatting at us with the crop, after he got into the saddle. He was acting real crazy, sir. The poor animal was worked up into such a state, that he just reared up out of fright. Then, Mr. Henry just lost his hold and toppled off back’ards.”

“Cover him with something,” Mike said. Someone produced a horse blanket and laid it over Henry’s face. Mike tried unsuccessfully to pull Tom up, but it was as if he was made of stone. “I think Tom is going to need the doctor. Help me Jimmy.”

Mike and the stable hand lifted Tom to his feet, and walked him back to the house. They put him to bed, and tried to get him to take some strong tea or brandy. The doctor gave him a sleeping draft, and said he was not to be upset.

In spite of James Featherstone’s disapproval, Betsy took over personal supervision of Tom’s care. Betsy’s father was not happy, but he finally yielded, and allowed her to minister to Tom while he slept.

The next morning, Mike peeked into Tom’s room. He had barely stepped inside the open door when Tom opened his eyes to find Betsy asleep in a chair, which she had pulled up beside his bed. Her curls were limp and mussed, and she had wrapped a quilt around herself. Mike bit his lip as he saw Tom watching her.

There was a soft tap on the door, and Adams stepped in with a tea tray. Tom put his finger to his lips signaling him to be quiet. Adams placed the tray across Tom’s lap and smiled.

“I’ll call Miss Clara,” he whispered and left.

Clara came minutes later to find Mike standing just inside the door, arms crossed, and a bemused Tom propped up in his bed sipping his tea, watching Betsy beginning to stir in her chair. Betsy opened her eyes slowly. She suddenly realized Tom was awake, and someone else was in the room. She gave a gasp, and straightened up.

“Tom! You’re awake, how do you feel?” she jumped up, and stepped close to the bedside.

“He looks well cared for to me,” Clara said pursing her lips into a smile.

Betsy touched his brow, and fussed with his blankets. “I should hope so. Is there anything I can get for you, Tom?”

“I think I have everything I could wish. I feel quite recovered now. Thank you.”

“Betsy has been here all night, Tom. She would not allow anyone else to do anything for you.”

Betsy’s cheeks flushed bright pink. “Well of course, why shouldn’t I?”

Clara bit her lip to keep from laughing aloud at Betsy’s display of affection.

“You didn’t need to stay by my bed all night, Betsy.”

“I wanted to. I was concerned for you. You mean a lot to me.”

Later Tom told Mike that it was then that he realized he loved her. But, he was confused by the realization. He had not meant to fall for her. And, he certainly had not wanted her to fall for him. This could be a problem.

In the following days, they held a funeral for Henry. The guests, who had not taken their leave, attended. Henry had not mingled with them, and none of them could say they had gotten to know him, but propriety demanded they pay their respects, just the same. By the end of the week, all the guests had taken their leave, except Tom.

Tom seemed lost as he and Mike talked the day after the funeral.

“Henry was like a father to me. I have no one now, except Jericho and you, and you’re both married with lives of you own. I haven’t been on my own since I was a very small boy. I don’t know if I can manage alone, now.”

“You’re welcome to stay here as long as you need,” Mike said, trying to comfort him.

“Going back to Scotland, and leaving Betsy is almost as painful as Henry’s death. If I go back to Edinburgh, I’ll probably never see her again,” he said as he studied the horizon out of the library window. “And, I very much want to see her again.”

Mike shifted uncomfortably in his chair. How was he supposed to answer this? He wanted his friend to be happy, but he knew that Betsy’s father would never allow them to be together.

“I’ve wrestled with this for days. I know I can’t marry her. I have no money, or job that would support her the way she’s used to, even if her father would give his blessing. And, if I told her what I really am, she would laugh me to scorn, and never want to see me again.”

“You don’t give her much credit. I doubt she would do that. But, you’re right, her father will never approve of any relationship between the two of you.” Mike knew how he must feel. He had anguished over the same feelings when he first came here and saw that Clara’s father was a Lord and not just a squire, as he had believed. Perhaps it was possible for Tom and Betsy as well.

Without Henry, Mike knew Tom did not want to go back. He talked to Stuart, and together, they decided Tom would be an asset to the estate. They could give him a very handsome salary, and a home. So, after dinner, with as much tact as he could manage, Mike told Tom what they had decided, and asked him if he would be interested. He was a little surprised by how quickly Tom accepted.

“Well, I’m glad, but why did you accept so quickly? Don’t you want to take some time to think about it?”

“I’ve done nothing, but think, for days. I have nothing to go back for. You and Jericho are the only family I have left, and Jericho isn’t young. He deserves to live out the rest of his life in peace with Catherine, without having to keep an eye on me. It’s time I took responsibility for my own life.”

“Betsy Featherstone wouldn’t be influencing your decision, would she?” Mike said with a sly grin. A little light flashed in Tom’s eyes.

“Her being nearby, doesn’t hurt,” he admitted.

“Clara and Betsy will be cooking up all sorts of plans for you,” he grinned.

“To be honest, I’ve grown rather fond of Betsy. If I thought I had any chance at all, I would ask her to marry me.”

Mike’s eyebrows shot up, and he stared at Tom in astonishment. He filled two glasses from the sherry decanter and handed one to Tom, then sat down.

“This is serious. Do you really love her?”

“I think I do. But, don’t worry. I know there’s no way we could marry. Even with what Lord Fenton will pay me, I could never support her properly. And, I have no family, or social standing. Her father would never allow it,” he said shaking his head.

“Well,” Mike said as he studied his friend, “I’m living proof, that it is not always necessary to have those things. Don’t give up completely. If she feels the same way, I’m sure there is something that can be done.”

That night, as they settled down in bed, Mike told Clara about his talk with Tom.

“That’s wonderful! Betsy has been mooning about after him for weeks. She loves him too.”

“Be that as it may, we both know her father will never allow it.”

She sighed and snuggled closer into his arms under the covers. “True. But there has to be some way we can help them. I know Betsy well enough to know, when she makes up her mind, even her father will not get in her way.”

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