Life and Debt

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Chapter 22

Some weeks later, James Featherstone went to Fenton Hall in a towering rage. Once seated in the drawing room with Mike, Tom, and Stuart, he told them why he was there.

“My daughter is under the deluded impression that she wishes to marry Mr. Albert. I will not allow it. I have had men searching for information about you,” he said, pointing a finger at Tom. “They can find nothing about you. There is no Scottish family in society by the name of Albert. There is no record of you anywhere. Not even a skeleton to rattle in a closet. I find it hard to believe that a man with no past, and no proof of existence could be of any worth and fit to marry my daughter.”

“James, perhaps you can find nothing about him because there is nothing to find. If he were a criminal there would be something—”

“Stuart, I have known you most of my life. You were married to my sister, for heaven’s sake. I have respect for your judgment in most things. But, I cannot allow my daughter to follow the dangerous trend you have allowed your daughter to set.”

Tom and Mike exchanged quick looks of alarm, but Stuart was calm.

“James, I think you’re stepping into an area you really don’t want to pursue.”

“I do want to pursue it. My daughter’s happiness and security is the most important thing in the world to me. I cannot allow her to believe she loves a man she, nor anyone else, knows anything about. I came here to learn what there is to know about Tom Albert.”

“Betsy and I have discussed all there is to know about me,” Tom interjected. “She accepts me as I am.”

“And, that is precisely what I am afraid of! She’s young, inexperienced in the ways of the world. She doesn’t know what she’s doing.”

“She is very smart, and she does know what she’s doing. We have discussed all possibilities,” Tom said in a level tone.

“Perhaps, but how do I know that?” said James, standing and stepping closer to Tom. “Neither you, nor she, will tell me anything. I need to know who you are, before I can be sure she is making the right decision. How can I do that blindly?” he demanded.

Stuart stepped between Tom and James. The look on their faces said very clearly, they were close to blows.

“James, sit down. Sit down! This is getting us nowhere. At some point, you have to trust that Betsy is an adult, and can make up her own mind about things; especially, when it comes to things of the heart.”

James threw himself into the nearest chair, crossing his arms tightly on his chest.

“I don’t have to do any such thing. She’s my daughter, and my responsibility. Granted, I have allowed her to turn away suitor after suitor, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept just anyone she thinks she’s in love with.”

Stuart took the chair next to him. “James, I know your concern, but believe me, you have nothing to be concerned about. I know Tom well enough to ask him to come here, and help Mike and me with the estate. He’s a hard worker, and has a good sense of judgment, and he’s honest. He’ll do very well here. He could help you with your estate, as well, if you would allow him. Why can’t you trust that?”

“I know that Clara and Betsy have conspired to match make,” he waged a finger at Stuart. “I will not allow it. The whole thing is indecent. I will not allow it to continue.”

“I have been present every time Betsy has been here, James. I have never observed anything inappropriate between them,” Stuart insisted.

James, still flushed with his anger, stood, and pointed a finger at Tom again. “I will never allow you to marry my daughter. If you continue trying to turn her against me, I shall be forced to take drastic measures. Perhaps, I need to involve the law.”

“Sir, I assure you, I have in no way tried to turn your daughter against you. I think it’s important for her to respect, and be on good terms with her family.”

James Featherstone was apoplectic. Stuart again stepped between him and Tom. “That is enough, James. You have clearly made your feelings known. Perhaps, you had better leave now, before things happen that can’t be undone.”

James paused at the door of the room, and again pointed at Tom. “I mean what I say, sir. I will not allow it!”

Later that day, Clara came running to find Mike where he and Tom were working with a new horse in the paddock.

“Mike! Read this! Betsy’s maid brought it to me just now. Her father has her locked up in her room! He refuses to let her out for any reason,” she was equally shocked and angry. “What can he be thinking?”

“It was pretty clear what he was thinking when he was here earlier. He intends to make sure there is no way that she and Tom can be together.”

Tom had overheard enough of the conversation to know the subject, and came over to them.

“Is something wrong with Betsy?” His face was anxious.

“Not exactly. Her father is refusing to allow her to leave her room.”

“That’s ridiculous. He’s treating her like a child.” He kicked at a stone lying in the dirt of the paddock.

Clara patted his arm. “In his eyes, she still is a child.”

“How petty. That won’t change her mind about anything.”

“I know, Tom, but we have to stay out of it for now,” she admonished.

“She’s right, Tom. There’s nothing we can do at the moment. It’s best if we just wait him out. He’ll cool down in a few days, and then she’ll be able to come again.”

Tom groaned. He knew they were right, but it did not make it any easier to accept. “I can’t bear to think of her locked up. And, it’s because of me. I feel so helpless.”

Mike threw his arm around Tom’s shoulder, and steered him back to work. “I know. But, it isn’t like she’s in prison. She’s in her own room, and I am sure she’s well cared for. She’ll be fine.”

It was like torture, but Tom waited, as Mike and Clara suggested. However, Betsy and Tom communicated through letters, which Betsy’s maid managed to sneak in and out of her room. Mike held his tongue when he saw Clara and Tom conspiring together on how to get the next letter to Betsy, but he was sure it would not turn out well in the end.

The days became weeks, and still they received no word that James had relented. But, when spring had finally pushed through the snows, Betsy wrote that her father had begun to soften his attitude about her confinement. She wrote that he told her he was sure, that after so much time, she surely had forgotten all about her little Christmas crush. And, since he had heard nothing more about it from Fenton Hall, he was sure that Tom had forgotten about her as well.

As spring gave way to early summer, they learned that Betsy’s father, at last, allowed her to leave the house to go riding in the afternoons. Mike and Clara would join Tom, and they would meet Betsy along the bridle path, far from the eyes of her father. Mike feared it would lead to problems for them all if James found out. For far from cooling off, their romance was as strong as ever.

On a fine summer day, Tom and Betsy sat at the side of a brook, drinking in the glory of the fragrant woodland around them, and lost in the excitement of being together. Mike and Clara discretely strolled nearby, just far enough away to give them privacy, but not far enough that they could be accused of impropriety.

“I love you so much, Tom, and I can’t stand only seeing you a couple hours a week. We have to do something.”

“But, what? You father is never going to give in, and if he ever found out that we have been meeting, he would probably kill me himself. There is just nothing else we can do.”

“Well, actually there might be,” she said with a coquettish little grin, and his heart gave a little leap. “If you are willing.” She watched him from the corner of her eye. Tom turned to her, and drank in the vision of her in her dark blue riding dress. He had exhausted every possibility he could think of. What could she have found?

“There’s a small village church, not too far from here.” His curiosity was definitely piqued as he watched her mischievous eyes. “We could go there, and ask the minister to marry us.”

“How could we do that? You father watches you like a hawk. How could we possibly go there without him knowing?”

“Certainly not during the day.” She continued to watch him.

“Then when?”

“Once father goes to bed, he sleeps so soundly, he would never know if I left the house. I could meet you. We could be married before he even knows I’m out of bed.”

Tom considered her suggestion. It was intriguing, but there were flaws. Just getting married was the least of the problem.

“And, then what? We just go back to the way things are now? You go home and I go back to Fenton Hall?”

“Well, if that’s what you really want, we could,” she said turning to look at him, her eyebrows arched and a smirk on her lips. “Or, I could go back to Fenton Hall with you.” Tom looked at her steadily. There was no hesitation in her voice, or manner. “What would you rather?”

They called Mike and Clara over and discussed their plans until they were satisfied with the arrangements. They would meet at the end of the lane to her house that night with a carriage from Fenton Hall, and drive to the church. After a passionate parting kiss, they left to make their preparations.

Clara was thrilled, but Mike was still hesitant. What if James Featherstone found out? He would not rest until, at the very least, he put both Tom and Mike in jail. Of that, he was certain.

“Mike, once they’re married, there’s nothing he can do.”

“I’m sure he’ll try anyway. He’ll do his best to find a way to have it annulled, or say it’s not legal. And, if he manages to do it, he will punish Tom thoroughly, and he’ll make Betsy’s life miserable.”

But, in spite of his doubts, Mike climbed into the carriage, and rode with Tom and Clara to fetch Betsy at the appointed hour. Betsy waited in the shadows near the end of the lane with her maid. As they loaded Betsy’s bags into the carriage, the maid agreed to do what she could to give them as much time as possible, before James learned the truth. The four of them rode on in silence, until they were well away from the Featherstone’s estate.

As Betsy had said, the church was not far. Though it was late, and no one stirred in the village, there was a faint light in a window of the church. As quietly as they could, they climbed the steps, and went inside. The only light came from a few candles burning at the altar. The sound of their footsteps seemed to echo loudly in the silent little chapel. There was a collective gasp, when the minister stood up from the shadows of front pew, and turned to see who approached.

“I take it you are the couple who wishes to be married,” he said in a hushed voice.

Betsy and Tom stepped forward, Mike and Clara falling in step behind them. “Yes we are,” said Betsy calmly.

They stepped into the light cast by the candles, and he looked at them hard. “Well, I can see you are both of age. I trust you both are here of your own free will?”

“Yes,” they both said together.

He looked at Mike and Clara. “And, you two, also?”

“We are here as friends,” Clara said.

The minister paused so long as he studied them, that Betsy began to fear he had changed his mind about marrying them.

“Very well. You understand the gravity of what you are about to do?” They nodded, their hearts pounding. “Then, we shall begin.”

He instructed them where to stand, and then performed the ceremony. To their surprise, It took only minutes. Betsy and Tom stood beaming at each other.

“You may kiss your wife,” encouraged the minister. With that they embraced, and kissed each other sweetly.

They returned to Fenton Hall to find Stuart waiting in the drawing room. He knew that they had gone out, but he was surprised to see Betsy with them now.

“What have you been up to? Why is Betsy here?” He felt his stomach drop. “You haven’t done something that is going to make James angrier than he already is, have you?”

Clara removed her hat and sat down on the divan. “I don’t think there is anything that would make Uncle James less angry, save sending Tom away.”

Stuart looked from Clara to Mike and then to Tom and Betsy, who stood clinging to each other, blissfully looking into each other’s face.

“I think you had better tell me what is going on.” He poured himself a glass of sherry and sat down with a plop. “I’m afraid I’m not going to like this.”

Betsy beamed at Tom then turned to Stuart. “Tom and I are married.”

Stuart tossed back the whole glass of sherry and closed his eyes. This was worse than he feared.

“Uncle Stuart, may we stay here? At least, until Father calms down.”

With a sigh, Stuart looked at her hopeful face, and could no more turn her out, than he could his own daughter.

As predicted, when James Featherstone learned of his daughter’s betrayal he did his worst. But, protected at Fenton Hall, they were safe from all he could do. James threatened to disown his daughter if she did not have the marriage annulled, but after months of trying to find a way to undo what they had done, James finally had to concede defeat. He gave up trying to find a way to break the marriage, but he then adopted the attitude that he did not have a daughter. He was frustrated to find his wife was just as headstrong as his daughter was. For, she persisted in going to visit Betsy and Tom on a regular basis.

Stuart was thrilled to have a house full again. He came to think of Tom and Betsy as his own, and when Clara and Betsy both presented their husbands with a child, Stuart was the most doting grandfather in the area.

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