Life and Debt

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Chapter 24

A few days later two small children romped on the lawn, in the shade of the beech trees, as Clara and Betsy sipped tea and giggled at their antics. Tom and Mike came striding across the lawn toward them waving at the children who ran to greet them.

Mike scooped up his son, “How’s my boy today? Are you having fun out here with Mother and Cousin Betsy?”

“Yes, Papa. Look!” He held out his chubby little fist and opened it to reveal a juicy slug. “Pretty bug.”

Mike smiled at him. “That certainly is a big one. I think you should let it go back to its friends now, and then have a biscuit with me. What do you think?” Johnny beamed, and squirmed to get down.

Jane had flung her arms around Tom’s neck as soon as she spied him.

“I see you’ve been helping Johnny find bugs,” he said looking at her grubby hands. She nodded, and hugged him again. “You want a biscuit, too?” She grinned and nodded again.

Both men sat down in chairs near the ladies. The children munched happily on their treats and continued to explore the grass. Adams came striding across the lawn from the house, and approached Mike.

“A messenger brought this for you, sir.” He handed Mike an envelope sealed with red wax.

“Did he say who sent it?” he asked as he took it and turned it over.

“No, sir. And he did not wait for a reply.”

The crease in her husband’s brow concerned Clara. “What is it Mike? Is it bad news?”

After reading the letter in silence at least twice, he looked up. “I don’t think so.” He handed the letter to her to read for herself.

She read it through and then raised wide eyes to Mike. “This—this is wonderful. Does it mean you’re free?”

“If I understand it correctly. Imagine, after all these years ...” The feeling filling him was relief and joy. He had lived in fear of recapture for so long it would take a while to adjust to this. He then told the others what the letter contained. “It seems that all the charges against me, from all those years ago, have been dropped. There’s no longer a price on my head.”

“That’s great!” Tom cried. “You’ll have to write to Jericho and tell him. He’ll be thrilled.”

They celebrated that night, but after they had retired to their rooms, Clara picked up the letter and read it over again. It was clear enough, but there seemed to be something not quite right with it. Something about this letter left her uneasy.

It was a brief message of only a few lines that read:


Things have changed. I learned you have been cleared and pardoned. Your old enemy is no longer a threat. Please come for a visit, and we will celebrate.

Your friend,

Bishop John Osborn

The next day, Mike and Clara prepared for a trip to Cambridge to visit with Father John. But, as excited as Mike was, he could not help notice that Clara was not.

“What’s the matter? I thought you would want to go, and see Father.” He rubbed the tension in her shoulders as she sat at her dressing table.

“Of course, I do want to see him, but that letter is strange.”

“How? It’s very plain.”

“Yes, but that’s just it. There’s so little information. He didn’t ask after the children or me, as he usually does. And, surely we would have heard from someone else, if this were really so. And, look at the way he signed it. Your friend? Why didn’t he sign it Father the way he usually does? And when has he ever called you Mike?”

Mike knelt beside her, taking her hand to reassure her. He pushed aside the twinge of suspicion she aroused in him over the letter.

“I don’t know why he signed it this way. Perhaps, he had one of the students write it for him. He is getting older. The last time he was here, he was having a lot of pain in his joints. And, I’m sure, if he is expecting us to visit he thought he would wait to ask about the children when we get there.”

“Perhaps,” she said with her brows knit together and her lips pursed.

“This is what we’ve been hoping for. That we would finally be free to come and go, when and where we liked, without having to worry that someone would recognize me.”

“Yes, I know. But still—”

“Clara, my father wouldn’t lie to me. He wouldn’t write and tell me it’s safe for a visit if it were not so.”

She sighed. “I suppose not.”

It was afternoon, when the coach and four bearing the crest of Fenton Hall rolled to a stop before the vicarage in Cambridge. Mike had not gone to visit Father John since his escape from the hangman so long ago. The footman opened the door of the carriage, and handed them down, then knocked upon the door before climbing back onto his box.

A young clerical student opened the door, and looked blankly at the couple standing there. “May I be of assistance, sir?” he asked.

“Yes, thank you. I believe Father John is expecting us,” Mike grinned.

“Oh, I beg your pardon,” said the young man, stepping aside to admit them. “I was not aware that he expected callers today. May I please have your name?”

“Mr. and Mrs. Michael Harrington.” Mike removed his hat, and Clara looked around the cramped little hallway. In only a few moments, the student was back.

“Please, come this way, sir. The Bishop asks if you will come to his study. I’m afraid it is getting very difficult for him to get around as easily as he used to.”

They entered the small dim room lined with books, with a desk in the corner. A cheerful fire crackled in the grate, and the Bishop sat near it in a comfortable chair, a tartan rug wrapped tightly around his lap and legs. He looked up when they entered, and his face brightened into a broad smile.

“Michael! Clara! How wonderful to see you.” They both bent, and kissed him warmly. “You must forgive an old man for not rising. My knees seem to bother me more and more these days.”

“No need for apologies, Father. We never did stand on ceremony, did we?”

“True, true. I was about to have a cup of tea. Will you join me? Father Malcolm, would you be so kind, as to see to refreshments for my guests?” The young man nodded, and left the room after drawing up two chairs for them to sit near the Bishop.

“So, tell me, to what do I owe the great pleasure of this visit? I do hope nothing is wrong at Fenton Hall, that you should risk this venture.”

Mike did not see the stricken look Clara cast at him.

“There’s nothing wrong at home. Everyone is fine. The children are growing like weeds. And, you surely haven’t forgotten why we’ve come to visit.” Mike laughed at what he thought was Father John’s attempt at humor.

“Forgotten? What would I have forgotten?” He looked at Clara, and saw the panic growing there.

Mike glanced at Clara, then back to his father. For the first time, he began to worry he may have been hasty to not do some checking before their trip.

“Father, I got your letter, asking us to come.”

“Well, I am getting on in years, but I would not forget writing to you, and asking you to come here; especially, when things could still be so dangerous for you.”

Mike reached inside his coat, and withdrew the letter. He unfolded it, and handed it to the Bishop. “Here it is—see, you signed it.”

Father John looked over the brief note, and examined it closely. “Michael, I didn’t write this. I have no knowledge of the things written here. You know I would never sign a letter to you like this.” Father John looked up into Mike’s stunned face just as the door opened, and Father Malcolm entered with the tea tray. He set out the cups, and poured the tea before he took his leave.

Father John sipped his tea, and looked into the fire pensively. “Michael, this is serious. It is obviously a trick to lure you out of hiding. Surely, I would know if there had been a pardon.”

Mike nodded as he set his cup and saucer back on the tray. “You’re right, Father. And, I’m afraid I know who sent this. It has to be Jacob Tolabert. No one else would want to find me this badly, after all this time.” He stood and paced for a moment. “Why can’t he just let it go? He knows, as well as I do, that those charges were all false. I haven’t bothered him for years.”

“Why would he suddenly try to bring you here now?” Clara asked, her cup chattering on her saucer from her shaking hand.

After several moments of pacing, Mike stopped suddenly. “Surely not. Oh, I’ve been so foolish.”

“Not what, Michael?”

“Several weeks ago, we went into Leicester for supplies. Remember, I stayed at the warehouse for a while, to check on things? I wanted to see if that clock I ordered for you was what I wanted.” Clara nodded. “Well, when I left the warehouse, a pickpocket bumped into me. I didn’t think any more about it then. I knew he hadn’t gotten anything for his trouble. But, even as he passed, I thought I should have recognized him.”

“You knew who he was? Maybe he knew you too,” Clara said just above a whisper.

“Yes. I think he just might have. That would be the only way. I think he used to work for Tolabert. He was one of his thugs. He must have gone straight to Tolabert, and told him he had seen me. He probably went into that warehouse and asked the manager who I was, and found out where I live.” Clara gnawed on her knuckle, looking worried. “We should go. I don’t want to be here when he learns we’re here.”

Another voice at the door startled them. “I am afraid it’s too late. I already know.” There stood Jacob Tolabert, framed in the doorway, with a pistol dangling casually at his side. Mike spun, and was ready to charge him, when he raised the gun, and pointed at him.

“Stand fast, Harrington!” Tolabert barked.

He stepped into the room, and closed the door behind him, watching the others all the while. He looked much older than the passing years should have made him. His hair was grizzled and the lines trenched on his face were deep. His clothes were of better quality than he wore when he had been a mere partner at the company, but they did not fit him well, giving him the look of a man who had lost weight and stature.

“My, my, what finery. Much better than the last time I saw you,” he sneered at Mike.

Fury coursed through Mike, along with guilt for not being more cautious. He stepped in front of Clara to shield her.

“No need for chivalry, Harrington. You’re the one I’ve come for.” Tolabert was enjoying this. His delight at the panic on the faces of his victims was evident. “So, did you get a title with all this finery? Or, is it your son who will get it? Is that how you managed to worm your way into a titled family? Despoiled his daughter, so she would have to marry you? Or, did you have some other bit of coercion to hold over his head?”

Clara could see Mike trembling with rage. She stood, and stepped from behind him, clutching his arm. “My husband didn’t have to worm his way into anything. He is an honorable and hardworking man.”

“Indeed? I’d wager he didn’t tell you all about his sordid past before he married you.”

“Then you would lose you wager. Father knew all there is to know about Mike.” She hesitated for only a second. “We know all about you as well. We love Mike in spite of his past. Too bad you have no one to say the same about you.”

Color mounted in Tolabert’s face, starting at the base of his neck. “Enough. It’s time to be getting on with this. Your husband and I are going to take a little walk. We’re going to find the magistrate, and I’ll see to it, that Mike Harrington meets with the justice he should have met years ago.”

“The only way I would go any place with you, is if you killed me first. I doubt, even as degenerate as you are, you would resort to murder in front of so many reliable witnesses. That’s not your way, is it? You have other people do that sort of dirty work for you.” Mike watched as the color now began to drain from his face. “That’s how you had my parents killed, isn’t it? You had your hired ruffians do it for you—in the dark—when they were alone and no one could see.”

“That’s a lie. No one can prove I had anything to do with Gerard’s death,” he said with just the slightest little twitch in his face. “He was a fool, and too trusting for his own good.”

“Yes, perhaps he was. He trusted you. For a while. That’s why he sent you packing that day, isn’t it? He found out about all your underhanded dealings, and outright theft. He didn’t trust you then, did he?” Mike saw the weapon in Tolabert’s hand waver slightly.

Tolabert pulled himself up to his full height. “That will do. What Gerard and I talked about has no bearing on this situation. You are going to the authorities. You will remember your last experience with them, I’m sure. They don’t forget, either. They’ll want to see to it you don’t repeat your last performance.”

“You are an even bigger fool than I thought, Tolabert,” Mike said defiantly. He sat down casually in his chair again. “I have no intention of going anywhere with you—at gun point or otherwise.”

Tolabert suddenly reached out, grabbed Clara, pulled her tight against himself, and pointed his gun at her head. “Perhaps, you need to rethink your decision. Get up and come with me, or she dies.”

Mike jumped up, rage nearly blinding him, and at the same time, Father John stood as well.

“No, Mike! Stay there,” Clara cried. “He won’t kill me. He knows if he does, he would have no way to stop you from getting to him.”

“Your little wife won’t look so pretty with a ball in her head,” he hissed as he pushed the barrel into her hair.

“She’s right. If you kill her, it will be you they hang, not me. There are two witnesses here, who will not be bought off, or threatened. And, if you shoot her, I will be on you before you can even think of reloading your weapon. You’re finished, Tolabert.”

“It might be worth it to make you do something stupid. Then I would be sure to be rid of you once and for all,” he mused evilly. “But, that’s not what I came here to do. Now, come along. Once you’re ahead of me, and we’re out of here, I’ll let her go. With you locked up, there won’t be anything even she can do.” He pulled the hammer back on the pistol, and then jerked it around to point at Mike. “I’ve waited a long time to finish you. I will not be cheated again. Come with me, or I’ll kill you where you stand. You’re wanted dead or alive. No questions will be asked.”

Clara began to struggle against his grip. With a sudden shove, he pushed her to the floor, and took steady aim at Mike. Father John had stood motionless, in horror, during the whole exchange. Then, with a sudden lunge, he threw himself in front of Mike just as the pistol exploded. Clara screamed, and Father John threw his arms around Mike’s neck.

As the smoke cleared, Jacob Tolabert saw what a mistake he had made, and the blood drained from his face. He threw the gun from him as if it burned his hand.

Mike looked into his father’s eyes, and saw the surprise there. He could feel him growing limp, and loosening his grip, he began to sag. With as much care as he could, Mike lowered him onto the floor. A second, later Mike’s swift right hook sent the gaping Jacob Tolabert sprawling backwards into the wall, where he slid to the floor, unconscious.

Mike returned to his father, and dropping to his knees, lifted his head just as the door burst open and Father Malcolm burst in. He could scarcely take in what he was seeing. Clara was the first to speak.

“That man just shot the Bishop, get help! Quickly!”

Blood stained the sleeves of Mike’s coat as he slid his arms under Father John, lifting his father and holding him in his lap. His breathing was ragged, and he was already pale from loss of blood. Tears were coursing down Clara’s face, and Mike could feel his own eyes stinging.

His voice broke, “Just lay quietly, Father. A doctor will be here soon. You’ll be fine.”

Father John gave a little cough, and a trickle of blood came from the corner of his mouth. “Michael, I don’t think so.”

“Don’t say that. You have to get well. I can’t lose you now. You’re all the family I have left.”

His words came between pants. “Not true—Clara and Johnny—” his eyes closed and he struggled to take a breath. “This will finish Jacob Tolabert. They will—” he drew another breath, “believe you,” another breath, “this time.” With a final sigh, he was dead. Mike drew his father to his chest in a last embrace, allowing his emotions to engulf him.

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