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Life and Debt

By Virginia Sue Foreman All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Adventure

Chapter 23

Years of peace and comfort eventually wore down the vigilant caution Mike had formerly learned to use in his years of exile. After living at Fenton Hall for so long, Mike had begun to risk an occasional trip into Leicester to buy supplies for the estate. Clara and Betsy were always eager to go with Mike and Tom when they went to town, so they could visit the dressmaker or hat maker, or buy things with which to spoil the children.

On one glorious summer day, three years after Mike had come to Fenton Hall, they set off on one such trip. When they reached the warehouse, Mike opened the door of the carriage.

“I’ll find you later at the market. I want to make sure this particular shipment is loaded and sent on its way back home before I can relax, and enjoy the rest of the afternoon with you,” Mike told Clara as he gave her a kiss, and waved them off on their way towards the already busy market. He turned his attention to the driver who backed the wagon up to the door of the warehouse, and then he walked into the warehouse office.

Mike usually allowed the men he employed at the estate to handle all the mundane business of picking up the supplies, but today he had a personal interest. He had ordered something for Clara’s birthday, and he wanted to surprise her with it. He found the manager seated at his desk when he entered.

“Ah! Mr. Harrington, I have your item,” said the man as he stood and bowed.

Once seated in the tiny office, among the piles of papers and roughly used furniture, Mike experienced a wave of nostalgia. This grimy little room reminded him of his father’s office from so many years ago.

The man lifted a small wooden packing case onto his desk. He pried off the lid and dug carefully in the straw. Slowly and carefully, he lifted out a gleaming gold French clock.

“It is the latest fashion on the continent, sir. You have excellent taste. Look at the intricate turnings, and delicate clock works!” He held it up, and turned it carefully for Mike to inspect it more closely.

Mike took it, and held it in the dim sunlight that managed to force its way through the grimy little window. The clock shone brightly, and when he moved the hands to the hour, it chimed merrily.

“It is exquisite. Thank you so much for procuring this for me. My wife will love it, I’m sure. Would you see that it gets safely on the dray with the rest of our order, please.”

Mike paid him for his special shipment, and the estate supplies, then gave him an extra coin for his special attention. They went on to discuss future orders, and other business before Mike finally took his leave. He adjusted his hat when he stepped out into the sunshine, and leaving the warehouse, he turned to go meet his wife and friends.

As he walked away from the warehouse and into the more crowded market area, a man bumped into him. The man was short, shabbily dressed, and weasel like in appearance, and for a split second, Mike had the thought that he looked familiar. But, he quickly shook off the idea. Where would he know a man like that from these days?

“Beg pardon, m’lord,” the man said, and touched his hat in apology. Mike did not see the disappointment, then curiosity on the man’s face, when he found the pocket he had tried to pick was empty, but he knew what the man had tried. Mike smiled to himself, pleased at his own cleverness. He knew the dangers of places like this, and had long ago learned how to foil the attempts to pick his pockets. He secretly congratulated himself on his education in the ways of the common criminal, whenever this happened. He had to admit that his past was useful at times.

A few weeks later, the arrival of Clara’s brother Charles shook the peace and quiet of Fenton Hall. He had not been home for years, and Mike had never met him, but Clara was thrilled to see him.

He stood in the entrance hall, drinking in the familiarity of home. He grinned and hugged his sister when she came charging at him with a squeal of delight.

“Clary! You haven’t changed a bit,” he said, grinning, and inspecting her from head to toe.

“Charles! How wonderful to see you,” she said, her arms around his neck, while Mike looked on with curiosity at the tall, dark haired man, who closely resembled his wife. “What brings you home? Have you finally finished your studies?” Clara took his arm and led him into the drawing room, after sending Adams for tea.

“I have finished my studies, I think. I missed being home, so I thought it was time to come back, and see how things are.” His eyes roamed around the room, restless and not settling on anything.

“Charles, this is, Mike Harrington,” she said taking Mike’s arm and drawing him close.

Charles looked at him critically, and then extended his hand. “How do you do? Where’s father?” Charles asked as he sat down.

“He’s down at the stables. They were inspecting some new horses.” She and Mike sat down together.

“Oh,” was all he said. He seemed ill at ease.

Adams returned with the tea tray and proceeded to lay it out. He poured the tea, handed a cup and saucer to each of them, and then left.

“So, tell me all about your adventures on the continent. You’ve been away for so long, you must have been everywhere,” Clara ventured.

“There isn’t much to tell. Life is pretty much the same there as it is here. Dull.”

She laughed. “Life is anything but dull around here. With the children, and all the changes being made on the estate, there is hardly time to breathe.”

“Children?” He finally looked at Clara.

“Yes. You do know I married a few years ago, don’t you?” A bewildered look came over him. He started to nod then shook his head, and ran his hand wearily over his face. “Charles! Don’t tell me you forgot. I know father wrote and told you. Mike and I have a son, Johnny. And Cousin Betsy and her husband Tom have a daughter. They live here with us for the time being.”

His only response was a puzzled look. He set his cup down and stood. “Things have changed after all.” He looked at Mike with interest. “Mike. So you are the one who stole my sister’s heart.”

Mike smiled and looked at Clara. “She’s the one, who stole my heart, I’m afraid.”

They turned when the doors of the drawing room opened and Stuart walked briskly in. Stuart made an abrupt halt in the middle of the room, and stared hard at his son. Mike looked from Charles to Stuart.

“Charles.” It was a statement rather than a greeting.

“Father.” His response was as cool as his father’s was.

Clara stood and ran to Stuart, taking his arm warmly. “Charles has come home, Father. Isn’t that wonderful?” Ignoring the awkwardness of the moment, Clara charged on. “Well, let’s all sit down and have tea. We can catch up.”

Stuart sat down stiffly and allowed her to hand him a cup of tea. He sipped it, all the while keeping his eyes fixed on his son. Charles again took his seat, and Clara and Mike sat together on the divan.

“You were about to tell me about some of your adventures, Charles,” Clara said, trying to encourage the conversation.

“Yes, do tell us all about your adventures, Charles,” Stuart said at last, placing his cup in the saucer. “I should like to know what you’ve spent so much of my money on these past several years, while you were supposed to be studying.”

Color rose in Charles’ cheeks, but he did not drop his eyes from his father. “Still the same, Father. Always more concerned about your money than me. It doesn’t matter what I’ve been doing, just that it cost you money.” He lifted his cup in salute to Stuart.

Clara was desperate to save the situation. “Charles, how long are you going to be here? Are you home for good?”

“Yes, Charles, how long will you be home this time? Just stopping by to collect more funds?”

“I don’t know, Clary,” he ignored his father’s comment and addressed his sister. “I suppose that all depends on how things go.” He stood, and bent to kiss Clara on the cheek. “If you will excuse me, Clary, I think I would like to go to my room, and rest for a while. I’ll see you later.” He left the room, but tension was still thick on the air.

Stuart looked like a thundercloud as he sipped his tea. Mike felt it best to remain quiet, but Clara could not.

“Father, must you be so cruel? He has just arrived home. Can’t you at least, give him a chance to show us if he’s changed?”

“No need. He’ll never change, I am afraid.”

Charles and Stuart adopted a silent agreement not speak to each other unless necessary. Clara spent most of her time trying to bridge the gap, and Mike comforted her when she could not stand the tension. Tom and Betsy managed to avoid the hostilities as much as possible, but the children paid no attention to any of it. They loved Uncle Charles, and managed to melt his resolve to be aloof, whenever they found him.

Mike and Stuart had been working at the desk in the library, and when Adams brought in some letters that had just arrived, Stuart quickly glanced through them. The sender of one was unfamiliar to him, and he opened it immediately. His face darkened as he read it.

“Adams, is this the only one of these that has come here?”

Adams swallowed then said, “No, sir. There have been others. Mister Charles took them when they arrived.”

“Would you please tell my son I wish to speak with him immediately?” When Adams left, Stuart threw the letter down on the desk in disgust.

“Well, at last I know the reason for my son’s sudden decision to come home,” he said.

“What is it, Stuart?” Mike asked. He felt concerned by Stuart’s sudden change in demeanor.

“Demand for payment of a gambling debt,” he said, and pushed the letter toward Mike.

Charles came in a few moments later. Stuart waited for him to slouch into a chair by the fire, and then tossed the opened letter on the table beside him. Charles picked it up and glanced at it, and his face paled.

“How many more are there?” Steward demanded his voice low, and as controlled as his rising temper allowed.

Charles shrugged. “A few.”

“A few. And, do you expect me to just pay them off without explanation?” Charles turned his head, and stared at the fire. He had no response. “Just as before, you couldn’t take care of these on your own. That’s why you suddenly decided to come home, isn’t it? Either to get more money to pay off your gambling debts or to hide from the people you owe.” The lack of response was answer enough. Stuart sighed heavily and sat down at the desk. “How much do you owe?” Charles continued to stare at the fireplace. “Will you be gone again, as soon as I pay off these debts?”

“I’m sorry to be such a burden to you, Father,” he said sarcastically. Charles stood and scowled at Stuart. “If I had any other way to deal with this I would. Believe me, it would be preferable to coming back here, and seeing the disappointment on you face, and hearing the hatred in your voice.” Shock flitted across Stuart’s face before he could hide it. “That’s why I left in the first place, you know. That’s why I’ve stayed away so long. Nothing I did was ever good enough for you. I couldn’t keep living with your disappointment.”

“You’ve never shown any interest in anything, but your own amusement. What else was I supposed to feel?” Stuart leaned back in his chair, a look of defeat on his face.

“William was always the one you focused on. He was the only one that mattered. You never did see me, or how I needed you.”

The truth of Charles’ remarks stung Stuart. “I coached, and pushed William because he will be the one to inherit the title, and all that it entails. You never showed any inclination to family business, only an interest in spending the family fortune as quickly as possible. I pushed William because he needed to know how to deal with everything when I’m gone. He will need to know how to run this estate, and manage the finances when the time comes.”

“And, I am just what? Something to be put up with? The social customs of passing on the title and lands to the eldest son are archaic, and truly should be changed. What are the rest of your children to do? We’re just so much baggage to be shuffled around.”

Stuart closed his eyes, and held his head in his hands. There was no way to respond to these accusations. He had never realized Charles felt so left out. He had no answers.

“How much do you need to pay off these debts?” he said with a sigh from between his hands.

Feeling dismissed Charles stood. “Seven hundred pounds should take care of it.”

“Will this be the last of it? Or, will you go back to that lifestyle, and start it all over again?”

“What difference does it make?” he said quietly, and walked out of the room.

As time passed, and Charles continued to stay, Mike tried to be friendly with him, and draw him in to the day-to-day running of the estate, but Charles was loath to soil his hands with such mundane things. He saw no need to learn what he knew was going to be his brother’s responsibility. He felt ill used by not only his father, but also by all those present. He was curt with Tom, and barely spoke to him. He was cordial enough to the ladies, but he saw no need to be civil to the men he viewed to have taken his place with his father.

Letters from William had been scarce since he went to America with the British troops several years ago. But, with the war ended, Stuart had expected him to return to the estate and take up his duties. And yet, he still had not come home. Stuart’s health was beginning to decline as he grew older, and he knew he would need time with William before he died. But, hope was beginning to ebb. Each letter from William was full of dismal accounts of the poor treatment of the soldiers in America, by the colonists and by the other soldiers. William was disillusioned with the military life, and with the attitude of Britain toward the people who lived in America.

Not long before Christmas a letter arrived which dealt a dreadful blow to Stuart. William wrote that he had left the army, and had decided to stay in America when the British troops withdrew. He married an American girl, and was determined to build a life there. He would not be coming home.

Stuart collapsed. The doctor sent him to bed where he remained throughout the holidays. Concerned by his decline, Clara frantically tried to get Charles to reconcile with their father.

“Clary, he doesn’t want me to reconcile. He never wanted me around in the first place. All he ever wanted was William.”

“Well, William isn’t coming home,” she scolded. “You are his only son now. You have to make up with him. He needs to know that you’re going to be here after he’s gone, to carry on. Charles, he wants to believe in you. Mike! Tell him,” she pleaded, turning to her husband who stood at the mantle trying not to intrude. “If you would just show the least bit of interest—”

Charles snorted his disbelief. “You are deluding yourself. The only thing he ever believed of me was the worst. I can’t change that.”

“He loves you,” she pleaded. “Please go to him, Charles.” His refusal to comfort their father wrenched Clara’s heart. Charles stomped out of the drawing room, and Betsy came and tried to comfort her, while Mike held back, not knowing what to do.

“I can’t believe how much he’s changed, Betsy. He is so hateful. He won’t even try to make up with Father,” she sobbed.

“Don’t let it bother you Clara. Men are impossible to understand sometimes. I thought I knew my father, and look how he has treated Tom and me. He won’t even come with mother when she comes to visit Jane. His pride is hurt, and it’s too hard for him to own up to it. It’s the same with Charles. His pride is hurt. He has had a lot of years to nurse it, too. Uncle Stuart may have to be the one to reach out to him.”

The situation did not improve. Stuart’s health did not return, and Charles became more and more disruptive to the daily life at Fenton Hall. With his father’s health failing, and his older brother resolved not to come home, Charles felt he was now heir to the title and estate, and began to flex his newly found authority, demanding that Mike consult him about everything. And, he felt free to help himself to whatever funds he wanted. When Stuart at last gave up his fight and died, Charles became completely tyrannical.

Mike and Tom continued to run the estate as best they could, but now Charles demanded they turn over large portions of the income to him. He dispensed what he thought appropriate for the running of the household and estate, and used the rest of the immediate profits for his own ends. In spite of his new position and its demands, Charles continued his wanton lifestyle, spending money freely and gambling often. Mike feared a deficit could soon loom on the books.

At last, at Clara’s insistence, Mike attempted to confront him.

“Charles, we cannot continue to run the estate like this. We will be bankrupt in a matter of months at this rate. You cannot take all the profit, and leave nothing for the running of the estate,” Mike pleaded, indicating the ledgers spread out on the desk before them. “There are expenses that have to be met. There are salaries of the servants and workers. There are necessary supplies we need to buy to care for the animals and crops. And, there is the household budget. If we continue to cut back on these things the place will begin to fall apart.”

“I do not need advice from a commoner to tell me how to run my family’s estate,” snapped Charles as he lounged in the chair by the library window, sipping an aged brandy.

Clara had stepped into the room quietly. “He may be a commoner, as you call him, but he has been running this estate in the black for years before you came back. Father turned it all over to him after we were married, and he has built it up beyond recognition. Before he came, we were not suffering, but we were not running at the peak of efficiency that we could have been.”

“That may have been so, but since Father’s death, I am Lord Fenton, and I don’t want his hands in my business any more. This estate will be run the way I like it.”

Mike stood and turned to the door. “Then run it. I will no longer do anything. I wash my hands of it.”

Clara turned to her brother. “What are you thinking? You know nothing about running this estate. Mike has done wonders here. He has the experience that you lack. You would do well to let him continue to run it for you, as father did.” She found it hard to keep her composure with her brother’s attitude toward her husband.

“If you and your husband do not like the changes, then perhaps you should go elsewhere,” he said coldly. After a moment of thought he added, “His friend can go as well. I have no responsibility to keep him. Even Betsy’s father disapproves of him.”

“Betsy is your cousin! How can you turn them out? We have all been family for years. Father loved them just as much as he loved us.”

“They are not my family. I have no responsibility to support them.” He was not going to give in. Clara fled from the library with Mike close behind. She was outraged at her brother’s behavior.

“Mike, he is impossible. I will just see about this. If we have to leave, I want to make sure Charles feels the loss more than I do.”

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