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Life and Debt

By Virginia Sue Foreman All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Mystery

Chapter 25

Tolabert groaned and began to stir. Mike laid Father John softly onto the floor. Drying his face on his sleeve, he stepped over him. Then with the strength of his fury, he dragged Tolabert up by his lapels, and dropped him savagely onto a chair. Tolabert blinked and touched his jaw where it throbbed, as he tried to bring himself to full consciousness. When he realized it was Mike standing over him in a towering rage, he pulled back into the chair as if trying to escape. Blood stained the sleeves of Mike’s coat and the front of his waistcoat, adding to the terrifying visage.

“The authorities will believe you did this with all that blood on you,” he said in a quavering voice.

“You won’t be able to lie your way out of this Tolabert. This time I have the witness, and she is a lot more credible than the paid toady you paid to lie for you last time.”

“The evidence will say otherwise.” Sweat beads popped out on his brow, and Tolabert licked his lips. “Look at you, covered in blood. They’ll believe you killed him. You attacked me, and killed him. Look at my face. What else could they believe?”

Mike doubled his fists, and leaned threateningly towards the cowering form below him.

“You piece of filth. You can’t lie your way through it this time.”

“No—no one believed I lied last time. It was your word against mine. All I had to do was tell those simpletons what to say, and they said it.”

A deep voice behind Mike startled them both, and they looked toward the source.

“I would advise you to hold your tongue, Mr. Tolabert. You have already said enough to set all the records straight,” said the calm voice.

Mike turned to find a constable with four men in tow. Tolabert scrambled up, and stepping around the chair, backed away from Mike and against the wall. But, to his horror instead of seizing Mike, the men seized him, and shackled his hands.

“What are you doing? He’s the man you want, not me. I’m an upstanding citizen of this city! That’s Mike Harrington. He has a price on his head. I’ve captured him for you!”

“Mr. Tolabert, you would do well to stop talking. I heard every word of your conversation. I heard you admit to lying to get this man hung. And, as Mr. Harrington said, I am not one of your paid toadies. I will see justice is truly done this time.” He signaled to his men that they should take him away.

“But—but, the Bishop!” he wailed. “Look at the blood all over Harrington! Can’t you see, he’s the one who killed him, not me!”

Clara looked up from the floor, where she sat beside Father John, and said through her tears, “You disgusting liar. You shot him while trying to kill my husband!”

Later that day, when they had taken Father John’s body away, and they had locked up Tolabert to await trial, the constable sat talking to Mike and Clara in the vicarage parlor.

“I wish we had known where to find you before now, Mr. Harrington. We learned a lot about your friend over the past several years. We’ve known for some time he was doing a lot of illegal things. Not long ago, we nabbed one of his men in the act of some really nasty business. He told us so much about Mr. Tolabert, we should’ve been able to lock him up for quite a long time. But, he always managed to have some evidence to make it appear he wasn’t involved. But, now, killing the Bishop like this, he will hang.

“His man also told us how Tolabert and brought false charges against you. We withdrew the warrant immediately. I don’t think Tolabert knew it. He seems to have a real hate for you, sir.”

“He does,” said Mike, rubbing the ache in his temple. “I discovered his underhanded dealings in Father’s company. I always suspected Tolabert had something to do with the death of my parents, as well.”

“Knowin’ the sort of man he is, I wouldn’t be surprised at all.” He stood and placed his hat back on his head. “Well, nonetheless, you’re a free man, sir. You’re no longer wanted for any of those old charges. You’ve been pardoned.”

After the funeral, they returned to Fenton Hall. As they sat in Clara’s sitting room, they told Tom and Betsy all that had happened. They were surprised to hear the news about what had happened at Fenton Hall while they were gone. Charles had given them an ultimatum. Leave or be removed.

Betsy was pale. “What will we do? This has been our home since we married. We have nowhere else to go. We’ve managed to save some money, but not enough to start over elsewhere.”

“There’s not much we can do, if Charles is determined to turn us out,” Mike said. “I suppose I could look into buying back Father’s company, now that Tolabert is gone, but it would take years to get it back to what it once was. I don’t know how we could live until then.”

Betsy had been biting her lower lip. “Perhaps I could go to Father, and beg him to take us in. He might consider it now. Mother says he is softening. I think he is beginning to regret his attitude.”

“I don’t think that’s the answer either,” Clara said firmly. “We need to go where we can start over. Where we can all be equal, without having to depend on family or titles.”

Mike looked at her determined expression, then timidly suggested, “We could go back to Scotland, I suppose. Maybe your Uncle George could help us.”

“No. We need to go far away. Somewhere that Charles will never find us. I don’t want to be his sister anymore. He is not the brother who left home years ago.” Her chin jutted out in defiance.

“That sounds very final,” Tom said.

“Yes. But, he will come begging to us just as soon as he has spent the last of Father’s fortune. I don’t want to be within his reach when he finally gets to that point. It will not be easy to resist him if we don’t get far enough away.”

“Do you have a place in mind?” asked Tom, a little afraid of what she was thinking.

“Actually, I do. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now.” All eyes were on her. She took a deep breath then said, “We could go to America.” When no one broke the stunned silence, she continued. “William will help.”

“Ship’s passage for the six of us, and then money to live on until we get settled, will cost a fortune. None of us has that much saved up,” Mike said with astonishment.

“There is something that I haven’t told you yet, Mike. Father left us some money.”

“That’s nice, but it won’t be enough to get us to America, and let us build a home. Maybe we could take it, and increase it until there is enough, though.” Mike put his arm around her shoulder. “But, still that doesn’t help Betsy and Tom.”

Clara turned her face up to his and smiled. “I think you will be surprised.” She looked satisfied by the puzzled look on his face. “Father left us one third of the value of the estate at the time of his death.”

Mike and Tom both raised their eyebrows. Betsy slid her arm around Tom’s waist. Mike stammered, “But that would be—that would be—”

“A lot of money,” Clara said, her eyes wide, and a grin turning up the corners of her mouth. After another moment of silence she continued. “Well, what do you say? I wrote to William when Charles began making all his changes, and told him of my thoughts about going there. We should get a response soon. In the meantime, I plan to contact Father’s lawyer, and have him arrange to get our share.” Another thought suddenly struck her. “I can ask him for William’s portion as well. We could take it to him. That should help the lot of us establish a good life in a new country.”

When Charles learned of their plans to leave, he was more remote than ever. He had no interest in their plans. He did not care where they planned to go. All he wanted was complete, unrestricted access to the family fortune. However, when Mike and Tom stopped taking any hand in running the estate, it left Charles with a flood of problems. It was not until the lawyer came to the estate, a few weeks later with the final papers dividing the estate between the three children of Stuart Martin, that Charles realized the extent of the final blow.

“This is absurd. You can’t do this! I am the Lord of this estate, and the whole thing belongs to me. Money included!” he shouted at the lawyer, who sat calmly beside the desk in the library.

“Not true. You are entitled to the title and houses. The rest was your Father’s to do with as he wished. This is legal, and it is your Father’s last will and testament. One third of the value of the estate at the time of his death go to William, one third to Clara and her husband, and the remainder, along with the properties and title, go to you.”

Charles pounded his fist on the desk. “That is not enough. I can’t possibly run this estate on the paltry sum left after you take the lion’s share, and give it to them. Besides, William made his choice to stay in America. He shouldn’t be allowed to inherit anything!”

“Because he has chosen to stay in America, you received the title and the estate. The assets and land will be sold if there is not sufficient money to cover the sum. The sum totaling the value of the estate is to be divided as it would have been divided at the moment of Lord Fenton’s death. Thanks to the excellent records your brother-in-law has kept, we know exactly the total worth of the estate at that time, and the amount of liquid assets your Father had when he died. We also know how much of that money has been spent to maintain the estate, and how much was spent by you for your own pursuits, after Stuart’s death. If your mishandling, and wanton spending, has diminished your share, then you have no one to blame but yourself. The full third shares of the total value at the moment of your father’s death will be paid to your siblings. What you will receive, is what is left of your third that you have not already squandered.”

“I won’t allow it. I’ll stop this!” Charles blustered.

“You cannot. It is done.” He stood, and gathered up his papers to leave. “What you do with the estate after that is entirely up to you.” His expression softened just slightly. “Perhaps you were too hasty in demanding your sister, and her family, leave. Mike Harrington was the best thing that ever happened to this place.”

All the blustering and fits Charles threw after the division did nothing to change the course of the events that he had set in motion. When he finally realized that Clara and Mike were actually leaving, and taking their money with them, he resorted to pleading. But, nothing he said, or did, made a difference.

“Charles, you made your choice when you ordered us to leave. We tried to tell you that Mike and Tom would gladly have continued to run the estate for you, and keep it in the black, but you were so greedy, you didn’t want them to do it. Now you must do the best you can for yourself.” She looked around at the room wistfully, memorizing it as she had done the rest of the house. She stood and left the room with Mike following. He could not even look at Charles.

When they were alone Clara turned to Mike and clung to him. “Oh, Mike. I will never see my home again. I know Charles will fall into ruin as soon as we’re gone. He’ll end up having to sell the place to pay his debts, and then I don’t know what will become of him.”

“We could stay, if you want,” he offered, even knowing she had made up her mind.

“No. If we stay, he’ll drag us down with him. We need to go and make a life for our family in a better place, away from him.”

They walked outside and sat down in the garden. “I got a letter from William. He’s thrilled we’re coming, and he thinks he knows where we can find some lovely property in Virginia. He says there is room enough there for us to have three prosperous plantations if we wish.”

On the day Mike and Clara, Tom and Betsy, and the children climbed into the carriage to head to London, Charles was beside himself. He ran out of the house and ripped open the door of the carriage.

“Don’t leave!” he cried, panic in his voice. “I’m sorry. I know I can’t run this place without you, Mike. Stay and everything will be the way it was, I swear! I will do anything you say. Have the lawyer draw up anything you like, and I’ll sign it.”

Clara looked sadly at her distraught brother.

“Charles, it is too late. You made your choice weeks ago. You had to know there would be consequences for your actions. There always are. Father is no longer able to bail you out. You’re on your own. We’ve made our plans, and we don’t intend to turn back now. We’ll write to you when we get settled in our new home.”

Though Betsy was moved by Charles’ pleading, Tom was not. He could not even bring himself to say good-bye to Charles. He reached out, and pulled the door closed again with a snap.

“Good luck, Cousin Charles,” Betsy said softly through the window. “I wish you well with your title and responsibility.”

Mike knocked on the top of the carriage. The driver cracked the whip over the horses and they trotted forward. If they had looked back as they left, they would have seen Charles on his knees in the dust, a broken and defeated man.

In two days, they would be in London, and a few days later, aboard a ship bound for America. With the money Stuart had left Clara, they would be able to buy a sizable piece of property, and build their own estate. Betsy’s father had also given her enough money to help her and Tom start a new life as well. James bitterly regretted having driven her from him. He hoped that money would help heal the hurt, and she would keep in touch with him after she settled in her new home.

As the ship left the port a week later, Mike thought back on all that had happened to him since leaving his home so long ago. He had felt a great debt on his shoulders for years. He felt he owed Jacob Tolabert retribution for how he had stolen his family, and his company from him. Tolabert took everything that was most dear to him, even Father John in the end. But, in the course of his life, he had gained even more than he had lost. Father John had told him once that God would give him something better for what was taken from him. His life was now full, and his future was better than he had ever hoped. And, Jacob Tolabert had finally received true justice for his evil ways. Mike considered that debt resolved, and paid in full. He was free of all debt as he prepared to begin the next chapter of his life.

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