Life And Debt
V. S. FOREMAN
Life and Debt
Written by V.S. Foreman
Published by Virginia S. Foreman Publishing at Smashwords
Copyright 2015 Virginia S. Foreman
Another book by this author
State of Deception
Written By V. S. Foreman
Copyright 2014 Virginia S. Foreman
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used, or reproduced in any manner whatsoever, without prior written permission of the author/publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.
All characters and circumstances in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation to anyone bearing the same name or names. Any resemblance to individuals known or unknown to the author are purely coincidental.
Life and Debt/V.S. Foreman
People have doubted over many years that this book would ever be finished, and whether it would ever be published (including me). I want to say thanks to all who kept encouraging me and asking when it would be done. You have been a great help to me. And, I want to offer a special thanks to writer/instructor Steve Alcorn, without whom I would probably still be struggling to get it right.
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
--Ecclesiastes 3:1 (KJV)
In the churchyard just outside Cambridge, England, the sound of the scraping shovels brought a pall over the magnificent fall day in 1775. As the gravediggers pushed the soil back into the two yawning holes in the earth, sixteen year-old Mike Harrington wrapped his arm tighter around his younger sister, drawing her close to ward off the chill only he felt. He stood a short distance back from the edge with his eyes fixed on the dirt falling into the graves, but not seeing it. The soft thudding sound and the smell of the freshly turned earth drove home the awful truth he had not wanted to believe—both their parents were dead.
Since their parents were well known in the social circuit, several important people had come to the funeral. Their brutal deaths had caused shock and outrage among their friends. Even some of the employees of Gerard Harrington’s mercantile company who came appeared struck with the same foreboding.
During the proceedings at the cemetery, Gerard Harrington’s partner, Jacob Tolabert, stood like a dark harbinger at the back, with a look of superior disdain, clearly not as devastated as the rest of the mourners, while Father John Osborn performed the rites.
Mike heartily wished all morning that he could wake up to find it had all been a nightmare. Yet, the scene had played tediously on. He watched as his own hand reach down to toss a handful of earth onto the two gleaming walnut coffins, while workers lowered the two boxes into the graves, one after the other. Janny did as he did, and then turned desperately to him, weeping pathetically into his shoulder. The minister’s voice droned on and on through the scriptures and words meant to comfort the mourners, but Mike did not hear them. He was numb, lost in his fog of disbelief.
The mourners filed somberly by, each pausing briefly at the graveside to toss in a bit of dirt, or a flower, and to wipe an appropriate tear from the eye. Mike heard himself saying “Thank you” and other similar words to each who offered words of condolence, as they moved quickly on, back to their lives.
Finally, there was only Mike and Janny left standing with Father John. As if bound there, they stood watching the gravediggers working to fill the graves. Then a gentle arm around his shoulder guided Mike away from the graves, towards the waiting carriage.
“Come children, I’ll see you home.” Father John Osborn’s voice was the only sanity left in their suddenly chaotic world. Adulthood stood like a ravenous wolf ready to swallow them whole, and Father John could shield them for only a little while longer. He had made all the arrangements, leaving the children nothing to do but grieve for the few remaining days of their stolen youth.
With a gentle touch, Mike smoothed Janny’s golden curls from her wet cheeks, and then handed her up into the carriage. She looks frail and lost, he thought. She needs her mother. Janny was not yet a woman, and would need guidance in the days and years to come. Mike felt he was a man, after all; he might be able to handle the business well enough, but what about Janny? How would he care for her?
Father John followed Mike into the carriage, and as if sensing Mike’s building resentment, anticipated his question.
“Michael, I don’t know why your parents were taken this way. Only God knows. Nevertheless, there is a reason for it. If you listen to your heart, God may show you some day. But, you must try to resist the bitterness.”
“Why shouldn’t I be bitter?” his voice was full of sarcasm. “Our parents are both dead for no good reason. There was no need for them to die. They gave the highwaymen what they asked for, and they killed them anyway. Why shouldn’t I be bitter over that?”
Mike repented immediately. “Father, it’s not fair. I can manage well enough. I may even be able to continue Father’s company. But, Janny … what about her? She’s still just a child, and needs her mother. She needs the security of her family. But, now she has neither.”
“Janny isn’t the only one feeling the loss,” said Father John gently. “You’ve lost them, too.”
“I’ll manage without them,” he said with his head raised, doing his best to look braver than he felt. “I’m a man. But, she can’t … she shouldn’t have to.”
From behind her linen handkerchief, Janny sat listening to them speaking of her as if she was not there—deciding for her what she could, or could not do without.
“I’m just as able to carry on as you are, Mike. I certainly don’t like being an orphan, but we still have each other, and I can manage if you can. We can do it together.”
Mike swallowed the lump that was growing in his throat. Of course, he still had her, and she certainly had him to count on. Yes, they would survive. They would care for each other. She was all the family he had left. He had never realized before, how much he loved his sister. Janny was precocious, and sometimes wiser than her years. He would pull himself out of this stupor—if she had that much determination, he did too.
One day he would find out the reason their parents died. Yes, he would find out, and then he would—what? Mike’s thoughts turned to the things that had led up to this day. He knew who had made Father angry that night, but just feeling resentment for the man and suspecting he had a hand in the death of his parents was very different. If there was a connection, he would find it—and make him pay.
“You and Janny could come and stay with me for a time, until you are more able to handle things,” Father John said as they rolled back into town.
Mike smiled wanly, “Thank you, Father, but Janny’s right. We can make it together, and the sooner we face things, the better.” He saw a worry crease form on the minister’s brow. “We’ll be fine, Father John.”
They rode on in silence, and Mike looked more closely at their friend. When had Father John become so gray? The lines entrenched in his tired face must have been there for a while, but Mike could not remember when they had appeared. This man was about the same age as Gerard Harrington, yet he seemed to have aged years in just a few short days. Or, was it just that Mike had never looked beyond his caring before?
Father John had always been there. He had been like a second father to Mike and his sister for as long as Mike could remember. He had been present throughout their lives, at many birthday and holiday celebrations, as well as numerous everyday events. He comforted them through the loss of pets, and children’s taunts. He had counseled them through decisions of faith and life. Mike mused absently that he had never questioned his presence in their lives, but now he was thankful for it. Now that both their parents were gone, Father John was the only one left who truly cared about them.
“Don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine.” Mike smiled hoping he showed the confidence he did not quite feel.
“Ah, Michael, I suppose you will be at that,” he sighed. “But, remember. If you ever need anything, you can come to me. I’ll always help you in any way I can.”
Only a few months ago Mike had thought himself quite the young man of the world. Cambridge seemed like such a small, cramped place for a young man of the merchant wealth society. He was, after all, nearly a man. What else could there be to learn of the world?
He could only vaguely recall snatches of conversations at the dinner table about the state of England, the rebellious colonists in America, and their effect on Harrington Mercantile. Those things were unimportant to a young man who preferred to fill his time with carefree days spent with his friends. Besides, he had begun to notice the simpering, giggling girls at the dreadful socials his mother insisted he attend, and they seemed much less repulsive to him in the last year.
So, why should he care about the foolishness of the old men at Parliament and King George, who wanted to force the American colonists into submission? Why should he care about crazy old Farmer George? The actions of the King had little to do with him and his life. He had his secure little world in which he, and everyone he cared about, was immortal. Father could worry about all those other things. Perhaps, someday, he would learn of politics and business, but there was no hurry to learn them—there was plenty of time for that.
Faced with running the Mercantile, Mike realized he knew even less of the company business than he did of the world outside his home in Cambridge. Now, the world seemed a huge unknown and frightening place.
The company Gerard Harrington built was a solid business, built on integrity and honesty. The reputation of Harrington Mercantile Company was sound, and stood for superior quality, and fair prices. The clientele trusted Gerard to deliver what he promised, and they knew they could depend on his generosity to extend credit if they needed it. Because of this, it was seldom that Gerard had to pursue payment forcefully. More likely than not, Gerard would write off the debt, rather than hound a man he knew was in trouble and could not pay.
Gerard’s employees knew him to be fair, kind, and understanding. In return, they gave him their loyalty. But, a rat can turn up in even the cleanest kitchen, and such was the case when one Jacob Tolabert came along.
Gerard hired Mr. Tolabert as bookkeeper at the recommendation of a business associate. Tolabert had an uncanny way of ingratiating himself to Gerard, and before long, he had convinced Gerard to make him a partner in the business. It was, with only a little reservation, that Gerard finally consented to make him a partner in a small way.
Changes began slowly and quietly. At first, they seemed to be unimportant. However, as time passed, Tolabert began to take more and more liberty in the ordering and distribution of goods, convincing Gerard that he was only trying to relieve him of his more burdensome tasks, thereby easing some of his stress, and allowing him more freedom. Gerard hardly noticed when the good and loyal men, who had worked for him for years left, and men who were neither quietly replaced them. Over the course of only a few years, the quality goods Harrington’s had always provided were replaced with things of lesser quality, and sold at the same prices. Yet, the profits, instead of increasing, declined.
The explanation Tolabert offered for the decline seemed plausible, and Gerard wanted to believe it. They had done a brisk business with the American colonies until recently. With the troubles over there, the British goods were in less demand than they had been. Surely, after they settled that little problem, the demand would increase again, and things would pick up.
On Mike’s fifteenth birthday, a small group of family and friends had gathered for a celebration. Winter had finally released its grip on the city, and the day was warm enough to have tea served in the garden, where the colorful spring flowers were in bloom. Mike and his young friends gathered at the table, filling their plates for a third time while Gerard stood a few steps away talking with some business constituents. When he heard his father mention his name, Mike’s ears perked up.
“I intend to take Michael into the company with me,” Gerard said. “He’s old enough now to start learning the business. It’ll be good for him to have something more to do with his time than just his studies, and wasting time with his friends.” The other men heartily voiced their agreement and approval.
Mike felt pleased by his father’s confidence in him, but he was not sure he was ready to give up his youth and freedom just yet.
“Bad luck, Harrington,” said one of his pals.
“Looks like you’re in for it,” said another. Mike set his plate down on the table, his appetite suddenly evaporating.
Over the next weeks, Mike learned the operation of the mercantile business, learning first things first. He put in the same long, hard days in the warehouse as the other employees. He loaded and unloaded the drays and wagons, moved crates and other stock around in the warehouse, and counted inventory. He learned the required tasks quickly, and after the first few days of aching muscles and unfamiliar weariness, his body began to adjust to the demands, by developing muscles in new places.
The first thing he learned was that he did not like Jacob Tolabert. The man was always polite and business like when Gerard was around, but the minute Gerard was out of sight, he demeanor changed. He did not waste his smarmy grin, and mocking politeness on Mike.
One beautiful spring day when the air was warm and clear, Gerard sent Mike into the warehouse to count the bottles of a large shipment of wine that had just arrived from France. Mike longed to be outside with his friends instead of inside the musty warehouse. When he went to the back of the building with his tally sheet, the lure of an open window was stronger than the call of duty. He stepped behind the stack of crates and leaned out of the window, breathing deeply of the warm spring air. He watched the puffy clouds floating slowly by above the roof of the next building that blocked the view of everything else, and was lost in a daydream when he heard hushed voices from the other side of the stacked crates.
There would be a reprimand if they found him dallying around instead of doing what he was supposed to be doing. Quickly he stepped back and pressed himself against the stack of crates, and stood still. Hopefully, they would be gone soon, none the wiser.
“When I hired you, you said you could do the job right.” Tolabert’s voice was condescending and scolding.
“Aye, and we did. The likes of you ain’t gonna tell me how to do my job.”
“I pay you; I will tell you what to do,” he hissed.
Mike’s curiosity got the better of him, and he stole a peek around the edge of the crate. The big man was dressed like a laborer, and unshaven with a day or two worth of a scruffy beard.
“Well, perhaps you’d like to take care of it yerself,” he said as he crossed his arms over his big chest and glared at Tolabert.
“That’s why I hired you two in the first place. But, I need men I can trust to do what I say. If you cannot do that simple thing, then I will find someone else smart enough to do it.” He tucked something into his waistcoat pocket, and leveled cold eyes on the man.
“Now—now just a minute. You promised to pay us to haul them crates, and we did it. We took ’em where you said—” piped in the shorter, weasel like little man.
“Yes, but you did not do it as I told you. You moved them in broad daylight! Suppose Harrington had seen you? What could we have done? You would be in it as deep as me, and probably received the worst of it, too,” snarled Tolabert.
“And, what if he did see?” demanded the short man. “He’d just think we was moving the stuff for one of his customers.”
The big man put his fists on his hips, and took a firm stance in front of Tolabert. “You wouldn’t be thinking of not paying us for the work we done for you, would you?” He stepped closer, and poked his thick finger into Tolabert’s chest a couple of times. “Cause we sure would hate to have to take a piece of your hide to collect our payment.”
Tolabert held his gaze, but Mike saw a slight tremble in his fingers as he reached into his waistcoat pocket, removed the coins he had placed there a moment earlier, and tossed them to the floor.
“There. This is the last of it. I’ll think long and hard before I hire the two of you for anything again.” He turned on his heel and walked out quickly.
The two men snatched up the coins from the floor, and examined them closely before pocketing each his share. The larger man watched Tolabert with a smirk.
“He’ll send for us again. He can’t afford to let no more in on his little business than’s already in. You’ll see.” The shorter man nodded with a knowing grin, as they both left the warehouse.
Mike stood frozen in disbelief. Jacob Tolabert had hired these men to do something suspicious. It sounded like they were moving something they were not supposed to move. Else, why would they be afraid Father would notice? What little business were they all in together? This could not be good. He should tell his father. But, tell him what? That he had overheard a dubious conversation between Jacob Tolabert and a couple of laborers? Tolabert would deny any wrongdoing, and would probably have a plausible explanation. He decided he would have to learn more before he told Father about this.
From that time, Mike watched Tolabert closely. He began to notice things he had not noticed before. Tolabert spent a lot of time in the warehouse talking to a select few men. Mike could not remember when these men had come to work for Harrington’s.
In late summer, when his father decided to have him begin learning the workings of the office and the paperwork of the business, he found opportunities to compare the counts of the shipments with the records in the office.
A few times, he found what he was sure was a discrepancy in the count, but when he went to the warehouse, and counted the cargo again, it was the same as the records. Maybe he was chasing a wild hare. Maybe his dislike of the man was coloring his view. He wanted to be sure, though, and decided to make a test, and find out if he were right or wrong.
A new shipment of dishes had come in from Holland. Mike had been expecting it, and had looked up the orders, dunning notice and shipping records. He carefully copied down all the figures from the papers before replacing them all in the file. While the workers unloaded the shipment, he counted the crates, opening each one and checking for breakage. The shipment they received agreed with the figures he had written down from the records. He counted twice to be sure he had not made a mistake.
The next day, Jacob Tolabert finished his records, and entered all the information into the books. When Mike found a moment alone in the office, he compared what he had recorded earlier with what Tolabert had put into the book. The figures were off by two crates. Mike went over the figures again. Still two. Here could be the proof. His heart raced as he went directly to the warehouse where they had stacked the crates and counted them. There were two less than what he had written down. The inventory agreed with Tolabert’s paperwork. Mike knew he had counted correctly the first time. There were two crates missing. And, he thought he knew what had happened to them. If the records agreed with the inventory, how could he prove there were things missing?
It was getting late when Mike finished his work that day, but he was determined he would go to his father before they left for the day. He had to tell Father or burst, and he did not care anymore whether or not his story was believable. Father could do what he would with the information.
As he came from the warehouse toward the office, he heard angry, raised voices coming from within. One of the voices belonged to his father. He knew that angry tone even through the closed door.
As Mike reached for the doorknob, the door burst open, and Jacob Tolabert stomped past him, his face red and contorted in wrath. Mike stared open mouthed at him as he stomped deliberately out of the building, slamming the door behind him. Stepping into the office, Mike found his father livid, and pacing back and forth between the two desks. He had never seen Gerard so angry.
“Father?” Mike ventured timidly.
Gerard stopped his pacing. When he saw Mike, he took a long deep breath, and let it out slowly. The anger turned to sorrow as he wearily sat down at his desk.
“Michael, you’re ready to go home?”
“I need to talk to you. I’ve been doing some checking, and I think I’ve found something you need to know about.” He fingered his papers as he stood before his father, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
“Michael, I just can’t think about anything else just now. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll be in a better mind to look at it.” He pulled out his watch and opened it. The fob made by childish hands dangled between his fingers. Mike remembered the year he had made the fob, and presented it to Gerard for his birthday. Gerard had acted so pleased, and attached it to his watch immediately. He had never removed it.
“We best get along home. Your mother will think I’ve forgotten we’re to go to the Byron’s dinner party tonight.”
Mike respected his father’s wishes. Perhaps, after Gerard had dressed for the dinner party and had his brandy, he would be more inclined to listen. But, Gerard’s mood did not alter until he saw Sarah Harrington standing in the doorway of the drawing room, dressed in her party gown. The frustrated, haggard look he had worn home from the office, melted into obvious love and appreciation for the beautiful woman before him. Mike would remember his mother in that emerald green, satin gown whenever he thought of her in years to come.
Gerard took her gloved hand, and kissed her fingers where they folded over his hand. “You will out shine the hostess this evening, my dear.”
She smiled warmly into his eyes, and took his extended arm. “You are sweet to say so, but we are still going.”
“I would follow you anywhere, my love.” He kissed her cheek, and released her to go to the children.
“You both go to bed on time,” she said, hugging Janny. “Don’t wait up for us. It may be late when we come back.” She kissed Janny, and smoothed her curls back from her forehead, then kissed Mike’s cheek and ran her fingers across the creases in his brow. “You’re working too hard. You need to get more rest.”
“I will, Mother.”
Mike stayed in the drawing room after Janny went to bed. He sat in the big leather chair by the fire, and waited. He had to tell his father what he had learned about Jacob Tolabert, and tomorrow would not do. Surely, after a relaxing evening with friends and good food, Gerard would be ready to hear what he had to say.
Hours later Higgins, the butler, wakened him by gently touching his shoulder.
“Master Harrington? There’s a constable here to see you.”
Mike focused his sleepy eyes on Higgins standing before him in his nightshirt and dressing gown. “What? What did you say?” he yawned groggily.
“A constable to see you, sir.”
“To see me? Are you sure? What time is it?”
“It is very late, sir. Shall I show him in?”
“Yes, of course.” Mike stood up and saw the man standing in the doorway of the room, turning his hat in his hands, looking ill at ease and apologetic.
“Are you Master Harrington?”
Mike rubbed his eyes with the flat of his hands, and then rolled them behind his closed lids to remove the lingering sleep.
“Yes, I am. My father is out for the evening, though. He should be back soon if you care to wait—”
“No, sir, it’s you I come to speak to.”
“Why me?” Mike was beginning to get uneasy.
“Well, sir, it’s about your parents—”
“What about my parents? Has something happened?”
“Yes, sir. Something has happened. I’m sorry to have to tell you, but … well … they’ve been killed.” The man’s voice was kind, and he shifted his weight from foot to foot, as he stood fingering his hat brim.
Mike thought his heart had stopped beating. He seemed unable to breathe, and his knees felt like they had suddenly turned to jelly. The constable reached out and took his arm, easing him back into the chair. Thousands of questions raced through his mind, but none seemed to be coming out of his lips. Killed? That was impossible. He must have heard wrong. They were just here a few hours ago, leaving for a dinner party.
Finally, he heard his own voice, thin and weak.
“No—no, you must be mistaken—”
“ ’Fraid not, sir,” he said as he hovered close by, concerned by Mike’s sudden weakness. “There’s a gentleman identified ’em. Said he’d been at the same party with ’em. He said they was Sarah and Gerard Harrington of this address. He also said there was folks here as should be told. So, they sent me along to see you.”
“But—how, what …?”
“Well, it seems they was robbed on their way home—there was no money, or jewelry on either of them. They was both shot—the hack driver, too. Near as we can figure, they must a decided to give the robbers a fight, so they shot ’em.”
“That’s ridiculous. My father had nothing that he would risk his life to protect … except Mother. Was she—I mean did they—”
“Oh! No sir, no. There wasn’t nothing like that done to the lady. It just appears to be a robbery.” Mike closed his eyes as if to shut out the whole thing, shaking his head. “Well, sir, if you got no more questions, I need to get back on duty.”
Mike nodded. He was too stunned to remember manners. What now? He was unprepared for what he now faced. And, Janny. How would he tell her? He rested his elbows on his knees, and covered his face with his hands. He could not face this. It was too hard.
As if in answer to a wish, Father John was kneeling beside him. “Michael! Higgins sent for me. He told me what has happened. How are you?”
Mike raised watery eyes to meet his. “They can’t be gone.”
The minister took his hands in his. “Michael, I am here for you and Janny. Has she been told?”
Mike bowed his head, and allowed the tears to burn their way down his cheeks. “No. I couldn’t wake her to tell her this. What am I going to say? How can I tell her that her mother and father are dead?”
“There is no easy way, but it has to be done. She has to know. I’ll tell her if you like.” Mike nodded. “I sent someone for the bodies, and I’ll take care of everything else. You don’t need to worry about anything now.”
Mike drew his knees up to his chest, wrapped his arms around them, and sat in the big chair, staring into the fire until it died in the early morning light.
After the funeral, while Mike went to work at the company, Janny took on the duties of running the household. They had never had many servants, but those they did have were loyal and had been with them a long time. It was painful when she had to let nearly all of them go because there was no longer money to pay them. As the new mistress of the house, she was to choose the menus, and oversee the shopping, the cleaning, and the laundry, as well as keep the household budget. And, she felt it was her responsibility to keep up Mike’s spirits.
That was the hardest. Mike was becoming like a stranger to her. He was preoccupied with trying to run Harrington’s. But, Janny never complained. He was working so the two of them could stay together. The least she could do was make him comfortable when he got home.
The money Mike brought home was not as much as Father had brought home, and it seemed that each week it was a little less. Janny cut the budget to the bone. She eliminated anything that was not a necessity, and she closed up the rooms that they did not use so as not to have to clean them regularly.
One day a few months after the funeral, she stood, trembling like a frightened rabbit before two of the remaining servants. She loved each of them, since they had been part of her life nearly from birth, and she was loath to lose any of them.
“I know that you both have been very kind since Mother and Father died, and I am sorry I can’t continue to pay you as before,” Janny said at last. “I’m afraid I could only afford to pay you each for a few hours a day. Would you be agreeable to that?”
“Oh, missy, I’ll do what I can for as long as I can,” said Cook in her thick Scottish accent. She twisted her apron and chewed on her lip. “But, I may ha’e to look for somethin’ else. You know ma husband is nae able to work like he used to.”
“I know, and I am sorry.” Janny bit her lip. “If you could just come in and make the evening meals until you must take something else that would be wonderful.”
“Aye, I can do that for a while. I may even be able to find something else to fill in of a morning,” she said with a sigh and a nod.
“Miss Harrington, I would gladly do what I can, but like Cook, I will need to either supplement, or find something else,” said the housekeeper, as she stood towering over Janny in her stiff black uniform.
“I do understand. But if you could come in and help me with the heavier work a couple days a week, I would be most grateful.”
“Well, I will do what I can.” The tiniest quiver twitched the corner of her mouth. Her stiff British formality was always present, but her soft spot for these struggling children was stronger.
Higgins, the butler, would be the only one to remain, and continue to live in the servant’s quarters full time. He voluntarily gave up most of his salary, working for his room and board. He was elderly, had no family left, and did not mind staying. He took his meals of leftovers from the evening meals, leaving as much as possible for the children. And, he managed to make breakfast for them from the meager items Janny brought from market.
“Miss, you really need to eat more,” he insisted one day a couple of months later. “You are going to become ill.”
“Mike is the one who has to go out to work every day, and he needs the food more than me. When I know he has enough, then I eat more.” She lifted her chin, determined to show no weakness, either to Higgins or to her brother. She would be strong for Mike so he would be free to concentrate on rebuilding the company.
“But, you have become so thin, and you don’t look well. You must eat.”
“I’m fine. It won’t be long before Mike is able to bring home more money, and then everything will be as before. Until then, saving as much as possible is the least I can do.”
“Why don’t you let me ask Father Osborn for help?”
“No, Mike would not allow that. He’s too proud. He wants to do this on his own. And, together, we can do it, I know we can.”
Mike did not notice the gradual changes in her. She kept up her cheerfulness, and the deplorable condition of the household budget was a well-guarded secret. Not until Janny developed a severe cough did he suspect there was anything different.
“Janny, you seem to be getting a cold. You should stay in bed for a day or two until it passes,” Mike told her one evening as he ate his dinner.
“It’s nothing, Mike. I’ll be fine in a few days. It’s nothing to worry about.
“Cook seems to be trying some new dishes lately,” he said as he took a small bite of the unfamiliar looking stew Higgins had ladled onto his plate.
Janny’s cheeks turned pink and she quickly chewed a bite of her own stew. “Yes, but I think it’s very good. It’s nice to have something different from time to time.”
Mike tasted a larger bite, and gave a little shrug before digging into his meal. “It is different, but it’s quite tasty.” He did not notice Janny’s little sigh of relief.
Mike struggled, from day to day, to learn what his father did not have time to teach him about running the company. He got no help from Jacob Tolabert, who barely retained his smirking politeness after Gerard’s death. Mike was sure Tolabert was still stealing from the company and was on a mission to ruin it. Still he could find no real proof, and nothing with which to accuse him openly. He could not understand why Tolabert was doing this, and it made him angry with himself for not understanding, as well as with Tolabert for doing it. If the company went under, Tolabert would lose just as much as Mike. He had to figure it all out and find a solution.
A late spring was finally trying to force its way out of the winter ground again, slowly warming, and brightening the grayness of the city. One evening, as Mike left the office to walk home after work, he noticed a man walking just ahead of him. He could have come from Harrington’s warehouse. Mike studied the man as he walked, thinking there was something familiar about him. Then the man turned to glance into a window he was passing. The light was beginning to fade, but Mike saw his face clearly. He was shocked to realize he was one of the men he had seen talking with Tolabert in the warehouse that day last year.
On an impulse, Mike began to follow him at a cautious distance. He stayed behind him by at least a block, pretending to be interested in the shop windows whenever the man looked back over his shoulder. At last, the man stopped in front of the tavern. Mike had never been inside the tavern before, but he was curious and determined to see what this man was up to. If he went inside, Mike decided he would follow him.
The man looked up and down the street as if looking for someone, then pulled a watch from his pocket and opened it. Mike gasped when he saw the watch. The fob, which dangled between the man’s fingers, was the one he had made for his Father. Mike would know that fob anywhere—there was no other one like it.
Shock and numbness at seeing the familiar object brought wild thoughts speeding through his mind. He needed to get away from here, and think things through—to understand what he had just seen. He turned up an alley, and made his way home as quickly as he could.
After a dinner he hardly noticed, Mike closed himself in the drawing room. What did this mean? Why did that man have Father’s watch? Mike first noticed him just outside the warehouse today. But, he had not seen him around since that day last year. Was Tolabert doing business with him again? How did that fit together with him having Father’s watch? The constable had said that the robbers took his parents’ jewelry and money. If the robbers had taken the watch, how did this man get it? Did he get it from the robbers? Or … could he be the robber? He did not look bright enough to have thought up, and carried out any plan to commit the robbery and killing by himself.
After hours of pondering the same thoughts repeatedly, a new theory began to take form. What if Jacob Tolabert had hired those two men to rob Gerard? But, why would he do that? Then he remembered something he had forgotten. Tolabert was arguing with Father that afternoon. Gerard was angry with Tolabert. Could he possibly have found out Tolabert was stealing from the company, and confronted him? Would Tolabert have retaliated by hiring these men to kill his parents, and the coach driver as well, over the argument? Was he sly enough to make it look like a robbery to hide his true intent?
If he could do such a thing to Sarah and Gerard, what would keep him from doing the same thing, or worse, to Mike and Janny? It was a chilling thought. Mike would have to be more careful in his investigating. He was going to need help if there was to be any justice.
The fire had burned low, and the candles had burned down to stubs before Mike gave up and decided to go to bed. He took the candlestick, and climbed the stairs of the silent house. He had not noticed before, how mausoleum like the house seemed now. As he was passing Janny’s door, he heard her coughing, and quietly sobbing between each jag. He opened the door and peered in. She lay on her side in the large bed with her back to the door. Mike crossed the room, and set the candle on her bed stand. The flickering light cast odd shadows, making her face look pale and cadaverous, as she continued to sob, unaware of him.
“Janny,” he whispered as he touched her gently on the shoulder. “What is it? Why are you crying?”
She quickly wiped her hand across her face to dry the tears, before turning to look at him. “I wasn’t crying, Mike.”
Recrimination stabbed at his heart as he realized how little time he had spent with her since the death of their parents. After tugging the covers up under her chin and smoothing them, he sat down beside her with a tender smile.
“It’s all right if you cry for Mother and Father. I did, and I am much older than you.” He took her hand and wondered when she had become so thin.
“I know, but I wasn’t crying for them.”
“Then what? You can tell me. I want to help.” He covered her hand with his other hand.
Her face grew serious. “I—I was crying for you.”
“Me?” he said in surprise. “Why me?”
“Because, you’ll be all alone when I leave. Who will take care of you then?”
“Janny, you aren’t going anywhere. I’m going to find a way to get the business back up, and no one will separate us. You’ll always be right here with me, and I’ll take care of you.”
She reached up and touched his cheek, holding his eyes with hers.
“Oh, I know you’ll work everything out, but I still have to leave.”
She was so earnest in her insistence that it was beginning to unnerve him. “Janny, I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
“Mike, I’m so sorry, but I have to go. Mother and Father are waiting for me.”
He touched her forehead. It was hot, and she looked so pale and thin. She was very ill, but when had this happened? He had not noticed anything out of the ordinary about her before.
“Janny, stop this. You’re frightening me. You aren’t going anywhere. I’m going to send for the doctor.” He stood up.
“No, please don’t leave me. I want to say good-bye before I go.”
Mike ran to the door and called Higgins, who came stumbling into the room in his nightshirt moments later.
“Send for Father John, and the doctor!”
He went back to Janny’s side. “Don’t worry, Janny. I sent Higgins for the doctor, and Father John.
“I won’t need the doctor, but it is good Father John is coming. He’ll help you.”
Mike could think of nothing else to say that would comfort her. He sat down on the bed stroking her hair. Why had he not noticed how ill she was sooner? He sat, reproaching himself, and promising he would do better, until the sound of a horse clattering to a stop before the house alerted him to the arrival of the doctor, nearly half an hour later.
Janny stirred. She looked sadly at her brother. Her voice was small and weak, and she seemed to be delirious.
“Mike, Mother and Father are here.” She pointed to the empty air at the foot of her bed. “I have to go with them now. Give me a hug before I leave.”
“Janny, it is only Father John and the doctor. You aren’t going anywhere, you’ll see.” He leaned into her outstretched arms, and gave her the requested hug. She kissed him on the cheek and squeezed him tightly.
“I’m so sorry that I can’t help you anymore.”
She closed her eyes, and grew limp in his arms. In panic, he shook her, trying to waken her. He called her name, but she would not stir. She could not be dead. He would not allow it. She was only sleeping, and when Father John came, he would make her wake up. Mike held her close, rocking her in his arms.
Father John stepped into the room, and placed a gentle hand on Mike’s shoulder. “Michael how is she?”
“She’s very tired, Father. I think she’s gone to sleep.”
Father John carefully eased Janny out of his arms, and back onto the bed, then touched her forehead. His eyes widened, and he quickly took her wrist, searching for a pulse. Finding none, he placed his ear on her chest, straining to hear even the faintest heartbeat, but there was none.
“Michael, Janny’s not sleeping—she’s dead,” he said quietly, his voice breaking.
Mike’s eyes were wide with hysteria.
“Of course she’s sleeping,” he said calmly. “She’s been very sick and working too hard around here. She really needs to rest. We should leave her alone.”
Father John took Mike gently by the shoulders, and pulled him to his feet.
“Come along, and I’ll have Higgins fix us a brandy. There’s nothing more that can be done for Janny.”
“No, the doctor can make her well. You’ll see.”
“Mike, Janny’s gone. There’s nothing anyone can do.”
Mike jerked away from the gentle grip.
“No! She can’t be dead. I won’t allow her to die, too.”
Father John breathed a prayer. The realization slowly began to grip Mike, and he sank to his knees by the bed, burying his face in the woolen blankets.
“It’s not fair … it’s not fair,” he said softly. “Why should they all be taken from me? Janny shouldn’t be dead. I should have stopped him before this happened.”
In the drawing room, Mike sat in stunned silence, an empty glass in his hand. He stared unblinking into the fire. He was barely aware that Father John sat opposite him, patiently waiting.
During the night, people had come and gone, preparing Janny, but Mike did not stir. He seemed unconscious of anything around him. Father John had quietly slipped in and out of the room all evening, attending details, and at last, he dozed in his chair. The hours passed, and dawn began to lighten the windows of the room around the heavy drapes. The candles had burned down long ago, and the fire was cold.
When Mike stirred in the cold gray of morning, Father John wakened and sat up, waiting for Mike to speak if he would. Seeing the minister, sitting in his drawing room in the half darkness, brought a quizzical look to Mike’s face, before recollection changed it to sorrow. His sister was dead. He was truly alone, now. What was the point of going on? Who was it for? The feeling of futility brought with it resentment, which he directed at the only person in sight.
“Why are you still here?” he snapped.
“I’m here to help, Michael. I’ve taken care of Janny. The funeral will be this afternoon.”
“Is that soon enough? Why not this morning?” Mike accused as he crossed the room, and jerked open the heavy drapes, allowing the first dim rays of the shrouded sun to radiate into the room. The day was going to be as dismal as he felt.
“Michael, I haven’t taken Janny from you,” he said quietly. “There is no need to postpone the burial.” His quiet answer wrenched Mike’s heart with shame.
“I know. I’m sorry. It just seems that everyone I love has been taken from me. There’s no reason to continue. What’s left for Tolabert to take from me now?”
“What do you mean?”
Mike sighed, and decided that, perhaps, it was time he told someone of his suspicions.
“Jacob Tolabert was my Father’s partner.”
“Yes, I know. But, what has he taken from you?”
“He’s been stealing from the company for a long time. I discovered it last spring, and was trying to find enough proof to take to Father. I finally decided just to go to him with what I knew, but that day when I got back to the office, Father and Jacob Tolabert were arguing. After Tolabert left, I tried to talk to Father, but he was so angry. He said he would talk to me tomorrow when he was not so upset. That was the same night he and Mother were killed. I waited up for them, but they never came home.” He raised his hand to his tired eyes and dragged it across them.
“Yesterday, I saw one of the men I know had been working for Tolabert then. I followed him for a while. When he stopped, he took out a watch. It was Father’s watch.”
“But, how could you know that?” Father John asked, pointing out how foolish it was to imagine such a thing at a glance.
“I know because of that silly fob I made for his birthday six or eight years ago. It was still on the watch. I would know it anywhere. There’s no other one like it.”
“Did you go to the authorities?”
“With what? I don’t know his name. Tolabert would deny knowing him. I have no solid proof of any of my suspicions.”
“But, what does all this mean, Michael?”
“I think that Tolabert hired that man and his friend to kill father, because he had discovered what Tolabert was up to. I think that is what they argued about the day he died.”
“Why didn’t you tell someone before now? You may be in great danger by continuing to work at the company.”
“Very likely. But, as long as he thinks I’m ignorant of his doings, he won’t bother me. In the meantime, he has been stealing more and more. The company is on the point of ruin. That’s why there has been so little money to run the house on, and most probably, why Janny became so ill. I was so engrossed in my efforts to find proof, that I just didn’t see what was happening to her.” He threw himself back into the chair and closed his eyes, which were starting to sting.
“You mustn’t blame yourself for Janny’s death.”
“If I hadn’t been so busy with things at the company, I would have seen the changes taking place in her. I hate Tolabert for what he’s done to Father’s company, and to me. And, for what he’s done to my family.”
Father John bit his tongue, instead of rebuking Mike for his feelings of hatred.
“I have to find a way to stop him. And, I will stop him someday, one way or another,” he vowed.
“Be careful, Michael. I care about you, and don’t want to lose you to this man as well.”
With a lump in his throat, Mike allowed Father John to pull him up and embrace him. The good Father’s strength would enable him to make it through the funeral, and continue his mission. Perhaps, he was not as alone as he thought.
Much as Mike wished it would not, life went on. A few weeks after the second tragedy, Jacob Tolabert entered Mike’s dingy, cluttered office without announcement. His usual smirking politeness was gone, replaced by overt contempt as he held his head high, and sneered down his nose at Mike. Obviously, something had changed, and Tolabert no longer felt it necessary to disguise his scorn. Mike was a little surprised by this behavior, and was apprehensive when he drew a chair up to the desk, and sat down pompously. Mike looked up from his work and fixed a cool stare on him.
“You wish to speak to me, Mr. Tolabert?”
“No, but I will. Harrington, I have come to make you an offer. I am here to buy out your share of the company.”
“Buy me out!” Mike said in surprise. It took all his strength to stay calm. “Indeed, why would you want to do that? We can barely make payroll. We’re not going to be able to stay open for business much longer. Surely, a dying business is not worth purchasing.”
“Perhaps. However, the fact is that selling to me is the only thing that will save this business. Your creditors are no longer willing to sell to you without payment first, and some of your customers are even harder to collect from. I know in truth that you cannot produce enough cash to set things right.”
Mike sucked on his lower lip thoughtfully.
“Well, if you are interested in buying, perhaps there are others, also willing. I should probably place it on the open market, and see if there is anyone else who would want it. It might fetch a better price for us both. You are, after all, only a small partner. Surely you don’t have enough capital to buy me out.”
“I am prepared to offer you a thousand pounds for the whole thing … debts and all.”
“One thousand! How generous,” he scoffed with open sarcasm before changing his tone to accuse him. “You know that it’s worth at least ten times that.”
“True enough. But, it would take a long time to find a buyer willing to give that for it in its present condition. And I, being a partner, small though I may be,” he sneered again, “am not about to give my consent to sell to anyone else. So by the time you find someone fool enough to try, the company will be bankrupt.” His eyes were cold and malicious. Any trace of cordiality was gone.
“Take the offer! One thousand is quite a lot of money. You could live comfortably on it for many years if you’re careful.” He leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs as if in challenge.
The man’s brazen proposition astonished Mike. What he said was true, and he knew that Tolabert’s offer, small though it was, might be the only way out. Yet, somehow, it seemed disloyal to his father, and all he had been struggling to accomplish. If he sold out to Tolabert, there would be no way he could prove Tolabert’s connection to the death of Sarah and Gerard Harrington. And, once he had the business in his possession, Mike knew it would make a remarkable recovery. The business community would hail Tolabert a genius, instead of thief and murderer.
“Come, come, Harrington. My generosity may disappear at any moment, and I could leave you to sink with your business.” He shoved the already prepared documents across the desk at Mike.
“You—you’re—” Mike lost all his composure and restraint. “You’ve been planning this for months, haven’t you? This is what you and Father argued about.”
He shrugged. “Gerard was a fool. He honestly believed he would be able to save this crumbling company, alone. He wouldn’t hear of selling out to me, or anyone.”
“So, you took more drastic measures to get it.”
Tolabert expression sobered, and his eyes narrowed.
“It was rather convenient for you, that Father was killed when he was.”
“I can’t help that. And, at this moment, it doesn’t matter. If you don’t sign this paper, my offer shall shrink considerably on a daily basis.”
Mike smoldered. He knew he had no choice. Tolabert had outsmarted him for the moment. Perhaps with some luck, he could find a way to retaliate, later. With a scathing look, he snatched up the quill and dipped it into the inkpot.
“Do you have the money with you?”
“Of course.” He removed a pouch from his pocket and tossed it across the desk in front of Mike where it landed with a metallic clunk.
Mike quickly signed the paper, and thrust it back at Tolabert, snatching the pouch of coins at the same time. Tolabert rose and folded the paper gently. He opened the door of the office and turned, any semblance of friendliness gone.
“Now, get out of my office, and never let me see you here again,” he snarled.
Mike ground his teeth, and squared his shoulders. All hope dashed, he would have to bide his time for revenge. After taking his hat and coat from the hook on the wall, he stopped in the doorway, and turned to Tolabert.
“One day you will pay for this, and all you have done to my family. I promise you that.” Tolabert slammed the door after him.
The afternoon was passing as Mike made his way toward home. In his humiliation and anger, he failed to notice the figure following him in the shadows. He passed from the bustling, grimy business district of the city into the quieter residential area, not so far removed from the area of the colleges. The farther he walked, the fewer people there were moving about on the streets.
The figure drew closer behind him. In the deepening afternoon shadows of the trees and shrubs in the park near his house, the man seized Mike’s arm, and spun him around. Mike saw nothing of the man’s disheveled appearance, his scruffy two day growth of beard or his grimy old coat and breeches. All he saw was the open barrel of the pistol, which seemed to be pointing right between his eyes.
“Wh—what do you want?” came Mike’s startled response. He could feel the fear rising from the pit of his stomach in a sickening wave.
“What do you think? I want your money. All of it.”
He could not allow this man to take all he had left. Mike tried to pull his arm free, which brought a sharp blow to his jaw from the butt of the pistol. The crack on his jaw resounded like thunder inside his head, and little lights appeared to swim before his eyes. The pain was bad enough to convince him his jaw, surely, must be broken. His knees buckled, and he was on the ground. Mike rolled over drawing his knees up and covering his head with his arms, trying to protect himself from further abuse. A sharp kick in the ribs was his reward.
“Hand it over!” barked the burly attacker.
Mike weakly protested, “I have nothing to give you.”
But, the man bent and jerked him over onto his back. He yanked open Mike’s coat, reached inside and took the pouch of coins Tolabert had just given him. One more kick for good measure, and the ruffian fled quickly from sight, leaving his victim in a crumpled heap.
Mike lay there in pain for several minutes, clutching his injured ribs. As the pain began to lessen, thoughts of Jacob Tolabert formed in his mind. It was obvious he was going to ruin Mike. Why had the man not just killed him, and been done with it? With a groan, Mike managed to stand. He could not straighten up, but he must get home. He summoned all his strength, and stumbled the last few blocks to the house.
Safely inside, Mike leaned his back against the locked door. His ribs throbbed, and he could feel his jaw beginning to swell. He regretted that he had dismissed Higgins. Help would be useful just now. There was still a little of Gerard’s brandy left. Nearly fainting from the pain, Mike managed to reach the table where the decanter stood. He poured, and downed a large glassful, then dropped onto the divan. Slowly, the alcohol eased the aching of his body, but he refused to allow it to numb his thoughts.
Without the money, he could not stay in the house. He had very little money left, and now he had no way to make more. Tolabert would see to that. With a groan of pain, he lay back on the divan. The only way he could survive, would be to leave and go to another city. Perhaps, he could get an apprenticeship or something. With a trade or skill, he could work and save up some money. In several years, possibly, he could come back and set things right.
When he was able to move more easily, Mike got up and wrote a letter to Father John explaining what he could, and asking a favor.
“… Please take charge of the house and all the furnishings. Sell them for as good a price as you can. I will write, as soon as I can and tell you when I am settled, and have a place for you to forward the money.”
The letter written, Mike packed some personal belongings, and Gerard’s prize pistol, and the few coins left in of the household money into saddlebags. Then he mounted the only horse left in the carriage house. Astride the horse in the drive, he took one last, long look at his home. The sadness deep inside him was almost as painful as his injuries. With a sigh, he turned the horse and cantered toward the westering sun.
Mike rode for a long time, fearing neither the approaching darkness, nor the dangers it presented a lone traveler. It was long after sunset, when he knew he could go no further without rest. The nearest inn was probably many more miles away, and the ride was causing him as much pain and the beating had done. He had not seen any houses for some time, and as he began to look along the sides of the road into the dim, moonlit countryside he saw a structure. Set far back off the road was a lone, ramshackle barn. If it was deserted, it might be a good place to pass the night. No lights burned within, and no sound but the night creatures reached his ears. He approached the structure cautiously.
The door stood open, and Mike looked in, calling out, “Anyone there?” No answer came. He relaxed and pulled a candle stub from his pocket, lit it, and glanced around quickly. He led his horse into a stall in the rear, where he found some old hay for its dinner. An old bucket of rainwater set outside the door, and he carried it into the stall for the horse. He then took several handfuls of straw from the floor, and brushed the sweat from the animal while it ate the meager fare.
At last, finished tending the horse, Mike realized that he had brought nothing to eat. The pain in his ribs and jaw, coupled with exhaustion, was more overpowering than any pangs of hunger he felt. So, he eased himself onto the musty old straw of the next stall, pulled the saddle blanket over himself, and fell asleep.
Mike wakened with a start to the sound of voices. Opening his eyes, he raised his head and peeked through the slats of the stall. Light from a lantern cast large shadows as the owners of the voices moved about. Fearing that Tolabert had sent men after him, he lay very still, listening, and praying they would not notice his horse or him behind the wall of the stalls.
“You be sure to rub down that horse good before you get comfortable there,” came a raspy reply.
“I will, I will,” was the impatient reply of a much younger voice.
“Look what I got from the cook tonight,” came a different voice, a man of perhaps medium age.
“And, what treasure have you charmed out of that silly woman now, Henry?” asked Raspy Voice.
“A real treat tonight. Cold fowl and some fresh bread. I even managed to obtain a bottle of wine for a mere kiss. However, it is only a part of a bottle, probably left from his lordship’s supper table.”
“Sure, there ain’t nothin’ mere about it to her!” teased the young voice.
“Aye, true enough,” said Raspy. “She fancies you’re in love with her, you know. She’ll be right miffed when we finally leave.”
“Well, I don’t see that happening for a while yet. ’Til then, it can’t hurt to have a friend with a generous heart, when it comes to food and drink.” There was the sound of a cork squealing from a bottle, and congenial bottle passing.
“We should be able to go to an inn to sleep and eat soon. We been working for his lordship a few weeks now, and we’re due some good money,” said Henry.
“True. This’s the best job we’ve had in a long time. I hope it lasts for a while,” was the youthful reply.
The aroma of meat and the sounds of their partaking caused Mike’s stomach to betray him, and it growled noisily. Instantly, the voices ceased. Mike immediately began fumbling in his bag for his pistol, but before he could withdraw it, the light from the lantern suddenly flooded the stall where he lay. The three voices became substance and stood above him, holding pistols of their own.
The apparent leader was handsome in a rugged way. He was tall with thick black hair and ragged stubble on his face. An older man stood behind him, his hair a dirty gray and he had a grizzled face. Behind him stood a gapping boy, filthy and a few years younger than Mike. Their savage faces showed no sign of the good humor they had just been sharing.
“Well, well. What have we here?” asked the dark man. “What are you doing in there?”
Mike trembled from head to foot, sure he was about to be killed. The best he could hope for was postponement.
“Nothing! Just sleeping.”
“And, why you sleeping here, Mate? You wouldn’t be spying on us would you?” His voice was gruff and menacing.
“No! No! I don’t even know who you are. Why would I spy on you? I just needed a place to spend the night, and this was deserted—I didn’t know anyone used it.” His words rattled out quickly and urgently.
“A fellow, dressed like you, ought to be sleeping in a nice bed. Why’re you sleeping in this old barn?” he stepped closer. “Who you hiding from?” he demanded.
“No one. I’m not hiding from anyone.” In spite of the coolness of the night, Mike felt a trickle of sweat slide down his back. His ribs throbbed painfully, and he wished if they were going to kill him, they would get it over with, and relieve his pain.
The man handed the lantern to the old man, and grabbed Mike by the arm to pull him to his feet. A yelp of pain answered the grip, and Mike flung his free arm across his ribs.
“Hush, you. I ain’t got hold a you that hard,” he said and jerked him up, causing an even louder cry. Mike squeezed his arm about his ribs harder. His eyes closed in misery. He did not see his captor’s expression change from menace to concern.
The man motioned for the other man to bring the lantern closer. The light revealed the very large, swollen, purpling bruise on Mike’s left jaw. Mike heard a low whistle, and the man released his grip.
“I hope you got in some good licks for that one,” he said, as he gently touched a finger to Mike’s face.
Mike whimpered, and pulled away.
“Afraid not,” he said in a shaky voice. “He had the advantage—as now.”
“Ah, you don’t need to fear no hurt from us. Not like that anyway. That why you’re hiding here?” He asked in a kinder tone.
“Partly,” was Mike’s curt answer.
“Well, anyone on the receiving end of that, and can still get out here, must be a kin to us. You’re welcome to stay here long as you like.” Mike hesitantly took the hand extended to him.
“Ain’t much can be done about that jaw, but you best let Jericho, here take a look at them ribs.” He pulled an old keg out of a stall, and set it down for Mike to sit on.
With surprisingly gentle hands, the older man helped remove Mike’s coat, waistcoat, and shirt. Jericho touched and pressed all around the two enormous bruises on either side of Mike’s ribcage. With a grunt and a snort, the old man found an old blanket and tore it into strips, which he then used to wrap his patient’s ribs. The stench of the rags was sickening, but after he was done, it was less painful than his unwrapped ribs had been.
“Thank you,” Mike said as he put his clothes back on.
“No need of thanks. Glad to help. It don’t appear them ribs is broke, but it’ll be a day or two ’fore you can move normal.”
Mike noticed the boy had been watching silently, with a scowl on his face, while the old man worked.
“Tom!” The dark man swatted the boy from his lethargy. “Get our guest some food.”
“He ain’t nothin’ special!” the boy snarled and went back to grooming his horse.
The tall dark man turned away with a huff at the boy, and came back with a chunk of bread and a piece of meat. He watched as Mike gobbled them down hungrily.
“You ain’t ate in a while?” He sat down on the ground beside Mike.
“Not regularly,” said Mike as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Well, we can remedy that soon enough. What’s your name?”
“Mike,” he nodded. “I’m Henry. That’s Jericho, what helped you, and there’s Tom, sittin’ over there, watching you like you just dethroned him.” Tom scowled, and went back to his horse. “What is it you’re running from Mike? Is the law after you?”
After a moment’s consideration of his present situation, and new acquaintances, Mike decided it would not hurt to confide in him.
“No. The law isn’t after me. But, you are right. I am running, I guess. I believe someone is trying to kill me.”
“That right? Looks like they had a good go at it already. What for?”
“It’s a long story,” Mike said as he moved, trying to ease his discomfort.
Henry shrugged, took a sip of wine, and offered the bottle to Mike. “I got no place to go ’til morning.”
Mike sighed and began his tale. “Last year I discovered my father’s business partner was a thief, and had been stealing from the company for years. Before I could tell my father what I knew, he and Mother were killed in a robbery. They said that the robbers probably shot them because they resisted. I don’t believe it. I believe Jacob Tolabert had them killed, because Father discovered his illegal dealings.”
“Jacob Tolabert! Is he the one who’s after you?” Jericho looked up from tending his small fire when Henry spoke.
“I’m sure of it. He forced me to sell my share of the company to him today. Before I could get home with the money, I was attacked and robbed. That’s how I got these injuries.”
“I hope you put up a good fight!”
“Afraid not. I hardly got a chance to speak. He just knocked me down and took the money. Then, he kicked me a few times for good measure. I figure it was one of Tolabert’s men. I was afraid if I stayed, he would find a way to get the house and everything else I had left. He would, no doubt, have me killed the way he did my family.”
Henry seemed agitated. “Why didn’t you go to the law?”
“With what? I can’t prove any of it. He covered his tracks very well. I spent all last summer trying to find something to show Father. After his death, I tried even harder. But, there was nothing. Just my suspicions.”
“Sounds like the blackguard!” spat Henry.
“Do you know him?” Mike’s eyes widened.
“Aye. I knew him once, long time ago. He took something from me, too.” Henry grew thoughtful and quiet. As if commanded to action, Jericho suddenly was helping Mike to his feet and urging him to bed down near the fire. Henry drained the last of the wine from the bottle, and threw it against the wall. The loud thud made all of them jump, and brought snorts of protest from the horses.
Mike turned to Jericho, and spoke in a hushed voice. “Did I say something wrong?”
“No, lad. Your story just reminded him of some painful memories, that’s all. When he gets like this, it’s best to let him alone for a while. He’s a good man with a heart of gold, but he don’t forget his old hurts easily. It usually takes a lot of drink to help him.”
“I’m sorry. But, he asked me to tell him—”
“He’ll be fine tomorrow. No need to worry. Just stay clear of him tonight. You need sleep anyhow. In a few days, when you’re able, you can go on to where you were headed. Where are you going?”
“I don’t know. I thought I might go on to some large city and try to find an apprenticeship or something. I need to find a way to earn some money.”
Jericho rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I suppose you could come with us and work if you like.”
“For the Squire. He just bought some new horses, and he hired us to work with them, and in his stables. Once he pays us, we can move up to the inn in the village, but ‘til then, since he didn’t offer us lodgin’, we have to sleep where we can afford.” He gave a sweeping gesture with his arm indicating the interior of the barn.
“Would he be willing to hire another man?”
“He won’t care. He just wants the work done. He can afford to hire as many men as he likes.”
Mike thanked him and agreed to join them when he was able. “I need a job, and that is as good as any, I suppose, until I can get to a large city, and find a good occupation.” He lay back in the straw, and drew the blanket around him. It would be nice to have some friends for a change. Sleep was a welcome anesthesia, and it came quickly.
“Mucking out stables,” groaned Mike as he wrinkled his nose in disgust and held the pitchfork at arm’s length by two fingers. Though grateful for the job, this was not what he had imagined doing for a living.
“What’d you think you’d be doin’ in a stable?” sneered Tom.
“I don’t know. I guess I didn’t think about it much.”
Mike took off his coat and waistcoat, and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt thinking he did not have appropriate clothing for this type of work. He stepped carefully, trying to avoid getting dung on his shoes and stockings. Gingerly he poked at some soiled fodder, lifted it from the floor with the fork, and gave it a halfhearted toss toward the pile outside the stall. It did not take long before there was grime all over him. Mike frantically brushed at it, trying to get it off his clothes. Tom found his behavior amusing, which frustrated him even more.
“That’s the price you pay when you join the working class,” taunted Tom.
Jericho cuffed Tom and sent him off to do another task elsewhere, even as he stifled his own chuckle. However, he was a little more sympathetic than Tom and Henry, and took Mike in hand.
“It’ll wash off,” he said, as he stood, hands on hips, watching Mike brushing at his pants. “Come along, and I will show you how to do that right.”
He patiently taught Mike the best way to do each of his duties. And, in spite of his initial distaste, Mike quickly learned all aspects of their job. After a few days, his ribs no longer hurt, his muscles adjusted to the new demands, and he was no longer exhausted at the end of each day. He also discovered he had a natural ability with, and understanding of the general workings of the Squire’s stables. After a short time, he knew there were several ways to improve the way they handled things that would save the Squire some money, if he ever had the chance to tell anyone.
As the days passed, Tom began to accept Mike, and stopped ignoring his attempts at friendliness. Mike found Tom was a rich source of information about his new associates, and at night around their campfire, Mike found him eager to talk, and tell all he knew.
“I think I’m about twelve or thirteen years old. I’ve been an orphan since before I can remember, but I managed to survive,” he said raising his chin defiantly as he tossed a few faggots onto the fire. “It was pretty hard, but I got what I needed, where I could.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sometimes you have to help yourself, when no one offers, you know?”
“You mean steal?” Mike asked in hushed surprise. “They hang thieves!”
“Yeah. So, I was clever, and outsmarted ’em. Being so young, I could play on the sympathy of some of the ladies. Just looked pitiful, and told ‘em how I thought they was beautiful, and how they reminded me of me dear ol’ mum. They’d go all slobbery and give me near anything.”
“But, that is still dishonest.” Mike considered him with a bit of awe. “And, it always worked?”
“Well, not on everyone. In fact, I thought I was done for one night about six years ago. I tried to take some food from an old man I thought was asleep. I never seen an old man move so quick. He was like a cat. Grabbed me and held on with a grip of iron. I tried to get away until I was spent. Thought I was done for.”
“What happened? Did you finally get away?”
“Not exactly,” he said with a little smirk, and a sidelong glance toward Jericho, who had been quietly sitting on the other side of the fire listening to their conversation.
“That’s right. He didn’t get away,” interjected Jericho. “I sat him down and fed him. I thought he’d pop from all he ate,” he said with a sniff and a shake of his head.
“You? He tried to steal from you?” Mike chuckled.
“Yeah. When I knew I was caught, I thought it wasn’t the smartest thing I ever done. But, I was glad of the food. Even after he fed me, he still wouldn’t let me go.”
“He needed looking after, whether he thought so or not,” said Jericho, as he stretched out on his blanket. “I tried to break him of stealing, and teach him better ways to earn a living.”
“Yeah, yeah. I learned some things,” Tom said obstinately. “But, it ain’t easy to forget what you been born to. And, it ain’t easy to trust folks the way Jericho and Henry do. I’d been done wrong by too many people.”
“But, I’m as stubborn as you, and I’ll teach you yet,” laughed Jericho.
Tom grinned. “Go on! You ain’t me ol’ dad, are you?”
“Nearest you got.” Jericho tossed a pebble at him, and they laughed.
“Was Henry with you then?”
“We was together then,” Jericho said pensively.
“Henry was another of Jericho’s foundlings.” Tom shook his head.
Mike gave Jericho a quizzical look that said he wanted to hear all about it.
“Well, to tell that story I have to tell another first,” said Jericho, sitting up and crossing his legs in front of him.
“We’ve got nothing but time. Go on then,” Mike prodded.
“Back in ’62 I was a miner. There was a bad cave-in that year. Not many of us survived, and those of us who did, had some bad injuries. My arm was broke, and my leg was twisted pretty bad. The ganger was not a sympathetic man. He couldn’t use me down in the mines no more, and he refused to let me do anything else topside. In my condition, I wasn’t able to get work anywhere for several weeks.
“Money was scarce, and creditors cruel. My wife stood about all she could, then found herself a man who could take care of her. Seemed like my whole world came crashing down the day that mine caved in. Some of my mates started calling me ‘Jericho’ because they said all my walls came tumbling down around me. It kind of stuck.” He became pensive again.
“I wondered how you came by such an unusual name,” Mike said.
“Well, it wasn’t meant as all that kind, but it was true. I didn’t care what people called me. I guess I just let it be ’cause I didn’t care no more. Anyway, everything I cared about was gone.
“For a while, I drifted around looking for work, and begging when I couldn’t find an odd job.” He rubbed his stubbly chin thoughtfully before he continued. “It was during one of the times when I had managed to get enough work to afford a room that I stumbled on Henry.
“He was dead drunk, passed out in the street, and nearly froze from the cold. I got him up, and took him back to my room. After some strong coffee, in front of a roaring fire, he began to resemble a man again. Once he sobered up, he managed to find us both a better job, and we was able to get a better place to live for a while.” They were quiet for a moment before he continued. Henry’s a natural leader. When he stays away from the drink, he can figure his way through ’most anything. I trust him to keep us working.”
Mike found that when he chose to be, Henry was a jolly enough person. But, at other times, he retreated into a hidden world of his own, where he nursed his brooding memories with a bottle. It was during one of Henry’s retreats that Mike quizzed Tom further about him.
“What makes him get like that?” Mike asked quietly, as he and Tom sat well removed from Henry’s reach and earshot.
“I overheard Jericho and him talking about a woman once,” Tom confided.
“Jericho told me later it was Henry’s wife. She died of consumption nearly a year before Jericho found him. When she died, Henry got drunk, and stayed that way until the day Jericho found him. He don’t talk about her much. I guess he still misses her a lot. Probably why he does that,” he said thrusting his chin towards where Henry lay, already dozing in his stupor.
The day arrived when the Squire was to give them their wages. They packed up their belongings before they left for work, anticipating that they would not have to return to the barn that evening.
“Tonight, we sleep at the inn, in beds. And, we’ll have a hot meal, and good ale to wash it down!” laughed Henry. They were all in high spirits as they rode to the estate in the early morning mists, and growing sunrise.
However, their excitement faded quickly, when the Squire met them at the front gate with two other men bearing muskets.
“That’s far enough,” called the Squire when they were a few yards off.
Henry was calm, as they pulled up their horses. “Morning Squire. What’s the trouble?”
“One of my new mares is missing.” The Squire sat casually astride his horse, staring at the four men before him with lazy half interest.
“Missing? Did she bolt? We’ll be off to look for her. Which way?” he said, sitting up in his saddle, and preparing to turn his horse for pursuit of the fleeing beast.
“She won’t be found, now. I think she was stolen.” His drawling tone was matter of fact, as though this was of little importance.
“Stolen? How could that happen? Ain’t you got boys what sleep in the stable?”
“I think you, and your thieving friends took her.”
Mike’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. How could the Squire accuse them of such a thing? The horses had all been in the stable when they left last night. But, they sat on their horses quietly, while Henry shifted very slightly in his saddle.
“Why would we do that? It’d be foolish of us to come back here if we’d stole her. We wouldn’t need your wages then. Ain’t we done good work for you? Why would we steal a horse? ‘Specially when you’re fixin’ to pay us our wages today.”
“I don’t pretend to understand the minds of criminals. Perhaps, the food my cook has been slipping to you wasn’t enough. Perhaps, my fine wines she so generously handed over wasn’t enough. Perhaps, you thought I wouldn’t notice a horse missing, any more than I noticed those things.”
“Well, we didn’t take her, and there ain’t no way you can prove otherwise. Now, if you’d be so kind as to pay us what you owe us, we’ll be on our way. We don’t want to work for you no more.” He made a move to advance with his hand out, but the other two men raised their weapons, and leveled them at him.
“You may be right about not proving it was you who took the horse, but I can see to it you don’t work in these parts again. The value of that horse should more than pay for your work. I owe you nothing else. Now, get out of here.” He sat between his armed escorts with a self-satisfied smirk on his face.
Henry’s jaw clamped tightly as his face reddened. Mike thought surely, he would do or say something that would change the Squire’s mind. Instead, he gave the Squire a scathing look, turned his horse, and spurred it into a gallop. Frustration and disappointment churned Mike’s stomach as he turned and followed the others in Henry’s wake.
Miles down the road, well out of sight of the Squire’s estate Henry reined his horse to a stop. When the trio reached him, they dismounted, and walked their animals into the shelter of a budding oak tree. Henry leaned on his hand against the tree, and stood silently poking a clod of dirt with his foot. The others stood waiting, but waiting for what? It was strange the way no one spoke about what had just happened. Mike wisely did not ask why.
Without warning, Henry shouted a curse, and slammed the heel of his fist into the trunk of the tree with a force that Mike thought should have broken his hand.
Mike’s heart jumped to his throat, as Henry struck the tree again, but with much less ferocity, then turning, he slumped to the ground, his back against the tree.
“I can’t believe I let it happen again! You’d think I’d a learned better by now,” he said to the new leaves of the tree.
Mike sat down on the ground where Tom had stretched out.
“Why would he accuse us of stealing that horse?” Mike asked quietly. “There were no horses missing when we left last night. How could we have taken it without someone seeing us?”
“They ain’t no horse missing,” Tom said flatly to the clouds floating overhead.
“I don’t understand.”
Jericho gave Mike a pat on the shoulder, and sat down on the grass.
“The Squire just said that so he wouldn’t have to pay us. His kind hire on men to work, promising to pay at the end of the month. Then, when it’s payday, he accuses ’em of stealing from him. That way he sends ’em on their way without a farthing, and his work is done for free. It’s usually pretty sure the workers won’t go to the law, because most men hired for this kind of work are criminals in some way or other. It’s their word against his, and he carries more weight with the law than they do. All he’s out is some scraps of food that would have gone to his dogs anyway.”
“But it’s not fair. We ought to do something about it.”
Jericho cackled quietly. “Life ain’t fair for the likes of us. He ain’t the only one who’s done it to us. That’s why Henry’s in such a state.” He leaned back on an elbow, and wiped his face with a dingy handkerchief. “We had it done to us before, and like as not it’ll be done to us again. Henry thinks he ought to be able to tell when a man’s as good as his word. But, there ain’t nothin’ we can do about it. Not that’s right, anyway.”
Henry’s face lost its flush, and his voice lost it edge. He was all business again.
“I guess we better get us some wages, and leave these parts for a while.”
Jericho and Tom nodded. Tom took the saddlebags from each of their horses, and distributed them around. As Mike watched, they each withdrew a bundle from their bag, and carefully unrolled it on the ground. From the oily cloths, shiny pistols emerged. The men examined their weapons, and loaded them carefully.
“We’ll head back toward Cambridge, where travelers are more generous.”
Without discussion, they mounted their horses and rode back toward the city Mike had so recently fled. He was not certain what these men intended to do, but he knew he could not go back to Cambridge. He was sure Tolabert would be upon him within an hour of his arrival. The risk was greater than he wanted to take. If they intended to go into the city, he would have to part their company, and go his own way as he had originally planned.
A few miles outside of town, where houses and buildings were scarce, they reigned in their horses in the thick foliage of a wooded area near the road. No one spoke, but Mike understood he should stay quiet. He watched as they drew their pistols from their belts, and sat motionless, waiting.
Not long after, the sound of hooves on the afternoon road roused the three. Pulling scarves over their lower faces, they spurred their horses onto the road, just as the lone rider drew abreast of their position. Mike sat in the foliage astride his horse, watching as if in a dream, powerless to move, or change the scene before him. What he witnessed horrified him. Questions and fears whirled through his mind, and he was sure the law would pounce on them at any second from among the thick foliage.
Henry relieved the rider of his purse, and sent him galloping off in a terrified frenzy. When they returned to the woods, Mike found his voice.
“What have you done?”
“We just got us a payday,” laughed Tom.
“But it’s robbery. We’ll be arrested! And hanged!” He could feel his hands trembling as he gripped the reins, and his heart pounded as if he had just run all the way from Cambridge on foot.
“We’ll be long gone before any law comes looking for us,” Tom drew himself up, squaring his shoulders importantly.
Henry counted the money in the purse. “Don’t worry, Mike. We only take what we need to live on until we can find another job. You’ll get used to it.”
“You’re wrong! I can’t do this sort of thing.” He was still in shock and was ready to turn his horse and flee.
“They’d hang you same as us, if they catch us now. You’re part of the gang. That makes you guilty.” Henry’s face was solemn. “Sorry.”
“Sorry! I just left Cambridge to keep from being killed. Now, I find out I’ve joined a gang of highwaymen. If I had wanted to die, I would have stayed at home!”
Henry gave him a cold stare. “You joined with us of your own free will.”
That was true. He had even welcomed their company. Somewhere in the depths of his heart, he must have known they would not be living in an abandoned barn if they were law-abiding men.
“I—I was just unprepared for what just happened,” he said in a quieter tone, dropping his eyes.
Henry extended a hand for Mike to shake. “Apology accepted. Now you know. So get ready. You help this time.”
“This time? I thought—I thought you said you only take enough to get by on, and leave.”
“Three shillings won’t last the four of us long. We need a bit more.”
The next victim yielded a more lucrative purse, and Henry decided they had enough for their current purposes. Mike followed behind as the little troop turned, and cantered their horses down the shade-speckled road. Mike could not help wondering what Father John would think if he could see him now. Father and Mother would be mortified. But, it was too late to worry about that. He hoped the uncomfortable feeling in his gut would go away with time. He would just have to make the best of the situation until the opportunity for something better came along.
By nightfall, they were miles away from Cambridge, and the threat of discovery. A busy little inn was a welcome sight, as they watched the last rays of the setting sun disappear behind the horizon.
“What say you, men? Shall we treat ourselves to an evening of comfort?” said Henry as they walked their horses towards it.
“Aye, that sounds good to me,” said Jericho.
“I could use a piece of beef and a pint,” said Tom.
Mike was sore and aching from the hard ride. As he dismounted, he watched Jericho stretch and twist, working the kinks out of his bones, and did the same. Tom gathered up their belongings from the horses, and they turned over the reins of their weary horses to the livery boy. Henry strode directly into the inn without further comment.
The inn was old, and not well cared for, but it was a palace by comparison to the tumbledown barn in which they had been sleeping. There were dozens of patrons seated around the fire and in the rest of the room. Most of them were in conversation, but a few were singing a drinking song while they stood with an arm around a friend’s shoulders, adding to the noise of the room.
Henry had already seated himself at a table and called to the landlord to bring him ale. Within a few minutes, they were all eating platefuls of roasted beef and potatoes, and washing it down with strong, dark ale. There was activity going on all around them as they ate and relaxed, and the young girls who kept bringing more ale to fill their cups were of particular interest to Mike.
He found everything around him fascinating. He had never been in a place like this before, and he wanted to know what everything was, and what all the activity meant. It seemed a miracle that Jericho had time to eat his own meal while answering all his questions.
Later in the evening, when Henry was well into his cups, he began to look around, and then strode across the room to a comely young woman. He bent and spoke into her ear and the girl giggled and turned to look him up and down with a sly look on her face. Henry sat down and pulled her onto his lap, pushing his face into her neck. She giggled again and turned to place her arms around his neck.
Mike had never seen so much familiarity between men and women before. The ladies and gentlemen he had known, never touched in public, unless they had been properly introduced, and certainly never like that. Here, people touched each other in ways that sent Mike’s blood rushing, and caused sensations he was not sure he should like. He watched as the girls squealed and giggled when the men pawed them, as if delighted by their actions. He was marveling over this, when suddenly in the corner, the sound of a smack brought a yelp from a drunk, who had offended the wench filling his cup. Several of the patrons around him guffawed and made crude remarks while he rubbed his cheek and grinned stupidly at her.
Mike gulped down the last of his own ale to hide his astonishment. He did not especially like the taste of it, and he wrinkled his nose as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He set down his tankard and turned back to watch Henry. After a certain amount of snuggling and whispering, Henry and the girl stood and left the room. Mike was surprised to find that Jericho and Tom took no particular notice.
“Where’s Henry going?” Mike asked Jericho as he watched them stroll from the room, arms around each other.
Tom howled with laughter, pounding his palm on the table as he bent over in his merriment. Jericho suppressed his own inclination to chuckle, and patted Mike’s arm. “We’ll see him in the morning, lad.”
“Don’t you know nothin’?” panted Tom between giggles. “Don’t you know what they do up there all night?” He jabbed his thumb over his shoulder toward the stairs at the far side of the room.
Mike blushed deeply as it finally dawned on him what Henry and his new friend were about to do. How could he be so stupid? He hated that he had again allowed Tom to see how ignorant he was about such things.
“Of course, I know what they do. I—I just didn’t think …” he stammered and looked into his empty mug and set it down again.
Jericho shook his head at the two of them, and then went in search of the innkeeper to get them rooms for the night. Tom was still giggling over Mike’s embarrassment, when a young woman plopped down on the bench beside Mike. She placed her hand on his knee and then began to slide it up his leg. Mike gasped, and grabbed her hand, pushing it off him. She leaned close, and whispered in his ear. The scarlet shade of Mike’s face, and his startled look told Tom what she had said.
When Tom regained his composure after nearly falling off his seat in laughter, he said, “You’ll have to lead the way, Dearie. Our friend here ain’t learned yet.” He gave her a wink and slid a coin across the table to her. “He needs some learnin’.”
She gave him a nod and a wink, and gently took Mike by the hand, pulling him to his feet. Wide eyed, Mike looked from her to Tom and back to her. Her sly smile turned his resistance to curiosity.
Tom gave him a shove. “Go on! She won’t bite. You might even like it.”
All sorts of confusing questions tumbled around in Mike’s mind as he followed the girl from the room.
Mike woke with a start. The little room was bright with morning sun, and the bed was empty beside him. He rolled over at the recurrence of the sound that had wakened him. Tom stood at the other side of the bed, with a less amused expression than the one he had worn last night. Mike rubbed his eyes, and sat up slowly. He wanted to stay in this warm bed, and remember last night in drowsy privacy. Not with Tom watching him.
“Jericho said I was to tell you I’m sorry for what I done to you last night.” He pushed at the corner of the tattered rug with his toe. “He cuffed me good when he come back, and found out.”
Mike stretched lazily. “I’m not angry. It was no worse than anything else I did yesterday.” He gave Tom a crooked grin. “No harm done, I guess.”
As they went downstairs, Mike found courage to bring up what had been bothering him for a while.
“Tom, why can’t you and I be friends? It looks like we’re going to be spending a lot of time together. I’d rather you were my friend and not my enemy.”
“You ain’t my enemy … I guess.” He thought for a moment. “It’s just that since you come along, Jericho and Henry don’t treat me the same, is all.”
“What do you mean? They treat you pretty well from what I see.”
“It’s—well, they just spend more time with you—teaching you stuff. I reckon that’s why I done what I done last night. They never said nothin’ about how you acted so shocked at what we done. So, last night, I figured I’d give you a real shock. Then maybe …” He shrugged.
“They still care about you, the same as before. And, I like you. I don’t want to take your place. I just want to be your friend, same as them.”
Tom smiled. “I’d be honored to have you for a friend.” Mike clapped him on the shoulder. Tom then managed to quiz him thoroughly about his encounter of the last night before they reached the table, where Henry and Jericho were eating sausages and fresh bread.
The innkeeper was grumpy as he dropped plates of food before Mike and Tom. “What kind of place do they think I run here? Why would the King’s men think I know anything about highwaymen? This is a decent inn!” he huffed and grumbled as he stomped away.
The four exchanged silent knowing glances, and quickly finished their meal. Discretely they took their leave, and were on their way within the hour.
The end of the day found the hard riding travelers far from the little inn, exhausted from their ride, quiet and absorbed in thought. That night they made camp deep in a forest, as far off the road as they dared. It was best if passing travelers did not see their campfire, and the fewer questions asked about their presence, the better. After quietly sharing the bread and cheese they had purchased from the innkeeper, they washed in the nearby stream and made ready to get some sleep.
Although it was spring, the nights were still cold. The added warmth of a friend was necessary and welcome, especially when sleeping in the open as they would be tonight. Mike spread his blanket near the fire, Tom placed his at Mike’s back, and within minutes, they were asleep.
The long ride had given Mike too much time to think, and though bone weary, memories crowded into his restless thoughts as he tried to sleep. The memories and hurt he had pushed aside with all the hard labor, and experiences his new life produced refused to stay silent.
When he finally fell asleep, grim specters filled his dreams, accusing him of all the guilt he felt. His parents came, huddled before him, their eyes sad, seeming to ask, Why didn’t you do something? Then a sneering Jacob Tolabert replaced them, and stood with arms crossed over his chest in triumph.
He faded into darkness and Janny’s thin pale face appeared, accusing him without words. He reached out, grasping at her, wanting to keep her with him, but her limp body slipped from his grip, falling into a chasm of darkness and swirling mists. He reached for her, clutching, straining to stop her decent—
The gray light of the dawn was creeping through the new leaves overhead, when an oath, and a hard smack across his face, brought Mike back to the world of the waking. His eyes focused on Tom, who was squirming frantically beneath him, trying to free himself from Mike’s iron grip on his coat.
“What’s the matter with you? Are you mad?” hissed Tom as he swatted at him again.
Mike suddenly released him, pulling his hands back to his own shoulders. He rolled off Tom, and sat up beside him. It had been a nightmare. His brow glistened, his clothes felt damp and clammy, but his breathing began to slow. Tom’s gyrations and protests had stilled the early morning creatures, but had not yet wakened the others sleeping on the opposite side of the fire.
“I’m sorry. I guess I was dreaming. I didn’t know it was you.”
Tom sat, and straightened his clothes. “Well, it was. What’s the matter with you anyhow? I said I was sorry for puttin’ that girl on you last night!” said Tom indignantly.
“I was dreaming about my sister.” Mike pulled his hands down his face and sat hunchbacked with his legs crossed.
“Sister? You never said you have a sister.”
“She died ... It was my fault, what happened to her.” He lay back onto the blanket, and took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “We were very close. I miss her.”
“How was it your fault? Did you do something to her?”
“No, just the opposite. I didn’t know she was sick. I was trying to do something about Jacob Tolabert, and I just didn’t see how she was changing. If I had looked closer, I would have seen that she needed a doctor. If I had just called him sooner, she wouldn’t have died.”
Tom poked at the embers of the fire, nursing them back into flame. He placed a few twigs then sticks on the tiny flames. “You can’t stop folks from getting sick, and you can’t stop what happens to ’em when they get sick.”
Perhaps he blamed himself for not dying, too—he should have died instead of them—he should have had the power to prevent everything. Mike weighed the wisdom of Tom’s statement. He knew he really was not to blame for Janny, or his parents dying.
“How did you get so smart?” Mike said with his eyes closed against the growing light.
“I seen my share of death.” Tom shrugged. “And, I seen what it done to Henry and Jericho. Why should you be different? It hurts, but you live. You can’t blame yourself, ’cause if you do it eats you up inside and you begin to die, too.”
Though this salved Mike’s conscience a little, the anger was still there. One day, he promised himself, he would return, and deal with Jacob Tolabert in a fitting way. He was the one who was truly to blame for all this misery.
Wakened by their quiet conversation, Henry and Jericho got up, and after a meager breakfast, they packed up the camp.
“I think we put enough distance between us and the law for now. We don’t need to ride as fast and hard today as yesterday. We’ll stay off the roads, though, and stick to trails for as long as we can,” Henry said as they mounted their horses.
The forests were renewing from the winter. Leaves and grass were new and green, and the spring wildflowers were growing in profusion in the clearings, giving the woods a fresh fragrance that covered the usual loamy smell of the woods, as well as giving everything a clean new look. Mike thought it would be very pleasant to ride in this peaceful isolation for days, with none of the problems that had haunted him for months. But, by afternoon of the second day, they had reached the edge of the forest.
“We’ll have to take the road now. We best take a rest here in the shelter of the trees before we go any further. We may have to ride hard without a stop for a while. Just depends on where we are and how far it is to a safe place.”
Henry dismounted, and loosened the saddle of his horse, and the others followed. He was content to stretch out on the cool new grass, and examine the passing clouds while Jericho took the opportunity to forage in the woods for herbs and roots for his medicine bag. But, Tom was restless.
“We’ll be here for a while, and I don’t need a nap,” Tom said as he tethered his horse near the small brook. “Come on, Mike, let’s go see what we can see.”
Mike’s exuberance did not match Tom’s, and he soon tired of racing at Tom’s pace. With an exaggerated groan, he threw himself to the ground beneath a large oak tree and rolled over on his back, panting.
“You can’t be tired already,” chided Tom as he dropped to his knees beside Mike.
“If you keep running, we’ll end up back where we just came from!” He groaned.
“Ah, you’re just lazy. Come on, then, let’s climb that big tree.” He pointed up at a huge spreading chestnut tree overhead.
“No thank you! I don’t care to have a broken neck. You go climb it if you want. I’ll watch while you break yours.”
Tom made a rude noise to mock him, and leaped to the lower branches of the tree overhead. Mike laughed as he watched Tom scamper up the tree like a squirrel. In moments, he was in the swaying top branches of the tree, calling down to Mike as he sat like a bird, looking around at the varied greens of the forest around them.
Suddenly his antics ceased, and he shaded his eyes to watch something in the distance. All playfulness gone, he descended more rapidly than he had climbed, and with a leap from the lower branch, he hit the grown with a thump, landing on his feet.
“Come on!” he yelled to his companion as he raced off in the direction of the others.
This sudden change of mood startled Mike.
“Tom! Wait! What’s the matter?” Mike called as he ran after him. They burst through the foliage into the clearing where Henry and Jericho were quietly going about their own activities.
“Here! What’s chasin’ you two?” growled Henry.
“Soldiers! Comin’ this way!” panted Tom.
“Soldiers?” Henry and Jericho were on their feet simultaneously.
“Yeah, I seen ‘em from the top of a tree back there. They’re not far, but they’re riding’ slow.”
Immediately, without further word, they gathered their possessions and prepared to leave.
“We’ll have to ride hard and long to out run them, or find a place to hide until they pass,” Henry said as he tossed his saddlebag over the back of his horse. “Which direction are they?”
Tom pointed out past where they were planning to ride after their rest. “That way. They don’t look like they’re in a hurry, but they are heading right for us.”
“I saw a cave back there,” Mike said, pointing back the way he and Tom had just come. “It’s behind some brush, not far from here. There’s plenty of brush. It should hide all of us well. I think there’s enough room for all of us and the horses inside.”
“Good. Gather up this stuff, and show us where it is,” Henry commanded. He took the reins of Tom’s horse and the bag of belongings from his hands.
“You like to climb so much, get up this tree, and see where they are now. I’ll take the others and the horses to the cave, and come back for you.”
With a nod, Tom climbed to the top of the tree beside the creek. He watched as his friends disappeared into the woods, and then strained his eyes looking for the soldiers. In minutes, Henry was back calling up to him.
“They’re just over the rise,” Mike heard him call down to Henry when he went back to stand under the tree. “They turned into the woods, and they’re heading this way, get out of sight!” he said, trying to keep his voice from carrying to the approaching men as he started down.
Henry ran for cover, but before Tom could reach the ground, the soldiers were within sight of the clearing. As quietly as he could, he climbed back up into the new leaves of the chestnut tree. On a sturdy limb, he made himself comfortable, and settled in for the wait. His only hope was that the soldiers did not look up.
The two intruders dismounted beneath the very tree in which Tom was perched. The riders were in no particular hurry, and seemed bent on remaining where they were. They watered their mounts and themselves in the brook then loosened their saddles. Amidst cordial conversation, the men removed their hats and uniform coats, making themselves comfortable.
Henry mouthed a silent oath from his hiding place. With his heart pounding in his ears, Mike could only hear parts of their conversation, but he heard enough to know they were looking for him and his friends. The men talked and laughed together for nearly an hour. Mike could imagine Tom’s legs must be starting to ache, and he feared he could not remain quiet much longer. Then suddenly, the two men got up, and brushed the grass from their uniforms.
“Those scoundrels are probably in Scotland by now, but I suppose we’d better at least act like we’ve been looking for them a while longer.”
“True enough. The Cap’n will have us for supper if we come back too soon.”
They gathered up their things, tightened the cinches of their saddles, then mounted and rode away slowly, talking and laughing as they went. Mike let out a long sigh, and a few moments later, Tom ran into the brush to join his friends.
“They’ve gone,” he said, heaving a heavy sigh and plopping down on the ground outside the cave.
“Tom! I was afraid you’d had it when you couldn’t get down,” said Henry.
“So did I. But, it’s good I couldn’t. I heard ‘em talking. They think we’re long gone, and they’re just wastin’ time ’til they can go back to their unit.”
“Well then, we can stay right here for a spell. They won’t look for us after dark, and they won’t come back here again, either. They’ll give up altogether in a couple more days.” Henry thought for a minute. “We could stay here for a couple days. This cave looks to be plenty big enough for shelter. Then we’ll move by night. We can rest during the day, and take turns on watch. A few days of traveling like that, and we should be far enough away, so even if they don’t quit looking for us, they won’t find us.”
By the end of the week, they had reached the city of Hull, on the eastern coast. This had been a favored city of King Edward, and subsequent kings who had it improved in architecture as well as government. In preparation for possible siege a few decades earlier, in 1745, the Crown repaired, and restored the gates and walls of this port city. The fear, at that time, was that the Pretender’s army might come to take the eastern side of the country. Fortunately, that never happened. So, there she stood before them, a proud monument to the past, and a stronghold for the present.
With the small amount of money they had left, the travelers took a room at a reputable inn. As important as this town was in the kingdom, Henry was sure they would be able to find work right away, and he inquired of the innkeeper about opportunities.
“There’s always work on the ships puttin’ out to sea, or that not being to your taste, there’s the mint. ’Course, there’s always a need for stable hands and the like,” said the innkeeper as he set a tankard of ale on the table.
“Well, my friends and I ain’t seamen, and I doubt we’d be any good at the mint. We’re seasoned stable hands though, and, I see you’re shorthanded. We can do a good job for you. Even here in the tavern.”
After a little thought, the innkeeper agreed. “Room and board, and one shilling a week for each.” Henry shook his hand in agreement.
Jericho and Henry served tables in the tavern, and did any other task the landlord had need of, while Mike and Tom swept floors, chopped wood and worked in the stables. Weeks passed quietly into months with nothing more exciting or threatening than an occasional brawl in the tavern, and they began to feel secure in their new home.
Hull was a busy town, and the tavern was no exception. The tavern and inn had a good reputation, and a good class of people, frequented it. Eventually, anyone who traveled often, found his way to this well-known tavern. One day the innkeeper served a well-dressed man at a table in a far corner of the room. The man quietly ate his meal, and glanced around at the other people in the room. When the innkeeper set down another pint in front of him, and picked up his empty plate, the man asked him a question.
“Who are those two men?” said the customer, nodding his head towards the other side of the room.
“Which two would that be, sir?” he asked, as he turned to survey the room.
“The dark one there, and the gray one over there,” he pointed to Henry and Jericho, going about their duties.
“They’re my best workers.”
“How long have you known them?”
“They’ve been here for some time, now. Why do you ask?”
“I was robbed a few months ago.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Those two look like two of the men.”
“I don’t believe it of these men, sir.” The innkeeper shook his head as he glanced back across the room. “They been nothing but honest, and hard workin’ since they been here.”
“Did they come separately or together?”
“Well now, they was together, but they weren’t alone. They had a couple of boys with them.”
“That sounds like the men who robbed me. Where did they come from?”
“Afraid I don’t know. I never asked ’em.”
“I’m certain they’re the ones. Send a boy to fetch the authorities. They can get the truth from them. If they’re innocent, they have nothing to fear,” he said as he handed the innkeeper a halfpenny for the boy.
Reluctantly, the innkeeper agreed to send a boy on the errand.
“Harry!” he called to the boy who was sweeping out the hearth. “Here. That gentleman gave you this to go fetch the law.”
“The law? What’s he want with them?” Harry said, casting a suspicious eye at the man.
“Ah, he thinks he seen some thieves,” said the landlord dismissively.
The child dropped his broom, snatched the coin. He ran wildly out of the room, and out the front door, right into Mike who was sweeping the steps. The force of his charge bowled Mike over, and the boy landed on top of him.
“Slow down Harry! Where’re you going in such a hurry?” Mike scolded as he extracted himself from the tangle.
“I been sent to fetch the law! A man in there gave me a ha’penny to go get ’em. He says he seen some thieves.”
Mike paled, and the boy went scurrying on his way. It could be nothing to do with them, but again it might. He stepped in at the door, and motioned for Henry to come out. After a glance around the room, Mike saw the man sitting in the corner. He recognized him in an instant, and frantically motioned to Henry. When Henry came to him, he pulled him outside the door, into the entrance hall.
“What’s the matter? You look ill.”
“Look at the man over there in the corner. Don’t you know who he is?”
Henry looked in and quickly turned his back. “Looks like that fellow who so generously gave us his purse a while back. We better duck out of here ’til he leaves.”
“It’s too late. He’s sent for the law. We have to get out of here now!”
Henry pulled Mike away from the doorway into the shadows of the entry hall. “Go get Tom, and gather up our belongings. Wait for us in the stable. When you get there, get rid of any of the other boys who’re around. Send ’em off to do something, or just give ’em a farthing to disappear for a couple hours.”
Mike immediately turned to do as Henry bid, but instead of going to the stables, he went back to the hall to see what Henry would do. He was still trembling slightly as he watched from the shadows, so terrified that he could not move. He watched as Henry casually approached Jericho, who was serving another customer. “We have to leave now,” he saw him mouth to Jericho.
“What’s the matter?” Jericho’s voice was low, but Mike could just hear them.
“The man in the corner recognized us. He sent Harry for the law. Walk out like usual to the back. Meet us in the stable. Mike and Tom are already there.” Henry turned, taking the broom, and went back the way he had come in.
A moment later Mike saw Jericho leave the building, and Henry go up the stairs. Mike ran to the stable and told Tom what was going on and what Henry said to do. But, he could not stand just waiting. He ran back to the tavern and peeked in just as Henry returned to the tavern room with his hands rolled beneath his apron. He approached the man in the corner with a congenial smile.
“It’s a lovely day today, isn’t it sir? Won’t you please join me outside?”
The man was flabbergasted. “I most certainly will not! I intend to sit right here until the authorities arrive.”
Henry, still smiling, lifted his apron just enough to reveal the pistol he held beneath it. “I think not. Come quietly if you please, sir.”
The man’s face paled, and then reddened with anger. Visibly fuming, he rose, and walked in front of Henry toward the door. Mike found his feet and raced back to the stable. Behind him, he could hear Henry directing the man out the door and around the corner toward the stables, where he ushered him into the dank darkness.
The door shut behind them, blocking out the sunlight. A lantern flared, revealing Tom, Jericho, and Mike standing in the shadows. The man breathed a quiet oath for his stupidity at not having raised the hue and cry inside the tavern.
Henry stepped in front of him, and took his hands and pistol from beneath his apron. He was very solemn, with no trace of the smile that had just been there.
“So you think you know us?”
The foppish plume in the man’s hat was trembling, but he managed a coherent response. “I do indeed. You—you robbed me of three shillings a few months ago. I never forget someone who takes something from me.”
Henry held out his hand to Jericho, and the man flinched. Jericho handed Henry a small pouch with a drawstring.
“Well, I think you loaned it to us of your own free will.” The man was livid with rage, even as he trembled in fear. “I think you just need to be reminded.” With a grin, he nodded to Jericho.
Jericho took a rope from the peg, and wrapped it snuggly around and around about the man, fastening his arms tightly down at his sides with several loops of the rope. When he was sure the man was secure, Jericho drew the rest of the rope up through all the rounds of rope at his back, and tied it. Then he tossed the end of it up, and over the beam above their heads. Henry then opened the little pouch, removed three shillings, and with a grin, he shoved them into the man’s mouth. To the man’s further surprise, they then hoisted him high above them, secured the end of the rope to a post and left him dangling and kicking.
“We have just repaid our debt to you, kind sir, and thank you for the loan of it!” Henry made a deep sweeping bow. Tom led their horses out of the stalls. And, after they mounted, Henry turned to the humiliated man above them. He was kicking and mumbling, afraid to call out for fear of losing the coins in his mouth.
“I wouldn’t squirm so much if I were you. It’ll just make you dizzy. The boys will be back after a while and find you. No use making yerself sick afore they come.” With a hearty laugh, the four rode out of the stable, and headed for Monument Bridge at a swift trot.
It was already late, and they knew they had to cross the bridge before the gate closed for the night. Unless they crossed before dark, they would be have to stay, trapped within the city walls until daybreak. If that happened, the law would surely meet them at the gate in the morning. But, if the boys stayed away from the stable long enough, the alarm would not be raised before the gate closed. And, once it closed, it would not open again until morning for any reason. They would have the whole night to put distance between them and the city.
Cambridge was a college community. There were no less than six colleges in the town of nearly seven thousand, and a full third of the people were students. Industry in Cambridge was mainly dependent on the colleges, and so there were no large factories like in many other cities across England. The town had risen up out of a boggy area, and a great many willows surrounded it. The river was a major means of transporting goods in and out of town, because the colleges shunned the possibility of the newly discovered railways coming near their city. They did not want the atmosphere of learning disturbed by the crowds and industry they were certain would follow if this new means of transportation came into the academic world. There were, of course, the usual shops, the large market, and a few other tolerated large businesses like the Harrington Dry Goods Company.
For more than two years, Mike, Henry, Jericho, and Tom had worked their way, back and forth across England, taking jobs where they could, resorting to robbery only when they could not. Eventually, they found themselves once again near Cambridge. When they arrived in the narrow streets of the town, the four took rooms at a boarding house in the rundown area of the city where most of the tradesmen lived. Eventually, Henry found jobs for them in one of the livery stables near the business area.
Mike had grown, not only in skill at a variety of jobs, but in stature. He was handsome and muscular, and even his now shabby attire could not hide it. He was not the same gangling young man who had fled home in fear of his life. He had grown into a confident man, with a desire for justice.
One afternoon, as Mike stood at the open door of the livery, leaning on his fork, gazing across the busy street, Tom came up beside him.
“What is it you keep looking at over there?” he asked as he searched the other side of the street for what was holding his friend’s attention more than his work.
“The reason I’m here.”
“You see that place over there?” He nodded his head in the direction of Harrington’s. “That was my company. My father built it, and when he died, it was mine. Jacob Tolabert nearly ruined it before he stole it from me. It seems to be doing quite well, now, though,” he said as he rubbed the back of his hand across his bearded chin. He watched the men working inside the wide open doors of the warehouse across the street, with the old anger smoldering inside him.
“Why don’t you get it back?”
“I could never get it back now,” he said in bitterness. “But, I plan to repay him for what he did to my family.” Mike’s voice was low, and filled with hatred.
“And, how you plan to do that? You going to get the law involved?” he asked suspiciously.
“No. I’ve been planning this for over two years, and the law has nothing to do with it.” His voice was nearly a whisper. Tom rolled his eyes from Mike to the building across the street and back again.
“Henry told you ’afore we come here, that you had to be careful. You ain’t no match for him. You know that don’t you?”
“We’ll see.” Tom began to watch him closely from then on.
One evening not long after that, Mike was walking home from work, his head bent in his usual contemplation of sweet revenge, oblivious to all around him, when a man stepped from a doorway into his path. They collided, nearly knocking each other down. Mike came back to his senses, and touched the brim of his hat in apology.
“I beg your pardon, sir. I didn’t see you.”
“Not to worry! I’m quite unharmed. It was as much my fault as yours.” The man chuckled amiably.
He, also, touched the brim of his flat, wide brimmed hat. Mike felt even more apologetic when he saw the man wore clerical garb. He bent and helped the man pick up the items he had dropped when they collided, and handed them back to him, still apologizing.
“Please, no further apologies are necessary. Are you unhurt?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
The warm, kind manner of the minister reminded him at once of Father John. He had been in town for weeks, and had not yet called on him. Mike suddenly wanted to see his friend very much. Perhaps, a visit to Father John could help ease the burning hatred that was consuming him so much these days. Perhaps, Father John could convince him that he was not justified in wanting revenge. Perhaps, it would just be good to see a friendly face from his past.
The next day, Mike did not have to work. He washed, and put on the best clothes he had. As he examined himself in the mirror, he realized how tattered his attire had actually become. It had been a long time since he had bought new clothes. Doing the various jobs they did, current styles and new clothes were not a necessity. The little money he earned was spent on food and lodging, with precious little left for other things.
He combed his hair, which had grown long, and tied it at the back of his neck with a rumpled piece of black ribbon. His beard had grown in full, and streaked with red. He combed it and trimmed it as neatly as he could. Then, placing his hat on his head, he made one final inspection in the streaked mirror. Satisfied he was as presentable as he could make himself, he stepped out into the afternoon sunshine to walk to the small vicarage that he remembered so well, on the other side of town.
When he knocked on the door, a young clerical student ushered Mike into the drawing room. Surrounded by the cleanliness, Mike was even more aware of how grimy he had become. The furnishings gleamed with wax, and the fabric of the chairs was so clean, Mike nervously felt obliged to stand to wait.
At the sound of footsteps behind him, Mike turned. Father John Osborn looked the same as when Mike last saw him, but his robes indicated a new rank. Father John, now inches shorter than Mike, was beginning to thicken about his middle, but he still had the same kind face.
Used to greeting weathered, seedy strangers in need of a meal and a bath, Father John approached the visitor with a kind smile and outstretched hand.
“Good afternoon, sir. How may I help you?”
Mike cautiously took the outstretched hand, and felt a wave of uncertainty. He was relieved to know that he was so different, even his dearest friend did not recognize him, but he was sad at the same time.
His voice was quiet with sadness, “Hello, Father John.”
Father John’s eyebrows went up and he mused, “No one has called me that for a long time. Especially, since I became Bishop.”
“Sorry—Your Grace.” Mike’s eyes sought the floor.
Recognition dawned on Father John, “Michael?” Mike’s eyes came back to his. “Michael! It is you!” He reached out and embraced him deliberately.
“Forgive me for not knowing you at once!” He held Mike at arm’s length, and examined him up and down. “You’ve changed so much. You’re so much taller! What happened to you? Where have you been? I waited for letters.”
“Sorry I didn’t write. I meant to, but things happened, and I just never got around to it.” His embarrassment was clear, and he could scarcely look the minister in the face.
“Well, you’re here now! Come in. We’ll have tea, and a long visit. Tell me all about where you’ve been, and what you’ve been up to. Did you find work as you hoped?”
Father John took him into a private sitting room, and dispatched the young cleric to bring tea. Father John bustled around and made him comfortable. He tried to look casual, but Mike could tell he was assessing him for how the past two years had treated him.
“Michael, I was so shocked, and saddened by you letter when you left,” he said as he seated himself in the chair opposite Mike. “I wish you had come to me before leaving. I might have done something to help.”
“I feared for my life that day, Father. The only thing I could think of was getting out of Cambridge as fast, and as far as I could.”
“But, why? I don’t understand.”
“Tolabert forced me to sell him the business that day.” He dropped his gaze to his hands. “Then, on the way home, one of his thugs beat me, and robbed me of the money. I was afraid Tolabert would send someone else to finish the job.”
“Oh, Michael,” he groaned, “you should have come to me.” After a moment of awkward silence, he changed the subject. “Well, did you find an apprenticeship as you had planned?”
A wry smile lifted one corner of Mike’s mouth. “Unfortunately, I never even got a chance to try. Life just seemed to take hold, and drag me along as soon as I left town.”
“Are you home to stay, then?”
“I don’t think so. We’ve taken jobs across town, but we never stay long in one place.”
“We? Have you married then?”
Mike was grateful for the beard, which hid some of the crimson warming his cheeks. The thought of telling Father John of the immoral lifestyle he had lead did not make him comfortable. At that moment, the young cleric returned with the tea tray and Mike took the offered cup and saucer. When the student had gone, he continued.
“No, I haven’t married. I meant my friends. We have been traveling, and working together where we can. When we combine our money, we’re able to live a bit better than we could on our own.”
“What sort of work do you do?”
Again, Mike found the questions uncomfortable. He should have considered the possibilities of conversation before he came here. His hesitation prompted Father John to ask further.
“Michael, there’s no shame in honest work.”
And, that was the problem—honest work.
“Father, I’ve found myself in less than honorable situations in the past two years. I’d rather not tell you all the details.”
“I see,” was his quiet response. “I’ve been your friend for a long time, and I knew your parents. You know I’m your friend. You can tell me anything.”
“I’ve done things that would make my parents ashamed of me. You, as well.”
Father John took a sip of tea, and placed the cup back in the saucer he held suspended above his lap.
“That’s true of most of us, I think. My family would never have understood why I became a minister. My mother would turn in her grave if she knew the whole of it.”
“Some of the things I’ve done are far worse than becoming a minister. I know I never attended services much, but I remember enough to know right from wrong. Sometimes life forces things on you that you might not otherwise have done.”
“True. I have things in my past that would shock you. But, not all those sins turned out badly. Some good came if it. God does use what we have to his purposes.”
“I doubt any good can come of my sins, Father.”
“Not knowing what they are, I can’t advise you on that.”
Mike brooded over his teacup for a few minutes.
“The friends I mentioned, I met the day I fled Cambridge. They patched me up, and took care of me while I recovered. They got work for me, and we became friends. I stayed with them, because there was really no reason not to. I’ve learned a lot about making my way since then, and about surviving.”
“That hardly sounds sinful.”
“No. That would be the other things … when we can’t find work, sometimes we have to steal to survive.”
“Sadly, in these times, that is not uncommon. There is little condemnation in that, so long as it is not to get wealth, and you at least try to earn your way.” Father John smiled wryly and drank the last of his tea.
“It’s strange, but theft is the very thing that started me on this path. Jacob Tolabert stole my company from me. He took away the livelihood that was rightly Janny’s and mine. I hate him for what he did to my family.”
Father John placed his empty cup and saucer on the tray with a sigh.
“Perhaps, God has allowed you to experience life without wealth for reasons you have yet to learn. There is always a reason for everything that happens in our life. The good of it may come to you, or it may come to someone you don’t even know yet. But it will come.”
“No good can come of what he did to us,” Mike said bitterly.
A servant entered, and retrieved the tray with the tea things. Mike was becoming sullen and moody. Perhaps this visit was not such a good idea. He would have to leave or change the subject.
“Were you able to sell the house, Father?”
Father John rubbed his chin thoughtfully while he watched Mike’s face closely. “Yes. I got an excellent price for it. I can arrange to have the money for you tomorrow if you like.”
“Yes. Perhaps I can use it to recover some of the life I had. Who was the buyer?”
“That doesn’t really matter, does it? The important thing is that the price was far more than I had hoped to receive. All the furnishings sold with it, of course.”
“Is there a reason you don’t want to tell me who bought it?” Mike asked eyeing his friend with curiosity.
“No, not really.”
Father John sighed, lowered his eyes, and said quietly, “Jacob Tolabert.”
Mike’s eyes widened, and his mouth dropped open. Surely he had heard wrong. “You sold it to Jacob Tolabert? Knowing all the things he’s done to my family and me? I thought you were our friend!” he accused.
Father John’s voice was steady and calm, “Michael, I am your friend. I got the highest price I could for you. What difference does it make who owns the house now? You have the money. You can use it to make a new life.”
Mike was on his feet, “He killed my family! He stole our company, and drove me away! Now, he even has our home. There’s nothing left for him to take from me now but my life!”
“Why would he want your life? As you say, you no longer have anything else he wants. He has no reason to continue to hound you.”
“Father, he’s an evil man. You don’t know all he’s done, and is capable of doing. He wants power, and money, and prestige. As long as there is one person who knows what he really is, he’ll continue to hunt him down. I can’t allow him to continue.” He strode to the window, and looked out at the deepening afternoon washing the city in warm golden sunlight.
“Perhaps you should get some rest, and think about what you are suggesting. Michael, of all the things you have done so far, none is inexcusable. But, what you are thinking now—you cannot take the law into your own hands. It is not your place to punish him.”
“You’re wrong. If I don’t do something, nothing will be done to stop him. I have to do something—for my own peace of mind.” He turned to Father John, who had risen and walked to the window beside him.
Mike pulled away from him, and turned back to the room.
“I think I had better leave. I’ll stop by to see you again before we leave the city. Perhaps, we can have a more peaceful visit. I had hoped I’d find a bit of peace today, but that isn’t possible just now. ”
In the squalid little room of the boarding house, Mike lay on his bed, lethargic and depressed. The visit to Father John had not given him the lift of spirits he had hoped. Instead, he had even more fuel for his smoldering hatred.
Tom rapped on the door, opened it, and stepped inside. “You stayin’ in tonight? I thought you was meetin’ that little tart from the tavern.”
“I don’t feel like it.”
“Since when did that matter? She’s a pretty one, too. You’ve done worse.” He grinned as he plopped onto the chair beside the tiny table, and slouched back.
“I said no.” He ran his hand through his tangled hair. “Tell her I had to go out when you see her.”
“Go out where?” he said, sitting up straight and looking directly at Mike. “Where’d you have to go tonight? Back to see that minister again?”
“No. It’s none of your business.” Mike stood and turned his back to Tom, and rubbed the back of his neck nervously.
Tom left with a sniff, snapping the door closed behind him. There was a part of a bottle of wine on the tiny table. Mike rose and poured himself a generous cup full. As he lifted the cup to his lips, he caught a glimpse of himself in the streaked little mirror over the washbasin. His beard was such a good disguise that even Father John had not recognized him. He could safely stay here, and work without fear of recognition by Tolabert or his thugs, for as long as he liked.
But, that was not what would satisfy him. He did not want just to be safe. He wanted his old life back. He wanted to live in a nice house again, and wear clean clothes, and be able to walk about with his head held high, never having to worrying about where and when his next meal would come. And, the only way to get it was to take revenge on the man who had stolen it all from him. He stroked his beard thoughtfully. He could probably go right up to Tolabert, and he would not recognize him. However, Mike wanted him to know who he was when he exacted his pound of flesh.
It was dark in the room, and the one candle on the table did not give enough light for Mike’s task. He lit another candle, and placed them on either side of the mirror on the washstand, poured water into the washbasin and picked up his razor. Carefully, he began to shave off his beard. He was so intent on what he was doing, that he did not notice when Tom came back into the room, sat down, and quietly watched him with curiosity.
When he finished his shave, Mike put on his best shirt and coat, and inspected himself in the mirror. Satisfied with the image, he then opened the top drawer of his chest, and carefully lifted out a bundle wrapped in an oily rag. He opened it, and picked up his father’s pistol, checking it to see that it was in good working order, and then he loaded it. Mike had never liked using the thing, even when it was necessary, but tonight he did not feel the same aversion. He tucked it into his belt and buttoned his coat over it.
“What are you going to do with that?” Tom asked, his eyes narrowing.
Mike turned with a start, and looked at him. “I have some business to take care of.”
“With your pistol? That sounds more like trouble to me. Does Henry know what you’re up to?”
“No. And you’d best not tell him either, if you know what’s good for you.” He glared at Tom until he was sure he understood.
“I’ll go with you, then.”
“No. This is my problem, and I mean to take care of it. I’ll be back when I’ve done what I have to do.” He left, leaving Tom standing in the room looking after him, unsure what to do.
Mike walked deliberately and quickly through the streets, out of the tumbledown district. He did not hesitate when he reached the cleaner area where the wealthy lived. The houses here were large, with manicured gardens, and some of them had a carriage house behind. The plethora of flowers in the front gardens gave a sweet scent to the warm night air, and the windows of nearly all the houses glowed yellow in the darkness, like large golden gems. Still Mike trudged on, not knowing that Tom was in secret pursuit.
Suddenly, Mike stopped in front of a large brick house. He stood, staring at it for several minutes, and then he wiped the back of his hand across his eyes. After heaving a heavy sigh, he crouched, and moved quickly up the little front garden to the lighted window on the left of the big front door.
He looked boldly inside, then turned, stepped off the front step and went around the corner of the house. He tried the handles of the French doors that opened into the house from the large side garden. They gave quietly under his touch, and he entered the house.
Standing just inside the French doors, and looking around the room, Mike allowed the pain of his loss to fill him anew. The drawing room was empty of occupants, but an oil lamp burned on the ornate writing desk near the opposite side of the room. This was Sarah’s drawing room. The same room where Mike had sat waiting for his parents the night they never returned. The furnishings were unchanged. The chairs sat in the same place, waiting silently to receive the beautiful woman who had chosen them with such care. The brandy decanter stood on the same little table, waiting for Gerard to come in for a drop before dinner. The piano waited patiently for the fingers of the little girl, who had made it play so merrily. They waited vainly for ghosts. It was unjust that the man responsible for making them wait should now own them.
On the small desk where the lamp burned, spread out in its halo, Mike recognized documents and ledgers. They were from Harrington’s Dry Goods. Obviously, someone had been working here, and had stepped out of the room for some errand or other. Mike quietly took a seat in the chair farthest from the light, near the fireplace. In the deep shadow, he drew his pistol from his belt, laid it gently across his lap, and waited, like a cat before a mouse hole.
The passing moments seemed like hours, and Mike became more tense as each crawled by. Then, footsteps were in the hall. The door opened, and Jacob Tolabert entered carrying a steaming cup of tea. He placed it on the desk out of his way, and sat down to continue his work. Mike silently watched him. It struck him how like a weasel the man seemed, as he sat fidgeting with the papers and mumbling to himself.
Tolabert gave a little shiver, rose, and crossed the room to the fireplace. The fire had burned down to glowing coals. He poked at them, coaxing a small flame back to life, and tossed in a new log. As the flames grew, the light brightened the room. He was about to turn back to his work when he finally saw the shadowy figure in the chair. He gasped, and took an involuntary step back when he saw the barrel of the pistol leveled at him.
“Good evening, Jacob. Good of you to join me,” said the vaguely familiar voice. In spite of his attempt to regain his composure, Tolabert stammered, “Wh-what do you want?”
“Sit down.” It was a curt command. Mike pointed with the pistol to the chair opposite him at the other side of the fire. He leaned forward into the light. His face was somber, as if carved in stone. The flickering light of the fire cast grotesque shadows, making it hard for his host to distinguish his identity.
“I am here to settle a debt, Mr. Tolabert.”
Tolabert nervously gripped the arms of the chair. Debt? I do business at the office. Y-you should come see me there.” He glanced nervously about the room. “Who are you? How did you get in here?”
Mike gave him an elegant, slow nod of his head, keeping his eyes on his adversary.
“Forgive my manners. I suppose I have changed a bit since you saw me last … Michael Harrington, at your service.”
Even in the dim firelight, Mike saw the blood drain from Tolabert’s face, and his feeble attempt to mask his fear with a surly response was transparent.
“There is no debt between us, Harrington. I paid you cash for your share of the company, and you left,” he snapped, drawing himself up in the chair.
“Oh, the money is the least of it. That paltry sum you gave me didn’t come close to what you owe me—even if you hadn’t had it stolen back the same day.”
Tolabert shifted in his chair. “You’re mad! I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You know, I remember hearing in church that crimes should be repaid in like manner. You remember—an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.”
Cold sweat glistened on Tolabert’s forehead. “I don’t know what you’re raving on about. What do you want? Do you want money? I’ll give you all you want—the thousand—”
Mike clucked his tongue. “Thanks to you, I no longer have use for the money. You can’t pay this debt with gold, because what you took from me was more than money.”
“The company then! You want me to sign it back over to you?”
“No, I’ve learned my lesson there. You’d have me beaten, and robbed of it again, before the ink was dry. Besides, you’ve changed it so much, an honest man couldn’t run it now.”
“What then?” He nearly shrieked from the tension.
“Jacob,” Mike wagged his head, “you took something from me worth more than the company and all the money in the world. You took my family. You had my parents killed, and because of your further misdeeds, my sister died. That is the debt I’ve come to collect.”
Before Tolabert could voice his objection, there was a loud knock at the front door. Mike had not expected him to have callers at this time of night. His mind raced, weighing the possibility of handling another person.
“Who’s that?” he whispered hoarsely.
“It-it’s the messenger I sent for.”
Mike waved his gun, indicating they were going to the door. “We’ll let him in together. Don’t try to warn him, if you know what’s good for you.” Mike held his gun higher, into the light, so Tolabert could see it clearly.
Mike stepped behind the door as Tolabert opened it, the gun pressed into Tolabert’s ribs. Peeking through the crack to see who was on the step, Mike could distinguish two men, in the dim light of the hall candles. As they stepped further into the light, he could see that they were the same two men he had seen in the warehouse so long ago. They pushed their way past without word or hesitation, as if they had been here many times, and went straight for the brandy decanter on the small table in the drawing room, where they helped themselves.
After they had swallowed several gulps, they turned their attention to the man standing behind their host. The smaller one pointed with his glass.
“I thought we was the only ones in on this job. Who’s this, then?”
His nerves taut, and his frustration at the intrusion increasing, Mike nudged Tolabert to follow them into the room.
“Shut-up, you fool!” Tolabert hissed.
Mike again clucked his tongue. “Manners, Mr. Tolabert. That’s no way to address these fine gentlemen.” Realizing his need to keep the three of them together where he could watch them closely, he gave Tolabert a quick shove, and sent him stumbling against his visitors, exposing his weapon at the same time.
“Here! What’s this?” demanded the bigger man, as he caught Tolabert and assisted him to straighten up.
“This is a stroke of luck,” Mike answered. “Actually, I am glad you’re both here. I hadn’t expected to be able to repay the two of you as well.”
“What’s he talking about?” demanded the smaller man of Tolabert, as he gave a nervous little twitch.
“That’s Harrington, you twit,” snapped Tolabert, straightening his smoking jacket and smoothing his hair.
“Harrington! I thought you said you was rid of him.”
“You shouldn’t be so hard on our host. He is only as good as his help,” he said looking directly at the man. “Sometimes you just can’t depend on hired help to do the job as well as you can yourself.” Mike grinned maliciously, but these men were not what he had bargained for. He had to think of something before they overpowered him. If he tied them up, he could deal with them separately. But, what to use for rope?
The flicker of hesitation that crossed Mike’s face was almost imperceptible, but it was enough for the two hoodlums to spring into action. They charged the short length of the space between them and the intruder.
Mike yelled, “Stop, or I’ll shoot!” But, on they came. Mike felt his finger tightening on the trigger and heard the explosion of the powder. Tolabert yelped, and sank to his knees, clutching his arm. But, the two men were on top of Mike wrestling the gun from him, each striking him repeatedly with their work roughened fists. He managed to block some of the blows, but most found their mark. He was sure they would kill him before they stopped.
When his struggling ceased, they stood, and dragged him to his feet. Supported between them, Mike swayed, semiconscious. When Tolabert was sure the struggle was over, he got up, and stepped close. He held his left arm tightly with his right hand, blood oozing between his fingers. Then, with his bloodied fist doubled tightly, he swung with all his might, crushing his knuckles into Mike’s left cheekbone. Mike’s knees buckled, and he went limp.
“Go get the authorities!” Tolabert commanded the small man, and he left immediately.
Then Tolabert and the other man lay Mike on the divan, crossed his hands, and tied them together with the silk scarf Tolabert pulled from around his own neck. Tolabert then managed to bandage his own arm with a handkerchief.
When he finished, he grabbed the brandy decanter and poured some of the brandy on Mike’s clothes, then forced him to swallow some. Mike coughed and sputtered, swallowing some and spitting out the rest all over himself. Tolabert continued to force him to drink, until the crunch of footsteps on the walk outside heralded the arrival of the law.
“Good of you to come so promptly,” Tolabert said to the new arrivals. “This man broke into my house and tried to rob me. When I wouldn’t give him what he wanted, he shot me.” Tolabert showed the constable his wound. “If my friends hadn’t come along when they did, and overpowered him, I’m certain he would have killed me.”
The night watchman approached the nearly unconscious man on the divan, and wrinkled his nose. “He’s drunk. He smells like he’s been swimming in the stuff.”
“Undoubtedly, that is why he thought he could get away with this,” barked Tolabert as he stood back still clutching his wound.
“We’ll take him along, then. You can come to the magistrate’s and make your complaint against him.” The watchman motioned to his companion, and they attempted to sit the very limp Mike upright.
“I’ll be there shortly. I want to see him hanged for what he’s done to me.”
“Most likely he will. You need to send for the doctor, sir, and have that wound tended. We’ll see you at the magistrate’s when you’re able to get there.” He tipped his hat to Tolabert, and helped his fellow pull Mike to his feet. Supporting him between them, they half dragged him from the house.
The alcohol Tolabert forced him to swallow made Mike numb. He was barely aware of the rough treatment the men who had removed him from the house gave him. When they reached the cell, they dropped him onto a hard cot. The sound of the heavy iron grid door closing smartly echoed in his head like thunder.
As the hours passed, the numbing effect of the brandy began to wear off. The cuts and bruises throbbed, his head pounded, and his thoughts were muddled and hazy. The one thing, he did remember clearly, was that he had told Tom to stay at the boarding house. He had not even told him where he was going. No one knew he was here. No one would come to help him.
Despair enveloped Mike like a shroud. He should never have come back to Cambridge. If only he had listened to Henry … if only he had allowed Tom to come with him … if only he had left well enough alone … he would not be here now. He sat up on the edge of the cot, holding his aching head in his hands. Jacob Tolabert had managed to accomplish his goal. He had finally rid himself of the Harrington’s.
The gray light of morning barely lit the dank and filthy cell. Mike could not bring himself to eat the stale bread and dry cheese that someone shoved through the opening under the iron grid door of his cell. There was an indescribable stench of urine in the cell, and some loose pieces of dirty straw scattered on the stone floor. The only furnishings were the cot, covered with a filthy, ragged blanket, and a stool. There was a small opening in the outer wall, which served as window and ventilation. But, the surroundings did not matter. He knew he would hang very soon anyway.
Later in the day, Mike sullenly regarded the strange visitor the guards let into his cell. Mike sat on the cot, leaning against the wall with his knee drawn up, and his arm resting on top of it. The man was dressed in a plain black coat and breeches made of broadcloth. His crisp white shirt and cravat made him look like a vicar or mortician.
“Who are you? Here to measure me for the coffin?” Mike said with a sigh, and looked away.
The man pulled the three-legged stool closer to the cot and sat down.
“Mr. Harrington, I am Sidney Smythe, Esquire. Your friends have retained me to help you,” he whispered.
“Help me—what friends?” Mike asked. His eyes narrowed as he reconsidered the man.
“The names they gave me were Henry and Jericho?”
Mike’s eyes widened, he placed both feet on the floor and sat up. “But, how did they know I was here?”
“They said a young man witnessed your—ah—activities last night, and informed them of your dilemma.” He glanced over his shoulder at the door to see if any guards were listening.
“What young man?”
“Another of your friends, I believe.”
For once, he was glad Tom had not done what he had asked. The smallest glimmer of hope began to burn within him.
“The magistrate ruled last night that you should be held, and tried for the charges against you. I need you to tell me what you can about what happened last night, and why you were there. I will instruct you as best I can on what to do when you are taken to court. I will not be able to speak for you, but I will be able to question Mr. Tolabert, and any witnesses he presents. Hopefully, I shall be able to show the court that the whole matter should be dismissed.”
For a long time, Smythe listened while Mike told him of his history with Jacob Tolabert. He recounted all that he had done in going to the house, and how the unexpected visitors had charged at him, causing his gun to discharge. And, he told how he received his own injuries.
“Mr. Harrington, the charges being brought against you are assault, and attempted murder. Because of who has made them, I know there will be difficulty in convincing the court of your innocence. Tolabert’s influence is very strong, and he has the funds to pay his way through this process handsomely. I believe you are innocent. Whatever you may have intended when you went there, I believe you were provoked, and his men did the attacking. Hopefully, with the testimony of your young friend, we will be able to sway the court in your favor.”
“No,” Mike said emphatically. “I don’t want Tom involved in this. He’s never had any dealings with Tolabert, and he shouldn’t start now. If he testifies, Tolabert will retaliate against him. This isn’t even his fight.”
“He is an eye witness. He may be your best hope—”
“No. Please. Tolabert will destroy him like he did me; if not in court, then afterwards.”
Smythe stood up. “Without a witness, you are asking for a miracle.” He considered Mike for a moment. “You are an educated man, and you have not been in trouble before. We may be able to claim this as a clergyable offense. The judge seldom enforces any serious punishment for such. Of course, with Tolabert involved, he may petition the court to declare it non-clergyable. If that happens, it will not go well for you if they find you guilty.
“How long will it take?”
“Sadly, not long. The trial is set for tomorrow.”
After Smythe left, Mike lay back on the cot. Tomorrow was so soon. These could be his last days on earth. He turned, facing the wall and drew his knees up again, wrapping his arms tightly around himself.
That evening, Mike had another visitor. When he saw Father John standing inside the closed cell door, Mike turned his back to his guest with a groan, resting his face against his arm where it rested on the wall. Seeing Father John standing there with an anxious expression on his face, made him wish he could crawl away with shame.
“You shouldn’t have come. I never wanted you to see me like this,” he said to the wall.
“Where else would I be, when you need me?” He took a quick breath to steady his voice.
“How did you know I was here anyway?”
“Your friend, Henry, came to the vicarage. He told me what happened.”
Mike could not remember telling his friends about Father John, but he was glad now that he had. Even though it grieved him for Father John to see him here, he was relieved he had come. And, yet he held his tongue.
“Michael, I’m sure you know you should not have gone back to the house.” His words were not accusing or harsh, as Mike felt he deserved, which made them all the more painful.
“I know. But, I did.” He turned from the shadows, and when the light of the lantern outside the cell fell across Mike’s face, the Bishop gasped. There was dried blood at the corners if his mouth and nose, and his left eye was nearly swollen shut. “I got what I deserved, though.”
“Did Tolabert do that to you?” he demanded, taking a step closer, reaching to touch his face. Mike jerked away in pain.
“Some of it. His men did the rest.” He lifted his shirt to reveal other cuts and bruises, and Father John gasped again. “I didn’t expect the others to be there. I should have remembered he does his worst deeds in the safety of darkness. And, he always has men close at hand to do his dirty work. Maybe if I had gone in the daylight—”
Father John held his peace, but his face reflected the anguish he felt. Mike knew his condition was due to his own foolishness, and he had accepted that. But, seeing this gentle man with so much pain in his face, made him shudder. He bitterly regretted causing him grief, nearly more than what he had done. Mike dropped to his knees at his feet.
“Father, please forgive me. I never meant to do anything that would hurt you like this. Nothing I’ve done, in the last two years, is worth the pain I’ve caused you. Please don’t hate me,” he barely managed to keep his voice from breaking as he spoke.
Father John dropped to his knees as well, and threw his arms around Mike’s wretched form. Mike felt like a small child comforted by a parent, and almost wanted to stay like that.
“Michael, nothing you can ever do will cause me to stop caring for you. I should beg your forgiveness, for not finding a way to help you fight this man.” He pulled back, and brushed Mike’s hair back from his face before dropping his hands to his lap.
“You didn’t know what I would do. I didn’t know, myself, until I was there holding the gun. I’ve spent two years wandering all over the country, but I just could never forget what he cost me. He took my family, my company, my home, and now my self-respect. I’ve done things that would horrify my mother, and raise the eyebrows of any decent man. And now, I’ve let him drive me to this. I might have killed him, if those other men hadn’t come along when they did.”
They remained on their knees facing each other. “Then, thank God they did come.”
“But, I’ll pay the same price for the attempt, as for the deed … Father, I don’t want to die. I know I deserve it, but I don’t want to die.” His hid his face with his grimy hands.
“Your friends and I will do everything we can to prevent that. Jacob Tolabert is the true criminal. Any good judge will see that, and release you.”
Before he left, Father John prayed and gave him a parting encouragement.
“Michael, you have to trust things will work out. I know it’s hard, but God knows the truth, and He will work things out for the best. You just have to believe.”
Mike sighed. At the moment, faith was hard to come by. Until this ordeal was finished one way or the other, he knew his faith was very weak. He could scarcely hope he would not have to pay for the attempt he tried to make on Tolabert.
Sleep eluded Mike. Near dawn, he rose and paced the cell. Bells calling the colleges to their studies rang at five o’clock. Briefly, their pealing evoked a sweet memory of home and youth, before the reality of his situation returned. Today the bells seemed to be knelling his doom.
A couple hours later, a key rattled in the cell door. A guard bearing a small bundle under his arm stepped in and thrust it at Mike.
“Here. Someone brought these for you. I guess they figured it won’t hurt for you to look, and smell a little more respectable. We couldn’t let them give you a razor. Just as well. You couldn’t shave very good anyway, with your face so swelled up like that.” The guard shook his head.
“It doesn’t’ matter.” He wished this were over. His apathy made him weary. Mike took the bundle of new clothes, washed and changed in silence. He was clean, but his defeated spirit persisted.
At eight o’clock, the guards took him in shackles to the court. They shoved him roughly into place at the bar, and stood at ease a step behind him. Mike glanced around the crowded room. Henry, Jericho, Tom, and Father John sat in the gallery, looking anxious. Mr. Smyth, dressed in his long black robe, sat shuffling his papers at a polished table, which was in front of the judge’s lofty seat. Various clerks and other officials, seated at other tables before the judge, surrounded him.
Waves of nausea sweep over Mike as he caught sight of Jacob Tolabert. Why could he not just close his eyes and wake up from this horrible nightmare? Indeed, most of the proceedings paraded before his glassy eyes as if they were a dream.
A clerk stood and read the charges against him.
“Michael Harrington stands before the court accused of assault and attempted murder of one Jacob Tolabert …”
After the lengthy reading, the judge addressed him without even looking up at him.
“How do you plead, Mr. Harrington?”
Mike cast a bewildered look around the room, and finally at Sidney Smythe, who nodded at him.
“Ah—not guilty,” he said tentatively.
A guard led him to a seat where he watched as, first Jacob Tolabert, and then the men who had helped beat him, stood before the court, and told an elaborately embellished story of what had happened the night before. Tolabert stood with an air of confident boredom while he coolly related his version of the event.
“I was surprised to find Mr. Harrington in my house,” he concluded. “And I feared for my life until my friends called, unexpectedly.” He did not even bother to look at the judge, but rather fanned himself from time to time with a lace edged handkerchief, and fidgeted with his coat sleeves.
Mr. Smythe questioned him over every detail, doing his best to show how distorted his story was.
“Mr. Harrington did not attempt to strike you?”
“No. He held his gun leveled on me the whole while,” he said in the same bored tone.
“And, when the gun discharged, was he intentionally aiming at you?”
“I can only assume he was, since he had pointed it at me from the first.”
“When he fired, was he standing alone, or was he being attacked by your men?”
“I have already told the court, that he had fired before the men charged him.”
“And yet, at that close range, he did not inflict a mortal wound, while supposedly aiming deliberately at you?”
“I do not know how accurate his aim usually is,” he said curtly. “It was only luck that he did not kill me.”
Smythe questioned him on his every statement, but could not shake his cool countenance.
When the big man, who said his name was Jackson, had finished his tale, Mr. Smythe stood from behind his table in front of the judge and addressed him.
“Mr. Jackson, why did you say that you were present last night?”
“Mr. Tolabert asked me, and my friend to stop by. He had an assignment for us. We do work for him from time to time.”
“What type of work would that be?”
“We do whatever he needs doing,” he said and shrugged.
“Does that include assaulting people, or worse?”
“Ye—I mean no!” snapped Jackson, flustered by the bold question. “That wouldn’t be right. We don’t do nothin’ that ain’t right, for him,” he said screwing up his face and giving the lawyer a dark look.
“You and your friend interrupted a meeting between Mr. Harrington and Mr. Tolabert?”
“Yeah. But, it weren’t no meetin’.” He grinned slyly.
“You were aware of their business, then? Before you intruded?”
“It were pretty obvious what was goin’ on when we got there.”
“Did Mr. Harrington strike you?”
“No, but he—”
“Did he strike Mr. Tolabert?”
“No, but he—”
“Did he actually harm any of you in any way before you attacked him?”
“Well, no, but he—”
“He only discharged his weapon, by accident, when you and your friend assaulted him?”
“Well,” Jackson hesitated unsure how to make this statement seem more damning to Mike.
“Is that a true statement?”
“Yes.” His answer was less confident than before, and he hung his head. Mr. Smythe questioned him, and his companion on every point of their statements, showing that it was they, who had done the assaulting, not Mike.
When Mike stood at the bar again, he heard someone asking him to present his evidence that proved his innocence. According to his discussion with Mr. Smythe the previous day, Mike recounted his story.
“Mr. Tolabert has unjustly persecuted my family for years. He was responsible for the near ruin of my father’s company, and after Father’s death, Mr. Tolabert forced me to sell the company to him, at an extreme loss. I believe he was responsible for the death of my parents, and my sister. Because of him, I lost my livelihood, my family, and my home. I wanted him to understand what his actions had cost me. I didn’t intend to do him bodily harm when I went there. I just wanted to frighten him for a while. I wanted him to feel some of what I have suffered at his direction. When his hired men arrived, I was confused. I had not expected to meet anyone else. Then, when they attacked me, the gun went off while I was trying to defend myself. I was not trying to shoot Mr. Tolabert. He just happened to be standing in the wrong place when they jumped me, and made the gun go off. It was purely accidental.”
Most of what happened after that was lost to Mike. He understood none of the court activity, and knew nothing else until the judge charged the jury to reach a verdict. The men of the jury conferred together where they sat for what seemed like all too short a time, and then signaled they were ready.
Mike’s eyes sought Father John, who had his fingers tented under his nose as if in prayer. His knees felt like jelly as the guards stood him back up at the bar to hear the verdict.
In the expectant silence of the room, Mike heard the voice of the head juror, which sounded to him as if it were coming from a long tunnel.
“We find the defendant, Michael Harrington, guilty of attempted murder.” The smug glance and nod that passed between the head juror and Jacob Tolabert went unnoticed by most in the room. Mike saw it, but did not comprehend the meaning at the time.
The buzzing in Mike’s ears seemed to increase, and the room spun precariously. When the judge pronounced sentence, Mike scarcely heard it. He knew what it would be; he did not need to hear it. He would hang—there was no hope left. Tolabert had finally won. He was in shock, as the guards took him from the courtroom. The shouts of Tom and Jericho were lost in the shouts of the other spectators. He did not see Henry’s anger, or the tears slipping down Father John’s agonized face, when he slid from his seat to his knees in prayer.
Sidney Smythe managed to reach Henry and Jericho as they made their way out of the gallery.
“All is not yet lost! We can petition the judge for a pardon, or reduction in sentence.”
He explained the procedures to them, and told them he would begin immediately. Within a day or two, they should know if the Judge would alter the sentence or not. Although his words seemed hopeful, his demeanor did not reflect the hope he was trying to hold out to them.
When Henry and the others were finally able to get outside, Mike and the guards were already gone. Henry turned to Father John who had finally made his way out of the court.
“Don’t fret, Your Grace. There is no way I intend to let that devil hurt anyone else I care about.” He turned, and was gone.
Jericho and Tom took the Bishop to the tavern down the street, and ordered Scotch whiskey. They sat in the gloom and drank. Jericho attempted to explain to Father John what Henry had meant by his promise.
“Several years ago Henry’s wife died after a long illness,” he began, after downing the contents of his glass. “At the time Henry was in the employ of Mr. Jacob Tolabert. Tolabert made a habit of sending Henry out of town often, and for long periods of time. If Henry objected, Tolabert would threaten him with unemployment, and other despicable things. When Henry’s wife became ill, he begged Tolabert to allow him to stay, and care for her. He flatly refused. Finally, while Henry was away again for Tolabert, she died.
“Henry quit working for Tolabert, then he left town. He lived in a drunken stupor after that. I found him one day nearly frozen to death in the street, and took him home with me. Sometime after I befriended him, and dried him out, he told me his story. He’s been living with that anger for a lot longer than Mike has. But, he’s been a little wiser about it until now.”
“I am truly sorry for Henry’s loss, but how can he possibly do anything now to stop the hanging?”
“I don’t know for sure, Your Grace, but when Henry says he’ll do something, he does it. We best go find him, and see what he’s planning. I’m sure the two of us are to be part of his plan.”
The guards half dragged a stunned Mike out of the courtroom, and back toward his cell. Through the tall windows of the corridor, Mike could see the gallows. They stood ominous, and seemed to be calling his name. The haze of his stupor began to clear, and was replaced by panic. A tremendous strength and ferocity suddenly surged through him, and he began to struggle against his captors. He slammed the wrist shackles into the face of the guard on his right, sending him reeling. He then elbowed the guard on his left, knocking him to the floor. But, they staggered back to their feet quickly, just as Mike lunged forward, only to find more men running towards him.
Mike kicked and struggled with the fierceness of a wounded bear, and it took five men to drag him back to his cell. In a final attempt to stop them pushing him in, he managed to brace himself against the jamb. But, in the end, all his struggling was vain. With a monumental unified surge, they loosed his limbs from the doorframe, and thrust him headlong into the cell. Sprawling on the stone floor, he slid to a stop half way across the cell. The abnormal strength left him as just suddenly as it had come upon him, and he lay limp and lifeless. When they were sure the prisoner’s strength was finally gone, the guards entered the cell, removed the shackles, and quickly left, slammed the door and locked it. Broken, Mike remained, unmoving, on the stone floor for hours.
Father John entered the cell just before sunset, and found Mike still lying on the floor, his knees drawn to his chest, arms wrapped about them. Eyes glazed, he trembled uncontrollably. Father John knelt beside him, and placed Mike’s head on his lap. Mike seemed not to notice as Father John stroked his hair, and murmured consoling words like a father to a child injured at play. Finally, after long minutes passed, Mike sat up, dragging his dirty hands down his face to wipe the last of the fog away. He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.
“I’m not ready to die, Father. I don’t know how to prepare myself,” he said into his limp palms as they lay in his own lap. “I’m frightened.”
“Death is nothing to fear, Michael. But you won’t be facing it just yet.” Mike looked up sharply at him. “Mr. Smythe is looking into what he can do to get the sentence reduced or dropped. We should know in another day or so. Barring that, Henry plans to rescue you,” he whispered.
“How? There’s no way to get me out of here.”
“I don’t know all the details. But, it may not be necessary. With any luck, Mr. Smythe will be able to do something. Just be calm and wait. Either way, you will not be here much longer.”
By the next afternoon, it was clear that Jacob Tolabert had managed to influence everyone in the court who could affect a change in the sentence. The prisoner would hang that evening.
Father John met Mike inside his cell just before sunset. He stepped close and whispered his news so that the guards could not hear.
“When they take you out, be ready to do as the actions of any of your friends indicates. I’m afraid that is all they could tell me when I saw them last,” he told Mike quietly.
Mike considered this message. It was strange, and he was not sure what it meant, but he trusted Henry. He looked at the little ventilation opening high in the wall of his cell. Through it, he could see the setting sun as it sank below the edge of the tiny opening. His gut felt like it was twisting into knots, and he wished he could hide.
“Father, I’m so sorry for the things I’ve done. I fully intended to go somewhere, and find honest work when I left home. But, when I met Henry and the others, the life they taught me was … easier. I even found I liked it. After a while, nothing shocked me. Mind, we never stole anything we didn’t need. And, only when there was no work to be had.” He paused, unsure if he should confess the rest. “There—there were women—”
“You don’t need to tell me these things, Michael. God is the one from whom you must seek forgiveness. I’m not the one who will judge you in the end.”
“But—I thought—you’re a minister …”
“True, I am a minister. But, I am also a man. And, above all that, I’m your friend.”
“Thank you,” Mike swallowed a lump in his throat, “for the way you have always stood by me.”
The guards rattled the key in the lock, and flung open the cell door. They entered cautiously, prepared for another struggle, but were relieved to see the prisoner calm. They bound his hands in front of him with a short length of cord. There would not be a chance for him to use the heavy iron shackles against them again. One guard took each arm, and they walked out of the building into the darkening courtyard, now crowded with spectators waiting the evening’s entertainment. The crowd parted as the guards made their way towards the gallows with the prisoner. Father John followed close behind, praying quietly as he walked.
The last of the crowd cleared, and before them, just behind the building, stood the foreboding scaffold at the far side of the courtyard. It stood in a grassy patch, and people of every description stood all around it, jeering, and laughing as they pointed at him. All Mike seemed able to look at, were the steps leading up to the platform, where his life was about to end. A hooded man, dressed in black stood atop it, holding the noose, which would shortly be around his neck.
Mike glanced nervously about him in an effort to spot at least one of his friends, but there were so many people pressing in, he recognized no one. Had something gone wrong? They walked closer to the steps, and sweat trickled down his face and into his shirt, which seemed clammy and damp, clinging to his back.
He jumped with tension, when the executioner pulled the lever up on top of the platform, releasing the trap door under the noose. It made a horrible banging noise, and a sickening screeching as it swung freely back and forth on its hinges. Some of the crowd nearby, cheered and applauded as the men reset the door. Fearful his friends had failed in their plan, Mike began to pull back feebly against the strong grip of the guards, as the realization he was actually going to die set in.
Lamplighters were lighting torches and street lamps around the square against the approaching darkness. The flickering light in the growing dusk was spawning grotesque shadows in the corners of the courtyard. Mike could see there were only a few more steps and he would have to start the climb to his death. His friends had failed after all. The guards tugged harder at his arms. His heart pounded so hard he thought it would burst inside his chest.
Suddenly, a young woman with a shawl clasped around her head, pushed out of the crowd, and flung herself at Mike. She attached herself tightly to him, as she wailed loudly and mournfully. The guards grabbed her and struggled to loosen her, and push her back. Stunned, Mike looked in wonderment where they pushed her back against the crowd. She lifted the corner of her shawl from her face, and Tom winked at him from beneath it, and looked down at Mike’s hands.
Mike glanced down, and realized his wrists were free of their binding. Tom allowed them to push him into the crowd, and then he slipped quickly out of sight. Mike saw him reemerge, a moment later, without his skirt and shawl, close to the scaffolding where few people were standing. That close to the structure, the view of the hangman and the noose was poor, so there was an empty area, about three or four feet wide, all the way around the scaffolding.
The guards jerked Mike forward impatiently. Just as they reached the clearing at the foot of the steps, Henry burst out of the crowd, and with a fierce shout, he knocked down the guard on Mike’s left arm. Mike turned, and with his freed hands, gave the other guard a powerful shove, sending him sprawling backwards to the ground. Although, it only took seconds for the other guards to recover their senses and run to assist, Jericho had already stepped into the clearing with four horses in tow. Tom pulled and pushed bystanders into the path of the on-coming guards as he worked his way toward Jericho. Mike and Henry bolted toward the horses.
The people thrown into path of the guards, scrambled to recover and get out of the way. The crowd parted, as the mounted horsemen urged their mounts forward. The horses, with eyes wide in excitement, were snorting and jerking their heads anxiously, chomping at their bits. The fugitives spurred the horses to a gallop just as one of the guards leveled a musket at them and fired. But, the riders did not halt.
The sound of gunshot riled the crowd further, stirring their angst and excitement into a brawl with each other, and with the officials. The last thing the four fugitives saw of the tumult was the guards fighting to free themselves of the crowd so they could get horses of their own.
The fleeing group quickly disappeared into the dark streets of the city, weaving in and out of alleys, mews, and closes, making it more difficult for those in pursuit to tell which way they had gone. Mike’s head pounded as hard as his heart as they rode. He was free! But, unless they got out of the city and far away, they would be caught, and they would all hang.
At last, they broke free of the city, and rode hard into the dark countryside. It felt like it had taken hours, but in reality, it had only taken a portion of an hour to reach the open. As soon as they could, they left the road that skirted the marshy areas, heading into the safety of more wooded areas. Once concealed far outside the city, Henry pulled his horse to a stop. The others reined in their mounts close beside him, the horses panting and tossing their heads in their excitement, lathered from the hard, fast ride.
The men were also huffing from their ride, yet surprisingly exhilarated. Their banter and chatter was excited as they exchanged spotty details of their heroics. Henry dismounted, and began looking around for any sign of pursuit. Tom nudged his horse close to Mike.
“Mike! We did it! We got you out. I bet you thought we’d never do it.”
Mike nodded, but was strangely quiet. Henry stopped his searching, and came close to the others, who had remained mounted. The quarter moon had risen, and even by the pale light of it, he could see that Mike looked odd. As he watched, Mike swayed slightly in the saddle, and then suddenly pitched forward onto the horse’s neck. Henry lunged forward and caught him, holding on to him until Jericho could dismount. Together they lowered Mike to the ground, and laid him on grass, already dewy in the early evening air.
Henry pulled his arm out from under Mike gently, and then saw the large, dark stain on his shirt.
“He’s shot!” He cursed.
Jericho ripped the front of Mike’s shirt open, and searched for the wound. There was blood oozing from the wound in his left side. He pressed his handkerchief to the wound. “We have to stop the bleeding. He’s lost a lot of blood already.”
“We can’t stop here,” Mike whispered hoarsely. He was barely conscious.
“He’s right,” said Henry. “They’re no doubt on our trail by now. It won’t take ’em long to find us here.”
“He’s in no condition to ride any further,” protested Jericho.
“I know, I know. Just let me think.” He paced around the little clearing, deep in thought. At last, he came back. “You remember that old barn we lived in when we were here before?”
Jericho and Tom nodded. “It ain’t far from here. If we cut ’cross country, we could make it in about an hour, even if we go slow.”
Henry and Jericho helped the very weak, and nearly fainting, Mike to mount Henry’s horse. Henry mounted behind him, grasping Mike firmly around his chest to hold him. Jericho and Tom followed as Henry led the way. Mike slipped in and out of consciousness during the ride, and it took all of Henry’s strength to keep him upright.
The barn was about four miles away across country, and it took more than an hour to reach it. Jericho and Tom left Henry and the horses in the woods across the road, while they inspected the structure for signs of inhabitants. When they were satisfied, Tom signaled Henry to come while Jericho set about making a bed for Mike in the straw of a secluded stall.
By the time they laid him down on the blanket, Mike was barely hovering on the edge of consciousness. Henry and Tom found some lanterns and lit them as Jericho examined Mike’s wound. The ball had pierced his side, and lodged there.
“That has to come out, but I don’t think I can do it. I don’t have what I need,” Jericho said as he continued to press his bloody handkerchief to the wound. “Tom, bring a pail of water.” Jericho washed the wound and bandaged it with strips he had torn from the bottom of Mike’s ripped shirt. The bleeding had stopped for the moment.
“He needs a doctor, and medicine. All I have in my pouches are herbs for stomach ailments, and cuts and scrapes. I got nothing to help his fever. We don’t even have any whiskey to pour on the wound.”
“How bad do you think he is?” Tom asked, as he squatted nearby.
“Bad. That ball has to come out. We have to get him to a doctor.”
“It ain’t possible. Too risky.” Henry growled. “The nearest doctor’d be in Cambridge. There’s no way we can go back there. ’Specially with him. We’d all hang.”
“Then we have to bring one here.”
“How do you propose we do that, Jericho?” he snapped as he stood and paced. “Same risk in that! Anybody who comes here’s gonna turn us in at first chance.”
Henry continued to pace, Tom sat and chewed his nails, and Jericho fretted over Mike.
“How long do you think he’ll last without a doctor?” Henry finally asked.
“Not long. He’s hurt bad, and without medicine, I can’t do no more for him.” Henry paced again. “And, there’ll be search parties out by morning. We need to find a better place to hide.”
Henry nodded. “Tom, get up there in the loft and look around. See if there’s any way we can take cover up there.”
In a short time, Tom reported from the top of the ladder.
“There’s a corner back there that’s still sturdy enough. If we heap up the straw and hay just right, we could hide behind it well enough if someone was lookin’ up from down there.”
“What about the horses?” Jericho asked.
“There’s a pasture behind the barn. I seen some animals there the last time we were here. We could put ’em out there on tethers, and it would look like they belonged.”
Tom and Henry busied themselves carrying their saddles, belongings, and anything they could find up the ladder to help create a camouflage in front of the safe corner. When they were ready, they set about the task of how to get Mike up into the loft.
“Well, there ain’t no other way to do it. I’ll have to carry him up. Jericho, get up there, and be ready to take him. Tom, you steady the ladder while I climb.”
Jericho climbed up, and waited at the top of the ladder. Henry took Mike by the arms, pulled him up on his feet, and bending over, lifted him onto his shoulder. The pain shooting from his wound caused Mike’s head to swim and he had to fight to keep from passing out. He was sure this was his punishment for all he had done, and had caused his friends to do. Perhaps it would be best if he just died from this wound. Then they would be free to leave and get away.
It took determination and strength, but Henry made it up the ladder. Jericho pulled Mike up, off Henry’s shoulder, and held him, until he and Henry could carry him to the bed they had prepared. Shortly, they had Mike bedded behind the makeshift wall of loose straw. Tom brought up a fresh pail of cool water from the stream behind the barn, and Jericho swabbed Mike’s face with it. Then, he turned his attention to the renewed bleeding of Mike’s wound. Behind the mound of straw in the dark loft, they settled down for the night.
Not long after sun up, a light fog covered the entire area. Voices drifted in to them from out of the mist.
“Robbie! Your wife know you come out on this hunt?” laughed one of the horsemen. Others laughed in response.
“At least she gave me a kiss before I left. How ’bout yours?” countered Robbie. “Bert, how big did you say that reward is?”
“Ten pounds! Tolabert must want ’em pretty bad to put up that much.”
“Yeah,” came the general agreement of the group.
The fugitives could see the search party through the cracks in the old wood of the barn as they approached. The searchers were loud, and clumsy. They tramped about the woods, until they found the old barn. After much noisy shushing, and signaling to each other, they dismounted and approached it. Then, with a shout, they burst through the barn door weapons at the ready, expecting to find the fugitives huddled before them. To their dismay, they found the barn empty. No horses, no riders, and no fugitives.
“They ain’t here!” said a disappointed Robbie.
Henry could see the men clearly from his hiding place, and froze when one of them pointed directly at them.
“Maybe they’re up there,” said another.
“Use your head, man. That rotten old loft wouldn’t hold a cat much less four men.” With the old pitchfork that he picked up from the floor, he poked at the wood just above their heads. It pierced the rotten wood, loosing splinters, and debris that fluttered down on them.
“There, see that? Besides, there ain’t no ladder. ’Course, you’re welcome to go on up there, and have a look around, if you can fly.”
“Go on with ya! I ain’t daft.”
“Well, there ain’t no where’s else they could hide in here. We best keep movin’.”
They left with as much commotion as they had come. To be sure the men were truly gone, the fugitives stayed hidden, unmoving for another half an hour. At last, Henry cautiously lowered the ladder to the ground, slipped down, and peered out and around the barn door. The intruders were gone. There was no sign of them outside the building. He signaled to the others that it was safe. They breathed a sigh of relief, and yet they all stayed hidden for a while longer, just in case someone else came hunting them.
At last, Henry quietly got up and made his way toward the ladder, and slid it down to the floor again. “What are you doing now?” questioned Jericho from right behind him.
“I’m going to go on further ahead and find a doctor.”
“Wait.” Henry turned and looked at him with mild surprise. “I been thinkin’ about that.”
“Is there a change in him?”
“No, no. He still needs help, but I have an idea.” The board beneath his foot cracked, threatening to splinter. “Let’s go down and talk about it.” Henry nodded, and led the way back down the ladder. They both cautiously looked outside before settling on a couple of empty kegs at the foot of the ladder to talk. “There’s no doubt Mike has to have help.”
Henry nodded gravely. “Aye, we have to do something if we don’t want him to die.”
“Maybe,” said Jericho. Henry raised a suspicious eyebrow at him. “We could go to the Bishop. He would help. He could send for a doctor, and no one would be the wiser.”
“I think the four of us ridin’ up to his door, would draw considerable attention. There’s patrols all over the city looking for us by now. And, they know the Bishop knows Mike. They’re probably watching his house, too.”
“Yes, but, just one of us alone wouldn’t bring any special attention. They’re looking for the four of us together. One of us could go to the Bishop, and tell him what’s happened, and see what he can do. I’m sure he’ll be able to think of something.”
Henry mulled it over. “Might work. I’d say it’s worth a try.” He stood up. “I’ll go. You and Tom stay here, and keep out of sight as much as possible. There could be more folk trampin’ about looking for us.” Jericho nodded agreement. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. If I’m not back by evening, you best try somethin’ else.”
“Right.” Henry cautiously went to the pasture and retrieved his horse. After saddling up, he headed back down the road toward Cambridge, nudging the beast to a steady trot. Jericho climbed back into the loft.
“You should get some sleep, Jericho,” said Tom. “I know you didn’t get none last night. I’ll watch Mike for a while.” Jericho gave him a smile that said both, thank you, and I’m surprised to hear you volunteer.
“I’ll do that. But, you wake me if there’s any change. Any change at all.”
Tom just wagged his head, and took up his position beside Mike.
“When will people trust me to be responsible? Of course, I’ll call him if there’s a change. I’m smart enough to know I can’t do nothing for you by myself.”
Mike opened his eyes slightly, and nodded. He was cold, but his clothes were drenched in sweat. He was so weak and tired, but he fought to stay awake. He was convinced they would be discovered if he fell asleep. But, it was becoming harder to keep his eyes open, and his wits about him.
Although Tom had not taken kindly to Mike at first, they had become friends. Their bond was akin to brothers. Mike was vaguely aware of Tom’s words as he fought to stay awake.
“I think I told you I never knew my actual family. Jericho and Henry were the closest thing to parents I ever knew.” Mike was closer to his own age, and Tom eventually discovered it was easier to talk to Mike than to the older men about some things. “You know,” he said as he leaned back against the wall of the barn, “it took me a spell to warm up to you. I got real good at not showin’ it bothered me what people said. I didn’t care for nobody else but Henry and Jericho. In fact, until you came along, I didn’t think I needed no friend.” If the light had been better, Mike might have seen his cheeks coloring at this confession.
Tom sat staring at Mike in silence for a while. From time to time, he refreshed the cloth on his forehead, and if Mike thrashed about, he checked carefully to see that the bleeding had not started again.
“You better get well,” he whispered close to Mike. “I think I’ve got used to having you around.” He checked the cloth again for coolness, and then continued to chat quietly. “Hey, you remember when you taught me to swim? I was such a ninny in that lake. But, you never got mad at me. You just kept telling me I could do it. You never paid no attention to Henry and Jericho hootin’ at us from the banks. Nobody else would a’ done that,” he said as he lifted his head, remembering that summer day.
Tom leaned back against the rough wall of the barn. Then he leaned close again to check his fever. “You know, Mike, I never really did say how sorry I was for what I done to you, when you first joined us. You remember? At that tavern? I just wanted to see what you’d do when I put that girl onto you. Jericho told me I shouldn’t a done it. I guess maybe he was right. I’m sorry.”
Mike stirred, moaned in pain, and his eyes opened. His brow creased as he slowly looked around.
“Jericho!” Tom jumped up, and shook the sleeping Jericho.
Jericho was up in a flash. He placed a rough hand on Mike’s flushed face.
“The fever’s still there, but he don’t seem quite as hot as he did earlier,” he said, shaking his head.
Mike tried to focus his eyes, but they would not focus on anything for long. Jericho held a water flask to his lips.
“Here, drink this.” Mike allowed the cool water to enter his mouth, and managed to swallow down a mouthful or two.
“Where are we?” came the faint whisper from his parched lips.
“In the loft of that old barn. Don’t you remember?” He exchanged a look of concern with Tom.
“We can’t stay here—we need to keep moving—” Jericho gently pushed him back, when he attempted to sit up.
“You ain’t in no condition to go nowhere. We’re safe for now. Just lay back and be still, so you won’t start bleeding again.” He rinsed the cloth and mopped Mike’s face.
It was nearly sundown, when Henry returned alone and unhappy. “I couldn’t get through. There’s search parties everywhere. I had to do some tall talking when some bloke said he thought he recognized me.”
“How long do you suppose they’ll keep looking for us?” asked Tom, biting his lip.
“No tellin’. I thought they might a give up by now. Maybe think we was long gone.” He sighed as he sat down and handed Jericho the small bag he had brought with him. “I managed to get a bit of food. It’ll have to do for now,” he apologized as Jericho extracted the meager fare. “I guess Tolabert won’t call off the hue and cry ’til he’s good and certain he can’t get to Mike no more.”
Mike listened to them, Regret churning in him, and wishing he could make things different. If they had not done this for him, they would not be in this danger.
“This is my fault,” he said in a low voice. “Put me on a horse, and let’s get out of here. We’re all in danger if we stay here much longer. I won’t be the cause of harm coming to you.”
“What the devil do you think you’re going to do on a horse? You can’t even sit up. How you going to ride?” snapped Henry.
“I’ll do what I have to—”
“Just hush,” he said in a kinder tone. “The ride’d kill you.”
“It’s no worse than hanging. Please—”
“Ain’t nobody dyin’. Not today, anyway. Just settle down and rest. Leave the planning to me. We need to get you some help. That’s first.”
Arguing was pointless. Mike lay back, feeling useless and even weaker. But, even so, he found it strange that he no longer had the fear of death he had when he thought he was about to hang. True, he was sad at the thought of never seeing his friends again, but there was a peace now—a resignation to it. He even welcomed it as a way to end the pain he was feeling and causing his friends.
In the dim moonlight, beaming through holes and cracks of the barn’s dilapidated structure, Mike could see Tom crouched beside him. “Tom?”
Tom was instantly closer. “Yeah, I’m right here, what you need?”
Mike reached out a hand to take Tom’s. “You’ve been a good friend. I’m glad I had a chance to know you.”
Tom was glad it was so dark, and Mike could not see his face. “You’re a good friend, too, Mike. I’m glad you’re here.”
“I need you to promise me you’ll do something for me—later.”
“Sure, Mike. I’ll do anything you say.”
“Later, when this is all over with, and it’s safe for you … I want you to go to Father John, and tell him that I—that I’m grateful for all he did for me, and my family. Tell him I’m sorry for the way things ended—”
“Nothin’s ended! You heard Henry. You can tell him all that yourself, when you’re better.”
Mike smiled weakly. “Tom, it’s all right. I’m not afraid anymore. Don’t be sad for me.”
Tom was again grateful for the darkness that hid a tear slipping down his cheek. He managed a quivery response. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere. You’ll see. You’ll be just fine.”
Mike slipped back into a fitful sleep, as Tom sniffed and wiped his face on his sleeve.
Mike felt so peaceful and incredibly light. It was as though he were floating, drifting aimlessly along with no worries, no goals. There was no pain in his side, and when he opened his eyes, Mike found he was standing alone, surrounded by a thick fog. There were no shapes in the swirling gray light—no trees, buildings, or people.
Suddenly, remembering his wound, Mike slapped his hand to his side. There was no pain. He looked down at his shirt. There was a ragged little hole where the bullet had pierced him, but there was no blood, and most wonderfully, no pain at all. It was wonderful not to hurt. He was mildly confused, but he felt no great fear.
He moved his hand in front of him, fascinated by the patterns it made in the mists. Then, he heard a deep chuckle. Another and another followed it, until they turned into long, hideous, and sinister laughter. Mike opened his mouth to call out, but no sound came. He walked a few steps in what he thought was the direction of the sound, but it seemed to be everywhere, yet nowhere. Between the laughter, he thought he heard a man speaking. At first, the words were unclear. He strained to hear the whisper that grew slowly louder.
“I’ve won. I’ve beaten you.” The words repeated between the laughter. A chill tingled down Mike’s spine. The voice belonged to Jacob Tolabert.
Mike flailed at the mist, trying to find a way out, to get away from the sound, and the one making it. And, then suddenly, it stopped. The ensuing silence was deafening, and still there were no shapes in the fog. Mike walked, looking from side to side, hoping to see something that would tell him where he was, and how to leave.
Light was intensifying behind the mist. It was an eerie light, and it seemed to shine on nothing but him. There was nothing else except him, and the endless fog. The fog began to brighten, and thin to his right. He turned, and walked in that direction. From beyond the disappearing curtain of mist, came a sweet familiar voice.
“Michael. Michael?” It seemed an irresistible force drawing him onward. The mists continued to thin, and as they cleared, a lush green valley spread in panorama before him, resplendent with flowers and trees, a babbling brook, and birds of varied and beautiful colors. He marveled at the beauty. He could remember nothing like this place.
At a sound, he turned his head and saw a figure hurrying toward him, arms outstretched. As she neared, he saw that the smiling girl was Janny! He tried to run to her. He wanted to scoop her up and hug her tightly, but his feet felt like they were deep in mire. He could barely lift either foot, and forward movement was impossible.
Janny stood still then, waiting patiently for him. Behind her, two more figures stepped forward into view. They came up beside Janny, and stopped. Mike could hardly believe his eyes. Sarah and Gerard stood with Janny. Sarah, in her emerald green gown she had worn the last time Mike saw her, her hands clasped at her chin expectantly, and Gerard with one arm around her and the other in his vest pocket. The sight was so peaceful, and he wanted to get to them so badly, but his feet just would not move. As he struggled, from the mists behind him a different voice called to him with urgency. It was such a commanding call he knew he had to answer it. With a little wave to his family, he turned. To his surprise, when he turned to walk back toward the voice, his feet moved easily, no longer bogged down.
Janny called gently after him as he walked, but he could not turn back. “We’ll wait for you, Mike.” Then the mists swallowed him, and the valley was gone. The euphoric feeling was fading, and with the insistent voice came a jarring sensation.
“Mike!” Jericho’s voice penetrated the mists.
Mike opened his eyes with effort, to see Jericho bent over him, his hands gripping the front of Mike’s shirt, shaking him. It took all of his strength to speak.
“Jericho.” The thin raspy sound came from his tight throat.
“Thank God,” he whispered. “I thought we lost you,” Jericho sighed, and eased him back onto the blanket. “You gave us a scare.”
Mike became aware that he was breathing heavily, and that he was wet with sweat. To his disappointment, the pain was still in his side. But, he was too weak to do more than manage a whisper.
“Why? What happened?”
Jericho wrung the excess water from the cloth, and placed it back on Mike’s forehead.
“You got restless, tossin’ around and callin’ to someone. Then all of a sudden, you just stiffened up, and quit breathin’. Tom started bellerin’, and I grabbed you, and started shakin’.” Mike lay still, allowing Jericho to check his wound and fuss over him. “You rest now. This gunshot has left you weak. You need to be still, and let your body try to fight it.”
The morning sun was glowing in through the cracks where the moonlight had shone before. Faintly in the distance, the bells of Cambridge rang, calling students to their studies. Tom rose, climbed down the ladder, and began quietly to saddle his horse. Henry had seen him go down, and followed him on cat’s paws. When he reached out and grabbed his arm, Tom jumped, as if shot.
“What do you think you’re doin’?”
“I’m going for help,” Tom turned back to the saddle cinch.
“And, just what makes you think you can get through, if I couldn’t?” Henry stood towering over him with arms crossed over his chest.
“I don’t know. But, someone’s got to get a doctor. Mike won’t last much longer like this.” He turned back to his task, frustrated that Henry did not seem to understand.
Henry watched Tom finish his preparations. “Actually, there’s a possibility you could make it. But, you can’t go chargin’ in there like a mad man.”
Tom glanced at him from the corner of his eye. “Then what?”
“I been thinkin’ ‘bout it all night. They won’t be looking for a boy alone goin’ about his business. You get to town, and then you slow down to a walk. No one’s going to notice you if you look like you’re just doing what everyone else is doing—getting ready for the day. You go on to the Bishop’s house and ask to speak to him. When he comes you make sure there’s no one else around, then you tell him what happened, and ask him if he has any ideas how to get Mike a doctor.” As soon as Henry had finished instructing Tom, he was galloping toward the city.
Several hours after Tom had left the barn, a carriage pulled up, and the driver pulled it into the open doors of the barn. Henry and Jericho moved stealthily to the edge of the loft, weapons at the ready. To their amazement, Father John looked up at them, and waved as he climbed down from the driver’s seat. He was not wearing his usual clothes that marked him as a man of rank in the church. Instead, he was dressed as any other minister. Then Tom stepped out from inside the covered landau, holding a satchel. The most amazing thing was that Tom was dressed the same way as Father John. He wore a black suit with a white collar, and a wide brimmed black hat. They were stunned to silence as the newcomers made their way up the ladder, and behind the barrier.
Father John knelt beside Mike, who appeared to be asleep, and was very pale. Sensing his presence, Mike opened his eyes and smiled weakly.
“Yes, Michael. I’m here. How do you feel?”
“Very tired—my side hurts—Father, I saw Janny.” Father John looked up questioningly at Jericho and Henry, then back to Mike.
“Yes. Mother and Father, too.” He closed his eyes. “They’re waiting for me, you know. They looked so happy…”
“That’s—that’s wonderful, son, but you need to rest now. We’re going to take you out of here, and get you some help. You’ll be well again in no time.” He did not sound as convincing as he had hoped, but Mike did not seem to notice.
“Thank you, Father…” was all he managed, before sinking back to near unconsciousness.
Henry had looked on, his face a dark cloud. It took great effort not to scream at the Bishop.
“And, just how do you propose to take him anywhere? Even if he wasn’t at death’s door, it’d be too risky to take him back into the city. And, not just for him and us, but for you as well.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ve made arrangements already. In that bag you will find garments for each of you … if you wish to come along,” he said as he began to take Mike’s shirt off. “Those clothes will allow you to travel anywhere you wish, without question.”
Tom yanked open the satchel, and pulled out three black outfits. Henry’s eyes widened, and his fists went to his hips. “You want us to wear those?”
“Those clothes are all anyone will see, if they give you a second glance. They’re searching for criminals, not clergy. You’ll find all the things you need to shave and dress. I’ll take care of dressing Mike while you change. I want to make sure you are properly attired before we leave.” He began to undress Mike, and then cautioned them. “You had better hurry, from the look of him.”
Father John took the bottle of Scotch whiskey from Tom’s hands as quickly as he had pulled it out of the bag.
“That is not for you. I brought it to put on Mike’s wound. And, to help ease the pain of the trip for him.”
He placed the bottle to Mike’s lips, and coaxed him to swallow a mouthful. Mike coughed and sputtered, trying to turn his head away, but Father John held him tightly, and coaxed a bit more down him. When he was satisfied that Mike had drunk enough to sufficiently make him numb, he tipped the bottle over the bandaged wound, and blotted up the excess, before he finished dressing him.
Henry carefully carried Mike back down the ladder, the same way he had brought him up, while Tom packed all their gear into the boot, and covered it with the canvas. They seated Mike inside the landau, Tom and Jericho holding him between them. Jericho kept checking Mike’s wound, hoping all the activity had not caused it to begin bleeding again.
After attaching the reins of the other two horses to the back of the vehicle, Henry mounted his horse.
“If anyone questions us, let me speak to them,” Father John said with authority just before mounting the driver’s seat again. “Our story is that our brother has taken ill, and was unable to ride. That will explain the extra horses.”
Moments later, they were on their way back into the city, looking like a solemn little group of traveling holy men.
The trip from the barn to the vicarage seemed interminable, but by very late in the afternoon, the five men arrived at the back door.
“Speak to no one when we go inside,” Father John cautioned. “Once Michael is settled, and the doctor is with him, I will instruct you in the proper behavior while you’re here. Until then, I’ll tell everyone you’re in seclusion and prayer for your sick friend. The others in the household will respect that and not bother you.”
With Mike supported between them, Henry and Father John carried him up the steps, and into the vicarage. He was awake, but very weak as they half carried, and half dragged him upstairs into the Bishop’s own room. They laid him on the bed, and undressed him. Mike wondered why they were doing these things when he was about to die. All he wanted was for the pain to stop and be left to die in peace.
When the doctor came in, he waved everyone away from the bed so he could examine the patient. Father John called a young student to take the others to the kitchen and feed them, then show them to their rooms.
“Our guests have traveled a long way, and are tired. They wish to be in seclusion and prayer as much as possible until their companion is on the mend, so please respect that. I will answer your questions later, after the doctor leaves.” The young man nodded, and motioned for them to follow him to the kitchen. Father John closed the door behind them as they went down the hall behind their guide.
An hour later, the doctor opened the door of the room to find the Bishop, seated outside, watching it intently.
“Your Grace.” He motioned to him to come into the room. Once they were both behind the closed door, he continued. “I don’t know how this man came to be in this condition, but it is a good thing I got to him when I did. A few more hours, and he would have been dead.”
“He will recover?”
“Honestly, I’m not sure. I’ve done all I can for him. The rest is up to him—and God.” He pulled his coat on and adjusted his collar. “I removed the ball, and put on clean bandages. He has lost a very large amount of blood. It will take him a long time to recover from that alone.”
“What can we do for him?”
“Keep the wound clean, and change the bandages as often as they need it. Keep him warm. Keep the cool cloth on his head until that fever breaks. I left some salve for the wound, and some laudanum for pain.” He shook the Bishop’s outstretched hand. “Give him broth and water whenever you can until he wakes and is able to eat. Call me if you need to.”
“Thank you, Dr. Weston. I am very grateful for all you’ve done.” He placed a coin in the doctor’s hand.
“I hope what I have done is sufficient.” He hesitated at the door. “Your Grace, who is he?”
A sad smile pulled at the corners of Father John’s mouth, “He is a child of God in need.” His eyes locked the Doctor’s, communicating that he was not about to tell him anything more.
“It would be greatly appreciated, if you did not mention to anyone that you have been here, or what you have done.”
Dr. Weston pursed his lips in thought. This request went against his better judgment and his duty. “I have known you for a very long time, John. You wouldn’t ask such a thing of me if it were not important, I suppose.”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
He nodded, more to himself than Father John. “You secret is safe. I hope your friend recovers.”
“So do I. You can see yourself out. I want to sit here with him for a little while.”
Alone at last and the door closed, Father John knelt beside the bed. Mike opened his eyes slightly and tried to smile before slipping back into unconsciousness. Holding Mike’s limp hand, Father John bowed his head, resting his forehead on their clasped hands.
Wakened by the morning bells Jericho quietly opened the door of the room, and found the Bishop asleep in a posture of prayer, still clinging to Mike’s hand. At the touch of Jericho’s hand on his shoulder, Father John jerked awake, looking first to Mike’s face. Mike’s eyes fluttered open briefly at the sound of movement. Then Father John realized someone was beside him.
“Jericho. I didn’t hear you come in.”
“You were asleep. How long have you been here?”
“I don’t know. All night I suppose.” Jericho took his elbow, and helped him to his feet. Father John touched Mike’s face, and changed the cloth, then crossed the room, and sat down near the window. Jericho sat opposite him on the extra chair by the little candle table.
“What did the doctor say?”
Father John took a deep breath and let it out. “He said he did all he could do. The rest is up to Mike.”
“Then he’ll be fine. Mike’s a good lad. He has a strong will to live,” he assured the Bishop.
“I pray you’re right.” Father John covered his face with his hand, pulling it down over his chin, feeling his morning stubble.
“Why not? Look at all the things he’s been through up to now. God wouldn’t spare him through all that, if he was done with him.” Jericho leaned back into the chair, and rested his elbows on the arms of the chair.
“I suppose you’re right. It’s just so hard to be objective when it’s your own—” He stopped abruptly, his face reddening.
“Your own?” Jericho asked quietly.
“When it’s your own friend.”
“Mike’s a fighter. He’ll get through this. So will you.”
Father John nodded to his hands in his lap. “Thank you, Jericho.”
Jericho stood and held out a hand to the Bishop. “Come on. You need to get some real sleep. I’ll sit with him now.”
A visit from a guard of the lock-hold disturbed the peace of the afternoon at the vicarage. The clerical student announced him to Father John while Henry, Jericho, and Tom were with him in the room with Mike. Mike groaned and moved in an effort to get up.
“You lie still! This is something I can handle. The rest of you stay here and be quiet,” he cautioned. Father John left the room, and they quickly opened the door a crack. Their hearts pounding, they listened as he greeted the visitor. With only an occasional bold peek out of the door to see what was happening at the bottom of the stairs right outside the room, they could hear every word clearly.
Father John descended the stairs to find the man standing with his hat in hand staring out the little window beside the front door. He turned when the Bishop reached the bottom step. “Sorry to disturb you, Your Grace, but I wondered if I might ask you a few questions.”
“Questions? Certainly! I am always delighted when people want to know more about God.”
“Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that sort of questions.” He was obviously flustered.
“Forgive me. Then what do you want to know?”
“Well, that man you were called to the lock-hold to pray for a few days ago—the one that escaped before he was hung—”
“Wasn’t that astounding? I was right there when it happened. Did you see it, too?”
“Yes—well no, not exactly. I was there after it all happened.” He shifted on his feet. “Your Grace, you knew Harrington, didn’t you? Before the incident.”
“Well, yes. I knew his parents. They were a fine family. I was shocked to learn of the trouble the boy had gotten into.”
“You didn’t have anything to do with the escape, did you?”
“Me! Sir, may I remind you that I am a man of God? I am bound by God to do right.”
“Yes, I know, but I still needed to ask … Have you seen Harrington since he escaped?”
“Where would I have seen him? They all rode off at a gallop, as I remember. I’m sure they were bound for parts unknown.” Father John sounded amazed at the question.
“It was reported to me that there were five men arrived at this address yesterday.”
“Oh, yes, fellow clergymen from London. Old friends. They were on their way to their new parish assignments. They stopped by to rest and visit before continuing on.”
“It just seemed odd that a group of men shows up here just after the escape, and it was a group of men involved in the escape—” The man’s words were suggestive.
“My good man, have you nothing better to do than spy on the comings and goings of the clergy? Did my friends look like criminals to you? Did they resemble those men in any way? I can assure you, that you will not catch those criminals here in this vicarage!” Father John was obviously finding it hard to stay calm and steady.
“I’m sorry if I’ve offended you, Your Grace, but it’s my job to look anywhere Harrington might turn up. You will notify us if he should?”
“If the man comes here seeking asylum, we will be in touch with you.”
Henry ventured a bold look beyond the crack of the door and saw the man as he placed his hat on his head, bowed slightly to the Bishop, and walked to the front door. “Thank you, and good day, Your Grace.” He left quietly. Father John held his breath until he saw the man turn the corner at the end of the street.
Mike slept most of the next few days, waking only occasionally. Whenever he was awake enough, one of his friends would spoon broth into his mouth, or tip a cup of water carefully to his lips, until he either fell back to sleep or refused more. He was barely aware of anything around him during those times. They took turns sitting at his bedside, ready to meet any need.
Even after several days, Mike still slept most of the time, and his fever was nearly gone. The Bishop and Jericho were sitting quietly in the room, late in the afternoon when a stirring, and weak murmur from the bed interrupted the quiet.
Mike moved his head back and forth on the pillow, and then sleepily opened his eyes, trying to focus. The room was washed in late day sun, and it was unfamiliar. He was confused. Where was he? How did he get here? Two black clad figures came and stood expectantly beside the bed, looking down at him. After a moment, he recognized the one as Father John, but the other seemed odd to him. He was a minister, but—
“Jericho? Is that you?” he asked in a weak voice.
“It is! How do you feel?” He touched Mike’s face, and found it cool. The fever was finally gone.
“Hungry.” He still tried to puzzle out his vision. “Why are you dressed like that? Where are we?”
“We’ll get to that in good time. First, I’d best get you something to eat. This is the first good sign we’ve seen in days.”
“Days? How long have we been here?” He made an effort to sit up, but found he was very weak.
“You’ve been sleeping in the Bishop’s own bed, for the better part of a week.”
The Bishop? Father John, of course. But, he lived in Cambridge. They had fled from there. How could they be in Cambridge, and yet be free. They had been going somewhere else.
“The last thing I remember is going to the barn. How did we get here?”
“It’s just as well you don’t remember most of it. You was in a lot of pain. And, it hasn’t been real easy on the rest of us, either. But, that’s not important just now. I’m sure, Tom will be happy to tell you all about it. I’ll send him in on my way to the kitchen.” He turned and left practically with a skip in his step.
Father John sat down on the side of the bed smiling broadly. “It is good to see you awake. You worried all of us.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t really remember much of what happened. Right now, my dreams seem to be jumbled together with truth. I thought I was talking with Mother, Father and Janny. They were waiting for me to join them somewhere, but then they told me to go back. They said, ‘you have to go back now. Father John needs you. You have something more to do.’ Isn’t that strange? I can’t imagine what that could mean.”
Father John cleared his throat. “I don’t know what that could mean, but I am glad you’re back with us.”
Tom bounded into the room, ending their conversation. “Mike! You’re awake! I thought you were going to sleep forever.”
From that point, Mike’s recovery was quick. Tom happily told him of all their adventures since the trial, and Henry began making plans for them to move on, as soon as Mike was able to travel. Father John managed to obtain some new clothes that would help them look different from the fugitives they were, and supplied them with provisions for their journey.
Finally, the day of their departure arrived. As they packed their saddlebags and prepared to mount their horses, Father John gave them his blessing and bid them good-bye.
“Michael, promise to let me know when you are safe. Find a way to let me know where you are. I would like to keep in touch with you. You have been a part of my life for a long time. I don’t want to lose touch with you again.”
“He will do that, Bishop. I promise, now that I know how important he is to you,” said Jericho with a wink as he mounted his horse, then they waved to the Bishop as they turned their horses and rode away.
Time would dim their faces from the memory of most, but there was always a chance someone would remember the prisoner, and the men who helped him make the spectacular escape from the hangman. Even though it had been weeks, there were still people looking for the fugitives, eager to collect the reward. They had to get away from Cambridge, and the farther, the better.
With some of the money Father John had gotten from the sale of the house, they not only purchased their new clothes, but also changed their appearance as much as possible. Though they could not pass as part of the wealthy class, they at least did not resemble the lower class vagabonds they had been when they escaped. And, so changed, they were able to go from the city with little threat of recognition.
They would be able to spend their nights in comfortable inns, rather than hiding in deserted barns, or camping in the woods like their pursuers would expect. The first night, after they had eaten a plain hearty meal, they sat at their ease by the fire, drinking a tankard of ale in the common room of a little inn. Jericho puffed on his pipe, lost in thought, and Henry eyed the serving girl across the room, while Tom and Mike talked quietly. At last, curiosity got the better of Tom and Mike, and they intruded on Henry’s reverie.
“Henry, where’re we going?” Tom asked quietly. The others leaned closer to hear, hoping to prevent anyone else overhearing.
“It’s better you don’t know.” he said forcing himself to turn to look at them. “That way, you can’t let it slip—accidentally—in conversation with someone who might remember it to the law.”
Jericho puffed out a cloud of smoke. “Good thinking. It’d be a good idea not to talk about it in the common room at all. Blend in. The less we look out of place to them, the less people will notice us, and the less likely they’ll remember us.”
They all nodded their agreement, and after a short time of silent reflection, Henry said, “It’s time for bed. Morning’ll come early, and we want to be on the road shortly after daylight.”
After weeks of what seemed like endless travel, zigzagging back and forth across the country, it was apparent they were heading in a generally northern direction.
“Henry,” Tom whined one afternoon, “we’ve been riding forever! How far you think we need to go?”
“We’ll go ’til I think it’s far enough,” he barked from his saddle, several paces ahead of the group.
“If we keep changing direction, it’ll take twice as long as it should,” Tom said half under his breath to Mike, who rode at his side.
Mike hardly heard him. He had been watching a rocky formation that was getting closer as they traveled.
“Jericho, what is that?”
Jericho, who was only half a length ahead turned to see where Mike pointed.
“That,” he said, “is what is called Arthur’s Seat. It was where the old castle stood a long time ago. There’s nothing up there now but some old ruins, but it’s still a point of pride for the Scots.”
“We’re going to Scotland? Is that far enough? Why don’t we just go on to the North Sea?” Tom moaned sarcastically. “Me bum hurts from all this riding. I’m ready to see the inside of a tavern.”
“We’re close to Edinburgh. When we get there we’ll be safe enough,” Henry called over his shoulder.
Jericho nodded his gray head as he, too, began watching Arthur’s Seat growing nearer. “The new city’s being built on top of the old one. In the old town, we can find a place to stay, and nobody will give us a second look. All kinds of people mingle there without interference from the law. You can find anything there that suits ya. And, we ought to be able to get regular work.”
Mike was fascinated. “How can they build a city on top of another one?”
“You’ll see. They just started building up and kept going to get above the stench of the old city. The rich just keep building up. There’s a whole other city underground now. Safest place for someone who doesn’t want to be found out, or seen.”
Henry had slowed his pace to allow the others to come abreast. “If we’d gone there a few years back we’d be as safe as if we were in another country. But, the English and Scottish parliaments have combined. Only thing that separates Scotland from England now is their speech.”
“You think we’ll be safe there anyway? Tolabert won’t be able to find us there?” Mike asked as he considered their destination. That ever present squirm of fear squeezed his belly. Would it be far enough?
“Aye, we’ll be safe. Even Tolabert wouldn’t come this far just for you.”
In the safety of Old Town, in the narrow closes and winding little streets, was where the four found they could be lost in the crowds of diverse humanity. All types and classes mingled together in unabashed acceptance. They took a flat on the third story of a newly converted house. There were five other small flats in the building, each already occupied. While some of the residents were as questionable as they were, some seemed to be merely displaced upper class that had come upon hard times. In the beginning, the four newcomers kept to themselves, and spoke little to their neighbors, or fellow workers. But, all the residents accepted the others, and greeted each other with the same cordiality. So, it did not take long before they were part of the community.
There was work for any man willing to labor long and hard hours. Factories and other thriving businesses were abundant, with jobs for anyone who would work for the low wages. Henry and Jericho took work on the docks of one of the factories. Mike took a job keeping records for a small company similar to Harrington’s.
Tom was surprised to discover he enjoyed the company of particular red-haired lass who lived on another floor of their house. She was a servant in one of the great manor houses of the city, but lived at home with her parents when not at work. And, after a few weeks of coaxing, she managed to get Tom to take employment at the same manor house where she worked.
At first, they only went out to go to work and back. But, as the weeks passed into months, and no one came looking for the four English fugitives, they began to relax. The tavern, at the corner of the block, became Henry’s favorite home away from home. He found the company of a certain lass there much to his liking, and he spent a large amount of his free time, and his free income, in her company.
Jericho, however, made the acquaintance of the widow on the fourth floor of their house, and soon found her very companionable. Of course, Tom thought Jericho had become senile for preferring her company to theirs. After all, he thought Jericho was much too old to want anything to do with a woman. Especially, one who was as old as he was! But, Jericho ignored Tom’s disdain, and became quite fond of the dear lady.
And, as soon as they brought home their first pay, Henry told Mike that he would not accept any more of his money for their keep.
“You put your money away, Mike. I won’t take another farthing. We all have a job, and can live on what we make. Together, we can manage right nice,” Henry said one evening.
“Are you sure? I don’t mind sharing it with all of you. You paid my way often enough these last couple years.” He was holding the pouch, containing what remained from the sale of his house, before him.
“No. I won’t take it. You put it away in case there’s something comes up later. It’s yours. Who knows what might happen down the road. You might want to move on and you’ll need it then. We can make do with what we earn. Might even manage to put a bit aside ourselves if we keep living as frugal as we do now.” He waved his hand to indicate the threadbare little flat. It was not fancy, furnished sparsely, and it was in Old Town, but it was far better than other places where they had lived.
Mike nodded. “Right then. I’ll do that—but, if you ever need anything, you just say the word.” Mike felt a burden of gratitude for all Henry and the others had done to get him away. He gladly would have given them all the money, but he hid it safely away against future hard times. It would be good to know it was there if they should suddenly find the need for flight again.
Mike found his free time empty when the others began keeping company with their new female friends. He took to wandering farther and farther afield from their neighborhood in his free time, and discovered the better sections of the great city. In those areas were shops. And, in those shops were pretty young ladies, whom he discovered, found him attractive, and thought him a gentleman. They were willing to spend their time with him.
His only problem was that he felt there were far too many pretty, willing girls in the city, and he thought it would be a shame to deprive any of them of his company and attention. He had the nice clothes they had bought for their escape, and it was not hard to hide from them that he was not a real gentleman. Therefore, it did not take him long to learn many of these girls had morals as loose as his own. And, to his delight, he did not have to spend a lot of time and expense to get his way with them. Whenever one began to think he was the one to take home to Papa, Mike would suddenly lose interest, and quickly move on to the next.
One evening after work, a few years after they settled in Edinburgh, the four found themselves at home together for the first time in a long while. Jericho made a tasty meal, and they exchanged stories of their day, as they shared a bottle of wine that Mike had bought on one of his excursions.
“I must say, Mike, you spending so much time over in the other side of town, has its benefits,” said Henry holding up his second glass of the very good wine. “This is certainly better than what they serve at the tavern down the street.”
They all agreed, as they sipped their own glasses. “Well, there is much more than good wine over there. You should clean up, and go see for yourselves. Get a taste for how the other half lives.”
Tom rolled his eyes, and shook his head. “No, thanks. I get a look at that every day when I go to work. They may have better things to drink and eat, but that don’t make ’em any better than us.”
“Here, here!” said Henry, and he thumped his hand on the tabletop. “High livin’ don’t make the man. I’ve seen that myself, many times. And as for food, I think Jericho cooks about as good as any of them fancy cooks, over there.”
Again, they all agreed. Jericho stood, and made a mock bow.
“I thank you for the kind words!” He gave a playful punch to Henry’s shoulder. “But, I don’t know that you’ve had anything to compare it to, for a very long time.” The laughter ebbed, and Jericho picked up some of the dishes, and then put them down again, thoughtfully. “I have a bit of news I’ve been wantin’ to share with you.” He seemed suddenly very serious.
The others sobered a bit, and straightened in their chairs. He could read the fearful questions in their faces, and was sorry for giving them the wrong idea.
“Oh! It ain’t that bad! In fact, it’s pretty good. At least, I think so.” The tension eased, but they still eyed him skeptically.
“You know Catherine, the widow upstairs?” he looked to each, in turn, to see their nods of recognition. “Well, you know I been keepin’ company with her for a while now.” They nodded in unison. “I—well I—I mean, she—has agreed to—ah—” he stammered as he looked at their anxious anticipation. “Well, she’s agreed to marry me.”
Silence. It was as though they did not fully know what he was saying. Slowly, understanding began to dawn, as each realized the news was not that they were found out.
“Marry you!” bawled Tom. “Marry you? What are you talking about? You can’t marry her.”
Mike and Henry sat still in stunned silence, looking at each other, then at Tom and Jericho. Jericho’s brow creased, and he looked hard at Tom, his fists on his hips.
“And why is that, Tom Albert?”
“Well—well because,” he pulled his eyebrows together tightly, and folded his arms across his chest, sinking down on his chair with a pout on his lips.
Henry cleared his throat, “Life keeps movin’, Tom. It changes every day. You can’t expect that we’d all be together for the rest of our lives,” he said, though he did not look like he believed what he was saying.
“Yeah, but—he’s old. Old men shouldn’t get married,” he pleaded to the others.
“Why not? Us old men have just as much need, as you young ones. We like the company of a good woman too.” Tom’s pout was not abating. “Tom, I ain’t dyin’, just gettin’ married. I’ll just be upstairs.”
Mike ventured a question, “But, why now?”
“Because, it’s high time I stopped livin’ the way we’ve been. I’m too old to keep it up. Besides, I like the thought of a woman to comfort me in my old age.” He gathered up an armload of dishes, and turned towards the basin of water on the dresser.
Tom stood up abruptly, and set his glass down. “What about us? What are we supposed to do without you?”
Jericho turned from his task, annoyed by Tom’s lack of enthusiasm, “Boy, you’re more than twenty years old! If you can’t take care of yourself by now, there’s no hope for you.” He turned back to the dishes. “I didn’t tell you to ask for your permission. I don’t need your approval. I just thought you might all be happy for me. But, if not, so be it. It don’t change nothin’.”
A few days later Jericho and the Catherine McDonald were married in the church on the corner of the street. It was a quiet affair, just close friends in attendance, but the celebration, which followed in Jericho and Catherine’s lodgings, was as festive as any gathering for a young couple on their first nuptials. Even Tom, eventually relented, and was happy for them.
As time passed, they saw Jericho and Catherine nearly as much as before, but their own rooms felt a bit emptier. After all, they had been like a family for over eight years. They had rarely been apart during that time. But before long, Tom took solace in his sweetheart, Mary. Henry found his in visits to the tavern, and Mike in his constantly changing female companions.
Spring came again to Edinburgh. The naked tree branches turned varied shades of greens and reds, and blossomed in great clouds of white and pink. Crocus, violets, and daffodils filled the gardens and commons, and on street corners, girls hawked them to gentlemen for their ladies. The air was full of the scent of renewal, as winter melted away, replaced by warmer weather, allowing new life to spring from the thawed ground.
Mike’s latest foray had taken him to a ribbon stall in the market during his lunchtime one day. He was tiring of his current conquest, and he thought a trinket would help ease his departure. He held up two bright ribbons for examination, and with them in hand he turned towards the light of the sun to see them better. As he did, he bumped into a pert young woman who was also examining the offerings of the stall.
“Oh, I beg your pardon, Miss,” he said as he adjusted his hat back into position, while holding a ribbon in each hand.
“No harm done, Sir,” she replied, taking a half step back, adjusting her bonnet and her wrap. She looked up into his handsome, smiling face, and was struck dumb.
“Are you sure you’re not hurt?” he asked noticing how flushed she was, and that she stared at him open-mouthed. He reached out and touched her elbow, “Miss—?”
Suddenly aware of her lack of manners, she gave her blonde curls a quick shake. “I am well. No damage done.” She forced herself to look away from him. Mike was familiar with that look. She was smitten. She was pleasant to look at, and he was, after all, about to break off his association with another girl, which would leave him free to see someone else. He quickly dropped the ribbons back in their place, and lifting his hat, he held it to his chest.
“My name is Mike Harrington,” he offered.
“Amelia Martin. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.” She gave him a coquettish sidelong glance.
“Well, Miss Martin, a lovely creature like you is surely not shopping alone.”
“Of course not!” she blushed, “My maid is just—well, she was just here. Esther? Esther!” she called as she turned to look for the errant maid.
“I’m relieved to know you are escorted. Otherwise some forward gentleman would certainly take advantage of such a pretty young lady.” That brought her attention back fully to him. She was looking at him, wondering what to do next, he thought.
“Your concern is very kind—Mr. Harrington—but as I said, my maid is here and we have Father’s carriage.”
“Oh, of course. Well, it was nice to meet you, Miss Martin. Perhaps we shall meet again sometime, and be properly introduced.”
She smiled and seemed pleased by his boldness.
“Yes, possibly.” She offered her hand, which he took briefly, giving her a slight bow, and again lifted his hat slightly. Her free hand flew to her heart in delight. She seemed to be having trouble speaking, but she managed to blurt out after him, as he turned to leave, “Perhaps I’ll see you at the concert in the park this evening? My cousin Clara and I shall be there.”
He smiled his most charming smile, touched the brim of his hat, and said, “Perhaps. It will be a lovely evening for the event.” He turned and walked away, leaving her to stare longingly after him. There was a little spring in his step as he walked the rest of the way back to work, his mission to buy a trinket completely forgotten.
When Tom returned home that evening, Mike had already decided he would need help in this latest endeavor. The girls he usually courted were easy to get alone, but this was no shop girl. She was a lady, with a lady’s manners and customs. To get her off by herself, away from her cousin, he would need an assistant. Tom would do nicely.
“A concert?” Tom said, incredulous. “Mike, I’m bone weary. I’ve worked all day. I don’t want to get all dressed up and go out just to help you seduce a girl. I want to see Mary for a little while, and then get some sleep.”
“Please, Tom. You can sleep at the concert. People do it all the time. Just come with me, and distract her cousin so I can spend a little time alone with her,” he begged. “This will be your chance to rub elbows with people like those you work for as an equal,” he coaxed.
“I’ve seen enough of people like I work for. Enough to know I don’t want to be anything like ’em.” He sat on his cot and tugged off his shoes, dropping them to the floor one at a time with a thud.
“When have I ever asked you to do something like this for me? I’m tired of all the chippies I have been seeing. Please, Tom. I won’t ask you to do it again. This girl is a lady. I just want to have a chance to be among people like I used to know for a change.”
After Mike begged and pleaded unrelentingly for several minutes, he finally agreed, and went along.
They strolled around the park with the other people, milling about looking for seats. Tom was definitely not as enthusiastic as Mike about looking at all the people in their finery, and he wore a scowl for most of the evening. The concert was the first entertainment of the season in the park, and it was clear that people were anxious to shake off the long seclusion of the winter.
The mild dusk was melting into indigo, with stars twinkling above the blossoming trees that graced the park. The scent of the blossoms mingled with the perfumes of the gathering women, giving the night its own aroma.
Lanterns hung from the branches of the trees, casting little halos of golden light in the approaching darkness. Plank benches placed in semi-circular rows stood around the bandstand, where the orchestra members were tuning their instruments. Around the edges of the seating area, there were vendors with carts and baskets, hawking flowers and tasty wares, adding to the cacophony of sights and smells.
“There they are!” he whispered, pointing across a row of seated people. Mike elbowed Tom from his lassitude. Amelia stood fanning herself while talking to another woman. She was a cloud of pink ruffles and flounces. The neckline of her gown, cut to the fashionable low, exposed her milky shoulders, her wrap dangling carelessly from her elbows. Her hair was pinned high on her head with a long golden curl dangling over each ear.
Before Amelia turned her head and spotted him, Mike took note of her companion. The vision that met his eyes was not what he had expected. She stood, politely listening to Amelia babble and gesture. Her hands, clasp in front of her, held an unopened fan and a tiny reticule, and her wrap was sensibly up around her shoulders. Her gown was not as garish as Amelia’s, but was obviously expensive, made simply but tastefully, and did not expose her shoulders as brazenly as Amelia’s. Her dark hair, swept up fashionably neat, framed her fair complexion and gentle, indulgent smile.
Mike’s heart skipped a beat. He thought she was the most exquisite creature he had ever seen, and he was sure, she was quite out of his reach. But, the thought of actually being in her presence overwhelmed him.
He stood, mesmerized by this unknown beauty, when he heard Amelia “yoo-hoo!” across the crowd. Her animated wave seemed to embarrass her companion, who tugged at her arm in an effort to subdue her. Mike smiled and nodded toward them.
“Come on Tom, let’s go meet the ladies,” he said with a twinkle in his eye and a sappy grin on his face.
Tom glanced from the waiting women to Mike, puzzled by his unusually awestruck expression. “You find that ball of pink fluff that attractive?” he ventured.
“Huh? Wha—pink fluff?” he pulled his attention back to reality. “Actually, the one in the pink is the one I met this afternoon, but I do believe I prefer her companion. Have you ever seen such a beautiful sight?” he lowered his voice as they neared.
“So, what is it you want me to do, then?” Tom whispered. He did not know whether to be annoyed, or amused.
“I’m not so sure now. I didn’t actually agree to meet her here. So, I’m not truly obligated to her for the evening.” He thought quickly as they took their last few strides.
Tom looked like he felt awkward, but Mike was not the least bit nervous, now. Tom puzzled over the situation for a moment.
“Look, I realize you was raised to know all those manners, and how to hobnob with people of money. This must be natural to you, but it ain’t to me,” he hissed.
“Just be polite, and we’ll see how things play out,” was all he managed before they were beside the girls. Tom strained uncomfortably at his cravat as Mike spoke with the ladies.
“Why, hello! Miss Martin, wasn’t it?”
“Why, yes, Mr. Harrington. It is nice to see you this evening,” she blushed coquettishly. “May I introduce my cousin, Clara Martin?” She looked at her companion, and put her fan to her face and giggled.
Mike bowed to her, politely keeping his eyes fixed on hers. “I’m very charmed to make your acquaintance, Miss Martin.” She in turn made a quick polite nod. “May I introduce my friend, Tom Albert?” Tom made his version of a bow to the ladies, who in turn nodded their acknowledgement to him.
They took seats, all four in a row, with eyes fixed on the quieting orchestra. The tap-tap-tap of the baton came from the front of the seating area, and the audience hushed as the conductor raised his baton. Soon the merry strains of Mozart were filling the evening air. Amelia smiled and fanned herself, often looking at Mike seated next to her. Mike occasionally rewarded her with a polite non-committal smile in return, while appearing to concentrate on the music. But, every chance he got, he looked hungrily at the girl seated between her and Tom. Tom squirmed uncomfortably in his seat beside Clara, who sat rigidly beside Amelia, as though she was afraid any movement on her part might send improper impressions. Her expression was wooden, and her smiles forced, throughout the concert.
Afterward, when the audience was dispersing, and standing about conversing, Amelia was still fluttering and prattling. Fanning herself vigorously she said, “I believe I’m quite thirsty!”
Mike seized the opportunity. He slipped a couple coins from his waistcoat pocket and into Tom’s hand, and then addressed Amelia.
“Mr. Albert was just saying the same thing a moment ago, weren’t you, Tom?” Mike’s elbow nudged him, and when he turned furrowed brows to Mike, he winked at him and moved his head slightly in the direction of the vendors, away from where they were standing. “Perhaps he would be kind enough to buy you something to drink.” Mike stared hard at Tom, his eyes wide, full of meaning.
Tom understood his hint, but was reluctant to participate in whatever it was Mike was planning. He finally forced a little smile at Amelia, and offered her his arm, “Certainly. Would you care to join me, Miss Martin?” He was anything but enthusiastic, but they strolled off toward the vendors.
Mike turned his attention upon a nervous Clara. She tugged her wrap tighter around her shoulders and pretended to be looking after them.
“It has been a very lovely evening, hasn’t it?” he ventured. She glanced briefly at him, and nodded before turning back. Amused by her nervousness and determination not to pay attention to him, he was more determined to get that attention. “Would you care for refreshment?” He watched her obvious indecision with amusement. “I promise I won’t bite.” She glanced up to see his most charming smile.
With what appeared to be a difficult decision, she pulled her wrap tighter around her shoulders and nodded. Mike smiled and offered his arm. “Shall we?” Gingerly she placed her hand on his arm, and they walked toward the vendors.
“Do you live in Edinburgh, Miss Martin?” Mike tried for conversation after they had their glasses, and stood sipping from them.
“What brings you here tonight?”
“I am visiting my aunt and uncle.”
“Oh, I see. May I ask from where?” He smiled at her purpose not to converse freely.
“I don’t believe I’ve ever been there. Is it as lively as Edinburgh?”
“We have our moments.”
Resolved to get this beautiful woman to like him a little, Mike changed his tact. “I must apologize. I seem to have offended you is some way. I am sorry for that.”
Clara was startled. “I—oh, no, you have done nothing to offend me, Mr. Harrington.” She began fanning herself.
“I’m glad of that. I find you most enchanting, and I would not want to give you cause to dislike me.”
She seemed embarrassed to have been so obvious in her attempt not to like this man. She had truly behaved all evening as if she found him disagreeable. Mike suspected it was because Amelia had felt hopeful of him. But, in spite of her behavior, Mike thought she had found him, at least, attractive.
“This is not my usual behavior,” she offered stiffly. “I seldom hold conversations with complete strangers, and would normally not spend an evening with one. I was under the impression you and Amelia were seeing each other.”
“We met by chance this afternoon in a market stall. She mentioned she was attending the concert tonight, and hoped we might meet here. I am sorry if she made any other assumption beyond that.”
“Oh! I’m afraid she did. She seems to think you are, in some way, involved.”
Mike smiled sadly at her. “I’m sorry she feels that way. I certainly did not try to give her that impression. I must confess, I would much rather get to know you. You seem much more sensible. An attractive quality in a very attractive woman, I might add.”
Clara flushed and kept her fan before her face. “Here come Amelia and Mr. Albert.”
Mike silently cursed their timing, and turned to greet them. “Here you are! Did you find refreshment, then?”
Tom glowered at him, and Amelia beamed. “Yes we did, thank you very much.” She sidled up to Mike, and batted her eyelashes.
Clara rolled her eyes, then said, “I believe I see Uncle George coming this way. He and Aunt Mary must be ready to leave.”
Amelia pushed her lower lip out, and lightly stamped her foot. “They have no sense of the romantic. I’m so sorry we didn’t have a chance to get to know each other Mr. Harrington.”
Mike doffed his hat and made a bow. “Regrettable.” He took her offered hand, and gently squeezed her fingers. Then he turned to Clara and bowed. “Miss Martin, it has truly been a pleasure to talk with you.” He took her gloved fingers and held them softly. “May I call on you some time?”
Clara was flustered. “Well, I don’t know. I won’t be in Edinburgh much longer.”
“I would be delighted to call any time you agree.” His gaze was most solicitous.
“Well, I suppose it would be acceptable if you came by for Sunday dinner. Uncle George lives at number three Charles Street.”
“I shall see you then.” He bowed again, and watched as the two women turned, and joined an older couple crossing the lawn toward them. It was obvious by their behavior that Amelia was very annoyed with Clara.
Tom jammed his hat back onto his head, and turned to leave. “That was the most ridiculous thing you have ever asked me to do.”
“How do you mean?” Mike had turned to join him, and they strode quickly away from the departing crowd.
“I thought you wanted the blonde. Then you send me off with her. What a simpering little twit!”
“I’m afraid I was taken in by the beauty of her cousin. I’ve never met a woman like her. I think I’ll have to take time to get to know her very well.”
“Won’t that be awkward? Isn’t she staying with Amelia’s family?”
“Yes. It could be a bit touchy. But I think she will be well worth it.”
Mike lay awake that night, remembering every detail of Clara Martin. He could hardly wait for Sunday dinner.
Standing at the door of number three Charles Street with a small bouquet of flowers in hand, Mike straightened his coat and removed his hat. He lifted the knocker and let it fall. A butler opened the door and admitted him.
“Mr. Harrington to see Miss Clara Martin,” Mike said.
“Yes sir. The family is in the drawing room.” He led Mike into a large ornate room where several people sat, or moved about. “Mr. Harrington,” he announced to the room at large, bowed, and removed from the room.
“Mr. Harrington.” The older man he had seen at the concert stepped forward, extending his hand. “I’m George Martin. My niece told us you would be joining us this evening. Won’t you come in?”
“Yes, thank you.” He glanced around the room to find Clara, but she was not there. “Where is Miss Martin? I brought these for her.” He wagged the little bouquet feebly.
“She will be down shortly. She and my daughter are still primping, I’m afraid. In the meantime, may I introduce you to the rest of the family?” He stepped back, and indicated the rest of the people in the room.
A tall young man stood by the fire, glass in hand glaring at him. “This is my son, Geoffrey. This is Mr. Harrington.”
Mike nodded his head in greeting. “How do you do?” Geoffrey simply continued to glare at him. There was a beautiful young woman seated near him.
“This is Miss Leanne Wallace, Geoffrey’s fiancée.” Mike bowed to her. George turned toward the divan where a handsome older woman sat. “This is my wife, Mary.” Mike bowed to her and received a trace of a smile. George continued to introduce the rest of the guests, until at last Amelia and Clara entered.
Their gowns were light confections of silk and taffeta, which rustled as they walked toward Mike and George. “Ah, my dears, you have managed to join us at last,” said George with a smile. Each woman smiled and simultaneously gave George a peck on the cheek. “I assume you know Mr. Harrington. Our daughter Amelia, and my niece Clara.”
Mike bowed to them and presented the flowers to Clara. “Yes, we met at the concert last week. It is lovely to see you again.”
If the conversation in the drawing room was difficult, dinner was no better. Amelia sat on one side of Mike, and Clara on the other. By whose design, he was not sure, but Mike suspected he knew, and did his best to hide his disappointment. Amelia did her best to monopolize his attention throughout several courses, leaving little time for him to speak with Clara. It was obvious that Clara was as annoyed as he was by this maneuver. Meanwhile, Geoffrey sat opposite them, glowering at Mike throughout the meal, and Leanne pouted, all the while glaring at Geoffrey.
After dinner, they sat in the music room, and listened while Leanne played the piano. Amelia sat on one side of Mike on the divan, and Clara on his other side. Clara sat, hands in her lap, stiff and unwilling to do anything that would provoke Amelia’s anger. Amelia, on the other hand, wiggled, and flirted with Mike openly and aggressively. Frustration began to get the better of him and he knew he would not have a chance to speak to Clara this evening. When he could stand it no longer, Mike excused himself to leave. Having no more than a small moment to talk with Clara, he thought he would have to give up any hope of getting to know her. When he stood to take his leave, Clara followed him into the hall while he took his hat from the butler.
“I must apologize for the family,” she said quietly. “Most of them feel that Amelia has been wronged in some way. I’m afraid they took it out on you. I was afraid that would be the case.”
“I understand. But,” he lowered his voice so only she could hear, “I did enjoy what little time I had to talk with you—and would like to see you again—perhaps, without so many people?”
“Yes,” she said thoughtfully. “I often go for a walk in the park with my maid on Sunday afternoon. Usually, Amelia isn’t interested in coming along.”
“Perhaps I shall see you there,” he said with a smile. He bowed to her, mindful that the others were watching from the music room, and bid her good evening.
Sunday afternoon seemed to come very slowly. But, at last, Mike found himself strolling up and down the walkway in the park. There were many couples strolling along the walk and on the grass, and some were sitting quietly on benches watching the activity, or chatting quietly together. He looked in every direction for Clara, for what felt like hours. Perhaps she had changed her mind, or she could not get away. Disappointment welling inside him, he was on the verge of giving up and returning to his flat in dejection, when he spotted her walking toward him with another young woman. Since he did not recognize the other girl, he assumed she was Clara’s maid. With a bounce in his step he had not expected, he hurried to intercept them.
“Miss Martin! It is nice to see you again.” He tipped his hat to her, and nodded to the maid.
“Mr. Harrington. How nice to see you again. Bridget and I are out for a walk.” She indicated her maid, and blushed.
“Perhaps, I could walk with you?” He offered, and Clara nodded with the slightest hesitancy. They began to stroll slowly, with Bridget walking close behind them. After a short while, it was obvious they would not be able to talk freely with the maid listening to every word. Mike guided them to a bench where they sat down. There was a man walking around with a basket of pastries for sale, and Mike dug into his waistcoat pocket for a coin.
“Bridget, would you like a bun?” Mike offered her the coin.
Bridget’s eyes grew large, and she nodded eagerly. It took no other urging to get her to leave them, and Mike smiled broadly.
“At last!” he whispered to Clara who smiled back.
They spent the next half hour in pleasant conversation, without Bridget listening.
“How long have you been in Edinburgh, Miss Martin?”
“I came a couple weeks ago. I plan to stay until the end of summer. Then Father expects me home again, before the fall season begins.”
“Do you come every year to spend time with your Uncle?”
“No, not every year. It has been three years since I was here last.” She glanced around to see where Bridget had wandered off to, and spotted her seated on a bench nearby, engrossed in her bun. “How long have you been here, Mr. Harrington?”
“I came here seeking work a few years ago.”
“So, you live here now?” she asked, and Mike nodded. “Do you plan to go back to England?”
“I have no plans at present.” She nodded and studied her glove. “Where in England is your home, Miss Martin?”
“My father and I live outside Leicester. We have a bit of property there.”
“That sounds lovely. It is only you and your father?”
“At the moment. My mother passed away several years ago, and my brothers are currently off pursuing their fortunes elsewhere.” She touched her hair and checked her hat. “Is you family still in England?”
“No. My family is all gone. My parents and sister died about eight years ago.”
“I’m so sorry! Was it illness?” She looked at him in sympathy, but his face did not betray his inner thoughts.
“No. Well, my sister died of illness. My parents were killed by a highwayman.”
She gasped and held a gloved hand to her lips. “How dreadful! Did they catch him?”
“Not yet. But one day he will be caught and pay for what he did,” he said with bitterness he had not meant to reveal.
Mike was careful not to tell her too much of his life. And, for some reason he could not imagine, he felt she was doing the same. But, he did not care. She was here, and that was enough.
They continued to meet in the park on Sunday afternoons over the next few weeks. Each time they met, Mike hated to watch her and Bridget walk away from him, back to her Uncle’s house. He wished he could go with her and spend the rest of the evening with her as well. But it was plain, from what Clara said, that Amelia had not forgotten that she had seen him first, and still held the belief that he would come back to call on her.
After yet another beautiful afternoon, it was time to say farewell again. But, Mike had decided he was not going to watch her walk away this time.
“May I escort you back to your Uncle’s house,” he said, touching the brim of his hat.
Clara blushed and seemed a little flustered. “Oh! I don’t know if that would be a good idea.”
“I understand your concern, but I think it is time that we chose to be open about this. I would like to feel I could call on you at home, and not only secretly in the park.”
She bit her lip and looked at Bridget for encouragement. But, she got none. “Well, I suppose it would be all right. But, you must know what may happen. At the very least, Amelia will be distraught.”
When they reached the front gate, Bridget curtseyed and left for the servant’s entrance, with a grin. Clara dropped her eyes to her hands, and Mike drank her in. He took her hand between his, and lifted it, softly pressing his lips to her fingers. To his surprise, and pleasure she did not pull her hand away. He even sensed, that if he had wanted to draw her into an embrace, she might not have resisted. He lifted his eyes to look into her gray eyes.
“May I call you Clara?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Would you, please, call me Mike?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“I find I have become very fond of you, Clara.”
“And, I you, Mike.” Her cheeks glowed slightly pink, but she held his eyes with hers.
The moment was shattered, when Geoffrey suddenly came hurtling out of the house, and out the gate, lunging at Mike. Before Mike realized what had happened, Geoffrey landed a punch to his nose, and blood was running down his chin onto his cravat and shirt. Clara squealed, and grabbed Geoffrey’s arm, before he could raise it, and strike again. Mike took a step back, clutching his nose, and hoping Clara’s cousin would not reduce him to a brawl in front of their house.
“Stop! What are you doing?”
“I will not allow this swine to mistreat you as he has my sister!” he spat toward Mike.
With handkerchief clamped to his bleeding nose, Mike recovered his poise. “I have done nothing to your sister, sir.”
“That is not what she says.” He pulled himself up to his full height, in his indignation.
“Then, she is mistaken. I met her only once. I have made no overtures to her, or promises.”
Geoffrey made as if to strike again, but Clara tugged at his arm. “He’s right. He’s done nothing to give Amelia reason to think he has intentions toward her.”
Geoffrey looked at her distraught face, then at Mike. “I only know what Amelia told me.”
“Come now, Geoffrey,” Clara insisted. “You know how she is. She sees suitors in every shadow. If a man tips his hat on the street, she thinks he’s proposed.”
The color was leaving Geoffrey’s face. Mike could see the struggle; he knew she was right, but he still felt he should at least, seem to defend his sister’s honor.
“I am sorry if Miss Martin has misunderstood. But, I have found Clara quite the most charming woman I have ever met, and would call on her often if she will allow it.”
With a look that said, I wish you wouldn’t, Geoffrey turned to her. “She will be impossible, you know.”
Clara nodded. “I know. But, it won’t be long before she is enamored of another man. I think we can put up with her until then.”
Geoffrey sighed, and then extended his hand to Mike. “Sorry, for that,” he said sheepishly, indicating Mike’s bloody handkerchief, still clutched to his nose.
Mike took his hand. “Quite forgotten.”
When he had returned to the house, Clara stepped close to Mike again. “I am so sorry. Are you sure you still want to call at this house of insanity?”
Mike wiped as much of the blood from his face as he could without a mirror. “Nothing could keep me away, if you want to see me.” She smiled, and touched his arm with her gloved hand. She returned to the house, where she could hear the sound of distant wails from upstairs.
When Mike returned home with blood all over his best shirt, and traces of it still spotting his face, Tom found the whole incident amusing.
“Knew it would happen someday. Bound to be some girl who just isn’t taken in by your charm.”
“Very funny. But, it wasn’t Clara who hit me. It was her cousin Geoffrey, Amelia’s brother.” He pulled off the shirt, and went to the basin pouring water into it. He rubbed vigorously at the bloodstain in the shirt. “It was for no good reason. I hadn’t done anything. Amelia told him that she and I had some sort of an understanding. When he saw me with Clara at the gate, he felt obligated to defend his sister.”
“Well, I have never known you to discourage a woman from thinking just that.”
“I thought she might be good for a tumble when I bumped into her at the market that day, but when I saw Clara, I couldn’t think of anyone else.”
“What’s this? Mike Harrington smitten?”
Mike stopped his scrubbing, and grew thoughtful. “I just might be. She isn’t like any of the others I’ve met.”
“At least, until you get under her petticoats,” he said and went to his bed, still chuckling.
Mike finished his scrubbing and wrung the water from the shirt, then hung it on the back of a chair to dry. He could not explain why she was different. He only knew she was. He did not find himself plotting ways to get her to bed, the way he did with other girls. That night, he dreamed of Clara.
Mike’s behavior, during the next week, was the source of much mirth to Tom and Henry. They had never seen Mike lovesick, and they felt it was high time he got a taste of the medicine he had been doling out for so long.
“You know, you better be keeping your mind on business when you’re at work. Your boss won’t thank you for messing up his books for love of a woman,” said Henry, chuckling, one evening.
“I keep my mind on business, thank you very much. I can’t help it if Clara keeps popping into my mind at unexpected moments.”
Mike finally took courage, and wrote a note to Clara, asking if he might come to call on Saturday. He looked for her reply when he came home every evening, and then spent the rest of the evening in distracted silence when it was not there. Finally, her reply came. He held the scented envelope in his hands, as if it might break. He touched it lovingly, thinking how she had touched it. At last, he opened it, and was thrilled to see her agreement in writing.
Saturday afternoon found Mike at the door of the Martin house again. The butler admitted him, and left him waiting in the drawing room. It seemed strange to be here without all the Martins staring at him, accusingly. When Clara entered the room a few minutes later, he found himself as nervous as a schoolboy called to the schoolmaster’s desk. She wore a lacy white dress and straw hat. She crossed the room and stood inches from him beaming into his face.
“I thought today would take forever to get here,” she spoke softly.
“Me too. You look lovely.”
“Thank you. I thought we might join Uncle George in the garden, if you like.” He would have gone anywhere she suggested. It occurred to him that he was behaving very odd by comparison to his usual, confident self.
They went through the house into the back garden. It was lush with flowers and plants. A couple fruit trees were losing the last of their blossoms, covering the ground with white petals. There were garden chairs around a small table, which bore a tray with glasses and a large pitcher of lemonade. George Martin seated in the shade, had a book opened in his lap, and looked as if he might be napping. To Mike’s relief, no one else was there.
“Where is everyone?” Mike asked, as they crossed the lawn to sit at the table.
“Aunt Mary took Amelia to the dressmaker’s for the final fitting of her new dress—her consolation for not winning your heart.” She smiled conspiratorially at him. “Geoffrey and Leanne went for a carriage ride, and will be joining her parents for dinner. We shall be uninterrupted for quite some time.”
George stirred and opened his eyes. Realizing he had been nodding, he straightened himself in his chair, and looked up. “Ah, Mr. Harrington. Good to see you again.” He rose and extended his hand to Mike. Mike noticed that he seemed genuinely to mean his greeting.
“Thank you, sir. It is good to see you again.”
They passed the afternoon quietly, Mike and Clara wishing, that Uncle George would decide to leave them completely alone. But, George seemed to be full of questions and stories he needed to share with them. Then finally, as if reading their thoughts, he rose.
“I believe I shall go back into the house, and see if the ladies are back yet. Perhaps, I can divert them from coming out here, if they are.” He gave Clara a quick, merry wink.
She rose, and pecked him on the cheek. “Thank you, Uncle.”
Mike moved his chair closer to Clara’s. “I thought he would never leave.”
With a giggle, she tapped his arm with her fan. “So did I. Tell me more about you. I know you are English, not Scottish. Where do you come from?”
“In the south. Cambridge.” He could scarcely believe he had told her that. He never told anyone where he was from. There was still the danger that someone would connect his name with that city, and the price on his head.
“Cambridge? That’s not far from Leicester,” she mused. William studied in Cambridge for a while. My brothers no longer live at home. William joined the military.”
“You have a brother in the army?”
“Yes. He’s an officer. As we feared, he was sent to war in the American colonies. There was no way to avoid it. He’s been there for some time now.”
“I’m afraid I haven’t kept up with the politics here, or in the colonies. Things like that don’t seem to have much effect on us here.”
“How long have you lived in Edinburgh? Did you move here because your family died?”
“I suppose, you could say that’s why I’m here.”
“What was your home like? Was it large? Did you live inside the city or outside?”
“I sold the house shortly after they died. There was nothing left for me there. But, to answer your real question, we are not of the gentry. But, we were very comfortable. My father was a very successful merchant, and he and mother were accepted in the social circles.”
“I wasn’t trying to learn your social class, Mike. I don’t care about that.” She looked into his eyes with a look that stabbed him to his soul.
“I haven’t been back there for years. I only had one real friend there, and sadly, I have not kept in touch with him as I should. But, never mind about me. What about you? Tell me about your home and family.”
“As I said, Father and I live alone now. William is in the army, and Charles is living and studying abroad. I doubt he will ever come home to stay, again. He and father quarrel whenever they are in the same room for more than ten minutes. Father loves him, but Charles is too much like him. Neither of them will give an inch. But, I still miss him, especially at Christmas time. He always brightened the house. There were always parties and dinners, presents and singing. He and father seemed to have an unspoken truce at that time.”
Mike smiled at her wistfulness. He felt the same when he thought of those times with his own family. He was surprised to realize that with little effort, he could bare his soul to her, and this disturbed him. He never liked to reveal much about himself, or his past. It mystified him that he should want to do so to this unassuming creature.
As the afternoon wore away, they talked about their homes, but told only as much of themselves as they dared. There were things that neither wanted to share, until such a time as there was no turning back. Mike was in new waters with this woman. He had never felt compelled to see past the conquest with any other. But, with this one, even though he had only known her for so short a time, he could not see his future without her in it. He must know, beyond a doubt, that she felt the same, before he could tell her all there was to tell about Michael Harrington. He must be careful not to tell too much until then. And, perhaps not then.
Once Amelia turned her attentions to her next prospect, her pique with Clara evaporated, and even Geoffrey became cordial. Mike called regularly at the Martin house throughout the summer, until it was time for Clara to go back home. As the time approached, she became forlorn, and clung to every meeting as long as possible, and Mike was equally as miserable. He was surprised when he at last admitted to himself that he loved her, and he wished she could stay in Edinburgh. But, she had to go back home to England, and for his own safety and peace of mind, he must stay in Scotland.
On their last Sunday afternoon together, they decided to have a picnic. Mike hired a carriage, and they drove out of the city, and up the hill of Arthur’s Seat. They climbed up among the ruins of Saint Anthony’s Chapel, and chose a spot where they could enjoy the view of Saint Margaret’s Loch, and look down on the city, glowing in the summer sun. Clara spread out their lunch on the blanket, but neither one seemed to have much of an appetite. After they ate, Mike sat looking out over the scenery with his legs drawn up and his arms balanced on his knees, wishing the day could go on forever, and wishing it was all over at the same time.
Clara and Bridget slowly replaced the remains of their lunch back into the basket. Bridget took the hamper back to the carriage and politely stayed out of earshot.
“Mike, this is our last afternoon together. Please, let’s not waste it brooding about things that we can’t change.” Clara knelt beside him, and sat back on her heels, facing him.
“I wish you didn’t have to go back,” he said without looking at her.
“I know. Father has been gracious enough, not to insist I come home sooner. But, he is expecting me home by the end of the month.”
“Have you told him about me?”
“Well, only that I met you and you have called on me.” He did not turn, but continued to look out over the view.
“Why?” He was afraid to hear her answer. Afraid to know that he truly was not worthy of her.
“I suppose, because I wasn’t sure … sure of what to tell him. I mean, I know what I feel, and I think I know what you feel, but beyond that, what is there to tell him?” She studied her hands as she twisted her lace handkerchief in her lap.
He stretched out onto the blanket with his arms behind his head, watching the puffy clouds floating above.
“What do you want to tell him?”
When she continued to look silently at her hands, he sat up and lifted her chin on his finger. She looked into his eyes, and her uncertainty was clear. An impulse took him, and he kissed her tenderly. When he pulled back, there were tears at the corners of her eyes.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.” He dropped his hands, preparing to stand.
“No! You didn’t offend me. I’m glad you kissed me.”
“Then, why the tears?” He raised up on his knees, resting on his heels, and studied her.
“There is so much we don’t know about each other, and I—”
“You’re afraid of my past?” He could hardly keep the sarcasm from his voice.
“Oh, Mike, no!” Her eyes sought his. “No, not yours. Mine. I’m afraid when you know all there is to know about me, it will drive you away.”
Leaning forward, he took her into his arms, and held her close. “Clara, I don’t care about anything but you and me, right here, right now.”
She clung tightly to him. Mike thought he heard her whisper I love you. He nestled his face into her hair.
“I love you, too.” Now, she was weeping in earnest. He was bewildered.
“I don’t understand why you’re crying. I thought you would be happy to hear me tell you.”
“I am,” she sobbed into his shoulder. “But, now I have to leave. Knowing we love each other, it is more than I can bear. When will we see each other again? Can’t you come to England?”
Mike wanted to shout he would go wherever she wanted him to go, but he knew the risk. He was afraid that when she knew all there was to know of him, she would never want to see him again. He sat back and leaned against a rock, still holding her in his arms, and pulling her with him.
“Perhaps it is time for me to tell you the whole story of Michael Harrington.”
“I don’t need to know anything more than that you love me.”
“You may not feel the same, once I have told you everything.”
“Never. Tell me the worst. It won’t change my mind.”
“But, your father may have other ideas.”
It took more courage than he knew he had to tell her of leaving home, and joining his companions. The worst was telling her about his foolish attempt on Jacob Tolabert, and the resulting price on his head. When he was done, he felt oddly relieved.
“Mike, I don’t care what happened in the past. It doesn’t matter to me.”
“But, I have nothing to offer you, Clara. No home, only a meager job, no family.”
“We don’t need any of those things. All we need is each other.” She pressed tighter against him in the crook of his arm.
“That would only last a short time. I can’t give you the fine life you’re used to. I’m constantly afraid of being found. You wouldn’t want to live where I have to live to stay safe. You would tire of that very soon, and want to leave, even if you could bring yourself to go there at all.”
“There’s something you should know about me, before you place a moratorium on us.” He looked down at her, wondering what she could mean while she looked resolutely out over the loch.
“You wouldn’t need to worry about a job, or being recognized.” She twisted to look up at him. “My father is an important man. He has power and influence. You could be safe there.”
“Clara, Leicester isn’t that far from Cambridge. There would come a time when someone would recognize me—”
“Oh, Mike, I want to be with you, and father is our best chance.”
“But, I couldn’t ask your father to keep us, knowing I’m a wanted man.”
“Then, I’ll stay here with you. We can marry, and live where you live now.”
Mike gave a weary sigh. “You don’t understand. I have no money. I live in a flat with two friends. You’d be appalled by the squalor there in Old Town. I couldn’t do that to you.”
“Then, you don’t want to marry me?”
“Of course I do. But, how could I marry you, and expect you to take on the lifestyle I’ve been living these past several years? It would kill you.”
“Would it kill you to take on my lifestyle?” His sad face was his only answer. “Please, Mike, come home with me, and talk to father. If, after that, you feel you can’t stay, then I’ll do whatever you think is best.”
The sun had passed into the west by the time they had exhausted all possibilities of their situation. When they reached the Martin house again, Mike had agreed to go with her to Leicester, and talk with her father. He kissed her cheek on the doorstep, and promised to be packed and ready to leave when it was time for her to leave Edinburgh.
When Mike told his friends, the reception of his news was not what he had hoped.
“Are you daft? What makes you think it’s not a trap?” demanded Henry.
“How could it be a trap? I know Clara. She loves me, and I love her. We want to marry, and this may be the way around my problem.”
“Married!” howled Tom. “You? Do you hear yerself? You, who loves ’em and leaves ’em, faster than the weather changes? What makes you think you even have a chance with a fine lady like Clara Martin?”
“I have more than a chance.”
Henry drained his glass. “Just how do you plan to support her ladyship?”
Mike sighed wishing they were happy for him instead of suspicious.
“I’m going to talk with her father. He has some influence in Leicester, and she says he will be able to help. Perhaps, he can help me find work as well.”
“But, Mike, we’re safe here,” insisted Tom.
“In six years, not one person has recognized me. No one has come asking for me.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Perhaps, they’ve given up the search. There shouldn’t be that much danger in leaving now.”
Their arguing and pleading with him continued until the moment Mike had packed his few belongings, and left to meet Clara in front of her uncle’s house the morning of their departure. The carriage, which had brought her to Edinburgh, was loaded with her trunks and belongings, leaving just enough room inside for the two of them, and Clara’s maid, Bridget. The journey would take several days, depending on the weather.
Mike was not looking forward to stopping at inns along the way. At any one of them, there was a chance someone would remember him from his trip north. But, he hoped that because he was older now, and traveling with a lady, the possibility of recognition would be less.
To his relief, their journey progressed with no problems. At last, they were nearing the end of the trip. As the carriage rolled up the country lane, toward what Clara assured him was the way to her home, Mike began to look around with more interest. The harvest was in progress in some of the fields. There were only a few houses along the miles of open countryside, and those were widely scattered.
The sun was beginning its descent, turning the foliage of the trees and hedges golden and bold green. As they turned a bend in the road, before them stood an enormous stone structure, rising like a small mount out of the rolling hills of the countryside. It was massive and looked like a castle.
“Is that a royal residence? You didn’t say you lived near royalty.”
“No, that is Fenton Hall.”
The sun had turned the stones of the structure to delicious shades of yellow, gold, and bronze, and then the carriage turned into the long drive leading up to it.
“We’re stopping here? Why?”
“Because, it’s the end of our journey. Father is expecting us.” His brows puckered in a question. “This is where I live.”
Mike’s mind raced with confusion and questions. This was not the country squire’s lodge he had expected. Why had she not told him? The westering sun suddenly lit the windows with a fiery light making the whole house look as if it was aflame within. Mike hoped this was not an omen of the reception he was about to receive.
As they continued up the long drive, he marveled at the lush lawns and gardens. The well-tended late summer flowers spilled over beds all along the lane and around the house, and the shrubs and hedges were neatly trimmed.
The house was old limestone, four stories high. It was no less than two hundred years old, with double stairs ascending in opposite directions up to the first story, where the tall glass windows, across the entire width of the rambling portico, flamed in the setting sun. A courtyard lay between the two stairs, where several servants stood at attention waiting for the carriage to roll to a stop on the large smooth flagstones.
A liveried footman handed Clara down from the carriage, and a tall somber butler bowed in greeting to her. Mike followed Bridget from the carriage in stunned silence. The footmen and other male servants were immediately busy, undoing the straps from the luggage, and placing it on the ground beside the carriage. Suddenly, Clara turned and took Mike’s arm.
“Adams, this is Mr. Harrington,” she said to the butler. “He will be staying with us. I wrote to Father. He is expecting him.” The butler bowed, and stepped aside to allow them to pass. Clara stopped and spoke a word to each of the servants who stood waiting, before they climbed the stairs and entered the house.
The grandeur of the interior hall, on top of all the other unexpected things he had just seen, caused Mike’s knees to feel weak. The central hall was cavernous, with polished marble tiled floor, and gleaming mahogany paneled walls. Tapestries and enormous paintings, of what he supposed were ancestors, littered the walls along the hall, and up the wide sweeping, split staircases that ascended from either side of the entryway. Tall vases and busts on columned plinths stood at attention at metered distances all along the length of the space, between huge polished doors. Heavy draperies hung, swaged at the windows that filled the entire wall at either end of the hall, allowing the sinking sun to illuminate the whole hall, so that everything looked gilded. He had not expected anything like this. Nothing Clara had told him prepared him for anything this grand. What was he doing here? Clara should have warned him.
Still stunned in disbelief, Mike followed as Clara led him to a room off the hall. It was filled ceiling to floor with shelves of books, and gleaming wooden furniture. There were wing-backed chairs before the fireplace, and small tables around the room, with candelabra on them. A globe was prominent at one side of the hearth, and a graying man in a very fine linen coat stood by the window, examining a pipe, which had gone out.
“Father! You look wonderful! It’s so good to see you.” She ran to him, giving him a hug and a peck on the cheek.
“And you look very happy, my dear.” He returned her peck, and held her at arm’s length. “We have a lot to talk about, it seems.”
She glowed and nodded. “Father, this is Michael Harrington. Mike, this is my father, Stuart Martin, Lord Fenton.” Mike gave a slight bow, feeling wholly inadequate.
“Mr. Harrington. You had a good journey, I trust?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Father, we’re tired and dusty. We should go to our rooms, and freshen up before dinner. We can talk as much as you want later.”
“Oh, yes, we will, Clary. You go along now, though. Mr. Harrington, Adams will show you to your room. He will see you have everything you require. I look forward to getting to know you later.”
“Thank you for your generosity, sir.”
Clara took his arm with both hands, and led him back into the hall, where Adams, the butler, stood awaiting their bidding. She gave a quiet chuckle at his look of amazement, as he stared open mouthed at all the paintings, furniture and other luxurious trappings which filled the hall.
“Clara, you should have told me your father is a Lord,” he whispered to her, as they climbed the massive staircase behind Adams.
“If I had, would you have come?” she asked, eyeing him with a sidelong glance.
“Probably not,” he admitted.
“That’s why I didn’t tell you. I wanted you to come and meet Father, and get to know him before you passed judgment. And, I know Father will like you, once he’s had time to get to know you. I’m sure he will help us.”
Mike sighed and gave her a weak, worried little smile. “I hope so. But, I don’t see how he can. I’m so far beneath him, and you,” he whispered.
She gave him an encouraging little squeeze on his arm, and then left him standing before a large polished door, and went on to her own rooms.
Overcome by all the opulence, Mike was nearly afraid to touch anything in his room. Silk brocade draped the bed, the chairs were velvet, and a large, ornately carved wardrobe stood on one wall. In another room that opened off the bedchamber was a washstand, with a lavish mirror, and ornate porcelain bowl and ewer, and other furnishings for his private toilet. Steam rose from the pitcher, indicating that the water was fresh and warm.
His lone, shabby valise sat on a low bench at the foot of the bed, and looked rather out of place. Adams opened the bag as if it were of the most regal material, removed his shaving objects, and laid them on the washstand. He then took Mike’s few clothes, and put them in the wardrobe, as if they were made of the richest fabrics. No one had waited on him for several years, and never like this. Never with so much tact and courtesy.
“Will there be anything else, sir?” Adams stood before him, hands at his sides.
“I can’t think of anything. Thank you.”
“Dinner is at eight. The family will meet you in the drawing room beforehand. Will you require a coat?”
Mike looked down at his dusty attire and knew there was not an appropriate change of clothing among his belongings. His face flushed slightly. “Well, yes, if I might borrow one for this evening.”
“Certainly, sir. I will bring it in time for you to dress for dinner. If you need anything before then, just pull the bell rope.” He bowed and exited the room, closing the door softly behind him.
Mike removed his dusty coat and waistcoat, and washed thoroughly. He took special care shaving, and then, after pulling his shoes off, he gingerly lay down on the bed. The journey and the surprise of his new surroundings had left him exhausted, and before he knew it, he was asleep.
Mike awoke with a start. The room was dim, candles glowed, and there was someone in the room with him. He sat up to find Adams hanging a sapphire blue coat on the door of the wardrobe.
“Good evening, sir. Dinner will be in an hour. Miss Clara is waiting for you in the drawing room. May I assist you in dressing?”
“That won’t be necessary. I believe I can manage. Though, I’m not sure I know how to find the drawing room.”
“It is at the bottom of the stairs to the left. Do you require anything else, sir?”
“No, thank you.” Adams bowed and left the room quietly.
Mike got up and found an entire outfit to go with the coat. He stripped off the remainder of his shabby clothes and washed again, more thoroughly this time, before putting on the fine garments. By the time he found his way back down the stairs and to the drawing room, it was nearly eight o’clock.
Clara was sitting on a lush divan, wearing an elegant fashionable gown of pale blue watered silk, and her father was pacing with his hands behind his back. Mike felt like an intruder when he stepped into the warm glow of the lavish room. Stuart paused his pacing, and Clara turned slightly and smiled broadly at him.
“Come in, Mike. Father and I were just talking about all the things that happened while I was away. It seems things have been quiet here. I’ve told him all about Uncle George and Aunt Mary, and Geoffrey and Amelia.”
Mike crossed to her, and took her outstretched hand, bowing and kissing her fingers lightly. She was so beautiful, he could not be angry with her for not telling him about her father and his wealth. He bowed to her father.
“Yes, it would seem there is more to tell of Clary’s summer than of mine. But, she has refused to tell me much more than the health and well-being of our family until you were here.”
But, before they had time to do more than greet, dinner was announced. They went into the most ornate dining room Mike had ever seen. The table was long, and it would easily seat twenty dinner guests on the graceful Duncan-Fife chairs. However, tonight, it was set for only three. Servants dressed in neat black coats and waistcoats brought the courses one after another, and filled the wine glasses with practiced aplomb. When, at last, the meal was finished, and Clara said they would take after dinner drinks in the drawing room, they rose, and left the servants to clear away.
Adams carried a large silver tray with a crystal decanter and three glasses to a table beside the ornately carved and upholstered chair, where Stuart seated himself. Mike sat gingerly on the edge of the divan beside Clara. There was no more delaying what he knew was to be the most uncomfortable conversation he would ever have. From the moment he had come down to dinner, he felt the discomfort. He knew Stuart was examining him closely, and the pronouncement would come next.
“Well, Harrington, no more delay. Tell me what is going on here. Clary wrote me she was bringing you home, and that she thinks she’s in love with you. Beyond that, nothing.”
Mike looked at Clara for encouragement, but she just smiled sweetly at him. His heart pounded uncomfortably and he took a deep breath.
“I’m in love with her as well, sir, and we would like to marry. In spite of all the reasons I gave her for not marrying me, she still says she wants to. We have come to you for your advice and guidance, I suppose.”
Stuart Martin was a tall man, slightly thick around the middle, with more gray hair than dark. His forehead was higher than it used to be, and he did not seem to be accustomed to the worried expression he now wore. He lifted his glass, sipped his sherry, and sighed.
“My advice and guidance would be foolish, without first knowing what I am addressing.” Mike shifted in his seat slightly. “Where did you meet my daughter?”
“We met at a concert in the park, in the spring. My friend and I met Clara and her cousin while there that evening. Since then, we have spent the summer getting to know each other.”
“Uncle George approves of him, Father,” Clara spoke quickly as if to say that was good enough. “We spent a lot of time at their house, and they all love him.”
“That is commendable, but I do not yet know him. I know nothing of him.” He turned his gaze from his daughter to Mike. “Where are you from, Harrington? And, how do you propose to support my daughter?”
“He comes from Cambridge.” Clara spoke quickly again, before Mike could think how to answer. “His father owned a successful mercantile business there.”
“Owned? Does that mean he no longer owns it?”
“My father is dead, sir. His business partner bought out his share of the business after his death.”
“Does that mean you have your own fortune?”
“Father, please, don’t be so bold. Mike’s finances should not be the deciding factor for our marriage.”
“It should if he wishes to marry the daughter of a Lord. How do you propose to live? Have you given any thought to these things?” he said, looking with surprise at his daughter.
“Yes, father, we have. We’ve discussed finances, living arrangements, all of it. I am completely satisfied.” She paused only to take a quick breath before charging on. “I hope you will give Mike a chance, and get to know him before passing any judgment.”
“Fine, fine. I shall give him a chance. But, I hope you understand my position as well, Mr. Harrington.”
“Yes, sir. I do understand.”
“Well, we shall see about that. Clary, would you please leave us for a while? I would like to get to know Mr. Harrington without your constant interrupting.”
With just the slightest pout, Clara rose, and gave Mike a pleading look that expressed her reluctance. He smiled to reassure her, and she left after casting another meaningful pout at her father before pulling the doors closed behind her. Mike was more nervous than the night he had sat in the house, waiting for Jacob Tolabert. Lord Fenton tossed back the rest of his sherry, and set down the glass.
“Enough dancing around the issues. What are you not telling me about yourself Mr. Harrington? If you hope to have any chance at all of marriage to my daughter, you had better tell me the whole truth.”
He was not unkind in his statement, but Mike knew he meant to know all there was to know. As he sat in his chair, elbows resting on the armrests, Stuart made a tent of his fingers, and watched Mike. Mike returned his stare unblinkingly. This was it. There was no way around it anymore. He would have to tell him everything, and hope he did not have him dragged off to the authorities.
“Sir, I have told Clara all there is to tell. She assured me you would be fair, and listen to everything before making up your mind.” He swallowed and looked down at his own hands, which he folded and unfolded before plunging on. “My father was Gerard Harrington. He founded Harrington Dry Goods in Cambridge. It always stood for excellence as long as he lived.”
“I know that company,” Stuart mused. “We used to buy supplies from there, until about seven or eight years ago. The quality and service began to decline severely, but I never knew why.”
“I am sure it did. Father’s business partner had been stealing from the company for years. Father and Mother were killed in a robbery just after I found out. I have suspected for some time that Jacob Tolabert was behind that as well. I tried to carry on the business, but he was undermining me all the way. He bought me out, and gave me only a tenth of its worth. However, before I could get home with the money, one of his men attacked me and took it back. So, I left home that same night, in fear of my life.”
Stuart had been watching Mike with a curious look on his face. “I can certainly understand why you would want to do so. I know of this man. He has a dreadful reputation, but oddly, never seems to run afoul of the law.”
“I only wish my father had known of him, before he allowed him into the business. He might still be running the excellent business he started and—” he faltered slightly.
“Your family might not be gone.” His voice was softer and kinder than it had been.
“Yes.” He sighed. “We were considered quite wealthy by some standards. We lacked nothing. My family was accepted in society.”
“I see. I can tell you were raised well, by the way you comport yourself. I take it you have left that life style now.”
“Yes, I had little choice.” He shrugged. “When I fled, my intention was to go somewhere, and become an apprentice and perhaps learn a trade. I thought if I could work and save my money, I could find a way to reclaim Father’s company.”
“But, you went to Edinburgh instead?”
“Not at first. As I said, I was in bad condition when I left that day. I took shelter in what I thought was an abandoned barn. I thought I might be safe there for the night, and I could recover a bit before going on.”
“Wise decision,” Steward said, pursing his lips and nodding.
“Well, before the night was over, I wasn’t so sure. I woke to the sound of voices. I thought he had sent men to follow me, and finish the job. It turned out that it was some men in just about as bad a way as I was. They patched me up, and allowed me to travel with them. We found work where we could, and doing whatever we could find.”
“And that’s how you found yourself in Scotland?”
“Eventually. Before we went there, I got into a spot of trouble. We had come back to Cambridge in our wanderings, and all the animosity I felt for Tolabert came flooding back. I thought I could frighten him, and make him feel remorse for what he had done to my family.”
“That was foolish,” he agreed and poured himself another glass of sherry.
“Yes, it was. And, I paid for it. Things went badly. He accused me of trying to kill him. I was sentenced to hang.”
“But, you obviously did not hang.” He raised his eyebrows, and looked more intently at Mike.
“No. My friends managed to snatch me away from the gallows at the last moment, and we fled. During the escape, I was shot. Tolabert put out a reward for my capture. As far as I know, it still stands.”
Stuart sat, eyeing Mike and considering what he had said. “You seem to have had your share of trouble.” He stood and offered to refill Mike’s sherry glass.
“If it had not been for a dear friend of my family, I probably would have died then. He managed to secret me into his home and tended my wound. He protected my friends, and helped us get away when I was recovered.” Mike sipped his sherry. “I had asked him to sell the house for me, when I left the first time, so when we came back he gave me the money from the sale of the house. With that, we were able to change our appearance, and managed to get to Scotland without being found out.”
“That was risky. Have you managed to accomplish your original goal then?”
“No. I am afraid, the best I was able to do, was secure employment as a record keeper for a wealthy merchant. I was able to live better than I had been, but never quite as before. I dared not come back to England with a price on my head.”
With that, he looked into Stuart’s face, expecting to see revulsion. Instead, there was a kind and thoughtful expression. Stuart tugged his ear absently.
“You say Clary knows all of this?”
“Yes, sir. I told her everything. I was sure it would change her feelings, but she still insisted we should marry.”
“She is headstrong. Just like her mother.”
“She wanted me to come and see you, before she would accept that it was impossible for us. She thought there might be something you could do, but I don’t see what. And, even if there is, it would be unfair to expect you to do anything, just because she wants to marry me.”
“I must admit, you have given me much to think about. But, before I think any further, I want to know the extent of your relationship with my daughter.” He looked directly into Mike’s eyes.
Mike could feel the blood rising in his cheeks. “I love her, sir, and I would not, in any way, dishonor her. I would do anything she asked of me.”
“Good. I find your honesty refreshing, Harrington. Most men would embellish the facts, or not tell me all the details you have shared. I sense nothing of the kind in you.” Mike was surprised to find no disproval in his voice. “I admit I would rather see my daughter married to a man of honor with no wealth, than a man of wealth with no honor.”
“I thank you, but I see no way you could approve our marriage. I have nothing to offer her.”
“I dare say she feels otherwise. For now, you’ll be safe here in my household. I’ll give things serious consideration. I have an idea I may be able to arrange something that will be satisfactory to all of us.” He rose and extended his hand to Mike. Mike took it cautiously. “Welcome, Mike.”
After several days and much thought, Stuart decided that his future son-in-law was ingenious, capable, and honest. They sat in the study sipping afternoon tea.
“Mike, I want to train you to take over the rigorous duties required to run this estate. That way, I will be able to work less than I’m doing now. I will be able to go off to parliament when I need to, without worrying about things here. And, I hope that, in the not too distant future, there will be grandchildren to spoil. I want as much free time to devote to that task as possible,” Stuart said with a slight grin.
Astonished by this offer, Mike nearly dropped his cup.
“That is generous of you, sir. I hope I’ll be able to meet your expectations.”
Stuart waved his hand dismissively at the suggestion. “It’s nothing, really. You see, neither of my sons seems interested in the running of the estate. Charles only ever wants money—often, freely given, and without question. William seems to have ambitions that lay in another direction at the moment. He joined the army, and went to war in the colonies. Now that the war is ended, he doesn’t seem inclined to return just yet. He says he finds the American colonies more attractive than his home and duties in England. It would be comforting to know, that there is someone at hand, who is capable of handling things, at least until William decides to come home.”
Mike found Stuart to be a most likeable man and grew as fond of him as he was of Clara. And, this generous offer to employ him was nearly overwhelming. Even more astounding was when Stuart had insisted on giving Mike wages.
“I know it would make you feel less dependent on your future father-in-law, to have funds of your own. I would gladly give you whatever you require, but I know you are the kind of man who would chafe at the idea of having to ask for what you need or want. This will give you money to do with as you please without having to account to me for it.”
“Thank you, sir. I don’t know what to say. You are most generous.”
Mike was a willing and apt student. He quickly learned all the details and demands of running the estate. Over the course of several months, he even began to make suggestions for ways to make improvements in the general running of it, and ways to make more profit from the enormous acreage, crops, and livestock.
For nearly a year, Mike worked with Stuart on the estate. Clara planned their wedding, and it would take place at the end of summer. Mike wanted Henry and Tom, Jericho and Catherine, to come for the celebration. He decided to take a large portion of his wages and send to them so they could outfit themselves properly, and have the revenue for the journey as well. He wanted them to feel comfortable in these surroundings, and not look out of place among the expected wealthy guests.
While he sat writing the letter, explaining to them what had happened, and why he was sending the bank draft, another thought pierced his conscience. He had been remiss in his correspondence with Father John. In fact, he had sent very few letters to him over the last few years. And now, it was summer again. He had been here for nearly a year, and not let Father John know. He wrote a very long letter to his friend, filling in all the details of the last several years, and inviting him to the wedding. A little wave of homesickness welled in him. It would be good to see Father John again. He sincerely hoped he would forgive his lack of correspondence, and come to the wedding.
After weeks of frenetic activity, all the planning and preparations for the wedding were nearly complete. There had been no word from Mike’s friends, and he was beginning to fear they would not come. Even Father John had not yet responded. Mike had been sure he would come, or at least write back, but after all, he was a Bishop. He was probably too busy for such mundane things.
In the days before the wedding, houseguests began to arrive. There were a considerable number of bedchambers in the manor, and soon every one of them seemed to contain guests. Mike found it challenging to remember names and relationships, as the guests continued to arrive. They all accepted him readily and usually laughed when he occasionally called them by the wrong name.
One day, Mike found a rare moment alone with Clara in the morning room, as she inspected the dinner menu for the following day.
“I don’t think I can stand two more days of this!” he teased, as he pulled her to her feet and held her at arm’s length. Clara grinned at him.
“Oh, dear! You haven’t changed your mind? I should be humiliated before my entire family!” She threw the back of her hand to her forehead as if fainting.
In a gallant gesture, he pulled her into his arms, and gave her an affectionate squeeze. “Well, to save face, I suppose I could possibly endure a bit more.”
“You had better. I would send my great strapping cousins after you, if you tried to leave now. They would show no mercy,” she giggled.
“You may someday wish to call them to take me away, but you will never have to call them to bring me back.”
She grew serious. “I’ll never want to send you away.” Before their lips had barely touched, Adams knocked at the door of the morning room.
“There is a caller to see Mr. Harrington, Miss.”
With a sigh, Mike released his embrace. “Who is it, Adams?”
“He would not say, sir.”
The slightest shadow passed over Mike’s face. Who could be calling for him here? For a moment, fear that someone had found him raised the old panic.
“Very well, where is he?”
“In the library, sir.”
“Thank you.” He turned apologetic eyes to Clara. “I best go see who it is.”
“You’re not worried are you? You know you’re safe here.”
She walked arm in arm with him down the hall, and to the door of the library.
“I’ll see you later,” she whispered.
Before Clara had barely turned to go, a loud cry from the library stopped her short. As she turned, and flung open the door, she saw Mike hugging, and shaking hands with a Bishop. He was dressed in black, and he had draped his dusty traveling cloak over a chair with his hat. Neither of them seemed to notice her abrupt entrance.
“Mike! Surely this is not the way to greet the Bishop!” With a huge grin, Mike instantly seized her by the hand, and pulled her in close to them.
“Clara, this is Father John!”
“Oh! How wonderful!” she cried. “Welcome! Mike has told me quite a lot about you.”
“Father, this is Clara Martin.”
Father John’s smile was gracious, “Michael did not tell me nearly enough about you, my dear. And, please, call me Father John, as Michael does. I have known him far too long to stand on ceremony.” He reached out, and took her hand, squeezing it as he admired her. A blush was creeping up her neck.
“Well, I’m sure you two have a lot of catching up to do. Mike, why don’t you show Father John to his room so he can freshen up? I’ll send Adams up with a tray of refreshment for you both.”
“Thank you, my dear, you are very kind. I can tell already, Michael has been blessed in his choice of brides.” She smiled sweetly, and left them.
Mike carried Father John’s valise as they walked up the grand stairs, and into his rooms. The suite was as grand as any other in the mansion was. Mike had requested it be ready in case he should come, but had nearly given up hope. When he had placed the bag on the bed, Mike and Father John took seats in the facing chairs by the fireplace. The windows were open, and a mild early fall breeze stirred the long gauzy curtains. Before either could satisfy their joy at seeing each other again, Adams knocked, and entered with a tray, laden with tea, sweet rolls, and fruit. Another servant poured hot water into the ewer, and Adams unpacked the Bishop’s valise for him.
By the time they had eaten, and Father John had begun his second cup of tea, Adams had finished his ministrations, and left them alone. Father John looked hard at Mike, assessing how he had changed since he had last seen him.
“You look much the same as when I last saw you!” the Bishop said. “You are older, and the harshness of your life is written on your face more than before. But, you are still the same little boy I have always known and loved, behind those eyes.”
“A lot has happened since last we met.” Mike nodded thoughtfully to his cup. “I was beginning to think you wouldn’t be able to come.”
“Of course I would come! I would come to you anywhere. Surely you know that by now.”
Mike was touched, and a feeling of warmth spread throughout him. He supposed he had known, but had never really given it much thought.
“I know I’ve been very remiss in writing to you as I should and I’m sorry. It just seemed, things moved along of their own accord, and before I knew it, years had passed—”
“I understand.” Father John held up his hand dismissively. “But, I’ve been kept well informed of how things have been going for you by Jericho. He kept his promise to keep in touch with me concerning you.”
“Jericho? That rascal. He never told me that.” Mike looked at him in surprise, and then studied the contents of his teacup.
“Yes, well, I rather asked him not to. He said he would try to encourage you to write, but barring that, he would write. And, he has.”
“You’ve been a great friend to my family for many years, and I do appreciate that. Though, I’ve never really understood why you’ve been so kind to me since my parents died. But, I am glad you have been.”
Father John studied Mike for a long moment. “You truly don’t know?”
“Well, I know you’re a kind man, and in your work, you must care for a lot of people.”
Father John nodded, set his teacup on the table. He looked at Mike for a few moments as if making up his mind about something, and then stood.
“I have something to give you, Michael. I think it is time you had it.”
He went to his valise and removed a small plain box. It was of worn, dark red leather. He held it out to Mike who took it, and opened it carefully. Inside was a tiny gold ring with small glittering dark gems. Mike studied if for a moment, then recognition dawned on him, and he looked up at Father John, then down at the ring again.
“This was my mother’s. I remember she used to wear it all the time. I must have been about five or six when she stopped wearing it. How did you get it? Was it in the house?”
“No. It was not in the house.” Father John sat back down, and for a moment, Mike thought he would not tell him.
He sighed heavily. “I’ve—I’ve had it for a very long time.”
“You’ve had it? I don’t understand. She gave it to you? Why?”
“Yes, she gave it to me, because, I—” he locked gazes with Mike, “because, I gave it to her, years earlier.”
Mike was confused. This made no sense. “You gave it to her. But, why would you give my mother this ring? Father gave her everything she ever wanted.”
“I gave it to her before she met you father.”
“Before Father?” Mike’s confusion was growing deeper.
“Yes.” He took a deep breath and looked Mike in the eyes. “Sarah and I had planned to be married.”
“Married?” Nothing was making sense. “But, you’re a minister.”
“Yes. But, I was not a minister then. I was a student at university, intent on becoming a school master.”
Mike closed the box quietly and looked at Father John. “I still don’t understand. If you were to marry, why didn’t you?”
“I suppose I should start at the beginning,” he said with another sigh. “Sarah and I met quite by accident. It was a rainy afternoon, and we had both dashed into the same doorway to avoid a sudden downpour at the same instance. After making my apologies for the collision, I could see she was beautiful. I was just a poor student, and she was obviously from a wealthy family. I never dreamed I would ever see her again. But, one of my school friends invited me to come to his home for the holidays. To my delight, the same beautiful young lady I met was also a guest at the same house party. We found ourselves seated together at dinner. The next day she agreed to have tea with me, and we talked the afternoon away. We spent a lot of time together that week. I was thrilled when she agreed to meet me again when we returned to the city. We saw each other as often as we could, and became quite fond of each other. It was more than I had ever imagined possible. For the first time, I started to neglect my studies. She was all I could think about.
“We always met at the same tearoom. It was always crowded, and though she never had a companion with her, we were never alone together. But, that didn’t stop my heart from longing. Then, one afternoon, I had been studying, and had a large pile of books with me. When I stood to leave, I told her I was headed to my room to put the books away. To my amazement, she offered to help me carry the books. We arrived at my meager little room, and found my roommate absent.
“Before I knew what was happening, we were kissing, and …” his voice faltered. Mike sat up straighter in his chair. Father John shrugged his shoulders, and looked into Mike’s puzzled face. “We were in love.” He looked down. “I had little to offer her, but she didn’t care. She wanted to marry me anyway. I had that ring that had been my mother’s. I gave it to her as a pledge of my love. She told me years later, she wore it constantly after that.”
“But, you didn’t marry. What happened?” Mike was stunned, but curious.
Father John spoke from a dream long forgotten, lost in his own reverie. “She went home that day, and was going to tell her family. We were to meet the next day, but she didn’t come. I waited and waited. Several days passed, and still she did not come. No word came. I feared something had happened to her, so I tried to go to her house. I was turned away by the servants, and told she would not see me. I was devastated. I had no idea what had happened to turn her against me. I couldn’t eat—I couldn’t sleep—my studies suffered.
“At last, two weeks later, a letter arrived from her. I was horrified by what I read. Her father had forced her to marry the son of a wealthy merchant. He had arranged everything without even consulting her.”
“I never knew that—but, they always seemed to be so happy together.”
“I believe they were, Michael. Gerard was a good man. He did his best to provide a loving and happy home for her.” He sighed, and rose heavily from his chair. He paced for a moment. “Needless to say, my life lost its meaning. I left university, and sought solace in the Church. I finally decided to become a minister. I felt it would insulate me from ever being hurt like that again. I hadn’t expected to love my work. I know now that God directed me to this path. It was meant to be.
“A few years later, I was given a parish, and was later surprised to learn that your mother and father were part of that parish.” He turned his back to Mike. “It was difficult, but after agonizing in prayer for a few weeks, I decided I could not avoid visiting them. The first meeting was very uncomfortable for me. But, I could see that they had built a happy life together.
“It turned out, she had never told her husband of our affair, and there was no reason to do so. It would only dredge up old feelings and hurts. We went on as if we had never known each other before I came to the parish. As time passed, I became very fond of her family. You and Janny were so precious, and accepted me as part of your lives.” He stopped pacing with his back to Mike.
“Then came a day, when she and I were watching the two of you at play in the garden. Gerard had not yet come home from work, and we sat in the shade, laughing at your antics. I told her how much I adored you both, and she grew quiet. I asked her what was wrong, and she said, ‘I am glad you love Michael so much.’ I thought that was a strange thing for her to say, especially about only one of you. But I waited.
“After a few moments, a tear glistened on her cheek. She said simply, ‘He’s yours.’ I thought I had misunderstood what she had said, but she repeated it again.”
Slowly Father John turned back to look into Mike’s thunderstruck face.
“Yours? You mean, you’re … my …” he began. His mind did not seem able to absorb it. How could this be true? Gerard was his father. His mother would never have done this. She loved his father.
Father John nodded solemnly. “Yes, Michael. It happened that afternoon in my room. I never knew. She married Gerard so quickly after, that no one ever realized you were not Gerard’s.”
“But, why didn’t you ever tell me? Why wait until now?” He was becoming more agitated by the moment.
“The same day she told me, she took the ring off her finger, and gave it back to me. She said she didn’t need it to remind her of what we shared any longer, and that I should give it to you for your bride when the day came. She only asked that I not tell you until then, unless it became necessary.” He sat down again.
“But, Gerard Harrington was my father. I loved him. How could you and mother never tell me? Where does that leave me now?” He leaned forward placing his head in his hands.
“We didn’t want to hurt you, or your father. There was nothing that could be changed by telling you. Gerard loved you very much, and you are still his son in every way that matters.”
“But, you have known all these years that I was your son. All those years, after their death, when I needed someone so much—”
“Michael, I was always there. You know that. How would knowing this have changed anything that had happened?”
This was overwhelming. With all the other things going on just now, it was too much to digest. He had to leave, and be alone for a while to think. But, with the house full of wedding guests, there was no place to be alone. Mike rose, and paced where Father John had paced before, thoughts racing through his head.
It was true Father John had always been there for him. Any time there was a problem, he had been there to help. Why had he never thought it strange that a minister should have such an interest in him? He had always seemed to be part of their lives. In fact, Mike could not remember a time when he had not been around. Looking back, he realized that he had always been a rather chosen child of the parish. None of the other children seemed to have the special access to the good Father he had enjoyed. Perhaps there had been clues after all.
Mike stopped pacing and looked again at Father John. The minister’s shoulders seemed to droop, as he sat there with a look of anguish on the face Mike had always loved.
“I’m so sorry for laying this on your shoulders now, when you should be happily planning your marriage. I don’t want to be the cause of pain and problems for you. I’ll leave in the morning if you wish.”
Mike did not know what to say. He had wanted him here, but now, with this revelation, he was not sure about anything.
“I need to think,” was all he could manage. He left, closing the door quietly behind him.
Just before lunch the next day, Mike quietly opened the door of the library, and entered. He needed a strong drink, and was about to pour himself one from the decanter Stuart kept there. He was startled by a rustling sound, and turning quickly he found Clara, rousing from sleep in the large chair by the window. She had obviously been crying. When she realized he was standing there, she jumped up, and glared at him as if not sure whether to run and hug him, or be miffed that he had frightened her.
“Clara, I didn’t realize you were in here. I didn’t mean to startle you.” His voice was just above a whisper. He looked weary and rumpled.
“You apparently didn’t expect to find me at all,” she said with a pretty pout.
He drained the glass, filled it again, and took another sip. With a heavy plop, he sat in the opposite chair and saw a tear slide down her face.
“I was so worried. I feared all sorts of things. Where have you been?”
“I’m sorry you worried,” he sighed. “I went riding.”
“All night?” She knelt beside his chair, searching his face. “When you didn’t come down to breakfast, I went to your room. Then I went to Father John’s room. I thought, perhaps, you and he had spent the night talking. But, he said you were upset with him, and had left yesterday afternoon. I didn’t know what to think.”
“I needed to be alone for a while. There’s nowhere in this entire house, where I can be alone for more than two minutes.” He drained the glass again.
“You should have told me. I wouldn’t have worried.”
Her moist eyes wounded his heart. “I’m sorry I worried you. I promise, I’ll never do it again.” He leaned over the arm of the chair, and stroked her hair. “Father John told me some things yesterday that caught me off guard. I needed to get away, and think things through. I was very confused.”
“Mike, he was packing. He told me you were angry, and wanted him gone.”
“Oh no,” Mike groaned, set his glass on the table beside him, and leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes. “I’ll have to write, and apologize to him. I’m afraid I wasn’t very kind to him when I left. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing at the time.”
“I convinced him to wait until you returned, before leaving.” He stroked her hair again. Even though he did not smile, there was love in his eyes. “Can you tell me what he told you?”
Yes, he thought he should tell Clara. Slowly, he told her all that Father John and told him, but the relief he had hoped for did not come.
“Oh, Mike,” she whispered. “It must have been torture for him. To know, all those years, that you were his son, and not be able to tell you! Not to be able to share with you, the things a father and son share. To have seen you so often, as another man’s child, knowing he could never experience that same relationship with you, must have been awful for him.”
In all his own pain, Mike had not considered Father John’s. He had only felt the sting of deceit, and the lost years, when he wanted his family. Of course, it must have been dreadful for him. Mike realized that he alone had the ability to lift the burden of guilt and remorse his father must feel. He had to restore the friendship he had probably shattered by his behavior yesterday. He leaned and kissed the top of Clara’s head.
“Where is Father Jo—Father?”
“In his room.”
“I’ll go up, and see if I can get him to come down to lunch. It’s time he meets the rest of the family.”
He went to Father John, and found reconciliation easier than he expected. After lunch, they spent the rest of the afternoon talking, as they walked in the gardens, and met the other guests.
That evening, the guests had assembled in the drawing room awaiting the call to dinner, when Mike discovered there were new guests. More names to learn, he thought with a sigh. Clara stood talking to them quietly in one corner, their backs to him. She waved when she saw him enter the room, and he knew he would have to meet them before the meal. When he reached her, and turned to meet the new guests, his face froze in surprise. Before him stood Henry, Tom, Jericho, and Catherine, all dressed, as he had never seen any of them before. He unashamedly threw his arms around each of them, and gave them a warm hug.
After dinner, the gentlemen retired for drinks and cigars, and the ladies for coffee and conversation. But, Mike took all of his friends to the library for a private visit. Henry, Tom, Jericho, Catherine, and Father John toasted Mike’s wedding, and then shared with him all the news from Edinburgh. Although Henry and Tom had been opposed to Mike’s decision to come here, after seeing Fenton Hall, they decided he had made a good decision.
“Henry thought the coach had brought us to the wrong place, when we pulled up out front,” scoffed Tom.
“Yeah, well, you didn’t tell us you was marryin’ bleedin’ royalty, did you?” Henry saluted him with his glass, and continued his perusal of the objects in the library.
“That’s because I’m not. Lord Fenton is of the peerage, but not royalty. And besides, I had no idea myself, until I got here.”
“But, you stayed, even after you saw all this,” Tom lifted his hand to indicate the luxurious room, and then grinned.
“Actually, I was surprised Lord Fenton was willing to allow me to marry his daughter after he learned about my sordid past.”
“You ain’t the only one,” snorted Henry.
Jericho was more curious about practical things. “Just what sort of job did his Lordship give you, then? It must pay well, considering the money you sent us.”
“I’m running the estate for him.”
“What’d you have to threaten him with to get him to do that?” asked Henry his hand poised, holding the decanter above his empty glass.
Father John piped in, “Of course not. Michael is quite capable of doing the work, and Lord Fenton told me, he is delighted to have someone he can trust to take over the responsibilities.”
“Actually, I owe most of my ability to the three of you! If I hadn’t met you and worked with you at so many different stables, and other odd jobs, I would not have any idea how to do a lot of this job.”
Hours later, after all topics were exhausted, Jericho reverted to his fatherly role.
“Henry, you’ve had enough of that. That’s at least the second bottle you’ve emptied this evening. We should be off to bed. Tomorrow is a big day.”
“True. True enough,” Henry said with a sloppy grin. He allowed Jericho and Catherine to lead him off to bed, still nursing the remains in the crystal decanter.
Father John also, excused himself to retire, leaving Mike and Tom alone in the library. Mike sat down wearily in a chair, watching Tom in the other.
“Still think I’m crazy for marrying Clara?”
“She’s a remarkable woman. But, I still can’t believe she wants to marry you, knowing your past.” Tom shook his head thoughtfully.
“I find it hard to believe myself. But, I’m very happy she does.”
“Well, I only hope you’re as safe here as you think you are.”
“You don’t need to worry. I’m safe.” Mike smiled. The old anxiety of someone finding him, and dragging him back to hang was no longer haunting him. “This estate is huge, and Lord Fenton’s protection is very strong—even if I chose to leave the estate for a short time—which I would never have to if I didn’t want to.” After only a moment of thought, Mike changed the subject. “What are your plans? Will you and Henry go back north with Jericho? It could be safe for you both to come back to England, since it is just the two of you now.”
“Don’t know for sure. We thought we might look around, and see if there’s any work. It does get awful cold in Scotland in the winter. ’Course, it ain’t all that warm here.” He shrugged his shoulders.
Mike laughed. “Yes. But, you’d be free to come and go as you please, now. Perhaps, I could help you find work. There are factories of all sorts these days. And, some not so far away from here. They are always looking for laborers. With your experience, you could even get work at one of the neighboring estates.”
“And, you had better plan to spend Christmas here with us, if you can.” Tom lifted his eyebrow. “I mean it. You shared your fortunes with me for a long time. I want a chance to do the same for you.”
It was very late when they both retired. Things would begin early in the morning. As Mike closed the door of his room, he consoled himself with the fact that when they returned from their wedding trip, most of the houseguests would be gone, and life at Fenton Hall would be much quieter again
After what seemed like only moments, there was a tap at Mike’s door. A tray filled, with steaming tea and scones, preceded Adams into the room. He placed the tray on the table and pulled the drapes wide to let in the full sun. Mike cringed, and pulled the covers over his face.
“Adams, have mercy!” he groaned.
“I’m afraid I have allowed you to sleep much longer than Miss Clara wanted, already, sir.”
“I’m sure she went to bed at a sensible hour.” His head pounded as he sat up, and placed his hands on either side of his temples.
“Trays have been taken to your guests as well, sir. You have time to join them before you must start dressing, if you like.”
“I think I’ll do that.” Adams held up a dressing gown for him to slide his arms in. A momentary wave of nostalgia rushed through him. This robe was similar to the one Gerard had always worn. As he tied the sash, he thought of how happy his parents and Janny would be today, if they were still here.
After eating a scone dripping with honey, and drinking a cup of tea, he went and sat with Tom and Henry while they held their own pounding heads. The strong hot tea was helping some, but it was going to be a while before they felt civil again. A tap on the door brought groans from the trio, and Jericho and Father John entered. They were much too cheerful, and it seemed to the others that they were speaking unusually loud.
“The three of you look like you’ve just been to Hell and back.” Jericho chuckled as they glared at him. “A fine way to start a day of celebration. Looks like I need to go to the kitchen, and see if I can find something that will help perk you up.” He left, chuckling to himself, and soon returned with his own remedy for their hangovers.
Later, after he was dressed, Mike went to Clara’s room, hoping to have a moment alone with her before everything became hectic. Her door stood slightly ajar, and he realized someone was already in her room. He stopped just outside trying to decide if he should knock or leave.
He knew Clara began her day long before the men had risen. She was dressed in all but her gown, and wearing a wrapper, she sat at the small table in her room eating her breakfast.
“Oh Bridget, I don’t know if I can manage even one more guest. There has been a constant stream of people, bustling in and out of this room all morning with good wishes, advice, and small gifts,” she said to her maid.
Deciding it might be best to wait, Mike had turned and was leaving when he saw an elderly woman approaching. When she passed him, he turned and saw her tap on the door. Bridget opened it, and a moment later Stuart’s sister Agatha went in. Fascinated, Mike quietly stepped back and stood listening, beside the open door.
“Hello dear, I hope I’m not disturbing you,” she apologized, as Clara rushed to meet her as she entered.
“You’re welcome anytime, Aunt Agatha! You look beautiful.” She gave her aunt a kiss, and took her arm. “Come sit with me for a while. I think I have to agree with Mike, that there is just too much going on around here. I’m exhausted! I’ll be glad when it’s over.”
“Oh, but you will remember this day the rest of your life, Clary.”
“Oh, I know. It’s just that I’ve been so busy, I haven’t been able to really enjoy any of it so far. Do you have everything you need, Aunt Agatha?”
“Don’t bother about me! I’ve been around here enough to know how to manage on my own. You need to stop worrying about everyone else now, and think about yourself. Adams and Mrs. Harper have everything under control downstairs,” she said as they sat down at the table.
“She is a gem. I don’t know what I would do without her.”
“Have you seen the ballroom? It looks wonderful. There are flowers everywhere, and the buffet table is looking scrumptious already. Cook has outdone herself.”
“I know! How she has managed to prepare all the food for the feast, and keep up with the daily meals I don’t know. Father should give her a holiday when all this is done. I do hope she has enough help down there.”
“Stop!” Aunt Agatha laid her hand over Clara’s and gave it a pat. “Everything is under control. You don’t need to think about another thing, except being beautiful for your wedding.”
Clara sighed, and leaned back in her chair. “I know. It’s just so hard to stop thinking about everything, though. I am so glad you’re here.”
Agatha blushed slightly, and held out a thin velvet box for her to take. “What I really came in here for, was to give you this.”
Clara took the box and carefully opened it. Inside laid a single strand of lustrous, perfectly matched pearls.
“Aunt Agatha!” she breathed, “they’re beautiful.” Gingerly she lifted them on her finger, and held the strand up to the light, where they shone brightly.
“I’m glad you like them. They belonged to your grandmother. She gave them to me on my wedding day. I thought you should have them today. I don’t have a daughter of my own, and I think it is a nice tradition to pass them round the family, don’t you?”
Clara’s eyes threatened to spill tears as she stood, and hugged her Aunt’s neck. I’m so glad you’re here for me today.”
Agatha took the necklace, and fastened it onto Clara’s neck.
“I wish your mother could be here today, but I’m glad I can be here for you.” While her niece sat to admire the pearls in the mirror of her vanity, Agatha stood behind her, resting her hands on her shoulders. “Clary, your father told me all about Mike.”
Clara turned to look up at her, and found no judgment in her eyes. “Everything?”
She nodded. “I hope you know what you’re letting yourself in for.”
“I know very well. I’ve known from the beginning what it meant to fall in love with him. But, I love him in spite of it. He’s a good man, and will do his best for me.”
“I hope so. Have you thought about what will become of you if his past were to catch up with him, though?”
“Yes. We’ve thought of that, and will cross that bridge if we come to it. Mike has overcome a lot of injustice in his life, and he is a better man for it. He’ll succeed, and we’ll be happy.”
Agatha sighed, and squeezed her shoulders. “I pray you’re right, my dear.” The clock on the mantel struck the hour. “Look at the time. We need to get you into that dress. It will be time for you to go down shortly.”
Mike smiled, feeling an even greater love for his bride than he thought possible. With his heart feeling lighter than it had in months, he left to find his friends and make his way downstairs to await the beginning of the day’s events.
In the garden, there were chairs and benches for the guests to sit on during the wedding ceremony. Flowers filled great urns, and draped all around were ribbon festooned garlands. The guests, resplendent in their own finery, sat waiting eagerly for the ceremony to begin. Musicians played quietly in a corner of the garden, under a canopy, to protect them from the afternoon sun. An arbor, covered with ivy and roses, stood in the middle of the garden, and under it stood the local clergyman.
At last, French doors at the back of the house opened, and there stood Stuart with the bride on his arm. She was a vision in her shimmering gown of satin brocade and lace. Her dark tresses were pinned attractively with gem studded combs and tiny flowers. Mike, standing with the minister, thought he had never seen such a lovely sight in all his life.
The day passed in a whirl of activity, and endless people wishing the couple well. Later, the dinner buffet stood, weighed down with a boundless feast, and the bottomless punchbowls kept the guests happy. After dinner, they all danced for hours in the ballroom. The happy couple found it pointless to try to steal a moment together, for even when they were dancing, someone always interrupted for a chance to partner with one or the other.
Finally, late in the evening, to the disappointment of the crowd, the bride and groom took their leave and retired to the marriage chamber. At last, Mike took Clara in his arms and kissed her tenderly. She melted into his embrace, and they clung together in contentment. With a sudden swooping motion, Clara found herself lifted into Mike’s arms, and with complete adoration beaming in their eyes, he carried her to their bed.
Stuart had arranged the wedding journey, ensuring their safety and secure lodging as they traveled. A carriage bearing the crest of Fenton Hall was loaded with their belongings early the next morning, and after an early breakfast, the couple climbed in and set off, with the driver and footman riding on the driver’s seat.
With only brief stops to rest the horses and allow everyone to stretch their legs, take care of refreshment or relieve themselves, the carriage continued to roll, until the sky was scarlet and purple with the setting sun. The driver pulled the horses to a stop at the edge of a little village at a small but tidy inn. When the footman handed them down from the carriage, they stood and looked around for a moment while they stretched and wiggled their feet and legs to bring back circulation. They were weary from the long ride and anxious to have their dinner and get some sleep before they had to begin it all over again in the morning.
Except for the light in one window, the place appeared to be deserted. It stood apart from the village, and it seemed that for this night, at least, there were no patrons occupying the tavern room. Mike wondered if Stuart had paid the innkeeper to ensure they would not be disturbed. And, whether it was for their safety, or the privacy of their wedding journey.
The innkeeper appeared in the doorway, beaming at them.
“Welcome! Welcome Mr. and Mrs. Harrington. We’ve been expecting you.”
He cheerfully led them inside, and seated them at a prepared table by the fire. They would obviously be dining alone, for there was no one else in the room. In fact, there was no one else in the entire inn, except for the employees.
A crisp white cloth covered a table, which was set with glasses and dishes Mike recognized as being from Fenton Hall. New candles burned brightly in tall candle stands, which stood like sentinels around the table. Mike wondered if Stuart had sent them ahead, or if he kept them here for his own travels, or if the footman had been extremely quick in getting them off the carriage and into the hands of the innkeeper.
Clara removed her hat and gloves and a pert young girl stepped forward to take them from her. Immediately, the innkeeper brought platters of steaming food to them, along with a bottle of good wine, which looked as if he had hastily dusted it off. The food was plain but delicious, and the wine was surprisingly good. They lingered over their meal, relishing the comfort of the fire and each other. It was pleasant to sit quietly without the rocking, jarring motion of the carriage.
“Father has taken care of everything, down to the last detail, I see,” Clara said in a low whisper, as she leaned close to Mike. “And, I think that bottle of wine came from our own cellar.” She held up her glass and swirled the last swallow of her red wine, watching it with a critical eye.
“It is very good, but not as good as the company tonight.” Mike grinned at her, and finished his glass of wine. After a good meal and wine, he was no longer feeling the aches of the road, but longed for more than sleep.
When at last they finished their meal, the innkeeper led them to the best room the little inn had to offer, though it was tiny and sparsely furnished. A bed, small table and two chairs, along with a very small chest of drawers, which held a pitcher and washbasin, were the only furnishings. However, there was a fire in the grate, and it danced merrily in the darkness. Clean crisp linens and a beautiful quilt were on the bed, and a lit candle stood on the table. One small bag for each of them, brought up from the carriage, was set on the foot of the bed.
“If you require anything else, m’lord, just give a couple pulls on the bell cord. Someone will be right up.”
“Thank you, but I’m sure we’ll be quite content until morning.” The man bowed to them, and pulled the door closed behind him. Mike quietly slipped the lock on the door, and turned to find Clara digging in her bag, removing her night things. As he looked at her, he could hardly believe she had married him. There seemed to be something warm filling his chest as he stepped across the room to her.
“Please, swear to me, there are no relatives hiding under that bed, waiting to see if I can remember their names.” Mike said as he slid his arms around her waist from behind, drawing her close.
“I promise,” she giggled. “The only name you need to remember tonight is mine.” She turned into his embrace, and threw her arms around his neck, kissing him eagerly.
The innkeeper brought breakfast to their room just as the sun had risen above the horizon and began to peek into the little window of the room. A short time later, as they stepped up into the carriage again, the driver told them that they should make their destination by nightfall.
Again, they made only a few brief stops to rest the horses and to take some lunch. Then, as the daylight was beginning to dim with the sinking sun, they turned a curve in the road, and found London sprawled before them. As they neared the city, cottages with tiny gardens seemed huddled more and more closely together, but finally they gave way to much larger buildings. As lamplighters lit streetlights in the more prosperous areas, it seemed that the city began to twinkle in the growing dusk.
They passed through an industrial district into areas where the poorest people were crammed into closely built, rundown structures. Clara held her handkerchief to her nose. The stench of multitudes of people, living crammed together, in ever narrowing streets, was more than she could bear. Mike was surprised to see that even in the growing twilight, there were still vendors hawking fruit, and flower girls crying after them to buy a flower. Yet, even amid the squalor, Mike felt an excitement at being in one of the world’s greatest cities.
Finally, they began to pass large brick or stone-faced houses, built right up against each other. The streets here were cleaner, and there were well-dressed people walking by the light of the flickering streetlamps. The last of the dying day left the sky in a dim golden haze, just as they rolled to a stop before an enormous stone-faced house, flanked on either side by a similar looking dwelling. A wigged footman stood at the door, and he stepped forward, opening the carriage door. The driver dismounted from his box, and began loosening the luggage.
“Mr. Harrington?” said the footman.
Surprised to hear his name, Mike answered, “Yes. You were expecting us?”
“Yes, sir. Lord Fenton wrote, and told us to have the house ready for your arrival this evening. Dinner will be served in an hour. You have time to freshen up.”
“That sounds like heaven,” cried Clara. “I think we’re wearing most of the road. It was so dusty.”
A cheerful young maid in a crisp uniform met them in the entrance hall. She led them up the stairs to their chambers, where hot water waited, and fresh garments for them lay across the bed. Mike could tell Clara was familiar with the house and its customs, but he wondered at the clothes laid out for him.
“How did they know what to have ready for us?”
“I’m sure father wrote, and told them everything they would need to know. Besides, there’s always some guest or other here. He keeps extra things around for anyone who might need them. When he comes to town for business, he doesn’t like to pack a lot of bags.”
The maid followed Clara into a dressing room, where she would help her wash and change. A valet led Mike to another room, where water was waiting for him to do the same.
Seated in the large dining room, dinner was far less intimate than the night before. They sat stiffly while the servants waited on them, and spoke only of inconsequential things. At last, when they were alone in the drawing room with their after dinner coffee, Mike took the opportunity to kiss his new wife.
“I thought they would never leave,” he said with an exaggerated sigh.
“We have the rest of our lives to be alone, if we wish,” Clara said with an affectionate smile, as she looked deeply into his eyes.
Mike settled into a chair by the fire. “I doubt I will ever get used to the idea of all this luxury. You didn’t tell me your father had a house in London.”
She shrugged as she settled on a chair opposite him by the fire. “We used to spend the summers here, for the season. But, since mother died, and my brothers left home, father only comes here when he has business in the city. Mostly, guests visiting the city use it now. And, I believe Charles stays here when he decides to come home from the continent. That way he doesn’t have to come home, and face Father.”
Mike thought he saw a wistful expression flit quickly across her face.
“When’s the last time you saw your brothers?”
“I’m not really sure. It has been a while, though. Perhaps they will come home for Christmas this year. It would be nice for you to meet them.”
She seemed to drift off into a reverie of her own, and Mike supposed it was over her absent brothers. He knew that empty feeling of missing loved ones, and he ached for her. After several minutes of watching her stare into the fire, he decided to break into her thoughts.
“Speaking of Christmas, I should tell you, I invited Tom and Henry to visit for Christmas. I don’t know for sure they will be able to, but I hope I didn’t over step my bounds.”
“Of course not! Our home is your home now. You may invite anyone you wish. Your friends are always welcome.” She seemed to brighten at the idea of guests for the holiday.
Over the next few days, the newlyweds seldom left the house, which was the source of endless delight, and giggling among the maids. But, the curiosity of the great city was on Mike.
“I want to go out, and see the sights. I’ve never been to London before,” he told Clara one morning at breakfast. “You know, I once thought I would come here and see if I could find an apprenticeship or something. That was before Tolabert had me attacked.”
“I think you told me that once. After seeing what you have so far, do you think you would have been successful?”
He shook his head. “No. Most likely, I would have ended up among the squalor we passed through on our way into the city. I would have had no idea how to go about even finding work, much less an apprenticeship.”
That afternoon the carriage stood at the door, and the two of them set off to explore the city. Up and down the city they rode, Clara pointing out the different landmarks, and various points of interest. They passed The Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abby, and the Tower of London. But, the thing that took Mike’s breath was Buckingham Palace. He had thought Fenton Hall was a palace when he first saw it, but after staring in wonder for several minutes at Buckingham, Mike knew he was wrong.
Upon arriving in London, Clara had ordered an entire new wardrobe for Mike, and had it delivered faster than Mike thought humanly possible. His own mother would not have recognized him in these splendid fashionable garments. And, before long, Mike began to feel confident that he would not be recognized by anyone who might remember him as the escaped prisoner. So, when a dinner party invitation arrived for Lord Fenton and his family, Mike did not hesitate to encourage Clara to accept.
“Oh, Mike, obviously Franny Larsdale has driven by the house, and seen that it’s open. She has assumed that Father is in town, and is probably wondering why he hasn’t called on them. I’ll just write a note, and explain that my new husband and I are hiding out here for a while, and we don’t wish to socialize just now. She’ll understand.”
“Why would she expect your father to call?”
“She was one of Mother’s friends. She’s also the most sought after hostess in town. Everyone hopes to get an invitation to one of her parties. It’s the place to get introduced in society here.”
“Why don’t you want to go? You would enjoy seeing your friends, wouldn’t you?”
She cocked her head, and studied him. “You mean you want to go to one of these ghastly things? We never know what she has dreamed up.”
“We can’t hide in a closet for the rest of our lives. Besides, I think it’s time we got out, and mingled with other people. You’re going to be stuck with me for a very long time. There will always be time for us to hide away. And, so far away from Cambridge, I doubt anyone will know me.”
Clara hugged him, and gave him a look that said you poor fool, you have no idea.
As predicted, the evening began stuffy and polite. But, Franny Larsdale was a gregarious and flamboyant woman, who eyed Mike as if there were something peculiar about him. She doted loudly over Clara, and dragging them along, introduced them to everyone in the room. After dinner, she insisted they all participate in a round of parlor games, but eventually the men were able to escape to the study for tobacco and brandy.
They spent the better part of an hour discussing hunting, sports, and even business. Although Mike had never developed the tobacco habit in any of its popular forms, he found it interesting to watch these men practice their habit. Some puffed on elaborate clay pipes, some took a pinch of snuff, and still others produced and puffed away on the latest fashion, a cigar.
Mike listened more than he talked, and yet Franny’s husband, Joseph, managed to corner him during a lull in the conversation.
“Harrington,” he mused. “I knew of some Harrington’s once. It was years ago, now. Used to own a top mercantile company up in Cambridge. You aren’t related are you?” he said as he puffed on his cigar.
Mike hesitated, but decided denying his heritage would be less wise than admitting it. His pulse quickened and he prayed admitting who he was would not result in him being arrested.
“Actually, Gerard Harrington was my father.”
“You don’t say! Well, of course! You’d be their son, Michael!” he said through a little cloud of smoke.
“Yes, but I’m afraid, I’m at a disadvantage. How did you know of my parents?”
“Oh, I don’t, or should say, didn’t. Franny and Sarah were great friends years ago, before Franny’s first husband, Randolph Byron, died. She talks about her, even now. I’ve heard endless tales about the children, and the tragic death of Sarah and Gerard.”
Mike nodded as he sipped his drink. “I was young when Mother and Father died. But, I would think I should remember one of Mother’s close friends.” He puzzled over how he could forget someone like Franny.
“Well, I am afraid that’s something you’ll have to ask her about. I only got the story second hand, and I’m sure she elaborated, and embellished it.” Mike nodded understandingly. “Are you still running the business?”
“Sadly, no. I was so young when Father died I was no match for his partner. He forced me to sell out to him as soon as he could. I imagine Father would be disappointed in me for losing the empire he built.”
“Well,” he said in a dismissive way, “if you were forced out, there’d be nothing you could have done about it. At that age, how could you know the ways to handle a situation like that?”
The conversation was getting a bit too personal, and Mike was relieved when Franny opened the door, and charged in to rout out the deserters. There was more entertaining to be endured before the evening could be officially called finished, and she meant to see her guests enjoyed it, or else.
When at last the evening was winding down, Mike found himself cornered by Franny. The woman frightened him a little.
“I kept thinking you looked familiar, from the moment I saw you. Of course, you look so much like Sarah. And, the moment I heard the name Harrington, I knew who you are.” She babbled on, “Sarah and I were so close. I miss her dreadfully. Tell me, Mike, what became of you after the tragedy?”
“I lost the business to Father’s partner, and after that I traveled for a while. I eventually settled down in Edinburgh, where I met Clara. We were just married.”
“Yes, Clara told me! Congratulations!” she gushed. “You have a special woman here. I knew her mother, and of course, Lord Fenton calls whenever he’s in town. What a wonderful family.”
Mike could contain his curiosity no longer. “Tell me, how is it I don’t remember you, if you and my mother were so close?”
Franny blushed. “Well, Sarah and I knew each other before she married Gerard. We were inseparable at the time. Then, her father arranged for her to marry Gerard. We didn’t visit each other so much after that. I think maybe Gerard didn’t like us being so friendly. Though, she would occasionally meet me for tea in the afternoon while Gerard was at work. Of course, we saw each other at parties. In fact, it was one of my parties they attended the night they were killed. I felt awful when it happened. I always felt as though it was my fault in some way.”
It suddenly clicked in his mind why the name of Byron had seemed vaguely familiar when Joseph had said Franny and Sarah were friends. Mother had liked to go to those parties, and talked about Mrs. Byron often. Father had only gone to them because it pleased her. He never had nice things to say about them.
“No, it was the fault of Father’s business partner, not you.” His voice had an edge to it, but he managed to get it under control again when her gloved hand shot to her mouth in surprise. “You say you were very close before she married Father?”
She studied Mike’s face closely.
“You know.” It was a statement, not a question. Her voice was low, so that the other guests could not hear. Mike nodded slightly. Suddenly, she embraced him in a motherly way. “Oh, you poor thing. When did you find out?”
“Just before the wedding. Father John told me.” Mike lifted Clara’s hand to show Franny Sarah’s ring.
“Oh! Sarah’s ring!” Her face grew sympathetic. “You must believe, your mother loved you very much, and she never meant for you to be hurt by it.” She held his gaze. “She grew to love Gerard, and would have died before allowing him to know. It was only when she felt she couldn’t keep her secret any longer that she told me. I was the only one she confided in. And, I have kept it secret all these years.” In another instant, she turned to Clara. “My dear, you have married a remarkable young man from a wonderful family. I hope that father of yours appreciates him.”
Clara grinned knowingly at Mike. “He does. In fact, he and Mike have great plans for the estate. Father is thrilled to finally have a son interested in keeping the whole thing running as it should.”
“Wonderful! I don’t know how the two of you managed to find each other, but you are perfect for each other, whether you know it or not.”
Life at Fenton Hall was peaceful. Mike and Stuart worked hard at restoring, and upgrading the estate, and it was well on the way to being self-sustaining as it had not been for many years. They enlarged herds of cattle, sheep, and horses, and hired people to tend them. There would be milk, butter, cheese, wool, leather, and meat enough for the estate as well as all the workers. They hired men to tend the fields in which they grew crops of grains and alfalfa; and others to tend the vegetable and flower gardens, which they expanded, and they filled hothouses with practical and exotic plants of all descriptions.
They made plans to build a small mill to grind their own grains, and a creamery to handle all the milk products. In another year or two, they would be able sell the excess of all the produce, dairy, and other goods to the neighboring communities, which would bring in a sizeable profit from the surplus of crops and livestock. Stuart began to wonder how he had managed to keep the place going before all of the changes.
As the Christmas season approached, Clara grew excited by the prospect of planning a season like the ones of old. There was to be a Christmas season at Fenton Hall again, the like that had not been seen in many years. Clara shared her plans with Mike at dinner.
“I’ll invite relatives from far and near, and they’ll stay for the entire season. I plan to have outings, hunts, skating, sleighing—I want everyone to have lots to do.”
“It sounds like there will be little time for anything else!” Mike laughed as he ate.
“I want everyone to enjoy the holiday. After all, this is the first time in years we’ve done this.” She was so excited by her plans she could hardly eat her own dinner.
“I’m sure they will find plenty to keep them occupied,” said Stuart. “After all, this is a large estate, and the house is plenty big. But, many of the family are getting on in years, Clary. Not all of them will want to be so active.”
“There are plenty of young people too. I just don’t want them to be bored and wish they hadn’t come,” she said with a little sigh.
“They’ll find it hard to be bored, I’m sure.” Mike said as he thought of the library full of books, and the billiard room, and the many game tables that had appeared in the evenings before the wedding when the guests had begun to arrive.
“True, and as a climax, I plan to have a special feast on Christmas day and a ball in the evening. We’ll invite all the neighbors for that, of course. It’s been years since we’ve had a ball in this old place.”
“It hasn’t been that long since the wedding,” Stuart said. “I rather think that could be called a ball. There certainly were enough people here then.”
“Well, yes, but that was not the same thing.” She waved the thought away as if it was ridiculous.
Mike put his fork down and laid his napkin aside. “Is this the usual way you celebrate the holiday here?”
Clara looked at her plate with a little frown. “Well, not since Mother died. But, we used to have a huge house party of some sort about every year when she was alive.”
Stuart cleared his throat before he spoke. “Yes, well, she did like to entertain.”
With a pang of sorrow for the loss of his own parents, Mike appreciated that Stuart still missed his wife, even though she had been gone for years. He wondered that he had seldom heard him speak of her.
“It must be difficult for you to have all this going on now,” Mike said with a quiet voice.
“Yes, well, I think it’s time to start living again. This place has been quiet far too long. It’s time to fill it with happiness once more.”
As winter began to bring the snow, Clara had boughs of pine platted into garlands and used it to festoon the entire house inside, and had wreaths made for the outside. Little sprigs of mistletoe hung in most every doorway of the public rooms. Mike found a Yule log and had it hewn and laid by in readiness. Clara sent invitations to all the prospective houseguests, and the neighbors received invitations to join them for the Ball.
Although Father John sent regrets, Henry and Tom did come to join the houseguests for the holidays, and the two of them spent many enjoyable hours together with Mike. Henry made it abundantly clear that he would not attend any ball. So, during their time together Mike took it upon himself to coach Tom on the expected behavior at a society event. He even managed to get him to accept and wear new clothing. And, despite his original objections, Tom was beginning to like being at Fenton Hall.
“This is spoiling me for when I have to go back,” Tom said one evening, as he sat lounging in a large wingback chair by the fire in the library.
“Aye,” Henry concurred, “that it is.” He raised his glass, and drained it. “Makes it harder to go back, knowing how the other half lives. And, this fine brandy makes it hard to face the swill I buy back home.”
Mike found a barb of sarcasm in his voice as he answered.
“You know I’m only here by a stroke of luck. And, I haven’t forgotten my friends. If you need anything, I’m glad to help.” It stung to think that his friend envied him for his good fortune in marrying Clara. But, Henry was drunk by this time, and on the verge of falling asleep.
“Don’t pay no attention to him, Mike. He stays drunk most of the time these days,” said Tom from his comfortable chair.
“Just feeling sorry for himself, I expect.” And with that Henry gave a little snore. A short time later, they pulled him up, and carted him off to his bed.
Christmas day came and went, and as the evening of the ball approached, Mike offered to help Tom dress. Henry had opted to spend the evening in his room with another decanter of Stuart’s fine brandy, preferring it to the condescending looks from the ladies, and the raised eyebrows of the gentlemen guests.
“It’s a real treat to be part of the upstairs rather than the downstairs for a change. I never thought I’d like it so much. After seeing the way the family I work for behaves towards their servants, and the way they like to lord it over everyone else, I thought I was better off not being like ’em. But, after being here with you, I see not all of the gentry are like that.” With a wistful look at himself in the mirror, Tom grinned. “If my fellow workers could see me now, they wouldn’t believe it was me,” Tom told Mike as he finished dressing.
“How’s it going with that girl, Mary, who lives downstairs from you?” Mike had not heard him mention her at all this trip, and he remembered he had hardly mentioned her on his last visit.
“She found herself a man who wants to get married. I haven’t seen her for a while now.” He did not seem concerned by it.
“Sorry to hear that. I thought you’d decided she was the one for you.”
“Well, she didn’t fancy me coming down here the last time, and when she learned I was coming back, she decided she wanted someone a bit more stable, as she called it.”
“I guess she didn’t know you very well, then. You’re probably better off without her if that’s how she feels.” Mike turned his head back and forth before the mirror checking his hair and his coat.
“Yeah, just as well,” Tom said as he plopped down into a chair to watch Mike finish preening.
Mike turned to him. “Does that mean you’d be agreeable to staying around here, then?”
Tom shrugged his shoulders and examined his fingers. “I might be. Jericho and Catherine are happy, and Henry…well, Henry don’t even know what’s going on most of the time these days. He stays drunk mostly.”
“He was doing so well. What happened?” Mike asked with concern.
“I suppose it’s everybody moving on, and being happy without him. We were all he had for years. He felt useful when he was in charge, and taking care of all of us. Now that you and Jericho have married, and gotten on with your lives, I think he feels deserted again.”
“Then, maybe you shouldn’t leave him alone.” Mike said. If Henry needed someone to take care of, Tom was the only one left.
“Jericho looks after him pretty close. Makes sure he don’t get drunk and sleep in the street.”
He had given little thought to Henry’s great attachment to the brandy, and other libations when he was visiting. Henry had always liked a good drink, and Mike just thought he was taking advantage of his good fortune when he visited. It had not occurred to him that it was something more. It troubled Mike to think of Henry going back to the way he was when Jericho first found him. There seemed little hope Henry would be able to pull himself out of it this time.
Adams knocked to reminded them that the guests were beginning to arrive, and Mike pushed further thoughts of Henry aside.
Mike found it amusing that Tom found the simpering debutants, and their hawkish mothers, rather frightening. He was cordial, but his aloofness seemed to encourage more than discourage them. He, at last, cornered Mike at the punch bowl. His face was flushed, and he had the look of a hunted fox.
“When you taught me how to dance earlier, you should have told me what to expect. What am I supposed to do with all of those little—” he waved his punch cup towards the dance floor.
Mike grinned. “I remember, several years ago, when an arrogant little boy sent me upstairs to get an education. I’m only happy to return the favor.”
“I got that education years ago with no help from you, thank you very much.”
“Oh, but there are many more types of education than that. Knowing when to drop your drawers is not the only thing a man should know about a woman,” Mike said in a low voice.
“Seems I remember someone cutting a pretty wide swath across Edinburgh, doing just that,” Tom said with a scowl, and took a gulp of punch. “Besides, these silly little twits would faint dead away, if they even suspected what they’re really asking for, with all their foolish behavior.”
Mike nearly choked on his punch, and then chuckled.
“You might be surprised at what many of them do know. But, that is not the point. You need to develop the art of the game. They speak to you, and flash their fans. You speak cordially to them, smile, and flatter them with compliments about their gowns or hair, and so on—”
“That will take all of two seconds.”
“Oh, but there’s more.” Tom rolled his eyes. “If you find one, or more particularly attractive, then you ask her to dance, and you talk while dancing. By then, you can usually tell if you have anything in common, and if you would like to spend more time with her.”
Tom stared at him with sarcastic contempt. Mike sighed, and steered him away from the punch table, and earshot of others gathering there seeking refreshment.
“Didn’t you ever talk with any of the girls you—ah—knew?” Mike asked.
“What is there to talk about when you’re—” he started, in contempt.
“Sh-h-h,” Mike pulled him towards the potted palms.
“—when you’re in bed in the dark?” continued Tom, frustration building. “What a lovely dress, my dear. Who’s your dress maker?” he mocked. Mike covered a snicker, and Tom forged on. “They’d charge double for wasting their time!”
“I know you know other types of women.”
“Yes, I do. But, as I recall, you seldom paid for any.”
“Hush. Clara’s friends will hear,” he said as he craned his neck to see if anyone was listening.
“I thought you confessed everything to her.”
“I did. But, it’s not the sort of thing the whole world needs to hear.”
Tom harrumphed. “I still can’t believe the daughter of a lord would marry you, knowing all you’ve done,” he said as he drained his cup.
“Well, she did. And, she loves me in spite of it.” He again felt the warm sensation in his chest as he thought of how he loved Clara, and how thankful he was she loved him.
Tom sighed, conceding defeat. “I give up.”
“Well, don’t. Perhaps now you can enjoy the party, and allow the girls to do the same. They only want the chance to dance with the most eligible man in the room. Clara told them that you came from an old Scottish family. She, however, did not tell them that you work for them. They view you as a new challenge. You’re fair game, and they’re each determined to be the one to win your affection. Since there are so few bachelors at the party, you’re the most mysterious, so you’re getting the most attention from the young ladies.”
“Fine. I’ll dance. But, I’m not eligible. I’m not interested in any giggling, half-witted, high society—”
“Guard your tongue. You aren’t in the tavern tonight,” Mike warned with a chuckle.
“A thousand pardons m’lord!” With an exaggerated bow, Tom turned to leave, shooting a parting remark over his shoulder. “I’ll play the game for a few hours, but that’s all.”
With the most charming smile he could muster, Tom ventured back into the ballroom. When Mike next caught sight of him, he was dancing with a pretty girl in a frilly green gown, a wooden smile turning up the corners of his mouth.
Clara swooped into Mike’s arms, and pulled him to the dance floor, where a waltz was in progress. “What did you say to Tom? He has the girls eating out of his hand.”
“I just explained the way things are done in society,” he grinned down at her upturned face.
“Well, I’m glad. He was being such a bore. He is fresh blood for the circuit, and I’m sure there are some hopeful hearts out there tonight.”
“He informed me that a couple hours is all he’s willing to endure. I doubt any of them will land him in that short amount of time.”
“I should hope not.”
“I thought that was the goal.”
“For some. But, there would be an awful scandal if anyone got serious with him, and learned who he really is.”
Mike slowed his step slightly, and the couple following them around the dance floor nearly bumped into them. “Oh? And, just who is he?”
“You know what I mean. We’ve passed him off as Scottish society. But, he isn’t. He’s nothing more than—”
“Than what?” he asked suspiciously.
“I was going to say a laborer. Most of these people would consider their daughters ruined, if they were to become involved with a common laborer.”
Mike grew quiet as they finished their dance. “Is that what I did to you?” he asked as they stepped from the dance floor, his face troubled.
Horrified by his reaction, she threw her arms around his neck. “No! You have made my life complete. I love you very much, and wouldn’t change a thing.”
“When you met me, I wasn’t of the same class as these people. But, you and your father were willing to overlook that, and accept me. Why should Tom be any different?”
“But, we did know of you family. They were known in social circles. But Tom, poor soul, doesn’t even know who his parents were. In society, family is everything.”
“Well, since we don’t know for sure, perhaps he is descended from royalty,” Mike lifted his chin slightly and pursed his lips.
She grinned broadly. “True, he could well be. But, let’s don’t fight about it. From what you said, there’s no danger that he is going to find any of these girls interesting, in spite of their drooling all over him.”
Mike squeezed her into a hug, trying to forget the social bigotry in the room. As the evening progressed, the guests became more jovial, largely due to the punch and eggnog, which flowed freely. The hosts watched Tom flirt, and dance with every debutant in the room.
As the guests began to take their leave, Mike realized that he had not seen Tom for some time. He asked Clara to inquire of the flock if they knew where he was. She returned with her face ashen.
“What is it?” he asked in panic.
“We have to find them.”
“Tom. He took Betsy Featherstone off to have a look at something special.”
The color drained from Mike’s face as well. “How long ago?” he groaned.
“Not long. But, Mike, we have to find them. If Betsy’s father finds them, he’ll kill Tom on the spot. You know how he is about his daughter.”
As calmly as they could, they slipped from the ballroom, and then fled down the stairs to Tom’s room. Bursting through the door, they expected to find Tom and Betsy in the throes of passion. But, the room was empty, the bed untouched.
“Thank God for that,” Mike breathed
“Yes. But if they aren’t here, then where are they?” Clara stood wringing her hands as she looked at Mike.
Mike couldn’t think clearly. The house was so large, and there were so many rooms. They could be in any one of them.
“We’ll have to ask the servants to help us. We have to find them before it’s too late,” he said.
“But, wait. Just wait a moment. Let’s think about this. If he were going to try something, where else would he take her?” Clara reasoned.
“Some place quiet. Dark, and secluded,” Mike said slowly, thinking hard of possibilities.
“The gardens are too cold, but,” she thought for a moment, “what about the hothouses?”
“Yes! Let’s go.”
They raced frantically down the back stairs, and through the kitchen, to the astonishment of the busy staff. On they ran, to the drawing room, where they slowed their pace for the benefit of the few guests lingering there in quiet conversation. Then on through the morning room and out to the hothouses they ran, stopping at the door for a moment to look around and listen.
Lit lanterns hung at wide intervals, casting quivering shadows, making ghostly reflections on the inside of the dark glasses. In the quiet, they heard a rustling sound, and muffled voices behind some tall potted plants, which blocked their view. As they quickly approached, they heard words.
“Oh, Tom,” cooed Betsy’s soft voice. “No one has ever done anything like this for me before. This is so exciting.” Clara felt faint, and Mike felt hot with anger for the betrayal of his friend.
“It’s nothing. In the years to come, you’ll remember me as the first man who ever—”
Mike burst suddenly into the light from around the end of a table full of plants.
“Not tonight she won’t—” he began, but stopped short when he realized the two were standing, looking at him quizzically, fully clothed, and holding a dozen red Christmas roses.
Tom knew immediately what Mike had expected to find. His face flushed as deeply with anger as Mike’s did with embarrassment. With effort, he managed to keep his voice steady, and looked coldly at Mike.
Wishing he were anywhere but here, Mike realized the mistrust he had shown in his friend. He could not deny it. But, thankfully, Betsy seemed in blissful ignorance of the thoughts that passed between them. Her blonde curls shimmered in the lamplight as she looked from one to the other. She was then surprised to see her cousin, Clara, stepping into the light behind Mike.
“Sorry, Tom, we were afraid—” he began to apologize for his hasty conclusions.
“I know what you were afraid of,” Tom said in a low threatening voice.
Clara stepped forward and took Betsy’s arm to remove her young cousin from what she was sure would soon be a brawl.
“Betsy! We’ve been looking everywhere for you. Your Father is getting ready to leave.”
“Oh fie! He has a sixth sense about me. Whenever I’m truly enjoying myself, he manages to find a way to drag me off.” She pouted prettily, but the effect was lost on the two men, who stood silently facing each other. “Look Clary,” she held out the bouquet for her inspection. “A bouquet of Christmas roses. Aren’t they beautiful? I have never been given a whole bouquet of roses before, have you?”
In an expressionless tone Tom spoke. “I hope I haven’t done grave damage by giving the flowers without asking first.”
“No, of course not, Tom! It was lovely of you to do this for Betsy.” Clara smiled genuinely, and led her cousin away, leaving the two men to settle their differences.
When the door closed behind the women, Mike again tried to apologize for his lack of trust, and explain their concern.
“I’m truly sorry for bursting in like that. We missed you, and Clara was worried—”
“Worried that I would take advantage of the silly girl?” He drew himself up and crossed his arms over his chest.
“In our defense, you did make it clear earlier, that you preferred more from your women than the games they play at these affairs.” He knew it was no excuse for his lack of trust, but he hoped they could move past it.
“Oh, please,” Tom said, dropping his arms, his hands balled into fists. “I only played your games to please you, and now you panic because I did. I should hope you know me better than to think I’d do anything to cause you and Clara problems like that!”
Mike dropped his eyes, “I do know. All I can say is, I’m sorry. Forgive me?”
Ignoring the hand Mike extended, Tom turned and walked heavily out of the hothouse and straight to his room. Even though Mike was angry, he had tried to apologize for his mistrust. If Tom did not want to accept his apology and forgive him, then he would not beg.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Thank you for reading my book. If you enjoyed it, won’t you please take a moment to leave me a review at your retailer?
V. S. Foreman
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Virginia “Sue” Foreman began writing at age fifteen, inspired by her tenth grade English teacher, Betty Hinton.
Born in Springfield, Ohio, where she now resides, Sue moved with her family to a farm near Mechanicsburg, Ohio at an early age. She lived there until going off to get her Bachelor’s degree at Tennessee Temple University.
Now in retirement, Sue has finally found time for writing when not busy with her church, husband, and their two cats.
Discover another book by V. S. Foreman
State of Deception
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