Life and Debt

All Rights Reserved ©

Chapter 2

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.

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered book publisher, offering an online community for talented authors and book lovers. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books you love the most based on crowd wisdom.