Life and Debt

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Chapter 6

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.”

“Then, who?”

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. ”

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