Life and Debt

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Chapter 8

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.”

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