Wilson’s War #1
Saturday 28th February 1914; Oxfordshire, England
Wilson fumbled for the edge of the thick, warm quilt and drew it away from his reclining body. For a few moments after waking he stared up at the underside of the four-poster bed’s canopy.
Rich burgundy cloth was stretched across it, hanging down in frills on the three open sides. The back of Wilson’s head rested against a panel of wood with an ornate coat of arms carved into its face. Two spiralling, polished wooden pillars held up the canopy on the opposite side.
The smell of breakfast wafted to him from a small table next to the four-poster. Wilson sat upright and pulled the tray onto his lap. With his mouth watering and happiness creasing the corners of his eyes, he began his morning meal.
The sausages were cold but juicy, seasoned to perfection with freshly picked herbs and complemented by a spot of mustard with each bite. If the eggs were also cold, Wilson did not mind. It was his own fault for oversleeping.
He replaced the now empty silver tray and swung his legs over the side of the mattress. Walking to the high window, he listened with intense satisfaction to the swishing sound of his silk nightgown. He felt rested, refreshed and utterly at peace. Wilson took hold of the plush velvet curtains and drew them apart, sighing as he took in the view outside.
Below his window was a paved terrace with wide stone steps on either side, littered with iron chairs and tables for the manor house’s frequent garden parties. At the bottom of those steps the garden proper began. A carefully manicured lawn stretched out in a straight avenue down to a small lake in the distance, shrouded in mist. On either side were thick trees of all varieties.
As Wilson watched, a pair of pheasants strutted across the lawn. From their vantage point, they would be able to see the two-storey manor with its high windows peeping through the thick, dark ivy which smothered the building’s exterior. Wilson thought that the pheasants might even be able to see the face of a young man, barely in his sixteenth year, looking down at them from one of those windows. His attention was drawn away by a quiet knock at the door.
“I trust that master is well-rested?” A shy voice asked.
The pale, heart-shaped face of a little girl showed through a crack in the door. Wilson recognised Annie, the maidservant, though he had known her from the shy knock she had given.
“Thank you, Annie, I slept quite splendidly.” Wilson replied.
“Will!” She gasped, pushing the door open further and letting her eyes widen. “You aren’t out of your nightclothes yet. Do you know what time it is?”
Wilson felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, as though he had swallowed a lead weight. His shoulders slumped and the patronising smirk disappeared from his face.
“What time is it, Annie?”
“Eleven o’clock. His Lordship will be back any time now. Imagine if he catches us!”
Fear took hold of him so suddenly and completely that his hands shook at his sides. Wilson pulled the silk nightshirt over his head, folded it up hastily and thrust it into a drawer in the master’s dresser. He retrieved his own crumpled shirt and tattered trousers from beneath the bed and pulled them on.
In his distracted state, it took two attempts before he had the trouser on the right way round. Annie tapped her small feet against the floor. Not able to bear waiting any longer, she wailed and let the door fall shut with a click of the latch. Wilson heard her soft feet padding quickly down the landing outside.
It was an innocent game and one that they had played many times before. This time, however, something had gone wrong. His Lordship, who owned the manor house, was a Justice of the Peace. Every Friday his valet, Mr O’Riley, would drive him into town to sit as a judge in the local assizes court.
In the evening, the pair would stay in town for the night so that His Lordship could catch up on local and national affairs. That left Cookie, Annie and Wilson alone in the manor where all five lived. Wilson performed odd jobs such as looking after the stables, trimming the lawn and sweeping the many chimneys.
While the two men were away, the three servants’ game was to take turns at being the master of the house. Last night had been Wilson’s turn. The others had served him a hot dinner, put him to bed in the master bedroom and brought him breakfast in the morning.
For Wilson, the best part of the game was not that he did not have to do any work for a day. More than that he relished the chance to experience another life. For one day every three weeks, he was a member of England’s aristocracy. His cares were none. He was free to experience the small luxuries which life offered without having to justify every second of enjoyment through an hour’s hard work.
If His Lordship caught him at his little game, however, an hour spent scrambling inside a claustrophobic chimney was the best thing he could look forward to. The master could beat him with his hard walking stick until it broke, or force him to sleep outside in the rain for a night, or perhaps throw him into the cellar and lock him away to starve to death. Wilson’s imagination was running away from him and fear ate at him from the inside.
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