A Few Shillings (short story)

Wilson’s War #3


-When last we saw Wilson, he had been beaten and thrown out of the manor by His Lordship. Now he is being driven away in a carriage by the valet, Mr O’Riley-

Mr O’Riley was sure that the boy had done nothing wrong. The lad was stubborn at times, but never rude or lazy. Mr O’Riley had always considered Wilson to be a capable member of their little family, more so than the absent-minded Annie.

He sighed and gripped the reins tighter in his clenched fists. There was no helping who your parents were. Men like his master were born from good parents and could own men like Mr O’Riley. Boys like Wilson, born to a thief and one of those women, lived only to serve their betters.

“Why do I have to leave, Mr O’Riley?” Wilson asked, one grimy hand pressed to his swollen cheek.

The trees which flanked the driveway on either side flew past in a blur. Mr O’Riley had been told to leave the boy at the edge of His Lordship’s land, but he did not think much of that idea. He would drive Wilson up to the beginning of town.

“Mr O’Riley? You aren’t saying anything?”

“Sorry, Will, my thoughts got away with me. You asked why you have to go away. It’s because of your father, I’m afraid.”

“My father?”

Wilson knew who his father was. The grizzled, rotund man could normally be seen lounging outside the Old Crown with a pint of ale in one fist. From what Mr O’Riley heard, the father and son had spoken three times in Wilson’s life. His father once asked if he was well and twice asked whether he had a spare shilling. He had never met his mother.

Cookie had told him that Wilson’s father brought him from London, where he had worked in a steel mill for some years. The master had agreed to take the boy in as a servant, after much begging from the father.

That was the last thing that the man had to do with his offspring. Cookie passed on stories she heard that Wilson’s mother was a women of poor reputation in the city, but who she heard those tales from Cookie never let on.

“Look here, Will. This is going to be a hard thing to hear, I think. Try to understand that this is the way the world works and, as you’re a man now, you just have to accept it.”

He thought that was how a father would have phrased things. Mr O’Riley liked to think that he understood the boy’s need for someone to be a father to him at a time like this. He would do his best and try to set him on the right path. Wilson, Annie, Cookie and His Lordship too, in a way, were all part of his little family at the manor.

“Listen, Will,” He continued, “Your father has been arrested. That’s why His Lordship was in town, to judge your father. He’s been tried and convicted for assault occasioning grievous bodily harm. Now, you have to be a man now and not take this too hard. That’s a serious crime. I think your father will be in prison for a good while now.”

“What’s that mean?” Wilson asked. “Assault occasioning, what was it?”

Mr O’Riley watched the gate approaching at the end of the driveway and listened to the jingling of the horse’s harness as he tried to think of a suitable answer.

“It’s hurting someone. It means he hurt someone badly. They were both drunk, so I suppose that was a part of it. But this is the thing, Will, and you’ve got to take it that this is just the way that the world is, His Lordship won’t have anything to do with a man who’ll do a crime like that and he won’t have the son of that man living or working under his roof. Do you understand?”

“But it’s not fair. I didn’t hurt anyone.”

He had not thought about it in that way. Now that Mr O’Riley considered it, throwing Wilson out of the manor for something that his father had done was not fair at all. But he knew that His Lordship was an educated man and a Justice of the Peace, so he certainly had good reasons for his decision.

“That’s the way the world is, Will. I won’t have you speak ill of the master. He has to think about things differently from us. Sure, it may seem unfair to you, but don’t forget that His Lordship took you in out of charity. Never be ungrateful for that.”

Wilson nodded his head but there was a sad, vacant look in his eyes. Mr O’Riley wondered if he ought to put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. It seemed to him like the sort of thing that a father might do. But he quickly dismissed the thought. He was not the boy’s father and Wilson had to learn how to be a man. Coddling him would do no good.

They passed the rest of the journey in silence. Wide yellow fields and green open pastures spread out on either side of the track leading away from His Lordship’s land. Spring was almost upon them and purple flowers were beginning to open here and there beneath the hedges as they drove past.

The sky was a tapestry of greys and whites, clouds rising in high ranges and sheer cliffs. Sunlight shone brightly above the clouds, but in the pastoral landscape through which they moved, the world seemed darker than it should have in the early afternoon.

Mr O’Riley tugged on the horse’s reins as they drew up to the edge of town. The open carriage slowed to a stop and Wilson obediently hopped down from his seat. He was carrying a small bundle of clothes and knickknacks under one arm, with an old fishing pole on his shoulder.

Looking down at the boy, Mr O’Riley was caught by the uncertainty in his dark green eyes. He realised that he had never noticed the colour of the boy’s eyes before. They had lived together for almost ten years and there was very little that he did know about Wilson.

“Well, it’s time for you to make your mark in life. I’m sorry everything turned out like this but that’s just how things are. Do you have enough money?”

Wilson fumbled in the pocket of his trousers and drew out a few dull coins.

“Three shillings, Mr O’Riley.” He said.

“Only three? I thought you earned that much in a week. What have you been spending it all on?”

“I spend my money at the fair, Mr O’Riley. Every Saturday Mrs Adcock makes a fresh pie and there are games on the common. Should I not have?”

Mr O’Riley felt despair rising in his gut. There was not enough time for him to explain everything the boy needed to know about life before he had to return to the manor. It would have to be a case of doing as much good as he could and hoping it would be enough.

“Look here, Will.” He said, trying to affect a stern tone. “You’re a man now and you can’t waste those shillings on pies and games. Get yourself some new employment, earn a living and use your money for rent and food.”

He nodded; satisfied that he had given the best advice he could. Then he remembered that he might never see the boy again and felt anxiety creeping back over him.

“But don’t spend all of it at once.” Mr O’Riley continued. “One day you might want to be married and have children. Save some money for that. A dozen eggs will cost you a shilling, two pence for a loaf of bread and a few shillings a week for rent. That’s maybe four and a half shillings per week and you can save the rest for the future.”

Mr O’Riley stopped speaking and looked down at the three grimy coins sitting in Wilson’s outstretched palm. The boy’s eyes were fixed on the older man’s face, waiting for more sage words from one experienced in the mysteries of adult life.

He felt a lump grow in his throat as he realised that Wilson had not yet applied the mathematics to his current situation. By the estimate that Mr O’Riley had just given, the boy did not have enough to live alone for even a week.

He reached into his jacket pocket and drew out a scrap of paper and a well-chewed pencil. Hastily, Mr O’Riley scrawled a note and thrust it down to Wilson.

“That’s an address in Oxford. My niece, Jane, works there as a maid. She’s a little older than you. Tell her that I’m aking if she’ll try to find a position for you. Her employer is a good man. Not that His Lordship isn’t, mind you. The master has shown us all great charity and I won’t hear a bad word about him.”

Wilson nodded, took the address and stared at it with the same vacant expression. Mr O’Riley pulled the reins and the carriage jerked forwards. As he drove back towards the manor house, he heard the boy’s voice calling after him.

“Look after Annie. Tell her I’ll miss her.”

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