“Looking for help up at the Grange.” Rolly Tiree, the tinker, was seated at the long table when I brought in another keg from the storeroom. He was perched upon one of the simple chairs I had made, a pint of dark ale set before him. I carried the oaken cask easily upon one shoulder and set it down behind the bar without a grunt despite the heavy weight.
While Mister Barnes, the owner of the small inn and alehouse, continued to prod Rolly for the latest news acquired in his travels, I knelt on the stained oak floor, the better to remove the tap from the old keg and roll it out of the way before rolling the new one into place while letting the conversation wash over my bent head.
“The widow Osgood herself asked if I knew of any strong backs that could come help with the preparations for the Christmastide celebration.” He took another sip out of his battered pewter mug, smiling as his interested audience murmured in appreciation of the honor given him.
I rather liked Rolly. He was a traveler, moving from village to village and back again to peddle his small store of wares and sharpen tools and knives upon request. Unlike the rest of those in my village, he did not ignore me or treat me with disdain. Undoubtedly, that was due to his own low status, but it was enough to form a small bond between us. I felt he was talking directly to me, and even though I kept my head low, I kept my ears open as well.
“Abominations.” The Reverend Lewis Mounsey was seated at his usual seat before the small fire that smoked with sullen determination, adding its soot to the years’ worth of layers already coating the walls and ceiling of the alehouse. Mister Barnes was too careful with his coin to permit me to build a fire large enough to do the open hearth justice and burn away the accumulated buildup. “All in that house and those that would work for them are naught but abominations.”
Since he often referred to me in the same manner, my interest in what Rolly was saying perked up even more. Certainly I had a strong back to offer, and with the turmoil in the land, any extra monies earned, especially between Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night, could be put aside to aid in the harder times all visitors to the inn mournfully kept proclaiming were on the way. Besides, weather was slowing business at the inn, and I knew Mister Barnes kept me on out of kindness only.
“Careful with that tongue of yours, Reverend.” Mister Barnes spoke with the quiet authority that went along with owning his own establishment. “’Tis courtesy of that house and those in it that you have a position and a home for you and your good wife. You’d do better to turn your concerns to the matter of young Owens.”
His reference to the Reverend’s wife brought a smirk to all gathered. It was well known that she was the reason the bitter old fool spent so much time at the inn. There was also a rumbling of anger at the mention of the discovery of Jamie Owens’ body a fortnight ago.
Barely turned ten years, he had been found drowned in the river that flowed near our village, and based on the condition of his body, there were those who doubted he had fallen into the water by mere accident.
I had always liked Mister Barnes. Rough though he was and quick with his hands when displeased, he had always treated me fairly even though as the bastard son of a dead bastard son there were none in my life who would bother to tell him nay. I had worked for him ever since I could stand high enough to grab the reins of passing travelers’ horses. It was interesting to hear him defend the newcomers to the Grange.
“S’not right.” The Reverend glared at the others seated, seeking support for whatever poison he was readying to spill. “Good families. Christian souls cast from their home while those that do truck with the devil are prosperous.”
As usual, the old windsucker was exaggerating the events that had taken place earlier in the year. The sons and the father who had once lived in the Grange and gave our small village its name all had been killed in one battle or another, the last falling at the great Battle of Arapiles – or Salamanca, as it was better known.
The grieving widow had wasted no time in taking her daughters and finding a new husband, leaving the Grange empty save for the sounds of ancestral ghosts on moonless nights while the solicitors combed through the family genealogy in search of an appropriate heir.
Without a family in the house, without anyone willing to hire workers for the land and farms surrounding it, our tiny village had suffered. The renting of Wilston Grange, as it should rightly be called, had been welcome to most. Not only for the income it brought, but for the fount of gossip as well.
Strangers had come among us.
Surprisingly, those who were called to supplement the Grange staff had been paid enough to ensure they kept their mouths shut about the new tenants and their habits, and that only added to the mystery. However, unlike most in the village, I had time to neither spare nor care about newcomers.
With my mother still too ill from her last laying-in to whore for any with interest, the responsibility for my six brothers and sisters fell upon my shoulders. It would have been seven, but the babe had died shortly after birth. I fear I could not say I sorrowed.
Be careful what you wish for. That is what my mother would mutter under her breath. She would never finish the rest of the adage, as my mother had become a woman of few words by the time I entered the world. But the beginning, uttered in a tone of solemn experience would be enough to imply what was left unsaid.
You just might receive it.
When I was old enough to come to some semblance of understanding of our life, I would watch my mother go about her business in our small cottage on the far edge of the village. Her lips would press tightly together, the habit of holding back ingrained by then. A vicar’s daughter brought low by the birth of her first bastard and held there by the birth of her second had nothing to say that any wanted to hear.
She would attempt to cook and clean and the rest of the motions required to raise my brothers and sisters as they appeared, earning our keep in the small bed behind the curtain she had hung; speaking hardly more than was necessary. I would watch her drift through her days and wonder what she had wished for in her life.
And if she had received it.
I followed my mother’s example of silence as I grew. What good were words, when you came right down to it? Would words change anything in our lives? Would words put food on the table when we were hungry or coal on our fire in the long and cold winters? Would words satisfy the other children who taunted me with my parentage or my mother’s profession? Words gained me nothing.
Inwardly I wished for many things. Some days it was as simple as more food to divide amongst us all, a pair of woolen socks to keep my feet warm, or a sunny day at the inn with plenty of travelers willing to tip the lad who handled their horses.
Other days I would be filled with a vast yearning for what I did not know. Excitement, perhaps? Adventure? A way out of the unceasing poverty that lay before me? I only knew that no matter how much I wished – rarely did I feel I received anything in return.
Perhaps, like the other boys my age, I could have sated my yearnings in the flesh of a willing maid, but the years spent watching my mother at work and the heavy burden of my father’s parting gift left me both unwilling and unable to seek that option.
I should have been taught a skill, a craft with which to make my way, or even been apprenticed out, but few would bother with the whore’s children, especially one with my appearance. Even the Reverend did not come ’round as he should. My mother’s somber unrepentance irked his Christian soul, and we had set our paths early on when he thought to console me at my father’s death.
A good night with a paying customer had given my mother enough coin for his graveside service, and Reverend Mounsey had no qualms about taking her money, no matter how much he berated her for the manner by which she earned it. I can still feel his scrawny fingers digging deep into my shoulder as we stood before the open grave; still remember my squirming desire to get away from his touch.
“’Tis a shame your father died and left you as you are.” The smell of camphor from his dark woolen suit was strong, but not strong enough to mask the putrid stink of death as it wafted up from my father’s wooden box.
The scar upon my cheek stretched and pulled as I grimaced. “’Tis more of a shame he did not die sooner.” My words were honest, but I have since learned honesty is a luxury the poor cannot afford and one the Reverend Mounsey preferred to ignore.
Since then I had avoided the Reverend as much as I could. There was something in his eyes when he looked at me I could never quite explain, but I knew boded ill. Perhaps it was merely the unstable fervor behind his Christian piety that gave me pause; perhaps it was all merely fancy. All I knew was that something inside my gut told me never to be alone with him. And I listened.
My work with the keg was finished, and I stood slowly, careful not to hit my head on the low rafters. As always, I towered over my fellows. Mister Barnes took pride in my physique, viewing it as the direct result of the work I did for him. He gave me a glance and nodded his head in permission for me to seek my fortune up at the Grange without my saying a word. He knew me too well.
“I should have known the Devil’s spawn would seek his kin.” The Reverend turned his eyes upon me, and would he have been a man of any sure faith, his burning glance should have seen me dead. As it was, I proceeded to ignore him as I had done my entire life. “Mark my words, Mathias Oakes. You risk your immortal soul with your refusal to accept your place in God’s holy plan.”
“According to you, my soul was forfeit many years past, old man.” I had no time for his proclamations of evil today. I needed to stop by our small cottage and make arrangements for the care of my mother and siblings.
“Best of luck, Mathias.”
Rolly gave me a cheerful wave, and I spared time to wave in return. He had done me a turn; only time would prove its worth.