The candle flickered as William blew dust off the yellowed paper. It must have lain hidden behind the rafters of their little one-room cottage for many years.
Uncurling it William saw the crest of Lord Grace who lived in the manor house at the head of the valley. The neat writing was badly faded but it appeared to be about the entry into service of a child. He was “from this day forward, without end, to be available as required for work in the house, on the estate and elsewhere” and, if necessary, “to defend the property and family of Lord Grace”. He was expected to report regularly to the House for instruction. But these were no ordinary terms of service; William, in amazement, saw that Lord Grace was promising that this child would “enjoy the rights and privileges of a son” and, in time, a full share in all his estate and wealth.
At the bottom of the paper, under the signatures, was a date – why, the paper was nearly as old as he was! And then suddenly a terrible thought pierced William’s mind. He held the top of the paper close to the candle flame and peered hard at the faded name. And there it was: William Marshall. He was the child! It was his own Father’s signature at the bottom! Why had he never heard about this? Why had his parents not told him about his obligations while they were alive? To think he had struggled here in poverty all these years unaware of his benefactor!
What should he do? Put the paper back and pretend he’d never seen it? But surely Lord Grace had not forgotten? If he was in deep trouble now how could it help to add further years of indifference? But how could he turn up at the manor house after all this time? He sat for an hour or more unable to do anything.
And then William remembered the promises. He didn’t deserve them, but he had heard that Lord Grace was both severe and generous. Even after all this time was there a chance that he would still honour his promise and welcome William as his own son? Might he forgive? The thought burned within him as he rolled up the paper, tucked it into his waistcoat pocket and grasped the door latch.