John drained the last drop of beer from his mug, turned it over and set it down on the stained wooden table.
“Right then. Who’s for a game?” He turned to the other three men but their response was slow, first glancing around to ensure no unwelcome eyes were watching. John dropped a pile of coins on the table beside his inverted mug, counting them methodically, “Eight shillings and sixpence. Anyone wanna cover that?”
Pete, the big guy to his left drew two shillings from his pocket and placed them on the table in front of him. Harry followed with three. Anton hesitated, but not wanting to be left out, proffered a single shilling. “Is that it?” John looked expectantly from man to man but none increased their stake. “That’s six shillings then,” he said, removing the surplus two and six.
With John’s mug upside down, a secret recess in its base was visible. This small compartment contained three, six-sided playing dice covered by a sheet of clear glass. John raised the mug and gave it a firm shake. The dice rattled about, coming to rest showing a four, a two and a three respectively, on their upper faces. When all four men had assured themselves that this was not a winning combination, John shook the mug again. A five, a five, and a two. The concentrating gaze of the four players froze, as an eerie silence suddenly overtook the noisy chatter in the public house. No need to look up, the men instinctively knew what this meant. A Police Constable had entered the room and this could spell trouble! They instantly swept their money from the table and John, with measured haste, lifted his mug and headed for the bar. There was no need to ask; the barman began filling the mug almost before it had left John’s hand.
“Good evenin’ officer,” greeted the barman as the constable approached, “and what’ll you be drinkin’ this fine evenin’?
The constable growled darkly, “You know right well I don’t drink on duty. I’m come to check for gamblin’. I ‘ope there’s none of that goin’ on ‘ere.”
“Look for yourself officer. Like you well know I run a respectable tavern. Won’t tolerate nothin’ illegal.”
John shifted nervously, lifting his mug but not so high as sharp eyes might see beneath, “Your good health officer. Sorry you’re unable to partake.” With a nod, he moved away to rejoin his friends. “That was close,” he said, smiling slyly. “Drink up lads for tomorrow we play again!”
Prohibition against most forms of gambling in England was still in force, but far from putting an end to gambling, these restrictions simply added to the excitement and the law was mostly disregarded. Devices aimed at thwarting these laws proliferated, fostering a lucrative cottage industry. John’s mug was made from rolled copper and in addition to the secret compartment beneath, it sported an additional subtle wink to anarchy. Set into the side of the mug were eight, one penny copper coins. The head on the coins looked like that of a Roman emperor and the inscription, Gulielmus IIII Dei Gratia, appeared to confirm this. The coins however were all dated 1831, disqualifying them from any connection to ancient Rome. So who then was this Gulielmus person?
“Where are you Uncle Bill?”
“In the kitchen, Vicky. You’ve caught me red-handed.” An open biscuit barrel stood on the table in front of him, “Now you must also have one. I hope your mother’s not lurking behind you in the shadows?”
“No,” squealed Vicky excitedly, running towards her uncle across the stone-paved floor, “she’s having lunch with a friend.”
“Wouldn’t have thought she had any friends,” muttered Bill under his breath, “Can’t abide the woman.” With restrained sarcasm, he continued audibly, “Oh what a pity; she’s such charming company.” He needn’t have bothered, children go deaf when their hands are in a biscuit barrel.
“Auntie Adi is such a good cook,” said Vicky, who’d deftly managed to extract two biscuits with a single dip. One biscuit was already in her mouth.
“We’ll both be in trouble if she catches us,” said Uncle, “She has me on a diet. My waistline’s increased alarmingly since I left the Navy. The constant movement of a ship keeps the stomach muscles in check, but those days have passed.”
“Oh I do love hearing your sailing stories uncle, I hope I can go to sea one day.”
“It’s an excellent way to see the world, but the job of the Royal Navy is to defend the country and many good men die in battle.”
“You two should be ashamed of yourselves,” chided aunt Adi as she strode into the kitchen. “I thought I’d catch you here William, but fancy encouraging Vicky.” She turned to the girl whose eyes were wide with feigned innocence but betrayed by cheeks stuffed full like a hamster. “Come here you,” she said suddenly laughing, “and give your aunt a big hug.”
Vicky raced towards her. “Oh auntie, they’re so delicious, we just couldn’t resist.”
“Now you’re trying to blame me, are you?” She attempted to look stern, but it was no good, her face broke out in another big smile. She had lost her own children in childbirth and loved having Vicky to visit. “And what are we going to do today?”
“The park please. Pleeeez! I must see the baby deer.”
“Well you’re in luck then. I’ve bunches of flowers from the garden to take to the church and the shortest route is through the park. Will you be coming with us William?”
Bill shuffled uncomfortably. He was officially the Park Ranger and knew the moment he stepped into the park, he’d be accosted by anyone with a problem. In reality, he rather enjoyed such interactions, but this excuse could now prove useful to avoid walking with two chatterbox ladies. “I’d love to go with you,” he said, “but…”
Auntie cut him short, “But me no buts William. We understand we’ll be going alone!”
William’s house was no mere gamekeeper’s cottage; it was a many roomed mansion. William had ten children by his former partner so had need of a large house. He’d never married the good lady who finally tired of domestic life and had left him to resume her former career as an actress. Being in need of someone to restore stability to his life, and not least some additional money, he had married Adelaide. She did indeed fill both of those requirements and their marriage was a happy one.
“Here you are Vicky, you can carry this bunch,” said auntie Adi as they made their way across the vast lawn and into the adjoining park.
It was a beautiful summer day and almost immediately they encountered a small group of young deer prancing about, chasing one another. They were quite unconcerned by the proximity of humans, as many people walked back and forth through this park.
“Aren’t they gorgeous,” cooed Vicky, making a move towards them.
“Now be careful Vicky, best not get too close.”
Vicky stopped, but the deer had noticed something she carried and began edging slowly towards her. She stood transfixed, “Ooh look auntie, they love me!”
“Vicky, come back. It’s not you they love, it’s the flowers. One of them is already beginning to munch on them!”
“No, no! Stop that!” cried Vicky, backing away as fast as she could, “Oh how disappointing. They’re so beautiful, I desperately want to stroke them.”
They continued along the path that provided a link between hamlets at either end of the park. They were not alone on the path, and Vicky couldn’t help but notice how women they passed often did a slight curtsy, and men would doff their caps.
On reaching the church, they were greeted by a jolly, rotund woman with bright pink cheeks, “Good mornin’ milady, so good of you to come, and brought with you flowers from your garden I see. An’ who then is this young lass also bearing nature’s sunshine?”
“She’s my husband’s niece Victoria, but we call her Vicky.”
“I’ll do likewise then Vicky, and a warm welcome to you in this humble house of the lord.”
Vicky blushed as she handed over what remained of the deer’s feast, “Sorry some of the heads are missing, we encountered a small problem en route.”
“They are lovely, and yours too milady will make a fine display beside the alter. Tomorrow we host a wedding, and the following day the church will once again be packed for Sunday service.”
On leaving the church, Vikki turned to her aunt and asked, “Auntie Adi, why did that woman keep calling you ‘milady’?”
“It’s likely on account of your uncle,” she replied, “your mother must surely have told you that uncle Bill’s brother is the king of England, and so that also makes Bill an important person.”
“But he’s not like that,” continued Vicky thoughtfully, “When I visit we have fun, he’s not all stiff and formal like those people my mother mixes with.”
“Yes you’re right, he’s far more down to earth. He’d much rather share a pint with his Navy pals than go parading around in fine clothes. Unfortunately though, his brother is not at all well and Uncle Bill may one day be required to take over from him as King.”
Vicky took a while to digest this, “Oh,” she said.
A horse drawn carriage stood outside the house as Vicky and her aunt approached. Vicky groaned with disappointment, “It must be mother come to collect me.”
But Uncle Bill’s beaming countenance as he strode towards them belied this assumption, “Good news,” he said, “Vicky, your mother has sent word asking if you might like to remain here overnight. She is detained in town. I have not yet replied to her request, but feel sure I know what your answer will be.”
“Of course you know! Of course I want to! I’d love to stay! I can think of nothing nicer than spending the night here. We can have such fun!”
Bill and Adelaide smiled broadly. It was lovely to witness such youthful enthusiasm.
Early next morning, Vicky banged heavily on the bedroom door, “Uncle Bill, you must wake up, there are men here that say your brother has died, and you are now the king.”
The door opened a crack and in a bleary voice her uncle mumbled, “My dear girl, you may be my favourite niece but fancy waking me up at this ungodly hour. Tell them to go away. I’ve never slept with a queen before and I’m going back to bed!”
William, now King, could no longer remain living in his secluded suburban house but was compelled to take up residence in the city. Adelaide was less reluctant to move, for as Queen consort she had the opportunity to entertain many interesting visitors.
“Where have you been for so long Vicky?” enquired auntie Adi, as a rather glamourous teenager entered the room. “Its ages since we last saw you.”
“Mother insists on dragging me along with her whenever she visits fusty old friends in the country. It’s all so horribly boring.”
Uncle Bill burst into the room smiling broadly, “Ah Vicky, you received my message. Are you ready for that carriage-ride I promised?”
“I certainly am, uncle. Will you be joining us Auntie?”
“No thank you Vicky. All that smiling and waving exhausts me.”
“Come on then Vicky,” said Uncle, “Our carriage awaits!”
The carriage was an open horse-drawn landau with driver and a footman to help them aboard. Vicky and Uncle Bill sat facing one another grinning like a couple of naughty children. William might now be the King, but he loved going out amongst the people. He was equally proud to be seen showing off this sparkling young Princess.
London was alive with the sounds and smells of a busy capital. People thronged the streets going about their daily business. Many looked up and waved as the king passed, but were not surprised to see him. His regular appearances did much to endear him to the people.
“Driver, stop the carriage!” the king commanded suddenly. “Look over there at that man Vicky. Someone walking with a gait like that could only have been a sailor.” William turned towards the man calling, “I say good fellow, were you not at some time a member of the Royal Navy?”
“Ay, sire,” he replied nervously, “I trust I’ve done nothing to offend?”
“Of course not. Come here and ride with us for I’m sure two old seadogs have much in common to discuss.”
With assistance from the footman, the anxious seaman was helped into the landau and took his seat beside the king. Any foreboding he had was quickly dispelled as the two men became lost in eager conversation; reminiscences of past adventures at sea. Vicky sat enraptured, thrilled to be party to such enthralling tales.
“Oh auntie,” she said on their return, “We’ve had the most wonderful day.”
Because William, now king of England, had not previously married the mother of his ten children, they were considered illegitimate and thus not eligible to succeed him as monarch. Attention then turned to the next in line, this being Princess Victoria, daughter of William’s deceased younger brother Edward. Because Vicky was still a minor, her mother had been appointed Regent, which meant that should William die before Vicky turned eighteen, her mother would effectively become the ruler of England. This was the last thing William wanted to happen, for if anything his dislike for her had increased. Now, seven years after becoming King, William’s health had deteriorated rapidly and he was forced to walk with a stick. At what turned out to be his last birthday gathering, he declared to all those present, “I trust to God that my life may be spared for nine months longer. I should then have the satisfaction of leaving the exercise of the Royal authority to my niece Victoria and not in the hands of her mother, who is surrounded by evil advisers and is herself incompetent to act with propriety in the situation in which she would be placed.”
His final wish was granted. King William died just a few days after Vicky turned eighteen!
John, Pete, Harry and Anton still gathered regularly at a table in their favourite pub for a pint and game of dice. The head of Gulielmus, better known as William, had been shaken many times, and now the man himself had passed on.
“Before today’s game gentlemen,” began John, “should we not first drink a toast to the memory of King William IV. A good king and man of the people.”
The other three nodded in agreement and raised their mugs. “To William,” they chanted in unison.
“And now a toast to the new queen. Long may she reign!”