“Little prince!” Mother’s sing-song voice called, echoing up the stairs.
“I’m coming!” I cried, anxiousness charging my steps as I bounded down the hallway. I nearly slid on the banister in my hurry to reach her. Her arms were spread wide and she pulled me in a tight hug. “I love you, I love you!” I said, my face pressed into her swollen stomach.
She bent and kissed my forehead, brushing aside a stray strand of hair. “Darling, you’ll miss your train. All your bags are packed?”
I nodded quickly. “Are you sure you can’t come with?”
“Just a few more things,” she assured me with a smile, touching a hand to her stomach protectively.
“Papa’s letter said we should both go,” I reminded her. She’d tried to hide the letter from my gaze, but my quick eyes caught the last of it, handwritten in ink and signed by father.
She shushed me.
The lights in the large white manor flickered, and the walls shook slightly, pulling plaster from the ceiling to sparkle down on our heads. “Off you go,” mother said, rushing me to the door. She had my coat and gloves in her hand as I stepped into my boots.
“Wait!” I cried once my coat was on. “What about my clothes and books?”
“I’ll bring them, little prince,” mother said, again rubbing her stomach. “Your aunt and cousins will have what you need for a few days. Here,” she passed me an envelope, but before I could open it she said quickly, “don’t open it yet. Keep it with you, and keep it close. Don’t let anyone else look. Promise me.” Her face had gone all serious now.
“I promise,” I said, holding out my pinkie to make the solemn oath.
“Good boy.” She looked about to say something else when there was an insistent knock on the door. “That’ll be the driver. Boots on? Good. Scarf? Scarf, yes, and gloves, hat. Alright, off you go. Put that in your pocket!”
I stuffed the envelope inside my coat. With some effort, due to her size, she bent again and kissed my cheek. “I love you, little prince.”
“See you soon, mum.”
She opened the door. The driver was an old, wrinkled man with a harried expression on his face. “Come up, woman. We’ve got to hurry.”
“I’m not going,” mother said. “Just take the boy…”
“Not going!” The man said in a wheezing voice, “I must insist that you do. And in that condition,” he gestured to her belly.
“Please,” Mother insisted, pushing me out the door into the cold, wintry air. “Take him. Now. I’ll take another train.”
“Another train. Ma’am, I must tell you that–“
“Take him,” Mother said firmly, and I caught a look between the two adults. “Please.”
The man stared at her for a moment, uncomprehendingly, then slowly, carefully nodded his head. “Yes, alright.” Then, his skinny hands were on my shoulder. “Come, boy. Into the car and out of this cold.”
I glanced back at mother framed by the light of the doorway, and she raised a hand in a slight, trembling wave. I turned to the black car and the man held open the door. I slipped into its interior, and a few moments later we were rumbling down the cobblestone. I glanced back at the house, but the door had been shut.
“Not going,” the old driver muttered to himself, clenching the steering wheel. “Leaving the boy.”
I pretended not to hear, which was nearly probable, for a few seconds later there was another distant explosion and the smog-filled night skies were palely lit with fire on the horizon. “They’re getting closer,” I said.
The old man glanced sideways at me, but said nothing.
“Mum said she would come. She promised.” I told him.
“It’s not right,” the man said. “Leaving her boy. Why would she do such a thing, with those bombs going off up there?”
God will protect her, I thought to myself, staring out the window at the passing houses. All the windows were dark. Why was she staying behind, after father told her not to?
The maid locked the front door with trembling fingers and put a hand on her belly. “It’s alright, little one,” she whispered. “This is better.” She untied her apron and threw it on the floor.
She scurried up the stairs and found her little prince’s packed trunk at the end of his bed. With some effort, she managed to drag it to the top of the stairs. There was another rumbling, and the chandelier tinkled lightly as more plaster rained down. The maid gripped the banister and closed her eyes, listening to the distant destruction of an emptying city. “This is better,” she said again, then opened her eyes and glanced down the stairs where a large portrait of the man and little prince posed perfectly, with dirty blond hair and fair skin, and matching green eyes. Only the two of them in the picture. There were no portraits of her. There couldn’t be. Her prince, so lucky to look like his father and not her. “This is better.”
She carried the trunk down the stairs a few steps at a time, then brought it to the door and leaned it against the wall, panting slightly. She rubbed her belly again, then went to the drawing room to write up one more letter. She folded the paper and stuck it to the trunk, sighed, then stood in front of the fireplace and stared down at the cold charcoal pieces. She closed her eyes as the distant rumblings came ever closer.
“I can’t see you,” she said to the baby inside her. “No one can see you.” It would be the eyes, she knew. The devil was in the eyes.
She finally turned, then, and walked to the door. She felt the lock click and she stepped out into the cold in her bare feet and walked down the abandoned street. The door stayed wide open. No one would enter the manor. There was hardly anyone left, and none would care soon enough. The smog clung to her thin clothing as she walked, and walked past familiar houses, now unoccupied. She walked, tears blurring her eyes as the dark sky was occasionally lit with smoke and fire.
She walked, and soon, the cold wintry rains set in.
I sat on the moving train as the night scenery raced past, and impatiently withdrew the envelope from my pocket. I glanced around, but most of the people sitting near me were asleep or had their noses stuffed in a large newspaper.
The boy ripped open the top of the envelope, and two pieces fell out.
In the unfortunate circumstances of the moment, the white paper slid out at the moment the train bounced, and the paper slipped under the boy’s seat, where he missed it completely. All other occupants of the train, being otherwise engaged, took no notice of the stray paper. In fact, it would not be found until some weeks later, when an elderly cleaning man sweeping through the empty train would pick it up with other discarded newspapers and garbage. He, of course, took no notice of the significance of the paper, and stuffed it in the trash alongside the newspaper carrying, on it’s ninth page, a short, typed article about a pregnant maid.
The second paper, the yellow one, remained inside the envelope.
The boy glanced within and removed the yellow paper.
I took the yellow paper in my hands and stared.
It had been cut into the shape of a paper crown. Mother and I used to make them all the time.
I unfolded it with a smile and placed it over my head. It was a little snug. I glanced curiously in the envelope again, but that was all she’d left me.
I wonder why she told me not to open it, I thought curiously, then rubbed my eyes and drifted to sleep as the train clattered on down the tracks.