From the writeworld prompt: All you’ll ever be is a poor little rich boy.
But why is that?
During the hours between midnight and three in the morning, a woman walks the length of the East Wing. All of her pale hair is in disarray, and there are dark stains across the belly and the hem of her nightgown. She wears a veil over her face, but anyone who sees her knows her for who she is: the Madame, Estelle Leclair, and God rest her soul, for her body has been resting in the earth for the past ten years. Though she makes no sound, she will stop in front of every door and put her face in her hands, and her shoulders will tremble, and then she will move on to the next. On particularly windy nights, her voice echoes like a lost and lonely thing: my boy, my boy, where is my boy?
And the tragedy of the situation is that her boy — the son that died just a scant few months before the Madame herself — was likely waiting for her to find him on the other side, in the cradle of the heavens. She cannot hear his cries over her own, and while a priest might be able to give her some measure of peace, the Monsieur refuses to summon one. It is romance; it is his way of keeping her close, even though she has already gone on before him. Surely, after the Monsieur departs his own deathbed, he will take her by the hand and he will lead her home.
Alexis had asked about the ghost of the East Wing once; his mistake, he thought later, was that he had asked Julien, and not his father.
“If it is her,” he said, his face grim, “then let’s pray to every sweet saint that she will move on. She’s been trapped here for far too long.”
Alexis thought this was rather excessive; Julien, after all, had at least known her for far longer than Alexis himself. He had a photograph of her in a locket, and the knowledge from her old maid that she had preferred lilac over rose in her perfumes, and he had his life, but nothing more than that. It was not fair that Julien could not hope, at least for Alexis’s sake, that their mother truly did walk the East Wing, as if she meant to stay close to them even after so many years. Even if she was gone, she was close.
He had tried several times to catch her, bringing a blanket and a pillow and bedding down in one of the empty guest rooms and leaving the door open, forcing himself to stay awake during the long hours of the night — but he always found himself drifting off shortly after midnight, so that if Estelle Leclair did make her appearance, he always missed them. Perhaps if he actually slept in the room that had once been hers — the room where he had been born, the room where she’d died — he would have better luck, but his courage always failed him before he could quite make it to that particular room.
And then, one night, Alexis woke at some point when the world had gone dark gray and soft. He could not say what exactly it was that had roused him from sleep, though his heart was pounding hard and fast in his chest, as if the lingering cobwebs of his dreams were nightmares. He glanced at the clock and saw that it was just shortly after midnight, the twenty-first, the birth-day of his lost half-brother, who had died before the servants could even have any stories to tell about him.
The impulse struck him like a bolt of lightning, and his heart, which had just begun to calm, started off again. He slipped out of his bed and tiptoed out of his room, down the length of the West Wing and to the East Wing, his heart in his throat. For the first time, he felt well and truly awake, so alert that he was on the verge of vibrating out of his skin. When he reached the East Wing, he pressed himself against the wall, and he peered down the hallway, which was lit by the silver glow of the full moon.
Someone stood at the end of the hallway, in front of Estelle Leclair’s old room. Alexis gasped before he could help himself, and clapped both hands over his mouth. He could see the shape now, tall and slim and graceful, and he could see how the moon glittered on the pale strands of her hair, the gauzy gossamer of her nightgown, and more than anything, he wanted to run to her, to throw his arms around her knees and say, Mama, Mama, I am here, I am your boy and I’m here.
He’d even taken one step, preparing himself, and then he heard a voice behind him:
“Alexis, what are you doing here?”
At once he turned, and there was his father, handsome and proud and clever, who was truly all of the very best things that Alexis wished to be. He was dressed as if he were heading out to a party — or perhaps returning from one; an adult’s life seemed to be full of many parties, some of which lasted long and late into the night. He made a noise, then remembered his hands over his mouth, and he removed this and he said, “I am looking for Mama, Papa.”
“Are you?” He raised an eyebrow, and then he looked down the hallway. “But she is not here, Alexis. She left us long ago.”
“No,” Alexis said. “I saw her, Papa, she was right–” And then he turned, and — of course, Alexis Leclair, you foolish child! of course! — the length of the East Wing hallway was empty. Even so, he lifted a hand and pointed, and he swallowed several times because his throat ached, and he said, “She was there, Papa. She was there, and I saw her. I just wanted to be able to see her once.”
“Of course you did,” his father said, and this was why Alexis loved him, because he was kind and he was indulgent — not like Julien, who frowned and said scathing things and could not even tolerate a brief moment of whimsy. “And perhaps she was here, for just a moment. But she must away to her own sleep, and so should you.”
“But I am not tired.”
“Aren’t you? Then that’s troublesome.” His father stroked his chin for a moment, as if considering, and then he knelt down, putting both of his broad hands on Alexis’s shoulders. They were so large and warm, and Alexis thought that he could easily be swept up and carried in his father’s hands with room left over. His father looked him over, thoughtful, as if inspecting him, and so Alexis straightened up as much as he could and lifted his chin and tried to look as very adult as he could.
His father smiled then, slow and thoughtful. “Then,” he said, “would you like to come to my study? I think there are things we could do, perhaps, to tire you out.”
“Your study?” Alexis squeaked, his eyes going wide. His father’s study was a forbidden place, where neither he nor Julien were allowed (though of course not Julien; he was not even the proper son of the Monsieur Leclair!). It felt like an invitation to a strange new world, one that, perhaps, held secrets that might be equal to the memory of his mother, faded and dim as she was. “Of course, Papa! I would love to!”
“Oh, good,” his father said, and he kissed Alexis, first on the forehead, then on the mouth, and then on the mouth again, warm and firm, and Alexis giggled a little before he could stop himself. There was a strange little flip in his belly, like something was waiting to catch fire, or to take flight.
His father smiled as well, warm and secret, and he took Alexis by the hand, and he led him away.