Sophie FitzOsborne and the royal family of Montmaray escaped their remote island home when the Nazis attacked. But as war breaks out in England and around the world, nowhere is safe. Sophie fills her journal with tales of a life during wartime. Blackouts and the Blitz. Dancing in nightclubs with soliders on leave. And endlessly waiting for news of her brother Toby, whose plane was shot down over enemy territory.
But even as bombs rain down on London, hope springs up, and love blooms for this most endearing princess. And when the Allies begin to drive their way across Europe, the FitzOsbornes take heart—maybe, just maybe, there will be a way to liberate Montmaray as well.
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3rd September 1939
I’m quite sure that, in twenty or thirty years’ time, people will say about this morning, “I’ll never forget where I was when I heard the news.” They’ll say, “I was sitting in church and the vicar was halfway through his sermon,” or, “We were washing up after breakfast and my sister decided to turn on the wireless,” or, “I’d just come back from a long ride through the woods and I handed my horse over to the groom and he told me.”
But the thing is, we could all be dead in twenty years’ time, or even twenty days’ time, the way the world is going, and so, for the record: when the British Prime Minister announced that the country was at war with Germany, I was in the breakfast room at Milford Park. My cousin Veronica was perched on the edge of the window seat, and my brother, Toby, was sprawled across the rest of it. Veronica was rigid with barely suppressed fury; Toby appeared to be asleep, although the tiny, unfamiliar dent between his eyebrows suggested he was listening as hard as anyone. My little sister, Henry, was kneeling at their feet, spreading anchovy paste on bread crusts and silently handing them, one by one, to our dog, Carlos, who’d been allowed upstairs due to the significance of the occasion. And Simon, my other cousin, was hunched over the wireless (which tended to lapse into static unless someone stood beside it, twiddling the knobs). Simon’s face was utterly blank--impossible to read, despite all the years I’d spent studying him.
“Now, may God bless you all,” the Prime Minister quavered.
(Veronica gave a derisive snort.)
“It is the evil things we shall be fighting against,” went on Mr. Chamberlain. “Brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution. And, against them, I am certain that the right will prevail.”
There was a moment of crackling quiet, then “God Save the King” began wheezing out of the wireless. Simon switched it off.
“What a hypocrite that man is!” Veronica burst out, jumping to her feet. “He didn’t consider them ‘evil things’ last year, when he was hobnobbing with Hitler in Munich and handing over entire countries to the Nazis!”
“Toby,” said Henry urgently, twisting round to look at him, “Toby, do you have to go back to your squadron now, this very minute?”
“I don’t have a squadron, Hen, not yet,” said Toby, easing himself up on his elbows. “The air force won’t assign me to one till I’ve finished advanced training.”
“If Chamberlain had any decency, he’d resign!” said Veronica, still glaring at the wireless.
“But Toby, when do you have to go back?” Henry persisted.
“Tomorrow,” said Toby.
“Oh,” Henry said, blinking. Her face was easy to read. I saw, in rapid succession: dismay that he’d be leaving so soon, patriotic pride at having a brother already in the services, and burgeoning curiosity about what might happen to her now. “I suppose,” she added, almost wistfully, “that the war will be over by the time I’m old enough to fight.”
“Let’s hope so,” I said shortly. I was having trouble making my lips work, because a cold numbness had settled upon me the moment Mr. Chamberlain had begun to speak. As inevitable as this announcement was to everyone else, I realized I’d been praying all along for a last-minute miracle. For Stalin to change his mind, for the Americans to intervene, for Hitler to fall under a train . . . anything, anything at all. Now I understood how stupid I’d been.
“Don’t worry, Soph, it’ll be over by Christmas,” said Toby, flashing me a smile. “Isn’t that what they said last time?”
“And that went on four whole years,” I said bleakly.
“Besides, Henry, you couldn’t fight, even if you were old enough,” Veronica said, frowning down at her. “You’re a girl.”
“So what?” retorted Henry. “Girls can join the air force. Julia told me! And the army, and the navy, too! It’s just that the women’s services have silly names, like ‘Wrens’ for the navy. Wrens, how idiotic. It ought to be ‘Albatrosses’ or ‘Razorbills’ or something like that. But that’s the one I want to join, ’cause I can sail and row and--”
Carlos placed a paw on her arm and gave her a meaningful look.
“Oh, sorry, Carlos,” she said, handing him the piece of bread she’d been waving around.
Toby sighed and slumped back against the window frame. “It’s so odd, isn’t it?” he remarked to no one in particular. “I mean, all those times when it seemed about to start, and then everything went back to normal. And now . . . Oh Lord, to think of old Ribbentrop being responsible for this! I met him, you know, I actually had dinner with the man who got the Soviets to join up with the Nazis. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, isn’t that what it’s being called?”
Everyone’s a political expert, these days. Even I knew that if that pact hadn’t been signed, Germany wouldn’t have invaded Poland and we wouldn’t be at war now.
“And he seemed such a joke back then!” Toby continued. “Simon, don’t you remember, that party at the Bosworths’? When he was still the German Ambassador and all the girls were calling him ‘von Ribbensnob’ and you spent ages chatting to him about--”
Simon shot Toby a withering look.
“Oh, right,” said Toby. “Sorry.” That dinner party had been the beginning of the end, for Montmaray. If Ribbentrop hadn’t passed Simon’s information on to those Nazi Grail hunters, then perhaps our home would never have been invaded . . . But what did it matter, now that the whole of Europe was at war? Which reminded me of something else.
“Do we have to declare war on Germany ourselves?” I asked. “On behalf of Montmaray, I mean?”
“Oh,” said Veronica, her frown digging further into her forehead. “Yes, we’d better send a letter to the German Embassy straightaway. And another one to the Foreign Office, reminding the British that we’re their allies. Otherwise, we might get interned as enemy aliens. They’ve already started rounding up Germans in London, Daniel was saying yesterday. Anyone who isn’t a British subject--”
Carlos suddenly tilted his head towards the window and crinkled his brow.
“What’s that noise?” asked Henry.
Veronica turned to stare in the direction of the village. “Surely it couldn’t be--”
“Air-raid siren,” said Toby, scrambling to his feet as Carlos added his howl to the rising cacophony. “Grab your gas masks and let’s go!”
“Mine’s upstairs,” said Henry. “Or hang on-- did I leave it in the stables?”
“Henry!” snapped Veronica. “I told you to keep it with you!”
There were thumps and shouts from the corridor, and a couple of maids rushed past the open door, trailing mops and dusters. I stood where I was, frozen with horror.
“You see, I took Lightning out for a ride before breakfast,” said Henry. “Or maybe it’s--”
“What’s that under the table? Isn’t that yours?”
“Oh, right. But, you know, it really isn’t fair, Carlos doesn’t have a gas mask. Nobody ever thinks about the poor animals--”
Harkness, our intimidating butler, loomed in the doorway, accompanied by several white-faced footmen. “Your Majesty, Your Highnesses, may I suggest you join us in the cellars immed--”
“Just a moment,” said Toby, raising a hand. We listened in the abrupt stillness. The rise and fall of the siren had changed to a steady blare.
“That’s the all-clear signal,” said Veronica.
“Must have been a false alarm,” said Toby.
We looked out the window at the serene countryside, then up at the vast expanse of pale autumn sky utterly devoid of aeroplanes. I sank into a chair, limp with relief.
“We really ought to have a drill,” said Veronica crossly. “Practice what to do in a real emergency. That was just hopeless.”
“I shall make arrangements for it at once, Your Highness,” said Harkness, bowing. At no stage had he looked anything other than his usual imperturbable self. He swept the maids back down the corridor with a wave of his hand, gathered up the footmen, and disappeared.
“Well, that’s it, then,” Toby said, rubbing his forehead. “Come on, Hen, you can help me pack up my room . . . Yes, all right, Carlos can come, too.” The three of them went off, followed by Veronica, who announced that if anyone needed her, she’d be in the library, drafting a letter to the German Embassy.
They left a ringing silence in their wake. I took an unsteady breath and looked down at my hands. They were quivering--as though a bomb really had exploded and the shock waves were still reverberating around the room.
“Although it’s pretty unlikely the Germans would drop a bomb in the middle of Dorset,” I said to Simon, who was unplugging the wireless. “I mean, it’d be a complete waste of time and effort for them, wouldn’t it?”
“Would it?” he said. “There’s an airfield not far from here.”
“Simon, you could at least pretend to be reassuring.”
He turned and gave me a look that spoke volumes.
“Sorry,” I said. “Everything’s horrible, I know. And it’s so much worse for you and Toby.”
“I didn’t have to go into the air force,” he said. “We all have some choices, even in these circumstances. Anyway, what are you going to do now? Have you decided?”
I sighed. I’d had a long chat about this very issue with our friend Colonel Stanley-Ross on our way back from Switzerland last week. (I think he’d wanted to distract me from what he termed “a spot of turbulence, quite routine,” but was actually our aeroplane being battered by gale-force winds, eight thousand feet above the jagged tops of the Alps.) The Colonel had suggested that Veronica and I do a secretarial course--he thought typing and shorthand would come in handy, regardless of what we ended up doing. He asked what skills I had, and I explained I didn’t have any.
“Now, Sophie,” he said. “What about your writing?”
“Nearly everyone over the age of seven can write,” I pointed out.
“You know what I mean. Governments always seem to require enormous quantities of pamphlets and reports and manuals during a war, and someone has to write and edit them. What languages can you speak?”
“Not really. I can read it, a bit, but I can’t speak it. Veronica knows lots of languages, though.”
“Latin and Cornish,” she said. “And won’t they be a huge help if there’s a war? Assuming it’s a war involving Ancient Romans and Bretons.”
“She’s fluent in Spanish, too,” I told the Colonel. “Her mother used to speak it with her.”
“Is that so?” he said, looking at Veronica thoughtfully. “Well, and the other thing to do is a first aid course. That’s always useful.”
“I couldn’t,” I said. “Honestly, I faint at the sight of blood.”
“Can you drive?”
“No,” I said, feeling more and more useless. “But Veronica can.”
“Oh, look!” interrupted Veronica, pointing at the window with great excitement. “We must be over France now! It’s as though we’re floating across a giant map. Is that the Seine?”
I knew that if I looked out the window and saw how high we were, I’d be sick, so I concentrated even harder on my conversation with the Colonel. “Besides, Aunt Charlotte is never going to let us train for anything, let alone apply for jobs,” I told him. “She doesn’t even approve of girls attending school. She thinks it hinders their marriage prospects.”
“Would you really want to marry the sort of man who’s intimidated by educated women?” said the Colonel (reminding me of why we like him so much). “Although I do think your aunt’s attitude will change if war is declared. Everyone doing his or her bit for the war effort, you know. You might find you have more freedom than you expected.”
“We’ll have to get jobs, anyway,” said Veronica, “because she’s cut off our allowances. And that was simply after Toby refused to marry that Helena girl--nothing at all to do with our League of Nations trip. She’s going to throw a fit when we get back to England.”
That was putting it mildly. Aunt Charlotte was completely incensed that we’d disobeyed her orders and sneaked off to Geneva. And that was before she even got around to reading the day’s newspaper headlines:
Princess Rebukes “Brutal” Germany
League Condemns German Invasion of Montmaray
My Life in Exile: The Tragic Tale of a Beautiful Princess (exclusive interview on page five)
And so on.
Most of our aunt’s fury was vented on Veronica. “I’ve never heard of anything so vulgar in all my life!” Aunt Charlotte raged. “Making a public spectacle of yourself! Giving political speeches! Allowing yourself to be photographed! And this exclusive interview--unchaperoned, no doubt!”
“It wasn’t an exclusive interview,” Veronica attempted to explain. “There were dozens of newspapermen there--”
“Dozens! Newspapermen!” Aunt Charlotte was actually rendered speechless for a moment. When she recovered, she turned upon Simon. “And where were you while all this was going on, may I ask?”
“I was trying to extract Toby from the depths of a Swiss police station!” he retorted, returning her glare. She looked rather taken aback--until that moment, Simon had always been the epitome of deferential diplomacy around her. But now he had chosen a side-- ours, not hers--and he was sticking to it. Besides, the prospect of having to fly off to battle the Luftwaffe must have made Aunt Charlotte’s wrath seem relatively inconsequential.
“No, I haven’t yet decided what I’ll do,” I told Simon in response to his question. “But I do know I could never be as brave as you. Just getting into an aeroplane again . . . let alone being a fighter pilot!”
“I may not end up a fighter pilot,” he said, “or any kind of pilot at all. It depends on how my basic training goes. But I don’t think women in the air force do any flying--it’s mostly administration. You could do that.”
“There’s no point in me aiming for any of the services,” I said. “Aunt Charlotte would never agree, she’d think the uniforms too unladylike. Anyway, there’s so much to do here right now, I’ve barely had time to think about it.”
For one thing, there’s the blackout to organize. Every single window and skylight and glass door at Milford Park needs to be covered up at night so that not a sliver of light can escape (apparently, anything more than a pinpoint could act as a beacon for German bombers). I went round with Barnes, Aunt Charlotte’s maid, to measure all the windows, and there were three hundred and seventeen of them, not including the gatehouse and the stables and the hothouses. There wasn’t enough black material in the whole of Salisbury to cover them, but we bought what we could find and have started making curtains. Meanwhile, the groundsmen are busy constructing wooden shutters for those upstairs rooms that are hardly ever used, and Parker, the chauffeur, has made little masks to fit over the headlights of the motorcars and has painted all the running boards and mudguards white, according to the regulations.
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“Absorbing, compelling and unforgettable.”