The nightingale, p.10
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       The Nightingale, p.10
 

           Kristin Hannah

  Someone grabbed her wrist so hard she gasped. Her piece of chalk fell, clattered to the cobblestones, and rolled into one of the cracks.

  “Mademoiselle,” a man said, shoving her against the poster she’d just defaced, pressing her cheek into the paper so that she couldn’t see him, “do you know it is verboten to do that? And punishable by death?”

  TEN

  Vianne closed her eyes and thought, Hurry home, Antoine.

  It was all she allowed herself, just that one small plea. How could she handle all of this—war, and Captain Beck, and Isabelle—alone?

  She wanted to daydream, pretend that her world was upright instead of fallen on its side; that the closed guest room door meant nothing, that Sophie had slept with Vianne last night because they’d fallen asleep reading, that Antoine was outside on this dewy dawn morning, chopping wood for a winter that was still months away. Soon he would come in and say, Well, I am off to a day of delivering mail. Perhaps he would tell her of his latest postmark—a letter in from Africa or America—and he would spin her a romantically imagined tale to go along with it.

  Instead, she returned her knitting to the basket by the divan, put on her boots, and went outside to chop wood. It would be autumn again in no time, and then winter, and the devastation of her garden by the refugees had reminded her how perilously balanced her survival was. She lifted the axe and brought it down, hard.

  Grasp. Raise. Steady. Chop.

  Every chop reverberated up her arms and lodged painfully in the muscles of her shoulders. Sweat squeezed from her pores, dampened her hair.

  “Allow me please to do this for you.”

  She froze, the axe in midair.

  Beck stood nearby, dressed in his breeches and boots, with only a thin white T-shirt covering his chest. His pale cheeks were reddened from a morning shave and his blond hair was wet. Droplets fell onto his T-shirt, making a pattern of small gray sunbursts.

  She felt acutely uncomfortable in her robe and work boots, with her hair pinned in curls. She lowered the axe.

  “There are some things a man does around the house. You are much too fragile to chop wood.”

  “I can do it.”

  “Of course you can, but why should you? Go, Madame. See to your daughter. I can do this small thing for you. Otherwise my mother will beat me with a switch.”

  She meant to move, but somehow she didn’t, and then he was there, pulling the axe gently out of her hand. She held on instinctively for a moment.

  Their gazes met, held.

  She released her hold and stepped back so quickly she stumbled. He caught her by the wrist, steadied her. Mumbling a thank-you, she turned and walked away from him, keeping her spine as straight as she could. It took all of her limited courage not to speed up. Even so, by the time she reached her door, she felt as if she’d run from Paris. She kicked free of the oversized gardening boots, saw them hit the house with a thunk and fall in a heap. The last thing she wanted was kindness from this man who had invaded her home.

  She slammed the door shut behind her and went to the kitchen, where she lit the stove and put a pot of water on to boil. Then she went to the bottom of the stairs and called her daughter down to breakfast.

  She had to call two more times—and then threaten—before Sophie came trudging down the stairs, her hair a mess, the look in her eyes sullen. She was wearing her sailor dress—again. In the ten months Antoine had been gone, she’d outgrown it, but she refused to stop wearing it. “I’m up,” she said, shuffling to the table, taking her seat.

  Vianne placed a bowl of cornmeal mush in front of her daughter. She had splurged this morning and added a tablespoon of preserved peaches on top.

  “Maman? Can’t you hear that? There’s someone knocking at the door.”

  Vianne shook her head (all she’d heard was the thunk-thunk-thunk of the axe) and went to the door, opening it.

  Rachel stood there, with the baby in her arms and Sarah tucked in close to her side. “You are teaching today with your hair pinned?”

  “Oh!” Vianne felt like a fool. What was wrong with her? Today was the last day of school before the summer break. “Let’s go, Sophie. We are late.” She rushed back inside and cleared the table. Sophie had licked her plate clean, so Vianne laid it in the copper sink to wash later. She covered the leftover pot of mush and put the preserved peaches away. Then she ran upstairs to get ready.

  In no time, she had removed her hairpins and combed her hair into smooth waves. She grabbed her hat, gloves, and handbag and left the house to find Rachel and the children waiting in the orchard.

  Captain Beck was there, too, standing by the shed. His white T-shirt was soaked in places and clung to his chest, revealing the whorls of hair beneath. He had the axe slung casually against one shoulder.

  “Ah, greetings,” he said.

  Vianne could feel Rachel’s scrutiny.

  Beck lowered the axe. “This is a friend of yours, Madame?”

  “Rachel,” Vianne said tightly. “My neighbor. This is Herr Captain Beck. He is … the one billeting with us.”

  “Greetings,” Beck said again, nodding politely.

  Vianne put a hand on Sophie’s back and gave her daughter a little shove, and they were off, trudging through the tall grass of the orchard and out onto the dusty road.

  “He’s handsome,” Rachel said as they came to the airfield, which was abuzz with activity behind the coils of barbed wire. “You didn’t tell me that.”

  “Is he?”

  “I’m pretty sure you know he is, so your question is interesting. What’s he like?”

  “German.”

  “The soldiers billeted with Claire Moreau look like sausages with legs. I hear they drink enough wine to kill a judge and snore like rooting hogs. You’re lucky, I guess.”

  “You’re the lucky one, Rachel. No one has moved into your house.”

  “Poverty has its reward at last.” She linked her arm through Vianne’s. “Don’t look so stricken, Vianne. I hear they have orders to be ‘correct.’”

  Vianne looked at her best friend. “Last week, Isabelle chopped off her hair in front of the captain and said beauty must be verboten.”

  Rachel couldn’t stifle her smile completely. “Oh.”

  “It’s hardly funny. She could get us killed with her temper.”

  Rachel’s smile faded. “Can you talk to her?”

  “Oh, I can talk. When has she ever listened to anyone?”

  * * *

  “You are hurting me,” Isabelle said.

  The man yanked her away from the wall and dragged her down the street, moving so fast she had to run along beside him; she bumped into the stone alley wall with every step. When she tripped on a cobblestone and almost fell, he tightened his hold and held her upright.

  Think, Isabelle. He wasn’t in uniform, so he must be Gestapo. That was bad. And he’d seen her defacing the poster. Did it count as an act of sabotage or espionage or resistance to the German occupation?

  It wasn’t like blowing up a bridge or selling secrets to Britain.

  I was making art … it was going to be a vase full of flowers … Not a V for victory, a vase. No resistance, just a silly girl drawing on the only paper she could find. I have never even heard of Général de Gaulle.

  And what if they didn’t believe her?

  The man stopped in front of an oak door with a black lion’s head knocker at its center.

  He rapped four times on the door.

  “W-where are you taking me?” Was this a back door to the Gestapo headquarters? There were rumors about these Gestapo interrogators. Supposedly they were ruthless and sadistic, but no one knew for sure.

  The door opened slowly, revealing an old man in a beret. A hand-rolled cigarette hung from his fleshy, liver-spotted lips. He saw Isabelle and frowned.

  “Open up,” the man beside Isabelle growled and the old man stepped aside.

  Isabelle was pulled into a room full of smoke. Her eyes stung as she looked ar
ound. It was an abandoned novelty store that had once sold bonnets and notions and sewing supplies. In the smoky light, she saw empty display cases that had been shoved up against the walls, empty metal hat racks were piled in the corner. The window out front had been bricked up and the back door that faced rue La Grande was padlocked from the inside.

  There were four men in the room: a tall, graying man, dressed in rags, standing in the corner; a boy seated beside the old man who had opened the door, and a handsome young man in a tattered sweater and worn pants with scuffed boots who sat at a café table.

  “Who is this, Didier?” asked the old man who had opened the door.

  Isabelle got the first good look at her captor—he was big and brawny, with the puffed-up look of a circus strong man and a heavily jowled, oversized face.

  She stood as tall as possible, with her shoulders pressed back and her chin lifted. She knew she looked ridiculously young in her plaid skirt and fitted blouse, but she refused to give them the satisfaction of knowing she was afraid.

  “I found her chalking V’s on the German posters,” said the swarthy man who’d caught her. Didier.

  Isabelle fisted her right hand, trying to rub the orange chalk away without them noticing.

  “Have you nothing to say?” said the old man standing in the corner. He was the boss, obviously.

  “I have no chalk.”

  “I saw her doing it.”

  Isabelle took a chance. “You’re not German,” she said to the strong man. “You’re French. I’d bet money on it. And you,” she said to the old man who was seated by the boy, “you’re the pork butcher.” The boy she dismissed altogether, but to the handsome young man in the tattered clothes, she said, “You look hungry, and I think you’re wearing your brother’s clothes, or something you found hanging on a line somewhere. Communist.”

  He grinned at her, and it changed his whole demeanor.

  But it was the man standing in the corner she cared about. The one in charge. She took a step toward him. “You could be Aryan. Maybe you’re forcing the others to be here.”

  “I’ve known him all my life, M’mselle,” the pork butcher said. “I fought beside his father—and yours—at Somme. You’re Isabelle Rossignol, oui?”

  She didn’t answer. Was it a trap?

  “No answer,” said the Bolshevik. He rose from his seat, came toward her. “Good for you. Why were you chalking a V on the poster?”

  Again, Isabelle remained silent.

  “I am Henri Navarre,” he said, close enough now to touch her. “We are not Germans, nor do we work with them, M’mselle.” He gave her a meaningful look. “Not all of us are passive. Now why were you marking up their posters?”

  “It was all I could think of,” she said.

  “Meaning?”

  She exhaled evenly. “I heard de Gaulle’s speech on the radio.”

  Henri turned to the back of the room, sent a glance to the old man. She watched the two men have an entire conversation without speaking a word. At the end of it, she knew who the boss was: the handsome communist. Henri.

  At last, Henri said, turning to her again, “If you could do something more, would you?”

  “What do you mean?” she asked.

  “There is a man in Paris—”

  “A group, actually, from the Musée de l’Homme—” the burly man corrected him.

  Henri held up a hand. “We don’t say more than we must, Didier. Anyway, there is a man, a printer, risking his life to make tracts that we can distribute. Maybe if we can get the French to wake up to what is happening, we have a chance.” Henri reached into a leather bag that hung on his chair and pulled out a sheaf of papers. A headline jumped out at her: “Vive le Général de Gaulle.”

  The text was an open letter to Maréchal Pétain that expressed criticism of the surrender. At the end it read, “Nous sommes pour le général de Gaulle.” We support Général de Gaulle.

  “Well?” Henri said quietly, and in that single word, Isabelle heard the call to arms she’d been waiting for. “Will you distribute them?”

  “Me?”

  “We are communists and radicals,” Henri said. “They are already watching us. You are a girl. And a pretty one at that. No one would suspect you.”

  Isabelle didn’t hesitate. “I’ll do it.”

  The men started to thank her; Henri silenced them. “The printer is risking his life by writing these tracts, and someone is risking his or her life by typing them. We are risking our lives by bringing them here. But you, Isabelle, you are the one who will be caught distributing them—if you are caught. Make no mistake. This is not chalking a V on a poster. This is punishable by death.”

  “I won’t get caught,” she said.

  Henri smiled at that. “How old are you?”

  “Almost nineteen.”

  “Ah,” he said. “And how can one so young hide this from her family?”

  “My family’s not the problem,” Isabelle said. “They pay no attention to me. But … there’s a German soldier billeted at my house. And I would have to break curfew.”

  “It will not be easy. I understand if you are afraid.” Henri began to turn away.

  Isabelle snatched the papers back from him. “I said I’d do it.”

  * * *

  Isabelle was elated. For the first time since the armistice, she wasn’t completely alone in her need to do something for France. The men told her about dozens of groups like theirs throughout the country, mounting a resistance to follow de Gaulle. The more they talked, the more excited she became at the prospect of joining them. Oh, she knew she should be afraid. (They told her often enough.)

  But it was ridiculous—the Germans threatening death for handing out a few pieces of paper. She could talk her way out of it if she were caught; she was sure of it. Not that she would get caught. How many times had she sneaked out of a locked school or boarded a train without a ticket or talked her way out of trouble? Her beauty had always made it easy for her to break rules without reprisal.

  “When we have more, how will we contact you?” Henri asked as he opened the door to let her leave.

  She glanced down the street. “The apartment above Madame La Foy’s hat shop. Is it still vacant?”

  Henri nodded.

  “Open the curtains when you have papers. I’ll come by as soon as I can.”

  “Knock four times. If we don’t answer, walk away,” he said. After a pause, he added, “Be careful, Isabelle.”

  He shut the door between them.

  Alone again, she looked down at her basket. Settled under a red-and-white-checked linen cloth were the tracts. On top lay the butcher-paper-wrapped ham hocks. It wasn’t much of a camouflage. She would need to figure out something better.

  She walked down the alley and turned onto a busy street. The sky was darkening. She’d been with the men all day. The shops were closing up; the only people milling about were German soldiers and the few women who’d chosen to keep them company. The café tables out on the street were full of uniformed men eating the best food, drinking the best wines.

  It took every ounce of nerve she had to walk slowly. The minute she was out of town, she started to run. As she neared the airfield, she was sweating and out of breath, but she didn’t slow. She ran all the way into her yard. With the gate clattering shut behind her, she bent forward, gasping hard, holding the stitch in her side, trying to catch her breath.

  “M’mselle Rossignol, are you unwell?”

  Isabelle snapped upright.

  Captain Beck appeared beside her. Had he been there before her?

  “Captain,” she said, working hard to still the racing of her heart. “A convoy went past … I … uh, rushed to get out of their way.”

  “A convoy? I didn’t see that.”

  “It was a while back. And I am … silly sometimes. I lost track of time, talking to a friend, and, well…” She gave him her prettiest smile and patted her butchered hair as if it mattered to her that she looked nice for h
im.

  “How were the queues today?”

  “Interminable.”

  “Please, allow me to carry your basket inside.”

  She looked down at her basket, saw the tiniest white paper corner visible under the linen cloth. “No, I—”

  “Ah, I insist. We are gentlemen, you know.”

  His long, well-manicured fingers closed around the willow handle. As he turned toward the house, she remained at his side. “I saw a large group gathering at the town hall this afternoon. What are the Vichy police doing here?”

  “Ah. Nothing to concern you.” He waited at the front door for her to open it. She fumbled nervously with the center-mounted knob, turned it, and opened the door. Although he had every right to go in at will, he waited to be invited in, as if he were a guest.

  “Isabelle, is that you? Where have you been?” Vianne rose from the divan.

  “The queues were awful today.”

  Sophie popped up from the floor by the fireplace, where she’d been playing with Bébé. “What did you get today?”

  “Ham hocks,” Isabelle said, glancing worriedly at the basket in Beck’s hand.

  “That’s all?” Vianne said. “What about the cooking oil?”

  Sophie sank back to the rug on the floor, clearly disappointed.

  “I will put the hocks in the pantry,” Isabelle said, reaching for the basket.

  “Please, allow me,” Beck said. He was staring at Isabelle, watching her closely. Or maybe it only felt like that.

  Vianne lit a candle and handed it to Isabelle. “Don’t waste it. Hurry.”

  Beck was very gallant as he walked through the shadowy kitchen and opened the door to the cellar.

  Isabelle went down first, lighting the way. The wooden steps creaked beneath her feet until she stepped down onto the hard-packed dirt floor and into the subterranean chill. The wooden shelves seemed to close in around them as Beck came up beside her. The candle flame sent light gamboling in front of them.

  She tried to still the trembling in her hand as she reached for the paper-wrapped ham hocks. She placed them on the shelf beside their dwindling supplies.

  “Bring up three potatoes and a turnip,” Vianne called down. Isabelle jumped a little at the sound.

  “You seem nervous,” Beck said. “Is that the right word, M’mselle?”

  The candle sputtered between them. “There were a lot of dogs in town today.”

  “The Gestapo. They love their shepherds. There is no reason for this to concern you.”

  “I am afraid … of big dogs. I was bitten once. As a child.”

  Beck gave her a smile that was stretched out of shape by the light.

  Don’t look at the basket. But it was too late. She saw a little more of the hidden papers sticking out.

  She forced a smile. “You know us girls. Scared of everything.”

  “That is not how I would describe you, M’mselle.”

  She reached carefully for the basket and tugged it from his grasp. Without breaking eye contact, she set the basket on the shelf, beyond the candle’s light. When it was there, in the dark, she finally released her breath.

  They stared at each other in uncomfortable silence.

  Beck nodded. “And now I must away. I have only come here to pick up some
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