The nightingale, p.12
and gave Vianne their postcards.
“Don’t let them hurt your feelings,” Rachel said. “They’re just scared.”
“I’m scared, too,” Vianne said.
Rachel pressed her postcard to her chest, her fingers splayed across the small square of paper as if she needed to touch each corner. “How can we not be?”
* * *
Afterward, when they returned to Le Jardin, Beck’s motorcycle with the machine-gun-mounted sidecar was parked in the grass outside the gate.
Rachel turned to her. “Do you want us to come in with you?”
Vianne appreciated the worry in Rachel’s gaze, and she knew that if she asked for help she would get it, but how was she to be helped?
“No, merci. We are fine. He has probably forgotten something and will soon leave again. He is rarely here these days.”
“Where is Isabelle?”
“A good question. She sneaks out every Friday morning before the sunrise.” She leaned closer, whispered, “I think she is meeting a boy.”
“Good for her.”
To that, Vianne had no answer.
“Will he mail the postcards for us?” Rachel asked.
“I hope so.” Vianne stared at her friend a moment longer. Then she said, “Well, we will know soon enough,” and led Sophie into the house. Once inside, she instructed Sophie to go upstairs to read. Her daughter was used to such directives, and she didn’t mind. Vianne tried to keep her daughter and Beck separated as much as possible.
He was seated at the dining room table with papers spread out in front of him. At her entrance, he looked up. A drop of ink fell from the tip of his fountain pen, landed in a blue starburst on the white sheet of paper in front of him. “Madame. Most excellent. I am pleased you are returned.”
She moved forward cautiously, holding the packet of postcards tightly. They’d been tied up with a scrap of twine. “I … have some postcards here … written by friends in town … to our husbands … but we don’t know where to send them. I hoped … perhaps you could help us.”
She shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other, feeling acutely vulnerable.
“Of course, Madame. I would be pleased to do this favor for you. Although it will take much time and research to accomplish.” He rose politely. “As it happens, I am now concocting a list for my superiors at the Kommandantur. They need to know the names of some of the teachers at your school.”
“Oh,” she said, uncertain as to why he would tell her this. He never spoke of his work. Of course, they didn’t speak often about anything.
“Jews. Communists. Homosexuals. Freemasons. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Do you know these people?”
“I am Catholic, Herr Captain, as you know. We do not speak of such things at school. I hardly know who are homosexuals and Freemasons, at any rate.”
“Ah. So you know the others.”
“I don’t understand…”
“I am unclear. My pardons. I would appreciate it most sternly if you would let me know the names of the teachers in your school who are Jewish or communist.”
“Why do you need their names?”
“It is clerical, merely. You know us Germans: we are list makers.” He smiled and pulled out a chair for her.
Vianne stared down at the blank paper on the table; then at the postcards in her hand. If Antoine received one, he might write back. She might know at last if he was alive. “This is not secret information, Herr Captain. Anyone can give you these names.”
He moved in close to her. “With some effort, Madame, I believe I can find your husband’s address and mail a package for you, also. Would this be sanguine?”
“‘Sanguine’ is not the right word, Herr Captain. You mean to ask me if it would be all right.” She was stalling and she knew it. Worse, she was pretty sure that he knew it.
“Ah. Thank you so much for tutoring me in your beautiful language. My apologies.” He offered her a pen. “Do not worry, Madame. It is clerical, merely.”
Vianne wanted to say that she wouldn’t write down any names, but what would be the point? It was easy enough for him to get this information in town. Everyone knew whose names belonged on the list. And Beck could throw her out of her own house for such a defiance—and what would she do then?
She sat down and picked up the pen and began to write down names. It wasn’t until the end of the list that she paused and lifted the pen tip from the paper. “I’m done,” she said in a soft voice.
“You have forgotten your friend.”
“Surely you meant to be accurate.”
She bit her lip nervously and looked down at the list of names. She was certain suddenly that she shouldn’t have done this. But what choice did she have? He was in control of her home. What would happen if she defied him? Slowly, feeling sick to her stomach, she wrote the last name on the list.
Rachel de Champlain.
On a particularly cold morning in late November, Vianne woke with tears on her cheeks. She had been dreaming about Antoine again.
With a sigh, she eased out of bed, taking care not to waken Sophie. Vianne had slept fully dressed, wearing a woolen vest, a long-sleeved sweater, woolen stockings, a pair of flannel pants (Antoine’s, cut down to fit her), and a knit cap and mittens. It wasn’t even Christmas and already layering had become de rigueur. She added a cardigan and still she was cold.
She burrowed her mittened hands into the slit at the foot of the mattress and withdrew the leather pouch Antoine had left for her. Not much money remained in it. Soon, they would have to live on her teaching salary alone.
She returned the money (counting it had become an obsession since the weather turned cold) and went downstairs.
There was never enough of anything anymore. The pipes froze at night and so there was no water until midday. Vianne had taken to leaving buckets full of water positioned near the stove and fireplaces for washing. Gas and electricity were scarce, as was money to pay for them, so she was miserly with both. The flames on her stove were so low it barely boiled water. They rarely turned on the lights.
She made a fire and then wrapped herself in a heavy eiderdown and sat on the divan. Beside her was a bag of yarn that she’d collected by pulling apart one of her old sweaters. She was making Sophie a scarf for Christmas, and these early-morning hours were the only time she could find.
With only the creaking of the house for company, she focused on the pale blue yarn and the way the knitting needles dove in and out of the soft strands, creating every moment something that hadn’t existed before. It calmed her nerves, this once-ordinary morning ritual. If she loosed her thoughts, she might remember her mother sitting beside her, teaching her, saying, “Knit one, purl two, that’s right … beautiful…”
Or Antoine, coming down the stairs in his stockinged feet, smiling, asking her what she was making for him …
The front door opened slowly, bringing a burst of ice-cold air and a flurry of leaves. Isabelle came in, wearing Antoine’s old wool coat and knee-high boots and a scarf that coiled around her head and neck, obscuring all but her eyes. She saw Vianne and came to a sudden stop. “Oh. You’re up.” She unwound the scarf and hung up her coat. There was no mistaking the guilty look on her face. “I was out checking on the chickens.”
Vianne’s hands stilled; the needles paused. “You might as well tell me who he is, this boy you keep sneaking out to meet.”
“Who would meet a boy in this cold?” Isabelle went to Vianne, pulling her to her feet, leading her to the fire.
At the sudden warmth, Vianne shivered. She hadn’t realized how cold she’d been. “You,” she said, surprised that it made her smile. “You would sneak out in the cold to meet a boy.”
“He would have to be some boy. Clark Gable, maybe.”
Sophie rushed into the room, snuggling up to Vianne. “This feels good,” she said, holding out her hands.
For a beautiful, ten
“You need to eat something before you go,” Vianne said.
“Give mine to Sophie,” Isabelle answered, pulling the coat back on and rewinding the scarf around her head.
Vianne walked her sister to the door, watched her slip out into the darkness, then returned to the kitchen and lit an oil lamp and went down to the cellar pantry, where rows of shelving ran along the stone wall. Two years ago this pantry had been full to overflowing with hams smoked in ash and jars full of duck fat set beside coils of sausage. Bottles of aged champagne vinegar, tins of sardines, jars of jam.
Now, they were nearly to the end of the chicory coffee. The last of the sugar was a sparkly white residue in the glass container, and the flour was more precious than gold. Thank God the garden had produced a good crop of vegetables in spite of the war refugees’ rampage. She had canned and preserved every single fruit and vegetable, no matter how undersized.
She reached for a piece of wholemeal bread that was about to go bad. As breakfast for growing girls went, a boiled egg and a piece of toast wasn’t much, but it could be worse.
“I want more,” Sophie said when she’d finished.
“I can’t,” Vianne said.
“The Germans are taking all of our food,” Sophie said just as Beck emerged from his room, dressed in his gray-green uniform.
“Sophie,” Vianne said sharply.
“Well, it is true, young lady, that we German soldiers are taking much of the food France produces, but men who are fighting need to eat, do they not?”
Sophie frowned up at him. “Doesn’t everyone need to eat?”
“Oui, M’mselle. And we Germans do not only take, we give back to our friends.” He reached into the pocket of his uniform and drew out a chocolate bar.
“Sophie, no,” Vianne said, but Beck was charming her daughter, teasing her as he made the chocolate bar disappear and reappear by sleight of hand. At last, he gave it to Sophie, who squealed and ripped off the paper.
Beck approached Vianne. “You look … sad this morning,” he said quietly.
Vianne didn’t know how to respond.
He smiled and left. Outside, she heard his motorcycle start up and putter away.
“Tha’ was good cho’clate,” Sophie said, smacking her lips.
“You know, it would have been a good idea to have a small piece each night rather than to gobble it all up at once. And I shouldn’t have to mention the virtues of sharing.”
“Tante Isabelle says it’s better to be bold than meek. She says if you jump off a cliff at least you’ll fly before you fall.”
“Ah, yes. That sounds like Isabelle. Perhaps you should ask her about the time she broke her wrist jumping from a tree she shouldn’t have been climbing in the first place. Come on, let’s go to school.”
Outside, they waited at the side of the muddy, icy road for Rachel and the children. Together, they set off on the long, cold walk to school.
“I ran out of coffee four days ago,” Rachel said. “In case you’ve been wondering why I have been such a witch.”
“I’m the one who has been short-tempered lately,” Vianne said. She waited for Rachel to disagree, but Rachel knew her well enough to know when a simple statement wasn’t so simple. “It’s that … I’ve had some things on my mind.”
The list. She’d written down the names weeks ago, and nothing had come of it. Still, worry lingered.
“Antoine? Starvation? Freezing to death?” Rachel smiled. “What small worry has obsessed you this week?”
The school bell pealed.
“Hurry, Maman, we are late,” Sophie said, grabbing her by the arm, dragging her forward.
Vianne let herself be led up the stone steps. She and Sophie and Sarah turned into Vianne’s classroom, which was already filled with students.
“You’re late, Madame Mauriac,” Gilles said with a smile. “That’s one demerit for you.”
Vianne took off her coat and hung it up. “You are very humorous, Gilles, as usual. Let’s see if you’re still smiling after our spelling test.”
This time they groaned and Vianne couldn’t help smiling at their crestfallen faces. They all looked so disheartened; it was difficult, honestly, to feel otherwise in this cold, blacked-out room that didn’t have enough light to dispel the shadows.
“Oh, what the heck, it is a cold morning. Maybe a game of tag is what we need to get our blood running.”
A roar of approval filled the room. Vianne barely had time to grab her coat before she was swept out of the classroom on a tide of laughing children.
They had been outside only a few moments when Vianne heard the grumble of automobiles coming toward the school.
The children didn’t notice—they only noticed aeroplanes these days, it seemed—and went on with their play.
Vianne walked down to the end of the building and peered around the corner.
A black Mercedes-Benz roared up the dirt driveway, its fenders decorated with small swastika flags that flapped in the cold. Behind it was a French police car.
“Children,” Vianne said, rushing back to the courtyard, “come here. Stand by me.”
Two men rounded the corner and came into view. One she had never seen before—he was a tall, elegant, almost effete blond man wearing a long black leather coat and spit-shined boots. An iron cross decorated his stand-up collar. The other man she knew; he had been a policeman in Carriveau for years. Paul Jeauelere. Antoine had often remarked that he had a mean and cowardly streak.
“Madame Mauriac,” the French police officer said with an officious nod.
She didn’t like the look in his eyes. It reminded her of how boys sometimes looked at one another when they were about to bully a weaker child. “Bonjour, Paul.”
“We are here for some of your colleagues. There is nothing to concern you, Madame. You are not on our list.”
“What do you want with my colleagues?” she heard herself asking, but her voice was almost inaudible, even though the children were silent.
“Some teachers will be dismissed today.”
The Nazi agent flicked his pale hand as if he were batting at a fly. “Jews and communists and Freemasons. Others,” he sneered, “who are no longer permitted to teach school or work in civil service or in the judiciary.”
The Nazi nodded at the French policeman and the two turned as one and marched into the school.
“Madame Mauriac?” someone said, tugging on her sleeve.
“Maman?” Sophie said, whining. “They can’t do that, can they?”
“’Course they can,” Gilles said. “Damn Nazi bastards.”
Vianne should have disciplined him for his language, but she couldn’t think of anything except the list of names she’d given to Beck.
* * *
Vianne wrestled with her conscience for hours. She’d continued teaching for much of the day, although she couldn’t remember how. All that stuck in her mind was the look Rachel had given her as she walked out of the school with the other dismissed teachers. Finally, at noon, although they were already shorthanded at school, Vianne had asked another teacher to take over her classroom.
Now, she stood at the edge of the town square.
All the way here, she had planned what she would say, but when she saw the Nazi flag flying above the hôtel de ville, her resolve faltered. Everywhere she looked there were German soldiers, walking in pairs, or riding gorgeous, well-fed horses, or darting up the streets in shiny black Citröens. Across the square, a Nazi blew his whistle and used his rifle to force an old man to his knees.
She walked up the stone steps to the closed oak doors, where a fresh-faced young guard stopped her and demanded to know her business.
“Ah.” The guard opened the door for her and pointed up the wide stone staircase, making the number two with his fingers.
Vianne stepped into the main room of the town hall. It was crowded with men in uniforms. She tried not to make eye contact with anyone as she hurried across the lobby to the stairs, which she ascended under the watchful eyes of the Führer, whose portrait took up much of the wall.
On the second floor, she found a man in uniform and she said to him, “Captain Beck, s’il vous plaît?”
“Oui, Madame.” He showed her to a door at the end of the hall and rapped smartly upon it. At a response from within, he opened the door for her.
Beck was seated behind an ornate black and gold desk—obviously taken from one of the grand homes in the area. Behind him a portrait of Hitler and a collection of maps were affixed to the walls. On his desk was a typewriter and a roneo machine. In the corner stood a pile of confiscated radios, but worst of all was the food. There were boxes and boxes of food, heaps of cured meats and wheels of cheese stacked against the back wall.
“Madame Mauriac,” he said, rising quickly. “What a most pleasant surprise.” He came toward her. “What may I do for you?”
“It’s about the teachers you fired at the school.”
“Not I, Madame.”
Vianne glanced at the open door behind them and took a step toward him, lowering her voice to say, “You told me the list of names was clerical in nature.”
“I am sorry. Truly. This is what I was told.”
“We need them at the school.”
“You being here, it is … dangerous perhaps.” He closed the small distance between them. “You do not want to draw attention to yourself, Madame Mauriac. Not here. There is a man…” He glanced at the door and stopped speaking. “Go, Madame.”
“I wish you hadn’t asked me.”
“As do I, Madame.” He gave her an understanding look. “Now, go. Please. You should not be here.”
Vianne turned away from Captain Beck—and all that food and the picture of the Führer—and left his office. On her way down the stairs, she saw how the soldiers observed her, smiling to one another, no doubt joking about another Frenchwoman courting a dashing German soldier who had just broken her heart. But it wasn’t until she stepped back out into the sunshine that she realized fully her mistake.
Several women were in the square, or near it, and they saw her step out of the Nazis’ lair.
One of the women was Isabelle.
Vianne hurried down the steps, toward Hélène Ruelle, the baker’s wife, who was delivering bread to the Kommandantur.
“Socializing, Madame Mauriac?” Hélène said archly as Vianne rushed past her.
Isabelle was practically running across the square toward her. With a defeated sigh, Vianne came to a standstill, waiting for her sister to reach her.
“What were you doing in there?” Isabelle demanded, her voice too loud, or maybe that was only to Vianne’s ears.
“They fired the teachers today. No. Not all of them, just the Jews and the Freemasons and the communists.” The memory welled up in her, made her feel sick. She remembered the quiet hallway and the confusion among the teachers who remained. No one knew what to do, how to defy the Nazis.
“Just them, huh?” Isabelle said, her face tightening.
“I didn’t mean it to sound that way. I meant to clarify. They didn’t fire all the teachers.” Even to her own ears it sounded a feeble excuse, so she shut up.
“And this says nothing to explain your presence at their headquarters.”
“I … thought Captain Beck could help us. Help Rachel.”
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah / Romance & Love have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on85 votes