The nightingale, p.16
“There are no parties to attend,” he said, “and all your university boys are gone.”
“This is really what you think of me,” she said. Then she changed the subject. “I stopped by the bookshop.”
“The Nazis,” he said in response. “They stormed in one day and pulled out everything by Freud, Mann, Trotsky, Tolstoy, Maurois—all of them, they burned—and the music, too. I would rather lock the doors than sell only what I am allowed to. So, I did just that.”
“So, how are you making a living? Your poetry?”
He laughed. It was a bitter, slurred sound. “This is hardly a time for gentler pursuits.”
“Then, how are you paying for electricity and food?”
Something changed in his face. “I’ve got a good job at the Hôtel de Crillon.”
“In service?” She could hardly credit him serving beer to German brutes.
He glanced away.
Isabelle got a sick feeling in her stomach. “For whom do you work, Papa?”
“The German high command in Paris,” he said.
Isabelle recognized that feeling now. It was shame. “After what they did to you in the Great War—”
“I remember the stories Maman told us about how you’d been before the war and how it had broken you. I used to dream that someday you’d remember that you were a father, but all that was a lie, wasn’t it? You’re just a coward. The minute the Nazis return you race to aid them.”
“How dare you judge me and what I’ve been through? You’re eighteen years old.”
“Nineteen,” she said. “Tell me, Papa, do you get our conquerors coffee or hail them taxis on their way to Maxim’s? Do you eat their lunch leftovers?”
He seemed to deflate before her eyes; age. She felt unaccountably regretful for her sharp words even though they were true and deserved. But she couldn’t back down now. “So we are agreed? I will move into my old room and live here. We need barely speak if that is your condition.”
“There is no food here in the city, Isabelle; not for us Parisians anyway. All over town are signs warning us not to eat rats and these signs are necessary. People are raising guinea pigs for food. You will be more comfortable in the country, where there are gardens.”
“I am not looking for comfort. Or safety.”
“What are you looking for in Paris, then?”
She realized her mistake. She’d set a trap with her foolish words and stepped right into it. Her father was many things; stupid was not one of them. “I’m here to meet a friend.”
“Tell me we are not talking about some boy. Tell me you are smarter than that.”
“The country was dull, Papa. You know me.”
He sighed, poured another drink from the bottle. She saw the telltale glaze come into his eyes. Soon, she knew, he would stumble away to be alone with whatever it was he thought about. “If you stay, there will be rules.”
“You will be home by curfew. Always and without exception. You will leave me my privacy. I can’t stomach being hovered over. You will go to the shops each morning and see what our ration cards will get us. And you will find a job.” He paused, looked at her, his eyes narrowed. “And if you get yourself in trouble like your sister did, I will throw you out. Period.”
“I am not—”
“I don’t care. A job, Isabelle. Find one.”
He was still talking when she turned on her heel and walked away. She went into her old bedroom and shut the door. Hard.
She had done it! For once, she’d gotten her way. Who cared that he’d been mean and judgmental? She was here. In her bedroom, in Paris, and staying.
The room was smaller than she remembered. Painted a cheery white, with a twin iron-canopied bed and a faded old rug on the wooden plank floor and a Louis XV armchair that had seen better days. The window—blacked out—overlooked the interior courtyard of the apartment building. As a girl, she’d always known when her neighbors were taking out the trash, because she could hear them clanking out there, slamming down lids. She tossed her valise on the bed and began to unpack.
The clothes she’d taken on exodus—and returned to Paris with—were shabbier for the constant wear and hardly worth hanging in the armoire along with the clothes she’d inherited from her maman—beautiful vintage flapper dresses with flared skirts, silk-fringed evening gowns, woolen suits that had been cut down to fit her, and crepe day dresses. An array of matching hats and shoes made for dancing on ballroom floors or walking through the Rodin Gardens with the right boy on one’s arm. Clothes for a world that had vanished. There were no more “right” boys in Paris. There were practically no boys at all. They were all captive in camps in Germany or hiding out somewhere.
When her clothes were returned to hangers in the armoire, she closed the mahogany doors and pushed the armoire sideways just enough to reveal the secret door behind it.
She bent down and opened the door set into the white paneled wall by pushing on the top right corner. It sprang free, creaked open, revealing a storage room about six feet by six feet, with a roof so slanted that even as a ten-year-old girl, she’d had to hunch over to stand in it. Sure enough, her dolls were still in there, some slumped and others standing tall.
Isabelle closed the door on her memories and moved the armoire back in place. She undressed quickly and slipped into a pink silk dressing gown that reminded her of her maman. It still smelled vaguely of rose water—or she pretended it did. As she headed out of the room to brush her teeth, she paused at her father’s closed door.
She could hear him writing; his fountain pen scratched on rough paper. Every now and then he cursed and then fell silent. (That was when he was drinking, no doubt.) Then came the thunk of a bottle—or a fist—on the table.
Isabelle readied for bed, setting her hair in curlers and washing her face and brushing her teeth. On her way back to bed, she heard her father curse again—louder this time, maybe drinking—and she ducked into her bedroom and slammed the door behind her.
* * *
I can’t stomach being hovered over.
Apparently what this really meant was that her father couldn’t stand to be in the same room with her.
Funny that she hadn’t noticed it last year, when she’d lived with him for those weeks between her expulsion from the finishing school and her exile to the country.
True, they’d never sat down to a meal together then. Or had a conversation meaningful enough to remember. But somehow she hadn’t noticed. They’d been together in the bookshop, working side by side. Had she been so pathetically grateful for his presence that his silence escaped her notice?
Well, she noticed it now.
He pounded on her bedroom door so hard she released a little yelp of surprise.
“I’m leaving for work,” her father said through the door. “The ration cards are on the counter. I left you one hundred francs. Get what you can.”
She heard his footsteps echo down the wooden hall, heavy enough to rattle the walls. Then the door slammed shut.
“Good-bye to you, too,” Isabelle mumbled, stung by the tone of his voice.
Then she remembered.
Today was the day.
She threw back the coverlet and climbed out of bed and dressed without bothering to turn on the light. She had already planned her outfit: a drab gray dress and black beret, white gloves, and her last pair of black slingback pumps. Sadly, she had no stockings.
She studied herself in the salon mirror, trying to be critical, but all she saw was an ordinary girl in a dull dress, carrying a black handbag.
She opened her handbag (again) and stared down at the silk hammock-like lined interior. She had slit a tiny opening in the lining and slipped the thick envelope inside of it. Upon opening the handbag, it looked empty. Even if she did get stopped (which she wouldn’t—why would she? a nineteen-year-old girl dressed for lunch?) they would see noth
At ten o’clock, she left the apartment. Outside, beneath a bright, hot sun, she climbed aboard her blue bicycle and pedaled toward the quay.
When she reached the rue de Rivoli, black cars and green military lorries with fuel tanks strapped onto their sides and men on horseback filled the street. There were Parisians about, walking along the sidewalks, pedaling down the few streets upon which they were allowed to ride, queueing for food in lines that extended down the block. They were noticeable by the look of defeat on their faces and the way they hurried past the Germans without making eye contact. At Maxim’s restaurant, beneath the famous red awning, she saw a cluster of high-ranking Nazis waiting to get inside. The rumor was rampant that all of the country’s best meats and produce went straight to Maxim’s, to be served to the high command.
And then she spotted it: the iron bench near the entrance to the Comédie Française.
Isabelle hit the brakes on her bicycle and came to a bumpy, sudden stop, then stepped off the pedal with one foot. Her ankle gave a little twist when she put her weight on it. For the first time, her excitement turned a little sharp with fear.
Her handbag felt heavy suddenly; noticeably so. Sweat collected in her palms and along the rim of her felt hat.
Snap out of it.
She was a courier, not a frightened schoolgirl. What risk there was she accepted.
While she stood there, a woman approached the bench and sat down with her back to Isabelle.
A woman. She hadn’t expected her contact to be a woman, but that was strangely comforting.
She took a deep, calming breath and walked her bicycle across the busy crosswalk and past the kiosks, with their scarves and trinkets for sale. When she was directly beside the woman on the bench, she said what she’d been told to say. “Do you think I’ll need an umbrella today?”
“I expect it to remain sunny.” The woman turned. She had dark hair which she’d coiled away from her face with care and bold, Eastern European features. She was older—maybe thirty—but the look in her eyes was even older.
Isabelle started to open her handbag when the woman said, “No,” sharply. Then, “Follow me,” she said, rising quickly.
Isabelle remained behind the woman as she made her way across the wide, gravelly expanse of the Cœur Napoléon with the mammoth elegance of the Louvre rising majestically around them. Although it didn’t feel like a place that had once been a palace of emperors and kings, not with swastika flags everywhere and German soldiers sitting on benches in the Tuilleries garden. On a side street, the woman ducked into a small café. Isabelle locked her bicycle to a tree out front and followed her inside, taking a seat across from her.
“You have the envelope?”
Isabelle nodded. In her lap, she opened her handbag and withdrew the envelope, which she handed to the woman beneath the table.
A pair of German officers walked into the bistro, took a table not far away.
The woman leaned over and straightened Isabelle’s beret. It was a strangely intimate gesture, as if they were sisters or best friends. Leaning close, the woman whispered in her ear, “Have you heard of les collabos?”
“Collaborators. French men and women who are working with the Germans. They are not only in Vichy. Be aware, always. These collaborators love to report us to the Gestapo. And once they know your name, the Gestapo are always watching. Trust no one.”
The woman drew back and looked at her. “Not even your father.”
“How do you know about my father?”
“We want to meet you.”
“You just have.”
“We,” she said quietly. “Stand at the corner of boulevard Saint-Germain and rue de Saint-Simon tomorrow at noon. Do not be late, do not bring your bicycle, and do not be followed.”
Isabelle was surprised by how quickly the woman got to her feet. In an instant, she was gone, and Isabelle was at the café table alone, under the watchful eye of the German soldier at the other table. She forced herself to order a café au lait (although she knew there would be no milk and the coffee would be chicory). Finishing it quickly, she exited the café.
At the corner, she saw a sign pasted to the window that warned of executions in retaliation for infractions. Beside it, in the cinema window, was a yellow poster that read INTERDIT AUX JUIFS—no Jews allowed.
As she unlocked her bicycle, the German soldier appeared beside her. She bumped into him.
He asked solicitously if she was all right. Her answer was an actress’s smile and a nod. “Mais oui. Merci.” She smoothed her dress and clamped her purse in her armpit and climbed onto the bicycle. She pedaled away from the soldier without looking back.
She had done it. She’d gotten an Ausweis and come to Paris and forced her papa to let her stay, and she had delivered her first secret message for the Free French.
Vianne had to admit that life at Le Jardin was easier without Isabelle. No more outbursts, no more veiled comments made just within Captain Beck’s earshot, no more pushing Vianne to wage useless battles in a war already lost. Still, sometimes without Isabelle, the house was too quiet, and in the silence, Vianne found herself thinking too loudly.
Like now. She’d been awake for hours, just staring at her own bedroom ceiling, waiting for the dawn.
Finally, she got out of bed and went downstairs. She poured herself a cup of bitter made-from-acorns coffee and took it out into the backyard, where she sat on the chair that had been Antoine’s favorite, beneath the sprawling branches of the yew tree, listening to the chickens scratching lethargically through the dirt.
Her money was all but gone. They would now have to live on her meager teaching salary.
How was she to do it? And alone …
She finished her coffee, as terrible as it was. Carrying the empty cup back into the shadowy, already warming house, she saw the door to Captain Beck’s bedroom was open. He had left for the day while she was out back. Good.
She woke Sophie, listened to the story of her latest dream, and made her a breakfast of dry toast and peach jam. Then the two of them headed for town.
Vianne rushed Sophie as much as possible, but Sophie was in a foul mood and complained and dragged her feet. Thus, it was late afternoon by the time they reached the butcher’s shop. There was a queue that snaked out the door and down the street. Vianne took her place at the end and glanced nervously at the Germans in the square.
The queue shuffled forward. At the display window, Vianne noticed a new propaganda poster that showed a smiling German soldier offering bread to a group of French children. Beside it was a new sign that read: NO JEWS ALLOWED.
“What does that mean, Maman?” Sophie said, pointing to the sign.
“Hush, Sophie,” Vianne said sharply. “We have talked about this. Some things are no longer spoken of.”
“But Father Joseph says—”
“Hush,” Vianne said impatiently, giving Sophie’s hand a tug for emphasis.
The queue moved forward. Vianne stepped to the front and found herself staring at a gray-haired woman with skin the color and texture of oatmeal.
Vianne frowned. “Where is Madame Fournier?” she asked, offering her ration ticket for today’s meat. She hoped there was still some to be had.
“No Jews allowed,” the woman said. “We have a little smoked pigeon left.”
“But this is the Fourniers’ shop.”
“Not anymore. It’s mine now. You want the pigeon or not?”
Vianne took the small tin of smoked pigeon and dropped it in her willow basket. Saying nothing, she led Sophie outside. On the opposite corner, a German sentry stood guard in front of the bank, reminding the French people that the bank had been seized by the Germans.
“Maman,” Sophie whined. “It’s wrong to—”
“Hush.” Vianne grabbed Sophie’s hand. As they walked out of town and along the dirt road home, Sophie made her displeasure known. She huffed and sighed and grumbled.
Vianne ignored her.
When they reached the broken gate to Le Jardin, Sophie yanked free and spun to face Vianne. “How can they just take the butcher’s shop? Tante Isabelle would do something. You’re just afraid!”
“And what should I do? Storm into the square and demand that Madame Fournier get her shop back? And what would they do to me for that? You’ve seen the posters in town.” She lowered her voice. “They’re executing French people, Sophie. Executing them.”
“No buts. These are dangerous times, Sophie. You need to understand that.”
Sophie’s eyes glazed with tears. “I wish Papa were here…”
Vianne pulled her daughter into her arms and held her tightly. “Me, too.”
They held each other for a long time, and then slowly separated. “We are going to make pickles today, how about that?”
Vianne couldn’t disagree. “Why don’t you go pick cucumbers? I’ll get the vinegar started.”
Vianne watched her daughter run ahead, dodging through the heavily laden apple trees toward the garden. The moment she disappeared, Vianne’s worry returned. What would she do without money? The garden was producing well, so there would be fruit and vegetables, but what about the coming winter? How could Sophie stay healthy without meat or milk or cheese? How would they get new shoes? She was shaking as she made her way into the hot, blacked-out house. In the kitchen, she clutched the counter’s edge and bowed her head.
She turned so fast she almost tripped over her own feet.
He was in the living room, sitting on the divan, with an oil lamp lit beside him, reading a book.
“Captain Beck.” She said his name quietly. She moved toward him, her shaking hands clasped together. “Your motorcycle is not out front.”
“It was such a beautiful day. I decided to walk from town.” He rose. She saw that he had recently had a haircut, and that he’d nicked himself shaving this morning. A tiny red cut marred his pale cheek. “You look upset. Perhaps it is because you have not been sleeping well since your sister left.”
She looked at him in surprise.
“I hear you walking around in the dark.”
“You’re awake, too,” she said stupidly.
“I often cannot sleep, either. I think of my wife and children. My son is so young. I wonder if he will know me at all.”
“I think the same about Antoine,” she said, surprising herself with the admission. She knew she shouldn’t be so open with this man—the enemy—but just now she was too tired and scared to be strong.
Beck stared down at her, and in his eyes, she saw the loss they shared. Both of them were a long way from the people they loved, and lonelier for it.
“Well. I mean not to intrude on your day, of course, but I have some news for you. With much research, I have discovered that your husband is in an Oflag in Germany. A friend of mine is a guard there. Your husband is an officer. Did you know this? No doubt he was valiant on the battlefield.”
“You found Antoine? He’s alive?”
He held out a crumpled, stained envelope. “Here is a letter he has written to you. And now you may send him care packages, which I believe would cheer him most immeasurably.”
“Oh … my.” She felt her legs weaken.
He grasped her, steadied her, and led her over to the divan. As she slumped to the seat, she felt tears welling in her eyes. “Such a kind thing to do,” she whispered, taking the letter from him, pressing it to her chest.
“My friend delivered the letter to me. From now on, my apologies, you will correspond on the postcards only.”
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah / Romance & Love have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on85 votes