The nightingale, p.17
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       The Nightingale, p.17
 

           Kristin Hannah

  He smiled at her and she had the strangest feeling that he knew about the lengthy letters she concocted in her head at night.

  “Merci,” she said, wishing it weren’t such a small word.

  “Au revoir, Madame,” he said, then turned on his heel and left her alone.

  The crumpled, dirty letter shook in her grasp; the letters of her name blurred and danced as she opened it.

  Vianne, my beloved,

  First, do not worry about me. I am safe and fed well enough. I am unhurt. Truly. No bullet holes in me.

  In the barracks, I have been lucky enough to claim an upper bunk, and it gives me some privacy in a place of too many men. Through a small window, I can see the moon at night and the spires of Nuremburg. But it is the moon that makes me think of you.

  Our food is enough to sustain us. I have grown used to pellets of flour and small pieces of potato. When I get home, I look forward to your cooking. I dream of it—and you and Sophie—all the time.

  Please, my beloved, don’t fret. Just stay strong and be there for me when the time comes for me to leave this cage. You are my sunlight in the dark and the ground beneath my feet. Because of you, I can survive. I hope that you can find strength in me, too, V. That because of me, you will find a way to be strong.

  Hold my daughter tightly tonight, and tell her that somewhere far away, her papa is thinking of her. And tell her I will return.

  I love you, Vianne.

  P.S. The Red Cross is delivering packages. If you could send me my hunting gloves, I would be very happy.

  The winters here are cold.

  Vianne finished the letter and immediately began reading it again.

  * * *

  Exactly a week after her arrival in Paris, Isabelle was to meet the others who shared her passion for a free France, and she was nervous as she walked among the sallow-faced Parisians and well-fed Germans toward an unknown destination. She had dressed carefully this morning in a fitted blue rayon dress with a black belt. She’d set her hair last night and combed it out into precise waves this morning, pinning it back from her face. She wore no makeup; an old convent school blue beret and white gloves completed the outfit.

  I am an actress and this is a role, she thought as she walked down the street. I am a schoolgirl in love sneaking out to meet a boy …

  That was the story she’d decided on and dressed for. She was sure that—if questioned—she could make a German believe her.

  With all of the barricaded streets, it took her longer than expected to arrive at her destination, but finally she ducked around a barricade and moved onto the boulevard Saint-Germain.

  She stood beneath a streetlamp. Behind her, traffic moved slowly up the boulevard; horns honking, motors grumbling, horse hooves clomping, bicycle bells ringing. Even with all that noise, this once lively street felt stripped of its life and color.

  A police wagon pulled up alongside of her, and a gendarme stepped out of the vehicle, his cloak folded over his shoulders. He was carrying a white stick.

  “Do you think I’ll need an umbrella today?”

  Isabelle jumped, made a little sound. She’d been so focused on the policeman—he was crossing the street now, heading toward a woman coming out of a café—that she’d forgotten her mission. “I-I expect it to remain sunny,” she said.

  The man clutched her upper arm (there was no other word for it, really; he had a tight grip) and led her down the suddenly empty street. It was funny how one police wagon could make Parisians disappear. No one stuck around for an arrest—neither to witness it nor to help.

  Isabelle tried to see the man beside her, but they were moving too fast. She glimpsed his boots—slashing quickly across the sidewalk beneath them—old leather, torn laces, a hole emerging from scuff marks at the left toe.

  “Close your eyes,” he said as they crossed a street.

  “Why?”

  “Do it.”

  She was not one to follow orders blindly (a quip she might have made under other circumstances), but she wanted so badly to be a part of this that she did as instructed. She closed her eyes and stumbled along beside him, almost tripping over her own feet more than once.

  At last they came to a stop. She heard him knock four times on a door. Then there were footsteps and she heard the whoosh of a door opening and the acrid smell of cigarette smoke wafted across her face.

  It occurred to her now—just this instant—that she could be in danger.

  The man pulled her inside and the door slammed shut behind them. Isabelle opened her eyes, even though she had not been told to do so. Best that she show her mettle now.

  The room didn’t come into focus instantly. It was dark, the air thick with cigarette smoke. All of the windows were blacked out. The only light came from two oil lamps, sputtering valiantly against the shadows and smoke.

  Three men sat at a wooden table that bore an overflowing ashtray. Two were young, wearing patched coats and ragged pants. Between them sat a pencil-thin old man with a waxed gray moustache, whom she recognized. Standing at the back wall was the woman who had been Isabelle’s contact. She was dressed all in black, like a widow, and was smoking a cigarette.

  “M’sieur Lévy?” Isabelle asked the older man. “Is that you?”

  He pulled the tattered beret from his shiny, bald head and held it in clasped hands. “Isabelle Rossignol.”

  “You know this woman?” one of the men asked.

  “I was a regular patron of her father’s bookshop,” Lévy said. “Last I heard she was impulsive, undisciplined, and charming. How many schools expelled you, Isabelle?”

  “One too many, my father would say. But what good is knowing where to seat an ambassador’s second son at a dinner party these days?” Isabelle said. “I am still charming.”

  “And still outspoken. A rash head and thoughtless words could get everyone in this room killed,” he said carefully.

  Isabelle understood her mistake instantly. She nodded.

  “You are very young,” the woman in the back said, exhaling smoke.

  “Not anymore,” Isabelle said. “I dressed to look younger today. I think it is an asset. Who would suspect a nineteen-year-old girl of anything illegal? And you, of all people, should know that a woman can do anything a man can do.”

  Monsieur Lévy sat back in his chair and studied her.

  “A friend recommends you highly.”

  Henri.

  “He tells us you have been distributing our tracts for months. And Anouk says you were quite steady yesterday.”

  Isabelle glanced at the woman—Anouk—who nodded in response. “I will do anything to help our cause,” Isabelle said. Her chest felt tight with anticipation. It had never occurred to her that she could come all this way and be denied entrance to this network of people whose cause was her own.

  At last, Monsieur Lévy said, “You will need false papers. A new identity. We will get that for you, but it will take some time.”

  Isabelle drew in a sharp breath. She had been accepted! A sense of destiny seemed to fill the room. She would do something that mattered now. She knew it.

  “For now, the Nazis are so arrogant, they do not believe that any kind of resistance can succeed against them,” Lévy said, “but they will see … they will see, and then the danger to all of us will increase. You must tell no one of your association with us. No one. And that includes your family. It is for their safety and your own.”

  It would be easy for Isabelle to hide her activities. No one cared particularly where she went or what she did. “Oui,” she said. “So … what do I do?”

  Anouk pulled away from the wall and crossed the room, stepping over the stack of terrorist papers that were on the floor. Isabelle couldn’t see the headline clearly—it was something about the RAF bombing of Hamburg and Berlin. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small package, about the size of a deck of cards, wrapped in crinkled tan-colored paper and tied up with twine. “You will deliver this to the tabac in the o
ld quarter in Amboise; the one directly below the chateau. It must arrive no later than tomorrow, four P.M.” She handed Isabelle the package and one half of a torn five-franc note. “Offer him the note. If he shows you another half, give him the package. Leave then. Do not look back. Do not speak to him.”

  As she took the package and the note, she heard a sharp, short knock on the door behind her. An instant tension tightened the air in the room. Glances were exchanged. Isabelle was reminded keenly that this was dangerous work. It could be a policeman on the other side of the door, or a Nazi.

  Three knocks followed.

  Monsieur Lévy nodded evenly.

  The door opened and in walked a fat man with an egg-shaped head and an age-spotted face. “I found him wandering around,” the old man said as he stepped aside to reveal an RAF pilot still in his flight suit.

  “Mon Dieu,” Isabelle whispered. Anouk nodded glumly.

  “They are everywhere,” Anouk said under her breath. “Falling from the skies.” She smiled tightly at the joke. “Evaders, escapees from German prisons, downed airmen.”

  Isabelle stared at the airman. Everyone knew the penalty for helping British airmen. It was announced on billboards all over town: imprisonment or death.

  “Get him some clothes,” Lévy said.

  The old man turned to the airman and began speaking.

  Clearly the airman didn’t speak French.

  “They are going to get you some clothes,” Isabelle said.

  The room fell silent. She felt everyone looking at her.

  “You speak English?” Anouk said quietly.

  “Passably. Two years in a Swiss finishing school.”

  Another silence fell. Then Lévy said, “Tell the pilot we will put him in hiding until we can find a way out of France for him.”

  “You can do that?” Isabelle said.

  “Not at present,” Anouk said. “Don’t tell him that, of course. Just tell him we are on his side and he is safe—relatively—and he is to do as he is told.”

  Isabelle went to the airman. As she neared him, she saw the scratches on his face and the way something had torn the sleeve of his flight suit. She was pretty sure dried blood darkened his hairline, and she thought: He dropped bombs on Germany.

  “Not all of us are passive,” she said to the young man.

  “You speak English,” he said. “Thank God. My aeroplane crashed four days ago. I’ve been crouching in dark corners ever since. I didn’t know where to go till this man grabbed me and dragged me here. You will help me?”

  She nodded.

  “How? Can you get me back home?”

  “I don’t have the answers. Just do as they tell you, and Monsieur?”

  “Yes, ma’am?”

  “They are risking their lives to help you. You understand that?”

  He nodded.

  Isabelle turned to face her new colleagues. “He understands and will do as you ask.”

  “Merci, Isabelle,” Lévy said. “Where do we contact you after your return from Amboise?”

  The moment she heard the question, Isabelle had an answer that surprised her. “The bookshop,” she said firmly. “I am going to reopen it.”

  Lévy gave her a look. “What will your father say about that? I thought he closed it when the Nazis told him what to sell.”

  “My father works for the Nazis,” she said bitterly. “His opinions don’t account for much. He asked me to get a job. This will be my job. I will be accessible to all of you at any time. It is the perfect solution.”

  “It is,” Lévy said, although it sounded as if he didn’t agree. “Very well then. Anouk will bring you new papers as soon as we can get a carte d’identité made. We will need a photograph of you.” His gaze narrowed. “And Isabelle, allow me to be an old man for a moment and to remind a young girl who is used to being impulsive that there can be none of that anymore. You know I am friends with your father—or I was until he showed his true colors—and I have heard stories about you for years. It is time for you to grow up and do as you are told. Always. Without exception. It is for your safety as much as ours.”

  It embarrassed Isabelle that he felt the need to say this to her, and in front of everyone. “Of course.”

  “And if you get caught,” Anouk said, “it will be as a woman. You understand? They have special … unpleasantries for us.”

  Isabelle swallowed hard. She had thought—briefly—of imprisonment and execution. This was something she had never even considered. Of course she should have.

  “What we all demand of each other—or, hope for, at any rate—is two days.”

  “Two days?”

  “If you are captured and … questioned. Try to say nothing for two days. That gives us time to disappear.”

  “Two days,” Isabelle said. “That’s not so long.”

  “You are so young,” Anouk said, frowning.

  * * *

  In the past six days, Isabelle had left Paris four times. She’d delivered packages in Amboise, Blois, and Lyon. She’d spent more time in train stations than in her father’s apartment—an arrangement that suited them both. As long as she stood in food queues during the day and returned home before the curfew, her father didn’t care what she did. Now, though, she was back in Paris and ready to move forward with the next phase of her plan.

  “You are not reopening the bookshop.”

  Isabelle stared at her father. He stood near the blacked-out window. In the pale light, the apartment looked shabbily grand, decorated as it was with ornate antiques collected over the generations. Good paintings in heavy gilt frames graced the walls (some were missing, and black shadows hung on the wall in their place; probably Papa had sold them), and if the black-out shades could be lifted, a breathtaking view of the Eiffel Tower lay just beyond their balcony.

  “You told me to get a job,” she said stubbornly. The paper-wrapped package in her handbag gave her a new strength with her father. Besides, he was already half drunk. In no time, he’d be sprawled in the bergère in the salon, whimpering in his sleep. When she was a girl, those sad sounds he made in his sleep had made her long to comfort him. No more.

  “I meant a paid job,” he said dryly. He poured himself another snifter of brandy.

  “Why don’t you just use a soup bowl?” she said.

  He ignored that. “I won’t have it. That’s all. You will not open the bookshop.”

  “I have already done it. Today. I was there cleaning all afternoon.”

  He seemed to go still. His bushy gray eyebrows raised into his lined brow. “You cleaned?”

  “I cleaned,” she said. “I know it surprises you, Papa, but I am not twelve years old.” She moved toward him. “I am doing this, Papa. I have decided. It will allow me time to queue up for food and a chance to make some small bit of money. The Germans will buy books from me. I promise you that.”

  “You’ll flirt with them?” he said.

  She felt the sting of his judgment. “Says the man who works for them.”

  He stared at her.

  She stared at him.

  “Fine,” he said at last. “You’ll do what you will. But the storeroom in back. That’s mine. Mine, Isabelle. I will lock it up and take the key and you will respect my wishes by staying out of that room.”

  “Why?”

  “It doesn’t matter why.”

  “Do you have assignations with women there? On the sofa?”

  He shook his head. “You are a foolish girl. Thank God your maman did not live to see who you have become.”

  Isabelle hated how deeply that hurt her. “Or you, Papa,” she said. “Or you.”

  SEVENTEEN

  In mid-June of 1941, on the second-to-the-last school day of the term, Vianne was at the blackboard, conjugating a verb, when she heard the now-familiar putt-putt-putt of a German motorcycle.

  “Soldiers again,” Gilles Fournier said bitterly. The boy was always angry lately, and who could blame him? The Nazis had seized his family’s b
utcher shop and given it to a collaborator.

  “Stay here,” she said to her students, and went out into the hallway. In walked two men—a Gestapo officer in a long black coat and the local gendarme, Paul, who had gained weight since his collaboration with the Nazis. His stomach strained at his belt. How many times had she seen him strolling down rue Victor Hugo, carrying more food than his family could eat, while she stood in a lengthy queue, clutching a ration card that would provide too little?

  Vianne moved toward them, her hands clasped tightly at her waist. She felt self-conscious in her threadbare dress, with its frayed collar and cuffs, and although she had carefully drawn a brown seam line up the back of her bare calves, it was obvious that it was a ruse. She had no stockings on, and that made her feel strangely vulnerable to these men. On either side of the hallway, classroom doors opened and teachers stepped out to see what the officers wanted. They made eye contact with one another but no one spoke.

  The Gestapo agent walked determinedly toward Monsieur Paretsky’s classroom at the end of the building. Fat Paul struggled to keep up, huffing along behind him.

  Moments later, Monsieur Paretsky was dragged out of his classroom by the French policeman.

  Vianne frowned as they passed her. Old man Paretsky—who had taught her sums a lifetime ago and whose wife tended to the school’s flowers—gave her a terrified look. “Paul?” Vianne said sharply. “What is happening?”

  The policeman stopped. “He is accused of something.”

  “I did nothing wrong!” Paretsky cried, trying to pull free of Paul’s grasp.

  The Gestapo agent noticed the commotion and perked up. He came at Vianne fast, heels clicking on the floor. She felt a shiver of fear at the glint in his eyes. “Madame. What is your reason for stopping us?”

  “H-he is a friend of mine.”

  “Really,” he said, drawing length from the word, making it a question. “So you know that he is distributing anti-German propaganda.”

  “It’s a newspaper,” Paretsky said. “I’m just telling the French people the truth. Vianne! Tell them!”

  Vianne felt attention turn to her.

  “Your name?” the Gestapo demanded, opening a notebook and taking out a pencil.

  She wet her lips nervously. “Vianne Mauriac.”

  He wrote it down. “And you work with M’sieur Paretsky, distributing flyers?”

  “No!” she cried out. “He is a teaching colleague, sir. I know nothing about anything else.”

  The Gestapo closed the notebook. “Has no one told you that it is best to ask no questions?”

  “I didn’t mean to,” she said, her throat dry.

  He gave a slow smile. It frightened her, disarmed her, that smile; enough so that it took her a minute to register his next words.

  “You are terminated, Madame.”

  Her heart seemed to stop. “E-excuse me?”

  “I speak of your employment as a teacher. You are terminated. Go home, Madame, and do not return. These students do not need an example such as you.”

  * * *

  At the end of the day, Vianne walked home with her daughter and even remembered now and then to answer one of Sophie’s nonstop questions, but all the while she was thinking: What now?

  What now?

  The stalls and shops were closed this time of day, their bins and cases empty. There were signs everywhere saying NO EGGS, NO BUTTER, NO OIL, NO LEMONS, NO SHOES, NO THREAD, NO PAPER BAGS.

 
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