The nightingale, p.19
thin. She wondered suddenly how much he had been eating lately. In the weeks she’d been home, she had not once seen him have a meal. They ate—like they did everything else—separately. She had assumed that he ate German scraps at the high command. Now she wondered.
“You’re late,” he said harshly.
She noticed the brandy bottle on the table. It was half empty. Yesterday it had been full. How was it that he always found his brandy? “The Germans wouldn’t leave.” She moved toward the table and put several franc notes down. “Today was a good day. I see your friends at the high command have given you more brandy.”
“The Nazis do not give much away,” he said.
“Indeed. So you have earned it.”
A noise sounded, something crashing to the hardwood floor, maybe. “What was that?” her father said, looking up.
Then came another sound, like a scraping of wood on wood.
“Someone is in this apartment,” Papa said.
“Don’t be absurd, Papa.”
He rose quickly from the table and left the room. Isabelle rushed after him. “Papa—”
“Hush,” he hissed.
He moved down the entryway, into the unlit part of the apartment. At the bombé chest near the front door, he picked up a candle in a brass holder and lit it.
“Surely you don’t think someone has broken in,” she said.
He threw her a harsh, narrow-eyed look. “I will not ask you to be silent again. Now hold your tongue.” His breath smelled of brandy and cigarettes.
“Shut up.” He turned his back on her and moved down the narrow, slanted-floor hallway toward the bedrooms.
He passed the miniscule coat closet (nothing but coats inside) and followed the candle’s quavering path into Vianne’s old room. It was empty but for the bed and nightstand and writing desk. Nothing was out of place in here. He got slowly to his knees and looked under the bed.
Satisfied at last that the room was empty, he headed for Isabelle’s room.
Could he hear the pounding of her heart?
He checked her room—under the bed, behind the door, behind the floor-to-ceiling damask curtains that framed the blacked-out courtyard window.
Isabelle forced herself not to stare at the armoire. “See?” she said loudly, hoping the airman would hear voices and sit still. “No one is here. Really, Papa, working for the enemy is making you paranoid.”
He turned to her. In the corona of candlelight, his face looked haggard and worn. “It wouldn’t hurt you to be afraid, you know.”
Was that a threat? “Of you, Papa? Or of the Nazis?”
“Are you paying no attention at all, Isabelle? You should be afraid of everyone. Now, get out of my way. I need a drink.”
Isabelle lay in bed, listening. When she was sure her father was asleep (a drunken sleep, no doubt) she left her bed, went in search of her grandmère’s porcelain chamber pot, and holding it, stood in front of the armoire.
Slowly—a half inch at a time—she moved it away from the wall. Just enough to open the hidden door.
Inside, it was dark and quiet. Only when she listened intently did she hear him breathing. “Monsieur?” she whispered.
“Hello, miss” came at her from the dark.
She lit the oil lamp by her bed and carried it into the space.
He was sitting against the wall with his legs stretched out; in the candlelight, he seemed softer somehow. Younger.
She handed him the chamber pot and saw that color rose on his cheeks as he took it from her.
She sat down opposite him. “I got rid of your identification tags and flight suit. Your boots will have to be cut down for you to wear. Here’s a knife. Tomorrow morning I will get you some of my father’s clothes. I don’t imagine they’ll fit well.”
He nodded, saying, “And what is your plan?”
That made her smile nervously. “I’m not sure. You are a pilot?”
“Lieutenant Torrance MacLeish. RAF. My aeroplane went down over Reims.”
“And you’ve been on your own since then? In your flight suit?”
“Fortunately my brother and I played hide-and-seek a lot when we were lads.”
“You’re not safe here.”
“I gathered.” He smiled and it changed his face, reminded her that he was really just a young man far from home. “If it makes you feel better, I took three German aeroplanes down with me.”
“You need to get back to Britain so you can get back to it.”
“I can’t agree more. But how? The whole coastline is behind barbed wire and patrolled by dogs. I can’t exactly leave France by boat or air.”
“I have some … friends who are working on this. We will go see them tomorrow.”
“You are very brave,” he said softly.
“Or foolish,” she said, unsure of which was more true. “I have often heard I’m impetuous and unruly. I imagine I will hear it from my friends tomorrow.”
“Well, miss, you won’t hear anything but brave from me.”
* * *
The next morning, Isabelle heard her father walk past her room. Moments later, she smelled coffee wafting her way, and then, after that, the front door clicked shut.
She left her room and went into her father’s—which was a mess of clothes on the floor and an unmade bed, with an empty brandy bottle lying on its side on his writing desk. She pulled the blackout shade and peered past the empty balcony to the street below, where she saw her father emerge out onto the sidewalk. He had his black briefcase held close to his chest (as if his poetry actually mattered to anyone) and a black hat pulled low on his brow. Hunched like an overworked secretary, he headed for the Métro. When he passed out of her view, she went to the armoire in his room and rummaged through it for old clothes. A shapeless turtleneck sweater with fraying sleeves, old corduroy pants, patched in the seat and bereft of several buttons, and a gray beret.
Isabelle cautiously moved the armoire and opened the door. The secret room smelled of sweat and piss, so much that she had to clamp her hand over her nose and mouth as she gagged.
“Sorry, miss,” MacLeish said sheepishly.
“Put these on. Wash up there at the pitcher and meet me in the salon. Put the armoire back. Move quietly. People are downstairs. They may know my father is gone and expect only one person to be walking around up here.”
Moments later, he stepped into the kitchen, dressed in her father’s castoffs. He looked like a fairy-tale boy who’d sprouted overnight; the sweater strained across his broad chest and the corduroy pants were too small to button at the waist. He was wearing the beret flat on the crown of his head, as if it were a yarmulke.
This would never work. How would she get him across town in broad daylight?
“I can do this,” he said. “I’ll follow along behind you. Trust me, miss. I’ve been walking about in a flight suit. This is easy.”
It was too late to back out now. She’d taken him in and hidden him. Now she needed to get him someplace safe. “Walk at least a block behind me. If I stop, you stop.”
“If I get pinched, you keep walking. Don’t even look back.”
Pinched must mean arrested. She went to him, adjusted his beret, set it at a jaunty angle. Her gaze held his. “Where are you from, Lieutenant MacLeish?”
“Ipswich, miss. You’ll tell my parents … if necessary?”
“It won’t be necessary, Lieutenant.” She drew in a deep breath. He had reminded her again of the risk that she’d undertaken to help him. The false papers in her handbag—identifying her as Juliette Gervaise of Nice, baptized in Marseille, and a student at the Sorbonne—were the only protection she had if the worst happened. She went to the front door, opened it, and peered out. The landing was empty. She shoved him out, saying, “Go. Stand outside by the milliner’s empty shop. Then follow me.”
He stumbled out of the apartment, and she closed the door b
One. Two. Three …
She counted silently, imagining trouble with every step. When she could stand it no more, she left the apartment and went down the stairs.
All was quiet.
She found him outside, standing where he’d been told to. She lifted her chin and walked past him without a glance.
All the way to the Saint-Germain, she walked briskly, never turning around, never looking back. Several times she heard German soldiers yell out “Halt!” and blow their whistles. Twice she heard gunshots, but she neither slowed nor looked.
By the time she reached the red door at the apartment on rue de Saint-Simon, she was sweating and a little light-headed.
She knocked four times in rapid succession.
The door opened.
Anouk appeared in the slit of an opening. Surprise widened her eyes. She opened the door and stepped back. “What are you doing here?”
Behind her, several of the men Isabelle had met before were seated around tables, with maps set out in front of them, the pale blue lines illuminated by candlelight.
Anouk started to shut the door. Isabelle said, “Leave it open.”
Tension followed her directive. She saw it sweep the room, change the expressions around her. At the table, Monsieur Lévy began putting the maps away.
Isabelle glanced outside and saw MacLeish coming up the walkway. He stepped into the apartment and she slammed the door shut behind him. No one spoke.
Isabelle had their full attention. “This is Lieutenant Torrance MacLeish of the RAF. Pilot. I found him hiding in the bushes near my apartment last night.”
“And you brought him here,” Anouk said, lighting a cigarette.
“He needs to get back to Britain,” Isabelle said. “I thought—”
“No,” Anouk said. “You did not.”
Lévy sat back in his chair and pulled a Gauloises from his breast pocket and lit it up, studying the airman. “There are others that we know of in the city, and more who escaped from German prisons. We want to get them out, but the coasts and the airfields are sewn up tight.” He took a long drag on the cigarette; the tip glowed and crackled and blackened. “It is a problem we have been working on.”
“I know,” Isabelle said. She felt the full weight of her responsibility. Had she acted rashly again? Were they disappointed in her? She didn’t know. Should she have ignored MacLeish? She was about to ask a question when she heard someone talking in another room.
Frowning, she said, “Who else is here?”
“Others,” Lévy answered. “Others are always here. No one of concern to you.”
“We need a plan for the airmen, it is true,” Anouk said.
“We believe we could get them out of Spain,” Lévy said. “If we could get them into Spain.”
“The Pyrenees,” Anouk said.
Isabelle had seen the Pyrenees, so she understood Anouk’s comment. The jagged peaks rose impossibly high into the clouds and were usually snow-covered or ringed in fog. Her mother had loved Biarritz, a small coastal town nearby, and twice, in the good days, long ago, the family had vacationed there.
“The border with Spain is guarded by both German and Spanish patrols,” Anouk said.
“The whole border?” Isabelle asked.
“Well, no. Of course not. But where they are and where they aren’t, who knows?” Lévy said.
“The mountains are smaller near Saint-Jean-de-Luz,” Isabelle pointed out.
“Oui, but so what? They are still impassable and the few roads are guarded,” Anouk said.
“My maman’s best friend was a Basque whose father was a goat herder. He crossed the mountains on foot all the time.”
“We have had this idea. We even tried it once,” Lévy said. “None of the party was heard from again. Getting past the German sentries at Saint-Jean-de-Luz is hard enough for one man, let alone several, and then there is the actual crossing of the mountains on foot. It is nearly impossible.”
“Nearly impossible and impossible are not the same thing. If goat herders can cross the mountains, certainly airmen can do it,” Isabelle said. As she said it, an idea came to her. “And a woman could move easily across the checkpoints. Especially a young woman. No one would suspect a pretty girl.”
Anouk and Lévy exchanged a look.
“I will do it,” Isabelle said. “Or try it, anyway. I’ll take this airman. And are there others?”
Monsieur Lévy frowned. Obviously this turn of events surprised him. Cigarette smoke clouded blue-gray between them. “And you have climbed mountains before?”
“I’m in good shape” was her answer.
“If they catch you, they’ll imprison you … or kill you,” he said quietly. “Put your impetuousness aside for a moment and think on that, Isabelle. This is not handing over a piece of paper. You have seen the signs posted all over town? The rewards offered for people who aid the enemy?”
Isabelle nodded earnestly.
Anouk sighed heavily, stabbing out her cigarette in the overflowing ashtray. She gazed at Isabelle a long time, eyes narrowing; then she walked to the open door behind the table. She pushed the door open a little and whistled, gave a trilling little bird call.
Isabelle frowned. She heard something in the other room, a chair pushing back from a table, footsteps.
Gaëtan stepped into the room.
He was dressed shabbily, in corduroy pants that were patched at the knees and ragged at the hem and a little too short, in a sweater that hung on his wiry frame, its collar pulled out of shape. His black hair, longer now, in need of cutting, had been slicked back from his face, which was sharper, almost wolflike. He looked at her as if they were the only two in the room.
In an instant, it was all undone. The feelings she’d discounted, tried to bury, to ignore, came flooding back. One look at him and she could barely breathe.
“You know Gaët,” Anouk said.
Isabelle cleared her throat. She understood that he’d known she was here all along, that he’d chosen to stay away from her. For the first time since she’d joined this underground group, Isabelle felt keenly young. Apart. Had they all known about it? Had they laughed about her naïveté behind her back? “I do.”
“So,” Lévy said after an uncomfortable pause, “Isabelle has a plan.”
Gaëtan didn’t smile. “Does she?”
“She wants to lead this airman and others across the Pyrenees on foot and get them into Spain. To the British consulate, I assume.”
Gaëtan swore under his breath.
“We need to try something,” Lévy said.
“Do you truly understand the risk, Isabelle?” Anouk asked, coming forward. “If you succeed, the Nazis will hear of it. They will hunt you down. There is a ten-thousand-franc reward for anyone who leads the Nazis to someone aiding airmen.”
Isabelle had always simply reacted in her life. Someone left her behind; she followed. Someone told her she couldn’t do something; she did it. Every barrier she turned into a gate.
But this …
She let fear give her a little shake and she almost gave in to it. Then she thought about the swastikas that flew from the Eiffel Tower and Vianne living with the enemy and Antoine lost in some prisoner of war camp. And Edith Cavell. Certainly she had been afraid sometimes, too; Isabelle would not let fear stand in her way. The airmen were needed in Britain to drop more bombs on Germany.
Isabelle turned to the airman. “Are you a fit man, Lieutenant?” she said in English. “Could you keep up with a girl on a mountain crossing?”
“I could,” he said. “Especially one as pretty as you, miss. I wouldn’t let you out of my sight.”
Isabelle faced her compatriots. “I’ll take him to the consulate in San Sebastián. From there, it will be up to the Brits to get him home.”
Isabelle saw the conversation that passed in silence around her, concerns and questions unvoiced. A decision reached in silence. Some risks simply had to be taken; everyone in this room kn
“It will take weeks to plan. Maybe longer,” Lévy said. He turned to Gaëtan. “We will need money immediately. You will speak to your contact?”
Gaëtan nodded. He grabbed a black beret from the sideboard, putting it on.
Isabelle couldn’t look away. She was angry at him—she knew that, felt it—but as he came toward her, that anger dried up and blew away like dust beneath the longing that mattered so much more. Their gazes met, held; and then he was past her, reaching for the doorknob, going outside. The door clicked shut behind him.
“So,” Anouk said. “The planning. We should begin.”
* * *
For six hours, Isabelle sat at the table in the apartment on rue de Saint-Simon. They brought in others from the network and gave them tasks: to gather clothes for the pilots and stockpile supplies. They consulted maps and devised routes and began the long, uncertain process of setting up safe houses along the way. At some point, they began to see it as a reality instead of merely a bold and daring idea.
It wasn’t until Monsieur Lévy mentioned the curfew that Isabelle pushed back from the table. They tried to talk her into staying the night, but such a choice would make her father suspicious. Instead, she borrowed a heavy black peacoat from Anouk and put it on, grateful for the way it camouflaged her.
The boulevard Saint-Germain was eerily quiet, shutters closed tightly and blacked out, streetlamps dark.
She kept close to the buildings, grateful that the worn-down heels of her white oxfords didn’t clatter on the sidewalk. She crept past barricades and around groups of German soldiers patrolling the streets.
She was almost home when she heard an engine growling. A German lorry shambled up the street behind her, its blue-painted headlights turned off.
She pressed flat against the rough stone wall behind her and the phantom lorry rolled past, grumbling in the darkness. Then everything was silent again.
A bird whistled, a trilling song. Familiar.
Isabelle knew then that she’d been waiting for him, hoping …
She straightened slowly, rose to her feet. Beside her, a potted plant released the scent of flowers.
“Isabelle,” Gaëtan said.
She could barely make out his features in the dark, but she could smell the pomade in his hair and the rough scent of his laundry soap and the cigarette he’d smoked some time ago. “How did you know I was working with Paul?”
“Who do you think recommended you?”
She frowned. “Henri—”
“And who told Henri about you? I had Didier following you from the beginning, watching over you. I knew you would find your way to us.”
He reached out, tucked the hair behind her ears, and the intimacy of the act left her parched with hope. She remembered saying “I love you,” and shame and loss twisted her up inside. She didn’t want to remember how he’d made her feel, how he’d fed her roasted rabbit by hand and carried her when she was too tired to walk … and showed her how much one kiss could matter.
“I’m sorry I hurt you,” he said.
“Why did you?”
“It doesn’t matter now.” He sighed. “I should have stayed in that back room today. It’s better not seeing you.”
“Not for me.”
He smiled. “You have a habit of saying whatever is on your mind, don’t you, Isabelle?”
“Always. Why did you leave me?”
He touched her face with a gentleness that made her want to cry; it felt like
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah / Romance & Love have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on85 votes