The nightingale, p.2
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       The Nightingale, p.2
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           Kristin Hannah

  “But … but … you’re a postman.”

  He held her gaze and suddenly she couldn’t breathe. “I am a soldier now, it seems.”

  THREE

  Vianne knew something of war. Not its clash and clatter and smoke and blood, perhaps, but the aftermath. Though she had been born in peacetime, her earliest memories were of the war. She remembered watching her maman cry as she said good-bye to Papa. She remembered being hungry and always being cold. But most of all, she remembered how different her father was when he came home, how he limped and sighed and was silent. That was when he began drinking and keeping to himself and ignoring his family. After that, she remembered doors slamming shut, arguments erupting and disappearing into clumsy silences, and her parents sleeping in different rooms.

  The father who went off to war was not the one who came home. She had tried to be loved by him; more important, she had tried to keep loving him, but in the end, one was as impossible as the other. In the years since he’d shipped her off to Carriveau, Vianne had made her own life. She sent her father Christmas and birthday cards, but she’d never received one in return, and they rarely spoke. What was there left to say? Unlike Isabelle, who seemed incapable of letting go, Vianne understood—and accepted—that when Maman had died, their family had been irreparably broken. He was a man who simply refused to be a father to his children.

  “I know how war scares you,” Antoine said.

  “The Maginot Line will hold,” she said, trying to sound convincing. “You’ll be home by Christmas.” The Maginot Line was miles and miles of concrete walls and obstacles and weapons that had been constructed along the German border after the Great War to protect France. The Germans couldn’t breach it.

  Antoine took her in his arms. The scent of jasmine was intoxicating, and she knew suddenly, certainly, that from now on, whenever she smelled jasmine, she would remember this good-bye.

  “I love you, Antoine Mauriac, and I expect you to come home to me.”

  Later, she couldn’t remember them moving into the house, climbing the stairs, lying down in bed, undressing each other. She remembered only being naked in his arms, lying beneath him as he made love to her in a way he never had before, with frantic, searching kisses and hands that seemed to want to tear her apart even as they held her together.

  “You’re stronger than you think you are, V,” he said afterward, when they lay quietly in each other’s arms.

  “I’m not,” she whispered too quietly for him to hear.

  * * *

  The next morning, Vianne wanted to keep Antoine in bed all day, maybe even convince him that they should pack their bags and run like thieves in the night.

  But where would they go? War hung over all of Europe.

  By the time she finished making breakfast and doing the dishes, a headache throbbed at the base of her skull.

  “You seem sad, Maman,” Sophie said.

  “How can I be sad on a gorgeous summer’s day when we are going to visit our best friends?” Vianne smiled a bit too brightly.

  It wasn’t until she was out the front door and standing beneath one of the apple trees in the front yard that she realized she was barefoot.

  “Maman,” Sophie said impatiently.

  “I’m coming,” she said, as she followed Sophie through the front yard, past the old dovecote (now a gardening shed) and the empty barn. Sophie opened the back gate and ran into the well-tended neighboring yard, toward a small stone cottage with blue shutters.

  Sophie knocked once, got no answer, and went inside.

  “Sophie!” Vianne said sharply, but her admonishment fell on deaf ears. Manners were unnecessary at one’s best friend’s house, and Rachel de Champlain had been Vianne’s best friend for fifteen years. They’d met only a month after Papa had so ignominiously dropped his children off at Le Jardin.

  They’d been a pair back then: Vianne, slight and pale and nervous, and Rachel, as tall as the boys, with eyebrows that grew faster than a lie and a voice like a foghorn. Outsiders, both of them, until they met. They’d become inseparable in school and stayed friends in all the years since. They’d gone to university together and both had become schoolteachers. They’d even been pregnant at the same time. Now they taught in side-by-side classrooms at the local school.

  Rachel appeared in the open doorway, holding her newborn son, Ariel.

  A look passed between the women. In it was everything they felt and feared.

  Vianne followed her friend into a small, brightly lit interior that was as neat as a pin. A vase full of wildflowers graced the rough wooden trestle table flanked by mismatched chairs. In the corner of the dining room was a leather valise, and sitting on top of it was the brown felt fedora that Rachel’s husband, Marc, favored. Rachel went into the kitchen for a small crockery plate full of canelés. Then the women headed outside.

  In the small backyard, roses grew along a privet hedge. A table and four chairs sat unevenly on a stone patio. Antique lanterns hung from the branches of a chestnut tree.

  Vianne picked up a canelé and took a bite, savoring the vanilla-rich cream center and crispy, slightly burned-tasting exterior. She sat down.

  Rachel sat down across from her, with the baby asleep in her arms. Silence seemed to expand between them and fill with their fears and misgivings.

  “I wonder if he’ll know his father,” Rachel said as she looked down at her baby.

  “They’ll be changed,” Vianne said, remembering. Her father had been in the Battle of the Somme, in which more than three-quarters of a million men had lost their lives. Rumors of German atrocities had come home with the few who survived.

  Rachel moved the infant to her shoulder, patted his back soothingly. “Marc is no good at changing diapers. And Ari loves to sleep in our bed. I guess that’ll be all right now.”

  Vianne felt a smile start. It was a little thing, this joke, but it helped. “Antoine’s snoring is a pain in the backside. I should get some good sleep.”

  “And we can have poached eggs for supper.”

  “Only half the laundry,” she said, but then her voice broke. “I’m not strong enough for this, Rachel.”

  “Of course you are. We’ll get through it together.”

  “Before I met Antoine…”

  Rachel waved a hand dismissively. “I know. I know. You were as skinny as a branch, you stuttered when you got nervous, and you were allergic to everything. I know. I was there. But that’s all over now. You’ll be strong. You know why?”

  “Why?”

  Rachel’s smile faded. “I know I’m big—statuesque, as they like to say when they’re selling me brassieres and stockings—but I feel … undone by this, V. I am going to need to lean on you sometimes, too. Not with all my weight, of course.”

  “So we can’t both fall apart at the same time.”

  “Voilà,” Rachel said. “Our plan. Should we open a bottle of cognac now, or gin?”

  “It’s ten o’clock in the morning.”

  “You’re right. Of course. A French 75.”

  * * *

  On Tuesday morning when Vianne awoke, sunlight poured through the window, glazing the exposed timbers.

  Antoine sat in the chair by the window, a walnut rocker he’d made during Vianne’s second pregnancy. For years that empty rocker had mocked them. The miscarriage years, as she thought of them now. Desolation in a land of plenty. Three lost lives in four years; tiny thready heartbeats, blue hands. And then, miraculously: a baby who survived. Sophie. There were sad little ghosts caught in the wood grain of that chair, but there were good memories, too.

  “Maybe you should take Sophie to Paris,” he said as she sat up. “Julien would look out for you.”

  “My father has made his opinion on living with his daughters quite clear. I cannot expect a welcome from him.” Vianne pushed the matelasse coverlet aside and rose, putting her bare feet on the worn rug.

  “Will you be all right?”

  “Sophie and I will be fine. You’ll
be home in no time anyway. The Maginot Line will hold. And Lord knows the Germans are no match for us.”

  “Too bad their weapons are. I took all of our money out of the bank. There are sixty-five thousand francs in the mattress. Use it wisely, Vianne. Along with your teaching salary, it should last you a good long time.”

  She felt a flutter of panic. She knew too little about their finances. Antoine handled them.

  He stood up slowly and took her in his arms. She wanted to bottle how safe she felt in this moment, so she could drink of it later when loneliness and fear left her parched.

  Remember this, she thought. The way the light caught in his unruly hair, the love in his brown eyes, the chapped lips that had kissed her only an hour ago, in the darkness.

  Through the open window behind them, she heard the slow, even clop-clop-clop of a horse moving up the road and the clattering of the wagon being pulled along behind.

  That would be Monsieur Quillian on his way to market with his flowers. If she were in the yard, he would stop and give her one and say it couldn’t match her beauty, and she would smile and say merci and offer him something to drink.

  Vianne pulled away reluctantly. She went over to the wooden dresser and poured tepid water from the blue crockery pitcher into the bowl and washed her face. In the alcove that served as their wardrobe, behind a pair of gold and white toile curtains, she put on her brassiere and stepped into her lace-trimmed drawers and garter. She smoothed the silk stockings up her legs, fastened them to her garters, and then slipped into a belted cotton frock with a squared yoke collar. When she closed the curtains and turned around, Antoine was gone.

  She retrieved her handbag and went down the hallway to Sophie’s room. Like theirs, it was small, with a steeply pitched, timbered ceiling, wide plank wooden floors, and a window that overlooked the orchard. An ironwork bed, a nightstand with a hand-me-down lamp, and a blue-painted armoire filled the space. Sophie’s drawings decorated the walls.

  Vianne opened the shutters and let light flood the room.

  As usual in the hot summer months, Sophie had kicked the coverlet to the floor sometime in the night. Her pink stuffed teddy bear, Bébé, slept against her cheek.

  Vianne picked up the bear, staring down at its matted, much petted face. Last year, Bébé had been forgotten on a shelf by the window as Sophie moved on to newer toys.

  Now Bébé was back.

  Vianne leaned down to kiss her daughter’s cheek.

  Sophie rolled over and blinked awake.

  “I don’t want Papa to go, Maman,” she whispered. She reached out for Bébé, practically snatched the bear from Vianne’s hands.

  “I know.” Vianne sighed. “I know.”

  Vianne went to the armoire, where she picked out the sailor dress that was Sophie’s favorite.

  “Can I wear the daisy crown Papa made me?”

  The daisy “crown” lay crumpled on the nightstand, the little flowers wilted. Vianne picked it up gently and placed it on Sophie’s head.

  Vianne thought she was doing all right until she stepped into the living room and saw Antoine.

  “Papa?” Sophie touched the wilted daisy crown uncertainly. “Don’t go.”

  Antoine knelt down and drew Sophie into his embrace. “I have to be a soldier to keep you and Maman safe. But I’ll be back before you know it.”

  Vianne heard the crack in his voice.

  Sophie drew back. The daisy crown was sagging down the side of her head. “You promise you’ll come home?”

  Antoine looked past his daughter’s earnest face to Vianne’s worried gaze.

  “Oui,” he said at last.

  Sophie nodded.

  The three of them were silent as they left the house. They walked hand in hand up the hillside to the gray wooden barn. Knee-high golden grass covered the knoll, and lilac bushes as big as hay wagons grew along the perimeter of the property. Three small white crosses were all that remained in this world to mark the babies Vianne had lost. Today, she didn’t let her gaze linger there at all. Her emotions were heavy enough right now; she couldn’t add the weight of those memories, too.

  Inside the barn sat their old, green Renault. When they were all in the automobile, Antoine started up the engine, backed out of the barn, and drove on browning ribbons of dead grass to the road. Vianne stared out the small, dusty window, watching the green valley pass in a blur of familiar images—red tile roofs, stone cottages, fields of hay and grapes, spindly-treed forests.

  All too quickly they arrived at the train station near Tours.

  The platform was filled with young men carrying suitcases and women kissing them good-bye and children crying.

  A generation of men were going off to war. Again.

  Don’t think about it, Vianne told herself. Don’t remember what it was like last time when the men limped home, faces burned, missing arms and legs …

  Vianne clung to her husband’s hand as Antoine bought their tickets and led them onto the train. In the third-class carriage—stiflingly hot, people packed in like marsh reeds—she sat stiffly upright, still holding her husband’s hand, with her handbag on her lap.

  At their destination, a dozen or so men disembarked. Vianne and Sophie and Antoine followed the others down a cobblestoned street and into a charming village that looked like most small communes in Touraine. How was it possible that war was coming and that this quaint town with its tumbling flowers and crumbling walls was amassing soldiers to fight?

  Antoine tugged at her hand, got her moving again. When had she stopped?

  Up ahead a set of tall, recently erected iron gates had been bolted into stone walls. Behind them were rows of temporary housing.

  The gates swung open. A soldier on horseback rode out to greet the new arrivals, his leather saddle creaking at the horse’s steps, his face dusty and flushed from heat. He pulled on the reins and the horse halted, throwing its head and snorting. An aeroplane droned overhead.

  “You, men,” the soldier said. “Bring your papers to the lieutenant over there by the gate. Now. Move.”

  Antoine kissed Vianne with a gentleness that made her want to cry.

  “I love you,” he said against her lips.

  “I love you, too,” she said but the words that always seemed so big felt small now. What was love when put up against war?

  “Me, too, Papa. Me, too!” Sophie cried, flinging herself into his arms. They embraced as a family, one last time, until Antoine pulled back.

  “Good-bye,” he said.

  Vianne couldn’t say it in return. She watched him walk away, watched him merge into the crowd of laughing, talking young men, becoming indistinguishable. The big iron gates slammed shut, the clang of metal reverberating in the hot, dusty air, and Vianne and Sophie stood alone in the middle of the street.

  FOUR

  June 1940

  France

  The medieval villa dominated a deeply green, forested hillside. It looked like something in a confectioner’s shopwindow; a castle sculpted of caramel, with spun-sugar windows and shutters the color of candied apples. Far below, a deep blue lake absorbed the reflection of the clouds. Manicured gardens allowed the villa’s occupants—and, more important, their guests—to stroll about the grounds, where only acceptable topics were to be discussed.

  In the formal dining room, Isabelle Rossignol sat stiffly erect at the white-clothed table that easily accommodated twenty-four diners. Everything in this room was pale. Walls and floor and ceiling were all crafted of oyster-hued stone. The ceiling arched into a peak nearly twenty feet overhead. Sound was amplified in this cold room, as trapped as the occupants.

  Madame Dufour stood at the head of the table, dressed in a severe black dress that revealed the soup spoon–sized hollow at the base of her long neck. A single diamond brooch was her only adornment (one good piece, ladies, and choose it well; everything makes a statement, nothing speaks quite so loudly as cheapness). Her narrow face ended in a blunt chin and was framed by curls so obviou
sly peroxided the desired impression of youth was quite undone. “The trick,” she was saying in a cultivated voice, clipped and cut, “is to be completely quiet and unremarkable in your task.”

  Each of the girls at the table wore the fitted blue woolen jacket and skirt that was the school uniform. It wasn’t so bad in the winter, but on this hot June afternoon, the ensemble was unbearable. Isabelle could feel herself beginning to sweat, and no amount of lavender in her soap could mask the sharp scent of her perspiration.

  She stared down at the unpeeled orange placed in the center of her Limoges china plate. Flatware lay in precise formation on either side of the plate. Salad fork, dinner fork, knife, spoon, butter knife, fish fork. It went on and on.

  “Now,” Madame Dufour said. “Pick up the correct utensils—quietly, s’il vous plaît, quietly, and peel your orange.”

  Isabelle picked up her fork and tried to ease the sharp prongs into the heavy peel, but the orange rolled away from her and bumped over the gilt edge of the plate, clattering the china.

  “Merde,” she muttered, grabbing the orange before it fell to the floor.

  “Merde?” Madame Dufour was beside her.

  Isabelle jumped in her seat. Mon Dieu, the woman moved like a viper in the reeds. “Pardon, Madame,” Isabelle said, returning the orange to its place.

  “Mademoiselle Rossignol,” Madame said. “How is it that you have graced our halls for two years and learned so little?”

  Isabelle again stabbed the orange with her fork. A graceless—but effective—move. Then she smiled up at Madame. “Generally, Madame, the failing of a student to learn is the failing of the teacher to teach.”

  Breaths were indrawn all down the table.

  “Ah,” Madame said. “So we are the reason you still cannot manage to eat an orange properly.”

  Isabelle tried to slice through the peel—too hard, too fast. The silver blade slipped off the puckered peel and clanged on the china plate.

  Madame Dufour’s hand snaked out; her fingers coiled around Isabelle’s wrist.

  All up and down the table, the girls watched.

  “Polite conversation, girls,” Madame said, smiling thinly. “No one wants a statue for a dinner partner.”

  On cue, the girls began speaking quietly to one another about things that did not interest Isabelle. Gardening, weather, fashion. Acceptable topics for women. Isabelle heard the girl next to her say quietly, “I am so very fond of Alençon lace, aren’t you?” and really, it was all she could do to keep from screaming.

  “Mademoiselle Rossignol,” Madame said. “You will go see Madame Allard and tell her that our experiment has come to an end.”

  “What does that mean?”

  “She will know. Go.”

  Isabelle scooted back from the table quickly, lest Madame change her mind.

  Madame’s face scrunched in displeasure at the loud screech the chair legs made on the stone floor.

  Isabelle smiled. “I really do not like oranges, you know.”

  “Really?” Madame said sarcastically.

  Isabelle wanted to run from this stifling room, but she was already in enough trouble, so she forced herself to walk slowly, her shoulders back, her chin up. At the stairs (which she could navigate with three books on her head if required), she glanced sideways, saw that she was alone, and rushed down.

  In the hallway below, she slowed and straightened. By the time she reached the headmistress’s office, she wasn’t even breathing hard.

  She knocked.

  At Madame’s flat “Come in,” Isabelle opened the door.

  Madame Allard sat behind a gilt-trimmed mahogany writing desk. Medieval tapestries hung from the stone walls of the room and an arched, leaded-glass window overlooked gardens so sculpted they were more art than nature. Even birds rarely landed here; no doubt they sensed the stifling atmosphere and flew on.

  Isabelle sat down—remembering an instant too late that she hadn’t been offered a seat. She popped back up. “Pardon, Madame.”

  “Sit down, Isabelle.”

 
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