The nightingale, p.20
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       The Nightingale, p.20
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           Kristin Hannah

  a good-bye, that touch, and she knew good-bye. “I wanted to forget you.”

  She wanted to say something more, maybe “kiss me” or “don’t go” or “say I matter to you,” but it was already too late, the moment—whatever it was—was past. He was stepping away from her, disappearing into the shadows. He said softly, “Be careful, Iz,” and before she could answer, she knew he was gone; she felt his absence in her bones.

  She waited a moment more, for her heartbeat to slow down and her emotions to stabilize, then she headed for home. She had barely released the lock on her front door when she felt herself being yanked inside. The door slammed shut behind her.

  “Where in the hell have you been?”

  Her father’s alcoholic breath washed over her, its sweetness a cloak over something dark; bitter. As if he’d been chewing aspirin. She tried to pull free but he held her so close it was almost an embrace, his grasp on her wrist tight enough to leave a bruise.

  Then, as quickly as he’d grasped her, he let her go. She stumbled back, flailing for the light switch. When she flipped it, nothing happened.

  “No more money for electricity,” her father said. He lit an oil lamp, held it between them. In the wavering light, he looked to be sculpted of melting wax; his lined face sagged, his eyelids were puffy and a little blue. His paddle nose showed black pores the size of pinheads. Even with all of that, with as … tired and old as he suddenly seemed, it was the look in his eyes that made her frown.

  Something was wrong.

  “Come with me,” he said, his voice raspy and sharp, unrecognizable this time of night without a slur. He led her down past the closet and around the corner to her room. Inside, he turned to look at her.

  Behind him, in the lamp’s glow, she saw the moved armoire and the door to the secret room ajar. The smell of urine was strong. Thank God the airman was gone.

  Isabelle shook her head, unable to speak.

  He sank to sit on the edge of her bed, bowing his head. “Christ, Isabelle. You are a pain in the ass.”

  She couldn’t move. Or think. She glanced at the bedroom door, wondering if she could make it out of the apartment. “It was nothing, Papa. A boy.” Oui. “A date. We were kissing, Papa.”

  “And do all of your dates piss in the closet? You must be very popular, then.” He sighed. “Enough of this charade.”


  “You found an airman last night and hid him in the closet and today you took him to Monsieur Lévy.”

  Isabelle could not have heard correctly. “Pardon?”

  “Your downed airman—the one who pissed in the closet and left dirty bootprints in the hallway—you took him to Monsieur Lévy.”

  “I do not know what you are talking about.”

  “Good for you, Isabelle.”

  When he fell silent, she couldn’t stand the suspense. “Papa?”

  “I know you came here as a courier for the underground and that you are working with Paul Lévy’s network.”


  “Monsieur Lévy is an old friend. In fact, when the Nazis invaded, he came to me and pulled me out of the bottle of brandy that was all I cared about. He put me to work.”

  Isabelle felt so unsteady, she couldn’t stand. It was too intimate to sit by her father, so she sank slowly to the carpet.

  “I didn’t want you involved in this, Isabelle. That’s why I sent you from Paris in the first place. I didn’t want to put you at risk with my work. I should have known you’d find your own way to danger.”

  “And all the other times you sent me away?” She wished instantly that she hadn’t asked the question, but the moment she had the thought, it was given voice.

  “I am no good as a father. We both know that. At least not since your maman’s death.”

  “How would we know? You never tried.”

  “I tried. You just don’t remember. Anyway, that is all water gone by now. We have bigger concerns.”

  “Oui,” she said. Her past felt upended somehow, off balance. She didn’t know what to think or feel. Better to change the subject than to dwell on it. “I am … planning something. I will be gone for a while.”

  He looked down at her. “I know. I have spoken to Paul.” He was silent for a long moment. “You know that your life changes right now. You will have to live underground—not here with me, not with anyone. You will not be able to spend more than a few nights in any one place. You will trust absolutely no one. And you will not be Isabelle Rossignol at all anymore; you will be Juliette Gervaise. The Nazis and the collaborators will always be searching for you, and if they find you…”

  Isabelle nodded.

  A look passed between them. In it, Isabelle felt a connection that had never existed before.

  “You know that prisoners of war receive some mercy. You can expect none.”

  She nodded.

  “Can you do this, Isabelle?”

  “I can do it, Papa.”

  He nodded. “The name you are looking for is Micheline Babineau. Your maman’s friend in Urrugne. Her husband was killed in the Great War. I think she would welcome you. And tell Paul I will need photographs immediately.”


  “Of the airmen.” At her continued silence, he finally smiled. “Really, Isabelle? Have you not put the pieces together?”


  “I forge papers, Isabelle. That’s why I work at the high command. I began by writing the very tracts you distributed in Carriveau, but … it turns out that the poet has a forger’s hand. Who do you think gave you the name Juliette Gervaise?”


  “You believed I collaborated with the enemy. I can hardly blame you.”

  In him, suddenly, she saw someone foreign, a broken man where a cruel, careless man had always stood. She dared to rise up, to move toward him, to kneel in front of him. She stared up at him, feeling hot tears glaze her eyes. “Why did you push me and Vianne away?”

  “I hope you never know how fragile you are, Isabelle.”

  “I’m not fragile,” she said.

  The smile he gave her was barely one at all. “We are all fragile, Isabelle. It’s the thing we learn in war.”



  All males who come to the aid, either directly or indirectly, of the crews of enemy aircraft coming down in parachutes or having made a forced landing, help in their escape, hide them, or come to their aid in any fashion will be shot on the spot.

  Women who render the same help will be sent to concentration camps in Germany.

  “I guess I am lucky to be a woman,” Isabelle muttered to herself. How was it that the Germans hadn’t noticed by now—October 1941—that France had become a country of women?

  Even as she said the words, she recognized the false bravado in them. She wanted to feel brave right now—Edith Cavell risking her life—but here, in this train station patrolled by German soldiers, she was scared.

  There was no backing out now, no changing her mind. After months of planning and preparation, she and four airmen were ready to test the escape plan.

  On this cool October morning, her life would change. From the moment she boarded this train bound for Saint-Jean-de-Luz, she would no longer be Isabelle Rossignol, the girl in the bookshop who lived on the Avenue de La Bourdonnais.

  From now on, she was Juliette Gervaise, code name the Nightingale.

  “Come.” Anouk linked arms with Isabelle and led her away from the warning sign and toward the ticket counter.

  They had gone over these preparations so many times Isabelle knew the plan well. There was only one flaw: All of their attempts to reach Madame Babineau had thus far failed. That one key component—finding a guide—Isabelle would have to do on her own. Off to her left, waiting for her signal, Lieutenant MacLeish stood dressed as a peasant. All he’d kept from his escape kit were two Benzedrine tablets and a tiny compass that looked like a button and was pinned to his collar. He had bee
n given false papers—now he was a Flemish farmworker. He had an identity card and a work permit, but her father couldn’t guarantee that the papers would pass close inspection. He had cut off the tops of his flight boots and shaved off his moustache.

  Isabelle and Anouk had spent countless hours training him in proper behavior. They’d dressed him in a baggy coat and a worn, stained pair of work trousers. They’d bleached the nicotine stains from the first and second fingers of his right hand and taught him to smoke like a Frenchman, using his thumb and forefinger. He knew he was to look left before crossing the street—not right—and he was never to approach Isabelle unless she approached him first. She had instructed him to play deaf and dumb and to read a newspaper while on the train—the entire trip. He was also to buy his own ticket and sit apart from Isabelle. They all were. When they disembarked in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, the airmen were to walk a good distance behind her.

  Anouk turned to Isabelle. Are you ready? her gaze asked.

  She nodded slowly.

  “Cousin Etienne will board the train in Poitiers, Uncle Emile in Ruffec, and Jean-Claude in Bordeaux.”

  The other airmen. “Oui.”

  Isabelle was to disembark at Saint-Jean-de-Luz with the four airmen—two Brits and two Canadians—and cross the mountains into Spain. Once there, she was to send a telegram. “The Nightingale has sung” meant success.

  She kissed each of Anouk’s cheeks, murmured au revoir, and then walked briskly over to the ticket window. “Saint-Jean-de-Luz,” she said, and handed the attendant her money. Taking the ticket, she headed for platform C. Not once did she look back, although she wanted to.

  The train whistle sounded.

  Isabelle stepped aboard, taking a seat on the left side. More passengers filed in, took seats. Several German soldiers boarded the train, sitting across from her.

  MacLeish was the last to board. He stepped into the train and shuffled past her without a glance, his shoulders hunched in an effort to appear smaller. As the doors eased shut, he settled into a seat at the other end of the compartment and immediately opened his newspaper.

  The train whistle blew again and the giant wheels began to turn, picking up speed slowly. The compartment banged a little, heaved left and right, and then settled into a steady thrumming movement, the wheels clackety-clacking on the iron tracks.

  The German soldier across from Isabelle glanced down the compartment. His gaze settled on MacLeish. He tapped his friend in the shoulder and both men started to rise.

  Isabelle leaned forward. “Bonjour,” she said with a smile.

  The soldiers immediately sat back down. “Bonjour, M’mselle,” they said in unison.

  “Your French is quite good,” she lied. Beside her, a heavyset woman in peasant clothes made a harrumphing sound of disgust and whispered, “You should be ashamed of yourself” in French.

  Isabelle laughed prettily. “Where are you going?” she asked the soldiers. They would be on this carriage for hours. It would be good to keep their attention on her.

  “Tours,” one said, as the other said, “Onzain.”

  “Ah. And do you know any card games to pass the time? I have a deck with me.”

  “Yes. Yes!” the younger one said.

  Isabelle reached in her handbag for her playing cards. She was dealing a new hand—and laughing—when the next airman boarded the train and shuffled past the Germans.

  Later, when the conductor came through, she offered up her ticket. He took it and moved on.

  When he came to the airman, MacLeish did exactly as instructed—he handed over his ticket while he kept reading. The other airman did the same.

  Isabelle released her breath in a sigh of relief and leaned back in her seat.

  * * *

  Isabelle and the four airmen made it to Saint-Jean-de-Luz without incident. Twice they’d walked—separately, of course—past German checkpoints. The soldiers on guard had barely looked at the series of false papers, saying danke schön without even looking up. They were not on the lookout for downed airmen and apparently hadn’t considered a plan as bold as this.

  But now Isabelle and the men were approaching the mountains. In the foothills, she went to a small park along the river and sat on a bench overlooking the water. The airmen arrived as planned, one by one, with MacLeish first. He sat down beside her.

  The others took seats within earshot.

  “You have your signs?” she asked.

  MacLeish withdrew a piece of paper from his shirt pocket. It read: DEAF AND DUMB. WAITING FOR MY MAMAN TO PICK ME UP. The other airmen did the same.

  “If a German soldier hassles any of you, you show him your papers and your sign. Do not speak.”

  “And I act stupid, which is easy for me.” MacLeish grinned.

  Isabelle was too anxious to smile.

  She shrugged off her canvas rucksack and handed it to MacLeish. In it were a few essentials—a bottle of wine, three plump pork sausages, two pairs of heavy woolen socks, and several apples. “Sit where you can in Urrugne. Not together, of course. Keep your heads down and pretend to read your books. Don’t look up until you hear me say, ‘There you are, cousin, we’ve been looking all over for you.’ Understood?”

  They all nodded.

  “If I am not back by dawn, travel separately to Pau and go to the hotel I told you about. A woman named Eliane will help you.”

  “Be careful,” MacLeish said.

  Taking a deep breath, she left them and walked to the main road. A mile or so later, as night began to fall, she crossed a rickety bridge. The road turned to dirt and narrowed into a cart track that climbed up, up, up into the verdant foothills. Moonlight came to her aid, illuminating hundreds of tiny white specks—goats. There were no cottages up this high, just animal sheds.

  At last, she saw it: a two-storied, half-timbered house with a red roof that was exactly as her father had described. No wonder they had not been able to reach Madame Babineau. This cottage seemed designed to keep people away—as did the path up to it. Goats bleated at her appearance and bumped into one another nervously. Light shone through the haphazardly blacked-out windows, and smoke puffed cheerily from the chimney, scenting the air.

  At her knock, the heavy wooden door opened just enough to reveal a single eye and a mouth nearly hidden by a gray beard.

  “Bonsoir,” Isabelle said. She waited a moment for the old man to reply in kind, but he said nothing. “I am here to see Madame Babineau.”

  “Why?” the man demanded.

  “Julien Rossignol sent me.”

  The old man made a clicking sound between his teeth and tongue; then the door opened.

  The first thing Isabelle noticed inside was the stew, simmering in a big black pot that hung from a hook in the giant stone-faced fireplace.

  A woman was seated at a huge, scarred trestle table in the back of the wide, timber-beamed room. From where Isabelle stood, it looked as if she were dressed in charcoal-colored rags, but when the old man lit an oil lamp, Isabelle saw that the woman was dressed like a man, in rough breeches and a linen shirt with a leather lace-up neckline. Her hair was the color of iron shavings and she was smoking a cigarette.

  Still, Isabelle recognized the woman, even though it had been fifteen years. She remembered sitting on the beach at Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Hearing the women laugh. And Madame Babineau saying, This little beauty will cause you endless trouble, Madeleine, the boys will someday swarm her, and Maman saying, She is too smart to toss her life to boys, aren’t you, my Isabelle?

  “Your shoes are caked with dirt.”

  “I’ve walked here from the train station at Saint-Jean-de-Luz.”

  “Interesting.” The woman used her booted foot to push out the chair across from her. “I am Micheline Babineau. Sit.”

  “I know who you are,” Isabelle said. She added nothing. Information was dangerous these days. It was traded with care.

  “Do you?”

  “I’m Juliette Gervaise.”

  “Why do I

  Isabelle glanced nervously at the old man, who watched her warily. She didn’t like turning her back on him, but she had no choice. She sat down across from the woman.

  “You want a cigarette? It’s a Gauloises Bleu. They cost me three francs and a goat, but it’s worth it.” The woman took a long, sensual drag off of her cigarette and exhaled the distinctively scented blue smoke. “Why do I care about you?”

  “Julien Rossignol believes I can trust you.”

  Madame Babineau took another drag on the cigarette and then stubbed it out on the sole of her boot. She dropped the rest of it in her breast pocket.

  “He says his wife was close friends with you. You are godmother to his eldest daughter. He is the godfather to your youngest son.”

  “Was. The Germans killed both of my sons at the front. And my husband in the last war.”

  “He wrote letters to you recently…”

  “The poste is shit these days. What does he want?”

  Here it was. The biggest flaw in this plan. If Madame Babineau was a collaborator, it was all over. Isabelle had imagined this moment a thousand times, planned it down to the pauses. She’d thought of ways to word things to protect herself.

  Now she saw the folly of all that, the uselessness. She simply had to dive in.

  “I left four downed pilots in Urrugne, waiting for me. I want to take them to the British consulate in Spain. We hope the British can get them back to England so they can fly more missions over Germany and drop more bombs.”

  In the silence that followed, Isabelle heard the beat of her heart, the tick of the mantel clock, the distant bleating of a goat.

  “And?” Madame Babineau said at last, almost too softly to hear.

  “A-and I need a Basque guide to help me cross the Pyrenees. Julien thought you could help me.”

  For the first time, Isabelle knew she had the woman’s undivided attention. “Get Eduardo,” Madame Babineau said to the old man, who jumped to do her bidding. The door banged shut so hard the ceiling rattled.

  The woman retrieved the half-smoked cigarette from her pocket and lit it up, inhaling and exhaling several times in silence as she studied Isabelle.

  “What do you—” Isabelle started to ask.

  The woman pressed a tobacco-stained finger to her lips.

  The door to the farmhouse crashed open and a man burst in. All Isabelle could make out were broad shoulders, burlap, and the smell of alcohol.

  He grabbed her by the arm and lifted her out of the chair and threw her up against the rough-hewn wall. She gasped in pain and tried to get free, but he pinned her in place, wedged his knee roughly between her legs.

  “Do you know what the Germans do to people like you?” he whispered, his face so close to hers she couldn’t focus, couldn’t see anything but black eyes and thick black lashes. He smelled of cigarettes and brandy. “Do you know how much they will pay us for you and your pilots?”

  Isabelle turned her head to avoid his sour breath.

  “Where are these pilots of yours?”

  His fingers dug into the flesh of her upper arms.

  “Where are they?”

  “What pilots?” she gasped.

  “The pilots you are helping escape.”

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