The nightingale, p.22
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       The Nightingale, p.22
 

           Kristin Hannah

  them onto the rope bridge and watched them cross, holding her breath and fisting her hands until each man landed on the opposite shore.

  Finally it was her turn. She pushed the sodden hood off her head, waiting for the light to scrape past her and keep going. The bridge looked flimsy and unsound. But it had held the men’s weight; it would hold hers.

  She clutched the rope sides and stepped onto the first plank. The bridge swung around her, dipped right and left. She glanced down and saw strips of raging white waters one hundred feet below. Gritting her teeth, she moved steadily forward, stepping from plank to plank to plank until she was on the other side, where she immediately dropped to her knees. The searchlight passed above her. She scrambled forward and up the embankment and into the bushes on the other side, where the airmen were crouched beside Eduardo.

  Eduardo led them to a hidden hillock of land and finally let them sleep.

  When the sun rose again, Isabelle blinked dully awake.

  “It’s not s’ bad here,” Torry whispered beside her.

  Isabelle looked around, bleary-eyed. They were in a gully above a dirt road, hidden by a stand of trees.

  Eduardo handed them wine. His smile was as bright as the sun that shone in her eyes. “There,” he said, pointing to a young woman on a bicycle not far away. Behind her, a town glinted ivory in the sunlight; it looked like something out of a children’s picture book, full of turrets and clock towers and church spires. “Almadora will take you to the consulate in San Sebastián. Welcome to Spain.”

  Isabelle instantly forgot the struggle it had taken to get here, and the fear that accompanied her every step. “Thank you, Eduardo.”

  “It won’t be so easy next time,” he said.

  “It wasn’t easy this time,” she said.

  “They didn’t expect us. Soon, they will.”

  He was right, of course. They hadn’t had to hide from German patrols or disguise their scents from dogs, and the Spanish sentinels were relaxed.

  “But when you come back again, with more pilots, I’ll be here,” he promised.

  She nodded her gratitude and turned to the men around her, who looked as exhausted as she felt. “Come on, men, off we go.”

  Isabelle and the men staggered down the road toward a young woman who stood beside a rusted old bicycle. After the false introductions were made, Almadora led them down a maze of dirt roads and back alleys; miles passed until they stood outside an elaborate caramel-hued building in Parte Viejo—the old section of San Sebastián. Isabelle could hear the crashing of distant waves against a seawall.

  “Merci,” Isabelle said to the girl.

  “De nada.”

  Isabelle looked up at the glossy black door. “Come on, men,” she said, striding up the stone steps. At the door, she knocked hard, three times, and then rang the bell. When a man in a crisp black suit answered, she said, “I am here to see the British consul.”

  “Is he expecting you?”

  “No.”

  “Mademoiselle, the consul is a busy—”

  “I’ve brought four RAF pilots with me from Paris.”

  The man’s eyes bulged a bit.

  MacLeish stepped forward. “Lieutenant Torrance MacLeish. RAF.”

  The other men followed suit, standing shoulder to shoulder as they introduced themselves.

  The door opened. Within a matter of moments, Isabelle found herself seated on an uncomfortable leather chair, facing a tired-looking man across a large desk. The airmen stood at attention behind her.

  “I brought you four downed airmen from Paris,” Isabelle said proudly. “We took the train south and then walked across the Pyrenees—”

  “You walked?”

  “Well, perhaps hiked is a more accurate word.”

  “You hiked over the Pyrenees from France and into Spain.” He sat back in his chair, all traces of a smile gone.

  “I can do it again, too. With the increased RAF bombings, there are going to be more downed airmen. To save them, we will need financial help. Money for clothes and papers and food. And something for the people we enlist to shelter us along the way.”

  “You’ll want to ring up MI9,” MacLeish said. “They’ll pay whatever Juliette’s group needs.”

  The man shook his head, made a tsking sound. “A girl leading pilots across the Pyrenees. Will wonders never cease?”

  MacLeish grinned at Isabelle. “A wonder indeed, sir. I told her the very same thing.”

  TWENTY

  Getting out of Occupied France was difficult and dangerous. Getting back in—at least for a twenty-year-old girl with a ready smile—was easy.

  Only a few days after her arrival in San Sebastián, and after endless meetings and debriefings, Isabelle was on the train bound for Paris again, sitting in one of the wooden banquettes in the third-class carriage—the only seat available on such short notice—watching the Loire Valley pass by. The carriage was freezing cold and packed with loquacious German soldiers and cowed French men and women who kept their heads down and their hands in their laps. She had a piece of hard cheese and an apple in her handbag, but even though she was hungry—starving, really—she didn’t open her bag.

  She felt conspicuous in her ragged, snagged brown pants and woolen coat. Her cheeks were windburned and scratched and her lips were chapped and dry. But the real changes were within. The pride of what she’d accomplished in the Pyrenees had changed her, matured her. For the first time in her life, she knew exactly what she wanted to do.

  She had met with an agent from MI9 and formally set up the escape route. She was their primary contact—they called her the Nightingale. In her handbag, hidden in the lining, were one hundred forty thousand francs. Enough to set up safe houses and buy food and clothing for the airmen and the people who dared to house them along the way. She’d given her word to her contact Ian (code name Tuesday) that other airmen would follow. Sending word to Paul—“The Nightingale has sung”—was perhaps the proudest moment of her life.

  It was nearing curfew when she disembarked in Paris. The autumnal city shivered beneath a cold, dark sky. Wind tumbled through the bare trees, clattering the empty flower baskets, ruffling and flapping the awnings.

  She went out of her way to walk past her old apartment on Avenue de La Bourdonnais and as she passed it, she felt a wave of … longing she supposed. It was as close to a home as she could remember, and she hadn’t stepped inside—or seen her father—in months. Not since the inception of the escape route. It wasn’t safe for them to be together. Instead, she went to the small, dingy apartment that was her most recent home. A mismatched table and chairs, a mattress on the floor, and a broken stove. The rug smelled of the last tenant’s tobacco and the walls were water-stained.

  At her front door, she paused, glanced around. The street was quiet, dark. She fitted the skeleton key in the lock and gave a little twist. At the click of sound, she sensed danger. Something was wrong, out of place—a shadow where it shouldn’t be, a clanking of metal from the bistro next door, abandoned by its owner months ago.

  She turned around slowly, peered out into the dark, quiet street. Unseen lorries were parked here and there and a few sad little cafés cast triangles of light onto the sidewalk; within the glow, soldiers were thin silhouettes, moving back and forth. An air of desertion hung over the once lively neighborhood.

  Across the street, a lamp stood unlit, a barely darker slash against the night air around it.

  He was there. She knew it, even though she couldn’t see him.

  She moved down the steps, slowly, her senses alert, taking one cautious step at a time. She was sure she could hear him breathing, not far away. Watching her. She knew instinctively that he’d been waiting for her to return, worrying.

  “Gaëtan,” she said softly, letting her voice be a lure, casting out, trying to catch him. “You’ve been following me for months. Why?”

  Nothing. Silence blew in the wind around her, biting and cold.

  “Come here,” sh
e pleaded, tilting her chin.

  Still, nothing.

  “Now who isn’t ready?” she said. It hurt, that silence, but she understood it, too. With all the risks they were taking, love was probably the most dangerous choice of all.

  Or maybe she was wrong, and he wasn’t here, had never been here, watching her, waiting for her. Maybe she was just a silly girl longing for a man who didn’t want her, standing alone in an empty street.

  No.

  He was there.

  * * *

  That winter was even worse than the year before. An angry God smote Europe with leaden skies and falling snow, day after day after day. The cold was a cruel addendum to a world already bleak and ugly.

  Carriveau, like so many small towns in the Occupied Zone, became an island of despair, cut off from its surroundings. The villagers had limited information about what was going on in the world around them, and no one had time to burrow through propagandist papers looking for truth when surviving took so much effort. All they really knew was that the Nazis had become angrier, meaner, since the Americans had joined the war.

  On a bleak and freezing predawn morning in early February 1942, when tree limbs snapped and windowpanes looked like cracked pond ice, Vianne woke early and stared at the deeply pitched ceiling of her bedroom. A headache pounded behind her eyes. She felt sweaty and achy. When she drew in a breath, it burned in her lungs and made her cough.

  Getting out of bed was not appealing, but neither was starving to death. More and more often this winter, their ration cards were useless; there was simply no food to be had, and no shoes or fabric or leather. Vianne no longer had wood for the stove or money to pay for electricity. With gas so dear, the simple act of bathing became a chore to be endured. She and Sophie slept wrapped together like puppies, beneath a mountain of quilts and blankets. In the past few months, Vianne had begun to burn everything made of wood and to sell her valuables.

  Now she was wearing almost every piece of clothing she owned—flannel pants, underwear she’d knitted herself, an old woolen sweater, a neck scarf, and still she shivered when she left the bed. When her feet hit the floor, she winced at the pain from her chilblains. She grabbed a wool skirt and put it on over her pants. She’d lost so much weight this winter that she had to pin the waist in place. Coughing, she went downstairs. Her breath preceded her in white puffs that disappeared almost instantly. She limped past the guest room door.

  The captain was gone, and had been for weeks. As much as Vianne hated to admit it, his absences were worse than his appearances these days. At least when he was there, there was food to eat and a fire in the hearth. He refused to let the home be cold. Vianne ate as little of the food he provided as she could—she told herself it was her duty to be hungry—but what mother could let her child suffer? Was Vianne really supposed to let Sophie starve to prove her loyalty to France?

  In the darkness, she added another pair of holey socks to the two pairs already on her feet. Then she wrapped herself in a blanket and put on the mittens she’d recently knit from an old baby blanket of Sophie’s.

  In the frost-limned kitchen, she lit an oil lamp and carried it outside, moving slowly, breathing hard as she climbed the slick, icy hillside to the barn. Twice she slipped and fell on the frozen grass.

  The barn’s metal door handle felt burningly cold, even through her heavy mittens. She had to use all of her weight to slide the door open. Inside, she set down the lantern. The idea of moving the car was almost more than she could stand in her weakened state.

  She took a deep painful breath, steeled herself, and went to the car. She put it in neutral, then bent down to the bumper and pushed with all of her strength. The car rolled forward slowly, as if in judgment.

  When the trapdoor was revealed, she retrieved the oil lamp and climbed slowly down the ladder. In the long, dark months since her firing and the end of her money, she had sold off her family’s treasures one by one: a painting to feed the rabbits and chickens through the winter, a Limoges tea set for a sack of flour, silver salt and pepper shakers for a stringy pair of hens.

  Opening her maman’s jewelry box, she stared down into the velvet-lined interior. Not long ago there had been lots of paste jewelry in here, as well as a few good pieces. Earrings, a filigree silver bracelet, a brooch made of rubies and hammered metal. Only the pearls were left.

  Vianne removed one mitten and reached down for the pearls, scooping them into her palm. They shone in the light, as lustrous as a young woman’s skin.

  They were the last link to her mother—and to their family’s heritage.

  Now Sophie would not wear them on her wedding day or hand them down to her own daughters.

  “But she will eat this winter,” Vianne said. She wasn’t sure if it was grief that serrated her voice, or sadness, or relief. She was lucky to have something to sell.

  She gazed down at the pearls, felt their weight in her palm, and the way they drew warmth from her body for themselves. For a split second, she saw them glow. Then, grimly, she put the mitten over her hand and climbed back up the ladder.

  * * *

  Three more weeks passed in desolate cold with no sign of Beck. On a frozen late February morning, Vianne woke with a pounding headache and a fever. Coughing, she climbed out of bed and shivered, slowly lifting a blanket from the bed. She wrapped it around herself but it didn’t help. She shivered uncontrollably, even though she wore pants and two sweaters and three pairs of socks. The wind howled outside, clattering against the shutters, rattling the ice-sheened glass beneath the blackout shade.

  She moved slowly through her morning routine, trying not to breathe too deeply lest a cough come up from her chest. On chilblained feet that radiated pain with every step, she made Sophie a meager breakfast of watery corn mush. Then the two of them went out into the falling snow.

  In silence, they trudged to town. Snow fell relentlessly, whitening the road in front of them, coating the trees.

  The church sat on a small, jutting bit of land at the edge of town, bordered on one side by the river and backed by the limestone walls of the old abbey.

  “Maman, are you all right?”

  Vianne had hunched forward again. She squeezed her daughter’s hand, feeling nothing but mitten on mitten. The breath stuttered in her lungs, burned. “I’m fine.”

  “You should have eaten breakfast.”

  “I wasn’t hungry,” Vianne said.

  “Ha,” Sophie said, trudging forward through the heavy snow.

  Vianne led Sophie into the chapel. Inside, it was warm enough that they no longer saw their breath. The nave arched gracefully upward, shaped like hands held together in prayer, held in place by graceful wooden beams. Stained-glass windows glittered with bits of color. Most of the pews were filled, but no one was talking, not on a day this cold, in a winter this bad.

  The church bells pealed and a clanging echoed in the nave, and the giant doors slammed shut, extinguishing what little natural light could make it through the snow.

  Father Joseph, a kindly old priest who had presided over this church for the whole of Vianne’s life, stepped up to the pulpit. “We will pray today for our men who are gone. We will pray that this war does not last much longer … and we will pray for the strength to resist our enemy and stay true to who we are.”

  This was not the sermon Vianne wanted to hear. She had come to church—braved the cold—to be comforted by Father’s sermon on this Sunday, to be inspired by words like “honor” and “duty” and “loyalty.” But today, those ideals felt far, far away. How could you hold on to ideals when you were sick and cold and starving? How could she look at her neighbors when she was taking food from the enemy, even as small an amount as it was? Others were hungrier.

  She was so deep in thought that it took her a moment to realize the service had ended. Vianne stood, feeling a wave of dizziness at the motion. She clutched the pew for support.

  “Maman?”

  “I’m fine.”

  In the a
isle to their left, the parishioners—mostly women—filed past. Each looked as weak and thin and washed out as she felt, wrapped in layers of wool and newsprint.

  Sophie took Vianne’s hand and led her toward the wide-open double doors. At the threshold, Vianne paused, shivering and coughing. She didn’t want to go out into the cold white world again.

  She stepped over the threshold (where Antoine had carried her after their wedding … no, that was the threshold of Le Jardin; she was confused) and out into the snowstorm. Vianne held the heavy-knit scarf around her head, clutching it closed at her throat. Bending forward, angling into the wind, she trudged through the wet, heavy snow.

  By the time she reached the broken gate in her yard, she was breathing heavily and coughing hard. She stepped around the snow-covered motorcycle with the machine-gun-mounted sidecar and went into the orchard of bare branches. He was back, she thought dully; now Sophie would eat.… She was almost to the front door when she felt herself start to fall.

  “Maman!”

  She heard Sophie’s voice, heard the fear in it and thought, I’m scaring her, and she regretted it, but her legs were too weak to carry her, and she was tired … so tired …

  From far away, she heard the door crack open, heard her daughter scream, “Herr Captain!” and then she heard boot heels striking wood.

  She hit the ground hard, cracked her head on the snow-covered step, and lay there. She thought, I’ll rest for a bit, then I’ll get up and make Sophie lunch … but what is there to eat?

  The next thing she knew, she was floating, no, maybe flying. She couldn’t open her eyes—she was so tired and her head hurt—but she could feel herself moving, being rocked. Antoine, is that you? Are you holding me?

  “Open the door,” someone said, and there was a crack of wood on wood, and then, “I’m going to take off her coat. Go get Madame de Champlain, Sophie.”

  Vianne felt herself being laid on something soft. A bed.

  She wet her chapped, dry lips and tried to open her eyes. It took considerable effort, and two tries. When she finally managed it, her vision was blurry.

  Captain Beck was sitting beside her on her bed, in her bedroom. He was holding her hand and leaning forward, his face close to hers.

  “Madame?”

  She felt his warm breath on her face.

  “Vianne!” Rachel said, coming into the room at a run.

  Captain Beck got to his feet instantly. “She fainted in the snow, Madame, and cracked her head on the step. I carried her up here.”

  “I’m grateful,” Rachel said, nodding. “I’ll take care of her now, Herr Captain.”

  Beck stood there. “She doesn’t eat,” he said stiffly. “All the food goes to Sophie. I have watched this.”

  “That’s motherhood in war, Herr Captain. Now … if you’ll excuse me…” She stepped past him and sat down on the bed beside Vianne. He stood there another moment, looking flustered, and then he left the room. “So, you are giving her everything,” Rachel said softly, stroking Vianne’s damp hair.

  “What else can I do?” Vianne said.

  “Not die,” Rachel said. “Sophie needs you.”

  Vianne sighed heavily and closed her eyes. She fell into a deep sleep in which she dreamed she was lying on a softness that was acres and acres of black field, sprawled out from her on all sides. She could hear people calling out to her from the darkness, hear them walking toward her, but she had no desire to move; she just slept and slept and slept. When she woke, it was to find herself on her own divan in her living room, with a fire roaring in the grate not far away.

  She sat up slowly, feeling weak and unsteady. “Sophie?”

  The guest room door opened, and Captain Beck appeared. He was dressed in flannel pajamas and a woolen cardigan and his jackboots. He said, “Bonsoir, Madame,” and smiled. “It is good to have you back.”

  She was wearing her flannel pants and two sweaters and socks and a knit hat. Who had dressed her? “How long did I sleep?”

  “Just a day.”

  He walked past her and went into the kitchen. Moments later he returned with a cup of steaming café au lait and a wedge of blue cheese and a piece of ham and a chunk of bread. Saying nothing, he set the food down on the table beside her.

  She looked at it, her stomach grumbling painfully. Then she looked up at the captain.

  “You hit your head and could have died.”

  Vianne touched her forehead, felt the bump that was tender.

  “What happens to Sophie if you die?” he asked. “Have you considered this?”

  “You were gone so long. There wasn’t enough food for both of us.”

  “Eat,” he said, gazing down at her.

  She didn’t want to look away. Her relief at his return shamed her. When she finally did, when she dragged her gaze sideways, she saw the food.

 
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