The nightingale, p.23
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       The Nightingale, p.23
 

           Kristin Hannah

  She reached out and took the plate in her hands, bringing it toward her. The salty, smoky scent of the ham, combined with the slightly stinky aroma of the cheese, intoxicated her, overwhelmed her better intentions, seduced her so thoroughly that there was no choice to be made.

  * * *

  In early March of 1942, spring still felt far away. Last night the Allies had bombed the hell out of the Renault factory in Boulogne-Billancourt, killing hundreds in the suburb on the outskirts of Paris. It had made the Parisians—Isabelle included—jumpy and irritable. The Americans had entered the war with a vengeance; air raids were a fact of life now.

  On this cold and rainy evening, Isabelle pedaled her bicycle down a muddy, rutted country road in a heavy fog. Rain plastered her hair to her face and blurred her vision. In the mist, sounds were amplified; the cry of a pheasant disturbed by the sucking sound of her wheels in mud, the near-constant drone of aeroplanes overhead, the lowing of cattle in a field she couldn’t see. A woolen hood was her only protection.

  As if being drawn in charcoal on vellum by an uncertain hand, the demarcation line slowly came into view. She saw coils of barbed wire stretched out on either side of a black-and-white checkpoint gate. Beside it, a German sentry sat in a chair, his rifle rested across his lap. At Isabelle’s approach, he stood and pointed the gun at her.

  “Halt!”

  She slowed the bike; the wheels stuck in the mud and she nearly flew from her seat. She dismounted, stepped down into the muck. Five hundred franc notes were sewn into the lining of her coat, as well as a set of false identity papers for an airman hiding in a safe house nearby.

  She smiled at the German, walked her bicycle toward him, thumping through muddy potholes.

  “Documents,” he said.

  She handed him her forged Juliette papers.

  He glanced down at them, barely interested. She could tell that he was unhappy to be manning such a quiet border in the rain. “Pass,” he said, sounding bored.

  She repocketed her papers and climbed back onto her bicycle, pedaling away as quickly as she could on the wet road.

  An hour and a half later, she reached the outskirts of the small town of Brantôme. Here, in the Free Zone, there were no German soldiers, although lately the French police had proven to be as dangerous as the Nazis, so she didn’t let her guard down.

  For centuries, the town of Brantôme had been considered a sacred place that could both heal the body and enlighten the soul. After the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War ravaged the countryside, the Benedictine monks built an immense limestone abbey, backed by soaring gray cliffs on one side and the wide Dronne River on the other.

  Across the street from the caves at the end of town was one of the newest safe houses: a secret room tucked into an abandoned mill built on a triangle of land between the caves and the river. The ancient wooden mill turned rhythmically, its buckets and wheel furred with moss. The windows were boarded up and anti-German graffiti covered the stone walls.

  Isabelle paused in the street, glancing both ways to make sure that no one was watching her. No one was. She locked her bicycle to a tree at the end of town and then crossed the street and bent down to the cellar door, opening it quietly. All of the doors to the mill house were boarded up, nailed shut; this was the only way inside.

  She climbed down into the black, musty cellar and reached for the oil lamp she kept on a shelf there. Lighting it, she followed the secret passageway that had once allowed the Benedictine monks to escape from the so-called barbarians. Narrow, steeply pitched stairs led to the kitchen. Opening the door, she slipped into the dusty, cobwebby room and kept going upstairs to the secret ten-by-ten room built behind one of the old storerooms.

  “She’s here! Perk up, Perkins.”

  In the small room, lit only by a single candle, two men got to their feet, stood at attention. Both were dressed as French peasants in ill-fitting clothes.

  “Captain Ed Perkins, miss,” the bigger of the two men said. “And this here lout is Ian Trufford or some such name. He’s Welsh. I’m a Yank. We’re both damned happy to see you. We’ve been goin’ half mad in this small space.”

  “Only half mad?” she asked. Water dripped from her hooded cloak and made a puddle around her feet. She wanted nothing more than to crawl into her sleeping bag and go to sleep, but she had business to conduct first. “Perkins, you say.”

  “Yes, miss.”

  “From?”

  “Bend, Oregon, miss. My pa’s a plumber and my ma makes the best apple pie in four counties.”

  “What’s the weather like in Bend this time of year?”

  “What’s this? Middle o’ March? Cold, I guess. Not snowing anymore, maybe, but no sunshine yet.”

  She bent her neck from side to side, massaging the pain in her shoulders. All this pedaling and lying and sleeping on the floor took a toll.

  She interrogated the two men until she was certain they were who they said they were—two downed airmen who’d been waiting weeks for their chance to get out of France. When she was finally convinced, she opened her rucksack and brought out supper, such as it was. The three of them sat on a ragged, mouse-eaten carpet on the floor with the candle set in the middle. She brought out a baguette and a wedge of Camembert and a bottle of wine, which they passed around.

  The Yank—Perkins—talked almost constantly, while the Welshman chewed in silence, saying no thank you to the offer of wine.

  “You must have a husband somewhere who is worried about you,” Perkins said as she closed her rucksack. She smiled. Already this had become a common question, especially from the men her age.

  “And you must have a wife who is waiting for word,” she said. It was what she always said. A pointed reminder.

  “Nah,” Perkins said. “Not me. A lug like me don’t have girls lining up. And now…”

  She frowned. “Now what?”

  “I know it’s not exactly heroic to think about, but I could walk out of this boarded-up house in this town I can’t fucking pronounce and get shot by some guy I got nothing against. I could die trying to bike across your hills—”

  “Mountains.”

  “I could get shot walking into Spain by the Spanish or the Nazis. Hell, I could probably freeze to death in your damned hills.”

  “Mountains,” she said again, her gaze steady on his. “That’s not going to happen.”

  Ian made a sighing sound. “There, you see, Perkins. This slip of a girl is going to save us.” The Welshman gave her a tired smile. “I’m glad you’re here, miss. This lad’s been sending me ’round the bend with his chatter.”

  “You might as well let him talk, Ian. By this time tomorrow, it’ll take all you have inside to keep breathing.”

  “The hills?” Perkins asked, his eyes wide.

  “Oui,” she said, smiling. “The hills.”

  Americans. They didn’t listen.

  * * *

  In late May, spring brought life and color and warmth back to the Loire Valley. Vianne found peace in her garden. Today, as she pulled weeds and planted vegetables, a caravan of lorries and soldiers and Mercedes-Benzes rolled past Le Jardin. In the five months since the Americans had joined the war, the Nazis had lost all pretense of politeness. They were always busy now, marching and rallying and gathering at the munitions dump. The Gestapo and the SS were everywhere, looking for saboteurs and resisters. It took nothing to be called a terrorist—just a whispered accusation. The roar of aeroplanes overhead was nearly constant, as were bombings.

  How often this spring had someone sidled up to Vianne while she was in a queue for food or walking through town or waiting at the poste and asked her about the latest BBC broadcast?

  I have no radio. They are not allowed was always her response, and it was true. Still, every time she was asked such a question she felt a shiver of fear. They had learned a new word: les collabos. The collaborators. French men and women who did the Nazis’ dirty work, who spied on friends and neighbors and reported back
to the enemy, relaying every infraction, real or imagined. On their word, people had begun to be arrested for little things, and many who were taken to the Kommandant’s office were never seen again.

  “Madame Mauriac!” Sarah ran through the broken gate and into the yard. She looked frail and too thin, her skin so pale the blood vessels showed through. “You need to help my maman.”

  Vianne sat back on her heels and pushed the straw hat back on her head. “What’s wrong? Did she hear from Marc?”

  “I don’t know what’s wrong, Madame. Maman won’t talk. When I told her Ari was hungry and needed changing, she shrugged and said, ‘What does it matter?’ She’s in the backyard, just staring at her sewing.”

  Vianne got to her feet and peeled off her gardening gloves, tucking them into the pocket of her denim overalls. “I’ll check on her. Get Sophie and we’ll all walk over.”

  While Sarah was in the house, Vianne washed her hands and face at the outdoor pump and put away her hat. In its place, she tied a bandana around her head. As soon as the girls were with her, Vianne put her gardening tools in the shed and the three of them headed next door.

  When Vianne opened the door, she found three-year-old Ari asleep on the rug. She scooped him into her arms, kissed his cheek, and turned to the girls. “Why don’t you go play in Sarah’s room?” She lifted the blackout shade, saw Rachel sitting alone in the backyard.

  “Is my maman okay?” Sarah asked.

  Vianne nodded distractedly. “Run along now.” As soon as the girls were in the next room, she took Ari into Rachel’s room and put him in his crib. She didn’t bother covering him, not on a day this warm.

  Outside, Rachel was in her favorite wooden chair, seated beneath the chestnut tree. At her feet was her sewing basket. She wore a brown khaki twill jumpsuit and a paisley turban. She was smoking a small brown hand-rolled cigarette. There was a bottle of brandy beside her and an empty café glass.

  “Rach?”

  “Sarah went for reinforcements, I see.”

  Vianne moved in to stand beside Rachel. She laid a hand on her friend’s shoulder. She could feel Rachel trembling. “Is it Marc?”

  Rachel shook her head.

  “Thank God.”

  Rachel reached sideways for the brandy bottle, pouring herself a glass. She drank deeply, emptied the glass, then set it down. “They have passed a new statute,” she said at last. Slowly, she unfurled her left hand to reveal wrinkled bits of yellow cloth that had been cut into the shape of a star. Written on each one was the word JUIF in black. “We are to wear these,” Rachel said. “We have to stitch them onto our clothes—the three pieces of outerwear we are allowed—and wear them at all times in public. I had to buy them with my ration cards. Maybe I shouldn’t have registered. If we don’t wear them, we’re subject to ‘severe sanctions.’ Whatever that means.”

  Vianne sat down in the chair beside her. “But…”

  “You’ve seen the posters in town, how they show us Jews as vermin to be swept away and money grubbers who want to own everything? I can handle it, but … what about Sarah? She’ll feel so ashamed … it’s hard enough to be eleven without this, Vianne.”

  “Don’t do it.”

  “It is immediate arrest if you are caught not wearing it. And they know about me. I’ve registered. And there’s … Beck. He knows I am Jewish.”

  In the silence that followed, Vianne knew they were both thinking of the arrests that were taking place around Carriveau, of the people who were “disappearing.”

  “You could go to the Free Zone,” Vianne said softly. “It’s only four miles away.”

  “A Jew can’t get an Ausweis, and if I got caught…”

  Vianne nodded. It was true; running was perilous, especially with children. If Rachel were caught crossing the frontier without an Ausweis, she would be arrested. Or executed.

  “I’m afraid,” Rachel said.

  Vianne reached over and held her friend’s hand. They stared at each other. Vianne tried to come up with something to say, a bit of hope to offer, but there was nothing.

  “It’s going to get worse.”

  Vianne was thinking the same thing.

  “Maman?”

  Sarah came into the backyard, holding Sophie’s hand. The girls looked frightened and confused. They knew how wrong things were these days and both had learned a new kind of fear. It broke Vianne’s heart to see how changed these girls had already been by the war. Only three years ago, they’d been ordinary children who laughed and played and defied their mothers for fun. Now they moved forward cautiously, as if bombs could be buried beneath their feet. Both were thin, their puberty held at bay by poor nutrition. Sarah’s dark hair was still long, but she’d begun to yank it out in her sleep so there were balding patches here and there, and Sophie never went anywhere without Bébé. The poor pink stuffed animal was beginning to spew stuffing around the house.

  “Here,” Rachel said. “Come here.”

  The girls shuffled forward, holding hands so tightly they appeared fused together. And in a way they were, as were Rachel and Vianne, joined by a friendship so strong it was maybe all they had left to believe in. Sarah sat in the chair by Rachel, and Sophie finally let her friend go. She came over to stand by Vianne.

  Rachel looked at Vianne. In that single glance, sorrow flowed between them. How could they have to say things like this to their children?

  “These yellow stars,” Rachel said, opening her fist, revealing the ugly little flower of ragged fabric, with its black marking. “We have to wear them on our clothes at all times now.”

  Sarah frowned. “But … why?”

  “We’re Jews,” Rachel said. “And we’re proud of that. You have to remember how proud we are of it, even if people—”

  “Nazis,” Vianne said more sharply than intended.

  “Nazis,” Rachel added, “want to make us feel … bad about it.”

  “Will people make fun of me?” Sarah asked, her eyes widening.

  “I will wear one, too,” Sophie said.

  Sarah looked pathetically hopeful at that.

  Rachel reached out for her daughter’s hand and held it. “No, baby. This is one thing you and your best friend can’t do together.”

  Vianne saw Sarah’s fear and embarrassment and confusion. She was trying her best to be a good girl, to smile and be strong even as tears glazed her eyes. “Oui,” she said at last.

  It was the saddest sound Vianne had heard in nearly three years of sorrow.

  TWENTY-ONE

  When summer came to the Loire Valley, it was as hot as the winter had been cold. Vianne longed to open her bedroom window to let air in, but not a breeze stirred on this hot late June night. She pushed the damp hair from her face and slumped in her chair by the bed.

  Sophie made a whimpering sound. In it, Vianne heard a muddled, drawn-out “Maman,” and she dipped her rag into the bowl of water she’d placed on the only remaining nightstand. The water was as warm as everything else in this upstairs room. She twisted the rag over the bowl, watched the excess water fall back into the bowl. Then she placed the wet rag on her daughter’s forehead.

  Sophie muttered something incomprehensible and started to thrash.

  Vianne held her down, whispering love words in her ear, feeling heat against her lips. “Sophie,” she said, the name a prayer with no beginning, no end. “I’m here.” She said it over and over until Sophie calmed again.

  The fever was getting worse. For days now Sophie had been ailing, feeling achy and out of sorts. At first Vianne had thought it was an excuse to avoid the responsibilities they shared. Gardening, laundry, canning, sewing. Vianne was constantly trying to do more, get more done. Even now, in the middle of the summer, she worried about the coming winter.

  This morning had shown Vianne the truth, however (and made her feel like a terrible mother for not seeing it from the start): Sophie was sick, very sick. She had been plagued by fever all day, and her temperature was rising. She hadn’t been able
to keep anything down, not even the water her body needed so desperately.

  “How about some lemonade?” she said.

  No answer.

  Vianne leaned over and kissed Sophie’s hot cheek.

  Dropping the rag back into the bowl full of water, she went downstairs. On the dining room table, a box waited to be filled—her most recent care package to Antoine. She’d started it yesterday and would have finished and mailed it off if not for Sophie’s turn for the worse.

  She was almost at the kitchen when she heard her daughter’s scream.

  Vianne ran back up the stairs.

  “Maman,” Sophie croaked, coughing. It was a terrible, rattling sound. She thrashed in the bed, yanking at the blankets, trying to shove them away. Vianne tried to calm her daughter, but Sophie was a wildcat, twisting and screaming and coughing.

  If only she had some of Dr. Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne. It worked magic on a cough, but of course there was none left.

  “It’s all right, Soph. Maman is here,” Vianne said soothingly, but her words had no effect.

  Beck appeared beside her. She knew she should have been angry that he was here—here, in her bedroom—but she was too tired and scared to lie to herself. “I don’t know how to help her. There are no aspirin or antibiotics to be had at any price in town.”

  “Not even for pearls?”

  She looked at him in surprise. “You know I sold my maman’s pearls?”

  “I live with you.” He paused. “I make it my business to know what you are doing.”

  She didn’t know what to say to that.

  He looked down at Sophie. “She coughed all night. I could hear it.”

  Sophie had gone still, frighteningly so. “She’ll get better.”

  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small bottle of antibiotics. “Here.”

  She looked up at him. Was she overstating it to think that he was saving her daughter’s life? Or did he want her to think that? She could rationalize what it meant to take food from him—after all, he needed to eat and it was her job to cook for him.

  This was a favor, pure and simple, and there would be a price for it.

  “Take it,” he said gently.

  She took the bottle from him. For a second, they were both holding it. She felt his fingers against hers.

  Their gazes locked, and something passed between them, a question was asked and answered.

  “Thank you,” she said.

  “You are most welcome.”

  * * *

  “Sir, the Nightingale is here.”

  The British consul nodded. “Send her in.”

  Isabelle entered the dark, mahogany-lined office at the end of the elaborate hallway. Before she even reached the desk, the man behind it stood. “Good to see you again.”

  She sank into the uncomfortable leather chair and took the glass of brandy he offered. This latest crossing of the Pyrenees had been difficult, even in the perfect July weather. One of the American airmen had had difficulty following “a girl’s” orders and had gone off on his own. They’d gotten word that he’d been arrested by the Spaniards. “Yanks,” she said, shaking her head. There was no more that needed to be said. She and her contact, Ian—code name Tuesday—had worked together from the beginning of the Nightingale escape route. With help from Paul’s network, they had set up a complex series of safe houses across France and a group of partisans ready to give their lives to help the downed airmen get home. French men and women scanned the skies at night, watching for aeroplanes in trouble and parachutes floating downward. They combed the streets, peering into shadows, looking through barns, seeking Allied soldiers in hiding. Once back in England, the pilots couldn’t fly missions again—not with their knowledge of the network—instead, they prepared their colleagues for the worst: taught them evasion techniques, told them how to find help, and supplied them with franc notes and compasses and photographs ready-made for false papers.

  Isabelle sipped the brandy. Experience had taught her to be cautious with alcohol after the crossing. She was usually more dehydrated than she realized, especially in the heat of summer.

 
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