The nightingale, p.24
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       The Nightingale, p.24
 

           Kristin Hannah

  Ian pushed an envelope toward her. She took it, counted the franc notes inside, and slid the money into a pocket in her coat. “That’s eighty-seven airmen you’ve brought us in the past eight months, Isabelle,” he said, taking his seat. Only in this room, one-on-one, did he use her real name. In all official correspondence with MI9, she was the Nightingale. To the other employees of the consulate and in Britain, she was Juliette Gervaise. “I think you should slow down.”

  “Slow down?”

  “The Germans are looking for the Nightingale, Isabelle.”

  “That’s old news, Ian.”

  “They’re trying to infiltrate your escape route. Nazis are out there, pretending to be downed airmen. If you pick up one of them…”

  “We’re careful, Ian. You know that. I interrogate every man myself. And the network in Paris is tireless.”

  “They’re looking for the Nightingale. If they find you…”

  “They won’t.” She got to her feet.

  He stood, too, and faced her. “Be careful, Isabelle.”

  “Always.”

  He came around the desk and took her by the arm and led her out of the building.

  She took a little time to enjoy the seaside beauty of San Sebastián, to walk along the path above the crashing white surf below and enjoy buildings that didn’t bear swastikas, but such moments of brushing up to ordinary life were a luxury she couldn’t indulge for long. She sent Paul a message via courier that read:

  Dear Uncle,

  I hope this note finds you well.

  I am at our favorite place by the sea.

  Our friends have arrived safely.

  Tomorrow I shall visit Grandmère in Paris at three o’clock.

  Love always,

  Juliette

  She returned to Paris via a circuitous route; she stopped at each of the safe houses—in Carriveau and Brantôme and Pau and Poitiers—and paid her helpers. The feeding and clothing of airmen in hiding was no small undertaking, and since every man, woman, and child (mostly women) who maintained the escape route did so at the risk of their lives, the network strived to make it not ruinous financially, too.

  She never walked through the streets of Carriveau (hidden beneath a cloak and hood) without thinking about her sister. Lately, she had begun to miss Vianne and Sophie. Memories of their nights playing Belote or checkers by the fire, Vianne teaching Isabelle to knit (or trying to), and Sophie’s laughter had taken on a warm patina. She imagined sometimes that Vianne had offered Isabelle a possibility she hadn’t seen at the time: a home.

  But it was too late for that now. Isabelle couldn’t risk putting Vianne in danger by showing up at Le Jardin. Surely Beck would ask what she’d been doing in Paris for so long. Maybe he would wonder enough to check.

  In Paris, she exited the train amid a crowd of drab-eyed, dark-clothed people who looked like they belonged in an Edvard Munch painting. As she passed the glittering gold dome of the Invalides, a light fog moved through the streets, plucking color from the trees. Most of the cafés were closed, their chairs and tables stacked beneath tattered awnings. Across the street was the apartment she’d called home for the past month, a dark, squalid lonely little attic tucked above an abandoned charcuterie. The walls still smelled vaguely of pork and spices.

  She heard someone yell, “Halt!” Whistles shrieked; people screamed. Several Wehrmacht soldiers, accompanied by French policemen, encircled a small group of people, who immediately dropped to their knees and raised their arms. She saw yellow stars on their chests.

  Isabelle slowed.

  Anouk appeared beside her, linking her arm through Isabelle’s. “Bonjour,” she said in a voice so animated it alerted Isabelle to the fact that they were being watched. Or at least Anouk worried that they were.

  “You are like a character in one of those American comics the way you appear and disappear. The Shadow, perhaps.”

  Anouk smiled. “And how was your latest holiday in the mountains?”

  “Unremarkable.”

  Anouk leaned close. “We hear word of something being planned. The Germans are recruiting women for clerical work on Sunday night. Double pay. All very secretive.”

  Isabelle slipped the envelope full of franc notes from her pocket and handed it to Anouk, who dropped it into her open handbag. “Night work? And clerical?”

  “Paul has gotten you a position,” Anouk said. “You start at nine. When you are finished, go to your father’s apartment. He will be waiting for you.”

  “Oui.”

  “It might be dangerous.”

  Isabelle shrugged. “What isn’t?”

  * * *

  That night, Isabelle walked across town to the prefecture of police. There was a hum in the pavement beneath her feet, the sound of vehicles moving somewhere close by. A lot of them.

  “You, there!”

  Isabelle stopped. Smiled.

  A German walked up to her, his rifle at the ready. His gaze dropped to her chest, looking for a yellow star.

  “I am to work tonight,” she said, indicating the prefecture of police building in front of her. Although the windows were blacked out, the place was busy. There were German Wehrmacht officers and French gendarmes milling about, going in and out of the building, which was an oddity at this late hour. In the courtyard was a long row of buses parked end to end. The drivers stood together in a huddle, smoking and talking.

  The policeman cocked his head. “Go.”

  Isabelle clutched the collar of her drab brown coat. Although it was warm out, she didn’t want to draw attention to herself tonight. One of the best ways to disappear in plain sight was to dress like a wren—brown, brown, and more brown. She had covered her blond hair with a black scarf, tied in a turban style with a big knot in front, and had used no cosmetics, not even lipstick.

  She kept her head down as she walked through a throng of men in French police uniforms. Just inside the building, she stopped.

  It was a huge space with staircases on either side and office doors spaced every few feet, but tonight it looked like a sweatshop, with hundreds of women seated at desks pressed close together. Telephones rang nonstop and French police officers moved in a rush.

  “You are here to help with the sorting?” asked a bored French gendarme at the desk nearest the door.

  “Oui.”

  “I’ll find you a place to work. Come with me.” He led her around the perimeter of the room.

  Desks were spaced so closely together that Isabelle had to turn sideways to make her way down the narrow aisle to the empty desk he’d indicated. When she sat down and scooted close, she was elbow-to-elbow with the women on either side of her. The surface of her desk was covered with card boxes.

  She opened the first box and saw the stack of cards within. She pulled out the first one and stared at it.

  STERNHOLZ, ISSAC

  12 avenue Rast

  4th arrondissement

  Sabotier (clog maker)

  It went on to list his wife and children.

  “You are to separate the foreign-born Jews,” said the gendarme, who she hadn’t noticed had followed her.

  “Pardon?” she said, taking out another card. This one was for “Berr, Simone.”

  “That box there. The empty one. Separate the Jews born in France from those born elsewhere. We are only interested in foreign-born Jews. Men, women, and children.”

  “Why?”

  “They’re Jews. Who cares? Now get to work.”

  Isabelle turned back around in her seat. She had hundreds of cards in front of her, and there were at least a hundred women in this room. The sheer scale of this operation was impossible to comprehend. What could it possibly mean?

  “How long have you been here?” she asked the woman beside her.

  “Days,” the woman said, opening another box. “My children weren’t hungry last night for the first time in months.”

  “What are we doing?”

  The woman shrugged. “I’ve heard the
m saying something about Operation Spring Wind.”

  “What does it mean?”

  “I don’t want to know.”

  Isabelle flipped through the cards in the box. One near the end stopped her.

  LÉVY, PAUL

  61 rue Blandine, Apt. C

  7th arrondissement

  Professor of literature

  She got to her feet so fast she bumped into the woman beside her, who cursed at the interruption. The cards on her desk slid to the floor in a cascade. Isabelle immediately knelt down and gathered them up, daring to stick Monsieur Lévy’s card up her sleeve.

  The moment she stood, someone grabbed her by the arm and dragged her down the narrow aisle. She bumped into women all down the row.

  In the empty space by the wall, she was twisted around and shoved back so hard she slammed into the wall.

  “What is the meaning of this?” snarled the French policeman, his grip on her arm tight enough to leave a bruise.

  Could he feel the index card beneath her sleeve?

  “I’m sorry. So sorry. I need to work, but I’m sick, you see. The flu.” She coughed as loudly as she could.

  Isabelle walked past him and left the building. Outside, she kept coughing until she got to the corner. There, she started to run.

  * * *

  “What could it mean?”

  Isabelle peered past the blackout shade in the apartment, staring down at the avenue. Papa sat at the dining room table, nervously drumming his ink-stained fingers on the wood. It felt good to be here again—with him—after months away, but she was too agitated to relax and enjoy the homey feel of the place.

  “You must be mistaken, Isabelle,” Papa said, on his second brandy since her return. “You said there had to be tens of thousands of cards. That would be all the Jewish people in Paris. Surely—”

  “Question what it means, Papa, but not the facts,” she answered. “The Germans are collecting the names and addresses of every foreign-born Jewish person in Paris. Men, women, and children.”

  “But why? Paul Lévy is of Polish descent, it’s true, but he has lived here for decades. He fought for France in the Great War—his brother died for France. The Vichy government has assured us that veterans are protected from the Nazis.”

  “Vianne was asked for a list of names,” Isabelle said. “She was asked to write down every Jewish, communist, and Freemason teacher at her school. Afterward they were all fired.”

  “They can hardly fire them twice.” He finished his drink and poured another. “And it is the French police gathering names. If it were the Germans, it would be different.”

  Isabelle had no answer to that. They had been having this same conversation for at least three hours.

  Now it was edging past two in the morning, and neither of them could come up with a credible reason why the Vichy government and the French police were collecting the names and addresses of every foreign-born Jewish person living in Paris.

  She saw a flash of silver outside. Lifting the shade a little higher, she stared down at the dark street.

  A row of buses rolled down the avenue, their painted headlamps off, looking like a slow-moving centipede that stretched for blocks.

  She had seen buses outside of the prefecture of police, dozens of them parked in the courtyard. “Papa…” Before she could finish, she heard footsteps coming up the stairs outside of the apartment.

  A pamphlet of some kind slid into the apartment through the slit beneath the door.

  Papa left the table and bent to pick it up. He brought it to the table and set it down next to the candle.

  Isabelle stood behind him.

  Papa looked up at her.

  “It’s a warning. It says the police are going to round up all foreign-born Jews and deport them to camps in Germany.”

  “We are talking when we need to be acting,” Isabelle said. “We need to hide our friends in the building.”

  “It’s so little,” Papa said. His hand was shaking. It made her wonder again—sharply—what he’d seen in the Great War, what he knew that she did not.

  “It’s what we can do,” Isabelle said. “We can make some of them safe. At least for tonight. We’ll know more tomorrow.”

  “Safe. And where would that be, Isabelle? If the French police are doing this, we are lost.”

  Isabelle had no answer for that.

  Saying no more, they left the apartment.

  Stealth was difficult in a building as old as this one, and her father, moving in front of her, had never been light on his feet. Brandy made him even more unsteady as he led her down the narrow, twisting staircase to the apartment directly below theirs. He stumbled twice, cursing his imbalance. He knocked on the door.

  He waited to the count of ten and knocked again. Harder this time.

  Very slowly, the door opened, just a crack at first, and then all the way. “Oh, Julien, it is you,” said Ruth Friedman. She was wearing a man’s coat over a floor-length nightgown, with her bare feet sticking out beneath. Her hair was in rollers and covered with a scarf.

  “You’ve seen the pamphlet?”

  “I got one. It is true?” she whispered.

  “I don’t know,” her father said. “There are buses out front and lorries have been rumbling past all night. Isabelle was at the prefecture of police tonight, and they were collecting the names and addresses of all foreign-born Jewish people. We think you should bring the children to our place for now. We have a hiding place.”

  “But … my husband is a prisoner of war. The Vichy government promises us that we will be protected.”

  “I am not sure we can trust the Vichy government, Madame,” Isabelle said to the woman. “Please. Just hide for now.”

  Ruth stood there a moment, her eyes widening. The yellow star on her overcoat was a stark reminder of the way the world had changed. Isabelle saw when the woman decided. She turned on her heel and walked out of the room. Less than a minute later, she guided her two daughters toward the door. “What do we bring?”

  “Nothing,” Isabelle said. She herded the Friedmans up the stairs. When they reached the safety of the apartment, her father led them to the secret room in the back bedroom and closed the door on them.

  “I’ll get the Vizniaks,” Isabelle said. “Don’t put the armoire in place yet.”

  “They’re on the third floor, Isabelle. You’ll never—”

  “Lock the front door behind me. Don’t open it unless you hear my voice.”

  “Isabelle, no—”

  She was already gone, running down the stairs, barely touching the banister in her haste. When she was nearly to the third-floor landing, she heard voices below.

  They were coming up the stairs.

  She was too late. She crouched where she was, hidden by the elevator.

  Two French policemen stepped onto the landing. The younger of the two knocked twice on the Vizniaks’ door, waited a second or two, and then kicked it open. Inside, a woman wailed.

  Isabelle crept closer, listening.

  “… are Madame Vizniak?” the policeman on the left said. “Your husband is Emile and your children, Anton and Hélène?”

  Isabelle peered around the corner.

  Madame Vizniak was a beautiful woman, with skin the color of fresh cream and luxurious hair that never looked as messy as it did now. She was wearing a lacy silk negligee that must have cost a fortune when it was purchased. Her young son and daughter, whom she had pulled in close, were wide-eyed.

  “Pack up your things. Just the necessaries. You are being relocated,” said the older policeman as he flipped through a list of names.

  “But … my husband is in prison near Pithiviers. How will he find us?”

  “After the war, you will come back.”

  “Oh.” Madame Vizniak frowned, ran a hand through her tangled hair.

  “Your children are French-born citizens,” the policeman said. “You may leave them here. They’re not on my list.”

  Isabelle couldn
t remain hidden. She got to her feet and descended the stairs to the landing. “I’ll take them for you, Lily,” she said, trying to sound calm.

  “No!” the children wailed in unison, clinging to their mother.

  The French policemen turned to her. “What is your name?” one of them asked Isabelle.

  She froze. Which name should she give? “Rossignol,” she said at last, although without the corresponding papers, it was a dangerous choice. Still, Gervaise might make them wonder why she was in this building at almost three in the morning, putting her nose in her neighbor’s business.

  The policeman consulted his list and then waved her away. “Go. You are no concern to me tonight.”

  Isabelle looked past them to Lily Vizniak. “I’ll take the children, Madame.”

  Lily seemed not to comprehend. “You think I’ll leave them behind?”

  “I think—”

  “Enough,” the older policeman yelled, thumping his rifle butt on the floor. “You,” he said to Isabelle. “Get out. This doesn’t concern you.”

  “Madame, please,” Isabelle pleaded. “I’ll make sure they are safe.”

  “Safe?” Lily frowned. “But we are safe with the French police. We’ve been assured. And a mother can’t leave her children. Someday you’ll understand.” She turned her attention to her children. “Pack a few things.”

  The French policeman at Isabelle’s side touched her arm gently. When she turned, he said, “Go.” She saw the warning in his eyes but couldn’t tell if he wanted to scare her or protect her. “Now.”

  Isabelle had no choice. If she stayed, if she demanded answers, sooner or later her name would be passed up to the prefecture of police—maybe even to the Germans. With what she and the network were doing with the escape route, and what her father was doing with false papers, she didn’t dare draw attention. Not even for something as slight as demanding to know where a neighbor was being taken.

  Silently, keeping her gaze on the floor (she didn’t trust herself to look at them), she eased past the policemen and headed for the stairs.

  TWENTY-TWO

  After she returned from the Vizniaks’ apartment, Isabelle lit an oil lamp and went into the salon, where she found her father asleep at the dining room table, his head resting on the hard wood as if he’d passed out. Beside him was a half-empty brandy bottle that had been full not long ago. She took the bottle and put it on the sideboard, hoping that out of reach would equal out of mind in the morning.

 
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