The nightingale, p.27
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       The Nightingale, p.27
 

           Kristin Hannah

  Vianne stopped dead. She remembered seeing him on the platform with a whip in his hand; a whip he cracked to herd women and children onto a cattle car. “Oui,” she said. “What about Captain Beck?”

  * * *

  Vianne washed her blood-soaked clothes and hung them to dry in the backyard, trying not to notice how red the soapy water was when she splashed it across the grass. She made Sophie and Ari supper (What had she made? She couldn’t remember.) and put them to bed, but once the house was quiet and dark, she couldn’t suppress her emotions. She was angry—howlingly so—and devastated.

  She couldn’t stand how dark and ugly her thoughts were, how bottomless her anger and grief. She ripped the pretty lace from her collar and stumbled outside, remembering when Rachel had given her this blouse. Three years ago.

  It’s what everyone’s wearing in Paris.

  The apple trees spread their arms above her. It took her two tries to tie the scrap of fabric to the knobby wooden branch between Antoine’s and Sarah’s, and when she’d done it, she stepped back.

  Sarah.

  Rachel.

  Antoine.

  The scraps of color blurred; that was when she realized she was crying.

  “Please God,” she began to pray, looking up at the bits of fabric and lace and yarn, tied around the knobby branch, interspersed with unripe apples. What good were prayers now, when her loved ones were gone?

  She heard a motorcycle come up the road and park outside Le Jardin.

  Moments later: “Madame?”

  She spun to face him. “Where’s your whip, Herr Captain?”

  “You were there?”

  “How does it feel to whip a Frenchwoman?”

  “You can’t think I would do that, Madame. It sickens me.”

  “And yet there you were.”

  “As were you. This war has put us all where we do not want to be.”

  “Less so for you Germans.”

  “I tried to help her,” he said.

  At that, Vianne felt the rage go out of her; her grief returned. He had tried to save Rachel. If only they had listened to him and kept her hidden longer. She swayed. Beck reached out and steadied her.

  “You said to hide her in the morning. She was in that terrible cellar all day. By afternoon, I thought … everything seemed normal.”

  “Von Richter adjusted the timetable. There was a problem with the trains.”

  The trains.

  Rachel waving good-bye.

  Vianne looked up at him. “Where are they taking her?”

  It was the first substantive question she’d ever asked him.

  “To a work camp in Germany.”

  “I hid her all day,” Vianne said again, as if it mattered now.

  “The Wehrmacht aren’t in control anymore. It’s the Gestapo and the SS. They’re more … brutes than soldiers.”

  “Why were you there?”

  “I was following orders. Where are her children?”

  “Your Germans shot Sarah in the back at the frontier checkpoint.”

  “Mein Gott,” he muttered.

  “I have her son. Why wasn’t Ari on the list?”

  “He was born in France and is under fourteen. They are not deporting French Jews.” He looked at her. “Yet.”

  Vianne caught her breath. “Will they come for Ari?”

  “I believe that soon they will deport all Jews, regardless of age or place of birth. And when they do, it will become dangerous to have any Jew in your home.”

  “Children, deported. Alone.” The horror of it was unbelievable, even after what she’d already seen. “I promised Rachel I’d keep him safe. Will you turn me in?” she asked.

  “I am not a monster, Vianne.”

  It was the first time he’d ever used her Christian name.

  He moved closer. “I want to protect you,” he said.

  It was the worst thing he could have said. She had felt lonely for years, but now she truly was alone.

  He touched her upper arm, almost a caress, and she felt it in every part of her body, like an electrical charge. Unable to help herself, she looked at him.

  He was close to her, just a kiss away. All she had to do was give him the slightest encouragement—a breath, a nod, a touch—and he would close the gap between them. For a moment, she forgot who she was and what had happened today; she longed to be soothed, to forget. She leaned the smallest bit forward, enough to smell his breath, feel it on her lips, and then she remembered—all at once, in a whoosh of anger—and she pushed him away so he stumbled.

  She scrubbed her lips, as if they’d touched his.

  “We can’t,” she said.

  “Of course not.”

  But when he looked at her—and she looked at him—they both knew that there was something worse than kissing the wrong person.

  It was wanting to.

  TWENTY-FOUR

  Summer ended. Hot golden days gave way to washed-out skies and falling rain. Isabelle was so focused on the escape route that she hardly noticed the change in weather.

  On a chilly October afternoon, she stepped out of the train carriage in a crowd of passengers, holding a bouquet of autumn flowers.

  As she walked up the boulevard, German motorcars clogged the street, honking loudly. Soldiers strode confidently among the cowed, drab Parisians. Swastika flags flapped in the wintry wind. She hurried down the Métro steps.

  The tunnel was crowded with people and papered in Nazi propaganda that demonized the Brits and Jews and made the Führer the answer to every question.

  Suddenly, the air raid sirens howled. The electricity snapped off, plunging everyone into darkness. She heard people muttering and babies crying and old men coughing. From far away, she could hear the thump and grumble of explosions. It was probably Boulogne-Billancourt—again—and why not? Renault was making lorries for the Germans.

  When the all clear finally sounded, no one moved until moments later, when the electricity and lights came back on.

  Isabelle was almost to the train when a whistle blared.

  She froze. Nazi soldiers, accompanied by French collaborators, moved through the tunnel, talking to one another, pointing at people, pulling them out to the perimeter, forcing them to their knees.

  A rifle appeared in front of her.

  “Papers,” the German said.

  Isabelle clutched the flowers in one hand and fumbled nervously with her purse with the other. She had a message for Anouk wrapped within the bouquet. It was not unexpected, of course, this search. Since the Allied successes in North Africa had begun, the Germans stopped people constantly, demanding papers. In the streets, the shops, the train stations, the churches. There was no safety anywhere. She handed over her false carte d’identité. “I am meeting a friend of my mother’s for lunch.”

  The Frenchman sidled up to the German and perused the papers. He shook his head and the German handed Isabelle her papers and said, “Go.”

  Isabelle smiled quickly, nodded a thank-you, and hurried for the train, slipping into an open carriage just as the doors slid shut.

  By the time she exited in the sixteenth arrondissement, her calm had returned. A wet fog clung to the streets, obscuring the buildings and the barges moving slowly on the Seine. Sounds were amplified by the haze, turned strange. Somewhere, a ball was bouncing (probably boys playing in the street). One of the barges honked its horn and the noise lingered.

  At the avenue, she turned the corner and went to a bistro—one of the few with its lights on. A nasty wind ruffled the awning. She passed the empty tables and went to the outside counter, where she ordered a café au lait (without coffee or milk, of course).

  “Juliette? Is that you?”

  Isabelle saw Anouk and smiled. “Gabrielle. How lovely to see you.” Isabelle handed Anouk the flowers.

  Anouk ordered a coffee. While they stood there, sipping coffee in the icy weather, Anouk said, “I spoke with my uncle Henri yesterday. He misses you.”

  “Is he un
well?”

  “No. No. Quite the opposite. He is planning a party for next Tuesday night. He asked me to extend an invitation.”

  “Shall I take him a gift for you?”

  “No, but a letter would be nice. Here, I have it ready for you.”

  Isabelle took the letter and slipped it into the lining of her purse.

  Anouk looked at her. Smoky shadows circled her eyes. New lines had begun to crease her cheeks and brow. This life in the shadows had begun to take a toll on her.

  “Are you all right, my friend?” Isabelle asked.

  Anouk’s smile was tired but true. “Oui.” She paused. “I saw Gaëtan last night. He will be at the meeting in Carriveau.”

  “Why tell me?”

  “Isabelle, you are the most transparent person I have ever met. Every thought and feeling you have reveals itself in your eyes. Are you unaware how often you have mentioned him to me?”

  “Really? I thought I had hidden it.”

  “It’s nice, actually. It reminds me of what we are fighting for. Simple things: a girl and a boy and their future.” She kissed Isabelle’s cheeks. Then she whispered, “He mentions you as well.”

  * * *

  Luckily for Isabelle, it was raining in Carriveau on this late October day.

  No one paid attention to people in weather like this, not even the Germans. She flipped her hood up and held her coat shut at her throat; even so, rain pelted her face and slid in cold streaks down her neck as she hauled her bicycle off the train and walked it across the platform.

  On the outskirts of town, she climbed aboard. Choosing a lesser-used alley, she pedaled into Carriveau, bypassing the square. On a rainy autumn day like this, there were few people out and about; only women and children standing in food queues, their coats and hats dripping rainwater. The Germans were mostly inside.

  By the time she reached the Hôtel Bellevue, she was exhausted. She dismounted, locked her bicycle to a streetlamp, and went inside.

  A bell jangled overhead, announcing her arrival to the German soldiers who were seated in the lobby, drinking their afternoon coffees.

  “M’mselle,” one of the officers said, reaching for a flaky, golden pain au chocolat. “You are soaking wet.”

  “These French do not know enough to get out of the rain.”

  They laughed at that.

  She kept smiling and walked past them. At the hotel’s front desk, she rang the bell.

  Henri came out of the back room, holding a tray of coffees. He saw her and nodded.

  “One moment, Madame,” Henri said, gliding past her, carrying the tray to a table where two SS agents sat like spiders in their black uniforms.

  When Henri returned to the front desk, he said, “Madame Gervaise, welcome back. It is good to see you again. Your room is ready, of course. If you’ll follow me…”

  She nodded and followed Henri down the narrow hallway and up the stairs to the second floor. There, he pressed a skeleton key into a lock, gave it a twist, and opened the door to reveal a small bedroom with a single bed, a nightstand, and a lamp. He led her inside, kicked the door shut with his foot, and took her in his arms.

  “Isabelle,” he said, pulling her close. “It is good to see you.” He released her and stepped back. “With Romainville … I worried.”

  Isabelle lowered her wet hood. “Oui.” In the past two months, the Nazis had cracked down on what they called saboteurs and resisters. They had finally begun to see the role women were playing in this war and had imprisoned more than two hundred French women in Romainville.

  She unbuttoned her coat and draped it over the end of the bed. Reaching into the lining, she pulled out an envelope and handed it to Henri. “Here you go,” she said, giving him money that had come from MI9. His hotel was one of the key safe houses their group maintained. Isabelle loved that they housed Brits and Yanks and resisters right under the Nazis’ noses. Tonight she would be a guest in this smallest of rooms.

  She pulled out a chair from behind a scarred writing desk and sat down. “The meeting is set for tonight?”

  “Eleven P.M. In the abandoned barn on the Angeler farm.”

  “What’s it about?”

  “I’m not in the know.” He sat down on the end of the bed. She could tell by the look on his face that he was going to get serious and she groaned.

  “I hear the Nazis are desperate to find the Nightingale. Word is that they’re trying to infiltrate the escape route.”

  “I know this, Henri.” She lifted one eyebrow. “I hope you are not going to tell me that it’s dangerous.”

  “You are going too often, Isabelle. How many trips have you made?”

  “Twenty-four.”

  Henri shook his head. “No wonder they are desperate to find you. We hear word of another escape route, running through Marseille and Perpignan, that is having success, too. There is going to be trouble, Isabelle.”

  She was surprised by how much his concern moved her and how nice it was to hear her own name. It felt good to be Isabelle Rossignol again, even if only for a few moments, and to sit with someone who knew her. So much of her life was spent hiding and on the run, in safe houses with strangers.

  Still, she saw no reason to talk about this. The escape route was invaluable and worth the risk they were taking. “You are keeping an eye on my sister, oui?”

  “Oui.”

  “The Nazi still billets there?”

  Henri’s gaze slid away from hers.

  “What is it?”

  “Vianne was fired from her teaching post some time ago.”

  “Why? Her students love her. She’s an excellent teacher.”

  “The rumor is that she questioned a Gestapo officer.”

  “That doesn’t sound like Vianne. So she has no income. What is she living on?”

  Henri looked uncomfortable. “There is gossip.”

  “Gossip?”

  “About her and the Nazi.”

  * * *

  All summer long, Vianne hid Rachel’s son in Le Jardin. She made sure never to venture out with him, not even to garden. Without papers, she couldn’t pretend he was anyone other than Ariel de Champlain. She had to let Sophie stay at home with the child, and so each journey to town was a nerve-wracking event that couldn’t be over soon enough. She told everyone she could think of—shopkeepers, nuns, villagers—that Rachel had been deported with both her children.

  It was all she could think of to do.

  Today, after a long, slogging day standing in line only to be told there was nothing left, Vianne left town feeling defeated. There were rumors of more deportations, more roundups, happening all over France. Thousands of French Jews were being held at internment camps.

  At home, she hung her wet cloak on an exterior hook by the front door. She had no real hope that it would dry out before tomorrow, but at least it wouldn’t drip all over her floor. She stepped out of her muddy rubber boots by the door and went into the house. As usual, Sophie was standing by the door, waiting for her.

  “I’m fine,” Vianne said.

  Sophie nodded solemnly. “So are we.”

  “Will you give Ari a bath while I make supper?”

  Sophie scooped Ari into her arms and left the room.

  Vianne uncoiled the scarf from her hair and hung it up. Then she set her basket in the sink to dry out and went down to the pantry, where she chose a sausage and some undersized, softening potatoes and onions.

  Back in the kitchen, she lit the stove and preheated her black cast-iron skillet. Adding a drop of the precious oil, she browned the sausage.

  Vianne stared down at the meat, breaking it up with her wooden spoon, watching it turn from pink to gray to a nice, crusty brown. When it was crispy, she added cubed potatoes and diced onions and garlic. The garlic popped and browned and released its scent into the air.

  “That smells delicious.”

  “Herr Captain,” she said quietly. “I didn’t hear your motorcycle.”

  “M’mselle Soph
ie let me in.”

  She turned down the flame on the stove and covered the pan, then faced him. By tacit agreement, they both pretended that the night in the orchard had never happened. Neither had mentioned it, and yet it was in the air between them always.

  Things had changed that night, subtly. He ate supper with them most nights now; mostly food that he brought home—never large amounts, just a ham slice or a bag of flour or a few sausages. He spoke openly of his wife and children, and she talked about Antoine. All their words were designed to reinforce a wall that had already been breached. He repeatedly offered—most kindly—to mail Vianne’s care packages to Antoine, which she filled with whatever small items she could spare—old winter gloves that were too big, cigarettes Beck left behind, a precious jar of jam.

  Vianne made sure never to be alone with Beck. That was the biggest change. She didn’t go out to the backyard at night or stay up after Sophie went to bed. She didn’t trust herself to be alone with him.

  “I have brought you a gift,” he said.

  He held out a set of papers. A birth certificate for a baby born in June of 1939 to Etienne and Aimée Mauriac. A boy named Daniel Antoine Mauriac.

  Vianne looked at Beck. Had she told him that she and Antoine had wanted to name a son Daniel? She must have, although she didn’t remember it.

  “It is unsafe to house Jewish children now. Or it will be very soon.”

  “You have taken such a risk for him. For us,” she said.

  “For you,” he said quietly. “And they are false papers, Madame. Remember that. To go along with the story that you adopted him from a relative.”

  “I will never tell them they came from you.”

  “It is not myself I worry about, Madame. Ari must become Daniel immediately. Completely. And you must be extremely careful. The Gestapo and the SS are … brutes. The Allied victories in Africa are hitting us hard. And this final solution for the Jews … it is an evil impossible to comprehend. I…” He paused, gazed down at her. “I want to protect you.”

  “You have,” she said, looking up at him.

  He started to move toward her, and she to him, even as she knew it was a mistake.

  Sophie came running into the kitchen. “Ari is hungry, Maman. He keeps complaining.”

  Beck came to a stop. Reaching past her—brushing her arm with his hand—he picked up a fork on the counter. Taking it, he speared one perfect bite of sausage, a crispy brown cube of potato, a chunk of carmelized onion.

  As he ate it, he stared down at her. He was so close now she could feel his
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