The nightingale, p.28
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       The Nightingale, p.28
 

           Kristin Hannah

  breath on her cheek. “You are a most amazing cook, Madame.”

  “Merci,” she said in a tight voice.

  He stepped back. “I regret I cannot stay for supper, Madame. I must away.”

  Vianne tore her gaze away from him and smiled at Sophie. “Set the table for three,” she said.

  * * *

  Later, while supper simmered on the stove, Vianne gathered the children together on their bed. “Sophie, Ari, come here. I need to speak with you.”

  “What is it, Maman?” Sophie asked, looking worried already.

  “They are deporting French-born Jews.” She paused. “Children, too.”

  Sophie drew in a sharp breath and looked at three-year-old Ari, who bounced happily on the bed. He was too young to learn a new identity. She could tell him his name was Daniel Mauriac from now until forever and he wouldn’t understand why. If he believed in his mother’s return, and waited for that, sooner or later he would make a mistake that would get him deported, maybe one that would get them all killed. She couldn’t risk that. She would have to break his heart to protect them all.

  Forgive me, Rachel.

  She and Sophie exchanged a pained look. They both knew what had to be done, but how could one mother do this to another woman’s child?

  “Ari,” she said quietly, taking his face in her hands. “Your maman is with the angels in Heaven. She won’t be coming back.”

  He stopped bouncing. “What?”

  “She’s gone forever,” Vianne said again, feeling her own tears rise and fall. She would say it over and over until he believed it. “I am your maman now. And you will be called Daniel.”

  He frowned, chewing noisily on the inside of his mouth, splaying his fingers as if he were counting. “You said she was coming back.”

  Vianne hated to say it. “She’s not. She’s gone. Like the sick baby rabbit we lost last month, remember?” They had buried it in the yard with great ceremony.

  “Gone like the bunny?” Tears filled his brown eyes, spilled over. His mouth trembled. Vianne took him in her arms and held him and rubbed his back. But she couldn’t soothe him enough, nor could she let him go. At last, she eased back enough to look at him. “Do you understand … Daniel?”

  “You’ll be my brother,” Sophie said, her voice unsteady. “Truly.”

  Vianne felt her heart break, but she knew there was no other way to keep Rachel’s son safe. She prayed that he was young enough to forget he was ever Ari, and the sadness of that prayer was overwhelming. “Say it,” she said evenly. “Tell me your name.”

  “Daniel,” he said, obviously confused, trying to please.

  Vianne made him say it a dozen times that night, while they ate their supper of sausage and potatoes and later, when they washed the dishes and dressed for bed. She prayed that this ruse would be enough to save him, that his papers would pass inspection. Never again would she call him Ari or even think of him as Ari. Tomorrow, she would cut his hair as short as possible. Then she would go to town and tell everyone (that gossip Hélène Ruelle would be first) of the child she’d adopted from a dead cousin in Nice.

  God help them all.

  TWENTY-FIVE

  Isabelle crept through the empty streets of Carriveau dressed in black, her golden hair covered. It was after curfew. A meager moon occasionally cast light on the uneven cobblestones; more often, it was obscured by clouds.

  She listened for footsteps and lorry motors and froze when she heard either. At the end of town, she climbed over a rose-covered wall, heedless of the thorns, and dropped into a wet, black field of hay. She was halfway to the rendezvous point when three aeroplanes roared overhead, so low in the sky the trees shivered and the ground shook. Machine guns fired at one another, bursts of sound and light.

  The smaller aeroplane banked and swerved. She saw the insignia of America on the underside of its wing as it banked left and climbed. Moments later, she heard the whistling of a bomb—the inhuman, piercing wail—and then something exploded.

  The airfield. They were bombing it.

  The aeroplanes roared overhead again. There was another round of gunfire and the American aeroplane was hit. Smoke roiled out. A screaming sound filled the night; the aeroplane plummeted toward the ground, twirled, its wings catching the moonlight, reflecting it.

  It crashed hard enough to rattle Isabelle’s bones and shake the ground beneath her feet; steel hitting dirt, rivets popping from metal, roots being torn up. The broken aeroplane skidded through the forest, breaking trees as if they were matchsticks. The smell of smoke was overwhelming, and then in a giant whoosh, the aeroplane burst into flames.

  In the sky, a parachute appeared, swinging back and forth, the man suspended beneath it looking as small as a comma.

  Isabelle cut through the swath of burning trees. Smoke stung her eyes.

  Where was he?

  A glimpse of white caught her eye and she ran toward it.

  The limp parachute lay across the scrubby ground, the airman attached to it.

  Isabelle heard the sound of voices—they weren’t far away—and the crunching of footsteps. She hoped to God it was her colleagues, coming for the meeting, but there was no way to know. The Nazis would be busy at the airfield, but not for long.

  She skidded to her knees, unhooked the airman’s parachute, gathered it up, and ran with it as far as she dared, burying it as best she could beneath a pile of dead leaves. Then she ran back to the pilot and grabbed him by the wrists and dragged him deeper into the woods.

  “You’ll have to stay quiet. Do you understand me? I’ll come back, but you need to lie still and be quiet.”

  “You … betcha,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.

  Isabelle covered him with leaves and branches, but when she stood back, she saw her footprints in the mud, each one oozing with black water now, and the rutted drag marks she’d made hauling him over here. Black smoke rolled past her, engulfed her. The fire was getting closer, burning brighter. “Merde,” she muttered.

  There were voices. People yelling.

  She tried to rub her hands clean but the mud just smeared and smeared, marking her.

  Three shapes came out of the woods, moving toward her.

  “Isabelle,” a man said. “Is that you?”

  A torchlight flicked on, revealing Henri and Didier. And Gaëtan.

  “You found the pilot?” Henri asked.

  Isabelle nodded. “He’s wounded.”

  Dogs barked in the distance. The Nazis were coming.

  Didier glanced behind them. “We haven’t much time.”

  “We’ll never make it to town,” Henri said.

  Isabelle made a split-second decision. “I know somewhere close we can hide him.”

  * * *

  “This is not a good idea,” Gaëtan said.

  “Hurry,” Isabelle said harshly. They were in the barn at Le Jardin now, with the door shut behind them. The airman lay slumped on the dirty floor, unconscious, his blood smearing across Didier’s coat and gloves. “Push the car forward.”

  Henri and Didier pushed the Renault forward and then lifted the cellar door. It creaked in protest and fell forward and banged into the car’s fender.

  Isabelle lit an oil lamp and held it in one hand as she felt her way down the wobbly ladder. Some of the provisions she’d left had been used.

  She lifted the lamp. “Bring him down.”

  The men exchanged a worried look.

  “I don’t know about this,” Henri said.

  “What choice do we have?” Isabelle snapped. “Now bring him down.”

  Gaëtan and Henri carried the unconscious airman down into the dark, dank cellar and laid him on the mattress, which made a rustling, whispery sound beneath his weight.

  Henri gave her a worried look. Then he climbed out of the cellar and stood above them. “Come on, Gaëtan.”

  Gaëtan looked at Isabelle. “We’ll have to move the car back into place. You won’t be able to get out of here until w
e come for you. If something happened to us, no one would know you were here.” She could tell he wanted to touch her, and she ached for it. But they stood where they were, their arms at their sides. “The Nazis will be relentless in their search for this airman. If you’re caught…”

  She tilted her chin, trying to hide how scared she was. “Don’t let me be caught.”

  “You think I don’t want to keep you safe?”

  “I know you do,” she said quietly.

  Before he could answer, Henri said, “Come on, Gaëtan,” from above. “We need to find a doctor and figure out how to get them out of here tomorrow.”

  Gaëtan stepped back. The whole world seemed to lie in that small space between them. “When we come back, we’ll knock three times and whistle, so don’t shoot us.”

  “I’ll try not to,” she said.

  He paused. “Isabelle…”

  She waited, but he had no more to say, just her name, spoken with the kind of regret that had become common. With a sigh, he turned and climbed up the ladder.

  Moments later, the trapdoor banged shut. She heard the boards overhead groan as the Renault was rolled back into place.

  And then, silence.

  Isabelle started to panic. It was the locked bedroom again; Madame Doom slamming the door, clicking the lock, telling her to shut up and quit asking for things.

  She couldn’t get out of here, not even in an emergency.

  Stop it. Be calm. You know what needs to be done. She went over to the shelving, pushed her father’s shotgun aside, and retrieved the box of medical supplies. A quick inventory revealed scissors, a needle and thread, alcohol, bandages, chloroform, Benzedrine tablets, and adhesive tape.

  She knelt beside the airman and set the lamp down on the floor beside her. Blood soaked the chest of his flight suit, and it took great effort to peel the fabric away. When she did, she saw the giant, gaping hole in his chest and knew there was nothing she could do.

  She sat beside him, holding his hand until he took one last, troubled breath; then his breathing stopped. His mouth slowly gaped open.

  She gently eased the dog tags from around his neck. They would need to be hidden. She looked down at them. “Lieutenant Keith Johnson,” she said.

  Isabelle blew out the lamp and sat in the dark with a dead man.

  * * *

  The next morning, Vianne dressed in denim overalls and a flannel shirt of Antoine’s that she had cut down to fit her. She was so thin these days that still the shirt overwhelmed her slim frame. She would have to take it in again. Her latest care package to Antoine sat on the kitchen counter, ready to be mailed.

  Sophie had had a restless night, so Vianne let her sleep. She went downstairs to make coffee and almost ran into Captain Beck, who was pacing the living room. “Oh. Herr Captain. I am sorry.”

  He seemed not to hear her. She had never seen him look so agitated. His usually pomaded hair was untended; a lock kept falling in his face and he cursed repeatedly as he brushed it away. He was wearing his gun, which he never did in the house.

  He strode past her, his hands fisted at his sides. Anger contorted his handsome face, made him almost unrecognizable. “An aeroplane went down near here last night,” he said, facing her at last. “An American aeroplane. The one they call a Mustang.”

  “I thought you wanted their aeroplanes to go down. Isn’t that why you shoot at them?”

  “We searched all night and didn’t find a pilot. Someone is hiding him.”

  “Hiding him? Oh, I doubt that. Most likely he died.”

  “Then there would be a body, Madame. We found a parachute but no body.”

  “But who would be so foolish?” Vianne said. “Don’t you … execute people for that?”

  “Swiftly.”

  Vianne had never heard him speak in such a way. It made her draw back, and remember the whip he’d held on the day Rachel and the others were deported.

  “Forgive my manner, Madame. But we have shown you all our best behaviors, and this is what we get from many of you French. Lies and betrayal and sabotage.”

  Vianne’s mouth dropped open in shock.

  He looked at her, saw how she was staring at him, and he tried to smile. “Forgive me again. I don’t mean you, of course. The Kommandant is blaming me for this failure to find the airman. I am charged with doing better today.” He went to the front door, opened it. “If I do not…”

  Through the open door, she saw a glimpse of gray-green in her yard. Soldiers. “Good day, Madame.”

  Vianne followed him as far as the front step.

  “Lock and close all the doors, Madame. This pilot may be desperate. You wouldn’t want him to break into your home.”

  Vianne nodded numbly.

  Beck joined his entourage of soldiers and took the lead. Their dogs barked loudly, strained forward, sniffing at the ground along the base of the broken wall.

  Vianne glanced up the hill and saw that the barn door was partially open. “Herr Captain!” she called out.

  The captain stopped; so did his men. The snarling dogs strained at their leashes.

  And then she thought of Rachel. This is where Rachel would come if she’d escaped.

  “N-nothing, Herr Captain,” Vianne called out.

  He nodded brusquely and led his men up the road.

  Vianne slipped into the boots by the door. As soon as the soldiers were out of sight, she hurried up the hill toward the barn. In her haste, she slipped twice in the wet grass and nearly fell. Righting herself at the last minute, she took a deep breath and opened the barn door all the way.

  She noticed right away that the car had been moved.

  “I’m coming, Rachel!” she said. She put the car in neutral and rolled it forward until the cellar door was revealed. Squatting down, she felt for the flat metal handle and lifted the hatch door. When it was high, she let it bang against the car fender.

  She got a lantern, lit it, and peered down into the dark cellar. “Rach?”

  “Go away, Vianne. NOW.”

  “Isabelle?” Vianne descended the ladder, saying, “Isabelle, what are—” She dropped to the ground and turned, the lantern in her hand swinging light.

  Her smile faded. Isabelle’s dress was covered in blood, her blond hair was a mess—full of leaves and twigs—and her face was so scratched it looked like she’d gone running in a blackberry patch.

  But that wasn’t the worst of it.

  “The pilot,” Vianne whispered, staring at the man lying on the misshapen mattress. It scared her so much she backed into the shelving. Something clanged to the ground and rolled. “The one they’re looking for.”

  “You shouldn’t have come down here.”

  “I am the one who shouldn’t be here? You fool. Do you know what they’ll do to us if they find him here? How could you bring this danger to my house?”

  “I’m sorry. Just close the cellar door and put the car back in place. Tomorrow when you wake up, we’ll be gone.”

  “You’re sorry,” Vianne said. Anger swept through her. How dare her sister do this thing, put Sophie and her at risk? And now there was Ari here, who still didn’t understand that he needed to be Daniel. “You’ll get us all killed.” Vianne backed away, reached for the ladder. She had to put as much distance as she could between herself and this airman … and her reckless, selfish sister. “Be gone by tomorrow morning, Isabelle. And don’t come back.”

  Isabelle had the nerve to look wounded. “But—”

  “Don’t,” Vianne snapped. “I’m done making excuses for you. I was mean to you as a girl, Maman died, Papa is a drunk, Madame Dumas treated you badly. All of it is the truth, and I have longed to be a better sister to you, but that stops here. You are as thoughtless and reckless as always, only now you will get people killed. I can’t let you endanger Sophie. Do not come back. You are not welcome here. If you return, I will turn you in myself.” On that, Vianne clambered up the ladder and slammed the cellar door shut behind her.

  * * *<
br />
  Vianne had to keep busy or she would fall into a full-blown panic. She woke the children and fed them a light breakfast and got started on her chores.

  After harvesting the last of the autumn’s vegetables, she pickled cucumbers and zucchini and canned some pumpkin puree. All the while, she was thinking about Isabelle and the airman in the barn.

  What should be done? The question haunted her all day, reasserting itself constantly. Every choice was dangerous. Obviously she should just keep quiet about the airman in the barn. Silence was always safest.

  But what if Beck and the Gestapo and the SS and their dogs went into the barn on their own? If Beck found the airman in a barn on the property where he was billeted, the Kommandant would not be pleased. Beck would be humiliated.

  The Kommandant is blaming me for this failure to find the airman.

  Humiliated men could be dangerous.

  Maybe she should tell Beck. He was a good man. He had tried to save Rachel. He had gotten Ari papers. He mailed Vianne’s care packages to her husband.

  Perhaps Beck could be convinced to take the airman and leave Isabelle out of it. The airman would be sent to a prisoner of war camp; that was not so bad.

  She was still grappling with these questions long after supper had ended and she’d put the children to bed. She didn’t even try to go to sleep. How could she sleep with her family at such risk? The thought of that made her anger with Isabelle swell again. At ten o’clock, she heard footsteps out front and a sharp rap-rap on the door.

  She put down her darning and got to her feet. Smoothing the hair back from her face, she went to the door and opened it. Her hands were trembling so badly she fisted them at her sides. “Herr Captain,” she said. “You are late. Shall I make you something to eat?”

  He muttered, “No, thank you,” and pushed past her, rougher than he’d ever been before. He went into his room and came back with a bottle of brandy. Pouring himself a huge draught in a chipped café glass, he downed the liquid and poured himself another.

  “Herr Captain?”

  “We didn’t find the pilot,” he said, downing the second drink, pouring a third.

  “Oh.”

  “These Gestapo.” He looked at her. “They’ll kill me,” he said quietly.

  “No, surely.”

  “They do not like to be disappointed.” He drank the third glass of brandy and slammed the glass down on the table, almost breaking it.

  “I have looked everywhere,” he said. “Every nook and cranny of this godforsaken town. I’ve looked in cellars and basements and chicken pens. In thickets of thorns and under piles of garbage. And what do I have to show for my efforts? A parachute with blood on it and no pilot.”

  “S-surely you haven’t looked everywhere,” she said to console him. “Shall I get you something to eat? I saved you some supper.”

  He stopped suddenly. She saw his gaze narrow, heard him say, “It is not possible, but…” He grabbed a torchlight and strode to the closet in the kitchen and yanked the door open.

  “What are you d-doing?”

  “I am searching your house.”

  “Surely you don’t think…”

  She stood there, her heart thumping as he searched from room to room and yanked the coats out of the closet and pulled the divan away from the wall.

  “Are you satisfied?”

 
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