The nightingale, p.29
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       The Nightingale, p.29
 

           Kristin Hannah

  “Satisfied, Madame? We lost fourteen pilots this week, and God knows how many aeroplane crew. A Mercedes-Benz factory was blown up two days ago and all the workers were killed. My uncle works in that building. Worked, I suppose.”

  “I’m sorry,” she said.

  Vianne drew in a deep breath, thinking it was over, and then she saw that he was going outside.

  Did she make a sound? She was afraid that she did. She surged after him, wanting to grab his sleeve, but she was too late. He was outside now, following the beam of his torchlight, the kitchen door standing open behind him.

  She ran after him.

  He was at the dovecote, yanking the door open.

  “Herr Captain.” She slowed, tried to calm her breathing as she rubbed her damp palms down her pant legs. “You will not find anything or anyone here, Herr Captain. You must know that.”

  “Are you a liar, Madame?” He was not angry. He was afraid.

  “No. You know I am not. Wolfgang,” she said, using his Christian name for the first time. “Surely your superiors will not blame you.”

  “This is the problem with you French,” he said. “You fail to see the truth when it sits down beside you.” He pushed past her and walked up the hill, toward the barn.

  He would find Isabelle and the airman …

  And if he did?

  Prison for all of them. Maybe worse.

  He would never believe that she didn’t know about it. She had already shown too much to go back to innocence. And it was too late now to rely on his honor in saving Isabelle. Vianne had lied to him.

  He opened the barn door and stood there, his hands on his hips, looking around. He put down his torchlight and lit an oil lamp. Setting it down, he checked every inch of the barn, each stall and the hayloft.

  “Y-you see?” Vianne said. “Now come back to the house. Perhaps you’d like another brandy.”

  He looked down. There were faint tire tracks in the dust. “You said once that Madame de Champlain hid in a cellar.”

  No. Vianne meant to say something, but when she opened her mouth, nothing came out.

  He opened the Renault’s door, put the car in neutral, and pushed it forward, rolling it far enough to reveal the cellar door.

  “Captain, please…”

  He bent down in front of her. His fingers moved along the floor, searching the creases for the edges of the hatch.

  If he opened that door, it was over. He would shoot Isabelle, or take her into custody and send her to prison. And Vianne and the children would be arrested. There would be no talking to him, no convincing him.

  Beck unholstered his gun, cocked it.

  Vianne looked desperately for a weapon, saw a shovel leaned against the wall.

  He lifted the hatch and yelled something. As the door banged open, he stood up, taking aim. Vianne grabbed the shovel and swung it at him with all of her strength. The metal scoop made a sickening thunk as it hit him in the back of the head and sliced deeply into his skull. Blood spurted down the back of his uniform.

  At the same time, two shots rang out; one from Beck’s gun and one from the cellar.

  Beck staggered sideways and turned. There was a hole the size of an onion in his chest, spurting blood. A flap of hair and scalp hung over one eye. “Madame,” he said, crumpling to his knees. His pistol clattered to the floor. The torchlight rolled across the uneven boards, clattering.

  Vianne threw the shovel aside and knelt down beside Beck, who lay sprawled face-first in a pool of his blood. Using all of her weight, she rolled him over. He was pale already, chalkily so. Blood clotted his hair, streaked from his nostrils, bubbled at every breath he took.

  “I’m sorry,” Vianne said.

  Beck’s eyes fluttered open.

  Vianne tried to wipe the blood off his face, but it just made more of a mess. Her hands were red with it now. “I had to stop you,” she said quietly.

  “Tell my family…”

  Vianne saw the life leave his body, saw his chest stop rising, his heart stop beating.

  Behind her, she heard her sister climbing up the ladder. “Vianne!”

  Vianne couldn’t move.

  “Are … you all right?” Isabelle asked in a breathless, wheezing voice. She looked pale and a little shaky.

  “I killed him. He’s dead,” Vianne said.

  “No, you didn’t. I shot him in the chest,” Isabelle said.

  “I hit him in the head with a shovel. A shovel.”

  Isabelle moved toward her. “Vianne—”

  “Don’t,” Vianne said sharply. “I don’t want to hear some excuse from you. Do you know what you’ve done? A Nazi. Dead in my barn.”

  Before Isabelle could answer, there was a loud whistle, and then a mule-drawn wagon entered the barn.

  Vianne lurched for Beck’s weapon, staggered to her feet on the blood-slicked floorboards, and pointed the gun at the strangers.

  “Vianne, don’t shoot,” Isabelle said. “They’re friends.”

  Vianne looked at the ragged-looking men in the wagon; then at her sister, who was dressed all in black and looked milky pale, with shadows under her eyes. “Of course they are.” She moved sideways but kept the gun trained on the men crowded onto the front of the rickety wagon. Behind them, in the bed of the wagon, lay a pine coffin.

  She recognized Henri—the man who ran the hotel in town, with whom Isabelle had run off to Paris. The communist with whom Isabelle thought she might be in love a little. “Of course,” Vianne said. “Your lover.”

  Henri jumped down from the wagon and closed the barn door. “What in the fuck happened?”

  “Vianne hit him with a shovel and I shot him,” Isabelle said. “There’s some sisterly dispute on who killed him, but he’s dead. Captain Beck. The soldier who billets here.”

  Henri exchanged a look with one of the strangers—a scrappy, sharp-faced young man with hair that was too long. “That’s a problem,” the man said.

  “Can you get rid of the body?” Isabelle asked. She was pressing a hand to her chest, as if her heart was beating too fast. “And the airman’s, too—he didn’t make it.”

  A big, shaggy man in a patched coat and pants that were too small jumped down from the wagon. “Disposing of the bodies is the easy part.”

  Who were these people?

  Isabelle nodded. “They’ll come looking for Beck. My sister can’t stand up to questioning. We’ll need to put her and Sophie in hiding.”

  That did it. They were talking about Vianne as if she weren’t even here. “Running would only prove my guilt.”

  “You can’t stay,” Isabelle said. “It isn’t safe.”

  “By all means, Isabelle, worry about me now, after you’ve put me and the children at risk and forced me to kill a decent man.”

  “Vianne, please—”

  Vianne felt something in her harden. It seemed that every time she thought she’d hit rock bottom in this war, something worse came along. Now she was a murderess and it was Isabelle’s fault. The last thing she was going to do now was follow her sister’s advice and leave Le Jardin. “I will say that Beck left to look for the airman and never returned. What do I, an ordinary French housewife, know of such things? He was here and then he was gone. C’est la vie.”

  “It’s as good an answer as any,” Henri said.

  “This is my fault,” Isabelle said, approaching Vianne. She saw her sister’s regret for this, and her guilt, but Vianne didn’t care. She was too scared for the children to worry about Isabelle’s feelings.

  “Yes it is, but you made it mine, too. We killed a good man, Isabelle.”

  Isabelle swayed a little, unsteady. “V. They’ll come for you.”

  Vianne started to say “And whose fault is that?,” but when she looked at Isabelle, the words caught in her throat.

  She saw blood oozing out from between Isabelle’s fingers. For a split second, the world slowed down, tilted, became nothing but noise—the men talking behind her, the mule stomping his hoof
on the wooden floor, her own labored breathing. Isabelle crumpled to the floor, unconscious.

  Before Vianne could even cry out, a hand clamped over her mouth, arms yanked her back. The next thing she knew she was being dragged away from her sister. She wrestled to be free but the man holding her was too strong.

  She saw Henri drop to his knees beside Isabelle and rip open her coat and blouse to reveal a bullet hole just below her collarbone. Henri tore off his shirt and pressed it to the wound.

  Vianne elbowed her captor hard enough to make him ooph. She wrenched free and rushed to Isabelle’s side, slipping in the blood, almost falling. “There’s a medical kit in the cellar.”

  The dark-haired man—who suddenly looked as shaky as Vianne felt—leaped down the cellar stairs and returned quickly, carrying the supplies.

  Vianne’s hands were shaking as she reached for the bottle of alcohol and washed her hands as best she could.

  She took a deep breath and took over the job of pressing Henri’s shirt against the wound, which she felt pulsing beneath her.

  Twice she had to draw back, wring blood out of the shirt, and start again, but finally, the bleeding stopped. Gently, she rolled Isabelle into her arms and saw the exit wound.

  Thank God.

  She carefully laid Isabelle back down. “This is going to hurt,” she whispered. “But you’re strong, aren’t you, Isabelle?”

  She doused the wound with alcohol. Isabelle shuddered at the contact, but she didn’t waken or cry out.

  “That’s good,” Vianne said. The sound of her own voice calmed her, reminded her that she was a mother and mothers took care of their families. “Unconscious is good.” She fished the needle from the medical kit, such as it was, and threaded it. She doused the needle in alcohol and then leaned down to the wound. Very carefully, she began stitching the gaping flesh together. It didn’t take long—and she hadn’t done a good job, but it was the best she could do.

  Once she’d stitched the entrance wound, she felt a little confidence, enough to stitch the exit wound and then to bandage it.

  At last, she sat back, staring down at her bloody hands and bloodied skirt.

  Isabelle looked so pale and frail, not herself at all. Her hair was filthy and matted, her clothes were wet with her own blood—and the airman’s—and she looked young.

  So young.

  Vianne felt a shame so deep it made her sick to her stomach. Had she really told her sister—her sister—to go away and not come back?

  How often had Isabelle heard that in her life, and from her own family, from people who were supposed to love her?

  “I’ll take her to the safe house in Brantôme,” the black-haired one said.

  “Oh, no, you won’t,” Vianne said. She looked up from her sister, saw that the three men were standing together by the wagon, conspiring. She got to her feet. “She’s not going anywhere with you. You’re the reason she’s here.”

  “She’s the reason we’re here,” the dark-haired man said. “I’m taking her. Now.”

  Vianne approached the young man. There was a look in his eyes—an intensity—that ordinarily would have frightened her, but she was beyond fear now, beyond caution. “I know who you are,” Vianne said. “She described you to me. You’re the one from Tours who left her with a note pinned to her chest as if she were a stray dog. Gaston, right?”

  “Gaëtan,” he said in a voice that was so soft she had to lean toward him to hear. “And you should know about that. Aren’t you the one who couldn’t bother to be her sister when she needed one?”

  “If you try to take her away from me, I’ll kill you.”

  “You’ll kill me,” he said, smiling.

  She cocked her head toward Beck. “I killed him with a shovel and I liked him.”

  “Enough,” Henri said, stepping between them. “She can’t stay here, Vianne. Think about it. The Germans are going to come looking for their dead captain. They don’t need to find a woman with a gunshot wound and false papers. You understand?”

  The big man stepped forward. “We’ll bury the captain and the airman. And we’ll make sure the motorcycle disappears. Gaëtan, you get her to a safe house in the Free Zone.”

  Vianne looked from man to man. “But it’s after curfew and the border is four miles away and she’s wounded. How will…”

  Halfway through the question, she figured out the answer.

  The coffin.

  Vianne took a step back. The idea of it was so terrible, she shook her head.

  “I’ll take care of her,” Gaëtan said.

  Vianne didn’t believe him. Not for a second. “I’m going with you. As far as the border. Then I’ll walk back when I see that you’ve gotten her to the Free Zone.”

  “You can’t do that,” Gaëtan said.

  She looked up at him. “You’d be surprised what I can do. Now, let’s get her out of here.”

  TWENTY-SIX

  May 6, 1995

  The Oregon Coast

  That damned invitation is haunting me. I’d swear it has a heartbeat.

  For days I have ignored it, but on this bright spring morning, I find myself at the counter, staring down at it. Funny. I don’t remember walking over here and yet here I am.

  Another woman’s hand reaches out. It can’t be my hand, not that veiny, big-knuckled monstrosity that trembles. She picks up the envelope, this other woman.

  Her hands are shaking even more than usual.

  Please join us at the AFEES reunion in Paris, on May 7, 1995.

  The fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war.

  For the first time, families and friends of passeurs will come together in gratitude to honor the extraordinary “Nightingale,” also known as Juliette Gervaise, in the grand ballroom of the Île de France Hôtel, in Paris. 7:00 P.M.

  Beside me, the phone rings. As I reach for it, the invitation slips from my grasp, falls to the counter. “Hello?”

  Someone is talking to me in French. Or am I imagining that?

  “Is this a sales call?” I ask, confused.

  “No! No. It is about our invitation.”

  I almost drop the phone in surprise.

  “It has been most difficult to track you down, Madame. I am calling about the passeurs’ reunion tomorrow night. We are gathering to celebrate the people who made the Nightingale escape route so successful. Did you receive the invitation?”

  “Oui,” I say, clutching the receiver.

  “The first one we sent you was returned, I am sorry to say. Please forgive the tardiness of the invitation. But … will you be coming?”

  “It is not me people want to see. It’s Juliette. And she hasn’t existed for a long time.”

  “You couldn’t be more wrong, Madame. Seeing you would be meaningful to many people.”

  I hang up the phone so hard it is like smashing a bug.

  But suddenly the idea of going back—going home—is in my mind. It’s all I can think about.

  For years, I kept the memories at bay. I hid them in a dusty attic, far from prying eyes. I told my husband, my children, myself, that there was nothing for me in France. I thought I could come to America and make this new life for myself and forget what I had done to survive.

  Now I can’t forget.

  Do I make a decision? A conscious, let’s-think-it-out-and-decide-what’s-best kind of decision?

  No. I make a phone call to my travel agent and book a flight to Paris, through New York. Then I pack a bag. It’s small, just a rolling carry-on, the sort of suitcase that a businesswoman would take on a two-day trip. In it, I pack some nylons, a few pairs of slacks and some sweaters, the pearl earrings that my husband bought me on our fortieth anniversary, and some other essentials. I have no idea what I will need, and I’m not really thinking straight anyway. Then I wait. Impatiently.

  At the last minute, after I have called a taxi, I call my son and get his message machine. A bit of luck, that. I don’t know if I would have the courage to tell him the truth straight
up.

  “Hello, Julien,” I say as brightly as I can. “I am going to Paris for the weekend. My flight leaves at one ten and I’ll call you when I arrive to let you know I’m all right. Give my love to the girls.” I pause, knowing how he will feel when he gets this message, how it will upset him. That’s because I have let him think I am weak, all these years; he watched me lean on his father and defer to his decision making. He heard me say, “If that’s what you think, dear,” a million times. He watched me stand on the sidelines of his life instead of showing him the field of my own. This is my fault. It’s no wonder he loves a version of me that is incomplete. “I should have told you the truth.”

  When I hang up, I see the taxi pull up out front. And I go.

  TWENTY-SEVEN

  October 1942

  France

  Vianne sat with Gaëtan in the front of the wagon, with the coffin thumping in the wooden bed behind them. The trail through the woods was hard to find in the dark; they were constantly starting and stopping and turning. At some point, it started to rain. The only words they’d exchanged in the last hour and a half were directions.

  “There,” Vianne said later, as they reached the end of the woods. A light shone up ahead, straining through the trees, turning them into black slashes against a blinding white.

  The border.

  “Whoa,” Gaëtan said, pulling back on the reins.

  Vianne couldn’t help thinking about the last time she’d been here.

  “How will you cross? It’s after curfew,” she said, clasping her hands together to still their trembling.

  “I will be Laurence Olivier. A man overcome by grief, taking his beloved sister home to be buried.”

  “What if they check her breathing?”

  “Then someone at the border will die,” he said quietly.

  Vianne heard what he didn’t say as clearly as the words he chose. She was so surprised that she couldn’t think how to respond. He was saying he would die to protect Isabelle. He turned to her, gazed at her. Gazed, not looked. Again she saw the predator intensity in those gray eyes, but there was more there, too. He was waiting—patiently—for what she would say. It mattered to him, somehow.

  “My father came home changed from the Great War,” she said quietly, surprising herself with the admission. This was not something she talked about. “Angry. Mean. He started drinking too much. While Maman was alive, he was different…” She shrugged. “After her death, there was no pretense anymore. He sent Isabelle and me away to live with a stranger. We were both just girls, and heartbroken. The difference between us was that I accepted the rejection. I closed him out of my life and found someone else to love me. But Isabelle … she doesn’t know how to concede defeat. She hurled herself at the cold wall of our father’s disinterest for years, trying desperately to gain his love.”

  “Why are you telling me this?”

 
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