The nightingale, p.30
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       The Nightingale, p.30
 

           Kristin Hannah

  “Isabelle seems unbreakable. She has a steel exterior, but it protects a candyfloss heart. Don’t hurt her, that’s what I’m saying. If you don’t love her—”

  “I do.”

  Vianne studied him. “Does she know?”

  “I hope not.”

  Vianne would not have understood that answer a year ago. She wouldn’t have understood how dark a side love could have, how hiding it was the kindest thing you could do sometimes. “I don’t know why it’s so easy for me to forget how much I love her. We start fighting, and…”

  “Sisters.”

  Vianne sighed. “I suppose, although I haven’t been much of one to her.”

  “You’ll get another chance.”

  “Do you believe that?”

  His silence was answer enough. At last, he said, “Take care of yourself, Vianne. She’ll need a place to come home to when all of this is over.”

  “If it’s ever over.”

  “Oui.”

  Vianne got down from the wagon; her boots sunk deep into wet, muddy grass. “I’m not sure she thinks of me as a safe place to come home to,” she said.

  “You’ll need to be brave,” Gaëtan said. “When the Nazis come looking for their man. You know our real names. That’s dangerous for all of us. You included.”

  “I’ll be brave,” she said. “You just tell my sister that she needs to start being afraid.”

  For the first time, Gaëtan smiled and Vianne understood how this scrawny, sharp-featured man in his beggar’s clothes had swept Isabelle off her feet. He had the kind of smile that inhabited every part of his face—his eyes, his cheeks; there was even a dimple. I wear my heart on my sleeve, that smile said, and no woman could be unmoved by such transparency. “Oui,” he said. “Because it is so easy to tell your sister anything.”

  * * *

  Fire.

  It’s all around her, leaping, dancing. A bonfire. She can see it in quivering strands of red that come and go. A flame licks her face, burns deep.

  It’s everywhere and then … it’s gone.

  The world is icy, white, sheer and cracked. She shivers with the cold, watches her fingers turn blue and crackle and break apart. They fall away like chalk, dusting her frozen feet.

  “Isabelle.”

  Birdsong. A nightingale. She hears it singing a sad song. Nightingales mean loss, don’t they? Love that leaves or doesn’t last or never existed in the first place. There’s a poem about that, she thinks. An ode.

  No, not a bird.

  A man. The king of the fire maybe. A prince in hiding in the frozen woods. A wolf.

  She looks for footprints in the snow.

  “Isabelle. Wake up.”

  She heard his voice in her imagination. Gaëtan.

  He wasn’t really here. She was alone—she was always alone—and this was too strange to be anything but a dream. She was hot and cold and achy and worn out.

  She remembered something—a loud noise. Vianne’s voice: Don’t come back.

  “I’m here.”

  She felt him sit beside her. The mattress shifted to accommodate his imaginary weight.

  Something cool and damp pressed to her forehead and it felt so good that she was momentarily distracted. And then she felt his lips graze hers and linger there; he said something she couldn’t quite hear and then he drew back. She felt the end of the kiss as deeply as she’d felt the start of it.

  It felt so … real.

  She wanted to say “Don’t leave me,” but she couldn’t do it, not again. She was so tired of begging people to love her.

  Besides, he wasn’t really here, so what would be the point of saying anything?

  She closed her eyes and rolled away from the man who wasn’t there.

  * * *

  Vianne sat on Beck’s bed.

  Ridiculous that she thought of it that way, but there it was. She sat in this room that had become his, hoping that it wouldn’t always be his in her mind. In her hand was the small portrait of his family.

  You would love Hilda. Here, she sent you this strudel, Madame. For putting up with a lout such as myself.

  Vianne swallowed hard. She didn’t cry for him again. She refused to, but God, she wanted to cry for herself, for what she had done, for who she had become. She wanted to cry for the man she’d killed and the sister who might not live. It had been an easy choice, killing Beck to save Isabelle. So why had Vianne been so quick to turn on Isabelle before? You are not welcome here. How could she have said that to her own sister? What if those were among the last words ever spoken between them?

  As she sat, staring at the portrait (tell my family), she waited for a knock at the door. It had been forty-eight hours since Beck’s murder. The Nazis should be here any minute.

  It wasn’t a question of if, but when. They would bang on her door and push their way inside. She had spent hours trying to figure out what to do. Should she go to the Kommandant’s office and report Beck missing?

  (No, foolish. What French person would report such a thing?)

  Or should she wait until they came to her?

  (Never a good thing.)

  Or should she try to run?

  That only made her remember Sarah and the moonlit night that would forever make her think of bloody streaks on a child’s face and brought her right back to the beginning again.

  “Maman?” Sophie said, standing in the open doorway, the toddler on her hip.

  “You need to eat something,” Sophie said. She was taller, almost Vianne’s height. When had that happened? And she was thin. Vianne remembered when her daughter had had apple-like cheeks and eyes that sparkled with mischief. Now she was like all of them, stretched as thin as jerky and aged beyond her years.

  “They’re going to come to the door soon,” Vianne said. She’d said it so often in the past two days that her words surprised no one. “You remember what to do?”

  Sophie nodded solemnly. She knew how important this was, even if she didn’t know what had become of the captain. Interestingly, she hadn’t asked.

  Vianne said, “If they take me away—”

  “They won’t,” Sophie said.

  “And if they do?” Vianne said.

  “We wait for you to return for three days and then we go to Mother Marie-Therese at the convent.”

  Someone pounded on the door. Vianne lurched to her feet so fast she stumbled sideways and hit her hip into the corner of the table, dropping the portrait. The glass on it cracked. “Upstairs, Sophie. Now.”

  Sophie’s eyes bulged, but she knew better than to speak. She tightened her hold on the toddler and ran upstairs. When Vianne heard the bedroom door slam shut, she smoothed her worn skirt. She had dressed carefully in a gray wool cardigan and an often-mended black skirt. A respectable look. Her hair had been curled and carefully styled into waves that softened her thin face.

  The pounding returned. She allowed herself one indrawn, calming breath as she crossed the room. Her breathing was almost steady as she opened the door.

  Two German Schutzstaffel—SS—soldiers stood there, wearing sidearms. The shorter of the two pushed past Vianne, shoving her out of his way as he entered the house. He strode from room to room, pushing things aside, sending what few knickknacks remained crashing to the floor. At Beck’s room, he stopped and turned back. “This is Hauptmann Beck’s room?”

  Vianne nodded.

  The taller soldier came at Vianne fast, leaning forward as if there were a harsh wind at his back. He looked down at her from on high, his forehead obscured by a shiny military cap. “Where is he?”

  “H-how would I know?”

  “Who is upstairs?” the soldier demanded. “I hear something.”

  It was the first time she’d ever been asked about Ari.

  “My … children.” The lie caught in her voice, came out too soft. She cleared her throat and tried again. “You may go up there, of course, but please don’t waken the baby. He’s … sick with the flu. Or perhaps tuberculosis.” This la
st she added because she knew how frightened the Nazis were of getting sick. She reached down for her handbag, clamped it to her chest as if it offered some protection.

  He nodded at the other German, who strode confidently up the stairs. She heard him moving around overhead. The ceiling creaked. Moments later, he came back downstairs and said something in German.

  “Come with us,” the taller one said. “I’m sure you have nothing to hide.”

  He grabbed Vianne’s arm and dragged her out to the black Citroën parked by the gate. He shoved her into the backseat and slammed the door shut.

  Vianne had about five minutes to consider her situation before they stopped again and she was being yanked up the stone steps of the town hall. There were people all around the square, soldiers and locals. The villagers dispersed quickly when the Citroën pulled up.

  “It’s Vianne Mauriac,” she heard someone say, a woman.

  The Nazi’s hold on her upper arm was bruising, but she made no sound as he pulled her into the town hall and down a set of narrow steps. There, he shoved her through an open door and slammed it shut.

  It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom. She was in a small, windowless room with stone walls and a wood floor. A desk sat in the middle of the room, decorated with a plain black lamp that delivered a cone of light onto the scratched wood. Behind the desk—and in front of it—were straight-backed wooden chairs.

  She heard the door open behind her and then close. Footsteps followed; she knew someone had come up behind her. She could smell his breath—sausage and cigarettes—and the musky scent of his sweat.

  “Madame,” he said so close to her ear that she flinched.

  Hands clamped around her waist, squeezing tightly. “Do you have any weapons?” he said, his terrible French drawing sibilance from the words. He felt up her sides, slid his spidery fingers across her breasts—giving the smallest of squeezes—and then felt down her legs.

  “No weapons. Good.” He walked past her and took his seat at the desk. Blue eyes peered out from beneath his shiny black military hat. “Sit.”

  She did as she was told, folding her hands into her lap.

  “I am Sturmbannführer Von Richter. You are Madame Vianne Mauriac?”

  She nodded.

  “You know why you are here,” he said, taking a cigarette from his pocket, lighting it with a match that glowed in the shadows.

  “No,” she said, her voice unsteady, her hands shaking just a little.

  “Hauptmann Beck is missing.”

  “Missing. Are you certain?”

  “When is the last time you saw him, Madame?”

  She frowned. “I hardly keep track of his movements, but if pressed … I would say two nights ago. He was quite agitated.”

  “Agitated?”

  “It was the downed airman. He was most unhappy that he had not been found. Herr Captain believed someone was hiding him.”

  “Someone?”

  Vianne forced herself not to look away; nor did she tap her foot nervously on the floor or scratch the itch that was making its uncomfortable way across her neck. “He searched all day for the airman. When he came home, he was … agitated is the only word I know to use. He drank an entire bottle of brandy and broke a few things in my house in his rage. And then…” She paused, letting her frown deepen.

  “And then?”

  “I’m sure it means nothing at all.”

  He slammed his palm down on the table so hard the light shuddered. “What?”

  “Herr Captain suddenly said, ‘I know where he’s hiding,’ and grabbed his sidearm and left my home, slamming the door shut behind him. I saw him jump on his motorcycle and take off down the road at an unsafe speed, and then … nothing. He never returned. I assumed he was busy at the Kommandantur. As I said, his comings and goings are not my concern.”

  The man drew a long drag on his cigarette. The tip glowed red and then slowly faded to black. Ash rained down on the desk. He studied her from behind a veil of smoke. “A man would not want to leave a woman as beautiful as yourself.”

  Vianne didn’t move.

  “Well,” he said at last, dropping his cigarette butt to the floor. He stood abruptly and stomped on the still-lit cigarette, grinding on it with his boot heel. “I suspect the young Hauptmann was not as skilled with a gun as he should have been. The Wehrmacht,” he said, shaking his head. “Often they are a disappointment. Disciplined but not … eager.”

  He came out from behind the desk and walked toward Vianne. As he neared, she stood. Politeness demanded it. “The Hauptmann’s misfortune is my fortune.”

  “Oh?”

  His gaze moved down her throat to the pale skin above her breasts. “I need a new place to billet. The Hôtel Bellevue is unsatisfactory. I believe your house will do nicely.”

  * * *

  When Vianne stepped out of the town hall, she felt like a woman who’d just washed ashore. She was unsteady on her feet and trembling slightly, her palms were damp, her forehead itchy. Everywhere she looked in the square were soldiers; these days the black SS uniforms were predominant. She heard someone yell “Halt!” and she turned, saw a pair of women in ratty coats with yellow stars on their chests being shoved to their knees by a soldier with a gun. The soldier grabbed one of the two and dragged her to her feet while the older one screamed. It was Madame Fournier, the butcher’s wife. Her son, Gilles, yelled, “You can’t take my maman!” and started to surge at two French policemen who were nearby.

  A gendarme grabbed the boy, yanked hard enough to make him stop. “Don’t be a fool.”

  Vianne didn’t think. She saw her former student in trouble and she went to him. He was just a boy, for God’s sake. Sophie’s age. Vianne had been his teacher since before he could read. “What are you doing?” she demanded to know, realizing a second too late that she should have tempered her voice.

  The policeman turned to look at her. Paul. He was even fatter than the last time she’d seen him. His face had puffed out enough to make his eyes as small and slitted as sewing needles. “Stay out of this, Madame,” Paul said.

  “Madame Mauriac,” Gilles cried, “they’re taking my maman to the train! I want to go with her!”

  Vianne looked at Gilles’s mother, Madame Fournier, the butcher’s wife, and saw defeat in her eyes.

  “Come with me, Gilles,” Vianne said without really thinking.

  “Merci,” Madame Fournier whispered.

  Paul yanked Gilles close again. “Enough. The boy is making a scene. He is coming with us.”

  “No!” Vianne said. “Paul, please, we are all French.” She hoped the use of his name would remind him that before all of this they’d been a community. She’d taught his daughters. “The boy is a French citizen. He was born here!”

  “We don’t care where he was born, Madame. He’s on my list. He goes.” His eyes narrowed. “Do you want to lodge a complaint?”

  Madame Fournier was crying now, clutching her son’s hand. The other policeman blew his whistle and prodded Gilles forward with the barrel of his gun.

  Gilles and his mother stumbled into the crowd of others being herded toward the train station.

  We don’t care where he was born, Madame.

  Beck had been right. Being French would no longer protect Ari.

  She clamped her handbag tightly beneath her armpit and headed for home. As usual, the road had turned to mud and ruined her shoes by the time she reached the gate at Le Jardin.

  Both of the children were waiting in the living room. Relief loosened her shoulders. She smiled tiredly as she set down her handbag.

  “You’re all right?” Sophie said.

  Ari immediately moved toward her, grinning, opening his arms for a hug, saying, “Maman,” with a grin to prove that he understood the rules of their new game.

  She pulled the three-year-old into her arms and held him tightly. To Sophie, she said, “I was questioned and released. That is the good news.”

  “And the bad news?


  Vianne looked at her daughter, defeated. Sophie was growing up in a world where boys in her class were put in train carriages like cattle at the point of a gun and perhaps never seen again. “Another German is going to billet here.”

  “Will he be like Herr Captain Beck?”

  Vianne thought of the feral gleam in Von Richter’s ice-blue eyes and the way he had “searched” her.

  “No,” she said softly. “I don’t expect he will be. You are not to speak to him unless you must. Don’t look at him. Just stay as invisible as you can. And Sophie, they’re deporting French-born Jews now—children, too—putting them on trains and sending them away to work camps.” Vianne tightened her hold on Rachel’s son. “He is Daniel now. Your brother. Always. Even when we are alone. The story is that we adopted him from a relative in Nice. We can never make a mistake or they’ll take him—and us—away. You understand? I don’t want anyone to ever even look at his papers.”

  “I’m scared, Maman,” she said quietly.

  “As am I, Sophie” was all Vianne could say. They were in this together now, taking this terrible risk. Before she could say more, there was a knock on the door and Sturmbannführer Von Richter walked into her home, standing as straight as a bayonet blade, his face impassive beneath the glossy black military hat. Silver iron crosses hung from various places on his black uniform—his stand-up collar, his chest. A swastika pin decorated his left breast pocket. “Madame Mauriac,” he said. “I see you walked home in the rain.”

  “Mais oui,” she answered, smoothing the damp, frizzy hair from her face.

  “You should have asked my men for a ride. A beautiful woman such as yourself should not slog through the mud like a heifer to the trough.”

  “Oui, merci, I will be so bold as to ask them next time.”

  He strode forward without removing his hat. He looked around, studying everything. She was sure that he noticed the marks on the walls where paintings had once hung and the empty mantel and the discoloration in the floor where rugs had lain for decades. All gone now. “Yes. This will do.” He looked at the children. “And who have we here?” he asked in terrible French.

  “My son,” Vianne said, standing beside him, moving in close enough to touch them both. She didn’t say “Daniel” in case Ari corrected her. “And my daughter, Sophie.”

  “I do not remember Hauptmann Beck mentioning two children.”

  “And why would he, Herr Sturmbannführer. It is hardly noteworthy.”

  “Well,” he said, nodding crisply to Sophie. “You, girl, go get my bags.” To Vianne, he said, “Show me the rooms. I will choose the one I want.”

  TWENTY-EIGHT

  Isabelle woke in a pitch-black room. In pain.

  “You’re awake, aren’t you?” said a voice beside her.

  She recognized Gaëtan’s voice. How often in the past two years had she imagined lying in bed with him? “Gaëtan,” she said, and with his name came the memories.

  The barn. Beck.

  She sat up so fast her head spun and dizziness hit her hard. “Vianne,” she said.

  “Your sister is fine.” He lit the oil lamp and left it on the overturned apple crate by the bed. The butterscotch glow embraced them, created a small oval world in the blackness. She touched the spot of pain in her shoulder, wincing.

 
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