The nightingale, p.32
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       The Nightingale, p.32
 

           Kristin Hannah

  tall.” She peered over the counter. “And who is this good-looking young man?”

  “Daniel,” he said proudly.

  Vianne placed a trembling hand on his shorn head. “I adopted him from Antoine’s cousin in Nice. She … died.”

  Yvette pushed the frizzy hair out of her eyes, pulled a strand of it out of her mouth as she stared down at the toddler. She had three sons of her own, one not much older than Daniel.

  Vianne’s heart hammered in her chest.

  Yvette stepped back from the counter. She went to the small door that separated the shop from the bakery. “Herr Lieutenant,” she said. “Could you come out here?”

  Vianne tightened her grip on her willow basket handle, working it as if it were piano keys.

  A portly German ambled out of the back room, his arms overflowing with freshly baked baguettes. He saw Vianne and stopped. “Madame,” he said, his apple cheeks bulging at the fullness of his mouth.

  Vianne could barely nod.

  Yvette said to the soldier, “There’s no more bread today, Herr Lieutenant. If I make more I will save the best for you and your men. This poor woman couldn’t even get a day-old baguette.”

  The man’s eyes narrowed appreciatively. He moved toward Vianne, his flat feet thumping on the stone floor. Wordlessly, he dropped a half-eaten baguette into her basket. Then he nodded and left the shop, a little bell tinkling at his exit.

  When they were alone, Yvette moved in close to Vianne, so close she had to fight the urge to step back. “I heard you have an SS officer in your house now. What happened to the handsome captain?”

  “He disappeared,” Vianne said evenly. “No one knows.”

  “No one? Why did they bring you in for questioning? Everyone saw you go in.”

  “I am just a housewife. What could I possibly know of such things?”

  Yvette stared at her a moment longer, assessing Vianne in the silence. Then she stepped back. “You are a good friend, Vianne Mauriac,” she said quietly.

  Vianne nodded briefly and herded the children to the door. The days of stopping to talk to friends on the street were gone. Now it was dangerous enough to simply make eye contact; friendly conversation had gone the way of butter and coffee and pork.

  Outside, Vianne paused on the cracked stone step, through which a lush patch of frosted weeds pushed up. She was wearing a winter coat she had made from a tapestried bedspread. She had copied a pattern she’d seen in a magazine: double breasted, knee length, with a wide lapel and buttons she’d taken from one of her mother’s favorite Harris tweed jackets. It was warm enough for today, but soon she would need layers of newsprint between her sweater and her coat.

  Vianne retied the scarf around her head and knotted it more tightly beneath her chin as the icy wind hit her full in the face. Leaves skittered across the stone aisle, cartwheeled across her booted feet.

  She held tightly to Daniel’s mittened hand and stepped out into the street. She knew instantly that something was wrong. There were German soldiers and French gendarmes everywhere—in cars, on motorcycles, marching up the icy street, gathered in pods at the cafés.

  Whatever was happening out here, it couldn’t be good, and it was always best to stay away from the soldiers—especially since the Allied victories in North Africa.

  “Come on, Sophie and Daniel. Let’s go home.”

  She tried to turn right at the corner but found the street barricaded. All up and down the street doors were locked and shutters were closed. The bistros were empty. There was a terrible sense of danger in the air.

  The next street she tried was barricaded, too. A pair of Nazi soldiers stood guard at it, their rifles pointed at her. Behind them, German soldiers marched up the street toward them, goose-stepping in formation.

  Vianne took the children’s hands and picked up their pace, but one street after another was barricaded and guarded. It became clear that there was a plan in place. Lorries and buses were thundering up the cobblestoned streets toward the town square.

  Vianne came to the square and stopped, breathing hard, pulling the children in close to her sides.

  Pandemonium. There were buses lined up in a row, disgorging passengers—all of whom wore a yellow star. Women and children were being forced, pushed, herded into the square. Nazis stood on the perimeter, a terrible, frightening patrol edge, while French policemen pulled people out of the buses, yanked jewelry from women’s necks, shoved them at gunpoint.

  “Maman!” Sophie cried.

  Vianne clamped a hand over her daughter’s mouth.

  To her left, a young woman was shoved to the ground and then hauled back up by her hair and dragged through the crowd.

  “Vianne?”

  She swung around, saw Hélène Ruelle carrying a small leather suitcase and holding a little boy’s hand. An older boy stood close to her side. A yellow, tattered star identified them.

  “Take my sons,” Hélène said desperately to Vianne.

  “Here?” Vianne said, glancing around.

  “No, Maman,” the older boy said. “Papa told me to take care of you. I am not leaving you. If you let go of my hand, I’ll just follow you. Better we stay together.”

  Behind them another whistle shrieked.

  Hélène shoved the younger boy into Vianne, pushed him hard against Daniel. “He is Jean Georges, like his uncle. Four years old this June. My husband’s people are in Burgundy.”

  “I have no papers for him … they’ll kill me if I take him.”

  “You!” a Nazi shouted at Hélène. He came up behind her, grabbed her by the hair, almost yanking her off her feet. She slammed into her older son, who strove to keep her upright.

  And then Hélène and her son were gone, lost in the crowd. The boy was beside her, wailing, “Maman!” and sobbing.

  “We need to leave,” Vianne said to Sophie. “Now.” She clutched Jean Georges’s hand so tightly he cried harder. Every time he yelled, “Maman!” she flinched and prayed for him to be quiet. They hurried up one street and down the other, dodging the barricades and bypassing the soldiers who were breaking down doors and herding Jewish people into the square. Twice they were stopped and allowed to pass because they had no stars on their clothing. On the muddy road, she had to slow down, but she didn’t stop, even when both boys started crying.

  At Le Jardin, Vianne finally stopped.

  Von Richter’s black Citroën was parked out front.

  “Oh no,” Sophie said.

  Vianne looked down at her terrified daughter and saw her own fear replicated in the beloved eyes, and all at once she knew what she needed to do. “We have to try to save him or we are as bad as they are,” she said. And there it was. She hated to bring her daughter into this, but what choice was there? “I have to save this boy.”

  “How?”

  “I don’t know yet,” Vianne admitted.

  “But Von Richter—”

  As if drawn by his own name, the Nazi appeared at the front door, looking fussily precise in his uniform. “Ah, Madame Mauriac,” he said, his gaze narrowing as he approached her. “There you are.”

  Vianne struggled for calm. “We have been to town for shopping.”

  “Not a good day for that. Jews are being collected for deportation.” He walked toward her, his boots tamping down the wet grass. Beside him, the apple tree was barren of leaves; bits of fabric fluttered from the empty branches. Red. Pink. White. A new one for Beck—in black.

  “And who is this fine-looking youngster?” Von Richter said, touching the child’s tear-streaked cheek with one black-gloved finger.

  “A f-friend’s boy. His mother died of tuberculosis this week.”

  Von Richter lurched backward, as if she’d said bubonic plague. “I don’t want that child in the house. Is that understood? You will take him to the orphanage this instant.”

  The orphanage. Mother Marie-Therese.

  She nodded. “Of course, Herr Sturmbannführer.”

  He made a flicking gesture with h
is hand as if to say, Go, now. He started to walk away. Then he stopped and turned back to face Vianne. “I want you home this evening for supper.”

  “I am always home, Herr Sturmbannführer.”

  “We leave tomorrow, and I want you to feed me and my men a good meal before we go.”

  “Leave?” she asked, feeling a spike of hope.

  “We are occupying the rest of France tomorrow. No more Free Zone. It’s about damn time. Letting you French govern yourselves was a joke. Good day, Madame.”

  Vianne remained where she was, standing still, holding the child’s hand. Above the sound of Jean Georges’s crying, she heard the gate squeak open and slam shut. Then a car engine started up.

  When he was gone, Sophie said, “Will Mother Marie-Therese hide him?”

  “I hope so. Take Daniel into the house and lock the door. Don’t open it for anyone but me. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

  Sophie looked old for her age suddenly, wise beyond her years. “Good for you, Maman.”

  “We shall see” was all the hope she had left.

  When her children were safely in the house, with the door locked, she said to the boy beside her, “Come, Jean Georges, we are going for a walk.”

  “To my maman?”

  She couldn’t look at him. “Come.”

  * * *

  As Vianne and the boy walked back to town, an intermittent rain began. Jean Georges alternately cried and complained, but Vianne was so nervous she barely heard him.

  How could she ask Mother Superior to take this risk?

  How could she not?

  They walked past the church to the convent hidden behind it. The Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph had begun in 1650 with six like-minded women who simply wanted to serve the poor in their community. They had grown to thousands of members throughout France until religious communities were forbidden by the state during the French revolution. Some of the original six sisters had become martyrs for their beliefs—guillotined for their faith.

  Vianne went to the abbey’s front door and lifted the heavy iron knocker, letting it fall against the oak door, clattering hard.

  “Why are we here?” Jean Georges whined. “Is my maman here?”

  “Shhh.”

  A nun answered, her sweet, plump face bracketed by the white wimple and black hood of her habit. “Ah, Vianne,” she said, smiling.

  “Sister Agatha, I would like to speak to Mother Superior, if that’s possible.”

  The nun stepped back, her habit swishing on the stone floor. “I will see. You two take a seat in the garden?”

  Vianne nodded. “Merci.” She and Jean Georges made their way through the cold cloisters. At the end of one arched corridor, they turned left and went into the garden. It was good sized, and square, with frosted brown grass and a marble lion’s head fountain and several stone benches placed here and there. Vianne took a seat on one of the cold benches out of the rain, and pulled the boy up beside her.

  She didn’t have long to wait.

  “Vianne,” Mother said, coming forward, her habit dragging on the grass, her fingers closed around the large crucifix that hung from a chain around her neck. “How good it is to see you. It’s been too long. And who is this young man?”

  The boy looked up. “Is my maman here?”

  Vianne met Mother Superior’s even gaze with one of her own. “His name is Jean Georges Ruelle, Mother. I would speak to you alone if we could.”

  Mother clapped her hands and a young nun appeared to take the boy away. When they were alone, Mother Superior sat down beside Vianne.

  Vianne couldn’t corral her thoughts and so a silence fell between them.

  “I am sorry about your friend, Rachel.”

  “And so many others,” Vianne said.

  Mother nodded. “We have heard terrible rumors coming from Radio London about what is happening in the camps.”

  “Perhaps our Holy Father—”

  “He is silent on this matter,” Mother said, her voice heavy with disappointment.

  Vianne took a deep breath. “Hélène Ruelle and her elder son were deported today. Jean Georges is alone. His mother … left him with me.”

  “Left him with you?” Mother paused. “It is dangerous to have a Jewish child in your home, Vianne.”

  “I want to protect him,” she said quietly.

  Mother looked at her. She was silent so long that Vianne’s fear began to put down roots, grow. “And how would you accomplish this?” she asked at last.

  “Hide him.”

  “Where?”

  Vianne looked at Mother, saying nothing.

  Mother’s face drained of color. “Here?”

  “An orphanage. What better place?”

  Mother Superior stood and then sat. Then she stood again, her hands moved to the cross, held it. Slowly, she sat down again. Her shoulders sagged and then straightened when her decision was made. “A child in our care needs papers. Baptismal certificates—I can … get those, of course, but identity papers…”

  “I will get them,” Vianne said, although she had no idea if it was possible.

  “You know that it is illegal to hide Jews now. The punishment is deportation if you’re lucky, and lately, I believe no one is lucky in France.”

  Vianne nodded.

  Then Mother Superior said, “I will take the boy. And I … could make room for more than one Jewish child.”

  “More?”

  “Of course there are more, Vianne. I will speak to a man I know in Girot. He works for the Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants—the Help the Children Fund. I expect he will know many families and children in hiding. I will tell him to expect you.”

  “M-me?”

  “You are the leader of this now, and if we are risking our lives for one child, we may as well try to save more.” Mother got abruptly to her feet. She hooked her arm through Vianne’s, and the two women strolled the perimeter of the small garden. “No one here can know the truth. The children will have to be coached and have paperwork that passes inspection. And you would need a position here—perhaps as a teacher, oui, as a part-time teacher. That would allow us to pay you a small stipend and would answer questions about why you are here with the children.”

  “Oui,” Vianne said, feeling shaky.

  “Don’t look so afraid, Vianne. You are doing the right thing.”

  She had no doubt that this was true, and still she was terrified. “This is what they have done to us. We are afraid of our own shadows.” She looked at Mother. “How will I do it? Go to scared, hungry women and ask them to give me their children?”

  “You will ask them if they’ve seen their friends being herded onto trains and taken away. You will ask them what they would risk to keep their child off of that train. Then you will let each mother decide.”

  “It is an unimaginable choice. I’m not sure I could do it, just hand Sophie and Daniel over to a stranger.”

  Mother leaned close. “I hear one of their awful storm troopers is billeted at your house. You realize this puts you—and Sophie—at terrible risk.”

  “Of course. But how can I let her believe it’s all right to do nothing in times such as these?”

  Mother stopped. Releasing Vianne, she laid a soft palm against her cheek and smiled tenderly. “Be careful, Vianne. I have already been to your mother’s funeral. I do not want to attend yours.”

  THIRTY

  On an ice-cold mid-November day, Isabelle and Gaëtan left Brantôme and boarded a train to Bayonne. The carriage was overflowing with solemn German soldiers—more so than usual—and when they disembarked, they found more soldiers crowding the platform.

  Isabelle held Gaëtan’s hand as they made their way through the gray-green uniforms. Two young lovers on their way to the beach town. “My maman used to love going to the beach. Did I ever tell you that?” Isabelle asked as they passed near two SS officers.

  “You rich kids see all the good stuff.”

  She smiled. “We were hardly
rich, Gaëtan,” she said when they were outside the train station.

  “Well you weren’t poor,” he said. “I know poor.” He paused, let that settle between them, and then he said, “I could be rich someday.

  “Someday,” he said again with a sigh, and she knew what he was thinking. It was what they were always thinking: Will there be a France in our future? Gaëtan slowed.

  Isabelle saw what had captured his attention.

  “Keep moving,” he said.

  A roadblock had been set up ahead of them. Troops were everywhere, carrying rifles.

  “What’s going on?” Isabelle asked.

  “They’ve seen us,” Gaëtan said. He tightened his hold on her hand. They strolled toward the swarm of German soldiers.

  A burly, square-headed sentry blocked their way and demanded to see their passes and papers.

  Isabelle offered her Juliette papers. Gaëtan offered his own false documents, but the soldier was more interested in the goings-on behind him. He barely glanced at the documents and handed them back.

  Isabelle gave him her most innocent smile. “What’s happening today?”

  “No more Free Zone,” the soldier said, waving them through.

  “No more Free Zone? But—”

  “We are taking over all of France,” he said roughly. “No more pretense that your ridiculous Vichy government is in charge anywhere. Go.”

  Gaëtan pulled her forward, through the amassing troops.

  For hours, as they walked, they were honked at by German lorries and automobiles in a hurry to get past them.

  It wasn’t until they reached the quaint seaside town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz that they were able to escape the gathering Nazis. They walked along the empty seawall, perched high above the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean. Below them, a curl of yellow sand held the mighty, angry ocean at bay. In the distance, a lush green peninsula was dotted with houses built in the Basque tradition, with white sides and red doors and bright red tile roofs. The sky overhead was a faded, washed-out blue, with clouds stretched as taut as clotheslines. There were no other people out today, neither on the beach nor walking along the ancient seawall.

  For the first time in hours, Isabelle could breathe. “What does it mean, no Free Zone?”

  “It is not good, that’s for sure. It will make your work more dangerous.”

  “I’ve been moving through Occupied territory already.”

  She tightened her hold on his hand and led him off the seawall. They stepped down the uneven steps and made their way to the road.

  “We used to vacation out here when I was little,” she said. “Before my maman died. At least that’s what I’ve heard. I barely remember.”

  She wanted it to be the start of a conversation, but her words fell into the new silence between them and went unanswered. In the quiet, Isabelle felt the suffocating weight of missing him, even though he was holding her hand. Why hadn’t she asked him more questions in their days together, gotten to know
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