The nightingale, p.35
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       The Nightingale, p.35
 

           Kristin Hannah

  gone.”

  Von Richter took her by the arm—a painful, punishing grip—and led her into the stone courtyard outside her classroom. The sound of falling water from the mossy fountain gurgled nearby.

  “I am here to ask about an acquaintance of yours. Henri Navarre.”

  Vianne prayed she didn’t flinch. “Who, Herr Sturmbannführer?”

  “Henri Navarre.”

  “Ah. Oui. The hotelier.” She fisted her hands to still them.

  “You are his friend?”

  Vianne shook her head. “No, Herr Sturmbannführer. I know of him, merely. It is a small town.”

  Von Richter gave her an assessing look. “If you are lying to me about something so simple, I will perhaps wonder what else you are lying to me about.”

  “Herr Sturmbannführer, no—”

  “You have been seen with him.” His breath smelled of beer and bacon, and his eyes were narrowed.

  He’ll kill me, she thought for the first time. She’d been careful for so long, never antagonizing him or defying him, never making eye contact if she could help it. But in the last few weeks he had become volatile, impossible to predict.

  “It is a small town, but—”

  “He has been arrested for aiding the enemy, Madame.”

  “Oh,” she said.

  “I will speak to you more about this, Madame. In a small room with no windows. And believe me, I will get the truth out of you. I will find out if you are working with him.”

  “Me?”

  He tightened his hold so much she thought her bones might crack. “If I find that you knew anything about this, I will question your children … intensely … and then I will send you all to Fresnes Prison.”

  “Don’t hurt them, I beg you.”

  It was the first time she’d ever begged him for anything, and at the desperation in her voice, he went perfectly still. His breathing accelerated. And there it was, as plain as the blue of his eyes: arousal. For more than a year and a half, she had conducted herself with scrupulous care in his presence, dressing and acting like a little wren, never drawing his attention, never saying anything beyond yes or no, Herr Sturmbannführer. Now, in an instant, all of that was undone. She had revealed her weakness, and he had seen it. He knew how to hurt her now.

  * * *

  Hours later, Vianne was in a windowless room in the bowels of the town hall. She sat stiffly upright in her chair, her hands clamped around the armrests so tightly that her knuckles were white.

  She had been here for a long time, alone, trying to decide what the best answers would be. How much did they know? What would they believe? Had Henri named her?

  No. If they knew that she had forged documents and hidden Jewish children, she would already have been arrested.

  Behind her, the door creaked open and then clicked shut.

  “Madame Mauriac.”

  She got to her feet.

  Von Richter circled her slowly, his gaze intimate on her body. She was wearing a faded, often-repaired dress and no stockings, and Oxfords with wooden soles. Her hair, unwashed for two days, was covered by a gingham turban with a knot above her forehead. Her lipstick had run out long ago and so her lips were pale.

  He came to a stop in front of her, too close, his hands clasped behind his back.

  It took courage to tilt her chin upward, and when she did—when she looked in his ice-blue eyes—she knew she was in trouble.

  “You were seen with Henri Navarre, walking in the square. He is suspected of working with the Maquis du Limousin, those cowards who live like animals in the woods and aided the enemy in Normandy.” At the same time as the Allied landing at Normandy, the Maquis had wreaked havoc across the country, cutting train lines, setting bombs, flooding canals. The Nazis were desperate to find and punish the partisans.

  “I am barely acquainted with him, Herr Sturmbannführer; I know nothing of men who aid the enemy.”

  “Are you making a fool of me, Madame?”

  She shook her head.

  He wanted to hit her. She could see it in his blue eyes: an ugly, sick desire. It had been planted when she’d begged him for something and now she had no idea how to eradicate it.

  He reached out and grazed a finger along her jaw. She flinched. “Are you truly so innocent?”

  “Herr Sturmbannführer, you have lived in my home for eighteen months. You see me every day. I feed my children and work in my garden and teach at the orphanage. I am hardly aiding the Allies.”

  His fingertips caressed her mouth, forcing her lips to part slightly. “If I find out that you are lying to me, I will hurt you, Madame. And I will enjoy it.” He let his hand fall away. “But if you tell the truth—now—I will spare you. And your children.”

  She shivered at the thought of his finding out that he had been living all this time with a Jewish child. It would make a fool of him.

  “I would never lie to you, Herr Sturmbannführer. You must know that.”

  “Here’s what I know,” he said, leaning closer, whispering in her ear, “I hope you are lying to me, Madame.”

  He drew back.

  “You are scared,” he said, smiling.

  “I have nothing to be afraid of,” she said, unable to get much volume in her voice.

  “We shall see if that is true. For now, Madame, go home. And pray I do not discover that you have lied to me.”

  * * *

  That same day, Isabelle walked up the cobblestoned street in the hilltop town of Urrugne. She could hear the echo of footsteps behind her. On the journey here from Paris, her two latest “songs”—Major Foley and Sergeant Smythe—had followed her instructions perfectly and had made it past the various checkpoints. She hadn’t looked back in quite some time, but she had no doubt that they were there walking as instructed—with at least one hundred yards between them.

  At the top of the hill, she saw a man seated on a bench in front of the closed poste. He held a sign that read: DEAF AND DUMB. WAITING FOR MY MAMAN TO PICK ME UP. Amazingly, the simple ruse still worked to fool the Nazis.

  Isabelle went to him. “I have an umbrella,” she said in her heavily accented English.

  “It looks like rain,” he said.

  She nodded. “Walk at least fifty yards behind me.”

  She kept walking up the hill, alone.

  By the time she reached Madame Babineau’s property it was nearing nightfall. At the bend in the road, she paused, waiting for her airmen to catch up.

  The man who’d been seated on the bench was the first to arrive. “Hello, ma’am,” he said, pulling off his borrowed beret. “Major Tom Dowd, ma’am. And I’m to say best wishes from Sarah in Pau, ma’am. She was a first-rate hostess.”

  Isabelle smiled tiredly. They were so … larger than life, these Yanks, with their ready smiles and booming voices. And their gratitude. Not at all like the Brits, who thanked her with clipped words and cool voices and firm handshakes. She’d lost track of the times an American had hugged her so tightly she’d come off her feet. “I’m Juliette,” she said to the major.

  Major Jack Foley was next to arrive. He gave her a big smile and said, “Those are some mountains.”

  “You said a mouthful there,” Dowd said, thrusting his hand out. “Dowd. Chicago.”

  “Foley. Boston. Nice to meet you.”

  Sergeant Smythe brought up the rear. He arrived a few minutes later. “Hello, gentlemen,” he said stiffly. “That was a hike.”

  “Just wait,” Isabelle said with a laugh.

  She led them to the cottage and knocked three times on the front door.

  Madame Babineau opened the door a little, saw Isabelle through the crack, and grinned, stepping back to allow them entrance. As always, a cast-iron cauldron hung above the flames in the soot-blackened fireplace. The table was set for their arrival, with glasses of warm milk and empty soup bowls.

  Isabelle glanced around. “Eduardo?”

  “In the barn, with two more airmen. We are having trouble getting s
upplies. It’s all this damned bombing. Half of town is rubble.” She placed a hand on Isabelle’s cheek. “You look tired, Isabelle. Are you well?”

  The touch was so comforting that Isabelle couldn’t help leaning into it for just a moment. She wanted to tell her friend her troubles, unburden herself for a moment, but that was another luxury lost in this war. Troubles were carried alone. Isabelle didn’t tell Madame Babineau that the Gestapo had broadened their search for the Nightingale or that she worried for her father and sister and niece. What was the point? They all had family to worry about. Such were ordinary anxieties, fixed points on the map of this war.

  Isabelle reached out for the old woman’s hands. There were so many terrible aspects to what their lives now were, but there was this, too: friendships forged in fire that had proven to be as strong as iron. After so many solitary years, spent tucked away in convents and forgotten in boarding schools, Isabelle never took for granted the fact that now she had friends, people whom she cared about and who cared about her.

  “I am fine, my friend.”

  “And that handsome man of yours?”

  “Still bombing depots and derailing trains. I saw him just before the invasion at Normandy. I could tell something big was up. I know he’s in the thick of it. I’m worried—”

  Isabelle heard the distant purr of an engine. She turned to Madame. “Are you expecting anyone?”

  “No one ever drives up here.”

  The airmen heard it, too. They paused in their conversation. Smythe looked up. Foley drew a knife out of his waistband.

  Outside, the goats started bleating. A shadow moved across the window.

  Before Isabelle could yell out a warning the door smacked open and light poured into the room, along with several SS agents. “Put your hands over your heads!”

  Isabelle was hit hard in the back of the head by a rifle butt. She gasped and stumbled forward.

  Her legs gave out beneath her and she fell hard, cracking her head on the stone floor.

  The last thing she heard before she lost consciousness was “You are all under arrest.”

  THIRTY-THREE

  Isabelle woke tied to a wooden chair at her wrists and ankles; the ropes bit into her flesh and were so tight she couldn’t move. Her fingers were numb. A single lightbulb hung from the ceiling above her, a cone of light in the darkness. The room smelled of mold and piss and water seeping through cracks in the stone.

  Somewhere in front of her, a match flared.

  She heard the scratch of sound, smelled the sulfur, and tried to lift her head, but the movement hurt so much she made an involuntary sound.

  “Gut,” someone said. “It hurts.”

  Gestapo.

  He pulled a chair from the darkness and sat down, facing her. “Pain,” he said simply. “Or no pain. The choice is yours.”

  “In that case, no pain.”

  He hit her hard. Blood filled her mouth, sharp and metallic tasting. She felt it dribble down her chin.

  Two days, she thought. Only two days.

  She had to last under questioning for forty-eight hours without naming names. If she could do that, just not crack, her father and Gaëtan and Henri and Didier and Paul and Anouk would have time to protect themselves. They would know soon that she had been arrested, if they didn’t already know. Eduardo would get the word out and then he would go into hiding. That was their plan.

  “Name?” he said, withdrawing a small notebook and a pencil from his breast pocket.

  She felt blood dripping down her chin, onto her lap. “Juliette Gervaise. But you know that. You have my papers.”

  “We have papers that name you as Juliette Gervaise, true.”

  “So why ask me?”

  “Who are you, really?”

  “I’m really Juliette.”

  “Born where?” he asked lazily, studying his well-tended fingernails.

  “Nice.”

  “And what were you doing in Urrugne?”

  “I was in Urrugne?” she said.

  He straightened at that, his gaze returned to hers with interest. “How old are you?”

  “Twenty-two, or nearly, I think. Birthdays don’t mean much anymore.”

  “You look younger.”

  “I feel older.”

  He slowly got to his feet, towered over her. “You work for the Nightingale. I want his name.”

  They didn’t know who she was.

  “I know nothing about birds.”

  The blow came out of the blue, stunning in its impact. Her head whipped sideways, cracked hard against the chair back.

  “Tell me about the Nightingale.”

  “I told you—”

  This time he hit her with an iron ruler across the cheek, so hard she felt her skin break open and blood spill.

  He smiled and said again, “The Nightingale.”

  She spat as hard as she could, but it came out as a dribbling blob of blood that landed in her lap. She shook her head to clear her vision and wished immediately that she hadn’t.

  He was coming toward her again, methodically slapping the red-dripping ruler into his open palm. “I’m Rittmeister Schmidt, Kommandant of the Gestapo in Amboise. And you are?”

  He is going to kill me, Isabelle thought. She struggled against her restraints, breathing hard. She tasted her own blood. “Juliette,” she whispered, desperate now that he believe her.

  She couldn’t last two days.

  This was the risk everyone had warned her about, the terrible truth of what she’d been doing. How had it seemed like an adventure? She would get herself—and everyone she cared about—killed.

  “We have most of your compatriots. There is no sense in you dying to protect dead men.”

  Was it true?

  No. If it were true, she would be dead, too.

  “Juliette Gervaise,” she said again.

  He backhanded her with the ruler so hard the chair toppled sideways and crashed to the floor. Her head cracked on the stone at the same time he kicked her in the stomach with the toe of his boot. The pain was like nothing she’d ever known. She heard him say, “Now, Madamoiselle, name the Nightingale,” and she couldn’t have answered if she wanted to.

  He kicked her again, with all his weight behind the blow.

  * * *

  Consciousness brought pain.

  Everything hurt. Her head, her face, her body. It took effort—and courage—to lift her head. She was still bound at the ankles and wrists. The ropes chafed against her torn, bloodied skin, cut into her bruised flesh.

  Where am I?

  Darkness surrounded her, and not an ordinary darkness, not an unlit room. This was something else; an impenetrable, inky blackness that pressed against her battered face. She sensed a wall was mere inches from her face. She tried to make the smallest move of her foot to reach forward, and pain roared to life again, biting deep into the rope cuts on her ankles.

  She was in a box.

  And she was cold. She could feel her breath and knew it would be visible. Her nostril hairs were frozen. She shivered hard, uncontrollably.

  She screamed in terror; the sound of her scream echoed back at her and was lost.

  * * *

  Freezing.

  Isabelle shuddered with cold, whimpering. She could feel her breath now, pluming in front of her face, turning to frost on her lips. Her eyelashes were frozen.

  Think, Isabelle. Don’t give up.

  She moved her body a little, fighting through the cold and pain.

  She was seated, still bound at the ankles and wrists.

  Naked.

  She closed her eyes, sickened by the image of him undressing her, touching her when she was unconscious.

  In the fetid darkness, she became aware of a thrumming noise. At first, she thought it was her blood, pulsing in pain, or her heart, pounding a desperate beat to stay alive, but it wasn’t that.

  It was a motor, and nearby, humming. She recognized the sound, but what was it?

  She sh
uddered again, trying to wiggle her fingers and toes to combat the dead feeling that had overtaken her extremities. Before there was pain in her feet, and then a tingling, and now … nothing. She moved the only thing she could—her head—and it thunked against something hard. She was naked, tied to a chair inside a …

  Frozen. Dark. Humming. Small …

  A refrigerator.

  She panicked, tried frantically to wrest free, to topple her prison, but all her effort did was wind her. Defeat her. She couldn’t move. Not anything except her fingers and toes, which were too frozen to cooperate. Not like this, please.

  She would freeze to death. Or be asphyxiated.

  Her own breathing echoed back at her, surrounded her, a shudder of breath all around it. She started to cry and her tears froze, turning to icicles on her cheeks. She thought of all the people she loved—Vianne, Sophie, Gaëtan, her father. Why hadn’t she told them she loved them every day when she had the chance? And now she would die without ever saying a word to Vianne.

  Vianne, she thought. Only that. The name. Part prayer, part regret, part good-bye.

  * * *

  A dead body hung from every streetlamp in the town square.

  Vianne came to a stop, unable to believe what she was seeing. Across the way, an old woman stood beneath one of the bodies. The air was full of the whining creak of ropes pulled taut. Vianne moved cautiously through the square, taking care to keep away from the streetlamps—

  Blue-faced, swollen, slack bodies.

 
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