The nightingale, p.4
“You’re going,” he said.
“I want to stay and fight, Papa. To be like Edith Cavell.”
He rolled his eyes. “You remember how she died? Executed by the Germans.”
“Enough. I have seen what they can do, Isabelle. You have not.”
“If it’s that bad, you should come with me.”
“And leave the apartment and bookshop to them?” He grabbed her by the hand and dragged her out of the apartment and down the stairs, her straw hat and valise banging into the wall, her breath coming in gasps.
At last he opened the door and pulled her out onto the Avenue de La Bourdonnais.
Chaos. Dust. Crowds. The street was a living, breathing dragon of humanity, inching forward, wheezing dirt, honking horns; people yelling for help, babies crying, and the smell of sweat heavy in the air.
Automobiles clogged the area, each burdened beneath boxes and bags. People had taken whatever they could find—carts and bicycles and even children’s wagons.
Those who couldn’t find or afford the petrol or an automobile or a bicycle walked. Hundreds—thousands—of women and children held hands, shuffled forward, carrying as much as they could hold. Suitcases, picnic baskets, pets.
Already the very old and very young were falling behind.
Isabelle didn’t want to join this hopeless, helpless crowd of women and children and old people. While the young men were away—dying for them at the front—their families were leaving, heading south or west, although, really, what made any of them think it would be safer there? Hitler’s troops had already invaded Poland and Belgium and Czechoslovakia.
The crowd engulfed them.
A woman ran into Isabelle, mumbled pardon, and kept walking.
Isabelle followed her father. “I can be useful. Please. I’ll be a nurse or drive an ambulance. I can roll bandages or even stitch up a wound.”
Beside them, a horn aah-ooh-gahed.
Her father looked past her, and she saw the relief that lifted his countenance. Isabelle recognized that look: it meant he was getting rid of her. Again. “They are here,” he said.
“Don’t send me away,” she said. “Please.”
He maneuvered her through the crowd to where a dusty black automobile was parked. It had a saggy, stained mattress strapped to its roof, along with a set of fishing poles and a rabbit cage with the rabbit still inside. The boot was open but also strapped down; inside she saw a jumble of baskets and suitcases and lamps.
Inside the automobile, Monsieur Humbert’s pale, plump fingers clutched the steering wheel as if the automobile were a horse that might bolt at any second. He was a pudgy man who spent his days in the butcher shop near Papa’s bookstore. His wife, Patricia, was a sturdy woman who had the heavy-jowled-peasant look one saw so often in the country. She was smoking a cigarette and staring out the window as if she couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
Monsieur Humbert rolled down his window and poked his face into the opening. “Hello, Julien. She is ready?”
Papa nodded. “She is ready. Merci, Edouard.”
Patricia leaned over to talk to Papa through the open window. “We are only going as far as Orléans. And she has to pay her share of petrol.”
Isabelle couldn’t leave. It was cowardly. Wrong. “Papa—”
“Au revoir,” he said firmly enough to remind her that she had no choice. He nodded toward the car and she moved numbly toward it.
She opened the back door and saw three small, dirty girls lying together, eating crackers and drinking from bottles and playing with dolls. The last thing she wanted was to join them, but she pushed her way in, made a space for herself among these strangers that smelled vaguely of cheese and sausage, and closed the door.
Twisting around in her seat, she stared at her father through the back window. His face held her gaze; she saw his mouth bend ever so slightly downward; it was the only hint that he saw her. The crowd surged around him like water around a rock, until all she could see was the wall of bedraggled strangers coming up behind the car.
Isabelle faced forward in her seat again. Out her window, a young woman stared back at her, wild eyes, hair a bird’s nest, an infant suckling on her breast. The car moved slowly, sometimes inching forward, sometimes stopped for long periods of time. Isabelle watched her countrymen—countrywomen—shuffle past her, looking dazed and terrified and confused. Every now and then one of them would pound on the car bonnet or boot, begging for something. They kept the windows rolled up even though the heat in the car was stifling.
At first, she was sad to be leaving, and then her anger bloomed, growing hotter even than the air in the back of this stinking car. She was so tired of being considered disposable. First, her papa had abandoned her, and then Vianne had pushed her aside. She closed her eyes to hide tears she couldn’t suppress. In the darkness that smelled of sausage and sweat and smoke, with the children arguing beside her, she remembered the first time she’d been sent away.
The long train ride … Isabelle stuffed in beside Vianne, who did nothing but sniff and cry and pretend to sleep.
And then Madame looking down her copper pipe of a nose saying, They will be no trouble.
Although she’d been young—only four—Isabelle thought she’d learned what alone meant, but she’d been wrong. In the three years she’d lived at Le Jardin, she’d at least had a sister, even if Vianne was never around. Isabelle remembered peering down from the upstairs window, watching Vianne and her friends from a distance, praying to be remembered, to be invited, and then when Vianne had married Antoine and fired Madame Doom (not her real name, of course, but certainly the truth), Isabelle had believed she was a part of the family. But not for long. When Vianne had her miscarriage, it was instantly good-bye, Isabelle. Three weeks later—at seven—she’d been in her first boarding school. That was when she really learned about alone.
“You. Isabelle. Did you bring food?” Patricia asked. She was turned around in her seat, peering at Isabelle.
“I brought money and clothes and books.”
“Books,” Patricia said dismissively, and turned back around. “That should help.”
Isabelle looked out the window again. What other mistakes had she already made?
* * *
Hours passed. The automobile made its slow, agonizing way south. Isabelle was grateful for the dust. It coated the window and obscured the terrible, depressing scene.
People. Everywhere. In front of them, behind them, beside them; so thick was the crowd that the automobile could only inch forward in fits and starts. It was like driving through a swarm of bees that pulled apart for a second and then swarmed again. The sun was punishingly hot. It turned the smelly automobile interior into an oven and beat down on the women outside who were shuffling toward … what? No one knew what exactly was happening behind them or where safety lay ahead.
The car lurched forward and stopped hard. Isabelle hit the seat in front of her. The children immediately started to cry for their mother.
“Merde,” Monsieur Humbert muttered.
“M’sieur Humbert,” Patricia said primly. “The children.”
An old woman pounded on the car’s bonnet as she shuffled past.
“That’s it, then, Madame Humbert,” he said. “We are out of petrol.”
Patricia looked like a landed fish. “What?”
“I stopped at every chance along the way. You know I did. We have no more petrol and there’s none to be had.”
“But … well … what are we to do?”
“We’ll find a place to stay. Perhaps I can convince my brother to come fetch us.” Humbert opened his automobile door, being careful not to hit anyone ambling past, and stepped out onto the dusty, dirt road. “See. There. Étampes is not far ahead. We’ll get a room and a meal and it will all look better in the morning.”
Patricia turned around in her seat. She looked as drained and hot as Isabelle felt. “Perhaps one of your books can help you. Certainly they were a smarter choice than bread or water. Come, girls. Out of the automobile.”
Isabelle reached down for the valise at her feet. It was wedged in tightly and required some effort to extricate. With a growl of determination, she finally yanked it free and opened the car door and stepped out.
She was immediately surrounded by people, pushed and shoved and cursed at.
Someone tried to yank her suitcase out of her grasp. She fought for it, hung on. As she clutched it to her body, a woman walked past her, pushing a bicycle laden with possessions. The woman stared at Isabelle hopelessly, her dark eyes revealing exhaustion.
Someone else bumped into Isabelle; she stumbled forward and almost fell. Only the thicket of bodies in front of her saved her from going to her knees in the dust and dirt. She heard the person beside her apologize, and Isabelle was about to respond when she remembered the Humberts.
She shoved her way around to the other side of the car, crying out, “M’sieur Humbert!”
There was no answer, just the ceaseless pounding of feet on the road.
She called out Patricia’s name, but her cry was lost in the thud of so many feet, so many tires crunching on the dirt. People bumped her, pushed past her. If she fell to her knees, she’d be trampled and die here, alone in the throng of her countrymen.
Clutching the smooth leather handle of her valise, she joined the march toward Étampes.
She was still walking hours later when night fell. Her feet ached; a blister burned with every step. Hunger walked beside her, poking her insistently with its sharp little elbow, but what could she do about it? She’d packed for a visit with her sister, not an endless exodus. She had her favorite copy of Madame Bovary and the book everyone was reading—Autant en emporte le vent—and some clothes; no food or water. She’d expected that this whole journey would last a few hours. Certainly not that she would be walking to Carriveau.
At the top of a small rise, she came to a stop. Moonlight revealed thousands of people walking beside her, in front of her, behind her; jostling her, bumping into her, shoving her forward until she had no choice but to stumble along with them. Hundreds more had chosen this hillside as a resting place. Women and children were camped along the side of the road, in fields and gutters and gullies.
The dirt road was littered with broken-down automobiles and belongings; forgotten, discarded, stepped on, too heavy to carry. Women and children lay entangled in the grass or beneath trees or alongside ditches, asleep, their arms coiled around each other.
Isabelle came to an exhausted halt on the outskirts of Étampes. The crowd spilled out in front of her, stumbling onto the road to town.
And she knew.
There would be nowhere to stay in Étampes and nothing to eat. The refugees who had arrived before her would have moved through the town like locusts, buying every foodstuff on the shelves. There wouldn’t be a room available. Her money would do her no good.
So what should she do?
Head southwest, toward Tours and Carriveau. What else? As a girl, she’d studied maps of this region in her quest to return to Paris. She knew this landscape, if only she could think.
She peeled away from the crowd headed toward the collection of moonlit gray stone buildings in the distance and picked her way carefully through the valley. All around her people were seated in the grass or sleeping beneath blankets. She could hear them moving, whispering. Hundreds of them. Thousands. On the far side of the field, she found a trail that ran south along a low stone wall. Turning onto it, she found herself alone. She paused, letting the feel of that settle through her, calm her. Then she began walking again. After a mile or so the trail led her into a copse of spindly trees.
She was deep in the woods—trying not to focus on the pain in her toe, the ache in her stomach, the dryness in her throat—when she smelled smoke.
And roasting meat. Hunger stripped her resolve and made her careless. She saw the orange glow of the fire and moved toward it. At the last minute, she realized her danger and stopped. A twig snapped beneath her foot.
“You may as well come over,” said a male voice. “You move like an elephant through the woods.”
Isabelle froze. She knew she’d been stupid. There could be danger here for a girl alone.
“If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead.”
That was certainly true. He could have come upon her in the dark and slit her throat. She’d been paying attention to nothing except the gnawing in her empty stomach and the aroma of roasting meat.
“You can trust me.”
She stared into the darkness, trying to make him out. Couldn’t. “You would say that if the opposite were true, too.”
A laugh. “Oui. And now, come here. I have a rabbit on the fire.”
She followed the glow of firelight over a rocky gully and uphill. The tree trunks around her looked silver in the moonlight. She moved lightly, ready to run in an instant. At the last tree between her and the fire she stopped.
A young man sat by the fire, leaning back against a rough trunk, one leg thrust forward, one bent at the knee. He was probably only a few years older than Isabelle.
It was hard to see him well in the orange glow. He had longish, stringy black hair that looked unfamiliar with a comb or soap and clothes so tattered and patched she was reminded of the war refugees who’d so recently shuffled through Paris, hoarding cigarettes and bits of paper and empty bottles, begging for change or help. He had the pale, unwholesome look of someone who never knew where his next meal was coming from.
And yet he was offering her food.
“I hope you are a gentleman,” she said from her place in the darkness.
He laughed. “I’m sure you do.”
She stepped into the light cast by the fire.
“Sit,” he said.
She sat across from him in the grass. He leaned around the fire and handed her the bottle of wine. She took a long drink, so long he laughed as she handed him back the bottle and wiped wine from her chin.
“What a pretty drunkard you are.”
She had no idea how to answer that.
“Gaëtan Dubois. My friends call me Gaët.”
“Ah, a nightingale.”
She shrugged. It was hardly a new observation. Her surname meant “nightingale.” Maman had called Vianne and Isabelle her nightingales as she kissed them good night. It was one of Isabelle’s few memories of her. “Why are you leaving Paris? A man like you should stay and fight.”
“They opened the prison. Apparently it is better to have us fight for France than sit behind bars when the Germans storm through.”
“You were in prison?”
“Does that scare you?”
“No. It’s just … unexpected.”
“You should be scared,” he said, pushing the stringy hair out of his eyes. “Anyway, you are safe enough with me. I have other things on my mind. I am going to check on my maman and sister and then find a regiment to join. I’ll kill as many of those bastards as I can.”
“You’re lucky,” she said with a sigh. Why was it so easy for men in the world to do as they wanted and so difficult for women?
“Come with me.”
Isabelle knew better than to believe him. “You only ask because I’m pretty and you think I’ll end up in your bed if I stay,” she said.
He stared across the fire at her. It cracked and hissed as fat dripped onto the flames. He took a long drink of wine and handed the bottle back to her. Near the flames, their hands touched, the barest brushing of skin on skin. “I could have you in my bed right now if that’s what I wanted.”
“Not willingly,” she said, swal
“Willingly,” he said in a way that made her skin prickle and made breathing difficult. “But that’s not what I meant. Or what I said. I asked you to come with me to fight.”
Isabelle felt something so new she couldn’t quite grasp it. She knew she was beautiful. It was simply a fact to her. People said it whenever they met her. She saw how men gazed at her with unabashed desire, remarking on her hair or green eyes or plump lips; how they looked at her breasts. She saw her beauty reflected in women’s eyes, too, girls at school who didn’t want her to stand too near the boys they liked and judged her to be arrogant before she’d even spoken a word.
Beauty was just another way to discount her, to not see her. She had grown used to getting attention in other ways. And she wasn’t a complete innocent when it came to passion, either. Hadn’t the good Sisters of St. Francis expelled her for kissing a boy during mass?
But this felt different.
He saw her beauty, even in the half-light, she could tell, but he looked past it. Either that, or he was smart enough to see that she wanted to offer more to the world than a pretty face.
“I could do something that matters,” she said quietly.
“Of course you could. I could teach you to use a gun and a knife.”
“I need to go to Carriveau and make sure my sister is well. Her husband is at the front.”
He gazed at her across the fire, his expression intent. “We will see your sister in Carriveau and my mother in Poitiers, and then we will be off to join the war.”
He made it sound like such an adventure, no different from running off to join the circus, as if they would see men who swallowed swords and fat women with beards along the way.
It was what she’d been looking for all of her life. “A plan, then,” she said, unable to hide her smile.
The next morning Isabelle blinked awake to see sunlight gilding the leaves rustling overhead.
She sat up, resmoothing the skirt that had hiked up in her sleep, revealing lacy white garters and ruined silk stockings.
“Don’t do that on my account.”
Isabelle glanced to her left and saw Gaëtan coming toward her. For the first time, she saw him clearly. He was lanky, wiry as an apostrophe mark, and dressed in clothes that appeared to have come from a beggar’s bin. Beneath a fraying cap, his face was scruffy and sharp, unshaven. He had a wide brow and a pronounced chin and deep-set gray eyes that were heavily lashed. The look in those eyes was as sharp as the point of his chin, and revealed a kind of clarified hunger. Last night she’d thought it was how he’d looked at her. Now she saw that it was how he looked at the world.
He didn’t scare her, not at all. Isabelle was not like her sister, Vianne, who was given to fear and anxiety. But neither was Isabelle a fool. If she was going to travel with this man, she had better get a few things straight.
“So,” she said. “Prison.”
He stared at her, raised a black eyebrow, as if to say, Scared yet? “A girl like you wouldn’t know anything about it. I could tell you it was a Jean Valjean sort of stay and you would think it was romantic.”
It was the kind of thing she heard all the time. It circled back to her looks, as most snide comments did. Surely a pretty blond girl had to be shallow and dim-witted. “Were you stealing food to feed your family?”
He grinned crookedly. It gave him a lopsided look, with one side of his smile hiking up farther than the other. “No.”
“Are you dangerous?”
“It depends. What do you think of communists?”
“Ah. So you were a political prisoner.”
“Something like that. But like I said, a nice girl like you wouldn’t know anything about survival.”
“You’d be surprised the things I know, Gaëtan. There is more than one kind of prison.”
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah / Romance & Love have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on85 votes