The nightingale, p.8
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       The Nightingale, p.8
 

           Kristin Hannah

  As the crowd approached the town hall, the grumbling stopped. Up close, it felt even worse, this following of instructions, walking blindly into a place with guarded doors and locked windows.

  “We shouldn’t go in,” Isabelle said.

  Rachel, who stood between the sisters, towering over both of them, made a tsking sound. She resettled the baby in her arms, patting his back in a comforting rhythm. “We have been summoned.”

  “All the more reason to hide,” Isabelle said.

  “Sophie and I are going in,” Vianne said, although she had to admit that she felt a prickly sense of foreboding.

  “I have a bad feeling about it,” Isabelle muttered.

  Like a thousand-legged centipede, the crowd moved forward into the great hall. Tapestries had once hung from these walls, leftover treasure from the time of kings, when the Loire Valley had been the royal hunting ground, but all that was gone now. Instead there were swastikas and propagandist posters on the walls—Trust in the Reich!—and a huge painting of Hitler.

  Beneath the painting stood a man wearing a black field tunic decorated with medals and iron crosses, knee breeches, and spit-shined boots. A red swastika armband circled his right bicep.

  When the hall was full, the soldiers closed the oak doors, which creaked in protest. The officer at the front of the hall faced them, shot his right arm out, and said, “Heil Hitler.”

  The crowd murmured softly among themselves. What should they do? “Heil Hitler,” a few said grudgingly. The room began to smell of sweat and leather polish and cigarette smoke.

  “I am Sturmbannführer Weldt of the Geheime Staatspolizei. The Gestapo,” the man in the black uniform said in heavily accented French. “I am here to carry out the terms of the armistice on behalf of the fatherland and the Führer. It will be of little hardship on those of you who obey the rules.” He cleared his throat.

  “The rules: All radios are to be turned in to us at the town hall, immediately, as are all guns, explosives, and ammunition. All operational vehicles will be impounded. All windows will be equipped with material for blackout, and you shall use it. A nine P.M. curfew is instantly in effect. No lights shall be on after dusk. We will control all food, whether grown or imported.” He paused, looked out over the mass of people standing in front of him. “Not so bad, see? We will live together in harmony, yes? But know this. Any act of sabotage or espionage or resistance will be dealt with swiftly and without mercy. The punishment for such behavior is death by execution.” He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket and extracted a single cigarette. Lighting it, he stared out at the people so intently it seemed he was memorizing each face. “Also, although many of your ragged, cowardly soldiers are returning, we must inform you that the men taken prisoner by us shall remain in Germany.”

  Vianne felt confusion ripple through the audience. She looked at Rachel, whose square face was blotchy in places—a sign of anxiety. “Marc and Antoine will come home,” Rachel said stubbornly.

  The Sturmbannführer went on. “You may leave now, as I am sure we understand each other. I will have officers here until eight forty-five tonight. They will receive your contraband. Do not be late. And…” He smiled good-naturedly. “Do not risk your lives to keep a radio. Whatever you keep—or hide—we will find, and if we find it … death.” He said it so casually, and wearing such a fine smile, that for a moment, it didn’t sink in.

  The crowd stood there a moment longer, uncertain whether it was safe to move. No one wanted to be seen as taking the first step, and then suddenly they were moving, pack-like, toward the open doors that led them outside.

  “Bastards,” Isabelle said as they moved into an alley.

  “And I was so sure they’d let us keep our guns,” Rachel said, lighting up a cigarette, inhaling deeply and exhaling in a rush.

  “I’m keeping our gun, I can tell you,” Isabelle said in a loud voice. “And our radio.”

  “Shhh,” Vianne said.

  “Général de Gaulle thinks—”

  “I don’t want to hear that foolishness. We have to keep our heads down until our men come home,” Vianne said.

  “Mon Dieu,” Isabelle said sharply. “You think your husband can fix this?”

  “No,” Vianne said. “I believe you will fix it, you and your Général de Gaulle, of whom no one has ever heard. Now, come. While you are hatching a plan to save France, I need to tend to my garden. Come on, Rachel, let us dullards be away.”

  Vianne held tightly to Sophie’s hand and walked briskly ahead. She did not bother to glance back to see if Isabelle was following. She knew her sister was back there, hobbling forward on her damaged feet. Ordinarily Vianne would keep pace with her sister, out of politeness, but just now she was too mad to care.

  “Your sister may not be so wrong,” Rachel said as they passed the Norman church on the edge of town.

  “If you take her side in this, I may be forced to hurt you, Rachel.”

  “That being said, your sister may not be entirely wrong.”

  Vianne sighed. “Don’t tell her that. She’s unbearable already.”

  “She will have to learn propriety.”

  “You teach her. She has proven singularly resistant to improving herself or listening to reason. She’s been to two finishing schools and still can’t hold her tongue or make polite conversation. Two days ago, instead of going to town for meat, she hid the valuables and created a hiding place for us. Just in case.”

  “I should probably hide mine, too. Not that we have much.”

  Vianne pursed her lips. There was no point in talking further about this. Soon, Antoine would be home and he would help keep Isabelle in line.

  At the gate to Le Jardin, Vianne said good-bye to Rachel and her children, who kept walking.

  “Why do we have to give them our radio, Maman?” Sophie asked. “It belongs to Papa.”

  “We don’t,” Isabelle said, coming up beside them. “We will hide it.”

  “We will not hide it,” Vianne said sharply. “We will do as we are told and keep quiet and soon Antoine will be home and he will know what to do.”

  “Welcome to the Middle Ages, Sophie,” Isabelle said.

  Vianne yanked her gate open, forgetting a second too late that the refugees had broken it. The poor thing clattered on its single hinge. It took all of Vianne’s fortitude to act as if it hadn’t happened. She marched up to the house, opened the door, and immediately turned on the kitchen light. “Sophie,” she said, unpinning her hat. “Would you please set the table?”

  Vianne ignored her daughter’s grumbling—it was to be expected. In only a few days, Isabelle had taught her niece to challenge authority.

  Vianne lit the stove and started cooking. When a creamy potato and lardon soup was simmering, she began to clean up. Of course Isabelle was nowhere around to help. Sighing, she filled the sink with water to wash dishes. She was so intent on her task that it took her a moment to notice that someone was knocking on the front door. Patting her hair, she walked into the living room, where she found Isabelle rising from the divan, a book in her hands. Reading while Vianne cooked and cleaned. Naturally.

  “Are you expecting anyone?” Isabelle asked.

  Vianne shook her head.

  “Maybe we shouldn’t answer,” Isabelle said. “Pretend we’re not here.”

  “It’s most likely Rachel.”

  There was another knock at the door.

  Slowly, the doorknob turned, and the door creaked open.

  Yes. Of course it was Rachel. Who else would—

  A German soldier stepped into her home.

  “Oh, my pardons,” the man said in terrible French. He removed his military hat, tucked it in his armpit, and smiled. He was a good-looking man—tall and broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped, with pale skin and light gray eyes. Vianne guessed he was roughly her age. His field uniform was precisely pressed and looked brand new. An iron cross decorated his stand-up collar. Binoculars hung from a strap around his neck a
nd a chunky leather utility belt cinched his waist. Behind him, through the branches of the orchard, she saw his motorcycle parked on the side of the road. A sidecar was attached to it, mounted with machine guns.

  “Mademoiselle,” he said to Vianne, giving her a swift nod as he clicked his boots together.

  “Madame,” she corrected him, wishing she sounded haughty and in control, but even to her own ears she sounded scared. “Madame Mauriac.”

  “I am Hauptmann—Captain—Wolfgang Beck.” He handed her a piece of paper. “My French is not so good. You will excuse my ineptitude, please.” When he smiled, deep dimples formed in his cheeks.

  She took the paper and frowned down at it. “I don’t read German.”

  “What do you want?” Isabelle demanded, coming to stand by Vianne.

  “Your home is most beautiful and very close to the airfield. I noticed it upon our arrival. How many bedrooms have you?”

  “Why?” Isabelle said at the same time Vianne said, “Three.”

  “I will billet here,” the captain said in his bad French.

  “Billet?” Vianne said. “You mean … to stay?”

  “Oui, Madame.”

  “Billet? You? A man? A Nazi? No. No.” Isabelle shook her head. “No.”

  The captain’s smile neither faded nor fell. “You were to town,” he said, looking at Isabelle. “I saw you when we arrived.”

  “You noticed me?”

  He smiled. “I am sure every red-blooded man in my regiment noticed you.”

  “Funny you would mention blood,” Isabelle said.

  Vianne elbowed her sister. “I am sorry, Captain. My young sister is obstinate on occasion. But I am married, you see, and my husband is at the front, and there is my sister and my daughter here, so you must see how inappropriate it would be to have you here.”

  “Ah, so you would rather leave the house to me. How difficult that must be for you.”

  “Leave?” Vianne said.

  “I believe you aren’t understanding the captain,” Isabelle said, not taking her gaze from him. “He’s moving into your home, taking it over, really, and that piece of paper is a requisition order that makes it possible. And Pétain’s armistice, of course. We can either make room for him or abandon a home that has been in our family for generations.”

  He looked uncomfortable. “This, I’m afraid, is the situation. Many of your fellow villagers are facing the same dilemma, I fear.”

  “If we leave, will we get our home back?” Isabelle asked.

  “I would not think so, Madame.”

  Vianne dared to take a step toward him. Perhaps she could reason with him. “My husband will be home any day now, I imagine. Perhaps you could wait until he is here?”

  “I am not the general, alas. I am simply a captain in the Wehrmacht. I follow orders, Madame, I do not give them. And I am ordered to billet here. But I assure you that I am a gentleman.”

  “We will leave,” Isabelle said.

  “Leave?” Vianne said to her sister in disbelief. “This is my home.” To the captain she said, “I can count on you to be a gentleman?”

  “Of course.”

  Vianne looked at Isabelle, who shook her head slowly.

  Vianne knew there was no real choice. She had to keep Sophie safe until Antoine came home, and then he would handle this unpleasantness. Surely he would be home soon, now that the armistice had been signed. “There is a small bedroom downstairs. You’ll be comfortable there.”

  The captain nodded. “Merci, Madame. I will get my things.”

  * * *

  As soon as the door closed behind the captain, Isabelle said, “Are you mad? We can’t live with a Nazi.”

  “He said he’s in the Wehrmacht. Is that the same thing?”

  “I’m hardly interested in their chain of command. You haven’t seen what they’re willing to do to us, Vianne. I have. We’ll leave. Go next door, to Rachel’s. We could live with her.”

  “Rachel’s house is too small for all of us, and I am not going to abandon my home to the Germans.”

  To that, Isabelle had no answer.

  Vianne felt anxiety turn to an itch along her throat. An old nervous habit returned. “You go if you must, but I am waiting for Antoine. We have surrendered, so he’ll be home soon.”

  “Vianne, please—”

  The front door rattled hard. Another knock.

  Vianne walked dully forward. With a shaking hand, she reached for the knob and opened the door.

  Captain Beck stood there, holding his military hat in one hand and a small leather valise in the other. He said, “Hello again, Madame,” as if he’d been gone for some time.

  Vianne scratched at her neck, feeling acutely vulnerable beneath this man’s gaze. She backed away quickly, saying, “This way, Herr Captain.”

  As she turned, she saw the living room that had been decorated by three generations of her family’s women. Golden stucco walls, the color of freshly baked brioche, gray stone floors covered by ancient Aubusson rugs, heavily carved wooden furniture upholstered in mohair and tapestry fabric, lamps made of porcelain, curtains of gold and red toile, antiques and treasures left over from the years when the Rossignols had been wealthy tradesmen. Until recently there had been artwork on the walls. Now only the unimportant pieces remained. Isabelle had hidden the good ones.

  Vianne walked past all of it to the small guest bedroom tucked beneath the stairs. At the closed door, to the left of the bathroom that had been added in the early twenties, she paused. She could hear him breathing behind her.

  She opened the door to reveal a narrow room with a large window, bracketed by blue-gray curtains that pooled on the wooden floor. A painted chest of drawers supported a blue pitcher and ewer. In the corner was an aged oak armoire with mirrored doors. By the double bed sat a nightstand; on it, an antique ormolu clock. Isabelle’s clothes lay everywhere, as if she were packing for an extended holiday. Vianne picked them up quickly, and the valise, too. When she finished, she turned.

  His suitcase plunked to the floor. She looked at him, compelled by simple politeness to offer a tense smile.

  “You needn’t worry, Madame,” he said. “We have been admonished to act as gentlemen. My mother would demand the same, and, in truth, she scares me more than my general.” It was such an ordinary remark that Vianne was taken aback.

  She had no idea how to respond to this stranger who dressed like the enemy and looked like a young man she might have met at church. And what was the price for saying the wrong thing?

  He remained where he was, a respectful distance from her. “I apologize for any inconvenience, Madame.”

  “My husband will be home soon.”

  “We all hope to be home soon.”

  Another unnerving comment. Vianne nodded politely and left him alone in the room, closing the door behind her.

  “Tell me he’s not staying,” Isabelle said, rushing at her.

  “He says he is,” Vianne said tiredly, pushing back the hair from her eyes. She realized just now that she was trembling. “I know how you feel about these Nazis. Just make sure he doesn’t know it. I won’t let you put Sophie at risk with your childish rebellion.”

  “Childish rebellion! Are you—”

  The guest room door opened, silencing Isabelle.

  Captain Beck strode confidently toward them, smiling broadly. Then he saw the radio in the room and he paused. “Do not worry, ladies. I am most pleased to deliver your radio to the Kommandant.”

  “Really?” Isabelle said. “You consider this a kindness?”

  Vianne felt a tightening in her chest. There was a storm brewing in Isabelle. Her sister’s cheeks had gone pale, her lips were drawn in a thin, colorless line, her eyes were narrowed. She was glaring at the German as if she could kill him with a look.

  “Of course.” He smiled, looking a little confused. The sudden silence seemed to unnerve him. Suddenly he said, “You have beautiful hair, M’mselle.” At Isabelle’s frown, he said, “This
is an appropriate compliment, yes?”

  “Do you think so?” Isabelle said, her voice low.

  “Quite lovely.” Beck smiled.

  Isabelle walked into the kitchen and came back with a pair of boning shears.

  His smile faded. “Am I misunderstood?”

  Vianne said, “Isabelle, don’t,” just as Isabelle gathered up her thick blond hair and fisted it. Staring grimly at Captain Beck’s handsome face, she hacked off her hair and handed the long blond tail to him. “It must be verboten for us to have anything beautiful, is it not, Captain Beck?”

  Vianne gasped. “Please, sir. Ignore her. Isabelle is a silly, prideful girl.”

  “No,” Beck said. “She is angry. And angry people make mistakes in war and die.”

  “So do conquering soldiers,” Isabelle snapped.

  Beck laughed at her.

  Isabelle made a sound that was practically a snarl and pivoted on her heel. She marched up the stairs and slammed the door shut so hard the house shook.

  * * *

  “You will want to speak to her now, I warrant,” Beck said. He looked at Vianne in a way that made it seem as if they understood each other. “Such … theatrics in the wrong place could be most dangerous.”

  Vianne left him standing in her living room and went upstairs. She found Isabelle sitting on Sophie’s bed, so angry she was shaking.

  Scratches marred her cheeks and throat; a reminder of what she’d seen and survived. And now her hair was hacked off, the ends uneven.

  Vianne tossed Isabelle’s belongings onto the unmade bed and closed the door behind her. “What in the name of all that’s holy were you thinking?”

  “I could kill him in his sleep, just slit his throat.”

  “And do you think they would not come looking for a captain who had orders to billet here? Mon Dieu, Isabelle.” She took a deep breath to calm her racing nerves. “I know there are problems between us, Isabelle. I know I treated you badly as a child—I was too young and scared to help you—and Papa treated you worse. But this is not about us now, and you can’t be the girl who acts impetuously anymore. It is about my daughter now. Your niece. We must protect her.”

  “But—”

  “France has surrendered, Isabelle. Certainly this fact has not escaped you.”

  “Didn’t you hear Général de Gaulle? He said—”

  “And who is this Général de Gaulle? Why should we listen to him? Maréchal Pétain is a war hero and our leader. We have to trust our government.”

  “Are you joking, Vianne? The government in Vichy is collaborating with Hitler. How can you not understand this danger? Pétain is wrong. Does one follow a leader blindly?”

  Vianne moved toward Isabelle slowly, half afraid of her now. “You don’t remember the last war,” she said, clasping her hands to still them. “I do. I remember the fathers and brothers and uncles who didn’t come home. I remember hearing children in my class cry quietly when bad news came by telegram. I remember the men who came home on crutches, their pant legs empty and flapping, or an arm gone, or a face ruined. I remember how Papa was before the war—and how different he was when he came home, how he drank and slammed doors and screamed at us, and then when he stopped. I remember the stories about Verdun and Somme and a million Frenchmen dying in trenches that ran red with blood. And the German atrocities, don’t forget that part of it. They were cruel, Isabelle.”

  “That’s my point exactly. We must—”

  “They were cruel because we were at war with them, Isabelle. Pétain has saved us from going through that again. He has kept us safe. He has stopped the war. Now Antoine and all our men will come home.”

  “To a Heil Hitler world?” Isabelle said with a sneer. “‘The flame of French resistance must not and shall not die.’ That’s what de Gaulle said. We have to fight however we can. For France, V. So it stays France.”

  “Enough,” Vianne said. She moved close enough that she could have whispered to Isabelle, or kissed her, but Vianne did neither. In a steady, even voice, she said, “You will take Sophie’s room upstairs and she will move in with me. And remember this, Isabelle, he could shoot us. Shoot us, and no one would care. You will not provoke this soldier in my home.”

  She saw the words hit home. Isabelle stiffened. “I will try to hold my tongue.”

  “Do more than try.”

 
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