The nightingale, p.9
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       The Nightingale, p.9
 

           Kristin Hannah

  NINE

  Vianne closed the bedroom door and leaned against it, trying to calm her nerves. She could hear Isabelle pacing in the room behind her, moving with an anger that made the floorboards tremble. How long did Vianne stand there alone, trembling, trying to get her nerves under control? It felt like hours passed while she struggled with her fear.

  In ordinary times, she would have found the strength to talk rationally with her sister, to say some of the things that had long been unspoken. Vianne would have told Isabelle how sorry she was for the way she’d treated her as a little girl. Maybe she could have made Isabelle understand.

  Vianne had been so helpless after Maman’s death. When Papa had sent them away, to live in this small town, beneath the cold, stern eyes of a woman who had shown the girls no love, Vianne had … wilted.

  In another time, she might have shared with Isabelle what they had in common, how undone she’d been by Maman’s death, how Papa’s rejection had broken her heart. Or how he treated her at sixteen when she’d come to him, pregnant and in love … and been slapped across the face and called a disgrace. How Antoine had pushed Papa back, hard, and said, I’m going to marry her.

  And Papa’s answer: Fine, she’s all yours. You can have the house. But you’ll take her squalling sister, too.

  Vianne closed her eyes. She hated to think about all of that; for years, she’d practically forgotten it. Now, how could she push it aside? She had done to Isabelle exactly what their father had done to them. It was the greatest regret of Vianne’s life.

  But this was not the time to repair that damage.

  Now she had to do everything in her power to keep Sophie safe until Antoine came home. Isabelle would simply have to be made to understand that.

  With a sigh, she went downstairs to check on supper.

  In the kitchen, she found her potato soup simmering a bit too briskly, so she uncovered it and lowered the heat.

  “Madame? Are you sanguine?”

  She flinched at the sound of his voice. When had he come in here? She took a deep breath and patted her hair. It was not the word he meant. Really, his French was terrible.

  “That smells delicious,” he said, coming up behind her.

  She set the wooden spoon down on the rest beside the stove.

  “May I see what you are making?”

  “Of course,” she said, both of them pretending her wishes mattered. “It’s just potato soup.”

  “My wife, alas, is not much of a cook.”

  He was right beside her now, taking Antoine’s place, a hungry man peering down at a cooking dinner.

  “You are married,” she said, reassured by it, although she couldn’t say why.

  “And a baby soon to be born. We are planning to call him Wilhelm, although I will not be there when he is born, and of course, such decisions must inevitably be his mother’s.”

  It was such a … human thing to say. She found herself turning slightly to look at him. He was her height, almost exactly, and it unnerved her; looking directly into his eyes made her feel vulnerable.

  “God willing, we will all be home soon,” he said.

  He wants this over, too, she thought with relief.

  “It’s suppertime, Herr Captain. Will you be joining us?”

  “It would be an honor, Madame. Although you will be pleased to hear that most evenings I will be working late and enjoying my supper with the officers. I shall also often be out on campaigns. You shall sometimes hardly notice my presence.”

  Vianne left him in the kitchen and carried silverware into the dining room, where she almost ran into Isabelle.

  “You shouldn’t be alone with him,” Isabelle hissed.

  The captain came into the room. “You cannot think I would accept your hospitality and then do harm? Consider this night. I have brought you wine. A lovely Sancerre.”

  “You brought us wine,” Isabelle said.

  “As any good guest would,” he answered.

  Vianne thought, oh, no, but there was nothing she could do to stop Isabelle from speaking.

  “You know about Tours, Herr Captain?” Isabelle asked. “How your Stukas fired on innocent women and children who were fleeing for their lives and dropped bombs on us?”

  “Us?” he said, his expression turning thoughtful.

  “I was there. You see the marks on my face.”

  “Ah,” he said. “That must have been most unpleasant.”

  Isabelle went very still. The green of her eyes seemed to blaze against the red marks and bruises on her pale skin. “Unpleasant.”

  “Think about Sophie,” Vianne reminded her evenly.

  Isabelle gritted her teeth and then turned it into a fake smile. “Here, Captain Beck, let me show you to your seat.”

  Vianne took her first decent breath in at least an hour. Then, slowly, she headed into the kitchen to dish up supper.

  * * *

  Vianne served supper in silence. The atmosphere at the table was as heavy as coal soot, settling on all of them. It frayed Vianne’s nerves to the breaking point. Outside, the sun began to set; pink light filled the windows.

  “Would you care for wine, Mademoiselle?” Beck said to Isabelle, pouring himself a large glass of the Sancerre he had brought to the table.

  “If ordinary French families can’t afford to drink it, Herr Captain, how can I enjoy it?”

  “A sip perhaps would not be—”

  Isabelle finished her soup and got to her feet. “Excuse me. I am feeling sick to my stomach.”

  “Me, too,” Sophie said. She got to her feet and followed her aunt out of the room like a puppy follows the lead dog, with her head down.

  Vianne sat perfectly still, her soup spoon held above her bowl. They were leaving her alone with him.

  Her breathing was a flutter in her chest. She carefully set down her spoon and dabbed at her mouth with her serviette. “Forgive my sister, Herr Captain. She is impetuous and willful.”

  “My oldest daughter is such a girl. We expect nothing but trouble when she gets a little older.”

  That surprised Vianne so much that she turned. “You have a daughter?”

  “Gisela,” he said, his mouth curving into a smile. “She is six and already her mother is unable to get her to reliably do the simplest of tasks—like brush her teeth. Our Gisela would rather build a fort than read a book.” He sighed, smiling.

  It flustered her, knowing this about him. She tried to think of a response, but her nerves were too overwrought. She picked up her spoon and began eating again.

  The meal seemed to go on forever, in a silence that was her undoing. The moment he finished, saying, “A lovely meal. My thanks,” she got to her feet and began clearing the table.

  Thankfully, he didn’t follow her into the kitchen. He remained in the dining room, at the table by himself, drinking the wine he’d brought, which she knew would have tasted of autumn—pears and apples.

  By the time she’d washed and dried the dishes, and put them away, night had fallen. She left the house, stepping into the starlit front yard for a moment’s peace. On the stone garden wall, a shadow moved; it was a cat perhaps.

  Behind her, she heard a footfall, then a match strike and the smell of sulfur.

  She took a quiet step backward, wanting to melt into the shadows. If she could move quietly enough, perhaps she could return by the side door without alerting him to her presence. She stepped on a twig, heard it snap beneath her heel, and she froze.

  He stepped out from the orchard.

  “Madame,” he said. “So you love the starlight also. I am sorry to intrude upon you.”

  She was afraid to move.

  He closed the distance between them, taking up a place beside her as if he belonged there, looking out across her orchard.

  “You would never know there is a war on out here,” he said.

  Vianne thought he sounded sad and it reminded her that they were alike in a way, both of them far away from the people they loved. “Your
superior … he said that all prisoners of war will remain in Germany. What does this mean? What of our soldiers? Surely you did not capture all of them.”

  “I do not know, Madame. Some will return. Many will not.”

  “Well. Isn’t this a lovely little moment between new friends,” Isabelle said.

  Vianne flinched, horrified that she had been caught standing out here with a German, the enemy, a man.

  Isabelle stood in the moonlight, wearing a caramel-colored suit; she held her valise in one hand and Vianne’s best Deauville in the other.

  “You have my hat,” Vianne said.

  “I may have to wait for a train. My face is still tender from the Nazi attack.” She was smiling at Beck as she said this. It wasn’t really a smile.

  Beck inclined his head in a curt nod. “You have sisterly things to discuss, obviously. I will take my leave.” With a brisk, polite nod, he returned to the house, closing the door behind him.

  “I can’t stay here,” Isabelle said.

  “Of course you can.”

  “I have no interest in making friends with the enemy, V.”

  “Damn it, Isabelle. Don’t you dare—”

  Isabelle stepped closer. “I’ll put you and Sophie at risk. Sooner or later. You know I will. You told me I needed to protect Sophie. This is the only way I can do it. I feel like I’ll explode if I stay, V.”

  Vianne’s anger dissolved; without it, she felt inexpressibly tired. This essential difference had always been between them. Vianne the rule follower and Isabelle the rebel. Even in girlhood, in grief, they had expressed their emotions differently. Vianne had gone silent after Maman’s death, tried to pretend that Papa’s abandonment didn’t wound her, while Isabelle had thrown tantrums and run away and demanded attention. Maman had sworn that one day they would be the best of friends. Never had this prediction seemed less likely.

  In this, right now, Isabelle was right. Vianne would be constantly afraid of what her sister would say or do around the captain, and truthfully, Vianne hadn’t the strength for it.

  “How will you go? And where?”

  “Train. To Paris. I’ll telegram you when I arrive safely.”

  “Be careful. Don’t do anything foolish.”

  “Me? You know better than that.”

  Vianne pulled Isabelle into a fierce embrace and then let her go.

  * * *

  The road to town was so dark Isabelle couldn’t see her own feet. It was preternaturally quiet, as suspenseful as a held breath, until she came to the airfield. There, she heard boots marching on hard-packed dirt, motorcycles and trucks rolling alongside the skein of barbed wire that now protected the ammunitions dump.

  A lorry appeared out of nowhere, its headlamps off, thundering up the road; she lurched out of its way, stumbling into the ditch.

  In town, it was no easier to navigate with the shops closed and the streetlamps off and the windows blacked out. The silence was eerie and unnerving. Her footsteps seemed too loud. With every step, she was aware that a curfew was in effect and she was violating it.

  She ducked into one of the alleys, feeling her way along the rough sidewalk, her fingertips trailing along the storefronts for guidance. Whenever she heard voices, she froze, shrinking into the shadows until silence returned. It seemed to take forever to reach her destination: the train station on the edge of town.

  “Halt!”

  Isabelle heard the word at the same time a floodlight sprayed white light over her. She was a shadow hunched beneath it.

  A German sentry approached her, his rifle held in his arms. “You are just a girl,” he said, drawing close. “You know about the curfew, ja?” he demanded.

  She rose slowly, facing him with a courage she didn’t feel. “I know we aren’t allowed to be out this late. It is an emergency, though. I must go to Paris. My father is ill.”

  “Where is your Ausweis?”

  “I don’t have one.”

  He eased the rifle off his shoulder and into his hands. “No travel without an Ausweis.”

  “But—”

  “Go home, girl, before you get hurt.”

  “But—”

  “Now, before I decide not to ignore you.”

  Inside, Isabelle was screaming in frustration. It took considerable effort to walk away from the sentry without saying anything.

  On the way home, she didn’t even keep to the shadows. She flaunted her disregard of the curfew, daring them to stop her again. A part of her wanted to get caught so she could let loose the string of invectives screaming inside her head.

  This could not be her life. Trapped in a house with a Nazi in a town that had given up without a whimper of protest. Vianne was not alone in her desire to pretend that France had neither surrendered nor been conquered. In town, the shopkeepers and bistro owners smiled at the Germans and poured them champagne and sold them the best cuts of meat. The villagers, peasants mostly, shrugged and went on with life; oh, they muttered disapprovingly and shook their heads and gave out wrong directions when asked, but beyond those small rebellions, there was nothing. No wonder the German soldiers were swollen with arrogance. They had taken over this town without a fight. Hell, they had done the same thing to all of France.

  But Isabelle could never forget what she’d seen in the field near Tours.

  At home, when she was upstairs again, in the bedroom that had been hers as a child, she slammed the door shut behind her. A few moments later, she smelled cigarette smoke and it made her so angry she wanted to scream.

  He was down there, smoking a cigarette. Captain Beck, with his cut-stone face and fake smile, could toss them all out of this house at will. For any reason or no reason at all. Her frustration curdled into an anger that was like nothing she’d ever known. She felt as if her insides were a bomb that needed to go off. One wrong move—or word—and she might explode.

  She marched over to Vianne’s bedroom and opened the door. “You need a pass to leave town,” she said, her anger expanding. “The bastards won’t let us take a train to see family.”

  From the darkness, Vianne said, “So that’s that.”

  Isabelle didn’t know if it was relief or disappointment she heard in her sister’s voice.

  “Tomorrow morning you will go to town for me. You will stand in the queues while I am at school and get what you can.”

  “But—”

  “No buts, Isabelle. You are here now and staying. It’s time you pulled your weight. I need to be able to count on you.”

  * * *

  For the next week, Isabelle tried to be on her best behavior, but it was impossible with that man living under the same roof. Night after night she didn’t sleep. She lay in her bed, alone in the dark, imagining the worst.

  This morning, well before dawn, she gave up the pretense and got out of bed. She washed her face and dressed in a plain cotton day dress, wrapping a scarf around her butchered hair as she went downstairs.

  Vianne sat on the divan, knitting, an oil lamp lit beside her. In the ring of lamplight that separated her from the darkness, Vianne looked pale and sickly; she obviously hadn’t slept much this week, either. She looked up at Isabelle in surprise. “You’re up early.”

  “I have a long day of standing in lines ahead of me. Might as well get started,” Isabelle said. “The first in line get the best food.”

  Vianne put her knitting aside and stood. Smoothing her dress (another reminder that he was in the house: neither of them came downstairs in nightdresses), she went into the kitchen and then returned with ration cards. “It’s meat today.”

  Isabelle grabbed the ration cards from Vianne and left the house, plunging into the darkness of a blacked-out world.

  Dawn rose as she walked, illuminating a world within a world—one that looked like Carriveau but felt entirely foreign. As she passed the airfield, a small green car with the letters POL on the rear roared past her.

  Gestapo.

  The airfield was already a hive of activity. She saw
four guards out front—two at the newly constructed gated entrance and two at the building’s double doors. Nazi flags snapped in the early-morning breeze. Several aeroplanes stood ready for takeoff—to drop bombs on England and across Europe. Guards marched in front of red signs that read: VERBOTEN. KEEP OUT UNDER PENALTY OF DEATH.

  She kept walking.

  There were already four women queued up in front of the butcher’s shop when she arrived. She took her place at the back of the line.

  That was when she saw a piece of chalk lying in the road, tucked in against the curb. She knew instantly how she could use it.

  She glanced around, but no one was looking at her. Why would they be when there were German soldiers everywhere? Men in uniforms strode through town like peacocks, buying whatever caught their eye. Rambunctious and loud and quick to laugh. They were unfailingly polite, opening doors for women and tipping their hats, but Isabelle wasn’t fooled.

  She bent down and palmed the bit of chalk, hiding it in her pocket. It felt dangerous and wonderful just having it. She tapped her foot impatiently after that, waiting for her turn.

  “Good morning,” she said, offering her ration card to the butcher’s wife, a tired-looking woman with thinning hair and even thinner lips.

  “Ham hocks, two pounds. That’s what is left.”

  “Bones?”

  “The Germans take all the good meat, M’mselle. You’re lucky, in fact. Pork is verboten for the French, don’t you know, but they don’t want the hocks. Do you want them or non?”

  “I’ll take them,” someone said behind her.

  “So will I!” yelled another woman.

  “I’ll take them,” Isabelle said. She took the small packet, wrapped up in wrinkled paper and tied with twine.

  Across the street, she heard the sound of jackboots marching on cobblestone, the rattling of sabers in scabbards, the sound of male laughter and the purring voices of the French women who warmed their beds. A trio of German soldiers sat at a bistro table not far away.

  “Mademoiselle?” one of them said, waving to her. “Come have coffee with us.”

  She clutched her willow basket with its paper-wrapped treasures, small and insufficient as they were, and ignored the soldiers. She slipped around the corner and into an alley that was narrow and crooked, like all such passageways in town. Entrances were slim, and from the street, they appeared to be dead ends. Locals knew how to navigate them as easily as a boatman knows a boggy river. She walked forward, unobserved. The shops in the alley had all been shut down.

  A poster in the abandoned milliner’s shopwindow showed a crooked old man with a huge, hooked nose, looking greedy and evil, holding a bag of money and trailing blood and bodies behind him. She saw the word—Juif—Jew—and stopped.

  She knew she should keep walking. It was just propaganda, after all, the enemy’s heavy-handed attempt to blame the Jewish people for the ills of the world, and this war.

  And yet.

  She glanced to her left. Not fifty feet away was rue La Grande, a main street through town; to her right was an elbow bend in the alleyway.

  She reached into her pocket and pulled out her piece of chalk. When she was sure the coast was clear, she drew a huge V for victory on the poster, obliterating as much of the image as she could.

 
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