The Nightingale

  She did, carefully crossing her ankles as a lady should, clasping her hands together. “Madame Dufour asked me to tell you that the experiment is over.”

  Madame reached for one of the Murano fountain pens on her desk and picked it up, tapping it on the desk. “Why are you here, Isabelle?”

  “I hate oranges.”


  “And if I were to eat an orange—which, honestly, Madame, why would I when I don’t like them—I would use my hands like the Americans do. Like everyone does, really. A fork and knife to eat an orange?”

  “I mean, why are you at the school?”

  “Oh. That. Well, the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Avignon expelled me. For nothing, I might add.”

  “And the Sisters of St. Francis?”

  “Ah. They had reason to expel me.”

  “And the school before that?”

  Isabelle didn’t know what to say.

  Madame put down her fountain pen. “You are almost nineteen.”

  “Oui, Madame.”

  “I think it’s time for you to leave.”

  Isabelle got to her feet. “Shall I return to the orange lesson?”

  “You misunderstand. I mean you should leave the school, Isabelle. It is clear that you are not interested in learning what we have to teach you.”

  “How to eat an orange and when you can spread cheese and who is more important—the second son of a duke or a daughter who won’t inherit or an ambassador to an unimportant country? Madame, do you not know what is going on in the world?”

  Isabelle might have been secreted deep in the countryside, but still she knew. Even here, barricaded behind hedges and bludgeoned by politeness, she knew what was happening in France. At night in her monastic cell, while her classmates were in bed, she sat up, long into the night, listening to the BBC on her contraband radio. France had joined Britain in declaring war on Germany, and Hitler was on the move. All across France people had stockpiled food and put up blackout shades and learned to live like moles in the dark.

  They had prepared and worried and then … nothing.

  Month after month, nothing happened.

  At first all anyone could talk about was the Great War and the losses that had touched so many families, but as the months went on, and there was only talk of war, Isabelle heard her teachers calling it the drôle de guerre, the phony war. The real horror was happening elsewhere in Europe; in Belgium and Holland and Poland.

  “Will manners not matter in war, Isabelle?”

  “They don’t matter now,” Isabelle said impulsively, wishing a moment later that she’d said nothing.

  Madame stood. “We were never the right place for you, but…”

  “My father would put me anywhere to be rid of me,” she said. Isabelle would rather blurt out the truth than hear another lie. She had learned many lessons in the parade of schools and convents that had housed her for more than a decade—most of all, she’d learned that she had to rely on herself. Certainly her father and her sister couldn’t be counted on.

  Madame looked at Isabelle. Her nose flared ever so slightly, an indication of polite but pained disapproval. “It is hard for a man to lose his wife.”

  “It is hard for a girl to lose her mother.” She smiled defiantly. “I lost both parents though, didn’t I? One died, and the other turned his back on me. I can’t say which hurt more.”

  “Mon Dieu, Isabelle, must you always speak whatever is on your mind?”

  Isabelle had heard this criticism all her life, but why should she hold her tongue? No one listened to her either way.

  “So you will leave today. I will telegram your father. Tómas will take you to the train.”

  “Tonight?” Isabelle blinked. “But … Papa won’t want me.”

  “Ah. Consequences,” Madame said. “Perhaps now you will see that they should be considered.”

  * * *

  Isabelle was alone on a train again, heading toward an unknown reception.

  She stared out the dirty, mottled window at the flashing green landscape: fields of hay, red roofs, stone cottages, gray bridges, horses.

  Everything looked exactly as it always had and that surprised her. War was coming, and she’d imagined it would leave a mark on the countryside somehow, changing the grass color or killing the trees or scaring away the birds, but now, as she sat on this train chugging into Paris, she saw that everything looked completely ordinary.

  At the sprawling Gare de Lyon, the train came to a wheezing, belching stop. Isabelle reached down for the small valise at her feet and pulled it onto her lap. As she watched the passengers shuffle past her, exiting the train carriage, the question she’d avoided came back to her.


  She wanted to believe he would welcome her home, that finally, he would hold out his hands and say her name in a loving way, the way he had Before, when Maman had been the glue that held them together.

  She stared down at her scuffed suitcase.

  So small.

  Most of the girls in the schools she’d attended had arrived with a collection of trunks bound in leather straps and studded with brass tacks. They had pictures on their desks and mementos on their nightstands and photograph albums in their drawers.

  Isabelle had a single framed photograph of a woman she wanted to remember and couldn’t. When she tried, all that came to her were blurry images of people crying and the physician shaking his head and her mother saying something about holding tightly to her sister’s hand.

  As if that would help. Vianne had been as quick to abandon Isabelle as Papa had been.

  She realized that she was the only one left in the carriage. Clasping her suitcase in her gloved hand, she sidled out of the seat and exited the carriage.

  The platforms were full of people. Trains stood in shuddering rows; smoke filled the air, puffed up toward the high, arched ceiling. Somewhere a whistle blared. Great iron wheels began to churn. The platform trembled beneath her feet.

  Her father stood out, even in the crowd.

  When he spotted her, she saw the irritation that transformed his features, reshaped his expression into one of grim determination.

  He was a tall man, at least six foot two, but he had been bent by the Great War. Or at least that was what Isabelle remembered hearing once. His broad shoulders sloped downward, as if posture were too much to think about with all that was on his mind. His thinning hair was gray and unkempt. He had a broad, flattened nose, like a spatula, and lips as thin as an afterthought. On this hot summer day, he wore a wrinkled white shirt, with sleeves rolled up; a tie hung loosely tied around his fraying collar, and his corduroy pants were in need of laundering.

  She tried to look … mature. Perhaps that was what he wanted of her.


  She clutched her suitcase handle in both hands. “Papa.”

  “Kicked out of another one.”

  She nodded, swallowing hard.

  “How will we find another school in these times?”

  That was her opening. “I want to live with you, Papa.”

  “With me?” He seemed irritated and surprised. But wasn’t it normal for a girl to want to live with her father?

  She took a step toward him. “I could work in the bookstore. I won’t get in your way.”

  She drew in a sharp breath, waiting. Sound amplified suddenly. She heard people walking, the platforms groaning beneath them, pigeons flapping their wings overhead, a baby crying.

  Of course, Isabelle.

  Come home.

  Her father sighed in disgust and walked away.

  “Well,” he said, looking back. “Are you coming?”

  * * *

  Isabelle lay on a blanket in the sweet-smelling grass, a book open in front of her. Somewhere nearby a bee buzzed at a blossom; it sounded like a tiny motorcycle amid all this quiet. It was a blisteringly hot day, a week after she’d come home to Paris. Well, not home. She knew her father was still plotting to be rid of her,
but she didn’t want to think about that on such a gorgeous day, in the air that smelled of cherries and sweet, green grass.

  “You read too much,” Christophe said, chewing on a stalk of hay. “What is that, a romantic novel?”

  She rolled toward him, snapping the book shut. It was about Edith Cavell, a nurse in the Great War. A hero. “I could be a war hero, Christophe.”

  He laughed. “A girl? A hero? Absurd.”

  Isabelle got to her feet quickly, yanking up her hat and white kid gloves.

  “Don’t be mad,” he said, grinning up at her. “I’m just tired of the war talk. And it’s a fact that women are useless in war. Your job is to wait for our return.”

  He propped his cheek in one hand and peered up at her through the mop of blond hair that fell across his eyes. In his yachting-style blazer and wide-legged white pants, he looked exactly like what he was—a privileged university student who was unused to work of any kind. Many students his age had volunteered to leave university and join the army. Not Christophe.

  Isabelle hiked up the hill and through the orchard, out to the grassy knoll where his open-topped Panhard was parked.

  She was already behind the wheel, with the engine running, when Christophe appeared, a sheen of sweat on his conventionally handsome face, the empty picnic basket hanging from his arm.

  “Just throw that stuff in the back,” she said with a bright smile.

  “You’re not driving.”

  “It appears that I am. Now get in.”

  “It’s my automobile, Isabelle.”

  “Well, to be precise—and I know how important the facts are to you, Christophe—it’s your mother’s automobile. And I believe a woman should drive a woman’s automobile.”

  Isabelle tried not to smile when he rolled his eyes and muttered “fine” and leaned over to place the basket behind Isabelle’s seat. Then, moving slowly enough to make his point, he walked around the front of the automobile and took his place in the seat beside her.

  He had no sooner clicked the door shut than she put the automobile in gear and stomped on the gas. The automobile hesitated for a second, then lurched forward, spewing dust and smoke as it gathered speed.

  “Mon Dieu, Isabelle. Slow down!”

  She held on to her flapping straw hat with one hand and clutched the steering wheel with the other. She barely slowed as she passed other motorists.

  “Mon Dieu, slow down,” he said again.

  Certainly he must know that she had no intention of complying.

  “A woman can go to war these days,” Isabelle said when the Paris traffic finally forced her to slow down. “I could be an ambulance driver, maybe. Or I could work on breaking secret codes. Or charming the enemy into telling me a secret location or plan. Remember that game—”

  “War is not a game, Isabelle.”

  “I believe I know that, Christophe. But if it does come, I can help. That’s all I’m saying.”

  On the rue de l’Amiral de Coligny, she had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a lorry. A convoy from the Comédie Française was pulling out of the Louvre museum. In fact, there were lorries everywhere and uniformed gendarmes directing traffic. Sandbags were piled up around several buildings and monuments to protect from attack—of which there had been none since France joined the war.

  Why were there so many French policemen out here?

  “Odd,” Isabelle mumbled, frowning.

  Christophe craned his neck to see what was going on. “They’re moving treasures out of the Louvre,” he said.

  Isabelle saw a break in traffic and sped up. In no time, she had pulled up in front of her father’s bookshop and parked.

  She waved good-bye to Christophe and ducked into the shop. It was long and narrow, lined from floor to ceiling with books. Over the years, her father had tried to increase his inventory by building freestanding bookcases. The result of his “improvements” was the creation of a labyrinth. The stacks led one this way and that, deeper and deeper within. At the very back were the books for tourists. Some stacks were well lit, some in shadows. There weren’t enough outlets to illuminate every nook and cranny. But her father knew every title on every shelf.

  “You’re late,” he said, looking up from his desk in the back. He was doing something with the printing press, probably making one of his books of poetry, which no one ever purchased. His blunt-tipped fingers were stained blue. “I suppose boys are more important to you than employment.”

  She slid onto the stool behind the cash register. In the week she’d lived with her father she’d made it a point not to argue back, although acquiescing gnawed at her. She tapped her foot impatiently. Words, phrases—excuses—clamored to be spoken aloud. It was hard not to tell him how she felt, but she knew how badly he wanted her gone, so she held her tongue.

  “Do you hear that?” he said sometime later.

  Had she fallen asleep?

  Isabelle sat up. She hadn’t heard her father approach, but he was beside her now, frowning.

  There was a strange sound in the bookshop, to be sure. Dust fell from the ceiling; the bookcases clattered slightly, making a sound like chattering teeth. Shadows passed in front of the leaded-glass display windows at the entrance. Hundreds of them.

  People? So many of them?

  Papa went to the door. Isabelle slid off her stool and followed him. As he opened the door, she saw a crowd running down the street, filling the sidewalks.

  “What in the world?” Papa muttered.

  Isabelle pushed past Papa, elbowed her way into the crowd.

  A man bumped into her so hard she stumbled, and he didn’t even apologize. More people rushed past them.

  “What is it? What’s happened?” she asked a florid, wheezing man who was trying to break free of the crowd.

  “The Germans are coming into Paris,” he said. “We must leave. I was in the Great War. I know…”

  Isabelle scoffed. “Germans in Paris? Impossible.”

  He ran away, bobbing from side to side, weaving, his hands fisting and unfisting at his sides.

  “We must get home,” Papa said, locking the bookshop door.

  “It can’t be true,” she said.

  “The worst can always be true,” Papa said grimly. “Stay close to me,” he added, moving into the crowd.

  Isabelle had never seen such panic. All up and down the street, lights were coming on, automobiles were starting, doors were slamming shut. People screamed to one another and reached out, trying to stay connected in the melee.

  Isabelle stayed close to her father. The pandemonium in the streets slowed them down. The Métro tunnels were too crowded to navigate, so they had to walk all the way. It was nearing nightfall when they finally made it home. At their apartment building, it took her father two tries to open the main door, his hands were shaking so badly. Once in, they ignored the rickety cage elevator and hurried up five flights of stairs to their apartment.

  “Don’t turn on the lights,” her father said harshly as he opened the door.

  Isabelle followed him into the living room and went past him to the window, where she lifted the blackout shade, peering out.

  From far away came a droning sound. As it grew louder, the window rattled, sounding like ice in a glass.

  She heard a high whistling sound only seconds before she saw the black flotilla in the sky, like birds flying in formation.


  “Boches,” her father whispered.


  German aeroplanes, flying over Paris. The whistling sound increased, became like a woman’s scream, and then somewhere—maybe in the second arrondissement, she thought—a bomb exploded in a flash of eerie bright light, and something caught fire.

  The air raid siren sounded. Her father wrenched the curtains shut and led her out of the apartment and down the stairs. Their neighbors were all doing the same thing, carrying coats and babies and pets down the stairs to the lobby and then down the narrow, twisting stone stairs that
led to the cellar. In the dark, they sat together, crowded in close. The air stank of mildew and body odor and fear—that was the sharpest scent of all. The bombing went on and on and on, screeching and droning, the cellar walls vibrating around them; dust fell from the ceiling. A baby started crying and couldn’t be soothed.

  “Shut that child up, please,” someone snapped.

  “I am trying, M’sieur. He is scared.”

  “So are we all.”

  After what felt like an eternity, silence fell. It was almost worse than the noise. What of Paris was left?

  By the time the all clear sounded, Isabelle felt numb.


  She wanted her father to reach out for her, to take her hand and comfort her, even if it was just for a moment, but he turned away from her and headed up the dark, twisting basement stairs. In their apartment, Isabelle went immediately to the window, peering past the shade to look for the Eiffel Tower. It was still there, rising above a wall of thick black smoke.

  “Don’t stand by the windows,” he said.

  She turned slowly. The only light in the room was from his torch, a sickly yellow thread in the dark. “Paris won’t fall,” she said.

  He said nothing. Frowned. She wondered if he was thinking of the Great War and what he’d seen in the trenches. Perhaps his injury was hurting again, aching in sympathy with the sound of falling bombs and hissing flames.

  “Go to bed, Isabelle.”

  “How can I possibly sleep at a time like this?”

  He sighed. “You will learn that a lot of things are possible.”


  They had been lied to by their government. They’d been assured, time and time again, that the Maginot Line would keep the Germans out of France.


  Neither concrete and steel nor French soldiers could stop Hitler’s march, and the government had run from Paris like thieves in the night. It was said they were in Tours, strategizing, but what good did strategy do when Paris was to be overrun by the enemy?

  “Are you ready?”

  “I am not going, Papa. I have told you this.” She had dressed for travel—as he’d asked—in a red polka-dot summer dress and low heels.

  “We will not have this conversation again, Isabelle. The Humberts will be here soon to pick you up. They will take you as far as Tours. From there, I leave it to your ingenuity to get to your sister’s house. Lord knows you have always been adept at running away.”

  “So you throw me out. Again.”

  “Enough of this, Isabelle. Your sister’s husband is at the front. She is alone with her daughter. You will do as I say. You will leave Paris.”

  Did he know how this hurt her? Did he care?

  “You’ve never cared about Vianne or me. And she doesn’t want me any more than