The Nightingale
Author:Hannah, Kristin

“Really?” Madame said sarcastically.

 

Isabelle wanted to run from this stifling room, but she was already in enough trouble, so she forced herself to walk slowly, her shoulders back, her chin up. At the stairs (which she could navigate with three books on her head if required), she glanced sideways, saw that she was alone, and rushed down.

 

In the hallway below, she slowed and straightened. By the time she reached the headmistress’s office, she wasn’t even breathing hard.

 

She knocked.

 

At Madame’s flat “Come in,” Isabelle opened the door.

 

Madame Allard sat behind a gilt-trimmed mahogany writing desk. Medieval tapestries hung from the stone walls of the room and an arched, leaded-glass window overlooked gardens so sculpted they were more art than nature. Even birds rarely landed here; no doubt they sensed the stifling atmosphere and flew on.

 

Isabelle sat down—remembering an instant too late that she hadn’t been offered a seat. She popped back up. “Pardon, Madame.”

 

“Sit down, Isabelle.”

 

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.”

 

“Pardon?”

 

“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 dr?le 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.