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For fans of Jackie Collins epics and Jacqueline Susann sagas: Spanning thirty years, two generations, and two continents, Chantal sweeps from a once-grand chateau in Angouleme to war-torn Paris and finally to the storm-ravaged beaches of Malibu, telling the story of a magnificent woman and a love that defied the cruelties of time. Gloriously imagined and stunningly told, Chantal is a tale of home and exile, persecution and survival, and the wondrous triumph of an impossible love neither time nor distance could alter. Hers is a story whose heart will touch the hearts of all who read it.
“Don’t go so fast, Chantal,” whispered Martine. “Mother Saint-Ignatius is looking our way.” Chantal slowed down her step until they reached the arched double doors. The two girls walked sedately around the corner of the building until they were out of sight of the nun who supervised the letting out of school from the open portals, hands folded in her wide sleeves, eyes modestly downcast but seeing all.
Then they stopped, and looked at each other with shining eyes.
“I wonder if the boys will be there today,” said Martine, plump and dark-haired. “Oh, I hope so. Volodia promised.”
“How could they not be there? Where could they go? They’re prisoners, you know that. They’ll be waiting for us, as they said, unless, of course, the guards force them back into the barracks. We’d better hurry, though,” murmured Chantal, pushing back her flyaway blond hair.
Quickly, they rolled down their knee socks into the fashionable but strictly forbidden bobby socks, pulled up the waist of their pleated skirts so that from longish and dowdy the skirts became, they hoped, knee skimming and flirty. The blouses were tightly knotted around the waist. That was just how Deanna Durbin, whom they had adored in Three Smart Girls, had dressed. With a great deal of tugging and tucking in, Chantal even managed an inch or so of scandalously bare midriff.
They unsnapped the emblem of the school from their navy blazers and stuffed it in the pocket. The emblem bore the X-shaped cross of Saint Andrew, surrounded by an embroidered scroll with the name of the school: Ecole Catholique de Jeunes Filles Saint-André. They despised that emblem, the whole uniform, in fact, an unbearable stigma they’d worn throughout their school years, but even more embarrassing now that they had reached the mature age of seventeen. Now, dressed as any teenagers in the spring of 1940, they could pretend to be not schoolgirls but Deanna Durbin and friend, out for a carefree stroll on the town.
In that lovely month of June, France was at war and heading to the most humiliating defeat it had endured, perhaps, since the distant days of the Hundred Years War, but no Joan of Arc had appeared to save the country this time. The French army was in headlong flight, and the Germans had already overrun the eastern and northern provinces. Where they were now, the people of Angoulême didn’t exactly know, since communications were disrupted and they could only speculate. It was known, though, that the government had left Paris and sought the safety of Bordeaux.
In this green, river-laced southwest, sixty miles north of Bordeaux, panic had not yet set in. Only the schools had been required to close ahead of schedule, so they could be turned into hospitals if the need arose. Authorities remembered it had happened in the last war, and no doubt it would be the case again, when French troops made their successful stand on the Loire River.
So, the Ecole Saint-André, the best in town, was closing this afternoon, and all the usual ceremonies of distribution of prizes and commencement exercises had been dispensed with. Now, as far as the girls were concerned, finding entertainment for the long summer days ahead was going to be the only challenge.
The dreaded baccalauréat had been moved up a few weeks and Chantal had passed it successfully. Martine had failed and couldn’t care less. Martine had one interest, single-minded and overwhelming: boys.
“Volodia! What a strange name . . . but so beautiful! … Do you think he likes me?” she asked her friend, then rushed on, “Isn’t it terrible that he should be a prisoner? Especially since he did nothing that wasn’t good. Oh, well, when he gets out, I’m sure we’ll fall in love and then we can get married.”
Martine’s intentions were pure and uncomplicated. Indeed, she could not meet a boy she liked without immediately thinking of marriage. But Chantal’s mind wasn’t on marriage. The whole situation thrilled her, puzzled her, too, so far removed from anything encompassed by her limited experience.
“We’d better hurry,” Martine chatted on. “Remember, they said they may not be there much longer. Their guards are getting nervous because the Germans are approaching, and they’re afraid the boys might want to escape to join them. It certainly would make sense! After all, they are Germans, even if Volodia’s parents were born in Russia, as they told us. But they say they’re more afraid of the arrival of the Germans than of being kept prisoners by the French gendarmes. I don’t understand why they should be so scared of being caught by their own people. Wouldn’t that be like going home for them?”
Chantal was almost as naïve and uninformed of the military and political turmoil as her friend. But she had listened a little more attentively than Martine to what the young men had said.
“It has something to do with politics. They’re German citizens, but they were political refugees in France when the war began. They left Germany because they didn’t agree with Hitler’s politics.”
That was about the extent of what the young men behind the barred gate had told them. Of course, the girls knew that France had been at war for almost ten months now, since the previous September, when Germany had invaded Poland. They knew that England, allied to Poland, had declared war on Germany two days later, and that within a few hours, France, allied with England, had followed suit. Complicated, and not terribly interesting to sixteen-year-old girls. Then, Poland had quickly fallen and been occupied. After that, all fall and winter, the situation had been stagnant. The excitement of being at war died down. French soldiers remained entrenched on their own side of the Rhine. Cartoons in newspapers depicted them with mushrooms growing on their shoes and cobwebs lacing their helmets. The radio played the latest hit to a dancing accordion background:
Nous irons pend’ not’ linge sur la Ligne Siegfried . . .
We’ll go hang our wash along the Siegfried Line . . .
Each side of the combatants was protected, it was widely reported, by the impregnable defenses of its line of fortifications built after World War I. The Maginot Line protected the French from the German invasion, and the Siegfried Line right on the opposite side of the Rhine did the same, stopping any would-be French advance. The stalemate had lasted all winter.
Then, just over a month ago, the Germans had started their May offensive, scorning to attack the Maginot Line but invading Holland instead, sweeping through Belgium. Now they were marching through France, an unthinkable action in the eyes of the French High Command, who had prepared for any, except this, eventuality. Holland was neutral and therefore should have been respected. Furthermore, violating this neutrality and invading France through the vast, flat plains of Flanders was exactly what the Kaiser’s army had done in 1914. How déjà vu. How could one break rules not once but twice in exactly the same way, showing no imagination and no sense of panache? That was not the way the great French strategists, schooled in the study of the historic campaigns, would have run the war. The only way they knew to fight a war was to follow its rules, to display honneur and bravoure, the eventual outcome, be it defeat or victory, only secondary to the honorable manner in which the campaign had been conducted.
Little of this news filtered into the school, where Chantal was a boarding student, since her parents lived on their country estate thirty miles away from town. The nuns had always forbidden papers and radios—at least where the girls could have access to them—and only informed their charges that people were suffering and dying because this is a sinful world. Lately, special rosaries were recited, asking for the mercy of God upon those who needed it in their hour of trial. Wisely preparing for any outcome, the good nuns were taking no sides.
As the Nazi advance became more threatening, an earlier closing date for classes was announced and the dining hall and dormitories were prepared for the arrival of wounded soldiers. Chantal moved into the house of her friend Martine Moreau for the final few weeks of school.
The Moreaus lived on the outskirts of town, near the river Charente, among poplars and willows, in a large complex of buildings that included the house, the offices, and the working buildings of the Moreau Paper Mills. Monsieur Moreau was proud to say that the fine, filigreed paper used for the banknotes of several European countries was made in his mill, whose wheels diverted for a moment, through a system of channels and sluices, some of the placid green waters of the Charente.
Although the two girls were good friends, Chantal tended to look down on Martine’s plump figure, her total uninterest in book learning, and her devouring absorption in boys. Martine’s hopes were simple: She wanted to fall in love, be married, the sooner the better, and become the mistress of a large household, just like her mother, whom she resembled. Chantal’s hopes were less clear. Mostly, she knew what she did not want out of life. She did not want to resemble her own mother, who, like Madame Moreau, ran a large household, but unlike the gentle Madame Moreau, exerted an iron discipline on all who depended on her. Chantal’s experience was too limited even to offer much of a field to her imagination, but, although she would have been surprised at the term, she was a romantic. “You never behave like the others” had been the nuns’ frequent complaint. “Try to be more like the others.” Chantal was always unconsciously seeking some way to distinguish herself, and she had tried, at times, excessive devotion to her patron saint, Sainte Jeanne de Chantal—which had soon bored her; passionate bouts of study—ditto; but mostly flights of daydreaming in which she saw herself a princess in some distant kingdom, surrounded by hazy splendor and undefined magic.
At the moment, though, the two girls had a common interest.
A mile or so before the Moreau mill complex along a narrow, long unused towpath stood a dilapidated foundry. It had been built in the eighteenth century to produce cannon for the navy; but advances in technology had long since rendered it obsolete, and it had been closed down as long as anyone could remember. It was surrounded on all sides by a high stonewall, topped with broken glass embedded in mortar to discourage trespassers. Beyond the heavy, permanently locked gate lay a large yard overgrown with weeds and brambles, with smaller buildings grouped around the main one in the center. All were locked, gazing out of broken and dusty panes, in total dereliction.
The girls had started taking the detour earlier that week, just because the weather was so beautiful. They longed to stay out a little later, slowly walking the narrow path with the tall grasses brushing against their bare legs, pulling down hazelnut branches to pluck the nuts, still unripe, milky in their tender shells. There were giant stems of Queen Anne’s lace arching over the path to slip under, insects at work to watch, and hundreds of invisible green frogs sitting among the rushes to be scattered and sent splashing into the water by stamping a foot. Dragonflies in shimmering colors buzzed and landed on floating poplar leaves. Stillness breathed in the afternoon sun, the gates of the old foundry chained and padlocked as usual, no signs of life among the weeds in the dusty yard.
But the following day, to their surprise, all had changed. Gendarmes were guarding the opened gates, there were trucks pulled up and being unloaded, men in civilian clothes milling around the courtyard. What was happening?
To be sure, recruits were pouring into the caserns in the upper town in a last effort at mobilization of troops, but this wasn’t one of the caserns. These men were civilians, not soldiers. Who could they be? Prisoners, with all those gendarmes guarding them? Criminals? But this wasn’t the prison either. That, too, stood in the upper town. The girls were puzzled, curious, but, under the presence of the gendarmes supervising the unloading of the trucks, they felt obliged to continue walking.
Around the corner of the wall, though, they came to a small back gate. There, after a quick side-glance at each other, they stopped and peered through the bars. The men were carrying bundles into buildings. A group of young men was standing nearby, talking in a foreign language. Not English, thought Chantal, who had studied it for years, and had spent several summers in English schools. This wasn’t English.
The girls were about to walk away, when the young men saw them. They came over to the gate.
“Mesdemoiselles!” said one of them, with thick, unruly curly hair. “Bonjour, or should I say Bonsoir at this time of day?”
His French was hesitant, heavily accented. But he seemed determined to engage the girls in conversation, to hold them there a moment.
“Bonsoir, monsieur, ” said Martine, always ready to chat. “It is after four o’clock. We say Bonsoir. ”
“I would like to tell you that you live in a beautiful city, but we haven’t seen much of it. They brought us here in the middle of the night, after rolling for hours in closed trucks. So, not only haven’t we seen the town, but we don’t even know its name. The guards won’t tell us where we are. . . .”
“Oh,” cried Martine, always delighted to convey information. “This is Angoulême! The Flowered Balcony of the Southwest, they call it, because it stands on its plateau high above the river you see here. . . . How funny that you should not know the name of the town you’re in.”
“Southwest?” repeated the young man. He turned to the others, who had been listening intently, and translated for those who did not seem to understand French. One of them broke from the group and approached the gate. He spoke French well:
“Southwest? Where in the southwest?” he asked.
“Well, it’s on the main road from Paris to Spain, a little north of Bordeaux.”
“Is it far from Spain?”
“Not very, we go there sometimes for the holidays. The train gets there in a few hours, and it’s even less by car. . . .”
By now the whole group of five young men had come to the gate and the rest were straining to follow the conversation.
“How would you get from here to Spain most easily?” asked the young man who spoke fluent French.
Chantal noticed that where the others looked unkempt and unshaven, he alone was neat, in a self-contained, catlike way, as if dirt took no hold on his smooth olive skin and wrinkles would shed from the short-sleeved dark blue polo shirt. An arresting streak of pure white, sharply contrasting with the youthful features, and as though painted into his jet-black hair, divided it a little over to the side. When he looked directly at Chantal, she was struck by his large pale gray eyes. He followed her glance, smiled.
“Unusual, I know. It’s a genetic trait. Both my father and grandfather had the same white strand.” Chantal would have liked to trace that line with her fingertips.
Just then, however, a whistle blew sharply, an order was barked, the young men scattered, but the dark one with gray eyes called out over his shoulder. “A demain!”
So, the next day, the girls had taken the same path. They stopped at the small gate, and found the group waiting for them. Chantal had brought candy, and Martine had smuggled a pack of cigarettes from her father’s supply. The boys accepted the gifts eagerly. They started to take long pulls on their cigarettes and thanked the girls with formal courtesy. The three who could not speak French much managed an awkward “Merci beaucoup!” and bowed stiffly from the waist.
“My name is Fred,” said the one with the pale eyes, extending his hand through the bars, exposing a deep jagged scar that ran along his forearm, almost from wrist to elbow. “Fred May. And these are my friends: Volodia, with all the hair, and Mischa, with not much hair, and Herschel, and Isaac. No, we are not criminals. We are German citizens, although Mischa’s parents and Volodia’s too were born in Russia. And we are not Nazis. As a matter of fact, we are anti-Nazis, you understand? That is why we had to leave Germany, and why we were living in France when the war began, because we do not agree with Hitler’s policies. That scar? It’s nothing. Just a run-in with some barbed wire.”
Martine and Chantal understood only vaguely, but they were satisfied with the sound of the words, excited by the scent of adventure. This was a far world from Mother Saint Ignatius’s classroom and the recreation yard of Saint-André. It never occurred to them to wonder what kind of disagreement these attractive men, in their early twenties, could have had with Hitler. But they knew Hitler was the Antichrist, an ogre, and that it was terrible to be a Nazi. Disagreeing with him, and fleeing from him, was clearly the reasonable thing to do. They had heard of the existence of Jews in the Bible, but not in their town, where everybody was Catholic except for a few socially isolated Protestant families. They nodded excitedly.
“The day the war between France and Germany began, all German citizens residing in Paris were asked to report to a big sports arena just outside the city. You don’t understand why? Because the moment the war began, we were no longer political refugees to the French authorities but Germans. We became enemy aliens, so the French rounded us all up and put us in camps.”
“Why didn’t they just send you home?” interrupted Martine, who could listen a little but could not think at all, thought Chantal scornfully.
“They were afraid that, once back home, we might take up arms against them. Also, there would always be the possibility of us having learned things, while living in France, that might help German intelligence. We might have been conducting espionage activities. It’s a common practice of war to intern enemy aliens for the duration.”
“What was it like in those camps?” asked Chantal, entranced with the story.
“Oh, it wasn’t too bad in a way. Surely better than Hitler’s camps in the East . . .”
A blank. The girls hadn’t heard of those camps. He continued, “They put us in some unused factory, like here. They gave us army food, blankets, we slept in bunks we had to build. I don’t think it was much worse than the army, except that we were under armed guard. Senegalese soldiers kept watch over us, and they were rough at times. They had us busy all winter digging ditches along the roads. There were several such camps throughout France. Ours was in Nevers, southeast of Paris. It was a long winter, though. . . .”
“What did you do before the war began?” asked Chantal. She was fascinated by Fred May, who did not look like anyone she had seen before, with his neatly boned, small regular features, white-streaked black hair, olive skin, and above all those extraordinary eyes. He had a way of locking his gaze on you, as though shutting out the rest of his field of vision. Chantal wanted to keep those gray eyes on her.
“I was a student in Paris,” he said. “A law student. My father is a buyer for a large firm doing business in Australia.” A law student! Paris! Australia! Now, that was another world. The absolute elsewhere, as far as Chantal was concerned. Not some dull farming estate like La Prade, her home.
“Are your parents still in Paris?”
“Of course not. They were able to leave just before the war broke out. They’re in Port Augusta, South Australia.” Meanwhile, Martine was giggling with Volodia, who was reaching through the bars to examine the gold chain with the baptismal medal, engraved with her birthday, that she wore around her neck. He showed her a chain around his own neck, with a strange pendant in the shape of an n. “Why did the gendarmes bring you here?”
“They took over from the Senegalese soldiers, who were sent to the front, and it’s funny, but they are not nearly as hard on us. You see, the camp had to be moved south because the Germans are advancing so fast, they certainly have overrun Nevers by now. We hear the guards talking, and they’re scared the Nazis will sneak up on them and take them prisoner.”
“What will happen to you when they arrive?” Martine asked. “Will they take you prisoner too? Will they harm you? Couldn’t you make them forget that you don’t agree with Hitler, and go home?”
That much naïveté stopped Fred dead in his tracks. He called out to the others and repeated Martine’s question. All turned to her. Volodia stopped giggling and said slowly and carefully, “If the Germans catch us. . .” He ran his index finger across his throat.
Fred said intently, with all the others watching and listening, “They will kill us if they catch us, you understand? They will kill us.” He added, as in an afterthought, “Unless you can help us.”
Help them? Martine stood openmouthed. Chantal caught her breath.
“How could we possibly help you?”
“You can get us out of here. The gendarmes don’t keep a very close watch. At night, most of them even go home, and there are sentries only at the main gate. We’ve looked the place over. It’s not too difficult to climb the wall there, under the trees. It’s dark, and we can throw our blankets over to cover the broken glass on top. But we need help to get to Spain.”
“To Spain!” said Martine excitedly. “It’s not that far. . . . There must still be trains running, though most of them are for the troops now. If you catch the evening train, you can be in Fuenterrabia, that’s the border, a few hours later. We take it sometimes, now that the Spanish Civil War is over, and we go to San Sebastian. There’s a lovely beach . . .”
“You don’t understand,” said Fred patiently. “We cannot take a train because we can’t risk being arrested. There are security checks everywhere along the roads, and there must be some in railroad stations as well. We’d never make it to the border, and this time, once caught, we wouldn’t stand a chance of escape. We’d be sitting ducks for the Nazis when they arrive.”
“I don’t see what we can do,” mused Chantal, who wished with all her heart that there was something, some way to take part in this adventure. She perversely wished, too, that somehow Mother Saint-Ignatius would know what these boys were asking her to do. That would show her!
“Can you drive?”
“Chantal knows how to drive,” teased Martine, who was lounging tantalizingly against the gate, where Volodia’s fingers could just reach her shoulder and play with her hair. “Yes, you can too,” she repeated as her friend shook her head. “But we don’t have a car.”
“Besides,” said Chantal, “I can’t drive that well. I have just been practicing a little during the holidays on my father’s Citroën, but I haven’t taken my driver’s test yet. I have to wait for my eighteenth birthday. And we could never get a car . . . Wait a minute! Martine, there are several trucks parked in front of your father’s mills at night . . .”
“A truck!” Fred exclaimed, while the others nodded enthusiastically. “That’s even better than a car! We could hide in the back, and all five of us could go. Don’t say no, please,” he begged Chantal, gray eyes now imperious. “I’m sure you can do it. Get the truck, and bring it here at eleven tonight. Make as little noise as possible, and pull up right there, you see, under the trees. We’ll be waiting for you. Make sure there’s plenty of gas. You do know the way to Spain?”
“Oh, I know it well,” said Martine. “It’s the road to Bordeaux, and then it’s all straight and flat through the Landes, and then on to Fuenterrabia, where the bridge is, with the border guards. I even know the detour to take, just before Bordeaux, so you don’t have to drive through the town and waste a lot of time.” She added, regretfully, as the thought struck her, “Oh, but we won’t be able to make it. There are too many refugees on the road. My father said the traffic is all stopped up and there are roadblocks in many places. They stop his trucks all the time. The gendarmes are looking for German spies among the refugees.”
Fred cut in. “Some of the traffic will have stopped for the night. As for the gendarmes, they aren’t that smart, and they won’t see us if we’re hidden in the back of the truck. Be sure there’s something we can hide under. Now hurry home, and don’t make any mistakes. Chantal, you are going to save our lives, and you, too, Martine. You will be true heroines, just like in the movies.”
Chantal laughed, scared and strangely exhilarated. This is exactly what Deanna Durbin would do, she thought. Deanna would drive that truck, there would be a hair-raising chase, but they could never catch her. Well, they would not catch her, either.
“And,” Fred continued, “try to bring some money, too, if you can. Anything you can lay your hands on. It’s a loan, of course, we’ll repay every cent. But we’re going to need it to get where we are going. We’re going to America. Aren’t we?”
He turned to his friends, who nodded enthusiastically: “Amerika!”
America, the Moon, or the Nebulous Andromeda, were comparable entities to the two provincial girls. But excitement had entered their placid lives. That distant, featureless war had touched them, they had been given a role to play in it. They dashed home, slowing to a more composed walk only as they approached the mills.