LIGHTNING CRACKLED, splitting the night sky over Paris, illuminating letters painted on the bookstore window across the street: La Maison des Amis des Livres. Driving rain pounded the loose shutters of Shakespeare and Company, making them rattle so that Claire Stewart dropped the heavy blackout curtain into place.
“It sounds like cannon bursting, like the end of the world.” Thunder boomed again. She tugged the belt of her trench coat tighter.
“You must go,” Josephine insisted. “The lorry driver won’t wait. This is his last run to Calais. He’s running on nerves, even now. Arnaud told you—”
“Arnaud promised he’d be here. I won’t go without him. I don’t even know our British contact.”
“You know Arnaud. He’ll meet you if he can—last minute, no doubt.” Josephine Ganute—one more aspiring writer, another tumbleweed to make her home amid the burdened shelves of Sylvia Beach’s American bookstore—grunted and gently, firmly pushed Claire toward the door. “This is the last group, and the last driver willing to go. He’s insane to try. The roads must be packed with people fleeing the city. Calais is a refugee camp—even last week it was so. If you don’t leave now, the children will never—”
“But I don’t know where to go when we get there!” The pressure in Claire’s heart built. Josephine was French and five years older. She couldn’t understand how frightened Claire felt.
“The driver knows the fisherman from over the Channel. Arnaud will surely meet you on the shore, if not in Calais.”
“But what if he doesn’t? What if they’ve caught him?” Claire pleaded and hated her pleading. But the possibility glared. Arnaud—her heroic Arnaud—took such chances among those sympathetic with the Germans. So many Jewish families he’d smuggled under their noses—from Germany into Switzerland and France. Now, with war declared and German troops on the doorstep, they were no longer safe in France. Arnaud fancied himself—fancied them—the only hope of Jewish children, and Claire loved him for it. Reconnaissance, smuggling, resistance—words so romantic in fiction, impossible and dangerous in life.
Josephine stepped close. Her bony fingers clasped Claire’s face. “Claire, Arnaud is too smart for that. You read his message. The Germans will take these children as surely as they snatched the Jewish children from their own country if you don’t get them out now, before the troops arrive—and they are coming. That’s what matters now. Everything else comes later. Vous comprenez, non?”
Claire nodded, swallowing the bile climbing her throat. Of course she understood. Goose-stepping Nazis and their tanks plowed westward; the best intelligence had verified it. Helping these children to safety means everything to me, too, but I can’t do it alone.
Claire stole one last glance at the dimly lit aisles threatened by crooked and towering stacks of novels. At the tables and chairs helter-skelter from the early evening’s stilted book tea. The chair Mr. Hemingway—her Mr. Hemingway—once insisted on tipping on its hind legs as he smoked. The desk James Joyce was reputed to have claimed as his own.
She faltered at the door. But it opened, and Josephine pushed her into the dark, into the pelting rain. The click of the latch behind rang final in Claire’s ears.
“Vite! Vite!” the lorry driver called from the street, beating his fist against his door. “Come now, or I leave you!”
Claire stumbled, splashing down the puddled alley. She scrambled over the tailgate, into the canvas-covered truck bed, pushing rivulets of rain from her eyes and hair and shivering from the cold water that streamed down the back of her neck.
The lorry jerked forward, bouncing off the curb.
“Pardon, désolée!” Awkwardly, clumsily, Claire climbed over an assortment of small arms and legs—children she couldn’t see in the dark, children pulling limbs into huddled forms. Panting, Claire found sanctuary against the wooden wall behind the cab.
She couldn’t see to count the number in the transport, couldn’t tally the limbs she’d climbed over, but there seemed more room than there should have been. Even twenty would be too few among so many desperate to leave Paris. She must learn their names and those of their parents to write down for the record. One day these children will return to France and their families—when this madness is over. The list of names and addresses hidden beneath the floorboard of Shakespeare and Company is the only way we’ll know to reunite them.
It was still dark inside the lorry bed when the vehicle finally lurched to a stop. Claire woke, rubbing a crick in her neck. One of the little ones had climbed onto her lap sometime in the night; another slumped a sleepy head against her shoulder. Do any of them speak English? Ten months in Paris and my French leaves so much to be desired.
Despite the hammering rain, the scent of sweet Channel air cleared her nostrils. Claire pressed her head against the wooden slats. At last. Please, Arnaud, be here. Be here and help me get these children to safety. She hoped for an easy send-off and a speedy return to Paris, where they’d regale Josephine with tales of their latest exploit over a warm fire and a fine bottle of wine in the back room of their dear, familiar bookstore.
Arnaud and I will laugh in the face of the danger we defied and plot our next adventure, keeping our secret even from Sylvia. Owning the bookstore, and employing Jews, she runs risk enough.
Claire’s reverie was broken by raised male voices outside the lorry—intense, animated arguments in French so hard and clipped she couldn’t catch the words. Claire shook the arm of the child beside her and shifted the little one in her lap. “Réveillez-vous. Restez silencieux. No talking, but be ready.” She smiled into the dark, hoping to infuse her voice with comfort and confidence, hoping they understood something of her mixed French and English.
She pitied them for being bumped through the night with barely more than they wore . . . pitied them for leaving parents and older siblings they loved and who must love them. She swallowed, trying to imagine such love. Off to a new country where you’ll understand precious little of the language. Poor souls, fleeing home and dear Paris in springtime. Poor, brave little soldiers.
Knowing time was of the essence, Claire gently pushed the child from her lap and crawled toward the tailgate. She peeked beneath the canvas, eager to glimpse their surroundings and to encourage their driver to move the mission forward.
The engine roared. Tires spun and the lorry jerked to life again. The sudden sharp swerve and the squeal of floored brakes brought cries from every child. Claire’s head slammed against the tailgate.
One of the larger children yanked her back into the center of the bed. “Mademoiselle!”
“All right. I’m all right,” Claire mumbled, reaching for her forehead. But her fingers came away sticky.
A mile or more the lorry bumped and sped. Finally the brakes slammed again. Still dazed, Claire didn’t move from the floor. Five minutes must have passed before the driver lifted the canvas. “Vite! Come quickly—now!” He pulled open the tailgate and lifted the children down in the pale light of a shaded lantern. “Get your things—all of them. Leave nothing!”
“Arnaud?” Claire whispered into the streaming rain, her vision blurred and head pounding.
“He is not here.” The driver’s panic seeped through every word. “The fisherman’s contact said he has not come; neither has the children’s escort. The tide is turning—not a moment to waste. Run down to the water’s edge now!” He pushed the children toward the shore, young ones clasping the hands of older, taller children, all stumbling after a flapping mackintosh–clad fisherman with a feeble torch.
“A fishing boat . . . on the Channel . . . on a night like this?” Claire’s temples throbbed and she couldn’t stop the world from spinning. “Is it safe?”
“Safer for them than Paris.”
“They must wait for their escort. We can’t send them off alone.”
“Did you not hear me, mademoiselle? The tide is turning. It will be daylight before it turns again. The captain cannot wait. He refuses to come another time.” The stale breath of the driver nearly overpowered her. “You must go with them, mademoiselle. Tout de suite!”
“Me? No, you don’t understand. I’m staying . . . returning to Paris. There are more children to help. These will be safe in England, but I’m needed—”
“They cannot go without an escort. Your English fisherman won’t take them alone. There is no one else and there will be no more trips. To wait is madness!”
Claire counted the children’s fuzzy silhouettes against the fisherman’s torch as they clambered over the side of the boat. Five. Only five souls from one very small to one nearly as tall as Claire. She closed her eyes and painfully shook her aching head. “Surely he can manage five children. I must go back for Arnaud. I don’t know what’s happened to him.”
“Ha! It seems he has left you, chérie!”
It was the thing she’d feared each day—that he would leave her, that he did not love her as she loved him. Still, she shook her head, vouching for him. Something warm and liquid seeped into her eye. “Then you must go with the children, monsieur—you’re responsible for them. Arnaud paid you. Please, I must get back to Paris.”
He slammed the tailgate. “You are crazy, mademoiselle. I will not take you. And I am not responsible for these young ones. I’ve done what I was paid to do. I’ll not risk my life or my family.”
Unbelieving, Claire yanked his arm as he climbed into his lorry. “Wait! I’ll go with them tomorrow night if the contact doesn’t come.” She steadied herself against the cab door. “Let me talk to the fisherman—ask him to wait one day—just until tomorrow night. Arnaud will come, I know!”
“I told you: this is his last run. He’s a fool to try even now.” The driver pushed her away. “You’ll be lucky to get through the harbor.”
Claire’s head rang and swam. The reversing lorry roared to life once more, its spinning tires spraying her with cold rain and filling her mouth with graveled mud as the darkness closed in and claimed her.
“Shh, she’s coming round,” a feminine French face, dancing in the light of a swaying battery lamp, whispered over Claire’s pounding head.
“Wipe her forehead now—quick—before she wakens. It will sting more if you don’t.” A boy, perhaps eight or nine, spit into his soiled handkerchief and passed it purposefully toward the feminine face. “Clean out her eye or she’ll go blind from the blood.”
“Oh, be quiet,” the lovely girl ordered. “You say the stupidest things, Gaston.”
Claire groaned and closed her eyes again. The crashing in her head and the rolling in her stomach heaved into one large inner motion. “Where am I?”
“You’re on the HMS Miss Bonny Blair,” a new voice announced in perfect English with a very French accent. Claire opened one eye to see a taller boy, maybe eleven or so, hovering too close. The boy blushed. “At least that’s what Capitaine Beardsley said before we left the shore beyond Calais, though I think it rather more a fishing boat.” He grabbed a bar above his head to steady himself.
“Captain Beardsley? A fishing boat?” Claire heard herself moan again.
“Aye, aye.” The youngster called Gaston pushed closer. “And we’re all his mates. That’s Bertram, my brother. I’m Gaston—Capitaine Beardsley’s first mate. And you’re the lively wench he rescued.”
“Gaston! That is vulgar. Mademoiselle is our rescuer,” the feminine voice gasped. “I’m Jeanine.” She leaned closer, confiding, “We were told never to give our family names, but I will tell you that Elise, here, is my sister. This littlest one came alone and is called Aimee. These boys we met through Monsieur Arnaud.”
“Arnaud? He’s here?” Claire’s heaving stomach skipped into her heart.
“Non, mademoiselle,” Jeanine sympathized. “He is not. He told us he would come if he could, but . . . You’ve been calling for him in your sleep.”
Claire pulled herself to one elbow and reached for her forehead. “Sleep? How long?” I must convince Captain Beardsley to turn the boat around.
“Hours, I’d say,” Gaston cheerfully volunteered.
“What?” Panic sped through her veins.
“We must be nearing England’s shores,” Bertram offered. “Rest easy, mademoiselle. Capitaine Beardsley said he will find you a doctor once we land.”
“It doesn’t take hours to reach England.”
“It does when you’re going the long way round,” Gaston declared. “Le capitaine said we travel wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”
What can that mean? But Claire’s head hurt too much to think about it now. She lay back on the makeshift pallet and closed her eyes against the swaying walls and the heaving in her stomach. She hated crossing the Channel in fair weather. She’d never have dared to cross it in foul, much less on the back of a storm-tossed sea. Mad sea captain—he must be kin to Captain Ahab!
The last thing Claire heard was Gaston admonishing Jeanine, “You needn’t have shushed me. I simply made a mistake with my English. She’s not ‘lively’ at all, not a bit, even for a grown-up. But she is quite a ‘likely’ wench, I’d say—at least that’s as Capitaine Beardsley vowed.”
CLAIRE FELT the captain’s strong arms lift her from the floor, then half carry, half drag her off the boat and through the slowing drizzle, up and off a short, rough dock. Her feet pulled through sand. His scraggly beard scratched her cheek until he deposited her on a heap of sails and nets inside what must be a fishing shack. He left her with the children huddled around her but was back in less than thirty minutes. Despite the predawn hour, as good as his word to Bertram, he’d procured a no-nonsense doctor. The cleaning of Claire’s wound and the piercing stitches thrummed painful in her head.
“Rest and a daily change of bandage,” the doctor ordered. He looked at the five drowsy children by her side and shook his head at their rescuer. “I won’t ask and don’t want to know. But I swear by King George, you’re in over your head, Captain, and too old by far for such nonsense.”
“Aye. I’m trusting you now, Doc. You won’t be letting me down, eh?”
“Not a word. Not in these times, poor little devils. Don’t make a habit of it.” The doctor snapped shut his black bag and pushed out into the dark and rain.
Through her brain fog Claire marveled that in this putrid place the captain somehow brewed tea over a can’s open flame. He handed her the chipped and steaming mug, then found her a thick blanket, reeking of fish. Both were welcome. She tried to thank him, but the words muddled.
“Rest easy, lass. There’ll be time to talk by and by.”
It was good he’d issued the order. Claire couldn’t have kept her eyes open another minute.
Morning erupted in streaks of red, orange, and violet across the eastern sky, streaming through the dirty porthole-shaped window of the fishing shed.
“Sailors take warning,” Claire whispered.
“A good day to keep beneath the tarps,” Captain Beardsley pronounced, handing dry and broken buns and a jar of now-lukewarm tea round the motley group. He must have gone out and come in again with such largesse, though Claire had never heard him.
Claire tried to sit up, to smooth her hair and stir some life into her bones, but her head still throbbed.
“Sit back, now, or you’ll be bleedin’ all over my tarps, and that won’t do.”
The tallest girl, the one with the lovely face—Jeanine—was at Claire’s side in a moment, supporting her neck with a firm hand and raising a bunch of rags behind her head for a pillow. “Mademoiselle,” she whispered.
“Merci,” Claire breathed. “I should be looking after you, not this way round. Arnaud?” She’d dreamed he’d come. But Jeanine silently shook her head.
The captain looked away, as if embarrassed. “Don’t ’spect he was able to cross.”
Claire bit her lip. “Our contact—has he come?”
“No.” The captain grimaced. “He should have been here before two this mornin’.”
“What time is it?”
“Gone half after five. It’s no good. He can’t tote five blighters through the docks in broad daylight. You’ll have to stay here today, at least until after the night watch. Not a peep. Not one sound. I’ll make my rounds, see what I can learn.”
Jeanine whispered in Claire’s ear, “We all need the toilette, mademoiselle.”
Of course they did, and so did she. “Captain, what about facilities for the children?”
“‘Facilities’?” But his bluster faded when he saw tears well in the smallest girl’s eyes. He opened the door and a gust of sea air poured in. He was back in a moment with a tin bucket. “Here, use this. I’ll empty it when I get back. Not one of you go outside that door, and keep mum. Do ya hear me?”
“Oui, monsieur.” Five heads nodded, eyes wide as tea saucers.
“And that goes for you, miss. Can’t have no woman traipsing the docks. It’s like wavin’ a red flag.”
“I promise. Thank you.” Claire had used some primitive facilities in France but never a bucket before a roomful of children. They’d simply have to rig a tarp round one corner and take turns holding it up for privacy.
“If your man don’t come by dark . . .”
“Yes?” Claire didn’t see how Arnaud could get to England now, but he must, he simply must.
The captain didn’t finish his statement. He coughed and harrumphed, but it failed to cover his anxiety. One glance at the children’s pale faces and he pushed out his chest. “Rest easy today. No one should bother you here.”
“But if the contact comes . . . or if Arnaud . . .”
“Neither will come in daylight.”
The captain made to go, but Claire pushed up from the floor with her back to the children, faced him, and whispered, “Have you heard the wireless this morning? Do you know if—?”
But the captain shook his head. “I’ll be back when I can.” That quickly he was gone.
By the time the shadows lengthened and the dock settled again for the night, Claire could barely breathe for worry. Had Arnaud been captured? Injured? And what about the captain? What if he didn’t return? Could they trust him to help more than he had?
The hours crept by. Moonlight through the grimy window painted worried young faces in an eerie glow. Off and on they dozed. Off and on the younger girls leaned, even snuggled, against Claire. The unexpected intimacy unnerved her. Still, it didn’t seem right to push them away.
Deep in the night, the latch on the shed finally lifted. Every eye flew open, but the children remained quiet as church mice. Claire swallowed, pushed the little girls and tarp aside, and stood between the children and the door, ready to face what or whom she must.
Claire sensed each small chest heave a sigh of relief as great as her own when the captain appeared. “What news?” she begged. “I must return to Paris, Captain Beardsley. I must get back to—”
“And how would you propose we do that, miss?”
“You made it through. You could do it again.”
“Pity and foolishness on my part. That was my last run. There’s ships bringing over some latecomers to Folkestone. Perhaps your young man’ll make it yet. Besides, these youngsters are the first order of the day. What do you propose to do with them?”
“I’m not saying I mean to abandon them, but Arnaud had arranged for someone to meet them—you know that.”
“Well, it’s not my mistake, now is it? And it’s not the mistake of these young blighters, neither.” Captain Beardsley set down his kit. “I couldn’t very well leave you passed out and bleeding on the beach, and someone was needed to mind the young ones for the crossing. There’s no goin’ back—not till this thing’s good and over.” He turned away. “It’s the trouble with Americans . . . all talk and show and no sticking it out.”
If the captain had discovered a magic button, he could not have pressed a more sensitive nerve. “You underestimate both me and my country, Captain. President Roosevelt won’t abandon England in your hour of need. You’ll see.”
“Pray you’re right, miss. I’ll not be holdin’ my breath. Your President Wilson took his good, sweet time in the last war, didn’t he? I don’t see much difference now. But that’s never mind. What these youngsters need is a dry billet and a crust of bread and tea. And that’s up to you.”
“But I have no contacts here.” Claire felt the earth shift beneath her. How could she possibly be responsible for them?
Captain Beardsley sighed, sat down on a barrel, and pulled the cap from his head. He scratched his scalp, vexed or perplexed—Claire couldn’t decide which. But the drawn lines of his face and darkened rings beneath his eyes told her he’d used his last reserves getting them across the Channel and keeping them fed and hidden.
“That’s a quandary,” the captain said at last.
“I’ve truly no idea where to take them. I mean, we’re here illegally, aren’t we? If we go to immigration or even the American embassy—”
“No, no, you can’t be doin’ that. We’d all hang for a good deed.” He scratched his head again and waited, staring at his boots for inspiration. “I s’pose I can muster identity cards in time—make these young folk look as British on paper as King George himself. They’ll need them to get ration books; there’s no eating without. But I’ve got no place for the lot of you to go in the meantime, and it’s no good stowin’ you here. Somebody’s bound to hear them sooner than later, and the Jerries’ll bomb our port towns first once they let go. It’ll be no safer here than—”
“If they let go. Nothing’s certain—”
“Invasion, that’s the fear. It’ll happen. Could be any day now. Hitler’s not satisfied with what’s his. He thinks it’s all his for the takin’. Anyhow, findin’ billets ain’t part of my packet. It’s yours and that Arnaud fella.” He grunted. “Suffer the French.”
“Captain, I’m telling you, I don’t know a soul here.” Claire tried to stick to the point, though the idea of German invasion and what that would mean for her, for the children, for Arnaud, wherever he was, chilled her heart.
“You’ve been livin’ in Paris, but you’ve not one relative or friend this side of the Channel? Where were you plannin’ to go once Uncle Adolf starts shootin’ his firecrackers off the Eiffel Tower?”
A soft whimper came from behind her but Claire didn’t turn. She’d no plan beyond escorting the children to Calais because she’d never expected to need one. Arnaud had always said it was safer that she not know other contacts. What now? What can I do with these children? Where will they be safe?
Circling her temples with her fingertips, willing the pain and mounting fear to go away, helped nothing. And then she remembered. There was one person, one distant family connection in England. Claire didn’t know her and knew little of her. Aunt Miranda—the one whose letters Mother refused, the one she always said I reminded her of . . . most definitely not a compliment. She lived somewhere in the north of England. Where? Somewhere in the Lake District. Claire remembered the one envelope with English stamps she’d found when snooping among her grandmother’s things after her passing—the one her mother had shredded the moment she realized it existed. What was the address, the town? Does Aunt Miranda still live there? Might she take the children? Will she take them once she knows I’m behind the scheme? Does she hate Mother as Mother hates her? They’ve not spoken in years—does Aunt Miranda even know I exist?
Claire closed her eyes. What choice do I have? “I once had an aunt in the Lake District. I’ve no idea if—”
“The Lake District! Why didn’t you say so? Safest place in the Empire!” Captain Beardsley brightened. “Well, if Robert ain’t your mother’s brother!”
“Bob’s your uncle—that’s what he means.” Gaston popped up, as if he’d been part of the conversation all along, and wiped his sleeve across his running nose. “It’s like ‘Right you are,’ or how they say in the films, ‘Just the ticket.’” He tucked himself beneath Claire’s elbow and thumped his chest. “Stick close to me, mademoiselle. I’ll get you through. I know lots of English.”
Claire sighed, exasperated and desperate at once. It was no use. She felt she’d fallen down a rabbit hole as deep as Alice’s, and that the hopeful characters surrounding her grew just as fantastic.
In the early hours of the new morning, as the town clock struck three, Claire caught her breath when a key turned once more in the fishing shack’s lock. Soundlessly, Captain Beardsley slipped through the door. “Grab your coats and we’ll be on our way. Not a word. Not a sound.”
With no other preliminaries, the captain lifted Aimee in his arms. On tiptoe the group followed him out the door and down the dock in total blackout, one hand on the person in front with Claire bringing up the rear.
A merciful fog shrouds our fearful band, Claire mused. A close-knit stream on the heels of our Pied Piper leading us through the backstreets of Hamelin. Why is it that everything reminds me of scenes from children’s books I’ve read? I hope this ends better than that story! She bit her lip, drawing blood, from nerves stretched taut.
Captain Beardsley, a portly man nearly six feet tall with feet to match, padded softly through puddles and wound deftly round corners, cutting through back gardens. At last they slipped through a space in a low stone wall, where a garden gate must once have stood, less than five blocks from the sea. Before the captain reached the cottage threshold, a woman, squat and semi-stout, pulled open the door and beckoned them forward through the drab moonlight.
The captain pushed the group ahead of himself into a blackened foyer, setting his small burden on her feet at last. Once they were all in and the door closed and latched, the woman opened an inside door, nearly blinding them with light.
“Come in, come in and lay off your things.” Mrs. Beardsley, her hair silver streaked and her smile welcoming, herded the troop toward the back of the house.
The cottage smelled to Claire of yeast and freshly baked bread, of soup and that surprise of hospitality that welcomes strangers. Mrs. Beardsley ushered the band into her modest but toasty kitchen, clucking over each face as if they were long-lost grandchildren.
“I’m sorry we’ve not enough chairs. Here you go, now, take this stool, and perhaps you boys can make yourselves comfortable on the floor with these.” She handed Bertram two woolen steamer blankets. Gaston promptly wrapped himself in one and plopped, cross-legged, near the warm stove.
Mrs. Beardsley smiled, ruffled Gaston’s unruly curls, then turned to ladle steaming soup into thick crockery. Jeanine passed the heated bowls among the children as Elise handed round a basket of sturdy rolls laced with butter. The kitchen fell silent, except for the steady slurp of soup, the clink of spoons, and deep sighs of satisfaction. Color returned to the cheeks of the ragamuffin crew sitting and standing round the kitchen table.
At last the faces staring back at Claire looked like the faces of children and not miniature wizened old men and women. Even little Aimee, shy as she was, gave a tentative, baby-toothed smile when Mrs. Beardsley pulled her onto her lap and crooned over her tangled golden hair.
“Not so much, not so lavish, Wife. We’ll not be keepin’ ’em. Neither you nor they must get attached.” Captain Beardsley sounded gruff, but Claire marveled at the softness in him once inside his cheerfully lit home.
“What’s this?” Mrs. Beardsley fingered the hem of Aimee’s dress, resting on her lap. “Have you caught something in your hem, dearie?”
With pleading orbs and worried brow, Aimee pulled her dress from Mrs. Beardsley’s fingers but didn’t answer.
Mrs. Beardsley hesitated, then patted Aimee’s knee. “Well, never mind. There’s time for everything. We’ve beds for everyone, though they’re only pallets and comforters on the attic floor,” she happily quipped, changing the subject while ignoring her husband’s warning. “You’ll be wanting to get warmed through and fill your gills right here before you snuggle in, as there’s no heat upstairs but the pipe goin’ up from the stove.”
“We’re so grateful, Mrs. Beardsley. I can’t tell you what it means that you’ve taken us in. Your soup is delicious.” Claire meant every word. She’d no idea what the knuckle of veal and vegetables had cost the Beardsleys in rations, but knew it must have been dear and sacrificial. Even she and Josephine had been hoarding food for ages. Feeding a group like this would have been out of the question.
“We’re not takin’ you in, nor the blighters neither,” the captain insisted. “It’s just a waylay till I can get those papers. Then we’ll get you up and on your way north.”
“But as I told you—tried to tell you—Captain, I don’t know if my aunt still lives there. I don’t even know her address.”
“You know her name, don’t you, and the town where she lives?”
“Windermere, or thereabouts, I think, but—”
“Then you’d best be on your way and ask round.”
“What if she’s not there now? She could have moved. For all I know she could have died.”
“You’ll figure it out, won’t you?” he charged, and Claire knew there was no arguing.
“Not tonight,” Mrs. Beardsley intervened. “It will be daylight soon and we all need some sleep. Things will look brighter in the morning.”
How? Claire wondered.
“You’ll keep the children quiet upstairs during the day, Miss . . .”
“Claire Stewart. Claire, please.”
“Claire, then.” She smiled. “You’ll understand that we cannot be explaining the sudden appearance of five French children to our neighbors. I’ll send some food up through the day and bring the children down one by one to use the water closet when nobody’s likely to pop in, but you must all keep quiet.”
“Yes, I understand. Have you heard from—?”
“Not a word.” Captain Beardsley shook his head, not meeting Claire’s eyes.
“The news from Paris . . . ?” Claire knew better than to ask in front of the children, but she couldn’t bear not knowing.
The Beardsleys exchanged worried glances. The captain rose and ushered everyone, no nonsense, toward the attic stairs. “There’ll be time enough tomorrow. It will take a few days or more to get your papers. A wink or two of sleep is what’s needed in the meantime.”
Mrs. Beardsley led them up the stairs by torchlight, keeping the light to the floor. “I’ll leave a torch for you here, but mind you keep the light covered with the muslin and aimed to the floorboards. My blackout curtains are from the last war, I’m sorry to say, and rather moth-eaten. I’d not expected to need them again.” She sighed, pulling back an old sheet hung from a clothesline strung across the room. “Boys on this side and girls on this.” She pointed, cheerful once more. “Tomorrow we can do a bit of washing. Fresh faces and clean clothes will make you all feel better.”
Claire was glad Mrs. Beardsley took over, for she was too spent to think clearly. Yet, when Aimee hugged her dress to herself, Claire idly wondered what the child had hidden in her hem and how it was she’d not noticed before.
Mrs. Beardsley showed Claire to her pallet and whispered, “They’re in the Ardennes and have just crossed the Meuse River—that’s all we know.”
“The Ardennes? But that’s . . . too near.”
“Not what we expected, not what our boys prepared for. It seems there’s no stopping the ruffians, though God knows our men and the French will try. It’s invasion we’re most worried about now. After France, what’s to stop them?” She squeezed Claire’s arm and held out a blanket. “Be constant for the young ones. You’re their teacher.”
“I’m not,” Claire whispered. “I’m not constant and I’m not their teacher. I’m not their anything. I was just—”
“That’s not what they believe, and they need to believe in something.” Gently as Mrs. Beardsley spoke, her eyes insisted. “The captain told me of your young man gone missing. Keep faith, dearie. These things take time and so often pop right in the end.”
Claire took the blanket and tried to smile in return. But what Mrs. Beardsley had said wasn’t true. Things didn’t pop right in the end, not for her. Everyone Claire had ever loved or thought she loved, even those she’d believed loved her, had died or had abandoned or betrayed her in the end. Why should this time be different?
DAYS TURNED TO WEEKS while the cabin-fevered young folks crowded the Beardsleys’ attic. They’d endured delays in obtaining the necessary forged papers, then listened for news with bated breath during the British evacuation of Dunkirk. They’d rejoiced with Mrs. Beardsley in the belated return of their dear, bedraggled, and war-weary captain and his shell-shocked HMS Miss Bonny Blair.
Once recovered, the captain declared they must go, no matter that they’d become nearly family to the Beardsleys; it was not safe to delay a moment longer.
Finally, Claire stood tall in her sturdy, polished shoes and well-brushed trench coat on the rail platform of London’s Euston Station. Mid-June ran balmy, but wearing her coat felt a small armor against all she must face and freed her hands to harness Aimee, the smallest and most wide-eyed of the refugees.
Elise huddled close to her older sister, Jeanine. Bertram, at nearly thirteen, painted the picture of helpfulness and dependability. But eight-year-old Gaston, with all his cleverness and grins, worried Claire. Can he resist drawing attention to himself? And if to himself, then to us all?
Soldiers and evacuees swarmed the platform. Duffel bags were slung across soldiers’ shoulders, and gas mask kits were slung across the chests of children, including her five French charges. Because she was not a French native, Claire had not been issued a gas mask in Paris. Though her adult version felt clunky bumping against her side, she was grateful for this British issue.
Chaos reigned in the general hubbub, in the shouts made by soldiers above the hiss and whistle of the train, in the fearful glances of children and the anxious good-byes of parents.
The thrill for a great adventure with chums Claire glimpsed in some—mostly older children—contrasted sharply with the shyness and abject misery she saw in others. Fear and forced smiles marked the faces in Claire’s own entourage as they clutched dangling pillowslips or small cases, holding little more than their nightclothes and Mrs. Beardsley’s lunch offerings. They’d been able to bring so little across the Channel.
Dozens of English children wore the same painted smiles. Bright eyes looked as if tears might spill any moment. And small wonder, thought Claire. Students filed in crocodile lines behind their teachers to individual platforms and tracks, creating mazes of schoolchildren of all sizes and ages. All wore labels tagging them with names and numbers; each carried meager possessions in satchels or pillowslips.
It looked like Israel’s mass exodus from Egypt centuries ago—at least that’s what Captain Beardsley had said before giving Claire a hearty “Best of luck” and disappearing into the crowd.
Claire pushed back her worry, resisting the terror that twisted knots in her stomach. She grabbed Aimee’s hand, just as the child stumbled and nearly fell, all but causing a pileup in her wake.
More sharp whistle blasts pierced the air. Steam surged and billowed from the train before them, engulfing feet, swallowing the children’s knees. Elise squealed. Aimee shrieked, burying her five-year-old head in Claire’s hip.
“Shh, shh, it’s nothing to be frightened of,” Claire crooned. “Just the noise of the train, getting ready to take us for a long ride.”
“I don’t want to go on a long ride,” Aimee wailed. “I want to go back to Madame Beardsley. I want to go home!”
“But we’re not finished with our adventure,” Claire resisted stoutly. “You don’t want to leave until we’ve all taken our grand adventure, do you?”
“Grand adventure?” Elise asked. “That sounds like a story.”
“It certainly should!” Claire stood on firmer ground. “‘Second to the right and straight on ’til morning!’ Does that ring any bells?”
“Ring bells?” Bertram looked confused.
“Sound familiar.” Gaston pushed forward, his chin firm now. “That’s Peter Pan.”
“Precisely! And you remember the story . . . they flew to Neverland! All it took was a little fairy dust.”
“Did they fly home in the end?” Aimee still looked as if she might cry.
“Yes, they did,” Claire answered gently, hoping that would prove the ending of their adventures too.
“That’s all right, then,” Gaston affirmed. “We’ll go adventuring with you, mademoiselle. You’ll be our Wendy.”
“But who will be our Peter Pan?” Elise asked, and all eyes turned toward Claire.
“I’ve no idea,” Claire admitted. “I’m sure there will be one when we get to where we’re going.” She hoped that was true.
Captain Beardsley had said the journey should normally take less than a day. But with all the transport of troops, and with the tide of new evacuees—schoolchildren, old and handicapped people, pregnant women and mothers with young children—and with the stops and the sorting of children sure to come, all that had changed. He’d confided to Claire that they’d no hope of reaching Windermere station before sometime tomorrow at best, and advised her to ration fluids. “There’ll likely be no facilities.” Still, it would not do to tell the children that, not yet.
Claire shifted her bag and Aimee to her right side. Perhaps the little girl would calm down once they’d settled in their seats. How Captain Beardsley had secured seats for them in close proximity was beyond her ken. She hoped she’d sufficiently thanked him and Mrs. Beardsley for all they’d done. Life for weeks in the Beardsleys’ attic with five homesick children had stressed Claire’s resolve and nerves beyond reason, and yet kindly Mrs. Beardsley had maintained such cheerfulness while sharing her home and food. Claire had no idea how that good lady had mustered such a spirit.
Claire felt a small hand tug the belt dangling from her coat. “I need to visit the toilette,” whispered Elise, mostly in her best English.
Claire groaned inside, knowing that asking Elise to wait would not work.
Suddenly the doors of the train popped open, one by one, and lines of children led by teachers poured into every car, all semblance of order gone in a moment.
Aimee clutched Claire around the leg and Elise tugged her belt all the harder. Bertram hefted the pillowslips and cases for the smaller children. Jeanine grabbed Gaston’s hand, much to his indignation. “Come, children,” Claire insisted, leading them down the platform to their car, pulling the card with their seating assignment from her pocket.
Elise tugged again, this time more urgently, and said aloud, “I must go to—”
“Hush!” Jeanine all but slapped her sister, whispering something fierce into her ear.
“We’ll find one just as soon as we’re settled,” Claire promised, sorry for the child’s teary-eyed misery, and praying this train had facilities. How can I herd them all at once, keep them together and with me every moment, visit the toilet with any child, and make certain they speak no French aloud? Claire narrowed her eyes, trying to see the children as an immigration officer might see them.
The plan was for them all to pretend they were sleeping most of the time while on the train, or too irritable or miserable to talk. Even if grown-ups asked them questions, they were simply to feign a toothache or, if necessary, abject fear, and point toward Claire, as if she knew everything concerning them. But will they remember?
Once they found the correct railcar and climbed inside, Jeanine grabbed the card from Claire and walked ahead with Elise, searching the numbers beside compartment doors. Claire pushed Gaston and Bertram forward and, lagging behind, did her best to keep a grasp on Aimee’s hand.
Jeanine stopped and waved the card high, throwing a victorious smile Claire’s way and a condescending grin toward Gaston. Claire nodded, grateful for Jeanine’s take-charge demeanor. But from the corner of her eye, she glimpsed Gaston shove his fist into his thrust-out hip, stick out his tongue, and fiercely mimic Jeanine’s victory smile. Claire drew a deep breath and rolled her eyes. Heaven help us!
After a full day of travel and hours of delays, Claire and the children boarded the last late-night train at Oxenholme Station. According to the train schedule, in normal times the trip to Windermere would take a few minutes, but these were not normal times.
Captain Beardsley, who had followed every lead she’d given him with very little information about her aunt, had assured her that getting from Windermere Station to Lady Langford’s estate should be no problem. “The buses will be running, though there’s no way to know how close they go or if on time. Folks are helping with the ‘vacees’ all over, and mostly glad to do it. You’ll find a lift or walk it. It won’t be so bad—you’ll see. All of Britain’s pulling together, a good example for all.”
She’d known that last was a dig over America’s refusal to lend a helping hand. After all she’d seen in Paris and the fear running rampant through London, she couldn’t help but agree. Claire shook her head. She couldn’t do anything about her delinquent countrymen, but she must find some way to return to Paris. The wireless at the Beardsleys’ had reported that Germans had marched into Paris on the fourteenth of June. Already, two million Parisians had fled the capital. Swastikas hung from government buildings, including one atop the Arc de Triomphe. Now that the Germans had overrun the city, Claire’s ability to move about more freely because of her American citizenship—a woman from a neutral country—could prove invaluable to the Resistance.
At least, that’s what she’d tell her aunt. If all she’d heard of her aunt Miranda was true—if she really was a “rebel with a cause round every bend, like that Mrs. Roosevelt”—she’d surely understand. Claire would simply explain that Aunt Miranda and Uncle Gilbert’s part in helping with the war effort was to take in these poor, dear children—children at terrible risk whose parents had not been able to get their whole families out of France.
Claire sank into her seat, exhausted. There had been a few close calls throughout the long day when passengers had lifted their heads, listening carefully to Elise’s occasional slip into French or to Gaston’s retorts to his older brother. But with so many children and troops crowding the aisles, the refugees were largely ignored, blending into the landscape of evacuees—a small splotch on a great and messy painting.
Claire’s eyelids felt weighted, as if someone had dropped large English pennies over them. Her head nodded once or twice before she gave up and it reached her chest. The aisle of the train vanished.
Arnaud, crossing a wide and unfamiliar landscape—something like a desolate moor—marched toward her. Planes emerged over the horizon, like bees from dark clouds. Claire couldn’t tell whose planes they were for the longest time, until they tipped their wings, and swastikas glistened in the last light of the sun. Arnaud ran, his legs fiercely pumping. He glanced back, over his shoulder. His face turned forward again, drained of blood. Faster and faster he ran toward Claire’s open arms.
She willed her legs to move, but they did not obey. Planes swooped, dove with a vengeance, somersaulting in midair—like an air show—then dove again, strafing the road before and behind Arnaud. He leaped, headlong, into a ditch by the road.
Claire’s leaden feet moved at last, pounding the road toward him now. Her heavy eyes struggled to open wider, to see him better. She’d not seen him hit . . . but as she reached the body in the ditch, a bright-red stream spread across his back and into the black dirt. “Arnaud! Arnaud!” she cried.
“Mademoiselle! Miss Stewart!” Jeanine shook her roughly awake. “You are dreaming,” she hissed, pinching Claire’s arm, “and shouting.”
The woman across the aisle raised her head, glared at Claire, and narrowed her eyes at Jeanine. Claire smiled feebly and turned away, holding her head. The dream had seemed so real. Thank You, God, it was only a dream. And then she remembered that she wasn’t altogether certain she believed in God. She only hoped, if He was real, that He believed in Arnaud and the work he was doing. . . .
Claire’s temples throbbed. She touched the healing scar beneath her hair, the still ever-so-slightly swollen goose egg she’d received compliments of the lorry’s tailgate weeks before.
Aimee shifted in her sleep, nestling her head beneath Claire’s arm. Claire pulled the little girl’s jacket tight around her and snuggled her close. The compartment had grown cold, but Aimee’s head felt warm to Claire’s cheek. Claire spread her palm across the little girl’s forehead. Like fire. Aimee whimpered.
Claire’s headache mushroomed. What now? Aimee should be home, with her mother. A mother would know how to treat a fever.
The lightbulbs of the compartment, painted blue for minimum light, gave Claire no clue of the time. She lifted the blackout blind hanging down the window. Not even a streak of dawn yet. The face in the dark glass staring back looked older than Claire’s new identity papers claimed—more like forty-three years than twenty-three.
Hmm-hmm. The conductor cleared his throat disapprovingly. Sheepishly, Claire dropped the blind into place and shifted Aimee in her arms.
In that shifting, Claire felt a slight weight poking against her leg and moved again. There was something heavy—something narrow and solid—in the hem of Aimee’s dress. Claire remembered Mrs. Beardsley’s observation of Aimee’s hem, the night they’d come to her home. Surely that good lady had investigated, but she hadn’t mentioned a thing. “Aimee? What’s this?” But the child was fast asleep.
Minutes later the conductor returned, droning, “Windermere. Five minutes to Windermere Station,” as he made his way back through the cars.
“Nous sommes où?” Aimee’s sleepy voice whimpered again. She stretched her thin arms high to reach Claire’s neck, then nestled back into her embrace.
“Windermere. The Lake District. On est en Angleterre, ma petite,” Claire whispered into the little girl’s matted hair, hoping, nearly praying, that her aunt would let the children stay.
Two hours and wearier bones later, Claire and her entourage jostled up and down in the back of a white-bearded farmer’s straw-laden wagon. Hard of hearing and with one poorly sighted eye, the grim-mouthed farmer, returning from an early morning delivery, seemed more curious than glad to help.
At first skeptical of the notion that children were being delivered to Lady Miranda Langford’s Bluebell Wood, he clearly disapproved of Claire. “Another American. Still,” he granted, “it’s high time her ladyship took some in.” He acknowledged the children as England’s evacuees, “poor young tykes.” Claire simply gave a stiff-lipped smile, offering no response, desperately hoping the children would not speak loud enough for him to hear their French accents. She also desperately hoped she’d not have to beg him for a ride back to the station, five waifs in tow.
Now that the children felt free to laugh and whisper among themselves in the back of the wagon, they alternately stood and tumbled backward into the straw—even the older ones—stretching their cramped limbs. Claire frowned and commanded the children to be seated and quiet. Her head pounded. The last thing they needed was to be ordered from the wagon in the middle of the unknown countryside. She had no idea how to find her aunt’s home without the farmer’s help.
Gaston seemed a little subdued, glassy-eyed and pink-cheeked, which made Claire wonder if he, too, might prove feverish. She bit her lip. They’d arrive with musty straw and dust in their hair and the stench of urine on the younger children’s clothes, but Claire’s arms ached and her head had grown so heavy she no longer cared as she knew she ought. She pulled straw from her coat, sure that the itching she felt meant that she, too, had sown straw down her blouse and up her skirt.
Claire urged the fretful Aimee to stretch out beside her and covered her as best she could. It was a relief for Claire to give her brain and heartbeat over to the rhythm of the horse’s clomping hoofbeats, to lean her head against the wagon’s side, free to drink in the vista as the dark gave way.
Misty dawn crept over the gorse-strewn fells, sweeping a brilliant green and golden landscape—so bright it almost hurt her eyes. The landscape that had, she’d heard and read, inspired poets and painters for centuries. Home of Wordsworth and inspiration of Coleridge.
Claire breathed deeply, wishing it were a different time, a different sort of visit, so she might soak in some of that literary air. She knew the Lake District was renowned for its dramatic skies and pristine lakes, for its high and artful peaks, but she’d not come mentally prepared for one glimpse to steal her breath or mark her soul in this way. She swallowed, her throat painful. Such beauty . . . unparalleled beauty. No wonder writers and painters spend all they earn to come here and stay as long as they can.
It wasn’t her live-on-the-edge-and-in-the-moment world of Paris or the crowded, musty, provocative, avant-garde draw of Shakespeare and Company. She couldn’t imagine James Joyce penning Ulysses in such an open environment or that she, here, could write the same as she might in Paris.
But does that mean I wouldn’t write in the same voice, or the same stories? Do location and environment bear on the release of imagination or the form it takes . . . the summoning of the muse? Or is that like saying the muse can only visit us in certain times, in certain places, in certain ways?
Claire shifted until she leaned her head against the wagon’s seat back and wondered. She loved pondering the philosophical side of writerly questions. Writing, she believed, was her real life, her ultimate destiny. That writing—and all of her life—was destined for Paris, of that she was certain.
She saw Arnaud and herself engaged in saving children in daring, romantic adventures, a noble cause. There would come a time in the very near future when all this would prove grist for her writing mill as well, as the adventures of the Great War had done for a young Hemingway. Just now, however, she’d trade her dreams for the reality of Arnaud beside her.
A long while later, when the farmer pulled back the reins and brought his sturdy draft horse to a halt by the side of the road, Claire felt anything but steady. It was a moment before she realized the farmer was speaking to her.
“The government’s taken all those fine cast-iron gates and posts—even the signs for most of the great estates. Shame, really.” And then he seemed to think better of what he’d said. “Mind you, it’s the patriotic thing to do—necessary, don’t you know.”
Claire couldn’t imagine why the government would want gates and fences.
“Melting them down for the war effort—munitions and the like, so they say,” the man continued. “Make no mistake, miss. Sign or no sign, gate or no gate, this is the place: Bluebell Wood, just down that lane and round the bend.”
Claire couldn’t make herself move.
“You want I should drive you up to the house?”
“No, no, thank you. We’ll walk. It can’t be far. It will do us good to stretch our legs.” She forced a smile she didn’t feel.
The farmer nodded in agreement. “Keep to the path, then, and mind you hurry along. Rain’s hoverin’.”
Claire stood at the edge of the winding, narrow road and looked down at her five disheveled and dirty charges, at least one of them sick. She felt as uncertain and insecure as they looked. The reassurance they craved, Claire felt totally inadequate to give.
But this was the lane, the drive to her aunt’s home, and there was no going back now.
Claire swallowed, pasted on a smile, and nodded to Bertram to lift the pillowslips and cases from the wagon. She hefted Aimee—who’d cried she was too tired to walk, and who grew heavier with each step—into her arms and marched forward. Gaston walked close as a noonday shadow by her side, content for once to be quiet. Jeanine and Elise silently pulled up the rear.
The graveled drive wound through stately oaks on either side, each looking more than a hundred years old. Evergreen carpets spread the up-hill, down-dale forest floor on either side of the drive, ornamented by towering gray-green canopies beyond. Low stone walls cemented with moss and the occasional creeping fern kept wanderers to the drive. Yet who, Claire wondered, would wander off this lovely path? It’s L. Frank Baum’s yellow brick road from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—I’d never leave this lane before seeing where it leads!
Worn though she was, Claire began to hope she might like her aunt very much. Anyone who keeps such wild beauty barely, cleverly tamed—just enough to delight the eye and lift the soul—must be an interesting person. Even the name, Bluebell Wood, rings mysterious and beautiful. And Mother said her sister fancied herself a poet in her youth. Oh, Aunt Miranda—please, please prove a kindred spirit.
They’d nearly come to the end of the wood when the drive turned sharply into a wide arc encircling more of the estate. Claire and the children gasped, halting midstep. Paths, covered in graceful, flowering arches of early-summer pink and cream roses and thick, fragrant, weeping wisteria vines, broke the wide, overgrown lawn. Thick crops of yellow and blue iris provided bright contrast. Scattered, irregular ponds unfolded, strategically placed and dotted in cream and mauve water lilies, bordered by grasses creeping well beyond their bounds. A gangly yew maze edged one side of the gardens. Gigantic animal-shaped boxwood topiaries grown nearly beyond their definitions created something between a circus and a safari on the other. A stallion rearing on hind legs took center stage. Trees and grounds and shrubbery, all somewhat overgrown, perfectly framed a towering gray-stone mansion, complete with turrets and spires.
“It’s like a fairy-tale castle,” Jeanine whispered.
“It is a castle,” Gaston corrected.
Bertram turned, his eyes brimming with questions and trepidation. “Mademoiselle?”
But Claire’s throat had swollen and gone dry in the moment. She’d expected a big house—an estate, after all—but not this. Nothing she’d seen on their drive through the Lake District—not even the extravagant distant house their driver had pointed out as Wray Castle—had prepared her imagination for such a place.
She turned, as if to summon the farmer. No wonder he’d not seemed eager to drive them to the house itself. No wonder his curious fascination with the notion of six ragamuffin souls deposited on this regal doorstep. What have I done?
Claire could not imagine the owner of such magnificence understanding her plight, let alone that of five homeless French children. But there is whimsy here, too. What does that mean? Where will I take them when she refuses? Where can we go?
As if nothing in life could be less certain, the sun, which had dappled feeble rays through heavy leaves along the winding drive, withdrew altogether. Clouds gathered in typical English fashion, darkened, took a deep breath, and spat their wind and rain upon the refugees.
Claire knew nothing about childhood illnesses but was certain that allowing Aimee and possibly Gaston, already feverish, to get wet and chilled would do them no good. “Run!” she cried, stumbling forward with her load, trusting the others to follow.
The main house lay still another quarter of a mile away. Wind whipped their skirts and trousers, whistling between arches and round trees into the open space, blustering and shoving them forward. Claire heard Elise cry out as she tripped and fell but knew that Jeanine would help her younger sister. Bertram struggled with the cases, dropping one and picking it up, then dropping another before gathering speed. Poor Gaston stumbled, keeping as close to Claire’s side as before. She felt the heat rise off his body. Two sick children! Forgive me, Aunt, but take us in!
By the time they reached the porte cochere, all six shivered, soaked to the skin, in the dropping temperature. Thunder boomed in the distance and rumbled down the fells, the rain a torrent.
“Jeanine,” Claire ordered, squaring her shoulders as best she could with Aimee weighing down her arms, “please knock.”
Jeanine lifted the heavy brass ring from the lion’s head and let it fall once, twice. But the knock came rather timid. The wind picked up, so Claire urged, “Again, please.”
Gaston huddled closer and Elise nestled into her sister’s skirt, her thumb slipping into her mouth.
Jeanine knocked again. No one came. Minutes passed. Rain poured.
Claire set Aimee on her feet and stepped forward. The sniffling child clung to Claire’s sodden skirt. Just as Claire raised the heavy brass ring and brought it down in a mighty blow, the door fell open and she shot forward, sprawling through the doorway onto the parquet floor. Aimee, clinging to Claire’s skirt, flew behind, sliding in the slick track they created.
“What on earth!” A tall, auburn-haired woman in a long, peacock-blue silk dressing gown stepped back from the door.
The gray-haired woman running in her wake squealed, “Sakes alive! You’re bringing a monsoon with you! Close the door! Beg pardon, my lady, I was downstairs and didn’t hear the door.”
“I’m sorry,” Claire gasped. “I’m so sorry!” She groped to push herself up, but Aimee cried and clung all the harder, pulling her again to the floor.
Bertram dropped the bags inside the door and dragged Aimee off of Claire, shoving her back toward Gaston, who, wide-eyed and miserable, opened his arms to the smaller child. Jeanine leaned her weight into the door until it closed, Elise whimpering and hiccupping all the while. Painfully, Claire pushed herself up from the floor.
The woman in the blue dressing gown and the gray-haired woman both reached down to help Claire to her feet. Up Claire came, until she stood looking into the face she’d seen in the blackened train window less than three hours before—an older version of herself, but this one regal and lovely.
The women gasped in unison as Claire’s mirror image dropped her arm, unsteadying them both.
Claire knew the woman caught the resemblance too—had recognized some echo of herself in another decade. She swallowed. It’s now or never. Be brave. “Aunt Miranda . . . Lady Langford, I’m Claire Stewart, your niece from America . . . from New Jersey.”
The woman gasped again, drawing her hand to her throat. Claire saw immediate confusion and disbelief flash through her blue-green eyes. Then a gradual recognition and a cautious joy. “Claire? Mildred’s daughter?”
“Yes,” Claire breathed, relieved that her mother’s name hadn’t brought a scowl.
But Aunt Miranda’s sudden warmth stopped cold, replaced by a widening in her eyes. “What’s happened? Is Mildred all right? Is she—?”
“Mother’s fine—as far as I know.” But Claire didn’t know. She hadn’t seen or heard from her mother in the ten months since she’d moved to Paris. But then, she hadn’t written her mother either. “I should have telephoned or written before coming here, but I didn’t know how to reach you—if you were even still living here.”
Aimee reached up, whimpering, for Claire’s arms. Claire stooped down and hoisted the child to her hip.
Aunt Miranda seemed about to ask Claire something more but looked around, taking in the motley group dripping puddles on her parquet floor. “These are your children? All these?”
Jeanine giggled, out of nervousness or perhaps because the idea seemed so impossible.
Flustered, Claire couldn’t catch her composure. “I’m not married.”
The gray-haired woman, already pulling a rug toward the dripping entourage, grunted in disapproval.
“Mrs. Newsome, please,” Aunt Miranda admonished.
“I mean, they’re not mine.” Claire flushed. “But they need help, and a home. Their parents—” She stopped, realizing she couldn’t adequately explain in front of the children, couldn’t say that their parents had sent them away for fear of the coming wrath of Hitler’s army simply because they were Jewish.
“English evacuees, my lady!” Mrs. Newsome exclaimed. “I told you they’d not let us off. One to a room, they’re saying, counting kitchen and bath. We’re lucky not to have been fined already.”
“You brought these children to my home as evacuees?” Her aunt pulled back.
“Well—refugees. There’s more I must explain.”
“More?” Aunt Miranda seemed to grow taller.
Claire felt the ground she’d imagined gaining slip away. “Please . . . may we come in? We’ve traveled for two days. If the children could just dry off and have something to eat, I can explain.”
Mrs. Newsome looked to her lady for instructions, but Claire saw pity fleck the woman’s eyes. “They might dry by the kitchen stove, my lady, and Mrs. Creedle could find them a bite to eat, I daresay . . . with your permission, of course.”
Aunt Miranda seemed flustered. It wasn’t the children she looked to, but Claire, and Claire didn’t know how to make herself more pitiable, or more appealing. So she simply cuddled Aimee closer and resorted to her American habit of clasping her hands in praying position, then silently mouthed, “Please.”
Aunt Miranda lifted her chin, just slightly, drew in a breath she seemed to hold, and moistened her lips. Another moment passed before she pronounced, “Mrs. Newsome is my housekeeper. You will follow her every instruction. Hot baths and breakfast—for everyone.”
“Yes, my lady. I’ll see to it at once.” Mrs. Newsome, clearly gratified by her acknowledged authority, pulled one of the cases from Bertram and motioned for the children to follow.
But Aimee clung to Claire. Claire pushed the little girl gently but firmly away. “Go with Mrs. Newsome, Aimee. She’ll get you something to eat.”
Aimee buried her head into Claire’s skirt. “You come too, mademoiselle.”
“Aimee, please!” Claire felt her patience growing thin. Now that someone else could help, she felt near to fainting, incapable of carrying the burden alone.
Mrs. Newsome drew the child away. “Come, now. Such a fuss—why, this child’s burning up with fever!” She cast an accusing glance Claire’s way. “And there’s a rash—”
“I don’t know what’s the matter. It’s just come on while we traveled.” Claire felt her own head throbbing, her forehead burning.
Mrs. Newsome clucked her tongue. “I’d best send for Dr. MacDonald, my lady. No telling what they’ve brought with them.”
“You take the children, Mrs. Newsome. I’ll telephone him.”
“Yes, my lady.” Mrs. Newsome hesitated. “I must say, my lady, that dressing gown with its color becomes you.”
Miranda Langford blushed, as if the compliment pricked. “You may go, Mrs. Newsome.”
“Thank you,” Claire said sincerely. She swallowed painfully, ready to follow the housekeeper.
But Aunt Miranda stopped her. “Claire, after you’ve had an opportunity to refresh yourself, I’ll see you in the library. Shall we say at nine?”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you,” Claire breathed. Uncertain she’d said it aloud, Claire said again, “Thank you, Aunt.”
But Aunt Miranda had already turned and, head lifted, marched halfway to the grand staircase at the far end of the hall.
Unsettled, Claire shivered. She’s like Mother in some ways—that feigned sense of self-importance. Aunt Miranda walks as if she’s got a rod up her back and a book on her head. Claire remembered months of training under her mother’s strict eye doing precisely that. She bit her lip, no longer certain her aunt would prove a kindred spirit after all.