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Escape from Paris
By CAROLYN HART
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 1986 Carolyn Hart
All rights reserved.
Linda handed her papers to the sergeant. Her hands shook a little but he didn't seem to notice. Perhaps he was used to shaking hands.
He read the passes which permitted her to drive, to purchase 10 gallons of gasoline a week and to visit hospitals in a 75-mile radius of Paris on behalf of the Foyer du Soldat.
Linda was ready to explain why it was she and not her sister Eleanor making the visit today, but he didn't ask. He merely nodded, handed the papers back and said, in his heavily accented French, "You may proceed, Mademoiselle."
The sentry pacing back and forth between the hospital gate posts stood aside for the little car to enter.
Linda slowly drove around the side of the hospital, trying, if she would admit it, to put off for another few minutes her entry into the hospital. She had not wanted to come. It was Eleanor who visited hospitals daily, taking Red Cross packages to wounded soldiers and airmen. Eleanor kept hoping, of course, that she would find some trace of her husband. Andre had been missing since Dunkirk.
Today's visit to Douellens had been scheduled for a week or more. When Eleanor was up all night with a toothache, Linda volunteered to go in her place. Linda hated sickness—and wounds—and hospitals—and she was dreadfully afraid of the Germans.
She drove slowly around the west wing to park in the shadow of a huge oak, just opposite a row of bins that marked the kitchen hospital. Linda reluctantly got out of the car. Opening the trunk, she lifted out a picnic hamper filled with small boxes, fifty or more, and walked slowly to the front of the hospital. She climbed broad stone steps into a dirty entry foyer, the marble streaked with grit. The smell in the foyer struck her like a physical blow. She paused for an instant, then, her mouth tight, turned to her left.
"The Commandant's office is just back of the entry foyer," Eleanor had told her. "You must check in there first and show your papers."
A French sergeant perfunctorily looked at her papers.
"Do I just go up and down the halls?" Linda asked uncertainly.
He shrugged, his face weary and bitter. "Do whatever you like, Mademoiselle."
She hesitated for a moment in the main hallway, then stepped into the first ward. She stopped just inside the doorway, appalled. Eleanor had told her the hospitals were overcrowded and understaffed, but she hadn't expected anything like this.
Every inch of space was used, beds jammed so close together there was scarcely room to step between them. The smell of blood, infection, and carbolic acid hung thickly in the steamy air. Linda didn't see a single nurse, only row after row of beds with men lying quietly.
When they saw her, greetings and questions in French spread over the long room like wildfire. "A girl. Look, there's a girl. It must be the Red Cross. Mademoiselle, have you come from Paris?"
She edged her way up and down the rows, answering as well as she could in her far from perfect French, and trying hard not to gasp at the dreadfully maimed. She passed a huge Senegalese soldier, encased in soiled bandages, who writhed in pain, muttering in a language no one could understand. She saw a soldier without a nose, another whose entire face was shrouded in gauze, and so many who were blind.
She walked through two wards, passing out her little packets of cheese, bread, chocolate, and cigarettes. What a useless journey, she thought miserably. Little packets of food for men who needed medicine and clean bandages and good meals. It was worse than useless. It was a mockery of aid. Yet, this hospital was a paradise compared to where most of the men would be sent. As soon as they were well enough, they would be transferred to military prisons.
In the dimly lit hallway, she stood for a long moment, willing herself to enter the next ward. Instead, seeing a splash of sunlight, she turned to her left and went out onto a patio. Ambulatory patients sat passively in the August sunlight. When they saw her, she was instantly surrounded.
Struggling to keep up in her faltering French, she took down name after name and promised to try and get word to families. To at least a half dozen men or more, though, she shook her head. "I'm sorry," she explained over and over, "we can't get word to the Unoccupied Zone. The Germans are not permitting any mail over the frontier."
"Frontier," one of the men repeated harshly.
Frontier. She understood his anger. The conquering Germans had drawn a line across France. On one side, the Germans ruled. On the other, the Vichy government of Marshal Petain ruled. It was now one of the most carefully guarded frontiers in the world. Men died trying to cross it every day and every night. French, English and Canadian soldiers who had escaped the German round-up in the North kept trying to slip across into the Unoccupied Zone in hopes of reaching and crossing the border to Spain. It was easier to get a letter to Minneapolis than to Marseilles.
Linda moved from group to group, taking down names, promising to do her best. Though all of them were hungry to talk to her, each took only a little share of time with a delicacy that touched her.
"Miss ... Please ..."
The low whisper came from the shadow of a mimosa. She turned in surprise.
"Are you English?" he asked.
"No. I'm American. Why?"
He brushed back thin fair hair with a hand that trembled ever so slightly. His other hand was swathed in a thick bandage. "I saw you park under the oak tree and you are so fair, I thought you might be English."
"Are you a British soldier?" she whispered.
"Fifth Lancers Corps."
"Why did you ask if I were English?"
He tried to smile. "I thought an Englishwoman might help me escape."
The word hung between them. Nervously, Linda looked around the courtyard but no one was near enough to hear.
He saw the fear in her face. "That's all right," he said quickly and he started to turn away.
"Wait. What do you mean? How could I possibly help you?"
He put a finger to his lips. "I saw your car and I know how it could be done." He explained in hurried jerky phrases.
"Why do you want to escape so badly?" Linda asked nervously.
He held up his bandaged right hand, pulled back the gauze covering. The hand was twisted, the thumb gone, the palm livid with a puckered scar. But it was healed.
He swallowed. "They're taking me to the Citadel Thursday."
The day after tomorrow.
Linda had passed the Citadel, a massive stone prison five miles back toward Paris. She had stopped there this morning and tried to gain entry to give packages to the prisoners of war being held there. The German sentry refused her admittance. She had shown him the permit, signed by the district commander that granted her access to prisons and hospitals to deliver food packages.
"No one enters here without a special pass, Mademoiselle," and she was turned away.
The Citadel was the first stop on the way to prisoner of war camps in Germany. Already, even in mid-August, there were frightful stories being whispered across France about prisoner of war camps in Germany.
Linda stared at the English soldier's drawn face. He was about her age. "All right," she said breathlessly. "I'll help you."
She left him in the shadow of the mimosa tree and circled slowly around the courtyard and went into the East Wing. She didn't think anyone had noticed their talk. After all, she had stopped and talked to so many. That was why she was here. But fear was a hard lump in her chest. She hurried into another ward. She gave away the rest of her boxes and it was time to leave.
In the Commandant's office, the same indifferent sergeant checked her out. She pushed through the main doors and welcomed the heat, the smell of dust and new mown hay and, faintly, lilac. She walked quickly around the side of the hospital to the little car. Swiftly, she looked around. The hospital rose three stories. She stared at the masses of windows with a kind of horror. If anyone looked down when he came ...
Jerkily, she bent and opened the trunk. It took only a minute or so to take out the empty cartons which had held packets delivered at other stops this morning. She put the cartons in the little back seat then returned to the trunk to push the lid down but, very carefully, not shut it.
She took her place in the driver's seat and waited. She wanted to look over her shoulder toward the kitchen, but she was afraid. Instead she opened her purse and lifted out her cigarette case. She put the cigarette in her mouth and raised her lighter. Her hand was shaking so hard that she couldn't snap the lighter. Calm down, Linda, she warned herself, calm down.
If he didn't hurry, they were going to be caught. That sergeant would walk down the road in a little while to see why she was taking so long. Why didn't the Englishman hurry? Why had she said she would take him? Why had she been such a fool? If the soldiers searched the car at the gate ... Linda shivered uncontrollably although the late August heat baked the little car, making the leather so hot that her blouse and skirt clung wetly to her. Still she shivered.
She tried again to light the cigarette. The lighter clicked. The pinpoint of flame wavered but she held it to the cigarette, drew deeply. Dear God, why didn't he come?
Her hand reached out, touched the key in the ignition. All she had to do was turn the motor on, put the car in gear and be on her way. She would stop at the gate and show her papers and she wouldn't have to be afraid. The Red Cross pennant on the windshield was her protection.
The pennant wouldn't protect her if they found an English soldier hidden in the trunk.
She turned the key in the ignition. Why should she take such a frightful chance?
The kitchen door squeaked. He dashed across the road, lifted up the trunk lid, rolled inside and pulled it shut after him.
White faced, Linda stubbed out the cigarette. She hunched over the wheel, waiting for a shout, for soldiers to rush toward her.
A wasp buzzed near the window. Far away a dog barked.
Her throat dry, sweat streaming down her face, Linda turned the key and pushed on the accelerator. She backed and turned until the car faced toward the front. She drove slowly, dust rising behind her. Her shoulder muscles were rigid. If anyone had been looking down from a window in the back an alarm would be raised. Surely to God, not every window could have been empty. But those windows belonged to the wards and these were sick and wounded French soldiers, not German.
Still it would take only one voice to stop her and there were many Frenchmen now who hated the English. They heard the German broadcasts blaming the English for the French defeat and believed them. It was easier to blame defeat on others. But the car passed the end of the wing now and no one called out. She drove on to the gate and stopped.
The sergeant stepped out of the sentry box. "Your papers, Mademoiselle."
She opened her straw purse and reached for her identity card and the passes. He had seen all of them earlier but he looked again, reading every one.
She and the sergeant became aware of the smell at the same moment. His nostrils flared and he looked past her, into the car.
The leather seat beside her was empty except for her straw purse. Empty cartons and the picnic basket filled the tiny back seat.
Would he remember the back seat had been empty this morning? She had switched the cartons to make room in the trunk.
The sergeant craned his head to look down at the floor of the back seat. It was the smell, that reek of hospital disinfectant that puzzled him.
The smell clung to the Englishman, the odor of dirt and carbolic acid, and was seeping now from the trunk into the car, worsened by the heat. It would be very hot in the trunk.
The sergeant stared at her right arm.
She looked down and saw the reddish-yellowish streaks on the pale blue cotton.
"You have blood on your dress, Mademoiselle."
"One of the soldiers, he was very ill, and when I tried to help him, I suppose his wound must have been bleeding." Overlaying the smell in the car, she remembered the thick sweet stench from the chest wound of the boy who had lost his brother. "His bandage was old and ..."
The sergeant wasn't listening. He had satisfied himself about the smell. He closed her papers with a snap and handed them back.
She turned the key, pressed on the accelerator. The engine turned over, once, twice, then died. If the car refused to start altogether, someone might open the trunk. She turned the key again. She excluded everything from her mind, the giveaway smell in the car, the thick suffocating heat as the sun streamed through the windshield, the presence of the sergeant just a foot or so away. She reached out, pulled on the choke button. Just a little. "Don't drown the poor damn car. Just give it a little bit." She could hear Jay's voice, across the years and thousands of miles. Sunshine then, too, but the soft silky sun of California with, always, a touch of coolness beneath the warmth. Jay had taught her how to drive in his old Austin. He had been so proud of that car, the ramrod straight seats, the high roof, the dashboard of tortoise shell. He had shown her, his hand over hers, just how far to pull out the choke, "See, like this, then give the pedal a slow steady push. That's it, that's it, baby, you've got it, hey, you're pretty, you know that?" and his hand had slipped from hers to tilt her face toward him. Sunshine and the smell of roses and her first kiss.
The engine turned over, caught, held, roared, she slammed the car into first and it bolted up the road. She looked in the rearview mirror. The young sentry was watching after her. The sergeant had turned away, to step into the shade of the sentry box.
Linda reached for a cigarette. Funny, she had only smoked occasionally until the Germans occupied Paris. Now that cigarettes were so hard to get, she smoked more and more. Maybe she smoked because she was afraid. She drew deeply on the cigarette. Afraid. Yes. She was afraid but she couldn't admit her fear to Eleanor or Robert. She couldn't tell them because Eleanor already wanted her to go home to America. "Not unless you are coming, too," she told her sister.
Eleanor had shaken her head. It wasn't only that France had been her home since her marriage sixteen years before. It was more than that. She couldn't leave Paris when she had no word from her husband since Dunkirk, and, even if the Germans would permit her to go, they might not be willing to let Robert leave. It was very hard to get permission to leave France now.
Most Americans had left during the year of the phony war and many who had stayed late fled when the Blitzkrieg began in May. There were only a handful of Americans left in Paris.
If Eleanor would agree to leave ... Linda drew hard on the cigarette. But Eleanor was determined to stay.
The military hospital was out of sight now. Over the next hill lay the Citadel. There would be another stop there, to have her papers checked. If anyone ordered her to open the trunk ... Her hand trembled and she stubbed out the cigarette.
The wheel jerked a little under her hands. The car swerved but she brought it straight again. There wasn't any traffic to worry about. No one had cars but Germans and their Vichy friends. The Frenchmen walking along the road, scythes over their shoulders, turned hard faces toward her car until they saw the Red Cross flag. She waited until she was past the workers to answer.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
"That's okay. Are you all right back there? It's so small."
"Fine, thanks." His voice was muffled but cheerful. "How far are we?"
She realized he wouldn't have any idea how many miles it was to Paris. "About seventy-five miles. But there isn't any traffic." The road began a gradual climb. She could just glimpse the Citadel through the line of poplar trees to her left. "We'll be slowing down in a few minutes. A roadblock."
"Don't worry. It's just to check papers. There are five or six of them ahead."
Not to worry. Unless, of course, they were unlucky. An officious sentry ... But it was late afternoon now and hot, nearing time for guards to change. They would be thinking of cold beer and food. Why should anyone pay much attention to her?
"Look," and the muffled voice was serious now, almost harsh, "If anyone, you know, makes you open the trunk, if they search the car, well, you just give a little scream, you know, you are absolutely surprised and I'll say I sneaked into the trunk, hid myself."
She blew out a soft little spurt of air. That wouldn't save her. But there wasn't any point in telling him so.
"Okay," she said quietly, "I'll remember. Don't worry. We'll be all right."
Excerpted from Escape from Paris by CAROLYN HART. Copyright © 1986 by Carolyn Hart. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
Book Club Guide
Escape from Paris
1. Who does the title refer to?
2. What was it like to live in France during the German Occupation? How was life on the home front in America? (See below.)
3. Linda Rossiter and Eleanor Masson have entirely different feelings about helping RAF fliers escape. Contrast Linda's terror of the Gestapo with Eleanor's eagerness to fight the Nazis.
4. Raphael Masson, Andre's brother, has spent his life within the parameters of the law. He follows the law. What should be- what can be - his response to Vichy rule?
5. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. How does the Gestapo exemplify this maxim?
6. The vignette of Fraulein Selig, the famed opera singer, is a true story as is the trainload of Jewish children. Does the recollection of particular heartbreak help us remember with a sense of immediacy the horror of the Holocaust?
7. Rene and Yvette Bizien are fighting for their own survival. Are Yvette's actions understandable?
8. On November 11, 1940 Parisians flowed by the thousands to lay flowers at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. On Christmas Eve, devout Parisians defied the curfew to go to Midnight Mass. What do these two events tell us about national pride and religious conviction?
9. Did Escape from Paris give you a greater sense of connection to the war years?
10. Why do we need to remember the war?
Carolyn Hart | 9781616147938 | TR | 6/11/2013 | IN | $13.95 $15.00
Prometheus Books; Seventh Street Books