I’m in a safe place now.
After receiving the hidden note instructing me to leave Hotel Durand immediately, I quickly packed my things and hurried to catch the next available train back to headquarters. I didn’t stop to ponder the urgency of the note or who wrote it; there would be time for that when I was safely on the train drinking tea. I hoped to cross into unoccupied France by 13:00 hours.
My heart hammered the whole ten minutes it took to reach the station, and when I turned the corner I was deeply dismayed to see a group of five young German soldiers standing in front of the entrance, laughing and smoking cigarettes. I’ve had numerous contact with German soldiers in just the short time I had been in this little village, and I should be used to it by now, but there was something menacing in the way they all stopped talking at once when they saw me. I shuddered inwardly when I felt all of their eyes on me as I approached. One of them, a brash looking young man with closely cropped blond hair and a mocking smile on his face blocked the entrance with one leather-booted foot on the step.
I stopped in the street with one hand carrying my baggage. “Excusez moi, s'il vous plait,” I said with a small smile.
The soldier, only in his late teens, didn’t move his foot, but instead took a long, slow draw on his cigarette. I read a mixture of insolence, amusement and curiosity in his blue eyes.
“You look like you are in too much of a hurry, mademoiselle.” His French was appalling.
“I wish I wasn’t,” I said, keeping my expression friendly but serious. “My cousin has taken very ill in Charmes. I must go to her at once. We are very close, you see.”
“Aah, that is too bad.” There was no empathy in his voice. “My colleagues and I have just arrived here though, and I feel sad that you will not join us tonight at the hotel Durand for drinks.” He raised his eyebrows. “Don’t you think you could stay just a little while longer?”
One of the other soldiers, a larger man, piped in with even worse French, “I agree with Armine. I think it’s better that she stick around for one more night.” My blood cooled as the other soldiers nodded. I felt like the main course on a menu card.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” I said firmly. “My cousin is seriously ill. She may even be dying. ” I looked evenly into Armine’s eyes, forcing all playfulness out of my expression.
He stared back at me for a long moment and then slowly moved his boot out of the way, his eyes never leaving mine.
“Merci,” I said as I gingerly walked past them all and into the station, my heart racing.
“Warum zum Teufel hast du sie gehen lassen?” I heard one of the soldiers remark as I hurried toward the kiosk desk. He wanted to know why the devil the young soldier had let me go. I didn’t care why, only thanked heaven that he had.
At that point I thought the whole matter was over with, but after I paid for my ticket and started heading towards the platforms I felt a sharp tug on my suitcase. I turned to see that the larger German soldier had followed me, and behind him came Armine and the rest of the group. I was soon surrounded.
I looked around in vain, but there were only a few people at the station and no one dared make eye contact with me.
“Please, I…” I stammered. My heart beat loudly in my ears and I felt my face grow red as I calculated the danger I was in.
“Hübsches Mädchen,” said Armine. Pretty girl. “My friends have convinced me that…”
“Was ist los, hier?” A sharp, commanding voice echoed through the station, wanting to know what was going on. The soldiers snapped to attention.
The owner of the voice strode quickly towards us, anger showing in his brown eyes. His uniform bore the rank of Captain or ‘Hauptmann’. He was about my age and of medium build. His hair, although partially covered by his cap, was brown in color.
None of the soldiers replied until the officer looked directly into Armine’s eyes.
“Nichts. Hauptmann Krantz,” Armine said, with his eyes looking straight ahead as he stood at attention. “We were only asking this young lady if she would join us for drinks later.”
The man turned to me. “Is this true?” His voice softened a bit. “I have the impression that you may be trying to catch a train.” He looked down at my luggage and the paper ticket that I was still carrying. His French was far better than the others.
“Yes, I have to get to Charmes. My cousin is gravely ill,” I replied, willing my voice to remain even. “I think it would nice to join these gentlemen, but I am afraid it’s not possible. Perhaps some other time.”
He said turning to the larger soldier. “I think you gentlemen need to look elsewhere for company this evening.”
The man’s lips tightened as the words left his mouth, “Yawhol, Hauptmann Krantz.”
There was a moment where no one moved.
“Jetzt!” shouted the officer at full volume, startling everyone including me. The soldiers all immediately turned and quickly walked away.
Turning to Ginger the German captain said, “I’m terribly sorry, mademoiselle. These boys are a long way from home and are not yet tempered by war’s sobering effects. Most of them have not even seen the front yet.”
I had no idea how that could be any kind of excuse, but I appreciated his cordial words.
“Please,” he said as he extended his elbow to me. “Allow me to escort you to your train.”
He said nothing more as we walked on the platform until I reached the waiting point. My train was due to arrive in five minutes. I felt strange walking arm in arm with this silent German Captain, but I was very grateful for his help.
When the train whistle sounded announcing its imminent arrival, he said goodbye and walked away leaving me somewhat bewildered at the whole affair.
Hauptmann Krantz: I shall have to remember to ask Smithwick if anything is known about him.
I took the first available seat and breathed a silent prayer of thanks as the train chugged out of the station.