CHAPTER THREE: JUNE 1940
01 For three days she does not meet her great-uncle.
02 Then, feeling her way to the toilet on the fourth morning after their arrival, she steps on something small and hard.
03 She crouches and locates it with her fingers.
01 Whorled and smooth.
02 A sculpture of vertical folds incised by a tapering spiral.
03 The aperture broad and oval.
04 She whispers, “A whelk.”
01 One stride in front of the first shell, she finds another.
02 Then a third and a fourth.
03 The trail of seashells arcs past the toilet and down a flight to the closed fifth-floor door she knows by now is his.
04 Beyond which issues the concerted whispers of pianos playing.
05 A voice says, “Come in.”
01 She expects fustiness, an elderly funk, but the room smells mildly of soap and books and dried seaweed.
02 Not unlike Dr. Geffard’s laboratory.
00 His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.
01 She reaches into space, and a cool bird-boned hand takes hers.
02 He is feeling better, he says, “I am sorry I have not been able to meet you sooner.”
01 The pianos plink along softly; it sounds as if a dozen are playing all at once, as if the sound comes from every point of the compass.
01 “How many radios do you have, Uncle?”
01 “Let me show you.”
02 He brings her hands to a shelf.
03 “This one is stereo.
05 I assembled it myself.”
06 She imagines a diminutive pianist, dressed in a tuxedo, playing inside the machine.
07 Next he places her hands on a big cabinet radio, then on a third no bigger than a toaster.
08 Eleven sets in all, he says, boyish pride slipping into his voice.
09 “I can hear ships at sea.
13 I heard Pakistan once.
14 Here at the edge of the city, so high in the house, we get superb reception.”
01 He lets her dig through a box of fuses, another of switches.
02 He leads her to bookshelves next: the spines of hundreds of books; a birdcage; beetles in match boxes; an electric mousetrap; a glass paperweight inside which, he says, a scorpion has been entombed; jars of miscellaneous fuses; a hundred more things she cannot identify.
03 He has the entire fifth floor ― one big room, except for the landing ― to himself.
01 Three windows open onto the rue Vauborel in the front, three more onto the alley in the back.
02 There is a small and ancient bed, his coverlet smooth and tight.
03 A tidy desk, a davenport.
01 “That’s the tour,” he says, almost whispering.
02 Her great-uncle seems kind, curious, and entirely sane.
03 Stillness: this is what he radiates more than anything else.
04 The stillness of a tree.
05 Of a mouse blinking in the dark.
01 Madame Manec brings sandwiches.
02 Etienne doesn’t have any Jules Verne, but he does have Darwin, he says, and reads to her from The Voyage of the “Beagle,” translating English to French, as he goes ― the variety of species among the jumping spiders appears almost infinite . . .
03 Music spirals out of the radios, and it is splendid to drowse on the davenport, to be warm and fed, to feel the sentences hoist her up and carry her somewhere else.
01 Six blocks away at the telegraph office, Marie-Laure’s father presses his face to the window to watch two German motorcycles with sidecars roar through the Porte Saint-Vincent.
02 The shutters of the town are drawn, but between slats, over sills, a thousand eyes peer out.
03 Behind the motorcycles roll two trucks.
04 In the rear glides a single black Mercedes.
00 Sunlight flashes from the hood ornaments and chrome fittings as the little procession grinds to a stop on the ringed gravel drive in front of the soaring lichen-streaked walls of the Château de Saint-Malo.
01 An elderly, preternaturally tanned man ― the mayor, somebody explains ― waits with a white handkerchief in his big sailor’s hands, a barely perceptible shake showing in his wrists.
01 The Germans climb out of their vehicles, more than a dozen of them.
02 Their boots gleam and their uniforms are tidy.
03 Two carry carnations; one urges along a beagle on a rope.
04 Several gaze openmouthed up at the facade of the château.
01 A short man in a field captain’s uniform emerges from the backseat of the Mercedes and brushes something invisible from the sleeve of his coat.
02 He exchanges a few words with a thin aide-de-camp, who translates to the mayor.
03 The mayor nods.
04 Then the short man disappears through the huge doors.
05 Minutes later, the aide-de-camp flings open the shutters of an upstairs window and gazes a moment across the rooftops before unfurling a crimson flag over the brick and securing its eyelets to the sill.
01 It’s a castle out of a storybook: eight or nine stone buildings sheltered below hills, rust-colored roofs, narrow windows, spires and turrets, weeds sprouting from between roof tiles.
02 A pretty little river winds through athletics fields.
03 Not in the clearest hour of Zollverein’s clearest day has Werner breathed air so unadulterated by dust.
01 A one-armed bunk master sets forth rules in a belligerent torrent.
02 “This is your parade uniform, this is your field uniform, this is your gym uniform.
03 Suspenders crossed in the back, parallel in the front.
04 Sleeves rolled to the elbow.
05 Each boy is to carry a knife in a scabbard on the right side of the belt.
06 Raise your right arm when you wish to be called upon.
07 Always align in rows of ten.
08 No books, no cigarettes, no food, no personal possessions, nothing in your locker but uniforms, boots, knife, polish.
09 No talking after lights-out.
10 Letters home will be posted on Wednesday.
11 You will strip away your weakness, your cowardice, your hesitation.
01 You will become like a waterfall, a volley of bullets ― you will all surge in the same direction at the same pace toward the same cause.
02 You will forgo comforts; you will live by duty alone.
03 You will eat country and breath nation.”
01 Do they understand?
01 The boys shout that they do.
02 There are four hundred of them, plus thirty instructors and fifty more on the staff, NCOs and cooks, groomsmen and groundkeepers.
03 Some cadets are as young as nine.
04 The oldest are seventeen.
05 Gothic faces, sharp noses, pointed chins.
06 Blue eyes, all of them.
01 Werner sleeps in a tiny dormitory with seven other fourteen-year-olds.
02 The bunk above belongs to Frederick: a reedy boy, thin as blade of grass, skin as pale as cream.
03 Frederick is new too.
04 He’s from Berlin.
05 His father is assistant to an ambassador.
06 When Frederick speaks, his attention floats up, as though he’s scanning the sky for something.
01 He and Werner eat their first meal in their starchy new uniforms at a long wooden table in the refectory.
02 Some boys talk in whispers, some sit alone, some gulp food as if they have not eaten in days.
03 Through three arched windows, dawn sends a sheaf of hallowed golden rays.
01 Frederick flutters his fingers and asks, “Do you like birds?”
01 “Do you know about hooded crows?”
01 Werner shakes his head.
01 “Hooded crows are smarter than most mammals.
02 Even monkeys.
03 I’ve seen them put nuts that they can’t crack in the road and wait for cars to run over them to get at the kernel.
04 Werner, you and I are going to be great friends, I’m sure of it.”
01 A portrait of the führer glowers over every classroom.
02 Learning happens on backless benches, at wooden tables grooved by the boredom of countless boys before them ― squires, monks, conscripts, cadets.
03 On Werner’s first day, he walks past the half-open door of the technical sciences laboratory and glimpses a room as big as Zollverein’s drugstore lined with brand-new sinks and glass-fronted cabinets inside which wait sparkling beakers and graduated cylinders and balances and burners.
04 Frederick has to urge him along.
01 On their second day, a withered phrenologist gives a presentation to the entire student body.
02 The lights in the refectory dim, a projector whirs, and a chart full of circles appears on the far wall.
03 The old man stands beneath the projection screen and whisks the tip of a billiards cue through the grids.
04 “White circles represent pure German blood.
05 Circles with black indicate the proportion of foreign blood.
06 Notice group two, number five.”
07 He raps the screen with his cue and it ripples.
08 “Marriage between a pure German and one-quarter Jew is still permissible, you see?”
01 A half hour later, Werner and Frederick are reading Goethe in poetics.
02 Then they’re magnetizing needles in field exercises.
03 The bunk master announces schedules of byzantine complication:
04 Mondays are for mechanics, state history, racial sciences.
05 Tuesdays are for horse man ship, orientating, military history.
06 Everyone, even the nine-year-olds, will be taught to clean, break down, and fire a Mauser rifle.
01 Afternoons, they lash themselves into a snarl of cartridge belts and run.
02 Run to the troughs; run to the flag; run up the hill.
03 Run carrying each other on your backs, run carrying your rifle above your head.
04 Run, crawl, swim.
05 Then more running.
01 The star-flooded nights, the dew-soaked dawns, the hushed ambulatories, the enforced asceticism ― never has Werner felt part of something so single-minded.
02 Never has he felt such a hunger to belong.
03 In the rows of dormitories are cadets who talk of alpine skiing, of duels, of jazz clubs and governesses and boar hunting; boys who employ curse words with virtuosic skill and boys who talk about cigarettes named for cinema stars; boys who speak of “telephoning the colonel” and boys who have baronesses for mothers.
04 There are boys who have been admitted not because they are good at anything in particular but because their fathers work for ministries.
01 And the way they talk:
02 “One mustn’t expect figs from thistle!”
03 “I’d pollinate her in a blink you shit!”
04 “Bear up and funk it, boys!”
05 There are cadets who do everything right ― perfect posture, expert marksmanship, boots polished so perfectly that they reflect clouds.
06 There are cadets who have skin like butter and irises like sapphires and ultra-fine networks of blue veins laced across the backs of their hands.
07 For now, though, beneath the whip of the administration, they are all the same, all Jungmanner.
08 They hustle through the gates together, gulp fried eegs in the refectory together, march across the quadrangle, perform roll call, salute the colors, shoot rifles, run, bathe, and suffer together.
09 They are each a mound of clay, and the potter that is the portly, shiny-faced commandant is throwing four hundred identical pots.
01 We are young, they sing, we are steadfast, we have never compromised, we have so many castles yet to storm.
01 Werner sways between exhaustion, confusion, and exhilaration.
02 That his life has been so wholly redirected astounds him.
03 He keeps any doubts at bay by memorizing lyrics or the routes to classrooms, by holding before his eyes a vision of the technical sciences laboratory: nine tables, thirty stools; coils, variable capacitors, amplifiers, batteries, soldering irons, locked away in those gleaming cabinets.
01 Above him, kneeling on his bunk, Frederick peers out the open window through a pair of antique field glasses and makes a record on the bed rail of birds he has sighted.
02 One notch under red-necked grebe.
03 Six notches under thrush nightingale.
04 Out on the grounds, a group of ten-year-olds is carrying torches and swastika flags toward the river.
05 The procession pauses, and a gust of wind tears at the torch flames.
06 Then they march on, their song swirling up through the window like a bright, pulsing cloud.
01 O take me, take me up into the ranks so that I do not die a common death!
02 I do not want to die in vain, what I want is to fall on the sacrificial mound.
01 Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel is forty-one years old, not so old that he cannot be promoted.
02 He has moist red lips; pale, almost translucent cheeks like fillets of raw sole; and an instinct for correctness that rarely fails him.
03 He has a wife who suffers his absences without complaint, and who arranges porcelain kittens by color, lightest to darkest, on two different shelves in their drawing room in Stuttgart.
04 He also has two daughters whom he has not seen in nine months.
05 The eldest, Veronika, is deeply earnest.
06 Her letters to him include phrases like sacred resolve, proud accomplishments, and unparalleled in history.
01 Von Rumpel’s particular gift is for diamonds: he can facet and polish stones as well as any Aryan jeweler in Europe, and he often spots fakes at a glance.
02 He studied crystallography in Munich, apprenticed as a polisher in Antwerp, has even been ― one glorious afternoon ― to Charterhouse Street in London, to an unmarked diamond house, where he was asked to turn out his pockets and ushered up three staircases and through three locked doors and seated at a table where a man with a mustache waxed to knife-points let him examine a ninety-two-carat raw diamond from South Africa.
01 Before the war, the life of Reinhold von Rumpel was pleasant enough: he was a gemologist who ran an appraisal business out of a second-story shop behind Stuttgart’s old chancellery.
02 Clients would bring in stones and he’d tell them what they were worth.
03 Sometimes he’d recut diamonds or consult on high-level faceting projects.
04 If occasionally he cheated a customer, he told himself that was part of the game.
01 Because of the war, his job has expanded.
02 Now Sergeant Major von Rumpel has the chance to do what no one has done in centuries ― not since the Mogul Dynasty, not since the Khans.
03 Perhaps not in history.
04 The capitulation of France is only weeks past, and already he has seen things he did not dream he would see in six lifetimes.
05 A seventeenth-century globe as big around as a small car, with rubies to mark volcanoes, sapphires clustered at the poles, and diamonds for world capitals.
06 He has held ― held! ― a dagger handle at least four hundred years old, made of white jade and inlaid with emeralds.
07 Just yesterday, on the road to Vienna, he took possession of a five-hundred-and-seventy-piece china set with a single marquise-cut diamonds set into the rim of every single dish.
01 Where the police confiscated these treasures and from whom, he does not ask.
02 Already he has personally packed them into a crate and belted it shut and numbered it with white paint and seen it loaded inside a train car where it sits under twenty-four-hour guard.
01 Waiting to be sent to high command.
02 Waiting for more.
01 This particular summer afternoon, in a dusty geological library in Vienna, Sergeant Major von Rumpel follows an underweight secretary wearing brown shoes, brown stockings, a brown skirt, and a brown blouse through stacks of periodicals.
02 The secretary sets down a step stool, climbs, reaches.
01 Tavernier’s 1676 Travels in India.
01 P. S. Pallas’s 1793 Travels Through the Southern Provinces of the Russian Empire.
01 Streeter’s 1898 Precious Stones and Gems.
01 Rumor is that the führer is compiling a wish list of precious objects from all around Europe and Russia.
02 They say he intends to remake the Austrian town of Linz into an empyrean city, the cultural capital of the world.
03 A vast promenade, mausoleum, acropolis, planetarium, library, opera house ― everything marble and granite, everything profoundly clean.
04 At its core, he plans a kilometer-long museum: a trove of the greatest achievements in human culture.
01 The document is real, von Rumpel has heard.
02 Four hundred pages.
01 He sits at the table in the stacks.
02 He tries to cross his legs but a slight swelling troubles his groin today: odd, though not painful.
03 The mousy librarian brings books.
04 He pages slowly through the Tavernier, the Streeter, Murray’s Sketches of Persia.
05 He reads entries on the three-hundred-carat Orloff diamond from Moscow, the Nur-al-Ain, the forty-eight-and-a-half carat Dresden Green.
06 Toward evening, he finds it.
07 The story of a prince who cannot be killed, a priest who warned of a goddess’s wrath, a French prelate who believed he’d bought the same stone centuries later,
01 Sea of Flames.
02 Grayish blue with a red hue at its center.
03 Recorded at one hundred and thirty-three carats.
04 Either lost or willed to the king of France in 1738 on the condition that it be locked away for two hundred years.
01 He looks up.
02 Suspended lamps, rows of spines fading off into dusty gold.
03 All of Europe, and he aims to find one pebble tucked inside its folds.
01 Her father says their weapons gleam as if they have never been fired.
02 He says their boots are clean and their uniforms spotless.
03 He says they look as if they have just stepped out of air-conditioned train cars.
01 The townswomen who stop by Madame Manec’s kitchen door in ones and twos say the Germans ( they refer to them as the Boches ) buy every postcard on every pharmacy rack; they say the Boches buy straw dolls and candied apricots and stale cakes from the window of the confectionery.
02 The Boches buy shirts from Monsieur Verdier and lingerie from Monsieur Morvan; the Boches require absurd quantities of butter and cheese; the Boches have guzzled down every bottle of champagne the caviste would sell them.
01 Hitler, the women whisper, is touring Parisian monuments.
01 Curfews are installed.
02 Music that can be heard outdoor is banned.
03 Public dances are banned.
04 The country is in mourning and we must behave respectfully, announces the mayor.
05 Though what authority he retains is not clear.
01 Every time she comes within earshot, Marie-Laure hears the fsst of her father lightning another match.
02 His hands flutter between his pockets.
03 Mornings he alternates between Madam Manec’s kitchen, the tobacco shop, and the post office, where he waits in interminable queues to use the telephone.
04 Afternoons he repairs things around Etienne’s house ― a loose cabinet door, a squeaking stair board.
05 He asks Madame Manec about the reliability of the neighbors.
06 He flips the locking clasp on his tool case over and over until Marie-Laure begs him to stop.
01 One day Etienne sits with Marie-Laure and reads to her in his feathery voice; the next he suffers from what he calls a headache and sequesters himself inside his study behind a locked door.
02 Madame Manec sneaks Marie-Laure chocolate bars, slices of cake; this morning they squeeze lemons into glasses full of water and sugar, and she lets Marie-Laure drink as much as she likes.
01 “How long will he stay in there, Madame?”
01 “Sometimes just a day or two,” Madame Manec says.
02 “Sometimes longer.”
01 One week in Saint-Malo becomes two.
02 Marie begins to feel that her life, like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, has been interrupted halfway through.
01 There was volume 1, when Marie-Laure and her father lived in Paris and went to work, and now there is volume 2, when Germans ride motorcycles through these strange, narrow streets and her uncle vanishes inside his own house.
01 “Papa, when will we leave?”
01 “As soon as I hear from Paris.”
01 “Why do we have to sleep in this little bedroom?”
01 “I’m sure we could clean out a downstairs room if you’d like.”
01 “What about the room across the hall from us?”
01 “Etienne and I agreed we would not use it.”
01 “Why not?”
01 “It belonged to your grandfather.”
01 “When can I go to the sea?”
01 “Not today, Marie.”
01 “Can’t we go for a walk around the block?”
01 “It’s too dangerous.”
01 She wants to shriek.
02 What dangers await?
03 When she opens her bedroom window, she hears no screams, no explosions, only the calls of birds that her great-uncle calls gannets, and the sea, and the occasional throb of an airplane as it passes over far overhead.
01 She spends her hours leaning the house.
02 The first floor belongs to Madame Manec: clean, navigable, full of visitors who come through the kitchen door to trade in small town scandal.
03 There’s the dining room, the foyer, a hutch full of antique dishes in the hall that tremble whenever anyone walks past, and a door off the kitchen that leads to Madame’s room: a bed, a sink, a chamber pot.
01 Eleven winding steps lead to the second floor, which is full of the smells of faded grandeur: an old sewing room, a former maid’s room.
02 Right here on the landing, Madame Manec tells her, pallbearers dropped the coffin carrying Etienne’s great-aunt.
03 “The coffin flipped over, and she slid down the whole fright.
04 They were all horrified, but she looked entirely unaffected!”
01 More clutter on the third floor: boxes of jars, metal disks, and rusty jigsaws; buckets of what might be electrical components; engineering manuals in piles around a toilet.
02 By the fourth floor, things are piled everywhere, in the rooms and corridors and along the staircase: baskets of what must be machine parts, shoe boxes loaded with screws, antique dollhouses built by her great-grandfather.
03 Etienne’s huge study colonizes the entire fifth floor, alternately deeply quiet or else full of voices or music or static.
01 Then there’s the sixth floor: her grandfather’s tidy bedroom on the left, toilet straight ahead, the little room where she sleeps with her father on the right.
02 When the wind is blowing, which it almost always is, with the walls groaning and the shutters banging, the rooms overloaded and the staircase wound tightly up through its center, the house seems the material equivalent of her uncle’s inner being: apprehensive, isolated, but full of cobwebby wonders.
01 In the kitchen, Madame Manec’s friends fuss over Marie-Laure’s hair and freckles.
02 In Paris, the women say, people are waiting in line five hours for a loaf of bread.
03 People are eating pets, crushing pigeons with bricks for soup.
04 There is no pork, no rabbit, no cauliflower.
05 The headlights of cars are all painted blue, they say, and at night the city is as quiet as graveyard: no buses, no trains, hardly any gasoline.
06 Marie-Laure sits at the square table, a plate of cookies in front of her, and imagines the old women
with veiny hands and milky eyes and oversize ears.
07 From the kitchen window comes the wit wit wit of a the barn swallow, footfalls on ramparts, halyards clinking against masts, hinges and chains creaking in the harbor.