Start reading Daughters of War by Dinah Jefferies and enter to win!
The first book in a brand new sweeping historical series from the bestselling author of The Tea Planter's Wife.
THE PÉRIGORD NOIR, FRANCE
If only it was late summer, and she could smell the sun-soaked scent of fir and spruce and be able to stand and watch the finches and starlings flitting between the branches. Her optimism might have outweighed the claustrophobic sensation of life leaning in, of ancient lichen-covered stone houses enclosing her as she walked through the village and the light began to fail. And maybe then she would remember they were just ordinary people trying to make the best of impossible circumstances.
Hélène craved daylight to see more than just what lay before her. She needed it to see into the distance, into the future, into her own heart. She needed it like others needed air. But she told herself, when all of this was over, she would still have her whole life before her. Why worry about the worst thing when it might never happen?
As she left the edge of the village, she glanced up at the indigo sky and heard the early night birds shuffling in the trees. She thought of her sisters, here in France, and her mother in England. Once, when she’d asked her mother if she was pretty like her sister Élise, her mother had said, ‘Darling you have a comfortable face. People like comfortable faces. They don’t feel threatened by faces like yours.’
Hélène was only eleven at the time and her mother’s comment had hurt her. She had gazed into the mirror for half an hour after that and hadn’t known what to make of her face. She had prodded and poked at it, pulled different expressions, pouted, smiled, grimaced, and then told herself it didn’t matter. It had been a lie. It had mattered. And now? Her face had matured. She was tall, athletic, with a strong constitution just as her father used to have, but she also had his straight, light brown hair. Ordinary hair. It rankled but her mother had been right, her features were too strong to be pretty, although people admired her kind nut brown eyes and warm smile. She was the most pragmatic of the three sisters, the eldest, the most responsible. Was it terribly shallow to long for someone to tell her she was beautiful?
They were at war - a fight between good and evil, people said - although it wasn’t always certain which was which. Where was love in all this, Hélène muttered to herself? Where was neighbourliness, kindness, compassion, trust? Where was innocence until proven guilty?
And now her job had become more challenging than she’d ever dreamt, although she had enormous respect for her boss, Hugo Marchand, the town doctor and mayor. And she adored his warm-hearted wife, Marie, a generous soul who always saw the best in people and had been a mother figure to the sisters. But the things Hélène witnessed, the things she heard, the lies, the little deceits, the deeds she could never mention, all of them she’d rather not have known.
After crossing a small field edged by wild poppies, she headed through a walnut grove, picking her way to avoid the waddling geese, until she eventually reached the track and her own gate. She frowned to see the worn wooden gate had been left open.
They never did that.
Their higgledy piggledy farmhouse with its hand-hewn limestone walls almost looked as if it had grown out of the land naturally and those walls soaked up sunlight, so by the early evening they glowed like golden honey. She passed the Centurion chestnut tree in the garden and glanced up at the foliage draped façade. The vines remained undisturbed, cascading around the front door just as she’d left them, too early yet for the violet passion flowers she loved. Two medium-sized, shuttered widows painted dusky blue flanked the oak door but as the wind got up and the creaky wooden shutters moaned in complaint, she shivered.
She burst through the door, hurrying into the kitchen to drop her bag on the table. From the huge roughhewn beams above her, herbs hung to dry: rosemary, lavender, lemon grass, bay, mint, sage, thyme and more. Hélène raised her head and breathed in their familiar scent, before unlacing her shoes and abandoning them on the flagstone floor hollowed in well-worn patches from centuries of passing feet. Hélène liked to imagine who had been there before her, although on dark nights it wasn’t difficult to imagine their shadows still collecting in the gloomier corners of the house along with the cobwebs. But most people were living in the shadows, one way or another, and not just the dead. She shivered again and glanced at the huge fireplace with its carved stone surround; the wood burner hadn’t been lit. Even in Spring the house could be chilly in the evening.
Back in the hall she thought she heard someone at the top of the house.
‘Hello,’ she called out. ‘Florence. Is that you?’
‘Élise, are you home?’
Hélène was about to go into the drawing room to put up her feet when she spotted Élise struggling down the stairs with a bulky bundle, her body tipping back slightly to counterbalance its weight. As usual she was wearing dark wide-legged trousers, along with a faded blue jumper and brown lace up boots.
‘You’re back early,’ she said when she saw Hélène, but then glanced down at her wristwatch. ‘Oh, not so early.’
‘What’s that you’ve got?’
‘Just some bits and pieces for a new safe house.’ Élise tilted her head to one side and narrowed her eyes at Hélène. ‘Do you know you have paint in your hair? Rather a lot, actually.’
‘Oh God, really?’ Hélène stepped back to glance in the hall mirror and saw the tell-tale white streaks running through her hair and a delicate splatter on her left cheek.
In their hall, oil paintings and posters peppered the walls, and framed pictures the girls had drawn as children were displayed together. The large mirror, into which Hélène was now frowning, with its ornate carving of flowers, grapes and vine leaves had reflected their faces most of their lives. Either held up by their mother, Claudette, when they were small, to grin and laugh at their own expressions or, as now, for a quick check of their hair. There was also one older photograph pinned there. A shot of their mother with her sister Rosalie not long before she had run away. All three sisters felt the history of the house, the sense of family, and of roots, and nowhere more so than here.
‘So how was work?’ Élise asked.
‘Hugo had me painting the walls of the cottage hospital this afternoon. It hasn’t been done for years and, as there are no patients checked in just now, it seemed the right time to tackle it.’
‘Well, your extensive nursing training at the Sarlat Hospital has clearly gone to good use! Umm....’ She scratched the side of her head in mock contemplation. ‘How long was it now?’
Hélène laughed. ‘Three long years. And you know it. Anyway, I actually enjoyed the painting today.’ She paused then picked up on what her sister had said. ‘Why another safe house?’
‘The Germans are getting edgy. And an edgy Nazi is an even more dangerous Nazi. The Resistance is just making sure there are enough safe houses as more people join them.’
‘Still in the garden. Watering now, I think. Oh, I nearly forgot, there’s a letter on the table.’
‘You forgot?’ Hélène said with an incredulous look as she glanced down. Receiving any kind of mail was so rare she hadn’t even thought to look.
‘It’s addressed to you.’
Hélène picked it up. ‘Geneva post mark.’
‘Open it then.’
‘Let’s wait for Florence. We can read it together.’
Hélène knew it would be from their mother, Claudette. The only way they could receive post from England was if their mother sent it to her friend Yvonne, in neutral Geneva, who would then slip it into another envelope and post it on to them. She heard the backdoor opening and made her way to the kitchen with Élise.
Florence stood by the door, skirts muddy, her blonde hair floating wildly around her head and her cheeks pink with the exertion of a day spent in the garden. More delicately feminine than her sisters with a heart shaped face and sweet pointed chin, she had insisted on stitching herself dresses and skirts which she wore even when digging the garden.
Hélène held up the letter.
‘Oooh, finally! From Maman?’
‘Just let me grab a glass of water. I’m parched.’
While Florence downed her water, the other two waited for her at the table.
Then, Hélène slit open the envelope and glanced at the letter. She tried to read between the lines but there was nothing there so, after a few moments, she spread her hands and let the letter flutter on to the table.
‘Well,’ Florence said eagerly, ‘What does she say?’
‘Almost nothing. Read it yourself.’
Florence picked it up but looked a little disappointed as she read, then handed it to Élise.
‘Well,’ Élise said. ‘How utterly enthralling!’
‘Don’t be sarcastic about Maman,’ Florence said.
Hélène sighed, but understood how Élise felt. Their mother had written just a few lines commenting on how busy she was being kept with the war effort. How she had joined the WI and was mainly knitting and making jam. She had barely asked how the girls were coping, had not mentioned how difficult it must be for them living under occupation, and had mainly complained about her noisy neighbours, and how hard life in England was what with rationing and all.
‘At least she wrote,’ Florence said.
Élise just turned away and, shrugging, left the room.
Hélène was pensive as she threw open her bedroom window the next morning to listen to the church bells. Thank goodness it was Sunday and she didn’t have to go to work. She loved gazing at the magical view over the Dordogne or, as their mother always called it, the Périgord Noir. It was a land of oak and pine trees, rocky gorges and clifftop castles and the prettiest villages you’d ever see, their limestone buildings soft and buttery. She watched as the sun broke through the early morning mist to reveal the silvery shine on the river and golden sunlight bathing the roof tops of the village. Spring was well and truly here, and the air was as fresh and clear as crystal.
‘We will have fun, won’t we Hélène?’ Florence had asked seven years before, when they’d first moved here to their mother’s old family summer home down a winding track just outside the village of Sainte Cécile.
Poor Florence had only been fifteen back then and Hélène had needed to keep reminding herself her sister was still a child as she found herself in loco parentis.
‘We will visit the castles and the caves?’ the girl had added.
‘We will. Of course, we will,’ Hélène had replied, desperate to try to protect her sister’s innocent world view.
Florence had taken hold of her hand and squeezed it. She was beautiful. Not just because of her golden blonde curly hair, but also because she was petite with alabaster skin and gunmetal grey-blue eyes. Élise was attractive too but more sensuous, with full lips, long dark wavy hair and huge expressive eyes the colour of cognac. She had their mother’s typically French looks, was medium height, like their mother, and had inherited her olive skin and a dimple in each cheek. These she grumbled about, declaring she was not a dimply kind of person and that Florence should have been the one to them.
All of their lives had irrevocably changed following the sudden unexpected death of their father, Charles Baudin.
As a child their mother had spent many of her holidays in Sainte Cécile, as well as summer breaks during the earlier years of her marriage when their father had been at home working. He was half English and half French and before his death had worked as a civil servant in The Foreign Office in London. Everyone here in the village knew ‘Maman’ of old, which had made it easier for the sisters to slot into the community, although there were still a few who didn’t approve, and continued to tut and fuss about three girls living alone.
Élise popped her head through the door of Hélène’s room. ‘Just off to the café.’
Hélène looked right into her eyes. ‘On a Sunday?’
‘I’m only going for a few minutes.’
‘Aren’t you afraid?’
‘Of course. From the moment I wake up until I go to sleep. Anyone who says they aren’t afraid is lying.’
‘Oh Élise, you will be careful.’
Élise laughed. ‘You are an old worrywart.’
Hélène tilted her head to one side. ‘It’s the glamour isn’t it? Gives you a kick.’
‘Course not. Resistance is dangerous, not glamorous. If you knew the men and women, you’d see.’
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean ̶ ’
Frowning in exasperation, Élise interrupted her. ‘They have to hide out in horrible places. Hungry. Cold. Remember the freezing temperatures we had in the winter?’
‘And when I deliver weapons hidden beneath potatoes in my shopping bag, I’m in more danger than if I was bearing those arms against the enemy.’ She turned to walk to the door and then twisted back to glare at Hélène.
‘I said I was sorry.’
Élise ignored her. ‘And people think we’re bandits. Terrorists. No, Hélène, it is not glamorous.’
As Élise slammed the front door behind her, Hélène’s mood darkened. She hated falling out with Élise and hadn’t meant to make light of her work, but her sister in a querulous mood was hard to handle. As she stood there, feeling rather at a loss, she heard a wail coming from Florence’s room. At the total disintegration of her peaceful morning, she sighed, threw on her robe and went to her sister’s aid. Florence was hunched up in the corner of the room, her face even paler than usual. The window was open and the light muslin curtains were blowing slightly in the breeze.
‘Did you hear it?’ Florence asked turning haunted eyes towards Hélène.
‘Sorry. Didn’t hear a thing.’
‘I think it was a demoiselle.’
Hélène only just stopped herself from rolling her eyes. She had little time for her sister’s fantasies.
‘Florence,’ she said firmly. ‘Those forest fairies of yours aren’t real. You heard a noise outside, nothing more.’
‘But I thought I saw her. Dressed in white. She sat at the bottom of my bed.’
‘If they were real, which they are not, they’d only live in caves and grottos.’ She laughed, not unkindly and held out her hand to her sister. ‘They wouldn’t come and sit on an ordinary person’s bed.’
The muscles around Florence’s eyes constricted but then relaxed. She took Hélène’s hand and rose to her feet. ‘You’re right, of course. But I thought I heard her whispering.’
‘Horrible things,’ Florence muttered.
‘Just a dream. You know?’
Florence hung her head. ‘Yes. Sorry.’
Her youngest sister had matured these past few years but could still be fragile and sensitive, retaining the naïvety that characterised her.
‘Just forget it,’ she added and gave Florence a hug. ‘Get dressed and perhaps we can make some crepes. We’ve still got lemons and honey.’
‘They make the wind you know?’
‘Oh, Hélène, the demoiselles, of course. And they can calm it too… Well, it’s what people say.’
Hélène bit back her irritation but then it flared up anyway. ‘For heaven’s sake, Florence. You know it’s an old wives’ tale. Now come on, buck up.’
‘Where’s Élise gone?’ Florence asked. ‘I heard the front door.’
‘Opening her damn ‘letterbox’ of course. I wish she’d stop.’
‘She won’t. She believes in what she’s doing, just like you. You believe in nursing.’ Florence gave her a curious look. ‘You do, don’t you?’
Hélène walked to the door and thought about it. Did she?
She glanced over her shoulder. ‘Sometimes, I think you’re the only one doing what you believe in.’
‘Gardening and cooking aren’t things you believe in. They’re just something to do.’
‘But you are doing what you love.’
Now Hélène was luxuriating in a rare half hour to herself reading, The Hour Before the Dawn, a novel by Somerset Maugham. She had just reached the conclusion Dora had to be a Nazi spy, which was far too close for comfort, and was thinking about trying an Agatha Christie instead, when she heard Florence calling. Darn it! She didn’t want to go outside, she wanted escapism, so she put down her book, stretched, then picked up The Moving Finger, a Miss Marple story. She’d been intending to ignore Florence, but then her sister called again in an excited voice, and Hélène finally relinquished her book.
Just beyond the back door, the acacia tree had blossomed, its delicate jasmine like scent floating on the breeze. Hélène took a leisurely breath of mild Spring air, then languidly moved across the little terrace which was surrounded by a low stone wall. She refused to be hurried so continued slowly down the stone steps and along the snaking path Florence had marked when she first designed the garden. Florence, looking red-faced, was jiggling up and down next to a cluster of pink and purple wild orchids at the bottom of the garden, clutching a spade. Her blonde curls dusted her shoulders and were pinned back at either side of her temples, yet despite that she still looked wild.
‘What now?’ Hélène said. ‘I was reading.’
With a perplexed expression on her face, Florence fastened her eyes on Hélène. ‘There’s something here.’
‘You’re always digging up old stuff.’
‘This is different. It looks meant. Hidden I mean. I wasn’t intending to dig so deeply but the ground was already loose.’ She dug the spade in again to demonstrate.
‘Crikey. Is it a grave?’
‘God, I hope not. I wondered why the earth had already been turned over, so I carried on. It looked recent, as if the visible ground had just been covered with stones so once I started it was easy to go deeper.’
Hélène peered into the hole and saw the edge of large metal container or cannister.
‘Let’s get it out.’
‘I tried. It’s too heavy.’
‘Give me the spade.’
Florence passed the spade over and Hélène began to dig around the box, so they’d be able to get a better grasp of it. After a few minutes, heart pumping from the effort she stood back and pushed the damp hair from her eyes. ‘There. That should do it.’
Together they pulled at the box which was heavier and bigger than they’d first thought and eventually managed to lift it out of the ground and pull it up onto the grassy bank.
‘Let’s drag it up to the house.’ Florence said. ‘But can you hang on a minute? I just want to cut some of the acacia first. Lucille is coming later today, and I thought we’d have them then. She’s going to do my hair. And the strawberries are ready too. The Charlottes. I’ll make a strawberry tart.’
Hélène’s mouth watered, though pastry with hardly any wheat was rather like cardboard. Florence also grew Gariguette strawberries, vermillion in colour and wonderful with thick cream. Hélène stared into the distance imagining it. They had no thick cream.
Lucille Dubois was Florence’s red- haired friend who, with her mother, ran a small hairdressing salon in Sarlat. Lucille and Florence were as thick as thieves but the girl’s mother, Sandrine, had long been a supporter of the Vichy regime and believed collaboration was the only way though this war. ‘There is no better way to show patriotism to our beloved France than to support Vichy,’ she was fond of proclaiming. Hélène and Élise were contemptuous of the Vichy supporters who would happily kiss the collective German arse. She was unsure of Lucille’s views. At nineteen she was pretty and curvaceous like her mother, with rosebud lips and the creamiest complexion with just a light dusting of freckles across her nose and on her cheeks. Perhaps a little silly and empty headed, she giggled a lot and loved a good gossip, but Florence adored her, so they painted each other’s nails and Lucille trimmed Florence’s hair.
‘Cherie, because of what Élise is doing, Lucille can’t come at the moment,’ Hélène said in a voice that brooked no argument.
‘She wouldn’t say anything.’
‘Listen, instead of Lucille coming why don’t you and I try on some of Maman’s hats.’
‘Where are they? I haven’t seen them for ages.’
‘In the attic, somewhere.’
Florence picked her Acacia blossom and then they turned back to the metal box. It was too heavy to easily drag over the bumpy ground, but Hélène had no difficulty lifting the lid. She frowned when she saw the contents.
‘What is it?’ Florence said. ‘Looks just like a row of wrapped up sausages.’
Hélène cautiously unwrapped the calico covering of one of the ‘sausages’. ‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ she said, grimacing.
Florence peered at it. ‘Is it plasticine? Weird grey colour.’
They stared at the assortment of pens and wires and other paraphernalia.
‘So, what’s it all for?’ Florence asked.
‘Explosives. This is what they use to make explosives.’
‘What’s it doing in our garden?’