They seize him outside of Vitré, hours from Paris. Two policemen in plain clothes bundle him off a train while a dozen passengers stare. He is questioned in a van and again in an ice-cold mezzanine office decorated with poorly executed watercolors of oceangoing steamers. The first interrogators are French; an hour later they become German. They brandish his notebook and tool case. They hold up his key ring and count seven different skeleton keys. What do these unlock, they want to know, and how do you employ these tiny files and saws? What about this notebook full of architectural measurements?
A model for my daughter.
Keys for the museum where I work. Please.
They frog-march him to a cell. The door’s lock and hinges are so big and antiquarian, they must be Louis XIV. Maybe Napoleon. Any hour now the director or his people will show up and explain everything. Certainly this will happen.
In the morning the Germans run him through a second, more laconic spell of questioning while a typist clatters away in the corner. They seem to be accusing him of plotting to destroy the Château de Saint-Malo, though why they might believe this is not clear. Their French is barely adequate and they seem more interested in their questions than his answers. They deny access to paper, to linens, to a telephone. They have photographs of him.
He yearns for cigarettes. He lies faceup on the floor and imagines himself kissing Marie-Laure once on each eye while she sleeps. Two days after his arrest, he is driven to a holding pen a few miles outside Strasbourg. Through fence slats, he watches a column of uniformed schoolgirls walk double-file in the winter sunshine.
Guards bring prepackaged sandwiches, hard cheese, sufficient water. In the pen, maybe thirty others sleep on straw laid atop frozen mud. Mostly French but some Belgians, four Flemings, two Walloons. All have been accused of crimes they speak of only with reticence, anxious
about what traps might lurk within any question he puts to them. At night they trade rumors in whispers. “We will only be in Germany for a few months,” someone says, and the word goes twisting down the line.
“Merely to help with spring planting while their men are at war.” “Then they’ll send us home.”
Each man thinks this is impossible and then: It might be true. Just a few months. Then home.
No officially appointed lawyer. No military tribunal. Marie-Laure’s father spends three days shivering in the holding pen. No rescue arrives from the museum, no limousine from the director grinds up the lane. They will not let him write letters. When he demands to use a telephone, the guards don’t bother to laugh. “Do you know the last time we used a telephone?” Every hour is a prayer for Marie-Laure. Every breath.
On the fourth day, all the prisoners are piled onto a cattle truck and driven east. “We are close to Germany,” the men whisper. They can glimpse it on the far side of the river. Low clumps of naked trees bracketed by snow-dusted fields. Black rows of vineyards. Four disconnected strands of gray smoke melt into a white sky.
The locksmith squints. Germany? It looks no different from this side of the river.
It may as well be the edge of a cliff.