Read Echoes Online

Authors: Danielle Steel

Echoes (27 page)

“I put one of the horses in a shed for you,” he said quietly. “Just head north and keep going. The landmarks are written on the map. They'll be watching for you. You can let the horse loose and send him back when you get there.” He wanted her to leave before sunrise. They sat in the dark in their room, talking softly. They didn't want the soldiers to see the lights on. Half an hour later, Gérard walked her downstairs with Véronique. They hugged her for a last time. Véronique had bundled her up warmly and kissed her like a daughter.

“Thank you,” Amadea whispered one last time, and clung to her for a last moment, and then Gérard hugged her.

“Get there as quickly as you can. The horse I left for you is sure-footed.” It was also one of his fastest. They opened the door then, and she went out into the darkness. She was startled by how cold it was. She hadn't been outside in eight months, and the cold air was a shock to her lungs, as she walked quickly toward the shed, opened the door, patted the horse he had left for her, and adjusted his saddle in the darkness. She had the map shoved into her pocket.

She led the horse outside, and he blew steam into the air. There were no sentries posted, and Gérard had told her all the soldiers were sleeping. She had nothing to fear as she left the
Schloss.
All she had to do was cover the fifteen miles to the farmhouse before sunrise. She mounted the horse easily. As she swung into the saddle, it reminded her of her years riding with her father. This was second nature to her, and as she always had, she left the grounds at a slow gallop. She steered a wide berth around the
Schloss
, and heard the horses in the stables. They were aware of her, but apparently none of the men heard her. She made an easy getaway, and enjoyed covering the distance. It was her first taste of freedom.

She pulled the map out of her pocket half an hour later. She could read it easily in the moonlight, and saw the first of the landmarks. She was only a few miles away now. The sky was a pale gray, but she knew she still had time to get there before sunrise.

She was within a mile of it, when she suddenly saw lights on her left, realized it was a car hidden in a clump of bushes, and heard a gunshot. For an instant, she wasn't sure whether to go backward or forward, and then without thinking, she kicked the horse and raced across the final distance as the car followed at full speed. She was almost there, and then realized what she was doing. She was leading the Gestapo right to the farmhouse. There was no way she could outrun them. And then suddenly a truck pulled up ahead of her, as the car that had been following her pulled up behind her. They had her cornered.

“Halt!” two men shouted as the horse danced in the cold night air, and blew steam from his nostrils. She had pushed him hard for the last half-hour. “Who goes there?” She sat in her saddle as the horse pranced nervously, and she didn't answer.

They shone a bright light on her, and were startled to see it was a woman. She had ridden like a man, driving the horse hard over rough terrain. One of the men walked up to her, as she considered making a run for it. But they would shoot the horse for sure, or her. She knew then that she would never make it to the farmhouse, and in the morning Gérard would know that. Worse than that, from the brand, they would know she was riding one of his horses. No matter what happened, she didn't want to implicate him, as she thought quickly.

“Papers!” the soldier shouted at her, holding out a hand, as another pointed a gun at her. “Papers!”

“I have none.” They had had none to give her at the convent. And she had had none since then. She had been out of the world for six years.

“Who are you?” She thought of inventing a name, but there was no point in that either. She might as well tell them the truth.

“Amadea de Vallerand,” she said clearly.

“Whose horse are you riding?” they asked, keeping their guns pointed at her in case she made a run for it. The horse was powerful, nervous and bucking, and they could see easily that she was a skilled rider. Even after all these years, she had no trouble controlling one of Gérard's best horses. Her father had taught her well.

“I took it,” she said, sounding fearless. But her whole body was shaking. She had no idea what they would do to her. “My father used to work at the stables. I stole it.” She knew she had to protect Gérard and Véronique at all costs. She could not let them think the Daubignys gave it to her.

“Where are you going?”

“To visit friends.” It was obvious that they did not believe her story, and there was no reason they should have. She just prayed they didn't find the map to the farmhouse in her pocket. It was a small scrap of paper, and she made no move to reach for it.

“Dismount,” they ordered, and she swung easily out of the saddle, and held the reins until one of the soldiers took them from her. He led the horse away, as the other soldier pointed his gun at her. As she stood there, she wondered if he was going to shoot her. She was surprised at how unafraid she was. She felt as though she had nothing to lose. Only her life, which belonged to God. And if He chose to reclaim her, He would.

They pushed her roughly into the back of the car, and as they drove away, she saw one of the soldiers mount Gérard's horse and ride him back in the direction of the stables.

“How many horses have you stolen?” the soldier driving the car asked her. Another soldier had appeared and was riding with him.

“Just that one” was all she answered. She didn't look like a horse thief, but all of the men had noticed that she was an exceptional rider, and a beautiful young woman.

They drove her to a house nearby and left her alone in a small room. While they did, she shredded the map into particles, and dusted them around in corners and under the rug. They came back two hours later. They had asked her once to spell her name, and when they returned, they had spoken to Cologne. They had her records, or more importantly her mother's. There were clear records of her now, ever since the incident at the bank.

“Your mother was a Jewess,” they spat at her. Amadea didn't answer. “She and your sister were arrested in April.” Amadea nodded. She had all the poise and grace of a woman who knew she was protected. She stood there, looking at them, telling herself she was wearing her habit. There was something almost otherworldly about her, and they sensed it, as she looked quietly at them.

They took her back to Cologne that afternoon, and drove her directly to the warehouse where Jews were being held for deportation. She had never seen or imagined anything like it. There were hundreds of people pressed together like animals. People crying, screaming, talking, shoved against the walls and each other. Some had fainted, but there was no room for them to go anywhere, they still stood there. They shoved her roughly in among them, still wearing Véronique's old riding boots and the clothes she had worn that morning. She wondered if this was what it had been like when they took her mother and sister away, when they had gone to the marshaling station and then been loaded onto the train to Ravensbrück. Amadea just stood there and prayed, and wondered where she was going. They had told her nothing, and once in the warehouse with the others, she had become just another body. Just another Jew to be sent away.

They kept her in the warehouse for two days, in the freezing cold and stench from all the bodies. They smelled of vomit, urine, sweat, and defecation. All she could do was stand there and pray. And then finally, they loaded them onto a train, without telling them their destination. It no longer mattered. They were just bodies. She had been thrown in with all the Jews they had rounded up and were deporting. People were frantically asking questions as they loaded them onto the train, and Amadea said nothing. She was praying. She tried to help a woman holding a small baby. And a man who was so ill, he looked like he was dying. She knew, as she stood there with them, that she had been put here for a reason. Whatever God intended for her, she had been sent here to share this with them, and perhaps to help whoever she could, even if only to pray.

She remembered what the Mother Superior had said to her the first day, that when she took her final vows, she would be the spouse of the crucified Christ. She was here now to share his crucifixion and theirs. When the train finally left the station after two days, she was faint with hunger and exhaustion, but she could hear the echo of her mother's voice telling her she loved her, and that of the Mother Superior telling her the same thing.

The man next to her died on the third day, and the woman's baby was dead in her arms not long after. There were children on the train and old people, men, women, dead people among the live ones. And every now and then, they would stop, open the doors, and push more people in. Amadea didn't know where they were going, nor did she care, as they made their way slowly across Germany toward the east. No one had any idea what their destination was, and it no longer mattered. All sense of humanity had been stripped from them. Whoever they had once been no longer existed. They were on the train to hell.

17

T
HE TRAIN STOPPED THIRTY-SIX MILES NORTH OF
P
RAGUE
, in Czechoslovakia, five days after they had left Cologne. It was the third of January 1942. Amadea had no idea how many people were on the train with her, but as they were told to leave the boxcars, people literally fell through the doors. They could no longer walk. Amadea had finally managed to find a small space where some of the time she could crouch. And as she stepped stiffly off the train, she could hardly bend her knees. She only glanced once behind her, and saw the bodies of several old people and a number of children left on the train. One of the women next to her had been holding a dead baby in her arms for two days. Some of the elderly hung back, as the guards were shouting at them to move. She could see that the signs that had been posted nearby were in Czech, which was her only clue as to where they were. It had been an endless trip. A few people were still clutching their suitcases, as they formed long lines as the soldiers ordered. When they moved too slowly, they were roughly shoved with their guns. She could see now, as the lines seemed to stretch for miles behind them, that there had been several thousand people on the train.

Amadea was standing next to two women and a young man. They looked at each other and said nothing. And as they walked, Amadea prayed. All she could think of was that her mother and sister had done this. And if they could do it, so could she. She thought of the crucified Christ and her sisters in the convent, and didn't allow herself to think of what was going to happen to her and the people around her. They were still alive, and when they got to wherever they were going, they would have to deal with whatever fate waited for them there. She said silent prayers, as she had for days, that there had been no reprisal against Gérard and Véronique. There was no evidence that they had concealed her, so she hoped that all was well with them. They seemed a lifetime from here, and were.

“Give me that!” a young soldier said to a man just behind her, and yanked a gold watch off his arm that had been overlooked in Cologne. She and the man next to her exchanged a glance and then looked away.

Amadea was still wearing Véronique's riding boots and was grateful to have decent shoes as they walked for the next hour. Some of the women had lost their shoes on the train, and were forced to walk on bleeding, torn feet, on frozen ground. They cried out in pain.

“You're lucky!” one of the guards said to an old woman who could hardly walk ten minutes after they had started. “You're going to a model city,” he said smugly. “It's more than you deserve.” As she stumbled, Amadea saw the men on either side of the woman hold her up and support her as she thanked them, and for the next mile or two, Amadea prayed for her. She was praying for all of them, including herself.

It was nearly an hour later when they saw it. It was an ancient fortress that had been built by the Austrians two hundred years before. A fading sign said
TEREZIN
in Czech, and beneath it a new one in German read
THERESIENSTADT
. It was in effect a walled city, they were marched through the main gates, and told to line up for “processing,” as they watched people milling around in the narrow cobbled streets. It was more of a ghetto than a prison, and people seemed to be roaming around free. There were endless lines of people standing, holding tin cups and eating utensils. And beyond them a building that said
COFFEE HOUSE
, which seemed singularly odd to her. There was construction everywhere, men hammering and sawing, and putting up structures. Amadea noticed quickly that people weren't wearing prison uniforms, but their own clothes. It was a model prison camp of sorts, where the Jews living there were left to survive and fend for themselves. There were two hundred two-storied houses, and fourteen huge stone barracks. It had been built to accommodate three thousand, and there were more than seventy thousand people living there. For the most part, they looked hungry, tired, and cold, and none of them seemed to be wearing warm clothes. Half a mile away, there was another smaller fortress, which was used as a prison for those who created trouble here.

It took seven hours for Amadea to be “processed,” and all they were given while they waited was a cup of thin gruel. She hadn't eaten in five days. There had been water and bread on the train, but she had given her bread to the children, and the water made everyone sick, so eventually she didn't touch that either. But she had dysentery anyway.

The people she saw walking through the streets of Theresienstadt were an odd mixture. There were large numbers of old people who, she learned later, had been told that Theresienstadt was a retirement village for Jews, and had even been shown brochures so they would volunteer to come there, and beyond that there were crews of haggard-looking younger people who were part of construction groups working on putting the place together. There were even a considerable number of children. It looked more like a ghetto than a work camp, and because of its construction as a fortress and a walled city, it had the feeling of a village. But the people living there, other than the soldiers and guards watching them, looked ragged. They had the dead eyes and worn faces of people who'd been battered severely both before and after they got there.

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