Justine

 

France, April 1944. Here is a young woman on a train. She is sitting in 2nd class. It is raining. Preoccupied, her thoughts are elsewhere as she gazes out the window at the countryside as it rushes past. The driving rain is strong and the wind beats streams  of water against the steamy glass. She can barely make out the farms and houses as they flash by in the gray mist.

The woman is of average height and build, 35 years of age, with pale complexion, and blue eyes. Her light brown hair is long and  pinned back with a barrette, the kind  that was popular in the ‘20s. Her eyeglasses perch on the end of her small nose. She is wearing an oversized, heavy blue cardigan sweater, gray gabardine trousers, and brown walking shoes. She is dressed like a teacher, which she is, a teacher of archaeology at the the Université at Rheins. She studied at the Sorbonne and graduated with a masters degree and honors. She spent several summers in digs throughout Syria examining Assyrian royal tombs. Her name is Justine, her code name, the name by which she is known in the Resistance. It is not important that we know her real name. We need only know that on this day she is escorting a downed American airman over one of the escape routes of the Comete Line, a network from Belgium to Spain. Her responsibility is the Rheims – Paris link. She is traveling with false papers under the name of Emilie Durand, a teacher. She has a 9 mm Walther PPK pistol tucked snugly into the waistband of her trousers at the small of her back.

Her traveling companion, and “cousin,” is 1st Lieutenant Hal Davenport, U.S Air Force. Hal’s bomber crash landed 3 weeks ago. He is carrying a piece of German anti aircraft shell in his left side. The pain is bearable. The wound is sufficiently healed to allow him to travel. His  false papers identify him as Etienne Pascal, an office clerk. Hal is 24 years old, over six feet  all, a Texan. He is a handsome man, with dark brown hair, piercing dark brown eyes, and an Errol Flynn pencil mustache. His lanky frame is crammed down into the small, uncomfortable seat. He has had a heightened sense of awareness since boarding the train in Rheins where they passed through document control without a hitch. They were lucky the French police were not so thorough. Lately, since the Jewish roundups, the police have become more attentive. Hal is dressed as a typical Parisian office clerk. He is wearing an ill fitting black suit, white shirt and nondescript gray tie. In his lapel the badge of the local Vichy political society. His shoes are well worn. It was difficult to find clothes that fit him which delayed their departure.The size 12 shoes posed quite a problem. The journey from Rheims to Paris takes a little more than an hour. They are making good time. They will arrive early.

Suddenly the train begins to slow. Justine sits bolt upright. She strains her neck and eyes to see out the window. They are not near a station. Why are they slowing? The train proceeds more and more slowly. She becomes even more concerned.  Is there a problem with the engine? With the tracks? Are they switching us? She has a strong sense that something is very wrong. Suddenly, coming into view, a road crossing with a safety gate. The gate is down. There are several civilian cars and a German army staff car parked at the side of the road. The German officers are standing next to their car. Beside the other cars are small groups of men wearing long black coats, smoking and talking. Dear God, she thinks. The Gestapo! This is not another document control! They are probably looking for someone. The train hissing steam, grinds to a stop.  The men pair up and quickly and efficiently board the train, each entering different carriages. What to do? She is thinking quickly now, critically assessing f the situation. She looks out  the window on the other side of the carriage. She sees tracks and beyond  the continuation of the road, a forest. The door to the forward carriage is about 2 meters away. Beyond that door the platform between the cars and a safety gate. The gate can easily be unlatched. Just 15 seconds to be out the door, onto the platform and through the gate. The 3 meter jump to the ground and a 50 meter run across the tracks to the tree line would take at most one minute. They could do that even with Hal’s wound. The train is blocking the road which works in their favor. Her hand reaches slowly for the Walther and her fingers carefully unlatch the safety. She does not want to shoot the men but she will if she must. She whispers her plan to Hal. With a wink and a nod he signals his understanding and approval. She sits back and waits.

She hears the doors of the carriage squealing as they open. She doesn’t panic and, even though she is boiling over inside, she maintains her composure. She must not betray any emotion or show fear for to do so means instant arrest, interrogation, and imprisonment. She thinks of Dedée Gaumont, captured by the Gestapo, tortured and executed. She knows they are about 5 km from Epernay where her uncle, a member of the Maquis, the local Resistance,  keeps a safe house. The forest is their only hope. The men are getting closer as they check each passenger. They are formal and direct. “Your papers please,” they say. Slowly and methodically they work their way through the carriage. Did we attract attention at Rheims? That couldn’t be; they would have grabbed us then. What if they speak to Hal?  Will they believe her when she tells them that her cousin can’t speak because he’s had a tonsil operation? No time for useless thoughts. She comes back to their escape plan, running it over and over in her mind. The men are coming closer. She hears their abrupt impatience at the slightest hesitation or delay. The men are now questioning the passengers in the seat behind them She glances at Hal, then at the door. He taps her wrist with assurance. She is fortunate to have him with her, a large, strong man, a definite asset should they need to execute the plan. She is ready, poised to leap.

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