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The first time I fell in love, I was twelve years old.

It happened at the Auguste-Viktoria-Schule in the suburban district of Schöneberg, southwest of Berlin. Here in a squat building defended by wrought-iron gates, whose extravagant plaster facade concealed a warren of icy classrooms, I studied grammar, arithmetic, and history, followed by homemaking skills and an hour of bracing calisthenics before ending the long day with a perfunctory French class. I disliked school, but not because I was unintelligent. In my childhood, a series of governesses had overseen my education, although my year-older sister, Elisabeth, known in our family as Liesel, received most of their attention because of her poor health. English and French, deportment, dancing and music were our daily regimen, from which our mother demanded unimpeachable perfection. Though better prepared than most for the rigors of institutional learning, I disliked school because I didn’t fit in with the jam-smeared fingers and confidences of my fellow students, all of whom had known each other since infancy and dubbed me Maus for my timidity, unaware that “timid” was the last word my mother would have used to describe me.

Not that Mutti would tolerate a word of complaint. When Papa diedo f cardiac arrest in my sixth year, the urgent need to economize had subsumed our grief. Appearances must be maintained. After all, the widow Josephine Dietrich was of the distinguished Felsings of Berlin, founders of the renowned Felsing Clockmaker and Watch Company, which had operated under imperial patent for over a century. Mutti refused to accept her family’s charity, though Papa had been a suburban police lieutenant whose death benefit stretched only so far. As soon as he was buried, the governesses vanished, deemed an unaffordable luxury. Because of Liesel’s vaguely diagnosed indispositions, Mutti took employment as a housekeeper and set forth an educational schedule for my sister to follow at home. While Mutti squeezed me into the starched gray uniform, twined my strawberry blond hair into braids topped by a gigantic taffeta bow, and with patent-leather shoes pinching my toes, marched me to the Schule, where irreproachable spinsters could mold my character.

“You will behave,” Mutti admonished me. “Mind your manners and do as you’re told. Do I make myself clear? Don’t let me hear you give yourself airs. You’ve had more advantages than many, but no daughter of mine should boast of her accomplishments.”

She needn’t have worried. At home, I was often reprimanded for my competitive spirit, always seeking to outdo Liesel, but once I entered the schoolyard, I realized it was preferable to act as though I knew as little as possible, overwhelmed by the tribal cliques and suspicious stares of my classmates. No one could suspect I had more than a rudimentary understanding of anything, including French—a language which every well-bred girl must learn but no well-bred German girl should become too familiar with, carrying as it did a hint of the forbidden with its sharp r and seductive s. Feigning ignorance, and to deflect attention, I assumed the last seat in the last desk at the back of the classroom and kept to myself, a mouse hiding in plain sight.

Until the day our new French teacher arrived.

Strands of chestnut-colored hair escaped her chignon, and her rounded cheeks were flushed, as if she’d been racing down the hall, late for her entrance—which she was. The class bell had rung and the girls, already passing scribbled notes torn from their primers, huddled across the aisles to exchange whispers.

All of a sudden she swept in, the long-awaited replacement for Madame Servine, who had suffered a sudden fall that precipitated her retirement. With sweat dappling her brow from the unseasonable July heat, our new teacher dropped the books she carried onto her desk with a resounding thump, making every girl jolt upright.

Madame Servine had not abided dawdling. Many here had felt the sharp rap of her ruler on their knees or knuckles for perceived insolence; this startling young woman with her disheveled air and collection of tomes might prove equally formidable.

From my habitual seat in the back of the room, I peered past the shoulders of those in front of me to where she stood, mopping her forehead with a handkerchief.

“Mon Dieu,” she said. “Il fait si chaud. I didn’t think Germany got so hot.”

A swirl of emotion stirred in my belly.

No one said a word. With a careless gesture, she stuffed her sodden handkerchief into her shirtwaist. “Bonjour, mesdemoiselles. I am Mademoiselle Bréguand and I’m your new instructress for the rest of the term.”

The introduction was unnecessary. We knew who she was; we’d been expecting her for weeks. While the school sought a replacement for Madame Servine, we’d spent this hour in interminable study sessions overseen by caustic Frau Becker. Now, our new teacher’s crisp accent thickened the hush. The unmistakable carol of Paris sang in her voice, and I could feel the girls around me cringe. They’d called Madame l’ancien régime for her lorgnette and the way her dentures clacked when she enunciated accent graves in toneless superiority, her high-necked black gown dating to the turn of the century. This woman wore a collared blouse with lace trim at her neck and wrists, her slim figure set off by a fashionable ankle-length skirt that showed off smart walking boots. Years younger than Madame, she was certain to be more energetic.

I inched up from my slouch.

Allez,” she declared. “Ouvrez vos livres, s’il vous plaît.”

The girls sat motionless. As I reached for my primer, Mademoiselle sighed and explained in German, “Your notebooks, please. Open them.”

I bit back a smile.

“We are conjugating verbs today, yes?” she said, surveying the class. No one responded. None of the girls had bothered to so much as glance at their primers since Madame had taken her opportune tumble. They didn’t care. From the few conversations I’d overheard, their lifelong aspiration consisted of marrying as soon as possible to escape their parents. Kinder, Küche, Kirche: children, kitchen, church. It was the sole ambition inculcated in every German girl, like our mothers and grandmothers before us. What possible use could speaking French offer, unless one had the misfortune to marry a foreigner?

Mademoiselle Bréguand oversaw the anxious ruffling of pages, unaware of, or unwilling to comment on, the frantic edge in her students’ movements. Delinquency in homework was an offense everyone courted yet feared. Madame had been known to keep a girl at her desk until nightfall, toiling until she either completed her assignment or dropped in exhaustion.

Then, to my disbelief, I saw Mademoiselle flash a mischievous smile.

It was so unexpected in this place of restraint, where teachers brooded like ravens, that its warmth stunned me, turning the swirl in my stomach into whipped cream.

“Let’s start with the verb to be. Etre: je suis, je serai, j’étais. Tu es, tu seras, tu étais. Il est, il sera, il était. Nous sommes, nous serons, nous étions. . .” As she spoke, she paced the narrow aisles between our desks, her head tilted, listening to the mutilated recital coming from the students. It was a pathetic display, evidence of truancy and utter disregard for the language, but she didn’t correct a single one, repeating the conjugations as the girls followed her lead.

Then she came before me. She halted. Her hand lifted. The girls went quiet. Fixing her amber-green gaze on me, Mademoiselle said, “Répétez, s’il vous plaît?”

I wanted to sound as awful as the others to avoid being singled out. But my tongue disobeyed me and I found myself saying haltingly, “Vous êtes. Vous serez. Vous étiez.”

A stifled giggle from a girl nearby sounded, in my ears, like a slap.

The warm smile returned to Mademoiselle’s lips. This time, to my dismay and simultaneous joy, she directed it at me. “And the rest?”

In a whisper, I said, “Vous soyez. Vous series. Vous fûtes. Vous fussiez.”

“Now, use the verb in a sentence.”

I gnawed my lower lip, considering. Then I burst out, “Je voudrais être connue comme une personne qui vous plaise.” The moment I spoke, I regretted it. What had possessed me to say something so—so overt, so forward? So unlike me?

Although I didn’t dare look, I could feel the others staring at me. They might not have understood my actual words, but the way I had spoken them was enough. I had unmasked myself.

Oui,” said Mademoiselle softly. “Parfait.”

She proceeded down the aisle, chanting the refrain and signaling to the girls to follow suit. I sat, frozen, until a finger jabbed my ribs and I turned to find a dark-haired, thin girl with an elfin face winking at me. “Parfait,” she whispered. “Perfect.”

It wasn’t the reaction I’d expected. I thought the other girls would wait until the closing bell rang, then accost me outside the gates on my way home, thrashing me for deceiving them and trying to ingratiate myself with our new teacher. But what I glimpsed on this girl’s face was not resentment or anger. It was . . . admiration.

After Mademoiselle assigned our homework and the girls filed out, I tried to slip past her at her desk. I’d almost made it to the door when she said, “Mademoiselle. A moment, please.”

I paused, glancing warily over my shoulder. The others pushed past me; one of them sneered, “Maria the mouse is about to get her first gold star.”

Then I stood alone before the teacher’s pensive gaze. The late-afternoon sunlight filtering through the dusty classroom window burnished her unkempt chignon with copper. Her skin was rosy, with a slight down on her cheeks. My knees weakened. I didn’t understand why I’d said what I had, but I had the disquieting impression that she did.

“Maria?” she asked. “Is that your name?”

“Yes. Maria Magdalene.” I forced my voice out of my knotted throat.

“Maria Magdalene Dietrich. But I prefer—everyone in my family calls me Marlene. Or Lena, for short.”

“A lovely name. You speak French very well, Marlene. Did you learn it here?” Before I could answer, she laughed. “But of course you did not. Those others: C’est terrible, combien peu ils savent. You shouldn’t be in this class. You’re too advanced.”

“Please, Mademoiselle.” I clutched my satchel to my chest. “If the headmistress finds out  . . .”

“What?” She cocked her head. “What will she do? It’s not a crime to know how to speak another language. You’ll waste your time here. Wouldn’t you prefer to use this hour for something you can actually learn?”

“No.” I was close to tears. “I like learning French.”

“I see. Well. Then we must see what we can arrange. Your secret is safe with me, but I cannot vouch for the others. They might be negligent, but they’re not deaf.”

Merci, Mademoiselle. I’ll study very hard, you’ll see. I only wish to please you.” It was my standard avowal, accompanied by an awkward curtsy, as Mutti had taught me during social calls after church, when we went to visit other respectable widows for hot cocoa and strudel. Then I started for the door, desperate to escape her amused eyes and my own impulsiveness.

As I left I heard her say, “Marlene. You do please. You please me very much.”

by by C. W. Gortner

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062406078
  • ISBN-13: 9780062406071