The sun rose softly on the lazy town of Castelnau in the south of France. Gabriella quietly slipped out of bed, stretched, and ran her fingers through her thick mane of red hair. The tile floor felt cool to her bare feet. Peering down from her tiny room, she watched the empty streets begin to fill with people. Mme Leclerc, her landlady, was the first to enter the boulangerie just in view down the street to buy baguettes and gros pain, the bread essential for breakfast for her three boarding students.
She watched a moment longer, until a lanky young man in his midtwenties walked briskly up the street. There was no mistaking the next client who entered the boulangerie. Gabriella had recognized him the first time she saw him buying bread a few days earlier, from the description of the other boarders. This was David Hoffmann, the university’s handsome American instructor. Gabriella strained to get a closer look.
Castelnau was a pleasant town, she thought as she moved away from the window. She pulled the duvet up from the end of the bed and lightly fluffed her pillow. It wasn’t a bit like Dakar, or any other part of Senegal—except, of course, that the beach and ocean were not far away. Only here it was the Mediterranean Sea.
She tied back her unruly hair with a large ribbon and then washed her face in the small porcelain sink that sat neatly in the corner of the room. Opening a large oak armoire, she removed a freshly pressed blouse and a simple straight-lined navy skirt. As she dressed, she noted that the skirt hung loosely around her waist—in spite of the boulangerie’s bread and pastries.
She had come to Castelnau only two weeks earlier, excited and confident, ready to discover a new land and people. But as the days between her and her family lengthened, pangs of homesickness caught her by surprise. In the midst of a walk through town she would notice a woman with hair like her mother’s, or two lithe, tanned girls, carefree and laughing, like Jessica and Henrietta.
By afternoon she knew it would be blistering hot outside, but the morning was bright and crisp, with a hint of autumn in the air. At home there would be no fall smells. And at home she would not yet be starting her first day at university. But here, in this small French village separated by a sea from the African world she loved, Gabriella knew she must push away thoughts of the past. At twenty-one, she should know that no good would come from giving in to homesickness.
She reached for the large leather-bound Bible sitting on her wooden nightstand and leafed familiarly through the pages until she found the place she was seeking. Ten minutes later, as she carefully laid the book back on the nightstand, a letter fell from the Bible. She reached down and retrieved it, and as she tucked it back into the book, a line caught her eye: I give you this cross, which has always been for me a symbol of forgiveness and love.
A shadow swept across her. Instinctively she reached to touch the gold chain that hung around her neck. Paying no attention to the cold, hard tile beneath her bare knees, she knelt on the floor and propped her folded hands on the side of the bed. She moved her lips without a sound escaping. It was only later, when she rose to her feet and smoothed her skirt, that she noticed her hands were wet from her warm tears.
Gabriella finished her breakfast of bread, butter, and jelly dipped into a huge bowl of rich hot chocolate. The first morning, she had barely managed to choke down the strong coffee the French drank in their wide bowls, diluting it with plenty of cream and four cubes of sugar. After that disaster, Mme Leclerc had offered her hot chocolate instead. Gabriella smiled now as she remembered her embarrassment, then swept the breadcrumbs from her skirt, cleared the table, and let the dishes rattle in the small sink.
“Gabriella, please. You are always the last one, helping an old lady like me. But today you mustn’t be late. Allez! Go along now and catch up with the others.” Mme Leclerc shooed her out of the house.
Stephanie and Caroline, the two other boarders, had hurried off minutes before, and Gabriella appreciated Mme Leclerc’s friendly dismissal. She grabbed her small satchel that lay by the entrance of the apartment. Opening the door, she turned back and said “Au revoir,” then placed the expected quick kisses on her landlady’s cheeks. “And merci!”
She made her way down the dark, narrow staircase. On a good day Gabriella could descend the stairs two at a time, race back up, and come down again before the automatic light in the stairwell went off. It was her own childish game, played only when others weren’t present. Today however, she did not press the shining orange button. She needed these few seconds of darkness to collect her thoughts.
At the bottom of the staircase, a massive oak door opened onto the street. She stepped out into the sunlight and blinked. Quickly she trotted down the sidewalk, past the boulangerie with its smells of fresh bread, past the café where paunchy men were already sipping an early-morning apéritif and women chatted noisily as their dogs strained on leashes. She liked the short walk through the village that led to the imposing church of St. Joseph. The small church was built in the Romanesque style and seemed to Gabriella like a benevolent father surrounding a houseful of children, saying nothing but ever present and knowing.
She stepped through the red-washed wooden side door and down the steps into the hollow nave, where flickering candles testified to the early-morning fidelity of a few parishioners. The church was slowly filling up with young women. Gabriella took a seat on a wooden pew near the front, next to Stephanie.
“You made it!” her housemate said, too loudly. “I thought you’d be late.”
Gabriella smiled. “Fortunately it’s a short walk.”
“I’ve heard the first day is a little boring,” Stephanie said. Her husky voice echoed in the hollow room.
Gabriella nodded and put a finger to her lips.
By now many young women were scattered throughout the twenty rows of pews. A small woman wearing a black nun’s habit walked up the aisle and stood before them. Gabriella had heard that she was over seventy, but the nun’s green eyes were lively. She spoke in English, with a heavy French accent.
“Good morning, mesdemoiselles, and welcome to the church of St. Joseph. I am Mother Griolet, the director of the Franco-American exchange program here in Castelnau. As you have already discovered during your week of orientation, this church is where you will meet each morning at eight thirty for announcements, after which you will go to your morning classes.
“This is my fourteenth year of working with the program, and by now I have, shall we say, gotten used to the ways of American women.” She lifted her eyebrows, and muffled laughter echoed through the church. “We try not to have too many rules, for we want you to soak up this region of France and learn the language. However, we do expect you to act becoming of your age and remember that you are representing your country.
“As is my custom, I will give a brief history of St. Joseph. The church dates back to the thirteenth century. The parsonage, as you call it, was added in the eighteenth century, as were the classrooms, refectory, and dormitory. At one time St. Joseph was used as a parochial school for French women. I came here in 1917 as a teacher and also opened a small orphanage at that time, which continues to function—I’m sure you have noticed the children about.
“During World War II the school was abandoned, though the church and orphanage remained open. After the war, with the help of some businessmen from America, St. Joseph was transformed into a school that offered classes in both French and English—an exchange program for young women during their university education.
“In 1947 I assumed the position of director and had to brush up on my English a bit.” She emphasized her last phrase with an exaggerated accent, and the young women laughed. “As I like to tell your parents, who are paying, as you say, ‘through the nose’ for you to be here, the school’s location on the Mediterranean offers an ideal setting for your cultural advancement. Several excursions are planned each quarter to visit the historical sites of the region. And there is, of course, springtime in Paris. Two weeks to soak up the charm of the city, lose oneself in the museums, and join the students from the Sorbonne in a café on the Left Bank. Doesn’t it sound grand?”
Gabriella and Stephanie nodded at Mother Griolet’s romantic description.
“This year there are forty-two of you representing seven different universities and three countries. Many of you are taking demi-pension, living with a French family and eating one meal a day with them. Others are housed at the university in Montpellier, only fifteen minutes away by bus. I hope you have already begun to meet one another.
“I would now like to introduce our professors.” She addressed the woman and three men seated in the front row. “If you will please stand after I introduce you. First, M. Claude Brunet, who will teach all three levels of French grammar, as well as the conversation class.” A thin, tall middle-aged man with an enormous mustache and heavy eyebrows rose and nodded slightly.
“They say he had an affair with a girl from Rhode Island last year. He’s a real playboy,” Stephanie whispered.
Gabriella gave her a look of disbelief, but Stephanie just shrugged.
“Next, M. Jean-Louis Vidal.” A balding man with wire glasses and a generous stomach, who looked at least sixty, stood quickly, a slightly flustered expression on his face. “M. Vidal will teach all of you European history—in French, of course.”
“Boring,” was Stephanie’s comment.
Mother Griolet continued. “We are privileged to have a professor from the Faculté des Lettres in Montpellier teaching eighteenth-century French literature and twentieth-century French novel. Madame Josephine Resch.” A woman of about thirty-five with black blunt-cut hair stood, looking poised and cool in her lightweight suit.
“She’s supposed to be tough but good,” came the running commentary from Stephanie.
“And finally, M. David Hoffmann, who will be teaching a course he first presented at St. Joseph last year: ‘Visions of Man, Past and Present.’ M. Hoffmann will teach in both French and English, since his course deals with art, history, and literature from both France and England.”
When David Hoffmann rose to his feet, every eye in the church followed him. His frame was lean and athletic, and his hair and eyes were jet black. He appeared calm and sophisticated for such a young professor.
Stephanie jabbed Gabriella in the ribs. “He is one charming man, I heard. But very distant.”
Mother Griolet thanked the professors, then turned her attention once again to the young women. “We are delighted to have you with us for the school year. I believe you have all received your course schedules and know where the classrooms are. I will end by saying that I am an old woman and have seen many things. Young ladies can get into all kinds of trouble. I cannot prevent it, but my office is open for a friendly chat if you should happen to need it. You are dismissed.”
She left the podium, her face a picture of joviality dusted with friendly concern. The girls offered a smattering of polite applause before they stood up and filed out of the church and into the adjoining building.
Gabriella liked the firm yet humorous style of the director. I can see why Mother grew so fond of her, she thought. Then she hurried after Stephanie to find a place in the classroom of M. Hoffmann.
Mother Griolet closed the door to her small office and sat down behind the mahogany desk. She picked up the list in front of her, cursorily reading the forty-two girls’ names. Over the next few months they would become as familiar to her as her own. But one she already knew. Gabriella Madison. She closed her eyes and saw this now-grown young woman with the fiery hair as a child of six, trembling and sobbing, her face dirty as she clung to Mother Griolet’s black skirts.
Mother Griolet did not cry often, but the memory of that scene brought an unexpected sting to her green eyes and sent a sudden chill through her small frame.
“Dear child. Why did you come back here?” She was sure it was a mistake. She was equally sure that she would pray night and day that Gabriella Madison would never discover the story that an old nun had kept to herself for so long.
from Two Crosses, by Elizabeth Musser, c1996, c2012, published by David C Cook. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.