She looked around her at the court.
‘They remained in Switzerland. We knew that she could never return to St Péronne, so high was feeling about the German occupation. If she had turned up, questions would have been asked. And, of course, by then I had grasped who had helped them escape together.’
‘Who was this, Madame?’
She purses her lips, as if even now it costs her to say it. ‘Kommandant Friedrich Hencken.’
‘Forgive me,’ says the judge. ‘It is an extraordinary tale. But I don’t understand how this relates to the loss of the painting.’
Édith Béthune composes herself. ‘Hélène did not show me the letter, but I knew it preoccupied her. She was jumpy when Aurélien was near, although he spent barely any time at Le Coq Rouge after Sophie left. It was as if he could not bear to be there. But then two days later, when he had gone out, and as the little ones slept in the next room, she called me into her bedroom. “Édith, I need you to do something for me.”
‘She was seated on the floor, Sophie’s portrait supported by one hand. She stared at the letter in her hand, as if checking something, shook her head slightly, and then, with chalk, she inscribed several words on the back. She sat back on her heels, as if confirming that she had got it right. She wrapped it carefully in a blanket and handed it over to me. “Herr Kommandant is shooting in the woods this afternoon. I need you to take this to him.”
‘“Never.” I hated that man with a passion. He had been responsible for the loss of my mother.
‘“Do as I say. I need you to take this to Herr Kommandant.”
‘“No.” I was not afraid of him then – he had already done the worst thing imaginable to me – but I would not spend a moment in his company.
‘Hélène stared at me, and I think she could see how serious I was. She pulled me to her, and I have never seen her look more determined. “Édith, the Kommandant is to have this painting. You and I may wish him dead, but we must observe …” she hesitated “… Sophie’s wishes.”
‘“You take it.”
‘“I cannot. If I do the town will talk, and we cannot risk my own name being destroyed as my sister’s was. Besides, Aurélien will guess something is going on. And he must not know the truth. Nobody must know, for her safety and ours. Will you do it?”
‘I had no choice. That afternoon, when Hélène gave me the signal, I took the painting under my arm and I walked down the alleyway, through the wasteland and to the woods. It was heavy and the frame dug into my underarm. He was there with another officer. The sight of them with their guns in their hands made my knees knock with fear. When he saw me, he ordered the other man away. I walked through the trees slowly, my feet cold on the icy forest floor. He looked a little unsettled as I approached, and I remember thinking, Good. I hope I unsettle you for ever.
‘“Did you wish to speak with me?” he said.
‘I didn’t want to hand it over. I didn’t want him to have a single thing. He had already taken the two most precious things in my life. I hated that man. And I think that was when I got the idea. “Aunt Hélène says I’m to give this to you.’
‘He took the picture from me, and unwrapped it. He glanced at it, uncertain, and then he turned it over. When he saw what was written on the back, something strange happened to his face. It softened, just for a moment, and his pale blue eyes appeared moist, as if he would cry with gladness.
‘“Danke,” he said softly. “Dankeschön.”’
‘He turned it over to gaze upon Sophie’s face, then reversed it again, reading the words to himself. “Danke,” he said softly, to her or me, I wasn’t sure.
‘I couldn’t bear to see his happiness, his utter relief, when he had ruined any chance of happiness for me. I hated that man more than anyone. He had destroyed everything. And I heard my voice, clear as a bell in the still air. “Sophie died,” I said. “She died after we received her instruction to give you the painting. She died of the Spanish flu in the camps.”
‘He actually jolted with shock. “What?”
‘I don’t know where it came from. I spoke fluently, without fear of what might result. “She died. Because of being taken away. Just after she sent the message to give this to you.”
‘“Are you sure?” His voice cracked. “I mean there may have been reports –”
‘“Quite sure. I should probably not have told you. It’s a secret.”
‘I stood there, my heart like a stone, and I watched him staring at the painting, his face actually ageing, physically sagging with grief, before me.
‘“I hope you like the painting,” I said, and then I walked slowly back through the woods towards Le Coq Rouge. I don’t believe I was ever afraid of anything again.
‘Herr Kommandant spent another nine months in our town. But he never came to Le Coq Rouge again. I felt it like a victory.’
The courtroom is silent. The reporters are gazing at Édith Béthune. It is as if history has suddenly come to life here, in this small chamber. The judge’s voice, this time, is gentle.
‘Madame. Could you tell us what was written on the back of the painting? It appears to be quite a salient point in this matter. Can you remember it clearly?’
Édith Béthune looks around her at the packed benches. ‘Oh, yes. I remember it very clearly. I remember it because I couldn’t work out what it meant. It said, in chalk: ‘Pour Herr Kommandant, qui comprendra: pas pris, mais donné.’ She pauses. ‘To Herr Kommandant, who will understand: not taken, but given.’
Liv hears the noise rise up, like a cloud of birds, around her. She sees the journalists crowding round the old lady, their pens waving like antennae, the judge talking urgently with the lawyers, banging his gavel in vain. She stares up at the public gallery, at the animated faces, and hears the strange trickle of applause that might be for the old woman or for the truth: she isn’t sure.
Paul is fighting his way through the crowd. When he gets to her he pulls her to him, his head dipped against hers, his voice in her ear. ‘She’s yours, Liv,’ he says, and his voice is thick with relief. ‘She’s yours.’
‘She lived,’ she says, and she is laughing and crying at the same time. ‘They found each other.’ From his arms, she gazes around her at the chaos, and she is no longer afraid of the crowd. People are smiling, as if this has been a good result; as if she is no longer the enemy. She sees the Lefèvre brothers stand to leave, their faces as sombre as coffin-bearers, and is flooded with relief that Sophie will not be returning to France with them. She sees Janey, gathering her things slowly, her face frozen, as if she cannot believe what has just taken place.
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