Your devoted husband.
I read his words and now there was an extra reason to wonder whether I would ever hear them again.
I was down in the cellar, changing one of the casks of ale, when I heard footsteps on the flagstones. Hélène’s silhouette appeared in the doorway, blocking out the light.
‘The mayor is here. He says the Germans are coming for you.’
My heart stopped.
She ran to the dividing wall, and began pulling the loose bricks from their placements. ‘Go on – you can get out through next door if you hurry.’ She pulled them out, her hands scrabbling in her haste. When she had created a hole about the width of a small barrel, she turned to me. She glanced down at her hands, wrenched off her wedding ring and handed it to me, before pulling her shawl from her shoulders. ‘Take this. Go now. I’ll hold them up. But hurry, Sophie, they’re coming across the square.’
I looked down at the ring in my palm. ‘I can’t,’ I said.
‘What if he keeps his side of the deal?’
‘Herr Kommandant? Deal? How on earth can he be keeping his side of the deal? They are coming for you, Sophie! They are coming to punish you, to imprison you in a camp. You have gravely offended him! They are coming to send you away!’
‘But think about it, Hélène. If he wanted to punish me, he would have had me shot or paraded through the streets. He would have done to me what he did to Liliane Béthune.’
‘And risk revealing what he was punishing you for? Have you taken leave of your senses?’
‘No.’ My thoughts had begun to clear. ‘He has had time to consider his temper and he is sending me to Édouard. I know it.’
She pushed me towards the hole. ‘This is not you talking, Sophie. It is lack of sleep, your fears, a mania … You will come to your senses soon. But you need to go now. The mayor says to go to Madame Poilâne so that you can stay in the barn with the false floor tonight. I’ll try and send word to you later.’
I shook off her arm. ‘No … no. Don’t you see? The Kommandant cannot possibly bring Édouard back here, not without making it obvious what he has done. But if he sends me away, with Édouard, he can free us both.’
‘Sophie! Enough talking now!’
‘I kept my side of the deal.’
‘No.’ We stared at each other in the near dark. ‘I’m not going.’
I reached for her hand and placed the ring in it, closing her fingers around it. I repeated quietly, ‘I’m not going.’
Hélène’s face crumpled. ‘You cannot let them take you, Sophie. This is insanity. They are sending you to a prison camp! Do you hear me? A camp! The very thing you said would kill Édouard!’
But I barely heard her. I straightened up, and let out a breath. I felt strangely relieved. If they were coming only for me, Hélène was safe, the children too.
‘I was right about him all along, I am sure. He has thought about it all, in the light of day, and he knows I tried, despite everything, to keep to my side of things. He is an honourable man. He said we were friends.’
My sister was crying now. ‘Please, Sophie, please don’t do this. You don’t know your own mind. You still have time –’ She tried to block my path, but I pushed past her and began to walk up the stairs.
They were already in the entrance to the bar when I emerged, two of them in uniform. The bar was silent and twenty pairs of eyes landed on me. I could see old René, his hand trembling on the edge of the table, Mesdames Louvier and Durant talking in hushed voices. The mayor was with one of the officers, gesticulating wildly, trying to convince him to change his mind, that there must have been some mistake.
‘It is the orders of the Kommandant,’ the officer said.
‘But she has done nothing! This is a travesty!’
‘Courage, Sophie,’ someone shouted.
I felt as if I were in a dream. Time seemed to slow, the voices fading around me.
One of the officers beckoned me forwards and I stepped outside. The sun’s watery light flooded the square. There were people standing on the street, waiting to see the cause of the commotion in the bar. I stopped for a moment and gazed around me, blinking in the daylight after the gloom of the cellar. Everything seemed suddenly crystalline, redrawn in a finer, brighter image, as if it were imprinting itself on my memory. The priest was standing outside the post office, and he crossed himself when he saw the vehicle they had sent to take me away. It was, I realized, the one that had transported those women to the barracks. That night seemed an age ago.
The mayor was shouting: ‘We will not allow this! I want to register an official complaint! This is the limit! I will not let you take this girl without speaking to the Kommandant first!’
‘These are his orders.’
A small group of older people were beginning to surround the men, as if to form a barrier.
‘You cannot persecute innocent women!’ Madame Louvier was declaiming. ‘You take over her home, make her your servant, and now you would imprison her? For no reason?’
‘Sophie. Here.’ My sister reappeared at my shoulder. ‘At least take your things.’ She thrust a canvas bag at me. It overflowed with belongings she had hurriedly stuffed into it. ‘Just stay safe. Do you hear me? Stay safe and come back to us.’
The crowd was murmuring its protest. It had become a febrile, angry thing, growing in size. I glanced sideways and saw Aurélien, his face furious and flushed, standing on the pavement with Monsieur Suel. I didn’t want him to get involved. If he turned on the Germans now it would be a disaster. And it was important that Hélène had an ally these next few months. I pushed my way towards him. ‘Aurélien, you are the man of the house. You must take care of everyone when I am gone,’ I began, but he stopped me.
‘It is your own fault!’ he blurted out. ‘I know what you did! I know what you did with the German!’
Everything stopped. I looked at my brother, the mixture of anguish and fury on his face.
‘I heard you and Hélène talking. I saw you come back that night!’
I registered the exchanges of glances around me. Did Aurélien Bessette just say what I think he did?
‘It’s not what –’ I began. But he turned and bolted back into the bar.
A new silence fell. Aurélien’s accusation was repeated in murmurs to those who hadn’t heard it. I registered the shock on the faces around me, and Hélène’s fearful glance sideways. I was Liliane Béthune now. But without the mitigating factor of resistance. The atmosphere hardened around me tangibly.
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