‘You don’t know what you’re asking.’
‘I know that if he has to stay there he will die.’
The faintest flicker behind his eyes.
‘I know you are a gentleman. A scholar. I know you care about art. Surely to save an artist you admire would be –’ My words faltered. I took a step forward. I put a hand out and touched his arm. ‘Herr Kommandant. Please. You know I would not ask you for anything but I beg you for this. Please, please, help me.’
He looked so grave. And then he did something unexpected. He lifted a hand and lightly moved a strand of my hair from my face. He did it gently, meditatively, as if this was something he had imagined for some time. I hid my shock and kept perfectly still.
‘I will give you the painting,’ I said. ‘The one you like so much.’
He dropped his hand. He let out a sigh, and turned away.
‘It is the most precious thing I have.’
‘Go home, Madame Lefèvre.’
A small knot of panic began to form in my chest.
‘What must I do?’
‘Go home. Take the children and go home.’
‘Anything. If you can free my husband, I’ll do anything.’ My voice echoed across the woodland. I felt Édouard’s only chance slipping away from me. He kept walking. ‘Did you hear what I said, Herr Kommandant?’
He swung back then, his expression suddenly furious. He strode towards me and only stopped when his face was inches from mine. I could feel his breath on my face. I could see the girls from the corner of my eye, rigid with anxiety. I would not show fear.
He gazed at me, and then he lowered his voice. ‘Sophie …’ He glanced behind him at them. ‘Sophie, I – I have not seen my wife in almost three years.’
‘I have not seen my husband for two.’
‘You must know … you must know that what you ask of me …’ He turned away from me, as if he were determined not to look at my face.
I swallowed. ‘I am offering you a painting, Herr Kommandant.’
A small tic had begun in his jaw. He stared at a point somewhere past my right shoulder, and then he began to walk away again. ‘Madame. You are either very foolish or very … ’
‘Will it buy my husband his freedom? Will … will I buy my husband his freedom?’
He turned back, his face anguished, as if I was forcing him to do something he didn’t want to do. He stared fixedly at his boots. Finally he took two paces back towards me, just close enough that he could speak without being overheard.
‘Tomorrow night. Come to me at the barracks. After you have finished at the hotel.’
We walked hand in hand back round the paths, to avoid going through the square, and by the time we reached Le Coq Rouge our skirts were covered with mud. The girls were silent, even though I attempted to reassure them that the German man had just been upset because he had no pigeons to shoot. I made them a warm drink, then went to my room and closed the door.
I lay down on my bed and put my hands over my eyes to block out the light. I stayed there for perhaps half an hour. Then I rose, pulled my blue wool dress from the wardrobe, and laid it across the bed. Édouard had always said I looked like a schoolmistress in it. He said it as though being a schoolmistress might be a rather wonderful thing. I removed my muddy grey dress, leaving it to fall on to the floor. I took off my thick underskirt, the hem of which was also spattered with mud, so that I was wearing only my petticoat and chemise. I removed my corset, then my undergarments. The room was cold, but I was oblivious to it.
I stood before the looking-glass.
I had not looked at my body for months; I had had no reason to. Now the shape that stood before me in the mottled glass seemed to be that of a stranger. I appeared to be half the width I had been; my br**sts had fallen and grown smaller, no longer great ripe orbs of pale flesh. My bottom too. And I was thin, my skin now hinting at the bones underneath: collar bone, shoulder and rib all forced their way to prominence. Even my hair, once bright with colour, seemed dull.
I stepped closer and examined my face: the shadows under my eyes, the faint frown line between my brows. I shivered, but not from the cold. I thought of the girl Édouard had left behind two years ago. I thought of the feel of his hands on my waist, his soft lips on my neck. And I closed my eyes.
He had been in a foul mood for days. He was working on a picture of three women seated around a table and he could not get it right. I had posed for him in each position and watched silently as he huffed and grimaced, even threw down his palette at one point, rubbing his hands through his hair and cursing himself.
‘Let’s take some air,’ I said, uncurling myself. I was sore from holding the position, but I wouldn’t let him know that.
‘I don’t want to take some air.’
‘Édouard, you will achieve nothing in this mood. Take twenty minutes’ air with me. Come.’ I reached for my coat, wrapped a scarf around my neck, and stood in the doorway.
‘I don’t like being interrupted,’ he grumbled, reaching for his own coat.
I didn’t mind his ill-temper. I was used to him by then. When Édouard’s work was going well, he was the sweetest of men, joyful, keen to see beauty in everything. When it went badly, it was as if our little home lay under a dark cloud. In the early months of our marriage I had been afraid that this was somehow my fault, that I should be able to cheer him. But listening to the other artists talk at La Ruche, or in the bars of the Latin Quarter, I grew to see such rhythms in all of them: the highs of a work successfully completed, or sold; the lows when they had stalled, or overworked a piece, or received some stinging criticism. These moods were simply weather fronts to be borne and adapted to.
I was not always so saintly.
Édouard grumbled all the way along rue Soufflot. He was irritable. He could not see why we had to walk. He could not see why he could not be left alone. I didn’t understand. I didn’t know the pressure he was under. Why, Weber and Purrmann were already being pursued by galleries near the Palais Royale, offered shows of their own. It was rumoured that Monsieur Matisse preferred their work to his. When I tried to reassure him that this was not the case he waved a hand dismissively, as if my view was of no account. His choleric rant went on and on until we reached the Left Bank, and I finally lost patience.
‘Very well,’ I said, unhooking my arm from his. ‘I am an ignorant shop girl. How could I be expected to understand the artistic pressures of your life? I am simply the one who washes your clothes and sits for hours, my body aching, while you fiddle with charcoal, and collects money from people to whom you do not want to seem ungenerous. Well, Édouard, I will leave you to it. Perhaps my absence will bring you some contentment.’
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