‘But the law, both under the Geneva Convention and current restitution legislation, says that these wrongs must be put right. It is our case that this painting should be restored to its rightful owners, the Lefèvre family. Thank you.’
Henry’s face, beside her, is expressionless.
Liv gazes towards the corner of the room where a printed image of The Girl You Left Behind, reproduced to actual size, sits on a small stand. Flaherty had asked for the painting to be placed in protective holding while its fate was decided, but Henry had told her that she was under no obligation to agree to that.
Still, it is unnerving to see The Girl here, out of place, her gaze somehow seeming to mock the proceedings before her. At home, Liv finds herself walking into the bedroom simply to look at her, the intensity of her gaze heightened by the possibility that soon she will never be able to look at her again.
The afternoon stretches. The air in the courtroom slows and expands with the central heating. Christopher Jenks takes apart their attempt to time-bar the claim with the forensic efficiency of a bored surgeon dissecting a frog. Occasionally she looks up to hear phrases like ‘transfer of title’ and ‘incomplete provenance’. The judge coughs and examines his notes. Paul murmurs to the woman director from his company. Whenever he does, she smiles, showing perfect, tiny white teeth.
Now Christopher Jenks begins to read:
‘15 January 1917
Today they took Sophie Lefèvre. Such a sight you never saw. She was minding her own business down in the cellars of Le Coq Rouge when two Germans came across the square and dragged her up the steps and hauled her out, as if she were a criminal. Her sister begged and cried, as did the orphaned child of Liliane Béthune, a whole crowd rose up and protested, but they simply brushed them aside like flies. Two elderly people were actually knocked to the floor in the commotion. I swear, mon Dieu, if there are to be just rewards in our next life the Germans will pay dearly.
They carted the girl off in a cattle truck. The mayor tried to stop them, but he is a feeble character, these days, weakened by the death of his daughter, and too prone to lying down with the Boche. They fail to take him seriously. When the vehicle finally disappeared he walked into the bar of Le Coq Rouge and announced with great pomposity that he would take it up at the highest possible level. None of us listened. Her poor sister, Hélène, wept, her head on the counter, her brother Aurélien ran off, like a scalded dog, and the child that Sophie had seen fit to take in – the child of Liliane Béthune – stood in the corner like a little pale ghost.
‘Eh, Hélène will look after you,’ I told her. I bent down and pressed a coin into her hand, but she looked at it as if she didn’t know what it was. When she stared at me her eyes were like saucers. ‘You must not fear, child. Hélène is a good woman. She will take care of you.’
I know there was some commotion with Sophie Lefèvre’s brother before she left, but my ears are not good, and in the noise and chaos I missed the heart of it. Still, I fear she has been ill-used by the Germans. I knew that once they decided to take over Le Coq Rouge the girl was done for, but she never would listen to me. She must have offended them in some way; she always was the more impetuous one. I cannot condemn her for it: I suspect if the Germans were in my house I would offend them too.
Yes, I had my differences with Sophie Lefèvre, but my heart is heavy tonight. To see her shoved on to that cattle truck as if she were already a carcass, to imagine her future … These are dark days. To think I should have lived to see such sights. Some nights it is hard not to believe our little town is become a place of madness.’
In his low, sonorous voice, Christopher Jenks ends his reading. The courtroom is still, only the sound of the stenographer audible in the silence. Overhead a fan whirs lazily, failing to displace the air.
‘“I knew that once they decided to take over Le Coq Rouge the girl was done for.”’ Ladies and gentlemen, I think this diary entry tells us pretty conclusively that any relationship Sophie Lefèvre had with the Germans in St Péronne was not a particularly happy one.’
He strolls through the courtroom like someone taking the air on a beachfront, casually studying the photocopied pages.
‘But this is not the only reference. The same local resident, Vivienne Louvier, has proven to be a remarkable documenter of life in the little town. And if we go back several months, she writes the following:
‘The Germans are taking their meals at Le Coq Rouge. They have the Bessette sisters cooking them food so rich that the smell drifts around the square and drives us all half mad with longing. I told Sophie Bessette – or Lefèvre as she now is – in the boulangerie that her father would not have stood for it, but she says there is nothing she can do.’
He lifts his head. ‘“Nothing she can do”. The Germans have invaded the artist’s wife’s hotel, forced her to cook for them. She has the enemy actually in her home, and she is utterly powerless. All compelling stuff. But this is not the only evidence. A search of the Lefèvre archive unearthed a letter written by Sophie Lefèvre to her husband. It apparently never reached him, but I believe that will prove irrelevant.’
He holds up the paper, as if struggling to see it in the light.
‘Herr Kommandant is not as foolish as Beckenbauer but unnerves me more. He stares at your portrait of me and I want to tell him he has no right. That painting, above all others, belongs to you and me. Do you know the most peculiar thing, Édouard? He actually admires your work. He knows of it, knows that of the Matisse School, of Weber and Purrmann. How strange it has been to find myself defending your superior brushwork to a German Kommandant!
But I refuse to take it down, no matter what Hélène says. It reminds me of you, and of a time when we were happy together. It reminds me that humankind is capable of love and beauty as well as destruction.
I pray for your safe and swift return, my dearest.
Yours ever, Sophie’
‘“That painting, above all others, belongs to you and me.”’
Jenks lets that hang in the air. ‘So, this letter, found long after her death, tells us that the painting meant an awful lot to the artist’s wife. It also tells us pretty conclusively that a German Kommandant had his eye on it. Not only that, but that he had a good idea of the market as a whole. He was, if you like, an aficionado.’ He rolls out the word, emphasizing each syllable, as if it were the first time he had used it.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com