The velvet hours, p.12
The Velvet Hours, p.12Alyson Richman
* * *
Now, a week later, he was even more fragile than at his last visit.
“How is the portrait developing? Will I be seeing it anytime soon?”
“Oh, but he’s only just begun sketching.” She reached for Charles’s hand. “You must get stronger so you can visit his studio. It really is the most marvelous place.”
He smiled. “I would enjoy that. I have the address already.” He patted the pocket of his suit. “There’s little difference between bankers and artists. In the end, they’re both crystal clear in giving instructions to where you must send the checks.”
She laughed. “Really, Charles, I think you’re going to be quite pleased when it’s done.”
“I’m sure I will . . . I only hope I can last long enough to see it.”
She realized that he had stopped avoiding any discussion of his health, as he had when he first took ill. He spoke openly of his decline, and even sometimes alluded to his own death.
Their roles had reversed. It was now Marthe who didn’t want to speak about the ugliness of his illness, or the painful truth that he would not get better, only worse.
“You will recover, my darling,” she said, squeezing his hand. “Why, it’s been a long winter, and spring has only just arrived. By the time you see the first roses in the Bois de Boulogne, you’ll be feeling so much better . . . I just know it.”
“I have set my goal not on seeing the flowers, Marthe. But on seeing you within a gilded frame.”
“Stop that . . . you will see it so many times over the years, you’ll grow bored with it.” She took her hand and ran it over his hair, then leaned over and kissed him. His once-soft lips were now cracked and dry.
“My dove,” he said, looking at her. His eyes were soft. “To be six years old again, so I could draw you with my own hand.”
She said nothing. She simply rose and walked out the French doors of the parlor to the small side room where she kept her stationery, her notepads, and her pens.
She opened the bottom drawer and searched until she found a pencil. She almost never used the red cedar sticks, but they were helpful when she had to go over the household budget with Giselle.
Marthe returned to the parlor. “Here,” she said, handing him the pad she had found and the pencil stick.
“Master Boldini won’t be done for several weeks, so yours will be the first portrait of me.”
He lifted his hand and took the pad and placed it on his lap. Then he took the pencil.
“I can’t remember the last time I did this,” he told her.
“I suspect it’s not something you lose completely . . .”
‘Well, if my memory serves me correctly, I drew blue wrens, and gray sparrows . . . but never a dove.”
“There is always a first time, my darling.”
“Indeed,” he answered. “Why don’t you go stand by the mantel.” He gestured in the direction of the white alabaster fireplace.
“It would be my pleasure . . .” She was happy to oblige him.
He took the pencil and began to sketch her head, the length of her neck. But soon he stopped.
“Please forgive me.” His voice broke into a cough. “I’m getting a bit tired.” He laid down the pad on the sofa. She had only been posing for a few minutes.
When she walked over to sit beside him, she lifted the pad to see what he had drawn.
He had rendered her in profile; the face was half done. He had drawn a few wisps of hair around the curl of her ear.
But still she could see he had talent.
“I should be getting home. Émilienne will be expecting me.”
She nodded, her heart stung at the mention of his wife’s name. She placed the pad down on the sofa and walked him to the door. She cupped his cheeks in her hands just as she had greeted him hours before. This time planting a kiss on his dry lips.
He kissed her back. Then, as was the familiar ritual between them, he reached inside his breast pocket and handed her the pocket watch to set with the exact time they were separating.
“Until next time,” he whispered, placing it back in his jacket and kissing her on the cheek.
“I will wait until the hands move again,” she whispered in his ear.
After she saw him to the door, Marthe went over to the sofa to retrieve the unfinished drawing, tearing it off the pad. She went to her desk and placed it amongst the first love letters Charles had written to her. She knew he would never complete it. But she was happy to have herself captured even incompletely by his hand.
Charles canceled his visit the following week. And then the week after. A letter arrived, which read that as much as he longed to see her, he was having trouble getting out of bed. Émilienne had insisted he convalesce at their estate in the country, where she thought the air was better for him.
The following week, Marthe awakened to an ominous sign. As she walked down the hallway, passing the pedestal table where she always kept Fauchon, she discovered the little bird lying at the bottom of his gilded wire cage, his legs pointing upward. When she peered closer, she noticed his eyes were like two hard, black stones.
Giselle tried to soothe Marthe, wrapping the dead bird in some waste silk, telling her that the bird had lived far longer than most, and promising her mistress that she’d make sure he was properly buried in the park.
“He was one of Charles’s first gifts to me,” Marthe lamented as she watched her maid tuck the bird in its makeshift shroud into a biscuit tin. “He bought him to keep me company, to provide me with birdsong.”
But what disturbed her more than Fauchon’s unfortunate passing was the feeling that it foreshadowed something terrible to come. She tried to push it out of her mind, but a dark cloud engulfed her. She feared Charles’s death would be next.
* * *
With Charles away from Paris and little else to distract her, Marthe looked forward to her visits to Boldini’s studio more than ever. Charles’s illness had reduced him to such a frail state that she yearned to be in the company of someone who had as much energy as she did. She soon learned that he not only shared her love of Asian porcelains, but also of Venice.
Early on in her sittings, he had asked her about her name. “De Florian?” He raised one of his eyebrows as he appraised her for one of the early sketches. “Is it French?”
“I wouldn’t say that,” she answered coquettishly.
“What would you say, then?”
“You mean like the café in San Marco?”
His eyes came alive again.
“Bellissimo.” She knew he was Italian, but to hear him suddenly switch into that language instantly delighted her.
“I fell in love there. So I took the name.”
“And your real name?”
She hesitated. “Beaugiron.”
He made a face. “Yes, you were right, carissima. De Florian is much better.”
“I thought Venice was the most magical place. The water. The light. The palazzos with those beautiful colors . . . I felt as though I reached the end of the world, where there was only beauty . . . and the impulse to make love.”
He laughed and placed his sketchbook down.
“You always speak of colors. I’m thinking I should give you your own set of paints.”
She smiled, her skin warming beneath her dress, its yards of organza and chiffon now felt too tightly wrapped around her. She wished she could instead be free of her corset and in her robe de chambre, reclining on one of Boldini’s divans.
She arched her back slightly to relieve a cramp. “It’s not easy to hold a pose for so long . . . I would rather be like you, moving about and clasping a stick of charcoal in my hand.”
“I would like that . . . to mix paints, create colors,” she mused. But I’d also like to go back to Venice . . .” She closed her eyes and spoke as if dreaming aloud. “To walk down the serpentine streets, and gaze at the palazzos with their tall windows and pastel facades . . .”
She could still hear his charcoal against the paper. “To lift my head in those dark churches and see the splendor painted above.”
“Your heart beats like an Italian.” He looked up from the pad and smiled from beneath his mustache. “Perhaps one day we will make a trip there together, and I can show you my beloved Ferrara.”
Her mind leapt. Charles had never mentioned another trip again after Venice. It had been the grand seduction, the place where they first tested out their arrangement. Even if the artist wasn’t serious, the suggestion of making a journey excited her. “Ferrara?” she cooed. “Is it close to Venice?”
“Not too far. A simple enough trip to make.” He pulled slightly at his mustache, his eyes still firmly planted on her. “Less than a day’s journey.”
“And do you go back often?”
“Not often at all. Rarely, as a matter of fact. Italy’s a place of the past for me. Just like you did on your trip to Venice, I’ve reinvented myself here in Paris.” He motioned to her that she no longer needed to keep the pose.
Marthe, relieved to no longer be forced to remain in one position, softened immediately against the velvet upholstery of the settee.
“When I left Ferrara, I felt . . . How should I say? Free . . .”
The artist reached for a pipe and struck a match. Marthe detected the scent of oak leaves as she breathed it in—a far earthier fragrance compared to the Oriental flavor of the one Charles preferred. There was something intoxicating about the perfume as it laced the air. She closed her eyes and savored Boldini’s words.
“For the first time in my life, I felt liberated from my father’s shadow. I was no longer the son of Antonio Boldini, the great religious painter of angels and saints.”
He puffed a few more clouds of smoke in her direction. “Perhaps I was un piccolo diavolo, a little devil,” he laughed. “I preferred to paint a beautiful, real woman over God.
“That isn’t to say I wasn’t grateful for all the training my father gave me . . . In some ways, those early lessons on painting the human form made me years ahead of my fellow students at the academy. And my fondest childhood memories are those I spent in his studio. The smell of turpentine and sawdust. Unfinished canvases leaning against the walls . . .”
“A little like here?” She took a light finger and playfully stroked her pearls.
“It was more cluttered. More rustic . . . Imagine wooden crossbeams exposed like an old barn . . .” Boldini pointed to the ceiling. “And imagine ten times more canvases in a far smaller space. One thing I learned early on was to be a better businessman, though. It pained my father to ask for money, no doubt because he dealt with the church. I make a point to get most of my money up front.”
“So my Charles has paid you handsomely already,” she laughed.
“Indeed,” he said.
“I would expect no less from him. Always the perfect gentleman . . .”
Boldini leaned forward. “And I am always the perfect rogue.”
She let out a little squeal. “You really are far more entertaining than I ever imagined! You’ve made this hour holding a torturous pose a pleasure!”
“And you, my dear, are a magnificent model. I’ve filled my sketchbook with enough drawings to start the portrait.”
“So my work here is done?” Her voice lilted ever so slightly. Marthe had missed playing the coquette and, as much as she loved Charles, the attention Boldini showered upon her soothed her.
“Hardly. I will need a few weeks to start the preliminary bones of the painting . . . Then you will have to return for another sitting.” He closed his sketchbook. “May I write to you when I’ve managed to create something worthy of your approval?”
She flushed. “I would like that very much.”
“Then that’s another thing we have in common, Madame de Florian.”
* * *
She left Boldini’s studio flooded with excitement. The artist also considered himself reinvented. Instead of judging her as an imposter of sorts, he had revealed his own vulnerability. As her coach pulled through the bustling Paris streets, she felt a need to thank him for this gift of kindness.
“Thirty-one Rue de Seine,” she ordered the driver. It was the address of Ichiro’s store.
She hadn’t visited in several weeks, but she knew it would be the perfect place to purchase something to show Boldini her appreciation, as well as cement their friendship. A gift of beauty, she thought to herself, something that would communicate her feelings far beyond a simple note card filled with a few polite words.
Ichiro stepped forward from the dark purple curtain and greeted her with great warmth.
“Madame de Florian, it has been far too long.” His head dipped into a deep bow. “You have missed many beautiful things that have come in and out of the store in the past few weeks.”
She could see immediately as his eyes, so expert in appraising things beautiful and rare, fell upon her neck, encircled in her priceless set of pearls.
Marthe raised a finger and touched them lightly. “You notice everything, don’t you,” she said sweetly. “These were a gift from someone with the most exquisite taste.”
“Indeed,” Ichiro said. “They are Japanese, too,” he said as he came closer. “How beautiful for me to have the opportunity to see something that has come from my native sea.”
She smiled. “I was told how difficult it is to find these many pearls that exactly match in color and size . . . That’s what makes the necklace so rare.”
“Yes, whoever told you that is right.” She could see how he was unable to take his eyes off the pearls, and it delighted her to have their roles reversed. Ichiro now coveting something that she possessed, instead of the other way around.
“It is a shame I wasn’t trained in the pearl business,” he said with a smile. “I think it’s far more lucrative than antiques . . .”
She laughed. “But I would be lost without your help. Just today, when I was thinking I needed to purchase a gift for someone with a strong artistic sensibility, I knew I couldn’t find what I needed at La Samaritaine. I needed, instead, to come to you . . .”
“That is most kind of you.” Ichiro clasped his hands in front of him. “So, how can I help you?”
“I have a new friend who shares my love of Asian porcelains. Perhaps you have a few things to show me?”
He nodded knowingly, and his eyes brightened with a liveliness she hadn’t realized how much she missed.
“I do. I have quite a few things to suggest.” He brought his hands together and gestured a small bow. “Give me a few moments to bring them up from the storeroom. In the meantime, please let me prepare you some tea.”
He excused himself and disappeared behind the curtain.
* * *
The store still retained its magic for Marthe, as she walked carefully around the small pedestal tables where Ichiro rotated his various collections. He had two Zhou vases on display that were quite beautiful, and a large dish in a chrysanthemum pattern that she thought she might like for herself. But nothing called out to her as something that befitted Boldini.
Ichiro returned with a lacquered tray and two ceramic cups of steaming tea.
“Come sit . . . I have a few things downstairs that I will bring up and show you in a moment.”
He pulled out a chair by the small viewing table he kept for his customers, and Marthe sat down.
“This friend, he has his own collection like you?”
She smiled. “I am unsure how vast his collection is. But I know from our conversations he has a particular affinity for the translucent glazes.”
Ichiro nodded. “He must be quite a gentleman to be so learned about such matters.” He placed his palms on the table and stood up. “Now, let me bring you what I have in mind.”
Moments later he appeared with two bamboo boxes tied shut with twine.
“These two vases arrived only last week . . . They belonged to a Samurai family in Nara.”
He removed the lid from the first box.
“Although I acquired these from Japan, they were actually fired in an imperial kiln in Korea. They are very rare.”
She watched as he lifted the vase from the nest of dry grass that protected the porcelain, and held it to the light.
The glaze was a soft, milky blue.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered as she cupped her hands around the base and lifted it slightly toward the light. She proceeded to turn it around from all sides, examining it from different angles.
“The next one is also quite unusual.” He bent down and retrieved the second box, placing it on the table.
Ichiro repeated his actions, again carefully removing the box’s lid, dipping his hands into the dry straw, and withdrawing the vase so Marthe could examine it more closely.
As soon as she saw it lifted to the light, she felt her adrenaline rush. The vase was gourd-shaped, its glaze an opaque celadon with a crazing of thin black lines floating over the surface.
“This is an especially rare piece. I almost don’t want to sell it . . .” Ichiro placed it carefully on the table. “It is from an imperial kiln, just like the last one I showed you, but the glaze is quite unique. We call it ‘cracked ice’ because the glaze lends itself to the appearance of shattered ice.”
She leaned over and looked at it closely. She had never seen anything like it before.
The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes