The velvet hours, p.13
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       The Velvet Hours, p.13

           Alyson Richman

  “It’s breathtaking . . .” Her finger reached out to touch its glimmering surface. “It looks like a spiderweb has been caught within the glaze.”

  “Exactly.” A small smile crept over his lips. She could see he was delighted that she immediately responded to its delicate beauty. “It’s a very difficult process for the potter. He must apply several coats of the glaze and fire it several times in order to achieve the distinct crackle. Many pieces are lost during the process . . .”

  “Extraordinary,” she whispered. “May I hold it?”

  “Certainly.” He gently lifted the vase and placed it in her hands.

  Again she brought the vase up to the light to examine the glaze more carefully. This one captured her heart and imagination. She loved the atmospheric green color. It reminded her of the color of the water in the Venetian canals, but with the effect that the surface was breaking even though it remained intact. She knew Boldini would be drawn to something that was both so delicate and complex. Marthe again closed her eyes, the surface of the hourglass vase warming in her hands.

  Immediately she knew this was what she wanted to give to the artist.

  “I think my friend will find this one particularly inspiring,” Marthe said as she placed the vase down on the table.

  “It’s a bit more expensive than the first one I showed you,” he said softly. She knew he had always found the discussion of money distasteful.

  He wrote down the price on a piece of paper.

  She saw he had written five hundred francs. It was far more than she liked to pay even for something for herself.

  She took a finger and stroked her pearls, considering the steep price.

  “It is more than I’d imagined, but I do think my friend will appreciate the beauty and rarity of the piece . . . ,” she answered, trying to justify the purchase.

  “Madame does have the most exquisite taste.”

  Marthe smiled. “Will you put it on my account, Ichiro. I will settle it at the end of the month.”

  She watched as he slowly put both vases back in their boxes and gently repositioned the straw around the vessels so they would not break.

  “I will wrap it in the back for you, Madame de Florian, so it appears like a proper cadeau.”

  “Thank you.” She nodded as she replaced her gloves.

  She began to imagine the scenario of presenting the vase to the artist. But then she reconsidered, deciding it would be far more elegant to have Ichiro send the package directly to Boldini’s studio. In that way, she would avoid any embarrassment if he didn’t like it as much as she hoped.

  Marthe reached for one of her cards in her purse and wrote in her careful, elegant handwriting:

  Giovanni Boldini

  41 Boulevard Berthier

  When Ichiro returned, she pressed it into his hand.



  October 1939

  Late October was a difficult month. The tension between those in Europe who would surrender to Hitler’s demands and those who would fight him had begun to intensify. Not only had France’s prime minister Édouard Daladier, refused Hitler’s “offer” for peace, but so too had Britain’s Prime Minister Chamberlain. Over several radio broadcasts we had heard that Jews from Poland were being deported.

  My mind kept returning to Alex and his father and their shop, which could have easily been my maternal grandfather’s shop had he still been alive. Although I had no intention of selling my mother’s rare books, I still had a strong desire to visit them again.

  So on a Monday afternoon, the day I typically reserved for my writing, I returned to the Rue des Écouffes.

  * * *

  On the Métro that afternoon, passengers clutched their newspapers as though they were Bibles. The front page of Le Monde blared the headlines that the first air attack occurred at the Firth of Forth in Scotland. How much longer, I wondered, until my father and I were crouching under our kitchen table as bombs shattered through Paris? Already children were being instructed to use gas masks in school, and air raid drills were becoming routine.

  As I came up from the Métro station, I paused momentarily to reacquaint myself with my surroundings. The neighborhood of the Marais was filled with so many small streets that it was easy to get lost, even for someone like me who was a Parisian. I walked down the Rue Pavée and headed toward the Jewish quarter, my arms feeling empty without the security of my mother’s books I had held the last time I visited. When I walked past one of the bakeries, I went inside hoping to buy a small gift to bring Alex and his father, even though I had only a few francs in my purse.

  If the bakeries in our neighborhood held little selection since the war began, the bakeries here had even less. Weeks before I had seen several delicate pastries with nuts and dried fruits, and miniature breads with chocolate rolled inside. Now, nearly every basket in the bakery was empty. Only a small tray of cookies dusted lightly with cinnamon and a few loaves of bread remained.

  I asked for a box of the cookies and left the bakery with a heavy heart. The custom of bringing something sweet when visiting friends was part of the French soul, but the cookies I purchased looked lifeless, hardly something that one would consider a special treat. Still, it felt comforting to hold something between my nervous hands.

  In the crisp autumn sunlight, the area’s labyrinthine streets held a special magic to them. The mezuzahs on some of the doorways reinforced the bridge between two worlds within the city. And the men who in their heavy black coats and hats made me feel as though I had entered a place exotic and unfamiliar.

  Yet, at the same time, I was unmistakably drawn to it.

  I wondered if some of the men or women I passed there were people who had once known my mother, or perhaps had even visited my grandfather’s store.

  When I finally reached the Armels’ storefront, I hesitated for a moment before entering, trying to think what I would say when I saw them. I could no longer rely on the excuse that I wanted my books appraised. I saw my reflection in the window, my hat pulled to my eyes, my coat buttoned over my skirt and blouse, and I realized that I was returning to a place where I was still very much an outsider, despite my curiosity to learn more about my connection to this place and its people.

  I turned around and saw a few more people walking past the store, none of them taking notice of me at all. Then, I took a deep breath and walked inside.

  * * *

  The smell of the store immediately soothed me. The scent of paper and ink. There is nothing else like it for those who love books. It was the fragrance of my childhood, what I considered my mother’s perfume. Immediately it brought back the memory of her turning the pages of my nursery books, her breath sweet and warm against my neck.

  “Solange?” Alex had seen me as soon as I walked in, and as he started toward me, he opened his hands to greet me.

  “I was in the neighborhood, and I couldn’t pass by without saying hello,” I said quickly. “You and your father were so kind and generous to me during my last visit, I wanted to bring you something to show my gratitude.”

  I handed him the box of cookies.

  “This wasn’t necessary . . . I know my father was happy not only to meet you, but also to see your grandfather’s Haggadah again.”

  I smiled. “And I was glad to learn more about my grandfather.”

  “Come . . . ,” he said, making a small gesture toward the back. “My father isn’t here today, but we could have some tea.” He tapped the box from the bakery. “And I wouldn’t want to be left alone to eat these all by myself.”

  “They’re only a few cookies, I’m afraid. The selection in all the bakeries now is quite sparse . . .”

  He nodded. “One of the first casualties of the war,” he answered playfully.

  “My grandmother somehow always manages to still get the best pastries, but I’m not sure
how she does it.”

  “How lucky you are to have such a grandmother . . .”

  “Yes, she is rather remarkable.” I let out a small laugh. “You’d probably find her quite charming. She lives as if time has stood still.”

  “And what time period has she maintained?”

  “The Belle Époque.” I smiled.

  “The peak of decadence, then.” He was clearly amused.

  “Yes. Originally I thought I was going to write a play about her. But now I’m thinking I have enough material to write a book about her life.”

  “So I’m about to have tea with a budding novelist?” He pulled out one of the chairs for me to sit down.

  I lowered my eyes, slightly embarrassed that the discussion had turned toward me. “Writing her story gives me a distraction from the war . . .”

  “You are full of surprises. The last time you came, you showed us a priceless Haggadah, and now you tell me you are at work on a book yourself. May I ask how old you are, Solange?”

  “I’m nineteen.” I felt myself blush when I answered him. I had never had someone flirt with me before. “And you?”

  “Far older.” He returned my smile. “Twenty-one in fact.”

  “A veritable older gentleman . . .”

  “Indeed.” He placed his hands on the table. His fingers were white and slender, more delicate than I had imagined. I remembered how my grandmother had said it had been the moment she saw Boldini’s hands that she first discovered the artist’s beauty.

  “And now this gentleman must get the lovely lady some tea.”

  He stood up and went back toward the storeroom, returning minutes later with the tray.

  * * *

  I must have stayed with Alex for well over an hour. He went back at least twice to refill the teapot with more hot water, and the box of cookies I brought were soon finished to nothing but a few remaining crumbs.

  We talked about our favorite books and the writers we most admired. I also told him about my grandmother and how she had begun life as the daughter of a laundress yet was now ensconced in an apartment of silk and velvet. “You have the material of a nineteenth-century novel there, don’t you?” Alex said, impressed.

  “Yes, I suppose I do,” I laughed.

  “You have my utter vote of confidence, Solange.” He smiled. “I can’t wait to read it.”

  “I have to finish it first,” I laughed. “That’s the hard part. I’ve been taking my notebook to one of the cafés near our house and trying to work there. Somehow it’s easier to work there than when I’m at home.”

  “You can always work in our back room if you’d like. I’m sure my father won’t mind. As you can see, we have almost no customer traffic these days.”

  I looked around. It was true. Since I had come into the store, there hadn’t been a single customer.

  “How will you manage, if no one is selling or buying rare books?”

  “Oh they’re selling. My father just went to look at a private collection outside the city. Everyone is selling because they need funds. Everyone is nervous because of the war . . . It’s the lack of people who are buying that’s the problem for us.”

  I felt a sudden flicker of pain in my heart. I hated to think of Alex and his family struggling to make ends meet.

  “But we are not your responsibility to worry about . . . How sweet you look with that expression of concern.”

  I flushed.

  “I’ve embarrassed you. I’m so sorry.” He stood up and began to clear the dishes and put them back on the tray. “I’m not an expert in conversation, as you can see . . .”

  “Oh, not at all.” I rose to my feet and tried to help him with the cups and saucers. “I’m really the one who’s clumsy and poor with small talk.” A wisp of hair fell over my eye and I pushed it behind my ear.

  “It’s so much easier when you’re writing,” I said. “You can rewrite the sentences a hundred times until your character says just the right words . . .”

  He stood only inches away from me now, his hands holding the handles of the tray. “What would my character say if he knew a beautiful young girl was about to bid him good-bye?”

  “He’d say something hopeful, I’d think . . .” I smiled. “Perhaps something like . . . ‘It would make me so happy if you’d visit me again.’”

  “Well, then,” he said as he walked toward the door. “Solange, I hope one day I’m able to hold the novel you’ve written in my hands.” He stopped and pulled the door open. “But until then, I hope you’ll visit me again.”



  Paris 1898

  Two days later, Marthe received a letter in the midday post with her name in a voluptuous scripted hand. The return address on the envelope was 41 Boulevard Berthier, Boldini’s apartment.

  Madame de Florian,

  Your beautiful porcelain arrived this afternoon. You cannot imagine my delight when I opened the box. But first, I must tell you how the package itself arrived. Whoever prepared it must be an artist himself. Around the bamboo crate, a wrapping was created not with paper, but with a large silk scarf. The silk itself was extraordinary, a dark aubergine with a motif of pale blue cranes printed across. I was able to unknot the scarf and see the light wood box with the Asian markings. Who could have sent me such a beautiful and mysterious gift? I thought to myself as I began to remove the top. When I reached in and discovered an exquisite porcelain from the Far East . . . I knew it had to be you!

  Madame, it is rare that I am a recipient of a gift so reflective of my personal taste. The glaze is unlike anything I have ever laid eyes on before. Firstly the color . . . it is no ordinary celadon. It reminds me of the jadeite waters of our mutually beloved city, Venice, but captured in a state of thaw. I know this must have been intentional on your part.

  This was far too generous a gift, and I cannot imagine the price you must have paid for such a rare piece of pottery. Know that this beautiful vase will be prominently displayed in my studio and will contribute a dose of daily inspiration.

  I cannot wait for your next visit, so I can show you the beginning strokes of your portrait.

  With great respect and


  Giovanni Boldini

  For several minutes she held the delicate writing paper in her hand. It was not the heavily bonded paper she had for her own personal stationery, or the one with the aristocratic coat-of-arms embossing like Charles’s. Boldini’s was as thin as rice paper. Nearly translucent, it reminded Marthe of the paper that children used to make kites. If she opened the window, it was so light it could have blown away.

  Each time she reread the letter, she could vividly imagine her gift arriving to his door. It felt like a secret indulgence as she envisioned Boldini unknotting the kerchief, peeling away the first layer, and then opening the box carefully to reveal the porcelain. How it delighted her that they both reacted to the vase in the same way.

  A thrill ran through her, for her gift had communicated her thoughts not by the use of words, but through the shades of a potter nearly three hundred years before and a world away. Boldini had seen the waters of Venice in the ancient Korean glaze—just as she had—a glaze that was like a current caught between stillness and imminent fracture.

  The new, unexpected discovery that she and Boldini had a unique connection reinvigorated her. Marthe had no intention of betraying Charles, but she also couldn’t deny that the artistic language she shared with Boldini boosted her spirits. She couldn’t wait until she saw how this added layer might be revealed when he sat in front of his easel and continued her portrait.

  * * *

  In the drawer of her vanity table, tied with pink satin ribbon, Marthe kept the letters Charles had written to her over the years. The ones he wrote when she still danced at the theater, and the ones he penned after they had enjoyed a particularly
rapturous session in her butterfly bed. But his letters had grown more infrequent over the years. Lately when he wrote, it was typically only to inform her of his current health or a change in his plans.

  Now, she relished the chance to return Boldini’s letter, to write more about art, beauty, and the beginning stages of her portrait. She had been unable to see Charles for weeks, ever since his wife had insisted they now take a cure together in the mountains. “She thinks the waters there will help,” Charles had told her as gently as he could. “At this point, I’m not particularly hopeful, but I’ve promised her I’d try.” At first, she felt a pang of jealousy. But Charles was no longer the robust gentleman he once was, so she did not consider it a betrayal when she sat down to return the artist’s letter. After all, it was Charles’s wish to see the portrait completed as soon as possible. I’m only making him more motivated to finish, she told herself as she took out a leaf of paper from her drawer and withdrew her pen.

  Dear Monsieur Boldini,

  How delighted I am to hear you enjoyed the gift I sent. I hope it will inspire you for many more years to come. When I saw that particular piece, I knew you would recognize the same beauty that it stirred inside me. The man from whom I bought it told me they call it “a cracked ice” glaze, and that the potter must fire the porcelain several times, each time applying more coats of pigment in order to achieve this effect. How extraordinary is the result . . . to hold something in your hand that looks as though it has shattered, yet it remains firmly intact. I knew you would appreciate this paradox.

  I do hope my portrait is coming along and that I’ll be able to see how it’s progressing. Should you need another sitting, it would be my pleasure to slip again into the same dress and pay you another visit.

  With deepest respect,

  Marthe de Florian

  She couldn’t admit to being surprised when two days later she received another letter. On the thin, translucent paper Boldini had written:

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