The velvet hours, p.14
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       The Velvet Hours, p.14

           Alyson Richman
 
Madame de Florian,

  As usual, you anticipate my own thoughts even before they have registered inside me. Yes, if possible, it would be wonderful to see you for another sitting. May I be so bold as to suggest tomorrow, at three o’clock? And, yes, please wear the rose-colored dress. It is perfection.

  With great anticipation,

  G. Boldini

  * * *

  Charles had been away with his wife for several weeks. And although she still kept part of her mind engaged in thoughts of what he might be doing with Émilienne, Marthe was grateful for her burgeoning friendship with Boldini.

  The dress now became almost a uniform to her. No longer did Marthe see it as an example of the Callot Soeurs’ masterful dressmaking skills, or a testimony to feminine extravagance. Instead, the pink confection was firmly connected to her portrait. Marthe reached for the gown and began to get ready.

  When Giselle pulled the laces of her corset tight against her back, Marthe instructed her to pull harder.

  “It’s as tight as I can make it,” Giselle told her.

  “Tighter,” Marthe insisted. “I want him to feel as though my waist is as small as a wren in his hands.”

  She could feel all of Giselle’s strength tugging to bring the laces toward her.

  Against Marthe’s torso, the whalebones of her corset felt like knives.

  “But how can madame breathe?” Giselle shook her head as she next helped Marthe get into her dress.

  When the girl bent down to retrieve Marthe’s kidskin boots, she noticed Giselle’s hands were red from the exertion of tying her corset.

  “I’m afraid I’ve made you suffer as much as I do for the sake of this portrait.”

  “What is that saying? ‘Il faut souffrir pour être belle.’ ‘It hurts to be beautiful.’”

  Marthe smiled. “Yes, my mother used to say that when she tugged a comb through my hair.”

  “Mine, too,” said Giselle wistfully, as if touched by the intimate moment between them.

  Marthe wondered if Giselle suspected that they had more in common with their childhoods. She always tried to be kind to Giselle, never taking on any airs of superiority when it was just the two of them alone in the apartment.

  The girl was pretty. Straw-colored hair. Wide blue eyes. Her only shortcoming was her figure, which was as straight as a ruler and lacked any natural feminine curves.

  “The pain of beauty,” Marthe mused as she looked at her reflection in the full-length mirror. “Every woman suffers in her own way . . . ,” she said as she fluffed up the ruffles of her sleeves. The faces of the two women floated in the glass like a portrait within an oval frame. “But to be born ugly . . . ,” Marthe said more to herself than to Giselle.

  “Can you imagine how wretched that would be?”

  21.

  Marthe

  Paris 1898

  The first thing she noticed when she entered his studio for the second time was not the scent of varnish and paint, nor the sight of his other paintings. It was the vase she had given him. Boldini had prominently displayed it on a pedestal table near his desk.

  The vase shone with a beautiful intensity as the light streamed in through the tall windows behind it. It reminded her of one of those small Dutch paintings she had seen on her occasional trips to the Louvre.

  He had been watching to see her reaction, and she could feel his eyes on her.

  “How wonderful you’ve placed the vase in such a position of honor,” she said, turning to him.

  “I wanted to be able to see it from every corner of the room . . . and the light there strikes it just perfectly.” He extended his arm toward the wall of floor-to-ceiling windows.

  She smiled. “I can see the effect immediately . . . the beauty in which the sunlight bathes it half in light, half in shadow.”

  “Exactly.” He beamed.

  As she moved through the room, Marthe caught sight of a small watercolor study on his desk. It was of the vase. Three small renderings were done on the same piece of paper. She could see how delicately he had applied the soft touches of pale blue and green to the sketches.

  She walked over and touched the edge of the paper. “I’m so pleased to see it’s inspired you . . .”

  “You didn’t see the other sheets, which ended up in the fire. It’s impossible to re-create that glaze! It’s pure madness to even try!”

  She let out a small laugh. “I wasn’t intending to send you to the madhouse.”

  “Then perhaps you should have worn another dress today . . .”

  She laughed again. He was flirting with her, and it amused her.

  “But I wore the dress for the portrait’s sake, not yours . . .”

  This time, he laughed.

  “Yes, Madame de Florian, I suppose you did. Then let’s get started for the portrait’s sake.”

  * * *

  In the corner that faced the settee where she had sat during her last visit, now stood a tall wooden easel with a canvas set on top. The canvas was primed, but not a single brushstroke had been applied to it. It was as blank as a new sheet of paper.

  “But, monsieur, there’s nothing on it.” She could hardly hide her disappointment.

  “Underneath that coat of gesso are about a hundred brushstrokes that couldn’t do justice to you. Just like that vase you sent me . . .” He shook his head. “It’s easy to recognize the surface of beauty. To see it with your two eyes. But the challenge to the artist is conveying the many layers underneath.”

  She stood there bewitched by his words.

  “If you only show one top layer of beauty, it remains flat and two-dimensional.” He walked toward the blank canvas and pinched the corner.

  “With some models, I can work directly from my preliminary sketches . . . but with you, I simply cannot.”

  He took her hand and ushered her to the love seat.

  “I want to begin with you in front of me.”

  She watched as he returned to his easel and took his bladders of paint pigment and applied them to his palette, blending them with a knife.

  “Now, show me how you want to be seen for the next one hundred years,” he said when he had prepared his paints.

  She laughed, and one of her ruffled sleeves fell over her shoulder. She reached to pull it up, while she placed her other elbow on the arm of the settee.

  “Don’t move,” he quickly instructed her. She was still in profile as she had been the last time he had sketched her, but now her chest was precariously revealed. She could feel the tension between her body pushing forth from the dress and the contrast of her tight skirt and her cloudlike sleeves.

  “Charles will want it to be inspired . . . ,” she whispered, afraid to let go of the pose.

  “Charles will be delighted,” he insisted. She could hear the rapid application of paint. The swirl of his brush. The energy that erupted between his imagination and his mind.

  The heat inside her was unbearable. “I feel like I’m coming out of my dress. The only thing keeping me in place is my bodice and the corset beneath.”

  “Such tension is a good thing . . . ,” he said, a brush gripped between his teeth. “There cannot be pleasure, without knowing the sensation of pain.”

  She knew this all too well in her own life. A woman of the demimonde, the half-world. Caught between beauty and darkness. In some ways trapped, but in other ways completely free.

  22.

  Marthe

  Paris 1898

  He painted the first brushstrokes using a neutral shade of gray. He began with the top of her head, painting the outline of her profile, the sharp line of her nose, the edge of her lips, and the soft curve of her chin.

  His brush was no longer just an extension of his hand, but also his mind and his imagination. He had fallen into the dreamlike state of painting—his own private séance with t
he canvas and the paint.

  He drew the length of her neck, the expanse of her broad shoulders. He painted in a few feather-like strokes to suggest where he would later create her voluminous sleeves. In long, quick gestures he articulated the elegant, slim length of her arm that rested on the side of the love seat, her tapered fingers opening like a fan.

  He applied these first brushstrokes with a robust energy, solely to capture the curve of her body. Even though he had yet to apply the colors that would come later—the pink of her dress, the flush of her skin, the opalescent pearls glimmering around her neck—the rough outline of Marthe’s portrait captured her essence. She appeared swanlike, with one bared shoulder and a plunging neckline that revealed her full breasts. The pose was not so much a statement as it was an invitation to touch her, caress her. To feel the heat that Boldini would create when he began to actually paint her skin.

  23.

  Solange

  November 1939

  What I learned from Alex during my last visit with him was that his family’s apartment was not above their shop on the Rue des Écouffes as I expected, but actually in the sixteenth arrondissement.

  “Like many of the Jewish middle class, we’ve since moved out of the Marais,” he told me. “It’s just too crowded now with families like Solomon’s who’ve just arrived. Belleville is the same . . .” He looked into her eyes realizing that she was probably unfamiliar with the changes the community had undergone in the past few years. “But we’ve kept the shop there. The rent is inexpensive, and for our wealthier clients, we take the books to their homes so they can view them privately.

  “It’s a bit inconvenient to meet near us, but perhaps we could find a place in between. Do you know the Café Saint Georges? It’s across from the old Adolphe Thiers estate. It might be a good meeting place since it’s not far from your grandmother’s.”

  “The one with the large red awning?” I asked. I was certain I had passed it on occasion. “Doesn’t it look right onto the square?”

  “Exactly.” He smiled.

  Just before I left the store, he gathered enough courage to ask me if I might meet him at the café.

  “Perhaps next time you visit your grandmother, we could meet for a coffee before I go to work . . .” I felt his hand graze lightly over the sleeve of my coat. Even through the cloth, his touch penetrated into my skin. I shivered, as if he had nearly ignited something inside.

  “I would like that . . . very much.” I could feel my face becoming flushed. “I plan to visit her on Wednesday. Finally I’m learning about the artist who painted her. I’ve been waiting for months to hear the details.”

  He laughed. “The Picture of Dorian Gray . . .”

  I smiled. “I think Oscar Wilde would have been deeply amused by my grandmother. She’s certainly witty enough to have entertained him.”

  “In all matters but love . . .”

  “Yes, I fear he would have preferred you in that regard,” I teased.

  “Well, Solange, I look forward to Wednesday.” He walked me out the door.

  “Wednesday,” I said.

  He came closer and kissed me on both cheeks, and for the rest of the afternoon I held on to the sensation of his lips brushing against my skin. Like a girl holding a butterfly between cupped hands.

  * * *

  On Wednesday morning, I found Alex already at a table outside the café. It was November and although the air was damp, nearly all the tables were occupied. He was wearing a dark navy suit and a gray cap pulled over his black hair. A copy of Le Monde was spread out over the table. His face was buried in the newspaper.

  “Alex?”

  He looked up and quickly shuffled the paper.

  “I’m sorry,” he said. “I got caught up in the headlines . . .”

  I pulled out a chair and sat down.

  He folded his newspaper and looked up at me again. “Well, I’m glad to see you. You’re far better for my eyes than what I was just reading in the paper.”

  I smiled and began to unfasten the buttons of my coat.

  “Thank you,” I laughed. “That’s fine praise, indeed.”

  His eyes brightened, amused.

  I looked around the café. The tables were filled with men in gray overcoats and caps. Some were already smoking their first cigarette of the morning, now that their coffee cups were empty.

  “Do you come here often?” I asked.

  “Yes, I like the fact that it’s far enough from home. I rarely run into anyone I know, and I can sit and read without any distraction.” A small sigh escaped from his lips. “It’s not pleasant to have to share the paper with my father and constantly hear all his thoughts of what might happen next with Hitler. The war has made everyone on edge.”

  “I understand,” I said as I readjusted my scarf. “My father and I spend most of our time together glued to the radio.”

  “You don’t hear the worst of it on the radio . . .” He took a sip from his water glass. “Solomon is my father’s true news report. He received a letter the other day from his brother back in Berlin. They write in code to each other to fool the censors. What he wrote was alarming.”

  I looked down at the table, quietly.

  “They rounded up a whole street. Men, women, and children, all carted away somewhere.”

  I grew pale. “That’s horrible, Alex.”

  “I know . . .” He stopped and shook his head. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t tell you these things. If you find the radio upsetting, this is so much worse . . .”

  He shook his head. “What do you say, we make a promise not to talk about the war this morning. Let’s try to forget it for at least an hour . . . I’m so tired of all the energy I spend imagining what’s going to happen tomorrow, next week, in a month’s time . . . What a joy it would be to have a coffee with a pretty girl and imagine nothing except how nice it would be to hold her hand.”

  I could feel my cheeks grow warm.

  “And now I’ve made you turn the color of your scarf!”

  I laughed.

  “I like you in red.” He smiled. “It becomes you.”

  My fingers touched the edge of my scarf. “Thank you.” This morning I had made a concentrated effort on my appearance. All of my grandmother’s talk about her makeup and clothes had inspired me to make the most of my features. I thought the red of my scarf would be a striking contrast against my dark hair and eyes. I was glad it seemed to have pleased him.

  “What would you like?” He motioned for the waiter’s attention.

  “Just a coffee . . .” I wasn’t particularly hungry. I had felt butterflies in my stomach since I had gotten up that morning.

  “And another cup for me,” he told the waiter before the man vanished inside.

  “So . . . ,” he said as he leaned into the table. “You go to your grandmother’s a few times a week?”

  “Yes.” I smiled. “The strange thing is, I only met her for the first time last year. Before that, I didn’t even know she existed . . .”

  “Really?” His eyes widened. “How unusual your family is, Solange. You arrive at our bookstore holding two rare and valuable Jewish books, and you tell Papa and me that you only recently learned you were half Jewish. And now an unknown grandmother appears in your life . . .” He leaned closer. “I wonder what will be revealed to you next?”

  “I don’t know . . .” I was amused that he saw any part of my life to be of such interest. I had always believed it to be rather dull.

  “Well, my grandmother is certainly a character . . . I think that’s why my father waited so long to introduce her to me. He kept her hidden because he was embarrassed by her, but since my mother’s death, he was at a loss on how to keep me occupied.” I touched my napkin briefly. “I suppose knowing that I wanted to be a writer, he thought she might provide some good source material for me . . .” I laug
hed. “It does sound crazy, though. There is so much more to my family than I had previously known.”

  “It’s all rather fascinating to me, really. I know too much about every member of my family . . . not just my father, but my aunts, my cousins . . . their husbands and wives. Your family is far more interesting.”

  I looked at him and smiled. Hours before, I could hardly button my coat or tie my scarf around my neck, I was so nervous Alex would find me boring and that I’d have nothing to say. But here I was sitting across from him with his eyes bright upon me.

  “Tell me about your grandmother, Solange . . . Tell me about your writing . . .” A big smile swept over his face. “Why, just tell me everything about you!” He placed his hands around his coffee and laughed.

  “How much time do I have?” I asked as I lifted the cup to my lips. Small puffs of steam floated between my breath and the coffee. And as I raised my eyes, his own were staring back at me.

  24.

  Solange

  November 1939

  I told him everything Marthe had shared with me so far. The story of her bleak childhood. Her relationship with Charles. And now the beginning seeds of the Boldini painting.

  “A woman of the night, how wonderfully scandalous.” An impish grin crossed his face.

  “Hardly,” I said.

  “A courtesan, then?”

  I laughed. “She doesn’t seem to have kept her dance card quite that full over the years.”

  “I’m intrigued.” He leaned in closer. “Another one of your family’s many secrets.”

  “Isn’t that the truth?” I nodded my head, agreeing with him.

  “Yes . . . but I think I’m still going to insist that owning the Barcelona Haggadah to be the biggest.”

  I smiled. “Who knew that my mother was in possession of something so rare and valuable. I suspect it’s worth more than all the other contents of our apartment.”

 
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