The velvet hours, p.15
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       The Velvet Hours, p.15

           Alyson Richman
 
“I’ve never seen your apartment,” he teased.

  “One of these days I should invite you, and if you’re very good, I’ll even take down the Haggadah and show it one more time.”

  His eyes flickered. I had never flirted before, but I was surprised how naturally I took to it. Perhaps it was my grandmother’s influence.

  “I’d like that very much,” he said as his fingers reached out and grazed my own. Just the slightest touch of his skin against mine made me tingle from head to toe.

  My mind traveled to Marthe and the butterflies embroidered in the silk above her headboard, the emerald clasp around her neck. The feeling of the first signs of attraction, I was beginning to recognize, was always accompanied by the sensation of wings.

  * * *

  We made a date to meet again a few days later. I gave him the address of our apartment and told him to come by after ten a.m. when I knew my father would already be at the pharmacy.

  That morning I had tried not to appear suspicious to my father, as I knew I could not tell him I was inviting a young man back to our apartment even if it was just to give him a second opportunity to look at a very rare and valuable book.

  I said good-bye to my father and began to straighten the apartment so it appeared as neat as possible. The day before, I had attempted to do some dusting, but I still needed to fluff the couch pillows, hide the piles of paperwork on my father’s desk, and run downstairs to the florist to buy a fresh bouquet.

  With only fifteen minutes to spare before Alex was to arrive, I arranged the roses I had bought and quickly went into the bathroom to fix my hair, apply a little lipstick, and slip into my favorite blue wool dress.

  It was ten fifteen when I heard him buzz the main door downstairs.

  * * *

  His footsteps sounded like the most beautiful percussion. We were on the fifth floor, and with every landing I could hear him getting closer.

  But it was only after I could hear his escalating breath that I stepped out from the open door.

  “Solange,” he said. He was clutching a bouquet of violets. “No elevator?”

  I laughed.

  “You are worth the climb,” he said as he tried to catch his breath. I was now standing in the hallway in my favorite dress, my hair tied back. At the last minute, I had tied a black silk ribbon behind my hair. I had never bothered with such a feminine detail before.

  “I’m so sorry, and we’re on the top floor,” I apologized.

  “There is no need for regrets,” he said, smiling at me. I saw his eyes take note of the nice shape the dress made of my figure, as well as the ribbon in my hair. “How lovely you look.”

  “Thank you.” I blushed. I pushed back against the door. “Please, Alex, our apartment is very modest, but come in.”

  * * *

  My mother’s bookshelves were in the first room when one entered our apartment. An extensive wooden tower took up the entire wall.

  “It’s wonderful to be greeted by books,” Alex said sweetly. “Your home looks very similar to ours.”

  I smiled. “That makes me happy to know we have something else in common.

  “Would you like something to drink?” I offered.

  Alex shook his head and I came closer to him.

  “The Haggadah is safely tucked away on the highest shelf. Let me get a chair.”

  He chuckled. “I like your form of security, Solange. Hardly the most foolproof . . . yet I doubt there are a lot of thieves that would know you’re in possession of a rare fourteenth-century Haggadah.” He looked at me and smiled. “I think the biggest risk of that would be my father, but I doubt he could make it up the five flights of stairs to read it.”

  I laughed. “I’ll just get a chair from the kitchen.”

  “Let me help you.” He followed me to the next room. The smell from the bouquet of violets he had brought still lingered on his clothes.

  I gave him a chair to take back and place closer to the shelf so I could climb on it to reach the top shelf.

  “I’ll hold it for you, so you’re steady,” he offered sweetly.

  After thanking him, I stood on top of the chair to retrieve the book. It was heavy, and I knew I had to be careful. Alex’s father had treated it with such care and respect when he was handling the pages. I wanted to make sure I treated it the same.

  “Are you okay?” he asked. His hands were tight around the seat of the chair.

  “Yes, I just want to make sure I have a good grip on it.”

  Slowly I came down from the chair, clutching the centuries-old Haggadah in my hands.

  * * *

  We did not speak as I brought it to the dining room table and laid it carefully on the flat surface. It was as if the object itself demanded a reverent pause before we opened its pages.

  It seemed strange to look at it now, knowing the backstory of the couple who had created it. The Haggadah had only looked ancient and mysterious to me before, but now it also contained a love story. Two people who had spent decades together working to make something that was not only a testament to the longevity of the Jewish people and their exodus from Egypt, but also their own relationship. The book now appeared more beautiful to me than ever.

  I could sense he wanted me to be the first to touch it. So I reached delicately for the far left corner of the old book and opened it again.

  The vellum had yellowed to the color of wheat. I could almost hear the whisk of the scribe’s feather quill against the parchment as I looked at the care with which each letter was applied.

  “It’s difficult to imagine how painstaking this all was before the printing press,” Alex said softly. “We are so spoiled now.”

  He touched the edge of the page as if connecting with something he knew had a soul.

  “Back then, the vellum had to be lightly ruled and the layout ensured before the quill nib ever touched the parchment. Any mistake was costly because the materials could only be procured at considerable expense.”

  “I can imagine,” I said softly.

  “But whereas Rabbi Avram’s skill inscribing the prayers took time and patience, truly it’s his wife’s talent that makes this so unique.”

  He turned a few pages until he found one of the illuminated paintings.

  “She not only knew how to paint. Even more incredible, she knew how to work with gold. Very few people possessed that skill then, much less a woman.”

  “Really?” I had noticed that a few of the pages had gold applied sparingly, but I had never thought much about it.

  “Yes. A person had to not only have access to gold leaf, they also had to know how to prepare it for application. There were two ways to do that back then: either to apply gold specks very, very carefully with a brush, or to hammer the leaf and burnish it, dusting it onto the page after first applying glue. Rabbi Avram’s wife was able to do both.”

  The book now took on yet another layer of interest for me.

  “How would she have mastered this?” I couldn’t even begin to fathom where she might have learned to use gold like this.

  “Funny you should ask that, Solange. That was exactly what I asked my father after you left that first afternoon.”

  “Did he know the answer?”

  “Yes. He said it was believed that her own father was a master illuminator and in private, he taught her everything he knew.”

  “It makes the book that much more meaningful.” I took a deep breath. “To think how many relationships needed to be nurtured just for this book to exist and eventually make its way to Paris.”

  “Yes,” he said quietly. “Even your mother’s relationship with her father.”

  I felt a shiver pass through me.

  “And now your own connection with your mother.”

  What he said was true. What I chose to keep to myself was that the book had also brought Alex int
o my life. I felt my mother in the room as we spoke. And I had never been more thankful that she had kept it safely tucked away on her shelves.

  It had been quite a few days since I had the chance to go see my grandmother. I had to reschedule my last visit, on two separate occasions. For over a year, I had tried to see her at least twice a week, so this amount of time passing was something I knew would not go unnoticed by either of us.

  While by now I considered myself to be quite close to her, it was still difficult to gauge her emotional connection to me. We existed as storyteller and audience. Even though she knew I was working on a novel based on her life, she never asked to see what I had written or expressed much interest in what I did outside our meetings. It was easy for me to see how she created a world for her and Charles that had no connection with the outside. And I could also understand how someone like her could have little interest in the fact that another war was raging throughout Europe.

  I knew I would find her as I last saw her. A tall, slender woman who hennaed her hair and powdered her face. A strand of pearls around her throat. Sitting down to tell me about her dying lover and the painter who did not see her only as a commission, but also as a muse.

  * * *

  To soften what I suspected would be a chastisement, I brought her an extra-large bouquet of flowers. It was impossible to find good chocolate or coffee anymore, but one could always find flowers in Paris. I had spent the last two nights sleeping with the combined scents of the roses and violets, and it had made me think of Marthe. It was her apartment’s perfume.

  I buzzed the main doorbell and walked inside the marble interior. To my left, the door to the apartment of the concierge who lived on the ground floor was open. I had never noticed anyone there before, as that door was always closed. But today, I could see a young gentleman and his family bringing in their groceries. A few bags were left outside by the threshold, waiting for a pair of hands to carry them inside.

  As I stood there with my bouquet waiting for the elevator to land, the young man came outside to retrieve the last remaining bags.

  “Hello,” he said, looking up at me kindly. “Who are those beautiful flowers for?”

  “My grandmother on the eighth floor.”

  “Your grandmother . . .” I could see him mentally trying to place which of the apartments on the eighth floor had an older woman in it.

  “Madame de Florian?” His voice sounded perplexed “I had no idea she had a granddaughter. Why, I had no idea she actually had ever been a mother, in fact.”

  I smiled. “I can imagine your surprise.” I let out a small laugh. The elevator’s cage had descended to the ground floor, but the man had now placed the bags down on the floor and couldn’t resist asking me a few more questions.

  “My father was the original concierge for the building, and I inherited the position from him. And I must tell you, as a young boy, the few times I ever saw Madame de Florian leave the building, it left me breathless.”

  I smiled. “I can imagine so.”

  “Even now, when I catch the rare glimpse of her, she still looks beautiful. It’s as if she’s impervious to time.”

  * * *

  I knocked on the door of the apartment, holding the flowers in one hand.

  “Madame is waiting,” Giselle said coolly as she opened the door.

  “I apologize. I met the concierge in the lobby for the first time. He was quite friendly, and it was hard to break free.”

  Giselle smiled now. “Ah, Gérard, a lovely boy.”

  “He didn’t say his name, but he said his father had been the concierge before.”

  “And his father was even lovelier,” Giselle said softly. “God rest his soul.”

  “But how nice the position was maintained within the family . . .”

  “Yes,” Giselle answered quickly. “And it appears Gérard has inherited his father’s discretion, which is a good thing. One never really wants a nosy concierge.”

  I laughed. “No, I suppose not . . .”

  Just as I was about to ask Giselle more about Gérard and his father, Marthe’s voice fluttered through the air.

  “Solange? Is that you?”

  “Yes, I’m so sorry I’m late . . .”

  She always waited for me in the parlor, and it was a shock to see her standing in the threshold, in a long lilac dress, her white fingers grasping the edge of one of the open French doors.

  “Giselle and I were just discussing that you have broken your pattern. You have never once been late, an attribute I’ve always admired.”

  I tried to readjust my eyes at the sight of her. It had been a week since I last saw her. Yet somehow she now looked very different to me. Was she thinner? I focused on her face for a second, trying to pinpoint the exact change. It had grown considerably colder in Paris over the past few weeks, and the radiators in the apartment hissed steam to maintain a sense of warmth through the rooms and halls. Perhaps the sudden change in climate had caused her delicate skin to slacken a bit.

  But it was hard to deny that her eyes looked tired in a way I had never seen before.

  “Mademoiselle Solange got distracted downstairs talking with Monsieur Gérard,” Giselle offered up my excuse to Marthe.

  “Ah.” Marthe smiled. “She has a good excuse, then. Such a good man. Just like his father, Pierre.”

  I had never witnessed these two women bonding about anything. But both of them clearly had a soft spot in their hearts for Gérard and his father.

  I looked at Marthe with an expression that could only have shown how perplexed I was. I could not imagine her fraternizing with Gérard or his father, the concierge. From what I had heard so far, she hardly had left the apartment except for her shopping excursions to buy her porcelains or her outings to see Boldini.

  “One never forgets someone who helps you out in a time of need. And Pierre was just that man.”

  * * *

  As Giselle took the bouquet from me to put in a vase, I followed Marthe back into the main room.

  The silk curtains had been tied back, and crisp sunlight poured through the windows. Now that most of the leaves had fallen from the city’s trees, the light seemed sharper than ever. Marthe sat down, and I settled into the same chair I always did, directly across from her, and my suspicion that something had happened over the last several days was confirmed.

  “Solange.” She said my name slowly and carefully as her hand touched her pearls, which I now sensed was the way she calmed herself when she was slightly unnerved. “It’s been some time since I last saw you . . . We had grown use to a certain rhythm, as they say . . .”

  “Yes.” I smiled. “We have.”

  “Did you bring your little notebook with you?” Her hand now fell to her lap and she smoothed down the pleats of her dress. The gesture was somehow automatic with her.

  “I did.” I reached into my purse and retrieved my leather notebook and pen.

  “And do you remember where we left off?”

  “Yes, of course.” I opened up the book to a blank page. “Charles was ill and Monsieur Boldini had just begun your portrait.”

  She smiled. “Exactly right.”

  I couldn’t help but turn my head and gaze at the large portrait of her over the mantel that had captured my attention since our very first meeting together. Now, I could visually re-create every line, every brushstroke from its original conception.

  “So where do I begin today?” She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, her tiny nostrils quivering slightly. “I suppose we should begin with Charles . . .”

  I rubbed my forefinger against my pen and waited for her to start. But she was looking out at the window, the light illuminating her face as her memory traveled back in time.

  “November 1898. He had come back from Switzerland with Émilienne.”

  As she uttered the date, I was stru
ck by the coincidence. It was now November 1939, and here she was forty-one years later, still able to recall those events as though they were yesterday. Her memory was extraordinary.

  She looked at me, and her eyes were moist with tears.

  “It’s never easy to remember a person’s last time with you,” she said wistfully. “We always want the chance to press those final moments into our mind. To remember every detail.”

  She stopped for a minute, and I suspected she was trying to catch herself before her voice broke.

  “I was so excited because my portrait was being delivered that day. You know I barely looked at Charles. And I should have been savoring every last moment between us.”

  25.

  Marthe

  Paris 1898

  The painting, wrapped in a protective layer of cotton sheets and a second covering of brown paper, was delivered to Marthe’s apartment by two very large men in smocks.

  “Feels more like marble than a portrait,” one of the men complained as he settled the portrait down in the hallway. The weight of the painting seemed to surprise him. “Must be the frame . . .”

  Two weeks before, Charles had agreed to the added expense of the gold frame that Boldini insisted would best offset the portrait.

  “I’m sparing no expense,” he had informed Marthe. Charles’s face was pale and gaunt. “And I’m determined to live until I see it delivered to the apartment and hanging over that very mantel.” He pointed to the fireplace in the parlor. “I want to be able to see the two of you whenever I’m here.” He let out a small laugh. “I’ve been conserving my strength just for that moment.”

  Marthe took his hand in hers and brought his fingers to her lips. So much had changed in how they interacted physically. Charles was now so thin, so fragile, he appeared almost translucent. When she touched him, she felt she had to be as careful with him as though he were as fragile as glass.

  “I am curious to see if he’s truly captured you. In our correspondence, he said you had inspired him to push himself even further than with his other portraits . . . that you were more than just a beautiful young woman. That your intelligence and taste set you apart.”

 
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