The velvet hours, p.16
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       The Velvet Hours, p.16

           Alyson Richman
 

  Marthe felt warm at the thought of Boldini praising her.

  “I had no idea he was writing to you about the portrait.”

  “Of course, my dove. It was a considerable financial investment on my part . . .” He stopped for a moment. “And it was the first time I’ve let myself share you with anyone.”

  “Share me?” Marthe’s voice sounded surprised.

  Charles laughed. “Not like that.” He patted her hand. “I’m fully aware your devotion to me has always been as pure as snow.”

  She smiled.

  “I can’t wait for you to see it. I do feel that if there was ever a painter to capture me in canvas and paint, it is Boldini. You chose the right artist, darling Charles, and I’m forever grateful.”

  What she didn’t tell Charles was how much she had enjoyed her time with the artist. It gave her the opportunity to once again make herself beautiful for a man, and it buoyed her spirits. She was a woman who savored preparing herself to meet a gentleman. She loved the baths, the creams that made her skin soft and supple, and the spray of perfume that left a hint of her in the air, even after she’d departed from the room. She enjoyed the clothes, the application of her makeup, the arrangement of her coiffure. She even relished the laces of her corset being tightened through the metal grommets. All of these rituals were part of the feminine world she so cherished.

  She knew, like any great actress or dancer, which audience would appreciate her most. And Boldini befitted that role, a man who loved and appreciated beauty as much as she did.

  The few times she had appeared at his studio, she had seen how excited he was as he brought her to the divan to pose for him. She had delighted in his wit, his flirtations. It was the same titillating sense of pleasure she had first experienced with Charles. And yet, she and Boldini had hardly even touched.

  She would never confide to Charles that his desire to see her painted by one of Paris’s most celebrated portraitists had given her a well-needed distraction during his illness.

  But perhaps Charles, who she believed knew her better than anyone else, had done this on purpose. That this was yet another one of his gifts to her.

  * * *

  “I can hardly contain my excitement!” Marthe remarked as the men brought the painting inside.

  “Take it inside the parlor,” she said, bringing her fingertips up to her lips. “We can unpack it in there.”

  She turned to Charles, who had remained on the sofa waiting for the painting’s unveiling, and rushed back to him. “Just a few minutes, darling, and then we will finally see it!”

  Marthe had not even seen the finished portrait herself. She had asked Boldini if she could visit his studio and see the final rendering first, but he had insisted he wanted her, too, to be surprised.

  Once inside the parlor, the men cut the string around the portrait and began to tear off the brown paper and then removed the protective cotton sheet. While the packing paper had sounded like fireworks to Marthe’s ear, the fall of the white sheet had hardly made a sound.

  But what was finally revealed underneath took her breath away. For a second she forgot it was her own image she was looking at, and instead sensed that she was experiencing that flicker of astonishment a man must feel the first time he witnesses a beautiful woman disrobe.

  There, in the middle of her living room parlor, she emerged through Boldini’s brushwork like a starburst. The curve of her body and the length of her neck all contributed to the swanlike sensation of the pose. Even the exuberant ruffles on her sleeves, pulled down to reveal her glimmering white shoulders, looked like feathers.

  But it was the contrast in colors, the sharp relief of her profile against the sunset of pale hues in the background, that made her feel as though he had captured more than just her figure and her features.

  She turned back and looked at Charles, who had used all of his strength to lean forward and look more closely at the painting being held up at each corner by the two men.

  His eyes traveled across each inch of the canvas. He began at the top of her head. The pile of auburn hair, then down along her profile. The aquiline nose, the proud chin. The sensual mouth, painted in a red as deep as a ruby.

  She watched as his eyes grew even wider as he came upon the white of her throat and the delicate rendering of her priceless strand of pearls, each one painted like an opalescent tear.

  Boldini, like a provocation, had painted her bodice precipitously low, as if its silk had dropped any lower, the nipples of her breasts would be bared.

  But there were no traces of her pink rosebuds that Charles had once kissed so often. It was simply the expanse of her broad, white bosom, its creamy flesh an unblemished landscape all its own.

  His eyes softened as they came upon the dress. The panel of lace over the bodice, the silk skirt that hugged her hips, and the satin belt with its embellishment of sparkling crystal beads.

  “My God,” he whispered as he turned to her. “It’s as though you’re breathing right in front of me. Your flesh, your radiance, it’s all there pulsing beneath the paint.”

  * * *

  She sat next to Charles, her fingers clasped around his, as the men took down the mirror that had been above the fireplace and replaced it with the portrait of Marthe.

  “Is it as beautiful as you were expecting?” she said, turning and then gently nesting her cheek against Charles.

  “More so than I was expecting.” She could sense he didn’t want to speak, as his eyes still focused firmly on the painting now hanging above the mantel.

  “Are we done, madame?” the larger of the two deliverymen asked.

  “Yes. Thank you.” She stood up and walked them toward the door.

  “Quite a painting,” the other one said as he turned to leave. “Almost makes a grown man like me blush.”

  She reached into her purse for the men’s tip. “I’ll tell the artist you said that,” she said, smiling. “He’ll be quite pleased. It means his painting is truly a success.”

  26.

  Marthe

  Paris 1898

  That afternoon they sat in the parlor, hand over hand. The din of the city outside had long since faded in their ears. They watched transfixed as the painting seemed to transform in the changing sunlight.

  Neither of them was hungry, so they dismissed Giselle when she inquired if they would like a meal brought in on a tray.

  The portrait provided them with sustenance. He had waited for months to see the completed painting, and it had not disappointed. It was his beautiful Marthe forever captured in paint, her body emerging from the canvas in all its sensual glory.

  But it struck Marthe in a way that she had not been expecting. Her emotions at seeing her own portrait surprised her.

  She placed her head on his shoulder.

  “I used to think no one beyond these walls would ever know I existed. My name is invented, my past all but erased. I always believed once I was gone, I would leave little trace of myself in the world. But you’ve given me a gift, Charles . . .”

  She grasped his finger tightly into her own.

  “This painting has immortalized me. Part of me will always remain, captured by Boldini’s brush . . .”

  Charles turned to her, and she lifted her head to meet his eyes.

  “Anyone who sees your portrait will know that your beauty had the power to warm an entire room.”

  He lifted his free hand toward the portrait.

  “Whether it’s now or in a hundred years, anyone who looks at that painting will be struck by your splendor.”

  He kissed her. “But I am the lucky gentleman to have actually savored it.”

  The sun had now almost fully descended and the room and the painting had taken on new shadows.

  “Tell Giselle she can leave. Émilienne is not expecting me this evening. The last part of my gift to y
ou is that we can spend the night together.”

  * * *

  They had rarely, if ever, spent a whole evening together since Venice. For years she had learned to make the most out of only a few fleeting hours with Charles.

  She put herself into motion. She went to the kitchen and told Giselle to go home and not return until ten the following morning.

  Once Giselle had departed, Marthe began to search for as many candlesticks and tapers as she could find. Only then did she return to the parlor, where Charles remained quietly, still fixated on the painting.

  With the last threads of natural light hitting the room, she heard Charles remark about the color of the sky outside the window. “Entre chien et loup,” he whispered. The expression referred to the color between a dog and a wolf, but the word had a second meaning: when one slipped from the safe harbor of the day into the mysteries of the night.

  Marthe looked back at him and smiled. She began to arrange the candles around the perimeter of the room. Then she struck a match, lighting every wick without uttering a word.

  She left Charles sitting there watching the portrait flicker amongst the candlelight as she went to her bedroom to change out of her dress and into something they would both always remember.

  * * *

  In her bedroom, she unbuttoned her tea gown and stepped out from the silk. Then she began to open the front eyes and hooks of her corset, freeing her body from the tight confines of the whalebone and laces. She let out a deep breath, her rib cage delighted to now have nothing against it. Her breasts felt the frisson of the air. In the standing mirror, she caught sight of herself in profile. She admired the cleft in her back, the roundness of her derriere. Her vanity didn’t shame her; quite the contrary, it gave her immense pleasure.

  She opened up her wardrobe and found the silver lace robe de chambre he had bought her in San Marco Square, with the satin pink ribbon, the color of a conch’s shell, that tied at the waist.

  She wore nothing underneath, just the lace over her body. Her white skin glowing underneath like the pearls around her neck.

  She wore no shoes. No earrings. She took the combs out of her hair, and let it fall over her shoulders and her breasts. She walked down the hallway, to the room they had happily sat in over the years for so many hours.

  He turned to face her, his eyes finally leaving the portrait, to instead now gaze at the actual woman whom he had maintained as his private and precious jewel.

  Even in illness, he felt himself stirring, the sight of her still setting him ablaze. The room, illuminated by the orange glow of candlelight, was warmed a thousand times more just from the heat she brought into it.

  “Come,” she said, and lifted his arms from the sofa.

  She walked toward him, her footsteps as light as a butterfly’s wings, making hardly a sound.

  Her fingers reached to untie the satin ribbon of her robe, the material loosening around her body before falling to the ground.

  She watched as his eyes widened at the sight of her body, white as milk. She ran her fingers through his hair, and embraced him.

  * * *

  Hours later, their bodies remained entwined in front of the fireplace, the portrait above them radiant as a star. Charles in her arms, his body nearly weightless, his cheek pressed like a leaf against her skin.

  She tried for a moment to savor every sensation. They were knitted together far beyond their bodies now, and this gave her a strange sense of comfort. She could hear his breathing, and feel his heartbeat rising beneath the thinness of his chest. What floated between them was far different than when their love affair had first begun. Then, they had read each other’s bodies like maps. They had navigated each peak and valley, and discovered secret places that came alive only by the other’s touch. But now, theirs was a dance of simple gestures. She took her finger and caressed his arm. Marthe had no wish to ignite his passion, only wishing to soothe him, even as he slept. And she knew this would be as close to marital sweetness as she would ever come. She closed her eyes, careful to lift her face away from his, not wanting him to feel the moisture of her tears.

  * * *

  She pulled herself away from him, covering him with the blanket she had brought from the bed hours before. Resting, he looked like a young boy as a peacefulness washed over him, and she wondered what sweet things he dreamt of that caused such a smile to curl at his lips.

  Her mind was still fresh from the memories of the evening. She recalled how he had reached his hand into her robe and how his hand traveled upward to find the curve of her breast.

  “I have lived well,” he whispered to her. He looked up at her portrait. “I have lived a full life, I have known love and experienced true beauty with you. I have been blessed.”

  Afterward, she wrapped herself in her silk robe and helped him to the bed. She wanted him to sleep comfortably with the halo of butterflies circling above them. To rest against down pillows and beneath a silken coverlet. To sleep like a pasha, with his dreams scented in rose.

  * * *

  The next morning, she awakened early, just so she could watch Charles sleep beside her. She had fallen asleep with him in her arms, not even leaving him to close the curtains. Now the first fingers of morning light filled her bedroom. She stretched out her limbs, the white sheets twisted over her calves and her chin nestled against the inside of her arm. She felt strangely removed from Paris, even though the morning bells had begun to toll in the distance. Yet an unfamiliar bliss came over her. Her eyes lifted toward the colorfully embroidered headboard, and even the butterflies seemed to flutter off the silk.

  As he slept beside her, she imagined they were someplace in the countryside. On a vacation far removed from the city. She dreamt of grapes on the vine. Tall blades of grass. A warm breeze against their naked skin.

  In his slumber, Charles’s face appeared more flushed than normal. And his forehead appeared moistened with beads of perspiration. She placed a hand on his cheek, and a sense of alarm gripped her.

  His eyes opened at her touch.

  “Marthe?” His voice was hoarse from sleep and, no doubt, fever.

  “Darling, you’re burning up!”

  She could see him struggling to focus on her.

  She took her hand and held it on his chest. She could feel his heart beating rapidly beneath his skin.

  “We need to get you to a doctor.”

  Those few moments she had lost in early morning reverie had fallen away as quickly as they had arrived. Marthe jumped up and retrieved her robe, tying the sash tightly around her waist.

  “I will get a basin and cold compresses.”

  She looked back toward the bed. His eyes were wide upon her, and his skin looked aflame.

  * * *

  Marthe returned with a porcelain pitcher and a basin of water. Through her sash, she had tucked a tea towel.

  “Let me cool you off,” she said gently as she pulled the sheets away from his body. The towel, which she had dipped into the water, she now firmly wrung with her hands.

  “My dove,” he struggled to say.

  “Shhhh,” she whispered as she dabbed the towel over his skin. “Save your breath.”

  As she struggled to cool off his skin, her mind began to race.

  “I think we need to get you into a carriage and to your doctor at once.” She looked around the room to find his clothes.

  She brought his underclothes, white shirt, and suit to the bed.

  “Let me help you,” she said as she tried to dress him.

  He swung his legs over the side of the bed to show her that he could manage by himself. But as he stood up, Charles fell to the ground.

  * * *

  It was Pierre, the concierge, to whom she now called for help, as there was no one else nearby that could come to her aid. Giselle lived nearly an hour away, and would hardly be able to carry Charles to the s
treet with her. No, Marthe needed someone who was strong enough to lift Charles, and the only person she could think of was Pierre.

  She dressed quickly, putting on one of her simpler wool dresses and buttoning it as she raced toward the door. She did not wait for the elevator to get to her landing. She simply lifted the hem of her dress and rushed down the stairs to the ground apartment.

  “Madame de Florian,” Pierre said, shocked to see her without her hair done, nor a single stroke of makeup on her naked face.

  Young Gérard was by his knee.

  “I need your help,” she blurted out to him.

  His eyes seemed to register how distressed she was. “Gérard,” he said as he gestured toward the back of the apartment, “go find your mother. I need to help Madame de Florian.” The little boy looked up at his father with wide, curious eyes before scampering toward one of the interior rooms, dragging a little toy boat behind him.

  Pierre closed the door of the apartment and came outside to the vestibule.

  “What has happened, Madame? You are white as a sheet.” His hand reached out to touch her shoulder, and the warmth of his gesture surprised her.

  “I have a friend who is in desperate need of a doctor.” Her breathing was rapid.

  He didn’t ask another question. He saw Marthe ignore the elevator, and he followed her as she raced up the stairs.

  * * *

  She opened the door of her apartment and ran down the hallway toward her bedroom, Pierre keeping pace behind her.

  Charles had pulled on his clothes and somehow managed to get himself back to bed. But just looking at his face and hair matted with perspiration, it was clear how important it was that he get to a doctor at once.

  “Come.” Pierre lifted him off the bed. “In two minutes I’ll have you downstairs and into a carriage. Just tell me the address of your doctor.”

  She heard Charles say, “Seven Rue du Chevalier.”

 
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