The velvet hours, p.17
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       The Velvet Hours, p.17

           Alyson Richman

  Pierre lifted him to his feet, wrapped Charles’s arm around his neck, and began dragging him toward the hallway.

  Just before they reached the door, Pierre paused to gather his breath, and Charles took every ounce of his remaining strength to lift his head in the direction of the parlor. Marthe knew instantly that Charles was peering through the French doors to take one last opportunity to look at the portrait he had commissioned of her.

  “My painted dove.” His breathing was labored, but Marthe still made out his words.

  She came closer to him, kissing him on his forehead and then on his mouth.

  “Yes . . . I’m here,” she said, fighting back the urge to cry. She would not permit his last image of her to be of a blotchy, tear-streaked face.

  When she squeezed his hand, it was as cold as wax. She gripped tighter, hoping she could transfer her own heat back to him. To somehow heal him with her touch.

  She followed Pierre outside her apartment and into the elevator. When a carriage pulled up to the side of the street, Pierre hoisted Charles into the coach. Marthe only expected Pierre to inform the driver of the doctor’s address. But he surprised her by doing something more than she expected. He pulled himself into the coach, insisting that he travel beside Charles.

  She ran beside the coach for a few yards, before stopping from exhaustion. Slowly, she returned to the steps of her building and began to make her way back to the apartment. Stepping inside the vestibule, she saw something glimmering on the floor and knelt down to pick it up. The gold watch had slipped from Charles’s pocket. She tightened her fingers around it and then opened the casing, her eyes first meeting with the image of the engraved dove. She checked the clock in the parlor. It was 6:14 a.m. Marthe adjusted the dial, and silently prayed that she would have the chance to move the hands once again.



  Paris 1898

  It was Boldini, not Charles, who arrived at her door two days later. Seeing him dressed in black, she knew immediately why he had come.

  “I am sorry to be here under such unfortunate circumstances,” he said as he stepped into her apartment.

  “It’s Charles . . .” Her words were barely audible. “He’s the reason you’re here.”

  He lowered his eyes and nodded.

  “A few weeks ago, he wrote to me and asked that I be the one to tell you when the time came. He wanted to make sure you were informed as promptly as possible.”

  She pulled her arms around herself. Her skin now felt terribly cold.

  “He passed away last night. I was informed by a mutual friend.”

  She remained quiet for a moment as she tried to gather her words. She felt the floor falling beneath her, and she struggled to regain her composure.

  “He had been ill for some time.” Her voice faltered as she spoke. “I suppose he was holding on just long enough until you finished your portrait of me.”

  Boldini nodded. “Yes, he wrote me saying that was the case. I painted it as quickly as I could, while still ensuring that you were captured with all the beauty and radiance you deserve.”

  She looked at the floor, not wanting to show Boldini her eyes. She knew he would read her immediately, that he wouldn’t be fooled by her stoic expression. He was a master of seeing what lay beneath. One glance at her, and he would penetrate every emotion she hoped to conceal.

  “Please,” she said softly. “Why don’t you come into the parlor and see how beautiful your painting looks now that it’s been properly hung. It made the delivery men blush; I knew you’d be pleased.”

  She motioned for him to follow her, pushing through the French doors and into the room where only days before Charles and she had spent their last moments together.

  “It is even more magnificent outside the walls of my studio.” He reached into his breast pocket for a cigar and lit it. The smell contrasted with the Oriental blend of Charles’s pipe, a fragrance she now missed more than ever.

  She tried to force herself to smile, but it felt false. For the first time since it had been delivered, she felt at odds with the way Boldini portrayed her in the portrait. In the painting, she was depicted so full of life and warmth. But now, in her grief, a glacial coolness ran through her veins, just as it had when her sister died. It was the same feeling, the sensation that nothing in the world could ever make her warm again.

  Giselle, who had overheard the news, brought tea and a plate of biscuits into the room, hoping the tea would calm her mistress. But even as Marthe poured the tea for Boldini and filled a cup for herself, she continued to shiver.

  “You are a beautiful and clever young woman, Marthe. You will continue to have a good life, I’m certain of it.”

  She could see his eyes looking around the room. Even though he made an effort to appear discreet as he exhaled blue circles of smoke into the air, she could see him absorbing all of her little collections that lined the shelves.

  “You are not frivolous or stupid like so many other women I’ve met in Paris. Even your collections reflect a great intelligence, a keen eye. To me, this demonstrates you will always land on your feet.”

  “I am flattered you have such confidence in me.” His words had a temporary soothing effect on her. “Thank you.”

  “I have complete confidence . . . ,” he said as he extinguished his cigar in a crystal ashtray. Marthe winced slightly. That crystal bowl was where Charles had also always emptied his pipe.

  “You must let me help you in any way you need. I hope it doesn’t sound disrespectful during this time of mourning, but I believe we speak a similar language. And that we share a love of beautiful things, too.”

  She finally raised her eyes toward him. His honesty and ability to treat her as a peer touched her deeply. “Yes, I do feel we share similar tastes.”

  “It’s a shame you can’t openly partake in the rituals of mourning Charles. The Mass is at Notre Dame d’Auteuil this evening. The funeral is the following morning. Émilienne is in perhaps a state of greater shock than you.”

  A splinter of pain coursed through her at the mere mention of Émilienne’s name.

  “Surely she knew Charles was gravely ill.” Marthe’s voice cracked. “I know she was the one to suggest they take the cure in Switzerland. So his death couldn’t have taken her by surprise.”

  “Yes,” the artist agreed. “But it is always terrible to be the one that discovers the body.”

  Marthe flinched.

  “I was told she’d gone into his bedroom that morning, thinking he had only slept late. In what she mistakenly thought to merely be a deep slumber, she said he so resembled their son.”

  * * *

  Marthe knew she would never be allowed to attend the funeral. She would never have the opportunity to receive the mourners nor partake in the public rituals of grief. But she could still wear black and grieve privately for Charles. They could not rob her of that.

  She had Giselle move all of her soft, pastel-colored dresses to an alternate wardrobe and had her replace them with only black ones. Now, the carved armoire in her bedroom was filled with black taffeta dresses, dark silk faille skirts, and silk chiffon blouses that were the color of smoke.

  Her world felt emptier than ever. She saw traces of Charles everywhere. The furnishings, the original objets d’art, were like fingerprints he had left behind. She looked at the sparkling crystal ashtray, since cleaned of Boldini’s ashes from the day before. She would never again smell Charles’s tobacco or the scent of his cologne.

  She ate little and spent most of her afternoons sitting in the parlor staring at the portrait. Her mind tried to re-create every minute of the last evening they spent together before he had collapsed.

  She imagined him there beside her. Conjuring up every detail of him: his soft hands, his chiseled profile, the fine gabardine of his suit that he had tailored to fit his lean fra
me. She felt him sitting there beside her, a ghost. She tried to fill her head recounting every one of his last words. He had called her his “painted dove,” and she had clutched his hand trying to stave off the cold.

  * * *

  If it hadn’t been for Boldini, she would have stayed inside her apartment alone, never leaving for even a stroll in the park. She had no desire for anything. She had even lost interest in her love of collecting.

  “Come outside with me,” he implored her one afternoon when he visited her a few weeks later. “The cherry blossoms are in bloom. The women are wearing the colors of spring. Put on one of your dresses . . . perhaps the lilac one. It offsets your blue-gray eyes.”

  She decided to indulge him. She was beginning to feel like a vampire with the curtains drawn for so long. She saw how grateful Giselle looked when Boldini had insisted, and the girl had gone to the other wardrobe and laid the lavender silk dress on her bed.

  * * *

  In the mirror, with her black silk faille skirt draped over the divan, she saw how her muscles had slackened over the weeks she had indulged her grief. The sculpture-like quality of her physique, the dancer-like muscles that had always defined her shoulders and back, and the tautness of her derriere, all of that had softened.

  When he suggested later that evening they go to a dance hall, she agreed. She needed to start moving again. To be alive. And to fill herself again with light.

  * * *

  Under candlelight they drank. He ordered abundantly from the menu, and she drank the brine from the oyster shells and ate small toasts with wedges of foie gras.

  The energy from the dance hall permeated her body. She looked at the young girls kicking up their skirts, laughing with their heads back and their mouths open, and she felt like she was her twentysomething self, back again at the theater.

  “You’ve breathed life into me,” she whispered in Boldini’s ear as he pulled her into another dance.

  “If only I were taller and more handsome,” he answered. “I know you’d fall in love with me.”

  Marthe did not answer. She knew better than to say anything that might hurt him.

  Her heart had become like a piece of furniture over the years. While most people imagined their hearts with chambers that kept the blood flowing through their veins, Marthe imagined hers as a cabinet of secret drawers. In one she kept the memory of her family, in another she kept the only image she had of her infant son. Only Charles was kept in a sacred space for romantic love.

  “It does not become you to play the widow, when you’re not, my dear. Charles would not have wanted you to dress in black for the rest of your life.”

  “One cannot force these things,” she said as she sat down again at their table. A small votive flickered between them, bathing her face half in light and half in shadow.

  “We speak the language of art and friendship,” she finally said as the music came to an end. She took his hands in her own and squeezed them. “I will always be indebted to you. Your painting has graced me with eternal life.”



  December 1939

  Charles’s death was a turning point in my life, Solange.” Her voice sounded sadder, more reflective than it had in previous visits.

  “At some point, each and every one of us will pass from this earth, but still it’s so difficult to comprehend . . .”

  What I didn’t say to her was how hard my mother’s death had been for me. We hardly spoke of my mother when I was in Marthe’s company, and I didn’t think I could forgive her if she showed any disinterest in her or possibly even said something unkind.

  “I realized a lot about myself after Charles died.” She took a deep breath. “I learned how to be resourceful. I learned that I was lucky I had people who still looked out for me, even though when he died, I thought myself to be completely alone at first.” She looked away for a moment, her eyes gazing past me and toward the direction of the tall living room windows.

  “That’s the thing about death or illness. It reveals who your true friends are. The ones who remain after everything else slips away.”

  * * *

  She rose unexpectedly, and I saw her grip the side of the armchair as if to balance herself.

  “I want to show you something, Solange.” She lifted her other hand and gestured a small wave for me to follow her. “I’m sure you’re tired of sitting in that chair. Come.”

  I stood up and followed her. I watched as she straightened herself like an egret, pushing her shoulders back, lengthening her neck, and lifting her chin. Her slender arms fell against the pale gray of her dress. And when she floated down the hallway, I understood why Charles had always affectionately called her his dove.

  At the end of the hall, to the left, was another set of white French doors. She placed her two hands on the doors and pushed them open. As she walked inside, the hem of her dress fluttered behind her, lifting like wings.

  * * *

  The bed was enormous with a carved Louis XV headboard in walnut wood. Its central panel was upholstered in a silver-colored silk that was embroidered with butterflies of almost every color—red, blue, gold, and malachite green.

  I had never seen such a magnificent bed. It seemed to rise from the ground, and swell with its sensual curves.

  But Marthe did not look at the bed, nor the mirrors placed around the room. She went directly to her vanity table and pulled the handle of one of the small drawers.

  Inside were what appeared to be several stacks of letters, each tied with a different colored ribbon.

  She pulled one out that was wrapped in a pink satin ribbon. “These are the ones from Charles.” She sat down on the velvet stool, her slender finger touching the corner of one of the faded envelopes.

  “And these are the ones from Giovanni.”


  “Yes,” she said, and closed her eyes. “Giovanni Boldini. Even though I refused his physical advances, he still wrote me several love letters hoping to change my mind.” She took a deep breath.

  “You are too young to understand, Solange, but there are many different types of love in this world. There are lovers of the flesh, lovers of the mind, and love sustained by family.” Her eyes softened.

  “Until recently, I have only known two of those loves.”

  She brought the letters over to the bed. Each of the piles was still firmly tied with its ribbon. Pink for Charles. Pale yellow for Boldini.

  I stood over her, seeing our reflection in the mirror of the vanity. Her expression was softer than I had ever seen it before. Her slate-blue eyes looked to meet mine in our reflection in the glass.

  “Does your father ever ask about your visits with me?”

  A feeling of unease washed over me. I wasn’t sure how to respond.

  She reached her hand into a second drawer and pulled out two additional stacks of envelopes. Each one of them was tied in pale blue ribbon, the color of the sky.

  “These letters are from Louise Franeau.” She placed her hands on both stacks of envelopes.

  “Do you know who she is, Solange?”

  “Yes,” I answered her softly. I would never forget the name. She was the woman who had raised my father after Marthe gave birth to him.

  “I kept every one she wrote me.”

  “Did you ever write back to her?”

  A long sigh escaped her.

  “It was so hard for me, Solange.” She shook her head. “For all these letters she wrote describing your father’s accomplishments, I wrote back only twice.”



  December 1939

  Alex met me near grandmother’s apartment, his neck wrapped in a blue wool scarf.

  “Did you get more material for your novel?” He smiled as he leaned over to kiss me on both cheeks.

  “Yes,” I
said. “She showed me a more sensitive side of her that I wasn’t expecting.” I made a face. “And she seemed more fragile this time, too . . . I hope she’s not ill.”

  “I hope so, too,” he said. “After reading today’s headlines, I’m not sure I could take any more bad news.”

  He showed me the newspaper he was holding. The Soviet Union had invaded Finland, so now those two countries were also at war.

  I shook my head in disbelief. Part of me wanted to stop reading the newspaper. Every day the headlines seemed to worsen, and I always felt sick to my stomach afterward. “It was just sad to hear her tell how she learned her lover had passed away.” I didn’t think I could mention the latest revelation, how Boldini had showered her with love letters, too.

  “Lover.” The word felt strange and mysterious on my tongue, like a secret.

  “One of these days I hope you’ll introduce me to this grandmother of yours. She sounds completely different than mine was!” He laughed. “What I remember of mine was that she was missing a tooth, and spent all her time either knitting or baking. Certainly not one to have had a lover!”

  I smiled. “I think she’d probably like you.” My eyes ran over him. Alex was tall and slight with dark hair and green eyes. No one would deny that he was quite handsome.

  “I have to be back at the store by three p.m. Solomon has finished restoring two books, and Papa has miraculously found two collectors who are interested in purchasing them.” Alex glanced at his watch. “So that leaves three hours to be with you.”

  I smiled and his eyes flickered back at me.

  “Let’s go to the Bois de Boulogne,” I said. “The grass will be covered in frost, the trees will be bare, but at least we’ll have the whole place to ourselves.”

  It was true. December had made everything gray. The sky was the color of pewter. There wasn’t a flower in sight. But the thought of walking through the park with Alex thrilled me.

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