The velvet hours, p.19
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       The Velvet Hours, p.19

           Alyson Richman

  “Yes,” I answered her. “Papa told me.”

  She lowered her eyes. “I suppose he must have.”

  There was an awkward pause between us. I didn’t know how to fill the air with a response.

  Finally Marthe broke the silence.

  “I don’t believe in regrets, Solange. I believe in starting new chapters . . .” Her eyes were no longer somber, but filled with sparkle.

  The writer in me appreciated the line.

  “Let’s eat out tonight,” she said, her eyes alight. “I’ll tell Giselle she needn’t prepare us dinner.”

  “A restaurant?” I couldn’t remember the last time I had dinner out. I was used to only nursing a cup of coffee and a croissant for hours when I took my notebook to write in a café. And Alex and I had met only a few times at the café near Place Saint Georges.

  “And not just a brasserie. A real restaurant!” She clasped her hands. “We can mark our new start together with a glass of champagne!”

  * * *

  Marthe spent the next hour preparing for our little sojourn into the city. As I finished unpacking my case, I heard the water run in the bathroom. Then the patter of her footsteps across the floor.

  I waited for her in the parlor, which gave me the chance to finally study the portrait of her without her being there. Nearly all of my prior meetings with Marthe had taken place with me seated in one of the velvet bergère chairs directly across from her. I hardly ever moved from that spot, as I had been invited to the dining room just once, and only recently had I gone into her bedroom when she showed me her letters organized by ribbon color. I desperately wanted to look at the portrait more closely, but always had found it difficult to take my focus away from Marthe when she was telling her story.

  Now that I was alone, I treaded closer to the painting, my heartbeat escalating with each step.

  I approached it cautiously. It appeared even larger with no one else in the room. Within the carved gilt frame, Marthe’s energy and sensuality seemed to burn off her skin. I noticed how Boldini had her fingers pulling slightly on one of her sleeves, thus revealing her bare shoulder, and exposing her broad décolleté as though it were its own white canvas. Around her slender neck, he had painted her pearl necklace in exquisite detail, leaving the butterfly clasp hidden behind her hair.

  I studied the brushwork. The swirls of pink and apricot paint. I looked at her face in its pinnacle of youth. The flirtatious glint in her eyes. I traced her profile with my eyes, trying to see if there was a marked change in how she now looked forty years later.

  Even now, one could see the sharpness of her cheekbones, her straight nose, her long white neck. Her skin was certainly more feathered, and the jawline not as taut, but the beauty was still evident.

  “Solange.” I heard her voice coming from the doorway. She stepped into the parlor. I turned to face her, but I was so surprised by what I saw I hardly recognized her.

  Marthe was standing in the parlor wearing a pair of wide-legged trousers and a cream-colored, silk blouse, with her hair twisted back in a tight chignon. I had never seen her wearing anything other than her flowing silk dresses that went down to her ankles that echoed another time. But now, the woman standing before me looked thoroughly modern.

  “Do you like them?” she said, patting down the placket of her pants.

  “I sewed them myself.” She gleamed with an understandable sense of pride. “I was intrigued after I saw you wearing a pair during one of your visits. I sent Giselle out in search of the gabardine and the pattern.” She laughed. “I’m still handy with a needle and thread, aren’t I?”

  I walked closer. “You look smashing. I’m impressed.”

  She had painted her mouth not in the rose pink she typically preferred, but a soft red.

  Again my eyes ran over her.

  “Really, Grand-maman, the trousers suit you so well . . .”

  She let out a small giggle that made her sound far younger than her years. “Thank you, Solange. I’ve been looking for the opportunity to wear them.” She shook her head back, and the delight on her face was clear.

  * * *

  At the last moment, she had gone into a hall closet and retrieved a long fur coat. We took the elevator down, she and I. This was the first time we had ever left the apartment together.

  She slipped it on as easily as if it had been one of her silk robes de chambre.

  * * *

  We walked through the streets, the sky heavy and gray. The air as crisp as apples. Both of us inhaled the night as though it were perfume.

  “I can’t remember the last time I walked in the snow,” Marthe said. “It brings life into my old lungs.”

  She stood for a moment outside an awning and looked up. The ground was dusted with snowflakes, the soles of our shoes damp from the moisture on the pavement. Marthe’s cheeks were pink and flushed like a young girl’s. She looked so happy, her eyes bright, and the night full with abundant possibility.



  December 1939

  We entered the restaurant crowded with couples smoking cigarettes and drinking wine. All the things every Frenchman needed to help forget the war.

  The maître d’hôtel gently pulled the fur coat off Marthe’s shoulders, and she slipped a crisp note into the host’s hand. If it were true that she hadn’t been out on the town in a long time, she hardly seemed to show it. She knew exactly how to navigate the room.

  She smiled as we were shown to a corner table with a semicircular leather banquette. Positioned against the red upholstery, she looked out onto the restaurant as though she were on a stage.

  “Perfect,” Marthe said, smiling as she took the tall paper menus from the waiter and put them down on the table without a second glance.

  “Two glasses of champagne and a dozen fresh oysters. We’ll share, my dear.”

  * * *

  We sat facing each other, each of our reflections caught in the mirrored panels of glass.

  It was strange and marvelous to be with her outside the apartment. To see her come alive against a new backdrop.

  Even after all these years, she still moved like a dancer. Her neck stretched, and her shoulders pushed back, she took in the crowd as though she were appraising them from afar.

  When the waiter had placed the pedestal of oysters in front of us, Marthe lifted her arm to retrieve one as elegantly as a swan.

  She sipped her champagne with relish and slid the oyster into her mouth, drinking the brine. Once the waiter returned, she ordered two cassoulets for us and a bottle of wine.

  “I never imagined you enjoyed being outside the apartment much,” I confessed to her as I washed down my oyster with champagne. “Of course I knew you went to Boldini’s studio and to Ichiro’s shop, but . . .”

  “In the beginning, I didn’t, Solange,” she interrupted me. “Certainly I never dined out with Charles. It was always his wish to keep me a private affair . . .” She smiled. “But after his death, Boldini enjoyed taking me out, and I can’t deny I took pleasure in all the attention.”

  She took her fork and moved the oyster shells to the side of her plate. The waiter arrived with two small bowls of warm lemon water for us to soak our fingers. Then, the waiter returned with two fresh glasses and filled them with wine.

  Marthe lifted the glass and took a sip.

  “I didn’t feel the passion toward him that I had with Charles, you know. But I craved our exchange of ideas, the ability to discuss art with him . . . and he was not ashamed of being seen with me. He introduced me to so many of his friends . . . artists, even a few politicians.”

  I nodded. I could only imagine how thrilling it must have been for her to enter his artistic circle.

  She took another sip of her wine.

  “I’ve been lucky, Solange. I had three men who took good care of me in my lifetime

  I knew two of them, Charles and it appeared Boldini did as well . . .

  But who could be the third?

  “Three?” I questioned her.

  “Yes,” she said wistfully. “Charles, Giovanni, and my dear Ichiro.”

  * * *

  That evening after we returned home, our shoes leaving footprints in the path of white snow, Marthe came upon the steps to her apartment building and stopped, her head turning to me in the moonlight.

  “I’ve lived here for so many years now . . .” She looked up. The sky was now filled with a spray of stars.

  “To think where I came from, it’s rather amazing. I still can’t quite believe I’m here.”

  It was true. It had always perplexed me how she was able to sustain herself after all these years. The money Charles had left her surely would have been spent by now.

  “You’ve been able to maintain it all these years all by yourself. Not an easy feat.”

  Marthe smiled.

  “That’s the next part of the tale, Solange. But we’ll save it for another night.” Marthe had an incredible ability to always make one feel as though she had a secret up her sleeve.

  “As you wish,” I said, smiling. I stood next to her as she fished into her purse for the key to the building.

  She jiggled the contents and peered deeper into the little silk satchel with a golden handle.

  “I think I’ve forgotten my key.” A girlish laugh escaped from her.

  I glanced at my watch. It was half past ten.

  “I’ll ring Gérard,” she said. “He’ll let us in.”

  She went over to the call box and pressed the ground floor apartment’s buzzer.

  “’Gérard, it’s Marthe de Florian. I’m sorry to disturb you, but I’ve misplaced my key.”

  “I’ll be right there, madame.” His voice sounded gravelly through the intercom.

  Within a few minutes he was holding the door open for us.

  “Thank you, Gérard,” Marthe said. “I apologize that it’s so late.”

  “I was up with the children . . . They don’t want to go to bed tonight, and Francine has a cough and went to bed early. It is not a problem at all.”

  I could see he was slightly bleary eyed and was trying to readjust his gaze on Marthe. Probably, like me, he had never seen her in trousers.

  Marthe read his look of bewilderment.

  “Yes, I’m not in chiffon tonight . . . ,” she said, smiling. “I was in the mood to experience a night out with my granddaughter as a modern woman.”

  “I hardly recognized you,” he laughed. “And it’s been some time since I saw you out for the evening. Always it’s Giselle out doing your errands.”

  “Yes.” Marthe nodded. “You know, better than anyone, I’ve always been a creature of habit, staying in my apartment with my things most of the time.”

  He nodded and his eyes were soft and kind as they looked at Marthe.

  “But every time I do see you, it’s hard for me to reconcile this young gentleman with a wife and family of his own. To me you’re still Pierre’s little boy.”

  He smiled. “And you’re still the glamorous woman upstairs that Papa told me not to stare at when you came through the lobby. You always reminded me of a cherry blossom . . . floating by in your pale pink silk.”

  * * *

  In the elevator, Marthe looked pensive.

  “I should add one more to the list of men who have enabled me to stay in my apartment as long as I have. And that is—without a doubt—Gérard’s father, Pierre.”



  Paris 1917

  The morning they executed Mata Hari, Marthe had risen early. She lay in bed, the first rays of sunlight stretching across her silken coverlet like golden branches. Her slender calves peeked out from her peignoir. Her auburn hair, which she now maintained with the help of henna, flowed over her shoulders. A woman of fifty-three, she looked at least ten years younger.

  She did not know about the execution until Giselle had brought in her breakfast tray. The newspaper was ironed and placed next to her pot of coffee. Giselle always took such care with her morning service. The porcelain cup and saucer painted with birds, and, on a plate no larger than her palm, a single croissant.

  The headlines blared Mata Hari’s crime as treason, accusing her of spying for the Germans. Her death had taken place at sunrise, an execution by firing squad. Marthe shuddered, recalling all those years before when Boldini had taken her to one of the dance clubs to see Mata Hari perform.

  She had been enthralled when she first saw the dancer. They sat at small tables, she, Boldini, and his coterie of artist friends, their faces illuminated by the flickering votive candles. Those were the years when she was still gay and beautiful herself. Boldini had accepted the fact they would never be lovers and had pretended not to notice when one of his wealthy friends flirted with her. She never knew how he came to learn about the bouquets that were sent to her apartment in the days that followed. A select few, she took to her bed over the years. But they were never long-term lovers like Charles had been. And she always sold the rings and bracelets she received as gifts from those men. They were a form of currency that in the end brought her a source of well-needed funds.

  When Marthe had performed as a dancer during her early courtship with Charles, she wore black taffeta and silk stockings, her petticoat sometimes edged in red. But in 1905, Mata Hari cultivated her own sensation, dressing and dancing to evoke the Oriental fantasy of the day. Her blue-black hair was coiled above her head and threaded with pearls. Her breasts were covered by a brassiere sewn with glass beads, her midriff was bare, and her legs were encased in silken pantaloons that were slit up to her thigh. She undulated like moving water as she danced. She hid and emerged through a sea of colorful veils.

  Mata Hari was a girl after Marthe’s own heart, a woman of reinvention. She had created a glamorous life for herself by harnessing her beauty and imagination. At the time, Boldini told Marthe that Paris’s most fashionable dancer did not, in fact, come from some exotic land, but had instead been born in a rather bleak village in Holland. Just as Marthe had shed her name so many years before and stepped into another world of fantasy, so too had the mysterious “Mata Hari.”

  However, a decade later, Mata Hari had suffered the fate of every other dancer in Paris. She began to age. Her body softened and her face became feathered with lines. Even as her income decreased, her appetite for beautiful clothes and glittering baubles never waned. Marthe wondered if Mata Hari had been drawn into the world of espionage as a means of digging herself out of debt or whether she had fallen in love with the wrong man, perhaps a German officer who led her down a treacherous and treasonous path.

  The description of Mata Hari preparing for her execution felt eerily familiar for Marthe. She prepared herself for death just as a courtesan did when meeting a lover. After the guards woke her, she rose from the prison bed and slipped on a silk kimono, tied the satin ribbons of her shoes around her ankles, and put on a long black velvet cape trimmed at the collar and hem in ermine fur.

  She next adjusted a felt hat on her head, wiggled her fingers into kidskin gloves, and looked straight ahead as she was led away by the guards who took her to the Caserne de Vincennes, where twelve waiting soldiers formed a firing squad.

  For a woman who had always danced with a veil, Mata Hari defiantly refused a blindfold. She fell backward from the impact of the gunfire, her eyes directed toward the sky.

  * * *

  Marthe no longer had a stomach for breakfast after reading of the dancer’s execution.

  She was grateful that she had the security of her apartment. Paris had become a labyrinth of suspicion and fear. The war was now in its fourth year with no end in sight, and already a generation of young men had been left wounded or dead. Certain parts of Parisian soc
iety were still in denial, these places where under a veil of cigarette smoke, one could pretend the war was far away rather than only one hundred miles to the west. But one now had to seek these places out, and Marthe no longer had much interest in going to the cafés or the nightclubs like Musée Cuvée, where she had first seen Mata Hari perform. After Charles died, she had enjoyed those nightly distractions with her friend Boldini, but now she preferred to spend nearly all her time at home.

  * * *

  “You love art and you love collecting. Why don’t I invite a few of my friends over to your place and we start our own salon?” Boldini had suggested. “It will give me the chance to show off my portrait of you, and also allow you to meet some new people.”

  The thought of entertaining in the comfort and privacy of her home intrigued Marthe, and she soon agreed.

  The guests were handpicked by the artist and predominantly male. Most of them were married, and every one of them was happy to share a few hours of escape in her parlor.

  At first she had been skeptical, thinking no one would attend. But she sat down at her rosewood desk and handwrote the invitations anyway.

  She used her stationery embossed with the gold-leaf butterfly, and she wrote in her best scripted hand. A few days later, Marthe was proven wrong when her apartment on the Square La Bruyère was filled with guests.

  * * *

  They ranged from Boldini’s wealthy patrons to his fellow artists, and even the occasional politician looking to lose himself for a few hours under the haze of candlelight and canapés.

  She even invited the Japanese painter Foujita, through her connections with Ichiro, who brought his cat and sat on her divan as though he were an emperor holding court.

  She always kept the gatherings small. She spent the days before creating the menu and selecting the flowers she would place around the apartment to create just the right ambience. She did not serve the most expensive food or the best wine and champagne. Instead, she watched her bank account as best she could. On her small painted plates, she served things people could pick up with their fingers. Smoked salmon on rounds of toasts, oeufs mimosa, and chicken legs roasted in rosemary and thyme.

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