The velvet hours, p.2
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       The Velvet Hours, p.2

           Alyson Richman

  “And does she know about me?” I asked him.

  “Yes . . . she knows. I took your mother to meet her before we married, and we later visited her again to announce we were expecting a child. But you will see when you meet her, Madame de Florian has little interest in marriages or births . . .”

  I raised an eyebrow. “What are her interests?” I pushed him.

  “Things I find tiresome . . . her own comfort and pleasure . . . her own beauty . . . her belief that she is somehow above the banality of this world.”

  We had nearly reached her apartment.

  “She’s an actress of sorts, so be prepared,” he warned. “She enjoys an audience.” He paused for a second and looked at me. I was dressed in my best clothes, a navy hat and wool coat, and one of my mother’s dresses that I had taken in for the occasion.

  “She will like you very much, Solange. You’re pretty enough to fit in amongst her things.”

  “But you haven’t seen her in so many years,” I told my father. “How do you know everything will still be beautiful?”

  “I don’t . . . but I suspect that she has kept herself quite well preserved; that was very much her nature.”

  * * *

  I think that upon our introduction, we both surprised each other. I know I certainly wasn’t expecting to be greeted by a woman so elaborately dressed, with makeup camouflaging a face over sixty, and around her neck the most exquisite set of pearls.

  And I believe she, too, appeared slightly amazed, for my face, although years younger than hers, so clearly resembled her own. I had the same pale skin and slate blue eyes, the long neck and Gallic nose.

  My father introduced us coolly. It was evident by the way he stood in the hallway that her apartment made him nervous, and he had little tolerance for staying any length of time in her company.

  He refused to call her “maman,” or introduce her to me as “grand-maman.”

  “Madame de Florian,” he said with great formality. “Let me introduce you to my daughter, Solange.”

  Our arrival appeared to delight her. She didn’t bother to reprimand my father for not having visited her in what must have been nearly twenty years. I would later learn that she didn’t calculate time as most people did. For her it wasn’t the minutes passed, but the moments exchanged.

  “A pleasure,” she said to me, extending her long white hand. “Will you both be staying? I can have Giselle prepare us some tea.”

  “I won’t be able to as I have work to do,” my father said, making an excuse for himself. “But Solange will, if that’s acceptable.” He looked at me, then back at this tall woman who seemed wholly unrelated to him. “Since her mother died, she has been restless . . . She just finished school and tells me she wants to write plays, perhaps even try her hand at a novel . . . So I thought perhaps you might share some stories with her while I am at the pharmacy.”

  “But, of course, Henri,” she said, reaching to touch my arm. “I am not so busy anymore, and I would appreciate having the company of a beautiful girl to share my afternoons.”

  I stood there, rapt at her. Her voice was melodious. Her eyes were full of life.

  “Giselle, take her hat and coat.” My wool coat and felt hat were given to the elderly maid in the black dress and white apron.

  “I’ll pick her up at six,” my father said.

  With that he left us, and I was led inside.

  I will never forget the parlor, with the large portrait that dominated the room. It was undoubtedly of her, created in a tornado of brushstrokes. Around her neck, the same necklace she now wore, a glimmering, perfect set of pearls.

  She saw me look at the painting, and then the choker around her neck.

  “I have never seen so many beautiful things,” I whispered.

  “Why, thank you,” she replied, ever so pleased. She then took a seat in one of the velvet chairs, as though it were her personal throne.

  I believe she could sense my desire to study everything that surrounded us in the parlor, even though I tried hard to conceal my urge to stare. The collections of porcelain. The many objets d’art. The painting over the mantel. Even her string of pearls.

  I admitted to be most taken in by the painting. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

  “Who was the artist?” I asked, pointing to her portrait. The body, depicted with great, artistic exuberance, seemed to give off a pulse within the room.

  “The artist?” She was bemused. “It’s not the artist you should be asking about.”

  “No?” I answered, perplexed.

  She motioned for me to sit down.

  Her eyes flickered and she reached to touch her necklace. Its clasp, a small green butterfly with emerald wings, slid forth.

  “No, it’s the story behind it. Everything of value contains a story, Solange.”

  She touched the butterfly with a light caress of her fingers. I had never been in the company of someone who could so captivate me with only a simple gesture of her hand.

  “You intrigue me, Solange. I know we’ve just met, but I sense you’re a young woman who is not easily scandalized by another woman’s truth.”

  I looked her straight in the eyes, and I again noticed their color. It was the same as my own.

  “Let us have an agreement,” she said. “The best people always do. You come to me once a week, and I will tell you how I, a girl born in the dark alleys of Montmartre, came to be ensconced in this apartment. It is not a tale for the prudish or faint of heart. But if you are willing, I will tell you the story of the painting as well as the one about my pearls, and everything else that happened along the way.”

  With that offer, a beautiful and strange smile spread across her face. It opened like a fan.



  Paris 1888

  The first thing she noticed when he opened the door that afternoon was the unmistakable scent of flowers.

  The fragrance was intoxicating; it pulled her deeper inside the apartment.

  He took off his hat and placed it on a small pedestal table near the door.

  “Violets.” She beamed, turning to him.

  He was pleased she had noticed his gesture. He could feel her body against his own, and his fingers traveled beyond the curl of her back, reaching to grasp the tight middle of her waist. “I ordered them this morning. Cost me a small fortune . . . violets imported from Parma. I am told they are the best.”

  She squealed with happiness, and the sound of her joy washed over him like a bath of golden light.

  He had taken great pains to decorate the apartment on the elegant Square La Bruyère. A large gilded mirror with a small marble table flanked her on the right. Two gourd-shaped Chinese porcelains in a peach-blossom glaze and a tall cloisonné vase occupied the center. As she walked deeper into the room, she saw French doors that opened up to a small salon with walls upholstered in powder blue silk. There was a love seat with fluted legs, and two large bergère chairs with cushions that looked like nesting doves. On the mantel of the carved marble fireplace, she saw even more flowers. Topiaries created out of orchids, ivy, and moss. It was an apartment in the palest colors, a palette that would offset a woman’s flush. A vault created for whispers and caresses.

  “I wanted it to remind you of Venice,” he said. She looked around and saw the heavy drapes on the tall windows woven in silver, rose, and Nile green.

  “The city where I was reborn,” she whispered into his ear. Their trip together had been her first time abroad, and its memory still stirred her.

  “Indeed.” He nodded as his hand slid across her bare arm.

  He had taken her to a room near the Accademia, where the air was laced with the scent of wisteria and the water outside the color of jade. They had walked arm in arm across the wooden bridge and a dozen others made of stone.

  At night, he ha
d pulled down the red silk coverlet on the tall bed with its carved spiraled posts and marveled at her beauty. She closed her eyes, and her former life seemed to slip away.

  The next afternoon, he took her to Florian’s in Piazza San Marco, one of the oldest and most celebrated cafés in Europe. A place where the most beautiful and fashionable came to be seen.

  “Mathilde Beaugiron.” He said her name as though it was a dessert that gave him no pleasure. “This name . . . it is not right. It does not do you justice.”

  She lifted her chin and met his eyes.

  “You need a nom de guerre.”

  She said nothing in reply. She would allow him the pleasure of renaming her. In the momentary pause between them, she merely lifted the steaming cup of hot chocolate to her lips.

  He looked around the café, with its walls of painted figures, mirrors, and bronze lamps, and then again at her.

  “Marthe de Florian . . .” He extended a single finger and touched her under the chin as he said it. “It’s the perfect name for you . . .”

  She curled her lips and smiled. The café was sumptuous and elegant. It delighted her that Charles thought its name also suited her.

  “Do you like it?” he asked her.

  “Very much,” she answered. “Who knew it would be so easy to lose my name and start again with a new one?”

  He leaned back into the deep plush of the banquette and took out his pipe, its barrel intricately carved in the shape of an eagle’s talon holding an egg. She watched as he placed the mouthpiece between his lips and deftly lit the chamber. His movements were elegant and self-assured. She observed him, a student receiving a silent education. He closed his eyes briefly, and a plume of blue smoke wafted into the air. She could see how her new name, combined with the tobacco, filled him with a sense of satisfaction.

  From the moment she shed her original name, Mathilde, a wonderful sense of weightlessness washed over her. “Marthe de Florian” evoked beauty and infinite possibility. She felt free.

  * * *

  In Venice, they steeped themselves in illusion. They soaked in a tub as deep as a Roman tomb. They ate food that tasted of the sea, and they drank wine from goblets the color of amethyst and gold.

  She welcomed her new name and the anticipation of a new life. How wonderful it would be to have the opportunity to erase her past and the memories of her childhood, with its dark, cramped rooms. She would act as an artist with a brush dipped in gesso, and wash over the canvas of her previous existence. Her mother with the tired face and dusty eyes. The baskets of other people’s clothes that needed washing. The one window that looked onto an alley piled with broken furniture and garbage.

  For her, now there would be no more cold rooms, empty larders, or landlords threatening eviction. Never again would she have to wear dresses that needed mending or shoes that soaked through in the rain. She would now only cultivate pleasure, and she would offer it to others. She would live splendidly amidst it. Like those other girls she knew who had accepted the care of wealthy benefactors, women who were kept as secretly and luxuriant as hidden jewels.

  She turned to Charles and batted her eyelashes, as her hand brushed against his cheek. Through the veil of his pipe smoke, she saw his eyes glimmer as she touched him. They would have an arrangement. He would keep her. She could see it etched into his expression, and she interpreted his smile as the seal.

  * * *

  They had taken the train ride back from Venice to Paris together, in a private compartment paneled in deep mahogany. During the day, she looked out through the glass windows and saw villages made of stone, and stretches of farmland with yellow rapeseed and barrels of sun-bleached wheat. In the evening, they dressed for dinner and drank champagne from tall glasses as the locomotive’s wheels hummed beneath their velvet seats.

  She could see how he watched her reflection, cast in the panes of the dining car windows, the heavy red curtains pulled to the side. There was now nothing of the scenic landscape of the afternoon to compete with her countenance, for outside it was as dark as ink. She took a sip of her champagne, her tapered fingers reaching for the stem. And when her lips met the rim, she caught sight of his smile in the glass.

  She had a studied, deliberate way in which she moved. She had only recently learned the correct way to hold her cutlery, to ensure that her knife and fork didn’t make a noise against the porcelain when she ate.

  But even before then she had mastered the art of crafting her appearance. She was wrapped now in all of her elegant finery, dressed for the evening until he had her alone in their compartment completely to himself.

  Draped over her shoulders was the black velvet cape lined in pink satin he had bought her in a shop near San Marco. She already knew how it would come undone. She would unpin her hair only after the porter had made up their bed. She would stand in front of him and take away each of her layers. The silk faille dress. The chemise. The corset and camisole. The petticoat. The garter with the tangle of ribbons and lace. She would remove the silver combs he had given her when they first met, and run it through her red hair, like Titian’s Flora. She would turn to him and let him unbutton and untie her until she was completely undressed.

  These were the things she would let him see. Her soft limbs, and her nipples she had rouged the palest rose. She would let him cup her breasts and let his fingers take hold of her waist. She would be his flower, opening and wet at the graze of his hand.

  She was twenty-four and a student of love and touch. It was he who taught her about beautiful things. About the poetry of space, the need for pockets of solitude amongst the chatter. The need for color after a moment of darkness, or for the contrast of white porcelain and white sheets when one wanted to feast.

  He had been the only one to send her orchids when she performed at the theater. Five perfect stems. On the card he wrote:

  Your beauty is not like the others’. You hold the stars in your eyes, the moon just beneath your skin.


  P.S. I shall be the one holding the sixth orchid outside the theater tonight, should you wish to join me afterward for a glass of champagne.

  The other girls were awash in red roses. Packed bouquets with their garlands of green, with cards from men inviting them to meet after the show. Every one of these male suitors had a wife, with children asleep in their beds or in a boarding school somewhere. And all of them came to the theater for a night of entertainment that did not end for them when the curtain descended and the applause died down. Quite the contrary, that was the signal that the evening had just begun.

  She was young and beautiful with a radiance that set her apart from the others. A perfect specimen to showcase in Paris, a city now famous for both its ability to illuminate and to seduce. In the past five years, the city had undertaken an urban renaissance. Streets were lined with the contrast of heavy, black ironwork and milky white globes that flickered long fingers of light far past midnight. Now gaslights brightened the stage instead of candles, as the girls took their bows and curtsies, and the men studied their programs to remember the most beautiful dancers’ names. Backstage, the girls peeled out of their costumes, unlaced each other’s corsets, and finally breathed again, released from the constraints of their whalebone and lace. As the endless flower deliveries arrived, the girls reapplied their white powder, their lipstick as red as crushed poppies, and their mascara with glossy coats of black.

  And like them, what had first attracted Marthe to the theater was the possibility to be somebody else for a few hours a day. To leave her humble background behind. To reinvent herself with beauty and illusion.

  She left her first seamstress job at the tailor shop after she had become pregnant, a part of her life she wanted desperately to forget. She tried, with great effort, to erase from her memory the man who had gotten her in such a wretched state, who had told her in no uncertain terms that he had no intention of ever maki
ng her his bride or recognizing the child as his own.

  She had tried to forget those awful months when she had struggled to hide her pregnancy. She had covered her fuller breasts by wearing higher necklines. She had raised the waistlines of her dress and wore more voluminous skirts. But when she eventually became unable to cloak her condition, even in the most generous waistband and skirt, her employer, Monsieur Brunet, ruthlessly informed her he had found another seamstress to take her place.

  Her friend and fellow seamstress, Louise Franeau, offered her the perfect solution. When Louise wrapped the baby Henri in her arms and promised to care for him as though he were her own, Marthe convinced herself this was the best way to put that chapter of her life behind her.

  “Are you absolutely certain?” Louise had asked her as the child nestled against her breast.

  “Yes, I am sure.” Her voice drowned in exhaustion. She was still bedbound, every part of her body raw from the labor that had taken place only a few hours before. The midwife had been impatient with her as she cried out in pain. She still felt as if there were a fire burning between her legs.

  She did not look at Louise nor the child that had grown inside her for the past nine months. She instead began to imagine a huge expanse of space engulfing them. On the ledge of the window, a small sparrow peered in from the outside.

  She refused to take her eyes off the bird. She would not look at the baby that was rooting on Louise’s finger in search of milk.

  Her breasts ached. The baby had begun to cry, and the pull inside her became unbearable. Yet, she knew that if she took the baby into her arms and fed him, she would lose her resolve. She could already feel the steel casing around her heart beginning to weaken.

  “Take him, please . . .” Her voice began to crack. “But make sure the wet nurse feeds him.”

  “She is already outside waiting for him,” Louise assured her.

  “Go, then, please,” she said, her head turning away. The bird’s finely boned face was still peering in through the window. Its gaze was sharp and unflinching, slicing through her like claws, releasing her milk like a river of tears.

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