The velvet hours, p.20
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       The Velvet Hours, p.20

           Alyson Richman
 

  She never knew how Boldini managed to charge an admission fee for her parties. But, at the end of the evening, the large Chinese urn she had on her sideboard in the vestibule was always filled with envelopes of money. With the night air filling the hallway, the banknotes strewn on the table fluttered like a hundred paper birds.

  * * *

  But as many guests as she had entertained in the years since Charles’s death, a particular young man had surprised her. One evening, she noticed a new name on Boldini’s suggested guest list. A Major Antoine d’Angelis.

  “I knew his mother well,” Boldini informed her. “He will be a nice addition to the evening.”

  He couldn’t have been more than thirty years of age. He did not smoke cigars or boast about himself, as did so many of the other aristocratic men Boldini enjoyed inviting to their soirées. The major instead had a surprisingly deep desire to talk about art.

  He stood in front of Marthe’s portrait for several minutes when he first arrived. The cognac in his glass hardly touched his lips.

  “A marvel of a painting,” he said as Marthe approached him. Dressed in chiffon, she floated through the room like a water lily.

  “Thank you,” she said. “It was commissioned by a dear friend.”

  “Well, Boldini certainly has captured you.”

  “It was ten years ago,” she said. “I’m no longer so young.”

  He smiled at her, and Marthe sensed that by the way he looked at her, she must have reminded him of someone from his past.

  “A beautiful woman never ages . . .” His mellifluous voice was soothing to her. “I’m not sure if Master Boldini told you, but my mother was also a painter.”

  She shook her head. “He alluded to the fact that you were more than just a military man, but, no, he did not mention that your mother was an artist. Would I know her name?”

  “Marie d’Angelis,” he answered proudly. “She was an extraordinary woman.”

  “The name doesn’t sound familiar . . . Not that that means anything other than that I’m revealing my ignorance.” She laughed.

  “I look around your apartment and I see you are anything but ignorant, madame.” He took a sip of his cognac. “You clearly have a keen eye for beauty.”

  She lifted her hand toward her collection of porcelains. “I started collecting Asian ceramics years ago. The glazes comfort me. They remind me of the fog rising off the Seine, or the sky before it snows.”

  “Again, you remind me of my mother, Madame de Florian. The same words might have come from her lips.”

  She smiled. “I believe that is the first time, Major, that someone has told me I remind him of his mother.” She let out another small laugh to show him she was pleasantly amused.

  “I assure you it is an enormous compliment. One I have not bestowed upon any other woman before.”

  “Well, in that case, I’m quite flattered,” Marthe said, placing a hand over her heart. It was a challenge for her not to flirt with the young man, who was clearly at least twenty years younger than she. But with great flair, she reanchored their conversation back to art.

  “And do you paint as well, Major?”

  “Please call me Antoine.” He smiled. “Unless you are planning on enlisting in the reserves.”

  Marthe laughed. “Well, Antoine, I’m curious if you have inherited your mother’s artistic skill.”

  “I have been known to pack a sketchbook in my rucksack.” His eyes were merry. She could see it brought him pleasure to discuss things he probably rarely had a chance to talk about in his military life.

  “Your mother,” she asked as she stepped closer to her portrait. “When did she begin painting?”

  She saw the light change in his eyes, as though his mother’s image had now washed over him. “Quite honestly, I can’t remember a time that she wasn’t.”

  34.

  Marthe

  Paris 1917

  With the Great War still raging throughout Europe and terrifying many of his patrons, Boldini was traveling far and wide in order to obtain new commissions. He found himself even as far as America, where he had first achieved prominence a decade earlier with his portrait of Consuelo Vanderbilt.

  Though she was relieved her artistic companion had left London, where she knew there had been a series of air raids, he hadn’t returned to Paris since her last salon, and Marthe felt his absence profoundly. She missed their conversations about art and collecting. She missed the gossip he loved to share. So, the handwritten card she received one morning from Major d’Angelis couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for her.

  Dearest Madame,

  It has been three weeks since your elegant salon, and still the memory of you lingers like a rich and complex perfume. I must confess that it has been some time since I was able to converse so deeply with someone about art and painting. The career of a military officer is rather black and white, with little room for nuance. While I take pride in my service to our country, there is still a part of me, nurtured by my late mother, that relishes the opportunity to discuss life’s most beautiful treasures. So I thank you for allowing me to speak freely with you.

  I will be returning to Paris for a short reprieve next week, and wonder if I might have the opportunity to take you to dinner for I miss your intelligence and the beautiful shell that encases it. Please say yes.

  Cordially yours,

  Antoine

  Marthe read the major’s letter several times before folding it and placing it in her desk drawer. A well-written letter, particularly one with an undercurrent of flirtation, was one of her great pleasures in life. How many times she had reread those first letters from Charles during their early courtship, or even the ones Boldini showered her with shortly after Charles’s death. It was too many to count. The major’s letter now sent a frisson through her entire body, and she couldn’t help but be flattered by the attention.

  Time was a woman’s mortal enemy, and Marthe knew that each day that passed would make it more difficult to resist its ravages.

  Her monthly cycle had nearly ended, and she dreaded what all women her age feared: that the dewiness that had made her so desirable would soon evaporate. It was only a matter of time before her face would begin to resemble one of those old master paintings where the once creamy white complexion on the subject’s face was cracked with a fine web of lines.

  Her body was still lithe, soft in the places that it should be, though her neck was no longer taut, and that saddened her. But that was the beauty of a high collar or a strand of pearls. Like a clever chameleon, a smart woman could camouflage nearly any physical fault.

  In the same way Boldini had first served to bolster her spirits when Charles was ill, allowing her a safe arena in which to flirt and talk with someone who shared her love of the arts, the major’s invitation provided Marthe the same boost. She could hardly contain her excitement to go out to dinner with him.

  She went to her desk and pulled out a sheet of her heavy bonded stationery with the gold butterfly embossed on the top.

  My dear major, she wrote in her perfectly scrolled hand. How lovely to hear from such a busy man . . .

  * * *

  She was giddy at the prospect of seeing him again. It was a far better tonic then any rosewater bath or expensive face cream. The adrenaline of their anticipated meeting had restored her youth. The day before they were to meet, a second letter arrived, shorter than the first, simply stating: Meet me at eight p.m. at Maxim’s. And wear your very best dress.

  When the evening arrived, she chose her wardrobe as carefully as a soldier prepares for battle. She knew what parts of her body could still be exposed, and what was now in need of a shield. Hardly anyone still wore the tight-fitting corsets of the Belle Époque, and she was probably one of the rare few who missed the cinched waist. The pain had always been connected to pleasure for her. The untying
of the laces, the ability to finally breathe freely as you slipped into your lover’s arms. Now the fashions were more diaphanous, the waistline higher. No longer was there a need to bind oneself to create the most exaggerated hourglass figure.

  Still, she would not forgo a beautiful undergarment. A woman must have a secret she kept to herself. Beneath the first layers of wool or silk chiffon, the lingerie she chose was the second layer of the flower. The skin beneath, the sacred petal, only a chosen few would ever get to touch.

  She chose a corset that slimmed her hips and elevated her ample breasts, one in deep navy satin and pale blue flossing. Over the years she had never tired of her colorful collection of corsets, even though the styles had changed to accompany the latest fashion. While virtuous women wore only white to bind them, a woman well versed in the cultivation of pleasure knew how to communicate through the language of color. Marthe smiled, remembering how when she wanted to be demure with Charles, she chose a corset in tea rose edged in ecru-colored lace. When she wanted to accentuate her passionate side, she chose one that was strawberry red.

  Now, as she prepared for her evening with the major, she stroked the satin panels of deep midnight blue. She reached for a black chemise edged in lace before putting on her corset. After Giselle tied the laces in back, only then did she begin to apply her perfume.

  * * *

  The dress she selected to meet Major d’Angelis was peacock blue. The collar was high and trimmed in silk satin. The décolleté was of a matching blue chiffon, showing off her breasts, like a beautiful face beneath a veil. The shoulders, too, were capped in sheer fabric, thus highlighting the softness of their shape without the glare of bare skin.

  Marthe believed only a few women understood how important the right clothes were in the art of seduction. She considered herself an expert.

  The fashionably high waistline of her dress was gathered at the center and marked with a circle of glass beading. The skirt, made of hammered silk, fell in soft, fluid folds as she walked.

  She had always loved how fabric changed when one moved within it. The ripple of shadows, the shimmer of light, as the female contour shifted beneath the silk.

  Marthe walked over to the long mirror to admire her silhouette.

  The color of the dress offset her red hair and slate blue eyes. Her eyes sparkled. And having rested with ice-cold compresses on her face since early morning, her skin was as taut and white as an artist’s canvas. On her vanity table she arranged her makeup brushes, then slowly and carefully, she began to add color to her face.

  In the oval frame of her mirror, Marthe appraised herself. The only thing missing was a comb for her hair and her strand of pearls.

  * * *

  Marthe took a cab to Maxim’s, where the velvet capes were lined in ermine and every woman’s wrist sparkled with diamonds except hers. Still, she felt beautiful. A young woman in her twenties wearing a gray silk-georgette gown with feathers at the sleeves, stopped to marvel at the color of Marthe’s dress.

  “Major,” she beckoned, as she approached his table. The light was soft and flattering.

  He stood up and looked at her with his dark, fawnlike eyes.

  “Come sit down, I’ve been waiting.” The waiter in the white jacket pulled out the chair for her.

  “I wasn’t sure you’d come. Finally I can breathe easier.” He snapped his fingers in the direction of the waiter and ordered a bottle of champagne.

  She laughed and he smiled. A full set of broad, white teeth she hadn’t remembered when they had spoken so intimately in her apartment.

  “You must realize by now, women find flattery hard to resist,” she teased.

  “I was not lying when I wrote that our first encounter restored something in me. It is not easy to find such scintillating conversation in the military.”

  “Don’t your brothers-in-arms speak adoringly of the wood and shades of varnish of their pistols? I’ve heard some are quite beautiful, with inlays of amber and tortoiseshell . . .”

  “Ah, and now you tease me, Madame de Florian.”

  Again, she laughed. “I don’t mean to mock you. I’m happy to have the chance to have dinner with a gentleman and an officer.”

  He smiled.

  “Well, I’m equally delighted. It’s a rare occasion that I have the opportunity to dine with a woman, much less one of such beauty and sophistication. And one that obviously selects the colors of her dress the way a painter chooses his pigments.”

  He reached underneath the table, to touch her thigh through the silk.

  “Peacock blue,” he said. “A perfect choice to offset the red in your hair.”

  How she loved that he shared her language of color. Their flirting was a dance with all the right artistic notes, just as it had once been with Boldini. But this time the romantic chemistry was as strong as it first was with Charles. As Marthe sat across from the young major, her imagination took hold of her. She saw in her mind’s eye her fingers running through his dark, black curls. She saw him unbuttoning her dress. She saw him sliding her black slip from her shoulder, before unlacing her corset and peeling off her final layer, her chemise. She could see herself standing naked in front of him, waiting for his touch. All this while sitting across from him sipping champagne.

  “I am nearly old enough to be your mother,” she whispered, her lips coming closer to his ear. Beneath the table, she now squeezed his hand.

  “Beauty is infinite. It has no age,” he whispered as he leaned in to her.

  She felt the heat of his fingers, and her skin tingled at his touch.

  “How long are you in Paris?” Marthe asked. Her hand now moved toward his trousers.

  “Sadly, only the weekend.” She could see him struggling to maintain an expression of control. “As you know, we are in the middle of a great war.”

  She closed her eyes. She wanted desperately to pretend the war did not exist. She wanted only to focus on the pleasure, no matter how fleeting it was.

  “A short reprieve, then?” She smiled.

  “Yes, too short, I’m afraid.”

  “Then we must make the most of our time together, Major.” Her eyes came alive, and beneath the table, she caressed him yet again.

  * * *

  Their flirtation escalated as the hours passed. Marthe circled around him, not knowing whether to unleash herself or bridle her passion deep inside. How wonderful it felt to be desired by someone so much younger and with such dark, handsome looks.

  She could hardly believe he could desire a mature woman who was closer in age to his mother than a lover should be.

  So, after they shared a plate of oysters, dined on roast chicken, and ended with two pots de crème so dark and sinful, she knew there would be no better way to end the evening than to take him back to her butterfly bed.

  He stood there undressing her in her bedroom, just as he had in her imagination hours before.

  The dress was unfastened. The slip was removed, the satin laces of her corset untied, and finally he took off her chemise. Only then did the major take two firm hands around her waist, and lift her toward the bed.

  * * *

  Later on, when she traced a line down his chest with her finger, she felt as though she were stepping back in time, to a period in her life when she had Charles beside her. But, as was often the case with intense sessions of lovemaking, a sadness crept in afterward that was hard for her to shake off.

  Before finally going to sleep, Marthe had drawn the curtains and kept the bedroom bathed in shadow so he would not see the fine lines around her eyes and mouth. But she knew it would be difficult to fool him when the light changed in the morning.

  “How beautiful you are, Marthe,” he said, kissing her fingertips. It was as if he had read her mind and sensed her vulnerability.

  She took her hand to his face and brought her mouth close to his, inhaling his
sweet breath as though its youth and vitality had restorative powers. “I am grateful we spoke so intensely that evening at my salon . . .”

  He smiled. “Isn’t that where all great seductions begin? With the mind?”

  She felt her skin coming alive as he spoke; the connection between her intellect and her body was an intricate web.

  “The mind is the gateway for desire, for that is where all our secret fantasies are stored.”

  “How did such a young man become so wise?” she asked as she roped her leg over his. “Did they teach you such things in military school?”

  He pulled her closer to him.

  “No, it was my mother. She encouraged me to keep a dream journal. Every morning she told me to write down what I remembered from the night before.” He looked up at the ceiling, then closed his eyes.

  “When I was little, it was difficult to retain the exact details. I might remember a single image. A dragon or a paper pinwheel gifted to me in the park. But soon my mind trained itself to recall the images more clearly.”

  “Do you still keep one?” she asked as she stroked the inside of his knee.

  “I no longer write them down, but every morning I pause for a few minutes and try to force myself to remember before I start my day.” He sat up and now faced her.

  “In fact, just last week you appeared in one of my dreams like an empress, your body wrapped in a silk kimono embroidered with silver cranes.”

  “How marvelous,” she chimed, her pleasure was evident.

  “You dropped the robe from your shoulders, and the material pooled around you like a frozen lake. I stood transfixed as you raised one foot after the other, stepping over the fallen silk and walking toward me with outstretched arms.”

  He lifted a hand and ran it through her heavy hair. The tortoiseshell combs lay on the bedside table, and now her hair ran over her shoulders and breasts.

 
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