The velvet hours, p.21
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       The Velvet Hours, p.21

           Alyson Richman

  “It was after recalling the vividness of that dream, that I decided to write you.”

  “I’m so happy you did.”

  “I only regret that I won’t have time to buy you something beautiful before I leave tomorrow.”

  “Don’t give it a second thought,” she laughed, kissing him again. “It will be nice to have a handsome young major in my debt.”

  She pulled herself on top of him, his body a saddle beneath her. And her hair fell against his skin, the sensation as delicate as fallen rain.



  Paris 1917

  Over the years, Marthe had been forced to become creative in order to supplement her dwindling income. She had modeled for Boldini on a few occasions for his own personal studies, though never nude.

  But when he asked her to pose so he could experiment with different positions of the body, she always obliged. He always showed his appreciation by leaving an envelope of money by the pedestal near his door.

  She had also sold a few of her ceramic pieces to Boldini as well as back to Ichiro, who had told her when she first bought them from him that they would retain their value and he could always resell them. Marthe had already sold back to him most of her shunga collection and three of her celadon bowls and a famille rose vase.

  But nearly twenty years had passed since Charles had died. Marthe realized that she was starting to run out of money, as much of her savings had dwindled. And now that she was older, the opportunities to model, as well as her list of new suitors began to grow sparse. The major had been a rare opportunity, one that would likely not repeat itself. He had written to tell her that he was now in western France, but she knew he could not say too much with all correspondence censored due to the war.

  She thought it unlikely she would see him again, and she knew he was not in a position to financially support her as Charles had. If he survived the war, he would come back and marry a woman his own age, as she believed he should. The only men who’d take her as a mistress would be ones close to seventy with failing eyesight. Marthe understood that the same affliction that had caused Mata Hari to turn to espionage was now threatening her. The next step to stretching her finances further would be to let Giselle go.

  When she met with Boldini now, Marthe was too embarrassed to admit she was having difficulty making ends meet, though she suspected the artist realized something was amiss when she informed him she could no longer afford to hold her monthly salons.

  “With the wartime rations now, one needs to buy nearly everything on the black market.” She shook her head. “The cost for everything is just exorbitant.”

  “I am in the same position, carissima. I’ve had to lower my commission price, but the cost of all my supplies is inflating. Canvas is now particularly high because they need it for the war.”

  She smiled at him. “And I was going to ask if you’d perhaps like to buy another one of my precious ceramics,” she laughed. “I suppose I’ll need to pay another visit to Ichiro instead.”

  * * *

  She dressed in chiffon for her visit to Ichiro. The dove gray that had always been a favorite of Charles’s, the color that offset her eyes. She also put on the strand of pearls from Charles, the ones she swore to herself she would never sell unless her situation became dire.

  By this point, she had little of her remaining ceramic collection left. That afternoon, she placed her melon gourd vase in its original bamboo box and brought it to the shop.

  Typically whenever she returned to Ichiro’s, a calm came over her. With its dark wood interior and shelves that were never overcrowded, but instead were maintained to showcase the beauty and rarity of the objects displayed.

  But this time, when she arrived at the store, Ichiro looked as though he was not setting up new inventory, but was rather packing it all up to be shipped someplace else.

  “Ichiro,” she gasped, unable to mask her surprise. “Where is all of this going?”

  “Back to Japan.”

  “But for heaven’s sake, why?”

  He reached behind his neck and untied his smock, placing it on the ladder in front of him.

  “I’m afraid, Madame de Florian, I will be returning there as well.”

  “I don’t understand.” She stepped closer to him. “You always seemed to do so well here, and you have your clientele that deeply appreciates you . . .”

  “Paris is not the best climate for a Japanese anymore. The war has taken a toll on business. And things from the Far East are no longer in fashion as they once were.”

  “Oh . . . ,” she murmured. She held the bamboo box that she had wrapped with a silk scarf closer to her chest. “I’m not so sure you’ll be interested in buying this back from me, then . . .”

  He smiled at her. His face, like hers, had changed over the twenty years since she had first come through his door. His once-black hair was now nearly white. His skin reminded her of the porcelain she had gifted Boldini years before, the one with the cracked ice glaze.

  “Let’s have some tea in the back, like old times . . .” He gestured with his hand for her to follow, and together they walked behind the curtain.

  * * *

  “What have you brought me today?” he asked her, after he returned from putting the ladder away and came over to his desk with two steaming cups of tea.

  “The melon gourd vase . . . ,” she answered forlornly. “I’ve held on to it as long as I could . . .” She had placed the bamboo box on the desk while she waited for him. Now she rested her palm on its lid.

  “I am certain you will find it another good home.”

  Ichiro’s eyes met hers. They had known each other for so long that he sensed without her having to explain further that she had reached a point where she could no longer survive without selling something worth a lot more than just a vase.

  “I will buy back the vase. It’s a rare piece and I know several collectors, both here and in Japan, who will be happy to have an example from an imperial kiln. But I feel I must give you some advice about something else.”

  He looked first into her eyes, then down at her neck. His eyes rested on her strand of pearls.

  “I must tell you, as a good friend, some information I have recently learned from some acquaintances back in Japan.”

  He took a deep breath and placed his hands on the table.

  “I am aware there are ongoing efforts to cultivate pearls. The trials now are in their beginning stages, but I have heard that they are making great progress.

  “I believe it would be prudent for you to now consider selling your pearls.”

  Marthe lifted her fingers and touched the necklace.

  “But these were from Charles . . .” Her voice began to tremble. “His last gift to me.”

  Ichiro lowered his eyes, then cleared his voice. “I am sure he gave them as a gift so that you would always have security. A single strand of natural pearls of that quality and radiance must have cost him a fortune few men could even hope to earn in a lifetime.”

  “Yes,” she said softly. “And he bought it at Mellerio’s.”

  “We’ve known each other a very long time . . . I would not guide you wrong. You really should sell them.”

  The necklace, with the only substantial weight carried in the emerald butterfly clasp, had always felt like little dewdrops around her neck. It had been a part of her for so long, she couldn’t conceive of parting with it.

  “I’m not sure I understand . . .”

  “Your pearls are priceless because thousands of pearls needed to be harvested from the depths of the ocean to find ones that match in size and color . . .”

  “Yes, Charles said the same thing when he gave me the necklace.”

  “But the day will soon come when pearls are cultivated by a man inserting a grain of sand into an oyster and waiting for it to grow under
his own careful eye. When that happens, the natural pearls around your neck will be worth a fraction of their original cost.

  “Sell them now,” he advised. “If you are wise, you will take that money and live on it quietly for the rest of your life. But if you wait any longer, Mellerio’s will hear whispers of what’s going on in the Far East with the pearl market.” He took another deep breath and shook his head. “And then, my dear Madame de Florian, even they will want nothing to do with your necklace.”



  Paris 1917

  The next afternoon, Marthe walked into the bejeweled storefront of Mellerio’s dressed in all her finery. The dark silk faille dress with the covered buttons. The hat bought from Madame Georgette’s, the gloves from La Samaritaine. And although it wasn’t as elegant as one of her silk purses, she carried the red leather case that contained her precious necklace in a black satchel she made just to ensure she arrived carrying the box in something tasteful and discreet.

  The store was on Rue de la Paix, and the most celebrated names in fashion shared the street as its address. The famous couturier Charles Frederick Worth had his atelier and salon nearby, as did the esteemed fan maker Duvelleroy. The venerable Cartier was further down the street.

  She entered the store with her heart in her stomach. She was selling something that was not only dear to her because it had been a present from Charles, but also something she had always known to be her most valuable possession. Selling it meant that she would no longer have it as a security blanket.

  “Madame.” A man in a dark suit appeared from behind the glass table of glimmering stones. “May I be of assistance?”

  She took a seat on one of the velvet chairs and withdrew the red case from her satchel.

  When he saw the box was Mellerio’s own, he too sat down, but this time across from her. The glass display case became a resting table for her to open the box.

  She heard a small breath escape from him. The pearls, and the butterfly clasp, were dazzling in the light.

  “Whoever purchased these, chose well.”

  She felt a lump in her throat. “Yes,” she managed to say. “His taste was always exquisite.”

  His hands reached to touch the box on each side. He searched under the satin cushion of the box and retrieved the certificate of authenticity and description for the pearls and clasp. “And how can I help you today, madame?”

  “I wish to sell them. I was told that at any time, you would buy them back for at least what he had purchased them for.” She paused.

  “I have one request, though,” she said, her voice surprisingly calm. “I would like to maintain the clasp.”

  He nodded and closed the box.

  “One moment, madame. I will need to check our records to verify the purchase.”

  She folded her hands in her lap.

  “And the name of the person who gave you these pearls?” He cleared his throat.

  “Charles de Montagne,” she said. Again her voice was unflinching.

  He lowered his eyes and nodded again, before vanishing behind a velvet curtain the color of a dark sky.

  * * *

  An hour later, she was given a bank check for an amount of money worthy of a pasha, while inside her satchel was a little velvet pouch with her emerald butterfly clasp tucked inside.

  “Monsieur de Montagne must have had great affection for you, madame,” the sales clerk informed her. “The patriarch of our store himself sold them to him. They were one of the most prized possessions in our vault when he bought them for you.”

  “Thank you,” she answered as she placed her hand over her bag.

  “No, thank you,” he said, clearly oblivious to the knowledge that Ichiro had shared with her about the burgeoning cultivated pearl trade in Asia. We are happy to have them back in our collection.”

  Around her, the mirrors and the glass cases with sparkling gemstones were blinding. She had always loved to be surrounded by reflections of beauty. But now she wanted nothing more than the soft shadows of her apartment.

  Marthe met the eyes of the sales clerk before departing.

  “It is a comfort to return them to where they were first bought,” she told him. She did not look at a single jewel under the store’s glimmering lights. She simply adjusted her gloves and gathered her skirt, making her way swiftly out the door.



  March 1940

  My grandmother now sat across from me, a strand of pearls encircling her neck, the glimmering butterfly clasp resting just above the nob of her collarbone. Having relayed the story of how Ichiro convinced her to sell the pearls, and of her success in having sold them before the cultivated pearl market reduced them to a fraction of their original value, a deep satisfaction came over her. Just retelling the story had clearly pleased her.

  “But then what are the pearls you’re wearing now?”

  She touched her neck; a sly smile emerged on her lips.

  “These,” she said with a soft giggle, “are actually cultivated pearls. I bought them years later and had them strung with my butterfly clasp that I could never part with.”

  I was speechless. Had it not been for the guidance of Ichiro, who knows where Marthe would have ended up. It was no secret that many women under similar circumstances could easily have landed in homes for the impoverished. Or worse.

  “You were very lucky your friend gave you such good advice.”

  “Yes, and I received enough money that I was actually able to return to his store and buy back many of my favorite porcelains just before he set sail to Japan.”

  I pushed myself back into the chair; my mind was still spinning from her story.

  “I hope you have enough to fill your notebook, my dear. I’ve now divulged all the high points of my life . . . Do you think I’ve given you enough inspiration?” A throaty laugh escaped her.

  “I think enough for at least two novels, Grand-maman.”

  I placed down my pen and pad. How different the air now seemed between us. In the beginning of our relationship, I sat in Marthe’s parlor intimidated by her elegance and in awe of her apartment. Now, a true friendship had developed between us. She had shared her life story with me and, now more than ever, I was inspired to craft the material into a novel. With Father away and the war forcing most of us to stay indoors, it seemed like the time was ripe to begin.

  “You know, Solange, since I’ve been spending so much time with you, I’ve begun to reflect on my own mortality. I look at you, a girl at the peak of her youth with her life ahead of her, and instead of making me feel older, you bring me a surprising sense of comfort.” Her gaze traveled toward mine and then lifted toward the window. Outside, the sky had turned a chalk blue.

  “I suppose because I never had children around me, ones that I could mark time by the way they grew or the milestones they achieved, I didn’t feel the passage of time like most women.” She reached over to pour water into the small drinking glass Giselle had left by her side. With Marthe’s recent coughing spells, Giselle had been vigilant in making sure there was always a filled pitcher nearby.

  The water slid down her throat, and the sound of her swallow was slightly perceptible.

  “It has been strange for me to look at a young and bright girl across from me for the past year and a half. It’s made me feel more alive to have someone visit me and hear my stories, but it’s also forced me to recognize that I am not eternal. I won’t be around forever.”

  I lowered my eyes. Marthe had never appeared sentimental with me before, and I was unsure how to respond.

  I shifted my gaze toward her painting.

  “Your portrait will be here forever,” I said as my eyes focused on the image of Marthe captured in the gilded frame. In the sideways glance of young Marthe, her image seemed omnipresent, as if Boldini had painted her
knowing this. He had, in fact, made her immortal.

  “Yes, the painting.” She let out another small laugh, and now she, too, focused her gaze at herself captured on the canvas.

  “Will I always remain above that mantel . . . even for years to come?” She turned toward me, almost as if asking me to seal some sort of promise.

  I stole one last look at the portrait and then at Marthe. “Well, if it’s within my power. I will do everything to keep it that way.”

  “It is a wonderful thing to be able to believe in another person’s word, and I certainly trust you,” she confided. Her eyes closed for a moment and a sense of peace washed over her face. “I am so grateful for that . . .”

  “Of course,” I said, hoping to reassure her.

  “I made mistakes with your father, I realize that. But I don’t think I would have been a good mother even if I had kept him.” She took a small breath. “Sometimes life gives us a second chance to redeem ourselves.”

  “Yes,” I agreed, “I would like to believe it does.”

  “And who would have ever thought I’d have a third role in my lifetime. ‘Grand-maman.’ I wonder if Charles and Boldini would say my new title suits me?”

  I smiled. “I think they’d both say you wear it regally, as you do everything.”

  “Thank you, my dear,” she said, the last word catching in the reverberations of her cough.

  “To think now, I’m ending my evening with a glass of water instead of wine or champagne . . . Indeed, Solange, I’m getting old!”

  “Well, I must be as well, as I’m off to bed now, and it’s only nine thirty,” I said, getting up from my chair.

  “Beauty sleep is very important . . . Especially if a young woman is intending to meet a gentleman the next morning.”

  Had I told my grandmother about Alex? I didn’t believe I had.

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