The velvet hours, p.24
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       The Velvet Hours, p.24

           Alyson Richman
 

  That afternoon we had heard that Hitler was directing his troops toward Norway. Their footsteps were pounding across Europe, boots striking against pavement and arms raised in Fascist salute. Food was increasingly scarce in Paris. Giselle had to bribe the butcher to get even a few scraps to make a pot-au-feu. But Marthe was at her finest when it came to creating a stage of beauty out of almost nothing.

  My grandmother, who had looked fragile for weeks, had transformed herself from the last time I had seen her, just as Alex’s father had from this morning. She stood in front of her painting, her hair perfectly coiffured, her face radiant with the arrival of new guests.

  I saw Monsieur Armel take a step back, as though he had walked into something wholly unexpected. Grandmother opened her arms like a great actress greeting an audience from the stage.

  “Monsieur Armel . . . Alex . . . I’m so delighted you’ve come.”

  * * *

  She came alive that evening. Her arms danced as she spoke. Her eyes glimmered. I saw her as a coquette, as a hostess, and as a femme fatale, who used every word, every movement, to charm.

  Monsieur Armel softened under the gentle haze of candlelight. The man who only hours before had sat forlornly in an empty storeroom now seemed rejuvenated in Marthe’s presence. He began to speak of his love of books, and illuminated manuscripts, passions that Marthe knew all too well could inspire the spirit and imagination.

  And Marthe spoke of her own love of collecting. Her porcelains. Her foray into paintings and being an artist’s muse. Although she did not collect books and certainly nothing connected to Judaica, both she and Monsieur Armel soon bonded over their mutual appreciation of all that revealed the imprint of the artist’s hand.

  Giselle served chocolate mousse for dessert, and I saw how slowly Alex ate each spoonful. I could sense how he savored the sweetness of the cream, as though each mouthful might be his last.

  “You must be on good terms with your dairy,” Monsieur Armel said after he had made sure nothing remained of his chocolate mousse.

  Marthe laughed. “We do our best.” I noticed, however, she had not lifted her own spoon.

  As the hours ticked away and it seemed clear that midnight would soon be upon us, I heard Alex’s voice come softly into the chatter.

  “I think we should be going, Papa. I must leave in the morning.” His voice, although quiet as a child’s, sliced through the air.

  Marthe placed her hands on the edge of the dining room table.

  “But I have not served the last course yet, Alex.”

  His eyes widened and his mouth opened as though he was about to apologize for what appeared to be a misjudgment in manners.

  Marthe rose and walked toward the console. Next to a bowl of fruit was an envelope.

  “It’s a letter from an old friend of mine. General Antoine d’Angelis,” she said as she pressed it into Alex’s hands. I could see that the red seal on the back of the envelope had already been broken. “Open it, Alex. I think you will like very much what it says.”

  * * *

  We all fell silent. I looked over at my grandmother, who now stood next to Alex. The official white stationery from General d’Angelis fluttered slightly in his fingers.

  Alex read the letter to himself before reading it aloud. And when he realized the words indicated he would be dismissed from serving in the French army, he stopped midsentence and put the letter down.

  “Can this really be?”

  “Sometimes a woman can manage to call in a favor,” Marthe said as she returned to her seat. She folded her hands in her lap and smiled. I hadn’t ever seen her look so pleased.

  “Can what be?” Monsieur Armel’s voice was impatient.

  Alex turned to Marthe. “How did you manage this? It cannot be true.”

  “Oh, but I assure you, dear Alex, it is.”

  “But what does it say, Alex?” I reached across and touched Alex’s wrist and squeezed it.

  “It says I have been dismissed from duty.”

  My eyes darted to Marthe, who was now beaming. Enthroned in the tall wooden dining room chair, she appeared triumphant.

  Monsieur Armel, however, looked as though he was in a state of disbelief. Even I struggled to believe the contents of the letter were true.

  “I have no words,” Monsieur Armel’s voice rattled. “I have never been one to believe in miracles.”

  Marthe smiled. “No one is asking you to believe in miracles.” Marthe’s eyes looked over to me, then to Alex. “Instead, I ask you to believe in love.

  “I am an old lady now. And Solange is really the only connection to family I have. It is a gift to see her and Alex together.”

  “I don’t know how we will ever repay our gratitude.” Monsieur Armel still looked as if he was in shock.

  “There is no need to thank me.” Marthe raised her glass. “It has been a gift for me in my old age to witness my granddaughter falling in love.”

  My face warmed as she looked over to me. I had never believed my grandmother to be sentimental, but once again she had surprised me.

  I met her gaze and at that moment we both exchanged a look of gratitude, communicated solely through our eyes.

  She took another sip of wine and pressed her fingers to her chest, stifling her cough.

  In the few seconds we waited for her to speak, I focused on Alex. He was still studying the letter, as though he couldn’t believe what it said.

  With her voice returned to her, Marthe lifted her glass again in the gesture of a toast. “Let young love be our lantern in times of peril.”

  Monsieur Armel lifted his glass and looked in the direction of Alex and me.

  And for a moment, everything seemed perfect. Time stood exquisitely still. Marthe had managed to give us a gift of unexpected possibility. We savored it as though it were something that was connected to the magic of her apartment and the woman who lived as though the unrest outside did not permeate her silk-upholstered walls. I pressed it deep within me. I saw life return to Monsieur Armel’s eyes, and relief wash over Alex. And my own heart was restored, the worry temporarily alleviated. I saw it all as though it were a moving painting, captured within a golden frame.

  * * *

  After Alex and his father left later that evening, I found my grandmother sitting alone in the parlor. She was ensconced on the sofa, her dressing gown wrapped tightly around her, her face without a trace of makeup.

  She sat in profile, her body slightly twisted, with her legs curled beneath her and her chin titled upward toward her portrait. It would have made a striking painting, the dual images of Marthe. The first when she was at the zenith of her beauty and youth, hovering over the second, older image, which struck me as somehow more pure.

  I stood at the threshold for several seconds watching her, careful not to make a sound so I could continue to observe her from afar. A sheaf of moonlight streamed through the window, and a single candle burned at her side. The setting reminded me of an old master painting. The quiet repose of a fragile, aging woman, wrapped in oyster gray silk with the painting behind her, as bright as a burning star.

  After a few seconds, I walked toward her. “Grand-maman,” I said as I sat down beside her. I had never before joined her on the small love seat where she perched herself, instead always preferring the chair positioned across. But now I made it a point to settle in next to her.

  Her white hands were clasped in front of her. I reached and lifted one, taking it into my own.

  “Thank you so much.” I did not whisper. I said the words plain and straight, to emphasize how much I truly meant them.

  She turned and met my eyes. Her fingers grasped my own.

  “I never expected you, Solange. I assumed I would live out my life alone in this apartment surrounded by my things. With just a few words each day uttered between me and my maid.”

 
“I did not expect you, either,” I said. My eyes were betraying me, as I felt the onset of tears. “I suppose we have Papa to thank for our union,” I said, forcing a smile.

  “Henri . . .” She said his name as though he were something that had slipped through her fingers. Something that would never be hers to own.

  “Yes, he did bring us together. I will always be grateful. Though he has no love for me, he gave an old woman a gift, even if it wasn’t deserved.”

  She shook her head. “I understand his hurt that I gave him up, but I had no way of supporting a child then. Louise did me a great favor, and she loved him and gave him a good home.”

  I nodded. I understood, even if my father did not. I remembered the details from when she first shared them with me.

  “Now that I’m old, I am more reflective of what I am leaving behind.” She lifted her eyes toward her painting. “I once told Charles that when I died, all that would be known about me was my painting. That I was an illusion otherwise.” Her eyes returned to me. “But now you know my story, and you still didn’t leave me after you heard it to the end.”

  “But it’s not the end, Grand-maman,” I interjected. “There are so many more chapters to be written. And, hopefully, they will include me.”

  Her fingers squeezed mine again. This time even more tightly than the last. “Yes,” she said softly.

  “This is what makes a story beautiful . . . more poignant . . .”

  Marthe’s gaze suddenly shifted inward, as though she was searching for something that eluded her grasp.

  “If I can leave behind more than a painting, if I can ensure that you have love in your life and someone beside you, then I have redeemed myself a bit, no?”

  “Of course, you have more than redeemed yourself. You’ve saved Alex’s life.”

  She closed her eyes as I lowered her hand to her lap.

  And we remained still. Our heads tilting toward each other, a warmth floating between us. And no longer was there a need for words.

  43.

  Solange

  April 1940

  The next morning, I awakened refreshed and happy. With the gift of General d’Angelis’s letter, it felt as though a heavy brick had lifted from my chest. I no longer imagined Alex dying alone in a trench or in a far-off military hospital. I pulled my legs out from beneath the white linen and stretched my toes. Sunlight poured in through the little diamond-cut window above my bed.

  I slid my arms into my robe, knotted the sash, and walked toward the kitchen. I could hear the sound of water running and suspected Giselle was already hard at work cleaning up from what remained of last night’s dinner.

  “Good morning,” I said when I saw her. She was bent over the sink scrubbing a pot with some soap and steel wool. Her apron was spotted with water.

  She lifted her head toward me, then pulled out her hands and dried them on her apron.

  “You are up earlier than I expected, mademoiselle. I’m sorry I haven’t yet prepared your breakfast tray.”

  “Don’t worry,” I said, walking over toward the stove to retrieve the kettle. “I can do it myself. We left you with extra work after last night’s dinner.”

  “I was glad to see madame so happy,” she said as she removed the pot from the sink so I could fill the kettle.

  “Still, I’m glad she is sleeping in today . . .” She placed the pot to the side and began drying it. “She tires so easily now.”

  It was true. It wasn’t just the cough and weight loss I had noticed; Grandmother was retiring to her bedroom right after dinner.

  “And I’m sure you’ve noticed, madame no longer seems to have an appetite.”

  I nodded. I had noticed that Marthe hardly ever touched her food anymore.

  “You can imagine how much difficulty I have trying to get the right ingredients for her menu, and when I see she doesn’t eat a morsel . . . well I know something must be wrong, mademoiselle.”

  I had been aware that something was ailing Marthe for weeks now, and I was relieved that Giselle had brought it up.

  “Has she seen a doctor?”

  Giselle stepped back from the sink and reached behind her back to unknot her apron strings.

  “Madame has seen the doctor.” She looked down at the tile floor. “She made arrangements for Dr. Payard to visit her here when you go out on your errands.”

  I looked puzzled. “Why would she feel the need for such secrecy? She knows I would only show concern for her.”

  “Madame is most private about things. But I am ashamed to say that I eavesdropped while he examined her in her bedroom.”

  I said nothing, waiting for Giselle to relay what she had heard.

  “He told her that he wanted her to come to his office for some further tests. That he had reason to be concerned.”

  “Did she agree to go?”

  “No. She told him she didn’t want a diagnosis. She said even if he were to tell her she was dying, it wouldn’t change a thing. She was going to live out her life as she always had.”

  “This is ridiculous . . . If there is something we can do to help her, we must encourage it.”

  “Madame is modern in some ways, and wholly old-fashioned in others. Surely, you realize she intends to keep her illness a secret. She is a very proud woman, Mademoiselle Solange. She will do everything in her power to hide it behind her face powder and lipstick.”

  I knew what Giselle said was true.

  “I always believed it would be just the two of us here at the end. But now I am bolstered by the fact that you’ve come into her life. That she has managed to forge a connection with someone who shares her blood.

  “She has been good to me.” Giselle’s eyes were now moist. “When my husband died, she paid for his funeral. Two days later, a basket of the most beautiful children’s clothes arrived at my doorstep and a basket of food from Fauchon’s. She could have sent both from a middle-of-the-road merchant, but she sent the best. Even for me, her maid.”

  * * *

  I helped Giselle finish drying the pots and waited there hoping to hear Grandmother stirring from her bedroom.

  “Let her sleep, Giselle,” I insisted. “You go out and enjoy your day.”

  I was anxious to see Alex. I wanted to be alone with him and talk freely. I wanted to feel his hand in mine and walk through the park; I wanted to breathe in the fresh spring air. But I felt conflicted knowing that Marthe was in her room suffering.

  I walked out of the kitchen, down the golden parquet floors in the hallway to the far room where Marthe slept. I slowly opened the door to catch a glimpse of her.

  Marthe was asleep with a silk mask over her eyes. Her long hair was let out from its combs and flowed over her shoulders. At the crown of her hair, I could see the roots coming in all white.

  She appeared majestic as she slept. It was my second time seeing her in bed, and her silk upholstery with the embroidered butterflies once again enthralled me. I wondered what she dreamt of now that she no longer had suitors calling her, the salons she had hosted years before were now a thing of the past. I wondered if when she dreamt she saw herself as that young, beautiful being that Boldini had painted above the mantel, or if she ever dreamt of me.

  44.

  April 1940

  As Marthe slept, I left the apartment in search of Alex. Outside, the almond blossoms covered the pavement in a blanket of white petals. I tried to savor the gift that Marthe had given us, the knowledge that Alex would not be sent to war. It amazed me how each day could differ from the next. Only yesterday, I believed it might be the last time I would hold Alex’s hand. Today, I was given a reprieve. But I also suspected Monsieur Armel would now be working as hard as possible to secure a way for him and Alex to leave Europe.

  I knew better than to look for Alex at the shop in the Marais, as the Armels had given up the lease. I suspec
ted the two of them would be at their residence on the Rue Chardon-Lagache. I took the Métro close to their address and then searched for a phone box on the street to let him know I was in close proximity.

  “I’m near your apartment,” I told Alex from the phone box.

  “You’re welcome to visit us here,” he said. “But don’t be surprised if Papa hugs you. He is still floating from all that happened last night.”

  I laughed. “I’ll be over in just a minute.”

  Once outside their building, I pressed the buzzer and pushed the door open. It was a beautiful classical building much like Marthe’s. A checkerboard of marble stretched across the lobby floor. The walls were painted in an opaque chalk white. In the center of the lobby was an iron-caged elevator, but I opted instead for the stairs. By the time I reached the fifth-floor landing, Alex had already opened the door.

  “Good morning.” He kissed me on both cheeks. “Now when I see that smile on your face, I realize yesterday evening wasn’t a dream.”

  “No, it wasn’t.” I stepped into the apartment. “I told you my grandmother possessed a bit of magic.”

  “You weren’t joking, were you?”

  “I hardly ever joke,” I teased.

  “Come, let me tell Papa you’re here. He’s in the library sorting through some boxes from the store.”

  I followed him down the hall and through a set of French doors. The room opened and revealed an extensive library. If Grandmother’s apartment smelled like a garden of flowers, the Armels’ was rich with the fragrance of books. The perfume of ink and wood pulp. The smells of leather and hide.

  I breathed in deeply. How I loved the scent.

  “Solange!” Monsieur Armel stood up from his desk to greet me. “After last night I should call you my angel.” He opened up his arms and embraced me.

 
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