The velvet hours, p.26
The Velvet Hours, p.26Alyson Richman
My eyes met hers. “I’m sure you haven’t.”
“Now, shall we go?” She gestured toward the door. “Giselle mentioned the marzipans were on the counter.”
I went into the kitchen and found a gilt-colored box with a red satin bow.
Returning to the hallway, I asked Grandmother how Giselle always managed to find the best provisions, when nearly every shelf in Paris was bare.
“Jean-Luc,” she said, and a sly smile appeared on her lips. “It’s convenient to have a brother in the black market.”
* * *
It was nearly five o’clock when we arrived at the Armels’ apartment. Marthe had shunned taking the Métro, and so we arrived by taxi.
“It’s hardly a coach,” she said as I shut the door behind us. “How times have changed.”
“Indeed, not a horse in sight.” I laughed as we both stepped onto the curb.
I looked up at the tall stone facade of the Armels’ apartment building. The carved pillars that flanked the large wooden door.
“I’ve never even been outside Paris,” I said softly.
I paused in front of the buzzer to their apartment, hesitating for a moment before I announced we had arrived.
I was slightly embarrassed by my lack of worldly exposure, in contrast to my grandmother.
But Marthe took the opportunity to show me that the space between us was not as wide as I imagined. She touched my wrist slightly, saying: “And I have only been to Venice, the city where I first took my name.”
As we stepped into the Armels’ apartment, I no longer inhaled the smell of books, but rather the warm scent of simmering onions.
“I’m so pleased you both could join us,” Monsieur Armel said with great exuberance.
I saw Grandmother’s eyes travel inside. Sitting at the table were two little children, a boy no older than six and a girl that looked a few years older, perhaps nine.
For a moment, I was seized with a sense of alarm. In all of the excitement of the past two days, I had forgotten to tell Marthe that we would not be the Armels’ only guests.
I could see Grandmother stiffen at the sight of the children. The playful excitement that had laced the air since we had left her apartment suddenly vanished.
Monsieur Armel noticed Marthe’s look of bewilderment.
“Didn’t Solange tell you?” He smiled warmly. “We’re being joined by a colleague of mine, Solomon Weckstein, and his two young children, Eva and Leo. His wife is in the kitchen trying to help save my poor attempt to make a chicken.” He laughed. “I’m lucky the butcher couldn’t get me a lamb, as who knows how I would have ruined that.”
“You must pardon me, Monsieur Armel. Suddenly, I am feeling quite unwell.”
I looked at Marthe. She was shaking.
“She has been a bit under the weather recently,” I apologized as I took my grandmother’s arm. I felt its thinness beneath the silk material of her blouse, and her fragility sent a pang through my heart. I suddenly regretted that I encouraged her to leave the house.
“Come, please sit down . . .” Alex took Marthe’s arm and ushered her to the living room.
She was white as a gull. She turned toward me as Alex escorted her across the hall. I read the expression on her face as though she was hoping I might be able to save her from something.
“Can we go?” she whispered. “I thought it would only be us this evening . . .”
I was still holding the box of marzipan. The red ribbon had come undone against my nervous hands.
“Of course,” I said as I struggled not to meet Alex’s eyes that I knew were searching for mine.
“Perhaps we shouldn’t have come,” I apologized. “Grandmother’s health has been rather delicate lately and I think she overestimated her strength today . . .”
“Don’t rush off yet,” Monsieur Armel pleaded. “The table is set. The food is nearly ready and we want you to share our Seder.”
I looked at my grandmother and saw that her eyes had suddenly drifted in another direction. Solomon had suddenly emerged and joined the Armels in the hallway. I almost didn’t recognize him. Instead of the typical shabby clothes he wore the few times I had seen him at the shop, he was now dressed in a pressed suit and a crisp shirt and tie. He also wore a black skullcap on his head.
“A pleasure to see you, Mademoiselle Solange.” He nodded in my direction. “And your grandmother as well.”
“Unfortunately, Madame de Florian is not feeling well. Can we ask Rachel to make her some hot tea?”
“Yes, certainly.” He looked at Marthe sympathetically and then retreated back into the kitchen.
Alex motioned for me to bring Marthe into the library, and he helped her to one of the upholstered chairs.
“Perhaps being in the comfort of my collection will soothe you,” Monsieur Armel said as he gestured at his shelves of books. “I know I so enjoyed seeing your porcelains.”
Rachel brought in a cup of tea. She was far younger than I had imagined, as she looked only a few years older than I. Petite with a kind face and dark brown curls, she appeared genuinely concerned with Marthe’s well-being.
“Drink it slowly,” she advised kindly. “And let me know if you’d like anything else. I’ve made some macaroons and they might restore your energy.”
“Thank you, you’re most kind,” Marthe whispered as she took the tea and sipped slowly through the clouds of steam.
“I’ve brought some marzipan,” I said, offering them to Monsieur Armel. “We so appreciate you inviting us.”
“It is the least we could do . . . We are forever indebted to your grandmother.” He looked over to her with affection in his eyes. “She saved Alex.”
“You exaggerate, monsieur. I only wrote a letter.”
Monsieur Armel laughed. “Has anyone told you, Madame de Florian, that your modesty is utterly charming?”
Grandmother lifted her gaze from her teacup. Her color had fully returned to her. “No one, my dear man, has ever called me modest.” She gave him her most beguiling smile. “But I must say, I like it.”
* * *
Perhaps having a few moments to process the addition of children to the dinner enabled Marthe to return to her jovial self. After all, she had always been someone who could adapt quickly. When we returned to the dining room and sat down next to the children, she hardly even seemed to notice them whereas I could hardly peel my eyes away from their sweet faces. One could see they had been dressed in their holiday best. Eva wore a simple cotton pinafore with lace trim, white socks, and shiny black shoes. Little Leo was in dark suspenders and a shirt that was half untucked. They sat with folded hands, their eyes peeled toward the center of the table where there was a large round dish flanked by a set of silver candlesticks. Upon the platter, arranged like a constellation, was a selection of curious things that I knew had symbolic meaning. An egg, parsley, a bone, a bowl of salt water, and a brown mixture of what appeared to be mashed nuts were placed on top of it. Beside it was a basket of covered matzo.
With everyone now seated and Monsieur Armel at the end of the table, the scene looked almost identical to the one in my fourteenth-century Haggadah.
“Shall we begin?” Rachel stood just behind the children.
“Yes, please,” said Monsieur Armel as he gestured to Grandmother and me to sit down.
Rachel reached into her apron and withdrew a box of matches. I heard the strike against the carbon, and then the room was bathed in a soft, mysterious light.
* * *
Grandmother had been placed at the far edge of the table as a gesture of respect. And with her straight back, trim figure, and fashionable dress, she added an old-world glamour to the setting.
I could see how little Eva’s eyes kept darting to steal glances at Marthe. I recognized the girl’s wonder
Perhaps Marthe noticed it, too. For as the night wore on and Marthe warmed from the red wine and the storytelling done by Monsieur Armel, I believe I even saw Marthe smile at the little girl.
But for the entire evening, she kept her eyes firmly away from Leo.
With his dark hair and pale skin, the suspenders and knee socks, I’m not sure whether he reminded her of my father, the son she never had the chance to raise. But she avoided him as if he were a ghost.
* * *
We stayed quite late. After the candles had Medusa-like curls of wax over the rim of the silver candlesticks, we said our good-byes. The children had fallen asleep after looking for the hidden pieces of matzo. And both Solomon and Rachel each carried one of them home in their arms.
“Thank you for inviting us,” I said as I kissed Monsieur Armel on both cheeks. Grandmother extended her hand for him to kiss.
“A pleasure,” she said. “I’m so delighted I was able to stay.”
Alex stood in the background looking at me with a smile curled at his lips. He mouthed, “Tomorrow. Place Saint Georges. Eleven o’clock.”
And I nodded my head. What I didn’t say was that tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough.
Grandmother did not take her breakfast the next morning.
“The cough seems to have returned,” Giselle told me in the kitchen as I sipped my tea. “Perhaps she stayed up too late and only needs to get some rest.”
“I don’t want to leave her if she’s feeling unwell.” As much as I wanted to see Alex, it seemed wrong to leave her in a weakened condition.
“I think she is hoping you’ll leave for a few hours, Solange. That way I can call the doctor and she knows she can have her privacy.”
I shook my head. “I would like to meet the doctor. Discuss what is ailing her. See how I can help. It is the least I can do.”
Giselle shook her head. “I don’t know, Mademoiselle Solange.” Perhaps just come back to the apartment earlier than expected. I will try to have the doctor come around two o’clock. Come then and it will look unplanned.”
“A good idea,” I said, impressed with how clever Giselle could be.
I was relieved that I could still see Alex for a few hours, but still find out more about Grandmother’s illness.
I finished my tea and went to my room to get dressed.
* * *
My room in Marthe’s apartment now felt completely as though it were mine. The desk was full of my journals, my books. The Mickey Mouse doll from Papa was placed high in the corner. I pulled out one of the dresses that I had folded in the bureau since there was no room for a wardrobe and looked at myself in the mirror. I brushed my hair and smoothed it with my palms, before tying it back with ribbon.
My body began to warm. In less than an hour, I knew I would feel Alex’s kiss.
I was to meet Alex that afternoon at our café at Place Saint Georges, for it had become our special place.
Alex didn’t seem to see me at first. His back was turned and he was deep in conversation with another gentleman at the table next to him. He was significantly older than Alex, and he was gesturing with his hands as if to emphasize his words.
As I came closer, I heard Alex say: “Everyone has their head in the sand, but it’s only a matter of time . . .”
The other man shook his head as if disgusted. “I agree with what you say. And I don’t think we can count on Reynaud at all,” he said, referring to our new prime minister.
I came closer and the two men lifted their eyes in my direction.
“Solange . . .” Alex seemed surprised not to have noticed my arrival.
“I hope I’m not disturbing you. We did say eleven o’clock, didn’t we?”
Alex’s face flushed. “I apologize, Solange. I was just deep in conversation with Monsieur Clavel.”
He motioned toward his acquaintance and introduced us to each other.
“Solange is an aspiring writer and also the owner of a very rare Haggadah . . .” Alex smiled. “And Monsieur Clavel is one of my father’s best clients.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” I extended my hand before accepting the chair that Alex had pulled out for me. He gestured and encouraged me to sit down.
“I’m afraid your description is far more intriguing than mine. A writer? How unusual for a young woman to have such interests.”
I smiled. Monsieur Clavel displayed none of the impassioned gestures or animated speech patterns I had witnessed minutes before. Now he simply appeared intrigued.
“What are you writing? A piece for one of the ladies’ journals?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m working on a novel.”
“A novel?” He smacked the edge of the bistro table. “Now, that’s not the answer I was expecting!” He chuckled.
“I admire your tenacity. I aspired to write, too, when I was about your age . . . But now I just collect other people’s old books.” He took another sip of his coffee. “But there’s something to be said about centuries-old books. We are only here a limited time, but it’s the books that are eternal.”
“I like that thought,” I said. “The immortality of books.”
Our conversation about books soothed me. With all of the uncertainty the war had brought and, on top of that, Grandmother’s failing health, it was nice to be able to talk about books for a change.
“So now you’ve unlocked the secret between booksellers. Shame on you, Alex,” Monsieur Clavel teased. “But this brings me back to the rare Haggadah in your possession, Solange. I’m incredibly intrigued. Perhaps you’d be interested in selling it to me?”
Alex shook his head. “Always the aggressive collector . . . But if she won’t sell it to my father, I doubt she would sell it to you.”
I laughed. “Yes, I’m not planning on parting with it just yet. But thank you for the offer.”
Monsieur Clavel placed a few francs on the table for his coffee before extinguishing his cigarette.
“I’ll have to ask your father more about this mysterious book of hers . . . I’m leaving France soon, and it might be time to give your book one more journey all its own.”
Alex cut him off. “I think she’ll be keeping it close to her. But safe travels if I don’t see you before you leave Paris.”
“I hope you’ll also consider getting out before it’s too late, Alex.” He stood up and patted down the front of his pants.
“Things are only going to get worse here.”
Alex squeezed my hand. “Then Solange and I had better make the most of today.”
* * *
Later we walked toward the opera, the sunlight hitting my face as Alex’s hand threaded through mine. We breathed in the fresh air. We ignored the newspaper boys selling their headlines of doom. We didn’t look into the store windows whose empty shelves made me sad. Instead, we looked toward the birds and the stretch of blue in the sky.
He asked me a few questions about my childhood and my favorite memory. He searched for stories about my mother and shared with me his memories of his own, whom he had lost when he was barely three.
“I remember the sound of her heels on the tile of our apartment. The scent of her perfume. I remember she wore a sterling-silver comb in her hair. And that when I kissed her, my lips felt the veil of powder on her cheeks.”
I confided to him that I believed my mother’s bookshelf still contained her soul. That I only needed to breathe in the paper from one of her novels to find her again.
“I love hearing your stories,” he said as he pulled me into his arms and kissed me.
It felt like there were a thousand fluttering birds beneath my feet as his lips pressed against mine. I cupped his face with open palms and closed my eyes as I kiss
After we came up for air, he pulled away from me slightly and looked at me straight in the eyes.
“Solange, I want you to know I realize your association with me and my family exposes you to danger. There’s nothing I can do to help with the uncertainty of war, but I want you to know one thing is certain and absolute.” He took me again into his arms and kissed me. “I love you.”
It felt like a painful wound, pulling away from Alex that afternoon, but I knew it was imperative that I be at the apartment when Marthe’s doctor arrived. By the time I finally reached the front door, my heart was pounding and I was nearly out of breath.
Once inside the vestibule, I could see the doctor’s overcoat draped on the brass coat stand in the corner, where Giselle always hung hats and umbrellas. In the distance, I could see that the door of Marthe’s bedroom was closed.
I turned toward the kitchen and found Giselle there. At the small walnut table where I sometimes took my breakfast, she was sitting having a cup of tea with Gérard. Between them was a small, half-eaten cake and two plates with crumbs.
“Mademoiselle Solange.” Giselle stood up immediately. “I’m so glad you came back in time.” She glanced over to Gérard, who was quickly dusting the crumbs off his lap before standing to greet me.
“Monsieur Gérard stopped by to make us aware that we will be having another air drill. He is as kind as his dear father, always thinking of us.”
Gérard shook his head. “Papa made me promise I would take special care of Madame de Florian. He always had a sincere concern for her well-being.”
“That is most kind of you to keep his concern close to your heart,” I said, impressed by how he had kept his word to his father. “I’m sure my grandmother will be touched by your kindness.”
“There are several apartments in this building, but your grandmother is one of the few owners that almost never asks anything from me. So many call for a leaky faucet or peeling plaster wall, something that should be handled by a repairman, not a concierge, but your grandmother troubles me with almost nothing. It’s the least I can do, to check up on her, especially now with the Germans advancing.”
The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes