The velvet hours, p.27
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       The Velvet Hours, p.27

           Alyson Richman
 

  “Let us hope they come no further,” Giselle said. “That the Maginot Line is as strong as they say.”

  Gérard shook his head. “My father felt one must always be prepared for the worst. That is why I wanted to make sure you and Madame de Florian know I am here in case you need anything.”

  “You’re a gentleman, just like your father.” Giselle came over and squeezed his shoulder. “Let me wrap this cake up for you. Your children will enjoy it.”

  He took the cake that Giselle had wrapped in a cotton cloth. “Thank you.”

  “A pleasure to see you again, Mademoiselle Solange.” He nodded to me and then took his leave not through the front exit, but through the pantry’s back door.

  * * *

  “The doctor’s been with her for over an hour,” Giselle said as soon as Gérard left. “I do hope you’ll be able to get some information from him.” She turned the faucet on over the plates and began washing them. “Madame looked so pale when I brought him in to see her. And her lips looked almost blue.” She shook her head. “It is terrible to see her looking so weak.”

  “I will sit in the parlor now and wait for the doctor.” I touched Giselle’s arm. “I know you’re moved by Gérard’s gestures of concern. But I’m also grateful for yours.”

  She looked up and smiled. “I’ve been with your grandmother since I was sixteen, Solange. I’ve been employed by her for over forty-five years now. Longer than many marriages. It would be impossible not to worry about her.”

  “Still,” I said, genuinely touched by her dedication, “I want to thank you.”

  “Just promise me you’ll tell me every word the doctor shares with you. I need to know.”

  “I promise,” I assured her.

  I walked toward the parlor and sat beneath Marthe’s portrait, waiting quietly until I heard the doctor’s footsteps coming down the hall.

  49.

  April 1940

  His footsteps sounded like a metronome as he walked down the hallway’s parquet floors.

  “Dr. Payard,” I said as I emerged from the open French doors of the parlor, clearly catching him by surprise. “I was hoping for the chance to speak with you about my grandmother’s health.”

  “You must be Solange,” he said, his eyes lifting to meet mine. “Madame de Florian has spoken about you quite often.”

  “Unfortunately, she has not spoken of you as often to me. I feel I’m in the dark about her recent health problems. I was hoping you might illuminate me . . .”

  He fidgeted slightly in front of me. My forwardness had clearly caught him off guard.

  He placed his dark satchel down on the floor and then reached for his overcoat. He began to button it up as he spoke.

  “Your grandmother is resting comfortably now. I gave her a syrup with codeine to help her rest. She complains that it’s almost impossible for her to sleep through the night with her cough.”

  “Yes, this cough . . .” The words darted from my mouth. “She’s been suffering from it for several months now, and it appears to be worsening. How serious is it?”

  Dr. Payard shook his head. “Please step out into the hallway with me for a moment, mademoiselle.”

  I followed him outside, shutting the door behind me.

  “Your grandmother wants to maintain her privacy regarding her illness, and, as her doctor, I must respect her wishes. That said, without divulging too much, I’m sorry to say that I expect her time is limited. You should try to keep her as comfortable as possible and to spend as much time with her as you can. I will come by in another few days to see if she needs more syrup to help her at night.”

  He looked at his watch, then left me alone outside the door, his words still ringing in my ears.

  * * *

  The morning’s joyfulness of walking through the park with Alex—sharing our most intimate experiences and the thrill of his embrace—was now lost to the devastating news that Marthe’s illness was far more serious than I had believed. All my life I had prided myself in my ability to truly gauge my surroundings. Yet somehow I had failed to sense how much Marthe was ailing. I felt that I had let her down.

  Dr. Payard said she would be sleeping for some time due to the codeine in the syrup. I walked slowly down the hallway and turned the doorknob to her bedroom. Tucked within her damask sheets and lying underneath her upholstered headboard with its spray of birds and butterflies, Marthe slept like an empress. Her slender white fingers were clasped in front of her, and her titian hair, now white at the temples, was piled atop her head. Even her pale eyelids looked like perfect half-moons.

  I pulled up a chair and sat down at her bedside. The mirror above her caught the reflection of the two of us within its frame. It was a touching image. Two women who had come into each other’s lives unexpectedly. I had first come to her simply to learn more of her story, not realizing that together we would create a new one that was uniquely our own.

  I looked around the room. The vanity that I now knew contained her old love letters from Charles, along with a handful from Boldini, and, more importantly for me, the ones from Madame Franeau lovingly detailing my father’s childhood. I admired the free-standing mirror before which she had so often dressed for Charles, and where she had prepared herself prior to being painted by Boldini. I had imagined her bedroom almost like a stage as she described all the events in her life story, and all of the furniture seemed eerily familiar to me despite only having been inside her bedroom on a few occasions. I walked over to her oak wardrobe, which housed her collection of silk dresses. I could hardly help myself as I pulled the small brass knobs to reveal what was inside.

  In the front were the black silk faille, the lilac dress she loved so dearly. To the left were more contemporary dresses made from wool gabardine, a single skirt in midnight blue velvet, and even the wide-legged black trousers she had sewn herself. But at the far end of her wardrobe, behind the black velvet cape and the silver one with the pink ribbons, hung the one gown that had provided the signature look of her beautiful, sensual life: the pink silk charmeuse and organza dress she had worn when Boldini painted her. I reached to touch it. I felt the fluid silk between my fingers and could imagine her before my eyes. As I examined the bodice, I could see the detail more clearly than Boldini had depicted it in the painting—the two plackets of lace on the bodice and the gray belt with the horseshoe-shaped buckle of crystal beads. I marveled at the delicacy of the cloudlike sleeves, and the sheer beauty of the pink-tourmaline-colored silk. The gown felt forbidden, something that was reserved only for Marthe’s skin and certainly not mine.

  As exquisite as the dress was, it needed Marthe to bring it to life. Boldini’s brush had rendered more than just a portrait of a woman in a sumptuous gown; he had captured Marthe’s sensuality and exuberance. It made me pause to think how the final portrait had so many layers that contributed to making something so beautiful.

  Sadly, Marthe now looked far from the robust femme fatale Boldini had captured in his portrait. Gone was the voluptuous figure and the blush of youth. Her body seemed half its size now. Her shoulders seemed to cave in, her breasts far smaller. She appeared almost childlike sleeping.

  Next to her bed, inches away from her water pitcher and glass, I noticed two things I had not expected to see there. The first was the old leather volume of the fables of Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian, which Charles had given her so many years before. The second was the gold pocket watch she had mentioned during the course of her storytelling, but had never once shown me.

  Unable to stop myself, I reached for the watch. The casing was now dull with age, and the metal slightly scratched. I carefully used my fingernail to open it and, there, just as she had described, was a winged dove engraved on the inside. The hands were stopped at 6:14.

  * * *

  I held the watch in my palms, hoping that I had the capacity to make time stand still. Marthe was fading
. She conserved her speech. She mostly kept herself tightly wrapped in her layers of sheeting, the covers and blanket pulled up to her narrow chin. Her eyelids were pale lilac. Her skin, the color of rice paper. As she slept, I grasped her hand.

  The memory of my own mother on her deathbed returned to me. At the time, I had thought the same thing I did now sitting beside Marthe. That we leave this world the very way we arrive. Our bodies shrunken and our eyes sealed shut.

  50.

  April 1940

  I wrote furiously to my father, but with letters censored, all I could say was this:

  Please take leave. Grandmother is gravely ill. Come at once.

  Over the next few days, I did not abandon Marthe’s side. I listened to her labored breathing, heavy from the medication. She murmured words underneath her breath, as though she was revealing something from her dreams. Once she asked for candied oranges. Another time she cried out for Charles.

  I felt her deflating within my fingers. I noticed the contrast from when I clasped Alex’s hands, the warmth and pulse that pushed forth from the inside of his veins outward toward his skin. His vitality was palpable. But when I held Marthe’s fingers, I had the sensation that it was only a matter of time before she was completely lost to me.

  * * *

  I fell asleep with my head pressed to the edge of her bed, my fingers numb from holding Marthe’s hand in my own. Moonlight streamed into the bedroom when I awakened from my slumber. Marthe’s eyes were now open. I heard her voice, barely audible.

  “Solange.” My name seemed to catch in the back of her throat. She wiggled her hand from mine and reached for the glass of water that was on the nightstand.

  She pushed herself up from toward the back of the bed.

  “Please go to my dresser and open the top drawer.”

  I did as I was instructed and walked toward the back of the room, where her wooden dresser with the ormolu handles and marble top was located. Perched on top were more Chinese vases and other painted figurines.

  I opened the top drawer, but saw only folded corsets and other delicate undergarments.

  “There is a leather folio underneath.”

  I reached beneath the underpinnings and felt the straight edges of the folder and pulled it out.

  “Good, good,” she said hoarsely. “Bring it here.”

  I carried it over to the bed and placed it between her open hands.

  She closed her eyes for a moment and patted it with her palms.

  “This contains essential information for you, Solange. Inside are all my important papers and a few select things that are precious to me. You’ll find the deed for the apartment, and now also my last will and testament. It’s all been notarized by an attorney.”

  She struggled to undo the cord tied over the folder. A cough escaped her.

  “Here, let me help.” I gently took the envelope from her and unknotted the cord.

  The folder was thick with papers. As she searched to find certain legal documents, she placed the other contents to the side.

  I saw old black-and-white photographs and smaller scraps of paper, and my eyes strained to glimpse a better view.

  “We can look at those afterward, but this is important, Solange. I don’t know how much more time I have,” she said in a hoarse voice.

  “This describes the contents of my estate. You’ll need to bring the deed to my attorney, whose name is listed at the bottom of my will. He has drawn up the paperwork so you and your father will inherit everything that I own.”

  “Grandmother,” I protested. “You shouldn’t be speaking about these things . . . You’ll be fine. You just need to rest.”

  “I have always been realistic, Solange. That is why I sold my pearls all those years ago. And I was lucky enough to receive some excellent advice from a banker at one of my salons, who told me to put the money in rubber factories in South America. That is why I still have savings in the bank, even now.” She smiled weakly.

  “I am happy to be leaving you and your father something to make your lives a bit easier . . .”

  My eyes began to water.

  “I have never had an easy time with children. When your father was born, emotionally I was almost a child myself.” She placed the folio to her side and a yellowed, faded envelope slid out from the pile of legal documents and bank forms.

  Marthe saw my eyes gravitate toward the envelope. Two black-and-white photographs peeked out from the open flap and a small, unfinished pencil sketch.

  She turned her head to see what had captured my interest.

  “Ah, yes, the pictures.”

  Marthe reached over and pulled the small formal portraits out of the envelope.

  “This is Charles,” she said, handing me a photograph of a man in a black wool coat and top hat. He was as handsome as I had imagined, with sharp aristocratic features and dark eyes.

  “It is hard to believe he’s been gone now all these years.” She pressed a fingertip to his faded image. “He was only forty when he passed away. I became old but he never did.” She placed the photograph down and reached for the pencil sketch.

  “He never had the chance to finish this . . .” Her voice broke off. “But I kept it all these years.”

  It was the half-finished drawing of Marthe, her profile captured in a few shaky lines.

  “You were fortunate to be captured by two wonderful men.” I placed my hand over hers.

  She smiled and I could see she was forcing back her tears.

  “And the other photograph; who is that one?”

  She lifted the second portrait from the bed. This one was not of Charles, but rather of a couple with a small child. The woman, dressed in a somber black jacket and long skirt, held her hand over the child’s shoulder. The husband, heavyset with light hair and a full beard, looked wholly different from the elegant Charles. But as he stared into the photographer’s lens, his eyes appeared kind.

  I studied each of the faces. And I knew as soon as I looked into the little boy’s eyes exactly who he was.

  “This one is of Louise Franeau and her husband. The boy . . .”

  I interrupted her before she had a chance to answer. “The boy is Papa.”

  * * *

  Some people claim the dying can sense when their end is near. And clearly this was the case with Marthe.

  “I was not a mother to your father, Solange, but hopefully in my death I can afford you both some financial security. The money in my bank account will ensure you have a far more comfortable life.”

  I clasped her hand tightly. I hated to hear her speak of her death like this.

  “But I must ask you something, and I know it will sound terribly selfish . . .” Her voice broke off and she reached for a glass of water from the nightstand.

  “This apartment . . . the portrait above the mantel . . . promise me you’ll never sell any of it . . . that you’ll keep it the way I’ve always maintained it.” Her eyes wetted. “I know it must sound foolish, but it’s important to me.”

  I was puzzled. “You want me to keep everything the same?”

  “Yes, in this way, the best parts of me will still exist as I had lived.” She reached for the book by her bedside. “Pour vivre heureux, vivons cachés.” She whispered it as though it was a motto she had often repeated to herself. “To live happily, live hidden,” and a palpable sense of calm came over her as she said the words.

  What I realized at that moment was that my grandmother believed that as long as the apartment remained the way she had created it—her portrait above the mantel, her collection of porcelains, and the other pieces of art she had hand selected—she was convinced her memory would also not be extinguished.

  But what she failed to see was she had already ensured her immortality. She had shared her life story with me, and her words were pressed into me forever.

&nb
sp; * * *

  My grandmother died two days later, with Giselle and me by her bed after the doctor had arrived and given her a final dose of morphine.

  I did not let go of her hand until after her body had grown cold.

  Afterward, I wrote to father notifying him of Marthe’s death and imploring him to let me know if he was safe.

  But again my telegram remained unanswered.

  * * *

  Giselle said she didn’t trust the undertaker to prepare Marthe as she would have wished for her burial. So she packed a small satchel full of Marthe’s favorite lipstick, her dusting powder, and her tortoiseshell combs.

  She did not ask me to join her, and I was glad for that.

  I was grateful for Giselle’s offer. She asked if she could use one of Marthe’s better dresses, and we both agreed it would be beautiful to send her off in the one of pale lilac that she had worn so often. We also placed Charles’s gold pocket watch between her folded hands.

  But I noticed her pearls were missing from her neck.

  “What happened to the pearls, Giselle?” I had never seen Grandmother without them, and I grew immediately concerned.

  “I removed them and put them away for safekeeping.” Giselle walked over to the bureau and lifted a leather box from the marble surface. “Here, I was saving them for you. She would have wanted you to wear them.”

  A wave of sorrow passed through me. Knowing that the pearls were in the case made Marthe’s death that much more real to me.

  I reached for the box and gently opened the lid. The necklace’s original emerald-and-diamond butterfly clasp twinkled as if it were communicating a bit of Marthe’s mischief.

 
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