The velvet hours, p.6
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       The Velvet Hours, p.6

           Alyson Richman

  She did not tell Charles or Giselle, the only two others who ever entered the apartment, why she had chosen this painting above all the ones she had seen for sale. It was because the girl had the same face as Odette. And her dress was almost identical to the one she had watched her mother wash through her tears.

  There was no hardship in the girl’s face. And no wisdom either. It was the face of a child, as pure and peaceful as a blanket of freshly fallen snow.

  When she had saved enough of her allowance from Charles, she added another piece of artwork for her collection. This time, a small pastel of a dancer. Her body lithe and stretched as tightly as ribbon.

  * * *

  “You are becoming a connoisseur,” Charles remarked one day as he settled into the sofa. Marthe had opened the tall shutters to the room, and she could see a small constellation of dust floating in the sunlight, like stardust illuminated in midair.

  She pulled up her skirt and settled down beside him. On the side table he had left his gold pocket watch for her to turn the hands once more. How she loved this ritual between them, how they kept their own sense of time.

  “It’s interesting to see what you’re drawn to . . . Most people gravitate to one style or period exclusively. But you’re like a piece of cut crystal. A thousand prisms cast through a single set of eyes.”

  She smiled and reached for his hand. “I’m glad you think it’s money well spent.”

  “Indeed, I do,” he said, squeezing her fingers.

  “I have this memory of you, Marthe, when we were in Venice. I took you to the church of San Giorgio dei Greci . . . Do you remember? It was pitch dark when we first entered. The place smelled so damp, like an old bank vault.” He closed his eyes, lost briefly in the memory. “But then, suddenly from the shadows the paintings by Carpaccio emerged like a beacon of light. I heard this little gasp escape from your lips . . . and as I turned to face you, I witnessed your face transform. It was a revelation.

  “You brought me so much joy at that moment. Just like the paintings of San Giorgio before us, you illuminated the whole room.”

  She was so taken by his words. It wasn’t just the affectionate way Charles had remembered her that afternoon, it was also that he had recalled an intimate moment between them that had occurred beyond the bedroom. And that moved her even more.

  For several seconds, both of them remained silent.

  “Charles . . .” She was so touched to hear him speak so sweetly about her, she felt her voice tremble slightly.

  “I remember that afternoon perfectly.”

  “And the evening, too.” He closed his eyes and smiled. “That night when you took down your hair in that splendid bed. I wouldn’t be much of a man if I failed to mention that, too.”

  * * *

  She soon owned five paintings. The wood-paneled dining room, rarely used, now became an extended gallery in which she could display her burgeoning art collection. She placed a painting of a young woman holding a parasol rendered in soft, chalky hues over the oak mantelpiece and flanked it with two rhinoceros horns that Ichiro had somehow convinced her to buy.

  She still visited Ichiro weekly. Their relationship had developed beyond client and dealer; she considered him a friend.

  They were both outsiders. He a foreigner in Paris, she a woman of the demimonde. Ichiro understood, without her needing to explain, the paradox of her existence—that her life was as cloistered as it was independent. That she lived very much like the women in his scrolls, cultivated for the pleasure of others: an artist of the body, a connoisseur of its peaks and valleys, a lover of its acquired tastes. She belonged to a world as elusive as a poem. A plume of incense, as fleeting as the moonlight. And to those who understood it, a world exquisitely pure.

  It had been Ichiro who told Marthe stories of the geisha back in his native Japan. Women who were desired not only for their beauty, but also for their charm. She would lose herself in the ink and parchment as his hands unfurled yet another scroll, as she saw women who were well versed in poetry, art, and music as well as the mechanics of love.

  His affection for Marthe was genuine, for he had made a living out of recognizing things that were beautiful and rare. But what charmed Ichiro most about Marthe was her curiosity. She did not have a life that afforded her the ability to travel. But when she held a precious porcelain in her hand or traced her finger over the painted images in a scroll, he could see her eyes falling into a journey all her own.

  “You remind me of the very ceramics you so love,” he told her one afternoon as they sat in the back of his store looking at his latest shipment. “Fire within the layers of a soft cloud.”

  She blushed. She had never studied him too closely, as she was always concentrating on what artworks he had on hand to show her. But now she focused solely on him. He was as finely boned as a sparrow. His features small and sharp, his skin warm and golden.

  “Show me more of what you have in those boxes back there,” she said with mischief in her eyes. She knew he had recently expanded his inventory. He was importing not only Oriental porcelains and exotic prints now, but also pieces of ivory and amber. Even rare painted ostrich eggs, and rhinoceros horns.

  A smile crossed his lips. “To you, I only show the best.”

  He returned with two small velvet pouches. Slowly, he untied the first one and pulled out seven miniature carvings, each rendered as an animal. A small fox carved in amber, a hare chiseled from ivory, and a tortoise carved from paulownia wood.

  “These are the latest fashionable pieces to collect from the Far East,” Ichiro informed her. “They are called netsuke . . . Small enough to carry on your person, and to easily gaze upon from the palm of your hand.”

  As he cradled one of the netsuke in his palm, he traced its delicate lines with his finger. Then, he closed his hand and made a fist, warming it. “Every person who has ever held a netsuke adds something to it. Their oils add to the beauty of its patina. Its value increases with every touch.”

  “May I see it again?”

  “Of course,” Ichiro said, pleased that Marthe was intrigued.

  She reached for the small amber fox and examined it closely.

  In her hand, the small object transformed. She could see how the amber changed from when she held it to the light, so it became nearly opaque in the shadow of her cupped palms. Ichiro understood better than anyone Marthe’s tastes. She was attracted to things that were as elusive and as secretive as the world she occupied. Things that were not only beautiful, but also that transformed as much in the darkness as they did in the light.

  “I love how small they are . . . ,” she said, smiling.

  She felt as though she was holding something that was a secret.

  “Hidden beauty,” he said, closing his eyes. “It is always the best kind of all.”



  December 1938

  It was difficult to sleep, my mind raced with all of the stories my grandmother had shared. I could envision everything she told me with such precision.

  I longed to return to the comfort of her apartment. There the air was always fragrant and the light soft. We drank from hand-painted porcelain, where delicate birds and flowers floated on crisp white cups and saucers, and reached for chocolates that were served on a glimmering silver tray.

  My grandmother was the opposite of my mother. My mother was not a woman whose magic was rooted in elegance or beauty, but rather was one of those rare creatures whose intelligence and soul were wedded in her affection for the written word. Maman did not love silk or perfume as Marthe did. She adored the cadence of words and the music of poetry. She believed in the truth that every good novel holds within its pages. And though her father had accused her of abandoning her faith, I knew otherwise. For the last books my mother held to her chest were not her beloved novels by Dostoevsky or Flaubert, but those that connected
her to an ancient past.

  Marthe, on the other hand, had no connection to the written word, only the spoken one. On all my visits, I never once saw a book anywhere in her apartment. If she did read novels, Marthe kept them far from public view. What I sensed was that she now had little interest in stories outside her own. What she enjoyed was to sit in the silk throne of her chair, close her eyes, and remember. To recall her life when she was as radiant and as beautiful as she was in the portrait above her mantel.

  She had spent a lifetime pushing the reality of the world far from her threshold. She stroked her pearls as though they were a rope leading her back into a different time. The furniture in the parlor, the porcelain on the shelves, and the silver tray on the table were unchanged. But the main character was forty years younger, and the person who sat in the chair across from her was not her restless nineteen-year-old granddaughter who hungered for her stories, but a captivated nobleman named Charles.

  * * *

  At the cafés near my home, a coffee and a croissant came cheaply. For two sous, I could spend several hours at a small table and begin to see the material for my book taking form. I filled my first journal. Then, my second and third. As I wrote about my grandmother’s childhood, her pregnancy, and how she reinvented herself with Charles, my perspective on my family soon shifted. I began to understand not only my grandmother more fully, but my father as well.

  I saw how the circumstances of their early lives had shaped them. Whereas my grandmother sought to erase the squalor of her childhood with the sweep of a powder brush, my father tried to find solace in achieving order in the space around him. While I once believed my father to be cold and unfeeling, I now saw him resembling one of Ichiro’s antique boxes. He had his own hidden drawers, many of which contained his own silent pain.

  I saw when he was eighteen years old opening the letter from Marthe, learning that she was his birth mother, as well as him standing in the entrance to Marthe’s apartment, nervous and ill at ease, waiting in the parlor as she entered the room in one of her pastel-colored dresses.

  But just as I could imagine my father in his most vulnerable moments, I could do the same with my grandmother. I could envision Marthe as easily in that beautiful pink gown, as I could see her, scared and shivering, in the dark room of her apartment, years earlier, giving up her child to a woman she knew would take far better care of him than she ever could.

  I took pen to paper. And as each page filled with my words, I came to see their humanity. As Marthe was quick to point out, light and shadow existed within every life.

  And through all of these different angles of perception, I saw a clearer picture of myself emerging. I realized that I was now a piece of this story, too. As my story grew, I saw not only how those around me had lived. More importantly, I sought to understand how they revealed different parts of themselves by looking closely at how they had loved.



  Paris 1897

  Marthe detected a change in Charles. Like two dancers who knew the other’s rhythm so well, she sensed that he was holding something back from her.

  For nine years she had known the language of his caresses. His fingers had traveled over her skin in a thousand different patterns. She knew him as both a lover and as an explorer. He had discovered her with hands warm and curious; he had mined her every valley, every curve, every cliff.

  But now he no longer encouraged her acrobatics in bed. Instead, he preferred simply to hold her tight against him, her body nestled against his own. When they lay in her butterfly bed, he would turn on his side, cup his hand around her belly, and bury his face in her hair to breathe in her perfume.

  She could feel not only the change in his touch, but in his body as well.

  “I’m concerned,” she would tell him. “You have grown so thin.” The ribs of his chest protruded like harpsichord strings.

  “It’s nothing,” he reassured her. “You are my sustenance. My medicine. I only need to see you more.” He pointed to the pocket watch he had taken out from the breast pocket. “The hours in between have been too long.”

  But Marthe knew better. He hardly ever ate in front of her anymore, and eschewed even his favorite meals, which she asked Giselle to prepare for him. Not only did he refuse her offers of cold duck or pheasant poached in red wine, he seemed unable to tolerate alcohol anymore as well. Marthe couldn’t help but notice he barely touched his favorite vintage of Margaux.

  “You need to see a doctor,” she insisted the next time she saw him, but he waved her off.

  “Émilienne has already arranged for me to see a specialist. So no need to wrinkle your brow worrying about me.”

  Émilienne. The mere mention of his wife’s name felt like the prick of a needle against her skin.

  Since she had known him, Charles almost never divulged the details of his familial life. She knew—and fully accepted—early on that he had a wife and a son. He spoke of them sparingly, as if they were objects displayed on a shelf she would never be able to see or touch. She was aware he had a title, a town house in Paris, and an estate at the family’s holdings in Bordeaux.

  On more than one occasion, Charles had complained that his wife preferred to stay in Paris rather than at their estate, when it would be easier to have her and their son safely ensconced in the country. When Émilienne was in town, it was more difficult for him to stay with Marthe for any length of time. Their meetings had to be brief, their passion often hurried. “She thinks I’m with friends,” he’d tell Marthe, making sure he drank a scotch before he left so his wife would smell the familiar scent of a gentleman’s afternoon.

  But just as Charles expected Émilienne not to question him on his activities outside their home, he expected the same from his mistress. It was an understood arrangement between him and Marthe that she would maintain a respectful distance from all matters concerning his family. She would never be invited to his apartment on the Rue Fortuny even when his wife was in the country. She was never to ask questions pertaining to his personal life. The life he shared with Marthe only existed within the walls of the apartment on the Square La Bruyère.

  But Marthe had never been able to completely curb her curiosity. Early on in their relationship, only weeks after their trip to Venice, she felt the need to know where Charles spent the main part of his life. And so one afternoon, when she knew Charles was away in London, Marthe set out to see his Paris home.

  She chose her simplest dress and a hat that shielded her features for what felt like an expedition in espionage. When she arrived at the building’s ornately carved stone facade, her body rushed with adrenaline. The town house was an impressive example of Beaux Arts architecture, far more grand than what she could imagine. She looked at the elegant windows with the latticed glass panes. She studied the chiseled stonework. The shell motif that scrolled in a fanciful arabesque over the door’s threshold. The glimmering brass knocker with the golden ring.

  Marthe had been caught by surprise when the door opened and a young woman, around her age, stepped outside, her fingers clasping the hand of a little boy.

  Émilienne was impeccably dressed. Her coat was hyacinth blue, her skirt a creamy duchess silk. She did not appear at all like the mouse-like creature Marthe had imagined, but rather exuded a youthful radiance and innocence. Her hair was flaxen, her features sharply defined. With her long, elegant neck and small shoulders, the trimly cut coat nipping her tightly around the waist, she reminded Marthe of one of the perfectly coiffed women illustrated in the ladies’ fashion magazines, with their narrow hourglass frames, and hair in compact chignons. Charles could not have picked a more striking contrast when he chose Marthe for his lover. His son, on the other hand, was Charles in miniature. He had the shock of black hair, the marble white skin. Even his smile was just like his father’s.

  The boy began to sing the lyrics of a nursery rhyme that Marthe remembered from
her own childhood.

  Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman

  Ce qui cause mon tourment?

  His voice filled the air with such a sweet innocence that Marthe felt something inside her threatening to crack.

  From her rough calculations, the little boy appeared close to four. Her own son would by now be nearly the same age. An image flashed in front of her eyes of Louise Franeau holding a baby no more than a few hours old.

  Marthe was suddenly struck by that same dreadful feeling she had experienced when she had just given birth. That pulling sensation that made her breasts leak with milk. But now there was no moisture, only the same throbbing pain. She grew dizzy, as if the sidewalk was falling beneath her. She had suppressed the memory of giving away her child like a bad dream she could will herself to forget, but now a violent flood of emotions swept over her.

  She stepped back from the edge of the sidewalk and tried to steady herself without success, even though Émilienne and the boy had slipped from view.

  Marthe could barely raise her arm to call a coach to get her home that afternoon. In the confines of the buggy, she tried to regain her composure. She closed her eyes and rested her head against the leather seat for a moment, concentrating on taking deep breaths. But her normal breathing still did not return to her. If anything, it escalated. And despite her efforts, a slight whimper escaped from her lips.

  She fumbled to open her purse and reached for a small vial of Ricqlès that she kept tucked inside for emergencies. Once a few drops were dabbed onto her handkerchief, she pressed it to her mouth, inhaling the calming vapors.

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