The velvet hours, p.7
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       The Velvet Hours, p.7

           Alyson Richman

  By the time the coach arrived at her apartment, she felt a familiar sense of numbness overtake her. It was the same sensation that had come over her when Odette died, or when she had seen her mother trying to cover the bruises above her eye after one of her “visitors” had left. Marthe tried to cloak her emotions, just as one would roll a glove over a shivering hand.

  When Marthe returned to her apartment that afternoon, she said little to Giselle after the girl took her coat and hat from her. She only asked her to draw a bath. There, under the blanket of soothing waters, she tried to forget the sight of Charles’s elegant wife and child, and her own painful memories the sight of them had reawakened.

  Just as she had done years earlier when Louise Franeau had walked out the door of her apartment carrying her son, she shut her eyes as tightly as she could and willed herself to push all of them out of her mind.

  * * *

  That Christmas, Charles grew weaker and there was little doubt in Marthe’s mind that he was gravely ill. Her own health began to be affected as well. She lost her appetite and found it difficult to sleep. She did not want to burden him with her own fears, but it was frightening to imagine her life without him. It was hard not to see herself like Fauchon, a canary in a gilded cage. Every bit of food, every bit of conversation—even every touch—came from Charles. At night, she looked around and imagined everything she had grown accustomed to, vanishing. A sense of powerlessness came over her and she struggled with how to balance her genuine concern for Charles’s health with her own fear of returning to the hardships of her former life.

  As much as she tried to get more information from him, Charles never spoke again of the specialist that Émilienne had arranged for him to meet. Nor did he even mention any medical diagnosis. It was as if his illness was like his wife and son, yet one more thing of which she was not allowed to speak.

  And although his declining health was not a permissible topic of conversation, she could see how his waning strength had caused him to seek pleasure in other ways.

  He had ordered a tall standing mirror to be sent to the apartment and instructed Marthe he wanted it brought into the bedroom, so that when she disrobed for him, he could gaze upon her from every angle.

  A few days before the holiday, he arrived holding another present for her.

  “Marthe . . .” The expression on his face was more serious than usual. “I have brought you your present early.”

  In his hand, he grasped a beautiful red bag, its handles tied with a stiff red ribbon.

  In the parlor, they sat side by side. He took a small leather box out of the bag and handed it to Marthe to open.

  “This is the first part of your present.” She noticed his eyes were glassy and his hands seemed to shake as he gave her the package to open.

  “Mellerio . . . ,” she said breathlessly, recognizing the insignia on the package. “This must have cost you a fortune.”

  “It did, in fact . . .”

  “I can’t take the anticipation anymore, Charles . . .” She knew Mellerio dits Meller was the oldest and most prestigious jewelry shop in Paris. The store on the Rue de la Paix had been the jeweler to the aristocracy for centuries. Whatever was in the box, Marthe knew it was going to be something extraordinary.

  “Can I open it now, Charles?”

  “Please.” He made a small gesture with his hand. “I would prefer you wasted no more time.”

  She withdrew a black leather box with a gold crown embossed in its center. When she opened the box, a small gasp escaped from her lips.

  “Now that’s the sound I’d been hoping to hear all day. Almost as good as that enchanting little cry you made when you saw the paintings at the church of San Giorgio dei Greci.”

  “Better,” she said as her eyes fell again to the interior of the satin-lined box. There inside was a glimmering set of pearls with a clasp in the shape of a butterfly set in emeralds.

  “Oh my goodness, Charles.” She covered her mouth with her hand. She could hardly believe her eyes.

  “Try them on,” he insisted. “I want to see them against your skin”

  She lifted them slowly from the satin interior, placing on the table the index-size parchment from the jeweler that gave the necklace’s details and vouched for its authenticity.

  “That paper is essential, should you ever sell it,” he told her.

  She was careful to keep it secured in the box as he leaned toward her to lift her hair.

  “Oh, I would never sell something so beautiful, Charles . . .” She could smell the lingering scent of pipe smoke on his neck as he leaned into her.

  Once she had latched the clasp and the pearls fell against her skin, he pulled back to admire them both.

  “I wanted you to have some security after I’m gone, Marthe. These pearls will ensure that you are taken care of. They’re worth over one hundred thousand francs.”

  She felt her throat tighten. Even though she had never voiced her insecurity, he must have understood and had taken precautions on her behalf. A hundred thousand francs was enough money to live on for the rest of her life if she was careful.

  “Do you know why pearls are more valuable than even diamonds, my dove?”

  She shook her head no.

  He took his finger and hovered it slightly above the necklace.

  “Because it takes a single grain of sand to cause a blister in an oyster. And from that blister a pearl might—just might—begin to grow inside. And this doesn’t happen overnight. The whole process could take years, just to grow one pearl the size of a pea.” He took a deep breath.

  “And all of this happens in the secrecy of the oyster shell. A shell that is hardly transparent . . .”

  She shook her head in agreement. She had first tasted raw oysters at Maxim’s with Charles one night after he had picked her up after one of her performances. She had held the heavy gray shells in her hand and slipped her lips around the wavy edge, drawing the mollusk inside her mouth. The taste had been exhilarating to her, as though she was drinking straight from the sea.

  “For every oyster that is shucked, only the rarest ones even contain a pearl at all . . . And then the search becomes even more challenging . . . One must find enough pearls that are the exact size, color, and radiance to start composing a single necklace.” He smiled at her.

  “Can you imagine how extraordinarily difficult such a feat is, Marthe?”

  She shook her head.

  “And yet, there you have it. Around your beautiful neck are sixty-five natural pearls, harvested from the bottom of the sea, that are all the same size and have the same luminosity.

  “If anything were to happen to me, you should sell this necklace back to Mellerio’s . . .”

  “What nonsense are you talking?” she interrupted, reaching for his hand. “You’re not going anywhere . . . are you?”

  The expression on his face suddenly shifted. He patted his breast pocket in search of his pipe.

  “Your health . . . you must tell me!” The thought of losing Charles terrified her.

  Again, he remained quiet.

  “But what did the doctor say? Surely there is some cure you can take?”

  Her fingers were trembling. The necklace suddenly felt cold against her skin.

  “Let’s just say that I’ve been told to put my affairs in order.”

  He tried to force a smile. “You are my great love, Marthe.” He reached to pull her hand into his. “Consider the necklace a gift of insurance.”

  * * *

  That afternoon they tucked themselves inside her bedroom as though it were a raft adrift at sea. She undressed for him slowly, as though it were the last time. She tried to make it a gift to him. To see her cast against the mirrors. Her long white limbs. Her full breasts. The pink nipples that he reached to touch as though they were rose petals meant only for him.

  After her silk dress fell to the ground, her corset untied and placed on the chair, and her stockings rolled down over her knees, she stood before him wearing only the pearl necklace.

  “It is just as I imagined,” he said as he closed his eyes. She crept onto the bed as quiet as a kitten, and she fell asleep in his arms.



  September 1939

  A light drizzle was falling when I left my grandmother’s apartment. The hours had evaporated between us as I listened closely while she took me back nearly forty years, to when she first had held the priceless strand of pearls in her young hands.

  But now, as I stepped outside her building and walked toward the Métro, I noticed an unfamiliar amount of commotion. Men and women were huddling on street corners, and gripping newspapers. From the cafés I could hear the radios blaring. I stopped for a moment and bought a paper from a boy on the corner. The front page, in large black and white letters, announced Hitler’s latest advancement. Germany had invaded Poland. A photograph of him on the pulpit, his hand raised and his face twisted with rage, cemented my feelings of dread. Grandmother’s apartment slipped away from me as I hurried home.

  I ran up the stairs of our apartment and found refuge inside, quickly taking off my sweater and placing my bag and newspaper down on the kitchen table. Outside, I could hear the patter of rain striking the iron balcony.

  I had just walked to the stove and lit a match under the burner to boil some water when my father came through the door.

  “Solange?” He had not been as lucky as I with the rain. He stood there, drenched. Hanging from his hand was a newspaper, the pages soaked through.

  I could hear how worried he was just by the sound of his voice.

  “Yes, I’m here . . .” I walked toward him. He was peeling off his wet suit jacket.

  “So you’ve heard, then . . .”

  “Yes. But what does it mean?”

  I watched as he considered my question. His eyes were closed. I could see the pink circle of skin where his hair had thinned.

  “It means Hitler has his eyes on far more than just Austria and the Sudetenland.” His face looked ashen and I felt a shiver run through me.

  He gestured toward the radio and I went at once to turn it on.

  We pulled out our chairs and sat down at the dining room table.

  That evening we ate with hardly a word between us. The radio broadcast the news that Germany had violated its previous agreement and had invaded Poland.

  “This will mean another world war.” Father shook his head. “All those lives lost in the last one, and now another with hardly a reprieve.” His eyes darkened and sorrow washed over him. “I don’t think France can endure another battle against the Boche,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. “But I think the next headline we will hear shall be that we have no other choice than to declare war.”

  The brutality France had endured during the last war had been so extreme that there wasn’t a Frenchman in the country who didn’t fear the possibility of another conflict. The German army had brought us to our knees. The trench warfare had been horrific. Many of my classmates were born never knowing their fathers or having one who was maimed.

  I knew little about my father’s experience in the Great War except for a few bits and pieces, most of which were told to me by my mother. I knew he had spent the last months of his deployment in a military hospital near Verdun administering morphine to hundreds of wounded soldiers. He never spoke of these men, whose wounds and amputations no doubt required his constant attention. But I knew, having heard him cry out from nightmares during my childhood, that he carried his memories of these shattered men deep inside him. And it was on those nights when these men and their wounds returned to him, that Maman did her best to soothe my father back to sleep.

  In some ways, I believed my mother had saved him from his secret pain. That she had brought light back into a life that would have remained shut and otherwise dark.

  She had told me the story of their courtship in various chapters over my childhood. I knew they had met in the months just after the war in a small bookshop off the Boulevard Saint-Germain. She was holding a copy of Madame Bovary when his shoulder struck against hers. She had been so caught off guard by their collision that she lost her grip on the novel and it came tumbling to the ground.

  “Beware of rat poisoning . . . ,” he said, referencing the novel as a shy attempt to make light of an awkward situation.

  It seemed her laughter bolstered his bravado, and they spent the next hour looking through the labyrinth of bookshelves together. My mother, for popular nineteenth-century novels. My father, for treatises on natural remedies and cures.

  It wasn’t until after her death, when I studied my notebook and tried to see beyond their quiet courtship and marriage, that I searched for clues that would reveal his true feelings for my mother.

  I closed my eyes and recalled how, shortly after my mother’s death, I had found him standing in front of her bookshelf, his hands deep within his pockets. He stood there staring at the apparent disorganization, never once trying to reconfigure anything on the shelves. He simply left her collection just as she had maintained it, embracing what was left of her spirit in the varied bindings on the shelves. And as that memory came flooding back to me, I saw clearly the depth of his love.

  * * *

  Neither my father nor I spoke as the radio blared news of Germany’s latest invasion.

  My father’s face was grave. I watched as he placed his head in his hands. For much of my life, my head had been crowded with words. But now they escaped me.

  When I left him to go to my room, he was still sitting at the table listening to the broadcast be repeated time and time again.

  That night, when I went to bed, my thoughts wandered back to my grandmother. I had never seen a radio in her parlor. Nor a newspaper on the table. I wondered if she had even heard the news about the invasion. And if she did, whether it would affect her at all.



  September 1939

  At my next visit, I came in and immediately scanned Marthe’s living room.

  “Do you not have a radio?” I asked.

  “Of course I do. It’s in here.”

  She stood up and brought me to another room I had never been in before. It was paneled in wood with a coffered ceiling. In its center was a large dining room table with matching Edwardian chairs. To the right stood a breakfront filled with china, and on a pedestal table next to the ornate fireplace was a small horseshoe-shaped radio.

  “You see, I do have one, Solange.”

  “Well, when did you last actually turn it on?”

  “Not recently,” she admitted. Yet her skin did not flush with embarrassment. If anything, she seemed almost defiant, if not proud, of this fact.

  “Have you heard about Hitler’s invasion of Poland?”

  She tilted her head slightly, as if she were studying me.

  “Giselle did mention something, I believe . . .”

  “And does it not concern you?”

  I could feel her spirit rustling, like the feathers of a bird considering flight.

  “Solange . . .” She said my name slowly and the light changed in her eyes. “Does it appear as though I’m concerned?”

  In fact, she only seemed concerned by the judgmental tone I used to question her.

  “Don’t we know each other well enough by now for you to realize that I’ve lived a lifetime blocking out every unpleasant thing from outside these walls?

  “That is what my artistry was, Solange. And why my visitors always came back to me, time and time again.”

  “Visitors.” So she had more lovers than just Charles. I felt a small shiver run up my spine.

  “But what if there’s another war?” my voice challenged her. Even wi
th her evident displeasure, I knew I could still ask her anything. We had a relationship far more open then the one I shared with my father.

  “Solange . . . I’ve lived through the war with Prussia. Not to mention, the French Empire’s pursuit of Africa from Djibouti to Dakar.” She took a deep breath and pressed her shoulders back into the velvet of her chair.

  “And of course the Great War, too. So you can see why this latest news does not cause me alarm. I’ve seen wars waged over things ranging from the price of rubber trees, to the archduke being shot in Sarajevo.

  “But in any case, I’m old enough to realize that men will always have two needs. To make war and to make love.” A smile formed at her lips. “And I’ve never had much of an interest in war.”

  * * *

  I wished I could have shut out the rest of the world like my grandmother did. But as I left her apartment, the threat of the looming war with Germany immediately washed back over me.

  It would not take long for my father’s prediction to be proven correct. Two days later Great Britain and France would declare war on Germany. The news traveled like lightning through the city. It spread through the telephones, the newspaper headlines and household radios, but also in the cafés and on street corners. The following morning when I went out for my coffee and croissant, every conversation I overheard was about the war. Would we be bombed? Should women worry about their sons being drafted? Already every grocery and butcher shop had lines forming down the block. I was sure Giselle had been the first in line. Within a matter of minutes all the shelves and glass cases would be empty.

  * * *

  My father and I now spent every evening at the kitchen table, the wooden radio between us, as we waited for the latest news reports.

  We began to care for each other more gently. Each day, I left Marthe’s a little earlier than I had in the weeks before, accepting Giselle’s offer of some provisions she had procured on the booming black market. I took the bits of chicken wrapped in butcher paper or leftover soup she served for lunch. When Father arrived home, I would have something warm and nourishing waiting for him. I also attempted to keep my papers contained and not scattered all over the table. And I stopped complaining as I so often did in the past or pick petty fights with him. Instead, I strived to be grateful, to be more kind.

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