The velvet hours, p.9
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       The Velvet Hours, p.9

           Alyson Richman

  Monsieur Armel closed the book and then carefully lifted it. “Can you imagine working on a single book for twenty years?”

  I shook my head.

  “Well this book is almost four hundred years old. So when you think of it, twenty years is not so long to make something that has withstood all these centuries of turmoil, wars, and the perpetual threat of floods and fire,” he explained.

  “But it’s like the Jewish people. It continues to go on, even though each century threatens to extinguish it.”

  I felt a shudder pass through me.

  “Did your mother ever tell you that she was Jewish, Solange?”

  I felt my stomach turn inside.

  “She only told me a few months before she died,” I answered, my voice almost inaudible. I knew I had nothing to be embarrassed about with the Armels, and yet a sense of shame flooded over me.

  Alex’s eyes fell downward. “With Hitler, now perhaps it’s not very good timing . . . to learn this news.”

  His father made a look of disgust. “Hitler.” He shook his head. “He is what we now must fear, more than the bombs and trenches of another war. He wants to extinguish every last one of us.”

  I made a pained face.

  “I’m sorry . . .” Alex’s father tried to smooth over my obvious discomfort. “It’s just that Solomon tells us terrible things. Things he hears leaked out from Germany.” He let out another loud sigh.

  “I suppose we must just try to be hopeful that France really does stand by liberté, égalité and fraternité,” I said.

  Alex took the last sip of his tea. “It’s nice to be surrounded by a woman’s optimism, right, Papa?”

  Monsieur Armel smiled.

  “My mother passed away some time ago. So it’s just the two of us now.”

  “Just like me and my father,” I said.

  Alex nodded. “It’s good to have someone in our shop that is not telling us to prepare for gloom and doom. Unfortunately, as my father alluded, Solomon has told us that we have much to fear if the Germans enter France.”

  I shuddered. It wasn’t solely the Jews that feared a German occupation. All of France feared it. Even those who were not alive during the First World War heard stories about the cruelty and barbarity of the German army.

  “I have to think the French army will do everything in their power to stave off an invasion. Plus, we’ve spent all these years preparing the Maginot Line of defense,” I offered. “Surely that will help us.”

  Alex opened his hands. “We can only pray that you are right, Solange.”

  * * *

  The talk of Hitler had unnerved each of us. Despite Alex’s filling both his father’s and my cups with more tea, none of us touched another cookie or took another sip.

  I could feel a growing knot in my stomach after our discussion and decided it was time to return home. I thanked both Alex and his father, then walked back toward the worktable and let Alex rewrap the books in fresh brown paper.

  “We assume you are not interested in selling these,” Monsieur Armel said with understanding.

  I nodded. At this point, I would not sell them for all the money in the world. My mother had her reasons for not selling them, and I would honor her wishes. And although I could not read the Hebrew or understand the layers of history that Alex and his father saw in these two rare books, for me it was still a thread that bound me deeply to her.

  As I walked home that afternoon with the sunlight on my hair and the books clutched even tighter to my chest, I felt my mother’s spirit deep within me. I heard her voice, and saw her face fluttering before me. I had learned another chapter of her life today by bringing her books to Alex and his father. And her words, that “every book has a journey all its own,” echoed in my ears.



  Paris 1898

  They never spoke of his illness. Charles had made it clear to her that, no matter how much time remained for him, he did not want to spend it dwelling upon his declining health.

  Marthe had now spent a decade with Charles as his exclusive lover. She had become an expert at maintaining the beautiful illusion he so loved. But whereas it was easy to re-create herself with silks and satins, or further refine herself with the collection of art and porcelains, it was far more of a struggle for her to silence her growing concerns about him.

  His malaise had become the white elephant in the room. And although Charles refused to discuss it, his physical deterioration was undeniable. Marthe felt it constantly—whether they were sitting in her parlor or wrapped in each other’s arms in her bed. His illness was overtaking him.

  He no longer possessed his insatiable hunger for her. He moved more slowly and she sensed his need to conserve his energy. Where there had once been athleticism in their amorous entangles, now there was a palpable fatigue.

  His illness proved a challenge to Marthe. Her entire adult life she had cultivated ways to banish life’s unpleasantries from her mind. But Charles’s sickness was not something that could be forgotten by shutting one’s eyes tightly. It remained a shadowy presence that, as much as she tried, she could not keep from penetrating the walls of her apartment.

  His eyes were jaundiced most of the time. His lips chapped and cracked. Even his beautiful skin now appeared ashen to her.

  Sometimes she felt herself unable to remain muted, no matter how much he insisted it wasn’t something he wished to discuss.

  “I come here to forget the outside world . . . to be with you.”

  “But it’s not the outside world when it concerns you . . . your health.” She was trying desperately not to cry, but her voice was cracking.

  “What will happen to me when you go?”

  “You still have your youth, my sweet girl,” he said, though Marthe was approaching her thirty-fourth year. “You only need to walk on the Champs-Élysées or by Eiffel’s tower of steel, and some rogue will snatch you up for sure.”

  “I don’t want just any rogue.” She lowered her eyes. “I only want you.” Around her neck was his necklace. She almost never took it off.

  His finger reached for the butterfly clasp that had fallen forward, and touched it lightly.

  “You already have the best of me, Marthe. You own my heart.”

  She could feel herself starting to unravel. The first sign was the tears. She would do anything not to come undone in front of him. She had bitten her lip so hard when Louise Franeau had carried off Henri, she had cut right through her skin. And now she could taste the blood again on her tongue.

  She was afraid if she spoke any more, her voice would betray her. He had treated her more kindly than perhaps anyone ever had. Marthe knew that her situation could have turned out very differently with him, when she first came under his wing. She was aware of men who simply paid by “the visit” to certain women of notable beauty and charm. Paris had a whole hierarchy for women of pleasure from the highest-paid courtesans to the girls at the lowest brothel. Marthe was lucky she hadn’t ended up like so many of those poor girls, for most of them had childhoods much like her own.

  But Charles had treated her as generously and as kindly as he possibly could. He had denied her nothing. The only thing he had asked in return was for her to respect their arrangement. To not interfere with his life with Émilienne. And to open her arms for him when he needed her love.

  * * *

  The thought of losing Charles plagued her. Even with the pearl necklace as financial security, she could not imagine her life without him. She needed him to get well.

  “The pocket watch,” she whispered. He reached into his coat, handing it to her as he did with each visit. The gold casing was now worn with its own patina. Clutched between her own fingers, she wondered if Charles often held it in his closed palm, the memory of her washing over him as the metal warmed in his hand.

  She opened it t
o reveal the dial, the hands locked in the position from the last time he lay in her arms. “Are you going now?”

  “Yes, my dove. Émilienne is already waiting for me.”

  She fought back her tears to look at him with clear eyes. She saw past the yellow in his eyes, the sallow of his cheeks. Without a sound, she began to turn the small dial to adjust the watch’s hour and minute hands to the time of the clock on her mantel.

  “Time will stand still until then.” She placed the watch down on the table and, softly, brought his hand to her cheek, before kissing it and closing it shut. How she wished he could keep her kisses contained in the well of his clenched hand.



  September 1939

  The three of us continued to meet around the dining room table every night: my father, myself, and our radio.

  The radio held a position of honor between us. After I had dished out the evening meal and poured a little wine in our glasses, we’d listen to the broadcast to learn what either Germany or the Soviet Union would do next. Two weeks after France and Great Britain declared war on Germany, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. The country had now been attacked from both sides.

  “Do you think that France will be invaded?” I asked my father.

  “I pray that won’t happen, Solange.” He looked older, more tired in the past few weeks. “But, it’s not impossible.”

  I poured more wine into his glass.

  “What I believe is that the Germans will not stop with Eastern Europe. Hitler will want all of it.”

  I felt a shiver run up my spine.

  “I’m afraid.” I uttered the words so quietly it almost sounded like a whisper. “He’s blaming almost all of Germany’s problems on the Jews.” I did not mention to him about my afternoon spent at the Armels’ bookshop, the stories I had learned about my maternal grandfather, or the worry I had seen on Alex’s and Monsieur Armel’s faces when Hitler’s name was mentioned. But I needed to know what my father would reveal when I mentioned my concern for the anti-Semitism that Hitler was inciting across Europe.

  I watched as my father lifted the wine to his lips. His spectacled gaze was now straight upon me. There was a sudden lapse into silence. From the way I returned his gaze, he seemed to understand without me uttering another word that I had come to learn I was part Jewish.

  “Maman showed me some of her books written in Hebrew, before she died.” I took a deep breath and continued to look at him. “I know I’m half Jewish.”

  I heard a deep breath escape from him. He placed his empty wineglass back on the table.

  “I must tell you . . .” He pushed himself into the back of his chair. “It’s a relief to me that you finally know the truth . . .”

  “But why did you both keep it from me for so long?”

  My father looked down at his half-eaten plate. One of his fingers traced the rim of his glass, as if he was considering the right words for his reply. I could see how it pained him not to have had more time to formulate his answer to me, having always had such a deep need to be precise.

  “Of course, you realize that the Jews have not always been treated kindly by the French people, Solange. Consider what happened to Captain Dreyfus, for example. We are still very much a country that considers itself French, very much Catholic, and quite suspicious of anyone else . . .” His eyes drifted upward. “And as much as we claim to be a tolerant nation, that’s not always the case . . .”

  “So you both made this decision to protect me?” It was hard to mask my disappointment that they had kept the information from me for so long. “Even if you chose to raise me as a Catholic, I still don’t understand why Maman felt she had to keep the truth from me. She hardly seemed like someone who would be ashamed of her past.”

  He shook his head. “No, she wasn’t ashamed of her roots, Solange. She was hurt by them.”

  I raised an eyebrow, questioning.

  “Your mother’s story was a complicated one . . .” His voice trailed off. I watched as he took another sip of wine before placing his glass on the table.

  “She grew up with more privileges than a typical girl in her community. It was just she and her father for so many years . . .”

  I nodded, knowing that my maternal grandmother had died when my mother was barely three years old.

  “And those books”—he lifted a finger and pointed in the direction of her bookshelves—“were such a comfort to her. For most of her life, anyway.”

  The tenor of my father’s voice shifted. His tone always had a trace of hardness to it, perhaps out of an innate need to always be clinical in how he revealed information. But now it had softened, as though just the thought of recalling my mother had the capacity to somehow soothe him.

  “Your grandfather had a rare book and manuscript shop on the Rue des Rosiers. I believe he thought your mother would one day assist him there . . . or perhaps more realistically, that she’d marry someone Jewish to whom he could bequeath the store.”

  He lowered his eyes.

  “But she brought me home, instead.”

  Father cleared his throat. “I think you can imagine his disappointment . . . I was a struggling pharmacist, a Catholic, and someone whose family background was anything but clear.”

  I looked at my father with empathy. Even now, so many years later, I could see that he blamed himself for what happened between my mother and her father.

  “I was never going to be the Jewish boy who could take over the family business, their traditions, or maintain their place in the community that they had created over the years.”

  I nodded, knowing this to be true. My mind kept returning to the memory of Alex and his father working side by side in their small shop. The respectful way in which the son deferred to his father’s expertise.

  “Your grandfather reserved his respect for those books he believed to be precious and rare. And his circle of friends were all people who understood their value.

  “But even though your mother was what he prized most in his collection, I was never going to be someone that belonged to his world.” He raised his glass for another sip of wine and steadied his voice again. “He might have thought I was common as newspaper, but what he didn’t realize was that we both loved her more than anything in the world.”

  “But if he loved her so much, why did he disown her?”

  My father shook his head. “Shame is a terrible thing, Solange.” He pushed away his plate to the side. “He felt she had betrayed him. They had a huge fight just after I proposed. He didn’t want her to marry me. He told her there were at least a dozen potential suitors in the neighborhood that wanted to court her, all of whom were worthy of being his son-in-law. I don’t think he could believe that she actually wanted me.”

  I tried to envision my mother engaged in such a fiery row. She was so gentle, with such a soft-spoken voice, that this was almost impossible to imagine.

  “He threw her out. He told her she had shamed him and dishonored their family name.”

  I shuddered.

  “We married a few weeks later in the town hall.”

  * * *

  The rest of the story I knew. I had learned during my mother’s last months how my grandfather had died of a heart attack when she was pregnant with me, and how she had returned to close his store and put the remaining inventory up for sale. The only things she had kept were those two books, and perhaps the regret of not having put aside her differences with her father before he died.

  “I just don’t understand why this was all kept from me for so long. To find out so late . . . It just seems wrong.”

  My father shook his head. “You have to understand, your mother was shattered when he told her she could never come home again if she married me.”

  I had never considered my mother as being so strong or even defiant. Father was now
revealing a side of her that, for me, was previously unknown.

  For a few moments, a silence lingered between us. But the lack of words did not feel uncomfortable. If anything I felt closer to my father than ever before. I appreciated his finally telling me the truth. As I sat quietly at the table beside him, my mind raced with questions.

  “These past two years have been full of many unexpected things for you . . . Don’t think that I don’t see that.” He took a deep breath. “It has been difficult for me to raise you without your mother. I miss her so much.” His voice nearly broke at the last three words. “I was nearly the same age as you when I learned a secret had been kept from me, that my mother was not in fact Louise Franeau, but the woman you now visit weekly, Marthe de Florian.”

  My eyes slid down to my lap. I had not made the connection, but what my father said was true. He, too, had been kept in the dark about his ancestry. And the contrast between the woman who raised him and the woman who bore him must have come as a complete shock to him.

  “We have both learned that women are capable of keeping secrets . . . and that both our mothers were far more complicated than we initially believed.”

  “Yes,” I agreed. “Still, it is strange to only learn now that I am part Jewish.”

  “I suppose you are Jewish in so much as your mother’s blood runs through yours. But the woman who raised me, Louise Franeau, who died two years after your birth, took you in her arms and had you baptized at the local church. She couldn’t sleep without knowing you had been bathed in holy water.”

  “But Mother’s religion is not listed on my birth certificate?”

  “No,” he said. “I don’t believe religion is ever stated on the French birth certificate. But I will check to make sure.” He stood up and went to his bottom desk drawer where he kept all of his important papers locked in a small metal safe. He took out a key and unlocked it, retrieving an envelope with my birth certificate inside. “It only says your mother’s maiden name: Cohen.”

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