As Paris teeters on the edge of the German occupation, a young French woman closes the door to her late grandmother’s treasure-filled apartment, unsure if she’ll ever return.
An elusive courtesan, Marthe de Florian cultivated a life of art and beauty, casting out all recollections of her impoverished childhood in the dark alleys of Montmartre. With Europe on the brink of war, she shares her story with her granddaughter Solange Beaugiron, using her prized possessions to reveal her innermost secrets. Most striking of all are a beautiful string of pearls and a magnificent portrait of Marthe painted by the Italian artist Giovanni Boldini. As Marthe’s tale unfolds, like velvet itself, stitched with its own shadow and light, it helps to guide Solange on her own path.
Inspired by the true account of an abandoned Parisian apartment, Alyson Richman brings to life Solange, the young woman forced to leave her fabled grandmother’s legacy behind to save all that she loved.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2016 Alyson Richman
Outside, I could hear the sound of airplanes, and their rumble filled me with unease. The only thing worse would be the wail of a bomb siren. I bit my lip and hurried to grab my bag.
I moved through the rooms of my grandmother’s apartment one last time. My finger trailed over the edges of her furniture, my eyes absorbing the image of her beloved porcelains, her carved ornaments, and, lastly, the magnificent portrait of her over the mantel. The only possession of my grandmother’s that I would take with me was hidden underneath the collar of my blouse, and feeling it against my skin gave me courage.
I learned so many things from my grandmother in the few short years I had recently come to know her. She taught me that when making a change in your life, never be sentimental and always be swift. So I took my final glances of all her precious things and reached into my satchel for the key.
As I pulled the heavy door behind me, I thrust the key in the lock. My grandmother’s apartment and her belongings were left as she requested. The place was now sealed like a tomb.
My new life began the moment I closed the door of that apartment, as I locked my grandmother’s secrets and personal treasures deep within.
It would become yet another buried story, in our family of reinventors and name changers, alchemists, and connoisseurs of beauty and love.
My father, a pharmacist, had grown up unaware of his true mother’s existence until he himself was eighteen, when the soft-spoken woman who had raised him presented him a letter written in my grandmother’s hand.
“I made a promise once,” the woman whom he had always believed to be his mother informed him. “And now I must tell you the truth.”
The letter was on heavy, bonded paper, with a small gold butterfly embossed on the top. The return address read 2, Square La Bruyère. The handwriting was flawless. A black fountain pen had rolled over the page in fluid peaks and arabesques.
My dear son, the letter began. By the time you read this, you will have turned eighteen. It’s hard to believe that I had you so many years ago, when I was but a child myself. But it’s important you know I exist. Do not fear, I will not demand you call me “mother.” Madame Franeau is the woman who will always deserve that title, and I make no apologies that I am hardly a shining example of maternal grace. But should you be curious, I am here, always available to meet you.
Her signature was large and marked with flourish. The name was wholly unfamiliar to him. Marthe de Florian.
He folded the paper, straightened his back, and made an effort to disguise his disbelief. It was almost impossible to comprehend that the woman who sat before him was not actually related to him. They both had small brown eyes, thin mouths, and dark hair. They had delicate digestions, and preferred their books and hobbies to the chore of making conversation. They found comfort in small animals, dogs, cats, and birds. And the fact that he chose to study pharmaceuticals seemed natural to all who knew him as a young boy. For he had always loved chemistry—the glass beakers, the mixing, and the science of making things that had the capacity to heal.
Madame Franeau tried to adopt a face of stoicism as she put forth this unexpected revelation to him. Her eyes were wet and glassy as she watched him read the paper, but never once did her tears fall.
“I couldn’t have children of my own,” she finally began. He looked out the window, his face not bearing any expression, but she could see that his thoughts were far away.
“I knew her from the first tailor shop where she worked. We were both seamstresses, and our days were colorless and bleak. We spent countless hours hemming trousers, and adjusting the lengths of sleeves. I was recently married to your father . . .” She stumbled over the words. The word “father” caught in her throat, as though after so many years of it being the truth, it was now suddenly a lie. “She wasn’t married and had little means of support, and we were overjoyed to have a child to raise. Her only stipulation was that you learn the truth when you became of age.” She paused and took a deep breath.
“I will not be hurt if you want to meet her. She has since become so different than I . . .” Her voice trailed away. “She belongs to another world. One difficult for me to explain.”
He spent the next several days looking at the letter. He would withdraw it from his desk during breaks from studying and gaze at Marthe’s full, scripted hand.
Only after he had finished the last of his entrance exams to the school of pharmacy did he decide to write her a reply.
His stationery was not as heavy, nor his handwriting as grand. On a simple sleeve of white paper he wrote:
Madame de Florian, I would like to visit you next Tuesday at four o’clock. Please let me know if you might be free. As you know, I have recently learned it is a falsehood for me to use the last name “Franeau.” So I will close this letter with what Madame Franeau has informed me is in fact, my real last name.
When he called on her at her apartment, a housemaid opened the door and led him inside. The air was heavy with the fragrance of flowers, and the space was crowded with collections and curios from exotic lands. Even before she appeared, he felt ill at ease. There were just too many things. Too much velvet and satin. His childhood home had been a simple place: a bedroom with a wooden desk and bookshelves, and a living room with modest but tasteful furniture. A kitchen with a warm stove.
Now he felt as though he was entering a secret theater, one in which he clearly did not belong. Heavy drapes cascaded over the tall windows, which made it difficult to gauge whether it was night or day outside. His breathing began to escalate as he waited for her. He looked at the collections of Asian porcelains on the shelves, then the large portrait of a beautiful woman over the mantel painted with exuberant brushstrokes, and he was struck by its palette of sensual colors, its feeling of vibrancy and heat. He was about to move closer to examine it, when he became distracted by the sound of rustling silk and the striking of measured footsteps against the parquet floor.
“Henri,” a voice emerged. There, standing before him, was Marthe dressed in a soft pink dress, her neck roped in pearls.
They stood, several paces from each other. Her gaze was one of appraisal, as if she were looking at him as an object she may or may not choose to buy.
“Well, now . . . you look nothing as I had imagined!” She let out a gentle laugh. “But I suspect neither do I.”
He was unable to reply.
If my calculations are correct, she must have been close to forty when my father first met her, though it is impossible for me to know that for sure. Even when I met Marthe years later, she claimed to be an age that would have been impossible given my father’s age and my own. But this was certainly not the first step in her reinvention. As I would eventually learn from her, one needn’t be born into a beautiful life in order to have one.
I met my grandmother in the last months of 1938, when I had just turned nineteen years old, a few years before everything in Europe would smolder under Hitler’s torch. Her existence came as a complete surprise to me, like a hidden steamer trunk that was suddenly pulled down from an attic and opened to reveal a forgotten treasure.
My father spent most of his hours running his small pharmacy on Rue Jacob. Since my mother’s death, he had struggled to find ways to occupy me, his only daughter. I had finished my schooling five months before, and now spent my days dreaming of adventures and writing down imagined stories and plays.
We were mutually frustrated with each other, and my restlessness only made it worse. At night, when he returned home from work, all he wanted was solitude, while I was eager for companionship. Our apartment was dark, the paint worn and the furniture practical. My mother’s legacy was her books that lined the shelves. Every time I pulled a bound leather volume down from its resting place, a part of me ached, and my mourning felt like a fresh wound.
When I complained one evening about the lack of excitement in my life, he seemed to be on the brink of despair.
“I’m sorry I can’t be more entertaining.” The exasperation in his voice was apparent, and it was clear he was unprepared for the trials of rearing a daughter on his own.
For a moment we sat across from each other without speaking, his eyes focusing on the tower of bookshelves before finally settling on me. At first, I thought he was thinking of my mother. The woman who had kept his house tidy, cooked his meals, and nurtured my love of books. But then, something unexpected happened.
The light in my father’s eyes shifted. It was as though he had stumbled upon an elixir in a forgotten cabinet in his shop, and he believed this tonic might have the power to alleviate the ennui that plagued me.
“I know someone I believe you’ll find interesting . . . Perhaps she’ll even give you some material for your writing . . . I haven’t seen her in quite some time, but I will write and see if she will meet you.”
Three days later he walked into my bedroom with a letter in his hand.
“Tomorrow, we’ll visit someone you will not believe is actually related to me. But it’s the truth,” he said, as if he, too, could not quite believe the veracity of his statement.
“And who might that be?” I asked, perplexed.
“You’ll finally meet the woman who bore me. Marthe de Florian.”
The next day, after our lunch, we set off for Chaussée d’Antin in the ninth arrondisement of Paris, where Madame de Florian’s apartment was located. On the way, he told me he never thought of her as anything more than the woman who had given birth to him, as they had been estranged from each other most of his life.
“The only thing we share is her original last name,” he told me as he shook his head. “But even that is something she’s changed along the way.”
“And does she know about me?” I asked him.
“Yes . . . she knows. I took your mother to meet her before we married, and we later visited her again to announce we were expecting a child. But you will see when you meet her, Madame de Florian has little interest in marriages or births . . .”
I raised an eyebrow. “What are her interests?” I pushed him.
“Things I find tiresome . . . her own comfort and pleasure . . . her own beauty . . . her belief that she is somehow above the banality of this world.”
We had nearly reached her apartment.
“She’s an actress of sorts, so be prepared,” he warned. “She enjoys an audience.” He paused for a second and looked at me. I was dressed in my best clothes, a navy hat and wool coat, and one of my mother’s dresses that I had taken in for the occasion.
“She will like you very much, Solange. You’re pretty enough to fit in amongst her things.”
“But you haven’t seen her in so many years,” I told my father. “How do you know everything will still be beautiful?”
“I don’t . . . but I suspect that she has kept herself quite well preserved; that was very much her nature.”
I think that upon our introduction, we both surprised each other. I know I certainly wasn’t expecting to be greeted by a woman so elaborately dressed, with makeup camouflaging a face over sixty, and around her neck the most exquisite set of pearls.
And I believe she, too, appeared slightly amazed, for my face, although years younger than hers, so clearly resembled her own. I had the same pale skin and slate blue eyes, the long neck and Gallic nose.
My father introduced us coolly. It was evident by the way he stood in the hallway that her apartment made him nervous, and he had little tolerance for staying any length of time in her company.
He refused to call her “mother,” or introduce her to me as “grand-maman..”
“Madame de Florian,” he said with great formality. “Let me introduce you to my daughter, Solange.”
Our arrival appeared to delight her. She didn’t bother to reprimand my father for not having visited her in what must have been nearly twenty years. I would later learn that she didn’t calculate time as most people did. For her it wasn’t the minutes passed, but the moments exchanged.
“A pleasure,” she said to me, extending her long white hand. “Will you both be staying? I can have Giselle prepare us some tea.”
“I won’t be able to as I have work to do,” my father said, making an excuse for himself. “But Solange will, if that’s acceptable.” He looked at me, then back at this tall woman who seemed wholly unrelated to him. “Since her mother died, she has been restless . . . She just finished school and tells me she wants to write plays, perhaps even try her hand at a novel . . . So I thought perhaps you might share some stories with her while I am at the pharmacy.”
“But, of course, Henri,” she said, reaching to touch my arm. “I am not so busy anymore, and I would appreciate having the company of a beautiful girl to share my afternoons.”
I stood there, rapt at her. Her voice was melodious. Her eyes were full of life.
“Giselle, take her hat and coat.” My wool coat and felt hat were given to the elderly maid in the black dress and white apron.
“I’ll pick her up at six,” my father said.
With that he left us, and I was led inside.
I will never forget the parlor, with the large portrait that dominated the room. It was undoubtedly of her, created in a tornado of brushstrokes. Around her neck, the same necklace she now wore, a glimmering, perfect set of pearls.
She saw me look at the painting, and then the choker around her neck.
“I have never seen so many beautiful things,” I whispered.
“Why, thank you,” she retorted, ever so pleased. She then took a seat in one of the velvet chairs, as though it were her personal throne.
I believe she could sense my desire to study everything that surrounded us in the parlor, even though I tried hard to control my urge to stare. The collections of porcelain. The many objets d’art. The painting over the mantel. Even her string of pearls.
I admitted to be most taken in by the painting. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
“Who was the artist?” I asked, pointing to her portrait. The body, depicted with great, artistic exuberance, seemed to give off a pulse within the room.
“The artist?” She was bemused. “It’s not the artist you should be asking about.”
“No?” I answered, perplexed.
She motioned for me to sit down.
Her eyes flickered and she reached to touch her necklace. Its clasp, a small green butterfly with emerald wings, slid forth.
“No, it’s the story behind it. Everything of value contains a story, Solange.”
She touched the butterfly with a light caress of her fingers. I had never been in the company of someone who could so captivate me with only a simple gesture of her hand.
“You intrigue me, Solange. I know we’ve just met, but I sense you’re a young woman who is not easily scandalized by another woman’s truth.”
I looked her straight in the eyes, and I again noticed their color. It was the same as my own.
“Let us have an agreement,” she said, “The best people always do. You come to me once a week, and I will tell you how I, a girl born in the dark alleys of Montmartre, came to be ensconced in this apartment. It is not a tale for the prudish or faint of heart. But if you are willing, I will tell you the story of the painting as well as the one about my pearls, and everything else that happened along the way.”
With that offer, a beautiful and strange smile spread across her face. It opened like a fan.
The first thing she noticed when he opened the door that afternoon was the unmistakable scent of flowers.
The fragrance was intoxicating; it pulled her deeper inside the apartment.
He took off his hat and placed it on a small pedestal table near the door.
“Violets.” She beamed, turning to him.
He was pleased she had noticed his gesture. He could feel her body against his own, and his fingers traveled beyond the curl of her back, reaching to grasp the tight middle of her waist. “I ordered them this morning. Cost me a small fortune . . . violets imported from Parma. I am told they are the best.”
She squealed with happiness, and the sound of her joy washed over him like a bath of golden light.
He had taken great pains to decorate the apartment on the elegant Square La Bruyère. A large gilded mirror with a small marble table flanked her on the right. Two gourd-shaped Chinese porcelains in a peach-blossom glaze and a tall cloisonné vase occupied the center. As she walked deeper into the room, she saw French doors that opened up to a small salon with walls upholstered in powder blue silk. There was a love seat with fluted legs, and two large bergère chairs with cushions that looked like nesting doves. On the mantel of the carved marble fireplace, she saw even more flowers. Topiaries created out of orchids, ivy, and moss. It was an apartment in the palest colors, a palette that would offset a woman’s flush. A vault created for whispers and caresses.
“I wanted it to remind you of Venice,” he said. She looked around and saw the heavy drapes on the tall windows woven in silver, rose, and Nile green.
“The city where I was reborn,” she whispered into his ear. Their trip together had been her first time abroad, and its memory still stirred her.
“Indeed.” He nodded as his hand slid across her bare arm.
He had taken her to a room near the Accademia, where the air was laced with the scent of wisteria and the water outside the color of jade. They had walked arm in arm across the wooden bridge and a dozen others made of stone.
At night, he had pulled down the red silk coverlet on the tall bed with its carved spiraled posts and marveled at her beauty. She closed her eyes, and her former life seemed to slip away.
The next afternoon, he took her to Florian’s in Piazza San Marco, one of the oldest and most celebrated cafés in Europe. A place where the most beautiful and fashionable came to be seen.
“Mathilde Beaugiron.” He said her name as though it was a dessert that gave him no pleasure. “This name . . . it is not right. It does not do you justice.”
She lifted her chin and met his eyes.
“You need a nom de guerre.”
She said nothing in reply. She would allow him the pleasure of renaming her. In the momentary pause between them, she merely lifted the steaming cup of hot chocolate to her lips.
He looked around the café, with its walls of painted figures, mirrors, and bronze lamps, and then again at her.
“Marthe de Florian . . .” He extended a single finger and touched her under the chin as he said it. “It’s the perfect name for you . . .”
She curled her lips and smiled. The café was sumptuous and elegant. It delighted her that Charles thought its name also suited her.
“Do you like it?” he asked her.
“Very much,” she answered. “Who knew it would be so easy to lose my name and start again with a new one?”
He leaned back into the deep plush of the banquette and took out his pipe, its barrel intricately carved in the shape of an eagle’s talon holding an egg. She watched as he placed the mouthpiece between his lips and deftly lit the chamber. His movements were elegant and self-assured. She observed him, a student receiving a silent education. He closed his eyes briefly, and a plume of blue smoke wafted into the air. She could see how her new name, combined with the tobacco, filled him with a sense of satisfaction.
From the moment she shed her original name, Mathilde, a wonderful sense of weightlessness washed over her. “Marthe de Florian” evoked beauty and infinite possibility. She felt free.
In Venice, they steeped themselves in illusion. They soaked in a tub as deep as a Roman tomb. They ate food that tasted of the sea, and they drank wine from goblets the color of amethyst and gold.
She welcomed her new name and the anticipation of a new life. How wonderful it would be to have the opportunity to erase her past and the memories of her childhood, with its dark, cramped rooms. She would act as an artist with a brush dipped in gesso, and wash over the canvas of her previous existence. Her mother with the tired face and dusty eyes. The baskets of other people’s clothes that needed washing. The one window that looked onto an alley piled with broken furniture and garbage.
For her, now there would be no more cold rooms, empty larders, or landlords threatening eviction. Never again would she have to wear dresses that needed mending or shoes that soaked through in the rain. She would now only cultivate pleasure, and she would offer it to others. She would live splendidly amidst it. Like those other girls she knew who had accepted the care of wealthy benefactors, women who were kept as secretly and luxuriant as hidden jewels.
She turned to Charles and batted her eyelashes, as her hand brushed against his cheek. Through the veil of his pipe smoke, she saw his eyes glimmer as she touched him. They would have an arrangement. He would keep her. She could see it etched into his expression, and she interpreted his smile as the seal.
They had taken the train ride back from Venice to Paris together, in a private compartment paneled in deep mahogany. During the day, she looked out through the glass windows and saw villages made of stone, and stretches of farmland with yellow rapeseed and barrels of sun-bleached wheat. In the evening, they dressed for dinner and drank champagne from tall glasses as the locomotive’s wheels hummed beneath their velvet seats.
She could see how he watched her reflection, cast in the panes of the dining car windows, the heavy red curtains pulled to the side. There was now nothing of the scenic landscape of the afternoon to compete with her countenance, for outside it was as dark as ink. She took a sip of her champagne, her tapered fingers reaching for the stem. And when her lips met the rim, she caught sight of his smile in the glass.
She had a studied, deliberate way in which she moved. She had only recently learned the correct way to hold her cutlery, to ensure that her knife and fork didn’t make a noise against the porcelain when she ate.
But even before then she had mastered the art of crafting her appearance. She was wrapped now in all of her elegant finery, dressed for the evening until he had her alone in their compartment completely to himself.
Draped over her shoulders was the black velvet cape lined in pink satin he had bought her in a shop near San Marco She already knew how it would come undone. She would unpin her hair only after the porter had made up their bed. She would stand in front of him and take away each of her layers. The silk faille dress. The chemise. The corset and camisole. The petticoat. The garter with the tangle of ribbons and lace. She would remove the silver combs he had given her when they first met, and run it through her red hair, like Titian’s Flora. She would turn to him and let him unbutton and untie her until she was completely undressed.
These were the things she would let him see. Her soft limbs, and her nipples she had rouged the palest rose. She would let him cup her breasts and let his fingers take hold of her waist. She would be his flower, opening and wet at the graze of his hand.
She was twenty-four and a student of love and touch. It was he who taught her about beautiful things. About the poetry of space, the need for pockets of solitude amongst the chatter. The need for color after a moment of darkness, or for the contrast of white porcelain and white sheets when one wanted to feast.
He had been the only one to send her orchids when she performed at the theater. Five perfect stems. On the card he wrote:
Your beauty is not like the others’. You hold the stars in your eyes, the moon just beneath your skin.
P.S. I shall be the one holding the sixth orchid outside the theater tonight, should you wish to join me afterward for a glass of champagne.
The other girls were awash in red roses. Packed bouquets with their garlands of green, with cards from men inviting them to meet after the show. Every one of these male suitors had a wife, with children asleep in their beds or in a boarding school somewhere. And all of them came to the theater for a night of entertainment that did not end for them when the curtain descended and the applause died down. Quite the contrary, that was the signal that the evening had just begun.
She was young and beautiful with a radiance that set her apart from the others. A perfect specimen to showcase in Paris, a city now famous for both its ability to illuminate and to seduce. In the past five years, the city had undertaken an urban renaissance. Streets were lined with the contrast of heavy, black ironwork and milky white globes that flickered long fingers of light far past midnight. Now gaslights brightened the stage instead of candles, as the girls took their bows and curtsies, and the men studied their programs to remember the most beautiful dancers’ names. Backstage, the girls peeled out of their costumes, unlaced each other’s corsets, and finally breathed again, released from the constraints of their whalebone and lace. As the endless flower deliveries arrived, the girls reapplied their white powder, their lipstick as red as crushed poppies, and their mascara with glossy coats of black.
And like them, what had first attracted Marthe to the theater was the possibility to be somebody else for a few hours a day. To leave her humble background behind. To reinvent herself with beauty and illusion.
She left her first seamstress job at the tailor shop after she had become pregnant, a part of her life she wanted desperately to forget. She tried, with great effort, to erase from her memory the man who had gotten her in such a wretched state, who had told her in no uncertain terms that he had no intention of ever making her his bride or recognizing the child as his own.
She had tried to forget those awful months when she had struggled to hide her pregnancy. She had covered her fuller breasts by wearing higher necklines. She had raised the waistlines of her dress and wore more voluminous skirts. But when she eventually became unable to cloak her condition, even in the most generous waistband and skirt, her employer, Monsieur Brunet, ruthlessly informed her he had found another seamstress to take her place.
Her friend and fellow seamstress, Louise Franeau, offered her the perfect solution. When Louise wrapped the baby Henri in her arms and promised to care for him as though he were her own, Marthe convinced herself this was the best way to put that chapter of her life behind her.
“Are you absolutely certain?” Louise had asked her as the child nestled against her breast.
“Yes, I am sure.” Her voice drowned in exhaustion. She was still bedbound, every part of her body raw from the labor that had taken place only a few hours before. The midwife had been impatient with her as she cried out in pain. She still felt as if there were a fire burning between her legs.
She did not look at Louise nor the child that had grown inside her for the past nine months. She instead began to imagine a huge expanse of space engulfing them. On the ledge of the window, a small sparrow peered in from the outside.
She refused to take her eyes off the bird. She would not look at the baby that was rooting on Louise’s finger in search of milk.
Her breasts ached. The baby had begun to cry, and the pull inside her became unbearable. Yet, she knew that if she took the baby into her arms and fed him, she would lose her resolve. She could already feel the steel casing around her heart beginning to weaken.
“Take him, please . . .” Her voice began to crack. “But make sure the wet nurse feeds him. “
“She is already outside waiting for him,” Louise assured her.
“Go, then, please,” she said, her head turning away. The bird’s finely boned face was still peering in through the window. Its gaze was sharp and unflinching, slicing through her like claws, releasing her milk like a river of tears.
For days afterward, she spoke to no one. She instead willed herself to be stronger. To forget. To create a tourniquet around her heart. She bound her breasts tightly with yards of muslin until all the milk dried up. She spent hours fashioning a special corset that enabled her to tighten the laces from the front. She showed herself no mercy, pulling the corset tighter each day until she had regained her former silhouette.
A week later, dressed in a simple cotton dress, her hourglass figure proudly displayed, Marthe walked in to the Gouget Brothers’ dress shop on Rue Montorgueil to interview for a position as a seamstress.
She began the new job at once, but she found no comfort in her needle and thread. She had a restlessness inside her that would not leave her. Still only twenty-one, her beauty had returned to her and she was hungry for things that existed outside the store. Paris was aflutter with excitement. Monsieur Eiffel had begun constructing his impressive tower of steel. And the streets were full of the most extraordinary fashions.
She could imagine herself with great ease in these sumptuous dresses made from luxurious silks and lace. The other women who came into the Gouget Brothers’ store rarely had a figure to rival her own.
But none of these women noticed the poor seamstress on her knees, who fitted the muslin patterns against their virtuous, white corsets and who hemmed their dresses and adjusted the cuffs of their sleeves.
On a whim, she decided to go to an audition for chorus girls with one of the other seamstresses from the dress shop, who had one day whispered to her about an open call at the upscale theater, Les Ambassadeurs.
“I wish I could,” she had told Camille. “But I fear my dancing and my voice are rather unremarkable.”
“What you might lack in your vocal cords, you make up in how you would fill out the costume,” Camille teased.
She knew it was true. All traces of her pregnancy had evaporated. She had a neck as long and as slender as a tulip stem, a generous bust, and a waist that could be encircled by two firm hands. When she stood in for a fit model at the store, the other seamstresses would faun over her perfect proportions. And her face would come alive as the silk draped against her skin.
So she went to the theater with Camille. She stood on the wooden stage with the lights radiating off her skin. She gazed out on the expanse of near-empty seats and was not afraid. On the contrary, she was thrilled by the vastness of the space. Almost instantly, she could imagine every seat filled, with all eyes on her and the other singers dressed in costumes far lovelier than anything she owned.
A man named Julian called out the names of the girls who were auditioning. He told them they could each choose what song they would like to sing. Marthe knew few songs by heart, so she chose “Vive la Rose” because it was romantic and lyrical. The range of the song was also not too challenging, so she knew she would be able to project.
When the list of those who had been selected was posted outside the theater, she huddled close next to Camille, both of them searching the list for their own names.
“Your name!” Camille cried out. “Mathilde Beaugiron!’ There you are!” Her finger tapped the line of cursive black script. Camille, who had not been selected, only showed excitement for her friend, not jealousy or envy.
“This pays five more sous a week than working at the shop!”
But it wasn’t only the extra money. It was the chance to reinvent herself, to feel alive and to sparkle under the glow of lights. A sense of exhilaration came over her.
She walked back to the shop with Camille, and later that afternoon, after she put down her needle and thread for what she believed would be the last time, she gave her notice to the Gouget brothers.
“You’re leaving us for the chorus in a dinner and dancing show?” one of them asked her in disbelief.
She straightened her back and looked at them with her wide, Gallic eyes.
“Why, yes. Plus, a little bit of acting, too.”
She saw both of the brothers’ eyes fall to her breasts one last time, as though their departure was what saddened them the most.
Seeing her name on the list had given her a newfound confidence.
“But first, I’ll need this week’s wages.”
Her forwardness shocked them, and even she had been surprised at how quickly they went to retrieve the ten sous they owed her.
“Well, good-bye then,” she said as she folded the bills and place them inside her purse. “If you ever miss me, you can always come see me perform at Les Ambassadeurs.” With that, she picked up her bag and walked proudly out the door.
In the beginning, the girls at the theater had not welcomed her. They looked at her ample cleavage, her sculpted calves, and saw their newest member as competition. Behind her back, they laughed at her demure underpinnings, her milk-colored corsets, and petticoat without an edge of lace. But they underestimated her eye for detail. Her desire to do more for herself than just dance and sing.
She had never been one for gossip or mindless conversation, preferring instead to observe. So she studied the other women as though they were their own form of education. When she was alone in the changing room, she secretly examined the labels of their clothes to discover the names of the dress shops they preferred. She took note of their festive colored corsets, the ones they wore beneath their silk dressing gowns, with the flashes of color peeking out like an invitation. She learned what exotic blooms impressed them, and what flowers were left behind.
During her first months at Les Ambassadeurs, she had not yet learned how to fully exploit her charms. She sang with her eyes straight ahead, focusing on the back door of the theater, and never played the coquette. And so evening after evening, not a single bouquet arrived for Marthe. It wasn’t until one of the other dancers felt pity toward her, that she was given some advice that would change her fate.
“When you sing, search for a single pair of eyes in which to anchor yourself. So that the man believes you’re singing only to him.”
The girl came closer to Marthe. “And don’t forget, sometimes the most sensual part of the body is the part they never anticipated seeing.”
So the next performance, Marthe took those words to heart. She searched the audience for a pair of eyes that burned the brightest, finding a pair that belonged to a slender, handsome man in a dinner jacket, sitting at one of the tables closest to the stage. She took note of how his eyes lit up at the sight of her, and she immediately latched on to his gaze, directing the words of the song solely to him. When her sleeve slipped off her shoulder, revealing a globe of white polished skin, she could feel his eyes hard upon her. He smiled, even after the lights had dimmed.
Charles came to watch her every Wednesday, each time sending her orchids, and always taking the seat closest to the stage. She would anticipate the arrival of his carriage outside the theater. The swing of the black lacquered door, the quick grasp of his hand pulling her inside. She memorized the scent of the leather seats, a blend of sandalwood and hide, powerful and immediate. The Oriental perfume of his tobacco that floated in blue clouds from his pipe. She knew the sound of her skirt as it rustled under his searching hands. She knew the taste of his tongue as it touched her own.
For nearly six months, they used his carriage for their private nest, as his driver expertly led the horses through the quieter streets of Paris.
There was much one could do within the confines of polished wood and glass. She became an expert in acrobatics. Arching her back against the corner of the damask-lined walls, lifting her legs at half angles. Offering herself to him underneath the layers of her dress.
Her wardrobe was now an array of colorful silks and expensive laces. She made sure she wore his gifts—the gown from the Callot Soeurs and the black garter from the most expensive lingerie shop in Paris—both for his pleasure and for her own. Every Wednesday, she waited with anticipation until the curtain fell and she could be in his arms again, with the carriage wheels rolling beneath them and the moonlight highlighting those warm, white places of hers that he skillfully managed to expose.
The trip to Venice was the first time he had seen her completely naked. Her body released from her corsetry, her limbs finally free to move and stretch unhindered by the confines of his coach. He had gone to the bath while she lay in the bed. She waited for him without a peignoir, without even the flimsiest material between the linens and her skin. This time there would be no garter, ribbons, or lace. The surprise would be the lack of any veil; her body completely bare.
He pulled away the covers, and as the gas lamp flickered on the nightstand, she felt his eyes soaking in the sight of her. She sensed his desire in all its strength and undulations. The hunger. The thirst. The belief that she was wholly his to touch and possess.
She rejoiced to be loved, to be adored, to be touched by such gentle and refined hands. There was a new music to their passion. Beyond the breath and the small cries, emerged the unfamiliar pleasure of being two unknown travelers in an exotic city far from their own. Here, with none of his peers to recognize him, he allowed her to loop her arm around his own as they walked brazenly in the Venetian daylight. Here, he did not check his watch or leave her after his caresses had cooled from her body. Here, she was as precious to him in the day as she was to him in the night. And it thrilled her.
He had promised Marthe her own place upon their return, but she held her breath waiting to see if he would make good on his word. For she knew more than anyone that a man could take what he wanted, and then leave nothing in return.
But Charles had followed through on his promise. He pressed the heavy bronze key in her hand and then led her though the rooms of her new apartment. The place was even more beautiful than she could have ever imagined, with one room leading into the next.
“It’s all for you,” he told her. She felt his voice like a caress, a wisp of air on the nape of her neck.
She had gasped when she first arrived in the bedroom. A large headboard upholstered in silk and embroidered with butterflies occupied most of the room.
On the left, a stream of bright light poured through the tall windows. Another carved fireplace. A large mirror with a frame made of golden flowers. And, finally, the source of the perfume. On the mantel, five small vases. Each one filled with violets.
“For us,” she whispered back.
She felt his hands on her shoulders, then her waist. She felt him reaching for her as he did when the locomotive had churned beneath them. She felt her head dizzy from the fragrance. And the bed was soft as he pulled her near.
Reading Group Guide
THE VELVET HOURS
by Alyson Richman
1. The author references shadow and light in the novel. Discuss the aspects of shadow and light in Marthe de Florian’s life, as well as in Solange’s. Do you think both women come to terms with their pasts at the end of their lives? Or is there an element of regret?
2. Charles gives Marthe the gift of the pearls partly as a gift of beauty, but also as a gift of financial security. Do you think Marthe does the right thing when she sells the necklace?
3. Marthe is not educated, yet she is immensely curious. How would you describe her self-education? Do you think her material possessions reflect her pursuit of knowledge?
4. Marthe belongs to the demimondaine, the world of secret pleasure. What do you think of Marthe being a kept woman? Do you think it enabled her to be more liberated than married women in French society, or was her life more restricted?
5. Discuss the essential role the Barcelona Haggadah played in the novel. For example, it enables Solange to learn more about her ancestry, it brings her into the Armels’ bookstore and also, in the end, enables Solange and the Armels to gain safe passage. What else did the Haggadah bring to the overall story?
6. Above all, Marthe loves art and beauty. The author describes the sumptuous furnishings in the apartment, the butterfly- and bird-painted china, the fresh flowers, the rose-scented baths, and the gold-embossed stationery. Do we have these rituals of beauty in the twenty-first century? Are there any of these lost rituals that you’d like to bring back into your daily life?
7. Solange and Marthe forge an unlikely friendship. What do you think they each teach each other through their friendship?
8. Solange says: “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.” Do you think that heirlooms help us maintain a memory of our loved ones, or are our shared stories what help connect us to the past? Are the two linked? How? Is one more important than the other? Do you own something that is linked with a story, and does it connect you with the past?