Madame de Florian’s Apartment Part 3



September 1864 –  January 1871

I wasn’t always known as Marthe de Florian. I began life with the far less aristocratic sounding name of Mathilde Heloise Beaugrion.  My parents, young, carefree and in the first flush of their love for each other, were ill prepared the for the event of my birth in September, 1864.

Married barely twelve months they believed their love would sustain them through the hard times, the good times and the bad times. My arrival quickly put an end to that insouciant and romantic misconception.

It wasn’t before long the dreary realities of parenthood and the attendant responsibilities attached to that bothersome state began to erode the shallow foundations of my parents happiness and ultimately cause the destruction of their marriage.

By the time I had reached five my father had abandoned his small family and returned to the domicile of his parents, thus leaving my mother, the chatelaine of the small, cramped flat  squeezed snugly under the mansard roof of shabby block of flats in disreputable Montpamasse.

My mother still young and very pretty now entered into the intoxicating but perilous world of the demimonde. As a seamstress she had dealings with some of the very successful courtesans of the day. It was while attending to the wardrobe of the most notorious of them all, the very beautiful, and wilfully capricious Cora Pearl, she met Monsieur Henri Delacourt.

He was very much taken with the pretty seamstress and before long my mother and I were ensconced in a rather grand apartment on rue Saint Lazare.

It was a liaison that was to last for six years. A time of ease and largesse . My mother acquired pretty clothes, valuable jewelry and some good furniture, while I received an education. It wasn’t so much an education in the accepted sense, that dealing with arithmetic, reading and writing, but more an education in life.

I could see even at the tender age of five my mother wasn’t a natural coquette, she was too soft hearted and too ready to acquiesce and the most fatal flaw of all, she was too sentimental.

It was during this time , 1870-1871 that the  protracted conflict between Prussia and France took an alarming turn. The French were defeated at the Battle of Sedan and as a consequence the road to Paris was left undefended. The Prussian army marched triumphantly and unchallenged through France, reaching Paris in September 1870. The Siege of Paris was about to begin.

A time of gruelling hardship and deprivation. So severe the shortage of food, the citizens of Paris were forced to slaughter, whatever animals they had at hand . Rats, cats, dogs, horses, not even the much loved – at least by me – elephants, Castor and Pollux from the Paris Zoo were spared.

In January, 1871 the Germans began bombardment, firing into the city some 12,000 shells. For twenty three nights this terror fell from the sky, killing four hundred citizens and injuring countless others. Then on January 28 the city finally surrendered. It had sustain more damage in this horrific conflict than at any other time in it’s long and venerable history.

The citizens of Paris were determined to quickly re-establish the familiar rhythms of their former lives as they had been before the siege. A defiant, one finger salute to the hated Germans troops now stationed indefinitely in their midst.  France collectively, on the other hand, had to swallow the bitter pill of ignominy with the shameful ceeding of Alsace-Lorraine – under the Treaty of Frankfurt – to the German Empire.

While these worldly matters were taking place I had a more personal horror to contend with, for by siege end, large swaths of hair had began to fall from my head. This startling development – caused no doubt by the combination of malnutrition and having to endure a month long period of unrelieved terror – continued until I was left bald as a billiard ball.

Although my hair had been fine and lack-lustre, I grieved deeply for its loss. Had I but known the glory that was soon to become mine, I would have rejoiced at its departure instead.

It was six months before my hair grew back and it’s growth was miraculous. For instead of the fine mousy stuff that covered my head prior to the siege  now in it’s place grew a luxurious mane with dark golden blonde highlights. It was perhaps from that moment on I began to believe that great beauty was to be mine and it would deliver to me fame and fortune.

1871 – 1880.

In the spring of 1877 my mother’s protector, the kind and generous Monsieur Delacourt  died suddenly from a heart attack.  It was a terrible shock for my mother, an event from which I don’t think she ever fully recovered. We were once again cast adrift upon the choppy seas of uncertainty.

With Monsieur Delacourt’s unexpected death, my mother was forced to look for another protector. This precarious state of affairs was to continue for another four years with each subsequent protector a little less generous than his predecessor and his protection shorter in its tenure. It wasn’t before long my mother found herself without a patron at all.

The jewelry slowly disappeared , sold piece by piece, to pay the rent, put food on the table and fund my mother’s ever increasing dependency on the seductive but ruinous green fairy , absinthe.

Her fragile prettiness began to fade. Women, who rely on their beauty to attract the favors of a wealthy lover should avoid the deleterious effects of hard liquor. Once compromised, no amount of powder and rouge can restore it to it’s former prominence.

Eventually our position became most dire, so parlous our circumstances the landlord  was determined to have us on the street if we didn’t immediately settle the monies due to him. There wasn’t anything left of value to sell and my mothers reliance on absinthe had left her insensible and incapable of rational thought or deed.

Our survival was now in my hands and I was determined to succeed where my mother had failed . Never again would I go without, never again would I be at the mercy of irate debt collectors and implacable landlords.

Where my mother had timidly entered into the world of the demimondaine and had been almost destroyed by it’s insouciant sophistication, I would enter it with fanfare and accolade and take my place confidently as one of it’s premier courtesans.

Mathilde Heloise Beaugiron would exist no longer. In her place, rising like the phoenix from its ashes would emerge, the beautiful, talented and ambitious Marthe de Florian.  I was  just sixteen years old and was about to embark on a long career as a successful,  La Grande Horizontale.

I wouldn’t, like so many of the less successful and some very successful courtesans of the day, start my career as a common prostitute, hoping fate would eventually provide me with a wealthy protector.

No, I believed you left nothing to chance. I had seen my mother destroyed by being at the mercy of adventitious fate.  I had a plan, and part of that plan came in the rather splendid form of the spectacularly wealthy and handsome Jules, Duc de Saint- Gabriel.

The Duc, I had decided, was going to be my amant en titre. He would provide an escape from the dreadful tyranny of poverty and pave the way to the wonderful world of fame and fortune……..

Olivier Choppin-Janvry closes the journal, carefully sliding it’s silk ribbon between the pages, marking his place where he had ceased reading. He would have loved to have continued with Marthe’s story but the day had been an eventful one. He feels tired and somewhat emotional, perhaps the consequence of startling discoveries and the day spent in the beguiling atmosphere of the de Florian apartment.

Placing Marthe’s journal on the bedside table he turns off the reading light and settles back into yielding pillows. He needs to be rested, fresh for tomorrow and the exhaustive task that lay before him, cataloguing the contents of the apartment.

Marc Ottavi had rung just as he was finishing a solitary dinner in his flat, again reminding him of the importance of finding a link tying the portrait to Boldini.  Ottavi, sensing his colleague’s irritation at being disturbed at home hastily reassures Olivier that he too, Octavi, along with his research team would also be exploring all avenues outside the apartment in an endeavour to find some documentation proving that the portrait was indeed painted by Boldini.

Olivier thoughts drift towards the journal but more particularly, toward his failure to mention it’s discovery to Marc Ottavi. He feels slightly uncomfortable and perhaps even guilty at concealing from his colleague, what is an undeniably important find. He determinedly suppresses this inconvenient truth, no harm had been done he reasons, and besides, he could always reveal its existence at a later date.

Marthe, or more precisely, the spirit of Marthe – on this point he avoided applying a too rigorous skepticism and accepted the eidolon was just part of the seductive glamour of the de Florian apartment –  had, for whatever reason revealed the journals presence to him and to him alone.  He felt certain that within the volume’s handsome cover lay the answer to an intriguing mystery. Just what that mystery was he could only but  hazard a guess.

Olivier eventually yields to the Morpheus’ beguilement and drifts into a deep sleep. A sleep where the beautiful face and voluptuous figure of the fascinating Marthe de Florian is hauntingly present. And as his head sinks luxuriously into the pillow, Olivier’s lips slowly curve upward into a beatific smile.

A gentle breeze eddies around the the quiet room so faint its presence, it disturbs nothing, except for the end of the scarlet ribbon hanging free from between leaves of Marthe’s journal.

To be continued…..


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