Madame de Florian’s Apartment Part 4



It was early morning when Olivier arrived at the de Florian apartment. The street cleaners had not long moved on, leaving the tarmac of the road still wet and smelling like rain. Two waiters from the Boulangerie opposite were busily arranging tables and chairs along the footpath in preparation for the morning’s trade.

The delicious aroma of fresh coffee and caramelised sugar emanating from the portals of the Boulangerie proved impossible to resist. Olivier succumbs and orders a takeaway coffee and a warm flaky croissant filled with cheese. Eschewing the inviting arrangement of tables and chairs on the footpath, he crosses the street to the apartment.

Once inside the flat he moves decisively through its rooms, opening the windows and shutters. The morning sunlight, followed by a sharp zephyr of breeze quickly disperses the shadows and the cloyingly stale, torpid air.

In Marthe’s boudoir, Olivier takes a paper napkin and carefully wipes clean the dust from a pretty hand painted table. Setting his breakfast down on it, Olivier then makes himself comfortable in a commodious Louis armchair, ignoring the great plume of dust exploding around him as he settles into its seat.

With greedy alacrity the buttery croissant is soon disposed of, and, after wiping clean from his fingers the clinging flakes of pastry, Olivier pulls forth from his leather satchel, Marthe’s journal.

Just a few pages, he vows to himself, while I’m finishing my coffee and then I will start working.  Casting a quick glance at Marthe’s portrait, almost as if he were reassuring himself of her luminous beauty, Olivier eagerly opens the journal…..

Marthe’s Journal 1880 – 1884.

Its enviable the fearlessness of youth. The belief that all things are possible. The wonderful ability not to see or perhaps, to deliberately ignore, the potential pitfalls or dubious consequences once a course of action has been decided upon.

It was the nescience of youth that gave me the confidence and self-belief  to approach Monsieur Edouard Marchand, Entrepreneur and Manager, of the famous Folies Bergere Theatre.

I could sing, I was a natural mimic,  and I was more than passably pretty. What further credentials were required of an actress? I didn’t aspire to be a Grande Dame of the theatre.  The Folies Bergere with its repertory of musical comedy, operetta, short plays and exotic dancers suited my modest talents perfectly.

Its reputation as the theatre where the most beautiful actresses were on display night after night, attracted gentlemen of discernment, usually very rich, very generous and  extremely desirous for the company of a beautiful woman. It was perhaps for that reason alone I was most keen to become one of its players. It would be, hopefully, the perfect vehicle to showcase my beauty and launch me into the upper echelons of the demimonde.  

I was hopeful Monsieur Marchand would find inspiration, if not in my blushing abilities as an actress at least then in my undoubted comeliness.

It was indeed fortunate for me that my mother could claim a tenuous acquaintance with the well known theatre manager. She had, while still  enjoying the protection of the kind Monsieur Delacourt, met Edouard Marchand on various social occasions. The two men had been friends and business associates .

The financial patronage of M. Delacourt and his deep abiding belief in the entrepreneurial skills of the talented theatre Manager had led to some of the of most extravagant and successful spectacles ever witnessed in Belle Epoque Paris. The partnership propelled M. Marchand to the top of his field and had helped establish the Folies Bergere as the most  glamorous and famous theatre in the whole of Europe.

It was I suspect, the association my mother had enjoyed with his dear friend M. Delacourt, that Edouard Marchand agreed to meet with me. He also however, may have heard of the parlous circumstances in which my mother and I now found ourselves and was moved to act in kindness.

On the day of the interview I woke feeling miserably nervous and just as I was about to leave  the apartment, the panic of doubt swept swept through me. If it hadn’t been for my mother’s encouraging words – “You look beautiful darling. Monsieur Marchand cannot but be moved by your loveliness” – I doubt I would have made it out the door.

When I arrived at the theater however, and adjusted the bodice of my gown, borrowed from my mother, to show better the pert fullness of my breasts, the stage door attendant gave a low whistle; I laughed and gave him an impudent wink. Suddenly I felt much reassured.

“I’ve come to see Monsieur Marchand. He’s expecting me. May I go in?”  The young attendant made bold by my flirtatiousness, cheekily demanded, “And who may I say is asking for him?”

It was on the tip of my tongue to answer Mathilde Beaugrion and then I remembered, this was my new beginning. An opportunity to reinvent myself, to leave Mathilde behind, to leave behind the awfulness of poverty and the attendant despair associated with that dreadful state.

“You can tell him, Marthe de Florian is here to wait upon him.” I said, very pleased with the satisfying, aristocratic sound my new name had.  

Opening the door wide the man gestured for me to follow. It was dark inside for the only illumination came from a huge chandelier that hung above the stage. There was a sour smell  of human sweat but overlaying that was the more pervasive smells of greasepaint and stale perfume.

“Mademoiselle de Florian to see you Monsieur Marchand.” , announced the man into the darkness of the auditorium. Turning to leave, the attendant whispered, ‘“Good luck Mademoiselle” and then he was gone, leaving me to stand alone in the circle of light on the stage.

“Your mother tells me that you want to go on the stage” a disembodied voice called from the shadows, I hesitated and then cast my most alluring smile; the one I had practiced in the mirror just before leaving home, in the direction from whence the voice came.

The corners of my mouth began to quiver and I felt slightly breathless. “Yes I do. Will you give me a part?”

Edouard Marchand laughed softly and then out of the shadows he emerged. A tall man with carefully manicured moustache and side whiskers, dressed in a tailored suit of pearl grey silk.

“Let down your hair and walk around the stage, so I can look at you.”

Removing the pins from my hair, allowed it to fall in heavy tawny waves around my face. I knew my hair to be glorious and holding my ribs high to show off my full pert breasts and small waist, I walked the length of the stage.

Coming to a standstill in front him, I was asked to raise my skirts to above my knees. After having appraised me carefully as a man might do when buying a horse, he asked, “What else can you do Mademoiselle, besides looking beautiful?”

“I can sing and I can dance.”

Marchand nodded,“Good, that’s half an actress’s business. But can you read a part?

‘Yes”, I replied, although I had never tried.

“No need to worry about that now. But I would like to hear you sing.”

For a moment I hesitated then clearing my throat  I began to sing.  I chose a saucy street-ballad about mistaken identity and lost love. I have a full, voluptuous quality to my voice  which can make a far more innocent song seem suggestive and exciting.

I moved gracefully about the stage, acting out the lines of the song, all my self-consciousness gone in my passionate determination to please.

When at last the song came to an end I sank to a deep curtsy and then lifted my head to smile at him with eager questioning eyes, he clapped his hands.

“Bravo Mademoiselle! You are spectacular!  In a week’s time we are giving a performance of “The Mistress’s Dilemma” Come to rehearsal at nine tomorrow morning and I will have a part in it for you.”

I had no expectation of playing the lead but I was seriously disappointed to discover the next morning I was to be merely one of a crowd in a Ball scene and had not so much as a single word to speak.

Monsieur Marchand  encouraged me by saying that if I were to attract the attention of the audience as he felt sure I would, he would put me in more important parts. Pretty young women were very much in demand for the stage, and if the gentlemen liked you, bigger and better roles would surely follow.

I had rather naively expected camaraderie from the other women players but they had already formed a tight clique and were jealous and suspicious of any outsider trying to break into their closed ranks. They ignored me when I spoke to them, tittered and whispered behind my back, hid my costume on the day of the dress rehearsal, all in the obvious hope of making me so unhappy I would leave the company.

I was soon to learn that other women were not important to my success or happiness and I  refused to let their pettiness and jealousy trouble me. Marthe de Florian was here to stay and more importantly she was here to prosper!

At last the day of the performance arrived and after a restless night  spent tossing and turning, wracked with doubt and apprehension I awoke, very anxious to begin the day.

I arrived at the theatre at noon, well in advance of the play’s starting time, which was at three in the afternoon. I wanted plenty of time to apply my stage make-up and not have to fight the other women for a share of the mirror. The common dressing room was a crowded, damp space, smelling of sweat and cheap perfume.

It was also a utility room used for storing costumes, false – hair, false- beards, false -noses, fanciful stage scenery and other mysterious – at least to me – theatre paraphernalia.

These chaotic working conditions were for only the most lowly players of which I happened to be one. The more successful and sought after actresses enjoyed private dressing rooms where there was ample room to dress, and to leisurely paint their faces and, if they were so inclined, to take a glass of champagne before their performance. Champagne was believed to give an extra sparkle to a woman’s beauty and an exciting verve to her performance.

For some older actresses, fearful their allure was fading and that their performances were lacking youthful energy there was the more sinister and intoxicating elixir of champagne laced with cocaine. This concoction might invigorate and give you a marvellous sense of invincibility but it also could lead to a debilitating addiction.

Because it was so early I found the entire theatre empty but for a couple of backstage-hands moving scenery and the lighting person preparing the enormous chandelier that was to hang above the heads of the audience.

In those days the theatre-goer expected the auditorium to be as brightly lit, as the stage itself, if not more so, thus allowing the audience – should the entertainment prove other than engaging – the opportunity to raise their Opera – glasses and scan the pretty faces in the surrounding private boxes.

By the time the other actresses began to arrive I was painted and dressed and had left the stifling confines of the dressing room. I wanted to watch the audience from behind the curtains.

The pit was already full with dandies, grisettes, prostitutes and pretty girls selling fruit and refreshments, all of them noisy and laughing and shouting to acquaintances all over the theatre.

The galleries were still mostly empty except for a few men and women anxious to secure a good seat. They sat fanning themselves with their programs for the great chandelier above  them irradiated considerable warmth with its many gaslight candles.  

Finally the boxes began to fill with splendidly gowned and bejewelled ladies, languid self-absorbed beauties who were already bored with the play before it had even begun.

I stood looking out,  my throat dry, and my heart beating a fierce tattoo in nervous anticipation, when suddenly a howl of pain came from the direction of Hortense d’ Albert’s dressing room.  She was the star of the play and Queen of the Folies Bergere, famous for her a great beauty, and notorious for her, capriciousness , mean spiritedness  and vindictiveness, making her possibly the most feared woman in the company.

She jealously guarded her position as the premier star and was ruthless in her determination to see off all possible rivals. It was she who had orchestrated the campaign of hurtfulness toward me and encouraged the other actresses to carry out small acts of sabotage, like the hiding of my costume at dress rehearsal and putting ground chillies into my rouge pot. An old trick used to temporarily disfigure a rival’s beauty by causing burning and swelling.  I quickly learned to take my paint home with me and not leave it the dressing room where it could be tampered with.

A small group of players had gathered at the open door of Hortense’s dressing room. I could see the actress sobbing, obviously in pain and  frantically sponging her eyes with a moistened towel. Her panicked maid was shrilly demanding a doctor be called and for someone to fetch Monsieur Marchand.

Within moments Edouard Marchand was striding through the group, effectively silencing our whispered speculations by demanding we should make ourselves scarce and find something useful to do.

Suitably chastened, the crowd melt away and I returned to my position behind the curtain. I was consumed with curiosity regarding the drama that was unfolding in Hortense’s dressing room. What had happened to the actress’s eyes?

“Pardon me Madame.”, a deep voice sounded from behind me. Startled, I turned to see a tall  handsome man, elegantly dressed with deep set eyes and soaring cheek bones . His smiling, sensuous mouth revealed strong white teeth, made even more so, by contrasting with a luxuriant black moustache.

“I’m Monsieur George Clemenceau. I believe someone needs the services of a Doctor. Although I no longer practice these days, I may still be of some use.”

At first I’m flustered by the intensity and  brazenness of his gaze, then quickly regaining my composure, I  say, “Its Madame d’Albert you’re looking for. Please come this way.”

And, as I walk I’m suddenly possessed by the discomforting feeling that despite being fully clothed, the gentleman following me is completely cognisant of my body and it’s form. It felt as if I were parading through the theatre in my natural state.

Arriving at Hortense’s dressing room I knock on the door. I can hear raised voices and crying coming from the the other side.

Suddenly the door is flung open, revealing Monsieur Marchand looking worried, angry and almost at his wits end. Ignoring me, he demands of my companion, “Are you the Doctor?”

“ Monsieur Clemenceau at your service.”, says the doctor, taking the theatre managers hand in a firm grip. Edouard Marchand, his relief patently evident says without further preamble, “Your patient is inside.”

As the Doctor moves into the room he turns to me smiling, his hooded eyes, obsidian and glittering with suppressed desire. “A good day to you Madame and I hope to meet again, soon.”

With the deliberate emphasis on the word soon, his eyes lock with mine. Seconds pass until the spell is eventually broken with an interruption from the increasingly impatient Monsieur Marchand, “Monsieur if you please. Your patient waits! ”  

The doctor bows his head a fraction, in acknowledgment of the rebuke and moves into the dressing room, closing the door quietly after him.

Monsieur Marchand turns to me,“Marthe, listen to me carefully.”, the urgency in his voice immediately drives all thoughts of the attractive doctor from my mind. “Madame d’Albert has sustained a serious injury to her eyes and I have no doubt she will not be able to play her part this afternoon.”

Although Hortense d’Albert was no friend of mine I could no but help feel some concern for the actress. “Why, what’s the matter with her eyes? A fleeting look of frustration crosses his face only to be replaced immediately by one of tired resignation.

“She is a victim of her own colossal vanity.”  Taking a moment to compose himself he continues, “She has blinded herself with the stupid overuse of belladonna drops. I can only hope it is a temporary condition and not a permanent one.”

I’m appalled. Belladonna or deadly nightshade as it is more commonly known,  was widely used as a cosmetic, especially in theatrical circles. A small drop to each eye causes the the pupil to dilate thus giving the eyes a deeply mysterious luminosity.  A dangerous practice  often causing nausea, blurry vision and to the serious devotee even blindness.

Monsieur Marchand takes my hand in a desperate grip and its with incredulous disbelief I hear him say, “ Marthe, I want you to take her place!” But as I open my mouth to vehemently protest he puts a finger to my lips. “Stop! Listen to me! You can do it ! I’ve been watching you in rehearsals. You know the part  and I’ve heard you singing the songs. You’re the right age, the part is really one for an ingenue, Hortense while undoubtedly beautiful is technically too old for this part.”

My heart is pumping I want so very much to say yes, but what if I fail, what if everyone laughs  at me and I’m ignominiously booed from the stage. “There must be another actress you can call on, someone more experienced than I.” I cry frantically.

“Marthe, Marthe! Trust me you can do it. I wouldn’t put you on the stage if I didn’t truly believe you will make a success of it. Sure, I have more seasoned actresses I can call on, but the part calls for the freshness of youth and your beauty is without peer.  Will you do it?”

Tumultuous emotions rage through me, fear, pride, hope but the premier feeling is one of complete exultation. I knew the part, and the songs. An opportunity such as this comes but once in your life. Of course I would do it. And without further deliberation, banishing all doubt from my fevered mind I say to M. Marchand, “Yes, I will do it!”……………….

Olivier closes Marthe’s journal and quickly slides it into his satchel. He has heard footsteps on the stairs, then moments later a knock on the apartment door. The assistants, as promise by Marc Ottavi to help with the cataloguing of the de Florian estate, have arrived. Olivier reluctantly makes his way to the door, he would have so much rather stayed in the company of the fascinating Marthe…… to be continued.



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…..

Madame de Florian’s Apartment Part 2


“Monsieur Olivier Choppin-Janvry?”

“Yes this is he.”

“Marc Ottavi, I’m waiting downstairs.”

So engrossed had Olivier become with exploring the abandoned apartment he had quite forgotten that the renowned art dealer was to meet him here at the flat. An expert with considerable expertise in art and sculpture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Monsieur Ottavi had been invited to help with the inventory. His role; to establish the authenticity and value of the paintings and sculpture belonging to de Florian estate.

Choppin-Janvry walks to the balcony, leaning over it’s ornate railing, he sees a well dressed man in a dark grey suit. The gentleman’s ensemble is saved from almost funereal sobriety by a silk, canary yellow kerchief, spilling forth from his jacket pocket. He stands patiently at the building’s entrance, a cell phone to his ear.

“The concierge will let you in. I’m on the second floor,”  says Choppin-Janvry into his mobile, then, before his colleague can respond he breaks the connection and slips the phone into his trouser pocket.

Returning to the room he is again drawn irrevocably to the portrait. It’s allure impossible to ignore. A beautiful woman by anyone’s standards and if the tilt of her rounded but determined chin is any indication, a willful and deeply passionate one, at that.

Who was she and why – if he was indeed correct in his speculation, the picture was a Boldini – would anyone leave such a valuable painting, seemingly forgotten for seventy years in the decaying grandeur of this lovely old apartment?

Monsieur Coppin-Janvry reluctantly removes his gaze from the portrait. He needs to compose himself, expunge from his fevered mind the ghostly image of the woman in pink mousseline and silk, materializing astonishingly from the confines of the painting and appearing wraithlike before him.

He is convinced he had experienced some sort of sensory overload. The apartment exercised a powerful allure causing him feelings of deep disquiet. It was almost as if he had stumbled into the castle of Sleeping Beauty, a place of glamor, beguilement and mystery. It’s seductive ambience, unleashing disturbing, fanciful and hallucinatory thoughts.

Monsieur Ottavi’s footsteps are heard coming along the passage.

“In here. The door on the right.” calls M Choppin-Janvry. Glancing at the splendid Louis XVI mirror he is appalled by his reflection, hair on end and a streak of grime contrasting darkly against the pallor of his complexion. “I look as if I’ve seen a ghost!”

Quickly setting to rights his appearance, he turns to greet his colleague. “I have something I want to show you. I think it maybe of major interest to you.”

Marc Ottavi moves unhurriedly into the room. He walks as if in a trance.  His eyes, huge with wonderment, track slowly around the chamber.  The boudoir is gorgeous, it’s faded splendor reflecting the exquisite taste of the era he’s most passionate about,  the Belle Époque Period.

So enraptured is he by the room and it’s contents, he doesn’t hear the urgency and excitement in his friend’s voice as Olivier tries, unsuccessfully, to draw his attention to the painting.

It’s only when his colleague takes his elbow and leads him forcibly to the picture does Ottavi begin to focus on the painting. He stands transfixed. Adrenaline immediately courses through his body and with shaking hand he reaches for the painting’s ornately gilded frame, almost as if he needs to reassure himself it’s not an illusion.

With the keen eye of a connoisseur, Ottavi carefully scrutinizes the portrait, eagerly taking in the dashing brush strokes, the vivid use of colour and the voluptuous beauty of the sitter. Breathlessly he searches the painting for the artist’s signature and there in the lower right corner, boldly executed with the confidence of a true master, is the name, Boldini!

“Is it possible? An unknown work by Boldini ?” Ottavi is feeling faint with the enormity of the discovery. With his encyclopedic knowledge of the famous painter’s work, Ottavi is certain the painting has never been exhibited in the public arena or indeed published in any catalogue recording the famous Portraitist’s work.  It has most likely, only ever been enjoyed privately, here in this opulent and most intimate of rooms, the lady’s boudoir, seen only by Madame herself or possibly her admirers.

“And the woman ! Who is she?” asks M. Choppin-Janvry, not realizing the rawness and urgency in his voice has revealed the almost palpable fascination he feels for the mysterious beauty.

Marc Ottavi smiles sympathetically, for he too is not impervious to the woman’s allure. “Ah! The lady, if I’m not mistaken, is the beautiful and talented actress, Marthe de Florian. Muse to Boldini and courtesan par excellence to the very rich and famous.

The men stand in contemplative silence gazing at the painting each pursuing a different train of thought. Marc Ottavi’s main concern is to establish the provenance of the portrait.  He needs a link tying Boldini to this picture. Taking a notebook and pen from inside his jacket, he records the physical details of the painting – style, subject, signature, materials, dimensions and frame.

That done he then turns the painting to the wall and begins to intently investigate the back of the portrait. He is looking for exhibition marks, gallery labels, dealer stamps in fact, anything that may indicate it’s pedigree.

Meanwhile Olivier has become uncomfortably aware the scent of roses is back in the room. It reminds him of a perfume worn by his grandmother, Guerlains L’Heure Bleue. A zephyr like breeze eddies around the boudoir, agitating the silken curtains framing the French doors and causing the pages of an ancient copy of La Mode Illustree to unfold, almost as if they were being turned by an invisible hand.

Ottavi seemingly impervious to his colleagues uneasiness, steps away from the painting and pockets his notebook. “I have to get back to the office. I’ll make arrangements for the painting to be collected tomorrow. It should be safe here until then.”

Laying a friendly hand on Olivier’s shoulder he continued . “ My apologies for leaving you here but I’m keen to get the research team up and running. We need to establish the portraits provenance. In the meantime, if you would search the flat for anything that may tie Boldini to this painting, a receipt of payment, a business card, anything ! Because without provenance the painting is near worthless. It will be always suspected of being a forgery.”

Olivier understands the importance of establishing provenance. “What does your gut instinct tell you?” he asks his colleague.

Ottavi smiles cautiously, “Oh I think it’s authentic alright. Marthe and he were lovers. It stands to reason he would have painted her at some stage during their affair. She was also a famous beauty, a successful actress and celebrated courtesan. The main reason for concern, there is no record of the painting having ever existed and with an un-catalogued work you’re always behind the eight ball when trying to establish its authenticity.”

The two men shake hands and Marc Ottavi takes his leave, promising to call Olivier first thing in the morning with information regarding the time the painting will be collected.

M. Choppin-Janvry is once again alone in the boudoir. The room looks benign, even cozy with sunshine spilling across the faded, but still beautiful aubusson carpet. The sun’s relentless rays however also cruelly illuminate the decades of inexplicable neglect.

The faint perfume of roses still linger in the air but Olivier barely notices its haunting sweetness. His mind is too much occupied by the monumental task of sifting through the room’s clutter, searching for something that may, or may not exist.

Pulling a Louis chair close to the overflowing bookcase, he ignores the grey cloud of dust that envelops him when his derriere hits the chair’s seat. There is not much point for fastidiousness when the entire room is covered in a pall of powdery dust.

Selecting a book randomly he carefully flicks through it’s pages. It’s not uncommon for people to secret things within the leaves of books but he knows he really is just delaying the inevitable. The enormity of the task that lay ahead, has him seeking distraction.

He chuckles when he sees the books title, Emile Zola’s “Nana”. The classic story of the rise and fall of a celebrated courtesan. An amusing coincidence he supposes.

He begins to read and in moments is lost in the world of gaslight , beautiful women and foolish men. The sunlight retreats and the room begins to fall into deep violet shadow. Its only when he has difficulty seeing the written word does Olivier become aware of time passing.

How long had he been reading? The shadowed room suggests some hours have passed. Consulting his watch he’s appalled to discover its nearing He has lost the better part of the afternoon.

Unable to resume his search, for there is no electricity in the apartment to light his way. He decides to pack it in. Calculating an early start tomorrow will make up for the time wasted today.  However, while there is still enough light, he needs to secure the apartment.

Placing the book back on its shelf he stands and starts for the French doors only to be overcome by feelings of intense light-headedness. Had he stood too fast causing the blood to rush from his head? Clutching the back of a chair he attempts to steady himself. The room is a blur, he tries to focus, to bring the wavering lines of the room back to their natural, stoic form.

Its then he hears the whisper of silken skirts or is it just the blood coursing through his ears?  There is movement near the dressing table, the shadows seemingly alter, their nebulous quality becoming more defined, gradually a  recognizable figure materializes out of the penumbra.  It’s the woman from the portrait. There is a translucency, a kind of porosity to her form.

She stands with her back to him . “Marthe ?”  he whispers uncertainly.  She turns slowly, an enigmatic smile seeming to play across her exquisite features. Olivier is calm, although when he speaks his voice is hoarse with emotion. “What do want?” he croaks. The wraith says nothing but simply stands there. Then with languid grace she points to the dressing table draw.

He stumbles toward her, desperately rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. With cleared vision the apparition has suddenly vanished and the room is restored to static normality.

M. Choppin-Janvry slumps against the dressing table he’s acutely conscious of the intoxicating smell of L’heure Bleue filling the room. He feels disoriented and the loss of equilibrium has caused him a slight feeling of nausea.

With fumbling fingers he tries to pry the draw open. Finding it locked he begins searching among the detritus crowding the dressing tabletop. After moments of  frustration he finally unearths from under a pile of what look to be lettres d’amour, a key.

It slides effortlessly into the lock and with a satisfying click the draw is open. Inside are calling cards, jewelry,and neatly bound letters, each bundle tied with different coloured ribbon. But the most intriguing item of all is a book. Across the front of it’s beautiful scarlet morocco binding, in embossed gold is the name “Marthe de Florian”

With great care and mounting excitement he opens the book. It is as he had hoped, a most thrilling discovery for there on the first page, written in hand are the words :

“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.”

He held in his trembling hands the journal of Marthe de Florian.

to be continued……