Madame de Florian’s Apartment Part 4

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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.

                                             

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Madame de Florian’s Apartment Part 2

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“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 4.pm 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……

AN APARTMENT IN PARIS..PARTS 1 AND 2

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Marthe de Florian as painted by Giovanni Boldini

PROLOGUE.

Paris 1940

In 1940 as the German Army marches inexorably through the green fields of Belgium towards France. Many citizens of Paris begin hasty preparations to evacuate, throwing treasured possessions willy-nilly into hand carts, horse drawn carriages, the baskets of bicycles or, if your were indeed fortunate enough to own one, into motor vehicles. But the vast majority simply took to the road on foot, carrying their meager estate, tied in a bed sheet or stuffed into battered suitcases.

As in all catastrophic upheaval, be it a natural disaster or one caused by man, to choose what to take or what to leave behind can be, for some, just too overwhelming. These individuals simply walk away with nothing, melt into the chaotic, seething mass of humanity, never to look back and seemingly, to disappear and, even with the eventual restoration to normalcy, never again returning to inhabit their former lives.

And so it was for the pretty 21 year old Mlle de Florian. When confronted with the devastating decision of what to leave and what to take she couldn’t choose. She found herself careering wildly through the vast rooms of her deceased Grandmother’s apartment, pulling paintings from the walls, only to abandon them moments later or distractedly rifling through the drawers of cabinets and bureaus but taking nothing.

Eventually realizing she’s incapable of mobilizing coherent thought or action Mlle de Florian just simply locks the flat’s door and walks away.

The apartment and it’s contents are abandoned, perhaps deliberately forgotten. Cobwebs gather in corners, dust settles layer upon layer covering the furnishings in a diaphanous grey pall and over time the dripping tap above the kitchen basin leaves the pristinely white stone indelibly marked with a horrible greenish black stain.

Mlle de Florian lives to the venerable age of ninety-one, never once returning to the flat in Paris .  After her death the executors of her Estate are intrigued to discover the existence of the apartment. It has remained locked, unvisited, untended, for nearly seven decades. What would they find inside?

THE APARTMENT.

Paris 2010

The apartment lay in the ninth arrondissement, near the Opéra Garnier, Folies-Bergères and the Galeries Lafayette. This area of Paris owes much of it’s beauty to Emperor Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann’s determination to create a modern Paris. A Paris of grand boulevards green spaces and elegant architecture.

The Rue Condorchet is a typical example of classical Haussmannism with it’s monochromatic stone buildings, their façades organised around horizontal lines that often continue from one building to the next and balconies and cornices that are perfectly aligned without any noticeable alcoves or projections.

It’s on this charming street, early one morning, we find Monsieur Olivier Choppin-Janvry, hurriedly making his way to number 110. He had forgotten that rue Condorchet is a one-way thoroughfare and the subsequent lengthy detour to enter the street from the Place Lino Ventura has caused him to run late for his appointment with the apartment building’s concierge, Monsieur Gilbert.

The concierge waits patiently for him on the footpath, apologies made, Monsieur Choppin-Janvry is ushered through imposing wooden doors into a gloomy vestibule and from there is shown up the handsome marble staircase to a door on the second floor.

Monsieur Choppin-Janry is here to conduct an inventory and evaluation of contents in the abandoned apartment at the behest of Mlle de Florians heirs.

Politely dismissing the assistance offered by the overly curious concierge, Monsieur Choppin-Janvry is left alone to struggle with a resisting lock. After some determined jiggling the lock finally yields and the door reluctantly swings open. He is at last inside the apartment, the first person to have crossed its threshold in nearly seventy years.

There is an all pervading gloom for the power is either disconnected or the light bulbs have long stopped working their efficacy eroded by years of non-use. Making his way carefully along the wide hall towards the formal rooms that overlooked the street, Monsieur Choppin-Janvry is acutely conscious of the smell of old dust and the mustiness of mildew.

Entering a large room he immediately moves to the large bank of windows facing the street and with some difficulty forces them open . That done he turns his attention to the wooden shutters. Their rusting hinges shriek in protest as he manhandles them open. The room is now flooded with morning sunlight.

He finds himself standing in a large dining room, a magnificent table covered by a yellow damask table cloth commands centre stage, ornate candelabra their candles showing use, sit either end of it. A large credenza covers almost the entire length of the back wall, its shelves groan under the weight of fine china and to the right of that, is a beautifully carved fireplace and gracing it’s chimney-piece are objets d’art and a sensual second Empire bronze statue of Persephone fleeing Hades.

Heart pumping with mounting excitement, Monsieur Chopin-Janvry quickly moves through the rest of the apartment, throwing open windows and shutters. Rooms that had not seen light of day for seventy years were now revealing their startling treasures. Paintings, gueridons with ormolu, Louis XV chairs, an exquisitely feminine bureau with beautiful inlays of fruit wood and in one of the small rooms overlooking the courtyard a collection of Disney toys including Mickey Mouse, Porky Pig and a moulting taxidermic ostrich.

But the room that interested him most was a room with exquisite moulded ceilings and walls covered in embossed, eggshell blue silk. Unfortunately here, water damage was evident causing the silk to fall away thus exposing the plaster beneath and a dark stain of mildew to disfigure the ornate ceiling.

The furniture is intensely feminine, brocaded Duchesse de Brisee chairs, a hand painted table for playing cards, marble busts and delicate gueridons on which stand, pretty porcelain vases. And along one entire wall is an enormous painted Louis XVI mirror bedecked with garlands of flowers and candelabra. Opposite this stands a marble fireplace and on it’s mantelpiece are large chinese porcelain ginger jars.

French doors framed by faded yellow silk curtains lead to a small balcony and beside this opening is a beautiful dressing table, ornately carved with fleur de lis and griffins. A lovely piece of whimsy. On top of this beautiful dresser were the accoutrement one would expect a lady to use when attending her toilette, silver backed hair brushes, crystal bottles of long ago evaporated perfumes and jars containing powder and unguents.

This room is undoubtedly a Boudoir. Today we might give a room like this the unimaginative title of a dressing room but in the Belle Epoque period this room was used for so much more.

The Boudoir of the Belle Epoque era – from 1870 to the beginning of the first World War in 1914 –  was a combination of drawing room and dressing room. It was where a beautiful woman might entertain friends and lovers, or receive tradespeople such as jewelers, hairdressers and dressmakers.

She would also dress here in preparation for an evenings entertainment at the Opera Garnier or perhaps going to Maxim’s for dinner. Indeed if you look closely at the dressing table you will see candles long past their prime. They’re little more than stubs suggesting the last inhabitant of this room has needed their illumination to see better for applying her maquillage.

Monsieur Choppin-Janvry is suddenly of the opinion that this room has been closed much longer than the rest of the apartment. There is no evidence to suggest that the 20th century has ever intruded within these pretty walls.

In fact he is almost certain that Mlle de Florian never lived in the apartment she may have been a regular visitor but it was never her principal residence. There was too little of the 20th century and way too much of an earlier period. That period being the Belle Epoque.

He moves further into the room there is a chill in here despite the sun flooding in through the  open French doors and a pervasive perfume of roses seems to linger in the air.  A zephyr like breeze eddies around the room causing the pages of a letter to lift from the dressing table and flutter to the floor.

As Monsieur Choppin-Janvry bends to retrieve a page from the floor he notices tucked in behind the overflowing bookcase something wrapped in a silken shawl. It looks as if it’s a painting and a large one at that.

Carefully maneuvering the painting from behind the book case with it’s towering pile of dusty tomes and mindful not to damage the canvas, he carries it to the chaise-lounge. The temperature in the room has grown noticeably cooler and the scent of roses grows stronger almost cloyingly so.

Monsieur Choppin-Janvry hands begin to tremble as he gently disentangles the shawl from the painting. He is convinced he is about to make an important discovery.

The painting is a portrait of a beautiful young woman. She sits, leaning forward in a chair. A chair he recognizes immediately as the very one on which the painting now rests. Her face is in profile, the luxuriant dark blonde hair is piled atop her head,  around her neck she wears a strand of baroque pearls and her long elegant fingers play flirtatiously at the extreme decolletage of a beautiful pink mousseline evening gown.

Choppin-Janvry intuitively understands he is looking at the face of the woman in whose apartment he now stands but even more exciting than that realization, is the painting itself.

He is mesmerized by the flowing brush strokes and the highly stylized positioning of the sitter. “Is it possible? An unknown work by the Master of Swish himself, Monsieur Giovanni Boldini!”

It is with the unconscious uttering of these words that the room is suddenly plunged into darkness. Momentarily confused Monsieur Choppin-Janvry realizes the shutters have somehow broken free from their moorings and have slammed shut thus blocking out the light.

Adrenaline courses through his body and a feeling of unease causes him to hurry towards the chinks of light shining through the closed shutters. And when the plethora of tables and chairs in his path impede smooth passage, panic threatens to extinguish all rational thought. He is convinced he is no longer alone.

With racing heart, he peers around the darkened room, his eyes desperately seeking reassurance that he is indeed alone. And just as he reaches to push open the shutters for better illumination he is distracted by a shadowy movement near where the portrait stands.

“Mon Dieu!”  Through the aqueous gloom a chimerical figure materializes, and with the sibilant whisper of silken gown, suddenly before him, is the beautiful woman from the painting. Her pink mousseline gown glowing eerily in the nubilous shadows.

In that startling moment, just as Monsieur Choppin-Janvry is about to commit to a terrified shriek, two things occur simultaneously: his mobile comes shrilly to life and a mischievous breeze plucks the shutters from his grasping fingers and casts them wide open.

The room is, at an instant, once again flooded with sunlight and everything suddenly appears in it’s natural order. The room is just as it was, a pretty boudoir. Choppin-Janvry, with herculean effort, endeavours to calm himself. His mobile phone continues to ring and after a few moments of deep breathing, he lifts it to his ear and says in a tremulous voice, “Hello?”

“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 wilful 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 Epoque 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 uncatalogued 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 of 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 4.pm 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……