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……