Late February 1909, Nice, France
The day had been a good one.
A wisp of chill air had awakened him, filling his nostrils with the salt of the sea,which, in his view, was the finest way to wake up. Throwing back his white down comforter, he simultaneously plopped his cat Georgina onto the polished oak floors, where she responded with a languid yawn and then a ripple of purrs as he quickly bent to indulge her in a lengthy scratch. Light was just peeking into the room from the floor-to-ceiling bedroom windows, one of which had been slightly open all night, letting the muted snores of boat horns sounding in the harbour and the laughter of patrons returning from parties celebrating Carnaval punctuate his dreams.
When he pushed back the heavy ruby damask drapes, the harbour’s reflections made the room come alive with shimmering pinks and azures and hints of silver-white. A soft ray illuminated a tiny self-portrait---a quick sketch in charcoal and ink--of his teacher and mentor, Louis Hector Leroux. René smiled in remembrance of the man who has graciously set him on his life’s course—and who had told him, “The women in Nice are beautiful. You will have plenty to paint.” How true that had been….
He had an appointment at nine-thirty at the café next to the Maison Auer, giving him just time enough to slip into the Maison and purchase a small box of their Cakes aux Fruits confits, Patrizia’s favorite of all the delectable specialties in the marvelously decorated Florentine-style shop. There was something about gilt and crystal and shelf upon shelf of artistically arranged chocolates that made him feel good to be alive. There would be time, too, to drop by François Aune’s creation, the Opera House of Nice, to reserve tickets for the upcoming performance of Franz Lehár’s La Veuve Joyeuse, a rare chance to hear René Lapelletrie of Paris, along with Nice’s own, soprano Paule Marelly.
Leaving his appointment (another commission for yet another Portrait of a Young Woman), he wended his way from the rue Saint François de Paule to one of his favourite places in Nice, the Jardin des Palmiers. At the Swan Pool, he watched a mother give her daughter a half a baguette, which she, in turn, broke into smaller pieces to toss to two swans, who gobbled them up, much to the little girl’s delight. At the Fountain of Tritons, he had stopped to take in the display of iridescence as the spray of the fountains danced in the deliciously strong late-February sunlight. Abandoning the pathway of palms, he strode onto the center of the great lawn set in the axis of the Paillon, standing completely still for several minutes, letting the sun warm his back and the sea breeze cool his face, a simple luxury he often gave to himself. Then, to end his stroll, he meandered into the sinuous alleys closer to the seafront.
His feet then found themselves walking westward to rue Gustave-Deloye, to his neighbourhood synagogue. Its neo-Byzantine ivory stone façade with its pyramid-shaped summit pierced by a central rosette and capped with the Tablets of the Law sheltered the carved olive wood doors that welcomed him. Soft light bathed the cool inside, where several scattered worshippers sat silently in prayer. To the tip of the red Magen David inlaid in the white marble floor he moved, allowing the flickering glows of a raft of candles to accompany his contemplation of each corner of the star: creation, revelation, redemption; man, the world, and God. A feeling of beneficence and strength flowed through him, the second gift of the day. As he turned to leave, an old man looked up from his prayers and met René’s gaze with a wistful smile.
Outside, the distant sounds of the Corso Carnavalesque on the Boulevard des Anglais drew him to go near. Cheering and clapping accompanied the beat of drums and the blaring of horns. He had missed only a few since the age of seven, when the Niçoise artist Alexis Mossa put his distinctive stamp on it, reinventing the Carvaval into a parade and adding masquerades, floats, and competitions. René would take Patrizia to the Battle of the Flowers tomorrow. With the thought of her name, he pulled his watch from his pocket, noting the hour, 11:27. Her train from Venice would arrive at 12:42. She had been away for over six weeks, since the day after his birthday on January 5th, writing that Venice was dreary, but reporting that her family had replaced the fog and gloom with many parties and dinners in her honor. Her family, patrician to the core, their eighteenth-century palace dominating the edge of the Grand Canal, its façade strewn with fabulous marble animals. He remembered his visit there at Noël and how they had entered into its quiet from a bustling calle, she unlocking the courtyard with a key that was so large and heavy that it could have opened the gates of the city. “The garden first, before the house,” she had whispered. Then they passing through a vaulted passageway and crossed two doors to arrive at an interior courtyard. In the centre was a well. In the well was a clutch of turtles with scores of hatchlings. It was magical.
As had been everything there.
In her first correspondence from Venice, Patrizia had informed him that the turtles were “as fit as ever” and “doing just fine.”
Her last letter, arriving yesterday, was, however, a bit enigmatic. “Please do not break up your day by meeting me at the station. With the help of a porter, I can manage my trunks. Besides, I have a surprise I want to save until our dinner.” Indeed, she could manage—as she had shown so well. Her millinery shop on the Place Massena was a favourite of all the fashionable ladies of Nice. Even so, he imagined her lace-up boots clicking on the tiles of the cavernous Louis XIII-styled station, her signature diamond earrings flashing under the illumination of the grand chandeliers, and he assented that the richly decorated balconies could be peopled by a host of ready admirers.
He edged his way onto a small step where he could watch the last three floats pass. The merry crowd on the "Concours de Musique" waved to the spectators as red-coated gentlemen puffed their tubas into resonant rumblings and a twelve-foot tall mechanical conductor directed the three jesters cavorting on a tower, trumpets in hand. Next was a riotous carriage of fat-cheeked, screaming babies, an oblivious mother, her husband at the helm, brandishing a “whip” tipped with ears of corn, which kept at bay a cloud of white doves that seemingly, simultaneously carried the carriage aloft and glorified the procession with their never-ending sh-sh of wings. And lastly, the “Char des Pompiers,” an impossible contraption of tubes and tires, all marvelously fun.
As the parade ended, Niçoises and tourists alike converged onto the Boulevard, and René navigated through the hordes, heading decidedly for the Jetée Promenade, the 1820s crystal palace, so loved by the English, who flocked to Nice to take in the winter sun. Standing on the wooden pier leading to the entrance, taking in the midday rays, he wondered briefly if he didn’t have a bit of British blood in him, for he, like them, wasn’t all that keen to get into the waters of the Mediterranean, however compelling they might be, but preferred to look at them. But the moment could be only a moment, for there were many other things to do.
First stop, the markets on the Cours Saleya… The vegetable market: fresh eggplants, zucchini, tomatoes, and red peppers. Then to the wine stall of Monsieur Caprioglio. His suggestion, as always, was promised to be just the right match for René’s planned ratatouille. “I had it myself last Sunday. It is a delicious Barbera from the Piemonte, made by my old friend Giacomo Oddero, the vines from an impeccable natural terrace overlooking the hills of the Langhe, near the village of La Morra…. The color is extraordinary: ruby-red with tinges of purple. For your special dinner tonight, you couldn’t find a better assistant….” His wink was clairvoyantly conspiratorial. As René tipped his hat in reply, M. Caprioglio added, “The next time you stop by, my address may have changed. I have almost finalized the project of my dreams. On the rue de la Préfecture, a shop has become available for sale. I have talked with my banker, and…” “My most sincere congratulations! You can count on me to be a regular customer!” René enthused, and with that, he turned, for his final stop, the striped awnings of the flower market, which would provide the ultimate pleasure: row upon row of lilies, tulips, impatiens, dahlias, and anemones. Today, however, a pair of entwined lilies were his prize. His breath caught when he saw them. He divulged laughingly to the genial vendor, “Prescient? Perhaps. And Patrizia’a favorites… Couldn’t be more perfect.”
His pace quickened as he headed for the Place Masséna. After he crossed the Pont-Neuf with only a cursory glance at the Paillon River lugubriously making its journey to the sea, waiting patiently, as it must, for the spring melt of mountain snow to invigorate its flow, the grand square opened up before him. Alive with trolleys and carriages and shoppers, it was the whole world in miniature. Sidestepping three women walking arms locked, all sporting incredibly large black parasols, he noted the sign on Patrizia’s shop, penned in her fine Italian hand: “FERMATURE ANNUELLE--jusqu’au le 2 mars.” Inside, the hat stands were covered with white cloths, and the glass counter wore a thin coating of dust. Soon. She would fill it with her charm and her laughter. And, of course, the scent of Orange Blossoms, the A. A. Vantine & Co. fragrance that she was never without.
Looking through the windows, he remembered the early November morning that he had met her, stopping in with his mother to buy her a hat. While his mother oh-ed and ah-ed over the well-appointed and impossible-to-choose array of possibilities, his eyes could not leave the raven-haired proprietress offering deft suggestions to his mother. Her lithe hands had lifted each creation to place it at just the right angle onto Madame Avigdor’s head, and her radiant smile as both women admired the result in the mirror did—just for a moment—seem to change ever so slightly as her eyes caught his eyes watching her.
He had come back the next day, to thank her for his help with his mother, and, most certainly, to ask her to dinner.
It happened so quickly after that. Dinners, lunches, a three-day trip to Venice to meet her parents—and to catch Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida at Teatro La Fenice on the 26th. And yet…
He, at age 41, had decided that he no longer believed in love. But there it was, a moment of grace. She was his first love, his last love, something exhilarating, like skydiving without knowing if the chute will really open. She had peeled back all his defenses. When one arrives at the heart, everything changes, because having nothing to lose, the heart opens to the world.
His thoughts whirled as opened the door to his apartment—and studio, three flights up in a fine Italian red-brick building on the northern side of the Place Masséna, a gift from his father, a very prominent lawyer in Nice, after René had received his first big commission. “You will need a studio close to your clients,” he had explained.
After giving Georgina a scratch, depositing his market offerings in the kitchen, and finding just the right vase for the lilies, he turned his attention to his studio, where his Rodin dans son atelier awaited his final touches. He carefully laid his sack coat and vest on a wooden chair and donned his artist’s smock. He worked steadily for several hours, and, as the afternoon light started to fade, he felt pleased with his results, standing back to give the painting one last critical gaze. The master, he felt, he had captured well. After all, portraits were his métier. But the sculptures in the painting made him especially proud, for making marble come alive in oil had been his own private challenge. His eyes lingered over The Kiss. “Bien fait,” he said allowed. The couple’s tenderness was palpable…. Maybe tonight?
But there was dinner to make, a table to set, a bath to be drawn. By 6:52, all was done. Finely attired in a dark tailcoat and contrasting waistcoat, he set about to ready the music. The gaslights of the square glittered through the windows. Two candles flickered on the mantle. He selected Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1, which seemed to him to reflect his mood: wistfulness, longing, anticipation. Yes, maybe tonight.
He had just placed the sapphire stylus of his Amberola on the wax cylinder when there was a knock on the door. The music filled the room.
She was here.
His hands shook as he opened the door.
Their eyes locked.
Her red hair was loosely pulled up in a softly swirled chignon. She wore no earrings. A mid-calf fur frockcoat draped from her delicate shoulders, and her slim feet were tucked into black pumps with pearl buckles. A hint of lace peeked out from her slightly opened fur. Her ivory skin glistened.
Pressing a finger to his lips to halt any words, her other hand released the comb in her hair.
She stepped into the room and closed the door behind her.
The fur fell to the floor.
Except for the pumps, there was nothing but the lace camisole.
Nothing and everything all at once.
He took her into his arms.
Dinner would wait.
Yes, the night would be a good one, too.
Debbie Robertson divides her year between the United States and France, loving the summer and winter skyline sunrises of Houston, Texas, and reveling in the spring and fall mountain sunsets in the Alpes de Haute Provence. Her works have appeared most recently in Toute la Vallée, a French journal. She has written plays and “operas” for children’s theatre, and parallel text (English-French) short stories.
The Ekphrastic Review
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