Martine Gaudiet died 70 years to the day she abandoned the flat near the rue Printemps, having kept her oath never to set foot in it again. As a girl she'd lived there with two women of differing temperaments. Her mother Fleur, impatient and resentful, a pretty woman skilled in frivolous theatricality which some men mistook for charm.
On this sunny Valentine's Day, here is my Short Story which proposes (according to the spirit of the Challenge) to solve The Real-Life 70 Year Old Mystery written about by news sites, newspapers and bloggers last year. Read the real-life mystery and if you're intrigued by it all, read the fiction it inspired. I highly recommend you read the news story first.
An apartment in Paris on the Rue Pigalle, left unattended for 70 years. Amid the dust and clutter, gilded furniture, a giant stuffed bird, various objet d'art, but most intriguing: an undiscovered painting by the famed artist Giovanni Boldini - this much is true and intriguing. The rest, our concoctions, are fiction. Read all about it.
There were conflicting stories about the actual owner of the painting and the apartment, I went with the story that stated the woman who passed away last year was the granddaughter of the model who'd sat for the original portrait. I used that as the jumping off point. I've also, of course, changed all the names except for that of the artist, Giovanni Boldini. My version is entirely fiction and a product of my over-active imagination. I apologize in advance for going way over the original 1500 word limit, but once I began telling my story, I couldn't stop. I whittled it down as best I could. I hope you enjoy it, regardless.
And here are the links to three other inventive and creative bloggers who have joined in with their stories. THANK YOU you, Sue, Joyce and Nicolas for participating.
I hope you will visit their blogs, read the stories and leave a comment or two. Of course, I'd love for you to leave a comment or two here as well. As you like.
THE PORTRAIT OF MADEMOISELLE GAUDIET
In contrast, Martine's beloved grandmother had been an incomparable. A rare beauty graced with wit and true charm of manner. In her heyday, that gift of beauty had brought Celine Gaudiet fame and occasional fortune as a sought-after artist's model. One of her lovers had been the well-known painter, Giovanni Boldini. He'd painted an exquisite portrait of Celine - La Dame Rose - and given it to her, requesting that, for the sake of his wife, she never sell it unless she found herself desperate for cash and even then, only after his death.
Celine's many love letters, kept wrapped in red satin ribbon were a subject of endless fascination for a young girl. Though Martine was not allowed to read them, now and then Celine would unfold one of the less florid and read it aloud. If asked about the meaning of it all, Celine would smile and look fondly at Martine, the mirror image of herself, and say with a touch of regret, "Beauty makes some men babble."
Even as she aged, Celine would still receive gifts from old suitors. Men who remembered the young model in love with life and how they, in their eagerness would do anything to draw from her a charming smile, hoping then to be treated to one of her throaty laughs. Her sense of humor was legendary.
But most of the 'treasures' in the flat were gifts from another age. When, once upon a time, a famed post-impressionist given to grand gestures, had gifted her with the tall, stuffed emu that still stood in their living room, Celine rewarded him by posing nude for a painting long since disappeared from the flat. Celine knew her daughter Fleur had sold the painting (without permission) during a particularly harsh winter when they were low on funds and she'd wanted, among other things, a new fur coat, but Celine said nothing. Martine and her grand-mama made up stories about the poor old emu and favored him with endearments.
Fleur Gaudiet had inherited Celine's features and dark hair, but not her heart-stopping beauty. Nor was she her mother's equal in generosity or vibrant spirit. Martine dutifully loved her mother, but adored her grand-mama whose vivacious daily presence brightened her lonely adolescence.
Celine never married, had never really loved. It was her one regret. She theorized that the closest she'd ever come to love was with the artist, Boldini. His painting of her in the pink satin dress was a true prize. She knew he'd come closest to loving her in the first moments when he put paint to canvas. Fleur's father, a cousin of Manet's who'd died young, had been merely a one night's entertainment. Celine could not even remember his face.
She'd refused, over the years, to sell the Boldini, despite Fleur's obvious wish to do so. To prevent her from getting her hands on La Dame Rose, Celine willed it to her granddaughter knowing she would have the sense to hang onto it. Just days before Celine's death, she brought up the painting again. "It will be your little nest egg, dear Martine. Guard it well."
In 1939, war with Germany was an eye sore on the horizon, but the French were assured their Maginot Line would hold. Martine's mother counted as one of her lovers, a member of the German ambassador's staff, an interpreter with high aspirations who worked at the embassy and so kept Fleur abreast of the latest war news. He told her that autumn, war with France was inevitable. But he assured Fleur and her beautiful daughter that they would be taken care of. He would see to it personally, once Paris was in the hands of his countrymen.
Fleur immediately began making plans for the future. With Otto's help, they would prosper. The man was besotted. She wondered aloud if Dior would have a new collection in the coming year then assured herself that of course, he would. Martine was alarmed by her mother's attitude, but not surprised. Her job as one of Monsieur Worth's runway models earned Martine enough to set some savings aside, so La Dame Rose still hung in her proper place on the living room wall. Martine made her own plans to leave Paris and hoped her mother would come to her senses when the time came.
Monsieur le Comte de Beauville, the 48 year old head of an old aristocratic family and married father of two sons, glared first at his chauffeur, then down at the flat tire, then back up at the chauffeur. "Well?"
"I can do nothing, Sir. The rubber is worn through."
"Isn't there a spare something or other in the boot?"
"It is being mended. I was to stop for it this afternoon. But there were rabble in the streets. The striking workers are out again en force." He shrugged. "Paris is in a frenzy."
Beauville's gangly 13 year old son, Philippe, leaned against the side of the car and rolled his eyes in a perfect imitation of his father.
Beauville stifled a smile. "Well, we're stranded here for now. Madame will have to go on without us." He reached for his cigarette case but as he did so, a girl approaching on a bicycle arrested his movement.
Later, Beauville, never before given to thoughts of an epic romantic nature, realized that the entirety of his comfortable existence had irrevocably changed in the few seconds it took for him to glance across a street and behold the wary countenance of 19 year old Martine Gaudiet.
"When word comes from me and only from me, cherie, you must move swiftly." He'd given her the keys both to a Citroen and the house in Nice. Also a letter of introduction to his banker for Martine (and her mother, if necessary) to draw enough funds to manage until he could find a way to join them. He must see to his family. The boys, Philippe and Jean Paul.....Martine understood.
If the Germans became bothersome, he promised somehow, to take Martine out of the country. He'd submitted another official request for passports. One of the few times his title might actually do some good.
I bumped into Karl Roquette at Espinoza's groomer. We hadn't seen each other in ages. I'd taken Bruno in to have his coat clipped and while this necessary exigency was on-going, Karl and I went down the street to Le Chat Noir for a coffee. He noted my use of the cane, (a little spill I'd taken that past winter) but said nothing.
He made sure to point out the large white truck parked in front of his building as we took our seats at an outdoor table. I shrugged.
"You are finally showing your age, Jean Paul," he said with a smug smile, as if something tremendously witty had been imparted.
But my silence outwitted him. A bit disconcerted, he studied me for a moment then began tapping his fingers at the table's edge. "Where is that waiter?"
"All right," I said with a smile. "Tell me about the truck."
"It arrived out of the blue, this morning. What a racket. They're emptying the fourth floor flat. I watched from the window. A few large pieces were brought down early - a gilded dressing table. Those men are from an auction house. They have the look."
The waiter ambled over and we ordered.
"I wonder which auction house..." I said.
Karl shrugged. "Probably Sotheby's. Madame Fontenay on the third floor heard the men swooning over a painting."
"Ah, you saw it? "
"They brought it out wrapped in sheets. Hard to believe, a painting worth millions - "
"Surely not," I interrupted.
"But yes. Didn't I say the Fontenay woman heard them talking? All these many years, it was up there, languishing in dust..."
I could read his thoughts writ plainly across his handsome face. If only I'd known. Good thing you didn't, my fine lady, I thought.
The waiter brought our coffee and pastries.
Karl took a sip of his coffee, grimaced, looked at the truck, then, as a deliberate afterthought, said, "It's a wonder the man I saw skulking around the building the other night didn't break in. I'll bet he knew there was something worth having up there. He'd probably sniffed it out. He looked a type. Some old bum."
"What man? Why didn't you call me immediately?" I bit into the glazed pastry. "You know what a boring life I lead."
Karl gave me one of his blank looks.
Perhaps I overdid it. "Tell me everything." I dabbed at my lips.
"Monday evening. I was home early from the theater. Espinoza had a cough." He glanced at his watch. "He will be impossible this afternoon. He loathes the groomer."
"Last Monday evening - ?"
"I called the police. Much good they did. The man disappeared by the time they showed up."
"Were you able to get a picture?"
"It was too dark. Besides, my phone is one of those new touchy-feely things."
"Ah," I said. "Say no more. It always takes me weeks to figure out a new phone."
Karl pretended not to notice I was having fun.
"But the police didn't think much of it. They were actually quite annoyed."
"Cochon." I commiserated.
"He could have crept into the building and murdered us all in our beds. You know what Paris is these days," He shrugged. "And now, this week, a truck shows up and they are taking everything out of the apartment. Very suspicious."
"It is a mystery." I finished another pastry. "Really my dear, you should try one of these."
He looked at me with something like distaste. "Some old biddy owned the place since before the war. Went south when the Nazis came. She never returned. Perhaps she died there."
"Many old biddies died," I said. "In the war."
This time the look was one of suspicion. Suddenly feeling benevolent I signalled the waiter and ordered another round of pastries.
"Well, she wouldn't have been an old biddy then, Jean Paul." said Karl. "Listen to what I'm telling you. The owner has been paying upkeep on the flat for years. Who knows why? No one's lived there since the war. But, maybe now..." He shrugged again. "I may want it for myself. I understand it is twice the size of my place and with a skylight." He mused in silence for a moment.
"The whole affair bristles with peculiarities," I said.
He twisted his lips into a smile. "Well, maybe the old woman had Alzheimer's. It's all the rage."
I turned to look as two men carried a huge stuffed bird out of Karl's building.
"Is that an emu?"
"An ostrich." He sniffed. "Did I tell you that the flat was full of furniture? Wall-to-wall, and objet d'art. But everything, everything buried in a thick layer of dust. Or so I hear."
"You did get a look," I said.
The smug smile returned. "Well, just a tiny peek on our way out. By mistake this morning we went up the stairs instead of down."
We both laughed.
"Did you take any pictures?"
"I told you, my damn phone is brand new. It's all apps this and apps that - who the hell can figure it out? Besides, I sneezed - the dust. Then this tall brute of a man barred the door. I only got a moment's impression."
I looked once more at the truck. "Really, I think that's an emu."
Karl grew annoyed. He took out a pack of cigarettes. "Well - a dead bird. On that we can agree."
I made a phone call. "He knows nothing." I said when I heard the familiar voice.
"Are you sure?"
"He saw me the other night."
"Only for a moment. Philippe, what on earth possessed you to come up here, especially now?"
"I don't know...Perhaps I wanted to see if there was anything more to be done. What about the painting?"
"Taken straight to the auction house. Fermier's on Blvd. Napoleon. I had a chat with the very obliging concierge."
"Good. It will make its way into the marketplace. Finally someone will buy it and that will be the end of it."
"It is a great deal of money."
"I will not interfere. The lawyers will look for an heir. But they will find none. There should have been heirs, Jean Paul. There should have been a houseful of heirs."
Once the painting was authenticated, it was all over the internet. The art world was ripe with stories for weeks. It was the mystery of the thing, you see. A newly discovered work of art, identified with the help of an old love letter. Giovanni Boldini. Collectors world-wide went on the alert. The painting sold finally, for nearly 3 million U.S. dollars.
That following winter I went to stay with my brother at his home in Nice. His health was failing and I wanted to see for myself if he would last the year. We sat and talked on the terrace of the house Martine had lived in, alone, for nearly 70 years. He talked about her more freely then. Her death had released him from his self-imposed restraint.
"Martine was that rarest of women, Jean Paul," he said.
I agreed, as I always did.
"Until the day she died, she never stopped loving father. All her life she kept herself only for him. She would have no other." He looked off into the fading afternoon light. "The painting - stolen by that cochon of a Bosch interpreter, Otto Dietrich. " He spat the name out. "Well, you know the old story. He hoped to ingratiate himself into some Nazi inner circle." Here he stopped and forced a laugh. "Hitler was an art lover. So Dietrich strangled Fleur Gaudiet and left the body for Martine to find - as payment. Martine had repeatedly spurned his clumsy advances." He paused.
"But somehow, she managed to get the painting back. I've never known how, never wanted to know. In the process Dietrich himself was killed and so was father. He took the bullet meant for her. That much Martine told me."
I nodded. "The bullet that went through his body, grazed Martine and left her blind."
He let out a sigh. "From that moment, the painting became a deadly thing. But she could not bring herself to destroy it. It was, after all, the portrait of her beloved grand-mama. So she left it in the flat - maybe planning someday to come back for it. But as time passed she put it out of her mind. In the end, she left it for fate to decide. She never spoke of it again, at least not to me."
"And you helped her all these many years. The house. The upkeep on the flat. The monthly check she could not return."
"Father would have wanted me to."
"And you're still sure she never knew of your feelings for her?"
"I only saw her a few times a year, don't forget. Only when something needed doing at the house or she invited me to dinner. She managed very well on her own. I never wanted to pry. But of course I kept an eye out. I did ask her to marry me once - I lost my head - but she turned me down with such sadness I could never bring myself to ask again."
"How could you bear it?" I always asked him. Such loneliness. I never married because of inclination, but Philippe had not married because he could never find a woman to compare to his youthful dream of Martine.
"I loved her, Jean Paul. Only her. It was my joy to take care of her, to see to her happiness in any way I could. I fell in love with Martine when I was 13 and for me, that was that. But it was our father she loved, and he, her. They had just a few weeks together, but those weeks lasted a life time. He gave his life for her." He shook his head. "For Martine, the flat became a tomb, the painting - un malediction."
We sat in silence for awhile. Finally, I poured the wine. "To Monsieur le Comte," I said and held up my glass to the last rays of sunlight.
"And to his beloved, Martine," said Philippe.