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Authors: Alyson Richman

A Splendid Gift

Books by Alyson Richman

The Last Van Gogh

The Lost Wife

The Mask Carver’s Son

The Rhythm of Memory

The Garden of Letters

A Splendid Gift

Alyson Richman

InterMix Books, New York

INTERMIX
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UBLISHED
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GUIN
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A Penguin Random House Company

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

A SPLENDID GIFT

An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author

PU
BLISHING HISTORY

InterMix eBook edition / February 2015

Copyright © 2015 by Alyson Richman.

Excerpt from
The Garden of Letters
copyright © 2014 by Alyson Richman.

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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-18541-8

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Version_1

C
ONTENTS

Books by Alyson Richman

Title Page

Copyright

Foreword

A Splendid Gift

Acknowledgments

Excerpt from
The Garden of Letters

About the Author

Foreword

Shortly after I finished my latest novel,
The Garden of Letters
, which contains several plot references to
The Little Prince
, I learned that the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, wrote his iconic story while shuttling between homes in New York City and Long Island, New York, in the spring and summer of 1942. More interesting to me personally was that he rented the Bevin House, a French-style, twenty-two room mansion situated in Eaton’s Neck, which is a remote area of Asharoken, New York, facing out onto Huntington Harbor. My own home sits directly across from Eaton’s Neck and shares the same mirror view of the harbor. I was immediately struck by the coincidence that Saint-Exupéry looked upon—and was inspired by—the same glimmering bay and rocky shore that I had while I was crafting
The Garden of Letters
. As I began to further investigate his time on Long Island, I learned that the Frenchman took secret trips to Manhattan to visit a woman who had captured his heart and became the basis for the character of the wise fox in
The Little Prince
. Much like my character Luca in
The Garden of Letters,
a bookseller who, during the Italian Resistance, gifts his copy of
The Little Prince
to his beloved Elodie, Saint-Exupéry believed that even if a couple is separated by distance or even death, true love continues to exist beyond the stars.

 

March 1942

New York City

That evening, after she had put her son to bed, peeled off her rollers, and reapplied her lipstick, Silvia was nothing short of a comet as she hailed a taxi, the invitation to the cocktail party fluttering between her fingers.

She read the driver the address and settled against the backseat. The night was damp, and as the wind streamed through the driver’s half-opened window, she considered asking him to roll up the glass in order to protect her hair. But Silvia found the air invigorating, so she untied the scarf around her neck, wrapped it over the top of her head, and tied a small knot underneath her chin. Her very own silk helmet to protect her coiffure. As they barreled down Park Avenue, the New York skyline brilliantly illuminated, she closed her eyes and felt the freedom of the night unfurling before her. With the car’s wheels rolling underneath, she imagined herself taking flight.

She had been told by the hostess that the famous French pilot, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, would be in attendance, and that his publisher was trying to ease both his homesickness and frustration at being classified medically unfit to fly as his country was beset by war. For Silvia, the chance to meet the man who had bravely navigated the skies and written so poetically about it thrilled her.

She had devoured his book
Wind, Sand and Stars
, and its prose had kept her awake long into the night. She still kept her copy on her nightstand. His words had lifted her from the confines of her small, elegant apartment to skies that were ablaze with the light of the stars. From his descriptions, she had imagined the roar of the engines, the sensation of the controls beneath his fingers, and the sheer ecstasy of flight as his plane soared above the peaks of the Pyrenees or the dunes of Dakar.

She had wondered what it might be like to look down at the world from Saint-Exupéry’s cockpit, her breath merging with the clouds and her body nearly weightless. Just the thought of being given the gift of wings for even a moment was enough to make her dizzy. Warmth flowed through her as she imagined herself coasting in a dark sky, her face misty against the rolling fog.

***

The hostess slipped Silvia’s coat from her shoulders and offered her a glass of champagne. With her black dress, white throat, and auburn hair, her beauty lit up the room. She saw Saint-Exupéry in the corner smoking a cigarette, his eyes following her as she entered.

Silvia knew Lewis Galantière, the pilot’s translator, who welcomed her with a tight embrace.

“So good of you to come,” he said, kissing her on both cheeks. “Don’t you look as beautiful as the moon. . . .”

She laughed, taking a sip of champagne. As usual, Galantière tried to flirt, but Silvia had no interest in him. She only wanted to meet the famous author himself.

Her eyes darted over to Saint-Exupéry, who was now amusing two women in the corner with a deck of cards.

“Would you like me to introduce you?” Galantière offered, in an obvious attempt to win her over by showing how close he was with the famous pilot.

Silvia’s eyes brightened.

“Does he speak any English?”

“Hardly a word.” Galantière smirked.

“Then can you give him a message for me?” Silvia asked in her sweetest voice, coming closer to the translator’s ear.

“I suppose it depends on the message, my dear girl.” He rolled the ice in his glass like it was dice, then took a deep swallow of gin.

For a moment she considered the different florid declarations and compliments she might bestow on the pilot in order to get his attention, but then decided it was best to be direct in matters of the heart.

“It’s a simple one,” she said, as she batted her eyelashes.

“What’s that?” Galantière asked.

“Just tell him that I love him.”

***

Galantière swaggered over to the pilot and began to make idle conversation. It was clear to Silvia that he had not actually delivered her message, but rather had given a watered-down interpretation of her words.

Again, once he returned to her side, she whispered to Galantière another message for the pilot, this one more passionate than her first. She hoped that he would translate her second attempt with more accuracy this time.

But Galantière was not amused.

“Enough!” he said, turning to her. “I won’t play Cyrano de Bergerac for you.”

He raised his empty glass to the air. “You’re on your own, the two of you. . . .” He looked at Silvia one last time and shook his head. “Good luck.”

Saint-Exupéry had been watching them and laughed. Even if he didn’t understand their actual words, he had grasped enough of the conversation to be entertained. Silvia shrugged to intimate
good riddance
, her face beaming because she now had the chance to be alone with the pilot.

He stood across from her, far taller than she had imagined, with dark eyes framed by thick eyebrows. His face, although not classically handsome, was intelligent and soulful. His smile was disarming, and his gaze contained a predatory wisdom that reminded her of an owl.

She ventured in a blend of English and German to ask him if he’d like her phone number. Already she was set on establishing a language between them that was all their own.


Oui. Oui
,” he said, with a grin she could well understand. The pilot reached into his breast pocket and handed Silvia a pen.

***

He had arrived in New York on the cusp of 1941, his body aflame with pain from an injury he had suffered in a crash years before. At night he suffered from mysterious fevers. He dreamed of flight and falling, of stars and bodies tumbling from the sky. He closed his eyes as the taxis honked their horns and imagined the silent desert. He saw camels and Bedouins. But mostly he saw the faces of his fellow pilots from his former days on the African mail route, each one now dead. As the only survivor, his anguish cut him to the bone.

He sought the laughter of others to forget his sadness, and to hide his awkward and clumsy nature. And so at parties, he played the clown. He brought cards and performed magic tricks, or entertained the crowd with songs on the piano.

Elizabeth Reynal and Peggy Hitchcock, who were married to the founding partners of his American publisher, Reynal & Hitchcock, had furnished an apartment high above Central Park South, with all the necessities to bring him comfort so he could write. They bought him a toaster and stocked the refrigerator. They dressed his bed in crisp white linen and placed a lamp at his desk.

He used the apartment as a hideaway. He smoked cigarettes and drank tea long into the night. He wrote and scribbled on notepads. He spread out his papers as though they were maps.

He wrote letters to his wife, Consuelo, who, in a show of independence and South American drama, had taken an apartment upstairs in the same building.

He pleaded with her to forsake her bohemian ways and live a more private and proper life, while at the same time sifting through scribbled phone numbers collected from women he had met at parties.

Most of the women he chose not to call. But Silvia, with her dark, sly eyes that reminded him of a fox, who was clever enough to create a language of stolen phrases from other languages, and who rejoiced in pantomime when she had no words, he had found enchanting.

The evening following their first encounter, he smiled as he remembered how she had clutched her heart to show affection for his books, and how she had extended her slender arms to simulate a plane in flight.

It was past midnight when he picked up the phone and called her.

“Hello?” a voice half-asleep answered on the other end.

He tried to speak in broken English, though mostly French came out, and asked if he could see her.

“Tomorrow,” she said. “Come at noon.” He envisioned her smile. She had to repeat her address four times before he got the number of her building correct.

But he assured her he had received the transmission loud and clear and that he would be there.

***

She had her apartment ready by eleven o’clock. She had bought flowers for the dining room table and prepared a meal of roasted chicken and a salad. She had set the table with her good china and sterling, all wedding gifts from her brief marriage.

She dressed her slender frame in simple shapes that accentuated her figure. She wore her hair like Rita Hayworth and lined her dark eyes with kohl.

She served the salad in a fluted bowl. She had already cut the chicken into slices, to avoid Saint-Exupéry seeing her wearing an apron and holding a carving knife.

***

He arrived more than two hours late.

Her ten-year-old son, Stephen, was at school, but would be returning home within the hour. She had nearly given up hope when the doorman rang and said she had a visitor.

“Send him up!” She could barely contain her excitement.

And when she opened the door, there wasn’t a hint of exasperation in her voice despite his late arrival.

“You made it!” she said, as she opened her arms to greet him. As he leaned in to kiss her, they discovered that the scent of her perfume was a word common to both of them.

“Rose,” he said, inhaling her fragrance as he kissed her.

She smiled as she felt his lips on her cheek. “Yes,” she said. “It’s my favorite.”

***

That first afternoon, in the elegance and comfort of Silvia’s Upper East Side apartment, Saint-Exupéry discovered a well-needed refuge, even though his hostess barely spoke a word of his native tongue. For as soon as he stepped over her threshold, he felt at home. Like his mother, Silvia possessed a rare gift of making every space she inhabited beautiful.

He admired her colorful collages—the clippings of cabbage roses and tendrils she adorned on small plates and her framed pieces of needlepoint. He took note of how artistically she had arranged the vase of fresh flowers, and how even her black poodle was perfectly groomed. Whereas his wife created a tornado in her wake, Silvia emitted a sense of tranquility and ease.

What he wanted to tell her—though he lacked the words in English—was that her home reminded him of France. He had the sensation that he could have been in Paris, or in the dining room of his childhood home in Saint-Maurice. He closed his eyes and savored the chicken. Silvia both soothed and enchanted him.

He reached out toward her as she came closer, lifting the silk hem of her dress. After seeing her taut thigh, he forgot all about Silvia’s homemade apple tart.

***

Over the next several weeks, he sought her out often. She was a tonic for his restlessness. He would typically surprise her late at night, bearing a bottle of wine and a folder full of his latest writings. The moment he removed his coat and slipped off his shoes, a sense of relief washed over him. Without uttering a word, she would usher him to the sofa, hand him a glass, and massage his feet in her deft hands.

She learned that she needn’t go through the trouble of roasting a chicken on his behalf. He requested only scrambled eggs and a tumbler of gin. The fragrance of the butter melting in the frying pan or the jingle the ice made as she handed him his cocktail, were rituals he adored.

***

He believed Silvia possessed a unique magic, one that he had sensed from their very first encounter, when her eyes shone and her hands danced for him alone. It was as pure as the language of children. Two souls bound together without the use of words.

That she was a mother also endeared her to him. He loved her little boy, Stephen, often amusing him with small pranks. He taught him to make water balloons and crafted him an airplane from Popsicle sticks. He brought him a set of colored pencils and encouraged him to write and draw.

On the evenings when her son was at her parents’, they’d go out to dinner at Ruby Foo’s, feeding each other dumplings. They drank cocktails with paper parasols, spinning them on the table like tops. All the while they laughed and gestured like two mimes, so that those around them thought they were engaged in a mad game of charades. They scribbled drawings on paper napkins, teased each other with animated faces, and poked each other beneath the table.

Later, in the dark of her bedroom, he would undress her. When he slipped off her dress, the white of her body was dazzling. He wanted to tell her that her smile bewitched him, that her touch made him feel young again, even though his body was still laced with pain. But the words in English were lost to him, so he showed her his passion in other ways. He placed his hands on her small breasts, his large palms enveloping them whole. He cupped her between her legs. And he allowed himself to surrender to her.

***

Isolation plagued the pilot, despite his new relationship with Silvia and the many invitations he received from his acquaintances. He felt ill at ease in the city, where he needed to crane his neck just to see the sky. He submerged himself in his bathtub and dreamed of ways to fight the Germans, inventing submarines and aircraft that could accomplish amazing feats. He amused himself by creating green slime to sling at the enemy. At his desk, increasingly unable to write, he busied himself by making a fleet of paper airplanes. He opened the window and propelled them into the air, watching as their parchment wings fluttered onto the heads of strangers and forced them to look up past the skyscrapers toward the clouds.

He visited Silvia regularly, finding comfort in her beauty and in the way she allowed him to just be himself. She understood the passionate pilot just as much as she did the writer who was struggling to regain his focus. She sensed that he was broken in places that he hid, and she tried to bring a softness to his life, to ease the sharp edges of his pain.

But neither the paper airplanes nor the adoring Silvia eased his malaise from not having made greater strides with the U.S. government. He had hoped to convince the Americans to join the Allied war effort, but his pleas had been ignored. His writing suffered as well. He was under contract with his American publisher to produce a new book, but he had yet to find sufficient inspiration. Almost every night, whatever he had written ended up in his trash bin.

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