The Paris Architect: A Novel (11 page)

“My guests told me about a property of theirs that looks over the Côte d’Azur,” Manet said. “A wonderful place to put a house after the war. With lots of glass and maybe a wide balcony that stretches across the whole back. The view is incredible. And the sea is an indescribable shade of blue. You should see it.”

“The Côte d’Azur?” said Lucien. “Well yes, I’d like to see that. But I would need transit papers to travel south.”

“No problem, I can arrange it.”

“Really?

Manet threaded his arm through Lucien’s and started to guide him gently through the house. Thirty rooms was a lot of ground to cover in an afternoon. They started in the attic and worked their way down, slowly moving from room to room. The floor-to-ceiling paneled walls with high baseboards were a possibility; here, the walls were thick enough to fit a body. Still, Lucien wanted to keep looking. The enormous entrance hall contained a beautiful wood staircase with a thick carved railing. The staircase started from a huge wood-paneled newel post. It reminded Lucien of the base of the statue of Mercury in the rue de Galilée apartment. The top could be hinged, and two people could pull it shut by a strap, but it was too tight for two adults. Lucien gazed up at the ceiling and saw that it was supported by huge exposed wood beams. He immediately knew the second-floor structure could be used.

On top of the main beams was overlaid a series of smaller ones at right angles on which thick plank flooring was attached with pegging. These beams were about thirty centimeters deep, which told Lucien a person could lie down on his back within them. The plank flooring could be removed and hinged to create a trap door of sorts. To prevent a person from falling through the plaster ceiling between the main beams, some board reinforcing would have to be installed. During a search, though, Gestapo boots would be running on top of the guests just a couple of centimeters from their faces. As he’d realized at the rue de Galilée, the cleverest design wouldn’t work if Manet’s guests panicked and cried out. This seemed too risky.

He discovered a window seat in an oriel window on the second floor at the rear of the house that was deep enough and wide enough to work as a hiding place. As he walked through the house, considering more options, the excitement was building up within him again. He found himself enjoying the challenge of outwitting the Germans, realizing it was a more powerful lure than the fifteen thousand francs. He could see crazed Germans tearing through the house in a hopeless effort to find their quarry. But all the time, the Jews would be right under their noses. Then finally, a Gestapo officer would give the order to leave, saying the Jews weren’t there. Thinking about this had the effect of a handful of amphetamines, and Lucien quickened his pace through the rooms, forcing poor Manet to struggle to keep up with him.

“Why not the back of a closet?” asked Manet as they entered the master bedroom.

“That’s the first place they’d look,” said Lucien impatiently.

He stopped and saw how tired Manet was. Lucien wasn’t ready to make his final decision and needed to continue looking.

“Please, monsieur. Go downstairs and wait for me. Let me help you.”

“I’m fine. Let’s keep going.”

Lucien held Manet’s elbow as they mounted a short flight of steps that led to a small study. As he put his foot on the first step, it slipped and Lucien fell forward, bashing his knee into the steps.

“Goddamn it!” he cried, clutching his knee in pain.

Manet stooped to help him up.

“Let me be, I’m all right,” said Lucien.

Manet sat on the steps to rest.

“Why did they put the steps here?” asked Manet.

“It’s just to give the floor a level change and provide more headroom for the library that’s right below us.”

“I see. It’s to separate the study from the bedroom here.”

“Yes, just four steps,” said Lucien. “It’s a nice detail. I would’ve done the same thing.”

As he massaged his kneecap, he gazed at the steps.

“Hold on, I’ll be right back.” Lucien hobbled downstairs, leaving Manet sitting there with a puzzled look.

Two minutes later, he came back quite excited, with only a trace of a limp.

“It’ll work. It’ll work!” He was exultant. “They can hide under these stairs.”

“How would they get under there?”

“Simple. I’ll hinge the steps at the top. They’ll lift them open, slip in, and drop them back down. There’ll be a latch on the inside so no one could lift it up. I’ll keep the carpet runner in place, and it’ll hide the joint where it opens up.” Both ends of the steps ran into walls so there were no sides; they seemed to melt into the interior of the bedroom. The Germans would probably never notice them. He knew from the fine workmanship on the rue Galilée job that Manet’s people could make the stair hinges undetectable. The existing steps would be carefully dismantled then reassembled onto a wooden frame with hinges along its top. The same runner that matched the carpet would cover the steps. Lucien was exultant over his design, brimming with pride as if he’d just won the Prix de Rome. Delighted with his own ingenuity, he experienced the same sense of exhilaration that had swept over him at the rue Galilée.

“That’s brilliant, my boy. But what would they lie on?”

“On a thin mattress. And there’s just enough room for two people to lie side by side.”

“I knew you’d do it,” said Manet, clapping Lucien on his back. “I’ll need a drawing as quickly as possible.”

“Of course, monsieur, right away.”

“My guests will be quite pleased to hear the news. They’ll—”

“Stop. I don’t want to know a damn thing.”

“Yes, Monsieur Bernard, I apologize. It’s the excitement of the moment.”

“And one more thing.”

“Yes, monsieur?”

“This is absolutely the last job I’m doing.”

“Absolutely,” replied Manet.

16

Adele wasn’t joking when she said she wouldn’t forgive Lucien for missing her fashion show. Nothing in the world was more important to her. That was one of the things he liked most about her. She was as intent on success in her career as he was in his. Even more so, it seemed.

Lucien arrived at her showroom on rue du Colisée twenty minutes to one and stood in the rear. This was the best spot to see any movie stars in attendance. Adele’s shows always attracted celebrities; they never failed to come. They loved Adele. Lucien also loved to feast his eyes on Adele’s fashion models. So many beautiful women in one place at one time. But this afternoon, Lucien was especially interested in seeing one particular woman—Bette Tullard. Since they met that first evening near Le Chat Roux, he couldn’t get the image of that beautiful face out of his mind. Sometimes when he was drawing in his office, he’d begin to daydream about her. He knew she would be here, because without Bette, there would be no show.

The showroom was a two-story high space with white plaster walls and a black marble floor. Although he didn’t design it, Lucien still admired its elegant interior. The room began to fill up, mostly with well-dressed women, a few accompanied by men. They sat in black metal folding chairs arranged in a semicircle around a beautiful curving stair with black marble treads and white plaster sidewalls topped by a continuous chrome railing. Lucien noticed some Wehrmacht officers in attendance. After two years of the Occupation, the French now mixed together with Germans in public events like this without shame. Lucien knew the officers weren’t interested in the dresses but what was inside them.

Sure enough, as one o’clock came near, Suzy Solidor and Simone Signoret made their appearance. A buzz of noise rose from the audience like bees around a hive. Everyone craned their necks to see them. Both women were beautifully outfitted in Adele’s creations, Solidor in a pretty dark blue outfit with a crimson hat and Signoret in a black suit and matching hat. They waved to everyone and stopped to talk to people they knew. The women took seats that had been reserved for them in the front row. Others joined Lucien in standing at the back since the room was now filled to capacity.

The war had just about extinguished haute couture in Paris, and many fashion houses had closed down. It was to Adele’s credit that she kept hers going. The industry’s skilled workers who made the clothes, many of them Jews, had escaped south to Vichy or were rounded up and deported. The Germans, who recognized France’s leadership in fashion, wanted the fashion industry transferred to Berlin, but later rescinded the order because of its sheer impracticality. They realized Germany had no fashion talent even remotely on a par with France’s.

Like food, fabrics were rationed. Wool and leather, along with expensive fabrics like silk, lace, and velvet, became impossible to get. (Because of the restrictions on the amount of cloth that could be used—such as no more than one meter for a blouse—the fashions that Adele and everyone else showed were now simpler and lighter.) Any couture fashions that had remained in Paris at the beginning of the Occupation, Adele told Lucien, had been snapped up by German officers and sent back home to their wives and girlfriends. Despite the shortages and deprivations of the Occupation, Adele said Parisian women had vowed to remain chic and elegant. It was a matter of French pride for girls to look good in front of the enemy, to show them that they couldn’t take away their beauty.

Parisian women exercised great creativity because of the shortages. When hairdressers ran out of salon products and could no longer perm hair, women covered their heads with hats and turbans designed from scraps of cloth. Since flowers and feathers were available, they became the main decoration on hats, often to a very gaudy effect, Lucien thought. The greatest coup he had seen was how the women made the heavy, thick wooden clogs into a fashion statement. Not only did they stretch what they were given, but many women also defied the German ban on wearing the colors of the French flag by wearing blue, white, and red buttons and belts.

Jazzy music from a phonograph wafted down from the top of the curving stair, signaling the show was about to begin. People settled in their seats and stopped talking. Then to Lucien’s great pleasure, Bette slowly walked down the stair. She was stunning in black high heels and a white dress with black lapels, capped by a black scarf.

She stopped on the next to last step and smiled to the audience. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the House of Bonneau. Today we’re presenting some very chic designs that you will love. They’ll show that, despite the times, French beauty and French haute couture still thrive.”

Bette raised her arm up toward the top of the stair, and the first model descended. A pretty girl with shoulder-length blond hair, she wore a full black skirt and white blouse with a wide floppy black hat. The audience burst into wild applause. At the bottom of the stair, she walked the semicircle of the first row, pausing in front of Solidor and Signoret, then went behind the stair to a rear door. Bette had moved off to the far right side of the room to watch the parade of models. Down the stairs came more models. Most of them wore blouses and skirts with square shouldered jackets along with floppy hats. A few modeled strapless evening gowns with elbow-length gloves and bright colored sashes around the waist. The other dresses were mostly short-sleeved and knee-length, with scarves and matching cloth handbags. Lucien admired one hat that showcased Adele’s creativity—floppy and fun, it was made completely of braided paper.

The models were all attractive and slim, but Lucien couldn’t take his eyes off Bette. When he caught her attention, she nodded and beamed a big smile at him. He was quite flattered, as some of the German officers cast a quick envious glance in his direction.

Lucien noticed that the material looked like real silks, lace, and leather. He thought Adele had told him all that stuff had been exported to Germany. He paid close attention to one model’s clothes because he needed to tell Adele enthusiastically how much he liked that particular outfit. Once after a show, he had told her he loved her designs and she had asked him which one, but when he couldn’t pinpoint an exact one, she got very mad.

After the last model came down, Adele slowly and regally descended the stairs to great applause and cheering. Lucien could see how much she loved the adulation. After waving and throwing kisses, she immediately went over to Solidor and Signoret to give them hugs. Everyone circled round them to congratulate Adele and get a closer look at the movie stars. Bottles of champagne were broken out and people imbibed with gusto. Leave it to Adele to scrounge up the real stuff.

Lucien made his way through the mob of people and found Bette.

“Monsieur Bernard, I’m so glad you came.”

“I’m flattered you remember me.”

“I always remember a handsome—and creative—man,” she said, shaking his hand.

“Congratulations on your show, it was magnificent. All those wonderful designs.”

“It was hard as hell to put something together that good these days, let me tell you.”

“Lucien. Lucien,” trilled a voice from afar.

“Ah, I believe the boss is calling you. It was so nice to see you again.”

Bette disappeared into the crowd, and Lucien walked over to Adele, who was still surrounded by admirers.

“Now, my brilliant architect, which of my designs did you like best?”

“Definitely was the navy blue skirt with the matching jacket and that wonderful braided paper hat.”

17

“Who is it?”

“It’s Aubier. I’ve got your food.”

Cambon, whose stomach had been growling from hunger for the last two days, was about to unlock the door when he realized it was Thursday. Aubier always came on Fridays. Every Friday evening at 8:00 p.m. for the last six months, the entire time Cambon had been hiding in the apartment on the rue Blomet.

“It’s not Friday; what the hell are you doing here?”

“I can’t make it on Friday. Open up,” whispered Aubier through the thick wood-paneled door. “Do you want your food or not?”

Cambon didn’t move. He was thinking how unusual it was for Aubier to change his schedule. But his stomach persuaded him to open the door. Maybe Aubier would have a tin of sardines or a hunk of salami. Sitting alone in the apartment all these months, Cambon thought of little else but food. Once one of France’s biggest clothing manufacturers, with palatial houses in the city and country, he could have any kind of food he desired—steak from America, olives from Greece, even walrus from the Arctic Circle if he’d wanted. Now, here he was starving to death, viewing a few morsels of moldy bread as a banquet.

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