Read The Paris Architect: A Novel Online
Authors: Charles Belfoure
The smile suddenly vanished from Lucien’s face. “But let me make one thing absolutely clear to you, monsieur. I’ll never do anything like this again.”
“But of course, I understand completely.”
An awkward silence settled between the two men. Lucien took another sip of his wine. He wanted to get the hell out of there with his new book. Manet smiled and sipped his drink as if he were in no hurry at all.
“You asked me why I was committing suicide.”
“Yes, and you told me you’re a devout Christian who wants to help your fellow man,” said Lucien.
“Devout? Not at all. I attend mass on Easter and Christmas and that’s it. I do believe that as Christians, we have a basic duty to do what’s right, but that’s not quite the whole story. There’s more to it.”
“Monsieur Bernard, people think the aristocracy, with their money and privilege, have everything in life, but they’re dead wrong. The children of my class lack the most important thing: a mother and a father.”
“You were an orphan?”
“Not at all. I had a mother and father, but they, like others of their class, never had time for their children—attending endless social events, entertaining in the city and the country, overseeing their estates and investments. I’ll bet in an average week I never spent more than an hour’s time with my mother and father. They would often forget my birthday. When I was at boarding school, I didn’t see them for months or even receive a letter from them. They were simply too busy for me and my brothers and sisters.”
“That’s a shame,” said Lucien.
“No, I was raised by Madame Ducrot. She was my nanny, but she gave me as much love and affection as the best mother could. And she was a Jew.”
“A Jew? How did she…”
“I have no idea how my parents picked a Jew to be our nanny. Maybe they weren’t as anti-Semitic as the rest of their kind. Oh, I still got the usual Catholic instruction from priests. But she never hid the fact she was Jewish; in fact, she told us all about it—the holidays, the synagogue, the Exodus—everything.”
Lucien found this fascinating.
“Several times before the war, I was a house guest of Winston Churchill’s at Chartwell, his estate in England. I once asked him about a photo of an old woman on his mantle, and he told me it was Mrs. Everest, his nanny. He called her ‘Woomany.’ He said that when she died, he was crushed with almost unbearable sadness and grief, a thousand times worse than when his own mother died later. That’s how I felt when my nanny, who was my ‘real mother,’ died. So you see, Monsieur Bernard, in a way, when I hide these people, I’m hiding Madame Ducrot.”
Lucien couldn’t wait to get home to tell the news to Celeste. Well, at least the part about the factory. Telling her about Manet’s apartment would put her in grave danger. The apartment job must always remain a secret. As Lucien walked home, he held the book tightly against his chest. He soon realized that any Gestapo agent watching him would think something was up, so he moved the book into one hand and held it loosely by his side, as a person normally would. But because he was terrified that the book would slip out of his hand, hit the sidewalk, and disgorge all of his francs, he kept an iron grip on it.
As he walked by a telephone booth, an idea occurred to him. He picked up the receiver, deposited his coin, and dialed his mistress, Adele Bonneau. It had been a long time since he’d shared the news of a new commission with her, and she would be quite pleased. A successful Paris fashion designer in her late thirties (late twenties, if you asked her), Adele had a genuine interest in his architectural practice. She always wanted to see the designs and wouldn’t hesitate to offer her opinion, which Lucien loved, although he rarely took her advice. After they had had sex and were lying in bed smoking and drinking wine, it brought him great pleasure to argue with her when she disliked some aspect of a design. It was as sexually arousing to him as their foreplay. As was often the case with mistresses, Lucien felt that Adele was really the kind of woman he should’ve married in the first place. Adele also knew of the latest architectural work being done in Paris, whereas Celeste believed architecture was a man’s business and thus was of no interest to her.
The phone rang several times before Adele picked up. Lucien was thrilled to hear her deep, sexy voice.
“Adele, my love, I’m going to be doing a new factory for Auguste Manet, the big industrialist,” announced Lucien.
“Why, how wonderful, my dear Lucien. That’s thrilling news,” said Adele. “I just love it when you get a new job—you remind me of a five-year-old on Christmas morning. I’m so happy for you. Remember, you must show me the preliminary designs before you present them to Manet.”
“You know I will, my sweet. You’re my co-architect, we work together on everything,” Lucien said. He always told his clients the same thing, that they would work as a team on a project, but that was pure nonsense. He made all the decisions, because collaboration on any creative work was doomed to fail.
“We must get together to celebrate,” said Adele. “Le Chat Roux would be the perfect place.”
Lucien grimaced; it was also the most expensive place. “We’ll see,” he replied.
“I remember whenever my parents said ‘we’ll see,’ it always meant no,” said Adele.
“No, we’ll go. I promise.”
“My love, Bette, my manager, just came in and I must talk to her about the upcoming show. It’s been bedlam around here, getting ready for it. Remember, I’ll never forgive you if you don’t come to my show. Call me tomorrow and I’ll let you know my schedule.”
“I’m going to use these incredible concrete arches that’ll—”
“Precious Lucien, Bette is waiting. Call me tomorrow,” said Adele, abruptly cutting him off.
After Adele replaced the receiver, she turned to gaze at her nude figure in the floor-length mirror in the hall. For a girl pushing forty, she was quite pleased with what she saw. Not a gram of fat on her body, her breasts still protruded proudly, and her legs, her strongest feature, were still lean, with perfectly formed calves and, most importantly, slim ankles (she had no idea how she got those ankles—her mother’s were like tree trunks). Unpinning her long blond hair and shaking it loose, Adele turned to admire her
, which blended beautifully into her waist. The plain fact that none of her runway models’ bodies could come close to hers gave Adele the greatest pleasure of all. Occasionally, just to show who was still the top hen in the roost, she would start to change into an outfit for a fashion show, then parade completely naked in the dressing room where her girls were getting ready. As she stopped to chat with them at their dressing tables, they would get a full view of their boss in the mirror in front of them.
Adele ran her hands down her thighs and walked down the hall to her bedroom. Her apartment had been designed by Lucien in a very
manner, which delighted her because it was so daring and ahead of its time. Most Parisians, for all their cosmopolitan ways, were old-fashioned, living in apartments that looked like something right out of Versailles. Few had the nerve to try the new style introduced at the Exhibition in Paris in 1925. A leader in fashion had to be at the forefront of all things creative, she believed. The sleek, clean look, with its glass walls and black leather and stainless-steel furniture, was stunningly beautiful, making it the perfect place to hold parties. Before the war, that is.
She paused at her bedroom door, made of black opaque glass, and watched Colonel Helmut Schlegal take off his shirt, revealing a tan, muscular body that sent a surge of excitement through her. He placed the shirt carefully over his tunic, which was hanging on the back of a chair. She loved the Gestapo’s black uniform. It was elegant, and so much nicer than the Wehrmacht’s ugly muddy green uniforms. Even the Waffen-SS uniforms of black and green were not quite as handsome. Although she did admire the ceremonial chained dagger worn at the waist of Wehrmacht officers—it was a nice accessory, which she could perhaps adapt for a chain belt on one of her dresses. Yes, the Gestapo definitely had the best-looking uniforms, and Adele firmly believed you could never go wrong with black, whether an evening dress or a knee-length winter coat. As Schlegel began to remove his shiny black boots, Adele moved quickly to the thick beige carpet and helped him pull one off.
“And who was that? One of your many admirers?” Schlegel asked.
“A very talented architect, as a matter of fact. He’s going to be designing a factory for one of those industrialists who are doing war work for the Germans.”
“He’s going to be very busy. Many contracts will be awarded in the next few months. The Reich needs all the war materiel it can get to win in Russia.”
“Lucien will design the best factories the Germans have ever seen. Beautiful modern glass and steel buildings,” said Adele as she yanked off the other boot.
“He’s one of those degenerate modern architects, eh? The Fuehrer says modern architecture is a provocation to the German spirit. The Fuehrer’s architect, Albert Speer, now
a great architect. You should see his designs for the new Berlin; there’s a huge dome that covers a hundred acres. As good as ancient Rome.”
“I’m sure it will be, my love,” said Adele, removing his jodhpurs in one yank. She loved those pants combined with high black boots. Maybe there was a way for her to introduce jodhpurs into a female wardrobe. She’d definitely have to mention it to Bette.
Adele stood up to admire Schlegal’s now naked body.
“But I have other things on my mind besides architecture at this moment.”
“It’s economic collaboration, you simply can’t do it.”
Lucien felt like throwing his coffee cup at his wife’s head.
Celeste was walking back from their balcony with a dead rabbit in her hand. It was impossible for anyone but a baby to live off the officially allowed rations set by the French government, so people had to be resourceful. Even well-to-do Parisians had taken to keeping a hutch of rabbits on their balconies to provide much-needed meat. Who knows what might have happened to cats, but they were spared when the government warned that they were unsafe to use in stews. No one ate their dogs, either, but many had to let them loose because they couldn’t feed them anymore. Pigeons and ducks had disappeared from the parks.
There was a shortage of everything. A Frenchman who insisted on an omelet made with at least a half-dozen eggs was hard-pressed to get one egg a month. Rationing had severely limited meat, milk, eggs, butter, cheese, potatoes, salt, and fish. Real coffee didn’t exist, so Celeste, like all Parisians, had experimented with acorns and dried apples, with little success. For some reason, carrots and roasted chestnuts were always plentiful so they made their way into every dish one could imagine. Adults had to survive on a measly 1,200 calories a day, with only 140 grams of cheese a month. People in Paris were always hungry. Food was all they thought and talked about.
Lucien’s wife, who had just clonked the poor animal on the head with a lead pipe, began to skin it at the sink. For a city girl, Celeste had picked up the skill pretty quickly. The way their marriage was disintegrating, Lucien had feared that she might use the pipe on him while he was asleep.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Lucien stared at his wife’s back as she worked on the rabbit. He’d been quite proud of himself for marrying such a pretty, intelligent girl from a good family. Most French girls didn’t go to college, but Celeste was trained as a mathematics teacher at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. She gave up teaching at an elite private girls’ school when she married Lucien. After seven years of marriage, Celeste still had a shapely petite figure with a tiny waist. It was her unusual chestnut-colored hair that was so alluring, a beautiful rich reddish brown that contrasted so strikingly with her dark blue eyes. It was only natural that an architect should have an aesthetically pleasing spouse. She’d been an object of great pride when she accompanied him to parties.
Celeste looked the same now, but she had developed a grouchy disposition. In a way, he didn’t blame her. Her second miscarriage in 1939 had crushed her, filling her with shame and anger. Her unhappiness hung over both of them like a perpetual fog. To compound their discontent, her father, a wealthy wine merchant, had skipped off to Spain in 1941 without a word. An only child whose mother died when she was six, Celeste had never gotten over this despicable act of disloyalty. She had had great love and affection for her father and had believed that he would always be there for her.
Celeste had been overjoyed when Lucien had returned from the Maginot Line; she’d been scared to death that he would be killed, and she would be left all alone. But her joy had quickly dissipated. Because Lucien’s practice had dried up, they’d had to dip into her trust fund to survive. This she bitterly resented, and she let her husband know her feelings on that matter almost daily. Celeste felt a husband should support his wife, war or no war. Lucien was enraged by her attitude, because he’d been a good provider until the surrender. Ashamed that she had to support them, he too became angry and resentful.
And now he had a new commission, and she still couldn’t be happy.
“Would you rather that Manet and other Frenchmen have their businesses stolen away by the Germans?”
“That would be the honorable thing, if you ask me,” Celeste snapped back. “To produce one single bolt for those bastards is pure treason. You’ll see, when this is over, they’ll be cutting the throats of all the collaborationists.”
For the last two years in Paris, calling someone a collaborator was the worst insult you could hurl. Worse than saying their mother was a whore or they were a bastard. It was a serious charge that could mean death if the Resistance took it seriously. Men had been found outside Paris shot in the head. But the very worst kind of collaboration was a French woman sleeping with a German. They were called the horizontal collaborationists.
As Lucien was about to begin his rebuttal, the lights flickered then went out, engulfing the apartment in total darkness. He didn’t bother to go to the window to see if the lights were off in other buildings. Each month, the electrical service in Paris had grown more uncertain, sometimes blacking out the city for hours. Without a word of complaint, Celeste brought out three candlesticks from the cupboard to the right of the sink, lit them, and went back to skinning the rabbit. The yellowish candlelight cast a spooky quivering shadow of Celeste on the kitchen walls.