A Dark Flowering © Natalie Meg Evans 2013
Alsace, Eastern France, 1903
The triple crash that echoed through the timber-framed house
killed one man and damned another. The first blow was metal against skull, followed by the crack of the victim’s
head against the corner of an iron stove. The weapon was a piece of cast iron, swung in a wide arc that intensified
Afterwards all was still but for
whirling motes of dust and the sputtering of an exhausted oil lamp. The attic was a studio, bare and uncarpeted as if
the man sprawled on the floor had created a neutral backdrop for his art. The blood pooling from his head glowed like
molten rubies - his last expression of pure colour.
killer shuddered, horror convulsing muscle and fibre as he contemplated the irreversible deed. Then years of training
jumped in. Snapping the invisible visor down, he put his hands behind his back and observed the scene like a military
general. He might have been looking at a map upon which slaughter was recorded as pencil marks.
In a corner, someone moaned. An unfinished portrait on an easel regarded
them all with grey, inquisitive eyes.
Snow had collected in the corners of the skylight
panes. A blizzard would come later but even in this sub-dusk, the portrait’s skin glowed with a texture that was
almost human. The subject was fair haired with strongly moulded cheeks, a resolute jaw. It was a face of
Alsace, the border country of forests and mountains where Germany claws at France. Strange ... when you
looked closely at the picture, you saw daubs of green and cobalt blue in the hair. Nor was the skin pink, but a mosaic
of blue and cream and tiny dots of crimson. Alchemy, wild colours creating reality. How was it done? One
certainty; its creator would never tell. The artist’s fingers were lifeless hooks. Alfred Lutzman’s
eyes were glazed in their final emotion.
The young man
placed the painting against the wall next to others and inhaled. Fresh paint. Gluey, sulphurous smells redolent
of abattoir and factory. He realised that half the pictures in this studio were unfinished. A vigorous rub
would destroy them, his own portrait with them. He looked around for a rag, found one draped over
the easel, then asked himself, did he want to sink as low as the vandals who had sacked Rome, or the thugs in Nazi Germany
who burned work they couldn’t understand? He was an art-lover. On his way over here, he’d fancied
himself a patron. Could he destroy genius, even to save his own skin?
‘What shall we tell?’ The desperate question came from the corner, and blundered
into his thoughts. He turned and met eyes peeled raw by shock. There was blood on one of her cheeks, a busy trickle
that dripped onto her apron front. ‘What shall we tell?’
Suddenly, self-preservation was everything. ‘Nothing. We tell nothing.’
Using the rag, he rubbed away his footprints, smearing them into patches of unrecognisable shape and size. He snatched
the fur-felt Homburg he’d removed on entering and crammed it onto his head. ‘Go down to your kitchen, do
whatever you do at this hour. Cooking ...whatever. You’ll say you heard nothing. Understand?’
he spoke harshly because she was staring at him as if he was the only thing in this room that made sense. ‘There
now, do as I say and we’ll be all right. Talk, and it’s over. For both of us.’ His
mind raced, churning out scenarios, trying to fix on a story this woman could be trusted with. ‘I’ll
leave the front door open, maybe I’ll say I forgot to close it. Yes? Then you’ll say somebody slipped
in while you were in the kitchen. You ... er ... you’d shut the kitchen door, you were clattering pans, the range
was roaring. A thief ... a vagrant ... slipped in. Yes?’
A flicker of understanding, a tiny nod. ‘Yes.’
‘Say nothing. Whatever they ask, say nothing.’ At the door, he
momentarily lost courage. Should he not just go to the police station? No, he decided.
Only three people would ever understand what took place here, and one was dead. What about his portrait, take
it, leave it? Take it, he decided, because they’d ask him about it at home. Wrapping it in a square of drugget
cloth he found folded on a chest, he ducked under the doorframe and hurried down the narrow stairs , ignoring the pitiful
cry that followed him;
‘What shall I tell my daughter?’
anybody saw him stepping out into the gloomy impasse, they thought little of it. This was Kirchwiller, a town
whose spires poked out of a dark forest on a high plateau. Frozen winds barrelled in from the east, piling snow in drifts
from November to March. In winter, everybody wore a heavy coat, collar pulled high. Everybody walked
fast, staring down at their feet. Besides, this was the Jewish quarter and nobody lingered once dusk fell.
Jean-Yves, Comte de Charembourg, gazed at the telephone receiver on his desk.
The caller had spoken a single name: Lutzman. He’d then hung up. Jean-Yves hadn’t
recognised the voice, but he knew what it threatened to unleash.
Putting the receiver back on its cradle, he went to his window, the quick movement making his heart falter. He ignored
it, telling himself that the pain was incurable and should remind him he was lucky. He’d survived the carnage
of 1914 to 18 when millions hadn’t. He took in deep, calming breaths, focussing on the scene of charming normality
that was Boulevard Racan. Lacework railings gleaming black. Pumice-grey villas fresh from recent rain.
The horse chestnuts were days from bursting into bud. Soon, he would walk down Racan and smell lilacs and magnolia all
the way to the river. The glossy air pulled at him but he returned to his desk, scowling at the telephone.
The caller had been male with a deep, gravelly voice. Middle aged, younger? Impossible to say. In his youth,
Jean-Yves reflected, if somebody wanted to threaten you, they had to come and see you. Telephones were –
his mother had always said this – vulgar.
returned to his task, drafting an article for Le Figaro. He’d promised them a thousand words denouncing
the presence of the German Air Force in Spain. He doubted it would take a thousand.
Since the summer of ’36, Nazi Germany had been waging covert war on France’s
western border, yet those in power had their heads deep in the sand. Jean-Yves tapped his pen to get the ink flowing
and unwittingly recreated the picture in the magazine that lay open beside him. It was a photograph of himself with
‘L’homme poétique, l’homme politique’ as the caption. ‘Man of poetry and
politics.’ He’d shrugged off the flattery but secretly it pleased him, as did the picture. L’Illustration
was a well-regarded publication and its photographer had captured him in profile in front of his bookshelves. A firm
jaw and aquiline features could be attributed to kindly lighting. He was, after all, fifty-six, not thirty-six.
But his hair was still thick even if grey had advanced upon the fair, and several female friends had telephoned to compliment
him. He wondered, suddenly, if the publicity had incited that grit-voiced call.
‘Germany is meddling with the peace of nations while we doze,’ he wrote,
then crossed it out. Be subtle. He must stir his fellow Frenchmen to outrage, without provoking panic or
apathy. He began again. “Why does Free Europe allow Germany to arm and support Nationalist
insurgents in Spain when –”
of the telephone shocked the pen from his fingers. He snatched up the receiver and barked, ‘This is the Comte
de Charembourg. Answer, please.’
It was spoken in a rough guttural that originated here in Paris, he was sure of it. But no more clues, just the buzz
of a cut connection.
The figure emerging from the Continental Telephone Exchange on Rue du Louvre wore
a suit of ivy-green whose severity contrasted with the youthful softness of her face.
The crisp frill of her blouse, a green Trilby and shoes of black glacé leather
suggested a young lady of means. As did silk stockings accentuating well-turned calves and slim ankles. She
carried a black leather handbag and wore matching gloves. The effect was striking. And considering her age, impudent.
Alix Gower was impudent. She was also flat broke and nervous, but the only sign of it was the speed with which she walked
away from the Telephone building.
When she reached the
Rue Saint-Honoré, she moved to the inside of the pavement. Alix loved Saint-Honoré in the exclusive 1st
arrondissement of Paris. Even though she was on an errand and it was already quarter to five, she stared into
every window as she passed. It wasn’t just clothes boutiques that drew her. She loved the hotel fronts with
their uniformed doormen, the trees in pots, the flower displays, defiant remnants of a beautiful age subsumed first by war,
then by financial depression. She adored the choclatiers with their platters of truffles, ganaches and macarons,
each one hand-decorated. She ate with her eyes, wishing she could afford just one. Then she told herself to get
moving. She’d paid dearly for this afternoon’s freedom and mustn’t waste it.
‘Mémé – I mean, my grandmother - has badly sprained her
ankle and has to go to the doctor’s, but she can’t without help,’ she’d told her supervisor at the
Exchange. ‘May I have leave of absence?’ Behind her back, tense fingers betrayed the lie
but the supervisor saw only a modest, dark-haired girl with her eyes cast down. A girl who dressed like a mannequin
in a fashion house, but who did her work on the switchboard efficiently and whose command of English was useful to the company.
‘Madame, I will understand if you say no ...’
Alix lifted sable-black eyes that must have contained true desperation because the older woman had sighed and
said, ‘Very well.’ Alix could leave her shift at four-fifteen rather than her usual seven. But she
would not be paid for the time missed and such absence must not become a regular occurrence. ‘The telephone company
cannot accommodate every family accident, however regrettable. If you become unreliable, your seat here can easily be
That, thought Alix, would be a dream
come true, to arrive at the telephone exchange and discover somebody had taken her seat. But her income was vital
to keep a roof over hers and her grandmother’s head. She checked her watch. Five o’clock already.
Rue Saint-Honoré was long and if she looked at every hat and handbag, she’d never reach the yet more exclusive
Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. An object of rare worth was on display there and if she didn’t hurry,
it might be taken away. Or sold.
errand was part of a plan. A step towards a future which included a warm, ground-floor flat, retirement for her grandmother
and her own dreams. Alix dreamed in colour and in big, creative shapes. People in charge always liked to
lop the corners off your dreams, making them square and small. Well, today, she was fighting back. The rebellion
would start at No. 24, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.
‘Oh, no!’ Alix stamped her foot. She was at the premises of Hermès, the leather
and silk craftsmen. The object for which she’d lied and forfeited precious wages was where she’d hoped it
would be – in the window. But it was twisted through the straps of a leather handbag which in turn leaned against
an exquisitely stitched saddle. Very chic, but she needed to see it flat.