From The Purple Shadow
The rue du Chardonneret was a narrow street of seventeenth-century houses. A little
austere and forbidding at first sight but, as Colin pointed out to Paul in the dwindling
daylight, the pallid stonework was enlivened – his word – by balconies, rustication
and elaborate carving. Madame Ducasse had an apartment at number nine. The entrance
to the building was set in an archway, topped by a classical pediment. She buzzed
them through high double-doors that gave onto a cobbled courtyard. A staircase to
the right wound up to the first floor and the warm rectangle of light that framed
Madame Ducasse. Her hair shone yellow-gold.
“Please. Call me Marion.”
She led them to a comfortable sitting room with tall windows that faced the street
and the small park opposite. While she headed to the kitchen and her unseen assistant,
Colin and Paul roamed with white wine and canapés, looking at pictures, furniture,
ornaments. Etchings by Matisse and Picasso vied with caricatures by Gillray and Daumier
and some Sonia Delaunay fabric designs, Braque engravings were nudging a still life
by Chardin, a pair of Oriental vases flanked a Giacometti stick man. All this and
much more identified by Paul, who declared the eclectic arrangement inspired. Colin
found it hard to take in; he sank to a chair and stared at the painting above the
It was the portrait of a woman in her mid-twenties, perhaps. He guessed from her
dress, the style of her hair, that it was painted in the 1930s. She too was sitting
in a chair in front of a fireplace, hands loosely knitted in her lap, a ring glinting
on one finger. She was looking directly at him with a knowing smile and a hint of
complicity. Or so it seemed. The effect was disconcerting.
“Paul. Have you seen this one?”
“Good Lord,” he said, negotiating his way between two tables shaped like kidneys,
“it looks like a late Vuillard, though smaller than others I’ve come across.”
“Vuillard. Édouard Vuillard. Probably best known for interiors and domestic scenes.
He focussed mainly on portraits in his last twenty years or so. He died during the
He brushed the crumbs from his trousers and removed the book from his bag. Then he
remembered the message on his phone. Paul had printed the photographs of the painting
and crawled over them – at length and in detail, apparently. He had not found a signature
but still thought it could be a late work by Vuillard. He’d had no more luck than
Madame Ducasse in finding any mention in the reference books or on-line. He would
ask around and let Colin know how he got on.
Sylvie herself was enjoying the attention, Paul said. Her smile seemed to have become
broader, her expression more knowing, almost mischievous, as if she were playing
a game. And that shadow on the rug. In close-up, the purple fragmented, broke down
into small dots of colour of varying intensity so that the shadow was more subtly
modulated than at first appeared. The only thing was, its position in the photographs
wasn’t quite as he remembered from the painting; the shadow seemed a slightly different
size and shape and a bit closer to Sylvie. But he couldn’t be sure and he’d look
at the photographs again in a few days.
He turned to Charles Kent. Of Meet Me in Margate and How Many Sailors? the less said
the better, declared the author of the article Colin had found. However, it seemed
that the actor went on to achieve some celebrity in a series of thrillers of the
late 1930s and early 1940s. The author singled out for particular praise Murder in
the Marshes, Crime Before Midnight and No Harm in Asking, in which Charles had appeared
as amateur detective Rex Strong, a role he reprised in his final film Danger in Dorking.
Final film? Charles was killed in an air raid in 1943. A photograph showed him well-groomed
and charming in the part of Rex, dashing even, with just a hint of the devilish.
The article was sketchy about his earlier acting career, saying little more than
that he had been classically trained and had played a number of Shakespearean roles
‘in this country and abroad’. Nothing about Paris, Lysander or the Arden Players.
Colin sat back and looked in the direction of the quai de Valmy, the canal beyond.
He felt curiously upset by a life cut short, a career unfulfilled. A small dog snuffled
at his feet, rootled under the bench for a few moments and trotted on its way. A
sudden gust propelled a newspaper along the path and wrapped it round the base of
a fountain. He picked up his phone and flicked between the costume designs for Demetrius
and Lysander. The contrast with Uncle Arthur was painful. Was this what his own career
held in store? Perhaps he should get an agent rather than rely on personal contacts
and occasional searches for auditions and castings.
As he switched from one set of designs to the other, he noticed that Charles’ name
was consistently underlined, whereas Wallace’s was not. And those for Lysander had
marks, possibly initials, in the bottom right-hand corner. Who was the designer?
He had only looked at the cast. He scrolled through the programme and found the answer.
Sets and costumes by Sylvie Charlot.
He drifted along trestle tables piled with bric-a-brac, a bizarre mix of the mundane
and the quirky – plates and bowls, ashtrays and cups, soapstone figures and African
masks, a bust of Napoleon III painted pink, fans that had seen better days, a collection
of china cats and dogs, lamps with shades and lamps without. A box of LPs – mostly
French artists unknown to him – nestled between two tables; behind, piles of comics
and magazines that he could not be bothered to look through. He picked up a glass
fish, thought of Dr Trivau, and put it back.
He came to a stall more ordered than most. It was under an awning and devoted to
books. They were laid out on a dark green cloth in rows too neat to disturb. The
stallholder, a studious-looking man with gold-rimmed glasses, acknowledged him from
his perch behind the table and went back to his paper. A run of books bound in leather
and tooled in gold: Balzac, Stendhal, Victor Hugo, Saint-Simon, Chateaubriand; a
clutch on geology, natural history and topography; oversize volumes on art and architecture;
some handsome illustrated books on the theatre that he dared not touch and knew he
could not afford.
The man nodded towards the boxes at the end. They had once held bananas but now contained
a mixture of books in English, German and Spanish. The English ones were mainly American
crime interspersed with a few old Penguins. He flicked through them and pulled out
a couple by P G Wodehouse. In the gap that was left, Colin saw the bright yellow
boards of another book lying on its side. He eased it out and read the title: Paris
Days, Paris Nights: Memories of a city between two world wars. The author was Eve
Maxwell. The book was tight, the pages crisp and decorated with details of Paris
street scenes drawn by the author herself. It had been published in New York in 1948.
The man took five euros for the three. Colin put them in his bag and went in search
of coffee before heading towards the avenue Daumesnil to tackle the Promenade Plantée.