First Kings

Philo ascended the circular staircase from his study to Romelle's garret. He tapped on the rosewood door.
"Romelle? May we talk?"
"Please let yourself in, Grand-père," she called out. "I've washed my hair and can't come to the door."
He found her sitting on the low hearth stool before a blazing fire, combing and brushing her long tresses with the silver implements which had belonged to Nelle. The set of combs and brushes inlaid with Baltimore terrapin shell had been one of the few keepsakes she had asked to bring from Baltimore when she was nine.
Philo had rarely visited her so informally since she had grown to womanhood. Even now, he felt himself an awkward intruder as he came to stand at her side.
Her copper-colored hair slung forward, it covered her face as she leaned toward the drying heat. She inspired a vision in Philo's mind of Nelle doing the same, a memory yet painful forty-six years after his wife's death. He still clung to the hope of a Heaven where they might meet again.
"Roma Nelle," he whispered aloud.
Romelle parted her hair with her fingers and peered up at him from the stool.
"My goodness, you haven't called me Roma Nelle for years, not since I annoyed you making so much noise tramping around up here when I was ten or twelve!" she recalled. "What dreadful thing have I done?"
He smiled fondly. "I don't remember any noise from you at all. It would have been my fault anyway, for putting you up here in the attic right over my desk! No, I was just thinking how much you remind me of my Nelle. Her hair was much the same shade of burnished auburn as yours. Nelle even had a peach satin peignoir like that, as I recollect."
Romelle chuckled. "What a remarkable man, to remember such a thing. May I tell you something? This is Miz Nelle's peignoir, and I have the nightie to match! I asked Kathy to bring it with her. I've always loved it. I used to play in her room as a child, using this brush and comb at the vanity mirror, going through her beautiful things in the closet and the drawers. They made me feel safe, and loved. Uncle Ardie didn't like people going in and out of there, but he never questioned it with me. He seemed to know how much I needed a sense of connection to Nelle and her life with you. I'm sure he needed it, too."
Philo pulled up a chair and sat down, garnering comfort from her words.
"Really?" he queried. "Did he spend much time alone with you?"
She tossed back her hair. Nearly dry, it fell in wavy cascades over her shoulders. Leaning forward again, she fluffed it with her fingers at the temples where it remained slightly damp.
"Oh, yes, and he talked about his childhood, how happy it was. He missed my father terribly, as he missed you. I know there were moments when he regretted his marriage to Irene. Now that I reflect upon it as an adult, I suppose one could say that he was locked into his life as one might be imprisoned in a very cold cell. Everything he needed was there, but not what he wanted."
Philo gazed into the fire, sadly remembering his conversation with Ardie on the train from Paris to Monte Carlo, en route to board the Thistle.
"Did he have no comfort at all, Romelle?"
Lifting damp strands with her comb, she replied: "Thank God for Brad! His son was his consolation. Uncle Ardie worshiped him, but quite differently from Irene. I remember when Auntie Bridget used to mutter about Irene's erratic behavior with Brad. 'Mother love, my foot!' she would crab to Uncle Michael when she thought we children were out of earshot. 'One minute she's cooin' over him like a dove, and the next she's screamin' at him like a banshee! I wonder sometimes if she loves him or hates him!"
"Did Brad ever hear Bridget say things like that?" Philo asked.
"Many times!" Romelle laughed. "Do you remember the large room adjoining the kitchen, with a walk-in fireplace and an old-fashioned bath tub built like a chaise longue with sides?"
Philo laughed. "Every bath of my childhood and youth was taken in that unplumbed tub. It was a relic from colonial times, when the house was built. There was a huge copper kettle suspended over the hearth for heating water. After a bath in the winter, I'd wrap myself in a towel and run up the unheated back stairs to my room and jump under the covers."
"It was a marvelous place to play on a cold, rainy day when we had to stay indoors," Romelle went on. "The nights Uncle Michael came home late from the office, he would have dinner in the kitchen to avoid disturbing Irene. Auntie Bridget would sit with him and go over the day's events. We children, who were supposed to be in bed, would sneak down the back stairs to that room and stand behind the closed door to the kitchen so we could hear every word they said. I suppose it was a dishonest thing to do, but there's nothing children like more than breaking the rules, if they think they won't get caught."
Philo laughed again. "The same may be said for politicians!"
"Yes," Romelle agreed with a grin, "especially if there's something in it for them! Our reward was in finding out what was really going on. That's how Brad heard such things. He was a wonderful boy. I loved him as if he were really my brother. Kathy did, too. I have always thought Kathy had a serious crush on him. Just the other day, at Villa Cyrnos, I mentioned him. I asked if she had ever heard anything indicating what happened to him and Irene."
"What did she say?" asked Philo, leaning anxiously toward her.
"That they had heard nothing, so far as she knew. She talked about the day I don't remember so well, the day when Irene...well..." Her voice trailed away, then returned. "Kathy said when she and Brad saw Dora and me on the floor, they both thought Irene had killed us. What a horrifying sight - blood everywhere, that harridan standing over our bodies raving like Hecate."
"Hecate," mused Philo, "Greek goddess of the underworld, witchcraft, and the night. Yes, she must have seemed so to those frightened children!"
"Irene ran away with Brad before Dora and I regained consciousness," Romelle went on. "She must have changed her clothes quickly, snatched up the money and the jewels, and dragged Brad out the door, leaving us for dead. What must he have thought? He was only thirteen!"
A wave of emotion swept over her, bringing her to tears. Philo stood up from his chair and stalked angrily to one of the large windows overlooking the Place. Hands gripped behind his back as if controlling an impulse to smash the glass, he growled through clenched teeth:
"Thirteen then, but twenty-eight this year! No longer a child! A man! I have offices all over the world. I am well known. The house in Baltimore is still occupied by people who could tell him precisely where I am. Dammit! He could have found me long since. He could have come to me. He had nothing to do with what happened. It was his mother."
"Oh, Grand-père!" Romelle cried, dropping her brush and springing up.
She ran across the room, flung her arms around him, and lay her head against his shoulder.
"My mentor, my friend!" she wept. "We take your strength, your courage, for granted. You are there for everyone. It never occurs to any of us that you are, after all, not an omniscient god, but a man! Your beloved wife was taken from you and, then, your son. My father went away and never came back. So much you loved has been taken away, even our Annie, and now there is only Brad, the one human being who truly belongs to you. Why has life done this to you? You are so good!"
He jerked away. He spun around. He grasped her hand almost harshly and pulled her toward the door.
"Good?" he uttered hoarsely. "It's time you learned that no matter how good one may appear to the world, there is always a dark corner within that the world never sees."
He fairly dragged her down the spiral staircase, not cruelly, but firmly. They entered his study. He strode to his bedroom door and threw it open.
Romelle was given no time to scan the unfamiliar room. Quickly, he touched a spot on the rear wall. A concealed door sprang open, the door Annie had noticed ajar several years before.
Philo stood back and pointed to it.
"Enter, Romelle!" he commanded. "For nearly forty years, no one has set foot in there but me."
Trembling with fearful anticipation, yet ever the obedient child, she did as he bade her.
She found herself in a shallow alcove formed by sheer curtains. When she parted them and moved forward, it seemed that she went back in time to the Napoleonic Age.
Romelle entered a circular room with ormolu sconces of lighted tapers on its rose-painted walls. Shadows of candlelight played among naked cupids with bows and arrows carved in stucco cornices edging the white ceiling. Books bound in rose-colored morocco, the titles stamped in gilt, lined shelves along one side.
More winged boys representing the Roman god of erotic love gamboled across a white mantel above the small fireplace that warmed the beguiling salon. Its hearth glowed with coals. In front of it sat a divan shaped like a gondola. It faced a large chair contoured to resemble a swan. Both were upholstered in rosy silk embroidered with bees, a classic symbol of the First Empire.
Dominating the room was the large portrait of a surpassingly beautiful woman, placed above the mantel.
The artist in Romelle was drawn to it. She did not need to examine the signature to realize it had been done by lisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, court painter and friend of Marie Antoinette. Unlike her mentor, Vigée-Lebrun had survived the Revolution.
The woman in Romelle wondered who the lovely subject might have been. The lady was dressed in a high-waisted gown of pastel green moiré. It was trimmed with beige lace around a daringly low décolletage that fully revealed her rouged breasts. Bejeweled toes peeped out from beneath the hem, showing her to be unshod. Romelle knew that only Napoleonic ladies of high rank, or those protected by fame, braved the citizen-public's censure by exposing their breasts and feet.
She turned from the portrait to a fragile writing desk where tapers flickered in a silver candelabra, beside a second curtained alcove.
"Oh!" Romelle cried with a start.
The subject of the painting stood half-concealed in the alcove. Her arms were lifted to part the curtains.
"Pardonnez-moi, Madame!" Romelle excused herself, turning to leave.
She stepped into strong hands that gripped her shoulders.
"No, Romelle," Philo said, "I want you to meet Roxanne."
Turning again to the lady, Romelle opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came, for she realized now that it was not a woman at all. Moving closer, she gazed into the face of a life-size mannequin dressed as in the painting.
Stunned by its perfection, Romelle caressed the smooth cheeks and exposed breasts. She marveled that bisque, mere unglazed china, could so vividly suggest the warmth of human flesh.
It was then that Romelle noted a detail not included in the work by Vigée-Lebrun. The gown was belted immediately below the breasts.
Not only was the mannequin itself a masterwork of portraiture in porcelain, but also the belt it wore comprised a chain of perfect diamonds so prodigious in size as to be worth a fortune.
Romelle drew away in awe, but Philo stopped her.
"I killed her," he said. "I killed Roxanne."
Romelle fell limp against him.
He carried her to the divan, then sat in the swan chair, waiting for her to revive.
She opened her eyes.
"Grand-père, tell me this is a dream," she whispered.
He shook his head mournfully. "It is all too real. I shall tell you the entire story now."
"She loved me more than life, Romelle," Philo began, "but I did not understand. These were her rooms - this salon, my bedroom, my study, this entire floor. They became my secret place. I allow no one to enter here, not even Adrienne. You will see that it is spotless. My years as a sailor have stood me in good stead. To keep these rooms as she liked them is my penance for what I did to her. I suppose Ardie was more like me than I knew, the way he jealously guarded the room of your grand-mère, if for different reasons. And now, as he allowed you into hers, so do I allow you into Roxanne's private place."
Romelle asked, "Who was she, Grand-père?"
"I have told you her name was Roxanne," he acknowledged. "Napoleon Bonaparte himself commissioned both the portrait above the mantel and its copy as a mannequin. Her mother was Jeanne, the Countess du Barry. As mistress of Louis XV, the Countess was one of the most famous courtesans in history. After the death of the king when she was still very young, she embarked on a series of affairs, finally falling in love with a man who was thirty years younger than she. The fruit of their love was Roxanne.
"During the Revolution, the Countess spirited the little girl away to England, leaving the child in the care of friends who had likewise escaped from France. As a dowry for her daughter, she deposited with them a fabulous cache of jewels. She then returned to France to be with her young lover, Roxanne's father, a man whose name would remain unknown even to his daughter. It was folly for her to return while the Reign of Terror continued, but the Countess was cursed by loving to the point of madness - aimer a la folie. The curse proved fatal. She went to the guillotine on December 7, 1793.
"Roxanne's father never came forward to identify himself or to claim his child, although he must surely have known where she was. Thus, to her passed the Du Barry jewels. At sixteen, Roxanne returned to France and achieved immediate stardom in the National Theater. No one ever knew her origins, but many among her adoring audiences suspected, for she wore her mother's lovely face.
"Napoleon fell in love with Roxanne a short time before his first exile, when he first saw her as a teen-age actress at the Théâtre Français. His attentions made her an even greater star. She continued as his mistress when he returned for the famous Hundred Days. Then he was sent into his second exile, and never returned to France again. She, however, remained the toast of Paris, one of the great theatrical stars of the century. She took many lovers."
Philo looked squarely at Romelle.
"I was her last," he said. "When I knew Roxanne, more than half a century after her affair with Bonaparte, she was no longer young and had retired from the theater, but she was still worshiped by men. You cannot imagine what she was like! She was blessed with radiant beauty at a time of life when most women have withered. One did not think of age when looking at her. Walking with her in promenade on the Champs lysées brought challenges of duels for her favors from jealous boulevardiers.
"What adventure for a plain American lad like me! She introduced me to her dressmaker Charles Worth who, in turn, introduced me to the Empress Eugénie and the Empress Elizabeth.
"As for Roxanne herself, I was infatuated for the first time since your grand-mère died. It had taken a woman like her to revive my emotions, to bring me back from the dead."
Philo arose from his chair and placed another log on the fire. He turned to Romelle, who had paid him rapt attention, and took her gently by the hand.
"Come," he said.
She stood, allowing him to lead her to the elegant writing desk where lighted tapers illuminated a parchment page. He indicated that she should sit in the desk chair.
When she did, he asked her to read aloud from the paper before her.
It was a letter written to him by Roxanne.
"'My dearest,'" Romelle read, "'I vowed long ago never to fall victim to love. To me, it has all been a game, from the day Bonaparte rolled Dame Fortune's dice to me. I have always won since then, sometimes at the price of men's lives.
"'Finally, now, I have lost. I have fallen victim to the curse visited upon my mother, of loving to the point of madness, yes, of loving you - your freshness, your priceless naiveté in the jaded world of the Parisian boulevards. Oh, my American boy, what folly for a woman of my years to so desperately love a young man like you! If I were young again, perhaps I could bear the pain of love, the pain of fearing that you have been in another woman's arms when you come to me late, the pain of knowing that I am at the end of my life, and you at the beginning of yours. How many women will you make love to after I am gone? Oh, I cannot tolerate the thought!
"'Yes, it is pain, such an oppression in my breast that I can scarcely breathe. So this is love? I thank God I have never known it before. I doubt I could have survived it. I am convinced I do not have the strength to do so now.
"'Love has undone me. I bid you farewell. I leave you this house which Napoleon gave to me. I leave you these diamonds which represent the remains of the fortune left me by my mother and the fortune my lovers have bestowed upon me. I have nothing left now but love. Even that, mon cher américain, I give unto thee.'"
Romelle's hands were shaking so badly she could scarcely read the letter to its end.
"She left the letter on the desk," Philo said. "There is a small bedroom beyond the alcove where the mannequin stands. When I came home that night, I found her in there, dead by her own hand.
"But it was not really her hand that slashed the life from her veins. As surely as I stand here before you, it was mine that killed her. I did not understand how much she needed constant reassurance of my love. When we are young, we live at the center of our own universe, and forget that others may not have as much time as we. We let them slip away for want of our remembering that. It was my intent to stay with her till the end of her days. She had brought me back into the world like a newborn babe. I, who thought I died with Nelle, was resurrected by Roxanne. My life belonged to her, and I killed her!"
Romelle felt tears coursing down her cheeks.  

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