“It’s a shame that it has become impractical to visit a grande dame in style, dressed in one’s gala uniform and seated in a milord, the horse and carriage taxi of Paris in the Nineteenth Century,” I said to my friend, the artist. I had just read La Cousine Bette by Honoré de Balzac and I told him that its first paragraphs had struck me like the beginning of a good black-and-white movie.
“Those yellow gloves!”, said Peter Peereboom, who has the mental eye of the painter. “You read the book, too?”, I reacted. I knew that he has lived and worked in Paris for fourteen years but I was yet to fathom the depths of his literary interests. Every week on Thursdays and Fridays I visit him in the famous cigarshop of De Graaff, in the Heulstraat of The Hague, the only days of the week when Peter can be found there, fortuitously for me, because those are the days I buy Le Figaro and Le Monde with their weekly literary supplements. We always have plenty to talk about, in between ravenous customers who do not only come for their weekly rations of Havana longfillers but also of ‘heavenly Chocolaad bars’ and of nougat de luxe (with a pure gold leaf on top). Noblesse oblige, the family name De Graaff means: The Count.
It was one of our rare, quiet moments together. Peter lit a fresh Havana. “This may sound unlikely to you, but I have lived and worked very close to the house of Balzac’s Madame Hulot, in the rue de Bellechasse. One day, I had a very mysterious experience, right there, where your milord was about to come to a halt.
“It happened about 20 years ago, one Sunday afternoon. In autumn, but the temperature was pleasant. From my window, I could look down into the walled gardens of the grandiose hôtels particuliers across the street, like the one belonging to the family de Rothschild where preparations were being made for a garden party. Servants decorated the terrace with flower garlands which they made out of vine branches and asters from the garden. Four children were playing about. As in the days of Balzac, the girls had ribbons around their straw hats, in autumn colours. Other servants were busy setting a long table, they wore yellow leather gloves. By a peculiar natural angle of the natural light I could see that the damask tablecloth was of the highest quality, the silver cutlery silver of Puiforcat (I thought), and the carafes made of Daum crystal.
I already knew that Peter’s sharpness of imagination equaled that of his eye sight.
“The sun was going down, I had just clamped a new linen on my easel, fully prepared to engage my fantasy with a vengeance, hence the tubes of brightly coloured paint ready for use on my table. The terrace of the hôtel particulier was filling up with distinguished guests, a tiny red spot on many men’s lapels indicating their Légion d’Honneur. Then, it happened.
“A young woman left the crowd and went to the swing where a little one had fallen in the autumn leaves. As the child was hastily taken away by servants, the woman looked up and saw me. She stared at me with a particular smile which I have seen only once before: when I passed the actress Isabelle Adjani on the Boulevard St. Germain.” At this point, Peter remained silent for a while, deeply immersed in his thoughts. Then he resumed:
“My painting became rather abstract, the afternoon passed and lights were lit in the garden. There was quite a hustle and bustle of servants, they served the most exotic dishes you can imagine. After a while, the young woman got up and moved to the same spot, near the swing. Her frail figure being illuminated by the distant soft lights, she stared at me a long time, with a penetrating glance. For a short moment I imagined that she would speak to me, because I had seen some acquaintances in the garden. The neighbours of the de Rothschilds, with whom I chatted at times, in the shop of the traiteur. À propos, the woman belongs to the American branch of the Tolstoi family, I’ll tell you about her later.
“When it became dark, the party continued inside, the window panes steamed up. I heard piano music. The abstract painting had become a success. I named it: “She was mine, just one night”.
“A week later, I had an exposition down the road, in the rue de Bourgogne. My new painting was there. A couple came in. They looked around, curiously. The man had almost passed my abstract without really looking at it, when he stopped in his tracks, mesmerized. He stared at the white card with the name of the painting. Then, obviously on an impulse, he bought it, without bargaining. His wife first said she liked my colours and composition but froze when she read the card. I still remember how they left the gallery with the painting, arguing. Some weeks later, the gallery owner told me that they had divorced. Just like that, a shotgun divorce.
Peter blew out a cloud of tasty smoke and remained silent for a while. Then he said:
“That year, winter came early and the gardens across the road were covered by a carpet of snow. No children’s activities. I often watched the garden, hoping that I might see her once more. Not even a footstep in the snow. She was mine, just one night.
It was only back home that I realized that I had left my newspaper in the cigar shop.