The French Chair
by Ron Van Sweringen
The moment Louise Andrews saw the chair, she had to have it. The delicate curving legs and the exquisitely carved ribbons and roses on the fruitwood frame spoke to her. It was a love affair of the heart.
The tinkling bell over the door of the small antique shop was like something out of Dickens, and the smell of polished wood was everywhere. Louise stood quietly in the center of the showroom, surrounded by almost anything imaginable. A stuffed owl stared down at her from its glass enclosure, sitting on a tall mahogany linen press with polished brass fittings. Red damask drapes covered one wall and a cream-colored four-poster in the Italian style with colorful parrots atop it stood before the drapes. There was even a monkey chandelier, with crystal drops in the shape of fruit that looked delicious enough to eat.
“May I help you?” an elderly woman asked, her accent thick and charming. Louise assumed it was French.
“Yes please,” she answered. “The chair you have in the window, can you tell me about it?”
The woman hesitated a moment, as if trying to make up her mind about something, and then replied, “The chair has a great history, mademoiselle. Would you care to hear it?”
“Yes, very much,” Louise answered, anticipation in her voice.
“I was just about to have a cup of tea.” The woman smiled. “Will you join me?”
She was elegant, her silver grey hair worn up, entwined by a black velvet ribbon. “I am Madame Beauvais, and this is my shop. And you are...?”
“Louise Andrews,” the young woman answered, taking a seat across from her. “I am a dancer with the New York City Ballet, and I was on my way from rehearsal when I saw the chair in your window. It is so beautiful that I could not stop looking at it.”
“Yes, I am afraid the chair has that effect on people,” Madame Beauvais said while pouring the tea. “You are not the first to have a love affair with it. I myself was once under its spell.”
The tea was delicious and relaxed Louise as Madame Beauvais began to tell her the story of the French chair.
“The chair was created in the reign of Louis the 14th. No one is sure exactly who the maker was. No signature or mark can be found. It bears the finest workmanship of its period and is most certainly by a master cabinetmaker.
“The first record of the chair appears in September 1784, when it was let out for auction along with other furnishings from the Chateau Le Barron, belonging to the deceased Duke Le Barron. It was purchased by none other than Marie Antoinette, Queen of France. It was said to be her favorite reading chair in the palace garden room at Versailles. The fine needlework covering bears the entwined initials MA, said to have been stitched by the queen herself.
“Upon her arrest and imprisonment during the French Revolution, the queen was allowed to take only the chair for her comfort, and it is from this seat that Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine.”
There was a hush when Madame Beauvais finished the story. Louise sat transfixed. In her mind’s eye, she had just seen Marie Antoinette go to her death. The historical importance of the chair was brought home to her, and also its probable value, which would be far beyond her ability to pay. Still it fascinated her, and she longed to know more about it.
“Is there more to its history?” she asked, hoping there was, for some reason. Madame Beauvais put down her tea cup and, with a sigh, responded, “Yes there is more to tell, if you are sure you wish to hear it.”
“Yes, please Madame,” Louise entreated.
“The German army occupied Paris in June of 1944. They were systematically looting art treasures and articles of historical significance from the city. The chair had by now passed into the collection of the Baron de Rochefort and its history was well known among collectors.”
At this point Madame Beauvais hesitated, and Louise thought for a moment that she saw tears in her eyes.
“I was a young woman then,” Madame Beauvais continued, “just out of university, and because of my interest in antiques and fine art I found employment as a clerical assistant to the Baron de Rochefort. He was a fine and honorable gentleman, and I admired him greatly, much as my own father.
“I remember it well, the morning he called me into his study and closed the door behind us.”
* * *
“Marie,” he said, “there isn’t much time and I must ask for your help, but only if you are willing to give it. It may be dangerous for you, do you understand?”
Without hesitation I gave my consent. I knew in my heart that whatever the Baron asked of me would be in the defense of my country.
It was then that I noticed the French chair sitting beside his desk. It was strange, for the chair was always kept safely in the treasure room.
“Listen carefully and do as I tell you,” he said. Then we heard pounding on the huge mahogany entrance doors downstairs. “Hurry, they are here. Take off your jacket and hang it over the back of the chair. Now sit in the chair with your pad as if you were taking dictation. Smile at the officer and try to keep calm.
“You must remember this: if they make me go with them, you must stay here and wait for a workman to come. Show him this chair; he will know what to do. I cannot tell you more, for your own safety, except that hundreds of lives may depend on you.”
A moment later, soldiers armed with machine guns burst into the room; they were commanded by a high-ranking SS Officer.
“As you have been informed, Baron de Rochefort,” the SS Officer said sharply, “your collection of art is now being confiscated for its safety and protection by order of the Third Reich. You will sign the order of release I have here.”
Baron De Rochefort signed the paper placed before him, without looking up.
“And now to another matter.’ The SS Officer hesitated, lighting a cigarette. “Is it possible that you have overlooked something, Baron? I find no mention of your diamond collection in this inventory. Why is that?”
“You are mistaken,’ Baron de Rochefort protested. “The diamond collection you are referring to was disposed of months ago at auction, when the war began. I have furnished you with the bills of sale for each item.”
“Indeed you have.” the SS Officer smiled. “And we have just executed the accountant who forged them. Now will you save yourself the horror of torture and turn the diamonds over to us?”
The Baron, his hands shaking, answered slowly. “You are mistaken. I have no diamonds.”
* * *
At this point Madame Beauvais stood up and went to the display window looking out on the busy street. “You must forgive me, Mademoiselle,” she said. “Some memories are still painful after all of these years. The Baron de Rochefort was taken away and I never saw him again. I waited in his office until the soldiers had emptied all of his collection from the treasure room.
“I sat alone in the dark until a workman arrived and inquired after the Baron. I showed him the chair as I was instructed, and he immediately turned it upside down, cutting away a small section of the material dust covering. From this opening, he withdrew a black pouch and emptied the contents into his hand. Even in the semi-darkness, the diamonds sparkled like white fire. I suddenly felt cold, realizing the danger I had been in.”
“‘The Resistance is very grateful to you, Mademoiselle’, the workman said as he prepared to leave. ‘These diamonds will save many lives. It is a shame this beautiful chair will probably be destroyed by the war’.
“His words stayed with me, and I decided that I would save the chair at whatever risk was necessary. I managed to move it through the dark streets to my small apartment. I painted it an unattractive blue color, using an easily removed water-based paint. Then I covered the seat and back in a shabby cotton chintz. The effect was perfect, and it stood safely for the remainder of the war in my small apartment.”
Louise Andrews found it hard to break the silence that ensued. She was not prepared emotionally for what she had just heard. “I am very sorry, Madame Beauvais,” she apologized. “I realize now how foolish of me it was to want the chair.”
“Not at all, Mademoiselle,” the elderly woman replied, turning to face her. “The war has destroyed all records of the chair’s provenance and perhaps I have made up the whole story. In either case, I am an old woman and I should like to see it have another love affair before I am gone. Would you consider two hundred and fifty dollars a fair price?”
“More than fair, Madame.”
Copyright © 2010 by Ron Van Sweringen