“I won’t spoil the surprise of this hidden gem,” Katherine said to the group. “The curator speaks not a word of English, so I’ll translate what you don’t understand. But it’s really the objects themselves that are the story, that and the fact that Madame Roussel is at least ninety years old and has collected and maintained this treasure trove with the help of her daughters for decades. Wait ’til you see what she has to show us.”
Katherine rang the bell. The visitors heard the sound of locks being undone, one after the other, and then the tall wooden door swung open and a woman barely five feet tall stood beaming at them, her white hair gathered loosely into a bun that made her seem at least an inch taller than she was.
“Entrez, entrez, mesdames et monsieurs,” she called cheerfully in a thin, sweet voice, bobbing her head and gesturing with one arm. The hall they crowded into was so small that the visitors hardly had room to turn around. The miniscule floor space was hemmed in by chunky nineteenth-century chairs, and the curator, with repeated cries of “Excusez-moi, s’il vous plaît,” darted around the space, squeezing herself behind a rickety table where she dispensed hand-stamped tickets in return for a few euros each. Having accomplished that, she set about fixing all the locks again.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please meet Madame Roussel. Madame, we expect one more person, who should be coming in a moment,” Katherine said. Laughing gaily, the woman undid her work at the door, clapped her hands together, and began her explanation of the collection in rapid-fire French that Katherine tried gamely to keep up with. Fifty years of collecting, mostly French but all European, silks and brocades not made anymore, don’t overlook the furniture, and the objects in the glass cases. . . .
She paused for breath and looked her question at Katherine, who said, “I don’t know what has kept our other guest. Perhaps you could take these people up to the next floor and I’ll keep watch at the door?”
“Pas possible, Madame,” the curator said, shrugging her shoulders. She couldn’t leave the front door unlocked, she never did that.
Just then, there was a knock, and to Katherine’s relief, Cat entered, shaking her umbrella off in the doorway with- out seeing Madame’s distressed expression at the puddle it threatened in her hallway. Order finally restored, the curator tended to her locks, waved her arms over her head like a soldier leading a charge, and headed up steep stairs at the end of the dark hallway, pointing out objects on the walls and in the cases at every step.
“Did you say she collected all this herself?” Mrs. Harris said. “It’s unbelievable. Look—an ebony fan, and those blue kidskin gloves, and look at that silk mask. I wonder what it was for?”
Katherine was already stammering as she tried to trans- late the women’s questions and Madame’s answers, which were far too detailed for her to follow exactly. When the group reached the first room on the premier étage, which in France meant the second floor, there were gasps of delight. A salon, its tall windows covered in heavy red velvet drapes, lit with a chandelier that dripped crystals, and decorated with ornate furniture, was the backdrop for seven or eight mannequins posed languidly on chairs, leaning against the mantel, and standing with arms delicately raised to show off their evening wear. “The time between the world wars,” Madame explained in French. Twinkling at the group and standing on tiptoe, she sang out, “Vive les américains,” and clasped her hands over her heart before turning to Katherine and beginning a rapid-fire explanation of why Americans would always be heroes to her after the Second World War. The tour group caught on and accepted the compliments as their due, Mr. Harris even bowing slightly.
GI’s with their chocolate bars and chewing gum probably had no idea of the impact they were making in 1945, Katherine thought, but the unadulterated happiness on Mme Roussel’s face was genuine, and touching. Vive les GI’s, Katherine thought.
The men in the group brought up the rear as the tour progressed and spent their time in murmured conversation about the American stock market. The women were completely taken by the silver-backed hairbrushes and spider-seamed stockings, the silhouette cutouts of hoop-skirted dancers, and the tableaus in each room.
Katherine had stopped to look at a delicate pair of earrings in a case opposite the final tableau in a room on the museum’s top floor and didn’t hear the first sounds that signaled something out of place. It sounded like more exclamations of pleasure. But when Madame began screaming in her high-pitched voice, and Mrs. Harris started saying, “Oh lord, oh lord, oh lord,” Katherine spun around and pushed to the velvet rope that cordoned off the display.
Madame was holding on to the rope’s stanchion, and turned to give Katherine a wild stare. Her face was a pale greenish gray and she looked like she was going to faint, so Katherine grabbed her in a hug. The woman turned and buried herself in Katherine’s arms, beginning to sob.
Mr. Harris and Ronnie had both caught up, the stock market forgotten as their wives kept moaning. “What the hell?” Ronnie said, trying to see what was causing the upset.
“Probably a rat,” Mr. Harris whispered in Katherine’s ear as he moved up next to her at the entrance to the room.
But it wasn’t. By this time, Katherine had picked out the reason for the women’s horror. Draped along the chaise longue at the center of the room, one arm over the back of the sofa and another resting on the floor, was a woman in costume. The costume, Katherine noted with one part of her brain, wasn’t fitting her as well as their outfits did the rest of the mannequins. And no wonder. It was no blandly smiling figurine that looked glassily out at the visitors. It was a middle-aged woman and she was very, very dead.