Hailing a taxi in Place Vendome, she headed for Montparnasse, clutching a package on her knees, and staring distractedly out the window. Stepping onto the boulevard, she tucked her scarf around her chin, concealing her nose and mouth. She dared not lift her eyes to the figures passing in the street, though it was unlikely anyone here might recognise her. Her husband and his friends did not frequent Montparnasse – and as for his mistress, presumably she stayed in bed all day, writing notes to her admirers.
The streets, slick with the November drizzle, reeked of horses and motor oil, but the fragrance of coffee drifting from the cafes drew her on. He said he’d be waiting between twelve and one, but Le Dôme was deserted except for an old man reading his newspaper.
With so many men away at the war, only foreigners were left in Paris: Poles, Russians, the elderly, the tubercular. It was too early for the art students who flocked here when their lessons at the academy ended.
Just as well; no one would notice the two of them together.
She peeked inside, but he wasn’t there, then chose a table outside with a wide view. She put her bag on the seat beside her, along with the package. She hoped her plumed hat wasn’t too conspicuous.
A drink would soothe her nerves. “Pernod,” she ordered – then thought perhaps that champagne would have put her in a better mood, or brandy, to fire her dwindling courage. Her husband had no idea where she was. She shivered. Even with her fur, the cold was bitter.
Her hand shook slightly as she lifted her glass. The liquor was so watered down, it was tasteless. In the place where she was born, a woman could be stoned to death for letting her lips touch alcohol. But what she was about to do was even more forbidden. The mere thought made her dizzy, almost drunk.
She sipped slowly, but he did not come. When the Montparnasse station clock struck one, she rose, covered her face again and bundled her fur about her shoulders. She’d have to go to his hotel, in Rue Campagne-Première. Or perhaps she should forget all this and go home.
The door to the street was open; the court piled with crates of mouldy onions, pervaded by a stench of cat and stewed cabbage. A stout old woman in a black dress appeared across the court, dragging a sack of rubbish. The patronne.
“What do you want?” the patronne asked.
“I am here for Monsieur…”
“They all are,” she said, waving towards the entrance.
“Third floor. He’s in.”
The stairs were littered with cigarettes and sawdust. Faint light filtered in from the top – she could barely see her way. Voices wormed out on the stairs — a man cursing, shrill laughter.
A card on the door announced his name and profession. Peintre. She drew in a deep breath as if before a dive, and knocked.
The door flew open. Two black eyes nailed her to the spot – to who she was and why she was there. Above those eyes – a bush of black curls; beneath — a shirt unbuttoned on his chest.
When he pulled her inside, electricity flickered up her arm.
An unmade bed, a chair, an easel, a screen. A medieval madonna—Cimabue– tacked up above the bed, multiple canvases turned to the wall.
She unwound the scarf to reveal her face in full. “I waited, but you didn’t come,” she said.
“I was working.”
“I brought you this.” She handed him a package containing three tangerines – a delicacy with the rationing.
He laughed. “I don’t paint fruit,” he said, tossing them aside. “Deshabillez-vous”, he commanded, pointing to the screen.
She shook her head.
“It’s a portrait you want? Sit here in this chair. Let me get a cushion.
The cat often sits there. You’ll spoil your dress.” His accent was foreign, like hers.
“You don’t understand,” she said.
He seemed truly puzzled. “Why have you come?”
Her eyes searched his. This moment would change things forever. “I wish, Monsieur” she whispered, “to study painting with you.”