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The Unfortunate Widow

Jeanne L’Allamant peeked through the red velvet curtains and looked down into Rue de la Paix. The man with the pipe was back; leaning against the same lamppost. Biting her lip, she continued to pace back and forth in front of the covered window in her hotel suite.

“Can you get Madame get ready please, Anouska?”

“Oui, Madame.” The young woman with a Russian accent began to remove items from the gilded wardrobe.

First the new-season black dress by Worth; then the sable coat with the latest tulip hem; that ridiculous hat with two ostentatious black plumes; and finally, carefully removing it from its box, the black lace veil. The perfect outfit for the recently widowed wife of the French Ambassador to Turkey.

Jeanne L’Allamant was now in the bathroom, attaching the padding around her waist, when someone knocked at the door of the suite. She heard it open, followed by whispering. Emerging from her grey marble sanctuary, she was confronted by a man, smaller than her and aged about 35, with black, slicked back hair and dark, piercing eyes.

“Is that it?” asked Jeanne, pointing to the rectangular package wrapped in brown paper under the man’s arm. “This had better be good, Pablo”.

“Jeanne, amor, it’s the best painting I’ve ever made. You will not be disappointed.”

“Open it then. And don’t call me “amor”. She hated over familiarity.

Pablo tore off the paper and placed the canvas on the directoire console table and laid it against the green silk wallpaper.

All three of them stood and stared. The background of “the painting” was yellowy brown with splashes of grey; and a maze of lines cut the canvas into squares and triangles. The only thing that Jeanne could make out was what appeared to be a pipe towards the top of the canvas.

“What the hell is this?” she hissed.

“I call it Man with Pipe,” said Pablo. “It’s …”

“It’s awful is what it is! You know they won’t take Cubist. If Kahnweiler finds out we’ll be finished. Go away and come back when you’ve painted me something suitable.”

Pablo looked solemn and nodded slowly. He picked up the canvas and walked towards the door.

“Wait,” said Jeanne. “Let me look at that again”. Her eyes settled on the pipe. “Is this image based on a real person?” she asked.
“Yes. Guy L’Huillier. He spent some time with us in Avignon this summer. A friend of Georges, he said. He had a strange accent, more like an Americano speaking French,” said Pablo.

Jeanne thought of the man who’d been hanging around across the street over the past few days. He carried what looked like the same kind of pipe. It could be a coincidence but she wasn’t going to take any chances.

“Come back here on Friday. And don’t disappoint me again. Not unless you want another visit from the police; it would be terrible if the Mona Lisa really did turn up in your studio.”

Pablo rolled his eyes and left.

Anouska helped her employer get dressed. With the body padding and some rolled up gauze in her mouth to plump out her cheeks, Jeanne was ready to face the world as the unfortunate widow, Her Excellency Madame Gizem de la Reynaudière. She was sure that wearing the veil would ensure she pulled this off. Although, she normally wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that stupid hat.

Jeanne took the elevator down to the first floor and shimmied through the lobby. Glancing around to make sure no one was looking, she swiped a mink stole off the back of an unattended chair. “Might come in useful”, she thought, and rolled it up and tucked it under her arm.

The liveried bell boy opened the door and nodded. Jeanne winked in response, tipped him a franc, and turned right towards the Place Vendome. Visiting The Ritz always put a spring in her step. But something jolted her away from her pleasant thoughts.

“Lalla!”, shouted a male voice.

Only one person would call her ‘Lalla’. And only one person would recognise her in this get up. Except he had just been killed at the Battle of Mons.

As she turned to confront a ‘ghost’, the man with the pipe stepped out of the doorway of Cartier and took a photo.

Written by Victoria Trott, a Wales-based freelance travel writer who specialises in France. She’d like to write a novel but doesn’t think she’s got the stamina.