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A Lasting Impression
By Tamera Alexander
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2011 Tamera Alexander
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Chapter OneFrench Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana September 7, 1866
Claire Laurent studied the finished canvas on the easel before her, and though masterpiece hardly described it, she knew the painting was her best yet. So why the disappointment inside her? The fiendish fraudulence trickling its way through her like tiny beads of sweat beneath layers of crinoline and lace. She ran a hand through her curls and dropped the soiled paintbrush into a cup of turpentine, full well knowing why. And knowing only deepened her guilt.
Her gaze fell to the lower right-hand corner of the canvas, the one reserved for the artist's signature. She hadn't yet been able to bring herself to sign this one. Not with that name. Because of all the landscapes and still lifes and portraits shed painted, none had truly felt like hers ...
Until this one.
A breeze, moist and swollen, heavy with the certainty of rain, wafted in through the open second-story window, and she peered from her bedroom over the town, breathing in the tang of salty air moving in from the gulf. She viewed the Vieux Carré below, the Old Square shed painted so many times she could close her eyes and still see every detail—the rows of pastel-colored buildings clustered together and edging the narrow streets, their balconies of decorative black cast iron boasting hanging baskets that cascaded with late summer blooms. The combination lent a charm and beauty unique to this part of the city.
No wonder shed fallen in love with New Orleans so quickly, despite the hardship of recent months.
The steady tick-tick-tick of the clock on the mantel marked the seconds, and she released her breath with practiced ease. She rose from her stool and stretched, paying the toll for retiring so late in recent evenings and for rising so early, but there was no avoiding it. This painting had taken longer to complete than she'd estimated.
Much longer, as her father kept reminding her.
Almost half past two, and she needed to "take leave of the gallery no later than three" as her father had insisted. She knew she shouldn't allow his request to bother her. It wasn't the first time he'd demanded she leave while he "conferred" with gallery patrons. And it wasn't as if she didn't know what he was doing during that time. What they did as a family business.
His increasing agitation in recent weeks wasn't helping her attitude toward him, however. Though not a gentle man, by any means, he wasn't customarily given to a sharp tongue. But in recent days a single look from him could have sliced bread hot from the oven.
"Claire Elise? Où es-tu?"
She stiffened at his voice. "Oui, Papa. I'm up here."
She glanced back at the canvas, fighting the ridiculous urge to hide it. Something within her didn't want him to see the painting. Not yet. And—if it had been within her control—not ever. Maybe she could tell him it wasn't finished yet. But one look at her, and Papa would know. Pretense was a skill she'd never mastered—not like he had.
Hurried steps coming up the stairwell told her there wasn't enough time to stash the painting in the empty space behind the wardrobe, and throwing a drape over it was out of the question with the final brushstrokes only moments old. Maybe if she told him how much this particular painting meant to her, he would let her keep it.
But she had a feeling that conversation would go much like the one six months ago, following her mother's passing—when she'd told him, as forcefully as she dared, that she didn't want to paint "like this" anymore. Her father had never struck her, but she'd sensed he'd wanted to in that moment, and she hadn't considered broaching the subject again.
"Ah ..." His footsteps halted in the doorway behind her. "Finally, you have finished, non?"
His tone, less strident than earlier that morning, tempted her to hope for an improvement in his mood. "Yes ... I've finished." Readying herself for his reaction—and critical critique—she stepped to one side, a tangle of nerves tightening her insides.
He stared. Then blinked. Once, twice. "Jardins de Versailles ... again." A muscle tightened in his jaw. "This is not the painting upon which we agreed." He looked at her, then back at the canvas. Keen appraisal sharpened his expression. "But ... it does show some improvement."
Claire felt her nerves easing at the merest hint of praise. Until she saw it....
That familiar flicker in his eyes. Her father appreciated art, in his own way, but he was a businessman at heart. His pride in her artistic talent ran a losing footrace with the profit he hoped to make through selling her paintings.
Her paintings ...
The irony of that thought settled like a stone in her chest, which sent an unexpected—and dangerous—ripple of courage through her. "Papa, I ..." The words fisted tight in her throat, and he wasn't even looking at her yet. "I need to speak with you about something. Something very important to me. I know you're not—"
His hand went up, and she flinched.
But he seemed not to notice. "This isn't the landscape we agreed for you to paint this time, nor is it what I described to the patron, but—" He studied her rendering of Louis the XIV's palace and the surrounding gardens, then gave an exaggerated sigh. "Given we are out of time, and that the patron very much desires to own a François-Narcisse Brissaud ... it will have to do." He nodded succinctly, as though deciding within himself at that very moment.
"Yes. I'm certain I can convince him of its worth. After all"—he smiled to himself—"the larger galleries in Paris often ship the wrong painting. But next time, Claire ..." He looked down at her, his gaze stern. "You must render, to the smallest detail, the painting upon which we have agreed."
Claire searched his face. His words stung, on so many levels. But the most disturbing ... "You've secured a buyer for this painting? Before they've even seen it?"
A satisfied smile tipped his mouth as his focus moved back to her work. "I told you this would happen. Word is spreading. After two years of tireless effort, our humble little gallery is finally earning the recognition it deserves in this city. As well as our patrons' trust, as I knew it would, given time. And my negotiating skills." His head tilted to one side. "Though I must admit, your mixture of lighter and darker shades, the hues in the garden, the way you blended them this time ... I see you took my advice to heart."
Claire said nothing, having learned that was best when it came to comments about taking his counsel.
His expression turned placating. "If I were to stand closer"—he did just—that "I am almost certain I could catch a whiff of lilac warmed by the noonday sun."
He stilled, and she followed his gaze to the lower left corner of the painting. The added detail was subtle, so subtle one might miss it if not looking. So she wasn't surprised it had taken him so long to notice.
"Abella ..." His voice barely audible, her mother's name on his lips sounded more like a prayer than any Claire had ever heard. Not that she'd heard many, and never from him. "Y- you ... painted her," he whispered.
Emotion stung Claire's eyes, prompted as much by the halting break in his voice as from missing the woman in the portrait. She'd painted her maman barefoot on the cobbled pathway, half hidden behind a lilac bush, a basket of flowers dangling from one arm. Her chin was raised ever so slightly as though she were looking for someone, waiting for them. And her cascade of auburn curls, mirrored in Claire's own, lifted in the imagined breeze.
Claire stared at the image of her mother until the delicate brushstrokes blurred into a pool of color. Ten years had passed since that afternoon at Versailles, their last visit to the palace before leaving Paris, and France, forever. She'd been nine at the time, but the memory of afternoons spent there with her parents—wandering the gardens, nurturing childish dreams of what it would be like to live in such a place—had nestled deep, and were still so vivid to her senses. The air fragrant with blossoms, nature's symphony in the rustle of the trees, the thriving sea of color—every detail locked away, secure.
Memories of those days were the happiest of her life. And those of the past six months ... the loneliest.
She thought shed been prepared for her mother's death. For over a year, she'd watched the sickness devour her from the inside out. And while she felt relief knowing her mother wasn't hurting anymore, there were days when a void, murky and dark, yawned so wide and fathomless inside her that she feared it would swallow her whole.
"She was so beautiful." Her father's voice was fragile, weary beyond his forty-two years. He reached out as if to touch the painting, then stopped. His hand trembled.
Claire looked at him more closely. The shadows beneath his eyes ... How long had those been there? And the furrows in his brow. Etched by regret, perhaps? And worry, most certainly. But worry about what? Rent being late again? Selling the expensive pieces of art he'd purchased on credit, and against her better judgment?
She looked back at the painting. "I didn't plan on including her in the painting, Papa. She just ... appeared ... from the tip of my brush."
For the longest moment, he said nothing. Then his breath left him in a long, slow sigh. "The truth of a painting must first be birthed in the artist's heart before it can be given life on the canvas."
Claire felt a quickening inside her. Her mother's first lesson in painting ... but from long ago. She couldn't believe he remembered. She, on the other hand, remembered everything her mother had taught her. If only she'd inherited Abella Laurent's giftedness. Her mother had insisted she had, and more so. But Papa had made it clear she hadn't.
He'd never said it outright, of course—that nothing she did was ever quite good enough. Yet she knew he thought it, just the same. She knew it by what he didn't say.
Her father's hand moved at his side, and in a briefly lived dream, Claire imagined he was going to cradle the side of her face, as she'd always wanted him to do, as her mother had told her he used to do, but Claire couldn't remember back that far. She waited, breath trapped in her throat, feeling less like a woman and more like a child.
He turned away. "I miss her too" he whispered. "Never think that I don't."
Feeling foolish, telling herself she should have known better, Claire bowed her head to hide the hurt. "I don't think that, Papa."
There had been times in earlier years when shed questioned the love between her parents. But mainly her father's love for her mother. In the final days, especially. When it became apparent that the medicine wasn't working and the doctors had given up hope, and when Claire had pleaded with him to send her mother to a sanitarium. "People like Maman go there and some of them get better," she'd told him. But his anger had erupted. "Those places cost money, Claire Elise! Money we don't have. Unless you can paint in her stead. Faster and better than you're doing now."
So she'd worked, night and day, for months on end. Caring for her mother as her mother continued to instruct her—just as she had since Claire was a little girl—sometimes from bed, when her mother was too tired to sit or stand. But in the end, no matter how much Claire pleaded or how much she painted, Papa had held his ground, and her mother had died in this very room.
Her father cleared his throat. "Fortunately for you, of the seventeen times Brissaud painted Jardins de Versailles, he included a different detail in each."
Claire nodded, aware of that fact, as he well knew. And also aware that everyone of the seventeen original Jardins de Versailles—plus the four shed painted before this one-were in circulation. If anyone ever devised a way for those four, soon to be five, proud owners of a François-Narcisse Brissaud "original" purchased from the European Masters Art Gallery in New Orleans to know details about the other seventeen ...
Her father gestured to the clock on the mantel, then looked pointedly back at her before descending the staircase.
Claire retrieved her reticule and turned to follow him, then glanced back at the painting. Not giving herself time to think about the consequences, she grabbed a brush, dipped it in paint, and signed the portrait—with her name—hand shaking as she did. She'd have to change it later, she knew.
But for now, seeing her name on something she was so proud of—and knowing Papa wouldn't like it—felt good, if not a bit rebellious.
As she passed through the kitchen, she saw that the door leading into the art gallery had been left open—something Papa never permitted. Stepping through that door was like stepping into another world. Plush rugs and bronze chandeliers, oil paintings and sculptures, burgundy silk paper lining the gallery walls that matched the velvet cloths draping the tables. Every item purchased on credit when they moved into this building two years earlier, and purchased with the intent of creating an air of affluence and wealth, however flimsy and paper-thin that veneer.
Confronted again by the stark differences between the gallery and the living quarters, Claire paused at the back door. Hand on the latch, she summoned courage. "Papa ... about the painting I finished today. I'd very much like to discuss with you about keep—"
"No. It's out of the question."
Unexpected heat shot up through her chest. "But this one is special. To me, at least. I'll paint another one, faster, exactly as you detail. Whatever you—"
"The answer is no!" Anger darkened his features. "The painting is already sold."
"But it has Maman—"
"We need the money, Claire Elise! Creditors are waiting to be paid, and your dawdling has cost me dearly. Yet again."
Knowing she was already treading dangerous ground, she pushed a little further. "I have another painting, Papa. One of my own, which I haven't shown you yet. Perhaps the patron might—"
"He wants a Brissaud! Have I not made that clear enough for you?" Fury mottled his throat a deep red. "Our patrons are not interested in the trite, inconsequential renderings of a—" As though hearing the harsh bite of his own voice, he exhaled and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Claire. But it's done. There's nothing left to discuss. In time, perhaps we can sell your own paintings. But for now, your talent simply lacks any ... unique quality. Nurturing talent takes time. You're best served to stay with copying for now. You do that quite well."
Bitterness tinged her mouth, and Claire felt an unexplained severing deep inside her. She wanted to respond, but she wanted not to cry even more, and if she opened her mouth now—
"You must understand ..." He squeezed his eyes tight. "This is what we've been working toward all these years. Having our own gallery, making a name for ourselves."
"Yes, Papa. A name. But our name. Our work Not someone else's, where we—"
"Think of your mother and how hard she worked. For us as a family. For you."
His expression took on a tenderness Claire barely recognized, and one she didn't fully trust.
"Your maman sacrificed so much to give you this gift, Claire. And a better life in America. Why do you think we came here? Why do you think we both worked so hard all those years? It was all for you...."
She'd heard all of this before, and while she was grateful for everything her mother—and father—had given her, she also knew their efforts hadn't been only for her benefit. They were for his. Her mother had said as much. Her mother had said a great many things in those last days. Whether it was the laudanum speaking or the truth finally breaking free, Claire couldn't be sure.
But she wanted to believe that her father had her best interests at heart. After all, he was her papa.
Staring up at him, seeing the hard set of his shoulders, his iron resolve, she felt the fight within her drain away. She opened the door, then remembered and held out her hand, feeling like a beggar and resenting him all the more for it.
Excerpted from A Lasting Impression by Tamera Alexander Copyright © 2011 by Tamera Alexander . Excerpted by permission of Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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