Beneath the Willows – Chapter 20

“Au revoir, darling,” Marguerite said, waving from the carriage carrying her and her retinue of servants to the riverboat, Creole Belle. With afternoon settling toward evening, the last trip upriver departed within the hour.

“Dream of me every night,” she said, as the driver cracked the reigns, lurching the carriage into a rumbling motion forward. “Au revoir, my dear,” Tomas said, touching her fingers with his as they moved past. “I’ll see you in a week’s time at the Willows. Travel safe, mon amour!”

“I’ll dream of you, my love!” Marguerite continued, waving a pink silk scarf out the window. “Until we meet again!”

714 Rue St. Peters would be quiet, now that Marguerite and her servants were gone. Almost ghost like, he thought as he walked through the gate, and into the inner courtyard of Laiche House. Built by his father as a retreat from the plantation, Tomas called it home from the moment he took command of the Two Seas, some ten years back.

“Woo-ee!” Tomas’s servant said as he opened the red patio door, welcoming Tomas home. Named only Joe, the negro was one of two free blacks from the Willows who chose to work for Tomas at his New Orleans residence. The formal green garb of a Laiche footman made the elderly man look younger, while his jovial smile and pleasant disposition inspired true southern hospitality.

“Dat woman’s a whirlwind, Marse Tomas,” Joe said, holding the door as Tomas walked through. “She ain’t never settle down the entire time she here.”

Tomas nodded but said nothing – his mind focused on a mysterious artist that swirled around inside his head.

“I think Monsieur Gullette will be dropping by for dinner,” he said after a moment. “Best have some shrimp po boys prepared, maybe etouffee as well. Nothing too grand.”

“I’ll get on it right away, den.” He reached for Tomas’s coat, but Tomas shook his head.

“I’m going out for a bit of a walk,” Tomas said. “Too much excitement for one day. Fresh air will do me good.”

“Yassir,” Joe said. “Miss Marg’rite has a way of making a man crazy, dat for sure. What time you comin’ back?”

“By seven,” Tomas said, plopping his felt hat atop his head and lifting his cane – a silver-capped stick with an ebony wood shaft. “If Gullette arrives before me, please make him feel at home.”

“I’ll whoop him at backgammon by the time you get back,” Joe said, smiling and leading Tomas through the foyer, toward the front door opening onto Rue St. Peter. “He thinks he can beat ole Joe, but he ain’t never come close.”

“Maybe today?” Tomas said, nodding at Joe as he walked through the door.

“Ain’t likely,” Joe called out. “But ya never know!”

The walk from his residence to Jackson Square took close to twenty minutes, as various people he knew from the neighborhood stopped him to inquire into his health. It was a small community, with many of the houses along this street being second residences of the planters. While it was air he claimed he was interested in, what he really wanted was seeing the artist in the square. Her work was impressive, but he wasn’t seeking art. What intrigued him more were those eyes.

Looking into those dark eyes snapped something into place, as if finding a missing piece of a puzzle. He had to discover what the piece was, what it meant and why he was drawn to its fire.

As he walked past the mansard-roofed Presbetyre and looked down St. Ann toward the Market, he could just make out the corner where the artist was still painting. Gulls winged over her head, circling and dancing in and out of a gathered group of children.

Flutters tickled his chest, pulling him up short. What was that? Nerves? He shook his head. How could he be nervous going to see an artist he didn’t know?

There they were again, this time stronger. He WAS nervous. His breath came up short, while his heart raced like a runaway cart. This was crazy! He took a deep breath, then looked around. It felt like he had walked for miles. No, RAN and now just found his breath.

No one noticed, or even saw he was there. At this time of the afternoon, most people would be either heading home for dinner, or coming to the cathedral. Those coming for evening Mass were more interested in their souls than the cowardly owner of a shipping company, too scared to talk to a street artist.

How ridiculous!

Spinning his cane, he nodded then plodded forward as if walking along the soft, clinging muddy banks of the Mississippi. Why were his legs shaking? There was nothing to fear! She was an artist for Christ’s sake.

He forced them to work, and in year-long seconds, found himself standing with a group of children watching the raven-haired artist finish her painting.

Beautiful. Soft, gull-like forms spun in colorful circles over what appeared to be the Square, represented by fading grays and blues. It was like seeing life through fog-covered glasses, while feeling its energy at the same time. People moved, trees shaded – all represented by softened shapes that ‘almost’ resembled reality.

Sounds faded, and he fell into the picture. As if walking among the gulls, the scene washed through him, over him – filling him with a color-soaked, ‘love of life’ sort of energy which roared through his soul. It was –

“Monsieur?” a soft voice said. “Are you alright?” He blinked, shook his head and looked around. He was dizzy, as if he’d been shaken awake from a vivid dream.

“Excuse moi?” he said, breaking his gaze from the painting – joining the artist’s deep eyes.

“I asked if you were interested in purchasing the painting?” she said, smiling up from her stool. “You seemed lost.”

He nodded. “Yes,” he whispered, feeling the energy return to his head – buzzing and crackling throughout. “Lost. I did feel like I was…” He shook his head again.

“Never mind,” Tomas said. “Oui, Madame, I’m interested in purchasing the painting.”

Three of the children clapped, while another cheered out loud. “Yay for Simone!” the creole girl exclaimed. “Simone sold a painting!” She danced in place, bouncing with her hands held high.

Simone. So that was her name. It sounded… perfect.

“Excellent, Monsieur,” she said, her smile becoming brighter if that were possible. “Merci for your patronage. Shall I wrap it for your fiancé?”

He cocked his head, the dreaminess of the painting rushed from his thoughts with a crash. How did she know he was engaged? Very interesting. “My fiancé?” he said. Simone’s eyes went wide as she caught her words.

“Pardon me, Monsieur,” she said. “I made an assumption and meant no offense. I simply recall the lovely Mademoiselle you were with, and how delighted she might be with this painting for a gift.”

He laughed, throwing his head back as he did. “You clearly remember the scene wrong, Madame,” he said. “If I recall correctly, she compared your work to rats.”

Simone shrugged. “I must not have heard,” she said. “Perhaps it would best if I simply wrapped it, and left the rest for you.” Tomas nodded.

“And its Mademoiselle,” she added, moving splayed strands of black silken hair from her face, draping them over one ear. “Though I prefer Simone.”

Tomas dipped his head in a bow. “Simone,” he said, letting the name linger on his tongue as if tasting its flavor. “Lovely,” he muttered quietly. The way she cocked her head let him know she heard.

“Tomas Laiche,” he said. “Tomas will do.”

“I would not dare be so familiar, Monsieur Laiche,” Simone said. “Especially to a patron with whom I know nothing.”

“You know I appreciate your art, Ma… Simone,” he said. “Isn’t that familiar enough?” She shook her head.

“No, Monsieur,” she said. “It’s not, though I appreciate the fact you enjoy my work.” She took the painting from the easel, then lifted a large piece of brown paper that had been folded away in a satchel.

“The price is twenty dollars, Monsieur,” she said, watching his eyes. Tomas didn’t blink as he met hers. His knees still shook, and he prayed she didn’t notice.

“Bien sûr,” he said, lifting his wallet from within his jacket. “A fair price for such a marvelous piece.” She nodded as he handed over the note.

I wonder how many she sells, he thought, watching her carefully fold the note away into her own wallet. The way she treated it, made him think this was a rare occurrence.

“Shall I have it delivered to your home,” Simone said. “Or would you like to carry it yourself?”

“Delivered, s’il vous plaît,” he said. “Is that extra?” She shook her head.

“Included in the price, Monsieur,” she said, leaning toward one of the children and whispering in her ear. The girl giggled, then skipped off toward a shop in the bottom of the Pontalba building across St. Ann.

Tomas watched, trying to figure out a way to keep the conversation going. He’d been too fast in buying the painting, and now found himself quickly running out of excuses to talk to this amazing woman beyond the moment.

“You don’t deliver it yourself?” he said, saying the first thing that came to mind. ‘That was stupid’ was his next thought.

“Monsieur,” she said. “My delivery person is quite capable of the extreme care needed for a painting such as this.” She tied a brown strong around the wrapped painting. “It’s in good hands, I can assure you.”

Tomas noticed the remaining three children watched carefully, smiling as their wide-eyed glances bounced between the two adults as if watching street performers.

“What if it were to be damaged?” Tomas said, trying to calm his racing heart. It took his entire being to keep the pounding from wavering the tone of his voice.

“If it is,” she said. “Return to me, and I’ll make the necessary repairs.”

“But I don’t want a damaged painting,” he blurted. He smiled, taking a deep breath when he saw her frown.

“Simone,” he said, clearing his voice. “I would be ever so grateful if you were to deliver it in person. Perhaps, even assist in the hanging?”

Simone’s mouth snapped shut, creating a tight line; nothing resembling her smile. Was she shocked? He’d been too forward. Too much, too soon. Damn! The hanging part was even more stupid than the initial request.

“Monsieur Laiche,” Simone said, her voice calm and slow. “I am an artist, not a delivery boy. Certainly one of your slaves can hang the painting just as well as I, if not better.”

“Servants,” Tomas said, shaking his head. “They’re servants in my house.” Simone shrugged, yet her face remained stoic. “They’re not slaves.”

Simone stared at him, her eyes moving between each of his. What’s she thinking, he wondered, hearing his heart pound in his ears. Maybe it’s time to let the delivery boy take the painting.

“Perhaps-“ he said.

“Very well, Monsieur,” Simone stated. “I’ll deliver your painting myself.” She sighed and smirked. “It’s too late in the day to begin anew, anyway.”

Her words rocked him, and if he hadn’t been careful, he would have collapsed from shock.

“You, you will?” he said, then recovered. “Excellent.” He smiled, taking a breath. “It does my mind well knowing it’s being handled with the care it deserves.”

“Oui monsieur,” she said, searching his face. “I’m certain it does.” She bent over to begin packing her supplies, giving him time to breath, as well as a moment to see the rest of her.

As if feeling his eyes, she turned and smiled. “Is there anything else you require, Monsieur?” she said, batting her eyes in a belle-like manner. “Or do you wish to help with my packing?”

“Ah,” Tomas said, trying to come up with a gentlemanly answer to why he was staring her backside. Finding none, he nodded. “Sure, I’ll help. If you don’t mind the assistance?”

She nodded, standing and pointing at the wooden box containing her paints.

“You may take that, monsieur,” she said. “If it’s not too heavy. You don’t look the type for manual labor, so if it’s too much, I can manage myself.”

He frowned, smirked then nodded. “I can carry a box, thank you very much,” he said.

Bending over, he grabbed the handle and lifted, grunting from the weight. What does she have in there? An entire paint factory?

“Très bon,” she said. “I see I was mistaken.” She gathered the rest of her supplies, then placed them inside a worn, leather satchel. The easel folded up into a nice square, and with the straps on the back, turned into backpack – complete with storage for canvas, as well as a peg to hang her stool.

“That’s quite remarkable,” Tomas said, nodding with approval.

“It is,” she said. Turning to the three remaining children, she reached into her pocket and handed them each a piece of brown sugar nugget.

“Merci, Simone,” they said, stuffing the candy into their mouths. “We will see you tomorrow!” She grinned, ruffling one of the girl’s hair.

“I can hardly wait,” Simone said. “You’re my inspirations!”

“Yay!” they said, cheering, twirling and bouncing down the street toward their not so distant homes. Simone watched, laughing at their gaiety.

Tomas observed it all with intense fascination. She was more than beautiful, he noticed, now that he had a chance to see. Long, black hair that fell close to her waist – filled with lighter highlights that glistened in the evening sun. Lithe and delicate, she resembled a dancer more than an artist.

Her smile truly captivated him. Especially the way it lit when filled with joy – such as watching the children. It radiated, instilling him with the pleasure and happiness the children gave her. Just staring raced his heart, and he found himself catching his breath once more.

She sighed, then turned toward him, the smile fading into a more serious look, one sharing neither pleasure nor happiness.

“Shall we go, Monsieur Laiche?” she said. “The sooner I deliver your painting; the sooner I can be away for dinner.”

Tomas nodded toward the Cathedral. “This way,” he said. “714 Rue St. Peters. It’s not too far.”

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