Dull late-afternoon light glittered on the hanging copper pots in the kitchen where the old painter sat with his wine, smoking a cigarette, a letter angrily crumpled on the table in front of him. Through the open window he could hear the sound of a few flies buzzing near one of the flower beds, and the voices of the gardener and his son, who were talking softly as they pushed their wheelbarrow over the paths of the vast garden.
He had meant to paint his water lily pond again, but after the letter had come he could do nothing. Even now, he felt the bitter words rising from the ink. “Why do you write me after all these years, Monet? I still hold you responsible for the death of my sister, Camille. There can be no communication between us.”
Outside, the day was ending, smelling of sweet grass and roses. He swallowed the last of his wine and stood suddenly, smoothing the letter and thrusting it in his pocket. “You foolish woman,” he said under his breath. “You never understood.”
Head lowered, he made his way up the stairs to the top floor, under the sloping attic roof, and down the hall to the locked door. He had worked in this small studio briefly when he first moved here years before and could not remember the last time he had gone inside.
Dust lay on the half-used tubes of paint on the table; palette knives and brushes of every size rested in jars. Rolled canvas and wood for stretchers leaned against a wall. Past the table stood a second door, which opened to a smaller room with another easel and an old blue-velvet-upholstered armchair. He lowered himself onto the chair, hands on his knees, and looked about him.
The room was filled with pictures of Camille.
There was one of her embroidering in the garden with a child at her feet, and another of her reading on the grass with her back against a tree, the sun coming through the leaves onto her pale dress. She was as elusive as light. You tried to grasp it and it moved; you tried to wrap your arms around it and found it gone.
It had been many years since he had found her in the bookshop. He saw himself then, handsome enough, with a dark beard, dark eyes flickering, swaggering a bit—a young man who did not doubt himself for long and yet who under it all was a little shy. The exact words they spoke to each other that day were lost to him; when he tried to remember, they faded. He recalled clearly, though, the breathless tone of her voice, the bones of her lovely neck, and her long fingers, and that she stammered slightly.
There she stood in his first portrait of her, when she was just nineteen, wearing the green promenade dress with the long train behind her, looking over her shoulder, beautiful, disdainful, as she had appeared nearly half a century before. He rose and lightly touched the canvas. Sometimes he dreamt he held her; that he would turn in bed and she would be there. But she was gone, and he was old. Nearly seventy. Only cool paint met his fingers. “Ma très chère . . .”
Darkness started to fall, dimming the paintings. He felt the letter in his pocket. “I loved you so,” he said. “I never would have had it turn out as it did. You were with all of us when we began; you gave us courage. These gardens at Giverny are for you, but I’m old and you’re forever young and will never see them. I’ll write your sister again at her shop in Paris. She must understand; she must know how it was.”
Outside, twilight was falling on the gardens, and the water lilies would be closing for the night. He wiped his eyes and sat for a time to calm himself. Looking around once more, he left the studio and slowly descended the stairs.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Claude & Camille by Stephanie Cowell. Copyright © 2010 by Stephanie Cowell. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.