The Venice of the West
 About the Author/Artist
 Alternative History Timeline  
 Double Fiction Issue

Part I: Alta California
 I Meet Mark Twain
 I Meet John Sargent
 A Humorist, Not a Politician
 The Venice of the West
 The Fair Marina
 A Candide Character
 A Swan Among Geese

 So Much?
 Gibralter the Egg Mule
 An American Vandal Abroad
 Daisy and Oscar
 A Chance Encounter
 Goya’s Studio
 Holy Relics

Part II: Sakrametska in Rossland
 Boundary Values
 The Unholy Family
 Boom Town
 New Dog, Old Tricks
 Commission of a Lifetime
 Minor Moon of a Minor Planet

  NOVEL EXCERPTS by Patrick Fanning


Commission of a Lifetime

July 19, 1879

Mary Sargent, c/o Sanderson
Apartments Genessee
10 Clarastrasse
Berne, Switzerland

Dear Mother:

I am to paint the portrait of a Monarch! Tsar Nicholai himself! But wait, let me start at the beginning: This morning Mr. Twain and I were received in audience by His Excellency Nicholai Romanovsky, Tsar of Rossland and Lord Protector of the Southeastern Realm. He is a tall, slender gentleman of about forty, very imperial in bearing, with an erect, military carriage. Mr. Twain presented the Tsar with a leather-bound copy of The Innocents Abroad, which he received graciously.

His Excellency greeted us in heavily accented English, then switched to Russian, speaking through Miss Miranova, our translator. He asked Mr. Twain, “How are you finding your visit to the Americas? Will you write a new book about us?”

Mr. Twain answered in English, “I reckon there are lots of opportunities for my peculiar style of writing.”

“How would you compare the Spanish and ourselves?” the Tsar asked, getting right to the point.

“Unfavorably to both, of course. That is my style. For example, in Alta California, half the people suspicion you will attack them, and half that you will not, whereas in your country, the situation is reversed.”

The Tsar frowned at this. I could not tell if he had taken offense at the allusion to impending hostilities, or if he was merely confused by a quirk of Marina’s translation from Twain’s frontier English into courtly Russian. I paraphrased Twain’s remarks in French, since I knew the Tsar was fluent in that tongue. He smiled then and nodded.

Ah, quelle drôle,” he said, and we were off on a long détour in French. At first, I translated Twain’s remarks into French for the Tsar. Later, Nicholai and I conversed in French and Miss Miranova murmured English into Twain’s ear. Neither of my companions was pleased by my commandeering the conversation, as they informed me later in no uncertain terms. But I couldn’t help myself—the Tsar and I hit it off from the start. He asked me about my family, my education, and my painting. He knew all about the wedding portrait of Siska Django I had done for the Count of Hopland.

“I would like for you to paint my portrait,” he said, and I stammered that I would be honored to paint him. He said, “Very good. My chamberlain will make all the arrangements.” And that was that: The commission of a lifetime, one that most painters labor all their lives to received, granted to me at age 22, after twenty minutes of conversation.

At that point, the Tsar turned back to Twain and switched back to Russian, welcoming him again to Rossland and expressing his pleasure in the author’s visit. But it was clear that the audience was drawing to a close, and I had taken up most of it chattering in French. Mr. Twain has been decidedly cool toward me since then.

 I am floating along like my body is made of cloud. Tomorrow I have an appointment with the Tsar’s chamberlain at the palace to settle all the financial and practical details of the portrait. I must find a studio, procure the best canvas and paints. So much to do and it is night and all the shops are closed and I cannot sleep and must stay up all night writing to you and everyone I know.

Your Loving and Ecstatic Son,

  © Patrick Fanning, 2012


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