Corner of the Sky
The October night carried a warning of winter’s chill. Thick clouds raced across the sliver of moon, sometimes lit from within, sometimes blocking the faint rays altogether. It was a difficult night for work, but work had become necessary. October had been alternately wet and very clear thus far, the brilliant moon making it difficult to stay out of sight, the heavy rains making it difficult to move about. Clouds still accompanied the waning of the moon, but the rain held off.
Feuilly was nearly shaking - entry this time was quick and dirty because there was a bolt across the front door. The little band had already been chased around the corner by the footsteps of the patrol, and they needed to get inside by the time he came around again. The house had no access to the rear garden except from inside, therefore entry had to be from the front. Feuilly carefully applied the glue to the windowpane; Babet smoothed on the paper and held it while the glue set. Then Brujon, with a hammer encased in rags, broke the window. There was a soft crack, but no tinkle of glass or harsh bang from contact. Babet pulled out the broken area, then Brujon gave Feuilly a boost so he could undo the latch at the top of the window and climb in. Brujon was too big to follow, so Feuilly first had to open the front door so the two men could enter. When the patrol came around again, he heard nothing and made no careful examination. It was nearly two in the morning on a cold, damp October night, and if there was no sound, there was nothing to worry about.
When they were certain he had passed, they quickly went to work. This job was necessary. Rent was coming due. The weather had prevented them from working. The rain had even prevented Babet’s jobs on the side, since few people lingered in the streets. Feuilly was not about to lose his room and be forced into one of the common lodging houses, full of lice, noise, and other people. Within ten minutes they had grabbed what they could from the two front rooms and were back on the street, the door bolted and window shut. The patrol took twelve minutes - they had spent three nights timing him exactly, with Feuilly’s broken watch.
He knew the job had been sloppy, but rent would be paid, and that was enough for now. There was an excitement here, knowing you were only minutes away from being spotted and yet would never be spotted because you were smarter than the patrolman. No other work Feuilly could think of required so much energy or gave the same pleasure.
They nearly dashed around the corner, heading for the nearby mews where they could wait for the patrolman to pass again. The mews was dangerous, because horses never slept soundly, but it was the most convenient place to wait out the next few minutes.
Feuilly held his breath as footsteps approached, and he did not let it out until the footsteps had turned the next corner. As he hefted his bag to his shoulder, a pair of candlesticks fell together with a sharp metallic “clink”. He froze. A horse made a slight movement, but no lights appeared, and Babet motioned for them to move. They crept along, the opposite direction of the patrolman’s beat, until a voice stopped them.
The three men stopped short, but Feuilly was the last to face the newcomer. He was short and rather round, balding. He wore an open shirt, hastily thrust into a pair of dark trousers, with a dressing gown over the whole thing. They were nearly in the shadow of the Church of St Paul and St Louis, at an hour too early to be covered by early morning carters on the Rue de Rivoli. “You came out of the little rue St Louis,” the stranger announced. He kept his distance from the three miscreants.
No one replied. Babet and Brujon looked at each other; Feuilly was ignored. Silence was essential - a school connected to the church just across the street, and the boys could be nearly as wakeful as the horses.
“I saw you. You woke the horses.” Again, no one replied. The little man took a step closer. “I’ll shout for a constable, I will.”
He did not stand a chance. In the blink of an eye, Brujon had him on the ground, while Babet held a knife to his throat. “Come here, boy,” Babet called softly to Feuilly. “You’ve got the rope.”
Feuilly pulled the length of rope from his bag and approached cautiously. “What do we do with him?”
“If you make one sound, this knife will slit your throat.” Babet turned to answer Feuilly. “The river. Hold the knife so we can tie him.”
Feuilly was shaking, but he did as he was told. The heft of the knife helped to steady his nerves, while the activity around him was reassuring. They did not cut the rope; instead, they used the length of it to bind his hands to his neck. If the man struggled, he would choke himself.
“Get him up,” Babet ordered. “Boy, keep the knife. You, if you make a sound, or if you try to run for it, the boy here will slit your throat. And if you think he wouldn’t, you wouldn’t be the first to make that mistake.”
Brujon collected the bags so that Babet and Feuilly had both hands free to march the stranger down to the Quai des Célestins where they could slit his throat and dispose of his body easily, at enough distance from the police post at the Place du Châtelet to avoid observance.
The man was middle aged, unused to exercise, and sweated furiously even in the cold night air. He trembled, Feuilly assumed with fear, and when they avoided a lamppost, the reflected light showed tears streaming down his face. If not for the strict silence the three thieves observed, Feuilly would have snorted in contempt for the weak little thing, not even worthy of the appellation “man”.
If I were on my way to the gallows, as I may be someday, I would not weep like an infant, Feuilly thought. Die like a man. You are old enough to have served with the Emperor, no wonder his armies failed in the end. It has not been ten years since Waterloo. You are old enough to have been at Austerlitz! And this is how you die? You disgust me. Your stench disgusts me. Your fear, your tears, your dragging feet all disgust me.
Their steps slowed as they neared the quai. Brujon and Babet scanned the darkness for strangers, while Feuilly kept watch over the prisoner. The houses and shops of the quai were dark, and the windows of the old palace, now abandoned, glinted as if they knew they were about to witness another murder. The man whimpered.
“Silence,“ Feuilly whispered sharply in his ear.
The man obeyed, though his tears increased. Brujon motioned them forward, but they soon stopped again, huddled against the wall along the river, hoping not to be seen by whatever was moving in the darkness ahead. The man was suddenly still. He had stopped breathing in order to listen as they did for whomever or whatever might approach. Suddenly he inhaled quickly.
Feuilly’s instincts were too quick for the poor man. His severed voicebox could only make a final gurgle as the blood rushed from his throat. Feuilly’s arm was soaked in red, completely ruining his coat and shirt, but Brujon and Babet remained clean. Whoever was in the street turned away from the river and did not pass the trio and their victim.
Babet let the man drop to the ground. “I’m sorry,” Feuilly whispered. “He took a breath and I panicked.”
“You did good work,” Babet reassured him. He motioned to Brujon. “Take those down to the bridge, hide them in a corner, then come back. The boy isn’t strong enough to help with the body.”
Brujon did as he was told while Babet went through the man’s pockets. They were empty. He was as much a shadow as they were, and evidently not the owner of a house near the one they had robbed. His shirt was far from new and the hem of his trousers was frayed. The dressing gown was also of indeterminate age, though in better condition than the rest of his attire. Only his boots were any good, and Babet removed them to get a better look. He silently offered one to Feuilly, who shook his head. His boots would last another year, he hoped, and these seemed too short in any case. Babet simply set the boots aside as Brujon returned.
“Take his arms. We’ll get his feet.“ The three hoisted the body as best they could, but Babet soon dropped his leg. “I think we’re dripping blood.“ Accordingly, they slashed the dead man’s shirt and dressing gown, then Feuilly went back to wipe the paving stones as Babet bandaged the man’s neck to contain the blood. Their crabwalk began again. From the Pont Marie, a ramp led down to the bank. They would simply toss him in, and the current would carry him downriver to be found by the early boaters bringing produce up from the nearer villages in a couple more hours.
Once the body was gone, Feuilly washed as best he could in the river, though nothing could help the pale yellow coat that now had one very dark sleeve. He was forced to throw it into the river as well, wrapped around a brick Brujon found in a rubbish pile along the wall. The shirt was little better, and Babet helped him rip off the offending arm, eliminating the last piece of evidence. Feuilly took Babet’s coat with the promise it would be returned when he had replaced his own. They each retrieved their earnings from the night, Babet keeping the dead man’s boots, then parted company.
His part of Belleville was a long walk from the river, one Feuilly usually did not mind but tonight weighed heavily on him. His thoughts did not run away from him, but they did make him unusually jumpy. Movement to the markets would begin in a couple of hours, and he felt safest when alone. His mind remained on his surroundings, carefully listening, carefully watching. Several times he shrank into the shadows as he thought he heard a sound outside his own cautious breaths. Only after he crossed the finally finished canal did he relax at all. The movement beyond the barrière was not of the sort that would question his errand, as they were on similar business.
Alone in the pitch blackness of his room, Feuilly collapsed on his bed. The prostitute next door had one final customer, based on the sounds that penetrated the thin wall. He pulled off his boots and curled up in the corner, hugging his knees.
I killed a man, he thought. I killed a man. And I was calm about it. I do not care that he is dead. I do not care that I killed him. He made his death necessary, and I only wish he had waited until we were in a position to toss him into the river. The blood on the pavement will be noticed at dawn. He will be missed. Perhaps he was someone’s coachman, and he will not come down to prepare his master’s carriage in the morning. The maid who lights the fire in the study at dawn will feel the chill and see the curtain fluttering before she even notices what was taken. All will be discovered at dawn. And I am calm.
He shivered. Everything must happen at dawn, he thought. I am lucky to have a second shirt, so that no one will wonder what happened to the one I wear. I will tear off the other sleeve and cut the seams so that it will serve as a washrag and a towel. I will slit the seams and no one will pay attention to what that discarded bit of cloth once was. I will sell my wares at dawn. I will be waiting for Jacquemont to open his door. I will take what he gives and pray that it is enough. I will venture into the Temple. I will buy the first coat I may. And I will be home again before the sun has fully crossed the horizon.
He stood up and felt for a cellar rat and his matches. Under its smoky light, he changed his shirt, shred what remained of it, and checked the time. It was after three.
The sounds next door had stopped. He paused and listened for the client to leave. The wait seemed interminable, but after a couple of minutes, the door opened and shut, then footsteps came down the hall, disappearing down the stairs. The prostitute’s bed creaked a little as she settled down for the night. Dawn would come after six. He had to be at Jacquemont’s door at dawn.
He put on Babet’s coat, blew out his cellar rat, and lit a candle. Philosophy tonight, I think, he said to himself. He sat down and opened an old copy of Plato’s Republic, but the words slipped through his brain as they would a sieve.
I killed a man. And yet I do not cry. I do not shake. I do not even tremble in the slightest. I killed him, not to save my life, but only so that I would not go to prison for a few years. I might have survived prison. I doubt it now, but perhaps it would be possible. I killed him so that I might avoid discomfort. And I do not care. I feel nothing for the man or for what I have done.
He suddenly paused in his thoughts to whisper aloud, “And so I have become Babet.” He shivered violently, swallowed hard, and turned back to Plato. Something had to occupy the hours until dawn.
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