Corner of the Sky
Feuilly fussed with the blankets, tucking them as tightly around her as possible.
“You haven’t slept either, have you?” Mireille asked. She coughed again with the effort.
“I’m more used to it than she is.” He pulled the chair close to the bed, sitting carefully on the frayed rush seat. “It’s been too long since I’ve seen you.”
“You didn’t let me say goodbye.”
“I was busy. Studying and all that.” The lie sounded terribly flat and obvious to his ears.
“Don’t look at me like that. Like I’m dying. I wanted to see you again, but not like this. Do you hate me for wanting to see my boy again?”
“Not at all.” Feuilly kissed her hand. “I missed you terribly at Christmas.”
“Did you have a nice holiday?”
“Rather. Lydie and I went to mass.”
He flushed. “Where else? That and a bit of dinner were my Christmas. No money for presents.”
“That doesn’t matter. You and Lydie had Christmas together. That’s all that counts.”
“I would have liked to have you there.”
“Rubbish,” Mireille coughed. “I would have been in the way.”
“Not at dinner. Not at mass.”
“But at the other mass?” He flushed even darker at the insinuation. “I did well for you, eh?”
“You’ve always done well for me. More of a mother than my own.“
“You shouldn’t talk that way. I’m sure your mother loved you very much.”
“No deathbed confessions, please. I’m in no mood to learn she was a duchess.”
“I’ve nothing to confess. I never knew your mother - you know that.” She broke down coughing. Feuilly grabbed the cup of water Vivienne had left and helped her to drink. “You talk. I miss hearing you talk.”
“There’s not a whole lot to say.”
“Are you still drawing?”
“Not so much anymore. No money. We’re really feeling the pinch this year. Book’s back in hock. Rent comes before everything. I was getting better with the paints, though, this summer. Still have them, even though I can’t afford good paper right now. They look rubbish with cheap paper. Or maybe they look rubbish when I try to use cheap paper. Maybe I just haven’t learned how to use them properly. But the last thing I did was a little portrait of Lydie. Not real big, which made it harder. Came out real pretty. The shading wasn’t quite right, and the whole thing looked a little flat because of it, but real pretty all the same.” He tried not to sound too eager, but the pride was always evident when he talked about his painting.
“I’m so proud of you.”
“There’s nothing to be proud of. I’m a thief. I’m not an artist, I’m not a lawyer, I’m just a thief. I go to mass and I’m stared at by all the honest people. That’s how it is and that’s how it’s always going to be.” She started to interrupt, but a fit of coughing allowed him to continue as he helped her. “There’s a certain peace in accepting it. I’ll always be stared at, even if I did manage to go straight and make something of myself. I’ll never really belong to any society except this one. So I accept that this is what I am. If I’m lucky, I’ll die before I go to prison, but I know better than to think I’ll have a long life. I’ve come close to getting caught twice now. But I won’t have anyone think I’m a coward. This is my life, and I’m going to live it as best I can.”
“I am proud of you. You were always a good boy, and you’ve grown up into an honest, hardworking man.”
“I’m a thief.”
“But you’re an honest one. And when things look a little better, you’ll find your ambition again.”
“I know better than to reach for the sky anymore.”
“Bullshit. You’re a little down, that’s all. You’ve still been reading, haven’t you? Tell me about what you’ve been reading.”
He chatted to her about the Republic, which he had just finished, until she fell into a light sleep.
Vivienne met him on the stairs. “How is she?”
“Have you been listening at the door?”
“Heavens, no! I wouldn’t dream of it!”
“She’s better.” The words sounded hollow in his ears. “The warmth is what she needed.”
“I’m glad to be of service.”
“She’s sleeping, now.”
“Did you want some breakfast? No charge,” she hastened to add.
“I don’t want to put you out.”
“My father isn’t here right now, and I don’t make offers I don’t intend to see through. Come down to the kitchen. I’ll fix you something hot.”
He followed, not quite certain how to decline the offer, especially as breakfast was welcome. The kitchen was both larger and smaller than he had expected. Vivienne and her father still used the big fireplace for cooking, and the vast hearth dominated what might otherwise have been a large room. Everything else was cramped into the space away from the fire. She knocked some coals about as he watched and set up a skillet on thin iron feet into which she tossed a fat sausage when it had grown hot.
“Sit down, sit down!” He perched on a stool nearly the same height as the long table covered in cooking implements and meals in various stages of preparation. “I haven’t seen you for a bit.”
“Haven’t had the money.”
“That’s what I like about you. You don’t go racking up debts like some people. If everyone were like you -”
“You wouldn’t have many customers,“ Feuilly finished for her.
“I was going to say this place would be a lot more bearable. You don’t have to spend all day with her, you know. I could sit with her. I’m not sure I want you to see the end.”
“I’ve seen people die before, Viv.”
“Not of consumption.” She dropped his sausage onto a cracked plate with a piece of cheese and a chunk of bread. “You’re practically a man, but you ought to keep some of that innocence a little longer.”
“I am a man, and I’m not innocent.”
“Eat. In ten years, when you’re as old as I am, you’ll realise that right now, you are not yet a man. Maybe you’ve seen people die, but you haven’t seen them die like this.”
“And you have?”
“My mother died of consumption. I sat with her because my father had to run the shop. You’ve known her as long as I knew my mother. I don’t wish such a death on anyone.”
“It can’t be as bad as what I’ve - what I’ve seen,” he quickly corrected.
“The blood fills her throat and you watch her be smothered in it, helpless. I don’t think she’d want you to watch it.”
Feuilly swallowed hard. “But I have to be there. And she’ll finally be at peace at the end of it. She’ll need me there, and then she’ll be at peace. That’s got to mean something.”
“I’ll sit with her if you need me,” Vivienne said simply.
“I should get back up there.”
“Finish your breakfast.”
He took a half-hearted bite, then another as he realised his hunger. “You never mentioned your mother before.”
“It never mattered.”
“It does matter. You don’t treat me like just any other customer.”
“That’s because you’re not. But you’ve your own problems, your own friends. What do mine matter to you?”
“You’re a friend. I like you more than I like Babet, Brujon, and Claquesous combined.”
“I like you. Do you know I’ve known Mireille since she was young? She was about your age when she first came round here, about the time my mother started really fading. Never pretty, but I thought if I grew up to look like her, I’d have a good life. But I don’t look like her in the least, and while I’ll live longer, I won’t necessarily live happier than she did.”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-seven, and no marriage proposals in sight. No one wants to help run this place, that’s the real problem. If I had a brother to take the place over, maybe it would have been different.”
“I’d help you run it.”
“You’re going to be something better than an innkeeper. I wouldn’t dream of letting you.”
“Did you know my mother?”
She shook her head. “You just showed up one day, this little boy with a head full of curls, begging for something to eat. You looked so pathetic, and papa stopped me from giving you a piece of bread. I was so happy when Mireille bought you dinner.”
“She’s been as good as a mother to me.”
“Nearly. She can stay as long as she needs to. You better get back up to her. Papa doesn’t need to know everything about how I choose to run my business.”
Mireille remained asleep. Feuilly could hardly bear to hear her laboured breathing, but he did not dare leave her. He wrapped his coat tightly around himself and huddled in the corner near the door. Just as he began to drift off to sleep, he heard angry footsteps on the stairs which jerked him awake. The walls were thin, and Vivienne’s father did not even attempt to lower his voice.
“This is a tavern, not a hospital! We rent beds to strangers; we don’t give them to dying whores!”
“Feuilly promised he’d pay! I’m not about to let her die in the street when we can at least make her more comfortable. And we are earning on it!”
“That boy hasn’t got a sou to his name.”
“He’s never run a tab, which is more than I can say for most of our customers. He’ll pay it off. May not be all at once, but he’ll pay it. I know he will. I’m not a fool. No one who grew up in a place like this can be a fool.”
“And who is going to pay the undertaker?”
“No one. He can’t afford a funeral for her, too.”
“I don’t want the cops in here. I’d rather the undertaker than the police. Is that clear?”
“We’ll manage something.”
“He! He will manage something. With my help if necessary!”
Lighter steps flew down the stairs, the heavier ones following. Feuilly settled down to sleep in his corner.
He woke when the mid-afternoon sun reached the little window. Mireille began to stir as well, and he poked at the fire, trying to get it to burn a little higher. She tried to push herself to a sitting position, and since there were not enough pillows, he rolled his overcoat to push behind her. “How are you feeling?”
“Better.” She coughed again. “You should get some rest.”
“I’ve had some rest. Are you hungry? Do you want anything?”
“Just my boy.”
“Anyone would think you were my mother. You know, sometimes I think it would have been better if I had known her.”
“Nonsense. You’d be no more respectable and far less free. Besides, if you’d had someone to look after you better, how would you have learned to read? How would you have learned what sort of books there are in the world? You’d be no better than the men who unload barges and cheat on their equally overworked wives. You’d right now be chained to a dying woman without a dream in your head.”
“You don’t seem to think much of humanity.”
“Look at me. Look at Lydie. Why should we think much of the mass of men? Or women, too, for that matter. Man is a curse, except for the few shining examples that make us put up with each other.”
Feuilly blushed. “You don’t mean me.”
“Of course I mean you.”
“But what about you? You never talk about your family.”
“I’ve done my best to forget all them. I had a mother. I had a father. I had a brother. My mother died. My father was a drunk. My brother went into the wars. I ran off with the man who came round to announce the dead. And I started forgetting. Can barely remember my own surname. Richard, Ricard -” She shrugged. “Not worth anything now. I’ll be registered at last. ‘The prostitute, called Mireille’.”
“What a pair we are. I don’t remember my own Christian name. Assuming I had one to begin with. God only knows if I use the name I was born with or if I invented it of my own inabilities.”
“It’s a good name.”
He grabbed her hand. “I’ll make you a trade. You can take my surname and give me a Christian one in exchange.”
She broke down coughing, but her eyes looked merry as she regained control. “You’d make that trade?”
“Gladly. Is it a deal?”
“But first I need a name for you. You must let me think.”
He sat watching her, suddenly nervous. What had possessed him to ask for something so personal and yet so worthless? What would he do with a Christian name? Learn to answer to it?
She looked up at him at last. “I have it. But do you want it?”
His voice was shaky. “We have a deal, don’t we?”
Mireille smiled. “Daniel.”
“Daniel,” Feuilly repeated.
“Babet and his bunch are lions, but god has made sure you won’t be harmed by them.”
He didn’t know whether to smile at the analogy or cry at how false it had lately become. He shut his eyes against the tears and raised her hand to his lips. “Daniel.”
She stroked his cheek. “You’ve no excuse now not to be something better. You’ve a proper name and a good education. During the empire, that’s all it took for a man to be able to dream.”
“It’s not that way anymore.”
“Only if you think it’s not. You have such dreams. Something grand will come of them. I know it.”
She began to cough again, and Feuilly tried to steer the conversation toward more innocuous subjects: news of the neighbourhood, the success of the canal, Vivienne’s invaluable assistance. Mireille seemed to fade in and out, but whenever he paused, she asked for more. Finally he ran out of other topics and concluded, “Lydie is going to come back this evening.”
“Good. You like her, don’t you?”
“I want you to promise me to look after her.”
“That’s an easy promise to make, Mireille.”
Feuilly was aghast. “What?”
“Marry her. She needs someone to take care of her properly. When you’ve got that good job, marry her. She’ll be such a sweet wife, and you will have such handsome children.”
He looked her directly in the eye, though he chose his words carefully. “I promise to look after her.”
“Thank you. My children, my pretty children.”
“Try to rest.”
She settled back into the pillows, but her breathing was even more laboured from the effort of so much speech. Feuilly rubbed a clear space in the window and took to watching the pigeons in the yard. Marry Lydie? His revulsion to the idea was complete, and yet he could not pin down the precise reason. She was pretty. He enjoyed her company. He wanted to look after her. They were so young, but Mireille did not intend that they marry this very day. After all, she had asked that when he managed to find a respectable job that he take her as his wife. If he never became respectable, he could keep her as his mistress as long as they both liked. It would be so easy to marry her, and so obviously pleasant. And yet he hated the idea.
A soft knock at the door interrupted his thoughts. Lydie had come early, dressed in her day clothes rather than her evening dress. Feuilly did not know how to greet her, how to answer her simply query of how Mireille did. He brought her to the bed in silence, and it was with a certain relief that he left them alone as Mireille requested.
He went downstairs to the kitchen, where Vivienne and her father were both hard at work on the evening’s dinner. Vivienne pulled him aside.
“How is she?”
He merely shook his head.
“I can fetch a doctor.”
“She’s past that now,” he muttered.
“You must let me know if there is something I can do.”
“Something more than just this is wrong. You talked before.”
“It’s nothing,&rldquo; he lied. “The end isn’t far off. Lydie is with her.”
“You read too many novels,” he spat out.
“At least that was a coherent sentence.”
“I’m going back upstairs.” He felt her father’s eyes seemed to follow him all the way, though the man never left the fire.
Lydie met him at the door. “I have to go out.”
“I know. You need to get changed.”
“I don’t like to leave her like this.”
“I’ll stay. You can come in between tricks. She’ll probably sleep most of the time. She’s done all the talking she can do for a good while.”
Lydie stood on her tiptoes to kiss him. “I will see you soon.”
He helped Mireille lie down, but as her breathing grew steadily worse, he helped her back into a sitting position so that the lungs did not have to counteract gravity with every breath. She dozed fitfully, but she did not try to speak again. Lydie’s visits were short, breathless affairs, and she brought the January cold into the room each time.
He faintly heard the church bells strike midnight, not long after Lydie left. Mireille woke with a great coughing fit, and Feuilly held her as she struggled to regain control. Her breathing grew worse, and another fit close upon the first produced a torrent of blood. He held her forward, hoping to tip out the rest of the blood somehow, but all he could do was hold her, hiding behind her dying body to avoid seeing her face as she suffocated in her own blood.
Vivienne found them a few minutes later when she came bearing cups of tea. Feuilly did not even look at the door though it creaked loudly. He had closed her eyes and wiped the blood from her chin, and now he sat holding her hand.
The next thing he knew, men were in the room, men dressed in black. “What do you want done with her?”
He looked up at the man, uncomprehending.
“What do you want done with her?”
“I - I don’t know. We can’t afford a funeral.”
“We’ll see to it. What’s your name?”
“Feuilly. Daniel Feuilly,” he corrected.
“And the woman?”
“Mireille.” Feuilly carefully crossed her arms over her chest. “She was my mother.”
Part 16 ~ Fiction ~ Part 18 ~ Home