Corner of the Sky
Lydie appeared just as the undertaker and his assistant threw Mireille’s body into their wagon. Feuilly shuddered as he heard the thump of dead flesh on old wood. Lydie threw herself into his arms, sobbing, and he mechanically pulled her inside his coat. He watched, dry-eyed, as the wagon pulled away, the horses snorting out huge clouds of ice in the January cold.
He took Lydie home with him, and, huddled fully dressed in his bed, he comforted her all night. She finally fell asleep, but he could not. He stared in her direction though he could not see her in the darkness. He stroked her hair, trying to identify why he hated the idea of marrying her. Had Mireille told her that he would marry her? What choice did he have in the matter then? And if he had no choice, why fight it? He had promised to look after her, and he still intended that. The idea of marriage annoyed him, but how else to look after her? She’d be a rubbish wife, but even that thought didn’t explain why he felt so cold to the idea of marriage. But as the sky began to lighten, he pushed the thought to the back of his mind. There would be time for it later.
There was no funeral. He went back to the tavern in order to learn how much he owed the mortuary and Vivienne, and Vivienne told him that the body had been turned over to the city.
Her father glared at them as they chatted quietly in a corner of the kitchen. “The bill is four francs. Three of those are for the undertakers,” she finished quickly.
He looked through the small coins in his pockets. “I can pay two francs and ten sous now. I’ll have the rest tomorrow.”
“Whenever you can.” The moment her father turned his back, she kissed him square on the lips. Blushing furiously, she pulled away. “I’ll see you around, won’t I?”
He was only slightly less red. Not looking at her, he replied, “I’ll pay you the rest tomorrow.”
Lydie was awake when he returned. “Where were you?”
“I had to see about the bill,” he told her a bit sharply. “How are you doing?”
“I ain’t seen no one dead before.”
“Better to see the dead than the dying.”
“Was it awful?”
“I’m glad you weren’t there. She’s at peace now, that’s all that matters.”
“Where’s she going to be buried?”
“Don’t know. The undertakers gave her to the city to take care of since we couldn’t pay but to get her moved out of there.” He didn’t want to know what would be done with her now, especially after an aborted scheme Babet had once had for grave robbing to sell to the medical school. “I’ve got some other errands to run. Will you manage without me for a couple of hours or so?”
She nodded. “I’ll go home.”
“I’ll walk you. It’s on the way, more or less.”
Lydie watched as he collected a bundle from behind one of the boards that formed his outside wall. “I didn’t know you had a hiding place.”
“Don’t you dare breathe a word of that to anyone,” he snapped
“I wouldn’t!” She sounded hurt.
He stuffed it in the pocket of his overcoat and buttoned the flap. “Come along.”
Feuilly put his arm around her as they walked, but he did not feel entirely comfortable. It seemed as if several unkind years had passed since they had run home together in the rain. Which was true enough, when he thought about it, but those two years were not enough to explain how he now felt. It seemed he was quite grown up now and Lydie still nothing more than a child. As if she felt his stiffness, she pulled away in silence, almost stalking inside.
Instead of heading to Jacquemont’s pawn shop, Feuilly headed into the centre of the city to meet with one of the real jewelers he had come to know. The walk did little to soothe his nerves. Bargaining with the jeweler helped.
As Feuilly wrapped the rest of his take back up, he asked, “Is anyone around here hiring, do you know?”
“Hiring for what?”
“Anything, really. I can’t live a whole lot longer on family heirlooms.”
“No idea. What can you do? Not a bad eye for gems. I noticed some total rubbish in there you didn’t bother showing me properly.”
“Read, write, do sums, draw, paint - little of everything, I suppose.”
“We’re not hiring, but there’s a lawyer has an office upstairs from the milliner. You might ask him.”
“I’ll do that. Thank you.”
A shakily written note on the lawyer’s door informed all comers that he would resume practice when the courts resumed session on the fifteenth of January. An elderly clerk sat scribbling in a ledger. Feuilly tapped on the glass pane. The clerk did not even look up. He rapped at the door, and finally got the clerk’s attention.
“Did you not see the notice?”
“I saw it. I read it. I’m merely asking about work.”
“Maître Ledoyen needs no additional clerks,” the old man informed him, looking down his long nose at Feuilly.
But he could use someone to sweep up the dust, Feuilly thought. “Do you know of anyone who might need some help?”
“I don’t. But people are in and out of the milliner’s all the time, if you simply need clerical work. And the men at the legal bookshop on the quai des Orfèvres might know of something if you are specifically looking for a legal position.”
Feuilly thanked him for his time. He looked into the milliner’s window, but the sight of so many women did not encourage him to stop and ask questions. He was in no mood to be mothered or disdained.
The legal bookshop was next to the large central prefecture of police. Feuilly shuddered as he passed the large, heavy doors outside which two uniformed officers lounged, smoking and chatting. The bookshop itself, however, was comforting. It was small and cramped, the smell of paper and ink and leather vaguely reminiscent of the pawn shops to which he was more accustomed. A young man, his dark coat and trousers protected by a long white apron, was busy dusting and shelving books. The desk was staffed by an older gentleman, his pink scalp showing through his thinning white hair.
“How can I help you today, monsieur?” he greeted Feuilly.
Feuilly was surprised by the friendly tone and the polite greeting. “I’m looking for a job. As a clerk or something.”
“Have you any experience?”
He flushed. “None. But I read and write and I learn quickly.”
“Let’s take a look.” The shop owner produced a sheaf of papers from under the counter. “Do you know Latin?”
“I’m afraid I don’t. But I learn quickly.”
The owner nodded. He began flipping through sheets. “I’ve a few places you could try. Nothing that pays much. Nothing will pay much if you don’t have the Latin.” He began to scribble names and addresses on a fresh piece of paper.
Feuilly thanked him gratefully. “It is kind of you to be so helpful to a stranger.”
“You have an honest face. Make sure it stays that way.” He passed the sheet to Feuilly. “Marquand is probably best. Be sure to tell him that M. Pradel sent you.”
“I will. Thank you, monsieur.”
Feuilly went back across the river in order to read the paper more carefully. He had no desire to spend too long in the shadow of the prefecture of police. Pradel had written the names and addresses of five men.
The sun was already high in the cold January sky, and Feuilly realised he had not yet eaten. With a pocket full of ready money, he decided to treat himself to what might be his last hot meal for a while. A rather greasy café in the Marais served him a glass of wine, a bowl of onion soup, and large quantity of bread, though he did have to share a table with three strangers, only two of whom had previously met. He and the other man, who appeared middle aged and thinner than he ought to be, did their best to ignore the younger, better-dressed friends’ conversation. So this is the society of clerks, Feuilly thought as he dipped bread in his soup and half-listened to other men discuss finances, women, and bosses as they ate. The vast majority were dressed slightly better than he, though at closer inspection, many were simply dressed more soberly in worn and patched coats that may not have been black when they were new. It was so easy to refresh a coat and trousers with a little black dye. The younger men chatted loudly of women and the theatre; the older men either sat silently or bent low over their tables, murmuring to each other.
The younger men finished and left first, leaving Feuilly and his middle aged companion alone. The man seemed to be inspecting him, and out of habit, Feuilly glared back, daring him to say something. But nothing was said on either side, and Feuilly left before he had even finished swallowing his last bite of bread.
If these were lawyers’ clerks, he certainly did not think much of them. Some had decent clothes, but most did not. Poverty appeared to increase with age. But he had no plans for marriage, in any case, and marriage and children were what surely had brought these poor men to misery. Their younger brothers were generally in better shape. But it wasn’t exactly the way the novels all seemed to imply, that if you worked hard, you could marry your employer’s daughter and take over his practice when he died, blessing you on his deathbed.
Novels are ridiculous, Feuilly said to himself. You knew better than to believe them in the first place. This is Paris. It is 1824, for god’s sake. You know better than to believe in anything. Besides, do you look like any of these men? Not in the least. That other clerk looked at you as if he’d scraped you off his shoe. The men in the café couldn’t be bothered with you or thought you were suspicious.
To hell with going straight. Feuilly crumpled the list of addresses and started back to his part of the city. What good was help when it wasn’t any help at all? He was a thief and a murderer, and thanks to Babet’s fathering, that was all he would ever be good for.
But as the canal came into view, Feuilly’s steps slowed. What good was there in going back to everything he already knew? He didn’t love Lydie. Vivienne seemed to care for him, but she was ten years his senior, and in any case, he’d never go to her as less than an honest man. She deserved better than the thieves and con men with which she was surrounded. Other than the women, Brujon was the only person who cared if he stayed in one piece. Babet treated him as if he were expendable. And M. Pradel thought him an honest man.
He still clutched the paper in his hand. A. Marquand. G. Brochard. R. Huet. F. Raimbourg. C. Gobin. Marquand and Raimbourg were in streets Feuilly did not recognise. Which left Brochard, Huet, and Gobin. Huet was on the quai aux Fleurs, near Notre Dame. Feuilly determined to try M. Huet first - M. Gobin was in the same street, and M. Brochard appeared to be nearby as well.
M. Huet appeared terribly busy when Feuilly entered, with two copyists hard at work and a clerk receiving instructions from his master. It was several moments before anyone took notice of Feuilly. “You, boy, what do you want?” the clerk asked as he put on his overcoat.
“M. Pradel said there was an opening for a clerk.”
“Monsieur, someone about the position!” the man called to the back before leaving without another glance at Feuilly.
M. Huet was middle aged, rather fat, and seemingly rather ill tempered. “What’s your name?”
“Feuilly. Daniel Feuilly.”
“Who’ve you been working for?”
“You’ve got a current employer, don’t you?” After looking him over, Huet answered his own question, “Apparently not. New to Paris?”
Feuilly latched onto the chance to lie as if it were a life rope. “Yes, sir. Thought I’d try my luck in the city.”
“Where did you come from?”
Where did he come from? The South, Mireille had said. The South, the South. “Marseille,” he replied.
“How old are you?”
“Nineteen, monsieur.” Well, more or less.
“Law clerk in Marseille, were you?”
“I told Pradel no apprentices! Certainly not overgrown ones like you. Nineteen and no experience. What am I supposed to do with that?”
Feuilly crept out while Huet continued to rail at his copyists on the subject of Pradel’s inanity. Overgrown he might be, but he thought it a lucky escape.
M. Gobin’s office was guarded by a clerk who could have been the grandson of Ledoyen’s goat - the same expression creased the much younger face. “Work, you say? You want work? M. Gobin has no need of another clerk.”
Feuilly pulled his nerve together as best he could. “M. Pradel, at the legal bookshop, told me to see M. Gobin.”
“M. Pradel will be informed that there is no position.” He looked down at Feuilly from his high stool. “M. Gobin would only hire someone who would reflect well on the firm. You would do better to seek work among your own kind, in Les Halles, or the Temple.”
He felt his heart in the pit of his stomach. “What do you take me for? A fence?” he managed to snap.
“I would have said a peddler. That hat? Really.”
“At least I’m not a popinjay like you,” he shot out as he slammed the door.
His stomach still churning with anger, Feuilly went after the next name on the list. This office was shabbier, which gave him a new burst of hope. The lawyer himself was young, shabby, and coughing as if he would not be long for the world. “Yes, I’m Gilles Brochard. You’re here about the position? Sit down.” He coughed into a handkerchief. “Tell me about yourself.”
His politeness took Feuilly aback. “There’s - there’s nothing to say, really,” he stammered. “I’m called Feuilly. Daniel Feuilly. I’m looking for a job. Thought becoming a clerk sounded nice. There’s a future in that, isn’t there?”
The young lawyer shrugged. “Sometimes, I suppose. Not nearly as often as in the novels. So you’ve not experience.”
Feuilly shook his head. “I worked a while for a man who sells old clothes in the Temple.”
“So you’re good with money and bargaining. Any family? Dying mother you need to support or anything? I can’t pay much, you see.”
“She’s already dead. I’ve been an orphan as long as I can remember.”
“I’m sorry.” He seemed genuinely sorry, too, perhaps because he was so near death himself, Feuilly thought. “It’s really a copyist I need. Two sous a page. Are you interested?”
“Yes,” Feuilly answered quickly, his heart jumping.
“Copy this out for me, then, as a trial.” Brochard handed him a sheet and started coughing again. “Paper and ink at the desk,” he indicated between coughs.
The light in the office was not good. The pen needed trimming, but the knife was dull and the result clumsy. But he forged ahead. It was a densely written page, and the original writer had idiosyncratic Gs, making it hard to read and still harder to copy. “How are you doing?” the lawyer asked from his own desk. Feuilly merely grunted in his concentration. A few minutes later, he presented the completed copy to the lawyer, holding up the original next to it. The copy was nearly exact, down to the signature - he was pleased with his work.
Brochard did not seem so happy, however. “The Temple. Yes, I should have known.” His eyes narrowed. “If I needed a forger, I would have advertised for one.” He folded the copy, which was still damp, and tore it into long, thin shreds. “Get out. I’d rather not have to send for the police.”
His coldness and disappointment after such an auspicious beginning tore Feuilly to the core. How confusing was the legitimate world, where a copyist was not meant to copy. He had been such a nice young man, too, Feuilly thought. Understanding. He started fingering one of his curls nervously. His dress was all wrong, he didn’t understand the work, he was too old - what was the point in even going to the man of all work when he was wrong for all honest work of this nature?
He went back to the pawnshop. There was usually a decent sized mirror - he wanted to look at himself and see what was so profoundly wrong.
“What do you want?” Jacquemont snapped.
“Got any furniture?”
“Don’t tell me you’re buying.”
“What do you think?”
“In the back. Your friend, the big one, brought me three rugs this morning. Three! The man’s a lunatic.”
“Wagon comes tomorrow?”
“North or south for this lot?”
“None of your business.”
Feuilly pointed to an elaborately carved standing mirror. “You think a provincial can appreciate that?”
“They appreciate what they pay for. What are you doing here this time of day?”
Feuilly stared at himself in the mirror. His waistcoat needed turned. Maybe one of Lydie’s mates could do it for him. Trousers mud stained - he needed to find a dark pair. The hat was a little smashed, but that wasn’t the problem. He was pale enough, his fingers ink stained from that awful pen, just like all the clerks. “I was looking for a job.”
“No, I mean looking for a job. A position. Honest work.”
Jacquemont laughed. “Honest work? You?”
“What’s so wrong with that?” Feuilly replied defensively.
“You won’t last. You’ve already been back for longer than you were at the mill.”
“Why does everyone in Belleville know my business?”
“Your friends talk. Your real friends.”
Feuilly laughed hollowly. “Ain’t got real friends.”
“Where do you think honesty will get someone with your talents?”
“It’s not about talents. It’s about being able to look at myself at the end of the day.”
“You’re looking now.”
“And I don’t like what I see. When did I get so flash?” That was it. That was why he didn’t fit in with the clerks. Too much colour, too much variety.
“Bet your girl likes it.”
“Haven’t got a girl,” Feuilly replied automatically.
“Babet said -”
“Babet’s full of shit.”
“You gonna stand around all day or you got something for me?”
“Hey, you need help around here, don’t you? Packing up the take, writing tickets. I can do that.”
“Bugger off. You want a job? Here.” The pawnbroker smacked him with a newspaper and forced it into his hand. “Now get.”
A bitter wind came up with the sundown. Feuilly went to the tavern to try to stay warm until he had no choice but to return to his cold bed.
The newspaper was two days old. Riots in Lyon - workers of Paris praised for not taking part. English poet Lord Byron arrives in Greece, bringing joy and funds to the beleaguered Christian soldiers. Conservative rag, carefully avoiding the word “revolution” in reference to the war. Feuilly settled in to reading the news from Greece in further detail.
Vivienne interrupted him. “Hey.” “Hey.” He folded the paper and set it aside.
“How are you?”
“Haven’t seen you since - you know.”
He looked down. “I know.”
“I missed you.”
When he looked up, the light seemed to illuminate her rather than the room. “You look like a Rubens.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“It is good. He’s an artist who painted beautiful women.”
“I’m not beautiful. I’m fat.”
“The women in his paintings are both.”
She blushed furiously - so did he when he realised what he had said. It had sounded so serious, intentional, grown-up, making a kiss in the kitchen seem like child’s play in comparison - or perhaps a sign of something far more important than child’s play. He knew he should look away, but he couldn’t quite manage it. Her favourite confidence man broke the moment, calling for wine. But she returned with a bowl of coffee and milk for Feuilly. “Are you certain you don’t want dinner?”
“Can’t afford it.”
“You don’t have to pay.”
“That’s not fair.”
“I don’t get compliments often.”
Feuilly was appalled. “You shouldn’t have to pay for them!”
“It was a very nice thing you said, anyway.”
“What was a very nice thing he said?” Lydie had just come in, dressed for the evening. She sounded annoyed.
“None of your business,” Feuilly snapped at her.
“Keep off, Viv. He’s promised to me.”
“Don’t be such a harpy,” he ordered.
Lydie’s eyes narrowed. “What’s a harpy?”
“You, right now,” he retorted. “In mythology, women with the bodies of birds and really loud voices who snatch sailors from ships. By metaphor, jealous screaming bitches.”
“You sound like Babet,” Vivienne warned him softly.
He immediately relented. “I’m sorry, Lydie. Please sit down.” He pulled a chair out for her in the most gentlemanly manner he could muster.
“Where’ve you been all day?”
“Looking for a job,” he sighed. “It’s not so easy this time.” He pulled the ribbon out of his hair so he could fiddle with his curls more easily.
“The mill took me straight away. Mireille didn’t tell you I was two years at Lesage Mill?”
She shook her head. “She said you were a very nice picklock who was trying to get ahead in life.”
“And that’s the rub. I’m too old to apprentice to a proper trade. I got myself thrown out of a lawyer’s office today because he thought I was forger.”
“Forger sounds like a nice line.”
“It’s still illegal. It still harms people. What’s so wrong with wanting to be honest?”
“Not everyone’s born to it.”
“Maybe you weren’t, but I was.” When he saw the hurt look on her face, he apologised. “What am I going to do?” he continued.
“What about your drawings?”
“That’s what would make me such a good forger.”
“I don’t know how to help you,” she snapped. “You want everything and nothing.”
She left, giving a flirtatious look to Viv’s con man, who followed soon after. She was right, Feuilly thought. He wanted everything, and yet he couldn’t bear the idea of having anything.
He went back to his coffee and newspaper. The last two pages were filled with announcements, items for sale, even jobs. Nearly all were for the sort of work that had rejected Feuilly that day - clerks, secretaries, shop assistants. Others were for work he could not do - journeyman tailor, locksmith, leather worker. But one caught his eye. “Colourist needed. Watercolour and ink. Pay negotiable. See Cartoux, 15 rue Palmiers.” Colourist was something he knew he could do.
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