Corner of the Sky

Part 20

A new neighbourhood was not the magic solution - yes, Feuilly was solely among honest people now, but a week after his final break, he felt isolated and out of place. The long light of summer meant longer workdays and a bit more money in the end, but the workshop was stifling in the heat. Cartoux would not open the windows for fear dust would contaminate the work, so the fanmakers boiled in the sun. There was more detail work done in summer, partly to take advantage of the longer days of pure light but also in preparation for the heavy decoration of the fine ladies’ winter fashions.

Finally, one evening in despair despite his fatigue, Feuilly stepped into a café around the corner from his new room. The smoky air was stifling here, too, but he swore he could feel the comradeship in the air as well. He felt it shutting him out, even as his sous were accepted for a cup of watered wine. Yet then he heard his name across the room. “He works with my daughter,” M. Albert announced to his crowd as he ushered Feuilly to the crowded table. “We must speak French so this gifted young man can follow us.”

Nearly all the men had unpronounceable names more or less hastily adapted for the French tongue. One introduced himself as Czartoryski, but it soon appeared this was not his name but a nickname, the name of a great Polish patriot. In casting about for company, Feuilly had landed in a hotbed of insurrection.

Sophie’s father and his friends took great delight over the next weeks in educating him about the glory of Poland - the first Christian kingdom in Europe, a Catholic outpost among Greek heresy, an independent nation of free men deliberately destroyed by powerful monarchical neighbours who resented and feared Polish freedom, the several partitions that destroyed the kingdom entirely, the greatness of the French Emperor who had reinstated the Duchy of Warsaw, the evil of the Russians who had taken it over after his disastrous flight back west. This was the lower rung of the Polish opposition in Paris, the loyal servants who followed their masters into penniless exile. But plots were afoot - plots were always afoot, Feuilly soon realised - to return in triumph. The French police did not much bother them because the main thrust of their group was against Russia, that whore of an empire, empty of all sense and fierce in denial of liberty. Or so he managed to decipher after several evenings listening to much argument in bad French, conducted in that language whenever the known police spies were about, he was told. One must play for the audience. Most of the company had been years in Paris - nearly ten, in the case of M. Albert and his daughter - yet they still thought only of the homeland.

So when M. Albert found him after mass on Sunday and invited him again to dine at his home, he said yes. After all, he was fraternising with the father, not the daughter, though in truth he continued to frequent their flat because Sophie would read poetry in her odd buzzing language, and she appreciated when he spoke of art. But his evenings were mostly spent in an eager indoctrination to intrigue. Sophie had called him gifted, and whatever else she had said had earned him the comradeship of these would-be revolutionaries. Occasionally other Frenchmen would drop by - more than once, Feuilly saw a radical student who seemed to own a collection of flash waistcoats - but Feuilly himself was the only constant French member of the group.

Poland was like a fairyland to him, all birches and snowy hills where free men rode in sledges all winter, their women rosy-cheeked in the cold. Sophie’s life was certainly the prologue to a fairy tale - the daughter of a minor nobleman, she had spent the first half of her life as a lady but now, having been chased from their home by the Russians because their lord had taken up the cause of freedom, she lived a pauper’s life in exile, waiting for the letter that would call her back to her birthright. Even her name was a disguise - “Sophie” sounded so workaday compared to her real name. Her father called her “Zosia”, which sounded more like an exotic Eastern princess than a painter of fans.

Feuilly ask Mme Pinon if she had heard that Sophie was a nobleman’s daughter; she just scoffed and said they were all nobles, that in the East, there were more nobles than peasants. How did she know? They were all in artistic trades - it was all they were good for. The higher nobles tutored the bourgeois of Paris in mathematics and music and art; their vassals fell to the luxury trades. All were poor and none were effective, either as workers or as revolutionaries. But Feuilly thought Mme Pinon was simply unimaginative, that with a husband and children to think of, of course she could not see the romantic truth behind the quotidian necessities.

In the cool morning presaging another hot September day, it seemed all the churchbells in Paris erupted in a clangor as Feuilly set out his paints. Since the workday had not yet begun, he and the rest of the early arrivals rushed down the stairs after Cartoux in search of the reason for the noise. They joined an equally curious throng, a far greater crowd than was usual of a morning. From the nearest church, they heard the canon shout, “The king is dead! Long live the king!”

Feuilly’s heart sank, and he crossed himself. Not that he had ever thought much about the king, but there was something saddening about every bell in Paris tolling for a single death. And he had not been a bad king. He had not been a particularly good king, either, perhaps, but he had been there, letting the government do its work, guiding France back towards calm prosperity after the restive Hundred Days. Paris would suddenly be very different with Monsieur in charge.

He found he had fallen into step with Cartoux as they walked back to the workshop. “What a way to start the day, eh?”

“Yes, monsieur.”

“I’ll need you to stay late. There’s money to be made here.”

“Is that all that interests you in this news?”

“It’s the only thing good in this news. Come, you don’t look forward to Monsieur’s coronation.”

“I have no opinion, monsieur. Politics are the province of the rich.”

“They’re about to become even more exclusive,” Cartoux added bitterly.

“I thought you were a conservative.”

“Because I advertised in their bloody rag? Wanting sober and literate employees is a far cry from wholly believing in divine right and kingly prerogative.”

“I am surprised you dare speak.”

“This morning is my last chance to say anything. Come, you’re no conservative either, even if you do go to church and once read the Gazette de France.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Look at you. Besides, I’ve never seen a conservative with real talent.”

The day went on with far more conversation than usual, and Cartoux, instead of telling them to pipe down, disappeared for two hours in the middle of the afternoon. The inlayers, deprived of supervision, joined the painters and annoyed the women with political talk.

“So Monsieur ascends. Holiday’s over, lads, we’re back to where the revolution started.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. He can’t singlehandedly destroy the Legislative Chambers.”

“What have the Legislative Chambers ever done for you, anyway?” Mme Pinon snapped. “This whole thing is none of our business.”

“None of yours, maybe,” Aleçon retorted. He turned back to Feuilly and Laforêt. “Nothing’s going to be the same. We just lost an atheist and got a Jesuit in replacement. Compulsory attendance at mass and more power to the priests.”

“It won’t be that bad. We’ve been hearing plenty from Monsieur before now - more than from the King himself, really. He probably got half his followers into position already, not even waiting for today. You know things have been rather different for a while with the police, increased censorship, all that. Look at the press laws - that law of tendency a couple years back? That’s Monsieur’s doing. We’ve been living under him already. It hasn’t been that awful.”

“You’re an idiot.”

Feuilly kept his mouth shut and just listened. He had not really paid attention to the machinations of his own government, not when he could listen to the Poles or read about the war in Greece. Every place had seemed far more interesting than Paris. But now it seemed he was the only man the Tuileries had not interested.

Cartoux returned with a box and the inlayers returned to work. Their misbehaviour was not even mentioned. At the end of the day, as everyone packed up, Cartoux called for Feuilly, Aleçon, and Sophie to stay behind.

“Today’s news represents a change in the market. We’ve got a funeral and a coronation to plan for.” He tossed a wooden monture to Aleçon. “See what you can do about dying this black to create a mourning pattern. I don’t know that we can get a shipment of ebony immediately, and we’ve got to get on this straight away. Specific to the King, mind.” He turned to Feuilly and Sophie. “Now, my dears. We’ve got a coronation to plan for. Monsieur loves high decoration and anything that resembles the past. I don’t think either of you have seen any of these before.” He spread three old fans with silk leaves. “This is the old style. Went out during the Revolution. I think it’s time to bring it back, especially since I’ve got the two of you. Start thinking of designs. Go to the Louvre on Sunday, see if anything appeals to your sense of history. Particularly you,” he pointed at Feuilly. “I want to see what you can come up with by Monday. Here’s the latest image I can find of Monsieur. Take these with you, too. The sooner I can get some mock ups to the Palace, the sooner I have a chance at getting a contract for the official coronation. And a Palace contract will be the only reason for me to hope his reign lasts a great while.”

Though his initial instinct was to go to the tavern to see what the exiles were willing to say about the news, Feuilly went home with one of the fans and the etching of Monsieur in order to get started. But after copying Monsieur’s face, he found he could not really get started. Monsieur was very conservative, everyone knew that. His accession would mean more attention to the church, greater power for the monarchy, all that. The Bonapartists would be marginalised but what remained of the true aristocracy was almost certainly happy with this news. The men of the stock exchange were probably unhappy. But what did that really mean? And should he be looking to old forms - the Rubens and Michelangelo of his book - or to the forms of the Ancien Régime - the sample fans he and Sophie had been given? Or to modern work, of which he knew nothing other than it surely was as different to the lady with wide skirts on a swing that was on this particular fan as Giotto was to Michelangelo.

The Poles were still at the tavern, but they were distinctly subdued. M. Albert greeted Feuilly and nodded toward the bar, where one of the usual police spies was watching them again. “You may want to stay away for a bit. Until we know more of the new king’s intentions, we will have to speak our own language. We must learn our audience all over again.”

He nodded. “Rozumiem,” he replied, hoping that it was the correct word for “I understand”.

Pan rozumie? He understands!” M. Albert announced with delight to all the Poles. “Such a bright boy my Zosia discovered.”

Feuilly bid them good evening, “Dobry wieczór.” His frequent intercourse with Sophie and her father had managed to put a few words of their strange language in his head - “I understand”, “good evening”, “hello”, “yes”, “no”, “I remember” - the basic words of a life in exile. Rather than return to his empty room, he went to see Sophie.

“Are you certain this is wise?” she asked. “My father is not here to chaperone us.”

“Do you think I would do anything against your virtue?” he asked, a little hurt by the implication.

“Of course not,” she replied quickly. “I do not think he would think so, either. You are a perfect gentleman. But what will people think if I am seen entertaining you privately?”

“No one will think anything of it. I just want to talk about work.”

She shook her head but smiled. “Come into the kitchen with me - we can talk while I make dinner.”

The kitchen was shared with two other families on the floor: it was obvious that Sophie had a caller, but they were hardly left alone. Feuilly helped her fill dumplings as they talked. Unlike the few times Viv had allowed him in the kitchen, it was nice to feel of use, even if he was rather inept. Sophie had to show him more than once how to crimp the pastry together so the fillings would not fall out into the water.

“What did M. Cartoux mean when he told you to go the Louvre? I thought that was the palace.”

“The government art collections are on public display there.”

“Is that how you know so much about art?”

“I’ve never been. Can’t afford it. I have a book I - uhm - rescued from a pawnshop,” he lied quickly. “The pawnbroker didn’t know what he had. I’m not sure a visit would be all that helpful, anyway. The newspapers say the Salon is up, which means it’s all new work right now, and I’m not sure that’s really the best thing for Monsieur.”

“He is a traditionalist.”

“Very much so. We need something very ornate, the opposite of classical.” He started drawing curlicues in the flour on the table until Sophie smacked his hand playfully. “Sorry.” He rubbed them out and went back to crimping dumplings closed. “But the point still stands.”

“But he is not the one who will buy these.”

“And that’s the problem. How to mix a sense of today with something that will also appeal to the palace.”

“Perhaps we should consider seeing the Salon. How expensive is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“And my father would have to come with us. It would be inappropriate if he did not.”

“Of course. But that makes three to pay for.”

A woman frying onions interjected, “How long have you been in this city? Sundays at the Louvre are free.”

“They are?”

“Idiots,” she muttered. “Always have been.” She walked away, carrying her fragrant pan with her.

“How did you not know this?” Sophie asked.

Feuilly felt his face grow hot. “The people who raised me didn’t go in for this sort of thing,” he explained defensively.

“But you read the newspapers.”

“They don’t make that part of it clear, probably to keep people like us out. And that being the case, we are going,” he insisted. “Even if it turns out to cost money, we are going.”

He did not much like the way Sophie looked at him, screwing her lips and asking, “Are you sure that is right?”

“Yes. We must do the things that are permitted or else they will be taken away.”

She turned away to salt the pot of water she had put on to boil. “Will you stay to dinner?”

“I shouldn’t.”

“I have some mushrooms and onions if you are worried we have not made enough pierogi.”

“It’s not that.”

When she looked at him, her face was slightly flushed from the heat of the stove. “You have been far more help than any man has call to be.”

“We’re going after mass on Sunday.”

“I will talk to my father. But do not be angry if it does not happen. Anger is not good for you.”

“Your father is angry about many things.”

“But you are not my father,” she said gently. She put her hand on his shoulder, as if she might make a far more personal gesture than her formal address had ever hinted at, but at the sound of her father’s voice, she pulled away as if she had been caught doing something naughty.

“I am in the kitchen, Tata!” she called.

“Ah, M. Feuilly. Are you staying to dinner?”

“No, thank you, monsieur. I was simply discussing business with Mlle Sophie.” He bowed his way out, feeling angry at the interruption that had so rudely pulled him down from the elation of Sophie’s touch.


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