Corner of the Sky
The mourning fans had sold well enough that another week was spent on them, a week of low wages. Feuilly was dissatisfied - he went to the café, though he could not really afford it, but was told that it was perhaps safest if he stayed away a bit longer. Neither fiction or philosophy held his interest in the dull evenings. He went to bed early all week, and often woke from vivid dreams, once with the shameful memory of Sophie having been a character in an otherwise forgotten drama.
Feuilly realised then that he was pining after Sophie, ridiculous as the notion was. Staying away from the café had led to the natural extension of staying away from the flat. But it was only after she was the unplanned image to his masturbation that he determined to stop defiling her in his thoughts.
“If a guy wanted some extra service,” he asked his laundress, “how much might that cost?” She was a red, pockmarked, blowsy woman, easily old enough to be his mother, and not terribly likely to drive the image of Sophie from his mind, but it had seemed like an idea when he went to pick up his washing.
She did not quite laugh in his face, but the effect was much the same. “A boy like you ought to find what he wants on his own - and without fee!”
But that was precisely what he did not want - to go looking for a girl, to make overtures, to play at love and take the time when he was only craving a quick fuck to get certain images of one particular girl out of his head.
That night, either the rejection he had suffered or the obvious comparison between the two women drove Sophie even more vividly into his mind, to the point he contemplated asking the local priest about mortification of the flesh. His previous life had taught him little about resisting temptation, particularly when Lydie was easily the prettiest girl around and would come to his bed almost whenever he wanted. But to ask a priest for advice would simply to be told that celibacy outside of marriage is God’s desire, which was rather ridiculous when God had not seemed to care how many mistresses King David had had.
Normal work was beginning to resume as no one was quite certain anymore the appropriate length of mourning for a monarch - the mourning fans did sell, but the shops wanted new supplies of normal merchandise for the autumn. There was still no word from the palace about the letter and designs Cartoux had sent, but then, Louis XVIII was not yet in the ground. It would perhaps be inappropriate for the immediate family to start making preparations for the coronation while in the heaviest mourning. The return of normal work did mean a return to normal pay so that there were options beyond the laundress and self-flagellation.
Thus he found himself dropping a franc into the palm of the local streetwalker and seeking redemption in her rosy cunt rather than in the religion he knew he ought rather to seek out. Her diseased cunt, he learned two days later when he felt his prick on fire. The bitch had given him the chaude pisse, which made for an uncomfortable few days. Mme Pinon kept giving him sympathetic looks every time he winced, and even more embarrassing was Sophie’s attention. If it had not been that he had to share paints, he would have gone to sit with the men. Release from the shop was no relief, as the only cure he knew came from a man in the Temple, and he looked forward neither to the long walk nor to whom he might meet in such a place.
His worst fears were quickly realised. Arriving at sunset, he had to look through the stalls for the irregular doctor he remembered. His searches drove him smack into Babet.
“Well, well, well, look what the cat dragged back!”
Had he been in a better mood, Feuilly might have drawn his knife, but as it as, he only had the energy to tell Babet to go fuck himself.
“You look like shit.”
“I feel like shit,” he snapped back.
“Going straight never worked out for you.”
“It wasn’t going straight that did this. Where the hell’s the clap doctor?”
Babet laughed and slapped him on the back. “Your first? Congratulations.”
Feuilly rolled his eyes. “It’s burning piss, not a child.”
“I wouldn’t offer congratulations for that.” Babet led him to the clap doctor, a mountebank from the Ardenne who had traveled with Babet at one time, may or may not have been a failed apothecary, and may or may not have shared the lost wife.
For his thirty sous, Feuilly received an old whiskey bottle filled with a vile smelling liquid. “Drink half now, half tomorrow evening. If it still burns on the third day, come back.”
“Buy you a drink?” Babet asked after the transaction was complete.
“I’ve got one,” Feuilly replied, brandishing the bottle. Drink only turned to piss anyway, and despite what he was supposed to ingest, he rather hoped to endure those effects as little as possible though his bladder had very different ideas. Pushing into the crowd to escape Babet, he slipped into the nearest alley, which was not wide enough for two men to walk abreast, and strode past the streaming dwellings to the other entrance on the main road.
He paused to take a swig of his cure, which he promptly spit out again. It was more than just bitter - it coated his mouth and made it burn, an herbal burn that was not at all like the familiar tingle of alcohol. Like must cure like, he thought, but he returned to the bottle only after finding a coffee seller in the hope that like would also cover the taste of like. To his chagrin, street coffee was too weak to do anything against the taste of the cure. Some bread helped, though an hour later, he found himself leaning against a wall, pissing into the gutter with a stream like a horse, enduring his worst pain yet, easily proportional to the volume of cure ingested.
Feuilly left the bottle at home the next day, half convinced the quack’s medicine was no better than Babet’s tooth pulling. Another day enduring everyone’s looks was nearly as wearying as the continued effects of the clap. He started to suspect that at least the men had figured out what ailed him, including Cartoux, which was patently embarrassing.
That night, the bottle seemed to stare at him accusingly. He knew very well that it was punishment rather than cure. His sinful thoughts about one woman had led to his exploitation of another, and both the illness and the medicine were the fleshly mortification he had denied as an answer. In this spirit, he drank down the rest of the vile mixture and threw the bottle out of the window, where it could not taunt him. The usual result happened within the hour, and through the torment, Feuilly imagined the sin draining out of him. Of course such a cure would burn - was not the devil made of fire? But then he thought he was being ridiculously superstitious, particularly as God had given him the ability to analyse and understand the world in a way that need not rely on peasant fears, and he went to bed, apologising for both the act and the opinion of the cure to which he had been guided. But he still did not sleep well, and his prick still burned. The mortification of the flesh, he reminded himself on the morning walk to the workshop.
And, indeed, the cure was cure - the burning lessened through the day, so that Feuilly decided not to waste another thirty sous on another bottle. In the morning, the pain was gone.
He was drawn back to the Poles before the week was out, and this time they received him with open arms. The student was back as well, with a new waistcoat more hideous than any of the last, and Feuilly was surprised to find himself hailed by so august a personage.
“You’re the only man here I can understand half the time,” the student told him. “I should introduce myself properly - Bahorel.”
Feuilly gave his name warily. The student was too flash and too obvious to be a police spy, yet precisely because no one would take him for a police spy, he would be effective as a spy, would he not? But would the police recruit a slumming student? And if he was only a slumming student, why was he so interested in speaking to a common workman?
“What dragged you into this den?”
“I work with M. Albert’s daughter,” Feuilly told him firmly, insisting on his inferiority.
“And were you politically minded already or is she the beauty of the world?” When Feuilly said nothing and merely took a sip of his drink, Bahorel laughed. “What is she like? Blonde?”
“Small waist, fine ankles, nice tits?”
“She is chaste like a Madonna,” he said reprovingly.
“Good luck to you, citizen.”
“I don’t need luck. Her position and mine are hardly the same,” Feuilly insisted. “Nothing can be permitted to happen between me and a lady of noble birth.”
“Let me tell you something about the Poles. One man in ten calls himself a nobleman. There are more nobles than there are townsmen. They don’t have titles, they don’t have land, and I’ll bet you 100 francs that M. Albert had no property to be confiscated when when he and his master followed Bonaparte out. If his daughter has any education, she got it through service to her master’s daughter. He’s a retired servant, in all likelihood, nothing more. Especially if his daughter works for a living.”
“How do you know so much?”
“I know Massalski.” It was well known that Wojciech Chrzyszczewski worked for Prince Adam Massalski.
“Isn’t Prince Massalski a more suitable companion for someone of your stature?”
“I’m no more noble than you are, though I suppose I take your point. But come, you’re slumming, too. I’ve heard you quote Montesquieu with more felicity than I could muster.”
“That is no proof of your theory. You’ve seen the book stalls.”
“Half of Paris is illiterate and the rest can’t understand Montesquieu, much less quote him. Hell, at my school, we weren’t even permitted to read him.”
“The autodidact does exist.”
“And see there? You speak too well.”
“I have an attachment to books, that’s all.”
“Whatever you say.”
“You are the only one slumming, monsieur, if you are indeed acquainted with Prince Massalski.”
“I prefer the lower ranks. There’s more chance for action.”
“Do you plan to march on Warszawa with them?” Feuilly asked sarcastically, unconsciously using the Polish pronunciation of the city.
“I rather have hopes Monsieur will keep me busy.”
“At hard labour? He is now the king and must be treated with respect.”
“Our friendly neighbourhood informer isn’t here today. You can call Monsieur anything you like.”
Feuilly looked around, and indeed, all the faces were familiar, and the usual informer was missing. “I have no opinions on the king. He hasn’t done anything yet to have an opinion on. Did you see his entry into the city after the funeral?”
“Yes. A disgusting display of toadying from people who should know better. Nothing is more glorious than a Parisian mob in anger. Parisians on the march brought the Poles back here.”
Feuilly agreed whole-heartedly, but he preferred to be more discreet than the student. “He looked people in the eye and made a fine figure on a horse, so I heard. It’s more than we’ve had since the Hundred Days. Besides, the last good riot was over Lallemand, and that was ages ago.”
“I know - I was in it. Glorious, wasn’t it?”
Feuilly couldn’t help grinning - perhaps the bourgeois was little different to the gamin at bottom. Or certain elements of the bourgeoisie, anyway. “It was brilliant. Last decent romp I had. But is Charles really going to give us a chance for fun? He’ll moderate his acts solely to deprive us of the entertainment.”
Bahorel laughed. He was a big man, the sort who might have been a boxer had he been a mason rather than a student, and his laughter resonated through the café. “The man does have a mistress, but you’re right that he has a low opinion of other entertainments. Down with boredom!” he cried gaily.
Feuilly just shook his head, though he smiled. The slumming bourgeois could say such things, but the workman who decries boredom verges on the criminal. He knew this because Babet, Brujon, and Claquesous had railed against the tyranny of boredom, of an honest life spent doing the same thing day in and day out. Even Guelemer, who was little better than an idiot, conflated honesty with boredom. “You have your battles,” he told the student. “Let us make ours when we must, for our benefit, not just for our mutual entertainment.”
“So you’d welcome a battle for your benefit.”
“We are here for the benefit of Poland.”
“And you support Greece.”
“Of course. What Christian does not?”
“But only because they are Christian?”
“Tyranny is tyranny, whether the tyrant be Musulman or Orthodox or even Catholic, as the Austrians in Venice.”
“We do not know yet if he is a tyrant.”
“What of Louis XVI?”
“The riot to end all riots. Perhaps we should overthrow a tyrant every generation - I’m rather sore at missing that fun. I could do without taking over Spain, though.”
“Tyranny is tyranny.”
“And was for the Spanish to decide,” Feuilly agreed. “It isn’t well-intentioned fraternal assistance to make your brother king. Even if Brutus had not been Roman, he would have had the right to join the conspiracy. A tyranny diminishes the world. But if Brutus had been the only Roman in the conspiracy, he would have had no right to act in concert with that foreign group. To act alone would have been to act on his beliefs as a Roman; to act with foreigners would have been to act on their beliefs, and while the action may have been beneficial, it could never have been right.”
“And you say you don’t have an education.”
“I couldn’t name the rest of the conspirators even if the Inquisition asked me.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“There are surely imbeciles of all ranks.”
“Indeed, the last king of England died mad. My point is that one does not expect to find intelligent men in all ranks. I’d rather you had a vote than any of the electors in my department, including my father.”
“And what good would that do?”
“Again with the wisdom! You can’t even be as old as I!”
“One has to grow up quickly here. One also grows old quickly and dies quickly.”
“So the statistical reports say. Of course, the same reports say you are all one step from criminality.”
“Less than one step. Are we not engaged in plotting against a foreign sovereign?” He knew perfectly well that he would never fully step out of the dangerous classes, but he hoped to deflect the idea from strangers.
“Too true,” Bahorel agreed, much to Feuilly’s relief.
“You are keeping my genius from me, monsieur!” M. Albert entered the conversation with a good-natured chastisement.
“A genius he is indeed. That’s why we’ve been talking for so long.”
“He is learning our language.”
Feuilly reddened. “A few words only. It is not so worthy of announcement to the gentleman, Pan.”
“So few people care to learn. Did you know, monsieur, that M. Feuilly paints as well as he talks philosophy?”
“Considering how I make my living, I should hope I paint better than I talk philosophy. But in both cases, I am untaught. I copy others; I have no style of my own.”
“M. Feuilly is modest.”
“And Pan Wojciech is acting more like a father than like an acquaintance.”
“A man would be pleased to have such a son.”
“I am told you have been blessed with a daughter,” Bahorel said.
“Yes, monsieur. The curse of my life. One should support a daughter, help her to marry well. A daughter should not have to labour for her keep. A man is made to work, to earn his place. But a girl? Who will she ever marry without a dowry?”
“You are condemned to accept a love match, I’m afraid.”
“A girl of noble blood in a love match,” M. Albert sighed. “Perhaps we may return before such a disaster would come to pass.”
“I take it back,” Bahorel said to Feuilly after M. Albert went to the bar. “He may be a servant, but with his head that far in the clouds, you haven’t got a chance with the daughter. You might as well be her brother.”
“I’m the family lackey, as Pan Wojciech is to Pan Massalski. He only permits me to call him Pan Wojciech until I can manage to wrap my tongue around his impossible surname, in any case. He teaches me his language so I can interact with his household on the level of a servant. I learn it because he’s willing to teach it.”
“You’re too much in love with the daughter for your own good. If you keep hanging around here, it won’t be your head that gets broken.”
“Thank you for your concern, monsieur, but I know my place in this household and in this company.” It was his place in the rest of society he doubted.
Feuilly did not tell Sophie that he had held a friendly conversation with a bourgeois student. She would only scold him for forgetting his station. And the student was slumming - he sought to engage in inappropriate conversation. It was not at all like the medical student at the Salon. But Feuilly was now more confident that he could avoid embarrassing himself should he run into the medical student and his friends. Nevertheless, he still lacked the courage to go to that café, or even return to the Salon. He could hold a conversation, just as he could pick a lock - being able to do something was very different from knowing it right to do that thing.
It was a surprise to find Laforêt, of all people, shouting after him in the street after the workers had been dismissed for the day, following awkwardly and giving up the chase with a shout. Feuilly stopped and let him catch up, asking in confusion, “What is it?”
“Could you spare a moment? This is rather awkward.”
“Go on.” It was already the most words they had exchanged in the nine months they had worked for Cartoux. Neither of the inlayers were much older than he, but they had been there longer, worked at different tasks, and had always treated him with indifference. No one had ever faulted him for working with the women, but neither had they sought friendship. Cartoux did not permit fraternisation, after all, except in the surprising circumstances of the king’s death.
“Did I - well - it’s an awful thing to ask - did I see you with Fanny Rosier last week?”
Feuilly reddened at having been caught with the local whore. “Christ.”
“It was the hair. Anyway,” Laforêt continued, “did she - did you - I mean, I didn’t put two and two together. Did she give you the clap, too?” he finally finished in a rush.
“Damned roulure,” Feuilly muttered.
“What did you do for it? Because fuck, it burns like anything.” His face contorted into a grimace.
“There’s a man in the Temple,” Feuilly told him, “though the cure he’ll sell you is as bad as the disease.”
“Does the clap really make your prick fall off?”
“So perhaps the cure isn’t any worse,” Feuilly corrected, though he had to admit to himself he hadn’t heard that one before, possibly because Babet had been through who knew how many courses and his parts were all intact.
“Do you mind showing me where the stall is?”
As much as Feuilly hated the idea of running into Babet again, the look of desperation on Laforêt’s pinched face was too much to bear. He helped the poor man to the Temple.
“You’re back. You didn’t drink the whole thing, did you?” the mountebank asked, sounding more like a fishwife than a businessman.
“Worked a charm,” Feuilly replied defensively. “My friend here is the one in need of your services today.”
The cure in hand, he did not tell Laforêt the effects - had he been told before he took the first dose, he would have been tempted to let the disease pass. But he did walk Laforêt home and wish him luck. It took a certain kind of courage to ask a near stranger for venereal cures.
Not that Laforêt remained a stranger. The cure worked in the promised two days for him, and in those two days, he spoke more to Feuilly than he ever had before. Feuilly was uncertain what to think - he had become accustomed to the Poles, was cultivating an acquaintance with students, and found Laforêt to be a very common sort of acquaintance indeed. While he knew he ought to simply accept Laforêt’s friendship, particularly as it was the appropriate sort of friendship instead of the class-jumping nonsense he was otherwise engaged in, he did it out of courtesy rather than interest. Aleçon had the veneer of cleverness, at the very least, while Laforêt was amiable enough, the friend you took to the theatre when you fancied a dancer because he would agree with you on her beauty but not compete for her attentions, but hardly the friend you would take when you wanted to later discuss the plot.
Still, it was appropriate, and in some ways a pleasant change, to have male company that thought more of girls than politics, pleasure than gain. To sit in the gods and not worry that his leg might touch Sophie’s leg, to go to an ever grittier tavern and play dominoes rather than talk politics, were entertainments Feuilly had avoided since coming to the workshop, and though he was not whole-heartedly enamoured of Laforêt’s company, he did admit he had missed the normal life he had known before and thought applied only to the criminally idle. It took only a brief time for life to settle into something better, though still rather against Cartoux’s rules, than it had been before.
Until the police came.
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