Corner of the Sky
It was the middle of October, a rainy Friday in which every lamp had stayed lit all day. An inspector came striding in, brandishing his identity card in glass, followed by seven or eight officers. “Papers out!” he snapped. “Which one of you is Cartoux?”
“I am.” Cartoux showed a remarkable self possession. “How can I help you, monsieur?” Feuilly was shaking, and only with trouble could he produce his forged livret from his pocket. Were they here for the papers or had they finally identified the dead man and now came for the murderer? Could they, after so long? He finally dared look at Sophie, who was white as a sheet, staring at the passport she had placed on the table.
“You’re shut down as of this moment. License revoked on order of His Majesty. And you’re all under arrest.”
“Even the women?”
“Even the women.”
“Am I permitted to ask for what crime?”
The inspector paused, as if thinking it over, but finally did answer. “Treason.”
Sophie grasped Feuilly’s hand, hers cold and clammy with fear. But Feuilly relaxed a bit. He took no pleasure in the arrest, but treason was unlikely to translate to murder. M. Albert would be pulled in as well, certainly - it must be about the Poles, with Cartoux in the unfortunate position of having employed conspirators, but M. Albert’s employer was almost certainly in the same position. But acts against a foreign power were not so likely to land him headless in the place de Grève. Unless they followed the forged livret, and someone squawked, and then, instead of rescuing Sophie after doing his stretch - why keep him locked up forever for drinking with conspirators against a foreign government? - he would end up losing his head anyway. The only thing to do was to go along as calmly as possible and give them no reason to care to follow where the livret had come from. It was the best forgery he could afford, after all, from a master craftsman, hardly a cheap fake. Unless it all came back to the murdered man, and the rest was merely theatre to put him at his ease.
The workmen and Cartoux were taken away in one closed carriage while the women were taken in another. At the nearest station, Cartoux was taken directly to an interrogation room while his three employees were locked in a holding cell. Feuilly had never had the bad luck to be on this side of the bars, though he had frequently been sent to deliver messages in the guise of a man’s son, but neither of the others had been so unlucky, either. He sat down on the floor and composed himself as best he could. Whatever happened, his only choice was to act with honour, to behave in a manner that would make Babet proud, as that was the world he had so brusquely re-entered.
That determination did not last long, however. Nearly as soon as he managed to slouch while clamping his leg muscles to give the impression that he was lounging without trembling in fear, Aleçon, who had not stopped shaking from the moment the police entered the workshop, walked across the cell with a strange calmness and started beating his head against the wall. Feuilly looked at Laforêt, who was staring appalled, and then did his best to pull the man away from the wall. Laforêt joined him once the need broke through the shock, and between the two of them, they managed to get Aleçon seated in the centre of the cell, propped between them, away from possible objects of suicide. With firm hands binding him, Aleçon stayed silent, his head drooping sadly to his breast.
“What the hell?” Laforêt whispered.
“Some men can’t take being locked up.” But Feuilly was uncertain if it was merely latent madness or if it was guilt. He hoped it was guilt - if Aleçon could be questioned before he smeared his brains all over the cell, it would mean that everyone could get out of here with some measure of pride still intact. “Have you got a handkerchief?” His had been wrapped around the knife the police had confiscated at their arrest.
In silence, Laforêt passed his handkerchief to Feuilly so Feuilly could wipe the blood from Aleçon’s face. It was a welcome distraction, something to concentrate on other than the possibility that Cartoux himself had done something that would condemn them all. Laforêt put all his force into keeping Aleçon in place, but Feuilly could see the worry on his face and the trembling in his limbs. The only men who take to being locked up are the ones who have been there before, he thought. But he realised that he was no longer shaking, no longer trying to hide his fear because his fear was gone. The only question now was what the police wanted and how much of a rat he ought to be when Aleçon’s sudden madness came up, as it must now that he had a definite scrape on his forehead. Laforêt kept looking to him every time Aleçon moved, and despite his qualms, Feuilly knew he had no choice but to accept that, for the time being, his education had fitted him to be the leader in this awful situation.
It was hard to tell how long they had been there, but an officer came for Laforêt. Cartoux was not brought to the holding cell - was this because he was guilty, innocent, or of a higher class than the workers, Feuilly wondered. It would be ridiculous to take him directly to the Conciergerie when there were three possible other arrests to be housed until trial. Or did he merit greater consideration as an employer?
With Laforêt gone, Feuilly was alone with Aleçon, who suddenly became voluble. Was Laforêt the weak link, the rat who would finish him off, while Feuilly was trusted to keep his mouth shut? But soon it became obvious that Aleçon’s ranting was more about his wife than about the king. Feuilly had not known there was a Mme Aleçon, though he reminded himself that he should not be surprised. While all the men in Cartoux’s employ were young, Aleçon appeared the eldest and it was only natural he should have made an alliance with a woman. As time passed, it became obvious that Mme Aleçon did not hold that title legally and had lately decided to take protection from another man, possibly thus landing everyone in hospital. Or so Aleçon’s rantings seemed to imply, that it was entirely her fault that he was sick, sitting in a cell, being kept from suicide by a man he barely knew.
But when an officer returned, he clammed up. Feuilly was no longer certain if it were madness or a feint of madness, since it took presence of mind not to incriminate oneself in the presence of the police, but there was no reason a man in his right mind would trust anyone in this situation, certainly not after trying to end the entire mess through suicide rather than confession.
Aleçon looked to Feuilly for reprieve, seeming somehow both mad in his expression and utterly sane in intent, if it was his intent to seek assistance from his remaining companion. Feuilly had no desire to act the rat, but an honest man would push the crazy bastard to the cops and have done with it, so that is what Feuilly tried his best to do, feeling utterly guilty all the while. He barely knew Aleçon, the man had almost certainly gotten him arrested, and yet they were companions and thus partners. Feuilly had been taught the old ways, of loyalty in a fix rather than the crass opportunism that Vidocq and his mouchards exploited to such success. It was not in his training or his nature to throw anyone to the cops with a light heart.
He was now alone in the cell, which gave him the opportunity to examine it more closely. Stone flags on the floor, stone walls, heavy wooden door with a barred opening. A bucket in the corner in case of need was the only furniture the cell contained. This was merely the first step, however. He knew that eventually, he would be taken to the prefecture depot so the nighttime drunks and whores picked up after the cafés closed would not have to dry out in the presence of a traitor. Then, he would end up at Bicêtre to await trial, after which he would return to await the departure of the next chain, or he would go to the Conciergerie to await the preparations in the place de Grève. His future was suddenly known, planned out step by step, for the first time in his life. The only way to change that future was escape, but he had never been taught how to dig. Better to die bravely in a few months than botch an escape like an incompetent coward. There would be no honour in incompetence.
He heard the officer’s footsteps before the man appeared at the door. “Your turn to sing.” Feuilly took a deep breath and followed him, calm as Babet would have liked. What is to happen is to happen, and only then will we see if it ends in the chain or the blade, he thought.
He was led upstairs to a long, narrow room with a window at the far end, containing a writing desk and a long table down the centre. He was told to sit at that long table, kept by its length from seeing just what the writing desk might contain. A couple of candles, not lamps, attempted to do something against the autumn gloom.
The inspector was looking at his livret. “Daniel Feuilly.”
“How long have you worked for Cartoux?”
The truth, he reminded himself. An honest man tells the truth. He does not know how to lie to the police. “Since January.”
“Since January,” the inspector repeated thoughtfully. “And what is it you do for him?”
“I’m a colourist. And if the Palace contract goes through, I may become an illuminator.”
“What the hell does that mean?” the inspector asked contemptuously.
“I paint the fans,” Feuilly explained. “That’s all.”
“Ever work with a knife?”
“We took one off you.”
“Would you walk around St Antoine unarmed?” He immediately regretted the sarcasm - it would not help his cause.
“A friend of yours got you the job, I suppose.”
“No, monsieur. I answered an advertisement in the Gazette de France.”
He received a slap across the face for his polite honesty. “Liar. The Gazette de France, indeed. How long have you known Gustave Aleçon?”
Feuilly wanted to rub his sore cheek but was careful to keep his hands folded and let only a small wince show the sting. “I met him when I started work. I’ve barely spoken to the man. I work with the women.”
“But you work with him now.”
“I work with the women,” Feuilly repeated. “We are all in the same room, yes. But Aleçon and Laforêt are inlayers. They do the carving at the other end of a rather long room, as you’ve seen. We’ve barely spoken in nine months. I work with the women. M. Cartoux will tell you. Aleçon himself will tell you if he recovers his wits.”
“Can you read and write?”
“Yes, monsieur!” Feuilly was unconsciously defensive, which seemed to please the inspector, who brought paper and a writing stand from the desk at the other end of the room.
“Written statement. Take it down. ‘I, Daniel Feuilly, do swear that I seek to send Charles X, the rightful and glorious King of France, back to exile or hell.’”
“But I don’t, monsieur,” Feuilly dared to say. To write it would certainly be to lose his head for treason, and he would much prefer to lose his head for the murder he did commit than for an act he had never contemplated until arrested for it.
His denial earned him another slap. “Take it down,” the inspector ordered. He repeated the sentence. Feuilly complied, thinking it easier than continued resistance, but he inserted a negative so that the paper in its current form would not become evidence against him. The inspector took the paper to the desk at the other end of the room and compared it to something Feuilly could not see. It was evidently not to his liking because he crumpled the paper in his hand and threw it to the floor in disgust.
“You paint the fans,” he started up again.
“What is this Palace contract that would get you a promotion? It is a promotion, isn’t it?”
“M. Cartoux asked me to come up with a design for a fan that would celebrate the coronation. He submitted a mock-up to the Palace and is hoping to get a contract that would provide fans of that design to all the women attending the coronation. If he doesn’t get a reply, he may just start making them on spec and selling them to the shops that he usually supplies around town.”
“You did the design.”
“The whole thing?”
“The front and back leaves, yes.”
“What about the wooden part?”
“I don’t know what monture M. Cartoux used. I just worked on the leaves.”
“In plain language?”
“I drew the design on the silk with pen and ink and used watercolours to fill it in. The wooden parts are made elsewhere - we get them in by the box - and we just decorate them. Because no one is making montures with plain sticks - the silk is glued to the sticks - M. Cartoux selected the style he wanted and asked Aleçon to cut it down so the silk would glue flat. After I gave M. Cartoux the leaves - the silk parts - I never saw what happened.”
“But you made the design.”
“I know you hang about the Polish exiles,” he accused Feuilly in an about-face that left Feuilly very confused. What did the Poles have to do with fans or the workshop? Aleçon did not hang about the Poles.
“Yes, monsieur.” To justify himself as an innocent man, he added, “The pretty girl I work with is Polish. Her father’s good opinion of me is of great importance.” He did not mention that Sophie had been involved in the design assignment as well. It was perhaps too late, the inspector may have already spoken to the women, but Feuilly knew he had to protect her in any way he could.
“You haven’t been called in over a love affair,” the inspector snapped. He repeated warningly, “I know you hang about the Poles. Also, your papers are not in order.”
Feuilly gripped the chair and willed himself not to shake. Or would an innocent man shake? Perhaps he was too cool to be an innocent man. No, the only thing to do when sick is to make Babet proud. “Monsieur?” he asked as calmly as he could manage.
“You say you’ve worked for Cartoux since January. Why has he not signed your livret?”
Because I did not acquire the papers until spring, Feuilly wanted to snap, just to have the whole thing done with. “He never asked for my papers,” he replied instead, a much more mild statement that was also true.
“By law, your papers must be presented to all employers.” Feuilly said nothing, just looked at the table rather than risk meeting the inspector’s gaze. “Very well. You’ll spend the night while we look into this.”
“I have not completed my investigation.”
It was raining harder, and gloom had processed to darkness, when he and Laforêt were bound, put into a closed carriage, and taken to the prefecture depot, where they were unceremoniously pushed into a cell with several other men - but not Aleçon or Cartoux - to await the outcome of that investigation.
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