Corner of the Sky

Part 26

The bruise on Laforêt’s cheek had darkened, visible even beneath his ten-day growth of beard. Feuilly’s was on his forehead, a dark and still sore horizontal line where he had managed only to save his nose from contact with the edge of the table. The prefect of the Orne had still not replied to the inspector’s request, and his frustration at having no further evidence had translated into their continued incarceration at the depot, where no one had ever spent more than a couple of days, the friendly guard said.

“I don’t know what you two did, but Christ, anyone with sense would have moved you over to La Force by now.”

But Feuilly was glad they had not been moved to La Force. The interrogations had become a daily grind, but the inspector was more likely to leave them to rot, or to be roughed up by informants, in the poorly policed yard at the main prison. Here in the depot, people came and went, no one staying long enough to become a pigeon. The longer they stayed in the depot, the more likely it seemed to Feuilly that they could both somehow get out of this mess. Sitting around in the depot was not exactly a spell in prison, after all. Prison would have had more comforts, such as a longer list of privileges for purchase and the possibility of frequent visitors, but one could always shuffle off a few days at the depot as a mistake. A spell at La Force would condemn them forever. And in the depot, one could hear the thin bells of Notre Dame tolling the hours.

After the first week, without any word from the Orne, the inspector had begun to take his frustration out on his suspects. Feuilly rather thought he had switched to haranguing his prisoners instead of interrogating them, as if one of them might be annoyed into spitting out the truth. Indeed, between the shouts, the slaps, the painful twists of the hair, Feuilly almost wanted to laugh. Here he was, an actual criminal, and the police wanted him to tell them he was someone else. The inspector insisted on eliciting the names of his parents, probably in order to connect them to Cartoux or Aleçon. He did not even harp on the forged papers - if anything, he treated the papers as if they were real, as if there were a Daniel Feuilly, fanmaker from Aubusson, out there somewhere who had been bought off or defrauded or even murdered. Feuilly had paid for the best forgeries possible when he realised he was going to need identity papers, and somehow the expense was both in his favour and contrary to his interests. If he managed to get out of this mess, he was starting to realise, then the papers themselves were still good, because he would have escaped precisely because he was Daniel Feuilly, fanmaker from the Orne, son of Mireille, father unknown. If he did not make it out, it would be because he had defrauded, paid off, or killed Daniel Feuilly, fanmaker from the Orne. His greatest fear was that the prefect would write back to say that there was no possible way the papers could be real, but the town hall in Aubusson had burned back in 1817, and Feuilly had been careful to ask that there be as much truth in the documents as possible. He did not want to have to remember too many lies.

Thus, when the inspector hammered at him to describe where he was from, he answered, “I don’t know. We came to Paris when I was too young to remember anything else.” Mireille was his mother, a woman who did the best she could, who never admitted that he was the son of a customer but who never denied it, either, who after years of doing the best she could, finally died of consumption at the beginning of the year. Every truthful answer supported the documents - the forger had even managed to add an indecipherable signature that supposedly came from the Lesage chemical mill, though he had advised against back-dated connections. Feuilly had insisted that everything go in, and now everything in the papers supported his story. Everything holding together annoyed the inspector to no end, thus the day he finally grabbed Feuilly’s hair and tried to slam his face into the table in order to change the story.

When the inspector got bored, or when he thought a change in tactics appropriate, he started quizzing Feuilly on his education. This usually ended in the inspector being more pissed off but less violent, as his own education had wide gaps and he needed to concentrate in order to catch his suspect out. Feuilly easily bested him in neoclassical theatre, geometry, and various elements of European history, though he did not know his kings of France, his popes, or anything out of Homer’s Odyssey - indeed, he earned himself a slap for admitting he did not know there was a full sequel to the Iliad. But that was a rare slap, the violence usually reserved for when he stuck to something of his own history the inspector did not want to believe.

Sometimes, Feuilly would be taken to the interrogation room and left for hours, and the inspector would finally come in, breathless from his rush, and start quietly threatening to hand him over to the Russian legation. These threats were more tiring than anything because all he had ever done against Russia was listen to the plotting of a bunch of men who were in no position to put their plots into action. If anything were to be done against the Russian overseers, it would have to come out of Warsaw, and the exiles here could make all the plans they wanted without causing a bit of trouble for the tsar in St Petersburg. If anything, it was amusing to hear the inspector attempt to threaten Pan Chrzyszczewski because he had to read the name off his pad and stumble over it every time. The tsar had survived the Imperial invasion because he had winter on his side, or so Feuilly had been told by the Poles, not because he commanded great armies that could possibly compare to the French on the march. France had to kowtow to him only because of that winter, not because she had been fairly beaten as she had by the English in the west. The English had only succeeded because of the predations of that Russian winter, in any case. If France had to bow to any foreign power, it was to the English, who deserved some consideration as opponents and who had looked after the royal family in their days of exile, not to the Russians, who could do nothing competently within their own borders, much less outside them. Feuilly’s greatest memories of the Russian occupation of Paris were the Cossacks in their grey tunics and long beards beating the poor privates who did not obey quickly enough. It was not as if the Russians had sacked the capital, after all, being too much in awe of it to bring it down. They had walked in after the surrender, set up camp in the parks and the Champ de Mars, and the officers spent their days beating their men, their evenings drinking in the cafés and visiting the brothels. One of the boys swore that he had seen the Cossacks dump salt into their brandy before drinking it, but would even a barbarian desecrate good liquor like that? That detail remained rumour, not fact.

But after a week and a half of gloomy prognostication of what the Russians would do to him, a sense of dungeons frozen nine months of the year seeped under his skin, the depot damp and chill enough at times as October hurried on toward November. He had no contact with that part of his outside world; what if Pan Chrzyszczewski had been arrested and turned over to the Russians? Feuilly would hardly be in any position to rescue Sophie after such a tragedy; indeed, the entire set, from Prince Massalski to the denizens of the cheap café, would all be handed over, to be carted across Europe and thrown into those frozen dungeons, if the frozen dungeons even existed. Feuilly mostly doubted the frozen dungeons guarded by Cossacks who could cut off your head with one blow of their curved Turkish swords, but he could not, with any authority, state that they were categorically false. He had looked at maps and knew that there were parts of Russia even further north than Poland, and if the Poland of his imagination was half the year covered in beautiful white drifts of snow, then perhaps nearly eight months frozen could be true, nine being a minor exaggeration. The inspector would only know what the Russian legation had told him, after all. If he had ever met the Russian legation and was not inventing the entire threat in the belief that Feuilly, having admitted to affections for Sophie, might sacrifice himself rather than sentence her father to freeze to death.

Feuilly spent most of his time trying to figure out just what the inspector wanted. There was nothing else to do in the depot except to chat with Laforêt. The longer they were kept there, unshaved, unwashed, their clothes wrinkled from where they slept on the floor, the more the varied characters who came through avoided them. The corner they kept to themselves might as well have been a private cell after a week. So Feuilly spent his time in mental labour, using all the knowledge at his command to construct logical plots and knock them down again. Certain that the inspector considered Laforêt his key witness against the conspiracy he must be chasing, Feuilly instructed his friend to answer all the questions asked, to worry about saving himself. “He’ll ask you everything I’ve ever said to you, and don’t worry about me. You can tell him everything. But don’t agree to any more lies, understand? The truth is the only thing that will get us out of here, free and clear. If you agree to anything false, it’ll be on your head.” Which was something of a cruel threat, really, but he continued to swap stories with Laforêt in large part so there would be something to tell the inspector. He kept most of his musings to himself, not wanting too much knowledge to get back to suspicious quarters.

There were dungeons below where Aleçon, if he were still acting crazy, might be held, Feuilly knew, and private rooms above, though Cartoux must have been cut loose or moved to better private rooms at La Force by now, he told himself. Was Aleçon being watched or had he succeeded in killing himself? Was he tied to a bed in the infirmary at La Force, where he probably belonged? Had it all been a feint and he had at last confessed it all and now sat in solitary at La Force, since an admitted traitor would probably not be permitted to mingle with the other prisoners?

Montparnasse came again, bringing fifteen francs with his poor acting and foul mouth. “What the fuck are they doing to you? Don’t they got a barber in here?”

“No, because I shouldn’t still be here.” He hugged the boy tightly. “Does anyone know anything?”

“Sit tight, that’s all.”

“College isn’t any fun, I’ll have you know. I sit around all day and swap stories with a chap who ran out of good ones a week ago. Or else I answer questions, and if the copper doesn’t like my answers, he does this to me.” He pointed out the bruise on his forehead.

“You ain’t even been in a fight?”

“The table wanted my nose - I think I won.”

Parnasse rolled his eyes. “I think you ain’t doing it proper.”

“I’d rather stay here than be in La Force. I just have to ride the situation until it throws me off, you know? I hope it won’t be too much longer.” Parnasse may not have cared, but Feuilly needed him to cling to just this once. He was not acting for the benefit of the guard but for his own peace of mind. To say it properly to someone who was not stuck behind the iron grating was comforting, just as curling up next to Laforêt in the night was comforting. In different circumstances, Feuilly would have insisted on his independence, his ability to get through anything without anyone. But a warm body made the cold stone floor more tolerable, and an audience made assertions of hope sound reasonable. Parnasse did manage his acting a little better this time, returning Feuilly’s embrace as if he actually enjoyed it. Feuilly clung to him a moment, stroking his long hair. But he knew it had no real meaning, and he forced himself to release the boy. Bending down so they were face to face, he told him, “Tell His Holiness I’m holding on.”

When Parnasse left, looking relieved to be on his way, Feuilly turned to the guard. “Now. Seriously. You really mean you can’t get a barber in here?”

“Under orders. You might overpower him and take the razor.”

“And do what with it? You let me have a spoon, and I could probably turn that into a damned knife if I really wanted to end up dead. Ten francs. You have all of it if my friend and I can get a shave. To look at us, you’d think we were fucking animals.”

“If they’d just send you two over to La Force . . .”

“Is that ever going to happen?” Feuilly sighed and gave the man a franc. “Two bottles of wine, and you know, I could do things with the bottles, too.”

“Ten francs?”

“We’re probably still here because we look more guilty by the day,” Feuilly argued.

When the guard returned with the wine, he said, “I’ll see what I can do.”

“What he can do?” Laforêt asked.

Feuilly handed him one of the bottles. “I’m trying to bribe him to get a barber in here.”

“You are a goddamned prince. How much longer do you think we’ll be here?”

“We should have been transferred to La Force a week ago,” Feuilly admitted. The letter should have been answered a week ago. Were they being kept at the depot until the letter was answered? What if the letter was lost? Surely another letter had been sent - were they now waiting on the reply to the second letter?

Two days later, at midnight, Feuilly was awakened by the friendly guard, who should have been off duty. “One at a time, in the office, and be quiet about it. Where’s the money?” It wasn’t much of a bribe compared to what the men upstairs could do, but then, Feuilly reminded himself, this poor sap was stuck down here with the men who couldn’t pay. The depot wasn’t like La Force - people were usually gone within a day and willing to do without certain comforts because they would be moving on soon enough. He was probably doing better out of Feuilly than he had the entire year.

The barber looked more to be someone’s apprentice, but he had a razor and a mug. The razor wasn’t as sharp as it should have been, and there was no mirror so Feuilly had no idea how raw his face must have looked afterwards, but it was a relief to be rid of the itchy beard and the certainty that he looked like he belonged in prison. Laforêt ended up with nick in his chin, but when he was brought back to the cell, he looked far less frightened than he had the entire time they’d been stuck there.

The inspector was less enthused by what Feuilly’s bribe had bought them. He hit first and only then asked, “What in the hell do you think you’re doing?” Feuilly stayed silent rather than risk a sarcastic comeback. “I didn’t think I needed to stay warm since the Russians don’t seem to be coming for me any time soon” was probably going to result in a broken nose. The questioning followed the ordinary lines, however, leaving Feuilly more certain than ever that they were merely marking time until the letter arrived from the Orne.

Laforêt’s interrogation immediately followed Feuilly’s. Sometimes they were taken out together and put in separate rooms; sometimes the inspector cared only about Feuilly. But this time, Feuilly was taken first, then Laforêt was brought out as Feuilly was returned to the holding cell. The interrogation did not last long, but Laforêt returned with a red mark on his jaw.

“You did an end run around him, didn’t you?” he asked.

“I guess we were supposed to look like animals and have everyone afraid of us.” Indeed, even if their clothes were wrinkled, the other inhabitants of the cell avoided them less in next few days. They had been stuck in the depot for two full weeks, when a letter to the Orne should have taken a couple of days to get there and a couple of days to come back. Three at the most if the weather was terrible. There could have been several exchanges of letters by now - why was the prefect not responding to a treason inquiry? Moreover, the next several days were even more miserable as they were forced onto rations, having spent the week’s donation almost all at once.

“All right, you bastard,” the inspector finally came out with a few days later. “Who the fuck do you know in Alençon?”

“What?” Feuilly was completely confused. Aleçon was a guilty head trip who ought to be in the dungeons.

“You’re not from Aubusson. I will swear on the Bible you are not from Aubusson. Someone in Alençon is keeping my letter from being answered, and I think you know something about it.”

It took a moment for Feuilly to realise what was being said because of the unfortunate coincidence between the guilty man’s name and the capital of the Orne. But at last, a piece of actual information. The inspector was awaiting a reply, and one was not coming. Something was keeping the prefect from answering the letter, supposing the prefect got the letter. “Maybe the mail lost it?” he dared ask, as innocently as he could manage.

He got a slap for his audacity. “Who do you know in Alençon?”

“No one. I swear!” The inspector seemed to realise he had let something slip, and the look on his face caused Feuilly to brace himself for another blow. But the blow never came.

“We’ll see how the Normans handle a real investigation,” he threatened.

But Feuilly was sent back to the holding cell. If anything, he felt rather cheerful. As he told Laforêt, “I think he’s taking a trip to check everything out himself. Three days holiday, at least.”

They had four days of utter boredom, in which their bruises were permitted to heal and their stomachs to remind them they should not have wasted so much on their self-esteem. Feuilly did have to threaten a gentleman who decided to take their closeness as a suggestion that they were nancies willing to help him out for free, but that was the one bit of entertainment they had all week.

“They get picked up for soliciting,” Feuilly explained to Laforêt, his knowledge gleaned from how Babet considered them easy profits. “The coppers don’t care who’s a whore and who’s a customer; they just bring everyone in and let the judge sort it out. And he can suck his own fucking cock,” he added, making a rude gesture at the lecherous gentleman. Not that he introduced any distance between himself and Laforêt - they had to protect themselves and their territory. It wasn’t worth losing the corner to one nance. At least that might be turned into the story of a fight for Parnasse’s benefit, Feuilly thought.

But on the evening of the fourth day of their holiday from the inspector, the guard motioned to Feuilly. “It’s your lucky day, boy.”

“What the hell could you possibly mean by that?”

“I was told to cut you both loose.”

“So we can get picked up for escaping?”

The guard shrugged. “Not my problem, is it?”

Feuilly beckoned to Laforêt. “He says we’re out.”

“What? Can’t be true.”

“See? He doesn’t even believe it,” Feuilly insisted.

The guard unlocked the cell. “Believe it, don’t believe it, I don’t care. But you can’t stay in there.”

Feuilly and Laforêt exchanged glances. With a shrug, Feuilly pushed past the guard. “Do I get my knife back?”

“They’ve got your papers and anything they took off you at the office.”

A functionary handed over the papers, but Feuilly’s knife had somehow disappeared. But soon enough, they were standing in the dark streets, slick with drizzle they had not even known was falling.

“What do we do now?” Laforêt asked.

“I doubt it’s a trick since we had to sign for our papers. Go home, I guess?” Feuilly thought he caught sight of a man in shadow and groaned inwardly. Claquesous was either keeping watch or had got word of his release. But when he looked back, the shadow was gone, and it was impossible to tell which direction it had taken. Perhaps there had been no shadow at all, no one come to meet him. He was going to have to work off this loan, but it seemed possible that he just might be permitted to have a night to himself, assuming no one came to his lodgings. “Go home,” he told Laforêt. “Take care of yourself. Keep your nose clean.”

“You sound like I’m not going to see you again.”

“Do what you have to do. But I suppose, if this mess hasn’t blown everything up, I can be found drinking with the Poles at Didier’s. If I don’t see you again, good luck.” They shook hands, Laforêt looking utterly confused in the flickering light of the street lamp. Feuilly slipped off into the dark.

He knew he ought to go find Babet, to thank him for the loan and ask how he wanted it paid off. But he could always say he had never seen Claquesous. Claquesous, if it were Claquesous, had not made it easy to follow him. Babet knew Feuilly hated the dens of the Cité slums; even if they were in convenient proximity to the prefecture of police, he would never ask Feuilly to a rendez-vous in any of those holes. And it may have been no one at all. On the pretext, if he ran into anyone, of having to look out the lay of the land, he went home.

The concierge was not at all happy to see him. “There you are! Police everywhere! I run a clean house, as I told you when you moved in. You’ll be leaving tonight, I hope?”

“Please, Mme Ladot, let me have one night. One night. I’ll clear out in the morning.”

She opened the door a little further and shook her head but beckoned him in anyway. “I run a clean house.”

“I know. I promise I’ll leave in the morning.” He had rather expected it; Laforêt was going to have an unwelcome surprise when he returned to wherever it was he lodged. There was no point in being anything other than reasonable; to be angry would only lead to his immediate eviction, and he had no desire to spend his first night free in a flop house.

“What did they do to you?” Mme Ladot asked, handing him a lit candle so he did not have to navigate the narrow stairs in the dark.

He assumed she had seen the bruise on his forehead. “The truth wasn’t very much to the inspector’s taste, that’s all.”

“The things they do to innocent people.” He almost wanted to laugh - she was evicting him because the police had searched his room, but she felt sorry for him because he was innocent. Because if he were guilty, he would not have turned up tonight.

A look at his room, however, sent away all laughter. The police had slit open his mattress in their search, and straw was strewn about the room, covering the books they had thrown every which way. They had not returned the novel or Pan Chrzyszczewski’s pamphlet, but at least the art book was still intact, lying face down, a couple crumpled pages the only damage. The canvas sack lay in the middle of the floor, blood stains immediately visible, but perhaps they had taken them for mud instead.

“Mme Ladot?” he called down from the first landing.

“What do you want now?”

“Could I borrow a broom?”

“What do you need a broom for?” She pulled herself up the four flights of stairs and shook her head at the sight that greeted her, appalled at the carnage. “That mattress was mine.”

“And I’ll pay you for it as soon as I can.” He felt awful that she had been dragged into the whole thing - police in her house, police tearing up her furniture, a reputation now in the neighbourhood, all because of someone else’s ridiculous petty trick.

He swept up the straw and tried to stuff it back through the slit they had cut. The result was lumpy, and his sewing skills were poor enough in the dim light that his attempt at repair did not even keep the straw from poking back out. But it was the best he could do at putting back what had been destroyed on his account. It was nearly closing time by then, he realised from the sounds in the street below his window. He dug into the little hole he had managed to hollow out in the corner behind the door. The police had not found it. His savings, all eight francs, were still intact. Pocketing them, he hurried down the stairs.


“What now?” she asked, taking the broom.

“Might I borrow a bucket? To try to catch one of the water sellers at the end of his round.”

“Water at this time of night,” she muttered, but she gave him what he asked.

Feuilly had to walk up and down and nearly thought about going to one of the pumps, though it would be so very far to come back, when at last he found a man who would come most of the way with him and sell him a bucketful, though he would have to carry it from the corner and up the stairs himself. He had been resigned to that from the beginning, however, and agreed, though the price of three sous was high even at that time of night.

Alone in his room, in the light of a candle across the street, he stripped off his clothes and attempted to wash off the dank feel of the prison. He rarely bought a full bucket of water, using only a pitcher for the usual daily ablutions of face and hands and groin, but tonight, he scrubbed himself from head to toe, even washing his hair, desperate that soap succeed where imagination failed. But huddled in his lumpy bed, he felt not newly born but stripped raw, as the prostitute must when washing away the predations of her trade each night. The scent of soap had just as much shame as the stink of the prison cell.


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