Corner of the Sky
Feuilly woke early the next morning, his back still stiff from so many nights on the hard stone floors of the police depot, and rolled over, staring at the stained ceiling in the grey dawn light. He had promised to leave, and he would leave. He had less than eight francs, owed Babet thirty-five, and needed to find a new room. The books, and his Sunday clothes, might together get him another twenty, perhaps even thirty if he let the art book go, too. But he would have to pay half a quarter’s rent out of whatever sum he could scrape together, or at least the six francs for a month in a dormitory bed, an intolerable descent. Even when he worked at the mill, he had managed to get himself a room as soon as possible, no public dormitories for him. There was no choice but to work off his loan from Babet.
Yet with all his possessions carefully folded and stowed in the rough canvas bag, he wandered not to the Temple, but to the workshop. It was the habit of the morning, even with his life weighing heavily on his back. As he climbed the stairs, telling himself he was a fool to have come looking for anyone, he heard the murmur of voices, which stopped as he approached the final turn. Coming around the corner, he at first saw shadows at the top landing, dimly lit by a very filthy window. But soon enough, he was lost in the gasps and grins of relief. Mme Pinon and Sophie had been sitting on the landing, and Feuilly was grateful not only for the mere sight of them but even more for the fact that Sophie immediately reached for his hand.
“God be praised,” Mme Pinon said. “What news?”
“Not much. They finally let me and Laforêt out last night, but we’ve not seen M. Cartoux since we were all arrested. It was Aleçon. That’s all I know. What are you doing here?”
“Trying to find out what happened to everyone,” she told him. “Where else are we going to get any sort of answers?”
“I have not yet found a new job,” Sophie explained, still clutching his hand. “We meet here in the morning. Perhaps, if he can, M. Cartoux will come back. You are here, too. We all want to know if we can get our last wages, I think.”
“I think we could all do with it.” Feuilly slipped the bag off his shoulder, letting it drop to the step with a heavy thud, before sitting down with the women. “I am so glad to see you both.”
“What’s in the bag?”
“I got evicted because the police searched my room.” The truth slipped out more easily than he might have expected, perhaps because Sophie knew he had been arrested and held his hand anyway. The strange events of the past two weeks had not set him apart from her after all. “How much trouble did they put you through?”
“Not much,” Mme Pinon said. “They just asked us questions about all of you. We were home in time for dinner.”
“Did they come for your father?” he asked Sophie.
“No. Perhaps they saw him at the café? They did not take him away, but he would not tell me if they did talk to him.”
Feuilly let out a sigh of relief. In response to Sophie’s curious look, he told her, “The inspector did not like the truth, so he kept threatening to hand me over to the Russians.”
“The Russians,” she spit out. “If your people still bowed to the Russians, we would not be here. Why should they want you if they do not want my father?”
“That is what I thought. But how was I to know your father was not picked up? When the police first came, I thought it was all about him.”
“So did I. What did M. Aleçon do that the police must scare us all like this?”
“A petty nasty joke, as far as I can tell. The inspector was comparing handwriting and asking me if I ever worked with a knife, so Aleçon must have done something to the montures of the mock-ups we sent to the palace.”
“What a child,” Mme Pinon muttered.
“He’ll pay for it however the government decide. At least Laforêt and I are finally clear, since the police couldn’t connect us to something we knew nothing about. But I don’t know where they took M. Cartoux. We were kept in the main holding cell at the depot attached to the prefecture, but he could probably pay for accommodations.”
Heavy footsteps on the stairs quieted them all, as if somehow their silence would make the entire situation less embarrassing should their boss find them all waiting for him in the stairwell. It was not Cartoux at all, however, but Laforêt. He greeted Feuilly with a quick handshake. “Glad to see the girls made it out. No sign of the boss?”
“We have come every morning, and he has not come,” Sophie told him.
“Maybe they cut him loose last night with the rest of us. He has to come to clear the place out, right?”
“And if he does, do you think he’s going to have cash on hand to pay four salaries?” Feuilly asked.
“I could use the pay, and no mistake, but I also want to know how I’m supposed to account for three years of work, what with the way it’s all ended. And I thought better to come here first, instead of straight to the cafés, in case there’s something he wants to say.” He dropped the sack he was carrying next to Feuilly’s. “How long do we wait?”
“When the church tolls noon,” Mme Pinon explained. “Then we go looking for work.”
“No luck yet, I take it.”
“None for me. Sophie’s had some luck.”
But Sophie reddened. “I do not call it luck. I went to see about a position, but the man wanted me to model rather than paint. When I told him that I was not that sort of girl, he offered me four francs a day. As if more money could make me that sort of girl!”
“At least you still live at home, had two incomes. Feuilly and I are out on the streets, about to beg for our bread.”
Feuilly pulled a face, stopping himself from admitting that he already had a line on a position. A line he disliked for a position he reviled, but a possible income regardless. He turned back to Sophie instead. “An insult, that beauty should be put before talent.”
“You notice it’s the pretty people who have the talent,” Laforêt said to Mme Pinon, then grinned and dodged when Feuilly tried to jokingly punch him.
“You should go to him this afternoon,” Sophie insisted. “Then we may at least see if there ever was work.”
Feuilly liked sitting on the stairs, chatting with everyone. It felt honest, natural, a better sort of existence that he was going to have to leave behind in a few hours. He could fall into the old patterns easily enough, he feared, but he wished he could leave them behind instead. Indeed, he was not beyond hoping that somehow Cartoux would come, able to pay them each the ten francs they were owed, and that Babet would somehow accept a mere repayment in cash of the money he had lent.
But eventually, the church bells could faintly be heard tolling a midday call to prayer. “I suppose that’s it, then.”
“Until I have something better to do,” Mme Pinon replied.
Sophie gave Feuilly the name and address of the supposed miniaturist who had advertised for an assistant. They were all about to part when heavy footsteps on the stair quieted them, the hope that Cartoux had at last come rising in Feuilly’s breast.
“What in God’s name are you all doing here?” It was indeed Cartoux, in a dismal mood. “Do you think I can pay you? Out. All of you.”
“I just need my livret signed,” Feuilly dared to tell him. “That’s all.”
“Fine. You can come in. The rest of you, I know where to find you, I think. The two of you, I definitely know how to find you.” Sophie blushed at the obvious link between her and Feuilly, but Feuilly half-smiled, rather grateful for the recognition.
Cartoux unlocked the door and ushered Feuilly over to the desk. Everything was covered in dust, it having gone untouched for more than two weeks. Finding a pen and a bottle of ink in one of the drawers, Cartoux motioned for Feuilly’s livret.
“I didn’t expect to see you here.” He kept the pen poised to sign, but addressed the papers rather than Feuilly. “I don’t know who you are or who you know, but whatever you did to get us out of there, I’m grateful for it.”
“I don’t know anyone, monsieur,” Feuilly insisted. How could he know anyone of any use?
Cartoux finally signed, filling in the relevant dates. “It wasn’t Laforêt they meant. I heard the guards. ’The boy is to be released, and all of his associates.’ One of them was not at all keen on obeying those orders.”
“It must be a mistake. I don’t know anyone.”
Cartoux dug in his pocket and pulled out a gold louis. “I’m grateful.”
Feuilly pushed it back across the table. This was hardly a time to take a bribe or reward or even just the ten francs or so that he was owed for his last week of work. “What will you do now?”
“Sell up. Retire to the country. My wife has a bit of land.” He rolled his eyes. “Can you imagine me the cultivateur?”
“Good luck to you.”
Cartoux pushed the coin back towards him. “If it hadn’t been for that idiot, your design should have made our fortunes. I don’t care what you are, really - if they hadn’t revoked my business license, I’d think I could start over with a man like you, if you wanted it.”
“I don’t deserve your money, monsieur,” Feuilly was forced to insist. “If you can pay me more than I am owed, why can you not pay the rest of them what they are owed?”
“You don’t want my last coin in the world?”
“No. It is for your family, not for misplaced gratitude. I didn’t get us out. How could I?” But it was with sadness that he watched Cartoux put the coin back into his pocket. That coin, with the sale of his worldly goods, could have enabled him to pay Babet in cash rather than in work.
“Then I guess I misheard.”
“You did, monsieur.” But he offered his hand, even though it was rather above his station to engage with a gentleman as if he were an equal. “Good luck to you.”
Still, Cartoux took it with force, not with distaste or mere politeness. “And to you.”
What could Cartoux have meant? Feuilly asked himself as he descended to the street. The boy and his associates. If it were a mistake, then why were their papers ready to be picked up? If it were a coincidence, then Cartoux had been taken over to La Force; it could be no coincidence if he had still been at the depot.
But he had little time to contemplate just why anyone would have ordered him released - Laforêt was waiting for him in the street outside. “I had a question.”
“There’s no money for anyone,” Feuilly lied.
“That’s not it. I was wondering, well, since you got chucked out, too, I guess, would you want to go in together? On a room, I mean. It’d be better than the dormitories.”
Feuilly’s first instinct was to tell him that it was impossible, but he soon thought better of it. If he were rooming with Laforêt, he would hardly be available at night without suspicion, but the same would be true of the dormitories. And if he kept close to Laforêt, it might be more difficult for Babet to pull him back in. The last time, Feuilly had felt himself unworthy of making acquaintances, much less friends, among honest people. The dogmatic nature of youth had told him that he would always be tarnished by his initial associations and did not deserve to tarnish honest people through intercourse with him. But he was older now, and less rash. “I’ll have to think about it. Look, give me until four o’clock. I’ve got to at least see what this lot will fetch.”
“I’ll meet you at the café Robillard.”
An attachment to Laforêt was not something Feuilly had ever sought. How could he possibly explain the night work, the strange merchandise coming in and going out, the low taverns it was professionally necessary to frequent? How could he possibly pull an honest man into any association with the criminal world he knew too well? The right thing to do, for Laforêt’s sake, was to reject the offer, though it was kindly meant, just as the right thing to do was to say goodbye forever to Sophie. The police themselves had made it impossible to take up an honest life for any length of time.
Yet to go back entirely would be to reject everything he had managed to learn in the past five years. It had been so easy, after living the poor, lonely exile he thought he deserved, to come back to friends, warmth, and a life that used his talents. He had given up nothing in coming back to Babet the first time, really. Indeed, life was much better with the attentions of what could almost be called family. Not that Laforêt could ever be considered so closely, but with Laforêt’s presence, Feuilly could never let himself go too far to permit himself near Sophie.
He cursed himself for not taking the twenty francs. It was the last gasp of the honest man, but that twenty francs, plus whatever he could manage to get for his belongings, could have permitted him to make a cash payment to Babet tonight and have the whole thing done with. Or most of the thing done with, because it would be profoundly unfair to pay only the cash and not acknowledge the difficulty Parnasse had been put through, the arrangements Hogu had made, and anything Feuilly did not yet know about what Babet had done during his imprisonment. Some favours, at the very least, were necessary. And someone had to do something about Parnasse - his terrible acting was going to get someone into real trouble someday. Was no one sneaking him into the theatres?
Bargaining at the Temple proved of little use. The books fetched ten francs, somehow, and he still held on to the art book, but his clothes were hardly worth anything. Feuilly packed them back into his bag, knowing that Babet would merely mock him for going around in a rough jacket – someone that pretty had no call to dress like he worked for a living, Babet had implied more than once. He had no choice but to go back to Babet for some period of time, so it would go better for him if he looked the part.
Ten francs - just the amount Cartoux owed everyone. Had Feuilly taken the napoleon, he would be clear of the cash debt. But Babet would not let him go so easily, Feuilly knew, and what could he do with fifty sous and no job in any case? He had to go back to Babet, so it was better that he go in comfort.
Seventeen francs could get him a room for rent and enough to live on for a few days - not a furnished room, but at least somewhere private and a couple of blankets to make sleeping on the floor a bit warmer. Laforêt’s offer had not been forgotten. To accept would be to afford a nicer room, possibly a bed, honest company; to decline would be to protect the young man from a life he assuredly could not grasp. The reality had nothing in common with Lemaître’s Macaire, which undoubtedly was contributing to a flood of idiotic apprentices who thought a life of unabashed crime vastly more fun than a life of honest labour. But in Laforêt’s presence, Feuilly could keep more closely to the right side of the law, could force himself to continue to look for honest labour, because an honest man would always be watching. It was a hard thing to ask anyone, to simply stand his ground so that a drowning man could use him as a life preserver, yet Feuilly could already see how easy it was going to be to slide away from the life he had just begun to build, to abandon the Poles and Laforêt and even the church because he was too black to deserve the consideration of honest men and honest institutions.
But the law was a farce in any case, wasn’t it? It had failed to appreciate just what it had grasped in its claws, while it rent the very charter that permitted it to continue. The law said the patriotic Poles were traitors, as their country had been torn apart by emperors who now demanded loyalty from their conquered populace. A childish joke was deemed treason and three innocent men were ruined on the altar of security. Aleçon would lose his head one day soon, the place de Grève newly awash in political blood, and strange boys would cheer, as Feuilly had done in his youth to the murderer Laumond. Would cheer merely for the sight of blood, not because a threat to the monarchy had been eliminated. Parnasse would be one of them, ignorance watching ignorance in cold blood just as Feuilly had watched Laumond’s execution. Laumond had not even been a comrade in arms, merely a petty murderer, unworthy of anyone’s attention. Aleçon’s act had been petty and childish and led to nothing but his own condemnation, but at least there had been a greater idea behind it than the covetousness in slitting a fruit-seller’s throat. The law that would treat both men in the same way for such radically different acts was, at bottom, deserving of a cry of “Down with all privilege!” But what was the use of lashing out when only the police would hear that cry?
The café Robillard had too few candles lit against the wintery gloom. “How much have you got in savings?” Feuilly asked Laforêt before he even bothered to sit down.
Laforêt did not look the least surprised at the rather personal question. “Thirteen francs, seven sous.”
“I’ve seventeen francs, plus a few sous. How long do you think it’ll take to get work?”
“I’ll have something inside a week. May not be permanent, but it’ll be a start, at least.”
“What do you think we could do with twenty francs?”
“So you do want to go in together.”
“I - christ. Let me just lay it out for you. The friend who helped us out may have work for me. But it would be at night, see? And I’d ask, I mean, I used to do this alone,” Feuilly stammered. How could he possibly explain what needed to be explained? “Quiet during the day and a decent curtain on the window and no questions is all I’m asking for. No questions,” he insisted. “Is that understood?”
Laforêt was not looking at him. He knows, Feuilly thought, christ, he knows, and it’s all over. “I owe you more than thirteen francs, seven sous.”
“We can worry about that later.”
“I owe your friend, I mean.”
“Don’t worry about that right now.”
“It’s easier on you if I say yes, isn’t it?”
“I don’t want to pull you into anything.”
Laforêt looked up at last, meeting his eyes. “I owe you. No questions. Until the beginning of the year.”
That gave six weeks, more or less, in which to get Babet off his back. “Deal.” Feuilly put down his ten francs. “You find the place.”
“There’s a place I’ve had in mind, actually, that I thought you’d want in on, but I can’t make promises about curtains.”
“What do you mean?”
“Garret but the roof doesn’t slope too much, two windows, and plenty of room for two beds and a table. It’s fifteen but unfurnished.”
“Good light?” Feuilly cursed himself for caring, but it sounded too good to be true. It had to be two rooms somehow knocked together.
“You’re not the only one who has projects. It should be.”
“How do you know about it?”
“The family who had it was moving out when I was rowing with my girl.”
“It’s probably let by now.”
“No one wanted it at the beginning of the quarter, so far as I know.”
“You’re in charge. Do what you can. I’ll meet you back here at ten tonight.”
“Where are you going?”
“Business. No questions.”
Laforêt tipped his hat. “See you at ten.”
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