Corner of the Sky
Feuilly awoke a little before noon to find that the sun had finally decided to make an appearance, sending bright yellow beams across the bare wooden floor of his garret. He carefully broke the ice in his pitcher and washed his face in the frigid water, unwilling to ask his neighbour for even the momentary use of the small stove that ostensibly provided heat to both rooms. His bed was against the warm wall, delegating the table, and therefore the pitcher, to the cold wall, where it was always just cold enough to put a cap of ice around the mouth.
When Babet entered without knocking, as was his custom, he found Feuilly sitting in his one chair, at the window, with a book open on his lap. “Reading again?”
Feuilly looked up. “Yes. Most people knock.”
“I’m not most people. Here.” He tossed something dark and soft at Feuilly, which proved to be a cloth cap. “Can’t have you catching cold on us.”
“Did you bring my tools?” Feuilly carefully marked his place with a scrap of paper and set the book gently on the table, which wobbled under the change in weight.
“Of course.” He pulled a packet, wrapped in rags, from his pocket. “Just as you left them.”
“And I’ve a place to practise?”
“There’s a gate to the Luxembourg that looks similar. Brujon can provide cover from one side; you and me pretend to be having a conversation. No worries.”
“No worries. He’s waiting now, I suppose?”
“Of course.” Feuilly pulled on his cap and followed Babet out of the building. “Reading again. I should think you would have learned by now that there’s no point in anything but newspapers.”
“I’ll read what I please. You’re hardly one to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do.”
“I think I’ve proved I know what’s better for you, since I would never have told you to go work in that hellhole. Lesage mill, indeed.”
“It’s honest work. It’ll end up killing me, but it’s honest work.”
“There is nothing honest about a mill.”
“Oh, and there is in breaking into houses, I suppose.”
“It’s no worse, and it put food in your stomach for a lot longer that that damned mill did, so don’t turn all high and mighty on me.”
“Shove it. You’re starting to sound like a father.”
“You wouldn’t know what a father sounds like.”
“It sounds like you, right now. Don’t tell me you discovered emotions in the past two years.”
“Can’t afford them, and you can’t, either, so I don’t know why you persist in them.”
“Did you ever consider they may be born in some people, like blue eyes or freckles?”
“Don’t be an idiot. Either you can afford them or you can’t, and you give up what you can’t afford.”
“Well, I don’t particularly want to give them up, and so I’ll continue to focus them on Parnasse, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Do what you like, since you never listen to me anyway.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Yes, you’re here, and it’s a good thing, too. I wasn’t sure how we were going to do this without you.”
“I hate it when you lie to me, Babet. This job isn’t as easy as you’re trying to make it out to be.“
“It’s easier than the last one.”
“Anything is easier than the last one. You fucking gave me scars during that one.”
“I never said you had to go over the wall.”
“You would have killed me if I’d left the goods, and they weren’t going through the locked gate.”
“It’s still not my fault you cut yourself.”
Feuilly pulled his hands out of his pocket and pointed to the slice across his right palm that cut across all the natural lines. “This is your fault, and we’re all damned lucky no one was caught. And I’m damned lucky I didn’t have all my weight on this hand, otherwise it might be useless!”
“Have your fit if you must.” Babet was bored already.
“Fuck you. I don’t even know why I’m doing this.”
“Because you happen to like your candles and your books. Don’t call me greedy - I’m not the one who has to have his wax candles.”
“I have never needed wax candles.”
“No, you just don’t like to live without them. That is greed. And I’m making sure you can have them, so don’t complain about the means. They’re all you can afford.”
“I told you I’d do it, all right?”
“All right.” The rest of the cold walk was conducted in silence. Babet handed Feuilly his tools only when they reached the gate on which he could practise.
“Brujon. Fine day, ain’t it?”
“You showed up.”
“Sometimes a man gets sick of having his friends buy him the only drinks he’s had in years. I have my pride.” He carefully unwrapped the thin pieces of steel and took a deep breath as he took them in hand. “Well, we’ll see if I’ve been ruined by respectability. Keep talking, if we’re attempting any sort of cover at all.” He bent to take a look at the lock, feeling the keyhole carefully.
“I caught him reading again,” Babet told Brujon.
“Since when is that new. Have you nothing better to tell him?” Feuilly carefully inserted first one, then the other of his tools and slowly started to move the latch mechanism back and forth, testing the resistance and sound.
“What were you reading that was so thick?”
“Montesquieu. Persian Letters. Getting an education is not a terrible thing, I’ll have you know.”
“It’s a waste of time when this is all you do with it.”
“It won’t be all I do with it.” Suddenly the gate moved in Brujon’s direction. “Well, it appears certain things are not so easily forgotten. Monday night, you said?”
“Right, that’s tomorrow night. We’ll meet you.”
Feuilly nodded. “I’m not going to work tomorrow, then. You win. A man cannot live on bread alone, and I’m sick of trying. But I will die rather than do a stint in jail, is that clear? If I don’t like the look of things, I’m out of there.”
Feuilly carefully wrapped his tools back in their rags. “I will see you gentlemen tomorrow night, then. Not before. I have other things to do.” He slipped the packet into his pocket and walked away quickly. Neither man bothered to follow.
He soon found himself walking along the river, in the shadow of Notre Dame. He stopped to look up at the towers, brilliant white in the sunlight. Why was it in the power of some men to create such beauty? he asked himself. Why was it not in his power? Some men had made their living designing those brilliant towers. Others had earned their way carving the gargoyles and reliefs, and still others supported themselves in the glassworks that provided the huge windows. So much money. So much work. To hell with serving God: those men had served themselves better than he ever could.
It was late enough that the morning services had ended, but the evening services would not yet begin. Feuilly crossed to the Ile de la Cité, and at a wooden door reached by walking between the perfect arcs of the flying buttresses, he knocked and waited. The aged bellringer let him climb to the top of the north tower for the princely sum of three sous.
The wind was worse here, but Feuilly felt as if he could breathe. The freedom he felt was worth any price. He crammed his cap into his pocket and let the bitter wind rush through his hair. It was a clean wind this high, and Paris lay below him, crowded in winter smoke. In the distance, the hill of Montmartre rose above the city. Feuilly found himself looking down into the courtyard of the Louvre, wondering what could be so remarkable about that palace. Things, that was all it was. It was composed of things, shiny things, old things, things someone had decided were rare and should be expensive. Things the likes of which he would never see. If he were a good boy, he would never see them, that is. If he stuck with Babet, he would see many things, hold many expensive things, maybe even keep some of those shiny things. But it wasn’t enough.
He turned and looked over towards the Place des Vosges, where he believed the planned robbery would take place. It was quiet and settled and clean, and in the summer, it was green and shady. They had once staked out a house there, but determined the time was not right. Feuilly still remembered looking into the dining room and seeing the chandelier catch the thin moonlight. Living at night, he had developed an obsession with light, watching the strange forms it took. That chandelier could never be as beautiful fully lit as it had been to him in the moonlight that night.
He closed his eyes and in his mind, sketched the pattern the light had made through the crystals. In the absence of paper, he found himself stroking the stones that formed the sort of window through which he had been watching Paris. It was enough. It was time to take his chance and do what he must.
The promise was not to Babet, but to himself. A man who can read Montesquieu is worth more than ten francs a week in a mill, he told himself. Though he was far more proud of the two volumes he had been able to purchase, each book he found, regardless of the source, was another step to him. And the opportunity to raid a library was more than he was willing to give up. Pride, yes, but pride took many forms. And if he had to steal in order to satiate his thirst for education, then he was determined to pay the price. He could always be proud of his knowledge, and even the circumstances from which it had been gleaned.
“I do what I must, do you hear me?” Feuilly was not certain if he sought the absolution of God or of Paris. “I do what I must.”
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