Corner of the Sky
The sun was setting as Feuilly left the miniaturist’s shop. The printer had had nothing, the miniaturist had had nothing, and he had spent money today without earning a sou. The job was going to have to go off soon, within the week, if he were to relax at all. A few more days of this and he would have to get himself a shingle and set up as a public letter writer just to be able to eat. And at the moment, he had so little taste for other people’s problems that the very idea of having to take them down as dictation made his skin crawl.
He made his way back through the market, pricing out how much a chipped chamberpot and an old bucket might cost. Had he been thinking more clearly the day before, he might have just stolen the one that technically belonged to his landlady: he could have paid her for it whenever he finally could afford to pay for the mattress the police had ruined. But until the job went off, or some luck finally went his way, he was going to have to make do with the gutter and the fontaine des Innocens, from which he sipped some water as he passed by. There was no point in climbing to the fifth floor for a few minutes in the dark, so he walked up the rue St Denis instead, looking in the shop windows as the lamps were lit against the evening darkness. He went slowly, wasting his time with careful deliberation, examining the street sellers as well as the shop windows, the wagons and carriages as well as the passers-by, forcing a concentration on the visual to distract himself from the calculations - moral and monetary - he had been making all day.
He wound his way along the boulevard Poissonière to the boulevard Montmartre. The Théatre des Variétés was lit for the evening’s performances, the crowd straining to get in through the just-opened doors, the single visible poster advertising Odry and Jenny Vertprê in a farce. The nearby cafés were nearly as brightly lit as the theatre itself, showing off the various hues of the female patrons, mixed according to their virtue. Here, Feuilly felt the familiar itch, the wish he had brought his sketchbook to attempt to capture something of the scene. He had not touched pencil or brush since his arrest, and now he distinctly felt the lack. Turning down the rue Richelieu to avoid the bright and happy throngs, he ended up wandering past the Bourse, closed for the day, and only then turned his steps toward the promised meeting with Babet.
He arrived early, in the midst of the dinner hour, when the prostitutes of the neighbourhood were filling their stomachs before the long cold evening, and the few men who pretended to honesty were drowning their workday with sour wine. Viv was dropping plates on every table, stopping to inform a man that bread did not grow on trees and if he wanted more, it cost another sou. Feuilly hung back in the doorway, the smell of grease making his stomach grumble, uncertain if he should leave rather than make the mistake of being seen by others who knew him. But Viv saw him and smiled, and as soon as her hands were free, she came directly up to him.
“If it weren’t for my father, I’d pull you into the kitchen. Stay at the counter for a bit; when Père Sabret leaves, you’ll have a table to yourself.”
He could hardly tell her no, so he stood at the counter, nursing a glass of wine, until the coin forger had finished his dinner. No one bothered him, but it was not yet seven o’clock; his crowd dined late, if they dined at all, and drank until the legal closing time. The wine landed hard in his too-empty stomach, going to his head by the time Viv led him to a small table near the door to the kitchen. She took him by the arm and did not let go until she had to disappear back into the kitchen, though she reappeared almost immediately with a lump of bread and a bowl of watery soup.
“To start. I’ll get you a better dinner than this lot is getting as soon as I have a moment.”
He grabbed her hand as she was about to leave again. “I can’t pay.”
“You know I don’t want your money.”
The bread was stale, but soaked in the soup, it was hot and filled what had been an aching void. He was still hungry, and glad there was more to come, when he had finished it, but at least he felt a stronger urge to look around after his bowl was empty. The tavern was starting to clear out, the diners headed home to rest or out for better entertainments, the women adjusting their bodices as they left to better advertise the goods on offer.
Viv returned with two plates, then quickly disappeared behind the counter to appropriate a pitcher of wine and another glass. “There. If you don’t mind that I join you. I don’t like to think of you as one of the sad ones eating alone.”
“I’d very much like your company.”
“Good.” As they ate, she chatted a bit about how things had gone in the neighbourhood since he left. But she made no mention of Lydie’s name, and Feuilly was rather relieved by the omission. In encouraging Lydie’s jealousy for Viv, when it should more accurately have been directed at Sophie, he had behaved very badly. It was not an hour he wished to live over again. Eventually, as plates of meat and vegetables and more potatoes than anything else disappeared, Viv finally said, “You don’t have to tell me what happened if you don’t want to. But I am sorry for whatever it was. I miss you like anything, but that didn’t mean I wanted to see you back here.”
He took her hand across the table, even as he knew it was more the action of a lover than a friend, because he was so glad to hear that sort of sympathy from her. “The short version is my employer lost his license and couldn’t even pay our final week’s salaries. The long version involves a tale I’m sure you’ve heard from most of the clientele in this place.”
She squeezed his hand. “The police are bastards to everyone, I guess. You don’t have to tell me that.”
But the entire story spilled out - the arrest, Aleçon, the Poles, the more than two weeks stuck in the depot. “Babet must have done something to get me out, so I owe him.”
“At least you’ve still got your girl.”
“She isn’t my girl, and she can’t be as long as I owe Babet anything.”
“What will you do?”
“I’m staying with a friend for now. I work off what I owe Babet, but I keep looking for a real job. Maybe it won’t all have turned out a waste.”
“Good. Something will turn up. Something turned up last time, after all, and you’re so much better prepared now, right? It’ll work out.”
“At least someone believes that.”
He sighed. “I don’t know. It’s so easy to just come back, you know? I have missed you.”
“Really?” She looked as if she were trying not to believe him.
“Really. You’re the only one I’ve missed.”
“I can’t be rescued. The business is what it is.”
“I know. But I wish it were otherwise. For both of us.”
“How long do you think you’ll have to stay?”
He shrugged. “Three jobs, maybe? Seems fair. I have until the end of the year before my friend starts asking questions.”
“So I get you until the end of the year.”
“That’s about the long and short of it.”
The creak of the kitchen door caused her to let go of his hand just before her father was able to poke his head around. “Are you working or tricking?” he asked angrily.
“I’m eating my dinner,” she answered defensively, her expression turning dark. Banging the plates together as she gathered them up, she started muttering curses under her breath. “You come back for one evening, and it’s like the past five months never happened. Don’t worry about him,” she insisted. “I know damned well you’re probably the last gent in here who could ruin me. Probably the only reason he hates you.”
“He’s never liked me. Not even when I was a kid.”
“Doesn’t help you grew up like this.” She looked away, but Feuilly could still see her blush. “You can hang around as long as you like.” But she disappeared into the kitchen.
He found a newspaper to hide behind until Babet came in. It was very nice to see Viv, and to have her sympathy and goodwill, but he felt he should be at Pan Chrzyszczewski’s flat of an evening, not back here in a filthy tavern waiting for the word on an illegal plot. A poor Jew in a flat - hardly the sort of job that one justified as a natural redistribution of wealth. Jews should be doing better than flats, after all, so this one, unless he were the greatest miser of his race, could not be much worth the effort. But it was going to be done, with or without him, so at least his portion might remain the protection of this Miriam or Esther who was not bad looking.
But soon enough, he realised that the three-day-old copy of the Journal des Débats included a lengthy article on Girodet’s contributions to the Salon. He was busy rolling his eyes over the praise of the Vendéen portraits, yet dying to see which they were so he might publicly do the same over the subjects even if they exhibited such technical skill, when Gueulemer made his presence known by a sharp yank of Feuilly’s hair.
Feuilly swung around for a look at his attacker, but Gueulemer just said, “Haven’t you been in trouble over politics enough already?”
He set aside the newspaper, since it was just praising Cathelineau and Bonchamps as much as it was praising Girodet, and followed Gueulemer to their preferred table in the back. “I wasn’t reading about politics,” he said. “I was reading about art.”
“That’s even worse,” the big man said. “What kind of sissy did you turn into while I was sick?”
Feuilly made a rude gesture in response and left it at that. He saw Babet out of the corner of his eye, making quickly for their dim corner. “What’s the word?” he asked when Babet drew near.
“So I’ve got two days, three if we count Sunday itself. What time and what do you know?”
The plan was that the jeweler was expected to be out that evening. Feuilly’s task was to keep the neighbour, a girl called Gabrielle Mirès, away from the building between eight and eleven. “I don’t care what you do with her; just keep her out of the way.”
“Do Jews go to the theatre or the dance halls?”
“How do I know?”
“If she were ordinary, this would be easy,” Feuilly complained. “Would a Jew girl even look twice at me?” Would an ordinary Catholic girl look twice at him was also a reasonable question, he feared.
“That’s going to have to be up to you. You’ll meet me at ten tomorrow morning so I can point her out to you,” Babet informed him. “She does her marketing at the marché Saint Jean every morning at ten.”
“How much of a cut do I get for playing decoy?”
“And how much is everyone else getting?”
“Gueulemer and I are on the inside, so we split the rest.”
“Come off it. You’re getting in somehow, you got tipped somehow, so you must be paying the concierge a reasonable fee. I won’t be inside to see what the take is, so I’m getting fucked, right? Just tell me the damned truth. I owe you my entire share, anyway, in all likelihood.”
Babet and Gueulemer exchanged a look. “We don’t know how much the take will be,” Gueulemer admitted. “The concierge gets a third; we split the rest after that.”
“That I can accept. Thank you for not being as dumb as you look.”
Feuilly endured their company for some time longer - he had to put up a reasonable façade of interest, and he could not pick up his key from Gransard until closing time, which meant he couldn’t guarantee getting into the flat until then. There was nowhere else he could go without paying for a glass of wine, anyway, so he stayed put, half-listening to conversation he did not much care to follow.
When at last he left, the November wind seemed to cut through him like ice. It had not been so cold earlier in the evening, and it was a chore to wend his way back to the Innocens, to see if Gransard had managed to complete the key. He knew full well that any business ahead of his was for shadier purposes than a shared flat, and shady was always worth more than legitimate. He couldn’t begrudge the man a living.
He could, however, begrudge whatever kept Gransard from answering his knock right away, leaving him shivering on the street even as he could see the light through a chink in the shutter. Eventually, a man Feuilly thought might be Barrecarrosse emerged, and Feuilly could push his way inside, rubbing his hands to bring the feeling back into his stiff fingers. “Do you have it?”
Gransard named the price, and Feuilly counted it carefully from his remaining coin. “You can pay me later if you need to,” the locksmith offered.
“I’m already in debt to Babet, and that’s enough, thank you.”
“That I can understand.” But he did push a sou back to Feuilly. “It doesn’t take as long with a good impression.”
Coming up the stairs as quietly as possible, as was his habit, Feuilly could hear voices once he reached the fourth-floor landing. Skipping the step that creaked, he paused just out of sight.
“I told you, we worked together.”
“What was he before that?” A pause - Laforêt couldn’t answer. “Ha!”
“Look, I know he looks like a fancy boy, but it isn’t my business. He got me out of a hell of a scrape, and I owe him for that, at least. He’s not a bad chap.”
“What kind of a scrape?”
“You remember Aleçon at all? He ended up getting us all arrested because he thought it would be a good idea to play a prank on the king.”
“Now you’re lying.”
“I don’t know what he did, but I know we were more than two weeks in the police depot over something he was guilty of and the inspector liked to call treason. I don’t know what I would have done without Feuilly there.”
“So he’s comfortable being in jail.”
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it! He kept me from being stupid, that’s all. I owe him.”
“Don’t let him take it in trade.”
“Why would you say a thing like that? He chased off a nance who spent a night in the depot, I’ll have you know.”
“Well, that proves it, doesn’t it?”
“He is a fancy boy, otherwise why else would someone try to pick him up?”
“He’s not a fancy boy. Besides, what’s it to you if he was? Or do you think that only because he hasn’t flirted with you?”
“Not everyone in the world needs to flirt with me, Thierry. I care because it ain’t right. Where is he right now?”
“He has business in the evenings.” Laforêt sounded abashed.
“He told me he’s not a fancy boy. I believe him. That’s all I need to know.”
“Then what other kind of business could he have in the evenings?”
“It’s his business,” he tried to insist. “Not yours and not mine.”
“You have no sense of judgment.”
“You’re right. How long were we together?”
“Go to hell. And keep your arse turned away from your flatmate.” A door closed, followed by another door.
Feuilly settled back on the stairs. So Ada was convinced he was one of the poofs of the Tuileries and the rue de Rivoli. So be it; what did it matter to him if the neighbour thought he didn’t like girls? But Laforêt wasn’t a fool - neither was Ada, for that matter - and it was patently obvious that if he did not trade in sex, there was only one other answer for the business that would keep him away in the evenings. He had been the fool, to think that he could count on silence when his very presence and absence marked the nature of his trade. Laforêt knew - how could he not know? - but he had said nothing to Ada, had even insulted her in order to shut down the conversation. Hogu had made everything too obvious; Feuilly had known that from the beginning.
What was to be done? The money had already been spent. He had six weeks to extricate himself from one of these situations - or both of these situations. He should never have dragged Laforêt into his own mess. But then, Laforêt knew, had to have known ever since he saw Hogu and drank the wine Babet’s money had bought. And knowing, he had made the offer. Feuilly owed Babet, and Laforêt owed him. Feuilly despised owing Babet, but his honour would permit nothing less than a full repayment in work. Laforêt, too, had given in to the dictates of honour, it appeared. Feuilly could not decide if it had been saintly or stupid, but the man had not entered the agreement with his eyes closed.
He stepped hard on the squeaky stair, announcing his presence. He jiggled the key in the lock, as well, for fair warning. Ignoring Laforêt’s questioning look, he said, “Damn, it’s getting cold out there.”
“I broke the seal on the window. And I got a pot. I’ll get a bucket as soon as I get some cash.”
“For an easy split, I should be the one to get the bucket.”
Laforêt shook his head. “I owe you.”
Feuilly rolled up in his blanket, thinking it better to feign sleep than deal with any fallout from the argument with Ada. “You’re a man of honour.”
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