Corner of the Sky
What on earth was the point of all this? Feuilly asked himself. Did Jewish girls even talk to Catholic boys? They apparently shopped in the same markets, but there was no Jewish market. Yet there were Jewish bakeries and cafés and pastry shops and butchers. They had their own lives, centred on the rue des Rosiers, where sometimes the interested Frenchman could see bearded men in shawls walking to and from the synagogue in the rue St-Avoie.
Babet met him at the edge of the marché St Jean, next to a fruiterer and across from a cheesemonger. “Why me?” Feuilly demanded again. “You need a confidence man for this.”
“You might as well be one, the attention Vivienne gives you.” Feuilly flushed - Viv notoriously attached herself to the confidence tricksters, and apparently her similar feeling for Feuilly had become obvious. “How else do we get her out of the way, genius? You know you’re in - you even dressed the part.”
Feuilly had, indeed, put on his Sunday coat and hat, having decided that the only way to get near her, if she were indeed as good-looking as Jewesses were said to be, was to pretend to be something other than an unemployed workman. No young woman, Christian or Jew, would listen to a young man in a cap and jacket at a time of day he ought to have been at work. Laforêt had looked at him with suspicion when he left the flat that morning, but he had kept his promise not to ask questions. “I’m in, all right, but that doesn’t mean I like the job.”
“Here she comes. Grey dress, black shawl, white cap. Jew nose, sad to say.”
The Semitic nose was unfortunate - she would have been very pretty otherwise. A basket in hand, she stepped deliberately over to the cheesemonger.
“Do I see you Sunday night or Monday night?”
“Monday, usual place.”
Feuilly answered with only a tip of his hat and stepped into the market crowd. Mlle Mirès was haggling with the cheesemonger, which gave Feuilly some time to study her more carefully. She was much older than he had expected, a couple years above Sophie perhaps, with black hair and dark eyes and olive skin. Mirès was a Spanish name, or possibly Portuguese - the Iberian Jews were the most normal, he remembered, unlike the Eastern ones whose men were bearded and wore shawls in the street. Perhaps, then, it was only the Eastern Jews who married early and were ruined by the time they reached the age of Mlle Mirès. She was not so well-dressed as Sophie, however: her dress was faded in the creases and looked thin at the elbows. While the Jews on the whole could probably stand to lose some money, she and any neighbour of hers were certainly as poor as Feuilly himself was. Her fingers betrayed the calluses of needlework: she was a Jew, but in every other respect, she was a grisette like most other girls in Paris. Yet even as he thought he had better give the whole thing up, since she was just a worn-out grisette, the tiredness in her eyes attracted him. His initial plan had been to claim himself an artist and beg her to sit for a Judith, since what else did one do with a Jewess, but she had a weary sadness more appropriate to Ruth, gleaning during the day and mourning the loss of her husband and her country at night.
She moved on to one of the vegetable sellers, asking the price of potatoes. Ruth, indeed. It was not so flattering a subject as Judith, but the more he contemplated the idea, the more apt it seemed. Such a painting would have more of Géricault’s truth than of Girodet’s hollow beauty.
Feuilly managed to step ahead of her so that by careful movement through the crowd, she might bump into him. It was a move he knew well in theory from the pickpockets but in which he was entirely unpractised. He took the necessary force a bit too far and knocked the basket out of her hand entirely, her four potatoes spilling onto the ground but the cheese, its cloth wrap caught in the flaking rushes of the basket, luckily safe. “Please forgive me, mademoiselle,” he apologized, bending to help her pick up the spilled produce. Their hands met as he reached for the same potato as she, and only then did she meet his eyes. And snatched her hand away, muttering an apology. Jewish girls apparently did not talk to Catholic men. The whole thing would end in disaster if that were the case. What had Babet been thinking? They kept to themselves for a reason.
Still, he offered her the potato. “It is entirely my fault, I assure you. And I must confess, I am more pleased than perhaps I should be in such an encounter. One does not see women of your beauty every day.”
She glared at him and began to stalk off. He had to follow quickly. Chasing after an unwilling woman was not at all to his taste. “I must seem terribly fast, mademoiselle, which wasn’t my intent at all. Has anyone ever told you that you are a perfect embodiment of Ruth?” he managed to spit out
She stopped and turned around at that, even if only to glare at him again. “What is it you want?” she asked, ill-tempered and tired and hardly willing to give herself over to Boaz.
“I am an artist, mademoiselle,” he tried to explain quickly, “working on a painting of Ruth, and I think you would be the most perfect model I could find.”
“You do recall Ruth wasn’t a Jew, don’t you?” Her speech was overlaid not with the Germanic accent one heard from stage Jews but with a lilting southern hesitation. She was certainly one of the Spanish Jews, and perhaps her annoyance at him from the beginning was due less to her race than to her position as an unaccompanied woman in the marketplace. She had asked him two questions, now, after all.
“She was a convert, yes, I know, but aren’t you tired of all the pale, blonde women who are supposed to stand in for your ancestors?” It had just spilled out, but the smallest change in her stance suggested that she was actually listening. “I think there should be truth in art, that truth has its own beauty, and that means that Judith should be a Jew and Ruth should not be blonde and a corpse should be painted from a corpse, not from a living man lying in a neatly arranged manner. And I would very much like to make a painting of Ruth, with you as the model.”
“I’m not that sort of girl,” she argued.
“At least you haven’t got a mother-in-law pushing you to be that sort of girl. Have you?” She didn’t answer, but neither did she walk away. “I’m innocent, I swear,” he pleaded. “I just want to make a few sketches by candlelight. I’m not suggesting in the least that I play the role of Boaz; but who else will give me that moment full of doubt when she enters his chamber?” If her defensive stance could soften at all, she would indeed be perfect, he thought.
He simply told the truth. “I was contemplating a Judith, and then I saw you.”
She laughed, harsh and skeptical. “You almost had me there. I’ll tell you again, monsieur, I’m not that kind of girl.”
“What kind of girl?”
“You know perfectly well what I mean.”
“I know what everyone else means. I want to know what you mean.”
“Very well. I do not appreciate being considered the sort of person who would take her clothes off for a stranger. I may be a Jew, but I’ve a long way to go before I could come to that, no matter what you think of us.”
“You cannot talk me out of it if you continue to talk in this manner. The more you say, the more fit for the role I think you.”
She paused, as if to think it out for herself, and then hid her face in her hand at the conclusion she had reached. “You make a reasoned point, monsieur. Nevertheless, I cannot trust you, and I will not put myself into a position where others will think ill of me.”
Feuilly was starting to actively like her - she had followed his train of thought, and her modesty was not so great that she had fled rather than try to set him right. He had to protect her from being caught up in the plot. “How could I prove to you that you have nothing to fear from me? Perhaps the sketches will go badly and the painting will never be done, so that none of your acquaintance would ever see the fruits of our work.”
“Then what would be the point of the work, if there is no result? Please forgive me, monsieur. I have work of my own. I must go.”
“Will you at least think it over? Give me an answer tomorrow?”
“I shan’t be here tomorrow, on account of the Sabbath.”
“Sunday, then?” He could work something out by then, perhaps. So long as he could find a way to keep her out of her flat all evening, she would be safe and he would have fulfilled his duty.
“How much would you pay?”
“I cannot pay,” he admitted, then added with sudden inspiration, “and should not that convince you of my virtue? How could I lure you into degradation without the promise of a high fee? The men who wish only to prey on beautiful women always offer money.” He had learned that much, at least, from the greasy miniaturist. “But I will promise you, that if the painting ever has a buyer, I shall share the proceeds with you. After all, I should be working on a Judith had I never met you. Look, my name is Daniel Feuilly, I’m doing my damnedest to get started in this city, and you know you want to help me make art that doesn’t make you cringe. Your people got a raw deal with the Restoration, I know that much, and I think someone’s face ought to be rubbed in it. Don’t you want to help me with that?” The political statement had just popped out, surprising even himself. The Jews had gotten a raw deal - under the Empire, they had been made citizens, equal to all Christians, but the restored monarchy had kept its promises only to the Protestants, keeping the Jews from the professions they had barely begun to join with the Emperor’s blessing. Whether or not promises should have been made in the first place, the monarchy’s refusal to uphold the bargain it inherited did not seem fair play.
“I shall think about it, M. Feuilly,” she said at last. “Perhaps I shall see you on Sunday.”
“Can I at least know your name?” he remembered to ask. If she would introduce herself, he would not have to worry that he might let his prior knowledge slip out and ruin the whole plot.
She hesitated, as if it required deliberation to give her name when she had already nearly promised to see him on Sunday. “Gabrielle Mirès.”
“Then I shall hope to see you Sunday morning, Mlle Mirès.”
“Madame,” she corrected, to his horror. Babet had said nothing about a husband. Their information was rubbish. They had the wrong woman. They must have the wrong woman, since she was not fat or dry, did not have children hanging off her, was obviously buying food only for herself - she had none of the ruin marriage was said to bring to the beautiful Jew, nor was she feeding a husband if her paltry marketing was to last her two days rather than one. The whole thing was madness if there was a husband. How could they not have known and warned him?
Feuilly did his best to hide his surprise, but he feared it was obvious, his voice strained. “Of course, you shall have to talk it over with your husband.”
“Perhaps I should, though not in the manner you imply. He’s been dead for more than a year.”
He breathed out, the relief flooding his veins. “Please forgive me. The subject of my painting must have given you a terrible shock.”
“Good day, M. Feuilly.” She turned away again, and this time he let her go. He had just forced himself on a woman, claiming to be something he was not, while what she was had been so obvious he had accepted it without understanding. The young Jewish widow, in a foreign city, in the guise of Ruth - yes, there was truth there, but too much truth. Art was not supposed to be an exact depiction of the world but an interpretation of the world.
And worse, suppose on Sunday she did say yes? He would have to get rid of Laforêt, obtain some furniture, buy candles, prepare their room as if it were an artist’s studio, as if his medium were oils rather than watercolours. The confidence man would merely run a few swindles and buy up what he needed, or convince a shop to give him credit then abandon the goods and the identity once he had what he needed. But Feuilly barely believed he had pulled off an introduction to the woman, much less convinced her that he was what he said he was. He had no confidence in himself, so how could he engender it in others?
Yet, if she called the whole thing off, she would likely spend Sunday night in her room. A poor widow, barely earning her keep, caught up in the middle of a robbery by men who would not hesitate to slit her throat rather than risk her as a witness. They preferred to have no witnesses, of course, which is why Feuilly had been thrown at her, but if he failed, her presence might secure her death. And her death would cause the police to take a greater interest in the case, might turn the bought-off concierge against the thieves, would lead to another death, this one in the place de Grève. Feuilly’s honour required the protection of all parties from each other. Leave the poor jeweler to the help of heaven, if God still cared anything for the Jews, he concluded.
He went to Jacquemont, the pawnbroker, in the hope of borrowing a few pieces. At the very least, he was going to need some canvases, an easel, and some small tables and a place for her to sit. As he walked through the crowded streets, he wished he had learned the art of picking pockets, at least for the moment. He was also going to need proper sketching supplies, for which he would have to pay cash. Good paper was not as cheap as extra pencils.
The pawnbroker was amenable to the loan, but it extended only to a chair and a couple of small tables. “I expect them back on Monday without a scratch. Scratches are five sous each, got it?” It took two trips to carry them back to the flat himself, and he had no idea how he was going to explain their presence to Laforêt. But he found that he was looking forward to it, even if the circumstances were less than ideal. What better way to spend an evening than sketching a pretty girl, pretending that something brilliant could be made from such humble beginnings? No false historicism, he had already decided; Mme Mirès’ faded dress was the perfect emblem for Ruth. The artists of previous centuries had dressed their Biblical figures as if they were modern locals, so why should he not do the same? It would rebuke Ingres and David for all time if it were successful. And if it were not a success, it could simply be retitled “The Fallen Woman” or something of that nature.
Yet to hope that the evening would succeed was to hope that it succeeded on all fronts, that the jeweler’s cache would repay all the participants in the plot at a rate that would enable Feuilly to take home something more than the satisfaction of having done his duty. Money was spent, and though he would enjoy the use of the sketch paper and pencils for some time, a mere two days after he was suspected of nearly passing out from hunger was hardly the time for such expenditures.
Indeed, when Laforêt returned to the flat that evening, his exclamation of “Furniture!” was almost painful to Feuilly.
“It’s only on loan for a couple of days. I may have a girl coming up here on Sunday night.”
“Shouldn’t you have gotten a bed?” Laforêt asked. “Sorry, not an actual question!”
“It’s not that sort of a job,” Feuilly explained.
“I’ll clear out, nothing to worry about.”
“What you think -”
“I don’t think,” Laforêt insisted. “I don’t need to know, so I’m not going to know. But you are looking for work, aren’t you?”
“A printer I know is making some inquiries on my behalf. He may have something as soon as next week.”
“Fingers crossed for you.”
It was all very well that Duret might have something for him; he had to get through Sunday first. Saturday was spent attempting to set the rest of the scene, until that night, Laforêt, coming back from a job he did not explain but that had left him covered in sawdust, nearly dragged Feuilly out to a café.
“I can’t take it. I have to see you among men before Ada gets the wrong idea again.”
“Again?” Feuilly asked innocently.
“You haven’t lied to me, have you? I mean, it isn’t really my business if you have, just as it isn’t really my business what you do, even if you are using our flat for God only knows what tomorrow night, but if it’s going to end up with the police taking an interest again . . .” he trailed off.
“Do you want to know?”
“I don’t know,” Laforêt admitted.
“It shouldn’t involve the cops. Can I ask what you were up to today?”
“Scraping floors so they can get refinished on Monday,” he answered tiredly. “You take your twenty sous where you can get them, right?”
“Right.” Feuilly was hoping more for twenty francs, at the very least, for his night’s work, but the same sentiment applied. It may be beneath you, but at least it’s a living.
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