Corner of the Sky
Mme Mirès was at the market again, just as Feuilly had expected. She seemed not to have expected him to actually turn up, however. “Look, monsieur, I have work to do.”
“I know, and I don’t intend to keep you. I’d want to do the sketches by candlelight, anyway, to get the shadows right. You’re a seamstress, aren’t you? How much do you really get done after dark?”
“It is none of your business.” She tried to turn back to selecting vegetables.
“Please, madame? A couple hours tonight. That’s all I’m asking.”
“I’ve already told you that I am not that sort of girl.”
“Is there anything I can do to convince you that my intentions are honest?”
She turned to address him directly, her expression annoyed. “No. You see, monsieur, like Ruth, I have a mother-in-law. Unlike Ruth, I also have a father-in-law. This mother-in-law is a gossip who hates that I have chosen to live on my own rather than fall under her roof. I agreed to marry my husband, not her. Our previous conversation was already reported back to her. I will not ruin my reputation for a project that, as you say, may never come off. Are your intentions honest? It doesn’t matter. You can be as honest as the day, but what will that mean for my character? A woman who hopes to remarry cannot sit modeling for an artist, particularly if he is a Christian!”
“If it were not for your late husband’s family, you would sit for me.” She exhaled sharply and tried to move on, but he grabbed her by the arm. This simply had to come off, for her own sake as well as his. He noticed that she did not wrench her arm from his grasp. “Please, madame, at least consider it. Tell me where you live; I’ll come for you at half-past seven. If they are going to talk, then shall we not at least try to have something better than mere gossip come of it?” When it seemed that whole minutes must have gone by without an answer, with everyone in the market staring at them, he begged, “I’ll take you to the theatre as a pledge of good faith. To prove I’m not a heel.”
“Yes, to prove that you took me to the theatre before you took me to bed,” she answered at last. “Monsieur, where are you from?”
“Alençon,” he lied easily.
“This is Paris. You’re a Christian. I’m a Jew. The only relations we could have are the sort I do not intend to have.”
“Not every artist’s model is a whore,” Feuilly tried to argue.
“But they are. They trade beauty for money, and never do they end up like Esther, able to repay their people.”
He tried again. “But if you can’t do as you like in Paris, where can you?”
“You can do as you like in Paris because you are a man and a stranger. I live here. The same customs that bind you in Alençon bind me here. That I even have to explain that to you proves you too much a child to understand the power of society.”
“I do understand. I’ll tell you something. There’s this girl I know, beautiful girl, talented, sweet, likes me in some way. I’m more than half in love with her. But I’m allowed to sit with her in the kitchen because her father looks on me as some sort of family servant. And I’m terrified that one day, he’ll figure it out, and I’ll be banished. So I’m very, very careful, whenever I’m with her, even as I want nothing more than to fall on my knees and kiss her hand and swear to love her the rest of my life. But I’d never do it, because she’d be appalled that I’d dare feel such a thing, because affection can only travel from master to servant, not from servant to master. I know society.”
“You may be a decent boy, but the fact remains, you do no good to my reputation.”
“And the art means nothing to you?”
“You will have the same effect with any dark-haired girl.” Her tone had suddenly changed, become more final, as if she were at last determined to bid him good day. The whole thing was about to fall apart, and Feuilly had no idea how to keep it together. She had to stay out tonight, for her own good. What good would her reputation be if she ended up in the middle of the whole thing? What good would his reputation be if he failed at this one task?
“But where will I find one who looks like you? Where will I find one who understands what it is I want to do?”
“When you suggest that a painting of a Biblical subject will somehow be on behalf of the Jews, do you actually know what you are saying?”
“Would you like to explain it to me tonight?”
She shook her head and walked away. He followed quickly. “Please, madame, I am sorry if I have offended you.”
“Offended me! The first person in a year and a half to tell me I was pretty? You’ve made a fool of yourself, and of me, but I was flattered, though I know well I should not have been. And now I’ve given you far more time than you’ve deserved, and I will have to defend myself, and what will have been the point of it all?”
“There will have been no point if you do not sit for me. Please, madame. I will treat you with every courtesy.”
“As if I were your beloved?”
“Yes,” he vowed. He had not been instructed to use her, merely to keep her out of the way. He would treat her with the same courtesy he had always treated Sophie, the same deference to her elevated social state. She was an honest widow, and that made her better than he was at this moment, even if she were a Jew. “Shall I see you tonight, madame?”
“Why do you not give me your address?”
“91 rue Quincampoix,” he replied. It would be easier this way, if she were willing to venture alone out of the Jewish quarter. “Behind the Marché des Innocents. The ground floor houses a moroccan leather worker; I’ve a room on the fifth.”
“I shall consider the offer, monsieur.”
“Please say you’ll come.” He tried to give her his most charming smile.
“I shall consider it. Good day, monsieur.”
He had to leave it there. What if she did not come? But then, if he continued to press, she certainly would not come.
And she did not come. The bells of St Merry tolled eight o’clock, and there was no sign of her. Feuilly ran down the stairs to ask Mère Fablet if anyone had been looking for him, but she was as clueless as always. “If a woman comes for me, I will be right back.”
A drizzle had set in, making it cold and miserable to walk through the dark streets as he hurried along, scanning every face in the light of the cafés of the rues Aubry le Boucher and Nouveau St Merry, hoping he might run into her. He could not go so far as the rue des Rosiers without blowing his cover, but he could at least pass into the Jewish quarter itself. But what would be the good in finding her in the streets? He would look panicked. She would know something was up. Perhaps she had merely taken a wrong turn and was even now asking Mère Fablet for him. He walked up the rue St Avoie a short distance, to a Jewish pastry shop that was still open, to give himself an excuse for his absence should she turn up. The man at the counter gave him a strange look, as if Christians rarely gave him their custom, but he wrapped two apple tarts in paper and handed them over.
Holding them under his coat, he made his way back to the house, hoping that she would be waiting there. But she was not. “No one’s come,” Mère Fablet insisted.
“If a Mme Mirès comes, please let her come up.”
Mère Fablet merely grumbled, but Feuilly was certain that anyone who came looking for him would be sent upstairs without question.
The bells tolled nine o’clock. He sat in the borrowed chair, head in his hands. He had failed utterly. She would not come. He could not go for her without risking all, yet if he did not go for her, he would never stop wondering what had become of her.
He went back out in the streets, the puddles now shining with reflected light. The streets were busy, it being a Sunday evening, the cafés full of people, even as the shops were shuttered. Where could he go? He ended up pausing again at the corner of the rue St Avoie, people pushing past him in the rain as he stood like a fool, uncertain if he should move ahead or go back. He had failed. His failure might lead to their failure. He had ruined the job, he who had never ruined a job. But never had they sent him to do the work of a confidence man. He was a lockpick, that was all. It was all he had trained for. He might be able to produce some forged documents, but that was the extent of his training and his talents.
The problem was them, he decided, as he stood in the rain. They believed everyone was self-serving in the same way. They had never understood him, so how could they understand that a decent-looking girl would not be willing to throw herself into the arms of a decent-looking young man? Their reputations hinged on acting as far outside the bounds of decency as possible, and they believed that anyone else would as well, were he given the opportunity. But there were consequences out here in the real world. And they must fall even harder on a Jew, he thought. Rather like the Greeks, really. There were so few of them in comparison, they were in the thrall of the powerful who were not like them at all, so they had to stick together, had to be better than the race who had power over them, otherwise they would be split apart and butchered. Or, perhaps more accurately with the Jews, had the Portuguese and Spanish converts been trusted by the Portuguese and Spaniards, they might have stayed Christian and not come to France and returned to their old beliefs. If they had the same rights and were treated equally by the Christians, perhaps they would all eventually convert and cease to exist. So they had to stick together, to not trust the Christians, if they were to exist as a separate race. Like the Greeks, who could convert and join the Turks and enjoy all the benefits and leave their oppression behind, or like the Poles, who could throw in their lot with the Russians, as many of the lords had done, and continue to enjoy their privileges while their unacknowledged countrymen languished in despair. Only the Jews had no country anymore. Sophie could never dare to fall in love with him, not because he was a poor criminal, but because as a Pole in exile, she must stick with her own people or Poland would be lost. Mme Mirès could not put herself in a position to want to see him again because she would be cast out by her own people, fearful of what might happen to the race as a whole should one woman sleep with a Christian. Babet had no concern for the collective; not even the honourable ways he had taught Feuilly were based in any concern for the collective. One did not rat out anyone else because it would always come back around to injure the rat. For Babet, the honour was incidental.
For her honour, Mme Mirès could not come to him. For his honour, he could not explain to her why she must, at the very least, find somewhere other than her flat to spend her evening. They were both doomed because Babet did not understand that it would take more than two days for a woman to trust a man enough to go to his flat. It would take far longer when that woman was determined to act honourably against the beliefs commonly held against her race.
Feuilly turned around and walked back to his flat. So much money spent, favours obtained, to absolutely no profit. What could he do now? Babet would be furious. Gueulemer was hardly Brujon - there would be no correction or protection there. Who else could they have used? Barrecarrosse? Demi-Liard? Impossible. If they did not take in a confidence man, then they needed to avoid jobs in which a confidence man was necessary. But logic of that sort was little good against the possibility of a take measured in the hundreds of francs to each participant. How could one get less from a jeweler, even if he did have only a room opposite Mme Mirès? He was a Jew, after all - perhaps his little room was evidence of the natural miserliness of his race. What was Feuilly to do?
Turning back down the rue Quincampoix, he noted that one of the doors was open, the light spilling into the narrow street. As he approached, he realised it was his own building. It closed at last before he reached it, but, his eyes dazzled from focusing on the light, he bumped directly into a passerby. “Pardon me, mademoiselle.”
“You came! I’m sorry. I went to look for you. But of course you didn’t want me to look for you. Then I realised I didn’t even know where to look for you.” He forced himself to stop rambling. She was alive, she was here, perhaps they were going in later than he had feared, perhaps they were waiting for her to leave before going in, it didn’t matter. She was here, and the plan would come off. He would never agree to play decoy again. “Please come in.”
She followed him up the stairs, her expression impossible to see in the dark. “I’m sorry I’m late,” she at last apologised as they reached the top floor.
“I asked a difficult thing and did not give you enough time to think it over. I’m the one who is sorry.”
“But you were also right. If they are going to talk, then it should be about something. I might at least sin if I’m going to take all the consequences for it.”
He fumbled with the key in his nervousness. As he managed to get his door open, the door across the hall opened. “Up, down, up, down, all evening, then I heard voices.”
“Do you spy on all the neighbours,” Feuilly asked Ada, “or just me? Madame, allow me to introduce Mlle Chollet, my neighbour.”
“Thierry said you were working tonight,” Ada told him, her voice full of suspicion.
“I am. Mme Mirès has agreed to sit for me. Would you like to watch?” She slammed the door shut rather than answer. Did she think he meant she was permitted to watch him have sex with the woman? he briefly wondered. But with a shrug, he gestured for Mme Mirès to follow him into the room. “I moved in only a few days ago. She doesn’t like me because the friend I share it with used, how shall I say, to be intimately acquainted with her.”
“He should not have taken this room, then.”
“No, but how could I turn down those windows?” He lit the other candles he had prepared. “I can leave the door open, if you like. Would that prove my intentions honourable?”
“The offer proves your intentions just what you have said they were. But I should prefer it.”
“Of course. I understand it must be difficult for you. Your people have to stick together if they are to survive as a race. I make it look as if you would rather assimilate with the oppressors.”
She gave him a curious look, but at last she smiled. “Yes. But is that not what you want, that the Jews no longer exist?”
“No. I want all peoples to exist. You’re like the Greeks or the Poles - you would do better to give in, except to give in would be to lose your soul. And if the Jews have survived a thousand years without a country, then the Greeks will survive, no matter how long the war takes, and the Poles will survive, even if all their high nobles give in to the Russians and the Austrians. You should be the model for the oppressed peoples everywhere to preserve what makes them unique.”
“So instead of painting Greeks, you are painting Jews, and insisting the meaning is the same.”
“If you say it is. I’m just a woman. You know what it means for your people. What is it you want me to do?”
“Well, I had thought, Ruth entering Boaz’s chamber, so if we assume the door is the door, and the blankets over there are Boaz asleep, you would be coming in with a candle or a lantern or something, and pause a moment to contemplate just what it is that you are about to do.”
She picked up a candle and looked around for a moment before taking a stiff, overdone posture that looked more like a Madonna confronted by the archangel. “Like this?”
“No. This isn’t seventeenth century Italy,” he explained gently. “May I?” With a nod of permission, he adjusted how high she held the candle, placed her left hand on her stomach rather than her bosom, and turned her chin to the angle he wanted. But as he began to draw, she stiffened all over again. Feuilly tried to tell himself that it did not matter, that she was here only for her own protection and his financial liabilities. In the end, she was just a Jew, and this was just a job. But she was also an attractive woman, and Ruth coming to Boaz was an excellent subject for a painting, and if he had preparatory drawings, then he might, one day, be able to produce such a work. Even this week, he had been asked to bring samples of his work to the printer - perhaps an etching, rather than a canvas, could come of the night’s labour. Duret did not only sell bawdy pictures, after all. It had to be done correctly. And even suggesting that Ruth was paralysed with fear at what necessity required her to do, Mme Mirès was less than ideal for the body.
He finally had to take the candle away from her. He could always find another body, someday, when he had a girl or, less likely, money to hire a model for a couple of hours. The sort of girl who would expect to take her clothes off and wonder why he just wanted her to stand with a candle. “I need a bit of a rest,” he lied, shaking out his hand as if he had been gripping the pencil too tightly. To get Lydie to relax, he had generally begun to make love to her, so that she flirted her way through anything he ever did. But other than Lydie, he had never had a willing model. Moreover, he had never actively pretended he was anything more than what he was. Always cognizant of his own inferiority when among honest people, he tended to treat them with the sort of deference they reserved for their social betters. But now, he was pretending to have had upbringing enough that he had come to Paris to become an artist, a thoroughly bourgeois notion, and he ought to condescend to Mme Mirès, since he was acting the bourgeois and she was a worker and a Jew. Perhaps Gueulemer had been right, that he was not the actor he had thought himself. Yet novels and the stage were his only prescriptions for how to continue. “Would you share a bite to eat with me?” he asked, showing off the apple tarts he had dared purchase, wishing he had someone to play the servant as the plays made it seem wrong to play this deception alone.
Mme Mirès had been to the theatre too, he was certain, for she looked askance at the pastries, then at him. “Where did they come from?”
“Patisserie in the rue St-Avoie. It had the funny writing on the sign. I made sure they were Jewish.”
“Hebrew,” she corrected him. “The script is Hebrew. You’re too sweet to be true, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“You go out of your way to buy kosher pastry in order to tempt me into bed.”
“I have no intention of tempting you into bed.”
“There, you see? Much too good to be true.” But she took a bite, closing her eyes as she chewed. She must get pastry as rarely as I do, Feuilly thought. The tarts were small, the pastry landing rather stiffly in his empty stomach, the sugary apples rolling across his tongue with almost heavenly sweetness. After nearly three weeks of prison bread, why was it so hard to end up on short rations? The take from the evening had to pay for all the expense put into the job, otherwise what had been the point of roping him in at all? Had he turned gullible in less than a year?
But Mme Mirès did look more relaxed, as if, having been treated as a guest and not been poisoned, she was indeed more inclined to trust him. “May I do some close-ups of your face? Just stare into the distance, really. Think about what your mother-in-law would say about me, perhaps.”
She laughed and shook her head, but she did quickly fall into a perfect reverie, a sadness creeping over her features. Feuilly sketched quickly, pausing only to note that her eyes could bore holes into the floor with the intensity of her gaze. He heard a noise behind him and knew Ada had come to spy - it had the rustle of a skirt, not the harsh tread of Laforêt come home early. “You can move,” he told Mme Mirès. “I’m done for the moment.” He had covered a full page in small sketches, from basic shapes to a fully-realised portrait.
“Those are actually good,” Ada said, though he had not bothered to acknowledge her presence.
“I should hope so. What did you think I did for a living?” He showed his sketches to Mme Mirès. “It is for you to decide if I should continue.”
She took her time looking at the sheet. Feuilly’s heart was in his throat - he knew the work was good, the one thing he could do was sketch from life, even if later renderings in watercolour did not always turn out quite the way he intended. He was no Michelangelo or Rubens or Ingres, no genius, but he knew his work was good.
“This is what you think I look like?” she asked at last.
“You don’t think it a good likeness.”
“That isn’t what I mean,” she answered quickly, flushing a little with embarrassment. “I mean - I didn’t realise I look so miserable. Ruth, indeed. Stuck with my in-laws in a city far from where I was born, hardly making a living, coming to a strange man’s flat out of sheer loneliness . . .” She trailed off.
Feuilly dared put a hand to her shoulder, and she did not pull away. “If it is too personal, I will put it away,” he offered. Which was something of a lie: he had every intention of showing it to Duret, but he could always refuse later to use it publicly.
“No. Something must come of it all. Something will come of it all, won’t it?”
Ada was still watching from the doorway; Feuilly could feel her disapproving gaze. “Yes. I promise that much. Can I make a study of your hand before you go?”
“It is growing terribly late, isn’t it?”
“I will walk you home. I ask another half hour for the work; that is all. Yes, mademoiselle, you can watch,” he tossed over his shoulder.
He did not take a new sheet of paper but used the gaps instead, filling his single sheet as tightly as possible. The expense had been made, yes, because he could not be seen to have afforded only a single sheet of paper, but he had been able to purchase only five, and one had been wasted already, front and back, with poor poses. It was easier to go in pieces, he was learning - Mme Mirès was far less self-conscious about a drawing of her hand than she was about posing her entire body. Perhaps that was the key, to treat the human form as if it were a puzzle - one could always smooth out the joins upon assembly. He had now a perfect head and neck, and a hand grasping the candle, and at least he had tracked the light and shade even if he were dissatisfied with her body as a whole. It could all be put back together, perhaps, tacked onto the body of a real model, and if successful, no one need know any different.
But it was time to let her go, to pray that everything had gone according to plan and to hope that his lack of expertise in the confidence game had not been to their disadvantage.
“This is what you do?” Ada interrupted as he carefully put away his board and pencils.
“Why are you so skeptical? Yes, this is what I do for a living. Yes, I met your man at work. Why is that so hard for you to believe?” he snapped. It was incredibly rude of her to bring it all up when Mme Mirès was standing right there. “Look, we can talk about it when I come back if you want to argue. Right now, I must see Mme Mirès home. Good night.”
Ada glared at him and slammed her door shut. He rolled his eyes and turned back to his guest. Ada would have to be dealt with later. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why she’s such a child about the whole thing.”
“You work with her man?” Mme Mirès asked as they descended the stairs, carefully stepping around the drunkard Laforêt had warned him about.
“Running away from home to be an artist costs more money than it sounds like it might,” he decided to say. He was playing the slumming bourgeois, but the slumming bourgeois who has been cut off by his family might be expected to have some means of paying rent, he hoped.
“What is it you do?”
“I’d rather not say. I hope not to be doing it much longer.”
“I wish you luck, then.”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“Thank you.” They stepped out into the street, where the drizzle had picked up again. She threw her shawl over her head and refused his arm. Feuilly was certain she would have done the same had it not been raining, but he was grateful for her sake that the rain gave her the excuse for anonymity. “Where are we going?”he dared ask.
“Rue des Rosiers. Please don’t ask me for the number.”
“I won’t,” he promised. The streets were busy with revelers returning home, streetsellers attempting to unload the last of their merchandise on tipsy passersby before they, too, found their cold, dark lonely rooms. Mme Mirès walked quickly, weaving her way among the crowds as if she were often among them, but Feuilly soon noted it was a façade. She nearly made a wrong turn into the rue du Chaume, and Feuilly had to take her by the elbow and guide her along the rue Sainte Croix de la Bretonnerie. She permitted him to keep hold of her arm after that, even after they entered the rue des Rosiers. Only in front of her building did she finally pull free.
“Thank you, monsieur. But I must go.”
“Shall I not see you safely upstairs?” She hesitated a moment, then bowed her head rather than answering. “Come, I will see you to your door,” he insisted gently. He wanted to be certain that everyone was indeed gone, that she would be safe in her flat if he left her.
If there was a concierge, no one seemed to care - the lodge was empty, the door unlocked, and Mme Mirès did not seem to take the absence as unusual. In the dim light of a street lamp, she lit a candle to guide them up the stairs. “You can put it back when you come down,” she told Feuilly. The house was poorer than his, a naked wooden staircase climbing four floors without any differentiation between them. On the top floor, there were four doors, just as in his building. One stood open, lamplight spilling out into the hall. Mme Mirès paused in the doorway. “Has something happened? Should I go for a doctor?”
“A doctor’s no good!” the bearded man inside complained in a heavy German accent. “Where’s a policeman when you need him?”
“Police?” She grabbed for Feuilly’s hand in her shock.
“Gone! Everything’s gone! Someone’s come in and taken everything! I give you one evening at the theatre,” he raged at a woman Feuilly took to be his wife, “and we lose everything! How do you like your playacting now? And where were you?” he turned on Mme Mirès. “You never go out.”
She flushed. “I did tonight. Will you go for the police?” she asked Feuilly.
He had intended to see that all was well, not to be involved in the investigation itself. If he went off and disappeared into the night, he would feel an utter heel, and his abandonment might even give away his participation in the crime. If he went for a policeman, he might end up arrested for his part in the night’s proceedings should the concierge talk. But Mme Mirès had trusted him, and he could not in all conscience abandon an honest woman. “Are you certain?”
“Of course I’m certain I’ve been robbed!” the man bellowed.
“Come with me,” Feuilly begged Mme Mirès softly. If she were the one to report, he would be confirmed only a bystander, someone who had walked in with her and knew nothing of the house or its inhabitants. He might be able to slip away having said next to nothing. She still had hold of his hand, and when she turned to look at him, he begged again. “Please.”
“We are going for the police,” she told the man.
Feuilly shook with nervousness as they approached the mairie in the rue Saint-Avoie. Mme Mirès had not let go of his hand, but she had not looked at him the entire time, either. He knocked at the door, terrified to be seeking out the police at all, certain that he would be arrested again whether he presented himself or not.
The officer on duty, in the uniform of a gendarme, did not look at all pleased to be interrupted. “What do you want?”
Feuilly exchanged a look with Mme Mirès. Would he have to be the gentleman or would she make the necessary statement? “I wish to report a robbery,” she finally said, looking at the floor.
The duty officer sighed and pulled out a sheet of paper, the police letterhead standing out darkly. “Name?”
“It isn’t me that was robbed,” she insisted nervously. “I’m just reporting it. It was my neighbour.”
“Then why isn’t he here?”
“He asked us to bring the police,” Feuilly finally said. “He doesn’t trust leaving his flat.”
“So you and your girlfriend turn up here instead. Names and addresses as witnesses, then.”
“Gabrielle Mirès, 62 rue des Rosiers.”
“Daniel Feuilly, 91 rue Quincampoix.”
“Who got robbed?”
“Abraham Vidal, also of 62 rue des Rosiers. He and his wife were at the theatre this evening.”
“And you were with your boyfriend here.” Feuilly dared not correct the officer, and Mme Mirès said nothing to contradict his assessment, either. “Did you know Vidal was going to be out?”
“I’d never seen or heard of the man before I walked Mme Mirès home tonight,” Feuilly insisted. It was mostly true - he had never seen the man or heard his name before.
“Madame? Where’s your husband?”
“Did anyone know you were going to be out tonight?”
“What about you?” he pointedly asked Feuilly.
“I wasn’t out. We were at my place.”
“Fine. You can go. I’ll be there in a bit to look around.”
Feuilly insisted on walking Mme Mirès home again, but this time he left her at the bottom of the stairs. There was still no concierge, and he dared not draw attention to the absence. “Good night, then.”
“You won’t stay?”
“I have nothing more to tell the police, do I?”
“I suppose not. Good night, then.”
He slipped off into the dark before the gendarmes had a chance to come. If his testimony of utter ignorance were needed, he had already stupidly given his real address. No more con jobs, he swore to himself. Whatever he ended up paid, the profit could hardly be worth the aggravation.
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