Corner of the Sky
“I don’t want to argue,” Ada told him the moment he reached the top of the stairs, having nearly tripped over the drunk on his way up. “I just want to know what’s going on.”
“There’s nothing going on,” Feuilly insisted tiredly. The gendarme had him out of sorts. “Laforêt told you we worked together. I was a colourist, and I might have gotten bumped to miniaturist if a contract had gone through. It didn’t, Cartoux had to close shop, we thought we’d consolidate households to save a little cash. That’s all.”
“So who was the woman?”
“A Jewess I met in the market. Thought she’d make a brilliant Ruth. Ruth coming to Boaz. Thought maybe I could sell it for a print. I mean, that’d be a nice picture to hang on the wall, right? Nicer than Judith with the head of Holofernes or Salome and poor John the Baptist.”
“You really aren’t like us, are you?” she asked suspiciously.
“Just say what you mean.”
“You’re skinny and girly and when you get a woman in your room, all you do is draw her. You don’t belong here.”
“What does ’here’ even mean? Laforêt and I have a deal. I didn’t realise I had to make one with you, too.”
“He doesn’t even know where you come from. He says he owes you the biggest favour of his life and that we aren’t supposed to ask questions. I didn’t make a deal, so I’m asking questions.”
“You know, there was a time I never met my neighbours. Silly me, I thought that was the social contract that enabled us to all live in close quarters without murdering each other.”
“I only care because of Thierry.”
“I thought you left him.”
“I did. He was being an ass.”
“Then what business is it of yours what he does or does not owe me?”
She had no answer to that, but it did not seem to matter to her. “You can tell me or I can find out. Thierry will tell me eventually.”
“You’ll find out when it becomes your business and not a moment sooner. Good night, Ada,” he told her firmly, shutting the door in her face.
Laforêt came up the stairs only a few minutes later, as Feuilly was carefully folding his good clothes. He heard Ada’s door open, but Laforêt must have shook his head or just ignored her because the key rattled in the lock before a word was said. “Everything go as planned?” Laforêt asked, looking more at the candles still strewn about than at Feuilly. “Is that a question I can ask?”
“Yes, you can ask. And yes, it went well. I was just drawing a girl, that’s all. Ada will probably tell you all about it if you give her half a chance.”
“I don’t know that I want Ada involved in any of your business.”
“I was drawing a girl. That’s all. I swear. You can look at the sketches.”
“Maybe in the morning. Good night.”
But in the morning, Feuilly made an early escape with the chair and one of the small tables, hoping to get all the merchandise back to Jacquemont and answer no questions from Laforêt. “What’s the tab?”
“Bring back my other table, and we’ll see what you owe me.”
Laforêt was gone by the time Feuilly retrieved the other table, leaving their flat utterly bare. “And here I thought you were moving in,” Ada said from the doorway.
“Don’t you ever do your own work? What makes me so fascinating to watch?”
“I said last night. You don’t belong here.”
“Do the police pay you to spy on me? Or do you bring in gents to help pay your rent? Because I don’t know how you can afford to stay here if you don’t do any work.”
“My room ain’t so nice as yours.”
“So Mère Fablet lets you stay for free? Maybe you bring her up here. Or visit her down there. Nice work if you can get it, am I right?”
It took a moment for Ada to parse his insinuations. “Oh, that’s disgusting, you bastard!” She slammed the door.
Feuilly laughed inwardly as he carried the table down the stairs. She may not like being considered a tribade, but she deserved it after her constant insistence that he must be a fancy boy.
“Alright, here we are,” he announced, setting the final table down in front of Jacquemont. “Not a scratch on any of it.”
The pawnbroker looked over all the borrowed furniture carefully. “You owe me three francs,” he finally announced.
“No way in hell. It’s back on time, not a scratch on any of it.”
“I had someone who wanted a little table the other day. Lost out on the transaction since these weren’t here.”
“Bullshit. If you really had, you’d have been out more than three francs. These aren’t the shit you can sell for three francs. You can have two. Next week.”
“If you can’t pay until next week, why are we even discussing terms?”
“What if I said tomorrow?”
“Fifty sous, no less.”
“Done.” Feuilly hoped there would be some sign of cash tonight, as he would otherwise not have the fifty sous. He did not even have ten sous for his daily bread and was counting on Vivienne to again give him dinner. He would slip her a few francs once he was back in funds.
Without money of any sort, he had nothing to do. It being a Monday, most workshops were idle, so it was useless to go looking for work. Anyone hired on a Monday, breaking the sacred day of rest, was liable to be drummed out on Tuesday once the employees sobered up and returned to the shop. He’d seen a couple of those brawls before, back in the days when some of the masters had wanted to break the tradition of Holy Monday. But Cartoux did not observe Holy Monday, and none of his workers had seemed the worse for it. The workers hurt themselves more with their unpaid day of drink than if they turned that day to useful labour or even to a quiet rest at home. A quiet rest would do anyone more good than a drunken frenzy two days in a row.
Feuilly ended up wandering the city, both to kill time and to avoid being found at home by the police or in the market by Mme Mirès. Something would have to be done about Mme Mirès, he knew. She had been so eager to let something new happen to her, despite all the possible risks to her reputation, and he liked her for it. It was always easier to say no to desire and stick with what was known than to throw it all over on a lark, particularly when your people could only consider it a lark rather than a carefully contemplated exercise of the soul. For her sake, he would have to keep his distance, avoid the marché St-Jean. Yet what if, by some miracle, Duret wanted to run some plates that were not bawdy and appreciated “Ruth in the House of Boaz”? He had promised a split of any profit if he sold the work. It would not be a painting, of course, but it would be wrong to cheat her of even a couple of francs over a quibbling detail. His unconscious path took him past Didier’s, where Pan Chrzyszczewski had to send M. Bahorel down the street after him.
Bahorel nearly earned a blow for his trouble. Feuilly felt the heavy arm around his shoulders without having noted anyone calling his name, and he instinctively pulled away, his arm back to throw a punch, when he recognised the lurid waistcoat. “Christ, you’ll scare a man to death!” he argued, tossing a “monsieur” onto the end as if it could make up for his rudeness in addressing a student too much in the tone of an equal.
Bahorel held up his hands in a gesture of peace. “M. Albert sent me to fetch you. Didn’t you hear him shouting? Come have a drink.”
“Can’t afford it,” Feuilly muttered.
“Neither can they, if we’re telling the whole truth.” Bahorel threw an arm around his shoulders again, and Feuilly permitted himself to be led back to the café.
He knew better than to go inside, to use credit or someone else’s money to buy a couple glasses of wine, to spend the afternoon in honest company when he had to spend the evening in the lower depths. But his impulses were at war within him - he wanted to say yes, to spend an afternoon with honest people who sought his company, even as he wanted to hide from them all in his degradation. Unable to speak, he let Bahorel make the decision for him.
It was warm inside the café in contrast to the damp November streets. Bahorel took him directly up to the zinc. “It’s on me, my friend.”
“Am I your friend?” Feuilly asked skeptically. He barely knew the student, he had just passed nearly three weeks in jail, and even if they had both been more frequently in each other’s company and Feuilly had been an honest man, there could hardly be friendship between a student and a workman.
“I consider any man my friend if I enjoy his company and he enjoys mine.”
“The mark of a fool, then. You know the police picked me up.”
“M. Albert told me. I want to hear all about it.”
He might as well have been Parnasse, Feuilly thought, anxious to see what collège was like without consideration for its wider meaning to the world. “You may not care about your reputation, monsieur, but I must consider mine. It is not much of a tale, in any case.”
“I should very much like to know M. Albert meant by ’treason’.”
“It means another man thought it a good idea to annoy the king, so far as I can make out,” Feuilly told him. It was tiresome to have to explain to an eager listener that there was no story, that there could be no story. “I think it a very poor idea to annoy the king. Whether one likes him or not, he is the king, and I prefer life with a head to death without one.”
“It isn’t much of a story.”
“Is that a complaint? Look, if I knew the story, maybe I’d tell it you, maybe I wouldn’t, but do you really think the coppers told me what they knew? The inspector wasn’t a complete fool.” Feuilly stared into his glass - his glass that Bahorel’s coin had bought - and sighed. “Forgive me, monsieur. I do know my place. What is it you would like to know?”
“I’m the one who should apologise for being an ass and not knowing my place,” Bahorel insisted. “I’m curious. A man should be prepared in life, don’t you think? But I didn’t mean to bribe a story out of you with a drink.”
“A man should be prepared in life. But a man who is prepared for a stint in prison is a man who has not lived his life according to the social prescriptions.”
“Prescriptions produce dullards and electors, which are nearly one and the same, and would be identical if the franchise were greater. A man should be prepared,” he insisted again.
Feuilly shook his head, but he could not help smiling. He had just worked out what Bahorel’s aim must be. Anyone with such an affection for brawling, riots, and foreign politics must anticipate himself at the head of the column when the next funeral collapsed into chaos, or at the head of a foreign regiment of fighters in Greece. In both instances, some idea of a night in the police depot would be of more utility than mere rumours of prison life. “Very well, then. Carry plenty of cash, and you’ll live better than you could have thought.” “I could bribe my way out, you mean?” “Hardly. But the guards do like money, and they do appreciate being asked to do favours. Everything except freedom is for sale, and you, unlike the rest of us, could live quite comfortably. Should you, in solidarity, mind, choose to share the lot of the common man, you can expect to sleep in your clothes on a stone floor for however long the police decide to keep you there. Honestly, I was in the police depot the whole time,” Feuilly tried to rationalise. “I don’t know what la Force is really like. I’ve never seen inside the Conciergerie. I sat on a stone floor for three weeks while a police inspector decided whether or not to take me before a magistrate to charge me with a crime, and I was probably there so he would not have to properly log the arrest and detention in the files at any of the real prisons. It was damp, it was cold, it was crowded, it was not quiet, it was incredibly boring, and if the inspector’s motive was to drive me mad, he has succeeded, or nearly so. It is not an adventure, it is not an education, it’s just damned unpleasant in the end.”
Bahorel clinked their glasses and took a drink. “My sympathies. And thank you for the honest assessment. I’m choosing to believe you told me because you like me, not because one of your social betters pushed you into it.”
“You couldn’t possibly understand who my social betters are.”
“We could start with M. Albert.”
“Dzień dobry, pan,” Feuilly greeted that gentleman as he approached the young men at the zinc. “I’m sorry I was so distracted as to miss your call.”
“You have left us. Why did I not see you in church?”
“I’ve had to move. Near the marché des Innocents.” It was a poor explanation, he feared. It had taken little time to learn that Pan Chrzyszczewski and his daughter had been raised properly in the Church and had a traditional engagement with it, while Feuilly had known missionaries and books in more detail than the ordinary parish priests. They knew God through the structures of the Church, while Feuilly could happily go months without a mass only to end up at Notre-Dame the moment he felt the divine rush. While he had followed all the liturgical holidays the entire time he had known the Chrzyszczewskis, he had done it for Sophie, not for God. A break with Sophie and her father required that he break with the parish as well.
“Ah, a new parish. I see. But you must not forget us. I insist you come to dinner on Sunday.”
“You cannot afford it with Panna Zofia out of work.”
But Pan Chrzyszczewski brushed aside Feuilly’s concern. “If we are poor in pocket, we are rich in spirit, are we not? You will come. Zosia will like it.”
“I am not sure it is appropriate, pan.”
“What could be wrong now that was not before?”
I have spent three weeks in prison. I am in love with your daughter. I did not go to church on Sunday because I was busy pretending to make love to a Jewess so that my associates could defraud her neighbour. The statements pushed at his tongue, but Feuilly could not speak. To open his mouth would be to condemn himself publicly.
“There is no shame in the police taking an interest,” Pan Chrzyszczewski told him, seeming to assume the most obvious reason for Feuilly’s silence. “Each man of us has been in prison, or would be if we had stayed at home.”
“But you have no shame because you worked for the right against the law,” Feuilly explained. “I did nothing, and I walk free because I cannot share the credit or the blame. Credit for you, I mean, because your country has been torn apart by tyrannical empires; blame for anyone who would so annoy a king who has not yet been crowned. I kept Panna Zofia’s name out of it,” he insisted. “One of the men in the workshop did something to annoy the king, probably mucked with the fans we sent for the coronation. The inspector was so curious about our positions in the workshop and our handwriting. But I took all the blame for the design on myself, if there had been blame to attach to our portion of the work. Might I hope that, at least, was honourable?”
“Yes, the women must be kept safe. Thank you, my boy. You must come to dinner, for how else can I thank you properly?”
“Your continued friendship is more than enough.” It was far more than Feuilly knew he deserved, something he knew well enough he ought to abandon as a hopeless cause now that Babet needed him back. But Pan Chrzyszczewski and M. Bahorel both still treated him as part of the circle, despite his now-tainted past. A brief insistence that the police might still be following him, that his very presence might doom them all, was immediately laughed off. What did the French police matter to them? If it mattered, they would have been deported by now, surely. Feuilly could not argue with that logic, so he stayed, slowly drinking the wine Bahorel set before him, listening to the exchanges that flashed between Polish and French of plans that had advanced not at all in the time he was gone. One place of comfort, at least, still wanted him.
He listened for some time, nursing his wine, but as the afternoon progressed, he felt more and more out of place. He had not been guilty of treason, while all of his current café friends were continually engaged in the crime, yet he, far more than they, deserved the time he had spent in jail. Indeed, he deserved far more for his crimes than he had yet suffered. The police had got him wrong and sprung him, the more fools they, but how foolish were they really? The body was long gone, but the witnesses were not. Someone had ordered him sprung behind the inspector’s back. Favours were owed.
Bahorel drew him back over to the zinc. “You’re quieter than usual.”
“You have the wrong man if you ever thought me a chatterbox.”
“I can damned well tell the difference. The company isn’t to your taste today but you’re still here. Meaning something else is worse. I’m not asking you to tell me anything. But if it’s really just all about that stint in jail, it doesn’t seem to have hurt you with the girl. What I mean is, if you’re down because you lost your job and got tossed out of your place, that’s understood. Who wouldn’t be? But if it’s because of how, you’re among men who don’t give a damn for once. Get yourself a woman - you look like you need to get laid.”
“Can’t afford it.” But his thoughts did immediately latch on to Viv - she was probably good for something other than a free dinner. It would explain his unfortunate attachment to Mme Mirès, as well. A girl could be of great use in so many ways. But he couldn’t afford one, not unless there had been huge profits out of the Jew. And he could hardly ruin Viv by taking her up against the wall in the alley, since anywhere else her father would know immediately, and he had no privacy of his own.
“That has never stopped anyone I know, and most of my mates aren’t half as handsome as the specimen you see in front of you.”
“I’m sure your advice is well-meant, monsieur, but it’s sorely misplaced. If you haven’t a damned clue, you should keep your opinions to yourself.”
“Do take care of yourself, my friend,” Bahorel insisted, seemingly not at all bothered by Feuilly’s outburst. He left him with a friendly clap on the shoulder, returning to the Poles.
Feuilly left the café to return to the anonymity of the streets. What good was sympathy from a student who insisted on friendship but could never provide the reciprocation necessary for that relationship? What good was the company of honest men when he had re-entered the realm of the dishonest? What did it matter that Pan Chrzyszczewski still sought his company in the family home when the truth of the matter threatened to out?
The weather had turned colder, but the tavern was as hot as ever from the bodies packed inside, smoking and eating. Babet was already at their table in the back corner, an empty plate pushed to the side. Feuilly slipped into a seat opposite him. “What’s the word?”
Babet dropped a handful of coins on the table. “Your share.”
Feuilly quickly counted, his heart sinking as the handful proved made up of small denominations. “Twenty-six francs and thirteen sous? What kind of bullshit trick is this?”
“I tell you, that’s what I wanted to know. Of course, looking at how that place was run, I don’t think they’re going to miss their concierge.”
Babet did not hold with men who lied to him, or with women who clung to him, and Feuilly supposed those principles could go the other way, as well. If someone’s throat had been slit over the failure of the job, it was not his problem, Feuilly told himself. All he had done was convince an attractive woman to model for his religious picture. Hell, he’d gone to the police himself, hadn’t he? Let the idiot coppers do what they liked with that. “I knew it looked a mistake the moment I saw the Jew,” he muttered.
“What were you doing seeing the Jew?”
“As a gentleman, I walked the girl home, didn’t I? Couldn’t let her walk alone through the streets, not if I cared for her reputation, could I?”
“Who does care for her reputation? She’s a Jewess.”
“A gentleman always cares,” Feuilly insisted. “It’s always that way in the theatre.”
“Well, you played your part, and there are your wages. You don’t get extra for going above and beyond your orders.”
“I didn’t go above and beyond my orders. I kept the girl out of there, and it wasn’t easy, believe me! Nice girls don’t just take up with a stranger who comes onto them in the market.”
“She’s a Jewess - she doesn’t have to be a nice girl. So was she as wild as they’re said to be?”
“There are nice girls of all stripes,” Feuilly insisted, “and she’s a nice girl. She posed for me - with her clothes on, I might add; I made a few drawings; I walked her home. I am a gentleman, a would-be artist from the provinces. You didn’t give me time to come up with anything better than that, and we’re damned lucky it worked. Next time you need a confidence man, get a goddamned confidence man. I’m an amateur and we nearly got blown, not because I can’t lie but because I can’t convince a nice girl to come home with me when I only have two days to work with.”
“Why did I bother calling you in, then? I thought I was doing you a favour.”
“I need the work, no question, but you’ve never done a favour for anyone in your life. I’m cheaper than if you got a real confidence man, and it’s worked out for the best, hasn’t it, the take being such shit? You expect twice this for jewelry, don’t you?”
“Turned out he dealt in paste, the hook-nosed bastard.”
Feuilly counted out twenty francs and pushed them back across the table. “We’ll call that a start on what I owe you. I’ll manage on the rest for a week.” Six francs and thirteen sous was a very small sum to live on, particularly as he owed fifty sous to Jacquemont, but there was still the printer, and perhaps greater attention to Laforêt’s cafés could lead to something.
“You can go longer than that if you come in every night for dinner,” Babet leered.
“You didn’t pay yourself out of my share before handing this over, did you?” Feuilly asked, suddenly suspicious. One could always trust Babet’s motives to benefit Babet alone.
“I play fair. He dealt in paste.”
Feuilly stood to go. “When will I see you again?”
“I should think whenever the hell I like now that you’re picking your girls based on profit rather than pussy.”
Viv could not afford for Feuilly to come in every night - her father would put his foot down eventually. “Don’t be an ass - Vivienne isn’t my girl, and I come here only when you require it. When will I see you again?” he asked again firmly, finality evident in his voice.
“Give me a couple days to work out what’s next.”
“I’ll come back on Thursday.” Feuilly tipped his hat goodbye. “Give my regards to the others.”
He was a little shaky as he left - he had spent the afternoon with drink and had left rather than beg another dinner off Viv. Bahorel’s suggestion for how to spend the evening was forgotten in the grumbling of his stomach - other hungers were real enough but not nearly so pressing. He had money in his pocket now, and, it being Monday, a few street sellers were out near the theatres to catch the exodus of patrons heading home to bed before they began their labours again after the holy day of rest. He bought a hot potato off an old woman outside the Vaudeville - the skin tasted muddy, but the flesh was warm on his fingers and settled his stomach.
Laforêt was already in bed when Feuilly came in, but he sat up at the jingle of money in Feuilly’s pocket. “Do I dare get my hopes up?”
“The job paid off more than half of what I owe,” Feuilly said with false brightness. “This is my profit for the week.”
“Does he need you tomorrow?”
“No, thank God.”
“Come with me - I may be able to get you something.”
“I might have something next week.”
“It ain’t much, but at least it’s honest?”
Feuilly sighed. It had to be patently obvious that whatever he was doing was far from honest labour. And hadn’t he accepted Laforêt’s offer precisely because the man could keep him honest? “I can leave whenever you want me to.”
“Don’t be a fool, and don’t take me for one. I think we can get a franc each scraping floors, which isn’t my idea of a job, but it’s a franc well-earned.”
“You ate plenty well off francs that didn’t exactly come from hard labour,” Feuilly reminded him.
“I’m not complaining. You’re the one who doesn’t sound happy to come home with a pocket full of coin.”
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