Corner of the Sky

Part 34

The next morning, he followed Laforêt to a café where contractors picked up additional labour for building renovations. “Different skills than builders, you know? Sure, a plasterer is a plasterer, but why pay a carpenter if you just need the floors scraped?” There were painters, too, looking to pick up some money, and Feuilly quickly fell into conversation with a man who had the stained fingertips he associated with brushwork.

“It’s too bad you never set to an apprenticeship,” the man told him. “Get you out of this dump of a city, set off on the Tour.”

“Don’t most men want to come to Paris?”

“Only because they don’t know better. No, I’m out of here before winter hits too hard. Give me a nice town in the South any day, sun and wind and not so damned many people who think they know better than you. How can you have kids in a city like this? Kids need air.”

“What is it you do that has a market outside of Paris?”

“Everything has a market outside of Paris!”

“A market for the labour, I mean. Forgive me, I was working in the luxury trades.”

“That explains the ignorance. People need their houses painted everywhere.”

“You’re a housepainter! I’m sorry, I thought I recognised the shade of blue on your fingertips. The blues are a bitch to get off, aren’t they?”

“Tell me about it. Some of the greens have odd fumes, but those pass after the paint dries. The damned indigo can stick to you for a week!”

“I only had a problem with it when doing tiny detail work. The smallest brush, the tightest little space, I end up gripping the brush so far down that I end up with blue streaks.”

“That’s just it - false finishes make more of a mess than a nice flat coat of a solid colour. Or wallpaper, though heaven help us if too many people take it up.”

“False finishes?”

“Surely you were doing much the same - turn a cheap wood into mahogany or even marble.”

That was the technique Aleçon had used for the mourning fans. “Tight detail work for the most part, I should think.”

“Somewhat. Woods are often just coloured; it’s the marble that’s a bitch to work with.”

“Nature has a disorder in the streaks.” He had noted that some of the statues at the Louvre were not quite perfectly white; indeed, some had grey streaks that seemed to lay beneath a tiny film of white, as if the sculptor had cut too deep to hide the flaw yet not deep enough to expose it completely. The stone had seemed to flow like drapery, so perhaps it had layers like fine muslins, too.

“That’s it exactly. Man likes order, except when he expects disorder. Too orderly and your fake looks fake.”

“That’s always the difficulty. Draw something slightly off true, and no matter how accurate it is to the model, it will be seen as your failure.”

“And no one pays for failures, even when it’s their failure, not yours.”

His bitterness led Feuilly to believe that that was how he had landed here, looking for work for a day, when he perhaps ought to already be at a job site.

Laforêt came up to them soon enough. “Come on, I’ve got something for us.”

The something proved, as he had suggested the night before, scraping the floors in an apartment so that they could be refinished. The scrapers were provided by the contractor, and the two of them were left alone in the large, empty room on the first floor. Laforêt looked around, taking in everything Feuilly had seen at a glance - high ceilings where a chandelier had once hung, the walls mostly stripped of their old paper, the tall uncurtained windows that once had displayed gay soirees or hidden hushed salons, the green marble mantelpiece with a classical column on each side of the fireplace, gaping and cold without the andirons. There was also the door leading to the hall and the stairs and another door leading further into the depths of the apartment. Two doors, from which anyone could enter, and two windows, only a flight above the ground, where anyone could escape: these were the most important points worth noting in a bourgeois flat.

Laforêt taught him how to position the heavy iron blades to get as much pull for as little resistance as possible. “If it’s too difficult, you’re taking too much off. And if it’s too easy, you’re not taking up anything at all.” Indeed, it was easy enough work in terms of skill, but it was physically draining even after Feuilly found the appropriate pressure and rhythm. After an hour, he was sweating enough to take off his jacket and roll up his shirtsleeves, the same as Laforêt. After another hour, Laforêt dropped to the floor in a heap. “Hell with this. I need a drink.”

Over a glass of white wine and a piece of bread at the wineshop on the corner, Feuilly asked, “Can you do this day in, day out?”

Laforêt shrugged. “It’s a living for the moment. It’s better than going down to the Place de Grève like a common labourer. You and I aren’t the sort who can last that.”

“I don’t know I can last this.”

“This is finesse as much as strength. We’ll be done well before dark. Twenty sous each. We could do a lot worse for less than a full day’s work. Besides, your printer might have something, right?”

“We’ll see.” Feuilly put no great stock in Duret. Some bawdy prints after the new year for perhaps ten francs; he dared count on nothing more. Once Ruth in the House of Boaz was complete, Duret might not want it at all.

Laforêt was right that a raboteur had to have finesse rather than brute strength, but it was heavy, exhausting work all the same. Feuilly was worn out at the end of the day and itchy with the sawdust that clung to his sweaty skin. They carried a bucket of water up to their room, wet hands freezing in the November cold, so that they could sponge away the grit even as they shivered, their fireplace still bare as they could not afford charcoal. But at least they had acquired a bucket, which meant fresh water every day. That alone was a luxury.

They were living off wine, coffee, and black bread. Feuilly’s meetings with Babet were as fruitless as his second meeting with Duret. “I’ve got nothing for you,” the printer told him, “but come back in a week.” With Babet, it was every two or three days. Ruth in the House of Boaz was going nowhere, Feuilly’s confidence in his preliminary sketches declining by the day. He would need a new model for the body, in any case, and that would take money. Ruth would have to wait.

By the beginning of December, Feuilly found himself drinking on credit at the wineshop around the corner from their flat.

“We’ve the same problem, you and me,” Laforêt was saying, a little drunk. “Well, more or less. You can’t stand what you were taught to do, and you’re too old to pick up another trade. I might be able to go back, but not without punishment. It isn’t worth my skin to try.”

“What could you possibly have done?” Feuilly thought Laforêt too weak to have done anything in his life.

“I suppose you could understand,” he began tentatively. “I mean, you’re not the sort who’s anxious for a brawl. I apprenticed as a joiner and left the brotherhood before completing my tour,” he admitted.

“Left?” Everyone knew the great brawls between the competing brotherhoods that crossed age, place of origin, and trade, but Feuilly had never known it was possible for a man to leave a brotherhood and still live an honest life.

“I wasn’t drummed out,” Laforêt insisted, his gestures a little too broad. “I settled up everything I owed anyone before I went. But Christ. Training and fellowship are all well and good until someone loses an arm, you know?”

“Or until someone ends up dead,” Feuilly mused.

“That’s it exactly! Next time it could be you, and dumb luck decides it all. This time, you and your mates outnumbered them, but the next time someone hails you, it could be a couple of giant coopers! I’m good on intricate detail work, but I’m not so good in a knife fight. My career shouldn’t be based on the latter, you know?”

“So you came to Paris to hide out.”

“Figured there’s work for all. And I was right. Got temporary work in a couple of shops before I found Cartoux. But it’s hard to try anywhere long in my position. There are fewer fights when you leave the field to the mad men.”

“Then what is it you intend to do?” The question had needed asking since they were all sacked, but Feuilly hadn’t yet dared broach the subject. Laforêt had said something about projects when he had taken the flat, but no projects had yet materialised. Instead, they were working as day labourers, but the jobs were gleaned through the cafés for the cost of a glass of wine rather than in the open market of the place de Grève.

“To start, I’ve been collecting scrap wood from all these jobs so I can set up my own little projects. After the New Year, we’ll see what happens. If I have to, I’ll hang around the shops again asking for work. Can usually get a week or two if a brother’s in hospital, and that’s always safer because no one thinks you’re after his job. Something’ll keep me, even if it’s back to the little projects.”

Laforêt’s “little projects” proved to be just that - a combination of small wooden toys and intricately carved pillboxes. “I know two stall holders who’ll buy them off me,” he explained. “The boxes were how I got in with Cartoux in the first place.” From then on, every job he went on, Feuilly brought back scraps of wood. Until their fortunes improved, their money was pooled, Laforêt insisting, “I owe you.” If Laforêt skipped a day of labour, he could turn out handfuls of the little animals or dolls or, if the wood were suitable, a single little pillbox, the top covered with swirls like those of a rose window in a church and sides reminiscent of the borders of the choir stalls in the oldest churches in Paris. “Have you been to Notre-Dame?” Feuilly dared ask at seeing one of these beautiful exemplars of Laforêt’s work.

“Have, but this one’s based on the cathedral back in Bourges. Saint-Etienne’s been treated a little better than poor Notre-Dame.”

The wooden animals went for ten sous a dozen wholesale, sold on through the New Year as cheap presents for children, brought by Saint Nicolas or Père Noël or, at the New Year, overtly given by relatives themselves. The pillboxes could fetch as much as 30 sous each with inlay work, but a box like that took more than a day to make. Yet so long as they could steal scrap wood, the money Laforêt earned from the little projects was pure profit, and along with the outside labour, the combined proceeds could at least keep the two of them in bread over the course of a week.

A week that soon stretched to two, then to three. Duret finally said, “After the New Year,” and made it sound final. There was no more hope from that quarter. If a morning was spent at a café and no work materialised, there would be no work in the afternoon, either, rendering full days wasted for Feuilly, though Laforêt of course took the afternoons to make up his animals. Something had to give, Feuilly thought, as he spent too many days drinking on credit or pondering the state of the Poles. He dared not go back to them until he was more certain of his situation. M. Bahorel’s sympathies had been unexpected, and Feuilly did not want to encourage whatever intimacy the student wanted to provoke. The student would not be the one to suffer by it when it all fell apart.

In the first week of December, a new hand-lettered sign had appeared two doors down from the café where Feuilly spent most of his time with the decorators. Having as much time as curiosity, Feuilly went to read it, expecting it to state the terms of a flat for rent. A large flat for rent might need redecorating and thus might bring work for some, at least. But the sign instead read, “Cabinet de lecture, Mme Duzan, 2nd floor”. A reading room had appeared on the street.

Feuilly ignored it at first, assuming that it was probably for his betters, but when he saw the concierge sweeping in front of the building one morning, he asked, “What’s with the reading room?”

“Madame had a choice to give up her second floor rooms at the quarter or do something to pay the rent. She hasn’t got a novel in the place, so I don’t have my hopes up.”

“Will she take any customer?”

“If she knows what’s good for her, she will.”

Feuilly thanked him for the information. What might the woman have if not novels? Of course it would cost, but if her rates were as reasonable as a glass or two of wine, he might have found a new occupation. But he was getting wine on credit much of the time now, so what did it matter that one was as cheap as the other in ready cash? He had no cash to hand. And surely the rates could not be so cheap.

But three days later, on the proceeds of a quick job mixing colours for Manoury, his comrade the housepainter, he climbed to the second floor to see just what Mme Duzan, if she would accept his sous, might offer him in exchange.

A second handwritten sign was tacked to one of the doors on the second floor, stating the open hours but nothing about prices. Still, in a modest house, where the concierge had not turned him away, it was possible he might be permitted to enter. He knocked on the door. A muffled female voice bade him enter.

Mme Duzan was a woman past middle-age, dressed in unfashionably high-waisted black, probably a widow who had entered mourning at a time when such a style was still in fashion. Her room had a couple of shabby armchairs, a writing desk from which she had just got up to greet her visitor, and four bookcases fronted in glass.

“Good afternoon, madame,” Feuilly addressed her with a polite bow, hat in hand. “I saw your sign.”

She looked at him curiously. Did she see no customers at all, or had she not expected to attract any of the workers that walked up and down the street every day? He felt terribly out of place in the quiet room, its spare furnishings reeking of bourgeois comforts, but he had entered, therefore he must press the encounter. “You like to read?” she asked.

Was she condescending to him? Or was she merely confused by his presence? She had addressed him in the formal, while she would have tossed him out on his ear in the familiar if he were really so out of place. Four entire bookcases could not be discounted when she had asked a confused question rather than thrown him out. “Yes, madame,” he answered politely. “Whenever I get the chance.”

“I have no pot-boiling novels.”

“The concierge told me. May I look around a little?”

“If you like.”

Feuilly did not know what he had expected to find when the concierge said there were no novels. Religious tracts, perhaps, or old histories of the kings of France. There were histories, but of vanished empires, not of the House of Bourbon. There were Latin texts he could not read, very old and much abused, and Greek texts of the same fashion. There were scientific publications, and works of military strategy, and a few volumes of poetry and classic plays. He had not seriously thought how actors learned their lines, perhaps he had thought they received manuscripts passed down from the authors. He knew Racine and Molière were long dead, of course, but he had never contemplated how long. But here was Phèdre, set down on bound paper, and here Tartuffe. Here was a treatise on artillery, published under the old regime, and here a history of the Venetian Republic. Of the hundreds of volumes around him - a quick glance showed each shelf held at least ten volumes, and there were five shelves to a case - he had not read a single one, though he knew the plays from the free performances the government gave from time to time. Even if one discounted the Latin and Greek texts, there were over a hundred books here he had not yet read, a hundred books of knowledge that, if he were lucky, he might take for his own.

He pulled the first volume of the history of Venice from the shelf. “How much to borrow this one, madame?”

“All the books in French are ten sous a day if you take it home. If you are quiet, you may read it here for five sous a day.”

She would permit him to stay all day, in one of the fine armchairs, and nourish his soul for the price of a pot of wine? “Five sous, then.” He counted them out and handed them over, protectively holding the book against his chest.

“What is your name?”

Why did she care? Then he noticed the ledger. Of course, she would mark down what book he read, how much she earned for it, and assign it to him. “Feuilly. Daniel Feuilly.”

“Can you sign your name?”

“Of course,” he answered a little snappishly, rather taken aback by the question. Even a man who cannot write a letter can usually sign his own name, he thought, as he took up the pen and made a deliberately ostentatious signature. He might be a workman, but he was reading her book, wasn’t he?

Yet soon enough, he forgot that she was watching him at all, as he let go of the day-to-day concerns of the world and lost himself in the history of the glittering republic.

He went back the next afternoon, and the next, telling no one where he went for fear they might laugh at him, or that Laforêt might consider it a waste of their shared funds. But he was fascinated by the grand building works of the doges and the domination of trade. Five sous a day meant he could afford even less to eat, but he had less desire for food so long as his mind was engaged. He would have spent as much or more in wine and bread were he not so well occupied with mental labours.

After only three days, Mme Duzan had grown used to him. Or at least she had stopped watching him like a hawk, as if at any minute he might give up reading and attempt to steal back the five sous he had handed over, for she had nothing else to steal. She had few customers, perhaps because she had no pot-boiling novels, and she mostly sat at her writing desk, sewing shirts or something and waiting for anyone to come. When he moved on to the second volume, beginning with the fifteenth century war with the Turks, Mme Duzan said to him, “My husband was at the capitulation, you know.”

“Pardon?” He was signing his name to the register again, one of only two names that appeared more than once.

“My late husband served with the Emperor. He was there when we took Venice.”

That explained why she was reduced to setting out his books as a public reading room to any comers - he must have ended up on half pay, and now even that was gone. But how could any army have taken such a jewel of the East? Perhaps the Emperor’s fall was a just punishment for his audacity, even if it did leave little Mme Duzan to scrape for her living.

Laforêt had his little projects, and Feuilly had found his own. Work stepped in soon enough to interrupt his journey through Venice, but after a few days he made it back. When Venice had fallen into hard times in the eighteenth century, as Turks and Austrians took more of her land and Genoa took more of her trade, he at last understood how the poor old lady had fallen to the armies of the French Republic. It had not been the glittering republic of Titian for well over a century, and like poor Notre-Dame, it must still be sinking in despair, he thought. Yet how awful that the Austrians should have taken what was left. The Turks, being backward but a Mediterranean people themselves, might have understood her better than these German-speakers of the mountains. Austria, that rapacious empire that swallowed nations, had shared in the destruction of Poland as well.

But then, the Turks would have treated the Venetians the same as they had the Greeks, and that would never do, either. The Venetians should have had their republic back, to do what they could with it, just as the Greeks ought to have their country, and the Poles, and something must be found for the Jews. Wasn’t there something in the Bible saying that the nations must have peace? The Austrians weren’t ordained by anything but a temporary strength. The Venetians were strong once. If they were as determined as the Poles, someday they, too, might have their freedom again.


Part 33 ~ Fiction ~ Part 35 ~ Home