Corner of the Sky
“You look like hell,” Babet told him.
“Don’t remind me.” Feuilly had spent all day assisting Manoury on a one-off job. The assistant had to mix the paint, which was hard enough in multiple batches, and then carry the pail up the scaffolding. One arm to haul yourself up the rickety, uneven ladder, and one arm for the heavy pail. Both arms were sore, he was tired, and he did not particularly want another evening with Babet and Gueulemer. He had come for two things: the prospect of paying off his debt and the hope that Viv might be able to give him a little meat for dinner. Heavy work on brown bread alone was probably the reason he felt weak as a slug.
“Going straight never worked out for you.”
“Working for you hasn’t worked for me very well, either, has it?”
“Only because you think you’re too good to do the thing properly.”
“Yes, forgive me for not turning highwayman the moment my purse runs low,” Feuilly snapped.
Gueulemer joined them, dropping heavily onto a stool that creaked under his weight. “Drink!” he shouted belligerently in the direction of the counter.
Viv came hurtling out of the kitchen, an ill look on her face for being sought in such a manner. “Which one of you bastards was that?”
Feuilly wished he could slip away - there was no good to come of staying in such company and plenty of shame from being in such company in the first place - but he would have to pass Viv, who was coming up quickly. He had time only to slump in his seat, his cap low over his eyes, knowing he was acting like a guilty child but unable to stop himself.
Viv slammed the pitcher down on the table, red flecks of wine jumping everywhere. “Take the whole thing, why don’t you? Feuilly!”she exclaimed, her voice suddenly bright. “I’ll bring you a glass. Do you want something to eat?”
His stomach growled eagerly at the suggestion, but he forced himself to shake his head. “I shouldn’t.”
“You know I don’t want your money.” He did not even have time to thank her before she hurried off.
“That there is a fine relationship,” Gueulemer told him.
“Not one he’s inclined to profit from,” Babet prodded. “You’ve got to like a woman who is neither whore nor wife.”
“You don’t like any woman,” Feuilly said.
“I don’t like clingy bitches,” Babet admitted, “and no one likes whores after you don’t need them anymore. That toy you got from mummy turned out to be a real piece of work.”
“A clingy whore,” Feuilly found himself agreeing.
“Now this girl, gives you whatever you want, you go home, and she goes back to work. Both of you fully satisfied. Take what you can before that changes.”
“Is that how you got stuck with a wife?”
Viv returned with a handful of glasses for the table and a plate of stew for Feuilly, saving Babet from having to answer anything about his wife. “It’s good to see you,” she told him, touching his arm in a gesture that might have been intended as friendly but lingered as something more.
“Hey, what about me?” Gueulemer asked.
“You’re a bastard. Did you want something?”
He pointed to Feuilly’s plate. “Plate of that.”
“Dinner all around?” she asked, but Babet waved her off.
“Not hungry?” Gueulemer asked.
“Bad enough I have to watch the two of you swallow that shit.”
“Some of us have been working all day,” Feuilly mumbled through a full mouth.
Viv returned with another plate and two hunks of dry brown bread. “You tell me if you want more.”
“I’m fine. Thank you.”
Gueulemer tucked in without another word.
“If you’re not going to eat, you might as well talk,” Feuilly said to Babet.
“Waiting on our fourth,” he replied.
Feuilly put down his spoon. “Something’s in play.”
He ate quickly, with as much of a childish sense of anticipation as with hunger. The stew was warm and tasted of meat, though it was mostly cabbage and potatoes. Viv had done what she could to pull out some real pieces of flesh for him, instead of the mere shreds one expected, but three or four bites were all she could do with so little to work with. It was still more satisfying than bread and apples and the occasional plain potato. Eating faster could not bring the fourth man any more quickly, no matter how much Feuilly wished it, but it did sate the pit in his stomach. Gueulemer shoveled in his meal with the haste and possessiveness of all prisoners - even Feuilly’s hurry could not compare to the speed with which the big man swallowed his stew and belched his satisfaction.
Montparnasse turned up as Feuilly was wiping the plate with his last mouthful of bread. “So you got out. Now will you tell me all about college?”
“Why haven’t I seen you since I’ve been out?”
“Because the little brat’s supposed to keep his distance,” Babet threatened. “Once he got wind of the last job, he wanted to do the Jew in himself.”
“Who can I practise on if you won’t let me use a Jew?”
“No one until you’re older, you little idiot.”
Gueulemer bellowed, “Now get!” Parnasse went scrambling for the door.
“I’m sorry,” Feuilly apologised.
“Don’t bother. How were you to tell ‘eager’ meant ‘lying sack of shit’? You lost me a lockpick, but you’re back, so why should I hold the would-be Macaire against you?”
So it was to be a break-in, Feuilly surmised. The lockpick had returned. “He may turn out decent when he’s a little older.”
“I’m not keeping my hopes up. Neither you nor he is of the typical run, but that don’t mean you’re as like as either of us had wished.”
The fourth man proved to be Demi-Liard, looking as snake-like as ever. Cadaverously thin with narrow, slanted eyes, he was only a skin disease from being the most convincing snake man in any curiosity show in France. Feuilly had been terrified of him as a child, until Babet proved far worse. Demi-Liard nodded to him as he slipped into the vacant place at the table. “What’s the word?” he asked Babet in his surprisingly deep voice.
“The boy’s in, so we don’t need a key. The sooner the better.”
“Right before New Year’s for maximum cash?” Gueulemer suggested.
“How damned stupid are you?” Babet snapped. “Between Christmas and New Year’s, the place will be full.”
“Surely it’s full now,” Feuilly said. “All the rich folks are in town by now. Do you know who they are? Maybe they’ll go to Rheims for the coronation.”
“Who wants to wait that long?” Gueulemer asked.
“What are we after? Standard take?”
Babet finally spilled the address - the first floor apartment of a perfumer, so any suggestion they had spent the autumn hunting season at a country estate was proved ludicrous. A perfumer of large profits, however. “The things he’s been seen carrying up there, he ought to be made to share.”
“How many servants?”
“Doesn’t matter - they live up top, and there’s renters in between. If we go in after everyone’s in bed, we can have anything we want from the main rooms and the shop, no interference.”
“Wants a hundred francs,” Demi-Liard informed them. “I say we go in through the shop and do an end-run around the greedy bitch.” Gueulemer agreed.
It was easy enough for Gueulemer to say or Babet to silently acquiesce to such a plan, but Feuilly would be the one breaking in and Demi-Liard could be identified. Yet a favour was a favour, it was just picking a couple of locks, and if the concierge thought she could get five louis for looking the other way, the profit would more than clear what remained of his debt. “Just tell me when and where to meet you, and I’ll do whatever you need.”
“You could be a little happier about it,” Gueulemer chided.
“Forgive me for not demonstrating due enthusiasm.”
“Zeal. Fervour. The happy excitement you want to see.” He did not bother to refrain from rolling his eyes.
“Why did you teach that boy to read?”
“The alphabet and a few syllables so he could start to make out the newspapers - he did all this his own damned self,” Babet said defensively.
“So do we have a plan?” Demi-Liard asked.
“Next Thursday night,” Babet decided. It would be about a week before Christmas. “And throw something at your concierge so it doesn’t all collapse in flames. Some of us aren’t so eager to join our mates in hospital.”
At least someone was concerned with the risks, Feuilly thought, even if it was the same man who had chanced using a false key. Perhaps Babet took his associates’ opinions into consideration more than he had thought. Or he had been desperate enough for the money and Gueulemer would never step back from a risk when it enabled him to be lazy, which was probably more likely. A false key took less time and less mental effort than picking the lock. Gueulemer was at fault, he decided. At least it would all be over soon. He slipped away to where Viv was resting at the counter. “Thank you for dinner.”
She pushed a hand toward him, but he did not take it. “I’ll always do whatever I can for you.”
“Would you come outside for a moment?” One could not continue to get something for nothing, and perhaps M. Bahorel had had a point. A little petting in the dark might be good for them both.
Her expression brightened immediately. “I’ll be right behind you.”
Unfortunately, Parnasse had been waiting for him. “So, are you going to tell me about college?”
“There’s a reason we prefer to call it hospital - you might as well be dead because you’re so damned bored. Now go bugger off. I can’t give you anything you want, just advice about the pont d’Arcole you already know.” It was the most likely place Parnasse was sleeping - Feuilly had spent many a night under its arches himself.
“Bastard,” Parnasse muttered as he shuffled off into the dark.
Viv was soon at his side. “What did you want?”
What did he want? Best to stick with the plan, he told himself, even if it was something Babet might approve of. “A kiss?”
But her heart was more in it than his was, even as he fondled her breast, round and firm in his palm. “I’m sorry,” he tried to apologise.
“I’m not much like Lydie, am I?”
“What the hell does Lydie have to do with anything?” he asked in confusion. Her tone had been far too understanding, but she was dead wrong as to his troubles.
“Someone like her is who you’d rather be kissing, is all.”
“Lydie is a self-centred bitch who could only ever care that I bring in money.”
“So you weren’t thinking about her?”
“Why should I? I haven’t given her a moment’s thought since I’ve been back here.” Even when M. Bahorel had suggested he get himself laid, Viv rather than Lydie had sprung to mind. Lydie had not come around, and he was grateful for her silence, now that he bothered to think about it.
“Your other girl, then.”
He had not been thinking of Sophie at all that night, either. “I was just thinking I shouldn’t use you like this. We fondle a little, you steal me dinner. You’re worth better than that.”
She sighed. “So are you, when you put it that way.”
“I’m damned grateful - can never thank you enough - but we shouldn’t be trading favours like this. You’ve fed me for too many years now. I’d rather you threw a little bread Parnasse’s way, to tell the truth. The kindness won’t hurt, even if it doesn’t much help.”
“He won’t grow up anything like you.”
“Maybe that’s for the best. Less disappointment all around.” Viv suddenly shivered in the cold, her whole body wracked with the spasm. Feuilly hugged her tightly. “Go on in. I’ll see you next time.”
“There will be a next time?” she asked hopefully. Even with these confessions, and the aborted petting, she could still be hopeful.
“I still owe Babet, don’t I?”
Walking through the damp December night, he tried to shrug it off. He owed Babet, and that’s all there was to it. He was not turning into Babet, nor was he so far gone as little Parnasse, all bravado with no experience behind it. He might wish he were working honestly, he might wish he could court a decent girl, but a man had to live in the world as it was, at least until he saw a way to remake that fossilised society into what it could be. There was no point changing yourself alone: that would be just a confidence game, liable to get all fouled up by innocent outsiders in the end.
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