Corner of the Sky
The lock was easy, its levers sensitive and willing under Feuilly’s tools. Perhaps there was another bolt on the inside, or even just a shopkeeper’s bell that would sing out the moment the door slipped open, but he was not afraid. He knew this feeling well, the fingers supple despite the winter cold, the whole body alive to the slightest sound. He had at last grown accustomed to the weight of the pistol in his pocket, an unlooked-for lump of awkward metal.
The pistol was on loan from Babet. Two days before, it had been pushed across the table at him. “What’s this for?”
“You. What do you think?” Babet’s opinion of his penetration was obvious.
“You know I’ve never fired one of these in my life.”
“That’s why you get it early. Go to Nadin’s outside the barrière de Charenton and get some practice.”
“On what? I can’t afford powder and shot.”
“That’s why you go to Nadin’s. He’s expecting you.”
Nadin had constructed an enclosed shooting gallery in his garden after too many complaints of missed shots making holes in his neighbours’ fences. He was one of Babet’s acquaintances from the circuit of provincial fairs, a one-handed former soldier who now taught the trick shooting he used to display for country rubes willing to drop a sou on dangerous entertainments. The whole set-up was not to Feuilly’s taste - hiding the pistol from Laforêt, certain he would end up shooting himself accidentally, learning an unsought skill from a man he knew only by reputation - but he had no choice. It turned out less dangerous and more ridiculous than Feuilly had anticipated. A one-handed man had greater felicity with the muzzle-loading firearm than he did. His first attempts at aim were ludicrous as the gun jumped uncontrollably in his hand with every pull of the trigger. “Grab it tighter, you idiot!” the old soldier would shout at him every time he tried to mitigate the the recoil. “You’re just making it worse!” If a hand-held cannon required so much control, how could anyone escape the kick of a rifle uninjured? Feuilly wondered.
But in the end, his hands black with powder residue, he could add a few new holes close enough to Nadin’s battered outlines for the man to be satisfied enough. “That’ll do for now. Come back and we’ll see if you’re capable of remembering a damned thing.” Feuilly had no intention of ever going back, but he had certainly used enough of Babet’s money on powder and balls, he feared. Yet more to repay out of the coming job.
Laforêt had smelled the gunpowder on him that night and looked concerned, but he had kept his word and asked no questions, not even when Feuilly told him he’d be gone a full night. He had not said anything at all, which did not leave Feuilly at all confident in his acceptance of this particular job. The pistol had not left Feuilly himself at all confident in this particular job, but Laforêt’s silence worried him further rather than reassured him.
None of it mattered now, however, with such nice levers under his tools. Too damned many of them - he had hitched four already and he was not yet done - but they moved as he wanted them to, only one so far slick and hard to hook into place. He felt a surge of excitement as the last lever slipped into place. A hard turn with the tension rod and the bolt shot back into the door. His part was done for the moment.
Demi-Liard pushed him aside, eager to be the first one in. He pushed the door hard and fast, a quick movement that would strangle any jingle of a bell or squeak of a hinge. There proved no bolt, no bell, and only a single quick squeal as the hinges gave way at once. He oiled them as the other three hurried in off the street, closing the door behind them in well-lubricated silence. The shutters over the shop windows still closed, Gueulemer opened the shade of the dark lantern, spilling flickering light into the room. Bottles and jars glinted on shelves; a counter stood out as a dark bulwark. Stairs rose into the darkness behind that counter, more perceived than seen in the shadows.
The second lock, at the top of the stairs, was less cooperative than the first, the levers slippery and unwilling to stay where he wanted them, but it had only three and yielded in a short time, surprising Feuilly after all the initial trouble. With the shutter over the lantern closed again for safety, the four men pushed their way inside. Feuilly had always preferred houses to flats - the internal walls of a flat were often so very thin, and sounds on another floor could more easily be discounted than sounds that came through a thin dividing wall. In a house, the master would be upstairs, the servants up further yet; in a flat, the servants might be at the top with the rent-paying seamstresses and labourers, but the master was merely a screen away from his salon. It was really no wonder Babet so often resorted to stick ups in the parks and arcades, as one was just as close to man in his flat. But a shopkeeper who lived above his shop would keep the cashbox at home, and if they could find it and leave unseen and unheard, it would be a grand pay day. Even a few trinkets would be more profitable than the cash a bourgeois carried on him of an evening, and the target was said to be a collector of interesting trinkets. For the moment, the flat was silent, the men holding their breaths as they listened for the tell-tale signs of a sleepless house. But there were no lights, and no sound came.
Gueulemer, his native impatience to the fore, opened the lantern’s shutter. They were in the family’s salon or at least reception hall - framed pictures anonymous as mirrors in the dim light, chairs and a sofa against the walls, heavy dark curtains over the windows, and a tall cabinet of knick-knacks that Demi-Liard set to emptying. Another door, also locked, led deeper into the flat. Three doors had better be worth the damned trouble, Feuilly thought as he massaged the levers into place. If the other side proved to be the bedroom, was this why he had a pistol? But who would place their bedroom so close to such an open reception room if they had another choice? Logic stated that the next room was perfectly safe. The door opened easily and silently, taking them into what appeared a book-lined study. A table of no great size and four chairs stood not far from a writing desk and bookcases. A few pulls showed the books mostly fakes, a hollow display of a shopkeeper’s false erudition. The lower half of each case was a cabinet, many containing interesting little objects, along with a full set of china, folded textiles, and a selection of silver serving pieces. Study and dining room, then. The opposite door very likely led directly into the master’s bedroom itself.
Feuilly began stuffing handfuls of silver cutlery into his bag, though he was quickly interrupted. One of the cabinets was locked, he understood from Babet’s beckoning motions. While Gueulemer pulled out silver salvers and a rather large tureen, Feuilly picked his fourth lock of the night. This one was only a warded lock, but with complex wards that did not at all like most of his tools. “What’s taking so long?” Babet whispered harshly, his lips touching Feuilly’s ear.
“Damned awkward wards,” he whispered back. Answering was a distraction - he had to feel again for the pin that was stopping everything up. If he could get around that pin, which he had thought he had done before Babet interrupted him, he ought to be able to move the entire mechanism and open the door. It opened at last, with a faint click as the bolt slipped into place. With a quick motion, Babet called over Gueulemer - they had found the cash box. Only Gueulemer, with his thick muscles, was really qualified to carry the iron-bound box any distance further than down the stairs; they would smash the lock, or the box itself, later. Babet took up the silver Gueulemer had collected, and Demi-Liard passed Feuilly’s bag, now packed with unknown trinkets, back to him, and pointed out a couple of small framed paintings or prints he wanted Feuilly to carry. Demi-Liard’s own bag was also full, and he had his own frames to haul back to the safe house.
They must have stayed too long, or closed the study door too heavily, for as Feuilly was struggling to cover some of his tracks by locking the door to the shop behind them, its slippery levers not eager to let him move the bolt back into place, he thought he heard a faint shuffle inside. The walls had been thin, he suddenly believed with the fervour and terror of a convert. The master had awoken, and now, through those papery walls, he could be heard climbing out of bed, wondering just what noise he might have heard. Feuilly froze a moment, swore he heard a door open - how silly, he tried to tell himself, there were two whole rooms between him and the bedroom, if bedroom it had been, so how could he hear the master open his bedroom door? - and with belief stronger than reason, pulled his tools and slipped down the stairs as rapidly and quietly as he could. Now there was a footstep above them, a creak of the floor that proved his sixth sense had been working quite well after all, and more than a footstep as no locks stopped the shopkeeper’s mad rush to see what all had been done to his shop. Gueulemer, the stupid clod, shifted the cashbox more comfortably under his arm, a cascade of metal coins falling against each other within the wooden compartments that did nothing to muffle the sound. Babet, one arm full, tried to motion to Feuilly to grab the paintings he had set down in order to lock the door, but Feuilly made a rude gesture and pushed his way out the door, jostling with Demi-Liard to get through, Gueulemer on their heels.
He heard the gunshot just behind them as they took flight. Had it been Babet or Gueulemer? The whole street would be awake now, a gendarme would come running, they were all laden with take, and instead of melting away into the night, separating to be more difficult to follow, the three panicked men kept together in a clump, intent on reaching the safe house. Perhaps neither Feuilly nor Demi-Liard trusted Gueulemer with the cashbox, that grand prize of audacity no bag of trinkets could possibly replace. Feuilly dashed up the stairs with Demi-Liard, Gueulemer hot on their heels, intent on getting his fair share and giving Babet a piece of his mind over that inane gunshot. By the time he reached the top of the seemingly infinite staircase, his heart was beating fit to burst out of his chest.
“Fucker!” spat Demi-Liard.
Gueulemer raised a huge fist. “Are you talking to me?”
“I am now, you moron.”
“Where’s his holiness?” Feuilly asked, trying not to let his fear show. The bad fear had taken hold of him the moment he first perceived the master of the house, and while they had all gone scrambling at once, he suspected that he had started the mad dash. The good fear sharpened the senses, made a man lean and quick and ready for anything; the bad fear took hold of him entirely and closed him off from any path other than flight. It was a weak, cowardly, womanish emotion that he knew he had given in to. The question now was if they had noted it and blamed him for the most obvious consequence of their rush: Babet was not in the room with them.
“I thought he was right behind us,” Gueulemer said. He set the cashbox down heavily. “At least we got this.”
“Yes, what a consolation prize for nearly getting busted,” Feuilly said sarcastically, trying to cover his frayed nerves.
Footsteps on the stairs prevented any response. Feuilly’s hand flew up unconsciously to grab one of his long curls - his fingers needed something to toy with in a desperate attempt to release some of the tension that overwhelmed him. It was probably just Babet, but what if they had been followed? He heard the metallic clicks of Gueulemer and Demi-Liard cocking their pistols.
“Don’t shoot me, you bastards.” Feuilly let out a breath of relief even before the door opened. The voice was Babet’s.
Of course, Babet’s safe return was Babet’s pissed off return. “What the hell was that, leaving take like a Bicêtre idiot?” he immediately accused Feuilly, dropping the paintings Feuilly had abandoned at his feet.
“I did my damned job,” Feuilly pushed back, the fear suddenly gone, leaving anger in its place. “We got in, we got a good load, we even got the fucking cashbox! And you’re in my face about three goddamned paintings?”
“We have a buyer for those,” Demi-Liard put in.
“Then why didn’t you pick them up yourself,” Feuilly snapped. “Here, you can take this back, too.” He pressed the borrowed pistol on Babet. “This is two murders now that I didn’t want to be involved in.”
“Don’t be such a woman. I didn’t even hit him.”
“Then what the hell was the point?” Feuilly hissed, his jaw clenched. He wanted to shout, but he dared not wake any neighbours who might be scrupulous enough to talk to the police.
“He didn’t come after me, did he?” Babet answered coolly.
“You just woke the entire neighbourhood while you were at it!”
“Shut up. You sound like a hysterical fucking bitch. Doesn’t he?” he asked Gueulemer. “You know damned well what I do with hysterical bitches. What happened to your nerve? Use your damned head. He was going to start shouting the moment he saw us and would probably have come after us with a poker or something, following us out into the street at the very least. That would have woken the neighbourhood just as well, him on our heels, shouting to raise the dead, and you know all that damned well after certain events. This way, I make the noise, it’s not in the street, he doesn’t follow me straight off because he knows I can kill him at a distance, and it will take time for everyone to react. He would have discovered everything before dawn, anyway, and I wasn’t followed back here, so there’s no reason to be such a damned girl about it.”
Meanwhile, Gueulemer had begun trying to force the cashbox hinges. Feuilly, annoyed at Babet’s recklessness, annoyed at being lectured like a child, annoyed at having lost his nerve, snapped, “Give me that. You’ll wake the dead yourself if you keep that up.”
Gueulemer looked to Babet, who just shrugged. “Give it to him,” Demi-Liard ordered. “You’re all driving me mad.”
The candle in the lantern lasted just long enough for Feuilly to open the padlock. Unlike his comrades, the work did not judge him and find him wanting, nor did he judge the work. This work, the lock and his picks, had nothing to do with right or wrong, did not mark any difference between rich and poor, but was all about cleverness and patience. The king that had lost his head, the useless brother of the current useless king, had taken up locksmithing as a hobby, and he himself had trained on padlocks not attached to anything. In those cases, it was a puzzle to solve, exercising the mind and the fine sense of touch. Babet needed a lockpick because he did not have the patience for it himself. The false key appealed to the lazy or those who were confidence men at heart. The itinerant dentist was of course a confidence man of sorts, more willing to ply his wits to get access to the lock to make a mold of it than to learn the lock itself. When the body dropped from the shackle, Feuilly did not bother to hide a small smile. Rage as Babet might about his loss of nerve, Feuilly knew his way, the careful way, was the right way. Had he not just proved it through silent, dogged labour?
They shared out the coins by the reflection of a street lamp through the uncurtained window. Feuilly’s share was twice what he owed Babet, though he had not yet taken account of how much had been spent at Nadin’s behest. He counted out thirty francs for himself and pushed the rest across the floor to his former mentor. “We’re more than even. You can have my share of the rest of the take. I’m done. No more.”
“Don’t be an idiot.”
“I’m not. If I’ve lost my nerve, you don’t want me anyway, do you? I’m grateful as hell, and I’ve more than paid you back tonight. We are done.”
“You’ll walk out on me a third time, you ungrateful bastard?”
“Yes. Pistols and confidence games are not what I thought I was coming back to,” Feuilly told him firmly, his earlier fear completely gone. Rage as Babet might, threaten as he would, he was not a cop, and the coppers would have come for them by now if they had been traced to this house. “I’m grateful for the help, my whole damned life’s worth, but you always made more off me than I did. You don’t run a charity for orphans. And since you’ve gotten paid, you don’t get to be a greedy bastard and claim the rest of my life. Is that understood?”
“If you walk out, I won’t take you back.”
“Fine by me. Fair’s fair. Next time I get picked up by the cops, I’ll make sure I deserve it.”
“If I were you, I wouldn’t leave yet. Let the churchbells ring again so you don’t get picked up,” Demi-Liard told him as he opened the door to stalk out. Unfortunately, the man made a good point. There was early morning, and there was abominably early. It was not yet reasonable to walk the Paris streets without getting pulled aside for questioning as to his motives for such an early venture. Better to sit sulking in a corner as the three ostentatiously ignored him, arguing about who got what share of the take. Arguing in particular detail and pointed tones, over the contents of his sack.
“Oh, fuck you all,” Feuilly ended up snapping at them, grabbing two spoons and two knives and a flask that had somehow found its way in. “A man’s got to furnish his life somehow,” he tried to justify to Demi-Liard’s slippery grin. No one stopped him from adding to his little pile of profit. He’d trade the fine cutlery in for pewter and coin if he didn’t keep it himself. The flask was his straight-out, he had already decided. How else was a man to get through a winter’s labour without some warming liquid at his side? It, too, might be traded for a simpler version and a couple extra francs, but it had a nice feel in the hand. These little acquisitions were eminently practical, he felt, and that concern for daily living gave him a bit of comfort, while his outburst had quieted his erstwhile comrades. He may have been taken for a hypocrite, but they were well-versed in hypocrisy. Such thoughts were no comfort, but Feuilly reminded himself that the honest way to get hold of basic cutlery was to pay for what other men had stolen. Such an action would be patently ridiculous, not to be thought of seriously. Babet would think him a chump, and rightly so, for such waste. Since he was not above taking money from the cashbox to pay his rent, what was the harm in taking a few tokens to otherwise improve his more honest existence? Of these things he reminded himself in the early morning darkness, waiting for the bells that would free him from any further temptations to hypocrisy.
The sky was just lightening as Feuilly walked towards the pont Notre-Dame, mingling in the streets with carters bringing their wares to the Paris markets. Women with baskets of eggs balance on their heads followed carts of winter produce and cans of milk. Squawking chickens headed for the poultry market brought a welcome sort of barnyard noise and ammoniac scent to the ordinary sounds and smells of the city. When the bells had rung for Prime, Feuilly had practically run out of the room, down the stairs, out into the freedom of the narrow streets. He needed to breathe, and he needed to pray. There were closer churches, but he wanted his old lady more than anything, more even than the sleep that was beginning to overwhelm him. He moved quickly around and through the farmers, dodging and slipping through gaps in the slow-moving crowd with the old dexterity of the gamin.
The Latin chant was still being sung when Feuilly slipped inside the cathedral to kneel against a pillar of one of the old side chapels overseen by a headless donor, dark in the early morning. Letting the Latin wash over him, he began to pray for forgiveness. In one night, he had dishonoured both his heavenly father and the closest he had ever had to an earthly one, but his greatest shame was that after the theft and dishonour, he did not feel free. Babet had pulled the trigger that morning, turning an ordinary robbery into a vicious crime, but would old loyalties, the old ways that had privileged stealth and cunning over violent noise, have any meaning that would stay his tongue if the police caught up with any of them? He, not Babet, had opened the doors, had enabled the theft of the cashbox. The last proceeds of crime and sin were in his pocket, would feed him and an honest man for the rest of this terrible year, would keep them going into the early spring. Could he throw them aside, not pay his debt to Vivienne, and let an honest man go hungry in the bargain?
What a terrible year it had been. Where had this experiment in going straight really got him? From Mireille’s death to this morning’s violence, nothing tangible had been gained. He was back where he had started. Yet in the moments before the police had come to arrest the entire workshop, he had been truly happy. Friends, a decent room, a girl to dream about, work he enjoyed, and the possibility for more of all of it: the things men turned to crime to find, he had found in going straight. And it was all wiped out by one damned inspector who could not be satisfied with Aleçon alone, no matter what the evidence told him.
It was the cops who had fucked them all over, Feuilly decided. He had done everything right; it was the cops and the king who were the problem. The king shouldn’t have taken whatever Aleçon did so seriously, and the cops shouldn’t have kept everyone without charges for that long. Or revoked Cartoux’s license in a fit of pique. They appreciated the tax revenue, didn’t they? Then they should have appreciated the men and women whose labour made all that money.
The priests’ Latin did nothing to calm him. The service ended and still he knelt in the chapel, his head against the ancient stone pillar, raging against the reverses of the autumn. He was too tired to rage aloud, but here he felt God heard his thoughts most clearly, and in his exhaustion from the sleepless night, he no longer cared if his thoughts were sensible or appropriate. The woes of the autumn had not come from God or Satan; they came directly from the new king. And God would never have set this cowardly king above this brave people. Feuilly agreed with the Poles more completely than he ever had before - God is great, and kings must answer to men. Anything else was tyranny. “Down with Charles X” felt better to say, even if only in his soul, than “Fuck you, too, Babet”. What did Babet matter in the great scheme of the universe? A petty thief, a swindler, a selfish man who did not even bother to destroy those who crossed him if he could not profit from it. But a king who let his law be so petty, he was worth every condemnation. What did the paltry handful of take in his pockets matter when the king had taken everything worthwhile in life?
Feuilly was so tired he almost felt drunk. Down with Charles X. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I have meant no harm, and I will start again, I promise. You mean no ill for us. You are not on King Charles’ side. How can You be, when Your Son asks us to consider our salvation separate from our earthly lives? Down with Charles X. And please forgive Your penitent child. I put my life in Your hands. Not the state’s; Yours.
Stumbling home, his return woke Laforêt.
Feuilly merely pulled off his muddy boots and curled up in a blanket, not bothering to undress any further. The night had been too long, the morning too trying, to care to do anything more. “We’re free,” he murmured, rolling over to go to sleep in the grey dawn light.
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