Corner of the Sky
When Feuilly woke, Laforêt was gone. He had slept deeply but not well, lurid dreams bringing him towards consciousness but never awakening enough to have heard his friend’s departure. The floor was less conducive to sleep than even a prickly straw pallet might have been, and the rumbling in his stomach was a greater reminder than the church tolling noon that even a midday rising needed to be fortified.
It was a grey, dismal day, and only the height of his room at the top of the house had permitted some pale sunlight to thin the December gloom. Down in the streets, the day was dark. Feuilly bought himself some bread and choked it down, though it tasted of sawdust and was dry in his throat. As it should be, he told himself. He rarely thought about his victims - only the poor servant or whatever he had been before his throat was slit had made any impression before - but now he was thinking in similar ways about “that poor perfumer”. They had taken particular items rather than just whatever they could carry, and they had fired a gun at him. That was the rub, really. Feuilly staked out his jobs of course, he did not go into just any house, but the reasons for one house over another had less to do with who the occupants were and more to do with where their houses stood and the movements of the anonymous inhabitants. An ordinary job was impersonal, one man’s house selected over another by chance more than intent. This job had been highly individual. It wasn’t for Feuilly to know or care how a man made his living. But first the Jew and now the perfumer: he might as well attack men face to face in the Tuileries and know less about them. He had taken men’s books, their silver, their wives’ jewelry, and yet only now did he feel as if he ought to have known something of those men. If he had done this to other men as men rather than as shadows, would he feel his guilt so starkly now? Or would that make him Babet, unable to feel guilt at all for the wrongs he had done to so many?
He went walking by the river. The company of other people, whether in a warm café or Mme Duzan in her paltry reading room, was a privilege he did not deserve. Babet was right - he had lost his nerve. Or perhaps he had never had the nerve he had thought, that the suspense and excitement of figuring out a puzzle in the middle of the night without getting caught was just that, a game, something that he won and they could afford to lose. But the Jew, despite being a Jew, could not afford to have lost. The perfumer, so long as he wasn’t dead, could afford to lose, but what if he were attached to the specific paintings they had taken? What if Ada broke into his room and borrowed his art book or stole his sketches of Mme Mirès? His art book. No matter how many times he had hocked and redeemed that book, it would never truly be his. It had been set apart from all the other volumes in that fine house - had it been special to its rightful owner, too? But the rightful owner could buy a new one. Books were not published one at a time. The perfumer could not buy his same paintings again. Which was why they were stolen, because someone else was willing to pay for those exact paintings, ill-gotten if unobtainable any other way. Demi-Liard had a buyer for those, not for the ones he left on the wall.
Did rich people conceive of possessions in the same way poor people did? Perhaps, able to buy anything, they did not attach meaning to objects so easily acquired. The pearl bracelet, the jade earrings were merely trinkets held even less lightly than a girl’s glass earrings that she saved weeks to buy but knows she may lose within the season. Or were the sapphire pendant and the cameo brooch kept carefully by, no longer worn but cherished as love tokens, as someone might hold a scrap of ribbon or a broken earring that were all that remained of gifts from a lover or husband? Sophie had an earring - just one - that had belonged to her mother. Was this attachment a sign of delicate feelings among the nobility or of the maudlin emotion ascribed to the poor?
What could be more maudlin, Feuilly reminded himself, than pondering the extent to which the wealthy could be victimised? This was precisely the sort of question he ought to ask M. Bahorel, so flippant in asking the working classes about prison. But that was unfair as well - the student had been eager, and he had tried to be understanding, even friendly to Feuilly rather than condescending. To ask such questions of him would be condescending in its own way. Not that he could permit himself anywhere near the student - or Pan Chrzyszczewski for that matter - after the previous night’s events. He did not deserve the privilege, and he was far too likely to start speaking along lines that could get them all arrested. After one arrest for political actions, his public speech would certainly be watched, and this king would not appreciate questions on the degree of victimisation felt by the rich. They felt themselves victims for merely seeing women left to die in the streets because the poor beings were too old and sick to work. And Babet felt much the same, Feuilly suspected. He earned his living, therefore so should everyone else. The only pure charity Babet had ever expressed was teaching Feuilly the alphabet; everything else brought profit.
Feuilly went home, trying to shake such thoughts from his head. Perhaps he could do a little cleaning, provoke Ada into an argument if he really needed the release. But Laforêt had returned in his absence, to work on his little animals as no other work must have been available. Or perhaps not, as he was sitting with his arms crossed, knife and half-formed beast at his side, with Feuilly’s tools spread out in front of him.
“What are these?” he asked darkly, no other greeting being necessary.
“Why the hell are you going through my things?”
“I was looking for a pencil.”
“That’s a little too damned heavy for a pencil case, don’t you think?” Feuilly snapped.
He moved forward to take them back, but Laforêt jumped to his feet and blocked him. “What are they for?” he asked again.
“What do they look like?”
“You know damned well!”
“You said no questions until the end of the year!”
“I couldn’t have expected this, now, could I? You, of all people!”
He looked and sounded so thoroughly disgusted - and even rather scared - that Feuilly was confused. Yes, it was illegal, yes, there were victims, he knew that damned well himself after last night, but Laforêt had managed to take Hogu in stride. What was wrong with the cadets? A few thin hooks of iron, that was all. The pistol was gone, didn’t have to be acknowledged. Of course, in the grey light, those thin pieces of metal looked dark and twisted against the light canvas of their wrap, potentially murderous, even. And then Feuilly had to laugh.
“Did you think I’m a one-man Inquisition, digging these under a man’s fingernails? They’re lock picks, you rube.” But it was with a wave of affection - how wonderful it was that someone was honest enough not to twig what they were. And perhaps, if one sharpened them, all sorts of devious tortures could be possible, though that would utterly ruin them for their intended use.
Unfortunately, Feuilly had to react quickly as Laforêt’s fist came at him. “I’m sorry,” he apologised as he pinned his friend against the wall. “I meant it with all the good nature in the world.” And to prove it, he let go, his hands raised in open surrender, but his whole body steeled for the sucker punch he knew he deserved. He should not have laughed, or called Laforêt a rube. Any man, and a compagnon in particular, had every right to be touchy when his reputation was impugned.
Laforêt kept his hands to himself this time, though he glared at Feuilly suspiciously. “Lock picks.”
“Come on, why won’t you believe me? You can put my ass on the floor if you want to fight it out,” Feuilly offered.
“Lock pick tools,” he repeated again.
“It’s just burglary, not the Inquisition.” Feuilly was starting to sound a little desperate even to himself. Either fight it out or finish the denunciation or accept the damned things, he wanted to cry out. “You said, across the hall, a girl used to the do the same thing.”
“She picked pockets.”
“What’s the difference?” Feuilly snapped anxiously.
“You - you have tools!”
“So did she if she was any good at it! A second pocket, a fake hand, a hook - every trade has its tools as well as its training. You’ve got yours,” Feuilly indicated the knife and various rasps and files scattered across the floor, “and I’ve got mine.”
Neither said anything for a long time. Laforêt seemed to have no answer, nor any desire to more physically release his anger or frustration, the impulse having passed. Feuilly saw no point in continuing the argument. He had known the experiment could never work, not for long, and at least they had found out before paying another quarter’s rent. Laforêt did not owe him a final denunciation or a grudging acceptance of just how those important thirty francs had been earned. “Fuck it,” Feuilly finally said. “I’ll pack up and go.”
“No,” Laforêt protested weakly, sinking back to the floor. “I’m the idiot. You said it wasn’t on the up-and-up, and at night, and I agreed to not ask questions, and I suppose that does make me a rube. I thought it was picking men’s pockets at the end of the night,” he admitted. “But this, it’s - it’s-”
“Organised. You have tools. A man doesn’t make his own tools.”
“Unless he comes up with something better for the job at hand.”
“But that’s a genius. I’m talking an ordinary man of work.”
“Then you’re right. I’m no genius in the lockpicking trade, just a good hand at it.”
“Why don’t you set up as a locksmith, then, rather than joining me in day labour?”
“Because I’m not a locksmith. This is all I was trained for. That’s the joke of the whole thing, isn’t it? I can pick a lock, but I can’t make one. I was never even trained to make a false key. Oh, I suppose I could do something with a file, a blank, and some common sense, but not if it’s a lock of any greater complexity than this thing on our door. Any idiot can take an impression, of course, but no one ever taught me the arts of the false key. And that doesn’t begin to touch the workings of a lock itself. I started early as a pick and took straight to it, so what point would there have been in sending me to apprentice legitimately? It would have cost money, and my value would have been completely lost.”
“Had you no family who were not criminal?”
“I have no family at all. Raised by wolves - well, the urban equivalent. Lions, maybe.” Mangy, flea-bitten, suspicious, and dangerous, just like the big cats at the Jardin des Plantes.
“What you’ve been doing - is it as bad as I think?” Laforêt asked.
How old was he? Feuilly wondered. His innocence was beginning to sound childish. “Probably not.” Certainly not if he was still associating lock picks with instruments of torture, though Feuilly kept that comment to himself. “I open doors. That’s all this boils down to. Opening doors. Anything else isn’t on me. What my associates get up to inside is their business. I get what I can grab, and sometimes a fee for opening the door.”
“So what do your associates get up to inside?”
“Not my business, not your business. Babet always has his side deals I’m not privy to, thank god. Being privy to his side dentistry was bad enough. He also does what you suspected I did, stealing men’s purses in the middle of the night, only not so quietly as your former neighbour. Brujon is in prison because he gets up to stealing furniture instead of more easily movable goods, and it’s hard to run from the cops when you’ve got a rug rolled up on your shoulder. Barrecarrosse handles the carriage trade, as you can imagine from the nickname; Gueulemer provides muscle there when he feels like it, or in burglary when he feels like it. But on the whole, it’s just burglary. That’s what most of my former associates do. I only ever participated in burglary. No one’s stabbing people in the night, that I know of.”
“I wasn’t blaming you for every crime of passion in Paris.”
“Why not? A duchess would never wield the knife herself.”
Laforêt’s jaw dropped. Dammit, Feuilly thought, even after this little snit, he’s still thinking about the glories of Macaire. “You know about that sort of thing?” he asked, a little awed.
“Only speculating,” Feuilly admitted. Speculating based on Babet’s outside activities, but it was still only speculation.
Laforêt let out a sigh of relief - perhaps he was not so worshipful of Macaire after all - and offered his hand to Feuilly. “If you meant what you said, that it’s all over, then I’m sorry for being an idiot. And a rube. No hard feelings?”
“It’s all over. Not as clean a break as I would have liked,” Feuilly admitted, “but it was final.”
“Then take my hand, dammit. I owe you. Quite a lot more than I thought, I’m afraid.”
Feuilly accepted the gesture, but he shook away any notion of continued debt. “Knowing me had you in over your head in that cell.”
“Did you wonder if they’d arrested you for something you’d once done with the negro?”
“I never worked closely with Hogu. But I was damned certain I wasn’t in that holding cell for some political nonsense,” he admitted at last. It was something of a relief to finally say it out loud.
“Would they have brought you up on something else, do you think?”
“I’ve no doubt of it. Whatever Aleçon did was a joke compared to breaking into a man’s house.” Much less compared to murder, he added silently.
“I suppose you’re free of it, then. I mean, if they had anything, it’d have come out, right?”
It should have come out, or at least his forged livret should have come out, but the inspector had been stopped somehow. “The cops, maybe. Hopefully. But the acts themselves?” He shrugged. “No matter how many masses I attend or how many times I confess, some sins I’ll never be free of.”
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