Corner of the Sky

Part 38

Laforêt said he accepted Feuilly’s explanations, but the flat was still tense. Perhaps the explanations, on greater reflection, had not seemed so complete or so honest after all. But then, Christmas was fast approaching, and Laforêt worked hurriedly, leaving only for food, supplies, and to sell his wares to the stall holder. One had to make money when one could, and the profitable winter holidays would not come again for another year.

Feuilly paid down his café debts, paid the next quarter’s rent early, and kept away from the house as much as possible. Work was scarce, but he had a greater horror of debt than hunger. A few francs to each of the cafés, the quarter’s rent - he might be hungry, but he had put his money into the future rather than the petty needs of the day. He tried to forget that work was scarce largely because he spent little time in the cafés, and he was hungry because he spent his days walking the streets. He did not deserve the comforts of honest men, and he wished to avoid the pleasures of the dishonest. It was a warm December, wet rather than snowy, which permitted him these easy freedoms during the short days. But once Christmas rolled around, a bit more than a week after the robbery, he had grown cold and tired and bored and bitter with the society that did not bother to read his sin on his face and cast him out directly. No one even bothered to stare at him when he filled the stolen flask with water from the fountain as he dared not spend the money for brandy to drown his guilt or warm his chilled body.

His walks across the dark, wet city were often fortified with this water alone. Water from the sky, water in the gut, holy water in the churches where he occasionally stopped to pray - perhaps he was drowning, and no one bothered to notice. But he only felt the water, not the pressure. Passersby averted their eyes not because they dared not look at the thief in their midst but because they did not bother to look at anyone. Feuilly felt none of the abuse he was certain had followed in the wake of the murder; a robbery was nothing in comparison to that crime. He had exiled himself thinking he deserved the punishment, yet only he cared to punish himself. He even dared a trip back down that cursed street, where the unfortunate perfumer was doing a brisk holiday business. The holiday rush would set him and his employees right - if it had not been for the specificity of the paintings they nabbed, it would have been a perfectly victimless crime, like every other robbery he had ever conducted.

Letting go of his shame to attend midnight mass in his old parish, where he might lay eyes on Sophie, granted more relief than it should have done. Feuilly knew that she was firmly out of his reach and going to look at her at a distance proved it. His return to his previous life coupled with the desire he knew he should not indulge made it a very bad idea, yet he wanted only to see her, not to destroy her through an improper wooing. And it was the last parish to which he had in any sense belonged, so he had yet another excuse for his reappearance.

Claiming to have nothing better to do, as he had finished all he could with the materials he had on hand, Laforêt tagged along. Feuilly had not invited him, really. He had told Laforêt that he was heading to mass at Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs out of courtesy. Laforêt had never gone to church with Feuilly, and Feuilly rather suspected he was coming along now in order to see that he was indeed going to mass rather than robbing a nice family while they were at mass. They walked in pained silence through festive crowds until, within sight of the church tower, he clapped Feuilly on the shoulder. “Look, I’ve been an ass. I’m sorry. It’s hard enough on the rest of us; got to be worse for you, figuring out yourself what we were all taught from birth.”

“What is?” Feuilly did not bother to hide his belligerence, but Laforêt paid him no mind.

“Life. Work. Goodness. Religion. Salvation. Everything we’re supposed to embrace and your people mock.”

Feuilly thought he caught sight of Sophie silhouetted against the church door a few paces ahead of them. The shadow held its head in a very familiar way. “And love?”

“Love and riches and daring are reserved for our betters, right? Or so they try to say. To hell with them. I don’t begrudge you the girl. I don’t know how you do it, but I don’t hold it against you.”

Was his motive tonight really so transparent? “Do what?”

The light from the church suddenly shone yellow on Laforêt’s open face as they passed up the steps. “Be you. You go out and do what it was you were doing, then you come back and draw pictures of beautiful women that look more real than many an engraving I’ve seen in a shop window.” When had he seen any of Feuilly’s drawings? Probably when going through everything in search of a pencil, before the cadets turned up and forced conversations like this one, Feuilly remembered. “You keep books rather than hock them for the cash. You go to mass! Ada’s right you aren’t like the rest of us, but I don’t think the negro was anything like you. Mlle Sophie ain’t much like the rest of us, either, so why should I hold a grudge, even if I did fancy her longer?”

“I’m sorry. Christ, I should have realised everyone was at least half in love with her.” Feuilly had never considered that he had a rival so close. Cartoux may have said no fraternisation, but he probably hadn’t minded a good-looking, talented girl in his shop, either. Had Cartoux not been married, would Pan Chrzyszczewski have minded a bourgeois suitor for his aristocratic daughter?

“No need to apologise. Anyone can see she’d have you before she’d have me.”

“What about Ada?”

Laforêt shrugged. “Came along a bit later. She has her moments. Not enough to keep me from Fanny when we were on the outs.”

Feuilly had nothing to say to that. Frustration over Sophie had driven him to Fanny as well. But the silence as they took their seats was far more companionable than anything over the past week had been.

Large crowds filing in behind them began to fill the aisles, as all the seats were taken. Paris attended mass only twice in a year, Christmas and Easter: the one a festive opportunity to stay warm at no cost, the other the only attention Parisians paid to their souls. Feuilly and Laforêt had managed seats in the middle of the next to last row of chairs, unable to see where Sophie and her father might have landed with the push of the crowd. Families crowded in, babes in arms, to hear the recitation of the miracle and to keep warm in the flickering candlelight. The whole church seemed to reverberate with the bells tolling midnight, tolling across the city the announcement that Christ was born on this day. When the sound died away, the organist began to play, soon joined by the sweet melody of the young attendants leading the priest to the altar draped in hothouse flowers.

Feuilly used the mass as an opportunity to pray, a time when God was paying most attention to those assembled to witness the miracle. “My Father, my Lord,” he prayed, “I ask nothing of You tonight but the forgiveness You offer through He whose coming we celebrate tonight. I know the wrong I have done, and I repent of it whole-heartedly. I do not ask that the coming year go better for me; I only promise that I shall serve You better than I have done of late. My life and my salvation are ever in Your hands, for You to do with as You please. Forgive me my weakness, if it be Your desire. In Your name, I shall be stronger from now on. I have broken permanently with the tempters, and I give all to You. Amen.”

Feuilly could understand little from so far away, the priest and the choir and a tenor soloist swallowed in the immensity of the church, but he had attended midnight masses for his entire life, ever since he had learned he would not be booted out of the warm church if he were quiet and did not engage in the raillery habitual to his caste. It was all comfortingly familiar, from the barely-heard lyrics to the Latin chant to the worshipers shifting in their seats, babies snuffling and crying, children unable to sit still if awake. Packed in among his fellows in the working class, single men and women and families alike for a special mass like today, Feuilly could give himself up to the organ and the chant and the unspoken fellowship of belief.

The priest took the host and lifted the chalice and made communion in a brief silence, the body and blood of the adult sanctifying the birth of the Saviour. The choir broke into Adeste Fideles as the chalice was lifted, and some of the assembled worshipers hummed along as everyone stood to be counted among the faithful. The miracle of the mass itself, the body and the blood taken by the priest, never changed, a miracle performed several times a day, but the watching crowd and the special music for the holiday made the miracle feel greater, more immediate than any day but Easter, when a man might take communion himself and experience the miracle personally.

Catching sight of Sophie as the crowd began to leave, Feuilly pushed past a family of sleepy children, Laforêt in his wake, unwilling to give in to temptation on a night that ought to celebrate redemption. He is come, our sins will be borne by Him, our salvation is assured. Into His hands Feuilly had just delivered himself, away from temptation, and though he had come hoping to see Sophie, the glimpse had been more than enough.

The night, like the day, was damp and chill, the stars hidden behind thick clouds. Laforêt caught up to him in the chattering crowds, whistling a tune Feuilly soon recognised a particularly jaunty rendition of Angels in the Countryside, more akin to a dance hall tune than a celebration of the Lord’s birth. Yet the mild blasphemy - not even blasphemy, really - was wholly appropriate. Last Christmas had been spent with Lydie, a whore technically barred from the churches but brazening her way through mass at the cathedral. Christmas was not Easter; it asked for celebration rather than confession. After the solemnity of the mass, one should emerge into joyous earthly celebrations - food and drink and song shared with family to mark this anniversary of salvation and peace. “In excelsis deo,” Feuilly recited with a smile.

Their cold fireplace gaped darkly in the night, but they turned their backs to it and shared a bottle of cheap wine Laforêt had procured for the occasion. “I don’t want you to think I’m ungrateful,” he told Feuilly as he offered the bottle, “because I’m not. I’m damned grateful. It was just a lot to swallow, you know? But you never tried to drag me into any of it; you always kept trying to give me a way out. Does that make bandits better men than compagnons?”

“They’re mostly thieves, not bandits,” Feuilly corrected. “I was certainly never holding up coaches in the moonlight. But they are generally smart enough not to start brawls over pride, I give them that. It’s a young man’s folly, I think, and they pulled me out of it quick enough, while that lot encourage each other. Surely the masters would prefer you be better behaved and less frequently injured in your own stupidity.”

“They all did it themselves. It’s tradition, to them, not stupidity, and you don’t put a stop to tradition without making a mess.”

“It looks damned chaotic to me.”

“Only the brawls,” Laforêt insisted. “It’s really very organised. Nothing else could have gotten me to Paris with money in my pocket and enough training to find good work. If only you could keep the good and get rid of the bad. But that’s the trouble with tradition.”

“At least you had some good to benefit from. Have you noticed the King wants to bring back the good and the bad - the good for him and the bad for everyone else?”

Laforêt laughed but he looked worried. “What’s the King to do with Christmas? Or with corporations?”

“Can’t stop thinking, you know?”

“Aren’t you afraid of going back to jail?”

“Is Ada going to turn me in?” Feuilly scoffed. “Next time, it damned well better be for something I did. I won’t be getting help again.”

“You really meant it, then. All up with your associates, now and forever.”

“Every damned word. We’re free to lose our heads if that’s what the cops - or the King - want with us.”

“Heads down, then, and nose to the grindstone.” Was that advice or a warning?

Feuilly spent the next week scrounging work and scrounging scraps of wood as Laforêt worked furiously to finish as many pillboxes as possible. New Year’s was when adults gave each other gifts, Christmas more often being for the children, and that gave them one more week to end the year with something in their pockets. He worked late into the night, sharing candles with Ada, Feuilly taking the opportunity of the light and the company to make a few sketches.

It started when Laforêt, the day after Christmas, unable to get enough light from other people’s windows at dusk, had gone across the hall to ask if he might come over and they could work from a single candle.

“Absolutely not!” she had replied. “I don’t want your sawdust in here. I’ll come over there. Will he be there?”

“Yes. Feuilly lives here, too.” Feuilly was unsure if Laforêt’s condescension was put-on because he could overhear or because Ada deserved it, but much of the air had been cleared on Christmas Eve.

Ada came in any case, dragging a chair behind her. “Just because you can’t afford furniture doesn’t mean I have to suffer.”

That night, Feuilly learned she was not a mere seamstress but an embroiderer of some talent. It was no wonder she could afford to take a few minutes for spying on him, as her piece rate was significantly better than a lowly stitcher could hope to earn. Feuilly set up his shaving mirror behind the candle to make the most of the light, and they worked for hours until it burnt low, chatting about nothing of importance, Ada more argumentative than homely.

Still, she came back the next night, and the next, and as Feuilly never left them alone - he had started to get up on the second night, to give them some privacy, but Laforêt had shook his head - she began to direct a few of her barbed questions directly at him. The tension in her neck and shoulders when she responded to any of his answers with a skeptical look, he realised, was just what was missing from Ruth in the House of Boaz. Mme Mirès had been stiff all over, nervous, but she had come because she had, indeed, trusted him. Ada, like most girls, and probably like Ruth, could look after herself and would probably tell Feuilly so if he dared suggest otherwise, but looking after oneself meant treating every stranger as if he were a confidence man. That would be precisely Ruth’s fear - with Boaz still asleep, she had not yet fallen, and she was still on the verge of committing herself to trust. The outcome was still unknown and a fall without even a token monetary benefit was more than possible. Ada looked as if she might recoil at any moment, while Mme Mirès had merely looked unnaturally stiff.

The sorrow and the suspicion - could he manage to have them both read? Could they be combined, or were they conflicting interpretations? No, Ruth was sad, it was her constant state of being, so suspicion ought to be more easily overlaid than fear. Could he even get Ada to pose for him? He needed her standing body, not her bent over her work.

He must have looked at her too long that night, for she met his eyes and asked, “What are you staring at?”

“Had an idea.”

“Absolutely not,” she scoffed. “Besides, I didn’t think you liked girls.”

“I like girls just fine; I just don’t like you,” he batted back. “Remember my printer?” he asked Laforêt.

“The one who only ever said ‘After the new year’?”

“That’s the one. I’ve been working up an idea for Ruth in the House of Boaz, and I need a girl to pose for me.”

“I remember. Saw the sketches, didn’t I? If your Jewess didn’t work out, only girl I know well enough to speak to is Ada.”

“As if I’d take my clothes off for either of you!”

“You have before,” Laforêt reminded her.

“You’re an ass, Thierry,” she snapped.

“It’s when Ruth comes to him in the night,” Feuilly explained. “Fully dressed. You watched my last model pose for me.”

“Why don’t you get the Jewess back, then?”

“It didn’t work as well as I’d hoped. I think I need someone who finds me repulsive.”

“It would take a Jew to find you attractive.”

“I thought we were being nice tonight,” Laforêt complained.

“I’ve been a perfect gentleman, haven’t I, Ada?”

“That’s your problem. Models get paid, don’t they? How much did you give the Jew?”

“Nothing,” Feuilly admitted. “She’ll get a cut if I sell the picture.”

“So if you sell it, I’ll get a cut, too?”

“I thought you said no.”

“I said I wouldn’t take my clothes off.”

“But if there’s money in it, you’ll stand there and glare at me for an hour.”

She shrugged. Her needle had not stopped moving the whole time, bright flowers appearing under the silver flash even as they argued. “If it’s worth my while.”

They dropped the subject, though later that night, as they settled down in their blankets, Laforêt told him, “You see how we ended up on the outs. Everything’s on her terms. Always.” Still, Ada so far had seemed a treat compared to a clingy cow like Lydie. How had Feuilly managed to stay with her so long? Had he really only felt sorry for her and unworthy of anything better? Not that anyone was immune - he was dead certain Laforêt was going to end up in Ada’s bed again by spring. Still, he’d give Lydie this much credit: she had thoroughly disappeared, not even bothering to come near him in those couple of months he’d been forced back to the old associations. She was well and truly gone, just as Ada surely would be had Laforêt not moved in across the hall from her. Still, a battle with Ada was a respectable battle of equals, not the shrill screaming match one could expect from Lydie. Laforêt did have better taste on the whole, even if he ended up with Ada again.


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