Corner of the Sky

Part 39

The new year blew in windy, though the temperature stayed above freezing. For the first time, the windows rattled in their panes, and the wind shot down the chimney, making the little flat nearly as cold as it was outside. “At least with the wind, we wouldn’t be able to keep a fire anyway,” Feuilly tried to joke.

They did manage a bit of luck almost immediately, however - scraping floors again, in four different flats over two days, so they were able to work together out of the wind. A few francs in their pockets meant hot dinners before ascending to the frigid flat for the night. Wednesday, Laforêt was asked to come into a shop for the rest of the week to help finish an order, for once requested to do what he had trained at, even if only for a few days. Feuilly found no work himself that day, but he spent the afternoon with Mme Duzan, burying his nose in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Her late husband must have found the translation an easier reference than the original Greek, he thought: Caesar and Plutarch were in Latin, but all the Greeks were in translation.

When Feuilly returned that evening, he found Laforêt huddled around a low candle, a sheet of paper in his hand.

“What’s that?”

Laforêt did not bother to look up. “Letter from home.”

Yet more tragedy, Feuilly thought. We think we catch a break, but we can’t manage to close out the old year with anything like calm. “I’m sorry.”

Laforêt looked up this time. “For what?”

Feuilly shrugged. “Whatever has happened.”

“It’s a new year’s letter from home. Christ, you look as if someone had died.”

“Didn’t they?”

“No. This may come as a shock to you, but in families, we like to know what’s going on with each other, especially when it ain’t bad news.”

“Is that a crack at me being an orphan?” he asked defensively.

“It’s a crack at the company you’ve kept, and I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said it. But your people aren’t the sort to keep in touch with a father or a brother, are they, except for emergencies like death and bankruptcy. And then, if you’ve never left Paris,what would you know of bonds and distance, anyway?”

“I’ve seen plenty of people afflicted with homesickness,” Feuilly replied defensively. “Doesn’t mean they wasted money sending letters like a bourgeois.” He’d overheard the dictations to the letter writers in some of the markets, and they were never about the homesickness shared in the cafés but always about the tragedies of life and death.

“My family aren’t that poor. A letter a year isn’t much, not when you own your own place.”

“Would you go back and work for your father?”

“He wasn’t happy I left the brotherhood. Distance is a good thing sometimes. And I’m not desperate enough to go begging at home, yet. Besides, my sister married a joiner, so I’ve got a brother-in-law taking the place that otherwise might have been mine, and he’s welcome to it.”

“Any troubles at the shop today?”

“Nah. These guys are gavots: the slightly more sane corporation,” he explained. “They’ll take in men who renounce membership in the enemy brotherhood, so maybe they think they can groom me for membership. Never again am I falling for it, for it takes two to brawl and they aren’t cowards, but I wish the best of luck to them. It certainly goes easier for me so long as they think I can be brought into their fold.”

There was no work for Feuilly the next day, either, but the light at the top of the house was a bit better. Rather than waste a sou and the afternoon with Mme Duzan’s library, he knocked on Ada’s door. It was after the new year, but he dared not return to Duret without a salable drawing in hand; he could predict the printer would tell him “come back next month”, and it would be harder to send him brusquely away if he brought something for sale. “Can you give me half an hour?” he asked Ada when she glared at him through the narrow crack she had opened the door.

“For what?”

“You know damned well for what. Half an hour to stand in front of the window holding a candlestick. When I sell the drawing, you’ll get paid. Swear to god.”

“Half an hour. In the best light of the day.”

“That’s all. If you can’t spare it, you can’t spare it. I know you have to make a living yourself.” It was a lot to ask, he realised.

“Half an hour. No more.”

“And can I borrow a chair?”

She sniffed, but she did drag a chair across the hall. “Will you keep the door open for my protection, too?”

“You don’t need to mock me for considering a woman’s reputation. Yes, I will keep the door open if you wish it.” He put the chair in front of the window, so the light would fall across his paper, and pointed to the spot where Ada should stand. “Take this.”

“An unlit candle in broad daylight.”

“You’re a model, not an actress.” It was easiest to be short with her; drawn out explanations would get him nowhere. “Boaz’s bed is by the fireplace. You just came in the door.”

He took her around the waist to turn her slightly to better face the direction he wanted, but she wriggled out of his grasp. “Did I say you could touch me?”

“If you think I don’t like girls, what the hell does it matter if I touch you? If you don’t want to do this, you can go home. I can try to find the Jewess again, though she wasn’t working out as well as I had hoped.”

“Just warn me before you get grabby.”

“Fine. I’m going to turn you a little, then I may raise or lower your arm a bit. Is that acceptable?”

“Yes, now that you’ve told me,” she snapped. But she was compliant, a better model than Lydie had been, really. Despite her tongue, she permitted him to manipulate her body however he needed, and she never reverted to the position he had just tried to move her out of as Lydie had so often done. Her very annoyance with him paradoxically made him more comfortable in her presence than he had been with Mme Mirès. There was no role to play with Ada; she forced her own truth on every interaction.

“Now, Boaz’s bed is by the fireplace. You’ve just come in. You’re pausing before waking him, taking a moment to consider just what you’re about to do. Either he’ll take advantage of your desperation, or he’ll save your reputation with an offer of marriage.”

“Ruth was an idiot if she thought this was a reasonable plan.”

“Because any man in his right mind would have taken his pleasures with her in the night rather than gone through with a marriage contract?”

“Of course.”

“That’s the point of the story, though, isn’t it? That mankind is capable of being better when we follow the path that we know is right, rather than the path that is easiest and most pleasant in the moment.”

“But she doesn’t know he’s really a better man. The landowners let any poor landless peasant glean the fields. I’ve seen it myself. Ruth, unlike the usual gleaners, was young and pretty and the great landowner was sleeping on the threshing floor when she came to him, worn out with work at the heaviest season of the year, so he would have been an idiot not to just take some fun there and then.” Dammit, that was the part he had forgotten - it was not his house she had gone to, but he was asleep in the barn, worn out from having supervised the harvest work himself. It wasn’t Ruth in the House of Boaz at all, but Ruth in the Barn of Boaz. Which rather lost something, but then it would simplify the composition. He’d have to come up with a new title.

“Which means she gambled everything on a single throw of the dice. And she knows it. She walks in here knowing it is all or nothing, salvation or hellfire. Boaz might be one of the ordinary run of men after all, taking pleasures half-asleep rather than listening to her pleas. This is her gamble. He’s asleep over there,” he pointed again. “What would you do if you were her?”

“I thought I was a model, not an actress?”

“Pretend I’m Boaz asleep over there. Then don’t move,” he ordered her. She complied. Though her compliance included dropping one side of her shawl, with a curse muttered through clenched teeth, as she had been told not to move.

And that was all he had needed, Feuilly realised. A trailing shawl to show the disorder in her mind. “I’m going to adjust your shawl,” he told her. “I want you to grip the corner you still have hold of as tight as you can.” A more artistic sweep across to the viewer’s side, a careful adjustment so that it clung a bit to her skirt rather than pooling at her feet, and there was everything he had needed.

The sketching went fast and clean. Ada hardly breathed, taking his injunction against movement very seriously, indeed. “Why do you listen to me now?” he asked her. “You can talk, just don’t turn your head or move anything else.”

“Work is work. It has to be taken seriously. If you really mean you can sell this, and you’ll pay me for it, it isn’t my business to interfere. You know what you’re doing and I don’t, so why should I throw my oar in?”

“Thank you for taking something seriously.”

“You’re not a real artist, otherwise you wouldn’t be friends with Thierry, or asking me to help you out. A real artist would hire a professional model, not a Jew from the market or the embroiderer across the hall. But it is work, if you end up selling it, and if Thierry can sell those frilly pillboxes, who am I to say you can’t sell a drawing of me? Even I’m supposed to be doing whitework on petticoats right now, and no one needs her underthings to look pretty. If you sell it, then it is work, and that’s all that matters, right?” She was as cutting as usual, but she did not seem to be looking to get a rise out of him this time. She was, indeed, taking the work seriously, even if she could not take him seriously. Because she was right, a real artist would not be rooming with a joiner, even if he did prefer to use a Jewess from the market or the grisette across the hall as his models.

The church striking the half hour told him his allotted time was about half over. “You can move around a little if you want, stretch, whatever,” he told her. “I just want to do a few more details in full light. Could you come back some evening so I can see what candlelight actually does in terms of light and shadow?”

“How much will you pay me?”

“You’ll get a decent percentage of whatever I’m paid. I’m not paying you by the hour.”

“Fine. Whenever. We’ve already started, so I shouldn’t be such a bitch as to say no. Come on, put me back together and finish what you want.”

But the break had done Feuilly no favours, and everything he attempted in shading looked smudged and dirty. He had to go back, make a completely new outline, trace the folds and leave the shadows. The shadows would look completely different in candlelight, in any case, he told himself. Ada had thrown him off, he decided, hitting too close to the truth, agreeing that he wasn’t a real artist. The quarter had not yet sounded, but he dropped his pencil and set aside his board. “That’s enough. Thank you. I’ll come for you some evening when I’m ready?”

“Whatever.” She threw her shawl back over both shoulders and went home without another word, her chair scraping across the wooden floors as she dragged it behind her.

Whatever. She was right, he wasn’t a real artist. His shading was mere smudges; his outlines wavered. Looking back at his original sketches of Mme Mirès, all he could see were the flaws. What could be further from a salable product than these untrained pieces of rubbish?

Laforêt found him sitting in the dark, surrounded by papers. “Come eat something and tell me what’s up.”

“Go, I’m fine.”

“Have you eaten today?” Feuilly didn’t answer. “Come on. I’ve got two whole francs, so we can dine and drink.”

“What was with the papers?” Laforêt asked when they had finished dinner.

“I should just set light to every damned one of them,” Feuilly sighed. “The drawings for Ruth and Boaz. They’re not good enough for anything.”

“Bullshit. I never laid eyes on that girl except in those drawings, and damned if I don’t think she’s one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen.”

“So you snooped through all my stuff when you were looking for a pencil.”

“You didn’t exactly hide them, and you had offered to show them to me yourself. You don’t get to make me the villain just because you’re feeling down over being unemployed. Come Saturday night, I’ll be right back with you. Have you seen the printer yet?”

“I’m waiting until I can bring him something rather than be sent off with a not-so-polite ’Come back next month’.”

“I see your point, but I also see you’re not taking it nearly so well as a week ago. Maybe you need to get laid.”

“Can’t afford it.”

“Your Jewess doesn’t put out?”

“She’s not that sort of a Jewess.”

“You sure? Eh, I suppose you’re right. Neither of us could afford that sort of Jewess.”

He did not even feel like defending Mme Mirès’ honour. Perhaps he had pegged her wrong all along, feeling sorry for her as one of Babet’s victims, never really considering her on her own. Maybe that was why the drawings were so false: the Jewess was lustful, exotic, intoxicating, while the victim was meek, tired, sad, even a little frail. He had drawn the one but modeled on the other. Then Ada, picking at him. “Why can’t I seem to produce one thing that is good? One thing doesn’t seem too much to ask.”

“Show me what you think is wrong with them.”

Feuilly shook his head. “I know what is wrong. I’m out of my depth. A miniature portrait, a nymph in an imagined glen - that’s all I can do, and barely those. A full-on composition? Who was I kidding?”

“The thing you did for the King was brilliant.”

“I had Sophie working on it with me, and she has real training. And we’d just been to the Salon, so I was copying right and left.”

“Then go back and look at what else you ought to copy if you want to have something for your printer. How much longer do you really want to be scraping floors?”

“Because we can’t really afford it, you mean?” But he knew Laforêt was right, at least in that they could not keep going for years just on day labour. And Duret was the best contact Feuilly currently had towards finding anything better.

In the light of day, the drawings still looked amateurish, but Feuilly could better identify the flaws. The smudges were flaws of haste, of scrubbing at the lines rather than more carefully thought-out blending, but they were also the wrong way to have gone about the shading. If he were to sell it to Duret, it would be for a print, an etching or engraving, and thus the shading should be in careful lines rather than smudges to make it easier for the engraver. It could possibly still be fixed.

On Sunday, he joined the crowds at the Salon for the last time. It would close up that Saturday, so this was everyone’s last chance to see all the submitted works, not merely the ones that would be bought into the government collection. Alone among the press, in winter rather than autumn, the whole feel of the exhibit was different. He had no one with whom to share his excitement - indeed, he felt no excitement at all, but a distinct annoyance that it was too crowded to stand in one place for long, to fully examine anything, much less to copy anything. Even the paintings themselves seemed changed. The angry cardinal’s poor victim looked rather bilious as she prayed, as if she had a stomach complaint in addition to whatever had brought her before the Inquisition. A madman conducted some Biblical marriage in place of a sane priest. A man in medieval dress looked like a cardboard ballet girl attached to an equally flat domestic scene. But the huge English landscape with the piled, rushing clouds had not dimmed at all for him.

Still, the trip was not entirely for naught. A painting of a young woman with a book, at the bedside of a man, was sentimental in subject and in handling, but the morning light was well directed at the young woman, a solid sense of craft though not of genius. It was the only painting Feuilly could find that even approached his needs, and that, in itself, gave him a little more confidence. He was not trying to compete with these men, and these men were not even the geniuses he had thought upon his first approach. Even the etchings in his art book, pale copies of the real work of the great masters, taught him more than all these outdoor settings, flat compositions, classical nudes standing alone. Did no one else miss the dark depths of Caravaggio? Not that one could go so far, of course, and waste so much ink. The angry cardinal came close - at least here the colour and shadow were correct, even if the light seemed to come from nowhere. It was not the sort of thing one would want to hang on one’s wall, a dungeon scene that must end in doom. Ruth on the verge would be more akin to the girl at the man’s bedside, only not quite so domestic.

He spent the rest of the afternoon piecing his drawings together, merging Mme Mirès’ face to Ada’s body. Telling himself it was a puzzle, something he ought to try but that would not have to be judged, resulted not in any perfect outcome, but in the realisation that he needed Ada to come back so he might get her to turn her neck to match Mme Mirès’ pose. The best expression from Mme Mirès had come as she looked down, half-turned towards him, while Ada had studiously looked directly at the spot where Boaz was placed.

But it could be done. The whole thing could actually come together. And it would not look like a pasteboard cut-out. He could make sure of that.


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