Corner of the Sky
The first grey fingers of dawn hit the window just as Feuilly woke. He was tired, but habit forced him awake before the sun. His breath hung in the still, cold air, and he huddled under his blanket as tightly as he could.
There were only two choices: go to work, or stay in bed. It was cold in bed, but it was likely colder without the blanket. If he went to work, he risked wearing himself out and endangering the night’s task. If he stayed in bed, he risked losing a position that he despised, but one that was guaranteed. Success was never a guarantee in robbery, and Feuilly knew that if he did not show up for his real job, he would no longer be employed.
The question remained: did he care? He had promised Babet that he would help them, but he had also insisted that he had not come back for good.
He blew out another cloud of ice crystals. Yes, on the whole it was better not to burn any bridges. Reluctantly, he forced himself out of bed. In his earlier excitement, he had forgotten the little necessities, such as food, and only now discovered there was nothing to eat in his room. The clock tower began to chime seven, which was Feuilly’s cue to leave for work. He stood and thought for a minute, then pulled on the cap Babet had given him and headed to work, stopping to buy a couple of rolls on the way.
He took the privilege of a lunch break, determined not to wear himself out in the hope that the night’s plans would be fruitful. Working slowly, he ignored the shouts of the foreman, doing as he was told, but not exactly in the amount of time it was expected of him. After two years, he knew how to walk the line between being chastised and being fired. He had done it before in exhaustion; now he did it to conserve his energy.
Following the usual pattern, Babet would not come until after eleven, which gave Feuilly four hours to himself once he was dismissed from the mill. He found a tavern Babet had never been known to frequent and bought himself dinner and a little wine to calm his nerves. The worst that could happen, he told himself, is that I might be a little short on money this week. He took his time with his meal, savouring the hot food on the chance he might not see any again for some time.
It was well after eight when Feuilly finally left the warmth of the crowded tavern. Trying to accustom himself to the cold, he took the longest route home he knew. He played with the buttons of his coat in order to keep his fingers supple.
He arrived in pitch darkness, but he refused to light a candle. He would not be allowed one later that night, so he had to grow used to the dark. Carefully and silently, he edged towards his bed and dug a piece of cloth from under the mattress.
His discovery was a coarse canvas sack with a rough drawstring. He held it close, as a child does a blanket, gently stroking the thick material.
It was more than two years ago, he thought. It must have been. He was not quite certain where that house had been, but no one had thought to check the wall that surrounded the garden. The gate had only a simple latch, which unfortunately had been allowed to latch behind them. The night had been cloudy and not too warm, so that the windows were still closed that night. The bad luck had been a lack of clairvoyance: how was anyone to predict the butler’s indigestion would send him down to make a cup of tea? Feuilly had stayed behind to relock every door they had opened, preferring to cover his tracks. He preferred to take things from drawers or from shelves that were overly full, so that he would have plenty of time to pawn the items before they were missed. Babet had been waiting outside the property, but a gust of wind took the gate from him, and the force caused it to latch. Claquesous had long since disappeared into the night. Had Feuilly not been running for his life, it would have been a simple matter for him to unlock it from the inside. Instead, he could abandon the bag and slide through, or come over the wall with all his profits. No one had foreseen the possibility that broken glass had been embedded in the mortar precisely to keep intruders out. As he vaulted over, the hand with most of his weight took the edge, but his right hand landed on the razor sharp remains of what must have long ago been a bottle.
The bloodstains had never come out of the canvas. In pain, Feuilly had grabbed onto the bag, holding his wounded hand together and letting the rough canvas soak up the blood as they ran to the river, where Babet helped him bandage it the best they could in the dark. His hand had taken nearly a month to heal, and in that month, he could do nothing. As soon as he was able to use it again, he had found the position at Lesage mill, found a local street urchin to deliver to Babet, and untangled himself from his past. The process had taken less than a week once he made the decision to break with his past. And now he was back again.
He stood and immediately put his hand on the matchbox on the table. He was uncertain if it was from long familiarity with the tiny room or if his senses were returning. Often he had to fumble for it, but now it came into his grasp without any thought. In any case, he lit the candle, wincing again at the smell. He carefully checked his tools and slipped them into his pocket.
A glimmer of gilt caught the corner of his eye as the flickering candle found the spine of one of his books. Feuilly rearranged the stack with care - he owned only seven volumes, but these seven volumes were his life. None were new. Only two had been purchased honestly - Rousseau and Voltaire. Montesquieu, La Fontaine, Molière, and Plato had been stolen. A cheap novel missing the cover and title page had been found on a trash heap. Feuilly had never learned the author or the title, but he had learned more of how ladies and gentlemen behaved from that book than by reading what he believed they read. He admitted a certain excitement at the prospect of new books, in spite of the dread he felt at going back.
Babet arrived earlier than expected. To calm himself, Feuilly had opened Montesquieu and become absorbed in the Persian Letters once again.
“You’re reading a damned book at this hour?”
“I was waiting for you.”
“Come on.” They joined Brujon in silence and walked without haste, doing their best not to look suspicious. Feuilly had been wrong in his speculation. Instead of turning east to the Place des Vosges, they turned west, towards the Champs Elysées.
“This isn’t going to be as easy as you promised,” Feuilly whispered accusingly. He received no response.
They turned down a small alley which became a mews. The gate was broken, giving them a clear entry. Moving slowly and keeping to the wall for fear of waking the horses, the three men slid along the path until it narrowed further, past the stables. Feuilly could see why they had to go tonight. The only way in or out was through the gate that protected the mews from intrusion, and it would likely be fixed the next day.
“I thought you said Claquesous was in,” Feuilly whispered to Babet.
“He’s keeping an eye on the place,” Babet whispered back, his voice little more than a breath.
They stopped in front of a wrought iron gate. The fence to which it was attached was also iron, though it was covered in ivy. It was impossible to go over the top of the fence - nothing provided a foothold high enough to assist the climb. The slight shadow of a man disappeared quickly as they approached.
“Good evening, Claquesous,” Feuilly addressed the shadow. It nodded to him but did not speak.
They worked in silence. There was no snow, and the clouds were too thin for rain, protecting their efforts. The moon was nearly through its cycle, giving a decent cover of darkness without forcing them to rely only on touch. The bars of the gate proved too narrow for Feuilly to transit, but by moving aside the ivy, he could just get his head through the fence. It was not easy for him to slide through, as the ivy tried to catch on his coat and cap, but he was thin enough that where his head could pass, the rest of him could follow. From inside, it was only a matter of seconds before the latch was lifted. Feuilly gave Babet a warning glare as he stepped into the garden, handing over the oil can.
The garden was dead in February, but in the summer, it must have been lush. Feuilly carefully noted the rosebushes as he kept his steps to the border. He feared the sound of his heavy boots on the cobbles that formed the path. The ground was softer than he would have liked, but not soft enough that he would either track in mud or leave behind distinct footprints.
The kitchen door was not far, and Feuilly was relieved to discover that it was indeed locked. The lock was too simple to keep him out, however, and even sooner than he anticipated, he felt the latch lift with an ease he was hard pressed to control. He was uncertain if he only felt it snap into place or if it really did make a click. His nervousness was starting to get the better of him.
With a deep breath, he took the oil can and carefully sent oil where he believed the hinges were attached inside, very slowly opening the door to avoid even the slightest squeak. Soon, it was open wide enough for him to slip inside.
The kitchen was dark except for a faint red glow coming from the dying embers in the fireplace. Feuilly paused a moment to take stock of his surroundings. An old chest stood near the door he assumed led to the servants’ staircase. A long, heavy table stood in his way: he would have to be careful not to bump into the bench on the near side. A new stove stood next to the fireplace. He saw the door through which it was assumed one went into the main house. Taking a step toward it, he turned and looked at the chest. It would take less than a minute to see if it held what he hoped it did. Moving quickly but silently, he carefully opened the top drawer, then the next, then the next. In the third he found what he sought: a box of candles. Perfect white tapers. He grabbed as many as he could, two handfuls, and placed them in the bottom of his sack before closing the drawer and making his way into the dining room.
The dining room was beautiful, but it was not blessed with french doors. Any missing silver would be noticed immediately, so he did not give the sideboard another glance as he carefully moved around it. The next room was the drawing room. Heavily carpeted and heavily papered, a decent assortment of trinkets waited for them. Feuilly softly opened the French doors that led to the garden, the signal for the others to approach. He took the library for himself, lighting one of the used candles from the wall with a match from the fireplace. The curtains had been drawn, and the doors were closed, so he felt safe in examining the volumes. A single candle was not enough to illuminate the room, but it permitted a search of the desk and a passing acquaintance with the bookshelves.
He took a deep breath to calm himself, then carefully set to work examining the contents of the desk. The first paper knife was not sharp enough to merit the title, but he carefully wrapped and pocketed a second, as well as a penknife. Babet never went unarmed, but Feuilly had long ago pawned his only weapon. Any knife at all was a source of comfort. He took up a couple of pens and a bottle of ink, as well, and put back a handful of writing paper when he discovered a blank book that had barely been filled. Other drawers held personal papers and receipts, nothing of interest to him, but then he came to the locked drawer. He opened it more from curiosity than from any sense of profit: after all, only the snuffbox on top of the desk was of any value, and he was still deciding if he should risk taking it. The locked drawer, however, proved a real treasure. Underneath some papers was a purse full of coins. Feuilly looked around. No one else had yet entered the library. He carefully pocketed the purse, replaced the papers, and relocked the drawer. At the worst, he thought, the servants will not be paid on time, though what does it matter when you live and work in a house like this?
He moved on to the bookshelves. He went through an entire section, unable to read the titles: some he knew were in Latin, some in Greek, and others in languages he did not recognise. Moving to another part of the room, he found some translations. The Iliad. A different volume of Plato. A couple of histories. The diary of some Englishman. He looked around. One volume lay on a table, and out of curiosity, he opened it. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. The soft leather cover, the gilt lettering, and inside, every other page contained the most beautiful, most detailed etchings he had ever seen. He carefully turned the pages, each more beautiful than the last.
“Would you fucking hurry up?” a harsh voice hissed in his ear. “We’re done in there.”
Feuilly nearly jumped out of his skin as Babet interrupted him. He put the beautiful book into his bag with the rest, went back after the snuffbox and some trinkets that filled empty space on the shelves, then followed Babet back into the drawing room to lock up.
It was an easy escape, as easy coming out as it had been going in. The kitchen door co-operated with his need for silence. Claquesous held his bag as he locked the garden gate. Only the passage through the fence caused any delay, as Feuilly was very careful that no one hear the stolen purse he wished to keep for himself.
The four men headed to the river to divide the spoils. Only then did Feuilly realise Brujon had a rug rolled over his shoulder. “What the hell do you think you can do with those?”
“I have a dealer. I don’t complain about your books, do I?”
“Fine.” Feuilly set out what he had not intended for his personal use. Trades were made: Babet wanted the snuffbox because it still had a good supply of snuff. The addition of a couple of vases, one in jade, covered the projected cost of the promised overcoat. Claquesous had already disappeared.
“You going to be all right on what you’ve got?”
“You’re sounding positively paternal, Babet. Don’t worry about me. I got paid on Saturday. At this point, I just want to go home and get some sleep before the shops open. You still have your connections in the Temple?”
“I never lose connections. We’ll get you that coat tomorrow night. Chassigneux is out, just so you know.”
“So Jacquemont is my best bet at getting rid of this stuff?”
“If he remembers you.”
“He’ll remember me.”
“Come by the tavern at sundown, I’ll take you up to Temple, get you the whole works if you can afford it.”
“Deal. Brujon, you’ll be around tomorrow?”
“Be at the tavern as always. Time to start planning the next game.”
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