Corner of the Sky
“Who are you again?”
It should have been expected, Feuilly realised as he stood in Duret’s office, hat in hand, hair dripping a little from the January rain. “Daniel Feuilly. I did the colouring on those special prints.”
“Oh, right, of course. I haven’t got anything for you at the moment.”
He took a deep breath. “I have something for you. That you might be interested in, I mean.” Taking the rolled drawing from under his coat, he presented, “A Modern Ruth.”
Ada had complied with everything Feuilly had asked. By the third sitting, she had stopped suggesting he was not a real artist - after all, so much time had been put into it that it proved to be real work, not merely a hobby, a mimicry of how his betters might spend their copious leisure hours. Laforêt had even sat for Boaz - or, really, rolled up in the pile of blankets so Feuilly could get a better human shape though the precise features could not be discerned in the gloom. It was, Laforêt agreed, even better than the design for the coronation fan.
Duret unrolled it on his desk, looking none too eager to see just what work of genius had been presented to him. “You drew this.”
“Yes, monsieur.” He crossed his arms, tightly hugging himself to try to keep from shaking, one hand twisting a lock of wet hair. The money no longer mattered; Duret did not have to buy it of him. But if he sent Feuilly away with a laugh that such a thing had been produced for sale, that would be the end of it, the proof of the impossibility of artistic work.
“What do you expect for it?”
“You called it Ruth. It’s a barn, yes? Grain stacked behind her. So that’s Boaz in the shadows over there, right?”
“Yes, monsieur. I thought perhaps you might be able to sell prints, that it’d be something nice to hang on someone’s wall.”
“You thought I might be able to sell prints.”
“If you don’t want it, I’ll look out for another buyer,” Feuilly told him with a firmness he did not really feel.
“I didn’t say I didn’t want it. Let me think about it. It’ll need some editing. What do you think of cutting it to an oval frame, with a label?”
“Whatever would help you sell the most copies.”
“You think I’m going to pay you by the copy?” Duret asked incredulously.
“No, but if you think you will sell more, you should give me a better price for the drawing.”
“Who’s the girl?”
“Ruth. Who is she?”
“A Jewess I met in the market.”
Duret laughed and made a lascivious gesture. “I’ll give you ten for this one, but if you can get her to sit for the sort of thing you’ve done for me before, I’ll give you twenty.”
“She’s not that sort of girl,” Feuilly replied defensively.
“They’re all that sort of girl once money is put in front of them. They’re Jews. They’re up for it even when they don’t look like this anymore.”
“I cannot approach her with that sort of offer. You will pay me ten francs for this drawing?”
“I said it and I meant it.”
“I would prefer fifteen.” He dared not hold out for the twenty offered for the prospect of a bawdy picture, but he could not simply take the ten without a fight. The printer could not be permitted to take advantage of him so easily. Though he might see what could be done about some of his drawings of Lydie if a bawdy picture could really bring in twenty francs. Twenty francs to the man who drew the image, a franc per copy to the man who coloured it: Duret’s bawdy pictures were very expensive propositions.
“It’s a nice picture, but it isn’t going to go in colour, and it isn’t as if everyone in the damned country is going to buy it.”
“That means you’ll be producing the copies more cheaply and thus selling more of them. What is unreasonable about fifteen francs?” “Do you know how to convert this into a plate? I didn’t think so. I have to pay the engraver, which is as much as I’m offering you. So then I’ll have spent twenty francs before a single copy is actually made. These will go maybe ten sous a piece. Maybe.”
“Then you need only sell fifty to break even, after your printing costs,” Feuilly quickly estimated. “If it is a nice picture, as you say, surely you can sell many more.”
“No one is going to pay you more than ten. Take it or leave it.”
Feuilly took it. He would give two francs to Mme Mirès, two francs to Ada, and that would leave him with six, half of which had to go to the shop to pay off the small credit account he had opened to get the paper. Three francs for all this trouble. “Are you serious about twenty francs for a bawdy picture?”
“Depends on the picture, depends on the girl.”
“I may be able to get you something.”
Three francs, he thought bitterly as he stepped back out into the rain. He tried to remind himself that it was more than a good day’s wages, but he had spent more than a good day on his efforts. If he hadn’t promised to pay the women, then he would have had seven francs, which seemed more appropriate. The men who did this sort of work were worth more than three francs.
As he counted his money out to the stationer, paying off his 2 franc, 17 sous debt, he realised he had been the fool, hiring two women because the first had not been as good as he had wished. Had he hired only one, he would have had five francs after his debt was paid. Five was a much nicer figure than three.
There was not enough profit for a real celebration, but Feuilly had his flask filled with decent brandy at a café he passed on the way to Mme Mirès’ flat in the rue des Rosiers. Three francs would still ensure drink and the first hot dinner in a week for he and Laforêt that evening.
The concierge looked at him strangely when he asked if Mme Mirès were at home. “Don’t know. You know where her room is; you can go on up.”
He had never seen the concierge before, so her positive affirmation of his knowledge both confused and worried him. Had Babet described him to her as the decoy? Or was it assumed that anyone who knew a Jewess knew her extremely well?
Mme Mirès looked shocked to see him. “Monsieur! Should I invite you in? Please forgive me, I have but poor means of hospitality.” Her room was very small, smaller than the jeweler’s room. The bed took up most of the space, and it was covered in piles of the corsets she was working on. There was only a single chair. “May I invite you to have a seat?”
“I don’t want to put you out, or cause trouble for you.” He had forgotten how pretty she was - his pencil drawings could not compare to the flush of her cheek. “I’ve only come to pay what I owe you.”
“You have sold the painting!” She was more excited than he felt, perhaps because he had led her to think him much better than he was.
“Not as a painting. As a drawing, to a printmaker. Drawings go very cheap.”
“But you have sold something. It is a promising start, is it not?”
“A start only. But a start. Yes, a start!” Feuilly began to catch some of her enthusiasm. He had sold something! He had come up with an idea himself, put it together, hired models so he might best compose the image, and sold the result at a profit, even if that profit were smaller than he had wished. He had told Mme Mirès that he was an artist, and in truth, now he was. “It is a grand thing, isn’t it, to sell something for the first time?”
“Yes. Perhaps one day you will be famous, and I will know that I was the first model.”
“The first collaborator.” He opened his hand to show the two francs he owed her. “I wish it were more, but cheap engravings don’t pay much.”
She stared at them for what felt an eternity. “Nearly two days earnings, and all I did was spend an evening standing still.”
“You did more than that. I wish I could give you more.”
Her fingers were cold as she took the coins from his palm. “Two days earnings for one evening of leisure. I am not foolish enough to want more. Thank you. I had not expected to see you again, to tell the truth.”
“You did not think me honest enough to do right by you?”
“I thought you a Christian. Your people have no love for mine, and no thought of loyalty to us.”
“And that means I could do no less than treat you as a queen. I cannot make up for all my race, but I cannot treat a stranger badly, whether she is Jew or Christian. The ordinary behaviour of men is not Christian in the least.”
“I should never think you ordinary.” She thanked him again, with an expression of finality.
“I shall not see you again, shall I?”
“It is best not. You are on your way, and I have had more than my due. I am content, but there is no future as I cannot be one of those women who count on artists for their livings.”
He bowed goodbye to her and rushed down the stairs, past the concierge and out into the street. To stay longer would have been a temptation greater than he had ever had with Sophie, for a Jewess, no matter how honest, could never quite compare to a lady.
“Ada,” he called, knocking on her door, “come out here and kiss me.”
“Why the hell would I do that?” she asked, though she opened the door.
“Because I have two francs for you. I sold the drawing.”
“Are you drunk?”
She came closer and sniffed. “Liar. Can’t smell a drop on you. Where are my two francs?” He held them out to her. “Two for real?”
“It’s what I gave Mme Mirès.”
“And did she give you a kiss for them?”
“No,” he admitted.
“So am I sloppy seconds or does she think you don’t like girls, either?”
“How am I to know?”
She did give him a quick peck on the cheek after he dropped the coins into her hand. “There, that get you excited?”
“Not really, but thanks for the attempt.”
“Now go away, I have an order to finish before morning.”
Laforêt was more demonstrably excited than Ada had been. “That is brilliant news! See, I told you you were bloody amazing.”
“I didn’t get paid all that much for it. And after paying the girls, it’s hardly anything.”
“Still, you’ve sold him one, so that means you could do another, right? And he knows you’re good for something more than colouring in his bawdy pictures.”
That night, huddled around their single candle, Feuilly showed him the couple of nude sketches he had done of Lydie. “Are these worth wanking to?”
“Who’s the girl?”
“Clingy bitch I’m well rid of, but she posed well.”
“You want the truth?”
“Please. Duret offered me twenty francs for a bawdy picture of Mme Mirès, and I’m hoping I can palm him off with someone else.”
Laforêt gave a low whistle over the prospect of twenty francs. “I see the hope. I’m not sure I’m the help you want.”
“Because your tastes aren’t refined enough?”
“Exactly. For me, this is too much art. Nice breasts, I give you that. But when she gives me that come hither look, I want to see what I’m coming at, you know? But a twenty franc picture, that’s got to be for gents with taste. And maybe they like it a little coy, you know?”
Feuilly had posed her like an Italian painting he’d seen in copy, a nude on a sofa with her hand curled over her womanhood, possibly about to play with herself. But Laforêt had a point - a truly bawdy picture, like what he had coloured for Duret before, showed the womanly parts in exaggerated detail. The sort of thing he could not attempt without a model, as he so rarely saw a woman’s sexual parts. “That’s exactly what I was afraid of. Thanks for the confirmation.”
“Twenty francs, though. You realise with twenty francs, we could have a bed.”
“Don’t remind me,” Feuilly groaned, looking at the pile of blankets in the corner. Had he not had to pay the girls, a mattress would have come home with him that very afternoon, the stationer’s debt be damned.
“Good luck with it, though. And not just for my own selfish reasons.” They toasted again out of the flask before turning in for the night.
Unfortunately, the next day, Ada had managed to rat on him, so that after a couple hours with Thucydides, Feuilly came home to Laforêt asking, “Why did you bribe a kiss off Ada?”
“I think I should hear it.”
Christ, you aren’t still going with her, so drop the protective lover bullshit, Feuilly thought. “It was mostly a test to see how much she actually hates me. And I think I proved it was just a damned annoying act.”
“I could have told you that.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Because I don’t particularly want you too involved with Ada.”
“Trust me, I know to keep my hands to myself. She’s patently still yours.”
That seemed to surprised Laforêt. “Really?”
“I give you until spring before you end up shagging her again.”
“I think her little act is how she thinks she’s protecting you from me. And maybe protecting herself a little, what with two men on the same floor now and no one else, though some men might be annoyed enough with her insinuations to prove to her that they do, indeed, like women. But I try not to be an ass.”
“Thank you. Until spring?”
“I’m sure you’ll row again after that, but I’m neither blind nor stupid.”
And if Laforêt still had Ada, and if this sale had been the first in a possible line of sales rather than a single fluke, Feuilly wondered if maybe, despite his recent past, he might be permitted to consider calling on Sophie after all.
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