Corner of the Sky
“Zosia has found work,” Pan Chrzyszczewski proudly announced to Feuilly one evening near the end of January. “Now will you dine with us?”
Even after Christmas, with its sense of God’s forgiveness, Feuilly had not dared make a proper visit to the little flat so long as Sophie had been unemployed. The Chrzyszczewskis had gone from two incomes to one, and it had been a struggle for them to keep the flat all those months. Sophie had taken in some sewing, her father said, in an attempt to continue earning some bread, but so much of their income went to their countrymen’s cause that Feuilly had dared not add his empty stomach to their bankroll. Pan Chrzyszczewski had not held a few weeks in jail against him or knew just how Feuilly had been keeping himself through the long winter weeks, but only the confidence from selling the drawing had permitted Feuilly to return to the café again, having proved to himself as well as to God that he was still worthy of the notice of honest men. And if he were honest, he had been glad of this invitation, even if he felt he ought to be circumspect about his own situation. He could not brag of his single triumph when she was still unemployed and he had no future prospects, and it would be no better if her new job was patently inferior to her work for Cartoux.
“What sort of work?” Feuilly asked, intending merely to extend the polite conversation.
“Decorating little things of papier mâché. Glove boxes and such.”
“I am very glad.” The work did sound particularly suited to feminine hands and Sophie’s touch with a paintbrush. Perhaps, if he did join them for dinner on Sunday, he could share his fortune with them.
“You will dine with us on Sunday.”
“I should be a very poor guest, pan.”
“Nonsense. You will come.”
Feuilly came. Pan Chrzyszczewski would not permit him to refuse, and he was eager to see Sophie again. It had been so long, and Christmas had been so unsatisfying when he was still so blackened with sin. And Feuilly was glad to hear that at least one of Aleçon’s unintended victims had finally landed on her feet. He was still doing day work while contemplating just how to go about Duret’s order for a bawdy picture.
When he arrived well after mass, having attended the service in his own parish rather than force too much of his eagerness on the Chrzyszczewskis, there was no fire, but the lamp was lit against the January gloom, and the little room was so homelike and welcoming it felt just as warm as if there had been greater comforts. “How do you like your new job?” was the first question he could think to ask Sophie after she bade him sit down. It was what had permitted him to make this visit, after all, and perhaps it could lead in to his own bit of luck.
But she shrugged and pulled a face. “There is so much gossip. The women told me that the girl who had my place left because she was to have a baby. It belonged to one of the men of the shop, and they have still not married. He still works there, and I think it a very shameful thing on all sides.”
“Because he wasn’t sacked and the girl was?”
“A woman with a baby cannot work, so she would have to go, married or no. But since they are not married, or to be married, I think it very shameful that he is not punished as well.”
“Does he make a habit of using the girls in the shop in that way?”
“That should not matter. It is very wrong, whether it be the first time or the tenth.”
“Perhaps they cannot marry,” Feuilly suggested. “It can be hard to put all the papers together to do the thing legally.” His papers had stood up to initial police scrutiny, but they would never suffice for a marriage license. Even if he had indeed been born in the town where the hall had burned, that fire would make it very difficult to prove his birth and marry legally. The sinfulness of the company he had kept for most of his life had not been the only reason Mme Pinon was the first married woman he had ever known.
“They should not have acted as if they were married, no matter what they might have thought their choices,” Sophie insisted with all the firmness of her righteous Catholic convictions. “M. Cartoux would never have permitted such sinful behaviour in his shop.”
“That is true,” Feuilly agreed, a little sadly. “And we were all the better for it.” He was far enough gone without having been permitted the fraternisation with Sophie he so craved, though he had known she would never permit it even before this outburst of moral rectitude, no matter how worthy he tried to make himself. “But is the work itself nice?”
“It can be,” she admitted. “It is a larger workshop, four men making boxes and seven of us painting them. One of the girls does nothing but apply gold leaf.”
“Very nice work, then.”
“If only the workers were nicer. But what of you? Have you been keeping yourself well?”
“I work here and there. Yesterday, I was assisting a housepainter. I keep my eyes open, but there is only so much work to go around.” Was it appropriate to mention his good fortune when she did not seem so happy about hers? “I had a bit of luck about a week ago, but nothing lasting.”
“A bit of luck is something.”
“I sold a drawing.”
Why did she sound so confused? Did men not sell drawings? Or did sacked colourists not sell drawings? “A drawing. A printer bought one of my drawings. He’ll make a couple hundred prints of it. Just like that.” He pointed to one of the framed prints that hung on the Chrzyszczewski walls, a group of Polish noblemen in their odd native garb dancing with women in the ordinary European dress of a century ago.
“Yes. Why would I lie about a thing like that?”
“I do not accuse you!” she exclaimed, looking profoundly sorry. “The prints - they are copies of famous pictures. I had not thought the printers would buy an ordinary drawing, no matter how good.”
“It will sell very cheaply, I think,” he tried to hedge. “He did not pay much at all.” Why must she be skeptical rather than happy for him? Perhaps it was not such a great thing. Or was it like when he had a brief conversation with a gentleman at the Salon? He was grasping after a position higher than hers, grasping after something the nobleman’s daughter could not manage to achieve. Did that make her jealous of his success or merely prejudiced against any notion of success for someone who ought to remain beneath her?
“Still, I am sure you are very pleased. It was a nice drawing, I am sure,” she tried to mollify him.
“I called it ‘A Modern Ruth’. Ruth coming to Boaz in the night.”
“Oh, a religious picture. I am sure it was very nice, indeed.” So had it been a thoroughly secular picture, she would not have approved? She had not been impressed with the English landscape, not compared to the altarpiece with its simpering Virgin. Perhaps that was all it was, her sense of his piety keeping him close to her and any deviation proving how little he did for her family.
“‘A Modern Ruth’, you say. I’m sure it was very nice. We shall have to see it when it is for sale,” Pan Chrzyszczewski added.
“I do not know when M. Duret intends to produce it. He must have a plate made so it can be printed, after all. Perhaps for Lent?”
“An Old Testament story for Lent?”
“As an image of devotion different to all the Virgins and crucifixions that are everywhere. Maybe. I don’t know what the market is, but he must think there is one since he bought it.”
“I see. If it is nice, perhaps we shall buy a copy. I shall show it to everyone, to say ’I know this man’.”
Feuilly smiled. Sophie may not have been as impressed as he would have liked, but he should perhaps have counted more on Pan Chrzyszczewski. “One might almost think you my proud father, pan, if you go on like that.”
“I wish I had a son. I must rely on Zosia to marry well, and that is no hardship, but a son-in-law is not a son.”
“Yet one can choose the son-in-law, ensure that he is dutiful and right-thinking, while when the son goes astray, only heartbreak can result.”
“I have nothing but praise for my dutiful daughter, who has so far not married because she will not leave me for a Frenchman. But a son, to work for our grand cause. Ah, but I have my Zosia, and I have found you, who prove to all my friends I am a man of discernment.”
Feuilly looked to Sophie, wondering how she felt about this outburst of disappointment at her very being, but she looked only at her sewing, giving away nothing of her feelings. Did Pan Chrzyszczewski give in to these flights of fancy when they were alone? If so, why did she not marry and prove her worth? Or was she not actually permitted to marry a Frenchman, which would require that she marry down in rank? Feuilly could not even think of himself as a possible suitor now, for she had completely disavowed the only sort of alliance he could promise, but there were honest, hardworking men who could put together the documents necessary to obtain a marriage license. Were her father’s castles in the air more important to her than the legitimate prospects of happiness in her life as it would have to be lived? Had she been brought up to look for more in her life than the example of Mme Pinon: a good husband, a couple of children, the ability to educate those children, and the prospect of a long and decent life, even if it were filled with hard work? He, who knew he could never be a M. Pinon no matter how hard he tried, would give just about anything for that sort of life. How could Sophie disavow such chances merely because she ought to have been a lady? Cinderella laboured and was made a princess, so why should a lady not labour? “I am sure she will choose a worthy husband in her own time,” he finally decided to answer.
“One always hopes for the best,” Pan Chrzyszczewski agreed. He added some question to his daughter in their own language, which caused her to jump up and reply in the affirmative. “Dinner is ready,” he told Feuilly.
It was a rather more meagre dinner than Feuilly had remembered, after all, and he felt sorry that he was so straining their resources. The soup had fewer pieces of vegetable than he remembered, though it did not take much beetroot to give it the bright, blood-like colour. A single ham hock for the three of them comprised the main dish, with copious amounts of sour cabbage to fill out the plate. They had fed him frequently on dumplings and cabbage rolls and once a thick stew they called bigos, and not once had he found cause for complaint in Sophie’s cooking. Even now, though there was little to share between them, the flavour was excellent, some of their little money always going to spices he tasted nowhere else. Having spied on higher-class restaurants, he did at times wonder if the Polish nobility so often ate at the level of peasants rather than finer dishes of the Parisian upper classes he had seen and smelled, but it did not seem a fair comparison when the Chrzyszczewskis worked so hard for their meagre living. Sophie did far better things with cabbage than Viv’s father had ever conceived - even the near-daily sour cabbage was far better. “I am sorry there is no kasza,” Sophie apologised. “All had been milled into flour. The woman said she would see if she could get grains again.”
Pan Chrzyszczewski sighed. “After so long, you would think she would remember. She does her best, I am sure. It is to be hoped you never must endure exile,” he told Feuilly. “One misses the most simple things.”
With Pan Chrzyszczewski in a nostalgic mood, and Sophie not as enthusiastic about her latest bit of fortune as might have been wished, it was not a very convivial meal. But it had been a true invitation, and a real view of the family rather than the public face they might have put on for another visitor. Even a poor visit was satisfying to Feuilly in that it was permitted, he was truly accepted despite his absence, despite his successes or failures. If Pan Chrzyszczewski’s acceptance was all he could ever earn, it was still enough. A nobleman was proud of his ambition, after all, even if his daughter was not.
“You must come back for Tłusty czwartek. Fat Thursday,” Pan Chrzyszczewski corrected, seeing Feuilly’s confusion. “You have Mardi Gras; we have Jeudi Gras. Big party. Zosia will make pączki. Like beignets but better. Everyone comes. You, too.”
“They will not be proper pączki,” Sophie tried to explain. “I have not enough lard, so there will be some oil, and I have no mak - oh, what are they? Red flowers. Poppies! I have no poppyseeds, so I must only use plums. My mother would be disappointed.”
“I am sure they will be delicious all the same.”
“You will come, then?”
“Since you wish it, pan.”
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