Corner of the Sky
“Can I borrow a couple francs?”
Laforêt winced. “Why?”
“Lydie will let me draw her, but she wants cash in advance and won’t do it for less than three.”
“So that’s her name?”
“Don’t change the subject. Do we have two francs?”
“How long of a loan do you need?”
“A week, tops. Hopefully only a couple of days. I spend tomorrow drawing her, I clean up the sketches into a final drawing, I get my money from Duret.”
“He won’t give you an advance?”
“No,” Feuilly sighed. “Says he only takes work on spec. An advance would mean a contract.” It had been his first thought, partly to show that he could do exactly what the printer instructed, but Duret would have none of it.
“I suppose one does not want to feel beholden to the providers of bawdy pictures.”
It had really gone far worse than that. “What happened to the ten I just paid you?” Duret had asked.
“I had to pay my models. And my debts.”
“Then find cheaper models. Your expenses aren’t my problem.”
Feuilly had begged forgiveness and beat a quick retreat. He did not need to jeopardise the commission any further. Not that it even was a real commission, as Duret only took work on spec.
“When do you need it?”
“I’m meeting her at eleven tomorrow. Not here - I don’t want her here, and I don’t think Ada should see anything.”
“I agree with you on that, but I haven’t got two francs.” He counted out a pocketful of small coins, reserving a few for himself. “Thirty-one sous. I’m only keeping five for myself.”
“I promise you’ll have it back inside a week. Hopefully within a couple of days.”
“Look, don’t put too much stock in these big payoffs. It’s more gambling than work, isn’t it?”
Laforêt had been excited about the first sale, and he had been the one to say out loud that this commission could get them a bed. Was his sudden negation because he no longer trusted Feuilly? Because Feuilly had asked for a loan of two francs? Because Duret only accepted work on spec and thus this commission was no commission at all? “The first one was an attempt to turn a profit on a job that otherwise would only have paid part of our debts,” Feuilly explained. “And it worked. Sort of. Three of us ended up with money we wouldn’t have had otherwise. And I didn’t take up time that would have been spent looking for work. This one is promising a huge payout I know he’s good for. I made a franc per copy colouring a special edition he ran last year. He sells expensive bawdy pictures if he can pay a franc a copy to the colourist. I’m not expecting to live off this sort of work, but I am willing to gamble four francs and some time for the sort of payout that will get us a bed. Then it’s nose to the grindstone again. Swear to God. I know this won’t last long enough to keep me in anything.”
“Good. For a moment there, I thought -”
“You’re starting to sound like Sophie,” Feuilly interrupted. “I’m just scrounging money where I can find it, not getting above myself.”
“I don’t care what her ladyship says. I just worry too big a gamble will ruin us both.”
Feuilly could respect a healthy self-interest. “Understood. Truce?”
Unfortunately for his plans, the temperature dropped far enough in the night that Feuilly woke before dawn, shivering, only to discover a thin veil of ice across their water bucket. He and Laforêt merged blankets in an attempt to get a couple more hours of sleep, though they had little success.
“You’re going to get her naked on the coldest day of the year?”
“If she wants her three francs, hell yes. I can’t put this off and still get him a picture he can print before Mardi Gras.” Besides, the temperature could drop colder yet. It was only a very thin film of ice in the bucket, hardly enough to complain about in an ordinary year. They had simply been spoiled by the weather thus far, that was all.
Laforêt wished him luck as he left to look for work; someone had to bring home some ready money, as five sous would hardly last out the day. Feuilly took his time packing up his materials - drawing board, paper, pencils, and notebook. He bought a coarse bread roll and munched it as he walked, moving quickly through the huddled throngs of people. The cold had taken Paris unaware. Certainly Viv could be counted on to give him a bowl of coffee. Despite the frost, it was much warmer than the night Mireille had died. Perhaps it would not be so bad for Lydie, he hoped, but there might be much coffee drunk before the day was over. The remains of the roll he stashed in his pocket to serve as an eraser, though he was hungry enough to eat it all. He could afford to eat his fill once he sold this drawing.
The tavern was nearly empty when he arrived to find Viv sweeping half-dried mud from the floor. “Should I come back?”
“I don’t know why I bother - it’ll only get caked again, anyway.” She motioned him in, so he did his best to stamp as much muck off his boots as the doorstep would hold. “Do you want breakfast?”
“Just some coffee if you’ve got it.” He set his bag on a table and sat down heavily.
“You’re really doing it.”
“It’s the first commission I’ve had since you, and it pays a hell of a lot better, so yes, I’m really doing it. He asked for Lydie, so he’s getting Lydie if she co-operates.”
“Printer asked me, special, to do this. Like men do with real artists.” He couldn’t help smiling - it was so very real, and more than flattering, even if it were for a bawdy print he could never admit to in better company, under a commission his patron would deny if he did not like the drawing.
Viv understood, or at least he thought she did. “I am so proud of you.” She took the broom back to the kitchen and returned with a bowl of coffee and milk for him. “Mireille would have been so proud. It’s better than painting fans, isn’t it?”
“It sounds better, but I’m sure I can’t live on it. A real job would be better, still leave me Sundays for this sort of thing but pay me steady wages all through. But I think you’re right that Mireille would have been proud of me. Is your father all right with me renting the room?”
“I promised you’d be gone before dark and we wouldn’t need an undertaker.”
“Unlike last time. Can I take a look?”
It was not the room in which Mireille had died, for which Feuilly was grateful. The bed was freshly made, and a straight-backed chair had been provided. Cold winter light streamed through the window. “I washed the window this morning,” Viv told him. “Do you need anything else?”
“Sit on the bed a moment.” Would the light be better if they shifted the bed to the other wall? “We’re facing south, right?”
With a broad gesture, Feuilly traced the direction the sun would move across the room. They could not put the bed opposite the window and still use the door, so the second-best solution was perhaps the one already taken. “It’ll do. Have you got a bed warmer?”
“Why? Oh,” she suddenly realised, flushing a bit. “I can give you the other room if you want a fire, but it’s on the other side of the house, so I thought the light would be bad.”
And it had too many ghosts for his comfort, he suspected. Just how many rooms with a fire could Viv provide? “You think of everything,” he told her, following her lead in ignoring just what made the other room so inappropriate. “A bed warmer should do us just fine.”
When Lydie arrived, late, Feuilly was nursing the remains of his second bowl of coffee in the main room downstairs. “Coldest day of the bloody year!” she complained.
“Do you want some coffee?” he asked half-heartedly.
“Are you treating?” she asked, perking up at the suggestion.
He flatly told her, “No.”
“Then let’s get this over with. Money?” she demanded with a grasping gesture.
He showed her a handful of coins but only counted out thirty sous. “The rest on completion.”
“Fine,” she sighed with annoyance. “Lead the way.”
Feuilly did his best to ignore Viv’s stricken face as they passed the zinc counter. Her very acquiescence, much less her active assistance, was heroic under the circumstances.
Lydie undressed quickly, hanging her shabby dress from the nail behind the door. “A little help?” she asked, tugging the string of her corset. As much as Feuilly did not want the temptation, he was gentleman enough to unlace her, noting a couple new repairs in calico since the last time they had been in such a position. Once she was free, standing only in her worn shift, she spun around and pressed against him, her nipples hard in the cold. “Come on. What are we really here for?”
But he closed his eyes to shut out her soft, begging face, and disentangled himself from her arms. He would not let her seductive voice get to him, not now. “We’re here for just what I told you,” he told her firmly.
With a huff, her shift came off and was thrown into a ragged pile on the floor. There she stood, naked and lovely as ever. Her nipples were perfectly erect in the cold, and it would be easy to ignore the red lines the wrinkles of her shift under her corset had made on her round, white stomach “Do what you want, then.”
“Take your hair down,” he ordered.
“Won’t you help?” she pouted.
“No. How much time are you going to waste? You were already late.” He had not expected Lydie to arrive on time, but even so, she had wasted some of the best light already. There were, however, a couple of benefits of doing this on a cold day, he decided as they finally got started. Her nipples stood to attention in a decidedly erotic fashion, but he had no desire to strip down and join her in bed. She had grown no better at posing, of course, and her scent in his nostrils as she spread her legs wide was dangerous, but she was too much herself, too much the needy girl he was still weary - and wary - of. It still only took a careful placement of his hand to trick her into following his lead, and only a glare to shut her up.
But she could only lay there uncovered for so long before she started shivering violently. Short bursts, Feuilly decided as she huddled under the blanket, rubbing herself to warm up. Even then, only part of her exposed outside the draped blanket at a time, it was a struggle for her to keep still. He gave her credit for trying and finally called down to Viv to bring hot coffee and a fresh bed warmer so he might let Lydie thaw a bit. The sun was moving too quickly across the winter sky, but he could not let her keep shaking so violently.
“Put some brandy in it!” she shouted down the stairs in Feuilly’s wake, half demanding and half begging. Why not? Feuilly thought. It’ll keep her quiet and she’ll pay for it herself out of her three francs.
“I’ve missed this,” she told him, huddled in the blanket, warming her hands on the bowl of coffee as he passed the bed warmer across the sheets. “No one looks at me like you did. No one ever did.”
“Am I supposed to feel sorry for that?”
“I’m just telling you I miss you,” she snapped. “Martine wasn’t very nice about your message.”
“I don’t blame her. I am glad you agreed to this,” he admitted. He was fairly certain he’d never meet another girl as eager as Lydie to take her clothes off. And their past did make it easier for him to ask her to get into this sort of position, easier to see her and use her in this position. Who else could ever be glad to do him this favour?
“I’m glad, too.” Some of her old sweetness had returned, her defenses dropped, or his, something, in any case, that was more akin to the tenderness of the last time he had sketched her than to the bitterness of their last meeting.
It was not so easy to get her back into position, however, and the sun continued its inexorable track through the street. It was late, indeed, by the time he admitted, “I need a close-up of your cunt.”
“Does this mean I can get under the blanket? On the top, I mean.”
“It means we’re nearly done, yes.”
“It still has to be better than out there in this weather.”
She shrugged. “It’s not that wet today.” But she gratefully tugged the blanket around her shoulders.
For the first time since he was a child making his first scrapings in the mud, Feuilly felt awkward as he drew. He had never conducted such a close examination of a woman’s lower parts, and he felt Lydie’s eyes on him the whole time. The thing could be reduced to geometry, a set of curves and angles, but he was so close to it, its smell filling his nostrils, that his angles seemed paltry, indeed, compared to the real flesh before him. Lydie was warm and round and pink and alive, while the drawing was cold and flat and grey as death. The whole drawing was of course only an approximation of the real thing, but here it seemed most futile, an abject failure not even M. Géricault could correct. And it would have to do, because no one could bring a rosy cunt to life in mere pencil and paper. Even the full depth and shining colour of oils in the hand of a master could create only a pale imitation of life, without warmth or scent.
“I’m done,” Feuilly murmured at last, his mind still fixed on the impossible rosy entrance to the depths he once used to travel. “You can get dressed.”
She sat up, closing her legs enough to take the complex organ out of his sight, but she pressed against him, forcing a kiss on him before he had enough presence of mind to stop her.
“What the hell?”
“You must be up for it by now,” she said, her hands at the fall of his trousers. “All day looking and not touching?”
His prick was responding, but he gathered enough presence of mind to physically push her away. “Get off, get dressed, we’re done,” he ordered through clenched teeth. As he stood up, she tried again, with her most endearing smile, but he pushed her down on the bed. “I said we’re done.”
“I thought you loved me,” she cried.
Hadn’t they been through this before? Could she really think tears would work this time? He dropped a handful of coins on the bed, not bothering to count it. A slovenly Danaë in a shower of copper, the perfect idea for a grand painting if bitterness were ever to be translated into fine art. “Get dressed,” he ordered, then he fled, his things gathered in a ragged pile in his arms.
Viv caught him on the landing. “You look spooked. Come in my room.”
Feuilly had never seen the private places of the house. The kitchen did not count, as it was a necessary part of the tavern, the business, while Vivienne and her father had their own bedrooms and surely a sitting room to which customers would never be admitted. Viv’s room was cramped and dim, with a couple of prints and his drawing of her confidence man pasted directly to the cheap wallpaper. It had a sort of warm fug, as if it were well-lived in but rarely aired, warmer by far than the room in which he had spent his day.
“She tried something, didn’t she?”
“She was just her usual self,” Feuilly admitted. “I was caught off guard, that was all.” He smoothed his drawings and packed them carefully. “I expected it, really. I mean, why else would she have agreed? But she caught me off guard even when I knew better.”
Viv sat beside him on the bed, a warm, friendly, soft presence. “There’s really a buyer? You aren’t just lying to yourself.”
“There’s really a buyer. No need for a ruse like this; I’m no confidence man. If I only wanted her back, I’m man enough to say so.” He took her hand, rough with work but soft with fat, her knuckles making little indentations. “I’m man enough to say that right now, I want you.” He pressed a kiss on her, and she did not resist.
He did want her, Feuilly told himself as they rolled over on the bed, as he lifted her skirt and she spread her legs. He wanted to show her that if there had been a battle, then she was the victor, that her kindness and patience deserved a grand reward, that she meant more to him now than Lydie ever could. It was not at all like sex with Lydie, for Viv did not fit so perfectly in his arms, but it was a nice change to pillow his face in her huge breasts, to see her eager face go red with pleasure, to feel her resistant weight responding to his thrusts rather than Lydie’s willowy bend. He had known for a year and more that she would have him whenever he wanted, and he wondered why he had been such a gentleman so needlessly. Babet was right: she would hold nothing against him - not ambition, not talent, not failure, not success, not love.
Viv gasped her way through, unable or unwilling to vocalise her desire until she reached her own climax. At some point, she had torn the ribbon out of his hair, and now, his desire sated - the desire Lydie had sparked, if he were honest - he lay beside Viv, the two of them breathless, her fingers tangled in his loose curls.
“My father will kill you if he finds out.”
“I have no doubt of that.” But he laughed. It seemed so funny to think that the man could consider anyone a threat to his daughter’s virtue after she had spent so many years serving this degenerate clientele. “Where is your father?”
“On his scrap run.” She looked over at the clock, an oddly genteel piece in such a dive, and sprung up like the chime itself. “He’ll be back any minute. You’ve got to go.”
“Please,” she begged. They shared another kiss, but he threw on the rest of his clothes and hurried downstairs. He’d leave the money he owed her for the room on the zinc - he could hardly pay her directly after what they had just done.
Lydie was still there, drinking something she must have served herself from behind the unattended counter. Feuilly could not - and did not care to - hide his loose hair or the red mark Viv had left on his neck. “Bastard!” she snapped at him, keeping her distance as if to demonstrate her disdain. But it served her right, he thought, trying so hard, so ineptly, at something she knew she did not deserve. He tipped his hat to her as he left, determined to be the bastard she deemed him, but he felt her angry eyes on his back long after he had left the tavern behind.
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