Corner of the Sky

Part 44

“Do you want some advice?”

Feuilly was in Duret’s office two days later, listening to the sleet hit the window as he delivered the finished drawing. The first thing he was going to buy with his earnings was a hot dinner, he had already decided; to hell with the mattress if it didn’t permit dinner. “Please, monsieur.”

“I see kids like you every damned day. Well, not quite like you. Usually, they’re shopkeepers’ sons from the provinces, certain they could come to Paris, apprentice with Gros, and become the next Ingres. They tend to have a modicum of training but no talent. You, on the other hand, have talent but no damned training. Do you know why this girl is better than that one?” Duret had pulled out A Modern Ruth to compare to the drawing of Lydie. “This one” - Lydie - “you actually drew the girl. On the other, you drew her clothes. Do you see what I mean? You’ve no sense of the underlying anatomy. Oh, your attempts are perfectly fine for the work Cartoux had you doing, I’m sure. Nothing against the man’s taste, mind - at the scale you were working, these deficiencies are less noticeable. But if you want to sell any more figural drawings, you need to start studying seriously. You’ve got talent, and a good eye for composition, but you’ve got to do some serious study of nudes. Do you understand?”

Feuilly felt hollow, but he managed to get out a low “Yes, monsieur.” He knew Duret was right; the deficiencies were all too obvious. He had never meant to set himself up as better than men with training, but he had been carried away by his ideas, by his inflated sense of his own abilities, and he had pushed bad work on a man who knew the difference between good and bad. He was a colourist, not an artist, and it had been terribly kind of Duret to have given him money for work that was too amateurish to really sell. It had been charity, not business. No wonder Duret had been so adamant against an advance - it would have been an admission that their informal contract was no contract at all. “You can keep the drawings. I don’t expect anything for the new one.”

“Don’t be an idiot. There will be men lining up in the street to get a look at her. I’ll go fifteen.”

“I don’t need your charity, monsieur, though I know it is kindly given.”

“Charity? Are you listening to a word I’m saying, boy? You have eyes in your head, so I know you know Ruth is better than damn lot of what’s out there. I can sell her cheap as she is and send copies out into the provinces, which is why I bought her off you. But I had a feeling you could do better, and I was right. Look at your other girl. Really look at her. This is good work. This, if we cover up the interesting part, is as good as I’ve seen boys with more training do. If you put some real effort into it, I might be interested in what else you can produce. I pay real money for real work. Ruth is only worth ten francs to me, but a better one, on a truly classical theme? I’ve gone as high as forty.” Forty francs? Forty francs, just for the drawing, not even counting the printing plate? “Now I’ve got your attention, don’t I? There’s never going to be regular work in this line for you unless you can push yourself up to that level. And I think you can. But you’ve got to get yourself some real training and a lot more practical anatomy. A handful of lessons and a lot of drawing from life are all you really need. Do you understand?”

“Yes, monsieur. Thank you, monsieur.”

Fifteen francs. It was not quite the twenty-franc work Duret had wanted, but it still meant a good week’s pay for a day’s work to Feuilly. And Duret’s advice had been honestly given. No one without training could hope to compete for a living against men who had been taught what they ought to do. He had been groping in the dark, learning from finished work and his own notions of how to get there, so it was no wonder he had failed so spectacularly.

But what else could he do? Lessons cost money. He was too old and too poor to apprentice to anything now, regardless of how old artists’ apprentices might be. He could keep fumbling along, perhaps find himself a new mistress once he had better work again, someone who would let him draw her over and over, but without guidance, would he just keep repeating the same mistakes? He could not even identify all his mistakes, just a certain stiffness at times, or a place where nothing seemed to look right. Instinct and close study of finished works had taken him this far, but he could see no way to go further. Not without money.

Laforêt was pleased to see his money back, however, and eagerly volunteered to help carry a mattress back to the flat. “If she was half as awful as you’ve said, you deserve to sleep well from now on.” Feuilly was beginning to feel that he had put the most money into setting them up, while Laforêt still owed him for all the work Babet had demanded. Laforêt must want that mattress so badly so he might share it, Feuilly thought. But then, if he were more charitable to Laforêt, he had to admit that when Laforêt got work, it was often physically harder than even Feuilly’s heavy lifting for Manoury, the housepainter. Hard labour and a hard floor made poor partners. Still, Laforêt had not made enough ready funds available to really deserve that mattress, despite the effort in helping carry it home. The agreed partnership did not feel very equal.

Nevertheless, Feuilly kept silent. It was an excellent room, one that would get better as spring and then summer came, and sharing the rent had kept him out of the flop houses. Laforêt would find a real position soon enough, Feuilly hoped, which would allow him to pull a little more weight, even if for now, he was sponging. The little projects that had kept them fed through the new year were too far in the past to count for anything now.

Except he wasn’t deliberately sponging, as that night, the mattress ceremoniously installed directly on the floor as they could not yet afford a bedstead, Laforêt began arranging his blankets on the floor as usual.

“What are you doing?”

“Your work, your money, your bed, right?” Laforêt’s tone was innocent, neither too perfect nor tinged with bitterness. He sounded completely composed, as if he believed that it was morally good and right that he sleep on the floor when there was a perfectly good bed right next to him.

“Are you sure?”

“It’s fine. I swear. What idiot expects to profit off someone else’s labour?”

“Will you just get in the damned bed?” Feuilly ordered.

Perhaps there was nothing really wrong with Laforêt, he told himself. A little dense, maybe, but then, maybe he was just quiet about knowing his place. Maybe he was too embarrassed to apologise for not having been the one to come up with more funds for their mutual use. After all, they had spent weeks eating off the proceeds of the work Laforêt found, even if it was Feuilly’s money that paid the quarter’s rent and was slowly furnishing the flat. And in the continued cold, it was warmer with the extra blankets and another body in the bed. Laforêt would have to do something soon, but Feuilly decided to let it slide for the time being. It was not as if the drawings for Duret could be called serious work, despite their outsized profit, and they both knew it.

Lying in bed with Laforêt, however, called to mind the equally heavy presence of Vivienne. What had possessed him to drag her further into the ruin he could not quite seem to leave behind? It was not that he had successfully pushed her out of his mind for the past couple of days; rather, he only now did not deliberately turn his thoughts in other directions. The work was done, the earnings spent, and now he had the leisure to think.

It was no good, what he had done. Despite the clientèle by which her father made a living for them, she had always been a good girl, a decent woman. Even if no one worth marrying wanted her, she worked hard and took her money honestly, even if it came to the customers in various dishonourable fashions. She was a good deal his senior, should have been married some time ago, and here he had done something that could drag her into the mud and render her permanently unmarriageable, far worse than her father’s business or her unfashionable appearance ever could.

As Feuilly was drifting off to sleep, Laforêt turned over heavily, jerking him back to full consciousness. The last proper bed he had shared was with Lydie, and she barely moved. Perhaps that was her father’s fault: if she remained perfectly still, did that lessen his interest? Whatever the reason, Lydie had been an ideal bedmate. It appeared Laforêt was not. Feuilly sighed inwardly and tried to settle himself back to sleep. Only then did he realise just what had been wrong about that afternoon with Vivienne. The books, the pamphlets, Babet’s tales, they all said the same thing: a virgin should bleed upon her first time. Babet was often full of shit, but there was plenty of additional evidence for this claim. Yet with Vivienne, there had been no blood. There had been no sign of pain or discomfort, just her eager acceptance of his prick. She wasn’t confused or frightened by the erect member, she had not bled, she had not cried out or even just grimaced in pain: she had exhibited none of the signs of virginity. Ergo, he had not been the one to ruin her.

The conclusion shocked him. She had not been so good and honourable and decent after all. He could have had her any time because someone else had already had her. Who was it? Who had convinced her to give up her only virtue? The confidence man? But he had gone to prison. Someone Feuilly did not know? But how could that be? Could it have been so long ago that she had been ruined while he was away, trying to better himself and failing miserably? She was old enough. It could have been.

It must have been, he decided. No one said anything, no one made veiled comments to her, it may not have been well known, but it must have happened then, when she was younger, when there might have been a reason even if she were hardly as conventionally pretty as many of the whores. She was better looking than the rest, and it paid a bill rather than leaving one to come due.

And if it were the confidence man, what did that matter? Was he jealous of a man in prison? How could he be, when she remembered that man only through Feuilly’s labour? She could not look at that drawing without thinking of the artist as well as the subject. It was not his best work, more awkward even than his worst sketches of Mme Mirès, but it was his, and Vivienne would never forget that. Now she had had them both, artist and subject.

If not even Vivienne was innocent, what good was any part of his past? Mireille had lived though the war, and he did not hold her choices then against her, but she had pushed Lydie on him. Lydie was a lost cause the moment she had decided that since she could never do any honest work, he should never make the attempt himself. The men were all incurably criminal, having deliberately given up honest trades in order to embrace the excitement and subversion of lawbreaking. But Vivienne had seemed so good in the middle of so much that was bad. He should have realised long ago that no virtue could survive that pit. His own had not. But he had to eat; she was housed and fed on her honest labour. All she had to do was keep her legs together. Surrounded by whores, and with no mother to shame her, even that simple act was beyond her powers. He could never look at her in the same way again.

How could sweet, kind, loving Vivienne turn out to be so common after all?

Tłusty czwartek soon came, and Pan Chrzyszczewski’s flat filled with his noisy fellow exiles. At least here, there was virtue in abundance. Feuilly almost immediately slipped away to the kitchen, following Sophie as she returned to fry the last batch of dough into the traditional pączki, very like the beignets he knew well from street sellers but made with a heavier dough. Much of Sophie’s cooking, where it could be compared to the cheap restaurants he knew, was heavier or spicier, designed to fortify the body against those hard northern winters where cold winds rushed across the snowy plains.

“Do you miss your mother at holidays like this?” he asked, trying to make conversation as an excuse for having followed her. Holidays seemed to cause so much work for women, and he had never seen a Polish woman other than Sophie. Even today, her father’s friends did not have wives or daughters with them. Did old traditions make the work more or less bearable, more or less lonely? Mardi Gras was a public holiday, the traditions widely shared among rich and poor, but the privacy of Christmas had often saddened him by his exclusion from the more secular joys. He could not help wondering how Sophie felt at a festive season, as they had not been permitted to share Christmas.

Sophie did not look at him as she answered, instead concentrating on the balls of dough she was carefully placing in the pot of hot fat. “I miss her all the time. But I missed her when she was alive and I lived with Panna Mariśka, so it is not so bad. Life is what it is, so I cannot go wishing for it to be otherwise.”

“Like your father does?”

“Like I wish you would not do,” she finally addressed him directly. But she immediately turned back to her work. “My father does not like the great changes at home, and he simply wants to return to a life I am too young to know. It is not my place to say if he is right or wrong. Suppose we can return; suppose he does get a bit of land back. We shall all still work. My mother worked hard her whole life. I have worked hard my whole life. I loved Panna Mariśka, it is why I cannot bring myself to think of her as Panna Massalska as I should, but I was paid to love her. There is no castle waiting for us at home.”

“What is waiting?”

“Nothing. If all went as my father wanted, he might trade his vote for some land, but he could never trade it for good land, land with a village on it. There are many men like my father, and no magnate will give up a village to one, as the rest will have to be given villages, too. We have our blood, and the respect that is due us, but nothing more,” she said bitterly.

“Do you like it better here, then?”

“Here, I paint little boxes all day and come home to look after the house and feed all comers. Not you - I don’t mind you,” she corrected herself, looking up to give him a very charming smile. “I think you are very good. The others, I do not think they are so thankful. But at home, if we had our land, I would spend all day looking after the farm, then all night looking after the house. Here, I doubt I shall ever marry, as I want none of those who eat up my father’s hospitality. At home, I doubt I should do any better, as the only offers would come from men as poor as we are.”

“And that is all you consider in marriage? The wealth of a husband?”

“Why do you sound shocked? It is the way of the world, that we may only love those who are our equals, and we must do the best we can in that. There is only sadness when we fall in love with our betters.”

“And your father would never permit you to marry a Frenchman,” Feuilly reminded himself aloud, telling himself that she was not intending to lecture him on the folly of falling in love with her. But who were her betters? Who were his betters? She was too kind to condescendingly lecture him on a feast day, he told himself. But it was something of a warning from master to peasant, even if she would deny it. In Poland, perhaps blood mattered, but not in France. Murat was an innkeeper’s son, and he became King of Naples. Who was better than a king? He should never have been King of Naples, that was a position for a Neapolitan, but that was not the point - an innkeeper’s son had been permitted to earn promotion through his acts, not held back by his blood. Lannes, too, had very low connections of some sort, had been apprenticed to something. They had proved themselves better than the men around them, of all social ranks all across Europe. And then they let everything collapse so that no one could follow them in the future. But the great Revolution had permitted the acts and dreams of, if not labourers, then at least people not so different in situation to Laforêt. Napoleon’s wars had restored her own country, and she might have disdained the men who did it had she considered them carefully. But she was so caught up in her own trials and sorrows on a feast day that surely she was not considering there should be no betters if a worker could become a duke. Even the new king had not taken away the titles granted by Napoleon, and that meant that what had happened before could happen again.

Sophie shrugged as she pulled the finished pączki from the oil. “Perhaps he may change his mind. But how can I leave him? When I left my parents before, to work for Panna Mariśka, I had not left my country. But when we all had to fly, I left Panna Mariśka, for one must have one or the other, family or country. Otherwise, one is all alone in the world. How can I leave my father all alone in the world? Any man who seeks to marry me must see that much. But now you must leave me alone now to finish these in peace. The kitchen is no place for a young man on a feast day,” she tried to finish in better humour, forced as itmay have been. But she put a fresh pączek into his hand as she chased him out.

Feuilly returned to the party, his small amount of holiday spirit thoroughly drained even as the sweet plum conserve at the centre of the pączek lingered on his tongue. What good was attempting to have a proper conversation, not even a flirtation, if she was simply going to insult him without realising what she was doing? She never asked after his family - was he not good enough for that consideration? She did not even know how completely he lacked a family.

A well-dressed man was making his goodbyes to Pan Wojciech in their native tongue. He had not been present when Feuilly slipped off to see Sophie, so his visit to this poor flat must have been brief. The Polish “little water” had begun to flow, and Feuilly felt a tap on his shoulder. The student, Bahorel, had turned up, and was pressing a glass of the clear liquor into his hand.

“Did you see the Prince?” he asked.

“Was that who just left?”

“Massalski himself. Don’t you think he should be hosting this sort of thing instead of just providing the firewater?”

“So that’s how the wódka appeared.” He took a huge swallow, wincing at the burn in his throat. “So were you invited, or did you follow the Prince?”

“Invited. I’d managed an invitation to Massalski’s salon once, so I figured I’d come around to see how the real Polish patriots live.”

“Massalski isn’t real?”

Bahorel shrugged. “He does better in exile than his countrymen, so I have my doubts.”

“You’re just here to catch a glimpse of Panna Zofia.”

“Maybe,” he agreed with a smile.

“She won’t have anything to do with you. You haven’t got noble blood, either, do you?” He finished the glass and started looking around for the bottles or barrel or whatever might hold more liquor. Bahorel must have noticed because with a nod of his head, he beckoned Feuilly to follow him to the other side of the crowded room, where the barrel stood hidden by a cluster of partygoers.

“Did she tell you that?”

“Not ten minutes ago.” Let her come out now, to see him chatting with another student in her own flat. It was not for him to turn France into Poland just to soothe her nerves. Perhaps his audacity would make her feel better about rejecting him, even accidentally, on a feast day.

“So you finally decided you wouldn’t let so-called nobility be an obstacle.”

“I just wanted to see her alone for a minute. Didn’t say anything other than ask if she missed her mother. Not a word of what I might feel. She started warning me off with talk about not falling in love with your betters. At first, I thought she was talking about her father, well meant, you know? He’s playing at the bountiful lord right now, and they can’t afford it. She only wants to marry if there’s money in it. I wanted to make sure I heard right, as that would make her even sadder than she is, and she turned on me with this talk of not falling in love with your betters. Our nobility isn’t like their nobility. What did Marshal Lannes apprentice to?”

“A dyer, I think.”

“How much lower in class can you go and still become a duke?”

“So she’s a duchess, and if you married her, you’d be fulfilling your notion of a mobile hierarchy?”

“Pan Wojciech has no title. Titles in Poland come from foreign governments, either kindly meant as a reward for service, like if Marshal Poniatowski had been made a duke, or as a way the occupying force buys off the magnates. A real Polish patriot has only his surname and the benefit of being addressed as ’pan’ to prove his rank.” So Feuilly had learned from Pan Chrzyszczewski himself. “She’s lonely and worked to the bone for nothing, and it’s terribly sad that she disdains the very men who make things happen simply for wanting something more in life. Is there something wrong with wanting the future to be better than the past rather than a replica of it? What’s wrong with wanting something?” He was annoyed at the Chrzyszczewskis, who could turn a polite inquiry about the consequences of a death in the family into an opportunity for a lecture about the meaning of nobility, but he was also curious what a bourgeois student would have to say about it.

“Nothing. Hell, if no one wanted anything in this world, we’d still be in the mire of lords and serfs. Like they are. Give me the grasping bourgeois or the thrifty farmer over fossilised aristocracy or peasants any day.”

“Sophie said something odd at the beginning of all this. They have to be noble because Pan Wojciech has a surname and is addressed by his comrades as ‘pan’. If he were just a servant, they would know, and they wouldn’t be calling him ‘monsieur’. But something doesn’t really make sense. Because it isn’t just Pan Wojciech who works for Prince Massalski - Sophie did, too. She said something like she lived with that family and she was paid to love someone called Panna Mariśka, his daughter or maybe a niece?”

Bahorel motioned to a young man in flamboyant trousers and a shabby coat whom Feuilly had never seen before. “What’s the deal with our host?” he asked.

“Pan Wojciech? He is one of the Prince’s lackeys,” the man answered in heavily accented French.

“I mean in Poland. Who was he? What was his condition under the Duchy?”

“Oh, that. His father was what we call hreczkosiej. Good blood, no money, no serfs, only a field or two. But at least his father had land, even if he worked it himself. That went on his death, to pay off debts. Pan Wojciech became gołota. Landless. But still szlachta, noble, still one of us, even if a poor brother. We are not all Massalskis.” His French was hard to understand, but he produced it fluently.

“What is your rank, then?”

The young man shook his head. “It isn’t rank. Not like your nobility, where Duke is higher than Baron and one ascends only at the will of the king. Status, perhaps? No nickname so colourful as those of the lower szlachta. Middling, perhaps. We have a couple of villages in the Austrian portion. Galicja, they try to call it, as they conscript our peasants for their wars and pretend that Polska has never existed.”

“The daughter worked for Massalski, too, I think.”

“Ah, Panna Zofia. If she had land, she would have married already. If she were at home, even as gołota she would have married already, possibly to someone with a little something as she has attainments. No townsman, of course, unless he has already been favoured with brotherhood, but she would not be left rotting on the vine as she is now. The Prince took pity on them for some reason, some connection with Pan Wojciech’s unlucky father, I think, and hired Panna Zofia as companion for his younger daughter, Panna Maria. She died before the Prince went into exile.”

“Was Panna Zofia a companion or a maid?” Feuilly dared ask. “Companion” was what the ladies in the novels and sometimes on the stage had. They spoke well and dressed nicely. A maid, on the other hand, was he sort of work that the ordinary daughter of a farmer without land would be offered, the sort of work that Lydie was patently avoiding.

“A little of both, I should think, in the end. Still, she had all the same lessons - French, music, drawing - and that should have made her a more attractive marriage prospect. Not to a great magnate, no matter how much we are supposed to be equal brothers. But she is pretty, and she has some education, so that even without a dowry, someone with a little land or a little money might want her. But who is going to marry her here, beauty or no?”

“Maybe a Frenchman,” Bahorel said.

The young man laughed. “They may be gołota, but they are still szlachta. Blood is everything.”

Bahorel thanked him, but after the man left, he muttered to Feuilly, “Blood is everything? God help them.”

“Do you mean that?”

“Of course I do. Kalinowski fits M. Albert better than some of their other associates. Some are thorough-going liberals. Kalinowski thinks himself a great liberal for not demanding to be called ‘His Grace’. Massalski attracts all kinds, some sort of penance for his father’s mistakes. Which is why it’s hard to tell just how serious he is. Everyone gets money, liberal or conservative, so long as they speak of a united Poland. I prefer the liberals, though there are so few of them here. Understandably, as it is M. Albert’s party”

Sophie finally appeared with her tray of pączki. “There you go, Monsieur,” Feuilly pointed her out. “Her ladyship who says we cannot fall in love because I haven’t the blood.”

“Oh, damn,” Bahorel approved. She did look very pretty, her cheeks flushed from the stove, her eyes shining with festivity now that the bitter, isolating work was done for the moment. “No wonder you’re gone. Do you think M. Albert will let me sit at his feet to stare at his daughter?”

“She won’t marry a Frenchman.”

“Then I won’t marry her.”

“You heard Pan Kalinowski: she is a lady, landless servant or not,” Feuilly snapped at him. There had almost been an equality of conversation for a moment, but one could never fully take the mastery out of the bourgeois when a poor woman was involved. Mme Mirès, Panna Chrzyszczewska, it was all the same. Honest women were never respected by the wealthy.

“I just meant to look, that’s all. Wouldn’t dare touch. There’s probably some ancient rite for slaying peasants who make unwanted advances, and I’m closer to the farm than you are. Much closer.”

“Ah, monsieur!” Pan Chrzyszczewski suddenly greeted them. “Have you met my daughter? Zosia! Come greet M. Bahorel!”

Feuilly bid the student a rather bitter good luck then slipped out rather than witness the introduction. He did not want to know if Sophie would greet the student as an equal or if she accepted that in France, he was her superior. He did not want to see Sophie bow to anyone as her superior. He did not want to see Bahorel look at her fawningly or lasciviously. She deserved better, even if better could never mean himself.

Even her father’s associates felt she was ill-used. Her status was unfortunate: she had no other family to argue with her father on her behalf, and perhaps she would still follow her father out of loyalty or love if she were presented with a real choice between a new family and the old homeland. She had an education, but only as an afterthought, as a maid for the wealthy child of her father’s patron. And now she painted papier mâché boxes until someone of her own country and her own class would deign to marry her, someone whose blood she could respect and who did not think her an old maid.

What could her condescension or affection for him mean when laid against duty to father, class, and country? If she so deeply felt she must live in the world as she saw it, then the least he could do was honour how she chose to live. She was not for him if she could not believe in dreams, but she was like most of Paris in that. She accepted her poor place and did not dream of castles, and perhaps that made her even more a Cinderella. She deserved a prince to show her another way to live, not an unemployed fanmaker. He would not push his ambitions in her face again. Even if she did not much respect him, she did like him, and he could best prove the innate nobility of the dyer’s apprentice and the unemployed worker by behaving as a gentleman and refraining from further discussion of his dreams, not to win her approval but to offer her solace through his silence.


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