Corner of the Sky
The penitential season was in full swing, and Feuilly might as well have been fasting for the good of his soul as the strictest abstinence had been thrust upon him. Work was slow, but Mme Duzan had lowered her prices so that he spent nearly every afternoon in her reading room, buried in the ancients as the present was doing him little good. Unless he could find a new girl, he would get no more work from Duret, and he could not hope to attract a new mistress without money. His possible art career was already aborted. He was back to hungry mornings in the cafés and afternoons disappointed in the single poor meal a day he had eagerly grasped at noon. But at least his nights were more comfortable, even if Laforêt sometimes thrashed around in his sleep.
Having quickly exhausted Thucydides, he was back at the café, determined to stick to newspapers and the possibility of work for the rest of the week. He was nursing a glass of wine, hoping it could last all morning, chatting with Manoury about the meaning of the generals who had gone to Egypt to lead the fight against the poor Greeks. Did we not have the duty to support the Christian nation if the king were so adamant about his own religion as to push through the anti-sacrilege law?
As they talked, the café owner came out from behind the zinc, where he had been in conversation with a man about his own age. Feuilly paid little attention, though he had not much seen the café owner on this side of the zinc. There was no reason for him to care that the man moved more than a couple of steps, his belly jiggling as he crossed the floor. But it was at his table that the café owner stopped. “This one,” the fat man jerked a thumb at him.
His companion was about half his size, his whiskers gone grey. “Feuilly, right? I was told you paint.” He had a southern accent, more Gascon than Provençal, rather like Bahorel.
“I do,” Feuilly responded warily. This was how work was picked up, but it seemed more serious now that he was the one approached. He had never before merited an approach, Laforêt or the housepainter bringing him along as an assistant or a second pair of hands after the boss had contracted with them for the day’s work.
“I don’t mean house painting.”
“That’s Manoury here. Figural, landscape, botanical, I’m your man.” He tried to sound more certain than he felt.
“What was your last regular employment?”
“Colourist for Augustin Cartoux. He made fans. Went out of business in October after promising me a promotion to miniaturist.”
“But you never worked as a miniaturist.”
“I did some work, just not regularly,” Feuilly corrected. “I’ve coloured prints, too. For Jean-Michel Duret, in the rue St-Marc.”
“He might suit,” the man told the café owner. “Thank you.” A coin of payment was handed over, and the owner went back to his usual station behind the zinc. “My name is Lapeyre. Have you any experience with wallpapers?”
“I know watercolours and paper.”
“It’ll have to do. I need someone with a good eye and a careful hand. You’re young enough: are your eyes good?”
“I should think so.”
“Thirty sous a day to make corrections to the rolls.”
“Agreed.” A set salary rather than piecework? He was going to be worked to death for his thirty sous, but it was work, and a guaranteed wage.
Manoury wished him luck as he followed M. Lapeyre. Lapeyre’s workshop was in a long, low building some distance north of the café. The workshop was a single large room the entire length of the building, with windows all down both the street side and the courtyard side. It might have been purpose-built, but it certainly looked older than M. Lapeyre. Perhaps he had taken over a previous concern. Long tables ran between the windows, spaced to give enough room for men to work between them. A crash startled Feuilly - it was merely a woodblock landing too hard on the table. “Watch what you’re at!” M. Lapeyre shouted at the men managing the block. Others, more careful, landed their printing blocks with a low thud. “The rolls are printed in colour,” M. Lapeyre explained. “You’ll look over the printing, and if the blocks weren’t aligned perfectly, or if there’s a flaw, you’ll fix what you can.”
“I get thirty sous a day so you don’t lose the sale of less than perfect rolls?”
“That’s it precisely. My man’s out with a broken arm; if you’re satisfactory, you can stay until his hand is back to normal.”
“A month, more or less?”
“Probably two. His wife came to me yesterday.”
Lapeyre was not much like Cartoux - he had a harshness to his voice and demeanour rather than the gentility Feuilly thought he saw in the fanmaker - but Feuilly was pleased to hear this expression of loyalty to his workers. Work for a month or two was a godsend, particularly at thirty sous a day, and if the boss held a job for one of his men, surely he would put in a good word for Feuilly after Easter, when he would again be forced to go looking for new work.
The work for most of the men was heavy and not artistic in the least, Feuilly discovered as the morning wore on. The wooden blocks used for printing were heavy, and while they were swung about on ropes and hoisted with pulleys, it took muscular effort to mitigate the effects of gravity. There was a girl, small and silent, who mixed the colours, and she brought him small dishes of the shades used in the pink and green and white floral pattern he was to examine. Lapeyre had left him a magnifying glass, as well, which was momentarily fascinating. He needed a man with good eyes, yet he had provided this expensive glass that could so easily show the grain of the paper when held at the correct distance. But Feuilly’s interest quickly faded as he found the grain of the paper to be more distraction than aid.
It was hard work for his thirty sous. The close inspection, even in the best light that a hanging lamp and the wide windows could provide, had him rubbing his eyes. He had expected printer’s ink, or at least a thin paint close to the watercolours he had always worked with, but the paints for wallpaper were thick and opaque, requiring a different touch between brush and paper. One of the flowers in the block had a slight deformity, a chip in one petal, that he found he had to correct in each impression down the whole long roll. Once his corrections had dried, the long roll was printed a second time, in another colour, so that the flowers would be given green stems and vines twining across the page. Each roll had to dry for several hours, so these rolls of pink flowers represented the previous afternoon’s work. Pink flowers, over and over, for him, while they added green vines upon green vines, roll after roll.
The men who had dropped their block were working at a simpler design, a marbled pattern that would require no correction. A nick in marble would never be noticed. An older woman and the girl hung the finished rolls across a clothes line high above the floor to dry completely. The drying rolls closed off one end of the long room like a half-finished screen or heavily faded curtain. Lapeyre was on his feet all the time, walking around the printers at work, examining the printing carefully, leaning over Feuilly’s shoulder on occasion, which terrified Feuilly. What if Lapeyre found a flaw he thought obvious that Feuilly had never noticed? But not a word was said to him.
All the morning, the rhythmic thud of the blocks accompanied Feuilly’s squinting labour. After that first roll, he knew where the flawed flower lay in the block, but every flower had to be examined just in case. A hair or a speck of dust could create just as much havoc with the design. The men did not work in silence, but it was not a gossipy workplace, he thought. It was not so much the hum of conversation as the rhythm of hoists and drops, not quite sung the way the men on the river would sing to pull the oars or hoist an anchor, but a streetseller’s patter in a low tone. Conversation might throw the timing off, Feuilly decided. Looking up to rest his eyes a moment, he watched the process through. A block was twisted upright, inked with a sponge full of paint, then swung into place and dropped with a low thud, the paper pressed between the table and the block. Two men with a heavy roller would push it across the block to firmly set the design to the paper, then the block would be hoisted, inked, moved into position, and thud to the table again to be rolled. At one point, the rhythm broke, one of the men shouting, “Adèle! Pink 48!” The girl came running with a new dish of paint, and the printing continued.
Midmorning, the work suddenly stopped and men began to file between the hanging rolls and out the door. “You’re not going?” Lapeyre asked Feuilly.
“To drink your breakfast like the rest.”
Another glass of wine would certainly go to his head and make it impossible to keep up the careful work he had been hired to do. “I should rather keep working, monsieur.” While it would never do to lie outright to impress the boss, a true statement of preferring not to be stuck buying a round of drinks for strangers, as Laforêt had once warned him would be the case, could hardly go amiss.
“Go rest your eyes for few minutes, then,” Lapeyre ordered. “You’ll not get another chance until noon.”
The air outside was no less chill and damp than it had been a couple hours earlier. Feuilly had not realised just how much the small stove in the corner, where the girl mixed her paints, had heated the whole huge room until the fresh air of the city made him shiver. Morning was advancing more slowly than the clock would suggest. The men had taken themselves to a dingy café down the street; Feuilly could see one of them waving to him, but he stared off into the distance a bit longer before looking away, trying not to seem to deliberately cut the stranger. It might have been a friendly gesture rather than a grasping one. The women had gone in the opposite direction, to a coffee seller. Feuilly hoped the coffee seller would still be there in a couple of hours, as it would be best to wait for midday to spend a sou on one of the acrid bowls. A bowl of coffee and a piece of bread would stand him in greater stead than a pot of wine.
He leaned against the corner of the building, looking around. A cart came up the cross street, laden with barrels. He could hear the metallic ring of a blacksmith somewhere not far away. The streets were not well-peopled at this time of morning, the workers all busy with their work and the neighbourhood too industrial and out of the way for anyone who did not work there. The cart had come through the barrière just north, perhaps bringing wine, for any marketer would be heading back after his early-morning sales, not arriving in the city so late. To a wine merchant he must be going, Feuilly decided.
The women were watching him, he feared, as he glanced in their direction again. Were the men wondering about him as well? He could hardly afford the required pleasantries, and his empty stomach was not the place to drop a friendly pot of wine or shot of brandy at the moment. He would have to accept hospitality at the end of the day, to run up credit at the café in apology for his poor manners this morning. What did hospitality matter if he were too drunk to keep the position that required such a gesture? And as for the women themselves, what must they be saying about him? Ada had him spooked. While he got on perfectly well with men like Manoury, relations with Ada seemed unlikely to ever improve. Perhaps men liked him for the same reason girls like Ada never took to him: so long as he seemed slightly outside the normal life they were used to, he was no competitor in that life. If only it were true. How much easier must it be to be the slumming bourgeois he hoped he was sometimes taken for than to be what he was in truth. Mme Mirès had liked him well enough in that guise, after all. Not that he was anything to these women, with one old enough to be his mother or worse. As for the young one, she was more likely another Ada than another Mme Mirès.
The women returned first, not looking at him as they walked past, as if they had looked enough and need not risk being detected in their observations. He followed them back into the workshop, and the men returned a few moments later, their conversation suddenly filling the shop with noise. But the rhythm of work was soon taken up again, as if it had never paused.
The first sheet of green vines over the pink flowers was brought to him just before the workers all walked out for their midday break. Feuilly followed this time without being asked, but he turned the opposite way, through the street now well-populated with others on their midday breaks, to the coffee seller. Her product was acrid and weak, as he had expected, with the milk watered as well as the coffee, but it was warm, and the weakness made it go down more easily. “Where might a person get a piece of bread?” he asked.
“Baker in the rue Martel. Next street over,” she explained to his look of confusion. The rue Martel was narrow, the way filled by the emptying of a wineshop by the men of another enterprise ending their midday break. The baker was just down the way, and Feuilly was able to get a chunk of dry black bread for his sou, not large enough to do much, but it would keep the worst of the hunger away.
On his way back to the workshop, one of the other men caught up to him. “You going to ignore us all day?”
“At the end of the day. I swear,” Feuilly apologised with what he hoped was a somewhat ingratiating smile.
It must have worked, for the man offered his hand. “Thomas Quinot.”
Nothing more was said, though it appeared Quinot spread the word to everyone, as they all found an excuse to look at him in the course of the afternoon. Another short break for drink was taken around three, but Feuilly just sat on the floor and rubbed his eyes. It was hard work, quite as hard as his first day with Cartoux though he did far less painting here, and it only got worse as the afternoon lengthened to evening. The green block had no flaws that Feuilly could see, but the men had manged to set it a hairsbreadth out of place a couple of times, requiring that he fill in the tiny gap with just enough green that the seam would go unnoticed.
After the greens were complete, a brown block would be applied to give subtle definition, less crisp and thus less glaring than the black outlines a printer of images such as Duret might use. These outlines set the work, giving Feuilly the final frame to which he must make the pink and green match. Then he would have the option of a white paint should it become necessary. Four dishes of paint, all mixed to numbered formulas. But this was explained to him as work for the next morning, as there would not be time to let the first prints of that final block dry enough that he might add his corrections without smudging the printing.
They were released from printing sometime after six, after the sun had sunk so far behind the buildings that the south-facing windows no long received even a hint of light. He had been working by lamp for the past hour, the sounds around him changing with the accompaniment of the women rolling the morning’s dry marbled sheets off the lines. They left lines full of wet sheets, which would be rolled or finished in the morning, but the tables had to be cleared and wiped down, the brushes and paint pans and printing blocks washed, the mixed paints sealed up in pots so they could begin with the same colours the next day. Bending over the water basin in which he could wash his brushes, Feuilly had a chance to examine the girl, who was washing the paint off her stirring rods. She was not as young as he had thought, perhaps a bit older than he, and rather plain, with a smattering of freckles across her thin cheeks. Her hands were stained with green and brown and blue pigment, and a lank lock of brown hair had escaped from her cap, hanging in her eyes. She hardly looked at him, intent on her own work, and she was really not worth looking at long herself. Not ugly, but thoroughly ordinary. The older woman swept the floors, pushing up clouds of paper dust, while the men wiped down the tables. They did not leave until around seven, the sun long gone though twilight still hung in the sky.
Quinot tried to pull him along, but Feuilly paused to wait for M. Lapeyre, who was locking up. “Shall I see you tomorrow, monsieur?”
“Of course!” the boss snapped. “If you were sacked, you’d know it.”
“Thank you, monsieur.”
Feuilly thought he heard someone mutter “bootlicker”, but he deliberately ignored the insult as he followed Quinot and his mates to their café. If he were indeed to buy them a round of drinks, it was poor manners on anyone’s part to insult the man who needed this job to pay for their drinks.
They were not so organised as the compagnon joiners of Laforêt’s experience. No oaths or songs accompanied the round, merely a call to the café owner for brandy all around and a credit account to be set up in Feuilly’s name. Only once liquored did the men finally introduce themselves. Feuilly promptly forgot half their names; only Quinot and the Favé twins, ginger-haired Bretons, stuck with him. Everyone was kind enough - indeed, after the first round of brandy that he had been required to purchase, he was treated to a pot of wine. His own story was soon told, particularly as he left out the nearly three weeks in prison, but Quinot saw to it that Lapeyre’s story was imparted with all necessary haste.
“He can be a bastard, I warn you, but he’s loyal as anything. I mean, it’s brilliant for Nevers he’ll have a job when his arm heals, if it heals, but it’s not so great for you, is it?”
“I’ve been doing day work for three months. Loyal or not, a wage is a wage.”
“If he likes you, he’ll find something for you. Mme Lemesle is here because her husband was here before Lapeyre was, Adèle because of her father.”
“He looks after his predecessor’s widows and orphans, then?”
“That he does,” a blond man agreed.
“If he is not the founder, when did he purchase the concern?”
“At the Restoration, is how I heard it,” one of the Favé twins said.
The other added, “The founder got arrested after the Hundred Days, had to sell off everything in the city.”
“No,” another man tried to correct, “he got expelled from the city, all right, old M. Dutot, but Lapeyre bought him out after everything went bad in ’16, ’17, something like that. The workshop wasn’t making him any more proceeds to live off in his country exile.”
“So he sold to a southerner. A stranger?”
“As far as I know. Mme Lemesle’s the only one of us around since the old days. I started in ’18, and Lapeyre was already in charge. Adèle might know, as her father was the last of the old timers.”
Was there a great deal of turnover in this business, that an “old timer” had been with the firm for only seven years? Or was it simply the upheaval of the fall of the empire followed by the terrible harvest the next year? Feuilly decided it was better not to know, as he would only be there a couple of months, anyway. “M. Dutot must have been a great businessman to retire to the country,” he replied.
“I think he was,” the other man said. “Lapeyre, this is all he’s got. Which you can probably tell.” He did look more like a jumped-up workman than Cartoux ever did, Feuilly thought.
They chatted on for a while, until excuses about wives at home began to be made. Feuilly was exhausted, practically penniless, would have to wait three days before he was paid for this portion of the week, but at least he walked home with good news even if his pockets were a bit lighter.
“Hallelujah,” Laforêt said when he was told the news. “That’ll stave off the wolf for the next quarter.”
If only he could get work, too, Feuilly thought. He was getting tired of keeping them both while Laforêt only managed scraps.
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