Corner of the Sky


Part 46

Wallpaper corrections proved even less interesting - and more difficult for that - than basic tints had been for Cartoux. Yet the shop was clean, well-run, and a steady source of work.

“No seasons, no inventory lay-off,” Quinot told Feuilly. “He’ll pull the women, and maybe you, around Easter for inventory, but he ships out to America all year. The mural panels are summer-only production, but he has enough business in the rest for all winter.”

Indeed, Lapeyre’s two lines were in constant motion except during breaks, breaks Feuilly appreciated by the end of his second day. It was close work in the grey light, and the length of the paper made it difficult to place lamps to his best advantage. The blocks the men hoisted were heavy and required greater care than ordinary building materials of a similar weight might have done. No one had significant training - it was not at all like Laforêt’s cabinetry - but they all knew their parts in making the vines and swags that flowed from the workshop in their hundreds and thousands.

Feuilly contrived to keep somewhat to himself, as he could not afford the pleasant rituals of the men until his wages were paid. He took the afternoon break in their company, unwilling to be thought unfriendly, but he could not afford the morning and noon breaks as well. He felt eyes constantly on him, but he kept his own on his work. The chanted hoist and thud of the blocks, punctuated by the occasional call for paint or paper, filled the background of his thoughts like the chant of the mass as he prayed, a constant reminder that work was indeed salvation.

And through it all, the women moved silently, never joining in the chant or any audible conversation. They murmured to each other from time to time, and answered the shouts directed at them, but they were quiet adjuncts to the real work of printing. They moved familiarly enough around the men that the silence seemed to Feuilly more habit than shyness. After all, fresh handprints occasionally appeared at the back of the copious apron that kept the girl’s grey dress as clean as possible, but the paint lightened as it dried, so the grabs faded into the background quickly enough, too. Cartoux would never have stood for such lack of discipline among his employees. Lapeyre was coarser, so Feuilly shrugged it off. The girl was not married, he assumed, nor was she a distressed lady like Sophie, and if she did not make them stop, then it was because she did not care to. She was not pretty enough for modesty to be becoming, nor was she on display, seeking more than an occasional pinch or slap. Just one of the thousands of ordinary girls in Paris who knew the score in the capital and did not object to the game. Mère Lamesle was too old to play anymore, so Adèle was the only target in evidence.

The men’s occasional grasps and jokes did not torment her, so far as Feuilly could tell, so it was all in the ordinary daily intercourse of a slightly lower tone than Cartoux had been willing to cultivate. In his first week, the one bit of teasing he heard involved himself and was quickly dropped.

“What about the new boy?” he overheard in a momentary pause as one line got a new batch of ink and the other was pulling their paper. He did not yet know the voices well enough to identify the questioner, but it seemed likely to be the large blond man standing next to Quinot. Adèle looked over at Feuilly, pulled a face, and walked away, shaking her head. The blond man laughed, joined by much of his line, and Quinot said something lost as the second line returned to their habitual chant. It was proof he did not fit into this company, Feuilly thought, and never would. Ada would have made the same face, and Laforêt might have made or heard similar comments from Alešon a year ago, so he shrugged it off. It was only temporary work, work he could not imagine doing for years on end. So long as it put some money in his purse, what did he care if he were the butt of jokes?

At the end of the week, he had something in his pocket again, enough he could join the men for a drink and pay down a little of the tab he had run up his first night. Quinot and the Bretons continued friendly, the blond man indifferent rather than hostile or contemptuous. Whatever he had said to the girl must have been in fun to her rather than in spite to him, Feuilly decided.

He returned home to find Laforêt surrounded by lit candles and a pile of wood scraps. “What the hell?” He could make out a couple of broken chairs, but on the whole it looked more like the preparations for a bonfire than an identifiable project.

“I know it looks bad, but -” He gestured towards the dark fireplace.

Everything had been removed from the mantle. Feuilly started to angrily ask “Where is everything?” when he realised just what was being pointed out. The odd sort of alcove had been filled in with shelves. His books, drawing materials, extra clothes were all laid out neatly, as were Laforêt’s belongings. “You didn’t work today?”

“Picked up a few planks I was promised yesterday. You didn’t notice the chips last night?”

He hadn’t looked at much of anything in the dark the previous night, his eyes still seeing the shadows of those damned pink flowers. “Didn’t notice. Thanks, by the way.” It wasn’t much towards what Laforêt owed him, but the shelves were nice to have.

“Next time I get called over to the rue de Cléry, I’ll see about getting more wood.”

What good anything from the chairmakers would be was rather beyond Feuilly’s conception at the moment. There was already a pile of wood - was it not enough? But he did not dwell on it; Laforêt’s projects were his own concern. As long as there was money in the end, they were not Feuilly’s business.

Monday, Feuilly found the workshop locked. Cursing the Holy Monday that he felt was picking his pocket, he ended up back at Mme Duzan’s reading room, starting in with the volume of Xenophon she had told him was a sort of sequel to Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. It was the same price as the two cups of wine that would see him through the day in a café, so Greek history it would have to be. If he was not to be permitted to work, he could at least continue to educate himself. His fellow workers could not prevent that, no matter how much they tried.

Tuesday thus found him annoyed at his fellows when he arrived. “You follow the Monday, I see,” he said to Lapeyre, not well hiding his annoyance.

“You think I can run the place a day with you and two women? I’ve never had a choice in the matter. We’re doing green Fountain and orange and violet paisley this week,” he announced to the workers. “Come on, hurry it up. Adèle, that’s green 12 for the background!”

There was more play in the paisley than there had been in the previous week’s flowered vines, while the pattern called “Fountain” depicted a shepherdess helping to give water to a traveler’s horse, alternated with her sheep. The design was printed in two different shades of green on a green ground, and the first order of business was literally painting the solid background shade onto the paper before any printing could begin. Here, he was asked to help, joining in a frenzied application of green paint to four rolls at a time. Buckets of paint were prepared as quickly as Adèle could mix them and emptied as fast as the men could paint and hang the rolls, the drying lines quickly filled with plain green paper. The paisley began printing on the second line while the first made their green paper, a deep orange network of vines with huge gaps left for the paisley design itself. The vine pattern here was tiny and intricate, a space filler rather than a design in itself, and the small gaps occasionally left by the printers sometimes required, instead of a line of paint, a small addition to the design.

Lapeyre caught Feuilly making one of these additions around noon. “No, it’s no good. Not you. The gap’s too big to fit the paisley in neatly. Damn all your eyes, are you all still drunk from yesterday?” he shouted at the line, grabbing the sheet off Feuilly’s table and knocking a dish of paint aside as the paper trailed behind him. “Look at this! Do you think this can be fixed? If I find another one, you’ll be docked a sou. Each time. All of you!”

Feuilly had managed to catch the dish of paint before it completely capsized, but at the price of a very orange hand. At least the paint washed quickly while still wet, leaving behind only a trace of pigment. A fresh sheet, properly printed this time, was on his table by the time he returned.

At the break, he caught a glare from the blond man who had not entirely taken to his presence the previous week. But he followed close to Quinot, determined to do his best to fit into the company now that it appeared he would be with them for some time. “What’s up Lapeyre’s ass?” Quinot asked generally.

“Maybe someone who doesn’t consider Mondays sacred,” the blond man said.

“If you have a problem, tell me straight,” Feuilly challenged. The man was a head taller than he was, considerably broader and several years older, but he did not sound Parisian. If there were to be a fight, the man probably had no street skills.

“The new man should follow the lead of his betters, not make us look bad,” the man threatened.

“It isn’t his fault you can’t place a block where it belongs,” one of the Favés said.

“Says the man who’s been painting sheets all morning.”

“Maybe Lapeyre’s right and you should be painting until you sober up.” It was not Feuilly’s best idea, but an older man stepped between him and the blond man before fists could be raised.

“Let the boy alone. And don’t make Ricard angry,” he lectured Feuilly. “He may be out of line, but you’re old enough to know your place, too.”

Quinot was a bit less friendly after that. He seemed to have no love for Ricard, but Feuilly’s assertion of dominance was not appreciated. The Favés, however, must have had a real rivalry with Ricard, as they suddenly adopted Feuilly as their own.

“Is it usual for a workshop to have rivalries among the workers?” he asked Laforêt that night. “Or for your people, do they keep it between the brotherhoods?”

“Men are men, no matter where they’re gathered. What sort of rivalry?” Feuilly explained how sides appeared to have been taken. “How old are the Bretons? Young like us, or closer to settled like Richard?”

“Ricard,” Feuilly corrected. “Young, I guess.”

“There you go. More forgiving of you being an idiot. Why challenge Holy Monday?”

“We need the money.”

“You challenge it now, it means you don’t get it when you need it. If you want more work, find yourself day work on Mondays. Don’t ruin it for the rest of us.”

“Cartoux never observed Monday holidays.”

“And the work was comparatively light. I didn’t mind it there, either. More money. But you could sit down all day and have no heavy lifting except for when the montures were delivered. An hour of heavy work once a week was child’s play. If the blocks are as heavy as you say, you’ve no call to want more of your light work on their backs.”

“Then why are the Favés on my side?”

“Probably something you haven’t figured out yet. Ricard’s a bully, maybe? I can imagine the bastard. He’ll beat the shit out of you if you piss him off again, so keep your nose down, but let what happens happen. Take any allies you can get. You need more friends.”

“I don’t know I’ve anything in common with them except that they don’t much like Ricard.”

“That’s all it takes. If this has you confused, I can’t imagine how you’d have fared in a lodging house of compagnons.”

Feuilly did fare better keeping his mouth shut. Questions simply made him look out even more out of place. It was easier as the week progressed and the living detail of the Fountain occupied much more of his attention. So long as he was busy, he was satisfied, and he could more easily ignore Ricard’s looks when he had his own work.

After a few more days, Feuilly started to understand the real possibilities in Holy Monday. He had work every day that everyone else had work, and a day off each week to spend in Mme Duzan’s reading room. Yes, he could earn a little more with more work, but he was also being handed the time to continue his education. Everything in the world was starting to look a little better now that he had a place to go each day where his efforts were appreciated by a man who could pay for them.

As the week was ending, Laforêt came home late whistling and half drunk. “We shall soon be in funds!” he announced. “Building works in the rue du Grand-Prieuré. Windows, doors, stairs, cabinetry, all awaiting my genius!”

“Genius?” Half the room was still a mess from the construction of the shelves. Every scrap and the broken chairs were still required for the unexplained future project, the details of which Feuilly had determined not to ask. Perhaps the new job would give whatever wood Laforêt still needed, as the rue de Cléry had not come calling.

“String of four houses, with ground floor shops. Should keep me busy through Easter.” Though he knocked on the wall even as he delivered his good fortune: it would not do to jinx the best luck they had yet had.

Having the prospect of decent funds available - proper joinery paid much better than Feuilly’s corrections, even if he was on day-wages rather than paid by the piece - Laforêt was determined to spend some of them. “Come out with me on Sunday,” he begged.

“Where?”

“Where do you think? Bercy. Saint-Mandé. Wherever you like.”

Chasing girls who would want nothing to do with either of them. “It’s Lent.”

“What has that to do with anything?”

“I’ll be at mass.”

“Only in the morning. And you go every Sunday, so I don’t see what’s so different this time. We can afford it for once!”

“I told you, it’s Lent. All believers should abstain not only from the consumption of flesh but also from the consumption of vice.”

“It’s also a Sunday, and there’s a dispensation.”

“Vice wasn’t included.”

“It wasn’t mentioned at all, in any of the announcements. Do you think Mlle Sophie will hold an evening at the dance hall against you when she doesn’t even know you’ve gone?”

“Bercy,” Feuilly relented. “I don’t like Saint-Mandé.”

There had been no visits to the Chrzyszczewskis since Tłusty czwartek, only bare pleasantries at church. Feuilly had to admit he had been avoiding the Poles in general, but it was Lent, and Didier’s café was out of the way of Lapeyre’s shop. The penitential season had been excuse enough, but it seemed Sophie must no longer care to see him at all, or Pan Wojciech no longer cared to see him privately. Bahorel had probably taken his place, so she would never learn of any trips to a dance hall. Laforêt had a point: the Bishop of Paris had given a dispensation for Sundays during Lent, and if one could consume meat, then one could certainly go dancing.

Indeed, plenty of other young people must have made the same excuse to themselves, for the streets of Bercy bustled in the March drizzle. Girls with bright new ribbons in their caps despite the season jostled with young men in shabby but carefully brushed coats. Spring had arrived by the calendar - it was the very day of the vernal equinox - and young Paris had turned out to pay it tribute. Feuilly and Laforêt stopped first at a café to fortify their nerves. “Ada’s out somewhere tonight,” Laforêt told him over the noise of the crowd.

“You think we’ll see her?”

He shrugged. “Not my business what she does, is it?”

No, but he was trying to make it so, Feuilly thought. “How many cafés are having dances tonight? She’ll be somewhere else.”

Three glasses of wine later, they went down the street to where the advertised dance was being held. Ten sous each for admission, and the close, hot back room was opened to them. Laforêt immediately went up to the prettiest girl they could find. “Good evening, mademoiselle. Do you dance?”

“Not with you.” She turned promptly back to her girlfriend and started whispering.

“Does that actually work for you in the provinces?” Feuilly ragged him.

“Let’s see you do any better.”

Feuilly looked around. This was a different set of women than he was used to, and his experience had been helped initially by his youth and later by his reputation. No one here knew him by sight, or would swoon when he introduced himself. A failed lockpick was no good in this company, and he did not trust any confidence tricks after his success with Mme Mirès, a miracle he knew better than to expect to repeat. It was no good going straight to the prettiest girls unless you wanted to be rejected; neither should one abandon all standards and find the wallflowers just to have anyone give you the time of day. There was a middle ground where some success should be assured. A blonde girl laughing with a group of darker friends appeared the most obvious target. She was not as pretty as a couple of her friends, but she was by no means plain. Her company proved she had some fashionable tastes, and the ribbon in her cap looked new. “Good evening, mademoiselle,” he bowed to her. The women he knew liked it when he played the gentleman for them. “Could a stranger ask your hand in the next dance?”

“He could. Doesn’t mean I’d give it.”

“I don’t doubt that you’ve already given it to someone else. Would you like to join me on the floor if you’ve a free dance tonight?”

One of her prettier friends whispered something in her ear. “I haven’t got a free dance tonight, monsieur.” She at least had the courtesy to sound sorry about rejecting him.

Her friends, however, did not bother with courtesy. “If she did, no reason to spend it on you,” the prettiest in the group said. “Martin, darling!” she called out to a beefy man with a pockmarked face, who quickly grabbed her around the waist. What the hell taste did these women have, rejecting him in favour of a scarred labourer who probably danced like an ape?

He slunk back to Laforêt. “The city treats you no better.”

“A different company treats me a damned sight better. Are they looking for a good time or a husband?” he added irritably.

“You do better with the good time girls?”

“I used to do damned well,” he boasted. But it was true. He could have traded Lydie in for any of twenty others like her had he felt the need. Lydie was more of a beauty than the blonde could hope to be, but he was too good for the one and somehow not good enough for the other. How could he not be good enough for a single dance? Even Mme Mirès would probably have let him kiss her in the end, had he dared, but she was a Jewess, so perhaps her race was primary over her honest modesty. Honest modesty was not much present at the dance hall tonight, yet its absence was not to his benefit.

Eventually, Laforêt found a willing partner, but Feuilly did not share a dance all night. Some girls looked right past him, some tittered, the most daring rejected him straight, which made a pleasant change. Even putting on his most charming smile to take pity on a cripple girl, he could not find satisfaction. “I can’t dance, monsieur. I’m sorry.” She returned to gazing longingly at the dance floor, though Feuilly soon realised she was gazing less at the dancers than at one particular dancer.

“Why is it whores find me handsome, and girls want nothing to do with me,” he complained to Laforêt as they left. “Every damned one there might as well have heard from Ada that there was something wrong with me.” As if to punctuate the truth of his appraisal, a couple of heavily made up streetwalkers called out to them from an alley. “Another time, girls,” he called back. It would have been nice to fool around with a girl, but he wasn’t really in the mood for a whore.

“I won’t forget you, dear,” the taller of them called back. “Pretty bastard, that one,” she said to her companion.

“That’s your problem,” Laforêt told him. “You haven’t got enough man in you.”

“Insult me again, why don’t you?” Feuilly snapped.

“Just saying what Ada says,” he said, his hands spread in truce. “She’s wrong, but then, I know you, don’t I? And I’m not a girl. She is.”

“How much man have you got in you if you only managed one dance all night?”

“It was a shit night all around. You know it was a shit night when you don’t even see anyone slumming.”

Now that Laforêt mentioned it, there had been no students on the fringes of the room, having their way with the girls who were looking for fun rather than marriage. His experience had been almost entirely with whores, but there were many gradations between someone like Lydie and someone like Sophie, and while tonight must have brought out the Adas, where were the potential mistresses for the future doctors and lawyers? Without their prey, had they turned to looking for husbands, too?

But what did it matter for him, Feuilly told himself, when he was not a moneyed student and could offer the girls only the fun of the evening, not the gifts and dinners and Sunday outings they would expect. That was why Mme Mirès might have succumbed to a kiss, after all - she thought him better than he was. He had played her false in that way, and to do the same to these girls would have been bait and switch, giving them a penniless corrector of wallpaper when they expected a shabby artist who would sometimes receive an allowance from home to squander on them. He had not been looking only for sex, which was why he had turned down the whores. He had thought a dance or two, maybe a little petting after, was what he had really missed since he had left Lydie. But it might as well have been a room full of Sophies, rejecting him over and over for trying to be something he was not. To hell with all of them, he thought. If they don’t want a polite, honest chap, why bother? A little bait and switch might be just what they need. The confidence trick was perhaps the only way to go in such company. Next time, he decided, we’ll see how the artist gets on.

 

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