Corner of the Sky

Part 48

Despite Laforêt’s warnings, and the lengthening sunlight extending his days at work, Feuilly began to return to the Poles, though only on a Monday evening after an afternoon spent with Mme Duzan. Pan Chrzyszczewski welcomed him openly, as did Bahorel.

“How have you been doing with Panna Zofia?” Feuilly asked him, deliberately using Sophie’s Polish name to assert his intimacy with the family.

“I’ve had nothing to do with her. You’re as free to pursue her as she is to run from you. I haven’t the blood, either, remember?”

So he did recall their last conversation, even after all these months. “But you have the interest.”

“I have no problem finding pretty girls who actually want something to do with me.”

Of course, he would be one of the students who the girls were usually after at café dances. Not terribly handsome though no worse than the workingmen they usually went for, but better dressed, able to buy them much nicer presents, and available for day trips to pleasure gardens and the like. Feuilly had never even been able to afford to take Lydie to try the montagnes russes in Belleville, always finding better means to spend their ten sous. The girls who adored the dangers of such entertainments were the same girls who did not mind the dangers of attachments to their social superiors. Risks were necessary if the rewards were to be great. Lydie took no great risks, seeking only a roof over her head and a little food in her stomach. If she had any talents other than copulation, she would have been just like her dreary, hardworking flatmates.

“So you’re out in the cold, too.”

“Never was in to begin with. An invitation to an open house is not an invitation to intimacy.”

“If your father was Baron de Bahorel, that might count for something.”

“Ah, but my father is Jaufre Bahoreu. Or Geoffroy Bahorel. Depends on if we speak Gascon or French. Since there is the option of Gascon, there will be no barons in my family line.”

“I thought the rich everywhere in France spoke French.”

“So they do. Doesn’t mean they don’t also speak, and prefer, their native patois.”

“Which do you prefer?”

“French. I’m not a peasant like my parents, even if I grew up with the lingo. And when in Paris, it is best to be Parisian, to speak this patois that we call the great tongue of our nation. M. Albert, I think, is less keen on this patois than on his own.”

“But he has a nation to which his language belongs, even if that nation is currently under the thumb of conquerors.”

“Conquerors invited in once, though I don’t think M. Albert will say much about it.”

“Invited in?” Bahorel’s contacts with the higher social reaches of the Polish exiles put in him in the way of interesting information, though Feuilly was rather skeptical of the student’s true grasp of recent Polish history. He had not enjoyed the incentives Feuilly had had in learning such a subject in depth.

“Massalski wavers in just what he’s doing, I think, which puts him in good company with the rest of his family. A brother was a bishop, part of the Targowica group that asked the Russians to come in and shut down all the liberal reforms the parliament was making at the same time we were attempting liberal reforms of our own. The Russians marched in, defeated the liberal Polish forces, and stayed. For his troubles, Bishop Massalski ended up hanged in an uprising a few years later. M. Albert, not being a good liberal, might have been cheering that invasion at the time, and our Prince Massalski probably was, too.”

“You are getting botched history from Pan Kalinowski,” Feuilly insisted.

“Kalinowski is no more a real liberal than M. Albert; he has money from his parents back home to prove it.”

“So if M. Albert really is a terribly conservative revolutionary, where are these liberals you keep mentioning that I’ve never seen?”

“Madalinski - his grandfather was with Kosciusko - has a bit of a group around him. But they’re from the Prussian section, while your friend M. Albert and his conservatives are all from what the Russians took after looking to them for protection. But then, M. Albert and most of his friends are now disobeying Russian orders to have gone home after the peace was signed in 1814. Madalinski’s Prussian Poles left after things had calmed down. He ran out of money when attempting to get to England and just stayed here, so his friends have joined him here.”

“A well-organised band.”

Bahorel laughed at the joke. “Our late king let them stay. What the new one has to say about it, no one much cares.”

“If he remains determined to bring back the old ways, he will continue to allow us. No one other than the king should tell the king who his guests might be.” Pan Chrzyszczewski had caught them in conversation.

Bahorel looked much abashed as he greeted the old Pole. “Forgive us, monsieur. We are young, and it is our duty to find humour in everything that ought to be serious.”

“You find us in a degenerate age,” Feuilly reminded Pan Chrzyszczewski.

“Yes, I do.”

“Let us young people talk, pan,” Bahorel asked. “We will offend no one if no one listens to us. And when we have worked out our disdain, then we can listen with the respect that is due our elders.” Pan Chrzyszczewski walked away, shaking his head, while Feuilly and Bahorel smothered their laughter. Feuilly respected Pan Chrzyszczewski, but sometimes the nobleman was more evident than the friendly father. “Now, what have you been doing, since you have not been eating beignets and drinking Prince Massalski’s vodka for two months.”

Pączki, not beignets, and very little of anything between then and Easter.”

“Have you found work?”

“Kind of you to ask.” It really was, Feuilly realised. “At the moment, I’m making corrections in wallpaper patterns until the man who usually does the work recovers from a broken wrist. I assume you have no connections of any assistance.”

“Sadly, no. If you were quick with a dictionary and an excellent liar, I could put you in touch with a man I know who publishes translations from Italian and Spanish.”

“A man who neither knows nor cares how accurate those translations are?”

“Exactly. But it doesn’t pay well, and you’re likely doing just as well with your wallpaper.”

“In other words, I’m not the sort of person one introduces as a translator.”

“Your words, not mine. But I’ve done a little research and I’ve done a little arithmetic, and I know that ‘genteel poverty’ makes less money than honest labour. You’d probably break even at best.”

“You’ve done a little research?”

“My interest in the Poles isn’t an interest in Poland.”

“So you’ve said before, though not in so many words.”

“So I’ve done a little research.”

“Asked nosy questions and gotten answers because you’re a bourgeois and not everyone is comfortable telling you to mind your own damned business.”

“The government conducts surveys; I sometimes can get hold of the results.”

“And what do you think you know?”

“That the average educated workingman, the sort of man who was apprenticed to a trade that is not faltering, is not impoverished and would both understand and benefit from a stake in politics.”

“Does that include the compagnons in their constant battles that mark the working classes as incurably violent?”

“They would benefit from a stake in politics, for it would engage them in something far more useful than their internecine warfare.”

“’Internecine’? I have no education, you remember.”

“That’s a lie. ’Internecine’: adjective, relating to civil war, particularly a very bloody and acrimonious civil war.” Feuilly thanked him, but he shrugged it off. “In any case, your fellow former apprentices may derive a great deal of entertainment and pride from such exchanges, but they do make it difficult for many men to wish to extend the franchise, since the masters were once the brawlers.”

“I was never apprenticed to a trade.”

Bahorel seemed taken aback. “But surely -”

“I painted fans with Panna Zofia, but neither of us were apprenticed to that trade. No one was. We were all just workers, free to take our knowledge to whoever would have us, not constrained by any brotherhood.”

“Free to take your knowledge and starve.”

“Free to take up any other knowledge, too.”

“The dangerous classes.”

“Panna Zofia is hardly dangerous.”

“If she weren’t so attached to her father, she might have become a courtesan already.”

“She’s too chaste and holy to have the requisite wit. I assume you are speaking in types, rather than speaking of Panna Zofia herself.”

“Of course. I would not insult the lady by suggesting she ought to earn her living on her back. Those who perform such work are necessary, but dangerous, not because they fill the needs the church would like to deny but because they are so ill-used that they have every right to one day rise against us who use them.”

“So you do use them.”

“Don’t you, after your fashion? I can’t afford a courtesan, but hasn’t everyone scraped together a few pennies to spend in a woman’s lap?”

“That’s how one gets the clap.”

“Spoken like a man who has shared that horrible experience.”

“Is there a man who hasn’t?”

“I suppose someone must be chaste, or have slept only with a wife who has never played him false. They must exist in the provinces, as I don’t think they exist here. Even the priests don’t follow their own dictates.”

“Are they that corrupt?” Feuilly could not help remembering the look on Sophie’s face at Easter when she had told them that Abbé Michel had been waiting for her. Had he done more than leer? Had he grabbed at her the way the men at the workshop sometimes teased the girl? An ordinary Parisian girl would have expected that and not minded, but Sophie was far from ordinary. Had he gone even further? No, he must only have looked.

“If the bishops don’t adhere to the ’poverty’ portion of the vow, why should the ordinary priest adhere to the ’chastity’ portion?”

“You just hate the Church.”

“You’re right there. I don’t hate God, but I’m not terribly fond of his representatives on earth.”

“The Church is what we have, and it is composed of men. Very few have become saints.” Feuilly stopped before he started lecturing the student. The man had been friendly, and no one ever wanted to hear a lecture on religion when chatting in a café.

“That’s true enough,” Bahorel agreed. He changed the subject, and they chatted pleasantly enough.

Feuilly always found it strange when Bahorel would chat with him like this, as if they were equals. It was pleasant, and he had an outlet for so many of the things that were crowding his mind that no one else cared to listen to, but it was far from what should have been permitted.

Yet Bahorel obviously did not care what should be permitted, for he was at the café the next Monday, again seeking out Feuilly alone. And though Feuilly remained wary, he pushed a little harder at just what the student might want when he suggested extending the franchise.

“You’ve heard of Xenophon, right?”

“Of course,” Bahorel replied. He didn’t snap but he grinned in a way that profoundly embarrassed Feuilly.

“Well, how am I to know what gets taught these days?” He’d had to read them in translation, after all, Thucydides and Xenophon and lately, Rollin’s Ancient History in place of the Romans, since the late M. Duzan had kept his Plutarch in Latin. “In any case,” he continued rapidly, “I think we’re living in Athens under the Thirty Tyrants. We lost our world-shaping war, and our civilisation, and the victors have set up this shaky government to serve the wealthy and keep the rest of us down. If we add up the men with influence with the King, there might be thirty. Am I right?” He kept his voice down, as the local informant was at the other end of the zinc, keeping an eye on the Poles.

“I take your point. But who is our Thrasybulus?”

“I don’t know yet. Foy, maybe? Maybe it’s too early to tell. The coronation isn’t until next month. Our Thrasybulus may not be angry enough yet. It’s a petty, weak oligarchy, Athens under the tyrants, taking a free man’s rights and imprisoning him without trial, but doing it quiet because it’s so damned unsure of itself. One day it won’t be a fanmaker,” he added half under his breath, “and then we’ll see if they have the balls - or the support - to uphold the Charter.”

“The King probably believes wholly in Article 57 and little of what follows it. ’All justice emanates from the King’,” Bahorel explained in response to Feuilly’s confused look. Not everyone was a law student who had the Charter memorised.

“But he can’t do without trial by jury. We’ll have to know what happened at some point. Any day now, I should think - it’s been more than six months. Unless the bastard did succeed in cracking his head open.”

“Was your friend actively suicidal?”

“He wasn’t my friend, and he seemed to prefer bashing his own brains out to facing the scaffold. Weak little bastard, whatever he did.”

“Most men don’t want to face the scaffold.”

“Then they shouldn’t tempt the law with a treason case. You stand your trial, and you march up to your sentence like a man. You have to admit Louvel took his hemlock far better than Castaing.”

“Do you go to all the executions?”

“Did as a child. What better fun? But I missed Castaing, heard everything after the fact.” The trial and execution of the poisoner had come a little too soon after his own murder for Feuilly’s comfort, though it had not stopped everyone he knew from regaling him with the story of the bourgeois who sobbed his way up the scaffold, unable to take his death sentence like a man. “Were you there?”

“Didn’t see the point, to be honest. Grubby little murders don’t deserve the attention. Went to look at the crowd; left before the dead man showed up.”

“And Louvel?”

“Wouldn’t have missed that for anything. A crowd roiling with love and hate, even those who agreed with him bitter because the damned miracle child was too far along to be conveniently lost. That and the Lallemand riots - a damned fine summer,” he finished approvingly.

“You save your veneration for Brutus rather than Schinderhannes.”

“Doesn’t any man of sense?”

“Pan Wojciech might not venerate either one.”

“I said a man of sense.” As Feuilly laughed, he continued, “He might after all. If he wants a return to the old ways, Caesar marks innovation while Brutus does not.”

“He was only believed to be planning an overhaul, wasn’t he? The Senate took fright at his popularity and ascribed to him a lust for absolute power he may not have had.”

“No, he’d already begun to consolidate when the conspiracy took effect. Suetonius is very clear on that.”

It was embarrassing to be corrected by Bahorel on a subject that ought to have been elementary. Feuilly quickly changed the subject to the Poles, internally cursing himself for having shown away when he knew he could not really keep up with a man of education.

But when he saw Bahorel the following week, the student told him, “That thing about the Thirty was quite a good point. I shared it with some friends.” Though what friends the student meant was debatable, as he had the greenish discolouration of a healing bruise just under his left eye. Had he been involved in last week’s brawl outside the barrière Montparnasse? Feuilly wondered. Laforêt had come home last week with rumours that the compagnon smiths had gone to war, and by the next day, the rumours had hit Lapeyre’s workshop. A couple hundred men, including some much too well-dressed to have any connections with either of the warring brotherhoods, had congregated off the boulevard Montparnasse and battled for three hours before the gendarmes finally succeeded in breaking up the fight. If Bahorel had loved Lallemand’s funeral so much, it was entirely possible he was one of the gentlemen in tall hats and long coats who had joined in the brawlers.

Feuilly was impressed by the compliment, but he hid his pleasure because it would hardly do to take it so easily from such an obviously rash source. “The more fool you. You didn’t use my name, I trust.”

“They’d like to meet you.”

“’Come see the miraculous wallpaper corrector who cites Greek historians on demand!’ I’m not a fucking circus act.”

“Never meant to imply you were. But think about it. Who else can you make Hellenica references to?”

Feuilly had to admit Bahorel was right. The level of conversation he desired was usually incomprehensible to his equals. Laforêt mostly just let him ramble on, not understanding most of it and not really caring to follow the thread anyway. The Favés had continued friendly, but Feuilly dared not mention anything of real interest, as one could never trust strangers. He was as likely to be a spy as they were, so it was best to continue on neutral lines. And not everyone Bahorel knew was a wealthy student - Feuilly himself was proof of that. As was the bruise under Bahorel’s eye. It was more than possible that he meant just the sort of clerks who had a smattering of education and were the next step up from the artisan, really. The sort of men who made their living through literacy but like most skilled workers, would never earn enough to open their own establishments. The sort who might not think themselves too good to watch an execution or watch a compagnon brawl but would hide such tendencies from their employers, as everyone had to pretend they were would-be bourgeois. It was worth consideration. “Then tell me about your friends,” Feuilly asked quietly, keeping one eye on the informant.

“What about them?”

“Have you known them long?”

Bahorel shrugged. “What’s long? About a year, for the most part.”

“Do you trust them?”

“More than you trust me. I swear I haven’t told them your name, just how I know you. And that Xenophon isn’t your only area of interest or expertise.”

“That’s enough for them?”

“They trust me. And I’m certain you’ll get on better with some of them than you do with me. My parents could afford an education for me, but you’re a damned sight more clever than I am. So are my friends.”

“Idle flattery only works on girls.”

“And don’t I know it.”

“So how do you know these friends?”

“Same way I know you. Putting my foot in my mouth because a stranger in a café is cleverer than I ever could be.”

“I have never once had the better of you in a conversation.”

“Which of us, do you think, is on the defensive right now? The chaps I’d like to introduce you to are more the debating kind than the rioting kind. Which is why I think you’d get on.”

“So you want me to meet them.”

“Told them your analogy so they’d be interested. We don’t just chase girls together, and a chap has to be careful who he shares his interests with, right?”

“So you clumsily manipulate them into wanting to see me, and try to use flattery to manipulate me into wanting to see them.”

“That’s the long and short of it,” Bahorel admitted good-naturedly.

“You really do spend most of your time chasing girls, don’t you? ’Tell Juliette I think she’s twice as pretty as Lisette’, all the while thinking, ’God, I hope this works because I’m dying to trade in Mariette’.”

Bahorel laughed. “Maybe not most of my time, but a good part of it. When I’m not chasing a fight. Hey, do you know anyone teaching savate? The gym I’ve been using is closing; the guy who runs it is going back to his wife’s village or something.”

“Not off the top of my head. Do I look like someone who enjoys organised combat? I wasn’t the one joining with the blacksmiths.” But he relented, as he preferred to do a small favour than to be written out of estimation. It was servile, perhaps, but it was also the sort of thing true friends would do for each other. “I do have a friend who was a compagnon joiner, and I’ll ask him where they train. Or where they used to train in his day, at the very least.”

“I appreciate it.”

Feuilly finished off his drink. The hour had grown late, and he had to come to a decision, particularly as the informant had started to turn his attention to their direction. Bahorel had been around these circles in Paris for a few years, and while he could be provoking, he was no provocateur, and he could certainly spot one from a hundred paces or more. The cops were, for once, not a primary consideration. And as much as he had complained about not being susceptible as a girl, dammit, he was flattered that an educated man had not only thought his idea worth passing along but had also refrained from taking the credit for himself. Bahorel was acting in good faith - he always had done - and that tipped Feuilly’s hand. The student should be encouraged rather than rebuffed in his expressions of equality. Feuilly might as well get the benefits before life killed off Bahorel’s idealism. He had known Bahorel almost as long as these friends did, in any case. Their acquaintance predated any interest the police would have taken in his political opinions, so it was unlikely that the entire scheme was a trap. The last few weeks had been clumsy, but Bahorel was about as subtle as his waistcoats. Still, he knew how to keep his voice down and his mouth shut to interesting topics when the informant was around. It was time. “I should go. See you around. Oh, and tell your friends ’yes’. Whenever they want.” It was meant to be an offhand addition, but it echoed strangely in his ears.

If Bahorel picked up on any false tones, he said nothing. “I’ll let you know when and where. Good night.”


Part 47 ~ Fiction ~ Home