Corner of the Sky

Part 5

The tavern was always warm and bright compared to the street, and while the food was rough and greasy, the patrons had never known anything better. The wine was tolerable and plentiful, and privacy of a sort was guaranteed. Babet and Brujon disliked straying far from it, and so they could always be found at their table in the corner, sometimes joined by Claquesous, who always hid in the shadows and drank from under a mask. Feuilly remembered what he looked like, but just barely. A few violent murders and the mask had seemed prudent for continued freedom of movement. No one disagreed.

A dark green overcoat draped across the back of Feuilly’s chair made a nice pad against which he visibly relaxed. Paper wrapped packages were piled next to his chair, and an empty plate sat in front of him, waiting to be cleared. Planning the next game had taken second place to simply relishing the heat and companionship he had denied for two years of respectability.

“Well dear me, look who it is! You poor boy, what’s happened to you?” A heavily painted woman in her thirties had caught sight of Feuilly and pushed her way into their corner.

“Mireille?!” He quickly pulled his feet down from the table. “My god, how are you?”

“Same as always. You don’t look well.” She pulled over another chair and sat down tiredly, though the night had not yet begun. Her attire was at least five years out of date, the skirt of her evening dress stained at the bottom and the shawl she now kept closed tightly over her exposed breasts looked even older as loose threads hung from the centre of knit rosettes.

“Everybody thinks I don’t look well. Don’t you at least have something witty to say about it?”

“I’m too tired for wit tonight, honey.” She leaned over and started to pick at his curls. “Such a shame. You had such pretty hair.”

Feuilly pulled away. “Why the hell is everyone obsessed with my goddamned hair? Yes, I cut my hair. I don’t look like a damned girl anymore. Why is it anybody’s business what happened or why?”

Mireille wasn’t deterred by his outburst. She just stood up behind him and put her arms around him in a motherly gesture. “You never looked like a girl, honey. We care because you care. You was a dandy in your own way, always kept those pretty curls so nice.” She kissed him on the cheek.

“He started working at Lesage mill,” Babet informed her.

“Lesage mill? Oh, you poor dear.” No matter how often Feuilly jerked his head away, nothing kept her fingers out of his curls. “No wonder you don’t look well.”

“Well, I’m not working there anymore. I’m sick of selling myself for nothing,” Feuilly shot out bitterly. Mireille frowned. He sighed and took her hand. “I’m sorry, Mireille. We’re all selling ourselves for nothing, aren’t we? I went to Notre Dame on Sunday. Why aren’t there jobs like that anymore?”

“Like what, honey?”

“Building cathedrals. Making beautiful things that people believe in, instead of feeding yarn into a machine that makes cheap cloth.”

“Because no one believes in anything anymore.”

“But why not? What reason was there to believe in anything then?”

“Because people were stupid, and so is this conversation,” Babet replied.

“I wasn’t asking you. So, Mireille, you’ve heard why I disappeared for a while. What have you been up to?”

“Same as always. You’ve got to be old enough by now I should be finding you a girl.”

“While the offer is appreciated, I’m not in much condition for one at the moment. I only just quit work today.”

“I thought you said you weren’t working yesterday!”

“And I decided yesterday morning that it was better not to burn any bridges in case the job wasn’t as easy as you said.”

“When have I ever given you cause not to believe me?”

“Lying is second nature to you - it comes right after breathing. I’ve got myself enough to keep going for a few weeks, so don’t count me into anything sooner than that.”

“He’s gotten soft,” Babet explained to Mireille.

“I have not! Just because I have a conscience and don’t particularly like either stealing my living or whoring myself - sorry, Mireille - doesn’t mean I’ve gotten soft! If anything I’ve gotten hard.”

“So hard he needs me to get him clothes.”

“Shut up. I needed your connections to get a good deal on an overcoat. You’re the one who insisted I can’t keep dressing like this.”

“I don’t work with damned labourers.”

“Ooh, M. Babet’s a fine gent now, ain’t he?”

“Feuilly, he’s just looking out for you.”

He leaned his head on her shoulder. “I know, Mireille - that’s the worst of it. Why does he look out for me when he doesn’t look out for anyone else but himself?”

“Because everyone’s got a soft spot, honey, and you’re ours.”

“Babet doesn’t. You have a bigger one than me, anyway.”

“Maybe, maybe not. You stopped speaking argot.”

“It took you this long to notice? You’re as bad as my dead mother.”

“You don’t know that your mother is dead.”

“I know that since I’m not, she must have cared enough to keep me alive, and that means that if I wandered off, she would have found me. Thus I assume two things: she was a whore, and she is dead.”

Mireille kissed him on the cheek again. She was too young to be his mother and too old to be anything but motherly to him. “My boy is going to be handsome and important, especially if he keeps dreaming.”

“You’re pregnant?”

“No, you, silly!” It was an old joke between them. “You’re going to be important, and that’s better than being respectable.”

“More important, he’ll be respected if he learns his lessons. Speaks every argot, if he chooses. Real Parisian, not a damned villager like me.”

“Not quite - he gets a bit of a southern accent every so often, must be from his mother.”

“I am still here. And I don’t call bread paing,” he said, overemphasising the southern nasality that occasionally did creep into his voice.

“Sometimes you do, honey. It’s cute.”

“At least I’m not a damned Breton,” Feuilly replied, looking pointedly at Babet.

“I am not a Breton, and one more word like that out of you -”

“And what? Naw, you’re no Breton. Slippery bastard, but too dark to be Breton. Pretensions to a be a dandy, though. You should have seen how he was trying to dress me up, Mireille. I swear, they’re selling clothes a hundred years out of date in the Temple, and Babet’s determined to get me into every colour imaginable.”

“He exaggerates. An olive green waistcoat is not every colour imaginable.”

“And light trousers are the mark of a dandy.“

“Just shut your trap. If you’re going to have the world on a string, you have to act the part.”

“Thus he costumes me, as if he were the director and the producer.”

“I think I am.”

“He thinks he is. I have better things to do. Mireille, it was good to see you.” He kissed her cheek. “I am spending the evening with my new books.” Standing up, Feuilly put on his “new” overcoat, which was rather too broad in the shoulders and too long in the arms for his small frame. “I’ll see you later.”

His room was cold, but he now had an overcoat that could be used as an additional blanket. He also had food, and behind one of the boards in the outside wall, his stash of coin which totalled just over a hundred francs. Ten weeks wages meant that he did not have to participate in any more jobs for that period, if he lived as he had, and at the very least, he could significantly increase his living standards and not have to work for a month.

Feuilly was uncertain as to the details, but he believed that a young man of seventeen years of age who was literate had the chance of becoming a clerk to a money lender or a lawyer, and this was the sort of job that was not only respectable, but paid far better than the factories. He could read, and he had taught himself to write, and a bit more education and attention to his language just might give him the chance to really make it out. Therefore, instead of spending his evening drinking in the warm tavern, he returned home to study.

Only the book that caught his attention was not what he had intended. The book with the etchings grabbed his attention first, and he began to read. Unfamiliar names, coupled with the most beautiful pictures he had ever seen, held his attention until the candle burned itself out. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Breughel, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Titian: pictures from the Bible and portraits of fancy ladies and gentlemen from ages long past. At one point, he grabbed his bottle of ink and his pen, and in the blank book he had stolen, he began to copy a part of one of the etchings, God reaching down to Adam. These were copies of great paintings, he learned from the text, and as Adam’s face formed under his pen, he said a silent prayer. These men worked with their hands, but with a brush rather than a shuttle. Somehow, somewhere, there must be a way he could do the same. He looked down: the face he had made was a decent copy of the face created by the first copyist.

Feuilly told himself he would not touch that hundred francs. As tempting as it was to try his hand with a brush, a pen would do for now. Surely M. Leonardo did not paint his Last Supper as soon as he thought he might like to draw. Time and practice and patience. The candle finally went out, as exhausted as its owner. Only then did Feuilly realise that he was cold and tired. He had lived for so long on dreams that any appearance was fuel for night or day.


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