Corner of the Sky
Spring came, and the season, though mild in temperature, brought rains which seeped through the roof of Feuilly’s garret and brought most activity to a standstill. Soaking rains turned to thunderstorms with little warning, and action was impossible in the occasional torrential downpours. May sun was a relief, especially because it heralded the coming of summer.
Summer was an excellent time to be a gamin, and it was nearly as good to those who made their livings in similar ways. The heat and stench of Paris drove the wealthiest people into the country, along with most of their servants. The few who remained placed dust covers over the furniture and the men spent their evenings out, since they had no masters to tell them otherwise. The nights were warm enough that the prostitutes did not suffer from their constant walks, and as it was warm enough to take a few up against a wall in a convenient alley, more clients were possible in a summer’s night than in the winter.
Feuilly spent his afternoons in the Luxembourg or walking along the river. In the open, it was possible to catch a breeze that could not be found in the tightly packed houses of St Michel, and thanks to Babet’s connections among the old clothes dealers of the Temple, he did not look as if he did not belong. He was grateful for the acquisition of fine linen that did not hold to him roughly in the heat, and though he had initially complained bitterly of the tight trousers Babet had forced on him, their fabric was softer and lighter than the canvas he had been wearing. He continually appeared in public without a jacket, but in the July heat, he was not the only gentleman to do so, regardless of propriety. The ladies had all left the city, and those women who remained were, for the most part, not worthy of the title. Feuilly, with his tousled curls and frilled cravat, looked far more like the son of a fallen family than the gamins who were continually chased away from the fountains. In the daylight, in public, Montparnasse would not give him the time of day. And so the boy spent his afternoons alone, sitting in the gardens and reading from his books or attempting to draw the people he watched from behind a tree or hedge.
Sometime in the spring, a body had been carried out of the room next to the one he continued to rent. He had heard nothing through the wall for some time and assumed that the inhabitant had been ill and the rains had finally finished him, or her, off. He had never seen who lived there. All he knew was that the person was quiet, kept to him or herself, did not keep the same hours as Feuilly, and had a habit of letting the stove burn out. His new neighbour was a prostitute, and Feuilly was glad he now worked at night. The thought of having to rise at dawn to work even longer hours at the mill, after a night full of that din, was more than he was willing to bear. At least, unlike his previous neighbour, this one reminded him that there was an active life beyond the four walls of his room.
He had been prudent with his windfall, and as often as the thought of paints tempted him, he saved his money, and through the lean months of March and April, he had only had to go out twice with Babet, who demanded to know why Feuilly did not come more often but was never answered. The money was gone, all but five francs he kept in case of emergency. Five francs meant he would never be forced to go without a meal again, as there was always the chance of a job tomorrow.
Work in the summer was far simpler than in the winter. Stealth was still necessary, but only in the street. The number of servants left behind in those houses where the furniture was covered was never more than four, and if they had their throats cut for trying to sound an alarm, no one would notice for days, as deliveries were not even made daily in the summer. Feuilly went out once a week, often combing women’s bedrooms for jewelry and trinkets that had been left with the winter dresses. He kept a stock of small jewelry for the next lean period, so he could pawn it a little at a time, rather than be forced to make a haul every two weeks once winter came again. He also managed to acquire some personal belongings: a pocketwatch, a nice set of hair brushes, and a small mirror. Mireille had had a point when she called him a dandy. While he paled in comparison to the incroyables of the previous generation, he was careful of his linen, and his hair, and his speech. With care he watched as he tried to encourage his hair to grow faster, and it was not without a certain regret that he noted that for the time being, it would always look quite a mess. Though he had returned to the casual attitude and cynical speech with which he had been raised, Feuilly could no longer bring himself to speak argot. He had once spoken both the argot of the Barrière, picked up from Brujon, and the argot of the Temple, learned from Babet, but both now felt false in his mouth, the Barrière more so than the Temple, however. Only the occasional word to cloak a job was necessary, and that was the most Feuilly could do anymore. Too much reading and too much ambition kept the argot out of his speech and the edge off his voice.
Montparnasse, when they did meet at the tavern in the evenings, always had an insult waiting for him, and he stubbornly refused to absorb any of the knowledge Feuilly tried to force on him. Half an alphabet had been forced into the child’s brain in half a year, and if the rest took as long, Feuilly thought he just might give up. Yet the lessons allowed him to keep an eye on the child, and he had become attached to the little boy, in spite of the tone in which Parnasse always called him a “toff“.
It was a half-life he now lived, but it was better than he had survived before. A queer family of sorts had been jumbled together, with Mireille as mother, Babet as father, and little Montparnasse as brother. Feuilly was sixteen years of age, more or less, and he was apprenticed to an able hand, if he wanted to spend his life in the manner he currently made his living.
The difficulty for Feuilly was how his ambitions now conflicted. He had once aspired only to be a clerk. Now, after six months of reading and re-reading and copying every page of the book of paintings he had stolen, he wanted more than ever to be an artist. The churches of Paris had always drawn him by their beauty, and he had always wanted to be a part of it, but the more he drew, the more he thought he saw his own talent for it and the more he wanted to be an artist more than anything in the world. And yet he kept reading, and kept exchanging books with a used bookshop near the student quarter, getting his hands on every history book he could. Kings and queens and foreign lands were not just subjects to be painted - they felt as real to him as the denizens of any novel. He felt their triumphs and mistakes as if they were his own, and on the force of history, he developed vague political ideas and judgments.
Lawyers were not artists: therein lay the dilemma. His mind told him two things: first, that artists were not supposed to be a part of polite society, which meant he had a chance, and second, that lawyers, not artists, determined what polite society was and always had enough money to live comfortably. Which was more practical, he could not say.
“Was it easier when we were children?” he asked Mireille one evening at the tavern. “When we were Parnasse’s age and on a hot August day, we didn’t mind the shouts of disapproval that prevent us from swimming in the Seine?”
“I don’t know, honey. I don’t think it was ever easy. Of course, you grew up here. I had parents, and they only made things worse.”
“How can parents make it worse than sleeping under a bridge and hoping for handouts from Babet?”
“Look at me, honey. I’ve been doing this since you were born.”
“I’m serious, Mireille. You never said you had family before.”
“You never asked. And I am serious. You must be what, sixteen?”
“Thereabouts, I guess.”
“I was about your age when my brother had to go into the army. My father was a drunk, and I got tired of being hungry and being afraid of his temper. So here we are in Paris. I never knew your mother, but she must have come here for a similar reason. How else would you have picked up that touch of the south?”
“I don’t remember her at all. I mean, I know logically she must have existed, but I don’t remember anything. I vaguely have some idea of a thin woman, but if that’s a memory or a dream, I don’t know. I have an image of somewhere with grass and trees, but for all I know, I constructed it out of the Luxembourg. Other people have families. Who you are and what you do are based on your family. But I don’t have any family.”
“You’re lucky in that. No one tells you what you have to do.”
“I’d rather someone would.”
“No, you don’t. People like us, if we do as we’re told, we just spend our lives in Lesage Mill.”
“And if we don’t, the men become thieves and the women become whores, and we live in exactly the same place, and we never have enough of what we need, much less what we want. I want to be rich, Mireille. Not for the money, as nice as it sounds. I want to do something worthwhile. I want to have a real choice, not the choice between what I’ve done and what I’m doing. I wish I could have gone to school. I wish I could read Latin. I want to be an artist. I want to study history. I want to see faraway lands. I don’t want money, really, I just want chances, but there are no chances without money, and there is no money like that without a family, so I’m fucked every way I turn.”
Mireille stroked his hair. “You’re not fucked. You have more chances than the rest of us.”
“Chances for what?” He felt as if he were shouting, though he had not raised his voice at all. “Chances to live like this for the rest of my life? I don’t want this! I’ve never wanted it. I’ve never liked it. I don’t like stealing my living, but I have my dignity, and I’ll be damned if I sell that, too!” He suddenly grew quiet. “I just want to do something that doesn’t feel like selling my soul.”
The big woman took him in her arms, comforting him the best she knew how. “Just think how lucky you are to have a soul. That’s why I love you, honey. You’ll always be a good boy, no matter what you do or how you do it, because you don’t let yourself become a bad boy. I’ve known you since you first turned up in this neighbourhood, and you’ve always been a good boy. You’ve always been an old boy. You can’t be any more than seventeen, but you’re a man, and you have been for years. How many boys beg their way into reading, and then teach themselves how to write? How many boys with your chances give it all up because they believe in something besides how many coins their pockets will hold? I love you, and I’m proud of you for it. So don’t listen to Babet when he tells you to stop dreaming. Sometimes I wish I could still have my head in the clouds.”
“I don’t have my head in the clouds,” Feuilly muttered. “If I did, I wouldn’t be so conscious of our continual slide into hell.”
“But you’re different, Feuilly. Look at me. You dream. And if a bunch of women can pull down the Bastille, why can’t you be a lawyer?”
He smiled a little at that. Pulling the blank book from his pocket, he asked, “Mireille, can I ask you something?”
He opened the book to one of his own drawings, made while sitting in the Luxembourg. “Is this any good?”
She looked at it in stunned silence for a long time. It was no more than a pencil sketch of a fashionable young girl’s face, outlined by her bonnet, and though rather imperfect in the nose, it was a far better and more emotional likeness than the work of many who made their living selling cheap portraits in the provinces. “I was wrong, honey. You can’t be a lawyer because you’re going to be an artist.”
A smile lit the boy’s face for the first time that day. “You mean it?”
Mireille kissed him on the cheek. “Absolutely.”
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