The medicine prescribed by the doctor sedates Catherine effectively. But it also induces in someone who rarely remembers her dreams a series of vivid and disturbing night-mares, of which this is the first.
She imagines Coco’s apartment, which she has visited once, above the shop in the rue Cambon. In the dream, Coco sits at a table surrounded by the day’s takings in cash that have just been carried up. There are heavy sackfuls of coins and broad wads of notes. It is dark outside. The shop is quiet and Coco is alone. She begins counting the money, stacking all the coins and pressing the notes into neat piles.
Unannounced, Igor walks up the stairs. It is unquestionably him, Catherine sees. Coco ceases counting. They both undress. Then Coco gathers up the bank notes. Together with Igor, she throws them jubilantly into the air, allowing them to fall and form a dense weave like autumn leaves. The apartment is soon carpeted with crisp bits of cash. Throughout, the dream is silent, but from the motion of their mouths, the two of them seem to be laughing.
After that, she pictures them lying naked and making love. They roll on the notes. The money sticks to their royally sweating bodies, flaking off like bits of grass. Their lovemaking continues until the print rubs off on the couple, until their glistening skins are stained with the color of Coco’s money.
Catherine wakes up feeling dirty. She feels a deep need to wash herself clean of her dreams. As she rolls up her sleeves and scrubs her hands, the mingling of her fingers under the water seems to her, for an instant, obscene.
She and Igor have made love only once since arriving at Bel Respiro. And that was in the first couple of weeks of their stay. She didn’t enjoy it. In fact, he hurt her. And now she feels grubby. Polluted.
Catherine can’t fathom why he’d be interested in Coco. Yes, she’s attractive. But she’s also coarse, opinionated, and ill-bred. An upstart. An arriviste. She understands nothing of his music, and music is his life. Can he really be in love with her? Is it just lust? Or are his feelings woven of a need for patronage? No doubt, she considers, Coco sees him as a kind of trophy. She collects things. Perhaps he’s just a symptom for her of a larger acquisitiveness. He’s an object, something she must have. She’ll soon grow bored of him in that case. He’s this season’s fashion. And hopefully he’ll soon begin to see through her. But what if the relationship develops? Where will this leave Catherine? And the children, what about them? The questions generate sparks of anxiety in her mind.
She longs to return to Russia, to enjoy the simple dignity of being a wife in her own home. And associated with that distant country is her health, which, too, seems banished. The life she leads now seems utterly unreal. Her existence here, surely, is not a permanent condition? She has faith to sustain her. She prays. Everything will be all right. Normality will be restored. She will once more enjoy a firm grip on her life. Like a smashed glass leaping up from the floor, its fragments miraculously reassembled, the world will be made whole again. Things will knit together. They will heal. They must.
The doctor shakes down a glass thermometer and places it at an angle under Catherine’s tongue. Her breathing has worsened recently.
Catherine complains that the medicine he prescribed has left her feeling very tired.
“That’s deliberate. It’s supposed to make you rest,” the doctor responds. The corners of his mouth curl up into a smile. Though meant to be ironic, his grin invites Catherine to laugh at herself.
“It’s just that I feel so listless,” Catherine breaks out, slapping her hands on the covers in pathetic emphasis.
“But you need to slow your body down if you want to recover fully. You have to rest. It’s the only way.” He writes out a new prescription and hands it to her.
“What’s this?” she asks, trying to decipher the writing. Her voice has thickened with the thermometer under her tongue.
“It should improve your breathing . . .” He’s uncertain whether or not to go on. “. . . though the drug does have a sedative effect.”
Exasperatedly. “You mean I’ll feel even more drowsy?”
“I’m afraid that’s true. Yes.”
Catherine is shocked into silence. The doctor consults his watch and removes the thermometer. Holding it up to the light, he looks intently through his pince-nez. The light makes his lenses opaque.
Igor asks, “Has she a temperature?”
“What do you care?” Catherine snaps. A wedge of bitterness informs her voice. Her lips seem suddenly bloodless.
Warily the doctor looks across at one and then the other. He consults the thermometer once more before lowering his arm. He wavers between talking to Catherine and talking to Igor about her. By way of a compromise, he addresses his remarks to the absent air between.
“Not dangerously high. But I’d still recommend bed rest.”
“More bed rest!” she hisses dismissively.
The doctor feels piqued by this exposure of his impotence. “It is Nature’s way, and it is the best cure.” As he chides her, she looks down, smoothing a wrinkle from the coverlet. He goes on, “Of course, I could prescribe you more modern medicines.” And then, with odd emphasis: “Expensive medicines. But they’d achieve little more than the bed rest. Not to mention the side effects . . .”
“The expense would not bother my husband. Mademoiselle Chanel sees to the bills.”
“Catherine!” scolds Igor. His arms stiffen on the arms of his chair. He colors with indignation.
“Well, doesn’t she?” She enjoys this rare moment of superiority. It is not often she sees her husband embarrassed. She’s thrilled to discover she still has the power to wound him in this way.
“I’m sorry,” Igor offers the doctor. He is angry with Catherine and annoyed with himself for becoming so flustered.
The doctor is discomfited by this reference to his fees. Seeing this, Catherine feels a recklessness enter her temper. She becomes passionate in her anger. “Is she paying you to sedate me and keep me quiet? Is that what’s happening?”
“You’re becoming hysterical,” Igor says.
“I knew it. You’re all in it together!” In her mind, the conspiracy widens frighteningly to include not only Coco and the doctor but also the servants—even the walls of this godless house.
“The doctor doesn’t have to stand here and listen to your crazy accusations . . .”
“It’s no use denying it. Something’s going on. I’m not being told, but I can sense it. I’m not stupid, you know. Just because I’m sick, it doesn’t mean I’m totally oblivious of everything that happens around here . . .”
Igor is shocked into utterance. “Catherine!”
“Don’t shout at me!” They begin squabbling in Russian.
It is the doctor who tries to calm things down. “It’s all right. All right.” He rests both hands on the handle of his bag. Then, looking straight at Catherine, he says, “The fact is, you’re consumptive. And I’m doing my best to give you good advice—which I hope you’ll take.” Relaxing slightly: “There’s no reason on earth why you shouldn’t recover in time. But it’s a slow process. These things can’t be hurried.”
She feels depleted. “All I lack at the moment is a reason to recover.” Contained within her voice is a secret appeal. She throws her husband a steely look.
“Now, then . . .” The doctor pauses. A look of benignity spreads across his features. Lifting his case, he smiles at Catherine. He’s trying to convince her that he’s on her side.
Igor steers him out, impressed by his calmness and his tact. He apologizes noiselessly and attempts to share the exasperation he feels at his wife’s behavior.
The doctor seems unmoved. He halts in the hallway and adopts a solemn tone. “Mental health can be crucial in determining how soon a patient recovers in such cases.” He moves toward the stairs. “It’s important she gets some attention, that she’s pampered, made a fuss of. You understand?”
Igor regards him blankly. What does he know? Has there been talk? Have the servants been gossiping? It is his turn to entertain thoughts of a conspiracy. The branches of possible betrayal ramify in his imagination like the side streets in a town.
“I think you have to be extra patient and generous at this time. Show her you care, and I’m sure her condition will improve.”
“Yes.” The utterance sounds so equivocal and squeezed out, even to his own ears, that he feels compelled to repeat the word. “Yes. Yes. You’re right,” he says.
Joseph, who must have heard all this, is waiting at the foot of the stairs. He returns the doctor’s hat and opens the door.
Igor winces inwardly. He can hardly meet his eye.
Coco is in the garden, pruning shears in hand. She has cut two white carnations and advances toward them, awarding one each. “A man should have a buttonhole on such a beautiful day,” she says.
The doctor looks uncertain.
She removes her fawn gloves and pins the flowers on the lapels of both men.
The doctor adjusts his buttonhole minutely. “You’re very kind, Mademoiselle.”
“There’s no reason why men shouldn’t smell sweetly, too.” She picks up a long-nosed watering can.
The doctor makes as if to leave. Then, affecting to remember something, he asks, “Would you prefer to settle now, Mademoiselle?”
Coco does not make it easy for him. Her manner is patronizing. After an awkward silence, she says with sudden overweening concern, “Ah, yes! Of course. And how is poor Catherine?”
Igor feels a sudden pang of loyalty to his wife. It’s not her fault she’s sick. She wasn’t always like this, he wants to explain. He sees the doctor looking quizzically at Coco, attempting to read the evident complexity of the relationships going on inside the house. Igor watches as the man’s eyes sharpen, his intelligence at work, weighing, calculating, inferring. He’s terrified that the circle of knowledge and gossip will widen. The situation must be contained.
The doctor replies levelly, “With rest, she should be fine.”
Coco’s breezy manner gives nothing away. “Good, good. Let’s settle, then.”
Brisk to the point of impatience, she leads the doctor back inside the house. Joseph stands impassive. Seeing him still there, Igor lurks purposelessly by the door. He represses an instinct to explain, to say something. But what? For a second he remains there feeling intensely foolish. Then he slopes off down the corridor to the refuge of his study.
A clock ticks audibly on the kitchen wall. Marie is washing up, and Joseph is drying the dishes with a coarse white cloth. The windows are open and the piano sounds distinctly from Igor’s study. Voices drift in from the garden. A new swing has been installed in a corner of the lawn. It sways metronomically as the children take their turn.
“I don’t know what to make of these goings-on,” Joseph says, wiping a steaming plate with an overlapping motion of the cloth.
“You don’t?” Marie asks, sardonically. She plunges her hands into the soapy water and pulls out another dripping dinner plate. A white cup and saucer follow.
Joseph stacks them on the table. “Has she said anything to you?”
Faintly outraged at the suggestion, Marie frowns. “Of course not.”
“Do you think Madame Stravinsky knows?”
“She has eyes and ears like the rest of us. Unless, of course, she’s deceiving herself.” Marie sees her fingers have wrinkled finely in the water.
Outdoors the boys are messing around with a hosepipe, spraying each other. Suzanne is pushing Milène vigorously on the swing.
Marie carries on, “Even your own daughter’s old enough to understand what’s happening.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. She’s only fourteen.”
“She’s not as naïve as you think, Joseph.”
A wineglass gulps as she puts it in the water. The dregs in the bottom make a sharp red stain.
“All right. I suppose she must have an idea. But the worst thing would be for it all to blow up.”
“God! Men are such cowards,” Marie says. And then, with a force that almost pulls her forward: “I’ve half a mind to tell her myself.”
“Remember, darling, where our loyalties lie.”
“I would tell her if she weren’t so haughty.”
Joseph wipes away a thumbprint from the side of a glass and puts a stack of plates into the cupboard. Clearing things away, returning each bright pot to its allotted place, is his way of coping with the turmoil that has disturbed the calm of the house. “Like it or not, Mademoiselle Chanel is our employer. Her best interests reflect our own.”
“I think it’s perfectly disgraceful the way she carries on.”
“It’s not for us to judge, Marie.”
“Somebody has to.”
Through the window, Joseph sees Milène on the swing twisting the ropes around tighter until they begin to kink.
“Well, it’s not our place. Remember what happened last time.”
“I don’t need reminding.”
“I think you do. Each change of lover brings with it a fresh change of domestics. You know the rule.”
As Milène releases her feet from the ground the ropes of the swing unravel, sending her spinning around and around.
Relenting. “All right, I know.”
“We can’t afford that to happen again.”
Marie pulls the plug from the sink. Ringingly she wraps the chain around the tap. She adds, “I don’t know what she sees in him anyway.”
“It’s pretty obvious what he’s after, though.”
“Oh, stop it!”
Just then, the Stravinskys’ cat trots into the kitchen and stalks around.
“Nothing left here, I’m afraid, Vassily.”
“Scram!” blurts Marie, less charitably.
The water drains from the basin with a long-drawn gurgle, then a vortical roar. Marie runs cold water around the congealed scum at the bottom of the sink. She swills away the little scraps of food. A few remaining suds crackle softly in the light.
Catherine endures a succession of identical bedridden days.
She awakes each morning feeling the weight of boredom press upon her. She finds it hard to concentrate. Scared of venturing downstairs where she doesn’t feel welcome, she’s afraid, moreover, of what she might find. Increasingly she feels imprisoned. The bedroom’s single window is too high to see anything but birds trace indolent circles. Her horizons have narrowed to this one blank space. And the room is so underfurnished, it still seems to her austere. Hour after hour she lies there motionless, watching the sunlight generate its patterns upon the wall.
She reads a good deal. The poems of Akhmatova, stories by Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. The Bible—Paul’s epistles, especially, and the Acts of the Apostles. But not the stories of Colette lent to her by Coco. She reads until her eyes give out. Then in the afternoon she dozes, yielding to the waves of tiredness that lap at her from some far shore.
And when Milène comes to her, pulling at the covers, it all proves just too much. “Get off!” she shouts, pushing her away. Milène, though, continues to hang around the bed, thinking it all part of some game. Again the girl begins tugging at the covers and scratching at her mother’s arms. She doesn’t realize she is being too rough.
“Get away from me!” Catherine cries, so fiercely that her younger daughter freezes. Poor Milène bursts into tears. She can’t understand why her mother, once so affectionate and playful, now appears so wretched and pathetic. Of course Catherine instantly regrets it. But the incident cruelly illuminates her decline. She knows it is wrong, but she can’t help herself. She feels too anguished, too harried, too desperate for space and calm. In addition to the physical ailments, she seems to suffer an emotional collapse. Her sobs well in the darkness. Her eyes fill with a liquid thicker than tears. She pushes the children away to keep them at a manageable distance. It is all she can do to survive.
Her nerves are shot to pieces. The dry sound of a petal falling on the sill is enough to startle her. In the room, a faint smell of decay reaches her nostrils, a remote odor of putrefaction. At first she thinks it is the flowers. But the smell is more like meat that has gone off. Then it occurs to her that it must be her insides. It is herself she can smell, her own inner corruption. She feels dead already. Her hair is falling out in handfuls, and now she’s beginning to rot. The sensation scares her. She needs to fight to stay alive.
Before Igor retires to their bedroom each night, flush with adultery, Catherine measures out drops of her medicine onto a spoon. The red glob clings to the metal with a tremulous effort of surface tension. Slowly, with the same effort of trembling, she maneuvers the spoon into the dark cave of her mouth.