CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Coco is back. She rattles the vials of perfume inside their little box.

Hearing the muffled clatter, Igor looks up from the piano. He is meant to be impressed. She undoes the latch with a click. Inside, luxurious in red plush, are two dozen flacons of scent. She removes one from the box and unstoppers it.

“Smell!” she says, trailing it beneath his nose.

“Are these the samples from Grasse?” He recoils slightly as the bottle is thrust toward him.

She nods. “What do you think?”

“I’m no judge.” He brings his face closer, steadying the flacon with his hand. Inhaling, his nose is spiced with the beginnings of a sneeze. He pinches his nostrils to forestall the explosion.

“Careful,” she says.

Unstoppering another, as if teasing him, she draws it under his nose. But he breathes in too deeply. His eyes water and he starts to gag.

“Well, come on. Tell me what you think!”

He hides his admiration. He’s never thought of perfume being created before, of having a specific human source. For him, it has always just been there, always existed like the sun. He says, “It’s better than the stench of resin from the orchestra pit.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“If I had to create a perfume, it would be something like the smell of coffee when it first comes out of the tin.”

“Ugh!”

“I told you. I’ve got a hopeless sense of smell.”

“Like most men.”

She replaces the bottles and sets the box down on the floor. He looks at her and realizes again how beautiful she is. Her face has taken on a deep honey color he didn’t think achievable in human skin. As she straightens, he embraces her. They kiss, and he feels again that trembling warmth he experiences whenever she is near him. Hung loosely at their sides, their hands intertwine.

After a few moments, Igor says solemnly, “Catherine wants to leave.”

Alarmed, Coco’s face tilts upward. “She does?”

“Yes.”

“She said so?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

“Yesterday.”

“Why?”

“Why do you think? Because she’s unhappy.”

“What else did she say?”

“Nothing.” He sees himself toying with the chess piece, with the moon floating outside.

“Did she say anything about me?”

“Not directly.”

“Does she know?”

“Not for sure, I don’t think.”

After a pause. “So, what are you going to do?”

“I’m not leaving, if that’s what you mean.”

“Are you sure?”

He wasn’t, but he is now. “I couldn’t.” He realizes his life with her has a fullness, a repleteness he has not known before.

“Good.” A look of trust and vulnerability deepens in her eyes.

“Good,” he echoes, smiling. He finds the notion of adultery alien, still. It’s too hard and unforgiving a noun for the contagion of love he feels. Adultery is what other people do. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says. His expression grows tender. “I need you.” Then, after a pause: “That’s if you still want me?”

“I do, very much.” Her eyes in emphasizing the point squeeze tight.

In the silence that follows, Coco moves close to him once more. She can smell the perfume where it has leaked onto his skin. He feels it burn and experiences its sweetness. She whispers his name. And in hearing it issue from between her lips, he feels he possesses her completely. They kiss again. Both succumb slowly to an inordinate longing.

Later, music swells epically from the study, occupying the rooms of the house. Harmonies advance in a cloud across the garden. Driven like a theme, the music enjoys a buoyancy, the soft summer breeze sustaining its miracle of self-belief.

004

Alone in her study, Coco sketches a cube. She adds with abrupt strokes a short neck and oblong stopper. At the base swells a dimple—the one curve amid all the lines in the design. Then, in large black capitals against a white background, she frames the letters of her name. Angling her head to one side, she sucks at the faceted head of her pencil. She wants something simple. Nothing fancy. A plain square bottle, unfussy and clear.

She can’t stand those exotic titles such as “Dans la Nuit,” “Coeur en Folie,” or “La Fille du Roi de Chine.” They’re just pretentious and silly, she thinks. She wants something more cryptic, something simple but mysterious. Something strong. A number, maybe. Her favorite: five.

It will be the first time, she recognizes, that a couturiere has put her name on the bottle. And why not? She’s designed it, after all. Why shouldn’t people know who’s responsible? That’s not arrogance; it’s just natural pride.

The first reports from clients seem very promising. Beaux was right: they like it. It’s discreet, and it endures a whole evening. And, what’s just as important, their husbands and lovers seem to like it, too. If men like inhaling it while making love, she considers, then its success is virtually guaranteed.

Down the hall, Igor slides a record from its sleeve. On the turntable it appears slightly warped. Light curves on its uneven surface. He winds the gramophone up and lifts the lever into position. A staticky scrik leaps from the bell as he sets the needle down. He watches the furrows run into a thin continuous line of music. The divine Franz Schubert. Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. A harpsichord concerto by Bach. As Igor puts on disc after disc, he feels his insides slip.

Upstairs, Marie takes Catherine a glass of water. Catherine sits up with a grateful smile.

“I hope the music isn’t keeping you awake, ma’am.”

“I’ve had enough sleep, Marie, to last me a lifetime.”

“And I hope you’re feeling better.”

“A little, thank you, yes.”

“Can I get you anything else?”

Catherine sits up. “No, but tell me”—she sips at the water—“how long have you worked for Mademoiselle Chanel?”

“Nearly three years now, ma’am.” Marie knits her hands together primly in front of her stomach.

Fishing: “And you find her a good employer?”

“How do you mean, ma’am?”

“Well, is she honest and straightforward?” Catherine senses Marie hesitate. She laughs, hoping to disarm her. “Don’t worry, I’m not one of her spies.”

“She’s been good to us, yes.” On more solid ground: “And Suzanne likes her a lot.”

“She can be very generous, I know.”

“Yes.”

“It’s a shame she doesn’t have children of her own, though, isn’t it?”

“Yes. It is.”

“She’s a modern woman.”

Becoming wary: “Modern, yes.”

“I mean, you know, independent.”

“Very.”

Catherine senses herself getting nowhere. She feels as if she’s picking at a splinter beneath the skin. She decides to be more direct. “Sometimes I wonder, though . . .” She nerves herself to complete the sentence. “Sometimes I wonder how moral she is.” There, she’s said it. The thought is out.

It burns like a hot brick in Marie’s hands. “Excuse me, ma’am?” She sees where the conversation is going and doesn’t like it.

Awkward: “Well, is she? Moral, I mean.”

Marie feels an abyss open beneath her, creatures catching at her heels. “Well, ma’am, that all depends.” Her words are carefully spaced.

“Depends on what?”

“People’s ideas have changed since the war . . .”

“Have they?”

Marie begins wringing her fingers. She doesn’t want to get into trouble. She feels a weight upon her chest. “I don’t quite know what you want me to say, ma’am.” She decides to play for time.

Catherine’s eyes plead fiercely. “I want you to tell me the truth.” Abruptly any social distance between the two evaporates. She makes a direct appeal to Marie as another woman.

Marie wants to blurt out what she knows. The impulse to confess is strong. It pulls at her jaw like an unseen string. But the tact that is an habitual part of her employment eclipses any sisterly instinct. The answer that comes—almost ghosted from her mouth—is practiced, diplomatic, cruelly neutered. The effect is like a racing car dragged off the track.

“Mademoiselle Chanel has endured her fair share of tragedy, ma’am . . .”

To Catherine, her answer is maddeningly oblique. “And her fair share of good fortune, too.”

Marie remains wary. “Indeed.”

“She’s very rich.”

“I believe she is.”

“And powerful.”

“Yes.”

“Unlike me?”

Marie squirms under the continued pressure of questioning. The creatures from the abyss are now pulling at her legs. One of her knees feels as if it’s about to buckle. She bites her lip, surrenders. “Ma’am, I’m just the maid. I’m not qualified to answer such questions.”

Dissatisfied with the evasiveness of Marie’s responses, and keen to reestablish the gap between them, Catherine adopts a tone now close to condescension. “No, of course you’re not. I’m sorry.”

After a pause: “Will there be anything else, ma’am?”

Absently: “What? No. You may go.”

Marie withdraws and breathes easier once she has gone beyond the door. Her hands are shaking. Her back is damp with sweat. Yet, relieved as she is that the ordeal is over, she also feels distressed. She has become a coconspirator, one more opaque part of the betrayal. Given the opportunity, she did not reveal what she knew to be the truth. She feels profoundly that she has let herself and Catherine down.

Catherine meanwhile feels ashamed. Closing her eyes, she can’t believe she risked humiliating herself like that. What did she expect? Of course Marie was loyal: she’d never say anything against her employer. Her silence has been bought. It was unfair and stupid of her to ask. Yet she feels so desperate. As much of her fist as will go, Catherine now shoves into her mouth.

Back downstairs, Coco hears the music float from Igor’s study. She sees the square shape of the bottle on the pad in front of her. Then she thinks of the circle of the disc delivering its notes from down the hall. And an odd thing occurs. In her mind the two shapes begin to interpenetrate, the square and the circle; and just for an instant they even seem to fit.

Her lips pucker tautly around the pencil’s stem. She begins to sketch, more tentatively this time. On the paper, a kind of black seal appears: an overlapping back-to-back double C. She has in mind the initials of the Cour des Comptes on the rue Cambon close to her shop. A kind of heraldic device, a signature. Like an attenuated version of the Olympic rings, a buckle of some sort. Or two profiles locked together in intimate silhouette.

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