CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Six days after Coco telephoned inviting him to stay, Grand Duke Dmitri arrives with little ceremony but several trunkloads of luggage. He also brings with him his majordomo, Piotr: a hairy, bearlike man, utterly servile and grimly inarticulate.

Coco first met Dmitri in Biarritz last spring, where they established an immediate rapport. Dashing and handsome, with impeccable credentials, he is the grandson of Alexander II, cousin to Czar Nicholas II, and one of the assassins of Rasputin. She passes off his arrival as a gesture toward Igor. He can speak Russian to his countryman and enjoy some male company at last. But Igor senses that Coco has other, more shadowy and as yet undefined motives. And he’s a little perplexed as to why Dmitri, and why now.

Immediately he feels jealous and resentful. Swashbuckling, and with a confirmed reputation as a lady’s man, Dmitri brings into the house a sense of irrepressible energy and force. This dispirits Igor, and he can barely conceal the fact. He manages to be polite but cannot avoid a certain curtness in addressing him. It is one thing to owe allegiance to a czar whose portrait you fix on the wall. It is another to have some jumped-up courtier come in, look up at the print, and say, “Ah, Cousin Nicholas. A good likeness.”

Dmitri radiates an uncommon aristocratic vitality. Tall, he towers comically over Igor. And his acid green eyes seem, with each hurled look, intent on dissolving Igor’s features.

Eleven years her junior, at first Coco thinks him immature. But this, she sees, is just in contrast to Igor, who always seems so solemn. She begins to appreciate his bluff good spirits and his pranksterish love of fun. Such a change from Igor’s self-regarding earnestness. It’s funny seeing them together, she thinks. They stand off like prizefighters. Igor bristles every time he comes near.

She realizes with a thrill that he’s becoming possessive. The two men rarely speak, though they greet each other with near military courtesy. When they do converse, it is in rapid bursts of Russian. Usually they end up disagreeing. Privately Igor calls Dmitri a dolt. Dmitri speaks of Igor’s social constipation, relishing the potential for mischief in imposing himself upon the house. Coco sits in the middle and watches as each heatedly debates, then shrugs and translates—or willfully mistranslates—what the other has to say.

Unlike Igor, Dmitri was in St. Petersburg when the Revolution broke out. And, acting quickly, he managed to rescue some of his wealth before the Bolsheviks took over. But his finances are not so robust as to allow him to resist the offer of free accommodation. Especially when his hostess is the charming Mademoiselle Chanel. Shrewdly he has come armed with a present: a set of Romanov pearls. There is even talk, to Coco’s unashamed delight, of him securing for her a Fabergé egg.

Igor looks on with bitterness. He could never afford to give such gifts. Meanwhile, it occurs to him, he still hasn’t finished his symphony.

Increasingly irritated at having to tiptoe around the rooms of her own house, Coco feels the novelty and excitement of her relationship with Igor quickly diminish to indifference on her part. Her frustration modulates to nonchalance in his company.

She resolves to spend more time at the shop. Determined to break free, she stops seeing Igor completely in the afternoons. After a week in which they fail to meet alone even once, Igor seeks an explanation.

It would be inappropriate, Coco says, now that they have a guest, to sneak off together. Besides, it would be that much riskier with Dmitri around. They must take care not to be exposed, especially given their efforts in previous weeks to keep the affair hidden. They don’t want people to start gossiping now, do they? Least of all Dmitri, who would quickly spread news of Igor’s peccadilloes among his network of expatriate friends. No, a cooling-off period is necessary, she insists.

Igor assents, but smarts unhappily at his displacement from the center of Coco’s life. He sees the sense in her argument but is less certain of her sincerity. If she feels strongly enough about him, he thinks, then why is she jeopardizing the success of their relationship by inviting Dmitri in the first place? He tries not to appear too upset by the new arrangements, but he detects a new languor in her behavior. At times her attitude toward him borders on a coolness he finds shocking.

Then one morning, Coco wakes up to find that she no longer loves him. There is no moping, no anguished reappraisal or tortured self-doubt. Enough is enough. She was seduced by Igor’s talent and his power. She liked his seriousness. He was interesting to be with. But now when she looks at him as a man, rather than as a musician, she finds she’s not attracted to him anymore. She has time to consider that this will delight Catherine. Maybe this is the cure she’s been waiting for. She wouldn’t be surprised if, anyway, the real ailment lay inside her head.

New routines establish themselves within Bel Respiro. In the mornings, while Igor is at work, Coco and Dmitri go riding together. Igor does not ride and, anyway, to forsake a morning’s work would cost him more guilt than it was worth. Dmitri, by contrast, is a keen and accomplished horseman and constitutionally averse to hard work. He rides invigoratingly quickly. Even Coco, a practiced equestrienne herself, has trouble keeping up with him.

Igor sees them each morning in the broad ramp of sunshine outside his window. Piotr brings the horses from a nearby stable. He harnesses the mares while Coco and Dmitri flirt in the garden. Igor watches as, gallantly, Dmitri helps her up onto the saddle. For a moment she lords it over him.

Then they are off at a smart pace. Plumes of dust trail behind them as they disappear down the lane. The clatter of hooves remains in Igor’s ears long after they have gone.

Since coming to Garches, Coco has not ridden once. It’s absurd, she thinks. And she used to ride so much. The muscles of her horse ripple tensely beneath her. She sees the broad blaze of white that travels the length of the animal’s head. Immediately she feels less jaded. Her skin feels taut, as though renewed.

Heedlessly the two of them race through the woods and through the undergrowth that erupted unchecked during the months of the summer. Now a November sun cuts through the leafless trees. The whole wood is visible for the first time since she moved here. And everything in her life seems suddenly transparent, too. There’s a new crispness to her vision. A vista within her is opened wide.

Dmitri spurs his horse until it is hurt into a reckless gallop. Coco gives her mare a deft flick and works hard to keep up. Her legs tighten as she leans forward, and the wind quickens against her face. Around her, the smell of wet soil is cut with the pungency of horse. Her face is ruddy, and her breath bursts in long shapeless clouds from her mouth. She feels her back start to trickle with sweat. Her legs tremble with the effort. And after a few minutes of this hard gallop, her lungs begin to burn. When she does finally catch up with him, and she feels her breathing slow, it is as if the world—still galloping around her—continues to pour past.

She feels giddy then as they saunter through the burned-out remains of a bluebell wood. Poplars surround them on all sides. She remembers from the summer its smoky bluish gloom. Within lies a pond. The horses snort. Steam eddies visibly from their skins. All around, and despite the season, there explodes a jubilant riot of chartreuse-green ferns. The light is blue-green and reflective. Dmitri’s eyes vibrate with the same color. Everything seems filled with quietness and mystery. Coco feels closed in and secure.

She experiences an inner heat generated by the exertion of the ride. A faint shiver passes through her. And it is here in this secluded spot, as the light ebbs from the woods and the air around them cools, that something happens. She didn’t mean it to happen. It takes her by surprise. But with her eyes half closed and her head to one side, she slides her arms around Dmitri’s neck and surrenders to his kisses.

Restless, Igor plays solitaire. His fingers are quick with decision. Ripping a waxed card from the top of the deck, he snaps it down. The sound accents the hollowness he feels inside.

Outdoors, shadows drag across the lawn. Thin slices of cloud, like the cards seen edgeways, linger overhead. Coco and Dmitri have not yet returned. Already late in the afternoon, they have been gone for several hours now. Igor’s leg shakes in agitation, making the table vibrate.

Eventually he hears the clatter of hooves grow louder as they approach the drive. Quickly he switches off the lights in the room. Wanting the controlling power of observation all to himself, he stands at an angle to the window, ensuring he remains out of sight.

The horses slow and two figures dismount. He sees Coco and Dmitri, their heads bent familiarly in conversation. As Piotr leads the horses off, they walk toward the house.

Igor stiffens. His fear enlarges in the dark. Hearing her thrilling laugh fill the hallway, he recollects himself. He resumes his game of solitaire as though he’d never broken off. Coco calls him from the hallway. He answers as casually as he is able. She follows his voice into the living room.

“Why are you sitting here in the dark?” Her tone is faintly mocking.

Affecting absentmindedness: “I can see.”

In mild admonishment, she switches on the lights. He turns to see her silhouette filled. Glowing with vigor from the ride, she looks marvelous in her tight-fitting gear. Her eyes are full of warm tones and her cheeks are touched with color. Still carrying the crop like a baton, she pushes back her hair.

Hurt once more into the knowledge of her loveliness, he asks, “How was your ride?”

“Good, thank you.” A small silence follows. “And you? How was your card game?”

“Good,” he says, slapping down another card, his attempt at nonchalance strained.

“I’m glad,” she says and promptly leaves, closing the door behind her.

Her sudden removal stuns him. He holds the next card frozen between his fingers. Then he flips it nervously around and around. He hears Dmitri say something funny, followed by Coco’s whinnying laugh. This acts as a trigger. He smites the cards from the table, scattering them everywhere. Fists clenched, he rises abruptly from his chair. He paces around the room for several seconds, cursing in Russian under his breath. If the cat were there, he’d kick him. But he realizes after all how powerless he is in this situation. He can’t very well accuse her of being unfaithful. Then, with mad fastidiousness, he gathers up the cards, packing them tightly into their box.

He goes to the outhouse where the birds still chatter away merrily in their cages. An outside light casts a glow around the shed. Entering, he is startled. For there, after weeks of training, he hears one of the larger parrots for the first time speak her name. He’s been trying to get them to repeat it for so long, he’d almost given up. And one of them chooses to do it now. There it is again, clear and distinct, strident even. The sound of her name starts to echo, amplifying to a chant inside his head. He can’t believe it. It’s so awful, he almost laughs. He stares at the bird, which inclines its head and stares back at him self-importantly. The gods are cruel, he concludes.

One by one, he drapes the black cloths that Coco cut for him over the bars like shrouds. There’s a sense of finality in the act, a kind of closure. The blackness stretches to cover the evening.

Slowly the birds grow silent in the dark.

The children adore Dmitri. Full of native energy and ideas for new games, he plays with them most afternoons. Theodore and Soulima are bewitched by his stories of bravery and adventure. They are transfixed in particular by his account of killing Rasputin. Rasputin, whom they have heard so much about.

“How did you do it?”

They ask him to tell the tale over and over. He obliges willingly: “And then Yusupov shot him again—pow!—and again—pow!—and still he wouldn’t fall!” With each retelling, Rasputin’s ability to recover from the bullets becomes more and more miraculous.

The children are dazzled, too, by Dmitri’s collection of medals. Ludmilla fingers the low relief of the czar on one side of a beribboned decoration.

“He awarded that to me personally . . .”

“What had you done?” Theo asks, a little awed.

“Oh, nothing really. I led a battalion of men against a German gun battery. We captured the position.”

“Were many killed?” Soulima asks.

“Yes, quite a few.”

After a pause in which the boys take this in, Dmitri becomes more animated. “Here, let me show you. If this spoon is the gun battery, and these knives represent the advancing battalion . . .”

Igor leaves the room before the rest of the cutlery is engaged. All he knows about the war is that the shells whistled over the trenches in E flat.

He is repelled by this ebullient new fellow, who seems to enchant everyone around him with his exaggerated gallantries and military grace. To Igor, he seems an oaf, a blustering buffoon. There were no books in his luggage, Igor noticed. Culturally impoverished, he has little interest in music or the arts. The man is intellectually empty, he decides. Yet something in his manner, he concedes, makes him compelling. At first he can’t fathom what it is. Then he realizes. It is a kind of refined cruelty. Like a leopard he might kill you, but he would do it with great style.

Coco seems fatally taken by him. And Igor is shocked by the coltishness with which she acts in his company. Quickly he realizes he cannot compete with Dmitri’s vigor. Rather, he must trust Coco’s faithfulness and taste. He hopes nothing is going on between them, but the suspicion gnaws at his heart. Desolate at the thought of losing her, he yet senses her slipping away.

Later, at dinner, Igor feels humiliated. Suddenly vulnerable and insecure, he recognizes the selfsame intimacy—the brimming illicit smile, the hands brushing secretly, legs sliding one against the other under the dinner table—that he enjoyed during the months of the summer. His anguish deepens into despair. He only controls his emotion thanks to an immense effort of will.

Look at her! The way she pushes her hair up showily in front of Dmitri. The way she seeks his eye first for reassurance or to share a joke. That giddy coquettish habit she has of tipping her head to one side when she speaks to him. This is awful, he thinks. And yet there is more. The helplessly tender glances. The melting way she looks at him, chin resting upon her hand. Her equine snort at everything he says. Igor blanches. His heart shrinks. Her love for Dmitri announces itself from every angle. A chill enters his kidneys. It is more than he can bear.

Over the table, Dmitri waves his hands wildly in illustration of another heroic deed. Clumsily he knocks over a wineglass. The wine spills irremovably onto Igor’s white trousers, leaving a vivid rubicund stain around the groin.

Igor jumps back as if he has been burned. He dabs haplessly at himself with a napkin. Dmitri apologizes, but something subtly scornful in his manner makes Igor irritated and suspicious.

He looks down at the darkening stain, as at a wound. He feels the dampness against his skin and a growing sensation of cold. And in the wildness of his imaginings he thinks he sees the emblem of his helplessness, the badge of his emasculation, reflected in this shapeless blot.

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