CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Igor sits at a table in the living room, his glasses pushed on top of his head. He has just received a telegram from Diaghilev. It reads, “Shopgirls will always prefer grand dukes to geniuses. Ballet off to Madrid. Come with us!” He scrunches it up and hurls it against the wall.

Diaghilev must have heard from Misia. Igor had been right: the woman was poison. His instinct is to telephone Diaghilev and set him straight. Then it occurs to him—set him straight about what? About Catherine leaving? About why he is staying on at Bel Respiro? About Dmitri? His cheeks burn with the humiliation of it all.

Coco, too, has received some news. A letter postmarked Biarritz. She opens it to see blue, thready handwriting open its veins across the page.

6 December 1920

Dear Mademoiselle Chanel,

I am writing to thank you for your generosity over recent months in having us to stay. It has been a difficult time for the family of late. We are still unused to our status as exiles, fattening the ranks of Europe’s dispossessed. And you have done much to aid the children through this troublesome period. I appreciate your helping to settle and educate them in this country. It may be their home for several years to come.

I would like to thank you also for your efforts as regards my health. Without your support, I could never have afforded the doctors’ fees. And an X-ray would have been out of the question. For this, I am indeed deeply grateful.

The next subject is, however, far more difficult to broach. I have kept it, as I believe is customary in polite society, until the end. It is clear to me that over the past few months you have enjoyed an unnatural closeness to my husband. This fact, as I’m sure you are aware, has caused me a great deal of pain and—I’m bound to say—has been a contributory factor in my illness. While I have every respect for you as a woman of independent means and extraordinary natural resources, I cannot pretend to admire your morals, which I find distasteful in the extreme. Thankfully, the children are not informed of the full state of your relationship with their father. I would, however, urge you to look to your conscience. I counsel you to cease, if you have not already, your liaison with Igor, and thus allow him to discharge his proper duties as both a father and a husband.

Of course, he is to blame just as much as you for this regrettable affair. Probably more so, I admit. But you seem just now to be in a position to exercise an uncommon degree of control over his feelings. If you can find it in your heart to perform one last benevolent act in addition to those for which I have already thanked you, then please give him up. It might surprise you that I do still care for him. We have been together many years.

The children need their father. I am dying by half inches and need him more than you ever could. You will appreciate, too, that Igor requires time and tranquillity in order to compose.

Many thanks for your consideration in this matter. The children—Ludmilla in particular—send their love.

Respectfully yours,

Catherine S

Coco folds the letter carefully and returns it to its envelope. She holds it with both hands for a moment as though absorbing its contents. Then, slipping it into her pocket, she stares blankly ahead.

After a strained and bibulous lunch, during which Igor eats little and hardly says a word, he asks to speak to Coco in private. She looks at Dmitri, who shrugs imperiously, nodding his assent. With gruff courtesy shading into regal disregard, he says he needs anyway to clean his gun before hunting in the woods.

So Coco and Igor stroll about the garden, Coco with her arms folded over her wool coat and Igor with his hands planted stiffly in his pockets. It is bitterly cold outside.

“So, what is it you want to talk to me about?”

He volunteers, “I think you’re making a mistake.” His words contain a hidden plea.

“What makes you say that?”

“I think we have something together we shouldn’t give up.”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know. It’s a feeling. Call it love.”

“As romantic as ever, I see.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I have to protect myself.” Coco’s voice is planed of tenderness.

“We work well together. We fit . . .”

“Igor, tell me something.”

“What?”

“Would you have left Catherine?”

“She appears to have left me.”

“Would you ever divorce her, though?”

“That’s unfair. She’s extremely ill at the moment, and . . .”

“I don’t want to hear any more excuses. You’ll never give her up, even though you don’t love her.” Igor begins to protest. She raises her hand to stop him. “Now, I’m prepared to believe you love me. But that simply isn’t enough. I can’t stand having to pussyfoot like a strumpet around my own house. I’m thirty-seven. I’m rich. I deserve better than that.”

Coco begins to move away. Igor catches her arm. Unyielding, she looks back at the house with her arms stiffly folded, locking him out.

“I know I’ve been selfish. I’ve been unfair . . . Things will be different.”

“I’d like to believe you, Igor. And yes, you are selfish.” Then, pulling herself away from his arm: “Well, so am I.” Her words are flung like stones in his face. “The trouble is, you want me to subjugate my life to your work. Well, I just won’t do it. I’m not like Catherine. I have my own work. I’m ambitious, too.”

“If you’re so ambitious, then why waste time with that imbecile Dmitri?”

“I’m not going to be drawn into a stupid argument.”

“He’s eleven years younger than you. He’s just a boy, for God’s sake! I don’t understand how you can be serious about him.”

“Who said I was serious? Maybe I want some fun.” As an afterthought: “Is that allowed?”

His voice contracts to a whisper. With his lips barely parted, the words emerge thanks only to the elasticity of his mouth. “Can’t you see he just wants your money?”

Losing patience: “He’s good to me. He pays me more attention than you ever would—more than you’re probably capable of. And I like that. I want to be cared for. I like someone to be silly over me. Someone for whom I don’t come a poor third after his piano and his wife.” Indignant, Coco stamps her foot. With a sharp movement of her hand, she wipes away the beginnings of a tear. “And you’re wrong about the money.”

There is a charged silence between them. In the distance, a dog barks. A huntsman’s rifle sounds damply in the air. An ash tree releases in a shiver the bright spear points of purple leaves.

A new toughness informs Igor’s voice. “Now Catherine has left, the sense of challenge has diminished for you, hasn’t it?”

Coco makes as if to retaliate. Then in a tone all the more cruel for being neutral, she allows, “Perhaps you’re right. Maybe you are less of a challenge now.”

He feels as though an opponent in a tug-of-war has just let go, sending him crashing backward to the ground. “You can’t play with people’s lives like this. You’ve torn a family apart . . .”

“And I suppose you had nothing to do with that, did you?”

“I’m asking you,” Igor says with renewed urgency, emphasizing each word with a kind of mad clarity, “to reconsider.” His skin tightens visibly; his whole frame braces. His eyes shine with a desperate demand. “Diaghilev says the ballet is off to Spain. Why don’t we go with them?”

“Dmitri wants to go to Monte Carlo.”

“With you?”

“Yes.”

“Are you going?”

“I haven’t decided yet.”

“Don’t you want to be with me?”

Almost imperceptibly, she shakes her head. He can’t believe it is ending like this, so casually. Desperate, he seeks for the one thread he might pull to make things whole again. “What do you want? Is it marriage, children?”

She remembers his shocked response to the news that she might be pregnant. Then, with greater contempt than she intended: “You’re not exactly the father I’d choose for my children.”

It’s as though a spring within him snaps. “You know the trouble with you?”

“What? Do tell!”

“You’re all surface.”

Coco looks at him, hurt for a moment. Then her features relax into a smile.

“You’re all surface,” he says again, quieter this time, but with more needling conviction.

Her smile graduates into a mischievous grin. Adopting a roguish tone, she says, “What else is there?”

At this instant, Dmitri emerges from the house. He shouts, “Coco, are you coming?”

Ready for his walk, he has his shotgun with him. He always does when he goes into the woods. The rifle is bent at an angle over his elbow. His presence in the garden communicates power. Remaining at a distance from the two of them, he casually loads the gun.

“What else is there?” Igor goes on urgently, ignoring him. But the moment is lost. He continues to stare at Coco. An unflattering wildness glimmers in his eyes.

Suddenly there is a disturbance in the trees. They turn to see the source of the commotion. Following an impulse, Dmitri snaps the rifle straight and levels it. His body moves as one with the gun. Raising it high, he fires into the topmost branches. Two shots go off in quick succession. Each time his arm rears fiercely. Blue puffs of smoke escape from the barrel, and a wood pigeon with a white halter in a band around its neck drops like a stone onto the lawn. Instantly a fan of birds rises darkly, banking steeply across the tops of the trees. Dmitri whistles in triumph. The spent cartridges lie hot on the ground. The flat crack of each shot still rings around the garden.

Igor looks on in disbelief. The noise reverberates in his ears. As the acrid smell of the bullets hits him, his indignation spills over. His face becomes blurry. He is beside himself with rage.

“Must you destroy everything you come into contact with?” He starts toward Dmitri, breaking into a run. Arms flailing, he launches himself, fists battering blindly, at the other man’s chest.

“What are you doing?”

Dmitri staggers back. The gun is knocked from his hands. More surprised than anything else, he absorbs a flurry of ineffectual blows. Then he turns and, with instinctive efficiency, hits Igor with a single blow smack against the nose.

Startled, Igor falls to the ground. He is hurt. His glasses have been knocked askew. Tears well in his eyes behind them. A fracture spiders across one of the lenses, splintering his vision. His nose feels out of joint. Gingerly his fingertips seek the point of impact. They come away sticky and darkened with blood. He looks to Coco, his request for love diminished now to a thin need for pity.

Dmitri watches for her response. He shrugs apologetically. About to say something, he changes his mind.

“Pick them up!” she barks sharply.

She directs Dmitri toward the two discharged cartridges lying on the ground. She shakes her head, exasperated by his insensitivity, yet unmoved by Igor’s mute appeal. Then she turns and walks off.

Dmitri lingers sheepishly for an instant then trails after her. Igor sits alone on the damp grass. He can see his breath in front of him. He can feel the blood thicken under his nose. It is as if all his fears have congealed in the cold.

He removes his glasses awkwardly and examines the crack.

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