Jigs and Reels/Eau de Toilette
Eau de Toilette
In these days of Botox, body piercing and failed cosmetic surgery, it is tempting to fantasize about other times and places, which we think of as being more romantic than our own. Dream on.
IT WASN The UNTIL I CAME TO COURT THAT I REALIZED HOW
much rich people stink. If anything, the rich more so than the poor; in the country, at least, we have less excuse for not washing. Here, to have a bath is to disrupt everything. The water must be heated, then carried up to the room with sponges, brushes, perfumes, towels and countless other impedimenta; not to mention the bath itself- cast-iron and heavy - which must be brought out of storage, cleaned of rust, then dragged by footmen up countless flights of stairs to Madame's boudoir.
There she waits, en deshabillee. Her saque is of pink lustring, with ribbons of the delicate coral hue so popular this season, which ladies of fashion call soupir etouffe. Beneath it, her corsets are grey with sweat and ringed
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around the underarms, rings within rings, like the severed trunk of a very old tree.
But Madame is wealthy; her household boasts so much linen that her maids need wash it only once a year, on the flat black stones of the laveraie, by the bank of the Seine. It is September now, and the linen room is only half full; even so, the growling musk of Madame's intimates carries up the steps, across the corridor and into the morning-room, where even four vases of cut flowers and a hanging pomander fail to mask the stench.
Nevertheless, Madame is a famous beauty. Men have written sonnets to her eyes, which are exceptional, so I am told. The same cannot be said of her rotten teeth, however; or indeed of her eyebrows, which are fashionably shaven, being replaced by mouse-skin replicas, stuck with fish'glue to the centre of her forehead. Fortunately the smell of the fish-glue is slight, compared with the rest, and does not disturb her. Why should it? Monseigneur uses the same aids to beauty, and he is one of the most highly regarded gentlemen of fashion of the Court. The King himself (no rose garden, His Majesty) says so.
While Madame awaits her bathwater, she peers at herself with some anxiety in the gilded mirror of her chamber. At twenty-two, she is no longer young, and she has noticed a diminution in the number of her admirers this last season. Monseigneur de Rochefort, her favourite, has been most distressingly absent; worse still, there have been rumours that he has been seen twice recently in the company of La Violette, an opera-dancer from Pigalle.
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In the mirror, Madame scrutinizes her fading complexion.
She feels concern for her loss of bloom, and wonders what might have caused it. Too many balls, perhaps; or a disappointment in love; besides, it is well known that water is dreadfully injurious to the skin. With care, she applies a little more white lead to her dimpled cheek.
Now for the pounce-box; shaking out powder onto a goosedown huuppe, she dusts her face and cleavage. A little rouge, perhaps - a very little, for she does not want to be accused of trying too hard - and a patch or two. La Galante, and - yes, why not? - La Romance, applied with a fingertip and glued with the same fish-glue that secures her mouse skin eyebrows.
It will do. It is perhaps not perfect; Madame is too distressingly aware of the fine lines between her eyes, and of that area of scaly, reddened skin against her powdered breast. Thank the Lord, she thinks, for His gift of cosmetics - and of course, the collar of rubies she plans to wear for tonight's ball should hide that patch of ringworm nicely.
'Jeannette!' Madame is getting impatient. 'Where is the hot water?'
Jeannette explains that Marie is heating it in the kitchen, and promises to have it soon. She has brought Madame's little pug, Saphir, with her in the hope that in the meantime he may amuse Madame, but Madame is petulant. Where is her dress? she asks. Has it been brushed and pressed? Is it ready for tonight's event?
Jeannette assures her that it is.
'Then bring it, bring it, you silly girl,' snaps Madame, and
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five minutes later the creation is brought in. Two maids are needed to manoeuvre it through the door, for it is heavy even without the wicker panniers over which Madame will wear it. The skirt is made of crimson brocade, embroidered all over with gold thread, and Madame will wear it over a great hoop and an underskirt of dark gold. Thanks to the panniers swinging at her hips, she will dance with the undulating grace of an Eastern courtesan, and all her admirers - especially Monseigneur de Rochefort - will gasp and stare in desire and admiration.
But the confection is heavy, weighed down as it is with fully four Uvres of gold thread, and Madame's shoes are chopines in the Venetian mode, designed more for effect than for practicality, with platforms that raise her modest height to an altitude verging on the queenly. Her skirt has been made extra-long with this problem in mind; and the ingenious stool'like device concealed inside the left pannier allows her to sit down discreetly, on occasion, if the platform shoes become too uncomfortable.
I know, too (for nothing is secret to one in my humble position) that the stool device plays a double role; suspended on a hinge mechanism that allows it to be pushed into the pannier or pulled out as and when required, it also harbours a chamber pot, so that Madame need not squat ungraciously in the bushes (or worse, piss into her rolled stockings), and may dance the night away with one of her several lovers without anxiety.
'Jeannette, the bath!'
Poor Jeannette is working hard; the bath will take fifty or
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more of the cans of water, and Madame likes it quite full. But the other maids are working too; one to bring out Madame's collection of fans for approval; the other three on tonight's coiffure.
In the style of all truly elegant ladies, Madame's head has been shorn bald. She will wear a wig of regal proportions and truly original design. No dowdy Chien Couche or outmoded Venus shall adorn her head; this headpiece, bedecked with plumes and stuffed with horsehair, is fully three feet high. Grey powder will give it a final touch of elegance; but although it is strongly scented with musk and attar, beneath the perfumes it still smells noticeably of mice. I doubt whether Madame will notice this, however. The combined stench of stale underthings, old sweat, fish glue, and the contents of the pisspot concealed inside the panniers of her gown should already make for a pungent mixture.
Still, angered now at Jeannette's lateness, she awaits the bath. Saphir, too, is growing impatient, and yaps and growls at the maids as they set about their business aiding Madame in her selection of fans. She has a large collection, of ivory, of plumes, or of cunningly painted chicken skin. These smell particularly vile - the armoire in which Madame keeps them stinks like a hen house. Madame seems not to notice; on my advice, she selects a fan of crimson and gold to match her gown, and dreams pleasantly of the billets-doux she will receive at the ball. Perhaps young Monseigneur de Rochefort will deliver one, in a nosegay or a napkin; he has been so wilful of late, transferring his
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attention from one lady to another, but tonight, Madame feels sure that she will conquer.
'Jeannette, the hot water!'
Such a bore; but it must be done. Once every six months is not such a terrible burden, and besides, in a few hours the young men will begin to call, and Madame must be ready to receive them. She considers her legs. The blisters have almost vanished from her last attempt at singeing, and the hairs, though dark, are few. Madame uses a pair of tweezers to remove them; it may well be that she will accept to stroll in the garden with Monseigneur de Rochefort, and everyone knows that a lady should never contemplate a gallantry with hairy legs.
'Madame? The bath?' Poor Jeannette is sweating. It has taken her more than forty minutes to drag the cans of water upstairs. The bath is still warm, though by now not hot, and I have already scented the water with stephanotis and chypre. It takes both of us some time to immobilize Saphir, who barks and struggles and tries to bite; but before long he is immersed in the lukewarm water and Jeannette can begin with the brush.
Meanwhile, Madame makes the finishing touches to her toilette, and sits rapt before her reflection in the mirror. Surely this time Monseigneur de Rochefort will be enamoured. Behind her, Jeannette and I struggle to envelop Saphir in a towel. A touch of violet essence seems to enhance, rather than mask, the reek of wet pug.
All the same, I think as I dust myself down, I must consider myself privileged to serve such a beautiful and
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fashionable lady. I am more than aware that my own sensibilities are somewhat bizarre; my sensitivity to smell verges on the monstrous, and that combined with my country upbringing means that I cannot - however much I may wish it - find the ladies (or gentlemen) of the Court to my taste. One day, God willing, I may find them so. For the moment, however, I have my duties to perform. I am Madame's parfumier: Monseigneur de Chanel, at your service.