Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - Page 10

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Grenouille grabbed apparently at random from the row of essences in their flacons, pulled out the glass stoppers, held the contents under his nose for an instant, splashed a bit of one bottle, dribbled a drop or two of another, poured a dash of a third into the funnel, and so on. Pipette, test tube, measuring glass, spoons and rods—all the utensils that allow the perfumer to control the complicated process of mixing—Grenouille did not so much as touch a single one of them. It was as if he were just playing, splashing and swishing like a child busy cooking up some ghastly brew of water, grass, and mud, which he then asserts to be soup. Yes, like a child, thought Baldini; all at once he looks like a child, despite his ungainly hands, despite his scarred, pockmarked face and his bulbous old-man’s nose. I took him to be older than he is; but now he seems much younger to me; he looks as if he were three or four; looks just like one of those unapproachable, incomprehensible, willful little prehuman creatures, who in their ostensible innocence think only of themselves, who want to subordinate the whole world to their despotic will, and would do it, too, if one let them pursue their megalomaniacal ways and did not apply the strictest pedagogical principles to guide them to a disciplined, self-controlled, fully human existence. There was just such a fanatical child trapped inside this young man, standing at the table with eyes aglow, having forgotten everything around him, apparently no longer aware that there was anything else in the laboratory but himself and these bottles that he tipped into the funnel with nimble awkwardness to mix up an insane brew that he would confidently swear—and would truly believe!—to be the exquisite perfume Amor and Psyche. Baldini shuddered as he watched the fellow bustling about in the candlelight, so shockingly absurd and so shockingly self-confident. In the old days—so he thought, and for a moment he felt as sad and miserable and furious as he had that afternoon while gazing out onto the city glowing ruddy in the twilight—in the old days people like that simply did not exist; he was an entirely new specimen of the race, one that could arise only in exhausted, dissipated times like these.… But he was about to be taught his lesson, the impertinent boy. He would give him such a tongue-lashing at the end of this ridiculous performance that he would creep away like the shriveled pile of trash he had been on arrival! Vermin! One dared not get involved with anyone at all these days, the world was simply teeming with absurd vermin!

Baldini was so busy with his personal exasperation and disgust at the age that he did not really comprehend what was intended when Grenouille suddenly stoppered up all the flacons, pulled the funnel out of the mixing bottle, grabbed the neck of the bottle with his right hand, capped it with the palm of his left, and shook it vigorously. Only when the bottle had been spun through the air several times, its precious contents sloshing back and forth like lemonade between belly and neck, did Baldini let loose a shout of rage and horror. “Stop it!” he screeched. “That’s enough! Stop it this moment! Basta! Put that bottle back on the table and don’t touch anything else, do you understand, nothing else! I must have been crazy to listen to your asinine gibberish. The way you handle these things, your crudity, your primitive lack of judgment, demonstrate to me that you are a bungler, a barbaric bungler, and a beastly, cheeky, snot-nosed brat besides. You wouldn’t make a good lemonade mixer, not even a good licorice-water vendor, let alone a perfumer! Just be glad, be grateful and content that your master lets you slop around in tanning fluids! Do not dare it ever again, do you hear me? Do not dare ever again to set a foot across the threshold of a perfumer’s shop!”

Thus spoke Baldini. And even as he spoke, the air around him was saturated with the odor of Amor and Psyche. Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.

Grenouille had set down the bottle, removing his perfume-moistened hand from its neck and wiping it on his shirttail. One, two steps back—and the clumsy way he hunched his body together under Baldini’s tirade sent enough waves rolling out into the room to spread the newly created scent in all directions. Nothing more was needed. True, Baldini ranted on, railed and cursed, but with every breath his outward show of rage found less and less inner nourishment. He sensed he had been proved wrong, which was why his peroration could only soar to empty pathos. And when he fell silent, had been silent for a good while, he had no need of Grenouille’s remark: “It’s all done.” He knew that already.

But nevertheless, although in the meantime air heavy with Amor and Psyche was undulating all about him, he stepped up to the old oak table to make his test. He pulled a fresh snowy white lace handkerchief from his coat pocket, the left one, unfolded it and sprinkled it with a few drops that he extracted from the mixing bottle with the long pipette. He waved the handkerchief with outstretched arm to aerate it and then pulled it past his nose with the delicate, well-practiced motion, soaking up its scent. Letting it out again in little puffs, he sat down on a stool. Where before his face had been bright red with erupting anger, all at once he had grown pale. “Incredible,” he murmured softly to himself, “by God—incredible.” And he pressed the handkerchief to his nose again and again and sniffed and shook his head and muttered, “Incredible.” It was Amor and Psyche, beyond the shadow of a doubt Amor and Psyche, that despicable, ingenious blend of scents, so exactly copied that not even Pélissier himself would have been able to distinguish it from his own product. “Incredible …”

Small and ashen, the great Baldini sat on his stool, looking ridiculous with handkerchief in hand, pressing it to his nose like an old maid with the sniffles. By now he was totally speechless. He didn’t even say “incredible” anymore, but nodding gently and staring at the contents of the mixing bottle, could only let out a monotone “Hmm, hmm, hmm … hmm, hmm, hmm … hmm, hmm, hmm.” After a while, Grenouille approached, stepping up to the table soundlessly as a shadow.

“It’s not a good perfume,” he said. “It’s been put together very bad, this perfume has.”

“Hmm, hmm, hmm,” said Baldini, and Grenouille continued, “If you’ll let me, maître, I’ll make it better. Give me a minute and I’ll make a proper perfume out of it!”

“Hmm, hmm, hmm,” said Baldini and nodded. Not in consent, but because he was in such a helplessly apathetic condition that he would have said “hmm, hmm, hmm,” and nodded to anything. And he went on nodding and murmuring “hmm, hmm, hmm,” and made no effort to interfere as Grenouille began to mix away a second time, pouring the alcohol from the demijohn into the mixing bottle a second time (right on top of the perfume already in it), tipping the contents of flacons a second time in apparently random order and quantity into the funnel. Only at the end of the procedure—Grenouille did not shake the bottle this time, but swirled it about gently like a brandy glass, perhaps in deference to Baldini’s delicacy, perhaps because the contents seemed more precious to him this time—only then, as the liquid whirled about in the bottle, did Baldini awaken from his numbed state and stand up, the handkerchief still pressed to his nose, of course, as if he were arming himself against yet another attack upon his most private self.

“It’s all done, maître,” Grenouille said. “Now it’s a really good scent.”

“Yes, yes, fine, fine,” Baldini replied and waved him off with his free hand.

“Don’t you want to test it?” Grenouille gurgled on. “Don’t you want to, maître? Aren’t you going to test it?”

“Later. I’m not in the mood to test it at the moment … have other things on my mind. Go now! Come on!”

And he picked up one of the candlesticks and passed through the door into the shop. Grenouille followed him. They entered the narrow hallway that led to the servants’ entrance. The old man shuffled up to the doorway, pulled back the bolt, and opened the door. He stepped aside to let the lad out.

“Can’t I come to work for you, maître, can’t I?” Grenouille asked, standing on the threshold, hunched o

ver again, the lurking look returning to his eye.

“I don’t know,” said Baldini. “I shall think about it. Go.”

And then Grenouille had vanished, gone in a split second, swallowed up by the darkness. Baldini stood there and stared into the night. In his right hand he held the candlestick, in his left the handkerchief, like someone with a nosebleed, but in fact he was simply frightened. He quickly bolted the door. Then he took the protective handkerchief from his face, shoved it into his pocket, and walked back through the shop to his laboratory.

The scent was so heavenly fine that tears welled into Baldini’s eyes. He did not have to test it, he simply stood at the table in front of the mixing bottle and breathed. The perfume was glorious. It was to Amor and Psyche as a symphony is to the scratching of a lonely violin. And it was more. Baldini closed his eyes and watched as the most sublime memories were awakened within him. He saw himself as a young man walking through the evening gardens of Naples; he saw himself lying in the arms of a woman with dark curly hair and saw the silhouette of a bouquet of roses on the windowsill as the night wind passed by; he heard the random song of birds and the distant music from a harbor tavern; he heard whisperings at his ear, he heard I-love-you and felt his hair ruffle with bliss, now! now at this very moment! He forced open his eyes and groaned with pleasure. This perfume was not like any perfume known before. It was not a scent that made things smell better, not some sachet, some toiletry. It was something completely new, capable of creating a whole world, a magical, rich world, and in an instant you forgot all the loathsomeness around you and felt so rich, so at ease, so free, so fine.…

The hairs that had ruffled up on Baldini’s arm fell back again, and a befuddling peace took possession of his soul. He picked up the leather, the goat leather lying at the table’s edge, and a knife, and trimmed away. Then he laid the pieces in the glass basin and poured the new perfume over them. He fixed a pane of glass over the basin, divided the rest of the perfume between two small bottles, applied labels to them, and wrote the words Nuit Napolitaine on them. Then he extinguished the candles and left.

Once upstairs, he said nothing to his wife while they ate. Above all, he said nothing about the solemn decision he had arrived at that afternoon. And his wife said nothing either, for she noticed that he was in good spirits, and that was enough for her. Nor did he walk over to Notre-Dame to thank God for his strength of character. Indeed, that night he forgot, for the first time ever, to say his evening prayers.

16

The next morning he went straight to Grimal. First he paid for his goat leather, paid in full, without a grumble or the least bit of haggling. And then he invited Grimal to the Tour d’Argent for a bottle of white wine and negotiations concerning the purchase of Grenouille, his apprentice. It goes without saying that he did not reveal to him the why’s and wherefore’s of this purchase. He told some story about how he had a large order for scented leather and to fill it he needed unskilled help. He required a lad of few needs, who would do simple tasks, cutting leather and so forth. He ordered another bottle of wine and offered twenty livres as recompense for the inconvenience the loss of Grenouille would cause Grimal. Twenty livres was an enormous sum. Grimal immediately took him up on it. They walked to the tannery, where, strangely enough, Grenouille was waiting with his bundle already packed. Baldini paid the twenty livres and took him along at once, well aware that he had just made the best deal of his life.

Grimal, who for his part was convinced that he had just made the best deal of his life, returned to the Tour d’Argent, there drank two more bottles of wine, moved over to the Lion d’Or on the other bank around noon, and got so rip-roaring drunk there that when he decided to go back to the Tour d’Argent late that night, he got the rue Geoffroi L’Anier confused with the rue des Nonaindières, and instead of coming out directly onto the Pont-Marie as he had intended, he was brought by ill fortune to the Quai des Ormes, where he splashed lengthwise and face first into the water like a soft mattress. He was dead in an instant. The river, however, needed considerable time to drag him out from the shallows, past the barges moored there, into the stronger main current, and not until the early morning hours did Grimal the tanner—or, better, his soaked carcass—float briskly downriver toward the west.

As he passed the Pont-au-Change, soundlessly, without bumping against the bridge piers, sixty feet directly overhead Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was going to bed. A bunk had been set up for him in a back corner of Baldini’s laboratory, and he was now about to take possession of it—while his former employer floated down the cold Seine, all four limbs extended. Grenouille rolled himself up into a little ball like a tick. As he fell off to sleep, he sank deeper and deeper into himself, leading the triumphant entry into his innermost fortress, where he dreamed of an odoriferous victory banquet, a gigantic orgy with clouds of incense and fogs of myrrh, held in his own honor.

17

With the acquisition of Grenouille, the House of Giuseppe Baldini began its ascent to national, indeed European renown. The Persian chimes never stopped ringing, the herons never stopped spewing in the shop on the Pont-au-Change.

The very first evening, Grenouille had to prepare a large demijohn full of Nuit Napolitaine, of which over eighty flacons were sold in the course of the next day. The fame of the scent spread like wildfire. Chénier’s eyes grew glassy from the moneys paid and his back ached from all the deep bows he had to make, for only persons of high, indeed highest, rank—or at least the servants of persons of high and highest rank—appeared. One day the door was flung back so hard it rattled; in stepped the footman of Count d’Argenson and shouted, as only footmen can shout, that he wanted five bottles of this new scent. Chénier was still shaking with awe fifteen minutes later, for Count d’Argenson was commissary and war minister to His Majesty and the most powerful man in Paris.

While Chénier was subjected to the onslaught of customers in the shop, Baldini had shut himself up in his laboratory with his new apprentice. He justified this state of affairs to Chénier with a fantastic theory that he called “division of labor and increased productivity.” For years, he explained, he had patiently watched while Pélissier and his ilk—despisers of the ancient craft, all—had enticed his customers away and made a shambles of his business. His forbearance was now at an end. He was accepting their challenge and striking back at these cheeky parvenus, and, what was more, with their own weapons. Every season, every month, if necessary every week, he would play trumps, a new perfume. And what perfumes they would be! He would draw fully upon his creative talents. And for that it was necessary that he—assisted only by an unskilled helper—would be solely and exclusively responsible for the production of scents, while Chénier would devote himself exclusively to their sale. By using such modern methods, they would open a new chapter in the history of perfumery, sweeping aside their competitors and growing incomparably rich—yes, he had consciously and explicitly said “they,” because he intended to allow his old and trusted journeyman to share a given percentage of these incomparable riches.

Only a few days before, Chénier would have regarded such talk as a sign of his master’s incipient senility. “Ready for the Charité,” he would have thought. “It won’t be long now before he lays down the pestle for good.” But now he was not thinking at all. He didn’t get around to it, he simply had too much to do. He had so much to do that come evening he was so exhausted he could hardly empty out the cashbox and siphon off his cut. Not in his wildest dreams would he have doubted that things were not on the up and up, though Baldini emerged from his laboratory almost daily with some new scent.

And what scents they were! Not just perfumes of high, indeed highest, quality, but also crèmes and powders, soaps, hair tonics, toilet waters, oils.… Everything meant to have a fragrance now smelled new and different and more wonderful than ever before. And as if bewitched, the public pounced upon everything, absolutely everything—even the newfangled scented hair ribbons that Baldini created one day on a

curious whim. And price was no object. Everything that Baldini produced was a success. And the successes were so overwhelming that Chénier accepted them as natural phenomena and did not seek out their cause. That perhaps the new apprentice, that awkward gnome, who was housed like a dog in the laboratory and whom one saw sometimes when the master stepped out, standing in the background wiping off glasses and cleaning mortars—that this cipher of a man might be implicated in the fabulous blossoming of their business, Chénier would not have believed had he been told it.

Naturally, the gnome had everything to do with it. Everything Baldini brought into the shop and left for Chénier to sell was only a fraction of what Grenouille was mixing up behind closed doors. Baldini couldn’t smell fast enough to keep up with him. At times he was truly tormented by having to choose among the glories that Grenouille produced. This sorcerer’s apprentice could have provided recipes for all the perfumers of France without once repeating himself, without once producing something of inferior or even average quality. As a matter of fact, he could not have provided them with recipes, i.e., formulas, for at first Grenouille still composed his scents in the totally chaotic and unprofessional manner familiar to Baldini, mixing his ingredients impromptu and in apparent wild confusion. Unable to control the crazy business, but hoping at least to get some notion of it, Baldini demanded one day that Grenouille use scales, measuring glasses, and the pipette when preparing his mixtures, even though he considered them unnecessary; further, he was to get used to regarding the alcohol not as another fragrance, but as a solvent to be added at the end; and, for God’s sake, he would simply have to go about things more slowly, at an easier and slower pace, as befitted a craftsman.


Tags: Patrick Süskind Horror
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