Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - Page 17

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All at once great contentment came over him. Not a drunken one, as in the days when he had celebrated his lonely orgies in the bowels of the mountain, but a very cold and sober contentment, as befits awareness of one’s own power. He now knew what he was capable of. Thanks to his own genius, with a minimum of contrivance he had imitated the odor of human beings and at one stroke had matched it so well that even a child had been deceived. He now knew that he could do much more. He knew that he could improve on this scent. He would be able to create a scent that was not merely human, but superhuman, an angel’s scent, so indescribably good and vital that whoever smelled it would be enchanted and with his whole heart would have to love him, Grenouille, the bearer of that scent.

Yes, that was what he wanted—they would love him as they stood under the spell of his scent, not just accept him as one of them, but love him to the point of insanity, of self-abandonment, they would quiver with delight, scream, weep for bliss, they would sink to their knees just as if under God’s cold incense, merely to be able to smell him, Grenouille! He would be the omnipotent god of scent, just as he had been in his fantasies, but this time in the real world and over real people. And he knew that all this was within his power. For people could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they could not escape scent. For scent was a brother of breath. Together with breath it entered human beings, who could not defend themselves against it, not if they wanted to live. And scent entered into their very core, went directly to their hearts, and decided for good and all between affection and contempt, disgust and lust, love and hate. He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men.

Grenouille sat at his ease on his bench in the cathedral of Saint-Pierre and smiled. His mood was not euphoric as he formed his plans to rule humankind. There were no mad flashings of the eye, no lunatic grimace passed over his face. He was not out of his mind, which was so clear and buoyant that he asked himself why he wanted to do it at all. And he said to himself that he wanted to do it because he was evil, thoroughly evil. And he smiled as he said it and was content. He looked quite innocent, like any happy person.

He sat there for a while, with an air of devout tranquillity, and took deep breaths, inhaling the incense-laden air. And yet another cheerful grin crossed his face. How miserable this God smelled! How ridiculously bad the scent that this God let spill from Him. It was not even genuine frankincense fuming up out of those thuribles. A bad substitute, adulterated with linden and cinnamon dust and saltpeter. God stank. God was a poor little stinker. He had been swindled, this God had, or was Himself a swindler, no different from Grenouille—only a considerably worse one!


The marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse was thrilled with his new perfume. It was staggering, he said, even for the discoverer of the fluidum letale, to note what a striking influence on the general condition of an individual such a trivial and ephemeral item as perfume could have as a result of its being either earth-bound or earth-removed in origin. Grenouille, who but a few hours before had lain pale and near swooning, now appeared as fresh and rosy as any healthy man his age could. Why—even with all the qualifications appropriate to a man of his rank and limited education—one might almost say that he had gained something very like a personality. In any case, he, Taillade-Espinasse, would discuss the case in the chapter on vital dietetics in his soon-to-be-published treatise on the theory of the fluidum letale. But first he wished to anoint his own body with this new perfume.

Grenouille handed him both flacons of conventional floral scent, and the marquis sprinkled himself with it. He seemed highly gratified by the effect. He confessed that after years of being oppressed by the leaden scent of violets, a mere dab of this made him feel as if he had sprouted floral wings; and if he was not mistaken, the beastly pain in his knee was already subsiding, likewise the buzzing in his ears. All in all he felt buoyant, revitalized, and several years younger. He approached Grenouille, embraced him, and called him “my fluidal brother,” adding that this was in no way a form of social address, but rather a purely spiritual one in conspectu universalitatis fluidi letalis, before which—and before which alone!—all men were equal. Also—and this he said as he disengaged himself from Grenouille, in a most friendly disengagement, without the least revulsion, almost as if he were disengaging himself from an equal—he was planning soon to found an international lodge that stood above all social rank and the goal of which would be utterly to vanquish the fluidum letale and replace it in the shortest possible time with purest fluidum vitale—and even now he promised to win Grenouille over as the first proselyte. Then he had him write the formula for the floral perfume on a slip of paper, pocketed it, and presented Grenouille with fifty louis d’or.

Precisely one week after the first lecture, the marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse once again presented his ward in the great hall of the university. The crush was monstrous. All Montpellier had come, not just scientific Montpellier, but also and in particular social Montpellier, among whom were many ladies desirous of seeing the fabled caveman. And although Taillade’s enemies, primarily the champions of the Friends of the University Botanical Gardens and members of the Society for the Advancement of Agriculture, had mobilized all their supporters, the exhibition was a scintillating success. In order to remind his audience of Grenouille’s condition of only the week before, Taillade-Espinasse first circulated drawings depicting the caveman in all his ugliness and depravity. He then had them lead in the new Grenouille dressed in a handsome velvet blue coat and silk shirt, rouged, powdered, and coiffed; and merely by the way he walked, so erect and with dainty steps and an elegant swing of the hips, by the way he climbed to the dais without anyone’s assistance, bowing deeply and nodding with a smile now to one side now to the other, he silenced every skeptic and critic. Even the friends of the university’s botanical garden were embarrassedly speechless. The change was too egregious, the apparent miracle too overwhelming: where but a week ago had cowered a drudge, a brutalized beast, there now stood a truly civilized, properly proportioned human being. An almost prayerful mood spread through the hall, and as Taillade-Espinasse commenced his lecture, perfect silence reigned. He once again set forth his all too familiar theory about earth’s fluidum letale, explained how and with what mechanical and dietetic means he had driven it from the body of his exhibit, replacing it with fluidum vitale. Finally he demanded of all those present, friend and foe alike, that in the face of such overwhelming evidence they abandon their opposition to this new doctrine and make common cause with him, Taillade-Espinasse, against the evil fluidum and open themselves to the beneficial fluidum vitale. At this he spread his arms wide, cast his eyes heavenwards—and many learned men did likewise, and women wept.

Grenouille stood at the dais but did not listen. He watched with great satisfaction the effect of a totally different fluid, a much realer one: his own. As was appropriate for the size of the great hall, he had doused himself with perfume, and no sooner had he climbed the dais than the aura of his scent began to radiate powerfully from him. He saw—literally saw with his own eyes!—how it captured the spectators sitting closest, was transmitted to those farther back, and finally reached the last rows and the gallery. And whomever it captured—and Grenouille’s heart leapt for joy within him—was visibly changed. Under the sway of the odor, but without their being aware of it, people’s facial expressions, their airs, their emotions were altered. Those who at first had gawked at him out of pure amazement now gazed at him with a milder eye; those who had made a point of leaning back in their seats with furrowed critical brows and mouths markedly turned down at the corners now leaned forward more relaxed and with a look of childlike ease on their faces. And as his odor reached them, even the faces of the timorous, frightened, and hypersensitive souls who had borne the sight of his former self with horror and beheld his present state with due misgiving now showed traces of amity, indeed of sympathy.

At lecture’s end the entir

e assemblage rose to its feet and broke into frenetic cheering. “Long live the fluidum vitale! Long live Taillade-Espinasse! Hurrah for the fluidal theory! Down with orthodox medicine!”—such were the cries of the learned folk of Montpellier, the most important university town in the south of France, and the marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse experienced the greatest hour of his life.

Grenouille, however, having climbed down from the dais to mingle among the crowd, knew that these ovations were in reality meant for him, for him alone, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille—although not one of those cheering in the hall suspected anything of the sort.


He stayed on in Montpellier for several weeks. He had achieved a certain fame and was invited to salons where he was asked about his life in the cave and about how the marquis had cured him. He had to tell the tale of the robbers over and over, how they had dragged him off, and how the basket was let down, and about the ladder. And every time he added more lovely embellishments and invented new details. And so he gained some facility in speaking—admittedly only a very limited one, since he had never in all his life handled speech well—and, what was even more important to him, a practiced routine for lying.

In essence, he could tell people whatever he wanted. Once they had gained confidence in him—and with the first breath, they gained confidence in him, for they were inhaling his artificial odor—they believed everything. And in time he gained a certain self-assurance in social situations such as he had never known before. This was apparent even in his body. It was as if he had grown. His humpback seemed to disappear. He walked almost completely erect. And when someone spoke to him, he no longer hunched over, but remained erect and returned the look directed at him. Granted, in this short time he did not become a man-of-the-world, no dandy-about-town, no peerless social lion. But his cringing, clumsy manner fell visibly from him, making way for a bearing that was taken for natural modesty or at worst for a slight, inborn shyness that made a sympathetic impression on many gentlemen and many ladies—sophisticated circles in those days had a weakness for everything natural and for a certain unpolished charm.

When March came he packed his things and was off, secretly, so early in the morning that the city gates had only just been opened. He was wearing an inconspicuous brown coat that he had bought secondhand at a market the day before and a shabby hat that covered half his face. No one recognized him, no one saw or noticed him, for he had intentionally gone without his perfume that day. And when around noon the marquis had inquiries made, the watchmen swore by all that’s holy that they had seen all kinds of people leaving the city, but not the caveman, whom they knew and would most certainly have noticed. The marquis then had word spread that with his permission Grenouille had left Montpellier to look after family matters in Paris. Privately he was dreadfully annoyed, for he had intended to take Grenouille on a tour through the whole kingdom, recruiting adherents for his fluidal theory.

After a while he calmed down again, for his own fame had spread without any such tour, almost without any action on his part. A long article about the fluidum letale Taillade appeared in the Journal des Sçavans and even in the Courier de l’Europe and fluidally contaminated patients came from far and wide for him to cure them. In the summer of 1764, he founded the first Lodge of the Vital Fluidum, with 120 members in Montpellier, and established branches in Marseille and Lyon. Then he decided to dare the move to Paris and from there to conquer the entire civilized world with his teachings. But first he wanted to provide a propaganda base for his crusade by accomplishing some heroic fluidal feat, one that would overshadow the cure of the caveman, indeed all other experiments. And in early December he had a company of fearless disciples join him on an expedition to the Pic du Canigou, which was on the same longitude with Paris and was considered the highest mountain in the Pyrenees. Though on the threshold of senescence, the man wanted to be borne to the summit at nine thousand feet and left there in the sheerest, finest vital air for three whole weeks, whereupon, he announced, he would descend from the mountain precisely on Christmas Eve as a strapping lad of twenty.

The disciples gave up shortly beyond Vernet, the last human settlement at the foot of the fearsome mountain. But nothing daunted the marquis. Casting his garments from him in the icy cold and whooping in exultation, he began the climb alone. The last that was seen of him was his silhouette: hands lifted ecstatically to heaven and voice raised in song, he disappeared into the blizzard.

His followers waited in vain that Christmas Eve for the return of the marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse. He returned neither as an old man nor a young one. Nor when early summer came the next year and the most audacious of them went in search of him, scaling the still snowbound summit of the Pic du Canigou, did they find any trace of him, no clothes, no body parts, no bones.

His teachings, however, suffered no damage at all. On the contrary. Soon the legend was abroad that there on the mountain peak he had wedded himself to the eternal fluidum vitale, merging with it and it with him, and now forever floated—invisible but eternally young—above the peaks of the Pyrenees, and whoever climbed up to him would encounter him there and remain untouched by sickness or the process of aging for one full year. Well into the nineteenth century Taillade’s fluidal theory was advocated from many a chair at faculties of medicine and put into therapeutic practice by many an occult society. And even today, on both sides of the Pyrenees, particularly in Perpignan and Figueras, there are secret Tailladic lodges that meet once a year to climb the Pic du Canigou.

There they light a great bonfire, ostensibly for the summer solstice and in honor of St. John—but in reality it is to pay homage to their master, Taillade-Espinasse, and his grand fluidum, and to seek eternal life.

Part Three


Whereas Grenouille had needed seven years for the first stage of his journey through France, he put the second behind him in less than seven days. He no longer avoided busy roads and cities, he made no detours. He had an odor, he had money, he had self-confidence, and he had no time to lose.

By evening of the day he left Montpellier, he had arrived at Le Grau-du-Roi, a small harbor town southwest of Aigues-Mortes, where he boarded a merchant ship for Marseille. In Marseille he did not even leave the harbor, but immediately sought out a ship that brought him farther along the coast to the east. Two days later he was in Toulon, in three more in Cannes. The rest of the way he traveled on foot. He followed a back road that led up into the hills, northward into the interior.

Two hours later he was standing on a rise and before him was spread a valley several miles wide, a kind of basin in the landscape—its surrounding rim made up of gently rising hills and a ridge of steep mountains, its broad bowl covered with fields, gardens, and olive groves. The basin had its own special, intimate climate. Although the sea was so near that one could see it from the tops of the hills, there was nothing maritime, nothing salty and sandy, nothing expansive about this climate; instead, it possessed a secluded tranquillity as if you were many days’ journey distant from the coast. And although to the north the high mountains were covered with snow that would remain for a good while yet, it was not in the least raw or barren and no cold wind blew. Spring was further advanced than in Montpellier. A mild haze lay like a glass bell over the fields. Apricot and almond trees were in bloom, and the warm air was infused with the scent of jonquils.

At the other end of the wide basin, perhaps two miles off, a town lay among—or better, clung to—the rising mountains. From a distance it did not make a particularly grand impression. There was no mighty cathedral towering above the houses, just a little stump of a church steeple, no commanding fortress, no magnificent edifice of note. The walls appeared anything but defiant—here and there the houses spilled out from their limits, especially in the direction of the plain, lending the outskirts a somewhat disheveled look. It was as if the place had been overrun and then retaken so often that it was weary of offering serious resistance to any future intruders—not out o

f weakness, but out of indolence, or maybe even out of a sense of its own strength. It looked as if it had no need to flaunt itself. It reigned above the fragrant basin at its feet, and that seemed to suffice.

This equally homely and self-confident place was the town of Grasse, for decades now the uncontested center for production of and commerce in scents, perfumes, soaps, and oils. Giuseppe Baldini had always uttered the name with enraptured delight. The town was the Rome of scents, the promised land of perfumes, and the man who had not earned his spurs here did not rightfully bear the title of perfumer.

Grenouille gazed very coolly at the town of Grasse. He was not seeking the promised land of perfumers, and his heart did not leap at the sight of this small town clinging to the far slopes. He had come because he knew that he could learn about several techniques for production of scent there better than elsewhere. And he wanted to acquire them, for he needed them for his own purposes. He pulled the flacon with his perfume from his pocket, dabbed himself lightly, and continued on his way. An hour and a half later, around noon, he was in Grasse.

He ate at an inn near the top of the town, on the place aux Aires. The square was divided lengthwise by a brook where tanners washed their hides and afterwards spread them out to dry. The odor was so pungent that many a guest lost his appetite for his meal. But not Grenouille. It was a familiar odor to him; it gave him a sense of security. In every city he always sought out the tanning district first. And then, emerging from that region of stench to explore the other parts of the place, he no longer felt a stranger.

Tags: Patrick Süskind Horror