He spent all that afternoon wandering about the town. It was unbelievably filthy, despite—or perhaps directly because of—all the water that gushed from springs and wells, gurgling down through the town in unchanneled rivulets and brooks, undermining the streets or flooding them with muck. In some neighborhoods the houses stood so close together that only a yard-wide space was left for passage-ways and stairs, forcing pedestrians to jostle one another as they waded through the mire. And even in the squares and along the few broader streets, vehicles could hardly get out of each other’s way.
Nevertheless, however filthy, cramped, and slovenly, the town was bursting with the bustle of commerce. During his tour, Grenouille spotted no less than seven soapworks, a dozen master perfumers and glovers, countless small distilleries, pomade studios, and spice shops, and finally some seven wholesalers in scents.
These were in fact merchants who completely controlled the wholesale supply of scent. One would hardly know it by their houses. The facades to the street looked modestly middle class. But what was stored behind them, in warehouses and in gigantic cellars, in kegs of oil, in stacks of finest lavender soaps, in demijohns of floral colognes, wines, alcohols, in bales of scented leather, in sacks and chests and crates stuffed with spices—Grenouille smelled out every detail through the thickest walls—these were riches beyond those of princes. And when he smelled his way more penetratingly through the prosaic shops and storerooms fronting the streets, he discovered that at the rear of these provincial family homes were buildings of the most luxurious sort. Around small but exquisite gardens, where oleander and palm trees flourished and fountains bordered by ornamental flowers leapt, extended the actual residential wings, usually built in a U-shape toward the south: on the upper floors, bedchambers drenched in sunlight, the walls covered with silk; on the ground floor wainscoted salons and dining rooms, sometimes with terraces built out into the open air, where, just as Baldini had said, people ate from porcelain with golden cutlery. The gentlemen who lived behind these modest sham facades reeked of gold and power, of carefully secured riches, and they reeked of it more strongly than anything Grenouille had smelled thus far on his journey through the provinces.
He stopped and stood for a good while in front of one of these camouflaged palazzi. The house was at the beginning of the rue Droite, a main artery that traversed the whole length of the city, from west to east. It was nothing extraordinary to look at, perhaps the front was a little wider and ampler than its neighbors’, but certainly not imposing. At the gateway stood a wagon from which kegs were being unloaded down a ramp. A second vehicle stood waiting. A man with some papers went into the office, came back out with another man, both of them disappeared through the gateway. Grenouille stood on the opposite side of the street and watched the comings and goings. He was not interested in what was happening. And yet he stood there. Something else was holding him fast.
He closed his eyes and concentrated on the odors that came floating to him from the building across the way. There were the odors of the kegs, vinegar and wine, then the hundredfold heavy odors of the warehouse, then the odors of wealth that the walls exuded like a fine golden sweat, and finally the odors of a garden that had to lie on the far side of the building. It was not easy to catch the delicate scents of the garden, for they came only in thin ribbons from over the house’s gables and down into the street. Grenouille discerned magnolia, hyacinth, daphne, and rhododendron … but there seemed to be something else besides, something in the garden that gave off a fatally wonderful scent, a scent so exquisite that in all his life his nose had never before encountered one like it—or, indeed, only once before.… He had to get closer to that scent.
He considered whether he ought simply to force his way through the gate and onto the premises. But meanwhile so many people had become involved in unloading and inventorying the kegs that he was sure to be noticed. He decided to walk back down the street and find an alley or passageway that would perhaps lead him along the far side of the house. Within a few yards he had reached the town gate at the start of the rue Droite. He walked through it, took a sharp left, and followed the town wall downhill. He had not gone far before he smelled the garden, faintly at first, blended with the air from the fields, but then ever more strongly. Finally he knew that he was very close. The garden bordered on the town wall. It was directly beside him. If he moved back a bit, he could see the top branches of the orange trees just over the wall.
Again he closed his eyes. The scents of the garden descended upon him, their contours as precise and clear as the colored bands of a rainbow. And that one, that precious one, that one that mattered above all else, was among them. Grenouille turned hot with rapture and cold with fear. Blood rushed to his head as if he were a little boy caught red-handed, and then it retreated to his solar plexus, and then rushed up again and retreated again, and he could do nothing to stop it. This attack of scent had come on too suddenly. For a moment, for a breath, for an eternity it seemed to him, time was doubled or had disappeared completely, for he no longer knew whether now was now and here was here, or whether now was not in fact then and here there—that is, the rue des Marais in Paris, September 1753. The scent floating out of the garden was the scent of the redheaded girl he had murdered that night. To have found that scent in this world once again brought tears of bliss to his eyes—and to know that it could not possibly be true frightened him to death.
He was dizzy, he tottered a little and had to support himself against the wall, sinking slowly down against it in a crouch. Collecting himself and gaining control of his senses, he began to inhale the fatal scent in short, less dangerous breaths. And he established that, while the scent from behind the wall bore an extreme resemblance to the scent of the redheaded girl, it was not completely the same. To be sure, it also came from a redheaded girl, there was no doubt of that. In his olfactory imagination, Grenouille saw this girl as if in a picture: she was not sitting still, she was jumping about, warming up and then cooling off, apparently playing some game in which she had to move quickly and then just as quickly stand still—with a second person, by the way, someone with a totally insignificant odor. She had dazzlingly white skin. She had green eyes. She had freckles on her face, neck, and breasts … that is—and Grenouille’s breath stopped for a moment, then he sniffed more vigorously and tried to suppress the memory of the scent of the girl from the rue des Marais—that is, this girl did not even have breasts in the true sense of the word! She barely had the rudimentary start of breasts. Infinitely tender and with hardly any fragrance, sprinkled with freckles, just beginning to expand, perhaps only in the last few days, perhaps in the last few hours, perhaps only just at this moment—such were the little cupped breasts of this girl. In a word: the girl was still a child. But what a child!
The sweat stood out on Grenouille’s forehead. He knew that children did not have an exceptional scent, any more than green buds of flowers before they blossom. This child behind the wall, however, this bud still almost closed tight, which only just now was sending out its first fragrant tips, unnoticed by anyone except by him, Grenouille—this child already had a scent so terrifyingly celestial that once it had unfolded its total glory, it would unleash a perfume such as the world had never smelled before. She already smells better now, Grenouille thought, than that girl did back then in the rue des Marais—not as robust, not as voluminous, but more refined, more richly nuanced, and at the same time more natural. In a year or two this scent will be ripened and take on a gravity that no one, man or woman, will be able to escape. People will be overwhelmed, disarmed, helpless before the magic of this girl, and they will not know why. And because people are stupid and use their noses only for blowing, but believe absolutely anything they see with their eyes, they will say it is because this is a girl with beauty and grace and charm. In their obtuseness, they will praise the evenness of her features, her slender figure, her faultless breasts. And her eyes, they will say, are like emeralds and her teeth like pearls and her lim
bs smooth as ivory—and all those other idiotic comparisons. And they will elect her Queen of the Jasmine, and she will be painted by stupid portraitists, her picture will be ogled, and people will say that she is the most beautiful woman in France. And to the strains of mandolins, youths will howl the nights away sitting beneath her window … rich, fat old men will skid about on their knees begging her father for her hand … and women of every age will sigh at the sight of her and in their sleep dream of looking as alluring as she for just one day. And none of them will know that it is truly not how she looks that has captured them, not her reputed unblemished external beauty, but solely her incomparable, splendid scent! Only he would know that, only Grenouille, he alone. He knew it already in fact.
Ah! He wanted to have that scent! Not in the useless, clumsy fashion by which he had had the scent of the girl in the rue des Marais. For he had merely sucked that into himself and destroyed it in the process. No, he wanted truly to possess the scent of this girl behind the wall; to peel it from her like skin and to make her scent his own. How that was to be done, he did not know yet. But he had two years in which to learn. Ultimately it ought to be no more difficult than robbing a rare flower of its perfume.
He stood up, almost reverently, as if leaving behind something sacred or someone in deep sleep. He moved on, softly, hunched over, so that no one might see him, no one might hear him, no one might be made aware of his precious discovery. And so he fled along the wall to the opposite end of the town, where he finally lost the girl’s scent and reentered by way of the Porte des Fénéants. He stood in the shadow of the buildings. The stinking vapors of the streets made him feel secure and helped him to tame the passions that had overcome him. Within fifteen minutes he had grown perfectly calm again. To start with, he thought, he would not again approach the vicinity of the garden behind the wall. That was not necessary. It excited him too much. The flower would flourish there without his aid, and he knew already in what manner it would flourish. He dared not intoxicate himself with that scent prematurely. He had to throw himself into his work. He had to broaden his knowledge and perfect the techniques of his craft in order to be equipped for the time of harvest. He had a good two years.
Not far from the Porte des Fénéants, in the rue de la Louve, Grenouille discovered a small perfumer’s workshop and asked for a job.
It turned out that the proprietor, maître parfumeur Honoré Arnulfi, had died the winter before and that his widow, a lively, black-haired woman of perhaps thirty, was managing the business alone, with the help of a journeyman.
After complaining at length about the bad times and her own precarious financial situation, Madame Arnulfi declared that she really could not afford a second journeyman, but on the other hand she needed one for all the upcoming work; that she could not possibly put up a second journeyman here in the house, but on the other hand she did have at her disposal a small cabin in an olive grove behind the Franciscan cloister—not ten minutes away—in which a young man of modest needs could sleep in a pinch; further, that as an honest mistress she certainly knew that she was responsible for the physical well-being of her journeymen, but that on the other hand she did not see herself in a position to provide two warm meals a day—in short (as Grenouille had of course smelled for some time already): Madame Arnulfi was a woman of solid prosperity and sound business sense. And since he was not concerned about money and declared himself satisfied with a salary of two francs a week and with the other niggardly provisions, they quickly came to an agreement. The first journeyman was called in, a giant of a man named Druot. Grenouille at once guessed that he regularly shared Madame’s bed and that she apparently did not make certain decisions without first consulting him. With legs spread wide and exuding a cloud of spermy odor, he planted himself before Grenouille, who looked ridiculously frail in the presence of this Hun, and inspected him, looked him straight in the eye—as if this technique would allow him to recognize any improper intentions or a possible rival—finally grinned patronizingly, and signaled his agreement with a nod.
That settled it. Grenouille got a handshake, a cold evening snack, a blanket, and a key to the cabin—a windowless shack that smelled pleasantly of old sheep dung and hay, where he made himself at home as well as he could. The next day he began work for Madame Arnulfi.
It was jonquil season. Madame Arnulfi had the flowers grown on small parcels of land that she owned in the broad basin below the city, or she bought them from farmers, with whom she haggled fiercely over every ounce. The blossoms were delivered very early in the morning, emptied out in the workshop by the basketfuls into massive but lightweight and fragrant piles. Meanwhile, in a large caldron Druot melted pork lard and beef tallow to make a creamy soup into which he pitched shovelfuls of fresh blossoms, while Grenouille constantly had to stir it all with a spatula as long as a broom. They lay on the surface for a moment, like eyes facing instant death, and lost all color the moment the spatula pushed them down into the warm, oily embrace. And at almost the same moment they wilted and withered, and death apparently came so rapidly upon them that they had no choice but to exhale their last fragrant sighs into the very medium that drowned them; for—and Grenouille observed this with indescribable fascination—the more blossoms he stirred under into the caldron, the sweeter the scent of the oil. And it was not that the dead blossoms continued to give off scent there in the oil—no, the oil itself had appropriated the scent of the blossoms.
Now and then the soup got too thick, and they had to pour it quickly through a sieve, freeing it of macerated cadavers to make room for fresh blossoms. Then they dumped and mixed and sieved some more, all day long without pause, for the procedure allowed no delays, until, as evening approached, all the piles of blossoms had passed through the caldron of oil. Then—so that nothing might be wasted—the refuse was steeped in boiling water and wrung out to the last drop in a screw press, yielding still more mildly fragrant oil. The majority of the scent, however, the soul of the sea of blossoms, had remained in the caldron, trapped and preserved in an unsightly, slowly congealing grayish white grease.
The following day, the maceration, as this procedure was called, continued—the caldron was heated once again, the oil melted and fed with new blossoms. This went on for several days, from morning till evening. It was tiring work. Grenouille had arms of lead, calluses on his hands, and pains in his back as he staggered back to his cabin in the evening. Although Druot was at least three times as strong as he, he did not once take a turn at stirring, but was quite content to pour in more feather-light blossoms, to tend the fire, and now and then, because of the heat, to go out for a drink. But Grenouille did not mutiny. He stirred the blossoms into the oil without complaint, from morning till night, and hardly noticed the exertion of stirring, for he was continually fascinated by the process taking place before his eyes and under his nose: the sudden withering of the blossoms and the absorption of their scent.
After a while, Druot would decide that the oil was finally saturated and could absorb no more scent. He would extinguish the fire, sieve the viscous soup one last time, and pour it into stoneware crocks, where almost immediately it solidified to a wonderfully fragrant pomade.
This was the moment for Madame Arnulfi, who came to assay the precious product, to label it, and to record in her books the exact quality and quantity of the yield. After she had personally capped the crocks, had sealed them and borne them to the cool depths of her cellar, she donned her black dress, took out her widow’s veil, and made the rounds of the city’s wholesalers and vendors of perfume. In touching phrases she described to these gentlemen her situation as a woman left all on her own, let them make their offers, compared the prices, sighed, and finally sold—or did not sell. Perfumed pomades, when stored in a cool place, keep for a long time. And when the price leaves something to be desired, who knows, perhaps it will climb again come winter or next spring. Also you had to consider whether instead of selling to these hucksters you ought not to join wit
h other small producers and together ship a load of pomade to Genoa or share in a convoy to the autumn fair in Beaucaire—risky enterprises, to be sure, but extremely profitable when successful. Madame Arnulfi carefully weighed these various possibilities against one another, and sometimes she would indeed sign a contract, selling a portion of her treasure, but hold another portion of it in reserve, and risk negotiating for a third part all on her own. But if during her inquiries she had got the impression that there was a glut on the pomade market and that in the foreseeable future there would be no scarcity to her advantage, she would hurry back home, her veil wafting behind her, and give Druot instructions to subject the whole yield to a lavage and transform it into an essence absolue.
And the pomade would be brought up again from the cellar, carefully warmed in tightly covered pots, diluted with rectified spirits, and thoroughly blended and washed with the help of a built-in stirring apparatus that Grenouille operated. Returned to the cellar, this mixture quickly cooled; the alcohol separated from the congealed oil of the pomade and could be drained off into a bottle. A kind of perfume had been produced, but one of enormous intensity, while the pomade that was left behind had lost most of its fragrance. Thus the fragrance of the blossoms had been transferred to yet another medium. But the operation was still not at an end. After carefully filtering the perfumed alcohol through gauze that retained the least little clump of oil, Druot filled a small alembic and distilled it slowly over a minimum flame. What remained in the matrass was a tiny quantity of a pale-hued liquid that Grenouille knew quite well, but had never smelled in such quality and purity either at Baldini’s or Runel’s: the finest oil of the blossom, its polished scent concentrated a hundred times over to a little puddle of essence absolue. This essence no longer had a sweet fragrance. Its smell was almost painfully intense, pungent, and acrid. And yet one single drop, when dissolved in a quart of alcohol, sufficed to revitalize it and resurrect a whole field of flowers.