Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - Page 19

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The yield was frightfully small. The liquid from the matrass filled three little flacons and no more. Nothing was left from the scent of hundreds of thousands of blossoms except those three flacons. But they were worth a fortune, even here in Grasse. And worth how much more once delivered to Paris or Lyon, to Grenoble, Genoa, or Marseille! Madame Arnulfi’s glance was suffused with beauty when she looked at the little bottles, she caressed them with her eyes; and when she picked them up and stoppered them with snugly fitting glass stoppers, she held her breath to prevent even the least bit of the precious contents from being blown away. And to make sure that after stoppering not the tiniest atom would evaporate and escape, she sealed them with wax and encapsulated them in a fish bladder tightly tied around the neck of the bottle. Then she placed them in a crate stuffed with wadded cotton and put them under lock and key in the cellar.

37

In April they macerated broom and orange blossoms, in May a sea of roses, the scent from which submerged the city in a creamy, sweet, invisible fog for a whole month. Grenouille worked like a horse. Self-effacing and as acquiescent as a slave, he did every menial chore Druot assigned him. But all the while he stirred, spatulated, washed out tubs, cleaned the workshop, or lugged firewood with apparent mindlessness, nothing of the essential business, nothing of the metamorphosis of scent, escaped his notice. Grenouille used his nose to observe and monitor more closely than Druot ever could have the migration of scent of the flower petals—through the oil and then via alcohol to the precious little flacons. Long before Druot noticed it, he would smell when the oil was overheated, smell when the blossoms were exhausted, when the broth was impregnated with scent. He could smell what was happening in the interior of the mixing pots and the precise moment when the distilling had to be stopped. And occasionally he let this be known—of course, quite unassumingly and without abandoning his submissive demeanor. It seemed to him, he said, that the oil might possibly be getting too hot; he almost thought that they could filter shortly; he somehow had the feeling that the alcohol in the alembic had evaporated now.… And in time Druot, who was not fabulously intelligent, but not a complete idiot either, came to realize that his decisions turned out for the best when he did or ordered to be done whatever Grenouille “almost thought” or “somehow had a feeling about.” And since Grenouille was never cocky or know-it-all when he said what he thought or felt, and because he never—particularly never in the presence of Madame Arnulfi!—cast Druot’s authority and superior position of first journeyman in doubt, not even ironically, Druot saw no reason not to follow Grenouille’s advice or, as time went on, not to leave more and more decisions entirely to his discretion.

It was increasingly the case that Grenouille did not just do the stirring, but also the feeding, the heating, and the sieving, while Druot stepped round to the Quatre Dauphins for a glass of wine or went upstairs to check out how things were doing with Madame. He knew that he could depend on Grenouille. And although it meant twice the work, Grenouille enjoyed being alone, perfecting himself in these new arts and trying an occasional experiment. And with malicious delight, he discovered that the pomades he made were incomparably finer, that his essence absolue was several percent purer than those that he produced together with Druot.

Jasmine season began at the end of July, August was for tuberoses. The perfume of these two flowers was both so exquisite and so fragile that not only did the blossoms have to be picked before sunrise, but they also demanded the most gentle and special handling. Warmth diminished their scent; suddenly to plunge them into hot, macerating oil would have completely destroyed it. The souls of these noblest of blossoms could not be simply ripped from them, they had to be methodically coaxed away. In a special impregnating room, the flowers were strewn on glass plates smeared with cool oil or wrapped in oil-soaked cloths; there they would die slowly in their sleep. It took three or four days for them to wither and exhale their scent into the adhering oil. Then they were carefully plucked off and new blossoms spread out. This procedure was repeated a good ten, twenty times, and it was September before the pomade had drunk its fill and the fragrant oil could be pressed from the cloths. The yield was considerably less than with maceration. But in purity and verisimilitude, the quality of the jasmine paste or the huile antique de tubéreuse won by such a cold enfleurage exceeded that of any other product of the perfumer’s art. Particularly with jasmine, it seemed as if the oiled surface were a mirror image that radiated the sticky-sweet, erotic scent of the blossom with lifelike fidelity—cum grano salis, of course. For Grenouille’s nose obviously recognized the difference between the odor of the blossoms and their preserved scent: the specific odor of the oil—no matter how pure—lay like a gossamer veil over the fragrant tableau of the original, softening it, gently diluting its bravado—and, perhaps, only then making its beauty bearable for normal people.… But in any case, cold enfleurage was the most refined and effective method to capture delicate scents. There was no better. And even if the method was not good enough completely to satisfy Grenouille’s nose, he knew quite well that it would suffice a thousand times over for duping a world of numbed noses.

Just as with maceration, after only a brief time he had likewise surpassed his tutor Druot in the art of cold perfumery—and had made this clear to him in the approved, discreet, and groveling fashion. Druot gladly left it to him to go to the slaughterhouse and buy the most suitable fats, to purify and render them, to filter them and adjust their proportions—a terribly difficult task that Druot himself was always skittish about performing, since an adulterated or rancid fat, or one that smelled too much of pig, sheep, or cow, could ruin the most expensive pomade. He let Grenouille decide how to arrange the oiled plates in the impregnating room, when to rotate the blossoms, and whether the pomade was sufficiently impregnated. Druot soon let Grenouille make all the delicate decisions that he, just as Baldini before him, could only approximate with rules of thumb, but which Grenouille made by employing the wisdom of his nose—something Druot, of course, did not suspect.

“He’s got a fine touch,” said Druot. “He’s got a good feel for things.” And sometimes he also thought: Really and truly, he is more talented than me, a hundred times a better perfumer. And all the while he considered him to be a total nitwit, because Grenouille—or so he believed—did not cash in at all on his talent, whereas he, Druot, even with his more modest gifts, would soon become a master perfumer. And Grenouille encouraged him in this opinion, displaying doltish drudgery and not a hint of ambition, acting as if he comprehended nothing of his own genius and were merely executing the orders of the more experienced Druot, without whom he would be a cipher. After their fashion, they got along quite well.

Then came autumn and winter. Things were quieter in the workshop. The floral scents lay captive in their crocks and flacons in the cellar, and if Madame did not wish some pomade or other to be washed or for a sack of dried spices to be distilled, there was not all that much to do. There were still the olives, a couple of basketfuls every week. They pressed the virgin oil from them and put what was left through the oil mill. And wine, some of which Grenouille distilled to rectified spirit.

Druot made himself more and more scarce. He did his duty in Madame’s bed, and when he did appear, stinking of sweat and semen, it was only to head off at once for the Quatre Dauphins. Nor did Madame come downstairs often. She was busy with her investments and with converting her wardrobe for the period that would follow her year of mourning. For days, Grenouille might often see no one except the maid who fixed his midday soup and his evening bread and olives. He hardly went out at all. He took part in corporate life—in the regular meetings and processions of the journeymen—only just often enough as to be conspicuous neither by his absence nor by his presence. He had no friends or close acquaintances, but took careful pains not to be considered arrogant or a misfit. He left it to the other journeymen to find his society dull and unprofitable. He was a master in the art of spreading boredom and playing the clu

msy fool—though never so egregiously that people might enjoy making fun of him or use him as the butt of some crude practical joke inside the guild. He succeeded in being considered totally uninteresting. People left him alone. And that was all he wanted.

38

He spent his time in the workshop. He explained to Druot that he was trying to invent a formula for a new cologne. In reality, however, he was experimenting with scents of a very different sort. Although he had used it very sparingly, the perfume that he had mixed in Montpellier was slowly running out. He created a new one. But this time he was not content simply to imitate basic human odor by hastily tossing together some ingredients; he made it a matter of pride to acquire a personal odor, or better yet, a number of personal odors.

First he made an odor for inconspicuousness, a mousy, workaday outfit of odors with the sour, cheesy smell of humankind still present, but only as if exuded into the outside world through a layer of linen and wool garments covering an old man’s dry skin. Bearing this smell, he could move easily among people. The perfume was robust enough to establish the olfactory existence of a human being, but at the same time so discreet that it bothered no one. Using it, Grenouille was not actually present, and yet his presence was justified in the most modest sort of way—a bastard state that was very handy both in the Arnulfi household and on his occasional outings in the town.

On certain occasions, to be sure, this modest scent proved inconvenient. When he had errands to run for Druot or wanted to buy his own civet or a few musk pods from a merchant, he might prove to be so perfectly inconspicuous that he was either ignored and no one waited on him, or was given the wrong item or forgotten while being waited on. For such occasions he had blended a somewhat more redolent, slightly sweaty perfume, one with a few olfactory edges and hooks, that lent him a coarser appearance and made people believe he was in hurry and on urgent business. He also had good success with a deceptive imitation of Druot’s aura seminalis, which he learned to produce by impregnating a piece of oily linen with a paste of fresh duck eggs and fermented wheat flour and used whenever he needed to arouse a certain amount of notice.

Another perfume in his arsenal was a scent for arousing sympathy that proved effective with middle-aged and elderly women. It smelled of watery milk and fresh, soft wood. The effect Grenouille created with it—even when he went out unshaved, scowling, and wrapped in a heavy coat—was of a poor, pale lad in a frayed jacket who simply had to be helped. Once they caught a whiff of him, the market women filled his pockets with nuts and dried pears because he seemed to them so hungry and helpless. And the butcher’s wife, an implacably callous old hag if there ever was one, let him pick out, for free, smelly old scraps of meat and bone, for his odor of innocence touched her mother’s heart. He then took these scraps, digested them directly in alcohol, and used them as the main component for an odor that he applied when he wanted to be avoided and left completely alone. It surrounded him with a slightly nauseating aura, like the rancid breath of an old slattern’s mouth when she awakens. It was so effective that even Druot, hardly a squeamish sort, would automatically turn aside and go in search of fresh air, without any clear knowledge, of course, of what had actually driven him away. And sprinkling a few drops of the repellent on the threshold of his cabin was enough to keep every intruder, human or animal, at a distance.

Protected by these various odors, which he changed like clothes as the situation demanded and which permitted him to move undisturbed in the world of men and to keep his true nature from them, Grenouille devoted himself to his real passion: the subtle pursuit of scent. And because he had a great goal right under his nose and over a year still left to him, he not only went about the task with burning zeal, but he also systematically planned how to sharpen his weapons, polish his techniques, and gradually perfect his methods. He began where he had left off at Baldini’s, with extracting the scent from inert objects: stone, metal, glass, wood, salt, water, air.…

What before had failed so miserably using the crude process of distillation succeeded now, thanks to the strong absorptive powers of oil. Grenouille took a brass doorknob, whose cool, musty, brawny smell he liked, and wrapped it in beef tallow for a few days. And sure enough, when he peeled off the tallow and examined it, it smelled quite clearly like the doorknob, though very faintly. And even after a lavage in alcohol, the odor was still there, infinitely delicate, distant, overshadowed by the vapor of the spirits, and in this world probably perceptible only to Grenouille’s nose—but it was certainly there. And that meant, in principle at least, at his disposal. If he had ten thousand doorknobs and wrapped them in tallow for a thousand days, he could produce a tiny drop of brass-doorknob essence absolue strong enough for anyone to have the indisputable illusion of the original under his nose.

He likewise succeeded with the porous chalky dust from a stone he found in the olive grove before his cabin. He macerated it and extracted a dollop of stone pomade, whose infinitesimal odor gave him indescribable delight. He combined it with other odors taken from all kinds of objects lying around his cabin, and painstakingly reproduced a miniature olfactory model of the olive grove behind the Franciscan cloister. Carrying it about with him bottled up in a tiny flacon, he could resurrect the grove whenever he felt like it.

These were virtuoso odors, executed as wonderful little trifles that of course no one but he could admire or would ever take note of. He was enchanted by their meaningless perfection; and at no time in his life, either before or after, were there moments of such truly innocent happiness as in those days when he playfully and eagerly set about creating fragrant landscapes, still lifes, and studies of individual objects. For he soon moved on to living subjects.

He hunted for winter flies, for maggots, rats, small cats, and drowned them in warm oil. At night he crept into stalls to drape cows, goats, and piglets for a few hours in cloths smeared with oil or to wrap them in greasy bandages. Or he sneaked into sheepfolds and stealthily sheared a lamb and then washed the redolent wool in rectified spirit. At first the results were not very satisfactory. For in contrast to the patient things, doorknobs and stones, animals yielded up their odor only under protest. The pigs scraped off the bandages by rubbing against the posts of their sties. The sheep bleated when he approached them by night with a knife. The cows obstinately shook the greasy cloths from their udders. Some of the beetles that he caught gave off foully stinking secretions while he was trying to work with them, and the rats, probably out of fear, would shit in the olfactorily sensitive pomades. Unlike flowers, the animals he tried to macerate would not yield up their scent without complaints or with only a mute sigh—they fought desperately against death, absolutely did not want to be stirred under, but kicked and struggled, and in their fear of death created large quantities of sweat whose acidity ruined the warm oil. You could not, of course, do sound work under such conditions. The objects would have to be quieted down, and so suddenly that they would have no time to become afraid or to resist. He would have to kill them.

He first tried it with a puppy. He enticed it away from its mother with a piece of meat, all the way from the slaughterhouse to the laboratory, and as the animal panted excitedly and lunged joyfully for the meat in Grenouille’s left hand, he gave one quick, hard blow to the back of its head with a piece of wood he held in his right. Death descended on the puppy so suddenly that the expression of happiness was still on its mouth and in its eyes long after Grenouille had bedded it down in the impregnating room on a grate between two greased plates, where it exuded its pure doggy scent, unadulterated by the sweat of fear. To be sure, one had to be careful! Carcasses, just as plucked blossoms, spoiled quickly. And so Grenouille stood guard over his victim, for about twelve hours, until he noticed that the first wisps of carrion scent—not really unpleasant, but adulterating nevertheless—rose up from the dog’s body. He stopped the enfleurage at once, got rid of the carcass, and put the impregnated oil in a pot, where he carefully rinsed it. He distilled the alcohol down to about a

thimbleful and filled a tiny glass tube with these few remaining drops. The perfume smelled clearly of dog—moist, fresh, tallowy, and a bit pungent. It smelled amazingly like dog. And when Grenouille let the old bitch at the slaughterhouse sniff at it, she broke out in yelps of joy and whimpered and would not take her nose out of the glass tube. Grenouille closed it up tight and put it in his pocket and bore it with him for a long time as a souvenir of his day of triumph, when for the first time he had succeeded in robbing a living creature of its aromatic soul.

Then, very gradually and with utmost caution, he went to work on human beings. At first he stalked them from a safe distance with a wide-meshed net, for he was less concerned with bagging large game than with testing his hunting methods.

Disguised by his faint perfume for inconspicuousness, he mingled with the evening’s guests at the Quatre Dauphins inn and stuck tiny scraps of cloth drenched in oil and grease under the benches and tables and in hidden nooks. A few days later he collected them and put them to the test. And indeed, along with all sorts of kitchen odors, tobacco smoke, and wine smells, they exhaled a little human odor. But it remained very vague and masked, was more the suggestion of general exhalations than a personal odor. A similar mass aura, though purer and more sublimely sweaty, could be gleaned from the cathedral, where on December 24 Grenouille hung his experimental flags under the pews and gathered them in again on the twenty-sixth, after no less than seven masses had been sat through just above them. A ghastly conglomerate of odor was reproduced on the impregnated swatches: anal sweat, menstrual blood, moist hollows of knees, and clenched hands, mixed with the exhaled breath of thousands of hymn-singing and Ave Maria–mumbling throats and the oppressive fumes of incense and myrrh. A horrible concentration of nebulous, amorphous, nauseating odors—and yet unmistakably human.


Tags: Patrick Süskind Horror
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