“That’s not what I mean,” said the wet nurse peevishly, shoving the basket away. “I don’t mean what’s in the diaper. His soil smells, that’s true enough. But it’s the bastard himself, he doesn’t smell.”
“Because he’s healthy,” Terrier cried, “because he’s healthy, that’s why he doesn’t smell! Only sick babies smell, everyone knows that. It’s well known that a child with the pox smells like horse manure, and one with scarlet fever like old apples, and a consumptive child smells like onions. He is healthy, that’s all that’s wrong with him. Do you think he should stink? Do your own children stink?”
“No,” said the wet nurse. “My children smell like human children ought to smell.”
Terrier carefully placed the basket back on the ground, for he could sense rising within him the first waves of his anger at this obstinate female. It was possible that he would need to move both arms more freely as the debate progressed, and he didn’t want the infant to be harmed in the process. But for the present, he knotted his hands behind his back, shoved his tapering belly toward the wet nurse, and asked sharply, “You maintain, then, that you know how a human child—which may I remind you, once it is baptized, is also a child of God—is supposed to smell?”
“Yes,” said the wet nurse.
“And you further maintain that, if it does not smell the way you—you, the wet nurse Jeanne Bussie from the rue Saint-Denis!—think it ought to smell, it is therefore a child of the devil?”
He swung his left hand out from behind his back and menacingly held the question mark of his index finger in her face. The wet nurse thought it over. She was not happy that the conversation had all at once turned into a theological cross-examination, in which she could only be the loser.
“That’s not what I meant to say,” she answered evasively. “You priests will have to decide whether all this has anything to do with the devil or not, Father Terrier. That’s not for such as me to say. I only know one thing: this baby makes my flesh creep because it doesn’t smell the way children ought to smell.”
“Aha,” said Terrier with satisfaction, letting his arm swing away again. “You retract all that about the devil, do you? Good. But now be so kind as to tell me: what does a baby smell like when he smells the way you think he ought to smell? Well?”
“He smells good,” said the wet nurse.
“What do you mean, ‘good’?” Terrier bellowed at her. “Lots of things smell good. A bouquet of lavender smells good. Stew meat smells good. The gardens of Arabia smell good. But what does a baby smell like, is what I want to know.”
The wet nurse hesitated. She knew very well how babies smell, she knew precisely—after all she had fed, tended, cradled, and kissed dozens of them.… She could find them at night with her nose. Why, right at that moment she bore that baby smell clearly in her nose. But never until now had she described it in words.
“Well?” barked Terrier, clicking his fingernails impatiently.
“Well it’s—” the wet nurse began, “it’s not all that easy to say, because … because they don’t smell the same all over, although they smell good all over, Father, you know what I mean? Their feet, for instance, they smell like a smooth, warm stone—or no, more like curds … or like butter, like fresh butter, that’s it exactly. They smell like fresh butter. And their bodies smell like … like a griddle cake that’s been soaked in milk. And their heads, up on top, at the back of the head, where the hair makes a cowlick, there, see where I mean, Father, there where you’ve got nothing left.…” And she tapped the bald spot on the head of the monk, who, struck speechless for a moment by this flood of detailed inanity, had obediently bent his head down. “There, right there, is where they smell best of all. It smells like caramel, it smells so sweet, so wonderful, Father, you have no idea! Once you’ve smelled them there, you love them whether they’re your own or somebody else’s. And that’s how little children have to smell—and no other way. And if they don’t smell like that, if they don’t have any smell at all up there, even less than cold air does, like that little bastard there, then … You can explain it however you like, Father, but I”—and she crossed her arms resolutely beneath her bosom and cast a look of disgust toward the basket at her feet as if it contained toads—“I, Jeanne Bussie, will not take that thing back!”
Father Terrier slowly raised his lowered head and ran his fingers across his bald head a few times as if hoping to put the hair in order, passed his finger beneath his nose as if by accident, and sniffed thoughtfully.
“Like caramel …?” he asked, attempting to find his stern tone again. “Caramel! What do you know about caramel? Have you ever eaten any?”
“Not exactly,” said the wet nurse. “But once I was in a grand mansion in the rue Saint-Honoré and watched how they made it out of melted sugar and cream. It smelled so good that I’ve never forgotten it.”
“Yes, yes. All right,” said Terrier and took his finger from his nose. “But please hold your tongue now! I find it quite exhausting to continue a conversation with you on such a level. I have determined that, for whatever reason, you refuse to nourish any longer the babe put under your care, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, and are returning him herewith to his temporary guardian, the cloister of Saint-Merri. I find that distressing, but I apparently cannot alter the fact. You are discharged.”
With that he grabbed the basket, took one last whiff of that fleeting woolly, warm milkiness, and slammed the door. Then he went to his office.
Father Terrier was an educated man. He had not merely studied theology, but had read the philosophers as well, and had dabbled with botany and alchemy on the side. He had a rather high opinion of his own critical faculties. To be sure, he would never go so far as some—who questioned the miracles, the oracles, the very truth of Holy Scripture—even though the biblical texts could not, strictly speaking, be explained by reason alone, indeed often directly contradicted it. He preferred not to meddle with such problems, they were too discomfiting for him and would only land him in the most agonizing insecurity and disquiet, whereas to make use of one’s reason one truly needed both security and quiet. What he most vigorously did combat, however, were the superstitious notions of the simple folk: witches and fortune-telling cards, the wearing of amulets, the evil eye, exorcisms, hocus-pocus at full moon, and all the other acts they performed—it was really quite depressing to see how such heathenish customs had still not been uprooted a good thousand years after the firm establishment of the Christian religion! And most instances of so-called satanic possession or pacts with the devil proved on closer inspection to be superstitious mummery. Of course, to deny the existence of Satan himself, to doubt his power—Terrier could not go so far as that; ecclesiastical bodies other than one small, ordinary monk were assigned the task of deciding about such matters touching the very foundations of theology. But on the other hand, it was clear as day that when a simple soul like that wet nurse maintained that she had spotted a devilish spirit, the devil himself could not possibly have a hand in it. The very fact that she thought she had spotted him was certain proof that there was nothing devilish to be found, for the devil would certainly never be stupid enough to let himself be unmasked by the wet nurse Jeanne Bussie. And with her nose no less! With the primitive organ of smell, the basest of the senses! As if hell smelled of sulfur and paradise of incense and myrrh! The worst sort of superstition, straight out of the darkest days of paganism, when people still lived like beasts, possessing no keenness of the eye, incapable of distinguishing colors, but presuming to be able to smell blood, to scent the difference between friend and foe, to be smelled out by cannibal giants and werewolves and the Furies, all the while offering their ghastly gods stinking, smoking burnt sacrifices. How repulsive! “The fool sees with his nose” rather than his eyes, they say, and apparently the light of God-given reason would have to shine yet another thousand years before the last remnants of such primitive beliefs were banished.
“Ah yes, and you poor
little child! Innocent creature! Lying in your basket and slumbering away, with no notion of the ugly suspicions raised against you. That impudent woman dared to claim you don’t smell the way, human children are supposed to smell. Well, what do we have to say to that? Poohpeedooh!”
And he rocked the basket gently on his knees, stroking the infant’s head with his finger and repeating “poohpeedooh” from time to time, an expression he thought had a gentle, soothing effect on small children. “You’re supposed to smell like caramel, what nonsense, poohpeedooh!”
After a while he pulled his finger back, held it under his nose and sniffed, but could smell nothing except the choucroute he had eaten at lunch.
He hesitated a moment, looked around him to make sure no one was watching, lifted the basket, lowered his fat nose into it. Expecting to inhale an odor, he sniffed all around the infant’s head, so close to it that the thin reddish baby hair tickled his nostrils. He did not know exactly how babies’ heads were supposed to smell. Certainly not like caramel, that much was clear, since caramel was melted sugar, and how could a baby that until now had drunk only milk smell like melted sugar? It might smell like milk, like wet nurse’s milk. But it didn’t smell like milk. It might smell like hair, like skin and hair and maybe a little bit of baby sweat. And Terrier sniffed with the intention of smelling skin, hair, and a little baby sweat. But he smelled nothing. For the life of him he couldn’t. Apparently an infant has no odor, he thought, that must be it. An infant, assuming it is kept clean, simply doesn’t smell, any more than it speaks, or walks, or writes. Such things come only with age. Strictly speaking, human beings first emit an odor when they reach puberty. That’s how it is, that’s all. Wasn’t it Horace himself who wrote, “The youth is gamy as a buck, the maiden’s fragrance blossoms as does the white narcissus …”?—and the Romans knew all about that! The odor of humans is always a fleshly odor—that is, a sinful odor. How could an infant, which does not yet know sin even in its dreams, have an odor? How could it smell? Poohpeedooh—not a chance of it!
He had placed the basket back on his knees and now rocked it gently. The babe still slept soundly. Its right fist, small and red, stuck out from under the cover and now and then twitched sweetly against his cheek. Terrier smiled and suddenly felt very cozy. For a moment he allowed himself the fantastic thought that he was the father of the child. He had not become a monk, but rather a normal citizen, an up-standing craftsman perhaps, had taken a wife, a warm wife fragrant with milk and wool, and had produced a son with her and he was rocking him here now on his own knees, his own child, poohpoohpoohpeedooh.… The thought of it made him feel good. There was something so normal and right about the idea. A father rocking his son on his knees, poohpeedooh, a vision as old as the world itself and yet always new and normal, as long as the world would exist, ah yes! Terrier felt his heart glow with sentimental coziness.
Then the child awoke. Its nose awoke first. The tiny nose moved, pushed upward, and sniffed. It sucked air in and snorted it back out in short puffs, like an imperfect sneeze. Then the nose wrinkled up, and the child opened its eyes. The eyes were of an uncertain color, between oyster gray and creamy opal white, covered with a kind of slimy film and apparently not very well adapted for sight. Terrier had the impression that they did not even perceive him. But not so the nose. While the child’s dull eyes squinted into the void, the nose seemed to fix on a particular target, and Terrier had the very odd feeling that he himself, his person, Father Terrier, was that target. The tiny wings of flesh around the two tiny holes in the child’s face swelled like a bud opening to bloom. Or rather, like the cups of that small meat-eating plant that was kept in the royal botanical gardens. And like the plant, they seemed to create an eerie suction. It seemed to Terrier as if the child saw him with its nostrils, as if it were staring intently at him, scrutinizing him, more piercingly than eyes could ever do, as if it were using its nose to devour something whole, something that came from him, from Terrier, and that he could not hold that something back or hide it.… The child with no smell was smelling at him shamelessly, that was it! It was establishing his scent! And all at once he felt as if he stank, of sweat and vinegar, of choucroute and unwashed clothes. He felt naked and ugly, as if someone were gaping at him while revealing nothing of himself. The child seemed to be smelling right through his skin, into his innards. His most tender emotions, his filthiest thoughts lay exposed to that greedy little nose, which wasn’t even a proper nose, but only a pug of a nose, a tiny perforated organ, forever crinkling and puffing and quivering. Terrier shuddered. He felt sick to his stomach. He pulled back his own nose as if he smelled something foul that he wanted nothing to do with. Gone was the homey thought that this might be his own flesh and blood. Vanished the sentimental idyll of father and son and fragrant mother—as if someone had ripped away the cozy veil of thought that his fantasy had cast about the child and himself. A strange, cold creature lay there on his knees, a hostile animal, and were he not a man by nature prudent, God-fearing, and given to reason, in the rush of nausea he would have hurled it like a spider from him.
Terrier wrenched himself to his feet and set the basket on the table. He wanted to get rid of the thing, as quickly as possible, right away if possible, immediately if possible.
And then it began to wail. It squinted up its eyes, gaped its gullet wide, and gave a screech so repulsively shrill that the blood in Terrier’s veins congealed. He shook the basket with an outstretched hand and shouted “Poohpeedooh” to silence the child, but it only bellowed more loudly and turned completely blue in the face and looked as if it would burst from bellowing.
Away with it! thought Terrier, away this very instant with this … he was about to say “devil,” but caught himself and refrained … away with this monster, with this insufferable child! But away where? He knew a dozen wet nurses and orphanages in the neighborhood, but that was too near, too close for comfort, get the thing farther away, so far away that you couldn’t hear it, so far away that it could not be dropped on your doorstep again every hour or so; if possible it must be taken to another parish, on the other side of the river would be even better, and best of all extra muros, in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, that was it! That was the place for this screaming brat, far off to the east, beyond the Bastille, where at night the city gates were locked.
And he hitched up his cassock and grabbed the bellowing basket and ran off, ran through the tangle of alleys to the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, eastward up the Seine, out of the city, far, far out the rue de Charonne, almost to its very end, where at an address near the cloister of Madeleine de Trenelle, he knew there lived a certain Madame Gaillard, who took children to board no matter of what age or sort, as long as someone paid for them, and there he handed over the child, still screaming, paid a year in advance, and fled back into the city, and once at the cloister cast his clothes from him as if they were foully soiled, washed himself from head to foot, and crept into bed in his cell, crossing himself repeatedly, praying long, and finally with some relief falling asleep.
Madame Gaillard’s life already lay behind her, though she was not yet thirty years old. To the world she looked as old as her years—and at the same time two, three, a hundred times older, like the mummy of a young girl. But on the inside she was long since dead. When she was a child, her father had struck her across the forehead with a poker, just above the base of the nose, and she had lost for good all sense of smell and every sense of human warmth and human coldness—indeed, every human passion. With that one blow, tenderness had become as foreign to her as enmity, joy as strange as despair. She felt nothing when later she slept with a man, and just as little when she bore her children. She did not grieve over those that died, nor rejoice over those that remained to her. When her husband beat her, she did not flinch, and she felt no sense of relief when he died of cholera in the Hôtel-Dieu. The only two sensations that she was aware of were a very slight depression at the approach of her monthly migraine and a very
slight elevation of mood at its departure. Otherwise, this numbed woman felt nothing.
On the other hand … or perhaps precisely because of her total lack of emotion … Madame Gaillard had a merciless sense of order and justice. She showed no preference for any one of the children entrusted to her nor discriminated against any one of them. She served up three meals a day and not the tiniest snack more. She diapered the little ones three times a day, but only until their second birthday. Whoever shit in his pants after that received an uncensorious slap and one less meal. Exactly one half of the boarding fees were spent for her wards, exactly one half she retained for herself. She did not attempt to increase her profits when prices went down; and in hard times she did not charge a single sol extra, even when it was a matter of life and death. Otherwise her business would have been of no value to her. She needed the money. She had figured it down to the penny. In her old age she wanted to buy an annuity, with just enough beyond that so that she could afford to die at home rather than perish miserably in the Hôtel-Dieu as her husband had. The death itself had left her cold. But she dreaded a communal, public death among hundreds of strangers. She wanted to afford a private death, and for that she needed her full cut of the boarding fees. True, there were winters when three or four of her two dozen little boarders died. Still, her record was considerably better than that of most other private foster mothers and surpassed by far the record of the great public and ecclesiastical orphanages, where the losses often came to nine out of ten. There were plenty of replacements. Paris produced over ten thousand new foundlings, bastards, and orphans a year. Several such losses were quite affordable.