Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - Page 20

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Grenouille garnered his first individual odor in the Hôpital de la Charité. He managed to pilfer sheets that were supposed to be burned because the journeyman sackmaker who had lain wrapped in them for two months had just died of consumption. The cloth was so drenched in the exudations of the sackmaker that it had absorbed them like an enfleurage paste and could be directly subjected to lavage. The result was eerie: right under Grenouille’s nose, the sackmaker rose olfactorily from the dead, ascending from the alcohol solution, hovering there—the phantom slightly distorted by the peculiar methods of reproduction and the countless miasmas of his disease—but perfectly recognizable in space as an olfactory personage. A small man of about thirty, blond, with a bulbous nose, short limbs, flat, cheesy feet, swollen genitalia, choleric temperament, and a stale mouth odor—not a handsome man, aromatically speaking, this sackmaker, not worth being held on to for any length of time, like the puppy. And yet for one whole night Grenouille let the scent-specter flutter about his cabin while he sniffed at him again and again, happy and deeply satisfied with the sense of power that he had won over the aura of another human being. He poured it out the next day.

He tried one more experiment during these winter days. He discovered a deaf-mute beggar woman wandering through the town and paid her one franc to wear several different sets of rags smeared with oils and fats against her naked skin. It turned out that lamb suet, pork lard, and beef tallow, rendered many times over, combined in a ratio of two to five to three—with the addition of a small amount of virgin oil—was best for absorbing human odor.

Grenouille let it go at that. He refrained from overpowering some whole, live person and processing him or her perfumatorily. That sort of thing would have meant risks and would have resulted in no new knowledge. He knew he now was master of the techniques needed to rob a human of his or her scent, and he knew it was unnecessary to prove this fact anew.

Indeed, human odor was of no importance to him whatever. He could imitate human odor quite well enough with surrogates. What he coveted was the odor of certain human beings: that is, those rare humans who inspire love. These were his victims.


In January the widow Arnulfi married her first journeyman, Dominique Druot, who was thus promoted to maître gantier et parfumeur. There was a great banquet for the guild masters and a more modest one for the journeymen; Madame bought a new mattress for her bed, which she now shared officially with Druot, and took her gay finery from the armoire. Otherwise, everything remained as it was. She retained the fine old name of Arnulfi and retained her fortune for herself, as well as the management of the finances and the keys to the cellar; Druot fulfilled his sexual duties daily and refreshed himself afterwards with wine; and although he was now the one and only journeyman, Grenouille took care of most of the work at hand in return for the same small salary, frugal board, and cramped quarters.

The year began with a yellow flood of cassias, then hyacinths, violet petals, and narcotic narcissus. One Sunday in March—it was about a year now since his arrival in Grasse—Grenouille set out to see how things stood in the garden behind the wall at the other end of town. He was ready for the scent this time, knew more or less exactly what awaited him … and nevertheless, as he caught a whiff of it, at the Porte Neuve, no more than halfway to the spot beside the wall, his heart beat more loudly and he felt the blood in his veins tingle with pleasure: she was still there, the incomparably beautiful flower, she had survived the winter unblemished, her sap was running, she was growing, expanding, driving forth the most exquisite ranks of buds! Her scent had grown stronger, just as he had expected, without losing any of its delicacy. What a year before had been sprinkled and dappled about was now blended into a faint, smooth stream of scent that shimmered with a thousand colors and yet bound each color to it and did not break. And this stream, Grenouille recognized blissfully, was fed by a spring that grew ever fuller. Another year, just one more year, just twelve more months, and that spring would gush over, and he could come to cap it and imprison the wild flow of its scent.

He walked along the wall to the spot behind which he knew the garden was located. Although the girl was apparently not in the garden but in the house, in her room behind closed windows, her scent floated down to him like a steady, gentle breeze. Grenouille stood quite still. He was not intoxicated or dizzy as he had been the first time he had smelled it. He was filled with the happiness of a lover who has heard or seen his darling from afar and knows that he will bring her home within the year. It was really true—Grenouille, the solitary tick, the abomination, Grenouille the Monster, who had never felt love and would never be able to inspire it, stood there beside the city wall of Grasse on that day in March and loved and was profoundly happy in his love.

True, he did not love another human being, certainly not the girl who lived in the house beyond the wall. He loved her scent—that alone, nothing else, and only inasmuch as it would one day be his alone. He would bring it home within the year, he swore it by his very life. And after this strange oath, or betrothal, this promise of loyalty given to himself and to his future scent, he left the place light of heart and returned to town through the Porte du Cours.

That night, as he lay in his cabin, he conjured up the memory of the scent—he could not resist the temptation—and immersed himself in it, caressed it, and let it caress him, so near to it, as fabulously close as if he possessed it already in reality, his scent, his own scent; and he made love to it and to himself through it for an intoxicatingly, deliciously long time. He wanted this self-loved feeling to accompany him in his sleep. But at the very instant when he closed his eyes, in the moment of the single breath it takes to fall asleep, it deserted him, was suddenly gone, and in its place the room was filled with the cold, acrid smell of goat stall.

Grenouille was terrified. What happens, he thought, if the scent, once I possess it … what happens if it runs out? It’s not the same as it is in your memory, where all scents are indestructible. The real thing gets used up in this world. It’s transient. And by the time it has been used up, the source I took it from will no longer exist. And I will be as naked as before and will have to get along with surrogates, just like before. No, it will be even worse than before! For in the meantime I will have known it and possessed it, my own splendid scent, and I will not be able to forget it, because I never forget a scent. And for the rest of my life I will feed on it in my memory, just as I was feeding right now from the premonition of what I will possess.… What do I need it for at all?

This was a most unpleasant thought for Grenouille. It frightened him beyond measure to think that once he did possess the scent that he did not yet possess, he must inevitably lose it. How long could he keep it? A few days? A few weeks? Perhaps a whole month, if he perfumed himself very sparingly with it? And then? He saw himself shaking the last drops from the bottle, rinsing the flacon with alcohol so that the last little bit would not be lost, and then he saw, smelled, how his beloved scent would vanish in the air, irrevocably, forever. It would be like a long slow death, a kind of suffocation in reverse, an agonizing gradual self-evaporation into the wretched world.

He felt chilled. He was overcome with a desire to abandon his plans, to walk out into the night and disappear. He would wander across the snow-covered mountains, not pausing to rest, hundreds of miles into the Auvergne, and there creep into his old cave and fall asleep and die. But he did not do it. He sat there and did not yield to his desire, although it was strong. He did not yield, because that desire was an old one of his, to run away and hide in a cave. He knew about that already. What he did not yet know was what it was like to possess a human scent as splendid as the scent of the girl behind the wall. And even knowing that to possess that scent he must pay the terrible price of losing it again, the very possession and the loss seemed to him more desirable than a prosaic renunciation of both. For he had renounced things all his life. But never once had he possessed and lost.

Gradually the doubts receded and

with them the chill. He sensed how the warmth of his blood revitalized him and how the will to do what he had intended to do again took possession of him. Even more powerfully than before in fact, for that will no longer originated from simple lust, but equally from a well-considered decision. Grenouille the tick, presented the choice between drying up inside himself or letting himself drop, had decided for the latter, knowing full well that this drop would be his last. He lay back on his makeshift bed, cozy in his straw, cozy under his blanket, and thought himself very heroic.

Grenouille would not have been Grenouille, however, if he had long been content with a fatalist’s heroic feelings. His will to survive and conquer was too tough, his nature too cunning, his spirit too crafty for that. Fine—he had decided to possess the scent of the girl behind the wall. And if he lost it again after a few weeks and died of the loss, that was fine too. But better yet would be not to die and still possess the scent, or at least to delay its loss as long as humanly possible. One simply had to preserve it better. One must subdue its evanescence without robbing it of its character—a problem of the perfumer’s art.

There are scents that linger for decades. A cupboard rubbed with musk, a piece of leather drenched with cinnamon oil, a glob of ambergris, a cedar chest—they all possess virtually eternal olfactory life. While other things—lime oil, bergamot, jonquil and tuberose extracts, and many floral scents—evaporate within a few hours if they are exposed to the air in a pure, unbound form. The perfumer counteracts this fatal circumstance by binding scents that are too volatile, by putting them in chains, so to speak, taming their urge for freedom—though his art consists of leaving enough slack in the chains for the odor seemingly to preserve its freedom, even when it is tied so deftly that it cannot flee. Grenouille had once succeeded in performing this feat perfectly with some tuberose oil, whose ephemeral scent he had chained with tiny quantities of civet, vanilla, labdanum, and cypress—only then did it truly come into its own. Why should not something similar be possible with the scent of this girl? Why should he have to use, to waste, this most precious and fragile of all scents in pure form? How crude! How extraordinarily unsophisticated! Did one leave diamonds uncut? Did one wear gold in nuggets around one’s neck? Was he, Grenouille, a primitive pillager of scents like Druot or these other maceraters, distillers, and blossom crushers? Or was he not, rather, the greatest perfumer in the world?

He banged his fist against his brow—to think he had not realized this before. But of course this unique scent could not be used in a raw state. He must set it like the most precious gemstone. He must design a diadem of scent, and at its sublime acme, intertwined with the other scents and yet ruling over them, his scent would gleam. He would make a perfume using all the precepts of the art, and the scent of the girl behind the wall would be the very soul of it.

As the adjuvants, as bass, tenor, and soprano, as zenith and as fixative, musk and civet, attar of roses or neroli were inappropriate—that was certain. For such a perfume, for a human perfume, he had need of other ingredients.


In May of that same year, the naked body of a fifteen-year-old girl was found in a rose field, halfway between Grasse and the hamlet of Opio east of town. She had been killed by a heavy blow to the back of the head. The farmer who discovered her was so disconcerted by the gruesome sight that he almost ended up a suspect himself, when in a quivering voice he told the police lieutenant that he had never seen anything so beautiful—when he had really wanted to say that he had never seen anything so awful.

She was indeed a girl of exquisite beauty. She was one of those languid women made of dark honey, smooth and sweet and terribly sticky, who take control of a room with a syrupy gesture, a toss of the hair, a single slow whiplash of the eyes—and all the while remain as still as the center of a hurricane, apparently unaware of the force of gravity by which they irresistibly attract to themselves the yearnings and the souls of both men and women. And she was young, so very young, that the flow of her allure had not yet grown viscous. Her full limbs were still smooth and solid, her breasts plump and pert as hard-boiled eggs, and the planes of her face, brushed by her heavy black hair, still had the most delicate contours and secret places. Her hair, however, was gone. The murderer had cut it off and taken it with him, along with her clothes.

People suspected the gypsies. Gypsies were capable of anything. Gypsies were known to weave carpets out of old clothes and to stuff their pillows with human hair and to make dolls out of the skin and teeth of the hanged. Only gypsies could be involved in such a perverse crime. There were, however, no gypsies around at the time, not a one near or far; gypsies had last come through the area in December.

For lack of gypsies, people decided to suspect the Italian migrant workers. But there weren’t any Italians around either, it was too early in the year for them; they would first arrive in the region in June, at the time of the jasmine harvest, so it could not have been the Italians either. Finally the wig-makers came under suspicion, and they were searched for the hair of the murdered girl. To no avail. Then it was the Jews who were suspect, then the monks of the Benedictine cloister, reputedly a lecherous lot—although all of them were well over seventy—then the Cistercians, then the Freemasons, then the lunatics from the Charité, then the charcoal burners, then the beggars, and last but not least the nobility, in particular the marquis of Cabris, for he had already been married three times and organized—so it was said—orgiastic black masses in his cellars, where he drank the blood of virgins to increase his potency. Of course nothing definite could be proved. No one had witnessed the murder, the clothes and hair of the dead woman were not found. After several weeks the police lieutenant halted his investigation.

In mid-June the Italians arrived, many with families, to hire themselves out as pickers. The farmers put them to work as usual, but, with the murder still on their minds, forbade their wives and daughters to have anything to do with them. You couldn’t be too cautious. For although the migrant workers were in fact not responsible for the actual murder, they could have been responsible for it on principle, and so it was better to be on one’s guard.

Not long after the beginning of the jasmine harvest, two more murders occurred. Again the victims were very lovely young girls, again of the languid, raven-haired sort, again they were found naked and shorn and lying in a flower field with the backs of their heads bludgeoned. Again there was no trace of the perpetrator. The news spread like wildfire, and there was a threat that hostile action might be taken against the migrants—when it was learned that both victims were Italians, the daughters of a Genoese day laborer.

And now fear spread over the countryside. People no longer knew against whom to direct their impotent rage. Although there were still those who suspected the lunatics or the cryptic marquis, no one really believed that, for the former were under guard day and night, and the latter had long since departed for Paris. So people huddled closer together. The farmers opened up their barns for the migrants, who until then had slept in the open fields. The townsfolk set up nightly patrols in every neighborhood. The police lieutenant reinforced the watch at the gates. But all these measures proved useless. A few days after the double murder, they found the body of yet another girl, abused in the same manner as the others. This time it was a Sardinian washer-woman from the bishop’s palace; she had been struck down near the great basin of the Fontaine de la Foux, directly before the gates of the town. And although at the insistence of the citizenry the consuls initiated still further measures—the tightest possible control at the gates, a reinforced night-watch, a curfew for all female persons after nightfall—all that summer not a single week went by when the body of a young girl was not discovered. And they were always girls just approaching womanhood, and always very beautiful and usually dark, sugary types. Soon, however, the murderer was no longer rejecting the type of girl more common among the local population: soft, pale-skinned, and somewhat more full-bodied. Even brown-haired girls and some dark blondes—

as long as they weren’t too skinny—were among the later victims. He tracked them down everywhere, not just in the open country around Grasse, but in the town itself, right in their homes. The daughter of a carpenter was found slain in her own room on the fifth floor, and no one in the house had heard the least noise, and although the dogs normally yelped the moment they picked up the scent of any stranger, not one of them had barked. The murderer seemed impalpable, incorporeal, like a ghost.

People were outraged and reviled the authorities. The least rumor caused mob scenes. A traveling salesman of love potions and other nostrums was almost massacred, for word spread that one of the ingredients in his remedies was female hair. Fires were set at both the Cabris mansion and the Hôpital de la Charité. A servant returning home one night was shot down by his own master, the woolen draper Alexandre Misnard, who mistook him for the infamous murderer of young girls. Whoever could afford it sent his adolescent daughters to distant relatives or to boarding schools in Nice, Aix, or Marseille. The police lieutenant was removed from office at the insistence of the town council. His successor had the college of medicine examine the bodies of the shorn beauties to determine the state of their virginity. It was found that they had all remained untouched.

Strangely enough, this knowledge only increased the sense of horror, for everyone had secretly assumed that the girls had been ravished. People had at least known the murderer’s motive. Now they knew nothing at all, they were totally perplexed. And whoever believed in God sought succor in the prayer that at least his own house should be spared this visitation from hell.

Tags: Patrick Süskind Horror