Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - Page 21

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The town council was a committee of thirty of the richest and most influential commoners and nobles in Grasse. The majority of them were enlightened and anticlerical, paid not the least attention to the bishop, and would have preferred to turn the cloisters and abbeys into warehouses or factories. In their distress, the proud, powerful men of the town council condescended to write an abject petition begging the bishop to curse and excommunicate this monster who murdered young girls and yet whom temporal powers could not capture, just as his illustrious predecessor had done in the year 1708, when terrible locusts had threatened the land. And indeed, at the end of September, the slayer of the young women of Grasse, having cut down no fewer than twenty-four of its most beautiful virgins out of every social class, was made anathema and excommunicated both in writing and from all the pulpits of the city, including a ban spoken by the bishop himself from the pulpit of Notre-Dame-du-Puy.

The result was conclusive. From one day to the next, the murders ceased. October and November passed with no corpses. At the start of December, reports came in from Grenoble that a murderer there was strangling young girls, then tearing their clothes to shreds and pulling their hair out by the handfuls. And although these coarse methods in no way squared with the cleanly executed crimes of the Grasse murderer, everyone was convinced that it was one and the same person. In their relief that the beast was no longer among them but instead ravaging Grenoble a good seven days’ journey distant, the citizens of Grasse crossed themselves three times over. They organized a torchlight procession in honor of the bishop and celebrated a mass of thanksgiving on December 24. On January 1, 1766, the tighter security measures were relaxed and the nighttime curfew for women was lifted. Normality returned to public and private life with incredible speed. Fear had melted into thin air, no one spoke of the terror that had ruled both town and countryside only a few months before. Not even the families involved still spoke of it. It was as if the bishop’s curse had not only banned the murderer, but every memory of him. And the people were pleased that it was so.

But any man who still had a daughter just approaching that special age did not, even now, allow her to be without supervision; twilight brought misgivings, and each morning, when he found her healthy and cheerful, he rejoiced—though of course without actually admitting the reason why.

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There was one man in Grasse, however, who did not trust this peace. His name was Antoine Richis, he held the title of second consul, and he lived in a grand residence at the entrance to the rue Droite.

Richis was a widower and had a daughter named Laure. Although not yet forty years old and of undiminished vigor, he intended to put off a second marriage for some time yet. First he wanted to find a husband for his daughter. And not the first comer, either, but a man of rank. There was a baron de Bouyon who had a son and an estate near Vence, a man of good reputation and miserable financial situation, with whom Richis had already concluded a contract concerning the future marriage of their children. Once he had married Laure off, he planned to put out his own courting feelers in the direction of the highly esteemed houses of Drée, Maubert, or Fontmichel—not because he was vain and would be damned if he didn’t get a noble bedmate, but because he wanted to found a dynasty and to put his own posterity on a track leading directly to the highest social and political influence. For that he needed at least two sons, one to take over his business, the other to pursue a law career leading to the parliament in Aix and advancement to the nobility. Given his present rank, however, he could hold out hopes for such success only if he managed intimately to unite his own person and family with provincial nobility.

Only one thing justified such high-soaring plans: his fabulous wealth. Antoine Richis was far and away the wealthiest citizen anywhere around. He possessed latifundia not only in the area of Grasse, where he planted oranges, oil, wheat, and hemp, but also near Vence and over toward Antibes, where he leased out his farms. He owned houses in Aix and houses in the country, owned shares in ships that traded with India, had a permanent office in Genoa, and was the largest wholesaler for scents, spices, oils, and leathers in France.

The most precious thing that Richis possessed, however, was his daughter. She was his only child, just turned sixteen, with auburn hair and green eyes. She had a face so charming that visitors of all ages and both sexes would stand stock-still at the sight of her, unable to pull their eyes away, practically licking that face with their eyes, the way tongues work at ice cream, with that typically stupid, single-minded expression on their faces that goes with concentrated licking. Even Richis would catch himself looking at his daughter for indefinite periods of time, a quarter of an hour, a half hour perhaps, forgetting the rest of the world, even his business—which otherwise did not happen even in his sleep—melting away in contemplation of this magnificent girl and afterwards unable to say what it was he had been doing. And of late—he noticed this with uneasiness—of an evening, when he brought her to her bed or sometimes of a morning when he went in to waken her and she still lay sleeping as if put to rest by God’s own hand and the forms of her hips and breasts were molded in the veil of her nightgown and her breath rose calm and hot from the frame of bosom, contoured shoulder, elbow, and smooth forearm in which she had laid her face—then he would feel an awful cramping in his stomach and his throat would seem too tight and he would swallow and, God help him, would curse himself for being this woman’s father and not some stranger, not some other man, before whom she lay as she lay now before him, and who then without scruple and full of desire could lie down next to her, on her, in her. And he broke out in a sweat, and his arms and legs trembled while he choked down this dreadful lust and bent down to wake her with a chaste fatherly kiss.

During the year just past, at the time of the murders, these fatal temptations had not yet come over him. The magic that his daughter worked on him then—or so at least it seemed to him—had still been a childish magic. And thus he had not been seriously afraid that Laure would be one of the murderer’s victims, since everyone knew that he attacked neither children nor grown women, but exclusively ripening but virginal girls. He had indeed augmented the watch of his home, had had new grilles placed at the windows of the top floor, and had directed Laure’s maid to share her bedchamber with her. But he was loath to send her away as his peers had done with their daughters, some even with their entire families. He found such behavior despicable and unworthy of a member of the town council and second consul, who, he suggested, should be a model of composure, courage, and resolution to his fellow citizens. Besides which, he was a man who did not let his decisions be made for him by other people, nor by a crowd thrown into panic, and certainly not by some anonymous piece of criminal trash. And so all during those terrible days, he had been one of the few people in the town who were immune to the fever of fear and kept a cool head. But, strange to say, this had now changed. While others publicly celebrated the end of the rampage as if the murderer were already hanged and had soon fully forgotten about those dreadful days, fear crept into Antoine Richis’s heart like a foul poison. For a long time he would not admit that it was fear that caused him to delay trips that ought to have been made some time ago, or to be reluctant merely to leave the house, or to break off visits and meetings just so that he could quickly return home. He gave himself the excuse that he was out of sorts or overworked, but admitted as well that he was a bit concerned, as every father with a daughter of marriageable age is concerned, a thoroughly normal concern.… Had not the fame of her beauty already gone out to the wider world? Did not people stretch their necks even now when he accompanied her to church on Sundays? Were not certain gentlemen on the council already making advances, in their own names or in those of their sons …?

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But, then, one day in March, Richis was sitting in the salon and watched as Laure walked out into the garden. She was wearing a blue dress, her red hair falling down over it and blazing in the sunlight—he had never seen her look so beautiful. She

disappeared behind a hedge. And it took about two heartbeats longer than he had expected before she emerged again—and he was frightened to death, for during those two heartbeats he thought he had lost her forever.

That same night he awoke out of a terrifying dream, the details of which he could no longer remember, but it had had to do with Laure, and he burst into her room convinced that she was dead, lay there in her bed murdered, violated, and shorn—and found her unharmed.

He went back to his chamber, bathed in sweat and trembling with agitation, no, not with agitation, but with fear, for he finally admitted it to himself: it was naked fear that had seized him, and in admitting it he grew calmer and his thoughts clearer. To be honest, he had not believed in the efficacy of the bishop’s anathema from the start, nor that the murderer was now prowling about Grenoble, nor that he had ever left town. No, he was still living here, among the citizens of Grasse, and at some point he would strike again. Richis had seen several of the girls murdered during August and September. The sight had horrified him, and at the same time, he had to admit, fascinated him, for they all, each in her own special way, had been of dazzling beauty. He never would have thought that there was so much unrecognized beauty in Grasse. The murderer had opened his eyes. The murderer possessed exquisite taste. And he had a system. It was not just that all the murders had been carried out in the same efficient manner, but the very choice of victims betrayed intentions almost economical in their planning. To be sure, Richis did not know what the murderer actually craved from his victims, since he could not have robbed them of the best that they offered—their beauty and the charm of youth … or could he? In any case, it seemed to him, as absurd as it sounded, that the murderer was not a destructive personality, but rather a careful collector. For if one imagined—and so Richis imagined—all the victims not as single individuals, but as parts of some higher principle and thought of each one’s characteristics as merged in some idealistic fashion into a unifying whole, then the picture assembled out of such mosaic pieces would be the picture of absolute beauty, and the magic that radiated from it would no longer be of human, but of divine origin. (As we can see, Richis was an enlightened thinker who did not shrink from blasphemous conclusions, and though he was not thinking in olfactory categories, but rather in visual ones, he was nevertheless very near the truth.)

Assuming then—Richis continued in his thoughts—that the murderer was just such a collector of beauty and was working on the picture of perfection, even if only in the fantasy of his sick brain; assuming, moreover, that he was the man of sublime taste and perfect methods that he indeed appeared to be—then one could not assume that he would waive claim to the most precious component on earth needed for his picture: the beauty of Laure. His entire previous homicidal work would be worth nothing without her. She was the keystone to his building.

As he drew this horrifying conclusion, Richis was sitting in his nightshirt on the edge of his bed, and he was amazed at how calm he had become. He no longer felt chilled, was no longer trembling. The vague fear that had plagued him for weeks had vanished and was replaced by the awareness of a specific danger: Laure had quite obviously been the goal of all the murderer’s endeavors from the beginning. And all the other murders were adjuncts to the last, crowning murder. It remained quite unclear what material purpose these murders were intended to serve or if they even had one at all. But Richis had perceived the essence of the matter: the murderer’s systematic method and his idealistic motive. The longer he thought about it, the better both of these pleased him and the greater his admiration for the murderer—an admiration, admittedly, that reflected back upon him as would a polished mirror, for after all, it was he, Richis, who had picked up his opponent’s trail with his own refined and analytical powers of reasoning.

If he, Richis, had been the murderer and were himself possessed by the murderer’s passions and ideas, he would not have been able to proceed in any other fashion than had been employed thus far, and like him, he would do his utmost to crown his mad work with the murder of the unique and splendid Laure.

This last thought appealed to him especially. Because he was in the position to put himself inside the mind of the would-be murderer of his daughter, he had made himself vastly superior to the murderer. For all his intelligence, that much was certain, the murderer was not in the position to put himself inside Richis’s mind—if only because he could not even begin to suspect that Richis had long since imagined himself in the murderer’s own situation. This was fundamentally no different from how things worked in business—mutatis mutandis, to be sure. You were master of a competitor whose intentions you had seen through; there was no way he could get the better of you—not if your name was Antoine Richis, and you were a natural fighter, a seasoned fighter. After all, the largest wholesale perfume business in France, his wealth, his office as second consul, these had not fallen into his lap as gracious gifts, but he had fought for them, with doggedness and deceit, recognizing dangers ahead of time, shrewdly guessing his competitors’ plans, and outdistancing his opponents. And in just the same way he would achieve his future goals, power and noble rank for his heirs. And in no other way would he counter the plans of the murderer, his competitor for the possession of Laure—if only because Laure was also the keystone in the edifice of his, of Richis’s, own plans. He loved her, certainly; but he needed her as well. And he would let no one wrest from him whatever it was he needed to realize his own highest ambitions—he would hold on tooth and claw to that.

He felt better now. Having succeeded by these nocturnal deliberations in bringing his struggle with the demon down to the level of a business rivalry, he felt fresh courage, indeed arrogance, take hold of him. The last remnants of fear were gone, the despondency and anxious care that had tormented him into doddering senility had vanished, the fog of gloomy forebodings in which he had tapped about for weeks had lifted. He found himself on familiar terrain and felt himself equal to every challenge.

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Relieved, almost elated, he sprang from his bed, pulled the bell rope, and ordered the drowsy valet who staggered into his room to pack clothes and provisions because at daybreak he intended to set out for Grenoble in the company of his daughter. Then he dressed and chased the rest of the servants from their beds.

In the middle of the night, the house on the rue Droite awoke and bustled with life. The fire blazed up in the kitchen, excited maids scurried along the corridors, servants dashed up and down the stairs, in the vaulted cellars the keys of the steward rattled, in the courtyard torches shone, grooms ran among the horses, others tugged mules from their stalls, there was bridling and saddling and running and loading—one would have almost believed that the Austro-Sardinian hordes were on the march, pillaging and torching, just as in 1746, and that the lord of the manor was mobilizing to flee in panic. Not at all! The lord of the manor was sitting at his office desk, as sovereign as a marshal of France, drinking café au lait, and providing instructions for the constant stream of domestics barging in on him. All the while, he wrote letters to the mayor, to the first consul, to his secretary, to his solicitor, to his banker in Marseille, to the baron de Bouyon, and to diverse business partners.

By around six that morning, he had completed his correspondence and given all the orders necessary to carry out his plans. He tucked away two small traveling pistols, buckled on his money belt, and locked his desk. Then he went to awaken his daughter.

By eight o’clock, the little caravan was on the move. Richis rode at its head; he was a splendid sight in his gold-braided, burgundy coat beneath a black riding coat and black hat with jaunty feathers. He was followed by his daughter, dressed less showily, but so radiantly beautiful that the people along the street and at the windows had eyes only for her, their fervent ah’s and oh’s passing through the crowd while the men doffed their hats—apparently for the second consul, but in reality for her, the regal woman. Then, almost unnoticed, came her maid, then Richis’s valet with two packhorses—the not

oriously bad condition of the road to Grenoble meant that a wagon could not be used—and the end of the parade was drawn up by a dozen mules laden with all sorts of stuff and supervised by two grooms. At the Porte du Cours the watch presented arms and only let them drop when the last mule had tramped by. Children ran behind them for a good little while, waving at the baggage crew as they slowly moved up the steep, winding road into the mountains.

The departure of Antoine Richis and his daughter made a strange but deep impression on people. It was as if they had witnessed some archaic sacrificial procession. The word spread that Richis was going to Grenoble, to the very city where the monster who murdered young girls was now residing. People did not know what to think about that. Did what Richis was doing show criminal negligence or admirable courage? Was he daring or placating the gods? They had only the vague foreboding that they had just seen this beautiful girl with the red hair for the last time. They suspected that Laure Richis might be lost.

This suspicion would prove correct, although the presumptions it was based upon were completely false. Richis was not heading for Grenoble at all. The pompous departure was nothing but a diversionary tactic. A mile and a half northwest of Grasse, near the village of Saint-Vallier, he ordered a halt. He handed his valet letters of attorney and transmittal and ordered him to bring the mule train and grooms to Grenoble by himself.

He, however, turned off with Laure and her maid in the direction of Cabris, where they rested at midday, and then rode straight across the mountains of the Tanneron toward the south. The path was an extremely arduous one, but it allowed them to circumvent Grasse and its basin in a great arc and to arrive on the coast by evening without being recognized.… The following day—according to Richis’s plan—he would ferry across with Laure to the Iles de Lérins, on the smaller of which was located the well-fortified monastery of Saint-Honorat. It was managed by a handful of elderly but quite ablebodied monks whom Richis knew very well, since for years he had bought and resold the monastery’s total production of eucalyptus cordial, pine nuts, and cypress oil. And there in the monastery of Saint-Honorat—which except for the prison of Château d’If and the state prison on the Ile Sainte-Marguerite was probably the safest place in the Provence—he intended to lodge his daughter for the present. But he would immediately return to the mainland, this time circumventing Grasse on the east via Antibes and Cagnes, and arrive in Vence by evening of the same day. He had ordered his secretary to proceed there in order to prepare the agreement with baron de Bouyon concerning the marriage of their children Laure and Alphonse. He hoped to make Bouyon an offer that he could not refuse: assumption of his debts up to forty thousand livres, a dowry consisting of an equal sum as well as diverse landholdings and an oil mill near Maganosc, a yearly income of three thousand livres for the young couple. Richis’s only conditions were that the marriage should take place within ten days and be consummated on the wedding day, and that the couple should thereafter take up residence in Vence.


Tags: Patrick Süskind Horror
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