Strangely enough, these thoughts did not look toward the future. He did not think of the scent that he would glean in a few hours, nor of the perfume made of the auras of twenty-five maidens, nor of future plans, happiness, and success. No, he thought of his past. He remembered the stations of his life, from Madame Gaillard’s house and the moist, warm woodpile in front of it to his journey today to the little village of La Napoule, which smelled like fish. He thought of Grimal the tanner, of Giuseppe Baldini, of the marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse. He thought of the city of Paris, of its great effluvium, that evil smell of a thousand iridescences; he thought of the redheaded girl in the rue des Marais, of open country, of the spare wind, of forests. He thought, too, of the mountain in the Auvergne—he did not avoid such memories in the least—of his cave, of the air void of human beings. He thought of his dreams. And he thought of all these things with great satisfaction. Yes, it seemed to him as he looked back over it that he was a man to whom fortune had been especially kind, and that fate had led him down some tortuous paths, but that ultimately they had proved to be the right ones—how else would it have been possible for him to have found his way here, into this dark chamber, at the goal of his desires? He was, now that he really considered it, a truly blessed individual!
Feelings of humility and gratitude welled up within him. “I thank you,” he said softly, “I thank you, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, for being what you are!” So touched was he by himself.
Then his eyelids closed—not for sleep, but so that he could surrender himself completely to the peace of this holy night. The peace filled his heart. But it seemed also as if it reigned all about him. He smelled the peaceful sleep of the maid in the adjoining room, the deep contentment of Antoine Richis’s sleep on the other side of the corridor; he smelled the peaceful slumber of the innkeeper and his servants, of the dogs, of the animals in their stalls, of the whole village, and of the sea. The wind had died away. Everything was still. Nothing disturbed the peace.
Once he turned his foot to one side and ever so softly touched Laure’s foot. Not actually her foot, but simply the cloth that enveloped it and beneath that the thin layer of oil drinking up her scent, her glorious scent, his scent.
As the birds began to squawk—that is, a good while before the break of dawn—he got up and finished his task. He threw open the cloth and pulled it from the dead woman like a bandage. The fat peeled off nicely from her skin. Little scraps of it were left hanging only in the smallest crannies, and these he had to scrape off with his spatula. The remaining streaks of pomade he wiped off with her undershirt, using it to rub down her body from head to foot one last time, so thoroughly that even the oil in her own pores pearled from her skin, and with it the last flake and filament of her scent. Only now was she really dead for him, withered away, pale and limp as a fallen petal.
He tossed the undershirt into the large scent-impregnated cloth—the only place where she had life how—placed her nightgown and her hair in it as well, and rolled it all up into a small, firm package that he clamped under his arm. He did not even take the trouble to cover the body on the bed. And although the black of night had already become the blue gray of dawn and objects in the room had begun to regain their contours, he did not cast a single glance at the bed to rest his eyes on her at least once in his life. Her form did not interest him. She no longer existed for him as a body, but only as a disembodied scent. And he was carrying that under his arm, taking it with him.
Softly he swung out over the windowsill and climbed down the ladder. The wind had come up again outside, and the sky was clearing, pouring a cold, dark blue light over the land.
A half hour later, the scullery maid started the fire in the kitchen. As she came out of the house to fetch wood she saw the ladder leaning there, but was still too sleepy to make any rhyme or reason of it. Shortly after six the sun rose. Gigantic and golden red, it lifted up out of the sea between the Iles de Lérins. Not a cloud was in the sky. A radiant spring day had begun.
With his room facing west, Richis did not awaken until seven. He had slept truly splendidly for the first time in months, and contrary to his custom lay there yet another quarter of an hour, stretching and sighing with enjoyment as he listened to the pleasant hubbub rising up from the kitchen below. When he finally did get up and open the window wide, taking in the beautiful weather outside and breathing in the fresh morning air and listening to the sound of the surf, his good mood knew no bounds, and he puckered his lips and whistled a bright melody.
While he dressed, he went on whistling, and was whistling still as he left his room and on winged feet approached the door to his daughter’s room across the hall. He rapped. And rapped again, very softly, so as not to frighten her. There was no answer. He smiled. He could well understand that she was still sleeping.
Carefully he inserted the key in the lock and turned the bolt, softly, very softly, considerately, not wanting to wake her, eager almost to find her still sleeping, wanting to kiss her awake once again—one last time, before he must give her to another man.
The door sprang open, he entered, and the sunlight fell full into his eyes. Everything in the room sparkled, as if it were filled with glittering silver, and for a moment he had to shut his eyes against the pain of it.
When he opened them again, he saw Laure lying on her bed, naked and dead and shorn clean and sparkling white. It was like his nightmare, the one he had dreamt in Grasse the night before last and had forgotten again. Every detail came back to him now as if in a blazing flash. In that instant everything was exactly as it had been in the dream, only very much brighter.
The news of Laure Richis’s murder spread through the region of Grasse as fast as if the message had been “The king is dead!” or “War’s been declared!” or “Pirates have landed on the coast!”—and the awful sense of terror it triggered was similar as well. All at once the fear that they had so carefully forgotten was back again, as virulent as it had been last autumn and with all the accompanying phenomena: panic, outrage, anger, hysterical suspicions, desperation. People stayed in their houses at night, locked up their daughters, barricaded themselves in, mistrusted one another, and slept no more. Everyone assumed it would continue this time as it had before, a murder a week. The calendar seemed to have been set back six months.
The dread was more paralyzing, however, than six months earlier, for people felt helpless at the sudden return of a danger that they had thought well behind them. If even the bishop’s anathema had proved useless! If even Antoine Richis, the great Richis, the richest man in town, the second consul, a powerful, prudent man who had every kind of assistance available, if even he could not protect his child! If the murderer’s hand was not be deterred even by the hallowed beauty of Laure—for indeed she seemed a saint to everyone who had known her, especially now, afterwards, now that she was dead—what hope was there of escaping this murderer? He was more cruel than the plague, for you could flee before the plague, but not before this murderer, as the case of Richis had proved. Apparently he possessed supernatural powers. He was most certainly in league with the devil, if he was not the devil himself. And so many people, especially the simpler souls, knew no better course than to go to church and pray, every tradesman to his patron: the locksmiths to St. Aloysius, the weavers to St. Crispin, the gardeners to St. Anthony, the perfumers to St. Joseph. And they took their wives and daughters with them, praying together, eating and sleeping in the church; they did not leave during the day themselves now, convinced that the only possible refuge from this monster—if any refuge was to be had—was under the protection of the despairing parish and the gaze of the Madonna.
Seeing that the church had failed once already, other, quicker wits banded together in occult groups. Hiring at great expense a certified witch from Gourdon, they crept into one of the many limestone grottoes of subterranean Grasse and celebrated black masses to curry the Old Gentleman’s favor. Still others, in particular members of
the upper middle class and the educated nobility, put their money on the most modern scientific methods, magnetizing their houses, hypnotizing their daughters, gathering in their salons for secret fluidal meetings, and employing telepathy to drive off the murderer’s spirit with communal thought emissions. The guilds organized a penitential procession from Grasse to La Napoule and back. The monks from the town’s five monasteries established services of perpetual prayer and ceaseless chants, so that soon unbroken lamentation was heard day and night, now on one street corner, now on another. Hardly anyone worked.
Thus, with feverish passivity and something very like impatience, the people of Grasse awaited the murderer’s next blow. No one doubted that it would fall. And secretly everyone yearned to hear the horrible news, if only in the hope that it would not be about him, but someone else.
This time, however, the civil, regional, and provincial authorities did not allow themselves to be infected by the hysterical mood of the citizenry. For the first time since the murderer of maidens had appeared on the scene, well-planned and effective cooperative efforts were instituted among the prefectures of Grasse, Draguignan, and Toulon, among magistrates, police, commissaries, parliament, and the navy.
This cooperation among the powerful arose partly from fear of a general civil uprising, partly from the fact that only since Laure Richis’s murder did they have clues that made systematic pursuit of the murderer possible for the first time. The murderer had been seen. Obviously they were dealing with the ominous journeyman tanner who had spent the night of the murder in the inn stables and disappeared the next morning without a trace. According to the joint testimony of the innkeeper, the groom, and Richis, he was a nondescript, shortish fellow with a brownish coat and a coarse linen knapsack. Although in other respects the recollections of the three witnesses remained unusually vague—they had been unable to describe the man’s face, hair color, or manner of speech—the innkeeper did add that, if he was not mistaken, he had noticed something awkward or limping about the stranger’s posture and gait, as if he had a wounded leg or a crippled foot.
Armed with these clues, two mounted troops had taken up pursuit of the murderer by noon of the same day, following the Maréchaussée in the direction of Marseille—one along the coast, the other taking the inland road. The environs of La Napoule were combed by volunteers. Two commissioners from the provincial court at Grasse traveled to Nice to make inquiries about journeyman tanners. All ships departing from the ports of Fréjus, Cannes, and Antibes were checked; the roads leading across the border into Savoy were blocked and travelers required to identify themselves. For those who could read, an arrest warrant and description of the culprit appeared on all the town gates of Grasse, Vence, and Gourdon, and on village church doors. Town criers made three announcements daily. The report of a suspected clubfoot, of course, merely confirmed the view that the culprit was none other than the devil himself and tended more to arouse panic among the populace than to bring in useful information.
But only after the presiding judge of the court in Grasse had, on Richis’s behalf, offered a reward of no less than two hundred livres for information leading to the apprehension of the murderer did denunciations bring about the arrest of several journeyman tanners in Grasse, Opio, and Gourdon—one of whom indeed had the rotten luck of limping. They were already considering subjecting the man to torture despite a solid alibi supported by several witnesses, when, ten days after the murder, a man from the city watch appeared at the magistrate’s office and gave the following deposition: At noon on the day in question, he, Gabriel Tagliasco, captain of the guard, while engaged in his customary duties at the Porte du Cours, had been approached by an individual, who, as he now realized, fit the description in the warrant almost exactly, and had been questioned repeatedly and insistently concerning the road by which the second consul and his caravan had departed the city that same morning. He had ascribed no importance to the incident, neither then nor later, and would most certainly have been unable to recall the individual purely on the basis of his own memory—so thoroughly unremarkable was the man—had he not seen him by chance only yesterday, right here in Grasse, in the rue de la Louve, in front of the studio of Maître Druot and Madame Arnulfi, on which occasion he had noticed that as the man walked back into the workshop he had a definite limp.
Grenouille was arrested an hour later. The innkeeper and his groom from La Napoule, who were in Grasse to identify the other suspects, immediately recognized him as the journeyman tanner who had spent the night with them: it was he, and no other—this must be the wanted murderer.
They searched the workshop, they searched the cabin in the olive grove behind the Franciscan cloister. In one corner, hardly hidden, lay the shredded nightgown, the undershirt, and the red hair of Laure Richis. And when they dug up the floor, piece by piece the clothes and hair of the other twenty-four girls came to light. The wooden club used to kill the victims was found, and the linen knapsack. The evidence was overwhelming. The order was given to toll the church bells. The presiding judge announced by proclamation and public notice that the infamous murderer of young girls, sought now for almost one year, had finally been captured and was in custody.
At first people did not believe the report. They assumed it was a ruse by which the officials were covering up their own incompetence and attempting to calm the dangerously explosive mood of the populace. People remembered only too well when the word had been that the murderer had departed for Grenoble. This time fear had set its jaws too firmly into their souls.
Not until the next day, when the evidence was displayed on the church square in front of the provost court—and it was a ghastly sight to behold, twenty-five garments with twenty-five crops of hair, all mounted like scarecrows on poles set up across the top of the square opposite the cathedral—did public opinion change.
Hundreds of people filed by the macabre gallery. The victims’ relatives would recognize the clothes and collapse screaming. The rest of the crowd, partly because they were sensation seekers, partly because they wanted to be totally convinced, demanded to see the murderer. The call soon became so loud, the unrest of the churning crowd in the small square so menacing, that the presiding judge decided to have Grenouille brought up out of his cell and to exhibit him at the window on the second floor of the provost court.
As Grenouille appeared at the window, the roar turned to silence. All at once it was as totally quiet as if this were noon on a hot summer day, when everyone is out in the fields or has crept into the shade of his own home. Not a footfall, not a cough, not a breath was to be heard. The crowd was all eyes and one mouth agape, for minutes on end. Not a soul could comprehend how this short, paltry, stoop-shouldered man there at the window—this mediocrity, this miserable nonentity, this cipher—could have committed more than two dozen murders. He simply did not look like a murderer. No one could have said just how he had imagined the murderer, the devil himself, ought to look, but they were all agreed: not like this! And nevertheless—although the murderer did not in the least match their conception, and the exhibition, one would presume, could not have been less convincing—simply because of the physical reality of this man at the window, because he and no other was presented to them as the murderer, the effect was paradoxically persuasive. They all thought: It simply can’t be true!—and at the very same moment knew that it had to be true.
To be sure, only after the guards had led the mannikin back into the shadows of the room, only after he was no longer present and visible but existed, if for the briefest time, merely as a memory, one might almost say as a concept, the concept of an abominable murderer within people’s brains, only then did the crowd’s bewilderment subside and make away for an appropriate reaction: the mouths closed tight, the thousand eyes came alive again. And then there rang out as if in one voice a thundering cry of rage and revenge: “We want him!” And they set about to storm the provost court, to strangle him with their own hands, to tear him apart and sc
atter the pieces. It was all the guards could do to barricade the gate and force the mob back. Grenouille was promptly returned to his dungeon. The presiding judge appeared at the window and promised a trial remarkable for its swift and implacable justice. It took several hours, however, for the crowd to disperse, and several days for the town to quiet down to any extent.
The proceedings against Grenouille did indeed move at an extraordinarily rapid pace, not only because the evidence was overwhelming, but also because the accused himself freely confessed to all the murders charged against him.
But when asked about his motives, he had no convincing answer to give them. His repeated reply was that he had needed the girls and that was why he had slain them. What had he needed them for or what was that supposed to mean, “he needed them”?—to that he was silent. They then subjected him to torture, hanged him by his feet for hours, pumped him full of seven pints of water, put clamps on his feet—without the least success. The man seemed immune to physical pain, did not utter a sound, and when questioned again replied with nothing more than: “I needed them.” The judges considered him insane. They discontinued the torture and decided to bring the case to an end without further interrogation.