Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - Page 24

Listen Audio

The only delay that occurred after that was a legal squabble with the magistrate of Draguignan, in whose jurisdiction La Napoule was located, and with the parliament in Aix, both of whom wanted to take over the trial themselves. But the judges of Grasse would not let the matter be wrested from them now. They were the ones who had arrested the culprit, the overwhelming majority of the murders had been committed in the area under their jurisdiction, and if they handed the murderer over to another court, there was the threat of the pent-up anger of the citizenry. His blood would have to flow in Grasse.

On April 15, 1766, a verdict was rendered and read to the accused in his cell: “The journeyman perfumer, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille,” it stated, “shall within the next forty-eight hours be led out to the parade ground before the city gates and there be bound to a wooden cross, his face toward heaven, and while still alive be dealt twelve blows with an iron rod, breaking the joints of his arms, legs, hips, and shoulders, and then, still bound to the cross, be raised up to hang until death.” The customary act of mercy, by which the offender was strangled with a cord once his body had been crushed, was expressly forbidden the executioner, even if the agonies of death should take days. The body was to be buried by night in an unmarked grave in the knacker’s yard.

Grenouille received the verdict without emotion. The bailiff asked him if he had a last wish. “No, nothing,” Grenouille said; he had everything he needed.

A priest entered the cell to hear his confession, but came out again after fifteen minutes with nothing accomplished. When he had mentioned the name of God, the condemned man had looked at him with total incomprehension, as if he had heard the name for the first time, had then stretched out on his plank bed and sunk at once into a deep sleep. To have said another word would have been pointless.

During the next two days, many people came to see the famous murderer at close range. The guards let them peek through the shutter in the door and demanded six sol per peek. An etcher, who wanted to prepare a sketch, had to pay two francs. His subject, however, was rather a disappointment. The prisoner, bound at his wrists and ankles, lay on his plank bed the whole time and slept. His face was turned to the wall, and he responded to neither knocks nor shouts. Visitors were strictly banned from the cell, and despite some tempting offers, the guards did not dare disregard this prohibition. It was feared the prisoner might be murdered ahead of time by a relative of one of his victims. For the same reason no one was allowed to offer him food. It might have been poisoned. During the whole period of imprisonment, Grenouille’s food came from the servants’ kitchen in the bishop’s palace and had first to be tasted by the prison warden. The last two days, however, he ate nothing at all. He lay on his bed and slept. Occasionally his chains rattled, and if the guard hurried over to the shutter, he could watch Grenouille take a drink from his canteen, then throw himself back on his plank bed, and go back to sleep. It seemed as if the man was so tired of life that he did not want to experience his last hours awake.

Meanwhile the parade grounds were readied for the execution. Carpenters built a scaffold, nine feet by nine feet square and six feet high, with a railing and a sturdy set of stairs—Grasse had never had one as fine as this. Plus a wooden grandstand for local notables and a fence to separate them from the common people, who were to be kept at some distance. In the buildings to the left and right of the Porte du Cours and in the guardhouse itself, places at the windows had long since been rented out at exorbitant rates. The executioner’s assistants had even leased the rooms of the patients in the Charité, which was located off to one side, and resold them to curious spectators at a handsome profit. The lemonade vendors stocked up with pitcherfuls of licorice water, the etcher printed up several hundred copies of the sketch he had made of the murderer in prison—touched up a bit from his own imagination—itinerant peddlers streamed into town by the dozens, the bakers baked souvenir cookies.

The executioner, Monsieur Papon, who had not had an offender to smash for years now, had a heavy, squared iron rod forged for him and went off to the slaughterhouse to practice blows on carcasses. He was permitted only twelve hits, and he had to strike true, crushing all twelve joints without damaging the vital body parts, like the chest or head—a difficult business that demanded a fine touch and good timing.

The citizens readied themselves for the event as if for a high holiday. That there would be no work that day went without saying. The women ironed their holiday dresses, the men dusted off their frock coats and had their boots polished to a high gloss. Whoever held military rank or occupied public office, whoever was a guild master, an attorney-at-law, a notary, a head of a fraternal order, or held any other position of importance, donned his uniform or official garb, along with his medals, sashes, chains, and periwig powdered to a chalky white. Pious folk intended to assemble immediately afterwards for religious services, the disciples of Satan planned a hearty Luciferian mass of thanksgiving, the educated aristocracy were going to gather for magnetic séances at the manors of the Cabris, Villeneuves, and Fontmichels. The roasting and baking had begun in the kitchens, the wine had been fetched from the cellars, the floral displays from the market, and the organist and choir were practicing in the cathedral.

In the Richis household on the rue Droite everything remained quiet. Richis had forbidden any preparations for the “Day of Liberation,” as people were calling the murderer’s execution day. It all disgusted him. The sudden eruption of renewed fear among the populace had disgusted him, their feverish joy of anticipation disgusted him. The people themselves, every one of them, disgusted him. He had not participated in the presentation of the culprit and his victims in the cathedral square, nor in the trial, nor in the obscene procession of sensation seekers filing past the cell of the condemned man. He had requested that the court come to his home for him to identify his daughter’s hair and clothing, had given his testimony briefly and calmly, and had asked that they leave him those items as keepsakes, which they did. He carried them to Laure’s room, laid the shredded nightgown and undershirt on her bed, spread the red hair over the pillow, sat down beside them, and did not leave the room again day or night, as if by pointlessly standing guard now, he could make good what he had neglected to do that night in La Napoule. He was so full of disgust, disgust at the world and at himself, that he could not weep.

He was also disgusted by the murderer. He did not want to regard him as a human being, but only as a victim to be slaughtered. He did not want to see him until the execution, when he would be laid on the cross and the twelve blows crashed down upon him—then he would want to see him, want to see him from up close, and he had had a place reserved for himself in the front row. And when the crowd had wandered off after a few hours, he wanted to climb up onto the bloody scaffold and crouch next to him, keeping watch, by night, by day, for however long he had to, and look into the eyes of this man, the murderer of his daughter, and drop by drop to trickle the disgust within him into those eyes, to pour out his disgust like burning acid over the man in his death agonies—until the beast perished.…

And after that? What would he do after that? He did not know. Perhaps resume his normal life, perhaps get married, perhaps father a son, perhaps do nothing at all, perhaps die. It made no difference whatever to him. To think about it seemed to him as pointless as to think about what he would do after his own death: nothing, of course. Nothing that he could know at this point.


The execution was scheduled for five in the afternoon. The first spectators had arrived by morning and secured themselves places. They brought chairs and footstools with them, pillows, food, wine, and their children. Around noon, masses of country people streamed in from all directions, and the parade grounds were soon so packed that new arrivals had to camp along the road to Grenoble and on the terracelike gardens and fields that rose at the far end of the area. Vendors were already doing a brisk business—people ate, people drank, everything hummed and simmered as at a country fair. Soon there were a

good ten thousand people gathered, more than for the crowning of the Queen of the Jasmine, more than for the largest guild procession, more than Grasse had ever seen before. They stood far up on the slopes. They hung in the trees, they squatted atop walls and on the roofs, they pressed together ten or twelve to a window. Only in the center of the grounds, protected by the fence barricade, as if stamped and cut from the dough of the crowd, was there still an open space for the grandstand and the scaffold, which suddenly appeared very small, like a toy or the stage of a puppet theater. And one pathway was left open, leading from the place of execution to the Porte du Cours and into the rue Droite.

Shortly after three, Monsieur Papon and his henchmen appeared. The applause swept forward like thunder. They carried two wooden beams forming a St. Andrew’s cross to the scaffold and set it at a good working height by propping it up on four carpenter’s horses. A journeyman carpenter nailed it down. Every move, every gesture of the deputy executioners and the carpenter was greeted by the crowd’s applause. And when Papon stepped forward with his iron rod, walked around the cross, measuring his steps, striking an imaginary blow now on one side, now on the other, there was an eruption of downright jubilation.

At four, the grandstand began to fill. There were many fine folk to admire, rich gentlemen with lackeys and fine manners, beautiful women, big hats, shimmering clothes. The whole of the nobility from both town and country was on hand. The gentlemen of the council appeared in closed rank, the two consuls at their head. Richis was dressed in black, with black stockings and a black hat. Behind the council the magistrates marched in, led by the presiding judge of the court. Last of all, in an open sedan chair came the bishop, wearing gleaming purple vestments and a little green hat. Whoever still had his cap on doffed it now to be sure. This was awe-inspiring.

Then nothing happened for about ten minutes. The lords and ladies had taken their places, the common folk waited impassively; no one was eating now, they all waited. Papon and his henchmen stood on the scaffold platform as if they too had been nailed down. The sun hung large and yellow over the Esterel. From the valley of Grasse a warm wind came up, bearing with it the scent of orange blossoms. It was very warm and almost implausibly still.

Finally, when it seemed the tension could last no longer without its bursting into a thousand-voiced scream, into a tumult, a frenzy, or some other mob scene, above the stillness they heard the clatter of horses and the creaking of wheels.

Down the rue Droite came a carriage drawn by a pair of horses, the police lieutenant’s carriage. It drove through the city gate and reappeared for all to see in the narrow path leading to the scaffold. The police lieutenant had insisted on this manner of arrival, since otherwise he could not guarantee the safety of the convicted man. It was certainly not the customary practice. The prison was hardly five minutes away from the place of execution, and if a condemned man, for whatever reason, could not have managed the short distance on foot, then he would have traveled it in an open donkey cart. That a man should be driven to his own execution in a coach, with a driver, liveried footmen, and a mounted guard—no one had ever seen anything like that.

And nevertheless, there was no sign of unrest or displeasure among the crowd—on the contrary. People were satisfied that at least something was happening, considered the idea of the coach a clever stroke, just as at the theater people enjoy a familiar play when it is presented in some surprisingly new fashion. Many even thought the grand entrance appropriate. Such an extraordinarily abominable criminal deserved extraordinary treatment. You couldn’t drag him to the scaffold in chains like a common thief and kill him. There would have been nothing sensational about that. But to lead him from his upholstered equipage to the St. Andrew’s cross—that was an incomparably imaginative bit of cruelty.

The carriage stopped midway between the scaffold and the grandstand. The footmen jumped down, opened the carriage door, and folded down the steps. The police lieutenant climbed out, behind him an officer of the guard, and finally Grenouille. He was wearing a blue frock coat, a white shirt, white silk stockings, and buckled black shoes. He was not bound. No one led him by the arm. He got out of the carriage as if he were a free man.

And then a miracle occurred. Or something very like a miracle, or at least something so incomprehensible, so unprecedented, and so unbelievable that everyone who witnessed it would have called it a miracle afterwards if they had taken the notion to speak of it at all—which was not the case, since afterwards every single one of them was ashamed to have had any part in it whatever.

What happened was that from one moment to the next, the ten thousand people on the parade grounds and on the slopes surrounding it felt themselves infused with the un-shakable belief that the man in the blue frock coat who had just climbed out of the carriage could not possibly be a murderer. Not that they doubted his identity! The man standing there was the same one whom they had seen just a few days before at the window of the provost court on the church square and whom, had they been able to get their hands on him, they would have lynched with savage hatred. The same one who only two days before had been lawfully condemned on the basis of overwhelming evidence and his own confession. The same one whose slaughter at the hands of the executioner they had eagerly awaited only a few minutes before. It was he—no doubt of it!

And yet—it was not he either, it could not be he, he could not be a murderer. The man who stood at the scaffold was innocence personified. All of them—from the bishop to the lemonade vendor, from the marquis to the little washer-woman, from the presiding judge to the street urchin—knew it in a flash.

Papon knew it too. And his great hands, still clutching the iron rod, trembled. All at once his strong arms were as weak, his knees as wobbly, his heart as anxious as a child’s. He would not be able to lift that rod, would never in his life have the strength to lift it against this little, innocent man—oh, he dreaded the moment when they would lead him forward; he tottered, had to prop himself up with his death-dealing rod to keep from sinking feebly to his knees, the great, the mighty Papon!

The ten thousand men and women, children and patriarchs assembled there felt no different—they grew weak as young maidens who have succumbed to the charms of a lover. They were overcome by a powerful sense of good-will, of tenderness, of crazy, childish infatuation, yes, God help them, of love for this little homicidal man, and they were unable, unwilling to do anything about it. It was like a fit of weeping you cannot fight down, like tears that have been held back too long and rise up from deep within you, dissolving whatever resists them, liquefying it, and flushing it away. These people were now pure liquid, their spirits and minds were melted; nothing was left but an amorphous fluid, and all they could feel was their hearts floating and sloshing about within them, and they laid those hearts, each man, each woman, in the hands of the little man in the blue frock coat, for better or worse. They loved him.

Grenouille had been standing at the open carriage door for several minutes now, not moving at all. The footman next to him had sunk to his knees, and sank farther still until achieving the fully prostrate position customary in the Orient before a sultan or Allah. And even in this posture, he still quivered and swayed, trying to sink even farther, to lie flat upon the earth, to lie within it, under it. He wanted to sink to the opposite side of the world out of pure subservience. The officer of the guard and the police lieutenant, doughty fellows both, whose duty it was now to lead the condemned man to the scaffold and hand him over to his executioner, could no longer manage anything like a coordinated action. They wept and removed their hats, put them back on, cast themselves to the ground, fell into each other’s arms, withdrew again, flapped their arms absurdly in the air, wrung their hands, twitched and grimaced like victims of St. Vitus’s dance.

The noble personages, being somewhat farther away, abandoned themselves to their emotions with hardly more discretion. Each gave free rein to the urges of his or her heart. There were women who with one look at Grenouille thrust thei

r fists into their laps and sighed with bliss; and others who, in their burning desire for this splendid young man—for so he appeared to them—fainted dead away without further ado. There were gentlemen who kept springing up and sitting down and leaping up again, snorting vigorously and grasping the hilts of their swords as if to draw them, and then when they did, each thrusting his blade back in so that it rattled and clattered; and others who cast their eyes mutely to heaven and clenched their hands in prayer; and there was Monseigneur the Bishop, who, as if he had been taken ill, slumped forward and banged his forehead against his knees, sending his little green hat rolling—when in fact he was not ill at all, but rather for the first time in his life basking in religious rapture, for a miracle had occurred before their very eyes, the Lord God had personally stayed the executioner’s hand by disclosing as an angel the very man who had for all the world appeared a murderer. Oh, that such a thing had happened, here in the eighteenth century. How great was the Lord! And how small and petty was he himself, who had spoken his anathema, without himself believing it, merely to pacify the populace! Oh, what presumption! Oh, what lack of faith! And now the Lord had performed a miracle! Oh, what splendid humiliation, what sweet abasement, what grace to be a bishop thus chastised by God.

Meanwhile the masses on the other side of the barricade were giving themselves over ever more shamelessly to the uncanny rush of emotion that Grenouille’s appearance had unleashed. Those who at the start had merely felt sympathy and compassion were now filled with naked, insatiable desire, and those who had at first admired and desired were now driven to ecstasy. They all regarded the man in the blue frock coat as the most handsome, attractive, and perfect creature they could imagine: to the nuns he appeared to be the Savior in person, to the satanists as the shining Lord of Darkness, to the those who were citizens of the Enlightenment as the Highest Principle, to young maidens as a fairytale prince, to men as their ideal image of themselves. And they all felt as if he had seen through them at their most vulnerable point, grasped them, touched their erotic core. It was as if the man had ten thousand invisible hands and had laid a hand on the genitals of the ten thousand people surrounding him and fondled them in just the way that each of them, whether man or woman, desired in his or her most secret fantasies.

Tags: Patrick Süskind Horror