The result was that the scheduled execution of one of the most abominable criminals of the age degenerated into the largest orgy the world had seen since the second century before Christ. Respectable women ripped open their blouses, bared their breasts, cried out hysterically, threw themselves on the ground with skirts hitched high. The men’s gazes stumbled madly over this landscape of straddling flesh; with quivering fingers they tugged to pull from their trousers their members frozen stiff by some invisible frost; they fell down anywhere with a groan and copulated in the most impossible positions and combinations: grandfather with virgin, odd-jobber with lawyer’s spouse, apprentice with nun, Jesuit with Freemason’s wife—all topsy-turvy, just as opportunity presented. The air was heavy with the sweet odor of sweating lust and filled with loud cries, grunts, and moans from ten thousand human beasts. It was infernal.
Grenouille stood there and smiled. Or rather, it seemed to the people who saw him that he was smiling, the most innocent, loving, enchanting, and at the same time most seductive smile in the world. But in fact it was not a smile, but an ugly, cynical smirk that lay upon his lips, reflecting both his total triumph and his total contempt. He, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born with no odor of his own on the most stinking spot in this world, amid garbage, dung, and putrefaction, raised without love, with no warmth of a human soul, surviving solely on impudence and the power of loathing, small, hunchbacked, lame, ugly, shunned, an abomination within and without—he had managed to make the world admire him. To hell with admire! Love him! Desire him! Idolize him! He had performed a Promethean feat. He had persevered until, with infinite cunning, he had obtained for himself that divine spark, something laid gratis in the cradle of every other human being but withheld from him alone. And not merely that! He had himself actually struck that spark upon himself. He was even greater than Prometheus. He had created an aura more radiant and more effective than any human being had ever possessed before him. And he owed it to no one—not to a father, nor a mother, and least of all to a gracious God—but to himself alone. He was in very truth his own God, and a more splendid God than the God that stank of incense and was quartered in churches. A flesh-and-blood bishop was on his knees before him, whimpering with pleasure. The rich and the mighty, proud ladies and gentlemen, were fawning in adoration, while the common folk all around—among them the fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters of his victims—celebrated an orgy in his honor and in his name. A nod of his head and they would all renounce their God and worship him, Grenouille the Great.
Yes, he was Grenouille the Great! Now it had become manifest. It was he, just as in his narcissistic fantasies of old, but now in reality. And in that moment he experienced the greatest triumph of his life. And he was terrified.
He was terrified because he could not enjoy one second of it. In that moment as he stepped out of the carriage into the bright sunlight of the parade grounds, clad in the perfume that made people love him, the perfume on which he had worked for two years, the perfume that he had thirsted to possess his whole life long … in that moment, as he saw and smelled how irresistible its effect was and how with lightning speed it spread and made captives of the people all around him—in that moment his whole disgust for humankind rose up again within him and completely soured his triumph, so that he felt not only no joy, but not even the least bit of satisfaction. What he had always longed for—that other people should love him—became at the moment of its achievement unbearable, because he did not love them himself, he hated them. And suddenly he knew that he had never found gratification in love, but always only in hatred—in hating and in being hated.
But the hate he felt for people remained without an echo. The more he hated them at this moment, the more they worshiped him, for they perceived only his counterfeit aura, his fragrant disguise, his stolen perfume, and it was indeed a scent to be worshiped.
He would have loved right now to have exterminated these people from the earth, every stupid, stinking, eroticized one of them, just as he had once exterminated alien odors from the world of his raven-black soul. And he wanted them to realize how much he hated them and for them, realizing that it was the only emotion that he had ever truly felt, to return that hate and exterminate him just as they had originally intended. For once in his life, he wanted to empty himself. For once in his life, he wanted to be like other people and empty himself of what was inside him—what they did with their love and their stupid adoration, he would do with his hate. For once, just for once, he wanted to be apprehended in his true being, for other human beings to respond with an answer to his only true emotion, hatred.
But nothing came of that. Nothing could ever come of it. And most certainly not on this day. For after all, he was masked with the best perfume in the world, and beneath his mask there was no face, but only his total odorlessness. Suddenly he was sick to his stomach, for he felt the fog rising again.
Just as it had back then in his cave, in his dream, in his sleep, in his heart, in his fantasy, all at once fog was rising, the dreadful fog from his own odor, which he could not smell, because he was odorless. And just as then, he was filled with boundless fear and terror, felt as if he were going to suffocate. But this time it was different, this was no dream, no sleep, but naked reality. And different, too, because he was not lying alone in a cave, but standing in a public place before ten thousand people. And different because here no scream would help to wake and free him, no flight would rescue him and bring him into the good, warm world. For here and now, this was the world, and this, here and now, was his dream come true. And he had wanted it thus.
The horrible, suffocating fog rose up from the morass of his soul, while all around him people moaned in orgiastic and orgasmic rapture. A man came running up to him. He had leapt up out of the first row of the notables’ grandstand so violently that his black hat toppled from his head, and now with his black frock coat billowing, he fluttered across the parade grounds like a raven or an avenging angel. It was Richis.
He is going to kill me, thought Grenouille. He is the only one who has not let himself be deceived by my mask. He won’t let himself be deceived. The scent of his daughter is clinging to me, betraying me as surely as blood. He has got to recognize me and kill me. He has got to do it.
And he spread his arms wide to receive the angel storming down upon him. He already could feel the thrust of the dagger or sword tickling so wonderfully at his breast, and the blade passing through his armor of scent and the suffocating fog, right to the middle of his cold heart—finally, finally, something in his heart, something other than himself! And he sensed his deliverance already at hand.
And then, suddenly, there was Richis at his breast, no avenging angel, but a shaken, pitiably sobbing Richis, who threw his arms around him, clutching him very tight, as if he could find no other footing in a sea of bliss. No liberating thrust of the dagger, no prick to the heart, not even a curse or a cry of hatred. Instead, Richis’s cheek wet with tears glued to his, and quivering lips that whimpered to him: “Forgive me, my son, my dear son, forgive me!”
With that, everything within him went white before his eyes, while the world outside turned raven black. The trapped fog condensed to a raging liquid, like frothy, boiling milk. It inundated him, pressed its unbearable weight against the inner shell of his body, could find no way out. He wanted to flee, for God’s sake, to flee, but where.… He wanted to burst, to explode, to keep from suffocating on himself. Finally he sank down and lost consciousness.
When he again came to, he was lying in Laure Richis’s bed. The reliquary of clothes and hair had been removed. A candle was burning on the night table. The window was ajar, and he could hear the exultation of the town’s revels in the distance. Antoine Richis was sitting on a footstool beside the bed watching him. He had placed Grenouille’s hand in his own and was stroking it.
Even before he opened his eyes, Grenouille had checked the atmosphere. Everything was quiet within him. There was no more boiling or bu
rsting. His soul was again dominated as usual by cold night, just what he needed for a frosty and clear conscious mind to be directed to the outside world: there he smelled his perfume. It had changed. Its peaks had leveled off so that the core of Laure’s scent emerged more splendidly than ever—a mild, dark, glowing fire. He felt secure. He knew that he was unassailable for a few hours yet, and he opened his eyes.
Richis’s gaze rested on him. An infinite benevolence lay in that gaze: tenderness, compassion, the empty, fatuous profundity of a lover.
He smiled, pressed Grenouille’s hand more tightly, and said, “It will all turn out all right. The magistrate has over-turned the verdict. All the witnesses have recanted. You are free. You can do whatever you want. But I would like you to stay here with me. I have lost a daughter, but I want to gain you as my son. You’re very much like her. You are beautiful like her, your hair, your mouth, your hand … I have been holding your hand all this time, your hand is like hers. And when I look into your eyes, it’s as if she were looking at me. You are her brother, and I want you to become my son, my friend, my pride and joy, my heir. Are your parents still alive?”
Grenouille shook his head, and Richis’s face turned beet red for joy. “Then will you be my son?” he stammered, jumping up from his stool to sit on the edge of the bed and clasp Grenouille’s other hand as well. “Will you? Will you? Will you have me for a father?—Don’t say anything! Don’t speak! You are still too weak to talk. Just nod.”
Grenouille nodded. And joy erupted from Richis’s every pore like scarlet sweat, and he bent down to Grenouille and kissed him on the mouth.
“Sleep now, my dear son!” he said, standing back up again. “I will keep watch over you until you have fallen asleep.” And after he had observed him in mute bliss for a long time: “You have made me very, very happy.”
Grenouille pulled the corners of his mouth apart, the way he had noticed people do when they smile. Then he closed his eyes. He waited a while before letting his respiration grow easy and deep like a sleeper’s. He could feel Richis’s loving gaze on his face. At one point he felt Richis bending forward again to kiss him, but then refraining for fear of waking him. Finally the candle was blown out, and Richis slipped on tiptoe from the room.
Grenouille lay there until he could no longer hear a sound in the house or the town. When he got up, it was already dawn. He dressed and stole away, softly down the hall, softly down the stairs, and through the salon out onto the terrace.
From there you could see over the city wall, out across the valley surrounding Grasse—in clear weather probably as far as the sea. A light fog, or better a haze, hung now over the fields, and the odors that came from them—grass, broom, and rose—seemed washed clean, comfortably plain and simple. Grenouille crossed the garden and climbed over the wall.
Out on the parade grounds he had to fight his way through human effluvia before he reached open country. The whole area and the slopes looked like a gigantic, debauched army camp. Drunken forms by the thousands lay all about, exhausted by the dissipations of their nocturnal festivities, many of them naked, many half exposed, half covered by their clothes, which they had used as a sort of blanket to creep under. It stank of sour wine, of brandy, of sweat and piss, of baby shit and charred meat. The campfires where they had roasted, drunk, and danced were still smoking here and there. Now and then a murmur or a snigger would gurgle up from the thousands of snores. It was possible that a few people were still awake, guzzling away the last scraps of consciousness from their brains. But no one saw Grenouille, who carefully but quickly climbed over the scattered bodies as if moving across a swamp. And those who saw him did not recognize him. He no longer had any scent. The miracle was over.
Once he had crossed the grounds, he did not take the road toward Grenoble, nor the one to Cabris, but walked straight across the fields toward the west, never once turning to look back. When the sun rose, fat and yellow and scorching hot, he had long since vanished.
The people of Grasse awoke with a terrible hangover. Even those who had not drunk had heads heavy as lead and were wretchedly sick to their stomachs and wretchedly sick at heart. Out on the parade grounds, by bright sunlight, simple peasants searched for the clothes they had flung off in the excesses of their orgy; respectable women searched for their husbands and children; total strangers unwound themselves in horror from intimate embraces; acquaintances, neighbors, spouses were suddenly standing opposite each other painfully embarrassed by their public nakedness.
For many of them the experience was so ghastly, so completely inexplicable and incompatible with their genuine moral precepts that they had literally erased it from their memories the moment it happened and as a result truly could not recall any of it later. Others, who were not in such sovereign control of their faculties of perception, tried to shut their eyes, their ears, their minds to it—which was not all that easy, for the shame of it was too obvious and too universal. As soon as someone had found his effects and his kin, he beat as hasty and inconspicuous a retreat as possible. By noon the grounds were as good as swept clean.
The townspeople did not emerge from their houses until evening, if at all, to pursue their most pressing errands. Their greetings when they met were of the most cursory sort; they made nothing but small talk. Not a word was said about the events of the morning and the previous night. They were as modest now as they had been uninhibited and brash yesterday. And they were all like that, for they were all guilty. Never was there greater harmony among the citizens of Grasse than on that day—people lived packed in cotton.
Of course, many of them, because of the offices they held, were forced to deal directly with what had happened. The continuity of public life, the inviolability of law and order demanded that swift measures be taken. The town council was in session by afternoon. The gentlemen—the second consul among them—embraced one another mutely as if by this conspiratorial gesture the body were newly constituted. Then without so much as mentioning the events themselves or even the name Grenouille, they unanimously resolved “immediately to have the scaffold and grandstand on the parade grounds dismantled and to have the trampled fields surrounding them restored to their former orderly state.” For this purpose, 160 livres were appropriated.
At the same time the judges met at the provost court. The magistrates agreed without debate to regard the “case of G.” as settled, to close the files, to place them in the archives without registry, and to open new proceedings against the thus-far unidentified murderer of twenty-five maidens in the region around Grasse. The order was passed to the police lieutenant to begin his investigation immediately.
By the next day, he had already made new discoveries. On the basis of incontrovertible evidence, he arrested Dominique Druot, maître parfumeur in the rue de la Louve, since, after all, it was in his cabin that the clothes and hair of all the victims had been found. The judges were not deceived by the lies he told at first. After fourteen hours of torture, he confessed everything and even begged to be executed as soon as possible—which wish was granted and the execution set for the following day. They strung him up by the gray light of dawn, without any fuss, without scaffold or grandstand, with only the hangman, a magistrate of the court, a doctor, and a priest in attendance. Once death had occurred, had been verified and duly recorded, the body was promptly buried. With that the case was closed.
The town had forgotten it in any event, forgotten it so totally that travelers who passed through in the days that followed and casually inquired about Grasse’s infamous murderer of young maidens found not a single sane person who could give them any information. Only a few fools from the Charité, notorious lunatics, babbled something or other about a great feast on the place du Cours, on account of which they had been forced to vacate their rooms.
And soon life had returned completely to normal. People worked hard and slept well and went about their business and behaved decently. Water gushed as it always had from the fountains and wells, sending muck floating d
own the streets. Once again the town clung shabbily but proudly to its slopes above the fertile basin. The sun shone warmly. Soon it was May. They harvested roses.
Grenouille traveled by night. As he had done at the beginning of his journeys, he steered clear of cities, avoided highways, lay down to sleep at daybreak, arose in the evening, and walked on. He fed on whatever he found on the way: grasses, mushrooms, flowers, dead birds, worms. He marched through the Provence; south of Orange he crossed the Rhône in a stolen boat, followed the Ardèche deep into the Cévennes and then the Allier northwards.
In the Auvergne he drew close to the Plomb du Cantal. He saw it lying to the west, huge and silver gray in the moonlight, and he smelled the cool wind that came from it. But he felt no urge to visit it. He no longer yearned for his life in the cave. He had experienced that life once and it had proved unlivable. Just as had his other experience—life among human beings. He was suffocated by both worlds. He no longer wanted to live at all. He wanted to go to Paris and die. That was what he wanted.
From time to time he reached in his pocket and closed his hand around the little glass flacon of his perfume. The bottle was still almost full. He had used only a drop of it for his performance in Grasse. There was enough left to enslave the whole world. If he wanted, he could be feted in Paris, not by tens of thousands, but by hundreds of thousands of people; or could walk out to Versailles and have the king kiss his feet; write the pope a perfumed letter and reveal himself as the new Messiah; be anointed in Notre-Dame as Supreme Emperor before kings and emperors, or even as God come to earth—if there was such a thing as God having Himself anointed …