Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - Page 5

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For a moment he was so confused that he actually thought he had never in all his life seen anything so beautiful as this girl—although he only caught her from behind in silhouette against the candlelight. He meant, of course, he had never smelled anything so beautiful. But since he knew the smell of humans, knew it a thousandfold, men, women, children, he could not conceive of how such an exquisite scent could be emitted by a human being. Normally human odor was nothing special, or it was ghastly. Children smelled insipid, men urinous, all sour sweat and cheese, women smelled of rancid fat and rotting fish. Totally uninteresting, repulsive—that was how humans smelled.… And so it happened that for the first time in his life, Grenouille did not trust his nose and had to call on his eyes for assistance if he was to believe what he smelled. This confusion of senses did not last long at all. Actually he required only a moment to convince himself optically—then to abandon himself all the more ruthlessly to olfactory perception. And now he smelled that this was a human being, smelled the sweat of her armpits, the oil in her hair, the fishy odor of her genitals, and smelled it all with the greatest pleasure. Her sweat smelled as fresh as the sea breeze, the tallow of her hair as sweet as nut oil, her genitals were as fragrant as the bouquet of water lilies, her skin as apricot blossoms … and the harmony of all these components yielded a perfume so rich, so balanced, so magical, that every perfume that Grenouille had smelled until now, every edifice of odors that he had so playfully created within himself, seemed at once to be utterly meaningless. A hundred thousand odors seemed worthless in the presence of this scent. This one scent was the higher principle, the pattern by which the others must be ordered. It was pure beauty.

Grenouille knew for certain that unless he possessed this scent, his life would have no meaning. He had to understand its smallest detail, to follow it to its last delicate tendril; the mere memory, however complex, was not enough. He wanted to press, to emboss this apotheosis of scent on his black, muddled soul, meticulously to explore it and from this point on, to think, to live, to smell only according to the innermost structures of its magic formula.

He slowly approached the girl, closer and closer, stepped under the overhanging roof, and halted one step behind her. She did not hear him.

She had red hair and wore a gray, sleeveless dress. Her arms were very white and her hands yellow with the juice of the halved plums. Grenouille stood bent over her and sucked in the undiluted fragrance of her as it rose from her nape, her hair, from the neckline of her dress. He let it flow into him like a gentle breeze. He had never felt so wonderful. But the girl felt the air turn cool.

She did not see Grenouille. But she was uneasy, sensed a strange chill, the kind one feels when suddenly overcome with some long discarded fear. She felt as if a cold draft had risen up behind her, as if someone had opened a door leading into a vast, cold cellar. And she laid the paring knife aside, pulled her arms to her chest, and turned around.

She was so frozen with terror at the sight of him that he had plenty of time to put his hands to her throat. She did not attempt to cry out, did not budge, did not make the least motion to defend herself. He, in turn, did not look at her, did not see her delicate, freckled face, her red lips, her large sparkling green eyes, keeping his eyes closed tight as he strangled her, for he had only one concern—not to lose the least trace of her scent.

When she was dead he laid her on the ground among the plum pits, tore off her dress, and the stream of scent became a flood that inundated him with its fragrance. He thrust his face to her skin and swept his flared nostrils across her, from belly to breast, to neck, over her face and hair, and back to her belly, down to her genitals, to her thighs and white legs. He smelled her over from head to toe, he gathered up the last fragments of her scent under her chin, in her navel, and in the wrinkles inside her elbow.

And after he had smelled the last faded scent of her, he crouched beside her for a while, collecting himself, for he was brimful with her. He did not want to spill a drop of her scent. First he must seal up his innermost compartments. Then he stood up and blew out the candle.

Meanwhile people were starting home, singing and hurrahing their way up the rue de Seine. Grenouille smelled his way down the dark alley and out onto the rue des Petits Augustins, which lay parallel to the rue de Seine and led to the river. A little while later, the dead girl was discovered. A hue and cry arose. Torches were lit. The watch arrived. Grenouille had long since gained the other bank.

That night, his closet seemed to him a palace, and his plank bed a four-poster. Never before in his life had he known what happiness was. He knew at most some very rare states of numbed contentment. But now he was quivering with happiness and could not sleep for pure bliss. It was as if he had been born a second time; no, not a second time, the first time, for until now he had merely existed like an animal with a most nebulous self-awareness. But after today, he felt as if he finally knew who he really was: nothing less than a genius. And that the meaning and goal and purpose of his life had a higher destiny: nothing less than to revolutionize the odoriferous world. And that he alone in all the world possessed the means to carry it off: namely, his exquisite nose, his phenomenal memory, and, most important, the master scent taken from that girl in the rue des Marais. Contained within it was the magic formula for everything that could make a scent, a perfume, great: delicacy, power, stability, variety, and terrifying, irresistible beauty. He had found the compass for his future life. And like all gifted abominations, for whom some external event makes straight the way down into the chaotic vortex of their souls, Grenouille never again departed from what he believed was the direction fate had pointed him. It was clear to him now why he had clung to life so tenaciously, so savagely. He must become a creator of scents. And not just an average one. But, rather, the greatest perfumer of all time.

And during that same night, at first awake and then in his dreams, he inspected the vast rubble of his memory. He examined the millions and millions of building blocks of odor and arranged them systematically: good with good, bad with bad, fine with fine, coarse with coarse, fetid with fetid, ambrosial with ambrosial. In the course of the next week, this system grew ever more refined, the catalog of odors ever more comprehensive and differentiated, the hierarchy ever clearer. And soon he could begin to erect the first carefully planned structures of odor: houses, walls, stairways, towers, cellars, rooms, secret chambers … an inner fortress built of the most magnificent odors, that each day grew larger, that each day grew more beautiful and more perfectly framed.

A murder had been the start of this splendor—if he was at all aware of the fact, it was a matter of total indifference to him. Already he could no longer recall how the girl from the rue des Marais had looked, not her face, not her body. He had preserved the best part of her and made it his own: the principle of her scent.

9

There were a baker’s dozen of perfumers in Paris in those days. Six of them resided on the right bank, six on the left, and one exactly in the middle, that is, on the Pont-au-Change, which connected the right bank with the Ile de la Cité. This bridge was so crammed with four-story buildings that you could not glimpse the river when crossing it and instead imagined yourself on solid ground on a perfectly normal street—and a very elegant one at that. Indeed, the Pont-au-Change was considered one of the finest business addresses in the city. The most renowned shops were to be found here; here were the goldsmiths, the cabinetmakers, the best wig-makers and pursemakers, the manufacturers of the finest lingerie and stockings, the picture framers, the merchants for riding boots, the embroiderers of epaulets, the molders of gold buttons, and the bankers. And here as well stood the business and residence of the perfumer and glover Giuseppe Baldini. Above his display window was stretched a sumptuous green-lacquered baldachin, next to which hung Baldini’s coat of arms, all in gold: a golden flacon, from which grew a bouquet of golden flowers. And before the door lay a red carpet, also bearing the Baldini coat of arms embroidered in gold. When you ope

ned the door, Persian chimes rang out, and two silver herons began spewing violet-scented toilet water from their beaks into a gold-plated vessel, which in turn was shaped like the flacon in the Baldini coat of arms.

Behind the counter of light boxwood, however, stood Baldini himself, old and stiff as a pillar, in a silver-powdered wig and a blue coat adorned with gold frogs. A cloud of the frangipani with which he sprayed himself every morning enveloped him almost visibly, removing him to a hazy distance. So immobile was he, he looked like part of his own inventory. Only if the chimes rang and the herons spewed—both of which occurred rather seldom—did he suddenly come to life, his body folding up into a small, scrambling figure that scurried out from behind the counter with numerous bows and scrapes, so quickly that the cloud of frangipani could hardly keep up with him, and bade his customer take a seat while he exhibited the most exquisite perfumes and cosmetics.

Baldini had thousands of them. His stock ranged from essences absolues—floral oils, tinctures, extracts, secretions, balms, resins, and other drugs in dry, liquid, or waxy form—through diverse pomades, pastes, powders, soaps, creams, sachets, bandolines, brilliantines, mustache waxes, wart removers, and beauty spots, all the way to bath oils, lotions, smelling salts, toilet vinegars, and countless genuine perfumes. But Baldini was not content with these products of classic beauty care. It was his ambition to assemble in his shop everything that had a scent or in some fashion contributed to the production of scent. And so in addition to incense pastilles, incense candles, and cords, there were also sundry spices, from anise seeds to zapota seeds, syrups, cordials, and fruit brandies, wines from Cyprus, Málaga, and Corinth, honeys, coffees, teas, candied and dried fruits, figs, bonbons, chocolates, chestnuts, and even pickled capers, cucumbers, and onions, and marinated tuna. Plus perfumed sealing waxes, stationery, lover’s ink scented with attar of roses, writing kits of Spanish leather, penholders of white sandalwood, caskets and chests of cedarwood, potpourris and bowls for flower petals, brass incense holders, crystal flacons and cruses with stoppers of cut amber, scented gloves, handkerchiefs, sewing cushions filled with mace, and musk-sprinkled wallpaper that could fill a room with scent for more than a century.

Naturally there was not room for all these wares in the splendid but small shop that opened onto the street (or onto the bridge), and so for lack of a cellar, storage rooms occupied not just the attic, but the whole second and third floors, as well as almost every room facing the river on the ground floor. The result was that an indescribable chaos of odors reigned in the House of Baldini. However exquisite the quality of individual items—for Baldini bought wares of only highest quality—the blend of odors was almost unbearable, as if each musician in a thousand-member orchestra were playing a different melody at fortissimo. Baldini and his assistants were themselves inured to this chaos, like aging orchestra conductors (all of whom are hard of hearing, of course); and even his wife, who lived on the fourth floor, bitterly defending it against further encroachments by the storage area, hardly noticed the many odors herself anymore. Not so the customer entering Baldini’s shop for the first time. The prevailing mishmash of odors hit him like a punch in the face. Depending on his constitution, it might exalt or daze him, but in any case caused such a confusion of senses that he often no longer knew what he had come for. Errand boys forgot their orders. Belligerent gentlemen grew queasy. And many ladies took a spell, half-hysteric, half-claustrophobic, fainted away, and could be revived only with the most pungent smelling salts of clove oil, ammonia, and camphor.

Under such conditions, it was really not at all astonishing that the Persian chimes at the door of Giuseppe Baldini’s shop rang and the silver herons spewed less and less frequently.

10

“Chénier!” Baldini cried from behind the counter where for hours he had stood rigid as a pillar, staring at the door. “Put on your wig!” And out from among the kegs of olive oil and dangling Bayonne hams appeared Chénier—Baldini’s assistant, somewhat younger than the latter, but already an old man himself—and moved toward the elegant front of the shop. He pulled his wig from his coat pocket and shoved it on his head. “Are you going out, Monsieur Baldini?”

“No,” said Baldini. “I shall retire to my study for a few hours, and I do not wish to be disturbed under any circumstances.”

“Ah, I see! You are creating a new perfume.”

BALDINI:

Correct. With which to impregnate a Spanish hide for Count Verhamont. He wants something like … like … I think he said it’s called Amor and Psyche, and comes he says from that … that bungler in the rue Saint-André-des-Arts, that … that …

CHÉNIER:

Pélissier.

BALDINI:

Yes. Indeed. That’s the bungler’s name. Amor and Psyche, by Pélissier.—Do you know it?”

CHÉNIER:

Yes, yes. I do indeed. You can smell it everywhere these days. Smell it on every street corner. But if you ask me—nothing special! It most certainly can’t be compared in any way with what you will create, Monsieur Baldini.

BALDINI:

Naturally not.

CHÉNIER:

It’s a terribly common scent, this Amor and Psyche.


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