Giuseppe Baldini had indeed taken off his redolent coat, but only out of long-standing habit. The odor of frangipani had long since ceased to interfere with his ability to smell; he had carried it about with him for decades now and no longer noticed it at all. And although he had closed the doors to his study and asked for peace and quiet, he had not sat down at his desk to ponder and wait for inspiration, for he knew far better than Chénier that inspiration would not strike—after all, it never had before. He was old and exhausted, that much was true, and was no longer a great perfumer; but he knew that he had never in his life been one. He had inherited Rose of the South from his father, and the formula for Baldini’s Gallant Bouquet had been bought from a traveling Genoese spice salesman. The rest of his perfumes were old familiar blends. He had never invented anything. He was not an inventor. He was a careful producer of traditional scents; he was like a cook who runs a great kitchen with a routine and good recipes, but has never created a dish of his own. He staged this whole hocus-pocus with a study and experiments and inspiration and hush-hush secrecy only because that was part of the professional image of a perfumer and glover. A perfumer was fifty percent alchemist who created miracles—that’s what people wanted. Fine! That his art was a craft like any other, only he knew, and was proud of the fact. He didn’t want to be an inventor. He was very suspicious of inventions, for they always meant that some rule would have to be broken. And he had no intention of inventing some new perfume for Count Verhamont. Nor was he about to let Chénier talk him into obtaining Amor and Psyche from Pélissier this evening. He already had some. There it stood on his desk by the window, in a little glass flacon with a cut-glass stopper. He had bought it a couple of days before. Naturally not in person. He couldn’t go to Pélissier and buy perfume in person! But through a go-between, who had used yet another go-between.… Caution was necessary. Because Baldini did not simply want to use the perfume to scent the Spanish hide—the small quantity he had bought was not sufficient for that in any case. He had something much nastier in mind: he wanted to copy it.
That was, moreover, not forbidden. It was merely highly improper. To create a clandestine imitation of a competitor’s perfume and sell it under one’s own name was terribly improper. But more improper still was to get caught at it, and that was why Chénier must know nothing about it, for Chénier was a gossip.
How awful, that an honest man should feel compelled to travel such crooked paths! How awful, that the most precious thing a man possesses, his own honor, should be sullied by such shabby dealings! But what was he to do? Count Verhamont was, after all, a customer he dared not lose. He had hardly a single customer left now. He would soon have to start chasing after customers as he had in his twenties at the start of his career, when he had wandered the streets with a boxful of wares dangling at his belly. God knew, he, Giuseppe Baldini—owner of the largest perfume establishment in Paris, with the best possible address—only managed to stay out of the red by making house calls, valise in hand. And that did not suit him at all, for he was well over sixty and hated waiting in cold antechambers and parading eau des millefleurs and four thieves’ vinegar before old marquises or foisting a migraine salve off on them. Besides which, there was such disgusting competition in those antechambers. There was that upstart Brouet from the rue Dauphine, who claimed to have the greatest line of pomades in Europe; or Calteau from the rue Mauconseil, who had managed to become purveyor to the household of the duchesse d’Artois; or this totally unpredictable Antoine Pélissier from the rue Saint-André-des-Arts, who every season launched a new scent that the whole world went crazy over.
Perfumes like Pélissier’s could make a shambles of the whole market. If the rage one year was Hungary water and Baldini had accordingly stocked up on lavender, bergamot, and rosemary to cover the demand—here came Pélissier with his Air de Musc, an ultra-heavy musk scent. Suddenly everyone had to reek like an animal, and Baldini had to rework his rosemary into hair oil and sew the lavender into sachets. If, however, he then bought adequate supplies of musk, civet, and castor for the next year, Pélissier would take a notion to create a perfume called Forest Blossom, which would be an immediate success. And when, after long nights of experiment or costly bribes, Baldini had finally found out the ingredients in Forest Blossom—Pélissier would trump him again with Turkish Nights or Lisbon Spice or Bouquet de la Cour or some such damn thing. The man was indeed a danger to the whole trade with his reckless creativity. It made you wish for a return to the old rigid guild laws. Made you wish for draconian measures against this nonconformist, against this inflationist of scent. His license ought to be revoked and a juicy injunction issued against further exercise of his profession … and, just on principle, the fellow ought to be taught a lesson! Because this Pélissier wasn’t even a trained perfumer and glover. His father had been nothing but a vinegar maker, and Pélissier was a vinegar maker too, nothing else. But as a vinegar maker he was entitled to handle spirits, and only because of that had the skunk been able to crash the gates and wreak havoc in the park of the true perfumers. What did people need with a new perfume every season? Was that necessary? The public had been very content before with violet cologne and simple floral bouquets that you changed a soupçon every ten years or so. For thousands of years people had made do with incense and myrrh, a few balms, oils, and dried aromatic herbs. And even once they had learned to use retorts and alembics for distilling herbs, flowers, and woods and stealing the aromatic base of their vapors in the form of volatile oils, to crush seeds and pits and fruit rinds in oak presses, and to extract the scent from petals with carefully filtered oils—even then, the number of perfumes had been modest. In those days a figure like Pélissier would have been an impossibility, for back then just for the production of a simple pomade you needed abilities of which this vinegar mixer could not even dream. You had to be able not merely to distill, but also to act as maker of salves, apothecary, alchemist, and craftsman, merchant, humanist, and gardener all in one. You had to be able to distinguish sheep suet from calves’ suet, a victoria violet from a parma violet. You had to be fluent in Latin. You had to know when heliotrope is harvested and when pelargonium blooms, and that the jasmine blossom loses its scent at sunrise. Obviously Pélissier had not the vaguest notion of such matters. He had probably never left Paris, never in all his life seen jasmine in bloom. Not to mention having a whit of the Herculean elbow grease needed to wring a dollop of concrétion or a few drops of essence absolue from a hundred thousand jasmine blossoms. Probably he knew such things—knew jasmine—only as a bottle of dark brown liquid concentrate that stood in his locked cabinet alongside the many other bottles from which he mixed his fashionable perfumes. No, in the good old days of true craftsmen, a man like this coxcomb Pélissier would never have got his foot in the door. He lacked everything: character, education, serenity, and a sense for the hierarchy within a guild. He owed his few successes at perfumery solely to the discovery made some two hundred years before by that genius Mauritius Frangipani—an Italian, let it be noted!—that odors are soluble in rectified spirit. By mixing his aromatic powder with alcohol and so transferring its odor to a volatile liquid, Frangipani had liberated scent from matter, had etherialized scent, had discovered scent as pure scent; in short, he had created perfume. What a feat! What an epoch-making achievement! Comparable really only to the greatest accomplishments of humankind, like the invention of writing by the Assyrians, Euclidean geometry, the ideas of Plato, or the metamorphosis of grapes into wine by the Greeks. A truly Promethean act!
And yet, just as all great accomplishments of the spirit cast both shadow and light, offering humankind vexation and misery along with their benefits, so, too, Frangipani’s marvelous invention had its unfortunate results. For now that people knew how to bind the essence of flowers and herbs, woods, resins, and animal secretions within tinctures and fill them into bottles, the art of perfumery was slipping bit by bit from the hands of the masters of the craft and becoming a
ccessible to mountebanks, at least a mountebank with a passably discerning nose, like this skunk Pélissier. Without ever bothering to learn how the marvelous contents of these bottles had come to be, they could simply follow their olfactory whims and concoct whatever popped into their heads or struck the public’s momentary fancy.
So much was certain: at age thirty-five, this bastard Pélissier already possessed a larger fortune than he, Baldini, had finally accumulated after three generations of constant hard work. And Pélissier’s grew daily, while his, Baldini’s, daily shrank. That sort of thing would not have been even remotely possible before! That a reputable craftsman and established commerçant should have to struggle to exist—that had begun to happen only in the last few decades! And only since this hectic mania for novelty had broken out in every quarter, this desperate desire for action, this craze of experimentation, this rodomontade in commerce, in trade, and in the sciences!
Or this insanity about speed. What was the need for all these new roads being dug up everywhere, and these new bridges? What purpose did they serve? What was the advantage of being in Lyon within a week? Who set any store by that? Whom did it profit? Or crossing the Atlantic, racing to America in a month—as if people hadn’t got along without that continent for thousands of years. What had civilized man lost that he was looking for out there in jungles inhabited by Indians or Negroes. People even traveled to Lapland, up there in the north, with its eternal ice and savages who gorged themselves on raw fish. And now they hoped to discover yet another continent that was said to lie in the South Pacific, wherever that might be. And why all this insanity? Because the others were doing the same, the Spaniards, the damned English, the impertinent Dutch, whom you then had to go out and fight, which you couldn’t in the least afford. One of those battleships easily cost a good 300,000 livres, and a single cannon shot would sink it in five minutes, for good and all, paid for with our taxes. The minister of finance had recently demanded one-tenth of all income, and that was simply ruinous, even if you didn’t pay Monsieur his tithe. The very attitude was perverse.
Man’s misfortune stems from the fact that he does not want to stay in the room where he belongs. Pascal said that. And Pascal was a great man, a Frangipani of the intellect, a real craftsman, so to speak, and no one wants one of those anymore. People read incendiary books now by Huguenots or Englishmen. Or they write tracts or so-called scientific masterpieces that put anything and everything in question. Nothing is supposed to be right anymore, suddenly everything ought to be different. The latest is that little animals never before seen are swimming about in a glass of water; they say syphilis is a completely normal disease and no longer the punishment of God. God didn’t make the world in seven days, it’s said, but over millions of years, if it was He at all. Savages are human beings like us; we raise our children wrong; and the earth is no longer round like it was, but flat on the top and bottom like a melon—as if that made a damn bit of difference! In every field, people question and bore and scrutinize and pry and dabble with experiments. It’s no longer enough for a man to say that something is so or how it is so—everything now has to be proven besides, preferably with witnesses and numbers and one or another of these ridiculous experiments. These Diderots and d’Alemberts and Voltaires and Rousseaus or whatever names these scribblers have—there are even clerics among them and gentlemen of noble birth!—they’ve finally managed to infect the whole society with their perfidious fidgets, with their sheer delight in discontent and their unwillingness to be satisfied with anything in this world, in short, with the boundless chaos that reigns inside their own heads!
Wherever you looked, hectic excitement. People reading books, even women. Priests dawdling in coffeehouses. And if the police intervened and stuck one of the chief scoundrels in prison, publishers howled and submitted petitions, ladies and gentlemen of the highest rank used their influence, and within a couple of weeks he was set free or allowed out of the country, from where he went right on with his unconscionable pamphleteering. In the salons people chattered about nothing but the orbits of comets and expeditions, about leverage and Newton, about building canals, the circulation of the blood, and the diameter of the earth.
The king himself had had them demonstrate some sort of newfangled nonsense, a kind of artificial thunderstorm they called electricity. With the whole court looking on, some fellow rubbed a bottle, and it gave off a spark, and His Majesty, so it was said, appeared deeply impressed. Unthinkable! that his great-grandfather, the truly great Louis, under whose beneficent reign Baldini had been lucky enough to have lived for many years, would have allowed such a ridiculous demonstration in his presence. But that was the temper of the times, and it would all come to a bad end.
When, without the least embarrassment, people could brazenly call into question the authority of God’s Church; when they could speak of the monarchy—equally a creature of God’s grace—and the sacred person of the king himself as if they were both simply interchangeable items in a catalog of various forms of government to be selected on a whim; when they had the ultimate audacity—and have it they did—to describe God Himself, the Almighty, Very God of Very God, as dispensable and to maintain in all earnestness that order, morals, and happiness on this earth could be conceived of without Him, purely as matters of man’s inherent morality and reason … God, good God!—then you needn’t wonder that everything was turned upside down, that morals had degenerated, and that humankind had brought down upon itself the judgment of Him whom it denied. It would come to a bad end. The great comet of 1681—they had mocked it, calling it a mere clump of stars, while in truth it was an omen sent by God in warning, for it had portended, as was clear by now, a century of decline and disintegration, ending in the spiritual, political, and religious quagmire that man had created for himself, into which he would one day sink and where only glossy, stinking swamp flowers flourished, like Pélissier himself!
Baldini stood at the window, an old man, and gazed malevolently at the sun angled above the river. Barges emerged beneath him and slid slowly to the west, toward the Pont-Neuf and the quay below the galleries of the Louvre. No one poled barges against the current here, for that they used the channel on the other side of the island. Here everything flowed away from you—the empty and the heavily laden ships, the rowboats, and the flat-bottomed punts of the fisher-men, the dirty brown and the golden-curled water—everything flowed away, slowly, broadly, and inevitably. And if Baldini looked directly below him, straight down the wall, it seemed to him as if the flowing water were sucking the foundations of the bridge with it, and he grew dizzy.
He had made a mistake buying a house on the bridge, and a second when he selected one on the western side. Because constantly before his eyes now was a river flowing from him; and it was as if he himself and his house and the wealth he had accumulated over many decades were flowing away like the river, while he was too old and too weak to oppose the powerful current. Sometimes when he had business on the left bank, in the quarter of the Sorbonne or around Saint-Sulpice, he would not walk across the island and the Pont-Saint-Michel, but would take the longer way across the Pont-Neuf, for it was a bridge without buildings. And then he would stand at the eastern parapet and gaze up the river, just for once to see everything flowing toward him; and for a few moments he basked in the notion that his life had been turned around, that his business was prospering, his family thriving, that women threw themselves at him, that his own life, instead of dwindling away, was growing and growing.
But then, if he lifted his gaze the least bit, he could see his own house, tall and spindly and fragile, several hundred yards away on the Pont-au-Change, and he saw the window of his study on the second floor and saw himself standing there at the window, saw himself looking out at the river and watching the water flow away, just as now. And then the beautiful dream would vanish, and Baldini would turn away from where he had stood on the Pont-Neuf, more despondent than before—as despondent as he was now, turning away from the window an
d taking his seat at his desk.
Before him stood the flacon with Pélissier’s perfume. Glistening golden brown in the sunlight, the liquid was clear, not clouded in the least. It looked totally innocent, like a light tea—and yet contained, in addition to four-fifths alcohol, one-fifth of a mysterious mixture that could set a whole city trembling with excitement. The mixture, moreover, might consist of three or thirty different ingredients, prepared from among countless possibilities in very precise proportions to one another. It was the soul of the perfume—if one could speak of a perfume made by this ice-cold profiteer Pélissier as having a soul—and the task now was to discover its composition.
Baldini blew his nose carefully and pulled down the blind at the window, since direct sunlight was harmful to every artificial scent or refined concentration of odors. He pulled a fresh white lace handkerchief out of a desk drawer and unfolded it. Then, holding his head far back and pinching his nostrils together, he opened the flacon with a gentle turn of the stopper. He did not want, for God’s sake, to get a premature olfactory sensation directly from the bottle. Perfume must be smelled in its efflorescent, gaseous state, never as a concentrate. He sprinkled a few drops onto the handkerchief, waved it in the air to drive off the alcohol, and then held it to his nose. In three short, jerky tugs, he snatched up the scent as if it were a powder, immediately blew it out again, fanned himself, took another sniff in waltz time, and finally drew one long, deep breath, which he then exhaled slowly with several pauses, as if letting it slide down a long, gently sloping stair-case. He tossed the handkerchief onto his desk and fell back into his armchair.