Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - Page 9

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“Yes, sir,” said Grenouille, but stood where he was, blocking the way for Baldini, who was ready to leave the workshop. Baldini was somewhat startled, but so unsuspecting that he took the boy’s behavior not for insolence but for shyness.

“What is it?” he asked. “Is there something else I can do for you? Well? Speak up!”

Grenouille stood there cowering and gazing at Baldini with a look of apparent timidity, but which in reality came from a cunning intensity.

“I want to work for you, Maître Baldini. Work for you, here in your business.”

It was not spoken as a request, but as a demand; nor was it really spoken, but squeezed out, hissed out in reptile fashion. And once again, Baldini misread Grenouille’s outrageous self-confidence as boyish awkwardness. He gave him a friendly smile. “You’re a tanner’s apprentice, my lad,” he said. “I have no use for a tanner’s apprentice. I have a journeyman already, and I don’t need an apprentice.”

“You want to make these goatskins smell good, Maître Baldini? You want to make this leather I’ve brought you smell good, don’t you?” Grenouille hissed, as if he had paid not the least attention to Baldini’s answer.

“Yes indeed,” said Baldini.

“With Amor and Psyche by Pélissier?” Grenouille asked, cowering even more than before.

At that, a wave of mild terror swept through Baldini’s body. Not because he asked himself how this lad knew all about it so exactly, but simply because the boy had said the name of the wretched perfume that had defeated his efforts at decoding today.

“How did you ever get the absurd idea that I would use someone else’s perfume to …”

“You reek of it!” Grenouille hissed. “You have it on your forehead, and in your right coat pocket is a handkerchief soaked with it. It’s not very good, this Amor and Psyche, it’s bad, there’s too much bergamot and too much rosemary and not enough attar of roses.”

“Aha!” Baldini said, totally surprised that the conversation had veered from the general to the specific. “What else?”

“Orange blossom, lime, clove, musk, jasmine, alcohol, and something that I don’t know the name of, there, you see, right there! In that bottle!” And he pointed a finger into the darkness. Baldini held the candlestick up in that direction, his gaze following the boy’s index finger toward a cupboard and falling upon a bottle filled with a grayish yellow balm.

“Storax?” he asked.

Grenouille nodded. “Yes. That’s in it too. Storax.” And then he squirmed as if doubling up with a cramp and muttered the word at least a dozen times to himself: “Storax-storaxstoraxstorax …”

Baldini held his candle up to this lump of humankind wheezing “storax” and thought: Either he is possessed, or a thieving impostor, or truly gifted. For it was perfectly possible that the list of ingredients, if mixed in the right proportions, could result in the perfume Amor and Psyche—it was, in fact, probable. Attar of roses, clove, and storax—it was those three ingredients that he had searched for so desperately this afternoon. Joining them with the other parts of the composition—which he believed he had recognized as well—would unite the segments into a pretty, rounded pastry. It was now only a question of the exact proportions in which you had to join them. To find that out, he, Baldini, would have to run experiments for several days, a horrible task, almost worse than the basic identification of the parts, for it meant you had to measure and weigh and record and all the while pay damn close attention, because the least bit of inattention—a tremble of the pipette, a mistake in counting drops—could ruin the whole thing. And every botched attempt was dreadfully expensive. Every ruined mixture was worth a small fortune.… He wanted to test this mannikin, wanted to ask him about the exact formula for Amor and Psyche. If he knew it, to the drop and dram, then he was obviously an impostor who had somehow pinched the recipe from Pélissier in order to gain access and get a position with him, Baldini. But if he came close, then he was a genius of scent and as such provoked Baldini’s professional interest. Not that Baldini would jeopardize his firm decision to give up his business! This perfume by Pélissier was itself not the important thing to him. Even if the fellow could deliver it to him by the gallon, Baldini would not dream of scenting Count Verhamont’s Spanish hides with it, but … But he had not been a perfumer his life long, had not concerned himself his life long with the blending of scents, to have lost all professional passions from one moment to the next. Right now he was interested in finding out the formula for this damned perfume, and beyond that, in studying the gifts of this mysterious boy, who had parsed a scent right off his forehead. He wanted to know what was behind that. He was quite simply curious.

“You have, it appears, a fine nose, young man,” he said, once Grenouille had ceased his wheezings; and he stepped back into the workshop, carefully setting the candlestick on the worktable, “without doubt, a fine nose, but …”

“I have the best nose in Paris, Maître Baldini,” Grenouille interrupted with a rasp. “I know all the odors in the world, all of them, only I don’t know the names of some of them, but I can learn the names. The odors that have names, there aren’t many of those, there are only a few thousand. I’ll learn them all, I’ll never forget the name of that balm, storax, the balm is called storax, it’s called storax …”

“Silence!” shouted Baldini. “Do not interrupt me when I’m speaking! You are impertinent and insolent. No one knows a thousand odors by name. Even I don’t know a thousand of them by name, at best a few hundred, for there aren’t more than a few hundred in our business, all the rest aren’t odors, they are simply stenches.”

During the rather lengthy interruption that had burst from him, Grenouille had almost unfolded his body, had in fact been so excited for the moment that he had flailed both arms in circles to suggest the “all, all of them” that he knew. But at Baldini’s reply he collapsed back into himself, like a black toad lurking there motionless on the threshold.

“I have, of course, been aware,” Baldini continued, “for some time now that Amor and Psyche consisted of storax, attar of roses, and cloves, plus bergamot and extract of rosemary et cetera. All that is needed to find that out is, as I said, a passably fine nose, and it may well be that God has given you a passably fine nose, as He has many, many other people as well—particularly at your age. A perfumer, however”—and here Baldini raised his index finger and puffed out his chest—“a perfumer, however, needs more than a passably fine nose. He needs an incorruptible, hardworking organ that has been trained to smell for many decades, enabling him to decipher even the most complicated odors by composition and proportion, as well as to create new, unknown mixtures of scent. Such a nose”—and here he tapped his with his finger—“is not something one has, young man! It is something one acquires, by perseverance and diligence. Or could you perhaps give me the exact formula for Amor and Psyche on the spot? Well? Could you?”

Grenouille did not answer.

“Could you perhaps give me a rough guess?” Baldini said, bending forward a bit to get a better look at the toad at his door. “Just a rough one, an estimation? Well, speak up, best nose in Paris!”

But Grenouille was silent.

“You see?” said Baldini, equally both satisfied and disappointed; and he straightened up. “You can’t do it. Of course you can’t. You’re one of those people who know whether there is chervil or parsley in the soup at mealtime. That’s fine, there’s something to be said for that. But that doesn’t make you a cook, not by a long shot. Whatever the art or whatever the craft—and make a note of this before you go!—talent means next to nothing, while experience, acquired in humility and with hard work, means everything.”

He was reaching for the candlestick on the table, when from the doorway came Grenouille’s pinched snarl: “I don’t know what a formula is, maître. I don’t know that, but otherwise I know everything!”

“A formula is the alpha and omega of every perfume,” replied Baldini sternly, for he wanted to end

this conversation —now. “It contains scrupulously exact instructions for the proportions needed to mix individual ingredients so that the result is the unmistakable scent one desires. That is a formula. It is the recipe—if that is a word you understand better.”

“Formula, formula,” rasped Grenouille and grew somewhat larger in the doorway. “I don’t need a formula. I have the recipe in my nose. Can I mix it for you, maître, can I mix it, can I?”

“How’s that?” cried Baldini in a rather loud voice and held the candle up to the gnome’s face. “How would you mix it?”

For the first time, Grenouille did not flinch. “Why, they’re all here, all the ones you need, the scents, they’re all here, in this room,” he said, pointing again into the darkness. “There’s attar of roses! There’s orange blossom! That’s clove! That’s rosemary, there …!”

“Certainly they’re here!” roared Baldini. “They are all here. But I’m telling you, you blockhead, that is of no use if one does not have the formula!”

“… There’s jasmine! Alcohol there! Bergamot there! Storax there!” Grenouille went on crowing, and at each name he pointed to a different spot in the room, although it was so dark that at best you could surmise the shadows of the cupboards filled with bottles.

“You can see in the dark, can you?” Baldini went on. “You not only have the best nose, but also the keenest eyes in Paris, do you? Now if you have passably good ears, then open them up, because I’m telling you: you are a little swindler. You probably picked up your information at Pélissier’s, did some spying, is that it? And now you think you can pull the wool over my eyes, right?”

Grenouille was now standing up, completely unfolded to full size, so to speak, in the doorway, his legs slightly apart, his arms slightly spread, so that he looked like a black spider that had latched onto the threshold and frame. “Give me ten minutes,” he said in close to a normal, fluent pattern of speech, “and I will produce for you the perfume Amor and Psyche. Right now, right here in this room. Maître, give me just five minutes!”

“Do you suppose I’d let you slop around here in my laboratory? With essences that are worth a fortune? You?”

“Yes,” said Grenouille.

“Bah!” Baldini shouted, exhaling all at once every bit of air he had in him. Then he took a deep breath and a long look at Grenouille the spider, and thought it over. Basically it makes no difference, he thought, because it will all be over tomorrow anyway. I know for a fact that he can’t do what he claims he can, can’t possibly do it. Why, that would make him greater than the great Frangipani. But why shouldn’t I let him demonstrate before my eyes what I know to be true? It is possible that someday in Messina—people do grow very strange in old age and their minds fix on the craziest ideas—I’ll get the notion that I had failed to recognize an olfactory genius, a creature upon whom the grace of God had been poured out in superabundance, a wunderkind.… It’s totally out of the question. Everything my reason tells me says it is out of the question—but miracles do happen, that is certain. So what if, when I lie dying in Messina someday, the thought comes to me there on my deathbed: On that evening, back in Paris, I shut my eyes to a miracle …? That would not be very pleasant, Baldini. Let the fool waste a few drops of attar of roses and musk tincture; you would have wasted them yourself if Pélissier’s perfume had still interested you. And what are a few drops—though expensive ones, very, very expensive!—compared to certain knowledge and a peaceful old age?

“Now pay attention!” he said with an affectedly stern voice. “Pay attention! I … what is your name, anyway?”

“Grenouille,” said Grenouille. “Jean-Baptiste Grenouille.”

“Aha,” said Baldini. “All right then, now pay attention, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille! I have thought it over. You shall have the opportunity, now, this very moment, to prove your assertion. Your grandiose failure will also be an opportunity for you to learn the virtue of humility, which—although one may pardon the total lack of its development at your tender age—will be an absolute prerequisite for later advancement as a member of your guild and for your standing as a man, a man of honor, a dutiful subject, and a good Christian. I am prepared to teach you this lesson at my own expense. For certain reasons, I am feeling generous this evening, and, who knows, perhaps the recollection of this scene will amuse me one day. But do not suppose that you can dupe me! Giuseppe Baldini’s nose is old, but it is still sharp, sharp enough immediately to recognize the slightest difference between your mixture and this product here.” And at that he pulled the handkerchief drenched in Amor and Psyche from his pocket and waved it under Grenouille’s nose. “Come closer, best nose in Paris! Come here to the table and show me what you can do. But be careful not to drop anything or knock anything over. Don’t touch anything yet. Let me provide some light first. We want to have lots of illumination for this little experiment, don’t we?”

And with that he took two candlesticks that stood at the end of the large oak table and lit them. He placed all three next to one another along the back, pushed the goatskins to one side, cleared the middle of the table. Then, with a few composed yet rapid motions, he fetched from a small stand the utensils needed for the task—the big-bellied mixing bottle, the glass funnel, the pipette, the small and large measuring glasses—and placed them in proper order on the oaken surface.

Grenouille had meanwhile freed himself from the door-frame. Even while Baldini was making his pompous speech, the stiffness and cunning intensity had fallen away from him. He had heard only the approval, only the “yes,” with the inner jubilation of a child that has sulked its way to some permission granted and thumbs its nose at the limitations, conditions, and moral admonitions tied to it. Standing there at his ease and letting the rest of Baldini’s oration flow by, he was for the first time more human than animal, because he knew that he had already conquered the man who had yielded to him.

While Baldini was still fussing with his candlesticks at the table, Grenouille had already slipped off into the darkness of the laboratory with its cupboards full of precious essences, oils, and tinctures, and following his sure-scenting nose, grabbed each of the necessary bottles from the shelves. There were nine altogether: essence of orange blossom, lime oil, attars of rose and clove, extracts of jasmine, bergamot, and rosemary, musk tincture, and storax balm, all quickly plucked down and set at the ready on the edge of the table. The last item he lugged over was a demijohn full of high-proof rectified spirit. Then he placed himself behind Baldini—who was still arranging his mixing utensils with deliberate pedantry, moving this glass back a bit, that one over more to one side, so that everything would be in its old accustomed order and displayed to its best advantage in the candlelight—and waited, quivering with impatience, for the old man to get out of the way and make room for him.

“There!” Baldini said at last, stepping aside. “I’ve lined up everything you’ll require for—let us graciously call it—your ‘experiment.’ Don’t break anything, don’t spill anything. Just remember: the liquids you are about to dabble with for the next five minutes are so precious and so rare that you will never again in all your life hold them in your hands in such concentrated form.”

“How much of it shall I make for you, maître?” Grenouille asked.

“Make what …?” said Baldini, who had not yet finished his speech.

“How much of the perfume?” rasped Grenouille. “How much of it do you want? Shall I fill this big bottle here to the rim?” And he pointed to a mixing bottle that held a gallon at the very least.

“No, you shall not!” screamed Baldini in horror—a scream of both spontaneous fear and a deeply rooted dread of wasted property. Embarrassed at what his scream had revealed, he followed it up by roaring, “And don’t interrupt me when I am speaking, either!” Then in a calm voice tinged with irony, he continued, “Why would we need a gallon of a perfume that neither of us thinks much of? Half a beakerful will do, really. But since such small quantities are difficult to measur

e, I’ll allow you to start with a third of a mixing bottle.”

“Good,” said Grenouille. “I’m going to fill a third of this bottle with Amor and Psyche. But, Maître Baldini, I will do it in my own way. I don’t know if it will be how a craftsman would do it. I don’t know how that’s done. But I will do it my own way.”

“As you please,” said Baldini, who knew that in this business there was no “your way” or “my way,” but one and only one way, which consisted of knowing the formula and, using the appropriate calculations for the quantity one desired, creating a precisely measured concentrate of the various essences, which then had to be volatilized into a true perfume by mixing it in a precise ratio with alcohol—usually varying between one-to-ten and one-to-twenty. There was no other way, that he knew. And therefore what he was now called upon to witness—first with derisive hauteur, then with dismay, and finally with helpless astonishment—seemed to him nothing less than a miracle. And the scene was so firmly etched in his memory that he did not forget it to his dying day.

15

The little man named Grenouille first uncorked the demijohn of alcohol. Heaving the heavy vessel up gave him difficulty. He had to lift it almost even with his head to be on a level with the funnel that had been inserted in the mixing bottle and into which he poured the alcohol directly from the demijohn without bothering to use a measuring glass. Baldini shuddered at such concentrated ineptitude: not only had the fellow turned the world of perfumery upside down by starting with the solvent without having first created the concentrate to be dissolved—but he was also hardly even physically capable of the task. He was shaking with exertion, and Baldini was waiting at any moment for the heavy demijohn to come crashing down and smash everything on the table to pieces. The candles, he thought, for God’s sake, the candles! There’s going to be an explosion, he’ll burn my house down …! And he was about to lunge for the demijohn and grab it out of the madman’s hands when Grenouille set it down himself, getting it back on the floor all in one piece, and stoppered it. A clear, light liquid swayed in the bottle—not a drop spilled. For a few moments Grenouille panted for breath, but with a look of contentment on his face as if the hardest part of the job were behind him. And indeed, what happened now proceeded with such speed that Baldini could hardly follow it with his eyes, let alone keep track of the order in which it occurred or make even partial sense of the procedure.


Tags: Patrick Süskind Horror
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