Nine

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 He de la Cite. 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 wigmakers and pursemakers, the manufacturers of the finest lingerie and stockings, the picture framers, the merchants for riding boots, the embroiderers of epaulets, the mold-ers 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 opened 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, Malaga, 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 whjte 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.

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