Eighteen

AND SO HE gladly let himself be instructed in the arts of making soap from lard, sewing gloves of chamois, mixing powders from wheat flour and almond bran and pulverized violet roots. Rolled scented candles made of charcoal, saltpeter, and sandalwood chips. Pressed Oriental pastilles of myrrh, benzoin, and powdered amber. Kneaded frankincense, shellac, vetiver, and cinnamon into balls of incense. Sifted and spatulated poudre impermle out of crushed rose petals, lavender flowers, cascarilla bark. Stirred face paints, whites and vein blues, and molded greasy sticks of carmine for the lips. Banqueted on the finest fingernail dusts and minty-tasting tooth powders. Mixed liquids for curling periwigs and wart drops for corns, bleaches to remove freckles from the complexion and nightshade extract for the eyes, Spanish fly for the gentlemen and hygienic vinegars for the ladies… Grenouille learned to produce all such eauxand powders, toilet and beauty preparations, plus teas and herbal blends, liqueurs, marinades, and such-in short, he learned, with no particular interest but without complaint and with success, everything that Baldini knew to teach him from his great store of traditional lore.

He was an especially eager pupil, however, whenever Baldini instructed him in the production of tinctures, extracts, and essences. He was indefatigable when it came to crushing bitter almond seeds in the screw press or mashing musk pods or mincing dollops of gray, greasy ambergris with a chopping knife or grating violet roots and digesting the shavings in the finest alcohol. He learned how to use a separatory funnel that could draw off the purest oil of crushed lemon rinds from the milky dregs. He learned to dry herbs and flowers on grates placed in warm, shady spots and to preserve what was once rustling foliage in wax-sealed crocks and caskets. He learned the art of rinsing pomades and producing, filtering, concentrating, clarifying, and rectifying infusions.

To be sure, Baldini’s laboratory was not a proper place for fabricating floral or herbal oils on a grand scale. It would have been hard to find sufficient quantities of fresh plants in Paris for that. But from time to time, when they could get cheap, fresh rosemary, sage, mint, or anise seeds at the market, or a shipment of valerian roots, caraway seeds, nutmegs, or dried clove blossoms had come in, then the alchemist in Baldini would stir, and he would bring out the large alembic, a copper distilling vessel, atop it a head for condensing liquids-a so-called moor’s head alembic, he proudly announced-which he had used forty years before for distilling lavender out on the open southern exposures of Liguria’s slopes and on the heights of the Luberon. And while Grenouille chopped up what was to be distilled, Baldini hectically bustled about heating a brick-lined hearth— because speed was the alpha and omega of this procedure-and placed on it a copper kettle, the bottom well covered with water. He threw in the minced plants, quickly closed off the double-walled moor’s head, and connected two hoses to allow water to pass in and out. This clever mechanism for cooling the water, he explained, was something he had added on later, since out in the field, of course, one had simply used bellowed air for cooling. And then he blew on the fire.

Slowly the kettle came to a boil. And after a while, the distillate started to flow out of the moor’s head’s third tap into a Florentine flask that Baldini had set below it-at first hesitantly, drop by drop, then in a threadlike stream. It looked rather unimpressive to begin with, like some thin, murky soup. Bit by bit, however-especially after the first flask had been replaced with a second and set aside to settle-the brew separated into two different liquids: below, the floral or herbal fluid; above, a thick floating layer of oil. If one carefully poured off the fluid-which had only the lightest aroma-through the lower spout of the Florentine flask, the pure oil was left behind-the essence, the heavily scented principle of the plant.

Grenouille was fascinated by the process. If ever anything in his life had kindled his enthusiasm— granted, not a visible enthusiasm but a hidden one, an excitement burning with a cold flame-then it was this procedure for using fire, water, steam, and a cunning apparatus to snatch the scented soul from matter. That scented soul, that ethereal oil, was in fact the best thing about matter, the only reason for his interest in it. The rest of the stupid stuff-the blossoms, leaves, rind, fruit, color, beauty, vitality, and all those other useless qualities-were of no concern to him. They were mere husk and ballast, to be disposed of.

From time to time, when the distillate had grown watery and clear, they took the alembic from the fire, opened it, and shook out the cooked muck. It looked as flabby and pale as soggy straw, like the bleached bones of little birds, like vegetables that had been boiled too long, insipid and stringy, pulpy, hardly still recognizable for what it was, disgustingly cadaverous, and almost totally robbed of its own odor. They threw it out the window into the river. Then they fed the alembic with new, fresh plants, poured in more water, and set it back on the hearth. And once again the kettle began to simmer, and again the lifeblood of the plants dripped into the Florentine flask. This often went on all night long. Baldini watched the hearth, Grenouille kept an eye on the flasks; there was nothing else to do while waiting for the next batch.

They sat on footstools by the fire, under the spell of the rotund flacon-both spellbound, if for very different reasons. Baldini enjoyed the blaze of the fire and the flickering red of the flames and the copper, he loved the crackling of the burning wood, the gurgle of the alembic, for it was like the old days. You could lose yourself in it! He fetched a bottle of wine from the shop, for the heat made him thirsty, and drinking wine was like the old days too. And then he began to tell stories, from the old days, endless stories. About the War of the Spanish Succession, when his own participation against the Austrians had had a decisive influence on the outcome; about the Camisards, together with whom he had haunted the Cevennes; about the daughter of a Huguenot in the Esterel, who, intoxicated by the scent of lavender, had complied with his wishes; about a forest fire that he had damn near started and which would then have probably set the entire Provence ablaze, as sure as there was a heaven and hell, for a biting mistral had been blowing; and over and over he told about distilling out in the open fields, at night, by moonlight, accompanied by wine and the screech of cicadas, and about a lavender oil that he had created, one so refined and powerful that you could have weighed it out in silver; about his apprentice years in Genoa, about his journeyman years in the city of Grasse, where there were as many perfumers as shoemakers, some of them so rich they lived like princes, in magnificent houses with shaded gardens and terraces and wainscoted dining rooms where they feasted with porcelain and golden cutlery, and so on…

Such were the stories Baldini told while he drank his wine and his cheeks grew ruddy from the wine and the blazing fire and from his own enthusiastic story-telling. Grenouille, however, who sat back more in the shadows, did not listen to him at all. He did not care about old tales, he was interested in one thing only: this new process. He stared uninterruptedly at the tube at the top of the alembic out of which the distillate ran in a thin stream. And as he stared at it, he imagined that he himself was such an alembic, simmering away inside just like this one, out of which there likewise gushed a distillate, but a better, a newer, an unfamiliar distillate of those exquisite plants that he tended within him, that blossomed there, their bouquet unknown to anyone but himself, and that with their unique scent he could turn the world into a fragrant Garden of Eden, where life would be relatively bearable for him, olfactorily speaking. To be a giant alembic, flooding the whole world with a distillate of his own making, that was the daydream to which Grenouille gave himself up.

But while Baldini, inflamed by the wine, continued to tell ever more extravagant tales of the old days and got more and more tangled up in his uninhibited enthusiasms, Grenouille soon abandoned his bizarre fantasy. For the moment he banished from his thoughts the notion of a giant alembic, and instead he pondered how he might make use of his newly gained knowledge for more immediate goals.

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