Thirty

HE LOOKED AWFUL. His hair reached down to the hollows of his knees, his scraggly beard to his navel. His nails were like talons, and the skin on his arms and legs, where the rags no longer covered his body, was peeling off in shreds.

The first people he met, farmers in a field near the town of Pierrefort, ran off screaming at the sight of him. But in the town itself, he caused a sensation. By the hundreds people came running to gape at him. Many of them believed he was an escaped galley slave. Others said he was not really a human being, but some mixture of man and bear, some kind of forest creature. One fellow, who had been to sea, claimed that he looked like a member of a wild Indian tribe in Cayenne, which lay on the other side of the great ocean. They led him before the mayor. There, to the astonishment of the assembly, he produced his journeyman’s papers, opened his mouth, and related in a few gabbled but sufficiently comprehensible words— for these were the first words that he had uttered in seven years-how he had been attacked by robbers, dragged off, and held captive in a cave for seven years.

He had seen neither daylight nor another human being during that time, had been fed by an invisible hand that let down a basket in the dark, and finally set free by a ladder-without his ever knowing why and without ever having seen his captors or his rescuer. He had thought this story up, since it seemed to him more believable than the truth; and so it was, for similar attacks by robbers occurred not infrequently in the mountains of the Auvergne and Languedoc, and in the Cevennes. At least the mayor recorded it all without protest and passed his report on to the marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse, liege lord of the town and member of parliament in Toulouse.

At the age of forty, the marquis had turned his back on life at the court of Versailles and retired to his estates, where he lived for science alone. From his pen had come an important work concerning dynamic political economy. In it he had proposed the abolition of all taxes on real estate and agricultural products, as well as the introduction of an upside-down progressive income tax, which would hit the poorest citizens the hardest and so force them to a more vigorous development of their economic activities. Encouraged by the success of his little book, he authored a tract on the raising of boys and girls between the ages of five and ten. Then he turned to experimental agriculture. By spreading the semen of bulls over various grasses, he attempted to produce a milk-yielding animal-vegetable hybrid, a sort of udder flower. After initial successes that enabled him to produce a cheese from his milk grass-described by the Academy of Sciences of Lyon as “tasting of goat, though slightly bitter”— he had to abandon his experiments because of the enormous cost of spewing bull semen by the hundreds of quarts across his fields. In any case, his concern with matters agro-biological had awakened his interest not only in the plowed clod, so to speak, but in the earth in general and its relationship to the biosphere in particular.

He had barely concluded his work with the milk-yielding udder flower when he threw himself with great elan into unflagging research for a grand treatise on the relationship between proximity to the earth and vital energy. His thesis was that life could develop only at a certain distance from the earth, since the earth itself constantly emits a corrupting gas, a so-called fluidum letale, which lames vital energies and sooner or later totally extinguishes them. All living creatures therefore endeavor to distance themselves from the earth by growing-that is, they grow away from it and not, for instance, into it; which is why their most valuable parts are lifted heavenwards: the ears of grain, the blossoms of flowers, the head of man; and therefore, as they begin to bend and buckle back toward the earth in old age, they will inevitably fall victim to the lethal gas, into which they are in turn finally changed once they have decomposed after death.

When the marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse received word that in Pierrefort an individual had been found who had dwelt in a cave for seven years-that is, completely encapsulated by the corrupting element of the earth-he was beside himself with delight and immediately had Grenouille brought to his laboratory, where he subjected him to a thorough examination. He found his theories confirmed most graphically: the fluidum letale had already so assaulted Grenouille that his twenty-five-year-old body clearly showed the marks of senile deterioration. All that had prevented his death, Taillade-Espinasse declared, was that during his imprisonment Grenouille had been given earth-removed plants, presumably bread and fruits, for nourishment. And now his former healthy condition could be restored only by the wholesale expulsion of the fluidum, using a vital ventilation machine, devised by Taillade-Espinasse himself. He had such an apparatus standing in his manor in Montpellier, and if Grenouille was willing to make himself available as the object of a scientific demonstration, he was willing not only to free him from hopeless contamination by earth gas, but he would also provide him with a handsome sum of money…

Two hours later they were sitting in the carriage. Although the roads were in miserable condition, they traveled the sixty-four miles to Montpellier in just under two days, for despite his advanced age, the marquis would not be denied his right personally to whip both driver and horses and to lend a hand whenever, as frequently happened, an axle or spring broke-so excited was he by his find, so eager to present it to an educated audience as soon as possible. Grenouille, however, was not allowed to leave the carriage even once. He was forced to sit there all wrapped up in his rags and a blanket drenched with earth and clay. During the trip he was given raw vegetable roots to eat. The marquis hoped these procedures would preserve the contamination by earth’s fluidum in its ideal state for a while yet.

Upon their arrival in Montpellier, he had Grenouille taken at once to the cellar of his mansion, and sent out invitations to all the members of the medical faculty, the botanical association, the agricultural school, the chemophysical club, the Freemason lodge, and the other assorted learned societies, of which the city had no fewer than a dozen. And several days later-exactly one week after he had left his mountain solitude-Grenouille found himself on a dais in the great hall of the University of Montpellier and was presented as the scientific sensation of the year to a crowd of several hundred people.

In his lecture, Taillade-Espinasse described him as living proof for the validity of his theory of earth’s fluidum letale. While he stripped Grenouille of his rags piece by piece, he explained the devastating effect that the corruptive gas had perpetrated on Gre-nouille’s body: one could see the pustules and scars caused by the corrosive gas; there on his breast a giant, shiny-red gas cancer; a general disintegration of the skin; and even clear evidence of fluidal deformation of the bone structure, the visible indications being a clubfoot and a hunchback. The internal organs as well had been damaged by the gas-pancreas, liver, lungs, gallbladder, and intestinal tract-as the analysis of a stool sample (accessible to the public in a basin at the feet of the exhibit) had proved beyond doubt. In summary, it could be said that the paralysis of the vital energies caused by a seven-year contamination with fluidum letale Taillade had progressed so far that the exhibit-whose external appearance, by the way, already displayed significant molelike traits -could be described as a creature more disposed toward death than life. Nevertheless, the lecturer pledged that within eight days, using ventilation therapy in combination with a vital diet, he would restore this doomed creature to the point where the signs of a complete recovery would be self-evident to everyone, and he invited those present to return in one week to satisfy themselves of the success of this prognosis, which, of course, would then have to be seen as valid proof that his theory concerning earth’s fluidum was likewise correct.

The lecture was an immense success. The learned audience applauded the lecturer vigorously and lined up to pass the dais where Grenouille was standing. In his state of preserved deterioration and with all his old scars and deformities, he did indeed look so impressively dreadful that everyone considered him beyond recovery and already half decayed, although he himself felt quite healthy and robust. Many of the gentlemen tapped him up and down in a professional manner, measured him, looked into his mouth and eyes. Several of them addressed him directly and inquired about his life in the cave and his present state of health. But he kept strictly to the instructions the marquis had given him beforehand and answered all such questions with nothing more than a strained death rattle, making helpless gestures with his hands to his larynx, as if to indicate that too was already rotted away by thefluidum letale Taillade.

At the end of the demonstration, Taillade-Espinasse packed him back up and transported him home to the storage room of his manor. There, in the presence of several selected doctors from the medical faculty, he locked Grenouille in his vital ventilation machine, a box made of tightly jointed pine boards, which by means of a suction flue extending far above the house roof could be flooded with air extracted from the higher regions, and thus free of lethal gas. The air could then escape through a leather flap-valve placed in the floor. The apparatus was kept in operation by a staff of servants who tended it day and night, so that the ventilators inside the flue never stopped pumping. And so, surrounded by the constant purifying stream of air, Grenouille was fed a diet of foods from earth-removed regions-dove bouillon, lark pie, ragout of wild duck, preserves of fruit picked from trees, bread made from a special wheat grown at high altitudes, wine from the Pyrenees, chamois milk, and frozen frothy meringue from hens kept in the attic of the mansion-all of which was presented at hourly intervals through the door of a double-walled air lock built into the side of the chamber.

This combined treatment of decontamination and revitalization lasted for five days. Then the marquis had the ventilators stopped and Grenouille brought to a washroom, where he was softened for several hours in baths of lukewarm rainwater and finally waxed from head to toe with nut-oil soap from Potosi in the Andes. His finger— and toenails were trimmed, his teeth cleaned with pulverized lime from the Dolomites, he was shaved, his hair cut and combed, coifFed and powdered. A tailor, a cobbler were sent for, and Grenouille was fitted out in a silk shirt, with white jabot and white ruffles at the cuffs, silk stockings, frock coat, trousers, and vest of blue velvet, and handsome buckled shoes of black leather, the right one cleverly elevated for his crippled foot. The marquis personally applied white talcum makeup to Gre-nouille’s scarred face, dabbed his lips and cheeks with crimson, and gave a truly noble arch to his eyebrows with the aid of a soft stick of linden charcoal. Then he dusted him with his own personal perfume, a rather simple violet fragrance, took a few steps back, and took some time to find words for his delight.

“Monsieur,” he began at last, “I am thrilled with myself. I am overwhelmed at my own genius. I have, to be sure, never doubted the correctness of my fluidal theory; of course not; but to find it so gloriously confirmed by an applied therapy overwhelms me. You were a beast, and I have made a man of you. A veritable divine act. Do forgive me, I am so touched! -Stand in front of that mirror there and regard yourself. You will realize for the first time in your life that you are a human being; not a particularly extraordinary or in any fashion distinguished one, but nevertheless a perfectly acceptable human being. Go on, monsieur! Regard yourself and admire the miracle that I have accomplished with you!”

It was the first time that anyone had ever said “monsieur” to Grenouille.

He walked over to the mirror and looked into it.

Before that day he had never seen himself in a mirror. He saw a gentleman in a handsome blue outfit, with a white shirt and silk stockings; and instinctively he ducked, as he had always ducked before such fine gentlemen. The fine gentleman, however, ducked as well, and when Grenouille stood up straight again, the fine gentleman did the same, and then they both stared straight into each other’s eyes.

What dumbfounded Grenouille most was the fact that he looked so unbelievably normal. The marquis was right: there was nothing special about his looks, nothing handsome, but then nothing especially ugly either. He was a little short of stature, his posture was a little awkward, his face a little expressionless-in short, he looked like a thousand other people. If he were now to go walking down the street, not one person would turn around to look at him. A man such as he now was, should he chance to meet him, would not even strike him as in any way unusual. Unless, of course, he would smell that the man, except for a hint of violets, had as little odor as the gentleman in the mirror-or himself, standing there in front of it.

And yet only ten days before, farmers had run away screaming at the sight of him. He had not felt any different from the way he did now; and now, if he closed his eyes, he felt not one bit different from then. He inhaled the air that rose up from his own body and smelled the bad perfume and the velvet and the freshly glued leather of his shoes; he smelled the silk cloth, the powder, the makeup, the light scent of the soap from Potosi. And suddenly he knew that it had not been the dove bouillon nor the ventilation hocus-pocus that had made a normal person out of him, but solely these few clothes, the haircut, and the little masquerade with cosmetics.

He blinked as he opened his eyes and saw how the gentleman in the mirror blinked back at him and how a little smile played about his carmine lips, as if signaling to him that he did not find him totally unattractive. And Grenouille himself found that the gentleman in the mirror, this odorless figure dressed and made up like a man, was not all that bad either; at least it seemed to him as if the figure-once its costume had been perfected-might have an effect on the world outside that he, Grenouille, would never have expected of himself. He nodded to the figure and saw that in nodding back it flared its nostrils surreptitiously.

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