AS HE CAME OUT onto the street, he was suddenly afraid, for he knew that for the first time in his life he was giving off a human odor. He found that he stank, stank quite disgustingly. And because he could not imagine that other people would not also perceive his odor as a stench, he did not dare go directly into the tavern where Runel and the marquis’s majordomo were waiting for him. It seemed less risky to him first to try out his new aura in an anonymous environment.
He slipped down toward the river through the darkest and narrowest alleyways, where tanners and dyers had their workshops and carried on their stinking business. When someone approached, or if he passed an entryway where children were playing or women were sitting, he forced himself to walk more slowly, bringing his odor with him in a large, compact cloud.
From his youth on, he had been accustomed to people’s passing him and taking no notice of him whatever, not out of contempt-as he had once believed-but because they were quite unaware of his existence. There was no space surrounding him, no waves broke from him into the atmosphere, as with other people; he had no shadow, so to speak, to cast across another’s face. Only if he ran right into someone in a crowd or in a street-corner collision would there be a brief moment of discernment; and the person encountered would bounce off and stare at him for a few seconds as if gazing at a creature that ought not even to exist, a creature that, although undeniably there, in some way or other was not present-and would take to his heels and have forgotten him, Grenouille, a moment later…
But now, in the streets of Montpellier, Grenouille sensed and saw with his own eyes-and each time he saw it anew, a powerful sense of pride washed over him-that he exerted an effect on people. As he passed a woman who stood bent down over the edge of a well, he noticed how she raised her head for a moment to see who was there, and then, apparently satisfied, turned back to her bucket. A man who was standing with his back to him turned around and gazed after him with curiosity for a good while. The children he met scooted to one side-not out of fear, but to make room for him; and even when they came hurtling out of a side doorway right toward him, they were not frightened, but simply slipped naturally on past him as if they had anticipated an approaching person.
Several such meetings taught him to assess more precisely the power and effect of his new aura, and he grew more self-assured and cocky. He moved more rapidly toward people, passed by them more closely, even stretched out one arm a little, grazing the arm of a passerby as if by chance. Once he jostled a man as if by accident while moving to pass around him. He stopped, apologized, and the man-who only yesterday would have reacted to Grenouille’s sudden appearance as if to a thunderbolt-behaved as though nothing had happened, accepted the apology, even smiled briefly, and clapped Grenouille on the shoulder.
He left the back streets and entered the square before the cathedral of Saint-Pierre. The bells were ringing. There was a crush of people at both sides of the portal. A wedding had just ended. People wanted to see the bride. Grenouille hurried over and mingled with the crowd. He shoved, bored his way in to where he wanted to be, where people were packed together most densely, where he could be cheek by jowl with them, rubbing his own scent directly under their noses. And in the thick of the crush, he spread his arms, spread his legs, and opened his collar so that the odor could flow unimpeded from his body… and his joy was boundless when he noticed that the others noticed nothing, nothing whatever, that all these men, women, and children standing pressed about him could be so easily duped, that they could inhale his concoction of cat shit, cheese, and vinegar as an odor just like their own and accept him, Grenouille the cuckoo’s egg, in their midst as a human being among human beings.
He felt a child against his knee, a little girl standing wedged in among the adults. He lifted her up with hypocritical concern and held her with one arm so that she could see better. The mother not only tolerated this, she thanked him as well, and the kid yowled with delight.
Grenouille stood there like that in the bosom of the crowd for a good quarter of an hour, a strange child pressed sanctimoniously to his chest. And while the wedding party passed by-to the accompaniment of the booming bells and the cheers of the masses and a pelting shower of coins-Grenouille broke out in a different jubilation, a black jubilation, a wicked feeling of triumph that set him quivering and excited him like an attack of lechery, and he had trouble keeping from spurting it like venom and spleen over all these people and screaming exultantly in their faces: that he was not afraid of them; that he hardly hated them anymore; but that his contempt for them was profound and total, because they were so dumb they stank; because they could be deceived by him, let themselves be deceived; because they were nothing, and he was everything! And as if to mock them, he pressed the child still closer to him, bursting out and shouting in chorus with the others: “Hurrah for the bride! Long live the bride! Long live the glorious couple!”
When the wedding party had departed and the crowd had begun to disperse, he gave the child back to its mother and went into the church-to recover from his excitement and rest a little. Inside the cathedral the air was still filled with incense billowing up in cold clouds from two thuribles at each side of the altar and lying in a suffocating layer above the lighter odors of the people who had just been sitting there. Grenouille hunched down on a bench behind the choir.
All at once great contentment came over him. Not a drunken one, as in the days when he had celebrated his lonely orgies in the bowels of the mountain, but a very cold and sober contentment, as befits awareness of one’s own power. He now knew what he was capable of. Thanks to his own genius, with a minimum of contrivance he had imitated the odor of human beings and at one stroke had matched it so well that even a child had been deceived. He now knew that he could do much more. He knew that he could improve on this scent. He would be able to create a scent that was not merely human, but superhuman, an angel’s scent, so indescribably good and vital that whoever smelled it would be enchanted and with his whole heart would have to love him, Grenouille, the bearer of that scent.
Yes, that was what he wanted-they would love him as they stood under the spell of his scent, not just accept him as one of them, but love him to the point of insanity, of self-abandonment, they would quiver with delight, scream, weep for bliss, they would sink to their knees just as if under God’s cold incense, merely to be able to smell him, Grenouille! He would be the omnipotent god of scent, just as he had been in his fantasies, but this time in the real world and over real people. And he knew that all this was within his power. For people could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they could not escape scent. For scent was a brother of breath. Together with breath it entered human beings, who could not defend themselves against it, not if they wanted to live. And scent entered into their very core, went directly to their hearts, and decided for good and all between affection and contempt, disgust and lust, love and hate. He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men.
Grenouille sat at his ease on his bench in the cathedral of Saint-Pierre and smiled. His mood was not euphoric as he formed his plans to rule humankind. There were no mad flashings of the eye, no lunatic grimace passed over his face. He was not out of his mind, which was so clear and buoyant that he asked himself why he wanted to do it at all. And he said to himself that he wanted to do it because he was evil, thoroughly evil. And he smiled as he said it and was content. He looked quite innocent, like any happy person.
He sat there for a while, with an air of devout tranquillity, and took deep breaths, inhaling the incense-laden air. And yet another cheerful grin crossed his face. How miserable this God smelled!
How ridiculously bad the scent that this God let spill from Him. It was not even genuine frankincense fuming up out of those thuribles. A bad substitute, adulterated with linden and cinnamon dust and saltpeter. God stank. God was a poor little stinker. He had been swindled, this God had, or was Himself a swindler, no different from Grenouille-only a considerably worse one!