Thirty-four

HE STAYED ON in Montpellier for several weeks. He had achieved a certain fame and was invited to salons where he was asked about his life in the cave and about how the marquis had cured him. He had to tell the tale of the robbers over and over, how they had dragged him off, and how the basket was let down, and about the ladder. And every time he added more lovely embellishments and invented new details. And so he gained some facility in speaking-admittedly only a very limited one, since he had never in all his life handled speech well-and, what was even more important to him, a practiced routine for lying.

In essence, he could tell people whatever he wanted. Once they had gained confidence in him-and with the first breath, they gained confidence in him, for they were inhaling his artificial odor-they believed everything. And in time he gained a certain self-assurance in social situations such as he had never known before. This was apparent even in his body. It was as if he had grown. His humpback seemed to disappear. He walked almost completely erect. And when someone spoke to him, he no longer hunched over, but remained erect and returned the look directed at him. Granted, in this short time he did not become a man-of-the-world, no dandy-about-town, no peerless social lion. But his cringing, clumsy manner fell visibly from him, making way for a bearing that was taken for natural modesty or at worst for a slight, inborn shyness that made a sympathetic impression on many gentlemen and many ladies— sophisticated circles in those days had a weakness for everything natural and for a certain unpolished charm.

When March came he packed his things and was off, secretly, so early in the morning that the city gates had only just been opened. He was wearing an inconspicuous brown coat that he had bought secondhand at a market the day before and a shabby hat that covered half his face. No one recognized him, no one saw or noticed him, for he had intentionally gone without his perfume that day. And when around noon the marquis had inquiries made, the watchmen swore by all that’s holy that they had seen all kinds of people leaving the city, but not the caveman, whom they knew and would most certainly have noticed. The marquis then had word spread that with his permission Grenouille had left Montpeliier to look after family matters in Paris. Privately he was dreadfully annoyed, for he had intended to take Grenouille on a tour through the whole kingdom, recruiting adherents for his fluidal theory.

After a while he calmed down again, for his own fame had spread without any such tour, almost without any action on his part. A long article about the fluidum letale Taillade appeared in the Journal des Sqavans and even in the Courier de I’Europe and fluidally contaminated patients came from far and wide for him to cure them. In the summer of 1764, he founded the first Lodge of the Vital Fluidum, with 120 members in Montpellier, and established branches in Marseille and Lyon. Then he decided to dare the move to Paris and from there to conquer the entire civilized world with his teachings. But first he wanted to provide a propaganda base for his crusade by accomplishing some heroic fluidal feat, one that would overshadow the cure of the caveman, indeed all other experiments. And in early December he had a company of fearless disciples join him on an expedition to the Pic du Canigou, which was on the same longitude with Paris and was considered the highest mountain in the Pyrenees. Though on the threshold of senescence, the man wanted to be borne to the summit at nine thousand feet and left there in the sheerest, finest vital air for three whole weeks, whereupon, he announced, he would descend from the mountain precisely on Christmas Eve as a strapping lad of twenty.

The disciples gave up shortly beyond Vernet, the last human settlement at the foot of the fearsome mountain. But nothing daunted the marquis. Casting his garments from him in the icy cold and whooping in exultation, he began the climb alone. The last that was seen of him was his silhouette: hands lifted ecstatically to heaven and voice raised in song, he disappeared into the blizzard.

His followers waited in vain that Christmas Eve for the return of the marquis de La Taillade-Espinasse. He returned neither as an old man nor a young one. Nor when early summer came the next year and the most audacious of them went in search of him, scaling the still snowbound summit of the Pic du Canigou, did they find any trace of him, no clothes, no body parts, no bones.

His teachings, however, suffered no damage at all. On the contrary. Soon the legend was abroad that there on the mountain peak he had wedded himself to the eternal fluidum vitale, merging with it and it with him, and now forever floated-invisible but eternally young-above the peaks of the Pyrenees, and whoever climbed up to him would encounter him there and remain untouched by sickness or the process of aging for one full year. Well into the nineteenth century Taillade’s fluidal theory was advocated from many a chair at faculties of medicine and put into therapeutic practice by many an occult society. And even today, on both sides of the Pyrenees, particularly in Perpi-gnan and Figueras, there are secret Tailladic lodges that meet once a year to climb the Pic du Canigou.

There they light a great bonfire, ostensibly for the summer solstice and in honor of St. John-but in reality it is to pay homage to their master, Taillade-Espinasse, and his grand fluidum, and to seek eternal life.

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