IN MAY OF that same year, the naked body of a fifteen-year-old girl was found in a rose field, halfway between Grasse and the hamlet of Opio east of town. She had been killed by a heavy blow to the back of the head. The farmer who discovered her was so disconcerted by the gruesome sight that he almost ended up a suspect himself, when in a quivering voice he told the police lieutenant that he had never seen anything so beautiful-when he had really wanted to say that he had never seen anything so awful.
She was indeed a girl of exquisite beauty. She was one of those languid women made of dark honey, smooth and sweet and terribly sticky, who take control of a room with a syrupy gesture, a toss of the hair, a single slow whiplash of the eyes-and all the while remain as still as the center of a hurricane, apparently unaware of the force of gravity by which they irresistibly attract to themselves the yearnings and the souls of both men and women. And she was young, so very young, that the flow of her allure had not yet grown viscous. Her full limbs were still smooth and solid, her breasts plump and pert as hard-boiled eggs, and the planes of her face, brushed by her heavy black hair, still had the most delicate contours and secret places. Her hair, however, was gone. The murderer had cut it off and taken it with him, along with her clothes.
People suspected the gypsies. Gypsies were capable of anything. Gypsies were known to weave carpets out of old clothes and to stuff their pillows with human hair and to make dolls out of the skin and teeth of the hanged. Only gypsies could be involved in such a perverse crime. There were, however, no gypsies around at the time, not a one near or far; gypsies had last come through the area in December.
For lack of gypsies, people decided to suspect the Italian migrant workers. But there weren’t any Italians around either, it was too early in the year for them; they would first arrive in the region in June, at the time of the jasmine harvest, so it could not have been the Italians either. Finally the wigmakers came under suspicion, and they were searched for the hair of the murdered girl. To no avail. Then it was the Jews who were suspect, then the monks of the Benedictine cloister, reputedly a lecherous lot-although all of them were well over seventy-then the Cistercians, then the Freemasons, then the lunatics from the Charite, then the charcoal burners, then the beggars, and last but not least the nobility, in particular the marquis of Cabris, for he had already been married three times and organized-so it was said-orgiastic black masses in his cellars, where he drank the blood of virgins to increase his potency. Of course nothing definite could be proved. No one had witnessed the murder, the clothes and hair of the dead woman were not found. After several weeks the police lieutenant halted his investigation.
In mid-June the Italians arrived, many with families, to hire themselves out as pickers. The farmers put them to work as usual, but, with the murder still on their minds, forbade their wives and daughters to have anything to do with them. You couldn’t be too cautious. For although the migrant workers were in fact not responsible for the actual murder, they could have been responsible for it on principle, and so it was better to be on one’s guard.
Not long after the beginning of the jasmine harvest, two more murders occurred. Again the victims were very lovely young girls, again of the languid, raven-haired sort, again they were found naked and shorn and lying in a flower field with the backs of their heads bludgeoned. Again there was no trace of the perpetrator. The news spread like wildfire, and there was a threat that hostile action might be taken against the migrants-when it was learned that both victims were Italians, the daughters of a Genoese day laborer.
And now fear spread over the countryside. People no longer knew against whom to direct their impotent rage. Although there were still those who suspected the lunatics or the cryptic marquis, no one really believed that, for the former were under guard day and night, and the latter had long since departed for Paris. So people huddled closer together. The farmers opened up their barns for the migrants, who until then had slept in the open fields. The townsfolk set up nightly patrols in every neighborhood. The police lieutenant reinforced the watch at the gates. But all these measures proved useless. A few days after the double murder, they found the body of yet another girl, abused in the same manner as the others. This time it was a Sardinian washerwoman from the bishop’s palace; she had been struck down near the great basin of the Fontaine de la Foux, directly before the gates of the town. And although at the insistence of the citizenry the consuls initiated still further measures-the tightest possible control at the gates, a reinforced nightwatch, a curfew for all female persons after nightfall-all that summer not a single week went by when the body of a young girl was not discovered. And they were always girls just approaching womanhood, and always very beautiful and usually dark, sugary types. Soon, however, the murderer was no longer rejecting the type of girl more common among the local population: soft, pale-skinned, and somewhat more full-bodied. Even brown-haired girls and some dark blondes-as long as they weren’t too skinny-were among the later victims. He tracked them down everywhere, not just in the open country around Grasse, but in the town itself, right in their homes. The daughter of a carpenter was found slain in her own room on the fifth floor, and no one in the house had heard the least noise, and although the dogs normally yelped the moment they picked up the scent of any stranger, not one of them had barked. The murderer seemed impalpable, incorporeal, like a ghost.
People were outraged and reviled the authorities. The least rumor caused mob scenes. A traveling salesman of love potions and other nostrums was almost massacred, for word spread that one of the ingredients in his remedies was female hair. Fires were set at both the Cabris mansion and the Hopital de la Charite. A servant returning home one night was shot down by his own master, the woolen draper Alexandre Misnard, who mistook him for the infamous murderer of young girls. Whoever could afford it sent his adolescent daughters to distant relatives or to boarding schools in Nice, Aix, or Marseille. The police lieutenant was removed from office at the insistence of the town council. His successor had the college of medicine examine the bodies of the shorn beauties to determine the state of their virginity. It was found that they had all remained untouched.
Strangely enough, this knowledge only increased the sense of horror, for everyone had secretly assumed that the girls had been ravished. People had at least known the murderer’s motive. Now they knew nothing at all, they were totally perplexed. And whoever believed in God sought succor in the prayer that at least his own house should be spared this visitation from hell.
The town council was a committee of thirty of the richest and most influential commoners and nobles in Grasse. The majority of them were enlightened and anticlerical, paid not the least attention to the bishop, and would have preferred to turn the cloisters and abbeys into warehouses or factories. In their distress, the proud, powerful men of the town council condescended to write an abject petition begging the bishop to curse and excommunicate this monster who murdered young girls and yet whom temporal powers could not capture, just as his illustrious predecessor had done in the year 1708, when terrible locusts had threatened the land. And indeed, at the end of September, the slayer of the young women of Grasse, having cut down no fewer than twenty-four of its most beautiful virgins out of every social class, was made anathema and excommunicated both in writing and from all the pulpits of the city, including a ban spoken by the bishop himself from the pulpit of Notre-Dame-du-Puy.
The result was conclusive. From one day to the next, the murders ceased. October and November passed with no corpses. At the start of December, reports came in from Grenoble that a murderer there was strangling young girls, then tearing their clothes to shreds and pulling their hair out by the handfuls. And although these coarse methods in no way squared with the cleanly executed crimes of the Grasse murderer, everyone was convinced that it was one and the same person. In their relief that the beast was no longer among them but instead ravaging Grenoble a good seven days’ journey distant, the citizens of Grasse crossed themselves three times over. They organized a torchlight procession in honor of the bishop and celebrated a mass of thanksgiving on December 24. On January 1, 1766, the tighter security measures were relaxed and the nighttime curfew for women was lifted. Normality returned to public and private life with incredible speed. Fear had melted into thin air, no one spoke of the terror that had ruled both town and counlryside only a few months before. Not even the families involved still spoke of it. It was as if the bishop’s curse had not only banned the murderer, but every memory of him. And the people were pleased that it was so.
But any man who still had a daughter just approaching that special age did not, even now, allow her to be without supervision; twilight brought misgivings, and each morning, when he found her healthy and cheerful, he rejoiced-though of course without actually admitting the reason why.