Forty-eight

AT FIRST people did not believe the report. They assumed it was a ruse by which the officials were covering up their own incompetence and attempting to calm the dangerously explosive mood of the populace. People remembered only too well when the word had been that the murderer had departed for Grenoble. This time fear had set its jaws too firmly into their souls.

Not until the next day, when the evidence was displayed on the church square in front of the provost court-and it was a ghastly sight to behold, twenty-five garments with twenty-five crops of hair, all mounted like scarecrows on poles set up across the top of the square opposite the cathedral-did public opinion change.

Hundreds of people filed by the macabre gallery. The victims’ relatives would recognize the clothes and collapse screaming. The rest of the crowd, partly because they were sensation seekers, partly because they wanted to be totally convinced, demanded to see the murderer. The call soon became so loud, the unrest of the churning crowd in the small square so menacing, that the presiding judge decided to have Grenouille brought up out of his cell and to exhibit him at the window on the second floor of the provost court.

As Grenouille appeared at the window, the roar turned to silence. All at once it was as totally quiet as if this were noon on a hot summer day, when everyone is oat in the fields or has crept into the shade of his own home. Not a footfall, not a cough, not a breath was to be heard. The crowd was all eyes and one mouth agape, for minutes on end. Not a soul could comprehend how this short, paltry, stoop-shouldered man there at the window-this mediocrity, this miserable nonentity, this cipher-could have committed more than two dozen murders. He simply did not look like a murdefer. No one could have said just how he had imagined the murderer, the devil himself, ought to look, but they were all agreed: not like this! And nevertheless-although the murderer did not in the least match their conception, and the exhibition, one would presume, could not have been less convincing-simply because of the physical reality of this man at the window, because he and no other was presented to them as the murderer, the effect was paradoxically persuasive. They all thought: It simply can’t be true!-and at the very same moment knew that it had to be true.

To be sure, only after the guards had led the mannikin bade into the shadows of the room, only after he was no longer present and visible but existed, if for the briefest time, merely as a memory, one might almost say as a concept, the concept of an abominable murderer within people’s brains, only then did the crowd’s bewilderment subside and make away for an appropriate reaction: the mouths closed tight, the thousand eyes came alive again. And then there rang out as if in one voice a thundering cry of rage and revenge: “We want him!” And they set about to storm the provost court, to strangle him with their own hands, to tear him apart and scatter the pieces. It was all the guards could do to barricade the gate and force the mob back. Grenouille was promptly returned to his dungeon. The presiding judge appeared at the window and promised a trial remarkable for its swift and implacable justice. It took several hours, however, for the crowd to disperse, and several days for the town to quiet down to any extent.

The proceedings against Grenouille did indeed move at an extraordinarily rapid pace, not only because the evidence was overwhelming, but also because the accused himself freely confessed to all the murders charged against him.

But when asked about his motives, he had no convincing answer to give them. His repeated reply was that he had needed the girls and that was why he had slain them. What had he needed them for or what was that supposed to mean, “he needed them”?-to that he was silent. They then subjected him to torture, hanged him by his feet for hours, pumped him full of seven pints of water, put clamps on his feet-without the least success. The man seemed immune to physical pain, did not utter a sound, and when questioned again replied with nothing more than: “I needed them.” The judges considered him insane. They discontinued the torture and decided to bring the case to an end without further interrogation.

The only delay that occurred after that was a legal squabble with the magistrate of Draguignan, in whose jurisdiction La Napoule was located, and with the parliament in Aix, both of whom wanted to take over the trial themselves. But the judges of Grasse would not let the matter be wrested from them now. They were the ones who had arrested the culprit, the overwhelming majority of the murders had been committed in the area under their jurisdiction, and if they handed the murderer over to another court, there was the threat of the pent-up anger of the citizenry. His blood would have to flow in Grasse.

On April 15, 1766, a verdict was rendered and read to the accused in his cell: “The journeyman perfumer, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille,” it stated, “shall within the next forty-eight hours be led out to the parade ground before the city gates and there be bound to a wooden cross, his face toward heaven, and while still alive be dealt twelve blows with an iron rod, breaking the joints of his arms, legs, hips, and shoulders, and then, still bound to the cross, be raised up to hang until death.” The customary act of mercy, by which the offender was strangled with a cord once his body had been crushed, was expressly forbidden the executioner, even if the agonies of death should take days. The body was to be buried by night in an unmarked grave in the knacker’s yard.

Grenouille received the verdict without emotion. The bailiff asked him if he had a last wish. “No, nothing,” Grenouille said; he had everything he needed.

A priest entered the cell to hear his confession, but came out again after fifteen minutes with nothing accomplished. When he had mentioned the name of God, the condemned man had looked at him with total incomprehension, as if he had heard the name for the first time, had then stretched out on his plank bed and sunk at once into a deep sleep. To have said another word would have been pointless.

During the next two days, many people came to see the famous murderer at close range. The guards let them peek through the shutter in the door and demanded six sol per peek. An etcher, who wanted to prepare a sketch, had to pay two francs. His subject, however, was rather a disappointment. The prisoner, bound at his wrists and ankles, lay on his plank bed the whole time and slept. His face was turned to the wall, and he responded to neither knocks nor shouts. Visitors were strictly banned from the cell, and despite some tempting offers, the guards did not dare disregard this prohibition. It was feared the prisoner might be murdered ahead of time by a relative of one of his victims. For the same reason no one was allowed to offer him food. It might have been poisoned. During the whole period of imprisonment, Grenouille’s food came from the servants’ kitchen in the bishop’s palace and had first to be tasted by the prison warden. The last two days, however, he ate nothing at all. He lay on his bed and slept. Occasionally his chains rattled, and if the guard hurried over to the shutter, he could watch Grenouille take a drink from his canteen, then throw himself back on his plank bed, and go back to sleep. It seemed as if the man was so tired of life that he did not want to experience his last hours awake.

Meanwhile the parade grounds were readied for the execution. Carpenters built a scaffold, nine feet by nine feet square and six feet high, with a railing and a sturdy set of stairs-Grasse had never had one as fine as this. Plus a wooden grandstand for local notables and a fence to separate them from the common people, who were to be kept at some distance. In the buildings to the left and right of the Porte du Cours and in the guardhouse itself, places at the windows had long since been rented out at exorbitant rates. The executioner’s assistants had even leased the rooms of the patients in the Charit6, which was located off to one side, and resold them to curious spectators at a handsome profit. The lemonade vendors stocked up with pitcherfuls of licorice water, the etcher printed up several hundred copies of the sketch he had made of the murderer in prison-touched up a bit from his own imagination-itinerant peddlers streamed into town by the dozens, the bakers baked souvenir cookies.

The executioner, Monsieur Papon, who had not had an offender to smash for years now, had a heavy, squared iron rod forged for him and went off to the slaughterhouse to practice blows on carcasses. He was permitted only tweive hits, and he had to strike true, crushing all twelve joints without damaging the vital body parts, like the chest or head-a difficult business that demanded a fine touch and good timing.

The citizens readied themselves for the event as if for a high holiday. That there would be no work that day went without saying. The women ironed their holiday dresses, the men dusted off their frock coats and had their boots polished to a high gloss. Whoever held military rank or occupied public office, whoever was a guild master, an attomey-at-law, a notary, a head of a fraternal order, or held any other position of importance, donned his uniform or official garb, along with his medals, sashes, chains, and periwig powdered to a chalky white. Pious folk intended to assemble immediately afterwards for religious services, the disciples of Satan planned a hearty Luci-ferian mass of thanksgiving, the educated aristocracy were going to gather for magnetic seances at the manors of the Cabris, Villeneuves, and Fontmichels. The roasting and baking had begun in the kitchens, the wine had been fetched from the cellars, the floral displays from the market, and the organist and choir were practicing in the cathedral.

In the Richis household on the rue Droite everything remained quiet. Richis had forbidden any preparations for the “Day of Liberation,” as people were calling the murderer’s execution day. It all disgusted him. The sudden eruption of renewed fear among the populace had disgusted him, their feverish joy of anticipation disgusted him. The people themselves, every one of them, disgusted him. He had not participated in the presentation of the culprit and his victims in the cathedral square, nor in the trial, nor in the obscene procession of sensation seekers filing past the cell of the condemned man. He had requested that the court come to his home for him to identify his daughter’s hair and clothing, had given his testimony briefly and calmly, and had asked that they leave him those items as keepsakes, which they did. He carried them to Laure’s room, laid the shredded nightgown and undershirt on her bed, spread the red hair over the pillow, sat down beside them, and did not leave the room again day or night, as if by pointlessly standing guard now, he could make good what he had neglected to do that night in La Napoule. He was so full of disgust, disgust at the world and at himself, that he could not weep.

He was also disgusted by the murderer. He did not want to regard him as a human being, but only as a victim to be slaughtered. He did not want to see him until the execution, when he would be laid on the cross and the twelve blows crashed down upon him— then he would want to see him, want to see him from up close, and he had had a place reserved for himself in the front row. And when the crowd had wandered off after a few hours, he wanted to climb up onto the bloody scaffold and crouch next to him, keeping watch, by night, by day, for however long he had to, and look into the eyes of this man, the murderer of his daughter, and drop by drop to trickle the disgust within him into those eyes, to pour out his disgust like burning acid over the man in his death agonies-until the beast perished…

And after that? What would he do after that? He did not know. Perhaps resume his normal life, perhaps get married, perhaps father a son, perhaps do nothing at all, perhaps die. It made no difference whatever to him. To think about it seemed to him as pointless as to think about what he would do after his own death: nothing, of course. Nothing that he could know at this point.

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