GRENOULLE TRAVELED by night. As he had done at the beginning of his journeys, he steered clear of cities, avoided highways, lay down to sleep at daybreak, arose in the evening, and walked on. He fed on whatever he found on the way: grasses, mushrooms, flowers, dead birds, worms. He marched through the Provence; south of Orange he crossed the Rhone in a stolen boat, followed the Ardeche deep into the Cevennes and then the Allier northwards.
In the Auvergne he drew close to the Plomb du Cantal. He saw it lying to the west, huge and silver gray in the moonlight, and he smelled the cool wind that came from it. But he felt no urge to visit it. He no longer yearned for his life in the cave. He had experienced that life once and it had proved unlivable. Just as had his other experience-life among human beings. He was suffocated by both worlds. He no longer wanted to live at all. He wanted to go to Paris and die. That was what he wanted.
From time to time he reached in his pocket and closed his hand around the little glass flacon of his perfume. The bottle was still almost full. He had used only a drop of it for his performance in Grasse. There was enough left to enslave the whole world. If he wanted, he could be feted in Paris, not by tens of thousands, but by hundreds of thousands of people; or could walk out to Versailles and have the king kiss his feet; write the pope a perfumed letter and reveal himself as the new Messiah; be anointed in Notre-Dame as Supreme Emperor before kings and emperors, or even as God come to earth-if there was such a thing as God having Himself anointed…
He could do all that, if only he wanted to. He possessed the power. He held it in his hand. A power stronger than the power of money or the power of terror or the power of death: the invincible power to command the love of mankind. There was only one thing that power could not do: it could not make him able to smell himself. And though his perfume might allow him to appear before the world as a god-if he could not smell himself and thus never know who he was, to hell with it, with the world, with himself, with his perfume.
The hand that had grasped the flacon was fragrant with a faint scent, and when he put it to his nose and sniffed, he grew wistful and forgot to walk on and stood there smelling. No one knows how good this perfume really is, he thought. No one knows how well made it is. Other people are merely conquered by its effect, don’t even know that it’s a perfume that’s working on them, enslaving them. The only one who has ever recognized it for its true beauty is me, because I created it myself. And at the same time, I’m the only one that it cannot enslave. I am the only person for whom it is meaningless.
And on another occasion-he was already in Burgundy: When I was standing there at the wall below the garden where the redheaded girl was playing and her scent came floating down to me… or, better, the promise of her scent, for the scent she would carry later did not even exist yet-maybe what I felt that day is like what the people on the parade grounds felt when I flooded them with my perfume…? But then he cast the thought aside: No, it was something else. Because I knew that I desired the scent, not the girl. But those people believed that they desired me, and what they really desired remained a mystery to them.
Then he thought no more, for thinking was not his strong point, and then, too, he was already in the Orleanais.
He crossed the Loire at Sully. The next day he had the odor of Paris in his nose. On June 25, 1766, at six in the morning, he entered the city via the rue Saint-Jacques.
It turned out to be a hot day, the hottest of the year thus far. The thousands of odors and stenches oozed out as if from thousands of festering boils. Not a breeze stirred. The vegetables in the market stalls shriveled up. Meat and fish rotted. Tainted air hung in the narrow streets. Even the river seemed to have stopped flowing, to have stagnated. It stank. It was a day like the one on which Grenouille was born.
He walked across the Pont-Neuf to the right bank, and then down to Les Halles and the Cimetiere des Innocents. He sat down in the arcades of the charnel house bordering the rue aux Fers. Before him lay the cemetery grounds like a cratered battlefield, burrowed and ditched and trenched with graves, sown with skulls and bones, not a tree, bush, or blade of grass, a garbage dump of death.
Not a soul was to be seen. The stench of corpses was so heavy that even the gravediggers had retreated. Only after the sun had gone down did they come out again to scoop out holes for the dead by torchlight until late into the night.
But then after midnight-the gravediggers had left by then-the place came alive with all sorts of riffraff: thieves, murderers, cutthroats, whores, deserters, young desperadoes. A small campfire was lit for cooking and in the hope of masking the stench.
When Grenouille came out of the arcades and mixed in with these people, they at first took no notice of him. He was able to walk up to the fire unchallenged, as if he were one of them. That later helped confirm the view that they must have been dealing with a ghost or an angel or some other supernatural being. Because normally they were very touchy about the approach of any stranger.
The little man in the blue frock coat, however, had suddenly simply been there, as if he had sprouted out of the ground, and he had had a little bottle in his hand that he unstoppered. That was the first thing that any of them could recall: that he had stood there and unstoppered a bottle. And then he had sprinkled himself all over with the contents of the bottle and all at once he had been bathed in beauty like blazing fire.
For a moment they fell back in awe and pure amazement. But in the same instant they sensed their falling back was more like preparing for a running start, that their awe was turning to desire, their amazement to rapture. They felt themselves drawn to this angel of a man. A frenzied, alluring force came from him, a riptide no human could have resisted, all the less because no human would have wanted to resist it, for what that tide was pulling under and dragging away was the human will itself: straight to him.
They had formed a circle around him, twenty, thirty people, and their circle grew smaller and smaller. Soon the circle could not contain them all, they began to push, to shove, and to elbow, each of them trying to be closest to the center.
And then all at once the last inhibition collapsed within them, and the circle collapsed with it. They lunged at the angel, pounced on him, threw him to the ground. Each of them wanted to touch him, wanted to have a piece of him, a feather, a bit of plumage, a spark from that wonderful fire. They tore away his clothes, his hair, his skin from his body, they plucked him, they drove their claws and teeth into his flesh, they attacked him like hyenas.
But the human body is tough and not easily dismembered, even horses have great difficulty accomplishing it. And so the flash of knives soon followed, thrusting and slicing, and then the swish of axes and cleavers aimed at the joints, hacking and crushing the bones. In very short order, the angel was divided into thirty pieces, and every animal in the pack snatched a piece for itself, and then, driven by voluptuous lust, dropped back to devour it. A half hour later, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille had disappeared utterly from the earth.
When the cannibals found their way back together after disposing of their meal, no one said a word. Someone would belch a bit, or spit out a fragment of bone, or softly smack with his tongue, or kick a leftover shred of blue frock coat into the flames. They were all a little embarrassed and afraid to look at one another. They had all, whether man or woman, committed a murder or some other despicable crime at one time or another. But to eat a human being? They would never, so they thought, have been capable of anything that horrible. And they were amazed that it had been so very easy for them and that, embarrassed as they were, they did not feel the tiniest bite of conscience. On the contrary! Though the meal lay rather heavy on their stomachs, their hearts were definitely light. All of a sudden there were delightful, bright flutterings in their dark souls. And on their faces was a delicate, virginal glow of happiness. Perhaps that was why they were shy about looking up and gazing into one another’s eyes.
When they finally did dare it, at first with stolen glances and then candid ones, they had to smile. They were uncommonly proud. For the first time they had done something out of love.