Книга Perfume. The story of a murderer. Содержание - Forty-nine


THE EXECUTION was scheduled for five in the afternoon. The first spectators had arrived by morning and secured themselves places. They brought chairs and footstools with them, pillows, food, wine, and their children. Around noon, masses of country people streamed in from all directions, and the parade grounds were soon so packed that new arrivals had to camp along the road to Grenoble and on the terracelike gardens and fields that rose at the far end of the area. Vendors were already doing a brisk business-people ate, people drank, everything hummed and simmered as at a country fair. Soon there were a good ten thousand people gathered, more than for the crowning of the Queen of the Jasmine, more than for the largest guild procession, more than Grasse had ever seen before. They stood far up on the slopes. They hung in the trees, they squatted atop walls and on the roofs, they pressed together ten or twelve to a window. Only in the center of the grounds, protected by the fence barricade, as if stamped and cut from the dough of the crowd, was there still an open space for the grandstand and the scaffold, which suddenly appeared very small, like a toy or the stage of a puppet theater. And one pathway was left open, leading from the place of execution to the Porte du Cours and into the rue Droite.

Shortly after three, Monsieur Papon and his henchmen appeared. The applause swept forward like thunder. They carried two wooden beams forming a St. Andrew’s cross to the scaffold and set it at a good working height by propping it up on four carpenter’s horses. A journeyman carpenter nailed it down. Every move, every gesture of the deputy executioners and the carpenter was greeted by the crowd’s applause. And when Papon stepped forward with his iron rod, walked around the cross, measuring his steps, striking an imaginary blow now on one side, now on the other, there was an eruption of downright jubilation.

At four, the grandstand began to fill. There were many fine folk to admire, rich gentlemen with lackeys and fine manners, beautiful women, big hats, shimmering clothes. The whole of the nobility from both town and country was on hand. The gentlemen of the council appeared in closed rank, the two consuls at their head. Richis was dressed in black, with black stockings and a black hat. Behind the council the magistrates marched in, led by the presiding judge of the court. Last of all, in an open sedan chair came the bishop, wearing gleaming purple vestments and a little green hat. Whoever still had his cap on doffed it now to be sure. This was awe-inspiring.

Then nothing happened for about ten minutes. The lords and ladies had taken their places, the common folk waited impassively; no one was eating now, they all waited. Papon and his henchmen stood on the scaffold platform as if they too had been nailed down. The sun hung large and yellow over the Esterel. From the valley of Grasse a warm wind came up, bearing with it the scent of orange blossoms. It was very warm and almost implausibly still.

Finally, when it seemed the tension could last no longer without its bursting into a thousand-voiced scream, into a tumult, a frenzy, or some other mob scene, above the stillness they heard the clatter of horses and the creaking of wheels.

Down the rue Droite came a carriage drawn by a pair of horses, the police lieutenant’s carriage. It drove through the city gate and reappeared for all to see in the narrow path leading to the scaffold. The police lieutenant had insisted on this manner of arrival, since otherwise he could not guarantee the safety of the convicted man. It was certainly not the customary practice. The prison was hardly five minutes away from the place of execution, and if a condemned man, for whatever reason, could not have managed the short distance on foot, then he would have traveled it in an open donkey cart. That a man should be driven to his own execution in a coach, with a driver, liveried footmen, and a mounted guard-no one had ever seen anything like that.

And nevertheless, there was no sign of unrest or displeasure among the crowd-on the contrary. People were satisfied that at least something was happening, considered the idea of the coach a clever stroke, just as at the theater people enjoy a familiar play when it is presented in some surprisingly new fashion. Many even thought the grand entrance appropriate. Such an extraordinarily abominable criminal deserved extraordinary treatment. You couldn’t drag him to the scaffold in chains like a common thief and kill him. There would have been nothing sensational about that. But to lead him from his upholstered equipage to the St. Andrew’s cross-that was an incomparably imaginative bit of cruelty.

The carriage stopped midway between the scaffold and the grandstand. The footmen jumped down, opened the carriage door, and folded down the steps. The police lieutenant climbed out, behind him an officer of the guard, and finally Grenouille. He was wearing a blue frock coat, a white shirt, white silk stockings, and buckled black shoes. He was not bound. No one led him by the arm. He got out of the carriage as if he were a free man.

And then a miracle occurred. Or something very like a miracle, or at least something so incomprehensible, so unprecedented, and so unbelievable that everyone who witnessed it would have called it a miracle afterwards if they had taken the notion to speak of it at all-which was not the case, since afterwards every single one of them was ashamed to have had any part in it whatever.

What happened was that from one moment to the next, the ten thousand people on the parade grounds and on the slopes surrounding it felt themselves infused with the unshakable belief that the man in the blue frock coat who had just climbed out of the carriage could not possibly be a murderer. Not that they doubted his identity! The man standing there was the same one whom they had seen just a few days before at the window of the provost court on the church square and whom, had they been able to get their hands on him, they would have lynched with savage hatred. The same one who only two days before had been lawfully condemned on the basis of overwhelming evidence and his own confession. The same one whose slaughter at the hands of the executioner they had eagerly awaited only a few minutes before. It was he-no doubt of it!

And yet-it was not he either, it could not be he, he could not be a murderer. The man who stood at the scaffold was innocence personified. All of them-from the bishop to the lemonade vendor, from the marquis to the little washerwoman, from the presiding judge to the street urchin-knew it in a flash.

Papon knew it too. And his great hands, still clutching the iron rod, trembled. All at once his strong arms were as weak, his knees as wobbly, his heart as anxious as a child’s. He would not be able to lift that rod, would never in his life have the strength to lift it against this little, innocent man-oh, he dreaded the moment when they would lead him forward; he tottered, had to prop himself up with his death-dealing rod to keep from sinking feebly to his knees, the great, the mighty Papon!

The ten thousand men and women, children and patriarchs assembled there felt no different-they grew weak as young maidens who have succumbed to the charms of a lover. They were overcome by a powerful sense of goodwill, of tenderness, of crazy, childish infatuation, yes, God help them, of love for this little homicidal man, and they were unable, unwilling to do anything about it. It was like a fit of weeping you cannot fight down, like tears that have been held back too long and rise up from deep within you, dissolving whatever resists them, liquefying it, and flushing it away. These people were now pure liquid, their spirits and minds were melted; nothing was left but an amorphous fluid, and all they could feel was their hearts floating and sloshing about within them, and they laid those hearts, each man, each woman, in the hands of the little man in the blue frock coat, for better or worse. They loved him.

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