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AFTER speaking at some length of the intelligence of the flowers, it will seem natural that we should say a word of their soul, which is their perfume. Unfortunately, here, as in the case of the soul of man, a perfume of another sphere, where reason bathes, we have at once to do with the unknowable. We are almost entirely unacquainted with the purpose of that zone of festive and invisibly magnificent air which the corollas shed around themselves. There is, in fact, a great doubt whether it serves chiefly to attract the insects. In the first place, many among the most sweet-scented of the flowers do not admit of cross-fertilisation, so that the visit of the butterfly or the bee is to them a matter of indifference or inconvenience. Next, that which attracts the insects is solely the pollen and the nectar, which, generally, have no perceptible odour. And thus we see them neglect the most deliciously perfumed flowers, such as the rose and the carnation, to besiege in crowds the flowers of the maple or the hazel-tree, whose aroma is, in a manner of speaking, null.
Let us, then, confess that we do not yet know in what respect perfumes are useful to the flower, even as we cannot tell why we ourselves perceive them. Indeed, of all our senses, that of smell is the most unexplained. It is evident that sight, hearing, touch and taste are indispensable to our animal existence. A long education alone teaches us the disinterested enjoyment of forms, colours and sounds. For that matter, our sense of smell also exercises important servile functions. It is the keeper of the air we breathe, the hygienist or chemist that watches carefully over the quality of the food offered for our consumption, any disagreeable emanation revealing the presence of suspicious or dangerous germs. But besides this practical mission it has another which corresponds with nothing at all. Perfumes are utterly useless to the needs of our physical life. When too violent or too lasting, they may even become detrimental to it. Nevertheless, we possess a faculty that revels in them and brings us the joyful tidings of them with as much enthusiasm and conviction as though it concerned the discovery of a delicious fruit or drink. This uselessness deserves our consideration. It must hide some fair secret. We have here the only occurrence in which nature procures us a gratuitous pleasure, a satisfaction that does not serve to adorn one of necessity's snares. Our scent is the only purely luxurious sense that she has granted us. Wherefore it seems almost foreign to our bodies, appears to be not very closely connected with our organism. Is it an apparatus that is developing, or one that is wasting away; a somnolent, or an awakening faculty? Everything leads us to think that it is being evolved on even lines with our civilisation. The ancients interested themselves almost exclusively in the more brutal, the heavier, the more solid scents, so to speak: musk, benzoin, incense; and the fragrance of the flowers is very seldom mentioned in Greek and Latin poetry or in Hebrew literature. To-day, do we ever see our peasants, even at their longest periods of leisure, dream of smelling a violet or a rose? And is not this, on the other hand, the very first act of an inhabitant of our great cities who perceives a flower? There is, therefore, some ground for admitting that the sense of smell is the last-born of our senses, the only one, perhaps, that is not "in course of retrogression," to use the ponderous phrase of the biologists. This is a reason for making it our study, questioning it and cultivating its possibilities. Who shall tell the surprises which it would have in store for us if it equalled, for instance, the perfection of our sight, as it does in the case of the dog, which lives as much by the nose as by the eyes?
We have here an unexplored world. This mysterious sense, which, at first sight, appears almost foreign to our organism, becomes, perhaps, when more carefully considered, that which enters into it most intimately. Are we not, above all things, beings of the air? Is the air not for us the most absolutely and promptly indispensable element; and is not our smell just the one sense that perceives some parts of it? Perfumes, which are the jewels of that life-giving air, do not adorn it without good cause. It were not surprising if this luxury which we do not understand corresponded with something very profound and very essential and rather, as we have seen, with something that is not yet than with something that has ceased to be. It is very possible that this sense, the only one that is turned towards the future, is already discerning the most striking manifestations of a form or of a happy and salutary state of matter that is reserving many surprises for us.
Meanwhile, it has not yet reached beyond the stage of the more violent, the less subtle perceptions. Hardly does it so much as suspect, with the aid of the imagination, the profound and harmonious effluvia that evidently envelop the great spectacles of the atmosphere and the light. As we are on the point of distinguishing those of the rain and the twilight, why should we not one day succeed in recognising and fixing the scent of snow, of ice, of morning dew, of the first fruits of the dawn, of the twinkling of the stars; for everything must have its perfume, inconceivable, as yet, in space: even a moonbeam, a ripple of water, a hovering cloud, an azure smile of the sky. . . .
Chance or rather the choice of life has brought me back lately to the spot where almost all the perfumes of Europe are born and elaborated. It is, in point of fact, as every one knows, in the sun-swept and balmy region stretching from Cannes to Nice that the last hills and the last valleys of living and true flowers maintain an heroic struggle against the coarse chemical odours of Germany, which stand in exactly the same relation to nature's perfumes as do the painted woods and plains of a theatre to the woods and plains of the real country. Here the labourer's work is ruled by a sort of purely floral calendar, in which, in May and July, two adorable queens hold sway: the rose and the jasmine. Around these two sovereigns of the year, one the colour of the dawn, the other clad in white stars, defile in procession, from January to December, the violets, innumerous and prompt, the artless, marvel-eyed narcissuses, the clustering mimosas, the mignonette, the pink laden with precious spices, the imperious geranium, the tyrannically virginal orange-flower, the lavender, the Spanish broom, the too-potent tuberose and the acacia that resembles an orange caterpillar. It is, at first, not a little disconcerting to see the great dull and heavy rustics, whom harsh necessity turns every elsewhere from the smiles of life, taking flowers so seriously, handling carefully those fragile ornaments of the earth, performing a task fit for a princess or a bee and bending under a weight of violets or jonquils. But the most striking impression is that of certain evenings or mornings in the season of the roses or the jasmine. It is as though the atmosphere of the earth had suddenly changed, as though it had made way for that of an infinitely happy planet, where perfumes are not, as here, fleeting, vague and precarious, but stable, spacious, full, permanent, generous, normal and inalienable.
Many writers, speaking of Grasse, have drawn the picture of that almost fairy-like industry which occupies the whole of a hard-working town, perched, like a sunlit hive, upon a mountain-side. They have told of the magnificent cartloads of roses shot upon the threshold of the smoking factories, the great halls in which the sorters literally wade through the flood of petals, the less cumbersome, but more precious arrival of the violets, tuberoses, acacias, jasmine, in wide baskets which the peasant-women carry nobly on their heads. Lastly, they have described the different processes whereby the flowers, each according to its character, are forced to yield to the crystal the marvellous secrets of their hearts. We know that some of them, the roses, for instance, are accommodating and willing and give up their aroma with simplicity. They are heaped into huge boilers, tall as those of our locomotive engines, through which steam is made to pass. Little by little, their essential oil, more costly than a jelly of pearls, oozes drop by drop into a glass tube, no wider than a goose-quill at the bottom of the monstrous still, which resembles some mountain painfully giving birth to a tear of amber.
But the greater part of the flowers do not so easily allow their souls to be imprisoned. I will not, in the wake of so many others, speak here of the infinitely varied tortures inflicted upon them to force them at length to surrender the treasure which they desperately hide in the depth of their corollas. I will not enumerate the different processes of chemical extraction by means of petrol ether, sulphide of carbon and the rest. The great perfumers of Grasse, ever faithful to tradition, scorn these artificial and almost unfair methods, which wound the soul of the flower. It will suffice to give an idea of the executioner's cunning and the obstinacy of some of the victims, to recall the pangs of the enfleurage which certain flowers are made to endure before they break silence. The cold enfleurage is practised only upon the jonquil, the mignonette, the tuberose and the jasminel; and I may mention, in passing, that the scent of the jasmine is the only one that is inimitable, the only one that cannot be obtained by a cunning mixture of other odours. The torturer coats large plates of glass with a white fat of the thickness of two fingers and spreads on this bed of humiliating pain the flowers to be questioned. As the result of what hypocritical manoeuvres, of what unctuous promises does the fat obtain their irrevocable confidences? None can tell; but the fact remains that soon the too-trusting flowers have nothing more to lose. Forthwith, they are removed and flung away as rubbish; and, each morning, a new ingenuous heap takes their place on the insidious couch. These yield in their turn and undergo the same fate; others and yet others follow them; and it is not until the end of three months, that is after devouring ninety successive layers of flowers, that the unctuous ogre is completely surfeited and refuses to absorb the life and soul of any further victims. It now becomes a matter of making the wan miser disgorge; for the energy, to retain the absorbed treasure. This is achieved, not without difficulty. The fat has base passions which are its undoing. It is plied with alcohol, is intoxicated and ends by quitting its hold. The alcohol now possesses the mystery. No sooner has it the secrets in its custody than it too claims the right to impart them to none other, to keep them for itself alone. It is attacked in its turn, tortured, evaporated, condensed; and, after all these adventures, the liquid pearl, pure, essential, inexhaustible and almost imperishable, is at last gathered on a crystal blade.
1 The violets resist the reduction of cold fat and the torture of fire has to be superadded. The lard, therefore, is heated in the water-bath until it approaches boiling-point. In consequence of this barbarous treatment, which recalls that inflicted upon the coiners of the middle ages, the modest and fragrant flowers that deck the roads in spring gradually lose the strength to keep their secret. They yield, they surrender, and their liquid executioner is not satiated until it has absorbed four times its own weight in petals, which causes the torture to be prolonged throughout the season in which the violets blossom under the olive-trees.
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