The Book of Lost Fragrances
One ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT, 1799
Giles L’Etoile was a master of scent, not a thief. He had never stolen anything but one woman’s heart, and she’d always said she’d given that willingly. But on this chilly Egyptian evening, as he descended the rickety ladder into the ancient tomb, each tentative footstep brought him closer to criminality.
Preceding L’Etoile had been an explorer, an engineer, an architect, an artist, a cartographer, and, of course, the general himself—all the savants from Napoléon’s army of intellectuals and scientists now stealing into a sacred burial place that had remained untouched for thousands of years. The crypt had been discovered the day before by the explorer Emile Saurent and his team of Egyptian boys, who had stopped digging when they unearthed the sealed stone door. Now the twenty-nine-year-old Napoléon would have the privilege of being the first man to see what had lain lost and forgotten for millennia. It was no secret that he entertained dreams of conquering Egypt. But his grand ambitions went beyond military conquests. Under his aegis, Egypt’s history was being explored, studied and mapped.
At the bottom of the ladder, L’Etoile joined the assembled party in a dimly lit vestibule. He sniffed and identified limestone and plaster dust, stale air and the workers’ body odor, and a hint of another scent almost too faint to take in.
Four pink granite columns, their bases buried under piles of dirt and debris, held up a ceiling painted with a rich lapis lazuli and a silver astronomical star chart. Cut into the walls were several doors, one larger than the others. Here Saurent was already chiseling away at its plaster seal.
The walls of the antechamber were painted with delicate and detailed murals, beautifully rendered in earth-toned colors. The murals were so vibrant L’Etoile expected to smell the paint, but it was Napoléon’s cologne he breathed in. The stylized motif of water lilies that bordered the crypt and framed the paintings interested the perfumer. Egyptians called the flower the blue lotus and had been using its essence in perfumes for thousands of years. L’Etoile, who at thirty had already spent almost a decade studying the sophisticated and ancient Egyptian art of perfume making, knew this flower and its properties well. Its perfume was lovely, but what separated it from other flowers was its hallucinogenic properties. He’d experienced them firsthand and found them to be an excellent solution when his past rose up and pushed at his present.
The lotus wasn’t the only floral element in the paintings. Workers took seeds from sacks in storerooms in the first panel and planted beds in the next. In the following panel, they tended the emerging shoots and blooms and trees and then in progression cut the flowers, boughs, and herbs and picked the fruit. In the last, they carried the bounty to the man L’Etoile assumed was the deceased, and laid it at his feet.
As more plaster fell and chips hit the alabaster floor, Abu, the guide Saurent had brought, lectured the men about what they were seeing. Abu’s recitation was interesting, but the odors of perspiration, burning wicks, and chalky dust began to overwhelm L’Etoile, and he glanced over at the general. As much as the perfumer suffered, he knew it was worse for Napoléon. So great was the commander’s sensitivity to scent, he couldn’t tolerate being around certain servants, soldiers, or women whose smell disagreed with him. There were stories of his extended baths and his excessive use of eau de cologne—his private blend made of lemon, citron, bergamot and rosemary. The general even had special candles (they lit this dark chamber now) sent over from France because they were made with a wax obtained by crystallizing sperm whale oil that burned with a less noxious odor.
Napoléon’s obsession was one of the reasons L’Etoile was still in Egypt. The general had asked him to stay on longer so he could have a perfumer at his disposal. L’Etoile hadn’t minded. Everything that had mattered to him in Paris had been lost six years before, during the Reign of Terror. Nothing waited for him at home but memories.
As Saurent chipped away at the last of the plaster, the perfumer edged closer to study the deep carvings on the door. Here too was a border of blue lotus, these framing cartouches of the same indecipherable hieroglyphics that one saw all across Egypt. Perhaps the newly discovered stone in the port city of Rashid would yield clues as to how to translate these markings.
“All done,” Saurent said as he gave his tools to one of the Egyptian boys and dusted off his hands. “Général?”
Napoléon stepped up to the portal and tried to twist the still-bright brass ring. Coughed. Pulled harder. The general was lean, almost emaciated, and L’Etoile hoped he’d be able to make it budge. Finally, a loud creaking echoed in the cavern as the door swung open.
Saurent and L’Etoile joined the general on the threshold, all three of them thrusting their candles into the darkness to enliven the inner chamber, and in the flickering pale yellow light, a corridor filled with treasures revealed itself.
But it wasn’t the elaborate wall drawings in the passageway, the alabaster jars, the finely carved and decorated sculptures, or the treasure-filled wooden chests that L’Etoile would remember for the rest of his life. It was the warm, sweet air that rushed out to embrace him.
The perfumer smelled death and history. Faint whiffs of tired flowers, fruits, herbs, and woods. Most of these he was familiar with—but he smelled other notes, too. Weaker. Less familiar. Only ideas of scents, really, but they mesmerized him and drew him forward, tantalizing and entreating like a lovely dream on the verge of being lost forever.
He ignored Saurent’s warning that he was entering uncharted territory—that there could be booby traps, serpents coiled and waiting—and Abu’s admonitions about lurking spirits more dangerous than the snakes. L’Etoile followed his nose into the darkness with just his single candle, pushing ahead of the general and everyone else, hungry for a more concentrated dose of the mysterious perfume.
He walked down the highly decorated corridor to an inner sanctuary and inhaled deeply, trying to learn more from the ancient air. Frustrated, he exhaled and inadvertently blew his candle out.
It must have been all the deep breaths, or perhaps the pervasive darkness. Maybe it was the stale air that made him so dizzy. It didn’t matter. As he battled the vertigo, his awareness of the scent became more powerful, more intimate. Finally, he began to identify specific ingredients. Frankincense and myrrh, blue lotus and almond oil. All popular in Egyptian fragrances and incenses. But there was something else, elusive and just beyond his reach.
Standing alone, in the dark, he was so deep in concentration he didn’t hear the footsteps of the rest of the party as they came closer.
“What’s that odor?”
The voice startled the perfumer. He turned to Napoléon, who’d just entered the inner chamber.
“A perfume that hasn’t been breathed for centuries,” L’Etoile whispered.
As the others entered, Abu set to explaining that they were now standing in the funeral chamber and pointed out the brightly colored murals. One showed the deceased dressing a large statue of a man with a jackal’s head, placing food at the man-beast’s feet. Slightly behind him, a lithe and lovely woman in a transparent gown held a tray of bottles. In the next scene, she was lighting a censer, the smoke becoming visible. In the next panel, the jackal stood among jars, presses, and alembics, objects that L’Etoile recognized from his father’s perfume shop back in Paris.
L’Etoile knew how important fragrance was to ancient Egyptians, but he’d never seen this much imagery relating to the making or using of scent before.
“Who is this man buried here?” Napoléon asked Abu. “Can you tell yet?”
“Not yet, Général,” Abu answered. “But we should find more clues there.”
Abu pointed toward the center of the room.
The stylized black granite sarcophagus was five times the size of an ordinary man. Its polished surface was carved with cartouches and inlaid with a turquoise and lapis portrait of a beautiful, catlike man with blue water lilies around his head. L’Etoile recognized him. He was Nefertum, son of Iset. The god of perfume.
The scenes in the murals, the motif of lilies, the censers in all the corners of the room, suddenly made sense to L’Etoile. This was the tomb of an ancient Egyptian perfumer. And judging from its majesty, the priest had been revered.
Saurent barked out orders to his team of workers, and after a brief struggle, the young men lifted the stone lid. Nestled inside was a wide wooden coffin painted with still more scenes of the two people represented in the murals. This cover they were able to pry off without much difficulty.
Inside was an oversize mummy, oddly shaped—the right length but too wide by half—blackened with asphalt from the Dead Sea. Instead of only one, it wore two elaborate gold masks. Both were crowned with headdresses of turquoise and lapis and wore carnelian, gold and amethyst breastplates. The only difference between them was that the one on the right was male and the one on the left, female.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Abu uttered in hushed astonishment.
“What does it mean?” Napoléon asked.
“I don’t know, Général. It’s most unusual,” Abu stammered.
“Unwrap him, Saurent,” Napoléon ordered.
Despite Abu’s protestations, Saurent insisted the young men cut through the linen and expose the actual mummy. The Frenchman was paying them, so they agreed. As L’Etoile knew, ancient embalming techniques using fragrant oils and unguents along with the dry air should have prevented the deceased’s soft muscles and tissue from decaying. Even the hair might have been preserved. He’d seen mummies before and had been fascinated by their sweet-smelling corpses.
It took only a few minutes to cut and peel back the blackened cloth.
“No. Like nothing I have ever seen,” Abu whispered.
The corpse on the right didn’t have his arms crossed on his chest, as was the custom. Instead his right hand was extended and holding the hand of a woman with whom he’d been mummified. Her left hand was knotted with his. The two lovers were so lifelike, their bodies so uncorrupted, it appeared they had been buried months ago, not centuries.
The assembled crowed murmured with amazement at the sight of
this couple intertwined in death, but what affected L’Etoile was not what he saw. Here at last was the fountainhead of the odor that had begun to tease him as he’d climbed down the ladder.
He struggled to separate out the notes he recognized from the ones he didn’t, searching for the ingredients that gave the blend its promise of hope, of long nights and voluptuous dreams, of invitation and embrace. Of an everlasting covenant ripe with possibility. Of lost souls reunited.
Tears sprang to the perfumer’s eyes as he inhaled again. This was the kind of scent he’d always imagined capturing. He was smelling liquid emotion. Giles L’Etoile was smelling love.
The perfumer was desperate. What gave this fragrance its complexity? Why was it so elusive? Why couldn’t he recognize it? He’d smelled and memorized over five hundred different ingredients. What was in this composition?
If only there were a machine that would be able to take in the air and separate out the components it contained. Long ago, he’d spoken to his father about such a thing. Jean-Louis had scoffed, as he did at most of his son’s inventions and imaginings, chastising him for wasting time on impractical ideas, for indulging in foolish romanticism.
“Perfume can evoke feelings, Papa,” L’Etoile had argued. “Imagine what a fortune we’d make if we were selling dreams and not just formulations.”
“Nonsense,” his father admonished. “We are chemists, not poets. Our job is to mask the stench of the streets, to cover the scent of the flesh and relieve the senses from the onslaught of smells that are unpleasant, vile and infected.”
“No, Father. You’re wrong. Poetry is the very essence of what we do.”
Despite his father’s opinion, L’Etoile was certain that there was more that scent could offer. That it had a deeper purpose. It was why he had come to Egypt. And he’d discovered that he was right. Ancient perfumers had been priests. Perfume was part of holy rituals and religious customs. The soul rose to the heavens on the smoke from incense.
The general came closer to inspect the mummies. As he reached down into the coffin, Abu muttered a warning. Napoléon waved off the cautionary words and lifted a small object out of the male mummy’s hand. “How extraordinary,” he said as he extracted an identical piece of
pottery from the female’s hand. “They are each holding one of these.” He opened the first pot, then the second. A moment passed. He sniffed the air. Then he lifted each pot to his nose, smelling one and then the other.
“L’Etoile, they seem to contain an identical perfumed substance.” He gave one of the pots to him. “Is this a pomade? Do you recognize it?”
The container was small enough to fit in his hand. Glazed white, it was decorated with elaborate coral and turquoise designs and hieroglyphs that encircled its belly. The lost language of the ancients no one could read. But one L’Etoile could surely smell. He touched the waxy surface. So this, here in his hand, was the wellspring of the odor that had drawn L’Etoile toward the chamber.
He wasn’t prescient. Not a psychic. L’Etoile was sensitive to one thing only: scent. It was why at twenty he’d left Marie-Genevieve and Paris in 1789 for the dry air and heat of Egypt, to study this ancient culture’s magical, mesmerizing smells. But none of what he’d discovered in all that time compared to what he held in his hands.
Up close, the scent was rich and ripe, and he felt himself float away on its wings, away from the tomb, out into the open, under the sky, under the moon, to a riverbank where he could feel the wind and taste the cool night.
Something was happening to him.
He knew who he was—Giles L’Etoile, the son of the finest perfumer and glove maker in Paris. And where he was—with general Napoléon Bonaparte in a tomb under the earth in Alexandria. Yet at the same time, he was transported, sitting beside a woman on the edge of a wide, green river under the shade of date trees. He felt he’d known this woman forever, but at the same time, she was a stranger.
She was lovely, long and lean with thick, black hair and black eyes that were filled with tears. Her body, enrobed in a thin cotton shift, was wracked with sobs, and the sound of her misery cut through him. Instinctively he knew that something he’d done or hadn’t done was the source, the cause of her pain, and that her suffering was his to quell. He had to make a sacrifice. If he didn’t, her fate would haunt him through eternity.
He removed the long linen robe he wore over his kilt and dipped a corner into the water so that he could wipe her cheeks. As he leaned over the river, he glimpsed his face in its surface. L’Etoile saw someone he didn’t recognize. A younger man. Twenty-five at most. His skin was darker and more golden than L’Etoile’s. His features were sharp in places where the perfumer’s were round, and his eyes were black-brown instead of light blue.
“Look,” a voice said from far away, “there is a papyrus here.”
Dimly, L’Etoile was aware that the voice was familiar: Abu’s. But more pressing was the sudden clatter of horses’ hooves. The woman heard them, too. The panic evident on her face. He dropped the robe and took her hand, raising her up to lead her away from the river and find a place to hide her and keep her safe.
There was a shout. Someone fell against him. He heard pottery shattering on the alabaster floor. L’Etoile was back in the tomb, and instead of the woman’s lovely, melancholy face, he was looking at Abu, clutching a thick scroll to his chest and staring down at a broken clay pot.
The scent had sent everyone into a trance, but L’Etoile had come out of it first. All around him, chaos had erupted. Men whispered, wept and screamed, speaking in languages L’Etoile couldn’t understand. They seemed to be battling invisible demons, struggling with hidden foes, comforting and taking comfort from unseen companions.
What had happened to him? What was happening to the men around him?
One of the young Egyptian workers was slumped against the wall, smiling and singing a song in some ancient language. Another was lying on the ground moaning; a third was striking out at an invisible assailant. Two of the savants were unaffected but watching in horror. Saurent was kneeling in prayer, a beatific expression on his face, speaking in Latin, reciting a mass. The cartographer was beating on the wall with his fist, crying out a man’s name over and over.
L’Etoile’s eyes found Napoléon. The general was standing, frozen, by the sarcophagus, staring at a spot on the wall as if it were a window onto a distant vista. His skin was paler than usual, and sweat dotted his brow. He looked sickly.
There were scents that could cure ills and others that could make you ill, poisons that seduced you with their sweetness before they sucked the breath out of you. L’Etoile’s father had taught him about all of them and warned him about their effects.
Now, here, he was afraid for himself and for his commander and for the men in this room. Had they all been poisoned by some ancient noxious scent?
He had to help. Grabbing a small gold box from a pile of treasures against the far wall, he opened it, dumped its contents—gold and colored glass—onto the floor, and then hastily thrust the still-intact clay pot inside. Scooping up the shards of the pot that the general had dropped, L’Etoile added them and slammed the lid shut.
The scent was still conspicuous, but now that the perfume containers were enclosed, the air slowly began to clear. L’Etoile watched as first one man and then another stood and looked around, each trying to get his bearings.
There was a loud crash as Napoléon fell onto the wooden coffin, smashing and splintering its cover. The perfumer had heard the rumors that the general suffered from epilepsy, the same nervous disorder that had affected his hero, Julius Caesar. Now froth bubbled from the general’s mouth, and he shook with convulsions.
His aide-de-camp rushed to his side and bent over him.
Had the strange perfume brought on this episode? It had certainly affected L’Etoile. The dizziness and disorientation he’d been experiencing since he’d entered this tomb were only now starting to dissipate.
“This place is cursed!” Abu yelled out as he threw the papyrus scroll back inside the coffin and on top of the desiccated bodies. “We must leave here now!” He rushed out of the inner chamber and down the first corridor.
“The tomb is cursed,” the young workers repeated with trembling voices as they followed, pushing and shoving each other out through the narrow entryway.
The savants went next.
Napoléon’s aide-de-camp helped the general—who had recovered
his faculties but was still weak—escorting him out, leaving L’Etoile alone in the burial chamber of the perfumer and the woman who had been entombed with him.
Bending over the lovers, he grabbed the papyrus scroll that Abu had thrown into the coffin, added it to the contents of the small gold box, and then shoved the box deep inside his satchel.