But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. -Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
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 Napoleon'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 Napoleon 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 Napoleon'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 Napoleon. 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.
Napoleon'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?"
Napoleon 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.