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Two young women stood at the threshold of the perfumery, one tugging impatiently at the arm of the other. “Do we have to go in there?” the smaller one was saying in a flat American accent, resisting as the other pulled her forcibly into the quietly lit shop. “I’m always bored to tears in these places, Lillian—you stand there and smell things for hours—”
“Then wait in the carriage with the maid.”
“That’s even more boring! Besides, I’m not supposed to let you go anywhere alone. You’d get into trouble without me.”
The taller girl laughed with unladylike gusto as they entered the shop. “You don’t want to keep me from getting into trouble, Daisy. You just don’t want to be left out if I do.”
“Unfortunately there’s no adventure to be found in a perfume shop,” came the surly reply.
A gentle chuckle greeted the statement, and the two girls turned to face the bespectacled old man who stood behind the scarred oak counter that stretched along the side of the shop. “Are you entirely certain of that, miss?” he asked, smiling as they approached him. “There are some who believe that perfume is magic. The fragrance of a thing is its purest essence. And certain scents can awaken phantoms of past love, of sweetest reminiscence.”
“Phantoms?” Daisy repeated, intrigued, and the other girl replied impatiently.
“He doesn’t mean it literally, dear. Perfume can’t summon a ghost. And it’s not really magic. It’s only a mixture of scent particles that travel to the olfactory receptors in your nose.”
The old man, Mr. Phineas Nettle, stared at the girls with growing interest. Neither of them was conventionally beautiful, although they were both striking, with pale skin and heavy dark hair, and a certain clean-featured appeal that seemed indigenous to American girls. “Please,” he invited, gesturing to a nearby wall of shelves, “you are welcome to view my wares, Miss…”
“Bowman,” the older girl said pleasantly. “Lillian and Daisy Bowman.” She glanced at the expensively dressed blond woman whom he had been attending, seeming to understand that he was not yet at liberty to assist them.
While the indecisive customer hovered over an array of perfumes that Nettle had brought out for her, the American girls browsed among the shelves of perfumes, colognes, pomades, waxes, creams, soaps, and other items intended for beauty care. There were bath oils in stoppered crystal bottles, and tins of herbal unguents, and tiny boxes of violet pastilles to freshen the breath. Lower shelves held treasure troves of scented candles and inks, sachets filled with clove-saturated smelling salts, potpourri bowls, and jars of pastes and balms. Nettle noticed, however, that while the younger girl, Daisy, viewed the assortment with only mild interest, the older one, Lillian, had stopped before a row of oils and extracts that contained pure scent. Rose, frangipani, jasmine, bergamot, and so forth. Lifting the amber glass bottles, she opened them carefully and inhaled with visible appreciation.
Eventually the blond woman made her choice, purchased a small flacon of perfume, and left the shop, a small bell ringing cheerfully as the door closed.
Lillian, who had turned to glance at the departing woman, murmured thoughtfully, “I wonder why it is that so many light-haired women smell of amber…”
“You mean amber perfume?” Daisy asked.
“No—their skin itself. Amber, and sometimes honey…”
“What on earth do you mean?” the younger girl asked with a bemused laugh. “People don’t smell like anything, except when they need to wash.”
The pair regarded each other with what appeared to be mutual surprise. “Yes, they do,” Lillian said. “Every one has a smell…don’t say you’ve never noticed? The way some people’s skin is like bitter almond, or violet, while others…”
“Others have a scent like plum, or palm sap, or fresh hay,” Nettle commented.
Lillian glanced at him with a satisfied smile. “Yes, exactly!”
Nettle removed his spectacles and polished them with care, while his mind swarmed with questions. Could it be? Was it possible that this girl could actually detect a person’s intrinsic scent? He himself could—but it was a rare gift, and not one that he had ever known a woman to have.
Withdrawing a slip of folded paper from a beaded bag that hung from her wrist, Lillian Bowman approached him. “I have a formula for a perfume,” she said, handing him the paper, “though I’m not quite certain of the proper proportions for the ingredients. Might you be able to blend it for me?”
Nettle opened the paper and read the list, his graying brows lifting slightly. “An unconventional combination. But very interesting. It could work nicely, I think.” He glanced at her with keen interest. “May I ask how you obtained this formula, Miss Bowman?”
“It came from my head.” An artless smile softened her features. “I tried to think of what scents might be most effective with my own alchemy. Though as I said, the proportions are difficult for me to figure out.”
Lowering his gaze to conceal his skepticism, Nettle read the formula once more. Often a customer would come to him requesting that he mix a perfume that contained a predominant scent like roses or lavender, but no one had ever given him a list like this. More interesting still was the fact that the selection of scents was unusual and yet harmonious. Perhaps it was an accident that she had managed to choose this particular combination.