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“Miss Bowman,” he said, curious as to how far her abilities extended, “would you allow me to show you some of my perfumes?”
“Yes, of course,” came Lillian’s cheerful reply. She drew close to the counter as Nettle brought forth a small crystal bottle filled with pale, glittering fluid. “What are you doing?” she asked, while he shook out a few drops of the perfume onto a clean linen handkerchief.
“One should never inhale perfume directly from the bottle,” Nettle explained, giving her the handkerchief. “You must first aerate it, to float off the alcohol …and then one is left with the true fragrance. Miss Bowman, what scents are you able to detect in this perfume?”
It required great effort for even the most experienced perfumers to separate the components of a blended perfume…minutes or even hours of repeated inhalations to discern one ingredient at a time.
Lillian lowered her head to breathe in the fragrance from the handkerchief. Without hesitation, she astonished Nettle by identifying the composition with the nimble finesse of a pianist running through practice scales. “Orange blossom …neroli …ambergris, and…moss?” She paused, her lashes lifting to reveal velvety-brown eyes that held a glint of puzzlement. “Moss in perfume?”
Nettle stared at her in open astonishment. The average person was severely limited in his ability to recognize the components of a complex smell. Perhaps he could identify a primary ingredient, an obvious aroma like rose, or lemon, or mint, but the layers and refinements of a particular scent were far beyond most humans’ ability to detect.
Recovering his wits, Nettle smiled faintly at her question. He often graced his perfumes with peculiar notes that gave the fragrance depth and texture, but no one had ever guessed at one of them before. “The senses delight in complexity, in hidden surprises …here, try another.” He produced a fresh handkerchief and moistened it with another perfume.
Lillian performed the task with the same miraculous ease. “Bergamot …tuberose …frankincense…” She hesitated, inhaling again, letting the rich spice fill her lungs. A wondering smile touched her lips. “And a hint of coffee.”
“Coffee?” her sister, Daisy, exclaimed, and bent her head over the flask. “There’s no coffee smell in there.”
Lillian threw Nettle a questioning glance, and he smiled, confirming her guess. “Yes, it is coffee.” He shook his head in admiring surprise. “You have a gift, Miss Bowman.”
Shrugging, Lillian replied wryly, “A gift that’s of little use while searching for a husband, I’m afraid. It’s just my luck to have such a useless talent. I would do better to have a fine voice, or great beauty. As my mother says, it’s impolite for a lady to like to smell things.”
“Not in my shop,” Nettle replied.
They proceeded to discuss aromas as other people might have discussed art they had seen in a museum: the sweet, murky, living odors of a forest after a few days of rain; the malty-sweet breeze of the sea; the musty richness of a truffle; the fresh acrid snap of a snow-filled sky. Quickly losing interest, Daisy wandered to the cosmetic shelves, opened a jar of powder that made her sneeze, and selected a tin of pastilles that she proceeded to crunch noisily.
As the conversation continued, Nettle learned that the girls’ father owned a New York business enterprise that manufactured scents and soaps. From occasional visits to the company’s laboratory and factories, Lillian had gained a rudimentary knowledge of fragrance and blending. She had even helped to develop a scent for one of Bowman’s soaps. Her training had been nonexistent, but it was obvious to Nettle that she was a prodigy. However, such talent would go forever undeveloped because of her gender.
“Miss Bowman,” he said, “I have an essence that I would like to show you. If you will be so kind as to wait here while I locate it at the back of my shop…?”
Her curiosity piqued, Lillian nodded and leaned her elbows on the counter, while Nettle disappeared behind a curtained doorway that led from the shopfront to the storeroom in back. The room was filled with files of formulas, cupboards of distillations and extracts and tinctures, and shelves of utensils and funnels and mixing bottles and measuring glasses—everything necessary for his craft. On the highest shelf reposed a few linen-wrapped volumes of ancient Gallic and Greek texts on the art of perfumery. A good perfumer was part alchemist, part artist, and part wizard.
Ascending a wooden stepladder, Nettle procured a small pine box from the top shelf and brought it down. Returning to the front of the shop, he set the box on the counter. Both the Bowman sisters watched closely as he flipped open the tiny brass hinge to reveal a small bottle sealed with thread and wax. The half ounce of near-colorless fluid was the most costly essence that Nettle had ever procured.
Unsealing the bottle, he applied a precious drop to a handkerchief and gave it to Lillian. The first inhalation was light and mild, almost innocuous. But as it traveled up the nose, it became a surprisingly voluptuous fragrance, and long after the initial rush had faded, a certain sweet influence lingered.
Lillian regarded him over the edge of the handkerchief with patent wonder. “What is it?”
“A rare orchid that gives off its scent only at night,” Nettle replied. “The petals are pure white, far more delicate even than jasmine. One cannot obtain the essence by heating the blossoms—they are too fragile.”
“Cold enfleurage, then?” Lillian murmured, referring to the process of soaking the precious petals in sheets of fat until it was saturated with their fragrance, then using an alcohol-based solvent to draw out the pure essence.