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.
“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.
She took another breath of the exquisite essence. “What is the orchid’s name?”
“Lady of the Night.”
That elicited a delighted chuckle from Daisy. “That sounds like the title of one of the novels my mother has forbidden me to read.”
“I would suggest using the orchid’s scent in place of the lavender in your formula,” Nettle said. “More costly, perhaps, but in my opinion it would be the perfect base note, especially if you want amber as a fixative.”
“How much more expensive?” Lillian asked, and when he named the price, her eyes widened. “Good Lord, that’s more than its weight in gold.”
Nettle made a show of holding the little bottle up to the light, where the liquid glittered and shimmered like a diamond. “Magic is not inexpensive, I’m afraid.”
Lillian laughed, even as her gaze followed the bottle with hypnotic fascination. “Magic,” she scoffed.
“This perfume will make magic happen,” he insisted, smiling at her. “In fact, I will add a secret ingredient to enhance its effects.”
Charmed but clearly disbelieving, Lillian made plans with Nettle to return later in the day to collect the perfume. She paid for Daisy’s tin of pastilles as well as the promised fragrance, and walked outside with her younger sister. One glance at Daisy’s face revealed that her younger sister’s imagination, always easily stirred, was running rampant with thoughts of magic formulas and secret ingredients.
“Lillian…you are going to let me try some of that magic perfume, aren’t you?”
“Don’t I always share?”
Lillian grinned. Despite the sisters’ pretend rivalry and occasional squabbles, they were each other’s staunchest ally and closest friend. Few people in Lillian’s life had ever loved her except for Daisy, who adored the ugliest stray dogs, the most annoying children, and things that needed to be repaired or thrown out altogether.
And yet for all their closeness, they were quite different. Daisy was an idealist, a dreamer, a mercurial creature who alternated between childlike whimsy and shrewd intelligence. Lillian knew herself to be a sharp-tongued girl with a fortress of defenses between herself and the rest of the world—a girl with well-maintained cynicism and a biting sense of humor. She was intensely loyal to the small circle of people in her sphere, especially the wallflowers, the self-named group of girls who had met while sitting at the side of every ball and soiree last season. Lillian, Daisy, and their friends Annabelle Peyton and Evangeline Jenner had all sworn to help one another find husbands. Their efforts had resulted in Annabelle’s successful match with Mr. Simon Hunt just two months ago. Now Lillian was next in line. As of yet, they had no clear idea about whom they were going to catch, or a solid plan for how they were going to get him.
“Of course I’ll let you try the perfume,” Lillian said.
“Though heaven knows what you expect from it.”
“It’s going to make a handsome duke fall madly in love with me, naturally,” Daisy replied.
“Have you noticed how few men in the peerage are young and nice-looking?” Lillian asked wryly. “Most of them are dull-witted, ancient, or possess the kind of face that should have a hook in its mouth.”
Daisy snickered and slid an arm around her waist. “The right gentlemen are out there,” she said. “And we’re going to find them.”