The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 25



"When M. Longuet had recovered from the emotion with which my explanation of the disappearance of the express had filled him, he embraced me and handed me a revolver which he had found in the pocket of Signor Petito. He did not wish to keep it on him. He was desirous that I should be able, at need, to defend myself against the eccentricities of which he feared, on grounds based, alas! on a too real experience, the dangerous return. For the same reason he entrusted to me a large knife which had also come from the pocket of Signor Petito.

"We laughed; and then we set ourselves to consider our situation seriously. M. Longuet went on emptying his pockets; and there came out of them seven little electric lamps similar to those I had myself bought before falling into this hole. He congratulated himself, saying that his instinct had been right in urging him to take plenty of them, for, adding my six to his seven, we now had thirteen lamps, guaranteed to give forty-eight hours' light each, which gave us six hundred and twenty-four hours of consecutive light. He added that since we should not need light for the ten hours a day, afternoon—he was an advocate of the restful siesta—and night, during which we should sleep, we had light for forty-four days eight hours.

"I said to him: 'You are altogether too old-fashioned, M. Longuet. Cartouche immured in the Catacombs would have done exactly the same with electric lamps as you are doing. But I, M. Longuet, I take your seven lamps and add three of mine to them; and this is what I do with them!'

"I threw them carelessly down against the foot of the wall.

"'There is no point in dragging about these impedimenta,' I said. 'Are you hungry, M. Longuet?'

"'Very, M. Mifroid.'

"'How long do you think you could be hungry?'

"Since he did not seem to understand, I explained that I meant to ask him how long he thought he could remain so hungry without eating.

"'I am pretty sure,' said he, 'that if I had to stay forty-eight hours as hungry as this…'

"'Let us suppose that you stayed as hungry as this for seven days,' I interrupted. 'Three lamps would be quite sufficient for us, for at the end of those three lamps we should have no need of light!'

"He had understood. But he smiled amiably, groped about, produced from the floor a good-sized parcel, and said:

"'But you see, M. Mifroid, I need not endure this hunger a moment longer than I need. I have here a ham which weighs ten pounds, or a hundred and sixty ounces. I am assured that if a man chews it in the manner invented by M. Fletcher of the United States, he can live for an unlimited period on four ounces of ham a day, and retain the full possession of his faculties and muscular power. We have therefore food for one man for forty days, food for two for twenty days. And then'—he paused, and a singular light came into his eyes—'I think, M. Mifroid, that then—at the end of that twenty days, one of us will Fletcherise the other!'

"'Nothing, M. Longuet, nothing would induce me to preserve my life by the degrading practice of cannibalism!' I said warmly.

"'It is a sentiment which does you much honour, M. Mifroid,' said M. Longuet. 'But there is no need, and indeed it would be impossible, that we should both become cannibals.'

"I was extremely disgusted, naturally, that M. Longuet should have been guilty of such an egregiously old-fashioned act as to be unable even to make an unexpected visit to the Catacombs, through a hole in the street, without bringing a ham with him; but I picked up the other ten electric lamps. I did not let my natural annoyance find vent in words; I only said to him, 'How on earth do you come to be walking about Paris with a ten-pound ham?'

"'I am going to write my memoirs,' said M. Longuet. 'And since quiet is necessary to the writing of one's memoirs, and I feared that you gentlemen of the Police would do your best to rob me of that peace, if I gave you the chance, I was going to shut myself in a little hiding-place I know of with this ham, these electric lamps, and some more necessary provisions which I had not yet bought, in order to write uninterrupted. The paper and pens I have already purchased; and they are in my hiding-place.'

"The excuse was valid, and there was nothing to be said. I set off down the passage.

"'Where are you going?' he said.

"'It does not matter where,' said I. 'But it is necessary to go anywhere rather than stay here, since here there is no hope. We will consider our course as we walk. Our only safety is in walking; and in walking for twenty days without taking any bearings we have every chance of arriving somewhere.'

"'But why without taking our bearings?' he asked.

"'Because,' I replied, 'I have remarked that in all the stories of the Catacombs it is always those bearings which have been the ruin of the unfortunate people who have got lost. They mixed up their bearings, were reduced to utter confusion, and fell into the exhaustion of despair. In our situation we must avoid every cause for despair. You are not in despair by any chance, M. Longuet?'

"'Not at all, M. Mifroid; I am only hungry. And I don't mind saying that if I were less hungry in your delightful society I should have no regrets whatever for the roofs of Gerando Street.'

"'We will eat presently, M. Longuet,' I said. 'An ounce of ham shall be our evening meal.'

"M. Longuet smiled hungrily; then he said, 'Perhaps it would blunt the edge of my appetite a little if you were to tell me something about these Catacombs.'

"'I think I ought to begin by giving you a general notion of the Catacombs,' I said. 'Then you would better understand why it is absolutely necessary to walk for a long time before getting out of them.'

"The road we followed was a long passage of from fifteen to twenty feet high. Its walls were very dry; and the electric light showed us a stone free from any parasitic vegetation, free even from any mouldiness. It was a sight which caused me some disquiet, for if we were to subsist for twenty days on a diet of salt ham, without any vegetable food, I feared that we might fall a prey to scurvy. My mind was at ease about the matter of drink; for I knew that in the Catacombs there were little streams of running water; and we had only to walk far enough to come across them.

"M. Longuet could not reconcile himself to the idea that we were walking without caring where we were going. I thought it wise to make him understand the necessity of not caring where we were going. I told him, as was the truth, that during the laying of the sewer the engineers, having descended into the Catacombs through the hole, had tried in vain to find their way about them and a way out. They had had to give it up, and to content themselves with building three pillars to prop up the roof, along the top of which their sewer ran, with materials let down through the hole by which we had so hastily descended, and which had been so definitely and unfortunately bricked up over our heads.

"Not to discourage him, I informed him that to my certain knowledge we could reckon on at least three hundred and ten miles[1] of Catacombs, and that there was no reason that there should not be more. It was evident that if I did not at once make clear to him the difficulty of getting out, he would have yielded to despair at the end of a couple of days' journey.

"'Bear in mind then,' I said, 'that they hollowed this soil from the third to the seventeenth century! Yes; for fourteen hundred years man has raised from under the soil the materials which were necessary for building on the top of it! So much so that from time to time, since there is too much on the top, and in places nothing at all beneath, the things on top have returned beneath whence they came.'

"Since we found ourselves under the ancient Quarter d'Enfer, I recalled to his memory that in 1777 a house in d'Enfer Street was in that way engulfed. It was precipitated a hundred and twelve feet below the pavement of its own courtyard. Some months later, in 1778, seven persons were killed in a similar landslip, in the district of Menilmontant. I quoted several examples of a later date, laying stress on the loss of life.

"He understood me and said, 'In fact, it's often more dangerous to walk about on the top than underneath.'

"I had gained his attention, and finding him so cheerful and interested, forgetting all about his hunger, I profited by it to quicken our steps; and I chanted the most spirited chorus I could remember. He took it up and we sang together:

'Step out! Step out, boys, with a will!
The road is hard and hot;
There's an inn beyond the hill
And good liquor in a pot!'

"That's the song that makes you step out!

"When we were tired of singing (one soon grows tired of singing in the Catacombs because the voice does not carry), M. Longuet asked me a hundred questions. He asked me how many feet of soil there were between us and the surface; and I told him that according to the last report it varied between eleven and two hundred and sixty feet.

"'Sometimes,' I said, 'the crust of earth is so thin that it is necessary to prolong the foundations of public buildings to the bottom of the Catacombs. Therefore in the course of our peregrinations there is a chance of our coming across the pillars of Saint-Sulpice, of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, of the Panthéon, of the Val-de-Grâce, and of the Odéon. These buildings are, so to speak, raised on subterranean piles.'

"'Subterranean piles!' he cried joyfully. 'Is there really a chance that in the course of our peregrinations we shall come across subterranean piles?'

"Then he returned to his fixed idea:

"'And in the course of our peregrinations is there any chance of our coming across a way out? Are there many ways out of the Catacombs?' he said wistfully.

"'Plenty,' said I. 'In the first place, there are exits in the Quarter—"

"'So much the better!' he interrupted.

"'And others which are unknown, openings by which no one ever enters, but which none the less exist: in the cellars of the Panthéon, in those of Henri IV College, the Observatory, Saint-Sulpice Seminary, the Midi Hospital, some houses in d'Enfer, Vaugirard, Tombe-Issoire Streets; at Passy, Chaillot, Saint-Maur, Charenton, and Gentilly… More than sixty…'

"'That's good!'

"'It would have been better,' I replied, 'if Colbert had not on July 11, 1678—'

"'Wonderful!' interrupted M. Longuet. 'You have as fine a memory as M. Lecamus!'

"'It need n't astonish you, M. Longuet. I was formerly secretary of the Commissary of the district; and it pleased me to take an interest in the Catacombs, as it has since pleased me to practise the violin and sculpture. You have not got beyond the old-fashioned Commissary of Police, my dear M. Longuet.'

"He did not reply to that; he said, 'You were saying that Colbert on July 11, 1678—'

"'In order to put a stop to the cupidity of the builders, issued an order to close the openings into the Catacombs before Paris was quite undermined. That ordinance of Colbert's has, so to speak, walled us up.'

"At this moment we were passing a pillar. I examined the structure and said: 'Here is a pillar which was built by the architects of Louis XVI in 1778, in the course of the consolidation."

"'That poor Louis XVI!' said M. Longuet. 'He would have done much better to consolidate the monarchy.'

"'That would have been to consolidate a Catacomb,' said I felicitously, though I believe that the word Catacombs is only used in the plural.

"M. Longuet had taken the lamp from me, and without ceasing he turned its ray from right to left as though he were seeking something. I asked him the reason of this action which began to tire my eyes.

"'I'm looking for corpses,' he said.


"'Skeletons. I have always been told that the walls of the Catacombs are lined with skeletons.'

"'Oh, that macabre tapestry, my friend (I already addressed him as 'my friend' because I was so pleased with his serenity in such serious circumstances), that macabre tapestry is barely three quarters of a mile long. That three quarters of a mile is very properly called the Ossuary, because skulls, ribs, shin-bones, thigh-bones, collar-bones, shoulder-bones and breast-bones form its sole decoration. But what a decoration! It's a decoration composed of three million and fifty thousand skeletons, which have been taken from the cemeteries of Saint-Médard, Cluny, Saint-Landry, the Carmelites, the Benedictines, and the Innocents. All the bones, well sorted, arranged, classified, and ticketed, form along the walls of the passages, roses, parallelograms, triangles, rectangles, spirals and many other figures of a marvellous exactitude. Let us desire, my friend, to reach this domain of death. It will mean life! For I do not know a spot in Paris more agreeably frequented. You only meet there engaged couples, couples in the middle of their honeymoon, lovers, and, in fact, all the happy people. But we are not there yet. What is three quarters of a mile of bones out of three hundred and ten miles of Catacombs?'

"'Not much,' he said with a deep sigh. 'How many miles do you think we have gone, M. Mifroid?'

"I begged him not to waste time in calculations which must be entirely futile; then, to cheer him up, I told him the story of the janitor and of the four soldiers. The first was very short: there was once a janitor of the Catacombs who lost his way in them; they found his body a week later. The second tells of four soldiers of the Val-de-Grâce who, by the help of a rope, descended a well two hundred feet deep. They were in the Catacombs. Since they did not reappear, they let down drummers who made all the noise they could with their drums. But since in the Catacombs sound does not carry, no one answered the roll-call. They searched for them. At the end of forty-eight hours they found them dying in a cul-de-sac.

"'They had no moral force,' said Theophrastus.

"'They were idiots,' said I. 'When one is stupid enough to lose one's way in the Catacombs, one is unworthy of pity, I will go so far as to say, of interest.'

"Thereupon he asked me how I should myself escape losing my way in the Catacombs. Since we reached a place where another passage crossed the one we were in, I could answer without delay. I said:

"'Here are two passages, which are you going to take?'

"One of them ran directly away from our starting-point; the other almost certainly returned to it. Since it was our purpose to get away from our starting-point, M. Longuet pointed to the first.

"'I was sure of it!' I exclaimed. 'Are you quite ignorant of the experimental method? The experimental method in the depths of the Catacombs has demonstrated for centuries that every individual who believes that he is returning to his starting-point (at the entrance to the Catacombs) is moving away from it. Therefore the logical thing to do to get away from one's starting-point is necessarily to take the road which seems to bring you back to it!'

"We turned down the passage by which we appeared to be retracing our steps. In that way we were sure that we were not journeying in vain.

"My two stories had carried us over another mile; then M. Longuet said: 'I must really have my supper.'

"We had our supper, an ounce of ham each. There was some difficulty in judging how much an ounce was; but we did the best we could. He instructed me in the method of eating one's food discovered by M. Fletcher of the United States. We divided either ounce into four mouthfuls, not that they were by any means mouthfuls; and we chewed each patiently till we had extracted from it the last vestige of flavour. I could well believe him when he assured me that in this way we obtained from it the whole of the nourishment it contained. For my part, I should have been delighted to extract the last vestige of flavour from fifty more such mouthfuls.

"After this meagre, but doubtless exceedingly nourishing supper, we continued our journey. We went another four miles, when I confessed that I began to feel tired. I was somewhat surprised to find a manufacturer of rubber stamps, a sedentary pursuit, like M. Longuet to be endowed with such untiring vigour. On learning from my watch, which he still carried, because he said he found it a comfort to carry somebody else's watch, that it was eleven o'clock, I suggested that we should go to sleep.

"His fixed idea, that we should find an exit from the Catacombs, led him to display some reluctance. But I pointed out to him the extreme improbability of finding an exit in the first twenty miles of three hundred and ten; and we composed ourselves to rest.

  1. These are the official figures.