The Man with the Black Feather/Chapter 26



"We awoke the next morning with the appetites of youth. In the middle of our exiguous breakfast it occurred to me that we were behaving in an extremely old-fashioned way. The heroes of Romance invariably divide their bar of chocolate into a number of pieces. We, with our ham, were showing ourselves as commonplace as they. I imparted these reflections to M. Longuet, and suggested that instead of making our hundred and fifty-eight ounces of ham last for twenty days, we should eat ten ounces each a day, and be content to let them last eight.

"M. Longuet objected firmly. He said:

"'In the first place the admirable discovery of M. Fletcher of the United States has proved that such a quantity of food is unnecessary for the sustenance of the human being.' (I learned later that this was a misstatement.) 'In the second place, it is our duty as French citizens to postpone the degrading practice of cannibalism to the last possible moment.'

"He spoke with a vigorous emphasis there was no gainsaying. I admired his strength of character, and was silent.

"Immediately after breakfast we resumed our journey.

"In about half an hour M. Longuet complained of thirst; and I explained to him that in our circumstances all complaints were utterly futile: a statement which, for all its undeniable logic, seemed to afford him very little comfort. But fortunately at the end of another hour our ears were greeted by the agreeable sound of rippling water; and presently the ray of our electric lamp gleamed on a little stream which ran from some subterranean spring across the passage. M. Longuet flung himself down and began to drink. I hesitated, for it appeared to me, as a logician, that since we could not carry water along with us, to drink would only make us thirsty. Then I reflected that we should find other springs, and presently followed his example.

"We went on our way; and presently M. Longuet inquired of me whether there was no nourishment of any kind in the Catacombs on which we might sustain life when we had exhausted the resources of ham and the survivor of cannibalism. Fortunately I had visited the laboratory of the Catacombs of M. Milne-Edwards; and I could entertain him with an account of the fauna and flora of these caverns, on which he would be able, at need, to keep himself alive. I am bound to say that, contrary to my usual habit, I took great pleasure in this conversation about edible things. I felt indeed that such a subject was extremely old-fashioned; doubtless my pleasure in it arose from the exiguity of my breakfast.

"'My dear friend,' I said, 'it is always possible not to die of hunger, even if you never get out of the Catacombs. The flora, the cryptogamic vegetation, the mushrooms, in a word, of the Catacombs, will not suffice, I fear, to keep you alive. But fortunately wherever you find water in these caverns, you find food. You can always become an ichthyophagus."

"'What on earth is that?' he said suspiciously.

"'An ichthyophagus is a fish-eater.'

"'Ah!' he exclaimed with an immense satisfaction, 'there are fish in the waters of the Catacombs! I am very fond of fish!' He paused; then he added in a musing tone, 'After all, it is better to be an ichthyophagus than a cannibal.'

"'They are not large fish; but certain streams contain incalculable quantities of them.'

"'Really? Incalculable quantities?... Incalculable?... How large are they?' he said with great animation.

"'Oh, they are of different sizes. Generally they are small. But they are not at all disagreeable to eat. I was told about them when I went down to visit the Fountain of the Samaritan, a very pretty, good-sized spring in the Ossuary.'

"'Is it far from here?' he said eagerly.

"'I cannot tell you at the moment. All I know is that this fountain was built in 1810 by M. Héricourt de Thury, Engineer of Subterranean Passages. As a matter of fact, this fountain is frequented by copepodes (Cyclops Fimbriatus)...'

"'Ah! Copepodes! Are they fishes?'

"'Yes; and they present modifications of tissue and coloration peculiar to themselves. They have a beautiful red eye.'

"'What? One eye?'

"'Yes; that is why they are called cyclops. But you need not be astonished that this fish has only one eye, for the Asellus Aquaticus, which also lives in the running streams of the Catacombs, a little aquatic isopode, as its name indicates, often has no eyes at all.'

"'Impossible!' cried M. Longuet. 'How do they see?'

"'They have no need to see, since they live in darkness. Nature is perfect. She is perfect in giving eyes to those who need them; she is perfect in taking away eyes from those who do not need them.'

"M. Longuet appeared to reflect a little; then he said: 'Then, if we continued to live in the Catacombs, we should end by no longer having eyes?'

"'Evidently: we should begin by losing the use of our sight and then our sight itself. Our descendants would soon lose their eyes altogether.'

"'Our descendants!' he cried.

"We laughed at this little slip; and then he pressed me to continue my description of the fishes of the Catacombs.

"I discussed at length the modification of organs, their excessive development or their atrophy, according to the environment in which the species lives. I described the different kinds of fishes also at length.

"But at last he said: 'All this about their organs is very interesting. But how do you catch them?'

"'I can only tell you that the Catacombs which contain all these millions of bones cannot offer us a single maggot in the way of bait.'

"'No matter,' said Theophrastus. 'There are more ways of killing a dog than hanging him. An angler has more than one trick in his basket; and the Asellus Aquaticus had better look out.'

"That day and the days which followed it were very much alike. Whenever we came to a stream we stopped and drank. Always M. Longuet wanted to stop and fish. This was not wholly hunger; the sportsman's ardour burned in his soul. But I represented to him that, for anything we knew, we had the whole three hundred and ten miles of Catacombs to traverse before we came to the exit, and that it was our first duty to walk and walk. We might have fallen into them at the furthest end.

"By eleven o'clock, not only the sustaining but also the satisfying effect of the ounce of ham appeared to be exhausted; we were not only extremely hungry, but we were moving at a much slower pace. I represented to M. Longuet that it would be wise to have our déjeuner at once. But his dreadful middle-class instincts were too strong for us. He had the habit of a regular life so ingrained in him that he would not hear of déjeuner before noon. Also I marvelled at his power of endurance: I had never suspected that the manufacture of rubber stamps could endow a man with those muscles of steel. None the less we talked very little between eleven and noon.

"That ounce of ham was one of the most delicious meals I have ever eaten. M. Longuet, who seemed in the course of our conversation to have caught some of my scientific spirit, timed the meal by my watch. It was a source of great satisfaction to him that he took from nine to eleven seconds longer over each mouthful than I did. After it we proceeded on our way with renewed vigour; and since I found that he was of the truly receptive type of mind, I found our conversation very enjoyable.

"The afternoon was exactly like the morning. We walked, conversing about a dozen different subjects. The next morning was exactly like the last afternoon; and the days which followed were exactly like one another. The second and third days were the least comfortable. On those days the satisfying effects of our ounces of ham appeared to exhaust themselves more quickly. But after the third day I began to realise the great value of the discovery of M. Fletcher of the United States. Our appetites had become quite normal; an ounce of ham blunted them till the next meal. We were losing weight indeed, especially M. Longuet, whose waistcoat hung somewhat limply down in front. But the muscles of our legs appeared to have grown stronger; and undoubtedly our intellects had grown quicker and more alert. When we had exhausted my subjects, I learned from M. Longuet the process of making rubber stamps, with a thoroughness which fits me to embark at any moment on that career. I found that he was even quicker to acquire the knowledge which goes to the making of an able Commissary of Police.

"It would indeed have been a very pleasant walking tour, thanks to that unlikeness of our natures which produces the most harmonious companionship, had it not been for the monotony of the scenery through which our way lay. The subterranean passages, illumined by our lamps, were sometimes vast, sometimes narrow, sometimes rounded like the naves of the cathedrals, sometimes square, angular, and mean, like the corridors of workhouses. But they presented no spectacle of great variety. When he had said, 'Look, stone! Look, clay! Look, sand!' we had said everything, because we had seen everything.

"It was on the afternoon of the fourteenth day that M. Longuet embarked on a subject of conversation extremely distasteful to me, the edible qualities of the human body. I tried gently to divert him from it; but it appeared to have become one of his fixed ideas; and he harped on it for two very tedious hours. That evening I halted for supper on the banks of a stream, nearly eighteen inches wide, which ran across the passage we were in; and after supper I suggested that, before retiring for the night, he should for once glut his sportsman's ardour.

"Though indeed he had no hooks, he fell to his angling with the liveliest eagerness. We turned the light of our lamp on to the waters of the stream, and presently out of the hole in the wall from which it issued, there came swimming a little fish. Then we found that hooks were unnecessary in the sport of the Catacombs. Owing to the fact that the little fish had no eyes, M. Longuet was able to lay his hand on the bed of the stream, which was, perhaps, at that point three inches deep, and when the little fish came swimming over it, to jerk up his hand and fling it on the bank. We examined his catch in the light of our lamp; but I was unable to say whether it was an Asellus Aquaticus or a Cyclops Fimbriatus.

"In the course of the next quarter of an hour we caught three more of these little fishes (they were nearly four inches long); then, at the sight of fresh fish, a wolfish gleam came into M. Longuet's eyes; and he suggested that we should repeat the supper we had only just finished. After his distasteful conversation of the afternoon, I made no objection. But with his ineradicable middle-class instinct he complained that we had no means of cooking our catch. I explained to him that our early ancestors, the cave-men, probably ate most of their food raw, and whatever else we were, we were, at the moment, undoubtedly cave-men. With this new intellectual alertness, acquired by following the method of M. Fletcher of the United States, he saw my point. We cleaned the fish with the knife of Signor Petito and ate them. They were delicious.

"But, as I should have foreseen, so much rich food coming suddenly after the rational diet on which we had subsisted during the last fortnight was too much for us, and for several hours we suffered the most acute pangs of indigestion. Moreover, with the greedy haste of gourmands, we had not timed ourselves over the meal, and had eaten the fish far too quickly. However, no experience is wasted on a rational man; and I realised that one Asellus Aquaticus, after ham, is enough for the logical Fletcherite.

"After the passing of our indigestion, we slept soundly; and the next morning we resumed our journey entirely free from any anxiety: it might take us six months, or it might take us a year, but sooner or later we should find the Ossuary and the exit from the Catacombs, sustained in our task by the Asellus Aquaticus. Indeed it was extremely improbable that it would take us more than a few days longer, for since I had never missed a chance of taking a passage which appeared to lead back to our starting-point, we must necessarily have drawn further and further from it.

"This expectation was realised sooner than I expected, for on the night of the seventeenth day, just as, at the close of a very interesting discussion on the neglect of the logical faculty by the great majority of men, we had turned our thoughts to supper and sleep, we were suddenly confronted by two skeletons.

"They were fastened against the wall on either side, and an arm of either, like the arm of a finger-post, pointed down the passage ahead.