The visit took place. It was a formidable campaign; a nocturnal
battle against pestilence and suffocation. It was, at the same time,
a voyage of discovery. One of the survivors of this expedition,
an intelligent workingman, who was very young at the time, related curious
details with regard to it, several years ago, which Bruneseau thought
himself obliged to omit in his report to the prefect of police,
as unworthy of official style. The processes of disinfection were,
at that epoch, extremely rudimentary. Hardly had Bruneseau crossed
the first articulations of that subterranean network, when eight
laborers out of the twenty refused to go any further. The operation
was complicated; the visit entailed the necessity of cleaning;
hence it was necessary to cleanse and at the same time, to proceed;
to note the entrances of water, to count the gratings and the vents,
to lay out in detail the branches, to indicate the currents at
the point where they parted, to define the respective bounds of the
divers basins, to sound the small sewers grafted on the principal
sewer, to measure the height under the key-stone of each drain,
and the width, at the spring of the vaults as well as at the bottom,
in order to determine the arrangements with regard to the level
of each water-entrance, either of the bottom of the arch, or on
the soil of the street. They advanced with toil. The lanterns
pined away in the foul atmosphere. From time to time, a fainting
sewerman was carried out. At certain points, there were precipices.
The soil had given away, the pavement had crumbled, the sewer
had changed into a bottomless well; they found nothing solid;
a man disappeared suddenly; they had great difficulty in getting
him out again. On the advice of Fourcroy, they lighted large cages
filled with tow steeped in resin, from time to time, in spots
which had been sufficiently disinfected. In some places, the wall
was covered with misshapen fungi,--one would have said tumors;
the very stone seemed diseased within this unbreathable atmosphere.
Bruneseau, in his exploration, proceeded down hill. At the point
of separation of the two water-conduits of the Grand-Hurleur, he
deciphered upon a projecting stone the date of 1550; this stone
indicated the limits where Philibert Delorme, charged by Henri II.
with visiting the subterranean drains of Paris, had halted.
This stone was the mark of the sixteenth century on the sewer;
Bruneseau found the handiwork of the seventeenth century once more
in the Ponceau drain of the old Rue Vielle-du-Temple, vaulted between
1600 and 1650; and the handiwork of the eighteenth in the western
section of the collecting canal, walled and vaulted in 1740.
These two vaults, especially the less ancient, that of 1740,
were more cracked and decrepit than the masonry of the belt sewer,
which dated from 1412, an epoch when the brook of fresh water of
Menilmontant was elevated to the dignity of the Grand Sewer of Paris,
an advancement analogous to that of a peasant who should become first
valet de chambre to the King; something like Gros-Jean transformed
Here and there, particularly beneath the Court-House, they thought
they recognized the hollows of ancient dungeons, excavated in the
very sewer itself. Hideous in-pace. An iron neck-collar was hanging
in one of these cells. They walled them all up. Some of their finds
were singular; among others, the skeleton of an ourang-outan, who had
disappeared from the Jardin des Plantes in 1800, a disappearance
probably connected with the famous and indisputable apparition of the
devil in the Rue des Bernardins, in the last year of the eighteenth
century. The poor devil had ended by drowning himself in the sewer.
Beneath this long, arched drain which terminated at the Arche-Marion,
a perfectly preserved rag-picker's basket excited the admiration
of all connoisseurs. Everywhere, the mire, which the sewermen came
to handle with intrepidity, abounded in precious objects, jewels of
gold and silver, precious stones, coins. If a giant had filtered
this cesspool, he would have had the riches of centuries in his lair.
At the point where the two branches of the Rue du Temple and of the
Rue Sainte-Avoye separate, they picked up a singular Huguenot medal
in copper, bearing on one side the pig hooded with a cardinal's hat,
and on the other, a wolf with a tiara on his head.
The most surprising rencounter was at the entrance to the Grand Sewer.
This entrance had formerly been closed by a grating of which nothing
but the hinges remained. From one of these hinges hung a dirty
and shapeless rag which, arrested there in its passage, no doubt,
had floated there in the darkness and finished its process of being
torn apart. Bruneseau held his lantern close to this rag and
examined it. It was of very fine batiste, and in one of the corners,
less frayed than the rest, they made out a heraldic coronet and
embroidered above these seven letters: LAVBESP. The crown was the
coronet of a Marquis, and the seven letters signified Laubespine.
They recognized the fact, that what they had before their eyes
was a morsel of the shroud of Marat. Marat in his youth had had
amorous intrigues. This was when he was a member of the household
of the Comte d'Artois, in the capacity of physician to the Stables.
From these love affairs, historically proved, with a great lady,
he had retained this sheet. As a waif or a souvenir. At his death,
as this was the only linen of any fineness which he had in his house,
they buried him in it. Some old women had shrouded him for the tomb
in that swaddling-band in which the tragic Friend of the people
had enjoyed voluptuousness. Bruneseau passed on. They left that
rag where it hung; they did not put the finishing touch to it.
Did this arise from scorn or from respect? Marat deserved both.
And then, destiny was there sufficiently stamped to make them
hesitate to touch it. Besides, the things of the sepulchre must
be left in the spot which they select. In short, the relic was
a strange one. A Marquise had slept in it; Marat had rotted in it;
it had traversed the Pantheon to end with the rats of the sewer.
This chamber rag, of which Watteau would formerly have joyfully
sketched every fold, had ended in becoming worthy of the fixed gaze
The whole visit to the subterranean stream of filth of Paris
lasted seven years, from 1805 to 1812. As he proceeded,
Bruneseau drew, directed, and completed considerable works;
in 1808 he lowered the arch of the Ponceau, and, everywhere creating
new lines, he pushed the sewer, in 1809, under the Rue Saint-Denis
as far as the fountain of the Innocents; in 1810, under the Rue
Froidmanteau and under the Salpetriere; in 1811 under the Rue
Neuve-des-Petits-Peres, under the Rue du Mail, under the Rue de
l'Echarpe, under the Place Royale; in 1812, under the Rue de la Paix,
and under the Chaussee d'Antin. At the same time, he had the whole
net-work disinfected and rendered healthful. In the second year
of his work, Bruneseau engaged the assistance of his son-in-law Nargaud.
It was thus that, at the beginning of the century, ancient society
cleansed its double bottom, and performed the toilet of its sewer.
There was that much clean, at all events.
Tortuous, cracked, unpaved, full of fissures, intersected by gullies,
jolted by eccentric elbows, mounting and descending illogically,
fetid, wild, fierce, submerged in obscurity, with cicatrices
on its pavements and scars on its walls, terrible,--such was,
retrospectively viewed, the antique sewer of Paris. Ramifications in
every direction, crossings, of trenches, branches, goose-feet, stars,
as in military mines, coecum, blind alleys, vaults lined with saltpetre,
pestiferous pools, scabby sweats, on the walls, drops dripping
from the ceilings, darkness; nothing could equal the horror
of this old, waste crypt, the digestive apparatus of Babylon,
a cavern, ditch, gulf pierced with streets, a titanic mole-burrow,
where the mind seems to behold that enormous blind mole, the past,
prowling through the shadows, in the filth which has been splendor.
This, we repeat, was the sewer of the past.