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Concealed Details

The Secret Story of the Sewer-Men, the Septic-Men, The Men of the underground, The Environmental-Men.

Today let us consider the wisdom of a solution from Our European History.

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The visit took place, and was a formidable campaign,—a nocturnal battle against asphyxia and plague. It was at the same time a voyage of discovery, and one of the survivors of the exploration, an intelligent workman, very young at that time, used to recount a few years ago the curious details which Bruneseau thought it right to omit in his report to the Prefect of Police, as unworthy of the administrative style. Disinfecting processes were very rudimentary at that day, and Bruneseau had scarce passed the first articulations of the subterranean network ere eight workmen out of twenty refused to go farther. The operation was complicated, for the visit entailed cleansing: it was, therefore, requisite to cleanse and at the same time take measurements; note the water entrances, count the traps and mouths, detail the branches, indicate the currents, recognize the respective dimensions of the different basins, sound the small sewers grafted on the main, measure the height under the key-stone of each passage, and the width both at the bottom and the top, in order to determine the ordinates for levelling at the right of each entrance of water. They advanced with difficulty, and it was not rare for the ladders to sink into three feet of mud. The lanterns would scarce burn in the mephitic atmosphere, and from time to time a sewer-man was carried away in a fainting state. At certain spots there was a precipice; the soil had given way, the stones were swallowed up, and the drain was converted into a lost well; nothing solid could be found, and they had great difficulty in dragging out a man who suddenly disappeared. By the advice of Fourcroy large cages filled with tow saturated with resin were set fire to at regular distances. The wall was covered in spots with shapeless fungi, which might have been called tumors, and the stone itself seemed diseased in this unbreathable medium.

Bruneseau, in his exploration, proceeded down-hill. At the point where the two water-pipes of the Grand Hurleur separate he deciphered on a projecting stone the date 1550; this stone indicated the limit where Philibert Delorme, instructed by Henri II. to inspect the subways of Paris, stopped. This stone was the mark of the sixteenth century in the drain, and Bruneseau found the handiwork of the seventeenth in the Ponceau conduit and that of the Rue Vieille du Temple, which were arched between 1600 and 1650, and the mark of the eighteenth in the west section of the collecting canal, enclosed and arched in 1740. These two arches, especially the younger one, that of 1740, were more decrepit and cracked than the masonry of the begirding drain, which dated from 1412, the period when the Menilmontant stream of running water was raised to the dignity of the Great Sewer of Paris, a promotion analogous to that of a peasant who became first valet to the king; something like Gros Jean transformed into Lébel.

They fancied they recognized here and there, especially under the Palais du Justice, the form of old dungeons formed in the sewer itself, hideous in pace. An iron collar hung in one of these cells, and they were all bricked up. A few of the things found were peculiar; among others the skeleton of an ourang-outang, which disappeared from the Jardin des Plantes in 1800, a disappearance probably connected with the famous and incontestable apparition of the devil in the Rue des Bernardins in the last year of the eighteenth century. The poor animal eventually drowned itself in the sewer. Under the long vaulted passage leading to the Arche Marion a rag-picker’s hotte in a perfect state of preservation caused the admiration of connoisseurs. Everywhere the mud, which the sewer-men had come to handle intrepidly, abounded in precious objects; gold and silver, jewelry, precious stones, and coin. A giant who had filtered this cloaca would have found in his sieve the wealth of centuries. At the point where the two branches of the Rue du Temple and the Rue Sainte Avoye divide, a singular copper Huguenot medal was picked up, bearing on one side a pig wearing a cardinals hat, and on the other a wolf with the tiara on its head.

The most surprising discovery was at the entrance of the Great Sewer. This entrance had been formerly closed by a gate, of which only the hinges now remained. From one of these hinges hung a filthy shapeless rag, which doubtless caught there as it passed, floated in the shadow, and was gradually mouldering away. Bruneseau raised his lantern and examined this fragment; it was of very fine linen, and at one of the corners less gnawed than the rest could be distinguished an heraldic crown embroidered above these seven letters, LAVBESP. The crown was a Marquis’s crown, and the seven letters signified Laubespine. What they had under their eyes was no less than a piece of Marat’s winding-sheet. Marat, in his youth, had had amours, at the time when he was attached to the household of the Comte d’Artois in the capacity of physician to the stables. Of these amours with a great lady, which are historically notorious, this sheet had remained to him as a waif or a souvenir; on his death, as it was the only fine linen at his lodgings, he was buried in it. Old women wrapped up the tragic friend of the people for the tomb in this sheet which had known voluptuousness. Bruneseau passed on; the strip was left where it was. Was it through contempt or respect? Marat deserved both. And then destiny was so impressed on it that a hesitation was felt about touching it. Moreover, things of the sepulchre should be left at the place which they select. Altogether the relic was a strange one: a Marquise had slept in it, Marat had rotted in it; and it had passed through the Panthéon to reach the sewer-rats. This rag from an alcove, every crease in which Watteau in former days would joyously have painted, ended by becoming worthy of the intent glance of Dante.

The visit to the subways of Paris lasted for seven years,—from 1805 to 1812. While going along, Bruneseau designed, directed, and carried out considerable operations. In 1808 he lowered the Ponceau sewer, and everywhere pushing out new lines, carried the sewer in 1809 under the Rue St. Denis to the Fountain of the Innocents; in 1810 under the Rue Froidmanteau and the Salpêtrière; in 1811 under the Rue Neuve des Petits Pères, under the Rue du Mail, the Rue de l’Écharpe and the Place Royal; in 1812 under the Rue de la Paix and the Chaussée d’Antin. At the same time he disinfected and cleansed the entire network, and in the second year called his son-in-law Nargaud to his assistance. It is thus that at the beginning of this century the old society flushed its subway and performed the toilette of its sewer. It was so much cleaned at any rate. Winding, cracked, unpaved, full of pits, broken by strange elbows, ascending and descending illogically, fetid, savage, ferocious, submerged in darkness, with cicatrices on its stones and scars on its walls, and grewsome,—such was the old sewer of Paris, retrospectively regarded. Ramifications in all directions, crossings of trenches, branches, dials and stars as in saps, blind guts and alleys, arches covered with saltpetre, infected pits, scabby exudations on the walls, drops falling from the roof, and darkness, nothing equalled the horror of this old excremental crypt,—the digestive apparatus of Babylon, a den, a trench, a gulf pierced with streets, a Titanic mole-hill, in which the mind fancies that it sees crawling through the shadow, amid the ordure which had been splendor, that enormous blind mole, the Past.

Such, we repeat, was the sewer of the olden time.

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