The next morning I found myself in an old hotel in Rochefort, where the two brothers had returned.
Wrapped in the tablecloths at night, I did not try to regiment myself: it would have been useless. I let myself be carried away, abandoning myself to my star, and this was the beginning of my travels.
I was in Rochefort, a neighbor of the prefecture, and as soon as the treasure seekers had laid their burden in a room where they carried it, I left my hiding place and hastened to a sheltered place where I could take a little rest. I found an excellent refuge in the wood chest on which the tabis had been deposited containing its precious deposit.
However, a singular odor, perceptible only to our delicate organs, seemed to fill the whole room: and I heard around me like a particular shudder accompanied by small repeated blows which gave me much to think. In what cutthroat did I fall?
I dozed off, nevertheless, leaning on a log, and I do not know whether I dreamed, but it seemed to me that I heard something going on or someone in the log, as if his interior had been inhabited. I promised myself to examine the following day what could have given me this singular illusion, and ended by falling asleep altogether – not without having long waited for the silence of the night; silence that one feels coming, rising, as the shadow becomes more complete. It was quite the opposite: the more the night came, the more the rustling, the rustle became more pronounced, not only in the log I was leaning on, but above, below, all around me …
In the day, everything fell asleep and became silent!
It was time to inquire about the cause of everything I had heard. I ran, I inspected; I did not see anything … nothing! Everywhere that smell of animals that I had felt the day before! Finally, I left the wood chest and, going back to the window, I took advantage of a vine to conveniently descend into the garden. I made an abundant lunch of some fallen fruits, and always the smell that I had noticed pursued me …
However, I did not see anything extraordinary. I resolved to descend into beautiful cellars, the staircase of which opened before me.
“That cellars?” I said, advancing cautiously; they are natural caves. I see stalactites, and here, along the wall, are engaged columns of calcareous matter …
I curiously examined these kinds of pilasters, when my ear heard the same rustling sound as in the log of the wood box … I moved back to a dark corner to stop thinking. As I approached, I saw an ant standing before me, I recognized it immediately – but of a species different from all those that I knew until then in the country.
“Who are you?“ she tells me.
“Friend!“ I replied.
“Friend? Are you ants, though?“
“Yes, reddish Polyergue; and you?“
“Me, Lucifuge Termite…“
“Ah! ah! I heard about you …“
“It’s good … What are you doing here?“
“I walk around and do not want to attack you in any way.“
“You are quite right. Just look at my tongs, they’ll cut you in half like a sword cuts a turnip. You must see that I am a mound soldier and that I am stronger than you …“
“What does this do to me? If you attack me, you will probably cut me in two; but you will not prevent me from inoculating you at the same time with my acid, and you will die of it tomorrow! Do not rub it anymore! Will you, on the contrary, receive me as a friend? I travel, I learn, I am harmless and can sometimes give you a hand or advice.“
“My! … I do not care what you can do. I am a soldier, and as such, I do not have to reason about what, who or why. I am an obedient sword, that’s all! and I am proud of it!“
“Sworn obedient, you give me a furious desire to visit your nation; is there an authority in your house to which you can submit my request?“
“Yes, the big council.“
“Well, obedient sword, my friend, go and ask him, for a philosopher, permission to visit your republic. It is my dearest wish.“
“So, wait for me here! And above all do not go away, it could happen to you bad luck! There are sentinels everywhere, and all will not have so much patience and good will as me …“
“Thanks for the advice.“
He disappeared. I sat down and waited for him, quite intrigued by the way things were going, studying the terrain around me a little and decided to take a quick escape if the negotiations were not successful. I expected my friend the obedient sword would fall on me with a perfect ensemble.
It did not happen. On the contrary, permission to visit was bestowed upon me of the best grace. I was even invited to make a request to the royal couple, and they added to the obedient sword another saber, still larger and stronger, to accompany me everywhere, so that between these two swords I would not run any danger of part of the populace.
“When you will, my lord,” said the first sword, bowing.
“Plague!“ I thought to myself, “we are no longer talking to each other! It’s quite big genre! What is the favor! …“
We turn the nearest column and, in the blackest corner, I see a door opening; I advance … This door is the monstrous head of a soldier who forms it, and which, closing the hole, is of the same color as the surrounding wall, and makes it impossible to stand out and in the shadows to distinguish anything. The soldier removes his head. We are entering … We are in a magnificent gallery at least one and a half centimeters high, about as long, polished like flint, and built of superb mortar. Everywhere around us an immense people, rising, descending in order, without trouble, some on the right, others on the left. Thus we arrived at a spacious square: several openings reigned around this square and gave access to vaulted rooms, large enough to hold thirty to forty workers. At the end of these rooms I could still see other very low doors, which of course gave access to other interior apartments; this time, these doors were much lower, but still wide, and five or six workers could pass abreast.
Scarcely had my bodyguards entered the square, than they began to wiggle with their whole body and hit the ground with their tongs. Immediately all the termites present did like them, waved and jabbing the earth with their mandibles. I recognized, at that moment, the shuddering and the little blows I had heard at the beginning of the night. On all sides, around us, it was a feverish activity that seemed to drive people. No one at rest, everyone working, but all this work organized without trouble, without embarrassment: I recognized that there, as with us, everyone knew what he had to do and did it in conscience.
It is all the more meritorious in this people, that the termites are not of the same species as we, or even of the same genus, or even of the same family: this is what explains to me why their odor was painful and had hurt me so badly. Termites are of a similar order, but different from ours. We, we belong to the Hymenoptera, with bees, wasps, hornets, etc .; they belong to the Neuroptera, with the young ladies, the antilion, our enemy, and many others …
However, we always climbed from gallery to gallery, from room to room, and the walk did not seem to finish; my bodyguards walked beside me with the regularity of a pendulum: they lengthened the legs and fatigued me horribly.
“Good sword, obedient,” I said to my companion, the first soldier, who was always trotting along, gay, by my side, “where are we going, please? By dint of walking in the midst of the almost absolute darkness where we are, I lose the feeling of distance. It seems to me, however, that we have had to travel several kilometers; I feel crushed …“
“Really, my friend Polyergue! you are not yet at the end of your troubles. We could trot three days as we do, that you would not have traveled all our domains yet …“
“Good Lord! But where are you going? …“
“Ah! As a curious visitor, be sure that there is the same difference between an anthill and a termite mound as, among men, between a cottage and a cathedral.“
“You are modest.“
“I am just, at most. Remember that we occupy the entire prefecture from top to bottom. All the beams, all that is wooden in the hotel, is now our domain. We have even, as here, met unforeseen bargains that have allowed us to create spacious meeting rooms. We are here in box 16 of the department’s archives, and …“
“What beautiful arches!“
“Is not it? … Oh! It is that we know perfectly well how to arrange ourselves. We have eaten all the inside of the packages, and what we have left is the outer envelope and the edge of the sheets to keep us hidden; for you know that men baptized us Lucifuges. They were right because we can not suffer the light.“
“You find everything here, at once, the living and the cover.“
“Certainly; unfortunately, this beautiful provision is drawing to a close. Recently we discovered, in the bottom of one of the boxes in operation, pencils. My faith! we ate them: wood, mine and all … It was very good!“
“Hush! shut up … It is useless to cause a riot of curiosity in the sanctuary where I am leading you. In the midst of your bodyguards, you will pass almost unnoticed and I will have fulfilled my mandate.“
At that moment, we mingled with a great crowd of people whom I could estimate at least several thousand individuals: they all turned in the same direction around a wonderful and huge room built in one of the largest boxes. It was the queen’s room, the mother’s room, as you wish!
The strangest spectacle then presents itself to our eyes; he was not without analogy with what is going on with us, but in proportions so gigantic that I remained amazed! In the middle of the room lay an immense, unbelievable being, whose head, the corselet, seemed to me rather similar to those of other termites, but whose abdomen is prodigious, indescribable. The queen was already old, according to what I learned, and as his abdomen grew constantly, it was six inches long! It was at least two thousand times bigger than the rest of its body!
These are dimensions of which you have no idea, you other men. Your slender and inelastic constitution does not make you capable of a similar development. Comparing myself to the termites, I calculated that the queen must weigh as much as thirty thousand of the workers who circulated around her. True mountain, she has lost its wings and can not take a step: it is there, on the stomach, having next to it the king, who lost his wings, too, but did not change any shape, nor of dimension, and confines itself to fulfill the functions of husband of the queen.
The workers and the soldiers pay little attention to the king, but all take care of the queen. Some give it to eat, the others are busy removing the eggs which it lays without interruption, and this fecundity is, in my eyes even accustomed to this spectacle, marvelous. From where I was placed, I saw, as from a kind of tribune, that this immense abdomen was only a vast ovary whose multiplied branches contain so many developing germs that it always find one of mature. Through the skin thinned and become transparent, I saw very well the channels constantly animated contraction movements, sometimes on one point, sometimes on another.
Thanks to this marvelous conformation, the queen lays, without noticing it, more than sixty eggs per minute, that is, more than eighty thousand a day! This every second, as regularly as a machine.
This myriad of eggs, promptly collected by the workers, are taken to hatcheries. Soon there emerge larvae of a milk-white which are treated with all the talent of the most devoted nannies. What I found most curious is that, when I went back down to the cellars where these hatcheries were arranged, I noticed that the walls were prepared by termites as well as real garden beds, in order to the food of their larvae.
Thanks to the damp heat which reigns in these rooms, and which termites know how to maintain, microscopic fungi everywhere grow on the partitions, on the walls, microscopic fungi, molds which form a food specially adapted to the first needs of the children. If termites belonged to the noble and intelligent nation of ants, I would be inclined to believe that they have enough wit to sow fungi themselves, and I would have inquired how they do it. But how do you think that beings who belong to the crass family whose ants are part of can possess the purified and noble instincts of the farmers?
As for the evolutions of males and females, of workers, they are very similar to what is going on here. So I went quickly past the termite quarters of these various categories, and I managed to get back to the door on the stairs.
Arrived there, the porter-porter wanted to withdraw his head, and I took leave of my friend the obedient sword, as well as his companion. I was really happy to breathe a little fresh air on the stairs and see the light of day going up in the garden, especially as the night was coming soon and I had to look for supper.
Alas! everything seemed devoured in the garden; so I did not find much, even what an ant needs! … More fruit, everything had been eaten during the day by various animals, big and small. What to do? Go to bed without supper …
I resigned myself to it! and promised me well, the next day, at dawn, to maraud on the port, certain in advance to make ample parish there.