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Chapter Nine


CHAPTER NINE

PERILOUS PASSAGE OF THE RAVINE--DESCENT INTO THE VALLEY

The fearless confidence of Toby was contagious, and I began to
adopt the Happar side of the question.  I could not, however,
overcome a certain feeling of trepidation as we made our way
along these gloomy solitudes.  Our progress, at first
comparatively easy, became more and more difficult.  The bed of
the watercourse was covered with fragments of broken rocks, which
had fallen from above, offering so many obstructions to the
course of the rapid stream, which vexed and fretted about
them,--forming at intervals small waterfalls, pouring over into
deep basins, or splashing wildly upon heaps of stones.

From the narrowness of the gorge, and the steepness of its sides,
there was no mode of advancing but by wading through the water;
stumbling every moment over the impediments which lay hidden
under its surface, or tripping against the huge roots of trees.  
But the most annoying hindrance we encountered was from a
multitude of crooked boughs, which, shooting out almost
horizontally from the sides of the chasm, twisted themselves
together in fantastic masses almost to the surface of the stream,
affording us no passage except under the low arches which they
formed.  Under these we were obliged to crawl on our hands and
feet, sliding along the oozy surface of the rocks, or slipping
into the deep pools, and with scarce light enough to guide us.
Occasionally we would strike our heads against some projecting
limb of a tree; and while imprudently engaged in rubbing the
injured part, would fall sprawling amongst filthy fragments,
cutting and bruising ourselves, whilst the unpitying waters
flowed over our prostrate bodies.  Belzoni, worming himself
through the subterranean passages of the Egyptian catacombs,
could not have met with great impediments than those we here
encountered.  But we struggled against them manfully, well
knowing our only hope lay in advancing.

Towards sunset we halted at a spot where we made preparations for
passing the night.  Here we constructed a hut, in much the same
way as before, and crawling into it, endeavoured to forget our
sufferings.  My companion, I believe, slept pretty soundly; but
at day break, when we rolled out of our dwelling, I felt nearly
disqualified for any further efforts.  Toby prescribed as a
remedy for my illness the contents of one of our little silk
packages, to be taken at once in a single dose.  To this species
of medical treatment, however, I would by no means accede, much
as he insisted upon it; and so we partook of our usual morsel,
and silently resumed our journey.  It was now the fourth day
since we left Nukuheva, and the gnawings of hunger became
painfully acute.  We were fain to pacify them by chewing the
tender bark of roots and twigs, which, if they did not afford us
nourishment, were at least sweet and pleasant to the taste.

Our progress along the steep watercourse was necessarily slow,
and by noon we had not advanced more than a mile.  It was
somewhere near this part of the day that the noise of falling
waters, which we had faintly caught in the early morning, became
more distinct; and it was not long before we were arrested by a
rocky precipice of nearly a hundred feet in depth, that extended
all across the channel, and over which the wild stream poured in
an unbroken leap.  On each hand the walls of the ravine presented
their overhanging sides both above and below the fall, affording
no means whatever of avoiding the cataract by taking a circuit
round it.

'What's to be done now, Toby?'  said I.

'Why,' rejoined he, 'as we cannot retreat, I suppose we must keep
shoving along.'

'Very true, my dear Toby; but how do you purpose accomplishing
that desirable object?'

'By jumping from the top of the fall, if there be no other way,'
unhesitatingly replied my companion: 'it will be much the
quickest way of descent; but as you are not quite as active as I
am, we will try some other way.'

And, so saying, he crept cautiously along and peered over into
the abyss, while I remained wondering by what possible means we
could overcome this apparently insuperable obstruction.  As soon
as my companion had completed his survey, I eagerly inquired the
result.

'The result of my observations you wish to know, do you?'  began
Toby, deliberately, with one of his odd looks: 'well, my lad, the
result of my observations is very quickly imparted.  It is at
present uncertain which of our two necks will have the honour to
be broken first; but about a hundred to one would be a fair bet
in favour of the man who takes the first jump.'

'Then it is an impossible thing, is it?'  inquired I gloomily.

'No, shipmate; on the contrary, it is the easiest thing in life:
the only awkward point is the sort of usage which our unhappy
limbs may receive when we arrive at the bottom, and what sort of
travelling trim we shall be in afterwards.  But follow me now,
and I will show you the only chance we have.'   With this he
conducted me to the verge of the cataract, and pointed along the
side of the ravine to a number of curious looking roots, some
three or four inches in thickness, and several feet long, which,
after twisting among the fissures of the rock, shot
perpendicularly from it and ran tapering to a point in the air,
hanging over the gulf like so many dark icicles.  They covered
nearly the entire surface of one side of the gorge, the lowest of
them reaching even to the water.  Many were moss grown and
decayed, with their extremities snapped short off, and those in
the immediate vicinity of the fall were slippery with moisture.

Toby's scheme, and it was a desperate one, was to entrust
ourselves to these treacherous-looking roots, and by slipping
down from one to another to gain the bottom.

'Are you ready to venture it?'  asked Toby, looking at me
earnestly but without saying a word as to the practicability of
the plan.

'I am,' was my reply; for I saw it was our only resource if we
wished to advance, and as for retreating, all thoughts of that
sort had been long abandoned.

After I had signified my assent, Toby, without uttering a a
single word, crawled along the dripping ledge until he gained a
point from whence he could just reach one of the largest of the
pendant roots; he shook it--it quivered in his grasp, and when he
let it go it twanged in the air like a strong, wire sharply
struck.  Satisfied by his scrutiny, my light limbed companion
swung himself nimbly upon it, and twisting his legs round it in
sailor fashion, slipped down eight or ten feet, where his weight
gave it a motion not un-like that of a pendulum.  He could not
venture to descend any further; so holding on with one hand, he
with the other shook one by one all the slender roots around him,
and at last, finding one which he thought trustworthy, shifted
him self to it and continued his downward progress.

So far so well; but I could not avoid comparing my heavier frame
and disabled condition with his light figure and remarkable
activity; but there was no help for it, and in less than a
minute's time I was swinging directly over his head.  As soon as
his upturned eyes caught a glimpse of me, he exclaimed in his
usual dry tone, for the danger did not seem to daunt him in the
least, 'Mate, do me the kindness not to fall until I get out of
your way;' and then swinging himself more on one side, he
continued his descent.  In the mean time I cautiously transferred
myself from the limb down which I had been slipping to a couple
of others that were near it, deeming two strings to my bow better
than one, and taking care to test their strength before I trusted
my weight to them.

On arriving towards the end of the second stage in this vertical
journey, and shaking the long roots which were round me, to my
consternation they snapped off one after another like so many
pipe stems, and fell in fragments against the side of the gulf,
splashing at last into the waters beneath.

As one after another the treacherous roots yielded to my grasp,
and fell into the torrent, my heart sunk within me.  The branches
on which I was suspended over the yawning chasm swang to and fro
in the air, and I expected them every moment to snap in twain.  
Appalled at the dreadful fate that menaced me, I clutched
frantically at the only large root which remained near me, but in
vain; I could not reach it, though my fingers were within a few
inches of it.  Again and again I tried to reach it, until at
length, maddened with the thought of my situation, I swayed
myself violently by striking my foot against the side of the
rock, and at the instant that I approached the large root caught
desperately at it, and transferred myself to it.  It vibrated
violently under the sudden weight, but fortunately did not give
way.

My brain grew dizzy with the idea of the frightful risk I had
just run, and I involuntarily closed my eyes to shut out the view
of the depth beneath me.  For the instant I was safe, and I
uttered a devout ejaculation of thanksgiving for my escape.

'Pretty well done,' shouted Toby underneath me; 'you are nimbler
than I thought you to be--hopping about up there from root to
root like any young squirrel.  As soon as you have diverted
yourself sufficiently, I would advise you to proceed.'

'Aye, aye, Toby, all in good time: two or three more such famous
roots as this, and I shall be with you.'

The residue of my downward progress was comparatively easy; the
roots were in greater abundance, and in one or two places jutting
out points of rock assisted me greatly.  In a few moments I was
standing by the side of my companion.

Substituting a stout stick for the one I had thrown aside at the
top of the precipice, we now continued our course along the bed
of the ravine.  Soon we were saluted by a sound in advance, that
grew by degrees louder and louder, as the noise of the cataract
we were leaving behind gradually died on our ears.

'Another precipice for us, Toby.'

'Very good; we can descend them, you know--come on.'

Nothing indeed appeared to depress or intimidate this intrepid
fellow.  Typees or Niagaras, he was as ready to engage one as the
other, and I could not avoid a thousand times congratulating
myself upon having such a companion in an enterprise like the
present.

After an hour's painful progress, we reached the verge of another
fall, still loftier than the preceding and flanked both above and
below with the same steep masses of rock, presenting, however,
here and there narrow irregular ledges, supporting a shallow
soil, on which grew a variety of bushes and trees, whose bright
verdure contrasted beautifully with the foamy waters that flowed
between them.

Toby, who invariably acted as pioneer, now proceeded to
reconnoitre.  On his return, he reported that the shelves of rock
on our right would enable us to gain with little risk the bottom
of the cataract.  Accordingly, leaving the bed of the stream at
the very point where it thundered down, we began crawling along
one of those sloping ledges until it carried us to within a few
feet of another that inclined downwards at a still sharper angle,
and upon which, by assisting each other we managed to alight in
safety.  We warily crept along this, steadying ourselves by the
naked roots of the shrubs that clung to every fissure.  As we
proceeded, the narrow path became still more contracted,
rendering it difficult for us to maintain our footing, until
suddenly, as we reached an angle of the wall of rock where we had
expected it to widen, we perceived to our consternation that a
yard or two further on it abruptly terminated at a place we could
not possibly hope to pass.

Toby as usual led the van, and in silence I waited to learn from
him how he proposed to extricate us from this new difficulty.

'Well, my boy,' I exclaimed, after the expiration of several
minutes, during which time my companion had not uttered a word,
'what's to be done now?'

He replied in a tranquil tone, that probably the best thing we
could do in our present strait was to get out of it as soon as
possible.

'Yes, my dear Toby, but tell me how we are to get out of it.'

'Something in this sort of style,' he replied, and at the same
moment to my horror he slipped sideways off the rocks and, as I
then thought, by good fortune merely, alighted among the
spreading branches of a species of palm tree, that shooting its
hardy roots along a ledge below, curved its trunk upwards into
the air, and presented a thick mass of foliage about twenty feet
below the spot where we had thus suddenly been brought to a
standstill.  I involuntarily held my breath, expecting to see the
form of my companion, after being sustained for a moment by the
branches of the tree, sink through their frail support, and fall
headlong to the bottom.  To my surprise and joy, however, he
recovered himself, and disentangling his limbs from the fractured
branches, he peered out from his leafy bed, and shouted lustily,
'Come on, my hearty there is no other alternative!' and with this
he ducked beneath the foliage, and slipping down the trunk, stood
in a moment at least fifty feet beneath me, upon the broad shelf
of rock from which sprung the tree he had descended.

What would I not have given at that moment to have been by his
side.  The feat he had just accomplished seemed little less than
miraculous, and I could hardly credit the evidence of my senses
when I saw the wide distance that a single daring act had so
suddenly placed between us.

Toby's animating 'come on' again sounded in my ears, and dreading
to lose all confidence in myself if I remained meditating upon
the step, I once more gazed down to assure myself of the relative
bearing of the tree and my own position, and then closing my eyes
and uttering one comprehensive ejaculation of prayer, I inclined
myself over towards the abyss, and after one breathless instant
fell with a crash into the tree, the branches snapping and
cracking with my weight, as I sunk lower and lower among them,
until I was stopped by coming in contact with a sturdy limb.

In a few moments I was standing at the foot of the tree
manipulating myself all over with a view of ascertaining the
extent of the injuries I had received.  To my surprise the only
effects of my feat were a few slight contusions too trifling to
care about.  The rest of our descent was easily accomplished, and
in half an hour after regaining the ravine we had partaken of our
evening morsel, built our hut as usual, and crawled under its
shelter.

The next morning, in spite of our debility and the agony of
hunger under which we were now suffering, though neither of us
confessed to the fact, we struggled along our dismal and still
difficult and dangerous path, cheered by the hope of soon
catching a glimpse of the valley before us, and towards evening
the voice of a cataract which had for some time sounded like a
low deep bass to the music of the smaller waterfalls, broke upon
our ears in still louder tones, and assured us that we were
approaching its vicinity.

That evening we stood on the brink of a precipice, over which the
dark stream bounded in one final leap of full 300 feet.  The
sheer descent terminated in the region we so long had sought.  On
each side of the fall, two lofty and perpendicular bluffs
buttressed the sides of the enormous cliff, and projected into
the sea of verdure with which the valley waved, and a range of
similar projecting eminences stood disposed in a half circle
about the head if the vale.  A thick canopy of trees hung over
the very verge of the fall, leaving an arched aperture for the
passage of the waters, which imparted a strange picturesqueness
to the scene.

The valley was now before us; but instead of being conducted into
its smiling bosom by the gradual descent of the deep watercourse
we had thus far pursued, all our labours now appeared to have
been rendered futile by its abrupt termination.  But, bitterly
disappointed, we did not entirely despair.

As it was now near sunset we determined to pass the night where
we were, and on the morrow, refreshed by sleep, and by eating at
one meal all our stock of food, to accomplish a descent into the
valley, or perish in the attempt.

We laid ourselves down that night on a spot, the recollection of
which still makes me shudder.  A small table of rock which
projected over the precipice on one side of the stream, and was
drenched by the spray of the fall, sustained a huge trunk of a
tree which must have been deposited there by some heavy freshet.  
It lay obliquely, with one end resting on the rock and the other
supported by the side of the ravine.  against it we placed in a
sloping direction a number of the half decayed boughs that were
strewn about, and covering the whole with twigs and leaves,
awaited the morning's light beneath such shelter as it afforded.


   During the whole of this night the continual roaring of the
cataract--the dismal moaning of the gale through the trees--the
pattering of the rain, and the profound darkness, affected my
spirits to a degree which nothing had ever before produced.  Wet,
half famished, and chilled to the heart with the dampness of the
place, and nearly wild with the pain I endured, I fairly cowered
down to the earth under this multiplication of hardships, and
abandoned myself to frightful anticipations of evil; and my
companion, whose spirit at last was a good deal broken, scarcely
uttered a word during the whole night.

At length the day dawned upon us, and rising from our miserable
pallet, we stretched our stiffened joints, and after eating all
that remained of our bread, prepared for the last stage of our
journey.    I will not recount every hair-breadth escape, and
every fearful difficulty that occurred before we succeeded in
reaching the bosom of the valley.  As I have already described
similar scenes, it will be sufficient to say that at length,
after great toil and great dangers, we both stood with no limbs
broken at the head of that magnificent vale which five days
before had so suddenly burst upon my sight, and almost beneath
the shadow of those very cliffs from whose summits we had gazed
upon the prospect.


Herman Melville