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Chapter 24

ON the twentieth of the month, finding it altogether impossible to
subsist any longer upon the filberts, the use of which occasioned us
the most excruciating torment, we resolved to make a desperate
attempt at descending the southern declivity of the hill. The face of
the precipice was here of the softest species of soapstone, although
nearly perpendicular throughout its whole extent (a depth of a
hundred and fifty feet at the least), and in many places even
overarching. After a long search we discovered a narrow ledge about
twenty feet below the brink of the gulf; upon this Peters contrived
to leap, with what assistance I could render him by means of our
pocket-handkerchiefs tied together. With somewhat more difficulty I
also got down; and we then saw the possibility of descending the
whole way by the process in which we had clambered up from the chasm
when we had been buried by the fall of the hill-that is, by cutting
steps in the face of the soapstone with our knives. The extreme
hazard of the attempt can scarcely be conceived; but, as there was no
other resource, we determined to undertake it.

Upon the ledge where we stood there grew some filbert-bushes; and to
one of these we made fast an end of our rope of handkerchiefs. The
other end being tied round Peters' waist, I lowered him down over the
edge of the precipice until the handkerchiefs were stretched tight.
He now proceeded to dig a deep hole in the soapstone (as far in as
eight or ten inches), sloping away the rock above to the height of a
foot, or thereabout, so as to allow of his driving, with the butt of
a pistol, a tolerably strong peg into the levelled surface. I then
drew him up for about four feet, when he made a hole similar to the
one below, driving in a peg as before, and having thus a
resting-place for both feet and hands. I now unfastened the
handkerchiefs from the bush, throwing him the end, which he tied to
the peg in the uppermost hole, letting himself down gently to a
station about three feet lower than he had yet been that is, to the
full extent of the handkerchiefs. Here he dug another hole, and drove
another peg. He then drew himself up, so as to rest his feet in the
hole just cut, taking hold with his hands upon the peg in the one
above. It was now necessary to untie the handkerchiefs from the
topmost peg, with the view of fastening them to the second; and here
he found that an error had been committed in cutting the holes at so
great a distance apart. However, after one or two unsuccessful and
dangerous attempts at reaching the knot (having to hold on with his
left hand while he labored to undo the fastening with his right), he
at length cut the string, leaving six inches of it affixed to the
peg. Tying the handkerchiefs now to the second peg, he descended to a
station below the third, taking care not to go too far down. By these
means (means which I should never have conceived of myself, and for
which we were indebted altogether to Peters' ingenuity and
resolution) my companion finally succeeded, with the occasional aid
of projections in the cliff, in reaching the bottom without accident.

It was some time before I could summon sufficient resolution to
follow him; but I did at length attempt it. Peters had taken off his
shirt before descending, and this, with my own, formed the rope
necessary for the adventure. After throwing down the musket found in
the chasm, I fastened this rope to the bushes, and let myself down
rapidly, striving, by the vigor of my movements, to banish the
trepidation which I could overcome in no other manner. This answered
sufficiently well for the first four or five steps; but presently I
found my imagination growing terribly excited by thoughts of the vast
depths yet to be descended, and the precarious nature of the pegs and
soapstone holes which were my only support. It was in vain I
endeavored to banish these reflections, and to keep my eyes steadily
bent upon the flat surface of the cliff before me. The more earnestly
I struggled _not to think, _the more intensely vivid became my
conceptions, and the more horribly distinct. At length arrived that
crisis of fancy, so fearful in all similar cases, the crisis in which
we began to anticipate the feelings with which we _shall _fall-to
picture to ourselves the sickness, and dizziness, and the last
struggle, and the half swoon, and the final bitterness of the rushing
and headlong descent. And now I found these fancies creating their
own realities, and all imagined horrors crowding upon me in fact. I
felt my knees strike violently together, while my fingers were
gradually but certainly relaxing their grasp. There was a ringing in
my ears, and I said, "This is my knell of death!" And now I was
consumed with the irrepressible desire of looking below. I could not,
I would not, confine my glances to the cliff; and, with a wild,
indefinable emotion, half of horror, half of a relieved oppression, I
threw my vision far down into the abyss. For one moment my fingers
clutched convulsively upon their hold, while, with the movement, the
faintest possible idea of ultimate escape wandered, like a shadow,
through my mind -in the next my whole soul was pervaded with a
longing to fall; a desire, a yearning, a passion utterly
uncontrollable. I let go at once my grasp upon the peg, and, turning
half round from the precipice, remained tottering for an instant
against its naked face. But now there came a spinning of the brain; a
shrill-sounding and phantom voice screamed within my ears; a dusky,
fiendish, and filmy figure stood immediately beneath me; and,
sighing, I sunk down with a bursting heart, and plunged within its
arms.

I had swooned, and Peters had caught me as I fell. He had observed my
proceedings from his station at the bottom of the cliff; and
perceiving my imminent danger, had endeavored to inspire me with
courage by every suggestion he could devise; although my confusion of
mind had been so great as to prevent my hearing what he said, or
being conscious that he had even spoken to me at all. At length,
seeing me totter, he hastened to ascend to my rescue, and arrived
just in time for my preservation. Had I fallen with my full weight,
the rope of linen would inevitably have snapped, and I should have
been precipitated into the abyss; as it was, he contrived to let me
down gently, so as to remain suspended without danger until animation
returned. This was in about fifteen minutes. On recovery, my
trepidation had entirely vanished; I felt a new being, and, with some
little further aid from my companion, reached the bottom also in
safety.

We now found ourselves not far from the ravine which had proved the
tomb of our friends, and to the southward of the spot where the hill
had fallen. The place was one of singular wildness, and its aspect
brought to my mind the descriptions given by travellers of those
dreary regions marking the site of degraded Babylon. Not to speak of
the ruins of the disrupted cliff, which formed a chaotic barrier in
the vista to the northward, the surface of the ground in every other
direction was strewn with huge tumuli, apparently the wreck of some
gigantic structures of art; although, in detail, no semblance of art
could be detected. Scoria were abundant, and large shapeless blocks
of the black granite, intermingled with others of marl, {*6} and both
granulated with metal. Of vegetation there were no traces whatsoever
throughout the whole of the desolate area within sight. Several
immense scorpions were seen, and various reptiles not elsewhere to be
found in the high latitudes. As food was our most immediate object,
we resolved to make our way to the seacoast, distant not more than
half a mile, with a view of catching turtle, several of which we had
observed from our place of concealment on the hill. We had proceeded
some hundred yards, threading our route cautiously between the huge
rocks and tumuli, when, upon turning a corner, five savages sprung
upon us from a small cavern, felling Peters to the ground with a blow
from a club. As he fell the whole party rushed upon him to secure
their victim, leaving me time to recover from my astonishment. I
still had the musket, but the barrel had received so much injury in
being thrown from the precipice that I cast it aside as useless,
preferring to trust my pistols, which had been carefully preserved in
order. With these I advanced upon the assailants, firing one after
the other in quick succession. Two savages fell, and one, who was in
the act of thrusting a spear into Peters, sprung to his feet without
accomplishing his purpose. My companion being thus released, we had
no further difficulty. He had his pistols also, but prudently
declined using them, confiding in his great personal strength, which
far exceeded that of any person I have ever known. Seizing a club
from one of the savages who had fallen, he dashed out the brains of
the three who remained, killing each instantaneously with a single
blow of the weapon, and leaving us completely masters of the field.

So rapidly bad these events passed, that we could scarcely believe in
their reality, and were standing over the bodies of the dead in a
species of stupid contemplation, when we were brought to recollection
by the sound of shouts in the distance. It was clear that the savages
had been alarmed by the firing, and that we had little chance of
avoiding discovery. To regain the cliff, it would be necessary to
proceed in the direction of the shouts, and even should we succeed in
arriving at its base, we should never be able to ascend it without
being seen. Our situation was one of the greatest peril, and we were
hesitating in which path to commence a flight, when one of the
savages _whom _I had shot, and supposed dead, sprang briskly to his
feet, and attempted to make his escape. We overtook _him, _however,
before he had advanced many paces, and were about to put him to
death, when Peters suggested that we might derive some benefit from
forcing him to accompany us in our attempt to escape. We therefore
dragged him with us, making him understand that we would shoot him if
he offered resistance. In a few minutes he was perfectly submissive,
and ran by our sides as we pushed in among the rocks, making for the
seashore.

So far, the irregularities of the ground we had been traversing hid
the sea, except at intervals, from our sight, and, when we first had
it fairly in view, it was perhaps two hundred yards distant. As we
emerged into the open beach we saw, to our great dismay, an immense
crowd of the natives pouring from the village, and from all visible
quarters of the island, making toward us with gesticulations of
extreme fury, and howling like wild beasts. We were upon the point of
turning upon our steps, and trying to secure a retreat among the
fastnesses of the rougher ground, when I discovered the bows of two
canoes projecting from behind a large rock which ran out into the
water. Toward these we now ran with all speed, and, reaching them,
found them unguarded, and without any other freight than three of the
large Gallipago turtles and the usual supply of paddles for sixty
rowers. We instantly took possession of one of them, and, forcing our
captive on board, pushed out to sea with all the strength we could
command.

We had not made, however, more than fifty yards from the shore before
we became sufficiently calm to perceive the great oversight of which
we had been guilty in leaving the other canoe in the power of the
savages, who, by this time, were not more than twice as far from the
beach as ourselves, and were rapidly advancing to the pursuit. No
time was now to be lost. Our hope was, at best, a forlorn one, but we
had none other. It was very doubtful whether, with the utmost
exertion, we could get back in time to anticipate them in taking
possession of the canoe; but yet there was a chance that we could. We
might save ourselves if we succeeded, while not to make the attempt
was to resign ourselves to inevitable butchery.

The canoe was modelled with the bow and stern alike, and, in place of
turning it around, we merely changed our position in paddling. As
soon as the savages perceived this they redoubled their yells, as
well as their speed, and approached with inconceivable rapidity. We
pulled, however, with all the energy of desperation, and arrived at
the contested point before more than one of the natives had attained
it. This man paid dearly for his superior agility, Peters shooting
him through the head with a pistol as he approached the shore. The
foremost among the rest of his party were probably some twenty or
thirty paces distant as we seized upon the canoe. We at first
endeavored to pull her into the deep water, beyond the reach of the
savages, but, finding her too firmly aground, and there being no time
to spare, Peters, with one or two heavy strokes from the butt of the
musket, succeeded in dashing out a large portion of the bow and of
one side. We then pushed off. Two of the natives by this time had got
hold of our boat, obstinately refusing to let go, until we were
forced to despatch them with our knives. We were now clear off, and
making great way out to sea. The main body of the savages, upon
reaching the broken canoe, set up the most tremendous yell of rage
and disappointment conceivable. In truth, from everything I could see
of these wretches, they appeared to be the most wicked, hypocritical,
vindictive, bloodthirsty, and altogether fiendish race of men upon
the face of the globe. It is clear we should have had no mercy had we
fallen into their hands. They made a mad attempt at following us in
the fractured canoe, but, finding it useless, again vented their rage
in a series of hideous vociferations, and rushed up into the hills.

We were thus relieved from immediate danger, but our situation was
still sufficiently gloomy. We knew that four canoes of the kind we
had were at one time in the possession of the savages, and were not
aware of the fact (afterward ascertained from our captive) that two
of these had been blown to pieces in the explosion of the _Jane Guy.
_We calculated, therefore, upon being yet pursued, as soon as our
enemies could get round to the bay (distant about three miles) where
the boats were usually laid up. Fearing this, we made every exertion
to leave the island behind us, and went rapidly through the water,
forcing the prisoner to take a paddle. In about half an hour, when we
had gained probably five or six miles to the southward, a large fleet
of the flat-bottomed canoes or rafts were seen to emerge from the bay
evidently with the design of pursuit. Presently they put back,
despairing to overtake us.

Edgar Allan Poe

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