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NARRATIVE OF A. GORDON PYM - CHAPTER 20

by Edgar Allan Poe

THE chief was as good as his word, and we were soon plentifully

supplied with fresh provisions. We found the tortoises as fine as
we had ever seen, and the ducks surpassed our best species of wild
fowl, being exceedingly tender, juicy, and well-flavoured. Besides
these, the savages brought us, upon our making them comprehend our
wishes, a vast quantity of brown celery and scurvy grass, with a
canoe-load of fresh fish and some dried. The celery was a treat
indeed, and the scurvy grass proved of incalculable benefit in
restoring those of our men who had shown symptoms of disease. In a
very short time we had not a single person on the sick-list. We had
also plenty of other kinds of fresh provisions, among which may be
mentioned a species of shellfish resembling the mussel in shape, but
with the taste of an oyster. Shrimps, too, and prawns were abundant,
and albatross and other birds' eggs with dark shells. We took in,
too, a plentiful stock of the flesh of the hog which I have mentioned
before. Most of the men found it a palatable food, but I thought it
fishy and otherwise disagreeable. In return for these good things we
presented the natives with blue beads, brass trinkets, nails, knives,
and pieces of red cloth, they being fully delighted in the exchange.
We established a regular market on shore, just under the guns of the
schooner, where our barterings were carried on with every appearance
of good faith, and a degree of order which their conduct at the
village of Klock-klock had not led us to expect from the savages.

Matters went on thus very amicably for several days, during which

parties of the natives were frequently on board the schooner, and
parties of our men frequently on shore, making long excursions into
the interior, and receiving no molestation whatever. Finding the ease
with which the vessel might be loaded with biche de mer, owing to
the friendly disposition of the islanders, and the readiness with
which they would render us assistance in collecting it, Captain Guy
resolved to enter into negotiations with Too-wit for the erection of
suitable houses in which to cure the article, and for the services of
himself and tribe in gathering as much as possible, while he himself
took advantage of the fine weather to prosecute his voyage to the
southward. Upon mentioning this project to the chief he seemed very
willing to enter into an agreement. A bargain was accordingly struck,
perfectly satisfactory to both parties, by which it was arranged
that, after making the necessary preparations, such as laying off the
proper grounds, erecting a portion of the buildings, and doing some
other work in which the whole of our crew would be required, the
schooner should proceed on her route, leaving three of her men on the
island to superintend the fulfilment of the project, and instruct the
natives in drying the biche de mer. In regard to terms, these were
made to depend upon the exertions of the savages in our absence. They
were to receive a stipulated quantity of blue beads, knives, red
cloth, and so forth, for every certain number of piculs of the biche
de mer
which should be ready on our return.

A description of the nature of this important article of

commerce, and the method of preparing it, may prove of some interest
to my readers, and I can find no more suitable place than this for
introducing an account of it. The following comprehensive notice of
the substance is taken from a modern history of a voyage to the South
Seas.

"It is that mollusca from the Indian Seas which is known to

commerce by the French name bouche de mer (a nice morsel from the
sea). If I am not much mistaken, the celebrated Cuvier calls it
gasteropeda pulmonifera. It is abundantly gathered in the coasts of
the Pacific islands, and gathered especially for the Chinese market,
where it commands a great price, perhaps as much as their
much-talked-of edible birds' nests, which are properly made up of the
gelatinous matter picked up by a species of swallow from the body of
these molluscae. They have no shell, no legs, nor any prominent part,
except an absorbing and an excretory, opposite organs; but, by
their elastic wings, like caterpillars or worms, they creep in
shallow waters, in which, when low, they can be seen by a kind of
swallow, the sharp bill of which, inserted in the soft animal, draws
a gummy and filamentous substance, which, by drying, can be wrought
into the solid walls of their nest. Hence the name of gasteropeda
pulmonifera
.

"This mollusca is oblong, and of different sizes, from three to

eighteen inches in length; and I have seen a few that were not less
than two feet long. They were nearly round, a little flattish on one
side, which lies next to the bottom of the sea; and they are from one
to eight inches thick. They crawl up into shallow water at particular
seasons of the year, probably for the purpose of gendering, as we
often find them in pairs. It is when the sun has the most power on
the water, rendering it tepid, that they approach the shore; and they
often go up into places so shallow that, on the tide's receding, they
are left dry, exposed to the beat of the sun. But they do not bring
forth their young in shallow water, as we never see any of their
progeny, and full-grown ones are always observed coming in from deep
water. They feed principally on that class of zoophytes which produce
the coral.

"The biche de mer is generally taken in three or four feet of

water; after which they are brought on shore, and split at one end
with a knife, the incision being one inch or more, according to the
size of the mollusca. Through this opening the entrails are forced
out by pressure, and they are much like those of any other small
tenant of the deep. The article is then washed, and afterward boiled
to a certain degree, which must not be too much or too little. They
are then buried in the ground for four hours, then boiled again for a
short time, after which they are dried, either by the fire or the
sun. Those cured by the sun are worth the most; but where one picul
(133 1/3 lbs.) can be cured that way, I can cure thirty piculs by the
fire. When once properly cured, they can be kept in a dry place for
two or three years without any risk; but they should be examined once
in every few months, say four times a year, to see if any dampness is
likely to affect them.

"The Chinese, as before stated, consider biche de mer a very

great luxury, believing that it wonderfully strengthens and nourishes
the system, and renews the exhausted system of the immoderate
voluptuary. The first quality commands a high price in Canton, being
worth ninety dollars a picul; the second quality, seventy-five
dollars; the third, fifty dollars; the fourth, thirty dollars; the
fifth, twenty dollars; the sixth, twelve dollars; the seventh, eight
dollars; and the eighth, four dollars; small cargoes, however, will
often bring more in Manilla, Singapore, and Batavia."

An agreement having been thus entered into, we proceeded

immediately to land everything necessary for preparing the buildings
and clearing the ground. A large flat space near the eastern shore of
the bay was selected, where there was plenty of both wood and water,
and within a convenient distance of the principal reefs on which the
biche de mer was to be procured. We now all set to work in good
earnest, and soon, to the great astonishment of the savages, had
felled a sufficient number of trees for our purpose, getting them
quickly in order for the framework of the houses, which in two or
three days were so far under way that we could safely trust the rest
of the work to the three men whom we intended to leave behind. These
were John Carson, Alfred Harris, and ___ Peterson (all natives of
London, I believe), who volunteered their services in this respect.

By the last of the month we had everything in readiness for

departure. We had agreed, however, to pay a formal visit of
leave-taking to the village, and Too-wit insisted so pertinaciously
upon our keeping the promise that we did not think it advisable to
run the risk of offending him by a final refusal. I believe that not
one of us had at this time the slightest suspicion of the good faith
of the savages. They had uniformly behaved with the greatest decorum,
aiding us with alacrity in our work, offering us their commodities,
frequently without price, and never, in any instance, pilfering a
single article, although the high value they set upon the goods we
had with us was evident by the extravagant demonstrations of joy
always manifested upon our making them a present. The women
especially were most obliging in every respect, and, upon the whole,
we should have been the most suspicious of human beings had we
entertained a single thought of perfidy on the part of a people who
treated us so well. A very short while sufficed to prove that this
apparent kindness of disposition was only the result of a deeply laid
plan for our destruction, and that the islanders for whom we
entertained such inordinate feelings of esteem, were among the most
barbarous, subtle, and bloodthirsty wretches that ever contaminated
the face of the globe.

It was on the first of February that we went on shore for the

purpose of visiting the village. Although, as said before, we
entertained not the slightest suspicion, still no proper precaution
was neglected. Six men were left in the schooner, with instructions
to permit none of the savages to approach the vessel during our
absence, under any pretence whatever, and to remain constantly on
deck. The boarding-nettings were up, the guns double-shotted with
grape and canister, and the swivels loaded with canisters of
musket-balls. She lay, with her anchor apeak, about a mile from the
shore, and no canoe could approach her in any direction without being
distinctly seen and exposed to the full fire of our swivels
immediately.

The six men being left on board, our shore-party consisted of

thirty-two persons in all. We were armed to the teeth, having with
us muskets, pistols, and cutlasses; besides, each had a long kind of
seaman's knife, somewhat resembling the bowie knife now so much used
throughout our western and southern country. A hundred of the black
skin warriors met us at the landing for the purpose of accompanying
us on our way. We noticed, however, with some surprise, that they
were now entirely without arms; and, upon questioning Too-wit in
relation to this circumstance, he merely answered that Mattee non we
pa pa si
-- meaning that there was no need of arms where all were
brothers. We took this in good part, and proceeded.

We had passed the spring and rivulet of which I before spoke, and

were now entering upon a narrow gorge leading through the chain of
soapstone hills among which the village was situated. This gorge was
very rocky and uneven, so much so that it was with no little
difficulty we scrambled through it on our first visit to Klock-klock.
The whole length of the ravine might have been a mile and a half, or
probably two miles. It wound in every possible direction through the
hills (having apparently formed, at some remote period, the bed of a
torrent), in no instance proceeding more than twenty yards without an
abrupt turn. The sides of this dell would have averaged, I am sure,
seventy or eighty feet in perpendicular altitude throughout the whole
of their extent, and in some portions they arose to an astonishing
height, overshadowing the pass so completely that but little of the
light of day could penetrate. The general width was about forty feet,
and occasionally it diminished so as not to allow the passage of more
than five or six persons abreast. In short, there could be no place
in the world better adapted for the consummation of an ambuscade, and
it was no more than natural that we should look carefully to our arms
as we entered upon it. When I now think of our egregious folly, the
chief subject of astonishment seems to be, that we should have ever
ventured, under any circumstances, so completely into the power of
unknown savages as to permit them to march both before and behind us
in our progress through this ravine. Yet such was the order we
blindly took up, trusting foolishly to the force of our party, the
unarmed condition of Too-wit and his men, the certain efficacy of our
firearms (whose effect was yet a secret to the natives), and, more
than all, to the long-sustained pretension of friendship kept up by
these infamous wretches. Five or six of them went on before, as if to
lead the way, ostentatiously busying themselves in removing the
larger stones and rubbish from the path. Next came our own party. We
walked closely together, taking care only to prevent separation.
Behind followed the main body of the savages, observing unusual order
and decorum.

Dirk Peters, a man named Wilson Allen, and myself were on the

right of our companions, examining, as we went along, the singular
stratification of the precipice which overhung us. A fissure in the
soft rock attracted our attention. It was about wide enough for one
person to enter without squeezing, and extended back into the hill
some eighteen or twenty feet in a straight course, sloping afterward
to the left. The height of the opening, is far as we could see into
it from the main gorge, was perhaps sixty or seventy feet. There were
one or two stunted shrubs growing from the crevices, bearing a
species of filbert which I felt some curiosity to examine, and pushed
in briskly for that purpose, gathering five or six of the nuts at a
grasp, and then hastily retreating. As I turned, I found that Peters
and Allen had followed me. I desired them to go back, as there was
not room for two persons to pass, saying they should have some of my
nuts. They accordingly turned, and were scrambling back, Allen being
close to the mouth of the fissure, when I was suddenly aware of a
concussion resembling nothing I had ever before experienced, and
which impressed me with a vague conception, if indeed I then thought
of anything, that the whole foundations of the solid globe were
suddenly rent asunder, and that the day of universal dissolution was
at hand.



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