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NARRATIVE OF A. GORDON PYM - CHAPTER 21

by Edgar Allan Poe

AS soon as I could collect my scattered senses, I found myself

nearly suffocated, and grovelling in utter darkness among a quantity
of loose earth, which was also falling upon me heavily in every
direction, threatening to bury me entirely. Horribly alarmed at this
idea, I struggled to gain my feet, and at last succeeded. I then
remained motionless for some moments, endeavouring to conceive what
had happened to me, and where I was. Presently I heard a deep groan
just at my ear, and afterward the smothered voice of Peters calling
to me for aid in the name of God. I scrambled one or two paces
forward, when I fell directly over the head and shoulders of my
companion, who, I soon discovered, was buried in a loose mass of
earth as far as his middle, and struggling desperately to free
himself from the pressure. I tore the dirt from around him with all
the energy I could command, and at length succeeded in getting him
out.

As soon as we sufficiently recovered from our fright and surprise

to be capable of conversing rationally, we both came to the
conclusion that the walls of the fissure in which we had ventured
had, by some convulsion of nature, or probably from their own weight,
caved in overhead, and that we were consequently lost for ever, being
thus entombed alive. For a long time we gave up supinely to the most
intense agony and despair, such as cannot be adequately imagined by
those who have never been in a similar position. I firmly believed
that no incident ever occurring in the course of human events is more
adapted to inspire the supremeness of mental and bodily distress than
a case like our own, of living inhumation. The blackness of darkness
which envelops the victim, the terrific oppression of lungs, the
stifling fumes from the damp earth, unite with the ghastly
considerations that we are beyond the remotest confines of hope, and
that such is the allotted portion of the dead, to carry into the
human heart a degree of appalling awe and horror not to be tolerated-
never to be conceived.

At length Peters proposed that we should endeavour to ascertain

precisely the extent of our calamity, and grope about our prison; it
being barely possible, he observed, that some opening might yet be
left us for escape. I caught eagerly at this hope, and, arousing
myself to exertion, attempted to force my way through the loose
earth. Hardly had I advanced a single step before a glimmer of light
became perceptible, enough to convince me that, at all events, we
should not immediately perish for want of air. We now took some
degree of heart, and encouraged each other to hope for the best.
Having scrambled over a bank of rubbish which impeded our farther
progress in the direction of the light, we found less difficulty in
advancing and also experienced some relief from the excessive
oppression of lungs which had tormented us. Presently we were enabled
to obtain a glimpse of the objects around, and discovered that we
were near the extremity of the straight portion of the fissure, where
it made a turn to the left. A few struggles more, and we reached the
bend, when to our inexpressible joy, there appeared a long seam or
crack extending upward a vast distance, generally at an angle of
about forty-five degrees, although sometimes much more precipitous.
We could not see through the whole extent of this opening; but, as a
good deal of light came down it, we had little doubt of finding at
the top of it (if we could by any means reach the top) a clear
passage into the open air.

I now called to mind that three of us had entered the fissure

from the main gorge, and that our companion, Allen, was still
missing; we determined at once to retrace our steps and look for him.
After a long search, and much danger from the farther caving in of
the earth above us, Peters at length cried out to me that he had hold
of our companion's foot, and that his whole body was deeply buried
beneath the rubbish beyond the possibility of extricating him. I soon
found that what he said was too true, and that, of course, life had
been long extinct. With sorrowful hearts, therefore, we left the
corpse to its fate, and again made our way to the bend.

The breadth of the seam was barely sufficient to admit us, and,

after one or two ineffectual efforts at getting up, we began once
more to despair. I have before said that the chain of hills through
which ran the main gorge was composed of a species of soft rock
resembling soapstone. The sides of the cleft we were now attempting
to ascend were of the same material, and so excessively slippery,
being wet, that we could get but little foothold upon them even in
their least precipitous parts; in some places, where the ascent was
nearly perpendicular, the difficulty was, of course, much aggravated;
and, indeed, for some time we thought insurmountable. We took
courage, however, from despair, and what, by dint of cutting steps in
the soft stone with our bowie knives, and swinging at the risk of our
lives, to small projecting points of a harder species of slaty rock
which now and then protruded from the general mass, we at length
reached a natural platform, from which was perceptible a patch of
blue sky, at the extremity of a thickly-wooded ravine. Looking back
now, with somewhat more leisure, at the passage through which we had
thus far proceeded, we clearly saw from the appearance of its sides,
that it was of late formation, and we concluded that the concussion,
whatever it was, which had so unexpectedly overwhelmed us, had also,
at the same moment, laid open this path for escape. Being quite
exhausted with exertion, and indeed, so weak that we were scarcely
able to stand or articulate, Peters now proposed that we should
endeavour to bring our companions to the rescue by firing the pistols
which still remained in our girdles- the muskets as well as cutlasses
had been lost among the loose earth at the bottom of the chasm.
Subsequent events proved that, had we fired, we should have sorely
repented it, but luckily a half suspicion of foul play had by this
time arisen in my mind, and we forbore to let the savages know of our
whereabouts.

After having reposed for about an hour, we pushed on slowly up

the ravine, and had gone no great way before we heard a succession of
tremendous yells. At length we reached what might be called the
surface of the ground; for our path hitherto, since leaving the
platform, had lain beneath an archway of high rock and foliage, at a
vast distance overhead. With great caution we stole to a narrow
opening, through which we had a clear sight of the surrounding
country, when the whole dreadful secret of the concussion broke upon
us in one moment and at one view.

The spot from which we looked was not far from the summit of the

highest peak in the range of the soapstone hills. The gorge in which
our party of thirty-two had entered ran within fifty feet to the left
of us. But, for at least one hundred yards, the channel or bed of
this gorge was entirely filled up with the chaotic ruins of more than
a million tons of earth and stone that had been artificially tumbled
within it. The means by which the vast mass had been precipitated
were not more simple than evident, for sure traces of the murderous
work were yet remaining. In several spots along the top of the
eastern side of the gorge (we were now on the western) might be seen
stakes of wood driven into the earth. In these spots the earth had
not given way, but throughout the whole extent of the face of the
precipice from which the mass had fallen, it was clear, from marks
left in the soil resembling those made by the drill of the rock
blaster, that stakes similar to those we saw standing had been
inserted, at not more than a yard apart, for the length of perhaps
three hundred feet, and ranging at about ten feet back from the edge
of the gulf. Strong cords of grape vine were attached to the stakes
still remaining on the hill, and it was evident that such cords had
also been attached to each of the other stakes. I have already spoken
of the singular stratification of these soapstone hills; and the
description just given of the narrow and deep fissure through which
we effected our escape from inhumation will afford a further
conception of its nature. This was such that almost every natural
convulsion would be sure to split the soil into perpendicular layers
or ridges running parallel with one another, and a very moderate
exertion of art would be sufficient for effecting the same purpose.
Of this stratification the savages had availed themselves to
accomplish their treacherous ends. There can be no doubt that, by the
continuous line of stakes, a partial rupture of the soil had been
brought about probably to the depth of one or two feet, when by means
of a savage pulling at the end of each of the cords (these cords
being attached to the tops of the stakes, and extending back from the
edge of the cliff), a vast leverage power was obtained, capable of
hurling the whole face of the hill, upon a given signal, into the
bosom of the abyss below. The fate of our poor companions was no
longer a matter of uncertainty. We alone had escaped from the tempest
of that overwhelming destruction. We were the only living white men
upon the island.



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