An Antarctic Mystery
Chapter 5: Edgar Poe's Romance
Copyright© 2012 by Jules Verne
In this chapter I have to give a brief summary of Edgar Poe's romance, which was published at Richmond under the title of
THE ADVENTURES OF ARTHUR GORDON PYM.
We shall see whether there was any room for doubt that the adventures of this hero of romance were imaginary. But indeed, among the multitude of Poe's readers, was there ever one, with the sole exception of Len Guy, who believed them to be real? The story is told by the principal personage. Arthur Pym states in the preface that on his return from his voyage to the Antarctic seas he met, among the Virginian gentlemen who took an interest in geographical discoveries, Edgar Poe, who was then editor of the Southern Literary Messenger at Richmond, and that he authorized the latter to publish the first part of his adventures in that journal "under the cloak of fiction." That portion having been favourably received, a volume containing the complete narrative was issued with the signature of Edgar Poe.
Arthur Gordon Pym was born at Nantucket, where he attended the Bedford School until he was sixteen years old. Having left that school for Mr. Ronald's, he formed a friendship with one Augustus Barnard, the son of a ship's captain. This youth, who was eighteen, had already accompanied his father on a whaling expedition in the southern seas, and his yarns concerning that maritime adventure fired the imagination of Arthur Pym. Thus it was that the association of these youths gave rise to Pym's irresistible vocation to adventurous voyaging, and to the instinct that especially attracted him towards the high zones of the Antarctic region. The first exploit of Augustus Barnard and Arthur Pym was an excursion on board a little sloop, the Ariel, a two-decked boat which belonged to the Pyms. One evening the two youths, both being very tipsy, embarked secretly, in cold October weather, and boldly set sail in a strong breeze from the south-west. The Ariel, aided by the ebb tide, had already lost sight of land when a violent storm arose. The imprudent young fellows were still intoxicated. No one was at the helm, not a reef was in the sail. The masts were carried away by the furious gusts, and the wreck was driven before the wind. Then came a great ship which passed over the Ariel as the Ariel would have passed a floating feather.
Arthur Pym gives the fullest details of the rescue of his companion and himself after this collision, under conditions of extreme difficulty. At length, thanks to the second officer of the Penguin, from New London, which arrived on the scene of the catastrophe, the comrades were picked with life all but extinct, and taken back to Nantucket.
This adventure, to which I cannot deny an appearance veracity, was an ingenious preparation for the chapters that were to follow, and indeed, up to the day on which Pym penetrates into the polar circle, the narrative might conceivably be regarded as authentic. But, beyond the polar circle, above the austral icebergs, it is quite another thing, and, if the author's work be not one of pure imagination, I am--well, of any other nationality than my own. Let us get on.
Their first adventure had not cooled the two youths, and eight months after the affair of the Ariel--June, 1827--the brig Grampus was fitted out by the house of Lloyd and Vredenburg for whaling in the southern seas. This brig was an old, ill-repaired craft, and Mr. Barnard, the father of Augustus, was its skipper. His son, who was to accompany him on the voyage, strongly urged Arthur to go with him, and the latter would have asked nothing better, but he knew that his family, and especially his mother, would never consent to let him go.
This obstacle, however, could not stop a youth not much given to submit to the wishes of his parents. His head was full of the entreaties and persuasion of his companion, and he determined to embark secretly on the Grampus, for Mr. Barnard would not have authorized him to defy the prohibition of his family. He announced that he had been invited to pass a few days with a friend at New Bedford, took leave of his parents and left his home. Forty-eight hours before the brig was to sail, he slipped on board unperceived, and got into a hiding-place which had been prepared for him unknown alike to Mr. Barnard and the crew.
The cabin occupied by Augustus communicated by a trap-door with the hold of the Grampus, which was crowded with barrels, bales, and the innumerable components of a cargo. Through the trap-door Arthur Pym reached his hiding-place, which was a huge wooden chest with a sliding side to it. This chest contained a mattress, blankets, a jar of water, ship's biscuit, smoked sausage, a roast quarter of mutton, a few bottles of cordials and liqueurs, and also writing-materials. Arthur Pym, supplied with a lantern, candles, and tinder, remained three days and nights in his retreat. Augustus Barnard had not been able to visit him until just before the Grampus set sail.
An hour later, Arthur Pym began to feel the rolling and pitching of the brig. He was very uncomfortable in the chest, so he got out of it, and in the dark, while holding on by a rope which was stretched across the hold to the trap of his friend's cabin, he was violently sea-sick in the midst of the chaos. Then he crept back into his chest, ate, and fell asleep.
Several days elapsed without the reappearance of Augustus Barnard. Either he had not been able to get down into the hold again, or he had not ventured to do so, fearing to betray the presence of Arthur Pym, and thinking the moment for confessing everything to his father had not yet come.
Arthur Pym, meanwhile, was beginning to suffer from the hot and vitiated atmosphere of the hold. Terrible nightmares troubled his sleep. He was conscious of raving, and in vain sought some place amid the mass of cargo where he might breathe a little more easily. In one of these fits of delirium he imagined that he was gripped in the claws of an African lion, (1) and in a paroxysm of terror he was about to betray himself by screaming, when he lost consciousness.
The fact is that he was not dreaming at all. It was not a lion that Arthur Pym felt crouching upon his chest, it was his own dog, Tiger, a young Newfoundland. The animal had been smuggled on board by Augustus Barnard unperceived by anybody--(this, at least, is an unlikely occurrence). At the moment of Arthur's coming out of his swoon the faithful Tiger was licking his face and hands with lavish affection.
Now the prisoner had a companion. Unfortunately, the said companion had drunk the contents of the water jar while Arthur was unconscious, and when Arthur Pym felt thirsty, he discovered that there was "not a drop to drink!" His lantern had gone out during his prolonged faint; he could not find the candles and the tinder-box, and he then resolved to rejoin Augustus Barnard at all hazards. He came out of the chest, and although faint from inanition and trembling with weakness, he felt his way in the direction of the trap-door by means of the rope. But, while he was approaching, one of the bales of cargo, shifted by the rolling of the ship, fell down and blocked up the passage. With immense but quite useless exertion he contrived to get over this obstacle, but when he reached the trap-door under Augustus Barnard's cabin he failed to raise it, and on slipping the blade of his knife through One of the joints he found that a heavy mass of iron was placed upon the trap, as though it were intended to condemn him beyond hope. He had to renounce his attempt and drag himself back towards the chest, on which he fell, exhausted, while Tiger covered him with caresses.
The master and the dog were desperately thirsty, and when Arthur stretched out his hand, he found Tiger lying on his back, with his paws up and his hair on end. He then felt Tiger all over, and his hand encountered a string passed round the dog's body. A strip of paper was fastened to the string under his left shoulder.
Arthur Pym had reached the last stage of weakness. Intelligence was almost extinct. However, after several fruitless attempts to procure a light, he succeeded in rubbing the paper with a little phosphorus--(the details given in Edgar Poe's narrative are curiously minute at this point)--and then by the glimmer that lasted less than a second he discerned just seven words at the end of a sentence. Terrifying words these were: blood--remain hidden--life depends on it.
What did these words mean? Let us consider the situation of Arthur Pym, at the bottom of the ship's hold, between the boards of a chest, without light, without water, with only ardent liquor to quench his thirst! And this warning to remain hidden, preceded by the word "blood "--that supreme word, king of words, so full of mystery, of suffering, of terror! Had there been strife on board the Grampus? Had the brig been attacked by pirates? Had the crew mutinied? How long had this state of things lasted?
It might be thought that the marvellous poet had exhausted the resources of his imagination in the terror of such a situation; but it was not so. There is more to come!
Arthur Pym lay stretched upon his mattress, incapable of thought, in a sort of lethargy; suddenly he became aware of a singular sound, a kind of continuous whistling breathing. It was Tiger, panting, Tiger with eyes that glared in the midst of the darkness, Tiger with gnashing teeth--Tiger gone mad. Another moment and the dog had sprung upon Arthur Pym, who, wound up to the highest pitch of horror, recovered sufficient strength to ward off his fangs, and wrapping around him a blanket which Tiger had torn with his white teeth, he slipped out of the chest, and shut the sliding side upon the snapping and struggling brute.
Arthur Pym contrived to slip through the stowage of the hold, but his head swam, and, falling against a bale, he let his knife drop from his hand.
Just as he felt himself breathing his last sigh he heard his name pronounced, and a bottle of water was held to his lips. He swallowed the whole of its contents, and experienced the most exquisite of pleasures.
A few minutes later, Augustus Barnard, seated with his comrade in a corner of the hold, told him all that had occurred on board the brig.
Up to this point, I repeat, the story is admissible, but we have not yet come to the events which "surpass all probability by their marvellousness."
The crew of the Grampus numbered thirty-six men, including the Barnards, father and son. After the brig had put to sea on the 20th of June, Augustus Barnard had made several attempts to rejoin Arthur Pym in his hiding place, but in vain. On the third day a mutiny broke out on board, headed by the ship's cook, a negro like our Endicott; but he, let me say at once, would never have thought of heading a mutiny.
Numerous incidents are related in the romance--the massacre of most of the sailors who remained faithful to Captain Barnard, then the turning adrift of the captain and four of those men in a small whaler's boat when the ship was abreast of the Bermudas. These unfortunate persons were never heard of again.
Augustus Barnard would not have been spared, but for the intervention of the sailing-master of the Grampus. This sailing-master was a half-breed named Dirk Peters, and was the person whom Captain Len Guy had gone to look for in Illinois!
The Grampus then took a south-east course under the command of the mate, who intended to pursue the occupation of piracy in the southern seas.
These events having taken place, Augustus Barnard would again have joined Arthur Pym, but he had been shut up in the forecastle in irons, and told by the ship's cook that he would not be allowed to come out until "the brig should be no longer a brig." Nevertheless, a few days afterwards, Augustus contrived to get rid of his fetters, to cut through the thin partition between him and the hold, and, followed by Tiger, he tried to reach his friend's hiding place. He could not succeed, but the dog had scented Arthur Pym, and this suggested to Augustus the idea of fastening a note to Tiger's neck bearing the words:
"I scrawl this with blood--remain hidden--your life depends on it--"
This note, as we have already learned, Arthur Pym had received. Just as he had arrived at the last extremity of distress his friend reached him.
Augustus added that discord reigned among the mutineers. Some wanted to take the Grampus towards the Cape Verde Islands; others, and Dirk Peters was of this number, were bent on sailing to the Pacific Isles.
Tiger was not mad. He was only suffering from terrible thirst, and soon recovered when it was relieved.
The cargo of the Grampus was so badly stowed away that Arthur Pym was in constant danger from the shifting of the bales, and Augustus, at all risks, helped him to remove to a corner of the 'tween decks.
The half-breed continued to be very friendly with the son of Captain Barnard, so that the latter began to consider whether the sailing-master might not be counted on in an attempt to regain possession of the ship.
They were just thirty days out from Nantucket when, on the 4th of July, an angry dispute arose among the mutineers about a little brig signalled in the offing, which some of them wanted to take and others would have allowed to escape. In this quarrel a sailor belonging to the cook's party, to which Dirk Peters had attached himself, was mortally injured. There were now only thirteen men on board, counting Arthur Pym.
Under these circumstances a terrible storm arose, and the Grampus was mercilessly knocked about. This storm raged until the 9th of July, and on that day, Dirk Peters having manifested an intention of getting rid of the mate, Augustus Barnard readily assured him of his assistance, without, however, revealing the fact of Arthur Pym's presence on board. Next day, one of the cook's adherents, a man named Rogers, died in convulsions, and, beyond all doubt, of poison. Only four of the cook's party then remained, of these Dirk Peters was one. The mate had five, and would probably end by carrying the day over the cook's party.
There was not an hour to lose. The half-breed having informed Augustus Barnard that the moment for action had arrived, the latter told him the truth about Arthur Pym.
While the two were in consultation upon the means to be employed for regaining possession of the ship, a tempest was raging, and presently a gust of irresistible force struck the Grampus and flung her upon her side, so that on righting herself she shipped a tremendous sea, and there was considerable confusion on board. This offered a favourable opportunity for beginning the struggle, although the mutineers had made peace among themselves. The latter numbered nine men, while the half-breed's party consisted only of himself, Augustus Barnard and Arthur Pym. The ship's master possessed only two pistols and a hanger. It was therefore necessary to act with prudence.
Then did Arthur Pym (whose presence on board the mutineers could not suspect) conceive the idea of a trick which had some chance of succeeding. The body of the poisoned sailor was still lying on the deck; he thought it likely, if he were to put on the dead man's clothes and appear suddenly in the midst of those superstitious sailors, that their terror would place them at the mercy of Dirk Peters. It was still dark when the half-breed went softly towards the ship's stern, and, exerting his prodigious strength to the utmost, threw himself upon the man at the wheel and flung him over the poop.
Augustus Barnard and Arthur Pym joined him instantly, each armed with a belaying-pin. Leaving Dirk Peters in the place of the steersman, Arthur Pym, so disguised as to present the appearance of the dead man, and his comrade, posted themselves close to the head of the forecastle gangway. The mate, the ship's cook, all the others were there, some sleeping, the others drinking or talking; guns and pistols were within reach of their hands.
The tempest raged furiously; it was impossible to stand on the deck.
At that moment the mate gave the order for Augustus Barnard and Dirk Peters to be brought to the forecastle. This order was transmitted to the man at the helm, no other than Dirk Peters, who went down, accompanied by Augustus Barnard, and almost simultaneously Arthur Pym made his appearance.
The effect of the apparition was prodigious. The mate, terrified on beholding the resuscitated sailor, sprang up, beat the air with his hands, and fell down dead. Then Dirk Peters rushed upon the others, seconded by Augustus Barnard, Arthur Pym, and the dog Tiger. In a few moments all were strangled or knocked on the head save Richard Parker, the sailor, whose life was spared.
And now, while the tempest was in full force, only four men were left to work the brig, which was labouring terribly with seven feet of water in her hold. They had to cut down the mainmast, and, when morning came, the mizen. That day was truly awful, the night was more awful still! If Dirk Peters and his companions had not lashed themselves securely to the remains of the rigging, they must have been carried away by a tremendous sea, which drove in the hatches of the Grampus.
Then follows in the romance a minute record of the series of incidents ensuing upon this situation, from the 14th of July to the 7th of August; the fishing for victuals in the submerged hold, the coming of a mysterious brig laden with corpses, which poisoned the atmosphere and passed on like a huge coffin, the sport of a wind of death; the torments of hunger and thirst; the impossibility of reaching the provision store; the drawing of lots by straws--the shortest gave Richard Parker to be sacrificed for the life of the other three--the death of that unhappy man, who was killed by Dirk Peters and devoured; lastly, the finding in the hold of a jar of olives and a small turtle.