by Herman Melville

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Chapter Nine



The fearless confidence of Toby was contagious, and I began toadopt the Happar side of the question. I could not, however,overcome a certain feeling of trepidation as we made our wayalong these gloomy solitudes. Our progress, at firstcomparatively easy, became more and more difficult. The bed ofthe watercourse was covered with fragments of broken rocks, whichhad fallen from above, offering so many obstructions to thecourse of the rapid stream, which vexed and fretted aboutthem,--forming at intervals small waterfalls, pouring over intodeep 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 hiddenunder its surface, or tripping against the huge roots of trees. But the most annoying hindrance we encountered was from amultitude of crooked boughs, which, shooting out almosthorizontally from the sides of the chasm, twisted themselvestogether in fantastic masses almost to the surface of the stream,affording us no passage except under the low arches which theyformed. Under these we were obliged to crawl on our hands andfeet, sliding along the oozy surface of the rocks, or slippinginto the deep pools, and with scarce light enough to guide us.Occasionally we would strike our heads against some projectinglimb of a tree; and while imprudently engaged in rubbing theinjured part, would fall sprawling amongst filthy fragments,cutting and bruising ourselves, whilst the unpitying watersflowed over our prostrate bodies. Belzoni, worming himselfthrough the subterranean passages of the Egyptian catacombs,could not have met with great impediments than those we hereencountered. But we struggled against them manfully, wellknowing our only hope lay in advancing.

Towards sunset we halted at a spot where we made preparations forpassing the night. Here we constructed a hut, in much the sameway as before, and crawling into it, endeavoured to forget oursufferings. My companion, I believe, slept pretty soundly; butat day break, when we rolled out of our dwelling, I felt nearlydisqualified for any further efforts. Toby prescribed as aremedy for my illness the contents of one of our little silkpackages, to be taken at once in a single dose. To this speciesof medical treatment, however, I would by no means accede, muchas he insisted upon it; and so we partook of our usual morsel,and silently resumed our journey. It was now the fourth daysince we left Nukuheva, and the gnawings of hunger becamepainfully acute. We were fain to pacify them by chewing thetender bark of roots and twigs, which, if they did not afford usnourishment, 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 wassomewhere near this part of the day that the noise of fallingwaters, which we had faintly caught in the early morning, becamemore distinct; and it was not long before we were arrested by arocky precipice of nearly a hundred feet in depth, that extendedall across the channel, and over which the wild stream poured inan unbroken leap. On each hand the walls of the ravine presentedtheir overhanging sides both above and below the fall, affordingno means whatever of avoiding the cataract by taking a circuitround it.

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

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

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

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

And, so saying, he crept cautiously along and peered over intothe abyss, while I remained wondering by what possible means wecould overcome this apparently insuperable obstruction. As soonas my companion had completed his survey, I eagerly inquired theresult.

'The result of my observations you wish to know, do you?' beganToby, deliberately, with one of his odd looks: 'well, my lad, theresult of my observations is very quickly imparted. It is atpresent uncertain which of our two necks will have the honour tobe broken first; but about a hundred to one would be a fair betin 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 unhappylimbs may receive when we arrive at the bottom, and what sort oftravelling trim we shall be in afterwards. But follow me now,and I will show you the only chance we have.' With this heconducted me to the verge of the cataract, and pointed along theside of the ravine to a number of curious looking roots, somethree or four inches in thickness, and several feet long, which,after twisting among the fissures of the rock, shotperpendicularly from it and ran tapering to a point in the air,hanging over the gulf like so many dark icicles. They coverednearly the entire surface of one side of the gorge, the lowest ofthem reaching even to the water. Many were moss grown anddecayed, with their extremities snapped short off, and those inthe immediate vicinity of the fall were slippery with moisture.

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

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

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

After I had signified my assent, Toby, without uttering a asingle word, crawled along the dripping ledge until he gained apoint from whence he could just reach one of the largest of thependant roots; he shook it--it quivered in his grasp, and when helet it go it twanged in the air like a strong, wire sharplystruck. Satisfied by his scrutiny, my light limbed companionswung himself nimbly upon it, and twisting his legs round it insailor fashion, slipped down eight or ten feet, where his weightgave it a motion not un-like that of a pendulum. He could notventure to descend any further; so holding on with one hand, hewith the other shook one by one all the slender roots around him,and at last, finding one which he thought trustworthy, shiftedhim self to it and continued his downward progress.

So far so well; but I could not avoid comparing my heavier frameand disabled condition with his light figure and remarkableactivity; but there was no help for it, and in less than aminute's time I was swinging directly over his head. As soon ashis upturned eyes caught a glimpse of me, he exclaimed in hisusual dry tone, for the danger did not seem to daunt him in theleast, 'Mate, do me the kindness not to fall until I get out ofyour way;' and then swinging himself more on one side, hecontinued his descent. In the mean time I cautiously transferredmyself from the limb down which I had been slipping to a coupleof others that were near it, deeming two strings to my bow betterthan one, and taking care to test their strength before I trustedmy weight to them.

On arriving towards the end of the second stage in this verticaljourney, and shaking the long roots which were round me, to myconsternation they snapped off one after another like so manypipe 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 brancheson which I was suspended over the yawning chasm swang to and froin the air, and I expected them every moment to snap in twain. Appalled at the dreadful fate that menaced me, I clutchedfrantically at the only large root which remained near me, but invain; I could not reach it, though my fingers were within a fewinches of it. Again and again I tried to reach it, until atlength, maddened with the thought of my situation, I swayedmyself violently by striking my foot against the side of therock, and at the instant that I approached the large root caughtdesperately at it, and transferred myself to it. It vibratedviolently under the sudden weight, but fortunately did not giveway.

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

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

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

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

Substituting a stout stick for the one I had thrown aside at thetop of the precipice, we now continued our course along the bedof the ravine. Soon we were saluted by a sound in advance, thatgrew by degrees louder and louder, as the noise of the cataractwe 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 intrepidfellow. Typees or Niagaras, he was as ready to engage one as theother, and I could not avoid a thousand times congratulatingmyself upon having such a companion in an enterprise like thepresent.

After an hour's painful progress, we reached the verge of anotherfall, still loftier than the preceding and flanked both above andbelow with the same steep masses of rock, presenting, however,here and there narrow irregular ledges, supporting a shallowsoil, on which grew a variety of bushes and trees, whose brightverdure contrasted beautifully with the foamy waters that flowedbetween them.

Toby, who invariably acted as pioneer, now proceeded toreconnoitre. On his return, he reported that the shelves of rockon our right would enable us to gain with little risk the bottomof the cataract. Accordingly, leaving the bed of the stream atthe very point where it thundered down, we began crawling alongone of those sloping ledges until it carried us to within a fewfeet of another that inclined downwards at a still sharper angle,and upon which, by assisting each other we managed to alight insafety. We warily crept along this, steadying ourselves by thenaked roots of the shrubs that clung to every fissure. As weproceeded, the narrow path became still more contracted,rendering it difficult for us to maintain our footing, untilsuddenly, as we reached an angle of the wall of rock where we hadexpected it to widen, we perceived to our consternation that ayard or two further on it abruptly terminated at a place we couldnot possibly hope to pass.

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

'Well, my boy,' I exclaimed, after the expiration of severalminutes, 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 wecould do in our present strait was to get out of it as soon aspossible.

'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 samemoment to my horror he slipped sideways off the rocks and, as Ithen thought, by good fortune merely, alighted among thespreading branches of a species of palm tree, that shooting itshardy roots along a ledge below, curved its trunk upwards intothe air, and presented a thick mass of foliage about twenty feetbelow the spot where we had thus suddenly been brought to astandstill. I involuntarily held my breath, expecting to see theform of my companion, after being sustained for a moment by thebranches of the tree, sink through their frail support, and fallheadlong to the bottom. To my surprise and joy, however, herecovered himself, and disentangling his limbs from the fracturedbranches, he peered out from his leafy bed, and shouted lustily,'Come on, my hearty there is no other alternative!' and with thishe ducked beneath the foliage, and slipping down the trunk, stoodin a moment at least fifty feet beneath me, upon the broad shelfof rock from which sprung the tree he had descended.

What would I not have given at that moment to have been by hisside. The feat he had just accomplished seemed little less thanmiraculous, and I could hardly credit the evidence of my senseswhen I saw the wide distance that a single daring act had sosuddenly placed between us.

Toby's animating 'come on' again sounded in my ears, and dreadingto lose all confidence in myself if I remained meditating uponthe step, I once more gazed down to assure myself of the relativebearing of the tree and my own position, and then closing my eyesand uttering one comprehensive ejaculation of prayer, I inclinedmyself over towards the abyss, and after one breathless instantfell with a crash into the tree, the branches snapping andcracking 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 treemanipulating myself all over with a view of ascertaining theextent of the injuries I had received. To my surprise the onlyeffects of my feat were a few slight contusions too trifling tocare about. The rest of our descent was easily accomplished, andin half an hour after regaining the ravine we had partaken of ourevening morsel, built our hut as usual, and crawled under itsshelter.

The next morning, in spite of our debility and the agony ofhunger under which we were now suffering, though neither of usconfessed to the fact, we struggled along our dismal and stilldifficult and dangerous path, cheered by the hope of sooncatching a glimpse of the valley before us, and towards eveningthe voice of a cataract which had for some time sounded like alow deep bass to the music of the smaller waterfalls, broke uponour ears in still louder tones, and assured us that we wereapproaching its vicinity.

That evening we stood on the brink of a precipice, over which thedark stream bounded in one final leap of full 300 feet. Thesheer descent terminated in the region we so long had sought. Oneach side of the fall, two lofty and perpendicular bluffsbuttressed the sides of the enormous cliff, and projected intothe sea of verdure with which the valley waved, and a range ofsimilar projecting eminences stood disposed in a half circleabout the head if the vale. A thick canopy of trees hung overthe very verge of the fall, leaving an arched aperture for thepassage of the waters, which imparted a strange picturesquenessto the scene.

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

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

We laid ourselves down that night on a spot, the recollection ofwhich still makes me shudder. A small table of rock whichprojected over the precipice on one side of the stream, and wasdrenched by the spray of the fall, sustained a huge trunk of atree which must have been deposited there by some heavy freshet. It lay obliquely, with one end resting on the rock and the othersupported by the side of the ravine. against it we placed in asloping direction a number of the half decayed boughs that werestrewn 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 thecataract--the dismal moaning of the gale through the trees--thepattering of the rain, and the profound darkness, affected myspirits to a degree which nothing had ever before produced. Wet,half famished, and chilled to the heart with the dampness of theplace, and nearly wild with the pain I endured, I fairly cowereddown to the earth under this multiplication of hardships, andabandoned myself to frightful anticipations of evil; and mycompanion, whose spirit at last was a good deal broken, scarcelyuttered a word during the whole night.

At length the day dawned upon us, and rising from our miserablepallet, we stretched our stiffened joints, and after eating allthat remained of our bread, prepared for the last stage of ourjourney. I will not recount every hair-breadth escape, andevery fearful difficulty that occurred before we succeeded inreaching the bosom of the valley. As I have already describedsimilar scenes, it will be sufficient to say that at length,after great toil and great dangers, we both stood with no limbsbroken at the head of that magnificent vale which five daysbefore had so suddenly burst upon my sight, and almost beneaththe shadow of those very cliffs from whose summits we had gazedupon the prospect.

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