A PREDICAMENT by Edgar Allan Poe


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1838
A PREDICAMENT
by Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar_Allan_Poe;_a_Centenary_Tribute_-_frontispieceaWhat chance, good lady, hath bereft you thus?
COMUS.

IT was a quiet and still afternoon when I strolled forth in the
goodly city of Edina. The confusion and bustle in the streets were
terrible. Men were talking. Women were screaming. Children were
choking. Pigs were whistling. Carts they rattled. Bulls they bellowed.
Cows they lowed. Horses they neighed. Cats they caterwauled. Dogs they
danced. Danced! Could it then be possible? Danced! Alas, thought I, my
dancing days are over! Thus it is ever. What a host of gloomy
recollections will ever and anon be awakened in the mind of genius and
imaginative contemplation, especially of a genius doomed to the
everlasting and eternal, and continual, and, as one might say, the-
continued- yes, the continued and continuous, bitter, harassing,
disturbing, and, if I may be allowed the expression, the very
disturbing influence of the serene, and godlike, and heavenly, and
exalted, and elevated, and purifying effect of what may be rightly
termed the most enviable, the most truly enviable- nay! the most
benignly beautiful, the most deliciously ethereal, and, as it were,
the most pretty (if I may use so bold an expression) thing (pardon me,
gentle reader!) in the world- but I am always led away by my feelings.
In such a mind, I repeat, what a host of recollections are stirred
up by a trifle! The dogs danced! I- I could not! They frisked- I wept.
They capered- I sobbed aloud. Touching circumstances! which cannot
fail to bring to the recollection of the classical reader that
exquisite passage in relation to the fitness of things, which is to be
found in the commencement of the third volume of that admirable and
venerable Chinese novel the Jo-Go-Slow.
In my solitary walk through, the city I had two humble but
faithful companions. Diana, my poodle! sweetest of creatures! She
had a quantity of hair over her one eye, and a blue ribband tied
fashionably around her neck. Diana was not more than five inches in
height, but her head was somewhat bigger than her body, and her tail
being cut off exceedingly close, gave an air of injured innocence to
the interesting animal which rendered her a favorite with all.
And Pompey, my negro!- sweet Pompey! how shall I ever forget thee? I
had taken Pompey’s arm. He was three feet in height (I like to be
particular) and about seventy, or perhaps eighty, years of age. He had
bow-legs and was corpulent. His mouth should not be called small,
nor his ears short. His teeth, however, were like pearl, and his large
full eyes were deliciously white. Nature had endowed him with no neck,
and had placed his ankles (as usual with that race) in the middle of
the upper portion of the feet. He was clad with a striking simplicity.
His sole garments were a stock of nine inches in height, and a nearly-
new drab overcoat which had formerly been in the service of the
tall, stately, and illustrious Dr. Moneypenny. It was a good overcoat.
It was well cut. It was well made. The coat was nearly new. Pompey
held it up out of the dirt with both hands.
There were three persons in our party, and two of them have
already been the subject of remark. There was a third- that person was
myself. I am the Signora Psyche Zenobia. I am not Suky Snobbs. My
appearance is commanding. On the memorable occasion of which I speak I
was habited in a crimson satin dress, with a sky-blue Arabian
mantelet. And the dress had trimmings of green agraffas, and seven
graceful flounces of the orange-colored auricula. I thus formed the
third of the party. There was the poodle. There was Pompey. There
was myself. We were three. Thus it is said there were originally but
three Furies- Melty, Nimmy, and Hetty- Meditation, Memory, and
Fiddling.
Leaning upon the arm of the gallant Pompey, and attended at a
respectable distance by Diana, I proceeded down one of the populous
and very pleasant streets of the now deserted Edina. On a sudden,
there presented itself to view a church- a Gothic cathedral- vast,
venerable, and with a tall steeple, which towered into the sky. What
madness now possessed me? Why did I rush upon my fate? I was seized
with an uncontrollable desire to ascend the giddy pinnacle, and then
survey the immense extent of the city. The door of the cathedral stood
invitingly open. My destiny prevailed. I entered the ominous
archway. Where then was my guardian angel?- if indeed such angels
there be. If! Distressing monosyllable! what world of mystery, and
meaning, and doubt, and uncertainty is there involved in thy two
letters! I entered the ominous archway! I entered; and, without injury
to my orange-colored auriculas, I passed beneath the portal, and
emerged within the vestibule. Thus it is said the immense river Alfred
passed, unscathed, and unwetted, beneath the sea.
I thought the staircase would never have an end. Round! Yes, they
went round and up, and round and up and round and up, until I could
not help surmising, with the sagacious Pompey, upon whose supporting
arm I leaned in all the confidence of early affection- I could not
help surmising that the upper end of the continuous spiral ladder
had been accidentally, or perhaps designedly, removed. I paused for
breath; and, in the meantime, an accident occurred of too momentous
a nature in a moral, and also in a metaphysical point of view, to be
passed over without notice. It appeared to me- indeed I was quite
confident of the fact- I could not be mistaken- no! I had, for some
moments, carefully and anxiously observed the motions of my Diana- I
say that I could not be mistaken- Diana smelt a rat! At once I
called Pompey’s attention to the subject, and he- he agreed with me.
There was then no longer any reasonable room for doubt. The rat had
been smelled- and by Diana. Heavens! shall I ever forget the intense
excitement of the moment? Alas! what is the boasted intellect of
man? The rat!- it was there- that is to say, it was somewhere. Diana
smelled the rat. I- I could not! Thus it is said the Prussian Isis
has, for some persons, a sweet and very powerful perfume, while to
others it is perfectly scentless.
The staircase had been surmounted, and there were now only three
or four more upward steps intervening between us and the summit. We
still ascended, and now only one step remained. One step! One
little, little step! Upon one such little step in the great
staircase of human life how vast a sum of human happiness or misery
depends! I thought of myself, then of Pompey, and then of the
mysterious and inexplicable destiny which surrounded us. I thought
of Pompey!- alas, I thought of love! I thought of my many false
steps which have been taken, and may be taken again. I resolved to
be more cautious, more reserved. I abandoned the arm of Pompey, and,
without his assistance, surmounted the one remaining step, and
gained the chamber of the belfry. I was followed immediately afterward
by my poodle. Pompey alone remained behind. I stood at the head of the
staircase, and encouraged him to ascend. He stretched forth to me
his hand, and unfortunately in so doing was forced to abandon his firm
hold upon the overcoat. Will the gods never cease their persecution?
The overcoat is dropped, and, with one of his feet, Pompey stepped
upon the long and trailing skirt of the overcoat. He stumbled and
fell- this consequence was inevitable. He fell forward, and, with
his accursed head, striking me full in the- in the breast,
precipitated me headlong, together with himself, upon the hard,
filthy, and detestable floor of the belfry. But my revenge was sure,
sudden, and complete. Seizing him furiously by the wool with both
hands, I tore out a vast quantity of black, and crisp, and curling
material, and tossed it from me with every manifestation of disdain.
It fell among the ropes of the belfry and remained. Pompey arose,
and said no word. But he regarded me piteously with his large eyes
and- sighed. Ye Gods- that sigh! It sunk into my heart. And the
hair- the wool! Could I have reached that wool I would have bathed
it with my tears, in testimony of regret. But alas! it was now far
beyond my grasp. As it dangled among the cordage of the bell, I
fancied it alive. I fancied that it stood on end with indignation.
Thus the happy-dandy Flos Aeris of Java bears, it is said, a beautiful
flower, which will live when pulled up by the roots. The natives
suspend it by a cord from the ceiling and enjoy its fragrance for
years.
Our quarrel was now made up, and we looked about the room for an
aperture through which to survey the city of Edina. Windows there were
none. The sole light admitted into the gloomy chamber proceeded from a
square opening, about a foot in diameter, at a height of about seven
feet from the floor. Yet what will the energy of true genius not
effect? I resolved to clamber up to this hole. A vast quantity of
wheels, pinions, and other cabalistic- looking machinery stood
opposite the hole, close to it; and through the hole there passed an
iron rod from the machinery. Between the wheels and the wall where the
hole lay there was barely room for my body- yet I was desperate, and
determined to persevere. I called Pompey to my side.
“You perceive that aperture, Pompey. I wish to look through it.
You will stand here just beneath the hole- so. Now, hold out one of
your hands, Pompey, and let me step upon it- thus. Now, the other
hand, Pompey, and with its aid I will get upon your shoulders.”
He did every thing I wished, and I found, upon getting up, that I
could easily pass my head and neck through the aperture. The
prospect was sublime. Nothing could be more magnificent. I merely
paused a moment to bid Diana behave herself, and assure Pompey that
I would be considerate and bear as lightly as possible upon his
shoulders. I told him I would be tender of his feelings- ossi tender
que beefsteak. Having done this justice to my faithful friend, I
gave myself up with great zest and enthusiasm to the enjoyment of
the scene which so obligingly spread itself out before my eyes.
Upon this subject, however, I shall forbear to dilate. I will not
describe the city of Edinburgh. Every one has been to the city of
Edinburgh. Every one has been to Edinburgh- the classic Edina. I
will confine myself to the momentous details of my own lamentable
adventure. Having, in some measure, satisfied my curiosity in regard
to the extent, situation, and general appearance of the city, I had
leisure to survey the church in which I was, and the delicate
architecture of the steeple. I observed that the aperture through
which I had thrust my head was an opening in the dial-plate of a
gigantic clock, and must have appeared, from the street, as a large
key-hole, such as we see in the face of the French watches. No doubt
the true object was to admit the arm of an attendant, to adjust,
when necessary, the hands of the clock from within. I observed also,
with surprise, the immense size of these hands, the longest of which
could not have been less than ten feet in length, and, where broadest,
eight or nine inches in breadth. They were of solid steel
apparently, and their edges appeared to be sharp. Having noticed these
particulars, and some others, I again turned my eyes upon the glorious
prospect below, and soon became absorbed in contemplation.
From this, after some minutes, I was aroused by the voice of Pompey,
who declared that he could stand it no longer, and requested that I
would be so kind as to come down. This was unreasonable, and I told
him so in a speech of some length. He replied, but with an evident
misunderstanding of my ideas upon the subject. I accordingly grew
angry, and told him in plain words, that he was a fool, that he had
committed an ignoramus e-clench-eye, that his notions were mere
insommary Bovis, and his words little better than an
ennemywerrybor’em. With this he appeared satisfied, and I resumed my
contemplations.
It might have been half an hour after this altercation when, as I
was deeply absorbed in the heavenly scenery beneath me, I was startled
by something very cold which pressed with a gentle pressure on the
back of my neck. It is needless to say that I felt inexpressibly
alarmed. I knew that Pompey was beneath my feet, and that Diana was
sitting, according to my explicit directions, upon her hind legs, in
the farthest corner of the room. What could it be? Alas! I but too
soon discovered. Turning my head gently to one side, I perceived, to
my extreme horror, that the huge, glittering, scimetar-like
minute-hand of the clock had, in the course of its hourly
revolution, descended upon my neck. There was, I knew, not a second to
be lost. I pulled back at once- but it was too late. There was no
chance of forcing my head through the mouth of that terrible trap in
which it was so fairly caught, and which grew narrower and narrower
with a rapidity too horrible to be conceived. The agony of that moment
is not to be imagined. I threw up my hands and endeavored, with all my
strength, to force upward the ponderous iron bar. I might as well have
tried to lift the cathedral itself. Down, down, down it came, closer
and yet closer. I screamed to Pompey for aid; but he said that I had
hurt his feelings by calling him ‘an ignorant old squint-eye:’ I
yelled to Diana; but she only said ‘bow-wow-wow,’ and that I had
told her ‘on no account to stir from the corner.’ Thus I had no relief
to expect from my associates.
Meantime the ponderous and terrific Scythe of Time (for I now
discovered the literal import of that classical phrase) had not
stopped, nor was it likely to stop, in its career. Down and still
down, it came. It had already buried its sharp edge a full inch in
my flesh, and my sensations grew indistinct and confused. At one
time I fancied myself in Philadelphia with the stately Dr. Moneypenny,
at another in the back parlor of Mr. Blackwood receiving his
invaluable instructions. And then again the sweet recollection of
better and earlier times came over me, and I thought of that happy
period when the world was not all a desert, and Pompey not
altogether cruel.
The ticking of the machinery amused me. Amused me, I say, for my
sensations now bordered upon perfect happiness, and the most
trifling circumstances afforded me pleasure. The eternal click-clak,
click-clak, click-clak of the clock was the most melodious of music in
my ears, and occasionally even put me in mind of the graceful sermonic
harangues of Dr. Ollapod. Then there were the great figures upon the
dial-plate- how intelligent how intellectual, they all looked! And
presently they took to dancing the Mazurka, and I think it was the
figure V. who performed the most to my satisfaction. She was evidently
a lady of breeding. None of your swaggerers, and nothing at all
indelicate in her motions. She did the pirouette to admiration-
whirling round upon her apex. I made an endeavor to hand her a
chair, for I saw that she appeared fatigued with her exertions- and it
was not until then that I fully perceived my lamentable situation.
Lamentable indeed! The bar had buried itself two inches in my neck.
I was aroused to a sense of exquisite pain. I prayed for death, and,
in the agony of the moment, could not help repeating those exquisite
verses of the poet Miguel De Cervantes:

Vanny Buren, tan escondida
Query no te senty venny
Pork and pleasure, delly morry
Nommy, torny, darry, widdy!

But now a new horror presented itself, and one indeed sufficient
to startle the strongest nerves. My eyes, from the cruel pressure of
the machine, were absolutely starting from their sockets. While I
was thinking how I should possibly manage without them, one actually
tumbled out of my head, and, rolling down the steep side of the
steeple, lodged in the rain gutter which ran along the eaves of the
main building. The loss of the eye was not so much as the insolent air
of independence and contempt with which it regarded me after it was
out. There it lay in the gutter just under my nose, and the airs it
gave itself would have been ridiculous had they not been disgusting.
Such a winking and blinking were never before seen. This behavior on
the part of my eye in the gutter was not only irritating on account of
its manifest insolence and shameful ingratitude, but was also
exceedingly inconvenient on account of the sympathy which always
exists between two eyes of the same head, however far apart. I was
forced, in a manner, to wink and to blink, whether I would or not,
in exact concert with the scoundrelly thing that lay just under my
nose. I was presently relieved, however, by the dropping out of the
other eye. In falling it took the same direction (possibly a concerted
plot) as its fellow. Both rolled out of the gutter together, and in
truth I was very glad to get rid of them.
The bar was now four inches and a half deep in my neck, and there
was only a little bit of skin to cut through. My sensations were those
of entire happiness, for I felt that in a few minutes, at farthest,
I should be relieved from my disagreeable situation. And in this
expectation I was not at all deceived. At twenty-five minutes past
five in the afternoon, precisely, the huge minute-hand had proceeded
sufficiently far on its terrible revolution to sever the small
remainder of my neck. I was not sorry to see the head which had
occasioned me so much embarrassment at length make a final
separation from my body. It first rolled down the side of the steeple,
then lodge, for a few seconds, in the gutter, and then made its way,
with a plunge, into the middle of the street.
I will candidly confess that my feelings were now of the most
singular- nay, of the most mysterious, the most perplexing and
incomprehensible character. My senses were here and there at one and
the same moment. With my head I imagined, at one time, that I, the
head, was the real Signora Psyche Zenobia- at another I felt convinced
that myself, the body, was the proper identity. To clear my ideas on
this topic I felt in my pocket for my snuff-box, but, upon getting it,
and endeavoring to apply a pinch of its grateful contents in the
ordinary manner, I became immediately aware of my peculiar deficiency,
and threw the box at once down to my head. It took a pinch with
great satisfaction, and smiled me an acknowledgement in return.
Shortly afterward it made me a speech, which I could hear but
indistinctly without ears. I gathered enough, however, to know that it
was astonished at my wishing to remain alive under such circumstances.
In the concluding sentences it quoted the noble words of Ariosto-

Il pover hommy che non sera corty
And have a combat tenty erry morty;

thus comparing me to the hero who, in the heat of the combat, not
perceiving that he was dead, continued to contest the battle with
inextinguishable valor. There was nothing now to prevent my getting
down from my elevation, and I did so. What it was that Pompey saw so
very peculiar in my appearance I have never yet been able to find out.
The fellow opened his mouth from ear to ear, and shut his two eyes
as if he were endeavoring to crack nuts between the lids. Finally,
throwing off his overcoat, he made one spring for the staircase and
disappeared. I hurled after the scoundrel these vehement words of
Demosthenes-

Andrew O’Phlegethon, you really make haste to fly,

and then turned to the darling of my heart, to the one-eyed! the
shaggy-haired Diana. Alas! what a horrible vision affronted my eyes?
Was that a rat I saw skulking into his hole? Are these the picked
bones of the little angel who has been cruelly devoured by the
monster? Ye gods! and what do I behold- is that the departed spirit,
the shade, the ghost, of my beloved puppy, which I perceive sitting
with a grace so melancholy, in the corner? Hearken! for she speaks,
and, heavens! it is in the German of Schiller-

“Unt stubby duk, so stubby dun
Duk she! duk she!”

Alas! and are not her words too true?

“And if I died, at least I died
For thee- for thee.”

Sweet creature! she too has sacrificed herself in my behalf.
Dogless, niggerless, headless, what now remains for the unhappy
Signora Psyche Zenobia? Alas- nothing! I have done.
THE END

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