This year's "treat" comes from The Unabridged Edgar Allan Poe: A book that has been in my possession since my early twenties.
Only part of the story, I selected, appears here. The entire story, however, is well worth a read.
Without further ado, Edgar Allan Poe's...
LOSS OF BREATH
...The phrases "I am out of breath," "I have lost my breath," &c., are often enough repeated in common conversation; but it had never occurred to me that the terrible accident of which I speak could bona fide and actually happen! Imagine - that is if you have a fanciful turn - imagine, I say, my wonder - my consternation - my despair!
...In a short time, however, we arrived at the place of sepulture, and I felt myself deposited within the tomb. The entrance was secured - they departed - and I was left alone. A line of Marston's "Malcontent,"
"Death's a good fellow and keeps open house,"
struck me at that moment as a palpable lie. Sullenly I lay at length, the quick among the dead - Anacharsis inter Scythas.
From what I overheard early in the morning, I was led to believe that the occasions when the vault was made use of were of very rare occurrence. It was probable that many months might elapse before the doors of the tomb would be again unbarred - and even should I survive until that period, what means could I have more than at present, of making known my situation or of escaping from the coffin? I resigned myself, therefore, with much tranquility to my fate, and fell, after many hours, into deep and deathlike sleep.
How long I remained thus is to me a mystery. When I awoke my limbs were no longer cramped with the cramp of death - I was no longer without the power of motion. A very slight exertion was sufficient to force off the lid of my prison - for the dampness of the atmosphere had already occasioned decay in the woodwork around the screws.
My steps as I groped around the sides of my habitation were, however, feeble and uncertain, and I felt all the gnawings of hunger with the pains of intolerable thirst. Yet, as time passed away, it is strange that I experienced little uneasiness from the scourges of the earth, in comparisons with the more terrible visitations of the fiend Ennui. Stranger still were the resources by which I endeavored to banish him from my presence.
The sepulchre was large and subdivided into many compartments, and I busied myself in examining the peculiarities of their construction. I determined the length and breadth of my abode. I counted and recounted the stones of the masonry. But there were other methods by which I endeavored to lighten the tedium of my hours. Feeling my way among the numerous coffins ranged in order around, I lifted them down, one by one, and breaking open their lids, busied myself in speculations about the mortality within.
"This," I reflected, tumbling over a carcass, puffy, bloated, and rotund - "this has been, no doubt, in every sense of the word, an unhappy - an unfortunate man. It has been his terrible lot not to walk, but waddle - to pass through life not like a human being, but like an elephant - not like a man, but like a rhinoceros.
"His attempts at getting on have been mere abortions, and his circumgyratory proceedings a palpable failure. Taking a step forward, it has been his misfortune to take two toward the right, and three toward the left. His studies have been confined to the Philosophy of Crabbe. He can have no idea of the wonders of a pirouette. To him a pas de papillon has been an abstract conception. He has never ascended the summit of a hill. He has never viewed from any steeple the glories of a metropolis. Heat has been his mortal enemy. In the dog-days his days have been the days of the dog. Therein, he has dreamed of flames and suffocation - of mountains upon mountains - of Pelion upon Ossa. He was short of breath - to say all in a word, he was short of breath. He thought it extravagant to play upon wind instruments. he was the inventor of self-moving fans, wind-sails, and ventilators. He patronized Du Pont the bellowsmaker, and died miserably in attempting to smoke a cigar. He was a case in which I feel deep interest - a lot in which I sincerely sympathesize.
"But here," - said I - "here" - and I dragged spitefully from its receptacle a gaunt, tall, and peculiar-looking form, whose remarkable appearance struck me with a sense of unwelcome familiarity - "here" - said I - "here is a wretch entitled to no earthly commiseration." Thus saying, in order to obtain a more distinct view of my subject, I apllied my thumb and fore-finger to his nose, and causing him to assume a sitting position upon the ground, held him thus, at the length of my arm, while I continued my soliloquy.
-"Entitled," I repeated, "to no earthly commiseration. Who indeed would think of compassionating a shadow? Besides, has he not had his full share of the blessings of mortality? He was the originator of tall monuments - shot-towers - lightning rods - lombardy poplars. His treatise upon "Shades and Shadows" has immortalized him. He went early to college and studied pneumatics. He then came home, talked eternally, and played upon the French-horn. He patronized the bag-pipes. Captain Barclay, who walked against Time, would not walk against him. Windham and Allbreath were his favorite writers. He died gloriously while inhaling gas - levique flatu corrumpitur [he is corrupted by a light gust], like the fama pudicitiae [reputation for modesty] in Hieronymus.* He was indubitably a "___.
"How can you? - how - can - you?" - interrupted the object of my animadversions, gasping for breath, and tearing off, with a desperate exertion, the bandage around his jaws - "how can you, Mr. Lacko'breath, be so infernally cruel as to pinch me in that manner by the nose? Did you not see how they had fastened up my mouth - and you must know - if you know anything - what a vast superfluity of breath I have to dispose of! If you do not know, however, sit down and you shall see. -In my situation it is really a great relief to be able to open one's mouth - to be able to expatiate - to be able to communicate with a person like yourself, who do not think yourself called upon at every period to interrupt the thread of a gentleman's discourse. -Interruptions are annoying and should undoubtedly be abolished - don't you think so? - no reply, I beg you, - one person is enough to be speaking at a time. -I shall be done by-and-by, and then you may begin. -How the devil, sir, did you get into this place? - not a word I beseech you - been here some time myself - terrible accident! - heard of it, I suppose - awful calamity! - walking under the windows - some short while ago - about the time you were stage-struck - horrible occurrence! - heard of "catching one's breath," eh? - hold your tongue I tell you! - I caught somebody else's! - had always too much of my own - met Blab at the corner of the street - wouldn't give me a chance for a word - couldn't get in a syllable edgeways - attacked, consequently, with epilepsis - Blab made his escape - damn all fools! - they took me up for dead, and put me in this place - pretty doings all of them! - heard all you said about me - every word a lie - horrible! - wonderful! - outrageous! - hideous! - incomprehensible! - et cetera - et cetera - et cetera - et cetera -" ___.
It is impossible to conceive my astonishment at so unexpected a discourse; or the extravagant joy with which I became gradually convinced that the breath so fortunately caught by the gentleman (whom I soon recognized as my neighbor Windenough) was, in fact, the identical expiration mislaid by myself in the conversation with my wife. Time, place, and incidental circumstances rendered it a matter beyond question. I did not, however, immediately release my hold upon Mr. W.'s proboscis - not at least during the long period in which the inventor of lombardy poplars continued to favor me with his explanations.
In this respect I was actuated by that habitual prudence which has ever been my predominating trait. I reflected that many difficulties might still lie in the path of my preservation which extreme exertion on my part would be alone able to surmount. Many persons, I considered, are prone to estimate commodities in their possession - however valueless to the then proprietor - however troublesome, or distressing - in precise ration with the advantages to be derived by others from their attachment, or by themselves from their abandonment. Might not this be the case with Mr. Windenough? In displaying anxiety for the breath of which he was at present so willing to get rid, might I not lay myself open to the exactions of his avarice? there are scoundrels in this world, I remembered with a sigh, who will not scruple to take unfair opportunities with even a next door neighbor, and (this remark is from Epictetus) it is percisely at that time when men are most anxious to throw off the burden of their own calamaties that they feel the least desirous of relieving them in others.
Upon considerations similar to these, and still retaining my grasp upon the nose of Mr. W., I accordingly thought proper to model my reply.
"Monster!" I began in a tone of the deepest indignation, "monster; and doubly-winded idiot! - dost thou, whom, for thine iniquities, it has pleased heaven to accurse with a two-fold respiration - dost thou, I say, presume to address me in the familiar language of an old acquaintance? - "I lie," forsooth! and "hold my tongue," to be sure! - pretty conversation, indeed, to a gentleman with a single breath! - all this, too, when I have it in my power to relieve the calamity under which thou dost so justly suffer - to curtail the superfluities of thine unhappy respiration."
Like Brutus, I paused for a reply - with which, like a tornado, Mr. Windenough immediately overwhelmed me. Protestation followed upon protestation, and apology upon apology. There were no terms with which he was unwilling to comply, and there were none of which I failed to take the fullest advantage.
Preliminaries being at length arranged, my acquaintance delivered me the respiration; for which (having carefully examined it) I gave afterwards a receipt.
I am aware that by many I shall be held to blame for speaking, in a manner so cursory, of a transaction so impalpable. It will be thought that I should have entered more minutely into the details of an occurrence by which - and all this is very true - much new light might be thrown upon a highly interesting branch of physical philosophy.
To all this I am sorry that I cannot reply. A hint is the only answer which I am permitted to make. There were circumstances - but I think it much safer upon consideration to say as little as possible about an affair so delicate - so delicate, I repeat, and at the same time involving the interests of a third party whose resentment I have not the least desire, at this moment, of incurring.
We were not long after this necessary arrangement in effecting an escape from the dungeons of the sepulchre. The united strength of our resuscitated voices was soon effeciently apparent. Scissors, the Whig Editor, republished a treatise upon "the nature and origin of subterranean noises." A reply - rejoiner - confutation - and justification - followed in the columns of an ultra Gazette. it was not until the opening of the vault to decide the controversy, that the appearance of Mr. Widenough and myself proved both parties to have been decidely in the wrong.
I cannot conclude these details of some very singular passages in a life at all times sufficiently eventful, without again recalling to the attention of the reader the merits of that indiscriminate philosophy which is a sure and ready shield against those shafts of calamity which can be neither seen, felt, nor fully understood. It was in the spirit of this wisdom that, among the Ancient Hebrews, it was believed the gates of Heaven would be inevitably opened to that sinner, or saint, who, with good lungs and implicit confidence, should vociferate the word "Amen!" It was in the spirit of this wisdom that, when a great plague raged at Athens, and every means had been in vain attempted for its removal, Epimenides, as Laertius relates in his second book of the life of that philosopher, advised the erection of a shrine and temple to prostekonti Theo, "to the proper God."
(November 10, 1832)
~Edgar Allan Poe
*Tenera res in feminis fama pudicitiae, et quasi flos pulcherrimus, cito ad levem marcescit auram, levique flatu corrumpitur, maxime, &c [A reputation for modesty is a flimsy affair among women, and like a beautiful flower, quickly it withers at the least breeze, and at the least gust it disintegrates completely]. -Hieronymus ad Salvinam
From Dave and I to all our readers.