Part 3

All this  I saw  indistinctly and  by much  effort:  for my  personal condi- tion had  been greatly changed during slumber. I now  lay upon my back, and  at full length, on a species  of low framework of wood.  To this I was securely bound by a long strap  resembling a surcingle. It passed in many convolutions about  my limbs  and  body,  leaving at liberty  only  my head,  and  my left arm  to such  extent  that  I could,  by dint  of much  exertion, supply myself  with  food  from  an earthen dish  which lay by my  side  on the floor. I saw, to my horror, that the pitcher had  been removed. I say to my horror; for I was  consumed with  intolerable thirst.  This  thirst  it ap- peared to  be  the  design of my persecutors to  stimulate: for  the  food  in the dish was meat pungently seasoned.

Looking  upward, I surveyed the  ceiling  of my  prison. It was  some thirty or forty  feet overhead, and  constructed much  as the side  walls.  In one of its panels a very singular figure  riveted my whole  attention. It was the painted figure  of Time  as he is commonly represented, save  that,  in lieu of a scythe,  he held  what,  at a casual  glance,  I supposed to be the pictured image  of a huge  pendulum such  as we see on antique clocks. There was something, however, in the appearance of this machine which  caused me  to regard it more  attentively. While  I gazed directly upward at it (for its position was  immediately over  my own)  I fancied  that  I saw it in motion. In an instant afterward the  fancy  was  confirmed. Its sweep was  brief, and  of course  slow.  I watched it for some  minutes, somewhat in fear, but  more  in wonder. Wearied at length  with  observing its dull movement, I turned my eyes upon the other  objects in the cell.

A slight  noise  attracted my notice,  and,  looking to the floor, I saw  several  enormous rats traversing it. They  had  issued from  the  well,  which  lay just within view  to my right.  Even then, while  I gazed, they  came up in troops, hurriedly, with  ravenous eyes, allured by the scent of the meat. From this it required much  effort and attention to scare them  away.

It might have  been half an hour,  perhaps even  an hour,  (for in cast my I could  take  but  imperfect note  of time)  before  I again  cast  my  eyes  up- ward. What  I then  saw  confounded and  amazed me. The  sweep  of the pendulum had  increased in extent  by nearly  a yard.  As a natural consequence, its velocity  was  also much  greater. But what  mainly disturbed me was  the  idea  that  had  perceptibly descended. I now  observed—with what  horror it is needless to say—that its nether extremity was formed of a crescent  of glittering steel, about  a foot in length from horn  to horn;  the horns upward, and  the  under edge  evidently as keen  as that  of a razor.  Like a razor  also, it seemed massy  and  heavy,  tapering from  the edge  in- to a solid  and  broad structure above.  It was  appended to a weighty rod of brass, and the whole  hissed  as it swung through the air.

I could  no  longer  doubt the  doom  prepared for me  by monkish in- genuity in torture. My cognizance of the pit had become known to the inquisitorial agents—the pit whose horrors had  been destined for so bold a recusant as myself—the pit, typical  of hell, and  regarded by rumor as the Ultima  Thule  of all their  punishments. The  plunge into  this  pit  I had avoided by the  merest of accidents, I knew  that  surprise, or entrapment into  torment, formed an  important portion of  all  the  grotesquerie of these  dungeon deaths. Having failed  to fall, it was  no part  of the demon plan to hurl me into the abyss; and thus  (there  being no alternative) a different  and  a milder destruction awaited me. Milder!  I half smiled  in my agony as I thought of such application of such a term.

What boots  it to tell of the  long,  long  hours of horror more  than  mor- tal,  during which  I counted the  rushing vibrations of the  steel!  Inch  by inch—line   by  line—with a  descent only  appreciable at  intervals that seemed ages—down and  still down it came! Days passed—it might have been  that  many  days  passed—ere it swept so closely  over  me  as  to  fan me with  its acrid breath. The odor  of the sharp steel forced  itself into my nostrils. I prayed—I wearied heaven with  my prayer for its more  speedy descent. I grew  frantically mad,  and  struggled to force myself  upward against the  sweep  of the  fearful  scimitar. And  then  I fell suddenly calm, and lay smiling  at the glittering death, as a child at some rare bauble.

There was another interval of utter  insensibility; it was brief; for, upon again  lapsing into  life there  had  been  no perceptible descent in the  pen- dulum. But it might have  been  long; for I knew there  were  demons who took  note  of my  swoon, and  who  could  have  arrested the  vibration at pleasure. Upon  my  recovery, too, I felt very—oh, inexpressibly sick and weak,  as if through long inanition. Even amid  the agonies of that  period, the human nature craved food. With painful effort I outstretched my left arm  as far as my bonds permitted, and  took possession of the small  remnant which  had  been spared me by the rats. As I put  a portion of it with-  in my  lips,  there  rushed to my  mind a half formed thought of joy—of hope.  Yet what  business had  I with  hope?  It was,  as I say, a half formed thought—man has  many  such  which  are never  completed. I felt that  it was of joy—of hope;  but  felt also that  it had  perished in its formation. In vain  I struggled to perfect—to regain  it. Long suffering had  nearly  annihilated all my ordinary powers of mind.  I was an imbecile—an idiot.

The vibration of the pendulum was  at right  angles  to my length. I saw that  the  crescent  was designed to cross  the  region  of the  heart.  It would fray  the  serge   of  my  robe—it   would return   and  repeat its  opera-  tions—again—and again.  Notwithstanding terrifically wide  sweep  (some thirty feet  or more)  and  the  its hissing vigor  of its descent, sufficient to sunder these  very  walls  of iron, still the fraying of my robe  would be all that,  for  several  minutes, it  would accomplish. And  at  this  thought I paused. I dared not go farther than  this reflection. I dwelt upon it with  a pertinacity of attention—as if, in so dwelling, I could  arrest  here  the descent of the steel. I forced  myself to ponder upon the sound of the crescent  as it should pass  across  the  garment—upon the  peculiar thrilling sensation which  the friction  of cloth produces on the nerves. I pondered upon all this frivolity  until my teeth were on edge.

Down—steadily down it crept.  I took  a frenzied pleasure in contrast- ing  its downward with  its lateral  velocity.  To the  right—to the  left—far and  wide—with the  shriek  of  a  damned  spirit;  to  my  heart  with  the stealthy pace of the tiger! I alternately laughed and  howled as the one or the other  idea grew  predominant.

Down—certainly, relentlessly down!  It vibrated within three  inches  of my bosom!  I struggled violently, furiously, to free my left arm.  This was free  only  from  the  elbow  to the  hand.  I could  reach  the  latter,  from  the platter beside  me, to my mouth, with  great  effort, but no farther. Could  I have  broken the fastenings above  the elbow,  I would have  seized  and  at- tempted to arrest  the pendulum. I might as well have attempted to arrest  an avalanche!

Down—still    unceasingly—still     inevitably     down!    I    gasped   and struggled at each vibration. I shrunk convulsively at its every  sweep. My eyes  followed its outward  or upward whirls  with  the  eagerness of the most  unmeaning despair; they  closed  themselves  spasmodically at the descent, although death would have  been  a relief, oh! how  unspeakable! Still I quivered in  every  nerve  to  think  how  slight  a sinking of the  ma- chinery would precipitate that  keen,  glistening axe upon my bosom.  It was hope  that  prompted the nerve  to quiver—the frame  to shrink. It was hope—the hope  that  triumphs on  the  rack—that whispers to the  death- condemned even in the dungeons of the Inquisition.