Edgar Allan Poe
Many years ago, I contracted an intimacy with a Mr. William Legrand. He was of an ancient Huguenot family, and had once been wealthy: but a series of misfortunes had reduced him to want. To avoid the mortification consequent upon his disasters, he left New Orleans, the city of his forefathers, and took up his residence at Sullivan’s Island, near Charleston, South Carolina.
This island is a very singular one. It consists of little else than the sea sand, and is about three miles long. Its breadth at no point exceeds a quarter of a mile. It is separated from the mainland by a scarcely perceptible creek, oozing its way through a wilderness of reeds and slime, a favorite resort of the marsh hen. The vegetation, as might be supposed, is scant, or at least dwarfish. No trees of any magnitude are to be seen. Near the western extremity, where Fort Moultrie stands, and where are some miserable frame buildings, tenanted, during summer, by the fugitives from Charleston dust and fever, may be found, indeed, the bristly palmetto; but the whole island, with the exception of this western point, and a line of hard, white beach on the seacoast, is covered with a dense undergrowth of the sweet myrtle so much prized by the horticulturists of England. The shrub here often attains the height of fifteen or twenty feet, and forms an almost impenetrable coppice, burdening the air with its fragrance.
In the inmost recesses of this coppice, not far from the eastern or more remote end of the island, Legrand had built himself a small hut, which he occupied when I first, by mere accident, made his acquaintance. This soon ripened into friendship–for there was much in the recluse to excite interest and esteem. I found him well educated, with unusual powers of mind, but infected with misanthropy, and subject to perverse moods of alternate enthusiasm and melancholy. He had with him many books, but rarely employed them. His chief amusements were gunning and fishing, or sauntering along the beach and through the myrtles, in quest of shells or entomological specimens–his collection of the latter might have been envied by a Swammerdamm. In these excursions he was usually accompanied by an old negro, called Jupiter, who had been manumitted before the reverses of the family, but who could be induced, neither by threats nor by promises, to abandon what he considered his right of attendance upon the footsteps of his young “Massa Will.” It is not improbable that the relatives of Legrand, conceiving him to be somewhat unsettled in intellect, had contrived to instill this obstinacy into Jupiter, with a view to the supervision and guardianship of the wanderer.
The winters in the latitude of Sullivan’s Island are seldom very severe, and in the fall of the year it is a rare event indeed when a fire is considered necessary. About the middle of October, 18–, there occurred, however, a day of remarkable chilliness. Just before sunset I scrambled my way through the evergreens to the hut of my friend, whom I had not visited for several weeks–my residence being, at that time, in Charleston, a distance of nine miles from the island, while the facilities of passage and repassage were very far behind those of the present day. Upon reaching the hut I rapped, as was my custom, and getting no reply, sought for the key where I knew it was secreted, unlocked the door, and went in. A fine fire was blazing upon the hearth. It was a novelty, and by no means an ungrateful one. I threw off an overcoat, took an armchair by the crackling logs, and awaited patiently the arrival of my hosts.
Soon after dark they arrived, and gave me a most cordial welcome. Jupiter, grinning from ear to ear, bustled about to prepare some marsh hens for supper. Legrand was in one of his fits–how else shall I term them?–of enthusiasm. He had found an unknown bivalve, forming a new genus, and, more than this, he had hunted down and secured, with Jupiter’s assistance, a scarabaeus which he believed to be totally new, but in respect to which he wished to have my opinion on the morrow.
“And why not to-night?” I asked, rubbing my hands over the blaze, and wishing the whole tribe of scarabaei at the devil.
“Ah, if I had only known you were here!” said Legrand, “but it’s so long since I saw you; and how could I foresee that you would pay me a visit this very night of all others? As I was coming home I met Lieutenant G—-, from the fort, and, very foolishly, I lent him the bug; so it will be impossible for you to see it until the morning. Stay here to-night, and I will send Jup down for it at sunrise. It is the loveliest thing in creation!”
“Nonsense! no!–the bug. It is of a brilliant gold color–about the size of a large hickory nut–with two jet black spots near one extremity of the back, and another, somewhat longer, at the other. The antennae are–”
“Dey ain’t NO tin in him, Massa Will, I keep a tellin’ on you,” here interrupted Jupiter; “de bug is a goole-bug, solid, ebery bit of him, inside and all, sep him wing–neber feel half so hebby a bug in my life.”
“Well, suppose it is, Jup,” replied Legrand, somewhat more earnestly, it seemed to me, than the case demanded; “is that any reason for your letting the birds burn? The color”–here he turned to me–“is really almost enough to warrant Jupiter’s idea. You never saw a more brilliant metallic luster than the scales emit– but of this you cannot judge till to-morrow. In the meantime I can give you some idea of the shape.” Saying this, he seated himself at a small table, on which were a pen and ink, but no paper. He looked for some in a drawer, but found none.
“Never mind,” he said at length, “this will answer;” and he drew from his waistcoat pocket a scrap of what I took to be very dirty foolscap, and made upon it a rough drawing with the pen. While he did this, I retained my seat by the fire, for I was still chilly. When the design was complete, he handed it to me without rising. As I received it, a loud growl was heard, succeeded by a scratching at the door. Jupiter opened it, and a large Newfoundland, belonging to Legrand, rushed in, leaped upon my shoulders, and loaded me with caresses; for I had shown him much attention during previous visits. When his gambols were over, I looked at the paper, and, to speak the truth, found myself not a little puzzled at what my friend had depicted.
“Well!” I said, after contemplating it for some minutes, “this IS a strange scarabaeus, I must confess; new to me; never saw anything like it before–unless it was a skull, or a death’s head, which it more nearly resembles than anything else that has come under MY observation.”
“A death’s head!” echoed Legrand. “Oh–yes–well, it has something of that appearance upon paper, no doubt. The two upper black spots look like eyes, eh? and the longer one at the bottom like a mouth– and then the shape of the whole is oval.”
“Perhaps so,” said I; “but, Legrand, I fear you are no artist. I must wait until I see the beetle itself, if I am to form any idea of its personal appearance.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said he, a little nettled, “I draw tolerably– SHOULD do it at least–have had good masters, and flatter myself that I am not quite a blockhead.”
“But, my dear fellow, you are joking then,” said I, “this is a very passable SKULL–indeed, I may say that it is a very EXCELLENT skull, according to the vulgar notions about such specimens of physiology–and your scarabaeus must be the queerest scarabaeus in the world if it resembles it. Why, we may get up a very thrilling bit of superstition upon this hint. I presume you will call the bug Scarabaeus caput hominis, or something of that kind–there are many similar titles in the Natural Histories. But where are the antennae you spoke of?”
“The antennae!” said Legrand, who seemed to be getting unaccountably warm upon the subject; “I am sure you must see the antennae. I made them as distinct as they are in the original insect, and I presume that is sufficient.”
“Well, well,” I said, “perhaps you have–still I don’t see them;” and I handed him the paper without additional remark, not wishing to ruffle his temper; but I was much surprised at the turn affairs had taken; his ill humor puzzled me–and, as for the drawing of the beetle, there were positively NO antennae visible, and the whole DID bear a very close resemblance to the ordinary cuts of a death’s head.
He received the paper very peevishly, and was about to crumple it, apparently to throw it in the fire, when a casual glance at the design seemed suddenly to rivet his attention. In an instant his face grew violently red–in another excessively pale. For some minutes he continued to scrutinize the drawing minutely where he sat. At length he arose, took a candle from the table, and proceeded to seat himself upon a sea chest in the farthest corner of the room. Here again he made an anxious examination of the paper, turning it in all directions. He said nothing, however, and his conduct greatly astonished me; yet I thought it prudent not to exacerbate the growing moodiness of his temper by any comment. Presently he took from his coat pocket a wallet, placed the paper carefully in it, and deposited both in a writing desk, which he locked. He now grew more composed in his demeanor; but his original air of enthusiasm had quite disappeared. Yet he seemed not so much sulky as abstracted. As the evening wore away he became more and more absorbed in reverie, from which no sallies of mine could arouse him. It had been my intention to pass the night at the hut, as I had frequently done before, but, seeing my host in this mood, I deemed it proper to take leave. He did not press me to remain, but, as I departed, he shook my hand with even more than his usual cordiality.
It was about a month after this (and during the interval I had seen nothing of Legrand) when I received a visit, at Charleston, from his man, Jupiter. I had never seen the good old negro look so dispirited, and I feared that some serious disaster had befallen my friend.
“Well, Jup,” said I, “what is the matter now?–how is your master?”
“Why, to speak the troof, massa, him not so berry well as mought be.”
“Not well! I am truly sorry to hear it. What does he complain of?”
“Dar! dot’s it!–him neber ‘plain of notin’–but him berry sick for all dat.”
“VERY sick, Jupiter!–why didn’t you say so at once? Is he confined to bed?”
“No, dat he aint!–he aint ‘fin’d nowhar–dat’s just whar de shoe pinch–my mind is got to be berry hebby ’bout poor Massa Will.”
“Jupiter, I should like to understand what it is you are talking about. You say your master is sick. Hasn’t he told you what ails him?”
“Why, massa, ‘taint worf while for to git mad about de matter– Massa Will say noffin at all aint de matter wid him–but den what make him go about looking dis here way, wid he head down and he soldiers up, and as white as a goose? And den he keep a syphon all de time–”
“Keeps a what, Jupiter?”
“Keeps a syphon wid de figgurs on de slate–de queerest figgurs I ebber did see. Ise gittin’ to be skeered, I tell you. Hab for to keep mighty tight eye ‘pon him ‘noovers. Todder day he gib me slip ‘fore de sun up and was gone de whole ob de blessed day. I had a big stick ready cut for to gib him deuced good beating when he did come–but Ise sich a fool dat I hadn’t de heart arter all–he looked so berry poorly.”
“Eh?–what?–ah yes!–upon the whole I think you had better not be too severe with the poor fellow–don’t flog him, Jupiter–he can’t very well stand it–but can you form no idea of what has occasioned this illness, or rather this change of conduct? Has anything unpleasant happened since I saw you?”
“No, massa, dey aint bin noffin onpleasant SINCE den–’twas ‘FORE den I’m feared–’twas de berry day you was dare.”
“How? what do you mean.”
“Why, massa, I mean de bug–dare now.”
“De bug–I’m berry sartin dat Massa Will bin bit somewhere ’bout de head by dat goole-bug.”
“And what cause have you, Jupiter, for such a supposition?”
“Claws enuff, massa, and mouff, too. I nebber did see sich a deuced bug–he kick and he bite eberyting what cum near him. Massa Will cotch him fuss, but had for to let him go ‘gin mighty quick, I tell you–den was de time he must ha’ got de bite. I didn’t like de look ob de bug mouff, myself, nohow, so I wouldn’t take hold oh him wid my finger, but I cotch him wid a piece oh paper dat I found. I rap him up in de paper and stuff a piece of it in he mouff–dat was de way.”
“And you think, then, that your master was really bitten by the beetle, and that the bite made him sick?”
“I don’t think noffin about it–I nose it. What make him dream ’bout de goole so much, if ‘taint cause he bit by the goole-bug? Ise heered ’bout dem goole-bugs ‘fore dis.”
“But how do you know he dreams about gold?”
“How I know? why, ’cause he talk about it in he sleep–dat’s how I nose.”
“Well, Jup, perhaps you are right; but to what fortunate circumstance am I to attribute the honor of a visit from you to- day?”
“What de matter, massa?”
“Did you bring any message from Mr. Legrand?”
“No, massa, I bring dis here pissel;” and here Jupiter handed me a note which ran thus:
“MY DEAR —-
“Why have I not seen you for so long a time? I hope you have not been so foolish as to take offense at any little brusquerie of mine; but no, that is improbable.
“Since I saw you I have had great cause for anxiety. I have something to tell you, yet scarcely know how to tell it, or whether I should tell it at all.
“I have not been quite well for some days past, and poor old Jup annoys me, almost beyond endurance, by his well-meant attentions. Would you believe it?–he had prepared a huge stick, the other day, with which to chastise me for giving him the slip, and spending the day, solus, among the hills on the mainland. I verily believe that my ill looks alone saved me a flogging.
“I have made no addition to my cabinet since we met. “If you can, in any way, make it convenient, come over with Jupiter. DO come. I wish to see you TO-NIGHT, upon business of importance. I assure you that it is of the HIGHEST importance.
There was something in the tone of this note which gave me great uneasiness. Its whole style differed materially from that of Legrand. What could he be dreaming of? What new crotchet possessed his excitable brain? What “business of the highest importance” could HE possibly have to transact? Jupiter’s account of him boded no good. I dreaded lest the continued pressure of misfortune had, at length, fairly unsettled the reason of my friend. Without a moment’s hesitation, therefore, I prepared to accompany the negro.
Upon reaching the wharf, I noticed a scythe and three spades, all apparently new, lying in the bottom of the boat in which we were to embark.
“What is the meaning of all this, Jup?” I inquired.
“Him syfe, massa, and spade.”
“Very true; but what are they doing here?”
“Him de syfe and de spade what Massa Will sis ‘pon my buying for him in de town, and de debbil’s own lot of money I had to gib for em.”
“But what, in the name of all that is mysterious, is your ‘Massa Will’ going to do with scythes and spades?”
“Dat’s more dan I know, and debbil take me if I don’t b’lieve ’tis more dan he know too. But it’s all cum ob de bug.”
Finding that no satisfaction was to be obtained of Jupiter, whose whole intellect seemed to be absorbed by “de bug,” I now stepped into the boat, and made sail. With a fair and strong breeze we soon ran into the little cove to the northward of Fort Moultrie, and a walk of some two miles brought us to the hut. It was about three in the afternoon when we arrived. Legrand had been awaiting us in eager expectation. He grasped my hand with a nervous empressement which alarmed me and strengthened the suspicions already entertained. His countenance was pale even to ghastliness, and his deep-set eyes glared with unnatural luster. After some inquiries respecting his health, I asked him, not knowing what better to say, if he had yet obtained the scarabaeus from Lieutenant G—-.
“Oh, yes,” he replied, coloring violently, “I got it from him the next morning. Nothing should tempt me to part with that scarabaeus. Do you know that Jupiter is quite right about it?”
“In what way?” I asked, with a sad foreboding at heart.
“In supposing it to be a bug of REAL GOLD.” He said this with an air of profound seriousness, and I felt inexpressibly shocked.
“This bug is to make my fortune,” he continued, with a triumphant smile; “to reinstate me in my family possessions. Is it any wonder, then, that I prize it? Since Fortune has thought fit to bestow it upon me, I have only to use it properly, and I shall arrive at the gold of which it is the index. Jupiter, bring me that scarabaeus!”
“What! de bug, massa? I’d rudder not go fer trubble dat bug; you mus’ git him for your own self.” Hereupon Legrand arose, with a grave and stately air, and brought me the beetle from a glass case in which it was enclosed. It was a beautiful scarabaeus, and, at that time, unknown to naturalists–of course a great prize in a scientific point of view. There were two round black spots near one extremity of the back, and a long one near the other. The scales were exceedingly hard and glossy, with all the appearance of burnished gold. The weight of the insect was very remarkable, and, taking all things into consideration, I could hardly blame Jupiter for his opinion respecting it; but what to make of Legrand’s concordance with that opinion, I could not, for the life of me, tell.
“I sent for you,” said he, in a grandiloquent tone, when I had completed my examination of the beetle, “I sent for you that I might have your counsel and assistance in furthering the views of Fate and of the bug–”
“My dear Legrand,” I cried, interrupting him, “you are certainly unwell, and had better use some little precautions. You shall go to bed, and I will remain with you a few days, until you get over this. You are feverish and–”
“Feel my pulse,” said he.
I felt it, and, to say the truth, found not the slightest indication of fever.
“But you may be ill and yet have no fever. Allow me this once to prescribe for you. In the first place go to bed. In the next–”
“You are mistaken,” he interposed, “I am as well as I can expect to be under the excitement which I suffer. If you really wish me well, you will relieve this excitement.”
“And how is this to be done?”
“Very easily. Jupiter and myself are going upon an expedition into the hills, upon the mainland, and, in this expedition, we shall need the aid of some person in whom we can confide. You are the only one we can trust. Whether we succeed or fail, the excitement which you now perceive in me will be equally allayed.”
“I am anxious to oblige you in any way,” I replied; “but do you mean to say that this infernal beetle has any connection with your expedition into the hills?”
“Then, Legrand, I can become a party to no such absurd proceeding.”
“I am sorry–very sorry–for we shall have to try it by ourselves.”
“Try it by yourselves! The man is surely mad!–but stay!–how long do you propose to be absent?”
“Probably all night. We shall start immediately, and be back, at all events, by sunrise.”
“And will you promise me, upon your honor, that when this freak of yours is over, and the bug business (good God!) settled to your satisfaction, you will then return home and follow my advice implicitly, as that of your physician?”
“Yes; I promise; and now let us be off, for we have no time to lose.”
With a heavy heart I accompanied my friend. We started about four o’clock–Legrand, Jupiter, the dog, and myself. Jupiter had with him the scythe and spades–the whole of which he insisted upon carrying–more through fear, it seemed to me, of trusting either of the implements within reach of his master, than from any excess of industry or complaisance. His demeanor was dogged in the extreme, and “dat deuced bug” were the sole words which escaped his lips during the journey. For my own part, I had charge of a couple of dark lanterns, while Legrand contented himself with the scarabaeus, which he carried attached to the end of a bit of whipcord; twirling it to and fro, with the air of a conjurer, as he went. When I observed this last, plain evidence of my friend’s aberration of mind, I could scarcely refrain from tears. I thought it best, however, to humor his fancy, at least for the present, or until I could adopt some more energetic measures with a chance of success. In the meantime I endeavored, but all in vain, to sound him in regard to the object of the expedition. Having succeeded in inducing me to accompany him, he seemed unwilling to hold conversation upon any topic of minor importance, and to all my questions vouchsafed no other reply than “we shall see!”
We crossed the creek at the head of the island by means of a skiff, and, ascending the high grounds on the shore of the mainland, proceeded in a northwesterly direction, through a tract of country excessively wild and desolate, where no trace of a human footstep was to be seen. Legrand led the way with decision; pausing only for an instant, here and there, to consult what appeared to be certain landmarks of his own contrivance upon a former occasion.
In this manner we journeyed for about two hours, and the sun was just setting when we entered a region infinitely more dreary than any yet seen. It was a species of table-land, near the summit of an almost inaccessible hill, densely wooded from base to pinnacle, and interspersed with huge crags that appeared to lie loosely upon the soil, and in many cases were prevented from precipitating themselves into the valleys below, merely by the support of the trees against which they reclined. Deep ravines, in various directions, gave an air of still sterner solemnity to the scene.
The natural platform to which we had clambered was thickly overgrown with brambles, through which we soon discovered that it would have been impossible to force our way but for the scythe; and Jupiter, by direction of his master, proceeded to clear for us a path to the foot of an enormously tall tulip tree, which stood, with some eight or ten oaks, upon the level, and far surpassed them all, and all other trees which I had then ever seen, in the beauty of its foliage and form, in the wide spread of its branches, and in the general majesty of its appearance. When we reached this tree, Legrand turned to Jupiter, and asked him if he thought he could climb it. The old man seemed a little staggered by the question, and for some moments made no reply. At length he approached the huge trunk, walked slowly around it, and examined it with minute attention. When he had completed his scrutiny, he merely said:
“Yes, massa, Jup climb any tree he ebber see in he life.”
“Then up with you as soon as possible, for it will soon be too dark to see what we are about.”
“How far mus’ go up, massa?” inquired Jupiter.
“Get up the main trunk first, and then I will tell you which way to go–and here–stop! take this beetle with you.”
“De bug, Massa Will!–de goole-bug!” cried the negro, drawing back in dismay–“what for mus’ tote de bug way up de tree?–d–n if I do!”
“If you are afraid, Jup, a great big negro like you, to take hold of a harmless little dead beetle, why you can carry it up by this string–but, if you do not take it up with you in some way, I shall be under the necessity of breaking your head with this shovel.”
“What de matter now, massa?” said Jup, evidently shamed into compliance; “always want for to raise fuss wid old nigger. Was only funnin anyhow. ME feered de bug! what I keer for de bug?” Here he took cautiously hold of the extreme end of the string, and, maintaining the insect as far from his person as circumstances would permit, prepared to ascend the tree.
In youth, the tulip tree, or Liriodendron tulipiferum, the most magnificent of American foresters, has a trunk peculiarly smooth, and often rises to a great height without lateral branches; but, in its riper age, the bark becomes gnarled and uneven, while many short limbs make their appearance on the stem. Thus the difficulty of ascension, in the present case, lay more in semblance than in reality. Embracing the huge cylinder, as closely as possible, with his arms and knees, seizing with his hands some projections, and resting his naked toes upon others, Jupiter, after one or two narrow escapes from falling, at length wriggled himself into the first great fork, and seemed to consider the whole business as virtually accomplished. The RISK of the achievement was, in fact, now over, although the climber was some sixty or seventy feet from the ground.
“Which way mus’ go now, Massa Will?” he asked.
“Keep up the largest branch–the one on this side,” said Legrand. The negro obeyed him promptly, and apparently with but little trouble; ascending higher and higher, until no glimpse of his squat figure could be obtained through the dense foliage which enveloped it. Presently his voice was heard in a sort of halloo.
“How much fudder is got to go?”
“How high up are you?” asked Legrand.
“Ebber so fur,” replied the negro; “can see de sky fru de top oh de tree.”
“Never mind the sky, but attend to what I say. Look down the trunk and count the limbs below you on this side. How many limbs have you passed?”
“One, two, tree, four, fibe–I done pass fibe big limb, massa, ‘pon dis side.”
“Then go one limb higher.”
In a few minutes the voice was heard again, announcing that the seventh limb was attained.
“Now, Jup,” cried Legrand, evidently much excited, “I want you to work your way out upon that limb as far as you can. If you see anything strange let me know.”
By this time what little doubt I might have entertained of my poor friend’s insanity was put finally at rest. I had no alternative but to conclude him stricken with lunacy, and I became seriously anxious about getting him home. While I was pondering upon what was best to be done, Jupiter’s voice was again heard.
“Mos feered for to ventur pon dis limb berry far–’tis dead limb putty much all de way.”
“Did you say it was a DEAD limb, Jupiter?” cried Legrand in a quavering voice.
“Yes, massa, him dead as de door-nail–done up for sartin–done departed dis here life.”
“What in the name of heaven shall I do?” asked Legrand, seemingly in the greatest distress.
“Do!” said I, glad of an opportunity to interpose a word, “why come home and go to bed. Come now!–that’s a fine fellow. It’s getting late, and, besides, you remember your promise.”
“Jupiter,” cried he, without heeding me in the least, “do you hear me?”
“Yes, Massa Will, hear you ebber so plain.”
“Try the wood well, then, with your knife, and see if you think it VERY rotten.”
“Him rotten, massa, sure nuff,” replied the negro in a few moments, “but not so berry rotten as mought be. Mought venture out leetle way pon de limb by myself, dat’s true.”
“By yourself!–what do you mean?”
“Why, I mean de bug. ‘Tis BERRY hebby bug. Spose I drop him down fuss, an den de limb won’t break wid just de weight of one nigger.”
“You infernal scoundrel!” cried Legrand, apparently much relieved, “what do you mean by telling me such nonsense as that? As sure as you drop that beetle I’ll break your neck. Look here, Jupiter, do you hear me?”
“Yes, massa, needn’t hollo at poor nigger dat style.”
“Well! now listen!–if you will venture out on the limb as far as you think safe, and not let go the beetle, I’ll make you a present of a silver dollar as soon as you get down.”
“I’m gwine, Massa Will–deed I is,” replied the negro very promptly–“mos out to the eend now.”
“OUT TO THE END!” here fairly screamed Legrand; “do you say you are out to the end of that limb?”
“Soon be to de eend, massa–o-o-o-o-oh! Lor-gol-a-marcy! what IS dis here pon de tree?”
“Well!” cried Legrand, highly delighted, “what is it?”
“Why ‘taint noffin but a skull–somebody bin lef him head up de tree, and de crows done gobble ebery bit ob de meat off.