Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, by Samuel Johnson

Chapter XXXI

They Visit the Pyramids.

The resolution being thus taken, they set out the next day. They laid tents upon their camels, being resolved to stay among the Pyramids till their curiosity was fully satisfied. They travelled gently, turned aside to everything remarkable, stopped from time to time and conversed with the inhabitants, and observed the various appearances of towns ruined and inhabited, of wild and cultivated nature.

When they came to the Great Pyramid they were astonished at the extent of the base and the height of the top. Imlac explained to them the principles upon which the pyramidal form was chosen for a fabric intended to co-extend its duration with that of the world: he showed that its gradual diminution gave it such stability as defeated all the common attacks of the elements, and could scarcely be overthrown by earthquakes themselves, the least resistible of natural violence. A concussion that should shatter the pyramid would threaten the dissolution of the continent.

They measured all its dimensions, and pitched their tents at its foot. Next day they prepared to enter its interior apartments, and having hired the common guides, climbed up to the first passage; when the favourite of the Princess, looking into the cavity, stepped back and trembled. “Pekuah,” said the Princess, “of what art thou afraid?”

“Of the narrow entrance,” answered the lady, “and of the dreadful gloom. I dare not enter a place which must surely be inhabited by unquiet souls. The original possessors of these dreadful vaults will start up before us, and perhaps shut us in for ever.” She spoke, and threw her arms round the neck of her mistress.

“If all your fear be of apparitions,” said the Prince, “I will promise you safety. There is no danger from the dead: he that is once buried will be seen no more.”

“That the dead are seen no more,” said Imlac, “I will not undertake to maintain against the concurrent and unvaried testimony of all ages and of all nations. There is no people, rude or learned, among whom apparitions of the dead are not related and believed. This opinion, which perhaps prevails as far as human nature is diffused, could become universal only by its truth: those that never heard of one another would not have agreed in a tale which nothing but experience can make credible. That it is doubted by single cavillers can very little weaken the general evidence, and some who deny it with their tongues confess it by their fears.

“Yet I do not mean to add new terrors to those which have already seized upon Pekuah. There can be no reason why spectres should haunt the Pyramid more than other places, or why they should have power or will to hurt innocence and purity. Our entrance is no violation of their privileges: we can take nothing from them; how, then, can we offend them?”

“My dear Pekuah,” said the Princess, “I will always go before you, and Imlac shall follow you. Remember that you are the companion of the Princess of Abyssinia.”

“If the Princess is pleased that her servant should die,” returned the lady, “let her command some death less dreadful than enclosure in this horrid cavern. You know I dare not disobey you — I must go if you command me; but if I once enter, I never shall come back.”

The Princess saw that her fear was too strong for expostulation or reproof, and, embracing her, told her that she should stay in the tent till their return. Pekuah was not yet satisfied, but entreated the Princess not to pursue so dreadful a purpose as that of entering the recesses of the Pyramids. “Though I cannot teach courage,” said Nekayah, “I must not learn cowardice, nor leave at last undone what I came hither only to do.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38