Stories of Edgar Allan Poe The Gold-Bug
An epigraph from the play All in the Wrong, by Irish playwright Arthur Murphy, begins this tale, reading "What ho! what ho! this fellow is dancing mad!/He hath been bitten by the Tarantula." These words set the tone for the story that follows, about a man named William Legrand, whom the narrator assumes is mentally ill because he is obsessed with finding gold after being bitten by a "gold-bug," just as the speaker in the quote refers to somebody bitten by a tarantula spider and driven into a delirium. The narrator describes how he lives in Charleston, South Carolina, and it is on Sullivan's Island in Charleston Harbor that he became friends with William, who lived there in a shack on the eastern end of the three mile long island. After losing most of his wealth, Legrand, who is from an old French Huguenot family had moved there from New Orleans, Louisiana. The island is sandy, with few trees, except for myrtle bushes that grow to about twenty feet of height; the army also has a base on the western side of the island at Fort Moultrie. As a person, Legrand is rather moody, and although he is intelligent and has many books, he would rather spend his time lazily outside, fishing and hunting, rather than engaging in scholarly pursuits. Legrand also has a old Negro named Jupiter, who has been freed from servitude but refuses to leave this beloved man's side and chooses instead to take care of him; the narrator thinks this is a good match, both for the overprotective Jupiter and the "wanderer" Legrand.
In October of 18--, the narrator makes the nine mile trip from his home in Charleston, across the stretch of water separating Sullivan's Island from the city, and he hurries to get inside of his friend's shack because it is so unusually cold outside due to the approaching winter. Finding nobody to be home, he enters and waits patiently in front of a blazing fire until Legrand excitedly enters. While Jupiter cooks dinner; the host excitedly relates how he has recently captured an enormous beetle, or scarab, but he has allowed Lieutenant G-- to borrow it. He invites the narrator to spend the night, since Jupiter will go and get the beetle that following morning, describing it as be gold in color with black spots and antennae. Jupiter interrupts, insisting that it is made of solid gold, but Legrand just tells him to worry about cooking dinner, and he excitedly declares that he will draw a picture of the beetle for the narrator to see, searching for paper around until he pulls a folded piece of paper from his pocket, draws an image on it, and hands it to the narrator. Suddenly, Jupiter opens the front door of the house and an enormous Newfoundland dog runs inside and happily jumps upon the narrator, licking his face eagerly.
Afterwards, the narrator admires William's drawing, adding that the beetle almost looks like a skull, to which Legrand agrees that it does have that appearance somewhat, although the narrator insists that it doesn't really look like a beetle at all, and really is a picture of a skull, since there aren't even any antennae in the drawing. Legrand is insulted, declaring that he did include antennae! Confused, the narrator hands back the drawing, and the host looks at it closely, turning it every which way, holding a candle near the paper in one corner of the room. He then sticks the paper into a wallet, and locks it into his desk; the narrator feels uncomfortable with this behavior, deciding not to spend the night at Legrand's hut after all and returns to his own bed at Charleston. Nothing else is heard from William Legrand until a month later when Jupiter visits his home in the city, worried about his master's health because he has been behaving very strangely since "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 after all -- he looked so berry poorly...I'm berry sartain dat Massa Will bin bit somewhere 'bout de head by dat goole-bug" Poe, pg. 149.
Although Jupiter's words are difficult to understand due to Jupiter's heavy accent, they may be interpreted as "The other day he gave me the slip before the sun was up and was gone the whole blessed day. I had a bog stick ready cut for him to give him a good beating when he did come, but I am such a fool that I didn't have the heart after all -- he looked so very poorly...I'm very certain that Master Will has been bitten somewhere around his head by that gold bug." The old man wanted to beat Legrand with a stick because he was so angry that the man snuck away from the house, but the he did not have the heart to hurt this man. Although he was angry, his sense of worry is stronger, and he fears that this mysterious gold bug has bitten his master and made him ill. He explains that when they were first trying to catch the large bug on Sullivan's Island, it attacked William, which is when Jupiter thinks he was bitten, adding that he captured the beetle in a piece of paper he found there on the island. The Negro adds that Legrand has been talking endlessly about gold in his sleep, and that he brought something for the narrator, handing him a note. The message from William Legrand states that the narrator must go at once to Sullivan's Island, "upon business of importance," and that Jupiter has been annoying him lately with his constant worries and accusations that Legrand is mentally ill.
Intrigued, the narrator decides to go after all, following Jupiter to his boat on shore, which is filled with a brand new scythe for clearing overgrown land and three shovels. The old man states that Legrand told him to buy these tools, confusing the narrator even more. Upon arriving on Sullivan's Island, the pair walk to the hut, where Legrand greets them joyfully, although his face is pale, his eyes are aglow with excitement, and he grasps the narrator's hand very strongly, declaring that the beetle will soon make him rich. He takes out a glass case containing the beautiful beetle, with a golden shell, black spots, and antennae, just as he had originally said. The narrator is concerned about his friend, insisting that Legrand is truly ill, and that he will stay there for a few days to take care of him, although Legrand says he is completely fine nevertheless. He states that the only cure for his intense excitement is for the narrator to accompany him on a brief expedition right away, adding that they will be back at his hut by sunrise of the following day. The narrator agrees on the condition that, when they return, Legrand must let the narrator to take care of him until he has recovered, to which he readily agrees.
At about four o'clock in the afternoon the three men and the Newfoundland dog venture out, carrying the scythe and shovels, and ride a small boat across the to the mainland beyond Sullivan's Island, and then venture out into the wilderness, while Legrand carries the beetle as well, swinging from a piece of cord that he has tied it to. This only reaffirms the narrator's conclusion that Legrand is mentally ill. Nevertheless, they walk for two hours, until dusk, and they find themselves in a very isolated place, "It was a species of tableland, 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 of the scene" Poe, pg. 155. Nearby, Legrand at last stops in front of a large tulip tree, asking Jupiter to climb it, bringing the dead gold-bug along with him. The old man protests, since he's afraid of the bug, but at last he agrees.
Jupiter climbs up about seventy feet, and then goes even higher until he is no longer visible from the ground. Finally, as he reaches near the top of the tree, Legrand shouts for Jupiter to climb out on one of the branches, although Jupiter protests once again because it appears to be a dead limb. Legrand becomes dejected, until Jupiter adds that if he left the heavy beetle behind the branch might not break. Realizing that Jupiter just wants an excuse to drop the beetle, Legrand tells him to just climb out on the branch and stop his complaining, promising that he'll give him a silver dollar as a reward. With this added incentive, Jupiter carefully inches out onto the limb, shouting that there is a skull there nailed to the end of the limb. Legrand is not surprised by this news at all and tells Jupiter to drop the beetle through the left eye of the skull, allowing it to dangle below by holding onto the string. After some confusion from Jupiter about what the difference between "left" and "right" is, the beetle is finally dropped through the left eye according to this old man, since the narrator and Legrand cannot see what he is doing since he's at the top of the tree. Clearing some land with his scythe, Legrand asks Jupiter to drop the beetle and descend from the tree, taking out a tape measure and tracing from the tree to this spot where the beetle landed, to fifty feet more beyond.
There he stops, sticking a peg into the ground, and tells his companions to start digging at that spot. The narrator considers forcing Legrand to go back to his hut, although he knows that Jupiter won't help him at all, and it is a job he cannot do alone. All of this seems to be insane to him, and he is tired since it is already nightfall. Finally, the man decides that the sooner he digs, the sooner he can prove to Legrand that he is mentally ill, since they won't find anything there anyway. With this in mind, the narrator reluctantly digs under the guide of lantern light, thinking of how ridiculous the three of them would look to anybody walking past them. After the dog barks incessantly for awhile, Jupiter rises from the hole and ties the poor animal's mouth closed with some rope to muzzle him, and the work resumes. A total of two hours passes, and the hole reaches a depth of five feet, and then seven feet. Still there is no sign of anything, as Legrand emerges from the hole tired and disappointed, while the narrator feels a sense of accomplishment that this was indeed a big waste of time.
The three men gather the tools with little said, beginning to walk back to the shore, until Legrand abruptly asks Jupiter where his left eye is. Jupiter then touches his right eye, to which Legrand excitedly jumps up and down, and measures the distance of fifty feet, from a location three inches further west than the initial spot, as if the beetle had been actually dropped from the left eye, and the digging begins all over again now at a new spot several yards away from the existing hole. The narrator is less doubtful now and more curious, as "I dug eagerly, and now and then caught myself actually looking, with something that very much resembled expectation, for the fancied treasure, the vision of which had demented my unfortunate companion...when we had been at work perhaps an hour and a half, we were again interrupted by the violent howlings of the dog" Poe, pg. 162. Jupiter tries to muzzle the dog again, but this time he breaks loose, leaping into the hole and digging furiously, uncovering two skeletons wearing decayed clothes, some coins, and a Spanish sword. Digging deeper, the narrator abruptly falls when his foot gets stuck in the metal ring attached to a wooden chest, which they quicky uncover from the earth. Within the chest is an enormous pile of gleaming treasure! The narrator and Jupiter, both skeptical of Legrand's claims, are shocked!
Legrand then mocks Jupiter, saying "And dis all cum ob de goole-bug," triumphant that he was right all along even while his companions had thought he was insane. The box is far too heavy for even three men to lift, so they empty out about two thirds of its contents onto the ground above to be guarded by the dog, lightening the box so that they can lift it out of the hole. When this task is completed, the narrator and Legrand bring the chest back to Legrand's hut on Sullivan's Island while Jupiter stays with the dog to guard their treasure. Upon returning, the treasure is divided into three piles for each of them to carry and leaving the holes unfilled. They arrive for this final trip back to Legrand's shack just as the sun is starting to come up again, as Legrand had promised to the narrator. The narrator is thus proven to be the fool for doubting Legrand after all. Exhausted after such heavy work, the three men go to sleep for a few hours before examining the treasure any further.
When they awaken, the treasure is sorted and found to be worth about one million and a half dollars, although they learn later that it is worth much more than that, since the chest contains all gold and jewels, "There were diamonds...a hundred and ten in all, and not one of them small; eighteen rubies of remarkable brilliancy;--three hundred and ten emeralds, all very beautiful; and twenty-one sapphires, with an opal...there was a vast quantity of solid-gold ornaments: nearly two hundred massive finger- and earrings; rich chains--thirty of these, if I remember; eighty-three very large and heavy crucifixes...a prodigious golden punch bowl" Poe, pg. 164-5. The treasure is very old and beautiful, and the only question that remains for the narrator to understand the answer to, is how exactly William Legrand knew about this marvelous discovery. Legrand then launches into a lengthy and detailed explanation of how he went about finding this treasure prior to that evening when they had ventured out into the mainland.
First, when the narrator initially came to visit Legrand at his house on Sullivan's Island and insulted his artistic abilities after drawing the beetle on the paper, Legrand was ready to hurl it into the fire, although it was in fact parchment, not paper. Just then he noticed that it did indeed have a skull on it, which he had not even drawn there! His drawing was still there on the other side of the parchment, which the narrator had not even seen. Stunned because the skull was not there before, he locked the parchment away into his desk so that he could think about this some more. Later, after the narrator had departed, he remembered that the parchment was initially found in the sand near a boat on Sullivan's Island, and Jupiter used it to wrap up the flying beetle once it was captured. After he gave the beetle to Lieutenant G--, he stuck the paper in his pocket until he was searching form something to draw a picture on, and rediscovered it. He also recalls that some types of ink can only be visible once they are exposed to fire, since the narrator was pushed dangerously close to the fireplace when the Newfoundland dog bounded in through the front door of his home, causing the parchment to heat up apparently.
Legrand excitedly recalled that the skull is a symbol of pirates, and parchment lasts for a much longer time than paper. The fact that this parchment had a skull on it, suggests that perhaps it was left by pirates, since the skull is the symbol that pirates used. Realizing that the writing is made from some chemical compound that is only visible when heated up, he kindles a fire and held the parchment nearby, washing off the dirt and grime to see the writing better. Sure enough, Legrand saw other figures appear on the paper, such as that of a goat, adding that it could have been the symbol of the famous pirate Captain Kidd, since a "kid" is also a name for a baby goat. Assuming this to be the signature of Captain Kidd and recalling that there have been many rumors that Captain Kidd had roamed the area with his fellow band of pirates and had buried treasure somewhere on the Atlantic coastline. Legrand continued to heat the parchment, and a series of symbols and numbers eventually appeared in a reddish ink; of course, this was an encoded message which Legrand set about trying to solve.
Counting the frequency of the symbols and numbers, he tried to match the most frequent ones with the most used English letters, knowing Captain Kidd to be a British pirate, and not a man who would have used Spanish or French. Noting that the symbol "8" is used the most times, Legrand matched this with the most common English letter, 'e," replacing "8" in the message with "e" and so on, until an understandable message appeared. Once decoded, the message read "A good glass in the bishop's hostel in the devil's seat -- forty-one degrees and thirteen minutes -- northeast and by north -- main branch seventh limb east side -- shoot from the left eye of the death's-head--a bee-line from the tree through the shot fifty feet out" Poe, pg. 177. The narrator is still confused at this message, wondering how that could have possibly led Legrand to the treasure they had dug up. Legrand waited a few days and then asked people around on Sullivan's Island if they heard of "Bishop's Hotel," since "Hostel" is an old form of 'Hotel." Nobody had any information, but suddenly he recalled that there was an old family named "Bessop" that owned a large mansion in town. There, an old woman told him she had heard of a large rock nearby called "Bessop's Castle," and she took him to this spot.
Arriving there, Legrand noted one particular ledge about twelve inches wide and eighteen inches long, several feet below the top of the rock. Acknowledging this to be the "devil's seat" in Kidd's message, he went home to get a "glass," or telescope, through which to view the location specified by the parchment. He returned and sat upon the ledge, gazing out at an angle of forty-one degrees, and moving the telescope around until he saw a spot of white in a far away tree, discovering it to be a white skull on the tree's limb. The rest of the message then made sense, noting that the skull must have been on the seventh limb, and the shot from the left eye meant to drop a bullet down and measure fifty feet further out from it, and to dig at that very spot. Then the only task was to locate this tree, since when he stepped out of the devil's seat the skull was nowhere to be seen again. Although Jupiter had accompanied him that day, Legrand decided to sneak off alone since Jupiter was becoming an annoyance with all of his worrying, and after much effort he located the proper tree in the forest. This was obviously the worrisome day that Jupiter had told the narrator about, when he had a stick ready to punish Legrand for sneaking away, but then he decided not to after all.
The narrator interjects that Jupiter caused him to miss the correct spot after initially dropping the beetle through the right eye instead of the left one, and Legrand adds that even a difference of a few inches made them fall far from their target once they had measured out fifty feet away. Then the narrator demands to know why Legrand was swinging the beetle along as they walked, and why he dropped the beetle out of the skull's eye and not a bullet, as Kidd had instructed. The man merely responds that he was punishing the narrator and Jupiter for doubting him, by putting on an unusual show of behavior that would feed their perceptions of him as a fool. Yet in the end, it is again the narrator that is made out to be a fool for not believing his friend. Satisfied, the narrator asks one final question, as to why there were two skeletons on top of the treasure chest. Legrand has no definite answer for this inquiry, but he infers that Kidd probably needed some help burying the treasure because it was so heavy.
However, he most likely killed these men afterwards to insure that the treasure's location would remain a secret, "Perhaps a couple of blows with a mattock were sufficient, while his coadjutors were busy in the pit; perhaps it required a dozen -- who shall tell?" Poe, pg. 181. The tale thus ends, with the narrator becoming a wealthy man for his role in the treasure's discovery, and with Legrand having been restored to his full degree of wealth and prestige, which he had lost awhile ago before he had moved to Sullivan's Island from New Orleans. Jupiter no doubt remains at his master's side, ever-willing to scold and reprimand. With its role in the treasure's discovery revealed to be a matter of pure coincidence since his parchment was Legrand's true guide, the exact fate of the gold-bug remains yet another mystery altogether.