Welcome to Easy Stories in English, the podcast that will take your English from OK to Good, and from Good to Great.
I am Ariel Goodbody, your host for this show. Today’s story is for intermediate learners. The name of the story is The Pit and the Pendulum. You can find a transcript of the episode at EasyStoriesInEnglish.com/Pit. That’s EasyStoriesInEnglish.com/Pit. This contains the full story, as well as my conversation before it.
Today’s story is another story by Edgar Allan Poe. We already had two of his stories before: The Black Cat and The Heart That Told the Truth. Edgar Allan Poe was an American author who wrote in the genre of gothic horror, and I’m really excited for today’s story because it’s actually one I read while I was at school. I have really vivid memories of the imagery from this story, but after leaving school I couldn’t remember where it was actually from. So when I was doing research for the podcast and I found the story, I was very happy to be able to read it properly.
I have to say, when I was a kid so much of the story went over my head. A lot of the story is about the Spanish Inquisition, which is a historical group, and I knew nothing about them as a child. So the Spanish Inquisition was a group that worked for the Catholic church. Their job was to maintain Catholicism. Mainly they looked for people who had converted to Catholicism from Judaism or Islam, and they tried to find people in these groups who were not true believers, who didn’t really believe in God and the Catholic ways. And they were pretty horrible to these people! They tortured them and they killed many of them.
Many of the stories of the torture and the murder committed by the Spanish Inquisition are overblown. They’re made up. They have a lot of unrealistic details added. But there was definitely a truth there, that they were a very violent organisation and a dark page in history. Poe’s portrayal of the Spanish Inquisition is definitely unrealistic and very fantastical, but it is certainly a very interesting and scary interpretation. And I really enjoy the way it is laid out in this story.
So, obviously, if you don’t like torture, this story has torture in it! So you might not want to read it.
OK, so I’ll just go through some words that are in the story.
Pit is a big hole in the ground. If you fall into a pit you will probably hurt yourself. You might even die. Pits are usually created as traps. Sometimes people make pits in the forest to trap animals, and then they cover them with leaves so that they can’t see the pit and they fall in.
Pendulum. A pendulum is basically anything that swings from side to side. So it comes up a lot in science, in the science of physics. When an object swings from side to side on a string it naturally gets faster, and it creates a wider arc. So the arc is the space it swings across. And gradually, as it swings more and more, this will increase in size. Pendulums were first investigated scientifically by Galileo, and you often see them in scientific museums, especially ones for children. Pendulums were used in old-fashioned clocks to keep time and nowadays they’re usually more for decoration than anything.
Slimy means anything that’s wet, muddy, slippery. There’s actually a really popular trend now of toys that are slime. So they’re basically these sticky lumps of material that are different colours, that you can squeeze and stretch and play with. And it’s very popular now for kids to make their own slime using glue and other materials, and some people even sell slime online. They have slime businesses. So slimy is anything that feels like slime, so wet, uh, squishy, not very nice.
An angle is a place where two lines meet. So this usually comes up in mathematics. You measure angles. For example, a triangle is literally three angles. And we often measure the angles inside a triangle, so in each of the corners of the triangle. If you have a square room, then all of the angles will be right angles, they will be 90 degrees. A circle has no angles as it is 360 degrees. And there’s something about triangles, and you add up the angles and you get 180… I think? I was never very good at maths in school.
Torture is when you hurt someone to get information. It’s illegal in many countries, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t do it. Uh, people are usually tortured by armies, by governments, things like that.
A strap is a piece of cloth or leather, basically a piece of material, that you use to tie something to something else. So for example, when the Wii gaming console came out, so Nintendo made this gaming console called the Wii, which is controlled by moving your hand, a lot of people had a problem where they moved the controller too quickly and it jumped out of their hand and whacked into their television. Sometimes it broke their television. So they came up with straps that connect to the controller and go around your wrist so that you couldn’t accidentally throw the controller at your television. There is no Wii in this story, there’s a different kind of strap.
Finally, Father Time. So Father Time is what we call a personification. So that’s when you take an idea, a concept, and you turn it into a person. So Father Time is the personification of time. So he is an image that is used in old art to represent time. He was drawn as an old man with a big, white beard, holding a scythe. So a scythe is a short, curved knife that is used to harvest crops, to collect crops in the fields. Father Time isn’t really used in modern artwork very much, but he was very common in medieval artwork, and the way he’s used in this story is quite unpleasant.
OK, so remember you can find a full transcript of the episode at EasyStoriesInEnglish.com/Pit. This contains the full story in text format, as well as my conversation before it.
So, listen and enjoy!
The Pit and the Pendulum
I was sick, sick with the feeling of death. I heard the mutter of those who had questioned me, the Inquisitors. I saw the lips of the black-robed judges, and they were whiter than the paper that I am writing this on. They were thin, and tight, and they whispered things I could not hear. I saw seven candles on a table beside me, and they shone like angels, but I knew there was nobody to help me. I thought how sweet death would be, and then the men around me disappeared, and the candles faded into darkness.
I woke up, and I felt more tired than was possible. My heart beat in my ears, and I saw nothing, but slowly the memory of the trial came back to me. The air was thick and warm inside the place, as if I was lying in a cooking pot, and I wondered if this was Hell. But I knew this could not be true, because they had not killed me yet. I would know when it happened. I had heard the stories. They burned the lucky ones. Others, they cut apart.
I stood up, and waved my arms around. They passed through the air, but I did not dare move forward, as I thought I might find the walls of a tomb. I blinked, and moved my head, hoping to find some small ray of light, but there was nothing but darkness.
I slowly began to walk, with my arms stretched out. Soon I touched stone, at least, what felt like stone, slimy and cold. I tore off a strip of the rough clothes they had given me, and placed it on the floor against the wall. Then I moved around, waiting to find the cloth, to know the size of the room. It felt like I was walking for hours, but I knew it was merely minutes. Finally, I reached the cloth. It had been about a hundred steps. However, I had found many angles in the wall, and I couldn’t guess at what shape the room was.
Really, there was no reason to find these things out. They helped me in no way, apart from satisfying my curiosity. But now that I had an idea of the place, I wanted to find out more. I decided to cross the room across the centre. I moved slowly, as the floor was slimy. Ten or so steps in, the cloth got caught on my leg, and I fell, landing on my face.
But my face did not slam into the stone. My chin did, but the rest of my face hung in the air. I reached out with my arm, and discovered I had fallen by the edge of a large, round pit. I managed to find a small piece of stone, and threw it into the pit. There was a long moment of silence, and finally a distant splash. At the same time, I heard a door open and close above me, and there was a brief flash of light in the room.
It was only a second, but it allowed me to see the trap they had prepared for me. One more step, and I would have fallen to my death. It was the kind of torture that people spoke of in whispers, and many thought was made up. Nobody really knew what the Inquisition did. But now I could see that the stories of cruel punishment were true, and I was in one of them.
The pit would be an easy death. I could jump in and end it right there. Except it could well lead to a longer suffering, and I was far too much of a coward to take things into my own hands.
I fell asleep again, and when I woke up, there was light.
The room looked much smaller, now that I could see it. It was, in fact, mostly square, but there were a few angles in the walls which made it seem otherwise. It was not made of stone, but iron, connected in huge sheets. It was painted with horrible images: demons, skeletons, and tortured people.
Before me lay the pit which I had almost fallen into, but I could not see it well, as I was tied up, laid out on a piece of wood. A long strap connected me to it, and I could only move my head and my left arm. To my left, they had placed a plate, but there was no water. All that was there was a piece of fat, salty, oily meat. Of course, hunger was not my problem, but thirst, and just the smell of the meat made my throat dry up.
When I looked above me, I was met by a human face. It was a painting, far above on the ceiling, of an old man: Father Time. Usually he was shown holding a scythe, a curved knife used to harvest crops. But he wasn’t holding a scythe, but a pendulum, like on an old clock. It was hard to see, but it looked as if it was moving, and for a few minutes, I watched it like a baby in its bed.
A noise came from nearby, and I looked to see several rats crawling along the floor. They had come from the pit. They crawled up to the meat, and I waved my hand to keep them away. This required a lot of effort, as I could only weakly move my arm, and the mice kept growing in number.
A while later, I looked up again, and was amazed. Father Time’s pendulum was still moving, making a wider arc in the air than before. Naturally, it moved more quickly, but what most worried me was that it was lower. It was made of steel, with a sharp blade in the centre, and it hissed as it swung through the air. Sssss. Sssss. Sssss.
I had escaped the pit, so they gave me the pendulum. I had been “lucky” to discover the pit, and now an even bloodier death awaited me.
It felt like days passed as I watched it come down, hiss hiss hiss, each time an inch closer than before. It blew air at me like a fan, and when it got close enough, I could smell the steel with each swing. I prayed for it to come down faster, to end it all with one movement, but it remained painfully distant.
The human body is remarkable. Despite my torture, my stomach still ached with the need for food, and I was forced to reach for the meat to my left. Only a small part remained—the rats had eaten the rest. As I ate it, I felt a flash of hope, and I held onto it like an idiot. I looked back up.
Down it came! The pendulum would slice across my chest and into my heart. First, it would cut through the cloth, bit by bit, until it left my skin exposed, and then it would bite through skin and bone.
Down and down! Father Time laughed at me, and I laughed back, roaring like a tiger. It was ten inches away from my chest now. I struggled, and tried to free my left arm—it was only free from the elbow down. But the strap was tight, and I only made myself weaker.
Down, down, down! I shook and sweated. My eyes followed the blade from side to side. And yet, I still felt a sick kind of hope.
As the pendulum came ever closer, I realised something. The strap around me was not several, but one. It was wound all around me, but it had no ties in the middle. When the pendulum sliced through it, I could unwind it with my left hand, and free myself.
But by that point, the steel would be too close to me. And surely, the torturers had thought of this. I moved my head, to look down at my chest, and saw that where the blade would slice, the strap did not pass.
And then, out of the darkness, came a mad idea. For several hours, the wooden frame on which I lay had been covered with rats. They stared at me with red eyes, waiting for their food to be ready. They had finished the meat, and now I was all that was left.
My left hand was oily, covered with salt and spices from the meat. The rats had been trying to bite and lick it, and I had moved it away from them each time. Now I rubbed it over the strap and waited. The rats moved back in fear, but then one or two brave ones jumped forward, and smelt the strap. Suddenly, the rest followed. They jumped onto the strap, and I felt hundreds of tiny mouths working furiously, and the strap grew looser.
But the pendulum was close now, only inches away. I lay as still as I could, praying for the rats to work quickly. Then, suddenly, the rats moved back and I felt I was free! The strap was torn apart. The pendulum sliced across, biting into my clothes. I waited for it to fly high into the air, and then rolled over, off the wooden frame and onto the floor.
I was free! Free, but still in the hold of the Inquisition. A door opened above, and the pendulum began to rise, pulled away into the ceiling. I had escaped the pendulum, and who knew what awaited me next?
I looked around at the iron walls, and I realised where the light was coming from. At the bottom of the walls, there was a small gap through which it shone. I leant down to try and see through it, but it was too low. When I got up, the paintings on the walls shone with a new light. I looked closer, and saw that they had indeed changed. Every eye of every demon, skeleton, and suffering human, was redder than before, as if lit by a candle. I looked around the room, watched on all sides by the demonic eyes of the Inquisitors.
And then came the smell, of burning iron. A wave of red passed over the paintings, and steam began to rise. Now I saw the death they had planned for me, beyond even the pendulum in cruelty. I ran towards the pit, from which cold air blew. I stared down, and the light of the fire showed what was below. There was water, and hundreds of eyes belonging to hungry rats. I could not bring myself to jump.
I looked around again, and noticed another change. The room, which had been square, now had two walls pushed into it, breaking the shape. As the fire grew, I saw the gaps between the plates shiver, and in a moment they had moved again, with a loud noise, pushing the room into a diamond shape.
The walls glowed bright red now, and I felt their heat even beside the pit. That was my fate: to choose the fire of the prison, or to be eaten alive by the rats of the pit.
The room grew smaller again, and I felt my skin begin to burn. I could hardly see for the steam and flames, and the eyes on the walls shone like hot coals. I was pushed back towards the pit, and finally, with hardly an inch between myself and the wall, I began to lose my balance.
And then, I heard the strangest sounds. Voices shouting. Trumpets blasting. Weapons clashing against each other. The fiery walls went cold, and rushed back to their original place, and an arm reached out and pulled me from the pit.
I blinked at the change in light. Before me stood a man in a military uniform. He smiled at me.
‘You’re safe now,’ he said.
It was the French army, I realised. They had invaded the town, and the Inquisition was defeated. I felt a wave of joy, and passed out.
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