Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
Book IV. Pitfalls in the Way.
II. The Monster.
IT is difficult for those who have not seen it to believe in the existence of the devil-fish.
Compared to this creature, the ancient hydras are insignificant. At times we are tempted to imagine that the vague forms which float in our dreams may encounter in the realm of the Possible attractive forces, having power to fix their lineaments, and shape living beings, out of these creatures of our slumbers. The Unknown has power over these strange visions, and out of them composes monsters. Orpheus, Homer, and Hesiod imagined only the Chimera: Providence has created this terrible creature of the sea.
Creation abounds in monstrous forms of life. The wherefore of this perplexes and affrights the religious thinker.
If terror were the object of its creation, nothing could be imagined more perfect than the devil-fish.
The whale has enormous bulk, the devil-fish is comparatively small, the jararaca makes a hissing noise, the devil-fish is mute; the rhinoceros has a horn, the devil fish has none, the scorpion has a dart, the devil-fish has no dart; the shark has sharp fins, the devil-fish has no fins, the vespertiliobat has wings with claws, the devil-fish has no wings; the porcupine has his spines, the devil-fish has no spines; the sword-fish has his sword, the devil-fish has none; the torpedo has its electric spark, the devil-fish has none; the toad has its poison, the devil-fish has none; the viper has its venom, the devil-fish has no venom; the lion has its talons, the devil-fish has no talons; the griffon has its beak, the devil-fish has no beak; the crocodile has its jaws, the devil-fish has no teeth.
The devil-fish has no muscular organisation, no menacing cry, no breastplate, no horn, no dart, no claw, no tail with which to hold or bruise; no cutting fins, or wings with nails, no prickles, no sword, no electric discharge, no poison, no talons, no beak, no teeth. Yet he is of all creatures the most formidably armed.
What, then, is the devil-fish? It is the sea vampire.
The swimmer who, attracted by the beauty of the spot, ventures among breakers in the open sea, where the still waters hide the splendours of the deep, or in the hollows of unfrequented rocks, in unknown caverns abounding in sea plants, Testacea, and Crustacea, under the deep portals of the ocean, runs the risk of meeting it. If that fate should be yours, be not curious, but fly. The intruder enters there dazzled, but quits the spot in terror.
This frightful apparition, which is always possible among the rocks in the open sea, is a grayish form which undulates in the water. It is of the thickness of a man's arm, and in length nearly five feet. Its outline is ragged. Its form resembles an umbrella closed, and without handle. This irregular mass advances slowly towards you. Suddenly it opens, and eight radii issue abruptly from around a face with two eyes. These radii are alive; their undulation is like lambent flames; they resemble, when opened, the spokes of a wheel, of four or five feet in diameter. A terrible expansion! It springs upon its prey.
The devil-fish harpoons its victim.
It winds around the sufferer, covering and entangling him in its longs folds. Underneath it is yellow; above, a dull earthy hue: nothing could render that inexplicable shade dust-coloured. Its form is spider-like, but its tints are like those of the chameleon. When irritated it becomes violet. Its most horrible characteristic is its softness.
Its folds strangle, its contact paralyses
It has an aspect like gangrened or scabrous flesh. It is a monstrous embodiment of disease.
It adheres closely to its prey, and cannot be torn away-a fact which is due to its power of exhausting air. The eight antennae, large at their roots, diminish gradually, and end in needle-like points. Underneath each of these feelers range two rows of pustules, decreasing in size-the largest ones near the head, the smaller at the extremities. Each row contains twenty-five of these. There are, therefore, fifty pustules to each feeler and the creature possesses in the whole four hundred These pustules are capable of acting like cupping-glasses They are cartilaginous substances, cylindrical, horny and livid. Upon the large species they diminish gradually from the diameter of a five-franc piece to the size of a split pea. These small tubes can be thrust out and withdrawn by the animal at will. They are capable of piercing to a depth of more than an inch.
This sucking apparatus has all the regularity and delicacy of a keyboard. It stands forth at one moment and disappears the next. The most perfect sensitiveness cannot equal the contractibility of these suckers, always proportioned to the internal movement of the animal and its exterior circumstances. The monster is endowed with the qualities of the sensitive plant.
This animal is the same as those which mariners call Poulps, which science designates Cephalopterę, and which ancient legends call Krakens. It is the English sailors who call them "Devil-fish," and sometimes Bloodsuckers. In the Channel Islands they are called pieuvres.
They are rare at Guernsey, very small at Jersey; but near the island of Sark are numerous as well as very large.
An engraving in Somnini's edition of Buffon represents a Cephaloptera crushing a frigate. Denis Montfort, in fact, considers the Poulp, or Octopod, of high latitudes, strong enough to destroy a ship. Bory Saint Vincent doubts this; but he shows that in our regions they will attack men. Near Brecq-Hou, in Sark, they show a cave where a devil-fish a few years since seized and drowned a lobster-fisher. Peron and Lamarck are in error in their belief that the "poulp" having no fins cannot swim. He who writes these lines has seen with his own eyes, at Sark, in the cavern called the Boutiques, a pieuvre swimming and pursuing a bather. When captured and killed, this specimen was found to be four English feet broad, and it was possible to count its four hundred suckers. The monster thrust them out convulsively in the agony of death.
According to Denis Montfort, one of those observers whose marvellous intuition sinks or raises them to the level of magicians, the poulp is almost endowed with the passions of man; it has its hatreds. In fact, in the Absolute, to be hideous is to hate.
Hideousness struggles under the natural law of elimination, which necessarily renders it hostile.
When swimming, the devil-fish rests, so to speak, in its sheath. It swims with all its parts drawn close. It may be likened to a sleeve sewn up with a closed fist within. The protuberance, which is the head, pushes the water aside and advances with a vague undulatory movement. Its two eyes, though large are indistinct, being of the colour of the water.
When in ambush, or seeking its prey, it retires into itself, grows smaller and condeness itself. It is then scarcely distinguishable in the submarine twilight.
At such times it looks like a mere ripple in the water. It resembles anything except a living creature.
The devil-fish is crafty. When its victim is unsuspicious, it opens suddenly.
A glutinous mass, endowed with a malignant will, what can be more horrible?
It is in the most beautiful azure depths of the limpid water that this hideous, voracious polyp delights. It always conceals itself-a fact which increases its terrible associations. When they are seen, it is almost after they have been captured.
At night, however, and particularly in the hot season, it becomes phosphorescent. These horrible creatures have their passions, their submarine nuptials. Then it adorns itself, burns and illumines; and from the height of some rock it may be seen in the deep obscurity of the waves below, expanding with a pale irradiation-a spectral sun.
The devil-fish not only swims, it walks. It is partly fish, partly reptile. It crawls upon the bed of the sea. At these times it makes use of its eight fuelers, and creeps along in the fashion of a species of swift-moving caterpillar.
It has no blood, no bones, no flesh. It is soft and flabby-a skin with nothing inside. Its eight tentacles may be turned inside out like the fingers of a glove.
It has a single orifice in the centre of its radii, which appears at first to be neither the vent nor the mouth. It is, in fact, both one and the other. The orifice performs double function. The entire creature is cold.
The jelly-fish of the Mediterranean is repulsive. Contact with that animated gelatinous substance which envelops the bather, in which the hands sink, and the nail scratch ineffectively; which can be torn without killing it and which can be plucked off without entirely removing it-that fluid and yet tenacious creature which slips throng the fingers-is disgusting; but no horror can equal the sudden apparition of the devil-fish, that Medusa with its eight serpents.
No grasp is like the sudden strain of the cephaloptera. It is with the sucking apparatus that it attacks. The victim is oppressed by a vacuum drawing at numberless points; it is not a clawing or a biting, but an indescribable scarification. A tearing of the flesh is terrible, but less terrible than a sucking of the blood. Claws are harmless compared with the horrible action of these natural air-cups. The talons of the wild beast enter into your flesh; but with the cephaloptera it is you who enter into the creature. The muscles swell, the fibres of the body are contorted, the skin cracks under the loathsome oppression, the blood spurts out and mingles horribly with the lymph of the monster, which clings to its victim by innumerable hideous mouths. The hydra incorporates itself with the man; the man becomes one with the hydra. The spectre lies upon you: the tiger can only devour you; the devil-fish, horrible, sucks your life-blood away. He draws you to him, and into himself; while bound down, glued to the ground, powerless, you feel yourself gradually emptied into this horrible pouch, which is the monster itself.
These strange animals, Science, in accordance with its habit of excessive caution even in the face of facts, at first rejects as fabulous; then she decides to observe them; then she dissects, classifies, catalogues, and labels; then procures specimens, and exhibits them in glass cases in museums. They enter then into her nomenclature; are designated molluscs, invertebrate, radiate: she determines their position in the animal world a little above the calamaries, a little below the cuttle-fish; she finds for these hydras of the sea an analogous creature in fresh water called the argyronecte: she divides them into great, medium, and small kinds; she admits more readily the existence of the small than of the large species, which is, however, the tendency of science in all countries, for she is by nature more microscopic than telescopic. She regards them from the point view of their construction, and calls them Cephaloptera; counts their antennae, and calls them Octopedes. This fine, she leaves them. Where science drops them philosophy takes them up.
Philosophy in her turn studies these creatures. She goes both less far and further. She does not dissect, but meditate. Where the scalpel has laboured she plunges the hypothesis. She seeks the final cause. Eternal perplexity of the thinker. These creatures disturb his ideas of the Creator. They are hideous surprises. They are the death's-head at the feast of contemplation. The philosopher determines their characteristics in dread. They are the concrete forms of evil. What attitude can he take towards this treason of creation against herself? To whom can he look for the solution of these riddles? The Possible is a terrible matrix. Monsters are mysteries in their concrete form. Portions of shade issue from the mass, and something within detaches itself, rolls, floats, condenses, borrows elements from the ambient darkness, becomes subject to unknown polarisations, assumes a kind of life, furnishes itself with some unimagined form from the obscurity, and with some terrible spirit from the miasma, and wanders ghost-like among living things. It is as if night itself assumed the forms of animals. But for what good? with what object? Thus we come again to the eternal questioning
These animals are indeed phantoms as much as monsters. They are proved and yet improbable. Their fate is to exist in spite of a priori reasonings. They are the amphibia of the shore which separates life from death. Their unreality makes their existence puzzling. They touch the frontier of man's domain and people the region of chimeras. We deny the possibility of the vampire, and the cephaloptera appears. Their swarming is a certainty which disconcerts our confidence. Optimism, which is nevertheless in the right, becomes silenced in their presence. They form the visible extremity of the dark circles. They mark the transition of our reality into another. They seem to belong to that commencement of terrible life which the dreamer sees confusedly through the loophole of the night.
That multiplication of monsters, first in the Invisible, then in the Possible, has been suspected, perhaps perceived, by magi and philosophers in their austere ecstasies and profound contemplations. Hence the conjecture of a material hell. The demon is simply the invisible tiger. The wild beast which devours souls has been presented to the eyes of human beings by St. John, and by Dante in his vision of Hell.
If, in truth, the invisible circles of creation continue indefinitely, if after one there is yet another, and so forth in illimitable progression; if that chain, which for our part we are resolved to doubt, really exist, the cephaloptera at one extremity proves Satan at the other. It is certain that the wrongdoer at one end proves the existence of wrong at the other.
Every malignant creature, like every perverted intelligence, is a sphinx. A terrible sphinx propounding a terrible riddle-the riddle of the existence of Evil.
It is this perfection of evil which has sometimes sufficed to incline powerful intellects to a faith in the duality of the Deity, towards that terrible bifrons of the Manichaeans.
A piece of silk stolen during the last war from the palace of the Emperor of China represents a shark eating a crocodile, who is eating a serpent, who is devouring an eagle, who is preying on a swallow, who in his turn is eating a caterpillar.
All nature which is under our observation is thus alternately devouring and devoured. The prey prey on each other.
Learned men, however, who are also philosophers, and therefore optimists in their view of creation, find, or believe they find, an explanation. Among others, Bonnet of Geneva, that mysterious exact thinker, who was opposed to Buffon, as in later times Geoffroy St. Hilaire has been to Cuvier, was struck with the idea of the final object. His notions may be summed up thus: universal death necessitates universal sepulture; the devourers are the sextons of the system of nature. All created things enter into and form the elements of other. To decay is to nourish. Such is the terrible law from which not even man himself escapes.
In our world of twilight this fatal order of things produces monsters. You ask for what purpose. We find the solution here.
But is this the solution? Is this the answer to questionings? And if so, why not some different ordeal of things? Thus the question returns.
Let us live: be it so.
But let us endeavour that death shall be progress. Let us aspire to an existence in which these mysteries shall be made clear. Let us follow that conscience which leads us thither.
For let us never forget that the highest is only attained through the high.