Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
Book IV. Pitfalls in the Way.
III. Another Kind of Sea-Combat.
SUCH was the creature in whose power Gilliatt had fallen for some minutes.
The monster was the inhabitant of the grotto, the terrible genii of the place-a kind of sombre demon of the water.
All the splendours of the cavern existed for it alone.
On the day of the previous month when Gilliatt had first penetrated into the grotto, the dark outline, vaguely perceived by him in the ripples of the secret waters, was this monster. It was here in its home.
When entering for the second time into the cavern in pursuit of the crab he had observed the crevice in which he supposed that the crab had taken refuge, the pieuvre was there lying in wait for prey.
Is it possible to imagine that secret ambush?
No bird would brood, no egg would burst to life, no flower would dare to open, no breast to give milk, no heart to love, no spirit to soar, under the influence of that apparition of evil watching with sinister patience in the dusk.
Gilliatt had thrust his arm deep into the opening; the monster had snapped at it. It held him fast, as the spider holds the fly.
He was in the water up to his belt; his naked feet clutching the slippery roundness of the huge stones at the bottom; his right arm bound and rendered powerless by the flat coils of the long tentacles of the creature, and his body almost hidden under the folds and cross folds of this horrible bandage.
Of the eight arms of the devil-fish three adhered to the rock, while five encircled Gilliatt. In this way, clinging to the granite on the one hand, and with the other to its human prey, it enchained him to the rock. Two hundred and fifty suckers were upon him, tormenting him with agony and loathing. He was grasped by gigantic hands, the fingers of which were each nearly a yard long, and furnished inside with living blisters eating into the flesh.
As we have said, it is impossible to tear oneself from the folds of the devil-fish. The attempt ends only in a firmer grasp. The monster clings with more determined force. Its effort increases with that of its victim; every struggle produces a tightening of its ligatures.
Gilliatt had but one resource, his knife.
His left hand only was free; but the reader knows with what power he could use it. It might have been said that he had two right hands.
His open knife was in his hand.
The antenna of the devil-fish cannot be cut; it is a leathery substance impossible to divide with the knife-it slips under the edge; its position in attack also is such that to cut it would be to wound the victim's own flesh.
The creature is formidable, but there is a way of resisting it. The fishermen of Sark know this, as does any one who has seen them execute certain abrupt movements in the sea. The porpoises know it also; they have a way of biting the cuttle-fish which decapitates it. Hence the frequent sight on the sea of pen-fish, poulps, and cuttle-fish without heads.
The cephaloptera, in fact, is only vulnerable through the head.
Gilliatt was not ignorant of this fact.
He had never seen a devil-fish of this size. His first encounter was with one of the larger species. Another would have been powerless with terror.
With the devil-fish as with, a furious bull there is a certain moment in the conflict which must be seized. It is the instant when the bull lowers the neck; it is the instant when the devil-fish advances its head. The movement is rapid. He who loses that moment is destroyed.
The things we have described occupied only a few moments. Gilliatt, however, felt the increasing power of its innumerable suckers.
The monster is cunning; it tries first to stupefy its prey. It seizes and then pauses awhile.
Gilliatt grasped his knife; the sucking increased.
He looked at the monster, which seemed to look at him.
Suddenly it loosened from the rock its sixth antenna, and darting it at him, seized him by the left arm.
At the same moment it advanced its head with a violent movement. In one second more its mouth would have fastened on his breast. Bleeding in the sides, and with his two arms entangled, he would have been a dead man.
But Gilliatt was watchful. He avoided the antenna, and at the moment when the monster darted forward to fasten on his breast, he struck it with the knife clenched in his left hand. There were two convulsions in opposite directions-that of the devil-fish and that of its prey. The movement was rapid as a double flash of lightnings.
He had plunged the blade of his knife into the flat slimy substance, and by a rapid movement, like the flourish of a whip in the air, describing a circle round the two eyes, he wrenched the head off as a man would draw a tooth.
The struggle was ended. The folds relaxed. The monster dropped away, like the slow detaching of bands. The four hundred suckers, deprived of their sustaining power, dropped at once from the man and the rock. The mass sank to the bottom of the water.
Breathless with the struggle, Gilliatt could perceive upon the stones at his feet two shapeless, slimy heaps-the head on one side, the remainder of the monster on the other.
Fearing, nevertheless, some convulsive return of his agony, he recoiled to avoid the reach of the dreaded tentacles.
But the monster was quite dead.
Gilliatt closed his knife.