Toilers of the Sea by Victor Hugo
Book IV. Pitfalls in the Way.
IV. Nothing is Hidden, Nothing Lost.
IT was time that he killed the devil-fish. He was almost suffocated. His right arm and his chest were purple. Numberless little swellings were distinguishable upon them; the blood flowed from them here and there. The remedy for these wounds is sea-water. Gilliatt plunged into it, rubbing himself at the same time with the palms of his hands. The swellings disappeared under the friction.
By stepping farther into the waters he had, without perceiving it, approached to the species of recess already observed by him near the crevice where he had been attacked by the devil-fish.
This recess stretched obliquely under the great walls of the cavern, and was dry. The large pebbles which had become heaped up there had raised the bottom above the level of ordinary tides. The entrance was a rather large elliptical arch; a man could enter by stooping. The green light of the submarine grotto penetrated into it and lighted it feebly.
It happened that, while hastily rubbing his skin, Gilliatt raised his eyes mechanically.
He was able to see far into the cavern.
He fancied that he perceived, in the farthest depth of the dusky recess, something smiling.
Gilliatt had never heard the word "hallucination," but he was familiar with the idea. Those mysterious encounters with the Invisible, which, for the sake of avoiding the difficulty of explaining them, we call hallucinations, are in nature. Illusions or realities, visions are a fact. He who has the gift will see them. Gilliatt, as we have said, was a dreamer. He had at times the faculty of a seer. It was not in vain that he had spent his days in musing among solitary places.
He imagined himself the dupe of one of those mirages which he had more than once beheld when in his dreamy moods.
The opening was somewhat in the shape of a chalk-burner's oven. It was a low niche with projections like basket-handles. Its abrupt groins contracted gradually as far as the extremity of the crypt, where the heaps of round stones and the rocky roof joined.
Gilliatt entered, and lowering his head, advanced towards the object in the distance.
There was indeed something smiling.
It was a death's head; but it was not only the head. There was the entire skeleton. A complete human skeleton was lying in the cavern.
In such a position a bold man will continue his researches.
Gilliatt cast his eyes around. He was surrounded by a multitude of crabs. The multitude did not stir. They were but empty shells.
These groups were scattered here and there among the masses of pebbles in irregular constellations.
Gilliatt, having his eyes fixed elsewhere, had walked among them without perceiving them.
At this extremity of the crypt, where he had now penetrated, there was a still greater heap of remains. It was a confused mass of legs, antennae, and mandibles. Claws stood wide open; bony shells lay still under their bristling prickles; some reversed showed their livid hollows. The heap was like a melee of besiegers who had fallen, and lay massed together.
The skeleton was partly buried in this heap.
Under this confused mass of scales and tentacles the eye perceived the cranium with its furrows, the vertebrae, the thigh bones, the tibias and the long-jointed finger-bones with their nails. The frame of the ribs was filled with crabs. Some heart had once beat there. The green mould of the sea had settled round the sockets of the eyes. Limpets had left their slime upon the bony nostrils. For the rest, there were not in this cave within the rocks either seagulls, or weeds, or a breath of air. All was still. The teeth grinned.
The sombre side of laughter is that strange mockery of its expression which is peculiar to a human skull.
This marvellous palace of the deep, inlaid and incrusted with all the gems of the sea, had at length revealed and told its secret. It was a savage haunt; the devil-fish inhabited it; it was also a tomb, in which the body of a man reposed.
The skeleton and the creatures around it oscillated vaguely in the reflections of the subterranean water-which trembled upon the roof and wall. The horrible multitude of crabs looked as if finishing their repast. These crustacea seemed to be devouring the carcass. Nothing could be more strange than the aspect of the dead vermin upon their dead prey.
Gilliatt had beneath his eyes the storehouse of the of the devil-fish.
It was a dismal sight. The crabs had devoured the man; the devil-fish had devoured the crabs.
There were no remains of clothing anywhere visible. The man must have been seized naked.
Gilliatt, attentively examining, began to remove the shells from the skeleton. What had this man been? The body was admirably dissected; it looked as if prepared for the study of its anatomy; all the flesh was stripped; not a muscle remained; not a bone was missing. If Gilliatt had been learned in science he might have demonstrated the fact. The periostea, denuded of their covering, were white and smooth, as if they had been polished. But for some green mould of sea-mosses here and there they would have been like ivory. The cartilaginous divisions were delicately inlaid and arranged. The tomb sometimes produces this dismal mosaic work.
The body was, as it were, interred under the heap of dead crabs. Gilliatt disinterred it.
Suddenly he stooped, and examined more closely.
He had perceived around the vertebral column a sort of belt.
It was a leathern girdle, which had evidently been worn buckled upon the waist of the man when alive.
The leather was moist; the buckle rusty.
Gilliatt pulled the girdle; the vertebrae of the skeleton resisted, and he was compelled to break through them in order to remove it. A crust of small shells had begun to form upon it.
He felt it, and found a hard substance within, apparently of square form. It was useless to endeavour to unfasten the buckle, so he cut the leather with his knife.
The girdle contained a little iron box and some pieces of gold. Gilliatt counted twenty guineas.
The iron box was an old sailor's tobacco-box, opening and shutting with a spring. It was very tight and rusty. The spring, being completely oxidised, would not work.
Once more the knife served Gilliatt in a difficulty. A pressure with the point of the blade caused the lid to fly up.
The box was open.
There was nothing inside but pieces of paper.
A little roll of very thin sheets, folded in four, was fitted in the bottom of the box. They were damp, but not injured. The box, hermetically sealed, had preserved them. Gilliatt unfolded them.
They were three bank notes of one thousand pounds sterling each; making together seventy-five thousand francs.
Gilliatt folded them again, replaced them in the box, taking advantage of the space which remained to add the twenty guineas, and then reclosed the box as well as he could.
Next he examined the girdle.
The leather, which had originally been polished outside, was rough within. Upon this tawny ground some letters had been traced in black thick ink. Gilliatt deciphered them, and read the words, "Sieur Clubin."