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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Combat with the Octopus
By Victor Hugo (1802–1885)
 
From ‘The Toilers of the Sea’: Translation of Isabel Florence Hapgood

JUST as Gilliatt was making up his mind to resign himself to sea-urchins and sea-chestnuts, a splash was made at his feet. A huge crab, frightened by his approach, had just dropped into the water. The crab did not sink so deeply that Gilliatt lost sight of it.  1
  Gilliatt set out on a run after the crab along the base of the reef. The crab sought to escape.  2
  Suddenly, he was no longer in sight.  3
  The crab had just hidden in some crevice under the rock.  4
  Gilliatt clung to the projections of the rock, and thrust forward his head to get a look under the overhanging cliff.  5
  There was in fact a cavity there. The crab must have taken refuge in it.  6
  It was something more than a crevice. It was a sort of porch.  7
  The sea entered beneath this porch, but was not deep. The bottom was visible, covered with stones. These stones were smooth and clothed with algæ, which indicated that they were never dry. They resembled the tops of children’s heads covered with green hair.  8
  Gilliatt took his knife in his teeth, climbed down with his hands and feet from the top of the cliff, and leaped into the water. It reached almost to his shoulders.  9
  He passed under the porch. He entered a much worn corridor in the form of a rude pointed arch overhead. The walls were smooth and polished. He no longer saw the crab. He kept his foothold, and advanced through the diminishing light. He began to be unable to distinguish objects.  10
  After about fifteen paces, the vault above him came to an end. He was out of the corridor. He had here more space, and consequently more light; and besides, the pupils of his eyes were now dilated: he saw with tolerable clearness. He had a surprise.  11
  He was just re-entering that strange cave which he had visited a month previously.  12
  Only he had returned to it by way of the sea.  13
  That arch which he had then seen submerged was the one through which he had just passed. It was accessible at certain low tides.  14
  His eyes became accustomed to the place. He saw better and better. He was astounded. He had found again that extraordinary palace of shadows, that vault, those pillars, those purple and blood-like stains, that jewel-like vegetation, and at the end that crypt, almost a sanctuary, and that stone which was almost an altar.  15
  He had not taken much notice of these details; but he carried the general effect in his mind, and he beheld it again.  16
  Opposite him, at a certain height in the cliff, he saw the crevice through which he had made his entrance on the first occasion, and which, from the point where he now stood, seemed inaccessible.  17
  He beheld again, near the pointed arch, those low and obscure grottoes, a sort of caverns within the cavern, which he had already observed from a distance. Now he was close to them. The one nearest to him was dry and easily accessible.  18
  Still nearer than that opening he noticed a horizontal fissure in the granite above the level of the water. The crab was probably there. He thrust in his hand as far as he could and began to grope in this hole of shadows.  19
  All at once he felt himself seized by the arm.  20
  What he felt at that moment was indescribable horror.  21
  Something thin, rough, flat, slimy, adhesive, and living, had just wound itself round his bare arm in the dark. It crept up towards his breast. It was like the pressure of a leather thong and the thrust of a gimlet. In less than a second an indescribable spiral form had passed around his wrist and his elbow, and reached to his shoulder. The point burrowed under his armpit.  22
  Gilliatt threw himself backwards, but could hardly move. He was as though nailed to the spot; with his left hand, which remained free, he took his knife, which he held between his teeth, and holding the knife with his hand he braced himself against the rock, in a desperate effort to withdraw his arm. He only succeeded in disturbing the ligature a little, which resumed its pressure. It was as supple as leather, as solid as steel, as cold as night.  23
  A second thong, narrow and pointed, issued from the crevice of the rock. It was like a tongue from the jaws of a monster. It licked Gilliatt’s naked form in a terrible fashion, and suddenly stretching out, immensely long and thin, it applied itself to his skin and surrounded his whole body. At the same time, unheard-of suffering, which was comparable to nothing he had previously known, swelled Gilliatt’s contracted muscles. He felt in his skin round and horrible perforations; it seemed to him that innumerable lips were fastened to his flesh and were seeking to drink his blood.  24
  A third thong undulated outside the rock, felt of Gilliatt, and lashed his sides like a cord. It fixed itself there.  25
  Anguish is mute when at its highest point. Gilliatt did not utter a cry. There was light enough for him to see the repulsive forms adhering to him.  26
  A fourth ligature, this one as swift as a dart, leaped towards his belly and rolled itself around there.  27
  Impossible either to tear or to cut away these shiny thongs which adhered closely to Gilliatt’s body, and by a number of points. Each one of those points was the seat of frightful and peculiar pain. It was what would be experienced if one were being swallowed simultaneously by a throng of mouths which were too small.  28
  A fifth prolongation leaped from the hole. It superimposed itself upon the others, and folded over Gilliatt’s chest. Compression was added to horror; Gilliatt could hardly breathe.  29
  These thongs, pointed at their extremity, spread out gradually like the blades of swords towards the hilt. All five evidently belonged to the same centre. They crept and crawled over Gilliatt. He felt these strange points of pressure, which seemed to him to be mouths, changing their places.  30
  Suddenly a large, round, flat, slimy mass emerged from the lower part of the crevice.  31
  It was the centre; the five thongs were attached to it like spokes to a hub; on the opposite side of this foul disk could be distinguished the beginnings of three other tentacles, which remained under the slope of the rock. In the middle of this sliminess there were two eyes gazing.  32
  The eyes were fixed on Gilliatt.  33
  Gilliatt recognized the octopus (devil-fish).  34
 
II
TO believe in the octopus, one must have seen it.
  35
  Compared with it, the hydras of old are laughable.  36
  At certain moments one is tempted to think that the intangible forms which float through our vision encounter in the realm of the possible, certain magnetic centres to which their lineaments cling, and that from these obscure fixations of the living dream, beings spring forth. The unknown has the marvelous at its disposal, and it makes use of it to compose the monster. Orpheus, Homer, and Hesiod were only able to make the Chimæra: God made the octopus.  37
  When God wills it, he excels in the execrable….  38
  All ideals being admitted, if terror be an object, the octopus is a masterpiece.  39
  The whale has enormous size, the octopus is small; the hippopotamus has a cuirass, the octopus is naked; the jararoca hisses, the octopus is dumb; the rhinoceros has a horn, the octopus has no horn; the scorpion has a sting, the octopus has no sting; the buthus has claws, the octopus has no claws; the ape has a prehensile tail, the octopus has no tail; the shark has sharp fins, the octopus has no fins; the vespertilio vampire has wings armed with barbs, the octopus has no barbs; the hedgehog has quills, the octopus has no quills; the sword-fish has a sword, the octopus has no sword; the torpedo-fish has an electric shock, the octopus has none; the toad has a virus, the octopus has no virus; the viper has a venom, the octopus has no venom; the lion has claws, the octopus has no claws; the hawk has a beak, the octopus has no beak; the crocodile has jaws, the octopus has no teeth.  40
  The octopus has no muscular organization, no menacing cry, no breastplate, no horn, no dart, no pincers, no prehensile or bruising tail, no cutting pectoral fins, no barbed wings, no quills, no sword, no electric discharge, no virus, no venom, no claws, no beak, no teeth. Of all creatures, the octopus is the most formidably armed.  41
  What then is the octopus? It is the cupping-glass.  42
  In open sea reefs, where the water displays and hides all its splendors, in the hollows of unvisited rocks, in the unknown caves where vegetations, crustaceans, and shell-fish abound, beneath the deep portals of the ocean,—the swimmer who hazards himself there, led on by the beauty of the place, runs the risk of an encounter. If you have this encounter, be not curious but fly. One enters there dazzled, one emerges from thence terrified.  43
  This is the nature of the encounter always possible among rocks in the open sea.  44
  A grayish form undulates in the water: it is as thick as a man’s arm, and about half an ell long; it is a rag; its form resembles a closed umbrella without a handle. This rag gradually advances towards you, suddenly it opens: eight radii spread out abruptly around a face which has two eyes; these radii are alive; there is something of the flame in their undulation; it is a sort of wheel; unfolded, it is four or five feet in diameter. Frightful expansion. This flings itself upon you.  45
  The hydra harpoons its victim.  46
  This creature applies itself to its prey; covers it, and knots its long bands about it. Underneath, it is yellowish; on top, earth-colored: nothing can represent this inexplicable hue of dust; one would pronounce it a creature made of ashes, living in the water. In form it is spider-like, and like a chameleon in its coloring. When irritated it becomes violet in hue. Its most terrible quality is its softness.  47
  Its folds strangle; its contact paralyzes.  48
  It has an aspect of scurvy and gangrene. It is disease embodied in monstrosity.  49
  It is not to be torn away. It adheres closely to its prey. How? By a vacuum. Its eight antennæ, large at the root, gradually taper off and end in needles. Underneath each one of them are arranged two rows of decreasing pustules, the largest near the head, the smallest ones at the tip. Each row consists of twenty-five; there are fifty pustules to each antenna, and the whole creature has four hundred of them. These pustules are cupping-glasses.  50
  These cupping-glasses are cylindrical, horny, livid cartilages. On the large species they gradually diminish from the diameter of a five-franc piece to the size of a lentil. These fragments of tubes are thrust out from the animal and retire into it. They can be inserted into the prey for more than an inch.  51
  This sucking apparatus has all the delicacy of a key-board. It rises, then retreats. It obeys the slightest wish of the animal. The most exquisite sensibilities cannot equal the contractibility of these suckers, always proportioned to the internal movements of the creature and to the external circumstances. This dragon is like a sensitive-plant.  52
  This is the monster which mariners call the poulp, which science calls the cephalopod, and which legend calls the kraken. English sailors call it the “devil-fish.” They also call it the “blood-sucker.” In the Channel Islands it is called the pieuvre.  53
  It is very rare in Guernsey, very small in Jersey, very large and quite frequent in Sark.  54
  A print from Sonnini’s edition of Buffon represents an octopus crushing a frigate. Denis Montfort thinks that the octopus of the high latitudes is really strong enough to sink a ship. Bory Saint Vincent denies this, but admits that in our latitudes it does attack man. Go to Sark and they will show you, near Brecq-Hou, the hollow in the rock where, a few years ago, an octopus seized and drowned a lobster-fisher.  55
  Péron and Lamarck are mistaken when they doubt whether the octopus can swim, since it has no fins.  56
  He who writes these lines has seen with his own eyes at Sark, in the cave called the Shops, an octopus swimming and chasing a bather. When killed and measured it was found to be four English feet in spread, and four hundred suckers could be counted. The dying monster thrust them out convulsively.  57
  According to Denis Montfort, one of those observers whose strong gift of intuition causes them to descend or to ascend even to magianism, the octopus has almost the passions of a man; the octopus hates. In fact, in the absolute, to be hideous is to hate.  58
  The misshapen struggles under a necessity of elimination, and this consequently renders it hostile.  59
 
  THE OCTOPUS when swimming remains, so to speak, in its sheath. It swims with all its folds held close. Let the reader picture to himself a sewed-up sleeve with a closed fist inside of it. This fist, which is the head, pushes through the water, and advances with a vague, undulating movement. Its two eyes, though large, are not very distinct, being the color of the water.  60
  The octopus on the chase or lying in wait, hides; it contracts, it condenses itself; it reduces itself to the simplest possible expression. It confounds itself with the shadow. It looks like a ripple of the waves. It resembles everything except something living.  61
  The octopus is a hypocrite. When one pays no heed to it, suddenly it opens.  62
  A glutinous mass possessed of a will—what more frightful? Glue filled with hatred.  63
  It is in the most beautiful azure of the limpid water that this hideous, voracious star of the sea arises.  64
  It gives no warning of its approach, which renders it more terrible. Almost always, when one sees it, one is already caught.  65
  At night, however, and in breeding season, it is phosphorescent. This terror has its passions. It awaits the nuptial hour. It adorns itself, it lights up, it illuminates itself; and from the summit of a rock one can see it beneath, in the shadowy depths, spread out in a pallid irradiation,—a spectre sun.  66
  It has no bones, it has no blood, it has no flesh. It is flabby. There is nothing in it. It is a skin. One can turn its eight tentacles wrong side out, like the fingers of a glove.  67
  It has a single orifice in the centre of its radiation. Is this one hole the vent? Is it the mouth? It is both.  68
  The same aperture fulfills both functions. The entrance is the exit.  69
  The whole creature is cold.  70
  The carnarius of the Mediterranean is repulsive. An odious contact has this animated gelatine, which envelops the swimmer, into which the hands sink, where the nails scratch, which one rends without killing and tears off without pulling away, a sort of flowing and tenacious being which slips between one’s fingers; but no horror equals the sudden appearance of the octopus,—Medusa served by eight serpents.  71
  No grasp equals the embrace of the cephalopod.  72
  It is the pneumatic machine attacking you. You have to deal with a vacuum furnished with paws. Neither scratches nor bites; an indescribable scarification. A bite is formidable, but less so than a suction. A claw is nothing beside the cupping-glass. The claw means the beast entering into your flesh; the cupping-glass means yourself entering into the beast.  73
  Your muscles swell, your fibres writhe, your skin cracks under the foul weight, your blood spurts forth and mingles frightfully with the lymph of the mollusk. The creature superimposes itself upon you by a thousand mouths; the hydra incorporates itself with the man; the man amalgamates himself with the hydra. You form but one. This dream is upon you. The tiger can only devour you; the octopus, oh horror! breathes you in. It draws you to it, and into it; and bound, ensnared, powerless, you feel yourself slowly emptied into that frightful pond, which is the monster itself.  74
  Beyond the terrible, being devoured alive, is the inexpressible, being drunk alive….  75
 
  SUCH was the creature in whose power Gilliatt had been for several moments.  76
  This monster was the inhabitant of that grotto. It was the frightful genius of the place. A sort of sombre demon of the water.  77
  All these magnificences had horror for their centre.  78
  A month previously, on the day when for the first time Gilliatt had made his way into the grotto, the dark outline, of which he had caught a glimpse in the ripples of the water, was this octopus.  79
  This was its home.  80
  When Gilliatt, entering that cave for the second time in pursuit of the crab, had perceived the crevices in which he thought the crab had taken refuge, the octopus was lying in wait in that hole.  81
  Can the reader picture that lying in wait?  82
  Not a bird would dare to brood, not an egg would dare to hatch, not a flower would dare to open, not a breast would dare to give suck, not a heart would dare to love, not a spirit would dare to take flight, if one meditated on the sinister shapes patiently lying in ambush in the abyss.  83
  Gilliatt had thrust his arm into the hole; the octopus had seized it.  84
  It held it.  85
  He was the fly for this spider.  86
  Gilliatt stood in water to his waist, his feet clinging to the slippery roundness of the stones, his right arm grasped and subdued by the flat coils of the octopus’s thongs, and his body almost hidden by the folds and crossings of that horrible bandage. Of the eight arms of the octopus, three adhered to the rock while five adhered to Gilliatt. In this manner, clamped on one side to the granite, on the other to the man, it chained Gilliatt to the rock. Gilliatt had two hundred and fifty suckers upon him. A combination of anguish and disgust. To be crushed in a gigantic fist, whose elastic fingers, nearly a metre in length, are inwardly full of living pustules which ransack your flesh.  87
  As we have said, one cannot tear one’s self away from the octopus. If one attempts it, one is but the more surely bound. It only clings the closer. Its efforts increase in proportion to yours. A greater struggle produces a greater constriction.  88
  Gilliatt had but one resource,—his knife.  89
  He had only his left hand free; but as the reader knows, he could make powerful use of it. It might have been said of him that he had two right hands.  90
  His open knife was in his hand.  91
  The tentacles of an octopus cannot be cut off; it is leathery and difficult to sever, it slips away from under the blade. Moreover, the superposition is such that a cut into these thongs would attack your own flesh.  92
  The octopus is formidable; nevertheless there is a way of getting away from it. The fishermen of Sark are acquainted with it; any one who has seen them executing abrupt movements at sea knows it. Porpoises also know it: they have a way of biting the cuttlefish which cuts off its head. Hence all the headless squids and cuttlefish which are met with on the open sea.  93
  The octopus is in fact vulnerable only in the head.  94
  Gilliatt was not ignorant of this fact.  95
  He had never seen an octopus of this size. He found himself seized at the outset by one of the larger species. Any other man would have been terrified.  96
  In the case of the octopus as in that of the bull, there is a certain moment at which to seize it: it is the instant when the bull lowers his neck, it is the instant when the octopus thrusts forward its head—a sudden movement. He who misses that juncture is lost.  97
  All that we have related lasted but a few minutes. But Gilliatt felt the suction of the two hundred and fifty cupping-glasses increasing.  98
  The octopus is cunning. It tries to stupefy its prey in the first place. It seizes, then waits as long as it can.  99
  Gilliatt held his knife. The suction increased.  100
  He gazed at the octopus, which stared at him.  101
  All at once the creature detached its sixth tentacle from the rock, and launching it at him, attempted to seize his left arm.  102
  At the same time it thrust its head forward swiftly. A second more and its mouth would have been applied to Gilliatt’s breast. Gilliatt, wounded in the flank and with both arms pinioned, would have been a dead man.  103
  But Gilliatt was on his guard. Being watched, he watched.  104
  He avoided the tentacle, and at the moment when the creature was about to bite his breast, his armed fist descended on the monster.  105
  Two convulsions in opposite directions ensued: that of Gilliatt and that of the octopus.  106
  It was like the conflict of two flashes of lightning.  107
  Gilliatt plunged the point of his knife into the flat, viscous mass, and with a twisting movement, similar to the flourish of a whip, describing a circle around the two eyes, he tore out the head as one wrenches out a tooth.  108
  It was finished.  109
  The whole creature dropped.  110
  It resembled a sheet detaching itself. The air-pump destroyed, the vacuum no longer existed. The four hundred suckers released their hold, simultaneously, of the rock and the man.  111
  It sank to the bottom.  112
  Gilliatt, panting with the combat, could perceive on the rocks at his feet two shapeless, gelatinous masses, the head on one side, the rest on the other. We say “the rest,” because one could not say the body.  113
  Gilliatt, however, fearing some convulsive return of agony, retreated beyond the reach of the tentacles.  114
  But the monster was really dead.  115
  Gilliatt closed his knife.  116
 
  IT was time that Gilliatt killed the octopus. He was almost strangled; his right arm and his body were violet in hue; more than two hundred swellings were outlined upon them; the blood spurted from some of them here and there. The remedy for these wounds is salt water: Gilliatt plunged into it. At the same time he rubbed himself with the palm of his hand. The swellings subsided under this friction.  117
 
 
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