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The devil-fish lassoes its victim.
It winds around the sufferer, covering and entangling him in its long folds. Underneath it is yellow; above, of a dull, earthy hue: nothing could render that inexplicable shade dust-colored; from its color, this dweller of the sea might have been made of ashes. 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 paralyzes.
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 antennæ, large at their roots, diminish gradually, and end in needle-like points. Underneath each of these feeders 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 These small tubes can be thrust out and withdrawn by the animal at will.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 key-board. 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 polyps; which science designates a cephalopod, and which ancient legends call krakens. It is the English sailors who call them devil-fish, and sometimes bloodsuckers. In the Channel Islands the 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 Sonnini's edition of Buffon represents a cephalopod crushing a frigate. Denis Montfort, in fact, considers the polyp, 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 wrong in their belief that the polyp, having no fins, cannot swim. The writer of these lines has seen with his own eyes, at Sark, in the cavern called the Boutiques, a devil-fish 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 polyp is almost endowed with the passions of man: it has its hatreds. In fact, in the absolute, to be hideous is to hate.
Hideousness writhes under the power of 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 it 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 color of the water.
When in ambush, or seeking its prey, it retires into itself, grows smaller and condenses 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 it is seen, it is almost invariably after it has been captured.
At night, however, and particularly in the hot season, it becomes phosphorescent. This horrible creature has its passions, its 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 feelers, and creeps along like a 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 anus nor the mouth. It is, in fact, both one and the other. The orifice performs a 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 nails 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 through 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 cephalopod. 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 aircups. The talons of the wild beast enter into your flesh; but with the cephalopod 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 her 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 mollusks, invertebrata, radiata; she determines their position in the animal world, a little above the calamaries, a little below the sepiadæ; 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 of view of their construction, and calls them cephalopods, counts their antennæ, and calls them octopedes; this done, she leaves them. Where Science drops them Philosophy takes them up.
Philosophy in her turn studies these creatures; she goes both less far and farther; she does not dissect, but she meditates; where the scalpel has labored 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 blasphemy 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,