18: The Poulps
For some days the Nautilus kept veering away from the American coast. It obviously didn’t want to frequent the waves of the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean Sea. Yet there was no shortage of water under its keel, since the average depth of these seas is 1,800 meters; but these waterways, strewn with islands and plowed by steamers, probably didn’t agree with Captain Nemo.
On April 16 we raised Martinique and Guadalupe from a distance of about thirty miles. For one instant I could see their lofty peaks.
The Canadian was quite disheartened, having counted on putting his plans into execution in the gulf, either by reaching shore or by pulling alongside one of the many boats plying a coastal trade from one island to another. An escape attempt would have been quite feasible, assuming Ned Land managed to seize the skiff without the captain’s knowledge. But in midocean it was unthinkable.
The Canadian, Conseil, and I had a pretty long conversation on this subject. For six months we had been prisoners aboard the Nautilus. We had fared 17,000 leagues, and as Ned Land put it, there was no end in sight. So he made me a proposition I hadn’t anticipated. We were to ask Captain Nemo this question straight out: did the captain mean to keep us on board his vessel permanently?
This measure was distasteful to me. To my mind it would lead nowhere. We could hope for nothing from the Nautilus’s commander but could depend only on ourselves. Besides, for some time now the man had been gloomier, more withdrawn, less sociable. He seemed to be avoiding me. I encountered him only at rare intervals. He used to take pleasure in explaining the underwater wonders to me; now he left me to my research and no longer entered the lounge.
What changes had come over him? From what cause? I had no reason to blame myself. Was our presence on board perhaps a burden to him? Even so, I cherished no hopes that the man would set us free.
So I begged Ned to let me think about it before taking action. If this measure proved fruitless, it could arouse the captain’s suspicions, make our circumstances even more arduous, and jeopardize the Canadian’s plans. I might add that I could hardly use our state of health as an argument. Except for that grueling ordeal under the Ice Bank at the South Pole, we had never felt better, neither Ned, Conseil, nor I. The nutritious food, life–giving air, regular routine, and uniform temperature kept illness at bay; and for a man who didn’t miss his past existence on land, for a Captain Nemo who was at home here, who went where he wished, who took paths mysterious to others if not himself in attaining his ends, I could understand such a life. But we ourselves hadn’t severed all ties with humanity. For my part, I didn’t want my new and unusual research to be buried with my bones. I had now earned the right to pen the definitive book on the sea, and sooner or later I wanted that book to see the light of day.
There once more, through the panels opening into these Caribbean waters ten meters below the surface of the waves, I found so many fascinating exhibits to describe in my daily notes! Among other zoophytes there were Portuguese men–of–war known by the name Physalia pelagica, like big, oblong bladders with a pearly sheen, spreading their membranes to the wind, letting their blue tentacles drift like silken threads; to the eye delightful jellyfish, to the touch actual nettles that ooze a corrosive liquid. Among the articulates there were annelid worms one and a half meters long, furnished with a pink proboscis, equipped with 1,700 organs of locomotion, snaking through the waters, and as they went, throwing off every gleam in the solar spectrum. From the fish branch there were manta rays, enormous cartilaginous fish ten feet long and weighing 600 pounds, their pectoral fin triangular, their midback slightly arched, their eyes attached to the edges of the face at the front of the head; they floated like wreckage from a ship, sometimes fastening onto our windows like opaque shutters. There were American triggerfish for which nature has ground only black and white pigments, feather–shaped gobies that were long and plump with yellow fins and jutting jaws, sixteen–decimeter mackerel with short, sharp teeth, covered with small scales, and related to the albacore species. Next came swarms of red mullet corseted in gold stripes from head to tail, their shining fins all aquiver, genuine masterpieces of jewelry, formerly sacred to the goddess Diana, much in demand by rich Romans, and about which the old saying goes: “He who catches them doesn’t eat them!” Finally, adorned with emerald ribbons and dressed in velvet and silk, golden angelfish passed before our eyes like courtiers in the paintings of Veronese; spurred gilthead stole by with their swift thoracic fins; thread herring fifteen inches long were wrapped in their phosphorescent glimmers; gray mullet thrashed the sea with their big fleshy tails; red salmon seemed to mow the waves with their slicing pectorals; and silver moonfish, worthy of their name, rose on the horizon of the waters like the whitish reflections of many moons.
How many other marvelous new specimens I still could have observed if, little by little, the Nautilus hadn’t settled to the lower strata! Its slanting fins drew it to depths of 2,000 and 3,500 meters. There animal life was represented by nothing more than sea lilies, starfish, delightful crinoids with bell–shaped heads like little chalices on straight stems, top–shell snails, blood–red tooth shells, and fissurella snails, a large species of coastal mollusk.
By April 20 we had risen to an average level of 1,500 meters. The nearest land was the island group of the Bahamas, scattered like a batch of cobblestones over the surface of the water. There high underwater cliffs reared up, straight walls made of craggy chunks arranged like big stone foundations, among which there gaped black caves so deep our electric rays couldn’t light them to the far ends.
These rocks were hung with huge weeds, immense sea tangle, gigantic fucus—a genuine trellis of water plants fit for a world of giants.
In discussing these colossal plants, Conseil, Ned, and I were naturally led into mentioning the sea’s gigantic animals. The former were obviously meant to feed the latter. However, through the windows of our almost motionless Nautilus, I could see nothing among these long filaments other than the chief articulates of the division Brachyura: long–legged spider crabs, violet crabs, and sponge crabs unique to the waters of the Caribbean.
It was about eleven o’clock when Ned Land drew my attention to a fearsome commotion out in this huge seaweed.
“Well,” I said, “these are real devilfish caverns, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of those monsters hereabouts.”
“What!” Conseil put in. “Squid, ordinary squid from the class Cephalopoda?”
“No,” I said, “devilfish of large dimensions. But friend Land is no doubt mistaken, because I don’t see a thing.”
“That’s regrettable,” Conseil answered. “I’d like to come face to face with one of those devilfish I’ve heard so much about, which can drag ships down into the depths. Those beasts go by the name of krake—”
“Fake is more like it,” the Canadian replied sarcastically.
“Krakens!” Conseil shot back, finishing his word without wincing at his companion’s witticism.
“Nobody will ever make me believe,” Ned Land said, “that such animals exist.”
“Why not?” Conseil replied. “We sincerely believed in Master’s narwhale.”
“We were wrong, Conseil.”
“No doubt, but there are others with no doubts who believe to this day!”
“Probably, Conseil. But as for me, I’m bound and determined not to accept the existence of any such monster till I’ve dissected it with my own two hands.”
“Yet,” Conseil asked me, “doesn’t Master believe in gigantic devilfish?”
“Yikes! Who in Hades ever believed in them?” the Canadian exclaimed.
“Many people, Ned my friend,” I said.
“No fishermen. Scientists maybe!”
“Pardon me, Ned. Fishermen and scientists!”
“Why, I to whom you speak,” Conseil said with the world’s straightest face, “I recall perfectly seeing a large boat dragged under the waves by the arms of a cephalopod.”
“You saw that?” the Canadian asked.
“With your own two eyes?”
“With my own two eyes.”
“Where, may I ask?”
“In Saint–Malo,” Conseil returned unflappably.
“In the harbor?” Ned Land said sarcastically.
“No, in a church,” Conseil replied.
“In a church!” the Canadian exclaimed.
“Yes, Ned my friend. It had a picture that portrayed the devilfish in question.”
“Oh good!” Ned Land exclaimed with a burst of laughter. “Mr. Conseil put one over on me!”
“Actually he’s right,” I said. “I’ve heard about that picture. But the subject it portrays is taken from a legend, and you know how to rate legends in matters of natural history! Besides, when it’s an issue of monsters, the human imagination always tends to run wild. People not only claimed these devilfish could drag ships under, but a certain Olaus Magnus tells of a cephalopod a mile long that looked more like an island than an animal. There’s also the story of how the Bishop of Trondheim set up an altar one day on an immense rock. After he finished saying mass, this rock started moving and went back into the sea. The rock was a devilfish.”
“And that’s everything we know?” the Canadian asked.
“No,” I replied, “another bishop, Pontoppidan of Bergen, also tells of a devilfish so large a whole cavalry regiment could maneuver on it.”
“They sure did go on, those oldtime bishops!” Ned Land said.
“Finally, the naturalists of antiquity mention some monsters with mouths as big as a gulf, which were too huge to get through the Strait of Gibraltar.”
“Good work, men!” the Canadian put in.
“But in all these stories, is there any truth?” Conseil asked.
“None at all, my friends, at least in those that go beyond the bounds of credibility and fly off into fable or legend. Yet for the imaginings of these storytellers there had to be, if not a cause, at least an excuse. It can’t be denied that some species of squid and other devilfish are quite large, though still smaller than cetaceans. Aristotle put the dimensions of one squid at five cubits, or 3.1 meters. Our fishermen frequently see specimens over 1.8 meters long. The museums in Trieste and Montpellier have preserved some devilfish carcasses measuring two meters. Besides, according to the calculations of naturalists, one of these animals only six feet long would have tentacles as long as twenty–seven. Which is enough to make a fearsome monster.”
“Does anybody fish for ’em nowadays?” the Canadian asked.
“If they don’t fish for them, sailors at least sight them. A friend of mine, Captain Paul Bos of Le Havre, has often sworn to me that he encountered one of these monsters of colossal size in the seas of the East Indies. But the most astonishing event, which proves that these gigantic animals undeniably exist, took place a few years ago in 1861.”
“What event was that?” Ned Land asked.
“Just this. In 1861, to the northeast of Tenerife and fairly near the latitude where we are right now, the crew of the gunboat Alecto spotted a monstrous squid swimming in their waters. Commander Bouguer approached the animal and attacked it with blows from harpoons and blasts from rifles, but without much success because bullets and harpoons crossed its soft flesh as if it were semiliquid jelly. After several fruitless attempts, the crew managed to slip a noose around the mollusk’s body. This noose slid as far as the caudal fins and came to a halt. Then they tried to haul the monster on board, but its weight was so considerable that when they tugged on the rope, the animal parted company with its tail; and deprived of this adornment, it disappeared beneath the waters.”
“Finally, an actual event,” Ned Land said.
“An indisputable event, my gallant Ned. Accordingly, people have proposed naming this devilfish Bouguer’s Squid.”
“And how long was it?” the Canadian asked.
“Didn’t it measure about six meters?” said Conseil, who was stationed at the window and examining anew the crevices in the cliff.
“Precisely,” I replied.
“Wasn’t its head,” Conseil went on, “crowned by eight tentacles that quivered in the water like a nest of snakes?”
“Weren’t its eyes prominently placed and considerably enlarged?”
“And wasn’t its mouth a real parrot’s beak but of fearsome size?”
“Well, with all due respect to Master,” Conseil replied serenely, “if this isn’t Bouguer’s Squid, it’s at least one of his close relatives!”
I stared at Conseil. Ned Land rushed to the window.
“What an awful animal!” he exclaimed.
I stared in my turn and couldn’t keep back a movement of revulsion. Before my eyes there quivered a horrible monster worthy of a place among the most farfetched teratological legends.
It was a squid of colossal dimensions, fully eight meters long. It was traveling backward with tremendous speed in the same direction as the Nautilus. It gazed with enormous, staring eyes that were tinted sea green. Its eight arms (or more accurately, feet) were rooted in its head, which has earned these animals the name cephalopod; its arms stretched a distance twice the length of its body and were writhing like the serpentine hair of the Furies. You could plainly see its 250 suckers, arranged over the inner sides of its tentacles and shaped like semispheric capsules. Sometimes these suckers fastened onto the lounge window by creating vacuums against it. The monster’s mouth—a beak made of horn and shaped like that of a parrot—opened and closed vertically. Its tongue, also of horn substance and armed with several rows of sharp teeth, would flicker out from between these genuine shears. What a freak of nature! A bird’s beak on a mollusk! Its body was spindle–shaped and swollen in the middle, a fleshy mass that must have weighed 20,000 to 25,000 kilograms. Its unstable color would change with tremendous speed as the animal grew irritated, passing successively from bluish gray to reddish brown.
What was irritating this mollusk? No doubt the presence of the Nautilus, even more fearsome than itself, and which it couldn’t grip with its mandibles or the suckers on its arms. And yet what monsters these devilfish are, what vitality our Creator has given them, what vigor in their movements, thanks to their owning a triple heart!
Sheer chance had placed us in the presence of this squid, and I didn’t want to lose this opportunity to meticulously study such a cephalopod specimen. I overcame the horror that its appearance inspired in me, picked up a pencil, and began to sketch it.
“Perhaps this is the same as the Alecto’s,” Conseil said.
“Can’t be,” the Canadian replied, “because this one’s complete while the other one lost its tail!”
“That doesn’t necessarily follow,” I said. “The arms and tails of these animals grow back through regeneration, and in seven years the tail on Bouguer’s Squid has surely had time to sprout again.”
“Anyhow,” Ned shot back, “if it isn’t this fellow, maybe it’s one of those!”
Indeed, other devilfish had appeared at the starboard window. I counted seven of them. They provided the Nautilus with an escort, and I could hear their beaks gnashing on the sheet–iron hull. We couldn’t have asked for a more devoted following.
I continued sketching. These monsters kept pace in our waters with such precision, they seemed to be standing still, and I could have traced their outlines in miniature on the window. But we were moving at a moderate speed.
All at once the Nautilus stopped. A jolt made it tremble through its entire framework.
“Did we strike bottom?” I asked.
“In any event we’re already clear,” the Canadian replied, “because we’re afloat.”
The Nautilus was certainly afloat, but it was no longer in motion. The blades of its propeller weren’t churning the waves. A minute passed. Followed by his chief officer, Captain Nemo entered the lounge.
I hadn’t seen him for a good while. He looked gloomy to me. Without speaking to us, without even seeing us perhaps, he went to the panel, stared at the devilfish, and said a few words to his chief officer.
The latter went out. Soon the panels closed. The ceiling lit up.
I went over to the captain.
“An unusual assortment of devilfish,” I told him, as carefree as a collector in front of an aquarium.
“Correct, Mr. Naturalist,” he answered me, “and we’re going to fight them at close quarters.”
I gaped at the captain. I thought my hearing had gone bad.
“At close quarters?” I repeated.
“Yes, sir. Our propeller is jammed. I think the horn–covered mandibles of one of these squid are entangled in the blades. That’s why we aren’t moving.”
“And what are you going to do?”
“Rise to the surface and slaughter the vermin.”
“A difficult undertaking.”
“Correct. Our electric bullets are ineffective against such soft flesh, where they don’t meet enough resistance to go off. But we’ll attack the beasts with axes.”
“And harpoons, sir,” the Canadian said, “if you don’t turn down my help.”
“I accept it, Mr. Land.”
“We’ll go with you,” I said. And we followed Captain Nemo, heading to the central companionway.
There some ten men were standing by for the assault, armed with boarding axes. Conseil and I picked up two more axes. Ned Land seized a harpoon.
By then the Nautilus had returned to the surface of the waves. Stationed on the top steps, one of the seamen undid the bolts of the hatch. But he had scarcely unscrewed the nuts when the hatch flew up with tremendous violence, obviously pulled open by the suckers on a devilfish’s arm.
Instantly one of those long arms glided like a snake into the opening, and twenty others were quivering above. With a sweep of the ax, Captain Nemo chopped off this fearsome tentacle, which slid writhing down the steps.
Just as we were crowding each other to reach the platform, two more arms lashed the air, swooped on the seaman stationed in front of Captain Nemo, and carried the fellow away with irresistible violence.
Captain Nemo gave a shout and leaped outside. We rushed after him.
What a scene! Seized by the tentacle and glued to its suckers, the unfortunate man was swinging in the air at the mercy of this enormous appendage. He gasped, he choked, he yelled: “Help! Help!” These words, pronounced in French, left me deeply stunned! So I had a fellow countryman on board, perhaps several! I’ll hear his harrowing plea the rest of my life!
The poor fellow was done for. Who could tear him from such a powerful grip? Even so, Captain Nemo rushed at the devilfish and with a sweep of the ax hewed one more of its arms. His chief officer struggled furiously with other monsters crawling up the Nautilus’s sides. The crew battled with flailing axes. The Canadian, Conseil, and I sank our weapons into these fleshy masses. An intense, musky odor filled the air. It was horrible.
For an instant I thought the poor man entwined by the devilfish might be torn loose from its powerful suction. Seven arms out of eight had been chopped off. Brandishing its victim like a feather, one lone tentacle was writhing in the air. But just as Captain Nemo and his chief officer rushed at it, the animal shot off a spout of blackish liquid, secreted by a pouch located in its abdomen. It blinded us. When this cloud had dispersed, the squid was gone, and so was my poor fellow countryman!
What rage then drove us against these monsters! We lost all self–control. Ten or twelve devilfish had overrun the Nautilus’s platform and sides. We piled helter–skelter into the thick of these sawed–off snakes, which darted over the platform amid waves of blood and sepia ink. It seemed as if these viscous tentacles grew back like the many heads of Hydra. At every thrust Ned Land’s harpoon would plunge into a squid’s sea–green eye and burst it. But my daring companion was suddenly toppled by the tentacles of a monster he could not avoid.
Oh, my heart nearly exploded with excitement and horror! The squid’s fearsome beak was wide open over Ned Land. The poor man was about to be cut in half. I ran to his rescue. But Captain Nemo got there first. His ax disappeared between the two enormous mandibles, and the Canadian, miraculously saved, stood and plunged his harpoon all the way into the devilfish’s triple heart.
“Tit for tat,” Captain Nemo told the Canadian. “I owed it to myself!”
Ned bowed without answering him.
This struggle had lasted a quarter of an hour. Defeated, mutilated, battered to death, the monsters finally yielded to us and disappeared beneath the waves.
Red with blood, motionless by the beacon, Captain Nemo stared at the sea that had swallowed one of his companions, and large tears streamed from his eyes.