TOILERS OF THE SEA
Victor Hugo’s “Toilers of the Sea” is a story of the Channel Islands
between England and France. Gilliatt, the hero, was a seaman of
extraordinary skill and physical strength, a solitary fellow who used
to cruise about alone in his sloop, dreaming of Déruchette, the
prettiest maid of Guernsey. Déruchette was the niece of Mess
Lethierry, an old sailor who was fast growing rich from the income of
his steamboat, the Durande, which plied between Guernsey and the
French coast. One foggy night the Durande was wrecked on the Douvres,
dangerous rocks in the open sea, five leagues out from Guernsey, and
her skipper, Sieux Clubin was drowned. The Durande, however, did not
sink, but hung suspended between the two great rocks; and her valuable
machinery was safe so long as the wreck should hold together.
Déruchette promised to marry any brave man who would rescue the
engines of her uncle’s boat; and for so great a prize Gilliatt
resolved to undertake the dangerous and almost hopeless task. He
sailed out to the Douvres, and for two months lived among the barren
rocks, suffering every kind of peril and privation while working on
the wreck of the Durande. At last, after superhuman efforts, he
succeeded in loading the machinery upon his sloop, and was about to
return triumphantly and claim his reward, when a fearful tempest burst
upon him, and forced him to terrible exertions in order to save
himself and his completed work from being dashed to pieces in the
caverns of the Douvres. Successful at last, but utterly exhausted by
the struggle, Gilliatt sank upon the deck of his sloop and fell into a
heavy sleep. The famous story of his adventure with the devil-fish
begins at this juncture.
Cyrus Townsend Brady
A Struggle with a Devil Fish by Victor Hugo
When he awakened he was hungry.
The sea was growing calmer. But there was still a heavy swell, which
made his departure, for the present at least, impossible. The day,
too, was far advanced. For the sloop with its burden to get to
Guernsey before midnight, it was necessary to start in the morning.
Although pressed by hunger, Gilliatt began by stripping himself, the
only means of getting warmth. His clothing was saturated by the storm,
but the rain had washed out the sea-water, which rendered it possible
to dry them.
He kept nothing on but his trousers, which he turned up nearly to the
His overcoat, jacket, overalls, and sheepskin he spread out and fixed
with large round stones here and there.
Then he thought of eating.
He had recourse to his knife, which he was careful to sharpen, and to
keep always in good condition; and he detached from the rock a few
limpets, similar in kind to the clonisses of the Mediterranean. It
is well known that these are eaten raw; but after so many labors, so
various and so rude, the pittance was meagre. His biscuit was gone;
but of water he had now abundance.
He took advantage of the receding tide to wander among the rocks in
search of crayfish.
He wandered, not in the gorge of the rocks, but outside among the
smaller breakers. It was there that the Durande, ten weeks previously,
had struck upon the sunken reef.
For the search that Gilliatt was prosecuting, this part was more
favorable than the interior. At low water the crabs are accustomed to
crawl out into the air. They seem to like to warm themselves in the
sun, where they swarm sometimes to the disgust of the loiterers, who
recognize in these creatures, with their awkward sidelong gait,
climbing clumsily from crack to crack the lower stages of the rocks
like the steps of a staircase, a sort of sea vermin.
For two months Gilliatt had lived upon these vermin of the sea.
On this day, however, the crayfish and crabs were both wanting. The
tempest had driven them into their solitary retreats; and they had not
yet mustered courage to venture abroad. Gilliatt held his open knife
in his hand, and from time to time scraped a cockle from under the
bunches of sea-weed, which he ate while still walking.
He could not have been far from the very spot where Sieur Clubin had
As Gilliatt was determining to content himself with the sea-urchins
and the chataignes de mer, a little clattering noise at his feet
aroused his attention. A large crab, startled by his approach, had
just dropped into a pool. The water was shallow, and he did not lose
sight of it.
He chased the crab along the base of the rock; the crab moved fast.
Suddenly it was gone.
It had buried itself in some crevice under the rock.
Gilliatt clutched the protections of the rock, and stretched out to
observe where it shelved away under the water.
As he suspected, there was an opening there in which the creature had
evidently taken refuge. It was more than a crevice; it was a kind of
The sea entered beneath it, but was not deep. The bottom was visible,
covered with large pebbles. The pebbles were green and clothed with
confervć, indicating that they were never dry. They were like the
tops of a number of heads of infants, covered with a kind of green
Holding his knife between his teeth, Gilliatt descended, by the help
of feet and hands, from the upper part of the escarpment, and leaped
into the water. It reached almost to his shoulders.
He made his way through the porch, and found himself in a blind
passage, with a roof in the form of a rude arch over his head.
The walls were polished and slippery. The crab was nowhere visible. He
gained his feet and advanced in daylight growing fainter, so that he
began to lose the power to distinguish objects.
At about fifteen paces the vaulted roof ended overhead. He had
penetrated beyond the blind passage. There was here more space, and
consequently more daylight. The pupils of his eyes, moreover, had
dilated; he could see pretty clearly. He was taken by surprise.
He had made his way again into the singular cavern which he had
visited in the previous month. The only difference was that he had
entered by the way of the sea.
His eyes became more accustomed to the place. His vision became
clearer and clearer. He was astonished. He found, above the level of
the water, and within reach of his hand, a horizontal fissure. It
seemed to him probable that the crab had taken refuge there, and he
plunged his hand in as far as he was able, and groped about in that
Suddenly he felt himself seized by the arm. A strange indescribable
horror thrilled through him.
Some living thing, thin, rough, flat, cold, slimy, had twisted itself
round his naked arm, in the dark depth below. It crept upward toward
his chest. Its pressure was like a tightening cord, its steady
persistence like that of a screw. In less than a moment some
mysterious spiral form had passed round his wrist and elbow, and had
reached his shoulder. A sharp point penetrated beneath the armpit.
Gilliatt recoiled; but he had scarcely power to move! He was, as it
were, nailed to the place. With his left hand, which was disengaged,
he seized his knife, which he still held between his teeth, and with
that hand, holding the knife, he supported himself against the rocks,
while he made a desperate effort to withdraw his arm. He succeeded
only in disturbing his persecutor, which wound itself still tighter.
It was supple as leather, strong as steel, cold as night.
A second form, sharp, elongated, and narrow, issued out of the
crevice, like a tongue out of monstrous jaws. It seemed to lick his
naked body. Then suddenly stretching out, it became longer and
thinner, as it crept over his skin, and wound itself round him. At the
same time a terrible sense of pain, comparable to nothing he had ever
known, compelled all his muscles to contract. He felt upon his skin a
number of flat rounded points. It seemed as if innumerable suckers had
fastened to his flesh and were about to drink his blood.
A third long undulating shape issued from the hole in the rock; and
seemed to feel its way about his body; lashed round his ribs like a
cord, and fixed itself there.
Agony when at its height is mute. Gilliatt uttered no cry. There was
sufficient light for him to see the repulsive forms which had
entangled themselves about him. A fourth ligature, but this one swift
as an arrow, darted toward his stomach, and wound around him there.
It was impossible to sever or tear away the slimy bands which were
twisted tightly round his body, and were adhering by a number of
points. Each of the points was the focus of frightful and singular
pangs. It was as if numberless small mouths were devouring him at the
A fifth long, slimy, riband-shaped strip issued from the hole. It
passed over the others, and wound itself tightly around his chest. The
compression increased his sufferings. He could scarcely breathe.
These living thongs were pointed at their extremities, but broadened
like the blade of a sword toward its hilt. All belonged evidently to
the same centre. They crept and glided about him; he felt the strange
points of pressure, which seemed to him like mouths, change their
places from time to time.
Suddenly a large, round, glutinous mass issued from beneath the
crevice. It was the centre; the five thongs were attached to it like
spokes to the nave of a wheel. On the opposite side of this disgusting
monster appeared the commencement of three other tentacles, the ends
of which remained under the rock. In the middle of this slimy mass
appeared two eyes.
The eyes were fixed on Gilliatt.
He recognized the devil-fish.
It is difficult for those who have not seen it to believe in the
existence of the devil-fish.
Compared to this creature, the ancient hydras are insignificant.
If terror were the object of its creation, nothing could be imagined
more perfect than the devil-fish.
The devil-fish has no muscular organization, no menacing cry, no
breastplate, no horn, no dart, no claw, no tail with which to hold or
bruise; no cutting fins, or wings with nails, no prickles, no sword,
no electric discharge, no poison, no talons, no beak, no teeth. Yet he
is of all creatures the most formidably armed.
What, then, is the devil-fish? It is the sea vampire.
This frightful apparition, which is always possible among the rocks in
the open sea, is a grayish form, which undulates in the water. It is
of the thickness of a man’s arm, and in length nearly five feet. Its
outline is ragged. Its form resembles an umbrella closed, and without
a handle. This irregular mass advances slowly toward you. Suddenly it
opens, and eight radii issue abruptly from around a face with two
eyes. These radii are alive; their undulation is like lambent flames;
they resemble, when opened, the spokes of a wheel, of four or five
feet in diameter. A terrible expansion! It springs upon its prey.
The devil-fish harpoons its victim.
It winds around the sufferer, covering and entangling him in its long
folds. Underneath it is yellow; above a dull, earthy hue; nothing
could render that inexplicable shade dust-colored. 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
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 antennć, large at
their roots, diminish gradually, and end in needle-like points.
Underneath each of these feelers 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.
When swimming, the devil-fish rests, so to speak, in its sheath. It
swims with all its parts drawn close. It may be likened to 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.
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 in the fashion of a species
of 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 vent 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 envelopes 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.
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
air-cups. 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.
Such was the creature in whose power Gilliatt had fallen for some
The monster was the inhabitant of the grotto; the terrible genii of
the place. A kind of sombre demon of the water.
All the splendors 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
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.
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.
It is impossible to tear one’s self 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 antennć 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
The devil-fish, in fact, is only vulnerable through the head.
Gilliatt was not ignorant of this fact.
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
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 a while.
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
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 lightning.
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 around 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.
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
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.