From Myth to Reality

Excerpt from Chapter XVIII of Jules Verne's fantastic tale of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

    "Well," said Conseil, with the most serious air in the world; "I
remember perfectly to have seen a large vessel drawn under the waves
by a cephalopod's arm."
    "You saw that?" said the Canadian.
    "Yes, Ned."
    "With your own eyes?"
    "With my own eyes."
    "Where, pray, might that be?"
    "At St. Malo," answered Conseil.
    "In the port?" said Ned, ironically.
    "No; in a church," replied Conseil.
    "In a church!" cried the Canadian.
    "Yes; friend Ned. In a picture representing the poulp in
    "Good!" said Ned Land, bursting out laughing.
    "He is quite right," I said. "I have heard of this picture; but
the subject represented is taken from a legend, and you know what to
think of legends in the matter of natural history. Besides, when it is
a question of monsters, the imagination is apt to run wild. Not only
is it supposed that these poulps can draw down vessels, but a
certain Olaus Magnus speaks of a cephalopod a mile long, that is
more like an island than an animal. It is also said that the Bishop of
Nidros was building an altar on an immense rock. Mass finished, the
rock began to walk, and returned to the sea. The rock was a poulp.
Another bishop, Pontoppidan, speaks also of a poulp on which a
regiment of cavalry could maneuver. Lastly, the ancient naturalists
speak of monsters whose mouths were like gulfs, and which were too
large to pass through the Straits of Gibraltar."
    "But how much is true of these stories?" asked Conseil.
    "Nothing, my friends; at least of that which passes the limit of
truth to get to fable or legend. Nevertheless, there must be some
ground for the imagination of the story-tellers. One cannot deny
that poulps and cuttlefish exist of a large species, inferior,
however, to the cetaceans. Aristotle had stated the dimensions of a
cuttlefish as five cubits, or nine feet two inches. Our fishermen
frequently see some that are more than four feet long. Some
skeletons of poulps are preserved in the museums of Trieste and
Montpellier, that measure two yards in length. Besides, according to
the calculations of some naturalists, one of these animals, only six
feet long, would have tentacles twenty-seven feet long. That would
suffice to make a formidable monster."
    "Do they fish for them in these days?" asked Ned.
    "If they do not fish for them, sailors see them at least. One of
my friends, Captain Paul Bos of Havre, has often affirmed that he
met one of these monsters, of colossal dimensions, in the Indian seas.
But the most astonishing fact, and which does not permit of the denial
of the existence of these gigantic animals, happened some years ago,
in 1861."
    "What is the fact?" asked Ned Land.
    "This is it. In 1861, to the north-east of Teneriffe, very
nearly in the same latitude we are in now, the crew of the despatch
boat Alector perceived a monstrous cuttlefish swimming in the
waters. Captain Bouguer went near to the animal, and attacked it
with harpoons and guns, without much success, for balls and harpoons
glided over the soft flesh. After several fruitless attempts, the crew
tried to pass a slip-knot round the body of the mollusk. The noose
slipped as far as the caudal fins, there stopped. They tried then to
haul it on board, but its weight was so considerable that the
tightness of the cord separated the tail from the body, and,
deprived of this ornament, he disappeared under the water."
    "Indeed! is that a fact?"
    "An indisputable fact, my good Ned. They proposed to name this
poulp 'Bouguer's cuttlefish.'"
    "What length was it?" asked the Canadian.
    "Did it not measure about six yards?" said Conseil, who, posted at
the window, was examining again the irregular windings of the cliff.
    "Precisely," I replied.
    "Its head," rejoined Conseil, "was it not crowned with eight
tentacles, that beat the water like a nest of serpents?"
    "Had not its eyes, placed at the back of its head, considerable
    "Yes, Conseil."
    "And was not its mouth like a parrot's beak?"
    "Exactly, Conseil."
    "Very well! no offence to master," he replied, quietly; "if this
is not Bouguer's cuttlefish, it is, at least one of its brothers."
    I looked at Conseil. Ned Land hurried to the window.
    "What a horrible beast!" he cried.
    I looked in my turn, and could not repress a gesture of disgust.
Before, my eyes was a horrible monster, worthy to figure in the
legends of the marvelous. It was an immense cuttlefish, being eight
yards long. It swam crossways in the direction of the Nautilus with
great speed, watching us with its enormous staring green eyes. Its
eight arms, or rather feet, fixed to its head, that have given the
name of cephalopod to these animals, were twice as long as its body,
and were twisted like the furies' hair. One could see the 250
air-holes on the inner side of the tentacles. The monster's mouth, a
horned beak like a parrot's, opened and shut vertically. Its tongue, a
horned substance, furnished with several rows of pointed teeth, came
out quivering from this veritable pair of shears.
    What a freak of nature, a bird's beak on a mollusk! Its
spindle-like body formed a fleshy mass that might weigh 4,000 to 5,000
lbs.; the varying color changing with great rapidity, according to the
irritation of the animal, passed successively from livid gray to
reddish brown. What irritated this mollusk? No doubt the presence of
the Nautilus, more formidable than itself, and on which its suckers or
its jaws had no hold. Yet, what monsters these poulps are! what
vitality the Creator has given them! what vigor in their movements!
and they possess three hearts! Chance had brought us in the presence
of this cuttlefish, and I did not wish to lose the opportunity of
carefully studying this specimen of cephalopods. I overcame the horror
that inspired me; and, taking a pencil, began to draw it.
    "Perhaps this is the same which the Alecto saw," said Conseil.
    "No," replied the Canadian; "for this is whole, and the other
had lost its tail."
    "That is no reason," I replied. "The arms and tails of these
animals are reformed by redintegration; and in seven years, the tail
of Bouguer's cuttlefish has no doubt had time to grow."
    By this time other poulps appeared at the port light. I counted
seven. They formed a procession after the Nautilus, and I heard
their beaks gnashing against the iron hull. I continued my work. These
monsters kept in the water with such precision, that they seemed
immovable. Suddenly the Nautilus stopped. A shock made it tremble in
every plate.
    "Have we struck anything?" I asked.
    "In any case," replied the Canadian, "we shall be free, for we are
    The Nautilus was floating, no doubt, but it did not move. A minute
passed. Captain Nemo, followed by his lieutenant, entered the
drawing-room. I had not seen him for some time. He seemed dull.
Without noticing or speaking to us, he went to the panel, looked at
the poulps, and said something to his lieutenant. The latter went out.
Soon the panels were shut. The ceiling was lighted. I went towards the
    "A curious collection of poulps?" I said.
    "Yes, indeed, Mr. Naturalist," he replied; "and we are going to
fight them, man to beast."
    I looked at him. I thought I had not heard aright.
    "Man to beast?" I repeated.
    "Yes, Sir. The screw is stopped. I think that the horny jaws of
one of the cuttlefish are entangled in the blades. That is what
prevents our moving."
    "What are you going to do?"
    "Rise to the surface, and slaughter this vermin."
    "A difficult enterprise."
    "Yes, indeed. The electric bullets are powerless against the
soft flesh, where they do not find resistance enough to go off. But we
shall attack them with the hatchet."
    "And the harpoon, Sir," said the Canadian, "if you do not refuse
my help."
    "I will accept it, Master Land."
    "We will follow you," I said, and following Captain Nemo, we
went towards the central staircase.
    There, about ten men with boarding hatchets were ready for the
attack. Conseil and I took two hatchets; Ned Land seized a harpoon.
The Nautilus had then ren to the surface. One of the sailors, posted
on the top ladderstep, unscrewed the bolts of the panels. But hardly
were the screws loosed, when the panel rose with great violence,
evidently drawn by the suckers of a poulp's arm. Immediately one of
these arms slid like a serpent down the opening, and twenty others
were above. With one blow of the axe, Captain Nemo cut this formidable
tentacle, that slid wriggling down the ladder. Just as we were
pressing one on the other to reach the platform, two other arms,
lashing the air, came down on the seaman placed before Captain Nemo,
and lifted him up with irresistible power. Captain Nemo uttered a cry,
and rushed out. We hurried after him.
    What a scene! The unhappy man, seized by the tentacle, and fixed
to the suckers, was balanced in the air at the caprice of this
enormous trunk. He rattled in his throat, he was stifled, he cried,
"Help! help!" These words, spoken in French, startled me! I had a
fellow countryman on board, perhaps several! That heartrending cry!
I shall hear it all my life. The unfortunate man was lost. Who could
rescue him from that powerful pressure? However, Captain Nemo had
rushed to the poulp, and with one blow of the axe had cut through
one arm. His lieutenant struggled furiously against other monsters
that crept on the flanks of the Nautilus. The crew fought with their
axes. The Canadian, Conseil, and I, buried our weapons in the fleshy
masses; a strong smell of musk penetrated the atmosphere. It was
    For one instant, I thought the unhappy man, entangled with the
poulp, would be torn from its powerful suction. Seven of the eight
arms had been cut off. One only wriggled in the air, brandishing the
victim like a feather. But just as Captain Nemo and his lieutenant
threw themselves on it, the animal ejected a stream of black liquid We
were blinded with it. When the cloud dispersed, the cuttlefish had
disappeared, and my unfortunate countryman with it. Ten or twelve
poulps now invaded the platform and sides of the Nautilus. We rolled
pell-mell into the nest of serpents that wriggled on the platform in
the waves of blood and ink. It seemed as though these slimy
tentacles sprang up like the hydra's heads. Ned Land's harpoon, at
each stroke, was plunged into the staring eyes of the cuttlefish.
But my bold companion was suddenly overturned by the tentacles of a
monster he had not been able to avoid.
    Ah! how my heart beat with emotion and horror! The formidable beak
of a cuttlefish was open over Ned Land. The unhappy man would be cut
in two. I rushed to his succor. But Captain Nemo was before me; his
axe disappeared between the two enormous jaws, and miraculously
saved the Canadian, rising, plunged his harpoon deep into the triple
heart of the poulp.
    "I owed myself this revenge!" said the captain to the Canadian.
    Ned bowed without replying. The combat had lasted a quarter of
an hour. The monsters, vanquished and mutilated, left us at last,
and disappeared under the waves. Captain Nemo, covered with blood,
nearly exhausted gazed upon the sea that had swallowed up one of his
companions, and great tears gathered in his eyes.

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