Gregory and the Scuttle

THIS is a tale of the warm sea-tides that daily and nightly flood the channels among the Bermuda Islands. I had almost written it ‘The Scuttle and Gregory,’ but it was Gregory who carried on the campaign aggressively and finally triumphed with the trap-net, so that the sea-monster was dragged away into captivity.

At our first meeting, when I described the creature whose subjection I wished to accomplish, Gregory said, ‘That’s the scuttle.’ I suggested the word cuttle, as, perhaps, more appropriate, but it was not appreciated. The scuttle by any other name could never be satisfactory to him. Quibbling over a mere title seemed unnecessary, so I made an effort to get down to essentials and adopted Gregory’s word. As a result of our conference, Gregory took certain implements of capture and sailed out of the bay; only to return after a considerable absence with an empty boat.

He had, however, matured certain plans which it seemed reasonable to follow out. It appeared that a combination of forces was desirable, so I contracted for the services of both Gregory and his boat, and we set about the circumvention of the scuttle by fair measure or foul.

As we sailed away in the light morning breeze, Gregory expatiated upon the subtlety of the scuttle and the labors of the black toilers of the sea, who had sought to capture him.

‘How big is he?’ I inquired.

‘Not too big, sir,’ said Gregory, holding up a short oar by way of suggesting dimensions.

I was interested, for I had read, in a book by one Hugo, how a man had once entered a sea-cave, and had had a fearful struggle with the creature. Respecting the truth of this, however, there is reasonable doubt, although I know of the capture of an octopus of the seas about Vancouver Island, which actually measured several oars’ lengths across its outspread arms. But all this is not telling the story of Gregory’s search.

The scuttle eluded us for many days, artfully removing choice foods from the snares we set for him; but we sometimes caught faint glimpses of him down under the overhanging borders of coral reefs, where he sat in shadowy caverns, thrusting forth his horrifying arms to seize the unwary sea-people.

While Gregory with great caution moved the boat close by the rocks, I peered constantly through the waterglass into the grayish depths where the fierce-jawed moray has his huntinggrounds, and where the sharp-stinging medusa drifts along, moving out of the way of no creature whatsoever. It was an enchanted world that lay beneath us, and I saw many strange things which cannot be described here.

But I must explain about the waterglass, an article with which all fishermen of the Bermudas are familiar. Like many another indispensable thing, it is of simple construction, being nothing more than a wooden bucket with a bottom of glass. By placing it on the surface of the water and inserting one’s face in the open top, it is possible to see distinctly whatever may be beneath.

We worked our way at times into small bays where green sea-lettuce lay in the shallow water in masses. These we overturned with our oar and boathook, hoping to come upon the wily object of our pursuit.

The lair of the scuttle, according to Gregory, may be discovered by certain unmistakable signs. It is the accustomed way of the creature to drag his prey to his hiding-place, there to devour it at leisure. Crafty in the capture of his victims, and wily in the concealment of himself from observation, he makes no attempt to hide the débris of his feasts. He thrusts his garbage forth from his stronghold, unconcerned as to where it fall, provided the entrance be clear for his own movements. If he has feasted high on lobster or oyster, crab or clam, a mountain of shells proclaims his lair. The heap may grow until it would fill a basket as large as a man could lift.

Knowing his weakness for these dainties, Gregory gathered a supply, hoping to lure the scuttle into his power. He did, in fact, nearly succeed on one occasion by lowering a tempting morsel near where the creature lay concealed. A long arm snatched and held the bait until the sharp, hidden hook tore loose, and Gregory almost fell over as he jerked the stout line. This method might have succeeded if I had not been anxious to take my departure from the islands and so urged haste. Whereupon Gregory, who was big and powerful and did not fear a personal encounter with the scuttle, became more aggressive.

On the following day, when the tide was motionless and the water glassy, he saw the scuttle disappear under a narrow ledge a couple of fathoms down in the clear, greenish channel. He was overboard in an instant, and with a few quick strokes reached the bottom. Looking down through the water-glass I could see the whitish soles of his bare feet as he made tremendous upward thrusts with his legs.

The scuttle was disturbed by the suddenness of the attack, and as he had not selected a favorable place for concealment, decided to make off, and lost no time in doing so. He may have caught sight of the whites of Gregory’s determined eyes. He was barely quicker, however, than the quick arm of the man, and might have been seized had he not played a scurvy trick: the water suddenly turned black — black as Gregory’s own face.

It appears that the creature always bears a sac of inky fluid ready in an instant to darken the water all about him, and can dart away under an impenetrable cloud of his own conjuring. This characteristic, which I had hitherto read of, I now saw verified. By magic the scuttle had disappeared, and a moment later there was a porpoiselike snort as Gregory’s head popped above the surface.

Later, we had proof also of the scuttle’s mysterious power of suddenly changing his color. Like the chameleon he may appear conspicuously dark at one moment and inconspicuously pale at another, against the grayish, ragged wall of the coral reef. This I made sure of as our boat came close to another of his hiding-places. Although he was in full sight, it took me some minutes to realize that the ghostly outlines pointed out to me were not a part of the gray background of jagged rock. He can, moreover, instantly turn brown or become spotted, as I later saw with my own eyes after we had got him into our power.

It was clear that there was nothing more to be done in that locality, so Gregory clambered aboard and we held counsel together as the boat drifted broadside up the channel with the tide; and the earnestness of the black man made so profound an impression on me that when we parted in the evening I was not without hope that my mission would eventually be crowned with success.

But the next day we were again disappointed. Gregory dived and had the scuttle in his arms almost before I could brush from my eyes the salt water his splash threw over me. As he came up alongside, however, trouble began, for the scuttle got a grip on the bottom of the boat with his many sucker-covered arms, and, while Gregory was getting his breath, his hold slipped, and again the creature was off. Just how he managed to disappear so suddenly remains a mystery; neither Gregory, who went under again, nor I, who promptly reached for the water-glass, got the faintest glimpse of him. Doubtless he shot away body foremost after the manner of his kind, every one of his eight arms contributing to the haste of his departure.

Failing in all these manœuvres, I began to scout among lonely pools under the cliffs, where, if cautious, one may see strange sea-folk when the tide is out. Gregory, left alone with his stratagems, disappeared for a few days. The last glimpse I had of him was of a very black man with a very earnest face, loading a huge wicker contrivance into a boat. I had considerable faith in his resourcefulness, for he knew the reefs and caves as well as did the scuttle himself.

But my solitary patrol of the rocky shore proved fruitless, and I was glad, two days later, to find Gregory sitting on a stone wall down by the little dock, swinging his bare feet and enjoying the hot sunshine, but not much inclined to talk. He told me that he had gone to a distant island village in search of a large trap-device used for catching fish. This, with the help of another fisherman, he had lowered into a deep cleft among the reefs two or three miles to the westward. I was to go with him the next day to see if by any possibility the scuttle had been deluded into entering it, for it was baited with something which the always hungry monster was pretty sure to investigate.

We were off early in the morning but made slow progress, as there was little wind. It was fully three hours before we arrived at the sunken trap, which Gregory located by the bearings of certain distant cliffs, for there were few portions of the reef showing at high tide. The breeze being light, the stone killick with line attached was thrown overboard without lowering the sail. Through the water-glass we made out the framework of the big trap on the bottom. I let out more anchor-line, the sloop drifting astern until we were nearly over the trap, when Gregory yelled that the scuttle was ours.

He let down a grapple, and after some heaving and hauling we dragged the cumbersome contrivance on board. The hatch over the water-filled well of the sloop was shoved back to make ready for the entrance of our captive. I kept a firm grip on the trap while Gregory, all the while shouting instructions to me and abuse at the scuttle, undid the fastenings at one corner. It took a deal of punching with an oar to dislodge the creature, whose eight arms were reaching in all directions. When one of them thrust through an opening and took a turn around Gregory’s bare arm, the whites of the man’s eyes were even more conspicuous than his white teeth. There was a ripping sound as he tore the arm away from that suckercovered arm of the scuttle, but no harm was done to either combatant.

What with the lurching of the sloop, the rocking of the big unsteady trap, the resistance of our captive, and Gregory’s shouting, there was considerable turmoil for so limited an area as that we occupied on our small craft. The scuttle was gradually crowded down, and was presently forced to take refuge in the well to escape the black man’s oar. In the bottom of the trap lay the empty shell of the great crayfish which had tempted the creature to his undoing. With the hatch back in place, and the trap lashed against the windward side of the mast, our work was done.

After a pull on the sheet, I took the tiller and my companion rested from his labors; but his tongue was loosened, and by the time we came to anchor in the twilight, he had said more about the scuttle than I have been able to recall, and a good deal that I am not hopeful of being able to verify. Nevertheless, he had earned his reward, and as the lights were beginning to glimmer around the harbor, he went to his home with a comfortable jingle of coins in his pocket.

When the steamer sailed away to the north, the scuttle was a captive on board, staring with unwinking eyes at the passengers who came to gaze at him. He escaped from confinement twice during the voyage, and we had no small difficulty in getting him properly secured. We learned that a large prisoner, if persistent, may take flight through a comparatively small hole, and we were therefore unremitting in our watchfulness until the captive was landed securely within the walls of the ancient fortress at the Battery.

And that is how the octopus came to the Aquarium.