"This scheme was resorted to at intervals all along our march. Progress was necessarily slow. At some dark spots, where the jungle was thick, it was necessary to proceed in narrow files, and these were the most dangerous, not only because of the 'Umbrella Beasts' but also because of the fright and impatience of the men.
"It was in one of these places that a casualty occurred. One of the chasseurs suddenly broke from the line and ran, shouting madly, to wave his torch at a vinous growth hanging from a tree, which he must have taken for a tentacle of one of the beasts. He stumbled, his torch flying from his hand as he fell. His danger then evidently deprived him of what senses he had remaining, for, regaining his feet, he ran, not back into the line but deeper into the jungle. We heard a strangled cry in a few moments. That was all. None of us dared to leave the company to bring him back.
"Another time, a man went raving mad, and made a violent attack on Dubosc. Before he could be caught, he stabbed that brave man twice in the breast.
"Now, as to the animals which attacked us. I had one before me for some sixty hours, though with little opportunity to examine and none at all to dissect it. My observations, though somewhat scanty, lead me to the conclusion that we are dealing with a hitherto unknown member of the great mollusk family. The family includes the octopus and oyster, neither with red blood, and it was the nearly colorless fluid that puzzled me about the blood of the beast that attacked the ship.
"The beast that was killed at the camp had a larger body than any known member of the family, and tentacles at least fifteen feet in length and correspondingly powerful. A protective covering of chitin appears to have been developed, and due to the lack of any internal skeleton and the fact that the muscles must base on it, this protective covering to its body is of a thickness and strength sufficient to be quite impervious to rifle bullets. The one we killed had received a bullet full in the eye, which passed through into its brain.
"It is this brain that offers the most remarkable feature of these creatures. A brief investigation shows me that their brains are certainly larger than those of any animals except the big apes, and probably as large as those of the lower races of man. This argues an intelligence extremely high, and makes them more than ever dangerous, since they can evidently plan acts and execute them in concert.
"They have eight tentacular arms, covered on the lower side with the usual cephalopod type of suckers, the center of each sucker being occupied, as in some species of octopus, by a small, sharp claw. The thickness, and therefore the muscular strength of these arms is enormous. It is no wonder men proved utterly powerless against them.
"I am unable to say anything about either their method of breeding or what device they have arrived at for breathing air; probably some protective covering keeps the gill-plumes moist, as in the crayfish, making access to water at times necessary.
"In the face are two very large eyes, capable of seeing well in the dark and located directly in front of the large brain. The mouth consists of a huge beak, razor-edged. There are no teeth. Add this formidable beak to their extraordinary powers of swimming, their swift progress on land, their giant strength and their great intelligence, and it becomes evident that the human race is faced with a great peril.
"There is nothing whatever to prevent these animals from swimming the ocean or attacking the greatest city. One of these beasts could kill a hundred people in an hour and hardly any weapon we possess would be of the slightest use . . ."
As he wrote, Weyl's mind was again filled with the terror of that mad march through the jungle with the "Umbrella Beasts" whistling on every side, and his imagination shuddered at the picture of London or New York under an invasion from those grim Madagascar jungles; all business stopped, every door barred, the octopuses triumphantly parading the streets, breaking in here and there and strangling the last resistance of families cowering in corners, powerless against the invulnerable and irresistible animals. Here and there some squad armed with dynamite or some other weapon more powerful than rifles, would offer a brief resistance, but they too would go down in time. Civilization throttled, and in its place a ghastly reign of animalism...
Major Larivet was inclined to skepticism over Weyl's report. In a brusque, but kindly way, he had suggested that it be delayed, ". . . till you have had time to think it over. Perhaps, when the effect of your experience has — ah — worn off —"
Weyl gazed at him in astonishment at this suggestion, but he was to remember it forty days later.
Meanwhile, there was nothing to do but wait till the report reached the outer world, and some echo of it in the form of men, aeroplanes, scientists with their instruments and death dealing concoctions arrived to wipe out that terrible blot. And during the waiting, even Major Larivet's skepticism vanished under the pressure of events.
The octopuses, as Weyl called them, had confined their raids to isolated districts up to the time of his expedition, but now, acting apparently upon a well-formed plan, they became bolder and began a systematic extermination of every native in this part of the island.
Three days after the return of the expedition, a native runner dashed in half-crazed with fright to report a twilight raid on a whole village, from which hardly a soul escaped. As the days drew on, this ominous news was followed by such demonstrations of the power and intelligence of the octopuses as confirmed Weyl's darkest fears.
A village on the coast was attacked, and the natives, taking to their clumsy boats to escape the terror by land, found themselves no less helpless on the water, the only news of the dreadful event coming from some native who had gone there and found only a circle of empty huts.
Alarm of panic proportions spread like wildfire among the Malagasy, and in a stream that became a torrent they poured into Fort Dauphin for protection.
Daily the reports of depredations showed that the octopus terror was spreading and coming nearer, and Major Larivet found himself faced with the problem of feeding several hundred hungry and frightened natives with means wholly inadequate.
The climax came with the arrival of four men, or rather, shadows of men, who babbled that they were the last of the great tribe of the Tanosy. Fighters to the core, instead of flying, they had stood out in battle array against their antagonists. The result had been unspeakably horrible — they had seen their comrades torn to pieces before their eyes, and the women and children hunted down.
It was while things were in this state that the little tin-pot mail boat arrived with its cargo of supplies and European newspapers.
Weyl's heart rose as he marched off to his quarters eagerly with the papers under his arm, but it sank like lead when he and Duperret opened journal after journal, in quick, disappointed perusals.
Not one, they perceived, took the matter seriously. Weyl's phrase, "Umbrella Beasts," had been seized upon by humorous commentators with gusto, rolled on their tongues and spun off their pens to tickle the ribs of readers. Of serious acceptance there was not a sign. The general tone of the papers was one of howling derision. It was suggested that Weyl had gone crazy, that he was a publicity-mad mountebank. But the more usual spirit of the papers was that of the French wit who blared: "Weyl's Umbrella Beasts; Inseparable companions for that rainy-day walk. No one acquainted with the dictates of fashion can afford to dispense with this novel combination of household pet and Protective Implement!"
And the cartoons . . . !
Weyl looked up from the papers to meet Duperret's glance. There were actual tears in the Frenchman's eyes.
"It seems to be up to us," said Weyl, after a moment. "Well — I am not a rich man, as it is reckoned in America, but I can command a considerable amount of money, and can borrow more. I will write a cable-gram to be sent off immediately, and have every cent spent for materials to fight this thing."
Together they composed the carefully worded message to Weyl's assistant in the laboratory in New York, and together they took it to the dock and delivered it to the captain of the boat with the most urgent instructions to send it the moment he arrived at Andovoranbo.
Not long after daybreak the American was roused from his sleep by a confused shouting under the window. Hurrying into his clothes, he dashed out to see the little mail boat wallowing crazily off the jagged rocks that guarded the entrance to the harbor, her funnels silent and smokeless. Within ten minutes she was right among the breakers, pounding in the surf, but there was no sign of officers, crew, or lifeboats.
It was late in the afternoon before he could secure a native dhow to get out to the wreck. When he stepped on the slanting deck of the wrecked boat, Weyl found what he had feared. There was no one on board — only a blood-stain here and there.
Every man in the settlement was quite capable of visualizing what had happened. Writhing, black-grey tentacles reaching up out of the midnight sea, the swarming of hideous bodies over the ship, relentless groping arms searching out the screaming seamen, the fatally prehensive embrace of repulsive flesh ...
That very night Fort Dauphin received notice that it was under close siege. A mile out on the northeast beach two natives were taken by an octopus that came unexpectedly out of the water on them, and on the opposite side of town a soldier was pursued along the sand right up to the walls of the fort. Later the report ran in that one of the sentinels on the west side had disappeared.
But neither Weyl nor Major Larivet was quite prepared for the bold attack on the fort two days later.
Twilight was just blueing the edges of the jungle a quarter mile from the bastions of the fort, and the three white men were smoking gloomily over their coffee, when a shot and a shout from the sentry brought them to their feet.
They hastened to the bastion. Out of the jungle in the same regular, military order they had preserved on that fatal night of the first attack, came the octopuses, huge ugly heads bobbing above, undulating tentacles below.
Larivet, with a gleam in his eyes at being at last able to come to grips with the enemy, snapped sharp orders as the artillerymen swung the two "seventy-fives" into position. Duperret and Weyl watched breathlessly, heedless of the wild cries of alarm that issued from the natives who had seen the octopuses. The mouth of the gun swung down slowly. An order. Brief motions, the crash of the discharge, and right in the center of the advancing line a terrific burst of flame and dust.
An octopus staggered, stumbled with wildly flailing arms and flopped inertly to the ground.
Crash! The bright flames from the two guns mingled, and in the flare of the explosions three more of the monsters went to oblivion. They were not invulnerable, then! There was a ray of hope!
Weyl found himself cheering frantically. He felt a pressure at his shoulder and saw a couple of natives beside him, their courage revived. The black artillerymen worked like mad. They could not miss at that point-blank range.
All down the octopus line were gaps, and the wounded beasts strove to right themselves. They wavered, broke, and in disorderly flight headed back into the jungle, pursued by the avenging shells of the seventy-fives till they had passed from sight.
The natives were crowding about, shouting with emotion and hurling epithets after the retreating monsters. They were saved — at least for the time being.
But the conference of the three white men that night was grave.
"We have not really accomplished very much," said Weyl, "except to show them that we have weapons against which they are not invulnerable. I don't think they will attempt to rush the fort again, but they are terribly intelligent. They may try a surprise attack at night or from the sea, or may even give us a regular starvation siege."
"No, they will not soon approach your guns again," agreed Duperret, "but what are we to do if they attack the town from the other side. The fort surely cannot hold all the people you have here."
''Gentlemen,'' said Larivet gravely, "in that case we can only do our duty. I shall have one of the guns moved to the other side of town. Meanwhile we can do nothing but wait till someone comes to help us."
"Or until we go to them," from Weyl.
Duperret paled slightly, and stood up. "I offer myself as a messenger," he said. "I will take a dhow out. If I am attacked, well, I know where to shoot them — in the eyes. I—"
"No, Raoul, no," said Weyl, "let me try it. It would be simply—"
He was interrupted. A native servant entered excitedly.
"Him one piece boat in town," said the black. "White man comes."
"Boat? White man?" queried Larivet, puzzled. A cheery voice in the doorway answered him, "I say, is anybody here?" it said, and in marched an extraordinary figure of a man.
A large sign saying "Englishman" could not have stamped his face more effectively than his expression of cheerful vapidity. His clothes were white, scrupulously clean, and meticulously pressed, and in one hand he bore what looked like a small fire extinguisher. He extended the other toward Weyl.
"You're Weyl, aren't you?" he said. "Mulgrave's my name; Henry Seaton Mulgrave. Earl of Mulgrave and Pembroke, and all that rot. At your service."
"Of course I remember," said Weyl cordially. "You gave that extraordinary paper on the Myxinidae before the British Association. Ah, that paper! Allow me," he said, and translated into rapid French for the benefit of Larivet, "to present the Earl of Mulgrave, one of the most distinguished of living scientists."
There were bows, a drink offered and accepted, and the visitor, carefully placing his fire extinguisher in the corner, curled his lanky frame up in a chair.
"Seriously, though, y'know," Mulgrave said after finishing his whisky and soda, "if it hadn't been that I was a bit in the doldrums at the time your report came out, I believe I would have joined the rest of the world in thinking you somewhat — er — balmy, despite your excellent reputation. But I needed a cruise anyway, and came on the chance there was something in it; sort of a sporting venture, d'y'see? It did seem quite a bally cooked-up sort of mess, the way those journals played it up, y'know."
Weyl's nod of understanding was followed by an inquiring look at the queer contrivance the Englishman had placed in the corner.
"Flammenwerfer," Mulgrave answered the silent query. "Germans used 'em in the war. Superior bit of frightfulness. Shoots out fire. And really quite effective, even against your bally octopuses, I assure you."
"But," Weyl exclaimed, "you can't possibly—"
"Oh, yes, I have," Mulgrave smiled. "The ruddy animals hadn't the decency to wait for a proper introduction, and paid us a visit on the Morgana — my yacht, y'know — just outside the harbor. I fancy when we got through with them they were rather scorched. Morgana was war-built and has steel decks, so we didn't mind putting the Flammenwerfer to work against them. We've got what's left of one stretched out on the deck. Others got away."
Weyl breathed a sigh of relief and thankfulness that this casual Englishman had come prepared. How easily the mail boat disaster might have been duplicated! He shuddered.
"Well then, part of our horrible problem seems to be solved, thanks to your foresight, Mulgrave. At least we have a means of wiping them out. But here's the difficulty. It will take years, killing them off one by one, as we'll have to do with your pump gun. I tell you, they infest the whole island, thousands of 'em. They're increasing and multiplying faster than we could possibly kill them off. That's the only way I can explain this recent outbreak. They were few enough in number, before this, to remain in obscurity except in isolated districts, and known only to ignorant and superstitious natives." Weyl's forehead creased in perplexity and worry. "If they keep on — well, they'll need the whole globe. And that means only one thing; man will have to get off it to make room for them. They're powerful enough, and intelligent enough, to have their own way about it, too. Don't doubt it. Unless—"
Mulgrave evidently did not share Weyl's anxiety, though he did not seem to underestimate the danger. "I'll finish that last sentence of yours, Weyl, although I'll admit things are a bit worse than I had thought. But meanwhile, let's look over our resources, and try to find out a bit more about the nature of the beast we're up against. The post-mortem of that lamentably deceased visitor on the Morgana's deck ought to tell us something of his weak points. Do you want to go out there now?"
With chairs tilted back against the cabin of the Morgana, the three men regarded the sundown sky in a moody and depressed silence. Their dissection of the octopus killed by Mulgrave's pump-gun had added little to their knowledge of the anatomy of the menacing brutes, save a confirmation of Weyl's hypothesis that their breathing, while on land, was conducted by means of the same gills which supplied them with oxygen in the water, protected, like the lobster's, by a covering of chitin.
Mulgrave's chair scraped on the deck. "Well, let's get back ashore," he said. "Can't do any more now I fancy, unless they decide to stage a party for us this evening."
"It comes down to this, then," said Weyl, continuing the conversation which had been abandoned with the end of their anatomical researches. "Fire, or some kind of guns heavier than the ordinary service rifle, are the only things that will do any particular good."
"Have you thought of gas, my friend?" asked Duperret.
"Huh," answered Weyl shortly. "Airplanes? Chemicals? And what about all the men on the island — for we should have to cover it all with gas to be of any use."
"The time is rather short, too, I fancy," chirped Mulgrave. "How long will provisions last?"
"Not long," agreed Duperret, moodily. "A week, or perhaps a little more."
"Then, within seven days, or at the most ten, we must concoct a plan and put it into force — a plan that will wipe out God knows how many of these unearthly enemies of the earth. It must be extermination, too, for if one pair were left to breed. . . I'm more than half convinced that the thing is hopeless. Yet I don't like to show the white flag. These are, after all, only beasts. Super-beasts, it is true, but the equals and heirs of man? I hate to believe it."
"But, my friend, you forget the force of mere numbers," said Duperret. "So many rats could easily overpower us, guns and all, from mere lack of time to kill them as fast as they came on. Comparative values, as of man and beast, are insignificant."
Weyl nodded a pessimistic agreement.
"There's only one chance," he said. "If we could find some way to attack them in the water — they must go there to breed at least, and I fancy they must make periodic visits to the water to wet their gill plumes in addition."
It was three days later.
Another octopus attack on the little fort had met with a bloody repulse, and a score of the great bodies lay at the edge of the jungle in varying stages of decomposition, where they had been blown to extinction by the swift shells of the seventy-fives. A conference was in progress on Major Larivet's verandah; a conference of beaten men.
"As a last resort," Duperret was saying, "there is the open sea and Mulgrave's yacht."
"Why, as for that," Weyl answered, "it wouldn't hold a tenth of us, even crowded to the rails. Besides, leave those natives behind? Damn it, they trust us."
"It would hardly be cricket," said Mulgrave. "What of the mail steamer? Aren't they apt to send someone to look us up when she does not appear?"
"Not even yet is the boat due at Andovoranto, said Major Larivet, "and there is the time for the news to reach Andananerivo . . . The lack of news to them will be but a token that we have pacified the Tanosy and are in need of nothing.
"Yes," Duperret agreed, "I know these officials. They are aware of something unusual only when they have seventeen dossiers, each neatly tied in red tape and endorsed by the proper department head. My friends, we are alone."
"Which means," Weyl continued, "that we have about a week more to live before the food runs out or they overwhelm us. And then — good-by world of men!"
There was little silence, broken only by the sound of Mulgrave puffing at his pipe. It was ended by a shot and a shout from one of the sentries at the western side of the fort; the signal of another attack.
During that night the great octopuses twice fought their way down to the fort, and twice were repulsed, though the second effort, bigger and more violently sustained than the first, only ended when Mulgrave, called in the crew of his yacht and their flammenwerfer.
As the following day drew on, the unrest in the jungle about the army post became more pronounced. Major Larivet, Duperret, and Weyl, worn with lack of sleep, kept vigil by the little counterscarp, listening to the innumerable whistlings and rustlings so near to them, while the soldiers and natives, visibly shaken, were difficult to keep in line.