Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Medusa and her locks

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Along the sandy shores at low water may be seen in the summer months numbers of round, flattish, gelatinous-looking bodies, scientifically called Medusæ, going popularly by the expressive though scarcely euphemious titles of slobs, slobbers, stingers, and stangers, and called jelly fishes by the inland public, though the creatures are not fishes at all, and have no jelly in their composition.

As these Medusæ lie on the beach they present anything but agreeable spectacles to the casual observer; and, as a general fact, rather excite disgust than admiration; and it is not until they are swimming, in the free enjoyment of liberty, that they are viewed with any degree of complacency by an unpractised eye. Yet, even in their present helpless and apparently lifeless condition, sunken partially in the sand, and without a movement to show that animation still holds its place in the tissues, there is something worthy of observation and by no means devoid of interest.

In the first place, be it noted that all the Medusæ lie in their normal attitudes; and, in spite of their apparently helpless nature, which causes them to be carried about almost at random by the waves or currents, they, in so far, bid defiance to the powers of the sea, that they are not tossed about in all sorts of positions as is usually the case with creatures that are thrown upon the beach, but die, like Caesar, decently, with their mantles wrapped round them.

Looking closer at the Medusæ, the observer will find that the substance is by no means homogeneous, but that it is traversed by numerous veinings something like the nervures of a leaf. These marks indicate the almost inconceivably delicate tissues of which the real animated portion of the creature is composed, and which form a network of cells, that enclose a vast proportionate amount of sea-water. If, for example, a Medusa weighing some three or four pounds be laid in the sun, the whole animal seems to evaporate, leaving in its place nothing but a little gathering of dry fibres, which hardly weigh as many grains as the original mass weighed pounds. The enclosed water has been examined by competent analysts, and has been found to differ in no perceptible degree from the water of the sea whence the animal was taken.

Though the cells appear at first sight to be disposed almost at random, a closer investigation will show that a regular arrangement prevails among them, and that they can all be referred to a legitimate organisation. So invariably is this the case, that the shape and order of these cells afford valuable characteristics in the classification of these strange beings.

Just below the upper and convex surface may be seen four elliptical marks, arranged so as to form a kind of Maltese cross, and differently coloured in the various specimens, carmine, pink, or white. These show the attachments of the curious organisation by which food is taken into the system, and may be better examined by taking up the creature, and looking at its under surface.

Now, take one of the Medusæ, choosing a specimen that lies near low-water mark, and place it in a tolerably large rock pool, where the water is clear, and where it can be watched for some time without the interruption of the advancing tide.

The apparently inanimate mass straightway becomes instinct with life, its disc contracts in places, and successive undulations roll round its margin, like the wind waves on a corn-field. By degrees the movements become more and more rythmical; the creature begins to pulsate throughout its whole substance, and before very long it rights itself like a submerged lifeboat, and passes slowly and gracefully through the water, throwing off a thousand iridescent tints from its surface, and trailing after it the appendages which form the Maltese cross above-mentioned, together with a vast array of delicate fibres, that take their origin from the edge of the disc, or umbrella, as that wonderful organ is popularly called.

Words cannot express the exceeding beauty and grace of the Medusa, as it slowly pulsates its way through the water, rotating, revolving, rising, and sinking with slow and easy undulations, and its surface radiant with rich and changeful hues, like fragments of submarine rainbows. It is often possible, when the water is particularly clear, to stand at the extremity of a pier or jetty, and watch the Medusæ as they float past in long processions, carried along by the prevailing currents, but withal maintaining their position by the exertion of their will.

The reader is doubtlessly aware that the title of Medusa is given to these creatures on account of the trailing fibres that surround the disc, just as the snaky locks of the mythological heroine surrounded her dreadful visage. Many species deserve the name by reason of the exceeding venom of their tresses, which are every whit as terrible to a human being as if they were the veritable vipers of the ancient allegory.

Fortunately for ourselves, the generality of those Medusæ which visit our shores are almost, if not wholly, harmless; but there are some species which are to be avoided as carefully as if each animal were a mass of angry wasps, and cannot safely be approached within a considerable distance. The most common of these venomous beings is the stinger, or stanger, and it is to put sea-bathers on their guard that this article is written, with a sincere hope that none of its readers may meet with the ill-fate of its author.

If the bather, or shore wanderer, should happen to see, either tossing on the waves, or thrown upon the beach, a loose, roundish mass of tawny membranes and fibres, something like a very large handful of lion’s mane and silver paper, let him beware of the object, and sacrificing curiosity to discretion, give it as wide a berth as possible. For this is the fearful stinger, scientifically called Cyanea capillata, the most plentiful and most redoubtable of our venomous Medusæ.

My first introduction to this creature was a very disastrous one, though I could but reflect afterwards that it might have been even more so. It took place as follows.

One morning towards the end of June, while swimming off the Margate coast, I saw at a distance something that looked like a patch of sand occasionally visible, and occasionally covered, as it were, by the waves, which were then running high in consequence of a lengthened gale which had not long gone down. Knowing the coast pretty well, and thinking that no sand ought to be in such a locality, I swam towards the strange object, and had got within some eight or ten yards of it before finding that it was composed of animal substance. I naturally thought that it must be the refuse of some animal that had been thrown overboard, and swam away from it, not being anxious to come in contact with so unpleasant a substance.

While still approaching it, I had noticed a slight tingling in the toes of the left foot, but as I invariably suffer from cramp in those regions while swimming, I took the “pins-and-needles” sensation for a symptom of the accustomed cramp, and thought nothing of it. As I swam on, however, the tingling extended further and further, and began to feel very much like the sting of an old nettle. Suddenly, the truth flashed across me, and I made for shore as fast as I could.

On turning round for that purpose, I raised my right arm out of the water, and found that dozens of slender and transparent threads were hanging from it, and evidently still attached to the Medusa, now some forty or fifty feet away. The filaments were slight and delicate as those of a spider’s web, but there the similitude ceased, for each was armed with a myriad poisoned darts that worked their way into the tissues, and affected the nervous system like the stings of wasps.

Before I reached shore the pain had become fearfully severe, and on quitting the cool waves it was absolute torture. Wherever one of the multitudinous threads had come in contact with the skin was a light scarlet line, which, on closer examination, was resolvable into minute dots or pustules, and the sensation was much as if each dot were charged with a red-hot needle, gradually making its way through the nerves. The slightest touch of the clothes was agony, and as I had to walk more than two miles before reaching my lodgings, the sufferings endured may be better imagined than described.

Severe, however, as was this pain, it was the least part of the torture inflicted by these apparently insignificant weapons. Both the respiration and the action of the heart became affected, while at short intervals sharp pangs shot through the chest, as if a bullet had passed through heart and lungs, causing me to stagger as if struck by a leaden missile. Then the pulsation of the heart would cease for a time that seemed an age, and then it would give six or seven leaps as if it would force its way through the chest. Then the lungs would refuse to act, and I stood gasping in vain for breath, as if the arm of a garotter were round my neck. Then the sharp pang would shoot through the chest, and so da capo.

After a journey lasting, so far as my feelings went, about two years, I got to my lodgings, and instinctively sought for the salad oil flask. As always happens under such circumstances, it was empty, and I had to wait while another could be purchased. A copious friction with the oil had a sensible effect in alleviating the suffering, though when I happened to catch a glance of my own face in the mirror I hardly knew it—all white, wrinkled, and shrivelled, with cold perspiration standing in large drops over the surface.

How much brandy was administered to me I almost fear to mention, excepting to say that within half an hour I drank as much alcohol as would have intoxicated me over and over again, and yet was no more affected by it than if it had been so much fair water. Several days elapsed before I could walk with any degree of comfort, and for more than three months afterwards the shooting pang would occasionally dart through the chest.

Yet, as before mentioned, the result might have been more disastrous than was the case. Severe as were the effects of the poisoned filaments, their range was extremely limited, extending just above the knee of one leg, the greater part of the right arm, and a few lines on the face, where the water had been splashed by the curling waves. If the injuries had extended to the chest, or over the epigastrium, where so large a mass of nervous matter is collected, I doubt whether I should have been able to reach the shore, or, being there, whether I should have been able to ascend the cutting through the cliffs before the flowing tide had dashed its waves against the white rocks.

It may be easily imagined that so severe a lesson was not lost upon me, and that ever afterwards I looked out very carefully for the tawny mass of fibre and membrane that once had worked me such woe.

On one occasion, after just such a gale as had brought the unwelcome visitant to our shores, I was in a rowing boat with several companions, and came across two more specimens of Cyanea capillata, quietly floating along as if they were the most harmless beings that the ocean ever produced. My dearly bought experience was then serviceable to at least one of my companions, who was going to pick up the Medusa as it drifted past us, and was only deterred by a threat of having his wrist damaged by a blow of the stroke oar.

Despite, however, of all precautions, I again fell a victim to the Cyanea in the very next season. After taking my usual half-mile swim I turned towards shore, and in due course of time arrived within a reasonable distance of soundings. As all swimmers are in the habit of doing on such occasions, I dropped my feet to feel for sand or rock, and at the same moment touched something soft, and experienced the well-known tingling sensation in the toes. Off I set to shore, and this time escaped with a tolerably sharp nettling about one foot and ankle that rendered boots a torture, but had little further effect. Even this slight attack, however, brought back the spasmodic affection of the heart; and although nearly fourteen months have elapsed since the last time that Medusa shook her venomed locks at me, the shooting pang now and then reminds me of my entanglement with her direful tresses.

For the comfort of intending sea-bathers, it may be remarked that although the effects of the Cyanea’s trailing filaments were so terrible in the present instance, they might be greatly mitigated in those individuals who are blessed with a stouter epidermis, and less sensitive nervous organisation than have fallen to the lot of the afflicted narrator. How different, for example, are the effects of a wasp or bee sting on different individuals, being borne with comparative impunity by one, while another is laid up for days by a precisely similar injury. And it may perchance happen that whereas the contact of the Cyanea’s trailing filaments may affect one person with almost unendurable pangs, another may be entangled within their folds with comparative impunity.

As, however, the comparative degree is in this case to be avoided with the utmost care, I repeat the advice given in the earlier portion of this narrative, and earnestly counsel the reader to look out carefully for the stinger, and, above all things, never to swim across its track, no matter how distant the animal may be, for the creature can cast forth its envenomed filaments to an almost interminable length, and even when separated from the parent body, each filament, or each fragment thereof, will sting just as fiercely as if still attached to the creature whence it issued. It will be seen, therefore, that the safest plan will always be to keep well in front of any tawny mass that may be seen floating on the waves, and to allow at least a hundred yards before venturing to cross its course. Perhaps this advice may be thought overstrained by the inexperienced.

Those jest at scars who never felt a wound;

but he who has purchased a painful knowledge at the cost of many wounds, will deem his courage in nowise diminished if he does his best to keep out of the way of a foe who cares nothing for assaults, who may be cut into a thousand pieces without losing one jot of his offensive powers, and who never can be met on equal terms.

J. G. Wood.