Beauties by W. W. Jacobs
An Extract from
"If you hadn't asked me," said the night watchman, "I should never
have told you; but, seeing as you've put the question point blank, I
will tell you my experience of it. You're the first person I've ever
opened my lips to upon the subject, for it was so eggstraordinary that
all our chaps swore as they'd keep it to theirselves for fear of being
disbelieved and jeered at.
"It happened in '84, on board the steamer George Washington, bound
from Liverpool to New York. The first eight days passed without
anything unusual happening, but on the ninth I was standing aft with
the first mate, hauling in the log, when we hears a yell from aloft,
an' a chap what we called Stuttering Sam come down as if he was
possessed, and rushed up to the mate with his eyes nearly starting out
of his 'ed.
"'There's the s-s-s-s-s-s-sis-sis-sip!' ses he.
"'The what?' ses the mate.
"'Look here, my lad,' ses the mate, taking out a pocket-hankerchief
an' wiping his face, 'you just tarn your 'ed away till you get your
breath. It's like opening a bottle o' soda water to stand talking to
you. Now, what is it?'
"'It's the ssssssis-sea-sea-sea-sarpint!' ses Sam, with a bust.
"'Rather a long un by your account of it,' ses the mate, with a
"'What's the matter?' ses the skipper, who just came up.
"'This man has seen the sea-sarpint, sir, that's all,' ses the
"'Y-y-yes,' said Sam, with a sort o' sob.
"'Well, there ain't much doing just now,' ses the skipper, 'so
you'd better get a slice o' bread and feed it.'
"The mate bust out larfing, an' I could see by the way the skipper
smiled he was rather tickled at it himself.
"The skipper an' the mate was still larfing very hearty when we
heard a dreadful 'owl from the bridge, an' one o' the chaps suddenly
leaves the wheel, jumps on to the deck, and bolts below as though he
was mad. T'other one follows 'm a'most d'reckly, and the second mate
caught hold o' the wheel as he left it, and called out something we
couldn't catch to the skipper.
"'What the d——'s the matter?' yells the skipper.
"The mate pointed to starboard, but as 'is 'and was shaking so that
one minute it was pointing to the sky an' the next to the bottom o'
the sea, it wasn't much of a guide to us. Even when he got it steady
we couldn't see anything, till all of a sudden, about two miles off,
something like a telegraph pole stuck up out of the water for a few
seconds, and then ducked down again and made straight for the ship.
"Sam was the fust to speak, and, without wasting time stuttering or
stammering, he said he'd go down and see about that bit o' bread, an'
he went afore the skipper or the mate could stop 'im.
"In less than 'arf a minute there was only the three officers an'
me on deck. The second mate was holding the wheel, the skipper was
holding his breath, and the first mate was holding me. It was one o'
the most exciting times I ever had.
"'Better fire the gun at it,' ses the skipper, in a trembling
voice, looking at the little brass cannon we had for signalling.
"'Better not give him any cause for offence,' ses the mate, shaking
"'I wonder whether it eats men,' ses the skipper. 'Perhaps it'll
come for some of us.'
"'There ain't many on deck for it to choose from,' ses the mate,
looking at 'im significant like.
"'That's true,' ses the skipper, very thoughtful; 'I'll go an' send
all hands on deck. As captain, it's my duty not to leave the ship till
the LAST, if I can anyways help it.'
"How he got them on deck has always been a wonder to me, but he did
it. He was a brutal sort o' a man at the best o' times, an' he carried
on so much that I s'pose they thought even the sarpint couldn't be
worse. Anyway, up they came, an' we all stood in a crowd watching the
sarpint as it came closer and closer.
"We reckoned it to be about a hundred yards long, an' it was about
the most awful-looking creetur you could ever imagine. If you took all
the ugliest things in the earth and mixed 'em up—gorillas an' the
like— you'd only make a hangel compared to what that was. It just
hung off our quarter, keeping up with us, and every now and then it
would open its mouth and let us see about four yards down its throat.
"'It seems peaceable,' whispers the fust mate, arter awhile.
"'P'raps it ain't hungry,' ses the skipper. 'We'd better not let it
get peckish. Try it with a loaf o' bread.'
"The cook went below and fetched up half-a-dozen, an' one o' the
chaps, plucking up courage, slung it over the side, an' afore you
could say 'Jack Robinson' the sarpint had woffled it up an' was
looking for more. It stuck its head up and came close to the side just
like the swans in Victoria Park, an' it kept that game up until it had
'ad ten loaves an' a hunk o' pork.
"'I'm afraid we're encouraging it,' ses the skipper, looking at it
as it swam alongside with an eye as big as a saucer cocked on the
"'P'raps it'll go away soon if we don't take no more notice of it,'
ses the mate. 'Just pretend it isn't here.'
"Well, we did pretend as well as we could; but everybody hugged the
port side o' the ship, and was ready to bolt down below at the
shortest notice; and at last, when the beast got craning its neck up
over the side as though it was looking for something, we gave it some
more grub. We thought if we didn't give it he might take it, and take
it off the wrong shelf, so to speak. But, as the mate said, it was
encouraging it, and long arter it was dark we could hear it snorting
and splashing behind us, until at last it 'ad such an effect on us the
mate sent one o' the chaps down to rouse the skipper.
"'I don't think it'll do no 'arm,' ses the skipper, peering over
the side, and speaking as though he knew all about sea-sarpints and
"'S'pose it puts its 'ead over the side and takes one o' the men,'
ses the mate.
"'Let me know at once,' ses the skipper firmly; an' he went below
agin and left us.
"Well, I was jolly glad when eight bells struck, an' I went below;
an' if ever I hoped anything I hoped that when I go up that ugly brute
would have gone, but, instead o' that, when I went on deck it was
playing alongside like a kitten a'most, an' one o' the chaps told me
as the skipper had been feeding it agin.
"'It's a wonderful animal,' ses the skipper, 'an' there's none of
you now but has seen the sea-sarpint; but I forbid any man here to say
a word about it when we get ashore.'
"'Why not, sir?' ses the second mate.
"'Becos you wouldn't be believed,' said the skipper sternly. 'You
might all go ashore and kiss the Book an' make affidavits an' not a
soul 'ud believe you. The comic papers 'ud make fun of it, and the
respectable papers 'ud say it was seaweed or gulls.'
"Why not take it to New York with us?' ses the fust mate suddenly.
"'What?' ses the skipper.
"'Feed it every day,' ses the mate, getting excited, 'and bait a
couple of shark hooks and keep 'em ready, together with some wire
rope. Git 'im to foller us as far as he will, and then hook him. We
might git him in alive and show him at a sovereign a head. Anyway, we
can take in his carcase if we manage it properly.'
"'By Jove! if we only could,' ses the skipper, getting excited too.
"'We can try,' ses the mate. 'Why, we could have noosed it this
mornin' if we had liked; and if it breaks the lines we must blow its
head to pieces with the gun.'
"It seemed a most eggstraordinary thing to try and catch it that
way; but the beast was so tame, and stuck so close to us, that it
wasn't quite so ridikilous as it seemed at fust.
"Arter a couple o' days nobody minded the animal a bit, for it was
about the most nervous thing of its size you ever saw. It hadn't got
the soul of a mouse; and one day when the second mate, just for a
lark, took the line of the foghorn in his hand and tooted it a bit, it
flung up its 'ead in a scared sort o' way, and, after backing a bit,
turned clean round and bolted.
"I thought the skipper 'ud have gone mad. He chucked over loaves o'
bread, bits o' beef and pork, an' scores o' biskits, and by-and-bye,
when the brute plucked up heart an' came arter us again, he fairly
beamed with joy. Then he gave orders that nobody was to touch the horn
for any reason whatever, not even if there was a fog, or chance of
collision, or anything of the kind; an' he also gave orders that the
bells wasn't to be struck, but that the bosen was just to shove 'is
'ead in the fo'c's'le and call 'em out instead.
"Arter three days had passed, and the thing was still follering us,
everybody made certain of taking it to New York, an' I b'leeve if it
hadn't been for Joe Cooper the question about the sea-sarpint would
ha' been settled long ago. He was a most eggstraordinary ugly chap was
Joe. He had a perfic cartoon of a face, an' he was so delikit-minded
and sensitive about it that if a chap only stopped in the street and
whistled as he passed him, or pointed him out to a friend, he didn't
like it. He told me once when I was symperthizing with him, that the
only time a woman ever spoke civilly to him was one night down Poplar
way in a fog, an' he was so 'appy about it that they both walked into
the canal afore he knew where they was.
"On the fourth morning, when we was only about three days from
Sandy Hook, the skipper got out o' bed wrong side, an' when he went on
deck he was ready to snap at anybody, an' as luck would have it, as he
walked a bit forrard, he sees Joe a-sticking his phiz over the side
looking at the sarpint.
"'What the d— are you doing?' shouts the skipper, 'What do you
mean by it?'
"'Mean by what, sir?' asks Joe.
"'Putting your black ugly face over the side o' the ship an'
frightening my sea-sarpint!' bellows the skipper, 'You know how easy
"'Frightening the sea-sarpint?' ses Joe, trembling all over, an'
turning very white.
"'If I see that face o' yours over the side agin, my lad,' ses the
skipper very fierce, 'I'll give it a black eye. Now cut!'
"Joe cut, an' the skipper, having worked off some of his
ill-temper, went aft again and began to chat with the mate quite
pleasant like. I was down below at the time, an' didn't know anything
about it for hours arter, and then I heard it from one o' the firemen.
He comes up to me very mysterious like, an' ses, 'Bill,' he ses,
'you're a pal o' Joe's; come down here an' see what you can make of
"Not knowing what he meant, I follered 'im below to the
engine-room, an' there was Joe sitting on a bucket staring wildly in
front of 'im, and two or three of 'em standing round looking at 'im
with their 'eads on one side.
"'He's been like that for three hours,' ses the second engineer in
a whisper, 'dazed like.'
"As he spoke Joe gave a little shudder; 'Frighten the sea-sarpint!'
ses he, 'O Lord!'
"'It's turned his brain,' ses one o' the firemen, 'he keeps saying
nothing but that.'
"'If we could only make 'im cry,' ses the second engineer, who had
a brother what was a medical student, 'it might save his reason. But
how to do it, that's the question.'
"'Speak kind to 'im, sir,' ses the fireman. 'I'll have a try if you
don't mind.' He cleared his throat first, an' then he walks over to
Joe and puts his hand on his shoulder an' ses very soft an' pitiful
"'Don't take on, Joe, don't take on, there's many a ugly mug 'ides
a good 'art,'
"Afore he could think o" anything else to say, Joe ups with his
fist an' gives 'im one in the ribs as nearly broke 'em. Then he turns
away 'is 'ead an' shivers again, an' the old dazed look come back.
"'Joe,' I ses, shaking him, 'Joe!'
"'Frightened the sea-sarpint!' whispers Joe, staring.
"'Joe,' I ses, 'Joe. You know me, I'm your pal, Bill.'
"'Ay, ay,' ses Joe, coming round a bit.
"'Come away,' I ses, 'come an' git to bed, that's the best place
"I took 'im by the sleeve, and he gets up quiet an' obedient and
follers me like a little child. I got 'im straight into 'is bunk, an'
arter a time he fell into a soft slumber, an' I thought the worst had
passed, but I was mistaken. He got up in three hours' time an' seemed
all right, 'cept that he walked about as though he was thinking very
hard about something, an' before I could make out what it was he had a
"He was in that fit ten minutes, an' he was no sooner out o' that
one than he was in another. In twenty-four hours he had six full-sized
fits, and I'll allow I was fairly puzzled. What pleasure he could find
in tumbling down hard and stiff an' kicking at everybody an'
everything I couldn't see. He'd be standing quiet and peaceable like
one minute, and the next he'd catch hold o' the nearest thing to him
and have a bad fit, and lie on his back and kick us while we was
trying to force open his hands to pat 'em.
"The other chaps said the skipper's insult had turned his brain,
but I wasn't quite so soft, an' one time when he was alone I put it to
"'Joe, old man,' I ses, 'you an' me's been very good pals.'
"'Ay, ay,' ses he, suspicious like.
"'Joe,' I whispers, 'what's yer little game?'
"'Wodyermean?' ses he, very short.
"'I mean the fits,' ses I, looking at 'im very steady, 'It's no
good looking hinnercent like that, 'cos I see yer chewing soap with my
"'Soap,' ses Joe, in a nasty sneering way, 'you wouldn't reckernise
a piece if you saw it.'
"Arter that I could see there was nothing to be got out of 'im, an'
I just kept my eyes open and watched. The skipper didn't worry about
his fits, 'cept that he said he wasn't to let the sarpint see his face
when he was in 'em for fear of scaring it; an' when the mate wanted to
leave him out o' the watch, he ses, 'No, he might as well have fits
while at work as well as anywhere else.'
"We were about twenty-four hours from port, an' the sarpint was
still following us; and at six o'clock in the evening the officers
puffected all their arrangements for ketching the creetur at eight
o'clock next morning. To make quite sure of it an extra watch was kept
on deck all night to chuck it food every half-hour; an' when I turned
in at ten o'clock that night it was so close I could have reached it
with a clothes-prop.
"I think I'd been abed about 'arf-an-hour when I was awoke by the
most infernal row I ever heard. The foghorn was going incessantly, an'
there was a lot o' shouting and running about on deck. It struck us
all as 'ow the sarpint was gitting tired o' bread, and was misbehaving
himself, consequently we just shoved our 'eds out o' the fore-scuttle
and listened. All the hullaballoo seemed to be on the bridge, an' as
we didn't see the sarpint there we plucked up courage and went on
"Then we saw what had happened. Joe had 'ad another fit while at
the wheel, and, NOT KNOWING WHAT HE WAS DOING, had clutched the line
of the foghorn, and was holding on to it like grim death, and kicking
right and left. The skipper was in his bedclothes, raving worse than
Joe; and just as we got there Joe came round a bit, and, letting go o'
the line, asked in a faint voice what the foghorn was blowing for. I
thought the skipper 'ud have killed him; but the second mate held him
back, an', of course, when things quieted down a bit, an' we went to
the side, we found the sea-sarpint had vanished.
"We stayed there all that night, but it warn't no use. When day
broke there wasn't the slightest trace of it, an' I think the men was
as sorry to lose it as the officers. All 'cept Joe, that is, which
shows how people should never be rude, even to the humblest; for I'm
sartin that if the skipper hadn't hurt his feelings the way he did we
should now know as much about the sea-sarpint as we do about our own