Rival Beauties By W W Jacobs
“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 grin.
“‘What’s the matter?’ ses the skipper, who just came up.
“‘This man has seen the sea-sarpint, sir, that’s all,’ ses the mate.
“‘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 his head.
“‘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 ship.
“‘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 their ways.
“‘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 it’s skeered.’
“‘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 ‘im.’
“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 like:
“‘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 for you.’
“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 fit.
“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 him.
“‘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 own eyes.’
“‘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 deck.
“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 brothers.”