The Ships of Tarshish
Chapter XX. The Monster
Chapter XX. The Monster.
The next morning more disquieting rumours and telegrams; mid-day, still more disquieting; but at night was reached the climax of alarm. It was known for certain that Lord Cow-page 71slip and his family had arrived that day in town, and hundreds of English also. This was bad. But worse—it was then ascertained that the Great Mogul's minister had decamped privately, a day or two before. Consols all that day were going down, down, down.
The weather was hot and still; of that ominous kind which forebodes a storm. In that respect it harmonized with men's feelings. That night people who had been wont to retire early, stopped half the night talking in the streets with men they had never seen before. Thousands of generally good sleepers passed a feverish wakeful night.
Another morning has come. The scene is now in Mandevil's house. It is about half-past seven. Without, before the door, stands a carriage with horses ready harnessed. They have been there ever since daylight. Within, Mandevil is at breakfast. He too experienced a night of wakefulness and excitement, but from different causes to those which affected the people in general. Theirs was a sensation of vague alarm; his was one of certain hope and pleasure at the soon fruition of long-laid plans. It kept him awake the first part of the night, but he had a sound, refreshing sleep of three or four hours before morning.
When Mandevil had about half finished his breakfast, he heard the noise of a cab rattling up the road almost at a gallop, which ceased suddenly at his garden gate. Then Box and Norval almost rushed into his room in a state of tremendous excitement.
"There," said Norval, and "There!" said Box; "read that," each throwing a "special issue" on the table.
"You are just in time," said Mandevil quietly, without appearing to notice the state his two friends were in. "Come, sit down. What can I help you to?—there's ham, and there are boiled eggs, and there's——"
"Well," broke in Norval, "I never saw such a fellow. Have you no curiosity? Don't you know the country is in danger—as the old S. P. Q. R. used to say? Or have you heard the news already? Or if you have, how can you be so callous over it?"
"The fact is," answered Mandevil, "I have heard the news already; I suspect before even the offices of your papers received it. You forget that I have a telegraph 'on my own hook,' as they say. My assistant has been watching it all night. But come, take some breakfast, and while you are at it you can tell me what news you know."page 72
"The news is bad enough," said Box; "there's been fighting, and as far as has been known, we've been licked. It has proved you rigth, Mandevil, as regards our Warriors, and the whole boiling of them. This morning, just before daybreak, the Warrior, with several others, discovered a strange-looking craft, a sort of Monster,—long, immensely broad, and low in the water, surmounted by two cupolas, sneaking towards the mouth of the Thames. Behind her were other vessels coming slowly, which afterwards turned out to be the Glowerer, Moll Fereeno, San Genter, and others. Our side challenged the strange Monster. The Monster didn't condescend to answer. Then we fired small shots across the Monster's bows, then at the Monster. These taking no effect, the biggest shots were tried, but without producing the least impression. The Monster didn't answer with a single gun. Then the greater part of our ships made a charge to try close quarters. The Monster waited till they got pretty near, and then opened upon them, with nothing lighter than 300-pounders;—almost every shot told between wind and water. Our vessels had to cut almost directly. One or two ran on shore to save themselves from sinking at once; others, less injured, but disabled for fight, made off in the direction of the nearest port. The remainder of our fleet then began to try their hand on the Glowerer, and her companions; but these immediately ran up and sheltered themselves under the wing of the Monster, so that our ships could only play at long bowls, in which game they got the worst of it. And in this order, they say, they are now coming up the river,—the Monster and her brood, and our ships at a respectful distance. They say it's most disgusting to see a tub that can only go six or seven knots setting all our splendid fleet, with their fifteen or sixteen knots—able to walk round and round her—at defiance."
"Well, but isn't it a satisfaction in itself," said Mandevil cynically, "to have such a set of handsome fast vessels. You know when they were built they were never meant to meet such ugly old tubs as you have described."
"Ugly or handsome—clipper or tub," exclaimed Norval impetuously, "the vessel that can send all our crack ships howling to their gods, where haply lay their petty hope in some near port or bay —is the one for me!"
"The vessel, Master Norval," said Mandevil, "which is the one for you, is some of 'my wonderful ships' that you have so often page 73been merry about,—the last time no later than the day before yesterday. It is the kind of vessel that I proposed in my interview with Lord Malmsey Butt, the result of which, also, I think, stirred up your bowels of compassion towards me. But I have something to tell you both, which perhaps will surprise you still more, and that is, that I have known of the existence of this Monster, as you call it, for the last nine months."
"You've known it for the last nine months," said Norval warmly. "Then why didn't you let the public know? You are the last person I should have thought of being a traitor."
"Don't be so excitable," replied Mandevil quietly; "I will answer your imputations of treason this evening. But as to your question, I will put it to you in answer this way. Supposing I had informed the public. What more influence ought it to have on it to know that such a vessel was building than to know that such a vessel could be built? Supposing that I establish my position, that the influence ought to be only equal. Then to see what effect my informing the public would have had, we can judge from the instance of Lord Malmsey Butt, who may be supposed to be the representative of the best intellect and technical knowledge of the public in these matters. Well, I did actually wait upon his lordship more than two and a half years ago, and suggest to him that such vessels could be built, and what did he do?—heard me gravely, answered me evasively, and bowed me out politely. And the public would have done the same. Had I written to the Great Diurnal Weathercock, I dare say it would have only condescended to throw my letter amongst the waste paper without further notice."
"You are about right, Mandevil," said Box; "success is the great thing with the Great Public, and its Great Representative the Great Diurnal. But it's too late for anybodies' mutual recrimination now. But, still, I wonder whatever we shall do to get out of the mess."
"For all that the Government," replied Mandevil, "has in its power to repel attack, the best thing we can do is to pay a good round sum, say a couple of millions, as prize money, and make some concessions with respect to Ireland. The Great Mogul himself wishes us no harm, and would be glad to draw back again, with creating as little bad blood as possible, and yet with the éclat of having carried out the most seemingly impracticable of his ideas. He page 74could rest secure ever after. The renown of it would extend over several generations. He calculates upon the character of the nation in this manner, that if, after making a sudden dash, and holding us at his mercy, he patches up a peace—having done us no serious damage, we shall not readily break it after, while his pet purpose will have been secured. I think, should we be inclined to yield at once, we shall not find his terms hard; while otherwise, the damage that can be done in an hour or two is incalculable."
"When I hear you talking so coolly of our probable disgrace," said Box, turning red, "I feel inclined to say to you what Norval did just now."
"That's right, Box! said Mandevil, laughing; "I admire your spirit. But don't accuse me wrongfully. I am not for yielding. Perhaps I am more inclined for fighting than yourself. At any rate, I am going down the river to see the enemy. Come along with me, and I promise you that when we do see them, I will go so close that you shall say Turn back before I. But it's time that I should be off. Will you go?"
"With all my heart," said Box; "but I am not such a fire-eater as to want to run into the dragon's jaws."
It was about eight o'clock as Mandevil, Box, and Norval took their seats and rattled off towards St. Katharine's Wharf, for there Mandevil's yacht was in waiting. As they were going, Norval said—
"Whichever way the affair turns out, whether we resist or compromise, how our friends in Heidelberg, and the Germans in general, will chuckle."
"According to the way," observed Mandevil in a musing manner, "in which I think the affair will turn out,—I don't think they will."
Both Norval and Box stared at the "speaker; but failing to catch his eye, pursuing the subject, Box observed—
"What a mess the funds are in. They say consols will be down to between 60 and 70 to-day, and perhaps lower. I wish I had sold out a week ago. I've a good mind to stop and sell out this morning, before they get lower still."
"If ever in your life you were inclined to be guided by me," said Mandevil, "be so now. Don't sell a penny's worth. On the contrary, if you are avaricious, lay out all the money you have in page 75hand—borrow from your friends, and make as many time bargains as you can for this evening, or still better, for this day week."
"You are a perfect Sphinx this morning," said Box. "I will take your advice about not selling out what I have, because it squares pretty well with my own ideas. But as I am not avaricious—and also with regard to present circumstances—I won't buy. But I can't conceive what is up with you, that makes you so cheerful, not to say—if I might venture to use the expression—cocky, when everybody else is down in the mouth.
"You will know in two or three hours," replied Mandevil. "But you must excuse me if I beg of you not to inquire any farther now. I have certain plans, too, to carry out to-day, and I wish to think over them a little."
So saying, he sunk back in his seat and rested his head on his hand. The carriage continued to whirl along at a great rate, as, indeed, it had been doing ever since they started.
"He seems pretty confident about something or another," muttered Box in a low tone to Norval; "I wonder what it can be."
"Perhaps," answered Norval in the same manner, "he has some torpedo, or infernal machine or another at his works, with which he means to attack the Monster as it passes up the river. But I'm afraid he'll find it a sell."
Here Mandevil smiled, the thoughtful expression that had come over his countenance passing away, and the two speakers, seeing that they had been overheard, looked at one another rather disconcerted.
Just then the carriage stopped, having arrived at the Wharf. Standing up, Mandevil said, cheerfully—
"No sell at all, Norval, my boy. Only have patience for a few hours, and come along with me, and I'll show you as pretty a little game as you ever heard of."