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The Ships of Tarshish

Chapter XXIV. Port Humbug, or Humbourg

Chapter XXIV. Port Humbug, or Humbourg.

The destination of the expedition designed by Mandevil was the above-named port.

In ancient times it had belonged to the English, and had been named Port Humbug by the mariners of that nation, because, as they said, being so dangerous of access, more vessels were lost in trying to gain its shelter than would have been had there been no port there at all. Passing out of the hands of the English, its old name, though still retained, became modified, and acquiring a foreign termination, was finally resolved into Port Humbourg.

It was twelve that same night when it was announced to Mandevil and his friends that the ships were all ready to proceed to sea. The expedition started down the river soon after. Such preparations and additions as were visible, consisted in the covering over of the two cupolas of each with gutta-percha hoods. These were "battened down" to the deck by large flat steel rings, laid on the spreading edges, and screwed firmly in. A wooden tripod twenty-five feet high, over the pilot's tower, carried an illuminated "tell-tale" or transparent compass. A supply of fresh air was kept up by pumps and tubes for that purpose.

When they got to the mouth of the river, they steered in a direction nor'-nor'-east, a little southerly. All the next day 'they proceeded slowly towards their destination. In the afternoon it began to blow a gusty head-wind, and there was every page 100indication of a strong gale at night. Indeed the two preceding days having been very still and sultry, people wondered that the gale hadn't come on sooner.

Mandevil was not at all sorry, however, at the prospect, as it would give him an opportunity of proving the sea-going qualities of his ships, in which he felt the greatest confidence. By eight that evening they got nearly abreast of Port Humbourg, and the gale was already pretty high, the sea sweeping clean over the vessels' decks.

Before dark Mandevil succeeded in getting bearings which fixed their position. It was too late to attempt entering the port that evening, so he determined, as the direction of the wind was parallel with the coast, and the gale coming on with full violence, to keep the vessels with their heads to it all night, and putting nearly full steam power on, prove their ability to crawl off a lee-shore under the worst circumstances. The strength to which the gale rose that night certainly put them to no light proof. It quite terrified Norval once when he looked out of the pilot-tower, down on the deck below. It appeared all one sheet of luminous foam. He fancied himself in one of those lighthouses in precarious positions, of which he had read, and which were washed away on such a night as this. However, the vessels stood the test well, and did not leak a drop. At daylight next morning they found that in the eight or nine hours they had forged ahead from twelve to fifteen miles, being more than Mandevil expected.

As soon as it was sufficiently light, they steered for the entrance of the port. Mandevil's plan was for one vessel, the Defence, to remain at the mouth of the harbour, while his own vessel, the Vindicator, went in and destroyed what vessels there were to destroy, and taking no notice of batteries, or any strong positions, shell and do damage to whatever was vulnerable. As they neared the mouth of the port, the Vindicator leading, the batteries at the entrance began to play on them; but, according to Mandevil's orders, they did not reply,—a fact (as they knew afterwards) which disconcerted the enemy wonderfully. The shot, though very large, glanced off without doing them harm.

"What if they have placed torpedoes?" said Lord Malmsey Butt, as they got to the entrance.

"I think we are almost too strongly built even for them," page 101replied Mandevil; "but we've provided for them in other respects as well."

Just after, an immense column of water rose about thirty feet high, at a distance of twenty feet in front of the vessel, the spray of which washed its decks.

"Well done! torpedo-scraper," exclaimed Mandevil. "You must know," he continued, "that I have a projecting affair, something like a garden-scraper, which feels the way in front of us, at a depth of two feet below our own draught. It was one of the things that was fitted on the night before last. By the way, it suggests to me, that those vessels armoured only a little way below water, would not have much chance against a ram with a beak several feet under water."

Not to tediously lengthen out the story, it will simply be stated that the enemy, on perceiving, from the fact that Mandevil's vessels did not even condescend to return the fire of their batteries, that they were invulnerable, and also, seeing that the torpedoes also failed in doing any damage, telegraphed to headquarters. In a few minutes an answer was returned, and a flag of truce came off to request terms of peace. Mandevil, with the concurrence of Lord Malmsey Butt (and subject also to the concurrence of the Government, of which there was no doubt), let them off easily, offering them a peace on the terms of the statu quo, and which the enemy gladly accepted. "Which," said Mandevil, "as we have their Monster, in consideration of the damages and losses amongst our iron-clads, is not, I think, a bad exchange."