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The Ships of Tarshish

Chapter XV. Bill

Chapter XV. Bill.

About a thousand men had been constantly employed on the undertaking; and the buildings, machinery, and everything ready to go to work with, were completed by the beginning of July.

About a month before that time, one morning, as Mandevil was engaged in his room over some queer-looking mechanical drawings his servant appeared and said—

"Please, sir, there is a person outside who says he wishes to see you."

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"Did he give any name?" asked Mandevil.

"Yea, sir,—he said, tell your master it's Bill."

"Oh, show him in here at once," returned Mandevil.

Accordingly, Bill was shown in. A tall fine-looking fellow with something of the sailor in his walk. He had tanned yellow hair, good forehead and features generally, and an honest clear blue eye. Bill had been a great rover. He was the only son of a farmer, and bad been left an orphan when young. He didn't know much about it, he said, but he believed his relations or guardians had done him out of all the property which ought to have come to him. However he appeared to have had good ordinary schooling, for he wrote a fair hand. Mandevil in his travels, falling in with him, had occasion to employ him in his service about a year, and had conceived the highest opinion of him. He was one of those naturally independent truthful characters which are not so very often to be met with. Bill had let out something of his previous life to Mandevil. He first enlisted in the artillery. After a year or two he deserted, as Mandevil rather guessed, from what Bill let out, though Mandevil did not press him on any particulars. However his reminiscences of the service did not appear to be very agreeable. Mandevil was amused to watch his indignation, when his eyes flashed and his teeth ground together, while describing the tortures he had to undergo at drill.

"Our dress and equipments," he said, "seemed as if they were made just on purpose to torment a man as much as possible. There—time after time, I've stood two or three hours with my stiff collar digging into me, and my knapsack braced so tight on my shoulders, that I felt as if I could almost faint with the pain, and my muscles and sinews got so numbed, that I could scarcely feel my arms for the rest of the day!"

Then as Mandevil had looked at the tall strong man before him who related this, he wondered how the more delicate recruits managed to come through.

Bill had next been a sailor, then a gold-digger, then a sawyer and rail-splitter, and a settler, in different countries, and had now found his way to England, and was standing before Mandevil.

Mandevil rose and shook hands heartily with Bill when he appeared, made him take a seat and then said—

"Well, Bill! you got my letter then I suppose?"

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"Yes, sir!" he answered, "and I started directly I got it. I was wondering how you managed to find me out."

"I remembered your saying where some friends of yours lived. I hunted them out, and they told me of your having lately arrived and where you were to be found. But now to business: I've been thinking a great deal about you lately, as I am in want of a good, honest, shrewd fellow, to do some confidential business for me. Do you care about a good billet now? I suppose you haven't retired on your fortune yet; I always thought, and told you, that you were too much of a rolling stone for that."

"It's quite true, sir," said Bill, with a slight laugh; "I've been very much like yourself in that respect I think, sir. I made a little pile at the new diggings across there. Then I had a fancy to see the old country again, so I took a steerage passage here. I meant when it was spent to work my passage away somewhere again. But however, if you have a job for me, sir, I shall be very glad of it, for I've always said, since you and I parted, that I'd most sooner work with you for my food and clothes than for double pay with almost any one else."

"There will be no need for that, Bill," said Mandevil. "If you like the service, I think the pay will suit you too. You will have ten pounds a week and travelling expenses. It will be a permanent situation. For the first month or two you will be travelling about: afterwards you will be captain of a yacht belonging to the company in whose service I engage you. The arrangements of the company are chiefly in my hands. Now don't thank me, Bill,—but listen," he continued, as Bill's eyes glistened with pleasure, and he showed symptoms of speaking; "there is nothing I hate so much as being thanked,—I like being abused much better. You will want to understand something of matters, and how I come to have a hand in them. But first, what I have to tell you is confidential, and of course you'll keep it secret. Now the whole affair is this. I have lately had a large fortune left me. And as to this company, though for certain purposes it appears under the names of Squire and Worthit, and I appear as the superintendent of their works, they are really contractors carrying out my designs, for I am responsible for everything. Now I wish part of these works to be carried on in secrecy, and I wish you to proceed tomorrow, for the purpose of engaging several hundred trustworthy men, within the course of the next month or two, by which time page 53we shall be ready to go to work. I am glad I have got you for the purpose, as I know you are a good judge of character. I want you at first, wherever you go, to mix amongst the men and observe their characters carefully before you begin to engage any of them. As a general rule, engage single men in preference to married, but you can use your judgment if you come across good married men. But don't engage them without first finding out what sort of wives they have. If the man is ever so good, and he has a vain, lazy, jealous sort of wife, don't engage him. For all the men you get will be required to make a solemn declaration not to betray any of the secrets concerning the nature of the work on which they shall be engaged; and there are some women who would consider themselves miserable martyrs if their husbands dared to keep a secret from them, even though it were not the husband's own to reveal. You will be allowed to have the pick of both Squire's and Worthit's establishments, and if you want any men from other works, after having fixed upon such men in your own mind, before you say anything to them, go to their masters and tell them that you wish to engage such and such men, and offer to pay them for any loss or inconvenience they may suffer by it. I will give you detailed instructions before you start, about the number of men, rate of wages, and so on; but all through the thing you need not stick at trifles in the way of expense, as I want my plans carried out whether or no."

Bill carried out the commission given him with the greatest success, and justified Mandevil's confidence in him.

By the beginning of the half-year the works were in full progress. The secret was well kept of what was going on in that inclosure. But things in general were managed with so much caution, and sufficient was allowed to appear in the shape of works carried on outside, and results produced, to veil the character of what was really the main part of the enterprise, whatever that was. Notices in other papers, similar to that which appeared in the Great Diurnal Weathercock, were verified in their statements by the production of some really good specimens of gigantic artillery, manufactured in the Tarshish works. Some of these big guns were tried under official scrutiny, and knocked big holes through all sorts of targets; and the company received several Government contracts for the supply of guns. These proceedings were the means of bringing Mandevil several times in contact with page 54Lord Malmsey Butt. And now Mandevil had the gratification—if it was any gratification—of experiencing a change in that nobleman's demeanour towards him. There was a difference between the practical Mr. Mandevil, the manager of an immense firm, and the unknown—it might be adventurer—Mandevil, suddenly starting up, and encroaching upon the valuable official time, with theories and crotchets. Had Mandevil in these new times desired an interview, it would have been accorded without delay, nor need he have been apprehensive during it of significant examinations of a repeatedly-opened watch.

But all this did not move Mandevil a bit; he only thought of it with an amused smile. He said to himself, "I am playing too great and high a game to care about any one's courtesies, or the reverse. If my secret intelligence is right, and my judgment of symptoms is correct, my lord will sing small enough before me one of these days. Not that I have the least desire of any such triumph over him. No; all that I care about is her opinion, and to show her that I am not unworthy of her. And all the triumph that I wish is, to triumph over the prejudices of her proud mother."

Amongst other things turned out by the Tarshish works were specimens of small gunboats, in which, by making them nearly as broad as long—the greatest invulnerability was combined with a very shallow draught of water, and which were very much admired by judges.

And so things went on. One day Mandevil said to Bill, who had been long installed as captain of the yacht,—

"It is time now, Bill, to commence with another part of my plan. I want to have a set of gunners of my own. This will be something in your line, you know. You told me you were in the artillery once; only instead of being full private, you will be an officer now. I'll be bound, your men will be more comfortably dressed than you were. Of course, you guess the main reason for doing what I have told you. But others may be told that, in competitions sometimes, we won't have a fair chance unless our guns are worked by our own men; for some of them may have peculiarities of construction, which require men specially trained in order to use them. So take the yacht, and go for two or three weeks' cruise, and get about sixty of the most likely fellows page 55that you can find in the Naval Reserve and elsewhere, and we'll get proper trainers, and go to work."

During all this time, Mandevil's house and establishment was of the plainest description. He had a workshop fitted up at the back, where two clever engineers were continually employed at models, under his direction. Mandevil himself was often to be seen with the file in his band, hard at work for hours, and of which his hands showed traces. Next to the room was another containing a telegraphic apparatus, and from which a wire had been laid on to the works.

And thus, by these means, did Mandevil preserve his patience. Yet he often thought to himself,—"Three, two years, one year, six months, is a long time to wait, when I might do without waiting. But I scorn to conquer as a mere money-bag. And the grand crisis, which is to be my opportunity, is sure to come before then. I see it brewing—brewing—brewing!"