Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Ships of Tarshish

Chapter XII. Percussion

Chapter XII. Percussion.

It was about six weeks after this that the next recorded conversation took place between the two friends. Mandevil had been riding homewards, and encountering Norval, he said:—

"Come and have dinner with me; I want to tell you something when I get home."

Arrived there, Mandevil stretched himself on the sofa.

"Well, what do think?" he said, "I've just returned from an interview with Lord Malmsey Butt."

"With Lord — — Malmsey — — Butt! What could possibly have taken you there?" exclaimed Norval. "But perhaps you have been trying after some appointment—though I should say there wouldn't be much chance there."

"I should rather think not," said Mandevil, with a short laugh. "No! when I want anything of the kind, it won't be to Government that I shall apply. What I went for was to enlighten him as to my notions of ironclads."

"Bravo!" exclaimed Norval. "Those wonderful ships again. You ought to have a public dinner and a statue for your courage. But I'll be bound you convinced him though. Going to have the lines laid down to-morrow, isn't he?"

This was rather flippant in Norval; but Mandevil only looked at him with a curious kind of amused smile. At the opening of this narrative Norval was represented to be under the influence of a sort of hero-worship, of which Mandevil was the object, and as having secretly chosen him as a model. Now, under this view of things, the reader cannot fail to have remarked several inconsistencies therewith, in Norval's remarks and manner as detailed thereafter. This can be explained.

page 42

The statement alluded to held good up to the very day on which this narrative opens. From that time Norval had begun to see Mandevil in a new light. Before that time Mandevil had appeared to him the very perfection of demeanour. How different he was then. That grand, reserved, courteous manner—and yet ever perfectly candid. Always erring on the side of saying too little—so that one always wished to hear more. Never seen put out by anything. And yet it had not been always so with him. In his younger days he had been as impulsive as Norval. But wisdom and stoicism acquired by having been knocked about the world, by having been cheated in various ways, had rendered him the comparatively reserved and shrewd character that Norval first found him. But since then this love-affair had unsettled his disposition, or rather, had brought out again the features of his younger self. Norval, who was continually under the actions and reactions of impulse and its recoil, was accustomed to admire Mandevil as a firm rock upon which weaker natures could find support. But now all these ideas had received a shock. First he had seen his hero suffering under the depression of disappointment. But this he felt sympathy for. The first serious damage that Mandevil suffered in Norval's estimation was his betrayal of enthusiasm on the subject of a crotchet—that of those wonderful war-ships. The next was like unto it—the history, or hoax rather, of Samuel and the Wandering Jew.

It is true that Norval's fidelity fought stoutly against these depreciatory impressions, and would not even confess them mentally to himself. But still the resulting effect was produced. It betrayed itself in the involuntary bursting out of such ironical remarks as have been recorded at times in the foregoing pages. But to continue:—

Mandevil, as stated, only looked at him with an amused smile. Under other circumstances he would probably have felt hurt. But conscious of the enormous power that he held in his hands, he was rather pleased than otherwise. Indeed, perhaps, the secret prompting which led him to bring Norval home to discuss the affair, was to draw forth such remarks, and for that purpose also he contrived to throw a more absurd air over the account of his doings than was really warranted. Besides which he confessed to himself that Norval was quite right in his ridicule. Under ordinary circumstances, Mandevil felt that he would as soon have dreamt of trying page 43a voyage to the moon, as of calling on Lord Malmsey Butt for the purpose he did. But a similar impulse to that which made him afterwards converse with Norval on the subject, had carried him to that high official. The same sort of amused satisfaction which mighty monarchs, travelling incog. in search of adventure, experience when treated with unaccustomed want of deference, or with rudeness, sustained Mandevil under the ironical civility and raised eyebrows of the naval minister. He thought to himself during the interview, which he after recorded to Norval, how quickly that great Man, who kept looking at his watch while Mandevil was making his statements, if he could be suddenly made aware of what a power his visitor represented—would change his manner.

"Not so fast, my young friend," said Mandevil. "You mustn't be too hard upon me, especially as I have not succeeded in the purpose of my interview, which I was going to tell you of, that is, if you care about hearing."

"Oh, by all means. Hope I haven't offended you. Sorry I spoke. But then you know it does seem altogether so curious to my inexperienced mind."

"Well, then," said Mandevil, "I had asked for an interview with his lordship. This morning I went to his office. He wished, in plain words, to know what I wanted. I then told him that I had called to lay before him a statement of certain convictions which possessed me, convictions which I thought I could prove to be well founded, respecting the necessity of having a certain class of vessels in our navy, of which it is at present deficient. Well, his lordship's eyebrows began to draw up, and the corners of his month to draw down, as these features do sometimes when hearers imagine that they are being honoured with superfluous communications. Hm—Ah—his lordship interposed—he understood. If I had any plans or models, or anything practical, I could submit them, and the proper parties would report upon them. But the department was besieged by hundreds of applications of adventurers endeavouring to raise grounds for claims on Government. I told him that I had no models, nor anything in detail then to present, but that I must request that he would listen to me a little longer, as I could explain my ideas generally in a very short space of time. That unless he would hear me personally, I should communicate in no other manner to the page 44department. And as to claims or rewards, I was perfectly disinterested in the matter; that even if my ideas should ever be adopted and carried out, I then and there, beforehand, waived all right to claim one sixpence.

"'Which, to say the least of it," said he, with a curious smile (a smile which seemed to say, 'I make you out now, and I'll go on another tack, I'll humour you'), 'Mr. ——er——

"'Mandevil,' I supplied.

"'Mandevil,' he continued; 'is very disinterested of you.'"

Norval burst out laughing. "He had you there rather, I think. How did you feel after it? If it had been me, I should have shut up and bolted pretty quick."

Poor Norval; his idol had received another shock in his imagination, another loosening on its pedestal. He began to feel quite doubting, and in consequence uncomfortable; he detected himself actually pitying his hero. What! the Mandevil without a flaw of old times—the Mandevil once never to be surprised in a false position, now doing all sorts of absurd things, being snubbed by the magnates of the land and of society. Norval was quite uncomfortable. He was rather ashamed of him, but still he would love him, for was he not a good-hearted fellow, after all?

Mandevil was not put out, however, but with his new, inscrutable smile, continued—

"I managed not only to survive it, but to continue my conversation in a pretty independent tone, which I think also contributed to secure me a hearing. Not to be too long, I gave him my ideas, and he did seem rather struck with them, and acknowledged that he thought I might be right, but it was an affair that might be safely left to the course of events. I then said, 'Should some other power secretly build a vessel of the description and suddenly attack us, we would have to submit to any terms that might be dictated.' He did not think that such a thing was likely—scarcely possible perhaps. Such vessels, besides, would be awfully expensive, and a Government constituted like ours could not hope to carry a proposition for such a purpose; that we must always submit to a certain amount of risk, or else the rival race of expenditure would never end. He said a lot more, and so did I, but I have indicated the general run of the argument. I saw it was no use, but in order to be definite, and to give the department one more chance, I asked him finally, did he intend to take any further page 45steps in the matter? He answered decidedly in the negative. I then said, with great gravity; 'Very well, my lord, I ask you to remember this conversation, in case I should appeal to you at any future time.' He stared at me first, and then changing to his it's-safest-to-humour-him sort of look, answered,' Oh, certainly, if you wish it;' and so I came away."

"Well, but what are these wonderful vessels to be like?" said Norval. "You know you've never told me yet."

"Don't ask me anything more about them," said Mandevil, "for I am determined to say nothing. Don't you think that Lord Malmsey Butt has done enough to shut me up for ever. I want to talk about yourself now. What's the state of your finances?"

"Rather lower than could be wished," answered Norval. "I begin to see now that that blessed Fatherland over there did have some advantages; one of which was that you pay in kreuzers instead of pennies. Youth, my dear young friend, has a fearful amount of vanities and temptations to expenditure to put up with here. I find a sovereign melts away I don't know how."

"Will you accept a loan from me?" said Mandevil; "I am well able and should be glad to give it, and for as long as you like, and no acknowledgment. Come, now, that's tempting."

Norval's heart smote him for his late thoughts. His hero-worship revived a little too. Mandevil impressed him again with a sense of power—a man with ready money to lend generally does so. But Norval had many good points, one of which was a healthy independence, so he refused the proffered loan.

"It is tempting, and you are a good fellow," he said; "but I must not begin that game—at least not so soon—or I shall never learn how to economize."

"Well, I won't press you," said Mandevil, "for you are right to practise self-reliance. But I'll tell you how I think you can increase your income. Make some drawings, and leave them in one of the shops for sale. Stick a good price on them, for people will be more likely to think them worth buying then. There is a place in Fast-street, where they sell these things on commission. You and I were there the other day looking at a picture in the window, you remember."

"Yes!" said Norval. "I think, too, I saw that picture for sale in the same window when I was in London more than two page 46years ago; which is a great encouragement to me to go to work. However, it will be no harm trying. I have one now nearly finished."

"That's right," said Mandevil; "finish it at once, and stick it up there for sale, and if it sells, you can draw some more."