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The Ships of Tarshish

Chapter XXI. Lord Chestnut

Chapter XXI. Lord Chestnut.

When Mandevil and his two friends arrived on the Wharf, they found another party already there. This party was a very distinguished one, for it consisted of no less than a very tiptop Naval officer; a ditto ditto Military; two or three others not quite so tip-top, who accompanied them as aids and comforters in page 76a bad business; Lord Chestnut, who was the diplomatic chief of the party, as he represented the executive civilly; and last, but not least, Mandevil's old friend, Lord Malmsey Butt, who was there to assist Lord Chestnut.

It appeared that it had been officially telegraphed that the enemy, before proceeding to further hostilities, was prepared to offer terms of arrangement. If the proposal for a conference to the end of discussing such terms were agreed to, the Monster would not come further than Wavesend till the result was known; from thence the enemy's envoys would proceed up the stream in one of the steamers on the river, which they would take the liberty of impressing for the purpose, while the British envoys would go down till they met them, so as to save time. The offer had been accepted, and it was in consequence that the distinguished party just enumerated happened then and there to be on St. Katharine's Wharf.

It appeared also that, through some mishap, the steamer which should have taken them had not made its appearance yet, though they had been waiting a quarter of an hour, and the official party were impatient at the delay. Lord Malmsey Butt, recognizing Mandevil when he arrived, came up to him, and after some observations on the great occurrence of the day, stated the dilemma they were in. Mandevil immediately placed his yacht at their disposal, it being there ready to proceed at a moment's notice, which offer his lordship gladly accepted, and went over to Lord Chestnut and the others, to acquaint them with it. While they were talking, Norval drew close, and said in a low tone of voice—

"I say, Mandevil! that's Lord Chestnut over there."

Mandevil looked towards the party, curious as to the appearance of his rival, whom he now saw for the first time. At the same moment Lord Chestnut (together with the others of his party) was turning to look at Mandevil, but only with a very languid curiosity. And then their glances meeting, the party came forward and was introduced by Lord Malmsey Butt. Lord Chestnut, on being informed of the offer of the yacht, had inquired to whom they were indebted, and, on being told, had remarked, cutting the description short—though rather languidly—

"Oh yes, I know — that engineering man belonging to the large works down there."

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To men like Lord Chestnut, who live in a refined atmosphere of the rarest official and social tenuity, in a region where nothing common or unclean—in short, nothing practical—is allowed to intrude, but only theory, in the shape of pure diplomacy and beautifully-developed ideal intricacy, prevails; to such men, every other man not belonging to their set is conveniently designated as that something or another—man, or, that something or another—fellow. And this refined official feeling is not limited only to the heads, but extends downwards to the lowest departmental grades. The worst off among them will look with a kind of lofty pity upon a "fellow" who is three times as well off as himself, but who has the misfortune to be connected with business in some way. Lord Malmsey Butt, belonging to a more practical department, and by frequent attrition with "fellows" and "men," had accustomed himself to look upon them with more of that fellow-feeling which, as the poet observes, makes us wondrous kind. The tip-top Military officer, also, had seen some service—and a battle or two, together with some roughing in real camps, had taken the nonsense out of him. As for the Naval officer, he had also done some fighting—but the very nature of his service, even without fighting, is calculated to give one a proper estimate of a man as a man.

It would certainly have made a difference in the degree of interest with which Lord Chestnut regarded Mandevil on that occasion, had he known him to be his successful rival. But he did not know it, Lady Trousely in her pride had never hinted at the identification, having always evaded the subject.

The yacht started. Mandevil generously refrained from reminding Lord Malmsey Butt of the vindication which his rejected propositions were now receiving. Nor did he offer any advice, reserving his opportunity till the result of the coming meeting should be known. His lordship, however, frankly took occasion to allude to it, and acknowledge the triumph of Mandevil's views.

"Well, Mr. Mandevil," he said, "you were quite right in your suggestions, and I heartily wish—though that's not much use now—that I could have followed them. Of course I saw a good deal of feasibility in your propositions "(Mandevil here thought of the watch), "but in an administration such as ours it would have been next to impossible to have inaugurated such an expen-page 78sive speculative undertaking. Parliament would certainly have refused to sanction it; and as to carrying it out on our own responsibility, the thing would have been out of the question—though now, of course, every one will wish we had, and plenty will blame us for not having done so. That is an advantage our friend over the way has over us. He can order what he likes, in what new fashion he likes, and have the bill sent in afterwards; while we have to pay as we go, and can only take care not to be too far behind the best fashion known. But we have been deceived. Who would have dreamt of the possibility of such an extensive affair being kept secret for so long a time?"

"I could," said Mandevil, laughing; "and perhaps I have good reason for saying so. And yet I must in a measure belie my assertion, when I state that I have known of the preparation of this strange ship, that has done so much damage, for several months past."

His lordship seemed unable to speak for a few moments, as he looked fixedly at Mandevil, while the colour went and came on his cheek.

Then he said—

"And why, may I ask, did you not inform the Gov——that is, the public, so that we might have been able to concert measures of defence in time?"

"I should assuredly have done so," returned Mandevil, calmly, "had I not seen a certain way out of the danger without the necessity of taking that course."

"Might I ask you to explain?" said his lordship.

"Not just now," answered Mandevil; "but you will know very soon. At present I will only say this, let Lord Chestnut first try his hand, and see what terms he can make. Then, if you find these conditions too galling, come to me—I do not say it boastfully—and I will undertake to deliver the country out of the difficulty. At present I will not state the means, but you may be assured they will be sufficient. But here we are," he continued "in sight of our works. My advice would be to wait opposite to them till our friend the enemy comes up."

The steamer bearing the hostile envoys has arrived, and side by side it and the yacht float in the river opposite to the Great Iron Gates. For some distance up and down the stream two or three armed revenue vessels, which made their appearance, kept off the page 79fleet of spectators which otherwise would have obtruded themselves on the scene.

The conference first commenced in the saloon of the enemy's vessel, but that proving inconveniently warm, it was carried on under an awning on the quarter-deck. The men of both steamers were strictly kept forward all the time, but they continued straining their ears, as now and then voices were raised to a higher pitch than ordinary, to catch any clue as to the result. A great portion of the men in the steamer of the hostile envoys were Englishmen, they having been pressed into the service along with the vessel that morning. As Bill and the yacht's crew were standing forward, these were discussing the matter with them. One of them—an old Man-o'-war's man—called out—

"I'm afraid it's all up with the old flag for the present. How-sumever, it's not along of us here fighting beggars; it's along of them there thinking beggars—and be dashed to them."

"No fear, lads! Never say die," said Bill. "Wait a little bit, and you'll see a slap-up game. You see Mr. Mandevil there—they ought to make him chief Admiral. He's got a rod in pickle that them fellows don't dream of."

The conference did not last very long. The Great Mogul, his envoys said, had generously condescended to bring forward his demands in the simplest and most moderate form to which he could permit himself to reduce them. The conditions were these:—A million pounds were to be paid down, to be divided among the grand army as a matter of prudence. This would be a mere nothing to such a rich nation as the English, and still less, considering the exceeding damage that could be done by the invaders in a few hours. This money to be paid before the signing of peace. So much for the feeling of the army. Next the sentiment of the nation was to be consulted. The least that could be demanded was the destruction of the Bridge of Cat'spaw. This must be blown up before the attacking fleet thinks of leaving the river. Also the mast-headed admiral must be ordered down from his position. The mast to be transported, at the expense of the English Government, to a position in his own capital, to be indicated by the Great Mogul, and there to he erected into a monument, and the said admiral to be placed thereon, so as, with a few alterations—such as a trifling change in the shape of his cocked hat, and particularly the arrangement of certain white page 80facings to his coat front,—to represent quite another character. An undertaking likewise to be given that the forthcoming Lions for the base should be delivered over to the Great Mogul's Government at the time of being ready, such time, however, not to extend beyond a period of ten years. The next and last stipulation had regard to the Great Mogul's own feelings, and to his character for consistency. Ireland must in future have a parliament all to herself. This was the very least that he could require; and it was a proof of the Great Mogul's willingness to exercise moderation, that at first his intention had been to demand that the question should be put to universal suffrage, whether that nation were willing to remain under the sway of England or not—England to abide whatever issue.

These, then, were the demands. It was no use to discuss them or to receive counter, proposals. They were in the form of an Ultimatum. There they were, and there significantly was the Monster. Nothing more could be said.

To these high-toned demands the English envoys had to reply. But what could they say? The tip-top Military officer turned scarlet, and curled his very beard for ire. The tip-top Naval officer turned purple, but couldn't trust himself to speak. Lord Malmsey Butt could say nothing likewise, but began to think of Mandevil—of what he had said,—and to hope, glancing over at the iron gates, that he was not a mere monomaniac. It was here that the true greatness and inherent superiority of the spirit of the old diplomacy asserted itself. Lord Chestnut alone had the presence of mind to say something. Without exhibiting any undignified emotion—Perhaps the opposite side would have the goodness to give them time to—talk the matter over in their own vessel. The opposite side said certainly, but would the other side make twenty minutes suffice, as the present tide must not be lost without arriving at something definite, and the question was a simple one, only involving acceptance or rejection as a whole.

Hereupon Lord Malmsey Butt—"Aye, five minutes less than that—within fifteen minutes they should have their answer." Then the party retired to the cabin of the yacht to hold their consultation.

While they are thus engaged, we will take a peep under the awning at the occupants of the quarter-deck of the enemy's steamer. Just now the members of the late conference are page 81gathered round an Individual, who, during it, had sat considerably apart, taking no part in it, at least as far as words went. But it might have been judged from the frequent looks of inquiry (answered by the slightest of nods) in his direction by the speakers while delivering their ultimatum, that at least his opinion was looked upon by them as of some importance. Once, too, he had written something on a slip of paper which was passed to one of the speakers. And now that the conference is over, the view just stated would appear to be confirmed by the hardly veiled deference with which they seem to address him.

The Individual alluded to, as far as dress went, was certainly the least distinguished-looking man of the party. While the rest were glancing all over in silver, steel, and gold, he did not glance at all, except in a furtive and uneasy manner at the large Iron Gates of the Tarshish works which loomed ominously abreast and whenever he did so, it might have been observed that the well-marked crow's-feet—those signs and effects of deep thought—at the corners of his eyes grew still more marked. His Nose was one of those seemed formed whereon to "hang a world." Under the nose, over the mouth—concealing it,—drooped a long and shaggy moustache. Somehow it looked as if it would have been more, in keeping, had this latter appendage been waxed and twisted out horizontally right and left, each like the lash of a whip, with which to "touch up" the nations. A jaw and cheeks to match the nose. But with respect to the cheeks, also, it would have seemed more in keeping had they been divested of a huge covering of reddish whisker, which, descending on each side, united under the chin, and which in colour did not seem to harmonize with the natural complexion of the wearer. A slouched wide-awake concealed his head, and a loose overcoat his body. He might have been a sort of secretary to the party, or a confidant of the Great Mogul's — one who shared his most secret policy.

Turn we now to the deliberations of Lord Chestnut and his colleagues. The tip-top Military was for risking anything—better than putting up with such impudence; and yet there was an irresolution in his anger, as he thought of the fearful loss and destruction to be risked. The tip-top Naval took the same view with regard to the impudence, but acknowledged the certain enormous loss to be incurred. He had a rough-and-ready plan, page 82too. He would block up the channel of the stream with sunk vessels. Lord Chestnut said, and Lord Malmsey Butt agreed with him in it, that with the means the Government had, fighting was out of the question. Lord Chestnut went on to say that resistance by means of sunk vessels, or of any other kind, would be only like cutting off one's nose to be revenged on one's face. No doubt it was very galling to be in such a position, but the chief point in diplomacy was to keep one's temper and look calmly to the inevitable. He thought that the terms should not be refused. And to bear this opinion out, he would examine into the nature of them. First the million of money was a mere fleabite. He would pass that by. Next there was the Bridge and the Admiral. What if they were put out of sight. He need not say that numbers of people, did they remain consistent to their recorded opinions, would say, "And a very good thing too." Of course to have to do a thing upon compulsion, was not agreeable to the feelings. But then, on the other hand, by way of comfort, might we not reflect upon what a turning of the tables it would be upon the enemy, that while he imagined himself to be harming us, he should be actually doing us a service. The third and last term—he frankly acknowledged—was the most seriously to be considered of the lot, for it involved a principle, and diplomacy always had the greatest regard to principles. But still, he thought, with a little diplomatic management, the sting might be taken out of even that. There had been nothing said as to when that particular provision should be carried out. He thought they might, by introducing some looseness of wording into the treaty, succeed in postponing the fulfilment of that part indefinitely.

So Lord Chestnut;—and with gravity and self-possession during the delivery of his sentiments, undisturbed by the fact that the military chief turned all sorts of colours the while, fidgeting with his sword and jingling his spurs,—or that the naval chief interposed two or three times with a fully audible "whew!" So Lord Chestnut with the most perfect calmness of spirit, while the others were inwardly as well as outwardly writhing. But what would be the good of diplomacy, were it not able to show its unquestionable superiority under trying circumstances?

And now it remained for Lord Malmsey Butt to declare himself. It appeared that he sympathized extremely with the pugnacious feeling of his fighting friends, at the same time he could not but page 83feel the full force of the reasoning of his diplomatic friend; so much so, he would confess, that, had he then no more grounds for hope than he started with that morning, he should be compelled to arrive at the same result. But an intimation had been made to him in the course of the day, which had had the effect of modifying his views, and in consequence he should vote with his fighting friends, and reject the proffered terms in toto. He then informed them of Mandevil's communication and offer, stating that he had every reason to repose confidence in his judgment and sincerity, and indeed—though it told against himself in saying so—had Mandevil's advice, given three years ago, been followed, things had never come to such a pass as this.

The military and naval chiefs caught at the communication eagerly, and were for turning the matter over to Mandevil at once. The party immediately adjourned to the quarter-deck, where Mandevil was with his two friends. Calling him forward, Lord Malmsey Butt said—

"Well, Mandevil, we can make nothing of it, and accordingly accept your offer and turn the matter over to you."

Mandevil bowed, and with a natural feeling of gratified pride drawing himself up, said—

"You commission me then to give the enemy his answer?"

"First—do we understand you aright, Mr. Mandevil?" said the military officer. "We don't know what you have behind those Iron Gates, whether a concealed battery, or infernal machines, or what; but you undertake that the enemy shall not pass this spot?"

"I do," answered Mandevil, "and more than that—but I will not say what now, as you will see for yourselves in ten minutes."

"Then, done!—it's a bargain, and we turn it over to you. Give them what answer you like, as long as it is telling them to go to blazes before we'll give in to them," said the two officers simultaneously, Lord Malmsey Butt concurring.

"And Lord Chestnut?" inquired Mandevil of that nobleman, who was standing languidly by.

"May I ask if you have had any previous practice in diplomacy, as I have no recollection of your name in connection with anything of the sort?"

"None whatever," replied Mandevil, shortly.

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Lord Chestnut's lips curled with a pitying smile as he continued:—

"Is it your plan then to fight the affair out?"

"It is," answered Mandevil.

"Then," said Lord Chestnut, shrugging his shoulders, "when you come to fighting, you come to something out of my line, and I have nothing further to say in the matter, either one way or another."

"Well then, it's settled," said Lord Malmsey Butt. "And now let's go to work, for the fifteen minutes are nearly out, and I shouldn't like to exceed them."

Mandevil then took his way to the enemy's quarter-deck in company with the whole party, including Box and Norval, whose excitement was at such a pitch that they could not resist the impulse to hear the answer to the Ultimatum. Lord Chestnut alone remained behind, with a smile on his countenance, in which pity and wounded dignity were mingled.

As Mandevil came upon the hostile party, his keen eyes wandered beyond the envoys, and encountered those of the Individual in the civilian's garb. Something in them appeared to fascinate him, for he stopped short, and regarded the Individual steadfastly for three seconds. Then he turned and whispered to Lord Malmsey Butt:—

"Were I inclined to act dishonourably, I think I could see a way to end this affair in our favour without any further fighting,—only by summoning up those revenue steamers.—But I can afford to play a higher game than that."

The other side now came forward, preceded by their chief spokesman, who, awaiting the coming answer, looked beyond Mandevil to Lord Malmsey Butt, who was a half-step in the rear. Mandevil then spoke.

"It devolves upon me, gentlemen—"

"Ah!"—interrupted the opposite spokesman in an ironical accent—"an entirely new representative suddenly sprung up, it would seem." He appeared to have an instinctive dislike to Mandevil. Perhaps the calm and cheerful confidence of the latter's looks warned him of what was to come.

"At the wish of my friends here," continued Mandevil, without noticing the interruption, and turning to Lord Malmsey Butt and the officers, who bowed in confirmation, "to make known to you that your terms are totally inadmissible."

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"What!" said the other, "you do not accept them?"

"Not only not accept them," replied Mandevil, "but on the contrary—"

"'On the contrary,' what?" sneered the other. "But observe! we accept no modifications; you take or reject as a whole."

"I have already announced," said Mandevil, "or intended to, that we do reject them as a whole. And I was about to say, that so far from accepting your terms, on the contrary, we have terms to offer you."

At this the tip-top military officer's beard undulated down-wards in pleased satisfaction. The tip-top naval officer gave a small stamp of commendation, muttering, "That's the way to say it."

"That's the style I like," growled one of the lesser tip-tops.

"The style that Nelly sat on," murmured another.

While this little round of favourable criticism was being rehearsed, the Individual in civilian dress had beckoned the chief spokesman to him. After a few seconds' conference, the latter returned and said,—

"If, in violation of the most sacred rules of civilized warfare, anything is intended against our persons, we warn you that half a million of men shall dearly avenge such an act within three days after."

"You may be at perfect ease on that point," said Mandevil, smiling and glancing towards "the Individual;" "we don't make war in that way, we leave that sort of thing to others. Our terms are these:—Leave these shores before the day is past. But first deliver up to us the vessel which has done us so much damage, as payment for that damage. These terms are still more simple than those you offered to us, and you must accept or reject them as a whole."

"As for leaving these shores," replied the spokesman of the other side, "we intend to do nothing of the kind, at least not till we have made some acquaintance with the luxuries of your great city, and especially with the fairer portion of its inhabitants. As for our new iron-clad which you appreciate so highly, if you want it, you must come and take it."

"That we shall certainly do," replied Mandevil. "And now farewell till we next meet!" he said, and then, with a low salute, and a wave of the hand, stepped back into his yacht, followed by his party.

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As the steamers were being cast loose from one another, in order that the enemy might return, one of the envoys called out—

"English! these thickly-populated banks will be nothing but smoking ruins before night."

"I warn you," Mandevil replied, "that for all private property you destroy, you will have to pay four-fold. Now then, Bill," he continued, addressing that worthy.

Bill ran up a signal. Immediately a platform over the Iron Gates was covered with the members of a brass band, numbering half a hundred performers, and by a swarm of sailors. Just as the enemy's steamer began to move off, Mandevil waved his handkerchief, and then with a grand crash, which perceptibly startled the hostile envoys, the band struck up "Rule Britannia." By this time an immense number of spectators, amounting to tens of thousands, had collected both on the river and on its banks, and when the music arrived at the "never—never" part, all these joined in, one after another, till there was a perfect roar, extending for at least a mile.

"That's the right tune to play them out with," said Lord Malmsey Butt.

"A very good tune," answered Mandevil "though with rather too many of what Bill calls 'curliwurlies' about it. But as for the words, I must confess they always grate on my ear, especially those in the last line but one. They are at variance, too, with what I am proud to think an English characteristic in warlike matters,—namely, a modesty of promise."

"You were not very modest in your promises to those fellows just now," retorted his lordship, laughing; "I hope your performance will be in character."

"You have me there," said Mandevil "But then you must confess the irritation was great—especially when that fellow began to talk about 'the fairer inhabitants.'"

And now "Rule Britannia" had ceased, the sailors had disappeared from the platform, and the band had begun to play a slower strain, with thrilling blasts of solemn portent, as a dictionary would say, could it be supposed to talk.

Had I the pen of a musical reviewer, I could now describe how—when it rose that sweet and solemn strain—by modulating into its relative minor it produced a wild and thrilling effect—and then how, as it went on, by a transition into the key of the sub-page 87dominant, it assumed a tone of broad confidence mingled with mighty portent; with several other knowing statements of the same kind.

"And now at last," said the tip-top naval officer, "we shall see what we shall see, I suppose."

"Here we all are," said Lord Malmsey Butt, "extremely anxious to know—so you may as well tell us at once—What have you behind those Iron Gates?"