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The Ships of Tarshish

Chapter XXII. "The Ships of Tarshish!"

Chapter XXII. "The Ships of Tarshish!"

Answered Mandevil. "You know our works are called 'The Tarshish Works,' and therefore we may call the ships built in them 'the Ships of Tarshish.' But here they come,—the Vindicator and the Defence!"

The music had suddenly ceased. The large Iron Gates were observed to commence opening outwards from the middle, as though propelled by a force behind. It was in truth one of the "Ships of Tarshish," as Mandevil called it, forcing its way out. Forth it came full-armed, as the ancient Goddess of War issued from the opening head of Jupiter. Polished from stem to stern, it shone like the silver moon, the profile of which, when two-thirds submerged in the watery horizon, it resembled.

The mighty vessel came out and turned slowly down the stream, and then was followed by another its counterpart. It was about 350 feet long, with a breadth of about two-thirds its length. The cross section of the part above water, its outline, formed an elliptical arch. The steepest inclination, that near the water-line, was less than 45 degrees. About 80 feet of the crown of the arch was nearly flat. The bows also sloped backward from the water's edge in the same manner as the sides. The stern was more upright. It had two cupolas, each 60 feet in diameter, and a round pilot-tower forward, 15 feet in diameter. Owing to its immense breadth, it appeared, from whatever side viewed, like a low circular mound crowned by fortifications. It was propelled by three screws, each with engines of 1,500 horse-power. The vessel, in action, was steered entirely by means of the screws. It had a protected rudder, but this was only for use in case of damage to one of the page 88outer screws. So much of general description must suffice for the present. One more particular will be given in its convenient place hereafter.

As the first vessel began to come out, there was a dead hush of expectancy all over the surface of the river, and along its banks. But presently, as the reality became apparent, there was a general roar of cheering from the assembled thousands; the cheer was caught up until it extended to places out of sight, and people were cheering at they didn't know what. In five minutes also the news had been telegraphed up to various places in the City, and there the cheering was renewed, so that within a few minutes more than a million of people were shouting together. Consols went up 15 per cent, immediately.

"There is no time to lose," said Mandevil. "We must come upon them before they form a plan, or else they may escape us. Their Monster draws more water than we, consequently is narrower—consequently is swifter. Therefore we must look sharp. Who wishes to follow out the sequel with these fellows?"

All the assembled party, with the exception of Lord Chestnut, eagerly volunteered. They then shot alongside the first vessel, the Vindicator, and Mandevil and his party sprung on board. After leaving Bill on the Defence, the yacht returned up the river with Lord Chestnut.

"I take up my position in the pilot-tower," said Mandevil. "There is only room there for three others beside myself and two trained assistants. I have long looked to the pleasure of having the company of my two friends Box and Norval on this occasion; perhaps your lordship (to Lord Malmsey Butt) would like to make the third. The other gentlemen, if they wish, can watch the way in which the big guns in the cupolas work, though, if my plan succeed, there will not be much need of using them to-day."

Mandevil and his party proceeded to the pilot-tower, a revolving one of 9 feet inside diameter, and protected by layers of steel plating 3 feet thick. In this place were numerous handles and indices by means of which instant communication could be made with any of the three engine-rooms for the purpose of steering the ship. As Lord Malmsey Butt mounted to the upper stage of this tower with Mandevil, the latter said—

"We left your friends to look after the big guns, some of them perhaps the biggest that have yet been carried at sea, but I now page 89beg to introduce to your lordship's notice a kind of artillery that I believe has never yet been used in warfare, and the smallest in bore that has been carried at sea for a long while, but with which, nevertheless, I hope to decide the coming fight, without the aid of the big guns at all."

As he spoke, he pointed to three miniature swivel-mounted cannon, from the butts of which proceeded downwards flexible continuations. These were opposite three nearly parallel loopholes which afforded sufficient lateral play to allow their discharges to concentrate at a distance of from thirty to one hundred yards.

"You will understand now what my telegram meant," continued Mandevil, addressing Box and Norval, "about the hot oil and chemicals. With this middle tube, on a calm day such as this, I can send a stream of boiling-hot oil to a distance of a hundred yards. With these other two I can send to the same distance two different sorts of chemical fluids, which, when they unite, burst into a flame of fire."

In due time they opened upon the reach of the river where the enemy lay. Mandevil and his party were scanning them through telescopes. Presently, about five minutes after Mandevil's two shining giants had drawn in their view, a flutter was observed about the Monster, and signals went up; then a twelve-oared boat put off from her, pulling down the river at all speed. At the same time a large iron-clad, pronounced by some to be the Moll Fereeno, was observed in the distance steaming up to meet it. This, after coming up to it, took its crew and passengers on board and then steamed away again.

When the boat was first seen to put off, Mandevil said, "I imagine there is somebody in that boat who has begun to find out that remaining on board the Monster is not likely to be so safe a game as he thought."

"Couldn't you reach it with your guns?" said Box; "send a shot after them," "I could reach them," said Mandevil; "but I am quite content that it should be as it is. I want to localize affairs as much as possible."

Mandevil had already, weeks before, formed and arranged with the officers of his vessels various plans of battle, suited to different situations and emergencies. Bill commanded the Defence, and to him, as they came down the river in the morning, he communi-page 90cated the particular one which he wished to adopt on the present occasion.

In accordance with this arrangement, the Defence hung back a mile and a half, as Mandevil was extremely anxious not to alarm the enemy into escaping, his object being to get below him before making any attack. Consequently, as the Vindicator neared the Monster, it gave it as wide a berth as possible, neither showing a man nor firing a gun. Those who commanded the Monster, actuated by a feeling natural and common to men on occasions when something altogether new and unusual is about being tried, followed the example, and appeared equally reluctant to fire the first shot or to proceed to a collision, bat remained motionless and observant, with full steam up.

It was an anxious time for Mandevil as they came near the Monster, then abreast of it, for he dreaded every moment to see its head, which was pointing up the river, slewed round the other way. Should it do this and make up its mind to run for it, his plan would be defeated; as the enemy, he knew, could make at least a knot more than his own vessel. But, when he passed without this happening, and shot down a few hundred yards, he drew a great breath of relief; for he knew then that his game was secure. When the Vindicator had passed down about the third of a mile, it drew up, turning its head towards the enemy. Waiting until its comrade the Defence had approached the Monster to about the same distance, it advanced towards that enemy once more. Mandevil's plan was to jam the Monster between his two vessels, and so block his passage of escape; and also, trusting to the superior powers of turning and maœuvring which they possessed—owing to their greater beam and additional middle screw (the Monster only having two)—to keep one continually across his bows, while the other butted at his screws and broke them. The former task was assigned to the Defence, Bill's vessel, while Mandevil's, the Vindicator, undertook the latter.

The attack was well timed as to simultaneousness, for both vessels came up to the Monster, each within a few seconds of the other. The Defence came down stem on, but when within about fifty yards, it suddenly began to slew broadside on to the Monster's bows, turning on its own centre. The Monster, by this time perceiving the trap laid for it, tried to slip past. But page 91the Defence was able to turn in a third less time, while its additional middle screw allowed it to back or forge ahead while in the act of turning, without taking off either of the two outer screws from their work. In the open ocean, by very skilful management and with its slightly superior speed, the Monster might have escaped from the unequal fight; but in the narrow space between a river's banks, coupled with the disadvantage of having a greater draught of water, escape by running was impossible. The Defence and the Vindicator each as it came up received an immense shot; but in both cases the shot glanced off without doing any material damage. In Mandevil's vessel the shot struck the pilot-tower, much to the disturbance of the equanimity of Messrs. Lord Malmsey Butt, Box, and Norval.

"I'm no fighting man, I'm only a spectator," grunted Box; "I shall keep to the safe side of the hedge."

And accordingly he scrambled down the ladder into the hold, followed by Norval and Lord Malmsey Butt. The latter would have remained, though, but Mandevil advised him that it would perhaps be better that he should do as the others, because he wanted all the room possible, now that the fighting had commenced. The shot, fortunately, did not strike the tower fair in the middle, or the concussion would have been much more disagreeable, perhaps dangerous. As it was, it glanced off, doing no damage at all.

"And now," said Mandevil to his two assistants, "it will be our own fault if we let them have another slap at us. Keep ready now, and when I give the word—spout away!"

Accordingly, as the huge cupola revolved round to bring a second gun to bear, and the only thought the enemy had was to make sure this time and hit the middle of the tower fair, directly the port-hole began to open to view, but before the gun bore even upon the edge of the tower, such a stream of hot oil and fire-producing chemicals was poured through, that the scalded enemy were driven from their guns, after making one frantic effort to take aim with a shot, but which only grazed the tower.

"You can come up again, there's not much danger now," called out Mandevil to his friends, who accordingly scrambled up, "This is the way the money goes, Box, my boy!" continued he, hilariously; "it is spouting out now at the rate of fifty pounds a minute."

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"I think it's 'pop goes the weasel' in t'other place though," said Box; "I fancy I can hear them squeaking. That's the way we used to serve the rats in Demerara."

However, being such an expensive game, Mandevil did not keep it up continuously, but kept a sharp look-out on the enemy's cupola, and directly it was observed to move for the purpose of bringing the guns to bear, the obnoxious stream was renewed.

The vessels had dodged from one side of the stream to another thrice before Mandevil got the opportunity he wanted, but at the third time of turning he perceived an opening, and ran in, in a slanting direction, on one of the Monster's screws, and succeeded in snapping its fans off. This reduced the enemy to a state of comparative helplessness, and it was not long before the other screw was served in the same manner. The Monster after this, as regarded the power of moving, was no better than a large raft on the water.

And now it was beautiful to see the way in which, after all this had been accomplished, the Defence and Vindicator disposed of their enemy. They ranged themselves side by side behind the Monster, each with its shoulder, as it were, against that vessel's quarter, and pushed it down the river before them. By keeping a stronger pressure on the outside screws of the two vessels, the captive was firmly kept in their grip, their after-parts being coupled together by a safe contrivance prepared for the purpose. Thus they proceeded down the river for a mile or two, using the hot oil and chemical preventive whenever the enemy showed a disposition to fire, but without firing a shot themselves.

By this time it was about two o'clock. That day it happened to be one of the highest spring tides on record. The enemy had chosen the time of spring tides for the better carrying out his attack up the river, and now, by way of retributive justice, the circumstance afforded his antagonists the means of disposing of him more completely. Coming opposite a convenient nook with high ground on each side of it, just at the time of high-water, Mandevil gave the signal, and then they ran the Monster in shore, hard and fast; which they were able to do, drawing, as they did, two or three feet less water.

"And now," said Mandevil, "we'll leave them to surrender to anybody they like; we've got other work to do; we must strike page 93while the iron is hot, and carry the war into the enemy's camp until we force him to confess that he has had enough."