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The Ships of Tarshish

Chapter VI. Crotchets

Chapter VI. Crotchets.

In Norval's chamber Mandevil sat in musing mood. Reclining was his attitude. He reflected upon what he should next do. He should like very much to solicit to be allowed to accompany the projected expedition to the Great Pyramid. It was a thing that suited his turn of mind exactly. But then there was that chance of great wealth, concerning which he had received a mysterious communication a year before in Paris. He might be out of the way at the critical moment, and lose his chance. A little while ago, and had he felt an interest in departing for anywhere, such an uncertain consideration would have had very little weight with him. But now he could not help dreaming of the possibility of some wonderful turn of fortune. He did not want the wealth; but if by means of it he could conquer the objections of that proud woman—and it was his only chance. No—he could not give it up. page 21He would return to Stuttgart, pack up his traps, and from thence depart for Paris, so as to be near, in case he should be needed.

In about an hour his reflections were broken in upon by the arrival of Norval.

"What, John!" he said, "all melancholy. Why did you not ring for the coffee? I must see about some, and we'll have the lights in, and afterwards I'll smoke, and have the long talk with you which I want."

Coffee was brought and drunk in silence. Mandevil was still musing, and Norval smoking. After a while, the former, rousing, said,—

"How did your interview come off?"

"Very well Lady Trousely was pleased to accept the explanation on your behalf very graciously. She will condescend to remain here for the time she originally intended. I did not stay long; for I preferred having the pleasure of your society, my noble friend."

"You cover me with modest confusion of face, my young friend," said Mandevil; "I can't bow, but I can say like poor Kit did, 'Get out.'"

"But I have something more interesting to relate," said Norval. "As I was leaving, I met Florence in an outer room. She spoke very highly of you, and hoped I would cultivate intimacy with you as much as possible, and that suitable companionship was a great want of English students on the Continent. I let her go on demurely for a little, and then in a low voice, said, 'He has made me his confidant; on which she stopped suddenly, and I could see her blushes even in the dusk. I then said, taking her hand, 'Fear not, sweet Christabel, for all will yet be well—you'll have a firm ally in me,' and so parted, and here I am. But not without a further adventure, though. I met some of those fellows in the street, and they were quite ready for another row about Helswig-Schlosstein. But I heard all and said very little, as I wasn't in the humour just then."

"I'd advise you seriously always to follow the same plan," said Mandevil. "You must recollect that yon are in an enemy's country, and extreme reserve is the safest course; for there is no appeal in case of being worsted. I haven't much faith in Saxon chivalry. I have noticed in the different parts of England, the more of the Saxon element, the greater the absence of those rules page 22of fair-play in fighting, such as not striking a man when he's down, and the rest of it."

"That's just what I think," said Norval; "being over here will have cured me for ever of such things as sentimental regrets for the vanquished at the battle of Hastings, excepting Harold, who was a Northman. I wish William with his Northmen had killed off a few more thousand of them while he was about it. It would have been a great improvement of the breed, and for the future of the nation. I abominate the hackneyed misnomer of Anglo-Saxon. All our great men have descended from the Scandinavians. I shall not stop here after the end of autumn. It isn't healthy for one's mind to be in a constant atmosphere of consciousness of dislike, and to be always having one's bristles up. Besides that, I have almost made up my mind to go against my friends, and give up studying for the law, for which I am not naturally suited, and take to painting, for which I feel that I am. Bother the Roman law. We're Christians and Protestant. What do we want with anything heathen and Roman? But I want your advice on the subject. Mind—this is not a sudden resolve, it has been in my thoughts ever since I came here."

"I don't like shifting from one thing to another, in general; but if you feel confident of being able to be steady at it, I would advise you to turn to drawing, which, from your sketches that I saw in the Tyrol, I think you have a surprising natural talent for. But better work on for a while and I will send word what I think of it."

"All right," said Norval. "By the bye, those beggars in the street tried hard to make me angry. I think Box's cool manner galled them this afternoon. They kept telling me that proud Albion's pride was brought low; that we had no army, and that the French had a better fleet than ours, consequently Napoleon had us at his mercy, and that was why we were always crawling on our bellies in the dust before him. I told them demurely, that they had no right to be annoyed at our wishing to become on good terms with France, and as for ourselves, we could do so without wounding our sense of justice, for the French were not oppressors of other nationalities. There were only two nations in Europe, I said, who oppressed other nations. I would not name them; but Germany and Russia were natural allies, and should go together, and leave England and France to do the same if they chose; and page 23then I left them. But don't you think they are partly right about our navy? Has not this invention of ironclads destroyed our superiority?"

"Now, Randolph," said Mandevil, whose countenance appeared to lighten up as he spoke, "I must confess to your having touched upon my mad point. For your question is what I have pondered over again and again, and I haven't the least doubt of the answer to it. I take the greatest interest in the subject, for I think I have the same natural talent for engineering that you have for drawing. If they would only build a ship after my design, it would astonish the natives."

"Well, it's satisfactory to know that," said Norval, laughing; "but what is your opinion?"

"I think that instead of lessening our relative superiority, this new development has increased it tenfold. To all the time between the invention of steam, and shells for horizontal firing, and lately such a statement would have applied with truth; our naval superiority was in a critical state then. But now it has more than returned,—or rather, I should say, the means of attaining it are easily within our reach. In the old times good seamanship was everything in naval battles. Should you ever go a long voyage in a sailing vessel, Randolph, you would soon comprehend the difference between good seamanship and bad. To see what good seamen do in a gale of wind, thinking nothing of it, is enough to frighten a landsman. It has often made my heart jump into my mouth, as they say, to watch the men reefing topsails in a gale of wind. Fancy a fellow on the extreme end of the lee yard-arm, like a hen on a clothes-line, with the thick folds of an enormous sail flapping about him like thunder, and all the while being whirled through the air in arcs of fifty or sixty feet every five seconds; with vicious-looking white-topped waves, and valleys between them yawning under him. And they have these things to do on the darkest and coldest nights. Or were you to watch a good pilot handling a vessel in a difficult channel, how critically he has to seize the right moment for giving his orders, and how well drilled the crew must be to execute them quickly, you would soon see how good seamanship decided naval superiority. I class the courage required for the best sailor above every other. It is not mere fire and bravery, but stout-hearted heroism. To be pent up in a small space and have to endure page 24terrific danger for hours—sometimes days at a stretch, is something more than the spurt of a five-minutes dash' through a shower of bullets. And this sort of courage belongs pre-eminently to the race of the old Northern sea-kings and their descendants, "who form a great and the best part of our nation. But I am getting too much into a lecture tone, Norval, or talking like a dictionary, as you would call it, for I am on my hobby. Well, what did steam do to all this? Why, it nearly equalized good and bad seamanship. In a naval fight there was no longer a chance of catching the enemy's vessels taken aback through a funky crew, and raking them at the right moment, and then lashing alongside, and with your cool set of fellows giving them two shots to their one. We saw an instance only the other day of the mischief the introduction of steam has done to good seamanship. In the late war the Danes would have been doubly a match for their enemies had it been as in the old times of sailing vessels. Instead of the respectful keeping-at-a-distance-and-run-away-when-necessary system, it would have been the come-together-and-have-it-out-decisively-one-way-or-another one. Now, this new invention has restored our advantages and given us additional ones. First these iron monsters will generally be fought at close quarters, which fighting will require the same sort of steady courage and coolness that the old style of naval warfare did. Then the ships are so expensive, which is to the advantage of the nation that has most money. And not only that, but we can build them cheaper and faster than other nations, which was not the case with wooden vessels."

"But," urged Norval, "why are some of the papers, and a good many naval officers, who ought to know, continually abusing the iron vessels?"

"I suppose," answered Mandevil, "that is because the wooden vessels are more comfortable for cruising in, and they don't like them all to be done away with. But if these men were told some day, There is an enemy outside—go and fight him; here is an iron ship, and there is a wooden one, take which you like,' I fancy I know which one would be taken."

"So do I," said Norval, laughing. "It ought to be put to them in that light. First trick them by saying, 'Who are for wooden vessels, and who are for iron ones?' Then when they had declared themselves, give the wooden fellows a wooden vessel, page 25and the iron ones an iron vessel, and then tell them to fight it out, and that those who beat should have two steps promotion."

"Good!" said Mandevil. "But now to go on with the expense argument. Only the other day we saw in the papers that an ambassador of one of the smaller maritime states, observed to some Englishman that the late invention precluded such nations as his from having a fleet at all. For when vessels cost three or four hundred thousand pounds, they could hardly stand the expense of a single vessel. Of course any ordinary reflecting person did not want an ambassador to inform him of such a thing as that. But if the case stands thus now, what will it be when the expense is increased fourfold. For I am convinced—and now, Randolph, I am coming to the point where my monomania developes itself— I am convinced that the fleet of the future will bear the same proportion in cost of production and destructive power to our present iron ships, as they do to the old wooden vessels."

"Come!" said Norval; "I think you are going too far there. You know they have got to the greatest limit in thickness of armour. Vessels can't he made stronger to keep out shot. Besides, all the leading papers confess that guns have gained the day."

"And why have they got to the greatest limit of thickness, some five or six inches?" said Mandevil, rather warmly. "Why, because they have limited themselves to three or four hundred thousand pounds. Give me enough money and I would engage to build a vessel that should carry twelve or fifteen inches of armour, and not only that—instead of drawing twenty feet of water, draw only from nine to eleven."

"I can't see it," said Norval; "how would you manage it?"

"Perhaps you can't," said Mandevil. "No one can see these things without analyzing them a little; but you have cooled me down to sanity with your scepticism. Some other time, when I get warmed up again, I'll explain it to you. One doesn't like to expose his treasured fancies to cold incredulity. But now to dispose of the main question of superiority, as you wanted my opinion on it. Assuming—and I am certain of it—that the most powerful class of sea batteries of the future will cost nearer a million and a half pounds than three hundred thousand, you see such a fact disposes of not only the smaller maritime states, but of all, except, perhaps, America; of all, I may say, that are obliged to keep up immense standing armies besides a navy, and without an page 26extensive commerce. Under these circumstances, running a race with England could only bring on bankruptcy. Well, have I proved it?"

"Granting your premises, most decidedly so," answered Norval. "But you have pretty well satisfied me without that. And now what about this affair of the Wandering Jew? You said this afternoon you would tell me of it."

"It is getting time for bed, I think," answered Mandevil, "and as the subject in question is one on which I am rather sensitive—and you are so unsympathizing to-night—I will tell you to-morrow before I go. We will have coffee early, and take a walk up to our old seat by the castle, and talk over it."