While all Europe was thrilling with the apprehension of approaching war, and the excitement caused by the appearance of the strange air-ship and the news of its terrible exploits at Kronstadt and Tiumen, the Ariel herself was quietly pursuing her way in mid-air south-westerly from the scene of the skirmish outside the Sir Ulang Pass.
She was bound for a region in the midst of Africa, which, even in the first decade of the twentieth century, was still unknown to the geographer and untrodden by the explorer.
Fenced in by huge and precipitous mountains, round whose bases lay vast forests and impenetrable swamps and jungles, from whose deadly areas the boldest pioneers had turned aside as being too hopelessly inhospitable to repay the cost and toil of exploration, it had remained undiscovered and unknown save by two men, who had reached it by the only path by which it was accessible — through the air and over the mountains which shut it in on every side from the external world.
These two adventurous travellers were a wealthy and eccentric Englishman, named Louis Holt, and Thomas Jackson, his devoted retainer, and these two had taken it into their heads — or rather Louis Holt had taken it into his head — to achieve in fact the feat which Jules Verne had so graphically described in fiction, and to cross Africa in a balloon.
They had set out from Zanzibar towards the end of the last year of the nineteenth century, and, with the exception of one or two vague reports from the interior, nothing more had been heard of them until, nearly a year later, a collapsed miniature balloon had been picked up in the Gulf of Guinea by the captain of a trading steamer, who had found in the little car attached to it a hermetically sealed meat-tin, which contained a manuscript, the contents of which will become apparent in due course.
The captain of the steamer was a practical and somewhat stupid man, who read the manuscript with considerable scepticism, and then put it away, having come to the conclusion that it was no business of his, and that there was no money in it anyhow. He thought nothing more of it until he got back to Liverpool, and then he gave it to a friend of his, who was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and who duly laid it before that body.
It was published in the Transactions, and there was some talk of sending out an expedition under the command of an eminent explorer to rescue Louis Holt and his servant; but when that personage was approached on the subject, it was found that the glory would not be at all commensurate with the expense and risk, and so, after being the usual nine days’ wonder, and being duly elaborated by several able editors in the daily and weekly press, the strange adventures of Louis Holt had been dismissed, as of doubtful authenticity, into the limbo of exhausted sensations.
One man, however, had laid the story to heart somewhat more seriously, and that was Richard Arnold, who, on reading it, had formed the resolve that, if ever his dream of aërial navigation were realised, the first use he would make of his air-ship would be to discover and rescue the lonely travellers who were isolated from the rest of the world in the strange, inaccessible region of which the manuscript had given a brief but graphic and fascinating account. He was now carrying out that resolve, and at the same time working out a portion of a plan that was not his own, and which he had been very far from foreseeing when he made the resolution.
Louis Holt’s original MS. had been purchased by the President of the Inner Circle, and the Ariel was now, in fact, on a voyage of exploration, the object of which was the discovery of this unknown region, with a view to making it the seat of a settlement from which the members of the Executive could watch in security and peace the course of the tremendous struggle which would, ere long, be shaking the world to its foundations.
In such a citadel as this, fenced in by a series of vast natural obstacles, impassable to all who did not possess the means of aërial locomotion, they would be secure from molestation, though all the armies of Europe sought to attack them; and the Ariel could, if necessary, traverse in twenty-five hours the three thousand odd miles which separated it from the centre of Europe.
After the rescue of Natasha and the Princess on the Tobolsk road, the Ariel, in obedience to the orders of the Council, had shaped her course southward to the western slopes of the Hindu Kush, in order to be present at the prearranged attack of the Cossacks on the British reconnoitring force.
Arnold’s orders were simply to wait for the engagement, and only to watch it, unless the British were attacked in overwhelming numbers. In that case he was to have dispersed the Russian force, as the plan of the Terrorists did not allow of any advantage being gained by the soldiers of the Tsar in that part of the world just then.
As the British had defeated them unaided, the Ariel had taken no part in the affair, and, after vanishing from the sight of the astonished combatants, had proceeded upon her voyage of discovery.
As a good month would have to elapse before she could keep her rendezvous with the steamer that was to bring out the materials for the construction of the new air-ships from England, there was plenty of time to make the voyage in a leisurely and comfortable fashion. As soon, therefore, as he was out of sight of the skirmishers, he had reduced the speed of the Ariel to about forty miles an hour, using only the stern-propeller driven by one engine, and supporting the ship on the air-planes and two fan-wheels.
At this speed he would traverse the three thousand odd miles which lay between the Hindu Kush and “Aeria”— as Louis Holt had somewhat fancifully named the region that could be reached only through the air — in a little over seventy-five hours, or rather more than three days.
Those three days were the happiest that his life had so far contained. The complete success of his invention, and the absolute fulfilment of his promises to the Brotherhood, had made him a power in the world, and a power which, as he honestly believed, would be used for the highest good of mankind when the time came to finally confront and confound the warring forces of rival despotisms.
But far more than this in his eyes was the fact that he had been able to use the unique power which his invention had placed in his hands, to rescue the woman that he loved so dearly from a fate which, even now that it was past, he could not bring himself to contemplate.
When she had first greeted him in the Council-chamber of the Inner Circle, the distance that had separated her from him had seemed immeasurable, and she — the daughter of Natas and the idol of the most powerful society in the world — might well have looked down upon him — the nameless dreamer of an unrealised dream, and a pauper, who would not have known where to have looked for his next meal, had the Brotherhood not had faith in him and his invention.
But now all that was changed. The dream had become the reality, and the creation of his genius was bearing her with him swiftly and smoothly through a calm atmosphere, and under a cloudless sky, over sea and land, with more ease than a bird wings its flight through space. He had accomplished the greatest triumph in the history of human discovery. He had revolutionised the world, and ere long he would make war impossible. Surely this entitled him to approach even her on terms of equality, and to win her for his own if he could.
Natasha saw this too as clearly as he did — more clearly, perhaps; for, while he only arrived at the conclusion by a process of reasoning, she reached it intuitively at a single step. She knew that he loved her, that he had loved her from the moment that their hands had first met in greeting, and, peerless as she was among women, she was still a woman, and the homage of such a man as this was sweet to her, albeit it was still unspoken.
She knew, too, that the hopes of the Revolution, which, before all things human, claimed her whole-souled devotion, now depended mainly upon him, and the use that he might make of the power that lay in his hands, and this of itself was no light bond between them, though not necessarily having anything to do with affection.
So far she was heart-whole, and though many had attempted the task, no man had yet made her pulses beat a stroke faster for his sake. Ever since she had been old enough to know what tyranny meant, she had been trained to hate it, and prepared to work against it, and, if necessary, to sacrifice herself body and soul to destroy it.
Thus hatred rather than love had been the creed of her life and the mainspring of her actions, and, save her father and her one friend Radna, she stood aloof from mankind and its loves and friendships, rather the beautiful incarnation of an abstract principle than a woman, to whom love and motherhood were the highest aims of existence.
More than this, she was the daughter of a Jew, and therefore held herself absolutely at her father’s disposal as far as marriage was concerned, and if he had given her in wedlock even to a Russian official, telling her that the Cause demanded the sacrifice, she would have obeyed, though her heart had broken in the same hour.
Although he had never hinted directly at such a thing, the conviction had been growing upon her for the last two or three years that Natas really intended her to marry Tremayne, and so, in the case of his own death, form a bond that should hold him to the Brotherhood when the chain of his own control was snapped. Though she instinctively shrank from such a union of mere policy, she would enter it without hesitation at her father’s bidding, and for the sake of the Cause to which her life was devoted.
How great such a sacrifice would be, should it ever be asked of her, no one but herself could ever know, for she was perfectly well aware that in Tremayne’s strange double life there were two loves, one of which, and that not the real and natural one, was hers.
Had she felt that she had the disposal of herself in her own hands, she would not, perhaps, have waited with such painful apprehension the avowal which hour after hour, now that they were brought into such close and constant relationships on board this little vessel high in mid-air, she saw trembling on the lips of her rescuer.
Arnold’s life of hard, honest work, and his constant habit of facing truth in its most uncompromising forms, had made dissimulation almost impossible to him; and added to that, situated as he was, there was no necessity for it. Colston knew of his love, and the Princess had guessed it long ago. Did Natasha know his open secret? Of that he hardly dared to be sure, though something told him that the inevitable moment of knowledge was near at hand.
For the first twenty-four hours of the voyage he had seen very little of either her or the Princess, as they had mostly remained in their cabins, enjoying a complete rest after the terrible fatigue and suffering they had gone through since their capture in Moscow, but on the Thursday morning they had had breakfast in the saloon with him and Colston, and had afterwards spent a portion of the morning on deck, deeply interested in watching the fight between the British and Russians. Thanks to Radna’s foresight, they had each found a trunk full of suitable clothing on board the Ariel. These had been taken to Drumcraig by Colston, and placed in the cabins intended for their use, and so they were able to discard the uncouth but useful costumes in which they had made their escape.
In the afternoon Arnold had had to perform the pleasant task of showing them over the Ariel, explaining the working of the machinery, and putting the wonderful vessel through various evolutions to show what she was capable of doing.
He rushed her at full speed through the air, took flying leaps over outlying spurs of mountain ranges that lay in their path, swooped down into valleys, and flew over level plains fifty yards from the ground, like an albatross over the surface of a smooth tropic sea. Then he soared up from the earth again, until the horizon widened out to vast extent, and they could see the mighty buttresses of “the Roof of the World” stretching out below them in an endless succession of ranges as far as the eye could reach.
Neither Natasha nor the Princess could find words to at all adequately express all that they saw and learnt during that day of wonders, and all night Natasha could hardly sleep for waking dreams of universal empire, and a world at peace equitably ruled by a power that had no need of aggression, because all the realms of earth and air belonged to those who wielded it.
When at last she did go to sleep, it was to dream again, and this time of herself, the Angel of the Revolution, sharing the aërial throne of the world-empire with the man who had made revolutions impossible by striking the sword from the hand of the tyrants of earth for ever.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08