After breakfast on the Friday morning, Natasha and Arnold were standing in the bows of the Ariel, admiring the magnificent panorama that lay stretched out five thousand feet below them.
The air-ship had by this time covered a little over 2000 miles of her voyage, and was now speeding smoothly and swiftly along over the south-western shore of the Red Sea, a few miles southward of the sixteenth parallel of latitude. Eastward the bright blue waves of the sea were flashing behind them in the cloudless morning sun; the high mountains of the African coast rose to right and left and in front of them; and through the breaks in the chain they could see the huge masses of Abyssinia to the southward, and the vast plains that stretched away westward across the Blue and White Niles, away to the confines of the Libyan Desert.
“What a glorious world!” exclaimed Natasha, after gazing for many silent minutes with entranced eyes over the limitless landscape. “And to think that, after all, all this is but a little corner of it!”
“It is yours, Natasha, if you will have it,” replied Arnold quietly, yet with a note in his voice that warned her that the moment which she had expected and yet dreaded, had already come. There was no use in avoiding the inevitable for a time. It would be better if they understood each other at once; and so she looked round at him with eyebrows elevated in well-simulated surprise, and said —
“Mine! What do you mean, my friend?”
There was an almost imperceptible emphasis on the last word that brought the blood to Arnold’s cheek, and he answered, with a ring in his voice that gave unmistakable evidence of the effort that he was making to restrain the passion that inspired his words —
“I mean just what I say. All the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them, from pole to pole, and from east to west, shall be yours, and shall obey your lightest wish. I have conquered the air, and therefore the earth and sea. In two months from now I shall have an aërial navy afloat that will command the world, and I— is it not needless to tell you, Natasha, why I glory in the possession of that power? Surely you must know that it is because I love you more than all that a subject world can give me, and because it makes it possible for me, if not to win you, at least not to be unworthy to attempt the task?”
It was a distinctly unconventional declaration — such a one, indeed, as no woman had ever heard since Alexander the Great had whispered in the ears of Lais his dreams of universal empire, but there was a straightforward earnestness about it which convinced her beyond question that it came from no ordinary man, but from one who saw the task before him clearly, and had made up his mind to achieve it.
For a moment her heart beat faster than it had ever yet done at the bidding of a man’s voice, and there was a bright flush on her cheeks, and a softer light in her eyes, as she replied in a more serious tone than Arnold had ever heard her use —
“My friend, you have forgotten something. You and I are not a man and a woman in the relationship that exists between us. We are two factors in a work such as has never been undertaken since the world began; two units in a mighty problem whose solution is the happiness or the ruin of the whole human race. It is not for us to speak of individual love while these tremendous issues hang undecided in the balance.
“One does not speak of love in the heat of war, and you and I and those who are with us are at war with the powers of the earth, and higher things than the happiness of individuals are at stake. You know my training has been one of hate and not of love, and till the hate is quenched I must not know what love is.
“Remember your oath — the oath which I have taken as well as you —‘As long as I live those ends shall be my ends, and no human considerations shall weigh with me where those ends are concerned.’ Is not this love of which you speak a human consideration that might clash with the purposes of the Brotherhood whose ends you and I have solemnly sworn to hold supreme above all earthly things?
“My father has told me that when love takes possession of a human soul, reason abdicates her throne, and great aims become impossible. No, no; that great power which you hold in your hands was not given you just to win the love of a woman, and I tell you frankly that you will never win mine with it.
“More than this, if I saw you using it for such an end, I would take care that you did not use it for long. No man ever had such an awful responsibility laid upon him as the possession of this power lays upon you. It is yours to make or mar the future of the human race, of which I am but a unit. It is not the power that will ever win either my respect or my love, but the wisdom and the justice with which it may be used.”
“Ah! I see you distrust me. You think that because I have the power to be a despot, that therefore I may forget my oath and become one. I forgive you for the thought, unworthy of you as it is, and also, I hope, of me. No, Natasha; I am no skilled hand at love-making, for I have never wooed any mistress but one before today, and she is won only by plain honesty and hard service; just what I will devote to the winning of you, whether you are to be won or not — but I must have expressed myself clumsily indeed for you to have even thought of treason to the Cause.
“You are no more devoted adherent of it than I am. You have suffered in one way and I in another from the falsehood and rottenness of present-day Society, but you do not hate it more utterly than I do, and you would not go to greater lengths than I would to destroy it. Yours is a hatred of emotion, and mine is a hatred of reason. I have proved that, as Society is constituted, it is the worst and not the best qualities of humanity that win wealth and power, and such respect as the vulgar of all classes can give. But it is not such power as this that I would lay at your feet, when I ask you to share the world-empire with me. It is an empire of peace and not of war that I shall offer to you.”
“Then,” said Natasha, taking a step towards him, and laying her hand on his arm as she spoke, “when you have made war impossible to the rivalry of nations and races, and have proclaimed peace on earth, then I will give myself to you, body and soul, to do with as you please, to kill or to keep alive, for then truly you will have done that which all the generations of men before you have failed to do, and it will be yours to ask and to have.”
As she spoke these last words Natasha bowed her proudly-carried head as though in submission to the dictum that her own lips had pronounced; and Arnold, laying his hand on hers and holding it for a moment unresisting in his own, said —
“I accept the condition, and as you have said so shall it be. You shall hear no more words of love from my lips until the day that peace shall be proclaimed on earth and war shall be no more; and when that day comes, as it shall do, I will hold you to your words, and I will claim you and take you, body and soul, as you have said, though I break every other human tie save man’s love for woman to possess you.”
Natasha looked him full in the eyes as he spoke these last words. She had never heard such words before, and by their very strength and audacity they compelled her respect and even her submission. Her heart was still untamed and unconquered, and no man was its lord, yet her eyes sank before the steady gaze of his, and in a low sweet voice she answered —
“So be it! There never was a true woman yet who did not love to meet her master. When that day comes I shall have met my master, and I will do his bidding. Till then we are friends and comrades in a common Cause to which both our lives are devoted. Is it not better that it should be so?”
“Yes, I am content. I would not take the prize before I have won it. Only answer me one question frankly, and then I have done till I may speak again.”
“What is that.”
“Have I a rival — not among men, for of that I am careless — but in your own heart?”
“No, none. I am heart-whole and heart-free. Win me if you can. It is a fair challenge, and I will abide by the result, be it what it may.”
“That is all I ask for. If I do not win you, may Heaven do so to me that I shall have no want of the love of woman for ever!”
So saying, he raised her hand to his lips and kissed it, in token of the compact that was made between them. Then, intuitively divining that she wished to be alone, he turned away without another word, and walked to the after end of the vessel.
Natasha remained where she was for a good half-hour, leaning on the rail that surrounded the deck, and gazing out dreamily over the splendid and ever-changing scene that lay spread out beneath her. Truly it was a glorious world, as she had said, even now, cursed as it was with war and the hateful atrocities of human selfishness, and the sordid ambition of its despots.
What would it be like in the day when the sword should lie rusting on the forgotten battle-field, and the cannon’s mouth be choked with the desert dust for ever? What was now a hell of warring passions would then be a paradise of peaceful industry, and he who had the power, if any man had, to turn that hell into the paradise that it might be, had just told her that he loved her, and would create that paradise for her sake.
Could he do it? Was not this marvellous creation of his genius, that was bearing her in mid-air over land and sea, as woman had never travelled before, a sufficient earnest of his power? Truly it was. And to be won by such a man was no mean destiny, even for her, the daughter of Natas, and the peerless Angel of the Revolution.
Situated as they were, it would of course have been impossible, even if it had been in any way desirable, for Arnold and Natasha to have kept their compact secret from their fellow-travellers, who were at the same time their most intimate friends.
There was not, however, the remotest reason for attempting to do so. Although with regard to the rest of the world the members of the Brotherhood were necessarily obliged to live lives of constant dissimulation, among themselves they had no secrets from each other.
Thus, for instance, it was perfectly well known that Tremayne, during those periods of his double life in which he acted as Chief of the Inner Circle, regarded the daughter of Natas with feelings much warmer than those of friendship or brotherhood in a common cause, and until Arnold and his wonderful creation appeared on the scene, he was looked upon as the man who, if any man could, would some day win the heart of their idolised Angel.
Of the other love that was the passion of his other life, no one save Natasha, and perhaps Natas himself, knew anything; and even if they had known, they would not have considered it possible for any other woman to have held a man’s heart against the peerless charms of Natasha. In fact they would have looked upon such rivalry as mere presumption that it was not at all necessary for their incomparable young Queen of the Terror to take into serious account.
In Arnold, however, they saw a worthy rival even to the Chief himself, for there was a sort of halo of romance, even in their eyes, about this serious, quiet-spoken young genius, who had come suddenly forth from the unknown obscurity of his past life to arm the Brotherhood with a power which revolutionised their tactics and virtually placed the world at their mercy. In a few months he had become alike their hero and their supreme hope, so far as all active operations went; and now that with his own hand he had snatched Natasha from a fate of unutterable misery, and so signally punished her persecutors, it seemed to be only in the fitness of things that he should love her, win her for his own, if won she was to be by any man.
This, at any rate, was the line of thought which led the Princess and Colston each to express their unqualified satisfaction with the state of affairs arrived at in the compact that had been made between Natasha and Arnold —“armed neutrality,” as the former smilingly described to the Princess while she was telling her of the strange wooing of her now avowed lover. Natasha was no woman to be wooed and won in the ordinary way, and it was fitting that she should be the guerdon of such an achievement as no man had ever undertaken before, since the world began.
The voyage across Africa progressed pleasantly and almost uneventfully for the thirty-six hours after the crossing of the Red Sea. After passing over the mountains of the coast, the Ariel had travelled at a uniform height of about 3000 feet over a magnificent country of hill and valley, forest and prairie, occasionally being obliged to rise another thousand feet or so to cross some of the ridges of mountain chains which rose into peaks and mountain knots, some of which touched the snow-line.
Several times the air-ship was sighted by the people of the various countries over which she passed, and crowds swarmed out of the villages and towns, gesticulating wildly, and firing guns and beating drums to scare the flying demon away.
Once or twice they heard bullets singing through the air, but of these they took little heed, beyond quickening the speed of the air-ship for the time, knowing that there was not a chance in a hundred thousand of the Ariel being hit, and that even if she were the bullet would glance harmlessly off her smooth hull of hardened aluminium.
Once only they descended in a delightful little valley among the mountains, which appeared to be totally uninhabited, and here they renewed their store of fresh water, and laid in one of fruit, as well as taking advantage of the opportunity to stretch their legs on terra firma.
This was on the Saturday morning; and when they again rose into the air to continue their voyage, they saw that they had crossed the great mountain mass that divides the Sahara from the little-known regions of Equatorial Africa, and that in front of them to the south-west lay, as far as the eye could reach, a boundless expanse of dense forest and jungle and swamp, a gloomy and forbidding-looking region which it would be well-nigh impossible to traverse on foot.
Early in the afternoon the four voyagers were gathered in the deck-saloon, closely examining a somewhat rudely-drawn chart that was spread out on the table. It was the map that formed part of the manuscript which had been found in the car of Louis Holt’s miniature balloon, and sketched out his route from Zanzibar to Aeria, and the country lying round so far as he had been able to observe it.
“This gives us, after all, very little idea of the distance we have yet to go,” said Arnold; “for though Holt has got his latitude presumably right, we have very little clue to his longitude, for he says himself that his watch was stopped in a thunder-storm, and that in the same storm he lost all count of the distance he had travelled. Added to that, he admits that he was blown about for twelve days in one direction and another, so that all we really know is that somewhere across this fearful wilderness beneath us we shall find Aeria, but where is still a problem.”
“What is your own idea?” asked Colston.
“Not a very clear one, I must confess. At this elevation we can see about sixty miles as the atmosphere is now, and as far as we can see to the south-west there is nothing but the same kind of country that we have under us. We have travelled rather more than 2700 miles since we left the Hindu Kush, and according to my reckoning Aeria lies somewhere between 3000 and 3200 miles south-west of where we started from on Thursday morning. That means that we are within between three and five hundred miles of Aeria, unless, indeed, our calculations are wholly at fault, and at that rate, as we only have about four and a half hours’ daylight left, we shall not get there today at our present speed.”
“Couldn’t we go a bit faster?” put in Natasha. “You know I and the Princess are dying to see this mysterious unknown country that only two other people have ever seen.”
“You have but to say so, Natasha, and it is already done,” replied Arnold, signalling at the same moment to the engine-room by means of a similar arrangement of electric buttons to that which was in the wheel-house. “Only you must remember that you must not go out on deck now, or you will be blown away like a feather into space.”
While he was speaking the three propellers had begun to revolve at full speed, and the Ariel darted forward with a velocity that caused the mountains she had just crossed to sink rapidly on the horizon.
All the afternoon the Ariel flew at full speed over the seemingly interminable wilderness of swamp and jungle, until, when the equatorial sun was within a few degrees of the horizon, one of the crew, who had been stationed in the conning tower at the bows, signalled to call the attention of the man in the wheel-house. Arnold, who was in the after-saloon at the time, heard the signal, and hurried forward to the look-out. He gave one quick glance ahead, signalled “half-speed” to the engine-room, and then went aft again to the saloon, and said —
“Aeria is in sight!”
Immediately everyone hastened to the deck saloon, from the windows of which could be seen a huge mass of mountains looming dark and distinct against the crimsoning western sky.
It rose like some vast precipitous island out of the sea of forest that lay about its base; and above the mighty rock-walls that seemed to rise sheer from the surrounding plain at least a dozen peaks towered into the sky, two of their summits covered with eternal snow, and shining like points of rosy fire in the almost level rays of the sun.
As nearly as Arnold could judge in the deceptive state of the atmosphere, they were still between thirty and forty miles from it, and as it would not be safe to approach its lofty cliffs at a high rate of speed in the half light that would so soon merge into darkness, he said to his companions —
“We shall have to find a resting-place up among the cliffs on this side to-night, for we have lost the moon, and unless it were absolutely necessary to cross the mountains in the dark, I should not care to do so with the ladies on board. Besides, there is no hurry now that we are here, and we shall get a much finer first impression of our new kingdom if we cross at sunrise. What do you think?”
All agreed that this would be the best plan, and so the Ariel ran up to within a mile of the rocks, and then the forward engine was connected with the dynamo, and the searchlight, which had so disconcerted the Cossacks on the Tobolsk road, was turned on to the cliffs, which they carefully explored, until they found a little plateau covered with luxuriant vegetation and well watered, about two thousand feet above the plain below.
Here it was decided to come to a halt for the night, and to reserve the exploration of Aeria for the morning, and so the fan-wheels were sent aloft, and the Ariel, after hovering for a few minutes over the verdant little plain seeking for a suitable spot to alight in, sank gently to the earth after her flight of more than three thousand miles.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08