Arnold’s instructions from the Council had been to remain in Aeria, and make a thorough exploration of the wonderful region described in Louis Holt’s manuscript, until the time came for him to meet the Avondale, the steamer which was to bring out the materials for constructing the Terrorists’ aërial navy.
Louis Holt and his faithful retainer, during the three years and a half that they had been shut up in it from the rest of the world, had made themselves so fully acquainted with its geography that very little of its surface was represented by blanks on the map which the former had spent several months in constructing, and so no better or more willing guides could have been placed at their service than they were.
Holt was an enthusiastic naturalist, and he descanted at great length on the strangeness of the flora and fauna that it had been his privilege to discover and classify in this isolated and hitherto unvisited region. It appeared that neither its animals nor its plants were quite like those of the rest of the continent, but seemed rather to belong to an anterior geological age.
From this fact he had come to the conclusion that at some very remote period, while the greater portion of Northern Africa was yet submerged by the waters of that ocean of which what is now the Sahara was probably the deepest part, Aeria was one of the many islands that had risen above its surface; and that, as the land rose and the waters subsided, its peculiar shape had prevented the forms of life which it contained from migrating or becoming modified in the struggle for existence with other forms, just as the flora and fauna of Australia have been shut off from those of the rest of the world.
There were no traces of human inhabitants to be found; but there were apparently two or three families of anthropoid apes, that seemed, so far as Holt had been able to judge — for they were extremely shy and cunning, and therefore difficult of approach — to be several degrees nearer to man, both in structure and intelligence, than any other members of the Simian family that had been discovered in other parts of the world.
As may well be imagined, a month passed rapidly and pleasantly away, what with exploring excursions by land and air, in the latter of which by no means the least diverting element was the keen and quaintly-expressed delight of Louis Holt at the new method of travel. Two or three times Arnold had, for his satisfaction, sent the Ariel flying over the ridge across which she had entered Aeria, but he had always been content with a glimpse of the outside world, and was always glad to get back again to the “happy valley,” as he invariably called his isolated paradise.
The brief sojourn in this delightful land had brought back all the roses to Natasha’s lovely cheeks, and had completely restored both her and the Princess to the perfect health that they had lost during their short but terrible experience of Russian convict life; but towards the end of the month they both began to get restless and anxious to get away to the rendezvous with the steamer that was bringing their friends and comrades out from England.
So it came about that an hour or so after sunrise on Friday, the 20th of May, the company of the Ariel bade farewell for a time to Louis Holt and his companion, leaving with them a good supply of the creature comforts of civilisation which alone were lacking in Aeria, rose into the air, and disappeared over the ridge to the north-west.
They had rather more than 2500 miles of plain and mountain and desert to cross, before they reached the sea-coast on which they expected to meet the steamer, and Arnold regulated the speed of the Ariel so that they would reach it about daybreak on the following morning.
The voyage was quite uneventful, and the course that they pursued led them westward through the Zegzeb and Nyti countries, then north-westward along the valley of the Niger, and then westward across the desert to the desolate sandy shores of the Western Sahara, which they crossed at sunrise on the Sunday morning, in the latitude of the island which was to form their rendezvous with the steamer.
They sighted the island about an hour later, but there was no sign of any vessel for fifty miles round it. The ocean appeared totally deserted, as, indeed, it usually is, for there is no trade with this barren and savage coast, and ships going to and from the southward portions of the continent give its treacherous sandbanks as wide a berth as possible. This, in fact, was the principal reason why this rocky islet, some sixty miles from the coast, had been chosen by the Terrorists for their temporary dockyard.
According to their calculations, the steamer would not be due for another twenty-four hours at the least, and at that moment would be about three hundred miles to the northward. The Ariel was therefore headed in that direction, at a hundred miles an hour, with a view to meeting her and convoying her for the rest of her voyage, and obviating such a disaster as Natasha’s apprehensions pointed to.
The air-ship was kept at a height of two thousand feet above the water, and a man was stationed in the forward conning tower to keep a bright look-out ahead. For more than three hours she sped on her way without interruption, and then, a few minutes before twelve, the man in the conning tower signalled to the wheel-house —“Steamer in sight.”
The signal was at once transmitted to the saloon, where Arnold was sitting with the rest of the party; he immediately signalled “half-speed” in reply to it, and went to the conning tower to see the steamer for himself.
She was then about twelve miles to the northward. At the speed at which the Ariel was travelling a very few minutes sufficed to bring her within view of the ocean voyagers. A red flag flying from the stern of the air-ship was answered by a similar one from the mainmast of the steamer. The Ariel’s engines were at once slowed down, the fan-wheels went aloft, and she sank gently down to within twenty feet of the water, and swung round the steamer’s stern.
As soon as they were within hailing distance, those on board the air-ship recognised Nicholas Roburoff and his wife, Radna Michaelis, and several other members of the Inner Circle, standing on the bridge of the steamer. Handkerchiefs were waved, and cries of welcome and greeting passed and repassed from the air to the sea, until Arnold raised his hand for silence, and, hailing Roburoff, said —
“Are you all well on board?”
“Yes, all well,” was the reply, “though we have had rather a risky time of it, for war was generally declared a fortnight ago, and we have had to run the blockade for a good part of the way. That is why we are a little before our time. Can you come nearer? We have some letters for you.”
“Yes,” replied Arnold. “I’ll come alongside. You go ahead, I’ll do the rest.”
So saying, he ran the Ariel up close to the quarter of the Avondale as easily as though she had been lying at anchor instead of going twenty miles an hour through the water, and went forward and shook hands with Roburoff over the rail, taking a packet of letters from him at the same time. Meanwhile Colston, who had grasped the situation at a glance, had swung himself on to the steamer’s deck, and was already engaged in an animated conversation with Radna.
The first advantage that Arnold took of the leisure that was now at his disposal, was to read the letter directed to himself that was among those for Natasha, the Princess, and Colston, which had been brought out by the Avondale. He recognised the writing as Tremayne’s, and when he opened the envelope he found that it contained a somewhat lengthy letter from him, and an enclosure in an unfamiliar hand, which consisted of only a few lines, and was signed “Natas.”
He started as his eye fell on the terrible name, which now meant so much to him, and he naturally read the note to which it was appended first. There was neither date nor formal address, and it ran as follows:—
You have done well, and fulfilled your promises as a true man should. For the personal service that you have rendered to me I will not thank you in words, for the time may come when I shall be able to do so in deeds. What you have done for the Cause was your duty, and for that I know that you desire no thanks. You have proved that you hold in your hands such power as no single man ever wielded before. Use it well, and in the ages to come men shall remember your name with blessings, and you, if the Master of Destiny permits, shall attain to your heart’s desire.
Arnold laid the little slip of paper down almost reverently, for, few as the words were, they were those of a man who was not only Natas, the Master of the Terror, but also the father of the woman whose love, in spite of his oath, was the object to the attainment of which he held all things else as secondary, and who therefore had the power to crown his life-work with the supreme blessing without which it would be worthless, however glorious, for he knew full well that, though he might win Natasha’s heart, she herself could never be his unless Natas gave her to him.
The other letter was from Tremayne, dated more than a fortnight previously, and gave him a brief résumé of the course of events in Europe since his voyage of exploration had begun. It also urged him to push on the construction of the aërial navy as fast as possible, as there was now no telling where or how soon its presence might be required to determine the issue of the world-war, the first skirmishes of which had already taken place in Eastern Europe. Natas and the Chief were both in London, making the final arrangements for the direction of the various diplomatic and military agents of the Brotherhood throughout Europe. From London they were to go to Alanmere, where they would remain until all arrangements were completed. As soon as the fleet was built and the crews and commanders of the air-ships had thoroughly learned their duties, the flagship was to go to Plymouth, where the Lurline would be lying. The news of her arrival would be telegraphed to Alanmere, and Natas and Tremayne would at once come south and put to sea in her. The air-ship was to wait for them at a point two hundred miles due south-west of the Land’s End, and pick them up. The yacht was then to be sunk, and the Executive of the Terrorists would for the time being vanish from the sight of men.
It is unnecessary to say that Arnold carried out the plans laid down in this letter in every detail, and with the utmost possible expedition. The Avondale arrived the next day at the island which had been chosen as a dockyard, and the ship-building was at once commenced.
All the material for constructing the air-ships had been brought out completely finished as far as each individual part was concerned, and so there was nothing to do but to put them together. The crew and passengers of the steamer included the members of the Executive of the Inner Circle, and sixty picked members of the Outer Circle, chiefly mechanics and sailors, destined to be first the builders and then the crews of the new vessels.
These, under Arnold’s direction, worked almost day and night at the task before them. Three of the air-ships were put together at a time, twenty men working at each, and within a month from the time that the Avondale discharged her cargo, the twelve new vessels were ready to take the air.
They were all built on the same plan as the Ariel, and eleven of them were practically identical with her as regards size and speed; but the twelfth, the flagship of the aërial fleet, had been designed by Arnold on a more ambitious scale.
This vessel was larger and much more powerful than any of the others. She was a hundred feet long, with a beam of fifteen feet amidships. On her five masts she carried five fan-wheels, capable of raising her vertically to a height of ten thousand feet without the assistance of her air-planes, and her three propellers, each worked by duplex engines, were able to drive her through the air at a speed of two hundred miles an hour in a calm atmosphere.
She was armed with two pneumatic guns forward and two aft, each twenty-five feet long and with a range of twelve miles at an altitude of four thousand feet; and in addition to these she carried two shorter ones on each broadside, with a range of six miles at the same elevation. She also carried a sufficient supply of power-cylinders to give her an effective range of operations of twenty thousand miles without replenishing them.
In addition to the building materials and the necessary tools and appliances for putting them together, the cargo of the Avondale had included an ample supply of stores of all kinds, not the least important part of which consisted of a quantity of power-cylinders sufficient to provide the whole fleet three times over.
The necessary chemicals and apparatus for charging them were also on board, and the last use that Arnold made of the engines of the steamer, which he had disconnected from the propeller and turned to all kinds of uses during the building operations, was to connect them with his storage pumps and charge every available cylinder to its utmost capacity.
At length, when everything that could be carried in the air-ships had been taken out of the steamer, she was towed out into deep water, and then a shot from one of the flagship’s broadside guns sent her to the bottom of the sea, so severing the last link which had connected the now isolated band of revolutionists with the world on which they were ere long to declare war.
The naming of the fleet was by common consent left to Natasha, and her half-oriental genius naturally led her to appropriately name the air-ships after the winged angels and air-spirits of Moslem and other Eastern mythologies. The flagship she named the Ithuriel, after the angel who was sent to seek out and confound the Powers of Darkness in that terrific conflict between the upper and nether worlds, which was a fitting antetype to the colossal struggle which was now to be waged for the empire of the earth.
Arnold’s first task, as soon as the fleet finally took the air, was to put the captains and crews of the vessels through a thorough drilling in management and evolution. A regular code of signals had been arranged, by means of which orders as to formation, speed, altitude, and direction could be at once transmitted from the flagship. During the day flags were used, and at night flashes from electric reflectors.
The scene of these evolutions was practically the course taken by the Ariel from Aeria to the island; and as the captains and lieutenants of the different vessels were all men of high intelligence, and carefully selected for the work, and as the mechanism of the air-ships was extremely simple, the whole fleet was well in hand by the time the mountain mass of Aeria was sighted a week after leaving the island.
Arnold in the Ithuriel led the way to a narrow defile on the south-western side, which had been discovered during his first visit, and which admitted of entrance to the valley at an elevation of about 3000 feet. Through this the fleet passed in single file soon after sunrise one lovely morning in the middle of June, and within an hour the thirteen vessels had come to rest on the shores of the lake.
Then for the first time, probably, since the beginning of the world, the beautiful valley became the scene of a busy activity, in the midst of which the lean wiry figure of Louis Holt seemed to be here, there, and everywhere at once, doing the honours of Aeria as though it were a private estate to which the Terrorists had come by his special invitation.
He was more than ever delighted with the air-ships, and especially with the splendid proportions of the Ithuriel, and the brilliant lustre of her polished hull, which had been left unpainted, and shone as though her plates had been of burnished silver. Altogether he was well pleased with this invasion of a solitude which, in spite of its great beauty and his professed contempt for the world in general, had for the last few months been getting a good deal more tedious than he would have cared to admit.
In the absence of Natas and the Chief, the command of the new colony devolved, in accordance with the latter’s directions, upon Nicholas Roburoff, who was a man of great administrative powers, and who set to work without an hour’s delay to set his new kingdom in order, marking out sites for houses and gardens, and preparing materials for building them and the factories for which the water-power of the valley was to be utilised.
Arnold, as admiral of the fleet, had transferred the command of the Ariel to Colston, but he retained him as his lieutenant in the Ithuriel for the next voyage, partly because he wanted to have him with him on what might prove to be a momentous expedition, and partly because Natasha, who was naturally anxious to rejoin her father as soon as possible, wished to have Radna for a companion in place of the Princess, who had elected to remain in the valley. As another separation of the lovers, who, according to the laws of the Brotherhood, now only waited for the formal consent of Natas to their marriage, was not to be thought of, this arrangement gave everybody the most perfect satisfaction.
Three days sufficed to get everything into working order in the new colony, and on the morning of the fourth the Ithuriel, having on board the original crew of the Ariel, reinforced by two engineers and a couple of sailors, rose into the air amidst the cheers of the assembled colonists, crossed the northern ridge, and vanished like a silver arrow into space.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08