It will now be necessary to go back about six weeks from the day that the Ithuriel started on her northward voyage, and to lay before the reader a brief outline of the events which had transpired in Europe subsequently to the date of Tremayne’s letter to Arnold.
On the evening of that day he went down to the House of Lords, to make his speech in favour of the Italian Loan. He had previously spoken some half dozen times since he had taken his seat, and, young as he was, had always commanded a respectful hearing by his sound common sense and his intimate knowledge of foreign policy, but none of his brother peers had been prepared for the magnificent speech that he had made on this momentous night.
He had never given his allegiance to any of the political parties of the day, but he was one of the foremost advocates of what was then known as the Imperial policy, and which had grown up out of what is known in the present day as Imperial Federation. To this he subordinated everything else, and held as his highest, and indeed almost his only political ideal, the consolidation of Britain and her colonies into an empire commercially and politically intact and apart from the rest of the world, self-governing in all its parts as regards local affairs, but governed as a whole by a representative Imperial Parliament, sitting in London, and composed of delegates from all portions of the empire.
This ideal — which, it is scarcely necessary to say, was still considered as “beyond the range of practical politics”— formed the keynote of such a speech as had never before been heard in the British House of Lords. He commenced by giving a rapid but minute survey of foreign policy, which astounded the most experienced of his hearers. Not only was it absolutely accurate as far as they could follow it, but it displayed an intimate knowledge of involutions of policy at which British diplomacy had only guessed.
More than this, members of the Government and the Privy Council saw, to their amazement, that the speaker knew the inmost secrets of their own policy even better than they did themselves. How he had become possessed of them was a mystery, and all that they could do was to sit and listen in silent wonder.
He drew a graphic word-picture of the nations of the earth standing full-armed on the threshold of such a war as the world had never seen before — a veritable Armageddon, which would shake the fabric of society to its foundations, even if it did not dissolve it finally in the blood of countless battlefields.
He estimated with marvellous accuracy the exact amount of force which each combatant would be able to put on to the field, and summed up the appalling mass of potential destruction that was ready to burst upon the world at a moment’s notice. He showed the position of Italy, and proved to demonstration that if the loan were not immediately granted, it would be necessary either for Britain to seize her fleet, as she did that of Denmark a century before — an act which the Italians would themselves resist at all hazards — or else to finance her through the war, as she had financed Germany during the Napoleonic struggle.
To grant the loan would be to save the Italian fleet and army for the Triple Alliance; to refuse it would be to detach Italy from the Alliance, and to drive her into the arms of their foes, for not only could she not stand alone amidst the shock of the contending Powers, but without an immediate supply of ready money she would not be able to keep the sea for a month.
Thus, he said in conclusion, the fate of Europe, and perhaps of the world, lay for the time being in their Lordships’ hands. The Double Alliance was already numerically stronger than the Triple, and, moreover, they had at their command a new means of destruction, for the dreadful effectiveness of which he could vouch from personal experience.
The trials of the Russian war-balloons had been secret, it was true, but he had nevertheless witnessed them, no matter how, and he knew what they could accomplish. It was true that there were in existence even more formidable engines than these, but they belonged to no nation, and were in the hands of those whose hands were against every man’s, and whose designs were still wrapped in the deepest mystery.
He therefore besought his hearers not to trust too implicitly to that hitherto unconquerable valour and resource which had so far rendered Britain impregnable to her enemies. These were not the days of personal valour. They were the days of warfare by machinery, of wholesale destruction by means which men had never before been called upon to face, and which annihilated from a distance before mere valour had time to strike its blow.
If ever the Fates were on the side of the biggest battalions, they were now, and, so far as human foresight could predict the issue of the colossal struggle, the greatest and the most perfectly equipped armaments would infallibly insure the ultimate victory, quite apart from considerations of personal heroism and devotion.
No such speech had been heard in either House since Edmund Burke had fulminated against the miserable policy which severed America from Britain, and split the Anglo–Saxon race in two; but now, as then, personal feeling and class prejudice proved too strong for eloquence and logic.
Italy was the most intensely Radical State in Europe, and she was bankrupt to boot; and, added to this, there was a very strong party in the Upper House which believed that Britain needed no such ally, that with Germany and Austria at her side she could fight the world, in spite of the Tsar’s new-fangled balloons, which would probably prove failures in actual war as similar inventions had done before, and even if her allies succumbed, had she not stood alone before, and could she not do it again if necessary?
She would fulfil her engagement with the Triple Alliance, and declare war the moment that one of the Powers was attacked, but she would not pour British gold in millions into the bottomless gulf of Italian bankruptcy.
Such were the main points in the speech of the Duke of Argyle, who followed Lord Alanmere, and spoke just before the division. When the figures were announced, it was found that the Loan Guarantee Bill had been negatived by a majority of seven votes.
The excitement in London that night was tremendous. The two Houses of Parliament had come into direct collision on a question which the Premier had plainly stated to be of vital importance, and a deadlock seemed inevitable. The evening papers brought out special editions giving Tremayne’s speech verbatim, and the next morning the whole press of the country was talking of nothing else.
The “leading journals,” according to their party bias, discussed it pro and con, and rent each other in a furious war of words, the prelude to the sterner struggle that was to come.
Unhappily the parties in Parliament were very evenly balanced, and a very strong section of the Radical Opposition was, as it always had been, bitterly opposed to the arrangement with the Triple Alliance, which every one suspected and no one admitted until Tremayne astounded the Lords by reciting its conditions in the course of his speech.
It was the avowed object of this section of the Opposition to stand out of the war at any price till the last minute, and not to fight at all if it could possibly be avoided. The immediate consequence was that, when the Government on the following day asked for an urgency vote of ten millions for the mobilisation of the Volunteers and the Naval Reserve, the Opposition, led by Mr. John Morley, mustered to its last man, and defeated the motion by a majority of eleven.
The next day a Cabinet Council was held, and in the afternoon Mr. Balfour rose in a densely-crowded House, and, after a dignified allusion to the adverse vote of the previous day, told the House that in view of the grave crisis which was now inevitable in European affairs, a crisis in which the fate, not only of Britain, but of the whole Western world, would probably be involved, the Ministry felt it impossible to remain in office without the hearty and unequivocal support of both Houses — a support which the two adverse votes in Lords and Commons had made it hopeless to look for as those Houses were at present constituted.
He had therefore to inform the House that, after consultation with his colleagues, he had decided to place the resignations of the Ministry in the hands of his Majesty,1 and appeal to the country on the plain issue of Intervention or Non-intervention. Under the circumstances, there was nothing else to be done. The deplorable crisis which immediately followed was the logical consequence of the inherently vicious system of party government.
While the fate of the world was practically trembling in the balance, Europe, armed to the teeth in readiness for the Titanic struggle that a few weeks would now see shaking the world, was amused by the spectacle of what was really the most powerful nation on earth losing its head amidst the excitement of a general election, and frittering away on the petty issues of party strife the energies that should have been devoted with single-hearted unanimity to preparation for the conflict whose issue would involve its very existence.
For a month the nations held their hand, why, no one exactly knew, except, perhaps, two men who were now in daily consultation in a country house in Yorkshire. It may have been that the final preparations were not yet complete, or that the combatants were taking a brief breathing-space before entering the arena, or that Europe was waiting to see the decision of Britain at the ballot-boxes, or possibly the French fleet of war-balloons was not quite ready to take the air — any of these reasons might have been sufficient to explain the strange calm before the storm; but meanwhile the British nation was busy listening to the conflicting eloquence of partisan orators from a thousand platforms throughout the land, and trying to make up its mind whether it should return a Conservative or a Radical Ministry to power.
In the end, Mr. Balfour came back with a solid hundred majority behind him, and at once set to work to, if possible, make up for lost time. The moment of Fate had, however, gone by for ever. During the precious days that had been fooled away in party strife, French gold and Russian diplomacy had done their work.
The day after the Conservative Ministry returned to power, France declared war, and Russia, who had been nominally at war with Britain for over a month, suddenly took the offensive, and poured her Asiatic troops into the passes of the Hindu Kush. Two days later, the defection of Italy from the Triple Alliance told Europe how accurately Tremayne had gauged the situation in his now historic speech, and how the month of strange quietude had been spent by the controllers of the Double Alliance.
The spell was broken at last. After forty years of peace, Europe plunged into the abyss of war; and from one end of the Continent to the other nothing was heard but the tramp of vast armies as they marshalled themselves along the threatened frontiers, and concentrated at the points of attack and defence.
On all the lines of ocean traffic, steamers were hurrying homeward or to neutral ports, in the hope of reaching a place of safety before hostilities actually broke out. Great liners were racing across the Atlantic either to Britain or America with their precious freights, while those flying the French flag on the westward voyage prepared to run the gauntlet of the British cruisers as best they might.
All along the routes to India and the East the same thing was happening, and not a day passed but saw desperate races between fleet ocean greyhounds and hostile cruisers, which, as a rule, terminated in favour of the former, thanks to the superiority of private enterprise over Government contract-work in turning out ships and engines.
In Britain the excitement was indescribable. The result of the general election had cast the final die in favour of immediate war in concert with the Triple Alliance. The defection of Italy had thoroughly awakened the popular mind to the extreme gravity of the situation, and the declaration of war by France had raised the blood of the nation to fever heat. The magic of battle had instantly quelled all party differences so far as the bulk of the people was concerned, and no one talked of anything but the war and its immediate issues. Men forgot that they belonged to parties, and only remembered that they were citizens of the same nation.
1 At the period in which the action of the narrative takes place, her Majesty Queen Victoria had abdicated in favour of the present Prince of Wales, and was living in comparative retirement at Balmoral, retaining Osborne as an alternative residence.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54