As the train drew up in King’s Cross station at twelve the next day, almost the first words that Tremayne heard were —
“Special Pall Mall, sir! Appearance of the mysterious air-ship over Plymouth this morning! Great battle in Austria yesterday, defeat of the Austrians — awful slaughter with war-balloons! Special!”
The boy was selling the papers as fast as he could hand them out to the eager passengers. Tremayne secured one, shut the door of the saloon again, and, turning to the middle page, read aloud to Natas —
“We have just received a telegram from our Plymouth correspondent, to say that soon after daybreak this morning torpedo-boat No. 157 steamed into the Sound, bringing the news that she had sighted a large five-masted air-ship about ten miles from the coast, when in company with the cruiser Ariadne, whose commander had despatched her with the news. Hardly had the report been received when the air-ship herself passed over Mount Edgcumbe and came towards the town.
“The news spread like wildfire, and in a few minutes the streets were filled with crowds of people, who had thrown on a few clothes and rushed out to get a look at the strange visitant. At first it was thought that an attack on the arsenal was intended by the mysterious vessel, and the excitement had risen almost to the pitch of panic, when it was observed that she was flying a plain white flag, and that her intentions were apparently peaceful.
“Panic then gave place to curiosity. The air-ship crossed the town at an elevation of about 3000 feet, described a complete circle round it in the space of a few minutes, and then suddenly shot up into the air and vanished to the south-westward at an inconceivable speed. The vessel is described as being about a hundred feet long, and was apparently armed with eight guns. Her hull was of white polished metal, probably aluminium, and shone like silver in the sunlight.
“The wildest rumours are current as to the object of her visit, but of course no credence can be attached to any of them. The vessel is plainly of the same type as that which destroyed Kronstadt two months ago, but larger and more powerful. The inference is that she is one of a fleet in the hands of the Terrorists, and the profoundest uncertainty and anxiety prevail throughout naval and military circles everywhere as to the use that they may make of these appalling means of destruction should they take any share in the war.”
“Humph!” said Tremayne, as he finished reading. “Johnston’s telegram must have crossed us on the way, but I shall find one at the club. Well, we have no time to lose, for we ought to start for Plymouth this evening. Your men will take you straight to the Great Western Hotel, and I will hurry my business through as fast as possible, and meet you there in time to catch the 6.30. At this rate we shall meet the Aurania soon after she leaves New York.”
Within the next six hours Tremayne transferred the whole of his vast property in a single instrument to his promised wife, thus making her the richest woman in England; handed the precious deeds to her astonished father; obtained his promise to take his wife and daughter to Alanmere at the end of the London season, and to remain there with her until he returned to reclaim her and his estates together; and said good-bye to Lady Muriel herself in an interview which was a good deal longer than that which he had with his bewildered and somewhat scandalised lawyers, who had never before been forced to rush any transaction through at such an indecent speed. Had Lord Alanmere not been the best client in the kingdom, they might have rebelled against such an outrage on the law’s time-honoured delays; but he was not a man to be trifled with, and so the work was done and an unbeatable record in legal despatch accomplished, albeit very unwillingly, by the men of law.
By midnight the Lurline, ostensibly bound for Queenstown, had cleared the Sound, and, with the Eddystone Light on her port bow, headed away at full-speed to the westward. She was about the fastest yacht afloat, and at a pinch could be driven a good twenty-seven miles an hour through the water. As both Natas and Tremayne were anxious to join the air-ship as soon as possible, every ounce of steam that her boilers would stand was put on, and she slipped along in splendid style through the long, dark seas that came rolling smoothly up Channel from the westward.
In an hour and a half after passing the Eddystone she sighted the Lizard Light, and by the time she had brought it well abeam the first interruption of her voyage occurred. A huge, dark mass loomed suddenly up out of the darkness of the moonless night, then a blinding, dazzling ray of light shot across the water from the searchlight of a battleship that was patrolling the coast, attended by a couple of cruisers and four torpedo-boats. One of these last came flying towards the yacht down the white path of the beam of light, and Tremayne, seeing that he would have to give an account of himself, stopped his engines and waited for the torpedo-boat to come within hail.
“Steamer ahoy! Who are you? and where are you going to at that speed?”
“This is the Lurline, the Earl of Alanmere’s yacht, from Plymouth to Queenstown. We’re only going at our usual speed.”
“Oh, if it’s the Lurline, you needn’t say that,” answered the officer who had hailed from the torpedo-boat, with a laugh. “Is Lord Alanmere on board?”
“Yes, here I am,” said Tremayne, replying instead of his sailing-master. “Is that you, Selwyn? I thought I recognised your voice.”
“Yes, it’s I, or rather all that’s left of me after two months in this buck-jumping little brute of a craft. She bobs twice in the same hole every time, and if it’s a fairly deep hole she just dives right through and out on the other side; and there are such a lot of Frenchmen about that we get no rest day or night on this patrolling business.”
“Very sorry for you, old man; but if you will seek glory in a torpedo-boat, I don’t see that you can expect anything else. Will you come on board and have a drink?”
“No, thanks. Very sorry, but I can’t stop. By the way, have you heard of that air-ship that was over this way this morning? I wonder what the deuce it really is, and what it’s up to?”
“I’ve heard of it; it was in the London papers this morning. Have you seen any more of it?”
“Oh yes; the thing was cruising about in mid-air all this morning, taking stock of us and the Frenchmen too, I suppose. She vanished during the afternoon. Where to, I don’t know. It’s awfully humiliating, you know, to be obliged to crawl about here on the water, at twenty-five knots at the utmost, while that fellow is flying a hundred miles an hour or so through the clouds without turning a hair, or I ought to say without as much as a puff of smoke. He seems to move of his own mere volition. I wonder what on earth he is.”
“Not much on earth apparently, but something very considerable in the air, where I hope he’ll stop out of sight until I get to Queenstown; and as I want to get there pretty early in the morning, perhaps you’ll excuse me saying good-night and getting along, if you won’t come on board.”
“No, very sorry I can’t. Good-night, and keep well in to the coast till you have to cross to Ireland. Good-bye?”
“Good-bye!” shouted Tremayne in reply, as the torpedo-boat swung round and headed back to the battleship, and he gave the order to go ahead again at full-speed.
In another hour they were off the Land’s End, and from there they headed out due south-west into the Atlantic. They had hardly made another hundred miles before it began to grow light, and then it became necessary to keep a bright look-out for the air-ship, for according to what they had heard from the commander of the torpedo-boat she might be sighted at any moment as soon as it was light enough to see her.
Another hour passed, but there was still no sign of the air-ship. This of course was to be expected, for they had still another seventy-five miles or so to go before the rendezvous was reached.
“Steamer to the south’ard!” sang out the man on the forecastle, just as Tremayne came on deck after an attempt at a brief nap. He picked up his glass, and took a good look at the thin cloud of smoke away on the southern horizon.
From what he could see it was a large steamer, and was coming up very fast, almost at right angles to the course of the Lurline. Fifteen minutes later he was able to see that the stranger was a warship, and that she was heading for Queenstown. She was therefore either a British ship attached to the Irish Squadron, or else she was an enemy with designs on the liners bound for Liverpool.
In either case it was most undesirable that the yacht should be overhauled again. Any mishap to her, even a lengthy delay, might have the most serious consequences. A single unlucky shell exploding in her engine-room would disable her, and perhaps change the future history of the world.
Tremayne therefore altered her course a little more to the northward, thus increasing the distance between her and the stranger, and at the same time ordered the engineer to keep up the utmost head of steam, and get the last possible yard out of her.
The alteration in her course appeared to be instantly detected by the warship, for she at once swerved off more to the westward, and brought herself dead astern of the Lurline. She was now near enough for Tremayne to see that she was a large cruiser, and attended by a brace of torpedo-boats, which were running along one under each of her quarters, like a couple of dogs following a hunter.
There was now no doubt but that, whatever her nationality, she was bent on overhauling the yacht, if possible, and the dense volumes of smoke that were pouring out of her funnels told Tremayne that she was stoking up vigorously for the chase.
By this time she was about seven miles away, and the Lurline, her twin screws beating the water at their utmost speed, and every plate in her trembling under the vibration of her engines, rushed through the water faster than she had ever done since the day she was launched. As far as could be seen, she was holding her own well in what had now become a dead-on stern chase.
Still the stranger showed no flag, and though Tremayne could hardly believe that a hostile cruiser and a couple of torpedo-boats would venture so near to the ground occupied by the British battle-ships, the fact that she showed no colours looked at the best suspicious. Determined to settle the question, if possible, one way or the other, he ran up the ensign of the Royal Yacht Squadron.
This brought no reply from the cruiser, but a column of bluish-white smoke shot up a moment later from the funnels of one of the torpedo-boats, telling that she had put on the forced draught, and, like a greyhound slipped from the leash, she began to draw away from the big ship, plunging through the long rollers, and half-burying herself in the foam that she threw up from her bows.
Tremayne knew that there were some of these viperish little craft in the French navy that could be driven thirty miles an hour through the water, and if this was one of them, capture was only a matter of time, unless the air-ship sighted them and came to the rescue.
Happily, although there was a considerable swell on, the water was smooth and free from short waves, and this was to the advantage of the Lurline; for she went along “as dry as a bone,” while the torpedo-boat, lying much lower in the water, rammed her nose into every roller, and so lost a certain amount of way. The yacht was making a good twenty-eight miles an hour under the heroic efforts of the engineers; and at this rate it would be nearly two hours before she was overhauled, provided that the torpedo-boat was not able to use the gun that she carried forward of her funnels with any dangerous effect.
There could now be no doubt as to the hostility of the pursuers. Had they been British, they would have answered the flag flying at the peak of the yacht.
“Steamer coming down from the nor’ard, sir!” suddenly sang out a man whom Tremayne had just stationed in the fore cross-trees to look out for the air-ship that was now so anxiously expected.
A dense volume of smoke was seen rising in the direction indicated, and a few minutes later a second big steamer came into view, bearing down directly on the yacht, and so approaching the torpedo-boat almost stem on. There was no doubt about her nationality. A glance through the glass showed Tremayne the white ensign floating above the horizontal stream of smoke that stretched behind her. She was a British cruiser, no doubt a scout of the Irish Squadron, and had sighted the smoke of the yacht and her pursuers, and had come to investigate.
Tremayne breathed more freely now, for he knew that his flag would procure the assistance of the new-comer in case it was wanted, as indeed it very soon was.
Hardly had the British cruiser come well in sight than a puff of smoke rose from the deck of the other warship, and a shell came whistling through the air, and burst within a hundred yards of the Lurline. Twenty-four hours ago Tremayne had been one of the richest men in England, and just now he would have willingly given all that he had possessed to be twenty-five miles further to the south-westward than he was.
Another shell from the Frenchman passed clear over the Lurline, and plunged into the water and burst, throwing a cloud of spray high into the air. Then came one from the torpedo-boat, but she was still too far off for her light gun to do any damage, and the projectile fell spent into the sea nearly five hundred yards short.
Immediately after this came a third shell from the French cruiser, and this, by an unlucky chance, struck the forecastle of the yacht, burst, and tore away several feet of the bulwarks, and, worse than all, killed four of her crew instantly.
“First blood!” said Tremayne to himself through his clenched teeth. “That shall be an unlucky shot for you, my friend, if we reach the air-ship before you sink us.”
Meanwhile the two cruisers, each approaching the other at a speed of more than twenty miles an hour, had got within shot. A puff of smoke spurted out from the side of the latest comer. The well-aimed projectile passed fifty yards astern of the Lurline, and struck the advancing torpedo-boat square on the bow.
The next instant it was plainly apparent that there was nothing more to be feared from her. The solid shot had passed clean through her two sides. Her nose went down and her stern came up. Then bang went another gun from the British cruiser. This time the messenger of death was a shell. It struck the inclined deck amidships, there was a flash of flame, a cloud of steam rose up from her bursting boilers, and then she broke in two and vanished beneath the smooth-rolling waves.
Two minutes later the duel began in deadly earnest. The tricolor ran up to the masthead of the French cruiser, and jets of mingled smoke and flame spurted one after the other from her sides, and shells began bursting in quick succession round the rapidly-advancing Englishman. Evidently the Frenchman, with his remaining torpedo-boat, thought himself a good match for the British cruiser, for he showed no disposition to shirk the combat, despite the fact that he was so near to the cruising ground of a powerful squadron.
As the two cruisers approached each other, the fire from their heavy guns was supplemented by that of their light quick-firing armament, until each of them became a floating volcano, vomiting continuous jets of smoke and flame, and hurling showers of shot and shell across the rapidly-lessening space between them.
The din of the hideous concert became little short of appalling, even to the most hardened nerves. The continuous deep booming of the heavy guns, as they belched forth their three-hundred-pound projectiles, mingled with the sharp ringing reports of the thirty and forty pound quick-firers, and the horrible grinding rattle of the machine guns in the tops that sounded clearly above all, and every few seconds came the scream and the bang of bursting shells, and the dull, crashing sound of rending and breaking steel, as the terrible missiles of death and destruction found their destined mark.
Happily the Lurline was out of the line of fire, or she would have been torn to fragments and sent to the bottom in a few seconds. She continued on her course at her utmost speed, and the French cruiser was, of course, too busy to pay any further attention to her. Not so the remaining torpedo-boat, however, which, leaving the two big ships to fight out their duel for the present, was pursuing the yacht at the utmost speed of her forced draught.
Capture or destruction soon only became a matter of a few minutes. Tremayne, determined to hold on till he was sunk or sighted the air-ship, kept his flag flying and his engines working to the last ounce that the quivering boilers would stand, and the Frenchman, seeing that he was determined to escape if he could, opened fire on him with his twenty-pounder.
Owing to the high speed of the two vessels, and the rolling of the torpedo-boat, not much execution was done at first; but, as the distance diminished, shell after shell crashed through the bulwarks of the Lurline, ripping them longitudinally, and tearing up the deck-planks with their jagged fragments. The wheel-house and the funnel escaped by a miracle, and the yacht being end on to her pursuer, the engines and boilers were comparatively safe.
One boat had also escaped, and that was hanging ready to be lowered at a moment’s notice.
At last a shell struck the funnel, burst, and shattered it to fragments. Almost at the same moment the man in the fore-cross-trees, who had stuck to his post in defiance of the cannonade, sang out with a triumphant shout —
“The air-ship! The air-ship!”
Hardly had the words left his lips when a shell from the torpedo-boat struck the Lurline under the quarter, and ripped one of her plates out like a sheet of paper. The next instant the engineer rushed up on deck, crying —
“The bottom’s out of her! She’ll go down in five minutes!”
Tremayne, who was the only man on deck save the look-out, ran out of the wheel-house, dived into the cabin, and a moment later reappeared with Natas in his arms, and followed by his two attendants. Then, without the loss of a second, but in perfect order, the quarter-boat was manned and lowered, and pulled clear of the ill-fated Lurline just as she pitched backwards into the sea and went down with a run, stern foremost.
The air-ship, coming up at a tremendous speed, swooped suddenly down from a height of two thousand feet, and slowed up within a thousand yards of the torpedo-boat. A projectile rushed through the air and landed on the deck of the Frenchman. There was a flash of greenish flame, a cloud of mingled smoke and steam, and when this had drifted away there was not a vestige of the torpedo-boat to be seen. Then a few fragments of iron splashed into the water here and there, and that was all that betokened her fate.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50