Hardly had the Lurline disappeared than the air-ship was lying alongside the boat, floating on the water as easily and lightly as a seagull, and Natas and his two attendants, Tremayne, and the three men who had been saved from the yacht, were at once taken on board.
It would be useless to interrupt the progress of the narrative to describe the welcoming greetings which passed between the rescued party and the crew of the Ithuriel, or the amazement of Arnold and his companions when Natasha threw her arms round the neck of the almost helpless cripple, who was rifted over the rail by Tremayne and his two attendants, kissed him on the brow, and said so that all could hear her —
“We were in time! Thank God we were in time, my father!”
Her father! This paralytic creature, who could not move a yard without the assistance of some one else — this was Natas, the father of Natasha, and the Master of the Terror, the man who had planned the ruin of a civilisation, and for all they knew might aspire to the empire of the world!
It was marvellous, inconceivable, but there was no time to think about it now, for the two cruisers were still blazing away at each other, and Tremayne had determined to punish the Frenchman for his discourtesy in not answering his flag, and his inhumanity in firing on an unarmed vessel which was well known as a private pleasure-yacht all round the western and southern shores of Europe.
As soon as Natas had been conveyed into the saloon, Tremayne, after returning Arnold’s hearty handclasp, said to him —
“That rascally Frenchman chased and fired on us, and then sent his torpedo-boat after us, without the slightest provocation. I purposely hoisted the Yacht Squadron flag to show that we were non-combatants, and still he sank us. I suppose he took the Lurline for a fast despatch boat, but still he ought to have had the sense and the politeness to let her alone when he saw she was a yacht, so I want you to teach him better manners.”
“Certainly,” replies Arnold. “I’ll sink him for you in five seconds as soon as we get aloft again.”
“I don’t want you to do that if you can help it. She has five or six hundred men on board, who are only doing as they are told, and we have not declared war on the world yet. Can’t you disable her, and force her to surrender to the British cruiser that came to our rescue? You know we must have been sunk or captured half an hour ago if she had not turned up so opportunely, in spite of your so happily coming fifty miles this side of the rendezvous. I should like to return the compliment by delivering his enemy into his hand.”
“I quite see what you mean, but I’m afraid I can’t guarantee success. You see, our artillery is intended for destruction, and not for disablement. Still I’ll have a try with pleasure. I’ll see if I can’t disable his screws, only you mustn’t blame me if he goes to the bottom by accident.”
“Certainly not, you most capable destroyer of life and property,” laughed Tremayne. “Only let him off as lightly as you can. Ah, Natasha! Good morning again! I suppose Natas has taken no harm from the unceremonious way in which I had to almost throw him on board the boat. Aërial voyaging seems to agree with you, you”—
“Must not talk nonsense, my Lord of Alanmere, especially when there is sterner work in hand,” interrupted Natasha, with a laugh. “What are you going to do with those two cruisers that are battering each other to pieces down there? Sink them both, or leave them to fight it out?”
“Neither, with your permission, fair lady. The British cruiser saved us by coming on the scene at the right moment, and as the Frenchman fired upon us without due cause, I want Captain Arnold to disable her in some way and hand her over a prisoner to our rescuer.”
“Ah, that would be better, of course. One good turn deserves another. What are you going to do, Captain Arnold?”
“Drop a small shell under his stern and disable his propellers, if I can do so without sinking him, which I am afraid is rather doubtful,” replied Arnold.
While they were talking, the Ithuriel had risen a thousand feet or so from the water, and had advanced to within about half a mile of the two cruisers, which were now manoeuvring round each other at a distance of about a thousand yards, blazing away without cessation, and waiting for some lucky shot to partially disable one or the other, and so give an opportunity for boarding, or ramming.
In the old days, when France and Britain had last grappled in the struggle for the mastery of the sea, the two ships would have been laid alongside each other long before this. But that was not to be thought of while those terrible machine guns were able to rain their hail of death down from the tops, and the quick-firing cannon were hurling their thirty shots a minute across the intervening space of water.
The French cruiser had so far taken no notice of the sudden annihilation of her second torpedo-boat by the air-ship, but as soon as the latter made her way astern of her she seemed to scent mischief, and turned one of her three-barrelled Nordenfeldts on to her. The shots soon came singing about the Ithuriel in somewhat unpleasant proximity, and Arnold said —
“Monsieur seems to take us for a natural enemy, and if he wants fight he shall have it. If I don’t disable him with this shot I’ll sink him with the next.”
So saying he trained one of the broadside guns on the stern of the French cruiser, and at the right moment pressed the button. The shell bored its way through the air and down into the water until it struck and exploded against the submerged rudder.
A huge column of foam rose up under the cruiser’s stern; half lifted out of the water, she plunged forward with a mighty lurch, burying her forecastle in the green water, and then she righted and lay helpless upon the sea, deprived of the power of motion and steering, and with the useless steam roaring in great clouds from her pipes. A moment later she began to settle by the stern, showing that her after plates had been badly injured, if not torn away by the explosion.
Meanwhile the Ithuriel had shot away out of range until the two cruisers looked like little toy-ships spitting fire at each other, and Arnold said to Tremayne, who was with him in the wheel-house —
“I think that has settled her, as far as any more real fighting is concerned. Look! She can’t stand that sort of thing very long.”
He handed Tremayne the glasses as he spoke. The French cruiser was lying motionless upon the water, with her after compartments full, and very much down by the stern. She was still blazing away gamely with all her available guns, but it was obvious at a glance that she was now no match for her antagonist, who had taken full advantage of the help rendered by her unknown ally, and was pouring a perfect hail of shot and shell point-blank into her half-disabled adversary, battering her deck-works into ruins, and piercing her hull again and again.
At length, when the splendid fabric had been reduced to little better than a floating wreck by the terrible cannonade, the fire from the British cruiser stopped, and the signal “Will you surrender?” flew from her masthead.
A few moments later the tricolor, for the first time in the war, dipped to the White Ensign, and the naval duel was over.
“Now we will leave them to talk it over,” said Tremayne, shutting the glasses. “I should like to hear what they have to say about us, I must confess, but there is something more important to be done, and the sooner we are on the other side of the Atlantic the better. The Aurania started from New York this morning. How soon can you get across?”
“In about sixteen hours if we had to go all the way,” replied Arnold. “It is, say, three thousand miles from here to New York, and the Ithuriel can fly two hundred miles an hour if necessary. But the Aurania, if she starts in good time, will make between four and five hundred miles during the day, and so we ought to meet her soon after sundown this evening if we are lucky.”
As Arnold ceased speaking, the report of a single gun came up from the water, and a string of signal flags floated out from the masthead of the British cruiser.
“Hullo!” said Tremayne, once more turning the glasses on the two vessels, “that was a blank cartridge, and as far as I can make out that signal reads, ‘We want to speak you.’ And look: there goes a white flag to the fore. His intentions are evidently peaceful. What do you say, shall we go down?”
“I see no objection to it. It will only make a difference of half an hour or so, and perhaps we may learn something worth knowing from the captain about the naval force afloat in the Atlantic. I think it would be worth while. We have no need for concealment now; and besides, all Europe is talking about us, so there can be no harm in showing ourselves a bit more closely.”
“Very well, then, we will go down and hear what he has to say,” replied Tremayne. “But I don’t think it would be well for me to show myself just now, and so I will go below.”
Arnold at once signalled the necessary order from the conning tower to the engine-room. The fan-wheels revolved more slowly, and the Ithuriel sank swiftly downwards towards the two cruisers, now lying side by side.
As soon as she came to a standstill within speaking distance of the British man-of-war, discipline was for the moment forgotten on board of both victor and vanquished, under the influence of the intense excitement and curiosity aroused by seeing the mysterious and much-talked-of air-ship at such close quarters.
The French and British captains were both standing on the quarter-deck eagerly scanning the strange craft through their glasses till she came near enough to dispense with them, and every man and officer on board the two cruisers who was able to be on deck, crowded to points of ‘vantage, and stared at her with all their eyes. The whole company of the Ithuriel, with the exception of Natas, Tremayne, and those whose duties kept them in the engine-room, were also on deck, and Arnold stood close by the wheel-house and the after gun, ready to give any orders that might be necessary in case the conversation took an unfriendly turn.
“May I ask the name of that wonderful craft, and to what I am indebted for the assistance you have given me?” hailed the British captain.
“Certainly. This is the Terrorist air-ship Ithuriel, and we disabled the French cruiser because her captain had the bad manners to fire upon and sink an unarmed yacht that had no quarrel with him. But for that we should have left you to fight it out.”
“The Terrorists, are you? If I had known that, I confess I should not have asked to speak you, and I tell you candidly that I am sorry you did not leave us to fight it out, as you say. As I cannot look upon you as an ally or a friend, I can only regret the advantage you have given me over an honourable foe.”
There was an emphasis on the word “honourable” which brought a flush to Arnold’s cheek, as he replied —
“What I did to the French cruiser I should have done whether you had been on the scene or not. We are as much your foes as we are those of France, that is to say, we are totally indifferent to both of you. As for honourable foes, I may say that I only disabled the French cruiser because I thought she had acted both unfairly and dishonourably. But we are wasting time. Did you merely wish to speak to us in order to find out who we were?”
“Yes, that was my first object, I confess. I also wished to know whether this is the same air-ship which crossed the Mediterranean yesterday, and if not, how many of these vessels there are in existence, and what you mean to do with them?”
“Before I answer, may I ask how you know that an air-ship crossed the Mediterranean yesterday?” asked Arnold, thoroughly mystified by this astounding piece of news.
“We had it by telegraph at Queenstown during the night. She was going northward, when observed, by Larnaka”—
“Oh yes, that was one of our despatch boats,” replied Arnold, forcing himself to speak with a calmness that he by no means felt. “I’m afraid my orders will hardly allow me to answer your other questions very fully, but I may tell you that we have a fleet of air-ships at our command, all constructed in England under the noses of your intelligent authorities, and that we mean to use them as it seems best to us, should we at any time consider it worth our while to interfere in the game that the European Powers are playing with each other. Meanwhile we keep a position of armed neutrality. When we think the war has gone far enough we shall probably stop it when a good opportunity offers.”
This was too much for a British sailor to listen to quietly on his own quarter-deck, whoever said it, and so the captain of the Andromeda forgot his prudence for the moment, and said somewhat hotly —
“Confound it, sir! you talk as if you were omnipotent and arbiters of peace and war. Don’t go too far with your insolence, or I shall haul that flag of truce down and give you five minutes to get out of range of my guns or take your chance”—
For all answer there came a contemptuous laugh from the deck of the Ithuriel, the rapid ringing of an electric bell, and the disappearance of her company under cover. Then with one mighty leap she rose two thousand feet into the air, and before the astounded and disgusted captain of H.M. cruiser Andromeda very well knew what had become of her, she was a mere speck of light in the sky, speeding away at two hundred miles an hour to the westward.
As soon as she was fairly on her course, Arnold gave up the wheel to one of the crew, and went into the saloon to discuss with Tremayne and Natas the all-important scrap of news that had fallen from the lips of the captain of the British cruiser. What was the other air-ship that had been seen crossing the Mediterranean?
Surely it must be one of the Terrorist fleet, for there were no others in existence. And yet strict orders had been given that none of the fleet were to take the air until the Ithuriel returned. Was it possible that there were traitors, even in Aeria, and that the air-ship seen from Larnaka was a deserter going northward to the enemy, the worst enemy of all, the Russians?
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50