A few minutes after two on the following morning, that is to say on the 28th, the electric signal leading from the conning-tower of the Ithuriel to the wall of Arnold’s cabin, just above his berth, sounded. As it was only permitted to be used on occasions of urgency, he knew that his presence was immediately required forward for some good reason, and so he turned out at once, threw a dressing-gown over his sleeping suit, and within three minutes was standing in the conning-tower beside Andrew Smith, whose watch it then happened to be.
“Well, Smith, what’s the matter?”
“Fleet of war-balloons coming up from the south’ard, sir. You can just see ’em, sir, coming on in line under that long bank of cloud.”
The captain of the Ithuriel took the night-glasses, and looked eagerly in the direction pointed out by his keen-eyed coxswain. As soon as he picked them up he had no difficulty in making out twelve small dark spots in line at regular intervals sharply defined against a band of light that lay between the earth and a long dark bank of clouds.
It was a division of the Tsar’s aërial fleet, returning from some work of death and destruction in the south to rejoin the main force before Berlin. Arnold’s course was decided on in an instant. He saw a chance of turning the tables on his Majesty in a fashion that he would find as unpleasant as it would be unexpected. He turned to his coxswain and said —
“How is the wind, Smith?”
“Nor’-nor’-west, with perhaps half a point more north in it, sir. About a ten-knot breeze — at least that’s the drift that Mr. Marston’s allowing for.”
“Yes, that’s near enough. Then those fellows, if they are going full speed, are coming up at about twenty miles an hour, or not quite that. They’re nearly twenty miles off, as nearly as I can judge in this light. What do you make it?”
“That’s about it, sir; rather less than more, if anything, to my mind.”
“Very well, then. Now signal to stop, and send up the fan-wheels; and tell the Ariel and the Orion to close up and speak.”
“Ay, ay, sir,” said the coxswain, as he saluted and disappeared. Arnold at once went back to his cabin and dressed, telling his second officer, Frank Marston, a young Englishman, whom he had chosen to take Mazanoff’s place, to do the same as quietly as possible, as he did not wish to awaken any of his three passengers just at present.
By the time he got on deck the three air-ships had slowed down considerably, and the two consorts of the Ithuriel were within easy speaking distance. Mazanoff and Tremayne were both on deck, and to them he explained his plans as follows —
“There are a dozen of the Tsar’s war-balloons coming up yonder to the southward, and I am going to head them off and capture the lot if I can. If we can do that, we can make what terms we like for the surrender of the Lucifer.
“You two take your ships and get to windward of them as fast as you can. Keep a little higher than they are, but not much. On no account let one of them get above you. If they try to descend, give each one that does so a No. 1 shell, and blow her up. If one tries to pass you, ram her in the upper part of the gas-holder, and let her down with a smash.
“I am going up above them to prevent any of them from rising too far. They can outfly us in that one direction, so I shall blow any that attempt it into little pieces. If you have to fire on any of them, don’t use more than No. 1; you’ll find that more than enough.
“Keep an eye on me for signals, and remember that the whole fleet must be destroyed rather than one allowed to escape. I want to give the Tsar a nice little surprise. He seems to be getting a good deal too cock-sure about these old gas-bags of his, and it’s time to give him a lesson in real aërial warfare.”
There was not a great newspaper in the world that would not have given a very long price to have had the privilege of putting a special correspondent on the deck of the Ithuriel for the two hours which followed the giving of Arnold’s directions to his brother commanders of the little squadron. The journal which could have published an exclusive account of the first aërial skirmish in the history of the world would have scored a triumph which would have left its competitors a long way behind in the struggle to be “up to date.”
As soon as Arnold had given his orders, the three air-ships at once separated. The Ariel and the Orion shot away to the southward on only a slightly upward course, while the Ithuriel soared up beyond the stratum of clouds which lay in thin broken masses rather more than four thousand feet above the earth.
It was still rather more than an hour before sunrise, and, as the moon had gone down, and the clouds intercepted most of the starlight, it was just “the darkest hour before the dawn,” and therefore the most favourable for the carrying out of the plan that Arnold had in view.
Shortly after half-past two he knocked at Natasha’s cabin-door, and said —
“If you would like to see an aërial battle, get up and come into the conning-tower at once. We have overtaken a squadron of Russian war-balloons, and we are going either to capture or destroy them.”
“Glorious!” exclaimed Natasha, wide awake in an instant at such startling news. “I’ll be with you in five minutes. Tell my father, and please don’t begin till I come.”
“I shouldn’t think of opening the ball without your ladyship’s presence,” laughed Arnold in reply, and then he went and called Natas and his attendant and the Professor before going to the conning-tower, where in a very few minutes he was joined by Natasha. The first words she said were —
“I have told Ivan to send us some coffee as soon as he has attended to my father. You see how thoughtful I am for your creature comforts. Now, where are the war-balloons?”
“On the other side of those clouds. There, look down through that big rift, and you will see one of them.”
“Why, what a height we must be from the earth! The balloon looks like a little toy thing, but it must be a great clumsy contrivance for all that.”
“The barometer gives five thousand three hundred feet. You will soon see why I have come up so high. The balloons can rise to fifteen or twenty thousand feet, if they wish to, and in that way they could easily escape us; therefore, if one of them attempts to rise through those clouds, I shall send him back to earth in little bits.”
“And what are the other two air-ships doing?”
“They are below the clouds, heading the balloons off from the Russian camp, which is about fifty miles to the north-westward. Ha! look, there go the searchlights!”
As he spoke, two long converging beams of light darted across a broad space of sky that was free from cloud. They came from the Ariel and the Orion, which thus suddenly revealed themselves to the astonished and disgusted Russians, one at each end of their long line, and only a little more than half a mile ahead of it.
The searchlights flashed to and fro along the line, plainly showing the great masses of the aerostats’ gas-holders, with their long slender cars beneath them. A blue light was burnt on the largest of the war-balloons, and at once the whole flotilla began to ascend towards the clouds, followed by the two air-ships.
“Here they come!” said Arnold, as he saw them rising through a cloud-rift. “Come out and watch what happens to the first one that shows herself.”
He went out on deck, followed by Natasha, and took his place by one of the broadside guns. At the same time he gave the order for the Ithuriel’s searchlight to be turned on, and to sweep the cloud-field below her. Presently a black rounded object appeared rising through the clouds like a whale coming to the surface of the sea.
He trained the gun on to it as it came distinctly into view, and said to Natasha —
“Come, now, and fire the first shot in the warfare of the future. Put your finger on the button, and press when I tell you.”
Natasha did as he told her, and at the word “Fire!” pressed the little ivory button down. The shell struck the upper envelope of the balloon, passed through, and exploded. A broad sheet of flame shot up, brilliantly illuminating the sea of cloud for an instant, and all was darkness again. A few seconds later there came another blaze, and the report of a much greater explosion from below the clouds.
“What was that?” asked Natasha.
“That was the car full of explosives striking the earth and going off promiscuously,” replied Arnold. “There isn’t as much of that aerostat left as would make a pocket-handkerchief or a walking-stick.”
“And the crew?”
“Never knew what happened to them. In the new warfare people will not be merely killed, they will be annihilated.”
“Horrible!” exclaimed Natasha, with a shudder. “I think you may do the rest of the shooting. The effects of that shot will last me for some time. Look, there’s another of them coming up!”
The words were hardly out of her mouth before Arnold had crossed to the other side of the deck and sped another missile on its errand of destruction with almost exactly the same result as before. This second shot, as it was afterwards found, threw the Russian squadron into complete panic.
The terrific suddenness with which the two aerostats had been destroyed convinced those in command of the others that there was a large force of air-ships above the clouds ready to destroy them one by one as they ascended. Arnold waited for a few minutes, and then, seeing that no others cared to risk the fate that had overwhelmed the first two that had sought to cross the cloud-zone, sank rapidly through it, and then stopped again.
He found himself about six hundred feet above the rest of the squadron. The Ithuriel coming thus suddenly into view, her eight guns pointing in all directions, and her searchlight flashing hither and thither as though seeking new victims, completed the demoralisation of the Russians. For all they knew there were still more air-ships above the clouds. Even this one could not be passed while those mysterious guns of unknown range and infallible aim were sweeping the sky, ready to hurl their silent lightnings in every direction.
Ascend they dare not. To descend was to be destroyed in detail as they lay helpless upon the earth. There was only one chance of escape, and that was to scatter. The commander of the squadron at once signalled for this to be done, and the aerostats headed away to all points of the compass. But here they had reckoned without the incomparable speed of their assailants.
Before they had moved a hundred yards from their common centre the Ariel and the Orion headed away in different directions, and in an inconceivably short space of time had described a complete circle round them, and then another and another, narrowing each circle that they made. One of the aerostats, watching its opportunity, put on full speed and tried to get outside the narrowing zone. She had almost succeeded, when the Orion swerved outwards and dashed at her with the ram.
In ten seconds she was overtaken. The keen steel prow of the air-ship, driven at more than a hundred miles an hour, ripped her gas-holder from end to end as if it had been tissue paper. It collapsed like broken bubble, and the wreck, with its five occupants and its load of explosives, dropped like a stone to the earth, three thousand feet below, exploding like one huge shell as it struck.
This was the last blow struck in the first aërial battle in the history of warfare. The Russians had no stomach for this kind of fighting. It was all very well to sail over armies and fortresses on the earth and drop shells upon them without danger of retaliation; but this was an entirely different matter.
Three of the aerostats had been destroyed in little more than as many minutes, so utterly destroyed that not a vestige of them remained, and the whole squadron had not been able to strike a blow in self-defence. They carried no guns, not even small arms, for they had no use for them in the work that they had to do. There were only two alternatives before them — surrender or piecemeal destruction.
As soon as she had destroyed the third aerostat, the Orion swerved round again, and began flying round the squadron as before in an opposite direction to the Ariel. None of the aerostats made an attempt to break the strange blockage again. As the circles narrowed they crowded closer and closer together, like a flock of sheep surrounded by wolves.
Meanwhile the Ithuriel, floating above the centre of the disordered squadron, descended slowly until she hung a hundred feet above the highest of them. Then Arnold with his searchlight flashed a signal to the Ariel which at once slowed down, the Orion continuing on her circular course as before.
As soon as the Ariel was going slowly enough for him to make himself heard, Mazanoff shouted through a speaking-trumpet —
“Will you surrender, or fight it out?”
“Nu vot! how can we fight with those devil-ships of yours? What is your pleasure?”
The answering hail came from one of the aerostats in the centre of the squadron. Mazanoff at once replied —
“Unconditional surrender for the present, under guarantee of safety to every one who surrenders. Who are you?”
“Colonel Alexei Alexandrovitch, in command of the squadron. I surrender on those terms. Who are you?”
“The captain of the Terrorist air-ship Ariel. Be good enough to come out here, Colonel Alexei Alexandrovitch.”
One of the aerostats moved out of the midst of the Russian squadron and made its way towards the Ariel. As she approached Mazanoff swung his bow round and brought it level with the car of the aerostat, at the same time training one of his guns full on it. Then, with his arm resting on the breach of the gun, he said —
“Come on board, Colonel, and bid your balloon follow me. No nonsense, mind, or I’ll blow you into eternity and all your squadron after you.”
The Russian did as he was bidden, and the Ariel, followed by the aerostat, ascended to the Ithuriel, while the Orion kept up her patrol round the captive war-balloons.
“Colonel Alexandrovitch, in command of the Tsar’s aërial squadron, surrenders unconditionally, save for guarantee of personal safety to himself and his men,” reported Mazanoff, as he came within earshot of the flagship.
“Very good,” replied Arnold from the deck of the Ithuriel. You will keep Colonel Alexandrovitch as hostage for the good behaviour of the rest, and shoot him the moment one of the balloons attempts to escape. After that destroy the rest without mercy. They will form in line close together. The Ariel and the Orion will convoy them on either flank, and you will follow me until you have the signal to stop. On the first suspicion of any attempt to escape you will know what to do. You have both handled your ships splendidly.”
Mazanoff saluted formally, more for the sake of effect than anything else, and descended again to carry out his orders. The captured flotilla was formed in line, the balloons being closed up until there was only a couple of yards or so between any of them and her next neighbour, with the Orion and the Ariel to right and left, each with two guns trained on them, and the Ithuriel flying a couple of hundred feet above them. In this order captors and captured made their way at twenty miles an hour to the north-west towards the headquarters of the Tsar.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08