By the time the captured war-balloons had been formed in order, and the voyage fairly commenced, the eastern sky was bright with the foreglow of the coming dawn, and, as the flotilla was only floating between eight and nine hundred feet above the earth, it was not long before the light was sufficiently strong to render the landscape completely visible.
Far and wide it was a scene of desolation and destruction, of wasted, blackened fields trampled into wildernesses by the tread of countless feet, of forests of trees broken, scorched, and splintered by the iron hail of artillery, and of towns and villages, reduced to heaps of ruins, still smouldering with the fires that had destroyed them.
No more eloquent object-lesson in the horrors of what is called civilised warfare could well have been found than the scene which was visible from the decks of the air-ships. The promised fruits of a whole year of patient industry had been withered in a few hours under the storm-blast of war; homes which but a few days before had sheltered stalwart, well-fed peasants and citizens, were now mere heaps of blackened brick and stone and smoking thatches.
Streets which had been the thoroughfares of peaceful industrious folk, who had no quarrel with the Powers of the earth, or with any of their kind, were now strewn with corpses and encumbered with ruins, and the few survivors, more miserable than those who had died, were crawling, haggard and starving, amidst the wrecks of their vanished prosperity, seeking for some scanty morsels of food to prolong life if only for a few more days of misery and nights of sleepless anxiety.
As the sun rose and shed its midsummer splendour, as if in sublime mockery, over the scene of suffering and desolation, hideous features of the landscape were brought into stronger and more horrifying relief; the scorched and trampled fields were seen to be strewn with unburied corpses of men and horses, and ploughed up with cannon shot and torn into great irregular gashes by shells that had buried themselves in the earth and then exploded.
It was evident that some frightful tragedy must have taken place in this region not many hours before the air-ships had arrived upon the scene. And this, in fact, had been the case. Barely three days previously the advance guard of the Russian army of the North had been met and stubbornly but unsuccessfully opposed by the remnants of the German army of the East, which, driven back from the frontier, was retreating in good order to join the main force which had concentrated about Berlin, under the command of the Emperor, there to fight out the supreme struggle, on the issue of which depended the existence of that German Empire which fifty years before had been so triumphantly built up by the master-geniuses of the last generation.
After a flight of a little over two hours the flotilla came in sight of the Russian army lying between Cüstrin on the right and Frankfort-on-Spree on the left. The distance between these two towns is nearly twelve English miles, and yet the wings of the vast host under the command of the Tsar spread for a couple of miles on either side to north and south of each of them.
In spite of the colossal iniquity which it concealed, the spectacle was one of indescribable grandeur. Almost as far as the eye could reach the beams of the early morning sun were gleaming upon innumerable white tents, and flashing over a sea of glittering metal, of bare bayonets and sword scabbards, of spear points and helmets, of gold-laced uniforms and the polished accoutrements of countless batteries of field artillery.
Far away to the westward the stately city of Berlin could be seen lying upon its intersecting waters, and encircled by its fortifications bristling with guns, and in advance of it were the long serried lines of its defenders gathered to do desperate battle for home and fatherland.
As soon as the Russian army was fairly in sight the Ithuriel shot ahead, sank to the level of the flotilla, and then stopped until she was overtaken by the Orion. Tremayne was on deck, and Arnold as soon as he came alongside said —
“You must stop here for the present. I want the aerostat commanded by Colonel Alexandrovitch to come with me; meanwhile you and the Ariel will rise with the rest of the balloons to a height of four thousand feet; you will keep strict guard over the balloons, and permit no movement to be made until my return. We are going to bring his Majesty the Tsar to book, or else make things pretty lively for him if he won’t listen to reason.”
“Very well,” replied Tremayne. “I will do as you say, and await developments with considerable interest. If there is going to be a fight, I hope you’re not going to leave us out in the cold.”
“Oh no,” replied Arnold. “You needn’t be afraid of that. If his Majesty won’t come to terms, you will smash up the war-balloons and then come and join us in the general bombardment. I see, by the way, that there are ten or a dozen more of these unwieldy monsters with the Russian force moored to the ground yonder on the outskirts of Cüstrin. It will be a little amusement for us if we have to come to blows to knock them to pieces before we smash up the Tsar’s headquarters.
So saying, Arnold increased the speed of the Ithuriel, swept round in front of the line, and communicated the same instructions to the captain of the Ariel.
A few minutes later the Ariel and the Orion began to rise with their charges to the higher regions of the air, leaving the Ithuriel and the one aerostat to carry out the plan which had been arranged by Natas and Arnold an hour previously.
As the speed of the aerostat was only about twenty miles an hour against the wind, a rope was passed from the stern of the Ithuriel to the cordage connecting the car with the gas-holder, and so the aerostat was taken in tow by the air-ship, and dragged through the air at a speed of about forty miles an hour, as a wind-bound sailing vessel might have been towed by a steamer.
On the journey the elevation was increased to more than four thousand feet — an elevation at which both the Ithuriel and her captive, and especially the former, presented practically impossible marks for the Russian riflemen. Almost immediately over Cüstrin they came to a standstill, and then Colonel Alexandrovitch and Professor Volnow were summoned by Natas into the deck saloon.
He explained to them the mission which he desired them to undertake, that is to say, the conveyance of a letter from himself to the Tsar offering terms for the surrender of the Lucifer. They accepted the mission; and in order that they might fully understand the gravity of it, Natas read them the letter, which ran as follows:—
ALEXANDER ROMANOFF —
Three days ago one of my fleet of air-ships, named the Lucifer, was delivered into your hands by traitors and deserters, whose lives are forfeit in virtue of the oaths which they took of their own free will. I have already taken measures to render abortive the analysis which you ordered to be performed in the chemical department of your Arsenal at St. Petersburg, and I have now come to make terms, if possible, for the restoration of the air-ship. Those terms are as follows —
An hour before daybreak this morning I captured nine of your war-balloons, after destroying three others which attempted to escape. I have no desire to take any present part in the war which you are now carrying on with the Anglo–Teutonic Alliance, and if you will tell me where the Lucifer is now to be found, and will despatch orders both by land and through Professor Volnow, who brings this letter to you, and will return with your answer, for her to be given up to me forthwith with everything she has on board, and will surrender with her the four traitors who delivered her into your hands, I will restore the nine war-balloons to you intact, and when I have recovered the Lucifer I will take no further part in the war unless either you or your opponents proceed to unjustifiable extremities.
If you reject these terms, or if I do not receive an answer to this letter within two hours of the time that the bearer of it descends in the aerostat, I shall give orders for the immediate destruction of the war-balloons now in my hands, and I shall then proceed to destroy Cüstrin and the other aerostats which are moored near the town. That done I shall, for the time being, devote the force at my disposal to the defence of Berlin, and do my utmost to bring about the defeat and dispersal of the army which will then no longer be commanded by yourself.
In case you may doubt what I say as to the capture of the fleet of war-balloons, Professor Volnow will be accompanied by Colonel Alexei Alexandrovitch, late in command of the squadron, and now my prisoner of war.
The ambassadors were at once transferred to the aerostat, and with a white flag hoisted on the after stays of the balloon she began to sink rapidly towards the earth, and at the same time Natas gave orders for the Ithuriel to ascend to a height of eight thousand feet in order to frustrate any attempts that might be made, whether with or without the orders of the Tsar, to injure her by means of a volley from the earth.
Even from that elevation, those on board the Ithuriel were able with the aid of their field-glasses to see with perfect ease the commotion which the appearance of the air-ship with the captured aerostat had produced in the Russian camp. The whole of the vast host, numbering more than four millions of men, turned out into the open to watch their aërial visitors, and everywhere throughout the whole extent of the huge camp the plainest signs of the utmost excitement were visible.
In less than half an hour they saw the aerostat touch the earth near to a large building, above which floated the imperial standard of Russia. An hour had been allowed for the interview and for the Tsar to give his decision, and half an hour for the aerostat to return and meet the air-ship.
In all the history of the world there had probably never been an hour so pregnant with tremendous consequences, not only to Europe, but to the whole civilised world, as that was; and though apparently a perfect calm reigned throughout the air-ship, the issue of the embassy was awaited with the most intense anxiety.
Another half hour passed, and hardly a word was spoken on the deck of the Ithuriel, hanging there in mid-air over the mighty Russian host, and in range of the field-glasses of the outposts of the German army of Berlin lying some ten or twelve miles away to the westward.
It was the calm before the threatening storm — a storm which in less than an hour might break in a hail of death and destruction from the sky, and turn the fields of earth into a volcano of shot and flame. Certainly the fate of an empire, and perhaps of Europe, or indeed the world, hung in the balance over that field of possible carnage.
If the Russians regained their war-balloons and were left to themselves, nothing that the heroic Germans could do would be likely to save Berlin from the fate that had overwhelmed Strassburg and Metz, Breslau and Thorn.
On the other hand, should the aerostat not return in time with a satisfactory answer, the victorious career of the Tsar would be cut short by such a bolt from the skies as had wrecked his fortress at Kronstadt — a blow which he could neither guard against nor return, for it would come from an unassailable vantage point, a little vessel a hundred feet long floating in the air six thousand feet from the earth, and looking a mere bright speck amidst the sunlight. She formed a mark that the most skilful rifle-shot in his army could not hit once in a thousand shots, and against whose hull of hardened aluminium, bullets, even if they struck, would simply splash and scatter, like raindrops on a rock.
The remaining minutes of the last half hour were slipping away one by one, and still no sign came from the earth. The aerostat remained moored near the building surmounted by the Russian standard, and the white flag, which, according to arrangement, had been hauled down to be rehoisted if the answer of the Tsar was favourable, was still invisible. When only ten minutes of the allotted time were left, Arnold, moving his glass from his eyes, and looking at his watch, said to Natas —
“Ten minutes more; shall I prepare?”
“Yes,” said Natas. “And let the first gun be fired with the first second of the eleventh minute. Destroy the aerostats first and then the batteries of artillery. After that send a shell into Frankfort, if you have a gun that will carry the distance, so that they may see our range of operations; but spare the Tsar’s headquarters for the present.”
“Very good,” replied Arnold. Then, turning to his lieutenant, he said —
“You have the guns loaded with No. 3, I presume, Mr. Marston, and the projectile stands are filled, I see. Very good. Now descend to six thousand feet and go a mile to the westward. Train one broadside gun on that patch of ground where you see those balloons, another to strike in the midst of those field-guns yonder by the ammunition-waggons, and train the starboard after-gun to throw a shell into Frankfort. The distance is a little over twelve miles, so give sufficient elevation.”
By the time these orders had been executed, swiftly as the necessary evolution had been performed, only four minutes of the allotted time were left. Arnold took his stand by the broadside gun trained on the aerostats, and, with one hand on the breech of the gun and the other holding his watch, he waited for the appointed moment. Natasha stood by him with her eyes fastened to the eye-pieces of the glasses watching for the white flag in breathless suspense.
“One minute more!” said Arnold.
“Stop, there it goes!” cried Natasha as the words left his lips. “His Majesty has yielded to circumstances!”
Arnold took the glasses from her, and through them saw a tiny white speck shining against the black surface of the gas-holder of the balloon. He handed the glasses back to her, saying —
“We must not be too sure of that. His message may be one of defiance.”
“True,” said Natasha. “We shall see.”
Ten minutes later the aerostat was released from her moorings and rose swiftly and vertically into the air. As soon as it reached her own altitude the Ithuriel shot forward to meet it, and stopped within a couple of hundred yards, a gun ready trained upon the car in case of treachery. In the car stood Professor Volnow and Colonel Alexandrovitch. The former held something white in his hand, and across the intervening space came the reassuring hail: “All well!”
In five minutes he was standing on the deck of the Ithuriel presenting a folded paper to Natas. He was pale to the lips, and his whole body trembled with violent emotion. As he handed him the paper, he said to Natas in a low, husky voice that was barely recognisable as his —
“Here is the answer of the Tsar. Whether you are man or fiend, I know not, but his Majesty has yielded and accepted your terms. May I never again witness such anger as was his when I presented your letter. It was not till the last moment that he yielded to my entreaties and those of his staff, and ordered the white flag to be hoisted.”
“Yes,” replied Natas. “He tempted his fate to the last moment. The guns were already trained upon Cüstrin, and thirty seconds more would have seen his headquarters in ruins. He did wisely, if he acted tardily.”
So saying, Natas broke the imperial seal. On a sheet of paper bearing the imperial arms were scrawled three or four lines in the Autocrat’s own handwriting —
I accept your main terms. The air-ship has joined the Baltic fleet. She will be delivered to you with all on board. The four men are my subjects, and I feel bound to protect them; they will therefore not be delivered up. Do as you like.
“A Royal answer, though it comes from a despot,” said Natas as he refolded the paper. “I will waive that point, and let him protect the traitors, if he can. Colonel Alexandrovitch,” he continued, turning to the Russian, who had also boarded the air-ship, “you are free. You may return to your war-balloon, and accompany us to give the order for the release of your squadron.”
“Free!” suddenly screamed the Russian, his face livid and distorted with passion. “Free, yes, but disgraced! Ruined for life, and degraded to the ranks! I want no freedom from you. I will not even have my life at your hands, but I will have yours, and rid the earth of you if I die a thousand deaths!”
As he spoke he wrenched his sword from its scabbard, thrust the Professor aside, and rushed at Natas with the uplifted blade. Before it had time to descend a stream of pale flame flashed over the back of the Master’s chair, accompanied by a long, sharp rattle, and the Russian’s body dropped instantly to the deck riddled by a hail of bullets.
“I saw murder in that man’s eyes when he began to speak,” said Natasha, putting back into her pocket the magazine pistol that she had used with such terrible effect.
“I saw it too, daughter,” quietly replied Natas. “But you need not have been afraid; the blow would never have reached me, for I would have paralysed him before he could have made the stroke.”
“Impossible! No man could have done it!”
The exclamation burst involuntarily from the lips of Professor Volnow, who had stood by, an amazed and horrified spectator of the rapidly enacted tragedy.
“Professor,” said Natas, in quick, stern tones, “I am not accustomed to say what is not true, nor yet to be contradicted by any one in human shape. Stand there till I tell you to move.”
As he spoke these last words Natas made a swift, sweeping downward movement with one of his hands, and fixed his eyes upon those of the Professor. In an instant Volnow’s muscles stiffened into immovable rigidity, and he stood rooted to the deck powerless to move so much as a finger.
“Captain Arnold,” continued Natas, as though nothing had happened. “We will rejoin our consorts, please, and release the aerostats in accordance with the terms. This man’s body will be returned in one of them to his master, and the Professor here will write an account of his death in order that it may not be believed that we have murdered him. Konstantin Volnow, go into the saloon and write that letter, and bring it to me when it is done.”
Like an automaton the Professor turned and walked mechanically into the deck-saloon. Meanwhile the Ithuriel started on her way towards the captive squadron. Before she reached it Volnow returned with a sheet of paper in his hand filled with fresh writing, and signed with his name.
Natas took it from him, read it, and then fixing his eyes on his again, said —
“That will do. I give you back your will. Now, do you believe?”
The Professor’s body was suddenly shaken with such a violent trembling that he almost fell to the deck. Then he recovered himself with a violent effort, and cried through his chattering teeth —
“Believe! How can I help it? Whoever and whatever you are, you are well named the Master of the Terror.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54