As soon as the captive war-balloons had been released, the Ithuriel and her consorts, without any further delay or concern for the issue of the decisive battle which would probably prove to be the death-struggle of the German Empire, headed away to the northward at the utmost speed of the two smaller vessels. Their objective point was Copenhagen, and the distance rather more than two hundred and sixty miles in a straight line.
This was covered in under two hours and a half, and by noon they had reached the Danish capital. In crossing the water from Stralsund they had sighted several war-vessels, all flying British, German, or Danish colours, and all making a northerly course like themselves. They had not attempted to speak to any of these, because, as they were all apparently bound for the same point, and, as the speed of the air-ships was more than five times as great as that of the swiftest cruiser, to do so would have been a waste of time, when every moment might be of the utmost consequence.
Off Copenhagen the aërial travellers saw the first signs of the terrible night’s work, with the details of which the reader has already been made acquainted. Wrecked fortifications, cruisers and battleships bearing every mark of a heavy engagement, some with their top-works battered into ruins, their military masts gone, and their guns dismounted; some down by the head, and some by the stern, and others evidently run ashore to save them from sinking; and the harbour crowded with others in little better condition — everywhere there were eloquent proofs of the disaster which had overtaken the Allied fleets on the previous night.
“There seems to have been some rough work going on down there within the last few hours,” said Arnold to Natas as they came in sight of this scene of destruction. “The Russians could not have done this alone, for when the war began they were shut up in the Baltic by an overwhelming force, of which these seem to be the remains. And those forts yonder were never destroyed by anything but our shells.”
“Yes,” replied Natas. “It is easy to see what has happened. The Lucifer was sent here to help the Russian fleet to break the blockade, and it looks as though it had been done very effectually. We are just a few hours too late, I fear.
“That one victory will have an immense effect on the course of the war, for it is almost certain that the Russians will make for the Atlantic round the north of the Shetland Islands, and cooperate with the French and Italian squadrons along the British line of communication with the West. That once cut, food will go up to famine prices in Britain, and the end will not be far off.”
Natas spoke without the slightest apparent personal interest in the subject; but his words brought a flush to Arnold’s cheeks, and make him suddenly clench his hands and knit his brows. After all he was an Englishman, and though he owed England nothing but the accident of his birth, the knowledge that one of his own ships should be the means of bringing this disaster upon her made him forget for the moment the gulf that he had placed between himself and his native land, and long to go to her rescue. But it was only a passing emotion. He remembered that his country was now elsewhere, and that all his hopes were now alien to Britain and her fortunes.
If Natas noticed the effect of his words he made no sign that he did, and he went on in the same even tone as before —
“We must overtake the fleet, and either recapture the Lucifer or destroy her before she does any more mischief in Russian hands. The first thing to do is to find out what has happened, and what course they have taken. Hoist the Union Jack over a flag of truce on all three ships, and signal to Mazanoff to come alongside. We had better stop here till we get the news.”
The Master’s orders were at once executed, and as soon as the Ariel was floating beside the flagship he said to her captain —
“Go down and speak that cruiser lying at anchor off the harbour, and learn all you can of what has happened. Tell them freely how it happened that the Lucifer assisted the Russian, if it turns out that she did so. Say that we have no hostility to Britain at present, but rather the reverse, and that our only purpose just now is to retake the air-ship and prevent her doing any more damage. If you can get any newspapers, do so.”
“I understand fully,” replied Mazanoff, and a minute later his vessel was sinking rapidly down towards the cruiser.
His reception was evidently friendly, for those on board the Ithuriel saw that he ran the Ariel close alongside the man-of-war, after the first hails had been exchanged, and conversed for some time with a group of officers across the rails of the two vessels. Then a large roll of newspapers was passed from the cruiser to the air-ship, salutes were exchanged, and the Ariel rose gracefully into the air to rejoin her consorts, followed by the envious glances of the crews of the battered warships.
Mazanoff presented his report, the facts of which were substantially those given in the St. James’s Gazette telegram, and added that the British officers had confessed to him that the damage done was so great, both to the fleet and the shore fortifications, that the Sound was now practically as open as the Atlantic, and that it would be two or three weeks before even half the Allied force would be able to take the sea in fighting trim.
They added that there was not the slightest need to conceal their condition, as the Russians, who had steamed in triumph past their shattered ships and silenced forts, knew it just as well as they did. As regards the Russian fleet, it had been followed past the Skawe, and had headed out westward.
In their opinion it would consider itself strong enough, with the aid of the air-ship, to sweep the North Sea, and would probably attempt to force the Straits of Dover, as it has done the Sound, and effect a junction with the French squadrons at Brest and Cherbourg. This done, a combined attack might possibly be made upon Portsmouth, or the destruction of the Channel fleet attempted. The effects of the air-ship’s shells upon both forts and ships had been so appalling that the Russians would no doubt think themselves strong enough for anything as long as they had possession of her.
“They were extremely polite,” said Mazanoff, as he concluded his story. “They asked me to go ashore and interview the Admiral, who, they told me, would guarantee any amount of money on behalf of the British Government if we would only cooperate with their fleets for even a month. They said Britain would gladly pay a hundred thousand a month for the hire of each ship and her crew; and they looked quite puzzled when I refused point-blank, and said that a million a month would not do it.
“They evidently take us for a new sort of pirates, corsairs of the air, or something of that kind; for when I said that a few odd millions were no good to people who could levy blackmail on the whole earth if they chose, they stared at me and asked me what we did want if we didn’t want money. The idea that we could have any higher aims never seemed to have entered their heads, and, of course, I didn’t enlighten them.”
“Quite right,” said Natas, with a quiet laugh. “They will learn our aims quite soon enough. And now we must overtake the Russian fleet as soon as possible. You say they passed the Skawe soon after five this morning. That gives them nearly six hours’ start, and if they are steaming twenty miles an hour, as I daresay they are, they will now be some hundred and twenty miles west of the Skawe. Captain Arnold, if we cut straight across Zeeland and Jutland, about what distance ought we to travel before we meet them?”
Arnold glanced at the chart which lay spread out on the table of the saloon in which they were sitting, and said —
“I should say a course of about two hundred miles due north-west from here ought to take us within sight of them, unless they are making for the Atlantic, and keep very close to the Swedish coast. In that case I should say two hundred and fifty in the same direction.”
“Very well, then, let us take that course and make all the speed we can,” said Natas; and within ten minutes the three vessels were speeding away to the north-westward at a hundred and twenty miles an hour over the verdant lowlands of the Danish peninsula.
The Ithuriel kept above five miles ahead of the others, and when the journey had lasted about an hour and three-quarters, the man who had been stationed in the conning-tower signalled, “Fleet in sight” to the saloon. The air-ships were then travelling at an elevation of 3000 feet. A good ten miles to the northward could be seen the Russian fleet steering to the westward, and, judging by the dense clouds of smoke that were pouring out of the funnels of the vessels, making all the speed they could.
Arnold, who had gone forward to the conning-tower as soon as the signal sounded, at once returned to the saloon and made his formal report to Natas.
“The Russian fleet is in sight, heading to the westward, and therefore evidently meaning to reach the Atlantic by the north of the Shetlands. There are twelve large battleships, about twenty-five cruisers of different sizes, eight of them very large, and a small swarm of torpedo-boats being towed by the larger vessels, I suppose to save their coal. I see no signs of the Lucifer at present, but from what we have learnt she will be on the deck of one of the large cruisers. What are your orders?”
“Recover the air-ship if you can,” replied Natas. “Send Mazanoff with Professor Volnow to convey the Tsar’s letter to the Admiral, and demand the surrender of the Lucifer. If he refuses, let the Ariel return at once, and we will decide what to do. I leave the details with you with the most perfect confidence.”
Arnold bowed in silence and retired, catching, as he turned to leave the saloon, a glance from Natasha which, it must be confessed, meant more to him than even the command of the Master. From the expression of his face as he went to the wheel-house to take charge of the ship, it was evident that it would go hard with the Russian fleet if the Admiral refused to recognise the order of the Tsar.
When he got to the wheel-house the Ithuriel was almost over the fleet. He signalled “stop” to the engine-room. Immediately the propellers slowed and then ceased their rapid revolutions, and at the same time the fan-wheels went aloft and began to revolve. This was a prearranged signal to the others to do the same, and by the time they had overtaken the flagship they also came to a standstill. As soon as they were within speaking distance Arnold hailed the Orion and the Ariel to come alongside.
After communicating to Tremayne and Mazanoff the orders of Natas, he said to the latter —
“You will take Professor Volnow to present the Tsar’s letter to the Admiral in command of the fleet. Fly the Russian flag over a flag of truce, and if he acknowledges it say that if the Lucifer is given up we shall allow the fleet to go on its way unmolested and without asking any question.
“The cruiser that has her on board must separate from the rest of the fleet and allow two of your men to take possession of her and bring her up here. The lives of the four traitors are safe for the present if the air-ship is given up quietly.”
“And if they will not recognise the authority of the Tsar’s letter, and refuse to give the air-ship up, what then?” asked Mazanoff.
“In that case haul down the Russian flag, and get aloft as quickly as you can. You can leave the rest to us,” said Arnold. “Meanwhile, Tremayne, will you go down to two thousand feet or so, and keep your eye on that big cruiser a bit ahead of the rest of the fleet. I fancy I can make out the Lucifer on her deck. Train a couple of guns on her, and don’t let the air-ship rise without orders. I shall stop up here for the present, and be ready to make things lively for the Admiral if he refuses to obey his master’s orders.”
The Ariel took the Professor on board, and hoisted the Russian colours over the flag of truce, and began to sink down towards the fleet. As she descended, the Admiral in command of the squadron, already not a little puzzled by the appearance of the three air-ships, was still more mystified by seeing the Russian ensign flying from her flagstaff.
Was this only a ruse of the Terrorists, or were they flying the Russian flag for a legitimate reason? As he knew from the experience of the previous night that the air-ships, if their intentions were hostile, could destroy his fleet in detail without troubling to parley with him, he concluded that there was a good reason for the flag of truce, and so he ordered one to be flown from his own masthead in answer to it.
The white flag at once enabled Mazanoff to single out the huge battleship on which it was flying as the Admiral’s flagship. The fleet was proceeding in four columns of line abreast. First two long lines of cruisers, each with one or two torpedo boats in tow, and with scouts thrown out on each wing, and then two lines of battleships, in the centre of the first of which was the flagship.
It was a somewhat risky matter for the Ariel to descend thus right in the middle of the whole fleet, but Mazanoff had his orders, and they had to be obeyed, and so down he went, running his bow up to within a hundred feet of the hurricane deck, on which stood the Admiral surrounded by several of his officers.
“I have a message for the Admiral of the fleet,” he shouted, as soon as he came within hail.
“Who are you, and from whom is your message?” came the reply.
“Konstantin Volnow, of the Imperial Arsenal at Petersburg, brings the message from the Tsar in writing.’
“His Majesty’s messenger is welcome. Come alongside.”
The Ariel ran ahead until her prow touched the rail of the hurricane deck, and the Professor advanced with the Tsar’s letter in his hand, and gave it to the Admiral, saying —
“You are acquainted with me, Admiral Prabylov. Though I bear it unwillingly, I can vouch for the letter being authentic. I saw his Majesty write it, and he gave it into my hands.”
“Then how do you come to be an unwilling bearer of it?” asked the Admiral, scowling and gnawing his moustache as he read the unwelcome letter. “What are these terms, and with whom were they made?”
“Pardon me, Admiral,” interrupted Mazanoff, “that is not the question. I presume you recognise his Majesty’s signature, and see that he desires the air-ship to be given up.”
“His Majesty’s signature can be forged, just as Nihilists’ passports can be, Mr. Terrorist, for that’s what I presume you are, and”—
“Admiral, I solemnly assure you that that letter is genuine, and that it is really his Majesty’s wish that the air-ship should be given up,” the Professor broke in before Mazanoff had time to reply. “It is to be given in exchange for nine war-balloons which these air-ships captured before daybreak this morning.”
“How do you come to be the bearer of it, sir? Please answer me that first.”
“I am a prisoner of war. I surrendered to save the Arsenal and perhaps Petersburg from destruction under circumstances which I cannot now explain”—
“Thank you, sir, that is quite enough! A pretty story, truly! And you ask me to believe this, and to give up that priceless air-ship on such grounds as these — a story that would hardly deceive a child? You captured nine of the Tsar’s war-balloons this morning, had an interview with his Majesty, got this letter from him at Cüstrin — more than five hundred miles away, and bring it here, and it is barely two in the afternoon!
“No, gentlemen, I am too old a sailor to be taken in by a yarn like that. I believe this letter to be a forgery, and I will not give the air-ship up on its authority.”
“That is your last word, is it?” asked Mazanoff, white with passion, but still forcing himself to speak coolly.
“That is my last word, sir, save to tell you that if you do not haul that flag you are masquerading under down at once I will fire upon you,” shouted the Admiral, tearing the Tsar’s letter into fragments as he spoke.
“If I haul that flag down it will be the signal for the air-ships up yonder to open fire upon you, so your blood be on your own heads!” said Mazanoff, stamping thrice on the deck as he spoke. The propellers of the Ariel whirled round in a reverse direction, and she sprang swiftly back from the battleship, at the same time rising rapidly in the air.
Before she had cleared a hundred yards, and before the flag of truce was hauled down, there was a sharp, grinding report from one of the tops of the man-of-war, and a hail of bullets from a machine gun swept across the deck. Mazanoff heard a splintering of wood and glass, and a deep groan beside him. He looked round and saw the Professor clasp his hand to a great red wound in his breast, and fall in a heap on the deck.
This was the event of an instant. The next he had trained one of the bow-guns downwards on the centre of the deck of the Russian flagship and sent the projectile to its mark. Then quick as thought he sprang over and discharged the other gun almost at random. He saw the dazzling green flash of the explosions, then came a shaking of the atmosphere, and a roar as of a hundred thunder-claps in his ears, and he dropped senseless to the deck beside the corpse of the Professor.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50