Mazanoff came to himself about ten minutes later, lying on one of the seats in the after saloon, and all that he saw when he first opened his eyes was the white anxious face of Radna bending over him.
“What is the matter? What has happened? Where am I?” he asked, as soon as his tongue obeyed his will. His voice, although broken and unsteady, was almost as strong as usual, and Radna’s face immediately brightened as she heard it. A smile soon chased away her anxious look, and she said cheerily —
“Ah, come! you’re not killed after all. You are still on board the Ariel, and what has happened is this as far as I can see. In your hurry to return the shot from the Russian flagship you fired your guns at too close range, and the shock of the explosion stunned you. In fact, we thought for the moment you had blown the Ariel up too, for she shook so that we all fell down; then her engines stopped, and she almost fell into the water before they could be started again.”
“Is she all right now? Where’s the Russian fleet, and what happened to the flagship? I must get on deck,” exclaimed Mazanoff, sitting up on the seat. As he did so he put his hand to his head and said: “I feel a bit shaky still. What’s that — brandy you’ve got there? Get me some champagne, and put the brandy into it. I shall be all right when I’ve had a good drink. Now I think of it, I wonder that explosion didn’t blow us to bits. You haven’t told me what became of the flagship,” he continued, as Radna came back with a small bottle of champagne and uncorked it.
“Well, the flagship is at the bottom of the German Ocean. When Petroff told me that you had fallen dead, as he said, on deck, I ran up in defiance of your orders and saw the battleship just going down. The shells had blown the middle of her right out, and a cloud of steam and smoke and fire was rising out of a great ragged space where the funnels had been. Before I got you down here she broke right in two and went down.”
“That serves that blackguard Prabylov right for saying we forged the Tsar’s letter, and firing on a flag of truce. Poor Volnow’s dead, I suppose?”
“Oh yes,” replied Radna sadly. “He was shot almost to pieces by the volley from the machine gun. The deck saloon is riddled with bullets, and the decks badly torn up, but fortunately the hull and propellers are almost uninjured. But come, drink this, then you can go up and see for yourself.”
So saying she handed him a tumbler of champagne well dashed with brandy. He drank it down at a gulp, like the Russian that he was, and said as he put the glass down —
“That’s better. I feel a new man. Now give me a kiss, batiushka, and I’ll be off.”
When he reached the deck he found the Ariel ascending towards the Ithuriel, and about a mile astern of the Russian fleet, the vessels of which were blazing away into the air with their machine guns, in the hope of “bringing him down on the wing,” as he afterwards put it. He could hear the bullets singing along underneath him; but the Ariel was rising so fast, and going at such a speed through the air, that the moment the Russians got the range they lost it again, and so merely wasted their ammunition.
Neither the Ithuriel nor the Orion seemed to have taken any part in the battle so far, or to have done anything to avenge the attack made upon the Ariel. Mazanoff wondered not a little at this, as both Arnold and Tremayne must have seen the fate of the Russian flagship. As soon as he got within speaking distance of the Ithuriel, he sang out to Arnold, who was on the deck —
“I got in rather a tight place down there. That scoundrel fired upon us with the flag of truce flying, and when I gave him a couple of shells in return I thought the end of the world was come.”
“You fired at too close range, my friend. Those shells are sudden death to anything within a hundred yards of them. Are you all well on board? You’ve been knocked about a bit, I see.”
“No; poor Volnow’s dead. He was killed standing close beside me, and I wasn’t touched, though the explosion of the shell knocked the senses out of me completely. However, the machinery’s all right, and I don’t think the hull is hurt to speak of. But what are you doing? I should have thought you’d have blown half the fleet out of the water by this time.”
“No. We saw that you had amply avenged yourself, and the Master’s orders were not to do anything till you returned. You’d better come on board and consult with him.”
Mazanoff did so, and when he had told his story to Natas, the latter mystified him not a little by replying —
“I am glad that none of you are injured, though, of course, I’m sorry that I sent Volnow to his death; but that is the fortune of war. If one of us fell into his master’s hands his fate would be worse than that. You avenged the outrage promptly and effectively.
“I have decided not to injure the Russian fleet more than I can help. It has work to do which must not be interfered with. My only object is to recover the Lucifer, if possible, and so we shall follow the fleet for the present across the North Sea on our way to the rendezvous with the other vessels from Aeria which are to meet us on Rockall Island, and wait our opportunity. Should the opportunity not come before then, we must proceed to extremities, and destroy her and the cruiser that has her on board.
“And do you think we shall get such an opportunity?”
“I don’t know,” replied Natas. “But it is possible. I don’t think it likely that the fleet will have coal enough for a long cruise in the Atlantic, and therefore it is possible that they will make a descent on Aberdeen, which they are quite strong enough to capture if they like, and coal up there. In that case it is extremely probable that they will make use of the air-ship to terrorise the town into surrender, and as soon as she takes the air we must make a dash for her, and either take her or blow her to pieces.”
Arnold expressed his entire agreement with this idea, and, as the event proved, it was entirely correct. Instead of steering nor’-nor’-west, as they would have done had they intended to go round the Shetland Islands, or north-west, had they chosen the course between the Orkneys and the Shetlands, the Russian vessels kept a due westerly course during the rest of the day, and this course could only take them to the Scotch coast near Aberdeen.
The distance from where they were was a little under five hundred miles, and at their present rate of steaming they would reach Aberdeen about four o’clock on the following afternoon. The air-ships followed them at a height of four thousand feet during the rest of the day and until shortly before dawn on the following morning.
They then put on speed, took a wide sweep to the northward, and returned southward over Banffshire, and passing Aberdeen to the west, found a secluded resting-place on the northern spur of the Kincardineshire Hills, about five miles to the southward of the Granite City.
Here the repairs which were needed by the Ariel were at once taken in hand by her own crew and that of the Ithuriel, while the Orion was sent out to sea again to keep a sharp look-out for the Russian fleet, which she would sight long before she herself became visible, and then to watch the movements of the Russians from as great a distance as possible until it was time to make the counter-attack.
As Aberdeen was then one of the coaling depots for the North Sea Squadron, it was defended by two battleships, the Ascalon and the Menelaus, three powerful coast-defence vessels, the Thunderer, the Cyclops, and the Pluto, six cruisers, and twelve torpedo-boats. The shore defences consisted of a fort on the north bank at the mouth of the Dee, mounting ten heavy guns, and the Girdleness fort, mounting twenty-four 9-inch twenty-five ton guns, in connection with which was a station for working navigable torpedoes of the Brennan type, which had been considerably improved during the last ten years.
Shortly after two o’clock on the afternoon of the 30th the Orion returned to her consorts with the news that the Russian fleet was forty miles off the land, heading straight for Aberdeen, and that there were no other warships in sight as far as could be seen to the southward. From this fact it was concluded that the Russians had escaped the notice of the North Sea Squadron, and so would only have the force defending Aberdeen to reckon with.
Even had they not possessed the air-ship, this force was so far inferior to their own that there would be little chance of successfully defending the town against them. They had eleven battleships, twenty-five cruisers, eight of which were very large and heavily armed, and forty torpedo-boats, to pit against the little British force and the two forts.
But given the assistance of the Lucifer, and the town practically lay at their mercy. They evidently feared no serious opposition in their raid, for, without even waiting for nightfall, they came on at full speed, darkening the sky with their smoke, the battleships in the centre, a dozen cruisers on either side of them, and one large cruiser about a mile ahead of their centre.
When the captain of the Ascalon, who was in command of the port, saw the overwhelming force of the hostile fleet, he at once came to the conclusion that it would be madness for him to attempt to put to sea with his eleven ships and six torpedo-boats. The utmost that he could do was to remain inshore and assist the forts to keep the Russians at bay, if possible, until the assistance, which had already been telegraphed for to Dundee and the Firth of Forth, where the bulk of the North Sea Squadron was then stationed, could come to his aid.
Five miles off the land the Russian fleet stopped, and the Lucifer rose from the deck of the big cruiser and stationed herself about a mile to seaward of the mouth of the river at an elevation of three thousand feet. Then a torpedo-boat flying a flag of truce shot out from the Russian line and ran to within a mile of the shore.
The Commodore of the port sent out one of his torpedo-boats to meet her, and this craft brought back a summons to surrender the port for twelve hours, and permit six of the Russian cruisers to fill up with coal. The alternative would be bombardment of the town by the fleet and the air-ship, which alone, as the Russians said, held the fort and the ships at its mercy.
To this demand the British Commodore sent back a flat refusal, and defiance to the Russian Commander to do his worst.
Where the Ithuriel and her consorts were lying the hills between them and the sea completely screened them from the observation of those on board the Lucifer. Arnold and Tremayne had climbed to the top of a hill above their ships, and watched the movements of the Russians through their glasses. As soon as they saw the Lucifer rise into the air they returned to the Ithuriel to form their plans for their share in the conflict that they saw impending.
“I’m afraid we can’t do much until it gets a good deal darker than it is now,” said Arnold, in reply to a question from Natas as to his view of the situation. “If we take the air now the Lucifer will see us; and we must remember that she is armed with the same weapons as we have, and a shot from one of her guns would settle any of us that it struck. Even if we hit her first we should destroy her, and we could have done that easily yesterday.
“It has felt very like thunder all day, and I see there are some very black-looking clouds rolling up there over the hills to the south-west. My advice is to wait for those. I’m afraid we can’t do anything to save the town under the circumstances, but in this state of the atmosphere a heavy bombardment is practically certain to bring on a severe thunderstorm, and to fetch those clouds up at the double quick.
“I don’t for a moment think that the British will surrender, big and all as the Russian force is, and as they have never seen the effects of our shells they won’t fear the Lucifer much until she commences operations, and then it will be too late. Listen! They’ve begun. There goes the first gun!”
A deep, dull boom came rolling up the hills from the sea as he spoke, and was almost immediately followed by a rapid series of similar reports, which quickly deepened into a continuous roar. Every one who could be spared from the air-ship at once ran up to the top of the hill to watch the progress of the fight. The Russian fleet had advanced to within three miles of the land, and had opened a furious cannonade on the British ships and the forts, which were manfully replying to it with every available gun.
By the time the watchers on the hill had focussed their glasses on the scene, the Lucifer discharged her first shell on the fort on Girdleness. They saw the blaze of the explosion gleam through the smoke that already hung thick over the low building. Another and another followed in quick succession, and the firing from the fort ceased. The smoke drifted slowly away, and disclosed a heap of shapeless ruins.
“That is horrible work, isn’t it?” said Arnold to Tremayne through his clenched teeth. “Anywhere but on British ground would not be so bad, but the sight of that makes my blood boil. I would give my ears to take our ships into the air, and smash up that Russian fleet as we did the French Squadron in the Atlantic.”
“There spoke the true Briton, Captain Arnold,” said Natasha, who was standing beside him under a clump of trees. “Yes, I can quite understand how you feel watching a scene like that, for country is country after all. Even my half-English blood is pretty near boiling point; and though I wouldn’t give my ears, I would give a good deal to go with you and do as you say.
“But you may rest assured that the Master’s way is the best, and will prove the shortest road to the universal peace which can only come through universal war. Courage, my friend, and patience! There will be a heavy reckoning to pay for this sort of thing one day, and that before very long.”
“Ha!” exclaimed Tremayne. “There goes the other fort. I suppose it will be the turn of the ships next. What a frightful scene! Twenty minutes ago it was as peaceful as these hills, and look at it now.”
The second fort had been destroyed as rapidly as the first, and the cessation of the fire of both had made a very perceptible difference in the cannonade, though the great guns of the Russian fleet still roared continuously and poured a hurricane of shot and shell into the mouth of the river across which the British ships were drawn, keeping up the unequal conflict like so many bull-dogs at bay.
Over them and the river hung a dense pall of bluish-white smoke, through which the Lucifer sent projectile after projectile in the attempt to sink the British ironclads. As those on board her could only judge by the flash of the guns, the aim was very imperfect, and several projectiles were wasted, falling into the sea and exploding there, throwing up mountains of water, but not doing any further damage. At length a brilliant green flash shot up through the smoke clouds over the river mouth.
“He’s hit one of the ships at last!” exclaimed Tremayne, as he saw the flash. “It’ll soon be all up with poor old Aberdeen.”
“I don’t think so,” exclaimed Arnold. “At any rate the Lucifer won’t do much more harm. There comes the storm at last! Back to the ships all of you at once, it’s time to go aloft!”
As he spoke a brilliant flash of lightning split the inky clouds which had now risen high over the western hills, and a deep roll of thunder came echoing up the valleys as if in answer to the roar of the cannonade on the sea. The moment every one was on board, Arnold gave the signal to ascend. As soon as the fan-wheels had raised them a hundred feet from the ground he gave the signal for full speed ahead, and the three air-ships swept upwards to the west as though to meet the coming storm.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08