During the three months of incessant strife and carnage which deluged the plains and valleys of Europe with blood after the fall of Berlin, the Terrorists took no part whatever in the war. At long intervals an air-ship was seen from the earth flying at full speed through the upper regions of the atmosphere, now over Europe, now over America, and now over Australia or the Cape of Good Hope; but if they held any communication with the earth they did so secretly, and only paid the briefest of visits, the objects of which could only be guessed at.
When one was sighted the fact was mentioned in the newspapers, and vague speculations were indulged in; but there was soon little room left for these in the public attention, especially in Britain, for as the news of disaster after disaster came pouring in, and the hosts of the League drew nearer and nearer to the western shores of Europe, all eyes were turned more and more anxiously across “the silver streak” which now alone separated the peaceful hills and valleys of England and Scotland from the destroying war-storm which had so swiftly desolated the fields of Europe, and all hearts were heavy with apprehension of coming sorrows.
The rapidity of their movements had naturally led to the supposition that several of the air-ships had taken the air for some unknown purpose, but in reality there were only two of them afloat during nearly the whole of the three mouths.
Of these, one was the Orion, on board of which Tremayne was visiting the various centres of the Brotherhood throughout the English-speaking world, making everything ready for the carrying out at the proper time of the great project to which he had devoted himself since the memorable night at Alanmere, when he had seen the vision of the world’s Armageddon. The other was under the command of Michael Roburoff, who was busy in America and Canada perfecting the preparations for checkmating the designs of the American Ring, which were described in a former chapter.
The remainder of the members of the Inner Circle and those of the Outer Circle, living in Aeria, were quietly pursuing the most peaceful avocations, building houses and water-mills, clearing fields and laying out gardens, fishing in the lake and streams, and hunting in the forests as though they had never heard of the horrors of war, and had no part or share in the Titanic strife whose final issue they would soon have to go forth and decide.
One of the hardest workers in the colony was the Admiral of the aërial fleet. Morning after morning he shut himself up in his laboratory for three or four hours experimenting with explosives of various kinds, and especially on a new form of fire-shell which he had invented, and which he was now busy perfecting in preparation for the next, and, as he hoped, final conflict that he would have to wage with the forces of despotism and barbarism.
The afternoons he spent supervising the erection of the mills, and the construction of new machinery, and in exploring the mountain sides in search of mineral wealth, of which he was delighted to find abundant promise that was afterwards realised beyond his expectations.
On these exploring expeditions he was frequently accompanied by Natasha and Radna and her husband. Sometimes Arnold would be enticed away from his chemicals, and his designs on the lives of his enemies, and after breakfasting soon after sunrise would go off for a long day’s ramble to some unknown part of their wonderful domain, in which, like children in a fairyland, they were always discovering some new wonders and beauties. And, indeed, no children could have been happier or freer from care than they were during this delightful interval in the tragedy in which they were so soon to play such conspicuous parts. The two wedded lovers, with the dark past put far behind them for ever, found perfect happiness in each other’s society, and so left, it is almost needless to add, Arnold and Natasha pretty much to their own devices. Indeed, Natasha had more than once declared that she would have to get the Princess to join the party, as Radna had proved herself a hopeless failure as a chaperone.
Every one in the valley by this time looked upon Arnold and Natasha as lovers, though their rank in the Brotherhood was so high that no one ventured to speak of them as betrothed save by implication. How Natas regarded them was known only to himself. He, of course, saw their intimacy, and since he said nothing he doubtless looked upon it with approval; but whether he regarded it as an intimacy of friends or of lovers, remained a mystery even to Natasha herself, for he never by any chance made an allusion to it.
As for Arnold, he had scrupulously observed the compact tacitly made between them on the first and only occasion that he had ever spoken words of love to her. They were the best of friends, the closest companions, and their intercourse with each other was absolutely frank and unrestrained, just as it would have been between two close friends of the same sex; but they understood each other perfectly, and by no word or deed did either cross the line that divides friendship from love.
She trusted him absolutely in all things, and he took this trust as a sacred pledge between them that until his part of their compact had been performed, love was a forbidden subject, not even to be approached.
So perfectly did Natasha play her part that though he spent hours and hours alone with her on their exploring expeditions, and in rowing and sailing on the lake, and though he spent many another hour in solitude, weighing her every word and action, he was utterly unable to truthfully congratulate himself on having made the slightest progress towards gaining that love without which, even if he held her to the compact in the day of victory, victory itself would be robbed of its crowning glory and dearest prize.
To a weaker man it would have been an impossible situation, this constant and familiar companionship with a girl whose wonderful beauty dazzled his eyes and fired his blood as he looked upon it, and whose winning charm of manner and grace of speech and action seemed to glorify her beauty until she seemed a being almost beyond the reach of merely human love — rather one of those daughters of men whom the sons of God looked upon in the early days of the world, and found so fair that they forsook heaven itself to woo them.
Trained and disciplined as he had been in the sternest of all schools, and strengthened as he was by the knowledge of the compact that existed between them, there were moments when his self-control was very sorely tried, moments when her hand would be clasped in his, or rested on his shoulder as he helped her across a stream or down some steep hillside, or when in the midst of some animated discussion she would stop short and face him, and suddenly confound his logic with a flash from her eyes and a smile on her lips that literally forced him to put forth a muscular effort to prevent himself from catching her in his arms and risking everything for just one kiss, one taste of the forbidden fruit within his reach, and yet parted from him by a sea of blood and flame that still lay between the world and that empire of peace which he had promised to win for her sweet sake.
Once, and once only, she had tried him almost too far. They had been discussing the possibility of ruling the world without the ultimate appeal to force, when the nations, weary at length of war, should have consented to disarm, and she, carried away by her own eloquent pleading for the ultimate triumph of peace and goodwill on earth, had laid her hand upon his arm, and was looking up at him with her lovely face aglow with the sweetest expression even he had ever seen upon it.
Their eyes met, and there was a sudden silence between them. The eloquent words died upon her lips, and a deep flush rose to her cheeks and then faded instantly away, leaving her pale and with a look almost of terror in her eyes. He took a quick step backwards, and, turning away as though he feared to look any longer upon her beauty, said in a low tone that trembled with the strength of his repressed passion —
“Natasha, for God’s sake remember that I am only made of flesh and blood!”
In a moment she was by his side again, this time with her eyes downcast and her proud little head bent as though in acknowledgment of his reproof. Then she looked up again, and held out her hand and said —
“Forgive me; I have done wrong! Let us be friends again!”
There was a gentle emphasis on the word “friends” that was irresistible. He took her hand in silence, and after a pressure that was almost imperceptibly returned, let it go again, and they walked on together; but there was very little more said between them that evening.
This had happened one afternoon towards the middle of September, and two days later their delightful companionship came suddenly to an end, and the bond that existed between them was severed in a moment without warning, as a nerve thrilling with pleasure might be cut by an unexpected blow with a knife.
On the 16th of September the Orion returned from Australia. She touched the earth shortly after mid-day, and before sunset the Azrael, the vessel in which Michael Roburoff had gone to America, also returned, but without her commander. Her lieutenant, however, brought a despatch from him, which he delivered at once to Natas, who, immediately on reading it, sent for Tremayne.
It evidently contained matters of great importance, for they remained alone together discussing it for over an hour. At the end of that time Tremayne left the Master’s house and went to look for Arnold. He found him just helping Natasha out of a skiff at a little landing-stage that had been built out into the lake for boating purposes. As soon as greetings had been exchanged, he said —
“Natasha, I have just left your father. He asked me, if I saw you, to tell you that he wishes to speak to you at once.”
“Certainly,” said Natasha. “I hope you have not brought bad news home from your travels. You are looking very serious about something,” and without waiting for an answer, she was gone to obey her father’s summons. As soon as she was out of earshot Tremayne put his arm through Arnold’s, and, drawing him away towards a secluded portion of the shore of the lake, said —
“Arnold, old man, I have some very serious news for you. You must prepare yourself for the severest strain that, I believe, could be put on your loyalty and your honour.”
“What is it? For Heaven’s sake don’t tell me that it has to do with Natasha!” exclaimed Arnold, stopping short and facing round, white to the lips with the sudden fear that possessed him. “You know”—
“Yes, I know everything,” replied Tremayne, speaking almost as gently as a woman would have done, “and I am sorry to say that it has to do with her. I know what your hopes have been with regard to her, and no man on earth could have wished to see those hopes fulfilled more earnestly than I have done, but”—
“What do you mean, Tremayne? Speak out, and let me know the worst. If you tell me that I am to give her up, I tell you that I am”—
“‘That I am an English gentleman, and that I will break my heart rather than my oath’— that is what you will tell me when I tell you that you must not only give up your hopes of winning Natasha, but that it is the Master’s orders that you shall have the Ithuriel ready to sail at midnight to take her to America to Michael Roburoff, who has written to Natas to ask her for his wife.”
Arnold heard him out in dazed, stupefied silence. It seemed too monstrous, too horrible, to be true. The sudden blow had stunned him. He tried to speak, but the words would not come. Tremayne, still standing with his arm through his, felt his whole body trembling, as though stricken with some sudden palsy. He led him on again, saying in a sterner tone than before —
“Come, come! Play the man, and remember that the work nearest to your hand is war, and not love. Remember the tremendous issues that are gathering to their fulfilment, and the part that you have to play in working them out. This is not a question of the happiness or the hopes of one man or woman, but of millions, of the whole human race. You, and you alone, hold in your hands the power to make the defeat of the League certain.”
“And I will use it, have no fear of that!” replied Arnold, stopping again and passing his hand over his eyes like a man waking from an evil dream. “What I have sworn to do I will do; I am not going back from my oath. I will obey to the end, for she will do the same, and what would she think of me if I failed! Leave me alone for a bit now, old man. I must fight this thing out with myself, but the Ithuriel shall be ready to start at twelve.”
Tremayne saw that he was himself again, and that it was better that he should do as he said; so with a word of farewell he turned away and left him alone with his thoughts. Half-way back to the settlement he met Natasha coming down towards the lake. She was deadly pale, but she walked with a firm step, and carried her head as proudly erect as ever. As they met she stopped him and said —
“Where is he?”
Tremayne’s first thought was to try and persuade her to go back and leave Arnold to himself, but a look at Natasha’s white set face and burning eyes warned him that she was not in a mood to take advice, and so he told her, and without another word she went on swiftly down the path that led to the lake.
The brief twilight of the tropics had passed before he reached a grove of palms on the western shore of the lake, towards which he had bent his steps when he left Tremayne. He walked with loose, aimless strides, now quickly and now slowly, and now stopping to watch the brightening moon shining upon the water.
He caught himself thinking what a lovely night it would be to take Natasha for a row, and then his mind sprang back with a jerk to the remembrance of the horrible journey that he was to begin at midnight — to take Natasha to another man, and leave her with him as his wife.
No, it could not be true. It was impossible that he should have fought and triumphed as he had done, and all for this. To give up the one woman he had ever loved in all his life, the woman he had snatched from slavery and degradation when not another man on earth could have done it.
What had this Roburoff done that she should be given to him for the mere asking? Why had he not come in person like a man to woo and win her if he could, and then he would have stood aside and bowed to her choice. But this curt order to take her away to him as though she were some piece of merchandise — no, if such things were possible, better that he had never —
He felt a light touch on his arm, and turned round sharply. Natasha was standing beside him. He had been so engrossed by his dark thoughts that he had not heard her light step on the soft sward, and now he seemed to see her white face and great shining eyes looking up at him in the moonlight as though there was some mist floating between him and her. Suddenly the mist seemed to vanish. He saw tears under the long dark lashes, and the sweet red lips parted in a faint smile.
Lose her he might tomorrow, but for this one moment she was his and no other man’s, let those who would say nay. That instant she was clasped helpless and unresisting in his arms, and her lips were giving his back kiss for kiss. Wreck and chaos might come now for all he cared. She loved him, and had given herself to him, if only for that one moonlit hour.
After that he could plunge into the battle again, and slay and spare not — yes, and he would slay without mercy. He would hurl his lightnings from the skies, and where they struck there should be death. If not love and life, then hate and death — it was not his choice. Let those who had chosen see to that; but for the present love and life were his, why should he not live? Then the mad, sweet delirium passed, and saner thoughts came. He released her suddenly, almost brusquely, and said with a harsh ring in his voice —
“Why did you come? Have you forgotten what so nearly happened the day before yesterday?”
“No, I have not forgotten it. I have remembered it, and that is why I came to tell you — what you know now.”
Her face was rosy enough now, and she looked him straight in the eyes as she spoke, proud to confess the mastery that he had won.
“Now listen,” she went on, speaking in a low, quick, passionate tone. “The will of the Master must be done. There is no appeal from that, either for you or me. He can dispose of me as he chooses, and I shall obey, as I warned you I should when you first told me that you would win me if you could.
“Well, you have won me, so far as I can be won. I love you, and I have come to tell you so before the shadow falls between us. And I have come to tell you that what you have won shall belong to no one else. I will obey my father to the letter, but the spirit is my affair. Now kiss me again, dear, and say good-bye. We have had our glimpse of heaven, and this is not the only life.”
For one more brief moment she surrendered herself to him again. Their lips met and parted, and in an instant she had slipped out of his arms and was gone, leaving him dazed with her beauty and her winsomeness.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54