An hour later he walked back to the settlement, looking five years older than he had done a couple of hours before, but with his nerves steady and with the light of a solemn resolve burning in his eyes. He went straight to the Ithuriel, and made a minute personal inspection of the whole vessel, inside and out. He saw that every cylinder was charged, and that there was an ample supply of spare ones and ammunition on board, including a number of his new fire-shells. Then he went to Lieutenant Marston’s quarters, and told him to have the crew in their places by half-past eleven; and this done, he paid a formal visit to the Master to report all ready.
Natas received him as usual, just as though nothing out of the common had happened; and if he noticed the change that had come over him, he made no sign that he did so. When Arnold had made his report, he merely said —
“Very good. You will start at twelve. The Chief has told you the nature and purpose of the voyage you are about to make, I presume?”
He bowed a silent affirmative, and Natas went on —
“The Chief and Anna Ornovski will go with you as witnesses for Michael Roburoff and Natasha, and the Chief will be provided with my sealed orders for your guidance in the immediate future. The rendezvous is a house on one of the spurs of the Alleghany Mountains. What time will it take to reach there?”
“The distance is about seven thousand miles. That will be from thirty to thirty-five hours’ flight according to the wind. With a fair wind we shall reach the Alleghanies a little before sunrise on the 18th.”
“Then to make sure of that, if possible, you had better start an hour earlier. Natasha is making her preparations, and will be on board at eleven.”
“Very well; I will be ready to start then,” replied Arnold, speaking as calmly and formally as Natas had done. Then he saluted and walked out.
When he got into the open air he drew a deep breath. His teeth came together with a sharp snap, and his hands clenched. So it was true, then, this horrible thing, this sacrilege, this ruin, that had fallen upon his life and hers. Natas had spoken of giving her to this man as quietly as though it had been the most natural proceeding possible, an understood arrangement about which there could be no question. Well, he had sworn, and he would obey, but there would be a heavy price to pay for his obedience.
He did not see Natasha again that night. When the Ithuriel rose into the air she was in her cabin with the Princess, and did not appear during the voyage save at meals, when all the others were present, and then she joined in the conversation with a composure which showed that, externally at least, she had quite regained her habitual self-control.
Arnold spent the greater part of the voyage in the deck-saloon with Tremayne, talking over the events of the war, and arranging plans of future action. By mutual consent the object of their present voyage was not mentioned. As Arnold was more than two months and a half behind the news, he found not a little relief in hearing from Tremayne of all that had taken place since the recapture of the Lucifer.
The two men, who were now to be the active leaders of the Revolution which, as they hoped, was soon to overturn the whole fabric of Society, and introduce a new social order of things, conversed in this fashion, quietly discussing the terrific tragedy in which they were to play the leading parts, and arranging all the details of their joint action, until well into the night of the 17th.
About eleven Tremayne went to his cabin, and Arnold, going to the conning-tower, told the man on the look-out to go below until he was called. Then he took his place, and remained alone with his thoughts as the Ithuriel sped on her way a thousand feet above the deserted waters of the Atlantic, until the dark mass of the American Continent loomed up in front of him to the westward.
As soon as he sighted land he went aft to the wheel-house, and slightly inclined the air-planes, causing the Ithuriel to soar upwards until the barometer marked a height of 6000 feet. At this elevation he passed over the mouth of the Chesapeake, and across Virginia; and a little more than an hour before sunrise the Ithuriel sank to the earth on one of the spurs of the Alleghanies, in sight of a lonely weather-board house, in one of the windows of which three lights were burning in the form of a triangle.
This building was used ostensibly as a shooting and hunting-box by Michael Roburoff and a couple of his friends, and in reality as a meeting-place for the Inner Circle or Executive Council of the American Section of the Brotherhood. This Section was, numerically speaking, the most important of the four branches into which the Outer Circle of the Brotherhood was divided — that is to say, the British, Continental, American, and Colonial Sections.
All told, the Terrorists had rather more than five million adherents in America and Canada, of whom more than four millions were men in the prime of life, and nearly all of Anglo–Saxon blood and English speech. All these men were not only armed, but trained in the use of firearms to a high degree of skill; their organisation, which had gradually grown up with the Brotherhood for twenty years, was known to the world only under the guise of the different forms of industrial unionism, but behind these there was a perfect system of discipline and command which the outer world had never even suspected.
The Section was divided first into squads of ten under the command of an eleventh, who alone knew the leaders of the other squads in his neighbourhood. Ten of these squads made a company, commanded by one man, who was only known to the squad-captains, and who alone knew the captain of the regiment, which was composed of ten companies.
The next step in the organisation was the brigade, consisting of ten regiments, the captains of which alone knew the commander of the brigade, while the commanders of the brigades were alone acquainted with the members of the Inner Circle or Executive Council which managed the affairs of the whole Section, and whose Chief was the only man in the Section who could hold any communication with the Inner Circle of the Brotherhood itself, which, under the immediate command of Natas, governed the whole organisation throughout the world.
This description will serve for all the Sections, as all were modelled upon exactly the same plan. The advantages of such an organisation will at once be obvious. In the first place, no member of the rank and file could possibly betray more than ten of his fellows, including his captain; while his treachery could, if necessary, be made known in a few hours to ten thousand others, not one of whom he knew, and thus it would be impossible for him to escape the invariable death penalty. The same is, of course, equally true of the captains and the commanders.
On the other hand, the system was equally convenient for the transmission of orders from headquarters. An order given to ten commanders of brigades could, in a single night, be transmitted individually to the whole of the Section, and yet those in command of the various divisions would not know whence the orders came, save as regards their immediate superiors.
It will be necessary for the reader to bear these few particulars in mind in order to understand future developments, which, without them, might seem to border on the impossible. It is only necessary to add that the full fighting strength of the four Sections of the Brotherhood amounted to about twelve millions of men, a considerable proportion of whom were serving as soldiers in the armies of the League and the Alliance, and that in its cosmopolitan aspect it was known to the rank and file as the Red International, whose members knew each other only by the possession of a little knot of red ribbon tied into the button-hole in a peculiar fashion on occasions of meetings for instruction or drill.
The three lights burning in the form of a triangle in the window of the house were a prearranged signal to avoid mistake on the part of those on board the air-ship. When they reached the earth, Arnold, acting under the instructions of Tremayne, who was his superior on land though his voluntary subordinate when afloat, left the Ithuriel and her crew in charge of Lieutenant Marston and Andrew Smith, the coxswain.
The remainder disembarked, and then the air-ship rose from the ground and ascended out of sight through a layer of clouds that hung some eight hundred feet above the high ground of the hills. Lieutenant Marston’s orders were to remain out of sight for an hour and then return.
Arnold had not seen Natasha for several hours previous to the landing, and he noticed with wonder, by no means unmixed with something very like anger, that she looked a great deal more cheerful than she had done during the voyage. She had preserved her composure all through, but the effort of restraint had been visible. Now this had vanished, although the supreme hour of the sacrifice that her father had commanded her to make was actually at hand. When her feet touched the earth she looked round with a smile on her lips and a flush on her cheeks, and said, in a voice in which there was no perceptible trace of anxiety or suffering —
“So this is the place of my bridal, is it? Well, I must say that a more cheerful one might have been selected; yet perhaps, after all, such a gloomy spot is more suitable to the ceremony. Come along; I suppose the bridegroom will be anxiously waiting the coming of the bride. I wonder what sort of a reception I shall have. Come, my Lord of Alanmere, your arm; and you, Captain Arnold, bring the Princess. We have a good deal to do before it gets light.”
These were strange words to be uttered by a girl who but a few hours before had voluntarily confessed her love for one man, and was on the eve of compulsorily giving herself up to another one. Had it been any one else but Natasha, Arnold could have felt only disgust; but his love made it impossible for him to believe her guilty of such unworthy lightness as her words bespoke, even on the plain evidence before him, so he simply choked back his anger as best he might, and followed towards the house, speechless with astonishment at the marvellous change that had come over the daughter of Natas.
Tremayne knocked in a peculiar fashion on the window, and then repeated the knock on the door, which was opened almost immediately.
“Who stands there?” asked a voice in French.
“Those who bring the expected bride,” replied Tremayne in German.
“And by whose authority?” This time the question was in Spanish.
“In the Master’s name,” said Tremayne in English.
“Enter! you are welcome.”
A second door was now opened inside the house, and through it a light shone into the passage. The four visitors entered, and, passing through the second door, found themselves in a plainly-furnished room, down the centre of which ran a long table, flanked by five chairs on each side, in each of which, save one, sat a masked and shrouded figure exactly similar to those which Arnold had seen when he was first introduced to the Council-chamber in the house on Clapham Common. In a chair at one end of the table sat another figure similarly draped.
The door was closed as they entered, and the member of the Circle who had let them in returned to his seat. No word was spoken until this was done. Then Natasha, leaving her three companions by the door, advanced alone to the lower end of the table.
As she did so, Arnold for the first time noticed that she carried her magazine pistol in a sheath at her belt. He and Tremayne were, as a matter of course, armed with a brace of these weapons, but this was the first time that he had ever seen Natasha carry her pistol openly. Wondering greatly what this strange sight might mean, he waited with breathless anxiety for the drama to begin.
As Natasha took her stand at the opposite end of the table, the figure in the chair at the top rose and unmasked, displaying the pallid countenance of the Chief of the American Section. He looked to Arnold anything but a bridegroom awaiting his bride, and the ceremony which was to unite him to her for ever. His cheeks and lips were bloodless, and his eyes wandered restlessly from Natasha to Tremayne and back again. He glanced to and fro in silence for several moments, and when he at last found his voice he said, in half-choked, broken accents —
“What is this? Why am I honoured by the presence of the Chief and the Admiral of the Air? I asked only that if the Master consented to grant my humble petition in reward for my services, the daughter of Natas should come attended simply by a sister of the Brotherhood and the messenger that I sent.”
They let him finish, although it was with manifest difficulty that he stammered to the end of his speech. Arnold, still wondering at the strange turn events had taken, saw Tremayne’s lips tighten and his brows contract in the effort to repress a smile. The other masked figures at the table moved restlessly in their seats, and glanced from one to another. Seeing this, Tremayne stepped quickly forward to Natasha’s side, and said in a stern, commanding tone —
“I am the Chief of the Central Council, and I order every one here to keep his seat and remain silent until the daughter of Natas has spoken.”
The ten masked and hooded heads instantly bowed consent. Then Tremayne stepped back again, and Natasha spoke. There was a keen, angry light in her eyes, and a bright flush upon her cheek, but her voice was smooth and silvery, and in strange contrast to the words that she used, almost to the end.
“Did you think, Michael Roburoff, that the Master of the Terror would send his daughter to her bridal so poorly escorted as you say? Surely that would have been almost as much of a slight as you put upon me when, instead of coming to woo me as a true lover should have done, you contented yourself with sending a messenger as though you were some Eastern potentate despatching an envoy to demand the hand of the daughter of a vassal.
“It would seem that this sudden love which you do me the honour to profess for me has destroyed your manners as well as your reason. But since you have assumed so high a dignity, it is not seemly that you should stand to hear what I have to say; sit down, for it looks as though standing were a trouble to you.”
Michael Roburoff, who by this time could scarcely support himself on his trembling limbs, sank suddenly back into his chair and covered his face with his hands.
“That is not very lover-like to cover your eyes when the bride that you have asked for is standing in front of you; but as long as you don’t cover your ears as well, I will forgive you the slight. Now, listen.
“I have come, as you see, and I have brought with me the answer of the Master to your request. Until an hour ago I did not know what it was myself, for, like the rest of the faithful members of the Brotherhood, I obey the word of the Master blindly.
“You, as it would appear, maddened by what you are pleased to call your love for me, have dared to attempt to make terms where you swore to obey blindly to the death. You have dared to place me, the daughter of Natas, in the balance against the allegiance of the American Section on the eve of the supreme crisis of its work, thus imperilling the results of twenty years of labour.
“If you had not been mad you would have foreseen the results of such treachery. As it is you must learn them now. What I have said has been proved by your own hand, and the proof is here in the hand of the Chief. This is the answer of Natas to the servant who would have betrayed him in the hour of trial.”
She took a folded paper from her belt as she spoke, and, unfolding it, read in clear, deliberate tones —
Michael Roburoff, late chief of the American Section of the Brotherhood. When you joined the Order, you took an oath to obey the directions of its chiefs to the death, and you acknowledged that death would be the just penalty of perjury. My orders to you were to complete the arrangements for bringing the American Section into action when you received the signal to do so. Instead of doing that, you have sought to bargain with me for the price of its allegiance. That is treachery, and the penalty of treachery is death.
“Those are the words of the Master,” continued Natasha, throwing the paper down upon the table with one hand, and drawing her pistol with the other. “It rests with the Chief to say when and where the sentence of the Master shall be carried out.”
“Let it be carried out here, and now,” said Tremayne, “and let him who has anything to say against it speak now, or for ever hold his peace.”
The ten heads bowed once more in silence, and Natasha went on still addressing the trembling wretch who sat huddled in the chair in front of her.
“You have asked for a bride, Michael Roburoff, and she has come to you, and I can promise you that you shall sleep soundly in her embrace. Your bride is Death, and I have chosen to bring her to you with my own hand, that all here may see how the daughter of Natas can avenge an insult to her womanhood.
“You have been guilty of treachery to the Brotherhood, and for that you might have been punished by any hand; but you would also have condemned me to the infamy of a loveless marriage, and that is an insult that no one shall punish but myself. Look up, and, if you can, die like a man.”
Roburoff took his hands from his face, and with an inarticulate cry started to his feet. The same instant Natasha’s hand went up, her pistol flashed, and he dropped back again into his chair with a bullet in his brain. Then she replaced the pistol in her belt, and going up to Arnold held out both her hands and said, as he clasped them in his own —
“If the Master’s reply had been different, that bullet would by this time have been in my own heart.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08