When the news of the destruction of the two divisions of the submarine squadron reached the headquarters of the League on the night of the 29th, it would have been difficult to say whether anger or consternation most prevailed among the leaders. A council of war was hurriedly summoned to discuss an event which it was impossible to look upon as anything less than a calamity.
The destruction which had been wrought was of itself disastrous enough, for it deprived the League of the chief means by which it had destroyed the British fleet and kept command of the sea. But even more terrible than the actual destruction was the unexpected suddenness with which the blow had been delivered.
For five months, that is to say, from the recapture of the Lucifer at Aberdeen, the Tsar and his coadjutors had seen nothing of the operations of the Terrorists; and now, without a moment’s warning, this apparently omnipresent and yet almost invisible force had struck once more with irresistible effect, and instantly vanished back into the mystery out of which it had come.
Who could tell when the next blow would fall, or in what shape the next assault would be delivered? In the presence of such enemies, invisible and unreachable, the commanders of the League, to their rage and disgust, felt themselves, on the eve of their supreme victory, as impotent as a man armed with a sword would have felt in front of a Gatling gun.
Consternation naturally led to divided councils. The French and Italian commanders were for an immediate general assault on London at all hazards, and the enforcement of terms of surrender at the point of the sword. The Tsar, on the other hand, insisted on the pursuance of the original policy of reduction by starvation, as he rightly considered that, great as the attacking force was, it would be practically swamped amidst the infuriated millions of the besieged, and that, even if the assault were successful, the loss of life would be so enormous that the conquest of the rest of Britain — which in such a case would almost certainly rise to a man — would be next door to impossible.
He, however, so far yielded as to agree to send a message to the King of England to arrange terms of surrender, if possible at once, in order to save further bloodshed, and then, if these terms were rejected, to prepare for a general assault on the seventh day from then.
These terms were accepted as a compromise, and the next morning the bombardment ceased both from the land batteries and the air. At daybreak on the 30th an envoy left the Tsar’s headquarters in one of the war-balloons, flying a flag of truce, and descended in Hyde Park. He was received by the King in Council at Buckingham Palace, and, after a lengthy deliberation, an answer was returned to the effect that on condition the bombardment ceased for the time being, London would be surrendered at noon on the 6th of December if no help had by that time arrived from the other cities of Britain. These terms, after considerable opposition from General le Gallifet and General Cosensz, the Italian Commander-inChief, were adopted and ratified at noon that day, almost at the very moment that Alexis Mazanoff was presenting the reply of the King of England to the President of the Federation in New York.
As the relief expedition had been fully decided upon, whether the British Government recognised the Federation or not, everything was in readiness for an immediate start as soon as the Ithuriel brought definite news as to the acceptation or rejection of the President’s second offer. For the last seven weeks the ten dockyards of the east coast of America, and at Halifax in Nova Scotia, had been thronged with shipping, and swarming with workmen and sailors.
All the vessels which had been swept off the Atlantic by the war-storm, and which were of sufficient size and speed to take part in the expedition, had been collected at these eleven ports. Whole fleets of liners of half a dozen different nationalities, which had been laid up since the establishment of the blockade, were now lying alongside the quays, taking in vast quantities of wheat and miscellaneous food-stuffs, which were being poured into their holds from the glutted markets of America and Canada. Every one of these vessels was fitted up as a troopship, and by the time all arrangements were complete, more than a thousand vessels, carrying on an average twelve hundred men each, were ready to take the sea.
In addition to these there was a fleet of warships as yet unscathed by shot or shell, consisting of thirty battleships, a hundred and ten cruisers, and the flotilla of dynamite cruisers which had been constructed by the late Government at the expense of the capitalist Ring. There were no less than two hundred of these strange but terribly destructive craft, the lineal descendants of the Vesuvius, which, as the naval reader will remember, was commissioned in 1890.
They were double-hulled vessels built on the whale-back plan, and the compartments between the inner and outer hull could be wholly or partially filled with water. When they were entirely filled the hull sank below the surface, leaving nothing as a mark to an enemy save a platform standing ten feet above the water. This platform, constructed throughout of 6-inch nickel-steel, was of oval shape, a hundred feet long and thirty broad in its greatest diameter, and carried the heavily armoured wheel-house and conning-tower, two funnels, six ventilators, and two huge pneumatic guns, each seventy-five feet long, working on pivots nearly amidships. These weapons, with an air-charge of three hundred atmospheres, would throw four hundred pounds of dynamite to a distance of three miles with such accuracy that the projectile would invariably fall within a space of twenty feet square. The guns could be discharged once a minute, and could thus hurl 48,000 lbs. of dynamite an hour upon a hostile fleet or fortifications.
Each cruiser also carried two under-water torpedo tubes ahead and two astern. The funnels emitted no smoke, but merely supplied draught to the petroleum furnaces, which burned with practically no waste, and developed a head of steam which drove the long submerged hulls through the water at a rate of thirty-two knots, or more than thirty-six miles an hour.
Such was the enormous naval armament, manned by nearly a hundred thousand men, which hoisted the Federation flag at one o’clock on the afternoon of the 30th of November, when orders were telegraphed north and south from Washington to get ready for sea. Two hours later the vast flotilla of warships and transports had cleared American waters, and was converging towards a point indicated by the intersection of the 41st parallel of latitude with the 40th meridian of longitude.
At this ocean rendezvous the divisions of the fleet and its convoys met and shaped their course for the mouth of the English Channel. They proceeded in column of line abreast three deep, headed by the dynamite cruisers, after which came the other warships which had formed the American Navy, and after these again came the troopships and transports properly protected by cruisers on their flanks and in their rear.
The commander of every warship and transport had the most minute instructions as to how he was to act on reaching British waters, and what these were will become apparent in due course. The weather was fairly good for the time of year, and, as there was but little danger of collision on the now deserted waters of the Atlantic, the whole flotilla kept at full speed all the way. As, however, its speed was necessarily limited by that of its slowest steamer until the scene of action was reached, it was after midnight on the 5th of December when its various detachments had reached their appointed stations on the English coast.
At the entrance of the English Channel and St. George’s Channel a few scouting cruisers, flying French, Russian, and Italian colours, had been run down and sunk by the dynamite cruisers. Strict orders had been given by Tremayne to destroy everything flying a hostile flag, and not to permit any news to be taken to England of the approach of the flotilla. The Federation was waging a war, not merely of conquest and revenge, but of extermination, and no more mercy was to be shown to its enemies than they had shown in their march of victory from one end of Europe to the other.
While the Federation fleet had been crossing the Atlantic, other events no less important had been taking place in England and Scotland. The hitherto apparently inert mass of the population had suddenly awakened out of its lethargy. In town and country alike men forsook their daily avocations as if by one consent. As in America, artisans, pitmen, clerks, and tradesmen were suddenly transformed into soldiers, who drilled, first in squads of ten, and then in hundreds and thousands, and finally in tens of thousands, all uniformed alike in rough grey breeches and tunics, with a knot of red ribbon in the button-hole, and all armed with rifle, bayonet, and revolver, which they seemed to handle with a strange and ominous familiarity.
All the railway traffic over the island was stopped, and the rolling-stock collected at the great stations along the lines to London, and at the same time all the telegraph wires communicating with the south and east were cut. As day after day passed, signs of an intense but strongly suppressed excitement became more and more visible all over the provinces, and especially in the great towns and cities.
In London very much the same thing had happened. Hundreds of thousands of civilians vanished during that seven days of anxious waiting for the hour of deliverance, and in their place sprang up orderly regiments of grey-clad soldiers, who saw the red knot in each other’s button-holes, and welcomed each other as comrades unknown before.
To the surprise of the commanders of the regular army, orders had been issued by the King that all possible assistance was to be rendered to these strange legions, which had thus so suddenly sprang into existence; and the result was that when the sun set on the 5th of December, the twenty-first day of the total blockade of London, the beleaguered space contained over two millions of armed men, hungering both for food and vengeance, who, like the five millions of their fellow-countrymen outside London, were waiting for a sign from the sky to fling themselves upon the entrapped and unsuspecting invader.
That night countless eyes were upturned throughout the length and breadth of Britain to the dun pall of wintry cloud that overspread the land. Yet so far, so perfect was the discipline of this gigantic host, not a sign of overt hostile movement had been made, and the commanders of the armies of the League looked forward with exulting confidence to the moment, now only a few hours distant, when the capital of the British Empire, cut off from all help, should be surrendered into their hands in accordance with the terms agreed upon.
When night fell the Ithuriel was floating four thousand feet above Aberdeen. Arnold and Natasha, wrapped in warm furs, were standing on deck impatiently watching the sun sinking down over the sea of clouds which lay between them and the earth.
“There it goes at last!” exclaimed Natasha, as the last of the level beams shot across the cloud-sea and the rim of the pale disc sank below the surface of the vapoury ocean. “The time that we have waited and worked for so long has come at last. This is the eve of Armageddon! Who would think it, floating up here above the clouds and beneath those cold, calmly shining stars! And yet the fate of the whole world is trembling in the balance, and the doings of the next twenty-four hours will settle the destiny of mankind for generations to come. The hour of the Revolution has struck at last”—
“And therefore it is time that the Angel of the Revolution should give the last signal with her own hand!” said Arnold, seized with a sudden fancy, “Come, you shall start the dynamo yourself.”
“Yes I will, and, I hope, kindle a flame that shall purge the earth of tyranny and oppression for ever. Richard, what must my father be thinking of just now down yonder in the cabin?”
“I dare not even guess. To-morrow or the next day will be the day of reckoning, and then God help those of whom he demands payment, for they will need it. The vials of wrath are full, and before long the oppressors of the earth will have drained them to the dregs. Come, it is time we went down.”
They descended together to the engine-room, and meanwhile the air-ship sank through the clouds until the lights of Aberdeen lay about a thousand feet below. A lens of red glass had been fitted to the searchlight of the Ithuriel, and all that was necessary was to connect the forward engine with the dynamo.
Arnold put Natasha’s hand on a little lever. As she took hold of it she thought with a shudder of the mighty forces of destruction which her next movement would let loose. Then she thought of all that those nearest and dearest to her had suffered at the hands of Russian despotism, and of all the nameless horrors of the rule whose death-signal she was about to give.
As she did so her grip tightened on the lever, and when Arnold, having given his orders to the head engineer as to speed and course, put his hand on her shoulder and said, “Now!” she pulled it back with a sharp, determined motion, and the next instant a broad fan of blood-red light shot over the Ithuriel’s bows.
At the same moment the air-ship’s propellers began to spin round, and then with the flood of red light streaming in front of her, she headed southward at full speed towards Edinburgh. The signal flashed over the Scottish capital, and then the Ithuriel swerved round to the westward.
Half an hour later Glasgow saw it, and then away she sped southward across the Border to Carlisle; and so through the long December night she flew hither and thither, eastward and westward, flashing the red battle-signal over field and village and town; and wherever it shone armed men sprang up like the fruit of the fabled dragon’s teeth, companies were mustered in streets and squares and fields and marched to railway stations; and soon long trains, one after another in endless succession, got into motion, all moving towards the south and east, all converging upon London.
Last of all, after it had made a swift circuit of northern and central and western England, the red light swept along the south coast, and then swerved northward again till it flashed thrice over London, and then it vanished into the darkness of the hour before the dawn of Armageddon.
Since the ever-memorable night of Thursday the 29th of July 1588, three hundred and sixteen years before, when “The beacon blazed upon the roof of Edgcumbe’s lofty Hall,” and the answering fires sprang up “From Eddystone to Berwick bounds, from Lynn to Milford Bay,” to tell that the Spanish Armada was in sight, there had been no such night in England, nor had men ever dreamed that there should be.
But great as had been the deeds done by the heroes of the sixteenth century with the pigmy means at their command, they were but the merest child’s play to the awful storm of devastation which, in a few hours, was to burst over southern England. Then it was England against Spain; now it was Anglo–Saxondom against the world; and the conquering race of earth, armed with the most terrific powers of destruction that human wit had ever devised, was rising in its wrath, millions strong, to wipe out the stain of invasion from the sacred soil of the motherland of the Anglo–Saxon nations.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08