The force which the Tsar had detached to operate against the Federation Army of the North left the headquarters at eleven o’clock, and proceeded in four main divisions by Edmonton, Chingford, Chigwell, and Romford. The aerostats, regulating their speed so as to keep touch with the land force, maintained a position two miles ahead of it at three thousand feet elevation.
Strict orders had been given to press on at the utmost speed, and to use every means to discover the Federationists, and bring them to an engagement with as little delay as possible; but they marched on hour after hour into the dusk of the early winter evening, with the sounds of battle growing fainter in their rear, without meeting with a sign of the enemy.
As it would have been the height of imprudence to have advanced in the dark into a hostile country occupied by an enemy of great but unknown strength, General Pralitzin, the Commander of the Russian force, decided to bring his men to a halt at nightfall, and therefore took up a series of positions between Cheshunt, Epping, Chipping Ongar, and Ingatestone. From these points squadrons of Cossacks scoured the country in all directions, north, east, and west, in search of the so far invisible army; and at the same time he sent mounted messengers back to headquarters to report that no enemy had been found, and to ask for further orders.
The aerostats slowed down their engines until their propellers just counteracted the force of the wind and they hung motionless at a height of a thousand feet, ranged in a semicircle about fifteen miles long over the heads of the columns.
All this time the motions of the Russian army had been watched by the captain of the Ithuriel from an elevation of eight thousand feet, five miles to the rear. As soon as he saw them making preparations for a halt, and had noticed the disposition of the aerostats, he left the conning-tower which he had occupied nearly all day, and went into the after saloon, where he found Natas and Natasha examining a large plan of London and its environs.
“They have come to a halt at last,” he said. “And if they only remain where they are for three hours longer, we have the whole army like rats in a trap, war-balloons and all. They have not seen us so far, for if they had they would certainly have sent an aerostat aloft to reconnoitre, and, of course, I must have destroyed it. The whole forty are arranged in a semicircle over the heads of the four main columns in divisions of ten.”
“And what do you propose to do with them now you have got them?” said Natasha, looking up with a welcoming smile.
“Give me a cup of coffee first, for I am cold to the marrow, and then I’ll tell you,” replied Arnold, seating himself at the table, on which stood a coffee-urn with a spirit lamp beneath it, something after the style of a Russian samovar.
Natasha filled a cup and passed it to him, and he went on —
“You remember what I said to Tremayne in the Princess’s sitting-room at Petersburg about the eagle and the crows just before the trial of the Tsar’s first war-balloon. Well, if you like to spend a couple of hours with me in the conning-tower as soon as it is dark enough for us to descend, I will show you what I meant then. I suppose the original general orders stand good?” he said, turning to Natas.
“Yes,” replied the Master gravely. “They must all be destroyed. This is the day of vengeance and not of mercy. If my orders have been obeyed, all the men belonging to the International in this force will have managed to get to the rear by nightfall. They can be left to take care of themselves. Mazanoff assured me that all the members in the armies of the League fully understood what they are to do. Some of the war-balloons have been taken possession of by our men, but we don’t know how many. As soon as you destroy the first of the fleet, these will rise and commence operations on the army, and they will also fly the red flag, so there will be no fear of your mistaking them.”
“Very well,” said Arnold, who had been quietly sipping his coffee while he listened to the utterance of this death sentence on more than a quarter of a million of men. “If our fellows to the northward only obey orders promptly, there will not be many of the Russians left by sunrise. Now, Natasha, you had better put on your furs and come to the conning-tower; it’s about time to begin.”
It did not take her many moments to wrap up, and within five minutes she and Arnold were standing in the conning-tower watching the camp fires of the Russian host coming nearer and nearer as the Ithuriel sank down through the rapidly increasing darkness towards the long dotted line which marked the position of the aerostats, whose great gas-holders stood out black and distinct against the whitened earth beneath them.
By means of electric signals to the engineers the captain of the Ithuriel was able to regulate both the speed and the elevation of the air-ship as readily as though he had himself been in charge of the engine-room. Giving Natasha a pair of night-glasses, and telling her to keep a bright look-out ahead, he brought the Ithuriel round by the westward to a position about five miles west of the extremity of the line of war-balloons, and as soon as he got on a level with it he advanced comparatively slowly, until Natasha was able to make it out distinctly with the night-glass.
Then he signalled to the wheel-house aft to disconnect the after-wheel, and at the same moment he took hold of the spokes of the forward-wheel in the conning-tower. The next signal was “Full speed ahead,” and as the Ithuriel gathered way and rushed forward on her errand of destruction he said hurriedly to Natasha —
“Now, don’t speak till it’s over. I want all my wits for this work, and you’ll want all your eyes.”
Without speaking, Natasha glanced up at his face, and saw on it somewhat of the same expression that she had seen at the moment when he put the Ariel at the rock-wall which barred the entrance to Aeria. His face was pale, and his lips were set, and his eyes looked straight out from under his frowning brows with an angry gleam in them that boded ill for the fate of those against whom he was about to use the irresistible engine of destruction under his command.
Twenty feet in front of them stretched out the long keen ram of the air-ship, edged and pointed like a knife. This was the sole weapon that he intended to use. It was impossible to train the guns at the tremendous speed at which the Ithuriel was travelling, but under the circumstance the ram was the deadliest weapon that could have been employed.
In four minutes from the time the Ithuriel started on her eastward course the nearest war-balloon was only fifty yards away. The air-ship, travelling at a speed of nearly two hundred miles an hour, leapt out of the dusk like a flash of white light. In ten seconds more her ram had passed completely through the gas-holder without so much as a shock being felt. The next one was only five hundred yards away. Obedient to her rudder the Ithuriel swerved, ripped her gas-holder from end to end, and then darted upon the next one even before a terrific explosion in their rear told that the car of the first one had struck the earth.
So she sped along the whole line, darting hither and thither in obedience to the guiding hand that controlled her, with such inconceivable rapidity that before any of the unwieldy machines, saving only those whose occupants had been prepared for the assault, had time to get out of the way of the destroying ram, she had rent her way through the gas-holders of twenty-eight out of the forty balloons, and flung them to the earth to explode and spread consternation and destruction all along the van of the army encamped below.
From beginning to end the attack had not lasted ten minutes. When the last of the aerostats had gone down under his terrible ram, Arnold signalled “Stop, and ascend,” to the engine-room. A second signal turned on the searchlight in the bow, and from this a rapid series of flashes were sent up to the sky to the northward and eastward.
The effect was as fearful as it was instantaneous. The twelve war-balloons which had escaped by flying the red flag took up their positions above the Russian lines, and began to drop their fire-shell and cyanogen bombs upon the masses of men below. The air-ship, swerving round again to the westward, with her fan-wheels aloft, moved slowly across the wide area over which men and horses were wildly rushing hither and thither in vain attempts to escape the rain of death that was falling upon them from the sky.
Her searchlight, turned downwards to the earth, sought out the spots where they were crowded most thickly together, and then the air-ship’s guns came into play also. Arnold had given orders to use the new fire-shell exclusively, and its effects proved to be frightful beyond description. Wherever one fell a blaze of intense light shone for an instant upon the earth. Then this burst into a thousand fragments, which leapt into the air and spread themselves far and wide in all directions, burning with inextinguishable fury for several minutes, and driving men and horses mad with agony and terror.
No human fortitude or discipline could withstand the fearful rain of fire, in comparison with which even the deadly hail from the aerostats seemed insignificant. For half an hour the eight guns of the Ithuriel hurled these awful projectiles in all directions, scattering death and hopeless confusion wherever they alighted, until the whole field of carnage seemed ablaze with them.
At the end of this time three rockets soared up from her deck into the dark sky, and burst into myriads of brilliant white stars, which for a few moments shed an unearthly light upon the scene of indescribable confusion and destruction below. But they made more than this visible, for by their momentary light could be seen seemingly interminable lines of grey-clad figures swiftly closing in from all sides, chasing the Cossack scouts before them in upon the completely disorganised Russian host.
A few minutes later a continuous roll of musketry burst out on front, and flank, and rear, and a ceaseless hail of rifle bullets began to plough its way through the helpless masses of the soldiers of the Tsar. They formed as well as they could to confront these new enemies, but the moment that the searchlight of the air-ship, constantly sweeping the field, fell upon a company in anything like order, a shell descended in the midst of it and broke it up again.
All night long the work of death and vengeance went on; the grey lines ever closing in nearer and nearer upon the dwindling remnants of the Russian army. Hour after hour the hail of bullets never slackened. There was no random firing on the part of the Federation soldiers. Every man had been trained to use his rifle rapidly but deliberately, and never to fire until he had found his mark; and the consequence was that the long nickel-tipped bullets, fired point-blank into the dense masses of men, rent their way through half a dozen bodies before they were spent.
At last the grey light began to break over an indescribably hideous scene of slaughter. Scarcely ten thousand men remained of the three hundred thousand who had started the day before in obedience to the order of the Tsar; and these were split up into formless squads and ragged companies fighting desperately amidst heaps of corpses for dear life, without any pretence at order or formation.
The cannonade from the air had ceased, and the last scene in the drama of death had come. With bayonets fixed and rifles lowered to the charge, the long grey lines closed up, and, as the bugles rang out the long-awaited order, they swept forward at the double, horses and men went down like a field of standing corn under the irresistible rush of a million bayonets, and in twenty minutes all was over. Not a man of the whole Russian army was left alive, save those whose knot of red ribbon at the button-hole proclaimed them members of the International.
As soon as it was light enough for Arnold to see clearly that the fate of the Russians was finally decided, he descended to the earth, and, after complimenting the commander and officers of the Federation troops on the splendid effectiveness of their force, and their admirable discipline and coolness, he gave orders for a two hours’ rest and then a march on the Russian headquarters at Muswell Hill with every available man. The Tsar and his Staff were to be taken alive at all hazards; every other Russian who did not wear the International ribbon was to be shot down without mercy.
These orders given, the Ithuriel mounted into the air again, and disappeared in the direction of London. She passed over the now shattered and silent entrenchments of the Russians at a speed which made it possible to remain on deck without discomfort or danger, and at an elevation of two thousand feet. Natas was below in the saloon, alone with his own thoughts, the thoughts of twenty years of waiting and working and gradual approach to the hour of vengeance which was now so near. Andrew Smith was steering in the wheel-house, Lieutenant Marston was taking his watch below, after being on deck nearly the whole of the previous night, and Arnold and Natasha, wrapped in their warm furs, were pacing up and down the deck engaged in conversation which had not altogether to do with war.
The sun had risen before the Ithuriel passed over London, and through the clear, cold air they could see with their field-glasses signs of carnage and destruction which made Natasha’s soul sicken within her to gaze upon them, and even shook Arnold’s now hardened nerves. All the main thoroughfares leading into London from the north and south were choked with heaps of dead bodies in Russian, French, and Italian uniforms, in the midst of which those who still survived were being forced forward by the pressure of those behind. Every house that remained standing was spouting flames upon them from its windows; and where the streets opened into squares and wider streets there were barricades manned with British and Federation troops, and from their summits and loopholes the quick-firing guns were raining an incessant hail of shot and shell upon the struggling masses pent up in the streets.
A horrible chorus of the rattle of small arms, the harsh, grinding roar of the machine guns, the hurrahs of the defenders, and the cries of rage and agony from the baffled and decimated assailants, rose unceasingly to their ears as they passed over the last battlefield of the Western nations, where the Anglo–Saxon, the Russ, and the Gaul were locked in the death struggle.
“There is some awful work going on down there,” said Arnold, as they headed away towards the south, where, from behind the Surrey hills, soon came the sound of some tremendous conflict. “For the present we must leave them to fight it out. They don’t seem to have had such easy work of it to the south as we have had to the north; but I didn’t expect they would, for they have probably detached a very much larger force of French and Italians to attack the Army of the South than the Russian lot we had to deal with.”
“Is all this frightful slaughter really necessary?” asked Natasha, slipping her arm through his, and looking up at him with eyes which for the first time were moistened by the tears of pity for her enemies.
“Necessary or not,” replied Arnold, “it is the Master’s orders, and I have only to obey them. This is the day of vengeance for which he has waited so long, and you can hardly expect him to show much mercy. It lies between him and Tremayne. For my part I will stay my hand only when I am ordered to do so.
“Still, if any one can influence Natas to mercy, you can. Nothing can now stop the slaughter on the north, I’m afraid, for the Russians are caught in a hopeless trap. The Londoners are enraged beyond control, and if the men spared them I believe the women would tear them to pieces. But there are two or three millions of lives or so to be saved at the south, and perhaps there is still time to do it. It would be a task worthy of the Angel of the Revolution; why should you not try it?”
“I will do so,” said Natasha, and without another word she turned away and walked quickly towards the entrance to the saloon.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08