It was a little after three o’clock in the afternoon when Natas, Tremayne, and Arnold ended their deliberations in the saloon of the Ithuriel. At the same hour a council of war was being held by Generals le Gallifet and Cosensz at the Crystal Palace Hotel, Sydenham, where the two commanders had taken up their quarters.
Since daybreak matters had assumed a very serious, if not desperate aspect for the troops of the League to the south of London. Communication had entirely ceased with the Tsar since the night before, and this could only mean that his Majesty had lost the command of the air, through the destruction or disablement of his fleet of aerostats. News from the force which had descended upon London told only of a fearful expenditure of life that had not purchased the slightest advantage.
The blockade had been broken on the east, and, therefore, all hope of reducing the city by famine was at an end. Their own war-balloons had been either captured or destroyed, thousands of their men had deserted to the enemy, and multitudes more had been slain. Every position was dominated by the captured aerostats and the air-ships of the Terrorists. Even the building in which the council was being held might be shattered to fragments at any moment by a discharge of their irresistible artillery.
Finally, it was practically certain that within the next few hours their headquarters must be surrounded, and then their only choice would lie between unconditional surrender and swift and inevitable destruction by an aërial bombardment. Manifestly the time had come to make terms if possible, and purchase their own safety and that of their remaining troops. Both the generals and every member of their respective staffs saw clearly that victory was now a physical impossibility, and so the immediate issue of the council was that orders were given to hoist the white flag over the tricolour and the Italian standard on the summits of the two towers of the Crystal Palace, and on the flagstaffs over the headquarters.
These were at once seen by a squadron of air-ships coming from the north in obedience to Tremayne’s summons, and within half an hour the same squadron was seen returning from the south headed by the flagship, also flying, to the satisfaction of the two generals, the signal of truce. The air-ships stopped over Sydenham and ranged themselves in a circle with their guns pointing down upon the headquarters, and the Ariel, with Tremayne on board, descended to within twenty feet of the ground in front of the hotel.
As she did so an officer wearing the uniform of a French General of Division came forward, saluted, and said that he had a message for the Commander-inChief of the Federation forces. Tremayne returned the salute, and said briefly —
“I am here. What is the message?”
“I am commissioned by General Gallifet, Commander-inChief of the Southern Division, to request on his behalf the honour of an audience. He awaits you with General Cosensz in the hotel,” replied the Frenchman, gazing in undisguised admiration at the wonderful craft which he now for the first time saw at close quarters.
“With pleasure. I will be with you in a moment,” said Tremayne, and as he spoke the Ariel settled gently down to the earth, and the gangway steps dropped from her bow.
As he entered the room in which the two generals were awaiting him, surrounded by their brilliantly-uniformed staffs, he presented a strange contrast to the men whose lives he held in the hollow of his hand. He was dressed in a dark tweed suit, with Norfolk jacket and knickerbockers, met by long shooting boots, just as though he was fresh from the moors, instead of from the battlefield on which the fate of the world was being decided. General le Gallifet advanced to meet him with a puzzled look of half-recognition on his face, which was at once banished by Tremayne holding out his hand without the slightest ceremony, and saying —
“Ah, I see you recognise me, General!”
“I do, my Lord Alanmere, and, you will permit me to add, with the most profound astonishment,” replied the General, taking the proffered hand with a hearty grasp. “May I venture to hope that with an old acquaintance our negotiations may prove all the easier?”
Tremayne bowed and said —
“Rest assured, General, that they shall be as easy as my instructions will permit me to make them.”
“Your instructions! But I thought”—
“That I was in supreme command. So I am in a sense, but I am the lieutenant of Natas for all that, and in a case like this his word is law. But come, what terms do you propose?”
“That truce shall be proclaimed for twenty-four hours; that the commanders of the forces of the League shall meet this mysterious Natas, yourself, and the King of England, and arrange terms by which the armies of France, Russia, and Italy shall be permitted to evacuate the country with the honours of war.”
“Then, General, I may as well tell you at once that those terms are impossible,” replied the Chief of the Federation quietly, but with a note of inflexible determination in his voice. “In the first place, ‘the honours of war’ is a phrase which already belongs to the past. We see no honour in war, and if we can have our way this shall be the last war that shall ever be waged on earth.
“Indeed, I may tell you that we began this war as one of absolute extermination. Had it not been for the intercession of Natasha, the daughter of Natas, you would not even have been given the opportunity of making terms of peace, or even of unconditional surrender. Our orders were simply to slay, and spare not, as long as a man remained in arms on British soil. You are, of course, aware that we have taken no prisoners”—
“But, my lord, this is not war, it is murder on the most colossal scale!” exclaimed the General, utterly unable to control the agitation that these terrible words evoked, not only in his own breast, but in that of every man who heard them.
“To us war and murder are synonymous terms, differing only as wholesale and retail,” replied Tremayne drily; “for the mere names we care nothing. This world-war is none of our seeking; but if war can be cured by nothing but war, then we will wage it to the point of extermination. Now here are my terms. All the troops of the League on this side of the river Thames, on laying down their arms, shall be permitted to return to their homes, not as soldiers, but as peaceful citizens of the world, to go about their natural business as men who have sworn never to draw the sword again save in defence of their own homes.”
“And his Majesty the Tsar?”
“You cannot make terms for the Tsar, General, and let me beg of you not to attempt to do so. No power under heaven can save him and his advisers from the fate that awaits them.”
“And if we refuse your terms, the alternative is what?”
“Annihilation to the last man!”
A dead silence followed these fearful words so calmly and yet so inflexibly spoken. General le Gallifet and the Italian Commander-inChief looked at one another and at the officers standing about them. A murmur of horror and indignation passed from lip to lip. Then Tremayne spoke again quickly but impressively —
“Gentlemen, don’t think that I am saying what I cannot do. We are inflexibly determined to stamp the curse of war out here and now, if it cost millions of lives to do so. Your forces are surrounded, your aerostats are captured or destroyed. It is no use mincing matters at a moment like this. It is life or death with you. If you do not believe me, General le Gallifet, come with me and take a flight round London in my air-ship yonder, and your own eyes shall see how hopeless all further struggle is. I pledge my word of honour as an English gentleman that you shall return in safety. Will you come?”
“I will,” said the French commander. “Gentlemen, you will await my return”; and with a bow to his companions, he followed the Chief out of the room, and embarked on the air-ship without further ado.
The Ariel at once rose into the air. Tremayne reported to Natas what had been done, and then took the General into the deck saloon, and gave orders to proceed at full speed to Richmond, which was reached in what seemed to the Frenchman an inconceivably short space of time. Then the Ariel swung round to the eastward, and at half speed traversed the whole line of battle over hill and vale, at an elevation of eight hundred feet, from Richmond to Shooter’s Hill.
What General le Gallifet saw more than convinced him that Tremayne had spoken without exaggeration when he said that annihilation was the only alternative to evacuation on his terms. The grey legions of the League seemed innumerable. Their long lines lapped round the broken squadrons of the League, mowing them down with incessant hailstorms of magazine fire, and overhead the air-ships and aerostats were hurling shells on them which made great dark gaps in their formations wherever they attempted anything like order. Every position of importance was either occupied or surrounded by the Federationists. There was no way open save towards London, and that way, as the General knew only too well, lay destruction.
To the east of Shooter’s Hill the air-ship swerved round to the northward. The Thames was alive with steamers flying the red flag, and carrying food and men into London. To the north of the river the battle had completely ceased as far as Muswell Hill.
There the Black Eagle of Russia still floated from the roof of the Palace, and a furious battle was raging round the slopes of the hill. But the Russians were already surrounded, and manifestly outnumbered five to one, while six aerostats were circling to and fro, doing their work of death upon them with fearful effectiveness.
“You see, General, that the aerostats do not destroy the Palace and bury the Tsar in its ruins, nor do I stop and do the same, as I could do in a few minutes. Do you understand now why you could not make terms for Russia?”
“What your designs are Heaven and yourselves only know,” replied the General, with quivering lips. “But I see that all is hopelessly lost. For God’s sake let this carnage stop! It is not war, it is butchery, and we have deserved this retribution for employing those infernal contrivances in the first place. I always said it was not fair fighting. It is murder to drop death on defenceless men from the clouds. We will accept your terms. Let us get back to the south and save the lives of what remain of our brave fellows. If this is scientific warfare, I, for one, will fight no more!”
“Well spoken, General!” said Tremayne, laying his hand upon his shoulder. “Those words of yours have saved two millions of human lives, and by this time tomorrow war will have ceased, I hope for ever, among the nations of the West.”
The Ariel now swerved southward again, crossed London at full speed, and within half an hour General le Gallifet was once more standing in front of the Crystal Palace Hotel. As it was now getting dusk the searchlights of the air-ships were turned on, and they swept along the southern line of battle flashing the signal, “Victory! Cease firing!” to the triumphant hosts of the Federation, while at the same time the French and Italian commanders set the field telegraph to work and despatched messengers into London with the news of the terms of peace. By nightfall all fighting south of the Thames had ceased, and victors and vanquished were fraternising as though they had never struck a blow at each other, for war is a matter of diplomacy and Court intrigue, and not of personal animosity. The peoples of the world would be good enough friends if their rulers and politicians would let them.
Meanwhile the battle raged with unabated fury round the headquarters of the Tsar. Here despotism was making its last stand, and making it bravely, in spite of the tremendous odds against it. But as twilight deepened into night the numbers of the assailants of the last of the Russian positions seemed to multiply miraculously.
A never-ceasing flood of grey-clad soldiery surged up from the south, overflowed the barricades to the north, and swept the last of the Russians out of the streets like so much chaff. All the hundred streams converged upon Muswell Hill, and joined the ranks of the attacking force, and so the night fell upon the last struggle of the world-war. Even the Tsar himself now saw that the gigantic game was virtually over, and that the stake of world-empire had been played for — and lost.
A powerful field searchlight had been fixed on the roof of the Palace, and, as it flashed hither and thither round the area of the battle, he saw fresh hosts of the British and Federation soldiers pouring in upon the scene of action, while his own men were being mown down by thousands under the concentrated fire of millions of rifles, and his regiments torn to fragments by the incessant storm of explosives from the sky.
Hour after hour the savage fight went on, and the grey and red lines fought their way up and up the slopes, drawing the ring of flame and steel closer and closer round the summit of the hill on which the Autocrat of the North stood waiting for the hour of his fate to strike.
The last line of the defenders of the position was reached at length. For an hour it held firm in spite of the fearful odds. Then it wavered and bent, and swayed to and fro in a last agony of desperation. The encircling lines seemed to surge backwards for a space. Then came a wild chorus of hurrahs, a swift forward rush of levelled bayonets, the clash of steel upon steel — and then butchery, vengeful and pitiless.
The red tide of slaughter surged up to the very walls of the Palace. Only a few yards separated the foremost ranks of the victorious assailants from the little group of officers, in the midst of which towered the majestic figure of the White Tsar — an emperor without an empire, a leader without an army. He strode forward towards the line of bayonets fringing the crest of the hill, drew his sword, snapped the blade as a man would break a dry stick, and threw the two pieces to the ground, saying in English as he did so —
“It is enough, I surrender!”
Then he turned on his heel, and with bowed head walked back again to his Staff.
Almost at the same moment a blaze of white light appeared in the sky, a hundred feet above the heads of the vast throng that encircled the Palace. Millions of eyes were turned up at once, and beheld a vision which no one who saw it forgot to the day of his death.
The ten air-ships of the Terrorist fleet were ranged in two curves on either side of the Ithuriel, which floated about twenty feet below them, her silvery hull bathed in a flood of light from their electric lamps. In her bow, robed in glistening white fur, stood Natasha, transfigured in the full blaze of the concentrated searchlights. A silence of wonder and expectation fell upon the millions at her feet, and in the midst of it she began to sing the Hymn of Freedom. It was like the voice of an angel singing in the night of peace after strife.
Men of every nation in Europe listened to her entranced, as she changed from language to language; and when at last the triumphant strains of the Song of the Revolution came floating down from her lips through the still night air, an irresistible impulse ran through the listening millions, and with one accord they took up the refrain in all the languages of Europe, and a mighty flood of exultant song rolled up in wave after wave from earth to heaven — a song at once of victory and thanksgiving, for the last battle of the world-war had been lost and won, and the valour and genius of Anglo–Saxondom had triumphed over the last of the despotisms of Europe.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:08