On the 6th of March 1904, just six months after Arnold’s journey to Russia, a special meeting of the Inner Circle of the Terrorists took place in the Council-chamber, at the house on Clapham Common.
Although it was only attended by twelve persons all told, and those men and women whose names were unknown outside the circle of their own Society and the records of the Russian police, it was the most momentous conference that had taken place in the history of the world since the council of war that Abdurrhaman the Moslem had held with his chieftains eleven hundred and seventy-two years before, and, by taking their advice, spared the remnants of Christendom from the sword of Islam.
Then the fate of the world hung in the balance of a council of war, and the supremacy of the Cross or the Crescent depended, humanly speaking, upon the decision of a dozen warriors. Now the fate of the civilisation that was made possible by that decision, lay at the mercy of a handful of outlaws and exiles who had laboriously brought to perfection the secret schemes of a single man.
The work of the Terrorists was finally complete. Under the whole fabric of Society lay the mines which a single spark would now explode, and above this slumbering volcano the earth was trembling with the tread of millions of armed men, divided into huge hostile camps, and only waiting until Diplomacy had finished its work in the dark, and gave the long-awaited signal of inevitable and universal war.
To-night that spark was to be shaken from the torch of Revolution, and tomorrow the first of the mines would explode. After that, if the course to be determined on by the Terrorist Council failed to arrive at the results which it was designed to reach, the armies of Europe would fight their way through the greatest war that the world had ever seen, the Fates would once more decide in favour of the strongest battalions, the fittest would triumph, and a new era of military despotism would begin — perhaps neither much better nor much worse than the one it would succeed.
If, on the other hand, the plans of the Terrorists were successfully worked out to their logical conclusion, it would not be war only, but utter destruction that Society would have to face. And then with dissolution would come anarchy. The thrones of the world would be overthrown, the fabric of Society would be dissolved, commerce would come to an end, the structure that it had taken twenty centuries of the discipline of war and the patient toil of peace to build up, would crumble into ruins in a few short months, and then — well, after that no man could tell what would befall the remains of the human race that had survived the deluge. The means of destruction were at hand, and they would be used without mercy, but for the rest no man could speak.
When Nicholas Roburoff, the President of the Executive, rose in his place at eight o’clock to explain the business in hand, every member present saw at a glance, by the gravity of his demeanour, that the communication that he had to make was of no ordinary nature, but even they were not prepared for the catastrophe that he announced in the first sentence that he uttered.
“Friends,” he said, in a voice that was rendered deeply impressive by the emotion that he vainly tried to conceal, “it is my mournful duty to tell you that she whom any one of us would willingly shed our blood to serve or save from the slightest evil, our beautiful and beloved Angel of the Revolution, as we so fondly call her, Natasha, the daughter of the Master, has, in the performance of her duty to the Cause, fallen into the hands of Russia.”
Save for a low, murmuring groan that ran round the table, the news was received in silence. It was too terrible, too hideous in the awful meaning that its few words conveyed, for any exclamations of grief, or any outburst of anger, to express the emotions that it raised.
Not one of those who heard it but had good reason to know what it meant for a revolutionist to fall into the hands of Russia. For a man it meant the last extremity of human misery that flesh and blood could bear, but for a young and beautiful woman it was a fate that no words could describe — a doom that could only be thought of in silence and despair; and so the friends of Natasha were silent, though they did not yet despair. Roburoff bowed his head in acknowledgment of the inarticulate but eloquent endorsement of his words, and went on —
“You already know the outcome of Richard Arnold’s visit to Russia; how he was present at the trial of the Tsar’s war-balloon, and was compelled to pronounce it such a complete success, that the Autocrat at once gave orders for the construction of a fleet of fifty aërostats of the same pattern; and how, thanks to the warning conveyed by Anna Ornovski, he was able to prevent his special passport being stolen by a police agent, and so to foil the designs of the chief of the Third Section to stop him taking the secret of the construction of the war-balloon out of Russia. You also know that he brought back the Chief’s authority to build an air-ship after the model which was exhibited to us here, and that since his return he has been prosecuting that work on Drumcraig Island, one of the possessions of the Chief in the Outer Hebrides, which he placed at his disposal for the purpose.
“You know, also, that Natasha and Anna Ornovski went to Russia partly to discover the terms of the secret treaty that we believed to exist between France and Russia, and partly to warn, and, if possible, remove from Russian soil a large number of our most valuable allies, whose names had been revealed to the Minister of the Interior, chiefly through the agency of the spy Martinov, who was executed in this room six months ago.
“The first part of the task was achieved, not without difficulty, but with complete success, and of that more anon. The second part was almost finished when Natasha and Anna Ornovski were surprised in the house of Alexei Kassatkin, a member of the Moscow Nihilist Circle, in the Bolshoi Dmitrietka. He had been betrayed by one of his own servants, and a police visit was the result.
“Added to this there is reason to believe that she had, quite apart from this, become acquainted with enough official secrets to make her removal desirable in high quarters. I need not tell you that that is the usual way in which the Tsar rewards those of his secret servants who get to know too much.
“The fact of her being found in the house of a betrayed Nihilist was taken as sufficient proof of sympathy or complicity, and she was arrested. Natasha, as Fedora Darrel, claimed to be a British subject, and, as such, to be allowed to go free in virtue of the Tsar’s safe conduct, which she exhibited. Instead of that she was taken before the chief of the Moscow police, rudely interrogated, and then brutally searched. Unhappily, in the bosom of her dress was found a piece of paper bearing some of the new police cypher. That was enough. That night they were thrown into prison, and three days later taken to the convict depot under sentence of exile by administrative process to Sakhalin for life.
“You know what that means for a beautiful woman like Natasha. She will not go to Sakhalin. They do not bury beauty like hers in such an abode of desolation as that. If she cannot be rescued, she will only have two alternatives before her. She will become the slave and plaything of some brutal governor or commandant at one of the stations, or else she will kill herself. Of course, of these two she would choose the latter — if she could and when she could. Should she be driven to that last resort of despair, she shall be avenged as woman never yet was avenged; but rescue must, if possible, come before revenge.
“The information that we have received from the Moscow agent tells us that the convict train to which Natasha and Anna Ornovski are attached left the depot nearly a fortnight ago; they were to be taken by train in the usual way to Nizhni Novgorod, thence by barge on the Volga and Kama to Perm, and on by rail to Tiumen, the forwarding station for the east. Until they reach Tiumen they will be safe from anything worse than what the Russians are pleased to call ‘discipline,’ but once they disappear into the wilderness of Siberia they will be lost to the world, and far from all law but the will of their official slave-drivers.
“It has, therefore, been decided that the rescue shall be attempted before the chain-gang leaves Tiumen, if it can be reached in time. As nearly as we can calculate, the march will begin on the morning of Friday the 9th, that is to say, in three nights and one day from now. Happily we possess the means of making the rescue, if it can be accomplished by human means. I have received a report from Richard Arnold saying that the Ariel is complete, and that she has made a perfectly satisfactory trial trip to the clouds. The Ariel is the only vehicle in existence that could possibly reach the frontier of Siberia in the given time, and it is fitting that her first duty should be the rescue of the Angel of the Revolution from the clutches of the Tyrant of the North.
“Alexis Mazanoff, it is the will of the Master that you shall take these instructions to Richard Arnold and accompany him on the voyage in order to show him what course to steer, and assist him in every way possible. You will find the Chief’s yacht at Port Patrick ready to convey you to Drumcraig Island. When you have heard what is further necessary for you to hear, you will take the midnight express from Euston. Have you any preparations to make?”
“No,” replied Mazanoff, or Colston, to call him by a name more familiar to the reader. “I can start in half an hour if necessary, and on such an errand you may, of course, depend on me not to lose much time. I presume there are full instructions here?”
“Yes, both for the rescue and for your conduct afterwards, whether you are successful or unsuccessful,” said the President. Then turning to the others he continued —
“You may now rest assured that all that can be done to rescue Natasha will be done, and we must therefore turn to other matters. I said a short time ago that the conditions of the secret treaty between France and Russia had been discovered by the two brave women who are now suffering for their devotion to the cause of the Revolution. A full copy of them is in the hands of the Chief, who arrives in London today, and will at once lay the documents before Mr. Balfour, the Premier.
“It is extremely hostile to England, and amounts, in fact, to a compact on the part of France to declare war and seize the Suez Canal, as soon as the first shot is fired between Great Britain and Russia. In return for this, Russia is to invade Germany and Austria, destroy the eastern frontier fortresses with her fleet of war-balloons, and then cross over and do the same on the Rhine, while France at last throws herself upon her ancient foe.
“Meanwhile, the French fleet is to concentrate in the Mediterranean as quietly and rapidly as possible, before war actually breaks out, so as to be able to hold the British and Italians in check, and shut the Suez Canal, while Russia, who is pushing her troops forward to the Hindu Kush, gets ready for a dash at the passes, and a rush upon Cashmere, before Britain can get sufficient men out to India by the Cape to give her very much trouble.
“As there also exists a secret compact between Britain and the Triple Alliance, binding all four powers to declare war the moment one is threatened, the disclosure of this treaty must infallibly lead to war in a few weeks. In addition to this, measures have been taken to detach Italy from the Triple Alliance at the last moment, if possible. Success in this respect is, however, somewhat uncertain.
“To make assurance doubly sure, the Chief informs me that he has ordered Ivan Brassoff, who is in command of a large reconnoitring party on the Afghan side of the Hindu Kush, to provoke reprisals from a similar party of Indian troops who have been told off to watch their movements. Captain Brassoff is one of us, and can be depended upon to obey at all costs. He will do this in a fortnight from now, and therefore we may feel confident that Great Britain and Russia will be at war within a month.
“With the first outbreak of war our work for the present ceases, so far as active interference goes. We shall therefore withdraw from the scene of action until the arrival of the supreme moment when the nations of Europe shall be locked in the death-struggle, and the fate of the world will rest in our hands. The will of the Master now is that all the members of the Brotherhood shall at once wind up their businesses, and turn all of their possessions that are not portable and useful into money.
“A large steamer has been purchased and manned with members of the Outer Circle who are sailors by profession. She is now being loaded at Liverpool with all the machinery and materials necessary for the construction of twelve air-ships like the Ariel. This steamer, when ready for sea, will sail, ostensibly, for Rio de Janeiro with a cargo of machinery, but in reality for Drumcraig, where she will embark the workmen who will be left there by the Ariel with all the working plant on the island, and from there she will proceed to a lonely island off the West Coast of Africa, between Cape Blanco and Cape Verde, where new works will be set up and the fleet of air-ships put together as rapidly as possible.
“The position of this island is in the instructions which Alexis Mazanoff takes to Drumcraig to-night, and the Ariel will rendezvous there when the work that is in hand for her is done. The members of the Brotherhood will, of course, go in the steamer as passengers for Rio, so that no suspicions may be aroused, and every one must be ready to embark in ten days from now.
“That is all I have to say at present in the name of the Master. And now, Alexis Mazanoff, it is time you set out. We shall remain here and discuss every detail fully so that nothing may be overlooked. You will find that everything has been provided for in the instructions you have, so go, and may the Master of Destiny be with you!”
As he spoke he held out his hand, which the young man grasped heartily, saying —
“Farewell! I will obey to the death, and if success can be earned we will earn it. If not, you shall hear of the Ariel’s work in Russia before the week is out.”
He then took leave of the other members of the Council, coming last to Radna. As their hands clasped she said —
“I wish I could come with you, but that is impossible. But bring Natasha back to us safe and sound, and there is nothing that you can ask of me that I will not say ‘yes’ to. Go, and God speed your good work. Farewell!”
For all answer he took her in his arms before them all. Their lips met in one long silent kiss, and a moment later he had gone to strike the first blow in the coming world-war, and to bring the beginning of sorrows on the Tyrant of the North.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54