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Chapter XXVIII


IN spite of the bold front that he had assumed during the interview, the strain, not exactly of superstition but rather of supernaturalism which runs so strongly in the Kaiser's family, made it impossible for him to treat such a tremendous threat as the destruction of the world as an alternative to universal peace by any means as lightly as he appeared to his visitors to do; and when the audience was over he picked up the envelope which Lennard had left upon the table, beckoned Count von Moltke into his room behind, locked the door, and said:

"Now, Count, what is your opinion of this? At first sight it looks ridiculous; but whoever this Lennard may be, it seems hardly likely that two men like Lord Whittinghame and Lord Kitchener, two of the coolest-headed and best-balanced men on earth, should take the trouble to come down here as a deputation from the British Cabinet only to make themselves ridiculous. Suppose we have a look at these papers? Everything is in train for the advance. I daresay you and I understand enough of mathematics between us to find out if there is anything serious in them, and if so, they shall go to Herr Döllinger at once."

"I think it would be at least worth while to look through them, your Majesty," replied the Count. "Like yourself, I find it rather difficult to believe that this mysterious Mr Lennard, whoever he is, has been able to impose upon the whole British Cabinet, to say nothing of Lord Kitchener, who is about the best engineer and mathematician in the British Army."

So the Count and the Kaiser sat down, and went through the elaborate and yet beautifully clear calculations and diagrams, page by page, each making notes as he went on. At the end of an hour the Kaiser looked over his own notes, and said to von Moltke:

"Well, what is your opinion, Count?"

"I am not an astronomer, your Majesty, but these calculations certainly appear to me to be correct as far as they go — that is, granted always that the premisses from which Mr Lennard starts are correct. But certainly I think that your Majesty will be wise in sending them as soon as possible to Herr Döllinger."

"That is exactly the conclusion that I have come to myself," replied the Kaiser. "I will write a note to Herr Döllinger, and one of the airships must take it across to Potsdam. We can't afford to run any risks of that infernal submarine ram or whatever she is. I would almost give an Army corps for that ship. There's no doubt she's lost us three fleets, a score of transports, and twenty thousand men in the last three days, and she's just as much a mystery as ever. It's the most extraordinary position a conquering army was ever put into before."

The Kaiser was perfectly right. There could be no doubt that up to the present the invading forces had been victorious, thanks of course mainly to the irresistible advantage of the airships, but also in no small degree to the hopeless unpreparedness of the British home armies to meet an invasion, which both military and naval experts had simply refused to believe possible.

The seizure of the line from Dover to Chatham had been accomplished in a single night. A dozen airships patrolled the air ahead of the advancing German forces, which of course far outnumbered the weak and hastily-collected British forces which could be brought against them, and which, attacked at once by land and from the air, never really had a chance.

It was the most perfectly conducted invasion ever planned. The construction trains which went in advance on both lines carried sections of metals of English gauge, already fastened to sleepers, and ready to lay down. Every little bridge and culvert had been known and was provided for. Not a bolt nor a fishplate had been forgotten, and moreover John Castellan's operations from the air had reduced the destruction to a minimum, and the consequence was that twelve hours after the Kaiser had landed at Dover he found himself in his headquarters at Canterbury, whence the British garrison had been forced to retire after heavy fighting along the lines of wooded hills behind Maidstone.

It was the old, old story, the story of every war that England had gone into and "muddled through" somehow; but with two differences. Her soldiers had never had to fight an enemy in the skies before, and — there was no time now to straighten out the muddle, even if every able-bodied man in the United Kingdom had been trained soldiers, as the invaders were.

But there was another element in the situation. Incredible as it might seem to those ignorant of the tremendous forces brought into play, the home fleets of Europe had been destroyed, practically to a ship, within three days and nights. The narrow seas were deserted. On the morning of the seventeenth, four transports attempting to cross from Hamburg to Ramsgate, carrying a force of men, horses and light artillery, which was intended to operate as a flying column along the northern shores of Kent, had been rammed and sent to the bottom within fifteen minutes half way between land and land, and not a man nor an animal had escaped.

There was no news from the expeditions which had been sent against Hull and Newcastle — all the cables had been cut, save the transatlantic lines, the cutting of which the United States had already declared they would consider as an unfriendly act on the part of the Allies, and the British cable from Gibraltar to the Lizard which connected with Palermo and Rome, and so formed the link of communication between Britain and the Mediterranean.

The British Mediterranean Fleet was coming home, so were the West Indian and North American squadrons, while the squadron in the China seas was also ordered home, via the Suez Canal, to form a conjunction with our Italian Allies. Of course, these ships would in due time be dealt with by the aerial submarines, but meanwhile commerce with Europe had become impossible. Imports had stopped at most of the great ports through sheer terror of this demon of the sea, which appeared to be here, there and everywhere at the same time; and with all these powerful squadrons converging upon the shores of Britain the problem of feeding and generally keeping fit for war some three millions of men and over half a million horses would soon begin to look distinctly serious.

Castellan's vessels had hunted in vain for this solitary vessel, which single-handed, marvellous as it seemed, kept the narrow waters clear of invaders. The truth of this matter, however, was very simple. The Ithuriel was nearly twice as fast in the water as the Flying Fishes, and she carried guns with an effective range of five miles, whereas they only carried torpedoes.

For instance, during the battle of Sheerness, in which the remaining units of the North Sea Squadron had, with the Ithuriel's aid, attacked and destroyed every German and Russian battleship and transport, Erskine's craft had done terrible execution without so much as being seen until, when the last of the German Coast Defence ships had gone down with all hands in the Great Nore, off the Nore lighthouse, whence she was shelling Garrison Fort, the Ithuriel had risen above the water for a few moments, and Denis Castellan had taken a cockshot with the three forward guns at a couple of Flying Fishes that were circling over the town and fort and river mouth.

The shells had time-fuses, and they were timed to the tenth of a second. They burst simultaneously over the airships. Then came a rending of the atmosphere, and descending streams of fire, which burst with a rapid succession of sharp reports as they touched the airships. Then came another blaze of light which seemed to darken the wintry sun for a moment, and then another quaking of the air, after which what was left of the two Flying Fishes fell in little fragments into the water, splashing here and there as though they had been shingle ballast thrown out of a balloon.

True, Garrison Fort had been blown up by the aerial torpedoes, and the same fate was befalling the great forts at Tilbury, but their gallant defenders did not die in vain, and, although the remainder of the aerial squadron were able to go on and do their work of destruction on London, whither the Ithuriel could not follow them, the wrecks of six battleships, a dozen destroyers and ten transports strewed the approaches to the Thames and the Medway, while nearly thirty thousand soldiers and sailors would never salute the flag of Czar or Kaiser again.

"In all the history of war no such loss of men, ships and material had ever taken place within the short space of three days and a few hours. Four great fleets and nearly a hundred thousand men had been wiped out of existence since the assault on Southern England had begun, and even now, despite the airships, had the millions of Britain's able-bodied men, who were grinding their teeth and clenching their fists in impotent fury, been trained just to shoot and march, it would have been possible to take the invaders between overwhelming masses of men — who would hold their lives as nothing in comparison with their country's honour — and the now impassable sea, and drive them back into it. But although men and youths went in their tens of thousands to the recruiting stations and demanded to be enlisted, it was no use. Soldiers are not made in a day or a week, and the invaders of England had been making them for forty years.

"While the Kaiser and Count von Moltke were going through Lennard's papers, and coming to the decision to send them to Potsdam, Lord Whittinghame's motor, instead of returning to Chatham, was running up to Whitstable to answer the telegram which Lennard had received at Rochester. The German flag cleared them out of Canterbury. It was already known that they had been received by the Kaiser, and therefore their persons were sacred. In consequence of the loss of the squadron attacking the Thames and Medway, and the destruction of the Ramsgate flotilla, the country was not occupied by the enemy north of the great main road through Canterbury and Faversham, and that was just why the Ithuriel was lying snugly in the mouth of the East Swale River, about three miles from the little town, with a shabby-looking lighter beside her, from which she was taking in an extra complement of her own shells and material for making Lennard's explosive, as well as a full load of fuel for her engines. They pulled up at the door of the Bear and Key Hotel, and as the motor came to a standstill a man dressed in the costume of an ordinary worker on the oyster-beds came up, touched his sou'wester, and said:

"Mr Lennard's car, gentlemen?"

"Yes, I'm here," said Lennard, shortly; "we've just left the Emperor at Canterbury. How about those oysters? I should think you ought to do well with them in Canterbury. Got plenty?"

"Yes, sir," replied the man. "If you will come down to the wharf I will be able to show you a shipment that I can send along to-night if the train comes from Canterbury."

"I think we might as well have a drop of something hot first, it's rather cold riding."

The others nodded, and they went into the hotel without removing their caps or goggles. They asked a waiter to show them into a private room, as they had some business to do, and when four glasses of hot whisky and water had been put on the table, Lennard locked the door and said:

"My lords, allow me to have the pleasure of introducing to you Lieutenant Denis Castellan of His Majesty's cruiser Ithuriel."

Lord Whittinghame's and Lord Kitchener's hands went out together, and the former said:

"Delighted to meet you, Mr Castellan. You and Captain Erskine have done magnificently for us in spite of all our troubles. In fact, I don't know what we should have done without you and this wonderful craft of yours."

"With all due deference to the Naval Council," said 'K. of K.,' rather bluntly, "it's a pity they didn't put down a dozen of her. But what about these oysters that you telegraphed to Mr Lennard about?"

"There is only one oyster in question at present, my lord," said Denis, with an entirely Irish smile, "but it's rather a big one. It's the German Emperor's yacht, the Hohenzollern. She managed to run across, and get into Ramsgate, while we were up here in the Thames — that's the worst of there being only one of us, as we can only attend to one piece of business at a time. Now, she's lying there waiting the Kaiser's orders, in case he wants to take a trip across, and it seems to me that she'd be worth the watching for a day or two — she'd be a big prize, you know, gentlemen, especially if we could catch her with the War Lord of Germany on board her. I don't think myself that His Majesty would have any great taste for a trip to the bottom of the North Sea, just when he thinks he's beginning the conquest of England so nicely, and, by the Powers, we'd send him there if he got into one of his awkward tempers with us."

Lord Kitchener, who was in England acting as Chief-of-the-Staff to the Duke of Connaught, and general adviser to the Council of National Defence, took Lord Whittinghame to the other end of the room, and said a few words to him in a low tone, and he came back and said:

"It is certainly worth trying, even if you can only catch the ship; but we don't think you'll catch the Kaiser. The fact is, you seem to have established such a holy terror in these waters that I don't think he would trust his Imperial person between here and Germany. If he did go across, he'd probably go in an airship. But if you can bring the Hohenzollern up to Tilbury — of course, under the German flag — I think we shall be able to make good use of her. If she won't come, sink her."

"Very good, my lords," said Denis, saluting. "If she's not coming up the Thames to-morrow night with the Ithuriel under her stern, ye'll know that she's on the bottom in pieces somewhere. And now," he continued, taking a long envelope from an inner pocket, "here is the full report of our doings since the war began, with return of ships sunk, crippled and escaped; number of men landed, and so on, according to instructions. We will report again to-morrow night, I hope, with the Hohenzollern."

They shook hands and wished him good-night and food luck, and in half an hour the Ithuriel was running half-dsubmerged eastward along the coast, and the motor was on its way to Faversham by the northern road, as there were certain reasons why it should not go back through Canterbury.

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