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Chapter XXXII


ALTHOUGH Lennard had always recognised the possibility of such a catastrophe as that which John Castellan threatened, and had even taken such precautions as he could to prevent it, still this direct menace, coming straight from the man himself, brought the danger home to him in a peculiarly personal way.

The look which had passed between them as they were swimming their race in Clifden Bay had just as much meaning for him as for the man who now not openly professed himself his rival, but who threatened to proceed to the last extremities in order to gain possession of the girl they both loved. It was impossible for him not to believe that the man who had been capable of such cold-blooded atrocities as he had perpetrated at Portsmouth, London and other places, would hesitate for a moment in carrying out such a threat, and if he did — No, the alternative was quite too horrible to think of yet.

One thing, however, was absolutely certain. Although no word of love had passed between Auriole and himself since the night when he had shown her the comet and described the possible doom of the world to her, she had in a hundred ways made it plain to him that she was perfectly well aware that he loved her and that she did not resent it — and he knew quite enough of human nature to be well aware that when a woman allows herself to be loved by a man with whom she is in daily and hourly contact, she is already half won; and from this it followed, according to his exact mathematical reasoning, that, whatever the consequences, her reply to John Castellan's letter would be in the negative, and equally, of course, so would her father's be.

"I wonder what the Kaiser's Admiral of the Air would think if he knew how matters really stand," he said to himself as he read the letter through for a second time. "Quite certain of doing what he threatens, is he? I'm not. Still, after all, I suppose I mustn't blame him too much, for wasn't I in just the same mind myself once — to save the world if she would make it heaven for me, to — well — turn it into the other place if she wouldn't. But she very soon cured me of that madness.

"I wonder if she could cure this scoundrel if she condescended to try, which I am pretty certain she would not. I wonder what she'll look like when she reads this letter. I've never seen her angry yet, but I know she would look magnificent. Well, I shall do nothing till Mr Parmenter gets back. Still, it's a pity that I've got to gravitate between here and Bolton for the next seven weeks. If I wasn't, I'd ask him for one of those airships and I'd hunt John Castellan through all the oceans of air till I ran him down and smashed him and his ship too!"

At this moment the butler came to him and informed him that his dinner was ready and to ask him what wine he would drink.

"Thank you, Simmons," he replied. "A pint of that excellent Burgundy of yours, please. By the way, have the papers come yet?"

"Just arrived, sir," said Mr Simmons, making the simple announcement with all the dignity due to the butler to a millionaire.

He went at once into the dining-room and opened the second edition of the Times, which was sent every day to Settle by train and thence by motor-car to Whernside House.

Of course he turned first to the "Latest Intelligence" column. It was headed, as he half expected it to be, "The Great Turning Movement: The Enemy in Possession of Aldershot and advancing on Reading."

The account itself was one of those admirable combinations of brevity and impartiality for which the leading journal of the world has always been distinguished. What Lennard read ran as follows:

"Four months have now passed since the invading forces of the Allies, after destroying the fortifications of Portsmouth and Dover by means never yet employed in warfare, set foot on English soil. There have been four months of almost incessant fighting, of heroic defence and dearly-bought victory, but, although it is not too much to say in sober language that the defending troops, regulars, militia, yeomanry and volunteers, have accomplished what have seemed to be something like miracles of valour and devotion, the tide of conquest has nevertheless flowed steadily towards London.

"Considering the unanimous devotion with which the citizens of this country, English, Scotch, Irish and Welsh, have taken up arms for the defence of their Motherland, there can be no doubt but that, if the war had been fought under ordinary conditions, the tide of invasion would by this time have been rolled back to our coasts in spite of the admitted superiority of the invaders in the technical operations of warfare, and their enormous advantage in numbers to begin with. But the British forces have had to fight under conditions which have never before been known in warfare. Their enemies have not been only those of the land and sea: they have had to fight foes capable of raining destruction upon them from the air as well, and it may well be believed that the leaders of the invading hosts would be the first to admit that without this enormous advantage not even the progress that they have so far made would have been possible.

"The glories of Albuera and Waterloo, of Inkermann and Balaklava, have over and over again been eclipsed by the whole-souled devotion of the British soldiery, fighting, as no doubt every man of them believes, with their backs to the wall, not for ultimate victory perhaps but for the preservation of those splendid traditions which have been maintained untarnished for over a thousand years. It is no exaggeration to say that of all the wars in the history of mankind this has been the deadliest and the bloodiest. Never, perhaps, has so tremendous an attack been delivered, and never has such an attack been met by so determined a resistance. Still, having due regard to the information at our disposal, it would be vain to deny that, tremendous as the cost must have been, the victory so far lies with the invaders.

"After a battle which has lasted almost continuously for a fortnight; a struggle in which battalion after battalion has fought itself to a standstill and the last limits of human endurance have been reached, the fact remains that the enemy have occupied the whole line of the North Downs, Aldershot has ceased to be a British military camp, and is now occupied by the legions of Germany, France and Austria.

"Russia, in spite of the disastrous defeat of the united German and Russian expedition against Sheerness, Tilbury and Woolwich, is now preparing a force for an attack on Harwich which, if it is not defeated by the same means as that upon the Thames was defeated by, will have what we may frankly call the deplorable effect of diverting a large proportion of the defenders of London from the south to the north, and this, unless some other force, at present unheard of, is brought into play in aid of the defenders, can only result in the closing of the attack round London — and after that must come the deluge.

"That this is part of a general plan of operations appears to be quite clear from the desperate efforts which the French, German and Austrian troops are making to turn the position of General French at Reading, to outflank the British left which is resting on the hills beyond Faversham, and, having thus got astride the Thames, occupy the semicircle of the Chiltern Hills and so place the whole Thames valley east of Reading at their mercy.

"In consequence of the ease with which the enemy's airships have destroyed both telegraphic and railway communication, no definite details are at present to hand. It is only known that since the attack on Aldershot the fighting has not only been on a colossal scale, but also of the most sanguinary description, with the advantage slowly but surely turning in favour of the invaders. Such news as reaches us comes entirely by despatch rider and aerogram. We greatly regret to learn, through the former source, that yesterday evening Lord Westerham, the last of the six special Service officers attached to General French's staff, was either killed or captured in a gallant attempt to carry despatches containing an accurate account of the situation up to date from Reading to Windsor, whence it was to be transmitted by the underground telephone cable to His Majesty at Buckingham Palace."

"That reads pretty bad," said Lennard, when Mr Simmons had left the room, "especially Westerham being killed or taken prisoner; I don't like that at all. I wish we'd been able to collar His Majesty of Germany on that trip to Canterbury as Lord Kitchener suggested, and put him on board the Ithuriel. He'd have made a very excellent hostage in a case like this. I must say that, altogether, affairs do not look very promising, and we've still two months all but a day or two. Well, if Mr Parmenter doesn't get across with his aerial fleet pretty soon, I shall certainly take steps to convince him and his Allies, who are fighting for a few islands when the whole world is in peril, that my ultimatum was anything but the joke he seemed to take it for."

He finished his wine, drank a cup of coffee and smoked a meditative cigar in the library, and then went up to the observatory.

It was a lovely night from his point of view; clear, cool and almost cloudless. The young moon was just rising to the eastward, and as he looked up at that portion of the south-western sky from which the Celestial Invader was approaching he could almost persuade himself that he saw a dim ghostly shape of the Spectre from Space.

But when he got to the telescope the Spectre was no longer there. The field of the great reflector was blank, save for the few far-away star-mists, and here and there a dimly-distant star, already familiar to him through many nights of watching.

What had happened? Had some catastrophe occurred in the outer realms of Space in which some other world had been involved in fiery ruin, or had the comet been dragged away from its orbit by the attraction of one of those dead suns, those derelicts of Creation which, dark and silent, drift for age after age through the trackless ocean of Immensity?

There was no cooler-headed man alive than Gilbert Lennard when it came to a matter of his own profession and yet the world did not hold a more frightened man than he was when he went to re-adjust the machinery which regulated the movement of the great telescope, and so began his search for the lost comet all over again. One thing only was certain — that the slightest swerve from its course might make the comet harmless and send it flying through Space millions of miles away from the earth, or bring the threatening catastrophe nearer by an unknown number of days and hours. And that was the problem, here, alone, and in the silence of the night, he had to solve. The great gun at Bolton and the other at Pittsburg might by this time be useless, or, worse still, they might not be ready in time.

It was curious that, even face to face with such a terrific crisis, he had enough human vanity left to shape a half regret that his calculations would almost certainly be falsified.

That, however, was only the sensation of a moment. He ran rapidly over his previous calculations, did about fifteen minutes very hard thinking, and in thirty more he had found the comet. There it was: a few degrees more to the northward, and more inclined to the plane of the earth's orbit; brighter, and therefore nearer; and now the question was, by how much?

Confronted with this problem, the man and the lover disappeared, and only the mathematician and the calculating machine remained. He made his notes and went to his desk. The next three hours passed without any consciousness of existence save the slow ticking of the astronomical clock which governed the mechanism of the telescope. The rest was merely figures and formulae, which might amount to the death-sentence of the human race or to an indefinite reprieve.

When he got up from his desk he had learnt that the time in which it might be possible to save humanity from a still impending fate had been shortened by twelve days, and that the contact of the comet with the earth's atmosphere would take place precisely at twelve o'clock, midnight, on the thirtieth of April.

Then he went back to the telescope and picked up the comet again. Just as he had got its ominous shape into the centre of the field a score of other shapes drifted swiftly across it, infinitely vaster — huge winged forms, apparently heading straight for the end of the telescope, and only two or three yards away.

His nerves were not perhaps as steady as they would have been without the shock which he had already received, and he shrank back from the eye-piece as though to avoid a coming blow. Then he got up from his chair and laughed.

"What an ass I am! That's Mr Parmenter's fleet; but what monsters they do look through a telescope like this!"

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