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Chapter XXXIII


JUST at the north of the summit on the top of which the observatory was built there was an oval valley, or perhaps it might be better described as an escarpment, a digging away by the hand of Nature of a portion of the mountain summit by means of some vast landslide or glacier action thousands of years ago.

As he closed the door of the main entrance to the observatory behind him, he saw these strange, winged shapes circling in the air some three miles away, just dimly visible in the moonlight and starlight. They were hovering about in middle air as though they were birds looking for a foothold. He ran back, switched the electric current off the aerograph machines at the base of the observatory, and turned it on to the searchlight which was on the top of the equatorial dome. A great fan of white light flashed out into the sky, he spelt out "Welcome" in the dot-and-dash code, and then the searchlight fell upon the valley.

"Thanks," came the laconic answer from the foremost airship; and then Lennard saw twenty-five winged shapes circle round the observatory and drop to rest one by one in perfect order, just as a flock of swans might have done, and, as the last came to earth, he turned the switch and shut off the searchlight.

He walked down to the hollow, and in the dim light saw something that he had hardly believed possible for human eyes to see. There, in a space of, perhaps, a thousand yards long and five hundred yards wide, lay, in a perfect oval, a fleet of ships. By all appearances they had no right to be on land. There was no visible evidence that they could rise from the solid earth after once touching it, any more than the albatross can do from a ship's deck.

A light flashed out from a ship lying at the forward end of the ellipse for a moment into the sky and then it swung slowly round until it rested on the path from the observatory to the valley, and Lennard for a moment felt himself blinded by its rays. Then it lifted and a most welcomely familiar voice said:

"Well, Mr Lennard, here we are, you see, just a bit ahead of time, and how's the comet?"

A ladder, obviously of American design, shot out from the side of the airship as Mr Parmenter spoke, and as soon as the lower end touched the ground he walked down it with his hand outstretched. Lennard walked to the foot of the ladder and took his hand, and said in a low voice:

"This is all very wonderful, Mr Parmenter, but I am glad that you are here ahead of time, because the comet is too; and very considerably, I am sorry to say."

"Eh, what's that you say, Mr Lennard?" replied the millionaire in a hurried whisper. "Nothing serious, I hope. We haven't come too late, have we? I mean too late to stop the war and save the world."

"I don't know about stopping the war," replied Lennard, "but, if no accident happens or is arranged for, we can save the world still, I think."

"Accident arranged for?" echoed Mr Parmenter. "What do you mean by that? Are you talking about John Castellan and those Flying Fish things of his? I reckon we've got enough here to send him and his Flying Fishes into the sea and make them stop there. We've heard all about what they've been doing in the States, and I've got about tired of them. And as for this old invasion of England, it's got to stop right away, or we'll make more trouble for these Germans and Frenchmen and Russians and Austrians than they ever dreamt of.

"Look at that fleet, sir. Twenty-five aerial battleships with a hundred and fifty miles an hour speed in them. Here to London in one hour and twenty-five minutes or less, and guns — you just take a look at those exaggerated peashooters we've got on deck, and believe me, sir, that if we get one of John Castellan's Flying Fishes within six thousand yards of the end of one of those things it will do no more flying, except in very small pieces."

"I'm delighted to hear it, Mr Parmenter," replied Lennard, in a low tone, "for to tell you the truth, we haven't many weeks left now. Something that I can so far neither calculate nor explain has changed the orbit of the comet and it's due here at midnight on the thirtieth of April."

"Great Scott, and this is the nineteenth of March! Not six weeks! I guess we'll have to hurry up with those cannons. I'll send a cable to Pittsburg to-morrow. Anyhow, I reckon the comet can wait for to-night."

While Mr Parmenter had been speaking two other men had come down the ladder from the deck of the airship and he continued:

"Now, let me introduce you. This is my old friend and college chum, Newson Hingeston, the man who invented the model we built this fleet on. This is Mr Hiram Roker, chief engineer of the fleet and Lord High Admiral of the air, when Mr Hingeston is not running his own ships."

Lennard shook hands with Mr Hingeston and Hiram, and was going to say very complimentary things about the fleet which had literally dropped from the clouds, when Mr Parmenter interrupted him again and said:

"You'll excuse me, Mr Lennard, but you'll be better able to talk about these ships when you've had a trip in one of them. We've just crossed the Atlantic in thirty hours, above the clouds, and to-morrow night or morning, if it's cloudy when we've been through things generally, we're going to London in the flagship here — I've called her the Auriole, because she is the daisy of the whole fleet — biggest, fastest and prettiest. You just wait till you see her in daylight. Now we'll go down to the house and hear your news. We're thirty hours behind the times."

It need hardly be said that no one went to bed for the remainder of that night at Whernside. In one sense it was as busy a time as had been since the war began. The private telephone and telegraph wires between Whernside House and Settle and the aerograph apparatus at the observatory were working almost incessantly till dawn, sending and receiving messages between this remote moorland district and London and the seat of war, as well as Bolton and Pittsburg.

The minutes and the hours passed swiftly, as all Fate-laden time does pass, and so the grey morning of a momentous day dawned over the western Yorkshire moors. Just as they were beginning to think about breakfast one of Lennard's assistants came down from the observatory with a copy of an aerogram which read:

"Begins. PARMENTER, Whernside. Pleased to hear of your arrival. Proposition laid before His Majesty in Council and accepted. Hope to see you and your friends during the day. — CHAMBERLAIN. Ends,"

"Well, I guess that's all right, gentlemen," said Mr Parmenter, as he handed the aerogram across the big table littered with maps, plans and drawings of localities terrestrial and celestial.

The aerogram passed round and Mr Parmenter continued: "You see, gentlemen, although the United States has the friendliest of feelings towards the British Empire, still, as the President told me the day before yesterday, this invasion of Britain is not our fight, and he does not see his way to making formal declaration of war; so he just gave me a permit for these ships to leave American territory on what the Russians and others call a scientific expedition in order to explore the upper regions of the air and demonstrate the possibility of navigating the air without using gas as lifting power — and that's just how we've got here with our clearance papers and so on all in order; and that means, gentlemen, that we are here, not as citizens of the United States or any other country, but just as a trading company with something to hire out.

"John Castellan, as you will remember from what has been said, sold his Flying Fishes to the German Emperor. Mr Lennard has proved to us by Castellan's own handwriting that he is prepared to sell them back to the British Government at a certain price — and that price is my daughter. Our answer to that is the hiring of our fleet to the British Government, and that offer has been accepted on terms which I think will show a very fair profit when the war is over and we've saved the world."

"I don't think it will take very long to stop the war," said the creator of the aerial battle-fleet, in his quiet voice. "Saving the world is, of course, another matter which no doubt we can leave safely in the hands of Mr Lennard. And now," he continued more gravely, "when is the news of the actual coming of the comet to be made public? It seems to me that everything more or less hangs upon that. The German Emperor, and, therefore, his Allies and, no doubt, half the astronomers of Europe, have been informed of Mr Lennard's discovery. They may or may not believe it, and if they don't we can't blame them because it was only given to them without exact detail."

"And a very good thing too," laughed Lennard, "considering the eccentric way in which the comet is behaving. But everything is settled now, unless, of course, some other mysterious influence gets to work; and, another thing, it's quite certain that before many days the comet must be discovered by other observatories."

"Then, Mr Lennard," said Mr Parmenter, "we've been first in the field so far and I reckon we'd better stop there. Pike's Peak, Washington and Arequipa are all on to it. Europe and Australia will be getting there pretty soon, so I don't think there's much the matter with you sending a message to Greenwich this morning. The people there will find it all right and we can run across from London when we've had our talk with the Prime Minister and post them up in any other details they want. I'll send a wire to Henchell and tell him to hurry up with his gun at Pittsburg and send on news to all the American observatories. Then we'll have breakfast and, as it's a cloudy morning, I think we might start right away for London in the Auriole and get this business fixed up. The enemy doesn't know we're here at all, and so long as we keep above the clouds there's no fear of anyone seeing us. The world has only forty-four more days to live, so we might as well save one of those days while we can."

The result of the somewhat informal council of war, for, in sober truth, it was nothing else, was that the commanders of the airships were invited to breakfast and the whole situation was calmly and plainly discussed by those who from the morning would probably hold the fate of the world in their hands. Not the least important of the aerograms which had been received during the early morning had been one, of course in code, from Captain Erskine of the Ithuriel from Harwich, welcoming the aërial fleet and giving details of his movements in conjunction with it for the next ten days. The aerogram also gave the positions of the lighters loaded with ammunition which he had deposited round the English shores in anticipation of its arrival.

Soon after eight o'clock a heavy mist came down over Whernside and its companion heights, and Mr Parmenter went to one of the windows of the big dining-room and said:

"I reckon this will just about fit us, Mr Lennard, so, if you've got your portmanteau packed, have it sent up to the Auriole at once, and we'll make a start."

Within thirty minutes the start was made, and with it began the most marvellous experience of Gilbert Lennard's life, not even excepting his battle-trip in the conning-tower of the Ithuriel.

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