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THE "AURIOLE" HOISTS THE WHITE ENSIGN
RATHER to Mr Parmenter's surprise his first interview "with a real king" was rather like other business interviews that he had had; in fact, as he said afterwards, of all the business men he had ever met in his somewhat varied career, this quiet-spoken, grey-haired English gentleman was about the best and 'cutest that it had ever been his good fortune to strike.
The negotiations in hand were, of course, the hiring of the Syndicate's fleet of airships to the British Empire during the course of the war. His Majesty had summoned a Privy Council at the Palace, and again Mr Parmenter was somewhat surprised at the cold grip and clear sight which these British aristocrats had in dealing with matters which he thought ought to have been quite outside their experience. Like many Americans, he had expected to meet a sort of glorified country squire, foxhunter, grouse-killer, trout and salmon-catcher, and so on; but, as he admitted to Lennard later on, from His Majesty downwards they were about the hardest crowd to do business with that he had ever struck.
The terms he offered were half a million a week for the services of twenty-five airships till the war was ended. Two were retained as guardians for Whernside House and the observatory, and three for the Great Lever colliery, and this left twenty, not counting the original Columbia, which Mr Parmenter had bought as his aerial yacht, available for warlike purposes.
The figure was high, as the owners of the aerial battle-fleet admitted, but war was a great deal dearer. They guaranteed to bring the war to a stop within fourteen days, by which time Britain would have a new fleet in being which would be practically the only fleet capable of action in western waters with the exception of the Italian and the American. Given that the Syndicate's airships, acting in conjunction with the Ithuriel and the twelve of her sisters which were now almost ready for launching, could catch and wipe out the Flying Fishes, either above the waters or under them, the result would be that the Allies, cut off from their base of supplies, and with no retreat open to them, would be compelled to surrender; and Mr Parmenter did not consider that five hundred thousand pounds a week was too much to pay for this.
At the conclusion of his speech, setting forth the position of the Syndicate, he said, with a curious dignity which somehow always comes from a sense of power:
"Your Majesty, my Lords and gentlemen, I am just a plain American business man, and so is my friend, the inventor of these ships. We have told you what we believe they can do and we are prepared to show you that we have not exaggerated their powers. There is our ship outside in the gardens. If your Majesty would like to take a little trip through the air and see battle, murder and sudden death"
"That's very kind of you, Mr Parmenter," laughed His Majesty, "but, much as I personally should like to come with you, I'm afraid I should play a certain amount of havoc with the British Constitution if I did. Kings of England are not permitted to go to war now, but if you would oblige me by taking a note to the Duke of Connaught, who has his headquarters at Reading, and then, if you could manage it under a flag of truce, taking another note to the German Emperor, who, I believe, has pitched his camp at Aldershot, I should be very much obliged."
"Anything your Majesty wishes," replied Mr Parmenter. "Now we've fixed up the deal the fleet is at your disposal and we sail under the British flag; though, to be quite honest, sir, I don't care about flying the white flag first. We could put up as pretty a fight for you along the front of the Allies as any man could wish to see."
"I am sorry, Mr Parmenter," laughed His Majesty, "that the British Constitution compels me to disappoint you but, as some sort of recompense, I am sure that my Lords in Council will grant you permission to fly the White Ensign on all your ships and the Admiral's flag on your flagship, which, I presume, is the one in which you have come this morning. It is unfortunate that I can only confer the honorary rank of admiral upon Mr Hingeston, as you are not British subjects."
"Then, your Majesty," replied Mr Parmenter, "if it pleases you, I hope you will give that rank to my friend Newson Hingeston, who, as I have told you, has been more than twenty years making these ships perfect. He has created this navy, so I reckon he has got the best claim to be called admiral."
"Does that meet with your approval, my lords?" said the King.
And the heads of the Privy Council bowed as one in approval.
"I thank your Majesty most sincerely," said Hingeston, rising. "I am an American citizen, but I have nothing but British blood in my veins, and therefore I am all the more glad that I am able to bring help to the Motherland when she wants it."
"And I'm afraid we do want it, Mr Hingeston," said His Majesty. "Make the conditions of warfare equal in the air, and I think we shall be able to hold our own on land and sea. Your patent of appointment shall be made out at once, and I will have the letters ready for you in half an hour. And now, gentlemen, I think a glass of wine and a biscuit will not do any of us much harm."
The invitation was, of course, in a certain sense, a command, and when the King rose everyone did the same. While they were taking their wine and biscuits in the blue drawing-room overlooking St James's Park, His Majesty, who never lost his grip of business for a moment, took Lennard aside and had a brief but pregnant conversation with him on the subject of the comet, and as a result of this all the Government manufactories of explosives were placed at his disposal, and with his own hand the King wrote a permit entitling him to take such amount of explosives to Bolton as he thought fit. Then there came the letters to the Duke of Connaught and the German Emperor, and one to the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich.
Then His Majesty and the members of the Council inspected the aërial warship lying on the great lawn in the gardens, and with his own hands King Edward ran the White Ensign to the top of the flagstaff aft; at the same moment the Prince of Wales ran the Admiral's pennant up to the masthead. Everyone saluted the flag, and the King said:
"There, gentlemen, the Auriole is a duly commissioned warship of the British Navy, and you have our authority to do all lawful acts of war against our enemies. Good-morning! I shall hope to hear from you soon."
"I'm sorry, your Majesty," said Mr Parmenter, "that we can't fire the usual salute. These guns of ours are made for business, and we don't have any blank charges."
"I perfectly understand you, Mr Parmenter," replied His Majesty with a laugh. "We shall have to dispense with the ceremony. Still, those are just the sort of guns we want at present. Good-morning, again."
His Majesty went down the gangway and Admiral Hingeston, with Mr Parmenter and Lennard, entered the conning-tower. The lifting-fans began to whirr, and as the Auriole rose from the grass the White Ensign dipped three times in salute to the Royal Standard floating from the flagstaff on the palace roof. Then, as the driving propellers whirled round till they became two intersecting circles of light, the Auriole swept up over the tree-tops and vanished through the clouds. And so began the first voyage of the first British aerial battleship.
The Duke of Connaught had his headquarters at Amersham Hall School on the Caversham side of the Thames, which was, of course, closed in consequence of the war, and half an hour after the Auriole had left the grounds of Buckingham Palace she was settling to the ground in the great quadrangle of the school. The Duke, with Lord Kitchener and two or three other officers of the Staff, were waiting at the upper end where the headmaster's quarters were. As the ship grounded, the gangway ladder dropped and Mr Parmenter said to Lennard:
"That's Lord Kitchener, I see. Now, you know him and I don't so you'd better go and do the talking. We'll come after and get introduced."
"Ah Mr Lennard," said Lord Kitchener, holding out his hand. "You're quite a man of surprises. The last time I went with you to see the Kaiser in a motor-car, and now you come to visit His Royal Highness in an airship. Your Royal Highness," he continued, turning to the Duke, "this is Mr Lennard, the finder of this comet which is going to wipe us all out unless he wipes it out with his big gun, and these will be the other gentlemen, I presume, whom His Majesty has wired about."
"Yes," replied Lennard, after he had shaken hands. "This is Mr Parmenter whose telescope enabled me to find the comet, and this is Mr or I ought now to say Admiral Hingeston, who had the honour of receiving that rank from His Majesty half an hour ago."
"What!" exclaimed the Duke. "Half an hour! Are you quite serious, gentlemen? The telegram's only just got here."
"Well, your Royal Highness," said Mr Parmenter, "that may be because we didn't come full speed, but if you would get on board that flagship, sir, we'd take you to Buckingham Palace and back in half an hour, or, if you would like a trip to Aldershot to interview the German Emperor, and then one to Greenwich, we'll engage to have you back here safe by dinner time."
"Nothing would delight me more," replied the Duke, smiling, "but at present my work is here and I cannot leave it. Lord Kitchener, how would you like that sort of trip?"
"If you will give me leave till dinner-time, sir," laughed K. of K., "there's nothing I should like better."
"Oh, that goes without saying, of course," replied the Duke, "and now, gentlemen, I understand from the King's telegram that there are one or two matters you want to talk over with us. Will you come inside?"
"If your Royal Highness will excuse me," said Admiral Hingeston, "I think I'd better remain on board. You see, we may have been sighted, and if there are any of those Flying Fishes about you naturally wouldn't want this place blown to ruins; so, while you are having your talk, I reckon I'll get up a few hundred feet, and be back, say, in half an hour."
"Very well," said the Duke. "That's very kind of you. Your ship certainly looks a fairly capable protector. By the way, what is the range of those guns of yours? I must say they have a very business-like look about them."
"Six thousand yards point blank, your Royal Highness," replied the Admiral, "and, according to elevation, anything up to fifteen miles; suppose, for instance, that we were shooting at a town. In fact, if we were not under orders from His Majesty to fly the flag of truce I would guarantee to have all the Allied positions wrecked by to-morrow morning with this one ship. As you will see from the papers which Mr Parmenter and Mr Lennard have brought, nineteen other airships are coming south to-night and, unless the German Emperor and his Allies give in, the war will be over in about six days."
"And when you come back to dinner to-night, Admiral Hingeston, you will have my orders to bring it to an end within that time."
"I sincerely hope so sir," replied Admiral Hingeston, as he raised his right hand to the peak of his cap. "I can assure you, that nothing would please me better."
As the lifting-fans began to spin round and the Auriole rose from the gravelled courtyard, Lord Kitchener looked up with a twinkle in his brilliant blue eyes and said:
"I wonder what His Majesty of Germany will think of that thing when he sees it. I suppose that means the end of fighting on land and sea at least, it looks like it."
"I hope to be able to convince your lordship that it does before to-morrow morning," said Lennard, as they went towards the dining-room.
Then came half an hour's hard work, which resulted in the allotment of the aërial fleet to positions from which the vessels could co-operate with the constantly increasing army of British citizen-soldiers who were now passing southward, eastward and westward, as fast as the crowded trains could carry them. Every position was worked out to half a mile. The details of the newly-created fleet in British waters and of those ships which were arriving from the West Indies and the Mediterranean were all settled, and, as the clock in the drawing-room chimed half-past eleven, the Auriole swung down in a spiral curve round the chimney-pots and came to rest on the gravel.
"There she is; time's up!" said Lord Kitchener, rising from his seat. "I suppose it will only take us half an hour or so to run down to Aldershot. I wonder what His Majesty of Germany will say to us this time. I suppose if he kicks seriously we have your Royal Highness's permission to haul down the flag of truce?"
"Certainly," replied the Duke. "If he does that, of course, you will just use your own discretion."
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