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A PARLEY AT ALDERSHOT
LORD KITCHENER had probably never had so bitter an experience as he had when the Auriole began to slow down over the plain of Aldershot. Never could he, or any other British soldier, have dreamt six months ago that the German, Austrian, French and Russian flags would have been seen flying side by side over the headquarters of the great camp, or that the vast rolling plains would be covered, as they were now, by hosts of horse, foot and artillery belonging to hostile nations.
He did not say anything, neither did the others; it was a time for thinking rather than talking; but he looked, and as Lennard watched his almost expressionless face and the angrily-glittering blue eyes, he felt that it would go ill with an enemy whom K. of K. should have at his mercy that day.
But all the bitterness of feeling was by no means on one side. It so happened that the three Imperial leaders of the invaders and General Henriot, the French Commander-in-Chief, were holding a Council of War at the time when the Auriole made her appearance. Of course, her arrival was instantly reported, and as a matter of fact the drilling came to a sudden momentary stop at the sight of this amazing apparition. The three monarchs and the great commander immediately went outside, and within a few moments they were four of the angriest men in England. A single glance, even at that distance, was enough to convince them that, at any rate in the air, the Flying Fishes would be no match for an equal or even an inferior number of such magnificent craft as this.
"God's thunder!" exclaimed the Kaiser, using his usual expletive. "She's flying the White Ensign and an admiral's pennant, and, yes, a flag of truce."
"Yes," said the Tsar, lowering his glasses, "that is so. What has happened? I certainly don't like the look of her; she's an altogether too magnificent craft from our point of view. In fact it would be decidedly awkward if the English happened to have a fleet of them. They would be terribly effective acting in co-operation with that submarine ram. Let us hope that she has come on a message of peace."
"I understood, your Majesty," said the Kaiser, shortly, "that we had agreed to make peace at Windsor, and nowhere else."
"Of course, I hope we shall do so," said the Tsar, "but considering our numbers, and the help we have had from Mr Castellan's fleet, I'm afraid we are rather a long time getting there, and we shall be longer still if the British have any considerable number of ships like this one."
"Airships or no airships," replied William the Second, "whatever message this ship is bringing, I will listen to nothing but surrender while I have an Army Corps on English soil. They must be almost beaten by this time; they can't have any more men to put in the field, while we have millions. To go back now that we have got so far would be worse than defeat it would be disaster. Of course, your Majesty can have no more delusions than I have on that subject."
A conversation on almost similar terms had been taking place meanwhile between the Emperor of Austria and General Henriot. Then the Auriole, after describing a splendid curve round the headquarters, dropped as quietly as a bird on the lawn in front the gangway ladder fell over along the side, and Lord Kitchener, in the parade uniform of a general, descended and saluted the four commanders.
"Good-morning, your Majesties. Good-morning, General Henriot."
"I see that your lordship has come as bearer of the flag of truce this time," said the Kaiser, when salutes had been exchanged, "and I trust that in the interests of humanity you have come also with proposals which may enable us to put an honourable end to this terrible conflict, and I am sure that my Imperial brothers and the great Republic which General Henriot represents will be only too happy to accede to them."
The others nodded in approval, but said nothing, as it had been more or less reluctantly agreed by them that the War Lord of Germany was to be the actual head and Commander-in-Chief of the Allies. K. of K. looked at him straight in the eyes not a muscle of his face moved, and from under his heavy moustache there came in the gentlest of voices the astounding words:
"Yes, I have come from His Majesty King Edward with proposals of surrender that is to say, for your surrender, and that of all the Allied Forces now on British soil."
William the Second literally jumped, and his distinguished colleagues stared at him and each other in blank amazement. By this time Lennard had come down the gangway ladder, and was standing beside Lord Kitchener. Mr Parmenter and the latest addition to the British Naval List were strolling up and down the deck of the Auriole smoking cigars and chatting as though this sort of thing happened every day.
"I see that your Majesty hardly takes me seriously," said Lord Kitchener, still in the same quiet voice, "but if your Majesties will do Mr Lennard and myself the favour of an interview in one of the rooms here, which used to belong to me, I think we shall be able to convince you that we have the best of reasons for being serious."
"Ah, yes Mr Lennard," replied the Kaiser, looking at him with just a suspicion of anxiety in his glance. "Good-morning. Have you come to tell us something more about this wonderful comet of yours? It seems to me some time making itself visible."
"It is visible every night now, your Majesty," said Lennard; "that is, if you know where to look for it."
"Ah, that sounds interesting," said the Tsar, moving towards the door. "Suppose we go back into the Council Room and hear something about it."
As they went in the Auriole rose from the ground, and began making a series of slow, graceful curves over the two camps at the height of about a thousand feet. Neither Mr Parmenter, nor his friend the Admiral, knew exactly how far the flag of truce would be respected, and, moreover, a little display of the Auriole's powers of flight might possibly help along negotiations, and, as a matter of fact, they did; for the sight of this huge fabric circling above them, with her long wicked-looking guns pointing in all directions, formed a spectacle which to the officers and men of the various regiments and battalions scattered about the vast plain was a good deal more interesting than it was pleasant. The Staff officers knew, too, that the strange craft possessed two very great advantages over the Flying Fishes she was much faster, and she could rise direct from the ground whereas the Fishes, like their namesakes, could only rise from the water. In short, it did not need a soldier's eye to see that all their stores and magazines, to say nothing of their own persons, were absolutely at the mercy of the British aërial flagship. The Flying Fishes were down in the Solent refitting and filling up with motive power and ammunition preparatory to the general advance on London.
As soon as they were seated in the Council Chamber it did not take Lord Kitchener and Lennard very long to convince their Majesties and General Henriot that they were very much in earnest about the matter of surrender. In fact, the only terms offered were immediate retirement behind the line of the North Downs, cessation of hostilities and surrender of the Flying Fishes, and all British subjects, including John Castellan, who might be on board them.
"The reason for that condition," said Lord Kitchener, "Mr Lennard will be able to make plain to your Majesties."
Then Lennard handed Castellan's letter to the Kaiser, and explained the change of calculations necessitated by the diversion of the planet from its orbit.
"That is not the letter of an honest fighting man. I am sure that your Majesties will agree with me in that. I may say that I have talked the matter over with Mr Parmenter and our answer is in the negative. This is not warfare; it is only abduction, possibly seasoned with murder, and we call those things crimes in England, and if such a crime were permitted by those in whose employment John Castellan presumably is, we should punish them as well as him."
"What!" exclaimed the Kaiser, clenching his fists, "do you, a civilian, an ordinary citizen, dare to say such words to us? Lord Kitchener, can you permit such an outrage as this?"
"The other outrage would be a much greater one, especially if it were committed with the tacit sanction of the three greatest Powers in Europe," replied K. of K., quietly. "That is one of our chief reasons for asking for the surrender of the Flying Fishes. There is no telling what harm this wild Irishman of yours might do if he got on the loose, not only here but perhaps in your own territories, if he were allowed to commit a crime like this, and then went, as he would have to do, into the outlaw business."
"I think that there is great justice in what Lord Kitchener says," remarked His Majesty of Austria. "We must not forget that if this man Castellan did run amok with any of those diabolical contrivances of his, he would be just as much above human law as he would be outside human reach. I must confess that that appears to me to be one of the most serious features in the situation. Your Majesties, as well as the French Government, are aware that I have been all along opposed to the use of these horrible engines of destruction, and now you see that their very existence seems to have called others into being which may be even more formidable."
"Mr Lennard can tell your Majesties more about that than I can," said K. of K., with one of his grimmest smiles.
"As far as the air is concerned," said Lennard, very quietly, "we can both out-fly and out-shoot the Flying Fishes; while as regards the water, eleven more Ithuriels will be launched during the week. We have twenty-five airships ready for action over land or sea, and for my own part, I think that if your Majesties knew all the details of the situation you would consider the terms which his lordship has put before you quite generous. But, after all," he continued, in a suddenly changed tone, "it seems, if you will excuse my saying so, rather childish to talk about terms of peace or war when the world itself has less than six weeks to live if John Castellan manages to carry out his threat."
"And you feel absolutely certain of that, Mr Lennard?" asked the Tsar, in a tone of very serious interest. "It seems rather singular that none of the other astronomers of Europe or America have discovered this terrible comet of yours."
"I have had the advantage of the finest telescope in the world, your Majesty," replied Lennard, with a smile, "and of course I have published no details. There was no point in creating a panic or getting laughed at before it was necessary. But now that the orbit has altered, and the catastrophe will come so much sooner, any further delay would be little short of criminal. In fact, we have to-day telegraphed to all the principal observatories in the world, giving exact positions for to-night, corrected to differences of time and latitude. We shall hear the verdict in the morning, and during to-morrow. Meanwhile we are going to Greenwich to get the observatory there to work on my calculations, and if your Majesties would care to appoint an officer of sufficient knowledge to come with us, and see the comet for himself, he will, I am sure, be quite welcome."
"A very good suggestion, Mr Lennard," said Lord Kitchener, "very."
"Then," replied the Tsar, quickly, "as astronomy has always been a great hobby with me, will you allow me to come? Of course, you have my word that I shall see nothing on the journey that you don't want me to see."
"We shall be delighted," said the British envoy, cordially, "and as for seeing things, you will be at perfect liberty to use your eyes as much as you like."
The Tsar's august colleagues entered fully into the sporting spirit in which he had made his proposal, and a verbal agreement to suspend all hostilities till his return was ratified in a glass of His Majesty of Austria's Imperial Tokay.
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