THE LAST FIGHT
IT so happened that on the first night the German Emperor saw the comet without the aid of a telescope he was attacked by one of those fits of hysteria which, according to ancient legend, are the hereditary curse of the House of Brandenburg. He had made possible that which had been impossible for over a thousand years he had invaded England in force, and he had established himself and his Allies in all the greatest fortress-camps of south-eastern England. After all, the story of the comet might be a freak of the scientific imagination; there might be some undetected error in the calculations. One great mistake had been made already, either by the comet or its discoverer why not another?
"No," he said to himself, as he stood in front of the headquarters at Aldershot looking up at the comet, "we've heard about you before, my friend. Astronomers and other people have prophesied a dozen times that you or something like you were going to bring about the end of the world, but somehow it never came off; whereas it is pretty certain that the capture of London will come off if it is only properly managed. At any rate, I am inclined to back my chances of taking London against yours of destroying it."
And so he made his decision. He sent a telegram to Dover ordering an aerogram to be sent to John Castellan, whose address was now, of course, anywhere in the air or sea; the message was to be repeated from all the Continental stations until he was found. It contained the first capitulation that the War Lord of Germany had ever made. He accepted the terms of his Admiral of the Air and asked him to bring his fleet the following day to assist in a general assault on London London once taken, John Castellan could have the free hand that he had asked for.
In twelve hours a reply came back from the Jotunheim in Norway. Meanwhile, the Kaiser, as Generalissimo of the Allied Forces, telegraphed orders to all the commanders of army corps in England to prepare for a final assault on the positions commanding London within twenty-four hours. At the same time he sent telegraphic orders to all the centres of mobilisation in Europe, ordering the advance of all possible reinforcements with the least delay. It was his will that four million men should march on London that week, and, in spite of the protests of the Emperor of Austria and the Tsar, his will was obeyed.
So the truce was broken and the millions advanced, as it were over the brink of Eternity, towards London. But the reinforcements never came. Every transport that steamed out of Bremen, Hamburg, Kiel, Antwerp, Brest or Calais, vanished into the waters; for now the whole squadron of twelve Ithuriels had been launched and had got to work, and the British fleets from the Mediterranean, the China Seas and the North Atlantic, had once more asserted Britain's supremacy on the seas. In addition to these, ten first-class battleships, twelve first and fifteen second-class cruisers and fifty destroyers had been turned out by the Home yards, and so the British Islands were once more ringed with an unbreakable wall of steel. One invasion had been accomplished, but now no other was possible. The French Government absolutely refused to send any more men. The Italian armies had crossed the Alps at three points, and every soldier left in France was wanted to defend her own fortresses and cities from the attack of the invader.
But, despite all this, the War Lord held to his purpose; and that night the last battle ever fought between civilised nations began, and when the sun rose on the sixteenth of April, its rays lit up what was probably the most awful scene of carnage that human eyes had ever looked upon. The battle-line of the invaders had extended from Sheerness to Reading in a sort of irregular semicircle, and it was estimated afterwards that not less than a million and a half of killed and wounded men, fifty thousand horses and hundreds of disabled batteries of light and heavy artillery strewed the long line of defeat and conquest.
The British aerial fleet of twenty ships had made victory for the defenders a practical certainty. As Admiral Hingeston had told the Tsar, they could both out-fly and out-shoot the Flying Fishes. This they did and more. The moment that a battery got into position half a dozen searchlights were concentrated on it. Then came a hail of shells, and a series of explosions which smashed the guns to fragments and killed every living thing within a radius of a hundred yards. Infantry and cavalry shared the same fate the moment that any formation was made for an attack on the British positions; the storm of fire was made ten-fold more terrible by the unceasing bombardment. from the air; and the brilliant glow of the searchlights thrown down from a height of a thousand feet or so along the lines of the attacking forces made the work of the defenders comparatively easy, for the man in a fight who can see and is not seen is worth several who are seen and yet fight in the dark.
But the assailants were exposed to an even more deadly danger than artillery or rifle fire. The catastrophe which had overwhelmed the British Fleet in Dover Harbour was repeated with ten-fold effect; but this time the tables were turned. The British aerial fleet hunted the Flying Fishes as hawks hunt partridges, and whenever one of them was found over a hostile position a shell from the silent, flameless guns hit her, and down she went to explode like a volcano amongst masses of cavalry, infantry and artillery, and of this utter panic was the only natural result.
Eleven out of the twelve Flying Fishes were thus accounted for. What had become of the twelfth no one knew. It might have been partially crippled and fallen far away from the great battlefield; or it might have turned tail and escaped, and in this case it was a practical certainty, at least in Lennard's mind, that it was John Castellan's own vessel and that he, seeing that the battle was lost, had taken her away to some unknown spot in order to fulfil the threat contained in his letter, and for this reason five of the British airships were at once despatched to mount guard over the great cannon at Bolton.
The defeat of the Allies both by land and sea, though accomplished at the eleventh hour of the world's threatened fate, had been so complete and crushing, and the death-total had reached such a ghastly figure, that Austria, Russia and France flatly refused to continue the Alliance. After all the tremendous sacrifice that had been made in men, money and material they had not even reached London. From their outposts on the Surrey hills they could see the vast city, silent and apparently sleeping under its canopy of hazy clouds, but that was all. It was still as distant from them as the poles; and so the Allies looked upon it and then upon their dead, and admitted, by their silence if not by their words, that Britain the Unconquered was unconquerable still.
The German Emperor's fit had passed. Even he was appalled when upon that memorable morning he received the joint note of his three Allies and learnt the awful cost of that one night's fighting.
Just as he was countersigning the Note of Capitulation in the headquarters at Aldershot, the Auriole swung round from the northward and descended on to the turf flying the flag of truce. He saw it through the window, got up, put his right hand on the butt of the revolver in his hip-pocket, thought hard for one fateful moment, then took it away and went out.
At the gate he met Lord Kitchener; they exchanged salutes and shook hands, and the Kaiser said:
"Well, my lord, what are the terms?"
K. of K. laughed, simply because he couldn't help it. The absolute hard business of the question went straight to the heart of the best business man in the British Army.
"I am not here to make or accept terms, your Majesty," he said. "I am only the bearer of a message, and here it is."
Then he handed the Kaiser an envelope bearing the Royal Arms.
"I am instructed to take your reply back as soon as possible," he continued. Then he saluted again and walked away towards the Auriole.
The Kaiser opened the envelope and read an invitation to lunch from his uncle, Edward of England, and a request to bring his august colleagues with him to talk matters over. There was no hint of battle, victory or defeat. It was a quite commonplace letter, but all the same it was one of those triumphs of diplomacy which only the first diplomatist in Europe knew how to achieve. Then he too laughed as he folded up the letter and went to Lord Kitchener and said:
"This is only an invitation to lunch, and you have told me you are not here to propose or take terms. That, of course, was official, but personally"
K. of K. stiffened up, and a harder glint came into his eyes.
"I can say nothing personally, your Majesty, except to ask you to remember my reply to Cronje."
The Kaiser remembered that reply of three words, "Surrender, or fight," and he knew that he could not fight, save under a penalty of utter destruction. He went back into his room, brought back the joint note which he had just received, and gave it to Lord Kitchener, just as it was, without even putting it into an envelope, saying:
"That is our answer. We are beaten, and those who lose must pay."
Lord Kitchener looked over the note and said, in a somewhat dry tone:
"This, your Majesty, I read as absolute surrender."
"It is," said William the Second his hand instinctively going to the hilt of his sword. Lord Kitchener shook his head, and said very quietly and pleasantly:
"No, your Majesty, not that. But," he said, looking up at the four flags which were still flying above the headquarters, "I should be obliged if you would give orders to haul those down and hoist the Jack instead."
There was no help for it, and no one knew better than the Kaiser the strength there was behind those quietly-spoken words. The awful lesson of the night before had taught him that this beautiful cruiser of the air which lay within a few yards of him could in a few moments rise into the air and scatter indiscriminate, death and destruction around her, and so the flags came down, the old Jack once more went up, and Aldershot was English ground again.
Wherefore, not to enter into unnecessary details, the Auriole, instead of making the place a wilderness as Lord Kitchener had quite determined to do, became an aerial pleasure yacht. Orderlies were sent to the Russian, Austrian and French headquarters, and an hour later the chiefs of the Allies were sitting in the deck saloon of the airship, flying at about sixty miles an hour towards London.
The lunch at Buckingham Palace was an entirely friendly affair. King Edward had intended it to be a sort of international shake-hands all round. The King of Italy was present, as the Columbia had been despatched early in the morning to bring him from Rome, and had picked up the French President on the way back at Paris. The King gave the first and only toast, and that was:
"Your Majesties and Monsieur le President, in the name of Humanity, I ask you to drink to Peace."
They drank, and so ended the last war that was ever fought on British soil.