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A Parley At Aldershot







From: The World Peril Of 1910

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
anyrate 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 aerial 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.





Next: The Verdict Of Science

Previous: The Auriole Hoists The White Ensign



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