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A Vigil In The Night

From: The World Peril Of 1910

Although Lennard had always recognised the possibility of such a
catastrophe as that which John Castellan threatened, and had even taken
such precautions as he could to prevent it, still this direct menace,
coming straight from the man himself, brought the danger home to him in
a peculiarly personal way.

The look which had passed between them as they were swimming their race
in Clifden Bay had just as much meaning for him as for the man who now
not openly professed himself his rival, but who threatened to proceed to
the last extremities in order to gain possession of the girl they both
loved. It was impossible for him not to believe that the man who had
been capable of such cold-blooded atrocities as he had perpetrated at
Portsmouth, London and other places, would hesitate for a moment in
carrying out such a threat, and if he did--No, the alternative was quite
too horrible to think of yet.

One thing, however, was absolutely certain. Although no word of love had
passed between Auriole and himself since the night when he had shown her
the comet and described the possible doom of the world to her, she had
in a hundred ways made it plain to him that she was perfectly well aware
that he loved her and that she did not resent it--and he knew quite
enough of human nature to be well aware that when a woman allows herself
to be loved by a man with whom she is in daily and hourly contact, she
is already half won; and from this it followed, according to his exact
mathematical reasoning, that, whatever the consequences, her reply to
John Castellan's letter would be in the negative, and equally, of
course, so would her father's be.

"I wonder what the Kaiser's Admiral of the Air would think if he knew
how matters really stand," he said to himself as he read the letter
through for a second time. "Quite certain of doing what he threatens, is
he? I'm not. Still, after all, I suppose I mustn't blame him too much,
for wasn't I in just the same mind myself once--to save the world if she
would make it heaven for me, to--well--turn it into the other place if
she wouldn't. But she very soon cured me of that madness.

"I wonder if she could cure this scoundrel if she condescended to try,
which I am pretty certain she would not. I wonder what she'll look like
when she reads this letter. I've never seen her angry yet, but I know
she would look magnificent. Well, I shall do nothing till Mr Parmenter
gets back. Still, it's a pity that I've got to gravitate between here
and Bolton for the next seven weeks. If I wasn't, I'd ask him for one of
those airships and I'd hunt John Castellan through all the oceans of air
till I ran him down and smashed him and his ship too!"

At this moment the butler came to him and informed him that his dinner
was ready and to ask him what wine he would drink.

"Thank you, Simmons," he replied. "A pint of that excellent Burgundy of
yours, please. By the way, have the papers come yet?"

"Just arrived, sir," said Mr Simmons, making the simple announcement
with all the dignity due to the butler to a millionaire.

He went at once into the dining-room and opened the second edition of

the Times, which was sent every day to Settle by train and thence by
motor-car to Whernside House.

Of course he turned first to the "Latest Intelligence" column. It was
headed, as he half expected it to be, "The Great Turning Movement: The
Enemy in Possession of Aldershot and advancing on Reading."

The account itself was one of those admirable combinations of brevity
and impartiality for which the leading journal of the world has always
been distinguished. What Lennard read ran as follows:

"Four months have now passed since the invading forces of the Allies,
after destroying the fortifications of Portsmouth and Dover by means
never yet employed in warfare, set foot on English soil. There have been
four months of almost incessant fighting, of heroic defence and
dearly-bought victory, but, although it is not too much to say in sober
language that the defending troops, regulars, militia, yeomanry and
volunteers, have accomplished what have seemed to be something like
miracles of valour and devotion, the tide of conquest has nevertheless
flowed steadily towards London.

"Considering the unanimous devotion with which the citizens of this
country, English, Scotch, Irish and Welsh, have taken up arms for the
defence of their Motherland, there can be no doubt but that, if the war
had been fought under ordinary conditions, the tide of invasion would by
this time have been rolled back to our coasts in spite of the admitted
superiority of the invaders in the technical operations of warfare, and
their enormous advantage in numbers to begin with. But the British
forces have had to fight under conditions which have never before been
known in warfare. Their enemies have not been only those of the land and
sea: they have had to fight foes capable of raining destruction upon
them from the air as well, and it may well be believed that the leaders
of the invading hosts would be the first to admit that without this
enormous advantage not even the progress that they have so far made
would have been possible.

"The glories of Albuera and Waterloo, of Inkermann and Balaklava, have
over and over again been eclipsed by the whole-souled devotion of the
British soldiery, fighting, as no doubt every man of them believes, with
their backs to the wall, not for ultimate victory perhaps but for the
preservation of those splendid traditions which have been maintained
untarnished for over a thousand years. It is no exaggeration to say that
of all the wars in the history of mankind this has been the deadliest
and the bloodiest. Never, perhaps, has so tremendous an attack been
delivered, and never has such an attack been met by so determined a
resistance. Still, having due regard to the information at our disposal,
it would be vain to deny that, tremendous as the cost must have been,
the victory so far lies with the invaders.

"After a battle which has lasted almost continuously for a fortnight; a
struggle in which battalion after battalion has fought itself to a
standstill and the last limits of human endurance have been reached, the
fact remains that the enemy have occupied the whole line of the North
Downs, Aldershot has ceased to be a British military camp, and is now
occupied by the legions of Germany, France and Austria.

"Russia, in spite of the disastrous defeat of the united German and
Russian expedition against Sheerness, Tilbury and Woolwich, is now
preparing a force for an attack on Harwich which, if it is not defeated
by the same means as that upon the Thames was defeated by, will have
what we may frankly call the deplorable effect of diverting a large
proportion of the defenders of London from the south to the north, and
this, unless some other force, at present unheard of, is brought into
play in aid of the defenders, can only result in the closing of the
attack round London--and after that must come the deluge.

"That this is part of a general plan of operations appears to be quite
clear from the desperate efforts which the French, German and Austrian
troops are making to turn the position of General French at Reading, to
outflank the British left which is resting on the hills beyond
Faversham, and, having thus got astride the Thames, occupy the
semicircle of the Chiltern Hills and so place the whole Thames valley
east of Reading at their mercy.

"In consequence of the ease with which the enemy's airships have
destroyed both telegraphic and railway communication, no definite
details are at present to hand. It is only known that since the attack
on Aldershot the fighting has not only been on a colossal scale, but
also of the most sanguinary description, with the advantage slowly but
surely turning in favour of the invaders. Such news as reaches us comes
entirely by despatch rider and aerogram. We greatly regret to learn,
through the former source, that yesterday evening Lord Westerham, the
last of the six special Service officers attached to General French's
staff, was either killed or captured in a gallant attempt to carry
despatches containing an accurate account of the situation up to date
from Reading to Windsor, whence it was to be transmitted by the
underground telephone cable to His Majesty at Buckingham Palace."

"That reads pretty bad," said Lennard, when Mr Simmons had left the
room, "especially Westerham being killed or taken prisoner; I don't like
that at all. I wish we'd been able to collar His Majesty of Germany on
that trip to Canterbury as Lord Kitchener suggested, and put him on
board the Ithuriel. He'd have made a very excellent hostage in a case
like this. I must say that, altogether, affairs do not look very
promising, and we've still two months all but a day or two. Well, if Mr
Parmenter doesn't get across with his aerial fleet pretty soon, I shall
certainly take steps to convince him and his Allies, who are fighting
for a few islands when the whole world is in peril, that my ultimatum
was anything but the joke he seemed to take it for."

He finished his wine, drank a cup of coffee and smoked a meditative
cigar in the library, and then went up to the observatory.

It was a lovely night from his point of view; clear, cool and almost
cloudless. The young moon was just rising to the eastward, and as he
looked up at that portion of the south-western sky from which the
Celestial Invader was approaching he could almost persuade himself that
he saw a dim ghostly shape of the Spectre from Space.

But when he got to the telescope the Spectre was no longer there. The
field of the great reflector was blank, save for the few far-away
star-mists, and here and there a dimly-distant star, already familiar to
him through many nights of watching.

What had happened? Had some catastrophe occurred in the outer realms of
Space in which some other world had been involved in fiery ruin, or had
the comet been dragged away from its orbit by the attraction of one of
those dead suns, those derelicts of Creation which, dark and silent,
drift for age after age through the trackless ocean of Immensity?

There was no cooler-headed man alive than Gilbert Lennard when it came
to a matter of his own profession and yet the world did not hold a more
frightened man than he was when he went to re-adjust the machinery which
regulated the movement of the great telescope, and so began his search
for the lost comet all over again. One thing only was certain--that the
slightest swerve from its course might make the comet harmless and send
it flying through Space millions of miles away from the earth, or bring
the threatening catastrophe nearer by an unknown number of days and
hours. And that was the problem, here, alone, and in the silence of the
night, he had to solve. The great gun at Bolton and the other at
Pittsburg might by this time be useless, or, worse still, they might not
be ready in time.

It was curious that, even face to face with such a terrific crisis, he
had enough human vanity left to shape a half regret that his
calculations would almost certainly be falsified.

That, however, was only the sensation of a moment. He ran rapidly over
his previous calculations, did about fifteen minutes very hard
thinking, and in thirty more he had found the comet. There it was: a few
degrees more to the northward, and more inclined to the plane of the
earth's orbit; brighter, and therefore nearer; and now the question was,
by how much?

Confronted with this problem, the man and the lover disappeared, and
only the mathematician and the calculating machine remained. He made his
notes and went to his desk. The next three hours passed without any
consciousness of existence save the slow ticking of the astronomical
clock which governed the mechanism of the telescope. The rest was merely
figures and formulae, which might amount to the death-sentence of the
human race or to an indefinite reprieve.

When he got up from his desk he had learnt that the time in which it
might be possible to save humanity from a still impending fate had been
shortened by twelve days, and that the contact of the comet with the
earth's atmosphere would take place precisely at twelve o'clock,
midnight, on the thirtieth of April.

Then he went back to the telescope and picked up the comet again. Just
as he had got its ominous shape into the centre of the field a score of
other shapes drifted swiftly across it, infinitely vaster--huge winged
forms, apparently heading straight for the end of the telescope, and
only two or three yards away.

His nerves were not perhaps as steady as they would have been without
the shock which he had already received, and he shrank back from the
eye-piece as though to avoid a coming blow. Then he got up from his
chair and laughed.

"What an ass I am! That's Mr Parmenter's fleet; but what monsters they
do look through a telescope like this!"

Next: Mr Parmenter Returns

Previous: John Castellan's Threat

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