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Concerning Astronomy And Oysters







From: The World Peril Of 1910

In spite of the bold front that he had assumed during the interview, the
strain, not exactly of superstition but rather of supernaturalism which
runs so strongly in the Kaiser's family, made it impossible for him to
treat such a tremendous threat as the destruction of the world as an
alternative to universal peace by any means as lightly as he appeared to
his visitors to do; and when the audience was over he picked up the
envelope which Lennard had left upon the table, beckoned Count von
Moltke into his room behind, locked the door, and said:

"Now, Count, what is your opinion of this? At first sight it looks
ridiculous; but whoever this Lennard may be, it seems hardly likely that
two men like Lord Whittinghame and Lord Kitchener, two of the
coolest-headed and best-balanced men on earth, should take the trouble
to come down here as a deputation from the British Cabinet only to make
themselves ridiculous. Suppose we have a look at these papers?
Everything is in train for the advance. I daresay you and I understand
enough of mathematics between us to find out if there is anything
serious in them, and if so, they shall go to Herr Doellinger at once."

"I think it would be at least worth while to look through them, your
Majesty," replied the Count. "Like yourself, I find it rather difficult
to believe that this mysterious Mr Lennard, whoever he is, has been able
to impose upon the whole British Cabinet, to say nothing of Lord
Kitchener, who is about the best engineer and mathematician in the
British Army."

So the Count and the Kaiser sat down, and went through the elaborate and
yet beautifully clear calculations and diagrams, page by page, each
making notes as he went on. At the end of an hour the Kaiser looked over
his own notes, and said to von Moltke:

"Well, what is your opinion, Count?"

"I am not an astronomer, your Majesty, but these calculations certainly
appear to me to be correct as far as they go--that is, granted always
that the premisses from which Mr Lennard starts are correct. But
certainly I think that your Majesty will be wise in sending them as soon
as possible to Herr Doellinger."

"That is exactly the conclusion that I have come to myself," replied the
Kaiser. "I will write a note to Herr Doellinger, and one of the airships
must take it across to Potsdam. We can't afford to run any risks of that
infernal submarine ram or whatever she is. I would almost give an Army
corps for that ship. There's no doubt she's lost us three fleets, a
score of transports, and twenty thousand men in the last three days, and
she's just as much a mystery as ever. It's the most extraordinary
position a conquering army was ever put into before."

The Kaiser was perfectly right. There could be no doubt that up to the
present the invading forces had been victorious, thanks of course mainly
to the irresistible advantage of the airships, but also in no small
degree to the hopeless unpreparedness of the British home armies to meet
an invasion, which both military and naval experts had simply refused to
believe possible.

The seizure of the line from Dover to Chatham had been accomplished in a
single night. A dozen airships patrolled the air ahead of the advancing
German forces, which of course far outnumbered the weak and
hastily-collected British forces which could be brought against them,
and which, attacked at once by land and from the air, never really had a
chance.

It was the most perfectly conducted invasion ever planned. The
construction trains which went in advance on both lines carried sections
of metals of English gauge, already fastened to sleepers, and ready to
lay down. Every little bridge and culvert had been known and was
provided for. Not a bolt nor a fishplate had been forgotten, and
moreover John Castellan's operations from the air had reduced the
destruction to a minimum, and the consequence was that twelve hours
after the Kaiser had landed at Dover he found himself in his
headquarters at Canterbury, whence the British garrison had been forced
to retire after heavy fighting along the lines of wooded hills behind
Maidstone.

It was the old, old story, the story of every war that England had gone
into and "muddled through" somehow; but with two differences. Her
soldiers had never had to fight an enemy in the skies before, and--there
was no time now to straighten out the muddle, even if every able-bodied
man in the United Kingdom had been trained soldiers, as the invaders
were.

But there was another element in the situation. Incredible as it might
seem to those ignorant of the tremendous forces brought into play, the
home fleets of Europe had been destroyed, practically to a ship, within
three days and nights. The narrow seas were deserted. On the morning of
the seventeenth, four transports attempting to cross from Hamburg to
Ramsgate, carrying a force of men, horses and light artillery, which was
intended to operate as a flying column along the northern shores of
Kent, had been rammed and sent to the bottom within fifteen minutes half
way between land and land, and not a man nor an animal had escaped.

There was no news from the expeditions which had been sent against Hull
and Newcastle--all the cables had been cut, save the transatlantic
lines, the cutting of which the United States had already declared they
would consider as an unfriendly act on the part of the Allies, and the
British cable from Gibraltar to the Lizard which connected with Palermo
and Rome, and so formed the link of communication between Britain and
the Mediterranean.

The British Mediterranean Fleet was coming home, so were the West Indian
and North American squadrons, while the squadron in the China seas was
also ordered home, via the Suez Canal, to form a conjunction with our
Italian Allies. Of course, these ships would in due time be dealt with
by the aerial submarines, but meanwhile commerce with Europe had become
impossible. Imports had stopped at most of the great ports through sheer
terror of this demon of the sea, which appeared to be here, there and
everywhere at the same time; and with all these powerful squadrons
converging upon the shores of Britain the problem of feeding and
generally keeping fit for war some three millions of men and over half a
million horses would soon begin to look distinctly serious.

Castellan's vessels had hunted in vain for this solitary vessel, which
single-handed, marvellous as it seemed, kept the narrow waters clear of
invaders. The truth of this matter, however, was very simple. The
Ithuriel was nearly twice as fast in the water as the Flying Fishes,
and she carried guns with an effective range of five miles, whereas they
only carried torpedoes.

For instance, during the battle of Sheerness, in which the remaining
units of the North Sea Squadron had, with the Ithuriel's aid, attacked
and destroyed every German and Russian battleship and transport,
Erskine's craft had done terrible execution without so much as being
seen until, when the last of the German Coast Defence ships had gone
down with all hands in the Great Nore, off the Nore lighthouse, whence
she was shelling Garrison Fort, the Ithuriel had risen above the water
for a few moments, and Denis Castellan had taken a cockshot with the
three forward guns at a couple of Flying Fishes that were circling
over the town and fort and river mouth.

The shells had time-fuses, and they were timed to the tenth of a
second. They burst simultaneously over the airships. Then came a rending
of the atmosphere, and descending streams of fire, which burst with a
rapid succession of sharp reports as they touched the airships. Then
came another blaze of light which seemed to darken the wintry sun for a
moment, and then another quaking of the air, after which what was left
of the two Flying Fishes fell in little fragments into the water,
splashing here and there as though they had been shingle ballast thrown
out of a balloon.

True, Garrison Fort had been blown up by the aerial torpedoes, and the
same fate was befalling the great forts at Tilbury, but their gallant
defenders did not die in vain, and, although the remainder of the aerial
squadron were able to go on and do their work of destruction on London,
whither the Ithuriel could not follow them, the wrecks of six
battleships, a dozen destroyers and ten transports strewed the
approaches to the Thames and the Medway, while nearly thirty thousand
soldiers and sailors would never salute the flag of Czar or Kaiser
again.

In all the history of war no such loss of men, ships and material had
ever taken place within the short space of three days and a few hours.
Four great fleets and nearly a hundred thousand men had been wiped out
of existence since the assault on Southern England had begun, and even
now, despite the airships, had the millions of Britain's able-bodied
men, who were grinding their teeth and clenching their fists in impotent
fury, been trained just to shoot and march, it would have been possible
to take the invaders between overwhelming masses of men--who would hold
their lives as nothing in comparison with their country's honour--and
the now impassable sea, and drive them back into it. But although men
and youths went in their tens of thousands to the recruiting stations
and demanded to be enlisted, it was no use. Soldiers are not made in a
day or a week, and the invaders of England had been making them for
forty years.

While the Kaiser and Count von Moltke were going through Lennard's
papers, and coming to the decision to send them to Potsdam, Lord
Whittinghame's motor, instead of returning to Chatham, was running up to
Whitstable to answer the telegram which Lennard had received at
Rochester. The German flag cleared them out of Canterbury. It was
already known that they had been received by the Kaiser, and therefore
their persons were sacred. In consequence of the loss of the squadron
attacking the Thames and Medway, and the destruction of the Ramsgate
flotilla, the country was not occupied by the enemy north of the great
main road through Canterbury and Faversham, and that was just why the
Ithuriel was lying snugly in the mouth of the East Swale River, about
three miles from the little town, with a shabby-looking lighter beside
her, from which she was taking in an extra complement of her own shells
and material for making Lennard's explosive, as well as a full load of
fuel for her engines. They pulled up at the door of the Bear and Key
Hotel, and as the motor came to a standstill a man dressed in the
costume of an ordinary worker on the oyster-beds came up, touched his
sou'wester, and said:

"Mr Lennard's car, gentlemen?"

"Yes, I'm here," said Lennard, shortly; "we've just left the Emperor at
Canterbury. How about those oysters? I should think you ought to do well
with them in Canterbury. Got plenty?"

"Yes, sir," replied the man. "If you will come down to the wharf I will
be able to show you a shipment that I can send along to-night if the
train comes from Canterbury."

"I think we might as well have a drop of something hot first, it's
rather cold riding."

The others nodded, and they went into the hotel without removing their
caps or goggles. They asked a waiter to show them into a private room,
as they had some business to do, and when four glasses of hot whisky and
water had been put on the table, Lennard locked the door and said:

"My lords, allow me to have the pleasure of introducing to you
Lieutenant Denis Castellan of His Majesty's cruiser Ithuriel."

Lord Whittinghame's and Lord Kitchener's hands went out together, and
the former said:

"Delighted to meet you, Mr Castellan. You and Captain Erskine have done
magnificently for us in spite of all our troubles. In fact, I don't know
what we should have done without you and this wonderful craft of yours."

"With all due deference to the Naval Council," said "K. of K," rather
bluntly, "it's a pity they didn't put down a dozen of her. But what
about these oysters that you telegraphed to Mr Lennard about?"

"There is only one oyster in question at present, my lord," said Denis,
with an entirely Irish smile, "but it's rather a big one. It's the
German Emperor's yacht, the Hohenzollern. She managed to run across,
and get into Ramsgate, while we were up here in the Thames--that's the
worst of there being only one of us, as we can only attend to one piece
of business at a time. Now, she's lying there waiting the Kaiser's
orders, in case he wants to take a trip across, and it seems to me that
she'd be worth the watching for a day or two--she'd be a big prize, you
know, gentlemen, especially if we could catch her with the War Lord of
Germany on board her. I don't think myself that His Majesty would have
any great taste for a trip to the bottom of the North Sea, just when he
thinks he's beginning the conquest of England so nicely, and, by the
Powers, we'd send him there if he got into one of his awkward tempers
with us."

Lord Kitchener, who was in England acting as Chief-of-the-Staff to the
Duke of Connaught, and general adviser to the Council of National
Defence, took Lord Whittinghame to the other end of the room, and said
a few words to him in a low tone, and he came back and said:

"It is certainly worth trying, even if you can only catch the ship; but
we don't think you'll catch the Kaiser. The fact is, you seem to have
established such a holy terror in these waters that I don't think he
would trust his Imperial person between here and Germany. If he did go
across, he'd probably go in an airship. But if you can bring the
Hohenzollern up to Tilbury--of course, under the German flag--I think
we shall be able to make good use of her. If she won't come, sink her."

"Very good, my lords," said Denis, saluting. "If she's not coming up the
Thames to-morrow night with the Ithuriel under her stern, ye'll know
that she's on the bottom in pieces somewhere. And now," he continued,
taking a long envelope from an inner pocket, "here is the full report of
our doings since the war began, with return of ships sunk, crippled and
escaped; number of men landed, and so on, according to instructions. We
will report again to-morrow night, I hope, with the Hohenzollern."

They shook hands and wished him good-night and good luck, and in half an
hour the Ithuriel was running half-submerged eastward along the coast,
and the motor was on its way to Faversham by the northern road, as there
were certain reasons why it should not go back through Canterbury.





Next: The Lion Wakes

Previous: Lennard's Ultimatum



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