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The Last Fight







From: The World Peril Of 1910

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
anyrate, 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.




EPILOGUE

"AND ON EARTH, PEACE!"


On the morning of the thirtieth of April, the interest of the whole
world was centred generally upon Bolton, and particularly upon the
little spot of black earth enclosed by a ring of Bessemer furnaces in
the midst of which lay another ring, a ring of metal, the mouth of the
great cannon, whose one and only shot was to save or lose the world. At
a height of two thousand feet, twenty airships circled at varying
distances round the mouth of the gun, watching for the one Flying Fish
which had not been accounted for in the final fight.

The good town of Bolton itself was depopulated. For days past the comet
had been blazing brighter and brighter, even in the broad daylight, and
the reports which came pouring in every day from the observatories of
the world made it perfectly clear that Lennard's calculations would be
verified at midnight.

Mr Parmenter and his brother capitalists had guaranteed two millions
sterling as compensation for such destruction of property as might be
brought about by the discharge of the cannon, and, coupled with this
guarantee, was a request that everyone living within five miles of what
had been the Great Lever pit should leave, and this was authorised by a
Royal Proclamation. There was no confusion, because, when faced with
great issues, the Lancashire intellect does not become confused. It just
gets down to business and does it. So it came about that the people of
Bolton, rich and poor, millionaire and artisan, made during that
momentous week a general flitting, taking with them just such of their
possessions as would be most precious to them if the Fates permitted
them to witness the dawn of the first of May.

The weather, strangely enough, had been warm and sunny for the last
fortnight, despite the fact that the ever-brightening Invader from Space
gradually outshone the sun itself, and so on all the moors round Bolton
there sprang up a vast town of tents and ready-made bungalows from
Chorley round by Darwen to Bury. Thousands of people had come from all
parts of the kingdom to see the fate of the world decided. What was left
of the armies of the Allies were also brought up by train, and all the
British forces were there as well. They were all friends now for there
was no more need for fighting, since the events of the next few hours
would decide the fate of the human race.

As the sun set over the western moors a vast concourse of men and women,
representing almost every nationality on earth, watched the coming of
the Invader, brightening now with every second and over-arching the
firmament with its wide-spreading wings. There were no sceptics now. No
one could look upon that appalling Shape and not believe, and if
absolute confirmation of Lennard's prophecy had been wanted it would
have been found in the fact that the temperature began to rise after
sunset. That had never happened before within the memory of man.

The crowning height of the moors which make a semicircle to the
north-west of Bolton is Winter Hill, which stands about half-way between
Bolton and Chorley, and, roughly speaking, would make the centre of a
circle including Bolton, Wigan, Chorley and Blackburn. It rises to a
height of nearly fifteen hundred feet and dominates the surrounding
country for fully fifteen miles, and on the summit of this rugged,
heather-clad moor was pitched what might be called without exaggeration
the headquarters of the forces which were to do battle for humanity. A
huge marquee had been erected in an ancient quarry just below the
summit; from the centre pole of this flew the Royal Standard of England,
and from the other poles the standards of every civilised nation in the
world.

The front of the marquee opened to the south eastward, and by the
unearthly light of the comet the mill chimneys of Bolton, dominated by
the great stack of Dobson & Barlow's, could be seen pointing like black
fingers up to the approaching terror. In the centre of the opening were
two plain deal tables. There was an instrument on each of them, and from
these separate wires ran on two series of poles and buried themselves at
last in the heart of the charge of the great cannon. Beside the
instruments were two chronometers synchronised from Greenwich and
beating time together to the thousandth part of a second, counting out
what might perhaps be the last seconds of human life on earth.

Grouped about the two tables were the five sovereigns of Europe and the
President of the French Republic, and with them stood the greatest
soldiers, sailors and scientists, statesmen and diplomatists between
east and west.

On a long deck chair beside one of the tables lay Lord Westerham with
his left arm bound across his breast and looking little better than the
ghost of the man he had been a month ago. Beside him stood Lady Margaret
and Norah Castellan, and with them were the two men who had done so much

to change defeat into victory; the captain and lieutenant of the
ever-famous Ithuriel.

Never before had there been such a gathering of all sorts and conditions
of men on one spot of earth; but as the hours went on and dwindled into
minutes, all differences of rank and position became things of the past.
In the presence of that awful Shape which was now flaming across the
heavens, all men and women were equal, since by midnight all might be
reduced at the same instant to the same dust and ashes. The ghastly
orange-green glare shone down alike on the upturned face of monarch and
statesman, soldier and peasant, millionaire and pauper, the good and the
bad, the noble and the base, and tinged every face with its own ghastly
hue.

Five minutes to twelve!

There was a shaking of hands, but no words were spoken. Norah Castellan
stooped and kissed her wounded lover's brow, and then stood up and
clasped her hands behind her. Lennard went to one of the tables and
Auriole to the other.

Lennard had honestly kept the unspoken pact that had been made between
them in the observatory at Whernside. Neither word nor look of love had
passed his lips or lightened his eyes; and even now, as he stood beside
her, looking at her face, beautiful still even in that ghastly light,
his glance was as steady as if he had been looking through the eye-piece
of his telescope.

Auriole had her right forefinger already resting on a little white
button, ready at a touch to send the kindling spark into the mighty mass
of explosives which lay buried at the bottom of what had been the Great
Lever pit. Lennard also had his right forefinger on another button, but
his left hand was in his coat pocket and the other forefinger was on the
trigger of a loaded and cocked revolver. There were several other
revolvers in men's pockets--men who had sworn that their nearest and
dearest should be spared the last tortures of the death-agony of
humanity.

The chronometers began to tick off the seconds of the last minute. The
wings of the comet spread out vaster and vaster and its now flaming
nucleus blazed brighter and brighter. A low, vague wailing sound seemed
to be running through the multitudes which thronged the semicircle of
moors. It was the first and perhaps the last utterance of the agony of
unendurable suspense.

At the thirtieth second Lennard looked up and said in a quiet,
passionless tone:

"Ready!"

At the same moment he saw, as millions of others thought they saw, a
grey shape skimming through the air from the north-east towards Bolton.
It could not be a British airship, for the fleet had already scattered,
as the shock of the coming explosion would certainly have caused them to
smash up like so many shells. It was John Castellan's Flying Fish come
to fulfil the letter of his threat, even at this supreme moment of the
world's fate.

Again Lennard spoke.

"Twenty seconds."

And then he began to count.
"Nine--eight--seven--six--five--four--three--two--Now!"

The two fingers went down at the same instant and completed the
circuits. The next, the central fires of the earth seemed to have burst
loose. A roar such as had never deafened human ears before thundered
from earth to heaven, and a vast column of pale flame leapt up with a
concussion which seemed to shake the foundations of the world. Then in
the midst of the column of flame there came a brighter flash, a
momentary blaze of green-blue flame flashing out for a moment and
vanishing.

"That was John's ship," said Norah. "God forgive him!"

"He will," said Westerham, taking her hand. "He was wrong-headed on that
particular subject, but he was a brave man, and a genius. I don't think
there's any doubt about that."

"It's good of you to say so," said Norah. "Poor John! With all his
learning and genius to come to that--"

"We all have to get there some time, Norah, and after all, whether he's
right or wrong, a man can't die better than for what he believes to be
the truth and the right. We may think him mistaken, he thought he was
right, and he has proved it. God rest his soul!"

"Amen!" said Norah, and she leant over again and kissed him on the
brow.

Then came ten seconds more of mute and agonised suspense, and men's
fingers tightened their grip on the revolvers. Then the upturned
straining eyes looked upon such a sight as human eyes will never see
again save perchance those which, in the fulness of time, may look upon
the awful pageantry of the Last Day.

High up in the air there was a shrill screaming sound which seemed
something like an echo of the roar of the great gun. Something like a
white flash of light darted upwards straight to the heart of the
descending Invader. Then the whole heavens were illumined by a blinding
glare. The nucleus of the comet seemed to throw out long rays of
many-coloured light. A moment later it had burst into myriads of faintly
gleaming atoms.

The watching millions on earth instinctively clasped their hands to
their ears, expecting such a sound as would deafen them for ever; but
none came, for the explosion had taken place beyond the limits of the
earth's atmosphere. The whole sky was now filled from zenith to horizon
with a pale, golden, luminous mist, and through this the moon and stars
began to shine dimly.

Then a blast of burning air swept shrieking and howling across the
earth, for now the planet Terra was rushing at her headlong speed of
nearly seventy thousand miles an hour through the ocean of fire-mist
into which the shattered comet had been dissolved. Then this passed. The
cool wind of night followed it, and the moon and stars shone down once
more undimmed through the pure and cloudless ether.

Until now there had been silence. Men and women looked at each other and
clasped hands; and then Tom Bowcock, standing just outside the marquee
with his arm round his wife's shoulders, lifted up his mighty baritone
voice and sang the lines:


"Praise God from whom all blessings flow!"


Hundreds and then thousands, then millions of voices took up the
familiar strain, and so from the tops of the Lancashire moors the chorus
rolled on from village to village and town to town, until with one
voice, though with many tongues, east and west were giving thanks for
the Great Deliverance.

But the man who, under Providence, had wrought it, seemed deaf and blind
to all this. He only felt a soft trembling clasp round his right hand,
and he only heard Auriole's voice whispering his name.

The next moment a stronger grip pulled his left hand out of his coat
pocket, bringing the revolver with it, and Mr Parmenter's voice, shaken
by rare emotion, said, loudly enough for all in the marquee to hear:

"We may thank God and you, Gilbert Lennard, that there's still a world
with living men and women on it, and there's one woman here who's going
to live for you only till death do you part. She told me all about it
last night. You've won her fair and square, and you're going to have
her. I did have other views for her, but I've changed my mind, because I
have learnt other things since then. But anyhow, with no offence to this
distinguished company, I reckon you're the biggest man on earth just
now."

Soon after daybreak on the first of May, one of the airships that had
been guarding Whernside dropped on the top of Winter Hill, and the
captain gave Lennard a cablegram which read thus:


"LENNARD, Bolton, England: Good shot. As you left no pieces for us
to shoot at we've let our shot go. No use for it here. Hope it will
stop next celestial stranger coming this way. America thanks you.
Any terms you like for lecturing tour.--HENCHELL."


Lennard did not see his way to accept the lecturing offer because he had
much more important business on hand: but a week later, after a
magnificent and, if the word may be used, multiple marriage ceremony
had been performed in Westminster Abbey, five airships, each with a
bride and bridegroom on board, rose from the gardens of Buckingham
Palace and, followed by the cheers of millions, winged their way
westward. Thirty-five hours later there was such a dinner-party at the
White House, Washington, as eclipsed all the previous glories even of
American hospitality.

Nothing was ever seen of the projectile which "The Pittsburg Prattler"
had hurled into space. Not even the great Whernside reflector was able
to pick it up. The probability, therefore, is that even now it is still
speeding on its lonely way through the Ocean of Immensity, and it is
within the bounds of possibility that at some happy moment in the future
and somewhere far away beyond the reach of human vision, its huge charge
of explosives may do for some other threatened world what the one which
the Bolton Baby coughed up into Space just in the nick of time did to
save this home of ours from the impending Peril of 1910.





Next: Arbuthnot Describes Himself

Previous: Waiting For Doom



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